Following Our Faith

[2 Corinthians 13:11-13]

By the Reverend Tom Paine

Preached at Lakewood Presbyterian Church – Making it Count Series

June 4, 2023

Even though I read the Genesis passage this morning, I want us to focus on our New Testament reading.  I think if your next pastor was here, perhaps Genesis would be more appropriate.  But Paul’s final words to the church in Corinth are probably more appropriate for me since I expect sometime this summer, you will have someone else in the pulpit.  But, the lectionary gave us the passage, I don’t want you to think I chose it because it fits.  And it isn’t a perfect fit because Paul’s situation with the church in Corinth doesn’t parallel my own experience with you.  Nevertheless, I think what he has to say does have important relevance.

The reason why this passage is here in the lectionary is because it points to the Trinity, after .  But I also want to point out that even though it is Trinity Sunday, and especially that last verse of what Paul wrote sounds pretty Trinitarian, that wasn’t Paul’s purpose in writing this passage.  That wasn’t even in his mindset as the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t developed until the fourth century.  Paul’s focus was relatively simple.  He was calling on the Corinthians to remember that God is the source of grace, love, and community.  God is what brings us together and teaches us the way we are to be.

A third thing to point out from the outset is something that sounds strange to our ears. What’s all this about a Holy Kiss?  There are four other passages in the New Testament with a reference to it.  In each instance, the Greek words which denote a kiss which is sacred—physically pure and morally blameless. It was a common custom in most nations in that age for people to kiss each other at meeting or parting to display their love, sincere affection, and friendship for each other. We still see that in some European cultures today.  The kiss is called “holy” to distinguish it from a sexual one or from a hypocritical and deceitful one, such as Judas gave to Jesus when he cried, “Hail Rabbi,” and betrayed him into the hands of his enemies in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is a custom the church hasn’t kept. I don’t think it was some kind of directive at all.  But because it sounds odd to us, I wanted to explain why it is there early on.  So, what does this larger passage mean to us?

One of the things I immediately noticed moving to the west coast in 2018 was that Presbyterians are not universal in their customs across the country.  For example, while it was the norm in the south, I believe it still is, for ministers to wear robes when they lead worship, almost no one does that here.  I want to use that to set up something that happened to me once early in my ministry.

In my first pastorate, a family who was not a part of the church, came to the I was serving and asked if I would be willing to do a graveside service for their grandfather who had been Presbyterian.  I said I would be glad to do so.  But, it was summer and it was so hot outside I was not keen to wear my robes.  So, I asked if it would be permissible for me to wear a short sleeve shirt with a clergy collar.  They said that would be totally fine.

After the service I stopped at a Taco Bell.  The workers in the restaurant seemed excessively nice when I got to the counter.  They seemed to pay extra attention to me.  They offered to pour my coke for me (I used to drink soft drinks back then).  I had never been to a Taco Bell where you didn’t pour your own Coke inside.  They offered to bring my food to the table.  It was nice but all so unusual until when they delivered it they said, “We hope you enjoy your meal – father.”  I wasn’t even thinking about wearing a clergy collar at that point and never considered Catholics working there would think of me as a priest.  All of a sudden I started thinking, “What did I say? (I had talked on my cell phone at the table). What did I do?  Did I represent the church well – in Taco Bell?!?

The final four chapters of 2 Corinthians constitute a tense and combative communication Paul was having with a church that had begun to oppose him and who had begun to question the validity of his message. They had also been fighting amongst them.  In his writing Paul points toward the possibility of reconciliation–both between himself and his readers, and among the Corinthians themselves. That’s the setting of this reading.

Back in New Orleans, when I was a kid, if an adult heard a teenager cursing they would ask, “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” It was a not so gentle rebuke that what the kids said and the way they talked should bring their parents pride, not shame.  We are representatives of the church in all we say and do – not only in church – but also out in public.  It is true at parties.  It is true when we are out with friends.  I don’t mean we need to be the morality police, at all.  Jesus relaxed and ate and even drank among friends.  But when people know we are Christians, do they see us acting with grace?  Are issues of peace and justice important to us?  Do our actions confess our basic outlook?  If God sees us everywhere – do our lives reflect who God calls us to be?

It is no small thing that the verse ends with a promise about “the God of love and peace,” followed by a command to enact love and respect through that “holy kiss” and finally a benediction concerning the grace, love, and communion that God gives. In multiple ways, God makes it possible for the family of faith to live out and embody reconciliation and peace which is absolutely different than the way of our world.

We live in such a different time.  We live in such a different place than either Paul was in or the Corinthians. We aren’t a new faith anymore.  People around us well know who Jesus Christ is.  Christians still make up a majority of our society.  It’s just that many people around us don’t think of us in that way – being a family – being a place to live out and embody reconciliation and peace.  How do we be the people Paul is urging us to be in this passage?

We usually assume we are positively, or negatively, influencing the world around us.  But maybe we are more influenced by the world than we are influencing it.

When Lesley and I started dating, one of the things that she let me know early on was that she did not appreciate foul language. I thought this would not be an issue because that isn’t how I tended to speak. But then we started going to movies together and she would walk out saying, “it wasn’t a bad movie but the language was atrocious” and the embarrassing thing to me is that I hadn’t even noticed it.  Even if I didn’t talk like that, I had gotten so used to hearing it that it was normal to me.  Am I influencing the culture around me or am I being influenced by it?

I think it goes deeper too.  I think we have to ask ourselves if we believe what we say we believe.  Jesus proclaimed non-violence.  Jesus taught us to love each other, even our enemies. Jesus taught us to be graceful and to believe in justice.  Do we? In the end do we?

Jim Hall’s cousin, Ann Muir, posted an interesting quote this weekend online.  It was from theologian Walter Wink and it got me to find a larger paper he wrote on topic and his larger quote was this:  “Christianity, Judaism, or Islam is not the dominant religion in our culture. Instead it is the belief in redemptive violence.”  

In his paper Wink said he watched his children soak this in in cartoon after cartoon where the hero is put back and restrained in some way but then breaks loose and defeats the villain with violence.  

He used Popeye as an example to point out that in every Popeye cartoon is Bluto man would be manhandling Olive Oil, beating up Popeye who tries to intervene, but then, with the help of some spinach, Popeye is able to use violence to defeat Bluto.  Nothing ever changes. Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oil go through this over and over. But the kids never grow out of hearing this message. It is the theme of adult movie after movie: western, crime dramas, and scifi shows it is all the same – how to defeat evil?  With violence.  Even in video game after video game. How do we win the game?  With violence. I am extrapolating from his original paper, as Wink is no longer with us, but I think if he were alive today he would say our whole debate around guns is based on the idea that violence in the end is our answer to our safety, our security, our well being, and even our future.  And this is in a society that purports to have a majority of Christians in it.

This is not who we confess our God to be. Paul describes God as deeply engaged with people through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Consider if violence is ever the answer that either Jesus, Paul, or anyone in the early church ever advocated. Yet, it is so embedded in our culture it is like me with the foul language, we stop even noticing it. Somehow, we have to find our voice to advocate for a different way, for it is not God’s way.

We aren’t the first culture to believe in redemptive violence. The Romans believed it, the Greeks, the Spartans the Babylonians – we simply have a violent heritage.  We can argue it goes back to the Cain and Abel story.  The question is whether we indeed can accept a different way remains in play.

Following God is not about checking off a list of beliefs we have about our creator.  As one of the hymns has in it that we sing, they shall know we are Christians by our love.  Can we be inspired to follow a Savior who truly offered a new way, a different way to be?  Can the mouths that sing Amazing Grace show the world through our actions what that means?  Can we be a family that doesn’t divide, as the Corinthians were doing, but unite and reconcile?

God created the earth, created us, and called us good.  Let us find a different way to demonstrate what good is.  Let us show them the God we believe in which isn’t based in violence but in love.  Let us be bound together by a loving spirit which is transformative.

I believe Lakewood is on a good path these days.  I like the way I see such a variety of members participating. I like the way we are increasing our support of the community through our food pantry.  I love seeing the children run up at children’s time.  I love the way, every time we have had a visitor, I see them welcomed in.  I think all kinds of possibilities exist as you are on the cusp of calling a new pastor.

I simply encourage you to find ways to proclaim the way of Jesus in this time and place.  Connect to people and show them a different way.  Notice the people that Jesus noticed.  Care about the people who feel like outsiders and make them insiders here.  Be there for people who feel the waters of life are making them sink. Be the body of Christ in this time and place.

I don’t know how many more Sundays I have with you but it has been a joy being your transitional minister. Unlike Paul did with the church in Corinth, there is no need to reconcile with you.  But, just as Paul did with the Corinthians, I see so much great potential in you.  Keep sharing the love of God.  People out there think they know who Jesus is. But welcome them in and show them that you really do know the way of grace, love, and community.  Be the people of God in this time and place.

To God be the glory, forever and ever, amen.


[Acts 1:1-36]

Speaking a Common Language

by the Reverend Tom Paine

Preached at Lakewood Presbyterian Church

Making it Count Series #4

May 28, 2023

I am studying German again. I have not studied German since 1983 when I finished taking two years of it in undergraduate studies. Some of it easily comes back. Some not as easily. As you all know in many languages, nouns and articles are gendered. The gender of the nouns changes the articles that go with them. That’s the part that doesn’t come back so easily. Is a refrigerator he or she? The answers aren’t intuitive. People learning the language just have to memorize not only their meaning but their gender.

Welcome back to my “Making it Count” sermon series, my last series at Lakewood Presbyterian. And I don’t know about you but I think Pentecost offers us one of the most striking miracles in the Bible. Jesus told them before ascending, he was going to empower them to reach not just Judea and Samaria but to the ends of the earth through the Holy Spirit. All these foreigners from across the empire are standing and hearing Peter and understanding him. God’s salvation truly was for all.

Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, tells us the twelve, including the new disciple Matthias, Jesus’ mother, and some of the other women were gathered together in a house in Jerusalem. And suddenly a sound like a mighty wind filled the house, it appeared like tongues of fire were on everyone’s heads, and they all filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them the ability. And the sound, and the people speaking drew a crowd. And what they noticed was that no matter where they were from they heard voices in their language speaking of God’s deeds of power. They were amazed. They were perplexed. Some wrote it off as them all being drunk on new wine.

Have you ever been in a country where English is not the native language? Do you remember the feeling when you found someone who could speak English? It makes a place a little less foreign. It makes it feel more manageable. Simple tasks can be complex if you don’t speak the native language. It’s like grabbing on a life preserver when you are in deep water to find someone who understands you (and you understand them).

