Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Twenty-Third Psalm for Today

A sermon based upon Psalm 23
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
4th Sunday of Easter, April 25, 2010

After the pastor had preached his morning message, one of his listeners came and said, “Pastor, I didn’t understand your sermon, today.”
            The pastor replied, “Good!”   You got my point.
            “What do you mean? I didn’t get it at all,” the man responded with a puzzled look.
            “Well,” said the pastor, “When we are really talking about God we don’t always immediately understand.  Sometimes we have to work at it.”    

GOD DOES NOT HAVE AN “EASY” BUTTON
That preacher has a point, but few think this way.  Our human tendency is to desire instant access to everything God has without much effort, even though finding the truth is not always easy.   Staples might have an “easy button”, but with the cross at the center of our faith, there are no easy buttons.

In our day people like their “truth” in easy-to-consume, bite size, and manageable packages.   We want our gospel, like so many want their food; fast, quick, and in an instant.  The problem is that a “Happy Meal” style, flash-in-the –pan faith brings little lasting, healthy nourishment to our souls.   The gospel of God which can meet our deepest human need will also challenge us with what God’s wants and requires from us?  As the prophet Micah once asked and answered: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?  (Micah 6.8).  

I bring this up today, because the most wonderful Psalm we all know puts this issue before us in black and white: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want?”   It does not say, “When the Lord is my Shepherd I get what I want…. but It says, when the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want? (KJV, NRS).  Other translations help us understand what is being said here by translating: “I shall not be in want” (NIV)  or  “I shall have all that I need” (NLT)  or “I lack nothing (TNIV).   The Spanish is even clearer: “El Senor es mi pastor, nada me falta.”   But while these translations are clearer in actual meaning, can’t we also see the spiritual growth of discovering we sometimes we find what we really need in life by losing some of our wants?

THE SAVING SHEPHERD DOESN’T ALWAYS GIVE US OUR “WANTS”
Just this past week, more news came out about the young 15 year old female student who had just moved from Ireland to Massachusetts and on January 14 of this year, tragically committed suicide because she was “relentlessly” bullied by certain ‘mean girls’ in her school.   The “mean girls” were a real problem and 9 have been charged with helping cause her suicide, but now news is surfacing that these bullies were not the whole problem.  Most people get bullied at sometime or other in life and have some enemies, but this does not always lead to suicide nor to the kind the violence we are seeing today among teens and “tweens”. 

What came out is that this Irish girl was already reading books about “cutting” and “mutilating” her own body.  The Psychologist rightly says that people who cut and mark their bodies reflect a deep unmet need deep in the soul.  Phoebe Prince must have had had a lot of emotional pain in her life, due to her parent’s divorce, leaving her father in Ireland, and having to move to a new country but this need not lead to suicide.  There are also other allegations for the cause of the bullying, like boyfriend stealing. 

But another part of her tragic “soul confusion”, which you’ll probably never read about, deals with the most basic issue in all our lives.  Because Phoebe did not get what she really needed in life, (stability and unconditional love), her pain ended up getting stuck and even magnified in what she wanted and thought she had to have (some very inappropriate behavior which caused her to be greatly disliked).  Instead of solving life’s problems by uncovering her greatest needs and dealing with them, she demoted or lowered need to the level of her lower desires and wants.  You might call this living a life by the “lowest common denominator”.  The result of such a life, lowered merely to desires and wants was tragic for Phoebe, but it is happening more these days and not just with teens.  Many people, especially those who inwardly and often  unconsciously feel short-changed in life, end up lowering the standard of their lives by trying to meet their needs through developing more and more wants.  More often than not, a life lived for demanding what we want, most always ends in outlandish, inappropriate, unfulfilling behavior which takes more out of your soul than it ever gives.   

Many people these days seem to be confusing what they want out of life, others, with what they really need.  This young girl’s not so quiet “desperation” may reflect one of the greatest desperations of our age:  People who have become so demanding for what they want and are demanding from others, that society as a whole is getting less and less of what we all really need in life and from God. 

Another case in point on a much lighter, but just as serious is what happened recently with  Basketball at a local ACC team and the firing of a decent head coach.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to get political or even become critical of the people at this school, because I really don’t know all the details.  I’m just a outsider observer like you, but what I see happening in Sports and Athletics over all, symptomatic of a greater problem in our culture.  When a coach, a player, a team, a program does not give a school exactly what it wants when and how it wants it, then it has become so easy for that school, president, the fans, or whoever it is, to make drastic, demeaning and demanding changes so everyone keeps thinking they are, at sometime or other, going to get what they want.   Gone are the days when sports were not about building character and about “how you play the game”, but it has become the constant demand of “whether you win or lose”, or in one schools’ case, it’s not just “whether you win or lose” (they were a winning team), but it was a case of “when” they won and lost (they were not winning when it counted most.  Aren’t the demands of our “wants” getting so high these days that the result is not just losing a “game” or having a “winning season”, but our demands are so high society is getting less and less of what we really need? 

The same kind of thing is happening in politics today where you can’t have a discussion that catches anybody’s attention or gains any ratings, unless you force the issue of one side being totally right and the absolute good guy, while the other side must be totally wrong and the absolute devil.  (Ironic in this world, where there are said to be no absolutes, that people are becoming more and more absolute about what they have to have).   The same kind of demand for getting what we want has not only taken over the world of politics, but also it has gone where the money is.  The high demand for people, even rich people to have more of what they want ( but don’t really need), which is based on wants and greed, not need or necessity and maybe not even real desire (who needs that much money), now means that rest of the people in this nation and in this world, are going to have less and less of what they need, even need to thrive or survive. No nation on earth, except America, has more people who have everything, but also has the most people who have nothing.  We are both morally and economically schizophrenic and most of it is because of excessive dreams and wants. 

Worst of all, we can see “demanding” spirit of want even filtering down to churches in both pulpit and pew.   If church members don’t get what they want out of each other, out of the pastor, or out of the church, there is little room for talk, discussion or negotiation.  When people don’t see or get what they want they either walk off without sharing their needs or they start a fight over things that are only for themselves and not for others.   Sometimes it even works the same way when a pastor doesn’t get what he wants out of a church.  In this day of excessive wants, there is less and less room for openness, talk, discussion, or negotiation and there are more and more excessive demands being made of each other and our real human needs met less and less and more and more, they are overlooked. 

In this kind of social and spiritual climate, any of us, can end up demanding so much of what we want and think we have to have, that we end of sacrificing the very things we really need the most from each other; like sharing, teamwork, caring, openness, and being made stronger and more loving by working through the challenges and the problems together.   By demanding so much, we end up with less, and often with very little that nourishes our souls.  In the demanding what we want, and we settling for less of what we really need we can even lose more of ourselves in the process.

