Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sermon: Through The Valley

Psalm 23

One of the most powerful phrases in the well-known 23rd Psalm is “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” Let’s talk about that valley of the shadow of death.

Kristin Cooper King tells a powerful story about how her husband was killed by a distracted driver.

“In December 2009, my husband, Chris Cooper, and I were in a car accident that took his life. Through the grace of God, I survived the accident, but am having to learn to live my life without Chris. This blog is about my journey - as a young widow, a single mother to a beautiful 2 year old girl, and a true believer that God's hand is directing my days.”[1]

In her blog posts she reflects on that first year and its struggles. She talks about the heartbreak and struggle of that time and how hard it is to put into words, how at times it is hard to believe that he is no longer with them. What she feels at one week from his death, one month, one year. At one month she also talks about God’s presence in that valley time.

Let me warn you, I cried as I read it the first time, so no promises here as I share this with you: “On Sunday, my parents took Colleen to run errands and left me here to rest. I ended up not sleeping, but here in the office - his room. I took that time to do something that I had been putting off. I spent almost 2 hours reading all of the Facebook messages that people have sent me over the last month. I went to Chris’ fan page, read all of the entries, and re-watched the video from the memorial service for the first time. I logged into his old hotmail account, and read a folder of emails that he had saved from when we were first dating – over 6 years ago. And I let myself weep. I wept for myself, for Colleen, for our families. I wept for his friends, who loved him like a brother. I wept for the life that we could have had.”

“As I wept, I was listening to a song that someone had reminded me of right after the accident. It’s a song that I have heard before, but have never really had the context to understand. The song is a prayer, and as I listened I prayed her words. I prayed that God would lead me through this valley, this fire, to the life that he has promised. I prayed and asked for strength, the strength to not to have to understand, but just to know that God’s heart is full of love, and that he will never leave me. As I write this now, I can’t help but cry – but I don’t feel alone.”[2]

I’m not done yet, because where I first heard about Kristin was through her Poem “Through the Valley”. It is deeply powerful, and expresses just how hard it is to walk through that valley of the shadow of death, and yet just how much hope God’s light brings us in those darkest times.

I’ve walked through the valley. I’ve seen the shadow
the death.
I’ve had my life ripped apart at the seams. Stolen from
me in an instant.

I’ve lived through the days when I could only take
one step at a time. One foot in front of the other. One
minute. One second. Without being able to think farther

I’ve walked through the valley. It’s an ugly place. It’s
dark and cold. The mountains are high on each side.
Tall and forbidding. Too high to climb.

The path is windy ahead. It curves where I can’t see.
Each day I make it a little farther. I sleep alone. I’m

But there’s a tiny flame inside my heart. A first it is the
tiniest flicker. From the first moment I can feel it. As
cold and scared and dark as it is I can feel the burn in
my heart.

The flame brings peace. Comfort. Light.

The flame leads me. Shows me the way to the green
pastures of my home and the still waters of my family.
The flame anoints me with the warmth of love.

I cling to the flame. I seek it. Tend it. And it grows.

It can’t carry me out of the valley. That job is mine. But
it lights my path. Guides my feet. Stays with me. Protects
me from my fears. And day by day, step by step,
it leads me.

Outside of the valley there is a life waiting for me. A
life overflowing with goodness. A life full of mercy and
love. It’s my job to take the steps. But I’ll never be alone.[3]

Kristin learned: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For you are with me.”

But let’s keep looking “Through the Valley” is also the title of a memoir by William Reeder Jr. He was a senior captain on his second tour of Vietnam, flying OV-1 Mohawks on secret missions. While providing support to forces, his chopper went down and he was captured and held as a POW. What he faced was unimaginable. His accounts are not for the squeamish. And yet, if you look at the title of his book, Through the Valley, it is meant to be a reference to the valley of death in the 23rd Psalm. You see, at one point he finds himself mentally reciting what he can remember from the psalm, and it is primarily this one line that comes to him.[4] It helps him so that through it all he never lost hope, his faith would not die. It reminded him that the darkest valleys still have light. His book is not primarily a book about faith, and yet he talks about this moment of faith inspires him, and that inspires his title. It is what reminds him that the shadows do not win.

When we walk through the valley’s, when our hearts are broken, God is there to walk with us and light the way. They valleys need not defeat us, the troubles of life need not overcome us.

