Pastor Abel's Sermons

April 3, 2016

"Scarred for Life"

Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus has scars. Because of those scars, Jesus' disciples came to joy and belief. Because of those scars, Jesus knows about our scars and wants to bring healing, joy and belief to us.

Scars are a fact of life. Most of us accumulate scars throughout our years. Scars on our knees from childhood, while learning to ride our bike or tripping on the sidewalk. Or scars on our knees in adulthood, where your artificial knees were installed. Scars from accidents. Scars from war. Scars from errant fish hooks. Scars from operations. Scars from doing something really foolish. Scars even while doing everything carefully, for accidents still happen. There are so many different ways to get scars that the list is almost endless.

And those are just the physical scars ...

The emotional and psychological scars we have are another whole category. While physical scars reflect the things that have attacked our bodies, the emotional and psychological scars can be invisible to the eye but also much more destructive to our physical, emotional and spiritual health.

Have you heard any of these statements about these deep scars?

I hide all my scars with an I'm fine.

Not all scars show, not all wounds heal; sometimes you can't always see the pain someone feels.

People with physical scars hide them with clothing or a mask; those with emotional scars hide them with a smile or a laugh.

Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus has scars. Isn't that amazing? Even Jesus' resurrected body had scars. Jesus was brought back to life but still had scars.

The fact that he would have scars was prophesied long before Jesus came to earth. Isaiah said, "But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. The King James Version says, "... with his stripes we are healed, and the New International Version says, "... by his wounds we are healed.

Of course, the gospels give some detail about the specifics of Jesus' suffering ” the terrible and gruesome scourging, mocking and crucifixion. Indeed, he was wounded for our transgressions.

Our scripture today focuses on two of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances. Both appearances are to the disciples in a house where they are staying with doors locked "for fear of the Jews (meaning the Jewish authorities, not Jews in general). In the first case, the disciple Thomas was not present, but the rest, minus now Judas, were. "Jesus came and stood among them and said, ˜Peace be with you.' This is on the same day that Jesus arose from the dead ” Sunday, the first day of the week. The disciples had heard earlier in the day from Mary Magdalene, who told them, "I have seen the Lord,and she told them the things he had said to her when she was at the tomb that morning. We don't know exactly how the disciples received her witness, but judging from the locked doors and the fear in the room, we can infer that they all still had doubts.

Into that room full of fear and doubt Jesus appeared and said, "Peace be with you. Just a few days before ” although it must have seemed like an eternity to the disciples ” Jesus said to them, "Peace I leave with you ... Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Now in their fear and despair, Jesus once again gives them his peace. Then he shows them his hands and his side. At that the disciples rejoice. All the things he had said would happen have happened, and both Jesus and the disciples have come through it.

It's important to realize that the disciples' joyful response came after Jesus showed them his hands and side. Just as Thomas would do later, they saw, and then they believed.

Then Jesus repeated his pronouncement of peace. But this time he added to it: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Think about that for a minute. Think about hearing that in the context of everything Jesus had just been through. Would the disciples have heard good news? Jesus, the Son of God, sent by the God the Father, had been arrested, beaten and crucified. If the world could do that to the Son of God, what was in their future? What was the world going to do to them?

Surely Jesus knew the disciples' thoughts, and so he said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

The first part of that is an indicator or an anticipation of what would happen at Pentecost. Jesus reminded the disciples that as they were being sent, they would not go alone. The Holy Spirit would always be with them. Certainly it was not until Pentecost that the full power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, but Jesus was assuring them that they were not, and they would not be, alone.

The second part of Jesus' charge to them is not as clear. Read five different commentaries on this passage and you'll likely get five different explanations as to what it means. What is clear in scripture is that forgiveness comes through the salvation work of Jesus through the cross, his death and his resurrection.

One writer explains it like this: "Through the disciples' witness to Jesus by word and by the life and love of the community, the world will be forced to choose for or against Jesus, just as they were during Jesus' own ministry. Those who repent and believe in Jesus can be assured of forgiveness, and those who refuse to repent can be assured that their sins are not forgiven.

Another writer says it this way: "The giving of the Spirit here was linked with the forgiving of sins. The promise was given here to the whole group of disciples (the verb is plural). Although it is not in human power to forgive sins, the preaching of the gospel proclaims such forgiveness.

As we said, Thomas was not with the disciples at Jesus' first appearance. When they later told him all that Jesus had said and the things that had taken place, he replied, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

A week later Jesus appeared to them in the same house, this time with Thomas present. Again Jesus greeted them with, "Peace be with you. Then, speaking directly to Thomas, Jesus invited him to do exactly what Thomas had said he had to do in order to believe. Thomas answered, "My Lord and my God! When Thomas saw Jesus' scars, just as the other disciples had seen, he responded in faith. In fact, his recognition of Jesus as Lord and God was remarkable. Even so, Jesus said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Does Thomas get a "bum rap? What did he do differently from the other disciples? He spoke his doubts and fear out loud. And Jesus honored that ” he came to Thomas where he was and offered him what he needed.

The last two verses of our passage today comprise the purpose statement for the Gospel of John. Throughout his gospel John laid out seven "signs done by Jesus (the first was turning water to wine, and the last was raising Lazarus from the dead). Here John tells us why: "These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

In the midst of this whole passage is the relationship between the reality of Jesus' scars and the disciples' joy and belief. The scars, in and of themselves, are only evidence of what Jesus endured. Jesus was scared for life ” that is, in order to bring it about. Jesus' scars are part of the physical reality that points directly to the saving work of Jesus for all humanity.

And that brings us back to our scars. All those scars of yours and mine ” the childhood scars, the adult scars, the emotional and psychological scars, and the spiritual scars all have one thing in common: Jesus knows about them and wants to heal us. There is no scar so deep or hidden that Jesus cannot touch it and bring healing.

Jesus touched the lepers of his day ” and the "untouchables from all walks of life ” and brought healing to them all.

Jesus sat with a woman at the well of Sychar in Samaria who was scarred from a hard life at the hands of many people, and he offered her "living water to heal he

Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus has scars. He is scarred for life ” for your life. For mine.

Jan. 10, 2016

"I Am Whose I Am" Luke 3:15-22

These long, dark nights of winter are a wonderful time to catch up on movies. Maybe you have spent some of these dark hours on Netflix catching an old movie you had never seen, or sitting through a movie on AMC you've seen many times before but love to watch whenever it's on.

Some movies are a great escape from our everyday world. They entertain us with fantasy worlds, dystopian heroes or absurdist comedy.

Others capture the imagination because in the telling of their story, we learn something about ourselves. A theme many of these movies explore is strained relationships between children and their parents, especially fathers.

A couple of years ago, Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. played a father and son in a film called The Judge. Downey's character, Hank, returns home for his mother's funeral, where he is forced to confront his strained relationship with his father, Joseph. The emotionally distant judge and his son have been estranged for years.

Children's movies also sometimes explore this theme. For example, Finding Nemo is about a father-son relationship of a different sort. Nemo's dad, Marlin, is overprotective and passes his anxiety onto his son. Nemo, longing for his own identity, gets lost in the process and needs to be found.

While such storylines seem often to be about dads, sometimes they're about moms. This Is Where I Leave You is the story of sons and daughters trying to reconcile with their off-the-wall mother following their father's funeral.

The quintessential father-child reconciliation movie for many, though, is the 1989 flick, Field of Dreams. If you are old enough, you probably remember the story of Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella who hears a disembodied voice speaking to him from his cornfield, saying, "Build it and he will come.

Through his searching, Ray discovers that the "he who will come to the baseball field he plowed his corn under to build, is ” spoiler alert ” his dad from whom he has been estranged since he left home for college.

This theme of parent-child reconciliation resonates deep within us because it is more than a story about those who raised us ” dads, moms, adoptive parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, whoever. It's a story about us.

I am whose I am. You are whose you are. We are whose we are.

Today's scripture lesson is the story of Jesus' baptism and, in a sense, ours.

After introducing us to John, Luke tells us that people were wondering if he might be the Messiah. No wonder! He came with a powerful message of repentance, and people were responding. Tax collectors, soldiers and even some of the religious authorities had come out to the river to hear him and be bap

But John tells us that there is another coming who is greater than he ” one who will baptize not with water, but with fire and the Holy Spirit.

John says he is "not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. Had he seen Field of Dreams, he might have said he wasn't worthy to carry Jesus' cleats or oil his glove. John is the warm-up act, the minor leagues. The real deal was coming soon.

To emphasize this point, and to avoid any potential confusion, Luke tells the story of Jesus' baptism in such a way that the readers do not know who actually baptizes him. He writes, "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized ....

Unlike in the other gospels, we're not told of any actor performing the ritual. It just happens ” or has happened by the time we get to the next part of the story. Luke probably wanted to avoid any confusion about John's and Jesus' roles.

Then, when Jesus is praying following his baptism, we read that the Holy Spirit came upon him in the form of a dove, and the voice of God spoke from heaven: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

These words alert the reader to who Jesus is. He is not a student of John the Baptist. He has not come from a particular school of thought or a sect within Judaism. He isn't just going off on his own.

No, Jesus is God's. The voice from heaven claims him. Who he is, and what he will teach and everything he will do is deeply connected to God, the one who loves him and is pleased with him.

While this claim is unique to Jesus, it applies to us as well.

Luke writes that Jesus' baptism is one of many that day; he is baptized "when all the people were baptized. In some ways, his baptism is unique and special. In another way, it is very much like everyone else's, even yours and mine.

Part of what happens in baptism is that we are claimed by God and reminded that he loves us and is pleased with us. It is our way of remembering whose we are and, through that, knowing who we are.

This is why those parent-child relationship movies stay with us for so long. They are not simply about characters satiating their curiosity. Instead the characters learn something about who they are ” as they discover whose they are.

This longing for identity is a universal part of human existence. Some of us, like Robert Downey Jr.'s character, Hank, in The Judge, seek it in job titles, money and power. Others, like Nemo, think we will find it in autonomy. We run blindly, grabbing at what little freedom we think we need.

Still others of us, like Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, seek it in the roles we play. Ray, a 36-year-old English major, husband and father, was trying on the role of farmer when he heard the voice.

Some of us seek our identity in relationships, such as spouse, parent or friend. Then, when those relationships disappoint us, we are devastated.

Others buy into the idea that we are what we drive, where we live or what we wear. After all the striving, many come to realize just how unsatisfying all of those things are.

Others long to be known, liked, famous. Many then struggle because while crowds may know our name, few, if any, actually know us.

Our true identity is there in our baptism: "You are my [child], the beloved; with you I am well pleased.

This is whose you are. This is who you are.

You are a child of God. God loves you and is pleased with you. While God may not be pleased with everything you do, he is pleased with who you are and wants you to know his amazing love for you.

You need not strive to attain it. You can't buy, earn or achieve it one day. It is already yours. God loves you, and you give him pleasure.

The movies tell us a similar story. After his lifelong quest, Ray and his dad "have a catch in the idyllic, metaphysical baseball field. We get a lump in our throat as Ray learns that his dad loves him and always has. It isn't heaven ” it's Iowa ” but it's close.

As the credits roll, Ray is gaining a new understanding of himself as he gets to know his dad, whose son he is. But it's just the beginning.

So too is it with us. When we are wetted with the water of baptism, we haven't come to the end of a process, but to the beginning. Baptism is the start of our relationship with our heavenly parent who claims us and names us "beloved child, an identity we are called to live into every day.

Living into this identity as God's children is why we read our Bibles every day, why we pause to pray at the end of the day and over a meal. It is why we come forward to receive the bread and cup of Holy Communion.

This sense of learning who we are by knowing whose we are is why we come together for worship every week and why we serve our brothers and sisters in need. Through our acts of worship and acts of service we get to "have a catch with our heavenly Father. In these acts we are learning how much he loves us and always has. We are building a relationship with the one who made us, claims us and is pleased with us. As we do, we learn about ourselves ” who we are.

I am whose I am. You are whose you are. We are the daughters and sons of our heavenly Father. God is well pleased with us.

As we continue to celebrate this new year, this new beginning, may we live into that role. May we live worthy of being called the children of God, worthy of his pleasure.

Dec. 24, 2015

"Looking for the Light" John 1:1-14

Exactly 105 years ago, a new kind of light appeared.

In December 1910, a French inventor put neon gas into a sealed tube and then added an electrical current. It was the first neon lamp, and it must have been breathtaking, captivating and completely engrossing! The word neon came from the Greek word neos, meaning "the new gas.

This invention began a new era in lighting ” and in advertising. People would stop and stare at these signs that were visible even in daylight and that were given the nickname "liquid fire.

Can you imagine a major city today without neon lights? Times Square would simply not be the Times Square we know and love. The sign for Wrigley Field in Chicago would be easy to miss. Las Vegas would be much less tacky.

So, maybe neon lighting is not such a great thing ” at least not in Las Vegas. But God offers a lighting system that has been pushing back the darkness for a very long time. On the first day of creation, Genesis tells us that "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. In the face of that deep and disorderly darkness, God spoke a word. God said, "Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.

The very same thing happens today. In places of deep darkness, God says, "Let there be light. And there is light.

We need this illumination, now more than ever. The nights are long at this time of the year, and the darkness of the night makes us think of the darkness that exists throughout our world

There is darkness in the economic changes that threaten our jobs and our savings. High-skilled service workers are doing quite well today, but less-educated Americans are falling behind. Interest rates are low, which means that our savings accounts are not growing.

There is darkness in acts of terrorism, torture and violence around the globe. The Islamic State is causing death and destruction in the Middle East, including the brutal murders of innocent Christians.

There is darkness in poverty and homelessness in our communities. More than 40 million Americans live below the poverty line, and one out of 50 children is homeless.

There is darkness in pain, grief and depression among our family members and friends. There is darkness in guilt, fear and loneliness ... deep within many of us.

There is darkness in this world, and we know it firsthand. Because we need illumination, we are always looking for light.

Fortunately, God said in Genesis, "Let there be light, and there was light. When God speaks, good things happen.

This was true in the book of Genesis, and it has been true through human history. The Word of God is a powerful force, bringing light into darkness, hope into despair and even life into death. The Gospel of John tells us: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

In both Genesis and John, the Word of God brings light into darkness and life into places of death. In John, we learn that "the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. The Word actually became flesh in Jesus, in the one who was born in Bethlehem and grew up to be our Lord and Savior. The light of God is seen most clearly in Jesus, and we walk in the light when we stay close beside him.

The month of December can be a dark and deadly time, especially for the homeless who live in the colder regions of our country. The freezing temperatures have arrived, and the risk of death by hypothermia is very high. But fortunately, some Christians across our country respond by providing food, conversation and a warm place to sleep for anyone who needs a roof over their heads.

In Northern Virginia, Burke United Methodist Church hosts a hypothermia prevention shelter in its large fellowship hall. The church is one of 30 faith communities in Northern Virginia that run shelters in partnership with a local nonprofit, with each congregation providing assistance for a week.

Every night, the church welcomes up to 50 guests. They arrive in the late afternoon to warm up and eat healthy snacks, and then receive a hot, homemade dinner. After spending the night on sleeping mats, they leave with a sack lunch each morning. The meals are all homemade, and may include ham, barbecue, chicken breasts or meatballs and gravy.

"We try to practice radical hospitality; that is what our faith calls us to do, says the church's minister of missions. The 150 volunteers who staff the kitchen and shelter each week are committed to preparing homemade meals that they would serve to their own families.

Such Christians offer places of light and warmth during times of darkness and freezing cold. The homeless of the community are shown real hospitality in the name of Jesus ” in the name of the one who was homeless at the time of his birth. Churches that help the homeless remember that Jesus said, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

When Jesus speaks, good things happen. The homeless are sheltered, the hungry are fed and light appears in places of darkness.

At Christmas each year, we look for the light of Christ, "the true light, which enlightens everyone. John reminds us that "the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [cannot] overcome it.

The story of the Bible begins in darkness: Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve rebel against God and are cast out of the Garden of Eden But there is a flicker of light to be found in the fact that God loves his creatures, and does not destroy them when they disobey him.

In a turbulent time, the prophet Isaiah predicts that God will not abandon his people, but instead will send a child who will be called Immanuel, which means "God is with us.

The light grows as the angel Gabriel announces that Mary will bear the Son of God, and as Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem. The light gets stronger as Jesus is born, as the glory of the Lord shines around a group of shepherds. It burns brightly as an army of angels praises God and says, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.

On a dark, dark night, the glory of the Lord shines. A child is born, the one who is destined to bring us life, the life that is "the light of all people.

If you are looking for God's light, you will find it in Christ.

We are challenged to keep our eyes on this light, and to avoid being distracted by the bright lights of the world. Just a few years ago, many people were starting to treat the stock market as God ” they were seeing the market as all-powerful, all-knowing and ever-present throughout all of life. They were even putting their faith in the stock market and trusting the market to take care of them in the future.

Well, the Great Recession taught us what a false god the stock market can be ” not that investments are always a bad thing, but that the market should never be confused with God. The only thing that is eternally trustworthy is the Word of God, which brings light into darkness and can never, ever be overcome.

Once we find God's light in Jesus, we should not keep it to ourselves. Instead, we should carry it into our relationships with other people. We can bring light to a young woman feeling the darkness of loneliness, light to a widower mourning the death of his wife, light to a person who has just lost her job, light to an immigrant who is struggling to learn English, light to a man who has just received a cancer diagnosis. God has sent his light into the world, and he wants us to carry it into places of darkness.

The flickering candles of the Christmas worship service are a sign of God's light coming into the world. They are not as bright as neon, but they remind us that God's light always shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. While not the newest of lights, God's illumination is always the steadiest and the best.

Wherever we go, let's look for this light and share it with others.

Dec. 20, 2015

"Leaping for Joy" Luke 1:39-45

Have you ever imagined being privy to one of the world's most secret or most important conversations? We've heard the expression "I wish I had been a fly on the wall, which, of course, means an unseen or unnoticed presence in a situation. What conversation do you wish you could have heard? One of the many side conversations while the Constitution of the United States was being written? One of the war-planning meetings after Pearl Harbor? Hearing Martin Luther King Jr. discussing his "I Have a Dream speech? Bill and Hillary Clinton's conversation after Monica Lewinski became a household name? President Reagan and Gorbachev? One of the private conversations Jesus had with his disciples? It's easy to let your imagination run wild as you think about those private conversations we will never know in detail.

In our text we are allowed to listen in on one of the most unique and life-changing conversations that ever took place. We can say this now, looking back, but it's unlikely the participants fully understood what a momentous and important event they (and their conversation) were a part of. What they did know that day was that their conversation was an occasion for great joy.

To understand the events surrounding this conversation between Mary and Elizabeth we need to know of two miraculous pregnancies. Earlier in chapter 1, Luke introduces Zechariah, a priest, and his wife Elizabeth. They were both "righteous before God and lived "blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the sanctuary of the Lord while he was offering incense. Gabriel told him that Elizabeth would bear him a son whom they were to name John. "You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. When Zechariah questioned how this could happen, Gabriel declared, "¦ because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.

Elizabeth, in her old age, did become pregnant. This was a miracle beyond her wildest expectations. God blessed her, and she gave God all the credit when she said, "... he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people. She remained in seclusion for five months.

In the sixth month, Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce another miraculous birth: "Do not be afraid, ... for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High ... And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son ... for nothing will be impossible with God.

Nothing will be impossible with God! Two impossible pregnancies, two miraculous pregnancies ... miraculous joy indeed.

Mary responded to Gabriel, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Now, we can only imagine all the things going through Mary's mind after Gabriel left: "How can I tell Joseph? How can I explain this to my family and friends? Is this really true? Was it just a dream? What am I going to do?

Perhaps with questions like these swirling in her mind, Mary set out to visit Elizabeth. This journey was probably a three- to-five-day trip under harsh conditions. While scripture doesn't say so, Mary probably traveled with a group or caravan. Bandits were always around (remember Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan), but Mary arrived safely at the house of Zechariah.

Then, when Mary greeted Elizabeth, an amazing thing happened: the baby in Elizabeth's womb leaped! Babies move in the womb. We've all heard a pregnant woman say, "The baby's really kicking today. But what happened to Elizabeth that day was different. Different enough, and connected in time to Mary's greeting, that Elizabeth knew something special was going on.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Here we are ” privy to this amazing conversation that was a harbinger of world-changing events. Culturally, this was an unusual conversation. Normally, the younger person would honor the elder, but it was out of the ordinary for the elder to honor the younger in this way. The way Elizabeth honored Mary was amazing. The Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth that Mary was the "mother of my Lord. (Elizabeth thus becomes the first person to call Jesus "Lord.) She blessed Mary and was humbled that the woman God chose to give birth to the Savior was not only her relative but was in her home.

The rest of the conversation is not recorded, but surely there were tears of happiness and wonder as Mary and Elizabeth shared the remarkable events that had led them to this place. Each was sharing these things with the only other person in the entire world who could really understand.

Each had heard from the angel Gabriel. Each was pregnant because of the miraculous power of God. The child each carried would change the world: John would be the last of the old-covenant prophets. Jesus would bring a new covenant as the Savior of the world.

Did they play the guessing game of why God had chosen them? Did Mary say she wasn't surprised God would choose a righteous woman like Elizabeth? Did Elizabeth respond by remembering that there had always been something special about Mary ” even as a young child? Did they talk about what would happen next? Did they pray for one another? Did they thank God for choosing them? Did they shudder at the sheer magnitude of the future before them and their sons?

Years later, John would prepare the way for Jesus. Now, already familiar with the stress of supposed disfavor because of being barren throughout her life, Elizabeth prepares the way for Mary as she goes through a pregnancy that has everybody asking questions and whispering behind her back.

One thing is sure: God brought these two blessed women together for a reason. Their resolve was made stronger after their meeting. Their fears were made less. Their joy was multiplied. Miraculous joy indeed!

Immediately after today's text, Luke records Mary's song of praise. Often referred to as the Magnificat, it is Mary's eloquent song relating God's blessings to her, and God's blessing to the world through the child Savior she is carrying: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior .... She sings of how God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly. She sings of God's faithfulness ” keeping "the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

This great song has been loved and revered by one generation after another. It gives hope to the lowly and to all who love the Lord.

Is it a coincidence that Mary sings this song while she's still visiting with Elizabeth? Or is Mary able to give this great affirmation because she's been with Elizabeth? Did God use Elizabeth's life of righteousness and obedience and miraculous joy to strengthen Mary and help her see how she fit into God's plan? Millions of believers throughout the ages are forever grateful to Elizabeth and Mary for their lives of obedience and joy. Miraculous joy, indeed!

In a few short days, we will celebrate another Christmas. We sing of joy to the world. We give presents to people we love. We smile and wish each other a merry Christmas. But truth be told, some of us may be putting on a show. In reality, we may be frightened by our circumstances and prospects for the future. We're wondering why others seem to be blessed by God and not us.

Come, listen in on this incredible conversation between two women facing the unknown and the impossible. Listen as they support one another and as they live out their faith in God one day at a time.

Did you feel that? Did you feel God's Holy Spirit inside you? Leaping for joy? Miraculous joy, indeed!

Dec 6, 2015

"The Terror of History" Luke 3:9-14

All right, class. Put your books and notes and smartphones away. Take a blank sheet of paper and number from one to four. Then answer the following questions:

In what year did the word of God come to John?

Who was the ruler of Abilene at the time?

During whose high priesthood did this happen?

What territory did Herod rule?

Write your name at the top and hand your papers toward the front.

Remember that feeling? "The terror of history ” faced with a pop quiz about those names and dates you were supposed to learn. It's impossible to keep them all straight. If you managed to learn the names of British monarchs or the date of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, you forgot them as soon as the exam was over. In the words of almost any high school student, it's borr-rring.

Our gospel reading might sound a little like that ” facts about who and when and where. But there won't be a test on it! And when we look at it more closely, we'll see that it can save us from the real "terror of history.

That phrase can mean something more profound than the way we feel about an unannounced test. The religious scholar Mircea Eliade used it to describe a common reaction to the fact that our world and our lives have a history at all ” of the reality that things change. Familiar features of our lives, the good and the bad, change and pass away, and new things arise, only to pass away in turn. Children grow up and will never go back to being cute toddlers. Your friends and relatives are getting older, and some have died. The good times you had with classmates in school can never be recaptured by any reunion. It is no longer summer. And all this can be terrifying.

It's true in the history of the world as well. We'll never again have the excitement of seeing a human being step on the moon for the first time. At the same time, we'll never again have to hear the news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination or the fall of the twin towers. Those things have happened and can never un-happen.

Eliade pointed out that many religions and philosophies try somehow to save us from the terror of history. Things do change, but we dream that eventually it will come back to the way it used to be. We grow relentlessly older, but maybe we'll be reincarnated and can start over again. The earth goes through its cycle of seasons and it will be summer again, so maybe the whole universe is like that, and nothing will really be gone forever. Perhaps paradise, the golden age at the beginning, will be restored. All the history that took place between the beginning and the end of the world won't matter because the end will be just like the beginning.

But those dreams are ... dreams. Historical reality is reality. Mysterious though it may be, there is an "arrow of time that distinguishes the future from the past. The withered flowers do not un-wither. As the poet Omar Khayyam wrote:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

God created this world with a history ” a world of time and change. When the creation story says God saw that everything he had made was "very good, it means that time and change are good. God intended creation to move from a good beginning to a future that would be better than the beginning. The universe began with just lots of radiation and elementary particles. There were no flowers, babies taking first steps, Grand Canyon, Beethoven's ninth symphony or space telescopes, but they have come into being. History happens.

But bad things happen too ” a lot of bad things. The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon wrote that history "is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. The events of the past 250 years have given little reason to change that description. If a loving God created the world for some good purpose, creation seems to have gotten off track. We have good reason to see history as terrible.

And in the midst of all that, "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, God's good news became part of world history. The good news ” the gospel ” is that God has become a participant in the world's history of time and change in order to save us and the world with its history, to turn the course of history back toward God's intended goal.

In that year, John the Baptist began to proclaim "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He did this to "prepare the way of the Lord, to get things ready for God to become a participant in the world's history. A few verses after our text, Jesus comes into the story, to be baptized and to begin his work.

Those names in our text ” John, Tiberius, Herod and the others ” are all historical figures, people who lived around 2,000 years ago in various territories around the Mediterranean. Yet the story of which they are a part has meaning for all times and all places. One of them, an otherwise obscure Roman governor, has one of the best known of all names from the ancient world because Christians repeat in their creed that Jesus "was crucified under Pontius Pilate. That happened at a point in real history, not as something in a once-upon-a-time story or in some mythic realm beyond the world

The story of Jesus that the gospels tell is part of the history that we all share. He is a historical figure. Things happened to him and his life changed. We don't know when Joseph died, but he never appears in the gospel accounts of Jesus' adult life, so it's likely that he passed away while Jesus was growing up. Jesus lost his earthly father and mourned for him.

Jesus grew up, and the time came for him to put away his toys. He left his unexciting but secure carpenter's work in the backwoods town of Nazareth where nothing ever seemed to change very much. It was time for him to go and hear John, to be baptized and to enter onto the stage of the world's history.

He didn't do that to give us an escape from the world of time and change. By becoming human and sharing in our history, God has taken that history into the divine life and given it eternal value. Jesus came to heal our history. He shows respect for the past, for the traditions of God's people Israel, but he points toward the future, in a new direction. He confronts the kinds of forces that have distorted history in the religious establishment of Caiaphas and Annas and the political powers of Herod and Pilate, a confrontation that leads to the cross. And in his life, death and resurrection he reveals the true goal of history, the kind of total trust in God and obedience to God that his life represents. In his story, we are shown where history is going.

This isn't an invitation for us to try to turn history into our own project and make it work out in accord with our ideas or wishes. Usually we can't see, at any given point in history, how things fit into the divine purpose. God undoubtedly has a lot of surprises for us on the way to the future. But we are given a glimpse of the final future God intends for us in the history of Jesus.

Our calling as the Christian church is not just to look beyond history to an eternity beyond the earth. It is very much like the task that John the Baptist had ” to call the world's attention to the one who "was crucified under Pontius Pilate and to proclaim that the day will come when "all flesh shall see the salvation of God!

November 29, 2015

"What Does the Church Wait For in Advent?"

We can see Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, but the intense shopping, cooking and decorating haven't begun yet, so maybe we have a chance today to ask some questions. Maybe the first Sunday of Advent provides a respite so that we can reflect on our role as the church in the midst of all of this hurry and stress.

We face a question we may not want to ask, but need to ask. Over the long run, what real difference does our celebration of the birth of Jesus every year make? Have we made the world a better place? Some people point to a worldwide decline in such things as poverty and crime and declare that the world can slowly evolve into a better place. Yet we see the same problems linger stubbornly wherever we look. We still shudder at the videos of the barbarity of the terrorists. We throw up our hands at another racial incident and wonder if we ever can answer "yes to Rodney King's question of whether we all can get along. Too many children continue to die of hunger and illness; poverty still wrenches away the souls of too many people; too many women show up in emergency rooms with bruised faces and broken bones.

We consider Advent a time of hope and expectation, but what do we hope for? Can we say that the church has made enough of a difference?

Sometimes when we despair about the influence of the church, we decide to redouble our efforts. We convince ourselves that if only we tried harder or spoke more eloquently or joined our efforts to others' or raised more money, we could do it right. We could show everyone the cruelty and self-defeat of racism. We could loosen the grip of the rich on their money so that we could fill those growling stomachs. We could replace hate with compassion and fear with trust. As the social media meme puts it, "We won't change the world by going to church; we will change the world by being the church.

If only we could move past whatever seems to stop us in our tracks, we could make this a better world. Sometimes the church reacts that way when we see how much about the world needs changing. We put on our work gloves, give ourselves a pep talk and assume we can do better. Yet, even with all the ministry of the church, we still don't seem to make progress.

We may shift our focus from the big problems and concentrate on how our faith helps us as individuals to survive. The world may not change much, but we can cope; we can keep from giving in to despair. We can find joy for ourselves, our family and our small circle. Even if we know full well that God won't make us rich and successful, we can draw on what God offers in order to get through another day. We can grow in faith, we can learn to forgive and we can heal our families. We may not set out to change the world, but we draw on the resources of the faith for our needs and our personal battles.

I don't bring up this topic to disparage the ways our faith can support us in our struggles. We sometimes need all the help we can find. Coping with grief or moving beyond our past can seem as difficult a battle as the larger issues that grab the headlines. We rejoice in the ways our faith encourages and comforts us. Yet, don't we think that the church should have some impact on the world? Shouldn't the church, shouldn't Advent, shouldn't the celebration of Christmas every year make the world a better place?

We all know, of course, that many in the church react to the persistence of evil in the world and the seeming inability of the church to change it by giving up. They have grown tired of redoubling their efforts and spreading the message. They have become tired of a church mired in its own infighting and helpless against the poverty, hatred and division of the world. They did their time. They gave it their best effort, but they are done. They have walked away from the church, leaving it to fend for itself. They have not seen results from the money and time they have given, and so they have cut their losses. They still believe the right things. They pray and read their Bibles, but they have given up on the church. Some of them may have slipped in the door today because Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter are the only times we see them.

We rejoice in Advent, but we realize that it doesn't seem to make the world a better, more loving, more just place. Trying harder, focusing on our own spiritual growth and giving up don't present good solutions. If we wonder what the church should do, we may be ready to hear these strange words from Luke.

We likely find these words uncomfortable. We affirm God as Creator, and see in the intricacy of the world God's artistic hand. Yet, what can we make of talk about "signs in the heavenly bodies? Can anyone blame us for thinking these words sound too much like astrology? Hasn't the history of the church been littered with groups claiming that they have seen the "signs that the end of the world will come any day now, with some even picking the exact day? Despite all the fanatical energy, the world just keeps spinning on its axis. The sun, moon and stars look the same. Can we hope that scientists will take us seriously if we proclaim these words too loudly? They believe that the sun will burn out eventually, but long after we have breathed our last. Can we find any realistic hope in these words about the heavenly bodies and the Son of Man riding a cloud?

As unscientific as these words sound, they teach us about the role of the church, now in Advent and during the rest of the year as well. Although we should not bring out our telescopes to find how God will conquer the evil in creation, we learn from this dramatic passage that evil saturates the whole of God's world. The phrase Luke uses is "the powers of the heavens. However each of us might understand the exact meaning of that phrase, it reveals to us the depth and tenacity of evil.

The church itself cannot eradicate this evil. We cannot by our own efforts stamp out hatred, violence or greed. Those examples of the work of the "powers have left a stain on God's creation we cannot scrub out. We can rejoice in God's eventual triumph over evil in the resurrection and eternal life. Luke's words about the sun, moon and stars teach us that God must work in all of creation. We cannot predict or fully understand how God will bring this victory. We can only anticipate it.

