April 2013 Sermons:
There is a funny picture that’s been making the rounds on the Internet, of Jesus sitting on a rock and preaching to a crowd. He’s pointing His finger in the air, as His audience sits around Him. A speech bubble over Jesus’ head that says, "Now listen carefully. I don’t want four different versions of this going around."
The four gospel writers tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection differently. All four have women finding the empty tomb and seeing the resurrected Jesus first. Other than that, the details are scrambled. So, which of these accounts are historically true? The truth is that we don’t know. In those days, history wasn’t recorded in the same way we do it today. People told stories, the details changed, over time, and eventually someone wrote them down. From the basic facts that agree, in these four stories, we know that Jesus was crucified and placed in the tomb, and that He rose after three days and appeared to His followers.
John’s gospel is the only one that includes the story of Doubting Thomas. In the days after the resurrection, the disciples seemed to be totally confused by what happened on the first Easter morning. After Peter and John saw the empty tomb, they gathered all the disciples together. The men hunkered down, locked themselves in a room, and stewed about the events unfolding around them. John tells us that while the men paced the floor of the upper room, the resurrected Jesus entered that room through a locked door. He showed His friends the marks of the nails in His hands and feet. When they recognized Him, the room erupted with rejoicing. Their fear had turned to faith. Jesus’ friends danced, cried, and dropped to their knees in thanksgiving. And as they cheered, Jesus said again, "Peace be with you." Then, He gave them a mission---to leave the upper room and go out into the world to announce that Jesus was alive. But, if Christ had not come to them, and hadn’t shown them His crucifixion wounds, perhaps they would not have believed.
Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared in the upper room. When the other disciples told him what happened, Thomas was doubtful. The news of his dead friend walking into that locked room sounded to him like wishful thinking. He’s been given the nickname, “Doubting Thomas,” for his skeptical attitude, which seems unfair. After all, the other disciples didn’t believe until they saw either. With all the chaos going on around him, we really can’t blame Thomas. He had faith only in what could be proved true.
Some of us are right there with Thomas. The human race has been able to prove so much with our God-given minds. We’ve made many advances in science over two thousand years, so why can’t we prove that Jesus died and then rose back to life? Some scientific-minded scholars have theorized that Jesus didn’t really die but went into a coma for three days. It’s difficult to believe that God would let His only son die. It’s difficult to believe that Jesus would forgive and want to go back to friends who let him be tortured and killed. It’s difficult to believe that death has been conquered for us too. There is no actual evidence for life after death. So it’s understandable that people doubt.
Jesus understood how difficult it was for Thomas to believe. He met Thomas in the upper room a week later, and showed him His hands, feet, and side. This was a great gift for Thomas. But what about us? We have questions too, and we don’t get post-resurrection appearances in the upper room to confirm our faith, like Thomas did. Listen carefully to what Jesus said: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." In these words, Jesus was not blessing Thomas, for he had seen. In these words, Jesus was blessing us!
Our task of faith is more difficult than it was for the disciples. We have not touched the marks of the nails in Jesus’s hands or put our hands in the mark of the sword in His side. Instead, we must trust the truth of the gospel story. We might not see Him in the same way the disciples did, but He is here. We may not know what we need to see, in order to have faith, until we actually experience it. You’ve had those “AHA” moments in your life, when you’ve suddenly seen and believed, because an encounter made Jesus real to you. I want to tell you a story about an important “AHA” moment in recent American history.
Just before the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Brown versus The Board of Education, in 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren took a vacation trip to Civil War battlefields, with his African-American valet driving their limousine. The Chief Justice stayed at a luxurious hotel in Gettysburg. He came out of the hotel in the morning and saw the valet, still sleeping in the backseat of the limo. “Why didn’t you check in at the hotel, instead of staying in the car?” Justice Warren asked him. The valet explained that no hotel within fifty miles would let an African-American rent a room for the night. Chief Justice Warren was shocked. He suddenly understood the problem of segregation on a personal level. He was never the same again. He visited each Supreme Court Justice at home, to tell them the story of his discovery on the Gettysburg trip. Justice Warren persuaded each justice that segregation was morally wrong. The Court unanimously declared state-sponsored segregation unconstitutional, several weeks later.
