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Otis Moss III on Prophetic Preaching

I was privileged to be part of a class in prophetic preaching led by the Rev. Otis Moss III of the famed Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

The following blog entry was written by a classmate.

Otis Moss III on Prophetic Preaching.

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Separating the Weeds from the Wheat

Sermon preached at Epiphany United Church of Christ, July 20,2014

Scripture: Psalm 139 Matthew 5:38-48

I can see the headlines now:  God’s kingdom is full of weeds! The Almighty blames the devil, but declines to have the weeds removed.” Sidebars include, “Congress calls for hearings on delay of weed-pulling,” and “President sends in FBI to identify and detain saboteur of wheat crop.”

Yeah. We don’t like weeds, especially in our food crops. Those weeds might be poisonous, we’d better have the wheat labelled, “Warning, this wheat was grown in a field containing weeds.”

I suppose you could say I’ve been spending too much time reading the satirist Andy Borowitz. His latest entry: “Boehner drops Obama lawsuit; says it would mean doing something.”

Reading Borowitz and watching Jon Stewart have warped my perceptions. Or maybe I’ve just been reading and hearing too many news stories about the imperfections of the world. I identify much too strongly with the servants in the parable who want to pull up the weeds. In fact, as I read the usual commentaries in preparation for preaching on this text, I focused so sharply on the weeds that at first I skimmed over the opening line.

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.

This is one of several parables that Matthew has Jesus telling the crowd along the lake shore while he sits in a boat just offshore. They’re all about the kingdom of heaven. Weeds in heaven?

No. Commentators say that in the parables that Luke and Matthew have in common Luke quotes Jesus as saying the kingdom of God and Matthew substitutes kingdom of heaven to follow the Jewish tradition of not saying the name of God out loud (or writing it). So it’s the kingdom of God, or as we who want to use inclusive language say, the reign of God, or the rule of God to lose that male king part. Lately I’ve read some people (I think from New Zealand) use the Commonwealth of God.

Sorry to get so pedantic, but I wanted to remind myself and you that Jesus was talking mainly about this kingdom or commonwealth of God’s, not some hereafter world with pearly gates — not that there’s anything wrong with pearly gates. It’s just not the whole story about the kingdom or commonwealth of God.

All through chapters 12 and 13, Matthew’s been writing about Jesus saying this commonwealth is near. “The kingdom is at hand,” he says. I’ve come to believe, along with others, that this kingdom is both now and still-to-come. And we see the split nature of this reign of God in this parable. Jesus says The kingdom is like… but then he also mentions the harvest time as being the end of the age. So it’s both now and to come.

In this part of Matthew, Jesus’s speeches and parables are interspersed with people questioning him, trying to back him into a corner with “gotcha” questions, trying to get him to say something that they could twist and exploit. Things haven’t changed all that much, have they? There always seem to be a lot of people wanting to tear down and heckle people who want to increase God’s love and God’s justice in the world.

So here, in one of his longer descriptions of the coming rule of God, Jesus says it has weeds in it.  Well, it does, doesn’t it? Our world is filled with imperfections. It’s filled with imperfect people, people who do unspeakable things to each other, many times hurting each other in the name of God.

Just like the servants, we can see these weeds in God’s field, whether they’re other people or our own imperfections. But they’re so closely bound together with the good wheat, that it would take a lot of work to tease apart the good plants from the bad and even then, we might damage the wheat. Besides, until harvest time the weeds look a lot like the wheat, especially when you get to the level of the root.

It’s a better plan, says the owner of the field, to wait until harvest, when the good grain of the wheat plant will stand out from the weed. Also I interpret that the owner of the field doesn’t plan to pull up the weeds by the root even then. He’ll just have the harvesters cut the weeds at the base, and the ears of wheat from higher on the stalk.

But here’s the biggest part of the lesson for me, if I identify with the farm hands who first notice the weeds. That is, I don’t get to decide what’s a weed and what’s not. Not now, while the plants are growing and not at harvest time, when the harvesters — who we’re later told represent angels — will be instructed to separate the two kinds of plants.

This parable is rich and can be interpreted in many ways. It has a lot of room for shifting and viewing from different angles. I’d say the scholars and preachers I consulted are about evenly divided that the good and bad seeds are different people, or that the good and bad seeds are found in each of us. Either way, it’s hard for the servants to tell which is which, and Jesus seems to be saying that you can’t really tell until you see what fruit the plant produces.

And even then, Jesus is not suggesting that it’s our job to separate the weeds from the wheat. Judge not, that you be not judged, that’s also in Matthew, chapter seven.  “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

I’ve preached before on the difference between being good and being pure, and how scripture seems to sway back and forth between those who think you please God by pious acts of purity and those who think you please God by peaceful acts of justice. Jesus himself gives guidance for which is most important by citing the two most important commandments, love God and love one another.

But most of us try to do a little of both, don’t we? We try to be pious and respectful, and we try to show love by seeking justice. And sometimes we don’t try very hard, or we don’t try at all.

I almost titled this sermon, “Sometimes I feel like a weed, sometimes I don’t.” If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we’re as imperfect as the field we’re growing in.

Oh, I see I’ve switched identifications. Before, I was a farm hand. Now I’m a plant in the field. Jesus said in his explanation of the parable that the good seeds were sown by the Son of Man, which is what he often called himself. And the weed seeds were sown by the evil one.

Some people seem to be quite certain who the weeds are. Or they’re not at all worried about killing the wheat stalks to get at them. Last week I took a class in Public Ethics at a seminary in Chicago. I read a book about genocide and the author said that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia actually had a saying, “It is better to arrest ten people by mistake than to let one guilty person go free.” That’s kind of backwards from the way we want our justice system to work here, isn’t it?

But we don’t have to look at Cambodia in the mid 1970s to find weeds entangled with good grain.

