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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Beach Barbeque

Easter 3, Yr. C Acts 9:1-20; Rev. 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Sometimes the dilemma a preacher faces is an overabundance of riches! The temptation with today’s line-up of lessons is to tell you to get out the popcorn and soda and settle into your pews because there’s so much here I’d like to explore.

These readings tell us of new things happening right and left…what could be more appropriate for me to preach about on a Sunday when we’ll later celebrate the new ministry Pastor Carri shares with us? Or we could take a look at Acts, a book begging to be turned into a graphic novel. There’s a reason it’s called The Acts of the Apostles, not The Sitting Around of the Apostles, and this episode is a case in point. Saul, the single-minded persecutor of the church, suddenly has his life turned upside down by a road-to-Damascus encounter with Jesus, and poor Ananias gets dragged into a relationship with a man he knows is nothing but trouble. The psalm and the reading from Revelation are full of praise and thanksgiving, ancient words so expressive that they might convey the fullness of our own hearts better than we can on our own. Then there’s Jesus’s motley crew of fisherman who, after seeing their Lord crucified and resurrected, go right back to the fishing business as usual, hardly missing a beat. And Jesus on the beach, unrecognized until after he’s pointed his disciples in the right direction, and those 153 fish—no more, no less—that the disciples caught when they thought the waters were empty, and Jesus gently and insistently reconciling with Peter, certainly more for Peter’s sake than his own. What’s up with Peter, anyway, naked on the boat and leaping into his clothes before jumping into the water? Both Acts and the gospel call us to be people who proclaim the good news of Jesus in word and deed, tending to the hearts and souls of God’s flock; plenty to think about there. See?…what a feast for a preacher! Fear not, however…I won’t keep you here forever; we’ve got a big day ahead of us.

Out of all of these and so many more, here’s the question I ran across that piqued my curiosity most of all: Why is Jesus hanging out there on the shore barbequing breakfast for his buddies? He’s just been resurrected, for heaven’s sake; shouldn’t he be off showing himself to more people or healing the sick or teaching the crowds or ushering in the kingdom or something? It’s hard to believe he doesn’t have better things to do than this! But this is what he’s doing, and because it’s Jesus, I have to presume that cooking on the beach and giving fishing tips is exactly the right thing at that particular moment.

What seems odd about it is the absolute ordinariness of his activity. This is the Lamb who is worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! Why would a big God like that do such a small, mundane thing? And therein, perhaps, lies the answer: because to our God, being present in the little stuff matters. In fact, God does little stuff really well, and the incarnation is the prime example. Honestly, to God, humans could seem pretty small peanuts. Yet God loves us so much as to become one of us, and to do it in the most ordinary and humble of ways. God indeed cares about the little stuff and does it well.

Jesus is there on the beach in order to give the disciples what they need. You need your nightly catch? I’ll fill your nets to the breaking point! You need breakfast? I’ve got bread and fish right here, piping hot and ready to eat! You need forgiveness, to be brought back to my love? I’ll give you that too! You need direction? Follow me. In fact, Jesus offers a ridiculous amount more than they need. Months before, he’d fed thousands with 5 fish and 2 loaves; this time, there are 153 fish for just 8 of them. He doesn’t simply tell Peter he’s forgiven for claiming not to know him, back in the High Priest’s courtyard; he invites Peter to proclaim his love thrice over, once for every denial. Because that’s God’s way too: giving us more than we can ask or imagine.

We’re waiting, often, for the road-to-Damascus events, God appearing in a vision or speaking to us ever so clearly or performing miracles obvious to all. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if that’s the only way we look for God, we’re going to miss out on a lot, and we might not receive what God offers that we need. That moment at the end of an exhausting day when someone shows you a small act of courtesy, or a phone call out of the blue when you’re feeling particularly lonely; the unexpected smile from someone whom you’ve found off-putting or a chance conversation that sheds light on a situation that’s been puzzling you; the opportunity to share one of your gifts with another person. We could take any of those for granted. But if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, if we open our hearts in expectation in the midst of the ordinary, Jesus appears in so many ways every day, to feed us, forgive us, lead us, and love us. The fish have been caught; the bread is ready; the meal is spread. Come feast with the Lord!

