The Breath of Life
(Message delivered by Rev. Dr. David McAllister, on April 12, 2020. Posted on April 29, 2020.)
I was meditating last week, something that I don’t do often enough, but when I do, I benefit from it through the grace of God. As I was meditating, I was paying attention to my breath, a technique that I learned a long time ago. And as I paid attention to my breath, I was aware of how precious breath is. In this time of crisis with the Coronavirus, people who contract the virus are literally struggling for breath. Shortness of breath is one of the symptoms, and it is why ventilators are in such short supply.
And for some, tragically, they take their final breath as their struggle with the virus ends. Just as Jesus took his final breath, and said, “Into your hands Father, I commend my spirit.” And that is a statement for everyone, as we will all, one day, be delivered into the hands of God.
Mary came to the tomb early on that Sunday morning, having seen Jesus breathe his last. But what she found “took her breath away.” The tomb was open, and he was missing. After alerting Peter and John, and after having them verify what she already knew, she sits alone near the empty tomb.
And yet she isn’t alone. There are two angels in the empty tomb, and they ask her why she is crying. Thinking them to be rather out of touch, especially for angels, she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
But before they can even answer her, she becomes aware that someone else is near. Then, in the shadows of the morning, she glimpses a figure, who also asks her why she is crying. She doesn’t seem to be able to escape that question. And supposing this person to be the gardener, who else would be around this time of morning, she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
And Jesus, Jesus calls her by name. “Mary!” And at recognizing Jesus’ voice, Mary again attempts to catch her breath, for she can’t believe it is him. And she finally forces out the word for Teacher. It is all she can muster.
I often find myself holding my breath when I should be paying attention and gently breathing. We quite often alternate between catching our breath and holding our breath. In some ways, having to stay at home of late forces us to slow down, to abandon many of our usual activities, and to, so to speak, catch our breath. At the same time though, we may be holding our breath and praying that we do not contract the virus. It is a two-edged predicament. And having faith, and just gently breathing, sometimes escapes us.
But today, the day we celebrate the life-changing resurrection of Jesus, let us immerse ourselves in the love and peace that is here for us to hold on to. Let us experience the same joy that we would if we were together, sharing breakfast, singing these glorious songs, listening to the choir, and exchanging hugs beyond numbering. Let us experience the joy, each of us, because the Resurrected Jesus is breathing life and hope and peace and joy into our hearts.
That morning, in that garden, with just Jesus and Mary present, and a couple of angels nearby, was THE MOMENT that began all that we are about on this morning. We certainly love Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, and sing the great carols, and exchange gifts and give thanks for God’s gift of that child to us. But without this moment in the garden, would anyone even remember a baby born in a manger? For the moment in the garden is the beginning of the realization that death, even death, could not bring a forever darkness into the lives of Jesus’ followers, nor can it bring such darkness into our lives. That moment in the garden, that tender encounter between Jesus and Mary, is the beginning of new life, new breath, new joy.
Death tries to put up a barrier between us and the person who had died. And yet, in those sad moments, we can turn to the truth of the Resurrection, we can turn to the reality that death will not hold us in the darkened shadows, for beyond death there is more, and when we, and indeed everyone we love, make that journey, we will come into a place with God that is filled with light and eternal life.
And what Mary hears, what Jesus proclaims, what the other disciples understand later that day, and what is our blessing as well, is that the promise of eternal life with God in Heaven, with Jesus our Christ, with everyone we love, is real. Death and darkness could not overcome Jesus, for God’s power of life is more potent than any power of darkness, and the joy of the Resurrection was made known that day, a joy that is ours each and every day. Praise God.
Jesus Christ arose from the tomb that tried to hold him. And if Jesus could overcome death, then as we walk with him we will be able to overcome anything that life sends our way.
For the joy of the Resurrection goes beyond any temporary sadness we might experience. The power of the Resurrection goes beyond any power that darkness tries to impose upon us. The light of the Resurrection is our guiding light each and every day. And the presence of the Resurrected Jesus in our lives does indeed breath new life into us, on this day, and every day.
So, let us praise God, for Jesus Christ is risen. He is alive, and most certainly, is among us.
Revelations in This Time
(Message delivered by Rev. Dr. David McAllister, on April 5, 2020. Posted on April 6, 2020.)
Okay, close your eyes (just don’t go to sleep) and picture it. Jesus is coming into Jerusalem with the crowds of people surrounding Him, cheering Him, and laying palm branches, and even their coats, in the path before Him. Now, picture what it would look like, as someone standing on the roof of the building just up ahead, started yelling, “Stop, stop. You need to have at least six feet between you.” Yeah, the chaos you can picture, would surely have happened.
But, luckily for those surrounding Jesus, there were no such restrictions in place, and, they were doing so at a time when the occupying Romans had no interest in religious people. There would have been no concern that Jesus might conflict with the theological viewpoints of the Jewish leaders. Yet, because their main task was to preserve peace, they probably kept a keen eye on this procession, for a crowd gathered anywhere could spell trouble.
But then, if the Romans understood Aramaic or Hebrew, they would have been even more troubled, for the people shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” This was a treasonous statement. Rome had a king, Caesar, and his kingdom extended all the way down to Jerusalem and beyond. You can’t have two kings, at least not without a fight.
