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Trust Jesus and Elvis | Second Sunday in Easter (Year C)

The following sermon is by Susan Sparks via Day1.org

Recently, I returned from a trip to the holy land … Memphis, Tennessee. Now, Memphis is holy land for a number of reasons, not the least of which is their BBQ. Now, for those of you who are not Southerners, please understand BBQ is a holy thing. In fact, it is part of what we call the southern trinity: BBQ, Basketball and the Bible. Memphis is known for their BBQ, especially their ribs. As my neighbor used to say, “Good ribs would make an angel weep.”

Now BBQ is not the only reason Memphis is considered holy land. The primary reason, of course, is because it is the home of Elvis.

While we were in Memphis, we visited Sun Records, where Elvis recorded his first song. In the studio, there was an “X” marked on the floor with duct tape indicating the exact spot where Elvis stood. The tour guide told us that just the week before, Bob Dylan had come into the studio, said not a word to anyone, walked over to the “X,” got down on all fours, kissed it and walked out. For many, Elvis has reached an almost holy status.

In fact, there has been studies on the parallels between Jesus and Elvis, most notably by the renown scholar (and standup comedian) Adam Sandler. He explains:

Jesus said: “Love thy neighbor.” (Matthew 22:39); Elvis said: “Don’t be cruel.” (RCA, 1956)

Jesus is part of the Trinity; Elvis’ first band was a trio.

Jesus is the Lord’s shepherd; Elvis dated Cybil Sheppard.

Given that kind of reverence, I believe that we as Jesus fans, have a lot to learn from Elvis fans. Especially in terms of faith….

Like any good pilgrims, we took time on our Memphis trip to visit the shrine of Graceland. There was the great welcome sign–a twenty-five foot high Elvis saying “Welcome to the Blingdom!” And after the requisite photographs, we got in line for tickets. As we were waiting, I turned to one of the tour guides and asked, “So, how long did Elvis actually live here?” There was an audible gasp from the surrounding crowd. The guide looked at me with shock and whispered, “We don’t use the past tense here.” She then pointed at her t-shirt, which read: “Graceland, where Elvis LIVES.”

It didn’t matter that she had never actually seen Elvis or that technically Elvis stopped walking the earth over thirty-two years ago. It didn’t matter. She didn’t care. Elvis fans don’t care. Without any proof, they believe he lives! Elvis lives, baby. The King lives.

It’s a shame we don’t all live our lives with that kind of faith. I’m afraid that most of us tend more towards the disciple Thomas than the tour guide at Graceland.

Our scripture today is the familiar story of doubting Thomas. There we find the disciples locked up behind closed doors after Jesus’ crucifixion. And Jesus came and stood among them. When they saw him, the disciples rejoiced. But Thomas was not there at the time. When the other disciples later told Thomas about it, he said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger … in his side, I will not believe.” A week later, when Thomas was with the disciples, Jesus appears again and invites Thomas to touch his wounds. When he put his hand in Jesus’ side–he knew.

“My Lord and my God,” said Thomas.

Jesus then said to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We’ve all heard this story before. More importantly, we’ve all lived it. We’ve all had times in our lives where we’ve doubted, where we have said to God, “Show me a sign! Give me some proof!” Maybe it was because we were in a place of unbearable pain, or a time we faced hardship with no answers, a time when God seemed silent. We have all been at that point where, like Thomas, we yearned for a sign from God.

And why not? We live in a world where “proof” trumps faith. We send robots with cameras to the farthest ends of the universe so we can know for sure what’s out there. We won’t believe an assertion until a complicated mathematical equation says it’s true. And anytime–anytime–there is a wall bearing a sign “wet paint,” we will touch it just to be sure.

If only we could have the faith of Elvis fans, a faith driven not by empirical proof, but by the voice in our hearts. Finding that kind of faith can change our lives. For when you believe something in your heart, you begin to act it in your life.

Look at Elvis fans. They not only believe he lives, they act like he lives. For example, they are constantly looking for Elvis. The Bible says seek and ye shall find. Well, Elvis fans follow that to a tee. They are constantly looking for the King. And, sometimes, they find him. There have been Elvis sightings all over the world–from a spa in Tokyo to a Burger King in Michigan. There was even a woman who claimed that she found the image of Elvis in a taco shell.

If only we’d put even 1% of that kind of energy towards looking for Jesus, we might actually find him too. Maybe we’d find him in the eyes of a little child or the downcast gaze of a homeless stranger. Maybe we’d find him in the face of an enemy or the tears of a loved one with whom we are fighting. If you believe he lives, you’ll act like he lives. You’ll look for him and you’ll find him.

Another thing–Elvis fans believe he lives, so they look for others who believe as well, like through Elvis fan clubs. I heard a story on the Graceland tour about a woman who was in a fan club called “Taking Care of Business.” She had to have major surgery and afterwards received hundreds of cards and letters from “Elvis friends” all over the world. We Christians can learn something from this. Community is what gives us strength, support and focus in times we most need it. Finding families of faith is what helps us keep our faith. If you believe he lives, you’ll look for others who believe as well.

