Tuesday, April 28, 2015

God with Skin On

April 18, 2015

Psalm 25
John 21:1-15

I love this part of John’s gospel.  I can see it, and hear it, and taste it.  Many years ago, I attended an Easter sunrise service on the shores of Richmond Beach in Seattle.  There was a huge bonfire on the beach and on the edge of the bonfire was a skillet filled with fish.  The first thing I thought when I saw the fish was, “Jesus is here!”  I knew the gospel story, I’d taught it in Sunday school many times.  Seeing the scene in real time with the waves lapping on the shore put my 20th century body back in 1st century Palestine.  Now I love to recreate that scene wherever I can.  If you come to sunrise service at Camp Burton, you will smell the smoke of a wood fire and feel its heat; you will hear the crackle and sizzle of fish frying as the aroma of salmon fills the air; you’ll feel the early morning air in your lungs and the damp earth beneath your feet; you’ll hear the birds singing and the hush of human voices greeting one another.  This year after we worshipped, we gathered around the fire and shared the salmon straight out of the skillet.  Easter sunrise is a feast for all the senses.  Everything about it is tactile and real.  “Christ is risen” seems so obvious—so new and fresh.  I love the Easter sunrise service because it is so richly embodied because I am a creature that is embodied.  I know as much through my body as I do through my mind.  

I love how generous Jesus is in meeting his disciples early in the morning after a night of fishing.  I love it that he built a fire and started breakfast; that he called out to them in the early morning stillness.  Jesus—taking care of weary, discouraged friends.  “Cast your nets on the other side of the boat!” Surprise!  Almost more fish than they can haul.  It must be Jesus, the worker of miracles, the one they love.  That’s the God I need when I’m exhausted and discouraged, the God with skin on who knows that I need encouragement—and breakfast.  That’s the Jesus I meet on Easter morning among my friends and even people I don’t know who gather for warmth around a fire and exchange greetings.

That’s the Jesus I meet here among you.  We come from so many life experiences on a Sunday morning to worship, or a Tuesday morning for coffee, or Wednesday morning for Bible study, or a Monday morning for covenant group, or a Wednesday night for bell or choir practice, or any other time we gather.  When I’m with you, I experience God with skin on.  When one of you brings dinner, or walks the dog for someone who is recovering, or picks up groceries, or drives a friend to the doctor, we experience God with skin on.  The most powerful experiences I have of God are with the people of God.  The hug after we receive bad news, the phone call, the willingness to listen to our woes.  We are God with skin on for each other.  

Sometimes it’s just to get our attention, to know that we are seen.  We were eating in a restaurant with our two year old grandson and his parents a few weeks ago.  He loves to make friends with the wait staff.  Our waitress that day was all business, taking orders and making sure everyone got what they ordered.  As she talked to the adults over his head, Dylan, who’s two, kept looking at her and saying, “Hey!  Hey!”  Either she didn’t hear him or ignored him.  Finally, he yelled, “Hey!” at the top of his voice.  The startled waitress looked down at him as his mother apologized, “I think he just wants to say ‘Hi.’”  Dylan looked up with a sheepish smile and waved.  For days I wondered how hard God might have been trying to get my attention just to let me know that I was seen and loved, but I was too busy.  Sometimes you, the community, yells “Hey!” and I hear God’s voice getting my attention.

I long to be with Jesus, and I experience his presence when we are together within the sights and tastes and smells of our community.  Coffee brewing on a Sunday morning, flowers on the chancel, the choir, the bells, your voices singing, praying, and chatting over the treats at coffee hour—you are God with skin on.  The sound of the bell calling us to worship, a hug at the end of the service, drawings the kids made during worship, the smile of the usher bringing the offering forward.  The taste of the fresh communion bread, the feel of oil on your foreheads, music in my ears as we bless one another.  We are God with skin on for one another.  That’s why it’s so important that we are here for each other.  It’s not just what I get out of it that brings me to worship, it’s the skin that I bring to others that blesses them.  It is so important that we show up for each other, to be the body of Christ “cooking fish on a beach for each other.”  It may be cookies, and cheese and fruit, and nut breads instead of fish, but we’re here for each other, feeding each other, caring for each other, hearing each other’s stories, sharing each other’s burdens, laughing and weeping together—God with skin on.  We are not alone in our suffering or our joy.  We know God is with us because we experience God in community.

