Monday, April 24, 2017

"From Doubt to Belief" - Sermon, April 23, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“From Doubt to Belief”
April 23, 2017 – Second Sunday of Easter
Pastor Andrew Davis
John 20: 19-31

        Last week as I was perusing social media while unwinding from a GLORIOUS Easter worship service last Sunday, I came across a little comic that said “Christ is alive: The Clergy’s Dead.” I think I can concur, as Easter sometimes feels like the Super Bowl or any kind of national championship game for many of us in the church, as we had the season of Lent that is almost like the playoffs for forty days (minus Sundays) before, then culminated with the big day.  But during this time, we also have all the extra prep-work, the extra services in between, and striving to make sure that everything will be excellent, maybe even close to perfect when the big (yes, I admit I’m a bit of a perfectionist).  But then like any holiday for that matter, Easter comes and goes very quickly.  Although I didn’t take part in a sunrise service this year like I have these last three years, I was still plenty wiped out and think I slept nearly 30 hours the first few nights of this last week.  I guess Holy Week was a little more tiring than I thought, but was so worth it. 
        But while the candy, faux-grass, baskets, plastic eggs, and other stuff have now been sold or put away for another year at the stores, IT’s STILL EASTER!!  Here in the church, we have this Great 50 Days from Easter until Pentecost (June 4 this year) in which the risen Christ appears to the disciples in one way or another in the Gospel lessons.  Easter is also a journey for all of us in the church, because if we did not have the resurrection of Jesus, we would not be gathered here like we are today.  As we saw with Mary Magdalene in last week’s Easter message, she was never the same again because of Jesus’s resurrection, and likewise, the world would never be the same again either.   The empty cross (like our crystal cross behind me) would not have the same meaning that it does today if it wasn’t for the resurrection.  Jesus defeated death and showed us that sin or death would NOT have the final answer, as hopelessness and sorrow became new hope and joy on that early morning!!  Yet amidst the empty cross and the empty tomb after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, there would still be some doubt and unbelief that would linger among some, except that doubt would ultimately turn to belief just as hopelessness turned to joy. 
        How many of you deal with doubt on a regular basis?  In all reality, doubt is a major part of our lives and even on our faith journey.  And doubt oftentimes gets a bad rap.  I even admit that there are times when I too have my doubts, like whether or not we will see Spring or summer, or if the Giants will make the playoffs this season considering the slow start, or if the Sacramento Kings will ever make the playoffs again.  Even though doubt oftentimes gets a bad rap, believe it or not, doubt can actually be healthy, as doubt is not so much the opposite of faith.  Depending on who you ask, certainty is the opposite of faith.  Yet, we live in a world that craves certainty, that craves proof.  We live in a world where people want to see things for themselves.  As the late Dr. J. Ellsworth Kalas who taught at Asbury Theological Seminary explains in his book, The Thirteen Apostles,
                We are cautious to call something a miracle;     we’re more skeptical,
more demanding of proof.  Science has trained us to ask appropriate questions, to the point, in fact, we sometimes ask them in inappropriate places.  We want evidence; we want to be sure that studies have been made, and that they have been properly controlled and observed.  We’re concerned about objectivity and the prejudices of the researchers.[i]
So, it’s no surprise that we encounter someone like Thomas in this morning’s Gospel lesson.  Thomas is what J. Ellsworth Kalas refers to as a “twenty-first century man” who “had the mindset of a modern or post-modern person; he could believe a thing only after all the facts were in” and “looked not for hopes and dreams or poetry, but for facts, observable facts.”[ii] People are very quick to talk about Thomas’s perceived doubt, although Thomas definitely was one who craved certainty and proof.  Nevertheless, our faith is what aids us towards belief, towards trusting in the promises of God.  Even while we don’t see Jesus, we still believe.  And yes, sometimes our doubts do catch us and cause us to wrestle a little bit, but our doubts can also help us to believe.  Now the story can easily be about Thomas and his unbelief and desire for proof, but it’s more about how Jesus shows up and helps us move our doubt towards belief, as Jesus is speaking to us too, not just Thomas and the disciples.
        Even though the disciples ran away and locked themselves away for fear of their lives, except for the un-named, beloved disciple, walls or locked doors cannot hinder Jesus from appearing to them.  Amidst the locked doors, the risen Jesus appears and is not harboring any hard feelings for the way they fled and offers the traditional greeting of “peace be with you,” then essentially calls them back into service when he tells them “as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (Jn. 20: 22, CEB).  Jesus could easily be disappointed with the disciples for running away the way they did out of fear, but he still calls them back into service regardless of AND forgives them for running away. 
       However, Thomas seems to be left out of the party at first, as he wasn’t there when the risen Jesus first appears to the disciples, and doesn’t exactly believe them when they tell Thomas what happens.  But then the disciples didn’t exactly believe Mary Magdalene when she told them what happened at first either.  Thomas is skeptical and is popularly given the nickname, ‘doubting Thomas,’ but was Thomas really doubting, or was there a little more than what meets the eye here? 
        The disciples tell Thomas that they too saw the risen Jesus, but Thomas is not 100% convinced that Jesus has risen from the dead, although ironically the disciples didn't exactly believe it was true at first either.  Thomas is more demanding than he is doubting, as he wants to see Jesus for himself, or as J. Ellsworth Kalas described earlier, wanted the hard facts.  In some ways, Thomas is just like many of us.  We want the facts.  We want proof.  I’ve even struggled with it too, as I like to have facts and proof too.  But some things require faith and belief more than anything.
      In her collection of sermons, Home by Another Way, Episcopal Priest turned professor Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor explains more about the character of Thomas in her sermon “Believing in the Word” that Thomas “was a brave and literal-minded maverick who could be counted on to do the right thing, but only after he had convinced himself that it was the right thing.”[iii]  Even when Thomas finally moved from doubt to belief, Jesus
did not dismiss Thomas from the circle of his friends for failing to trust what the others had told him.  On the contrary, Jesus made sure Thomas was included in that circle by coming back and repeating the whole scene a second time for his benefit alone.  In the end, no one who was there that night had to take anyone’s word for anything.  They all saw for themselves and believed.[iv]

