John 17:1-11 – Prayer-paration

When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created. 

“I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. “I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. 

I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one.

I made up a word to title this sermon. “Prayer-paration” is meant to remind us of “preparation.” Because, in the passage for today, Jesus offers a prayer that seeks to prepare his disciples for what is about to happen. Before he goes, he spends some time in “prayer-paration.”

Here’s what I think is so cool about this passage – when Jesus knows he is about to die, when he knows he will never see his best friends again, he prays for them; and, as he says in verse 20, he prays for us. (“I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word.)

Knowing that he is about to be arrested, tried, and crucified, Jesus leaves his disciples with final, encouraging words. He has to prepare them for what is coming. He could have stirred up their anger (“We’re right! They’re wrong! You must avenge my death!”). He could have to them to run and hide until everything settles down, then resume his work. He could have given up and encouraged the 12 to do the same (“We made a good effort, but it just didn’t work. Good try, fellas!”)

In the end, Jesus prayed and asked his Heavenly Father to protect these disciples (and us) “so that they may be one” as he and his Father are one. It’s all about unity.

In order to prepare them for the storm that is coming, Jesus asks God to unify his disciples (and us). Perhaps he had the words of Ecclesiastes in mind?

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their hard work. If either should fall, one can pick up the other. But how miserable are those who fall and don’t have a companion to help them up! Also, if two lie down together, they can stay warm. But how can anyone stay warm alone? Also, one can be overpowered, but two together can put up resistance. A three-ply cord doesn’t easily snap.

I might have said it before, but unity does not mean unison. A good choir does not always sing the same notes in the same rhythm as part of the melody. Most of the time a good choir will sing in harmony – different, but related notes that contribute to the beauty of the melody. Even singing in harmony, their unity is clear.

Too often we mistake unity for unison. To be in unity is to be stronger, like a “three-ply cord.” Too many people believe that strength comes only when everybody thinks, says, or does the same thing; only by acting in unison (usually with the directions of a leader) can we survive any threats we might face.

The immediate future for these twelve disciples was extremely threatening. All through his ministry, Jesus had acted on behalf of God’s call for justice and mercy in stark contrast to the Roman rule of persecution and oppression. So, when the Jewish authorities would arrange to “hold Jesus still” while the Roman fist could “pound him,” the disciples might scatter! Naturally,  they would seek safety, maybe in hiding.

Remember, Jesus is praying for us, too. What do we do when we face similar threats (if we even do)? Honestly, I think that most of the things we see as threats are just concocted to make us afraid, so that we Christians will be more docile, more “leadable.”

When we face the more insidious threats of apathy, greed, callousness, what do we do? We do the equivalent of “hiding.” We throw up our hands and say, “What can we do? People never change! Some people just don’t want to be helped!” Rather than face those threats together, we give up. We hide our true strength and faith behind cynicism.

But Jesus prays.

Jesus doesn’t face this challenge as a football coach at halftime; this is no locker room pep-talk! This is a prayer!

Jesus seeks divine help for a challenge that his disciples (and we) cannot face alone! We need God! Without unity, we will not survive. Without many people, using many gifts, working together in harmony, we will not survive. God must act upon us in order to make that happen. Left to our own devices, we will hide, scatter, vilify the enemy, attack with vengeance, anything but work in unity.

This is why we pray:

  •  We pray seeking God’s help in hard times.
  • Prayer changes us much more than it ever changes God! When we pray, we see things differently. We see that there is a level of activity above the human.
  • When we pray, we acknowledge that we “can’t do it alone.”
  • Indeed, when we pray we are never praying alone. As Paul reminds us, “In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans.” (Romans 8:26)

We pray simply what is on our hearts. The unity we seek is not just between humans, but also with God. We might stumble on “what’s mine is yours, and yours is mine” and “I am in you and you are in me,” but it means that Jesus shares a deep intimacy with God. He wants us to share that intimacy, too.

So, we are not just one with each other, but one with God.

When we worry about “what should I pray about?” Know that we can pray about whatever we might talk about with our most intimate friend. Whatever we are worried about. Whatever we need help with. Whatever we are happy about. Whatever we are thankful for.

That is unity – with God and one another.

That is the prayer that prepares us for hard times.

