Good Touch: Healing Touch

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on July 11, 2021, based on Luke 8:43-48. It can be seen and heard on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook page. That version has some differences from the manuscript below, omitting some parts and adding others.]

Touch has become a touchy subject. When I was a child, my mom hugged me frequently. Since my mother was full Italian, touch was common. I thought my facial cheeks would be permanently disfigured for the thousands of times an Italian relative reached down, pinched my cheeks, and said in Italian, “che bello.” I knew it was loving touch. My father was German-American from Midwestern farm country. He and his family just didn’t do that kind of thing. Maybe a handshake was sufficient or the briefest peck on the cheek. I always knew good touch.

Then, somewhere in my adult years, there was a shift. My young daughters in elementary school were learning about “good touch/bad touch.” And I was learning with them. We now know that scores of our country’s best female gymnasts were sexually abused by a doctor’s touch, the doctor that was charged to keep them healthy. He is now in prison for the rest of his life. The legendary Penn State football program came to a grinding halt when it was revealed that their defensive coach had abused many young athletes and boy children with inappropriate touch. He is now in prison for the rest of his life. Many church leaders, Roman Catholic and Protestant, have been charged with bad touch and brought shame and disgrace to the church.

Growing up and into my adult life, I have experienced only good touch. But it is not so for millions. About a quarter of all American marriages have abusive behavior, usually physical, almost always done to the women.

In Gary Chapman’s classic book, “The Five Love Languages,” physical touch is one of the five. I believe in good touch, even as I admit that bad touch is rampant. I have learned that there are some guidelines to help us honor good touch. In translating the writings of Paul, when he says to several churches, “greet one another with a holy kiss,” J. B. Phillips showed his thoroughly British reserve with this translation: “Give each other a hearty handshake all around….” (Romans 16:16, “The New Testament in Modern English”.) Sorry, but that is too British. “The Message” catches it better: “Holy hugs all around!” Indeed, Christians through all ages have greeted one another warmly, with good touch. I suggest these guidelines for the church today, when wanting to share a holy hug or holy kiss with a sister or brother in Christ:

  1. Ask permission.
  2. Keep it brief.
  3. Keep it modest.
  4. Keep it public.

Luke 6:19 describes how the crowds were responding to Jesus: “And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.” We believe in healing touch. With virtually all Christians, we lay hands on the sick when we pray for healing. When we ordain people to church offices—deacons, elders, pastors—we lay hands on them, signs of affirmation and blessing. When Isaiah was given a dazzling vision of the holiness of God, one that silenced him, God’s messenger touched my mouth… and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’” (Isaiah 6:7)

Jesus frequently use human touch to mediate God’s healing power to others. We have about a dozen occurrences in the Gospels where that happens. And then we have one that reverses the process. In one case, a woman needing healing reaches out and touches Jesus. She has had an issue of bleeding for 12 years. And she is a woman.

Jesus has this amazing way of connecting with women, in a time and culture in which women were commonly understood and treated as second class people. Luke has a special eye for this. He begins his gospel account by focusing on two women: too old Elizabeth and too young, Mary. Both become pregnant against all odds. Their two children will change the world. In Luke 8, where we meet this woman with the hemorrhaging, women are noted several times. As Jesus is traveling with his 12 men disciples, there are many women who travel with them and provide for them out of their resources. Later there is a 12-year-old girl dying. Her father pleads with Jesus to go his house and touch his daughter. When Jesus finally gets to that house, the girl is dead. Jesus takes her by the hand—physical touch—and raises and restores her.

In between Jesus hearing about that girl so ill and the time he gets to her house, a woman with 12 years of bleeding touches him. Her circumstance of bleeding makes her unclean. Leviticus 15:25-30 makes that clear. She is unclean in three ways: first, she is physically unclean; second, she is socially unclean; and third, she is ritually and religiously unclean. She is an outcast. To make it worse, anyone she touches becomes unclean. It is like a treacherous game of tag. She is a spreader and this crowd in Galilee is about to become a super-spreader event.

I love how Jesus responds to strong, courageous, and bold women. Jesus sees women as full participants in his what God is doing. He makes women the heroes of some of his parables. He is never put off by a woman speaking to him in public. He seems to relish it. My life and my faith journey have been shaped by strong women, women of faith and courage. From my mother, to my wife, to my two daughters, to the women I have served alongside in church life—I have been shaped and formed by wonderful women, women of valor, courage, faith, and substance. What about you?

“She comes up behind him and touches the fringe of his clothes….” What courage this takes. She is standing at a distance, aware of her uncleanness. She sees an opening in the crowd. She has a direct line of sight to Jesus. Can she snake through without touching anyone? No way. But she sees Jesus and she knows that she must make contact with him.

She takes her physical/social/spiritual need right to Jesus. Our bodies matter to God. We are not souls stuck in bodies for a while. We are unitary beings: body, soul, and spirit all wrapped up together inseparably. Jesus does not come to us as a spirit stuck in a body, but as a unitary being: body, soul, and spirit all wrapped up inseparably. He lives just as we do: eating, sleeping, getting tired, getting bruised, touching and being touched. He dies bodily; he is raised bodily; he appears to his friends bodily.

She inches closer. Will the religious leaders call her out and stone her to death? Will Jesus pretend he doesn’t see her? She gets close enough to touch him. She reaches out and just barely touches the fringe of his garment. He couldn’t have felt that, but he did. And he stops. The disciples stop. The crowd stops. Everything stops. It is as if the universe stops. “Who touched me?” Peter has the smart answer. “Look Master, there is crowd here. Everyone is bumping up against you.” But Jesus says, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.”

The woman’s cover is blown to bits. She knows that she is the one. She knows that Jesus knows. She will hide no longer. I mentioned earlier that when an unclean person, like her, touches someone else, like him, the uncleanness spreads to the one touched. Now Jesus reverses the process. When she in her uncleanness touches him, he in his cleanness cleanses her. Heals her. Restores her. Lifts her. Washes her. Changes her life.

“Jesus said, ‘Daughter, you took a risk trusting me, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed!’” (Luke 8:48 in “The Message.”)

Worshiping in Spirit and Truth

[This message based on Nehemiah 8:5-8-10 and John 4:19-26 was delivered on 7/4/21 at Perinton Presbyterian Church. It can be watched and heard on the church Facebook page or webpage.]

“No new normal!” When I drive here, I pass a house with a sign on the lawn that says “No new normal!” I’m pretty sure that has to do with the pandemic. Over the last 15 months, people have spoken of a new normal coming. The thought of a new normal can be disturbing. Some want to hold on to how we have always done things and any change is frightening. But then, most of us have adjusted to traveling in motorized vehicles, like cars, busses, trains, and planes. In the span of human history, those are very new. In a week like the last one, I don’t think any of want to go back to the old normal before we had air conditioning.

Churches are wondering very much about post-pandemic life. Will people come back? Or have they found that they like staying home on Sunday mornings? When we have learned to worship with our congregation from home through technology, will we want to continue to worship in that way? I have to make a confession now. I am an extrovert (maybe you’ve noticed) and I draw energy from being with lots of people. Add to that that I am a pastor and a preacher, and you won’t be surprised to know that I love to worship with other people in crowded rooms.