Lesley and I went to Paris for our honeymoon. We loved it. Everyone told us to beware, the French would be rude, but they were not. And slowly, I got at least to where I could mostly understand the signs. And it helped greatly getting back to our B&B where the host spoke fluent English. We would pepper her with questions each morning. On the last day of the trip she called a taxi. She said it was a standard fair and with her translating I paid the driver. We thanked her and headed for Charles De Gualle airport. On the way though, he turned at a right light, looked at me, and began speaking in French and shaking a big change jar. He did this at a number of red lights. I had no earthly idea what he wanted. More money for the trip? Lesley though worked it out. She is good with languages. He was actually trying to help us by telling us that while the airport would change our currency, they didn’t exchange coins. But he would. It saved us money in the end.

The Spirit is definitely helping the disciples reach the people. They take notice and Peter begins his famous speech that I read to you this morning. At the end of it many converted to the Christian faith on the spot and that’s why we celebrate this day as the birthday of the church. But the part I think is important to focus on is the part where he quotes the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my servants, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

So, my serious question to you is this: was this just a one and done event? Is all we do at Pentecost- is remember something that happened in the first century? Is this just a “beginning of Christian history” day or something more? In other words, does Joel’s prophecy have anything to do, with us?

Two variables are important for us to consider. First, what exactly is prophecy? And second, can we offer anything to people today in their language? Let’s look at the first. If we look up prophecy in the dictionary, and think of it in common use, we probably will find something about future telling. In church, we sometimes add in that God, of course, gives this power. Prophecy is kind of a divine foretelling. Joel’s prophecy would be an example of this. He says in the last days all these things will happen.

But if we dig into the stories of the Bible and look at Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, and the other prophets that not really what their lives were primarily about. They weren’t like divine fortune tellers. What they were doing was speaking God’s Word to people in their present. If you do this, good things will likely occur and if you don’t then these things will occur. Think of Nathan, the prophet, telling the story of the man who stole his neighbor’s only animal, a poor little lamb. King David being incensed, said the man was deserving the harshest punishment, and Nathan turning and saying, “You are that man!” He told a story to bring David’s sin of having Uriah killed and taking his wife Bathsheba to light and it hadn’t escaped God’s notice. That was prophecy! David did repent.

Think of Daniel failing to follow Nebuchadnezzar’s edicts and being thrown into the lion’s den and not being eaten. Or of his failing to bow before Nebuchadnezzar’s statue and being thrown in the firey furnace but living. Those were prophetic actions telling the people to keep faith in the Lord instead of this foreign ruler. Think of Jonah telling the people of Ninevah if they didn’t repent God’s retribution would be on them, and they did repent. That was prophecy too. Prophecy is speaking for God to people and it involves their past, present, and future. The key is helping to convey how God sees things. Could God need people who will convey God’s will today? Does God still want this? Does God expect this of us? All Biblical indications are that God does.

So, let’s go to the second variable I raised – what can we offer people in their language? I would contend that today we don’t have the same issues the first apostles did. We live in a society where most people we run into speak English. And if they don’t, our smartphones can do amazing work these days translating for us. I think we need to get beyond the question of speaking to people in a recognized language like Spanish, German, or French. But is what we do in church translatable to them?

If someone with no church background came in, would any of our music be recognized? Would a “Call to Worship? A “Prayer of Confession?” Singing the “Gloria Patri?” Would this have resonance with anyone outside the church? I always think the Presbyterian Church has gotten good at helping explain the reformed faith to people who either grow up in the church or grew up in another church. But we seem to have lost any emphasis and focus to do what these disciples were doing in Jerusalem – asking outsiders to join us.

How do we convey who God is to us to people who aren’t used to our church language and rhetoric? How do we reach a 21st century populace to not only explain why the worship of God, and the story of Jesus, and gathering together are compelling beliefs and actions for us? I would contend to borrow the imagery, the wind booms into our churches, the tongues of fire are on our heads, but no one wants to go out on the balcony and speak. I have heard some pretty astute observations from the members of Lakewood Presbyterian Church and know your faith and commitment is deep. I think your new pastor, whoever they are, is going to find a vibrant congregation to help shepherd and lead.

But what is going to be key in the days ahead is not being able to explain your thoughts and your faith the a transitional or even an installed pastor but to people out there who never darken the door of a church. Maybe it is time to take the church out the building sometimes. Maybe it is time to worship in a new place sometimes. Maybe it is time to set up a service where anyone on the outside could easily intuit everything that happened in the service and why. It doesn’t mean we need to pitch all of our wonderful traditions and ways and music and order of worship. But it does mean that Peter didn’t reach those people that first Pentecost by sitting in the Temple.

I think God has brought some pretty wonderful folks into this congregation. But just as God was sending the Spirit to reach Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mespotanians, Cappadocians, and more that God has more people for you to reach from many different walks of life. Let’s make sure not only to be welcoming but to converse to them in ways that they understand. These folks don’t need to be introduced to God. likely also will have a good idea on who Jesus Christ is. But conveying to them in a language they understand why we believe gathering together brings us closer to God. How we feel strengthened and even healed sometimes as and in a community. Why God calls us to all to a much more inclusive love God than in generally thought about Christians today, of how God yearns for justice for the people, and how grace is so needed in our society are so central to our understanding. All of this, and more, needs to be shared.

I believe God has a future for you all together but what is vital is not to envision it as Lakewood 1970 2.0 or 1990 3.0. God may ask you to change more than any previous generation here at Lakewood. I don’t know what that would look like but I urge you to seek it, together. God is still calling on sons and daughters who will prophecy and older folks who will dream dreams.

It is Pentecost. Let us celebrate. Something wonderful and miraculous happened on the first Pentecost. The same can be happening in this one as well. To God be the glory, forever and ever, amen.

With Us

Making It Count #3

[Acts 1:1-11]

With Us

By the Reverend Tom Paine

Making it Count Series

Preached at Lakewood Presbyterian Church

May 21, 2023

It was the summer of 1973. Right after school ended, we got a letter from King’s Arrow Ranch, a Christian summer camp (kind of like Soundview) that I signed up for.  I had been there the year before and was excited to go again.  Just like the year before, we got a packing list of what to take.  I confidently took the list and told my mother I would pack for myself.  She asked me, “Are you sure?”  “I am sure” I said.  I scanned the list.  I figured I knew what was on there because I had done it before and the day before I was to leave focused on the packing.  “Do you want me to cross check the list?” my Mom asked.  “No.  No need to do so.”  You might already foresee what would happen.

A week later, my parents came to visit (it was a two week camp with visitation on the weekend inbetween the two weeks).  My Mom recalled pulling up and seeing me with a familiar pair of shorts on, the same shorts I left it, which were a little dirty.  I had mismatched socks on.  And I had a fresh bandage on my face (I had run into a barbed wire fence that week in the dark – but that is another story).  I urgently asked when they pulled up if they got my letter.  They had.  My younger brother handed me my pillow.  I had been sleeping on a wet towel all week.  Sometimes when we think we are ready, maybe we aren’t.

Welcome back to my final sermon series at Lakewood Presbyterian called the, “Making it Count” series.  I want to offer these last sermons to you on what I believe most important as you move toward welcoming a new pastor who will guide you to a new future.  

What stands out to me looking at this story is how the disciples probably didn’t expect this moment even though Jesus had been preparing them for it for a long time.  Indeed, in the only words they offer, they are ready to reboot as if everything that had happened since Passover had not happened at all.  They basically ask Jesus, “Ok, now is it time?  Is it time for you to do what we expect the Messiah to do and restore Israel?”  No.  That wasn’t the plan.  They just thought it was.

The plan also wasn’t for Jesus to continue on with his life and ministry with them.  Through the Holy Spirit, according to Luke, they saw him.  They heard him.  One of the women had grabbed hold of his robe at one point.  And on a number of occasions they had eaten with him.  Yet, at the same time, not everyone believed it was him.  He seems to be there at times and gone the next.  And now he is really leaving.  They must not feel ready.

We dismiss this probably in hindsight, we know the story so well.  So, Jesus wasn’t going to be physically present with them as he had been for the past three years.  That’s what every Christian since this moment has had to deal with.  But for them, it must have been shocking.  At first, they thought they had lost him.  Then he was back.  And now, they are going to lose him again?  Their anxiety level must have been high.

Think about it.  They first thought he was a rabbi.  Then they talked about him like he was one of the prophets.  Then they decided he was the Messiah – the savior whom God would send according to the prophets.  And the latest confession, by Thomas after he saw him was, “My Lord and My God.”  They believe God is personally with them and about to leave them.  They probably never would have felt ready.

Almost all of us are given a passion for life.  We are often born into families who love us and we love them.  We go out in the world and we meet other people who we befriend and some of whom we also love.  We don’t think about endpoints.  We don’t want think about endpoints.  Maybe we grow to accept endpoints a little if we have had decades with that person.  But even then we still want those relationships to go on as long as we are here.  To think they realize they have met the author of life itself, the author of everything and now it was “see you later?” He calls them his friends.  And after three short years they have to say goodbye?  How is that fair?  How is that right?  They were shocked when he was executed.  But now, somehow, he is back but not staying?  Why?

Back to King’s Arrow Ranch, I was so grateful for that pillow.  But later I found out my mom also had more pairs of short pants for me, more socks, and even some treats (which had distracted me from sticking with my list).  I don’t know how she figured out, or found out, all I had failed to pack but week two went better than week one that summer.

Jesus has a plan.  He has had a plan all along.  He told it to them before holy week. He had told them in the past about the Advocate , the coming Holy Spirit. Now it was going to come. He told them not to leave for Jerusalem and to prepare to receive the Spirit.  And when they received it, they would be his witnesses in all of Judea, beyond into Samaria, indeed to the ends of the earth.

This sounds good.  But how does it work? Will this Holy Spirit give them the miraculous power he had?  Will it let them stop bad things from happening?  Can they maybe even replace the Romans being in charge of Jerusalem?  Will this Holy Spirit give them what they want?

Jesus doesn’t say this.  Jesus exits.  I imagine that just as his followers were the only ones who experienced him after the resurrection that only his followers saw him go.  But the story wasn’t over.  Luke says they were just standing there watching when two men in white robes were suddenly beside them asking them why they are standing there looking up.  They assure them that just as Jesus has gone, one day he will return.  And with that the disciples head back to Jerusalem.  And that sets us up for Pentecost.

I believe, much like the way Jesus told stories through parables, such are many of the stories told to us in Genesis.  They aren’t meant to give us some antiseptic and sterile recitation of facts but to relate truth to us.  And one of the truths told to us in Genesis is God never intended for us to live forever here.  We get stories of people who lived 900 years.  700 years.  300 years.  Finally it is shortened down to about 75.  Of course, I don’t think this is for us to try to figure out how human bodies used to live longer but instead it just relates the truth that God made us to live here but for a time.  So, it is less about who we lose but rather who we have been gifted with – who God lets us spend time with.  I think God knows we want more time with those we love.  And indeed, we just might get that but just not here.  We never know how much time we have here.

