“Mourning for the Branch” John 15:1-8

Writing a sermon is sometimes a melancholy endeavor.

You look at the scripture, you dig around in the history and the meaning of words and phrases at the time.

You pull together some thoughts about what it is that you think Jesus was trying to get at, or what the disciples might have heard back then, or what Jesus’ words, actions or events might have to say to us today.

You spend a lot of time turning thoughts over in your head.

Some are appropriate thoughts, leading you to new insights to be shared.

Some are dead-end wonderings, not really fit to be uttered in a public setting.

And on occasion, you muse about how to tell the difference between the two.

So it was, that I was thinking about this passage from John’s gospel for today, about the Vine and the Branches, mulling over the themes of vines, branches, and pruning.   I found my hands touching the various pieces of wood furniture in my home.    Tables, chairs, a carved bookcase.   All these things once connected to a living, growing tree.    I found my mind wandering to a question I had never before considered.

“Does the vine mourn for the branches that it has lost?”

Yes, I know, I’m imbuing a plant with human consciousness, thought and emotional range, but it seems to me that Jesus introduces such a thought in telling this particular story.

“Abide in me as I abide in you.”  Jesus says.

“Those who abide in my bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  Jesus says.

These are powerful words of connection.  They remind us of the intimacy that God wishes to share, that God has with God’s people.

We do so long for connection in this world, we seek it in our electronics and in our politics and in our sports teams and in our worship of celebrity.

We want to be connected.

And right here, Jesus offers this ultimate “connection” illustration.  We are part and parcel of him.   His words are intended to reassure us.

But we are only human, and sometimes words strike us in interesting ways, and so when he goes on to say,

“Apart from me, you can do nothing.”

It triggers something else in us.   Instead of allowing us to revel in the closeness and connection we have with Jesus, we entertain the thought of not being able to do anything apart from Jesus and it stirs up the thoughts of separation.

Those thoughts and feelings are powerful as well.

We look at this teaching of Jesus and a subtle shift takes place in us as we consider pruning.

Our eyes shift from looking at how we are connected to Jesus to how it would be not to be connected, and in that moment we move from joy to fear, for if there is one thing that we as humans do understand it is the concept of loss.

We fixate on these words about pruning, because our inclination is to try to not lose a single thing, because, well… we grieve when we lose things!

We mourn.

Such words are the basis of many an in-reach effort to bring back those who have become severed in some way, all those folks who were excised by this event or by that.

They don’t come to church anymore because of what Pastor so-and-so did, or said, or taught.

Or they don’t come to church anymore because of the decision made about the carpet, or the chairs, or because….well — the reasons are legion!

And so, because we grieve the loss of things that were once connected to us, we try to put them back together.

We tell ourselves that it’s what Jesus would have wanted, right?  Gathering up the lost!

And indeed, Jesus does speak of seeking the lost in other places… but not here.

Such gathering work is hard to begin with, and even harder here!   Trying to gather up dried and withered connections and figuring a way to graft them back into a living community is not a task with much hope connected to it.

Such efforts rarely produce much fruit.

So it is, that we look at the words of warning and the talk of pruning in this lesson, and try to find some consolation for ourselves there.

“He (that is, God the vinedresser) removes every branch that bears no fruit.”  Jesus says.

“You have already been cleansed/pruned.” (same word) Jesus says to his disciples.

“Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”   Jesus says.

We try to console ourselves about how those who are no longer connected are really better off, (or we are better off without them!)

But here too, there is a troubling element in such an attempt at reassurance.

How do we know when the pruning has been “of God?”

How do we know when what we sometimes refer to as “dead wood” are those who have severed themselves from our fellowship?   Or have they gotten “lopped off” through our own careless words or actions?

If that is the case, who has been doing the pruning really?  And, are such really consigned as Jesus seems to indicate only to the fire?

So does the vine mourn for the branches that it has lost?

We do, for sure, and it bothers us.  We mourn for every loss that comes along, and the more we mourn them, they more they pile up, the more we look and fixate at what has been cut away.

The pile of things taken away preoccupies our mind.

But in reading and re-reading the passage from John’s gospel I have to say that there is very little mourning of what was lost going on by Jesus.

Instead Jesus’ (and God’s) paramount concern appears to be not how to re-connect the severed, but rather how to tend to the connections that are already in place for the sake of bearing fruit!

Once the vine is withered, the game is lost.  There is no re-connecting!

That may at first sound harsh, but it’s consistent with the words here about pruning.  Some things do get cut away for the sake of the health of the vine.

Some things in us do have to be nipped and our wild growing tendencies need to be held in check, for the sake of the overall health of the community, of the connection with Jesus.