When we touch the wounds of other people, their pain becomes real to us. Justice Warren saw how his friend had been humiliated. With this incident, I believe Jesus was calling the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to use his power to make a difference. Look around you. Even in the locked rooms of our unbelief, Jesus manages to find us, and He shows us the pain our brothers and sisters are feeling.
The Holy Spirit calls us here to hear the word of God. Christ is made present in the bread and the cup. The encounter we will have with him today, will strengthen our faith. During the sacrament of Holy Communion, invite the Spirit to help you carry out God’s work. Jesus won’t be—literally-- coming through a locked door to visit us; but from time to time we all lock the doors of our hearts. That’s what happens when we doubt. Keep your heart and your mind open, and you will see the resurrected Jesus today. I hope that, because of you, others will find the faith to see Him, too.
Jesus was considered radical in His time because He counted so many women among His followers. The Roman Empire regarded women as inferior to men. Female babies were routinely put to death, just because they weren’t born male. Adult women weren’t equal to men before the law, and they weren’t permitted to run for office.
And yet, women were full-fledged leaders in the early church. Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection. There are many stories of female church officers in the book of Acts. In our second reading for today, Carol introduced us to the only woman called a “disciple” in the New Testament. She is a widow named Tabitha, a skilled seamstress who lives in the town of Joppa. This town is a seaport northwest of Jerusalem. Today, it’s called Tel Aviv. Tabitha’s Greek name is Dorcas. Even today, church groups are named after her. You may have heard of Dorcas Sewing Circles.
The Bible tells us that Tabitha is “always doing good and helping the poor.” She works as a seamstress. In her spare time she makes clothes for poor women. We're not told whether Tabitha has ever had a husband, but she seems to have plenty of money. She has found a ministry for herself—filling the needs of widows in the church. She is tireless in her acts of charity and mercy.
Widows were the poorest of the poor in first-century Palestine. Because they were no longer attached to men, they had no means to buy cloth to sew for themselves or their children. There were no pensions, and there was no Social Security. Tabitha lived in a world in which wealth distribution was in the hands of the elite class. Poverty, malnutrition and illness were a way of life for ninety-eight percent of women--and virtually all widows. Tabitha and the widows of Joppa would have had a life expectancy of less than forty years.
These widows have come to depend on Tabitha’s generosity. They call on her, day and night. Then, all of a sudden, she is dead. Her congregation and the entire community mourn. The widows go to Tabitha’s home to wash her body and lay it out in the upper room of her house. This is unusual. The custom in first-century Palestine was to clean the dead person’s body and bury it by sundown because of the intense heat. But the widows keep Tabitha in her home overnight. Maybe they are praying for the possibility that she will return to them.
Family and friends stand around her and weep. They hold up the clothes she made for them. When she helped the widows, Tabitha hadn’t just thrown handfuls of money into the street for them to grab at. She had taken the time to get to know them – if only to learn the correct sizes to make their clothes. These women are eternally grateful.
The community wants to hold a funeral for Tabitha. Church leaders send two messengers to Peter to ask him to come and give her eulogy. What could be more fitting for her funeral than to hear a sermon from the leader of the Christian church, a man who has seen and known the Lord? Peter has broken bread with Jesus and been given the keys to the kingdom.
The church in Joppa sends two men to bring Peter to the dead woman’s bedside. Peter drops everything and travels right away to Joppa; apparently he’s heard of Tabitha’s good works and is impressed. He is ushered into the dead woman’s home, and there he finds himself among family and friends. Do Tabitha’s neighbors actually think Peter can restore her to life? Peter has gotten himself a reputation as a miracle worker. These Christians welcome Peter and share all the good deeds she has done in their church. They show him the clothes she has made for them. Peter is touched.
