Now I Believe

A Sermon for Easter 2: Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31
 

I should have known better. After more than 37 years, I just should have known better. Early last week, Angie told me about a nurse, who made a replica of Van Gogh’s Starry Night out of medicine bottle caps. I didn’t believe her. Aren’t all medicine bottle caps white? And don’t they come in just a few sizes. I just didn’t believe it. I should have known better. Later that day she brings me her I-phone, held it out for me to see, as she shared “Here it is!” Who knew there were so many different shades of blue and yellow bottle caps? Who knew someone could be so inspired to sort them all out and glue them so meticulously on canvas size board? Now I know better. Now I believe.

We read from the Bible every week. But we never read a book from beginning to end, and that is our loss. It is like reading bits and pieces of your favorite novel, you get the high points, but you miss the subtle interactions that fill in missing pieces and fill out the richness of the story. Last week I mentioned finding who you are as a character in a bible story as a study method; and that I had seen a character I’d never seen before. The same is true today; kind of, because it’s not a character, but a structure of John’s Gospel. I don’t recall if it was in seminary or college, but I had written a paper, and for whatever reason, I had to go by the professor’s office to pick it up. My professor congratulated me, because I had gotten an A; then said, because the way you structured your paper, I thought you were going in a very different direction (and the way said it let me know that was not a good choice) my professor went on to say he was surprised and glad I came to the conclusions that I did. It was the first time I ever realized that the structure of a paper or an argument could give meaning. The same is true in literature, and the same true of writers of the books of the Bible, and the same it is absolutely true of John the Evangelist.

When the first of John the Baptist’s disciples follow Jesus, they ask him where he is going, and Jesus replies come and see. It is one of my favorite bits of scripture. A few verses later Philip tells Nathaniel we have found the messiah Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth (John 1:45). Nathaniel answers Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Philip replies Come and see. (John 1:46) A bit later Nathaniel meets Jesus and comes to believe he is the messiah (John 1:49).

A little bit later in chapter 4 after his disciples return, the Samaritan woman leaves Jesus at the well, and returns to her village and tells everyone about Jesus and wonders if he can be the messiah. They follow her back to the well. And after a brief conversation, they invite him to stay with them; and he does, and many came to believe in him (John 4:41).

In John 9 Jesus heals a man born blind from birth. When he returns from the well of Siloam, where Jesus sent him, his neighbors are conflicted, wondering if he really is the man that was born blind. Some of them tell the story to the Pharisees, and they are also divided, some reject the idea because it is the sabbath, some wondered, it has to be a man of God who can heal the blind. (John 9:16) At the end of the story, the man meets Jesus a second time and proclaims his belief in Jesus (John 9:38).

When Jesus goes to Bethany, because Lazarus has died, he meets Mary, who, along with her friends mourning with her, go to meet Jesus. Some of them wonder if he, who healed the blind man could not have kept Lazarus from dying (John 11:37). And after Jesus calls to Lazarus and he comes out of the tomb many of them come to believe (John 11:45).

There is a general pattern in all of these stories. Person A has an encounter with Jesus and at the least wonders if he is the messiah. That person shares their story with Person B, who is doubtful or does not believe. And later Person B meets Jesus and comes to believe (ClarkSoles).

We see this pattern in this morning’s gospel story twice. First, the disciples have been with Jesus for 3 years. They witnessed everything he said and did, well most of it. And some witnessed his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Mary meets the risen Jesus and runs to tell the disciples. A bit later most of them have locked themselves away in a secure, undisclosed location. Jesus shows up. They do not recognize him, they are terrified, and both of those little facts tell us they did not believe Mary. He shows them his hands and his side, at which time they recognize him and come to belief. Some of them tell Thomas, who was at another undisclosed location, but he doesn’t believe. A week after that Thomas and the disciples are gathered in the first undisclosed location, and Jesus shows up again and shows Thomas his hands and side, at which time Thomas come to believes (ClarkSoles).

You can see the encounter, share, doubt, invitation, encounter, and belief pattern we see throughout John’s Gospel in Thomas’ story. But, there is a significant language bit that expands the possibilities of this pattern. It begins by understanding that Jesus never says “doubt.” He says: do not be unbelieving, but believing, and this is important because John ends the chapter, and some think the original Gospel:

But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).

 But wait there is more! because some authorities translate the sentence

But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 Either “come to believe” or “continue to believe” are real possibilities (O’Day). The significance is that this story is about believing, about coming to belief, and about continuing to believe.

And yes, there is a powerful evangelism story here, which is why I have always been drawn to the phrase “come and see” which I believe is the quintessential evangelism tool, a simple invitation. But, this pattern, this character is even more complex.