What I’m trying to say here, is something I think Psalmist also says to us, right up front, in the very first line, but it has repercussions throughout the whole of Psalm 23.  When the Lord is present in your life and guiding you, and when you live with and in the fullness of his continual presence, it is not just amazing, but it is also saving, redemptive and what we might call “priceless,” (as the Master Card commercial says) to realize what you do don’t have to have and don’t have to want in order to have a life that is abundant and full.  When you learn “I shall not want”, you become the kind of person who can live fully, whether you live in a day of “plenty or scarcity”.   As the apostle Paul once said, “I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty, but I have found the secret in any and every situation….the secret of being content.” Phil. 4:12).  It is the “presence” of the good Shepherd, the Christ that makes all the difference, as Paul wholeheartedly agrees, when in the very next verse he exclaims what only a person without many wants or needs can say: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4.13).

THE SHEPHERD GIVES US WHAT WE NEED MOST
Perhaps the greatest gift from God is that when we have God’s presence, we discover how little, how basic, how simple, our greatest needs are in life, and also how much we can have, even when don’t have everything we want.

In this world that seems so “hell bent” and misguided in demanding and getting exactly what it wants, even thinking that they should also giving everyone else (even our children) what “they” want (because we don’t really give them what they need), can we still discover what we really need, which can only come from God?  

Let me conclude by putting this question of “want” and “need” in a much more positive light.  
At the conclusion of this abiding promise of a Shepherd leading his sheep to greener pastures, to stiller waters and to having their souls restored---is a very surprising and powerful image.  Just as we are promised that the Shepherd will guide us through “the valley of the dark shadows”, what is most surprising is that the great Shepherd prepares a his most abundant, most satisfying and nourishing “table” definitely in a place none of us would want it.   God’s table is set, not only in the presence of the Shepherd alone, nor is it set in presence of our all our “friends” as might have hope and wanted, but God’s most abundant table is set, right, as the King James phrases it, right “in the presence of mine enemies?”  Who would have ever thought that God would give us what we need in the middle of what we never want? 

Why does the Shepherd set the table where all our enemies are still waiting, watching and perhaps still “gunning” for us?  Though he might seem like a “sadistic” savior, I’d rather say, our Savior is “realistic”.  The only real place we ever find what we really need is in this same world that never can give us everything we want.  

Honestly, let me confess that this image of sitting down to eat with “mine enemies” still lookin on, especially some of them I’ve had kind in life, kind of makes me sick to my stomach.  This is certainly not something I would want.   I would rather sit down at the table, in the presence of my friends, or with angels, or with at least with a cherubim or something, even if they are as ugly as homemade sin.  But God sit his sheep down “in the presence of their enemies”   The Psalmist could only imagine the table of God’s abundance in the way it really works, we only know and enjoy the “bread of life” when we are in the worse kinds of situations imaginable.     
Listen to something a US navy chaplain, Cary Cash, wrote about his duty serving Marines in Iraq. 
He writes, 

A table in the presence means even when surrounded by danger, when facing
overwhelming odds, when confronted by enemies bent on our destruction…God is with
us - providing for our every need, protecting us from evil, and empowering us to be faithful.
You see the table that David spoke about, the table that David longed for in the presence
of his enemies, was the table of God’s presence in the presence of his enemies (just as it is still the table of God’s presence even as we face our enemies right now)

…. Sometimes our companies were so on the move, (the chaplain writes) that all I had time to do was offer a brief prayer before they went off to the fight. But those were some of the most powerful moments where we experienced the presence of God. I would find an AAV full of Marines, engine running, and I’d come up to the back of the hatch and pound on it.   “Who is it?” A muffled voice would cry out. “It’s the Chaplain!” The hatch would
swing open like an ancient vault, and there, 25 Marines would be huddled together ready
to go. “Hey guys how about a prayer?” In an instant, 25 men, would grasp each other’s
arms and shoulders and bow for prayer. Never did a man refuse to pray in those
moments we shared together.

And I would touch them - lay my hands upon them. They all wanted me too,
needed me to. We all needed it, because you just didn’t know what the next hours would
bring. I’ve been told that war brings clarity to a man’s life. That’s exactly what we
experienced in those moments together - crystal clarity. Men in need seeking a God who
provides! (And what God always provides, is what we need most --- his presence.  http://www.ifca.org/home/140001498/140001502/pdf/A_Table_in_the_Presence.pdf  . 

It is right here, “in the presence of mine enemies,” that we also find the cross.   At the cross, in presence of God’s own great enemies, God himself feeds his own great need for love, by loving us, his enemies and by making his enemies his friends through the reconciling blood of the cross.  Are we ready to also come to the foot of the cross and find less of what we want, and more of what we need?   Can we follow the Shepherd in a world that can be so spiritually and emotionally empty, even with so much of what we want, but so little of what we really need? 

Only the Shepherd can lead us to what we really need.   It is only at this “table” that “goodness” and  “mercy” can follow us everywhere and anywhere we go in life,  because when our hearts already reside “in the house of the Lord, forever”, whether we get what we want or not, because we have him, we already have everything we need.  Amen.    




© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.
     

Sunday, April 18, 2010

HOW ODD OF GOD?

A Sermon Based upon Acts 9: 1-16
Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
3rd Sunday of Easter, April 18, 2010

As America entered into its ongoing Economic recession, Japan was trying to come out of its own 10 year-long economic recession, where asset prices were also over-inflated when the bubble burst.   Recovery has been as practically impossible in Japan as here, and jobs are still hard come by. 

An award-winning Japanese movie, entitled “Departures”, set in hard economic realities, tells of the dissolving of a Tokyo Orchestra.   Cellist Diago Kobayashi ends up selling his cello and moves back to his hometown.  He goes for a job interview, thinking he is applying for a job with a travel agency assisting departures, and instead discovers the job is to assist the dead in their departures, dressing them and preparing them for "encoffinment".

Daigo needs the money and the president of the “Encoffinment” agency sees promise and sensitivity in this young man and offers him an additional bonus.  Daigo takes the job, even though his wife disapproves of him handling the dead and she leaves him for a while.   Amazingly, through the ritualistic preparing dead bodies for encoffinment, Daigo ends up finding hope for his own life.  A he deals with daily with the heartbreak of suffering and death, he finds a way to embrace his own life.  His final conversion to hope is aptly illustrated when he must prepare his own father’s body for encoffinment, from whom he has been estranged since childhood.  The miracle of miracle comes when Daigo unfolds his dead father’s hand and finds a stone that he had given him as a child.  The love he thought he never had and the one single message he had been waiting for all his life was right  there in the hand of own his dead father.
(For review of the Movie Departures, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Departures_(film) 
  
CAN YOU IMAGINE YOURSELF REDEEMED?
How is redemption still waiting for you?   This is what today’s text asks us to consider again today.  As most of us know, redemption is the major theme of the Bible from Genesis through Revelation.  Nowhere is the promise and hope of redemption displayed as dramatically as it is in today’s text from Acts, which retells the conversion of Saul who eventually becomes Paul the apostle of good news to the Gentiles. 