We can look at the Middle East, with its conflicts and American involvement. Rabbi Susan Talve just came back from Israel and posted a plea for understanding on all sides. She said,

No one is more critical of Israel than Israelis. As progressive Americans I am not asking you to give your support blindly to either side. I am also not asking you to stop caring. I am asking you to recognize the many complex narratives that make up the situation that exists today that make it impossible and dangerous to take sides. I am asking you to believe with me that even though peace in a completely unstable region that is surrounded by Lebanon and Syria, Iraq, Iran and Jordan may seem impossible, because we are talking about these two peoples Israelis and Palestinians, it is possible. It will take time, it will take work, but we have to believe it is possible and by not sliding into predictable, over simplified rhetoric that takes sides we can be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Maybe it should be no surprise that nations are composed of good grain and noxious weeds. Because each of us has both weeds and wheat intertwined in our field. In my introspective moments, I wonder, is my life producing nutritious wheat or noxious weeds? Or both? How will I get rid of the weeds? Should I get out my Roundup spray right now and try to free myself from weeds?

Uh uh. I may not be a very productive gardner, but I believe Jesus when he tells me that’s not my job. As the psalmist said in Psalm 139, God has searched us and knows us through and through. We can’t escape this knowledge, we can’t fool God. But that’s OK, because, as the psalmist says, God’s right hand holds us fast. The last verse of the psalm asks God to “search me and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts. See if I follow the path of evil, and lead me in the way of eternal life.” Again, I am resisting the interpretation that this is about heaven after we die, but more of a plea to be guided into right living here and now.

One of the commentators I read on Jesus’s parable suggested that God, using angels as God’s messengers, will remove the weeds from our souls, as in verse 41: they will weed out of God’s kingdom everything that causes sin.” And then, this commentator points to verse 43, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.”

Ah, but that interpretation leaves out a few words. The full verse is  “They will weed out of God’s kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And only then will the righteous “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

So who’s going to be weeping and gnashing their teeth? Passages like this make me squirm. I, who believe in an inclusive Jesus and an inclusive God, what am I to make of  evil doers being thrown into a fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”? What happened to “I got wings, you got wings, all God’s children got wings”?

If I think of the end times at all, I confess I feel more inclined to think of a song in the musical comedy, Finnian’s Rainbow. “On that Great Come-and-Get-it-Day. Won’t it be fun when worry is done and money is hay.” No gnashing of teeth there. But Jesus and several prophets warn that some people should fear judgment day. It’s not gonna be a fun day for some people.

The best explanation I have found, one that I can sort of trust judging from reading some of his stuff, comes from a blogger, Steve Cooke, from Sydney, Australia.  His explanation of the right-here-right-now nature of the kingdom as well as it being in the future matches my own understanding. In this particular post he examines the uses of the phrase gnashing of teeth in Matthew and Luke and he finds that often it is aimed at the self-proclaimed elite who focus on purity rather than love and who are more interested in proving Jesus false than listening to what he says. Steve said this:

“Something you’ve hopefully already noticed from reading earlier posts on this blog is that when Jesus told stories or parables about the kingdom He wasn’t always speaking of some future time in the Age to Come. Most of Jesus’ kingdom-sayings were about the here-and-now, and how kingdom-people should prepare for the Age to Come. Of course, some of His stories were about the future, such as the one in Matthew 13 (our passage today) where He said “this is how it will be at the end of the age.” The context will determine whether Jesus is speaking about the here-and-now or the age to come.

(still quoting Steve) So it is that the religious purists who will be rejected “at the end of the age” will go away angrily “gnashing their teeth” with rage because that is how they behave now. Throughout history we have seen “religious” people directing their anger against other believers who don’t measure up to the standards imposed by the purists. The same is evident today.

Putting this together, Steve says, we see that the idea behind this expression is that those who are apart from God attack each other and try to tear each other, much like a pack of dogs fighting over a carcass. Without love there is just hatred and envy. Those who do not live by Jesus’ teachings on love and grace bite and tear each other. Those who live according to God’s way help others, rather than tearing them down. In these stories of Jesus we are being told that the time will come when they will be left to themselves to tear each other apart. We don’t have to wait until “the end of the age” to see this principle fulfilled. Communities, denominations and churches [and I would add, nations] which splinter and divide do so because they are obsessed with their own standards of doctrinal purity or so-called holiness rather than reaching out in love to those who are in need of God’s kingdom, and in the process they tear each other apart.”

Isn’t that well said? I probably ought to read more Steve Cook and maybe less Andy Borowitz, at least for sermon prep.

What I learn from Steve’s vision of those gnashing their teeth is that for whatever reason, those who willingly follow the evil one or do evil, rejecting love — it’s for suckers, you know — are creating their own commonwealth right here and now as well as in the future. A commonwealth where they can tear each other apart.

The good seed, on the other hand, is producing good heads of grain. Now I’m going to quote one of my favorite biblical scholars, John Pilch, who has published 14 books on the cultural world of the bible:

“The landowner knows that the wheat is strong enough to tolerate the weeds’ competition for nutrition and irrigation. After the harvest, the landowner will not only have grain for his barns, but extra, unanticipated fuel for his needs. Instead of shaming this landowner, the weed strategy has backfired and shamed the enemy. The landowner and his servants have the last laugh. The enemy bent on shaming others is shamed instead!

The “something other” or “something more” of this parable may well be the landowner’s refusal to retaliate, to get even with the enemy. In a society dedicated to revenge, the landowner’s victory by seeming to do nothing is a powerful lesson.

Pilch continues, “The confidence of the landowner that his wheat will survive the effect of the weeds is worth pondering. A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness could be a powerful weapon against rampant, senseless violence. It has worked before in history, and could work again if given a chance.”

So putting these mixed metaphors together, of the weeds and the gnashing of teeth, we see that bad seed produces bad fruit, or no fruit at all, and that those who function in a kingdom of evil will conduct their lives here and now and in the future in a way that produces weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Whereas the good seed produces good fruit, and those who grow in the commonwealth of god will conduct their lives here and now and in the future in a way that causes them to be gathered into God’s barn where the righteous — those who seek justice — will shine.

For those of us with both good and bad seed growing in us, we can find support for pulling in our fangs and not gnashing our teeth at each other if we trust God’s trust in us.

“A trust in goodness that is greater than the fear of wickedness.” That’s worth holding onto. God has searched us and knows us through and through. And as we’re allowing God to guide us, we can catch glimpses — while we’re still in that weedy field — we can catch glimpses of the commonwealth of God.

“Won’t it be fun when worry is done and money is hay.”

