Homeless – 2017/06/11

Psalm 8
Matthew 25:31-46

Sermon:

In my preaching class in seminary, we learned a lot of different styles of preaching.  You probably don’t think too much about how someone preaches, or even how they speak in public, but there’s a subtle amount of art to it.  My favorite style of sermon is something called the “Puritan Plain Style.”  This style is named for the way the Puritans used to preach – they would look at the text, and more or less the text only.  Then expound on that.  Yes, they would talk about the other words surrounding the particular passage they read, maybe talk about the context in which it was written, maybe tie it in to modern events, if appropriate.  But first and foremost was talking about the thing in front of them on the page.

That tends to be how I preach each Sunday.  I think about the text for the given week, and I try to do my best to explain it and deliver a message that works for people now.  I doubt that I succeed as often as I should, but that’s the way I’m most comfortable preaching.  Honestly, I usually try to start with a funny story or with something from outside the text – like I’m doing right now – as a kind of warm-up.  It’s like stretching my preaching muscles so they’re ready for the big show, when I can talk about what we’ve read.

Well, I’m not really going to do that today.  In fact, I’m going to go the opposite route.  I’m not too worried about our text for today, because ultimately, it’s a text about how we serve Jesus.  And this week, I don’t want to talk about service to Jesus in a vague way, but I want to talk specifically about how proud I am of the youth of our church, and how glad I am to have spent some time serving Jesus in real, honest ways that can help show us how we’re supposed to be, not just on mission trips like the one we took, but literally every day.

As you saw in the slide show our kids made, we did a lot in really just two days of service in Denver.  Consider how we spent these six days we were gone.  Adding up the time, we spent nearly a day-and-a-half just in the van (including all the driving in Denver), spent another nearly two days sleeping.  The rest of the time was spent in sightseeing, in fellowship, and in mission.  And the missions were glorious.

We had a chance to play bingo at the senior center, and anyone who has been to our 3F nights knows what bingo pros the kids from our church are.  We spent time sorting clothes for a free store.  And not only did we sort them, we sorted nearly three times as much as we were expected to – that’s good South Dakota work ethic those Rocky Mountain folk weren’t prepared for!  We served meals, similar to The Banquet.  We did all sorts of things.  But perhaps most interesting was a little project called “Meet a Need.”

We have to first understand that the main theme of this week was homelessness.  We learned about homelessness in Denver.  We learned that the average age of a homeless person in the United States is nine years old.  So almost everyone here today is “old” by the standard of homelessness.  About 2/3 of homeless people are part of a family, over one-third work full-time.  The causes of homelessness in America are various – high medical bills, wages incompatible with costs of living, debt, disability, mental illness, poor reintegration from prison, and many other causes.  But, however people became homeless, we were asked to go out and meet them.

So, in this “Meet a Need” project, we split into two groups, and each group was given $8 by the organization to help a homeless person meet a need.  As it turned out, neither group was able to spend its $8, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was to go out and talk to the homeless on the streets of Denver – to hear their stories, to make eye contact with them, to laugh with them, to understand how they became who they are.  And we heard varieties of different stories.

One faction of our group got sworn at by one woman because she hates the church; other times, we were greeted enthusiastically because we were from the church.  We got to meet people up close and see and touch and smell them.  That’s important.

In fact, perhaps the most important part of this weekend was a reminder of something we learn at the very beginning of the Bible, something that perhaps we all need reminding of every once in a while.  We are all created in the image of God.  Everyone, period.  No exceptions.  That means that the person you hate most is created in that image, as are you.  Trust me, a bunch of teenagers and I just spent six days and five nights with one another in close, hot, bumpy quarters – there were things that every single person in our group did that drove the others absolutely batty, and you’d have to be a little bit unhinged not to be.  And yet, at the end of the day, we had to try to remember that we were gathered in Denver to serve Jesus and his purposes, not our own.

That meant going out and finding those the world had dispossessed, and making the simple claim that Jesus’ entire earthly ministry was based on – giving humanity to everyone.  When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel, he was breaking two taboos – mixing with a woman as a man, and talking to a Samaritan, an ethnic group with which the Jews were in conflict.  Yet, he treated her as a person.  In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus gives us an imaginary story that doubles-down on that idea.  When Jesus called the little children to gather around his feet even though the adults wanted them shunned, he was reminding people that children are God’s, too, and that they also carry God’s image.  Every leper he touched, every blind person he healed, every dead body he rose, every Roman soldier he talked to – Jesus was reminding people that people are people, and people are God’s.