But not everyone is an extrovert. Probably about half of you worshiping with me right now are introverts and crowded rooms drain your energy. Some of you have found some benefits in worshiping in virtual ways. I respect that. I am convinced that any church that is paying attention is straddling this line: we are eager to return to worship as we have long known it and we want to continue to worship with people in virtual ways.

I am in favor of our continuing to make our worship services available on the internet every Sunday. For people with weakened health systems, worshiping from home is a wonderful gift. For people that can’t get out readily or don’t drive, worshiping from home serves well. For people in a tough place in life, worshiping from home can be a lifeline. For people on vacation or work trips, worshiping while away from home is a wonderful gift. I am for it. But I add a caution. If people are choosing to worship from home merely because of convenience, perhaps we need to think that through. There is more to worship than convenience.

Nehemiah 8 takes us to a place of inconvenience. It was a virtual post-pandemic setting. The people of Israel had been taken captive to Babylon over a generation earlier. Jerusalem, the center of their religious and cultural life, had been destroyed. There was rubble everywhere. Homes and neighborhoods were destroyed. The city walls were torn down. And perhaps the most bitter pill, the Temple, the central symbol of their worship was ransacked and leveled. Picture southern Manhattan on September 12, 2001. Picture the base of Champlain Tower South in Surfside FL this morning. What do the returned exiles do? They gather outdoors and have a big festive worship service right there surrounded by ruins. The word of the Lord is read and explained (we call that a sermon), the people respond, and they are sent out in the joy of the Lord. It is the very pattern we use in our worship today: gathering, hearing the reading and proclaiming of the word of God, responding to God’s grace, and going forth to serve.

Throughout his earthly days, Jesus went to synagogue on the sabbath to worship God. He sometimes got in trouble for the good deeds he did in gathered sabbath day worship, because some people, mainly religious types, wanted everything done in the old normal ways. Jesus brought a new normal. Jesus is always bringing the new. Jesus is making all things new.

Now he is traveling through Samaria, a dangerous place for a Jew. He stops at a well at midday to draw some water. A Samaritan woman arrives at the well about the same time. Jesus breaks social custom and speaks to her. She responds and that begins the longest conversation we have of Jesus with another person in the Gospels. And it with a woman who is a Samaritan. Those are two social barriers that Jesus bursts through. At one point the conversation turns to religious stuff. And Jesus, as usual, is full of surprises. A new normal is coming.

The woman misunderstands the nature of true worship, which most people then held and a lot do today. In her mind worship is linked to where you worship. For Samaritans, the central place to worship is Mt. Gerizim in central Palestine. For Jews, the central place is Jerusalem, which is on a hill in the south. Jesus reframes the matter: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The key is not where we worship, but how we worship; not the GPS location, but the engagement of the worshiper with the one worshiped. Not which mountain, but what kind of heart we bring.

There are four words translated worship in the New Testament. Each brings a different aspect, from reverence, to duty and service, to order. But one of the four is dominant. It occurs more than the others put together. It is the most physical of the four. It literally means to fall down in the presence of the one worshiped. To prostrate oneself. To fall reverently in the presence of the other. It is the word used for the Magi when they reached the child Jesus in Bethlehem: they fall down before him, worshiping him and giving him lavish gifts. This word occurs over 50 times in the New Testament. And it occurs ten times in this little passage of five verses. This is the greatest concentration in the New Testament.

Jesus is opening this Samaritan woman to a new normal, both in worship and in life. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In spirit and in truth. Spirit suggests our emotional involvement; truth suggests our intellectual involvement. This is not an either/or, but a both/and. We don’t worship in spirit or in truth, but in both spirit and truth. Presbyterians call this ardor and order. Worship with ardor is spirited; it is enthusiastic; it welcomes and evokes emotion. Worship with truth is thoughtful and orderly. (Which side do you think Presbyterians tend to emphasize: ardor or order?) This spirit and truth worship honors both passion and protocol. In music, it honors both old hymns and new songs. It welcomes contributions from 20 centuries of worship and more. It is lively and lovely. It is not arrogant and snobbish. Without spirit, worship is flat. Without truth, worship is empty.

God is not interested in staid and self-serving worship. Worship in spirit and truth never seeks to impress God or people. Rather, it seeks to honor God with our whole selves and give worth and praise to God. Through the prophet Amos, God warns against performance worship: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24) True worship links justice and righteousness. It engages our whole beings and sends us out to live in new ways. New normal ways, pursuing justice and righteousness.

In this season of spiritual care, we keep worship central, both in person and streaming. There is much that the church does today that will end someday. A time is coming when we will no longer need Christian education, evangelism, budgets and pledge campaigns, building and grounds teams, board and committee meetings, and even technology teams. But worship will never cease. What we are doing here this morning, whether in this room or scattered elsewhere, is eternal. We are touching eternity when we gather to worship God in spirit and truth.

Sticks and Stones

[This message, from Luke 4:31-37, was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on June 27, 2021 and can be found in video form on Perinton’s facebook page. That form includes a brief interview with a mental health care professional and a photo of Sarah, who wrote the poem I read toward the end.]

He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. 32 They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. 33 In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm. 36 They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!” 37 And a report about him began to reach every place in the region. (Luke 4:31-37)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,…”

My mother taught me this little poem when I was a youngster. It was short and pithy and easy to memorize. It went like this

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, But names will never hurt me.”

She was teaching me something important about having a good self-image. But with time, I found the little poem part true and part false. The first half is true. I have broken my share of bones in my life. I am particularly good at breaking ribs, once by tripping on a stick while jogging. “Sticks and stones may break my bones,…” Yes.

But the second line is false. “But names will never hurt me” is not true. Names can hurt us. Naming is a human activity that can be build up or tear down. People have names. Those names should be honored.

In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon… Does anyone there know his name? Is he known in Capernaum? Is he a beggar or a thief? In and out of trouble with the law? And why is he in the synagogue on sabbath day? Instead of a name, he is given a description: a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon.

It is sabbath day and a young teacher named Jesus is teaching. They are astounded at his teaching, because he speaks with authority. And here is this man, the one with the spirit of an unclean demon. And he cries out with a loud voice…. Does that disturb the worshipers gathered in the synagogue on the sabbath day? Are the noises coming from his mouth uncouth? Unsettling? Raw? Does his presence make people uncomfortable?

Just what is this man’s condition? Most students of that time period and most biblical scholars believe that this likely was what we would call a mental health matter. In that time, most people believed in the spirit world. There were good spirits, often called angels, and bad spirits, often called demons. The word demon, and its varied forms, occurs over 60 times in the New Testament. The word angel appears over three times that, which is good to remember. Is this man with the spirit of an unclean demon experiencing some kind of mental illness? I can’t be sure, but I think so.

In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon… In the time of Jesus this was a reality readily recognized. In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, Paul writes, For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

There is a reason that the novels of Stephen King have sold over 350 million copies. He writes about the darkness in our world, and people today, just as much as people 20 centuries ago, know that there is a dark side to life. There is a reason millions read “The Exorcist” and millions more watched the movie. I can’t explain it fully, but I know that in our world today, there are spirits of light and spirits of dark at work. And sometimes those spirits, spirits of light and of dark, are at work in us. I can’t explain this, but I know it is true.