Saul was on his way to Damascus, where he was going to arrest Christians for their law-breaking, renegade faith in Jesus, when he is suddenly stuck down by a blinding light out of heaven.   The same word which tells of Jesus’ appearing to Saul, is the word used to tell of the Risen Christ’s appearance to the other disciples.   What this Jesus says to Saul is even more important than how Jesus appears, because the light contains a voice that challenges Saul’s own life of killing in God’s name to give him a brand new life-giving mission of loving and working to save others in Jesus’ name.   You can’t miss the dramatic moment of redemption which suddenly comes to Saul on the Damascus road.  What you can miss, however, is how this message of redemption might also be meant for you and for me.

Have you ever been on your own road to Damascus?  Have you ever been on a road that you have chosen for your own life and found that is more live-taking, sucking the very life out of you and others whom you love, rather than being a life that is hopeful, full of promise and potential?   Anyone can find themselves on the Damascus road of destructive behavior and death.  We hear about people traveling down this road all the time, even when they may think they are traveling otherwise.  This week in the news CNN's Larry King filled for his 8th divorce.   Last week Coal miners lost their lives in West Virginia in a tragic accident due to negligence of their employers.  Months before that, the news media has been pre-occupied by Tiger Wood’s own fall from grace through his so called, sexual addiction.  Most all of us face the daily destructive results of the greed on Wall Street and the continual and constant decline of American life.  “We’re going to take America back!” declares the new up and coming political movements around us.  Everyone seems to be in need of redemption these days, not just people, but also our country, our cities, our institutions and even many churches too find themselves facing real decline, facing their own demise and in need of redemption and hope.  

But this is not how we remember the Damascus road, is it?   We don’t remember the road as a road to death and destruction, but we remember the Damascus road as a road of conversion, salvation, change and hope.   Isn’t this is the very road where Saul saw the light?  This is where the clear voice of the risen Lord Jesus was heard and heeded.  This is where light infused death and destruction with a marvelous, miraculous beam of life saving energy and grace.  Is there any hope that we could find that same energy of grace and life that might renew on our own lives when we find ourselves on the same road of death and destruction?

The other day, on 60 minutes, I saw a kind of Damascus Road experience for British savant Derek Paravincini, who is so mentally impaired that, even though he is 26 years old, he has the mind of a 2 and a half year old.   But amazingly, Derek, even though he can’t tie his own shoes or even tell you the colors of the rainbow, he has the astounding musically ability to play any piece of music he hears.  He can play even the most difficult and complex music of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, even though he is blind.   All Derek has to do is hear the music one time and he can not only replay it just as he heard it, but he can even improvise on it, change its style and make it an musical work of art right before your eyes and ears.   Derek can take all the elements of his debilitation and demise and make the most beautiful music this side of heaven.

I did a little research and discovered that there are many notable savant’s in the world.  According to the website which discusses Savant syndrome, one in ten savants are able to develop uncanny abilities which redeem them from their own darkness.   Besides developing miraculous musical abilities, other savants develop the ability to make calculations faster than computers, some are sculptures, others carpenters, artists, memory experts or even scientists.  They find ways out of their own dungeons of terrible darkness and dying and are able to come into the rather miraculous glow of redeeming light.  (Treffert DA (2009). "The savant syndrome: an extraordinary condition. A synopsis: past, present, future". Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 364 (1522): 1351–7.doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0326. PMID 19528017. Lay summary – Wisconsin Medical Society.)  

Of course, it’s one thing to see redemption taking place in the lives of others, whether it is physical, mental, or spiritual, but what about us?   Is this Damascus Road incident just another story too good to be true or can it say something real and relevant to us?  Does Saul’s conversion point to any real hope of redemption for our lives, our world, and for our churches, when we too might find ourselves on the dark side of things?  Can the Damascus road still happen?

REDEMPTION HAS NOT ONE, BUT TWO ANGLES
As I have studied this great biblical story of conversion and redemption in the life of Saul of Tarsus this week, I see not just one, but two angles of conversion and redemption which might intercept our own lives when things seem to fall apart.  


One angle on redemption is very obviously the conversion of Saul from a sinner into a saint.  We can all see this angle can’t we, since we all know that there is a “sinner” in all of us?   I find it even a little “odd” of God to choose Saul to become the first missionary to the world, who was also a murderer of Christians and against everything they stood for.   However you view this story, you can’t miss the drama which redemption brought when Saul encountered the light and heard the voice.   It reminds me of a Garson Rice, a man I knew when he was dying, who was once fighting the Japanese as a marine in the pacific, but later came home and opened the first Toyota car franchise in the southeast.   Everyone thought he was crazy to forgive the Japanese like he did in those postwar days give their car a chance.  Even though he made millions through forgiving them, I guess there are still some people who didn’t like what he did.

However you size up what took place, Saul’s conversion, this “appearing” of Jesus to him on this Damascus road of death, was an experience which both challenged and changed his life.   All the changes didn’t come at once, but the challenge came and he accepted it, and as a result  most the Christian Bible ended up being written by him.  But the most important key to this dramatic moment of redemption, was not that Saul was changed into the person he always wanted to be, but rather it was that he was willing to be changed into the person God wanted him to be.  I don’t know that we always see this second very important part of conversion and redemption.  


It is one thing to want to have redemption in our lives, but it’s quite another thing to surrender ourselves to what God wants and what God needs for us to become in His great purpose.   But true redemption is never just redemption only for ourselves, but true redemption is always a redemption by which God redeems our lives for the bigger purposes for which we are chosen, called or saved.   I guess you could say that we are always redeemed on purpose, and never by accident.

Do you know the story of the Buddha?  I was reminded of this recently in a T.V. special.  The Buddha, the founder of one of the worlds great religions, was once a prince named Siddhartha who lived over 2500 years ago, 500 years before Jesus.   Until he was 29 years old his Father, protected the young prince from the real suffering and pains of the world.  He was not only sheltered by his Father, but because he was financially secure, he was protected from the pains and struggles most people encounter in life and while under this illusion that nothing could happen to him, he was able to indulge in ever pleasure and desire he wanted.  


But one day, Siddhartha went outside the royal compound and began to encounter people who were sick, poor, old and suffering.   This was something he had never seen before, since his life had been so overly protected by this parents and their wealth.  The revelations of reality so impacted him, that he became completely obsessed with the problem of suffering, which eventually became the fundamental approach of the way of enlightenment he discovered.  Siddhartha became the enlightened one, when he realized that life involves finding a way of redemption to deal suffering and death.  He discovered that the only way to live in any kind of peace was to find a way to accept, redeem or escape from this suffering and death in his own heart and mind, even though no one can escape in in their body.

Though Buddha never attempted to be a god nor to start a religion, his wisdom did establish the religion we know as Buddhism today.   This great religion does reflects upon a great truth of all religion and all life, which is even more fully revealed in Jesus' suffering on the cross.  Suffering is part of our lives and any hope of redemption must come to cope with pain and hurt.  We can even see this in the conversion of Saul too.   Notice how our text concludes that the Lord will show Saul his redemption by also showing him “how he will suffer for my name’s sake” (9:16). 

