Saturday, April 23, 2011

Resurrection is for the Living

Matthew 28:1-10
Easter 2011

We are gathered here this morning because
Love is stronger than hate,
because the Power of Life trumps the power of death,
because all the evil in the world
cannot stop God’s grace from Raining Down,
because God’s Forgiveness never Fails.

This week a woman told me that when her husband died, a friend came by to sit with her and weep.  And the friend then said the most profound and beautiful thing, “You know,” he said, “Resurrection isn’t just for the dead.  It is also for the living.” 

That’s an earthshaking message!  On the first Easter morning, that shining angel descended, rolled back the stone to prove the tomb is empty, and told the women, “Jesus is alive!  He’s going to meet you where you live.” 

The women were from Galilee, you see.  As were most of the disciples.  That’s where they had linked up with Jesus.   It was home.  And when Jesus rose from the dead,
when he defeated all the evil and pain
and sorrow and sin
that the powers of this world could throw at him, 
he left the message that those women and their “brethren”  could meet up with him where they lived
and worked
and raised their families
and confronted their own challenges to faith and life.

Christ is alive!   We may encounter him where we live!

On Easter my job is so easy, because I don’t have to explain the resurrection, or make sense of all the details of each of the four Biblical accounts.  You don’t need to be reminded of the disciples’ psychological processes, or their stages of grief, or whatever.  Or told what you have to believe about the how and wherefore of resurrection. 
I like what theologian Rowan Williams said about the church’s job  -

“For the Church does not exist just to transmit a message across the centuries about what people must believe; it exists so that people in this and every century may encounter Jesus of Nazareth as a living contemporary.  Everything the church does – celebrating Holy Communion, reading the Bible, baptizing believers, (even raising butterflies, I might add)  – is meant to be in the service of this contemporary encounter. Our every action ought to be transparent to Jesus, not holding back or veiling his presence.” – Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Easter Sermon excerpt, (2008?)

All that we have to do together this morning is to point out and to celebrate the amazing presence of the living Christ in our lives. Resurrection is for living, and we are living it - some in dramatic ways, some in more subtle transformations, some in individual lives, some in reconciled relationships and resurrected families. 

Some of the resurrection is visible when we look around the church, especially when we baptize and welcome new members into the life of faith. 

You want to see new life in the church?  We can point to Brenna, and Clay and Lexy and Henry and Madeline.  They asked to be baptized and confirmed.  They wanted to take this step and publicly join the family of God.  New life for them.  New life for us.  Hallelujah! 

The resurrection is being lived in our choir.  You don’t know how long that choir loft stood empty.  And now, songs of praise rise from willing voices!

I look at this congregation and see people who have met the risen Christ in the pages of scripture. “Human words with divine energy behind them.” (Rowan Williams, again.) 

I see people in Recovery.  New Life emerging.  People who have taken hold of a second chance at health, a second chance at love, a second chance at a life of meaning and purpose. 

And I see those who wait in faith and trust as Jesus wipes the tears of grief and sorrow from their eyes.  The Risen Christ is living each day with those who face the uncertain future with the certainty that Christ will somehow be there.

How is the Risen Christ alive in us and among us?  Let me count the ways!

But it’s better if YOU count them, and count yourself among those who live life with the friendship and support of the One who rose from the grave to share His life with you. 

If you are longing for his presence in your life, Easter morning is the perfect time to let the angel’s message shake your world and open whatever stone is blocking the entrance to your heart.  Easter morning is the perfect time to put aside your fears and encounter Jesus, the Savior.  There’s no better time than Easter morning to spiritually fall at His feet and worship one who wants, more than anything, to live with you and through you, now and forever. 

The poet Rumi wrote,

The Risen Christ runs down the street
Knocking on every door
Come out!  Come out! he calls,
I want to resurrect somebody!

Saturday before Easter

Even the tardy butterflies have come out of their cocoons and are flitting around their enclosure.  I can't wait for tomorrow. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ted emerged!