Here’s a third example, and probably the most important. Because they believe he lives, Elvis fans go out into in the world and share his message. They play Elvis’ music; they dress up as Elvis impersonators; they decorate their homes with Elvis memorabilia. One of my favorite things at the Graceland gift shop was an Elvis sprinkler. It was a foot-high plastic Elvis in a sequin jumpsuit, and as he watered your yard, he would swivel his hips. Whether through word or music, impersonators or sprinklers, Elvis fans proudly proclaim the message of the King.

This provides an interesting contrast to the disciples. Before Jesus appeared in their midst, the book of John tells us that the disciples were in hiding behind locked doors. They weren’t looking for Jesus. They weren’t going around looking for other believers. They weren’t out in the world preaching the word. They weren’t proclaiming the message of the King. They were hidden in fear, locked away in shame because they didn’t believe he lived.

I’m afraid that many of us live a similar existence; a life with little or no faith in the risen Christ, our hearts locked up and closed away.

A young woman on the tour told a story about how she grew up listening to Elvis. Sadly, she lived through an abusive childhood, but she talked about how she used daydreams of Elvis as an escape. “He was my safe space,” she said, “my little corner of heaven.” Because she believed he lived, she honored him in her heart and that enabled her to find peace in the hardest of places.

If only we would open our hearts to Jesus in the same way. When we honor the risen Christ in our hearts, we have our own safe space, our own little corner of heaven in which to rest and to heal.

If you believe he lives–you’ll act like he lives. And Jesus’ message is certainly a message of action. Elvis apparently felt the same way. For Elvis said early in his career, “Music and religion are similar–because both should make you wanna move.”

The gospel is a living, vibrant force that should make us want to get out and move, move around in the world, move towards each other in love and compassion, move towards bringing in the kingdom–or the blingdom–or whatever.

I want a religion that makes me wanna move.

I want a savior that makes me wanna put on a sequin jump suit and sing.

I want to believe in a Jesus that lives.

Don’t let the doubts and fears of life shake your belief. Don’t let your faith be driven by anything but the voice of your heart. Remember: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” For if we believe he lives, our lives will change. We will search for and find him; we will proclaim his message; we will honor his spirit with ours.

Sometime this week, find a quiet moment, ask yourself, “Do you believe?” From the deepest parts of your heart, the answer will surely come: He lives. He lives, baby. The King lives.

Please join me in prayer.

God of all things good, barbequed ribs, basketball, Elvis and Jesus, ease our troubled hearts and calm our doubts and fears. Bring us faith so that we might act like a follower of your Son, and always, always, whisper daily the words we need to hear in our hearts, “He lives! The King lives.” Amen.

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Holy Ground | A Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15

This sermon was first preached at First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, Georgia on August 28th, 2011. Exodus 3:1-15 also appears in the Revised Common Lectionary in the Season after Pentecost (Proper 17).

“Holy Ground”

Exodus 3:1-15
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’ Then God said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ God said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

​…He just didn’t see it coming. And let’s be realistic with each other – would you? Would I? In just the previous chapter Moses had committed an act of the utmost evil: he killed a person. That’s right, this young Hebrew man, who would go on to serve as the vehicle for God’s earth-shattering, reality-altering emancipation of the Israelites, was a murderer. A fugitive from both God and Pharaoh, Moses flees to the land of Midian where he finds a lovely wife and has resigned himself to the simple life of a shepherd. Those days by the Nile are sufficiently behind him. He has escaped that messy situation in Egypt and has found his niche in life. This morning begins like any other, as he gathers his staff and takes his sheep into the wilderness. The simplicity of the moment is a pleasant reminder of his “comfortable” life, a life in which he is quite content to exist the rest of his days.

​But how foolish these hopes turn out to be! The author of this text reminds us of this by inserting what I find to be a rather cleverly-placed verse immediately before today’s lectionary passage. You see, right before today’s passage and right after the mention of Moses’ new wife and son, the author of the text slips these verses in the midst of this seemingly “happy” ending: in verse 23 of the second chapter, we read that “after a long time…the Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out…God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

​Just when Moses was getting comfortable, just when he had resigned himself to a life of simplicity and normalcy, God takes notice. God takes notice of a dysfunctional social reality that is in need of being changed. And if there is one thing we, as a worshiping community can say for sure, it is that we have never worshiped a God who has ever been satisfied with the status quo.
​And so it is at this point that we find ourselves standing in the sand next to our friend Moses who has perfected the art of the status quo. But this sand, this earthen floor, is no generic foundation. No, it is something entirely different. So different, in fact, that God reminds Moses (and ourselves!) to remove the sandals from our feet, because the place on which we are standing is holy ground! …Holy ground.

