Relating, Creating, Transforming

Archive for April, 2013

Real Love, Really Possible!

John 13:31-35

One [Lyrics by Bono; Music by U2]

Love is a temple, Love a higher law
Love is a temple, Love the higher law

One love, One blood
One life, You got to do what you should
One life, With each other
Sisters, Brothers
One life
But we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

U2 and Mary J Blige, performing the song One. It has become known as one of the best songs of all time. Many other artists have covered it and U2 continues to sing it in concerts; it was written back in 1991. Now you may even hear it sung at weddings. The lyrics seem to be appropriate for such settings of unity, commitment, and well—love.

One love. One life. We get to carry each other.

But as often is the case, this song’s meaning has been changed to fit our own projections of romantic love. In fact, the song One, according to its author, Bono, is not suitable for weddings or feel-good gatherings. The lyrics to One reflect a deep pain and an inevitable separation of people. Bono, when interviewed about the song, said this:

I had a lot of things going on in my head at the time, about forgiveness, about father and son angst…It is a song about coming together, but it’s not the old hippie idea of ‘Let’s all live together.’ It is, in fact, the opposite. It’s saying, ‘We are one, but we’re not the same.’ It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It’s a reminder that we have no choice.
McCormick, Neil, ed. (2006), U2 by U2, London: HarperCollins

One is addressing the very aspects of love in relationships that we tend to overlook. We say and do things to each other that cause hurt. We choose not to carry each other. We disappoint each other and leave bad tastes in each other’s mouths. We don’t ask for forgiveness. We don’t heal. We find people to blame for our situation. We start to wish that others won’t find love and we stop giving it ourselves. Relationships are broken; we are broken. We might still say that it’s one love and one life and that’s all we need, but the love leaves us if we don’t care for it.

Not necessarily the preferred message to present at a wedding, right? Perhaps this is what happens, too, when we hear the words of Jesus of Nazareth at the end of John 13 and assume we know what they mean.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

The words are said in the middle of an urgent story. Jesus is in a hurry to wrap things up with his students, the disciples. Things are about to go bad for Jesus—arrest, trial, crucifixion. It is near to the end of his life. But rather than pass on a new set of commandments like Moses did, or a formulaic set of rules to follow, Jesus chooses to address the disciples with much affection, calling them little children. He realizes that he is going somewhere where both the Judeans [those who were opposing him] and the disciples cannot go. He leaves them with instructions–a new commandment.

Agape love. But was this really a new commandment? After all, in Leviticus 19:18 of the Hebrew Scriptures, the command from God was clear: love your neighbor as yourself.

Ah, but what Jesus said is: Love one another as I have loved you.

Rewind a bit in the story. Jesus just finished washing his disciple’s feet. This was an example of how to love one another. Rewind further. Jesus knows that Judas is going to betray him. Jesus knows that Peter will deny him three times. The other disciples will abandon him. And yet, he washes their feet. He includes everyone in the command:

Love one another as I have loved you.

In betrayal, denial, cowardice, separation, fear, and brokenness—love one another. As I have loved you, love one another. There is no romance here. It is not about being nice or tolerant or only loving someone who loves you back. Love, of this radical kind, is an act of our higher selves, an act that connects us to the acts of a loving and merciful God.

But we often say: love is a temple; love is a higher law.

It’s a love reserved for God and not possible for us. Love is an ideal, a lofty goal, but not a reality on the streets of our lives. Maybe this is why many Christians in this country forget this command of Jesus and focus so much on the rules and traditions. It’s too hard to love. So let’s say the rules are more important. And in the process, we will love the sinner and hate the sin—whatever that means. So we hate the fact that people are gay or lesbian, but we still claim to love them. So we hate that someone is a devout Muslim, but we still love him. So we hate that someone doesn’t have immigration papers, but we still love her.

Or so we say.

This kind of thinking seeks to separate people from their actions. And of course, it lets us off the hook. If we simply love the sinner and hate the sin, we have no real responsibility to live in real, loving relationship with other people who see the world differently. We won’t live in the tension of agape love—a love that says we are NOT the same. We are all one as human beings, but we are all different.

In spite of our differences, we have the choice to love each other and to carry each other, and not to hurt each other.

Friends, it is impossible for us to all get along with each other. There will always be conflicts—always. Relationships are a lot of work, take time, and sometimes will fail. But we are responsible for each other. We are responsible to love each other as Jesus loved us. No excuses, no cop-outs, no bumper sticker theology to make us feel better. We must love.

In the Christian worldview, God’s great love and mercy through Jesus is the foundation for belief and practice. But Jesus did not die on the cross in order to force God to be more loving; Jesus didn’t die to satisfy God’s anger and to take on our punishment. Jesus’ acts, before and during his death were a display of agape love. In spite of the problems and the brokenness, Jesus chose to love. And now we are called to love in the same way—not neglecting our common responsibility to everyone on this planet.

We are one love, one blood, one life. But we have to do what we should with each other.

We have to call everyone [not just Christians or those close to us] our brothers and sisters. We have to recognize our common humanity, but we are not the same! And that’s okay.

