Be Open to Being Surprised By What Is Possible

Scientists in Colorado are studying the amount of light in the universe, and they have discovered a curious thing. There is far more light in the universe than they can account for, from the sources of light they know of. One of the scientists said, “The universe is like a brightly lit room, but you only see one 40-watt bulb. You wonder where all the light is coming from.” Then he said, “The way we understand light may be fundamentally wrong. The universe is exciting, scary, and mostly mysterious.”

I love this honest, humble admission of how limited our knowledge is. And it reminds me of what I call the ‘Thimble Principle.’ What I know fits into a thimble, and what I don’t know fills the rest of space. It’s always good to keep the Thimble Principle in mind and remember that what we don’t know if far more than what we do know, and even what we do know may be ‘fundamentally wrong.’

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Let’s turn to today’s Bible reading (Genesis 42:29-38). Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Jewish people. Jacob lived in the land of Israel with his family. A famine came upon the land, and Jacob had to send his sons down to Egypt to buy grain. He sent all of them except his youngest son, Benjamin. Benjamin was the only remaining son of Jacob’s wife Rachel. (He had 12 sons by several mothers; his was the original blended family.) Rachel is gone by now in the story, and her older son Joseph is also gone. All Jacob has left to remember Rachel is Benjamin, so he wants to keep him safe at home, and he sends his other sons down to Egypt to buy grain.

They meet with the head Egyptian official in charge of grain distribution. He is unexpectedly harsh with them, asking them many questions about their home and who is left back in Israel. He accuses them of being spies. He takes one of them hostage, Simeon, and he sends the rest back to their father Jacob, along with grain for food, but he tells them they can only return to Egypt to get more grain (and recover Simeon!) if they bring their youngest brother Benjamin with them. They return to their father Jacob distraught. Jacob himself has a meltdown. He doesn’t want to put Benjamin in harm’s way. Rachel has died, and Joseph, Benjamin’s older brother, is gone too. He doesn’t know what to do.

But what Jacob doesn’t know, and what his other sons also do not know, is that the Egyptian official they have spoken to, the man who was harsh to them and demanded that Benjamin come down to Egypt too — this man IS Benjamin’s older brother and Jacob’s lost son Joseph. You see, about 20 years earlier, Joseph’s brothers played a terrible trick on their father. They faked Joseph’s death because they hated him, and they sold him into slavery to a group of traders headed to Egypt. All these years that Jacob believed his son Joseph was dead, Joseph has been alive and having his own adventure in Egypt. Joseph is playing a trick on his brothers now by pretending not to know them, just as they played a trick on their father many years earlier.

Jacob is about to have a surprise that will blow his life wide open. The impossible is about to be possible for him. He will allow Benjamin to go down to Egypt with his other sons, and Joseph, on seeing his younger brother, will reveal himself to his other half-brothers, who had not recognized him before. (He spoke and dressed as an Egyptian.) Then Joseph will invite Jacob and the whole family to come down to Egypt and live as long as the famine continues in Israel. There will be a great family reunion.

But my point is this: this belief that Jacob had for 20 years that his son Joseph was dead, this belief was fundamentally wrong. That Joseph was actually alive was not in Jacob’s tiny thimble of knowledge. And when he discovered that Joseph was alive, he was astonished with the surprise of his life.

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Be open yourself to being surprised. Surprised by life. Surprised by God. Surprised by what is possible. Remember that what you know is tiny compared to what you don’t know. When you own your own ignorance, then this opens you up to being surprised. The ones who are never surprised are the ones who cling tenaciously to their thimble of knowledge.

There is a scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence must cross an awful, deadly desert. No one ever crosses it because no one comes out alive. But Lawrence takes his men across the desert, and they survive. Just as they are coming out of the desert, as the oasis is in sight, Lawrence notices that one of their camels is without a rider. The rider has fallen off and is back in the terrible desert. Lawrence determines to go back and rescue him. Everyone in the company objects. Lawrence’s friend Ali says, “It must have been that man’s time to die. It is written.” But Lawrence takes his camel back into the desert to rescue the lost man, while the rest of his company continues forward to the oasis and safety. Waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. Finally, cue the dramatic music, and Lawrence comes out of the terrible desert a second time, holding the rescued man with him on his camel. He comes to the oasis and takes a drink of water from his friend Ali. Then he says to Ali, “Nothing is written.”

Nothing is written. That someone could survive that desert a second time was not in Ali’s thimble of knowledge. Lawrence taught him that the impossible is possible.

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So be open to being surprised by what is possible in your life. Remember that what you know or think you know is tiny compared to what you don’t know.

Be open to being surprised at what you can do personally. Maybe you are facing a desert, and no one thinks you can cross it. Maybe you don’t think you can do it either. But how do you know? Nothing is written. Allow yourself to be surprised at what you can do.

A group of us went to Cass Community Social Services in Detroit last Wednesday for a day-long mission trip. In the afternoon, we listened to the formerly homeless men there tell us their stories. They work in the little factory Cass has making mud mats, coasters, and flip-flops to sell. They used to live on the streets, and now they have jobs and apartments. One of them said, “I am learning to manage my finances.” It made me smile. He used to be on the streets, and now he needs Dave Ramsey! He must be surprising himself at what is possible in his life. Let yourself be surprised at what you can do too.

Also, be open to being surprised by what we can do as a community of faith. Some folks here think our congregation is going to continue to decline and then close the doors. But you don’t know that. The 184 year history of our congregation has already been written, but whatever happens from now on is a blank book with a bunch of blank pages in it. Allow yourself to be surprised at what will be written in those pages as we cooperate with God. Some things are disappearing, and new things are coming to birth here. Remember the thimble, and open yourself to the future.

I have my thimble here. I have a little piece of paper that I will fold and put into the thimble. It says three words: “I Am Loved.” That’s all I know for sure. I am loved. I am loved by Linda and my family. I am loved by my friends. And mostly importantly, I am loved by God.

When we know that we are loved by God, then that gives us a deep security. We know that God will always take care of us. And we can walk with confidence into an unknown future, step by step and day by day with the God who makes all things new. Amen.

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Fallingwater

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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.

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The Source of Courage

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.

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Rural Lenawee

rural lenawee

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.’

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Wedding Homily for Lainey and Travis

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(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.

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Resurrection Sermon

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sunrise

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There was a lovely sunrise this morning while we were driving east on Sutton Road. A large orange ball rising up through the trees.

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