So, while we wouldn’t on this Sunday risk being in a crowd, unless somehow we were all stationed six feet apart, which wouldn’t feel much like a crowd, these people were taking a risk, a big risk, proclaiming Jesus to be king. Now, you have been through this story before, and likely remember that Jesus did not come mounted on a horse, ready for battle, but on the colt of a donkey, which was a symbol of his coming in peace. Jesus was clear about who he was and what he was doing. But the people were caught up in the moment, they wanted a military king, and they shouted that this new leader had arrived. And in that, in being there, there was great risk.
So how today, as we sit safely in our homes hearing this, at home because we are ordered to stay home for our own safety, how do we respond to his entrance?
We are of course, first of all, responding through our gathering for worship, through telling the story, through singing the songs of celebration and joy. It is a unique celebration to be sure, but it is a celebration nonetheless.
But there is more. As I was watching a webinar (an online education event for those not familiar with the term - a seminar, but online), the president of the seminary I attended spoke about the word Apocalypse. Now, when we talk about apocalyptic events, we usually think about the end of the world. We think about something catastrophic happening. And when this virus first began to circulate, people questioned whether this was going to be such an event.
But if you look at the final book in the Bible, you will find three ways in which the title has been translated - The Apocalypse of John, The Book of Revelation, The Revelation to John. When I grew up, I mostly heard it referred to as the Apocalypse, because so much of the imagery of the book speaks of the end times.
But let’s turn our focus in a different direction. Let’s go with what is now the more common titling of the book, which is the “Revelation to John,” or sometimes just “Revelation.” And what is a revelation? It is a revealing of some truth. It is insights into some situation or circumstance in our lives. And indeed, it can be a word from God.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, he was the revelation, there on the colt, before them. He was indeed the one coming in the name of the Lord. But the message he brought was different than the message they were expecting. They expected a military intervention, an ushering in of God’s kingdom of power and might.
But Jesus came as a king of Peace, riding on that colt. Jesus came to continue to proclaim the kingdom of God, but for Jesus that was a kingdom not defined by military might, but by love, and kindness, and caring, and hospitality, and sharing, and welcoming one another. Jesus came to ask us to share bread with one another, to support the widow, to care for the orphan, to welcome people into our lives that others had turned away. Yes, Jesus came as King, but in a far different way than expected.
So, on this Palm Sunday, how does Jesus ride into our midst? What is he revealing to us? What is the Revelation here?
He certainly comes to us at a time of uncertainty and vulnerability. We know that April 30th is the current end of the Stay-at-Home order. We know that there are hopes to end it sooner. We know that some expect it to be extended. In effect, you and I just don’t know. And we are staying home, staying at a distance that feels strange, because we are indeed vulnerable to a virus that we cannot see.
And so, as we celebrate Jesus’ entrance once again into our lives on this Palm Sunday, how does he speak into that uncertainty and vulnerability? First off, he lets us recognize that God is in charge. The God of Creation, the God of Hope and Peace, is in charge. At the end of our scripture reading, when some of the Pharisees urge Jesus to quiet the crowd, Jesus tells them that, “if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Stones speaking, shouting, could only happen through the power of the God of Creation. God would do it if need be. God is present in all of this. God is present. God is present with us as well.
Secondly, Jesus takes this opportunity, as we gather in the midst of this crisis, to once again reveal to us the core of his message. He asks us to love one another, and to care for one another. And you are certainly doing that. Through your prayers, your phone calls to one another, your sending of cards, your offers of doing shopping for others, your actual shopping for others, you are indeed hearing him and showing that love as you care for one another.
When Jesus talks about caring for those who cannot return the favor, people like widows and orphans, people like many of the homeless today, people affected by job losses and even illness, he means that to be another core part of the kingdom he is bringing to life. And I want to tell you, as you probably read in the newsletter, we have done that as a church family. We had collected $1,125 for Week of Compassion, and we sent that on to them at this time when they are ready to respond to this Coronavirus pandemic. We won’t know specifically who is helped through those gifts, but people will be cared for in needed ways. And closer to home, the Westside Food Bank is being careful in their handling of food, and so while we needed to delay taking our food donations to them, we sent a check for $180 with which they can purchase much-needed food for people in our community. Reaching out to those who are in need. Speaking Jesus’ message through our actions.
The third element that I believe Jesus was revealing to those yelling Hosanna and laying down palms before him, and is revealing to us at this time, is that life changes, and for us, our ministry can have a much broader reach than it has in the past. The very fact that we are worshipping in this way, rather than just shutting down the church, is a vision of what we might do when this crisis passes. We will look at ways of putting together the resource for people to watch us as we worship, to feel a part of our church family, whether they are at a distance, or homebound, or just ill on a particular Sunday.
It is easy to become comfortable doing what we do, but there is often so much more that can happen. And Jesus speaks into this, and says “Yes, you can do more, in my name.”
Jesus comes to us today in celebration. Jesus comes to us to refresh our hearts and renew our ministry. He is here. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
A Woman's Place
(Sermon preached by Pastoral Assistant, Jeff Severa, on March 29, 2020. Posted on March 31, 2020)
When I was 12, my favorite place in the house was in the kitchen. It was there that the cupboards housed such delicacies as Ding Dongs, Twinkies, Zingers, Pop Tarts, and Animal Crackers. I recall how wonderful it was to guzzle milk right from the carton when I woke up thirsty in the middle of the night. I loved the kitchen.