Peter is new at preaching. He has spent most of his life fishing and following Jesus around. He listens to the testimony of these folks in Joppa. He kneels in prayer. And somehow, in the midst of that prayer, Peter is touched by the Holy Spirit. In her bed, the dead woman stirs. He turns to her and says, “Tabitha cum”; which means, “Tabitha, arise!” His voice shakes with joy, as Tabitha opens her eyes and sits up. Everyone celebrates, for she is alive again.
Tabitha never reappears in the New Testament, but the book of Acts tells us that large crowds living in the coastal plain area of Palestine, later convert to Christianity because Peter has saved this good woman. Apparently the word has spread, far and wide, of this healing. It’s clear to everyone that Jesus has passed on healing power to Peter.
Let’s look at this story from Tabitha’s point of view. She has awakened and found herself lying in state at her own funeral. Imagine what that would be like! We all know people who have almost died, and after surviving the crisis, come to see their lives differently. Every minute is important. Everything they have becomes precious. People who know their days are numbered, tend to live their days to the fullest.
Legend has it that Philip the Second, King of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great, instructed a servant to come into his presence every day and say, solemnly, to him: “Remember, Philip, you must die.”
Tabitha will not live forever, and Peter won’t be coming back, time after time, to revive her. Even Peter won’t live forever. We know how his story ends.
You and I are going to die. We can leave a legacy of Christian love. Even though Jesus went to heaven two thousand years ago, His power is still at work in those of us who believe in Him. What should we do? Share what we have with the poor. Look for joy every day. Be patient. Be courageous. Take risks. Always say what you mean. Spend your time on important things. Speak to people in hopeless situations and say a word of life to them. Love the church. Live every day passionately in the hope of God. Pray fervently. Surrender yourself to the power of God in Christ. Ask Jesus to come and resurrect the deadness of your life. Allow Him to enter your heart and listen for His voice saying, “Child, arise!”
Tabitha’s story reflects the experience of the early church. They were a vulnerable minority within their society. They were persecuted, and they worshiped in secret. And yet, instead of concentrating on their own survival, they went out into the streets and ministered to the poor. God charges us to do charitable work, just as Tabitha did.
The resurrection is not only what happened when Jesus was raised from the dead. The resurrection keeps on happening. Our Lord is alive in the work of the church, as our God continues to defeat death and evil. Christ is raised, and we are being raised, as well. Thanks be to God.
We’ve all had the experience of waiting for an hour or more in a doctor’s waiting room. The crippled man in today’s gospel reading must hold the record for having to wait to be healed. For thirty-eight years, he has been lying, helpless, on a stretcher beside a pool in Jerusalem.
The pool of Beth-Zatha was a gathering place for everyone in the Holy City who had a physical ailment. People of that time and place looked down on the sick, because illnesses were supposedly caused by your own sin. This pool wasn’t a nice place to visit. Patients with chronic illnesses were forced out of their homes and left by the poolside in a kind of daily open-air market of misery. Their only hope was in the magical cure that the waters of Beth-Zatha were supposed to offer.
Modern archeologists have uncovered the ruins of the building surrounding that pool, near one of the city’s main gates—the Sheep Gate. It had five porticoes, just the way it’s described in the Bible.
Why was this pool supposed to be so special? Beneath it, an underground stream bubbled up and disturbed the waters every now and then. People believed that the bubbles were caused by an angel, and that the first person to step into the pool after bubbles appeared, would be healed. So every sick or handicapped person in Jerusalem made a pilgrimage to that pool. There, they all waited—and waited—for angels to ripple the surface of the water.