Our first butterfly has emerged from the chrysalis.  I'm very excited.  They all went "pupal" within 2-3 days, so I'm hoping that they all will be hatching in that time, too.  YEAH!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tree of Life #6 - The Hanging Tree

Palm/Passion Sunday
April 17, 2011
I Peter 2:21-24,  Matthew 27:45-50

There is an Arab proverb that says, "It is good to know the truth, but it is more pleasant to speak of palm trees."

Palm Tress - beautiful, tall, fruitful and evergreen - are indeed lovely subjects for conversation.  Those of us who are lucky enough to have vacationed or traveled where palm trees are native associate them with some of the most enjoyable times of our lives.  After a hard winter like the one that doesn’t seem to want to let go of us, who hasn’t longed for a life lived under a palm tree. 

Ahh - palm trees!  There is nothing like the sound of their huge fronds, rustling in a tropical breeze. 
Their flowers scent the desert air. 
They bear delicious dates and coconuts. 
Their fronds are used in the thatched roofs of homes. 
Their fibers can be woven into tropical garments, and the mats that line tent floors. 
They provide oil - palm oil - for eating and for lamps. 
The shade of the palm tree is welcome and pleasing. 

Life is good under the palm.

And it is tempting, especially on palm sunday, to speak of palm trees.  After all - the Bible tells us that palm trees played an important role in welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem when he, accompanied by a jubilant crowd, made his triumphant entry.  So we could speak of Palm Trees - only palm trees - this morning.  It is better to speak of palm trees, the proverb says.  Yes, but what is that first part again?  It is good to know the truth. 

And, the truth is that the palm tree plays only a bit part in what Jesus did in Jerusalem during Holy Week.  The tree that stars in our spiritual lives this week is the Tree of Life that, for all the world, looks like a Hanging Tree - the cross.  It is on the cross Christians say, that Jesus won our salvation - our healing, our wholeness our full and complete humanity. 

I’ll confess that, as your resident theologian, I have no idea how Jesus’ hanging accomplishes salvation.  Theologians have debated it as though there was one answer.  Biblical witness includes at least seven or eight (depending on how you read some passages) theories of how Jesus’ death on the tree accomplishes our salvation.  I’ve read them until my head hurts.  But the death itself makes my heart hurt.   It takes all my faith and all my trust to stand in the shadow of the hanging tree and hang on to the idea that this, too, is how God works in the world - by hanging in with human suffering and pain. 

Here is what we know - experiential.  From our own lives:  Life is good under the palm. But standing under the hanging tree teaches us lessons we need.

Because we know that the tree of life includes suffering.  Some of it is just part of living - broken hearts, aches and pains, aging and the losses that come with it.  Some suffering comes from things gone terribly wrong - our bodies or brains malfunction.  A pathogen overwhelms the immune system.  An accident happens.  Random and wrong. 

But some suffering, to me the most horrible kind of suffering, comes at the hands of cruel or thoughtless but powerful people:  Bullies and demagogues - at school, or in high office - who choose to hurt those who are not as strong as they are. This is the suffering that causes me to despair.  Shooting protesters.  Demolishing homes.  Torturing prisoners. 

The Hanging Tree is both an example of and an answer to all these kinds of suffering.  It is the peculiarly Christian resource in responding to suffering of all kinds.  It is our daily reminder that Jesus chose to share our lot - our pain, our vulnerability, even our despair. 

It provides the Christian perspective on the kind of cruelty and human caused suffering that pervades our world.  The Hanging Tree shows us where Christ is found.  We see that He chose to put himself at the non-existant mercy of those forces in the world which protect their power at all costs, who don’t give a rip for collateral damage, who willingly shed the blood of innocents in what they tell themselves and the world is a greater good.

