Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sermon - This I Believe: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Sunday, April 19, 2015

This I Believe: I Believe in Jesus Christ

Luke 24:36b-48, NRSV

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

            This is the third Sunday of our Eastertide season, and the second Sunday of our sermon series, “This I Believe.” In order to partner with our confirmation class and support the work that our youth are doing to seek and understand the theological foundation of what it means to be a Christian, we, as a congregation, are going to walk alongside them and lift up the most important parts of our faith as we know and practice it. Last week, Meg preached a beautiful sermon on what we believe about God, as Christians. This week, we turn our attention to Jesus Christ, to further explore what we believe about this person of the Trinity.
            If I’m being perfectly honest, our religion is pretty weird. We are the only religion that understands God in this particular way: as one God, expressed in three forms: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And, when we talk about Jesus, we speak of him as having two natures – being fully human and fully divine.

Guys. This is nuts.

 I realize full well that this requires an awful lot of trust in God’s ability to make these things evident to us. And, for many of us, our faith doesn’t hinge on a perfect understanding of the natures of God, or Christ. Rather, our faith is formed throughout a lifetime of openness to God and the beautiful ways in which God reveals that that God is, in fact, present in our lives. For most of us, the theological understanding of who Christ is has very little to do with our personal faith. Except, that we proclaim some bizarre things as Christians that bear some attention.
What on earth does it mean for us that we believe in a God who would become Incarnate (one-with-us), live, suffer and die, only to be resurrected on the third day?
What does it mean that God became one-with-us in the form a man – fully human and fully divine?
What are the implications for our faith when we look to the cross and see God Incarnate (one-with-us) breathe his last?
What are the possibilities for us when we see this same God, fully human and fully divine, alive and well?
            Here, two weeks after Easter Sunday, we are experiencing the same questions of Christ’s conquering of death that the Disciples are. At this point in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has appeared twice to them, once on the Road to Emmaus and now in the midst of their conversation about him. After it has been discovered that Christ’s tomb is empty, there is a lot of debate and question amongst his followers as to what has happened. Some, like Mary Magdalene and Peter, see … and believe. But many who hear of the story cannot comprehend the complexity of it. So, it seems understandable that Jesus would appear to them and introduce himself with the words, “Peace be with you.” 
            But, these words bring the opposite of comfort to his friends. Filled with fear, they look to him, terrified and afraid, certain they were seeing a ghost. For all of the things the disciples have witnessed in Jesus’ presence, including the raising of Lazarus from the dead, they have never seen a ghost. I find it such a strange and wonderful story that the illogical assumption they make is more reasonable in their minds than the truth.
            But, you know that the old saying is true. When you have lost something, you always find it in the last place you look. The Disciples weren’t looking for Jesus anywhere but the tomb. They were looking for a body to anoint, not a mouth to feed. So, when Jesus appears to them in the flesh, I can sympathize with their inability to believe that their friend has actually reappeared to them. “If the resurrection really is true, well then, there goes life as we knew it. In the words of Anna Carter Florence, “if dead people don’t even stay dead, what is there to count on?”[1]
            This is because the Resurrection is the great “yes” in the face of an all-encompassing “no.” It is the hope that not even death is final. It is the curiosity that the certainty of the end may not be certain at all. “This is what Karl Barth described as the ‘impossible possibility,’ a reality that transcends the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true.”[2] So, like the disciples, we are asked to make a choice about what we believe about Jesus. For many, it requires a very clear experience – a mountain top moment – a life, changing, crystallizing, burning bush sign from God that what we have been told is true. That there IS a God, and that God is with us.
            But, the beauty of our text today is that the disciples actually do get such a sign. They stare in amazement at the many before them, who is clearly the exact likeness of their recently deceased friend, and with joy and amazement, and they cling to their doubt. How could this be? How could this man, who they understood to be the Son of God, be standing before them? Each week, I’ve been asking for feedback on Facebook about what people believe about our topic. My friend, Colleen, wrote me and offered something beautiful. She said, “I used to think that I was a poor Christian because I doubted the divinity of Christ. I think at this point I have come to think that there are some things that we just won't KNOW for sure and maybe it might be enough for me if I can relate to the person that Jesus might have been.”
            There is much of our faith that is chalked up to mystery. Sometimes, I’m grateful for this language as the only sufficient answer I can offer for difficult questions. But, mostly, I find it completely insufficient as a reason for faith. If God remains mysterious, then how are we to grow and deepen our faith? Just exactly how did Jesus become the only son of God, born of the Virgin Mary? “It’s a mystery!” is woefully incompetent as a response. A Jesuit scholar writes that, “Mystery can more accurately be described as the reality we cannot understand with our human faculties. Doubt is not the problem. Doubt is often a very good starting place for inquiry.”[3]
            If there is one thing the Disciples in our passage have in spades, it’s doubt. The difficult thing for us is to understand what to make of our doubt. We have been conditioned to believe that doubt is bad for our lives of faith. It’s an indication that we aren’t trusting God enough. I disagree. I think we open ourselves up to deepening our faith when we realize that, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty.” I love this because it opens us up to the ability to question God and God’s presence in our lives. It allows us to engage Jesus, crucified and risen, with a skeptical raised eyebrow, to see what answers will come. And, certainty is the thing that closes us off to learning more about the nature of God. Once we decide something is true, it’s very hard to be convinced otherwise.
“doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt, in fact, is probably a necessary ingredient to faith. Faith is not knowledge. Faith is more tension-filled. It is acting as if something is true even when you have no proof that it is.”
[4] The tension in our passage is that the people who knew Jesus best cannot recognize him in his resurrection.
             But, the secret of this passage is unlocked for me when it tells us that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
            It is in the midst of their very seeing that the Disciples’ disbelief holds fast. The beauty of this moment is that Jesus doesn’t take the time to rebuke or lecture them. He doesn’t roll his eyes or quote Isaiah. Rather, he does the one thing that could confirm their hope: the risen Christ asks if there is something to eat. This is the beauty of our incarnate God: that he sees the only way to persuade us that he is alive in this world, truly alive, is to hunger with us, to eat with us. He engages their concern that he might be a ghost, and he addresses it directly by doing the simplest and most basic of human things.
            It directs us to two things: The bizarre and blessed gift that is the Incarnation of God in Christ, as well as God’s choice to be revealed to us as such. Incarnation. Revelation. God-with-us. God abiding with us, and allowing us to see it and notice. There is no other religion that understands God in such a way, so very real and visceral and present in the world. We have a unique understanding of God. The God of all gods is not lofty and distant, but fragile and available. This is not a God who abides in the highest heaven. This is a God who eats broiled fish with the commoners.  
            And, we are the witnesses of these things. This is how the Good News is told. Jesus, upon revealing himself to the disciples, reminds them that he has fulfilled what the scriptures foretold. He reminds them, “You are witnesses of these things!” 
          Go, and tell. 
          Speak confidently about what you know to be true. 
          Open yourselves to the questions that remain. 
          Witness to the fact that Jesus is somehow real to you. 
          Try to put words to it, images around it, the smallest kernel of faith in it. 
It is in the courageous naming of these things that we find ourselves as witnesses to a God who refuses to be God without us. A God who insists on living in the world with us. A God who won't even allow death to separate us. 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sermon: The Promise of Resurrection