My mind wandered to the olive trees of Judea as I thought about this.

Some of those trees, you know date back to the time of Jesus, who may very well have perhaps taught and prayed under their shade.

But those old trees, have been nipped and pruned, and segments of them are no longer around.

I doubt those trees mourn the loss of a branch, even though the moment of the clip may have been painful.

They do not mourn it because they have the benefit of seeing what followed the momentary pinch.  The greater harvest, the longer health, and the centuries of productivity.

Or I thought of the vineyards of Italy and Slovenia, and how some of the vines there are still producing grapes after 500 years, meaning that they were planted by the hands of monks and peasants around at the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation.

A glass of Chianti at my dinner table may very well have been made from the same vines that bore the fruit that was made into the wine for Popes and Kings in the Renaissance.

Such vines did not live so long by being left alone, or left to fend for themselves, or left to grow wild.

They were meticulously trained and shaped and the tendrils as they grew were wound around the supporting structures.

Season after season the roots need to be dug up and the soil loosened around them, and the fertilizer is spread, and the wayward shoots nipped off, all in order that greater productivity could be assured.  More fruit, more wine, more sustaining of life and joy.
That’s “abiding power.”

That’s “staying power” connected and being fruitful in ways that we often can barely fathom, barely hope for ourselves.

But that is the kind of fruitfulness that our God, the great vine grower has in mind for us, and the kind of fruit bearing that Jesus, the vine to whom we are connected says we are capable of doing.

So, the vine does not mourn for the branches it has lost.

The vine focuses its efforts on the new growth that comes from the pruning.

Those who tend the vine and branches revel in the kind of fruit that well pruned vines can produce.

Which gets us back the thorny issue of loss.

We tend to mourn loss more than we look for the fruit that comes from judicious pruning.

We tend to want to hold on to things instead of letting them be snipped away, letting go of things that are no longer bearing fruit or allowing for new growth and new direction.

If we wither, we do so because our connection to Jesus has gotten choked off by other connections.

We put connection to friends, or our devotion to policy, or our love of procedure, or our sense of tradition, or our fear of change before our connection to Jesus!

We don’t mean to, we just have eyes that are loss averse.

We put our connection to something else as being more important than connection with Jesus, and in doing so, we experience a kind of withering.

You can feel, when it happens.

You know this kind of withering.

We think that by avoiding loss we can avoid the mourning over things, and hold on to everything, but such is not the witness of scripture or of this world.

Trying to hold on to everything simply guarantees that it will all slip from your grasp!

Does the vine mourn for the branches it has lost?

No.

Both the vine and the dresser are focused instead on something quite different.  They are focused on bearing fruit and doing whatever it takes to make that happen.

That appears to be the hardest thing for us to keep in our field of view.

So, thanks be to God that the vine dresser and Jesus are on top of that, reminding us to worry less about what we stand to lose, and to look forward instead to the fruitfulness we stand to gain!

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“Not Just A Bunch of Sheep” John 10:11-18

pexels-photo-288621.jpegSunday School did me a serious dis-service.

I’ll bet it did you one as well.

It wasn’t an intentional dis-service, rather a cute little ditty that sticks in your head and rattles around in there.    Many a VBS teacher or volunteer has known the danger of singing with children and getting this earworm stuck, only to come back to them again and again in the middle of the night.

“I just wanna be a sheep, baa…….”

“I just wanna be a sheep, baa…….”

“Pray the Lord my soul to keep, baa…..”

“I just wanna be a sheep, baa……”

It’s a cute little ear worm, with a number of verses.

There is a verse about not wanting to be a Pharisee, because they’re not “fair, you see.”

One about not wanting to be a Hypocrite, because they’re not “hip, with it.”  (thereby dating the song from the late 60’s or early 70’s.)

Another verse about not wanting to be a Sadducee, because they so “Sad, you see.”

“I just wanna be a sheep…”

On face value there is nothing wrong with the desire to be a follower of Jesus, — “a sheep of his own fold, a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redemption” – as we say in our Baptismal and Funeral Liturgies.  There is comfort to be found in knowing such connection, being assured that we are watched over and cared for and never snatched away from the Shepherd’s reach.

But like that earworm, (a song that won’t go away,) I’m a little afraid we get “stuck” right there.  We get stuck on simply being sheep.

We tend to have a romantic view of Jesus of somehow existing just to take care of us.  He is the “good shepherd” after all, as it says right here in John, there to poke and prod us around to where we need to go, and to expect so very little from us because, we are, (after all,) just sheep.

John’s Gospel however will not let us comfortably graze, minding our own business.

