April 28, 2009

1. Eleven Is Not Twelve, and Thomas Needs An Attitude Adjustment Last week, on Easter Sunday, Latah Valley hosted approximately 80 people at our 6:30 sunrise service and exactly 100 people at 10 o’clock. We are genuinely enthused and grateful for each person who joined us for worship then. And this morning we are equally grateful. But I have to tell you something: it might as well have been “eleven.” “Eleven” is the number that’s provided in Matthew 28:16. And “eleven” is the two-digit symbol that represents who’s left among the original disciples of Jesus. “Eleven,” therefore, is not twelve and consequently presents a sad reminder that Judas Iscariot is not present. Now, you and I may not have liked Judas anyway. We may have been glad to see him exit the stage. But, if by choosing the original twelve peasant fishermen, not to mention the assorted zealots and random tax collector—if by choosing them in the first place—Jesus had intended to re-enact or to re-configure the twelve tribes of Israel (that are mentioned in Genesis 49:28 and Exodus 24:4), what we have now is incomplete. Eleven is incomplete. Eleven is not finished yet. And what’s even more startling is that among the eleven who are left to greet and to meet the resurrected Jesus, Matthew 28 says that “some doubted.” So, let’s re-cap. At this very crucial and monumental moment in human history, we not only do not have our full complement of disciples, but among the crowd are those who are not even fully on-board. What is this about? In the last church that we helped start, there happened to be a guy, named Tom. Tom, of course, was unrelated to the Thomas who is mentioned in John 20. But listen to what Tom said and did. During one of our first Vacation Bible School programs, we were in a tent in the middle of an open field, and we were short of craft supplies. So, when Tom’s group of children needed the crayons, he marched over to one of the other adult volunteers and in front of the five year old kids, he said, “We need these now, and so I’m taking ‘em.” Now, in weird times of miscommunication, my tendency has always been to confront. I confront and clarify what I perceive to be the problem attitude and let the chips fall where they may. But, you see, this morning I am moved to hear what Jesus says to that incomplete group of eleven disciples, including Thomas. He says, Go! He tells them, All authority has been given to me… therefore, go! And, you see, as they go and as those unruly Galileans get going, teaching and baptizing their way into the world, their message reaches all the way to here. 2. Start Here And Hear To Start Here is the place to start. And I mean that in two ways: first, we have to acknowledge the geographical presence of people here; and second, we have to let them in. We have to hear what the local people in our community have to say. Dalton Conley has a book out, called Elsewhere USA, and the premise of the book is that we’ve created a society in which people are always elsewhere. Either they e-mail or twitter or call people who are somewhere else, or they physically will get the car, hop on the plane and go there. Elsewhere is always better than here, and consequently the people who are immediately surrounding us become a means for us to get somewhere else. Now, let me offer this brief theological leap. If, in fact, Jesus has been raised from the dead, and if in fact he showed up in a specific place at a specific time in history, then each and every place where he is proclaimed—each and every place—becomes holy. And if a place becomes holy in Christ, we have to pay attention to it. Thomas Merton describes a moment when he stood at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in Louisville, KY. Walnut has since been re-named, Muhammad Ali Street. But in 1959, he writes, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved these people, that they were mine and I theirs… It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation… Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more greed” (Conjectures Of A Bystander, p. 158). You see, it all starts here. And for us today HERE is the meadow, next to a creek, next to a highway, running north and south, around which are scattered houses and businesses. Who are the men, women and children who come in and out of these buildings? Today, we declare that first and foremost, they are loved by God. And that nothing they say or do can expunge that identity from them. Plus, we are incomplete without them. You and I, by the grace of God, are on a journey of discovery. The purpose of the journey will be to discover who we really are, and the people of this place will help us. “Christ plays in ten thousand places/lovely in limbs and in the features of faces.” Gerald Manley Hopkins writes these poetic words as a way of describing the experience of HERE, but also the movement to THERE. 3. Go There While Remembering Here Jesus, as you recall, has this bizarre encounter with Thomas. Thomas had doubted, and so when Jesus returned he instructed him to put his finger in the wounds that had been inflicted upon him in his death. Those wounds are still there. But then, listen to what Jesus says next: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe…” A missionary to Kenya, named Vincent Donovan, went to live among the Maasai people. He went there to tell them the story of the crucified and resurrected Jesus, but what he discovered as he traveled from the United States to east Africa is that he and the Maasai are changed together. After years of preaching and teaching with hardly any tangible results or real converts, an elder of the tribe told Donovan that they did not search for him as a priest to come to them. The priest actually followed them into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where their cattle were, into the hills where they took their cattle for water, into their villages and into their homes. Donovan told them about God and how the Massai must search for him. But then, something strange happened. The elder said that it was not the Maasai who had searched for God, but God who had searched for the Maasai. Donovan took that conversation to heart. And later he met up with a young warrior who had spent three lonely days perched at the top of a volcanic mountain where the lava simmered. The young warrior, named Sikii, had gone out to that remote place to see God, but nothing happened. Dejected he returned to the village as if coming home empty-handed from a hunt. He had nothing to show and nothing to tell his people. And that’s when Donovan, inspired by his earlier conversation, spoke up. He said, “you have been searched for Engai… All this time he has been searching for you. He has hungered for you… We are not the lion looking for God. God is the lion looking for us. Believe me, the lion is God (p. 239). Now, I’m telling you this story about Vincent Donovan and the Maasai because of what I believe God is doing with Latah Valley. Today—with the eleven disciples from Galilee we have heard the message. That message, being heard by us here, must be lived out with the people in this specific area. But then, as we live out the gospel here, God also sends us there, and there and there.


