We attended a family reunion in West Virginia last week. First, second, and third cousins, all descendants of Linda’s father Carl, or his siblings. Perhaps fifty or so there at a resort in the mountains near Beckley. Afterward, as we came home, we detoured through western Pennsylvania to visit Fallingwater, a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s. We took the hour long tour, then spent the night in Donegal before coming home.
The Source of Courage (Acts 9:10-19)
Many years ago I took a class in calligraphy from Nancy Culmone, a nationally known calligrapher. The week-long class took place at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. As we all learned our letters, Nancy shared with us about her recent move from Massachusetts to New Mexico. It was a scary change for her. But she said to us, “I have learned in life that what I am most afraid to do usually I most need to do.”
Often in life we find ourselves in a place where we are afraid to do something but we also need to do it. We may be afraid to move to a new place, start a new job, or go to a new school. We may be afraid when our family or business or organization doesn’t have enough money to pay the bills. We may be afraid when we are suddenly alone in life and we used to have a partner. Lots of things cause us to be afraid, but we know we need to keep going forward. What we need in those times is courage. I am wondering today where courage comes from. What is the source of courage? Let’s turn to our Bible story to find an answer.
Ananias was one of the earliest Christians. He lived in Damascus, north of Jerusalem, and he was a follower of the way of Jesus. In his world, the enemy was named Saul. Saul was a bad man who hunted Christians, imprisoned them, and killed them. Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest Ananias and his fellow Christians when the risen Jesus appeared to him. Saul had the original ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting! Afterward, Saul himself became a Christian; he was temporarily blinded by the light of the risen Christ. He made his way into Damascus, being led by the hand.
Then Jesus appeared to Ananias. He told Ananias to go and find Saul, and he even gave the address. Ananias was to pray for Saul to regain his sight. I love here how Ananias argues with the Lord about this. “But Lord, let me tell you about this man…” He is clearly afraid to go and see Saul, given Saul’s reputation. The Lord listens and then repeats the command, “Go.” He also explains to Ananias the larger story of what is happening. Then Ananias pulls his courage together and does a scary thing: he goes and finds Saul, the enemy; he calls him ‘brother’ and prays for him. Later, he baptizes him and welcomes him into the family of faith.
Where did the courage of Ananias come from? I’d say it came from his knowledge of Christ, that is, his richly interactive relationship with the risen Christ, who is alive now. Knowing Christ — knowing that no matter what happened Christ would always take care of him — this gave Ananias the courage to do a scary thing and befriend an enemy. And this brings me to the main point of this sermon. Four Cs. Courage Comes from a Connection to Christ. When you have a living connection to Christ, that very relationship becomes a conduit where strength and courage from Christ can flow into you and help you to do the thing that frightens you.
Let me tell you a story about John Wesley. When he was a young man, before he founded Methodism, he sailed on a ship across the ocean to America. He was going to be the pastor to British colonists in Georgia. The ship encountered a great storm, and people on board were terrified. As was John Wesley, who thought he was going to die. But there were a group of Moravian Christians on board who weren’t afraid at all; through the storm they sang hymns and prayed, and their faces had a deep look of peace and contentment. John Wesley was impressed. After they all survived the storm, he asked their pastor why they are not afraid. The Moravian pastor said to him, “Don’t you have faith in Christ?” Wesley, an ordained Anglican priest, said quickly, “Of course I have faith in Christ.” But he knew in his heart that the Moravians had a quality of faith he did not yet possess. it would be some time before he did, but he finally found that kind of faith. And out of gratitude to the Moravians, he translated from German into English one of the hymns they sang during the storm. It is called ‘Give to the Winds Thy Fears.’ We will sing it together in a moment.
We just finished our week of Vacation Bible School, five days and 80 children. Each day there was a different saying that we wanted the children to remember:
Even if you are left out, Jesus loves you.
Even if you are different, Jesus loves you.
Even when you don’t understand, Jesus loves you.
Even if you do wrong, Jesus loves you.
Even when you are afraid, Jesus loves you.
Each time, when the children said ‘Jesus loves you,’ we’d have them make a cross over their hearts to emphasize the point. Repeating these affirmations and making a cross over the heart were ways the children could begin to develop their own relationship with Christ. This is a relationship that can stay with them through the whole course of their lives. And when they come to a scary time, they can remember that “Even when I am afraid, Jesus loves me.”