In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon… In this one synagogue in Capernaum on this one day Jesus is present. The Messiah, the savior, is present. He hears the cries of that spirit within the man. He hears the jabs of that spirit directed at him. Jesus doesn’t flinch. He accepts that man. He welcomes that man. He calls that unclean demonic spirit out of the man and he sets the man free. That man leaves the synagogue with a new life. A new day dawns for him. If I can’t explain all of this, I know that Jesus has authority over the physical world and the spirit world. He calms stormy seas and he sends unclean demons packing. He is Lord and that unclean demon in that unnamed man knows it.

This is personal for me. In my family of origin there was a strain of mental illness. When I was born, my mother went into depression and sent me to live with my grandparents while she got help. I have no memory of that time. My mother didn’t need to tell me about her illness when I was a baby, but I am so grateful that she did. She could have hidden it from me, but she didn’t. She modeled gracious honesty, and helped me appreciate the reality of mental illnesses. My older brother struggled with dark depression over many years. Finally he died in the dark depths of depression. Going through his belongings, my mother found this photograph of Donnie being baptized. She gave it to me, and I treasure it. It is dated three months before his death. Perhaps knowing that he couldn’t handle that depth of depression, he found a church and was baptized. He had long been away from the church, but I believe he was never away from the Lord. He knew where his ultimate home was and he returned home. I am so grateful that a church in southern California named Hope Chapel welcomed him in his brokenness. On his gravestone we had these words of Jesus etched: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)

I have a vision of the Church becoming more like Jesus, becoming more of a community of no-judgmental welcome. A young woman in our congregation, whose hugs are the best in the world, has never been verbal. She has some disabilities, but she also has some amazing abilities. She wrote this poem when she was a teenager:

My disability makes me want to scream.

I can’t make my body work right.

I can’t be like other kids.

I can’t even SCREAM.

When will people learn how frustrating my disability is?

When will people understand what I go through in a day?

When will they be my friend?

Why is it so hard?

I need to cry but no tears come.

I need some friends to listen.

Read my words.

Hear my scream.

See my tears.

Learn to slow down and listen.

Be my friend.

My friend has a name: Sarah. Though I have known her only a short time, I am better for knowing her. Jesus knows her scream—he hears our screams, even our silent screams.

Join me in envisioning a church where a man with the spirit of an unclean demon is always welcome. Let’s envision a church where all people are welcome, whatever their abilities, disabilities, needs and gifts, whatever their life experiences. Let’s envision a church where it is as natural to pray for someone with a mental illness as it is to pray for a person with cancer or a broken bone. Let’s envision a church where stigmas are removed and people are welcome and honored for who they are.

In this season of spiritual care, we see Jesus reaching out to all kinds of people. Some are named; some are not. In this season of spiritual care, let’s envision a church where Jesus is just as present as he was one day when a man entered a synagogue with the spirit of an unclean demon. I can’t help but picture that that man left the synagogue that day with a smile. And a name. A child of God welcomed home and set free.

All You Need Is Love…Rightly Understood

[This message was delivered on May 9, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on John 15:9-17 and 1 John 5:1-6. It can be viewed on the Perinton Presbyterian Facebook channel or website.]

One of the hazards—I mean perks—of being a pastor is getting invited to lots of wedding receptions. I have been to a few hundred. The food is sometimes really good, but often just warm when it gets to my table. Don’t ask me about DJs. Then there are customs, like when a guest clinks a glass with a spoon, and the bride and groom kiss to raucous applause. Yea for love. But some are more creative. I have been to several where to get the bride and groom to kiss, everyone at a table must sing a song with the word love in it. Of course, “Jesus Loves Me,” comes to mind, but some tables get more creative after a round of drinks. Like these I have heard and sometimes participated in:

  • “All You Need Is Love,” by the Beatles;
  • Or that one by the raspy voiced Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it; what’s love but a second-hand emotion?”;
  • Or that ballad from “The Lion King,” “Can you feel the love tonight?”

I like this newer wedding reception custom, but it shows a problem with our understanding of love today: we tend to think of love as an emotion, from “what’s love but a second-hand emotion?” to “Can you feel the love tonight?”

I’m all for feelings of love. I frequently have them. An example is watching my 14-month-old granddaughter Zora. She and her parents are living in Cambodia, so I haven’t held and kissed her in nearly a year, but when I see her smile on facetime, I feel love. And when I see videos of her, like this recent one of Zora walking with her dog, I feel love in overwhelming ways. When she falls, I want to pick her up and comfort her with hugs and kisses.

When love when it is primarily understood as a feeling, there is a problem: feelings are fickle; they come and go and we don’t much control them. Jesus never mentions feeling love. Rather he commands us to love one another. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” That changes the equation. Jesus is talking about love as action based on what God has done. I don’t know one place in the Bible where love is primarily understood as a feeling or an emotion.

Think of the most quoted verse in the Bible about God’s love. It has to be John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that God had this overwhelming feeling of love for us and sent a really good Hallmark card.” Wait; did I misquote that? I think it goes something like this, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That is consistent with just about everything the Bible says about the nature of love. The Gospel according to John and John’s first letter are particularly strong in defining love.

In John 13:34-35. Jesus begins this lengthy teaching with these words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus doesn’t say that people will know we are his disciples if our doctrine is perfectly correct.

Jesus doesn’t say that people will know we are his disciples if our political views are perfectly correct. Jesus doesn’t say that people will know we are his disciples if our buildings were beautiful and our parking lots paved. Jesus brings it all done to one simple thing: We are to love one another.

Now I go to the first letter of John, In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:9-10)

As I studied our two passages for today, I noted two keys words. The first, of course, is love. The Greek language of that day had four words for love, delineating different kinds of love, all good. The highest is agape, which is the nature of God’s love. That is the only word for love used in these two passages. Agape is not the love that we naturally know. Our loves tend to be transactional: I love people that can help me or that I like or that I find worthy. God’s love cuts through that and instead of being transactional is transformative. It loves the other for the sake of love, not because of what one will get out of it or because we like the person or because we find the person worthy. That is the standard Biblical way of understanding God’s love. Agape, that word that denotes God’s love, dominates the New Testament. That word is used 14 times in our two lead passages today.

The second most used word in them is command or commandment (the same New Testament word). That word is used seven times. There is a 2:1 ratio between love and command. That is a good rule for life. We should aim to speak love twice for any command that we give. Both words occur together several times: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” in John and “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments,” in 1 John. The two are to work together, with love always in the lead place.

Obeying can be a form of love, but it isn’t always. Obeying commands in a loveless way is wearying. There was a woman married to a former military officer. He treated his marriage like an extension of his military life, where he was used to giving commands. Before he went to work each work day, he would write a checklist for his wife to do that day. When he got home, he would review the list and see how well she obeyed him. It was a loveless marriage. He treated her in a transactional way. If she checked off the items on his list, he was pleased with her; if not, he was not. Then he died. She had tried to love him, but there was some relief when he was gone. Then one day she met a kind man who was single. They took an interest in each other. They enjoyed each other’s company. He asked her to marry him. She was hesitant because her first marriage was loveless. He assured her that he loved her and persisted. They got married. It was the marriage she had always wanted, filled with love, in words, deeds, and emotions. One day, she was cleaning in the bedroom and found a piece of paper lodged in the back of a drawer under her clothes. She pulled it out. It was list from her first husband. Her body tensed. Her new husband never gave her such lists. She read the list and realized she was doing many of the same things in her new marriage, but she was doing them now for love. She crumpled the list and threw it away, shedding a tear about the transformational love in which she was finally living.

