Monday, April 28, 2014

Intuitive, Recognizer, Fleshy, Scientist Thomas. A sermon for Easter 2.

The first Sunday after Easter (which is actually called the Second Sunday of Easter), we usually get the story of the disciple we call "Doubting Thomas", who doubted that Jesus had come back to life. In this sermon, I explore why Thomas might have wanted some fleshly proof of Jesus' resurrection, as we likely all would. What would you do if you heard that a loved one had come back to life? What would you want to do with that person?

“Intuitive, Recognizer, Fleshy, Scientist Thomas”
Sermon, Year A, Easter 2, April 27, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: John 20:19-31 

Thomas touched Jesus. He touched Jesus! Touched the risen Jesus. The risen Jesus that mysteriously appeared in the room that they had locked themselves in. An extraordinary moment, I should think. Imagine being Thomas. You’ve watched your friend die. Watched him be crucified. You were there, or at least heard, about putting Jesus’ body into the tomb. Then you hgear from your friends a few days later that they have seen him. That he has risen! He’s been resurrected, and come back to life. You hear the news that he is now alive!

Then you get a chance to see him. To know that what you have heard is true. And you have a chance to touch him. To touch Jesus. Fleshy, incarnate, human Jesus. Imagine touching someone that you thought is dead. Someone that you know is dead.

There are times I have wished I could touch my parents again. Get a hug from my mom, taste her rhubarb pie again. To have a handshake from my dad again. I don’t know if there is an equivalent for women, but for males, many of us have that experience with our dads of shaking their hands many times over the years while growing up but there comes that one handshake that you can tell, you can feel, that dad is not shaking hands with a boy any more but shaking hands with a fellow man. I had that experience, and I would like to experience it again.

We are a fleshly people. We live in bodies. We are embodied. We touch one another. Hold hands while passing the peace. Hugging. We communicate through fleshly interaction. We can even communicate thoughts, ideas, hopes, and prayers that words themselves cannot express. The hand on the shoulder. The pat on the back. The handshake. The hug. Communicating things that words alone cannot do, or do as well.

Though even words, speech, is also a fleshy touchy kind of act. It’s a physical act. I speak and set the air in motion. The air moves toward you, touches your eardrum and sets it in motion. It then creates patterns in your brain that communicate my thoughts into your head. It is a physical act, speaking. This is probably why noise polution is so psychologically damaging, because it is forced touch. It is like being poked repeatedly by something you can’t stop or shut out. You can’t stop sound from coming in.

We are fleshy, touchy people. You may remember the old telephone ad: “Reach out and touch someone.” Touch them by phone.

To touch again a loved one. A friend who has moved away. The baby sitter we remember but haven’t seen since we were baby sat. Someone from your past, like a teacher or a mentor. Or a mother or father, wife or husband or lover, who has died. Who is no longer around to touch. But we don’t get to touch them again. Not if they have died.

Not if they have died. We don’t get to touch them again. But that desire is there. I have seen over the years of doing and being at funerals, many times a spouse giving a last kiss, touch of the forehead or hair or holding hands, that one last time before the undertaker closes the casket before the funeral. To touch one last time. One last touch before the tomb is sealed. To put body to body.

After my dad died, I remember talking to mom a few months later catching up with her, asking how she was doing. We got to talking about her times of grief and pain and what the daily routines were like. And she said that of all the ways that she missed my dad, of all the moments of pain that came up throughout the day of missing dad and realizing he’s not there, she said the most painful moment of every day was getting into bed alone. That, for her, was the hardest part of dad being dad. To not have someone else in the bed. The rest of the day felt more normal, but at bedtime it really came home to her that there was no body there.

So I am not going to blame Thomas here for wanting to touch Jesus. I’m not going to blame Thomas or call him names.

Because we all know that we do not get to touch again those who have died. And Thomas wants to touch his friend who has died who had come back. Of course he wants to touch him! I think we all would want to touch those that we were sure were dead. I would want to hold again my parents, relatives, friends who have died if they came back. Absolutely. Partly just to make sure they’re real, that I’m not hallucinating, but mostly to feel their flesh against my flesh again.

Doubting Thomas? Not at all. I think that’s an awful name to saddle him with through all these years. Doubting Thomas? I think we all would have been Doubting Insert Your Name Here.

We are fleshy beings. Thomas wants to touch. Even our sacraments are physical. The bread and the wine of Communion. Bread is physical. You can touch it. Break it. Hear it breaking. Taste it. Feel the texture. The wine makes sound as it pours. It has taste. The feel of the liquid in your mouth. It has a temperature, a feel. Baptism’s water is wet, touchable, it flows, it has a sound to it, a color, a smell, a shape.

