2018-5-6 “When Eyes Need Opening”

“When Eyes Need Opening”

A meditation based on Luke 24:13-35

May 6, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Once a year, Community Congregational Church has a rummage sale!  Yesterday was the big day, and what a day it was!  [slides] Wonderful volunteers, crowds of customers, tables heaped with treasures and treats!  One could feel the energy in the air, and it was good energy.  Energy of friendship and support…energy of acceptance and hope…energy of “out with the old, and space—now—for the new!”  Up till the final moment, nearly, folks from this congregation and the community were bringing in what they saw as trash for it to be miraculously tagged and transformed into someone else’s treasure. 

                   Friends, that process of alchemy—the transformation of one thing into something else—alchemy: that is some of the work God does best!  Look what happened once, twice, many times with Jesus and his first followers after his body went missing from the tomb of death.  He appeared to Mary outside the tomb and she first thought he was the gardener.  He appeared to a group of his disciples behind locked doors and offered them a breath of peace.  A week later, he appeared to the group again behind the locked doors of fear, this time with Thomas present, and assured them—through wounded hands and pierced side—assured them with his very body that God would be with them through any troubles.  He appeared to them at the seashore and cooked them breakfast.  He appeared to them in a room and ate a bite of fish.  In today’s story, he appeared to them as they walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus and talked to them of scripture. 

                   Each time, without fail, Jesus was at first unrecognizable.  As we have discovered, together, over this Easter season, resurrected life looks completely different than the familiar life we once knew.  And God deals in resurrected life!  For resurrected life, like a good church rummage sale, is “out with the old so that there is space now for the new!”  So Community Congregational has a rummage sale every year. 

                   Scholars of religious history have noticed that God also has a big rummage sale every 500 years or so!  Starting with written history several centuries before Jesus lived, we see the beginnings of this every-500-year religious phenomenon.  That time period, called the Axial Age, included such new thinkers as Confucius and Lao-Tse in China; Buddha and the writing of the Upanishads in India; Zarathustra in Iran; and in Palestine the prophets Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, and many philosophers including Plato; so much new thinking occurred in nearly all of the known world at that time almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.  It was the first documented rummage sale of God!  500 years later, there was another with Jesus and his first disciples.  500 years after Jesus came Mohammed and the creation of Islam.  500 years later was the split in Christianity that led to the Eastern Orthodox churches, and 500 years after that was the Protestant Reformation, providing the foundation for the ancestors of our beloved United Church of Christ.  Every 500 years or so, without fail, for the past almost 3,000 years of human history.  “God’s Great Rummage Sale.” 

                   That’s what scholar and writer Phyllis Tickle calls this phenomenon…God’s Great Rummage Sale.  Out with the old, so there is space for the new.  If you can do math, you have already figured out that we are, right now, 500 years from the Protestant Reformation…which means…we are lucky enough to live in one of these seasons where God is coordinating a massive rummage sale! 

                   Now, that all sounds great, until you actually go behind the scenes of an actual rummage sale.  There is chaos.  There are differing opinions.  Lots of putting things here, and having someone else move them there.  Sometimes feelings get hurt simply because so much is going on that it’s hard to keep focus on what really matters.  Oftentimes people who would never meet up, actually meet up.  And every time, without fail, much good comes out of a rummage sale. 

                   An actual rummage sale—in real time—is a place of change that is not always wanted.  My dad loved rummage sales, yard sales, he even sold 4×8 sheets of plywood out of our family’s garage just because he loved to connect stuff with people who needed that stuff.  He loved the stories that accompanied the treasures.  And he loved sharing those stories with the new conservator of that treasure.  One time, after Mom and Dad could no longer drive, they still wanted to participate in their church’s rummage sale.  So we worked together to collect a carload of stuff and I dropped it off at the church.  A day or so later, Dad called me and asked if I’d take him back to the church for the rummage sale…yes, he wanted to buy back some of his own treasures! 

                    When we are in a season of change, old stuff moves back and forth between the categories of “trash” and “treasure”—and we, ourselves, may be undecided as to whether it stays or goes.  This is especially true for big seasons of change—the every 500 years or so rummage sale—such as the church is in now.  Personally, I think this current rummage sale of God’s has been going on since about 1980…I think it started about the time the churches like this one began their decline.  We know, intuitively, that the church of the 1950s is no longer alive.  We can see that the so-called mega-churches are little more than spiritual revolving doors, meeting the needs of an individual for a decade or two at most.  We hear, with some dismay, that the fastest growing group of “believers” is now the “Nones.”  You know, on forms when we are asked to check a box for our spirituality—Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Native American, Bahai, Hindu, etc., there is always a box marked “None of the above.”  For the first time in history, that box is growing faster than any of the others.  As strange as it may sound, I am not at all disheartened by this reality because my faith is not in the church as an institution.  My faith is in Christ and in God and in Spirit, and Spirit is doing a new thing all around us. 