        Jesus’s willingness to appear a second time a week  when Thomas was actually around says a lot about Jesus, as Jesus wants us to believe and to trust in the promise that he has made before, but like Thomas and the disciples, Jesus will forgive us whenever we doubt or show skepticism, as we can still wrestle with doubt. 
      Even Mary Magdalene was a little hesitant to believe at first when we read the resurrection story from John’s Gospel last week, as Mary did not recognize Jesus until he called her name and called her into service.  On the other hand, Thomas takes things a little further in wanting proof and sure enough, Jesus is willing to show Thomas his wounded hands and side, even inviting him to touch his wounded side and his wounded hands.  If we were to study the character of Thomas a little more, we can find that he’s really a practical person, a straight-shooter, and one who doesn’t dance around with small talk, but cuts right to the chase.[v] Thomas has a lot of the qualities that I wish I had more of as a person, as I wish I wasn’t so tentative to ask tough questions and could just cut to the chase, but this is also a reminder that each of us have our own unique gifts and limitations. 
At the same time, Thomas is also humble enough to move from doubt to belief when he exclaims “my Lord and my God” in verse 28 (John 20: 28, NLT).  In her commentary on John 20: 19-31, New Testament professor at Perkins School of Theology, Jamie Clark-Soles writes that Thomas
knew when he was beat. He knew there was a time to shut up and bow down. In my eyes, Thomas was blessed, and maybe I’m a little envious that he got such a wonderful opportunity. But you know what Jesus says? He says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me (reread John 2:23–25 and 4:48 to see that John is quite impatient with those who need signs and wonders to believe and follow Jesus)? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That, of course, includes at least the reader of John’s Gospel, including you and [me].[vi]