If you are facing a scary thing in your life right now, I would counsel you to do the same thing we taught the children to do. Repeat an affirmation to yourself emphasizing Christ’s love and support for you. Then make a cross over your heart. Then step forward in the courage that comes from knowing Christ. You will find that Christ will fill you with a strength and peace beyond yourself. You will find resources for yourself that you never knew were there.
Let me close by sharing a little prayer from St Teresa of Avila. It was written inside her prayer book. I say these words sometimes when I am afraid.
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing frighten you.
All things pass away.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
When you have God
you find you lack nothing.
God alone is enough.
When we have a richly interactive relationship with Christ, we learn that God is with us, God is for us, and God is enough. Amen.
This lovely photo was taken by Lad Strayer, photographer for our local newspaper. He often posts them to Facebook. Lenawee is the name of our county. It is an Indian name that means, I believe, ‘the people.’
(Last weekend I officiated at a wedding for the daughter of a friend who died last year. This is the homily from that wedding. My wife also officiated, and she put the frame together as I spoke.)
Madeleine L’Engle said, “Two people who love each other must ask themselves how much they hope for as their love grows and deepens, and how much risk they are willing to take. It is a fearful gamble, because it is in the nature of love to create, and a marriage is something which is to be created, so that together we become a new creature.”
Lainey and Travis, you are taking a risk today, a gamble, as you create a new life together as wife and husband. We celebrate your risk, and we admire the love within you that prompts you to take the risk of marriage.
We wanted a visual aid to represent this marriage you are creating. We thought of a frame. Just as a frame has four sides that come together, so also your marriage has four sides that come together and make it whole.
The first side of the frame is commitment. By coming here today and saying your vows to one another in public, you are pledging your commitment to one another. In his book The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman identifies five ways couples can show their commitment to one another: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. Each of us, he says, has one or two of these love languages that are most important to us. We recommend you use these five love languages to express your commitment to one another.
The second side of the frame is comfort. Both of you have known struggle, heartache, and pain in your life. One of the benefits of having a life partner, is that you have a person you can go to for comfort, support, and strength. Lainey, you mentioned a time when Travis had to pick you up and carry you because walking right then was hard to do. This is what comfort looks like: one carrying the other. Travis, there will be times when Lainey will pick you up and carry you. Be a comfort to one another.
The third side of the frame is creativity. Each of you is a creative person in what you do or will do for a living. And together you are creating a marriage and a family. In the Bible, we read how God created the universe. In marriage and family life, you are privileged to participate and further that creative activity. Be sure you help each other to set free the creative potential you both have.
The fourth side of the frame is Christ. Christ affirmed the value of marriage, and he attended a wedding at Cana in Galilee, enjoying that special day himself. Christ is also attending your wedding today. Christ will be present in your home, whether you realize he is there or not. Listen for the voice of Christ comforting you, consoling you, and challenging you to become more together than you ever could be apart.
Here are the four sides of your common life: commitment, comfort, creativity, and Christ. These four come together in your frame.
We also have a mat, which people here today witnessing your vows will be able to sign after the service. It will be a reminder of their presence and their love for you.
It will be up to you to finish the project by putting something inside of the mat and frame, just as it will be up to you to finish the marriage that we are helping you start today. We love you and wish you well.
The Road to Emmaus story is beautiful. It is the most beautiful of the resurrection stories about Jesus. Luke, the writer, has put the story together in a lovely way. It is best not to think of Luke as a reporter writing for a newspaper, trying to get his facts and quotes accurate. He is more a dramatist, and this is a scene in his drama about Christ. There is a message he wants to communicate to us in this scene.
Two disciples of Jesus are walking along the road. It is evening on the first Easter, so about 48 hours since Jesus has died. Their emotional state, we are told, is deep sadness. Their teacher, friend, mentor Jesus has died a violent death.
When someone close to you dies, it’s like you are in a train wreck. Afterward there is all this wreckage around, and a loud ringing in your ears for days. It is disorienting, to say the least. This is where these disciples are now, with a loud ringing in their ears, walking along in sadness.
