April 8, 2018 – Litany and Sermon

A Litany for the Bereaved

by The Rev. Nick Baird-Chrisohon
God of All Creation, we praise you for the grace you bestow upon us. In times of joy and times of sorrow we are blessed with the gift of your presence and the salvation offered through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. You make beautiful things even in the midst of darkness and death.

Lord, we give you thanks.

Gracious God, we recognize the evil of the world. In broken homes, broken systems, and broken lives, evil takes root and causes pain and suffering for others.

Lord, in your mercy.  Hear our prayer.

Today, O God, we lift up the family, friends, teachers, and loved ones who knew Joseph Clyde Daniels. While Joe is wrapped in your embrace, others are left behind with hollowness, grief, and anger.

God of Life everlasting, hear our cries for comfort and help.

Gracious God, we call you the Great Physician.  Heal broken hearts. Mend torn spirits. Shine light into darkness. Breathe hope in despair.

God of Life everlasting, hear our cries for comfort and help.

Gracious God, we know you move the hearts of the faithful. We give thanks for the police, emergency workers, and volunteers who gave so freely of themselves to help one they may or may not have known.

God of Light, receive our thanks.

Merciful God, as we come to grips with this evil, we cry out for justice, yet we hear those who mix justice with vengeance. This is our hour to tell the world that healing comes not from death but from life. You hold accountable the guilty; give us the courage to speak redemption even in the darkest places.

God of Light, shine in the darkness.

By your grace, we depart to offer healing, hope, and love to all those who need it. May we walk in the paths of our lord, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

 

 

This Sunday’s Sermon: To Be and To Do

There is real power in sharing one’s story of “having been there.” This week’s lectionary gospel follows what happens immediately after last week’s verse on Mary Magdalene when the gathered disciples are joined by the risen Jesus. Except Thomas. Thomas wasn’t there, but his story of needing to fully experience Jesus by physically touching the wounds is the ultimate, “I’ve been there” story. But as this week’s events of tragedy unfolded, I could sense God moving me to consider the other passage, about one’s experiences, in 1 John and the witness of togetherness found in Acts.

 

1 John was written when some of the early churches around Ephesus were in shock. A portion of Christians had broken off from the main church and were teaching that Jesus did not have a physical body but a spiritual one, so the crucifixion and resurrection were a sort of drama but not an actual death. This may or may not rattle you, but to the people to whom the author is speaking, it was as if the church was split in two.

 

It was a tragedy – it was shocking and heart wrenching. They were already experiencing persecution and death at the hands of the authorities. They already knew that pain; this made it much worse. It was such a heresy to certain church leaders that the author later in the letter refers to this group as “antichrists” (2:18).

 

Imagine being in this church. Your community is in turmoil; you are going through so much. You look to one of the elders who can offer guidance. How could someone not believe in the resurrection? You want to know that what you believe is real. That there is a God who loves us and a Christ who died for us and through this act we receive forgiveness for our sins. You want to believe that Easter was and is real.

 

Or imagine that you are trying to speak to a community that is in shock. You need to offer courage and hope. You want to push back against the bad belief, but you don’t want to encourage the worriers to take any action that could cause them to sin.

 

We can even be a little understanding of those who had split. They had reasoned that if God could die, even by God’s own choosing, then God couldn’t be all powerful. It is easy for us to villainize that which we don’t understand, but if we put ourselves in the shoes and pathways of those involved, we see a bit of humanity in everyone. These are people – not demons – and are also subject to God’s grace and forgiveness.

 

There is a real power in lived experience that we find in empathy. To hear from one’s own experience adds relatability. That is why storytelling is such a powerful tool in understanding the Bible – it gives room to empathize. The letter opens with the personal testimony that the author had seen, heard, and touched the risen Jesus, or at least speaks on behalf of one who did. As if he is saying, “I was there; hear my story too.”

