Saturday, April 23, 2016

Storytellers: Acts 11:1-18

Once upon a time. In the beginning. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. If music be the food of love, play on. Call me Ishmael. A good hook, or opening line, is what every storyteller searches to craft. These opening lines of well known tales draw in an audience. They cause our ears to perk up and our interest to be peaked.  We cannot wait to hear what happens next.
In our sermon scripture for this morning we hear a great first line from Peter "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision." With those words Peter insures that his audience will listen. With those words he sets the stage for something different to arrive.
What follows is a beautiful story about his encounter with God through vision, prayer, people and the Holy Spirit. This story is so powerful, so convincing, that the leadership of Jerusalem experience a changed heart, just from hearing it!
Story is powerful. Story is life changing. Story is Gospel.
Think about that. What we have in the scriptures are stories. Stories so powerful they have passed the test of time. Stories crafted and handed down generation after generation. Stories that have changed the world one hearer at a time.
Peter's story is powerful and life changing. It is his story that he shares of his experience with God.
This experience has led to great discussions of theology, of justice, of worship planning, but it didn't start out as all of those things. It started out as his experience with God.
If Peter's story has had such an affect, what might our stories do? Now there is a frightening thought. We spend week after week listening to other ancient peoples stories, commenting on their message and success. But how often do we think about our own story?
We each have one you know. We each have had an experience that has changed the way we view God, the way we view ourselves, the way we view our neighbors. These encounters can become amazing witnesses for Christ if we share them as our stories of faith.
But something within us is scared to share them. Scared of judgement, of not being good enough, of being ridiculed. These fears keep God's story from spreading, they keep God's message from reaching new ears.
If Peter had let that fear stop him, his mission to the Gentiles would have ended with Cornelius and his family. We would not have the good news if fear of being reprimanded had kept him silent.
Right now I want you to think of an encounter you have had with God. Perhaps it was running out of fuel, but coasting to the station safely on fumes. Perhaps it was an angel among us story. Perhaps it happened on a hike, or in a hospital waiting room.
Now then, I'm going to ask you to do something really uncomfortable. I want you to turn to your neighbor and share this story right now. Go on, don't be shy, no one here is going to tell you you aren't doing it right.
How did that feel? What did you learn? Would you do it again?
Stories tell us about ourselves, about God and about our relationships to God and one another.
A good story makes us think, makes us reexamine our beliefs and search for truth.
I'd like to share a story with you about a time when I had my faith changed through an experience with God.
I have always believed that children have a special place in the family of faith. They are essential to the faith community. That being said, I'd usually limited the amount of participation I offered to children to Sunday School and the children's moment. Times when they were learning, or being cute.
Steve and I co-pastored a church in Knoxville when Zanna was very small. She often went with me on pastoral visits, and was the hit of any place she went, I might add. One afternoon when we were driving home from one such visit with an elderly man who would soon pass away, who kept saying "I'm okay, I've got Jesus in my heart" Zanna began asking questions.
-What did Mr. Fred say was in his heart Mommy?
-Jesus
How did Jesus get there Mommy?
Umm, Mr. Fred asked him to live in his heart honey.
Does Jesus live in your heart mommy?
Yes
Does Jesus live in Daddy's heart, mommy?
Yes, baby.
Jesus doesn't live on my heart. How can Jesus live in my heart mommy?
Long pause, well, you can ask him to come live in your heart Zanna. You can tell him you want to live your life for him and ask him to live within you.
Okay. (Long pause, whispers) Jesus, could you come into my heart please?
(Me, crying and trying to not drive off the mountain)
Listen mommy! Do you hear that?
Hear what baby?
He's singing!
Who's singing baby?
My Jesus, he's singing to me!
At that moment every belief I had about children's spirituality and relationship process flew out the window. In that moment I realized that children didn't have to wait until they knew the "right words" or prayers to become followers of Christ. I realized that claiming them as children of God is not for their benefit. It's for our benefit. God knows, they know, it's us grown ups that need the reminder.
Stories are powerful, they change lives, they change us.
So tell your stories this week. Share where you have encountered God! Share where God is shaking you up! Share the good news, in any form you dare!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles (Acts 9)

