Monday, April 27, 2015

Calgon-jesus, Lead Me Through! - Sermon for third Sunday of Easter about roadblock of wanting to run away/avoid/pretend

“Calgon-Jesus, Lead Me Through!”
Sermon, Year B, Easter, April 12, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Luke24:13-48 
(lectionary was only 36b-48, but I went back to 13 to get the whole story)

[You may also listen to the sermon]

Calgon, take me away! Remember that old advertising slogan?

Come home at the end of a hard day, kick off your shoes, and just say “Calgon, take me away!” Slip into a bubble bath to escape the pain of the day. I remember one version is a frazzled woman in the kitchen trying to get a meal ready, and her children running around, the phone rings and when she grabs it the cord knocks a plant off the counter top and she screams, “Calgon, take me away!” Help me escape the suffering, help me escape the craziness, take me to a nice comfortable safe place for a while so that all can be right in the world – or at least in my world – now that I have a bubble bath.

A nice way to end a cruddy day. Nice relaxing bubble bath. Maybe a nice cup of tea. Put on slippers, if you’re lucky you can be be pampered by someone. Watch some meaningless drivel on TV that doesn’t challenge the mind at all, or grab a trashy novel to escape for a while.

A nice escape from the unwashed massed, the problems, the moron coworkers, the idiots at school, the boss that's riding you too hard, the decisions that are too difficult that loom in your life and you don’t want to have to make, or the issue that’s looming large in your life.

Calgon, take me away! Help me escape. Help me to run away.

But of course, the problems of the world are still there. The problems of your life are still there. Though I will say, it’s a good spiritual discipline to take a break. Don’t be afraid to take a break. We have a commandment from God to take a Sabbath Day. It’s important. It’s good for our spiritual and mental health. And of course it’s helpful in the midst of stress to take a little break. Go for a walk. Take that bubble bath. Go get a massage. Go work out. Go have lunch with a friend. Whatever it is, disengage for a moment and think about it. You might find a solution while you are not thinking. If nothing else, you will have a moment to rest and to contemplate.

But none of those fix the problem. None get you around the roadblock, whatever it is in front of you that is keeping you from living as fully as you should. That’s what we’re talking about this: the roadblocks, the stones in the road on your journey of life.

There is a temptation to run away. To not engage with the roadblocks, and pretend that if we ignore it long enough it will disappear.

There is a difference between taking a break and from running away.

Our escapism can go too far sometimes, yes? Or the way that we escape. Alcohol, take me away! Drugs, take me away! Car, take me away, a literal running away, pack up and leave and go somewhere else. Go join the Foreign Legion or whatever that might be. Hat, hang yourself up, take me away! Imagination, take me away to my safe place of pretend and denial. Which may be comfortable for a while, but doesn’t solve the problem. Running away is not a solution.

We see this in the disciples, that they ran way. Run away to Emmaus, leaving all the pain of Jerusalem behind. All those things that happened in the last few days, they escape from. Watching Jesus suffer, be crucified, die, and put in the tomb. And though they have heard the words that Jesus is risen on this day, they don’t know for sure. They haven’t see him.

A fear response. Perfectly natural, perfectly normal. I imagine we have all tried to run away fom our fears, anxieties, or struggles at some point. It’s a perfectly human thing to do.

Pretending to be sick so you don’t have to take that test at school that day. I did that. But one still has to take the test. Or pretend to be sick so you don’t have to go into work because its going to be a stressful day, or don’t want to face our boss to say that our project is done even though it should be. Or to put off something simply because we fear failure, or the difficulty of going forward. Lying to a friend because you don’t want to tell them a difficult truth.

Avoiding a major issue – not going to the doctor or the dentist because you’re pretty sure you have something awful: you don’t want to hear what it is. You fear hearing the words, “You do have cancer”, “You have Parkinson’s”, “You do need a root canal”, so we live with the pain of the symptoms instead of facing the pain that is the cause. They’ll live with the constant pain because they fear the pain of the dentist, even though once the dentist’s pain is done, all their pain will be gone.

And by not facing it, it gets worse.

We run away to Emmaus.

But Jesus says “Peace be with you!” We read that in last week’s text, and in today’s text. It’s a way of saying “Don’t be afraid.” Jesus also calls you by name. Jesus knows you. Jesus is with you, Jesus loves you. Jesus promised to stand with you and be with you always. That’s the Easter promise of life and hope. Even if you don’t recognize Jesus is there, like these disciples did not recognize him until he broke the bread. Or Mary Magdalene who did not recognize the risen Christ at the tomb, thinking he was the gardener, until he said her name, “Mary.” Then she knows it’s Jesus. Even if you don’t recognize that Jesus is there with you, he is.

We don’t need to run away from the roadblocks of life, and we shouldn’t. We can face them, for Jesus is with us.

These disciples running to Emmaus have left the path that Jesus put in front of them. Going to Emmaus was not in the plan. But notice that even though they strayed from Jesus’ path, he goes to be with them. He follows them. He goes where they are, even though it is not the place he would have wanted them to be. He goes, he finds, and he walks with them for a long time. He doesn’t yell or criticize them, he meets them where they are and walks with them.

