Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 24, 2015
Genesis 1:1-8, Acts 2:1-21, 37-42
I want to begin this morning with a snippet of a song from a little known childr4en’s show called Sesame Street. I do so because, well because it sets the table for our text. Here it is. “This is the very beginning. This is the once upon a time. Somebody’s starting something. These are the opening lines. Seymour is waking up. He’s wearing stripped pajamas. He’s jumping out of bed, all smiles and yells, “This is the beginning.” Yes, every story has a beginning, middle and an end. And when it’s over we can go back and tell it all again.” Yes every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. So the question this morning is where do we find our Pentecost story? Is it a beginning, a middle or an end? In order to get your input we will take a poll. All for beginning? All for middle? All for an end? Great…so who is right? Which is it? The answer is…it is all of those things; a beginning, a middle and an end. So you are all correct.
Pentecost is a beginning. It is the beginning of the church, of the called and sent out Jesus people. Though the church is the expansion of the children of Abraham, Pentecost is the founding of a new kind of community. Pentecost is an ending. It is the ending of Jesus’ physical ministry and the ending of a community in which only those who were Jewish were welcome. Each of those ways of seeing Pentecost, as a beginning and an ending, are fairly well known and accepted. What I want to do though is to talk about Pentecost as the middle; as the middle of the entire Biblical story. But before we look at that, a brief recap. For those of you who are here on a regular basis you have heard me talk about the fact that the Bible is a single story with a beginning, a middle and an end. What is fascinating about that idea is that the Spirit is present at each of those three moments. It is present at the beginning when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation. In other words the Spirit was a co-creator with God. The Spirit is at the end of the scripture in the book of Revelation when in Chapter 22 we read, “The Spirit and the Bride (meaning the church) say, “Come.”” This is the call to Jesus to recreate the world.
Finally, the Spirit is at the middle. I realize that for many of us, when we think of the middle of the scriptures what we think of is Jesus. There is the Old Testament, filled with messianic predictions and the servant songs of Isaiah, all leading up to Jesus. Then there is the story of the church in Acts, filled with Peter, Paul and their adventures, leading away from Jesus. Therefore, we see Jesus as the pivot upon which the entire story moves. Yet, what I want to offer you today is that perhaps we ought to see Pentecost, the arrival of the Spirit to the disciples, as the true middle of the book…and here’s why and it has to do with potential energy. Now, being in a room full of engineers I ought to walk carefully when using terms of physics, however I will do my best to use terms we can all understand…and then all of you engineers can tell me later how I did not get it right. But for now, just go with me. So what is potential energy? It is the energy that children have when they have been cooped up too long. It is energy that is stored in a stretched spring, ready to be released. It is the energy that has yet to be set free to become kinetic energy.
What I mean by all of this is that the work of Jesus on the cross, and the life transforming power of this resurrection, were stored as potential spiritual energy. We can see this in the story that Amy talked about last week. Jesus had died for the sins of the world. Jesus had been raised and the power of death had been broken. Yet, nothing had really changed. The disciples were the same old guys and gals they had always been. They were afraid. They had gone back to their old ways of life. But then came Pentecost. Then came the Spirit and the Spirit took that potential energy of what God had created through the death and resurrection of Jesus and unleashed it on the unsuspecting disciples. The result of which is that the disciples are shot out of that upper room and out into the melee of the Jewish festival of Pentecost. And this Spirit energy did not stop there. It was poured out into the lives of thousands of people in the streets. And that the Spirit did not stop there. It sent men and women out into the Roman world telling people all about Jesus. It sent men and women like Paul and Barnabas out into harm’s way to establish churches and change lives.
The gift of the Spirit for us is that unlike the energy of a spring which quickly diminishes, or of children who finally get tired and fall asleep, the energy of the Spirit continues unabated. This is why the church in Africa, Asia and the Americas is growing exponentially. This is why we had such marvelous confirmation statements last week. This is why we are here. We are here because the Spirit drew us here. We are here because the Spirit changed our hearts. We are here because the power unleashed on Pentecost is still at work in the world. What that means for us is that as members of the body of Christ we are not simply members of a religious organization. We are men, women and children whose lives have been touched by the very power of the Holy Spirit. We are Pentecost people. The challenge then is for us to unleash this power in our daily lives; unleash it in such a way that it touches the lives of others, through what we do and what we say.