1.  The Linen Wrappings Are Part of Death’s Way


In case you hadn’t noticed, death has a way.   Death has a way of getting the last word.   And I don’t like that about Death.  How about you?   Death has a way of making us over-anxious.   Death has a way of causing despair.   Death has a way of disappointing family members and friends.   Death has a way of hindering hope and of bringing an abrupt end to hopeful movements.  Death has a way of getting the last word, and I don’t like it.  


Then again, why argue?   Life’s too short.   And on the positive side of the spectrum, death has a way of easing the pain of those who suffer.  For a soldier in battle, death can be perceived as honorable, even glorious.   For the therapist and for the one engaged in therapy, death can be grieved and eventually accepted as a part of life.    It can be managed by funeral directors and sterilized by hospital staff.   Death can lead to the inheritance you’ve been counting on.   And if you’re not too fond of “rage against the dying of the light,” death can go easy on you in an instant.  But of all the convoluted stuff that we associate with Death’s Way, the linen wrappings of John 20 have got to be the worst.


The linen wrappings are a part of Death’s Way.   According to chapter 19, verse 40, they indicate the customary means by which all Jews of the first century would be buried.   But the very fact that this material is found by Peter and the other disciple—that detail alone—

symbolizes a radical shift.  Moreover, the very fact that Jesus apparently left those linen wrappings behind in the tomb—that detail alone—symbolizes that he’s going around the world totally unwrapped and flouting Death.   In fact, the way that you and I might interpret the linen wrappings of John 20, verses five and six, is that Jesus cannot stand death getting the last word anymore.   From this point on, if death has something to say, it had better say it and shut up… because the conversation about life is about to continue.


The conversation about life is about to continue.  



2.  The Resurrection of Jesus Proposes An Alternative Way


I once had a conversation with a history teacher in high school.   He happened to be a very intimidating history teacher, very much concerned with integrity and putting his students to the test.   Anyway, I forged his name.   For some inexplicable reason, I scribbled his name on a library pass; I wanted to get out of study hall and work in the library.  So I forged my teacher’s name.   Anyway, when the librarian recognized that it wasn’t the signature of Mr. Parrish, she asked me.   When I lied and told her that it was in fact his own hand-written name on that pink slip of paper, I could almost hear my death sentence.   Scott Pyle Is Guilty of Forgery in the first degree.   Will there be any consequences?   The next day, Mr. Parrish asked to see me and we had that conversation about life.   And that’s when he said something that almost devastated me.   He said that he thought he knew who I was, but that now he no longer knew.   And then my teacher took out his linen handkerchief.  His linen cloth handkerchief.  He took it out of his pocket along with my forged library pass, and he blew his nose.  


Now, you may not think very much of my story, but Jesus now has me wondering.   The resurrection of Jesus proposes an alternative way—a different way of remembering our lives.   You see, if it’s true, then the most important opinion in the Universes does not belong to your high school history teacher, or to lawyer, or to your doctor.   It belongs to the One who evidently left the linen wrappings in the tomb.  


And suppose, for a moment, that every person who believes in the crucified Jesus has forged his signature.   Just suppose we want his pass—his pass on life, his pass on health, his pass on prosperity, his pass into heaven, but we desperately want to avoid talking to him.   Well, it that’s the case, there is an image in John 20 that should help to ease our minds.  Jesus is not going to pull the linen wrapping out of his breast pocket.   He has left them behind.   Death will not have the last word, and neither will the sting of death, which is sin.  