                   Look back over nearly 3,000 years of religious and spiritual activity.  Every time, without fail, God’s great rummage sales have netted something new, some more relevant carrier of the message that God really, truly loves us humans just the way we are.  God is batting 1,000 on this! 

                   Interesting and important to notice: when God has a rummage sale, the old isn’t completely gone.  That is maybe where the rummage sale metaphor breaks down a bit.  The old continues, but in a new and different form, affected by the new.  God’s Great Rummage Sales, you see, leave traces of the old within the new.  For in reality, new spiritual movements don’t overshadow the old.  Nor do they necessarily destroy what came before.  Sometimes, both live side by side.  Sometimes, one goes underground and resurfaces centuries later.  With God, it is not a matter of either/or, but both—and. 

                   And so, I find the thought that we are living through another of God’s Great Rummage Sales to be deeply comforting as we maneuver these current chaotic spiritual waters.  Yes, the church as we know it is changing form.  Yes, the church of our childhood is no longer as vibrant as in our memories.  Yes, we have the good fortune to be living through a time of one of God’s Great Rummage Sales, and yes, God’s got this.  Spirit’s got this.  The resurrected Christ has definitely got this. 

                   Just like those earliest followers of Jesus, we may not recognize his presence with us…until…he takes the bread and blesses it and breaks it and gives it to each of us with his own breath breathing peace into our troubled souls.  And then our eyes are opened, and we begin to see the new thing we’ve been hearing about…springing from this broken bread…feeding us…nourishing us…giving us new eyes to see God’s hope through our own.  Do you see?  Can you hear?  There is a “trash-to-treasure” kind of transformation happening all around us…may it also happen within us as we eat here with ever opening eyes.

Amen and Blessed Be

2018-4-29 “When Regrets Distract”

“When Regrets Distract”

A meditation based on John 21:15-19

April 29, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Ancient wisdom says, “the road to enlightenment is long and difficult…”  There’s a clever, modern spin that’s been put on the same truth, and it goes like this: “the road to enlightenment is long and difficult…so bring snacks and a magazine…!”

                   The same could be said about this season of interim work.  We began—over two years ago—with eager smiles and long lists of what needed to be accomplished during this interim season.  Things that would help you prepare to gratefully receive your next permanent minister.  Of necessity, that work included some tidying up—tidying of dusty corners, cleaning up of storage rooms and closets, and the more complicated work of tidying relationships and paying special attention to how you live together in this community of faith. 

                   The doorway into that more spiritual cleaning was through a deep look at your history—shared together as one congregation over these past 16 years, and also looking before that time to notice what wounds still needed healing.  Interim work is thus often longer than initially expected.  And I want to congratulate you for staying with it.  It is my delight, as your temporary interim pastor, to notice as you do this work…what you’ve been about these past two plus years is the ongoing, never completed work of building Christ’s community…there is good work being done all around.  And so much food for bodies and souls all along this way.  My goodness, you people know how to be nourished and how to nourish others!  You seem to know, intuitively, that to travel this journey of the long interim season, means to travel with snacks and a magazine or two! 

                   So what is there to say about the scripture story today that would be helpful to you,

encouraging and also challenging, as you continue on this interim journey?  That is the question I asked Spirit as we sat together earlier in the week to prepare this message for today.  And what came from that conversation was to focus on the biblical story through the lens of regrets.  We all have them.  Peter had many.  And the story we’ve heard today, of the conversation between Peter and Jesus about those regrets, can offer us some new ways of healing past hurts, of dismissing those longstanding and no-longer-needed regrets.  Let’s look at the story again. 

[slide 1: vss. 15-16]

                   Peter was only a few days past the night when he denied Jesus three times.  Can’t you imagine, that when Jesus asked the first time, Peter might have gulped as he recalled that regretful night?  Then a second time…must’ve been like being called into the principal’s office…Peter knew where Jesus was leading…or so he thought.  Regret permeates this verse.  Peter’s regret, certainly, is front and center.  But also, Jesus’ reframing that regret with love.  And in particular, love in action.  Note that it is “after breakfast” when Jesus initiates the conversation with Peter.  Jesus first feeds Peter and the others.  Jesus first tends them.  Jesus, the consummate and creative teacher, himself first teaches the lesson by acting it out.  He cooks them breakfast.  And as they finish being themselves nourished, Jesus uses that precise moment after breakfast to talk with them about how to heal regret—regret that looms large and is a roadblock—and get on with life.  Love is that way forward.