This is a difficult time for the Church in our country. For the first time in nearly a century, under half of Americans admit to belonging to a church and most of them don’t go that often. The trend is clearly moving in the wrong direction. People outside the Church perceive churches as loveless and judgmental. They think we are less than loving. We come through as just another voluntary club, like a boat club or country club, where members tend to look like one another and think like one another. For some years I thought the phrase, “not religious but spiritual” was a cop out. Now I do not. There is a deep hunger for spirituality in our land. Most people really want genuine spirituality, but they think Church is not a good place to find it.

But I believe in the Church because of the love of Jesus and my heart aches when churches are perceived as unloving, often for good reason. I am still fairly new here, just approaching six months, which has all been in a pandemic. Yet I see signs of love here, but I expect that we could do more loving. I dream of Perinton Presbyterian Church not being known as an attractive white building on a hill, but as a congregation intent on loving one another and loving our neighbors outside the church. I envision us as a welcoming congregation, wanting to love as we have been loved. Jesus gives us our marching orders: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

We are called to be a lab of love, a school of love, a love boat moving forward and helping people. And that’s not a matter of how we feel, but how we act. Let’s choose love. Let’s speak love, Let’s act love. When we do, I expect that feelings of love will follow.

I Love This Sunday: Skeptics Welcomed Here

[This message was delivered on the second Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, from John 20:19-31.]

This year-long pandemic has forced churches to be creative. The day before Palm Sunday we had a drive-thru for Holy Week bags. One church offered a drive-thru crucifixion. Were they going to crucify a car or some passengers? Why didn’t we think of crucifying a few of you after we handed you Holy Week bags? Another church pulled out all the stops for Easter. Their road sign said, “He died. He is risen. He is coming again…in person Sunday at 9:00am.” I wonder how that went. In fact, we have Jesus here this morning, though not in person in the usual meaning of those words.

This Sunday is a special challenge. I know because I am a retired (make that semi-retired) preacher. I always get asked to preach this Sunday. I said no to two others churches a few weeks ago that asked me to preach this Sunday. This is the second Sunday of Easter. In the eastern orthodox churches, the first Sunday of Easter this year is May 2. They are still in Lent. I wonder if any of them are thinking about a drive-thru crucifixion. They have plenty of time to plan it.

For the second Sunday of Easter, we get the same gospel account every year: the one where the risen Jesus appears to Thomas. I preached from it last year at a sister church of ours just down the road, First Presbyterian of Pittsford. And the year before I preached this Sunday somewhere else. And the year before . . . . I like Thomas. My faith in Jesus needs Thomas.

It’s that Sunday again. Do I have anything fresh to say? Yes. As Pastor Laura noted last Sunday, the word news implies new. We are telling a story that happened nearly 2,000 years ago. Is it new? You bet it is. Does the preacher have anything new to say? You bet he does. I have good news, that never grows old.

I like Thomas. He is honest. He doesn’t toe a party line. He asks questions that need to be asked. I am starting to see Thomas as the patron saint of scientists. He wants evidence, empirical evidence. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Since the other disciples got to see Jesus’ wounds a week before, this was a reasonable request. Science makes progress by asking probing questions to get at truth and examining all available evidence. That sounds healthy to me. Thomas would approve. I like Thomas.

Science and faith are not enemies. Science and faith need each other. Today there is a divide between faith and science for many people. That is unnecessary and unfortunate. The group in our country most resistant to getting COVID vaccinations is white evangelical Protestants. That is my heritage.  Some are saying that taking vaccines is putting our trust in ungodly science rather than in God. I believe in God and trust my life to God. And I buckle my seat belt whenever I get in a car. I believe in the Lord and I stop at red lights and stop signs. I see my doctor once a year and my dentist twice a year. I got both my COVID shots over a month ago, and my faith in God was not shaken one bit. I believe in God and in science; I believe in prayer and I try to use the mind God has given me to make responsible decisions. Thomas doesn’t trouble me. I like his honesty. Some of my very good friends are followers of Jesus and scientists. They enrich my understanding of faith. I like Thomas. My faith in Jesus needs Thomas. I think the Church needs to issue an apology for communicating to skeptics that they aren’t welcome, that their questions are not welcome.

Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health. In an Easter message on the CBS Sunday Morning last week, he said, “I am a physician, a scientist, and an evangelical Christian. I believe that science and faith are not in conflict. They offer complementary perspectives, with science answering questions that start with ‘how,’ and faith often better positioned to answer ‘why.’” In addition to Collins’s faith, Dr. Deborah Birx is a graduate of Houghton College, a Wesleyan College close to here. Dr. Anthony Fauci was raised a Roman Catholic Christian and went to Holy Cross College, a Jesuit school. Faith and science need each other. I give thanks for people like Anne, Kerry, Sandy, Charlotte, Jude, Eric, Becky, and others in our congregation who follow Jesus with all their minds and hearts and learn everything they can from science to participate in God’s healing ministry.

I like Thomas. So does Jesus. Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’” The wounds are still there. Why? If Jesus was raised to newness of life, shouldn’t we expect that the wounds of crucifixion would be gone? Don’t we want a risen savior with a spiffy new body, free of scars, wounds, and holes caused by spikes?

“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio is a classic painting of Thomas seeing and touching the wounds of Jesus. The great artists, including Rembrandt and vonHonthorst, all agreed: Thomas got to see and touch the very wounds of Jesus. Knowing that our savior, our Lord and God, has wounds make God approachable and vulnerable. That word vulnerable comes from a Latin word, vulnus, which means wound. We worship and serve a Lord with wounds, with scars, that will be visible in eternity.

The last book of the Bible, the Revelation, gives us a dramatic glimpse into heavenly worship. John, lifted into that heavenly worship, is wondering where Jesus is. This is what happens: “So I looked, and there, surrounded by Throne, Animals, and Elders, was a Lamb, slaughtered but standing tall.” (Revelation 5:6 from “The Message.”) The lamb of God, slaughtered and wounded, and standing tall. Then all fell before the lamb in worship and sang,

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

During Lent, I listen frequently to a song by Michael Card entitled, “Come, Lift Up Your Sorrows,” which has these haunting words:

Come lift up your sorrows, and offer your pain; Come make a sacrifice of all your shame;

There in your wilderness, He’s waiting for you, To worship him with your wounds, For He’s wounded too.    (words and music by Michael Card and Vince Taylor)

Jesus never shames Thomas, never humiliates Thomas, never embarrasses Thomas, never excludes Thomas, and never punishes Thomas. Jesus doesn’t take him to the woodshed and give him a talkin’ to. Jesus treats Thomas and his skepticism with respect. Isn’t that good news for us when we can’t figure out God’s ways?