3.  What A Church Like Latah Valley Can Do If The Easter Event Is True!!!


Now, there’s an interesting piece of information in John’s account of the resurrection that’s missing from Matthew, Mark and Luke, and that happens to be the piece about Peter and the other disciple running to the tomb.   Verse four almost describes it like a footrace, with the beloved disciple beating out Peter at the last minute.   Now, that’s fascinating to me because Peter has always represented that quintessential follower of Jesus.  For example, he is the first one to make this bold declaration that Jesus is the Messiah when everyone else is still scratching their heads and picking their noses.   And so, why is it that the so-called “other disciple” gets the glory at the empty tomb?   And why is it that he arrives at that miraculous place first, that he sees the linen wrappings, but doesn’t go in immediately?  Could it be that he needs time?   That he needs time to process the details?   That he needs time to reflect and to ponder deeply the cross purposes of God? 


In the movie, Reign On Me, starring Adam Sandler, the main character has lost his wife and his children to the tragic events of 9/11.   That, of course, would be devastating enough.  But what makes the situation even more painful is that the deceased wife’s parents want to bring their son-in-law pictures.   They want to bring him little momentos—maybe some little linen things with the kids’ names stitched on them, and he’s just not ready.  He’s not ready to let Death have the last word.



Anyway, when I saw that film, it helped me imagine what a church like Latah Valley can do if the Easter Event is true.   If the Easter Event is true, we don’t have to be exactly like the rock upon which the church was founded.  We can be like John, the other disciple, the one who knows that he was loved by Jesus, but he’s not sure yet how to love him back.   Let the conversation continue, he seems to say at the entrance to the empty tomb.  Let the conversation about life continue in spite of death, even to spite death… and let it continue here at Latah Valley, which used to be known as Hangman Valley.   Let it continue, at cross purposes with Death, here.  


[That’s Not The Question…]


Mark 16:1–8


The women at the tomb really have no choice.  


Yes, they had a choice when they got up that morning.  They had a choice when they ventured from their homes to that place of death.  They had a choice when they laid out their anointing oils and the spices.   After the experience of the death of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome clearly had a choice and no one would have blamed them if they simply rolled over in their beds and tried to forget that they ever knew a man, named Jesus.


But, you see, once there, on the site of where the corpse of the Nazarene was supposed to be, once there, they really had no choice.   Verse eight says they were “seized.”   And people who are seized really have no options left to them.  


The live camera on one of those candid cops programs caught the whole thing as it happened.   A young woman had been placed under arrest for drug possession.   The police officer, however, put her in the cruiser on the passenger side, front seat.   Realizing that the keys were left in the ignition, the suspect then promptly slid over and started to drive down the highway.  With the camera capturing everything, the viewers could overhear her talking to herself.   She was saying, “What am I doing?   What am I doing?   God help me, what am I doing?”


Now, I hope and pray that you never make the choices made by that unfortunate soul.   By the way, she eventually did pull over and submit to her arrest.  But what I think the episode suggests is that people can be seized.   Things can come over us.   Emotions can blindside us…  And the only question is—are the feelings that overtake us meant for our good or not?   Can God—the author of goodness—actually take “terror and amazement” and make those wild, goose-pimple sensations work to our benefit?    


Lillian Daniel describes another experience with the police.  Only this one took place during a peaceful protest against racism.   The protestors had been arrested while singing songs of praise.  And, as the officers hauled them off to prison for the night, one of them said to Lillian Daniel.   When you all we’re singing, I didn’t know who was seizing who


Now, I can’t pretend to know what was going through the minds of those women from two thousand years ago.   None of us can.   But, you see, if the resurrection of Jesus is true, dearest God, I don’t want the choice of believing or not believing, of hoping or not hoping.   I want to be seized.   I want God to decide that I belong to him, and that you belong to him and that the whole world belongs to him and that he will not let us go.   I want him to take us by the scruff of our ragamuffin souls and not let us go.





1.  We Define Success In Terms of Achieving Goals


If we were to take a step back and read the story of Jesus with fresh eyes I wonder if we would read it as a success story.   Success stories are typically neat and tidy.   Success stories wrap up the loose ends.   Success stories have a moral lesson that we can imitate.   Success stories tell us how to achieve certain goals, how to dream and realize one’s dreams.   Success stories might even start with a certain cryptic piece of advice.   A word, like “Plastics,” for example, might make the future for a recent college graduate.   On the other hand, if success depends upon our involvement with in the business of plastics, we may want to reconsider what we mean by success in the first place.


This, you see, is where Jesus comes in.   If Jesus were a plastic Jesus, you and I could make and mold him in the way we wanted, and if we wanted Jesus to help us with our business, or help us with our family relationships or help us with our health and fitness, we could make Jesus do that.   But, listen for a moment to what “some of the people of Jerusalem were saying” (in the first century):

“Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill?  And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him!  Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah?  Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from…”


Yes, at the end of the day (on Palm Sunday or any other day), Jesus will not be manipulated like a Messiah, made by Mattel.  And if it’s success that we want, it may be prudent for us to re-define.