He carried all of that to the tree and hung it up there in full view of the world.  it is clear from the Biblical witness that Jesus’ heart hurt, too.  “My God, my God!  Why have you forsaken me?” he cries.  We don’t have to make any logical leaps, or wonder for a moment if Jesus knew the kind of pain that darkens our hearts sometimes.  The man of Calvary knows Utter despair and heartache.
He displayed it -  Naked.  Horrifying.  Repulsive. 

Some preachers say - sometimes I may have said - that the disciples and women who stood there by the cross were failures because the stood by and watched this horrible thing happen.   But it is equally plausible that standing there and watching, being witnesses and not closing their eyes, or turning away, or running to shield themselves from the pain and sorrow was an act of faith.  To see what evil does to good.  To see the cost of human sin.  To stand in the shadow of the hanging tree is an act of faith.

This tree is what it takes to transform human horror into human hope. 
Faith that stands under the hanging tree transforms us from unwitting participants in the cruelty of the crowd to fully conscious beings who recognize the divine in life’s victims.  That is the beginning of salvation.  It starts under the cross, under the hanging tree, gazing up at innocence of Christ.

So this week - my invitation and my prayer is that we will, as a congregation, hang in there with Jesus on the tree, because this is where it starts.

But, Praise God!, this is not where it ends!  Salvation does not end with Christ on the cross.  God’s plan for us passes through this dark chapter and on to the relief and the joy and the triumph of life over death, life beyond death, life more powerful than death in every way.  And it is just a week away.

But we can’t fully know and appreciate and celebrate that Life - we can’t enter into the Joy that Easter brings - until we have stood in the shadow and fully known the truth that can only be apprehended under the Hanging Tree.

Advice from a Tree

"Stand Tall and Proud
Sink your roots deeply into the Earth
Reflect the light of a greater source
Think long term
Go out on a limb
Remember your place among all living beings
Embrace with joy the changing seasons
For each yields its own abundance
The Energy and Birth of Spring
The Growth and Contentment of Summer
The Wisdom to let go of leaves in the Fall
The Rest and Quiet Renewal of Winter"
-   Ilan Shamir,
Advice From a Tree  

Palm Sunday

The Donkey

By G. K. Chesterton 1874–1936
When fishes flew and forests walked   
   And figs grew upon thorn,   
Some moment when the moon was blood   
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,   
The devil’s walking parody   
   On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,   
   I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:   
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.

Source: The collected poems of G. K. Chesterton (New York : Dodd, Mead, c1980., 1927)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tree of Life #5 - Grafted by God (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

We had some fun (and welcomed some new members) today.  Here's the sermon.  During it, I played Cindy and Paul's parts.  Members of the congregation were the "callers."  And they did a great job! 

Scripture:  Rom. 11:16b-20  and Isaiah 56:3-7

Welcome to Illinois Gardener.  This is the place where, every week, between pledge breaks, we answer your questions about gardening.  Soil, plant selection, pest control, and fertilizer . . . we run the gardening gamut. 

Today’s topic:  Grafting.  Our special guest is the Apostle Paul, who got his horticulture degree from the University of Damascus, and has a thriving church planting career throughout the ancient near East. 

Perhaps you’d like to start us off, Paul with a bit of background about grafting.

Thank you, Cindy.

Grafting is a propagation method where the tissue of two plants are fused together. The bottom part of the plant that contributes roots and support is called the rootstock. The upper part contributing leaves, flowers, fruits and stems, is called the scion.  

Grafting has a long history.  There are written records as well as pictures from ancient Egypt and Greece which suggest that gardeners have been employing grafting in orchards and gardens for over 3000 years.   It is an ancient practice, and one that many gardeners in all parts of the world still find essential to their practice.