That’s wonderful, actually. We are uniquely different, but we can still love each other. We still do have the amazing opportunity to carry each other, rather than to hurt each other.

Jesus clearly told the disciples that what matters most to world was how they loved people. By this you will be known. You won’t go down in history because you followed certain rules, practiced traditions, or even because you went to church on Sundays. You will be known by how you love people. I leave it at that. It’s enough. Accept the joyous responsibility.

Instead of saying to people: Jesus loves you;

How about you say: I love you.

Instead of seeing people suffer in the world and saying:
Oh, God loves them so much, I hope God does something;

How about we say: Oh, I love them so much and let’s do something!

So how will you love someone this week, in the midst of tension and disagreement?

How will you love someone who is difficult to love?

How will you reach out to a stranger and love him?

How will we choose to carry rather than hurt?

All else is secondary. How will you love?
Amen.

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Rising up to See Life Next to Death: Reflection on the Events in Boston and Beyond

Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23

I had prepared to say something different, but Monday came and Boston became a focus for many, and as the week went on, things changed. I am not ever sure that words are adequate in this kind of situation. But when I feel compelled to respond, that means I should. As a religious leader, as a person of faith, and as a human being—I feel that I have a responsibility to respond. So I will tell you a story.

This week I was part of PECO Energy Company’s Voices of Diversity and Inclusion event. Essentially, it was an interfaith dialogue [a panel] of five people from different faith traditions. They each shared with PECO employees and executives about their faith practices, the challenges and misunderstandings they face, and how they work with others for the common good. It was a really amazing program: people talking about faith in the workplace! Well, on Thursday afternoon, after the panel, one of my colleagues, a practicing Muslim, turned to me and said:

Josh, the reports are still coming out of Boston.
I hope that the perpetrators of this violence are not Arab.
Or brown.
Or Muslim.
I hope.
Oh, I hope not.

I paused for a moment, for my colleague had real concern on his face. I found out later that his son is a college student in Boston and was due to return to school on Friday. As a parent, my colleague was thinking about a lot of things. Of course, he expressed to me that he wished this kind of violence would never happen in the first place. But he admitted that his initial thought after Monday’s events was clouded with apprehension. He had experienced too many times when Muslims in general were blamed for a wide variety of violent acts or politically-motivated incidents. When tragedies like this occur, his first thought is about the safety of his family and friends who are Muslim or who are of Arab or Indian descent. Will they be blamed for something they have nothing to do with? My colleague is a peaceful man. He also likes to joke around. His son, the college student at Boston University, is a musician and a poet.

I did not know what to say to my colleague, so I just listened. But after we talked again on Friday [he had obviously cancelled his trip to Boston], I felt compelled to say something.

I say this as a religious leader, but also as a person of faith who is friends with various people who are Muslim. What happened in Boston was awful. No one denies that this kind of needless violence is horrific. But actually, what happens in Syria every day is awful. What happens in Palestine and Israel is awful. The murders in Guatemala are horrific. The violence that is happening in Chicago to young people is awful. Any violence is awful, actually.

But over the last week, I’ve heard and seen reactions to this Boston violence turn into blaming. This is what my colleague was apprehensive about. People often blame particular groups of people—simply because of their faith tradition, cultural background, nationality—or even the color of their skin! Enough is enough. Such blaming is extremely harmful. As individuals we are all responsible for our actions. If we hurt others, we are responsible for the injury and suffering we cause. But just because individuals may identify with a particular group does not give us license to dehumanize whole religions, cultures, or nations.

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, said it best last week:

The first thing we have to do is to signal that [the perpetrators] represented nobody: they didn’t represent young people, they didn’t represent Chechnyans, they didn’t represent college students, they didn’t represent Muslims. The murders of all traditions belong to one tradition: the tradition of murderers.

We are tempted to jump to conclusions and to blame. When we walk through difficult and sometimes violent valleys in life, we are tempted to blame something or someone for our sufferings. We may try to convince ourselves that we will feel better and that our suffering will ease if we make someone or something responsible. But blaming doesn’t relieve our sadness, anger or fear. It just causes more suffering. When we blame or seek revenge, we dwell in hate; we walk the path of destruction. We cause fear in people.

So it is appropriate to hear the voice of Psalm 23—a song that expresses the human reality of walking through deep valleys of pain and suffering but offers a hopeful response. Everyone has to walk through such valleys. But the psalm pushes us to journey through these valleys of the shadow of death without fear. We should not be afraid because we are not left alone. We should not fear because if we walk the path of compassion laid out for us, we won’t stay in the deep, painful valleys forever. Eventually, we will emerge from that place of death to find goodness and mercy. Do not fear. You are not alone.

stillwaterIt is no surprise that Psalm 23 is often read at funerals or during difficult times of loss or uncertainty. The stark images given to us are of green pastures and still waters; good paths stretched before us to walk on. But the darkest valley is still there and we walk it, too. There is evil. There are enemies. There is discomfort and fear. But even so, in the valley and in the midst of fear and hate, there is still oil that drips and a cup that overflows. Goodness and mercy follow us.