The passage exhorts us to "be on guard. We do not go out every night looking for a change in the surface of the moon. We maintain our hope, courage and faith. We continue the work of the church ” worship, love and justice-seeking ” not because we can win, but because our work bears witness to God's work. Somehow, God will sweep our work up into the final victory.

Advent calls us to hope and expectation. We indeed redouble our efforts, not because in a few years racism, poverty and apathy will have evaporated from God's world. We keep up our efforts because we can do some good until God acts. We do our work so that the poor do not feel abandoned, so that victims feel God's love in ours. We continue our work so that the world does not forget that hope in God lies out there.

As we begin the season of Advent, we celebrate what God has done in the birth of the Savior. We recall the sense of waiting of our Jewish ancestors, who never gave up the belief that God worked through them. We wait actively as we trust God with the future of creation and the struggle with evil. Let us not dull our sense of expectation and anticipation. Whatever may go on around us during this season, let us take hope in God, who loves the creation and works even now to bring it to its fulfillment.

November 22, 2015

"Belonging to the Truth" John 18:33-37

What is truth?

We know we need it, and we expect to hear it from people in positions of authority. NBC News anchor Brian Williams was suspended from his job earlier this year when he lied about being on a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by enemy fire.

We want to hear the truth from our elected officials, but we cannot always trust them to give it to us. A website called now offers the service of analyzing political statements and judging whether they are true, mostly true, half true, mostly false or false. Their worst rating is "pants on fire, as in "Liar, liar, pants on fire!

Truth can be hard to find, although the search has been going on for thousands of years. "Truth lies wrapped up and hidden in the depths, said Seneca the Younger, a Roman philosopher from the time of Jesus. "We sometimes discover truth where we least expected to find it, said Quintilian, another Roman of the first century.

The Roman Empire was powerful and often cruel, but it contained leaders who valued the search for truth. Because of this, we shouldn't be surprised when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus the question, "What is truth?

Pilate, the Roman governor, poses this question before pronouncing the death sentence. Jesus has been brought to him because only the Roman Empire can legally perform an execution. The Jewish priests want Jesus to die, but they don't have the authority to kill him.

So they drag him to Pilate. The governor asks Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews? Pilate believes that a Jewish king would be a threat to Roman authority. If Jesus says "no, he stands a chance of being released, but he would be telling a half-truth. If Jesus says "yes, then he'll be convicted of treason against the Roman emperor and given an instant death sentence.

Life and death depend on his answer.

But Jesus is too smart to respond with a simple "yea or "nay. Like an experienced trial lawyer, Jesus says, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? He wants to know if Pilate has personal knowledge of his kingship, or if he is relying on the hearsay evidence of the Jewish priests.

The governor replies with an edge in his voice: "I am not a Jew, am I? He wants to distance himself from this whole messy affair, seeing it as a Jewish problem, nothing that he wants to get involved in. And yet he has a job as governor, one that requires him to administer justice. "What have you done? he asks Jesus.

Don't tell me you were on a helicopter hit by enemy fire in Iraq. Don't say you were covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and saw a dead body float past your hotel window. Tell me what you have really done, Jesus ” Pilate wants to know the truth.

Once again, Jesus refuses to give a straight answer. Like Seneca the Younger, he knows that "truth lies wrapped up and hidden in the depths. Jesus says, "My kingdom is not from this world ” it doesn't look anything like the Roman Empire. "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.

Pilate hears part of what Jesus is saying, the part about his kingdom. "So you are a king? he asks him.

But Jesus dodges again. "You say that I am a king, he replies. "For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. Instead of doing the royal work of leading armies, collecting taxes and punishing criminals, Jesus says that his mission is to "testify to the truth. His followers are all those who belong to the truth and listen to his voice.

Clearly, Jesus has not come to take the world by force. Instead, he has come to invite people to enter into a relationship with him by listening to his voice and belonging to the truth. All of which leads to the obvious question from Pilate, "What is truth?

This is an honest question. Sure, Pilate is getting fed up with Jesus, but he is enough of a Roman philosopher to wonder about the nature of truth. He really wants to know: "What is truth? Tell me, Jesus.

And what does Jesus say? Nothing. He just stands there. His silence is his answer to the question. He is saying to Pilate, "Look at me. I am truth. I am the way, the truth, and the life. Follow me, and I'll show you the path to abundant life.

But Pilate doesn't get it. Sadly, he turns away and goes in another direction. The wheels of Roman justice continue to turn, and Jesus is flogged, mocked and put to death on a cross. Pilate fails to grasp what his fellow Roman Quintilian understood so well: "We sometimes discover truth where we least expected to find it.

We are left with the question "What is truth? This passage teaches that truth is not a statement, a concept or a school of thought ” that's the kind of truth that a Roman philosopher would understand. Instead, truth is a person ” a person named Jesus ” and we are all invited to enter into a relationship with this Jesus who is the truth.

For Jesus, truth is something that is felt, acted out and embraced in all of life. This is the kind of truth that you don't just think about; you belong to it. It is a way of life. That's why Jesus says, "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

So what exactly is this truth that we are invited to belong to?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, turning more than 100 gallons of water into wine so the wedding celebration can continue. At its most basic level, this is a miracle of hospitality.

Jesus goes on to feed a crowd of 5,000 and then another of 4,000, revealing his desire to nourish people both physically and spiritually. He washes the feet of his disciples, institutes the Lord's Supper and, after his resurrection, cooks a fish breakfast for his disciples.

Jesus teaches us what it means to care for each other in the parable of the Good Samaritan, welcomes little children in spite of his disciples' objections and instructs his followers in the nature of hospitality with the words "When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

So, what is truth? In a word, the truth of Jesus is "hospitality. It's embracing all people with God's love and grace.

"Many of Jesus' miracles are worked for outsiders, writes historian Garry Wills in his book What Jesus Meant. "But the greatest category has to do with people who are unclean, with whom observant Jews are to have no dealings ” with lepers, with prostitutes, with the crippled, with the reviled, with the uncircumcised, or with those made unclean by their illness.

The miracles of Jesus are targeted to teach lessons about the kingdom of God, and "one of the main lessons is that people should not be separated into classes of the clean and unclean, the worthy and the unworthy, the respectable and the unrespectable. Jesus understands that hospitality is best directed to persons on the margins of society, and this causes him to be criticized repeatedly for eating and drinking with undesirable people. "Look, say his opponents, "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!

The hospitality of Jesus is a powerful hospitality, one that stands up to opposition and abuse. This is not punch-and-cookies hospitality; it is muscular hospitality. Jesus never allows criticism to disrupt his table fellowship with those who need to hear his message. When the Pharisees ask why Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, he says, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. He calls out to a notorious tax collector named Zacchaeus and invites himself to dinner, saying, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus enters into the lives of people who are on the margins of society, struggling with hunger, shame, disease and homelessness. He does this out of deep compassion for them, but also because he shares their experience ” we should never forget that Jesus himself appears to people in the towns and villages of Palestine as a homeless stranger, with no place to lay his head.

In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus says that anyone who feeds the hungry and welcomes strangers is really feeding and welcoming him, he is not kidding ” he knows this deprivation firsthand. So if we are going to model our ministries on the ministry of Jesus, we need to enter into the lives of our distressed neighbors and practice hospitality in the same way that Jesus did.

So, what is truth? It is to practice the hospitality of Jesus, and to welcome all people with God's love and grace. Remember ” the truth is not an idea; it is a way of life. Jesus says, "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

We act on this truth when we welcome strangers into our services of worship, when we shelter the homeless on cold winter nights, when we eat intergenerational meals together at church and when we gather in private homes for small-group prayer and Bible study.

The truth of Christianity is a welcoming way of life, following the Christ who is the way, the truth and the life.

Let's belong to this truth.

Nov.15, 2015

"Sacrifice, Sanctification and a Footstool" Hebrews 10:11-25

On the face of it, this passage is an argument to people still beholden to the sacrifices of old ” literal sacrifices: the slaughter, as if for food, of ritually perfect animals ” sheep, goats, doves ” upon the altar in the temple, and offering them to God as an appeasement for offenses against him. This was a vital consideration back in the days of the early church, just separating from its Jewish roots and trying to find its own identity and voice. But what shall we make of this today?

What shall we make of this today is the very question raised by this letter to the Hebrews. The faithful back then ” many of them Jewish in background ” wanted to know where they stood in relation to those rituals of former times. The question became especially vital when the temple was destroyed by Roman armies in A.D. 70. When that occurred, it was as if the ground of faith had been ripped out from under them. With the temple gone and the sacrifices offered there offered no more, what puts us in a right relationship with God?

And our question today ” still ” is, where do we stand in relation to ritual? What shall we make of our own "sacrifices, our liturgy, our religious practices, especially in this day in which being "spiritual but not religious is offered as a substitute for church; in these days when science is claimed to have superseded church, ritual and all religion? This letter to the Hebrews engages these questions today as it engaged those more primal questions from so long ago.

Let it be said at the outset that these words can in no way be seen as an argument that Jewish life and faith have been done away with or "superseded. Granted, the temple in Jerusalem has been gone for millennia. The literal sacrifices made there do not ” cannot ” apply. Nevertheless, the Jewish faith lives on, and that faith's contemporary persuasions of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist in their own way confront the absence of temple sacrifice. It is beyond the scope of this message to critique or engage them. And it is not for us to do so. Our purpose here today is to understand how the work of Christ ” Christ's sacrifice ” operates in the lives of those who are faithful to him, removing from our lives the stain and effect of the dark side of the human condition and putting us in a right relationship with God.

Jesus Christ's saving work is presented in this text as happening in three ways: Christ's sacrifice (v. 12); his ascension to the right hand of God where he waits for his "enemies to be made into a "footstool for his feet (vv. 12-13); and his "perfect[ing] for all time those who are sanctified (v. 14).

Christ's "sacrifice: Jesus Christ, the rabbi from Nazareth, be he "wisdom teacher or "sacrifice for sin, the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world or our primary "moral influence” any way one looks at him ” what he offered in the end was a sacrifice. He suffered and died one of the most excruciating deaths imaginable. Preacher to his people, he was rejected by the leaders of his people and handed over to the occupying power of the day, the Roman Empire. That empire in its own right viewed him as politically suspect and a threat. That empire killed him by crucifixion ” a means of execution reserved for slaves and traitors.

Fairly early on in his ministry, Jesus knew that all of this was coming. Yet he continued resolutely on his march to Jerusalem despite this cruel insight. What he did cannot be seen as anything other than a sacrifice, no matter how one might attempt to define it theologically.

Our question is, did this sacrifice "do or accomplish anything? Did anything change as a result of this sacrifice? Or was it simply a tragic end to an idealistic ministry, a hopeless end to his proclamation of hope? What the Letter to the Hebrews tells us is that in Christ's sacrifice, God was working all along to bring about, once and for all, the hoped-for result of all sacrifice. Christ was not simply a moral example or a reformer of the religion pointing to Yahweh, the one true God. Working upon the world and upon humankind through Christ's sacrifice, God overturned the power and the hold our "dark side has over us, and offered those who believe in him reconciliation through that simple act of faith.

Christ's sacrifice was an act of God, making the human race right with God once and for all time. How did this sacrifice do that? There have been many theories over the course of church history: He was a "sacrifice for sin in the way that the perfect specimens offered on a perfectly set up and administered altar were; or he confronted and defeated the power of death; or he presented himself as a perfect example of faith-in-action. All of these "atonement theories have their passionate adherents and detractors. Suffice it to say here that all that is left for us to do ” the one thing needful ” is, in our own way, to step into that reconciliation and claim it for our own.

The writer of Hebrews speaks of Christ's ascension to the "right hand of God, where he "has been waiting. We have seen that Jesus' very real sacrifice was not simply a tragic end to a hopeful story. Through that sacrifice, reconciliation with God happened once and for all. It is done! "It is finished! Now Christ has ascended, once again to be at one with God. He waits now for his enemies to be made a footstool for his feet.

Who are these enemies? These enemies are anyone or anything that denies or attempts to overturn this act of reconciliation with God. Yes, these enemies can be wicked people who live as if there were no God (not atheists, per se, but any who place themselves and their pleasure above any other concern for life or neighbor). These enemies could be people, but more often these enemies are tendencies within ourselves, aspects of our own personalities that deny or doubt Christ's work of reconciliation and drive us to work, oft-times frantically and futilely, to effect a reconciliation of our own ” to make our own peace with God that is separate from the peace with God that is shown to us in Christ and offered to us through Christ before we do anything. Christ is with God, in God and of God, waiting for these "enemies to be placed at and under his feet.

This work of making Christ's enemies a "footstool is happening even now. It is happening through the process we call "sanctification. "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. Notice that "are sanctified is present tense. It is something that is happening now and that is ongoing. Those who put their faith and trust in the reconciliation that happened on the cross are in that moment "justified, which is to say put in a right relationship with God. They ” we ” are not "perfected in that moment; we don't, in that moment of faithful acceptance, become perfect as Christ was perfect. That can only happen over a lifetime of healing. We are not perfect yet. But we are getting there. Our sinful tendencies ” our "dark side ” no longer has power over us. It is still there, to be sure, but it does not control us. Through faith in the reconciliation done once and for all by Christ, we are even now being made perfect, even now becoming what Christ is.

So, to quote another powerful letter to a congregation of Jesus' followers, both Jew and Gentile: "What then are we to say about these things? Where do we go from here? The quick and easy and perhaps overly simple answer is ... nowhere! What must we do to be saved? Nothing! We already have been saved, and not only that, but we already are being saved from anything within us or outside of us that would deny that salvation to us.

To paraphrase yet another letter to yet another congregation struggling with faith: God was, already, in Christ, reconciling us, reconciling the entire world, to himself. What must we do to be saved? What must we do to be free of the dank and bony clutch of our dark side? Nothing! Christ's sacrifice was not merely a tragic end to a noble life. On the cross, God met head-on and defeated the power of death. On the cross, God knocks down once for all anything that would stand between us and God.

This, of course, is not to say that we literally do nothing. As we live and move through our day-to-day lives, let us through faith claim for ourselves that work that was done for us, once for all, on the cross. May we do everything that is in our power to align our lives with the life we have seen in the life, death and new life of Jesus Christ.

Nov.1, 2015

"Saints Belong to God" Ps.24:1-10

We've all had days that just didn't go as we had hoped or planned: Your car won't start, so you're late for work and the kids are late for school. When you do get to work, you play catch-up all day because of your late start. Around lunchtime, you get a call from one of the kids saying he left his lunch at home and has no money to buy it at the cafeteria. The project you've been working on for weeks has been scrubbed, and you probably won't get the raise you were expecting. When you get home, the kids are fighting over the latest video game. When you finally sit down to watch your favorite TV show, you hear, "We interrupt this show for an important announcement .... When you get into bed, you think back over the day and say, "My Lord, what a day!

We've all had days that just didn't go as we had hoped or planned, but sometimes the unplanned things are felicitous. For example, while on vacation, you take a wrong turn, get a bit lost and end up discovering a quaint little town filled with charm and great shops. Someone suggests you visit the nearby state park. As you and your family hike through this beautiful place, you can't believe how fortunate you were taking that "wrong turn earlier in the day. After a day filled with good surprises and a renewed closeness with God and with your family, you think back over the day and say, "My Lord, what a day!

The author of Psalm 24, traditionally considered to be King David, had, I think, a good "My Lord, what a day! kind of experience that led him to compose this psalm. Tradition tells us that Psalm 24 was written in response to the return of the Ark of the Covenant after the Philistines had captured it. Fresh from the victory over the Philistines, David and his men return the ark to its rightful place in the temple and celebrate. In this psalm, David reminds the people how powerful God is and how they should respond to him. That response by God's people is the stuff saints are made of.

David begins this psalm with the affirmation "The earth is the LORD's and all it holds. Not only the earth but also the solar system and the galaxy and the universe ” everything is the Lord's. Everything everywhere belongs to God. God created it all. It is the world and universe that God loves. As Jesus told Nicodemus, "For God so loved the world ....

The earth is the Lord's. It doesn't belong to us. Do we really believe that? Some people pillage the rain forests. Some people pollute the air. Some people treat those God created in his image, human beings, as a commodity to be used, sold, abused and discarded.

The earth does not belong to the evil one. It's easy to slip into despair and think there is no hope for the world: Satan is just too powerful and there is nothing we can do. Or even that Satan is too powerful and there is nothing God can do. No! The earth is the Lord's ... there is hope!

The earth is the Lord's, so all that we have belongs to God as well. Do we really believe that? A quick look on Google for the most expensive house in the United States (as of April 2015) listed a place in Beverly Hills, California, that is selling for a cool $195 million. Will the buyer of that house (and similar ones) say, "This is the Lord's? Or will that person say, "Look what I've got! or "Look what I've made!? It's interesting to hear many church finance people say that the percentage of giving goes down as income goes up.

It takes faith to look beyond our efforts and recognize God's hand in what we do and accomplish. A farmer can look at great crops brought about through his or her planning and hard work. But they also need to acknowledge that God created the seed and God gives growth in the soil and God allows the sun to shine and the rain to fall. A doctor we know has a sign in his office that says, "We dress the wound, but God heals.

Abraham had faith that all he had belonged to God when he offered Lot the choice of land. Moses believed all he had belonged to God when he left everything to confront Pharaoh and to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. And here David, newly anointed king, affirms that everything is the Lord's.

The natural progression of the affirmation "The earth is the LORD's goes from the earth, to all that we have, to us. We are the Lord's. God made us. God loves us. God calls us to be his children. God said it was "very good when he created humankind.

Of course, not long after God pronounced his creation "very good, sin came into the world and human beings began acting as if they were not the Lord's.

After David affirms God as creator and owner of all that is, he goes on to describe who it is that God welcomes into his holy place:

Who may go up to the mountain of the LORD?

Who can stand in his holy place?

The clean of hand and pure of heart,

who has not given his soul to useless things, what is vain.

That sounds daunting, doesn't it? Jesus' command in the Sermon on the Mount, "So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,2 sounds daunting too. But both of these come from the God who made us and who loves us and who equips us to walk in righteousness with him.

David is, in effect, putting out a call for saints in the making. (We're using "saints here in the ordinary sense ” as in Romans 8:27, where it's used in some Bible versions as a term for faithful Christians.) David's call to holy living is clearly a starting point that is common to godly people everywhere ” whether they've been recognized as a saint or not.

David's call is really God's call to all of us to be people of clean hands and pure hearts. This requires self-examination and faithful obedience to God. Clean hands are hands that are not used in wrongdoing. Clean hands are hands driven by a pure heart and busy doing God's will.

God promises to recognize those who serve faithfully: "He will receive blessings from the LORD, and justice from his saving God. Such is the generation that seeks him, that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.

We mentioned earlier that we sometimes have days, good or bad, that don't go as we hoped or planned. In response to those days we sometimes say, "My Lord, what a day! Faithful and obedient followers of Jesus who live with clean hands and a pure heart find they can approach every day expecting to say as the day closes, "My Lord, what a day!

Jenny was a vibrant lady in northern Ohio who had a long list of accomplishments to her credit. She had raised a wonderful family. Widowed in her 40s, she married again and became the mom to three teenagers in addition to her own two children. She worked her way up in a small grocery chain to eventually become CEO of that company. Throughout her life she was a devoted and faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

Jenny developed severe lung problems, the result of years of smoking. She was finally placed on the lung transplant list and was on oxygen 24 hours a day. Her positive attitude and friendliness were contagious. Her faith was evident, and she invested herself in God, the church and the people around her. She eventually received a lung transplant and for the next year and a half lived without the additional oxygen and gave encouragement to people who were suffering still.

Then she found out that cancer had taken hold both in the remaining old lung and in her new lung. My Lord, what a day! But for Jenny, it was part of life. She accepted her condition and prognosis for the short time she had left on earth. She remained faithful to the end. She continued, as long as she could, to encourage and build others up. Her faith remained strong.

Hundreds of people came to the calling hours and funeral. She is missed.

Was she a saint in the making? We don't know. But we do know that she belonged to God ” throughout life and to the very end.

My Lord, what a day!

Oct. 25, 2015

"Lessons in Prayer From an Expert" Mark 10:46-52

If we took a survey this morning, asking that each of us list three areas in our Christian life where we wish we could do better, we'd get a variety of answers. Some would want better ways to apply faith to our family lives, others would want to gain better knowledge of the Bible ” perhaps especially of a particular book of the Bible ” and still others would want to live out our Christian faith within our daily work, or in the world of politics or business. But I predict that one subject would appear on almost everyone's list: we wish we knew better how to pray.

That's surprising, because we've probably heard more sermons on prayer or signed up for more prayer retreats than any other single religious subject. More than that: probably all of us were praying before we could read or write. Some of us remember childhood prayers more readily than a childhood song from Sunday school.

Nevertheless, most of us wish we knew more about prayer. We wish there were some expert who could tell us some secret of prayer or, better yet, someone who was present when a real, verifiable miracle happened.

Well, that's what I've come to offer this morning: an expert; a person who saw a miracle ” in fact, a person to whom the miracle happened. He had been blind, and with a one-sentence prayer, he received his sight. Such a story is worth hearing.

This man's name was Bartimaeus. He was not a preacher or a priest, not a theologian or a biblical scholar. By profession, he was a beggar.

At this point, some of you might smile. "That figures, you say, "because when you pray you feel like a beggar. Maybe that's good training for prayer, just being a beggar. In truth, your kindly humor has a point.

Mind you, it's not that prayer is just a matter of asking God for things. It's a shame that most of us have this impression as to the full meaning of prayer. Prayer is an act of worship. It includes communing with God. One of the best and most important parts of prayer is in learning to listen to God. Still and all, when most of us think about prayer, we think of asking God for things: for health, for help in our work, for ability to get along with people, for blessings on our families ” the list is almost endless. So maybe it's appropriate that we listen to a beggar when we want to learn how to pray. Maybe prayer comes naturally to beggars. If that be so, it is humbling to learn how to pray.

This man, our expert, was a beggar by profession; in the same way others were farmers, tax collectors or proprietors of small businesses, he was a beggar. He worked a certain territory the way a sales person might work a neighborhood. You still see this type of beggar in some parts of the world and in certain areas of some cities in the United States. They know their territory. They learn the techniques of their trade: the best locations, the most appealing approach, the way to win favor rather than rebuke, the way to be seen yet not be obnoxious. They learn the way to be appealing, yet not pitiful, because most people become nervous when they find themselves feeling pity for another human being. If you want to be a beggar by profession, you have to be something of a student in human psychology. Especially, you have to be assertive without being "pushy or aggressive. These subtle distinctions are not easy to learn and surely not easy to master.

This man was a beggar. Personal disaster ” in his case, blindness ” had made it so, and he lived in a culture that provided no other opportunity for such persons. So he was doing the best he could with what he had left. He still had his wits, his personality and the courage to go out on the street every day. And he had a good territory, on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, a road where there was a good amount of foot traffic.

One day he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was coming down his road. We don't know where Bartimaeus had heard about Jesus, but this I can tell you: This man was what today we would call "street smart. He had trained his ears to make up for the limitations of his sight. He listened to passing conversations with an intensity that most of us lack. He read tones of voice the way those with sight read facial expressions. He caught innuendos that others might miss. He read and evaluated gossip that others ignored because he had learned how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

And note an especially important factor: Bartimaeus had become a street theologian. He had heard the street talk, that Jesus was a descendant of the tribe of Judah, and particularly of the family of David. He knew that some people ” we have no idea how many ” thought that Jesus was the Messiah because he came from the family of David. So when Bartimaeus called out to Jesus, he didn't say, "Hey, Mister! Nor did he settle for "Jesus of Nazareth! He dared to call Jesus by his prophetic name: "Jesus, Son of David. Bartimaeus was, in effect, laying a bet on Jesus.

We have no idea how much faith Bartimaeus had. We have no business thinking that he necessarily believed Jesus was the Messiah. Still, it's significant that he used a messianic term to describe him and to call him. Mind you, it's possible ” just possible ” that Bartimaeus had already become a secret believer. Where the Pharisees who might have been so inclined toward Jesus had to count the cost, poor Bartimaeus had little or nothing to lose!

Or perhaps it was just those street smarts we mentioned earlier. Bartimaeus may have thought that the surest way to get Jesus' attention was to identify him audaciously, as the Messiah, the Son of David.

The crowd tried to shout him down. I mention the obvious: that when we say with some earnestness that we're going to pray about a matter, many will answer patronizingly, "It might help, while others might express their amusement that we're relying on prayer. But Bartimaeus wasn't afraid to take that chance. So when the crowds tried to silence the beggar, he refused to be intimidated. We live in a time when people are becoming more "sophisticated in their response to others praying. They may not try to shout us down, as that crowd did with Bartimaeus, but we do need the courage to stand our ground, as he did.

At this point Bartimaeus' prayer was an almost incoherent one. That is, he didn't ask for anything specific. He said, quite simply and to the heart of the matter, "Have mercy on me.

Sometimes when we pray, we hardly know what we should ask for. We aren't sure what the will of God might be. We don't know all the careful theological distinctions; we only know that we need help. There's a phrase from some long-lost piece of poetry: "Just blue, God, just blue. Sometimes we don't know any more than this, that we're just blue, just down-hearted. We hardly know what it is that we need or what we need most. We only know that we need help. In the language of the poor street beggar, we know we need mercy ” in whatever way it is that mercy might be spelled.

I don't know how you might spell mercy, nor do you know what my spelling might be. But know this: Our Lord knows the several spellings of that gracious word. He knows what is on your soul, and you can identify it in your prayer.

In the case of our gospel lesson, Jesus asked Bartimaeus to spell it out. So Bartimaeus told him. How did the beggar spell mercy? Pointing to his poor, shattered eyes, he said it: "That I might see.

And Jesus healed him. We don't know all the details. We are not students of miracles. We don't know all the theology of prayer. But we can know this: When we read the story of Bartimaeus, we read of an expert. He was a beggar by trade, so he wasn't afraid to ask. This is a step of culture and sophistication we need to get past. Then we will dare to speak our prayer, simple and sometimes incoherent as it is. If there is no prayer in our book of prayers, no psalm in the scriptures that fits, let us say that nearly incoherent prayer of the beggar: "Have mercy on me. That is: I need help.

And the Holy Spirit, the great translator of prayers, will help us seek out proper words; God's Spirit may, perhaps, turn our tears or our sighs into prayers. And we will discover, as the beggar did, that we know more about prayer than we realized.

Oct.18, 2015

"Brinksmanship of the Spirit" Mark 10:23-31

We love to domesticate the teachings of Jesus. Jesus is world-renowned as great spiritual guide. Those who seek to follow Jesus as modern-day disciples continue to study and meditate on his words as recorded in the four gospels. Jesus' words can be inspirational. Other times they may bring comfort. Often they challenge the hearers. But there are a few passages that are simply daunting and discomforting, even for his closest followers.

Our reading for today is one such text. It is daunting because it raises the stakes for following Jesus Christ. Becoming a follower of Jesus Christ does not involve merely trying to find and meet some minimum standard nor is it simply a matter of keeping a set of external rules, but rather it involves a radical commitment to the person of Jesus and membership in the new community formed by those whose allegiance is to Jesus. It is discomforting because it asks those who would follow Jesus a tough question: If I were the person who approached Jesus, would I have gone away sad?

In our scripture lesson, Jesus encounters a man seeking eternal life. The man desires to know what must be done to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers by reciting several of the Ten Commandments. The man claims that he has kept all of these from childhood. Jesus responds by calling the man to discipleship. He invites the man by saying, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me. The man is shocked by this response. He leaves the scene in sadness because he had many possessions. Jesus then discusses the encounter with his disciples.

This story raises many questions, especially for those of us who, like the man in the story, have many possessions. Can we be faithful followers of Jesus?

The power of this text is its ability to subvert an approach to religion that may be dubbed "spiritual brinkmanship. "Spiritual brinkmanship places a high value on religion but seeks a respectable spiritual life that fits in seamlessly with one's other commitments in the world. It places the disciple's agenda of "inheriting eternal life above God's agenda of transforming creation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It asks implicitly, "What is the minimum amount of commitment necessary to gain salvation? rather than seeking to live in faithful obedience to God's will in all matters.

The immediate context of Mark 10 is crucial for properly understanding Jesus' encounter with the unnamed man. Immediately before our story, Jesus rebukes his disciples for attempting to hinder small children from drawing near to him. Jesus welcomes the youngsters, blesses them, and declares "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.1 Too often we misread this encounter by waxing on eloquently about the innocence of children or their purity of faith. Instead Jesus is placing a high value on a group whom the wider culture reckoned as "non-persons. Children did not hold the same privileged position that they do in the modern world. In other words, Jesus is declaring here that the kingdom of God is for those of no status. To put it another way, the kingdom is for those who have "nothing to lose and thus embrace its demands wholeheartedly without worrying about what it may cost them.

Following today's reading, we find Jesus in further conversation with his disciples. This time the issue hovers around the issue of greatness. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, boldly ask to sit in positions of power and privilege in Jesus' coming kingdom. This angers the other 10 disciples. Jesus restores order by subverting the conversation. The essence of greatness is not found in positions of power or prestige. Instead, the essence of greatness is servanthood. Those who wish to be first must relinquish power and become the servants of others. Jesus then utters a programmatic verse for understanding his mission and his expectation for those who will follow in his footsteps: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

The last story in Mark 10 narrates the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Despite the orders of those around him to stop calling out to Jesus, Bartimaeus cries out relentlessly until Jesus takes notice of him and heals him. Here again the issue turns on Jesus' subversion of cultural norms by reaching out to another "no account, a blind beggar of no value to the society of the times. Yet, Jesus brings wholeness to this "non-person.

The encounter in our scripture lesson stands in startling contrast in its context. The man is not a "no account but a person of actual material means. Yet, perhaps ironically, he is the only person in this series of stories from Mark 10 to go away without experiencing salvation. The key, however, is the recognition that this result was not inevitable nor was the encounter a mere pretext for Jesus to make a statement against the wealthy. Look carefully at verse 21. Mark declares that Jesus loved the man. This is a profound statement. Everything that happens in this encounter has to be understood in light of Jesus' positive posture toward this inquiring person. Jesus authentically desires for this man to become a disciple and truly experience life as God intended it.

During one worship service, the pastor brought a cross to show to the children. He asked, "What is this? The kids rang out in unison, "It is Jesus' cross. He then explained that Jesus died on the cross, and he concluded by asking, "Why did Jesus die on the cross? A 4-year-old girl, who had not been coached in any way, responded emphatically, "So that we can live!

Is there any better answer than that? Jesus loved the man who approached him to inquire about eternal life. He pointed out his deepest need and invited him to become a disciple, but the man walked away sad. He was interested in eternal life, but not in radically changing his current life. He was interested in spiritual brinkmanship -- that is, he was willing to work around the edges in an attempt to include religion in his daily regimen rather than radically committing himself to Jesus and his mission.

Jesus then turns to his disciples and uses his encounter with the wealthy person as a case study. He declares, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. His astonished disciples reply, "Then who can be saved?

It is easy to miss the force of this question. In the culture of Jesus' day, it was believed that those who possessed material wealth had been blessed by God. It was a foregone conclusion that they would be included in the future kingdom. Jesus had just subverted the disciples' paradigm about the possibility of salvation. If it is difficult for the wealthy to be saved, what about us who are neither wealthy nor powerful? Is there any hope for us?

The answer, of course, is that salvation belongs to God. The stories that surround Jesus' encounter with the wealthy man illustrate that God's kingdom is inclusive of those who desperately need and willingly embrace the life that God alone can provide. It is for those who do not permit anything -- social status, family, wealth, prosperity -- to hinder their commitment to Jesus.

Let's be clear: Jesus is not against any of these. In fact, he suggests in 10:29-30 that his disciples will experience these and more in the kingdom. Jesus is also clear that this life will be wrought with troubles, even persecutions. But the offer is simply this: If you want to experience eternal life, you must come to Jesus and offer yourself without conditions to his mission. God is looking for those who are desperate to receive that which God alone can provide. It is the on-going testimony of the children whom Jesus embraced, the disciples who renounced everything to follow Jesus, and the blind beggar Bartimaeus who made a spectacle of himself that Jesus alone can bring wholeness and unleash us to live a life that truly matters.

Friends, let us embrace fully the invitation of Jesus. Let us discover the true life-altering transformation of offering ourselves wholeheartedly to the God who has reached out to us in Jesus.