The challenge then for this Pentecost week is to ask whether we will allow this Spirit power to get bottled up as potential spiritual energy, or whether we will allow it to push us out into a hurting world in order to make a difference for God; to make a difference for Jesus Christ. My question to you this week then is this, “How am I allowing the Spirit of God to not only help to transform this world, but to tell others about this amazing energy in Jesus that can be theirs as well.
Rev. Amy Morgan
May 17, 2015
Psalm 1, John 21:1-19
“I’m just blessed – I can’t explain it right now.” Those were the words of Malcolm Butler, cornerback for the New England Patriots after his win-clinching interception in this year’s Super Bowl. In interviews after the big game, Butler declared his belief in God, saying he had been praying all week and had a vision that he would make a big play. This miraculous catch for a man who just a few years ago was working in a fast food restaurant was not just a game-changer, but a life-changer.
The rookie defensive player is now a sports-world superstar, gracing the cover of magazines, gobbling up endorsements, negotiating for a higher salary. He’s suddenly got more fame and fortune than he can handle, admitting to one news source that “being in the spotlight does take a toll on you.”
But doesn’t this just affirm the words of the very first Psalm, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked…in all that they do, they prosper…the LORD watches over the way of the righteous.” Through prayer and faithfulness, Malcolm Butler was blessed with a miraculous catch.
Just like those disciples. They followed Jesus and did what they were supposed to do, and here at the end of the gospel of John, they, too, are blessed with a miraculous catch…of fish, of course.
Our church has been blessed, too, with a kind of miraculous catch. Today as we confirm 11 young people into the membership of our church, we are blessed with their gifts and energy and faith and joy. Just like Malcolm Butler, and just like those disciples, we must be doing something right.
Because that’s how Christianity works, right? You do the right thing – you believe in Jesus, you trust in him – and good things happen to you – like a miraculous catch. This gospel of prosperity fills football stadiums with believers and is broadcast internationally.
But this isn’t the gospel shared by our Confirmation students in their faith statements. They talked about Christianity as service to others and being together in community. They spoke of Christianity as a personal identity, a way of love and hope, and a path to forgiveness, grace, and affirmation. The Confirmands also described their faith as a means of breaking down the wall between God and humankind, as a source of strength and support in challenging times, and lens for seeing our challenges as opportunities for God to make us better people and the world a better place. Not one of them mentioned being good so that God would bless them.
And that’s why I know God is doing something right. Because our culture would tell these young people, and all of us, that we must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that “God helps those who help themselves,” that faith is between you and God, that God blesses us for our efforts, and these young people have resisted those ideas. They’ve heard a different message about Christianity.
And I think they got it right.
Because the disciples were not blessed with a miraculous catch because they followed Jesus and did what they were supposed to do. In fact, they were acting like total slackers. Let’s start with Peter, the ringleader, the one who is supposed to be the rock upon which Christ will build his church. He is the one who, after Jesus was arrested, denied knowing him three times. And is he on his knees, asking for forgiveness? Is he rejoicing in the resurrection? Leading the disciples out to spread the good news? Doing good works in the name of Jesus? No, Peter decides to go fishing. He doesn’t even invite the others to come. He just says, “I’m going fishing. I’m going right back to where I came from. I’m going to pretend nothing has happened and nothing has changed.”
And the rest of the disciples follow along. They listen to Peter’s terrible suggestion and fish all night long and don’t catch a thing. Their faith is completely bankrupt. And this is right after the resurrection, people! What is going on?
I’ll tell you what’s going on – the disciples are dumbfounded, and probably a little terrified. They have, for the most part, been pretty awful disciples. Not a one of them understands what’s been going on from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. None of them did a great job of standing by Jesus through his crucifixion. And they all find the resurrection entirely incomprehensible. These are not the “righteous” ones blessed by God in the first Psalm. These are men who are completely lost and overwhelmed and have no idea what to do next.
And after their fruitless all-night fishing adventure, we can’t even give the disciples credit for listening to Jesus and casting their net on the other side of the boat. Because they had no idea that the man whose instructions they were following was Jesus. As far as they are concerned, Jesus could have been an expert fisherman or just some guy on the shore trying to mess with them after a long night. “Throw your net over there! Now throw it over there! Now haul it in the boat and wrap yourselves up in it!” They didn’t know who he is. They weren’t trying to follow Jesus and do the right thing. They were humoring this guy. Why not? They’ve been out fishing ALL NIGHT LONG. There are no more fish on one side of the boat than on the other. But if this stranger on the beach wants to watch them throw their net out one more time, fine.
