Sunday, March 27, 2016

Discover Life, Again: Stories

Discover Life, Again.  Easter Sunday; Rev. C. Craig Topple
Commerce Presbyterian Church, GA

How many of you went to churches as children which required memory verses?
Can some of you remember these verses? “Jesus Wept,” a popular choice for many of us, outside Lazarus’ tomb.
I remember one I memorized, but I was in college when I took it on. Some of you may know, before attending the North Avenue Trade School, I matriculated at a liberal arts Christian school, similar to Berry College, only far away in the cold north outside of Chicago--Rome, GA has much more hospitable climes.
I lived in a ‘men’s” dorm called Trabor. Third floor. It was a thing to make t-shirts, long sleeved of course. And being good Christian young men, we dutifully inscribed a bible verse on our t-shirts. Sophomore year, the chosen verse: “For they did not believe the women, for their words seemed to them an idle tale (NIV).“
An easy verse to memorize. An idle tale told by women not making any sense.  Boys will be boys.  

When the women returned from the empty tomb suggesting Jesus had somehow been raised from the dead: well, how else can you interpret the story of resurrection, and defeating death?
Certainly an idle tale.
An idle tale we continue to tell, year after year across the centuries. Think about how many preachers are standing up this morning to preach this idle tale this morning.
How many listeners are dressing up, with hats and gloves, easter shoes and dresses, suits and boutonni√®res even!  gathering for nothing more than to hear an idle tale they’ve heard told before, time and again.

(Portions of what follows is adapted from a sermon by Rev. Dr. Nancy Taylor: A Divine Comedy)
Still, there is something about stories of resilience; stories of the underdogs overcoming all the odds which speak to us in profound and lasting ways. In my house, we read and watch a lot of stories filled with idle tales like these. Last night it was the story of olympic champion gymnast Gabby Douglas who overcame all kinds of odds, starting at birth, when she was placed immediately in Natal Intensive-Care Unit.
   This Jesus story ranks among one of the best.  In the midst of a powerful destructive Roman empire, and an oppressive corrupt religious institution arises a poor peasant with an attitude.
This peasant from Palestine refused to pledge allegiance to the Empire, refused to regard Caesar as a god. He refused to adhere to codes and practices of exclusion and marginalization. He forms a movement to take ‘em on. Pretty awesome! But really, the Jesus movement wasn't mighty, it was tiny. It was not an insurrection, an uprising, insurgency nor a rebellion. It was nothing like that. Jesus and his tiny band of fishermen followers were not armed terrorists plotting a takeover. In fact they carried no weapons to speak of. They planned no kidnappings, no taking of hostages, no coup d’etat. If they even had a manifesto, this is what it was:
love one another. love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. Act with compassion toward others. If someone does you wrong, err are the side of mercy and forgiveness.
Do not judge. Do not worry.
More than seeking the values of the kingdom of the world, instead to seek first a kingdom of justice and righteousness.  This Palestinian peasant taught a better way to be in the world; perhaps reminding people who we are truly created to be. But, only a few followers rallied behind him, most wouldn’t go along with this message.  
If our election cycle in this country demonstrates nothing else, it shows that a majority are only willing to follow the most aggressive and domineering of candidates…
Someone with a platform of love and humility, mercy and forgiveness is not electable…But they are certainly executable . Jesus was executed.  
From the perspective of the Roman Empire, executing a rabble rouser was inconsequential, matter of fact, and routine for them. His message had no power to overthrow. His teachings of a better way than death and destruction; his striving to show a better way of living than through systems of oppression greed and violence; these would be easily forgotten.
Until, until, of all things, an idle tale was told by women. Women, of all people; but, who would believe the women? These women didn’t even see him.  
File:Jesus's Tomb
Instead, they saw two terrifying men in dazzling clothes.
Other resolutions: 320 × 238
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? “Remember, remember what he said!”
The women remembered. Then the men remembered. An idle tale is just that until we remember: This is our story. This is our song.  And we remember.
Remembering is hard to do.  Now that I’m 40--the demyelination process in my brain has begun, meaning, it’s hard for me to remember like I once was able to.  
Even younger ones struggle with memory.
Zia doesn’t remember much from her earliest years…
She doesn’t remember, when she was a baby she would wake up with a smile on her face every morning...well not quite every morning, Trasie corrected me. But, most every morning Zia would wake up with a smile! Cute, but it kind of makes some of us nauseous.  
What was it about a new day that was worth a fresh smile?
A new day for discovery and fun! Solid foods! Avocado!
A new day for excitement and joy - sliding down a slide! Whoo!   
A stick!