There is an amazing difference between the salvation offered through Buddhism and the redemption through the cross as Jesus suffers for us and we are called to suffer with Jesus.   While Buddha’s main result was to find a way to “escape” from suffering by dealing with desire through meditation and self-denial, Jesus way of redemption, promises salvation through pain and suffering, by seeing God’s light, and by hearing and responding to God’s call upon our lives, and learning from Jesus how to give ourselves for God’s greater glory and purposes in this world.  While Buddhism offers redemption through escape, Christianity primarily offers redemption by engagement into the pains and problems of the world.   These days, however, I think there are many more Christian people looking for Jesus as their personal “Buddha” to help them escape the pain and suffering rather than looking for Jesus to be the Savoir who leads us to “take up the cross” to find His higher purpose and calling for our lives.  We still want Jesus to be like Buddha, helping us escape suffering, more rather than finding true redemption through suffering for doing what it right.    

But we can understand how people can miss this can’t we?   Even when the light is shinning very brightly around and in us, it is difficult to realize that redemption only comes through the pain and suffering instead of coming by finding our way around it.  This is why Jesus says He is the way, the truth and the life.  The way on comes when we accept and live the truth.  By accepting the truth, even when it hurts, we just have to trust the voice and go where God is leading whether we want to go or not.  Salvation and redemption comes by hearing our calling, realizing what is real and most needed for us to do, not finding a way to escape our responsibilities to the light we see.    

Do you find this a little “odd of God?”  Jesus still calls sinners like Saul, and like us to find our the meaningful redemption and hope through surrendering to God’s will, God’s purposes and giving ourselves to God’s higher calling and claim upon our lives, even by being willing to go through suffering and pain .  I don’t know about you, but I still think this is a strangely “odd”, if not wonderfully “odd” way for God to work.  Our God is not the God who prevents us from being sinners in the first place, nor is the God who comes to show us how to escape our pain and suffering, but our God saves us through our suffering, by transforming the pain we all have in life, by calling us to suffer not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of righteousness.     While you nor I may never understand fully why God works through our sinfulness and suffering, rather than preventing it,  this is indeed the way God works in the real world.  God redeems, God converts, and God changes us from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from deeds of evil to deeds of light and goodness when we find his calling see the light right in the middle of our darkness, in our despair, and even in our waywardness.   This is the way the gospel works.  We have to realize and grasp this “bad news” before we can be come to fully grasp the redemption God offers through good news.  This is still the only way God changes sinners into saints.      

STILL RELUCTANT TO TRUST GOD’S SAVING GRACE
But there is still one other angle on redemption we need to see in this story.  Not only is Saul being converted from being a sinner to saint and to suffer for Jesus, but Ananias, who is a disciple of Jesus is also being converted to realizing that a saint is still a sinner who is struggling to trust and follow God in suffering and risking himself for God’s greater purpose.  Do you see this other need for conversion, not just of the sinner, but also of the saint?  It may not be as evident in the story, but it is just as essential and may even become more important for us church folks.  

When the Lord spoke to Ananias asking him to risk himself and go and seek out this “sinner” named Saul to help him recover from his blindness, Ananias gives a protest.  “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem” (Act 9:13 NRS).    Isn’t it ironic, even humorous, that this Saul who once hated saints, who didn’t believe in the true Lord of love is suddenly and  miraculously filled with love for them and is trusting of Jesus, but it is one of Jesus own disciples, this “saint” named Ananias, is the one having trouble believing that Jesus can change anybody he wants to.  I don’t know about you, but some days my spiritual need for redemption is closer to the need of Ananias than the needs of Saul.  While I take for granted that I’m a sinner who needs salvation, I’m sometimes very unaware that I’m also a saint who is still a sinner, still not fully trusting that God has the very power to save, change, and redeem people and the even to redeem the world around me.  It might even be harder to be an Ananias who still trusts that people can change, than to be a Saul who knows he needs to change. 

Most of us were shocked when that lady in Tennessee, sent her troubled adopted child back to Russia week or so ago.  I, one who has adopted a troubled child understands very well the fears, the frustrations and her motivation for what this mother did.  While many in the media have been hard on her for abandoning the boy, I’ve also had a lot of sympathy for her and her situation.   Though I am disappointed and saddened that she felt she had to put the child on the plane and ship him back to Russia as the only option she had, none of us can understand her feelings and fears unless we’ve had been there with that very difficult child, in that impossible situation feeling so very hopeless and helpless.  

Perhaps what makes us most mad at her, though is that we’d all like to do that with some of our problem’s wouldn’t we?  Sometimes the only hope we think we have is find a way to escape or to avoid the challenge we have rather than face and engage it.   I’ve told my wife, if she ever feels she is ready to leave me, just let me know, I’ll  go too.   What I mean is that we all can feel like life has us at a dead end.  We can even be believing saints and still feeling like untrusting, unbelieving sinners.   The possibilities of a Saul conversion is real, but just as real is that some days we find ourselves to be reluctant witnesses like Ananias, still struggling in the middle of the moment, fearing nothing has really changed and fearing that there is no promise, no hope, and no real options other than to walk even deeper into the dark.   When I read this story, I too find my own spirituality often closer to what Ananias felt as he still struggled, rather than with Saul who saw the unadulterated light and was blinded by it.  Isn’t this part of the story for you?  Redemption comes, yes.  But sometimes we still wonder if it really comes.

What kind of spiritual insight does Saul’s conversion and Ananias’ hesitation finally bring to us?   Does it bring anything for our own struggle with light and darkness, with hopeless days and sleepless nights, with both our sin and our reluctance to be God’s saints who follow the light in our lives?  Maybe the great good news of redemption in this text, from both Saul and Ananias, is that God is still calling and using, both sinning sinners and sinful saints for his purposes, even thought we both have our warts and flaws.   If we will forget trying to figure out exactly where God is taking us, and start trusting and following this odd God is choosing for his work.   If would be more willing to surrender to where the light might take us, redemption still can come even to the most remote, stubborn darkness. 

This last week on the news brought an amazing example of God’s voice still speaking, didn’t it?  If you didn’t see it on the news, those of us watching the news from Florida about this rescue worker who claimed to have been listening to God’s voice calling him to go in another direction, can’t miss the impact of what happened.  The authorities couldn’t miss it either.  When James King (sounds like King James, doesn’t it)  claims that he went in the opposite direction because God told him too, and he walked two hours straight to the place where little Nadia was waiting (she has Asperger’s syndrome) the authorities just had to take him into questioning either because he prayed in tongues and was hearing voices or also because they were almost certain that there was no way God actually spoke to him and told him where to go.   At least that was how it seemed, until they questioned him and couldn’t find any other answer to this strange moment of salvation and redemption.  Even CNN was convinced that something incredibly redemptive happened when he listened to the voice.  You can’t argue with voice or the light, when it works.   You just see for your eyes, even if you can’t hear with your ears.
 