Cindy -  Some crop scientists believe that increased use of grafting could provide one of the keys to more sustainable food production in many areas of the world that do not have the luxury of soil and climate that we enjoy in Central Illinois. 
Did you know that in Japan almost 95 % of the watermelons, oriental melons, greenhouse cucumbers, tomato and eggplant crops are grafted before being transplanted to the field or greenhouse?
Well, it makes sense, because in many areas of Japan, there is a sustained wet and rainy part of the growing season.  Tomatoes don’t like having wet feet, and are susceptible to root rot and stem collapse.  But if the tomato top is grafted onto an eggplant rootstock - the problem is solved, because eggplant roots can withstand even several days of being submerged in water. 

Interesting, eh? 

Paul:  Interesting. Yes.  I myself am not an expert on vegetable grafting.  I am more of a tree man, myself.  Grafting of trees is what I know a little about.  Olive trees.
I believe we have a caller on line #1.  Go ahead, caller.

#1:  This show is called Illinois Gardener.  So my question is, “Is grafting ever used in Illinois gardens?”

Cindy:  Why yes!  If you have any roses in your garden, and many Illinois gardeners do, it is very likely that you have a grafted plant in your garden.  Most roses are grafted.  The ornamental, flowering part of the plant is most likely grafted onto a root stock that has been proven hardy for our climate extremes.

And many orchards, especially apple orchards, employ grafting.  In commercial applications especially, the branches of a desired variety of apple is grafted onto rootstock of dwarf or semi dwarf trees.  This allows trees to be planted more closely, increasing the amount of fruit per acre of land.  It also means that the fruit is lower to the ground, easier to harvest, and substantially reduces the risk of injuries to workers during harvest.  

Paul:  Yes, grafting has advantages in every climate and many types of agriculture.  And, I might add, understanding the process of grafting can have important spiritual implications, especially for non-Jewish members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Cindy:  Really?  Why, most Illinois Gardeners ARE non-Jewish Christians.

Paul:   Yes.  In my day we called you “Gentiles”.  Peoples.    As opposed to “The Chosen People”.  Nations, as opposed to THE Nation of Israel.  The same root - Gen - is found in English words like “gen-eology”  (The study of one’s ancestry, which is good) and “gen-ocide”  (the killing of a people, which is, of course, very bad).

And how does this relate to grafting, again, please, Paul?

Paul:  Well, Christians who are not Jews become connected to God through a grafting process. I see we have another caller. 

Caller #2:   Getting back to gardening, Could you describe the steps involved in grafting?

Cindy:  Well, the first thing it’s important to know is that grafting takes a very sharp and clean knife.  Cutting is the first step in grafting and growing a stronger, more productive plant. 

Paul:  I always emphasized that Christian conversion is analogous to cutting.  The new life in Christ is exactly that - a new life.  The person who converts is given a fresh start in Christ.  The old life, with all its entanglements and limitations, is gone.  A new life has begun.  It is a radical new beginning.  

Cindy:  Caller on line #3. 

Caller #3:  Does that mean that the scion, the branch, is entirely new species? 

Cindy:  I think I can answer that, Paul.  The answer is no.  The branch that is cut still retains its own characteristics.  A Jonathan branch joined to an Red Delicious tree will not begin producing Red Delicious apples.  Grafting doesn’t destroy the basic attributes of the branch. 

Paul:  That’s right.  You are who you are.  Before and after Christ.  Grafting isn’t a personality transplant.  I, for instance, tended to be quick tempered, quick witted and adventurous before my sudden conversion.  And I was a quick tempered, quick witted and adventurous Christian after conversion, too.  But, in a good graft, the branch does become part of something entirely new.  It grows differently after the graft.  It’s shape and direction and fruitfulness are determined by its new root. 
I see we have another caller. Line #4?

Caller #4:  How is the grafted branch joined to the new rootstock? 

Cindy:  There are several different techniques.  What is important is that the join be done in such a way that the growing parts of both the scion and the stock plant come in contact with one another, so that the tissues can fuse with one another and the nutrients can flow from one to the other. 