Ruby did the same thing.  I’m sure lots of babies do it. It’s almost like we’re programmed to do so as babies.  A new day! Yay!

Until they get older and wiser and realize life is a little more difficult than they were anticipating.
the struggle is a little more than they want to deal with on a daily basis. the day may not greet them in the same way they greet it.

And one day, the smile which once greeted the day becomes flat. One day Wrinkles emerge, One day, hair turns grey.  
  • Day in and day out in a thankless job; or we can’t find a job.
- we seek medical assistance and the hospital is more concerned about paperwork and insurance cards than our well-being;
- our bodies fail and frustrate, and as we age society seems to slowly shove us off the road;
- someone close to us betrays us.
- we look back on our lives and wonder what happened to the time[2]  
And beyond our own problems, look at the world!  
  • Washington politics, corporate greed, water in Flint.
  • Unemployment in some countries above 40%;  
  • Suicide bombers in belgium; drone strikes in Pakistan.
  • 100 species on earth go extinct every year.[3]
-16,000 children die from hunger-related causes, Every day. …
The powers of darkness and death and destruction are alive and well.  
What has an idle tale told by women of a Palestinian peasant have to do with anything?
After he was executed The powerful destructive Roman empire, and the threatened oppressive religious authorities simply thought Jesus and his movement would go away.
Little did they know, an idle tale would be told and remembered.
Apparently, some women in this congregation are telling plenty of nonsensical idle tales month after month.  At the Single and Single again luncheon, some of the dear women sitting among you stand courageously before others and share stories of resilience, life and faith:
My husband left me.
I had to escape an abusive situation
I felt like there was nothing I could do to help my child
I wondered if anyone would be able to love me.
But, somehow, my faith, I remembered, I was able to overcome get to a better place  
Suddenly Light somehow shines through darkness!
Suddenly hope and promise stand a chance against fear and despair!
All of a sudden, In death came life; the worst thing became the best thing; what was to be an end became a beginning. In discovering nothing, they discovered everything.
This nonsensical idle tale of Jesus overcoming death is a story for you and me to remember. It is a story that says in the face of destructive powers, there’s actually another ending possible to this story, one that might just surprise you.

I’m reminded me of another recently viewed children’s story, A little princess: The  severe headmistress, Miss Minchin, attempts to stifle Sara's creativity and sense of self-worth.
At one point she warns her: “It’s a cruel nasty world out there, do you understand.”
To which little Sara responds politely, yet defiantely, “Yes, Ma’am, But I don’t believe in it.”

You can leave here today, enjoy a nice lunch, and the rest of your day; The alarm will sound tomorrow morning.   Will it be back to the same ol’ routine, or will the power of this idle tale help you to remember, another story is being lived out in this world. It was told by women who one morning couldn’t find their friend in the tomb where they laid him.
So, they told everyone!  Jesus rose, and he lives. He lives in you when you:
love one another.
love enemies
Show compassion.
If someone does you wrong, er are the side of mercy and forgiveness.
Do not judge.
Do not worry.
Discover life, again!

Winston Churchill said: "Never give up, never give up, never, never, never give up."

Jesus said, I am the Resurrection and the Life; even though you experience death, you will live!
Every morning can be Easter morning; a day to wake up ..smiling. Rejoicing. Celebrating. Why not? Tell jokes: Laugh. Hug. Encourage. appreciate the life you have while you have it. And Let’s watch the world be transformed before our very eyes.

Let’s pray: Gracious and loving God, we thank you for another glorious Easter morning. We arrive here from many varied places, some of us from a place of rejoicing, many of us from a place of difficulty, and we’re doing all we can to hold it together. Wherever we are this morning, I ask that you reveal yourself to us once again. In baptism. In communion. In a hug; in a smile: Call our name, so that we may rediscover the joy of life in you, again.

Easter Morning Laughter - John 20:1-18

Easter Morning Meditation
Commerce Community Worship Service at Commerce Presbyterian Church, GA

I want us all to help each other out; a good way to start the morning I think, this morning in particular.  

In a little while, I’m going to count to three, and when I do I want as many of you who care to, to burst out laughing. I’m not going to tell a joke. Or point out something funny.
I just want to see how contagious laughter is.

So those who are willing to help me out and participate you’ll laugh...and those who don’t want to, well, we know what that says about you :).  I’ll count to three in a moment.

