Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Give Love to Find Love

[Sermon from April 28, 2013]

Here we are in week 2 of this sermon series, “I Want a New Life!”  The idea is that resurrection sounds great in the abstract, on Easter Sunday, when the flowers are blooming and everyone’s all dressed up.  We sing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” and gather Easter eggs, and eat brunch – and then what?  Sometimes it’s hard to see resurrection in our own experience, especially when life seems to bear down on us far more than bear us up.  So this series is about where we might look to find the new life Jesus has begun.  Last week’s sermon was about giving up control to find peace.  This week, the topic is love and what we might do to get our hearts refilled.
Now, maybe your heart’s just fine.  If so, you can spend the next 10 minutes giving thanks for that.  But I think many of us might find ourselves running a little low on love.  Maybe it’s a matter of being tapped out.  Maybe your life is so busy, so demanding, that you feel like someone’s always asking you for something.  You come to the point when you want to say, “Wait a minute!  I need to feel valued.  I need to know I matter, not just that I’m productive.”
Or maybe your deficit of love comes from a problem at the other end of the spectrum.  Maybe it seems no one needs you anymore.  Friends and family aren’t around; interactions are relatively few.  Life just seems to plod along.  You come to the point when you want to say, “Wait a minute!  I need to feel valued.  I need to know I matter not just because of who I used to be, but because of who I am right now.”
Well, I want to tell you about a friend of mine, a friend I never imagined having.  He is Fr. Colbert Estil, our partner priest in Haiti.  I want to tell you about Colbert because I think he has something to show us about finding love.
Colbert has the most demanding life of any priest I know.   He oversees one of the largest Episcopal parishes in the southern part of Haiti, St. Sauveur.  That would be a challenging life by itself.  But in Haiti, the Church works differently than in the States, and congregations share priests much more than happens here.  So Colbert also oversees 10 other smaller churches.  On top of that, he’s ministering in a place with a level of material need that’s hard for us even to comprehend, not to mention the spiritual and emotional needs that all people have.  On top of that, each of his churches also has an elementary school, so there are those balls to juggle.  Add to that trying to have some semblance of a personal life.  Colbert and his wife, Monese, have four kids, including a son who’s one month old. 
Then, on top of all that, you have to know about a particular stumbling block Colbert faces.  If you’ve been here when Colbert has come to visit, then you know:  He stutters.  A preacher who stutters.  As if his job weren’t hard enough….
I can only imagine Colbert’s level of stress.  No, scratch that.  I can’t begin to imagine Colbert’s level of stress.  Talk about someone who might want a new life!  If I were Colbert, I’m pretty sure I'd be feeling low on love.  Who’s ministering to him?  How is his heart filled after being drained and drained and drained?
So what does Colbert do in the midst of this life where he’s expected to be so many things to so many people?  He goes and plants a church.  He was here last weekend, and Colbert told the story of his call to ministry in southern Haiti, leaving his work as an accountant in order to be a priest.  He said that, when he was ordained, he promised God that if he were sent to the south, where the Episcopal Church isn’t as widespread, he would plant churches.  So he’s done that in Jérémie, a city 45 miles away from his home in Les Cayes.  It used to be a six-hour drive to Jérémie, Colbert says.  Now, with a graded road, that 45-mile drive up and down the mountains only takes three hours.  But still – just to get there and back is a six-hour investment of time.
Why am I telling you all this?  It’s not to hold up Colbert as Superpriest and beat myself up because I can’t do everything he does.  I’m telling you this because Colbert’s heart is fueled by the power of resurrection.  Like nobody else I know, Colbert reveals the joy of someone who knows he is truly loved.  Sure, he’s tired, and his life is deeply challenging.  But he knows the love of God filling his heart.  And in every encounter you have with him, you feel that love, too.
Where does it come from?  Was he just born with a huge capacity for storing up God’s love, like a camel trekking across the desert without needing a drink of water?  Maybe.  But I think Colbert also shows us what Jesus is trying to show the disciples in today’s Gospel reading.
As is so often true, it helps to know what comes just before the passage we heard today.  Jesus and the disciples are at the Last Supper.  Jesus takes a basin and a towel, and he washes the feet of his friends.  He says, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).  Then a few minutes later, he explains why, as we heard this morning:  “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says, “that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (14:34-35)
The mystery here is the deep mystery that permeates our faith, the paradox you find all through our Scripture and tradition: that we find love by giving love away.  The emptier your tank feels, the more you need to empty it for someone else.  Why?  Because in doing so, God fills you with an unexpected peace that surpasses understanding, an impossible love that empowers you to love more. 