[slide 2: vs. 17]

                   This next verse continues with Peter’s regrets and Jesus’ healing of them through the vehicle of love.  Again, Jesus offers Peter a way forward from the roadblock of his own regrets.  And that way forward is love.  Love in action.  Love that feeds the young ones and tends the elders and provides nourishment for all ages in between.  That is the way forward from regret that Jesus offers to Peter.  Here also, in this verse, we see some of the effect of Peter’s regrets in that he is upset.  Other translations of the same verse describe Peter’s reaction as “hurt,” “grieved,” “sad,” “sorry,” “distressed,” “felt bad,” “felt heavy,” “deeply hurt.”  All of these suggest remorse, regret—nothing we haven’t ourselves also felt.  Yes? 

                   We may wonder why Jesus repeated the same question three times.  Let’s remember the details of the “back story.”  A few chapters prior, Peter is the one with foot in mouth, denying he even knows Jesus.  The other disciples are the ones with fear written all over them, as they flee in the face of the Roman soldiers.  None of the characters, save Jesus, are present at the time in Jesus’ life when he most needs their consolation and compassion.  Yet, in the consummate example of putting regrets where they belong: in the past and not in the present—there is Jesus, cooking breakfast for the same disciples who had fled…tending and feeding them just because they are hungry and thirsty.  There is Jesus, engaging with Peter in conversational forgiveness, as once, twice, three times, they replace denial and regret with love in action.  “Yes, I love you…then feed my lambs…”  “Yes, I love you…then tend my sheep…”  “Yes, I love you…then feed my sheep…” 

                   Notice the presence of food as a way of serving others…notice how Jesus connects food with love in action.  “Do you love me?  Then feed, then tend, then feed…”  Following Jesus, as this story suggests, is about sharing food and drink.  Metaphorically, the story is about letting the past live where it belongs: in the past.  To do so, you reframe the regrets of that past with a frame of love in action now in the present.  That, my friends, leads you to a bright future. 

                   We can see in this story that Peter and the others faced emptiness.  They faced hunger and thirst.  They, like you, were on a type of interim journey—clear about the past and their past regrets, becoming clearer about the present with the living breathing resurrected Jesus, not yet clear about the future.  Sounds like this interim season, right??!!  They, like you, found nourishment in the most surprising of ways.

                   The Christ we seek to follow says it over and over again: all who are created in the image of God are loved by God and called by God to love and serve others.  Even good old Peter—with those rather large and looming regrets.  Peter was called by God to be the best Peter he could be; and Jesus saw that, and addressed Peter’s regrets that stood in the way of the call—one for one, one by one—framing each regret with love.  “Do you love me?”  Three penetrating repetitions of the same question—one for each of Peter’s earlier denials.  “Do you love me?”

                   Friends in Christ, that is what the living breathing resurrected Jesus does with any old regret you present to him.  He helps you reframe it with love.  And that reframing process is what we call healing.  The regret never completely disappears, but its thorniness, its ability to hurt you further, diminishes in the healing process.  I am learning that, in and through and by love, that healing process is itself nourished.  As I love and show love toward the very one or ones about whom I feel regret, then my own healing from that wound occurs.  Does that make sense?                         

                   Because, of all the healing stories of Jesus in the gospels, this one today may be one of the most difficult to comprehend.  Here, Jesus is showing a way to heal from spiritual wounds.  From those sometimes-lifelong regrets that we seem to think we must carry.  We are wrong.  God does not require us to carry regret.  In fact, regret gets in our way of moving forward.  Regret holds us, ties us to a past that is best placed where it belongs: in the past.  Regret binds us to that past, long beyond effectiveness.  Love reframes regret.  Love in action heals regret.  This is the medicine that the living breathing resurrected Jesus offers Peter in this miracle story today.  And friends, the same miracle is served up to you and you and you and all

of us by a God who loves you like a daughter, like a son. 

                   You see, my sisters and brothers in Christ, your job as Christians is not complicated, though it is sometimes fraught with challenges.  Your job is to tend and feed each of the lambs and sheep that enter this sheepfold known as Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista.  Your first job is not to just sit here and sing hymns and pray prayers and listen to sermons.  You know this, intuitively.  Your job, and mine, is to love Christ by loving our neighbor—all our neighbors—the babies, the toddlers, the children, the youth, the young adults, the parents and grandparents and elders—our job is to love them as we love ourselves.  For in Christ’s book, stated over and over again, true and honest and real love is love in action.  Feed the lambs…feed the young ones…  Tend the sheep…tend the elders…  Feed the sheep…nourish all the ages…

                   Christ calls all of us and each of us away from regrets and remorse, for they serve only to hold us back.  Christ provides the pathway that leads us forward, beyond regrets and remorse.  And that pathway is love.  Love in action.  Love that serves.  Love that is present in the moment of now.  “Do you love me?  Then feed, tend, feed.”


Amen and Blessed Be!


2018-4-22 “When Hungers Burn”

“When Hungers Burn”

A meditation based on John 21:1-14

April 22, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Years ago, I learned a classic church choir anthem called “Wachet Auf!”  Loosely translated from the German, it means “sleepers awake!”  And it references that parable Jesus tells of the 10 young women whose lamp oil did not last the night.  When I think of Wachet Auf, I chuckle still, for after listening to hundreds of sermons and sitting through countless church meetings, the advice to wake up when you’re about the work of God seems humorously appropriate!  Today, we’re going to wake up! 

