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Locked In a Room With Open Doors

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The Scripture Reading    John 20:19-31 April 8 2018
They are gathered together on a Sunday evening in a room with locked doors.  Doors that are not only locked, but bolted, fortified, and guarded.  Their leader, Jesus, has just been executed, and they fear they are being hunted down by the Jews.  If it happened to Jesus, it could happen to them.
They are leader-less and direction-less.  They have given up everything to follow Him–leaving jobs and family behind–and it led them nowhere.  Now here they are living in a maelstrom of anxiety and uncertainty.
At that very moment the Risen Jesus appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.”  He appears to them, somehow passing through the locked doors while they remain locked.   And lest there be any doubt about who He is  he points to his riven hands and pierced side. They are filled with joy at seeing their Lord.    When Jesus stands among them, fear is banished, and joy replaces it.
Then Jesus gives them work to do: “As the Father sent me, so send I you.”  As the Father gave me a mission, I pass that mission on to you.  What was my work is now your work.
A week later they are gathered together again.  Same thing.  Locked doors.  Same feeling.  Fear of being found by the Jews.  One of the disciples, Thomas, had not been with them a week before.  The disciples tell him that they had seen the Lord.  “That’s o.k. for you, Thomas says, but unless I see him before me; in fact, I don’t believe in any of this spirit and ghost stuff.  Unless I can actually place my fingers where the nails pierced his hands and thrust my hand into his side where the spear was, I will not believe.”
Immediately the risen Jesus appears among them, with the same salutation, “Peace be with you.”  Peace…..He knew they were afraid.  So he says, “Whenever I come to you, I will bring you peace.”  Then he singles out Thomas and says, “Come, and put your finger where the nails were, and thrust out your hand and put it in my side.  Stop doubting and believe.”
And Thomas gasps, “My Lord and my God.”
Locked doors.  Locked hearts.
Thomas and the other disciples have barricaded themselves in that room.  What they are feeling is understandable and forgivable.   Fear–that primal instinct for survival, that instinct  that saves us from danger–fear was dominating them.
Locked in a room with open doors.    They had tried to close themselves off from the Jews, and in so doing they had locked out God’s miraculous possibilities.  They had locked out the promise of  transformation.  They had locked out the resurrection.
And from this story Thomas becomes the patron saint of doubt.  Thomas is lifted up as the prime example of a closed heart.  I know he gets a hard time from a lot of preachers, who tell their congregations, “Don’t doubt; just believe.  Just do it.”  But it isn’t that easy.  I like Thomas a lot.  I like him, I guess, because I’m a lot like him.
For I have in mind exactly what God can do and God cannot do. I have defined God.  I have limited God to my own understanding and experience.   I know that God can do this, but I doubt that God cannot do that.    There have been many times in my life when I doubted that God could crack open my closed heart.  There have been so many times in my life when I doubted  that God could transform my old habits and attitudes.  There have been many seasons when I doubted that God could bring new life to a soul as stubborn as mine.
So I love Thomas, and I think that if I were a Roman Catholic, and could find one of those little plastic saints that one keeps on one’s dashboard, that instead of St. Jude, the patron saint of travelers, I would place one of Thomas on my dashboard, so that I could travel onward with one to whom Jesus shattered doubts with his presence.”
I will tell you a story.  A woman I know  had cancer.  She knew it.  Her doctors told her they were   fairly certain of it.  All the pre-op tests indicated it.  Surgery was scheduled.   She tried to prepare her children and husband for it.  She tried to prepare herself emotionally for the long battle ahead.  Her church prayed for her. She goes into surgery, and afterward the doctor comes out and tells her husband,  “No cancer.”