Kintsugi is a Japanese art form that takes broken pottery and repairs it with a mix of lacquer and gold dust. The artist doesn’t try to hide the break, but repairs it and makes it stronger. The made restored pottery, the one with wounds visible, becomes more valuable than the original. Out of brokenness, beauty emerges. Out of a crucifixion, new life emerges. Out of a cold tomb, the risen Lord emerges. Out of a room with the doors shut tight, with a skeptical scientific type named Thomas present, new faith emerges. Everyone hearing this message is wounded, including the preacher. We are all walking wounded. And our Lord is wounded and welcomes us, even with our skepticism and struggles.

“Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop not believing and start believing.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’” Because of Thomas, we receive this blessing. I like Thomas. My faith in Jesus needs Thomas.

Not an Empty Tomb, but the Risen Jesus

[This message was proclaimed on Easter sunrise, April 4, 2021, outdoors at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on Luke 24:1-12. It was not recorded or taped.]

“Cemetery Residents Returning.” I collect funny headlines. This one came from the Albany Times-Union 16 years ago. Really? Cemetery residents are dead. They don’t get time out for good behavior. We go to cemeteries to honor the dead.

I like to visit cemeteries. I grew up in greater Los Angeles, which has a well-known cemetery named Forest Lawn (not the one in Buffalo). Forest Lawn in Rochester is a beach with beautiful views of sunsets over Lake Ontario. I know the other Forest Lawn, the renowned cemetery in Glendale, CA. When I was dating the woman, who is now my wife, I took her on dates to a cemetery, Forest Lawn. The rolling hills are perfectly green. There is statuary art everywhere. And it is a really cheap date. Since moving to this area, I have become fond of visiting Mt. Hope Cemetery. I like to walk the trails in any season, especially fall, and visit the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, two American heroes of mine. When out of town friends visit us, I generally take them to Mt. Hope Cemetery. If they can’t handle that, they won’t visit again. At Mt. Hope Cemetery there are some above ground buildings, family mausoleums or crypts, in which people are buried. They are secured. One cannot enter them unless they are opened in advance. Now let’s say you have a friend or relative buried in one of those. You go to visit on a beautiful sunny spring day and see the gated door is open. You look in and where your friend was once laid in death is empty. What is your first thought?

Exactly. You aren’t thinking resurrection, but that someone broke in and stole the body. That is not good news. Contrary to thousands of sermons preached over the centuries, the empty tomb is not good news. I read an article days ago in a great national newspaper that said the empty tomb made all the difference. I beg to differ. In every Easter account in the New Testament—and we have four, each with a different perspective; no two identical in the reporting—there is doubt and disbelief. No one of the first disciples left an empty tomb declaring good news; not the women and not the men. In Matthew they were afraid. In Mark they were trembling and bewildered. In John, Mary Magdalene speaks for all of them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him.” In Luke, before us now, the women who were first at the tomb were perplexed. They didn’t go to the tomb for a resurrection, but to say their final goodbye to Jesus, whom they saw killed on a cross two days before. When Peter got to the tomb, he too found it empty and was puzzled as he walked away.

The turning point was never an empty tomb. The women walk to a borrowed tomb where the dead body of Jesus was laid two days ago. They are grieving. Their hearts are still broken from seeing him die a humiliating, excruciating death They bring burial spices, an act of homage, a simple gesture of dignity. A large tablet shaped stone was rolled over the opening to that tomb two days ago. It had two purposes: to keep grave robbers out and keep the smell of a decaying body in. They arrive early in the morning and are stunned to see the massive stone rolled back. They take a peek inside. The body is gone. Easter joy? No, deeper grieving. Insult is added to injury. Salt is poured in an open wound.

Two messengers sent by God are there. One speaks. They jump out of their skin and back into their skin. “Why are you looking for the Living One in a cemetery?” Does anyone have an answer for that piercing question? I think not. Does anyone of them dare say a word? No. The messenger continues, “He is not here, but raised up. Remember how he told you when you were still back in Galilee that he had to be handed over to sinners, be killed on a cross, and in three days rise up?” Well, of course. He did say that, didn’t he? They go to the men. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

An empty tomb isn’t that hard to believe. Graves get ransacked and robbed, then and now. What is hard to believe is that one who was killed on a bloody cross is walking around greeting his old friends a few days later.

Many years ago there was a kind man on TV named Mr. Rogers. My daughters watched him just about every afternoon. Before that, there was a morning show for children called Captain Kangaroo. I watched him when I was a child. Their TV shows overlapped by some years, so there were some children who watched Captain Kangaroo in the morning and Mr. Rogers in the afternoon. One boy watched both. When it was announced that Captain Kangaroo would visit Mr. Rogers, that boy was beside himself with excitement. The boy’s family was all gathered around the TV for this historic moment. The adults were spellbound. After about a minute, they realized that the boy had left the room. His mother was puzzled and went to his room and asked, “Are you feeling OK? Is something wrong?” The boy said, “It’s too good. It’s just too good.”

When the risen Jesus stood in their presence and spoke to them, it was just too good. Too good to believe. That same Jesus walks into walks into our lives. Our good news is not that the tomb is empty. Our good news is that the tomb couldn’t hold him. Our good news is not that Jesus’ body is missing. Our good news is that Jesus is risen and walking among us. Living among us and in us. Our faith isn’t about what isn’t there, but who is here. Our faith is not about subtraction, but addition. Not division, but multiplication. We don’t worship an empty tomb; we worship the risen Christ. Christ is risen. Morning has broken. New life has begun.

Thirst

[This message was delivered for Good Friday, April 2, 2021, at Perinton Presbyterian Church (and at Community of the Savior, both pre-recorded). The service can be found in video form on the Perinton Presbyterian FaceBook page, starting at noon, or the Community of the Savior page on FaceBook or YouTube.]

   

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’” John 19:28

When dying, one doesn’t engage in small talk. Every breath is precious. Every last word is labored. Of all the words Jesus speaks from the cross, one seems insignificant, the least momentous, far from memorable. The other six are compelling; they grab hold of us.

  • “Father, forgive them….” What selfless grace.
  • “Today you will be with me in paradise.” What a promise in the hour of extremity.
  • “Mary, that disciple will look after you as his own mother.” What consideration; what a commitment to family.
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What intense anguish.
  • “It is finished.” What persevering purpose.
  • “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” What unswerving submission and trust.

Then there’s this one that sounds so mundane, so unimportant, so ordinary, so every day. “When Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’”

Thirsty. Whenever I preach, I bring a mug of hot tea with honey, to soothe my vocal chords. I take sips before I preach and after I preach. This is not that. This is a dying man, hanging from a bloody cross. I have had the holy privilege of being alongside people in their dying moments. If they can speak, they often ask for water. More likely, they are too weak for words, but they gesture that their lips are parched. A wet cloth on the lips or some ice chips will soothe them. Thirst is powerful. Even when dying, parched lips cannot be ignored.

Jesus had said to a Samaritan woman as they stood beside a well, those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” And now he thirsts. In John 6, Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” The one who quenches our spiritual thirst is now thirsty. The one who is the river of life, now finds the river bed bone dry.