And beyond life and death, we might want help with all sorts of things.  I do think God hears our prayers always.  I cannot explain why some prayers seem more directly answered and some do not.  But I think God’s spirit is with us in a powerful way.  If we think about the widening circle – God had interacted with a family, then a tribe, and then a nation.  God had then come among us and gave of himself fully for us.  But this Holy Spirit wasn’t going to be for a chosen person, a chosen family, or even a chosen set of Disciples but for all of us.  Everywhere.  It’s exciting to consider but I don’t want to jump the gun and talk about Pentecost just yet.

Lakewood is getting closer to calling a new pastor.  It is an exciting time.  It is a time of change and a time of new possibilities.  As you do I hope you don’t consider the new pastor as the answer to the ministry of the church.  Your new shepherd will join you in it.  They will lead you in this new ministry.  But if you consider them the hired hand to actually do the ministry, it won’t go well.  Churches across our land have adept and talented pastors.  But the churches that grow and thrive are the ones where the people hear Christ’s call – all of them – to find and walk the intended path – and reach out to others.

Jesus’ followers had gone out to that mountainside with him.  They had returned without him physically present.  It must have been a bittersweet moment.  I am sure they wished it could have been as it was before.  But Luke also told us that they were rejoicing.  They went back to the Temple.  They worshiped God in that moment of change, even before the Holy Spirit came. 

May we always do the same.  I hope that Lakewood will always keep worship as a central focus.  It is so important.  I believe God is with us in powerful ways in worship that we don’t often experience God in other places.  That doesn’t mean our worship can’t change.  It doesn’t mean it can’t look different.  I absolutely believe what is vital is for worship is it needs to be authentic and needs to engage us in our lives today.  Sometimes we can get sidetracked into thinking we have to honor the past.  We can learn from the past but it shouldn’t lock us in the present or future from changing things as we need to.  Worship is where I believe so much is launched individually and together.

And may our worship always be filled with our prayers.  And let us seek how God is answering them together.  The Lord, I believe, is absolutely with us for the journey ahead, in and well beyond church.  God has more people for us to experience and to love too. May we listen for our Creator and always walk with our Redeemer and be bound together by God’s Spirit. That’s how we prepare for the journey ahead. 

To God be the glory, forever and ever, amen. 

How Is This Possible?

Making It Count #2

[John 14:15-21]

How in the World Is This Possible?

By the Reverend Tom Paine

Making it Count Series

Preached at First Presbyterian, Tenino

May 14, 2023

Did you all see James Cameron’s movie, “Titanic?” Much of it is remembered today because of a fictional romance but the moviemaker did do a pretty good job capturing what happened to the ill-fated voyage.  

And there is this incredible sequence about midway through the movie where they show Fredrick Fleet, the lookout, trying to stay warm but suddenly seeing the iceberg.  He urgently rings the bridge.  First officer Lighttower answered, heard the news, and ordered Robert Hitchens, the wheelman, to cut hard to port.  He then ordered the engine room to reverse engines.  And the mighty turbines slowly stopped and then started moving in the opposite direction.  And ever so slowly the Titanic moved port – but as we all know – not far enough. They scraped the iceberg which pushed out the rivets in numerous compartments. And that doomed the ship. One of the ironies, is even though they meant well, everything they did once they spotted the iceberg doomed the ship in real life and in the movie.

Yet, how could anything else have happened, given the circumstances?  Could we expect the lookout not to call?  Or the wheelman not to follow orders and try to turn?  Can we expect the first officer not to reverse engines, even though that reduced the ability of the ship to turn? If the first officer had ordered the ship to crash head on into the iceberg, almost all engineers say the ship would not have sunk. But can we seriously have expected that order to have been given? The situation just seems impossible.

What happens when the impossible comes not from a situation but from the Bible?  From God? What happens when we hear it from the words of Jesus himself? 

I mean, we have all heard we are to love one another since childhood. That sounds good. We like being loved. That’s for sure. But we do get to define who “one another” are, right? I mean have you read about some people out there? Have we read any history? Have you actually gotten to know some people? I mean, love nice people? Sure. Love good people? We are on board. But, even in the church, even in our families, “one another” can’t mean like, everyone, can it? Is Jesus serious?  I mean there are some real skunks out there.  Unless we can limit who “one another” means – it just seems like an impossible command.

 Welcome – welcome to my final sermon series here at FPC, Tenino.. No, this doesn’t mean I know some news you don’t. But, the Pastoral Nominating Committee keeps making progress and whether it is one month, two, or even three – my time worshiping with you is limited. So, I really want to make these last sermons count. I’m calling this the making it count series.

And I am focused on that passage with the seemingly impossible command. Interestingly enough, we have to go beyond our reading to find it too. Jesus tells them in our passage, late in his ministry, before he is about to be arrested and offer up his life, that if they love him, they will keep his commandments. But what were his commandments? Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples that he was giving them a new commandment: to love one another as he has loved them (John 13:34). He went on to say that this was how everyone would know if they were really his followers.  They would know them by their love (John 13:35).  “Ok,”  you may be thinking, “I am in church again, a gorgeous Sunday morning.  It’s Mother’s Day even.  And the pastor is telling me we should love each other. Nice in theory.  Nice soft message for Mother’s Day.  At the same time, maybe even some of our mothers are thinking, nice in theory, but not so realistic in practice. Unless you can do some exegetical magic up there and I get to choose who God means to love.  Otherwise, you, pastor are telling me to do something impossible. And, no free pass just because you are just repeating what Jesus said in the Bible. It doesn’t make it any more possible.  You might even be making me feel bad about myself.  How is any of this Good News?

It is interesting how Jesus brought together people who logically should not have gotten along. Peter was a fisherman and Matthew was a tax collector. One of his disciples was the Simons was the Zealot. Yet Jesus,  right in front of him, helped a centurion’s servant.  Religious people were taught not to touch lepers.  Yet Jesus touched them. Samaritans sat down and eating with Jews.  Jesus was building bridges not seen frequently in his day. And consider how much Jesus included women when men and women were taught to stay away from each other unless they were married is remarkable. Jesus seemed to be serious about living out the love he preached.  He followed the commands he taught.

That’s not the core of our objection though, I would think. At least for those who were interested in following Jesus’ commands.  We can see, even when it is hard, crossing social norms to love people who are good folks but look different, maybe even live different from us.  But what happens when they aren’t?  What happens when they seem to be doing the opposite of God’s will? What if they hurt us? What if they are foul people who seem to glory in degrading others? Does God seriously expect us to love such people?

 Maybe pausing and thinking of what Jesus taught overall will help us.  What was the image Jesus gave for God most often?  Wasn’t it that of a loving parent?  We are celebrating mother’s day today.  It isn’t a religious holiday.  But it is the time in our culture where we try to show appreciation to probably the one person who likely showed us more grace than we deserved.  And ideal mothers don’t just do this for one of their children. They also don’t show love to some of their children or only when they are good.  Many mothers will never give up on their kids and maybe pay even more attention to them when they aren’t so good. And they will do this not for one but for all their kids.  They often will go the distance to make sure they succeed.

One of the hardest things I did in my life was go through Air Force Officer’s Field Training. I ended up doing well in the military in the end. But this might have been hard to see in my introduction to the military. Many of my peers in field training had prior military backgrounds or had been to military schools. And many of them were great athletes. They were all competing to be seen as the best cadet. And which group of cadets would make the best flight (that’s what we called each group of cadets). I had no experience marching, wearing uniforms, or shining shoes or in almost anything else we were asked to do. Some of my peers were understanding. Some much less so.  I struggled throughout what was bootcamp.  

But one of the great memories from that difficult summer were the letters I got.  Almost all the letters I got were hand written from my mother. But figuring out I might catch it from my peers if they saw all the letters that kept coming were from my Mom, she had a different woman’s name on each return address of each letter.  My peers thought I  had about twenty girlfriends back home! But she encouraged me on, knowing boot camp was hard for me, even when some of my peers wanted me to quit. It would have been most hard for me to hear that God’s call for love meant I was not only meant to love my mom but some of those cadets who gave me a hard time.

Let’s go back to our Gospel reading, Jesus knew he was about to leave his disciples. He knew he would not be there physically with them to be able to make sure they were going to succeed. But he told them this, “I will ask God and God will give you another Advocate to be with you – forever” (John 14:16).

The word in Greek for advocate is paraclete. If we go beyond the New Testament, paraclete was a Greek term for the person who stood by citizens in their legal proceedings to give them advice on what to say and what to do. They stood side by side with them through the trial. Jesus was giving them an image of a divine presence perpetually with us through the trial of life. And I absolutely believe that includes when we encounter difficult people in our lives.  

It was as if Jesus knew his followers would need assistance living a life of love. He knows there are many people out there who are not only not lovable but seem committed to doing the opposite of love.  A life of love had not been easy for him, and he knew it wouldn’t be for us. He warned them they would get pushback, just as he faced.  And it could be significant. But the Advocate, or the Spirit they were given would be with them forever: it would be with them and within them.  They would not be alone. And we overcome evil not with more evil but with good.

Now, I think we do need to separate the word love from nice even though some of the nicest people in our lives do indeed love us.  When someone lives a life devoted to evil, they distort the image of God in themselves and our call is not simply to be nice to them.  If we really care about them, we need to do all we can to correct their path. Now, sometimes, we may have little to no capability to influence their path.  And the best we can do is not to return their evil with more evil. And maybe God has particular people in mind to change their path, and that’s not us.  And we can always hate evil, whatever its source.  But if we start hating other people, we drink in their poison to our own souls.  Sometimes we need to ask God what we are called to do in regard to some people.  Again, loving them does not mean empowering them to do more evil.  But it most especially is not to become a mirror of them.

Do you know in the course of my ministry, I have met parents who remain committed to their adult children who are incarcerated.  Most accept their child did wrong.  They do not endorse or excuse what they did.  But they also don’t give up on them. They always hope for a better day for them.

I have run into a handful of people, far more serious than the cadets who gave me a bad time in boot camp. And with them, I absolutely struggle with the question, “And how am I supposed to “love” someone like that?” I do know that once, Peter asked Jesus, “How is that even possible for people?” It was a different circumstance.  It was when Jesus told the rich young man he was supposed to give away everything and give it to the poor and follow him.  But maybe what Jesus answered to Peter he would also answer to me, “What is impossible for people, is possible for God.”  Somehow, as much as it is hard for us to see, there is a point to everyone here – even ones who we see no value in whatsoever.

Do you know that today, in 2023, cruise ships have to abide by certain rules learned from the Titanic disaster, even though that’s over a hundred years past now? The number of lifeboats. The standardization of emergency communication and monitoring. The required size of rudders. Even the types of steel used in rivets all come from lessons learned from Titanic. Maybe, somehow, what is impossible in the moment helps us grow into what is possible.