 

tabithaThe story of Tabitha is like Psalm 23 in that it also presents us with images of contrast. A little church in Joppa close to the Mediterranean Sea. A woman named Tabitha [Dorcas in Greek] lives there. Her name, from the Aramaic, means gazelle. She is called a disciple—equal to the disciples mentioned in the Gospels. She is known for her generosity of time and gifts. But beloved Tabitha gets sick; Tabitha dies. The mourning widows of the town prepare her body in the traditional way and place it an upper room. The other disciples of Jesus there contact Peter [staying nearby] to come immediately. He does, and Peter arrives just before the burial. Broken with sadness, the women show garments that Tabitha had made, reminding Peter of her generosity. But Peter asks everyone to leave.

He falls to his knees and starts praying. Then, he says: Tabitha, arise! She opens her eyes and sits up. She takes Peter’s hand and he lifts her up. And then Peter invites all the people to come back to see Tabitha alive.

Remember that the people who wrote Acts were the same authors of the Gospel of Luke. Take a look at Luke and you will notice something. Tabitha’s resurrection story is familiar. When Peter tells her to arise he uses the same word used to describe the resurrection of Jesus [9:22, 18:33, 24:7]. It is also the same word used in the story of Jesus raising a little girl [8:49-56].

The details in the story are very similar, too. First, someone must be a messenger and contact someone, calling them to the place where the person has died. Second, bystanders mourn. Third, during the miracle, people must leave the room or place where the person is. Finally, the person raised up must take another person’s hand. So Acts, meant to be read with Luke, is making a point. What Jesus lived and taught is now being lived and taught in people.[1]

This healing legacy is older, though. In the Hebrew Scriptures [OT], the prophets Elijah and Elisha performed miraculous acts of this kind [I Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37]. Rising from death to life had been happening, with God’s help, throughout the centuries.

But for the many of us who identify with the disciple Thomas, wanting to see and touch such a resurrection—we wonder about the validity of this. But I think there is hope for us skeptics. Both the Old and New Testaments offer stories of resurrection, but not just of dead bodies. Something is resurrected in people and that something is hope. Human beings are instruments, vessels, agents for God’s transformative and merciful power. Even in times of death and sadness and despair, there is life. There is resurrection.

I guess, with God, rules are meant to be broken. Life coexists with death; joy with sorrow; healing with pain.

I hear Psalm 23 still ringing in my ears. In the valley of the shadow of death, there is still hope; there is still life.

Friends, neither this psalm nor Tabitha’s story deny the pain, suffering, and death of the world. But both say a defiant, confident thing:

We are not alone, even in the painful valley. Someone is there to offer a hand to us.

Even when we feel dead, there is still life. A hand reaches out to us.

And there is no fear.

So in light of this, if you identify as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, who said do not be afraid;
if you are a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, or of any faith background;
if you are an atheist or agnostic–

Let us all be advocates and instruments for peace and reconciliation everywhere and now.

If we are finally recognizing that everyone around the world walks through deep, difficult valleys; and that people across the globe, near and far, suffer needless violence; and that hate can grow out of fear and misunderstanding; can we live a double dose of mercy where there IS this hate? Can we be extra peaceful where there is violence? Can we be even more accepting of those who are different when there is prejudice and discrimination? Can we pray even more when despair seems to win?

Will we defiantly and truly live out the no fear in love thing?

I’m convinced that we can be peacemakers and bearers of reconciliation in a broken world. But we will need to acknowledge that everyone, around the world, has to walk through horrific valleys where suffering is real and it’s easy to be afraid. We share this. But when we walk through these valleys, we have a choice.

Will we become more afraid? Will we look for others to blame or even for revenge?

Or, will we walk through those valleys together? Will we accept the hand and help of another who offers to get us through those valleys? And will we offer our hand and help to others when they feel alone or suffer or get scared?

Sacred Scriptures are radically telling us something: do not fear. Again and again the scriptures tell us to not be afraid. Even in the face of death, we should not be afraid.

Why? Because the gospel is a gospel of blessed contrasts: Life co-exists with death. Where there is hate, there is love. Where there is separation there is unity. Where there is ignorance there is understanding. Where there is violence there is peacemaking. In the valleys of doubt and fear, there is comfort and confidence. When we feel completely lost, a path of goodness and mercy is laid out before us.

So friends, what life will you bring to a dead relationship or situation today?

What bridges of mercy and compassion will you build this week?

Who will you reach out to in the deep, difficult valleys of life?

Rise up without fear. Rise up to love. Amen.


[1] John C. Holbert, Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX, http://www.Patheos.com.

Loved, Loved, Loved; Sent, Sent, Sent!

John 21:1-19

SIMPSONS CLIP:

Sometimes there are things that bear repeating. Other times, repeating again and again can be quite annoying!

But repetition is what we do. It is how we learn. Everyone here has had to memorize something. Perhaps in school you memorized multiplication tables. Maybe you had to memorize certain dates in history for a test. Or maybe you have memorized lines for a play, or dance steps and routines, or song lyrics, or directions to a certain place, or someone’s name. We commit things to memory every single day. That does not mean that it is easy, though. Memorization—this type of learning—takes time and effort. Sometimes we cannot do it on our own. We need someone to help us remember and learn and then apply.