Jesus is suffering at an extreme level—spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and physically. This is no charade. He is not punching a clock. He is not playing a role. He is suffering. And he is thirsty. A careful reading of the passion of our Lord reveals that nothing is being done by accident. God is in the details. That does not absolve the religious and political leaders for their part in this cruelty, this miscarriage of justice. No one gets qualified immunity in this: not Judas, not Pilate, not Herod, and not us. We are all guilty, all complicit. We are all culpable. And he is thirsty.

In Jesus’ passion, God is at work. Jesus knows the scriptures and quotes them. He knows Psalm 69:21, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Just hours before, in the garden of the olive press, he dares pray that the Father would remove the cup of suffering from him. While he will submit to suffering, he likes it no more than we do. He prays that the cup of suffering will be spared him. And now he prays for a drink of water to soothe his parched lips. Is that not a reasonable request? In our time, when we engage in the barbaric act of executing someone, we allow them to select their last meal—whatever they want. Can he not ask for a splash of water? Though the will of God is being done, we must not over-spiritualize the moment. He is parched. He is experiencing the worst kind of death. It is real, as real as when death comes to us, but far more raw. He is drinking from the cup of suffering, right down to the dregs. And he is thirsty.

Several decades ago there was a terrible accident in which 96 people were crushed to death at a soccer game in England. At a hospital to which the suffering and dying were brought, a doctor had the terrible duty of reading the names of the dead. Think of Atlanta two weeks ago: eight names read. Think of Boulder last week: ten names read. After the doctor read the names of the dead to the grieving, he said that he believed that God understood their grief and was with them in their sorrow. One parent said aloud, “What does God know about losing a son?” God knows everything about losing a son. God is not aloof and estranged from our suffering. God knows the way of suffering and loss. On the cross, Jesus thirsts and the Father grieves.

When dying, one doesn’t engage in small talk. Every breath is precious. Every last word is labored. Six of the words from the cross show us the heart of God: forgiving, granting eternal life, caring for a bereaved mother, hearing our sense of abandonment, finishing the work of salvation, committing all to God’s providential care. Six words clearly do that. The other one shows us the depth of the humanity of our Lord. There we see Jesus embodying our weakness, our frailty, our humanness, all lifted to God as Jesus cries, “I am thirsty.” Nowhere is the deity of the Messiah more on display than on the cross. Nowhere is the humanity of Jesus more apparent than on the cross. We see Jesus lifted up. Glorified on the wondrous cross. He brings our humanity with him, in him, as he thirsts from the cross.

We Want to See Jesus (Don’t We?)

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 21, 2021. The text is John 12:20-33. It can also by viewed on the Perinton Presbyterian FaceBook page.]

It was Christmas Eve, three months after I turned 40. At the end of the last service, just about midnight, the far corners of the sanctuary seemed fuzzy. I had been on my feet ministering for most of the past eight hours and was tired; my eye sight had a right to be tired. Since I had always had excellent eyesight, I told no one. Then I noticed again a few days later that I wasn’t reading signs in the distance as well as usual. For the first time in my life, I went to an optometrist. After a bunch of tests, he said, “Have you heard of presbyopia?” “Of course, I am a Presbyterian pastor,” I replied. “Now just what is presbyopia?” “It is losing some of the eyes’ elasticity, which comes from age.” “Yeah, I have seen that in the church I serve. People start losing their vision, but at all ages.”

 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Their request wasn’t about changing or failing eyesight. They were hearing about this Jesus. He had turned water into wine at a wedding reception. As he approached the Temple at Passover, he saw merchants and money-changers scamming people, so he overturned their tables and send money flying in all directions. And just one chapter before today’s, he stopped at Bethany, just up the hill to the east of Jerusalem and, finding that his friend Lazarus was dead and buried, visited the tomb and called Lazarus back to life. Who wouldn’t want to see this man? “We want to see Jesus.” “We would see Jesus.” “We wish to see Jesus.”

Sometimes we don’t see what is right in front of us. We are in a hurry, or distracted, or just not observant to what is happening right around us. Joshua Bell is one of our country’s finest violinists. He fills concert halls where people pay lots of money to see and hear his musical genius. A few years back, he filled Liberty Hall in Washington DC for a concert. A few days later the Washington Post had him play some of that same music, some of the most demanding music written for the violin, but in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro subway stop, with hidden cameras. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look. A three-year old stopped to watch and listen; then his mother pulled him away. Oh, and that violin he was playing in the subway station was worth about $4 million.

“We want to see Jesus.” Do we really? TV news programs often warn us that an upcoming clip may be explicit, so we can choose to look away. I warn us: seeing Jesus may not be what we are expecting. In Isaiah 53, a chapter often read in late Lent and Holy Week, we get a prophetic view of the Messiah (vss. 2-3 from “The Message”): There was nothing attractive about him, nothing to cause us to take a second look. He was looked down on and passed over, a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand. One look at him and people turned away. We looked down on him, thought he was scum.” There is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that he looked like anyone other than a Palesttinian Jewish peasant, which means he was about 5’4” tall, thin, with dark hair, dark eyes, olive hued skin, and calloused hands. He didn’t have wavy chestnut brown hair with golden highlights and blue eyes. Sorry.

In Ephesians 2 we get another view of Jesus. There Paul describes the wall that separated Jews and Gentiles. It was a racial wall as high as any we know today. Then Paul paints this picture: For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” After my sermon two weeks ago, in which I mentioned systemic racism and sexism, one of you wrote me these words: “If we were created in God’s image, then God must be all colors, shapes, sexes. etc.” That is precisely the picture the New Testament paints of Jesus. All of us are in him. Galatians 3:28 nails it: There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In Matthew 25 Jesus gives us another look at how we can see him. There he tells how can see him in how we treat others, especially others in need. The surprise is that when we serve anyone in need, we are serving Jesus. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

Until a few days ago, I didn’t know who Steven Amenhauser was. Then I heard in the local news that he died last week a few days after being set on fire, allegedly by two teenagers. Steven was alone in the world. He was adopted in childhood and then orphaned. His wife died some years ago. Then his girlfriend died five months ago. He lived alone. Did anyone notice? Did anyone reach out and care for him? I am heartened that over $2,000 has been collected since he died to make sure he has a decent burial. Do we ever see people like Steven Amenhauser and fail to stop and recognize Jesus in them? I do.

A few years ago I took a course in Ignatian spirituality at Mercy Spirituality Center in Rochester. We met weekly for about 40 weeks, with readings, assignments, talks, and small group conversation. The single most memorable experience was in my small group. We were talking about seeing Jesus in everyday life. Vilma told how she volunteered visiting people in hospice care in their homes. She was making her weekly visit to an old man living alone, nearing the end of his earthly days. A hospice nurse was there. She asked Vilma if she would gently massage the man’s body with oil. Vilma began gently rubbing his old, dying body with soothing oil. Then she teared up and said to us, “Suddenly, I realized I was anointing the body of Jesus as I cared for this dying man.” Vilma wasn’t the only one crying at that point. We remembered how a woman did the same for Jesus as he was heading to Jerusalem.

“We want to see Jesus.” Jesus is present all around us, especially in people in need. The underserved and overlooked. The oppressed and persecuted. To use Jesus’ words: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned.

Jesus hears that some people want to see him and what does he talk about? Not making some more disciples. Not calling for a photo-op or press conference with reporters present. He talks about his death.