My love affair with the kitchen was briefly interrupted when I was a seventh grader. My social studies teacher, Mr. Tymer, gave an assignment which caused me to have quite a different experience in the kitchen. He frequently talked about living conditions in the Third World. He wanted us, as residents of the wealthiest nation on earth, to experience what Third World residents experienced every single day. One day, he assigned us the task of skipping dinner and sleeping on the kitchen floor. We were allowed a newspaper as a blanket.
As I lay down in the kitchen that night, the kitchen was now an instrument of torture. The floor was cold, and as I stared longingly at the cupboard and refrigerator, it was as if they were taunting me. They were like bank vaults with combination locks that I could not open. The cupboard and refrigerator cast a long shadow over me that evening. The joy was gone as I experienced the kitchen in a very different way.
In our scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke, Martha was also in the shadows, but for different reasons. She has noticed that Jesus and His disciples are near her home. Martha shows the practice of hospitality by inviting the Lord and His party in. Now this would probably be at least 13 people, but probably more. I don’t know if Martha enjoyed preparing meals in the kitchen, but she knew her way around and she knew what to do. I can imagine her as a virtual whirlwind preparing enough food and getting drinks for the whole group. In her culture, she was doing a commendable and kind thing.
But then storm clouds form on the horizon. Martha notices that her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to His words. Now this was a very unconventional act for a woman to sit at the feet of a rabbi. This was scandalous behavior. Martha sees this and is probably taken aback, and then starts to compare what she’s doing….the right thing by preparing the meal…and Mary is doing the wrong thing…sitting at the feet of the Teacher.
And Martha is the kind of personality who is going to let Jesus know about it. She wants Mary in the kitchen where she belongs and wants Jesus to tell Mary to leave Him and go help Martha. There is also a sense that Martha is worried about how this will look to others. She may have even been afraid for Mary at some level.
When Martha interrupts Jesus, this was a breach in those times for a woman to break into a conversation led by the rabbi and the men in the house. So, there’s all kinds of shocking behavior going on by the standards of those times. Everyone probably looked at Jesus to lay down the law to these unconventional women.
Predictably, Jesus does no such thing. He doesn’t tell Mary to get up and go to the kitchen. And he doesn’t chastise Martha for coming to Him with a complaint about her sister. Jesus isn’t offended at all. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.” Jesus reminded Martha—and us—what to be “concerned” with, where to focus, and what should take a front row seat in our lives: our relationship with Him. And while we all walk in the shadows of coronavirus, it’s important for us.
When we concentrate on Jesus first, we discover that we are never truly alone or without help. We experience that His grace is sufficient for all that we face. And we find inner peace and strength to face whatever comes our way. Those are the kinds of truth that keep us calm in even the most stressful times of our lives. Jesus was thankful for what Martha was doing but wanted her to fully discover what Mary had: sit at Jesus’s feet and receive His comfort and His wisdom.
How often we can be in the frenzy of trying to get everything done and to be filled with worry and fear, and forget about the strength and comfort which comes from sitting at the feet of Jesus every day. Martha may have enjoyed working in the kitchen, but on that occasion, it did not bring her contentment or joy. She was in the shadows of fear, resentment and anger. It is easy for us to do the same when we are challenged. When we take time to pray, to meditate, to be still and know that our God stands by us…that is choosing that good part that cannot be taken away from us. The more we focus on our faith, the more peace and inner strength we will experience.
The apostle Paul had something to say about the good part of our lives in Romans 12. He urges us not to be conformed to the ways of the world. Christians can truly be the light of the world during these trying times. When we look after our friends and family. When we keep ties to one another strong. When we become part of the solution, deny ourselves and put others first, we are living a transformed life. God will honor us and we will truly make a lasting difference in our community.
Angela Duckworth tells a parable to illustrate this. “Three bricklayers are asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The first says, ‘I am laying bricks.’ The second says ‘I am building a church.’ The third says, ‘I am building the house of God.’ The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.” It is our calling in life to reflect the light that Jesus gave us into the darkness, and show others that through the grace and love of God, true peace is ours.
In these days in which we are traveling in the valley of the shadow of coronavirus, we too can spread the love of God in our community. Jesus urged us to let our light shine for the world to see. While we stay home, we can pray, write encouraging letters, make phone calls, check on our neighbors, and a multitude of acts of kindness and care which God will honor and bless. Most of all we will have a calling as a church to reach out to the needs of our community and bring God’s message of grace and peace. It’s in moments like this, that our faith truly shines.
The Winding Road
Mountain-climbing can be challenging and risky. When we hear about mountain climbers who attempt to reach the top of Mount Everest, or the mountain labeled K2, it is clear that it is both dangerous and grueling. Climbing either mountain can be exhausting. It is an adventure to be sure, but the climbers do so at great risk to their lives.
In our daily lives we face mountains to climb as well, though of course of a very different sort. I tend to have mountains of paperwork that surround me. We may face what feels like a daunting mountain in a battle with illness. And you can reflect upon your own mountains. What tends to be different for us though, is that we usually find little joy in our mountains, whereas the climbers look forward to the adventure before them. In fact, I think that oftentimes we may never even see our personal mountains as containing any sense of adventure at all.