There is such power in the community of the Beloved!  I have to tell you about a post-Easter experience I had this Friday.  Many of you know that I teach at Seattle University on Friday mornings.  This last Friday there were four bomb threats found in two of the campus buildings.  All of our classrooms and buildings were locked down.  We received updated texts to let us know what was happening.  And yet—Jesus stood in our midst with words of peace as one of the students, who happened to be leading prayer when the lock down occurred, simply prayed for the safety of all those involved, including the one who had made the threats.   That is the second time in two years I have witnessed the peace of Christ enter a locked down classroom through a student’s prayer.   

Finally, it’s in the Beloved Community that I find forgiveness and direction.  Just like Peter, who was given the chance to declare his love three times after denying Jesus three times, in this beloved community we are loved and accepted in spite of our failings.  This is a place of second and third and fourth chances.  I learned about real grace in church from Maureen, who worked with the at-risk teens and preteens in another church that I served.  Even the most rebellious child was given three chances to change his or her behavior to abide by the guidelines.  After the third warning, the child was told that they needed to go home, but they were welcome to come and try again tomorrow.  Mercy and grace were new every morning.  A hundred new days made such a difference in those teens’ lives.  We offer each other grace that is new every morning—that is one of the signs of the Beloved Community.  And from the community, we are sent to feed others with bread and justice and mercy—to meet the real embodied needs of weary, discouraged people.   A meal, a hug, a ride, an hour of listening, a changed law, a word of hope, and act of mercy.  We are God with skin on for each other.

