NO CROSS, NO CROWN

When I first read through the scripture readings for this Sunday, it wasn’t immediately clear to me how our gospel reading relates to the passage from Genesis. The story of Abraham and Sarah seems to be all about God bestowing unconditional blessing and abundance on two old people who had no hope at all for the future of their family.

The story of how God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations is one that, at first glance, seems very human and not supernatural at all. All of us want to leave a legacy. No one wants to see their name die out, to be forgotten by future generations. On its face, the story of Abraham and Sarah seems like a case of divine wish-fulfillment – a very human story with very human motivations. I can relate to it instantly.

On the other hand, there’s this story about Jesus and his hard-core insistence on embracing torture and death. In our gospel reading from Mark, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the other disciples. He says Peter’s mind is set on human things, rather than on the things of God. Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for his suggestion that Jesus should avoid the cross.

Peter and the other disciples didn’t believe in the cross. They didn’t believe in the path of self-emptying and dying to ego that Jesus was teaching them. Such things are incomprehensible to the human mind. Every one of us can understand a story about God granting new life, vitality, and progeny to an old man and his wife. Is it miraculous for an old woman to bear a child? Absolutely. Does it challenge our conception of the good life? Of who God is and should be? Probably not.

We want a God who guarantees our own survival and prosperity. We want a God who makes us fathers and mothers of many nations. Successful careers, happy families, public acclaim, and personal prosperity. We want the God of the good life, a God who promises joy, not suffering. We want the triumphant and generous God of Abraham and Sarah, not the whipped and crucified God that Jesus introduces us to.

But there is only one God. The God of the promise is the same God who endures the cross and invites us to walk in his way of self-abandonment. The God who provides us with a hope and a future is the same one who asks us to suffer for truth.

What is the relationship between these two faces of God? How do we reconcile the apocalyptic, bone-shaking God of Golgotha with the reassuring, sustaining God of the Promised Land?

For the apostle Paul, the answer is clear: It’s the resurrection. In our reading this morning from his letter to the Romans, Paul draws a clear line between the promise that God gave to Abraham and God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead.

Believe it or not, I find it easy to forget about the resurrection. I don’t know why, but I guess I’m a little more captivated by the fire and brimstone. When Jesus issues his challenge to the disciples, warning them about the suffering and persecution that he and his followers will face, that challenge seems like everything to me.

But the cross is not the end of Jesus’ story. The end of all the challenges that we face as friends of Jesus is not the grave, but victory. The message of Jesus one of life, truth, peace, and joy. As I mentioned in my last sermon, the very word “gospel” comes from the Greek term for a victory announcement. It is very good news.

From Genesis to Revelation, we discover a God who heals, guides, and protects us. God’s character doesn’t change. God was not first generous to Abraham and then hard-hearted towards Jesus. God demands the same thing from each one of us. He calls us into a kind of faith that brings us into conflict with the world as it is. And this same faith promises unconditional joy, growth, and wholeness as we choose to follow Jesus.

In our passage from Romans this morning, Paul teaches that God’s promise to Abraham wasn’t based on following a legal code. It wasn’t based on genetics, either. God promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations – not just his own biological descendants, but all those who share in his faith. It is Abraham’s faith made this promise from God possible. It is the righteous living that comes from faith that allows those who live in the spirit of Abraham to inherit the world.

I said that sometimes it’s easy for me to forget the resurrection in the midst of Jesus’ suffering. In the same way, I tend to ignore how much challenge and suffering Abraham and Sarah endured to receive God’s promise and blessing. Abraham and Sarah left home and family, wandering to an unknown land in the west. They did this on nothing more than a promise from God, that Abraham would be made into a great nation, and become a blessing to the whole world. Abraham and Sarah took an enormous risk based on a promise from a still, small voice that whispered in the night. Abraham and Sarah ventured out into the unknown. They took a leap of faith.

It all could have gone so badly. But God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah. Even when times were hard and they were on the run – even when Abraham got scared and did things like try to pass Sarah off as his sister! – God didn’t waver in preserving their lives and their marriage.

God was just as faithful to Jesus and his friends. Jesus suffered beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death on a cross – but on the third day, God raised him from the dead and glorified him. The faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus, this faith has the power to birth children from the barren elderly and to raise the dead to life.

Before the resurrection, Peter and the other disciples simply couldn’t fathom how powerful this kind of trust could be. They couldn’t imagine how the path of pain and darkness could ever lead into the light. But after the resurrection of Jesus, the friends and followers of Jesus were filled with boldness, joy, and power. The apostles, who before the resurrection had been so clueless and frightened, found courage to share the good news throughout the world. They accepted the many challenges and hardships that came with this ministry. All but one is believed to have been murdered for their faithful witness.

In a world without the resurrection, this would seem a great tragedy. Why throw your life away when you could lead a safe and comfortable existence? But the faith of Abraham and Jesus teaches us a new way of living. Through the resurrection, we are rooted in the power of God, who is not constrained – even by death – in the ways that he blesses us.

We all have access to this resurrection power. Those of us gathered here this morning have been touched by his salvation. In large ways and small, we have experienced many spiritual baptisms into his death. We know darkness and suffering, the kind that requires trust to endure. We know the power of Jesus, through his Holy Spirit, which can raise us into new life.

We experience God’s call to yield ourselves, to embrace the challenges of righteous living. It’s a kind of life that draws us out from the mainstream culture and into the vibrant and risky counter-culture that is the kingdom of God. We know from experience and from the testimony of scripture that God calls us to take great risks. Through his resurrection power, God can overcome any adversity.

The world doesn’t understand this. Our own human minds can’t comprehend it. That is why Jesus rebuked Peter. He just couldn’t believe that Jesus was serious about submitting himself to death on the cross rather than leading a violent revolution to overthrow the Roman oppressors. Peter was only able to conceive of victory in the world’s terms. But in Jesus, God has revealed another way of conquering the world: with love, restoring wholeness and peace to the creation.