We are together climbing the mountain right now that is labeled Covid-19. It is a mountain that we cannot physically see, yet it is there, and it is a worry that the mountain may be stronger than we are. Yet, conquering a mountain such as this teaches us many things.
It is usually in mountainous areas that I see signs indicating “winding roads.” And these winding roads can be perceived as a great place to test the traction in one’s vehicle, although more often they are a sign to slow down and not cause too much nausea for one’s passengers. Winding roads are adventuresome to some, and a real trial to others.
But, of course, it is the twists and turns in those roads that make the climb up or down the mountain possible. Usually they follow the side of that mountain, and the back and forth roads make for an easier trip. And yet, many people would say, “Give me a straight and boring road.”
That seems to be the sentiment in the words of the prophet Isaiah. In envisioning the coming of the Messiah, in words spoken to the people of Israel while they were in captivity in Babylon, he says, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (NRSV) It is an image of smoothing out the turmoil in their lives, of leveling things off, of doing away with the winding roads that had led them to captivity. And, it is a beautiful image of the coming, peaceful reign of the Messiah.
And in some ways, that is why we are under the Order to Stay at Home, so that the mountain can be flattened, the road can become level, and our journey made safer.
And I am all for that mountain being laid low, for the curve being flattened, for things to get back to normal through this process.
But in the midst of waiting for that mountain to be laid low, we face our own mountains of anxiety, anger, loneliness, and more. And these feelings create those said winding roads.
And so how might we approach them. Well, I want to suggest that winding roads can actually have turn-outs for us to stop and see something different. Winding roads usually cause us to slow down, and thereby to take time to appreciate the scenery
Jesus leads three of the disciples, Peter, James and John, up a high mountain, and Luke tells us that Jesus’ purpose in doing so was to go and pray. It was probably nothing new for the disciples. After all, people were continually crowding around to hear Jesus, or to ask for healing, and so Jesus needed time away in order to rest, pray and reenergize.
But there is a twist in this journey up the mountain. It was another rather usual time, until Jesus began to shine like the Sun. This is related to his praying, and to God’s presence with him, and has symbolisms beyond the scope of this message. But astonishingly, his face shines and his clothes become dazzling white. And this gets the attention of the disciples.
Not only does Jesus appear totally changed, but Moses and Elijah are suddenly there on the mountain with him. Then God speaks, echoing the words from Jesus’ baptism by John. And the disciples, in the winding road that is this mountain, have the adventure of their lives.
And it is in the twists and turns of our mountain that much is revealed to us. It is along the winding roads that often God is more fully known to us. It is in the twists and turns of our lives that we are often more open to the powerful presence of God.
When everything is smooth and straight, when all is going along fine in our lives, we may only vaguely notice the presence of God. But when we hit those winding roads, when we are challenged to move forward with care and attention, and even caution, then we not only wake up to the glowing presence of God, but we draw upon that power that fills us with new life. And it is then that the words of Isaiah speak to us the truth that as things are finally smoothed out, then we will see the fulfilling of the promise that we have trusted in.
When you are in the thick of those winding roads in your life, when you face trials, and challenges are a daily occurence, then surely know that God is present in those twists and turns, and that you don’t need to meet them alone. For the same God who met Jesus and the disciples on the mountain, meets you on your mountain, and you too will receive a blessing as you travel that way.
So, don’t fear that mountain adventure, but rather watch especially for the sign proclaiming the “winding road,” because, like the disciples, we will truly glimpse life with God in those moments.
(Message delivered by Rev. David McAllister on March 22, 2020 and posted on March 23, 2020)
Hang in There
John 4:5-10, 19-24
Do you remember the disagreement you had with your spouse, or parent or neighbor or child or friend, back in January of 2011? Perhaps you do, but probably not. Time passes, and our minds are filled with fresh memories, either of good times, or even of other times of conflict. But January of 2011, how clear is that one in your mind?
Things that are so important to us at the moment, seem to fade as time passes. It is like the children who get in a verbal fight one moment, and thirty minutes later appear to be the best of friends. Go figure. It is like traditional family feuds, a la the Hatfields and the McCoys, where no one can remember why they aren’t supposed to like each other, but they just know they aren’t.
That, I am afraid, has happened within various religions, and within our own Christian religion as well.
And, of course, it is easy to list some of the things that divide us as churches. To begin with, the very fact that we speak of churches, rather than the church, is a clue to our separations. And we start that dividing line as we draw in the sand between Catholics and Protestants. Then we subdivide the Protestants, and the Catholics make their own distinctions too. Then, as we consider the multitude of Protestant denominations, we discover that they each have their own factions, and so the splits continue such that if you drew it all out with lines, it would resemble a family tree where someone has included all the siblings, all the marriages and divorces, and has gone back far enough to take up several pages and wear out several pencils.
Then about a third of the way into the twentieth century, somebody read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and said, “wait a minute, Paul says don’t be divided. Oops.” Paul said don’t be divided. What, for heaven’s sake, and it is for heaven’s sake, can we agree on? What could we as the Christian Church, as followers of the one and only Christ, do together that would perhaps not start more of the divisions and arguments that already separate us?
And what these people came up with so many years ago is what we are celebrating today, World Communion Sunday. It started with the Presbyterians in 1936 and continues in most denominations today. And our denomination, which held among its early precepts the belief in Christian Unity, is a strong supporter of this day.