  • “I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
  • “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
  • “’And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

In John’s gospel being glorified means dying. In John’s gospel being lifted up means being hung on a cross. Three times in John’s gospel, Jesus is spoken of as being lifted up. One was in last week’s sermon on Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus at night: so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) The second is John 8:28: “So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he.’” The third is right here. “When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” When Jesus is lifted up, it isn’t on a pedestal. It isn’t on a platform of honor. It isn’t on a throne. When Jesus is lifted up, it is on a cross.

Death isn’t Christ’s enemy; it is his opportunity to be glorified, to be lifted up; to confront evil and defeat it. When that grain of wheat falls into the ground, new life emerges. “We want to see Jesus.” He is visible, all around us. High and lifted up, right here in our neighbor, in the one in need. Do we want to see Jesus” Let’s open our eyes; he is very near.


No Justice, No Peace

[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 7, 2021, based on Micah 6:6-13 and John 2:13-22. It may also be viewed on the Perinton facebook page.]

Scott Willoughby, felt pretty lucky two weeks ago in his suburban Dallas home. With Texas in an energy crisis, his home didn’t lose power. Willoughby kept his lights on, perhaps so he’d know if his power failed. Then he got his bill. In a period for which his energy bill was usually $70, he was charged over $16,000. It was taken directly from his bank and cleaned out his savings. While those rocketing prices have financially devastated some, others profited from the massive price surge. The president of a shale drilling company was heard in a conference call saying, “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices.” The billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones, is now under fire for being a majority shareholder in that energy company.

Jesus approaches the Temple mount. It is Passover week. Jewish pilgrims have come from all corners of Israel, some traveling 100 miles on foot. The merchants and money-changers are out in force. To fulfill religious ritual, they need to get animals for Temple offerings and sacrifices. That’s why the merchants are there—to sell the right animals to people coming to worship. It is accepted; a needed exchange of goods. The free market is at work. It is good for the Temple and the merchants and money-changers. Except, there were areas designated for these transactions and these merchants had moved their wares closer to the Temple, where they could raise their prices and make big profits. The closer to the Temple, the higher the prices. Jesus cannot overlook this. He sees an unjust system taking advantage of these vulnerable pilgrims. He is angered and he does something about it.

Last year, the great civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis died. When our former Congresswoman Louise Slaughter died two years ago, I went to her public memorial service at the Kodak Hall downtown for one reason: John Lewis would be there to speak. A preacher in his youth, he became a national hero. For the cause of civil rights, he was arrested about 50 times, beaten several times, once near to death. Lewis customarily said that he often got in trouble, good trouble for good causes. He urged people to get into good trouble. Today is the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, AL, where Lewis was beaten for marching for voting rights. He got in good trouble that day

Jesus is about to get in some good trouble. What he sees angers him. He sees a practice of injustice happening, vulnerable people being taken advantage of, and he does something about it. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” I will not water it down. He does something dramatic. Some might call it an act of civil disobedience: the religious leaders take note. I don’t see him hurting people, but I see him hurting business that day. This is basic Christianity: seeing injustice and doing something about it. Jesus is showing us God’s heart for justice.

The Lord speaks through the prophet Micah: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Then Micah names injustice in the marketplace. The Lord says, “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?” Merchants were cheating people by having rigged scales, so what was measured out was weighed as if it were more. Dishonest weights were used to favor the seller and scam the buyer. Containers had false bottoms, so consumers thought they were getting more than they were. This passage came to life when I was in seminary on the north shore of Boston. Many of us poor seminarians would drive into Boston on Saturday mornings and do our week’s food shopping at outdoor Haymarket Square, where merchants had most everything for cheaper prices than the food markets. Then one of the Boston TV stations did an investigative report on Haymarket Square. A number of the merchants had rigged scales, so instead of a pound of produce, we were getting 3/4s of a pound while paying for a pound. At that time I was taking a class in the Old Testament prophets. Our professor jumped on this one and showed us that what some merchants in Boston were doing was exactly what Micah was naming 2,700 years earlier. And the Lord was not pleased. “Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths. Therefore I have begun to strike you down, making you desolate because of your sins.”

Jesus comes to our world as peacemaker, but there is no peace where there is no justice. Almost always, injustice favors the wealthy and the powerful; the poor and underserved get the short end. Even in the distribution of the Covid vaccines, the poor and people of color are underserved again. Justice and peace are intertwined. Injustice is the enemy of peace.

God desires justice. Jesus is angered by injustice and calls it out forcefully. Injustice has existed in all cultures since sin entered the world. We see it today in hosts of ways, at both the individual level and the systemic level. One area is in how people in power, usually men, cross boundaries in relationships. I am going to name three: a Christian leader, a Republican leader, and a Democrat leader. The first is Ravi Zacharias, a noted preacher and evangelist who died last year. I have heard him speak in person several times and was always impressed with his breadth of knowledge. Some allegations were made while he was alive, but they were denied. Now the organization that bears his name has admitted that an independent investigation found that Zacharias was guilty of mistreatment of many women over many years. He told some of them to keep his actions quiet because he was doing God’s work. The second is a former president, who is on record as boasting about what he could do to women, and then was credibly charged with authorizing hush money payments to two women with whom he had brief affairs. The third is a current governor, who has been credibly charged by three women with inappropriate language and touch. The “Me Too” movement is not over as long as women are used and abused by men. It gives me no joy to say such things in our worship. But I am convinced from the Bible that God is greatly concerned about injustice, whenever and wherever it occurs, whether at the individual or the systemic level. Jesus doesn’t look the other way.

God desires justice; Jesus doesn’t look the other way. Just over a year ago, a young Black man was jogging in a predominantly white neighborhood in Georgia. He was immediately seen as suspicious. Within minutes, two white men, a father and son, confronted him and shot him three times, leaving him to die on the pavement. The Black jogger was unarmed and creating no trouble. I am a jogger. I don’t fear for my life when I jog through neighborhoods where I am not known. Because of my skin color, I am not seen as suspicious. His name was Ahmaud Arbery. On the day of his death, the Glynn County Police Department said, “make no arrests.” A day later, they still said “make no arrests.” The case went to four jurisdictions resulting in no arrests. The suspects, Gregory and Travis McMichael were named, but not arrested. Then a lawyer went to work on this for Arbery’s family. He found that a third neighbor saw something happening and took a video of it. The lawyer released the video on May 5. It went viral. Then, 74 days after Arbery’s homicide, two arrests were made. Murder charges were filed. The autopsy of Arbery showed that he had no alcohol or drugs in his system. Why did it take 74 days and a video for arrests to be made? Could it be because he was a young Black man and, therefore, suspicious? Just a few days ago, Amanda Gorman, the 22-year old poet who thrilled us with her poem at the recent presidential inauguration, was followed by a security guard as she walked to her apartment. He got close and asked what she was doing there. She showed him her entry key. He made no apology. She looked suspicious for one reason: she is Black. Systemic racism and injustice are still strong in our land.