Let us conclude with a series of questions to ponder:

· Who do we identify with more in this story: the person of wealth who went away sad or the disciples who gave up everything to follow Jesus?

· What is keeping us from following Jesus?

· What am I afraid to relinquish in order to follow Jesus?

· What if following Jesus were really worth the cost?

October 11, 2015

"An Old Man Reflects" Mark 10;17-22

The sermon today is from the "17th chapter of Mark, which I'm pretty sure you haven't read because it's not in your Bible. Actually, it's not in anyone's Bible, but we preachers sometimes like to imagine "the rest of the story, so think of it in that way.

So this 17th chapter contains part of a journal, the musings of an old man looking back on his life and thinking about the things he's done and lived through. It's interesting for us now because it shows us the thoughts of the man we just heard about in the reading from the 10th chapter of Mark's gospel, 50 years later.

"Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. That's what that rabbi told me. A lot of the things that he'd been saying to people made sense, but of course selling everything I had was too much. I couldn't do that!

I did have considerable wealth. I still do for that matter, and I don't apologize for it. I've worked hard, and it's good to be able to go back to an attractive home, servants, good meals and all the other things that money can buy. And there are all the responsibilities that go with it. Folks who aren't rich usually forget about that. I wouldn't have stayed rich if I hadn't taken care of business.

I know what people think ” that I'm just concerned about myself and don't care about people in need. But that isn't true. I know that God has given me my wealth. I always give my 10 percent the way God's law demands, and I give alms to the poor and things like that. I may not enjoy giving money away ” who does? But I know the law, and I obey it. I think I can say that I'm a good person.

There isn't always a lot of fun in keeping the rules and doing your duty, but I don't let that stop me. I'm not one of those people who just take off from work to do what they want, or who think that life can always be exciting. You have to stick to the routine and do your duty. Making wise investments and looking after my property has taken a lot of my time, but that's part of the responsibility that God gives the rich.

Sometimes it almost seems as though my money owns me instead of the other way around! That's a crazy idea, I know. But all that wealth gets protected and nurtured, and I'm the one who has to see to that. In some ways, it would be easier just to get rid of it. "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor .... But that would be irresponsible.

I have been tempted to do crazy things with my life. Years ago, I even thought about joining the Zealots, those freedom fighters who were attacking the Romans and trying to liberate the Jews and the land of Israel. I really considered that. After all, I, as much as any Jew, wanted the country to be free. But I decided that it didn't make sense to go off to the hills and lose your life fighting against hopeless odds. I didn't see how they could succeed ” and they didn't. The Zealots got killed when the Romans put down the revolt and destroyed Jerusalem.

Still ... the idea of giving up everything for God, even risking your life for the Holy One and his law, was attractive. But it was completely impractical. What kind of world would it be if people didn't count the cost and act responsibly? Giving up my life that way would have been like giving all my money to the poor ” completely unrealistic. I sympathized with the freedom fighters, prayed for them and discreetly gave them some financial help. But I got my money out of the country before the war started and rode it out safely in Alexandria.

And there were those people who lived down by the Dead Sea in Qumran ” the Essenes. They went out into the desert so that they could keep the law to the letter, studying the scriptures, praying and getting ready for the final battle between good and evil. For a while, I thought about joining them, but I would have had to hand over all my wealth to the community. What would have happened to all my customers and suppliers if I'd just dropped everything and gone off to pray? Giving everything up for God sounds impressive, but it just isn't practical. You have to think these things through.

I visited with the Essenes and talked about religion with them. They had some interesting ideas, but I didn't join their community. It looks as if I was right too. If any of those Essenes are still around, they must be pretty disappointed that the Day of the Lord and that final battle haven't come. And, of course, they left it to other people to keep the business of the world running smoothly ” people like me who know their responsibilities.

But I guess as everybody gets older, they think more about what might have been. Sometimes I find myself daydreaming about fighting the Romans at the gates of Jerusalem. I wonder what would have happened if I'd given my life to prayer and studying the scriptures. And since my sons have taken over a lot of the business now, there's more time for wondering and wishing.

You know how sometimes there's a bit of a song you just can't get out of your head? "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. That's the refrain that pops into my mind at odd moments. That's the strangest memory of all.

Because, first of all, it wasn't the kind of thing I usually do ” running up to a traveling preacher and asking what I had to do to have eternal life. I was embarrassed later about kneeling before him and all. But I was feeling pretty religious, and Jesus ” that was his name ” Jesus seemed like a good teacher. He made sense, and I wanted to be sure to get to heaven. I thought I was keeping the commandments well enough, but how can you be sure? Maybe I needed to do something extra.

And he sure told me something extra ” to sell everything, give the money to the poor and follow him! That wasn't playing fair. But the funny thing was that he didn't seem as if he were trying to wreck my life. I think he really cared about me. I could have been one of his disciples. But sell everything? I just couldn't do it.

I already gave a lot to charity. But "everything just didn't make sense. It wouldn't have been safe. You can't just give up your security like that. I had to say "No.

I'm sure Jesus was trying to do the right thing, but he was completely impractical. Preachers don't understand the business world. And I certainly turned out to be right because a few months later, he was arrested and crucified. If I'd followed him, I could have been in big trouble. A person with my responsibilities can't afford to take chances like that.

He's still got followers ” people who think he was the Messiah. I've run into them in odd places. Maybe that's why his words keep coming back to me. Once in awhile you hear about some of those people ” they call them Christians ” being thrown out of a synagogue or getting in trouble with the Romans. Once I saw some of them being herded through a street to prison, and I thought, "That could have been me.

The strange thing is that they didn't look scared. Most of them were just poor people, but from their attitudes, you might have thought that they could get the best lawyers to defend them. They looked as if they were the victors. And I thought, "That could have been me.

I've gotten old and sometimes have these fits of morbid reflection. I get out of breath too easily, and sometimes my chest hurts. But I have a good physician. That's one of the things about being rich ” you can afford the best. And you've got friends and business associates you can depend on when you have money.

"Go, sell what you own, ... then come, follow me. Why do I keep thinking about that? I already made up my mind. Didn't I?

September 20, 2015

"A Crazy, Upside“Down World" Mark 9:30-37

Pablo Picasso is considered one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. He helped develop cubism, one of the most influential of modern painting styles, and later turned to surrealistic figure studies. His works are world-famous and extremely valuable, but let's face it: some of them look as though they were painted by a child.

Picasso himself was aware of this. Late in life, he visited an exhibition of children's drawings and observed, "When I was their age, I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.

Picasso looked at the drawings of children and saw art. Jesus Christ looked at a little child standing among his disciples and saw greatness. It wasn't that Jesus thought the child would grow up to be great; no, he saw greatness in the child right then and there.

The disciples of Jesus were stunned because, to them, children were a nuisance and not much more valuable than a piece of property. Jesus surprised his followers by saying, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. It was as if an art expert were to visit a church preschool class and announce, "All of these crayon drawings are masterpieces ” they deserve to be in the National Gallery of Arts."

Picasso and Jesus saw greatness where others did not. Looking at the artwork and the attitudes of children, they saw qualities that are so often missing in adults. Spontaneity. Trust. Wonder. Absence of self-serving ambition. Curiosity. They saw value in characteristics that many people consider childish and desperately want to outgrow. That's why Jesus insisted, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

Some truths are seen most clearly through the eyes of a child. When Jesus was walking with his disciples through Galilee, he taught them about his death and resurrection, but the disciples "did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. A child, on the other hand, would have asked good childish questions, such as "What do you mean, Jesus? Tell me, tell me! Come on, Jesus, why is this going to happen? But the adult disciples just walked along, nodding, unable to see what was really going on.

Instead of spontaneity, wonder and curiosity, the disciples showed caution, anxiety and concern. They pushed aside the childish qualities that could have helped them and replaced them with adult behaviors that only hurt them.

Look at what happens when they reach Capernaum. "What were you arguing about on the way? asks Jesus. He wants to know what all the chatter had been about, and they are too embarrassed to admit that they have been jockeying for position, arguing with one another about who was the greatest. But Jesus knows their hearts, so he flips their ambitions upside down. He says, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Taking a little child and putting it among them, he says, in effect, "Look at this child's trust, wonder and absence of self-serving ambition. This is the way to me and to my heavenly Father.

The first must be last. The greatest must be a servant. The one who welcomes a child welcomes Jesus. In the crazy, upside-down world of God's heavenly kingdom, "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Normal expectations are flipped on their heads.

Jesus himself led the way by serving people of every background, extending hospitality to tax collectors, sinners and people ” such as children ” who were treated as property. Jesus didn't always follow the rules of the adult world, says Lutheran pastor Barbara Lundblad. "He healed when he wasn't supposed to, touched people he shouldn't have touched and talked about suffering after a wonderful moment of glory. In God's upside-down world, "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And Jesus certainly practiced what he preached.

The kingdom of God seems crazy to many people because it's a place so different from our own world. There are two kinds of wisdom, says the letter of James: earthly wisdom and the wisdom from above. Earthly wisdom includes bitter envy and selfish ambition, and it leads to disorder and wickedness of every kind. Just turn on your television and take a look at Survivor, Real Housewives, The Apprentice or Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

"But the wisdom from above is first pure, says James, "then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. The disciples were not showing this type of wisdom as they walked through Galilee. Instead, their bitter envy and selfish ambition made them candidates for a new reality show: Real Disciples of Galilee. They were caught on camera showing the kind of wisdom that James calls earthly, unspiritual and devilish.

The first must be last: Jesus is uncompromising on this matter. We are challenged to proclaim the crazy, upside-down world of the kingdom of God, and to "show by [our] good [lives] that [our] works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. We are to be servants of all, welcoming others as though we were welcoming Jesus Christ himself. "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, says Jesus to his disciples, "and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Looking through children to see Jesus, and then looking through Jesus to see God ” this is a new lens for us to use, one that has been provided to us by God.

The Christian writer Philip Yancey was preparing for a class on the Sermon on the Mount while watching a U.S. general give his final television briefing on the Gulf War. As he listened, Yancey realized that he was hearing the words of Jesus in reverse. "Blessed are the strong. Blessed are the triumphant in spirit. Blessed are the liberated. Blessed are the conquering soldiers. The exact opposite of the Sermon on the Mount. And yet, Yancey was not critical of the general; he saw him as someone who "embodies perfectly the qualities of strength, leadership, and confidence our world honors.

So what's the point? "The Sermon on the Mount expresses quite plainly that God views this world with different lenses, wrote Yancey. Looking back over the people in his own life who showed the greatest wisdom, Yancey saw a patient at a leprosarium in India, a civil-rights worker in a jail cell, a mother who lost two children to cystic fibrosis, a priest who worked at a home for the severely disabled, a minister who ran a hotel for the homeless. Yancey concluded by saying that he initially pitied such people, then he came to admire them, and finally he envied them. They saw life through a different lens ” the God lens.

To do God's work in the world, Jesus says that the first "must be last of all and servant of all. But that's not the end of the story. When we enter the kingdom of God, we discover that the last actually become first. So maybe it is our current world that is crazy and upside-down, not the kingdom of God.

Christianity can turn us on our heads, but as it does this, it is really setting us right-side up. Our faith can help us look at things through a God lens and live in a way that is full of mercy and good fruits. When we are right-side up, we show respect to little children, knowing that such behavior honors Christ. This includes embracing children who are unwanted, neglected, abused and ignored ... children who are overlooked, taken for granted, uneducated and unloved ... children who are hungry for approval, affirmation, intellectual stimulation and Christian education. If the church would focus only on welcoming the children of the community, it would send a strong message about the values of God's kingdom.

Remember: whoever welcomes a child welcomes Jesus, and whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes God. So if you reach out to children, you are automatically reaching out to God.

Christians who are right-side up see service as ministry, not as volunteer work. They make pledges to the church off the top of their earnings, not the bottom. They show hospitality to strangers, knowing that they might be entertaining angels without knowing it.And they live with spontaneity, wonder and curiosity. In so doing, they discover ” as Pablo Picasso did ” that it can take a lifetime to perfect such childish qualities.

Jesus says that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. That's the way it is in the right-side-up world of God's heavenly kingdom. Nothing crazy here.

Sept. 13, 2015

"The Path to True Greatness"Mark 9:14-29

There is a great story about a man who came down from the hills of Kentucky, all dressed up, and with his Bible under his arm. A friend saw him and said, "Clem, how come you're all gussied up?' Are ye headin' out some place? Clem answered, "I've been a hearin' there's lots doin' in New Orleans. I've been a hearin' there's lots of free-runnin' liquor and lots of gamblin' and a whole lots of them Burlie shows and some pretty wild parties in that thar town I aim to go down thar and find out for myself, first hand.

The friend thought about what Clem had said for a moment, and then asked, "But Clem, why are you carrying your Bible under your arm?

Clem gave this classic response to his friend's question: "Well, if it's as good as they say it is, I might stay over Sunday for church.

Many of us have the same problem Clem from the hills had. We "stay over Sunday after Sunday, we hear the word of God, we go through our prayers and rituals, and for the most part we are sincere about it, but the many New Orleanses we confront out there seem to overwhelm us. And it seems that by the time we get out to the church parking lot, we're back into another world that is rough and tough and tempting -- even if we have our Bible still tucked under our arm.

My friends in Christ, that is just like the gentlemen mentioned in our text from Mark today. As they followed Christ, it seemed like every day was a Sunday. It was a grand and glorious experience to be in his constant presence. This Jesus -- right before their eyes -- had walked on water, cast out more than a few demons, healed many people, and even overcame the Tempter. However, then he began talking about the cross, about suffering and dying, and very quickly they tried to persuade him to "stay over for a month of Sundays. That is when Peter got rebuked for saying, "Far be it that there should be a cross ahead, Master, It was then that Jesus said, in essence, "Get out of my sight, Peter, the Devil has overcome you!

And now, Jesus had confronted them with the reality of what it would mean to follow him a second time. Just after that exchange, they started toward Capernaum when Jesus noticed them talking heatedly about something. When Jesus asked them what, can you believe their response? There was no response, no answer, because they sensed how terribly guilty they were. They were arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Here the Master talks about laying down his life, and his loyal followers are bickering about who's the ˜top dog,' who is Numero Uno!!! Talk about staying over in New Orleans and tucking your Bible under your arm for when the fling is over!

That is when Jesus sat them down yet one more time and started all over again about what it means to follow him. "If anyone wants to be first, he will have to be the last and serve everyone ...

It reminds me of a child. He is corrected numerous times for something he does wrong. As the parent, we feel it's at least three dozen times we have covered the same territory. Maybe it's about taking your shoes off before you come in the house on a muddy day. And lo and behold, after three dozen scoldings and reminders, it's muddy out, and in they trudge, shoes on and muddied to the tops, and they are leav­ing tracks on Mom's light beige carpet, and we roar out "Stop! Stop! Just look at your shoes. We are beside ourselves, but the children? They give you that blank, "Gee, what a grouch you are look, and they are completely oblivious to your protestations. As soon as you scold them the three-dozen and first time for the muddy shoes, their response is, "Tommy said he can jump over bigger mud puddles than I can, and it ain't true. Look at his feet! We both landed in the same spot in the mud. There you are, about to explode, and they are miles away mentally as they stand there on your muddied carpet, arguing about who can jump the farthest.

That is what the disciples were into that day, and the patience of our Lord is a model for all of us. No barking; no shouting, none of the "Why you big jerk! I've told you forty times not to do that! Instead, he sits them down and tells them all over again. "If anyone wants to get their life in order, he will have to care about others first, and be willing to finish last -- with me -- in the race for earthly greatness ... (paraphrase ours).

Jesus Christ was, is and always will be the Very Son of the Living God. That is who he is. What he did in his earthly ministry is a model for all of us. It was by word and by deed that he was the servant of God. In those three years he walked amongst us, he gave his life in service to others; he spent his days and his leisure caring for others. Eventually he laid down that life as a ransom for all - total ser­vanthood.

Have you ever noticed in the Bible records all sorts of earthly, human things about our Lord. It says he ate, he slept, he wept, he got weary, he got angry. But, there is not so much as a word about him being preoccupied with himself. You never hear so much as a hint of him concerned about inflation or high interest rates; not a word about his arthritis or his poor digestion; nothing about his pining away over getting beat out for a parking space or being talked about unfairly or not getting his rightful due. The only time he manifests genuine care and personal concern, is in behalf of others. Oh, be sure, the Bible shows his humanity, but it always comes out in compassion for others.

The rather obvious implications of Jesus' concern for others do not need elaborating. He calls us to the same kind of selflessness and servanthood. But there are some not-so-obvious implications, too.

For example, some of you are being pushed into overtime ¦ more than you or your family can cope with ¦ with the prod that "it's for the company! Well, loyalty is fine, and you should earn your wages, but unless the one who is pushing you to the limits and beyond is doing it for the poor or so he has more to give to worthy charities, FORGET IT!! The bait he is holding out to urge you on is surely not God's kind of bait. Jesus calls us to servanthood, but not so someone else can selfishly line their own pockets!

Furthermore, there are some people, perhaps they are in your own family, who will take all the love and patience you can give. They will be most happy to let you be their servants. Perhaps the most com­mon case of domestic servanthood is mother. However, God does not call her to lay down her life so we can become lazy, slovenly, and selfish because someone will pick up and mop up after us, that's not ser­vanthood, that's abuse!

Even within the church, God does not call us to servanthood because the rest of the congregation has the "let George do it mentality and mind set. We all can cite incidents in the church where people suf­fered burn out -- spiritual and otherwise -- because they could never say "no. And any Pastor who seeks greatness better do it in the manner our Lord did. Namely, "Let him who would be the greatest among you be the servant of the rest. There is no blessing awaiting the cleric who seeks greatness by manipulation, power-plays, and using people to fan his own ego.

When it becomes so difficult, so incredibly difficult to take on the role of a servant, look to Jesus for strength and trust him to reward you. God has his own way of rewarding, be sure of that.

For example, Dr. Karl Menninger of the famous Menninger Clinic, was asked at a symposium on men­tal health what one should do if he feels out of control or feels on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The noted Psychiatrist said, "If you feel a nervous breakdown coming on, lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks to the "wrong side, and find someone in need, and do something for them. The medi­cal sciences are just recently discovering a principle Jesus built into the mechanism of living centuries ago. Recall our Lord saying, "If anyone would find his life, let him lose it for my sake. Just what do you think that means if it is not that servanthood is God's way of making us whole and fulfilled -- in ad­dition to pleasing him?

A man brought his boss home for dinner for the first time. The boss was very blustery, very arrogant, and very dominating! The little boy in the family stared at his father's boss for most of the evening, but did not say anything. Finally, the boss asked the little boy, "Why do you keep looking at me like that, Sonny? The little boy answered, "My daddy says you are a self-made man. The boss beamed with pride and arrogantly reinforced that indeed he was a self-made man. The little boy said, "Well, if you are a self-made man, why on earth did you make yourself like that?

Our Lord Jesus Christ has freed us from being self-made men and women and children with all of the pushing, shoving, conniving, manipulating, dominating, and whatever else goes inevitably with that self-made syndrome. When Jesus says, "Come unto me, all you who labor and are weighed down ... what kind of luggage and baggage we are carrying do you think he was referring to? It was the terrible load of self-righteousness, of the self-made person business. The Pharisees carried the awful load of pleasing God by keeping the law and observing the rules. Jesus Christ has set us free by forgiving us for our sins and failures. He has freed us to find our life by losing it for his sake -- losing it in service to oth­ers! It was by laying down his life for us willingly that we can look to him for life abundant. And re­member how we find that life!!! We find it by losing it for his sake.

September 6, 2015

"A Way Out" Mark 7:14-23

One of the notable movies of 2014 was Universal's The Theory of Everything. The film followed the life of Stephen and Jane Hawking from when they first met in Cambridge in 1964, through Stephen's subsequent academic successes and his increasing disability. He was diagnosed with motor-neuron disease (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) at 21 and was not expected to live past 25. Born in 1942, he is now 73 years old. He uses a motorized wheelchair and "speaks through a computer-driven voice. He was able to find a "way out of the prison his disease and body put him in.

While many people do not have the resources available to Stephen, great advances have been made in helping people live and deal with, and even conquer, the confines placed on them by disease, impairment or accident. We live in a truly remarkable world!

Of course, many others still struggle with the limitations of life. Trapped in situations of birth, disease, accident or prisons of their own making, they face each day with little or no hope. How can things ever get better for them? "I never get a break is a phrase many have repeated throughout their life.

In our scripture today, we see Jesus face-to-face with a man whose life could be summed up in six words: no sound, no voice, no hope. Jesus was traveling near the country of the Gerasenes, where he had previously healed a demoniac. That man had "[begun] to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.Now the people brought another man in need of help to Jesus. He was deaf and had an "impediment in his speech, possibly the result of being deaf.

No sound, no voice, no hope ” it really is an accurate description of this man. It must have been very frustrating for him. Throughout his life, he knew something of what he was missing. He saw other people having conversations, but he could not enter in. Surely he had tried to enter in ” and just as surely he had been rebuffed time after time. When he was a child, did other children make fun of him? It's not much of a stretch to imagine that. When, as an adult, he tried to speak, did the people around him not even attempt to understand? Were they embarrassed for him? Or were they embarrassed because of him?

It must have been terribly hard for him. There is nothing to suggest that his mind was not right. Yet he could not adequately express his thoughts and emotions. Like a stroke victim whose voice has been affected, he knew what he wanted to say, but there was no way for him to get it out.

We really don't know why Jesus was even there that day. One commentator says, "The geography is difficult ... Most of the attempts that have been made to account for this long journey are speculative and unsatisfactory. We cannot do more that surmise that Jesus may thus have tried to gain the necessary seclusion for the instruction of the Twelve. Regardless, Jesus was there, and this man was brought to him. The people begged Jesus to lay his hand on him.

Jesus never met a person in need he didn't love! No matter why Jesus took the circuitous route that led him there that day, his agenda quickly switched to the man standing before him. Taking him away from the crowd, Jesus "put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ... ˜Be opened.' And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

Jesus charged the people to tell no one, but how could they not tell that news? Life was forever changed for the man who had known only deafness, muteness and frustration. Jesus had come and given him a way out of his hopelessness. Can you imagine how much his life changed? He could enter into conversations. He could tell the people who mattered to him just how much he loved them, and he could hear "I love you too. He could get a normal job. Everything was new and filled with hope.

The members of the crowd had all witnessed the man in his healed state, and the more Jesus ordered them to be silent, the more zealously they proclaimed it. "He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.

It's good to know Jesus healed a deaf and mute man 2,000 years ago. It tells us something about Jesus' compassion and power. But the gospels were not written primarily as history books based on the life of Jesus. The gospels were written, as John says in his account, so that people "may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [they] may have life in his name.That puts the events recorded in all the gospels in a different light. Each writer chose what to include in his book for a purpose.

Beyond recounting history, Mark had a reason for telling about the man whom Jesus healed. Perhaps Mark knew that people find themselves with no sound, no voice and no hope for a variety of reasons. Indeed Mark had experienced a time when he was in a panic and had no hope. Many Bible commentators believe Mark was referring to himself when he wrote (in Mark 14) about a "certain young man who was following Jesus in Gethsemane. "[The soldiers] caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

What about you ... or your spouse ... or child ... or friend ... or co-worker? Have you ever found yourself with no answers, nothing to say (or no one to listen) and/or no hope? Has an accident or disease attacked your body? Or have you experience a financial setback or disaster? Is your marriage falling to pieces? Are you trapped by sin? Are you struggling with addictions? Just about all of us have experienced times of fear and pain that we had not anticipated and for which we were not prepared.

In those times, it is incredibly helpful and comforting to know that long ago, Jesus healed a man in a hopeless situation. It's also good to see that Jesus did not always heal in the same way. In this situation, Jesus actually touched the man's affected body. In another healing, Jesus just said a word ("Take your mat and go to your home) and in yet another case ” that of the centurion's servant ” he healed long-distance. In other words, Jesus dealt with each person in a way that was right for him or her.

Jesus stands ready to help us in all of life. He is not surprised or intimidated by your situation. In fact, Jesus voluntarily put himself in what seemed to all a hopeless situation when he went to the cross. His victory over death made certain that there is hope for the world and that there is hope for you.

A woman in Cleveland, Ohio, was asked by her church to share her journey from hopelessness to hope as she dealt for decades with mental illness. She wrote her testimony anonymously and asked the church to make it available to its members and anyone else who might benefit from what she had to say. Hear a portion of her words of faith, even in the midst of adversity and continued struggle: "What a glorious Father we share! In amazement I set to this task before me. Laughing with joy and trying to convince myself that this moment is real, I am awake. A place in time that in my darkest hours, I could never have imagined! I have been invited to share some encouraging words with my brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer as I do with mental illness ....

She closes her testimony saying, "My heavenly Father had carried me so far. When I was blinded by illness, he protected me. Whenever I cried out for help he comforted. Even in my worst moments, I knew that I had been blessed far more than I ever deserved. ... My friend, do not give up. Pray, search your heart, seek wise council and press on.

There is a way out for you too. Jesus loves you and wants to bring healing and wholeness to your life. Thanks be to God!

August 30, 2015

"The Doctrine of So“and“So Made Me" Mark 7:14-23

"You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition, Jesus said to certain people "back then.

Well, we do the same thing ourselves. How we love our human traditions! How we love our opinions! How we love our rituals! Some of these have become so ingrained in our thinking and in our culture that they have taken on the force of a law of God.

"The Lord helps those who help themselves! How often have we heard that? How often have we said it? But "The Lord helps those who help themselves is not found anywhere in the Bible. It sounds like a pronouncement from God, but it is not. It's something that we human beings dreamed up to justify our hardness of heart toward people in genuine human need. There may be a grain of truth to it, but it's not a word from the Lord. It's a human doctrine that's sometimes passed off as a commandment from God.

Other examples of this can be found in rituals that become widespread in our culture, such that if you violate them, it's as if you're striking God. One that quickly comes to my mind ” for those of us of a certain age, anyway ” is the one about men not wearing hats inside buildings. Back in the old days, if you were a man, there were two things about hats: First, you did not go out of doors without a hat on your head, and second, the moment you set foot indoors, that hat had better come off!

The rule has its origin in Bible passages rooted in first-century customs. But even into recent times, for women the hat rules were the exact opposite from what they were for men: Women, to be considered "proper, had to wear some kind of a little hat-like thingie pinned to their hair when they were indoors.

Nobody got mad when women suddenly decided not to wear hats indoors anymore, but boy, people sure got worked up about men wearing their hats indoors! That was a human-made ritual that had the force of some kind of divine law. If you wore a hat indoors, it somehow meant that you were some kind of ill-mannered, unsavory lout ” you were "unclean, in exactly the sense that is talked about in today's Bible passage.

But what does it mean, really, if someone wears a hat indoors? What does it mean if a man wears a hat during worship? Does it mean that he is deliberately and intentionally disrespecting God? No ” not necessarily, anyway. If someone is wearing a hat during worship, it means that he's wearing a hat during worship! That is what it means! That is all it means. If he disrespects God, humankind, Mom, apple pie, your sister or whatever else, he did all that before he ever put his hat on, and he still will even if we can browbeat him into taking it off.

This brings us ” finally! ” to the topic of this sermon: The doctrine of so-and-so made me, and if you don't understand the phrase yet, stick with me. Understanding will come, but here's the place to start: Jesus says, "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.

Jesus isn't talking about basic hygiene. He's talking about human-made rituals that have come down from generation to generation, and have lost whatever meaning they might have had. He is saying, to an audience of very ritual-oriented religious people, that eating without going through a tremendously complex, obsessive-compulsive hand-washing and utensil-washing ritual ” a ritual that has nothing whatsoever to do with actual cleanliness ” will not "defile you.

Now, this hits us today just as hard as it did those Pharisees back then, especially the second half of the equation: "there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile. How often have we heard it said: So-and-so makes me so angry! How often have we said that ourselves? How often have we heard it said, "I saw that babe walking along and her hemline was up here! and her neckline was down there! and she was looking so fine that she just made me want to ....

There once was a guy who made the mistake of telling a philosophy professor that Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was "boring. The philosophy professor looked at him and said, "The material is not boring, my friend. If the material were boring, Immanuel Kant would have been just as bored by it as you are. And he was not. If the material were boring, I would be just as bored by it as you are. And I am not. I find this material profoundly interesting. No, my friend. Boredom is something you bring to the material with you. The material does not make you bored. You come to the material with a prior assumption that it will be boring. Your boredom comes from inside you. It is yours, not Kant's.

Nothing outside of you "makes you angry. So-and-so doesn't "make you angry. So-and-so is just being who he is. So-and-so is just saying what she thinks. Your anger is yours. Something in your past, some behavior you've learned, some human-made opinion or doctrine or rule that you learned somewhere along your life journey has told you that you must respond with anger to that particular attitude or opinion or statement or personality type. And you've been blindly doing that for so long you think it's just natural. But it's not. That anger is yours. It comes from inside you, somewhere, somehow. Nobody, nothing, gives it to you. It's yours, and you can assert control over it ” if you are willing to do the hard spiritual, prayerful work it requires.

That sexy young thing out there isn't "making you drool. She or he ” we do hear the same kind of talk from women and girls too ” that sexy young thing isn't "making you hot; she's not seducing you or enticing you or doing anything to you. She is just being herself! You, my friend, have been programmed. You've been brainwashed by our culture into thinking that you have to respond in such a way to a playmate-of-the-month type of physique ” whatever that is!

When you find yourself saying "This is so boring! ” stop. Stop and look at that. This may be especially helpful to those of you of the more youthful persuasion as you start school again. You find yourself saying that this stuff is soooo boring, so useless, but ” stop and look at that! Where is this "boring coming from? Whose is it? Where, exactly, is this "boring? Is it in the book? Or is it in me? Who says this has to be "boring?

All of this is hard to do, but it's really hard to do when you're angry! But try to pull back and look at that anger. Where is it coming from? Whose is it? Who says you "have to be angry at this particular time, in this particular place? What is this that has so much control over your life that it can actually make you angry, without any apparent choice on your part? Jesus said, "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile. This applies now, today, just as much as it did back then. And it's just as hard to hear now as it was back then.

Sexual attraction can get you in as much trouble as anger ever did. If you should find yourself going there, know that you may be allowing yourself to be led around by the nose by unmet needs, perhaps, or maybe just plain old cultural conditioning and good old-fashioned brainwashing. Who says we have to go there when we see a person of the opposite sex who takes simple pride in her or his appearance? Who? Who or what is it that we're allowing to have such control over our lives?

We all go through life carrying this doctrine around with us. It weighs approximately 573.08 pounds. We go through life, like "Oh my! I've got this 500-pound load on my back! I'm soooo tired and overburdened! I'm bored! And I'm angry! And that babe over there has got me so hot and bothered and she doesn't even know I exist and she's making me feel so bad ” or maybe she was just as bothered as I am and now I've got responsibilities and my boss makes me hate my job and this ... load ... is ... just ... killing me!

Why don't you put it down and walk away from it?

But you can't, of course.

The Bible says God put us on earth to suffer.

No, that's being sarcastic, of course. The Bible doesn't say any such thing. What some of the characters in the Bible have to go through ” Job comes to mind ” might make it look like something like that, but ¦ no. God did not place us on earth for that. Suffering is just part of life; it is not some implacable, immovable, biblically mandated imperative. Neither is anger. Neither is sexual attraction. Neither is boredom. There is nothing, Jesus is saying, outside of us that makes us do or feel any such thing. It starts from in here, inside the human heart, inside our own reactions, our own conditioning, inside our own learned responses to things. Nothing outside of you defiles you; the defilement comes, nine times out of 10, from how you react to what's outside. Try that understanding on, next time you are confronted with anger or boredom or lust or greed or whatever.

August 16, 2015

"Free Smells" John 6:51-69

Bread is a staple in the diet of just about every culture. Whether it is a thick loaf in Italy, a long thin baguette in France, a pocket of pita in Greece, a flat tortilla in Mexico, unleavened matzo in Israel or any of the other variations around the world, we all seem to enjoy bread. While bread can be a special treat ” many cultures have celebration breads baked almost exclusively for holidays ” it is more often an ordinary means by which we receive some of the nutrition we need every day.

No matter the variety, few things are as good as a warm loaf of bread. We are drawn to restaurants that serve baskets of great bread before the meal comes. Some of us will go out of our way to find that little restaurant that uses bread as bowls in which to serve their soup or chili. Others will make an extra stop at a favorite bakery to treat their families to a loaf of really good bread.