Sometime this past week, I read the guest column titled The night I learned to take chances. It is about the two brothers who were sons of a minister who required them to memorize bible verses. Which they did, even if they did not understand the meanings. When the youngest was 17, their parents divorced, their mother went to live with her sister, and their dad just disappeared. They did their best to supported each other and eked out a meager existence. One Christmas they decided to hitchhike from Long Island to Dallas to go see their mom. On the way, they got stranded on a snowy interstate. As they were waiting for promised help to return, for the first time ever began to talk about their life. It the conversations gets tense when the author said to his brother we [are] basically disposable to the people who were supposed to love us. His brother retorts we know that all things work together for good to those who love God (NKJV Romans 8:28) which got them to sharing bible verses they had memorized all those years ago. The youngest shared Isaiah 43

 Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you . . . Because you are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you.

 Years later, as president of Princeton Theological Seminary, he realizes

I don’t keep taking chances in offering leadership because I expect to succeed; I take them because I know I can handle it if I fail. What’s the worst that can happen? Will I be alone, broke, and abandoned? Been there. Will I make humiliating mistakes? I tried hitchhiking on a closed interstate. And at the bottom, I found the relentless love of God who was with me and always will be, no matter how deep the waters (Barnes).

What the story reveals is where most of us live most of our lives; which is somewhere between believing and coming to believe what Karen Lewis calls betweenness (Lewis). The story reveals that life is hard; that life is risky. And so is faith (Warren). If you stop and think about for just a minute, believing in resurrection makes no sense, it really never has, it is hard to believe in resurrection (Hoezee). And because our faith is grounded in the hard to believe in resurrection, is why we come together as church (Lose).

Each of us has a Jesus story to share. At one time or another, all of us are going to be between and need to hear somebody’s story. A story that will remind us, of the astounding truth in scripture that God … sent the Son into the world in order… that the world might be saved (John: 3:17), that we might be saved; it also reminds us that the bible is here so that we may come to, or come back to, or continue to believe. And also, John reminds us, that we who have never seen the risen Lord, and yet believe are blessed, every much as those who saw Jesus (John 20:29). So, today, you may need to hear my story. I know I have needed to, and have heard your story. 20 years’ experience has taught me that you never know how your story, how your invitation to come and see Jesus’ hands and feet and side, in all its many forms will impact a stranger’s life.

Christ is Risen
[hand to ear]
The Lord is risen indeed!

There is no better story to invite a friend or stranger, struggling in the in-betweenness of life to come and see.

Amen.


References

Barnes, Craig. “The night I learned to take chances.” 26 4 2017. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org /article/night-i-learned-take-chances>.

ClarkSoles, Jaime. Commentary on John 20:1931. 23 4 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 23 4 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 23 4 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Easter 2A . 23 4 2017. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.

Lewis, Karoline. Betweenness. 23 4 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Easter 2 A: Thomas, John, and the Reason We Gather. 23 4 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Warren, Timothy G. “Doubt Strengthens Faith, Easter 2(A).” 23 4 2017. Sermons that Work.

 

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Precious to Me

A Sermon for Proper 13; Hosea 11:1-11, Psalm 107:1-9, 43, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

 

It is my practice to write sermons on Friday having read text and commentaries on Tuesday and trusting the divine muse to whisper to me during the week. This week is different; Friday I knew I was going to pick up the last group of campers from Camp Mitchell. Thursday was full of scattered commitments, so I wrote on Wednesday. No big deal, except for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. As you know, JB was in a bad motorcycle accident Tuesday evening and airlifted to Region One. Wednesday RW was admitted to residential hospice care. Thursday JT was airlifted to Egleston Children’s Hospital. Late Saturday afternoon the muse whispered such that I had to speak from these events about our proverb-barns.

JB’s accident was serious and a testimony to the value of wearing a helmet when riding motorcycles. That evening the general nature of his injuries were known; serious, significant, but none were life-threatening. Wednesday night was a less than desirable time, with setbacks, complications, and the stress of scheduling life in a Trauma Hospital. Thursday afternoon, one surgery was done, another was delayed because the extent of the injury was more severe than thought, additional specialists were required, and a different treatment plan was necessary.

Watching and listening to the family interact revealed a lot of the contents of their barns. As usual, there were lots of tears, lots of concerned looks on peoples’ faces, some worried conversations, struggles not to speak from or to what is not known but feared and there was a good supply of humorous stories. It was also clear that whatever the previous mix of the multiple families’ barns’ content there had been a shift. Everyone’s focus was Jamie. Even the Arkansas Trooper who worked the accident focused on Jamie’s well-being, by his unexpected stop at the airfield where everyone was waiting on the helicopter, that was delayed by weather-driven rerouting. Gentle and encouraging words to confused, scared grandkids and calming words to vexed children brought a healing peace to all.