Jesus does all this talking about being the “good shepherd” into a particular context, and that context is what has just happened in chapter 9.

There we read the story of the man blind from birth whom Jesus heals.    The question from the disciples in that story was “who sinned, this man or his parents?”

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned;” Jesus says,  “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”

That does not sound like a particularly passive existence.

Indeed, as soon as Jesus heals the man who had been blind from birth in chapter 9, his life gets, shall we say, “complicated?”

Far from grazing and docilely following Jesus, the man who had formerly been blind finds himself engaged in a confrontation with the Pharisees, and in defending Jesus, and in witnessing to him, and finally a bit perplexed as to how he ended up in this position.

It is then that Jesus re-enters the story with an invitation, and it is not one to simply to “follow” but rather to “believe.”

This man is meant for more than simply occupying space now.  More than being dependent upon the kindness of others.  The encounter with Jesus has made him into one in whom God’s works are revealed, and through whom greater works will be accomplished.

The Pharisees in the story are revealed as mere “hired hands.”  They are more concerned about their own position, their own “skin” and maintaining their position and decorum within the community than with the individual life of the man now healed.

The “good shepherd” Jesus says, “lays down his life for the sheep.”

The “good shepherd” has other sheep to gather, (not to alienate or drive away) so that there will be one flock.

The invitation understood is to become a shepherd now.  To become one who helps in the gathering of those who are “not of this fold.”

Far from being a picture of skittering lambs or thoughtless wanderers, those who hear Jesus and who believe in him find themselves transformed into workers with him in the Kingdom.

So, here’s my beef with the song.

I may just wanna be a sheep, but Jesus appears to be looking for more “good shepherds.”

He is looking for those who will follow, yes, but follows with the intention of maturing into leaders.

You can see this in John’s Gospel in the foot washing event.   Jesus models what it is to be servant and then gives the command, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

That’s “good shepherd” kind of work, serving one another.

And in that same context, in the upper room he gives them another directive.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Having love for one another is a “taking initiative” kind of thing, not just blind following.

That’s “good shepherd” kind of work, to make a decision to set aside differences and divisions, and your own self-interest in order to be intentional about loving one another.

You can see this call to be a “good shepherd” in the final exchange that takes place between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection.  There they are, on the shore of the lake, and after sharing a meal of fish, Jesus looks at Peter and says to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 

That’s “good shepherd” kind of language.   And Jesus repeats the invitation three times, one for every time Peter had earlier denied him.

A second time (Jesus) said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 

He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.

What does that sound like to you?

Does that sound like being a sheep is going to be enough?

Does it not sound more like Jesus reminding Peter that he has followed the “good shepherd” not to learn simply how to follow, but also to learn how to love, and to live, and to lead?

“I just wanna be a sheep” is selling ourselves short.

“I just wanna be a sheep” is missing out on the challenge of discipleship, and also on the great joy that comes in helping others to believe and to become more than they thought they were capable of being.

This past week was a remarkable week, did you know that?

Here at St. James we had two members who were approved for Candidacy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Heather and Sue, both approved to become “good shepherds.”

They are and will be engaged in Seminary.

They will train.

They will pray and be prayed for by us.

They will experience the full range of following Jesus, and they will be sheep of God’s own fold, but they will also aspire to be shepherds as well, and we pray good ones.  Leading, guiding, being exasperated by the tendency of flocks to wander, but ultimately to trust in what the good shepherd has taught them, modeled for them.

They will do “good shepherd” kind of work.

And this past week Emily signed up for her final semester of classes, and in June she will begin her Internship at our sister congregation, Advent in Olathe.   There she will get a chance to experience more fully what it means to shepherd.  She’ll laugh at the antics of the flock, and how they will break your heart, and how she will see them grow and be with them as they die.

She will step a little closer to becoming a good shepherd.

And last weekend, we baptized little Fielding Brenner, and we said the words, “Fielding Brenner, Child of God, let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.”

He may be just a sheep… for now… but we see in him great things to come.  A good shepherd in the making.

Maybe a pastor someday.

Or maybe just one of any number of people whom Jesus has touched, and healed, and who suddenly find themselves not simply sheep anymore but called upon to lead, and a shepherd.

Maybe to shepherd another person.

Maybe to shepherd their own child.

Maybe to shepherd a spouse, or a co-worker, or a big brother or sister.

Those same words uttered over Fielding were also uttered over each and every one of us, (those words about about letting your light so shine) – they were spoken not so that we could forever remain sheep, tossed to and fro by every whim, but that we might, (as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4,) “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

That’s “good shepherd” kind of talk, and work, understanding that while we are to follow where Jesus has led the way, we are also expected to walk, and to work, and do the things that the Shepherd has shown us how to do.