Names are super important things in our society. The first things we try to teach new babies are names, mommy, daddy, baby. We recognize people by their names. It's one of the ways that we distinguish one from another.
In my own family names have been very important. As I believe I've told you all before, my parents picked mine and my brother's names on their third date. Family names, names that meant something. Names that they hoped would leave us in good stead.
In the biblical accounts names are often exceedingly important. Abram and Sarai, both have their names changed through a close encounter with the divine. Is sacs name mean laughter because his mother laughed at Gods promise. Jacobs name means trickster and it was perhaps a bit too on point! Why the whole book of Ruth is filled with names of meaning, Malon, weakness, Chilion meaning sickly, it's no surprise when both of Naomi's sons die as very young men. Joseph means, may the Lord increase, and through Joseph the lord increased The Israelites.
In our scripted today we have another important name, Tabitha.
Tabitha is an Aramaic name. That in and of itself should give us pause. There are not many strictly Aramaic words recorded in scriptures. Aramaic was the language of an oppressed people. The People of Judea  used Aramaic as their everyday language, they had Hebrew in the synagogue and Greek was the language of commerce.
The name comes from the word for gazelle. It evokes the image of a beautiful wild creature, graceful, swift and strong.  It tells us something of the hopes and dreams her parents must have had for her.
Her name is beautiful. But it is also surprising. Surprising because we know it at all. Many of the women recorded in scriptures don't have names given. Simons mother in law, the syrophenitian woman, the widow who helped Elijah all have had their stories told and there names forgotten.
Here, in 94 words we get the story of a named woman.
Not only is she called by name, she is called something else, she is named a disciple.
What a bold claim! What a worthwhile and wonderful title. We are told of her works, her legacy, her actions of grace. Really it is almost like hearing her eulogy.
I was privileged to speak yesterday at a women's Spring Fling at Bates Hill CP church in McMinnville, TN. There they spent a great deal of time remembering together a woman from that community who had passed away last year. Charlotte Rose was a woman of great creativity, hope, joy and encouragement. She started a grief support group that has made a huge impact on her community. As I sat there looking at her pictures and listening to her friends testimonies I couldn't help but think about Tabitha.
Her friends had gathered as well, to grieve, to remember, to morn. They too had sought comfort from one another by gathering things given to them by Tabitha. No doubt their gathering was similar to one we have during a visitation for a loved one.
But something was different among Tabitha's friends. They could not, would not let her go.
They sent for Peter, the Apostle who came, heard their cries of distress and then, in a quiet room prayed, and God worked a miracle, bringing her back from the dead to sit among them and serve with them once more.
And when I read this part of the story I get mad.
Why does this happen for Tabitha, but not for others? Why did they get the miracle and the rest of us don't? What made her more special than anyone else?
Why did she come back, surrounded by loved ones, while my uncle passed away yesterday morning surrounded by his loved ones?
It's easy to get caught up in the why question. It's easy to feel anger or sorrow or confusion. Especially in this particular text because we are not given a reason for this miracle. Peter does not give a speech about Jesus' healing power or lordship. He doesn't give a speech at all, which is really unusual for Peter.
We are left with an unexplained miracle, unjustified miracle one might say.
And while there is much of me that wants to put this tension aside, much in me that wants to give an answer as to why Tabitha was resurrected and others are not, I can't. And I won't.
Miracles exist outside of what we can understand or explain. That's why we call them miracles! Tabitha was restored to a community and she was able to be a living reminder for a time of Christ's wonder working power. Her story is shared even today as a reminder that death does not have the last word and God is more powerful than we can even imagine.
Tabitha serves as a reminder of all of the named and unnamed saints who work tirelessly for the gospel.
We don't know why this miracle was granted to Tabitha and her friends, and honestly the why doesn't matter.
It's what happened after the miracle that is important. She is returned to community and she continues to do what she has been called to do! No resting on her laurels, no going around in a traveling circus side show as the resurrected woman. She goes back to serving the Lord in a manner that allows this story, her story, Tabitha's story to be told for generations to come.
The miracle isn't the end of Tabitha's story, it's the intermission.
Friends, each of us here as experienced at least one miracle in our lives. If we believe in Christ, if we have surrendered ourselves to his salvation, we have experienced our own resurrection! We are no longer slaves to sin and death. Rather we are new creations, citizens of heaven sent forth to share that miracle with those around us.
Will we be like Tabitha, working loving breathing reminders of the resurrection? Will we share God's love in such a way that generations later people will associate our names with his resurrection power?
That is the life we are called to live here at Christ church, we are called to bear witness to the miracle of Christ's resurrection and of our own resurrections. As new creations may we wear the name of Christ and boldly love as resurrection people with nothing left to loose!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Longing to belong

John 21
Do you remember the first time you felt like you truly belonged? I'm not talking about a time when the right people accepted you,  when you felt like you fit in. I mean the time when you realized you belonged, just as you were, without any additions or subtractions.

