2111 Camino del Rio South, San Diego, California 92108
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Sermon of April 22, 2001
A number of years before I became a District Superintendent, the person who held the job in Southern Arizona was also a rather tall person. At that time we had a rather short bishop. That is the scene.
There was a church on the New Mexico border in Southern Arizona that called for the superintendent to come and visit. He went. He said when he pulled onto the church grounds he noticed six pickup trucks parked around the church, each with a gun rack in the back window, and each with at least one gun in each rack. He thought to himself, well at least most of the weapons are outside.
He went in and found that the people were unhappy. They were unhappy because they had been three weeks without a pastor, and they wanted to know when they were going to have a pastor. The superintendent said he would be back in at least two weeks to share some information with them. A couple of days later, he went to Phoenix. The Cabinet met, and he reported. At which point the bishop said, "Would you like for me to go out there with you?" The superintendent said, "Well a heck of a lot of good that would do. You could stand right in front of me, they could shoot and completely miss you, and still get me in the heart!"
Everybody in the Cabinet had a good laugh, except for the bishop. But what did the bishop mean by making the offer? Certainly it was a word of support for his superintendent. It was something else as well. The presence of a superintendent coming to a congregation, or a superintendent and a bishop coming to a congregation, reminds that congregation they are part of something that is much larger than just them. It is a way of saying, let us hold together in this effort and we will find our way through. Holding together is a part of our calling as Christian people.
Unfortunately, some people believe that the way you hold together is through domination and control. Some in the Church have been as guilty of this approach as others outside the Church. It is not the way of Christ. In the gospel lesson for today from John, we have a resurrection appearance of Christ. This appearance takes place on Easter evening. Some of the disciples are gathered together. The risen Christ comes, appears to them, blesses them twice with his peace, then sends them, and empowers them, with the Holy Spirit.
This is John's version of Pentecost. Remember Luke, in the Book of Acts, chapter 2, has the story of Pentecost that most of us remember. The disciples are gathered in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit descends upon them, and they speak in the tongues of all the known world at that point, sharing the good news. Here in John the Holy Spirit comes through the risen Christ to the disciples, but just for them.
The word that is spoken to them is an empowering and sending word. The first person the disciples go to is Thomas, who was not present with them when Christ appeared to them. If you read through the text carefully, you might infer that Thomas is the weakest link amongst the disciples. He is weak emotionally and he is weak spiritually. The disciples very well could have voted him out, but they chose not to do so. They chose to go to him and include him, to hold together their band. The text says a week later the risen Christ appears again when Thomas is present. A careful reading of the text gives the sense that the reason Christ comes back again is to make sure that Thomas is a part of the band, to hold together. In the Sacrament of Baptism, which we have celebrated today, we say several things. First of all we proclaim the grace of God. We also affirm our faith together. We say to these young children and to their families, you're a part of us, and we are here to help you hold together spiritually. We say it to the children. We say it to the families. We say it to each other. We are all here together to hold each other together, not to vote out, but to include.
In the text from Colossians, Paul says exactly the same thing, but says it with a bigger arena in mind. Paul says, "Christ is the firstborn of all creation, everything in heaven and on earth was created through him." It is the same thing that John says at the beginning of his gospel. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, there wasn't anything that was created that wasn't created through Christ."
John and Paul agree on this one thing. That is that the risen Christ, this power of resurrection, is here to hold together. But Paul says it is not just to hold together one person, or one group of people, or even the human family, but everything in heaven and on earth. All of creation holds together in Christ. God is reconciling all creation, everything in heaven and on earth, together in Christ, through the blood of the cross.
Today, April 22, is Earth Day. Earth Day was started in 1970, thirty-one years ago. Last year over 140 countries around the world observed this day in one form or another. It is so appropriate that it takes place in spring. This year it is so appropriate that it takes place on a Sunday in which these texts are the assigned texts for the day, because the texts point to the very same thing. We are not to dominate the world, we are not to dominate the creation around us, but we are to care for it, we are to hold together with the world around us.
Gordon Cosby is the pastor of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D. C. In his new book, By Grace Transformed, Christianity in the New Millennium, he says this: "You cannot get to where you need to be by exercising dominating power." He is saying it about the human community, but knowing Gordon Cosby, he is saying it about all of creation. We cannot get to where we need to be by dominating power.
A good friend and colleague of ours is David Richardson, at First United Methodist Church in Pasadena. David is a real outdoors' person. He wrote recently in his newsletter about a wilderness park not far from his home. It is a wilderness park in which the Corps of Engineers tried to channel all the creeks, which kind of makes it a non-wilderness park anymore. They built wooden bridges across the channels. Of course when the first rainstorm came, the rains did not stay in the channels. They flowed everywhere and broke out all the bridges. We cannot dominate creation. We try over and over again, but it is bigger than we are, more powerful than we are. David says this at the end of his article: "When human beings tinker with nature, whether human or otherwise, I guess we have to keep building new bridges over and over again."
That's true in our relationships with each other, and it is true in our relationship with all God's creation. How do we do that? We do it through the power of the risen Christ. The power that Christ gives us is not a power to dominate, not a power to control, but a power to give life. What Christ has done for us is to give us life, give us his life, and that's our call as well. To take the gift of life that we have received, and to give it to those around us, to give it to our children, to give it to our families, to give it to all God's creation.
About a week ago I was taking a walk near our home, near an elementary school. As I was walking along five small children, I would guess they were in first grade, came out on the walk. They weren't skipping as I remember skipping. Theirs might be a new form of line dancing, but they were all holding hands and going down the walkway in this very unusual movement. I just stepped off the walk to let them pass by.
There was a flowerbed on the other side of the walk. When the kids got up to it, one of the little girls in this group of five dropped to her knees. Then for the first time I noticed that an English Primrose, that was planted right beside the walk, had been scuffed up by some careless walker. It wasn't completely uprooted, but about halfway so. Some of its roots were exposed, so it would surely have died. The little girl dropped to her knees, and she began to ease the plant back into place and pat the soil around it, holding it in place together. No more did she have everything patted in place, then she was on her feet again. Hands were joined together, and the kids were off down the street, having a great time.
What a parable, and what a call, for our lives. Paul says, "All things hold together in the risen Christ." May it be so in our lives.
Thanks be to God. Amen.