Saul too had to trust that God would speak to Ananias who would come and lead  him, and Ananias too, had to trust that there was a light and a voice that Saul had seen and heard.  Both reveal the barriers and the keys to our own redemption in these days.  We don’t find ourselves simply waiting on a miracle, but God is waiting to see if we trust that the miracle of grace that still breaks into our lives as light in darkness.  Can we still trust the light?  Can we hear the voice that still speaks?

When I was getting a haircut, my barber who is also a small group leader in a large church in southern Iredell county, was asked by his pastor to take a young drug addict under his wing and give him a place to stay so he might have a chance to deal with his addiction and find recovery.   He and his wife decided to take the young man in, but it wasn’t long until the man broke his promise and was taking drugs again.   But instead of throwing the young man out back to the streets, he told me that he decided to give him grace instead of “law”.  Only grace was going to save him, the law never would”, he said.  He was still learning about grace in his life, and had come to believed that this young needed to find the light of hope through grace, because only “grace” can really change you from the inside out.  He even joked, that the situation even caused his Methodist wife to lay hands on him and pray over him instead of laying hands on him another way.   Can you believe my Methodist wife did that?  He said.  As I heard that, I wonder where these people got this very odd idea that “grace” is the only way people can be  truly be redeemed?   

Maybe this is the ultimate “oddness of God”.  It is not only “odd” that God chose the Jews, or chose a sinner like Saul, but it is also “odd” that God still calls reluctant, untrusting, unbelieving saints to do his work in this world.  So we can read this Bible story and still wonder? Will Saul’s light be more than just a blinding moment in time?  Will Ananias see where God is calling him to give a real sinner grace?   We know what happened to them, but what matters now is what will happen with us?  Do we still dare to trust and believe that God can bring light to sinners and call reluctant saints to really dare to listen for God’s voice and trust God’s grace?  That is the Damascus road question still confronting most of us in these days.   There are always plenty of people who believe in death and destruction and are ready to get us on that bandwagon, but our very odd God still waits and  works through the very few of us who get on the bandwagon to bend our own ears to hear the voice and open our blinded eyes to see the very light of his of his amazing grace still shinning into this world.  Which frequency are you tuned onto?   Do you see still see the light and hear the voice?  I hope so, because He is still the only true light that can light the only true voice worth following.  Amen.




© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.
     

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Believing Again, For the First Time

A Sermon based upon John 20: 19-31
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
2nd Sunday of Easter, April 11, 2010

Once, while traveling in the town of York in England, I came upon a tourist store which sold Family Coat of Arms with small histories of family names.   Upon reading the etymology of the name Tomlin, I found that the oldest form of Tomlin may go back to name Thomas, derived from the disciple known as “doubting Thomas”.   That was not exactly what I wanted to find.

This disciple we find in today’s Scripture has not been favorably remembered primarily because of his doubt.   But the truth is, Scripture tells us that at one time or other all the disciples doubted.   In the gospel of Matthew, we read how even when Jesus appeared a second time and maybe even a third time to the eleven, “they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17).  Did you catch the meaning hear?  Some disciples of Jesus were worshipping, following, seeing, and being with Jesus, but still they had their doubts.  

In the longer ending of Mark’s gospel, we also read that when Jesus appeared to the eleven, “he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.”  (Mark 16:14).  It was his to these very disciples, the ones still doubting, still struggling to come to grips with what had happened, that Jesus gives the Great Commission: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.  The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).   Do you not find it a little strange and very ironic, that Jesus gave his great message of faith to the very ones who were still dealing with disbelief themselves?

I think it still happens.   I honestly don’t think Jesus would have it any other way.  Easy believers, are just that---too easy, and also very shallow.   When I say that I think doubt still happens, I say this because when I teach a Bible study around here and ask for questions, there are always people who look at me with blank stares hardly know how to react.   I’m not sure whether we have so many doubts we are afraid to admit them, or we are so used to covering them up, denying or ignoring them, that we would rather move on to the next subject.   But the truth, I believe, whether we want to admit them, confront them, or deal with them, we too are disciples who have been given the Great Commission to share Good News with the World, while we are still trying to get our own hearts and even our beliefs figured out.  

Jesus would have it no other way.  There is no such thing as a disciple who is absolutely certain of everything the faith teaches.  There is no such thing as a follower of Jesus who has everything figured out and knows how to express it.  There is no such thing as a Christian, who doesn’t deal with surprises, unknowns, and have questions that are still unresolved in both their minds and hearts.  True faith in Jesus and discipleship with Jesus does not wait on having all the answers, nor on having absolute certainty, and most of all, doesn’t wait to figure out all the details of Christian teaching and understanding.  

I think it was Augustine who said that “Faith seeks understanding,” not the other way around.   Faith comes before we understand everything and depends more on a living a trusting relationship with Jesus Christ who transcends all our own “stubbornness”, all our own ideas of faith, or transcends even our “lack of faith.”  (Mark 16:14).  Just like the great father of faith, Abraham, the greatest faith “goes” and keeps on going even when it does not always “know” where it is going or where it will end up. If your faith is the same place its always been, it is not a living or growing reality.   Just as living things have dying foliage that needs constant trimming and casting away, so does true faith have both dying parts and growing parts, which need trimming and refining. 

This is why I think it is very important that the Sunday after Easter, we study Thomas and consider, not just the faith we believe in, but we also consider why and what it means that we call it “faith” in the first place.   I also want us to briefly consider the nature of some of our own doubts about the faith we have been given to believe.   While there are some who will say that confronting your doubts is not good for faith, I would rather trust the Bible’s own wisdom and keep even  doubt right in middle of the living story of living faith and declare the contrary; only when you face your doubts, learn to keep going with God even with your doubts; only then will you discover the strongest faith which can give you hope and strength for the most challenging storms of your life.      

So, let me tell already, where I’m going with this sermon.  I’m not trying to get you to doubt, but I want you, like Thomas, to come to an even stronger faith through your doubts.  Even though Thomas doubted, and even though all the disciples at some time or other doubted who Jesus was or what he was doing, Jesus was able to walk through the locked doors their hearts (all except Judas.   And Judas wasn’t a doubter as much as he was also a deceiver).   It was even this “doubting” Thomas, who also doubted, who was able to give us the greatest confession of faith in the entire Bible. 

This brings me to my first observation from this story of doubt:  Even though this moment of doubt brought a crisis of faith in Thomas’ discipleship with Jesus, it was a faith crisis which also had a good side and a good outcome to it.  Contrary to popular expressions of faith, the Bible wants us to see how honest, open, and sincere doubt can be a good and healthy thing.  

One current example of “good” doubt is in the movie, entitled “Doubt” which stars the very talented, award-winning actress, Meryl Streep.   Streep plays as nun who is caring for children, but has her own “doubts” about a Priests who may be abusing those children.  This movie is powerful because, while it shows the true doubt about those people who can disappoint us the most, like a ill, sinful, and deceptive priest, it also shows us the good side of people like this nun, who puts her own life and reputation at risk to doubt that this priest is as sinless as he claims to be.   While there are reasons to distrust the corrupting influences around the institution of the church, the movie leaves you reaffirming the cause of the church and many of the unsung heroes who really do try to do the right thing.