Many of us are so deeply drawn to bread that just the smell of it baking will have us salivating like Pavlov's dogs. Some supermarkets capitalize on this by putting fresh, warm bread near the entrance to encourage us to grab a loaf as we pass by. Realtors sometimes advise home sellers to bake bread before a showing, filling the house with the aroma and supposedly enticing buyers. Jimmy Johns, a large sandwich chain that brags about their bread, has neon signs in the windows of their stores offering "free smells. The aroma of baking bread beckons us.

In today's gospel lesson Jesus says, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. For some of us, when we read that, our minds go to the Lord's Supper. We think about how we receive Jesus' body and blood in the Eucharist. Certainly, Jesus' words in this reading foreshadow the meal he will later institute with his disciples.

Alternatively, we may assume Jesus was talking about how we can feed on him by performing spiritual disciplines like daily devotions, Bible reading and prayer, which sustain our spiritual lives. This too is a portion of what Jesus is alluding to when he says we must eat of him.

But both of those understandings are private and personal. We come to the communion table alone, with thoughts of our sinfulness and the sacrifice Jesus made for our forgiveness. Many of us perform our daily devotions, Bible study and prayer in a quiet spot at the beginning or the end of our day, when we can be alone with God.

But bread is meant to be shared.

The day after feeding 5,000 people by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus has again drawn a crowd of people, who, he says, have come for more bread. Mixed into the crowd are some of the religious leaders who pop up from time to time in the gospels to object to Jesus and his message. These have a problem with Jesus' claim that he is "the living bread that came down from heaven. They want to know how Jesus could say he has come down from heaven; some have known him since childhood ” they know his parents. In their zeal to discredit Jesus, they have missed the larger point.

Jesus' use of the phrase "bread that came down from heaven is an allusion to the manna the Israelites received from God during their journey in the wilderness after being freed from slavery in Egypt. The book of Exodus tells us that for those 40 years, they lived on "bread from heaven” manna.

While wandering in the wilderness, the people needed regular reminders that God was with them. They had begun to question Moses, to doubt their faith in him and God, because they were hungry and felt lost and confused. So God gave them bread that would not only sustain them but would serve as a reminder that God was right there with them, through that incredibly difficult journey.

In Jesus' day, the people again needed that kind of reminder. Life was very hard under the Roman authorities, and many were wondering about God's presence. You and I and all those in our community also need that reminder, especially when life is difficult.

Jesus' statement, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven, is a reminder of God's presence and provision in the present. This is a message to share.

In the first four books of the New Testament, it is striking how often the writers tell stories about Jesus eating: He eats with his disciples as they travel, with Mary and Martha after teaching. He changes Zacchaeus's life over dinner. He enjoys Sabbath meals with religious leaders, one of which is interrupted by a woman who anoints his head. Even after his resurrection, Jesus is still eating ” cooking fish on the beach.

The gospel writers include these stories because every meal was a statement and celebration of God's presence among us.

God is not far from his people. He had not abandoned the Israelites in Egypt when they were slaves, in the wilderness when they journeyed or in Jerusalem under Roman occupation. And he has not abandoned us in our struggles today. He is here among us, and is coming in fullness in his own time.

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven is a proclamation of God's presence yesterday, today and in the days yet to come.

Years before, during a time of great struggle, when people were going without, struggling to survive and doubting God's provision and presence, God announced through the prophet Isaiah that the time of want would end, that a time of celebration was coming:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

God is coming, Isaiah says, and he is bringing food! We will feast with God. Suffering will be alleviated, and there will be plenty to eat for everyone.

Jesus, referring to himself as manna, reminds the people of God's provision in the wilderness, acknowledges God's presence to meet their need in the now, and announces that the day about which Isaiah prophesied many years before is coming. Jesus was proclaiming that the kingdom of God is here.

Our role as followers of Jesus today is to feast on him in communion and through our private times of Bible study and prayer, but also to offer this bread to others. As theologian N.T. Wright says, "Jesus celebrated the Kingdom by sharing feasts with all sorts of people. So should we. Wright then offers this suggestion: "The next time you come to the Eucharist, bring with you, in mind and heart, someone you know, or know of, or have seen on television, who desperately needs God's bread, literally or metaphorically, today.

This is our call: to offer "free smells of the bread of life baking inside of us. We are to allow the aroma of this bread that has come down from heaven to draw people to the source of life. We are not to keep it to ourselves, but to share it with the hungry, the lonely, the struggling and all who wonder if God is still with us.

Churches and individual Christians continue to make this claim when we serve those around us:

When we donate to a food bank that feeds those in need, the aroma builds.

When we sponsor a child in another country who does not have enough food to eat or clothes to wear, or is unable to afford an education, the aroma builds.

When we volunteer at a soup kitchen, feeding the homeless, the aroma builds.

When we give to have wells dug so people will have access to clean water, the aroma builds.

When we take a casserole to a neighbor recovering from surgery, the aroma builds.

When we travel to help a community rebuild after a disaster or to perform maintenance they cannot do for themselves, the aroma builds.

When we split a pastry at the local coffeehouse with a friend who just needs to talk, the aroma builds.

When we sit down as a family and give thanks for the meal God has provided, the aroma builds.

When we gather around the altar and receive the bread of Holy Communion, bringing others with us in heart and mind, the aroma builds.

"I am the living bread, Jesus says, "that came down from heaven. There is nothing like a good, warm loaf of bread to give us the nourishment we need. But bread is meant to be shared.

Jesus shared bread as a pronouncement of God's presence with his people. We are called to do the same.

God is here! Let the feast continue!

August 9, 2015

"Feasting on God" John 6:35-51

Here we are in the dog days of summer, with high temperatures and long summer days. We are many months away from January 1, New Year's Day, the time when many of us make resolutions for the new year. Can you remember back that far? Did any of you make any resolutions for 2015? How are they going?

If you're like a lot of people, your resolutions didn't last even until the end of January, never mind the end of winter. And all the way into August, a whole eight months? Not very likely.

Many people vow to lose weight as we say goodbye to the old year and enter into the new one with high hopes. We pin up a new calendar with nothing written on it, and we are inspired by what "might be or what "could be in the coming months.

And so it begins: We choose a diet plan. There are so many to choose from these days ” you've probably heard of some of them. All of them promise fast results with little effort.

There is the South Beach diet, which has to do with giving up bread and carbs and eating lots of fruits and vegetables.

The Atkins diet also cuts out breads and carbs and encourages people to eat lots of protein.

The Cave Man (or paleo) diet is similar. You are meant to eat like a hunter-gatherer and focus on proteins and vegetables. Again ” no carbs or bread.

There's even something called the 17-Day diet, which sounds appealing because you can survive almost anything for 17 days, right? Simply give up wheat and sugar and you will get results. The catch is ” if you need to lose more than 10 pounds, you'll need more than 17 days.

The list goes on with numerous variations. But do you hear the pattern? Every eating plan recommends cutting down on carbs and eliminating bread.

That might be a good way to get your body into shape. But today we hear about bread that all of us need ” we need it in great quantities, and we need this bread every day. Jesus says to us, "I am the bread of life. This is an invitation to everyone from the most health-conscious dieter to the fast-food-loving couch potato. It's time to turn to bread ” the bread of life. Jesus invites us to feast on this bread because if we believe, we will have eternal life. And if we receive this bread that is so freely, so generously being offered to us, we will enter into life eternal with the One who has loved us since before time began.

We can, for a while anyway, put aside our concerns about what is literally on our plate at mealtime and listen to Jesus' invitation to feed our souls and nourish our spirits.

Perhaps your New Year's resolution to lose weight and get in shape didn't work out exactly the way that you planned. Here's an invitation from Jesus to focus on a healthy lifestyle for the real part of us that's meant for eternity ” even more important than our physical bodies. Forget the low-carb diet and the effect it has on our bodies for a while. Let's concentrate on our spiritual life instead.

Health food advocates will tell you that the unhealthiest (and often more expensive) food in the grocery store can always be found at eye level. The store designers are catering to our natural tendency not to spend any more effort than necessary. Foods higher in nutrition are placed on a higher or lower shelf, which means that we need to make some effort in order to reach it and claim it for ourselves. Jesus, the bread of life, is available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. But we still need to choose to nourish our souls by listening to his voice. In the same way, we want to avoid taking the easy way out when it comes to feeding our spirit. Instead of reaching for the "low-hanging fruit, we need intentionally to choose spirit-enriching attitudes.

Many of us are starving our spirits in ways that we would never consider doing to our bodies. We all know that our human bodies require both food and water. We're told that we might be able to survive several days with no food but only two or three days without water.

There are records of people surviving extraordinary lengths of time on starvation rations. All of us would like to avoid that, if possible. But how often do we starve our spirits? How often do we ignore the invitation to receive that living bread that is the love and nurturing spirit of Jesus?

We live in a world that is on the move 24/7 ” and even if we don't want to go out to an all-night super-store, we can simply look at our computers or gaze at our smartphones to have the world at our fingertips. We can endlessly fill our minds ” and our time ” with email, Instagram, Twitter, challenging a friend to play Trivia Crack, watching endless cat videos, playing just one more online game, watching movies on demand. Our minds become filled even as we forget to take care of our spirits.

If we imagine our mind and spirit as a bucket waiting to be filled, it becomes clear that there is a limit to how much can go in. We need to be careful how we fill that "bucket. If we focus on regrets, long-held grudges, or pent-up anger, there won't be room for the life-giving voice of God. If we remember every mistake that a friend has made, we forget to appreciate the richness of that friendship. If we fill our minds with sarcasm and criticism, we crowd out grace and forgiveness ” and our relationships will suffer. If our mind is filled with a running tally of times when our feelings were hurt or we felt excluded or things just didn't go our way, we won't be open to the possibility of new life and renewal that God offers.

How will we fill our minds and our spirits? It's important to answer that because we are being offered the bread of life ” and too often, we settle for so much less.

Our souls might be starving. Jesus is inviting us to be well-fed. This is something we need to be intentional about. We need to spend more time with him. We need to leave space in our lives and in our hearts for Jesus.

There are no quick fixes promised.

There is no shortcut to a rich spiritual life.

There is no "app for that.

It can be challenging to see the value in something we can't put our hands on. It can be difficult to turn away from something tangible, like food ” or something virtual, like the Internet ” or something grating, like grudges ” to focus on something spiritual, like the bread of life.

Jesus had his critics from the very beginning. When Jesus invites his listeners to receive this bread of life from heaven, the doubters around him immediately respond by saying, "Who does he think he is? We know his parents. They're not from heaven; they're from Nazareth. These folks are hesitant to place their trust in someone who grew up in an ordinary village. Those negative voices mock what they do not understand. They see only a human man and are unable to imagine more than that.

Jesus tells them that he is "from heaven and that he is also "living bread, offered by God. This is the mystery that is Jesus ” both heaven and earth in one package, one person ” God incarnate, in human form.

That's what is being offered to us. It's up to us to say "yes. We can no longer simply focus on our busy physical lives and ignore the cry of our soul. In Jesus' words this day we're being invited to add some life-giving moments to our lives.

So, how can you feast on this bread of heaven? Here are some suggestions:

Take time to pray every day. Set aside a time ” first thing in the morning or before meals or when you are waiting for in line or before you go to bed.

Read part of the gospels every day. Listen to Jesus' voice. Use that scripture to give thanks to God.

Take a moment and notice the beauty of God's creation. Give thanks to God for being present in this moment.

Fast from food occasionally. The time that we save by not preparing, eating and cleaning up after a meal provides us with time that could be used to pray or simply enjoy being in the presence of God

Jesus is not stingy. Jesus does not limit portion sizes. There is no limit to his love ” you can always ask for more.

Jesus is available at all hours, day and night. And yet somehow our spirits are too often starving. Too often, we feel lonely or forgotten. We feel overwhelmed, as if we cannot face the challenges in front of us. Too often, we feel alone with our grief or our worries.

Our spirits have been running on "empty for too long. Let us turn to the feast that never runs out ” let us say "yes to the Bread of Life.

August 2, 2015

"The Imperishable Gospel: John 6: 20-35

Christmas may seem very far from your minds on this summer day, but I want to begin today by recalling one of the most enduring ” and most ridiculed ” Christmas traditions. It's the holiday confection so many people love to hate: fruitcake.

The humble fruitcake is the butt of a thousand jokes.

"There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, quipped Johnny Carson, "and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.

"Why does fruitcake make the perfect gift? Because the U.S. Postal Service hasn't found a way to damage it.

If you're a fan of David Letterman's Top 10 Lists, you'll like this one: The top 10 uses for holiday fruitcakes:

10. Use slices to balance that wobbly kitchen table.

9. Use instead of sand bags during a hurricane.

8. Send to U.S. Air Force, let troops drop them.

7. Use as railroad ties.

6. Use as speed bumps to foil the neighborhood drag racers.

5. Collect 10 and use them as bowling pins.

4. Use instead of cement shoes.

3. Save for next summer's garage sale.

2. Use slices in next skeet-shooting competition.

1. Two words: pin cushion.

Christmas may seem very far from your minds on this summer day, but I want to begin today by recalling one of the most enduring ” and most ridiculed ” Christmas traditions. It's the holiday confection so many people love to hate: fruitcake.

The humble fruitcake is the butt of a thousand jokes.

"There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, quipped Johnny Carson, "and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.

"Why does fruitcake make the perfect gift? Because the U.S. Postal Service hasn't found a way to damage it.

If you're a fan of David Letterman's Top 10 Lists, you'll like this one: The top 10 uses for holiday fruitcakes:

10. Use slices to balance that wobbly kitchen table.

9. Use instead of sand bags during a hurricane.

8. Send to U.S. Air Force, let troops drop them.

7. Use as railroad ties.

6. Use as speed bumps to foil the neighborhood drag racers.

5. Collect 10 and use them as bowling pins.

4. Use instead of cement shoes.

3. Save for next summer's garage sale.

2. Use slices in next skeet-shooting competition.

1. Two words: pin cushion.

The reason behind these jokes is actually fruitcake's greatest virtue: it keeps for a very long time without refrigeration.

Did you ever hear of that old tradition of newlyweds squirreling away a piece of their wedding cake to eat on their first anniversary for good luck? Nowadays, they stick a slice in the freezer, and a year later, it tastes just awful. How did they ever come up with that tradition in the days before freezers? you may be wondering. Easy. The traditional wedding cake used to be a fruitcake. (True to tradition, Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding cake was a fruitcake.)

"Do not work for the food that perishes, says Jesus, "but for the food that endures for eternal life. (And he's not talking about fruitcake!)

Jesus makes that statement just after he's fed a huge crowd with five barley loaves and two fish. He seems concerned that the members of the crowd ” they of the beaming faces and the growling stomachs ” have, because of the meal, missed his message.

The early missionaries to India used to talk about "rice Christians: people who would show up without fail, eagerly professing their love for Jesus ” whenever rice was being distributed ” but who never darkened the church door at any other time. Maybe Jesus is muttering to himself about "bread-and-fish Christians as he challenges the crowd to seek the food that does not perish!

"I am the bread of life, he tells them. "Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Those words of Jesus would have had quite an impact on the people of his own day: for theirs was a culture that knew no milk in cartons, that never heard of refrigeration or Tupperware or Ziploc bags. In that culture, unless you dried it in the sun or salted it down or winnowed it and stowed it in the granary, you had to eat it right away. Otherwise, it would go bad.

The gathering of food was a deadly serious business to the people of Jesus' time. It occupied most of their time, in fact. If you needed it, or you wanted it, then you grew it yourself ” or you bartered for it in the marketplace and you ate it that very day.

Food that doesn't perish: what nonsense! (Obviously, they'd never heard of fruitcake.) What wonderful, glorious nonsense this Galilean rabbi is speaking!

History, however, will prove this is no nonsense. Although his enemies imagine that by nailing Jesus to a cross they will end his little crusade, they have no concept of the power they will unleash, there on Calvary. Jesus will rise on the third day, and the good news of his victory will eventually echo into every crevice and cranny of the world. The bread of life does not perish.

Joseph Stalin thought he could brush Christianity off, deriding it as an idea whose time had come and gone. When his advisors urged him to maintain good relations with the Vatican, the absolute ruler of all Russia asked in derision, "How many divisions has the pope? When Pope Pius XII heard of this, he issued his own curt response to Stalin: "You can tell my son Joseph he will meet my divisions in heaven!

For all his purges and slave-labor camps, Stalin failed in his bid to eradicate Christianity. In our own time, we have seen his monumental statues come tumbling down, and the cross raised once again atop the onion domes of churches whose doors were once barred shut.

When the communists threw the missionaries out of mainland China, there were many in our country who despaired of the future of Christianity in that land. Many wondered what had become of the millions of Chinese Christians behind the dark cloak of secrecy imposed by Chairman Mao ” until, with détente, the curtain was finally lifted, and it became clear that the church had not only survived, but had grown! True, many once-magnificent sanctuaries are still being used as factories or warehouses, but that doesn't stop the Chinese Christians. They meet in house churches. And their numbers continue to grow.

It was the 16th-century reformer Theodore Beza who once remarked of the church that it is "an anvil that has worn out many a hammer.

Martin Luther King Jr., said a similar thing at the height of the civil rights struggle to the crowd that had marched with him to Montgomery, Alabama, from Selma: "However difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to the earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

"Do not work for the food that perishes, says the Lord, "but for the food that endures for eternal life.

You know, the same is true of the communion bread of which we partake, here in this sanctuary. On one level, there's nothing exceptional about it. Yet on another level, God allows it to be something very special, something exceedingly holy. Truly, this is "food that endures to eternal life.

There once was a teacher whose job was to visit children in a big-city hospital and help them keep up with their lessons. When she was given the name and hospital room number of one particular boy, she first called his regular teacher and learned that his class was studying nouns and verbs.

It wasn't until the visiting teacher got to the door of the boy's room that she discovered he was on the burn unit. She wasn't prepared for the sight of a badly burned little boy, racked with terrible pain. Yet, she had agreed to come, and so she walked into his room and blurted out something about being the boy's teacher, and how she'd come to teach him nouns and verbs.

The grammar lesson did not go well. The patient was uncomfortable. He found it hard to concentrate. As for the teacher, she wondered about the wisdom of putting this critically injured little boy through such an exercise.

The next day, a nurse from the burn unit came up to the teacher and asked, "What on earth did you do to that boy?

The teacher was about to apologize, but the nurse went on, "We've been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. Now he's fighting back, responding to treatment. For whatever reason, he's decided to live.

Later on, after he'd left the hospital, the boy explained. The nurse was right. He'd completely given up hope ” until he saw that teacher. Looking at her as she stood at the foot of his bed, he said to himself, "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and verbs with a dying boy, would they?

The Lord's Supper is like that. On one level, there's nothing exceptional about this bread, any more than there's anything exceptional about a lesson on nouns and verbs. Yet, the wonder of this meal is not what's on the menu, but who's on the guest list. For everyone who comes to this table is a sinner ” invited here by sheer, unmerited grace. The wonder of this meal is that Christ deigns to be our host at all, that he comes to offer us ordinary bread that is ” by some mysterious means we can scarcely comprehend ” at the same time the bread of life, the bread of heaven, the imperishable food that is offered us for no money, and for no price.

Remember, as you receive the sacrament, that this bread is for you ” because you are worth it. You are worth it because the host at this banquet says you are. He has died for all our sins ” and he has invited us, personally, to partake of this bread that endures.

July 26, 2015

"Who Does This Remind You Of?" John 6:1-21

The Creator has come into the world to reclaim and renew creation.

Oh, certainly God has never been absent from the world or uninvolved with what goes on in it. If that were the case, then the world would have ceased to be. Continually, God upholds creation and supplies the needs of creatures. "The eyes of all look to you, the psalmist says, "and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing." Another psalm tells us that God gives "bread to strengthen the human heart.

But many people don't acknowledge the Creator or give him thanks. Even Christians who say a prayer before meals may do it more as a pious tradition than anything else, and don't give any thought to God really being the giver of their food. Through the ages, some have looked to Ba`al or Ceres or other fertility gods and goddesses to supply their needs. Today, perhaps they explain how they get their food and other necessities of life in terms of natural processes ” the solar energy that plants use, their chemical reactions, weather and so forth. Or they just don't think about such matters at all, like other animals.

It's not surprising that deer and bears and sparrows don't reflect on where their food comes from or give thanks for it. God, however, created human beings to be different. We were to know God and to be God's representatives in caring for creation. But we refused ” that's what the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent is about. And because of that refusal, humanity gradually wandered away from God. We didn't trust in God above everything else, we didn't love our neighbors as ourselves, and we didn't do a very good job of caring for creation. Bloodshed, wars, infidelity and environmental devastation were the result.

But when our unfaithfulness had taken us far from God, God did not abandon us to destruction and death.

That is why, in our gospel, a Jewish teacher stands on a hill near the Sea of Galilee, surrounded by several thousand hungry people. Most of them have no food, and there's no place nearby where they can get any. But the teacher's disciples have found a boy who has brought something for dinner. There are five barley loaves ” generally a food of poor people ” and a couple of dried fish. Jesus takes them, gives thanks to the God of Israel and hands these paltry provisions to his disciples to distribute to the crowd. As they do that, there is more and more of the food so that everyone has enough. And we say, "It's a miracle!

Well, all right, we can call it that if we wish. The word "miracle, after all, just means an unusual event that people marvel at. But that's not the word the Gospel of John uses. "When the people saw the sign that [Jesus] had done, they began to say, ˜This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world' (italics added). "Sign is John's word for turning water into wine at Cana, for opening the eyes of a blind man and for other great works that Jesus does.

So think of this action of feeding the multitude like a big neon sign with a flashing arrow pointing to Jesus and words saying, "Who does this remind you of? Who is it who gives "bread to strengthen the human heart? For those who know the scriptures, the answer is obvious: It's the God of Israel, the one who made heaven and earth. This event is not some kind of magic trick but a sign that the Creator of the universe is present and active.

Actually, the Creator of the universe is present and active all the time. The feeding of the multitude is the kind of thing that God is doing in the world every day. God is always providing food for his creatures. In the Lord's Prayer we ask, "Give us this day our daily bread, and if we have any experience of the world at all, we don't expect food to drop out of nowhere onto our plates.

Our bread comes to us because of the planting of seeds; the growth of plants fueled by water, sunlight, air and soil chemicals; and the harvesting and processing of grain by humans. And as people of faith, we should understand God somehow to be working with and through all those processes. That is the picture we're given in the Bible's first creation story, where God does not simply make plants appear in a vacuum. Instead, the Creator commands, "Let the earth put forth vegetation. And every year this same Creator turns the little bit of grain planted in the fields into a lot of grain that becomes our bread. Something similar is true of all our other food.

We don't literally see God at work in these processes, but only the elements ” the grain, the soil and so forth ” that God uses. Luther called these things with which God works "the masks of God because they conceal God from our direct observation. And in an important sense, this hiddenness of God in creation is a gift because it means that we have to find out for ourselves how things in the world function. We have to grow up and not just have all our needs supplied to us like babies in a nursery.

But in the event that we're told of in our text, God takes the mask off. Grains of barley or wheat planted in the earth become a great deal more barley or wheat that is made into bread for our meal. Jesus takes a few loaves of bread in his hands and gives thanks, and it becomes many loaves of bread to feed thousands. It is the same M.O., the same way of working ” a little becomes a great deal. The same God who created the world and is at work in it all the time to sustain life is doing the same thing here in a magnified and more dramatic way.

People sometimes talk about miracles in terms of God "intervening in the world. But what we see in the stories of Jesus' marvelous works aren't invasions of the world by some foreign power but acts of the God who made the world in the beginning. What Jesus does is, of course, surprising, but it is not completely different from things we see every day. The miracles are not violations of the order of nature but extensions of it.

There are indeed stories in the gospels that go beyond anything in common experience. The verses following our text tell of Jesus walking on the sea, and the whole story of Jesus reaches its climax in his resurrection on Easter. These are stories of the new creation, of the renewal of the world pointed to in verses that speak of hope for "a new heaven and a new earth. But this new creation does not mean annihilation of the old world and replacement by something entirely different, but the world's transformation

The story of the feeding of the multitude is then a sign that God was present and active in Jesus. But there is something else in the text that we might not think about. "Then Jesus took the loaves, it says, "and when he had given thanks, he distributed them (italics added). Jesus is God's presence with us, but he is also fully human. And as a human being ” in fact, as what God always meant humanity to be ” he shows us our proper relationship with God. And that proper relationship is to acknowledge God as the Creator and to give thanks and praise to God for the gifts we receive in creation.

Faith in Jesus Christ means faith in our Creator, the source of our life. Through his death and resurrection, he begins the renewal of creation and the renewal of our lives. And for this, we give God thanks and praise.

July 19, 2015

"Prelude to a Miracle" Mark 6:30-44

If we had the time and the setting, we could take a little survey this morning. The question would be "Have you ever seen a miracle? We would need to define "miracle because most of us, if pressed and given time to think (and some of us, on the spur of the moment), would answer something like this: "It might not seem like a miracle to anyone else, but because of when it happened to me and the way everything worked out, I'll always feel it was a miracle. Some of us might hesitate to tell the story because we're afraid others wouldn't understand, but in our own soul, we think that what happened to us was indeed a miracle even if it wouldn't seem that remarkable to others.

Today, however, I'm talking about a miracle big-time: feeding a crowd of 5,000 people with a lunch box that was just enough for one ” and yes, then having baskets of leftovers. This is one of the most wonderful and most baffling of Jesus' miracles.

The miracle itself is not our scripture lesson of the day, but our scripture lesson prepares the way for it. That's why today's homily is titled "Prelude to a Miracle. The story the text tells prepares the way for a miracle. It's a story with excitement, with tragedy, with promise and with disappointment ” and after all of that, a miracle.

Here's what happened. Jesus knew that his disciples needed field experience, on their own. He sent them out, two by two, with strict instructions about how to conduct themselves. They were wonderfully successful: They spoke with authority, they healed the sick and they cast out demons. It was tremendously exciting, and they were anxious to report back to Jesus.

But then they got some tragic news. They learned that John the Baptist, who had prepared the way for Jesus, had been arrested and then executed by King Herod. This was hard on all the disciples, but especially on those who had once been followers of John.

The disciples must have had mixed feelings. They sensed the increasing pressure brought about by John's brutal execution, but they were also high on their own experience of ministry. They had gone out on their own and had done the very things Jesus had done! They could hardly wait to report in.

When they did, they got the very answer they hoped for. Jesus said, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while. They had prayed and probably lobbied for an interlude when they could have some time alone with Jesus. Mind you, they wanted to help people, but the situation seemed to be getting out of control. Mark's gospel tells us that people were constantly coming and going so that Jesus and his disciples couldn't carve out time even to eat. The gospel doesn't give us specifics, but probably some of the disciples said something like, "If it isn't some Gentile with a sick servant, it's a little crowd of ragamuffin children who want to be blessed. We're his chosen team, and we can't get even a quiet mealtime together.

They were right, of course. Napoleon is supposed to have said that an army marches on its stomach; as for disciples, they march on communion with their Lord. No matter how clever they are or how able, they are helpless without private time with him. They had every right to expect time with Jesus ” uninterrupted time. Now Jesus was promising it. It was the best word they'd heard in a very long while. So they took a boat to a deserted place.

Unfortunately, some people saw what they were doing, and the information spread like wildfire. Clever folks figured that they could take a land route and get to the hideaway place before Jesus and the disciples did. Thus, when the disciples arrived, a crowd was already waiting, with all the earmarks that always marked such a crowd. There were the sick, the lonely, the people who felt they had nothing to live for and the people who wanted to see Jesus close up in hopes they might get from him what others had gotten.

It was a huge letdown for the disciples. They knew what Jesus was thinking. It was always this way. They could see it in his eyes. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd, "he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So what did he do? He began to teach them! Mark says that he began to teach them "many things.

That's where the prelude ends. What follows is the miracle. The disciples are common-sense men; they tell Jesus to send the crowds away into the city where they can buy something to eat. Jesus knows that many of these people have no wherewithal to buy anything. "You feed them, he tells his disciples. They explain that all they have is five loaves and two fish. What then follows is the miracle of our Lord's multiplying the nearly-nothing into abundant food for the crowd. A miracle, indeed.

The miracle itself is not part of our lesson today. But the circumstances that led to the miracle are important, and they deserve our attention. First, the disciples wanted to get alone with their Lord. They knew they needed time with God. If we expect to be victorious believers, here is the primary requirement. As it happened, the disciples didn't get what they wanted ” or at least, they didn't get it in the way they expected. They wanted private time with Jesus. Instead, they became parties to a miracle.

God doesn't always answer our requests or our deepest, unspoken longings in the fashion we have in mind. But God never disappoints an earnest soul. The disciples wanted private teaching from Jesus. Instead, they got to sit in on another lesson for the crowd; then they received perhaps 30 seconds or a minute of private instruction: "Meet the needs of the people. They answer, "Impossible! We don't have the money. Jesus counters, "You can because I am with you. That was a short lesson, but a huge one.

I tell you this because you and I ” every one of us ” come upon human need every day. Sometimes it is financial need: literally, feed the hungry. We reply, "I haven't enough. Jesus answers, "Use what you have: your five loaves and two fish. Very often, those who come our way need someone to care, to listen with the heart, to share their burden. We answer, "I'm not a counselor. I don't know how to tell people what to do. In truth, what so many people need is not an expert advisor but a compassionate listener. Most of us, in so many of our times of need, need someone who cares enough to give us five, 10, 15 minutes of time, or even an hour. There is strength to go on when someone cares enough to listen.

That's half of the miracle story: our hunger for God. I don't believe there would have been a miracle that day if the disciples hadn't longed for time alone with their Lord.

The other miracle factor was compassion, beginning with Jesus. Jesus didn't see people for their human attractiveness, but for their need. Whether it was the rich young man who had everything but peace and happiness, or the beggar by the roadside, Jesus saw people for their need. He was moved with compassion, "because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They were poor little lambs who had gone astray.

We're not speaking of pity. Pity tends to look down on people; compassion looks into their heart, their longing. So many of the people you and I know need some miracle in their lives. Often it's little more than the strength to go through another day. Sometimes it's the quieting of the storm that batters their lives. And again, sometimes it's the assurance that someone cares ” really cares. I venture that everyone here has known a time when the sun came back in the sky because someone listened, then shook hands with warmth or embraced you for a moment, and somehow you were "fed for that hour.

I promised that today I would tell you the prelude for a miracle. You'll notice that I didn't talk much about the miracle because the miracle wasn't part of our lesson for the day. And you'll remember that I said earlier that almost all of us have had some "little miracles in our lives that have mattered a very great deal. If you wish to be the agent through whom a miracle may come to someone this week, remember the prelude: We must want to be with our Lord because without that state of soul, we won't be ready for someone's need when we encounter it. And we must have the compassion of Jesus ” a compassion that sees beneath the surface to the empty places in the souls of fellow human beings.

I commend you this day to the ministry of miracles. All of us are needed because the hunger in our world is very great. You and I can be part of a miracle.

July 12, 2015

"Trusting God With the Balance Due" Ephesians 1:3-14

We usually set our sights fairly low for the ways our faith might help us.

We hope attending church will give us enough of a spiritual lift to get through the week. We face stress at work or some problem that fills us with dread. So we go to church hoping that time with God will give us the courage or strength to make it to Friday. We would settle for some small help in relationships as well. If our children argued and fought less, we would welcome the harmony. If our coworkers acted more mature or behaved less competitively or didn't gossip and whine so much, we might look forward to going to the office.

As for harmony in the world, we would take comfort in some small changes. We would like to turn on the TV and not see reports of crime, corruption and vicious atrocities. We would like a closer bond with God, but we don't ask for the moon. We hope that God hears our prayers, takes some notice of us. Often, our hopes for our faith don't seem grandiose. We hope for some small improvements in our situation. We wish for more of a connection with God, and for some comfort. We might find satisfaction in our faith if a few things could improve a little in our lives.

If we expect our faith to do only a few small things for us, we might find the promises of Ephesians too lofty for the real world. Ephesians doesn't hold back. We might settle for a little bit more inner peace, but Ephesians proclaims that God has "blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. Every spiritual blessing? In the heavenly places? We might feel God's touch on our heart every now and then, but we just don't feel every spiritual blessing that stretches up to heaven. We hope for more spiritual strength so we could rise above our temptations and weaknesses. We'd like to cut back some on our vices. But Ephesians tells us that God "chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. Holy and blameless? Before the foundation of the world? Maybe Ephesians just doesn't know us if it thinks we were destined eternally to be holy and blameless!