Praise God. Amen.

Missouri uses flawed data to penalize poor, minority students

http://www.stltoday.com/news/opinion/columns/missouri-uses-flawed-data-to-penalize-poor-minority-students/article_fd33baf3-1871-5209-8697-8aa902fb94e7.html

Published as a Op-Ed piece in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on May 28, 2014 

Concerning Normandy’s suit against the Missouri Board of Education, it’s absolutely necessary to point out the elephant in the room: The method for evaluating school districts and thus removing accreditation and ultimately dissolving a district is based on faulty data that discriminate against poor children and especially minority children.

It’s not as if we couldn’t see this coming. What did the state do with the schools and students in Wellston when that district was dissolved? They were merged into Normandy. And now the state wants to dissolve Normandy. What’s wrong with this picture? What district do the vultures want to pick off next?

Elisa Crouch and Walker Moskop’s well-written story on May 18, “The grade divide,” about the struggle to educate children in poverty, clearly revealed the problem that children from low-income families do poorly on standardized tests. Not that they don’t or can’t learn, but that their test scores are low.

Studies show that the test format itself and especially the conditions under which the test is administered increase the odds that children in minorities will get low scores (see “Stereotypes and the Achievement Gap: Stereotype Threat Prior to Test Taking,” Markus Appel, Nicole Dronberger, Education Psychology Review, 2012.) In that study the Austrian researchers tested African-American students in the United States, Turkish students in Eastern Europe and others with “an immigration background” that labored under negative stereotypes. They found that if the tests were presented to such students as having high stakes — and what could be higher than branding an entire school as deficient? — performance went down even further.

I see three problems here: Evaluation of districts is based on faulty, discriminatory data; the state is using that faulty data to penalize poor children by attacking their schools, especially school districts that have a majority of African-American students; that attack has resulted in the dissolution of one district already, the attempted dissolution of a second district and the threat to continue until all school districts with minority majority enrollments and a majority of poor children have been taken away from their constituents and handed over to for-profit (i.e., charter) operations.

This is a racially tinged class struggle. Let’s quit talking about transportation costs and get to the point: This accreditation system is deeply flawed and does not serve the education needs of the children of Missouri, especially children in schools with a large number of low-income students. The decision to penalize the school districts for the ethnicity and social class of their students is unconstitutional. Taking away local control is unconscionable.

 

Virginia Gilbert covered the education beat for the Post-Dispatch for six years in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth

Sermon preached at Epiphany United Church of Christ, St. Louis, Feb. 23, 2014
(Scripture: Leviticus 19:1-5, 9-18 Matthew 5:38-48)

Some of you remember Dannie Rosen’s three grandchildren, Jordania, Jason and Scarlett, who spent a year with us while their parents were in Afghanistan a couple years ago. I was privileged to get to know them in Sunday School. During one of the first classes, I asked what they knew about the Bible, and they said their father had told them what it stands for.

“What it stands for?” I asked.

“Yes,” they chimed in together. “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” B-I-B-L-E. I get it.

At the time, I suggested to them, gently, that the Bible was a lot more than just instructions. It is full of stories, I told them. And we can learn a lot about God and our relationship with God by reading or hearing the stories.

Stories mean a lot to me for several reasons, and I have embraced the narrative style of preaching, which starts with a story from scripture. So here we are today, with two scripture passages that have NO story. But they are good examples of the Basic Instruction that so many people think of as being in the Bible.

You could interpret the phrase “before leaving earth” as a suggestion that you’re supposed to follow these basic instructions so you can get into heaven, or maybe even to qualify to be taken up in the rapture of the Second Coming. But I think the phrase might be more appropriately interpreted as rules to live by right here, right now. For, as Jesus said, the kingdom is at hand — God’s kingdom is in each of us and we can, by our behavior, help create a fellowship of God’s children by following the Bible’s basic instructions.

Take the Leviticus passage. This passage surprised me, because I am accustomed to thinking that the 10 Commandments are found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. And here they are — six or seven of them at least — in Leviticus, along with several more, a total of 16 or so commandments in the passage we read today.

What’s different about these commandments compared to the list we’re more familiar with? Well, for starters, there’s more of them. Here are the additions:
‘When you sacrifice a fellowship offering to the Lord, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf.
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. … Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.
Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God.
Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.
Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.

I think we could sum up all of those with the last line: Love your neighbor as yourself. But in case we don’t understand the specifics of that commandment, the writers of Leviticus spell it out for us. For instance, If you’re going to make a big deal of roasting meat to honor God — a fellowship offering — prepare it so it can be shared with others, and let others eat it, rather than just burning it up or putting it on display in a show of wealth. As my mother would say, “don’t waste good food,” share it.

Or the next one, about leaving some of the harvest in the fields for the poor to gather. I could preach a whole sermon on this commandment, interpreting this as an endorsement for taxing the wealthy to fund food stamps for the poor.

These all have to do with getting along with each other, sharing and treating each other fairly. I didn’t realize that Leviticus gives us a biblical basis for supporting the Americans with Disabilities Act, or scriptural support for raising the minimum wage and other legislative actions to require employers to treat their workers fairly. But here it is.

This passage alone redeems Leviticus for me. It has been among my least favorite books of the bible, not only because it has few familiar stories. But mainly because some isolated passages of Leviticus have been lifted out of context and used to beat some of us over the head with condemnation. These abuses of the text might make us so shy of Leviticus that we might not realize the underlying goodness of many of the commandments contained in this book of the Bible.

This passage tells us to be good to each other, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and it speaks to us as a community, not just as individuals. These are indeed “basic instructions” for living. I’d like to put a couple of these on a big poster — “Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart,” for instance — and hold it up at an anti-gay rally. Or maybe “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life” at an NRA meeting.

In the New Testament passage we read today, Jesus expands on such commandments as we find in Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says. And “Do not resist an evil person.”

The Old Testament commandments were hard enough. But Jesus lays it on even harder, doesn’t he? Love your enemies?

I think it’s revealing to compare the people who were being given these commandments. Moses was talking to people who were about to go into the Promised Land and establish the land of Israel. This was, in effect, their constitution. Their guidelines for a good society. Other passages in Leviticus include punishments for breaking the rules, but in this list of basic instructions, the emphasis is on mutual cooperation, and the reason for doing so is that God is holy, so God’s people should be holy.