So, like I said, Sunday School did me a bit of a dis-service.

I do wanna be a sheep, yes… but that’s not all I wanna be… and that’s not all that a God who sees great things in us wants us to be.

God sees great things in us.

God sees our light shining in this this world.

God sees and your life fitted for “good shepherd” kind of work, in the place where you are.  Amen.

What Do You Have To Say? Luke 24:36-48

A few years back we were vacationing in Minnesota.  I was standing in the check-out line at Wal-Mart, when someone came up to me and asked me what kind of bait I would recommend to use for Walleye at this time of year.

Now, that’s not an unusual question to hear in Minnesota, but as I looked up to tell the person that I wasn’t from this area and didn’t really know, I saw the familiar face of an old  friend from the small town that I grew up near.   I had not seen him for years!   He just happened to be vacationing in the same area and had come to this store at the same time that I had.

Do you know what I said to him?

Absolutely nothing!

I just stood there with my mouth hanging open.  He had caught me so off guard that I couldn’t think of a thing to say!  I recognized him, but couldn’t think of his name.  I couldn’t put a sentence together at all, and finally just stammered out, “Well, hi.”

I’ll bet you’ve had experiences like that before haven’t you?  You run into someone you didn’t expect to see, in an unfamiliar setting, and you just go blank with surprise.

I think that is part of what is happening in today’s Gospel lesson.

This is Luke’s account of Jesus appearing to the disciples for the first time after the resurrection.

They have heard the strange stories of the women, and the men walking to Emmaus, and you might have thought that those things would have prepared them, but really, how do you prepare to see someone who is supposed to be dead popping up alive again?

I think you could even experience that more than once and still be left speechless by it all!   No matter how good it would be to see that person alive again.  Luke puts it this way, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering….”

Joyful, yes; but it is still hard to believe.  Jesus is here, really here?   That is something to wonder about!

I think that it is still the same way for you and for me when it comes to recognizing the power of the Risen Christ at work in our lives.

We have a hard time believing in the promise that Jesus gave, the promise that he would be with us always.  No matter how we might equip ourselves to look for that, we never quite expect him to really show up.

So it is that when he does pop up, (often in the most unexpected of places,) we too, are just left speechless.

Catching a vision of the Risen Lord popping into you life requires that you begin to look at the events of your life with the eyes of faith.

Catching a vision of the Risen Lord appearing means that we need to pay particular attention to the everyday events and circumstances, so that we begin to see that there are no coincidences in life.

If we take this Gospel lesson at its face value, we find out that Jesus chooses to show up in the ordinary stuff.

It is while you are broiling a piece of fish, while you’re getting ready to eat, while you’re talking with your friends—that’s when Jesus pops in and enters the conversation.  He wants to be a part of the action.

Why are we so surprised when that happens?

In the midst of ordinary conversation things begin turn to matters of faith, of love, of hurt or questions about meaning, and it catches us completely off guard.

I mean, we were just going to have a little backyard barbeque.   All of a sudden out of the blue a friend starts talking about really deep stuff!

How tough life is for them right now.

The trouble they are in.

The doubts they have, or the diagnosis they just heard about, or the trouble with  a child.

It is a sacred moment, a holy moment, when that person opens up.

That is the moment where Jesus is waiting in the wings to enter the conversation.

So then, why does this kind of moment so often leave us speechless?   Has not Jesus given us the very words to speak; the very words of encouragement to give to them?

It is in the ordinary that the Risen Lord meets us.

It is in the ordinary day to day life that Jesus encourages us to remember his words and to speak them.

We know that when the words of Jesus are uttered into the ordinary, they can often take on extraordinary power and significance.  We have the very words that can move people in a new direction.

Words can un-stick the stuck, they can challenge the bitter, they can bring hope and possibility to the despairing.

The words that Jesus speaks to us have power, and they are meant to be shared.

Think about some of those words given to us to speak.

From today’s Gospel we are given, “Peace be with you.”    It sounds archaic perhaps, but there is something powerful about wishing peace upon someone that moves that person deeply.

“Peace, yes, peace, that is what I’m looking for…”,

In this decision I have to make, in this situation I find myself in.  Yes, to have some peace about it, that would be a good thing, and here is someone wishing me peace – in Jesus’ name.

Think of the words, the promises that Jesus has given us to share with others.

“I will not leave you desolate,” Jesus says to us, “I will send the Holy Spirit the comforter to guide you.”

You are not in this alone.  You are not the only one facing this thing, whatever it is, Cancer, addiction, bankruptcy, rebellious children, failing health—“I will not leave you desolate,” Jesus promises.  “I’m sending someone to guide you.”