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Day 9 AM

[Every year, before Ash Wednesday, the students at Saint Mark's School help me box up "alleluia" in some form. The box is sealed shut and not opened until Easter Day. Each of the following corresponded to a sheet in the box with "Alleluia" printed on it, as we considered the many voices celebrating at that first Easter.]

Angels-Oh, the rejoicing in heaven! God’s promised plan to love people like they’d never been loved before had come to completion! And once more, the angels got to be on the scene; once more, they were tasked with reassuring people who were obviously scared to death; once more, they were the bearers of Good News: “He is not here. He is risen!” Who wouldn’t be thrilled to be part of such a day?

And so the angels cried, “Alleluia!”

Guards—Their excitement had nothing to do with Jesus; they were just grateful to be alive. They weren’t sure what had happened…one moment they were standing guard at the tomb of this stranger from Galilee…suddenly darkness and light and the ground shaking all around them…and then they were waking from a stupor and his body was gone. It hadn’t yet occurred to them they might be in BIG trouble.

And so the guards cried, “Alleluia!”

Mary Magdalene—Jesus had healed her, brought her back from a place of despair. All she could do in return was stand and watch as he died. But she would show her gratitude by bringing these spices and oils to anoint his body gently, one last time. How was it possible that he wasn’t there? Where could he have gone? Confusion swirled through her heart and mind, even as the angel spoke, even as she remembered his words anticipating this very resurrection. As the truth sank in, she began to run, faster and faster, the first one to tell the world that Love lives again.

And so Mary Magdalene cried, “Alleluia!”

Peter—As a fisherman—before this crazy idea of following Jesus—Peter had always been a no-nonsense kind of guy. The fish were biting or they weren’t. The water was safe enough to go out or it wasn’t. So when Mary Magdalene came running to say Jesus had risen, Peter had to go see for himself. After all, either a guy was dead or he wasn’t, and Jesus most assuredly had been dead. When he got to the tomb, all he found were strips of linen and the cloth that had been over Jesus’s face. As improbable as it seemed, Jesus wasn’t there, and Peter’s heart filled with amazement.

And so Peter cried, “Alleluia!”

Mary his mother-Mary’s alleluia came through gasping tears of joy beyond measure. She didn’t care what had happened in that tomb, she didn’t care how it had happened; all that mattered was that her beloved son, who had been so brutally crucified, was alive again. She couldn’t wait to put her arms around him, to hold him close and to smooth his hair and gently wipe the pain from his face.

And so Mary the mother of Jesus cried, “Alleluia!”

Simon of Cyrene—What relief he felt when he heard the news! It was terrible to have been part of Jesus’s crucifixion, to be grabbed out of the crowd and forced to carry the cross to Golgotha; and Jesus’s gentle, caring eyes only made him feel worse. The little sleep he’d gotten since then had been full of nightmares. But now he understood, so clearly, that this was much bigger than any of them knew…and he was part of it!

And so Simon of Cyrene cried, “Alleluia!”

Centurion-He knew! He’d known it all along! As he’d watched the unexpected calm, the unearthly peace of this man Jesus from the moment he stood before Pilate, he’d been sure there was something very different about him. Seeing his compassion and strength even as he died in such an awful way, the centurion knew it for certain. Jesus’s resurrection was evidence how right he was: “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

And so the centurion cried, “Alleluia!”

Thomas—Thomas’s alleluia was slow in coming. All the others leaping about, so excited; he knew better than to get so emotional about such an implausible tale. That is, until he saw Jesus himself, put his hands in Jesus’s wounds, looked into Jesus’s eyes…then all his doubts dissolved, and his head and heart together soared.

And so Thomas cried, “Alleluia!”

Jesus-It was finished on the cross. Was it possible that life and death was all his Father had planned for him? He’d done his best, given everything—everything!—he had. Was his role on earth accomplished when they wrapped his body in the shroud, laid it in the tomb, and sealed the opening with a boulder? But there in the darkness of death, something happened, something stirred; light returned, brighter and unquenchable. He wasn’t finished! This new life was his purpose.

And so Jesus cried, “Alleluia!”

It’s Easter, the feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the celebration of God’s free gift of eternal life and love beyond measure.

And so we all cry, “Alleluia!”