We wish we understood the Bible a little better, had read more of it and understood God's ways more than we do. Ephesians thinks that God "has made known to us the mystery of his will. The mystery of his will? We sometimes would give anything to know God's will just for ourselves, much less for all of creation. While we would like to feel closer to God, Ephesians says we are like the adopted children in a family. Really? We just don't feel that close to God most of the time. We wish people, especially those around us, could get along a little better. We wish people could stop bickering and fighting and find some small common ground. Ephesians looks for the day when God will "gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Gather up all things? Ephesians thinks we will put aside our animosity, hatred, resentments and grievances to find genuine reconciliation?

We may not know what to do with Ephesians. These promises might seem so majestic, so cosmic in scope that we just can't fit them into our experience of life. We have to live in a world where we aren't holy and blameless. We have to live in a world where everything has not been gathered up in Christ. Ephesians knows that and projects those promises into God's plan for the creation beyond what we can see. God will heal and restore creation beyond history. These promises sound wonderful, and we pray for the faith to trust in them for when they will arrive.

We know we have something to look forward to. We take hope that our weakness, our unfulfilled longing for God's presence and the conflict in the world will not last forever. God's purposes will triumph, even if they seem a long way off. Yet, waiting for these wonderful promises from Ephesians may leave us frustrated. Why must we continue to live in the world as we experience it now? Why can't God gather all things up sooner? Why can't we be holy and blameless sooner?

Ephesians seems to understand that we must wait for these promises. For now, we draw on God's gift of the Holy Spirit.

Ephesians talks in a somewhat unusual way about the Holy Spirit. Other New Testament writers tell us that the Holy Spirit sustains us as we wait for God to bring in full peace and justice in God's time. John says that the Holy Spirit will teach the church and guide the church to truth. Romans says that the Spirit enables us to pray. Ephesians says that the Spirit counts as the "pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people. In God's time, we will inherit the promises of this chapter about creation and ourselves.

If we talk about this concept another way, we might say that the Holy Spirit is the down payment on God's account. The term comes from the business world, connoting a first installment for a debt that one will pay off in the future. This initial payment validates a contract. God has agreed to pay in full the promises made earlier in the chapter. God will overcome the sin in our lives. God will bring reconciliation to the creation. God will teach us the divine will. The Holy Spirit acts as the down payment for the account God will pay in full. We may deeply long for God to pay the balance on the account, but for now, we have the down payment.

When we struggle to grow our faith, we trust that God will pay off the balance on the account, and someday we will experience moral and spiritual strength. We keep going based on the down payment, the pledge. When the world seems determined to blow itself up and the violence never seems to calm down, we trust that someday God will pay off the balance on the account and gather all things up. We keep going based on the down payment of the Holy Spirit. When we can't forgive or feel forgiven, we trust that God will pay off the account in full. For now, we keep going based on the down payment of the Holy Spirit.

Sister Norma Pimentel ministers on the Texas-Mexico border. Sister Norma does simple things like offer food, clothes and cots for sleeping to people in need. She has organized volunteers who fold clothes and distribute toys. She also does the harder ministry of really listening to people's pain. She hears stories that would break the hardest heart: 12-year-old girls on birth-control pills because their mothers just assume they will not be safe as they cross into the United States; entire busloads of immigrants at the mercy of drug lords who hold them hostage. Because of her understanding of ministry, Sister Norma has never spoken out about immigration policy. She is a pastor, not a lobbyist. She ministers to people who need comfort, love, grace, human touch and hope. She offers dignity to those who have experienced only degradation.

Sister Norma may or may not explicitly understand her ministry in the language of Ephesians, but she models how the church might "live for the praise of [Christ's] glory. When we look at how cruelly some people act toward children, we might wonder whether God really will "gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. We might wonder if anyone can really become holy and blameless before God. The picture Ephesians paints seems so far from the way we experience life now, that we have trouble envisioning it. But our efforts to live in faith and to minister to those in need reflect a trust that God will pay the balance in full.

We sustain ourselves and our ministry with the down payment of the Holy Spirit, trusting in Ephesians' words that God will bring it all together. In the business world, a down payment alone is not enough. A businessperson expects subsequent payments. For the church, the down payment keeps us going. When our resources seem to run out, we can draw on the down payment. We can grow our spirits, sustain our ministries, keep our hope and conquer despair with the down payment of the Holy Spirit. We live in a world that operates in defiance of the promises of Ephesians. But we live in the hope and trust that God will make good on those very promises.

July 5, 2015

"God bless our Native Land"

I could amaze you today and deliver a two-word sermon. The title of this service is:
"God Bless Our Native Land." And it would be more than succinct (and fully appropriate) for me to say simply: HE HAS! AMEN! and then move onto the creed. you may have guessed, I'm not going to do that.

But I could. And it would be a fitting sermon. As we celebrate our independence and the birth of our nation, we can look back and certainly see that God has answered this prayer: God has blessed this nation richly! Even as we are embroiled in wars, and even when economic times are not the best, God has blessed this native land and is blessing our nation. We are wealthier than most, stronger than most, happier than most. We have freedom. We strive for equality. Our water is clean. Our grocery stores are full. We have trustworthy allies.

Take a moment in silence, to consider the blessings God has given this nation.

One great blessing that our Lord has given our nation is a firm foundation. In documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, our forebears, with wisdom and foresight, took a vision...a dream, really....and mapped out a way for it to actually work.

If you've ever watched the movie or seen the play 1776, a humorous musical rendition of the historical events and characters that framed the Declaration of Independence, you know the struggle it was to do what no people had ever done befrore--to break from their mother country and form a new nation.

What's interesting, as you watch the tale unfold, is that these people are far from perfect. There are passions..,.emotions....rivalries...egos...jealousies...hatreds, even....and brawls. Greed raises its ugly head more than once. So does hopelessness, drunkenness, regionalism, classism,....and slavery. Martin Luther would have pointed out that the members of the Second Continetal Congress, like all of us, were sinners.

...and saints, too! For despite their very human frailties, they had vision, wisdom, courage (they were committing capital treason, after all!), and the wherewithal to get the thing done. Their discussions, even their arguments, were important ones. They had to get this right. And out of that cauldron of that Philadelphia summer something beautiful was born. The American Eagle was hatched!

James Michener's masterful (and blessedly short) historical novel, entitled "The Legacy", similarly recounts the framing of the Constitution. Again, the cast of characters is broad. We see them with their warts and all. But their accomplishment is astounding--the framework for a system of government that is both strong and pliable, with checks and balances that ensure justice, foster democracy, and prevent tyranny. More than 200 years after its inception, the Constitution still stands as the basic blueprint for democracy world-wide.

What a blessing our God has given our nation by providing such a firm foundation.

Of course, God would know a thing or two about providing firm foundations! He has give his children, the Church, the firm foundation of His Word!

We know from scripture, and how scripture highlights the power of God's Word for the ancient children of Israel. As Moses proclaimed to God's gathered people, the Word of God, the laws and the ordinances, would be the one thing that bound the israelites together, and separated them from the other nations. These laws and ordinances--these words of the Lord--are so important, Moses insists, that the people should "recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." God's Word was the firm foundation for God's nation, Israel.

In his first letter, St. Peter applies the same wisdom to the Church. We are built upon the foundation of God's Word--namely the LIVING Word, Jesus Christ, God's Son. This "Living Stone," says Peter (who was himself renamed ""The Rock" by his Savior) is the solid cornerstone on which we are to build ourselves: "Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: 'See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."

The result? What is built is something new: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy." Built on the foundation of Christ, we are a new race, a new priesthood, a new nation. God's Word is the firm foundation for God's church.

And Jesus makes it even more personal. His words (words which began with the Beautitudes we remembered as this service began) are to be the foundation for our own lives. Built on that rock, we will survive any storm life can throw at us. In fact, we will survive any storm DEATH can throw at us as well. Our Lord, in His death and resurrection, has ensured that! Christ's Word is the firm foundation for YOU..,and for ME...,.everyday.

Of course, to build on it, you should probably KNOW it. Dig into scripture. Study it. Learn it. Memorize passages from it. Enjoy it. As it sinks into your mind, your life will sink roots into it. And none of life's storms will destroy you.

It might be a good idea to grab a copy of the Constitution, as well....and the Declaration of Independence. Read through them. Learn from them. Enjoy them.

And thank God for blessing his people and this native land with something truly special: a firm foundation!

God bless our native land? HE HAS!!! Amen.

June 28, 2015

"Jesus, the Crowd and Organized Religion" Mark 5:21-43

Jesus is back in his home country. He has just returned from a missionary journey to the other side of the sea, where he cast out a legion of demons, eliciting from the denizens of that country consternation and an invitation to leave; they had come to an uneasy peace with those demons and found their ouster unsettling. Immediately on his return, Jesus draws a crowd ” a large crowd ” that hovers over him and dogs his every move. Almost at the same time, he's met by a delegation from the local synagogue. These two ” the Crowd and the Synagogue ” are the main players with whom Jesus interacts in this slice of his ministry life. How he relates to them has much to say about how Jesus relates to us ” all of us ” today.

In the timeline of the story, the Crowd approaches him first ” indeed, that Crowd is all over him before he can get both feet off the boat; it gathers around Jesus, follows him, presses in on him so that he can hardly move. Almost immediately, a second character comes to him: Jairus, the leader of the synagogue. Jairus throws himself at Jesus' feet ” literally. He begs him repeatedly to come and lay hands on his daughter, who is at death's door. Jairus is presented as a leader of the synagogue, the local house of worship. It is interesting to see how Jesus relates to him. Jesus simply goes with him, without any fanfare or unless "you will see signs and wonders you will not believe guilt trips. Jesus just goes. And the Crowd goes with him ” a large crowd, following him ” but not following him in the good sense of the word, just "crowding him, pressing in on him.

The Crowd is the most annoying and obnoxious of the characters in this drama. Yet out of this very Crowd comes a Woman. She is suffering an uncontrolled issue of menstrual bleeding which has plagued her for 12 years. Her bleeding disorder is apparently incurable. We are told that she has spent all she has ” money can't help her. She has been to countless physicians ” science can't help her; doctors can't help her. Indeed, the ministrations of these two powers that figure so prominently then and now, money and science, don't help her at all. Despite the exercise of all the formidable power of these powers, she has only gotten worse.

This Woman comes to Jesus from out of the Crowd. She is an expression and emanation from this very Crowd that, uh, crowds Jesus so ” crowds him, follows him, hangs onto his every word and every move and yet refuses to make a commitment to him or to let go and follow him in the good sense of the word, follow him in the way that committed disciples are expected to do. The Crowd just crowds, without making any commitment or obligation. And yet, out of this very Crowd comes this Woman. She who comes desperately from out of the Crowd, to touch where the Crowd only presses in ” she of the Crowd is without a doubt the most prominent character in this story, aside from Jesus. She gets as many verses in the story as Jesus does. Indeed, this story-within-a-story is completely about the interaction between Jesus and this Woman ” or, perhaps more accurately, this Woman and Jesus; Jesus, in the context of the relationship with the Woman, is just a conduit of power. Power goes through him and out from him and acts upon this other, this Woman, even when he is not consciously aware of the need that is close enough to touch.

Here we have before us a tableau of Jesus and the Crowd, back then. Here we have before us a foreshadowing of the Church and the Crowd, in our day. For the Church is, warts and all, Christ's representative to the aimless, curious, questing, questioning, doubting, loud, confronting Crowd, even today. The Crowd won't touch Jesus, no, not with a 15-foot disinfected barge pole. The Crowd will "crowd, the Crowd will follow along, the Crowd will press in and hem in and hover and look to see what happens next, but it will not touch Jesus ” unless and until that Crowd finds itself in a position like that of this Woman. She is confronted with a need that money and doctors can't fix, a need she knows can be met by no one but Jesus ” a messy, bloody need that completely fouls up life and social relationships.

When something like that happens to the Crowd, the Crowd won't just crowd but will reach out and touch Jesus. "If only I can just snatch hold of a sleeve or a pant leg, I'll be healed ” the Crowd knows that much. And then the Crowd will touch him. It will try to sneak up on Jesus and take what it needs without asking and without acknowledging him, and it will then try to hide within the security and anonymity of its own immensity.

And what the Crowd needs, and knows it needs, pours forth from and through Jesus before he is consciously aware of the situation. However, when it comes to that, Jesus will not let the Crowd get away with that. He stops. He drops everything. Jairus and the Synagogue/Church/Organized Religion can wait. "Who touched me? Who? Who ...? Show yourself! Acknowledge the need! Acknowledge that who I am and what I stand for has met that need as no other power on earth could do!

That is Jesus' relationship with the Crowd. The Woman is the expression of the Crowd's deepest need. She acknowledges that need and just reaches out to make the slightest slip of a touch on the outside of Jesus' clothing ” and she is healed. That deep life-giving need is met. Would the healing have been permanent had the Woman not acknowledged that she had touched him? The story gives us no reason to believe that it wouldn't have. This is how it is, with Jesus and the Crowd. And Jesus ” and the Source of his power ” are, in today's parlance, "okay with that!

Meanwhile, back to Jairus ” remember him? It is not stretching a point too far at all to say that Jairus, the leader of the Synagogue, an element of that day's "organized religion, is a symbol of the Organized Religion so vilified today, and of Organized Religion's deepest need. Organized Religion, like the Woman who came forth from the Crowd, has suffered a mortal wound. Organized Religion finds itself insufficient unto itself. Jairus cannot cure his child, his offspring, his "issue, who is at death's door. Jairus, Organized Religion ” the Church, if you will ” must fall at Jesus' feet, must cry out to Jesus out of its deepest need and ask Jesus into its "home for the healing of its child, its offspring, its future.

Notice the respect that Jesus has for Jairus, this symbol of Organized Religion! He is all but indifferent to the Crowd. The Crowd is just kind of "there. But he goes with Jairus, the leader of the Synagogue, without challenge or qualification. He goes into his home, bringing with him only Jairus, Jairus' wife and three of his own most trusted companions. And Jesus brings with him healing ” the most miraculous healing imaginable or conceivable. He brings this child back from death itself. And he strictly orders that little group of witnesses to tell no one. "No one, he says, "should know this.

What transpires in this little community of past and future religionists is nothing less than new birth, new life. It is indeed special; something that is not ” not at this point, anyway ” meant for that Crowd out there, the Crowd that, in its own context, got its need met too. What has happened in this context of Organized Religion, this context of complete commitment to Christ, Christ's Church, and the One who sent and called forth both, is nothing less than new birth and new life. The future has been dragged out of the very clutches of death and set free.

Who are you in this story? Where do you stand, with regard to Jesus? Are you part of the Crowd? Are you just curious, following along, if not yet ready to "follow in the strict sense of the word? Fine. Keep doing that. After a time, you will see what you do not yet know that you came to see.

Or are you that part of the Crowd that has found itself in the Woman's place? Something has happened, something has gone gravely wrong, and you know, somehow you just know, that Jesus' touch will bring you healing and wholeness? Reach out and touch him. Don't be afraid!

Or are you one of "us ” a devotee and practitioner of Organized Religion, held in sneering contempt by the Crowd, by the world around you, watching your congregation dwindle, your church buildings crumble, your future at death's door? Let us call out to Jesus out of our deepest need! He will accompany us into our home! He will give us the healing that we need. He will bring new life to birth among us!

June 21, 2015

"When Storms Rage" Mark 4:35-41

A little girl was delighted when her mother agreed to let her help with the laundry. In her mind, it meant she was growing up to be a big girl with greater ability, respect and status. But when she tried to haul the basket of heavy clothes upstairs, she had to admit that her strength was insufficient for the task. "Mom, she cried, "I just can't handle this!

Some things in life are just too much for us to handle at any age. Our text today reveals that Jesus has the ability to calm storms that threaten to destroy us. But we don't really understand his power until we go through stormy weather with him.

Storms are unpredictable. They often come unexpectedly, without any warning at all. When the disciples left the shore that evening, everything was fine. Then "a great windstorm arose. The verb "arose suggests that the storm caught them off guard. It only took a few moments for things to go horribly wrong. You might be doing just fine in your Christian life, and suddenly you get hit by a problem you didn't see coming. You can't prepare for every possible trouble that might be headed your way.

Storms shake us up. The words in the original Greek that describe the storm in this passage are mega, which we use to create the word megaphone, and seismos, from which we get the word seismology, the study of earthquakes. The fact that the disciples were frightened tells us it was no small storm. Remember that at least four of the disciples were experienced fishermen. They had seen storms before. But this was an unusually big one that threatened to swamp the boat, sending them into a panic.

Until that moment, they might have supposed that Jesus would preserve them from danger; they were his chosen ones, after all, handpicked to be his disciples. Were they all going to drown before they had really even started their great adventure? How could they be in such a predicament right after they had obeyed the Master's instruction to cross the lake? What they didn't realize is that storms inevitably come to all. They come to the faithful and the unfaithful as part of life; as Jesus said, God "sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Jesus himself was led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tested by Satan and suffered death on the cross, so should those who follow him get a pass when adversities come? Having Jesus along for the ride doesn't mean a trouble-free trip. Followers of Jesus are not exempt from trials. But just knowing that trouble is inevitable isn't much comfort when you're in the middle of a storm. What we need to know is how to get through it!

Look at Jesus, not at the storm. The disciples knew enough to turn to Jesus in a crisis. And there he was, asleep on a pillow! I don't know about you, but if I'm riding in a car and the driver falls asleep at the wheel, I don't exactly feel at ease. In fact, I'm likely to scream at the top of my lungs to wake the driver, or even grab the wheel myself. I imagine that's exactly how the disciples felt. Just when they needed him most, Jesus, exhausted from hours of ministry, seemed oblivious to the hurricane swirling around them. "Don't you care if we perish? they cried.

The question is really ludicrous, considering that Jesus' very presence was proof enough that he cared. After all, in the words of songwriter Dottie Rambo, he had "left the splendor of heaven, knowing his destiny was the lonely hill of Golgotha, there to lay down his life for me. The song's refrain declares: "If that isn't love, the ocean is dry, there's no star in the sky, and the sparrow can't fly ....

But Jesus hadn't been to the cross yet, so the disciples didn't really know how much he cared. Yet how often is that same question on our own lips, even though we know he gave his life for us? A tsunami hits us and we see nothing but the storm. Bible verses can seem like mere words on a page until we discover what they mean in the eye of the hurricane.

Peering through the stinging rain, we see Jesus at the helm of our ship, but we don't comprehend what we see. Why isn't he running around in a panic the way we are? What does he know that we don't?

The very act of sleeping through a storm showed how much Jesus trusted his heavenly Father. He wanted the disciples to have the same trust he expressed in his dying prayer during the worst storm of his life: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

An unmarried woman serving for over 30 years as a missionary in central Europe faces loneliness, self-doubt, a malignant tumor near her brain and radiation, botched surgery on her toe, followed by chronic, excruciating pain, decreased mobility and incapacitating exhaustion that often lands her in bed for extended periods of time. She discovers that every new problem really presents her with the same challenge, just dressed in a new disguise: Would she trust God in this new situation? Each day, she has to choose to trust God, to walk by faith, not by sight; to believe in God's goodness, God's wisdom, God's power, God's sovereignty, God's care when everything around her screams that none of it is true. And as she chooses to commend herself into her Father's hands, he gives her grace to endure.

Sometimes she also catches a glimpse of how God uses even the storms in her life to put her in contact with people hungry to hear the good news she went to Europe to share. She shares it with people like the driver of the taxi she's had to call when using public transportation is too difficult. Or her surgeons who are reading New Testaments she gave them during an appointment. Without the storms in her life, she might never have met these people and had the opportunity to speak to them about Jesus. Would she prefer a pain-free existence? No doubt. But when God gives her insight into the way he can use even her pain, she gives it back to him and says, "Lord, even in this, I will trust you.

It's hard to accept, but some lessons can only be learned in the storms of life, including lessons about who we are and who Jesus is. Storms reveal that, as song "Jesus Loves Me puts it, "we are weak, but [Jesus] is strong. Dilemmas beyond our power and understanding are no problem for God, as the prophet Jeremiah declared: "Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.

If you're going to make it through a storm, it's good to remember that you are not alone. Jesus is with you in your boat. Having Jesus with you is small comfort, though, unless you understand who he is.

Pastor Dean Morgan says that the mega-storm that almost swamped the disciples' boat was like a rabid, uncontrollable mad dog, but when Jesus rebuked it, there was a "mega-calm ” a great peace! When the disciples saw the wind and the waves obey his command ” "Be silent! Be muzzled! ” they marveled, "Who then is this that even the wind and the sea obey him? It is in the storms that we learn who Jesus is. As the angel told Joseph, the child to be born to Mary would fulfill the ancient prophecy of Emmanuel, which means "God with us. That is why, as long as Jesus is in the boat with you, you need "fear no evil, no matter how violent the storm.

Raging storms can obscure our vision of God, but they also include God's invitation to look at Jesus more closely. Who is this man who sleeps through storms unafraid? He's the one who told the disciples before they embarked on their voyage, "Let's go to the other side. He didn't say, "Let's go to the middle of the sea and get caught in a storm and drown. He meant they were going to make it safely to the other side. The shepherd leads his sheep through the valley all the way home to the sheepfold. Unlike a hired helper, he doesn't abandon the flock when the wolf attacks. Of course, Jesus didn't say it would be an easy trip. He didn't say the disciples wouldn't get wet. He didn't say they wouldn't have a scare, a problem in the middle. He just said, "We're going to the other side. And if he said it, they were going to make it.

Paul reminds the Philippians and us that "the one who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. And Jesus says that "whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. In the midst of the storms of this life, we can be assured of our eternal destiny when we entrust ourselves to his care. Therefore we need not fear.

Remember the little girl who couldn't make it up the stairs with the heavy laundry basket? There are times when we need to admit, as she did, that the challenges we face are just too much for us to handle. We need to acknowledge our need for our Father's help and look to Jesus who calms the wind and the waves with one little word. When faced with Jesus' question "Will you trust me in this new situation? may we all answer, "Yes, Lord, even in this, I will trust you!

June 14, 2013

"Unexpected Results" Mark, 4:26-34

Almost 80 years ago, in 1936, a sociologist named Robert Merton developed a theory about "unintended consequences of deliberate acts. He was studying the behavior of people who were trying to cause positive social change. He looked at people who had very good intentions and who spent a great deal of time studying ways to improve important services like education, childcare and health standards. Even though they planned carefully how to change things for the better, they did not always achieve the outcomes they expected. Merton discovered ” not surprisingly, in retrospect ” that people may make deliberate plans but often end up being surprised by the results. It is a little bit like the saying "Life is what happens when you are making other plans. We can't always anticipate the consequences of a particular action.

For example, almost every parent can tell a story about buying a gift for a child and discovering that the child is actually more interested in the box in which the gift arrived rather than the present itself. The parent may have envisioned the child having hours of fun with a particular toy and purchased that toy with that scenario in mind. But ” surprise! ” the toy is put aside in favor of the box. There might still be hours of fun, but it involves climbing in and out and on top of the toy's cardboard packaging. Merton would call this an "unanticipated consequence. It is not necessarily a negative thing ” in fact, it can often be positive ” but it is surprising nonetheless.

Can you think of times when the "best-laid plans do not actually go according to script but still have a positive result? There are many stories about life-changing discoveries that were made by mistake.

In 1928, scientist Alexander Fleming found a strange fungus growing in his unwashed dishes. When he looked at it closely, he discovered that the fungus had killed off all the bacteria surrounding it. This lowly fungus was a building block of penicillin, which changed the course of modern medicine.

In 1941, a Swiss engineer named Georges de Mestral went for a hike. He was annoyed by the burrs that kept sticking to his pants. As he struggled to remove them, he realized that the strength of their "sticking power might be useful. And thus Velcro was born!

A pharmacist named John Pemberton wanted to develop a reliable cure for headaches. He took cola nuts and coca leaves. His assistant mistakenly poured in carbonated water instead of plain water. The result was a sweet drink that might not cure headaches but was very pleasing to the palate. Today we call that drink (minus the coca leaves) "Coca-Cola.

Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who planted seeds and a parable about a mustard seed. We perhaps can conflate the two parables and assume the farmer was hoping to grow a crop of mustard plants that could be used in cooking and baking for months to come. And that did indeed happen ” a large plant grew out of the almost-microscopic mustard seed. If the farmer was knowledgeable about plants, that result, while impressive, was not surprising. The mustard seed is always small, and the resulting plant is usually large. But there was also an unintended outcome ” the beautiful mustard plant, with its large branches and bright yellow flowers, provided a safe home so that the "birds of the air [could] make nests in its shade.

The point of planting the mustard seed was not to provide the birds with a place to build their nests. This was an added, unexpected benefit ” this safe harbor for the birds was a bonus that no one had been looking for. And that is so often the way that God works. We might be so focused on one particular outcome that we don't even notice the other benefits that come from our hard work.

We might call these surprising results "holy serendipity or "God's windfall effect. God multiplies our efforts tenfold or more. We worship a generous, always-giving God. We need to have open eyes and spirits to recognize the blessings that God is placing in our lives, even (or especially) when we are not expecting them. God calls us to be faithful in our work as we endeavor to live as God's people. And God promises to bless our efforts in ways we cannot even envision. The bounty of God's blessings is beyond our imagination.

Jesus' simple parable calls us to step out in faith ” to do what we can ” and then trust that God is working in ways that we may not be able to see, but that are powerful nonetheless. We can offer whatever we have ” even if our faith or our gifts are as small as a mustard seed. We must be willing to take that first step. After all, the mustard seed wouldn't have produced even a tiny shrub if the farmer had not taken the initiative to place it into the soil. We are asked to offer our gifts to God and trust that God will bless our efforts.

There is a story of a farmer who is planning his garden so that he can have the best harvest ever. He plants the seeds, makes sure that there is enough fertilizer and nutrients and is careful about providing the right amount of water. And then he waits. And he worries. He doesn't see anything happening ” no sprouts, no baby leaves emerging from the ground. Now he is getting really concerned. He begins to pace up and down by the rows of earth, mounded up with nothing showing and nothing growing. He talks to the dirt. He coaxes the seeds to grow. He plays music for the hidden seeds. He does a "harvest dance. Still nothing. Exhausted, he lies down by his empty garden and falls asleep. When he awakes, he is thrilled to find row after row of baby plants, pushing their way through the soil and reaching up toward the sun. He jumps up and says, "There! All of that worrying really did the trick!

He forgot, didn't he, that it was not his worrying or his singing or his dancing that caused the seeds to flourish. After he carefully planted the seeds, he was asked to wait, trust and watch.

We are not "in charge of everything ” God calls us to offer and to plant. And then we need to let go and let God do the mysterious, powerful work of God's Spirit. And that can lead to unexpected benefits, a harvest even greater than the one that we imagined.

If you have ever planted a tulip or daffodil bulb in the fall, you know that patience is a prime ingredient of success. It may be months before any growth is seen. We must trust that God is at work behind the scenes. Or imagine a teenage boy who is the shortest in his grade. He might be completely frustrated with his lack of growth, measuring his height every day, hoping to catch up with classmates or perhaps grow taller than his mother and father. But his impatience does not make it happen any faster. All of a sudden, a growth spurt will finally kick in and things will be different.

A similar dynamic can be true inside each one of us and inside the people we care about the most. Sometimes we pray and pray for someone, hoping to witness positive change but with no apparent results. Does that mean God is absent? No, simply that God is working in a way that we cannot yet see.

Jesus says that this is part of the mystery of how God works. Even the farmer in the story, someone who has experienced this miraculous cycle of planting and harvesting year after year, does not understand how the seed actually grows. Jesus says, "The seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The farmer is wise enough to trust that this mysterious growth will take place. Through these seed parables, Jesus asks us to have that same confidence in God's ability to work behind the scenes. We may not be able to see or understand what God is doing in a situation, but the parables call us to trust that the transformational will and power of God are at work.

Even more, the parables call us to plant seeds of hope, faith, forgiveness and new life wherever we live and work. When we place our faith in God, there will be a ripple effect, like a holy "pay it forward. We cannot always know what effect our actions might have, but the farmer and his mustard seed are proof that mighty things can grow from even the smallest seed or action. The parable encourages us to try ” to do our best ” and then to trust God.

We are called to purposeful action ” go ahead and plant the seed. Don't wait for a guaranteed result, but dare to step out in faith. Do the good deed. Pray for that person. Offer to do whatever you can, no matter how small or insignificant that might seem to you. When we plant in good faith, God can surprise us with the results. Our efforts will not be in vain ” and the results may be surprising.

June 7, 2015

"Friends and Foes of Jesus" Mark 3:20-35

"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, said Sun Tzu, the Chinese general and military strategist who lived six centuries before Christ.

"It is from their foes, not their friends, that cities learn the lesson of building high walls, said the ancient Athenian playwright Aristophanes.

"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends, said the 19th-century Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde.

A quick Google search for quotes about friends and foes yields over five million hits. These are just a few, and we could add many of our own. Who among us, for example, hasn't at one time or another mused, "With friends like that, who needs enemies?

The truth is, our list of friends and foes changes from time to time. At times, it may be hard to tell one from the other. In our text for today, we see friends, family and foes of Jesus. These groups share a misunderstanding of both Jesus' identity and his mission. In this text, Jesus also points to another group: his "real family.

After Jesus had chosen his disciples, as Mark reports earlier in this chapter, he went home to Galilee. His reputation followed him there, and soon the crowds gathered to hear him and to see the mighty things he was doing. Jesus' family and friends had seen enough. They went out to "restrain him, for people were saying, ˜He has gone out of his mind.'

This appears to be an intervention on the part of Jesus' family and friends. We've all heard about interventions. We've seen them on Dr. Phil or other TV shows. Someone is in trouble and can't get out of it. Someone is out of control because of drugs or alcohol (or sex or hoarding, etc.), so the family or friends step in to pressure them to get help.

Jesus, they think, has gone out of his mind. Someone suggested this, and now they're all buying into the idea. The crowds have gone to his head. A little fame has changed him, and he can't stop pursuing it.

Or, as was often the case in Jesus' day, anyone considered "out of his mind was thought to be possessed by an evil spirit. If his friends and family thought that, then Jesus certainly needed to get out of the spotlight of the crowds and get help. Interestingly, if Jesus had needed that kind of help, he was exactly the right person to go to, with a kind of "physician, heal thyself request.

The family does not recognize that Jesus is doing the very thing he was sent to do: "... to bring good news to the poor ... to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free ....

So the family and friends wanted to step in, but the crowds were already there, and they could not get him out of the situation.

Mark goes on to record that some religious authorities were also on the scene, scribes who had come from Jerusalem, and they said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons. They accused Jesus of being in league with Satan. While they couldn't deny what he had done in casting out demons, they could come up with an accusation to discredit him.

They simply could not accept or acknowledge that Jesus' power came from God. To do so would show them as impotent leaders who did not have that same power.

While sometimes Jesus didn't answer his critics, here he tells them exactly why their accusations are bogus. "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand ....

Jesus' friends and family may have thought he was insane or delusional ” out of his mind; Jesus' foes thought he was evil. Realize what they said ” that the Son of God was working for Satan. It was this that prompted Jesus to talk about the unforgivable sin. "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.

Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is not verbalizing certain words about the Holy Spirit. Two things seem to be at work in what Jesus says about this unforgivable sin. First, it is clearly related to the accusations the scribes had made about him. To call him, in effect, the Son of Satan is blasphemy. He is the Son of God!

Secondly, this sin is a rejection of the source of salvation ” God himself, through Jesus Christ. It is unforgivable in the same way it would be if you were on a sinking boat miles from shore and rejected the opportunity to get in the lifeboat, thus rejecting the only source of your "salvation.

Much more can be said about this unforgivable sin. Commentators and preachers and theologians have argued their particular take on it for the last 2,000 years. But clearly, Jesus took it very seriously and wanted the church, and us, to do so as well.

In the final paragraph of Mark 3 we hear the rest of the story about Jesus' family. His family members finally get close enough to him to send word through the crowd that they want to see him. "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you, members of the crowd tell him. You'd think that Jesus ” kind and compassionate and loving Jesus ” would recognize his oversight of not including his family in the events of the day. Or that he would excuse himself to go see them. Or that he would send word back to them to reassure them of his sanity.

Rather, Jesus looks at the people gathered around him and asks, "Who are my mother and my brothers? Looking again at those nearby, Jesus says, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Imagine the shock of the people who heard those words. How did his immediate family members react? Mark doesn't tell us, but perhaps Mary was reminded of the time when Jesus was 12 and remained in Jerusalem after the festival of the Passover. When his family found him in the temple talking with the teachers, he said, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father's house? Luke tells us that Mary "treasured all these things in her heart. Maybe she was beginning to understand the incredible gift her son was to the world.