Now look at who Jesus was talking to in the Sermon on the Mount. In their towns and villages they probably were still trying to be good neighbors to each other. But they no longer had leaders who felt answerable to the God of Israel. They were all under the thumb of the Roman empire. Their land, their commerce, even their bodies were not their own. Jesus was speaking to the oppressed, the captives that he had said he had come to make free.

So what does he tell them? Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. That doesn’t sound like freeing the captives, does it?

Whereas Moses in Leviticus gave the Israelites good standards for living together in a society that intended to live as God’s people, Jesus gave his listeners good standards to function in a society in which the community itself works against fostering love of neighbor.

Even in the Land of Milk and Honey, and among people who took seriously the commandment to be holy as God is holy, there must have been evil doers. Certainly by the time of Jesus, anyone looking back at the optimism of those people led by Moses who had been so eager to establish the land of Israel — looking back at that time, they would have realized that the hoped-for perfect kingdom didn’t last long.

Can’t you hear the cynic? “Love your neighbor, eh? How’s that workin’ out for ya?”

So Jesus suggests another way, and it works just as well for us today. He’s not really saying that we should give in to evil. He’s giving good tactics for turning evil aside.

As we discussed in the message to the young at heart, when someone gives you the back of his hand and you turn the other cheek, you’re forcing that person to treat you as an equal instead of a slave if he wants to hit you again. Jesus is saying, look the hitter in the eye.

In modern times, Martin Luther King explained the strategy when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We have an example of love driving out hate in our own state just last week. (And now, finally, I get to tell a story). You perhaps heard about or read about Michael Sam, a star player on the University of Missouri football team. He’s graduating this year and looking forward to playing for the NFL. Just before the pro teams began final decisions for drafting new players, Sam held a press conference and announced what his teammates had known all season — that he is gay.

It made big news, because Sam will probably — if he’s drafted that is — be the first NFL player to come out of the closet even before he makes a team. And here’s where the non-violent love driving out hate comes in. You probably read about this too.

Westboro Baptist Church — which is not a church but a family of litigating lawyers that goes around provoking people by picketing with hateful signs at events like funerals — Westboro planned to picket the Mizzou basketball game where Sam and the rest of the football team were going to celebrate the trophy they won in the Cotton Bowl championship game.

Word got out about Westboro’s plans and a crowd of hundreds of people gathered to surround them and their hateful signs with equally large signs of love and support — for Sam and for his coaches and team mates.

In the comments under one of the online news stories I read, someone posted guidelines for opposing the Westboro group when they picket.

Assemble a LARGE crowd of well briefed peaceful folk and Stand Between the WBCers and those who are the object of their protest. If you cannot take this position, set up as near to them as you can. 

2) DO NOT interact with them. Shun them. No talk. No eye contact.

3) YOUR CROWD SHOULD CARRY SIGNS WITH WORDS LIKE THESE:
God is Love

Judge Not Lest Ye Not Be Judged

Be Not Afraid
The Souls of the Just Rest in God

What God Asks: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God
Blessed are They who Sorrow for they shall be comforted

4. Use “Angel Wings” (large shrouds of light translucent material attached to light rods which can be waved up and down from four feet over one’s head, and four feet out from one’s arms) to provide a curtain between the WBC crowd and your sign carriers.

5. YOUR crowd should chant WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT AND SUPPORT FOR THOSE YOU CAME TO  WITNESS TO.

6. And/or sing
”Peace is flowing like a river” or “Let there Be Peace on Earth” or “Kumbaya” or……

Again, do not engage anyone from Westboro “Baptist.”
Don’t speak to them.
Don’t look at them.
Stand with your backs to them holding up your signs high, chanting and singing.

Making them and their venom disappear in the light of your support. Ask the press and other media to ignore them

If this goes as it has gone before, they will withdraw in frustration and disappointment.

The Supreme Court may have ruled that they have the right to be there, and it may be tough to get their tax exempt status revoked, but they do not have the right to be noticed. Treat them as the tiny nasty gnats they are.

GOD IS LOVE, this list of guidelines said, and then closed with, 

BUT I SUSPECT THAT EVEN GOD DISLIKES THESE HEATHENS A WHOLE LOT.

I didn’t know, until I read those guidelines and the comments about them, that the Westboro group’s goal is to provoke people to react violently to their hate signs, so they can sue them.

Here’s what one commenter said: “I had not considered the money-making advantage that comes from aggravating one’s foes….I looked it up and they have won a number of settlements…..many fewer in recent years, because those opposed to them have found ways to take them on without violating their access.”

Don’t hit back, turn the other cheek. You cannot drive out hate with hate, only love can do that.

We have international models for carrying out Jesus’s new rules. When I was a student pastor, I got to know some Liberian refugees. They told me how rebels led by Charles Taylor attacked their city. They were eating dinner when the soldiers invaded their neighborhood. Most of the family fled — David and his brothers and their wives and his brother’s baby boy, Oliver. David’s father and mother stayed behind. His father was killed, his mother was abducted and they didn’t know what happened to her for years.

David and his family and many other refugees fled to neighboring Ghana to a refugee camp set up by the United Nations. They thought they’d be there a couple of weeks. But they stayed for 15 years, and eventually came to the United States.

Many Liberians were unable to get out. They suffered with civil war for years. It was the most vicious kind of fighting and included the rebels’ tactic of forcing men and boys, some only 10 or 12 years old, to become soldiers by threatening to kill their families. Sometimes they killed a boy’s mother or sister before his eyes. Talk about evil doers.

Then one day, a bunch of women decided enough was enough. They gathered in a soccer field near a fish market that was on a main road in Monrovia, the capital, and they started a peace sit-in. They attracted news media, including a documentary film maker. I saw the movie this film maker released in 2008, called Pray the Devil Back to Hell. In 2011 the documentary was included in a PBS series called Women, War and Peace, and it’s available online today.