Most days, we’re just like Peter. We’re not capable of understanding God’s way of conquering love until we receive the faith of Abraham. We have to set our mind on the things of God, not on the human fears that hold us back from faithfulness.

There’s good reason for our fear. It’s rational to be afraid. Because God is calling us to a way of life that seems to threaten our very existence. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to surrender our wealth, our comfort, even our lives, to bless our neighbors and show love to our enemies. As the Lord Jesus tells us in our reading this morning:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus asks us, What does it profit you to gain the whole world – of comfort, wealth, status, and acceptance by worldly authorities? What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your life? What can you give in exchange for your life?

Only the God of Abraham, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, holds that kind of power. The power of life. Our God will defend you and bless you in the presence of enemies. He will walk with you through the pain and darkness. He will give you victory through the cross of Jesus.

Through faith, Abraham was able to see this. Now, through the resurrection, we can, too. God is the master of life and death. We can trust him, even when his word is totally out of sync with the wisdom of the world around us.

What are the areas of your life where God is inviting you to embrace the faith of Abraham? What are the challenges that seem insurmountable? What is the death that you’re afraid of? What does it mean for you to live in the power of the resurrection?

O THAT YOU WOULD TEAR OPEN THE HEAVENS AND COME DOWN

I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.

There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.

For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.

When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.

I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.

For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.

Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.

So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.

But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.

Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.

So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?

Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.

In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.

He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.

The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.

It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.

It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.

Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.

The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.

And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.

So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”

It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.

It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.

And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.

I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?

And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.

But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.

For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.

What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?

Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.

All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

NOW AND THEN

Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9

Jeff Davidson

Sometimes the lectionary suggests passages that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. We’re just a week after Easter. You would expect that we should still be in celebration mode, shouldn’t we? You would think that we should still be shouting “Alleluia!” and rejoicing in the risen Lord. You know, you’re right. We should be.

But instead we have Peter writing a letter about suffering and holding on to hope and waiting it out. That’s not very celebratory, is it? Holding on to hope is what Washington Capitals fans do when the team goes to yet another overtime against an eighth seed. It’s what you do when your candidate is losing the election but there’s still one or two states yet to come in. It’s also the reality of our world after Easter.

Peter’s writing to new believers. Not new Christians in and around Jerusalem, but new Christians all over the world. We didn’t read verse 1, but it says that the letter is from Peter “to God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” This would be an area of around 300,000 square miles.

Richard Jensen suggests that 1 Peter was designed to be read at baptisms of new believers. If that’s true, and I genuinely don’t know if it is or not, but if it’s true then having this reading come right after Easter makes sense. Christianity is about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Until his resurrection, Jesus was no one’s savior. Lord – yes, rabbi – yes, teacher – as Jenn talked about last week – yes, but until the resurrection not a savior.

Once the resurrection happens, though, things change. Jesus isn’t just a small l “lord”; Jesus becomes our Lord. Jesus isn’t just another guy who said he was the Messiah; he proves he is the Messiah. He becomes our savior.

What changes is our relationship to the world. All of a sudden, the world is suddenly not such a welcoming place. All of a sudden, we don’t take our cues from popular culture or from political leaders or from “common sense,” which is just another name for the wisdom of the world. We take our cues from our risen Lord Jesus, and that means that we are going to be at odds with the world around us.

Not only are we going to be at odds with the world around us, the world is going to give us a hard time about it. Here in the United States some Christians think it is persecution if a department store decides to say “Happy Holidays” or if a private church school doesn’t get the same kind of government funding as a private secular school. There may be a measure of injustice in that last one, but that’s not persecution.

Persecution is what happens to Christians in Nigeria, where the EYN continues to face violence and where many of the Chibok girls are still missing. Persecution is what happens to Christians in Egypt, where Coptic churches have been bombed and believers killed. Persecution is what happens to Christians in many, many places that is beyond our own imagination as citizens and residents with the privileges that we have here in the United States.

Persecution is what those people Peter wrote to would face. Persecution, including torture and death, is what awaited many of them. Persecution, including torture and death, came to Peter himself at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero. 

That’s why Peter talks about holding on to hope. That’s why Peter talks about looking forward, looking ahead to a salvation that is going to be revealed. Our new birth is into a living hope. Our inheritance isn’t something that we receive right now this minute, but it is kept in heaven for us awaiting either our arrival there or Jesus’ return to earth.

There are times when looking forward in hope means looking backward. You see that in the Old Testament a lot. The Jewish people would be facing some enemy of some sort, and Moses would say, “Hey, remember when God brought you out of Egypt? God can do that kind of thing again!” Later, in Jesus’ time, the Jewish people would look back to King David’s time when God raised up a mighty king who led Israel to great success. That’s why we read Psalm 16 today, to think about David and how it was that he prospered personally and professionally besides his many sins and failings.

David writes that he has nothing good that is apart from God, that it’s not the wealthy or the wise, but the holy who are truly the ones who are noble. David recognizes that he must keep the Lord by his right hand if he is to thrive, and that in God’s presence he can rest secure.

That’s very similar to Peter’s message, although Peter doesn’t directly reference King David. Peter knew David’s story, though, and it’s very possible that he has David in mind when he writes that his readers “are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

We do that here at Washington City. Those of us who have been here a while think about and remember the example of people who came before us. Some folks think about Mike Byam or Warren Hoover. Others think back farther to Duane Ramsey. When I was at Woodbridge a woman there who had been a member here at Washington City talked about how much she learned from a previous pastor – I think it was DeWitt Miller, but don’t hold me to that.

All of us are a part of the history of this congregation. Some of us are a more recent part, and some of us have been here for many years, but all of us are a part of the story. All of us are here, in the present, but at the same time we have been a part of the past of this place and it’s ministry.