So of course Thomas wants to touch and have some fleshly proof. That’s just goo science, too. To be a little skeptical. To say, “Well, let me test it with my senses. I don’t want to believe it just because you said it. I want to touch it, see it, feel it.” Maybe we could call him Scientific Thomas. “Let me embrace him one more time!” Friend Thomas. Thomas who says, “My Lord and my God.” Recognizer Thomas! He knows who Jesus is. The other disciples don’t make that connection between Jesus their friend, Jesus their Lord, Jesus the flesh, and Jesus the God. Thomas, though, makes the connection of them all being one. Intuitive Thomas! Good Thomas! Insightful Thomas! Faith Proclaiming Thomas!

Thank God for Thomas and for all the Thomases who ask that question, “Why should I believe you just because you say it is so?” Who want to trust with their senses as well. With their flesh. All those Thomases who by asking lead us to even greater truths, or more extraordinary truths, by refusing to settle for easy answers. Or settle for simple questions. Or to accept unexplored, unquestioned claims. Inquisitive Thomas!

John’s Gospel begins, the very first words of his Gospel, with “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Then a few verses later it says, “And the Word of God became flesh and lived among us.” That’s the beginning of the Gospel. And what we read today is the ending of the Gospel. Though there is actually some more after this, this story is the real ending of the Gospel. The words we read today, these words of Thomas, tie the Gospel together. The opening words are confirmed by Thomas, who refused to live by faith and not by sight. Thomas, who wanted to live by both faith and sight, and by demanding both he has the insight to roll away the stone on those first words of this Gospel and see their fulfillment in the resurrected Jesus as he says, “My Lord AND my God.”

“You are my Lord,” he says, “I see you are also my God. You are God made flesh dwelling among us.”

Incarnate, human, fleshy. Intimate, present, touchable God.


Friday, April 25, 2014

"Do Not Be Afraid – He Is Risen!" Easter sermon 2014

“Do Not Be Afraid – He Is Risen!”
Sermon, Year A, Easter, April 20, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
©2014 Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10 

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Jesus is risen! Jesus is risen indeed! The tomb is empty on this morning. “You are looking for Jesus, but he is not here, for he has been raised.” He has come back to life. No longer in the tomb. Now that is good news! That is The Good News!

But I’m not sure, if I were there at the tomb that morning, how I would have taken this good news. If I would have thought immediately, “Oh, that’s a good thing.” I think I might have been afraid. Certainly surprised. I’m used to dead things staying dead. I had seen Jesus crucified a couple days before. We knew that he had died. I’m used to dead things staying dead. But God does things differently. God often has a surprise ready for us. Likes to do things not in the way that we expect.

I’m also not used to seeing angels. I think that would be a bit of a shock to see an angel. I’ve never seen one. Not a real angel, anyway. Not the kind that the women encountered here at the tomb. I’ve encountered many angels in my life, including many of you people here. People who have lent a helping hand, or a meal, or a visit during a time of loneliness. The kinds who offer aid on the side of the road, or give a phone call when you need it. I’ve experienced those kinds of angels, including you. But none of you come with earthquakes and lightning. I thank you for that. That would be even more terrifying than the presence of the angel itself.

If I were to encounter a biblical kind of angel, I probably would be terrified. It would be so unusual and different. Out of my realm of experience. Now I would like to think that being a rational, modern person who has read the scripture and read the many times and knowing the stories that angels say “Do not be afraid!” I would be totally prepared to encounter an angel. “Don’t be afraid” is the first ting they always say. So I would like to think that I would be totally prepared, and would greet the angel calmly and rationally and without fear. “Oh, hello, angel. What’s up? I’ve read the scripture. I know what’s about to happen. You’re about to give me a message, aren’t you? Well, I’m ready. Bring it on. I’m not afraid because I know I’m not supposed to be. Deliver your message. But let’s get a selfie first.”

That’s my ideal of handling it. But I would likely be scared out of my boots and trembling, unable to speak coherently. Much in the way that I get incoherent when I meet a celebrity or other people I admire that I really want to talk to but when I meet them I can’t manage more than stuttering, mumbling, and a pathetic, “Gee, I love your stuff.”

No, I’d be scared out of my boots or really nervous. I think that I would want to hear what angels always say, what the angel here said to the women: “Do not be afraid, O mortal. Do not fear.”

And I’d say to myself, “Okay, note to self: Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid. Try not to be afraid.”

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me, and when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.[This is the Bene Gesserit Litany of Fear from Dune, by Frank Herbert, one of my all-time absolutely favorite novels/series]

“Do not be afraid,” the angel would say. And being sarcastic, I might respond, “Well, if you stopped with the earthquake and lightning thing...”

