“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Iona crossA minister friend and mentor of mine, Herb Davis, once told me that every preacher has only one sermon in him, or her. According to Herb, every Sunday the preacher serves up that one sermon in a variety of ways. It may look like a different sermon, but at the heart of it, there’s just the one!

When I was growing up my family always had some sort of a roast at Sunday dinner, which was usually served in the middle of the day after we came home from church. Then the remains of that roast would reappear in various guises throughout the week. For example, let’s say it was a pork roast. The roast might reappear on Monday night in a soup, and on Tuesday night as my Dad’s signature roast pork chop suey and so on. So is that really the way it is? Do the people of God get fed leftovers every Sunday?

I hope not. I think what Herb was saying is that every preacher’s one basic sermon provides the core convictions out of which that preacher delivers the Gospel. And if Herb is right about the one-sermon theory, than I suppose today’s epistle lesson would have to be the text for my one sermon. Let’s hear it again: Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger that human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 23-25)

This is what Paul calls the message of the cross. Paul believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that God raised him from the dead. The cross on which Jesus had died became for him the symbol of that Good News of God’s vast unconditional love for all humankind. Paul believed that in Christ’s dying and rising two important new things had occurred. First, there was now a new age of God’ activity, and, secondly, there was now a new community, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Continue reading

“Behind Locked Doors” A sermon on John 20:24-29

caravaggio_-_the_incredulity_of_saint_thomasThe Second Sunday of Easter, traditionally called “Low Sunday,” is a tough Sunday for a preacher for a number of reasons.  First of all, the context of our preaching can be a bit discouraging. We have fewer than half the people we had last week, and I always preach better for some reason when there are more people present. It must have something to do with group dynamics. Easter is always a high holy day in the church, a bright and festive day, and though the church in theory believes that Easter lasts for the Great Fifty Days, the second Sunday is, well you know, Low Sunday.  Plus I am always exhausted and worn thin after Easter.  But having said all that let me make a confession: I like low Sunday.

 I like it for two reasons. First, the folks who come on Low Sunday tend to be the faithful core of the congregation and I feel I don’t have to explain so much of the Gospel to you. To use Eugene Peterson’s helpful distinction, on Low Sunday there are more pilgrims and fewer tourists. I say that not to disparage religious tourists, God knows we have all been that at one time or another. God meets us where we are and even spiritual tourists need God’s mercy and love. My point is just that hardly anyone feels a pressing social or cultural need to get up and come to church on Low Sunday, so those who are here tend to be serious about what we are doing here, and I appreciate that, since I am serious about what we are doing here.

But the second and more important reason I like Low Sunday is that it speaks deep truths about how the risen Christ comes to us. Low Sunday is sort of a down and out Sunday, and the Lord Jesus seems to appear especially to the down and out. If you read the stories of the resurrection appearances it is startling that without exception the disciples are doing nothing especially religious when Jesus appears to them. They aren’t praying or worshipping. In Luke they are walking on the road lamenting what had happened, or they are fishing, having given up their discipleship to return to their day job. Here in John’s Gospel on Easter night the disciples are in a locked room, hiding in fear.

And it occurs to me that is the church’s natural state: a bunch of scared people locking out the world. You might argue that the disciples are not yet the church, until Jesus comes to them and gives them the Holy Spirit (John’s version of Pentecost) and you would be right.  The church without the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit is just a bunch of quite literally dispirited people hiding in fear from real and imagined enemies.

And that is one of the reasons I like Low Sunday. The disciples are so obviously failures at being disciples and so they share that in common with us. It’s Easter and they don’t even know it. They have nothing to offer as the church, no vision, no energy, no courage, no conviction. They are hiding. They are afraid. As far as they know Jesus is dead and done. The shepherd has been struck down and the sheep have scattered.

They should have believed the witnesses. Peter and the beloved disciple have been to the empty tomb. They have told the disciples what they have seen. Mary has told them she has seen the Lord. They should have believed, but they didn’t, and yet Jesus still comes to them.