Think of the words we have to say.

“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of you.”

“Whatever you ask in my name shall be given to you by my Father in heaven, who will hear you.”

These are the words we have to say into the face of this world’s pain and suffering and confusion.

They are words that can encourage us.

Words that remind us that God promises to come to us.

They are words that speak of a Resurrected Lord who pops in to ordinary lives at extraordinary times.

There will be days of course, where you won’t be able to see God anywhere.

The day the diagnosis comes.

The day the job is lost.

The day when the child goes missing, the friend is struck down, or the parent dies.   Those are days that are not ordinary at all, except in the context of a sin- wracked world.

In a sin-wracked world you can expect such things to happen.

And it is because we live in just such a sin-wracked world that it is absolutely critical that we be about the task of being reminded of the words of Jesus in the ordinary times.

It is because we live in a sin-wracked world that we need to be about the task of witnessing, of inviting people to worship, of telling them our faith story and what those words of Jesus mean to us in our ordinary lives.

Because you see, if you haven’t heard the word of Jesus in the ordinary days, (when things are relatively calm and smooth,) when you are confronted with trouble, difficulty and despair, those words can be too faint to hear clearly!

Did Jesus really say he would be with me?  Or was that something I dreamed up?

Did Jesus really promise that he would listen, or is that something I’m just wishing would happen because I’m in trouble here?

When the heat is on in this world, you don’t want to be caught off guard or speechless!

That’s the best reason I can give people for being faithful in worship.  You need to hear these words, sing these songs, let them fill the crevasses of your life, your soul, so that you will have a ready reserve to draw upon in both the good times and the bad.

What do you have to say?  The very words of Jesus have been given to you.

“I will be with you always.”   Jesus promises.  That’s a blessing that is as good for the person in grief as it is for the child being sent off to college or to start their own life.   “Don’t forget, Jesus promised he would be with you.”

“Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy, and by burden is light.”  Jesus said.  That is a word that is as good to hear when you are taking on a new task as it is to hear when you feel overwhelmed and overburdened in life.

“Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”   Jesus said.  Those are good words to hear, and to be reminded of when things seem closed off to you, and equally good to hear when you feel lost in this life.  God is determined to find you, and to be with you.  No door stands in his way.

What do we have to say to this world?   We have the very words of Jesus which can spring across the centuries and bring the very presence of Christ into the here and now!

The Risen Lord pops up still, where you least expect him, in the ordinary days.

Look with the eyes of faith.

Be attentive to the words, and Jesus will reveal himself to you, and through you Jesus will speak into the lives of others, revealing himself again to a world that longs to see him.

Of this, the power of Jesus words to bring life and hope anew, you will be witnesses.

“Show Me” Kind of People John 20:19-31

Thomas is a biblical character that should resonate well with Missourians.   We’re a “show-me” kind of people living in a “show-me” state.

Which is really kind of interesting, because there are two legends as to how the phrase came to be the unofficial motto for the state, you know.

The first is from a speech, (according to Wikipedia) by Congressman Willard Vandiver in 1899, who declared that “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri, and you have got to show me.”

In this version of the story, Missourians are a stalwart, practical folk who are convinced only when shown sufficient evidence.   Seeing is believing.  And so, like Thomas in the Gospel, we require a look at the details.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails and place my hand in the side…I will not believe.”

Like Thomas, some of us are enamored with proofs, and being shown, and having something to point to, to look at and to measure.

It’s interesting that Thomas wants both the nail prints and the wound in the side.

Nail prints, maybe those are survivable, but an opening in the side?  Now that you can’t fake.  If you can show me that, if I can put my hand in there then I’ll believe that this is Jesus back from the grave.

“Show me” –let me see the evidence.

In another version of the story however, you get a different picture.  During a miner’s strike in Leadville Colorado a contingent of mine workers from Joplin Missouri was brought in to try to break up the strike and keep the Leadville mine in operation.

It did not go well.

In this version of the story, the picture is much less flattering for Missourians.

The Missouri miners were unfamiliar with the techniques required for mining in the granite rock formations of Colorado.  The Missourians were unfamiliar with how to do things and slow to learn, having to be shown how to use the hammer, drill, and set the charges.  “Show me” was a synonym for “I don’t know how this works.”

So, when a replacement miner showed up to work the foreman would condescendingly say, “He’s from Missouri, you’ll have to show him…”

“Show me” – I don’t know how this works, how this is done.

Could this apply to the Thomas story as well?

Thomas was not able to comprehend the testimony of his fellow disciples.   Perhaps he is a little “slow on the pick-up” about this Resurrection thing and how it worked.