A friend of hers comments, “I prayed for a miracle.  But honestly I was  surprised when my prayers were answered.”
God continuously the God of the unexpected, the surprising, the miraculous.  God continuously the God who brings life out of death, joy out of sorrow, good out of evil.
When you read stories about the resurrection, there are a lot of conflicting information.    In some cases, the risen Lord passes through doors, which suggests a kind of spiritual resurrection.  In other cases, he eats a meal with his disciples, and invites Thomas to put his hands in His side, suggesting a physical resurrection. I’m not sure how to interpret this, for it is essentially mysterious and unfathomable.  Nevertheless, the most important proof of the resurrection to me is that the disciples were transformed.
They were transformed.  Imprisoned by fear, they leave the room emboldened in courage.  Peter, the cowardly disciple who denied his Lord three times, becomes the inspiring preacher at Pentecost, standing up in public to declare his allegiance to Jesus.  The disciples become ten times the persons they were before the resurrection, and they take the world by storm.  In the year 50, there were 1,400 of them.  In the year 100, 7,500.  In the year 150–40,000, in the year 200–220,00. And in the year 300–6,300,000.  Incredible.
Beginning that day in the locked room, the disciples learn that with the Risen Lord at their side, they can take on everything that life throws at them.  They learn that with the Risen Lord at their side, the powers of death and hell cannot beat them down.  They learn that by giving themselves over to the Lord each day, they find a strength even in their weakness, and that the Lord will always do more for them they can do for themselves.
The author Frederick Buechner sums this up in a lovely passage:
“So much has happened to us all over the years.  So much has happened within us and through us.  We are to take time to remember what we can about it…..we have survived, you and I.  Maybe that is at the heart of our remembering.  After twenty years, forty years, sixty years, or eighty, we have made it to this year, this day.  We needn’t have made it.  Thee were times we never thought we would and nearly didn’t.  There were times we almost hoped we wouldn’t, were ready to give the whole thing up. Each must speak for himself, for herself, but I can say for myself that I have seen enough sorrow and pain to turn the heart to stone.  Who hasn’t?  Many times I have chosen the wrong road, or the right road for the wrong reason.  Many times I have loved the people I love too much for either their good or mine, and others I might have loved, I have missed loving and lost…
“To remember my life is to remember countless times when I might have given up, gone under, when humanly speaking I might have gotten lost beyond the power of any to find me.  But I didn’t.  I have not given up.  And each of you, with all the memories you have and the tales you could tell, you also have not given up.  You also are survivors and are here.  And what does that tell us, our surviving ?  It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through at least this far, at least to this day.  Foolish as we are, a wisdom beyond our wisdom has flickered up just often enough to light us if not to the right path through the forest, at least to a path that leads forward, that is bearable.  Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond our power to live has kept our hearts alive.  So it is possible to find peace–a peace that comes from looking back and remembering to remember that though most of the time we failed to see it, we were never really alone.”
The words Frederick Buechner.
The disciples thought they were alone.  Some days I think I’m alone.  Some days you think you are alone.  But in those moments, Christ comes through locked doors and locked hearts, and says, “Peace be with you.”   And we know then that all is well.
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Christ’s Imperishable Legacy