But first, it’s been really neat to see my daughter Ruby Gene who is 7 and in the first grade discover jokes and humor.  She loves puns and catchy phrases.  Her ever watchful grandmother quickly got her 4 thick joke books from Highlights Magazines, and Ruby reads them every day!

We had guests came over to our house earlier in the week, and she spouted off several jokes in a row. Such as: Knock Knock, Who’s there? Little old lady, who? I didn’t know you could yodel !

Our guest, who happened to be the Rabbi at Congregation Children of Israel in Athens, went right along, laughed out loud, slapped his knee, and came right back with his own jokes.

I have found most Rabbi’s I’ve known are quick to laugh and tell jokes;
they’re comfortable with irony and paradox;
and even more impressively, out of frightening and tragic events, at an appropriate time they are often able to put a light spin on the events in surprising, clever and often humorous ways!
Just ask any Jewish friend of yours about the observance of Purim sometime.

I wonder how long finding humor in situations has been part of the Rabbinic tradition? Thousands of years perhaps?
Jesus was a Rabbi. What did Jesus think about practical jokes?

There are many scholarly works that suggest Jesus had quite a sense of humor.
Look at some of the stories he tells: a woman who lost a coin and turns her house upside down in search of it and then throws a big party when she finds it. That’s funny!

He had quick wit. How many times am I supposed to give?  7 times?  
Ha! Try seven times 70 times!  What a hoot!

And here on Resurrection Sunday we get one of the best practical jokes ever:
Jesus was directly involved with a tragic and brutal event.  He was placed in a tomb. His friends are devastated. One of them, Mary Magdalene, so devoted, gets up super early, probably because she couldn’t sleep she’s so distraught, and she comes to the place where they’ve buried Jesus.
She arrives, maybe before sunrise?!  and discovers he’s not there and begins to weep.

It’s really a pitiful scene and lots of mixed emotions. Is it an appropriate time for a little humor?

The angels start in with the joke by asking kind of an unnecessary question: Why are you weeping? She tells them why.

She turns around and looks right at Jesus, but, she doesn’t recognize Jesus, she thinks he is a gardener. In Mary’s defense, brain scientist have shown time and again, when you’re not expecting to see something, your brain won’t see it, even if your looking right at it.

Was Jesus surprised she didn’t recognize him? Maybe. Maybe not. He just goes right along with the angels repeating their question: “Why are you weeping?” He asks….
Do you think he was having to force himself to keep a straight face? Hold back the laughter?  
Maybe he was able to get in a little wink and nudge to the angels as Mary buries her face in her hands.

“Sir,” Mary says, “if you’ve taken him away, can you show me where he is?”

Jesus can’t hold back any longer. “Mary!”  And surely there was an outburst of laughter from the angels, from Jesus, eventually from Mary, once she got over the initial shock! Tears mixed with joy and laughter!   

Laughter has to be one of the greatest gifts of healing that we have access to as humans. It is said of Laughter… it„ improves our sense of well-being, reduces tension, depression, anger, „ lowers stress levels, „ reduces blood pressure,„ exercises hearts „, strengthens the immune system, „ reduces pain.

Did Jesus bring healing to the tears and pain of Mary and the others, through the gift of humor? Through laughter?

I wonder if laughter and humor should play a bigger role in our lives; in my life? Recently, and I think it’s because I haven’t been able to exercise like I normally do due to an injury, I’ve been a little cranky around the house. And not humored very easily.  When there has been a misunderstanding between my wife and me, or when if find my daughters a little on the annoying side, I’ve not exhibited the patience I aspire to.  And a few arguments have come as a result. I hope for your sake you don’t go through these kinds of things in your relationships. Do you?

But, recently I thought, what if, when there is a misunderstanding--kind of like Mary misunderstood who it was that was standing before her--instead of getting frustrated or upset,
I laughed!  What if when I find something to be annoying, like when my youngest demands my attention when I’m trying to talk on the phone even though I’ve asked her not to demand my attention before I got on the phone, and still seconds into the conversation she comes to me, ‘Daddy, Daddy..”
What if I found this wonderfully humorous!? Ha! The mind of a four year old. I love that she demands my attention, and she should get it.

A disposition of laughter, like what Jesus may have had, could bring healing and well-being to so much of life’s journey.  

Because, of course, “Life is difficult,” as M. Scott Peck says in A Road Less Traveled.  We may not like that, but it’s hard to argue with that reality. There will be tears, There will be suffering and pain and loss. But, even in those moments, maybe there can be opportunities for laughter and joy! A joke that is able to make its way through the crack in the concrete. Laughter that is able to shine a bit of light into dark places.