We are a part of Churches Uniting in Christ, which is a formal agreement among nine denominations in addition to our own, which seeks to bring us together in worship, in service and in dialogue.
If we believe the words of Jesus, then we must be engaged in the drawing closer together, rather than finding ways to keep each other at a distance.
When Jesus and the Samaritan woman meet at the well, one of the topics of conversation revolves around the true place for worship. For the woman and the rest of the Samaritans, it is there on that mountain. For the Jews it is in Jerusalem. This was a major dividing line between these two historically linked peoples. And Jesus makes the bold claim that in due time, and “indeed that time has come,” he says, true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth, regardless of where they happen to stand.
For God, you see, is not limited to the houses of worship in Jerusalem, or the tops of mountains. God is found in the quiet of your fears while you wait for someone to get out of surgery. God is found in the streets of skid row with people working to touch the lives of those who find themselves there. God is found in the confusing loss of direction when you lose a job, or a friend, a loved one or a pet. God is found in the ordinary, extraordinary, beauty of a day, and yes, God is found here, and in thousands of houses of worship the world over.
So much for our separate denominations having corners on the truth. And World Communion Sunday provides us with an opportunity to remind ourselves, and to say to a divided world, that we do believe that God moves in and through all people who believe in Him. It says to a divided church, we have much in common, let us celebrate.
And we have a table here that we know to be Jesus’ table, and we welcome EVERYONE to come and experience communion with him.
I want to share a story with you that speaks to the beauty and power of breaking the bread and drinking the cup. It is a power that is felt around the world, especially on this day, and by everyone willing to accept the invitation of Christ.
An Episcopal priest named Tom regularly goes to work in the soup kitchen of a homeless shelter. After the people have been fed, he will invite any who wish to go into the small chapel to receive communion. One evening, during the communion service, in which the bread and cup were offered at an altar railing in the front of the chapel, “he came to a man kneeling there who looked as though he had been out on the streets for quite a while. The man looked up at Tom and whispered, ‘Skip me.’
“‘What? Pardon me?’ Tom said.
“In a louder whisper, the man said again, ‘Skip me.’
“‘Why?’ Tom asked.
“‘Because,’ the man said, ‘I’m not worthy.’
“Tom said to him, ‘Neither am I.’ And then Tom added, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’m going to serve Communion to these other people. Then, I’m going to come back and serve Communion to you, and then I would like you to serve it to me.’
“The man blinked in amazement and said to Tom, ‘Father, is it legal?’
“‘Yes, it’s legal,’ Tom answered.
“Tom went on down the altar and served all of the other people kneeling there. And then he came back to the reluctant man and said, ‘What’s your name?’
“The man replied, ‘Josh.’
“Tom placed the elements of the Lord’s Supper before him and said, ‘Josh, here is the body of Christ, and here is the blood of Christ given for you. Eat this and drink this in the remembrance that Christ came for you and Christ died for you. Amen.’
“Josh blinked back the tears in his eyes, and he received Holy Communion. Then, Tom knelt and handed Josh the trays of bread and wine and said, ‘Now, you serve me.’
“Josh nervously took the trays, and again he asked, ‘Father, are you sure this is legal?’
“‘Yes, it’s legal. Please serve me,’ Tom replied.
“Josh’s eyes were darting from side to side as he looked over one shoulder and then the other, as if he expected at any moment the police, the FBI, the CIA, or an Episcopal Bishop, would come rushing in to stop him, or worse, arrest him.
“Finally, Josh held the trays toward Tom, and as Tom received the Sacrament, Josh muttered, ‘Body – blood – for you. Hang in there!’
“Tom said later, ‘Of all the Communion rituals I have ever heard, I don’t recall the words “hang in there” in any of them. But at that moment for me, Holy Communion had never been more “holy.”’”
(story edited from James Moore, God Was Here & I Was Out To Lunch, pp. 45-46)
On this day, in this church, we affirm that Josh, and Tom, and everyone else, is welcome to come to Jesus’ table to receive his gifts. It is good to know that many other churches around the world, especially on this day of openness and unity, feel the same way.
(Message delivered by Rev. David McAllister on October 6, 2019 and posted on October 21, 2019)
Do You Believe It?
To preach on Easter Sunday is a privilege. To preach on Easter Sunday is a daunting challenge. To preach on Easter Sunday can be downright scary, even after all of these years.
The church, any church, is usually much fuller than on other Sundays of the year. This is the case with us, as you can see. And yes, people come in expectation of not only an uplifting worship experience, and the choir and musicians always help us a lot in that area, but people also expect a dynamic sermon. It should be good; after all, it is Easter. It should be a highlight sermon of the year.
And so, I sat and pondered these dynamics earlier this week. If I preach really well, you all will be pleased, and perhaps even touched in some way. On the other hand, if I bomb in my sermon, does that mean Easter is somehow a failure? And that one thought got me going…
For you see, this is God’s day. This is the day that God made, and this incredible event that happened almost two thousand years ago, that we celebrate again this morning, is God’s doing. It was God who raised Jesus to new life. It was God who left the tomb empty. It was God’s marvelous, miraculous, incredible act that took place in the early morning hours of that day.