                   Last year, you may recall, I taught you about a way of reading scripture that draws you in to its lessons through the vehicle of your own personal story.  I invite us to revisit that today.  “Lectio divina” is a Latin phrase meaning, “a divine reading of scripture.”  Lectio = text, scripture.  Divina = The Divine, God, Spirit, Christ.  Lectio Divina is a special style of reading scripture that has a lens focused to see where God is speaking through that particular story to this particular group of people.  In this morning’s scripture story, we again encounter the Living, Breathing Resurrected Jesus, and I invite you wake up and enter that story through your own. 

                   The exercise goes like this: you’ll hear the story from John’s gospel again—a total of three times, each time with a different prompt for you to contemplate.  In between the readings, there will be a bit of silence, followed by an opportunity for you to share with someone else near you, if you wish.  Understand?  Ready to give it a try?  First step: find a partner.  Someone you know already.  Someone you want to know better.  Move to sit next to them.  So take a couple of deep breaths, settle comfortably into your cushion, and focus your gaze on something in the sanctuary other than me.  If you wish, you may close your eyes.  Whatever helps you focus your ears for listening more deeply, do that now.

  1. As you hear the story this first time, listen for what the disciples hungered for and listen also for how those hungers were met…[Hear John 21:1-14, The Message Bible]

After Jesus had met Thomas and the others in the upper room, Jesus appeared again to the disciples, this time at the Sea of Galilee. This is how he did it: Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James and John, and two other disciples were all together.  Simon Peter announced, “I’m going fishing.”  The rest of them replied, “We’re going with you.”  They went out and got in the boat.  They caught nothing that night.  When the sun came up, Jesus was standing on the beach, but none of them recognized him.  Jesus spoke to them: “Good morning! Did you catch anything for breakfast?”  They answered, “No.”  He said, “Throw the net off the right side of the boat and see what happens.”  They did what he said. All of a sudden there were so many fish in it, they weren’t strong enough to pull it in.  Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Master!”  When Simon Peter realized it was the Master, he threw on his outer clothes, for he was stripped for work, and he dove into the sea.  The other disciples came in by boat, pulling along the net full of fish.  When they got out of the boat, they saw a fire, with fish and bread cooking on it.  Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught.”  Simon Peter joined them and pulled the net to shore—153 big fish!  And even with all those fish, the net did not rip.  Jesus said to them all, “Breakfast is ready.”  Not one of the disciples dared ask, “Who are you?”  They knew it was the Master.  Jesus then took the bread and gave it to them.  He did the same with the fish.  This was now the third time Jesus had shown himself alive to the disciples since being raised from the dead.

                   What did the disciples hunger for?  How were their hungers met?  Please turn to your neighbor; share with them what you heard in the story about the hungers of those disciples…

  1. Finish the thought you’re sharing, settle back into your cushion, take a few breaths. Now you’ll hear the same story a second time.  This time, as you listen again to the hungers of the disciples…think about: what do you hunger for today?  [Hear John 21:1-14, The Message Bible]

Again, sit with your same neighbor and share with them one thing you hunger for today…

  1. Finish the thought you’re sharing, settle back into your cushion, take a few breaths. Now, you’ll hear the same scripture story a third time.  I invite you to listen and imagine: what is God’s nourishment for you, what is God’s nourishment for this church?

          [Hear John 21:1-14, The Message Bible]

Please keep silence for a bit, and ponder, what is God’s nourishment for you, for this church?  Anyone care to share aloud?  [sharing…]

                   Today, in this scripture story, the earliest disciples encounter the Living, Breathing Resurrected Jesus.  He meets them at the point of their deepest hungers.  Yet, once again, the disciples at first do not recognize him.  We ought to be used to this by now.  Each story we’ve read, from Easter morning forward, has some element of surprise and shock, as Jesus, again and again, appears unrecognizable to his closest friends.  In last week’s story, you may recall, the disciples were hidden behind locked doors, motivated by fear; in today’s story, as we have seen, hunger moves them.  The hunger to eat and drink, certainly, but also a deeper hunger.  A hunger for something normal.  Hunger for the familiar tasks of their lives, pre-Jesus.  It is a hunger for them of boats and sea air and nets and fish and the working together with friends to haul in a productive catch.  There’s nothing like doing something routine, when our own hungers burn, and we are unsure what to do next. 

                   Their hungers drew those disciples to the familiar seaside of Lake Galilee, near where their story with Jesus had begun years before.  At a wedding in Cana, Jesus had performed that first miracle recorded in the Gospel of John.  And now, years down the road, the disciples’ story with Jesus has come full circle with an ending and another beginning.  Not knowing what else to do, motivated by a hunger for something familiar, these disciples return to their day jobs. 