Maybe that’s why things often come in threes. Phone numbers are broken down, at least in the U.S., into three sets of numbers. For many, this is easier to memorize.

You have heard the phrase: third time’s the charm.

Good things come in threes.

Three strikes and you’re out.

3…2…1…

The past, present, and the future.

Now on the count of three, everybody pull!

1…2…3! Say cheese!

Three cheers: hip, hip, hooray!

Three is company, four is a crowd.

Lights, camera, action!

1 for the money, 2 for the show; 3 to get ready…

Yadda, yadda, yadda…

What other sayings do you know that contain the number three?

 Gautama Siddharta, the Buddha, once said:

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.

And many of us know this phrase from Paul’s letter to Corinth:

And these three remain: faith, hope, and love.

So what is this all about? This is the rule of 3.

3The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that things in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form, according to many, are more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes. From slogans like go, fight, win! to film and literary titles, to philosophy and religion. You might remember The Three Stooges, the Three Little Pigs, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or the Three Musketeers. The list goes on.

And I need to mention, as an actor and lover of theatre–plays on stage are usually in 3 acts.

Not to overdo it, but there is something to this. A series of three often creates a progression in which tension is created, built up, and finally released. Similarly, in writing, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.[1]

Martin Luther, King famously utilized the rule of 3 in his speeches for emphasis; for example, in his speech  Non-violence and Racial Justice, he used the words  “insult, injustice and exploitation,” followed a few lines later by “justice, good will and brotherhood.”[2]

Those of you from a Catholic background probably know [or memorized!] the Latin phrase omne trium perfectum (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete).

But I’m more apt to go with the rule of 3 in comedy and jokes.

A rabbi, a priest, and an imam walk into a bar…

 It’s an actual unwritten rule of comedy—something we use all the time in the theater company I perform with. It is often called a comic triple. A joke usually is set up by two phrases that coax the audience into expecting a hilarious punch line in the third phrase. A simple example for a voicemail message:

Hello, you’ve reached Josh. I’m either solving world hunger, climbing Mt. Everest, or picking my nose. Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you when I touch my brain.

So, using this formula to introduce our story…

Peter:

[1] he was a beloved disciple of Jesus;

[2] he was the rock on which the church was built;

[3] he was a bumbling idiot.

Poor Peter. But his character is portrayed this way in the Gospels for a reason.

Peter is us.

Just like the so-called “doubting” Thomas is us. But unlike Thomas, for Peter the problem wasn’t skepticism, it was his past. We know what he was feeling, don’t we? We are more likely to remember something bad that happened than something good. If someone criticizes us or hurts us with his/her words, then we usually remember. But how many compliments, good wishes, and encouraging words do we remember? We are sure to remember when we failed at something. How much do we remember and celebrate our successes?

Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?

Are we there yet?

ACT I: The charcoal fire was just like the charcoal fire during Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. As if Peter’s wounds from his denial weren’t fresh enough!

ACT II: Regardless, all the disbelieving, cowardly disciples are invited to eat. Fish. Come and eat. They are fed. Can you say…foreshadowing!? And guess what? This just happened to be the THIRD time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after his death.

ACT III: the climax: the rule of 3 scene:

Jesus: Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?

Peter: Yes, you know that I love you.

Jesus: Feed my lambs. Simon son of John do you love me?

Peter: Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.

Jesus: Tend my sheep. Simon son of John, do you love me?

Peter: Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.

Jesus: Feed my sheep. Follow me.

Here is my take on Peter’s story in threes:

  1. It is about learning from the past. Redeeming the past. Moving forward.
  2. Peter needs to remember something important.
  3. Peter needs to accept the forgiveness and commit to sharing it with others.

In the three questions do you love me, Jesus is reminding and forgiving, at the same time. My take is that Peter had not forgiven himself for being a coward and for denying that he knew Jesus, when Jesus needed him most. He was not facing his past; thus, he was letting his past control his present thoughts and actions, leaving his future vulnerable to be infected by depression, fear, and apathy. So he needed to remember what happened and he needed to face it. Basically, he needed to forgive himself. He is reminded three times about it. But by the third time, there is a movement from Peter’s superficial answer to a real answer of honesty. Lord, you know everything. You know that I denied you and ran away and tried to cover it up. You know it. I know it. And yet…

Jesus still loves Peter, has never blamed him for anything, and forgave him from the get-go. Instead of rebuke, Jesus calls Peter—gives him something useful and good to do. Jesus entrusts Peter with relationships. 1] Feed my lambs. As I fed them with stories of God’s mercy and forgiveness and love, as I filled their minds and hearts with light—feed them.

2] Tend my sheep. Care for them, like I cared for you. Help them out, support and encourage them.

And lastly, the third statement: 3] feed my sheep. Don’t forget this. This is your calling. Don’t neglect it. You’re capable of doing such good in the world. Feed them. The world is hungry for love, for mercy, for community.

Feed them.