It’s probably good to remember here that Jesus himself didn’t have a home, that we know of.  He traveled from place to place, a vagabond, relying on others for housing, stopping wherever his feet took him.  He certainly wasn’t “respectable” as we would think of someone today, and probably had a lot more in common with the people on Colfax Ave., also known as the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” where we met people forced into the streets.  Jesus’ job, as you can probably guess, didn’t pay particularly well.  Yet, to dismiss Jesus because of his housing status would be to make a tremendous mistake.  So when we dismiss another person for the same reason, we commit the same sin.

The Christian life is one of humility.  We recognize that we don’t get to choose who deserves mercy, because, as it turns out, we probably don’t – yet God offers it to us, anyway.  And every day, we should fall down on our knees and thank the Good Lord that we have something for which we’re so undeserving.  How can we, so unworthy, do any less for our brothers and sisters who have, perhaps, not been treated so well?  We all make mistakes.  For some of us, those mistakes wash away like rain down a windshield.  For others, the mistakes they’ve made are things that ruin their lives.

I’m not trying to make it sound as if every single person’s mistakes are all equal – they’re not.  Murder is not the same as forgetting to send a gift to your mom for Mother’s Day.  But more often than not, if we think hard enough about it, that pregnant teen we’ve seen could’ve been us or someone we love; that homeless person we look down on for not managing their money might’ve just been the unlucky “last hired, first fired,” when we were the second-to-last one and got to keep the job.  Life doesn’t treat us all the same, and that’s just how things are.  But Jesus taught us some really interesting things about how to treat people, and frankly, I think his teachings ought to mean a lot more to us than whatever we’ve been brought up with about dealing with “those people.”  And his teachings affirm the goodness and the image of God, even in those people society doesn’t love.

When Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, he doesn’t state, “But only the ones who tried their hardest;” when Jesus tells us to give drink to the thirsty, he doesn’t say, “But only the ones who never made a bad choice;” when Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger, he doesn’t add, “But only if their immigration status is what you think it should be;” when Jesus tells us to clothe the naked, he doesn’t opine, “But only if they don’t own a cell phone;” when Jesus tells us to care for the sick, he doesn’t point out, “But only if you’re not afraid of getting a little sick yourself; when Jesus tells us to visit the prisoners, he doesn’t counter with, “But only if they’re innocent.”  Feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner.  These are commands simple in their grammar, simple in their ideas, and deeply, terrifyingly difficult in their execution, but that doesn’t mean we get an out.  We are asked to do these things, because that’s how we serve, love, and honor Jesus.

Jesus says that how we treat the lowest rung of society is how we treat Jesus; so how we treat the people with the least is how we are treating God.  It’s our job as Christians to remember that, when we see someone, whether they’ve made the choices we would’ve made or not, whether they look or dress or even smell like we think they should or not, it’s not our job to judge.  It’s our job to look them in the eye, to remember that they’re human, and to celebrate our humanity together.  We worship God on Sunday mornings, yes; but we also worship when we serve others.  So let us continue to gather on Sunday mornings and sing songs and pray prayers.  But when we walk out the door, let’s let our words to others be our songs, and let our actions be our prayers.  When we meet those whom the world has denied, let us remember to see the face, not just of ourselves or our neighbors, but the very face of Jesus.  Amen.

Pentecost – 2017/06/04

Psalm 104:24-30
John 7:37-39
Acts 2:1-24

Sermon:

I know it’s a half-year away and that this is hardly the time to bring it up, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to take just a minute today to talk about that weird phenomenon that is “family Christmas.”

We all have an idea of what Christmas with our family is supposed to look like, right?  We have our traditions, whether it’s gathering at a specific person’s house, or what we eat, or what we do.  Every aspect of our celebrations is designed to be something warm and fuzzy and familiar.  So maybe you’ve not thought too much about this, but you know, those traditions change, and have to.

When I was young, I would gather with my parents and my cousins and their parents all at my dad’s parents’ house.  This was simply what happened.  There wasn’t planning, there wasn’t any question – that just how Christmas was done.  Of course, we don’t do that anymore.  My dad’s parents have died, and those who were the grandkids have become the parents, and those who were the parents have become the grandparents, and people have moved all over.  So a necessary shift happens, and we move away from seeing the same people all the time.

And of course, families grow and change as people get married and have kids.  And traditions change with those changing families.  It’s perfectly natural that those things happen, and it’s good that we respond to the circumstances with which we’re presented.  I know that my family traditions around Christmas are different now that I’m not the youngest generation; same with Carissa; and both of us have different traditions since we became a couple and began celebrating with one another’s families.