​So what is this text saying to us here and now? What is it, exactly, that makes this ground, right here beneath our feet at this very moment, so holy? Is it the fact that we come together as a community to worship God in this beautiful sanctuary? No, for Moses is standing in no structure built by human hands. Is it the fact that we have come here today to follow God’s commission? No, that can’t be it either because we can be fairly sure that Moses awoke that morning with no intention other than to watch a flock of sheep. So what is it that makes this ground holy?

​I have found that the revised common lectionary is a helpful tool when pondering the mysteries of these fruitful (if sometimes elusive!) passages. Often the different lectionary readings for each Sunday will speak to and with each other and it is often helpful for ourselves, as readers and engagers of these texts, to join in the conversation. Today’s gospel passage comes from the book of Matthew and we find ourselves standing next to Peter, a character with whom I have always shared a fond connection. However, this passage is not exactly the shining moment of his career as a disciple. After months of being on the road, healing the broken and feeding the hungry, everything is going great! But Jesus decides to throw the disciples a curveball and state that it will be necessary for him to suffer and die. Peter, however noble his intentions might have been, strongly disagrees and receives a harsh rebuke by his friend and savior, Jesus.

​Peter tends to get a bad reputation for many such stories in the gospel narrative- whether here where he is compared to Satan himself, or when he cuts off the ear of the soldier dragging away Jesus, or when he sits by that charcoal fire warming his hands in the moments after he betrays Jesus. But the fact remains that perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Peter because you and I, if in that same situation, would probably have reacted similarly. Jesus, things are going so well! After all, we have brought sight to the blind, food to the hungry, hope to the hopeless, and faith to the faithless. God forbid you suffer and die! You are supposed to be our savior, our victor! Who else is going to save us from the Romans? How dare you take us away from our routine, our vibe, what we are comfortable with!?

​…But our God is not a “comfortable” God. We know this because the same God who became manifest in the flesh, who fed the hungry, healed the sick, and freed those who were enslaved by the chains of that society, did a most curious thing. Jesus shatters into our existence not by amassing an army and overthrowing the Romans (as you, Peter, and I might have preferred), but by dying on a cross next to common criminals and overcoming death, an enemy even the Romans could never defeat. And though we never could have predicted it at the time, Jesus reformed and recreated any expectations that you, I, or Peter could have ever had.

​This story, I think, is an “echo” of our journey today with Moses. God re-created Peter and Moses into something which they could have never predicted through means that they would have never employed. And furthermore, God shatters into our status quo (making no small commotion along the way) and invites us into the work of God’s re-creation using people who we would never expect.

​That, Sisters and Brothers, is what makes this holy ground. These texts force us to re-shape who we thought we were and redirect us to what we are created and called to be. Like Moses, we are witnesses to that which forces us to “turn aside” and behold that which rips us from our comfortable reality and sets us upon ground that is holy. “Holy” – the very word comes from the Hebrew concept of being separate, of something different, something set apart.

​This holy text which we engage on this holy ground before our holy God, sets us apart from our preconceived notions of what is right and just. And, friends, this is something we need desperately. Because if left to our own devices, if left to our own conventional thinking, the Israelites would still be in Egypt and Moses would still be in Midian shepherding Jethro’s flock to this day.

​ But that’s not the end of that story…and it’s not the end of our own…for if there is another thing that we, as a worshipping community, can say for sure it is that we have never worshiped a God who is happy with leaving us alone! For the job is not over! This text reminds us that there are still oppressed peoples in the world and we, as we stand next to Moses barefoot in the burning sand before that blazing bush, are challenged to respond to this call by opening ourselves to the this counter-cultural text that shatters any societal norms that ensure the enslavement of any people, whether that slavery be physical, political, or theological.

​Friends we are standing next to Moses, you and I, at this very moment! This text calls us, the people who are First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, Georgia, to do something. For we, you and I, are members of a society that continues to oppress our sisters and brothers, whether for their political beliefs, their skin color, their economic placement, their gender, or their sexual orientation. Like Moses, we are forced by this text out of our comfort zone, out of our routine, and into those places where oppressed people cry out to God, for God takes notice. We cannot ignore this holy ground, we must respond. Oh, I suppose you and I could continue on our merry way here in Dalton, in our comfort and in our status quo. But you and I would do well to remember this fact: that the inaction of Moses would have been just as detrimental to the oppressed people of Israel as any action Pharaoh could have done.

​Sisters and brothers in Christ, we stand upon holy ground. We have been called, we have been invited to bring freedom to those who have been robbed of their voice, whose backs are burdened by the oppressive weight of intolerance and ignorance. And if we take the time to remove the sandals from our feet, we will find ourselves that much closer to our foundation, to that through which we have been created and are being created anew each and every day. If only we “turn aside” and gaze upon this great sight will we find ourselves carried into places that force us out of ourselves, and into each other, and into the community which God has created us to be.

​Friends, people are oppressed. They are crying out to God. God has taken notice. And you and I must turn aside.

​Amen…so be it…amen!

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