And by doing this, you truly follow me.

We are forgiven when we make mistakes or fall short of our goals in life. Perfection is an illusion. Holiness is a façade. We must accept forgiveness because we are never perfect or holy. Jesus forgives and calls us at the same time. We are given useful and good things to do. We are meant to share what we have [our whole selves] with others, feeding them with healthy relationships, acceptance, and love. But we need to be told this, reminded of this at LEAST three times. Because like Peter…we get stuck in the past. We think we are not worthy. We don’t forgive ourselves. But we’re still loved and already forgiven. And we’re still called.

Big disclaimer: having faith in and following this Jesus does not make us perfect or less apt to fail or make mistakes. We’re still completely like Peter and anyone else—we’re completely human. But recognizing that we will fail and are already forgiven and are still loved and called can be a huge encouragement and a movement—to an attitude will help us to stop judging others when they fail.

Instead, we will love and forgive them, feed and care for them. And they will feel loved and called, too.

We are loved. We are cared for. We are called to do good in the world.

We love; we care for others; we invite others to do good, too.

Amen; amen; amen!


[1] Booker, Christopher (2005). “The Rule of Three”. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Continuum International Publishing Group.

[2] “Non-Violence and Racial Justice,” Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Low Expectations and the Power of Touch

  John 20:19-31   

Some of you know that from March 16-23 I decided to participate in a program of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia and the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire’s Better Together initiative. The program was called Interfaith Encounters Alternative Spring Break. There were 44 students from the school from around the world, hailing from various cultural and religious backgrounds. Some of the students were Christian [both Protestant and Catholic]; some Muslims; some Hmong shamans; some Hindus; some agnostics; some atheists; a Wiccan; and some Buddhists. A diverse group, to say the least.

BetterTogether

Most of these students have been taking a course at the University called Engaging Religious Pluralism. As part of this class, students learn about other faiths, but do not limit their learning to textbooks and classroom environments. They actually engage people of other faiths and experience their faith practices. The goal is to promote a better understanding across religious lines and to empower younger generations to be interfaith leaders.

Work in pluralism focuses on being curious and engaging. Pluralism is actually not the same thing as tolerance. Tolerance is putting up with someone who is different than you, i.e. I guess I have to sit next to you or share this planet with you. Pluralism goes beyond just tolerating another person, but is an active attempt to understand that person’s worldview.[1]

Pluralism is based on real human encounters that include dialogue and experience.

Of course, this is part of the problem with our world in general. We don’t encounter and engage those who are different than us. We don’t talk, learn, experience, touch, feel, hear, smell, taste, and understand. We watch 30 second clips on TV or read comments on an internet blog. We make judgments about others based on such ridiculous things. And in turn, I would argue that we disconnect ourselves from our own humanity and our own religious practice. By neglecting to encounter and engage our neighbors, we neglect to know ourselves fully. That is why I got involved with this project, and also because I care deeply about younger generations. So much talk these days in Christian circles about how young people do not go to church. What’s happening? People in churches get scared and more protective of their religious territory. Meanwhile, younger generations are less and less interested in faith community. I know this. I’ve studied this. I have experienced this firsthand. So I wanted to spend a week with these students to learn from them.

In our meetings to plan the week, we discussed what types of experiences they wanted to have. We were in agreement. We wanted to experience the religious practice of others. We wanted to put on head scarves, eat the food, take off our shoes, sing and chant, smell and taste, see and touch. How do people pray? How do they bless? What books do they treasure? How does their worldview make them better people and inspire them to cooperate with others? How are we different? How are we the same?

For a week we visited 8 different faith communities: an African Methodist Episcopalian Church, a Sikh Gurdwara, a Hindu and Jain temple, a Won Buddhist temple, a Sufi mosque, a Quaker meeting, a Baha’i devotion, and a Reformed Jewish synagogue. And we also engaged 6 service-learning partners: Heeding God’s Call, Philly POWER, Urban Tree Connection, Philly Food SHARE, Church of the Advocate, and New Sanctuary Movement. It is impossible to express just how much we learned and experienced. If you want to learn more about our week, backtrack to these blog entries.

Today’s message—considering my Interfaith Encounters experience and my experience with John’s Gospel–is about low expectations and the power of touch. I mentioned in my Resurrection Sunday [Easter] message last week that the stories of the Bible don’t mean much unless those stories connect with our own stories. So today, let me share some personal stories with you—about Thomas and Jesus and about my week with UW Eau-Claire students.

Each time I read the Jesus resurrection stories, I am reminded of just how low our expectations have become. The Sunday after Easter is the lowest-attended Sunday of the year. Think about why. We really have low expectations for the Gospel stories. Christmas Eve and Easter stories are mere history, fantasy, or tradition. We rarely encounter them [meaning, we rarely read them], and thus, we rarely engage them [meaning question them]. Because of that, we also have low expectations for God’s Spirit moving through our lives and in the lives of others. We set the bar very low for transcendent experiences and things that change us. We ought to participate in religious practice because it moves us to new places and inspires us to do good.