And so, let me be frank; there is nothing that I can say or do to improve upon what God did. I may offer a great sermon, and you may like it, and you may even tell me I did great, but I can never outdo God. Or, I may end up boring you to the depth of your being, and leave you longing to just go have another helping of breakfast, but nothing I fail to do can diminish the powerful, mysterious, miraculous action of God on that morning long ago.
For you see, the resurrection is so much bigger than one sermon, one service, one day. The resurrection has eternal promise written all over it.
Let’s begin by looking at what the Gospel writers did with the events of that morning. We read the story from John’s Gospel, but the other three are similar in that they are rather sketchy, rather vague, and not all that detailed. In John’s version, they discover the empty tomb, first Mary Magdalene, and then the two disciples. Then, after Peter and John have gone back home, Mary takes a second look. There are two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. You might think this is pretty big stuff, but compared with the sky being filled with angels at the announcement to the shepherds of the birth of Jesus, these two are really pretty nonchalant. “Woman,” they ask, “why are you crying?” They don’t say in their best, deep voice, “Jesus has risen!” They don’t say, “Celebrate, it’s resurrection time!” No, they simply ask a question. And under normal circumstances, it would seem to be an insensitive question. A woman is crying in a cemetery, at the opening to a tomb. Why do you think she is crying? Especially since the body is missing. But, of course, the angels know something greater is going on. And so, when they ask, “why are you crying?” the unspoken part of the sentence is that “he told you he would rise again, don’t you remember?” The good news is there, but the tears have silenced it.
Then, Mary turns to see a figure who John is quick to let us know is Jesus, but whom she doesn’t recognize, and assumes is the gardener. And he too asks, “Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” And if we are paying attention, all the clues are there. Finally, when he speaks her name, “Mary,” it all comes together, she recognizes His voice, and the celebration begins. Indeed, she goes to the disciples to share the news: “I have seen the Lord!”
Now today, we hang on those elements of the story that speak of life. And yet, the celebration builds slowly those two thousand years ago. There is none of the fanfare of the entrance on Palm Sunday. There isn’t the drama like when Lazarus came walking out of the tomb as Jesus called him back to life. There aren’t a lot of fireworks and shouts of joy accompanying this event. Even after all the miracles that Jesus performed, this one, this Resurrection, was almost too much to believe.
So, even the Gospel writers, whose work has lasted all these centuries, and whose writings are among the most published of all time, they write a somewhat mild, low-key if you will, description of the events, so then this sermon, if less than brilliant, might be okay anyway. And maybe that is the point after all. For you see, the Resurrection stands on its own. The resurrection is such a special moment, such an unique event, such a magnificent, fantastic, dramatic, breathtaking, spectacular event, that it is almost beyond description. Resurrection isn’t something to just look at, it is something to be experienced.
It’s like the beautiful stained-glass windows that surround us. Now I could preach about these on the west wall, and have noted them in sermons before, but mainly they speak on their own. And the one behind all of you, that I gaze at every Sunday, it too has some elements that could find their way into a sermon, but again, it speaks more powerfully if I just allow it to do that on its own.
But the one behind the cross up here, it proclaims the Resurrection, the light of the world, the power of God. Yes, it is there for us to see, to experience, to draw into ourselves, yet no amount of preaching or explanation will make it any more spectacular. The spectacular happens when its message enters your heart.
And so, if the Resurrection is its own sermon, what is left for us? There is one question for us, actually. Do you believe it?
It is the most incredible news you will ever hear, but do you believe it? It really, truly happened, but do you believe it? It is what we have celebrated for over two thousand years, but do you really believe it?
As we opened our worship, I shared the brief story about the minister who heard, truly heard, for the first time, that he was a new creation in Christ. And he believed it.
Do you believe in the Resurrection? Do you believe in the marvelous, incredible power of a loving God who raised Jesus to new life?
That is what the Gospel writers are sharing with us. That is the message that the church has proclaimed for centuries. And I say it to you again this morning - Christ rose on the third day, he appeared to Mary and the disciples. He has touched countless lives ever since. And as I stand here, I can say, that I do indeed believe it.
If you are not yet sure, then let the truth continue to unfold within you. Let the stirrings of life, of resurrection, move around within you, such that you will come to know and proclaim for yourself that Christ is risen.
God raised Jesus to new and eternal life, and God gives to us that gift as well. Christ is risen! Christ Lives! And we sing Alleluia!
(Posted by Rev. David McAllister on April 23, 2019)
April Fools' Day
I remember, as a youngster, finding great glee in April Fools’ Day. Who doesn’t want to pull one over on their parents, and when everyone is scrambling around getting ready for work and school, what’s a more perfect time? After all, the success of April Fools’ Day pranks depends upon people not having time to really think about things, and especially upon one not realizing it is April 1st.
So, things like, “I can’t find my homework,” and “I need twenty dollars for the field trip,” and “you are supposed to meet with my teacher today at 10:00,” can all be disconcerting to a parent who is fixing breakfast or trying to get ready for work. Then, wait for it, “April Fools’.”
Of course, the flip side of that for me was to pay such careful attention at school that classmates wouldn’t be able to fool me. As I recall, the crafty ones still got me, and I may have gotten a few of the ones who were less crafty than even I was.