It’s the same with us. Just because we may leave the path, does not mean that Jesus leaves us. There is always room for redemption. So when we have something difficult in life, or a big change in life (getting married, going to college, having to tell someone that your relationship is toxic and needs to end, or facing an illness, going on after a death, or in our older age facing the day that we can’t keep a house and need to move to assisted living or a nursing home…or in the church, having to go through this big change that we have to go through to meet the culture of the 21st century while staying true to the Gospel and not fall back to comfortable systems that don’t work any more. WE have been running away from the reality of declining membership and declining relevance for 50 years, and can’t sustain the running any more). When we have these roablocks, these stones placed in front of us, remember that he don’t come from God. They are part and parcel of life. They don’t come from God, but God is there to help us around them. God does not put stuff in front of us just to test our faith, or to make us stronger. But I do think that when the roadblocks happen, God is with us to help us get around them.

To get them out of our way so we may know the joy of living, of Easter life.

I read recently that fear is “Forgetting that Everything is All Right”. Fear is often a big part of our motivation for getting stuck or running away. Forgetting that Everything is All Right is forgetting that God is present and God is sovereign. Not that there isn’t suffering, pain, or evil in the world. But that God holds everything. To think that is to run away, to refuse to see the truth about the world around us. But it means the world is in God’s hands – we are in God’s hands – and in that sense, Everything is All Right.

We don’t need to fear. God has our back. God’s grace, love, and the Holy Spirit can overcome these fears barriers.

We don’t have to run away. Or refuse to see the truth of the world around us.

To go back to the passage we read, there are a few phrases that I resonate with and think are wonderful. When Jesus comes back to the room where the disciples are, the first thing he says is, “Peace be with you.” And then he says this so wonderfully human question, “Do you have anything to eat?” He’s hungry. It’s so human. The human Jesus is here. Peace be with you, and do you have something to eat? It’s so normal. Don’t be afraid, don’t run away, let us go through the normality of the day with a meal, a little break. It’s all going to work out.

And it’s okay.

And I like what the scripture says about the disciples: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and wondering.” Jesus is risen, Jesus is back, but I imagine they were also wondering “Is it true? Can this really be him?”

Maybe that’s the place many of us live in. Joy at Jesus, but maybe not sure if it’s true. Is he really with us? Is it all true? I don’t know, it kind of feels like it! I’ve had these experiences of the divine. At least, I think I have. But it seems to unbelievable. We have the bread and wine. But I wonder… and yet, there he is. And I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him call my name.

Come to me, he says. And if we don’t, he comes to us. That’s a promise.

Don’t run away from your problems. But if you do, Jesus says, “I will follow you. Even if you are running away, I will not leave you alone. I will meet you on whatever road you take, and stay with you until you are ready to come back, and I will stay with you then, too.”

There is no being left alone with Jesus, who follows wherever we go, even as we try to follow him.
And to know that whatever pain there might be, at some point it will be over. That’s a thought that took me through a lot of finals in seminary: The pain will be over. Come hell or highwater, pass or fail, in two hours the test is over and I’ll be done. Or the first time I had a root canal, I was very nervous, so I thought, “Whatever happens, in one hour or so, it’s over. I only have to bear the pain for an hour.” It is not a forever thing, and Jesus is with me.

So I have been giving you things to do the past couple weeks to do during the week that we are apart. Last week we handed out some prayer cards. We talked about self-doubt and gave you a card with a nice prayer to say when you feel doubt.

My assignment to you this week is that when you have a moment of hesitation, a feeling of wanting to run away, whatever it might be. Try to be aware of those moments when you want to avoid action or not do something. Whether it is that you don’t want to respond to an email, or make a phone call, say something to a spouse or a friend or a boss, or whatever. Ask yourself, Why do I fear this? What’s going on? What am I feeling?

When you have those moments, and feeling yourself wanting to avoid something, take a moment to think about it. Say a prayer to God about. Take a Calgon moment: a walk, a cup of tea, a bubble bath, a moment of meditation. Take that moment to refocus your mind, and get a connection to Jesus. Ask Jesus to be with you, as you face whatever it is. Don’t run away, but pray about it and trust that Jesus is with you and see how it goes for you. See if it makes a difference in your life.

Remember that Jesus is with you. He rose from the dead because of his love for you. He doesn’t want you to live in suffering. So face your moment, go through your roadblock, trusting these words of Jesus who says, “Peace be with you.”

Peace be with you. Amen.

My Good Friday message for 2015

For our ecumenical Good Friday worship service, we read parts of the passion narrative and then at eight points, we stopped, and each of the eight clergy involved commented on one quote spoken by someone in the narrative. The rules were that we were to speak no more than three sentences (though some quite abused that rule; but that's okay).

Mine was Pilate, from Matthew 26:31-35, asking "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?"

I wrote my three sentence commentary as Pilate's words, spoken to himself or perhaps how he might have related to the story to a later biographer or historian writing about that moment:

"Mobs are irrational creatures, sated only by some ultimately useless act of vengeance for whatever assumed wrong was done them. I refuse to make this choice for them. Let them live with the guilt of satisfying their own desires."

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A sermon in which I challenge you to connect with your flock. April 26, 2015. "I am the good shepherd"

“You Have a Shepherd; You Are Part of a Flock”
Sermon, Year B, Easter, April 26, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI 
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: John 10:11-18

[you may also listen to the sermon]

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says.