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Christ’s Imperishable Legacy
Easter Sunday, 2018
Matthew 28:16-20

When I was a young minister, I always felt I had to preach my best sermons on Easter Sunday. You know–big crowds expect a great message.
But a wise old preacher by the name of Ernie Campbell told a group of us young preachers in a preaching class, “Boys (there were no women in the class). Boys, you don’t have to be good on Easter Sunday. It’s the Sunday after Easter when you have to be good.”
I now understand what he meant. There is nothing that any preacher can say on Easter which will enhance the day. It is like a poet trying to find the right words to describe a sunrise in the mountains. No matter how gifted the poet, no matter how suitable the words, nothing can be written to adequately describe how the sunrises kindles our hope and taps into our awe at the sheer gift of a brand new day.
So today I would like to be as simple as possible and describe what Easter means to me. Actually, what I want to do is to describe what Jesus Christ means to me, for Easter is supremely about Jesus Christ–and his resurrection from the dead, which has never been better described than in the words of rock group U2:
“The resurrection was when the universe exploded in one man’s life.”
So let’s think today about what Jesus Christ means. Let’s think about the imperishable legacy which Jesus Christ has bequeathed to us and to all of humankind.

I.

When we consider the legacy of Jesus Christ, we have to remember that Jesus Christ left behind four things. He left us HIS TEACHINGS, HIS LIFE, HIS CHURCH, AND HIS PRESENCE.
First, Jesus gave us his teachings. His teachings become more and more important with the passing of the years.
“Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword,” Jesus said, and we can see that prophecy coming to pass in Syria and Afghanistan this morning. .
Jesus teachings aren’t just a compilation of wise aphorisms which are meant to be pondered. No, his teachings are always like dynamite, thrown at us, exploding in our lives.
I look at our country, in moral free-fall, and see how the teachings of Jesus serve as a moral compass for our land.
Just look at some facts with me. In the last 50 years there has been a 560% increase in violent crime in our country; a 419% increase in illegitimate births; a quadrupling in divorce rates; a tripling of the percentage of children living in single-parent homes; more than a 200% increase in the teenage suicide rate.
Some of our best writers have spoken eloquently on these problems. When the late Walker Percy was asked what concerned him most about America’s future, he replied: “Probably the fear of seeing America, with all it’s great strength and beauty and freedom…gradually subside into decay through default and be defeated, not by the communist movement, demonstrably a bankrupt system, but from within by weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed and in the end helplessness before its great problems.”
And John Updike has written: “The fact that, compared to the inhabitants of Africa and Russia, we still live well cannot ease the pain of feeling we no longer live nobly.”
The legacy of Jesus’ teachings clash with our culture. It’s not that his teachings have been tried and found wanting. It’s just that they have never been tried. And if we in the church are going to make any dent in this secular, demonic culture of ours, we will have to study Jesus’ teachings with a hunger and live them out with a fierceness we have never dreamed of.

II.

Second, Jesus left us the legacy of his life. There was a congruence to Jesus. His words and deeds were one. It’s not only what he taught, but that he lived out what he taught that continues to draw us to his side.
For a moment think with me how influential the life of Jesus Christ has been upon human history.
Consider the lives that he has mastered, the deeds he has inspired. Consider the institutions that owe their founding impetus to him.
Consider the power of his name as it has been sounded in hospitals, at cemetery grave sites, in prison cells, in services of marriage and baptism.
Consider the affects of his presence–on the weak to make them strong, on the proud to make them humble, on the greedy to make them generous, on the evil to make them good, on the upright to make them loving.
Give him the test of absence. Imagine the poverty of a world without Him; without carols to herald His Nativity, without the impact of his life and the impress of his words, a world bereft of His cross and unsupported by the hope that issues from his resurrection.
We see in the life of Jesus Christ the highest and best which anyone can achieve. And in seeing him, we aspire to rise a bit higher.

III.

The third part of the legacy of Jesus is his gift of the church. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church, and by that, he meant that all the powers of evil would conspire to undo the church, and undo those of us who are part of the church.
Let’s face it, for all its weaknesses, the church is all we have. It’s all we have to grow in grace and love for each other. And it is the only hope our society has from its moral free fall. The church on every street corner in America should be the point of incandescence, where regardless of denominationalism or theology, the Christian life of the community bursts into flames.
If Jesus is God’s love personified, so the church is God’s love organized. So the church, at its best, represents not dogma in search of obedience, but love in search of form. Everything we do in church, from the meeting of our committees, from the pastoral prayer in worship, from teaching children, from visiting homebound people, w e do for one reason and one reason alone, to manifest the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is so good to see some of you here today I haven’t seen for awhile, which reminds me of the man who told his pastor, “I don’t like to come to church because when I come the church always sings the same old hymns, Silent Night,” and Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”
I want to be serious and speak personally now to those of you who are here this morning without a church home. Maybe you attended pre-school here many years ago…maybe your parents or grand parents attend here but you do not come regularly. I want to say without fear of contradiction that God wants you in church….regularly…every Sunday. God has so much to say to you, so much to teach you, so much to bless you but you will not find that by staying home on Sunday morning. I pray that what I am saying this morning will touch your heart, and you will be back next week, and the week after that.