        Although we don’t necessarily see Jesus physically today, we still believe and we still trust that he’s here with us even when we may have our doubts at times.  We believe that by following Jesus and learning from his teachings, we too can live into the same promises that he gave to his disciples and all who followed him.  Again, while it may feel like doubt gets a bad rap here, I believe that doubt is still something healthy in our faith journey. I feel like it is when we are sometimes in the midst of such un-beliefs or doubts that God shows up in the most profound ways like Jesus did with Thomas, which has the power to move us from doubt to belief when we choose to believe. 
      I remember when I first became the music director at Rio Linda UMC in early 2001 at the age of 20 what it might be like to be in Thomas’s shoes.  I felt like I was ready to take on the challenge of being a music director and may have been a little too pompous and pushy at times in trying to get there, but when it actually did happen, it was almost like a “be careful what you wish for” scenario, as there were a lot of people in the congregation who were very skeptical, and even times where I had my doubts in my abilities.  A lot of people thought I was too young, and because I grew up in that church, rising to the role of music director changed the dynamic of some of the relationships in the church.  But in the long-run and by trusting God, things ultimately turned around and worked out, as people moved from doubt to belief, as well as for myself as I believed in my abilities.  Although all of us in the church had to sit with some of our doubts in one way or another at that time, we agreed to trust each other and God, and began a new relationship with each other, one which taught me a lot about ministry in the church and while I did not see it then, that time has helped both of us where we are at today in this church in our first year together.  And even last year at this time in this congregation, there may have been some doubt and skepticism towards the appointment process in the UMC, but I think it’s worked out so far in almost a year now. 
        Finally, whenever we look towards creating new ministries or envisioning new ideas in our church to better serve people around us, or while trying something new together as a community of faith, there will be some initial doubts and things that could happen that may test whether we’re doing the right thing or not, as many of us are practical like Thomas and we want all our facts laid out before we believe in something.  However, some things need the hard facts before investing time or finances, although that could be another sermon there.  As I alluded to in last week’s Easter sermon, we have some awesome opportunities around town to engage in some new ministries around our town such as supporting  Ohana House after hearing a wonderful presentation on Thursday, finding ways to partner with our schools and become more engaged with the college, and cast a new vision with our Christian Education ministries to better serve the families in the neighborhood.
      But in everything we can think of, we need to believe that we can engage with ALL people and share the Good News with them, as anything is possible by believing in the power of the risen Christ.  Even with the world becoming more skeptical and doubtful about believing in the risen Christ, there is a greater urgency to share that Good News today and what it means to be part of a community of faith.  Plus, as we saw in our text, not even locked doors or walls can keep Jesus out.  Even though doubt does happen and that we will wrestle with doubt at one time or another, we are likelier to have a profound encounter with God and perhaps the risen Christ just like the disciples and Thomas did, in which we can see our doubt turn to belief.  Let’s keep striving towards believing in what is possible as we keep on sharing God’s love, even in the times when we want to have proof and all of the facts.  Because next week and in the weeks to follow, the resurrected Jesus will appear once again in some of the profound ways before he ascends to God. 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spiri

[i] J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Thirteen Apostles: The Men Who Journeyed with Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012), 95. 
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Believing in the Word” in Home by Another Way, pg. 113-118 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefielf Publishers Inc., 1999), 114. 
[iv] Ibid., 115-116. 

[v] "Commentary On John 20:19-31 By Jaime Clark-Soles". 2017. Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed April 20 2017.

[vi] "Commentary On John 20:19-31 By Jaime Clark-Soles". 2017. Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed April 20 2017.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"Encountering the Unexpected," Easter Sermon, April 16, 2017

Community United Methodist Church, Quincy
“Encountering the Unexpected”
Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
Pastor Andrew Davis
John 20: 1-18