Here’s the online summary of the documentary:
“Pray the Devil Back to Hell is the astonishing story of the Liberian women who took on the warlords and regime of dictator Charles Taylor in the midst of a brutal civil war, and won a once unimaginable peace for their shattered country in 2003. As the rebel noose tightened around the capital city of Monrovia, thousands of women – ordinary mothers, grandmothers, aunts and daughters, both Christian and Muslim – formed a thin but unshakeable line between the opposing forces. Armed only with white T-shirts and the courage of their convictions, they literally faced down the killers who had turned Liberia into hell on earth. In one memorable scene, the women barricaded the site of stalled peace talks in Ghana and refused to move until a deal was done.”
What this summary leaves out is how these women forced the men in the peace talks to listen to them. When the Ghanian authorities told the women they would be arrested if they didn’t move, the leader, a tall matronly woman, stood and began removing her clothes. “If you arrest me,” she said, “I will strip naked.” With news cameras running, other women followed her lead. They stood and started stripping.

The leader explained in the documentary that for an African man to see his mother naked was the ultimate shame, especially if she did this voluntarily. None of the men involved in those peace talks could face that shame, especially with the eyes of the world on them. These warlords, who had not flinched at ordering mothers to be killed in front of their children, backed down when a mother threatened to make them see her naked in front of the world. The peace talks resumed with more seriousness and in two weeks an agreement was reached.

In the same way, when TV cameras in 1965 showed police in Alabama turning fire hoses on people, including children, peacefully marching in Selma for the right to vote, the public outcry led to passage of the Voting Rights Act.

And in a twist on this practice of non-violent resistance, in the Ukraine last week, a day after government forces killed protestors in a public square, dozens of Ukrainian police officers took off their riot gear — helmets and bullet-proof vests — and gave them to the protestors.

Another New Testament writer in First Peter expresses it this way: Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.”

Basic instructions before leaving earth: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Behaving in this way not only helps us to be holy and helps us to behave as God’s children. Loving our enemies and praying for them is also good strategy for uncovering the reign of God and nurturing the fellowship of God’s children right here, right now . . . before leaving earth.
Praise God. Amen.

Lord, are you telling this to us or everybody?

Scripture: Luke 12:32-48; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-13

I had just come in from a walk-back for a striking fast food worker when I reread the gospel scripture for today. “Keep your lamps lit,” resonated with me right away, because these walk-backs come up unexpectedly. We were asked to sign up ahead of time, identifying blocks of time when we would be available to converge on a fast-food restaurant to support a worker who was returning after a legal 24-hour strike, or to take the management to task for retaliating against a worker for wanting better pay and working conditions.

“Stay ready” was the request. And it was remarkable how many people would converge for a “rapid response” call by email or text. Clergy people like Pastor Mary in her clerical collar, or Rabbi Susan Talve in her yarmulka and prayer shawl, mixed with union members like me in our union-logo polo shirts and fast-food workers, some with their McDonald’s or Popeye’s ID badges still clipped to their shirts.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this scripture applies in many ways to the actions some of us have taken to raise the minimum wage and get fair treatment for all workers. Lois with her petitions and Jeanette with her email invitations and events, Angie with her work with Legal Aid, the Jobs with Justice folks who have occasionally invited Pastor Mary to speak to groups like Occupy St. Louis. You have all been keeping your lamps trimmed and burning. You come back to the issue of economic and social justice over and over.

What Jesus seems to be saying with both his parables about absent masters is that good servants are expected to behave well all the time, even when the master isn’t watching. But the two parables are very different.

The first one portrays what I call the “pastel Jesus” — the one with a sunbeam halo and a violin soundtrack that we tend to romanticize and put in a heart-shaped box. When he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock,” and when he promises that good servants will be rewarded by their master, who will turn the tables, take the servant’s role and serve them.

Isn’t he nice? Don’t you just love the pastel Jesus? Just before this passage are the very familiar comforting verses about the tiny sparrow that God keeps an eye on and the passage about the lilies of the field, that God clothes in glory. Don’t worry about what you will wear or where your next meal will come from, Jesus says. God is watching out for you. These are some of my favorite gospel passages. These are the scriptures that prompt us to sing praise songs and wave our hands above our heads.

Then Peter had to go and spoil it all by asking if Jesus was talking to the chosen few or to everybody. When Peter says, “are you telling this parable to us?” he is separating himself and his fellow disciples from “everybody” as in everybody else.

I wonder whether Peter was thinking of the suggestion that they go sell their possessions and give the money to the poor — for where your treasure is, there your heart will be — and maybe patting himself on the back for being one of those who has shown himself willing to make such sacrifices. Kind of the way I’ve been patting myself on the back for being willing to drive to West County to stand along the road in front of a Wendy’s in support of fast-food workers.

Or was he asking about Jesus’s promise that the master will serve the servants. Was he envisioning a time when all his hard work would pay off and he could sit back and let Jesus serve him?

Either way, Peter seems to be angling for some special treatment or recognition.

But in response to Peter’s question, we see a different Jesus, a sort of liberation theology Che Guevera — dressed in camouflage, with a revolutionary’s beret and a fierce, challenging look, a silhouette more likely backlit by explosions than sunbeams. This Jesus threatens to cut up a wayward steward and cast him out with the unbelievers.

If I’d been there, I would’ve been tempted to say, “Whoa, Jesus, what set you off?”

I mean, he sounds ticked, doesn’t he?

In response to Peter’s question, he tells a second absent-master parable. Only this time, he focuses on the negative, on the servant that the master set apart for special trust. When that servant — the steward over all the others — misbehaves, especially when he misbehaves by mistreating the people he’s supposed to be supervising, the master comes down hard.

And just to be sure that Peter and the rest of the in-crowd get his point, Jesus underlines: the one who does not know the master’s will and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with fewer blows, while the one who knew he was disobeying the master — that is, the in-crowd who disobeyed — will be beaten with many blows.

That’s not all. Jesus is on a roll: After the passage we read, he says he’s come to bring fire, and he wishes it was already kindled. He has come to bring not peace, but division — parent against child, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law… And Luke ends the chapter with Jesus making the analogy of one litigant hauling another off to the judge and having his adversary thrown in prison.

I’ll bet just about this time Peter wished he’d never said anything.