As you near calling your next pastor, I hope that’s where this congregation leans into, growing into what is possible. I have grown to not only love you all but to really appreciate this little city. And I think the PNCs priority of calling a pastor who lives nearby and can be more easily involved in the community is a healthy one. But whether your next pastor succeeds in connecting with Tenino really rests as much with you as it will with him or her.  Be your pastor’s ministry partners.

I have colleagues who urgently argue not to mention mothers day on Mother’s Day.  They say not everyone is a mother.  Some want or wanted to be a mother and have not or were not able to. Others say that not everyone has or had a healthy or helpful mother.  And all of that may be true. But we are called to be defined by good – by love.  And many people in our society do truly not only personally experience love from their mothers, or those who acted as their mothers, but they see them offer it to their whole family and even beyond their families. Even if our personal experience varies, I am confident all of us have run into such loving mothers. They wanted good for others for than for themselves. And that is the heart of love to me, earnestly wanting and working for what is good for others.

The hardest part of joining and even staying in the military over the years for me was running. I am not a natural runner.  I went into more than one annual run with having failed to make my time in numerous practices that year. And yet, I made it, year after year through the encouragement of others.  Including, at that bootcamp, including by some of the cadets I got along with the least.

Maybe Jesus knew this call to love one another would push us. I bet he knew that particularly with some it would seem impossible. I do think Jesus understands where each of us are and why.  Nevertheless, we are worshiping a God who doesn’t seem to give up on people.  God sticks with people even when we would question why.  Maybe there is more than we can see right now and all we can do is work at it.  

And to always remember that is how Jesus wants us to be known.  Not by our proclamations.  Not by our prayers. Not by how big our church buildings are. Not by how much personal or even communal recognize we receive.  We are simply to be known by our love.

May we strive for that, even when it is hard.  Maybe especially when it is hard.  

To God be the glory, forever and ever. Amen


Making It Count #1

[John 14:1-14]


Making it Count Series

By the Reverend Tom Paine

Preached at Lakewood Presbyterian Church

May 7, 2023

Welcome – welcome to my final sermon series at Lakewood. No, this doesn’t mean I know some news you don’t. But, the Pastoral Nominating Committee keeps making progress and whether it is one month, two, or three – my time preaching to you is limited. So, I really want to make these last sermons count.

And so, like a player at a card table I looked to the Revised Common Lectionary and to see what Scripture passages we are dealt for this Sunday.  And all four, even the Psalm 31 which we didn’t read, are rich in metaphors. Ah, just the thing most Presbyterian preachers love to dive into.  We could talk about each metaphor and see what the prophets, the Psalmist, Peter, and even Jesus were referring to. We could put them in their historical context. We could discuss what their original hearers would have heard. We could…and long before then…you’d either be asleep or your minds would be far from here. So, again, to make this count I will narrow the field. Let’s just focus on Jesus. And why it matters – to you.

My first job in the military was working as a signals intelligence officer.  My airmen not only had to intercept signals from sources outside of our country but they had to decrypt them. When we look at the stories from the BIble, we are also studying communications. Communications which at times were intentionally encrypted using language. It is our collective job to decrypt what they were saying so we can apply it today.  

The reason why these people used symbolic speech to relate what they were saying wasn’t to be fancy or to exercise their artistic side. They did so because they were in danger. They encrypted what they were saying to keep it away from an enemy. Jesus and the faith he was teaching, put him and even his followers in danger long before the crucifixion and he recognized it. He only had limited time with his disciples and so he wanted to give them something, something they could repeat after he was gone, which would not place them in immediate danger which is why he spoke the way he did in this passage.

Ok, a bit interesting. Maybe kinda like something flashy on the history channel as we flip by.  But that’s not enough.  Why does this matter to us?  Why does Jesus talking about going to prepare a place for us matter to people in 2023? To people in Lakewood?  To you at Lakewood Presbyterian?  That’s what matters.

What we have to remember is that Jesus wasn’t just seen as a teacher with unusual views back then. Jesus was viewed as a threat. The Romans didn’t just put anyone up on a cross in their day. They crucified people who were threatening their legitimacy and their power. Likewise, the people who handed him over to the Romans sawJesus as a threat – a threat to their power. The religious authorities of the day. And they sold the idea to the Romans that he was also a political threat. Jesus threatened the powers that existed in his day by proclaiming that people matter.

How was that controversial? Who would be threatened by that?  We have to remember that people in power have power over other people.  And some people aren’t supposed to matter (or at least matter much less).  There were, and are, people who the authorities contended shouldn’t matter to good people. To loyal citizens. To religious people. But Jesus insisted people do matter. Maybe most especially people that are on the outskirts of society. Why?  Jesus said they were just as important as anyone else.  God said they mattered. Their issues. Their problems. Their sicknesses. Their sin.  God loved them all and the only thing that really got Jesus angry was when people were being shoved to the side.  

Ok. A bit more interesting. But we are still in the 1st century. We don’t have Romans today. We don’t have Pharisees and Scribes and the Sanhedrin. We face, let’s say, an absolute minimal threat coming to church.  Why does this matter?  Why decode Jesus’ metaphors if we are living now, in 2023, in Lakewood, Washington? Maybe that’s a fun exercise for some religious people but it’s really just a history lesson in the end, isn’t it?

Are people under threat today? Do we have people in our society whose lives are said not to matter? Do black lives matter? Do gay and trans lives matter? Do the illegal immigrants who woke up on the streets of El Paso this morning, with our military vehicles speeding by, matter? How about those approaching our border? Do the people who woke up this morning behind bars matter? What about those who woke up and look forward to nothing more than getting another fix of some drug?  Do they matter?

What we have to remember is that these nice and seemingly soft and stuffy and ancient Bible stories are about people who were frequently in danger. And they chose to stay in danger. Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother, and even Jesus himself would have been safer just to be quiet. But they weren’t. They considered their belief so important, so vital, that it was worth being in danger. Even when the danger was pretty significant.

Ok, so we are up to 2023.  We are beyond the first century.  And yes, this world is full of people with problems.  But what does this matter to me? Illegal immigrants?  People incarcerated?  People hooked on drugs? What does this matter to Lakewood Presbyterian? The radical message of the Bible is that you matter. You yourself matter to the Lord your God. Your church matters. Your problems, your challenges, your woes, the things that keep you up at night – matter to the Lord your God. You matter. Will you believe that God is with you in your problems?  Will you listen for God speaking to you?  And will you individually and together be willing step out for others?

  John recalls in his fourteenth chapter a conversation Jesus had with his disciples before Holy Week, when he was still free, and before he gave his life. In it, he was trying to prepare his disciples for what was to come. And Jesus himself used encrypted words telling them, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” What was Jesus getting at?  We need to decipher the code!

Jesus was inviting his disciples into his house he was preparing which was a way of being.  Where he really lived. The place he has been mentally and spiritually since they met him.

Jesus’ disciples always seemed to want to pull Jesus out of discussions full of symbolism.  They recalled Phillip asking to see the father of this house Jesus was speaking of. Jesus powerfully asked him back, “Have I been with you all this time and you still don’t recognize me?” He goes on, “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me and that is who does the works that I do. Believe me – that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

Now is a good time to pause for a second and think about belief because I really think in 2023 we use the word differently. Oftentimes, today, when we ask someone what they believe it is like asking them to relate the answer to a problem. It is like we are testing either their knowledge or their preferences.  “Do you believe in Jesus?” for example, becomes in our lingo, “Do you believe Jesus existed?” Or maybe “do you identify as a Chrisitan?”  Believing in Jesus is asked kind of like an academic question. “Do you believe in Jesus?” is kind of roughly equivalent to  “Do you believe Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States?”  It is yes or no.  You can be right or wrong. But the answer doesn’t change how we live our lives.

When Jesus says he is preparing a place for us it is about a place for us to exist. It is a way to see God, to see the world, and to see each other.  Do we matter? Do people matter?  You may think, “Oh, come on, we don’t have the issues they had back then. Maybe we don’t. But maybe we have replaced them with new ones.  We live in a culture where people’s freedom to make a profit is now interpreted as being free to have children, literal children, working in a meat production facility. We live in a culture where politicians are openly saying the homeless need to be rounded up and put in camps.  We live in a culture where actual history is being censored from children because parents don’t want their children to feel bad about our past. We live in a culture where a state yesterday sees the answer to the problem of shootings in schools by students is to pay teachers more if they come to their classrooms with guns. Do we live in a culture where we uphold the value and dignity of life or all human life, or are we picking and choosing which lives matter and which are expendable?  

Getting back to our Gospel lesson, when Jesus speaks of belief in it is more of what we are into.  What defines us.  What shapes us.  What makes us who we are. Not just a fact we can memorize and recite. Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” Are we trying to do greater works than Jesus?  Or do we just recite the works of Jesus and feel we are done and can go back to whatever we were doing before church?

It’s tempting to pretend this wasn’t in code. It is was just the literal truth. That’s what lots of churches do today. Jesus was headed up to make up some guest rooms in this big mansion in the sky for when we die.  That’s all he was up to.  And when he says, ask it in his name, that he will do it.  Kind of like Aladdin and the Magic Lamp.

I am not saying this life is all there is. I think there is much much more than this life. But I also believe Jesus came to help us here. To help us now. To tell us that what we face matters. And the people around us matter. We all matter to God. And we are called to step out, even if there is danger, to let other people know their lives matter to God and to stand up for them.  

As Lakewood thinks of its future with a new pastor, my question to you is will you be willing to do anything that may require you one day to use some coded language of your own? Who is out there that you would risk yourselves to let them know that they matter? The Pharisees and Sadducees practiced a faith the Romans didn’t find threatening at all. Is anyone threatened by the faith we practice today? Does it threaten anyone’s power base or anyone’s profit? Who is out there that needs to hear that they are loved and are not lesser than others? Who would object to such a message, and why?

And will you – no matter your health, mental capacity, financial capability, or any other worldly measure remember that you matter, that you still matter, that you have always mattered to God?  Will you remember that this church matters? God was not only with Lakewood in past decades.  God is with you now.

Jesus was letting them know that come what may, they would not be alone.  He would be with them – always.  And Christ is still with us.  And be it through green pastures or dark valleys, he isn’t going to leave us.  And there is a place for us to come. In the meantime, we are called to believe in his way, in his vision, and in his love for – the world. It is a pretty all encompassing love.  And it will conquer all.

To God be the glory, forever and ever, amen.

Deep Behind the Lines

[1 Peter 2:19-25]

Deep Behind the Lines

By the Reverend Tom Paine

Preached at 1st Presbyterian, Tenino

April 30, 2023

In April of 1862, early in the Civil War, Private Jacob Parrott of Company K, Ohio Volunteer Infantry was called to his commander’s tent.  The Union Army planned to attack Chattanooga, Tennessee soon.  But the Confederates would likely resupply from their rail hub in Atlanta at the first sign of trouble in Chattanooga.  His commander wanted the team to go on a dangerous mission deep into enemy territory. They were to get as close to Atlanta as they could, find a train going back north to Chattanooga, and commandeer it.  