This movie represents one of the major problems we often confront when we have doubts.   When we run into to doubts about something, does this mean we stay with them and confront them, or does it mean we deny them or that we immediately cast them aside, or that we throw out everything we have believed, along with the doubts we have.   Many people do this.  They find themselves in doubt about an issue in their faith, so they decide to lose all faith.   They discover something that is not what it appears, and they, as the old adage says, “throw out the baby with the bathwater.”   But what we really need to do with our doubts is not ignore them or run from them, but stay engaged and deal with the doubt itself until we come to a breakthrough and a deeper understanding of it.  This is part of what makes Thomas’ story so powerful and pertinent to our own struggles with faith.

 For whatever reason, Thomas was not there when Jesus first appeared.   Maybe he was struggling.  Perhaps the surprise of Jesus crucifixion had overwhelmed him as it did each one of the disciples.  This feeling of doubt did not come because he disbelieved in Jesus, but it came exactly because he had believed in Jesus, and believed very deeply.   This is what I often see when it comes to honest doubt.  Many who have great doubts, are often the very people who want or wanted to believe very badly, but for some reason they are now struggling.  Maybe Thomas’ struggle came because he wanted to see Jesus succeed.  Maybe he had already made his own conclusions and had his own expectations about what success was suppose to look like.  When that did not happen, because of his faith and not due to a lack of it, Thomas came to have some very serious doubts.  

I don’t think we, the faithful, always realize that the very people who have doubts or who don’t believe as we do, could someday be the great believers.   I think we too quickly want to rush to conclusions and make other people see things like we do.  Why do we do that?  Probably, we don’t want to face their hard questions because we can’t answer them.  Often we don’t want deal with these questions because we have not worked through our own doubts as we should.

I recall several years ago, how church leader told me about a woman in her church who had many fears and doubts about her daughter going to college.  The openness, the discovery of other ideas, the marketplace of many approaches to truth, made this parent and could make any parent nervous.  But I also remember what this wise man told the mother.  Instead of giving her advice about her daughter, he asked her a hard question she needed to consider.  He asked, “Do you think your daughter has your faith that you force upon her, or did you share your faith and let her develop her own?”   Then he gave this warning:  “If she only has your faith, then she might lose it while she is there in school, but if she has been allowed to develop and grow in her own faith, then nothing and no one can take if from her because it is hers.”  

I think there is a great word of wisdom here.  If we have true faith, one day we will have to struggle with it.   The point is that when are allowed to struggle and go through times of testing, this is the way we become stronger in our faith.   The crisis of faith we can have in our lives, is necessary for developing a faith that grows stronger through trials and can endure the greatest tests. 

But this brings me to the second observation, which reminds us of how doubt can also become a bad thing.   Doubt can become a very bad thing when we face them alone, or when we become disconnected from others, or we, who have faith, push away those who are struggling without sensitivity or understanding.

Let’s notice again what happens with Thomas and his doubt.  What does he do with it?   First it overwhelmed him for a week or so, but then, notice where we find him the very next week?  He is back with the others and with the group.   Even though he still has doubts, he does not stay home and face his doubts alone.  This group of disciples who have seen the Lord, and are very convinced, have not put Thomas down, excluded him, but have allowed, maybe even invited Thomas to remain with them, even with his differences of opinions and even with his doubts.

If I went around this Sanctuary today and asked certain questions about our Christian faith, I could find expressions of both faith and doubt about many issues.  Many and maybe most of you would believe much of same things.   But while some of you would believe certain things with your whole heart, others of you have some doubts about these very same things others are most convinced about.   The problem Is, especially in today’s “quick fix” world, is that we don’t have enough time to talk about, discuss, share or listen to each others doubts.   We place the major emphasis upon our faith and what we believe, and this is good, but it is not good that we suppress the doubts and what we struggle with.   

I’m not asking today, that we make church a doubting party, nor a place that puts the major emphasis upon what we should doubt.   That would not be healthy.   But I also don’t think it’s healthy to deny our differences or cover or force a quick resolution to these doubts either.  While we don’t always get all the doubts out, we can realize that there are doubting Thomas’ here every Sunday, and there is something of a doubting Thomas in each one of us.   Again, what I like about this story of Thomas is that when they locked the doors, they didn’t lock Thomas out.

Years ago, I came across a story that illustrates well what happens when people learn to accentuate differences instead of learning to accept and deal with them in positive way.  There was a Jewish congregation who got into a debate about whether the great traditions was to stand when saying the prayers, or to kneel when saying the prayers.   When the new young Rabbi came he found the people doubting each other’s tradition, and so he went to their former Rabbi and explained to him, that when he came to the congregation, nobody knew which was right, should they kneel or should they stand.  They were always fighting.   Which is right tradition?  “They are following their tradition, the Rabbi said, they are following it as they always have.  They are fighting over the truth.  That is their great tradition.

Many people have at the center of their faith the desire, the need to fight for what they believe, but the truth is that we seldom fight fair.  It is unfortunate that for many Christians the great tradition has been to “shot our own wounded”. 
When I went to Turkey, where many great churches once stood, I found none.  I wondered to myself why.  Did the Turks kill all the Christians?   Well, the truth is that they did persecute some, but for the most part, the Church was dead long before the Arabs and Turks got there.  Back as early as 451 AD, right in the very churches Paul started, they eventually had a political war over Jesus.   When Christianity started to gain power, those who got power were quick to label and even attack those who didn’t agree with them  (See Jesus Wars, by Philip Jenkins, HarperOne, 2010). 

Do you know what they didn’t agree over?  Interestly these early Christians  agreed on all the most important faith issues and were much more alike than different. They agreed that Jesus was God come in the Flesh.  They agreed on on communion, on baptism, and on the nature of the church, etc.   The only thing they didn’t agree was how to put their faith in Jesus into words.  Some believed that it should be stated that Jesus fully God, but only one nature.  They didn’t want anyone to mess with God.  The others believed that Jesus was God, but he was also fully man, of two natures, both fully God and fully man.  They didn’t want to lose the human side of Jesus.  The one nature group thought this wasn’t logical, so they disputed it.  The two nature group though mystery didn’t have to be logical.   But instead of letting each other co-exist, both groups let politics and  power opinions shape their discussion and ended up fighting bloody political wars over, of all things, the very Jesus Christ who taught love, not war. 

It was the “two nature” who won the wars, and this is what orthodox Christians still believe, but the truth is they both lost.  Now, the same soil upon which those bloody battles were fought, over the next 100 years, became ripe for followers of Mohammed to come in and make peace, where Christians only knew how to make war.  The same thing still happens today.    Even in denominations and churches where politics and power plays take priority over fellowship and sharing in God’s mystery, the soil of evangelism and missions can grown hard and barren and people get hurt.   This is why so many religious weeds grow in God’s garden, instead of the fruit of faith, hope and love.