No! Rather, as the psalmist says, “I will fear no evil”. It echoes what Paul says to us in Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God: not death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. (Romans 8:38-39)

Yes, the valleys are real, they are dark. There is very real evil in them, and very real danger. Our lives have these valleys, they are often unavoidable.

But they need not defeat us, for God’s love is stronger than the valley’s. God is not just God when things are going well, not just when we are on the mountaintop and we have joy and peace, but God is also God in the valleys, and God’s presence is just as real in the low points of life. And just in case we do not believe it, all we have to do is look at Christ. Even though he walks through the valley of death, not the shadow of death, but actually through death itself; God walks with him. God loves him, and that love is so strong that Christ’s death is not the end. There will be resurrection.

Likewise when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, whether because someone near to us has died, or because we are near death, or even when it feels like all of our dreams have died and hope is gone, or we feel like we are walking alone through a dark time in life – remember this psalm which begins by saying “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” At the very least remember this one line, like William Reeder Jr. did -- “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For you are with me.”

God is indeed with you. Always. Even through the valleys.

[3] By Kristin, Cooper King, Seasons of the Spirit, 2018
[4] p. 66 chapter 7.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Sermon: Grace Is A Quiver Full of Arrows

Mark 9:2-9

The title of the sermon is from a phrase I read in the Seasons of the Spirit commentary. One of the things that the authors of that commentary remind us is that the Greek word for sin is hamartia. This word is also an archery term for letting the arrow fly and “missing the mark.” This was not new to me, but it was worth reflecting upon again.

How often do we miss the mark in life? I do it far too often. I strive for perfection to hit that bullseye, and sometimes when I am as lucky as this kid, I do.

Other times, I am not quite so amazing, and in the archery metaphor, I hit the next ring out, close but not quite a bullseye. But then, oh, then there are those shots in life that I let loose, and everyone should be running for the hills, because I didn’t even hit the bales of hay that support the target. I have let go an errant shot, an oopsy-daisy, a total and completely bungled attempt. Remember we are not really talking about archery here, we are talking about sin – about messing up in life.

How many of you remember the story of Roy Riegels from the University of California Berkley football team? It was the 1929 Rose Bowl and well, here is the video.

Interestingly, ESPN doesn’t tell the best part of the story. And it is what happened at half-time. In the locker room at halftime Roy Riegels sat in the corner with his face buried in his hands. Riegels was so distraught that he had to be talked into returning to the game for the second half. Roy said "Coach, I can't do it. I've ruined you, I've ruined myself, I've ruined the University of California. I couldn't face that crowd to save my life." Nibs Price the coach said, "Roy, get up and go back out there — the game is only half over."

And after the game, Coach Price defended Riegels, saying "It was an accident that might have happened to anyone."

So back to the very beginning of my sermon: the title. Grace, according to the commentary I mentioned that talks about about sin as missing the mark, grace is not just that God forgives us for the bad shot, but that God gives us a quiver full of arrows and says try again. I had never heard it expressed like that before. It was like it was saying: Get back out there, the game is only half over.

Grace is God saying take another shot, and another, until you get it right. Grace is a quiver full of arrows, a quiver full of chances.

I thought that that was a powerful image. I may fail today, I may fail tomorrow, but with God’s help, one day I am going to get it right! And not just because I was lucky, but because God has been patient enough to lead me toward perfection.

That is how Jesus treats Thomas on this day. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the disciples and he simply refuses to believe that Jesus could be alive. His belief arrow flew sideways and was nowhere near the target. Not that I blame him. I probably would be the same way. It is rather hard to believe a group of guys isn’t pulling your leg when they say they saw someone risen from the dead while you were out. I mean, come on. But despite the fact that Thomas’ disbelief made complete sense, he was wrong. Jesus was alive, and Thomas couldn’t see it. It was like he was running the wrong way down the field, heading away from the truth. The resurrection had happened, and Thomas’ reaction was off the mark.

But Christ gives him another chance and appears again, this time while Thomas is present. He even invites Thomas to put his hands on his hands and feel the wounds. Christ is giving him every opportunity to correct his mistaken belief, and of course, Thomas gets it right. He believes. He realizes that he was wrong, he admits it, and he acknowledges Christ as his Lord and his God.