The good shepherd. And we are his flock. Which makes us a kind of sheep, which maybe isn’t the most flattering image for us, but there it is. 

We are Jesus’ flock. 

Think of ourselves as the sheep. The sheep that Jesus watches over. The sheep that Jesus cares for. Jesus is our Good Shepherd. And he says a bit about what that looks like, to be the shepherd: he lays down his life for his sheep (we see that in crucifixion on Good Friday and then in Easter resurrection); he defends against the wolf; he knows his own. Jesus knows who we are. He knows us as individuals. He calls us by name. I mentioned that a few ties in the last couple of weeks, how on Easter morning when Mary Magdalene was at the tomb she didn’t rize the risen Jesus until he sad her name, “Mary!” and then she knew who he was. The shepherd knows his own. The shepherd watches over this sheep. That’s what  shepherd does.

We get that in the 23rd Psalm, imagery about what a shepherd does. These are words about a God who does not abandon or leave us alone. It says:
  • He makes me lie down in green pastures
  • He leads me beside still waters (these are safe, good places)
  • He restores my soul
  • Leads me on right paths
  • I will fear no evil for you are with me
  • Your rod and your staff comfort me
  • You prepare a table for me even in the presence of my enemies
  • You anoint with oil
  • My cup overflows
  • Goodness and mercy shall follow me
  • I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long

This is a poetic love letter to God, this 23rd Psalm. Think of it as a poetic love letter to God, saying “This is who you are, God, as our shepherd.” And it was possibly written by David, more than likely written, whoever it was, not in the midst of a happy time of life but in the midst of turmoil. Written in the midst of turmoil. Maybe the writer trying to convince himself of these things. “Remember, this is what God is like. Don’t despair, don’t fear. This is what God is like.” Writing to give himself some hope. To give the rest of us some hope. And to remind himself, “This bad stuff happening around you, that's not God. The turmoil is not of God. God is the one who wants to bring you out of the mess. God is the shepherd that wants to lead you out of that mess. Or if not lead you out, because we don’t always get led out of our messes, but God is at least the one who is with us. Who is with us in the mess, journeying with us. 

This is the God who wants to be with you in the difficult times of life, and the God who is with us all in the difficult times. 

We’ve been talking about some of those difficult times. Some of the roadblock of life. The stones that block our path from following Jesus, or from having the full life that God wants for us. The stones that block our ability to leave the tombs that we find ourselves in. We have been talking about those the past few weeks. We talked about self-doubt, the ways we sabotage ourselves, thinking we are not worthy, not creative enough, not capable. Forgetting that we are worthy, forgetting that we are loved. Last week we talked about the desire we may have to want to run away or ignore the problems and difficult decisions in life instead of facing them, forgetting that Jesus is with us as we face them and that we can do them because Jesus and the Holy Spirit are with us. Today, the stone or roadblock to talk about is a corollary to running away. Sometimes we may run away because of fear. Fear that we can’t overcome it. Fear of facing a truth. Some fear in there. And the corollary being the thinking that we are on our own, that we have to be self-reliant, forgetting that God is our shepherd and with us. That is a roadblock: thinking that we have to do it on our own. Forgetting we have a shepherd, and that we have a flock around us. 

There is a lot of social pressure in western civilization that we shouldn’t ask for help. That asking for help can be shameful. That we are supposed to be strong, independent, self-made, and self-reliant. That’s a roadblock. That’s forgetting that we are part of a flock. It puts us into a tomb of thinking that we are alone, or that we ought to be alone when w have a problem to face. That we ought to be creative enough, powerful enough, clever enough, strong enough, whatever we think we ought to be so that we ever have to ask for help or to trust that God is with us. 

I see two things in that kind of thinking: 1) Forgetting that God is with us. That’s easy to fall into, I do it  lot. Forgetting that we have a shepherd. And 2) forgetting that we are part of a flock, here as the church, and whatever flocks we have around us, like friends and family. We forget that we are part of God’s flock and we have fellow sheep that we can rely on. 

We are all in this together.

Forgetting about God, as I said, is a trap that is easy to fall into. I  fall into it. It may sounds weird that the pastor, in the vocation that I am in, is automatically or magically connected to God’s presence all the time. But not always. Sometimes only rarely. I can easily get into the sense of being alone, and forget that God is here to help, so find myself in the place of “It’s all up to me” or “I need to do this” or “I have to do this” or “I have to figure this out” or “I need to deliver ….” and it’s all up to me. Instead of remembering that the LORD is my shepherd. He’ll help me do his. It’s not up to me alone; it’s not up to us alone. God will help. The Holy Spirit is with us. Look to see where the shepherd is going and then follow. You don’t have to blaze the path ourselves all the time. W can follow. Don’t be afraid to ask God for help. Don’t forget that Go is available.

Don’t forget that God is your shepherd.

And then there is forgetting that we are part of God’s flock. Easy to forget that we have people in our lives who want to help and who are willing to help if we would only ask. Or thinking that we are not allowed to ask. That the is something wrong with asking, to trust our fellow flock members. 