After their net is filled with fish, one of the disciples recognizes Jesus, and one of the disciples responds by jumping out of the boat and swimming to him. If you’re doing the math, that’s two out of seven who are in any way faithful to Jesus. But they all get to split 153 fish.
And if this grace wasn’t enough, Jesus then takes Peter aside and asks him three times if he loves him. Now, this may not seem like grace, but think about it. Peter denied Jesus three times after his arrest. That would leave a person with a fair burden of guilt to carry around, especially if that person died shortly after the betrayal. But imagine if that person then came back to life, and you actually had to face up to them. Now that’s a whole other level of guilt.
But here on the beach, Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to bring his dark secret out into the open and transform his denial into a declaration of love. This is even better than forgiveness. Peter doesn’t say, “I’m sorry,” and Jesus says, “it’s okay, no big deal.” Jesus gives Peter the chance to say what he’s wanted to say since he heard the cock crow on that fateful morning. He gets to say, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” That is grace.
Our Confirmands expressed experiences of this grace, too. They shared how they see God transforming hurtful behaviors in themselves and others. They have felt God’s love through their family and Covenant Partners and classmates on this Confirmation journey. They have articulated a theology of God’s activity in Jesus Christ making a way for sinful humanity to say, “I love you, God, more than anything.”
And in those words of love is a commitment to love and care for others. “Feed my sheep,” says Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to Peter. Our Confirmation class fed people experiencing homelessness in Chicago, taught Sunday school for younger children, and shared their faith with their friends. They have loved and cared for pets, and seen in that experience a metaphor for God’s love for humanity. They have cared for the earth and befriended those in need of a friend. They are feeding God’s sheep, physically and spiritually. They are those ones the first Psalm refers to when it says that “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” They are producing fruit. They are feeding sheep.
At the end of this story, Jesus predicts that Peter will suffer and die to glorify God. For those who would believe that Christianity is about being good and getting blessed for it, this is bad news. Christianity, at its core, is dangerous. It recognizes a higher authority than any earthly authority, which tends to make earthly authorities uneasy. It challenges comfortable systems of oppression. It doesn’t conform to social norms of acquisition, achievement, and appearance.
Who in their right mind would want to join this movement? You don’t get credit for being good, and bad things happen to you anyway. Sounds like a party.
And here we have eleven 8th and 9th graders ready to sign up for this. Why? Because they are no strangers to suffering. They have experienced divorce and death, betrayal and broken hearts. They have been let down and disappointed, and they’ve messed up and fallen down. They have even stood out in the freezing cold waiting for a bus, and they have gotten totally lost on rerouted L trains.
And so they know that God is with them in their suffering, just as Jesus was with the clueless disciples, standing on the beach, guiding and directing them, even before they knew it. They know that suffering is part of life, but that it doesn’t have to define your life. A life defined by grace and love and service is a life that is blessed, no matter what we do, no matter what happens to us.
The last thing Jesus says to Peter in this story is “follow me.” We know Peter can’t physically follow him much longer as Jesus ascends into heaven shortly after this episode. Jesus’ invitation is to follow his way, his ministry, his movement. It’s an invitation to suffering and sacrifice, and an invitation to miraculous catches and life out of death. It’s an invitation to love and service and grace and peace.
I am grateful today for a miraculous catch, for a group of young people willing to follow the way of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We are blessed, not because of our goodness or righteousness, but because of God’s grace. We’re just blessed. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 10, 2015
Psalm 22:25-31, John 20:19-23
The memo read: “Dear Mr. President, I think that it is very important that I should have a talk with you as soon as possible on a highly secret matter. I mentioned it to you shortly after you took office but have not urged it since the account of the pressure you have been under. It, however, has such a bearing on our present foreign relations and has such an important effect upon all my thinking in this field that I think you ought to know about it without much further delay. Faithfully yours, Henry E. Stinson, Secretary of War.” So what was this important matter? It was the atomic bomb. Harry Truman had been Vice-President for 82 days when President Roosevelt died. The two had only met privately twice and nothing of substance was discussed. Then in the midst of the tragedy of Roosevelt’s death and the Second World War, raging around the globe, Truman was told that he and his nation now wielded the most powerful weapon ever made; the atomic bomb. And, more importantly, it would be up to Truman alone to decide whether or not to use it. He had to decide if it was a power for good or for evil.
