Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Week Later: The Social Distancing Resurrection Account

This sermon was preached April 19, 2020 at the combined worship service (via Zoom) for Saint Margaret's Anglican Church in Budapest, Hungary  and The Anglican/Episcopal Church in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

New Life Appears
Focus Text: John 20:19-31

Last Sunday we celebrated the day that our Savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Today, we read the Gospel of John’s account of what happened next. 

But first, to put today’s reading in context, I invite us to back up a bit in story to the start of chapter 20, where we find Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb before sunrise on the first day of the week. She finds the stone rolled away, and so she runs to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved with word that the Lord’s body has been moved. Those two rush to the tomb, also find it empty, and then go home. Mary, though, remains and is still weeping when two angels and then Jesus appear and speak to her. Jesus calls Mary by her name and instructs her to go tell the others that he is ascending to his God and their God. “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

This is the point in John’s story where today’s reading begins, except now it is evening on the first day. Mary had spoken with Jesus early in the morning. What happened in between the morning and the evening? John doesn’t tell us, but Luke says Jesus then walks to Emmaus with Cleopas and an unnamed disciple—perhaps Cleopas’ wife. They discuss with Jesus the testimony of the women, have a long conversation, and invite him for a meal; He breaks bread with them and vanishes the moment they realize who he is. Then the two rush back to Jerusalem where they find the group has gathered. They swap testimonies, including an appearance of Jesus to Simon. Then Jesus appears and speaks to them.

Now trying to weave the four gospels’ resurrection accounts together creates quite a bit of chronological and geographical confusion. They all agree that Mary Magdalene was at the tomb early in the morning and that there was a lot of fear and confusion and doubts among Jesus’ followers that day. Luke’s account next has Jesus leading the disciples to Bethany, where they watch him ascend. John, however, has an entire week passing where the terrified and confused disciples don’t appear to do much of anything—not even leave the house except for perhaps the most essential of tasks.    

I find it quite fitting that the lectionary has us reading John’s account this year. I’ve started calling it the Social Distancing Resurrection Story. Where do we find the disciples three days after Jesus’ crucifixion? Except for Mary who slips to the tomb so early in the morning that it is still dark outside, the rest are on lockdown. Traumatized by what happened just three days earlier, they are hiding in an undisclosed secured house for fear of what could happen if they were to go out in public. I can only imagine the sort of conversations happening in that house that weekend. The various manifestations of shock and grief – angry outbursts and accusations, paralysis, binge eating, too stressed out to eat, anxiety attacks, bargaining with God, arguing over what to do next and whether going the market was worth the risk of death.

Reports that morning of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection now added to the mix. The proclamation that Jesus is alive wasn’t enough to get them to unlock the door and shout the good news, so instead, after they’d had several hours to process all this, Jesus comes and meets them where they are. He does not lecture them for their cowardliness or lack of faith or understanding. Instead, not once but twice he says “Peace be with you.” He says that as he is being sent, so is he sending them. Then, he breathes the Holy Spirit onto them—the breath of Life—and tells them that they have the power to forgive sin and the power to withhold forgiveness.

Peace, the Holy Spirit, and the power of forgiveness. Wow. Jesus Christ the King appears to his followers just three days after having been unjustly tortured, humiliated, and killed and his first order of business is to say Peace [shows wounds], Peace, I am sending you [exhales] Receive the Holy Spirit, You are able to forgive all sins. And then he leaves.

One. Week. Later. the disciples are still in lockdown mode in that house when Jesus appears again. Does he lecture them on their lack of productivity or good deeds? Does he scold them for still being too afraid to step back outside into the world and use the spiritual gifts he has given them? No, for a third time he says "Peace be with you," and since Thomas had missed his previous appearance, Jesus gave him too a chance to inspect his wounds. 

The final appearance of Jesus that John shares with us happens back in Galilee, a three to five day walk from Jerusalem depending on if you take the direct route through the lands of the Samaritans. There Jesus finds a group of the disciples have joined Simon Peter in returning to the apolitical life of village fishermen. Is this the time that the risen Christ finally explodes at them for fearfully playing it safe and keeping their heads down? Does he ream them out for avoiding crowds and putting their physical safety first?  Nope. He helps them catch a net-full of fish and makes them a hot breakfast there on the beach. Then Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks him to show his love in three ways: tend his sheep, feed his sheep, and follow him.    

Here where I live in Ljubljana, Slovenia, it has been nearly 40 days since the schools shut down and the movement restrictions began. For our family, this has meant 40 days of staying home—40 days living under the same roof with visitors who suddenly became our indefinite housemates. Needless to say, it has been a period of messy emotions, tense conversations about how best to stay safe, fear, frustrations, grief, and even feelings of guilt that many people don’t have enough food and a safe place to stay. Perhaps you have had this nagging feeling that you aren’t doing enough to help others right now. Perhaps you’ve been a bit hard on yourself for not being more productive. You want to do something.