        Happy Easter!!  I don’t think we can say it enough; Christ IS Risen!!  HE IS RISEN INDEED, ALLELUIA!!  While we might be enjoying the chocolates, sweet treats, and other goodies we may have sworn off during the forty days of Lent, something special has been happening during that time that has led up to this moment today.  During these last Forty Days, we have journeyed with Jesus through the wilderness of Lent, journeyed with him into Jerusalem, then journeyed with him to the cross.  While Good Friday is a day of darkness and while it may also feel that all hope died along with Jesus on that afternoon, we had to go through it so that we can come to the empty tomb and see that Jesus is indeed the resurrection and the life, as he is not there.  He’s no longer dead, but he lives just as he promised, whether we expected it or not!! 
Christ is Risen!!  He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
        For the longest time, it took me quite awhile to fully appreciate the significance of Easter.  In fact, these last five years is where I have really come to appreciate Easter even more, as it is the hope and joy of this day that makes me feel as if the world is alive once again, but also feel a sense of new energy and renewed faith each time Easter rolls around.  And after this long and sometimes unforgiving winter that we have experienced here in the Sierras, I think all of us are ready to see the new life that’s starting to appear around us, thanks to all of this rain and snow, which has surpassed the levels from 1982-83.  While things were lay cold, sometimes gloomy, and dormant during the winter, I always look forward to those first hints of warmth in the air, the longer days, and seeing all the flowers and trees in full bloom.  I’m not sure our allergies like it too much for us with allergies, but it is a wonderful sight that lifts the spirits when we are in the midst of so much beauty around us here in Plumas County.  Even while driving through the Sierra Valley to Reno a couple weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice how many calves are out in the pastures, plus think I saw a couple lambs across the street from the high school when I was walking the bike trail one day.  And as you were on your way to worship here this morning, have you had a chance to look around you and see the new life that is happening, even amidst the lingering winter weather?  Have you been listening to the sound of nature’s symphony ranging from the frogs at night to the birds in the morning and during the day?  In some ways, going through winter has been like going through Good Friday, in which all the trees and grasses appear lifeless until Spring when the world comes alive once again.  And each Spring when I’m out hiking or walking, I always encounter something unexpected along the way in one way or another, usually something wonderful or awe-inspiring. 
        As we just heard in John’s account of Jesus’s resurrection, I invite us to imagine putting ourselves in the shoes of Mary Magdalene on that early morning after the world went dark after the gruesome way that Jesus died on the cross.  Even though it was early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene expected to come to the tomb to weep and grieve the loss of her teacher, savior, and friend.  Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s mother Mary, the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus’s sister were among the few to remain with Jesus as he died on the cross, while the other disciples ran away in fear.  Yet when she arrives at the tomb, Mary Magdalene encounters the jarring sight of the stone being rolled away, not sure what to make of it.  Could Jesus’s body been stolen, or moved to another burial site?  Mary’s encounter with the unexpected is startling and could easily lead to jumping to conclusions, so she goes to get a second opinion, running to get Simon Peter and the unnamed, Beloved Disciple who are equally as puzzled and jarred as she is when they arrive at the empty tomb.  But it takes looking inside the empty tomb to defy their expectations; instead of finding a corpse, they find the grave clothes folded and rolled up neatly.  There is nothing in that tomb except the folded linens, at least until the angels, then the risen Jesus appear to Mary after the two disciples leave. 
        However, the Beloved Disciple gets it, as he believes from what Jesus taught earlier, in which Jesus would have to die in order to be resurrected, the same notion of going through Good Friday to get to Easter.  We may not like it, but going through Good Friday is something the disciples had to experience in order to encounter this unexpected sight of the empty tomb, as they too would ultimately encounter the resurrected Jesus amidst their running away in fear.  At the same time, Jesus will remind Mary not to hold on to him, as he is telling her that this is a new day, or like the Fleetwood Mack song goes, “yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.” Letting go of what was is part of living into the resurrection and new life.  But as Jesus reminded Mary Magdalene, will remind the disciples, and remind us, believing in the resurrection and new life has that kind of power to transform each of us in exciting ways, sometimes in unexpected ways.  
Sometimes encountering the unexpected requires us to go through something we don’t like in order to experience something new, much like going through Good Friday to get to Easter, or letting go of and not holding onto something forever even though some things are not meant to last forever.  Sometimes we have customs and traditions that have run their course, yet we want to hold onto them as long as we can, but then when something happens such as the loss of a family member or someone near and dear moving away, or even simple changes, it can rock our world.  While we might mourn and grieve the loss of traditions and customs like Tevye in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” or family patriarch, Sam Krichinsky in the 1990 film “Avalon,” there is always something new that is possible that can happen when we let go, even when it is unexpected.  
Sometimes, we have to die to an old way of life and let go so that we can experience a new sense of self and live our lives to their fullest.  And along the way of that journey we may have various encounters with the unexpected, as sometimes those encounters can be life changing and transforming.  In his book, Renegade Gospel, Rev. Mike Slaughter at Ginghamsburg UMC in Tipp City, OH writes that
Resurrection faith begins with a renewed way of thinking.  Before you can be raised to a new level of life, you have to die to old ways of thinking.  You have to have new life pictures!  This means releasing past assumptions, feelings, and practices.  Resurrection thinking affects every area of our lives.  From our relationships to the way we think about the stewardship of time and financial resources, we must die to old patterns of thinking and be raised to the new.[i]