Do not be afraid. That’s the Easter message. We get it twice in this passage.

Do not be afraid. Jesus is risen, so do not be afraid. Jesus has flipped over the powers of this world so you don’t need to fear. Jesus has made all things new. There is nothing to be afraid of. In Jesus there is life and resurrection and new life. So you have nothing to fear.

And when Jesus appears to the women he says to them, “Greetings. Don’t be afraid.”

The first words of the risen Christ: Do not fear.

It’s a mantra that runs through all of scripture. Do not fear, do not be afraid. The things of this world might hurt you, but they cannot defeat you. They can do things to you, but they do not have ultimate power over you. Don’t fear the Roman Empire that killed Jesus because he is greater than any government, government power, or human power. Do not fear the sting of death because Jesus has taken it away. Do not fear the power of violence because Jesus’ way of love has proven it to be impotent. Do not fear the power of sickness for Jesus is the great healer who walks with you through it, that no matter what it does to your body it cannot take away your humanity, your dignity, or your connection to God and God’s love. Do not fear what others say about you, or if they tease you or bully you, because your identity is in God, not in what those people want you to be or say that you are.

Do not fear the tomb. Do not fear any of the tombs that we experience in our lives. The tombs that deprive us of life, hope, or love. Because Jesus has emptied them out and filled their dark spaces with light of love and life. Don’t fear the past, because it is gone. Don’t fear the present, for I am with you. Don’t fear the future, for it is not here yet and I am going ahead of you. I will be there as well. Because I am alive and I am always with you.

Those are words of comfort and hope. And in some ways also sort of scary at some level, to know that Jesus is always with us. That does come with some level of responsibility that we live accordingly. But to know that even when we don’t live accordingly, when we fall short of that mark, Jesus is still there. Jesus is still Love and Life and Hope.

Don’t be afraid! “I came out of the tomb because of you. I defeated death because of you. I had to do it because I love you too much to leave you alone. I simply could not leave you alone.”

That is the Easter message. That’s the message of the empty tomb. Have hope! Don’t be afraid. Have peace! Have joy! Have love! Have life!

I know that my redeemer lives. Alleluiah! We say this day, Alleluiah, he is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

“This is What Love Looks Like: A Parable in Three Acts”, sermon from Maundy Thursday

“This is What Love Looks Like: A Parable in Three Acts”
Sermon, Year A, Maundy Thursday, April 17, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

During Lent this year, our Wednesday night and noon Soupo and Scripture time together we looked at some of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of Heaven. Also called the Realm of God, the Commonwealth of God, the Egalitarian Community of God, whatever we might like to call it. We looked at these parables that Jesus offered to us to show us what that world was/is like. What God’s intent is for us. I found them to be quite good discussions with a lot of good comments and good conversation. Those of you that were here, I hope you also found them enlightening and helpful and that you learned about what it is, this Realm of God. God’s topsy-turvy way of doing things. Turning things on their end, flipping them upside down from what we might often think of how things ought to be.

This Kingdom, this Realm, that Jesus talked about is where a man sells all that he has just to possess a single wonderful pearl.

Where a shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep to go search for one. Or a woman spends great energy searching for a single lost coin.

Where seeds are sown in extravagance.

Where a debt of even 150,000 years’ worth of labor is forgiven and a slave is set free.

Where workers in a field receive enough wages to survive for a day, whether they started early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Where the king rides a donkey into the capital city through a back door, and not in triumph, but to become a victim.

We have a parable in tonight’s Gospel lesson. It is a parable of action, not a parable of words that Jesus spoke. Rather, Jesus is doing this parable, showing us, “This is what the Realm looks like.” Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. He washes his disciples’ feet. This is an intimate, physical act. And in doing so he’s setting up another parable. The realm of God is like this: A king stoops down to the floor to wash a subjects’ feet and to dry them with his own robe.

We also in this reading have another parable within the parable. The realm is like this: A king who knows a certain will betray him, stoops down to the floor and washes his feet and dries them with his own robe and as he rises up he takes that man’s hand and invites him to the table saying, “You need to eat. Come and eat.” And he feeds him the bread and wine, feeding him his body and his blood.

That’s what Jesus is talking about! That’s what it looks like. “Love one another as I have loved you.” No distinction of rank or social status. Not even any distinction of what is in a person’s heart. A simple commandment: Love one another. Unconditionally. Love one another as I have loved you.

As you continue your journey through this evening’s readings, and those of tomorrow if you come to the Good Friday worship, and hear Jesus’ story think of it as a parable that says “This is what love looks like.”


