Sunday, April 24, 2016

Choose Love

When Judas was gone, Jesus said, "Now the Human One has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. Little children, I'm with you for a little while longer. You will look for me--but, just as I told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now--'Where I'm going, you can't come.'

I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other. (John 13:31-35 CEB)

Love. That's our main topic today. Love.

Isn't love what the resurrection is all about? It seems so simple, doesn't it? Resurrection is love. Love is resurrection. No matter how you slice it, when you are talking Christ's resurrection, you are talking love.

And, today, in our lessons for this fifth Sunday of Easter, we are not only talking love. We are being told to "choose love."

If I were to go around this room today and ask you whether or not you choose love, I would dare say that everyone of you would answer, "Yes."  "Absolutely, positively, yes!" This is a warm, loving congregation. It is who we are. Besides, after all, who wouldn't choose love?

But, do we? Choosing love can be really hard. Choosing love can make us vulnerable. It can feel like we're taking too much of a chance sometimes, can't it? It can expose us to the possibility that our love might not be reciprocated. It might be a waste of our time, especially if we give it expecting something in return and don't get anything back. Choosing love can hurt, especially if the person we want to love doesn't see us as worthy of their love.

Yet, if we are truly the resurrection people we claim to be...if we, as the church, truly seek to be a partner with the Spirit at work in our world making all things new, then the only right choice for us is love. Our only choice is to be on the side of God and to be part of God's new creation and to choose love.

And, if we truly choose love, then our only other choice is to turn toward God and away from the influence of the world. To be in the world, but not of the world. To work toward a new way of living, a "new heaven and a new earth." Toward a place where God will come down and dwell with us.  A place transformed by God into something fully beyond our wildest imagination. To work toward the new Jerusalem instead of the global empire in which we currently life.

This new Jerusalem spoken of in our Revelation text today isn't some eternal place up in the heavens paved with golden streets. Unlike most of what we've heard in contemporary culture, this isn't a rapture; this new Jerusalem isn't a place for us to escape to from our current world--a place away from this messed up world to which God will rescue us.

No.  This new Jerusalem that God is creating is right here, right now. It's happening in our presence. In this very moment. Here and now the Spirit is at work in our world, creating a new world where every human being and all of creation might experience the joy and goodness and fullness of God's love.

And our job, as the church, is to walk alongside the Spirit--to partner with God in ways that allow God's power and Christ's love to be experienced in the world. Our job is to be involved in making God's dream come true in this world. Our job is to choose love.

But, once again, it's not easy to choose love, is it? To treat all people with love? To treat people as if they are no different from us, regardless of race or religion or class or gender or age or sexual orientation or political persuasion. It's not always easy to set aside the biases and prejudices that are so deeply ingrained in us, is it? Or to even recognize that we have bias and prejudice in the first place.

It's hard for us today. It was hard for the early church, too.  Look at our Acts reading. Hear the Jerusalem council grilling Peter as to why he was baptizing those Gentiles--those unclean Gentiles. It is hard for all of us, past and present to choose love.

This past week, as I drove home from my vacation in Texas, I listened to an audiobook. The name of the book was "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking." I've wanted to read it for a long time, so I decided I would use my driving time efficiently and listen to it instead.

In it, the author Malcolm Gladwell, presents research on what is called the "adaptive unconscious." Our adaptive unconscious is our ability to use limited information from a very brief experience to come to a rapid conclusion--like when you reach a quick, gut-level decision about something or someone. He argues that a decision like this--one reached quickly and with limited data--is often better than one that is reached with much more information or a longer period of time.

Yet, there is also a dark side to our adaptive unconscious. Prejudices and biases operate at this same level, even in someone who doesn't consciously exhibit such behavior. To test whether or not one has unconscious bias, readers of his book are invited to take a test on a Harvard University website.

So, when I got home on Tuesday, I took one of several possible tests--a test to measure any implicit bias I might have toward African-Americans.

Now keep in mind that, although I grew up in very white South Dakota, our ranch was situated between two reservations--the Cheyenne and the Sioux. In Los Angeles, I lived in a very diverse area. Within 10-12 blocks from my house lived immigrants from Korea, El Salvador, the Philippines, Mexico, as well as African-Americans. There was a large Muslim mosque only a few blocks from my house and a Jewish temple within a quarter of a mile.

For ten years, I worked for an organization with a leadership that was predominantly African-American. For many years, I worked with undocumented workers, primarily from Mexico and Central America. I worked for three years along the Texas-Mexico border. I have many close friends who are Hispanic and Filipino and African American.

So, although I knew I might have some unconscious bias, I thought my test results might be okay.

Well, I was stunned!  The data compiled from my test suggested a "strong automatic preference for European American compared to African American." It was the highest level of unconscious bias possible on the test.

You see, it is hard to "choose love." Even when we consciously do choose it, trying to treat others with dignity and respect and as no different from us, our unconscious biases and prejudices creep in.  "Them." "Those people." "They." Not "us" or "we."

The only way for us to begin to put an end to making "us and them" distinctions is to begin to recognize and admit our biases and their impact on our relationships with those who are different from us. Racism, sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, and other biased behaviors and thinking are not godly. They are motivated by fear of the other and not by a love of humanity. They are not the result of choosing love.

And, yet, in spite of spite of even our unconscious bias and prejudice, God continues to work in our world. God, who created this world and all living and life-giving things in it, continues to disrupt and overturn the walls and the barriers we create between each other or any bias and prejudice we may have.

"See, I am making all things new." This is our promise. It is a promise that is trustworthy and true. It is a promise for a new world--a world where God will dwell among us, where God will wipe every tear away, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. And where those who are thirsty will receive water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Let us working alongside the Holy Spirit, then. Let us seek to overcome our unconscious biases and prejudices.  Let us choose love.