Why does this kind of thing still happen?  It is because we still haven’t learned learn from the biblical story of Thomas, to do all we can to stay connected with those who don’t see what we see or disagree.   “Doubts can be the ants in the pants of faith, to keep it alive and moving’ says Fredrick Buechner.    Only when we allow for the differences and the doubters to stay together with believers do we come to deepest, and strongest confessions of indisputable truth.   But when we grow suspicious of each other, become over protective of our viewpoints, when we don’t allow for the doubters, or when we shut the door and lock out those who differ with us, and we end up only trusting our own conclusions, not the God who reveals truth to us all.

This brings me to the final thing we need to see from Thomas’s story.  Only Jesus can walk through the locked doors of fear and doubt.    

 Isn’t this a powerful scene in this story, when Jesus comes into the situation of doubt and resolves all of Thomas’ confusion?  Jesus didn’t need an invitation nor an open door, he just needed people to wait on him to set things right.   When we wait on Jesus, then the problems, the doubts, the hurts, the struggles truly can be resolved and in the best way possible.  But when we try to play Jesus, or we try to make people fit our own conclusions, then fellowship can be broken and confusion continues and faith and mission can be weakened.

I don’t know if you know the name of Ann Rice, but she is a writer of some very famous Vampire stories, long before the Twilight series hit the movies.   Ann was really a quite respected novelist, and still is.  And even though she had grown up in the Catholic faith, as she went through adolescence, like many of her generation, she began to have her own doubts.   But most recently, Ann Rice has returned to become a person of faith, and even in a much stronger way.  She has now put down her Vampire stories, and is writing about Jesus, about faith, and about her own unexpected search for truth and discovery of a deeper faith, even through her doubt.   

 In the notes of her book Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, Rice speaks of the doubts she had about upbringing:  I had experienced an old fashioned, strict Roman Catholic childhood in the 1940s and 1950s… we attended daily Mass and communion in an enormous and magnificently decorated church … Stained glass windows, the Latin Mass, the detailed answers to complex questions on good and evil—these things were imprinted on my soul forever… I left this church at age 18... I wanted to know what was happening, why so many seemingly good people didn’t believe in any organized religion yet cared passionately about their behavior and value of their lives… I broke with the church violently and totally... I wrote many novels that without my being aware of it reflected my quest for meaning in a world without God. 
Now compare that with how she finally surrendered all her doubts to Jesus, not any person, to any church, to any pastor or priest.   In her memoir Called Out of Darkness, Rice she writes:
In the moment of surrender, I let go of all the theological or social questions which had kept me from [God] for countless years. I simply let them go. There was the sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything I did not have to know everything, and that, in seeking to know everything, I’d been, all of my life, missing the entire point….  So, In 1998 I returned… I realized that the greatest thing I could do to show my complete love for Him was to consecrate my work to Him—to use any talent I had acquired as a writer, as a storyteller, as a novelist—for Him and for Him alone... to write novels about the Jesus of Scripture, the Jesus of Faith, in His own vibrant first century world...  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Rice)

Isn’t it amazing how “the Jesus of Faith” can still break through the locked doors of our hearts, beyond our confusion, unanswered questions, unresolved difficulties?   But are we willing to stay together in our differences and discussions about faith, and wait on Jesus to settle things?  I believe people who really believe in Jesus, and trust Jesus, will also stay with each other, even in their differences and doubts, and will wait on Jesus himself bring the resolution.  It happened to Thomas, to Ann, and it still happens to us.  We too can believe again, as if for the very first time, if we will take all our doubts to the only one who is able to transform them into faith.   Amen.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Seven Last Words: Whose Life Is it Anyway?

A Sermon Based Upon  Luke 23: 46-49
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Easter Sunday, Zion-Flat Rock Partnership
April 4th, 2010

Have you ever been ripped off?  

While living in an East Germany, I went down to the basement of our apartment building where everyone had individual storage rooms.   I immediately noticed the lock of my door was broken and when I looked inside, I saw my new mountain bike had been stolen.  

I drove to the police station to file a report.  “Is there any chance getting my bike back?” I asked.   The policemen looked at me with a helpless expression and said, “Do you realize that by now your bike has already been repainted and is unrecognizable even by you?”  I could tell by the look in his eyes, I had been ripped off and there was no hope of getting my bike back.   It’s could have been worse.   I had insurance.  I bought another one.  But that was my first Mountain Bike and it was special.  

Most of us have had things stolen.  When you discover that something has been take from you a strange feeling of anger, then helplessness goes all over you.   You have no control.  It is completely unfair.  And worse of all, there is nothing you can do about it.

It especially feels good when you are able to foil someone’s plans to rip you off.   I did get lucky once on a bus in Rome.  All the travel magazines had warned me about pickpockets on a certain bus 81.  I got on a different bus.  It was very crowded and I had to stand.  I was especially careful and observant and I patted my wallet in my front pocket every five seconds.  After the bus jarred to a sudden stop and had to grab hold with both hands only for a mere millisecond, I immediately reached down to check and the wallet was gone.

 I knew it just happened so I screamed out, “Wallet!”  I jump off the bus and grabbed a man getting off the bus and without seeing anything accused him in English!  “You’ve got my wallet!”  The man didn’t understand a word and looked acted innocent.  Everyone was watching me to see what this 220 pound guy was going to do with this short, 150 pound fellow.  Then, in the next moment a passerby, who happened to be a deaf man who had keener eyes than most, who was in Rome for a convention of Deaf people, pointed down under the bus and I looked down and there was my wallet.  Evidently the man dropped it when I rushed toward him.  I found out later because of all the tourists, Roman police are hard on pickpockets and that they will drop everything when they are discovered.

Even though the wallet I had only had $100 and one credit card, I was so very proud to have been able to stop someone from ripping me off.    But today, I want you to know that some day we will all be “ripped” off and there is nothing any of us can do about it.  I’m talking about “death” which is the ultimate rip off. 

YOUR LIFE IS NEVER COMPLETELY YOURS
The title of my sermon today comes from a 1972 play by Brian Clark entitled, “Whose Life Is it Anyway?”   The play tells the story of a British sculptor, Ken Harrison, who was injured in a car accident and rather than being allowed to die, due to all the advances in medical science, survives and is a quadriplegic.  In the play, Harrison is very angry because he doesn’t think the government had any right to save him and he now thinks, in his condition and under these circumstances, he has the right to take his own life and end this terrible condition for himself.  He believes his life is his own, but the government keeps doing everything it can to keep him alive and helping him live, even against his own will to die.  (From

We all know the answer that most people give to this question: Whose Life is It?  Of course, my life is my life and I’ll do with it what I please, right?  I have a “right to life!”  Correct?   This is what many are inclined to think.   I want to tell you today, why I hope your life and my life do not completely belong to us.  In this final word from the cross, when Jesus cries his final word “Father, Into Your Hands, I commend my Spirit!” Jesus is doing what all of us one day will have to do.  Whether we want to or not, we all will have give our lives back to God or we will have to face the ultimate rip off.  We will either have to let go and fall off into the outer darkness of who knows where, (I talk more about that later) or we will have to “commend” our “spirits” into God’s hands.   