Some time someone is going to look back at the history of this congregation and talk about how much they appreciated Bob Hoffman and Dale Penner. Today is a day that we are taking some time to do that specifically after worship, but they’re a part of our history and always will be. The same is true for me, and for you. David is a part of Jesus’ story, and Jesus is part of Peter’s, and Peter is a part of the stories of those he is writing to, and it has all carried down to us today. Each of us individually, and all of us collectively.

The Kingdom of God is now. The Kingdom of God is also yet to come. The Kingdom is now, and the Kingdom is then. That’s a hard place for us to be sometimes. While we don’t face the kind of persecution the Christians that Peter was writing to did, and we don’t face the kind of persecution that Christians in other parts of the world do, we still face hardships and troubles. We still have doubts and fears. And although earlier I minimized the kinds of things that many Christians in the United States call persecution, that doesn’t mean that there is no persecution of Christians in the US. It’s not necessarily as overt as it is in other parts of the world, and it’s not typically as dangerous, but that doesn’t mean it may not be real – particularly for individual Christians at times that are particular to each of them.

Susan Skinner is the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado. She wrote this poem last week, and it spoke to me about the resurrection as something that has happened and is yet to come, as something that is now but also something that also is then.

I saw resurrection late today
As I walked the dogs
And with every passing block
Got ever more drunk
On the rich purple lilacs
Flinging their perfume into the evening breeze

I saw resurrection on the lawn
Of the home of a man
Who is hated by his neighbors
He never speaks but to complain
About everything and everyone

Of all the tidy streets of curated and tended yards
His is the dry grass, and unkempt
Like a dream conceived, then withered
His the planters barren of any flower
His the tree slowest to bud and leaf in spring

But in that tree today
I—drunk on lilac—saw resurrection.

It was surely not his doing.
Resurrection never is.
God—a bird—had chosen his leafless tree
Out of all the lovely trees
In which to build a perfect nest,
A home in which to raise its young

I would not be surprised
If the grass now begins to green
And flowers blooming appear in the night
And people sit on the empty porch chairs.

Resurrection is like that—once begun
It has a way of catching on
And cannot be stopped;
For that let us be glad.

Indeed, let us be glad. Amen.

YEARNING FOR SUNDAY

John 20:1-18, Romans 6:1-14

Jenn Hosler

A Saturday Vignette

At the end of the meal, one of us stepped out. Judas was often heading in and out, so I assumed it was something with his duties as the keeper of the common purse. We didn’t think anything of it, I guess, but I wondered a little what would be so important that he needed to leave our Passover meal.

Our Teacher spoke to us after the meal, teachings that were both difficult and confusing. It seemed like something might happen but we didn’t know what. We women stayed behind to clean and then rest for the night, while the brothers went with teacher Jesus to the garden of Gethsemane to pray. We were woken in the middle of the night with news that the teacher was arrested. Brother Judas had arrived with the chief priests and the temple police. They were armed with clubs and swords, as if our teacher was a rebellion leader. Brother Peter started to fight as soon as they went to grab the teacher, madly swinging a sword and hitting a servant in the ear. The teacher stopped that, right away, and healed the servant’s ear. Then he went willingly: the temple leaders took our teacher, bound him, and arrested him.

Brother Judas—someone we’ve walked with, shared meals with, and learned from the teacher with—he has betrayed us and betrayed the Teacher. And for what? Now he is dead, he took his life after he was sick with his guilt. Maybe he didn’t mean for it to go that far. I don’t know what he intended. I can’t believe that he is dead too. Brother Judas.

Brother Peter’s wife told us that Peter and John had followed the Teacher to the high priest’s family home. Peter almost wasn’t let inside and when he was, people kept asking him, “Are you one of this Jesus’ followers?” “Aren’t you from Galilee? You’re with him, too?” and “Weren’t you in the garden last night?” And brother Peter was scared. Scared what they would do to him and his family. So, he said, “No. I don’t even know the man.”

The chief priests interrogated the Teacher and had him beaten. They asked if the Teacher was the Messiah or the Son of God, and he wouldn’t give them a straight answer. The answers he gave were enough, though, that the chief priests said it was blasphemy and beat him further. Then the temple leaders and priests dragged the Teacher off to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The chief priests told Pilate that the charge was blasphemy and that the Teacher was claiming to be king. The Romans wouldn’t deal with Jewish theological problems, normally, but claiming to be king—encroaching onto Caesar’s territory, threatening the occupation—that… will get you onto their radar and onto a cross. Pilate seemed skeptical but the chief priests started inciting the crowds to free Barabbas, the militant, instead. Pilate was keen to keep things from getting out of control, so he gave in and sentenced Jesus to death. What was one Jewish insurrectionist for a would-be Jewish King? Not much different, in his view.

They beat the Teacher. Flogged him with a whip. Pushed him around. Kicked him, tripped him. Twisted acacia branches into a thorny crown and jammed it on his head. Put a purple robe on him to mock him—King of the Jews. Then he went to his death. Not just any death. The Romans seem to be fond of the cruelest deaths. They think it will scare us into complacency about their rule. Obey the Romans, rejoice in your Roman Peace, and you won’t get nailed to a tree.

The Teacher, by now, had been beaten a few times and hadn’t eaten; he was in rough shape. The soldiers chose a person from the crowd to carry the crossbar that his arms would be tied to. And they walked outside the city.

By this time, a lot of us had gathered—me, Mary and Martha, Joanna, the Teacher’s mother Mary, and other women. Brother John was with us but the other 11 had scattered. We couldn’t believe that it had come to this. Hadn’t we just marched behind the Teacher on the way into Jerusalem? Instead of shouting hosanna, we wailed a lament and cried. We beat our chests like we would at a funeral.

The Teacher arrived at the spot, Golgotha, the place of the skull, and before we knew it, some screams, and there he was, raised up above us on the cross. Still so close but unbelievably far. And we waited. People in the crowds laughed and spit, mocked and cursed. The sign that Pilate had made, with the Teacher’s crime, said “King of the Jews.” Hours went by, mostly in silence. The teacher’s body was so exhausted. It was hard for him to breathe—you need to keep holding yourself up, lifting yourself up to take a breath. Teacher Jesus asked brother John to come closer with his mother, and I was with them. The Teacher asked brother John to take mother Mary as his mother. We knew it must be close. Teacher Jesus said that he was thirsty, and someone brought forward some sour wine. Then, the Teacher breathed out and cried out and he died.