So if I think about my life, if I think of myself as the Thomas of this bible passage: I am sure that there are a thousand arrows that I have fired that have missed the target. Everything from the way I have treated people, to the things I have said, to the beliefs that I hold. What this passage tells me, is that despite the fact that I have been wrong, despite the fact that I am running the wrong way down the field, despite the fact that I have missed the mark: God isn’t finished with me yet. (Can I get an Amen?)

By grace God has given me a quiver full of arrows to try again. Thank you, Lord!

Although some of you may be so thankful, because here’s the thing, when I sin, I know that some of you get hit by my errant shots and hurt.

And I do apologize for that, I really never mean to harm anyone, it’s just I’m still not very good at this archery of life. I’m still working toward perfection, I’m not there yet.

And while Jesus grants us the grace to try again, and it can be hard for us to give people that same grace, especially if they have harmed us with one of their failed shots. I mean who gives another arrow to the person that just shot them? So it is really interesting, in this passage, that Jesus actually specifically addresses how we forgive others. He says, that what we forgive on earth, those sins are forgiven; but then he goes a step further, and says the sins we don’t forgive on earth, they aren’t forgiven. So you all have a lot of power. I am depending upon your forgiveness for my peace. Oh, I am not alone, this applies to us all.

Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that we are all still learners, still working on getting it right in God’s eyes, and that we all need a little patience and a lot of forgiveness until we get it right. Then he uses Thomas as an example for how we should deal with others – with patient correction and careful instruction. With a willingness to walk alongside them as they try to get it right. Without judgment or anger. Without taking personal offense at what they have done, but leading them to the truth.

In summary: This teaching from Jesus is wonderfully good news for us when we get it wrong, when we miss the mark.

He is offering us another chance, to get back in the game and to try again. But the teaching is also a challenge to us to offer the same forgiveness to others that Christ offers to us. To forgive 70 times seven times, to forgive the quiver of failures that others let loose, and to strive to help them get closer to the mark. To forgive as we have been forgiven, and love as we have been loved.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Sermon: Peter's Easter Sermon

Acts 10:34-43

I have been a pastor for 24 years now. Which means I have been through 24 Easters. One of the challenges of that is trying to continue to tell the story of Christ’s resurrection in a way that is meaningful and fresh. Not that this amazing and incredible event needs to be freshened up, or changed, because it is a powerful story from the very first. But the reality is, to keep myself spiritually growing (and probably for you to keep spiritually growing) we need to keep listening for what God is telling us anew even in the old stories. And that can be quite hard.

So this year, rather than focus on Mary meeting Jesus in the garden, which is an amazing story, as we saw in the video, I want to focus on the passage that was just read where Peter is speaking in the book of Acts.

Here Peter tells us how he interprets the events of Easter. He was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection, and we have been given the gift of hearing what he thinks it means. What does he feel is important, what does he want us to learn from this event?

He starts with a brief retelling of Jesus’ life. How first there was John who prepared the way by preaching about baptism, and then Jesus came doing good and healing. Then they killed him, but God raised him up, and we saw him. Not everyone saw him, but there were those of us who ate and drank with him after he had been raised from the dead.

Now, what I notice in this retelling is that Peter is a very matter of fact, short and sweet, and not a lot of emotion, kind of guy. His story is plain and to the point. He doesn’t get into how he felt when Jesus died, he doesn’t tell you that Mary was all teary-eyed at the tomb. Jesus simply died and was alive again. That’s all there is to it. Partly that is his personality, but I think it is also because Peter doesn’t think that Easter is about the emotional reunion with Jesus. He doesn’t think that Easter is even about the suffering of Jesus. The miracle itself isn’t even all that important, other than it happened.

Instead, Peter tells us that the resurrection of Christ is an event that teaches us that through Christ’s death and resurrection he has been appointed as judge of the living and the dead, and that anyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

In many ways, it isn’t how we normally approach Easter. Normally we think of Easter as the victory over death, the surprising reality that the power of God can bring life from beyond the grave. But Peter isn’t really surprised by that. I think as a devout Jew he already believed in life after death – that wasn’t what shocked him – he already expected to meet God after he died. What Peter emphasizes is that in that meeting, through Jesus we have a judge who bases his decisions on forgiveness.

What has changed is not that there is life beyond this one, he has always believed that. But what has changed is how he sees God. God is no longer a harsh judge, or a judge who favors one group of people over another. No longer is God the one who is eager to sentence us. Rather, God has shown us something quite different through Jesus. Sinners could be forgiven. The unloved could be loved.