I’ve read all these passages many times before, but mostly in pieces, rarely together, one chapter flowing into the next. I think this was the first time I noticed that the turning point from the pastel Jesus to the Che Guevera figure is Peter’s question, “Lord, are you telling this parable to us or to everybody?”

And I found myself wondering, yeah, Lord. Aren’t you telling these parables to those bad guy CEOs and politicians who won’t raise the minimum wage, all the while raking in millions in profit? this verse in particular about the unfaithful steward: he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk– which I interpret as drunk with excess profits and power. So, following up Peter’s question, I’m asking, Boy, they’re gonna get it, right?

Or if Jesus is not talking specifically about material wealth, then maybe he means those stewards of the church who mistreat people in the name of the Lord, metaphorically beating up on vulnerable fellow servants for their gender identity or their manner of worship, for instance, only to discover that the master did not appreciate their self-indulgent high-and-mighty self-righteousness.

Well, I think Jesus did mean those folks when he told his parables. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.

But he meant those lessons for us too.

It occurs to me that if I eat at Wendy’s and don’t leave a tip — because, after all, it’s not table service — then I’m siding with the CEO oppressor. If I shop at Sam’s because it’s cheap, without asking who is bearing the burden of those low prices, I’m siding with the ultra-rich Wal-Mart heirs.

If I consider myself a Christian, but don’t speak up when other Christians use our faith to hurt others, I’m just like the faithless steward.

If we are, like Peter, Jesus’s hand-picked followers, called by the grace of God to rouse ourselves up on a Sunday morning and come together to worship, then we are the ones to hear: “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Sunday School teachers and VBS volunteers — you are entrusted with much. Good cooks who bring food for potlucks and for hospitality after worship — you are entrusted with much. People on the restroom committee who are interviewing architects and trying to balance the needs of the congregation and our guests with the cost of providing new facilities — you are entrusted with much, and much more is being asked of you.

Those of us invited into this pulpit to preach — we are entrusted with much, and much more is being asked of us. Those who receive the weekly prayer list from Jeanette and faithfully pray for the people and circumstances that JMO faithfully distributes every week — you are entrusted with much, and much more is being asked of you.

We are this generation’s cloud of witnesses, written about in the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16) that Beverly read. As with Abraham and Sarah, we’ve been asked to go on a journey to the Promised Land, not knowing where we’ll end up. We’ve been called by faith, like Isaac and Jacob and, in the verses we skipped, Abel and Enoch and Noah, and in the verses that follow, Joseph and Moses and Joshua and Rahab and Gideon and Samson and David and Samuel and the prophets.

We don’t have to get out our Old Testament to look up each story. The letter writer links them together for us: “Called by faith” to do difficult things, they responded, in their human, imperfect ways, living their lives trying to do God’s will.

The letter writer to Hebrews says “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.”
So I see myself standing next to Peter with my followup question, wanting to get us back to the pastel Jesus who tells us not to be afraid. I’m wanting to placate that Che Guevera figure or, maybe more appropriately the Father Romero figure that Chance told us about in Sunday School, who lived and died faithfully uplifting the poor and putting a face on liberation theology.
I envision myself standing there like it’s a press conference with Jesus, wanting to ask a question or make a comment that will take us out of range of the pointing finger that is implicating me and you in the types of injustice brought upon our fellow servants by unfaithful stewards.
But instead of squeaking, “Who, me? You think I had anything to do with that? Not me, Lord, I never…”
Instead of defensive excuses or clever questions, I find myself picking up a lamp and a match. And I offer the same to you: Keep it trimmed and burning.
Keep the faith. Even if the journey is long and you don’t know where you’re going. Keep the faith, even if you screw up and have to humbly and publicly admit your mistakes. Keep the faith, even if you die before you receive the things promised.
Who, us? Are you talking to us? Yes, us. You and me. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
Praise God, Amen.

Paul’s Visions

Scripture:  Galatians 1:11-242 Corinthians 12:1-1

I have always been fascinated by Paul. As a kid, I studied him in Sunday School, charting his journeys around the Middle East to start churches, learning the names of his converts, like Lydia and Titus, and his companions in evangelism Barnabas and Silas. As a teen, I heard numerous sermons on Paul — I think my pastor at the time had a thing for Paul too.

The most famous scripture passages about him, as opposed to the several New Testament books written by him, are the three accounts in Acts of his journey to Damascus. You recall the story — he was knocked down by the power of God and confronted by Jesus to quit persecuting Jesus’s followers and, instead, carry Jesus’s message of love to others. In two of those three passages, the writer of Acts quotes Paul relaying his story.

But in the two passages we read today, we have Paul’s own words, preserved in two letters to congregations he started. He’s ambivalent and defensive. He struggles to rein in his ego and express humility. He doesn’t mention Damascus. He does separate himself from the other Jewish apostles and disciples who were centered in Jerusalem.

To the Galatians he says, “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,* that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

That claim was evidently as amazing and controversial in Paul’s day as it is today. What’s your initial reaction to someone who tells you they have received a direct revelation from God? Distrust? Derision? Skepticism? I’m sure most of you can recall instances when “the media” and the general public have had a field day with various predictions or pronouncements from people claiming to have a direct pipeline to heaven.

Have you ever trusted a modern-day public figure who claimed to base his or her decisions and statements on divine revelation? I can’t say that I ever have.

Evidently people received Paul’s revelations with a great amount of skepticism too. He wrote to the Corinthians:

Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.

The only specific detail in his account is that it occurred  14 years before he wrote the letter. It’s vague and mysterious, and he sort of tries to distance himself by saying it happened to a man he knows. It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to figure out he’s talking about himself.

He says he was “caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man —whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

Now, what are his readers to make of that description? The Corinthians way back when or us today, how can we possibly evaluate the truth of his vision based on such a description? “caught up to the third heaven”? Sounds like some UFO account, doesn’t it? Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or maybe, “beam me up Scotty.”

He must have been pressed for more information at other times when he had told of his vision, because he writes, twice, “whether it was in the body or apart from the body, in the body or out of the body, I do not know, but God knows.”

Well, what did he hear in this vision? “inexpressible things, things no one is permitted to tell.”

Wait a minute. He isn’t “permitted to tell” what he heard?  But I thought he said his whole ministry is based on “a revelation from Jesus Christ”? How can he not be permitted to tell it?