If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you know that, even the best have some expectations. Each partner is expected to do certain things, perform certain duties, show their affection in certain ways. I learned this early in life – in the 2nd grade. I learned all about relationships from my 2nd grade girlfriend, Claudia.

There I was, minding my own business when a note landed on my desk. I looked up to see Claudia passing by on her way to the pencil sharpener. Checking to make sure no one was looking (you know how teachers are – “Mr. Freeman, perhaps you would like to share that note with the whole class?”), I opened it:

“I like you.

Do you like me?

Check yes or no.

___ yes ____ no”

Yes. I am the guy George Strait wrote the song about! As she sharpened her pencil, Claudia was “staring a hole through” me, nodding her head. She meant “check yes or no now.”

I checked yes, of course. What self-respecting, 2nd grade, man-about-town would not? What would Greg Brady do? As easy as that – I had a girlfriend! We executed a flawless hand-off on her way back to her desk. That was that! Or so I thought.

A few weeks later, at the Halloween Carnival, I was taking in the “Haunted House” (Which we all knew was Mrs. McCool’s fourth grade classroom. We weren’t dummies!). Someone grabbed my arm as I was leaving the “Brains and Eyeballs” room. They pulled me behind the curtain just before the empty coffin room (special thanks to Collier-Butler Funeral Home for the donation). It was Claudia’s older, much tougher sister, Lisa.

“You the kid who likes my sistah?” I should tell you, at this point, that Claudia and her family were new to our school. They “weren’t from around here” as we might say. “I hear they’re from New York,” I heard my mother and friends say.

“Um, yes?”

“We need to tuwahlk. We don’t think you’re paying her enough attention, if you know what I mean.”

“We? We who?” I stammered.

“The family. Her sistahs,” she answered, putting her arm around my shoulder, walking me toward the next curtain (mannequin dressed like Dracula, thanks to Hagedorn’s Department store). “We want you to be nice to Claudia, you know? Walk with her. Sit with her at lunch. Talk to her at recess. Maybe you could give her your turn on the teetah-tottah.”

“The what?”

“The see-saw, moron!” We had arrived at the back window of the classroom and Lisa motioned out to the bike rack. “Do you know my boyfriend?”

Burt. Oh sure, I knew Burt. A sixth-grader. He was a Patrol Boy. If “Star Wars” existed in 1971, Patrol Boys would have been “Stormtroopers” and Burt “Darth Vader.” No one messed with Patrol Boys, with their helmets and badges and those yellow flags on those long, bamboo poles. They ruled the parking lot – before and after school.

As Burt looked at us through the window, Lisa gave an almost imperceptible nod. Burt held up a yellow Ticonderoga pencil – and snapped it in half!

“I’m glad we’ve had this little tuwahlk,” Lisa said. Turning me to face her and patting my cheek, she ended “I think we’ve come to an understanding. You have fun out there tonight.”

Love has expectations. It should come as no surprise. If you love someone, you act in certain ways – hopefully without the threat of a 6th grade tough guy. Yet, we Christians are fond of saying that Jesus’ love is unconditional; there are no conditions placed on his love for us. That’s true. We never earn Christ’s love. He died for us “while we were yet sinners, that proves God’s love for us.”

But, there are certain ways that we Christians should act once we profess our love for Christ. In his last moments with the disciples, Jesus talked about that – about how to act once we enter a relationship with him:

John 14:15-21 (CEB)

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 I will ask the Father, and he will send another Companion,[a] who will be with you forever. 17 This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.

18 “I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you. 19 Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them loves me. Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments . . .” That was hard enough for the twelve guys who walked around with Jesus for three years. Time and time again, they messed up. They misinterpreted Jesus’ words. They got self-righteous, argued about status, got scared. If they couldn’t do it, how are we supposed to?

Once we profess our love for Jesus, there are expectation placed in us, namely “keep his commandments.” Do what he says to do!

We’re not doing a very good job of it. Do I have to remind you of the hate and fear that passes for Christian action. I cannot conceive how those who profess love for Christ can spew such hate for God’s children. If they proclaim to follow Christ, then they conveniently forget his call to feed, house, and care for the “least of these.” Some who claim to be Christian pray out loud as the Publican in Luke 18 – “Lord, thank you that I am not like them!”

