Sermon delivered by David Burrow April 24, 2022 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
Click here for an audio version of this sermon. (30 MB - .mp3)
When I agreed to speak today, I told Pastor Burtnett that I didn’t feel comfortable doing a children’s sermon. That’s because the kids I deal with as a teacher are about two or three times as old as most of the children we have here.
We always call this a time for children and the young at heart, though, and I figured I could say a few words for those who, like me, might be called young at heart.
Most weeks while Chris is doing the children’s sermon, I’m sitting in the chair in back by the pulpit, looking at things from behind. Last week in particular I was staring at the Styrofoam cup he had sitting on the lectern. In the announcements we were reminded that last Friday was Earth Day. In fact it was the 52nd anniversary of that celebration of the environment.
Staring at that cup reminded me of the very first Earth Day back in 1970. I was in the second grade at Lincoln School down in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. In celebration of Earth Day each of the students was given a little sprig of a pine tree that came with a clump of dirt in a foam coffee cup. (No one back then seemed to realize the irony of using Styrofoam for an environmental project.)
I took my tiny tree home and planted it in the front yard by our house. We put a little fence around it to make sure it wasn’t mowed down, and it took root and grew and grew and grew. By the time I was in college what had been a little sprig was a tree that towered over our split-level house.
That’s exactly what should happen when we pass on God’s love. It starts out small, but it grows so big that nothing can contain it.
We had two gospel readings at last week’s service, and I’m going to share two gospels again this morning. The first reading was actually included in the lectionary as an alternate reading for Easter Sunday—to be used in churches that have Easter services both in the morning and at night. We know it best as the encounter on the road to Emmaus, and it is found in the 21st chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
Now that very day two of them were going to a village seven miles from Jerusalem called Emmaus, and they were conversing about all the things that had occurred. And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast.
One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?”
And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” They said to him, “The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, how our chief priests and rulers both handed him over to a sentence of death and crucified him. But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel; and besides all this, it is now the third day since this took place.
Some women from our group, however, have astounded us: they were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; they came back and reported that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who announced that he was alive. Then some of those with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women had described, but him they did not see.”
As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.
Our second reading this morning is the gospel that the lectionary recommends for today, the first Sunday after Easter. It’s a variation on the disciples meeting Christ that we heard in the first reading, and it also tells what we know as the story of doubting Thomas. I’m pleased to share these words from 20th chapter of the gospel of John.
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples* were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
[Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
Right before Easter I made a quick little getaway up to the Twin Cities. I saw a play at the Guthrie Theatre, ate some good food, did some shopping, and just bummed around a bit. I took Interstate 35 up to the Cities, went to a park-and-ride, and—as I usually do when I’m in urban areas—used trains and buses for most of my trip.
While I’d come up on I-35, more or less on a whim I decided to take highway 169 back to Algona. Decades ago, when I first moved to northern Iowa, I’d take 169 up to Mankato and the Cities fairly frequently. At that point I could almost drive on auto-pilot. I knew all the curves and the little towns throughout southern Minnesota.
While I still go to the Twin Cities on and off, these days I almost always take I-35 up there. It’s faster, and it heads directly to the places I want to go. It had been years since I’d followed highway 169, and driving home on it last weekend was an interesting experience.
There were some things that looked familiar as I drove along, but other stuff seemed totally new. They’ve done a lot of improvements on 169 since the last time I went up there, and the suburbs of Minneapolis have expanded dramatically to the southwest—to the point that it’s really hard to tell just where the metro area ends. It was a fun drive, but it was very different from what I remembered.
There are a lot of times when things—or people—seem different to us. As a teacher, this happens to me a lot. I’ll run into students I taught in the past. They sometimes seem oddly familiar, but I couldn’t come up with a name if I tried. This most recently happened a few weeks ago at Garrigan’s Gala when a couple of people I taught about ten years ago came up and started chatting. There was a time in my life when I tried to fake my way through such encounters, but now I’ll just be honest about my forgetfulness and ask who I’m talking to. That’s a lot better than trying to have a conversation with an unknown party.
So both people and things can change, and we can have trouble recognizing them. That’s not unique to us today. In the gospel readings we hear about problems with recognizing the resurrected Jesus. On the road to Emmaus the disciples have a long chat with a man they think they don’t know, and it’s only after they see him in a more intimate setting that they realize who he is. Then Thomas refuses to believe Jesus is risen until he sees the miracle with his own eyes.
It’s easy to think of the apostles as kind of dense for not recognizing someone they’d spent their whole adult lives with. But I think those stories are in the Bible to teach us a lesson and make us think about whether we recognize Jesus ourselves.
Sometimes when things don’t seem to be going right it’s easy to think that Jesus isn’t with us, but if we look carefully, he’s always there. Something our current pastor added to the services here is a time at the start of church when we can share “Jesus encounters”. While I’m not usually very chatty in church myself, having that as part of the service does make me pause and think about the ways God has touched my life. Most of the time Jesus doesn’t look like the pictures we see in classic art works. He looks like the men and women we see every day who work to make things better for other people. Naming our Jesus encounters helps us to recognize Jesus in our neighbors, and we need to realize that even when we don’t recognize him, Jesus is there.
We can’t just look for Jesus encounters in other people, though. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” While he was directly talking to the disciples, those words are also for us. Jesus calls each of us to be his hands and feet, to continue his work in the world today. Just as we need to recognize Jesus in our friends and neighbors, we need to make sure other people can recognize Jesus in us.
Essentially in this gospel Christ is directing us to follow the old Scout slogan, to “do a good turn daily”. In more modern terms, we’re directed to take “pay it forward” or do “random acts of kindness”.
Today it’s far too common for people to blame others for the problems in the world. We blame the rich, the poor, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals, foreigners, Americans, social media, traditional media, businesses, schools, government, police, sometimes even churches. We blame anyone or anything we can place the blame on. Too often, though, we don’t want to do anything ourselves to work to solve those problems. If we are to be Jesus’ hands and feet, to do his work on earth, we need to quit passing the buck and do our part to make the world a better place.
The very first time I spoke before this church was almost fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2008. The theme I spoke on them was pretty similar to today’s message. I told about a boy from Portland named Matt Seguin whose mother had told him to “Change the world today” every morning when she dropped him off for school. As a seventh grader he had helped provide meals for homeless people, worked at the local food pantry, and raised almost $200,000 to help needy senior citizens. In that story it wasn’t hard to recognize Jesus in the form of a seventh grade boy and also in the form of a mother who placed the spirit of service in her child.
While preparing today’s message, I googled Matt Seguin to see what he was up to today. It turns out that he now lives in Boston, where he works as an investment manager. It’s not surprising that most of his work is with non-profits, setting up investments that will keep their work sustainable.
Matt’s mother, Rhoni Wiswall, died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 52. Through money she had squirreled away and memorials in her honor, a huge fund was set up to provide for needs of residents at a transitional housing center in Portland. Through her legacy, she will continue to do Jesus’ work far into the future.
When we think of people who have done Christ’s work in the world, there are few who would rank higher on the list than the missionary saint, Mother Teresa. She committed her life to helping “the poorest of the poor” in Calcutta and throughout the world. While we may not be able to live the lifetime of service that led her to sainthood, we can use her work as an inspiration and look for ways we can help those around us who are in need.
I want to close today with some words called The Paradoxical Commandments that are often attributed to Mother Teresa. Their origins are a bit murky, though, and most likely Mother Teresa didn’t actually say or write them. Regardless of the source, though, those words are good advice to us as we look to recognize Jesus in others and to be more like Jesus ourselves:
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you;
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight;
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give your best anyway.
For, in the end, it’s all between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
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