        Mary sure did not expect to have the encounter that she did with the risen Jesus, as she thought he was someone else until he called her by name.  But when she did encounter this unexpected sight of seeing Jesus again, risen from the dead, her instinct is to hold onto him in which he tells her not to, as he has yet to ascend to God, who is also our God.  Yet she would never be the same after that.  Hopelessness and despair gave way to hope and joy.  And that is part of why we sometimes need to die to old ways, because in order to experience the same joy and the same hope that Mary did on that morning and the same joy and hope the disciples will ultimately experience as they encounter the unexpected when they too see the risen Jesus, we can’t always hold on to what was.  Encountering the unexpected has that kind of power, in which we can see things in a new light.  By rising, Jesus is showing us that death, despair, and hopelessness is not going to have the final say!  Instead of finding her Lord dead and buried, Mary Magdalene ultimately found hope and joy, as Jesus was risen as he had promised earlier.[ii]
        Encountering the unexpected can be life changing for each of us, as it involves a change in perspective.  Professor Karoline Lewis explains that
[Mary Magdalene’s] first-person sermon suggests that she has confidence in her words and now in her true identity because in calling Jesus “Rabbouni” she views herself as a disciple. This is perhaps the oft-overlooked promise of the resurrection -- it alters your perspective on your identity, who God wants you to be in the world, toward what God is calling you to do. All of a sudden you start to trust that who God said you were all this time might actually be true; that God might have something in mind for you that you have not allowed yourself to believe.[iii]

        Encountering the unexpected can help us see ourselves differently, which is wonderful and sometimes scary.  However, encountering the unexpected can be a place where we can have some of our most profound encounters with God just like Mary Magdalene did with the risen Christ.  Look at the way Jesus sends Mary out to tell the rest of the disciples the Good News, that he has risen from the dead, and look at how she tells the disciples everything that she saw.  We see a contrast of emotions in John’s account of the resurrection that begins with weeping, with despair, and hopelessness that turns to unbounded joy and excitement when Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Christ.  She is never the same and the disciples won’t be either when they encounter the risen Jesus in the days that are ahead. 
So, what is it that we expect to encounter on Easter that may be unexpected?  For me, while I may know the story and know what’s going to happen each year, I try to do so as if I’m hearing the story for the first time and trying to ask myself what resurrection means for me personally.  At the same time, I also think about how to live more fully, enjoy life, and how to have a new sense of life when I think about what Jesus’s resurrection means to me.  And I’m sure each of you may have similar, or even different experiences with how each of you approach and encounter the story too.  And, this may even be the first time hearing it too, which is so awesome because this is a huge part of our faith as Christians and followers of Jesus!!!  Perhaps hearing this story might be a way of encountering the unexpected.
Even though I sometimes struggled with my faith for a time in my younger adult life and even had a love-hate/hate-love relationship with organized religion (which I admit that I still sometimes have), I know that I sure didn’t plan on moving to Washintgon, DC for seminary, nor planned to be a pastor of a church (although I think many of my colleagues could say they didn’t plan to either).  I didn’t expect to meet what have become some of my closest friends while in seminary either.  And I definitely did not expect to come to a great church like this, in a such a beautiful place.  Sometimes when we encounter the unexpected, God works through us in ways we would never think was ever possible.  But just like Jesus’s resurrection and the encounters with the risen Jesus, nothing is impossible!!  But it does take an ounce of faith and belief, trusting in God’s promises.  
        And each of you has a story too, as all of us have encountered the unexpected in one way or another.  There may be unexpected ways that you have encountered God, or someone who may have been God’s voice speaking to you, almost like the encounter Mary Magdalene and disciples had with the risen Christ.  But you know what?  We too can still encounter the resurrected Jesus in our own lives today, as each of us are his hands and feet through our words and our actions when we roll up our sleeves and fully live into our faith, as we are here to support each other whether we are beginning the journey, or if we’ve been on it for a long time now. 
But sometimes, it takes an encounter with the unexpected, a small ounce of faith, and belief to totally transform who we are; and as a result, we will never be the same when we encounter the unexpected and risen Jesus just like when the Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene had their AHA! moments at the empty tomb.  Rev. Mike Slaughter further explains in Renegade Gospel that
An encounter with the resurrected Jesus, however, doesn’t just transform the way we view ourselves; it causes us to see others in a new light.  The poor are no longer lazy, ignorant, or simply unlucky; they are the people God loves, so much so that more than two thousand scriptures are dedicated to justice for the vulnerable and poor, the widow, and orphan.  God teaches us to love ourselves and love others as ourselves; the resurrected Jesus reveals that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive, that ultimately the measure of our lives will be based on whatever we do for the least and the lost.  Jesus even redefines enemy, not as someone to hate but as someone worth praying for, an individual of sacred worth and God-potential.  Our encounters with the resurrected Jesus give us new eyes and a new resurrection worldview…the impossible becomes possible.[iv]