It’s intriguing, “inexpressible things.” He’s so defensive about it, I figure he has tried to explain it before and found that he had way more to communicate than he could possibly get across with mere words.

On a more mundane level, isn’t that the way with most ordinary dreams? Even if you try to describe them immediately after dreaming, you can’t possibly remember or explain all the details.

Paul’s visions were much more than dreams. Whether in the body or out of the body, he can’t tell, but he knows they are true. And again he struggles to explain the importance of the visions:

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations.

Paul is very protective of his visions, his direct revelation from Jesus himself. It’s hard, he says, to tell about them in a way that does justice to the truth. And it’s hard to admit to such revelations and not be misunderstood.

Imagine, having been so privileged as to be called by God, and then be mocked and scorned for your claim. Imagine, having a vision or revelation and then have it be misunderstood as just a product of your own arrogance and ego and hunger for power. Imagine having your work in mission dismissed because you never met Jesus before His resurrection, so you couldn’t possibly be as intimate with Jesus as those who knew Him when. Paul can’t help but be resentful of those people he sarcastically calls “super-apostles” that he defends himself against to the Corinthians.

I’m thinking that the weakness that he writes about is probably just that — experiencing such revelations and having them dismissed as false or irrelevant.

A lot of commentaries and sermons have speculated on what the thorn really was, whether it was really physical or a symbol, a figure of speech. But I think it’s his struggle to understand the revelations and act on them.

I’m even thinking that the experience he describes of being caught up in the third heaven might have happened before the road to Damascus experience. What if these visions he had experienced, and these inexpressible things he had heard were what led him to persecute Christians to begin with? He seemed so certain that he was doing the right thing by those persecutions. So much that he asked Jerusalem temple leaders for the authority to go to Damascus to persecute Christian jews there.

Recall what he wrote to the Galatians: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” He even said that God set him apart before he was born.

I think that’s why I identify so strongly with Paul. He was so sure of himself, so bent on doing (quote) God’s work (unquote), that he had to be knocked down and struck blind before he would listen to what God really wanted. We know-it-alls have a real need for someone to puncture our puffed-up egos.

God didn’t set Paul apart before he was born and treat him to incredible revelations and visionary experiences just to let Paul go persecute Christians.

I also think the story in Acts and Paul’s descriptions of his thorn are a good slap-back to some Christians today:  Put that in your “free will” pipe and smoke it. Paul was exercising his own free will when God knocked him down and set him straight. Sometimes God’s grace is showered, and sometimes it has to be shoved.

And evidently Paul needed more than one reminder. Back to the letter to the church in Corinth:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Can’t you just hear Paul? “God, they’re making fun of me and my visions. They’re undermining my ministry. Why don’t you slap my opponents alongside their heads the way you did me?”

And the answer was, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

God’s power is made perfect in weakness. How many times do we have to hear that before it sinks in? Wasn’t Jesus a good enough example? I think that’s what Paul meant when he wrote so often about preaching Christ and Christ crucified.

The power of love — God’s love — and peace, God’s peace — is ultimately sufficient and made perfect in weakness. This is a difficult thing to wrap your head around.

Paul, who had been given an incredible experience — maybe more than one — of direct revelation from God; Paul, who struggled to be considered one of the apostles even though he didn’t know Jesus before His resurrection; Paul, who dramatically turned from being a know-it-all who persecuted Jesus’s followers into being one of His most faithful and prolific disciples; this same Paul also discovered how to be truly humble, one of the meek that Jesus said would inherit the earth.

Paul wrote, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

And he can say with all truthfulness and humility even of his detractors in Jerusalem, “I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.”

I might have ended my sermon right there, summing up Paul’s significance and humility and the power of God resting in weakness.

But this church believes God is still speaking. So I have one more point to make about Paul’s visions. God is not finished speaking through visions and direct revelations.

You could hear God yourself. Some of you have already recognized God’s revelations to you. I suppose we could say that everyone here has heard God’s call — otherwise we would be somewhere else on this fine Sunday morning.

God showers grace and love on us all. Some of us have to be slapped up the side of the head as Paul was. Some of us have to have more than one thorny reminder of that grace and love. Some of us get a glimpse of the “third heaven” or “surpassingly great revelations.” Some of us may have an opportunity to know someone who has been given such glimpses.

It can be hard to know what to do with these examples of the still-speaking God.

Paul tells us that experiencing the vision is not as important as using it for God’s purposes. And God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

Praise God. Amen.

Now What?

Scripture: Acts 5:27-32John 20:19-31

The Sunday after Easter is sometimes called  “low Sunday.” We’ve been through the euphoria of Easter, the fantastic music, the Easter brunch. The good news in its most exciting form.

And the next week, we’re asking, “Now what?”

The second Sunday of Easter, traditional time off for nearly all fulltime or senior pastors, is also known as “empty the bench Sunday,” when the starting players take a rest and associate pastors, student pastors and other bench players step up and shoot for the hoop. In my 10 years preaching, this is my 7th low Sunday in the pulpit. I love it.

As Pastor Mary told us last week, Easter begins while it is still dark. We know the story, so we go with the women to the tomb and we hear, “He is not dead, he is risen!”  And we sing triumphant halleluias on this most joyous day of the Christian year. This is all familiar ground, and we’ve been waiting since Christmas to hear the rest of the story.

But just for a moment, imagine what it would have been like if you did not know the story. If this story was new to you, and you were experiencing it for the first time. For the disciples of Jesus whom we read about on this Second Sunday of Easter, the story unfolded more slowly. The news had to break through layers and layers of pain, suffering and defeat.

These witnesses saw him get arrested. They heard the hand-picked crowd that called for his crucifixion. They saw him, maybe even heard him struggle through the streets carrying the cross. They saw the broken body on the cross. They heard that he was buried in a tomb.

They knew the danger they themselves were in, even admitting to know him might get them killed as well.

It’s the anger, deteriorating into despair that I have new feeling for. Imagine for a moment how the people in Jesus’s inner circle felt in those first few days after his death.

Just let it sink in for a few seconds. I know all of you have experiences you can draw on, when all your hopes were dashed. When you suffered the most awful losses.