One thing I’ve been doing for five weeks is helping our daughter with assignments her 2nd grade teacher sends us. The science unit all month has been on insects. We've learned together in more detail than I remember being taught about how ants are born, how exactly some camouflage insects change their color each season, and, of course, how a caterpillar enters into its cocoon to become a butterfly. I was reminded of how often in nature it looks like nothing is happening when in actuality tremendous transformation is gradually occurring. Some things simply can't be rushed.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Siblings in Christ, these are confusing and scary days. Like the disciples, we are locked in our homes and holding in tension the Good News of the risen Christ with the knowledge that Christ doesn’t promise that following him protects us from the problems of this world. We are, in a sense, in a cocoon as well. It may appear that we are doing nothing but staying alive, and we wonder why nevertheless we have so little energy.

I invite you to consider the possibility that, like the disciples who even after seeing the risen Christ continued for weeks to avoid public spaces, perhaps internally much more is happening than you think. Perhaps the Lord is patiently waiting for the work that the Holy Spirit is doing on our hearts to be revealed when it is time for us to leave our cocoons.           

My sisters and brothers in Christ.  The world is changing, and so are we. Let us go forth this week with the hope that we will emerge on the other side of this a more loving people.


Monday, January 13, 2020

John, Jesus, and Staying in Our Lane: A New Year's Resolution Sermon

I first preached this sermon in the Church of England's congregation in Ljubljana, Slovenia
Lectionary Text: Matthew 3:13-17

Good morning!  Here we are together in this place in the year 2020. For some of us, this is difficult information to process. We think about the passage of time, what our life journey has been thus far, and perhaps we make promises to ourselves about ways in which we’ll do better from here on out. Some of us may be pumped up and excited about the future while others fearful, discouraged, or overwhelmed.  We may even feel guilt or shame about what we have or haven’t done to address the problems of this world, and, I suspect there are among us those who are tempted to use the tradition of making a new year’s resolution as weapon to beat themselves up for falling short of being their idealized version of themselves.  If the latter describes you, then I please let me offer the words of advice made famous by the comedian Bob Newhart: “Stop it!” 

Seriously though, if you can’t yet silence your inner tormentors then at least stop listening to them for this moment and remind yourself that you are a child of God. You are loved unconditionally, and the fact that you are in this room today proves that you want to draw closer to God, and that you want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus and, in this very moment, you are doing your best. We don’t berate a child who is making great progress on doing long division for not understanding how compound interest works, do we? No, we don’t because that would be harmful to the child’s mental health and counterproductive to the goal becoming skilled at math. So why, then, do so many of us think that bullying ourselves into doing better will make us better people? 
So that said, I have a couple alternative new year’s resolutions to suggest: 

1) Be kinder to yourself this year. Give yourself permission to decline requests because you have something else on your schedule that day, and then make sure that something else is self-care. Do whatever helps you re-center, re-energize, and hangout with God.  

2) Stay in Your Lane. Now hear me out; I didn’t like that expression the first time I heard it.  To me, it sounded a lot like “keep your head down” or “mind your own business,” but as I was meditating on the Matthew passage this week, those words kept coming back to me. And so, I began pondering what staying in one’s lane could mean in the context of that story. See, I was taught in seminary that when we read scriptures—especially when they are familiar stories—that we should approach them with curiosity. Ask ourselves, what is it that I haven’t noticed before? We should read the text in many different locations and ponder how different contexts illuminate different aspects. We should pay attention to what comes before and after, compare it to similar statements and stories found in and outside of the Bible, do some research on the original audience, get out maps, and ask questions we’ve never asked before.  Such as, what would it mean for John and Jesus to stay in their lanes, and could that teach us something that impacts our lives today

You know, sometimes I feel a bit bad for John. Talk about doing your best to live up to your parents’ expectations all while living in a family member’s shadow. And what were these expectations? According to Luke, an angel told his dad, the priest Zechariah, that John “will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  (Luke 1:15-17)

John looks to me like a textbook example of an over-performing only child raised by older parents who set high behavioral standards ‘cause John took the no alcohol part of the instructions and took it up a notch. He “wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist,” and instead of bread he lived on “locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4) Way before his slightly younger cousin Jesus stepped into public ministry, John was already out in the wilderness of Judea, preaching repentance and baptizing crowds of people in Jordan—across socio-economic and political lines, including Pharisees, Sadducees, soldiers, and tax collectors.

John was a superb teacher, and many came to him for advice. 