So this isn’t a story about the disciples or doubting Thomas so much as it is a story about Jesus. We always want Jesus to meet us at our best, to help us to improve us, but instead he meets us at our worst, and he doesn’t care about improving us. He comes not to offer improvement, but resurrection. He comes not to bring the world as it is, only “better oiled,” but a new heaven and a new earth.

And so he comes to these dispirited disciples hiding behind locked doors, and he comes to us hiding among our manifold fears and anxieties. He comes among us and finds us worrying about our money and our health and our future, worrying about our image and our reputations. He finds us ready to hide behind locked doors to keep the world out.

He finds us afraid that we will be found out, that it will become known that we are not as courageous, virtuous and committed as we have led people to believe. If people really knew how self-centered and selfish we are; if they only knew that we can be stinkers and schemers, can act dishonorably and shamefully, childishly stubbornly. If they only knew.

But Jesus does know and still he comes among us and stands there with his wounded side and those dreadful broken hands and says “Peace be with you.”  And if that isn’t good news, I don’t know what is.

And then he says something most astonishing: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” There must be some mistake. He can’t mean us. We are hiding in fear behind locked doors. But there is no mistake. And this is the beauty of the church. We are the ones he sends, not the virtuous, the strong, the wise, the courageous. No, he wants us, sends us, foolish men and women, and slow of heart to believe.

And Thomas missed it and can’t buy it, can’t believe it. They said, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in  the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” So there!

And Thomas is the church, too. Practical, not given to flights of fancy or imagination. Thomas is the church in all its stubborn, hard–headed practicality. He had been a disciple, sure, but look what happened to Jesus. It was time to get back to reality, back to basics, back to practicalities. Show me or I won’t believe. And once again the good news of Low Sunday is Jesus comes to Thomas, comes to the church in all shortsightedness, in all its stingy fearfulness, all its ingratitude. Jesus comes and says, you want to see, see, you want to touch, touch.

That’s the beauty of Low Sunday, the real Easter story is not so much last week among the lilies as it is here among the few of us who have gathered to hear how the church began with these fearful disciples.

And if we can dare to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, can we not dare to believe that he can raise us too, not just when we die or at the resurrection of the last day, but now, raise up a church, a people who on their own are dead or as good as dead, afraid and hiding, but who when he comes among them are raised to life, raised to become the church. To love as he loves, to forgive as he forgives.

On Wednesday I dragged myself to come to church to two committees meetings that met at the same time.  When I came in there was one person at the first meeting, and when I went down the hall there was only one at the other.  There were some important things to be done by each committee, but it was not to be done that night. On the way home I was complaining a little bit to the Lord, and I thought, well, people are busy, and they are volunteers, and its Easter, and finally I said, Lord, if you want something to happen here, you better do it, because we are not up to it on our own. And then I had my sermon. Of course we’re not up to it on our own. What was I thinking? We never have been and we never will be. But still he comes among us, still he sends us, still he calls us to be the church.

And then I had two funerals, one Friday and one yesterday, and at those funerals I saw the faces of the people as I told them the good news of the Resurrection, the good news of the Gospel, the Good news of Easter, and I thought, yes, this is the church. This is why we’re here, this is what we are here to do. To be witnesses to the risen Christ. To tell people he lives, and we can live too with him.

So I may feel a little low this Sunday, and you may feel a little low this Sunday, and this Sunday may feel a little low this Sunday, but the Risen Christ comes to meet us when we’re low, in fact, more likely than when we’re  not, and when he comes he bids us peace and send us out in the power of his resurrection. We’re coming out of our locked doors. We don’t need to hide. There is nothing to fear. Because it may be Low Sunday, but its still Easter.  Amen.