This is, in so many ways, the gift  of resurrection, because we know that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the powerful destructive forces that sought to do him in, didn’t have the last word.
The light has overcome the darkness! There was laughter and joy on Easter morning!

So humor me and let’s help each other out this morning. I’m going to count to three, and let’s burst out in Easter laughter.
One two three….

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Colt on the Loose, Luke 19:28-42

Commerce Presbyterian Church
March 20, 2016, Palm Sunday
Rev. C. Craig Topple

Slide: Colt on the Loose - Luke 19:28-42
Original (507 × 383)
How much time will have to pass, how old will I or my girls have to be, before references to the 2014 movie Frozen no longer come to mind when I thinking of images for sermons?
Any guesses? I apologize to any of you who haven’t seen the hit flick. 
Or rather, instead of apologizing, maybe you should break down and see it. It’s actually better than you might think.
Anyway, it stars two sisters, Elsa and Anna who are orphaned. Disney seems to really enjoy telling stories of children and animals--we watched bambi a few weeks ago--who lose their parents tragically…
These orphaned sisters, Elsa and Anna, grow up alone it seems.
And, finally when Elsa comes of age she is to be made Queen!  
The date of her coronation is set, guests are invited, the gates of the kingdom of Arendelle will be opened and they’re going to have a big party.  
Slide: Coronation Day
And for those of you who remember the scene; younger sister Anna gets out of bed in the morning with as much difficulty as my eldest daughter.  
But, when she is reminded and it registers to her that it is coronation day...she perks up:
It’s Coronation day!
She bursts into song!
"The window is open, so's that door
I didn't know they did that anymore
Who knew we owned eight thousand salad plates?"

Or,  If the emotion of frozen and coronation day doesn’t capture today’s biblical scene.
Think Victory Day.  How  'bout that time the Braves won the world series in 1995!


Or think back even further to the last time the bulldogs were national champions.

Palm Sunday is a time of celebration, because it is Jesus’ coronation day! His day of Victory!

Slide: “Blessed...
He is world famous by the time he rides into Jerusalem to claim his rightful God ordained place in history. Perhaps greater than the expectations of the people of middle earth for King Aragorn,
the people of Jerusalem’s expectations of this future king, Jesus, are sky high.  
“After centuries of oppression, abuse, displacement, corruption, and disgrace, the people of Jerusalem” are hopeful that Jesus will bring about change they can believe in.
“After being forced to pay taxes to Caesar and shuffling past Roman guards on the way to the Temple,” they hope he will be a great warrior who will defeat the enemy, and end politics as usual.
“After watching friends and neighbors turn their backs on the nation and on even their religion in pursuit of a buck,” these expectant people hope Jesus will be a great priest who will bring about reform and an end to corruption.  

These images--warrior, high priest, King--imply power from above, from God, is bestowed on the one who will implement these changes...and they way it will take place is the way power is understood.  In order to gain power, you have to get power from somewhere.
That is how power works right.
You have to take power away from those people, no matter how much or how little they have, so that others can have it.
Of course, along with expectations come doubts and questions--the higher the expectations the more frightening the doubts: You know in the back of their minds they had to have been wondering:  
Is this the long awaited King, descendant of the great king David, who will rule in favor of God’s people?  Could this finally be the promised one, who will overthrow the bad guys, and restore our nation?

Enough of that--Here he comes!  
Jesus, Yes! He’s riding into town!
This is the traditional way a warrior king is to enter,
in triumph after victoriously defeating enemies in battle..
Ride into town King Jesus, descend upon the capitol for your swearing in ceremony!  
“Grab your palms children;
don’t spare putting your clothes in the mud, We’ve got plenty of oxyclean at home, don’t we honey?
Look at the crowds lining the way for the future king.

There he is. See him?
Okay, so join me. On the count of three shout at the top of your lungs,
There are the words on the slide:
“Hosanna! Blessed is he
Okay, Ready
One, two...thr...
“Daddy, are we eating Lasagna for supper.”

Huh, “Hosanna, sweetheart, hosanna is the word.”
Okay on the count of three, one.. two.. thr…
“Daddy. What does Hosanna mean?”
It means “SAVE US!” Now pay attention!