But we are often disconnected from the stories. Thomas? Disciples behind closed doors? Jesus’ hands and feet? We are more connected to television characters and reality show stories than to these things.

But what if we TOUCH the story? What if the story TOUCHES us? What if we refuse to be content with simply hearing old, old stories and participating in old, old traditions? What if we start to expect great things to happen when we read these stories? When we worship? When we pray? When we learn? When we serve? What if the stories become real in our lives and affect us? What if the stories make us better people, challenge us to be more merciful, push us to love people?

What if our religious practice didn’t stay trapped in a book? Or a tradition? Or a doctrine?

mother-bethel-churchOn Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. we joined Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for worship. The service included vibrant music with keyboard, drums, and inspiring vocalists. Even a little dancing! Towards the end of the service, people were invited to pray in the front of the sanctuary. People just came. No theme. No reason other than to pray. Music. Prayers.

Then, something unexpected.

Their prayers do not end with the Lord’s Prayer and an amen. They end with hugs. Strangers, old friends, family—it didn’t matter. A prayer ended with an embrace.

sikh1That same day we were in Lawrenceville, NJ at the Sikh Sabha. As the bus pulled up, Kavi Pannu and other community leadership greeted us in front of the gurudwara and directed us to a well-laid-out carpet where we could remove our shoes;

Youth brought us head scarves and explained how the afternoon would proceed.

We all sat on the carpet together, side by side, touching each other.

sikh2There wasn’t enough room for personal space.

After the prayer service, community members dropped down white cloths; langar meal began.

We ate with our hands—curry and yogurt and beans and rice.

We tasted and smelled and felt.sikh3

On Monday we visited the Bharatiya Hindu Temple in Chalfont.

bhara

After removing our shoes, we were led upstairs. Worshipers entered the prayer space and the three priests present that evening in the temple for Shiva Abhishekam rang bells and chanted songs–waving lit candles in the air. Their songs filled the space. The incense burned. One of the priests started to fling water towards all of us gathered there. We felt the drops. Then, water from the Ganges River was placed in our right hand by the priest. We drank it and received a piece of fruit.

bhara2We heard this from our hosts:

Any religious practice should make us a better person.

But in John’s story, the disciples were locked behind closed doors!

Scared, depressed, and apathetic. Jesus came and offered wholeness to them.

Thomas wasn’t there. Eventually, he had to see for himself. He had to touch in order for this experience to be real. He wasn’t content with a second-hand story. He encountered Jesus; he engaged Jesus. Thomas makes we wonder: what if our religious practice was free and actively moving in the world, capable of risk-taking, open to new perspectives, and not afraid to express doubt? What if atheists and agnostics were encouraged to join our faith community? Thomas was welcomed by Jesus. Don’t we see more of ourselves in this doubting Thomas who wanted to see for himself?

Thomas says: “My Lord and my God!” but that is not the end of the story. Later on, the disciples still don’t recognize Jesus’ presence. They hesitate to answer questions about faith because they are afraid to say: I don’t know the answer! They reach for faith but don’t quite make it. Like Thomas, they don’t “believe” until they eat with their hands–share a meal. Only then are their eyes opened.

I am healed by the message in John’s story, because the story invites us in. We weren’t there. We didn’t see. We are all like Thomas. We are included in the story that we often feel left out of. We’re encouraged to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. It’s understood that we will have doubt and be skeptical. We are not rebuked–we are blessed with wholeness, too.

On Tuesday, at Won Buddhist Temple the silence was a blessed wholeness.

buddhist2I could even hear the breathing of the person next to me.

Once the chanting started, the silence remained in my mind. The prayer bowl resonated all the way through the wooden floor.

buddhist1

That afternoon, the Wisconsin students carried signs protesting gun violence in Philadelphia: Stop straw buying! Halt illegal gun sales!

SAMSUNG

They stood on Torresdale Ave. and hundreds of cars passed, honking their loud approval. The students even engaged the gun shop owner in conversation.

At Philly food SHARE’s warehouse, near the East Falls section of Philadelphia, the students packed boxes full of perishables and organized shipments for soup kitchens and shelters.

phillyshare

On the decorated walls were murals and their motto:

“Do Good. Feel Good. Eat Good.”
phillyshare2

On Thursday, snow was on the ground and a chill was in the air. But the students were enthused to be in West Philadelphia to work with Urban Tree Connection.
SAMSUNG urbantree2They cleaned up trash, removed dead brush and prepared the vacant lot to become an urban garden–a safe and functional place that could inspire and promote positive human interaction.

SAMSUNGOn Thursday evening, at the Mosque of Shaikh M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi community, our mouths were filled with food.
bawa

One of the Muslim student leaders led us in the ritual of ablutions.

ablutions2The water trickled down our arms and covered our feet, refreshing us.

ablutions

Another female Muslim student from Saudi Arabia carefully and patiently helped others put on their head scarves.

scarves2 scarves

Upstairs in the mosque, the prayers began to echo.