 

The events of yesterday speaks to that same power. As the week passed, and the news of a lost child abruptly transitioned from search and rescue to the shock and horror of homicide, those who knew Joe, who know the family, who have been a part of that specific community, spoke out in grief and loss. Circles of contact collapsed into a single unity of solidarity. Friends and strangers who had all week donated their time, their effort, their bodies, and their resources all became as one voice: we do this for Joe. They now hold a lived experience and a testimony to the power of a community unified.

 

The reason people banded together was to care for a child. Deep in our hearts we know that a lost child is something worth our time. We band together to find the vulnerable and to bring them back home. Such sympathy exists that would encourage strangers to help a family in need. Even those who did not know Joe specifically know children, or they know someone who experiences autism, or they know caregivers of those who do. That is what it is to be fully human – to share experiences, to empathize and sympathize, and to act when possible.

 

This becomes the story of our second reading. In Acts, we are introduced to the early church community. The early Christians shared not only their experience and their testimony, of fear for their lives and the lives of those they cared about but used that shared reality to set up communities where they fully relied on each other.

 

They band together and share everything. They had a common purpose – to live as followers of the Way, disciples of Jesus – instead of stayed separate from one another. They had a common purpose, and the differences that used to make them suspicious of each other quickly dissolved. They found commonality through shared testimony and lived experience.

 

I have great hope that the events of this week are further evidence that God’s law of love still rests firmly in the hearts of family and of strangers. While it grieves me to witness such hope in the midst of darkness, I can see that the church in Acts is still possible in us today. Imagine if we were to see ourselves as part of a larger group that bands together all the time. Events like the tragedy we witnessed yesterday would be less and less possible. More people would be watching; less would be apathetic or blind to the truth of a parent with ill-intent, or a child without the appropriate watchfulness.

 

With this shared community comes questions of wondering whether we can trust others to be fair and to not take advantage of our good will. 1 John speaks to that: those who are walking in the light of Christ have no reason to fear evil. If you walk in the light, you are not only forgiven – which is the real celebration of the resurrection, not just eternal life – then you have no reason to fear where the light leads. Some may claim to be in the light but have dark or false intentions in their heart; those intentions will be found out soon enough.

 

That is the balance of faith: it is not just that we seek goodness outwardly, we must also be good inwardly. Strict adherence to law without grace and compassion can make one vengeful and idolatrous. We are called to the greatest good. To be the community of faith and to do what faithful people do.

 

Even as we grieve and ponder over a beautiful life departed today, there is much work and discernment to do in the wider church. As was noted in this morning’s announcements, there are opportunities to walk in the light of Christ as we seek to strengthen the United Methodist Church. On the one hand, we seek ways to join together with our family of faith in the Memphis Conference. It offers some great advantages and new challenges in realigning our various groups and agencies into single units. This involves money, and money can sometimes challenge even the most devout Christian.

 

Similarly, we as a denomination are not of one mind on matters of human sexuality. This subject has been with us for decades, and we have yet to find a graceful way of reconciling all the lives, experiences, and beliefs of those who claim the identity of United Methodist.

 

As we walk this path together, we must rely on the words of both Acts and 1 John: if we are to be the kind of community God calls us to be, to have the fullness of belief in Christ’s resurrection within us, we must walk in the light of Christ. We must seek to weed out the darkness in our hearts, that our intentions and hopes are purely based on God’s love.

 

Make no mistake, it is not always easy to walk in the light, especially when lived experience leads us on paths of potential darkness. When tragedy occurs, even as we band together to help the suffering, thoughts enter our minds that justice against the father should be swift and brutal. Yet Christ calls us to consider the brokenness that plagues all people. When we find ways to unify ministry based on our wallets and the protection of our individual church, we remember the early disciples claimed no building or budget – just the clothes on their back and the kindness of strangers. When we claim biblical references for how we are to understand each other’s relationships and beliefs, we also understand that all need God’s love and none come where they aren’t welcome.

 

We have seen what beautiful things can happen when communities come together around shared experience. When people come together out of love for God, for children, for the grieving and the hopeful. We have a story to tell, that even in darkness, there is a light that leads us.