So, take your pick, the “show-me” phrase refers to either requiring enough evidence and details, or is descriptive of being slow to learn and to trust in the witness of others, — this is who Thomas is.

And take your pick, this is who we are as well.

We are “show-me” people.

Like Thomas, some of us also live our lives seeming to have “just missed” Jesus, or at very least needing a little more proof of his presence.

We go looking for proof of God in the details.

Sometimes in the church we want a little more proof that Jesus is still around, that this God thing is a real going venture, that the resurrection is a present reality or a future possibility.

We look to the details for proof of that.

“If God is real, there shouldn’t be any suffering.”  We reason.   “The fact that there is suffering in this world is proof that God just isn’t around anymore, at least not for you, or for me.  Suffering is evidence that God doesn’t care, or that God isn’t able to intervene, so “show me” an end to suffering and then I’ll believe in Jesus.”

“Show me suffering can be ended, and then I will follow this God.”

We use perceived absence as evidence.

“If God were really around, our congregation wouldn’t have any money issues. We’d have enough resources, and more young families, and lots of people willing to volunteer.  Show me that, and I’ll believe God is doing something in this place.”

Or, “If God’s spirit was really in this place, people would be nicer to one another here.  Show me a church that doesn’t have people arguing about things, and then I’ll believe and go there.”

“Or….”   Well, you get the picture here.

The details, that’s what we’re always looking for, and just the right ones, don’t you know.

A balanced spreadsheet.

A happy smile on every face.

A miracle or two would be nice.

Evidence of a future.

Like Thomas, we lay out our list of requirements.   We may not think of them as such, but in actuality, that’s what they are.  They are conditional requirements for believing in the Resurrection and its power.

They are the things we quietly say to ourselves that we will need to see before… well you name it.

“Show me….then I’ll invest my time and ability.”

“Show me… .then I’ll give to your cause.”

“Show me this will make a difference, and then I’ll follow and do the same.”

“Show me something tangible, then I’ll believe, or trust you, or give you the benefit of the doubt.”

But when you look at this story in John’s gospel, the first thing that jumps out at you is that in the end it wasn’t any of the details that convinced Thomas at all!

He does not touch the nail prints.

He does not place his hand in Jesus’ side… even when invited so to do by the Risen Lord.

No, what convinces Thomas is not seeing or verifying the details.

What convinces Thomas is the shared event, the shared experience of seeing the risen Lord with those around him.

Those other disciples who tried to convince him the week previous, they don’t have to say a thing now.

They don’t have to convince him of anything.

They don’t even have to say, “He missed you the first time around Jesus, so show him, just show him….”

They simply have to be present with Thomas now as Jesus reveals himself to Thomas.

And this is what made me wonder if perhaps show-me people in a show-me state are more like Thomas than we care to admit.

We think too, think that it’s the details that will convince us.

What we miss is the event.

The event where Jesus shows up and becomes visible to others.

If we can do what Thomas could not do in that moment, share in that understanding, “we have seen the Lord!” then we might be able to step beyond our own Thomas skepticism.

Do I have to see Jesus to experience his presence, or is the witness of others enough to make me rejoice with them?

What was missing the week before for Thomas was a sense of rejoicing!  Rejoicing at what others had seen.   Rejoicing at what they believed.

Thomas did not say, “Oh, you saw him?  Tell me what that was like!”

Instead he said, “unless I see…”

What if Thomas, instead of insisting on being shown the details, could have for just a moment rejoiced in what the others had seen as the very presence of the Lord in their midst, breathing the gift of the Spirit upon them?

Would this story have been different?

Would our lives be different, our attitudes, if instead of looking for proof or details or verification of the presence of the Risen Lord, if we instead chose to rejoice in the witness of others?

What if I told you that every Monday and Wednesday I see Jesus walk in here?   She comes in with a  wheelie briefcase and sets up to teach English as Second Language, and as she works and prepares her lesson, Jesus also walks in the forms that he promised he would, as the stranger who was welcomed, as the one how had been imprisoned and is now learning, as the refugee, as the one who was looking for a cup of water and a chance to start afresh?

Would you rejoice in that?  Would you say, “You saw Jesus walk in?  What was that like?”

Or would you instead want some proof, some detail of my claim to prove it to you?”

What if I said every Sunday morning and ever Wednesday night I see Jesus walking in with a bag for carrying groceries?    He did say, “I was hungry and you fed me.”

What if I said every Sunday afternoon I see Jesus appear in Pastor Joe’s smiling face, and in the face of those who gather for worship here, as they sing and dance and praise Jesus in a language where all I understand are the words “Alleluia” and “Jesus.”