Bowing, hands in the air. Arabic prayer-songs. Embraces.

mosque2

On Friday, we journeyed to the University of Temple part of Broad Street and visited the Church of the Advocate; immediately, our senses were overwhelmed by the Gothic cathedral and the artwork everywhere.
SAMSUNG advocate2 SAMSUNGBut our noses told us something else was going on in the kitchen. Church of the Advocate serves an average of 1,000 people each month, Monday- Friday. Anyone can get a hot meal. One man, proud of this effort and grateful for it, stood outside in the cold and shook all 50 hands in our group, asking each person’s name.

The chef and volunteers in the kitchen laughed as they shared about their work.

advocate3

We smelled the food.

Then we smelled cleaning supplies.

SAMSUNG

We found ourselves in the Gothic sanctuary once again—this time helping their sexton to clean.

That evening, at the Baha’i Center of Philadelphia, we sat at the table to eat and talk. Devotions began and people of different ages read sacred scriptures. A song and then a prayer.

bahai

And plenty of laughter. Stories. Embraces and pictures.

smiles smiles2Smiles.

smiles4 smiles3

 Our last gathering as a whole group was on Saturday afternoon at St. Barbara’s Catholic Church, before the long bus trip to Wisconsin. A closing time of sharing and challenge and reflection. Some students verbally shared how they expected to use their new-found understandings to be leaders or to stand up for others. Some shared that their experiences were transcendent, powerful, even life-changing. Embraces and pictures and laughter and some tears.

closing2 closing

Friends, this experience has left me wondering:

What would it be like if we started acting more like Thomas?

What if we expected more out of our sacred stories and our religious practices?

What if we see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and live our sacred stories?

What if we choose to encounter and engage people who are different?

What if this Jesus, who taught that God’s Spirit was in everyone; who taught that forgiveness was given to us and required of us; what if this Jesus, who offered wholeness, even to the ones who still doubted and needed to touch, see, hear, taste, and smell; what if this Jesus were real in our stories and in our lives?

What if sacred stories became part of our stories?

What if we expected more out of our faith practice—that it would actually make us better people?

May it be so.


[1] What is Pluralism? Diane Eck.

Still Living, Still Changing Lives!

Luke 24:1-12

jesuspeepsThe “Easter” sermon is the hardest one to preach.

No really–it is.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the tried-and-true, Christian-crux message with which you can’t go wrong. After all, how do I effectively relate Jesus, the Easter Bunny, colored eggs, and marshmallow peeps?

It is a story so misunderstood and so overdone. It is about somebody dying and then coming back to life. It is the Sunday when people who never go to a church service all of a sudden show up, expecting magic.

It is the resurrection story. And it forms the foundations for this religion called Christianity. There is this Jesus. Then, he is dying on a cross. Afterwards, he is dead and his body is in a tomb. And then his body disappears and this Jesus reappears to his friends.

And a religion forms.

And today we say: He is risen! He is risen indeed!

coolJesusAnd yet, each Gospel of the New Testament of the Bible tells its own story.

I know I say this a lot, but it’s worth remembering. Luke, a Gospel book, has a distinctive resurrection story. Remember that this is not an eyewitness account of the events, but a retelling of the story, with metaphors, references to the Hebrew Scriptures and prophets, and even references to the early Christian community. Yes, let’s remember—all four Gospels were written well after Jesus’ death and were penned within the community of this new group of followers of Jesus. In fact, Luke’s Gospel is even more unique because the same people who wrote Luke wrote the book of Acts. They are meant to be read in succession. So let’s do that.

The end of Luke’s Gospel reads like this:

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The beginning of Acts reads like this:

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

It is important to note this characteristic of Luke’s story, because it does not end with an empty tomb, an appearance by Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and then Jesus blessing the disciples. Luke’s Gospel continues in the book of Acts. And as the title of Acts makes it clear, the story continues in the action of people—people from many different backgrounds, of different ages and genders, who were moved by God’s Spirit through the life, teachings, death, and resurrected life of Jesus of Nazareth. We must work backwards to fully understand the resurrection stories of the Bible. They were written with a context and a community in mind.

So that being said, let’s enjoy Luke’s story.

It was the first day of the week. This means the first day after the Sabbath [Saturday], so it was Sunday. They [women] went to the tomb were Jesus’ body was laid, burial spices and anointing materials in hand. When they got there, the stone that was supposed to keep people out of the tomb was rolled to the side. No body of Jesus anywhere.

So let’s pause for a moment. Luke’s resurrection story begins just as the birth story did. Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth with women as the central figures. Women are the first to know about Jesus’ birth. Here on resurrection day it is the same. Women are the first to know about Jesus’ rebirth.

The women, just like Mary the mother of Jesus, were perplexed by this news. And then, two men in dazzling clothes appear. Two men is a translation of the Greek words andres duo. Why should you care? Because earlier in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 9, you may remember a story about Jesus and the disciples on a mountain and something called a transfiguration. In that story this same phrase andres duo is used to refer to Moses and Elijah—dead prophets who appear to the disciples in a dream. So these two men were changed men. Were they angels, like in Luke’s birth story? We find out later in Luke 24:23 that the women at the tomb told their crazy story to the other disciples, saying that “they had indeed seen a vision of angels.” Ah, Luke is a great storyteller. So far, in just a few lines, we have been connected all the way back to Moses and Elijah, and even to the birth of Jesus!