        That’s the Good News about living into the resurrection and encountering the unexpected, as we get a new sense of self, but also new eyes to view everyone in the world just like Mary Magdalene and the Beloved Disciple did when they saw and when they believed.  Mary was never the same, so as each of us experiences the resurrected Jesus in our own way, let’s remember that encountering the unexpected can change and transform us and how we see others.  I feel the power of resurrection within this very church right now, as we are arising to the many possibilities of how we can help our community and grow in spirit; whether through our work at C.A.N. (Community Assistance Network), PCIRC (Plumas County Intervention and Resource Center), Sierra House, discerning new outreach ministries to Ohana House, exploring ways to reach out to the new housing for Feather River College, resurrecting our Sunday School program so that we can better serve families in our neighborhood and surrounding communities, or the installation of our new lift which will make it easier for people to enter this beautiful sanctuary for worship.  We are trusting God’s promises as all of this happen and we are seeing how anything is possible in living into new life as a community of faith. 
As we think about ways we can better help our community and reach outside of the walls and share the Good News of the resurrected Jesus with others just like Mary did with the disciple, each of us can be personally transformed in the new relationships that we can cultivate, and even encounter the unexpected in seeing some of the gifts we may not have realized we had before, but it takes an ounce of faith, even a small ounce and belief in what is possible, as Jesus as showed Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and us that ANYTHING is possible through him and trusting in God’s promises. 
        As we begin this new journey of resurrection and keep the celebration of Easter going this week and in the coming weeks, what are some of the unexpected things that have happened when you have encountered the risen Jesus?  What are some unexpected ways that you have received Good News, or some unexpected Good News that you have received?  At the same time, what are things you might be hanging onto that you need to let go of so that you can fully experience new life and resurrection on your own journey of faith?  Let us think of all the possibilities that are out there as we go and share the Good News with everyone and anytime that we encounter the unexpected.  Christ is Risen: HE IS RISEN INDEED, ALLELUIA! 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, AMEN. 

[i] Mike Slaughter, Renegade Gospel: The Rebel Jesus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 123-24.

[ii] Ministries, Discipleship. 2017. "Easter Sunday — Preaching Notes - Umcdiscipleship.Org". Umcdiscipleship.Org. Accessed April 13 2017.

[iii] Lewis, Karoline, and Karoline Lewis. 2017. "Not Proof But Perspective By Karoline Lewis - Craft Of Preaching - Working Preacher". Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed April 13 2017.

[iv] Slaughter, 135-36.  