IV.

The fourth part of the legacy of Jesus is the gift of his ongoing presence in the world. He told his disciples, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”
The reason I believe in the resurrection is that I have experienced the presence of Christ in my own life and have seen Christ working in many lives. Malcolm Muggeridge once made a statement that I believe all of the early disciples would have subscribed to: “I am sure there was a resurrection but I don’t in the least care whether the stone was moved or not moved, or what anybody saw, or anything like that. I am absolutely indifferent to that. But there must have been a resurrection because Christ is alive now 2,000 years later. There is no question at all about that.”
There are quiet evidences of the presence of Christ in people’s lives. Let me tell you a story where you find it in a place you might least expect it.
A few years ago an Orthodox Priest by the name of Anthony Ugolnik wrote a letter to the New York Times about David Koresh and the Branch Davidian stand-off in Waco, Texas. You recall that there was a battle between law enforcement officers and the followers of David Koresh. Eighty of Koresh’s followers and four A.T.F. agents were killed in a battle during a standoff in April, 1993.
Father Ugolnik criticized the Times and other media for associating Koresh and the Branch Davidians with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, because, in so doing, the public is quick to think that all Seventh Day Adventists are crazy cultists.
Father Ugolnik then went on to testify to his own personal experience. He writes, “As a priest of the Orthodox Church, I am hardly a missionary for the Seventh Day Adventists. In the Vietnam War, however, I served as an Army medic with many S.D.A.’s, as they were called. As conscientious objectors, these young men refused to bear arms but agreed to serve as medical personnel. Most of those I trained and served with were black Southerners.
“Vegetarian, cheerful, stolidly faithful to their tradition, they were harassed mercilessly by drill instructors, who routinely insulted their beliefs. Some were chosen to participate in a “white coat” program, where they served as human subjects for what they thought was humanitarian research. Later, the program was identified as a facet of our germ warfare program. (Cynics point out that Seventh Day Adventist were chosen as guinea pigs because their beliefs forbid them to bring suit in civil court.)
“Most often, Seventh Day Adventists were sent to combat units, where without even a sidearm they crawled directly into enemy fire to patch the wounded and retrieve the dead. Their casualty rates were among the highest of the war. There are names of Seventh Day Adventists etched in the wall of the Vietnam Memorial. Their memory is seared into those hapless cynics who served with them. They were the bravest, most committed, most heroic Americans I have ever known.
“Given that, they openly confessed Jesus as Lord, a habit the mass media find annoying. I guarantee that Hollywood or the secular press ill never tell their story as a counterweight to people like David Koresh. But to honor the memory of those whose faith led them to die, rather than take up arms, we can spare the Seventh Day Adventists in condemnation of cults.”
Whatever theological disagreements we may have with our Seventh Day Adventist friends, here are people for whom the presence of Christ is real. May God raise up a few Christians here in Arizona for whom faith in Christ is as much a reality as it was for this poor black southern boys who died in South East Asia.
******
The legacy of Jesus–HIS TEACHINGS, HIS LIFE, HIS CHURCH, HIS PRESENCE–that’s what we are commemorating today. That’s what we are celebrating today. Christ our Lord is risen. He is risen, indeed.

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Good To Have You Back, Son

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Good To Have You Back, Son
Luke 15: 11-31