WE MUST COMMEND OUR SPIRITS TO GOD
Strangely, commending your spirit to God can be good news.  It is part of the great message of Easter.   Even though this final saying comes from the cross and not on Easter, it is the only saying that prepares our hearts for what comes next.   In this word from the cross we find the only real hope of avoiding the ultimate rip off of our own lives through sin and death. 

How does Jesus avoid the ultimate rip off?  Take note of what had just happened to Jesus!  The world had been knocking him around for quite a while now.  He had been beaten, slapped, ridiculed, and finally was crucified.   While his life was in his hands, the devil kept trying to kill him off, and now would finally succeed.  As death comes near, Jesus is no longer able to fight off the corruption of the world, the weakness of his flesh, nor the destruction of evil and death.   As he said in his final prayer in Gethsemane, “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”   His life is fading, but in his spirit he still will not surrender nor allow the devil to steal his spirit. 

What we must understand is Jesus’ cry of surrender to God is not a cry of weakness, nor a moment of defeat, but it was a cry of Jesus’ great spiritual strength and his victory.   Again, Jesus is quoting Scripture.  These words are not just his words, but they are the well rehearsed words of the faithful in prayer.  Jesus is doing what he has always been doing in private and public prayer.  He is doing what we must do and rehearse in our own lives.   By commending his spirit into “the Father’s Hands” he is placing his heart at the one place where the world, flesh and the devil cannot go.   As Jesus he told us, nothing can pluck or snatch us from of the Father’s hands (John 10:29).  And Jesus is practicing what he preaches because by commending his spirit to the Father, he is storing his own heart as his greatest treasure.  He is storing his spirit, in heaven, where moth and rust cannot corrupt and where thieves cannot break-in and steal.”   (Matt. 6: 19ff.).  

Easter asks us all to consider, where will we store our greatest treasure, which is our soul, our heart, or our spirit?   One day we must all give our “spirits” back to God.  One day we will all lose the fight against the corruption of our flesh.  One day, we will have to commend who we have been, who we are, and even who we aren’t, and who we hope to be, into God’s hands.   To fail to do so----to fail to give our spirits to God means that in the end, our lives will be finally overtaken and fully overcome by the ultimate rip off---death.    

Whatever Easter is to you, for me, and for all of us eventually, Easter is the only way we can look straight into what is coming for us and know that it will not be an ultimate rip off.   On Easter, we can celebrate life in the only way we could ever really celebrate it which has both feeling and spirit.   On Easter, if we commend our hearts and our spirits to God now, already in faith and hope, we can believe that when the final day comes, it will not be our last because this was not the last of Jesus.  On Easter, we know commending our “spirits” to God will give shape to that which lasts, which survives, what is eternal, and what is most real and matters most. 

ONLY GOD CAN GIVE YOU YOUR LIFE BACK
Why should we trust “our spirits” to God?  Why should we give God the both treasure of our hearts and the soul of our life?   Why was: “Father in your hands, I commend my Spirit” Jesus’ final word of faith?   Let do more than explain, let me tell you a true story of the someone commending themselves to God.

Vigen Guroian is an Orthodox believer who teaches religion at the University of Virginia.   Once he traveled in Armenia, where he was sitting in the dark talking to a friend.   This Armenian friend, named Kevork, told him a terrible story:  On a sunny December morning in 1988, the earth shook so fiercely in Armenia that the high-rise apartment in which Kevork, his wife Anahid, and his two children lived crumbled to the ground.  The parents, Kevork and Anahid had gone to work before the quake struck.  But ten-year old Armen and his seven-year old sister, Lillit, were preparing to leave for school when the floor fell from under them and they were thrust into a black bit, buried beneath ten stories of twisted metal and stone. 

Kevork raced back home from the school at  which he taught.  Frantically, he began pulling chunks of concrete out of the jagged mountain of wreckage until his hands bled.  When he realized the futility of his efforts, Kevork ran across the ruined city to reach someone with the machinery to rescue his children for their dark Sheol.  But for three dreadful days, Armen and Lillit remained wrapped in suffocating darkness, removed from the land of the living.

Through it all, Armen courageously encouraged his sister to keep hope.  On the third day, he rescue team found the children.  Two days later Armen died in the hospital.  His youthful body had been crushed from the waist down.  Remarkably, Lillit survived, even though she had been pinned to the ground by a steel beam that lodged itself in her forehead.
            “I have argued with God day and night!” Kevork exclaimed.  “But God has not answered!  Armen is gone!  I will go on living my life in this sorrow, but I no longer worry about what God’s purposes are or what he can do.”   
            “Kevork, you can’t really mean that, his friend Vigen responded, to which Kevork continued with a question; “What is left for me?   As a heart-stricken Father, Kevork bowed his head, then after a few minutes of silence he spoke again.  “
            Vigen, my friend, have you heard of the Hare Krishna religion?  My nephew brought me a book that I want to show you. There are drawings in it about the afterlife and the migrations of the soul.  When I was a young man, we were taught in our atheism classes that Marxism is materialist and Christianity is spiritualist.  If that is so, Vigen, explain to me what is the difference between what is said in this book and what the Bible teaches.  Are not both religions spiritualist?  I know that we Christians believe in resurrection, but help me to understand how this belief is different from what is shown in the picture of this book.”
            “Kevork,” Vigen asked, “do you have a Bible?”
            Kevork got up and disappeared into the darkness.  Soon he returned with a Russian Bible, the book that his nephew had given him, and a dictionary that translated from Russian into Armenian.  Vigen got out an English Bible and an Armenian-English dictionary.  With these material spread on a small kitchen table, in the candlelight, they read from 1 Corinthians and the last chapter of the book of Job.
            “Kevork,” Vigen said, “St. Paul speaks of resurrection in chapter 15.   Why don’t you read the Bible while I do the same in mine?”   So this Armenian Job read his Russian Bible, and Vigen  read in his. 

Slowly,   Kevork read and reread the whole of chapter 15.  His eyes grew wide and his lips moved rhythmically as he read to himself half-aloud.   Then as he read where “the corruptible body has put on incorruption, and this mortal body has put on immortality, then is the saying come true, “Death is swallowed up in victory”, his face started to glow.  He looked up and shouted, “Vigen, Christianity is materialist!  It says we will have bodies!   I will see Armen’s face again, just as I see yours now, here in the candelight!”  (From “Descended Into Hell” by Vigen Guroian, in Christian Century, March 23, 2010, p. 26).

What the Hindu doctrine could not promise this broken Armenian father, the Bible, Christianity and Easter did.  St. Paul assured him that he would see his son again in the kingdom of the Father, in whose hands we all can commend our spirits.   For only by giving our spirits to God, can we know we will not be finally ripped off by either life or death.  

When death comes to steal your body and take your life, make sure you have given your soul to God, so that one day, you will be guaranteed, through Jesus' own resurrection, that on that day and in God’s time you will  get both your life and your body back.  The is the great Easter Hope of the Risen Christ.   Amen.  

© 2010 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.