Imagine Real Community

April 12, 2015
Psalm 133
John 20:19-31

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed!  In the scriptures, the crucified and risen Christ will appear in different ways to different groups over a short period of time between that first Easter morning and Pentecost.  The experiences will vary, some people will see and believe and some will dismiss eye-witness reports as too fantastic.  Some will only hear the story without having their own experience.  Some will believe—and some will not.  The early Church longed for that powerful connection to Christ after the resurrection, after Jesus was no longer physically with them.  They found that connection in the community he gathered.  They discovered that when they were together, they could feel or sense Jesus in their midst.  The community became essential as they continued to follow Jesus, as they did the work Jesus sent them to do.
How did the disciples move from being with Jesus and being a part of the community that Jesus anchored to building a larger and more diverse community after his death and resurrection?  How did they move from fear of sharing Jesus’ fate to the kind of boldness that we read in the book of Acts?  How did these diverse individuals come to share such a belief in God’s power and in the teachings of Jesus that they would commit their lives to continuing his work—not as individuals, but together as Christ’s Church?
I wonder if there is some clue in the many ways Jesus made his presence known to some of his disciples, or the ways his disciples experienced his presence.  Mary recognized Jesus’ voice in the garden when he called her by name.  Was it the intimacy of hearing him call her name?  In today’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus simply appears to a gathering of his disciples in spite of the doors of the house being locked.  He showed them his hands and side.  Was seeing believing? The record doesn’t say how Jesus left, or even very much about his time with the disciples, only that Thomas wasn’t present and didn’t believe the other disciples’ report.  A week later Jesus appeared again in much the same way, only this time Thomas was there.  Jesus offered to let Thomas touch his wounds, and whether Thomas touched the wounds or not, he believed.  So is touching proof?  What helps you believe and how would you share that with others?
I heard a story about a man who was walking home in the dark one night in a rural area.  He took a short cut across his neighbor’s field, not realizing that his neighbor had begun to dig a new well.  The man fell into the well.  The fall knocked the wind out of the man and he laid at the bottom of the hole until he could call for help.  But no one answered his calls.  He tried to climb out, but the walls were too steep and he could not get a foothold.  He slipped back down each time he tried, growing more exhausted with every effort.  Over and over he tried to climb out, to no avail.  Finally, he lay on his back at the bottom of the hole and saw the stars above him, and he began to pray.  As he prayed, he began to feel a deep sense of peace.  He knew he was not alone, but that God’s presence surrounded him.  He felt a sense of wonder and gratitude that the fall had not broken any bones.  His gratitude led him to pray in thanksgiving for the other blessings of his life: his family, his friends, his work, his faith and he eventually fell asleep giving thanks for God’s goodness.  In the morning, his neighbor came out to continue digging his well and found the man.  Using a rope, he pulled his neighbor out of the well and apologized for creating a hazard.  But the man was unharmed and grateful for his profound experience of God’s presence.  In fact, he was so in awe of his experience of God’s presence that he wanted to share it with others.  So that very night he invited his best friend to go for a walk—and pushed him in the hole.
As much as we’d like to, we cannot recreate our profound experiences of faith for others and sometimes, not even for ourselves.  We try.  I can’t tell you how much planning and prayer goes into creating a meaningful last campfire experience at church camp.  But that is not how our gracious God speaks to us.  God knows your heart and my heart and speaks to each of us in ways that are the most meaningful to us.  Some of us feel God’s presence through music, so I want for us to have the best music we can and many opportunities to express ourselves through music. For some of us, God speaks through the beauty of our surroundings.  I am so grateful for this gorgeous space and that’s why I think it was particularly meaningful to have so many flowers in our sanctuary last week.  Some of us feel God’s presence in social justice.  We rejoice when we share our worship service and resources with those who are least like us.  Some of us find God in the written or spoken word so I work hard on my sermons.  Others need to taste and see that God is good and so we eat together as often as we can.  That’s why I listen carefully when you tell me what you need in worship, or what you miss.  Even with all the attention to the many ways that people experience God’s presence, we may not get it right here.  That’s why there are other worshiping communities—all of us searching for the risen Christ, for a faith that will sustain us and make us whole.  The glory of God is that God will find us searching and whisper in our unique language the love we long to hear.  
When we are willing to accommodate the spiritual needs of others, out of a deep desire to create the space in which they can best hear God’s voice, we begin to experience real community.  Over the next few weeks we are going to read about the early church’s struggle to be the body of Christ in spite of human and cultural diversity.  It really was a struggle.  The church would move outside Judaism, it would put men and women together in worship and fellowship, Jew and Gentile, slave and free in such a way that it would surprise and shock and witness to a new Kingdom of love and neighborliness.  This has never been easy.  Too many times churches have divided over doctrine, theology, race, ecclesiology, holiness and justice.  However, we honor the unity of the body of Christ when we accommodate the spiritual needs of others.  Thomas wasn’t cast out as an unbeliever. His need became an opportunity for another way of witnessing and experiencing Christ’s graciousness.  
While being open to and accepting of the diversity of human experience helps to build community, forgiveness sustains it.  On that first Easter night, Jesus gave his disciples not just the power, but the task to forgive sins.  Forgiveness is the currency of a healthy community.  Forgiveness needs to be genuine, not counterfeit, and it needs to flow freely.  Because if we don’t forgive other people’s sins, our community breaks down, or as Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ words, “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”  What indeed?   We will let unforgiven sins fester and grow until they divide us and lead to cut off, isolation and violence.  The miracle of the early church is that the church worked through its differences in experience, theology, cultures, and practices to become the Church.  How do we move forward as Christ’s body?  With ample graciousness and accommodation and a generous willingness to forgive one another, the same now as it was then.  We have to work hard at imagining real community and then making it happen.  We will make mistakes, but our meta-story tells us that even if we die trying, if we ground our work in love, we will rise again.  So let us imagine real community and work to build it with gracious accommodation and generous forgiveness.