​You could outline the experience of the younger son with this succinct description: sick of home, homesick, home!
​We don’t know if harsh words were said between the boy and his father when the boy demanded his share of the inheritance. But we do that the younger boy was so hungry to be free from home and responsibility that he wished his father dead–at least symbolically–by asking for him to settle his estate early and give both brothers their share. ​So the younger brother takes off to a far country, and spends his substance in loose living, or as the KJV so deliciously puts it, “in riotous living”. And he began to be in want. And Jesus says, “He came to himself.” He came to himself.
​I know a man who likes to swim in the ocean. One winter he Florida he was swimming in the Gulf, and was caught by a strong current. He suddenly realized he might not be able to get back to shore.
​The younger son in this story had gone so far out that he might not ever been able to get back. It was a moment of crisis and a moment of awakening. There are two great days in our life–the day we are born and the day we discover why we were born. SO HE CAME TO HIMSELF. He began to realize who he was. He began to realize where he belonged. He began to realize where he had gone wrong. ​
​So the prodigal makes the journey home. He comes with a carefully prepared speech, not so much expecting get back in the good graces with his father, for he knows that will never happen again. But at the very least he figures that he can have what his father’s hired hands have; three square meals a day and a roof over his head. But his father will have nothing of the speech making. He shushes him; he kisses and embraces him, and throws the party of all parties for him.
​Now he comes home, you must remember, having spent all of his inheritance in loose living. He comes home–and remember this: now he has to live off his brother’s inheritance, what rightfully belongs to his older brother.
​No wonder his brother was seething. You and I would be, too.
​He has been out in the fields, hoeing corn. He’s dirty, the he’s hot, he’s tired, and he comes in from the fields to hear music and merrymaking inside.
​”What’s going on?” he asks a servant.
​When he gets the story, he refuses to go inside. He draws a line in the sand which he will not cross. So his father has to come outside to meet him, and he spews out his indictment:

“Here, all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed you command; yet you never pitched a party for me so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back…” (Note what he says–not, “My brother,” but “This son of yours” meaning “I want no part of him. He isn’t my brother.” “When this son of yours came back, you killed the fatted calf.” ​