Preached April 24, 2016, at Chatfield Lutheran Church.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Drumstick Ice Cream Cones

John 20:19-31 (NRSV). When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “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.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Welcome to this Sunday, April 3rd, only 2 days after April Fool's Day. One day isn't enough, is it? For me, one day of jokes just isn't enough. You see, in my family, we didn't celebrate just one day. I come from a family of people who love to laugh and play practical jokes on each other.  So, that first day of April often dragged into three, frequently a week and, sometimes, up to a full month.  One of us would play a joke on another which led to the need to reciprocate and on and on and on.

So, today it just seemed right to play an April Fool’s joke on you.  It also seemed right because, in my home parish in Pasadena, this Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter is always celebrated as Holy Hilarity Sunday.  A Sunday where we are invited to bring jokes -- respectful jokes, of course -- to share, and to laugh with each other.

Celebrating laughter on this second Easter Sunday is actually a long and very rich tradition in the church.  There is much history of congregations celebrating this day, sharing jokes and fun stories and engaging in pranks on each other.  The tradition comes from some of the church’s early theologians, where they reflected on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as a huge practical joke that God played on Satan.   They called it the risus paschalis, meaning the Easter laugh. 

And, so, it seems very appropriate today for us to laugh.  For us to celebrate the joy of Easter in a fun way the week after we’ve celebrated it in a glorious way.  To mix faith and humor and to stir both deeply into our lives so that we might live more fully into being and sharing ourselves as people of the resurrection.

I think God must have an amazing sense of humor.  After all, look at the characters, in the Bible and here in this congregation, who God has gathered together as his people.  From those in the Hebrew scripture, to the disciples of Jesus, to us here today, God has a way of finding very imperfect people and forming and shaping all of us into people very well-suited to do the Church’s work--the work of sharing the good news of that Easter resurrection.

Notice that I used the word “imperfect.”  Often, I think that we get this notion in our heads that, in order to share the Gospel, you must have led a perfect life.  That, to be called, one must have lived in a way that is completely faithful and above reproach.  Well, I, for one, know better than that.  And all one needs to do to further disprove that theory is to look at the characters--the imperfect characters--in our reading today.

Let’s look at the disciples.  That first Easter morning, we know that Mary, after discovering that the gardener was, in fact, Jesus, runs back to the disciples and announces to them that she had seen the Lord.  And, then, proceeded to share with them everything Jesus had said.   

And, their response?  Well, they hid!  They went behind closed doors and hid because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities.  Why?  The story doesn’t say.  Perhaps they thought they might be accused of stealing Jesus’ body so they could start rumors of his resurrection.  Or perhaps they were afraid to rejoice publicly--to show joy over Jesus’ resurrection and incur the wrath of the authorities.  Whatever it was, they were afraid and they hid.  And, my guess was that, as they hid away, there was not much laughing.  Until, of course, Jesus appeared and showed them the marks of his resurrection.  Only then were they filled with joy.  Only then did they actually come of out of their own tomb of fear and truly enter into the resurrection.

And, then, there’s Thomas.  Oh, poor Thomas.  You see, I kind of get Thomas.  He was the realistic one, wasn’t he?  He was evidence-driven.  He wanted proof.  He wanted facts.  "Prove it to me."  (Aren’t we all a little bit like him?  How do I know God exists?  Why would God allow something like that to happen?  We are always looking for the proof, for the facts, for the answers.) And, then, just like with the disciples, Jesus appears.  And tells Thomas to put his finger in his hands and his hands into his side.  Here, Thomas!  Here’s your proof!  

And Thomas, without even having to put his fingers into the nail holes or into the sword slice in Jesus’ side--without touching the actual proof, he gets it.  He gets Jesus’ resurrection and immediately confesses, “My Lord and my God!”  Out of his tomb of doubt and into the resurrection.

Aren’t we so like Thomas and the rest of the disciples?  You see, I think sometimes the immensity of the resurrection is way too much for us to fully grasp.  That it’s way too big for us to truly understand.  And so, piece by piece.  Bit by bit.  Just like with the disciples, Christ comes into our presence and, little by little, we enter into the resurrection, into our own resurrection from fear and doubt.

In February of 2008, my sister was dying.  She had fought cancer over a lifetime, but had reached a point where she was tired of fighting.  She was ready to die.  Ready to be reunited with Christ.  Over the six months that she was in and out of the hospital, I urged her on.  In the midst of my own fear and doubt at losing her and what life would be like without her, I urged her to continue to fight.  

When she made the decision to come home to my house on hospice, I was devastated.  But, I was also determined that those last days would be the best for her.  So, I asked her what she wanted to eat, what her favorite foods were.  All she wanted were Drumstick ice cream cones.  

Over the next 7 days, friends and family came to visit, to gather around her and cry and laugh and share stories of amazing memories we had together.  And all the while, we ate Drumstick ice cream comes--4 boxes of Drumstick ice cream cones to be exact!  In that week--in the sharing of stories and ice cream, I experienced Christ’s presence.  And my own resurrection.  A resurrection out of my own tomb of fear and doubt and into the hope and joy of the resurrection with the knowledge that, no matter what, Christ would continue to be present with me.

You see fear and doubt and joy and gladness often walk hand-in-hand with each other.  All we have to do is open the Psalms to see this.  Yet, in their midst, our resurrected Lord is present, welcoming us into a new life, a resurrected life.  A life of joy and laughter, a life of love and freedom, a life of peace and wholeness, a life together with him as part of the body of Christ.  That, my friends, is the joy of the resurrection.  That is the basis for our laughter.  

And that is the reason that it is we, and not death or the devil, who ultimately have the last laugh! 

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Preached on Sunday, April 3, 2016, at Chatfield Lutheran Church.