Here he comes!
One two three….Hosanna Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven and Glory in the highest heaven!
Awe, “Daddy, Did you see that...he’s riding a cute little donkey…”

Yes, dear, I saw that...kind of a strange animal for a king….
Is it just coincidence Luke spends some six versus focused on what Jesus was riding?
The type of animal. How it’s procured. The whole conversation that’s going to take place…
Just say, “The Lord needs it.” You’ll be fine. Go on guys.  
He’s riding in on a little colt...And we’re pretty sure this isn’t the young colt of a mighty steed either…
instead, most likely this is a young donkey.  
The King James often renders a word for this animal we can no longer use in polite company..
Why so much to do about what Jesus was riding?  
Slide: Lampoon (defined: publicly criticize (someone or something) by using ridicule, irony, or sarcasm)
Christians Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw suggest:
When Jesus rode a donkey into the festival, it was a lampoon, like street theater.... [It’s like an] anti-triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Imagine the president riding a unicycle in the Fourth of July parade. Kings did not ride donkeys. They rode mighty war horses accompanied by an entourage of soldiers. So here is Jesus making a spectacle of violence and power, riding in on the back of an ass. (And a borrowed one at that!)
–Jesus For President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, 2008
Slide: ride of choice?
It’s like instead of coming in on a well armored Hummer
File:Warsaw Hummer 03.JPG
Jesus is driving an old Honda Civic.
Honda City Turbo II
Slide: Image of Choice?
Instead of coming into town like Aragorn,
Jesus looks more like Yankee Doodle,
Yankee Doodle | Fun With
only his ride’s not even as esteemed as Yankee Doodle’s is.  
Why would Jesus do this? What is he trying to accomplish?
This supposed to be a triumphal entry ...
He supposed to seize power and restore it to the chosen people...
My preaching professor Chuck Campbell said of Jesus riding into town on Coronation Day on a donkey: “Jesus is turning the world’s notions of power and rule and authority on their heads. His theater is a wonderful piece of political satire.
Jesus lampoons all the powers of the world and their pretensions to glory and dominion, and he enacts an alternative to the way of the Domination System.”
By riding into town on a borrowed young donkey
Jesus is saying:
I come to town to rule not as one who lords his authority over others, but as one who rejects domination and comes as a servant.
I come to town to rule not with pomp and wealth but as one identified with the poor.
I come to town to rule not as a mighty warrior but as one who refuses to rely on violence.
Jesus enacts the subversive, nonviolent reign of God in the midst of the city.
[The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching by Charles L. Campbell, 2002]

In case we need to hear this again in a different way one more time...I do, Pastor Chris Gilmore in his blog says:
“Jesus isn’t interested in making Judea great again. His platform is not based popular opinion or national security. A vote for Jesus is a vote for a Ruler who won’t seek to defeat enemies, but instead lays down his life for his enemies, and commands followers to pray for their enemies."
A vote for Jesus is a vote for a Ruler who doodles in the sand rather than drawing lines in it to delineate and divide based on race, nationality, or religion.
A vote for Jesus is a vote for a Ruler who isn’t about defending himself with powerful weapons, but instead he tells followers those who live by the sword die by the sword.

Slide” Colt on the Loose
Original (1092 × 800)
Palm Sunday--Coronation Day.
Something was a little off when Jesus of Nazareth went to town riding on a donkey...
The crowd made way for him.  Many followed the disciples’ lead and shouted out their hosannas!
But, Jesus enters Jerusalem and weeps, because the people don’t seem to grasp what he’s truly about:
‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!"
He said.
And as we know, those same ones who shouted Hosanna, a few short days later would shout, "Crucify him!"
Which they did..

And then there is silence….

Going back to Frozen, So often, we are like Anna, slow to wake up to what’s really going on…. Or at least I am..
Rest assured, he is God’s chosen one.
Rest assured he will be King.
but he will only be king for those who envision a different kind of Kingdom
A kingdom where wolves and lambs lay down together.
A kingdom where swords are beaten into plow shares.
Let Us Beat Swords into
Each year, on Palm Sunday, we are invited to make Jesus king of our lives and choose to follow in his way:  the way of humility, forgiveness, service, sacrifice, love and peace...
or not.

Because, even if we are silent:
"I tell you, the stones would shout out."

I love how Commerce celebrates the events of Holy Week with such intention and togetherness.
And I look forward to joining you at the wonderful events as we watch King Jesus here in Commerce over this Holy Week.  With courage and renewed vision, let us stand as we are able and affirm the faith of the church, our faith in king Jesus using a Brief Statement of Faith.
“We trust in Jesus Christ...