A stranger comes up and walks with them. We know it’s Jesus, but they do not. (This is a dramatic technique.) They begin a conversation. They tell him about the awful things that have happened to them lately. He listens patiently, and then he interprets their experiences to them using the holy scriptures. He helps them understand what has happened. This encourages their hearts.
Later, at a meal together, they are struck by how the stranger handles bread. There is something familiar in the gesture. Suddenly, the realize it is Jesus. Finally, the recognize him. Then he vanishes.
Luke, our dramatist, is telling us how we experience the risen Christ today by means of this story. I will have more to say about this in a minute. But first, I want to talk a bit about resurrection. What is the resurrection of Jesus?
There are two traditional ways of understanding the resurrection of Jesus. Each has a long history; neither is new (although they get stated and packaged in new ways). One sees resurrection as miracle, the other sees it as metaphor. Call them Option One and Option Two.
Option One goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. After his death, Jesus’ tomb was found empty, his body missing. Then he appeared, in some form, to his followers in various places. He was the same, and different; recognizable, and not recognizable. He had been raised and changed.
Please understand resurrection is not a resuscitation. The two are different, but often confused. If my heart stopped beating and I collapsed, someone could resuscitate me and bring me back to life. (Hopefully they would!) But I would not be resurrected.
To be resurrected means to be raised from death into an entirely new form of embodied life. St Paul called the resurrection body soma pneumatikos, which means a body animated by the very breath of God. Option One says Jesus had such a body after his resurrection, and we will as well at our resurrection. Jesus was raised in this way, transformed, leading his disciples to be transformed as well.
Option Two dates back about 300 years. It may have been present earlier, but it didn’t get traction in the church until the rise of English Deism in the 1700s. Deism was a form of Christianity that was deeply skeptical of miracles. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist; he literally took a knife and cut all the miracles out of the Gospels, leaving only the ethical teachings.
Deism was a response to the rise of modern science, with its empirical worldview. What is real is what we can observe with our senses, measure with our instruments, and study in a laboratory. Anything beyond this is less real, less important, and less trustworthy.
So in terms of resurrection, it must be a metaphor. Dead bodies don’t magically come to life again; this is empirically verifiable. The dead body of Jesus was laid in a grave where it decayed like any other body. (Or was eaten by wild animals, another option.) But this doesn’t matter because his followers experienced his continuing presence with them. They told these resurrection stories as myth and symbol of this continuing presence of Jesus. The resurrection then serves as a metaphor of the new life we can experience now.
What matters is not what happened to Jesus; what is important is what happens now. Paul Tillich, in the 20th century, summed up this view of resurrection: “Resurrection never happened, and it always happens.” Not miracle, but metaphor.
Today, Option One is taught by N.T. Wright, a British scholar, and Option Two is taught by American Marcus Borg. The two are good friends, although I think each is pretty appalled at the beliefs of the other.
So where am I? I am an Option One person. There are reasons. To begin, it doesn’t make sense to me that the disciples would be transformed if Jesus had not been. If they knew his body was mouldering away in a grave, I don’t see how they would have been changed in the way they were. That doesn’t seem logical to me.
Beyond this, there are two reasons I am in Option One. The first comes from Barbara Brown Taylor (which is ironic since I think she is more Option Two). She asks a simple question: “What is keeping you alive right now?” Good question to ask.
For me, in light of all that’s happened in the last year or more, what is keeping me alive is resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection and our own promised resurrection. But for it to keep me alive, it needs to be more than a metaphor. Death is not a metaphor; it is an ugly fact. If resurrection is God’s antidote to death, resurrection needs to be more than a metaphor too. It needs to be actual, tangible. That makes me Option One. (I understand this stems from my need. I own that.)
The second reason I am Option One comes from biology, strangely enough. Biology teaches me about an amazing transformation. We are all here living organisms. We are mammals. But once, a long long time ago, we were bacteria. All life, including our life, started out as bacteria, in a mud puddle somewhere.
Later we evolved into being fish. But we were unsuccessful at being fish. We failed at fishhood because we kept flopping out of the water. We wanted to develop legs so that we could go places. And in time, a very long time, we evolved into being human, as we are now.