And we do very much love to celebrate leadership. That’s absolutely worth celebrating. But we go too far sometimes, celebrating only the leaders. We are especially enamored of the stoic leaders, the cowboy, the renegade, the self-made inventor industrialist, the single-focused men or women who just do whatever they want following their vision regardless of criticisms levies against them, the go-it-alone giants. They get a lot of attention, a lot of praise. But followership is also worth celebrating. Communal work is worth celebrating. 

The LORD is our shepherd, we are the sheep. We are part of the flock, and thus we re not alone. We are not separate from each other. We are not separate from Jesus. We are a community. Whether it be the church, or the city, or whatever group or organization you are involved with.We are a community. We have each other. 

We saw that at the thrift sale yesterday and in the past week. This flock, Plymouth, coming together to work toward a greater good. To do something on behalf of all of us. 

We are allowed to not be self-made.

We are allowed to not be self-reliant.

We do not have to be self-made, we don’t have to be self-reliant. It is good not to go to the opposite extreme. But trust also that God is with you. And trust that God is with all of us. Trust that we do not have to do this alone, and trust that, in all honestly, we simply cannot do it all alone. There is no self-made person, no fully self-reliant person. Trust the people around you, the people who love you. Asking for help, admitting that you need help -- these can be scary things to do. They can feel like they ought to be shameful. But they shouldn’t be. We should never be ashamed to ask or help, whether from a person or from God. To admit that we aren’t perfect, that we don’t have all the strength or talent that we need, those can be tough admissions. But it is true that none of us are perfect. There is no self-made man or woman

Think of all those great musicians, the ones we celebrate as being at the top of their field. Like Itzhak Perlman, who’s been a professional and amazing violinist for 50 or 60 years: he still takes violin lessons! He has a teacher. He doesn't do it alone. All the great business people, actors, writers, ministers, doctors… people we think of as being the top of their field, a great many of them take advantage of personal coaches, trainers, mentors, seminars, classes, their friends, their colleagues. They are not doing it alone. It might look like it, but they aren’t. 

You can’t do it alone.

No man or woman is an island. We are all part of a flock, whether that flock is our family, our co-workers, our peers, an organization, our circle of friends, and we who are the church. WE are part of this amazing flock that belongs to Jesus, both as Plymouth and as the worldwide church. Even all of humanity, for we all God’s people, and part of one flock. We are not alone.

Jesus is our shepherd. We have a flock around us.

Now the last few weeks I’ve been giving some assignments at the end of my sermon time. Some things to do the following week. The first week I gave you a prayer card with a prayer for when you feel self-doubt. Last week, I asked you to pay attention to the times when you felt like running away from a problem, or ignore them, or pretend they aren’t there. I asked you to pay attention in those moments and consider your feelings, why you felt that way. Why do I feel this way? And then say a prayer asking God to be with you, or to open your eyes to see God is with you. [then I asked if anyone did this; and challenged them to keep doing it]It can help to be aware of when we are doing that, and to know that Jesus is there to help us through those times. Jesus as our shepherd. Or to ask some of our flock to help us. No shame, nothing wrong with asking for help from those who love you: they want you to succeed, too!

My assignment to you this week is to remember you are part of a flock. I want you to connect with your flock, or some part of it, to remind you that you are not alone. I thought that maybe the easiest way to do this is to think of a friend you don’t normally see a lot of, and invite that friend to lunch, to a coffee, to your home, or out for an activity. Invite a friend or a couple of them to do something together simply to spend time together. Invite them for conversation and fellowship, and to reconnect. Or think of a friend far away, and make time to have a phone conversation. 

All I want for you is to be intentional to connect with your flock.

To remember you are not alone. Keep those relationships going. Invite a friend to do something this week. Don’t wait for a couple weeks, do it this week. Force yourself to clear time if you have to; that will also help remind you that friend time, flock time, is important. 

I have no agenda other than to reconnect with your friends, but you can say, when you invite them, “My pastor said that he wants us to reconnect with our flock, and you are part of mine, so I am inviting you to this. I want to spend some time with you, to remember that we are connected. That we are part of a flock.” Now that may lead to some conversation about your church, it may not. It may help you think of it as being an invitation to a holy time with your friend.

Connecting with your flock will remind you that you are not alone. That you have helpers. That you have supporters. That you have people i your life who are willing to help, to be with you, love you, and who who want the best for you. 

You don’t have to go it alone. When you feel that roadblock that you feel you need to be self-reliant, that you can’t ask for help -- you CAN ask for help! You do not have to be self-reliant!

You are part of a flock that God has put together for you with Jesus as the shepherd. The Good Shepherd who loves, who watches over you, who is with you, and who has called you and all of us into this great flock of his people of mutual support and love. What a gift, what a wonderful and blessed gift that is! I hope you will take time this week to remember that. To remember what a wonderful and incredible gift it is that God has called us into God’s flock and into whatever other flocks of people we have in our lives.

And may God be praised through those connections, and may you be blessed through them.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

A church in Eau Claire (my city) - Valleybrook - has been having some issues

I thought I would start collecting some of the media and articles around this. I'm not personally involved, and know few people who are, so I don't offer comment. Not yet, anyway, other than as below. There is in this a thing called "Knitting", which is certainly a big source of the tension, and below is a link to the first sermon that mentions this. But it will help you to read some more background first, I think, and then you can listen to the sermon.