Monday, April 3, 2017

"Living Our Baptismal Calling: Believe" - Sermon, April 2, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“Living Our Baptismal Calling: Believe”
Pastor Andrew Davis
April 2, 2017
John 11: 1-45

        On Friday evening, several of us from church went to see The Shack, playing at the Town Hall Theater this weekend here in town. Now I have to admit that since being in seminary, I usually come to such films that have a religious theme prepared to hate or eviscerate it. Surprisingly, it did not disappoint and I actually enjoyed it. Without giving too much away, in case you decide to go see The Shack this afternoon or Tomorrow evening, the main character, Mackenzie, or Mack, has to come to terms with his pain and what he believes in at this remote shack when he encounters three people representing the Trinity; God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. But it takes believing and trusting in each one for Mack to ultimately make peace with what happened in his life and to begin healing.
        As we near the end of our Lenten journey, we come to three of the most important questions we are asked when we affirm our faith: Do you believe in God the Father?  Do you believe in Jesus Christ?  Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?  This morning, we conclude our series, “Living our Baptismal Calling,” as we have been re-visiting the vows that we take at baptism, or if you have not been baptized, visiting these vows that we take in what I hope will lead towards the journey of baptism.  As we talked about in the first week of our series, Lent, or the forty days before Easter was historically a time of intense preparation for baptism, which would happen on Easter.  I remember while in my first semester of seminary at Wesley, we talked about baptism in the early church in introduction to corporate worship and how the season of Lent involved intense lessons in learning about what it means to be a baptized believer, culminating in entering the waters and rising from those waters into a new life in Jesus Christ as the sun came up on Easter morning. 
        While on this Lenten journey, we have also been thinking about what it means to tell Satan to take a hike and renounce and resist evil, injustice, and oppression by accepting the power that God gives us to do so.  We have been thinking about what it means to confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior, much like the Samaritan woman at the well did, then talked about what it means to nurture our children and each other in the Christian faith, in which the blind man restored to sight found at Jesus's invitation.  Today, we come to the point when we get to say what we believe as Christians, as the final vow essentially recites The Apostles Creed, which we will say together after the offering.  But today, we also get a lesson about what it means to believe AND to trust in Jesus when he tells Martha and each of us when he performs his greatest sign or miracle in the Gospel of John, the raising of Lazarus. 
        As we read and participated in our Gospel lesson together, Jesus gets word that his good friend, Lazarus is sick, but doesn’t come to Bethany right away. Sadly, Lazarus dies while Lazarus's sisters Mary and Martha aren’t too happy with Jesus for dilly-dallying.  Yet Jesus had something in mind even though the disciples did initially not get it, but Martha did.  I think we have all come across what Jesus tells Martha in verses 25-26 when he says “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying.  Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” (John 11: 25, NLT).  Jesus basically says, ‘trust me, I’ve got this.  You’ve just gotta believe.’ Although I could also imagine him going "Dooooon't stop, belieeeeeeeeven..." Martha believes, as she trusts Jesus and what he is saying, yet Jesus is also foreshadowing what’s to come in his own death and resurrection, as we stand two weeks away from Easter.
         When I first heard these words from Jesus, it was through a song that went like this:
                I am the resurrection, and the life!
                All who believe in me will never die.
                I am the resurrection, and the life!
                All who believe in me will live a new life.

        It was a popular little song when I was in Sunday School and in youth group some twenty-something years ago, but these are also well-known words by Jesus, as we oftentimes begin memorial services with these same words, also known as the words of hope.  They’ve been spoken at the memorial services for Barbara Prince, Barbara Elsken, Geri Bernard, and Zigie Hedin who have passed away in my almost one year here in Quincy.  These words of Jesus telling us that death does not have the final answer are indeed words of hope, as this is the same hope and promise of resurrection that Jesus is giving each of us when we believe in him.
        Even though Martha has some second thoughts when Jesus asks for the stone of Lazarus’s tomb to be unrolled, Jesus once again tells Martha in verse 40, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?” (John 11: 40, NLT).  And just as Martha believed and trusted Jesus at his word, he pulls off this greatest miracle by raising Lazarus from the dead, although it would ultimately cost Jesus his own life.  And yet, amidst all of what Jesus has to go through and even lose his own life, Jesus is reminding Martha and each of us that it takes belief in him and trusting him to reach new life, much like what we profess to believe when we take the vows of baptism.  Do you believe?  I do! 
      A few years ago while interning at Hope Presbyterian Church in Mitchellville, MD, I had the opportunity to preach on this same passage.  However, I said that Jesus resurrected Lazarus, which actually was not a resurrection.  Thankfully, I was only giving a preview sermon to my mentor at the time and she was very quick to point that fact out.  Instead of a resurrection, Rev. Rob Fuquay says in his book, The God We Can Know: Exploring the “I Am” Statements of Jesus that
it was, indeed, a resuscitation, but it was also a postponement.  Lazarus would die again.  His sisters would one day have to relive the loss of death.  But when that day came, they would be able to face it with not only a belief, but also a trust.  The One who is Resurrection and Life works on both sides of the grave.[i]