                   As we look back on this snippet of their story, we have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, and we might question their decision…even though we can certainly appreciate the hungers that motivated them.  This time, it’s not just Peter, James and John who return to the boats.  It’s nearly the whole gang.  After a long night fishing, their nets are empty.  And from the shore, a stranger playfully calls out to them: “Did you try throwing the nets off the other side of the boat?”  These are men who were born on the water!  Yet the stranger on the shore plays with them.  Try again, he urges.  You can almost hear the cajoling in his voice.  Try again…try the other side…just sayin’…  As if they hadn’t already tried everything! 

                   Finally, as they haul in the biggest catch of their careers, Peter and one other catch on.  They look toward shore and recognize in the stranger the Risen Jesus.  Imagine the smile on Jesus’ face, as he flips hotcakes and cooks fresh fish and prepares to wow them one more time. 

When hungers burn, there is Jesus, cooking breakfast.  Always with this Jesus, or so it seems, there is food.  Food and drink given by him to those around.  Nourishment provided for burning hungers.

                   Readings like this one today, set in the midst of thirst and hunger, grief and doubt, they nudge us forward into the places where our own hungers are nourished.  So, as you go about your week this week, this story invites you to see Jesus in the face of a stranger, to hear Jesus in the sizzle of breakfast cooking, to find your own hungers met by this living breathing resurrected Jesus who shows up when we least expect and most need.  Wachet Auf—Wake Up, Sisters and Brothers!  And stay awake…for the resurrected Jesus is waiting with breakfast.


Amen and Blessed Be!


2018-4-15 “When Fears Loom”

“When Fears Loom”

A Meditation Based on Luke 24:36-48

April 15, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

(Give credit to the UCC website, “Sermon Seeds,” written by Rev. Kathryn Matthews)

                   Here we are…two weeks after Easter Sunday…2,000 years down the Christian road from those first disciples.  Yet here we are, plagued by some of the same fear and bewilderment they had, asking some of those same questions they asked, wondering, as did they, could this possibly be true?

                   Let’s start where they did…with our fears.  Every week, in this sacred space, we speak our prayers out loud.  With our outside voices, we name those for whom we are praying.  So let me ask you to do the same here and now: what do you fear?  [name those fears…]  Now imagine the living breathing resurrected Jesus standing here, in the middle of your fears.  Close your eyes, if you need to, in order to imagine such a thing.  Imagine Jesus here—the living breathing resurrected Jesus—right here, in the middle of your fears.  How does that change the tone of those fears?  What thoughts meander through your brain?  What emotions arise for you?  What questions does his presence engender?  I’m not looking for Sunday School answers here!  But honest ones.  Truly, if Jesus—the living breathing resurrected Jesus—appeared here with Community Congregational Church, and sat down right in the middle of all these fears, how might that holy presence change your fear?  As the Christian mystics say, let’s sit with that for just a moment…  And, hopefully, as we sit quietly, as we breathe gently, our fears will themselves diminish. 

                   We are so much like those earliest disciples, aren’t we?  We wonder about the things we’ve heard about this Risen Jesus.  We wrestle with the question, “What does all of this mean?”  Deep in your hearts, and maybe even deeper in your minds, you wonder, what could resurrection mean in your life?  Is this just a story from long ago, or could the presence of the living breathing resurrected Jesus profoundly change your life, the life of this congregation, as it did theirs?

                   The picture Luke paints of those earliest disciples is one of fear and confusion, framed by questions.  Maybe they weren’t burdened, as we are, by modern-day doubts or 21st-century fears, but they had fears enough of their own to confront.  Their heads and their hearts both needed help.  Perhaps like us, they were caught between head and heart—trying to explain resurrection while also experiencing resurrection.  No one then and no one now really knows how to “explain” the Resurrection, so the disciples long ago—and we, in our own day—can only try to describe a personal experience of it.  We can apply head and heart to this endeavor.  We read the story of the two disciples whose eyes kept them from recognizing the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus (even though their hearts were mysteriously burning as he spoke).   

                   This week’s passage follows closely, and speaks of an offer of peace, a request for food, a blessing and a commissioning—all from the living breathing resurrected Jesus.  And, apparently, this Jesus was not like anything they had ever seen before!  Not like Lazarus, a resuscitated corpse, and not even like Jesus was before the crucifixion.  On the one hand, locked doors didn’t keep him out, but on the other hand, he could still eat solid food, just like them, which is interesting.  In the face of this new reality, the disciples, (as one author notes rather humorously) the disciples now must embark on a steep spiritual learning curve…yeah, I’ll bet!

                   Encountering the risen Jesus is a powerful experience, and yet, in this story, once he’s done the very human, earthy thing of eating the fish, he does the same thing he did with the disciples on the road to Emmaus: he leads them in a Bible study.  The signs of breaking bread and eating fish (remember the feeding of the multitude?) combine with the study of the Word of God to help the disciples (and us) to make some sense of “all of this.”