Would you rejoice with me at the presence of the Risen Lord in their midst, and the privilege of making their gathering possible?   Would you say, “You saw Jesus?  Tell me what it was like?”

What if I said that I’ve seen Jesus carting in milk and carrying around produce and boxes of bananas and multiplying the bananas I’m quite sure, somehow, as surely as they multiplied the loaves and fishes, because they just seem to do that, you can’t stop the abundance.

Would you rejoice with me at that, say, “You saw Jesus doing miracles of feeding!  What was that like?”

Or would you want to proof?  Some detail to prove that it was Christ at work?

What if I told you that I’ve seen Jesus dandle children on his knee in a Sunday School opening here, or felt the presence of Christ in women gathered around a sewing table as surely as Peter must have felt Christ’s presence when he called Lydia from her deathbed?  Or Paul must have felt Christ presence as he stitched tent fabric and dictated his letters to young churches.

What if I told you that I see Christ every time the TLC group gathers around a table and begins to break donuts and pass them around, just as surely as the disciple saw Christ as he said, “take and eat?”

We are “show me” people in a “show me” state and far too much of the time we have just missed Jesus, not because we aren’t in the right place at the right time, but rather because we fail to rejoice with those who are sure that they have just seen him in their midst.

We want proof, when what is needed is worship.

We desire to get details, when what is required is joining in their celebration.

We make our demands for things to be done in certain ways, and in the process become blind to the wind of the Spirit still being breathed in, around and upon those who have seen Jesus in their midst.

We are show me people in a show me state, and we want to see Jesus, and some proof of his presence.

Well, if you need that, just look at the person next to you, and ask them.  Have them tell you what John’s Gospel affirms over and over.

“We have seen the Lord.” – and listen to what they have to say.

Tune your eyes to look for that, and your heart to receive the witness of your neighbor, and as it is shared with you, you will begin to see the Risen Lord everywhere.

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet come to believe.”

“Is It A Resurrection if you’re expecting it? Mark 16:1-8

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It is a happy and strange alignment of things that Easter falls on April Fool’s day, but doubly so because it is the year of Mark’s Gospel.

Talk about an April fool’s.  We come looking for the assurance of resurrection on Easter, but all we get are women running away scared and amazed.

For a Gospel that tends to be particularly lean on detail, where things happen “immediately” and where incidents fall one upon another in fast succession, there is an amazing amount of detail in this story, and time taken to recount it.

The women have waited until after the Sabbath (where work was not allowed) to go and do for the Body of Jesus the things that are usually done as a matter of respect.

This alone is a remarkable thing, showing incredible devotion and love, for it would be one thing to wash, anoint, and prepare a body for burial soon after the death.

Quite another to do the task for a body already well along on the road to decomposition in the Judean heat.

They bought spices.

It is very early in the morning, but the sun has risen.

The stone is a troubling detail, who will move it?  It is very large.  Will we be able to move it?

Then the detail of that very large stone having already been moved, and the man in white seated inside, and the invitation to see where Jesus had been laid, and to go and tell his disciples (particularly Peter by name) to go to Galilee, “there you will see him, just as he told you.”

We trip through all of this detail almost thoughtlessly because it is what we are expecting to hear on Easter.

We expect to hear the “He is Risen!  He is not here!”

But the women, the women did not.

They flee the tomb in terror and amazement we are told, and that is the unexpected part for us.

They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.

It’s a perplexing ending at first, this original ending to Mark’s Gospel.   A troubling one.  So much so that later scribes tried to tack on a resurrection account or two, but the oldest copies we have of Mark’s Gospel all end right here with those women running away and not saying a word.

Obviously, at some point in time those women did talk, recounting all this detail, but Mark wants to make the point that the resurrection, (though talked about repeatedly by Jesus himself in the run up to the events in Jerusalem,) still caught everyone off guard.

The women did not go to the tomb to see if what Jesus had promised had happened.  They did not come with hope or expectation of meeting a Risen Lord.

They came to anoint a dead body.

They did not come to the tomb with gifts of food and beverage to celebrate with the Resurrected Lord, –  have the first Easter Pot-Luck Breakfast.

They came with funerary spices.

They did not go to the tomb expecting to see a stone rolled back and the tomb empty.

They came expecting to have to figure out how to claw and pry their way in to find Jesus’ decaying body and to have to deal with all the unpleasantness of that.

It is because what they find when they arrive at the tomb is so far out of their expectations that they run in fear and amazement.

It is because of the shock of what they found that the details of the event are seared into their memories.   Much like being in a car wreck or experiencing a trauma, time slows down here for the women and every detail becomes indelibly etched.