As they traveled toward Chattanooga, they were to destroy as much track as possible.  And then leave the commandeered train and return on foot.  Private Parrot and about twenty three other men set off.

They were disguised in civilian clothes.  If they encountered anyone they were to say they were from Kentucky and they were on their way to Atlanta in order to join the Confederate Army.  The ruse worked.  

They made it safely all the way to the outskirts of Atlanta, boarded a train, and waited. At the first stop, the crew exited the train so a station crew could fill their locomotive with water and wood (back in the days of steam engines). The passengers got off to join the crew in getting something to eat.  But at this point the raiders the locomotive, unhitched many of the cars, and took off. 

But the Confederates were quickly alerted to the theft, powered up another locomotive, and a train chase ensued. The Union troops’ did slow them down by the sabotage they were doing along the track which was their primary goal. 

But, time passed, and their locomotive ran out of both fuel and water and eventually stopped because it had not been serviced. They jumped off and ran into the woods trying to get back across to Ohio.  But they were soon captured. They were all roughed up, Private Parrot was beaten pretty severely, and then eight of the group were executed. The rest were sent to a prisoner of war camp.

The image I wanted to start out with this morning is that of going deep into enemy territory. Because, at a theological level, that is really what Peter is writing about. The passage is directly about a particular type of suffering experienced by Christians. He is writing to a next generation of Christians in Turkey later in his life long after Pentecost and the establishment of the early church in Jerusalem. These Christians were facing hostility from their families, from their neighbors, and even from the Romans because they had converted to Christianity. What should they do?  They felt themselves suddenly deep in enemy territory.

God intends good for us. God intends for our lives to be lived with grace, justice, and righteousness. But often, people find themselves in very difficult places where nothing like that exists.  Maybe because of nature. Maybe because of some bad decisions they have made. Maybe because of their own health or a loved one’s health. Maybe because of people with ill intent toward them and they find themselves suffering.  What does God want us to do?

Peter used Christ as our ultimate example when we find ourselves suffering because of someone else. He wrote that “when he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” In other words, God did not give back what was given to Jesus. Christians are to live in a tit for tat word. Jesus at one stage said a legion of angels could respond if called upon, but they weren’t going to be.  But that’s not who he was or why he came. Jesus even prayed for the people who put him on the cross. Jesus was not not condoning their behavior or actions, at all.  But Jesus didn’t come here to cause suffering, even for those who caused him to suffer. Jesus came and entered into solidarity with those who were suffering. Think of who he befriended. Think of who he was always attracted to. Think of who he healed.

In my life, I have seen some Christians going places where few are drawn to go. I have seen them in the barrios of Managua.  I have seen them in the burn wards of a military hospital. I have seen them visiting prisoners. I have seen them spending their free time not at a resort or on a cruise but with people who have incurable diseases. I have seen people give up much out of love for others. I don’t mean by this that God’s people can’t relax and enjoy the good in life.  Jesus certainly did at times.  But a primary calling we have in life is to make life better for those who never or no longer seem to be able to find any good in life at all.  God calls on us to go to where people are suffering.  We are called to go deep into enemy territory.

Ironically, this passage, this very passage has been flipped and misused terribly. During the same time period I opened with, the nineteenth century, there were many churches – Christian churches – packed full of people – and their ministers who use passages just like this one to tell enslaved people – “you see? 

 Your suffering is good.  Your suffering is even ordained by God.  Even the violence you face is part of God’s plan.  You deny the way of Christ if you fight against your enslavement.”  There have been people who have used this passage to justify abusing women.  Minorities.  And others. And this absolutely was not Peter’s point.  Peter wasn’t writing to encourage the Romans or the Pagans or even the slave owners in his day. Peter said it is a natural human instinct which causes us to go astray of God’s plan for us. But following Christ, and his way, is absolutely the answer for us. And Jesus, our good shepherd remains the guardian of the guardian of our souls.

Army Private Jacob Parrot did not live out the rest of the war in a southern prisoner of war camp. The Confederates at one point wanted to get some of their own soldiers back and initiated a prisoner exchange. Parrot was one of the northern soldiers they offered. When Parrot returned he was offered a chance to go to West Point. He refused.  He wanted to get back in the fight. 

But before he did he was ordered to go to Washington D.C. where President Abraham Lincoln awarded him our nation’s first medal of honor. Parrot earned a commission and fought in a number of important battles after that. Later, he worked to help veterans of the war. Even in something as dark as war, there is something about being willing to put yourself at great risk for the sake of others that is a reflection of the divine.

1st Peter was not written as an endorsement of suffering and or to encourage Christians to become the doormats to evil people in this world. The suffering Peter is talking about is suffering we go through in the name of God. It means that when we face terrible circumstances, not to return the terrible to someone else but to look for the ones God sends to help us. And it is a call for those of us who are not suffering to be there for people in difficult circumstances.  We are called to go deep.  To go to the places it is not comfortable to be, maybe not even safe to be, if we see vulnerable children of God there. To help people the world may have discarded but God has not forgotten. And doing so might get push back from the world.

When Lesley and I started out in ministry, a missionary named Jean Kim came to the town and stayed with us for a few days. During the visit, I asked for her observations on local churches. She said, “Tom, in all denominations, and even non-denominational churches, I believe congregations fall into three basic types.  First, there are churches that are like clubs.  They are where friends go and gather to be together. But they aren’t much interested in the outside world. People love each other there. They may like to study the Bible there. And they may even encourage others to join them. But basically, they are inwardly focused. It’s like a closed club. Second, there are churches out there who do look beyond themselves, and they will honestly look out and see what is going on in the world around them.  And if they see a problem, they, collectively will break out the checkbook and or gather goods to help.  This is better. They will gather together in their closed group to send out money and goods to help the world around them. They might even, on occasion, invite folks in and share some things with them.  And we do need churches like that. I appreciate them.  But then, then there are the third type of congregations. They not only look around and see the problems around them but they go out and  get involved, personally.  They get to know the people who are struggling around them. They befriend them.  They get to know them personally.  They view them as no different than one of their own.  This type of church is much more rare but these are the churches I am really interested in finding.”

The question is, can we, will we, be such a people?  Will we go deep behind the lines?  Will we go out and make a difference? Will we be able to call neighbors by name, as Jesus and the Apostles did? Jesus came to change the world.  And that means Jesus came to change us.  Jesus gave everything of himself to change us.  His way is not the way of the world.  It is the way of the kingdom. And through such a way we find our guardian who is indeed the shepherd of our souls.  Because who knows, maybe one day we may be a lost sheep.  Life has no guarantees.  And knowing our good shepherd will go the distance and not give up on us, should inspire us to be the very people who don’t give up on others and go deep into the shadows of places where our neighbors may not.

May we be willing to follow him, wherever Christ leads. To God be the glory, forever and ever, amen.

The Journey Ahead

[1 Peter 1:17-25]

Preparing for the Journey Ahead

By the Reverend Tom Paine

Preached at Lakewood Presbyterian Church

April 23, 2023

Packing lists. When I was a kid, I decided to sign up to go to Kings Arrow Ranch near Lumberton and Popularville, Mississippi.  It was a Christian camp managed by a former football player for the New Orleans Saints and sounded like fun. I remember a month before the camp began we got a letter in the mail and my mom handed it to me. It contained not only directions on how to get to the camp but also a packing list of everything I would need at the camp. Little did I know it was the first of many such lists I would receive over my life. To go to college, to go into the military, to deploy, to bring pets anywhere, later small children anywhere, taking our RV out – I could go on and on – we needed a list. I know you have seen it too all your life. If you are going to travel well, you need to be prepared. 

Our Gospel reading is of an outing that is well known in the early Christian church. It is retold in other places than in just Luke.  But the story is better known than the men in the story. Because one, Luke appears not to know his name, and the other, Cleopas, we have never heard of before in this gospel or any other. But they obviously are close followers of Jesus not just because of the details they reveal as they talk with – the stranger – on the road but because as the story unfolds they run back to none other than the upper room where the eleven are initially hidden away from the authorities and are welcomed in. These men, as the story starts out, are traveling on that first Easter Sunday and are walking to their homes about seven miles away. At moderate walking speeds where they are talking we could expect that to be a little over two hour walk.

In our Epistle reading, we have Simon Peter, who we are focusing on in this Easter Season, writing a few decades after the men walked on the road to Emmaus.  And Peter was writing to new churches, really new Christians, in what is now Turkey. These churches are largely made up of Gentiles, former Pagans, married women, and slaves who have converted to following Jesus. And his letter was written, in part, to help them prepare. But instead of preparing for a physical journey they are soon going to face more intense persecution for their faith. And for that they need to be as prepared, really more prepared, than to go on any physical trip.

Our two travelers on that first Easter seem to be headed out sometime in the mid-afternoon. Again, they were down. They were dejected. The Passover had not unfolded, at all, like they expected. They were trying to make sense of everything that had just happened. The road wasn’t empty. There was another man walking along who overheard what they were talking about and he joined in their conversation. This probably wasn’t unusual at all back then as people traveled on foot. There was safety in numbers. The stranger asked them what they were talking about.  These two men are so down, that despite traveling and needing to get to their destination, the question stopped them in their tracks.  How can this man not know?  

Hope is such an essential ingredient in our lives. It gives us meaning. It gives us purpose. It gives us a focus when we get up in the morning. But these are two men who had lost what they had truly hoped for and then been confronted with inexplicable news.  Jesus, who they had expected to redeem Israel, was dead.  And his tomb was empty. 

We have folks all around us who get news or face situations that make them give up hope. People who are institutionalized and no one visits. People who get a significant diagnosis. People whose families no longer accept them. People who lose a job or a home they loved. People who lose a future they really really wanted just as had happened to Jesus’ disciples. What do you do when you lose hope?

Peter, again writing a few decades after these events, reminded this second generation of Chrisitans to remember if they have chosen to invoke God as their father, knowing that God looks at all our lives impartially, to continue have faith that God is going to respond to us, as any loving father would, but our God expects us to take life seriously. Living the faith isn’t about living any way we want and then running to God whenever trouble comes. For toddlers that may be ok. But not for adults. Our lives need to be a witness. Our lives are a journey and when we confess our belief in God we need to live life with a deep consciousness that we have entered into an active and living relationship with God.

Imagine if you have packed for a trip though, thoroughly prepared in every way you can think, and yet you end up in a place you didn’t intend or foresee at all.  I remember when I came out of my first military tech school, we all had our orders.  I was going to Alaska.  A couple of my friends were going to Hawaii.  Another to the United Kingdom.  But our class leader was headed to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. And we all packed our bags accordingly.