I think it will be helpful to explore materials in this order:

This article from the Leader-Telegram April 19, 2015. So far as I know, this is the first public report of what is happening at Valleybrook done by an independent source. Various people from the church have been public, but always offering their own viewpoint - the LT article is the first I know of to attempt an unbiased overview, for whatever value the word "unbiased" has for anyone. 

A church member (or members) have a blog, "Tales from the Cult". Before reading the blog, go to this post which has the original sermon about "Knitting". 

The above article ran with this story, an interview with Judy and Bob Hagedorn, parents of Nate, and then there is a video that the parents made talking about their son 

My comment: the idea of "knitting" as offered in that sermon, and as lived out, is to me really outlandish. I see nothing biblical in it, other than the loose connection to the story of Jonathon and David. This is bad scriptural interpretation, IMO. Really bad. Horribly, terribly, no good bad. Wow.

Updated April 20, 2015: to add the secondary article, the interview with the parents.

Updated Dec. 7, 2015: another article in the Leader-Telegram about how the new leadership is taking steps to right wrongs found in pastoral abuse scandal, followed by new revelations of alleged fiscal mismanagement. 

As I come across more things, I will keep adding them here.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Checking Your Doubt at the Tomb Door - sermon for Easter 2, the story of the terribly named "Doubting" Thomas.

“Checking Your Doubt at the Tomb Door”
Sermon, Year B, Easter, April 12, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: John 20:19-31 

[You may also listen to the sermon]

Part of believing the Good News isn’t just that we ought to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but that we also ought to believe that Jesus really wants us to live, that we are loved, that we are worthy and whole: so not just trusting that Jesus rose, but trusting our own value, and that as Jesus rises, he wants to bring us along. Jesus wants us to live as well. Wants to lift us up, carry us beyond whatever roadblocks get in the way of having a full life.

We are going to spend April talking about the roadbloacks of life – things that block our journey. The stones that get in our way. Or as we in Eau Claire encounter every spring once the snow and ice have gone away, we can say we are talking about the potholes that are on the roadway of life. The potholes that want to slow us down, or the potholes that want to destroy our alignment. Our alignment with following Jesus, our alignment with God’s intent for us: a life of love and fullness of achievement and being who we are made to be. To be unashamedly who God made us to be. No, guilt, no shame, and with all integrity.

But we do have roadblocks that get in our way. Jesus wants to help us get around them, wants us to go around them. The roadblocks are not given to us by God, they are not punishment from God or Jesus. But they are there, and Jesus wants us to get past them.

Think of the disciples. They also had roadblocks in their lives, and in their time of following Jesus. Peter, who tried to walk on water and failed. The disciples who argued over who was greatest, and jockeyed to try to get positions of power, who gets to sit at Jesus’ right hand. The disciples who saw Jesus’ many miracles and yet, when Jesus told them to feed the 5,000 said they didn’t have enough, that it couldn’t be done, it’s impossible. And of course Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Lots of roadblocks that they encountered.

And once Jesus was under arrest and crucified, the disciples denied, fled, and Jesus to be alone – except for the women, mind you, the women didn’t leave. They stayed with Jesus.

And then the disciples locked themselves in a room after Jesus’ death. Although I will say to Thomas’ credit, he is not in the locked room. He’s out. He’s either not afraid to be out amongst the people, or he’s able to overcome his fear. At least he’s out while the other disciples stay hidden in the locked room.

Jesus’ death was a big roadblock. I don’t know what they felt, or what it would have felt like, to have been a disciple then. I imagine they were paralyzed. What to do? How do we go on? What comes next? They just witnessed Jesus’ death. Did everything they believed about Jesus mean nothing? Were the last three years they spent with him just a waste of time? What will be the future? Can we go on without Jesus? Can we continue to share his message, teach his teachings, be his voice? Or should it just be all over, and we go back to being the people we were before we met Jesus? If Jesus was killed by the state – in this case the Roman Empire – might their lives also be in danger?
They were fearful, I should imagine.

So they hid in a locked room. Or, as we will read next week, two of the disciples fled Jerusalem entirely and headed off to Emmaus.

So Thomas isn’t the only one with doubt here, or with fear. They’re all feeling it. Thomas just had the integrity to say it out loud and is forever maligned as The Doubter. They all have something that is in their heads. A fear. A fear of the stones that are put in front of us. Stones we place in front of ourselves. The potholes of life. Whatever it is that slows or blocks our journey. In this case, it’s doubt. And fear. Doubt all over the place. Fear and doubt go together.

This is where a sensible preacher would point out Thomas doubt about Jesus’ resurrection as a great sin, to say ”Don’t be Thomas! Don’t be a doubter! Just believe!” and then call the sermon done as though it’s that easy. Just don’t doubt in Jesus’ resurrection.

But not doubting is not so easy. It’s a lot easier to say than to do it. Especially not doubting ourselves. That’s the kind of doubt I want to hit on here today. The self-doubt. Doubting ourselves, our skills, our abilities, our worth. Whatever it is. It seems in many ways it’s a lot easier to believe that Jesus rose from the dead than it is to believe that as Jesus rose, he also wants to bring us into more full life. That Jesus loves so much that he wants to bring us along with him. That can be, I think, more difficult to believe. That we are included. That we matter. That we are important. That we are part of God’s plan.