God desires justice; Jesus doesn’t look the other way. Injustice in any area of life is offensive to our Lord. Jesus does not look the other way, but confronts the injustice he sees in the Temple courts. But he does more than that. He upends a system of worship dependent on one place or one building. He introduces a new temple, his own body. The kingdom of God—the realm and reign of God—is wherever Jesus is working. The temple of God is wherever Jesus is worshiped in spirit and truth. Our Lenten journey is not about our self-discipline; it is about following and worshiping this Jesus, all the way to Jerusalem, all the way to the cross.

A Presbyterian pastor in Scotland in the 20th century, George MacLeod, caught this in a powerful way in this quote:

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again, at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek … and at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.
Because that is where He died, and that is what He died about. And that is where Christ’s own ought to be, and that is what church people ought to be about.”

God desires justice; Jesus doesn’t look the other way. When we see injustice, will we care too or look the other way?

Now!

[This sermon was given at Perinton Presbyterian Church, Fairport NY, on the first Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021. The text is Mark 1:9-15. It can be seen in the worship service of that day, now on the Perinton page on FaceBook.]

What movie best fits this pandemic? Someone suggested “Groundhog Day.” It was showing on some cable movie network three weeks ago on February 2, Groundhog Day, so I watched it again. I hadn’t seen it from beginning to end in some years. It really does have the right feel for now. This TV weather forecaster, played memorably by Bill Murray, is sent to Punxsutawney PA to cover the story of whether this groundhog sees his shadow or not, which determines whether we get six more weeks of winter or an early spring. That’s not much of a storyline, but it gets interesting when the weather guy starts reliving February 2, day after day after day. He is caught in one day repeating itself and he doesn’t know why or how to end it. It takes a while, but he eventually figures out what to do with that day that keeps recurring. He learns to live in the now.

This has been a month of gray days and snow flurries. Day after day, there has been much sameness. I like to watch the drama of the phases of the moon. I have hardly seen the moon in a month. How we love it when the clouds part and we see the sun again. In Jesus’ baptism, the heavens tear open. The word Mark uses is graphic: the root word is schism. “The Message” says “the sky split open.” The picture is not a gentle little incision, but a dramatic tearing open. The way children might open birthday gifts: grab and rip. My granddaughter just turned one. She and her parents are living in Cambodia. Our daughter has been sending us brief videos of her opening gifts. She usually tears some wrapping paper and puts it in her mouth.

The sky is ripped open, the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, God’s voice affirms his identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Then that same Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. My question, which Mark doesn’t answer directly, is this: as Jesus goes into the wilderness, does the sky neatly heal or remain torn open? What do you think? I get a clue from two things Mark tells about Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days: “He was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Jesus was with wild beasts, but there is no hint that they attacked him. He was with wild beasts and it didn’t seem to bother him or them. God’s angels were working. Here is another word picture. Literally, Mark says, “the messengers were deaconing him.” Ministry was happening in that wilderness. Ministry is always happening in our wildernesses. Always. That tear in the sky stays open over our wildernesses. We are not alone in our wildernesses.

Lent is a wilderness season. These 40 days are designed to help us appreciate the journey Jesus took, even to walk alongside him. I am not always drawn to wilderness experiences, like in the deep freeze of winter. An hour of the National Geographic channel can satisfy me. But whenever I have been in a wilderness, I have known a sense of awe. In a wilderness I realize my own smallness and powerlessness. I appreciate the raw power of nature in a wilderness. The pandemic has been a year-long wilderness. Now we are in Lent, which is a call to be attentive to our wilderness. As Laura noted from Mary Oliver’s poem last week, Lent is a time to “pay attention, be astonished, then to tell.”

Jesus emerges from that wilderness ready to serve. He makes his first big announcement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God becomes Jesus’ dominant theme. The phrase occurs about 140 times in the gospels. We have some work to do here, because what Jesus is describing is not like the kingdoms we picture. Two kingdoms probably come to mind readily.

The first, the United Kingdom, is being chronicled in a hit Netflix series called “The Crown.” While fictionalized, it tells about real people. Queen Elizabeth’s four children are a strange lot, marked by divorces, marital unfaithfulness, some shady friendships, and incredible wealth. One son has been withdrawn from the public. One of her grandsons—my favorite because how could I not like someone called Prince Harry?—has walked away from some of the perks of royalty to live with his American mixed race wife in California. This United Kingdom is hardly united. Scotland is in disagreement about Brexit and Barbados officially left the fold last year. Since 1939, 62 countries have left the British Empire. The British royal family might be called dysfunctional, but it fascinates us.

Then there is the Magic Kingdom, which seems altogether functional. I grew up with the original Disneyland in southern California and that was a charmed part of my childhood. All of our relatives from the Midwest and east started visiting us in the late 1950s for one reason: they wanted us to take them to Disneyland. We reluctantly obliged them. You could blindfold me in the center of the Magic Kingdom and name a ride and I could take you there.

When we picture kingdoms, we likely think castles and palaces, enchanting stories, and the perks of royalty. Jesus brings none of that. He comes among us a poor Palestinian Jew. Trained as a carpenter, he is now a humble preacher, without his own Leer jet, limo, and bodyguards. He wears no crown (though he will wear a crown on the Friday Lent is leading us to), has no gold bling, or any palaces or castles. In fact, he never owns a home. Our king comes in poverty and humility. Obviously, Jesus is talking about something else, something radically different than the two kingdoms we know best. We might search for another word. The New Testament Greek word translated kingdom is actually a feminine noun. Think about that (queendom?). A better translation is the realm of God or the reign of God. The essence of the New Testament teaching is that the realm of God is wherever Jesus is present. It’s that simple: no castles, no palaces, no jewels; where Jesus is present, the reign of God has arrived, the realm of God is happening.

And it is now. Not yesterday and not tomorrow. The reign of God is happening now. It is not waiting for heaven in some far off day: it is now. The Apostle Paul writes: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2.) The New Testament has two words that translate into our word time. One means the march of time, like chronology. That word is chronos, from which we get chronology, chronic, and chronometer. It is what a watch, clock, or calendar does for us; mark the movement of time. The second word (kairos) means something momentous, like an interruption to the flow of seconds, minutes, and hours. It is an emphatic now. It is that word that Jesus uses when he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near….” It is that word that Paul uses when he writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” Jesus is announcing that the reign of God is present now. When people live only in chronos, they merely exist. When we live in the second sense (kairos), God’s momentous time, we truly come to life.

A friend of mine is a chaplain at a caring facility in Brighton. In her prayer letter last Tuesday, she wrote, “I am working from home today on my virtual Ash Wednesday service which I will broadcast twice tomorrow at the facility. Things remain challenging at work; we have lost 27 residents to Covid since the beginning of December and to quote one staff member last week ‘it feels like we are hanging on by a thread.’” Aren’t we all hanging by a thread? Some of us know it better than others, but it is true of all of us.

A country song made popular by Tim McGraw deals with a person facing news that their life might be ending sooner than once expected has this haunting refrain:

“And I loved deeper/And I spoke sweeter; And I watched an eagle as it was flying/And he said ‘Someday I hope you get the chance/To live like you were dying.’”

Is the tear in the sky still open? Emphatically yes. Jesus is working through that opening, bridging the waters that once divided:

  • God and humanity,
  • heaven and earth,
  • life and death.

Jesus still comes to us, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God is right here, right now.” There is an opening in the skies.Now! Right here and right now. Right here. Right now!