Elsewhere, John writes a letter (1 John 4) and explains more about the expectations of love:

  • People who love Christ aren’t afraid: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.”
  • This love doesn’t start with us, it comes from God. “We love because God first loved us. 20 If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. 21 This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.”

Good news! Jesus will not leave us to do this “commandment following” all by ourselves. He speaks of another Companion. He, of course, is the first “companion.” The Holy Spirit is the other one. Everything the Holy Spirit will do is something that Jesus has already done.

This chapter begins with Jesus saying, among other things, that he is “the way, the truth and the life.” That word, translated as “way,” also means “practice.” Jesus isn’t entirely a “path” to God, but the actual behaviors the practice of holiness.

If we wish to know how to “keep his commandments,” we must simply go back and read the gospels. Then, act as Jesus acted. Tall order, but one that we never do alone

We fulfill these expectation with the help of others. Hebrews 10:24-25 (Amplified Bible) says:

And let us considerandgive[d]attentive, continuous care to watching over one another, studying how we may stir up (stimulate and incite) to loveandhelpful deedsandnoble activities,

25 Not forsakingorneglecting to assemble together [as believers], as is the habit of some people, but admonishing (warning, urging, and encouraging) one another, and all the more faithfully as you see the day approaching.

Not only do we have spiritual help, we ought also to have the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ!

This leads me to a question – for whom am I this kind of Companion? If I am called to follow the commandments of Christ, and he is sending a Companion to help me, then how do I help others? How do I “stir up, stimulate, and incite” others to “love and helpful deeds and noble activities?”

If one of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to prevent us from being “orphaned,” then it stands to reason that we are to be each other’s Companions, or advocates. Emilie Townes, Dean of the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, says we need friends who “tell us when they see pieces of us drifting away.”

Not only ought we try to be each others’ Companions, but we ought to seek out those people who could be our Companions.

In doing so, we would truly live a life like Christ, not lording our holiness over one another, not intimidating one another into compliance, but accompanying others along the way of Jesus.

Milk, Stones, and Radical Priests – 2 Peter 2:1-10

Peter’s first letter was written to new Christians, scattered throughout the land. These particular “new Christians” were former Gentiles. They were not Jewish, and had no background in the historic faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They didn’t know of Moses, or the Law and the Prophets. Peter couldn’t use traditional stories of Exodus or the Kings to illustrate what he needed to teach.

So, in this passage in particular, he strings together seemingly unrelated metaphors to teach his readers about their faith. He chooses milk, stones, and priests as images to teach his readers what it looks like to follow God. They are images that he took from his faith, from what he had learned – and they became a bridge to reach a new group of people.

By looking at this passage, we can see the same. We are reminded of the need to “translate” the faith into understandable terms, maybe terms we are not accustomed to using. We must do this in order to reach a new generation of people and make them disciples of Christ.

We are aware of how our world is changing; norms and customs on which we older folks might might have learned to rely no longer apply. The people we are called to reach may not understand, remember, or value the same things we understand, remember, and value. We, ourselves, may feel so tossed around and confused that we need new terms by which to understand how to live as Christians in the world.

Jesus did as Peter does in this letter. Jesus used items and images that his hearers would understand. So, let’s look at Peter’s three images and see if maybe our imaginations will be stirred.

1 Peter 2:1-10 

Therefore, get rid of all ill will and all deceit, pretense, envy, and slander. Instead, like a newborn baby, desire the pure milk of the word. Nourished by it, you will grow into salvation, since you have tasted that the Lord is good. 

Now you are coming to him as to a living stone. Even though this stone was rejected by humans, from God’s perspective it is chosen, valuable. You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. You are being made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Thus it is written in scripture:

Look! I am laying a cornerstone in Zion, chosen, valuable. The person who believes in him will never be shamed.

So God honors you who believe. For those who refuse to believe, though, the stone the builders tossed aside has become the capstone. This is a stone that makes people stumble and a rock that makes them fall. Because they refuse to believe in the word, they stumble. Indeed, this is the end to which they were appointed. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

“Therefore . . .”