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Easter Vigil 2010

A few days ago, I was shopping at Sears when an announcement came—repeatedly—over the loudspeaker, telling us that in 2, then 1, then 0 minutes, all adult shoppers would receive a free gift on the second floor, toward the back of the store, just follow the laser light brightly shining on the ceiling to guide our way. I was nearby, and “free” is a word that catches my attention every time, so I joined the group gathered around an elevated work counter. By the time I was absolutely sure that this was a sales pitch, I was already hooked…and besides, by then the demonstrator had promised us not 1, not 2, but **3** free gifts!

The first was this fabulous kitchen multi-tool, now selling for $5-7 in the housewares department of major stores. He pulled us all in close, and after a demo on how we could zest and peel citrus, and be the envy of our neighbors with our baskets made out of watermelon, we all did indeed receive, immediately, a free one. After that, urged again to draw near, came the paring knife one could use to make a cucumber shark, and a twisty thing for making curly fries; he promised that both of these would be ours free as well in a few minutes. The piece de resistance appeared next, the current incarnation of the Ginzu carving knife, its durability proven as he cut into a steel hammer head and carved a chunk of wood. This is not yet available in stores, mind you, but conveniently one could buy it from him that day. Alas, he was not authorized to discount the retail price of $29.99…but—hang on!—he did have factory permission to give us a second one free. And not only that, but, as it ultimately turned out, also the paring knife, curly fry cutter, 4 steak knives, chef’s knife, and Chef Paul’s guide to garnishes! All these would be ours free—far more than the originally promised 1, 2, or 3 gifts—with the purchase of the carving knife, and we would discover anew the joys of our daily bread, or vegetables, or frozen meats, confident that we could dice them, slice them, carve them, curl them, trim them and twist them. However, since I didn’t want the $30 carving knife, even with the lifetime guarantee, all I got was 20 cents worth of plastic, and that was with an investment of 25 minutes of my time…

I knew all along that there’s not much in life that is really, truly free. Isn’t that what financial experts have been trying to drill into our minds?: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Modern humans simply aren’t that good at either side of free; we’re reluctant to make the offer and we’re suspicious of receiving a gift on that basis, as enticing as it may sound. And yet we gather here tonight to celebrate a free gift. Could this possibly be the real thing? What’s the catch?

Well, 2000 years say there isn’t one. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God offers us eternal life and abundant love…for free. We don’t have to pay a thing; that’s been taken care of. We don’t have to earn it; that’s not God’s economy. There’s no “buy one, get one free”; we simply get one free. No bait and switch, no gimmicks, no fine print. Free, period. And it comes with an eternal lifetime guarantee.

This is what A.J. has been given tonight. Short of showing up—following the light—he didn’t have to do a thing. And because of this, the truly free nature of baptism is plainly evident to everyone; even those of us with somewhat more developed life skills than A.J. would have no edge in receiving this gift. Because here’s the thing about free: it means we don’t have to pay. Not in hard-earned cash. Not in good works or being clever or thinking holy thoughts. Not in guilt or grief, in charity or charm. Baptism is first of all about what God does for us, not what we can do for God.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a cost to being a disciple of Christ. We will face challenges as we struggle to be faithful, and we’ll feel the burden when we’re not. We’ll carry the pain that comes with loving others, and sometimes the frustration of trying to figure out what God is calling us to do. But all this comes after the gift, as our heartfelt response to God’s gift, not as a price we have to pay up front.

So A.J’s been sealed by the Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever, absolutely free. What can he do with his baptism? Not slice and dice, carve or curl…but we gathered close around and did pray for the Spirit to deliver him from the way of sin and death, to open his heart to God’s grace and truth, to fill him and keep him and teach him and send him, and a long, long time from now to bring him to the fullness of life in God’s heavenly kingdom.

But wait!...there’s more! A.J. receives a free church family, complete with doting grandparents, crazy uncles, and siblings with whom to grow up on this amazing journey. He has the light of Christ to lead him and the anointing of the Holy Spirit to empower him; again: no charge. He gets free food for life. He has an invitation to the way of the cross and the alleluias of the resurrection. His opportunities for sin are pretty limited at this point, but they’ll increase as the years go by, and he’s already offered forgiveness, as much and as often as he needs it, for free. All of those are darn good tools to have in your drawer!

God’s gift adds zest to our journey, twists our paths in new ways, helps us find the core of our being, and gives us strength as we cut through the hardest situations. It’s only available direct from the manufacturer, with an eternal lifetime guarantee. All this, A.J., and more, is yours—and ours—absolutely for free. Thanks be to God, alleluia, alleluia!

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