Slippers and Resurrection

Flip-flop by Zeev BarkanThis story is about that same little girl who always seemed to have two things on her mind. You might remember her from the times that she was trying to fly kites and understand love and so forth.

Well, she awoke one morning and put together her two-item agenda for the day. And the first thing she wanted to do was learn how to run and keep her rubber slippers on her feet.

You see, that was just something she’d never been able to do. At some point when running along, whether the ground was grassy or graveled or paved or something else, suddenly she’d be running with only one rubber slipper on one foot. The other would be somewhere else in the field, or the driveway, or wherever. It never failed — and she was determined to make that change.

The second thing she wanted to do that day was understand how Jesus had risen from the dead. It was around Easter time, after all, and she’d heard a lot about that.

Let it not be said that she was afraid of asking difficult questions!

So she and her friends went out to a nice grassy field, and they started running. They went hither and yon and up and down and back and forth and this way and that, and pretty much every time, there was at least one rubber slipper left behind.

Sometimes two. Or frequently two.

They tried different things. They tried putting their legs straight down, which didn’t help their speed or, as it turned out, prevent the other slipper from falling off. They tried clenching their toes in all sorts of different ways, but somehow they couldn’t maintain the grip all through their strides. They tried running with knees up and knees back; they tried running backwards and sideways; they tried swapping them from one foot to the other (because, after all, why not?).

None of it worked, or if it did, it slowed them down so much they might as well have been walking. At some point, a slipper would sail away as if it had something else it would rather do.

It was all quite disappointing.

So she went to find her grandparents, who usually had pretty good answers to difficult questions like this. They were together, so she hopped up before them and asked, “How do I keep my slippers on when I run?”

(It took the grandparents a little time to understand the question, which had taken them by surprise.)

Then they looked at each other for a second or two, before they looked back at their granddaughter and confessed, “We don’t know. If there is a way to keep them on when you’re running, we never found it.”

“In fact,” they added, “We always thought that’s why you call them slippers. Because they slip off, you know.”

The news came as a disappointment, but also as something of a relief. After all, it meant that she and her friend weren’t hopelessly clueless about life.

But speaking of the unknown, she put her second question to them: “How did Jesus rise from the dead?”

Her grandparents looked at one another again, and then back at their granddaughter.

“We don’t know that, either,” they gently said. “It’s a more amazing thing than keeping a rubber slipper on. But we think it has to do with how much God loves, and how strong God’s love is. It’s strong enough to bring Jesus to us. It’s strong enough to bring Jesus’ message to us. And it’s strong enough to bring Jesus back to us.”

She thought about that for a moment, and gave her grandfather a big hug. “Love like that?” she asked.

“Like that, only even bigger,” he told her.

She gave her grandmother and even bigger hug, and asked, “Love like that?”

Her grandmother laughed for sheer joy and said, “Exactly like that: Only even bigger, and grander, and stronger.

“Yes, grandchild: Exactly like that.”

Two notes: First, this story led into the dedication of rubber slippers collected by the church to be given to local school health aides. They will be available for children whose rubber slippers break or disappear during their active days, and for those who appear at school without them.

Second, I was told after the service by a proud (and wondering) grandmother that her grandchildren run around all day in rubber slippers without them ever falling off. So I guess there is a secret to it — but I sure never learned what it is!

The photo is by Ze’ev Barkan, used by permission under Creative Commons license.

Jesus Wept

Child and Tear croppedAuthor’s note: This poem was written as part of a sermon called “When Jesus Wept” preached on April 2, 2017, at Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i.

Tears, come, and make your muddy traces
In the dust that yet adheres upon the visage
Of the Savior. Tears, come, as dust-caked voice
With muted tones inquires where he’s laid.
Tears, come, to join those springing from the eyes
Of friends most dear and of their comforters.
Tears, come, to stain the face of God.

Tears, come, because they do not understand.
Tears, come, because they fear when they need not.
Tears, come, because a few among them,
In just a little time,
May howl for your death.
Tears, come, because the road was long,
The body weary, spirit drained,
And who on Earth could hold themselves from weeping
In this sad community of tears?

Tears, come, because these are the depths of grief.
Tears, come, because the one you loved is gone.
Tears, come, because the resurrection has not happened yet,
Not the resurrection of the final day,
Nor the resurrection of today.

Tears, come, because we go to stand outside a tomb.
Tears, come, because we comprehend the paths of time.
Tears, come, because the grave of Lazarus,
Though opened, opens yet another tomb,
And they will carry you where you wish not to go.

Tears, come to testify to love.
Tears, come in solidarity with grief.
Tears, come to gather power for
A glorious resurrection.
Tears, come to anoint thee
For betrayal, for the trial,
For the torture, for the death,
For the tomb ahead.

Tears, come to Jesus’ eyes
And bathe his weary cheeks
With love, with grace, with awe.

Photo credit: The image is cropped from a photo by Giorgio Montersino, used by permission under Creative Commons license.

“Rising Up in Hard to Do” – Sermon for April 17, 2016

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Church of the Holy Cross UCC

Preached at
Church of the Holy Cross UCC
Hilo, Hawai’i
April 17, 2016

Text: Acts 9:36-43

In 2001, Buffy the Vampire Slayer died. On television, that is. The show had been cancelled, and she got a bravely dramatic death to end the series.

But in the fall of 2001, she was raised from the dead in a couple of ways:

First, the show was picked up by another network, something that rarely happens, and there were two more seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Second, the character was literally revived in her grave. Resurrected. Called back to life.

In the plot, Buffy’s friends feared that when she died, she’d been imprisoned in some dreadful dimension. It turned out that she hadn’t. She’d been someplace restful and healing; we might even call it heaven. Back in the world, she had to take up her calling again, to go fight monsters. It was actually quite a bit of a shock to her.