The thoughts that follow are connected to something that written before. In 1:22-23, Peter says that believers are set apart from others by their salvation. They are to love each other “deeply and earnestly”. Therefore they are to rid themselves of the things that get in the way of loving each other in that way – “Ill will, deceit, pretense, envy, and slander.”

“Instead . . .”

If they aren’t to act like they acted before they were “set apart” by belief in Christ, how are they to act?

Desire the pure milk of the word.”

We hear that phrase and assume that Peter is talking about Scripture. The only problem is that the people who received this letter didn’t read.  They were Gentiles, former pagans, so they did not know Scripture. Even if they knew of the Scriptures, even if they wanted to read them, even if they knew how to read them, they couldn’t. The Scriptures were located inside the Temple or synagogue.

Why would Peter encourage them to do something that they would never have been able to do?  “Pure milk of the word” must mean something else.

There are people in our world, our town, who have the same relationship to Scripture.

They may not even know what a Bible is. They may not understand the words on the page (depending on the translation, their “first language,” or their comprehension). They may believe that only preachers read the Bible.  They may have decided that the Bible is not something they should be interested in.  When we encourage them to believe, maybe there is a step before “read the Bible.”

Maybe the first step is to help them see the Bible in us.  

“A living stone . . .” 

The stone Peter describes is living, rejected by humans, but chosen and valuable to God. These stones are being made into a temple – the physical reminder of the presence of God.  Is there a better description of us – or any potential disciples?

Rejection is powerful – whether it comes from others directed toward us or comes from us directed at parts of our own life we’d rather not acknowledge. All of us, any part of us, that is rejected is never rejected by God! In fact, any or all things rejected by us or by others is chosen and valuable to God!

 Before we instruct others to read the Bible, we must first show how the Bible’s words have come to life in us! 

We must be the living, breathing, chosen and valuable presence of God!

But we are also a “stone that makes people stumble and a rock that makes the fall.” More often than not, our example is counterproductive. We are most often and example of how not to live.

“A holy priesthood . . . A royal priesthood . . .”

The idea that we formerly non-believing, formerly rejected, lost people could become the means by which God is known to this world is radical!  “Radical” means a far-reaching and thorough change to the fundamental nature of something. That is exactly what has happened here. The whole reason we are set apart, made into the visible and living stones which build the presence of God, is so that “we may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called us out of darkness into his amazing light.”

Putting it all together:

Once we are saved by God’s grace, and put aside all the evil actions of non-believers, we desire – we crave – the sustenance that God provides. (Like a baby wants milk.) The way we get that sustenance is through the living and active faith of others – as they become the presence of God, so do we. All of us together become a “spiritual temple” through which all others can experience the God’s wonderful mercy and amazing grace.

Going from “rejected” to “chosen,” from “no people” to “God’s people,” makes a radical change in us. By our actions, we call others out of darkness into light.

Whoever – John 10:2-10

John 10:2-10

I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying. So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.

Let’s talk about doors. That’s what Jesus really says here, “I am the door.” Translators uses the word “gate” because it better fits with the whole “sheep” and “pasture” thing.

Let’s take this building for example – I can’t even count the number of doors we’ve got in here! There are standard wooden doors, glass doors, big sanctuary doors, little doors, wide doors, narrow doors. Doors take many shapes and sizes. Doors separate “inside” from “outside;” doors control who passes between.

Jesus uses that image, of “in” and “out,” but it terms of sheep being “in” or “out” of the pasture. He is the gate that allows passage.

We, in our own, controlling way, tend to picture Jesus as a “locked door.” He only opens to those who have the right “key.” That key changes from church to church or culture to culture. For most of us, that “key” has a name – “salvation.” Like he says, “whoever enters through me will be saved.”

Then, there are some who add an extra layer of security, another “key.”

  •  A certain belief
  • A political point of view
  • A certain stance on social issues
  • How much money we make
  • Who we love
  • What kind of clothes we wear
  • The color of our skin

I don’t know about sheep, but we humans like to congregate with other humans who are like us.  We prefer to surround ourselves with others who don’t really challenge us, or expand our horizons. It’s more comfortable that way; we’d just like to stand over here and graze, too much challenge gives us indigestion.

Yeah. Yeah. We know, “Jesus is the door,” but let’s be real. Some of us see Jesus more like a “bouncer,” or a security guard – keeping out, or throwing out, all the “undesirables.”