About two years into our tours, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines went off.  For those old enough, do you remember that? It wasn’t an issue of just needing to dust off the unit and keep working. It buried my old class leader’s unit in Ash. Clark Air Base never really went back to what it was.  My colleague wasn’t injured but I don’t even know if he got his personal belongings back. There are events we simply cannot plan for or be prepared for – no matter how we are living.

That’s how Cleopas responds to this stranger.  How could he have been in Jerusalem and not heard the things that happened?  “What things?” the stranger asked back. “What things? The things about Jesus of Nazareth! A prophet who had been mighty in word and deed before God and everyone. But all our own chief priests and leaders conspired against him, and handed him over to the Romans, who condemned him to death, and crucified him.” I imagine Cleopas looking this stranger in the eye when he said, “We had hoped that Jesus was going to finally be the one to redeem Israel.” There was probably a pause and then he said, “Yes, and besides all that, it is now the third day since all that happened and then there’s this morning. 

This morning some of the women of our own group astounded us. They went to Jesus’ tomb early today and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had seen a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive. Some of those who were with us ran to the tomb and found it just as they said, but Jesus wasn’t there.”  Kind of implicit in this is Cleopas and the other disciple didn’t buy it because they weren’t waiting around to see Jesus themselves. Little did they realize who they were with!

The stranger, far from having been some non-religious person or someone unversed in religious belief, challenged them. He went back and stepped them through the many passages of scripture that referred to the Messiah and reminded them all the savior had been prophesied to go through. And this must have started them walking again and all this explanation must have taken some time because they got all the way to the village seven miles distant. 

The stranger started to keep walking but it says, in our English translations, that the two disciples urged him to stay.  The Greek word is kind of even more intense than the English word urge though. It’s more like they compelled him. “Please don’t go. It’s late. The roads are dangerous. Please stay.” The stranger agreed.

Peter writing later went on to tell these early Christians in Turkey that their lives weren’t happenstance. It wasn’t an afterthought they were there at that moment in history. God had paid a costly price to save them. God knows them and God has plans for them and an ultimate destination.  What they see around them is not their inheritance. What they will experience isn’t either. They are passing through where they are for something far better. 

Are you familiar with the old hymn Wayfaring Stranger?  Do you remember how it opens?  Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing.  But listen to the words:

I am a poor wayfaring stranger

Traveling through this world of woe

There is no sickness, toil, or danger

In that fair land to which I go

I’m goin’ home to see my mother

I’m goin’ home, no more to roam

I’m just goin’ over Jordan

I’m just goin’ over home

I know dark clouds will hover on me

I know my path is rough and steep

But golden fields lie out before me

Where weary eyes no more shall weep

Peter, if he wrote lyrics to songs, could have written those words.  He urged them, and really urges us, no matter our trials or tribulations to remember God has more in store for us.  Much more.  And it’s good.

Back to Emmaus, the stranger doesn’t act like a guest who sits down to served. Instead he serves the two disciples. And it was in the breaking of the bread they finally saw he was no stranger at all. They recognized Jesus.  

They aren’t alone in not initially recognizing Jesus after the resurrection. Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize him in the garden initially. In the Gospel of John, it isn’t when he appeared in the upper room with closed doors that the Disciples initially rejoiced, it was only after he showed them his wounds that they recognized him and rejoiced. When Jesus later was cooking fish along the shore of the Sea of Galilee – everyone didn’t immediately recognize him – only Peter did. And even immediately before the ascension, as Jesus was giving them final instructions – Matthew wrote that some of them believed and others didn’t. And there is no record of anyone who didn’t believe ever seeing the resurrected Lord.  But some grabbed hold of him.  He broke bread.  He cooked fish. Something was different after the resurrection but what we can’t say. 

Back at Emmaus, again it was in the breaking of the bread that they truly recognized him. And after they saw him for who he was – he was suddenly gone. This doesn’t seem to upset them as much as they  seemed to be kicking themselves for not having recognized him earlier. “Weren’t our hearts burning when he was talking to us on the road?” And, even though it must be night by then, with all the dangers of night travel, even so they rushed back the seven miles, went back to the upper room, and told the eleven all they experienced.  

Peter later wrote that we purify our souls by being obedient to the truth and where will that inevitably lead us? To love one another. Loving one another deeply from the heart. Loving each other like our lives depended on it. That’s where following Jesus, really following Jesus, leads.  

 Can we, will we, see ourselves on a journey in this life? That we aren’t meant for here. We were made for something better. Something more wonderful. Yet, for now, our lives here have a purpose. So, even though we are not yet where we are going, we have to take it seriously. This world isn’t heaven.  It is not the Kingdom. That’s for sure. But getting there requires us, fundamentally, not to meld in a become like the people who feel like this life is all there is and our only purpose is to gather as much as we can for ourselves and our families and then poof – we are gone. Instead, it is to recognize we are beloved by a father who has an intention for us, and even in and through our sufferings, nothing will thwart what God has in store.

Cleopas and the other disciple find the eleven not dejected as they likely had been when they left. The women had been right. It hadn’t just been a dream or wishful thinking. Because not only had they experienced Jesus on the road but Peter at this point had seen him too. Interestingly, Luke doesn’t relate that encounter of Peter seeing Jesus. He must have found what happened on the road to Emmaus a more interesting story to tell.

Peter ends his first chapter of his epistle reminding these early Christians that everything – and everyone – fades away here in the end.  He wrote, “The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.” In other words, you want a list for this journey – take the list that doesn’t change – God’s Word – the list for what we need in this journey of life.  This is what we need from beginning to end.

For the disciples, they were about to journey on and spread the Good News without Jesus at least being seen like he was in those days. But the Word was with them. For that next generation of Christians who was going to see the secular world turn against them, the Word was with them too. And for us, I believe we too radically and vitally need that same Word – we need that list – it reminds us of all of who we need to be – because our road now isn’t easy and ahead it could easily get harder. The society default to Christianity is not likely to return. Churches, especially neighborhood churches, are going to have to find a new way to be and spread the Good News. And even the society we live in might be a bit in flux right now and we don’t know how it will change. Technology too seems about to make another great leap. How we are going to be challenged by all this while we stay committed to Jesus is not immediately clear.  

Nevertheless, come what may, if we remember that we are children of the Creator, we have been saved by God’s son, and we are bound together by God’s Spirit – in whatever we face, we will not be alone.  We are called to love one another.  And whatever challenges we face will not thwart what God has planned for us.  

So, let us journey on.  Let us remember not to lose hope because even if things don’t turn out as we expect – as they had not for Cleopas and his friend – it doesn’t mean a different future, even a better future, isn’t at hand.  

The last person they expected on that road was Jesus. Let’s not be so surprised if we find Christ on our road.

To God be the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Opening Closed Doors

[1 Peter 1:1-9]

“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.””

‭‭John‬ ‭20‬:‭24‬-‭29‬ ‭NRSVUE‬‬

“I, Peter, am an apostle on assignment by Jesus, the Messiah, writing to exiles scattered to the four winds. Not one is missing, not one forgotten. God the Father has his eye on each of you, and has determined by the work of the Spirit to keep you obedient through the sacrifice of Jesus. May everything good from God be yours! What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole. I know how great this makes you feel, even though you have to put up with every kind of aggravation in the meantime. Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it’s your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory. You never saw him, yet you love him. You still don’t see him, yet you trust him—with laughter and singing. Because you kept on believing, you’ll get what you’re looking forward to: total salvation.”

‭‭1 Peter‬ ‭1‬:‭1‬-‭9‬ ‭MSG‬‬

Opening Closed Doors

By the Reverend Tom Paine

Preached at Lakewood Presbyterian Church

April 16, 2023

Have you ever felt in danger of a wild animal?  When I was a child, at camp once, I was fearful of a bull coming after me when I inadvertently got into a cow pasture. I can remember being in the ocean once and being fearful of seeing a shark. I also, even as recently as a few years ago, kept a wary eye out jogging in rural Alaska because bears had been seen. And what do we tend to do if we feel a threat? We either get into fight or flight mode.  And seeing that I am not one who tends to carry around a great deal of weaponry with me everywhere I go – retreating to a safe place seems to be the better part of valor. Get back to dry land or get into a structure that can offer some protection.

The disciples in the Gospel of John feel like they need some protection after the first Easter. They got away from Jerusalem where they had been and faded back into more rural and less populated Galilee. But they aren’t just hanging around in Galilee. They are behind closed doors out of fear of the authorities. They had recently been the most vocal advocates of Jesus of Nazareth.  They had left everything to follow him. They had traveled the countryside, at one point, gone two by two to share his message.  But he had been arrested. He had been tried. He had been crucified. And they are hiding out, likely fearing the authorities will come for them next.

I wonder, one week after Easter, is our life so different? Where are we living? In the freedom and joy of resurrection sharing the Good News everywhere we go or are we safe, behind closed doors? How are our lives different after Easter? And if they aren’t, what is the threat that keeps us from sharing?

Peter, who at that point in life, felt like an utter failure for having denied Jesus, was planning on going back to fishing.  But Jesus had different plans for him. And our Epistle reading, which is by him a few decades on, instead of being about him being discouraged, instead is about him trying to encourage some of the early churches found in what we know of as Turkey today. We are not only going to track this reading from First Peter today, but we are going to stay in this book throughout the Easter season till we get to Pentecost.

What we know of these early Christians in Turkey is this – they were Gentiles, former Pagans, who had converted to the following Jesus. We can tell as the letter proceeds that many of them are women, some of whom are married to non-believing husbands.  We can tell some are slaves.  And we can tell that life has not gotten easier for them.

Why? If they have gone from worshiping false gods to the One true God, if they accept Jesus as God’s only son, and believe that he was resurrected, and through their faith in him, that they are saved – haven’t they checked all the boxes?  Shouldn’t have life gotten easier, safer, and improved from then on?  Why would life after Easter, after the resurrection, have been hard?

Peter started off by telling them that they were chosen for this life. God chose them long before they chose God. They were destined for the path ahead and they in particular had been set apart for it.  It’s a bold claim.  Do we feel that way?  Do we feel chosen?  Many do not seem to these days.  They think God can just look out on everyone and doesn’t really care what we do or believe.  But Peter absolutely saw it differently.  God chooses people to follow Christ and reflect his ways.  Maybe there is more than meets the eye as to why we are here.

Peter goes on to share with them that they had been given a new birth into a new and living hope they received through the resurrection of Jesus. Some churches in our society have adopted this imagery of being “born again” and it’s this great emotional moment of joy and bliss and then rewards come.  But any of us have been a part of a birth, or witnessed a birth – joy and bliss and rewards may come but it is not easy.  The birthing process is anything but. Why do we sugarcoat this? Why do we tend to deny what Jesus actually taught?  