In some ways this is always the way it is with power. People have to examine the power they have been given and make decisions as to its use. Will they use it for good or for evil? Parents have power. That power can be used for the good by giving order and structure to the lives of children in hopes that their children will ultimately choose a right path. That same power can also be used to diminish children, through abuse and fear. Supervisors or business owners have power. They can use that power to create a safe, nurturing environment in which people are encouraged and empowered to do their best; to be creative and caring. Supervisors or bosses can also use that power in the opposite manner, terrorizing their employees, causing them to live in fear. Politicians have power. They can use it to faithfully serve those who elected them, as well as those who did not. Or they can choose to use that power to enrich themselves and their families. Power in and of itself is not evil. Power is simply a tool.
My purpose in offering up these images this morning is to set the stage for what happens in our Jesus story; and that is the giving of power to the disciples. I realize that this may not be all that obvious in the story itself. If, however, we look at this story in the overall context of the Gospel, it becomes apparent. Here is how it works. First God has all the power. We know this because the opening of the Gospel of John draws us back to the creation account with the words, in the beginning. Second God share this power with Jesus. In the Gospel we hear things such as whatever the Father has, has been given to the Son, and even as the Father is working, the son is working. They share power. Now in the upper room Jesus is giving that same power to the disciples. This is evident when Jesus says, “Even as the Father has sent me, now I send you” and then gives them the Spirit. This is John’s Pentecost moment when the disciples are given the power mentioned last week by Jesus to his followers. The extent of this power becomes clear when Jesus tells them that they have the power to forgive or not to forgive…a power which at one point only belonged to God and then to Jesus.
The disciples, like Harry Truman, have been give immense power. The power to forgive or not to forgive is one that can either create life or take it away. The question would be, how would the disciples, and after them, the church, use this power? Unfortunately for the church, and in some cases the world, the church did not use this power for the good. As with all power, it tends to corrupt. The church, while beginning well, quickly saw this power to forgive or not to forgive as one that could give them control; control not only over the religious life of individuals but over their political and economic lives as well. It became a weapon to humble kings, princes and paupers. It became a source of revenue by selling it. It became one of the central weapons used to insure the power of the church. And even after the Reformation, Protestant churches used it as well to exclude those that they believed had not lived up to the religious expectations of their peers. In some ways, this checkered past makes those of us here loathe to take up this power. We want to find some way to avoid seeing ourselves as those who possess this kind of power. Like a proverbial hot potato, we want to toss it back to God. Yet, we cannot. It is ours. It is the church’s.
What I would like us to do this morning then, is to take a second look at this text and perhaps see it through a new lens. Here is how I propose we do it. We see this gift of power, the power of the Spirit and the power to forgive, as a test. Jesus has finished his mission. He has died and then been raised and now he turns to the disciples and says, here is your final exam. Will you forgive or not. That being the case, then let’s remember what the disciples had been taught about forgiveness. They were to forgive seventy times seventy times. They were to forgive as they had been forgiven. They were to forgive others so that they might be forgiven. They knew that on the cross Jesus had forgiven those who had crucified him. They knew that Jesus had not only forgiven Peter for betraying him, but had given him a mission of great importance after he had been restored. In some ways I believe that Jesus is saying, you know what to do, now go and do it.
The same is true for us. We as the church have been given the power to speak forgiveness into the world. We have been given the power to offer forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ. We have been given this power and the question is, will we use it. I ask, because forgiveness is the power to restore. It is the power to break the chains of hate, anger and dysfunction. It is the power to free; to set people free from their past and bring them back into right relationship with God and others. Forgiveness is in some ways the greatest power in the world.
Many of you who have been here for the past couple of years will remember me talking about my friend Suzanne. She was one of the many “mothers” I had in my last congregation. I would have been about the age of their children, so they adopted me. Suzanne had grown up on a dairy farm south of San Antonio. She and her five siblings had worked hard and given all that they could to help their parents. When their second parent died, and the will was read, five of the siblings got ten acres of land. The sixth sibling, the oldest son got everything else; most of the farm land, the house, its contents, the farming equipment and the cash that went with it. Needless to say, Suzanne and her other siblings were stunned. But Suzanne, being who she is, went to her brother and told him that there was only one thing she wanted from the house, a picture that her mother had promised her. Her brother told her to get off of his land. Everything was his and he was keeping it. Years later, following a sermon of mine about forgiveness, she decided that she would go make amends. She found out where he lived…he had sold the farm for a great price…and went to see him. The upshot was he told her to leave and if she ever showed up again he could call the police. Fast forward ten years. About a month ago Suzanne’s only remaining sibling, outside of her brother, died. Two days before the funeral, Suzanne’s phone rang. It was her brother. He first asked if he could come to the funeral. It was free country, Suzanne replied. Then her brother asked for forgiveness for what he had done and how he had treated her. In that moment Suzanne held the power. She could forgive or not forgive. It was up to her. And she forgave. Since that time they have spoken on the phone on numerous occasions and are making plans to get together. This is the power of forgiveness used for the good; to give life.