We miss one, little thing though – “whoever.”

“I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:9)

We think Jesus’ door has a heavy lock; we are constantly reminded by some of our Christian brothers and sisters that “Jesus is the only way.” That’s true, but we forget that Jesus says “whoever enters through me will be saved.”

We don’t get to “pick and choose” who is “in” or “out” of the pasture – Jesus does. And he says whoever believes in him can come in. Isn’t that what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the “world’s favorite Bible verse” (John 3:16)? “Whosoever believeth in me . . .”

All who enter the sheepfold through Jesus are saved; not just the ones we like, or the ones we understand, or who look like us, or act like us,  or love the way we love. Whoever comes to the faith through Jesus will be saved. They will “find pasture.” They will be cared for and nurtured by Christ, the Good Shepherd. 

That one word, whoever, just may be Jesus’ most grace-filled word!

Will the Center Hold?

Jim Harnish – always saying what needs to be said.

Jim Harnish

Things Fall Apart 

Perhaps W. B. Yeats got it right.  In the aftermath of the horrendous slaughter of WWI and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, he wrote:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.  (The Second Coming)

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In his newly-released history of civil religion (American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present), Philip Gorski says that our problem is that “the chorus of shouting drowns out the quieter voices of the vital center.”  He calls for “a new vital center” that isn’t “a mushy middle that splits the difference between Left and Right.  It is a living tradition that cuts across these divisions…something much older and also more radical.”  

When it comes to our nation, I’d say that both Yeats…

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Luke 24:13-35 – A Walk to Remember

Luke tells us it is about 7 miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. I do a lot of walking, about 4 miles whenever I go out. I takes me about an hour. That’s trying to walk fast, though, trying to work up a sweat. So, walking at a normal pace, with practice, 7 miles is doable. If we live an active life, some of us might get close and not even realize it. The distance from Jerusalem to Emmaus is not the problem . . . but that’s not the only journey Cleopas and his friend are on.

They are also traveling between despair and faith. These two travelers are taking a journey from “We had hoped” (vs. 21) to “weren’t our hearts on fire?” It’s a journey we all must take. We all must take a walk from despair to faith, from dashed hopes to inspired lives, from lost to found. By looking more closely at this story, we find a roadmap from making that trip.

Why did Luke include this story? We can read from verse 12 to verse 36 – leaving out the Emmaus story – and barely miss a beat. It’s almost as if Luke has inserted a story in another story. Maybe he wanted to remind all of us – even those not in Jesus’ inner circle, the average believers as opposed to the more important disciples – that Jesus has risen for us, too.

If we examine the story, it becomes a kind of allegory for the faith journey. We see the path that we all must take.

Luke 24:13-35 (CEB)

 13 On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. 15 While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. 16 They were prevented from recognizing him.

17 He said to them, “What are you talking about as you walk along?” They stopped, their faces downcast.

18 The one named Cleopas replied, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?”

19 He said to them, “What things?”

They said to him, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. 20 But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. 21 We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. 22 But there’s more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 and didn’t find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn’t see him.”

25 Then Jesus said to them, “You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. 26  Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

28 When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead.29 But they urged him, saying, “Stay with us. It’s nearly evening, and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”

33 They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying to each other, “The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!” 35 Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.

The journey from despair to faith sometimes begins with an argument. That’s what the two men were doing. The English translation makes it sound like they were two professors rationally discussing a lecture that had recently heard. In Greek, the words used for “discussing” and “talking about” were words usually describing sermons (homileo) or debates (antiballette; “to place against”). This was no “small talk,” or calm conversation. They were not talking about the weather. Cleopas and his friend were preaching and debating what had happened in Jerusalem. By using these words, Luke tells us that this was a sermon designed to persuade, and argument with a “winner” and a “loser.”

They were emotionally and powerfully laying out their points, trying to convince each other of what had happened.  Totally engrossed in this debate and sermon, they do not even notice a man approach; they don’t even notice that he is the very man they were preaching and debating about. (Maybe they’d never actually seen Jesus? Only heard of him?)