Jesus called us on his followers to sacrifice. He called on them to give up popularity, friends, even family if needed.  He called on them to be willing to give up their very lives to gain their souls.  He called on them to take up their own crosses. But is this how being born again is presented?  If it were an easy street that Jesus was calling on people to travel – why wouldn’t everyone fall in?  follow?  Who wouldn’t want that?

Back in our Gospel reading, the disciples were hiding – behind closed doors. Does it say Jesus knocked? Does it say Jesus opened and entered?  No. Again, the resurrected Jesus isn’t just the resuscitated Jesus.  Something new and different was happening.  And Jesus, suddenly, was just there with them.  Couldn’t it be that Jesus does the same today?  That Jesus goes to all those closed away places in our lives? He may be unexpected, uninvited, and may even sometimes be unwanted but Christ steps in nonetheless to closed minds, closed hearts, and closed lives offering to breathe a new breath of life into us. Jesus empowers us, just as he did the first disciples, to open the doors we close behind us and go out and live and not let our fears get the best of us. 

It is hard though because we want someone to have our back.  We want to go out of that door and feel welcomed. And we want to feel safe. We feel if we are on God’s side, as the saying goes, who then can be against us? And none of us jumps up in the morning and says, “Ah, looks like a great day for a little danger.  Maybe even a little suffering. That’s what I need. That will be for the best and make me stronger.” Yet, how can we really be saved, how has Jesus’ message become a part of us, if we are ok that our knock about is in danger?  Can we really be saved if we don’t care about the salvation of our neighbor? What kind of kingdom is it if we can shrug and think it is only a kingdom for us?  If change wasn’t easy for Jesus, and for his disciples, why would it be for us? Jesus warns over and over if we go in his name – we should expect difficulties.  But sacrificial love is so important.  Sacrificial love changes things.

Peter continued to write to the early Christians that their hope wasn’t in easy times or easy situations right then but to remember that they were going to inherit something imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. The goal wasn’t to withdraw from or even fight the culture they were in. Instead, it was simply to be authentically who they were. Their inheritance, our inheritance, will be in heaven itself. They needed to lean into that. And perhaps, so do we. It isn’t that we can earn our way to get that inheritance but if we work toward our values here being more like what our values will be there – then we get closer and closer to the people God created us to be. We get a foretaste, not just of the kingdom, but who we will be in the kingdom in the here and now.  Jesus’ goal wasn’t to call us only to be a kingdom people when we die. We are going to get it in heaven. Jesus was his first disciples, and still calling on us, to open that door – and be kingdom people now – even if danger is afoot. Whatever struggles and challenges we face will be real, they won’t go away, they will not be eternal.

We know what Thomas’ reaction was.  “Show me the money” to use a phrase from a movie.  Or, “show me the proof” as people often say today. “I didn’t believe the women and I am not going to believe you till I see it for myself.”  That’s Thomas’ attitude. And so Jesus himself showed up. He offered that proof. Thomas then said the ultimate confession, “My Lord and my God.” Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And Peter ends up repeating this almost verbatim to these first Christians in Turkey. If you look in the Bible, in story after story where proof is offered, over and over and it changed the people’s hearts little. Faith though, faith changed and continues to change everything. Faith in a savior who came to save humanity by being willing to sacrifice for it.

The Chrisitan message is never that what we face is all we will ever have. There is more in store for us if we are willing to walk the path, as hard as it is now. It doesn’t mean just happy times in the here and now. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have hardship and loss. But such is never the end, the real end of the story. Can we hold on and be those people, even when it gets hard?  

We are called for our faith, our trust, in Jesus to be more precious to us than gold. Gold was their, and remains one of our, measures of wealth. Our true wealth is in what is eternal, not something to be used for our own personal advantage.  And it is faith which will see us through the trials we face which often are as different as each of our own situations.

A perpetual source of strife in human society is pressure to conform. We will say we value individuality but there is huge societal pressure not to be too different.  Life is much more comfortable if we are like our neighbors – if we look like them, eat like them, marry like them, and even worship like them.  This has always been.  So, how do you think it was for those first Christians who started practicing a different religion than their neighbors in 1st century Turkey?  What was it like for them to advocate for different ethical standards from what their neighbors had grown up with? What was it like when they started saying they believed in one God versus many gods?  At first, these new Christians were just viewed as strange. But for a long period, a period still to come for those who would have first heard Peter’s letter, the difficult persecution of Christians was still to come. And it got intense. It wouldn’t be until three or four generations later that Christianity was not just accepted but was adopted as the faith of the empire.  

The Gospel writer of John started to conclude his book with the story of Thomas but he has an epilogue when Jesus appeared again along the Sea of Galilee when he got Peter back on track.  But John says there are so many stories about Jesus, the world couldn’t contain them all. He was not so subtly telling his readers that the stories he chose, including the one with Thomas, had an important message.

 Our resurrected Lord is the one whom we are called to have faith in.  Jesus isn’t just someone in the past.  Christ is here with us.  And he offers us much to have faith in. Regardless of the circumstances we face, Jesus is with us.  Tornados will still form, the hungry still need to be fed, and loved ones will still die. But the life and peace of Jesus’ resurrection enables us to meet and live through these difficult circumstances indeed to bear witness and work for a better way because we know what will come one day.

 The answer to Easter can’t be to hunker down behind closed doors and wait. It is to go out even with the dangers and challenges that still exist and share the values we learn from Jesus and show our faith in him. We especially are called to go where people are suffering and show love to them.  And to challenge whatever circumstances put them there.

Peter wrote that if Christ’s followers go forth living this resurrected life, if we go out showing the sacrificial love of Christ, even when we don’t see him, we are bearing witness to our faith in him and we are deserving of the indescribable and glorious joy that is to come. Because, by being Jesus’ people, not just one day but now and here, we begin receiving the outcome of our faith through which – present tense – not future or past but present – we receive the salvation of our souls.

As we continue in the Easter Season we are going to stick with the readings from 1st Peter and we will look at some of the common challenges they faced and challenges we face and how they did and we can hold onto our faith through these challenges. And we are always called to remember God has chosen us and is calling us to go beyond our doors and be the people we are called to be. God has chosen us to live out our faith, and lean into that faith, right out in the open. If we do it, it will change us. It will change others. And whatever danger we face will never be greater than the One who has promised us a pretty incredible future.God has more in store, for us, much more. 

Let us follow Jesus Christ. To God be the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Change (Easter 2023)

[Matthew 28:1-10]


by the Reverend Tom Paine

Preached at Lakewood Presbyterian and FPC Tenino

April 9, 2023

I am sure you have heard that next year NASA is going to send a crew of astronauts in Artemus 2 around the moon. It will be the first time human beings have made the journey in almost fifty years.

The purpose of the mission is to help prepare us to go where no person has ever gone – Mars. It really was astounding that, almost fifty years ago now, when the computers were far less capable than the ones in our cell phones today, we landed people on the moon and returned them home in those Apollo missions. That had been something human beings had only dreamt for so long. To see the Earth from another celestial body was just amazing. There are still some who have trouble believing it even happened today.

A woman about two thousand years ago saw something many also still wrestle with today. That woman was Mary Magdalene. The Gospels, while usually telling us a fairly uniform story about Jesus ministry and even death, diverge on many details in the story they tell of the first Easter morning. They, of course, are uniform in agreement that Jesus was not in that tomb after three days. He was risen. But the details – the people – the men and women who saw and experienced it in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are different – except for Mary Magdalene. All four are in agreement that she was there to discover the empty tomb. And the significance of her experience remains profound.

The reality she experienced was different, is different, from what we can explain. There are many today who try to harmonize her experience with all we have learned through the years but what she saw and felt can not be rationally explained by the rules of the universe as we understand them. People dead, through a gruesome execution, don’t come back after three days. If true, it shakes our understanding of our world which may be why it’s interesting that Matthew starts off the Easter story with – an earthquake.

Matthew told us Mary Magdalene was not alone. She had another woman named Mary with her and she was headed to the tomb as soon as the Sabbath was over – at sunrise. As they approached the earth shook as a messenger from God rolled back the tomb stone and sat upon it. Whoever this was – this is the voice we hear through much of the passage.

Western art often depicts angels as smiling and soft beings with white robes and having wings and maybe harps. They look pretty comforting and are soothing. But that isn’t how people experienced them in the Bible. Almost uniformly people are shocked when they see them. They are scared. They can’t really fully explain what they are looking at. And do you want to know what angels have to do over and over? Every time they speak to God’s people their first words are an urge not to be afraid. Not to be scared.

Matthew tells us the angel had an appearance like lighting and his clothes were as white as snow. The soldiers meant to guard the tomb are so scared they become like dead men – unable to move.

Have you heard about an aspect of reality that Albert Einstein called spooky action at a distance? It’s called quantum entanglement. In the simplest terms, quantum entanglement means that aspects of one particle of an entangled pair depend on aspects of the other particle, no matter how far apart they are or what lies between them. These particles could be, for example, electrons or photons, and an aspect could be the state it is in, such as whether it is “spinning” in one direction or another. The strange part of quantum entanglement is that when you measure something about one particle in an entangled pair, you immediately know something about the other particle, even if they are millions of light years apart. This odd connection between the two particles is instantaneous. How this can be, we still don’t understand.

I think hearing the Easter story each year should call on us to ask ourselves how we are entangled with it. How is what happened back then having an effect on us today? The angel’s message to the two women equally applies to us. First, they were urged to believe. So are we. It is so staggering to realize that there may be more to this existence than we assumed but our first step surely is to believe. The messenger also called on the women to share it with Jesus’ disciples. To go and to tell. We too are called to go and tell – to share our experiences of God with people we encounter. Finally, they were urged to rejoice. Jesus wasn’t dead. They could be happy that the grave was no longer the final destination everyone assumed. We too can rejoice over this.

Jesus sacrificed himself for them all. Jesus, on the cross, was asking for forgiveness for everyone – even the people who put him up there. God is affirming a love – a salvation – that is so significant and profound it is hard for us to understand. It is a call which with so much division and discord in our world, even in our society, we need to hear anew.

Matthew has Mary Magdalene and her friend Mary inspect the empty tomb. And unlike the Gospel of John which has the Gospel writer and Peter racing to the tomb – Matthew has the women running from the tomb to go and tell the disciples. And this is when they run into none other than Jesus himself.

The risen Jesus isn’t exactly like us. He isn’t even like Lazarus when Lazarus was brought back to life. Lazurus was wrapped up in grave clothes. Someone had to go in and guide him out and unwrap him. But in John Jesus is not only gone from the tomb but suddenly appeared in a locked room. In the same way, Matthew has him suddenly appear on the trail. Remember, the angel rolled back the tombstone earlier in the story but Jesus didn’t walk out. He wasn’t in the tomb. But just like in John where he cooks some fish or in Luke where he breaks bread – he absolutely is physical. Mary Magdalene and her friend grabbed his feet. He was there. He wasn’t a ghost. It also wasn’t just in their hearts or in their imaginations, like wishful thinking. But, yet, somehow it was different – different in ways we cannot explain.