For very fortunate ones among us that feeling of belonging came from our families of origin. Our mothers fathers siblings and grandparents loved us just as we were and made a point to let us know. But others of us struggle for many years to belong some of us here or still facing that struggle. My sense of belonging as I am is tied back into my baptism. Knowing that a group of people spoke words of love and acceptance over me and gave me the title child of God at six weeks old has kept me from completely losing my identity.
Belonging is core to our experience as human beings. We long for our family, our group, our tribe to embrace us and tell us we are good enough just the way we are. And when we find that belonging we become fiercely loyal – until we aren't. Because there are those times when we will question our connection. There are those times when doubt, fears, whispers will get in close enough to separate us from those we love.

Peter and the disciples I've been through the ultimate separation from their tribe – Christ had been put to death. They had locked themselves in the upper room and watched as their identity, their sense of belonging, slowly slipped away. Until – until the women brought the good news of the resurrection to their broken hearts. Until – until the risen savior how to come twice to stand among them and offer them peace and reassurance. They rejoiced they celebrated and then, they went fishing!
Wait, fishing? I suppose there is the thought of fishing being celebratory relaxing me time. But in this case – not so much. In this case the disciples of seen Jesus twice they've been given the Holy Spirit, they've been given the ability and responsibility of forgiving sins and they have been sitting in the upper room trying to figure out what to do next.

Peter get sick of it and announces I'm going fishing. This isn't a pleasure cruise, he's going back to what he knows. He's going back to the way of life he knew before. He goes back into the world hoping to find a purpose once more. Well Peter is the only one who's words of denial are recorded in the Scriptures, the other disciples deny Jesus as well. They ran away during the hours following Jesus his arrest and death. They had altering their backs on the belonging they have received.

It's safe to say they all were unsure of what to do next – who they would be – where they would belong – and so they go back to what they know – back to the way of life they lived before. And then – in the Munding of their normal every day tasks, which state by the way were spectacularly bad at that day, they met once more the risen Lord.

In the midst of a rough time of fishing he calls to them from the shore to put their nets on the other side and to hold the catch of the 153 fish without breaking the nets. This reminds us of the call story we heard in Luke chapter 5 a few weeks ago. Where Jesus gave them the same instructions and they holding to catch swamped the boats. If you recall, after that catch, Luke records them leaving the fish on the shore and follow Jesus.

Here, John has Peter dive off the boat and race to Jesus his side where Jesus has already cooked breakfast on the beach. They all break bread together they feast, they remember.

They remember being called – setting their lives down to follow this man. They remember the miraculous deeds they witnessed, the helix, the casting out of demons, the raising of the dead. And they remember they remember their denial of Christ. They remember saying they did not belong to him by their words and actions.

It's almost as if Jesus can hear the words in their heads but I let you down Jesus, I turned away, I walked away, I have sinned, I have fallen short, I am not enough.

Do you love me?

Jesus interrupt Peter and our thoughts of failure with these simple words. Do you love me?

Love here is agape love, unconditional love holy love God like love. Peter responds you know I love you. I philio you, brotherly love I belong to you. Jesus says feed my lambs.

Do you love me? Again agape you know that I love you again brotherly love. Jesus says take care of my sheep.

Do you love me? Jesus asks again this time brotherly love. You know all things you know that I love you says Peter. feed my sheep says Jesus follow me.

Here Jesus offers Peter three chances to claim him once more. To voice again his belongings. But Jesus is offering more than that, he offers a sensible longing and gives peter a clear new purpose. Replace a lot of conditions on our love for God. Sometimes it's guilt and shame as was peters problem. Sometimes it's painful memories of painful experiences. Sometimes it's reluctance to except that God is God and we or not. It doesn't matter though. If we love God and anyway, no matter the limits are conditions, the required response is to care for the children of God, especially the vulnerable ones.

Love me as much as you can right now – all love you completely

love me and show that love by caring for others – I'll provide for you.

Love me by following me, and you will always belong.

Not my friends, Christ comes to us in our every day lives and says follow me. Christ comes into our illness in times of distress and offers healing. Christ comes into our locked rooms, our dark corners and gives us peace. Christ comes to us even when we feel that we've let him down and offers us love – belonging and purpose right where we are – just as we are.