It was only yesterday, barely more than a day. It all feels like a dream. A really horrible, painful nightmare. I just want to wake up and be in Galilee, be on a hillside, be listening to the Teacher, to see the Teacher heal a sick man, care for a child, break bread with us. But I need to realize that he is dead. Jesus of Nazareth—our teacher, our rabbi—is dead.

Brother Peter’s wife said that yesterday, her husband seemed like he was in a trance. Hopeless. Stunned. Ashamed. Unable to eat. I think the brothers will be gathering tomorrow, the eleven close ones, to talk about what happened, where we go from here. Several of us women went with brother Joseph to the tomb on Friday right before the Sabbath started, to see where it was. We are going in the morning to make it more of a proper burial. It will be hard. Normally preparing a body brings some closure. Anointing it, giving one last effort of love and beauty. I don’t think I can have closure with something like this, I don’t know what to think. The power of God was walking among us and now, where is it? Is God gone from among us? What was the point of all that goodness, all that healing, all that love and mercy, if we are only left with pain?

Reflection on the Saturday Vignette

In the Church of the Brethren, we don’t spend much time on Friday or Saturday in Holy Week. Our Love Feast is on Maundy Thursday. We commemorate the meal that Jesus had with his disciples. While the twelve are mentioned, there likely were other disciples in the room, potentially some of the women who came from Galilee to support and learn from Jesus. Perhaps they were reclining at another table or eating in the food preparation area, as women in many countries often eat in the kitchen and not at the table.

In the Church of the Brethren, we don’t typically have Good Friday services (though I often go to an Episcopal one) and don’t have Holy Saturday vigils. We move from Thursday to Sunday.

In college, Nate and I went to a church that encouraged us to linger on the emotions of Saturday. What would the disciples have felt? As I prepared for this sermon, I read all of the gospel passages where Jesus was crucified. I was struck by Luke’s description of the women disciples who followed behind Jesus on the way to the cross, beating their breasts and wailing. In every gospel passage, the women are there at the cross. And so, I tried to picture what it would have been like for one of those female disciples, Mary of Magdala, also known as Mary Magdalene (who, by the way, was not a sex worker; the woman described as being so in the gospels is never named as Mary Magdalene; somehow popular culture has called her a prostitute, but there is no biblical evidence for that. The main story of Mary Magdalene—what she should be famous for—is that she is at present at the cross and at the tomb in every gospel. Every gospel explicitly mentions her at the tomb. And as we see in our scripture, she is the first one to truly hear the Good News.

I think it is useful to spend time thinking about those Saturday feelings, those early Sunday morning feelings: how would I have felt waking up to say goodbye to my leader, my teacher, the One whom we thought was the Messiah, the One who had raised Lazarus and others from the dead? Now he was dead. How would I feel bringing the spices and oils to that tomb?

Hopeless. Destroyed. Despairing. And as I sat in these emotions, I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this resignation and hopelessness and confusion what we are facing every day? When we hear of a family member taking his life, unable to find hope and healing. When our families are fighting and bitter. When we hear news of more cancer. When we are confronted with of massive bombs and endless wars. The darkness and hopelessness of death weighed down on the disciples of Jesus that Saturday—and they weigh down on us too.

A Sunday Vignette

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, I walked to the tomb and saw that the stone was moved away from the entrance. I dropped my jar of perfume. I ran back the way I came and went to where brother Peter and brother John were staying. I told them, “They took the Teacher from the tomb. We don’t know where they’ve put him.”

Peter and John looked at each other and ran. I ran after them, back to the tomb. Out of breath, I stood back. Then it hit me again. He’s dead. He’s gone. His body’s even gone. The brothers looked at the grave linens and left, bewildered. I just broke down and cried. I made my way over and knelt down, crying and praying without words—and I looked inside the tomb. There were two people sitting there in white clothing and one spoke to me, “Lady, why are you crying?”

There’s always some ignorant person that you need to answer to when in your deepest distress. I looked up at them. “My Teacher was buried here and someone took him. I don’t know where he’s been moved to.” At that moment, I saw another person nearby, standing close. As I was wiping my eyes, I said, “Sir, if you took the body, can you please tell me where it is? I just want to dress it and care for it.”

The man replied, “Mary.” And it was him. Jesus. “My Teacher?” I stood up and walked over to him. It was the Teacher. Alive. Breathing. He told me to go and spread the news. He was alive. So, I went to the brothers and sisters and told them, “I saw the Teacher. He is alive.”

Reflection on the Sunday Vignette

The resurrection is unexpected, startling, confusing, and difficult to even recognize. It doesn’t make sense, it is so far out of the schema of expectation. The resurrection is an impossible thought—until Jesus calls Mary by her name in the early morning light of that resurrection Sunday. The gospel, the good news, is bewildering and confusing and sometimes so difficult to see in our world. But Jesus calls our names and makes clear to us what we should be seeing: that the power of God is bigger than the grave, that the miracle of the empty tomb and the resurrected body will someday spread to all the areas of our lives and of this world. All creation waits and groans for this to be revealed. When we can’t utter words, when we are trapped in hopelessness, the Spirit of God cries out on our behalf.

We are looking toward the day–yearning for the day—when that Sunday morning resurrection dawn will break through the darkness and touch our whole world, when the power of the Messiah’s resurrection will transform our hearts and our relationships and our lives and our bodies.

During our suffering and the world’s suffering, we walk with a crucified Lord who knows what it is to suffer, suffers with us, and promises us that the breaking dawn will come. No more death, no more sickness, no more war and violence, and hate. Jesus calls each of us by name for us to join him in the Sunday morning light, in newness of life now, and in hope for the glorious redemption that is to come. AMEN.