                   I doubt that Jesus was proof-texting in that Bible study—you know, tripping through scripture and finding passages that would justify his place.  Rather, don’t you imagine the ever-imaginative Teacher Jesus drawing their attention back to Moses and the prophets, and revealing for them how rejection and suffering are part of the journey with God…an affirmation that God will be with you, always.  The Gospel tells us, the combination of seeing Jesus, of being with him, and the sharing of the Word together, opened the disciples’ hearts and minds.  It moved them beyond fear.  Then, as now. 

                   Many years ago, a book was written about the power of fear to put roadblocks in our way.  I read it, cover to cover, and then realized, with a laugh, that I could have saved myself a lot of time…for the title was the best part of the whole thing!  “Feel the Fear…And Do it Anyway…”  That was it!  The Gospel of the Living Breathing Resurrected Jesus in seven short words.  Feel the fear…and do it anyway. 

                   And what exactly is that “it” that we are to do?  I believe the many, many stories of the living breathing resurrected Jesus affirm that the “it” is not about believing something about corpses reanimating or trying to explain with our brilliant minds only, how in the world that garden tomb was empty.  After years of my own struggles with this living breathing resurrected Jesus, I know that the “it” is far more than an affirmation of faith.  The “it” into which you are each invited is an experience—ongoing and episodic—an openness of your hearts and our minds to see and hear and touch and use all those amazing God-given senses to experience the living breathing resurrected Jesus in your own life.  And the greatest news of all, I think, is that there is no one right way to have this experience.  Each of us will experience resurrected life in ways that make sense for our lives.  And those experiences shift and change over time, again, for each of us.  My experience need not be yours, nor yours mine.  And yet, miraculously, God meets each one of us through the actions of this living breathing resurrected One, whose breath enters your nostrils and whose heart beats through your own and whose passion for justice and righteousness marches on through your feet and your arms and your hands and despite your many fears. 

                   For you see, the experience of those early disciples who touched Jesus, put their hands in his wounds and heard his voice, fed his hunger, received his blessing, is the same experience of Christians today who feed the hungry, break bread together, hunger for God’s blessing, and respond to the call to turn our lives toward God once again.  Because of the Resurrection, then, everything is different for Christians, and not just on Easter Sunday. But for fifty-one more Sundays and all the weekdays in between.  As another author has noted, “new life never slips in the back door quietly or painlessly.”  It drives in every single day, and, if we are open to it, resurrected life challenges any tired old scripts in any tomb in which we might reside. 

                   What if, the physicality of this resurrected Jesus—even for a short time—the fact that he walked and talked and cooked and ate a piece of fish—all those physical parts of being human—what if Jesus was transferring those to his disciples?  And by extension, to us?  Jesus drew their attention to his hands and his feet, and can’t you just imagine how the disciples in that moment recalled the many ways the hands and feet of Jesus had been important in his ministry—healing people, breaking bread, traveling around with the good news.  Now, wounded and bruised, those same hands and feet were proof to the disciples that he had gone through the danger and not around it.  He had gone through the fear and not avoided it.  He had gone through the trauma and become stronger from it. 

                   Barbara Brown Taylor—one of my favorite Christian authors writing today—talks about this very aspect of the living breathing resurrected Jesus.  She invites us to see that we, his followers, bear hope for the world because we are the Body, and the Image, of the Risen Christ in the world today: “Not our pretty faces and not our sincere eyes but our hands and feet—what we have done with them and where we have gone with them.”

                   When I think about transformation, about eyes and hearts opened to understanding things that formerly we were closed to, I’m reminded of the powerful experience of watching the YouTube video of a Scottish woman, humble but hopeful, on a talent show several years ago.  Susan Boyle stunned a disbelieving crowd that had already judged her undeserving of their affirmation, because of worldly standards that determine how a “star” should look and speak.  Three notes into her song, however, there was a mass transformation of the crowd, their hearts moved by her exceptional voice, completely unexpected. The goodness of her gifts, given by God, made her radiantly beautiful in the eyes of those who watched and listened.  But the transformation was of their hearts and minds, not of her, for she left the stage the same beautiful woman who had walked onto it, claiming her dream of being a great musical star.

                   You see, in resurrected life, not only our fears are left in the dust.  Our preconceptions are, as well.  In resurrected life, we quickly learn that our safe categories simply do not work anymore.  Our labels and our judgments, in the light of resurrected life, are rendered obsolete.  The Apostle Paul says it so well, having his own pronounced experience of the living breathing resurrected Jesus on that dusty Damascus Road.  He later writes these words, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female…” and we could add a few categories of our own—there is no longer old or young, Asian or Anglo, gay or straight, short or tall—for, as Paul concludes, “all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Friends, that is resurrected life.  This is resurrected life, right here, within Community Congregational Church.  Despite your fears, regardless the categories that might have worked for you in the past, you know in your core (because you live it here) the living breathing resurrected life that exploded out of that garden tomb and now permeates all of life, is new, unrecognizable, addressing fear by moving you through it and way beyond it. 