(I preached this sermon on April 30, 2000 at First Church of Christ, Congregational, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts)

(Painting: Caravaggio)

Eastertide Ruminations on Committal Practices around Cremation

 

 

My mother died young at age 53 in 1967, and by her request was cremated. There was a moving memorial service for her at our little church, but the “cremains” remained in a box inside a cardboard box on my father’s dresser for years, since my bereft and broken-hearted Dad either didn’t know what to do with them, or just couldn’t part with them.   Some good pastoral care would have been helpful.  For years I felt no sense of place to pay my respects to my mother or grieve or do whatever one needs to do at a graveside.

Many years later my Dad remarried a wonderful woman named Virginia, and my Mom’s ashes went along with him to his new household.  He was blessed with ten very happy years with his second wife, and then in 1983 he himself died at the age of 69.  My wife and I were privileged to be with him for a couple weeks at the time of his death, although I had left for a few minutes to have a swim in the ocean when he actually died.  When I saw my wife standing quietly on the shore I knew he was gone.

Later that week I received a phone call that from anybody else but a gracious soul like Virginia might have been extremely awkward.  We were preparing for my Dad’s graveside committal (unlike my mother, he had chosen to be buried), and Virginia asked me and my sister and brother, “What should I do with your Mom’s ashes?”  He had held onto them all those years.

So we all huddled and decided they should go into the ground alongside my Dad’s body and that’s what we did. So my sister, brother, my Dad’s wife, and I saw both my parents committed to the ground in “The sure and certain hope of eternal life,“ despite the fact that they had died 17 years apart.   And it probably wasn’t with those words since it was a Quaker cemetery (Virginia was a Quaker and my Dad had become one), and Quakers are short on liturgy.  Nonetheless, now we have a place, even if it is far from where we live.

We know their remains are just that, but rituals and sacred sites have their place in our lives.  Once in answer to a question about multiple spouses in heaven, Jesus said that “when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven,” so I anticipate in faith that God will sort it all out on the Great Day of Resurrection.

Cremations were rare back in 1967, and my mother was a practical Christian woman with a proto-Green streak.  Today cremations are much more common, but our committal practices have not caught up with that reality.

A friend of mine sent me a link to today’s Christian Century blog. There is a moving and instructive article by Thomas Lynch called The holy fire, Cremation: A practice in need of ritual.  Lynch is a writer (a good one) and a funeral director, and I recommend that every pastor should read this piece, which can be found here.

The Resurrection is not a metaphor: “Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike”

 

A few years ago, a friend of mine, a college professor, was driving by a local Lutheran Church and saw in big letters on their sign, THE RESURRECTION IS NOT A METAPHOR!

Those who read this blog know my love for the work of John Updike, one of our best Twentieth Century Christian novelists. His poetry is pretty good, too.  Here’s his take on the wise Lutherans’ signboard.


Seven Stanzas at Easter
by John Updike

 

Make no mistake: if He rose at all

it was as His body.

If the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the

amino acids rekindle,

the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,

each soft spring recurrent;

it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the

eleven apostles;

it was as his flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,

the same valved heart

that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then regathered out of

enduring Might

new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcendence;

making of the event a parable, a thing painted in the faded credulity

of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier mache,

not stone in a story,

but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will

eclipse for each of us

the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,

make it a real angel,

weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the

dawn light, robed in real linen

spun on a definite loom.

Let us not make it less monstrous,

for in our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,

lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,

we are embarrassed by the miracle,

and crushed by remonstrance.

– John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” in Telephone Poles and Other Poems (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), 72–3.
(Photo by David Macy:  Easter, yesterday, North Haven, Maine)

On Easter Day: A Hymn for Easter Sunday

On Easter Day, on Easter Day
The angel rolled the stone away.
Let all good Christians sing and pray
On Easter Day.

On Easter Day, on Easter Day
A new creation came to stay
To take the sting of death away
On Easter Day.

On Easter Day, on Easter Day
Christ came among them, so they say,
And shared his story on the Way
On Easter Day.

On Easter Day, this Easter Day,
We come to worship, sing and pray,
And share his presence, come what may
On Easter Day.

Suggested tune: Victory (Palestrina)

©Richard L. Floyd, 2004