Benediction Prayer

Jesus, call us by our names and let us recognize your face. Share with us your resurrection, hope, freedom from sin. We yearn to experience the fullness of that Sunday morning, in our hearts, in our our bodies, in this whole world. AMEN.

He’s Back

 

He’s Back” – Nathan Hosler

Acts 2:14a, 22-32, John 20:19-31, 1 Peter 1:3-9

The year was 2002. Just 24 months into the new millennium and there I was—sent but sitting in the dark. I was in Weierhof, a small German village of about 900 people an hour southwest of Frankfurt.

Was with Eastern Mennonite Mission—a somewhat charismatic (at least while I was there) mission agency. Being somewhat charismatic and being a mission agency meant that there was a lot of room for the Spirit and a strong emphasis on going—being sent into the world.

So, I was sent but sitting in the dark. Not literal dark—though the extended darkness of winter probably didn’t help—but a spiritual and emotional dark. It is typical, when living internationally to experience and significant low point a few months in. Looking back from the end James, my group leader, noted that we didn’t have much to say about the time between 1 and 2 months into our work. Doubting one’s call

The disciples no doubt are doubting their call–wondering whether they just wasted the past three years of their lives—if all their wandering the country side and leaving their lives behind was for naught. We have the advantage of that even before Good Friday, when Jesus is killed, comes around we know that Easter is just around the corner. Today for us is a week after Easter. For us Jesus is long risen. The passage that we read, however, has the disciples still waiting and wondering in fear. Whereas we know the ending, the disciples are still muddling through. A few have claimed to see Jesus but then again that is not the most believable tale.

Disciples and then still Thomas doubt

The women who went to the tomb were the first to witness the risen Christ. They told the rest of the disciples but they were likely still doubting. It doesn’t say precisely that they were doubting but it doesn’t say they believed. Given this, probably a strained hope is the best we can expect. Not only was their doubt about this tale but most likely there was doubt about their calling—how could it be otherwise? The one they followed was killed. The movement for the restoration of Israel vanquished on that not-so-good Friday.

Hiding for fear

While my claim that they were doubting may be somewhat speculative they were hiding in fear. This is what we read anyways. John doesn’t say that they were being pursued but that they were hiding. This would seem to be a reasonable reaction. The one who they followed, who led, who was going to be a saving messiah was hunted and killed—why wouldn’t they be next?

Into this fear and even the locked room Jesus comes. Jesus comes and dislodges them from their hideout. —I grew up on a plot of forested land which was adjacent to more forests and fields. Moreover my dad was a carpenter so there was scrap wood and tools galore—so I know about hideouts… One particularly good hideout was subterranean. I dug a hole maybe 3-4 ft wide and around 6 ft long. It was roughly 4 feet deep and I covered it with branches–first larger and then smaller.

In center of this rather authentic looking brush pile was a hole through which one—a relatively small one—could wiggle down in. It was roomy enough for two to sit cross-legged facing one another. No-one not even Jesus could sneak up on me—well, not even Jesus unless he pulled one of these stunts. In the end it wasn’t Jesus that dislodged me from my hideout but smoke. Smoke and maybe boredom. It turns out that building a campfire in a hole that you are sitting in is not particularly pleasant and that building such a lair is more interesting than sitting in it.

So the disciples are hiding out in a locked room and Jesus enters—and dislodges them—not with smoke but with a renewing of their call. Jesus rightly intuits that this entering despite-a-locked-door-after-one-has-died might be alarming and greets them with “peace.” “Peace be with you.”

Into their locked room of despair Jesus reaffirms call. He reconstitutes the almost disbanded Jesus movement. He does this in three ways. Sending. Breathing (the Spirit). Empowering to forgive.

Sending

Jesus begins reaffirming their call by sending. He says “I am sending you as I was sent.” In the beginning of the book of John is where we find the somewhat abstract depiction of Jesus coming.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[d] full of grace and truth. 15

Though the disciples now see Jesus they don’t know that this is temporary. There are likely sighs of relief—well now we can just get back to the good of ol’ days of interesting teaching and the occasional miracle to liven up the show. Jesus is not, however, around to stay but passing through to send out the disciples into the world. The end goal for us is not to show up on Sunday morning to be filled, entertained, or even encouraged. While these are fine and even necessary we don’t show up to bask in the glow of God’s presence but to get on out and minister to the world. Jesus comes one last time to send his disciples out. This going out in the Spirit to continue what Jesus started is the essence of the Church.

So Jesus sends them but that’s not all.

Jesus breathed the Spirit onto them

Literarily and linguistically breath, Spirit, and wind are often related in scripture. In Genesis the Spirit is hovering over the water before Creation. Later in Acts the Spirit comes during Pentecost with the sound of rushing wind. Jesus breathes on his disciples saying “…”

That Jesus does this must have a relatively clear meaning. The text doesn’t define what happens but merely that it happened.

In the Old Testament prophets would on be filled with the Spirit on a sort of short-term basis. They were filled for a particular task. Being Spirit-filled was, for both the prophets and the disciples, an empowering and anointing for the work of God.

Jesus has just sent them to continue his work—it is thoughtful that he would also empower them. This is no empty “go get’em” – I hope it goes well!—Good luck….no, in the same way that Jesus was sent and Spirit filled for the journey so too will the disciples.

Given the ability to forgive or not forgive

In a somewhat surprising twist the Spirit empowered going does not come with a large list of instructions. While certainly Jesus’ years of being with them and teaching them add much content to what they will say and do all he says here is about forgiveness.

Now this notation on forgiveness may be that they—at least at first—will be going to the community which rejected and killed Jesus. Jesus, even while still on the cross, modeled this by asking for the forgiveness of those killing them. So perhaps Jesus is saying something like—“now Pete…remember what I told you…Don’t take your Spirit power out for revenge. No calling down destruction on so and so. “

It may be that Jesus reminds the traumatized friends that retribution and harbored unforgiveness is not their calling.