The people listening to Jesus were ... stunned? Perplexed? Wondering what this meant? Again, we don't know ” but we do know that Mark, the evangelist, thought this whole exchange was important enough to include in his short gospel.

We can make the case that the purpose of the Gospel of Mark was to show the true identity of Jesus. The first half of Mark's gospel, up to 8:26, shows Jesus revealing himself to the world, and the second half, 8:27 to the end, shows Jesus focusing on the disciples after Peter's confession: "You are the Messiah. As Mark takes us through Jesus' life and ministry to show who Jesus is, one of the points Mark makes is that Jesus' real family members are those who do the will of God.

That's great news for all of us! We do not have to trace our genealogy to see if we're part of Jesus' family. We are part of the family when we live our lives as followers of Jesus. And because of our salvation, we remain in the family of God by gratefully committing ourselves to doing God's will.

Consider your own family. Whether you were born into it, were adopted into it or married into it, you have a choice about how active to be in the family. It's possible to just turn your back on the family and walk away. But generally, it's far better to gratefully embrace your family and do your part to make the family better. There can be great joy in being an active part of the family.

That's what Jesus is asking us to do. The apostle Paul tells us we are "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. That is, we are sisters and brothers of Jesus. We are part of the family.

So the question for us today is this: How do we live our lives as members of Jesus' family doing the will of God? That's a lifelong question. There's no way anyone can fully answer that for you. Each of us must search our hearts and the scriptures and listen for God's word to us about how we can do this.

What I'm sure of today is this: Jesus has friends who misunderstand him. He has foes who fight against him. He has family on whom he relies to do his will. Friend, foe or family ” do you know who you are?

May 31, 2015

"Missing the Concept, but Getting the Point" John 3:1-17

I owe a lot to my parents. They both helped me in the Christian faith, but each in different ways. My father is a thinker. He is capable of talking about deep religious concepts. So if I wanted something about religion explained, I found it best to ask him. In fact, if I first directed the question to my mother, she'd attempt an explanation, but sooner or later she'd say, "I don't understand all of it either. You better ask your father. I would, and he'd explain, but I didn't always grasp it all.

But I learned about faith from my mother nonetheless, for she modeled Christian patience, love, forgiven, charity and other virtues quite well.

So there were times when I might have missed the concept in explanation, but I got the point anyway in how it was expressed.

Nicodemus visiting Jesus provides an example of someone who has trouble grasping faith's concepts. He is a smart and sophisticated man, one who, it seems, should "get it. He is a Pharisee, and Pharisees were a well-educated group. And Nicodemus isn't just any Pharisee, but a leader among them.

Perhaps he is even one of their better thinkers, for while the Pharisees as a whole opposed Jesus, Nicodemus sees him as a "teacher come from God.

In any case, Nicodemus comes seeking to understand Jesus' message, and right off the bat, Jesus tells him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

"Say what? says Nicodemus. "What does that mean? A second birth while in full maturity was not anything his previous experience had prepared him to understand.

So Jesus, speaking in metaphor, tries again: "I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

But far from helping, that just confuses Nicodemus further, and he admits he is lost. "How can these things be? he exclaims.

Now it's Jesus' turn to express surprise. "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? ... If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

Poor Nicodemus. We can't blame him for being bewildered. What earthly things hadn't he understood? Being born a second time and sired by the Spirit didn't sound like anything of earth he'd ever heard before. Within about four sentences the man was in over his head.

Jesus doesn't give up though, and goes on to align himself with a story Nicodemus surely would know from Jewish history: The serpent of brass, an emblem placed on a pole by Moses and lifted up as a means of healing when the people of Israel and were bitten by actual serpents. "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Well, John doesn't tell us whether Nicodemus finally understood, though the man does show up twice more in John's Gospel. The first is when some Pharisees want to have Jesus arrested, and Nicodemus tries to stop them. He does not actually speak up in Jesus' favor, but at least says that they shouldn't act without giving him a hearing. The second time, I'll tell you about in a few moments.

But let's go back to Nicodemus. Many of us can identify with him. He came, apparently quite sincere about wanting to grow in his faith • the same mood in which many of us come to church. But the discussion with Jesus didn't seem to be taking him any nearer that goal, for the words were forcing him to deal with unfamiliar things, with concepts outside of his frame of reference. He had to struggle to keep up, and he was losing that struggle.

Doesn't that happen to us sometimes? Don't we sometimes go to listen to someone known as a spiritual leader but find ourselves not grasping what the person is saying? Don't we sometimes start to read a book that's supposed to be a spiritual classic but find that it doesn't speak to us? It's not that we are stupid or uninterested, but that like Nicodemus, we may not yet have the necessary frame of reference to connect with the concepts at hand.

Religious leaders have long known this to be an issue, and thus have taught that the spiritual life is more of a journey and less of an arrival point. Nicodemus was on the journey, but he wasn't far enough down the road to make much sense of the concept of rebirth.

Providentially, there are always religious connections available for whatever faith stage we are at.

In one of my seminary classes, for example, we talked about an alternative way of encountering scripture other than just reading it. The idea was to experience it as though we were there. The class instructor had us sit comfortably. That part was easy, because we were sitting in soft, easy chairs. Then he had us close our eyes and imagine that we were in the crowd gathered by the Sea of Galilee the day Jesus fed the 5,000. In a quiet voice, the instructor invited us to "smell the scent of the lake, to "feel the wind blowing across our faces, to "taste the bread that was distributed by the disciples and to "listen to the sound of Jesus' voice.

Well, somewhere in the midst of all that, I got too comfortable and the next thing I knew, we were done. The instructor asked class members to describe what the experience was like for them. The guy next to me raised his hand and said, "I was really getting into it until Simon Peter here, (pointing at me) "started snoring in my ear.

The class had a good laugh at my expense, but of course the point is that spirituality is not just something to understand, but also something to be experienced. There are a lot of people like my mother who might say, "I don't understand all of it, but I find it to be real in my life. Experience has long been included as one of the valid evidences for faith.

Following the idea that spirituality is more a journey than a destination, consider this: The Christian writer Marcus Borg identifies three stages in the journey of faith. There may be more than that, but these three give us a way to think about that journey and evaluate where we are.

The first he calls "pre-critical naiveté. He describes that as basically a childhood state in which we accept whatever the significant people in our lives tell us is true. So when people tell us we should love Jesus, we accept that, even if we don't really know what it means.

Somewhere along the line, however, many of us move into the stage Borg calls "critical thinking, and by that, he doesn't necessarily mean that we all become intellectuals. Rather, it is a stage where we begin to sift through what we learned when we were younger and decide what we can really keep for ourselves and what must be jettisoned. This stage is concerned with facts, reasoning and whether or not something makes sense. Now when we are told that we should love Jesus, we want to know why, what that means and why if someone else says they love Jesus, they don't act better than they do. Some of us never leave this stage.

This is the stage Nicodemus was in. He wanted things explained. Give him facts, explanations that fit his frame of reference, concepts he could nail down. And here comes Jesus talking in metaphorical language and from another frame of reference. Hey, we've been where Nicodemus was, too. And maybe we still are.

But Borg also talks about a third stage, "post-critical naiveté. This is where we revisit the things we heard as children and the things we discarded during critical thinking, but this time to see in them as a different kind of truth. The expression, that we should love Jesus, we begin to realize, means not so much that we have an emotional feeling toward him or that we understand what it all means, as that we make decisions about how we will live based on a larger commitment we've made to God.

Somewhere along the line, Nicodemus apparently moved beyond the "just the facts stage, for the last time we meet him in the Bible is toward the end of John's gospel, after Jesus has been crucified. There, Nicodemus shows up to help Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus. That probably indicates that he has become a believer. He's begun to understand, at least on some level, what being born a second time means.

Here's the thing: We generally need some kind of help to move into this third stage. A nudge of the Holy Spirit, an invitation from someone we trust, an explanation that helps us to see things in a new way • something. But the story of Nicodemus gives us a model. He moved from being a seeker to being a follower, because the teachings of Jesus, even when Nicodemus couldn't understand them all, grabbed his attention. They were beyond what he understood, but something about them drew him to keep listening. And at some point, he discovered a truth in them he had only wished for previously. He may never have totally understood the concept, but eventually he got the point.

I'd like to tell you about Bruce, who in his way, was a Nicodemus. At 45, Bruce was rather late to be entering the ministry, but that's what he was doing. A graduate of MIT, he held over 100 patents for things he had invented. He was an electrical genius. He had been a chief designer for the Cape Canaveral missile computer system, and later designed computers for the submarines and for the Atomic Energy Commission. He lived by facts and reasoning.

Then, as sometimes happens, Bruce discovered something was missing in his life. He drifted into alcoholism and drug abuse, but somewhere in that darkness he met Christ and began to see things in a new way. With God's help, Bruce battled and overcame his addictions and eventually entered seminary.

But the way he had lived had taken its toll. While in seminary, Bruce had a serious heart attack and went through open-heart surgery, but he returned to school.

Later, he was interviewed for the campus newspaper. Bruce was quoted as saying, "At the age of 45, I'm late on the Lord's bandwagon ... [but] I want more than I can possibly express to serve him well within whatever years he grants for that service. Bruce was a bright enough guy that he didn't have much trouble understanding the metaphorical language the Bible sometimes uses, but it was only when he saw that it connected for him, that there was a truth in it for him, that it changed his life.

Like Nicodemus, at some point Bruce moved from standing outside of faith looking in and being immersed in the faith and enlivened by it.

And so can we. We don't need to wait until we comprehend every concept of Christianity. It's enough to get the point, and that is that Christ is for us.

May 24, 2015

"Overcoming Barriers" Acts 2:1-21

There have been moments in our history when technology appeared to bring us together to share an experience. On February 9, 1964, for example, 73 million Americans gathered around their television sets to watch the Beatles perform live on The Ed Sullivan Show. This event, known in music circles as the beginning of the "British Invasion, was seen by a record television audience at the time ” and had a profound effect on American culture.

On February 28, 1983, it again seemed as if the whole country was watching as a helicopter ascended to reveal the word "Goodbye in stone on the grounds of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the final scene of the television series M*A*S*H. That single episode had an estimated 125 million viewers and broke the record for the highest percentage of homes with televisions tuned in to the same program.

In contrast, on September 29, 2013, the final episode of Breaking Bad, one of the most anticipated television series finales in recent years, had only some 10 million Americans tuned in to see what would happen to Walter White in the end. The finale of How I Met Your Mother was also highly anticipated. But when it aired on March 31, 2014, only 12.9 million Americans tuned in. Certainly those were large audiences, but their ratings pale in comparison to those received by the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, or the final episode of M*A*S*H.

Because we have so many more channel choices today, shared cultural events such as that final episode of M*A*S*H don't happen as easily now. Thus, when we converse around the proverbial water cooler today, we cannot assume most everyone else has seen what we have.

In today's text, we find the disciples in Jerusalem during a festival period. Jewish people from all over the known world have gathered in the city to celebrate the Shavuot, commonly known as the Festival of Weeks because it happens seven weeks (a week of weeks) after Passover. It is also called Pentecost (which literally translates to "50th day) because it occurs on the 50th day after Passover, and the Festival of the First Fruits, because in the Middle East, it is the time when the first agricultural produce of the season is gathered. Historically, Shavuot also commemorates the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Including the disciples, approximately 120 followers of Jesus are in Jerusalem, waiting for what is to happen next. They have just experienced the resurrected Jesus, and some of them, at least, have watched as he ascended to be with the Father. Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem for what the Father had in store for them.

Being good Jewish men and women, they have come together to worship on this holy festival day. During their worship, they are miraculously overcome with the presence of the Holy Spirit, and quite a commotion ensues. There is a rush of a wind and tongues of fire alighting on each of them, and they spill out into the streets and begin to talk in a way that is understood by everyone in the crowd. No matter what language the visitors to Jerusalem speak, they understand what the disciples are saying about Jesus. The first gift of the Holy Spirit ” the first fruits, if you will ” is the ability to do exactly what Jesus had called them to do: proclaim the gospel to everyone.

For a farmer, the first fruits are a sign of what is to come. If the first harvest is of healthy produce, the farmer can reasonably expect a good season of reaping healthy fruits, vegetables and grains. If, on the other hand, the conditions during the growing season have been less than ideal and the first fruits are puny and dry, then one might expect a difficult season to come.

A modern example of first fruits might be a prototype. When a new product or software is being considered, the manufacturer will sometimes let us consumers get a sense of how it will function when it is produced in full. The prototype is often not fully functional, but gives us an idea of that to which we might look forward.

In the world of television, first fruits could correlate to the pilot episode of a new series. From the initial installment, viewers can decide if they want to invest time and effort into getting to know new characters and understanding their predicaments. We get a sense of the style of comedy or drama to be expected in future episodes. Networks decide whether to begin airing a television series based on response to its pilot episode, the first fruits of the labors of the actors, writers, producers and all others involved in making the show.

In their experience of the Holy Spirit during this very special day of Pentecost, the disciples are given a glimpse of what they can expect.

Just a few verses earlier, Jesus left the disciples with these final words: "... you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Wow! This handful of people was charged with telling the whole world about Jesus. How are they going to do that?

It must have seemed impossible. The followers gathered that day were relatively uneducated and mostly from the same part of the world. For the most part, they were blue-collar people ” fishermen and tax collectors ” who spent a great deal of their time just trying to eke out a living. They were not people who knew multiple languages, who understood a variety of cultures. They were not people who had traveled extensively. They were people poorly equipped to tell Jesus' story to the globe.

Then on Shavuot, the Festival of the First Fruits, the Holy Spirit descends and shows them what they might expect going forward. They are given an extraordinary ability to communicate with people far different from themselves. What they say that day is understood by people from that list of nationalities in verses 9-11 that symbolizes the then-known world, including some pretty remote areas.

This is a foreshadowing of what will happen in the years ahead in fulfilling Jesus' call. It wasn't that they would continue to be understood across language barriers in the literal way they were on that Pentecost, but that the Holy Spirit would be at work helping their message bridge cultural and other gaps. Some of Jesus' followers will travel to the corners of the map, proclaim the Gospel and change the world. But on this Pentecost Day, the world comes to them, and everyone understands.

We've already noted that many of our cultural experiences today aren't as broadly shared as in decades past, but we still have more common ground than did those early believers with the cultures around them. That band of Jesus' followers must have wondered how they could possibly fulfill Jesus' call to share the Good News with the whole world. There were so many barriers.

When it comes to sharing the Gospel, we may feel much the same way. We want experts ” those with seminary or Bible-college training ” to tell others about Jesus. We talk ourselves into believing that we are unqualified to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, because we don't know enough about the Bible or the people we meet. Sometimes we convince ourselves it would be better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing, to which we know we are far too prone. Other times we might feel inadequate not only in our preparation for the task, but in our personal spiritual journeys.

The 120 followers of Jesus gathered there that day could have said much the same things. They could have pointed to all the differences. We watch different television shows, read different books, view different news channels and draw different conclusions about the meaning of what happens in the world and how to steer society. We are not a homogenous people.

On that Pentecost Day, though, the disciples were shown that with God's help, communication across barriers could happen.

On some level, it's true that we as a society don't share as many experiences as perhaps we once did. In our ever-more-fragmented world, we find it comfortable to cluster with people who think, look and act much like us. But this is not our call.

On that Shavuot, the disciples may have felt grossly inadequate to be the ones to tell what God had done for the world in Jesus Christ, to fulfill the call Jesus had put on their hearts with his parting words. But they weren't called to be successful; they were called to be faithful and to testify about the power of Jesus Christ to change their lives. The Holy Spirit would take it from there.

The same is true for us. Jesus loves us all, and we need to let the world know. And then we can count on God's Spirit to make the word penetrate to the hearts of those who hear us.

May 17, 2015

"Easter Is for Every Day and the Whole World" John 17:11b-19

If you've looked at the notations for this day, you probably noticed that today is the seventh Sunday of Easter. Perhaps you've given the matter no further thought because many things occupy our minds as we come to the hour of worship. Or perhaps you've looked at it whimsically, thinking that since our secular culture celebrates Christmas for six or eight weeks prior to the holy day, perhaps this is our revenge: we celebrate Easter for weeks after the occasion itself.

Of course, you know there's more to it than that. Our church calendar has a sacred history of its own, and there's meaning in its structure. In some traditions, this season is called "Eastertide. That title says something too. It conveys the feeling that Easter is a veritable tide of influence that carries on for many weeks following. That is, it is illogical and spiritually wrong to celebrate Easter Sunday and then slip back into ordinariness. We need time to "digest the wonder of Easter and to allow its influence to reach some of the hidden places of our thoughts, our prayers and our conduct. We need to ask ourselves this question: How do we continue celebrating Easter?

Today's scripture lesson might easily confuse us. Conventional logic would reason that these Sundays following Easter would make us look more deeply into our Lord's post-resurrection appearances, leading to his commission that we should "go into all the worldwith the message. Instead, our lesson comes not from Easter itself, nor from the days following, but from the evening before Jesus' trial and crucifixion. It is part of his charge to his disciples on Maundy Thursday. He chooses that ominous hour to tell his followers the kind of world they will minister to after he is no longer with them physically ” that is, how they shall live after Easter.

It's not a word of counsel or of warning. Rather, it is a prayer. Specifically, it is our Lord's prayer for his followers in the world in which, for nearly 2,000 years, we have tried to live out our faith. I want particularly for us to talk about one verse in this prayer: when Jesus said to his Father, "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

It's hard to know how the disciples understood Jesus that night, but I'm sure they choked, so to speak, on the word, "world. Their hearts were set on seeing Jesus set up a free Jewish people with their first real king in hundreds of years. I doubt they could wrap their minds and hearts around his reference to the world.

But Jesus knew that he had come to our planet to bring the Father's love to the whole world. At the moment of his prayer, he was coming to the end of this earthly assignment. Within hours, he would be crucified and carried to a tomb. He knew that he had fulfilled the Father's purpose in sending him. Now he was praying that his disciples ” including you and me, centuries later ” would fulfill ours. So he prayed, "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

So today, on the seventh Sunday of Easter, we remind ourselves that Easter is not only a day to celebrate and not only an event to remember, but an assignment ” an assignment that we carry the good news of Jesus Christ into all the world. Jesus set forth the issue in simple, daring language, saying, in effect, "Father, you sent me into the world to do a job. I've done my part, and now I'm sending my followers into the world to finish the work.

You know from reading the New Testament ” especially the book of Acts ” how the followers of Jesus were transformed by his resurrection. When he was arrested and brought to trial, the disciples went into hiding. You can't really blame them. Their leader was being executed as a conspirator against the government, so it was logical that the government would set out to get rid of those who had been closest to him. No wonder they all "deserted him and fled. It wasn't heroic, but it's understandable. Jesus had told them they were to go into all the world with his message. Instead, they were going into hiding.

But what a difference a day can make! Soon these same frightened men and women were standing before a crowd of thousands and telling them that they and their religious leaders had crucified the Lord of glory. When the authorities told them not to mention Jesus' name again, they spoke of him all the more loudly and insistently. They were doing precisely what Jesus had told his Father they would do. Just as the Father had sent Jesus into the world, Jesus had now sent his followers into the world. Starting in Jerusalem, they were telling the whole world about their crucified and resurrected Lord.

You and I are evidence that they did it well. That's why we're here this morning, nearly 2,000 years later, on this seventh Sunday of Easter.

What changed Jesus' followers from a group in hiding to people who challenged the whole world? Just two things: the resurrection of their Lord, and the presence of the Holy Spirit that had now empowered them. Wherever they preached and however they testified, they always included reference to Jesus' resurrection. Their Lord had conquered death; they knew, therefore, that he could conquer anything and everything else, and that he was Lord of the universe and Savior of the world.

This was something for the whole world. It was not a political revolution against the Roman government; it was the story of one who had walked into the jaws of death and emerged victorious, and who had promised them that when their time came to face death, they would have the same victory ” they would know they were going on to eternal life.

This means something for every day of our lives. You and I know that death has so many faces before it comes in its final, physical form. We have to contend with the power of death not only when we face it personally, but also when we go into the valley of the shadow with those we love. We face death during those dark hours when life doesn't seem worth living, when we've lost heart or are desperately lonely, or when we simply can't see our way through. Some people who feel very alone in some area of life also feel that they face death every night. At all such times, Easter tells us that Christ has won the victory over death, and over all of death's nasty messengers.

This means that Easter changes every one of our days. I'm not a crank about our sentimental celebrations of Easter. I remember coloring Easter eggs, first as a child and then as a parent. I like chocolate Easter eggs! I enjoy the special foods that for many of us are part of the tradition of Easter within specific family circles. I love seeing little children in special outfits on Easter Sunday, and to be honest, I even miss the days when women wore a new hat for Easter.

But none of these tell the Easter story. They're fun, and they may bring back lovely memories, but they're not enough. Easter is bigger than any of these ” or all of them put together. Because Easter is more than a day; Easter is a new, wonderful way of life! It is a victory to be experienced any and every day, and we do so by living life with new power and authority. It is too much to compress into one day of the year, no matter how lavish and exciting the celebration might be. And it's too much to keep to ourselves.

E. Stanley Jones, who was a missionary to India but who was, in truth, a missionary to the world, preached that Christ's resurrection means that the worst has been met and conquered, which brings "an ultimate optimism at the heart of things. It was more than a spiritual event. As Dr. Jones put it, the resurrection was "an embodied battle, so the victory is an embodied victory.

Even the loveliest of our Easter music and drama and flower-laden altars is too small for what Easter means, and one day is too short a time to celebrate it. Easter is God's victory over death and therefore the ultimate victory of daily life: every day, everywhere and every how.

That's the victory we hear Jesus declaring on the night before his crucifixion. Looking hell in the face, he reported to his Father, "As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent [my followers] into the world. Our Lord was utterly confident that when Calvary was past and the days in the tomb were ended, his followers would know that the victory beyond all victories had been won, and that they would go into all the world just as he had come into the world.

So, on this seventh Sunday of Easter, you and I go out into our world to live the new life that is in Christ. The life that came at Calvary and at Easter. Life for all the world.

May 10, 2015

"Showing the Love We Are Supposed to Show"  John 15:9-17

We in the church often seem to do love wrong. Perhaps we can start by saying that we consider love the easy part of our faith. When Paul tells us that love summarizes the law, we let out a sigh of relief, thinking that we can dump all that annoying legalism and just love. When Jesus elevates love of God and neighbor to the highest commandment, we just assume he has made our ethical lives simple. We can handle loving one another.

If we look at ourselves honestly, however, we see the problems that pop up. We can make love too sentimental. We can think we show love when we cuddle a baby or take a covered dish to the reception after a funeral. We can show great love to our family and friends in the church, and think that we have fulfilled Jesus' call to love. We can pat ourselves on the back because we think we understand true religion and faith when we see them. Showing our faith in Christ just means practicing love, right?

When we try to push things deeper, we begin to see how our assumptions fall apart. Even just within the church, we find showing love harder than we assumed. We fight with our family and friends, finding reconciliation more painful than we wish. We argue about worship or about raising the budget, and our easy satisfactions about love just fly out the window. Who can expect us to love people when they think wrong?

If we find love difficult to practice, we might notice that the church has always had problems with love. Throughout its history, the church has put more energy into arguing doctrine than practicing love. No one should say that doctrine doesn't matter. Yet the New Testament writers put much effort into convincing us to love one another. Paul wrote the beautiful words in 1 Corinthians 13 that we always read at weddings but which apply much more broadly. John exhorts us so often to love that we almost want to assure him that we get it. Could we actually assume that we should place at least as much importance on love as we do on doctrine?

If the New Testament talks so much about love, what do we learn when we read it? Many Christians know that Greek has more than one word for love. Drawing from classical Greek, the New Testament writers understood that love has many components. They understood the complexity of love. In some cases, we choose to love, and by making that choice, we put away other things. Love makes a commitment and looks past flaws to hold onto that commitment. In contrast, romantic love can intoxicate us.

In English, we do not have the many different words for love. In English, we place adjectives in front of "love to help make distinctions. When we talk about the kind of love that Christians show for one another, we might make a distinction between mutual love and obedient love. We might say that part of our problem in the church arises because we do not understand the distinction. Mutual love might refer to the love we have for people who treat us well and show us love back. We may sometimes have some problems showing that kind of love, but we usually find it easy and satisfying.

Obedient love, however, refers to the love we show each other because Jesus commanded us to love. Obedient love may not flow up easily from within us. In showing obedient love, we love those we find hard to feel warm about, even some who disagree with us. We love those who don't love us back, or don't love us in the way we want.

In our passage for today, Jesus calls for something like what we have described as obedient love. This love flows from God through Jesus to us. God's love both inspires our love and enables our love. When our well dries up, we can draw on the love God has shown us. When our teeth still hurt from the kick we received, we can draw on God's love. When we "abide in Jesus' love, we find a supply of love we didn't know we had.

If we have fallen into the trap of thinking that love comes easily, or if we confuse love with sentimentality, some things about this passage burst those bubbles. The passage comes just after a word from Jesus that helps us understand the kind of love he calls for, and it comes just before another such comment. Within the passage itself, we find a word that lifts love above the kind of tender, hazy thing we often mistake it for.

Just after our passage, Jesus injects an assurance that doesn't sound sentimental at all. Jesus reminds the disciples, "If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. All of the sentimentality about love drains out when we read that. The world showed its hatred to Jesus on the cross. The world has shown its hatred to the church through the centuries with persecution. The world continues to show hatred to the church in some parts of the world yet today. In some places, Christians lose jobs or status because of their faith.

We in the United States do not really face persecution. We live in a pluralistic society that recognizes many faiths. Here, we face not so much hatred as apathy. Some do not take us seriously. In that environment, we can show obedient love that bears fruit, that feeds the hungry and shines God's light into the world's darkness.

A few verses before this passage, Jesus identifies the real problem with showing love. He tells the disciples, "I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. Jesus does not explain in depth what he means by "the ruler of this world. Other parts of the New Testament talk about demons, unclean spirits and Satan. With all of these terms, the New Testament writers tell us that we find ourselves in the midst of a spiritual battle.

In whatever way we understand these words about Satan, demons and "the ruler of this world, we can all agree that the evil in the world is tenacious. We draw back in horror at some of the things people do to each other and at some of the troubles we face. We may not quite understand how the ruler of this world works to influence what goes on in life, but we see that we act as the church in a dangerous, hostile, baffling world. When we show obedient love, we let loose a spiritual force into this hostile environment. We practice an active, powerful love that takes strength and courage to show.

Within the passage itself, we see both the last nail in the coffin of our sentimentality and a third understanding of love. Jesus laid down his life for us. Jesus went beyond mutual love and obedient love to sacrificial love. Jesus answered the hatred of the world and the influence of the ruler of this world with sacrificial love. Jesus did not glorify death or suffering, but by facing head on the evil of the world, he lost his life. His sacrifice inspires gratitude from us. We reach out in love to others, not backing down from the hatred of the world. As did Jesus, we trust in God for the resurrection.

We face a world of hate and violence, a world where evil defies our attempts to eradicate it. Jesus came into the darkness of the world to shine the light. As Jesus prepared to leave this world, he gave these words to his disciples. He called them to love one another. We know now that showing this love does not come easily. Nevertheless, Jesus invited us to abide in his love. His love becomes the oasis to which we can retreat when the world becomes too much for us. His love becomes the well from which we can draw when our love runs out.

If Jesus' words about love in the midst of evil and hate sound strange, the promise he makes sounds even stranger: "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Sandwiched in between Jesus' words about evil and hate we find Jesus' promise of joy. We might find happiness in a number of things, but we find true joy only in the love of God that comes through Jesus. Only that joy lifts us up above the trouble in our lives and the trouble in the world so we can abide with God. Jesus does not promise we will receive what we want. Jesus promises us joy that comes from within.

Let us show love to one another. Let us seek the joy that only Jesus can give.

May 3,2015

"I“Want“a“Bicycle Religion vs. Abide“in“Me Spirituality" John 15:1-8

In the text from John, Jesus is speaking to his most faithful and loyal followers. We might say he is speaking to "The Twelve, except in the Gospel of John, there is no such designation; no singling out and appointing of 12 "apostles for special duty or special service occurs in this gospel. So we should say that Jesus is speaking to people who have committed themselves wholly to him, who have followed him this far.

And "this far is a long way, indeed. Jesus knows he is hours away from a horrible death. He has washed his disciples' feet. He is giving them their final marching orders before he departs this life at the hands of his Roman executioners. "I am the vine, Jesus says to those faithful followers huddled around him, "[and] you are the branches.

Who are the branches? You are ” and "you does not refer to a specifically named 12 limited by time and history. "You refers to committed disciples, however many (or few) they may be, wherever in time or space they may be. "You refers to people who have committed themselves wholeheartedly and without reservation to Jesus and to the life he models and proclaims. This is not guidance for seekers, for the still uncommitted. This is primarily life instruction aimed at the fully decided and committed.

You are the branches, Jesus says. I am the vine. And if you are a branch, you are growing out of Jesus. "My Father, Jesus says ” God, the creator of the heavens and the earth; the only God there is, was or ever will be ” God is the vine grower, the "Farmer in The Message version of this passage.

Who are the "branches? You are ” you who have chosen to follow Jesus closely, to hang on his every word, to graft yourself to him as intimately as a branch grafted onto a tree or a vine so that you draw sustenance from him as a branch does from the trunk or the vine. Have you committed yourself to Christ in that way? Then you are a "branch. This is not a training manual for those who want to become disciples. This is aimed at those who are already committed disciples, as they stand at a crisis moment.

Would you be a "branch grafted onto Jesus the vine? Really, all you can do is say "yes or "no. All you have to do is say "yes or "no. There is no test to take, no training regimen to follow, no application to submit. Does something you cannot quite identify draw you to this Jesus, this rabbi from 2,000 years past who seems somehow alive even today? Say "yes, and you are a branch. It is as simple and as mysterious and as difficult as that. But if you fear making such a commitment at this point ” good! Listen to what comes next!

"I am the vine, Jesus says. "You are the branches ” you, who have committed yourselves completely to me ” you are the branches. And if you are a branch, there is ... not a catch, but an expectation. There is the expectation that you bear fruit. Bear fruit, Jesus says, "or you will be cut off and thrown into the fire.

Ominous sounding, to be sure. Bear fruit or burn, it sounds like. If this is freedom in Christ, the seeker might say, it would be better not to be a branch in the first place! But if I am a branch ... okay, how do I go about bearing fruit? I need to get with it, or I'm going to burn!

Continuing with the vineyard and farming metaphors that would have been so familiar to his audience, Jesus says, basically, "You want to know how to bear fruit? Don't worry about it! I am the vine; you are the branch. If you're going to bear fruit, you have to be pruned, and you already have been pruned. You have already borne fruit.

"You have already been cleansed, Jesus says, in verse 3, and NRSV footnotes tell us that "pruned and "cleansed are essentially the same word. "You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.

You are a branch because you have made that decision to commit yourself to Christ. You are a branch because you responded to that calling or urging from Christ the Word of God that you felt so deeply within you. And so you are here, now, listening to that calling or urging from Christ, calling you to go farther on. You are a branch. You have already borne fruit. You have already been pruned or cleansed. Get ready to bear more fruit! This is not a threat. This is a promise. This is an invitation.

This is not a demand backed by a fiery threat. This is reassurance. We the branches are not being harangued to get out there and start bearing fruit. We the branches are being told that it is not we who bear fruit; it is God in Christ who bears fruit through us. We are already attached to the vine, and apart from the vine, we cannot bear fruit.

We become branches when we decide that, yes, we are going to commit ourselves totally to Jesus. The cleansing or pruning happens as a part of that commitment, as a result of the impact of Jesus' words upon us. Pruning or cleansing by definition implies an outside agent, more powerful than we are: God, the vine-grower, the farmer, acting upon us. We cannot prune ourselves. All we can do is allow ourselves to be pruned. And sometimes, all we can do is acknowledge that, hey, I was pruned already while I was busy doing something else!

"Bear fruit is not ” no, not! ” a harangue to produce if we want to avoid being cut off and thrown in the fire. Indeed, more often than not, our action and our effort is only an expression of ego that is more likely to get in the way of God's continual pruning and cleansing. This cannot be emphasized too much.