The women did not expect a Resurrection.

Which is what got me thinking.   Is it truly a resurrection if you expect it to happen?

There are days when the story of Easter we tell here has all the same characteristics of Ground Hog’s Day.

It is the story we tell every year about Jesus coming out of his hole.  We expect it.

We surround the story with all the same kind of pageantry as Puxatawny Phil, dress in our finery, throw a party, and read proclamations of what the new year will hold.

We have all these expectations of Easter in our assembly.

There must be Lilies…

There must be flowers…

The black has to disappear…

The pastor’s sermon better be good…

The church must be decorated, the greeting must be sincere, (we will evaluate the friendliness of the church on the basis of that) and the service “meaningful.”

There should be an egg hunt for the kids, and a good breakfast, and the place should be filled, pews full of families gathered and maybe trumpet players or special choir anthem or two or at least a barn-burner of an organ prelude…

We come expecting quite a lot out of Easter really, once you think about it.

But the more you look back on Mark’s story of the first Easter, the more you realize how backwards that all is.

The women did not come expecting to get anything out of this required task.

They came expecting to have to do something hard, and something unpleasant, and something that cost them dearly.

They came expecting to have to put their heads down, and just get on with what was required of them.

They flee in fear and amazement because not a single thing that they were expecting was actually there.

No body.

No heavy stone to move.

No grief, sorrow, or unpleasant task.

Just a reminder of a promise, that Jesus made long ago, that where they would find him was in Galilee, back among the people that they worked and lived with every day.

It has been said that one of the things that the ending of Mark’s gospel forces you to do (rhetorically), is to go back and read the Gospel again.

If this is indeed the “Good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, then why does it end like this?   I must have missed something!  Let me go back and read it again.

And if you do go back and read it again looking for what you missed, then you’ll discover something.

Jesus was talking about being “raised” all along, but more than that, he was showing how it was to be done.

He raises Peter’s mother in law from her sick bed.

He raises the paralytic from his pallet.

He makes Levi to rise up from this tax collector’s booth.

Jesus raises the status of the man with a withered hand in the synagogue.

He rises in the midst of the storm to calm it.

He raises the bread and breaks and blesses it before it is distributed.

Jesus raises questions, lots of them, from lots of people, about the nature of the law, and what should and should be done, and who can be forgiven, and who can be accepted, and who God’s mercy is extended to – lots of questions are raised by Jesus, and the answers almost always raise either our spirits or our hackles.

He raises the child with the unclean spirit to health.

He raises the blind beggar and gives him sight.

And….. well you get the point.

Jesus is doing a lot of resurrecting all through the Gospel, all through his ministry, of people lives, and their hopes and their dreams and their abilities, and their gifts.

Resurrection in fact appears to be the by-product of Jesus’ very presence. That’s what makes him “Good News.”

But more than that, such good news is almost always unexpected!   Each of these stories had their own “fear and amazement” moment.

Each of these events broke with the norm, the expectation of the person, or the crowd or even the disciples at the time.

Each of these encounters left those who witnessed it momentarily speechless.

So, I am wondering if it’s truly a resurrection if it is expected?

Should we go to look for the resurrection in the place we expect to find it?  In a church all decked out with lilies and smelling of potent flowers, egg bake and chocolate?

Or if we are looking for resurrection and its signs, would we be better off looking where Jesus (and now the man in the white robe) told us to look.

Go back to where you came from.

Go back to your own home, and your own community, and your own workplace, and your own family, but now go back looking for signs of the Resurrection.

Go back to the places you tend to go with your head down, trying to slog through and just get through life, where you have no grand expectations of God doing anything extraordinary, but now go back with different eyes.

Go back and see what is being raised up.

Go back with your eyes and ears tuned in such a fashion that you are ready for the unexpected as it unfolds.

Go back to the one you thought you could never love, go back and see if Jesus can do the unexpected.

Go back to the one wracked with illness that everyone tells you is unbeatable, go back and look for the unexpected.

Go back to the world where you have always had a “that’s just the way things have always been” attitude now with a bit a fear and amazement to see if things have to remain that way, or whether they can truly change, whether God in Christ Jesus may not already be able at work doing what you never expected ever would happen, raising something up.

It’s not in here that we will find the resurrection at work, it is in our “Galilee” – the place we spend our time that the Risen Christ has promised to go and be present, and the by-product of Jesus’ very presence is resurrection!

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

So, get out of here.

Go!

See what God is up to out there in the world.

See what is being raised, or what is rising, or what questions are being raised.

Where you least expect it, that is where you will find Jesus and the resurrection at work.

That is the witness of the women this day.