This singular mention of forgiveness could also be that this pretty much sums of the work of Jesus—the Gospel. Think of 2 Corinthians 5 or Romans 5

17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,[d] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God

We are reconciled to God through Jesus and given the job—the vocation of—reconciliation.

With his entirety of ministry, teaching, and indeed the whole of their scriptures—what we call the Old Testament—Jesus sends, empowers through the Spirit, and gives the power of forgiveness. That seems like a doable commissioning. All’s left to do is for them to do it—for us to carry on this Spirit filled going and forgiving—going out and healing the world.

[pause…] yep..that’s all we’ve got to do. So….how do we actually do such a thing?

Barbara Brown Tayler, a writer and professor of spirituality writes about the many types of jobs that she has worked and her path to becoming content and satisfied in this work in her book “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.” After listing the things she has done—such as newspaper reporter and cheese packer—she tells of the things she yet wants to do—jewelry maker, zookeeper, bookstore manager. While in seminary (remember seminary is where people usually go to become pastors) she studied with people who knew exactly why they were there.

She writes, “Upon request most of them could deliver articulate accounts of their calls to ministry…They had long lists of people willing to write recommendations for them when it came time to apply for their first jobs in parish ministry” (Tayler, 108-109). She, however, was not full of such certainty. “What was my designated purpose on this earth?” she would ask (Taylor, 109). After many attempts to pray and find places to pray she found an old fire-escape on the side of an abandoned Victorian mansion next to the divinity school. She began to climb over the ‘Danger: Keep off’ sign and sit and pray. Eventually her prayers became prayers without words. She notes that it was when her prayers “graduated to inchoate sounds” that she heard God answer her question “what should I do?” with “Anything that pleases you.” “Do anything that pleases you,” she heard, “and belong to me.” ____

She goes on to describe vocation. I would name what she calls vocation a calling. A call to join in ministering to others. This call may or may not be what you are paid for. This call may or may not sound religious. This call is what the disciples discover—what they re-discover when Jesus—the risen Christ—busts on into their hideout—dislodges them, smokes them out. Jesus sends them out. Jesus empowers them with the Spirit. Jesus sets them on a mission of forgiving—of healing the world.

Jesus is still doing this—Jesus is sending us.

 

Risen

 

RISEN – Colossians 3:1-4    Matthew 28:1-10

Jeff Davidson – April 20, 2014

There’s a cartoon that shows people coming out of church on Easter Sunday shaking hands with the pastor.  One guy says. “You know, Pastor, this is why I only come once a year.  Whenever I’m here your sermon is always about the resurrection.”

Maybe it’s only funny to pastors.  On Easter Sunday the resurrection is what it’s all about, so in some ways we know what we’re going to preach about on Easter.  At the same time, resurrection is such a rich topic – there is so much to say that you’re not sure exactly what you’re going to preach about on Easter.

When I looked at the suggested readings for today, I was struck by the reading from Colossians.  It talks about our lives being hidden with Christ when we die.  I imagine us in the tomb with Jesus, behind the stone.  It’s dark.  It’s cold.  It smells musty and damp.  It’s not pleasant.  We’re hidden, invisible to the world, and the world is invisible to us.

And then Colossians talks about Easter morning, when Christ who is our life is revealed.  The stone is rolled away.  Light streams in, and warmth, and fresh air.  We can move around, and stretch our arms and legs.  We can walk out of the tomb into the world.  We are no longer hidden with Christ, but we are revealed with him.  With Christ, we are risen.

On Easter morning you’ll often hear people say, “He is risen!”  Whoever they’re talking to will respond with “He is risen, indeed!”  “He is risen” is a statement of faith, a statement of what we believe.  “He is risen” means that Christ is risen from the dead.  That event has happened.  We do believe it.  He is risen.

But what about us?  What does it mean for us to be risen with Christ?  What does it mean for our lives to be revealed with Christ’s?  Psalm 118:14-17 says, “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.  There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: ‘The right hand of the Lord does valiantly; the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.’  I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.”

We are risen with Christ.  We shall not die, but shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord.  We shall live.  Put that back into the words of the Psalm, words for yourself as an individual.  I am risen with Christ.  I shall not die, but I shall live.

I like that phrase, “I shall live.”  It’s a bold, take-charge kind of phrase.  It sounds kind of decisive.

For all of us there are times when we need to hear and need to say bold and decisive kinds of things.  Most of us have times when we feel as if everything is going on around us and it’s all we can do to keep up, times when we feel like we’re in slow motion and everyone else is in fast forward, times when we are feeling like we are just too busy.

Sometimes the pressure of that starts to get to you. Too many bills.  Too many meetings.  Too much sickness.  Problems at work.  Problems at school.  Problems with your spouse.  Problems in the world.  That can lead to a lot of frustration and a lot of stress, can’t it.

You’re either too busy to plan your next move or too frustrated to have any patience or too depressed to get out of bed or too angry to be kind to the people that you care about or too confused to know which way to turn.  You are in darkness.  You are in chaos.

That’s where Jesus was on Saturday, the day before Easter.  In the tomb.  In darkness.  In chaos.  Rock on every side, a huge stone in front of the door, soldiers guarding the entrance from the other side.  Jesus is surrounded.  Surrounded by the power of evil.  Surrounded by the efforts of the world to hem him in, to keep him in a certain place.  Surrounded by Satan.  Surrounded by death.

Jesus has been surrounded before, and very recently.  Each time he made a decision, a decision to go ahead.  Surrounded by crowds on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus decides to go on in to town, though he knows what is waiting.  Surrounded at the last supper by disciples who would flee, who would deny him, and who would betray him.  Jesus makes the decision to wash their feet, though he knows their weaknesses.  Surrounded by thieves on the cross, Jesus makes the decision to die, to give up his life to save us from our sins.