Jesus greeted them. And he told Mary Magdalene and her friend to go tell his disciples, who he interestingly now referred to as brothers, to meet him in Galilee. He assures them that they will all see him there. And so Mary Magdalene and her friend rushed off. And as the women go the soldiers break out of their stupor and scatter – some of them go back to report what had happened.

What the resurrection gives us is the promise of how far the love and salvation of God goes. Jesus began his ministry calling people who the religious authorities in his day thought as lesser than. Fishermen. Zealots. Tax collectors. Jesus expands who God loves to include the sick. The disabled. The unclean. And it keeps going. The Samaritans. The Greeks. The Romans.

And look at who all the Gospel writers relate was, by the choice of Jesus, was the very first witness to this new reality – a woman who at one point they said was possessed by seven demons.

Gender stereotypes. Medical conditions. Mental conditions. Religious regulations. National boundaries and ethnicity. Jew or Gentile. Slave or free. Religious or not. Citizen or prisoner. None of this stops or hinders the love of God. We all become brothers and sisters. Can we, will we, live like this?

But it calls us to more than just seeing people as brothers and sisters. People are still still attempting to be use the same barriers to reign in others today. Even though Jesus proved it wasn’t important to God, some continue to try to define the value of people by their race, by their gender, by their sexuality, by their nationality, or by their profession. There are many who want to align the church with our national interests. There are many who want to use religion to declare some in our society unclean. We use different terminology. We are a tad more sophisticated. People in power or seeking power still attempt to keep that power like they did in Jesus’ day by controlling who is in and who is out. But whenever anyone tries to limit the love of God, they are getting off course.

If we think again of those astronauts, in our past and in our future, they put themselves in pretty significant danger in order to move forward what humanity learns and experiences. Will we offer sacrificial love to help change the conditions of so many people who are our siblings in the eyes of God?

Jesus gave of himself to change human nature. To change the human condition. To change our relationship with God and with one another. God affirms this by having Jesus overcome death itself. There is no one, anywhere, who is not loved by God. Can we, will we, live as a resurrected people, a people who will sacrifice so that all are welcomed at the table?

When many of us were children, we would wake up on Easter morning to find an Easter basket and we were to go around the house and find candies and eggs that had been hidden for us. Today, we tend to have community Easter egg hunts where our children will burst forth and find all of the hidden eggs in a field or on a playground. Some dismiss all this as not exactly in line with the Easter story. But what if it is a great metaphor for what adults are called to do? I don’t mean go out and find hidden candy and eggs. But what if we are called to find people – people who God loves as much as God loves us – and to learn how they too are our brothers and sisters? What if, like when the best candies are sometimes a little harder to find in an Easter Egg hunt, God is calling on us to seek out his people who are in harder places?

Can we, will we, put ourselves more at risk for our sisters and our brothers? Jesus’ disciples – male and female – didn’t exactly choose a safe lifestyle in response to the resurrection. How many Christians will go out and not just visit but befriend the sick, the imprisoned, or those who have nothing? And will we push, even at our own risk, for change? Why is it ok with the people of God that so many of our brothers and sisters are struggling?

There is no question that Mary Magdalene and her friend did what the messenger of God asked of them, what Jesus asked of them, because not only do we see the disciples indeed meet Jesus in Galilee but they changed the world. Their lives were transformed, and so should ours be. Let us remember the angel’s call that first Easter morning. Don’t fear. Believe. Share. Rejoice. And let us even follow Christ to offer that sacrificial love. It can change everything – including and most especially us.

Jesus Christ is Risen. Still. We may not ever fully understand it here and now. But we can experience it. And we can be an Easter people.

To God be the glory. Forever and ever. Amen.

Sacrifice After Sacrifice

Note: I went back through my sermon file to see when the last time I preached on Matthew 26:26-46. The answer? Twenty eight years ago. This was three years before I was ordained. It was seven years before I became a military chaplain. And, of note, it was four years before James Cameron decided to make a movie depicting, at least briefly, what I use for a sermon illustration. I thought I would repost this one for fun. No illustrations, maps, or graphics because I didn’t start doing that until recently. This sermon was presented as a seminarian in small churches in rural Texas. 🙂

[Matthew 26:26-46]

Presented: Fort Stockton 4/95

Vanderbilt 1/96

Sacrifice After Sacrifice

Have you ever heard of Walter Hartley and his five man orchestra? Today they may not be well known but earlier this century they were really on the rise in the music world. The little orchestra could play everything from waltzes to ragtime to pieces of opera.

About eighty-four years ago now they succeeded in getting booked into one of the most prestigious places in the world to play for a very exclusive audience. The little band played for people such as John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in America; Thomas Andrews, the managing director of the ship building firm Harland and Wolf; and Isador and Ida Straus, major partners in Macey’s Department Store.

If they played well for such an audience they would be able to write their own ticket from here on out. And from what everyone says who heard them play, they did just that. This little team of musicians played their hearts out and everyone noticed it.

But on the last night of their performance something happened. They were playing in this large ballroom and just after they had finished their last number and were packing up their instruments they heard a scraping sound screeched through the ballroom. Soon afterwards a steward came up and asked them to get a life vest and report to the main deck. Is the story starting to sound familiar? Mr. Heartley and his five man orchestra were playing in the main ballroom of the Titanic.

Now the logical thing for the musicians to have done would have been to do exactly what the steward had instructed them to do. For their own safety they needed to go up and try to get on one of the Titanic’s lifeboats. But Mr. Heartley and crew didn’t do that. They did something else. Something unexpected.

Instead of grabbing life vests, they grabbed their instruments. They did move through the crowd and get up to the main deck but they didn’t head for the lifeboats. Instead they set up their instruments on the deck and began to play.

Lifeboat after lifeboat left the Titanic as the little band played. And as I am sure you know, the Titanic did not begin to have enough lifeboats for all of its passengers. But even when it was clear that the Titanic was doomed, even as the last lifeboats was lowered into the water, Mr. Heartley and his band played on.

It was a fateful night which is forever etched in British and American culture….

Our Scriptural text from Matthew this morning is also about a fateful night. The passage relates to us events that occurred in a garden outside of Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. It too is a story about sacrifice.

We look into the garden and we see Jesus of Nazareth, on his knees, praying to God. He knows that Judas and the soldiers are coming. He knows that the cross is before him. He knows that he is about to lose all of his friends. And he is praying to God that somehow may this not all occur.

It is not a picture of Christ we often think of in the church. Jesus of Nazareth – doubting, asking for help, and fearful of what is to come. We think of Christ being confident and secure. We think of those around him not knowing what to do but we don’t think of Jesus this way.

We think of Jesus, correctly, as the Son of God, but it is also important for us to remember what the Scriptures also teach – that Jesus was fully human. It is not so hard for us to think of Jesus needing the basics – like food, water, and sleep. But what about other things humans usually want? Professional respect? Having a family? Having a nice home? Living to a ripe old age?

Friends, I believe we reduce Jesus’ humanity if we think he did not desire those things too. But Jesus did not come to serve his own needs but to serve God and to minister to us. And in the same way, we deny Jesus’ humanity if we think he did not experience the very human emotions of doubt and fear. Jesus was the Son of God. But he was also one of us.

The difference between Jesus of Nazareth and you and me my friends is not in how he felt but in how he responded to those feelings. Jesus could have walked into the Temple in his home town and preached a sermon they all would have enjoyed. But he didn’t. Jesus could have said things that would have made the Pharisees praise him every time he walked into the Temple. But he didn’t. Jesus Christ could have settled down, married, and had a family. But he didn’t.

Jesus had the same feelings we do, felt the joys and sorrows we have, and was even tempted the way we are. But the difference between our Lord and Savior and ourselves is that Jesus did not do what he wanted to do but rather what God wanted him to. Jesus of Nazareth did not devote his life to serving his own needs but rather devoted it to doing the will of God.

That is precisely what makes what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane so incredible. So different. So unlike anything before or since. This human being Jesus, the guiltless son of God, who knelt and prayed in that Garden, could have run out of that garden and been miles away when Judas and the troops arrived. But he didn’t. The remarkable thing is not that Jesus feared. The remarkable thing is that he stayed there when anyone of us would have gotten the heck out of there.

One of the most incredible facts about the sinking of the Titanic was that there was almost no panic…no pandemonium. There were no mobs fighting over the precious spaces on the lifeboats. Almost to a person everyone remained calm. They stood and did as crew directed them.

Almost until the last moments before the Titanic sunk beneath the waters of the Atlantic, the survivors in the lifeboats remembered hearing Walter Heartley and his five man orchestra playing. And in interview after interview everyone agreed that what the musicians did on that night made a tremendous difference.

The band’s effort was certainly heroic and selfless. But at least they had a chance. They might be able to swim to a lifeboat, hang on to the debris, or even climb onto a floating piece of ice. And even if they did not make it, they would die a heroes death and they would not suffer long in the frigid North Atlantic.

When we turn back to Gethsemane and see Jesus Christ in the Garden the stakes are infinitely higher. It is not a few hundred passengers at stake but rather all of humanity for all of time. And Jesus has no hope of escape. And he would not die as a hero but rather as a criminal. And his execution not be quick.

But Jesus stayed in Gethsemane. He stayed knowing what was coming. And there was only one way that that was possible. Do you remember what Jesus prayed? “Not my will Father, but your will.” He was able to stay in Gethsemane because he subjugated his will to God’s will.

It is popular in our culture to be self reliant and independent. I can handle it. You give me the problem and I can lick it. And some of them we can. But there are always challenges out there that are bigger than we are. And there are some things we can never overcome – as long as we try to overcome them alone.

But if we are willing to give up our control of our lives to God – anything is possible. This does not mean that praying for a problem to go away will make it mystically vanish. But if we pray, and listen, not only in church but in all aspects of our lives, we will hear God telling us what we need to do. We must entrust our lives to a higher power than ourselves or we are doomed.

Jesus Christ was able to do just that. This human being was able to let God’s will be done in his life and the result is that we are all saved. Our destruction, which was inevitable, is diverted.

Too often the story of the Garden of Gethsemane is used to paint a picture of a vengeful God who demands Jesus’ blood for our sins. But what I believe Matthew’s account was about was a God and his human son, who so loved us, that they totally gave of themselves to save us.

It is one story in the Bible that I am sure we will never fully understand until we are finished with this life. But we can be confident of this… Jesus of Nazareth did what he did and God asked him to do it, out of love. Out of love for us.

Let us dedicate our lives as Jesus did out of love for God and love for one another. Let us also, to the best of our abilities, try to subjugate our will to God’s will. Once we do this we will all be on a ship that will never sink.