The two men speak: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Fear is a factor. The women came to a tomb, expecting death. It was not a pleasant journey. Now, they were confused and fearful. I know that the Bible doesn’t mention zombies or ghosts [technically] but I pretty much think that the women had all kinds of weird thoughts about what was going on. What kind of strange vision was this? Who rolled the stone away? Who were these two men?

But their fear of any creepy, crawly dead things is alleviated when the two men direct the women’s attention away from the tomb. He is not here. He has been raised. Yes, grammar sticklers out there, another passive tense. But in this case, with meaning. Jesus has been raised indicates that Jesus himself did not gain superpowers, turn into a super Messiah zombie and throw the stone to the side. This was actually God’s doing.

Then Luke uses a word that appears a gazillion times in this Gospel. Remember. Remember, ladies, when Jesus was still in your homeland of Galilee? Remember what he taught you? The Son of Man [the human one][1]told you that he would be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and then on the third day rise again?

Remembrance is big in Luke’s Gospel. Earlier in the story, during the scene in which Peter denies Jesus three times, Peter remembers the word of the lord, before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.[2]

The thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember me when you come into your kingdom.[3]

And of course, Jesus said to his disciples, Do this in remembrance of me.[4]

For Luke, remembering is important. The story [and the experience of it] is renewed with a refreshed understanding, added insight, and change of perspective. This story is told so that all who read it will remember and reinterpret it with the new information they now have.

And so, the heroines in the story, these women disciples, do just that. They DO remember Jesus’ words and return to where the other disciples were staying. Now we hear their names: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and even more women. They tell the story to the male disciples. They don’t believe them. In fact, the men think that the women are delirious! They are nuts! Insane! They don’t remember. Peter, the one who remembered Jesus’ words a little too late when the cock crowed, decides to go to the tomb. When he does, he looks inside and sees linen cloths by themselves. He is amazed and returns home.

Look, I don’t know what you think or believe about these resurrection stories.

I am honest and realistic about things. I use my brain [well, I try to] and I believe in science. I love stories and I have a great imagination. But I also treasure logic and observation. In short, I am a person of faith, but that doesn’t mean science, biology, history, culture, logic, and my brain get thrown out the window when I’m talking and thinking about Jesus.

Quite the opposite, actually. I believe in resurrection. Here’s the thing, though–so do atheists and agnostics.

Perhaps you stopped reading this  now, but this is true. You don’t have to believe that Jesus of Nazareth [who really was called Joshua] physically died and then physically rose from the dead, appearing physically to disciples to appropriately fulfill prophecy. You don’t have to believe that to believe in resurrection. If this makes me a heretic, I’m glad to be one.

I know many, many people who live as fully-resurrected individuals, giving their time, gifts, and lives to resurrect good in others and in communities. I am a follower of Christ. I believe in Christ and I walk that path with Christ. But what happened on the third day? Was there resurrection that fits nicely into our church’s doctrine? Or was there resurrection on God’s terms?

This heretic wonders if the resurrection stories are metaphors for you—pointing you to a resurrected perspective about your own life—how you have the chance each day to be made new and to do something kind, creative, wonderful, or merciful. Perhaps this story is more about the legacy of Jesus’ teachings, but not necessarily a factual, bodily raising of Jesus from the dead.

On the other hand, this heretic also wonders if the resurrection story, for some of you, is still a historical telling of the resurrection of a man who was killed and his body placed in a tomb, and then, miraculously, by the power of God, he was raised from the dead—and he walked and talked with his friends and disciples. Perhaps this belief moves you to believe in the impossible—that amazing, merciful things can still happen in you and in others, because God is still at work in this messed-up world.

What I experience is that most people see this story differently. But I also think we all can find a shared value here.

Luke’s story isn’t meant to end with folklore or some theological dogma or doctrine.

The story continues in the lives that are changed–in the people who are renewed, reshaped, transformed, encouraged, forgiven, healed, and moved.

We remember the story, not because it’s tradition, but because in  our remembering, we are inspired to move!

We remember resurrection, so we change. We remember so we forgive and show mercy and welcome the stranger and embrace everyone’s humanity and love, spread kindness, pay it forward, and widen the circle.

Otherwise, why remember at all, if the story doesn’t move us to loving, just action?

Why tell the story at all unless it makes us better human beings? Why even say Christ is risen unless we ourselves are resurrected, changed people who believe in unlimited mercy and that all people deserve love? Why remember resurrection unless the people around us see the fruit of what Christ taught and lived in our actions?

So…remember. All people have the opportunity to be resurrected and renewed.

No more guilt or fear that needs to grip your life. Let the healing come. Remember it.

You are loved, covered with mercy, and expected to rise up. So remember.

And do rise up. Rise to the occasion of mercy, love, and community.

And don’t just remember today.

Remember every day.

Be changed every day. Amen.


[1] The Common English Bible.

[2] Luke 22:61

[3] Luke 23:42

[4] Luke 22:19

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