                   So where are you, two weeks after Easter?  The power of experiencing the risen Jesus enabled the early Christians to endure persecution and trials, and it enables you to name your fears and to step through them.  I’ve noticed a tentativeness around here.  Sometimes it seems borne of fears of the past reappearing somehow.  Fears that a leader might disappoint you, or worse.  Fears that people might leave, or worse.  Fears that your best days are behind you and not ahead.  Those fears loom.  At other times, however, your tentativeness seems borne of a kindness and a gentleness that wants not to hurt another, and so waits for the other to speak, to act, to move, to decide.  That gentleness, sisters and brothers, is like that permeating light emanating from that long ago garden tomb.  The light of the living breathing resurrected Jesus.  Walk into that light—the light of gentleness, the light of kindness—and you, too, will breathe in all the resurrected energy you need to banish any fear.


Amen and Blessed Be

2018-04-08 “When Doors Are Locked”

“When Doors Are Locked”

A meditation based on John 20:19-31

April 8, 2018

Community Congregational Church of Chula Vista

Dr. Sharon R. Graff

* * * * *

                   Ordinarily, what happens behind locked doors, stays behind locked doors, at least, in polite company!  But the Risen Jesus doesn’t seem to follow that etiquette!  Resurrection Day isn’t even over.  It is the evening of that same day when the tomb was discovered to be unoccupied.  The disciples have sequestered themselves behind locked doors, behind locked fears, behind locked doubts, behind locked despair, behind locked confusion.  Behind those locked doors of spirit, body and mind, they are safe, or so they think.  Their fears and concerns are safely contained in that locked room; safe from the authorities who killed their Teacher.  Safe from daring to believe what Mary Magdalene and the other women told them.  Safe from The Teacher himself and all that he taught them.  There, behind those locked doors, the disciples can regroup, breathe for a moment, then resolve to get back to their formerly safe lives. 

                   The Risen Jesus, however, has other ideas…ideas not to be curtailed by fears…ideas of a vibrant future lived way beyond locked doors!  Life pushes through what appears to be dead, and the Risen Jesus does so, too.  Scripture says, “he appeared though the doors were locked.”  Rarely a slave to formalities, Jesus shows up, upsetting their illusion of safety.  Yeah, Jesus has a maddening habit of doing that, doesn’t he?!  Showing up, despite our best efforts to lock him and his teachings safely out of our way.  We are in a season, seven weeks in length, called Easter; it is one of my favorites in the Christian year for just that reason.  Jesus keeps showing up. Behind locked doors.  On the seashore.  Over a cookfire, making breakfast.  On a road between here and there.  Jesus shows up. 

                   Several years ago, a biblical theologian looked at that factor in the post-resurrection stories—the factor of Jesus showing up—and she concluded that resurrection was not a “one and done” experience.  Resurrection wasn’t limited to the early morning tomb.  Resurrection—the life experience of Jesus alive again, and yet in very different form—resurrection was and is an ongoing reality, for those first disciples…and for us. 

                   And isn’t it also interesting to notice in today’s story: when Jesus shows up, he isn’t recognized.  That’s worth pondering.  How could the very people who had spent years of life walking and talking with him, listening and watching Jesus work, how could they fail to see him when he showed up?  I’ve heard preachers perform all sorts of theological gymnastics trying to explain that conundrum.  What has come to make the most sense to me—as I live through various seasons of life, death, and life again—is that resurrected life looks quite different.  Resurrected life is unrecognizable, at least on the surface.  When one looks more deeply, however, at the actions and the verbs, then the Resurrected Jesus becomes apparent. 

                   In this story today, the noun is Jesus.  He came and stood among them.  They apparently didn’t recognize him until the verb, the action…“he showed them his hands and his side.”  Then they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Their seeing Jesus depended on his doing something familiar.  The other resurrection stories we’ll explore in the coming weeks are very similar.  Jesus shows up.  The disciples don’t recognize him.  Jesus does something familiar, and in the familiar action, they are able to see him for who he is now.  Resurrected.  Changed.  Unrecognizable, except through verbs. 