So the disciples lock themselves in a room, maybe doubting their ability to go on. Doubting their capacity to continue Jesus’ teachings. Perhaps afraid of what might happen if they try it, that they might fail or that they will get in trouble. They are also, in many ways, doubting Jesus’ wisdom about choosing them as followers. When Jesus’ chose them, he saw something in them. By locking themselves in a room they are showing some doubt in trusting Jesus’ wisdom to choose them.

Doubt in oneself. That’s a big roadblock. Doubting a faith stance – I think that’s healthy. It keeps us honest to critique our beliefs, to question our beliefs is important. Keeps us from being a fundamentalist who is absolutely without doubt about the rightness of their position and the wrongness of everyone else. We don’t want to be that. Some doubt in faith is a good thing. But doubting ourselves? That’s a kind of death. That’s a tomb.

That’s a roadblock that can hurt us, self-doubt. Feelings of unworthiness to have what we have. Feeling that we aren’t good enough. Feeling that we are unlovable by those around us or by God. Feeling that the good things we have, that maybe we aren’t worthy – perhaps we are a charlatan, or simply being blessed by mistake. Maybe we’re really not worthy to have this, whatever “this” might be for you or me.

That self-doubt is an incredibly creative and relentless enemy. It is very good at trying to keep us down and finding new and exciting ways to make us question ourselves. It is creative and relentless. It can find the hole in our armor and make it easier for one negative thought to be more powerful than a hundred or a thousand positive thoughts, accolades, successes, and achievements. It paralyzes. Causes anxiety. Leaves us in a state of perpetual indecision, second guessing ourselves, or assuming that were meant to suffer so might as well accept and stop thinking we can be anything more. Or that we don’t have the skills. That we’re not creative. We’re not resourceful. We’re not whole. Forever asking that question, “Am I good enough?” Am I a good enough spouse, family, at my job, as a student. Am I good enough to do what I feel like I want to do. Am I worthy enough to pursue my dreams.

It is an insidious thing, this doubt. I imagine that we all feel it. It’s part of being human, unfortunately. To have those moments of doubt. I certainly have mine. And when it shows up, it hurts. It slows me down. Keeps me from living fully the life that Jesus wants me, and wants you, to live. Sometimes it blocks me entirely.

Not to turn this into a therapy session, but I was teased and bullied a lot in school from elementary through high school. I was never one of the cool kids, but spent my time being always the outsider. I was interested in the things that made me not a very important person, not good enough to be in the popular cliques. I didn’t wear the right clothes, or the right hair style, I liked to read - always a negative thing in regular society - I thought learning was fun, I didn’t have the proper lingo, I was awkward, played dungeons and dragons, listened to the wrong music, wasn’t athletic and preferred Dr. who and comic books and Star Trek more than sports. I was called names, left on the outside. Hearing those words about “You’re not welcome at this table. You’re not welcome in this group. Not welcome in this club. You shouldn’t be here. You don’t deserve to be here. You’re all wrong.” Those are all still in my head, and sometimes they pop out.

I’m better at ignoring it and letting go of it. But it still pops out. I still hear those words that were said to me so long ago. That’s more than 30 years ago! It was so long ago, but it’s still with me. Even now if I’m someplace, say the mall or a restaurant or a train, and there is a group of girls or group of women and they break out in laughter, there is a part of me that goes back to school and there is first thought in my head “They are laughing at me.”

I still wonder, “Do I deserve my successes? Am I really worthy of this? Or am I, as they told back then, that outsider that isn’t good enough?”

I think we all experience these moments of self-doubt. Am I worthy? Am I loved? Am I capable?

These questions are a tomb with a mighty stone rolled in front. But as I said last week in the Easter sermon, Jesus likes to roll those stones away. Jesus wants to roll them away and shine light into the tombs of our lives and bring us out of the darkness. Jesus calls us by name and beckons us into full life. So he forgives us. Takes away our guilt and shame. Says that we need not doubt: he says so often, “Don’t be afraid”. In this passage we read today, he says, “Peace be with you.” That’s a blessing that says “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid to go forward. Peace be with you!

I gave you an assignment last week on Easter for this week, to think about Mary’s encounter with Jesus at the tomb. She arrives in the morning at the tomb and the stone is rolled away. The body is gone. She doesn’t know where Jesus is. Some guy shows up that she mistakes for the gardener, even though he is the risen Jesus. They have a conversation. She still doesn’t know him. Until finally the guy says her name: Mary. Then she recognizes him! She goes back to the disciples and says, “I have seen the Lord!” So I asked you to think this past week how or if you have seen the Lord, or if you have heard Jesus calling to you.

Think of our hymn:
     Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling
     calling for you and for me.
     See at the portals Christ waiting and watching,
     watching for you and for me.

Jesus calls us. He invites us to join him in the beloved community, where we are loved and accepted just as we are. We don’t have to doubt who we are. I want you to remember that, and to trust it. Especially in the moments of doubt.

That’s what I fall back on, when I am having those moments of self-doubt. To remember, that at a minimum (and it is a very high minimum), I know that at least Jesus loves me. I know that Jesus wants me to have a full life. I use that as a starting point to get past the roadblocks and the potholes of doubt.