Nowadays though, most things seem so serious, and life is so stressful, that I don’t really plan any pranks. I mean, we could have had people show up at 10:00 and said to them, “What breakfast?” or had them come at 10:45 only to find a note on the door proclaiming, “April Fools’.” But those would have been counter-productive to being the church, to being a church family, and so they wouldn’t have served any good purpose.
I have begun with this “foolish” part of today, because that is, in essence, what the Romans tried to do in referring to the followers of Jesus. The Romans killed Jesus, and were secure in calling his followers a bunch of fools. Of course, come that morning on the first day of the week, very early on that day, it became obvious that something was going on, something beyond what the Romans had believed could have ever happened. Either someone had stolen Jesus’ body, or, don’t say it, it’s too outrageous, he actually rose like he said he would.
Interestingly, that first one, that Jesus’ body had not necessarily been stolen but had at least been removed, was one of the options Mary Magdalene considered. When she is met with the questions, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”, she supposes the person asking is the gardener, and says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Now I don’t suggest that Jesus himself pulled off a really good April Fools’ Day joke, but his presence there, in the early morning mist, when only the gardener would have been expected to be roaming about, works just like one. But instead of revealing some kind of trick, Jesus reveals himself, simply by calling Mary by name.
With that, Mary recognizes the risen Jesus, and after a few moments together, returns to tell the good news to the disciples - “I have seen the Lord!”
Now Peter and John had run to the tomb when Mary first told them that someone had taken the body out of the tomb, while the rest of the disciples waited to hear their eyewitness account, which was of finding only the strips of linen and the burial cloth, but no Jesus. And now, Mary comes to them with something else entirely, saying that she has seen more, has actually seen Jesus alive.
Now if it had been me, after hearing the news from the first two, I think I would have asked Mary to take me to Jesus, so that I could see for myself. After all, we have moved from the first option, that someone had stolen or removed the body, to the second, more outrageous, option, that Jesus had actually risen from the dead.
Then, that night, Jesus comes and stands among the disciples, and gives to them his peace. Jesus, who had died – Jesus, who had been buried – Jesus, who was sealed inside the tomb – Jesus, whose body was nowhere to be found – Jesus, whom Mary claimed had come to her in the early morning mist – Jesus, appeared to them as well.
They now knew that this was no joke, no attempt to fool them. Here he was, standing in their midst. Jesus, risen from the dead.
Now, truth be told, that is still a rather outrageous claim to make. Not for you and me perhaps. After all, we are here. But even being here, don’t we too want to hear the story once again? Don’t we too want to be told the good news once again? Don’t we want to know for sure that it is true, that Jesus Christ is risen? Common sense, after all, tells us that this can’t possibly be true. This just couldn’t happen.
Now, we can understand new life. We can understand, and indeed witness, a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. We see buds on trees, and flowers blooming. We understand new life emerging. We see bulbs in the ground that appear to be dead, but from whom leaves and flowers emerge. We can understand new life. But new human life? That just can’t happen, right? How does that work?
It does defy so much of our human experience, thereby asking us to take a step in faith. The Romans weren’t able to take that step. They believed, knew, that Jesus’ followers were fools for believing this nonsense. And indeed, there are still those who consider Christians to be fools for believing that Jesus indeed rose from the dead. But we are a blessed people. We are part of the family where Jesus reigns as Christ, our Messiah. We in our faith know, without a doubt, that that incredible event, almost too good to be true, was indeed true. It was no trick. It was, and is, real.
We have believed in the power of God, bringing forth the new life Jesus experienced, coming to us as the best news ever. And I know it is true, because I have experienced the power of Christ in my own life.
And let those who won’t take that step in faith call me a fool. I would rather other people consider me as such, than for God to say to me later, “I gave you this gift, and yet you considered it mere foolishness.”
Yes, we are a blessed people. We have stepped closer to our God, accepting the greatest gift of all eternity, His Son, and we can truly believe that Jesus Christ has risen. For He has risen indeed.
(Posted by Rev. David McAllister on April 2, 2018)
What would you do with $50?
Most of you have probably heard this parable, the parable of the talents, at least a couple of times. When Jesus told it of course, as with his other stories and parables, he wasn’t just telling a story, but he was inviting people into the story. He was always inviting the hearers to imagine their place in the story.
Now, we could see ourselves as the harsh, demanding landowner, to start. If you crave power, that may be your choice. Or, if you want to seem as much like God as anyone in the parable, then the landowner would be your choice as well.
But I think what Jesus really wants us to think about is the three individuals to whom the money is entrusted. The first two, of course, double the money given to them. That’s a pretty good return in just about any setting. I know I would be happy with that.
After all, if you are making one percent on any savings account that you have, then you are doing better than just about anyone else. If you are making six to seven percent in the stock market, then you are doing well there too.
Now I admit that Jesus in the story says that the landowner came back “after a long time” away, and so profits may have compounded for those two people, but still, a one hundred percent return is very impressive indeed.
And, since they have shown themselves to be responsible with what they were given, which in today’s financial valuations equals about $5000 for the first man and $2000 for the second man, then they are given responsibility for more of their master’s affairs.
Then…then we come to the third guy. He was afraid of the landowner, afraid of his boss. Now before we start to get down on him too hard, have any of you ever been afraid of your boss, afraid that you could lose your job that you need so much? Have you ever been afraid of making mistakes and getting fired because of them?
Maybe not. Oh, but maybe so.