When we feel empty, it’s time to give ourselves away.  When our lives overwhelm us, it’s time to go to Haiti, at least in spirit (maybe in person, too).  When we’re drained, it’s time to take a meal to someone whose life is turned upside down, or write a note to someone who’s alone, or go serve lunch at the Kansas City Community Kitchen.  When we have nothing left to give, it’s time to come to the Fools for Christ’s Sake Dinner tonight and remember how filling a child’s belly can fill your own heart, too.
When we share from God’s blessings, we see God’s blessings.  When we give love, we find love.  When we shine Christ’s light into the darkness that presses down upon us – showing the world what it means to be Jesus’ disciple – we also remind ourselves of the mystery that keeps us going when logic says we should quit:  That it’s in giving that we receive; it’s in loving that we are loved; and it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Piecing Together the Evidence

[Sermon from Easter Sunday, March 31]
Luke’s story of Jesus’ resurrection is like the first part of an episode of Law and Order.  It opens with ordinary people stumbling onto a scene where clearly something extraordinary has happened; then the rest of the story is about people trying to piece together the how and the why.  You never see the crime in Law and Order; only the evidence that points to it and the consequences that come from it.  What makes the show interesting is how the characters work backward to figure out what happened and then work forward to ensure the story ends in justice or redemption.
Have you ever wondered about the fact that the Easter story is told like this?  None of the four gospel writers gives us the story of Jesus actually being resurrected.  There is no account in the Bible of Jesus getting up off the cold slab and walking out of the tomb.  Instead, what the Gospel writers present is a trail of evidence for investigators like us to follow.  The stone’s been rolled away.  The body is gone.  Bizarre bystanders offer an interpretation that no one in his right mind would believe.  But they remind the investigators of past statements by the missing person that indicate premeditated action – that there’d been a plan for this all along.  But as of yet, there’s no body to prove the investigators really have a case.  All they have are clues that something’s happened.
And even when Jesus does appear later on, it doesn’t happen in the ways we might expect, given that these stories are written by people trying to convince others he’s alive.  Jesus doesn’t appear to huge crowds but only to those “who were chosen by God as witnesses,” as Luke writes in Acts (10:41).  Jesus doesn’t go to the authorities who’d condemned him in order to prove them wrong.  The resurrection never makes the 6 o’clock news.  It seems an odd way for God to get the story out there, if the point is that Jesus’ followers are supposed to be “witnesses of these things” to “all nations” (Luke 24:48,47).  Why not start by broadcasting compelling proof of life?
We might wonder the same thing, 2,000 years later.  Why doesn’t God give us that kind of certain proof, if God wants us to believe? 
Well, if I stood here and told you that we’d found documentary evidence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, would you believe it?  What if archaeologists uncovered a long-lost eyewitness report?  What if we had a video of the stone rolling away and Jesus waltzing out of the tomb on Easter morning – would that convince you?  Maybe immediately, like the viral commercial of NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon scaring a used-car salesman to death during a test drive.  But then, after millions of hits on YouTube, we’d get the news stories about how it had all been faked.1 
So if you’ve come to church this morning looking for proof that God raised Jesus from the dead – DNA evidence or experiments we can replicate – you’re not going to find it.  In fact, you’re never going to find it.  And, I have to tell you, the resurrection is much more believable as a result. 
What do we find to be most believable?  Not studies – you can find a study to show that black is white and white is black.  Not quantifiable data – you can prove anything with statistics.  Not images – just ask the people who swore the Jeff Gordon video was real.  “Proof” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. 
So what do we find most believable?  The experience of people we trust.
Resurrection is a conviction looking for evidence.  And across the ages, from the very first Easter morning, what’s supported that conviction has been detective work – individuals piecing together the evidence for themselves, then going and sharing what they found with people they know.  There’s no way I can stand here and argue you into resurrected life in the kingdom of God.  All I can do is offer evidence.  So here are some clues that I’ve found. 
As a younger man, I knew with certainty that I didn’t want to have children.  I didn’t like kids particularly.  I didn’t have much experience taking care of them.  I didn’t think I’d be any good with kids, and I thought they’d get in the way of the life I was beginning – so I decided I wouldn’t have any.  But when Ann and I started dating, one of the very first things that made this relationship different was that, suddenly, I could see myself being a father.  Eventually it happened for us; and now I can’t imagine who I would be without the long nights, and the family trips, and the broken rules, and the hard conversations, and the hugs at the end of it all.  Through the gift of children, God has made me into somebody I wouldn’t have been otherwise.  Parenthood gave me new life.