People of ancient Palestine believed that spirits and demons lurked everywhere. For them, the air was thick with angels. We would see this as superstitious, but the people of Jesus’ time believed in the sacredness of water. To us, water is something that comes out of a tap or a bottle. But to the folks of Jesus’ time, water was very precious. The ancient Jews had grown up hearing the stories of Jonah, and the Red Sea swallowing up the Egyptians, and Noah and the Ark. Bodies of water were considered dangerous because of the spirits that lived in them.
You had to be the first to get wet, in order to be healed at the Pool of Beth-Zatha. It was competitive. Not everyone got well, not by a long shot. An invalid needed to be prepared to jump in—or to be thrown in—whenever ripples appeared on the surface of that pool. If you were lucky, you had a friend or family member there to help.
This man in the gospel story is all alone. He is severely paralyzed. He can’t pull himself up on his own feet, so he can’t join the stampede. Another patient, with just a headache or a sprained wrist, beats all the others into the pool every time. For decades, this man has lain there, hoping that somebody will pick him up and carry him to the water. Now, it seems, he has given up. It’s not a bad life for him, living by the pool of Beth-Zatha. He’s learned that a person can adjust to anything. The place and the people have become familiar for him. Every now and then, someone throws a coin into his cup. It’s not the most fulfilling way to live, but it’s his life, and he’s accustomed to it.
It must be quite a shock when a stranger comes up and talks to him about his inner motivation. That stranger is Jesus. He comes over and stands by the paralyzed man’s stretcher. Then He looks earnestly into the man’s eyes, and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”
The answer is obvious. Of course he wants to be cured, or he wouldn’t be there by the pool of Beth-Zatha. And yet, it isn’t. For once, the paralyzed man looks into his own heart. And he doesn’t like what he sees. He hears the stern, commanding voice of Jesus. “Stand up, take up your mat, and walk!|” Can you imagine saying that to a person who is paralyzed? Yet the man is so shocked, he does exactly what Jesus says to do. And with his first step, he is healed.
“Do you want to be made well?” What a profound question. The paralyzed man hasn’t answered Jesus directly. Instead, he’s mentioned some reasons why he’s never gotten wet in the pool. Even though his reasons make sense, he ends up sounding whiny and defensive. The truth is, not everyone who is sick, wants to be healed. When Jesus heals the paralyzed man, He is never thanked. If you read further, you’ll find that, not only does this man with the mat, fail to thank Jesus for being healed, but he also turns Jesus into the authorities for breaking the law because He has healed on the Sabbath.
God’s grace is given freely to people who don’t deserve it. God is always reaching out to sinners and saving them. It happens all through the Bible. As Jesus says, “The sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Is this fair? Perhaps only when it happens to us!
Sometimes, illness feels better to us than health does. Professionals in the field of addiction and recovery know that some people resist wellness. Bad habits are easily named, but they can be extremely difficult to shake off. The Apostle Paul writes, in the seventh chapter of Romans, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” People who struggle with gambling addiction, credit card debt, smoking and drug habits can certainly identify with those words. Do we really want to be free?
But the other side of “I can’t,” is to say, “God CAN!” Sometimes in our hour of despair—the moment when the scale shows we weigh more than three hundred pounds, or our bank accounts are overdrawn, or we’ve lost a really good job—we reach the turning point.
This story is not about strength or faith that we find in ourselves. It’s a story that helps us to see something about Jesus and His amazing grace. We would prefer that good things happen only to good people who have religious faith. This man clearly has no such thing. He’s a snitch and a whiner, but he receives a gift from God.
That’s why John’s gospel is called Good News. It is not the good news that we have found the right steps for self-help. It is good news because God reaches out to all of us sinners, even those of us who don’t know enough to know we’re in need, who don’t have the vaguest idea how to help ourselves, and who, maybe, couldn’t even help ourselves if we knew how. That is called grace, and it’s truly amazing grace. It’s amazing that God has come among us, in the loving presence of Jesus Christ, to do for us those things which we cannot do for ourselves.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | email@example.com
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