Wednesday RW was admitted to residential hospice care. It is the right decision. Within a couple of days of the diagnosis of lung cancer, he was admitted to home-based hospice care. The effort to maintain 24 hours care in addition to regular work and studies, and the difficulties two hours travel for some, raised the tension levels. One sibling turned down an available spot, putting RW to the back of the list. The next day another sibling was told by RW that he wanted to go to residential hospice. The third sibling agreed, the first did not. The dispute was settled when two siblings said okay; then you take care of him if you feel that strongly. The turmoil of caring for his advanced aggressive cancer aggravated already complex stressful and secretive family relationships. And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. Story became legend, legend became myth, and myth faded way into the mist of time (Tolkien).

However, the glory of God comes in all sorts of unexpected ways. Here in the recovery of myth from mist, and legend from myth, and story from legend and too long lost truths of uncomfortable family relationships from story. And the recovery of truth begot understanding, and understanding begot the beginning of healing; healing that just might rearrange the previous mix of the multiple families’ barns.

On Saturday JT was born, the 2nd child, 2nd grandchild, and 9th great-grandchild. On Thursday the shaking became seizure-like, and his parents took JT to the regional hospital. Tests were ordered, initial medications were given. Additional tests were not done because of JT’s age and shaking. The hospital realized this was beyond their ability, contacted Egleston who dispatched an ambulance. After it had arrived JT’s condition began to deteriorate; given metro traffic at that time of day the decision was made to fly JT to Egleston. Friday a neo-neurologist abruptly took JT from mom and began an examination. There were some communication difficulties. JT’s grandfather noted how human behavior always seems to reveal itself. After three days of little to no sleep, everyone was on the edge, and this pushed them over the edge. JT’s family responded better than many would have. They Googled the Doc to see if credentials were real. Not only were they real, the doctor was among the best in the field. It wasn’t long before confusion about the treatment process cleared. The doctor gave very specific orders, and the confusion about developing an evaluation and treatment plan went away. Grandfather said,

“You know we’ve got to put aside the personality stuff and be thankful for the knowledge, wisdom, and clarity the doctor brings.”

Yesterday morning grandfather reminisced about the helicopter ride one of his nieces had to Egleston after being struck by lightning 30 years ago. Once again he appreciated the marvels his family has been able to take advantage of. The conversation began to light up rearranging the previous mix of the multiple families’ barns.

The fool of a farmer in Jesus parable is very clear about what is in his barn ~ grain ~ for him. He sees the abundance of the harvest only in terms of how it relates to him. He has no thoughts of anyone else. The fool of a farmer doesn’t even think about God; he discounts God; probably not thinking that there is no God, just that God is not here; or certainly God is too far away to see or be bothered with him (Hoezee, Luke). The abundant crop is likely wheat, which is a source of bread, which is the source of life, both figuratively and literally. Hording the abundance denies his neighbors life (Hoezee, Luke). His thoughts are oppressive and unjust.

All of us have been a fool at one time or another, ignoring God’s presence, ignoring how our words and actions affect our neighbors nearby and far away. All of us have built barns and filled them with things that are “precious to me.” All of us have inheritances, or abundant harvests, or whatever it is stored away in our barns. And all of us, have our Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday moments when the contents of our barns dissolve into flotsam, and we are reminded of the mysterious value of life, so fragile, so unknowable, and yet so precious me.

It is my prayer for all of us that it does not take an existential threat to remind us of the inexhaustible sovereignty, the inexhaustible capacity, of God’s abundant love (Bratt). We’d like to believe we know JB’s, RW’s and JT’s future. We do not know; it is not for us to know (Acts 1:6, Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32) (Olive Tree). And all of us wish none of this had happened, but that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is how to share the abundance of our barns (Tolkien, Fellowship). And of all we have to share, the God’s strength, presence, and love are the most to be desired.


References

n.d. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/&gt;.

Bratt, Doug. Proper 13CCenter for Excellence in Preaching. 31 7 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary – Eleventh Sunday after. 31 7 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Forget, André. Curry: ‘Jesus doesn’t allow us the option of self-righteousness’| Presiding Bishop sits for an interview with Canadian Anglican Journal. 11 7 2016. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/07/11/curry-jesus-doesnt-allow-us-the-option-of-self-righteousness/&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 13CCenter for Excellence in Preaching|Colossians. 31 7 2016.

—. Proper 13CCenter for Excellence in Preaching|Luke. 31 7 2016. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Lewis, Karoline. Treasured Possessions? 24 7 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.

Nagata, Ada Wong. “Rich Toward God, Proper 13 (C).” 31 7 2016. Sermons that Work.

Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015

Reid, Stephen. Commentary on Hosea 11:111. 31 7 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Stamper, Meda. Commentary on Luke 12:1321. 31 7 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Lord of the Rings < http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/376870&gt;

—————— Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring

Walsh, Brian J. Commentary on Colossians 3:111. 31 7 2016. <workingpreacher.org>.