So when I read the story of Tabitha, I wonder. Was this woman, whose life was devoted to good works, to giving of herself to her neighbors: How did she feel about being recalled to life? Was she eager to resume her service? Or was she ready to lay down her life and rest in the hands of the loving God she’d served?

The Apostle Paul wrote: “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” Of course, he followed the sharing with, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me, and I do not know which I prefer.”

In his vision, the author of the Revelation is told that those who die in Christ are blessed, for they may rest from their labors, and their deeds follow them.

Living takes work. Living makes work. Living is work.

Rising up is hard to do.

Yet there is so much rising to do.

I wonder how we will rise up again from this political season. This campaign has been littered with racism and sexism, with personal attacks, with distortions and evasions, with outright unrepentant repeated lies. How will the country revive from this? I don’t know how – and yet we must, if we are to have the country we want to have.

I wonder how those released from prison will rise up. Incarceration doesn’t prepare anyone to live. A criminal record sets people up; they face a huge obstacle to getting a job, let alone a good job, and crime starts to look like the only viable option. Just two months ago, I heard Connecticut’s Commissioner of Corrections (I’m sorry, a lot of my stories will refer to Connecticut for a while) urge a crowd to support “Ban the Box,” which would prevent employers from asking about a criminal record on an application form. What else needs doing so that newly released citizens can truly be citizens, so that they can rise up into a new life?

This church is bustling and lively. I hear the children arriving at E Maka’ala and singing as I’m drinking my coffee at the parsonage in the mornings. We have warmly welcomed other congregations to share our space and celebrate their expression of faith here. We support those in need through our gifts, our leadership, and our participation with helping agencies like Habitat for Humanity. We care for those who are homebound and hospitalized. We honor the lives of those who have, like Kay Yamauchi this week, gone from our care to God’s. Our people are sought for leadership in the wider church. Other UCC congregations look to us for leadership and for energy.

So we are not dead, or even close to it. But there are signs that we could use a little rising up, now aren’t there?

I’ve sent a letter back to Connecticut, asking to transfer my church membership here. When I join, the average age of members at Church of the Holy Cross will actually go down. Slightly. And I’m 52.

By the way, this is a trait we share with the United Church of Christ as a whole. This chart shows American denominations on a graph that links average member age with years of education. On average, we’ve been to school a lot. But we’re also among the oldest churches in the US.

I’d like to make it clear that it’s not a problem that so many of you have been blessed with long lives. I thank God for that. It’s not a problem that you’ve been loyal to the church. I bless you for that! Further, I think it’s wonderful that your spirits have been fed in, with, and by this community of Christians.

My concern is that we haven’t served other generations as well. Hunger of the spirit, I think, is nearly universal, so there are hungry people out there, who need to have their spirits raised. But they haven’t found that nourishment for the soul in what we’ve been doing, at least, not enough, or they’d be here. They may still be hungry.

Let me take you back a few years to my college days. I didn’t go to church my freshman year, not at all. But at the beginning of my second year, I sought one out, and I was lucky to find one that was walking distance away. Why did I look, and why did I go?

I was tired of spending all my time with 18 to 22 year olds. I wanted to see a wider range of the human family. I wanted to see babies, and I wanted to see grandparents. And, I liked to stand there in the pew and sing the hymns.

I got all of that. What I hadn’t expected was to be completely gathered in by the pastoral prayer. That became the center of the service for me. I still can’t really tell you why. The Rev. Doug Green, the senior pastor, was a wonderful preacher, but I was there waiting for the prayer.

That’s probably unique to me – people who have known me for a long time will cheerfully tell you how different I am. It does show how different people can be fed in different ways.

We need to make sure that your spirits continue to find refreshment and healing here. I do not believe we need to trade the needs of one generation for another. But to serve those who are younger, or come from different cultures or spiritual backgrounds, we will need to try some things. To start, here’s my plan:

Step One: I plan to ask many people many questions.

Step Two: I plan to be quiet and listen to the answers.

By the way, Step Two is a personal challenge. If you ask a New Englander a question, they’ll start talking immediately, and think while they’re talking. I gather that here, people are more likely to think first, and let the silence stretch. So I plan to be quiet and wait.

Out of all that asking and listening, we’ll work together to choose some things to try, things that seem like they’d have a good chance of benefiting people. Sometimes we’ll be right, and things will go well. Sometimes we’ll be wrong, and it just won’t work. That’s OK. We need to know what doesn’t help nearly as much as what does. It just means we’ll have to try something else.

We do not occupy the place of Tabitha, or Dorcas, in this story. We have not died. We do stand in the place of Tabitha’s friends and companions, the ones who summoned Peter. Rising up is hard to do, but it’s also hard to persuade someone else to rise up. It’s a curious question, when you think about it. Why did these faithful women have to call for Peter? As I was reading this week, that question jumped off a page and stuck in my mind, and I haven’t been able to find the reference to give the person who asked it credit.

It didn’t have to be Peter, did it, who asked Tabitha to rise. The women she’d known all her life, the ones who wore the tunics she gave them, the ones who wept for her and washed her and honored her: they could have said those words, “Tabitha, get up.” They didn’t need an outsider. They didn’t need a man.

It didn’t have to be Peter. It could have been them. It could be us.

For those whose hearts are low, for those in whom the wellsprings of the spirit run dry, for those who hunger for justice, or rice, or opportunity, or wisdom: it doesn’t have to be the women of Joppa who summon them to rise. It doesn’t have to be Peter. It can be us.

Friends: Let it be us.