Paul:  In the orchard, the gardener uses great care in grafting on new branches.  He or she (Please note that I've become a little more inclusive in the past few years) lines up the parts carefully and then reinforces the graft with grafting wax which keeps out rain and pathogens until the graft has a chance to establish itself. 
Theologically, God is the gardener.  This is God’s work.  But I like to think that the church can go a long way in helping the gardener out by paying attention to the graft points, reinforcing them, especially at first, until they have a chance to get established.  Providing the right conditions for the graft to “take”.  

Cindy:  And how do you suggest that churches do that? 

Paul:  Well, one way is by paying attention to the little shoots that are growing up in the church.   Christian education for young people, grounding them in the stories of the faith is vital.    And you have to pay attention to new members, too.  Greet them.  Learn their names, and more than their names.  Pray for them. 
You know, in commercial horticulture operations, new grafts are often put in screen houses where humidity is high and conditions are perfect.  A whole bunch of plants at the same stage of growth is something to see.  Big churches can sometimes do something like that with their Sunday Schools, or New Member Incubators.   It’s efficient for big operations.  
A small scale gardener can’t do the same as a big commercial grower.   But he or she can get the same great results in grafting by carefully misting the individual plants just right.  Small churches have to do that, too.  Mind each little sprout and each new member and provide individual care.  I like to think of prayer and care as the “mist” of smaller churches. 

I think we have time for one more caller.   Line #5

Caller #5:  If you had to say what was the most important thing to know about grafting, what would it be?

Paul:  I’ll take this one.  The most important part of grafting is the root.  As I’ve said in other places, “If the root is holy, so are the branches.  Remember that it is not the branch that supports the roots, but the root that supports the branches. So do not be proud, but stand in awe.” that God has grafted you into God’s own life through the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Christ is the source of our fruitfulness, our beauty, our very life.  Jesus said, “I am the vine.  You are the branches.”   And our new life, abiding in Him, being part of His life now and eternally, is accomplished by the sacrifice that He made in dying for love of us.  The wounds of the cross provide the places for us to be joined with him and rooted in God’s love forever.   And when we are joined with him, grafted into him through faith, we share in that life and that love forevermore.  So do not be proud, but stand in awe.  We are grafted into the Tree of Life.

Cindy:  And that’s all the time we have on this segment of Illinois Gardener.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Friday has come again

Spent all day yesterday at a COM meeting in Effingham, so I'm scrambling to get everything done for this weekend.  And get my tax stuff to the accountant.  Bulletin - check.  Accompanist note - check.  Wedding stuff - check.  Sermon - half check.  OK.  Things are getting done.  Breathe.   You know who I envy?  Those caterpillars.  They are just eating and growing.  That's all they have to do for now.  Breathe. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


It looks so nice and spring-y out. But it is still pretty cold.
Going over notes from last night's session meeting, and checking in with dear ones I haven't seen in awhile.  Tonight I get to go to choir practice and then moderate a special session meeting to receive two new members.  That's always exciting!  
Oh.  And I voted.  Always a privilege.  Sometimes a joy.  

Monday, April 4, 2011

Weird Weather Alert

Something is unquiet out there.  The wind blew all day and now there is rain.  Sleep just fled about 3.  So I've been up, reading the lectionary texts and some Tillich (arg!)  And now I'm going to go back to bed so that when the alarm goes off in an hour I can experience distress and agony to the max.  SMH.  (that's my new text abbreviation.  it means "shaking my head".  do you think it will catch on?)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Meet Ted

During the children's sermon today I introduced one of the caterpillars.  The kids thought it should have a name, and two of them suggested "Ted".   So Ted it is.  Next week we'll see how big Ted has gotten.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

They are growing

I think.  Hard to tell.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Caterpillars Came

The box with the itty bitty caterpillars arrived in the mail yesterday.  I'm so tickled.  Caleb and I got them transferred to their individual "capsules" with their food supply.  And so far, so good.  Now we have to wait for them to eat and grow and molt and eat and grow and molt some more.  They are about a quarter to a half inch long now.  And they look hungry!