And now, surrounded by the cold stone of the tomb, the guards of a mistrustful world, and the stench of evil and death, Jesus makes a decision.  He stands up, and with the power given him by God rolls away the stone from the tomb, and steps out into the world he came to save.  Jesus makes the decision to live.  I shall live, says Jesus.  I shall live.

We are Christians.  We claim to be followers of Christ.  Then let’s follow him.  When we are surrounded by darkness, by evil, when we are in the midst of confusion or depression, when we are frustrated or worried or lonely, let us say with Jesus “We shall live.”  Let us face up to the reality of the situation around us, and let us rely on the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of the risen Christ to see us through.

Jesus does not just let all these things swirl around him.  Jesus does not just let things happen to him.  Jesus makes things happen.  Jesus is decisive.  Jesus takes the initiative.  Jesus was sent by God, and with a full knowledge of God’s will in his life, Jesus does what God wants him to do.

God has something for us to do as well.  God does not want us to be surrounded by all of the frightening, frustrating, maddening things that are out there.  God does not want us in a tomb of confusion, a tomb of depression and doubt.  God does not want us to be prisoners of our own sin.

God wants us to be risen with Christ, to step out and follow Jesus, to look for the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  God wants us to with his help roll away the stone of our sin, step out of the tomb of our depression.  God wants us to make the decision to live.  God wants to hear us say with the Psalmist, to hear us say with Jesus, “I will live.”

Listen to what the Psalmist wrote once again: “I shall not die, but I shall live and proclaim what the Lord has done.”  Through my life, the Psalmist said, through my life people will be able to see God.  Through my words people will hear God’s voice.  Through my actions people will feel God’s love.  Through my efforts people will learn about the Lord.

You know what?  He was right.  Those words were written thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away, and yet here we sit in Washington DC in 2014 reading them, learning from them, growing because of them.  The Psalmist lived, and proclaimed what the Lord had done, and his voice still carries today.  In his letter to the Colossians Paul proclaims that he and we are raised with Christ, and his words teach us and call to us even today.

The same Spirit that moved Paul, the same Spirit that moved the Psalm writer can move you.  The same God who brought Jesus back from the dead and led him out of the tomb can lead you.  The same Spirit that filled Jesus when he rolled away the stone can fill you.

This is the day that the Lord has made.  Right here.  Right now.  Today is the day when Jesus is risen, when Jesus steps out of the tomb and invites you to follow.  Today is the day when Jesus steps out into the world to prove that what he said was true, to prove that God really does love the world, to prove that the Gospel does have saving power.

And as believers in Jesus, today is the day that we can follow Christ.  Today is the day that we can leave behind our fears, our doubts, our worries, our sins.  Today is the day that we can stop fearing death.  Like a butterfly leaving the cocoon, the chick leaving the egg, or Jesus leaving the tomb, today is the day that we can begin to proclaim new life.  Today is the day.  We shall live, because He is risen.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

YOU GOTTA BELIEVE

WASHINGTON CITY CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN

Jeff Davidson

April 6, 2014

YOU GOTTA BELIEVE

Ephesians 2:1-10

I have some good news – baseball season has begun!  The Nationals started the season with a sweep. The Orioles didn’t open as well, but it’s early.  The Reds started a little slow but it’s okay.  No need to panic.  There’s almost 160 games to go.

Some of you who are baseball fans may remember the worst team in my lifetime – the 1962 New York Mets.  The ’62 Mets were terrible.  That season they won only 40 games and lost 120.  That’s a .250 percentage.  I mentioned the O’s earlier – they started off 1 and 3, and I know a lot of fans were disappointed.  If they go 1 and 3 with every series the rest of the way then they’ll finish .250 – the exact same percentage.  The 1962 Mets had among the worst records of all times.

There are a lot of good stories about that team and their manager, Casey Stengel.  Stengel once walked out to the mound to talk to his pitcher, Bob Miller.  “Casey, I’m not tired,” Miller said.  Stengel’s reply?  “No, but your outfielders are.”  Casey’s autobiography was named for a question he once asked about this team: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

The Mets got better over time.  1962 was their first year, and as I said they won 40 games.  In 1963 they won 51.  In 1964 it was 53.  1965 saw them with 50 wins, and then in 1966 they took a big step forward to 66 wins.  61 in 1967, and then another big leap in 1968 – 73 wins, 89 losses.

They’re making progress aren’t they!  It’s two steps forward and one step back sometimes, but 73 and 89 is a whole lot better than 40 and 120.  That year they finished in 9th place out of 10 teams.

If you’re a baseball fan you already know where this story is headed.  In 1969 the Mets won 100 games.  They won the National League East, they beat the Atlanta Braves for the National League Championship and so they went to the World Series to face the Baltimore Orioles.  The Orioles back then were a great team.  Those late 1960’s – early 1970’s O’s teams were really good.

I know this is painful for some of you to remember, but the Mets beat them 4 games to 1.  The New York Mets, just seven years before losing three out of every four games, were the champions of the baseball world.

And the fans, the loyal Mets fans who had suffered with this team ever since that horrible season in 1962, the fans had a motto.  “You gotta believe,” the Mets fans would say.  “You gotta believe.”

I think that’s a pretty good motto.  There have sure been times when God’s people needed to hear that motto.  When the Israelites were escaping from Egypt, with Pharaoh’s chariots and soldiers gaining on them from behind and the vast Red Sea in front of them, what did Moses tell them?  Exodus 14:13 – “Don’t be afraid!  Stand your ground, and see what the Lord will do for you today.”  In other words, you gotta believe.

When the shepherd boy David faced the giant Goliath, people told him he was crazy.  They told him he had no business fighting this fight.  They told him there was no way he could win.  What did David say?  1 Samuel 17:37 – “The Lord has saved me from lions and bears.  He will save me from this Philistine.”  In other words, you gotta believe.

When the Jewish leader Nicodemus went to see Jesus and asked him different questions to test him, Jesus said in John 3:16 that God loved the world so much that He sent his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but should have everlasting life.  In other words, you gotta believe.