When “the crowds asked him, 'What then should we do?' In reply he said to them, 'Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.' Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, 'Teacher, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.' (Luke 3:10-14A lot of people were thinking that John was the Messiah, but “John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”(Luke 3:15-16

And then we come to the moment in today’s lectionary text. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell it a bit differently, but Matthew says that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” (Matthew 3:13-15)

If you go searching for scholarly commentaries on Jesus’ baptism, you’ll find a lot of theologians tying themselves into knots trying to shoehorn this story into neat and tidy doctrinal statements. But there are so many hard questions to address. Why did Jesus need or want to be baptized? What exactly happened in that moment when the Holy Spirit came down, and does this mean that the Spirit wasn’t in Jesus already? Was the voice from heaven heard by anyone other than Jesus (Matthew says say, but Mark and Luke’s versions leave one wondering)? Had there been a possibility that God wouldn’t be pleased with Jesus? How do we make sense of this story when talk about trinitarian teachings? What does this mean in terms of the meaning and protocols around baptism? 

Yeah, so, let’s not open that box today. 

Instead, let’s turn again to John, whose birth and ministry were foretold by angels, who is trying so hard to live a righteous life and to turn others righteous living, yet he sees himself as unworthy to even untie the dirt and sweat caked cord on his cousin Jesus’ sandal. And Jesus comes to him and basically says, “You stay in your lane, and I’ll stay in mine. Your calling is to call folks to repentance and baptize them. So get over get over all this ‘I’m not worthy self-talk’ and baptize me. My job is something else, so, no, I’m not here to baptize you.” 

Does this resonate with anyone this morning? It sure does with me. Every single person in this room—so that includes you—who desires to live a life pleasing to God has been give a specific set of gifts for the road they are on. The good news is that God doesn’t expect you or me to excel at everything or to actively respond to every problem in this world. We are only asked to answer our calling and to faithfully stay in that lane. Don’t think of life as a race; we are not in competition with the folks to our left and right. They are being sent on a different journey.  And if they try a pull a John the Baptist and say “Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly do this. It really should be you,” remember that without boundaries, we can’t move forward. If it isn’t in your lane, you can follow Jesus’ example and say “No.” 

Now here’s the challenging part. If it is your lane—if it is next big thing in the middle of the road God has called you down, then don’t let fears of inadequacy or the knowledge that, yes, it is asking a lot, stop you from facing it. In the longrun, running away from our calling leaves us feeling lost. That said, taking regular breaks for self-care is not the same thing as quitting. In fact, being kind to ourselves helps us to be better people.  
Now, yes, sometimes “Be kinder to yourself” and “stay in your lane” are inadequate words of advice when trying to figure out what we should be doing with our lives. But, sometimes, they are exactly what someone needs to hear.  Amen 

Thursday, January 09, 2020

New Year's update from Ljubljana

Hi all,

Ljubljana, Slovenia
Haven't blogged in a long time, so figured I should at least give a quick summary of the last 6 months of 2019.  So, let's see...

June: Movers came and packed up nearly all my material possessions, sending some to a storage warehouse and more pounds than I care to admit (I refuse to leave behind my missiology books, and my husband insists on taking his piano and sheet music) on a ship bound for Slovenia.  As the truck rolled out, husband caught his flight to start his new assignment in Ljubljana. I then flew to Congo, and Mom took E and the dog for the summer.

July:  Finally got the official piece of paper saying I'd completed my doctorate program. 

August: Arrived in the charming city of Ljubljana, Slovenia and began my new role as shepherd of the Anglican-Episcopal Church in Ljubljana (one of three anglophone congregations here, the other two being a Catholic parish and an evangelical

international church).

September: Juggled unpacking, figuring out new city, trying to learn Slovenian, getting daughter signed up for activities, dealing with the dog's heart problem, and a bunch of other stuff (like FPM management, tasks for Bishop Mande, medical appointments, etc.). Met a nationally-famous professor, and he invited me to give a guest lecture on racism at the University of Ljubljana (in the Erasmus program).  Also went to Hungary to attend the Church of England's regional synod. 

October/November: Kept juggling responsibilities while keeping up family morale by doing a bunch of regional tourism. Mom came to visit and road trip with us over E's fall break. Found out that my thesis was selected by the American Society of Missiology for publication in their monograph book series. Started tedious process of reformatting thesis to publisher's specs.

December: All of the above plus a bunch of holiday events (and baking), and Stu and I put together a well-attended Christmas Eve service (helps to be married to the congregation's organist).
view from top of hill not far from our house

I calculate that in the past 6 months I've spent time in 9 countries (including brief layovers would bring it up to 13). 

2019 brought a lot of changes and surprises, and, all things considered, it was a good year for the Walters-Denyer clan.  I'm not yet sure what 2020 will look like in terms of my personal and professional life, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

Lots of love,