        When Jesus tells Martha and us that he is “the resurrection and the life,” we have this new life to look forward to when we believe and trust in Jesus. One understanding that I have learned over the last several years is that although we will experience our earthly grief over the loss of a loved one just as Mary, Martha, and even Jesus did when Lazarus died, we have this hope of new life and this hope of resurrection that awaits us when we believe. 
        A few years ago, some friends and I were sitting in the Lounge at Wesley and doing our nightly ritual of watching Jeopardy! when we saw a commercial for a new show, Resurrection.” We were a little intrigued, but also disturbed by the idea that ABC would play with such a powerful theological theme of resurrection, although didn't see anything about believing in the previews.  In the show, a town in Missouri begins seeing relatives suddenly appearing, as these were relatives who had passed away, but appearing at the same age they were when they passed away, such as an eight-year-old appearing to his parents telling them that he’s their son some thirty years after he died.  I didn’t get the chance to see this series, but it got me thinking that we will ultimately see our relatives again when we go onto glory.  That’s what I believe when I trust Jesus that we will have new life. 
         Sometimes trusting in that promise might be easier said than done, but that’s what faith, belief, and trust in God is all about, as “the great goal of the spiritual life is not only to believe in God but to believe God.  It is a trust issue.”[ii] In fact when we take the Greek word for believe, pisteuo, it literally means to trust.[iii] Jesus essentially asks Martha in verse 25, do you trust me, and she does.  So think about it if we change the words around and substitute belief with trust.  Do you trust in God the Father?  Do you trust in Jesus Christ?  Do you trust in the Holy Spirit?  The good news is that we can trust Jesus when he asks us “do you believe?”
        Believe and trust is essential as we live into our baptismal calling and as we navigate this journey of faith together.  You trust me as your pastor to bring you God’s word, when you allow me to visit your home or at the hospital (although I admit that I still fall short there at times), and we trust each other in carrying out the mission of the church throughout the week and take the message that we hear to our workplaces, classrooms, and greater community.  But now next Sunday, we will take the journey with Jesus into Jerusalem, then throughout Holy Week, we will get to journey with Jesus to the cross, and to the grave.  In order to live into the promise and hope of resurrection that we are asked to believe, we need to go through Good Friday to get to Easter.  We also need to go through death to get to new life.  It's something where we trust and believe Jesus each step of the way.
Even on the metaphorical level, our Lenten journey gives us the opportunity to die to old ways of life and our old selves so that we can fully live into new life and experience resurrection that Jesus promises us at Easter.   Same thing we saw in Mack's story on Friday night in The Shack, as Mack had to die to the pain and guilt that weighed him down. Like Martha, we too need to be open to believing what Jesus tells us, as “Easter occurs not in spite of death but because of it.  Christian faith offers hope because it faces death squarely and moves through it, not around it.  It means that pain, disappointment, and heartache are not final realities.”[iv] Even more good news is that when Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life, that we can all have new life when we believe, he means it.  While we may have been walking through the wilderness of Lent and still have a little way to go through the darkness of Holy Week, we have this new day to look forward to.  And as we continue the journey of faith and gather for Holy Communion shortly, we have this new life after our earthly life that Jesus promises each of us when we believe in him.  And we have this opportunity to eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation at the table of grace. Let us continue trusting and believing in Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, AMEN. 

[i] Rob Fuquay, The God We Can Know: Exploring the “I Am” Statements of Jesus” (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2014), 113. 
[ii] Ibid., 109.

[iii] "Genesis Chapter 1 (KJV)". 2017. Blue Letter Bible. Accessed March 30 2017.

[iv] Fuquay, 111.

"Sky - Dominion & Exploitation" from "Season of Creation," Sermon, September 16, 2018

Community UMC, Quincy “Season of Creation: Sky – Dominion & Exploitation” Rev. Andrew Davis September 16, 2018 Psalm 19   ...