“A large prosperous downtown church had three mission churches under its care that it had started.

On the first Sunday of the New Year all the members of the mission churches came to the city church for a combined Communion service. In those mission churches, which were located in the slums of the city, were some outstanding cases of conversions thieves, burglars, and so on but all knelt side-by-side at the Communion rail.’

“On one such occasion the pastor saw a former burglar kneeling beside a judge of the Supreme Court of England it was the judge who had sent him to jail where he had served seven years. After his release this burglar had been converted and became a Christian worker. Yet, as they knelt there, the judge and the former convict neither one seemed to be aware of the other.’

“After the service, the judge was walking home with the pastor and said to the pastor, "Did you notice who was kneeling beside me at the Communion rail this morning?"

“The pastor replied, "Yes, but I didn't know that you noticed." The two walked along in silence for a few more moments, and then the judge said, "What a miracle of grace."

The pastor nodded in agreement. "Yes, what marvelous miracle of grace."

Then the judge said "But to whom do you refer?" And the pastor said, "Why, to the conversion of that convict." The judge said, "But I was not referring to him. I was thinking of myself." The pastor, surprised, replied: "You were thinking of yourself? I don't understand."

"Yes," the judge replied, "it did not cost that burglar much to get converted when he came out of jail. He had nothing but a history of crime behind him, and when he saw Jesus as his Savior he knew there was salvation and hope and joy for him. And he knew how much he needed that help. But look at me. I was taught from earliest infancy to live as a gentleman; that my word was to be my bond; that I was to say my prayers, go to church, take Communion and so on. I went through Oxford, took my degrees, was called to the bar and eventually became a judge. Pastor, nothing but the grace of God could have caused me to admit that I was a sinner on level with that burglar. It took much more grace to forgive me for all my pride and self deception, to get me to admit that I was no better in the eyes of God than that convict that I sent to prison."[1]

What Peter learns through this the death and resurrection of Christ is that Jesus forgave him even when he turned his back on him.

This coming from a man who just prior to Jesus’ death denies him three times before the rooster crowed. When he denied knowing Jesus, Jesus loved him anyway. He has learned that God, rather than wanting to condemn us, wants to forgive us. That is what God would prefer. And God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another in offering that. God has set up Jesus as our judge and he has shown that he is willing to welcome all people, even those who would turn their backs on their best friends in times of trial. That’s what Peter has learned.

As people who claim and follow the resurrected Christ we far too often want to put limitations of the reaches of God’s forgiveness, we far too often want to suggest that God does play favorites, we far too often act like God judges different types of people using different criteria.

Peter at one time fell into that error himself. He thought God favored the Jews. He thought that forgiveness was limited to those of his own religion. But through life experience, dreams, and the Holy Spirit he realizes that that is not what Easter teaches. Easter is about God’s love for all who believe. No matter what color their skin, no matter what nation they come from, whether they are immigrants or native peoples. No matter their gender, their criminal record, the size of their feet, or what they had for breakfast this morning. Not even their favorite sin matters, or the struggles they have in life. Christ died and rose to forgive you and you and you and them and them and them.

Easter is more than just a story about a man who was dead who suddenly wasn’t dead. It is about the power of God to bring life in all things, especially to things that seem to have no chance at life.

In his nearly incredible report out of South Africa, No Future without Forgiveness (New York: Image Doubleday, 1999), Archbishop Desmond Tutu's seems to see Jesus in a very similar way to Peter – although he is a man of much more flowery language, he says much the same thing.

Listen: "There is a movement, not easily discernible, at the heart of things to reverse the awful centrifugal force of alienation, brokenness, division, hostility, and disharmony. God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, harmony, goodness, peace and justice, a process that removes barriers. Jesus says, 'And when I am lifted up from the earth I shall draw everyone to myself' as he hangs from His cross with outflung arms, thrown out to clasp all, everyone, and everything, in a cosmic embrace, so that all, everyone, everything, belongs" (p. 265).[2]

For Peter that is the miracle. No longer are we subject to sin, to death, to shame, or to evil. Because we are drawn into the embrace of God through Christ. Now we can live, fully and completely in Christ’s name. And all of this is Christ’s gift offered to us without price.

[1] Tyndale, Illustrations Unlimited, by James Hewett
[2] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., ChristianGlobe Illustrations, by John Gibbs