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Easter Sunday
April 5, 2015

The Promise of Resurrection: “For whom are you looking?”

John 20:1-18, NRSV

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your 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.

            Sisters and Brothers: It is Easter Sunday! It is the great day of celebration for Christians as we rise, early in the morning on the first day of the week, and gather in the cold to make a radical and ridiculous claim: Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, indeed!
            There is nothing new under the sun to add to this simple, mysterious message. It is the core of who we are as worshipping Christians, as people who believe in a God so powerful that even Death could be defeated. And yet, we gather every Spring, in the midst of the world’s own proclamation of new life to shout our hope and faith.
            Why is it that we gather, at the strangest times, to share in the story that’s been told for us for thousands of years? Why do we believe it’s important to tell this story, preach this story, hear this story?
            It’s because this is a story unlike any other. Yes, we tell it and hear it as if it is a favorite family anecdote. But this is not just a story. The gift of the Resurrection is that it is our opportunity to encounter, not just the story, but the Word. 
            The author of John’s Gospel tells our story this morning with great care. If you remember, we approach each Christmas with an ear to the opening lines of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Gospel, the Good News of how deeply God loves us, is centered around the idea of God’s intention to be in the world with us. At Christmas, when we gather in the lateness of the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we repeat the words, “Emmanuel! God with us!” This is the promise of the Incarnation – that God so loved the world that God became one, with us, in this very world, in this very body. At Christmas, we look to the fragile, precious infant in the manger and whisper, “Emmanuel! God is with us,” and we absorb the beauty and mystery of birth. We inhale the sweet scent of the season, as pure as the head of a tiny baby, and give thanks for God’s willingness to be in the world with us.
            But, on this morning, we look back on the story we’ve been hearing since that Silent Night. We have heard of a child, chased into Egypt for refuge, a boy who teaches the rabbis in the temple, the man who is baptized by his prophetic and strange cousin. We have listened to the stories of Jesus calling his Disciples, traveling through the passages between Jerusalem and Nazareth, healing, restoring, exorcising. We have watched as his authority grew, as the crowds gathered, as loaves and fishes fed thousands. We have listened as the Pharisees have questioned him, we have paused while he rebuked them, we have applauded when he overturned their tables. We have followed this story until this point, when the child that was born in a humble manger finally succumbs to the gruesome death that has chased him from the very beginning.
            As we gather on this morning, there is nothing new to add to the story. We know how it ends. We know how it began. But, we gather to hear how to live this story. How do we even begin to live out the hope that we are supposed to have when we hear that the tomb is empty, and that the Gardener isn’t the gardener after all.
            If you’re anything like me, you bring with you to this service more than just a hope for the Easter promise of resurrection. You bring a healthy skepticism as to how this could be possible. You bring your doubt, your worry, your uncertainty. You bring your best intentions and your sights set to the future. You want to hear, in the re-telling of this ancient story, how to live, because death is certain. You want to know how to cast aside your grief, your pain, your disappointment, your guilt and live as though the promise of the resurrection is real.
            And, what the author of John’s Gospel gives us is nothing more than a simple story. There’s no theological insight in this telling. There’s no grand mystery of the universe revealed. There is only the empty tomb and a very confused Mary Magdalene. There is only Simon Peter, the rock upon which the church is built, entering the tomb to discover both an unkempt pile of linen wrappings and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, neatly rolled into a place by itself. They saw. And believed. No fanfare. No fireworks. No reunion. Just a peace that passes understanding and the urge to return to their homes.
            It is Mary Magdalene who waits by the tomb, weeping. Her grief of Friday returns, manifest in the loss of her beloved once more, this time with no way to tend to his body, no way to enact the rituals of grieving.