                   And that, friends, is where the story of Thomas takes on special interest.  Thomas fascinates me.  He is a man of action who sees first, then believes.  In this passage, Thomas goes where we know the other disciples want to go, but dare not.  He says what they are aching to say, but fear to speak the words.  He touches what they itch to touch.  Doubting Thomas, he has been called.  A bad translation from the Greek has brought us that word, “doubt.”  Truth be told, the Greek word for “doubt” occurs nowhere in this story.  Rather, the word, which is wrongly translated as “doubt,” literally means “unbelieving”… which significantly changes Jesus’ words to Thomas:  “put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

                   Keep in mind that this conversation originated a week before, behind those locked doors, when the disciples, sans Thomas see the risen Christ.  We are not told why Thomas was absent from that resurrection appearance…only that he was not there.  The other disciples, no doubt, tell Thomas about having seen and heard Jesus with them, and if you were in Thomas’ shoes, you can imagine how you might feel and react.  A week passes.  Still, for Thomas, there is no Jesus.  Thomas’ lack of sight is not due to his lack of clarity or his lack of faith.  He has made his needs very clear.  He must see the nail marks and feel the hole in Jesus’ side in order to believe.  While Thomas’ demands might make many of us cringe, or at least secretly judge Thomas as being overtly suspicious, the text doesn’t even hint at such judgment.  The demands of Thomas’ faith are just that—neither gruesome nor unusual—they are simply understood as what Thomas needs in order to believe.

                   Centuries later, developmental theorist Jean Piaget would describe concrete thinkers, and his description fits Thomas.  Thomas needs data, objects and specific events in order to resolve the puzzle of the resurrection.  The other disciples had had new life breathed into them on resurrection night.  Thomas had missed out.  He needs the breath of new life as well.  And so Jesus meets him on his own terms.  And when met, Thomas responds with one of scripture’s most impressive confessions of faith: “My Lord and My God!” he exclaims!  No, this dialogue between Jesus and Thomas is not about doubt and faith.  Initially, it is about believing and not believing.  Ultimately, it is about living in community. 

                   Living in community means acceptance for wherever you are on the journey of believing and not believing.  It means not being judged for your questions.  It means that questions about belief are not ends in themselves…rather these profound questions lead to a stronger and more cohesive community.  That is their purpose, and Jesus makes all of that very clear in this story.

                   The question Jesus asks of Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” and the follow up statements applauding those who believe without seeing, have been unfortunately interpreted as a divine put down.  It may be the easy answer to assume that Jesus is ridiculing Thomas for his lack of faith, but I think it sells short both Jesus and Thomas. 

Jesus does not appear to be interested in shaming Thomas, nor by extension, any of us who ask for a little proof from time to time.  Jesus, like the God he represents, offers himself in the form and with language the petitioner can understand. 

                   As one commentary writer has noted, “It is not touching Jesus that leads Thomas to his confession of faith, but [what brings about Thomas’ declaration of faith is] Jesus’ gracious offer of himself.”  Jesus, like God, gives Thomas and us what is needed for faith, and he gives it directly, simply, without rancor or judgment.  Why, we may ask?  I imagine so that he and we can move beyond “faith matters” to what really matters in the community of faith.  Think about how the original community would have or could have been distracted by faith matters… questions such as: Did Jesus really rise up from the dead?  Was the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost—50 days after the resurrection—or on resurrection evening as John’s gospel suggests?  Did Jesus ascend to heaven before, after, or during this prolonged stay on earth? How many angels can really fit in the tomb?  We are no different than those early disciples.  We can become distracted if not obsessed with matters and questions of faith.  And in so doing, we may never really get to what matters in the community of faith. 

                   This story concludes with the words, “There are many things that Jesus did…these are written that you may believe…and that, through believing, you may have life…”  Ultimately, this story is about life!  Not about a list of beliefs or a series of unbeliefs.  This story is about moving beyond locked doors of belief and unbelief, and through locked doors of questions of faith, so that your eyes are opened to see resurrected life—new life—right here within the verbs of community. 

                   Bruce Epperly, a process theologian, author, and pastor, speaks of Thomas, not as a doubter, but as a hero.  To paraphrase Epperly’s comments, even though Thomas does not experience resurrection day, Thomas stays with the other disciples…  When he was hearing wild and amazing stories of the Risen Jesus, Thomas could have left for home and abandoned the group altogether, but he stayed!  And that is the point precisely…Thomas’ faith reminds us that living in community in spite of our questions, remaining in community through seasons of believing and not believing, is a strong and sure way of finding truth that will sustain us.  For in community, we do not have to have all the truth ourselves.  In community, we do not carry the load alone.  In community, we can lean on the faith of others when ours is not as strong, for in community, God’s love depends neither on our orthodoxy or our certainty, nor will God’s love be diminished by our doubts or our questions.  For in community love takes root and nurtures.  Behind locked doors.  Despite and because of courageously asked questions.  Through accepting and being accepted on the journey of faith, no matter your current location.  In community—the kind of community Jesus was breathing into existence so long ago—Jesus breathed a way of peace, a way that invites us to move from fear, to move from confusion, to move through unbelief and belief; to move today into life…resurrected life… unrecognizable except for the verbs.  For that we say, “Thank you, Thomas, for persisting beyond your own locked doors—le chaim—to life!”


Amen and Blessed Be!