That’s what Paul says in our scripture reading this morning.  Paul talks about us all being spiritually dead, following the world’s evil way, and being destined to suffer punishment from God.  But through the grace of God we are saved from that death.  Through faith in Christ we are saved from that punishment, if only we will claim God’s grace.  In other words, you gotta believe.

Rodney Smith tells a story about a ten year old girl named Stacy.  Stacy’s a pretty good kid.  She usually listens to her parents and she usually stays out of trouble.  And Stacy loved visiting her grandmother.

Grandmother had one rule: nobody plays in the parlor.  In fact, children can’t even go into the parlor without permission.  The parlor was filled with rare and expensive antiques and furniture.

Stacy was a good kid, but even good kids mess up.  One day Stacy went into the parlor to look around.  She was fascinated by the beautiful antiques, and got so engrossed in looking at them that she didn’t notice a large vase sitting on a stand.

Suddenly there was a loud crash.  The vase had hit the floor.  Stacy knew that in a second her grandmother would come to see what was going on and that she, Stacy, would be in big trouble.  Stacy began to tremble, and to cry, and when the grandmother looked into the forbidden parlor there was one little girl trying to pick up the pieces of the vase.

Suddenly Stacy noticed that her grandmother was on the floor next to her helping her pick up the pieces.  “Oh Grandma, I’m so sorry.  I’m so sorry.  I promise I’ll be careful next time.  Do you still love me?  I’m so sorry.”  Her grandmother didn’t say a word.  She just gave Stacy a big hug, brought out some super glue, and in 20 minutes the old vase was back up on the stand.

Many years later, when Stacy was in her forties, she remembered that day in the parlor.  She said, “I found out that I was the family treasure that day, not some old vase.  Better yet, I found out that my grandmother loved me not because I was always good; she loved me because I was me.”

“For it is by grace you have been saved, and this is not from yourselves.  It is the gift of God.  It is by grace you are saved.  You gotta believe.

There are times in our lives when we feel dead.  At least there are times like that for me.  There are times I feel that I have no energy, no vision, no hope, no plans, no nothing.  And of course there are other times when I feel like I’m in trouble.  I’ve made a mistake or missed an appointment or forgotten something, and I just have this sense of dread hanging over me, and I feel like, “Man I am dead.”

But I gotta believe.  I gotta believe that God is with me.  I gotta believe that God will help me find a way.  I gotta believe that with God’s help I’ll get through it.  Often over the years when we have been going through difficult times Julia will tell me or I will tell her that God did not bring us to this place just to leave us behind.  God didn’t bring us here to forget about us.  God is still with us.  We gotta believe.  And we do.  And we make it through.

I could say the same for any of you.  Whatever stresses or worries or troubles you are facing, I know they’re tough.  I know you may feel like you’re going under.  I know you may feel like you can’t make it.  But you gotta believe.

Maybe your life is going okay but you’re worried about your relationship with God.  Maybe you’ve been involved in something that you now you shouldn’t.  Maybe you’ve let your prayer life drift.  Maybe you just feel far away from God.

You gotta believe.  In Ephesians 2:4 Paul says, “God’s mercy is so abundant, and God’s love for us is so great, that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience he brought us to life with Christ.  It is by God’s grace that you have been saved.”  It is by God’s grace that you have been saved, but you gotta claim it.  You gotta accept Christ.  You gotta believe.

God has not brought you this far just to drop you.  God has not seen you through all that you’ve faced in your life so that he could abandon you now.  God has not walked this long and this far with you just to watch you struggle and suffer.

Most of you have probably seen a little poem or poster called “Footprints in the Sand.”  It talks about someone looking back on their life’s journey and seeing two pairs of footprints in the sand, where they were walking with God.  At some points, though, there is only one pair of footprints.  The person says to God, “God – where were you where there is only one set of footprints?  Why did you abandon me?”  God says, “My child, where you see one set of footprints is where I had to carry you.”

Lately I’ve seen on Facebook a little cartoon about that poem.  It’s just two panels.  The first panel shows God talking to the person saying, “My child, where you see one set of footprints is where I had to carry you.”  The second panel shows God pointing and saying, “And those deep grooves over there?  That’s where I had to drag you kicking and screaming.”

New life will come.  God’s grace will save you.  It’s true for us as individuals, and it’s true for us as a congregation.  You gotta believe.

You gotta believe in the God who parted the Red Sea, the God who strengthened David to defeat Goliath.  You gotta believe in the God who loved us enough to sacrifice his son Jesus, the God who Paul says saves us by his grace alone and rescues us from death.

There are a lot of different words we use in the church from time to time.  Repent – confess your sins and turn away.  Pray – reach out to listen to and talk with God.  Meditate – on the lordship of Christ in your life and in the world around you.

The word “believe” ties all those other three together.  Repentance doesn’t mean much if you don’t believe there’s a God who holds you accountable.  Remembering to pray isn’t helpful if you don’t believe in God or if you don’t believe that God will answer your prayers.  Meditation is a waste if you don’t believe that God will speak to you in one way or another.  You gotta hope.  You gotta believe.  Hope in Christ, believe in God’s grace.       This time of Lent is a time to move us towards Easter.  The move towards Easter isn’t always easy.  We may stumble or fall.  We may have to go through hard, lonely places.  We may not be sure what path to take.

God may have to carry us.  God may have to drag us.  Either way, we know where we’re headed.  Toward Easter.  Toward resurrection.  Toward new life and new hope.  Toward a new awareness of Christ in our lives and of our role in Christ’s kingdom.  That’s what Easter’s about.

We’re going to find that new life.  We’re going to claim that new strength.  We’re going to feel that new hope.  We’re going to fulfill the new ministries and new calls God has for us as individuals and as a church.  Because God promises that’s what happens.  Paul tells us all about the grace of God in our lives, the grace that Jesus bought with his life, the grace that is the foundation of our faith and our hope.

The new life is ours.  With one another, and with Christ.  But you gotta believe.  You gotta believe.  Amen.