I have another opportunity for you here this week. You have cards in your bulletin. [download a copy from our church website] At the top it says “I am loved just as I am.” I want you always to remember that. You are loved, always, just as you are!

Take this card home with you and keep with you. What I would like you to do is that if you get into a moment of doubt. Maybe a doubt about faith, or about yourself, or your position in yourself. Whatever that moment of doubt might be, if you feel yourself having it, be aware of it, accept it, admit to it, and then say “But, I will go forward.” When you feel the doubt, put a tick mark on the card on the back in the big space. Place a tick mark at the moments of doubt. Then, when you make a mark, say the prayer on the card. The prayer has spaces for you to list things: the things you are thankful, the good things in life; your achievements and success in life, which are the times that you overcame doubt and proved yourself capable; and a time to remember all the people that inspire you, whether living or dead, real or fictional. Take your time to list these. Listing them will build you up, and build up your confidence. They are a sign of how the Holy Spirit has been working with you already, and will be with you in the future.

Make the tick mark, say the prayer.

Keep this card with you, and bring it back with you next Sunday. We will have time, if you wish to do this (and you don’t have to!) for you to bring your cards forward and place them on the altar as an offering to God, to give all those doubts up to God, get rid of them, let go of them. Then we will destroy all the cards as a prayer to God, a burnt offering.

As you do this during the week, and I know this might seem to be silly and weird, but it is helpful. Don’t doubt how this might make some difference in your life and how you perceive things.

So as you go about this week, I offer this prayer that you will let God’s love for you carry you through the roadblocks and beyond.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Called By Name - Easter sermon

“Called By Name”
Sermon, Year B, Easter, April 5, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: John 20:1-18

[You may also listen to the sermon]

Today is Easter! Today is Easter.

How wonderful it is to be together, to celebrate together, to sing together. How wonderful the sound has been in here this morning, all these voices raised together in song. How wonderful the sound is when the people of God, the Beloved Community, is gathered together in worship and in praise. Imagine having that sound be a regular part of your life. If you don’t have a spiritual home yet, imagine having this experience every Sunday. All of us here to celebrate Easter. To celebrate resurrection. To celebrate new life. To celebrate God’s love on this day that we remember that the tomb was empty.

Mary went to the tomb and found it to be empty. Not just empty, but also that the stone that had been in front of it had already been rolled away when Mary arrived. The stone was gone. The tomb was exposed to the light. Think of that stone that was in front of the tomb working as a kind of defense, a barrier, between life and death. Between light and darkness. “Put that stone there so that I don’t have to see the darkness!” As we might put stones in our own lives. Put a stone in front of this so I don’t have to see the darkness in my own life. Put the stone there to cover up the things I don’t like. Put the stone there to cover up the things that cause me anxiety so I don’t have to look at them. I can pretend that they are not there any more.

Put the dead body in the tomb and put the stone in front of it so that the taint of death, that unhidable fact of death is hidden away. Or at least we think it’s hidden away. We can think of it as something over there. Something we don’t have to deal with. But then Jesus rolls that stone away. Or has it rolled away. We don’t know if it was Jesus or an angel or someone in God’s employ that rolled the stone away.

I can picture Jesus rolling it away, saying, “No no no, don’t try to hide what is happening here. Don’t try to hide this. I am the Lord. I am the Lord of life, the Lord in the realm of death, I am the Lord of light who expels all darkness. I am the Lord of all, so don’t try to hide this. This is reality. This tomb is as much of a reality as all the wonderful things in life, as all of the good parts of life. So let us be honest about it. Because I, Jesus, am sovereign over all of it.”

With Jesus, there is no hiding. We can’t pretend with Jesus. Jesus knows who we are. Knows our name. Knows what we have done. Knows us intimately and fully, and loves us! Loves us just because we are made by God. Because we exist. Jesus loves us.

No matter how many stones we roll in front of our dark places to pretend they aren’t there, or to put them out of sight, or to try to hide it from other people or even to hide it from ourselves, Jesus knows. And Jesus wants to redeem it. Jesus wants to show love and help dispel those dark places. And until that stone is moved away, it will be a source of worry, anxious suffering, shame. Jesus loves rolling away those stones that we put in front of things. Jesus is all about taking away from us whatever it is that blocks us from full life. Fully experiencing the life that God intends for us. That God wants for us. Jesus loves being part of our lives. Not being sequestered away. Jesus meets in life. Jesus wants to be part of our lives. Because Jesus loves you! That’s the simple truth. It is the big truth of Easter. It is the truth that we in the church proclaim: Jesus loves you! Loves you so much that even death could not keep him away from us. That even though we crucified him, he wants to be with us. So much that even death could not keep him away from us. So desperate to be part of our lives that he came back from the dead, and it is at our stones that Jesus meets us. That, I think, is where Jesus meets us more fully: in our dark places, our places of suffering, our places of shame. Jesus doesn’t wait until we’re happy, perfect, pain-free to come to us. He comes to us where there is pain and darkness. Where is God? God is wherever there is suffering in the world. It is at our stone that Jesus meets us. The Lord of light does his best work in our darkness.