Palm Sunday Anti-King, sermon from Palm Sunday 2014

“Palm Sunday Anti-King”
Sermon, Year A, Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

We are at the beginning of Holy Week. This is Palm Sunday today. Holy Week is one continuous experience of worship, so there will be no benediction at the end of today, or Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday. It all flows through until Easter as one long week of worship.

Today is Palm Sunday. The beginning of Jesus’ final week. This is the day that Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a donkey. In the Gospel of Matthew text we read, he comes in on a donkey and a colt (a foal of a donkey), because Matthew chose a prophetic passage out of Isaiah that included both a donkey and a colt. But let’s just say he comes in on a donkey. Comes into town in a big parade with palms waving and people shouting “Hosanna in the highest!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” A wonderful prayer that was in the Psalm we read and shows up in other places in the Old Testament scriptures. They wave, they shout, and they put their cloaks down. It’s a great, wonderful parade as Jesus comes into Jerusalem.

Very much like an emperor coming into town after a victory. Or like a governor. Or some other high ranking important official or general coming in to a capitol city in triumph, proudly riding a horse or being driven on a chariot with lots of soldiers, fanfare, and people also shouting and cheering their leader or hero. Very much like that. Jesus comes into Jerusalem this way. It is a king-like or emperor-like maneuver for Jesus to come in this way.

Except that Jesus doesn't come in through the front gate, like a political ruler or military hero.

Jesus comes in through the side or the back.

He comes in not with all the official fanfare, he comes in through the side. He doesn’t come in on a horse or being driven by a chariot, but comes in on a humble donkey. Very much like his mother rode in the Christmas story. And there is no bearing of weapons. Just palms and cloaks on the ground. He enters like a king, but as an anti-king. He enters in an anti-way from what might be expected. We talked in our Soup and Scripture about the realm of God, commonwealth of God, parables of the Kingdom of Heaven as being different from ours. God’s realm as a topsy-turvy upside down version of our own. So Jesus comes in as a king, but not as a king. In an anti-way. And in a sense, by coming in that way, this also is another parable of what the Realm of God looks like.

In the Realm of God, the one who is the supposed ruler comes in on a donkey. He is the humble one. Jesus, who has preached humility, service to others, love for neighbors, uplifting those on the margins, eating with those he wasn’t supposed to eat with, bringing into his circle of friends the people he wasn’t supposed to be friends with, healing the sick. That Jesus continues to live that way even in the way he comes into Jerusalem. He does not come in as the triumphant one to enter his final week. He comes as a victim. And even there was no procession, if he had not come in on a donkey and with the palms, this is still a pretty radical action for him to come into town. Even had he and his disciples come in as they normally would, it would have been a radical move because he knows what is going to happen. He knows what is going to happen and he comes anyway. He does not come in to claim a great victory or celebrate a great victory that he’s had, he comes into Jerusalem to be the victim. To be the one that others will be victorious over.

This is not going to be an easy week for Jesus. And if you come on Maundy Thursday (and I suggest you do) you’ll hear the story of what happens that week. Or come to the Good Friday service at First Congregational at noon, and you will hear the story. You will hear how the Hosannas of today become the “Crucify him!” of Friday morning.

Then on Easter morning, as Jesus rises from the tomb, we will come to even greater joy than we know today in this Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem. It can be difficult to know the full joy of Easter without having walked with Jesus through the whole week. Walking with Jesus through the whole experience. So I recommend that you come to one of those services, or come to both. They are very moving and meaningful experiences. The ups and the downs, the hosannas and the betrayals, the crucifixion followed by that empty tomb on Easter morning. It is a powerful faith builder to hear that story. It has been for me, anyway. To hear this story, even though I hear it every year and know how it goes and how it ends up. Still, every year, for me this is a really powerful experience and faith-building experience. It brings me closer to God.

To walk with Jesus through his whole journey strengthens my faith, and enlarges my faith.

But today is a day of joy. Our savior is coming into Jerusalem! Our king, our lord, our friend, our guide, is coming into his city to great fanfare of his friends and great joy. In a world that has too little joy, and too little hope, and too little goodness, I say, Let’s enjoy the moment today! Not dwell on what will happen the rest of the week, but enjoy today, enjoy Palm Sunday and take part in the parade and the procession and the shouting of “Hosannas!” as a way of saying a protest against darkness and against evil, “My Lord lives and the power of love is supreme!”

Part of our Christian witness is to say that evil and darkness do not get to win. Love reigns supreme. As I mentioned, at the end of the service we will hand out palms and we will have a procession around the sanctuary as we sing in joy and triumph as we remember the Hosannas and the words “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”