If you are a branch, don't worry about bearing fruit to keep from being lopped off and tossed on the fire. Abide in Christ, and the pruning will take care of itself. Abide in Christ, and you will know what you must do; you will know what action you have to take. The result of being pruned for fruit-bearing is not action, however noble or useful or heroic. The result of being pruned is abiding, resting in Christ, and whatever action we take will arise from that. It is an end product. This is not about us taking initiative. God has already taken the initiative. We respond. We allow ourselves to be led by the urging in us of the Spirit of God.

Are you already a branch? Don't worry about what fruit you must bear or what action you must take or which deeds you must do to maintain your branch status and avoid being cut off. You are already part of that great body of Christ. Abide in him, and what you must do will become an expression of the joy you have already found by being part of Christ's presence in the world.

Are you not yet a branch? Are you holding back from making that decision to let yourself be taken up and taken into the vine that is Christ? Fear not! Respond to that urging that is already happening within you! Let go of your resistance, and let yourself be one with Christ, God's Word! There is nothing to fear. There is nothing to do. Just be one with him!

"I am the vine, Jesus says. "You are the branches. Abide in me.

Abide in Christ. Live in Christ. Draw sustenance from him as a branch does from the trunk of a tree. This leads to that so-often-misunderstood verse 7: "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This verse is the great proof-text for I-want-a-bicycle religion, and for the equal and opposite contempt for religion by those who would reduce Christian life and faith to no more than juvenile wishful thinking, the childish hope that the great Sugar Daddy in the sky will give us whatever we want if we only obey!

It should go without saying that it's not as simple as that. None of this is about me and what I want or you and what you want. This passage, as should be clear by now, is not about grasping and demanding; it is about letting go. It is not about asserting and taking; it is about abiding. If you abide in Christ and his words, his teaching, his life, abide in you, you will want nothing apart from him.

Perhaps needless to say, there is good news and bad news here. This is death for the ego that wants and clings. It is eternal life to the true self that finds its life in God-in-Christ. Abide in the life you have already found in Jesus, and your life will be his life, forever.


April 19, 2015

"The Telling Touch" Luke 24:36-48

"I wasn't that close, says one of them. "I was halfway down the hill, taking cover in the crowd. But I could hear him, all the same. We could all hear him: ˜Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.'

"It was just as he says, nods another. "I heard it too. Even he gave up at the end. Even he admitted it was all over.

So he's dead, then. Finished. Of that, there can be no doubt. No one was ever nailed to a Roman cross and lived to tell the tale.

But what to make of this gossip, these rumors, from people who claim to have seen him alive? Wishful thinking, that's all it is. Wishful thinking.

The little group sits, for a time, in dejected silence. The only movement in the room is the dancing of dust motes in a sunbeam; the only sound, the soft intake and expulsion of their breath. Life goes on, they've solemnly advised one another. But the words hold scant comfort.

In time, the disciples become aware they are not alone. There is a presence in their midst. No, a stranger. How did he get in?

"Shalom, says the stranger, softly. "Peace.

It's strange, but as they hear that word, they feel little peace. What they feel is the hairs on their arms standing on end, an icy foreboding growing in the pit of the stomach. That voice ” they know it. That face ” they know it too. This can only be some ghoulish apparition.

"Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.

Flesh and bone ” that's how it all began, so long ago, as Mary cradled her newborn under Bethlehem's star. Flesh and bone was how it had all seemed to end, as well: the gray corpse, scarred with the purple stripes of the lash, hanging limply from the cross-arms. Now ” incredibly ” that same flesh and bone is miraculously infused with life. They reach out to touch him, hesitantly at first, then in joyous embrace.

"Have you anything here to eat? he asks, with a smile. With those words, they know. This is no ghost! This is a man of flesh and bones. This ... is life!

It was Archbishop William Temple of the Church of England who described Christianity as the most "materialistic of religions. He could well have been thinking of this passage from Luke.

Most of us think of the soul as separate from the body: a spiritual essence that dwells in the body for a time, then is set free by death. But that is simply not the witness of the New Testament.

"The resurrection of the body is how the Apostles' Creed puts it. That phrase conjures up that mystical vision of Ezekiel's: the bleak valley, strewn with skeletons of slain soldiers, softly caressed by a warm chinook ” the breath of God ” until "the bones came together, bone to its bone ... and the breath came into them, and they lived, ... a vast multitude.

The one thing Luke is trying to tell us, in this passage ” above all else ” is that the resurrected Jesus is not some wispy spirit, not some ghostly apparition from beyond the grave. He is flesh and bone. The risen Christ invites his incredulous followers to touch his hands and feet. Before their very eyes, he chews and swallows a piece of fish ” just the sort of detail an observant doctor like Luke would notice!

Luke takes great pains to demonstrate that the resurrection is real.

Basil Pennington is a Trappist monk who writes on prayer and contemplation. He tells of a trip he took to Japan, where he paid a call on a noted Zen master, Josha Sasaki Roshi:

"I went in to see the Roshi. He sat there before me, very much a Buddha. As he smiled from ear to ear and rocked gleefully back and forth, he said, ˜I like Christianity. But I would not like Christianity without the resurrection.' Then he added: ˜Show me your resurrection. I want to see your resurrection.' In his simplicity and clarity, the master had gone straight to the heart of things. With his directness, he was saying what everyone else implicitly says to us Christians: You are a Christian. You are risen with Christ. Show me, and I will believe.

Show me, and I will believe. That's what the world is saying to us, my friends ” even the people who don't come from Missouri, the "show me state! Our church can have the finest music in the world and the most well-executed worship service. We can advertise on radio, television and online. We can send armies of volunteers out to ring doorbells. But if we, as a congregation, fail to demonstrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ in our daily lives ” if we fail to live as though new life matters ” no one, but no one who's new here is likely to ever walk through these doors a second time. Don't just tell me, say our neighbors. Show me!

Of no one is this more true these days than the younger generations, those who have been tagged as "digital natives (as opposed to "digital immigrants ” those of us who didn't grow up with a smartphone in our hand). A question that comes easily to digital natives, as applied to all sorts of experiences, is this: Is it virtual ” or is it real?

It's a question that comes to mind often in the movie theater. Were those lush landscapes, those death-defying stunts, those vast armies marching across the plain filmed with a conventional camera, with real actors? Or were they created, or enhanced, on the motherboard of some special-effects computer?

It's the same question, incidentally, that the younger generations are asking of the church: Is it virtual, or is it real? When you people come together to sing those old hymns, with tunes by dead Germans, all about how much you love God, do you do it for any reason other than habit? When you sit for 15 minutes to hear the preacher speak ” longer than any segment between commercials on TV; that's hard to do! ” do you really listen to the words? When you eat that bit of dry bread and swig that sweet wine, do you do it for any reason other than duty?

Is it virtual? Or is it real?

In San Jose, California, there's a mansion, built by a woman named Sarah Winchester. She was heir to the Winchester firearms fortune. It's quite a tourist attraction today ” a rambling hodgepodge of different architectural styles. It's a builder's nightmare but an eccentric's dream.

The Winchester Mansion had its start in 1918, when Sarah's husband died in the terrible flu epidemic. Filled with grief, she went to a séance and heard there a promise, spoken through the medium, that as long as she kept building her house, she would never face death.

Sarah began with a home of 17 rooms. The project continued until she died at the age of 85. The mansion cost $5 million to build, and was begun at a time when construction workers earned 50 cents a day. It has 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, two ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, over 10,000 panes of glass, 17 chimneys, two basements and three elevators. When Sarah Winchester died, she left such a quantity of building materials behind that the workers could have continued for many years.

Today her house stands as more than a tourist attraction. It is a monument to the human dread of death. "Death has been swallowed up in victory, writes the apostle Paul. "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Would that Sarah Winchester had heard those words and truly believed them! Would that she could have trusted the testimony of those who heard the risen Christ say "Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.

That was no vision. That experience of the disciples was not virtual. The witness of Luke is clear: it was real. What could bring on such an incredible testimony? Only the real experience of touching his hands and feet, of feeling flesh and bone.

Ferdinand Magellan was the first explorer to sail around the world. Upon his return, not everyone believed him ” including some powerful bishops and cardinals.

Magellan did not allow the skeptics to deter him. Some say he replied with something like this: "The church says the earth is flat, but I know it is round. I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church. So speaks that voice of experience.

If that's what Magellan actually said, then it's likely the "shadow on the moon was his watershed experience, one he threw back at those who doubted his word

What is your shadow on the moon ” your experience of the risen Christ? If you say you're here simply out of habit, or out of family duty, or out of a desire to uphold ethical living, none of those answers is good enough.

In a place of total darkness, the only way to "see is by touch. In this dark world of ours, the touch that matters most is the touch of the Risen Lord. He invites you, this day, to reach out and touch him, to experience his love, to see that he is no mere illusion but a living presence in our midst.

Come, let us sing of the joy of his rising!

April 5, 2015

"Peace to All Peeps" Acts 10:34-43

If you want to win a Peeps contest, a word of advice: Don't create an empty tomb.

But what's a "Peeps contest? If you open The Washington Post on Easter morning, you'll find the answer.

Peeps are fluffy chicks and bunnies, made of marshmallow. They appear in the candy section of the grocery store each spring before Easter. Every year, The Post has a Peeps contest, inviting readers to create a diorama of a famous scene from history, pop culture or current events, using Peeps chicks and bunnies as characters. The winners are announced on Easter Sunday, and almost all the titles include a play on the word "Peeps.

Last year, there were over 700 gooey submissions:

There was "Peepnado, recreating the Syfy movie Sharknado.

"Olympeeps showed a number of aspects of the Sochi Olympics.

The diorama "Game of Peeps was inspired by the HBO series and George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones novels.

A tribute to the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz was titled "I'll Get You, My Peep, and Your Little Dog, Too!

And the winner of the 2014 Peeps Diorama Contest was "I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. Addresses the Peeple, based on the famous 1963 March on Washington.

There were a lot of Peeps on display in this contest, showing a wide variety of scenes involving a diverse group of "Peeple. So why would the story of the empty tomb not be a good Peeps contest entry?

Because there's nothing there. The Easter diorama is an empty box.

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of the Resurrection in a way that leaves Jesus completely out of the picture. When the Sabbath day is over, three women come to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared to anoint the body of Jesus for final burial.

The door to the diorama is wide open, with the stone rolled away from the tomb, and when they go inside, they discover that the body is missing. They see a young man, dressed in a white robe, and they are alarmed. But he says to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.

He is not here. There's nothing to see. That's a surprising message, isn't it? It's not very satisfying, in and of itself. Think of making an appointment with a doctor or a lawyer, and after rushing to be at the office on time, you are told by the receptionist, "He is not here. Imagine going to the White House, expecting to see the President, and when you get there, the Secret Service says, "He is not here.

How much more satisfying it would be for us if Jesus were standing inside the empty tomb, in all of his resurrected glory, announcing, "Here I am! I have been raised!

But Easter reminds us that the Resurrection is a message, not a diorama. In particular, it is a message of resurrection that can change the lives of people everywhere.

The word Peeps refers to marshmallow chicks and bunnies, but it is also used, especially as of the last few years, to refer to friends or close pals, as in the expression "my peeps.

Someone might say, "I saw you and your peeps walking the streets. Or "I've got a box of Peeps for my peeps to eat.

Along these lines, the young man in the empty tomb says to the women, "But go, tell his disciples and Peter ” tell his "peeps ” "that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you. They flee from the tomb and say nothing, at least initially, because they are afraid.

Fortunately, the message does get out, and in the book of Acts, we learn that Peter is speaking boldly about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He delivers this message to a Roman centurion and his close friends and relatives, a group of Gentiles who are not a part of the people of Israel. The word Gentiles means "nations or "peoples ” they are all of the non-Jewish peeps of the world.

"I truly understand that God shows no partiality, says Peter, "but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. Peter has come to see that God does not favor one group over another, but instead accepts anyone who respects him and walks in his way.

"You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, Peter says to the centurion and his family and friends, "preaching peace by Jesus Christ ” he is Lord of all. This message of peace is not limited to the people of Israel, but is available to everyone. By trusting in Jesus Christ, anyone and everyone can become a friend of God, one of God's peeps.

Peter realizes that God has a plan that is far bigger than anyone could have predicted, whether they were Jews or Gentiles. He quickly recounts the story of Jesus, from his baptism in the Jordan to his death and resurrection. Then Peter concludes by saying that "all the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. By referring to "all the prophets, Peter is saying that the overall message of scripture supports the work that God has done through Jesus, to bring peace and forgiveness to all who believe.

This is a divine agenda, not a human agenda. It becomes clear only when we focus more on God and Jesus than on ourselves. Within Christian circles, there is a trend called "the New Calvinism, with roots in the theology of John Calvin, the father of the Presbyterian Church. This trend emphasizes the rule of God and the salvation and new life offered by Jesus.

"I've come to believe and understand that God is not fundamentally about me, says Dan Wenger, a government employee in Washington, D.C. God is "much bigger than that. The teaching at his Calvinist church has helped him to see this in the context of the whole story of the Bible, not just the parts that make him feel good.

But that message goes well beyond Calvinism. God is much bigger than any of us, and it is important to see this in the context of the whole Bible ” not just the parts that make us feel good.

Although Jesus cannot be seen in a diorama of an empty tomb, he can be found in our study of scripture. This is why Christian education is so important for children and youths, and why small group Bible studies are essential for adults as they seek a deeper understanding of the scriptures. We come to believe that Christ is with us when we read, discuss, digest and find nourishment in the Word of God.

Peter tells us that God is "preaching peace by Jesus Christ ” he is Lord of all. God sent Jesus to reconcile the world to himself, making peace with us through Christ's life, death and resurrection. Everyone "who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name, promises Peter. Everyone who believes in Jesus can become one of God's friends, one of God's peeps.

The peace of Christ comes to us when we believe in Jesus and trust him to be present in our lives. Although the Easter tomb is empty, we know that Jesus is alive and well in a number of other places:

In the breaking of the bread, in worship and in small-group gatherings.

In a family meal, or a gathering of close friends around a kitchen table.

In a hot meal served to a homeless family at a local shelter.

In a passage from the Bible read in a hospital room, when a patient is on life support.

In a conversation in a coffee shop, when a youth advisor is consoling a heartbroken young person.

In a pot of tea being shared by a church deacon and a grieving widow.

In a verse from the psalms, sung with joy and conviction by a church choir.

In a sermon that provides insight and inspiration, when life is hard and it's difficult to find hope for the future.

In all these ways, Jesus is alive and present with us today. Through the power of the resurrection, he is moving ahead of us, always ahead of us, showing us the way to walk as his disciples in the world today. Our job is to be his peeps, and to testify that he is "Lord of all through both our words and our actions.

So let's leave the diorama of the empty tomb. There is no point in looking for the living among the dead. Christ is alive and well, with a message of peace and forgiveness for all who put their trust in him.


March 29, 2015

"Who Are You?" Mark 15:1-39

Several web pages have popped up around the Internet where people post pictures of how their names were misspelled by their barista. For example, a woman named Michelle posted a picture of a cup with her name spelled "Missle. A customer named Erin received a cup inscribed "AIR INN. Yvonne and Caitlin received cups with "Evan and "Kitten written on them.1 To be fair, it can be awfully loud around those machines, and when the coffeehouse is crowded, it's easy to mishear a name. But there are times where the employees may have been going for a laugh ” like the case of a man who reportedly told the person behind the counter at McDonald's that his name was "Stephen with a ph, and received a receipt marked, "Phteven.

We can laugh when our names are misspelled on our cup of caffeine, but at other times, the way people address us matters. Mom and Dad may have names for us they've used since we were small. Friends from high school and college might use a nickname we earned on the court or field, or for something for which we are far less proud. Military officers are addressed by their rank, and other jobs come with titles by which one may be addressed, such as "Pastor. When our siblings have children, we receive the name "Aunt or "Uncle. When we become a spouse, we may be called "Honey, "Dear or "Sweetheart. When we become parents, someone begins to call us "Mom or "Dad.

We have so many more names than the one on our birth certificate. When those are used, they say something about the relationships we have with the ones addressing us. Sometimes they reflect professionalism, sometimes familiarity and oftentimes love.

Throughout today's scripture lesson and the entirety of Jesus' passion narrative in Mark, we hear people struggling to name Jesus. As he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowds celebrate him as "the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Pilate has a sign posted over his head on the cross identifying Jesus as the "King of the Jews, which the religious leaders don't like. The soldiers seem to see Jesus as delusional, mocking him for believing himself a king. The religious leaders label him as another false messiah stirring up trouble, one who deserves what he is receiving. Then, toward the end of today's passage, we hear one more name for Jesus, this time from an unlikely place. A centurion who watches Jesus die declares, "Truly this man was God's Son!

All these names are attempts to label Jesus, to categorize him, to understand him. Each seems to say more about the person using the name than about Jesus. That may be why, even when Pilate asks him point-blank, "Are you the King of the Jews? Jesus responds with a noncommittal "You say so.

So which is it? Is Jesus the one who comes in the name of the Lord, a false or delusional king, the messiah or God's Son? And why won't Jesus tell us plainly which one is right, and which are wrong? He certainly could have cleared up a lot of confusion at any point along the way. Instead, he remains silent.

Jesus doesn't give an answer because what really matters is who you say he is. As our names tell us something about our connection to the people addressing us, the way we think of Jesus tells us something about our relationship to him. Mark gives us many clues toward an answer, but leaves the decision to each of us.

Throughout today's scripture reading, Mark highlights the irony that as Pilate and his soldiers are mocking Jesus by declaring him "King of the Jews, Jesus is becoming a king greater than any of these could imagine. Mark is subtly pointing to who Jesus is by the way he tells the story of Jesus' trial, procession and crucifixion. These details mirror another parade, one with which Mark's original readers would have been familiar.

When a general returned to Rome after conquering a neighboring land, he and his victory were often celebrated with a parade through the capital city called a triumph. These triumphs were such spectacles, elevating the triumphator to such a celebrated state that by 20 B.C., such events were used only for the crowning of a new emperor. The parade celebrated the power of the emperor and linked him to the divine.

Each triumphal procession began with the presentation of the triumphator wearing a purple robe and a gold laurel crown. Jesus was given a purple cloth and a crown of thorns. The triumphator would then have received accolades from the soldiers. The soldiers hurl insults at Jesus. The triumphal procession would have led the triumphator through the streets of Rome to the temple of the premier god in the Roman pantheon Jupiter Capitolinus. The temple was called the Capitolium from the root for the word for "head. Jesus' procession leads to Golgotha, the place of the skull. The Roman triumphal procession included a bull who would be sacrificed at the end of the parade, and a member of the parade carrying an ax, the instrument of the bull's impending death. Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice, is followed closely by Simon who carries Jesus' cross. At the Capitolium, the triumphator is exalted with one of his closest colleagues on either side. Jesus is lifted up on a cross with a criminal on either side.

Then, in case the reader has missed all the references to this Roman imperial celebration, Mark drives the point home at the moment of Jesus' death. The triumphal procession and celebration at the Capitolium was a demonstration of the emperor's close connection to Jupiter, a self-declaration that he was a son of the gods. At the moment of Jesus' death, a lone centurion, a soldier in Pilate's army and a symbol of the empire, bestows that same title on Jesus, "Truly this man was God's Son!

At the end of Mark 15, the ball is entirely in our court. We have to decide who Jesus is. Mark points us toward the answer but never states it overtly. The decision of who Jesus is, is left to the reader.

When a barista butchers our name, we can laugh because the person on the other side of the counter knows little about us. The ways we are addressed by others, though, truly matter. They define for us who we are, how we see ourselves and what we believe about ourselves. When we hear positive names from those who love us ” the nicknames, pet names and terms of endearment ” we know we are loved. But often we hear other names which can cause us to think differently. We may have been called dumb, weak, fat, ugly or lazy. We may have heard we're too emotional, too dramatic or too passionate. We may have received messages that we are useless, incompetent or untrustworthy. Some of us were told we were different, crazy or disposable.

For some of us, those names stuck. We began to believe them so deeply that today we don't need anyone to say them to us anymore. When something goes wrong, when we look in the mirror, when we think about the decisions in our lives, all those negative names come flooding back.

But when we, like the centurion, call Jesus God's Son, we are not only saying something about Jesus. We are also saying something about ourselves. In him we have found that we are sheep cared for by a good shepherd. We are children who are loved and adored by our heavenly parent. We are friends, as he calls us in John 15, of the ruler of the universe. On this Passion Sunday, we remember that we are the ones he loved so much that he suffered this brutality to conquer evil and death, to give us a new life and to reconcile us to God and one another.

Jesus didn't answer Pilate's question. Mark won't answer it for us either. The decision is ours. What we think about Jesus, the name we will call him, says a great deal about us. A new triumphator, the true Son of God, has come to lead a new kingdom. The kingdom of God to which Jesus invites us is not one based on power and fear, not one that excludes those who don't quite measure up, not one that conquers people with the sword. Instead, it is a place where we belong at the table of the King, a place where the Lord suffers for our sake, a place where we are given a new identity as a child of God, no matter what the barista writes on our cup.

Mark gives us many clues about who Jesus is, but leaves the decision to us. As we enter this Holy Week, the question is before you: who is Jesus to you?

March 22,2015

"Lift High the Cross" John 12:20-33

A hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, both experts and amateurs are still dissecting and discussing the battles of that great conflict. Some of the talk centers on General George McClellan, who was given charge of the Army of the Potomac and considered himself the savior of the Union. As it turned out, he proved to be great at logistics, organizing armies, transporting them across hundreds of miles, keeping them fed and supplied ” but not actually leading them into battle. The soldiers adored McClellan, and he loved their adoration, but he never actually did the things he was commissioned for.

As a result, President Lincoln eventually fired him. Though McClellan has many defenders to this day, there are far more who, in evaluating his story, think he shrank away from doing the thing he was supposed to do, congratulating himself all the while.

By contrast, Jesus, despite his human fear expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane and here in today's gospel reading, had no intention of stepping aside from the onrushing events that would lead to his death but also to his Father's glory. In all the gospels there comes a point where Jesus, knowing the fate that awaits him, nevertheless sets his face toward Jerusalem and will not be deterred.

And here, in the Gospel of John, Jesus recognizes the arrival of the Greek-speaking converts as the sign that the time for the glorification of God through the cross has drawn near. This is where his mission and ministry have been heading all along. The die is cast. And Jesus states very clearly that he will not step aside, though he has free will and freedom of action, from all that awaits him.

A little context: Just prior to this passage, Jesus demonstrated his power over life and death in the raising of Lazarus. Stung to the heart by his friend's passing, he came to understand its effect on his circle of friends, leading him to weep openly. John tells us that following Jesus' raising of Lazarus, the religious and political leaders met to express their determination to kill Jesus because of the great uproar the raising caused. This led the high priest, Caiaphas, to insist, "You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.

So throughout Jerusalem there was excitement as people wondered, "What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he? But following his anointing at the hand of his friend Mary, an act Jesus interpreted as preparation for his own burial, Jesus entered the city to great acclamation.

Back to our passage: Certain individuals identified as "Greeks approach Phillip, saying "Sir, we wish to see Jesus. Some suggest these are Jewish believers from elsewhere in the Roman Empire, where Greek was their first language. But more likely, "Greeks is John's term for those Gentiles identified elsewhere in the New Testament as "God-fearers, those who were attracted to the belief in one God, but who were not fully included among the Jews. They were outsiders who could enter the outer courts of the great temple in Jerusalem but were prevented from entering the inner courts where the sacrifices took place. In 1871, an archeologist discovered an inscription from the second temple that stated that no foreigner was allowed past the temple plaza, and that whoever was caught would only have himself to blame for his death, which would soon follow.

Jesus interpreted the arrival of outsiders, those beyond the circle of faith who desired to draw nearer, as the sign that his death was at hand. He shared a short parable about a single grain dying when it is planted and giving life to many when it bears much fruit, making it clear that clinging to life would ensure its loss, while those who gave their all would receive eternal life.

Still, this was no easy course of action. Jesus admitted to himself, "Now my soul is troubled. But this was the very reason he had come into the world. This death, Jesus said, would also glorify God. And if that were not enough, the sign was confirmed by a voice from heaven that some interpreted as an angel's voice and some as simply thunder.

Earlier, when Nicodemus had visited him in the night, Jesus had pointed to the story from Numbers when, as the people died from snake bites, God ordered Moses to fashion an image of a snake and lift it on high. All who saw the image were saved. Jesus, therefore, both early in his ministry and at this late stage drew upon that story, comparing the healing that came from a sign lifted on high to the salvation that would come when he himself was lifted on high on the cross, when he would "draw all people to [him]self.

This is also a sign to us. When we are willing to give up our all, stepping out of our comfort zone, welcoming others through our worship instead of insisting that only our favorite hymns and our favorite forms of worship be used, we welcome those who were once outsiders and now wish to be a part of God's family.

The message of Jesus is for everyone, not just a limited circle of well-heeled friends. At some point, our own ministries with each other, as important and fulfilling as they may be, must be reexamined so that our ministry to those outside our tight circle of friends takes precedence. That's part of what it means to say that the hour of glorification has come.

That paradox ” of saving one's life by losing one's life, of losing one's life by trying too hard to save one's life ” is not only about living and dying, but about giving way, giving precedence to others, putting the needs of others first. That's how the seed bears much fruit.

We wish to lift up Jesus so that all the world may be drawn to the fellowship of God's people. But who will speak to us, and how will they speak to us? One has to wonder if the outsiders in today's gospel passage approached Philip because he had a Greek name and was someone who spoke Greek. Are we ready to speak the language of our community, or would we rather speak with church terminology that no one understands (perhaps not even us)?

These Greek-speaking, God-fearing Gentiles were outsiders in the outer courts. Sometimes churches have barriers that prevent the people Jesus has sent to us from really entering into the inner courts. These are not physical barriers, but when congregations are unwilling to share leadership with those who may not have the correct last name or whose roots in the church don't go back three or four generations or who are not made to feel truly welcome, then we might as well have a warning sign when people enter church buildings, reading "You are not welcome here.

There may not be a sign like the one at the temple warning of a swift death to trespassers, but we may have subtle signs that tell people they can go so far and no farther. Let us ask ourselves honestly if there are barriers preventing believers from participating even more in our shared ministry to the world.

It's important that we welcome outsiders, for the hour has come for us, as the church of Jesus Christ, to be raised up high so that all the world may see and God may be glorified. Jesus was raised on high to the view of the whole world on the cross. For us to be raised on high as believers, we must be prepared to sacrifice having things our way all the time, hearing only the hymns we like best all the time, having safe sermons that don't challenge us beyond our comfort zone, always serving the kind of meals we've grown up with.

We began by referring to General McClellan, who was pleased with himself and his army but never actually used the army for what it was intended to do. Are we willing to use the church of Jesus Christ for what it was intended to do? Or is it for our own glorification, not God's? Are we going to congratulate ourselves for being a friendly church without actually having any friends? Jesus said that with his crucifixion, "the ruler of this world will be driven out. That's what the arrival of outsiders meant to him.

Jesus concluded by saying, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. The light of Jesus is with us now. Let us take hold of the hour that is given to us and lift high the cross, that all may be drawn to the Savior, and to glory.

March 15, 2015

"Why Stop at Verse 16?" John 3:14-21

Today's passage comes to us from smack in the middle of a larger conversation Jesus is having with a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a religious leader of Jesus' day. He comes to Jesus by night ” no doubt because he doesn't want anyone to know of his visit to Jesus. Among the religious leaders to whom Nicodemus is accountable, Jesus was a suspicious character, to say the least. Nevertheless, Nicodemus goes to him. By coming to Jesus by night, he is, in ways of which he is no doubt consciously unaware, coming out of darkness, into light. That is what this passage is about. That is what our life and faith are about: stepping out of darkness into light.

In today's passage, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus. Nicodemus has asked Jesus how he does the marvelous things he does ” the healings, the preaching coming forth with force and depth that go way beyond rote memorization and citing sources. Jesus, by way of an "answer, simply tells Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without some kind of experience of new birth. "Birth is a very concrete, physical happening. It is not simple participation in a ritual. It is not the formation of theological opinions. It is something that happens to you, over which you have no control. You cannot cause or arrange or orchestrate your own birth.

But all this comes before today's passage. We pick up Jesus' lecture to Nicodemus in mid-paragraph. Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus ” but really, he's talking past Nicodemus. He's talking to those whom Nicodemus represents. He's talking to religious leaders ” you know, people who presume to stand behind pulpits and lecture about judgment and righteousness and who's saved and who's not! Jesus is talking to those religious leaders "back then, and to religious leaders now and always. Jesus is talking to anyone who has questions about "see[ing] the kingdom of God or about righteousness or salvation. Jesus is talking to us.

In short, Jesus says, "You want to know what ˜salvation' really is? Start by looking at the serpent that Moses held up in the wilderness. Back when the Israelite people left Egypt, chasing the freedom from slavery that they said they wanted, the journey took them into the wilderness. Really, that "wilderness was more like what we today would call a desert. There was no food, no water, not much of anything but rocks and dirt and the occasional oasis decked out with a bit of green and a brown pond. Those children of Israel were suffering. And they laid on Moses (on God, really) a complaint they made time and time again (really, just as we would do if we were in circumstances like that): What have you done to us? Why have you brought us out into this desert to die slowly and miserably of hunger and thirst? We were better off in Egypt! At least there we had food!

So, the story goes, God in his righteous anger sent poisonous serpents to strike them, and many died. The people repented of their ingratitude toward God for, after all, giving them what they wanted and asked Moses to pray for them. And God instructed Moses to make a replica, out of bronze, of the poisonous serpents that were biting them and set it up on a pole.

Whenever a person was bitten, he or she could look upon that bronze serpent Moses lifted up, and live.

In effect, Jesus says, "Consider me to be that bronze serpent! You want to know what salvation looks like? Look at me! I am salvation! Salvation is why I came! God sent me into this world full of snakes that bite and snap to save, not to condemn.

Why is it that we are so quick and glib in quoting John 3:16, and not John 3:17? Why do we stop at verse 16 when 17 is just as important? Maybe, in this world of dying churches and unchurched people longing for a spiritual home even as they look past us with contempt, verse 17 is more important. How often are we confronted with the objection that "we Christians are too judgmental, too self-righteous, too quick to consign to hell four-fifths of the human race?

"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” that's what we are about; that's the message we are to proclaim to all the world. God, in Jesus Christ, came into the world, and is in the world now, not to condemn but to save, not to judge but to acquit! That's why I'm here, Jesus says. Jesus says, I didn't come as a judge or a lawgiver ” we've got enough laws already. Anyway, law can't save; it can only tell us what's wrong. Law can't save; you want to be saved ” look at me!

Jesus says to Nicodemus, and to those whom Nicodemus represents, and to any who care to listen, I came to save. I came to heal. I came to bring light ” God's light. That's it.

Jesus brings light ” God's light, the light of God's Spirit. There is plenty of darkness in the world. Jesus came to shine a light, to be light. He didn't come to shove people into darkness. He doesn't push people into darkness. God does not throw people into darkness. People choose darkness. But the light is still there, and the darkness does not overcome it. Have you had enough darkness? Do you want light? Look at Jesus. Believe in Jesus. Follow Jesus, without looking to the right or to the left.

We don't want to make too much of this "believing in Jesus. Believe in Jesus, yes, absolutely, but Jesus did not mean for this to be a heavy theological thing. If you think life bites like a brood of nasty snakes, if you are sorry because you have been a snake in the past, look at Jesus, and you will live. You will be led to freedom, real freedom, the only freedom there is. You will begin to find your way out of your wilderness. Look at him. Trust him. Follow him. Your new life, your new path, your new way begins there.

This is not a call to pass judgment on people of other faiths, or of no faith (which is, if you think about it for a couple of minutes or listen to those who claim to have no faith, really a kind of faith in itself). Look and you will find that there are indeed people in this world who want nothing to do with Jesus or his followers or "light or anything he stands for ” Jesus is indeed warning us about such people in this passage. Don't worry about them. Let them go scurrying off into their various dark places. Oh, we need to refrain from passing judgment. We need to be ready to welcome them if they come scurrying back out of those dark places more quickly than they went scurrying into them. (Dark places have a way of doing that to people.) But don't worry about them.

What does it mean to "believe in Jesus? Who believes? Who does not believe? Which comes first: salvation/condemnation or belief? Note that "those who do not believe are condemned already, which is to say they are not condemned after they disbelieve. Salvation or condemnation are not the result of prior belief or unbelief; salvation is not a reward and condemnation is not a punishment. What saves? What condemns? God does not condemn anybody. People condemn themselves by refusing to believe in what we are shown in Jesus Christ. People condemn themselves by refusing to look at the light that is Christ.