When Jesus arrives, I like to imagine him describing the discussion like any good Southerner would – “What in the world were y’all fussing about!?” I also like to imagine Cleopas responding like any of us might, “Are you serious? What rock have you been living under?”

Cleopas and his friend, like many of us, were “fussing” about their faith – struggling to hang on to what they believed just a few days ago. Less than a week ago (Luke says “On that same day” – Easter day!), they had high hopes. But, hopes get dashed, especially in the real world. Dreams we have for ourselves or for our families, for our jobs or for our security, fall to the wayside as reality takes over.

The two travelers had hoped Jesus would be the one to take their people out of oppression, lift the burden of Roman rule. “We had hoped . . .” How many times have any of us said those words? Some of the saddest in all of scripture – certainly some of the saddest in all of human experience. “We had hoped . . .”

This is grief. This is loss. This is something that human beings feel on a regular basis, if we are honest with themselves. Plans we have for the future are lost with the death of a loved one, lost in the limitations of life, lost when other people make other choices. Grief and loss are part of life.

Cleopas and his friend, furthermore, can’t believe that the answer might be better than they ever imagine. “But there’s more,” they say, “some women in our group have left us stunned.” Earlier in the chapter, verse 11, Luke uses the word “nonsense” to describe the women’s report. (NRSV uses the phrase “idle tale”) Guess what? The Greek means more! It is a physician’s term (remember, Luke was a physician) for “delirious babblings of very sick people.”

Into this grief-stricken sermon and debate, Jesus arrives. Once again, I think Jesus was a Southerner, because what CEB translates as “You foolish people!” is actually a term of endearment. It’s like Jesus was saying “Bless your heart. Don’t you know . . .”

How did Jesus minister to these grieving men? By explaining the Scriptures. He showed them that God had been working on all this since the time of the Old Testament prophets – even since the days of Moses!

Jesus teaches them a lesson we can all learn. When lost in grief, trapped in despair, Scriptures show us the way out. Jesus doesn’t try to move too quickly past their pain, like we do sometimes, but dives right in. Walks with them, enters their “sermon and debate,” and wrestles with the pain along with them.

Part of what we learn from this journey from despair to faith is that often despair must come before faith. The heart that is broken by pain and confusion often comes before the heart that is burning with passion and calling.

The heart that is broken by pain and confusion often comes before the heart that is burning with passion and calling.

A broken heart is not the end of the journey, but the beginning. We cannot be human without experiencing pain, without suffering a broken heart. It is to us broken-hearted disciples that Christ comes.

When he comes, Jesus teaches in a way that we can understand (through Scripture and debate?). He shows us his presence in the Bread and Wine of Communion. He uses our worship to set us on fire! Jesus takes our broken hearts and makes them burn!

John 20:1-18 – No Good Thing Ever Dies

Have you ever seen “The Shawshank Redemption”? Or read the Steven King short story, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption?” It is a story set in a Post-WWII prison in Maine. Leave it to Steven King to turn a story in that setting into an extended parable on hope.

Andy Dufresne is a young banker, wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife (played by Tim Robbins). Morgan Freeman plays Ellis “Red” Redding, the prison “fixer;” whatever you want, Red can get it for you. He’s a lifer, and older than Andy. Though they are vastly different men, the two form a friendship and begin a long debate on hope.

Red believes, after so many years in the maximum security environment, that “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

After receiving solitary confinement for locking himself in the Warden’s office and playing “The Marriage of Figaro” over the prison loudspeakers, Andy explains his view: “You need music so you don’t forget there’s something inside you that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch hope.”

Andy’s hope drives him to dream of a new life in a quiet, Mexican town on the Pacific Ocean, Zihuatenejo. Not only does he dream, he plans, inspired by this hope, an escape. Over many years, hidden behind a poster of Rita Hayworth (and later of Raquel Welch), he begins to tunnel through the prison wall. His route leads him through a 500-yard long tunnel of sewage, carrying a plastic bag of clothes. His escape becomes legendary to the prisoners, and inspiring to Red.

Long years later, Red is finally paroled. Unsuccessfully, he tries to fit in outside, getting a job as a bagger in a grocery store and living in a halfway house. He thinks about giving up and doing something that will get him sent back to prison – the environment that feels most familiar. But, his memories of Andy – and some of their conversations – leads him to a stone wall, in a field in rural Maine. Red didn’t know it, but Andy’s hope extended to Red, for he had left a letter hidden in that wall, behind a rock “that doesn’t belong there.”