At some point in that pain, you lifted your head to ask, “Now what?”

Imagine yourself as a disciple, a follower of Jesus trying to make sense out of a senseless death of this great, gentle, godlike man. Imagine surveying your options after following him for months, maybe years, and now he’s gone.

Now what? You ask. Where do I go? What do I do, now that he’s gone? Can I believe anything he said, since they killed him and God didn’t stop it?

Imagine yourself, feeling so sure of Jesus’s words and teachings, having seen or heard of his miracles, his healing. And then having it all collapse with his death.

Now what? You ask.

Imagine,  as the news filtered out, well, gossip really, that the body was gone, that some of the women and then some of the men had seen Jesus alive. At first people said it was an idle tale. They didn’t believe it. How could they?

If you heard it from someone who had actually seen Jesus, you might have seen joy in their faces and that might have been enough to convince you of the truth of their story.

But if, like Thomas, you heard it whispered from someone who heard it told furtively from someone who heard it uttered in cautious wonder from someone who heard it from an eye witness… you might be afraid to believe such a fantastic tale.

Now what? You think. What am I to make of such gossip?

Dismiss it and get on with my grief? Go back home and pick up the pieces of the life I left to follow Jesus?

Or maybe check it out, seek to find out more. Now what? What is this story of resurrection?

That’s where Thomas comes into our story.

Earlier in the gospel of John, when Jesus has decided to go to Bethel to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, some of the disciples remind him that the authorities around Bethel, which is close to Jerusalem tried to stone him the last time he was there.

Jesus is adamant that he will go. And Thomas says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Is this empty bravado? I think not. I think Thomas was sincere in his belief in the strength of his belief. He was saying, as Peter did later, “I will follow Jesus to the death.”

And then Jesus did die, but Thomas didn’t follow him there.

I imagine Thomas dealing with his grief by reading some of the psalms of lament. Maybe even Psalm 122, which Jesus began to say on the cross – My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?”

He’s rolling in grief and suffering, rocking back and forth with the pain. And he’s wondering if there is more bad news to come, of companions arrested and executed, of a general search for followers, perhaps.

Now what? He worries.

And then he begins to hear different stories about Jesus and his followers. Stories so giddy with hope, he can’t believe them.

Thomas was probably among those men who dismissed the witness of the women who first saw the resurrected Jesus. You know, an idle tale such as women tell.

Then more of Thomas’s fellow disciples are saying that THEY saw Jesus alive. Some of them describe a scene where Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them. Thomas sees the transformation of the eye witnesses. But the layers of despair are thick. He wants his own eye witness experience. He wants his own moment of euphoria.

His pain is so great, he needs to hear and see and touch Jesus to believe the good news of the resurrection.

But he has an answer to the question of Now what? He will stay with the witnesses and hope to see Jesus for himself, the way they did.

Please notice that some of the witnesses, like Mary Magdalene and the other women who went to the tomb, were seeking Jesus when they saw him.

But others, like the people locked in the Upper Room on Easter Evening, they were the recipients of God’s free grace. They did nothing to merit being witness to Jesus’s appearance, except lament his death and fear the same.

Thomas, like the first people that the women told, didn’t believe these eye witnesses in the Upper Room. But Thomas sought to confirm the news for himself.

Jesus is gentle with these waves of witnesses, as the news radiates outward. He appears to several people, gradually increasing the circle of those who have seen with their own eyes, heard with their own ears, touched with their own hands, the resurrected body of Jesus.

These people have a new, fresh, exciting answer to the question of “Now what?” Jesus told them, As the father sent me, now I send you.”

“Forgive the sins of others,” he said, “and they are forgiven in heaven.” And go tell what you have seen.

Imagine, then, the glow, the euphoria that would course through their bodies as Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them. They would surely forgive Thomas’s doubt, as their doubt had been forgiven by the first witnesses, the women.

But Jesus and the witnesses have a problem. Will Jesus have to appear to every single follower before they believe? This is the crux of the story of Thomas. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” Jesus says.

Oh, but that’s not the end of the story.

The writer of John ends with a promise: Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.

In fact, Jesus and his disciples have been answering that question of “Now what?” for 2,000 years. Receive the Holy Spirit, forgive others and tell them the good news that their sins are forgiven.

The passage we read this morning from Acts tells how Peter answered his question of “now what?”

The Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court, blasts the apostles for “filling Jerusalem” with Jesus’s name and teachings. “You are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood,” the high priest says.

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

And they’re going to keep right on teaching and witnessing in the name of Jesus.

Tradition has it that the apostles spread out, each taking a territory to spread the good news.

Says one historian of the 5th Century, Matthew goes to Parthia, Thaddeus to Libya, Philip to Phrygia and Thomas to India.

In fact, there is an ancient Christian Church of Thomas in northern India, and evidence in several ancient documents that an evangelist named Thomas was among the first to spread the good news there, among all castes and classes. He found especially fertile ground among the dalit, the so-called untouchables of India, who welcomed Jesus’s message of good will to all, freedom for captives and those who are oppressed.

Earlier this year, Pope Benedict decided to retire, and cardinals from around the world gathered in Rome, asking “now what?” The Holy Spirit breathed into them and they chose a man born in Latin America who chose to live, not in the archbishop’s palace, but in a small apartment, where he cooked his own meals and took the bus to work.

And he breathed in the Holy Spirit and asked “Now what?”

In his first Holy Week as pope, Francis I washed the feet of some selected prisoners — that was a tradition. But the prisoners included two women and two Muslims, and that was not traditional. The world’s Catholics, indeed, the world’s Christians saw a new thing happening and we’re asking, “now what?”

The grace of Jesus Christ is STILL appearing to us, perhaps at our greatest moments of despair, when we go seeking him as the women did at the tomb. Or perhaps when we are in a locked room with our companions, fearing the authorities. Or perhaps as someone born into a group of people who have been told their whole life they are the dregs of the earth. Or perhaps as a muslim woman whose feet were just washed by one of the leaders of the Christian world.

Or perhaps, like Thomas, when we are sitting in a pew among believers, trying to see for ourselves what all the gossip is about.

Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into us. Now we are witnesses.

Now what?

Praise God. Amen.