What does it mean to "believe in Jesus? There are a number of opinions about that. You have yours. Others have theirs. Don't worry about a heavy theological definition. That's not what this is about.

So, does this mean that non-Christians are then condemned? There are a number of opinions about that too. You no doubt have yours. Others have theirs. Don't worry about that, either. That's not what this is about. There are indeed people out there who love darkness rather than light, and who willfully and consciously seek darkness because they want nothing to do with the kind of light that Jesus shines. And there are indeed people of other faiths ” and, yes, people of no explicit or specific faith ” who for all our differences seem to be looking in the same direction Jesus is. Don't worry about them. Don't worry about any of that. Don't over-think this!

Just look at Jesus. Trust him. Follow him. He did not come to bring condemnation and judgment. He came to bring healing and salvation and light.

March 8, 2015

"Primary Tasks" John 2:13-22

The New York Times ran an article last August with the title, "Now Arriving at Pittsburgh International: Fracking. The article reported how Pittsburgh International will join several other airports throughout the United States, including Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver, in permitting fracking under its property. Pittsburgh International management hopes to alleviate some of the airport's huge financial problems (42 percent of its yearly budget of $91 million now is going toward paying on its debt) and expects to see as much as $20 million each year from gas and oil royalties.

There are environmental concerns about the fracking process, including whether or not it will lead to increased seismic activity and increased threat to water supplies. But regarding fracking under airports specifically, another concern is whether they should be doing this at all. Doesn't this diminish the effectiveness of airports' main business? It's a legitimate question, and the debate about all of this is sure to go on for years.

The debate about fracking at airports can be likened to debates taking place in churches across the country. What is the church's primary task? What happens if the church goes in too many directions at the same time? When does the church need to say "no to some good things (and some not-so-good things) so it can do the most important things with excellence and vision?

Jesus encountered similar questions and circumstances 2,000 years ago.

John's gospel is quite different from the other three. Bypassing birth-of-Jesus stories, John announces that the Word became flesh. He then gives the testimony of John the Baptist, followed by the calling of the first disciples (Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip and Nathanael). Then, in chapter 2, John gives the first "sign ” turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana ” which pointed to the identity of Jesus and began to reveal his glory.

After a short rest in Capernaum, Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.

Arriving at the temple, Jesus finds "people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. These were set up to accommodate worshipers from out of town so they could bring the proper sacrifices for Passover.

Notice that John did not record Jesus saying, as Matthew, Mark and Luke did, anything about the temple being a "house of prayer or about the money changers and vendors making it a "den of robbers. This leads some readers to conclude that John was talking about a separate event from the one Matthew, Mark and Luke describe. Others argue that both John and the other three writers were describing the same event and that John simply puts it early in his gospel.

Whatever the case, Jesus' actions were swift and definitive. He made a whip of cords and drove all of the sheep and cattle out of the temple. He overturned the moneychangers' tables

and poured out their coins. And he told those who were selling doves to take them out of the temple.

Perhaps it is just as surprising that no one tried to stop Jesus from doing all of this. No one stood up to him or even asked him to stop. Jesus' passionate actions in response to all of this were certainly not the actions of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild so many of us learned about in Sunday school.

What Jesus said during this event is very important: "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace! Jesus rightly saw what was going on ” that in the guise of being helpful to the out-of-town worshipers, people in the temple had turned its focus from worship to commerce.

Instead of being the place where one's devotion and worship of God were foremost, the emphasis had been switched to the externals of buying the proper sacrificial animal.

John does not record Jesus saying anything about the high exchange rates people were being charged, even though this was certainly happening. Rather, Jesus quickly and decisively got to the heart of the issue: his Father was not being worshiped, and other things had gotten in the way.

His disciples later remembered the verse from Psalms where it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me.

The Jewish leaders finally said to Jesus, "What sign can you show us for doing this? One of the tried and true methods of deflecting blame away from oneself is to go on the attack. It's almost as if these religious leaders said to him, "Hey! Who made you boss? Who put you in charge?

They really didn't know what they were asking. John's whole gospel was written to show the signs Jesus did "so that [people would] come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [they would] have life in his name.

Jesus' response to the Jewish leaders was as surprising as anything he had done or said that day. "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

That short reply addresses many different things. Certainly, it had reference to the coming destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. But perhaps it also referred to what they were already doing. By making his Father's house a marketplace, they were destroying the temple right then by their actions and attitudes.

Of course, Jesus' main point in this statement was a reference to his death and resurrection. Three years later, "his disciples remembered he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

One further thought about Jesus' response about the temple: Jesus identified himself as the temple. Preacher John Piper once said, "The church building is not the temple of God. Jesus is. When Jesus died for us and rose from the dead, he replaced the temple with himself. He is the universal Immanuel, God with us.

Jesus went to great lengths not only the day he cleansed the temple but also throughout his ministry to point people to his Father. One of the church's primary tasks is to help us worship God. Another is to help us hear what God might say to us.

Several years ago, a church in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, was trying to attract new attenders. They came up with a plan to make the worship service as palatable and appealing as possible for the unchurched. One of the complaints they knew people had about worship was that it lasts too long. So with that in mind, they put the following on their sign in front of the church building: "45-MINUTE WORSHIP SERVICE ” GUARANTEED!

We don't know anything about the worship services that took place in the church. Nor do we know whether the strategy to attract new attenders was successful (interestingly, a quick Google search for "45-minute worship service had over 1,900,000 results). But there does seem to be something inherently wrong when the emphasis is on the length of the service rather than the worship of God.

What happens to the 45-minute time frame if the Holy Spirit prompts the preacher to preach beyond his or her prepared message? What happens if there is a response to the worship and it's clear that God is not done working in the hearts of the worshipers? The old phrase "Let God be God seems appropriate. We also know of one pastor who included this line in his opening prayer: "Lord, please let something happen today that's not in the bulletin.

This is neither a condemnation of short services nor a call to count on unscheduled events in them. Certainly, a longer service is not guaranteed to be any more effective in opening our hearts to God. But we should consider our services as channels for God to reach us, ask us to change and inspire us to see new tasks and to experience blessings and visions. We who organize and lead the services have an obligation to do all in our power to make way for you who sit in the pews to hear the Spirit of God. You who sit in the pews have a responsibility to come ready to listen for God, not only in the words of worship, but also in the silences and in the environment of the service.

Many worship services are filled with one announcement after another ” everything from the upcoming garage sale to the Girl Scout cookie orders being taken after worship, to the litany of committee meetings for the coming week, etc. Insofar as these things help us be God's people and do the work of the church, they are no problem ” as long as we don't let them detract from worship itself. (In some churches, the traditional parts of worship seem to get minimized or rushed because of everything else that's included.) But even with the best of intentions, it's easy to become more focused on "money changing than on worship in our "temples.

So let this be a call for those of us who lead services to do all we can to keep the focus of them on worship. And let this be a call to you who attend the services to come saying, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

March 1, 2015

"The Four“Sided Cross" Mark 8:31-38

Spring arrives in the world of nature on Friday, March 20, and many of us are feeling as though it cannot come soon enough. But in the world of the church, we are already there ” today is the Second Sunday in Lent.

The word Lent comes from lente, a word which means "spring, so Lent is, for us, the springtime of our souls. It is the time in which the darkness of winter slowly gives way to light, and new life pushes out of the cold, hard earth.

What is surprising about Lent is that it is focused on the cross ” an instrument of torture and death. There doesn't seem to be much light or life in a device that was used to kill Jesus, the Son of God. Instead, it seems to be as dark and cold as a winter night.

And yet, Jesus calls to us through the Gospel of Mark, saying, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Those who want to follow Jesus are challenged to pick up their cross and walk with it, not throw it down and run away from it.

"For those who want to save their life will lose it, predicts Jesus, "and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. In a complete reversal of expectations, the cross becomes an instrument of salvation and new life, rather than of torture and death.

Perhaps there is some light and life in the cross after all.

When we dig into the Bible, we find that the cross is not a one-dimensional instrument of torture and death. It has at least four sides to it, all of which move us out of darkness and into light. The cross is a window, a mirror, a solution and a summons.

These four sides were suggested by William Willimon, a Methodist bishop, speaking at a pastors' conference. Willimon said that he likes talking about the cross with Christians who take sin seriously and believe that Christ suffered on the cross to bring us forgiveness and new life with God.

The first side of the cross is a window ” a window into the character of God. The cross shows us that God loves us so much that he wants to save us from our sins, and God does this by taking something evil ” the crucifixion of Jesus ” and turning it into something beautiful. Our God wants to be in relationship with us, and he uses the cross of Christ to make this connection.

In Mark, Jesus teaches his disciples that he must "undergo great suffering and be rejected by religious leaders before he dies and rises again. Peter criticizes Jesus for talking like this, which leads Jesus to rebuke Peter with the words "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

Although Peter cannot see it, the cross is a divine thing. It's not a human thing. Jesus knows that he must approach the cross if he is going to advance the mission of God.

When we look at the cross, we discover just how far God will go to make a connection with us. God's Son Jesus suffers for sins, even though he has not committed any sins himself. He is a righteous person who sacrifices himself for unrighteous people. He loses his life not for any personal power or glory, but so that we will be brought closer to God.

So if you wonder how far God will go to be in relationship with you, the answer is really quite simple: all the way to the cross. The cross is a window into the loving character of God.

But the cross is also a mirror ” it is a mirror of our sinful human nature. The second side of the cross reflects who we are. God came to us with open-handed love, and we nailed his Son Jesus to the cross. Even worse than all the crusades and terrorist attacks and genocides in human history is this horrible decision of the elders, chief priests, scribes and people to reject and kill the Son of God. This is not a pretty picture ” it's a nightmare. The cross reflects the fact that we live perversion-driven lives.

Fortunately, God knows this, and he is willing to reach out to sinful people like us. The cross serves not only as a mirror of our sinful human nature, but as a reminder that God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but to save it. "For God so loved the world, says Jesus in the Gospel of John, "that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

This brings us to the third side of the cross: it is a solution ” a solution to sin. At the clergy conference, William Willimon said that "the cross is like a magnet, picking up the refuse of the world. Throughout his life, Jesus got in trouble for the company he kept, including with tax collectors and prostitutes. Then, when he was nailed to the cross, he died for the sinners of the world.

While it is hard to explain exactly how the cross draws us to God, when we look at the cross, we get a strong sense that God is at work. When Jesus invites his followers to "deny themselves and take up their cross and follow, he is asking them to walk the very same path that he himself will walk. When he predicts that they will be saved by losing their lives for his sake, he is offering them a route to forgiveness of sin and everlasting life. The cross is like a powerful magnet, drawing people closer to God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian pastor killed by the Nazis in the Second World War, said that when "Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. This death can be actual martyrdom, as the first disciples and Bonhoeffer experienced. It can be the death of leaving secure surroundings and going out into the world. Or it can be the death of giving away your possessions and following Jesus ” as the rich young man was challenged to do. In any case, said Bonhoeffer, "if we lose our lives in his service and carry his cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross of Christ.

The cross is a solution to sin and a path to new life.

The final side of the cross is that it is a summons ” a summons to follow Jesus in our daily lives.

The invitation that Jesus offered in Mark is the same one he offers us today: If you want to become my disciple, take up your cross and follow me. Deny yourself. Be willing to lose your life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel. And if you do this, promises Jesus, you will not actually lose your life ” you will save it.

"For what will it profit them, asks Jesus in Mark, "to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? The answer: absolutely nothing. There is no profit in gaining supreme political power, like conniving politician Frank Underwood in the show House of Cards. There is no profit in gaining extraordinary business success, like self-centered advertising man Don Draper in the show Mad Men. And there is certainly no profit in gaining financial security for your family by running a drug empire, as Walter White does in the show Breaking Bad. Each of these TV characters gains the whole world and forfeits his life. Each discovers that there is really no profit in it.

Instead, Jesus calls us to approach the cross, take it up and follow him. When we do this, we become the kind of people who find greatness in service. We discover satisfaction in sacrifice. We come to see that it is better to give than to receive, and that our deepest happiness comes from setting our minds not on human things but on divine things.

As we move from winter into springtime, darkness will be replaced by light and we'll travel ever closer to the cross. Instead of seeing it only as an instrument of death, let's notice that it is a window ” a window into the character of God. It is also a mirror ” a mirror of our sinful human nature. It is a solution ” a solution to sin. And it is a summons ” a summons to follow Jesus in our daily lives.

When it comes to the cross, four sides are always better than one.

February 22, 2015

"Reading More Than the Headlines" Mark 1:1-9

Sometimes reading the Gospel of Mark is like reading only the headlines from a newspaper ” you can get the main idea of the story but maybe not all of the details you might be looking for. You might get the big news, but after that, you really have to think about what you just read and what it means. We can read Mark's version about Jesus in the wilderness in less than a minute ” it is like the Cliffs Notes version of the First Sunday of Lent. But it would be a mistake to hurry through these verses. Those very few words are an invitation for us to sit with the story and then imagine the scene that Mark is describing.

Mark tells the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness in one sentence: "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. That is the story, but there are no details there.

It would be like if you went to visit New York City and decided to send your friend a postcard to describe your trip. "Arrived in city, saw many tall buildings. Well, that's true and accurate ” but what else? Where are all the details? Where did you eat? Who did you see? What did you feel?

We hear this story of Jesus going into the wilderness every year at the beginning of Lent. When we think about how Matthew and Luke tell the story, Mark's version is even more striking. There seems to be a lot missing. When Mark tells this story, there is:

No conversation with the devil. We don't get to hear what Jesus and Satan said to each other.

No description about Jesus bravely facing temptation.

No talk about turning stones into bread.

No invitation to leap off the highest pinnacle in Jerusalem.

But since Mark is like a headline writer, we do get the very essence of the story ” in just a few word, he lays out the most important facts. In Mark's version, we don't need to know all the details about what went on during those 40 days in the wilderness. What is important in this story is that the devil is there, and that is never good news.

We should not be surprised by what Satan is doing. Satan is doing what Satan does ” tempting. We don't get to hear the conversation between Jesus and Satan. We don't get the details about what the temptation was ” but maybe that is because Satan is not particularly creative. Effective temptation is often similar.

The temptation is to doubt God ” to wonder if God is there, and if God is there, if he is strong enough to provide the help that is needed. Think about times of temptation in your own life. What is it that could tempt you not to believe what God has said? What could sow that seed of doubt in your mind? What could make you wonder if God really is as good, as loving and as faithful as you have been told?

Mark provides us with just enough information to imagine Jesus' experience in the desert. We are told that "immediately (no time for reflection with Mark!) after his baptism, the Spirit "drove Jesus out into the wilderness. This is a shocking sentence if we take the time to listen to it. The Spirit drove him out? Wasn't this the same Spirit that had just appeared as a gentle dove hovering over the River Jordan? Wasn't this the Spirit who had delivered God's words of everlasting love? Wasn't this the Spirit who named and claimed Jesus as God's beloved?

And now this Spirit is "driving Jesus out into the wilderness? This Spirit is almost unrecognizable to us ” this is not the friendly, loving, gently whispering Spirit that we think of when we hear the word "baptism. This is another side of the Spirit ” the one who is driving, insistent and won't take no for an answer. This Spirit is taking Jesus where no one would choose to go ” into the wilderness. The wilderness is dangerous; it's a dry, harsh place. It's a place where people die. It's a place where people suffer. It's hot during the day and cold at night. There is little sustenance there, and nothing grows easily there.

Have you ever experienced such a contrast in your life? Have you ever been in a time in your life when everything is going well and then suddenly the rug is pulled out from under you? Have you ever plummeted from extreme happiness to utter sadness? Our lives can be like that ” when one phone call or one accident or one diagnosis or one friend's betrayal comes into our lives. And then ” just like Jesus ” "immediately we are plunged into the wilderness.

And that is where Satan is waiting with words of temptation. Temptation makes us doubt that God is there. Temptation makes us wonder if God still cares. Temptation makes us worry that God has forgotten us or isn't listening or is powerless to help us. Mark has given us all the detail that we need ” Jesus had just experienced the joy and wonder of baptism. Now suddenly he is in the wilderness and Satan is there, tempting him. We all know about temptation. Temptation is the voice that wants to lead us away from God.

Jesus was in that wilderness for a long, long time ” an hour can feel like forever when you are lonely or uncomfortable. Days can seem endless and nights can seem haunted when we are unhappy. And then to add to the misery, Mark tells us that there are "wild beasts in the wilderness. He doesn't say what those wild beasts are doing, but if I was going to describe a place that feels safe and comfortable and relaxing, the presence of wild beasts would not be included. With just a few words, Mark lets us know that the wilderness is a dangerous place.

But that is not the end of the story. Even here in this frightening place, there are angels. And those angels "waited on Jesus. They tend to him. They minister to him. They care about him. They truly are messengers from God, and they tell him the opposite of what Satan tells him. The angels tell him the truth ” they remind him that he has not been forgotten or forsaken or abandoned. They bring to him again the message of who he really is. That terrible time in the wilderness cannot change what is eternally true about him and about us ” he is beloved. He is loved by God, and outward circumstances cannot change that.

When you are in the wilderness times of your life or when you feel like you are surrounded by "wild beasts, can you listen for the voices of angels? Who are the angels in your life? Who brings you messages of love and reassurance? Who tells you that you have not been forgotten

After those 40 long days of suffering and then of healing, Jesus is ready to begin his public ministry. He emerges from the wilderness and hears the devastating news that John has been arrested. Jesus' beloved cousin, the one who baptized him, is gone. We know that John will never be seen alive again ” this arrest is a death sentence.

But that doesn't stop Jesus. He has a message to deliver, and nothing ” not Satan, not temptation, not John's arrest ” is going to stop him.

Mark tells us that Jesus proclaims the "good news of God. There is that headline again ” that's a broad description without any detail. If someone said to you, "Go and proclaim the good news of God, what would you say? If you had to tell what is most important about God in just a few words, how would you do that? Would you talk about God's love? About forgiveness? About being named and known by a God who doesn't lose track of you even when you are in the wilderness?

Mark sums up the good news in just one sentence: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.

That one sentence gives us plenty to think about during the season of Lent.

The time is fulfilled. Now is the time. When a crisis or need arises, we may be tempted to wait ” until we feel better prepared, until we know more, until we are less tired or less stressed or less busy. But Jesus says now is the time. The world and all of God's people need this good news right now. God can use us as messengers if we just say yes to God.

The kingdom of God has come near. It's easy to listen only to bad news and then wonder if God has forgotten us. But if Jesus can see the kingdom of God right after his cousin has been unjustly arrested and then killed without a trial, in a country that is under enemy occupation, and right after his experience of living in the wilderness with all of that hardship ” then we should be looking for God in this place, right here. The kingdom of God has come near because God can always be found where God is needed most.

Repent. The word "repent means "turn around or go in a new direction. What do we need to turn away from? What do we need to turn to? Jesus is calling us to choose to change and to choose what is good. During his time in the wilderness, Jesus had to choose which voice to listen to. He clearly turned away from the voice of temptation.

Believe in the good news. That is our invitation throughout Lent ” to choose to believe. When Jesus was in the wilderness surrounded by wild beasts and tormented by Satan, there was no visible evidence of God. Jesus had to choose to believe that God was with him. This is the work of Lent ” to choose to believe the good news and to live it, despite the circumstances that may be around us.

It turns out that Mark has told us ” in just a few words ” all that we need to know. Take heart ” because God is with us right now.


"Take the Plastic Off the Furniture" Mark 9:2-9

Back in the 1970s, many families had a room somewhere in their house with plastic on the furniture. These formal sitting rooms were usually off limits to the messy children in the house, as great care was taken to keep the room in showroom condition, always ready for people to gather for conversation. There may have been flowers neatly arranged on an end table, magazines fanned out on a coffee table and pillows in just the right places. Devoid of entertainment ” the television and games were in the den ” the sitting room was set up as a place for connection, with the furniture arranged so people could sit facing one another.

Ironically, when someone came over to talk, they were typically escorted past this gorgeous room with the plastic-covered furniture to the kitchen for conversation over coffee or tea. The room designed for this very purpose sat beautifully unused. For many families these sitting rooms became almost like shrines ” beautiful and special, but with no practical use. Their preservation became more important than the connections they were designed to produce.

Jesus doesn't seem very interested in our shrines filled with plastic-covered furniture, always clean but never used. He is far more interested in something else.

In today's text, Peter responds to this special moment with Jesus by offering to build shrines ” one for Jesus, another for Moses and a third for Elijah. On the surface, this seems like a great idea. We do the same thing all the time. Monuments are erected to commemorate where battles have been won, plaques are mounted to show where our first church buildings once stood and signs in certain parts of the United States show just about every place George Washington ever slept. In the Holy Land, there are signs alerting visitors to sites where Jesus taught, where Peter performed a healing, where Paul preached and even the traditional site of the Mount of Transfiguration, Mount Tabor. But Peter's desire to build these shrines may have another, deeper significance.

The word in Mark 9:5 rendered in various English translations as "dwellings, "shelters, "tents, "booths or "shrines is an interesting one. It is the same word that appears in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) for the religious holiday called Sukkoth, the Festival of Booths. During Sukkoth, Israelites spent seven days eating and sometimes sleeping in booths, little shacks built just for the occasion, remembering how Moses led the people through the wilderness following the exodus. Even today, the holiday serves to remind Jewish people of their nomadic roots and the great gift of their homeland. It reminds them of Jerusalem, where the temple stood. In the days of exile and occupation, the Festival of Booths also served as a reminder that God had come through on a promise he made when the people were lost, a promise that they would be restored in the Day of the Lord, the day the Messiah would rule.

With Moses' appearance on the scene, it is not a stretch to see Peter's request to build these booths or shrines as an allusion to the celebration of Sukkoth. On the one hand, Peter may have just wanted to extend this special moment for seven days. But then again, he may have had something even greater in mind.

At the end of the Old Testament book of Zechariah, the prophet tells of a day to come when all people from every part of the globe will come to the holy mountain to worship God by celebrating Sukkoth, the Festival of Booths, together with Israel. This will be a sign of the restoration of Israel to its rightful place under the leadership of the Messiah.

Peter's suggestion to build booths is a way of proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the promised one who is ushering in this Day of the Lord, the kingdom of God coming on earth as it is in heaven. Peter seems to conclude that he is experiencing the beginning of this prophecy coming to fruition. Jesus, he thinks, is ushering in this day Zechariah said would come. Peter thinks that Jesus brought him, James and John up on the mountain to get the party started. In his mind, the three of them were going to be the labor force to build the booths, facilitating the worldwide celebration of Sukkoth. Little did he know at the time that this would be his job soon, but not this day.

Given the significance of Peter's statement, Jesus' lack of response is curious. He never so much as acknowledges what Peter has said. A voice from heaven interrupts Peter's thought; then the moment is over as quickly as it began. Jesus is back to "normal, and Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus appears completely disinterested in Peter's declaration of him as the Messiah, at least in the way Peter understands it at this time, and his offer to build the booths is soon forgotten. Jesus leads them back down the mountain, and back to work.

Jesus was disinterested in building shrines that day. He did not come to lead a select few up a mountain to be alone. Nor does he ask us to create holy huddles, sacred places where the faithful sit among themselves on plastic-covered furniture to preserve the beauty of a moment. Jesus isn't interested in shrine-building. He is far more interested in leading his people back down the mountain, into the messiness of the world, to be vehicles of his love, grace and peace. All of that is hard to do with a piece of clear plastic between Jesus' followers and the rest of the world.

Many of us have had mountaintop experiences. We have literally hiked a mountain or stood before the vastness of the ocean and felt God's presence so strongly that we wanted to stay forever. We have attended retreats where the worship is so moving, the speakers so inspiring and the presence of the Holy Spirit so thick that we never wanted to leave. We have been on mission trips and felt so deeply connected to Christ that we would be willing to continue sleeping on the floor and working in the heat to extend the feeling. We have worshiped and felt God's presence with us, all the while wishing Monday would never come. We have spent time in our devotions, prayer and Bible study, loving what we're learning so much that we want to barricade the door and stay there forever. We have had those moments, as Peter, James and John did that day, when we have experienced the majesty of Jesus, and we didn't want it to end.

Like Peter, we want to preserve those moments, build a place where we can hang out with Jesus, sitting on plastic-covered furniture to keep from spoiling the moment with the messiness of the world. "Oh, Jesus, can't we stay on this mountaintop forever? Can't we hang out with you for a while in our plastic-covered bliss? Let's build some booths, some shrines. Jesus' answer is quite simply, "No!

Mountaintop experiences are important for our spiritual development, but they are not where we are called to live. We are instead called to follow Jesus back down the mountain and into his work.

Traditionally, the church has been very good at asking people to come up the mountain. Like the voice Kevin Costner hears in Field of Dreams, we are convinced that if we build it, they will come. So we build facilities and programs to draw people up the mountain ” Sunday morning worship and Sunday school, vacation Bible school, youth lock-ins, Bible studies, choir rehearsals, women's retreats and men's breakfasts. All of these are important, but they are only half of the equation.

After we have been up the mountain, Jesus calls us to follow him back down into the messy world in which we live. Inspired by our mountaintop experiences, we are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those who are struggling in our messy world.

Jesus wasn't interested in Peter's desire to build shrines at the top of the mountain. Nor is he impressed with the shrines we would like to build around our mountaintop experiences. Instead, Jesus calls us to take the plastic off the furniture of our hearts, our church, our resources and our faith, and follow him down the mountain to minister to his people. Jesus doesn't need well-preserved monuments. What Jesus most desires from us is the dedication of our lives, as individuals and as a congregation, in service to him by serving others. Sometimes that is a messy business, but through this, we celebrate that Jesus is Lord, that God is king and that the Holy Spirit is present with us each and every day.

It is time for us to take the plastic off the furniture and invite people into the sitting room, where we can connect with one another and with Christ.

February 8, 2015

"A World Out of Joint" Mark 1:29-39

Recently when a Bible teacher finished a lecture on the Gospel of Mark, someone in the gathering raised a question. This woman wondered why Mark's gospel ends the way it does, at 16:8, with the women fleeing from the empty tomb, afraid. Is it possible, she asked, that the original ending of Mark had been lost?

It was an interesting question, and one that people ask from time to time. But in light of our reading from Mark today, another question is, why does the Gospel of Mark begin as it does? It begins so abruptly. Is it possible that someone lost the opening portion? Or is there a reason why Mark begins as hastily as it does?

How the Gospels tell the story

Here's what I mean: The Gospel of Matthew begins by giving us the ancestry of Jesus ” which was very important for Jewish readers and for anyone interested in Old Testament prophecy. Matthew then tells how Jesus was miraculously conceived and born, and then how he was worshiped by wise men who came from a great distance because they wanted to see the new king that God was sending into the world, the king of the Jews. The Gospel of Luke also begins with the miraculous story of the birth of Jesus, prefaced by another miracle story, the birth of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus. The Gospel of John begins like a mystery story, not simply with the birth of Jesus on this planet, but with the story of his existence before coming to this planet, as the One who was with God from the beginning.

That is, Matthew, Luke and John all begin, in one way or another, with stories related to the birth of Jesus. But Mark doesn't tell us a thing about Jesus' birth. In fact, he begins his story when Jesus was 30 years old. He tells us how John the Baptist announced that Jesus was on the way. Then, in two or three sentences, Mark tells us about Jesus' baptism. Two more sentences tell us of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, and then that he began preaching and calling some disciples to help him. Then, a somewhat lengthier report about how Jesus astonished people with his preaching and, more than that, by the way he delivered a man who had "an unclean spirit; and with that, we are led into the scripture portion which we read a few moments ago.

It seems strange that Mark's gospel tells us nothing about Jesus' birth, that it instead begins its story when Jesus is 30 years old and that it does so by thrusting us full-scale and helter-skelter into Jesus' work. Mind you, all of this comes to us in roughly a page and a half of our Bibles. It takes up less space and time than a report on what happened to your favorite athletic team over the weekend.

Why does Mark do it as he does?

What does Mark have in mind? Obviously, we can't read the author's mind, but one gets the feeling that Mark can't wait to get into the story of what Jesus was doing. The Gospel of Mark is very much an action gospel. It's as if Mark were saying, "The world needed Jesus. People were waiting for him, whether they knew it or not. Then Mark proceeds to show us that the world to which Jesus came was a world out of joint. It was a world in trouble, a world that needed a Savior.

The great 20th-century Russian novelist Boris Pasternak said that the first-century world into which Jesus came was "a flea market of borrowed gods and conquered peoples, a bargain basement on two floors ... a mass of filth convoluted in a triple knot as in an intestinal obstruction. But then, Pasternak said, "into this tasteless heap of gold and marble, He came [that is, Jesus Christ], "light and clothed in an aura, emphatically human, deliberately provincial, Galilean, and at that moment gods and nations ceased to be and man came into being.

The novelist is telling us in his graphic way that humanity was living in "a flea market, a "tasteless heap of gold and marble, but that in spite of all the power of the Roman Empire, Christ changed everything by his coming.

This, very likely, is what Mark, too, is telling us. Many Bible scholars suggest that Mark's gospel was originally directed especially to the Roman audience, to people who lived in the seductive, distracting glamour of the imperial city, and Mark wants them to know the truth about the human condition. Life was cheap and easily sacrificed to the purposes of entertainment or emperors or the pleasures of the wealthy. And with it all, most people were enduring many kinds of ailments of body, mind and spirit, ailments that seemed to be everywhere.

The difference Jesus made

And then, Jesus came. He spoke eternal good sense. He brought hope, integrity and purpose to life ” and clearly, he cared, and so the needy ones came to him. When Jesus came to the house of Simon Peter and Andrew, Simon's mother-in-law lay sick of a fever. Fevers were often a life-and-death matter in that time and climate. Jesus entered the sickroom, took the woman by the hand and lifted her up. Mark tells us in a very matter-of-fact way that "the fever left her, and she began to serve them. There's something delightfully simple and unpretentious in this story. No one runs out onto the street to announce that a healing has taken place; no news reporters are brought in to ask questions and prepare a story for press or radio. This mother-in-law does what is most natural to her: now that she's well, she heats up the coffee and gets out the sandwiches and cakes.

The story continues in this same mood of the mundane and the miracle. It's evening, at sundown; the gloaming hour, when sentiment and memory and loneliness so easily settle in. So the community brings to Jesus "all who were sick or possessed with demons. The good news spreads quickly. Soon, Mark reports, "the whole city was gathered around the door. Mark hasn't time to give a detailed list of the problems and ailments; he says simply that Jesus "cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. We don't know how many the word "many designates, whether it is 10, 30, 50 or 100. Nor do we know all Mark means in the diagnostic report "various diseases, but clearly, it covers a wide variety. We cannot estimate all that is implied in the phrase "many demons; it's likely that this term covers all sorts of agonies of mind and spirit ” some that afflict all of us on occasion, and some that afflict others every day. Whatever, Jesus broke the power of such strange darkness and terror.

Jesus then retired for the night, but we read that in the morning, "while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place so he could pray. He had to restore his spirit in order to be ready for the challenges of a new day. There were other towns, Jesus told Simon and the others, where he must go to proclaim the message ” other towns where he will preach and cast out demons.

The message for our time

This is an important scripture for us to read on this Sunday as we approach Ash Wednesday and Lent. This scripture tells us, in dramatic ways, why Jesus came. It moves from the warm and lovely sentiment that accompanies the Christmas story to a day-by-day description of the world into which Jesus came, a world out of joint, and why, therefore, Jesus needed to come. It reminds us that Jesus met with his Father sometimes late at night and often early in the morning because he needed the reinforcement to meet the titanic needs of our world. Where Matthew and Luke tell us that God came to our world by way of Jesus Christ, and John tells us that Jesus was with God, was in fact God as the Word, the One who would come to save the world, Mark tells us the kind of world into which Jesus came. Mark's gospel thrusts us right into the maelstrom of living ” of villages where the sick are everywhere, and of cities where the demonic so often asserts itself, sometimes subtly and sometimes arrogantly.

That is, Mark tells us that Christmas happened because we need it; we couldn't survive without it.

This is a holy reminder, with Lent some 10 days away. You and I ” we who call ourselves Christians and who want so much to be worthy of that name ” we're the ones who represent Jesus in this world that is out of joint. We are the people who represent our Lord in a world that needs him altogether as much as it did 20 centuries ago, when he came physically to be among us. This surely is what Mark wants us to know.

Because our world is still out of joint. It still needs the Christ of Calvary, with his compassion for our human need. And now, you and I are part of the delivery team. We are called to help in the healing of our world.

 Proverbs 22:13 (NIV)
The sluggard says, "There is a lion outside!" or, "I will be murdered in the streets!"
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