​So here he stands seething. He is angry because his own behavior has not been rewarded. He is a typical first-born: trustworthy, loyal, brave, and true. He is what family systems therapist call the “hero” child, the good boy, who is always praised for being responsible.
​Those of us who are first borns know a little how he felt. It’s a heavy burden to carry being the first born in a family– always having to be the good little boy, the good little girl. There are times we hate that role. And part of the anger the elder brother felt, I am sure, is that his younger brother went off and did what he had often thought about, but never had the courage to do: to throw responsibility to the wind, to play, to be carefree, to have fun day and night.
​And so when his younger brother comes back, all he can do is to hide behind a barricade of self-righteousness. All he can do is to point out to his father how dutiful he has been; how hard he has worked.
​What a good boy am I–and now what does he have to show for it.
​We know that Jesus chooses the elder brother in the story to challenge the Scribes and Pharisees who couldn’t understand why Jesus would rub shoulders with the riffraff of society, tax collectors and sinners. Theirs was a religion of loveless piety, loveless morality and loveless respectability. So Jesus takes pains to say that such an attitude is not only suffocating; it is downright dangerous. For when we, like the Scribes and Pharisees, feel that we are good little boys and girls, that we keep all the rule, that we lead respectable lives, then it is very hard to see ourselves as sinners in need of God’s grace and mercy. In fact, there is a correlation I have noticed in my ministry: the more decent and upright we are, the harder it is to understand and receive grace. The two verses in the Bible that every respectable person needs to carry in his heart are these: “There is none righteous; no not one;” “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
​And then there is the main character of the story, the father. Jesus does not begin his tale by saying, “There once was a man who had a father and an elder brother” but “There was a man who had two sons,” letting us know whom the story is about–a father who loved two children and wanted them to love each other, as well.
​The father in the story is transparently a figure of God. And notice what the father does. He goes out to meet both sons. In the case of the first boy, “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
​In the case of the second son, who was sulking outside the house, “His father came out and began to plead with him.”
​Here is the picture of the God who takes the initiative with us. In the first case, when we feel broken, sinful and ashamed of what we have done, the father has compassion. He runs and puts his arms around us and kisses us. He doesn’t expect us to come crawling on our belly.
​In the second case, when we are feeling self-righteous and proud, God comes to us pleading with us, trying to melt our hearts of ice.
​In thinking again about this parable I was wondering what happened a month or six months after the younger son came home. Was he so grateful for his father’s love that he had a change of heart? Did he have a conversion experience? Was he a finer and nobler human being because of his father’s forbearing love? Or was he the same ungrateful idiot that he was when the story opens?
​ Last week I talked about a search mission I was a part of on Mt. Hood in December, 1984. Our team from Portland Mountain Rescue headed out into a fierce storm to look for Hal Coghill Jr. Who had been missing for two nights. I got caught in a small avalanche while we were scouring the mountain in search of him. I felt lucky to be alive.
​After a long day’s search we returned to the ski patrol hut at Timberline Lodge, all agreeing that we probably find his body when the spring thaw came.
​Later that night, he was able to make his way down the mountain to safety. He had been holed up in a snow cave for two days. From his vantage point high on the mountain, he was able to see the lights of timberline Lodge when the storm broke, and he made his way back to safety.
​When he was interviewed by the sheriffs’s department, he was unrepentant for climbing alone during the winter, a cardinal sin. And about those of us who were searching for us, he said, “They didn’t have to come to look for me. They knew the risks they were taking.”
​At that point if I had been present, he would have had an ice exe permanently embedded in a prominent place in his body.
​Well, that was it. We did go a nice letter of thanks from his parents , but nothing from him. But a few months later a cassette tape was mailed to our unit, and I listened to it. It was the missing climber, Hal Coghill, speadking before his home church in Burnt Hills, NY. He talked about his experience on the mountain, and he promised God, while holed up his snow cave, that if God would spare his life, he would make some many changes in his life. He told the congregating that he had accepted Christ in that snow cave, and was thinking about going to seminary to become a Methodist pastor.
​I listened to that cassette tape in February or March, 1985. And then I told you all that story two weeks ago. But then I wondered. What really happened to Hal Coghill , Jr. Did he remain the same incurable jerk that he was in December, 1984, or did he follow through on his promise? So, a few years ago, I did what we all do when we want to know something. I googled “Hal Coghill, Jr.” and came up with a name of a man who is in the IT Department at Cornell University. I emailed him asking if he were the young climber lost on Mt. Hood in December 1984. He emailed back, “Yes.” I told him I was one of those searching for him.
​Here was his email to me:
​“As you know that frozen meeting with God was life changing! Exactly one year later, I was married to my wife (we met at church and are working on our 29th year) on 12/28/84 in my parents Methodist Church. And two years later the birth of our second daughter also occurred on that same day 12/28/86, so obviously that day is packed with significance in our family!​​
​“God has blessed us with four kids in birth order: Serenity, Keren, Elizabeth, and Daniel (in USAF). I have been very active in every church I have attended. We moved from southern California to upstate NY in 1990 to be close to our NY based families. I currently lead the Men’s Sunday school class at the Owego Nazarene church I attend (owegonaz.org) and sing in their choir. Before moving to Owego almost 10 years ago, I was involved with Prison Fellowship prison ministry for many years (great blessing and ministry). I attended Talbot Theological Seminary (Biola University) for a couple years part time while we lived in California, but with a growing family, had to side-line that pursuit. My wife and I are currently members of our local fire department, she is an EMT and I am a firefighter and first responder, we have only been fire department members for a couple years, but enjoy helping others in their time of need. We live on a farm here in what is called NY’s southern tier which my wife inherited from her father. I work at Cornell University as an IT professional. Now that we are somewhat empty nest parents we are looking for ways to serve God, and are thinking about spending some time in Haiti next year.”
​Well, not every story has such a satisfying ending as this one. But some do.
​I’d like to think the prodigal turned out all right. As did Hal Coghill. As has lots of many of us here today who have known what it’s like to dead and then alive again, to be lost and then found.

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Trunk or Treat 2017 – Games

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The kids had a lot of fun bobbing for apples, wrapping up mummies and bowling.

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Trunk or Treat 2017 – Trunks

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The kids had a great time moving from trunk to trunk getting candy.  So many options, hard to pick a best trunk this year.

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