2.  The Bible Is Filled With Peaks and Valleys


Given the fact that the Bible is filled with many peaks and many valleys—with many cycles of apparent closeness to God and then times of separation from God—how might we re-define success?


Last summer, you may recall, Sheryl and I met up with some family at Eaton’s Ranch in Wyoming.   And once we had settled into our cowboy boots and our cowboy hats, we planned for a week of horseback riding on any number of trails that would traverse creeks, climb steep hills or span wide open prairies.   That’s what we planned.   And yet, here’s my most memorable experience.  I mounted my horse and gave him kick to go forward.  Eventually he moved, following the other horses in this long parade of hooves in the mud.   But then, as the sun began to sink beneath the horizon, and as we traveled further and further away from the barn, my horse suddenly stopped in his tracks.   He actually turned around, and refused to go in the direction that I wanted him to go.   And that’s why, I think, Jesus chooses a donkey as his mode of transportation.


A donkey is not the kind of beast that you ride on vacation.   Nor is it the kind of noble steed upon which you claim a successful completion of your stated mission.   A donkey is something that Jesus rides because he knows that God’s Story is filled with many peaks and many valleys.  And what proved successful in the past may not prove successful in the future.  Not with God.  Not with the God of Israel.

3.  The Goal of God’s Messiah Is Future


Tim Keel, in his book on Intuitive Leadership, alludes to how unpredictable God is when it comes to how we try to predict success, or how we try to harness it for the future.   He notes, first of all, the way in which Joshua achieves a victory in battle with the help of the ark of the covenant.   Joshua 3:10—11 says,

“By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizites, Girgashites, Amories and Jebusites:  the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan.”


So, you see, that’s success.   And in this instance, success is epitomized by this ornate, sacred box, in which the glory of God apparently resides.   But, look what takes place in First Samuel, chapter four, when, centuries later, Israel marches into battle with the Philistines.   First Samuel, chapter four says that although they carried the ark with them, “there was a very great slaughter.”   Same mode of success, different outcome.   Likewise, in Numbers 21, the people are being bitten by poisonous snakes.    God instructs Moses to then make a bronze statue of a snake and as the people look at it they are saved.   Well, in 2 Kings 18:4, David breaks into pieces that same bronze serpent that Moses had made.   So, there it is again.   What once had been successful, in one context, is not so successful at a later point in history.   And my point in reviewing these four passages is to suggest that Jesus knows this.   Jesus knows the ups and the downs.   But he also knows that towering above everything, the goal of God’s Messiah is future.   Always future.

4.  Let The Future Kingdom Nurture The Present Parade


“The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.  So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, ‘Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!”


You see, the goal of God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed, God’s Christ, is future.   Blessed is the one who comes, who comes, who is always coming.   But this is not—let me repeat—is NOT the pie in the sky, sweet by and by, things will get better when we die kind of future.   This future kingdom actually impinges upon the present moment.   That’s why Jesus can say things like, “The kingdom of God is among you, or within you” in Luke 17:21, but then also declare to Pontius Pilate in John 18:36, “my kingdom is not from here.”  It’s not from here, but it’s coming to here.    


Now, I have this weird thing that I used to say to my children as they were nursing.   As they were nursing and waiting to be fed at their mother’s breast—I would sing, “She’ll be coming round the mountain.”   I would sing that song, playing with the words, so that Ian and Philip could be nurtured by the future.  I would sing, “She’ll been kissing Ian Andrew when she comes…  She’ll be holding Philip Allen when she comes.”   Anyway, I don’t know if that waiting scarred our kids for life.   But I do believe that something like that happens with Jesus on Palm Sunday.   Think about it.  From his vantage point in the parade, Jesus can anticipate being slaughtered, and that doesn’t sound like success to me.  

5.  How Will Latah Valley Succeed?  By Riding The Donkey


But what if I were to tell you that the Latin root word for success is closely related to succor, which refers to nurture, aid or the advance of one party to offer support to another?   If that’s true, then it is possible to count as success those everyday moments when we let the future kingdom of God nurture the present parade of life and death.   And, if you were to ask me how Latah Valley will succeed, I will say that we will succeed by riding the donkey.   Not necessarily the same donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem.   But whatever that thing is that keeps us humble and close to one another.


Yesterday, after the radio program, I joined Mikel and Sheryl as they passed out postcards at the Latah Creek Plaza.   Mikel said that it wasn’t going well and most people passed on the invitation.    But there was a brief encounter that I had with a woman outside the Trading Post.   She approached the entrance to the market with her eyes cast down to the asphalt.   She looked tired and lonely.   But when I extended to her the invitation to Easter Sunrise, she smiled.  She said, “This is the best thing that’s happened to me today.”


Ah, success!