            But it is Mary who looks in the tomb, and sees – not the linen wrappings – but two angels. Messengers. Harbingers. One at the head, near the neatly wrapped cloth. The other at the foot of where Jesus had laid. They ask her the most absurd question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” As if there could be a reason other than the one that brought them to the inside of this tomb. 
            She answers them in earnest, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
            This is the sum total of our grief, isn’t it? I have lost something, and I don’t know where to find it. Something precious to me is gone, and I fear I will never see it again. Whatever you bring to this service today – your worry, your sorrow, your disappointment, your hope – Mary speaks to the very thing that makes our hearts squeeze tightly in our chests. We have loved, and lost. And we fear we will never be happy again.
            But, something stirs behind her. A rustling, the softest of sounds, and she turns… her tears blurring her vision. Her grief clouding her thoughts. Mary cannot see because the darkness has become too pervasive. But, do you remember how John’s Gospel begins? “What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) A voice repeats the question of the angels, asking more intently, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
            Her silence is her only response.
            So, the voice presses on, “For whom are you looking?” 
            If Mary’s answer to the angels is the sum total of our grief, then this question is one that resonates throughout all of time. “For whom are you looking?” You. Today. Now. Are you looking for one who was lost to you? Are you looking for something that was never yours?  Are you looking for something that used to be? Are you looking to hold on to what you have so tightly that nothing may ever change?
            “For whom are you looking,” he asks Mary. He asks this because there is nothing to be found. Her hope has been dashed, and there is only the stark emptiness of the tomb that mocks her grief. Now, she can no longer anoint the body or attend to the ritual. Even that privilege has been stripped of her. The emptiness of the tomb is the last thing her broken heart can bear.
            The voice asks this question, not for the first time. The voice has asked this question only three days prior – to the soldiers that Judas had led to the garden where he was praying with his disciples. They replied that they are seeking Jesus of Nazareth, and his answer to them was, simply, “I AM.” Jesus offers the soldiers, the disciples, the hearers of this reply the great Divine Revelation: I AM. Alpha and Omega. The First and the Last. The Beginning and End. And now, the man whom Mary supposes to be the gardener asks the question of the ages. But it is not in the asking that she recognizes him. It is in the quiet uttering of her name: Mary. 
            She responds, "Rabbouni," which means teacher. This is the quiet drama of resurrection. It is in the sharp intake of breath at the recognition of his face. It is in the flooding away of grief and the heart-swelling joy of restoration. These things are internal. They cannot be described. The author of John's Gospel isn't privy to the emotions that accompany Mary's moment of awareness. Her grief is gone. Her sorrow is healed. Her heart is mended. Her joy is complete. Everything she has ever hoped for has been given to her. 
            The true mystery of Easter is in the resurrection, the real, physical act of life conquering death. What this tells us is that God has the power, not only of life over death, but also to sanctify the emptiness. “The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb, and you can't depict or domesticate emptiness.”[1] You can only look to it and see, not what is absent, but what shall be restored. 
            To be empty implies that we are left with nothing, that there is no hope, no joy, no life. But, in being restored to life, Christ redeems not just life, but the absence of it! Christ lives, that we might live, because now… even emptiness has meaning. Even emptiness is redeemed. Even emptiness is holy and sacred. If Christ can redeem emptiness, then think what the hope of the resurrection means for us - today, now. 
            This story, told time and again, tells us all we need to know about God. This story is not just about God’s marvelous acts in Jesus Christ. This story is not just about our God’s willingness to become Incarnate – one with us – alive and real, fully human and fully divine. This story is about how we can approach that God with nothing and still be filled. God works to redeem the emptiness. God works to restore the lost. God loves to heal the brokenhearted. God lives, that we might live also.
            Where is thy victory, boasting grave?
            The tomb is empty, and yet it has been filled with hope and promise and new life.
Christ is risen!                           Χριστός ἀνέστη!
He is risen indeed!                    Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