Also as a younger man, I worked as an editor.  Most of my time at work involved sitting in a cubicle, revising and proofing material other people had written.  Hours would go by when I didn’t speak to anyone.  I remember one afternoon of proofing when I was so bored I literally fell asleep, my red pen trailing off across the page.  Needless to say, I didn’t find much meaning in my work.  But I found a lot of meaning in the ways I was beginning to serve at church and in the relationships I was building there.  I started feeling like I belonged at church more than I belonged in my cubicle.  God and I started talking about that; and 15 years or so later, I’m preaching to you on Easter morning.  I certainly didn’t see it coming, but now I can’t imagine going back to my cubicle and my red pen.  By calling me into this work instead, God has formed me into somebody I wouldn’t have been otherwise.  Being a priest gave me new life.
I think I’ve shared with you before that my wife, Ann, and I came to a time in our relationship when we faced serious problems, just like every other couple that’s been together for any length of time.  There came a point for us when things blew up because we’d never really learned how to talk about difficult things.  At one of the worst moments of that time – I can still see where I was standing – I turned to the Scripture reading for that day, looking for direction.  Here’s what I found, from 2nd Corinthians:  “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17).  In the moment, as things were falling apart, that reading seemed like a cruel joke.  But instead, it was prophetic because we did the work to confront our issues and learn how to talk with each other.  The experience was awful and devastating – and one of the best things that’s ever happened to us.  Our relationship is so much deeper now, so much stronger, so much more alive.  Through the painful gift of reconciliation, God has formed us into people we wouldn’t have been otherwise.  Reconciliation gave us new life.
And then, there’s this place.  Many of you here this morning know we’re in a time of movement and change at St. Andrew’s.  For many years, we’d been content to pass on our church’s strength and stability to new generations of Episcopalians, which is a wonderful thing to do.  But anymore, it’s not enough.  We don’t have babies the way we used to, and they don’t tend to stick around like they once did.  Faced with the same aging demographics many denominations are seeing, this congregation has chosen to step into a new future.  We can’t make out the details quite yet, which is OK.  But we know it involves doing church in a different way for different people – the “spiritually homeless” all around us, right here in our own neighborhood; people seeking a connection with God without the churchy baggage of conflicts over rules and money and institutional survival.  So we’re searching for a third priest to minister with young adults and families as part of a larger effort to create a church for your kids and grandkids.  Through this discernment about how to be “church” in new ways, God is forming us into a community we wouldn’t have been otherwise.  God is giving St. Andrew’s new life.
I’m telling you these stories because they’re the ones I’ve been given to tell.  They aren’t any better than the stories in your hearts this morning.  There are people here with devastating illnesses who’ve found spiritual healing that’s stronger than death.  There are people here who’ve suffered through the death of relationships but found new life in new love.  There are people here who’ve turned away from addiction and embraced lives of healing and hope instead.  There are people here who’ve heard God knocking on their doors and stepped daringly into a new calling on their lives.  And there are people here who have quietly loved and served the folks around them for years, being raised into the heavenly glory of emptying themselves for others.  There are hundreds of pieces of evidence just here in this room.  Each one is a clue pointing to the conclusion we’ve come here this morning to celebrate – that resurrection happens, both to Jesus and to us, over and over and over again.
In that experience, we find not just a pattern of hope for today but a promise of hope for tomorrow.  For centuries now, this is why people have held onto this faith, the hope that lets us sleep at night.  St. Paul put it this way in today’s reading from 1st Corinthians:  “Since by man came death” – through humanity’s own sinfulness – “by [a] man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (15:21-22 KJV).  When we look around us – at the empty tomb and at our own rebirths – new life is what we see.  Those experiences tell us the Church is more than rich tradition, more than a gathering of nice, polite people.  We are the witnesses of resurrection. 
And as witnesses, we also catch ourselves in the act of living eternal life.  That’s the promise all this evidence points toward.  Being made new in the here and now is great, but even better is the pattern the evidence reveals.  We hear it at every funeral, and every Easter morning, and at every resurrection moment of our lives: the truth that death is not the end.  It’s a truth nearly all faiths and cultures understand in their own ways – that the sun always rises, that the flowers do push up through the snow.  But here’s the really shocking truth we find at the end of this investigation:  Resurrection isn’t just a comforting metaphor to get us through cold, dark days.  Resurrection is real.  Forever.  For you.  You are not condemned to death, despite what the culture and your own fears may tell you.  Your conviction has been overturned, and your sentence of mortality has been lifted. 
How do I know?  Because the evidence is all around me. 

1.       Boren, Cindy.  “Jeff Gordon’s test-drive viral video for Pepsi is fake.”  The Washington Post blogs.  March 15, 2013.  Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/early-lead/wp/2013/03/15/jeff-gordons-test-drive-viral-video-for-pepsi-is-fake/.  Accessed March 29, 2013.  See also Stampler, Laura.  “Pepsi’s Most Successful Viral Video Ever is Completely Fake.”  Business Insider.  March 20, 2013.  Available at: http://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-gordon-pepsi-video-is-fake-2013-3.  Accessed March 29, 2013.