In any case, the third man is afraid. He knows his master’s reputation. So, he hides the money under his mattress. Maybe he just didn’t trust banks. After all, there was no FDIC insurance back then. But for whatever reason, he hides the money so that he can return it to the master intact, not one penny missing, well, not one drachma that is. And the master blows up at him. Then, as if to add insult to injury, the master takes the money, and gives it to the man who started with five and ended up with ten. Now do you hear that? He gives it to the one who has ten. That implies that each kept the money they ended up with. So, not only does the third guy lose face and gets fired, but he has the original money taken away from him, where he could have ended up with that one talent plus a little interest.
So, where do you see yourself in the story? I would expect that many of you would say you are the first person, who was dancing all the way to the bank. But maybe you see yourself as the second person, still having a job, but not in the financial department, or even the third person, walking out the back door with head hanging low, trying to not see any of your friends.
A teacher once asked a class of students, at the end of the school term, what they each thought they deserved in his class. The students came forward one by one and gave the grade they thought they deserved to the teacher. Then, when the grades were posted, each student got exactly what they said they believed they deserved.
Now, if you were honest and really thought you deserved a “B,” then you got that, and should have been satisfied. But if you were clever and thought, “If this guy is going to ask, well then I’m going to say I deserve an ‘A’ even if I don’t, because perhaps I will be rewarded for my resourceful thinking.” After all, the worst that could happen in such a situation would be that the teacher would say, “You have got to be kidding, you delusional student, you’re getting a “C” and lucky to be getting that.” But other than that reprimand, what did the student lose?
Getting back to the parable, what would you lose by going ahead and saying that you see yourself as the first person in the parable?
Now I would still say that honesty is the best policy, but creativity and cleverness have their place in life as well. And I am going to give you an opportunity now to be creative, and perhaps even clever.
I wish I had the funds to do this in reality instead of in the hypothetical, but in your imagination I am going to give each of you $50 now, and you think about what you would do with it, because I expect you to do something with it and bring the results to me at the end of four weeks. Think about it. What would you do with that $50 in order to bring the returns back in a month?
Are you the first person in the story; the second person; the third person?
And let’s make this even better, let’s say that God, and not me, has entrusted you with money, with the $50. What would you do? For God, you know, has entrusted you with more than you realize.
It is interesting, of course, that in the reading in most translations, it is “talents” that are given by the master to the three persons. A talent would be worth, as I said earlier, about $1000 in our day. But it wasn’t lost on the youth that the word can also be used to speak of our skills, of things we are good at, of gifts that God has given us.
So, what God-given talents will you use in order to bring a return from the $50 that has been entrusted to you?
(Posted by Rev. David McAllister on May 9, 2016)
Forgiveness is such an interesting, and at times evasive, quality. We read about it repeatedly in the Bible. We pray about it often, in word and song: such as, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” - words, which I think at times hold great meaning for us, and at times stand in danger of becoming only words which we speak from memory and even in boredom.
Forgiveness. It’s hard to argue with it much. We long to feel God’s forgiveness ourselves. We want it. And, we hear Jesus’ commands to forgive one another.
There are really only two things that trip us up with forgiveness. The first one is, “Who can you not forgive? Who has done something, which is for you, unforgivable?” And the second issue with forgiveness is how many times we are supposed to do it. Peter asked that question of Jesus way back then. We still ask it. Even when we know the answer that Jesus gave Peter, which essentially was that the number of times is endless, we ask sometimes hoping that Jesus might give us a lesser number to achieve.
If Jesus ever had any reservations about the limits of forgiveness, he set them aside when, on the cross, he spoke words that echoed in people’s ears and hearts: “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Forgive them, because they have no idea about the consequences of their actions.
How often do we do things and then say, “Oh, I’m sorry, forgive me, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” We too do things without thinking. We too say and do things without having an idea as to their impact on others.
Among those for whom Jesus intended forgiveness in those powerful words he spoke, was one who denied even knowing Jesus, and who did so three times.
Peter was scared. He was afraid for his own life. He was looking out for his own skin. And in some sense, he didn’t fully know what he was doing.
Jesus had told him, of course, that Peter would deny knowing him, three times before the cock crowed, three times before morning. Peter wouldn’t believe it, until of course he heard the cock crow and realized that Jesus’ horrible prediction had come true.
But with Jesus, forgiveness came naturally. Remember back earlier in his travels with the disciples, when the woman caught in adultery was brought before him? He didn’t negate the fact that she had sinned. Nor did he preach a sermon about sin and forgiveness. He simply invited the one who was there, who was without sin, to begin her punishment by casting the first stone at her. No one could do it. They all knew they had sinned in some way or other. Jesus didn’t condemn her either; he forgave her. Then he told her to go on her way, and to not sin again.
When we are forgiven, when someone graciously says, or God says, “I forgive you, because I truly believe that you did not know what you were doing,” then we are given a second chance.
And when we are forgiven, then what? We know, of course. We are to go about changing our lives.
Jesus told the woman whose life was spared to go and not sin again. Go and do things differently. Go and live differently. Go and be different.
And when we are forgiven, when we are given a second chance, then we too are to accept the gift and to go and be different. For truly, when we fully receive that forgiveness, when it touches the depths of our hearts, then we can hardly help but set out to be a changed person.
(Posted by Rev. David McAllister on April 5, 2016)