This transformation is astonishing, from bacteria to fish to human. It is a miracle, you might say! So science invites me to believe in this amazing transformation of life and bodies on earth; and along comes religion and invites me to believe in another transformation, one that happened to the very body of Jesus on the third day. If I believe in the first transformation (of science), what is to prevent me from believing the second? I can believe in both and still be a thinking, modern person. Actually, postmodern, but that’s another sermon.
So this is my reasoning about being an Option One person. But it doesn’t mean I take the Emmaus story at face value. I don’t. OF COURSE the story is symbolic. It is dripping with symbolism. Luke, the writer, the dramatist, is dramatizing for us how we experience the risen Christ here and now.
In a word, we experience Christ liturgically. We find Christ in the acts of common worship, as we are engaging in them right now.
In the Emmaus story, Christ is revealed as the scriptures are opened. So here in common worship, the scriptures are read, opened, interpreted. In the Emmaus story, Christ is revealed in the bread and the common meal. So in worship, we share communion together and experience Christ. The Emmaus story does not add explicitly, but I would add that in the hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, the anthems we sing and hear, the music that is played, in all these acts of common worship Christ is present to us as well.
It is here in common worship, week by week, that Christ draws alongside of us as the stranger we do not know. Here in worship Christ teaches us, feeds us, lifts us. Christ encourages us and enlightens us. Christ meets us here.
What is the result? We no longer need walk in sadness, with a loud ringing in our ears. Instead, we walk in beauty, because Christ walks with us.
There was a lovely sunrise this morning while we were driving east on Sutton Road. A large orange ball rising up through the trees.
On New Years Day 1940, when Lew was 16 years old, he and his brother tried to go ice skating. He wrote about it in his journal, “Mick and I endeavored to go skating this morning, but alas! we came home forlorn and defeated by a bitterly cold wind.” Not many 16 year old boys write like this, lyrical and poetic, but Lew did. He even spoke like that.
In my mind I hear his voice in dramatic tones saying, “I was forlorn and defeated by a bitterly cold wind.” Then he’d smile with a glimmer in his eye. That was Lew.
That day in 1940 wasn’t the only cold wind he faced in life. He braved other challenges. In his early years, he lost his mother at the age of four. In his final years he struggled with an aging body that was wearing out. Lew faced all the challenges in his life with faith, courage and determination.
Saint Paul compared the human body to a tent. He wrote, “If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Paul actually made tents and sold them for a living. It’s how he earned his room and board. He knew from experience that even the best quality tent only had a limited lifespan. The tent would wear out and need to be replaced.
As he worked making tents, Paul had time to reflect on our life in the body. The body itself is like a tent, fragile and temporary. Paul was also a Christian immersed in life in the Spirit. He had a deep conviction in the resurrection of Christ. He believed that when our tent wears out and falls down, God has prepared a new place for us to live, a permanent structure. It’s a “house not made with hands, eternal in heaven.”
Francis Hole was a soil scientist and lifelong Quaker. He said this about bodies: “Our bodies are disposable, biodegradable containers for Spirit.” This quote fits well with Paul’s image of the body as a tent. It’s a container for something else.
In the last few years, I have watched Lew each week as he came to church. I have marveled at his determination. He always kept moving, even though everything was so difficult. Walking into a restroom, going down a hallway, coming up for communion — all of these things posed great challenges for Lew. Every place he went he had to drag along his tent that was falling down. But he faced it all with grace and perseverance. Now he’s been set free from his worn out tent. He is settling in to new accommodations. In words from Paul, what was mortal in Lew has been swallowed up by life.
Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, says that death wears five faces. Death is a Stranger who comes to us uninvited. Death is an Enemy who steals what is precious. Death is a Friend who relieves suffering. Death is a Lover who brings us face to face with God who loves us passionately. And lastly, death is a Mother who births us into eternal life.
Lew encountered death in all of these ways. But the last face, death as Mother, intrigues me most. Lew lost his mother at the beginning of his life. He gained a new mother at the end. This last mother birthed him into an unimaginable life, beyond anything we in our tents can dream of.
Everyone knows that we all die in theory, but they seldom believe it will happen to them personally. They’re usually shocked when it does. But for each of us, our tents only stay up so long. I look forward to when what is mortal in me is swallowed up by life. I look forward to joining my dear friend Lew in the house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Amen.