That’s redemption! Jesus had to come back from the dead. He had to roll away that stone of separation. He had to stand there at the tomb so that he could be with us. So that he could call out to one of his disciples with her name, “Mary.”


So personal and so intimate. That’s a God who wants to enter into our lives. Not an abstract distant God, but a close one. A God so close that he sees us, knows our name, and isn’t afraid to use it.


Or Joe, Charlie, David... or Sarah, Jennifer, Lucy... whatever your name is. Imagine Jesus saying your name, calling to you. Because he is! He knows our names.

And there is a moment here that Mary does not recognize Jesus. We might think that’s odd. And maybe it is. But I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t so odd that she doesn’t recognize him, because we expect dead things to stay dead. She saw him be crucified, saw him put in the tomb. There is no reason to think that she should be looking for Jesus among the living. We expect dead things to stay dead, so why should we think that the living man would be the one she is looking for? So she thinks he’s the gardener.

Though I wonder if as she looked at the gardener, she had the thought, “Boy, he does look an awful lot like Jesus, though.”

But in her head, thinking he looks him, “I don’t know where the body is... the tomb is empty. This man is standing here I don’t know...”

And then he says her name, “Mary!”

And a memory is triggered in her head. How many times has she heard him say her name? How many times has he said her name to her. There is such power in a name. Our names. That’s why in our street ministry one of the first things we do is to learn peoples’ names. Learn their names, and use their names, because it is so important both that they know they are known, and also important for us that we know them and they know us. That’s community. That’s the beloved community. That we know one another.

For a people who have little, for a people who don’t have much, a name is an incredibly important possession. A name is one of the few things that is so linked to who we are and to our identity. Names are so important. One of the few things that cannot be taken away from us. Or that can enrage us so much when people try to take it away by calling us by a different name, or giving numbers to prisoners, or other forms of trying to steal peoples’ identity, or label them as a word instead of by name, calling them just “homeless”, or “gay”, or “woman”, etc.

A name is that one thing that should never be taken away from us, no matter how much else we might lose. So Jesus says, “Mary.”

Then she knows who he is.

Like recognizing the voice of a loved on over the phone, or someone knocking on your door and calling your name, or calling your name from across a room. That moment of hearing your name and recognizing the voice of the one saying it. In that moment when Jesus says “Mary” she recognizes him. I think that’s a moment in which her world is changed. Distinctions that she thought mattered are shattered. The distinction between life and death. Between what she thought was possible and what really is possible. What she thought God is about and what God is truly about. Maybe you can see the neurons firing in her brain, rewriting the narrative of what she thought was possible. She hears the name, and maybe in her brain is thinking, “That sounds like Jesus, this man in front of me looks like Jesus, but I saw him die. I saw him put into the tomb. Saw the stone rolled over it. But I came this morning and saw the stone rolled away, the body isn’t there. The linens are nicely folded so probably no one stole the body... “ can see her trying to make sense of all this and the realization come to her that, yes, he is alive! “This is Jesus standing in front of me!” She recognizes him. The stone of her assumptions about death have been rolled. The stone of her despair over the power of state sponsored violence has been rolled away. The stone of her hopeless rolled away. Whatever she might have been feeling that day, all rolled away. She comes into a new life with Jesus. She is ushered in, by speaking her name he invites her into the beloved community of God’s realm where all ideas of separation and loss and difference are shown to be nothing but an illusion. She is brought into the Divine Whole. Into the divine community. As are also we brought into that community through the good news of Easter. A promise that it’s impossible to die alone. A promise that death is not the end, because we live in Jesus Christ. Jesus, who meets us at the tombs of our life, and calls out our name, and invites us to him.

Serene Jones is the president of Union Seminary in NYC, the seminary I went to, and she writes this about the encounter between Jesus and Mary when he speaks her name: “This is the shared space where Jesus meets us, calling our name, receiving our touch, calming our anxious worries and reminding us again and again that grace is not an object to be known but a gift to be lived.”

Mary leaves the tomb to announce to a broken, suffering, tomb-filled world, “I have seen the Lord!”

And so also can we say, “I have seen the Lord.” Let Jesus rolls away those stones that keep us from the tomb that God never intended for us, because we are made to live. We are made to be loved. And you are loved! No conditions! All our faults and foibles, we are loved. So much that Jesus came back from the dead to roll away a stone to speak your name and bring you into the beloved community.

And I invite you to continue to be part of the beloved community. Don’t have to make a lifetime commitment to this, but maybe a commitment for April. For the next three Sundays. Come back and be part of this beloved community of Plymouth. Come back for the next three Sundays. We will be talking about stones and barriers and things that block us from full life in Jesus, the one who wants us to live because we are loved. This week, I offer you the invitation to continue coming, but also offer an invitation to think about this encounter that Mary has with Jesus. She is looking right at him, but doesn’t see him until he says her name. When have you recognized Jesus? I don’t want to call this a homework assignment, but a spiritual practice for you for this week: think about when have you seen the Lord? When has the Lord called your name? When have you heard, felt, seen the Lord? How can you say to the world, “I have seen the Lord”?

I leave you with an Easter blessing that you may know the risen Jesus today and all days. May you know the risen Jesus. Jesus who loves you. May you know Jesus this day and all days, for you are beloved, and you are part of the beloved community.

Amen, and happy Easter!