In the letter, there is cash and a call to remember the name of the town – Zihuatenejo. In his letter, Andy says this:

“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

The movie ends with Red walking down the beach to find his friend, Andy, working on a dilapidated old boat. Over that scene, we hear Red’s voice:

“I find I am so excited,  I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it  across. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope. 

Picture Red, leaning back against that stone wall, reading Andy’s letter. Imagine the thoughts running through his head – Do I have the courage to believe? Can I actually do what he proposes? Do I even hope that there is a better life than bagging groceries? Can I even find Zihuatenejo?

Imagine all that, and you are imagining the same thoughts running through the head of Mary, in a garden outside an empty tomb, struggling to hope and grasp the truth that “hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies.”

John 20:1-18 

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” 

Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying. 

Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 

As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” which means Teacher.

 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

We might remember the words of Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all

 Christians know that hope and faith have always been related. “Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.” (Hebrews 11:1, CEB) “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love . . .” (1 Corinthians 13:13) Both were written by the Apostle Paul, who spent a lot of time in prison; maybe one has to reach the end of all human hope to find the hope of faith, the hope of new life?

Modern writer Peter Steinke, in A Door Set Open: a Theology of Hope, says:

  • Hope puts possibility into play
  • Hope is a way of imagining God’s future and persevering in faith that it will arrive.
  • Hope draws us toward the future, directs our focus, arouses our passion, and gives meaning to our actions.
  • Hope is a concrete invitation to act in adventurous ways.

Hope is Zihuatenejo.

Hope is Mary running back to the disciples with the news, “I have seen the Lord!”

Hope is in extremely short supply today.

Many Christians, many churches, are confused. Their focus is not yet directed by hope, their passions not aroused by hope, and their actions meaningless. Many churches have not yet allowed hope to draw them towards God’s future! Many of us might have received God’s invitation to adventure, but put it back in the envelope, and thrown it away.

Often we are “dispirited, bewildered, struggling, conflicted, paddling-as-fast-as-we-can” and we believe all our struggles are our fault. “We’re a bad church, a failing church, a dying church.” Not true.

We are still the same church, called and created by God to be the body of Christ. The world, on the other hand, has decided it no longer needs us.  Steinke says, “it is the end of an era in which the world is eager to be hospitable to Christian churches.”

Maybe the whole Church, capital-C Church, universal Church, all Christians everywhere, find ourselves in the garden, talking to the man we think is the gardener. Maybe we are all a little bit like Red.  Do we dare hope?

The whole point of Easter is that God has proven that all will be put right in the end. Easter means that Jesus took all that we sinful, brutal, blood-thirsty humans could dish out – and still loved us to the end; “Father,  forgive them for they know not what they do.” From the cross, as in life, Jesus looked upon us with compassion, “like sheep without a shepherd.”

That’s the life that God raised from the dead on Easter morning.

Who could see that kind of a miracle and not hope? Who could meet the risen Christ in the garden and not answer the call to adventure?

It’s easy to find the precise moment when Mary’s confusion transformed into hope. It’s when Jesus said her name. Mary. With those two syllables, a confused and frightened woman become a hope-filled disciple – the first evangelist, if you will.

The transformation goes deep. Within the time it took Jesus to instruct her to go tell her “brothers and sisters,” Mary had ceased to see him as just a teacher. In those few seconds, “Rabbouni” turned to “Lord.” By the time she reaches her confused and frightened friends, hope has taken root.

Let’s not leave this place this morning without hearing Jesus call our name. Let us not refuse to listen to the “thing with feathers” sing its unceasing song into our soul.

There is nothing wrong with God’s church. At least, nothing wrong that a little hope couldn’t fix.

Hope that acts. Hope that leaves a farm in Maine and travels to a coastal Mexican town, Zihuatenejo.  Hope that runs to tell the disciples,  to share the Good News.

Hope that hears the call to serve adventurously. Hope that sees the future as God sees the future; not full of broken, dispirited people, but a future where all brokenness has been mended.

 “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”