You and I, both individually and collectively hold the power of forgiveness. The question is then, how will we use it? My challenge to you for this week is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I wielding the power for forgiveness, for the good? How am I passing the test that Jesus has given me?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 3, 2015
Luke 24:36-49, Genesis 1:26-31
All she could do was roll her eyes and sigh. The “she” in this story is my children’s high school tennis coach, Coach Sam. When our son Andy made the varsity tennis team I decided that it was time for me to take up tennis again so that I could at least hit with him and help him practice. When Coach Sam found out she asked if I would like some pointers. With great certainty that I knew exactly what I was doing, having played in Middle School, I said sure. So one day after the tennis team had finished practice, I showed up with my racket and hit and few balls with her. It was in that moment that she sighed and said, “John, show me how you are holding the racket.” OK, so let’s just say that by the end of that that short session Coach Sam had shown me how I was doing everything, and I mean pretty much everything wrong. Now she was very nice about it, but she realized that I needed to go back to the basics. I needed to relearn the fundamentals of the game if I was ever to be good at it.
Back to the basics has become one of those often overused and abused terms. It has been used by school districts to emphasize a small part of the curriculum over other parts which don’t seem as basic. At least in Texas it is the basis of driver reeducation courses. When you have received a ticket you can remove the ticket from your record if you take a course that reminds you of the basics of good driving. Back to the basics is used as the basis for helping couples reestablish their relationships…they are taught to go back to the basics of good communication. And in some ways it is used in the life of the church. We in the Christian faith have always believed that there are certain basic understandings that all Jesus’ followers ought to understand and that ought to guide our thoughts and actions. We see this lived out every time we conduct a baptism as we recite the Apostle’s Creed. The Creed contains the most basic elements of our faith about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as well as certain beliefs about the church and the age to come.
Where this back to the basics idea ties in with our story this morning is that I believe this is what we are getting in these closing verses of the Gospel of Luke. The writer wants his readers to be sure that they know what the basics of the resurrection are before Jesus leaves the scene. And the surest way to do this is to focus on what was surely a very small portion of the conversations that Jesus had with this followers after his resurrection. And in these closing verses I believe we see the three basic beliefs that form the foundation for how we are to understand what the resurrection is all about.
The first basic believe is that life wins. When Jesus appears to the disciples, they are afraid that he is a ghost, a spirit. Jesus wants to disabuse them of this belief and so he does two things. First he asks them to touch, knowing that spirits have no physical substance. Second he asks for something to eat, again knowing that spirits or ghosts don’t eat. By so doing he let them know that life has defeated death; and by life I do not mean the eternal existence of the spirit or soul. What I mean is that physical life, the life God created in the beginning and declared to be good, has won over death which robs us of that life. What this means for Jesus’ followers is that they are to care about this world and all the people in it because they matter to God. They matter so much that God raised Jesus back into this physical world.
The second basic belief is that love wins. Jesus explains to the disciples that his death was not a tragedy but was part of God’s plan for the redemption of the world. That when Jesus went to the cross and gave his life, it was not an accident of history or merely the outworking of an oppressive political process, but was the love of God at work. It was the love of God at work transforming the creation; reshaping the creation back into the good place that God had created it to be. Thus the love of God for humanity wins out over all of the powers of evil which would rob of us of our potential to become fully alive as those made in God’s image.
The third basic belief was that the world wins. After Jesus has proved that he is more than a spirit and has explained that his death was part of God’s plan, he then commands the disciples to go into all of the world, telling everyone about basics number one and two. This is remarkable because it says that Jesus was not simply the Jewish messiah, but that he was the world’s messiah; that all people are invited to find forgiveness and new life; that all people are now invited into God’s family of faith in which they can rediscover what it means to be fully human and fully alive.
I realize that in traditional Christian practice these are not the kind of basics we are used to. Instead we are accustomed, as I said earlier, to doctrinal statements about aspects of our faith. Yet I believe that these three basics, life wins, love wins and the world wins, underlie all the other particularities of doctrine because they are rooted in all of scripture from the creation in Genesis to the re-creation in Revelation. They are God’s story. They are our story. My challenge for you on this day then, is first to see these three basics here at the communion table, and second to ask yourselves, how these basics are shaping who I am and what I believe, say and do.