Friday, April 3, 2015

It is Finished: The Death of the Messiah

The Death of Jesus

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, 

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means: 

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 

When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’  

Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 

And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ - Mark 15:33-39

It is finished. 

The Messiah dies. 

In the last lines of this verse, the Roman Centurion watches as Jesus breathes his last breath and exclaims the first profession of faith: "Truly, this man was the son of God."

But his words mislead us. What about this death makes it so clear that the broken body on the cross was the Son of God? There is nothing that should lead tell us that this death was different than any other. It is just as horrible, just as gruesome, just as heartbreaking. 

But maybe that was the point. 

If we take the Roman Centurion's words literally, then we have watched the most grim example of child abuse done for our sake.

I cannot abide this. 

I cannot abide that God, a loving Father, would require such sacrifice of his only son. 

I cannot abide that God, the God of Moses and Abraham, David and Elijah, would ignore Jesus' petition from the cross as he gasps, "My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?" 

Except that these words have been spoken before. 

Psalm 22 begins with the same words: 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 
     Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
     and by night, but find no rest.

The Psalmist wrote these words. It is Jesus who recalls them, who recites the opening lines of the song of his heart. The song of his life. The song of his death. 

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. 
   Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; 
They open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. 
   I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; 
My heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 
   My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; 
        you lay me in the dust of death. 
For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. 
     My hands and feet have shriveled; 
I can count all my bones. 
     They stare and gloat over me; 
They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing, they cast lots. (Ps. 22:11-18)

Jesus speaks these words, in the moments before his death, not because God has forsaken him, but because God has remembered him. 

The reason for this suffering, the reason for this death, is not because God has asked the greatest sacrifice of his only Son for our sake. 

No, it is God in Christ who has suffered this brutal death. 

God is not apart from Christ on the cross. 

God is Christ on the cross. 

God suffered that we might not suffer alone. 

When Jesus utters this Psalm, he points us not to how it begins, but to how it ends: 

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. 
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation, I will praise you: 
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; 
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; 
The Lord did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him. -Ps. 22, v. 21-24

This is not a death of a son, atoning for the sins of all human history. 

This is the act of a Loving God, working in the world to redeem it. 

Jesus' death was not divine punishment, but the death of God Incarnate who suffered and died, as well.  

Let us wait and see and hope what God shall do, since even our suffering is shared. 

Even our suffering is sacred.