The day of Pentecost is such a day in the church – a day whose meaning and mode of celebration have changed over time.  In Judaism, Pentecost is a holiday that’s celebrated, though it’s known (most of the time) as Shavuot.  Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of the Ten Commandments.  It’s a big deal because, while God is present in the Old Testament before that moment, if you think about it, there was nothing permanent, nothing codified, nothing written down.  There was no one thing you could point to and say, “THIS is what God is saying to us.”  Instead, there were individual instances of what God was doing, but followers had to pray hard and hope they heard a clear answer.  They had to meet people with spiritual gifts who had a special relationship with God, and follow those individual people.  But the giving of the Ten Commandments made a fundamental change in how Judaism operated.

So it makes sense, then, given how important that moment is in the Jewish faith, that Jesus’ disciples were in Jerusalem for that holiday, and so were Jews from around the world – or at least the world as they knew it, which (since you probably didn’t recognize most of the place-names in our passage this morning) was mostly southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.  Still, there were people in Jerusalem for this particular celebration of Pentecost from all those areas.

So, given the holiday crowd, the disciples decide that this is a great opportunity to reach people.  They have an audience of religious believers, so why not use it?  So they begin to speak. And as they speak, the Holy Spirit comes like a violent wind – something anyone from out here on the prairie can understand – and it looked or felt like tongues made of fire were resting on each of them.  God performed a miracle that day, not in this showiness, but in that, when they spoke, people understood, no matter where they came from.

Most people, in reminiscing about this passage, will think of it as the disciples spontaneously being given the ability to speak new languages.  But a close examination of the text reveals the hidden truth – “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” they ask.  They were listening to the same speaker, yet understanding in different languages!  So God was somehow giving them the ability to speak in some sort of universal language, that anyone could understand.  The miracle was placed on the ears of the hearers, as much as the tongues of the speakers.

So we have a holiday that was celebrated because God chose to be revealed to followers through words; Pentecost shares proudly in that tradition.  Only this time, the words being shared are no words about how we are supposed to conduct ourselves; this time, they are words that bring a message of Good News.

Now, on some level, that’s an assumption, because we never see exactly what the disciples themselves were saying during this portion of the story.  It’s an interesting detail to be omitted, but it’s definitely not there.  Fortunately, we do have Peter’s summary of what they said from the end of our reading today:  “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”  In other words, when Peter needs to summarize what the disciples were saying about Jesus to all these travelers from all over the world, his go-to message is this:  God is stronger than death.  Even the ending that ends all endings is not the end of God’s love and power in Jesus.

That’s the message of Pentecost.  It’s a special day in the church year for a lot of reasons.  It’s really the first action taken by the disciples after Jesus has gone up to heaven, so it sort of serves as the “birthday” for the whole church.  But more important than that, Pentecost is a day on which the Gospel message of Jesus who came, lived, died, and was raised for us and for our salvation was first preached without Jesus even being around.  It’s the message we’re all asked to live out and to share with others.

But one of the coolest consequences we see in this passage is not just the core of the Gospel.  But we see that God chooses this moment, the Pentecost moment, to teach us about things that divide as opposed to things that unite.  Peter’s message focuses on the death of Jesus not having the final say.  Death is the greatest separation of all, and yet it is nothing to God.  But on a more practical level, in our everyday lives, we don’t talk to the dead.  But on the other hand, we may talk to people who don’t speak the same language we do, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in more serious ones.  “Anymore,” “lunch,” and “dinner” are all words I had to re-learn coming to Marion, because I use every one of those words differently than most of the people around here do, and I’ve been speaking English my whole life!  But in this passage, God shows us that language, the fundamental way we communicate, is not a barrier to God’s acceptance of us or ability to desire to be with us.

The human divisions that separate us include many things, like race, country of origin, and language.  And in this one passage, God shows us that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for anyone and everyone.  It’s not limited to just a specific group of people who are given the truth while it’s hidden from everyone else.  Jesus is for everyone.  This message stretches out to be people who aren’t even from Jerusalem, but they get to hear the message anyway.

In just a couple of hours, some of our youth, along with a couple of us adults, are going to leave for Denver.  Our kids are going to have chances to meet people who have, on the surface, nothing in common with them, at least on the surface.  Sure, they will share a language, but maybe not all of them will.  They definitely won’t share economic situation, they won’t share the type of place they live.  They won’t share a background, or life experiences, or any number of other facets of human life.  In short, they’ll have come from vastly different circumstances.  But at the end of the day, there are people in Denver who need a hand of help to reach out and serve them, and our kids are going to get the chance to be that helping hand.  They have the chance to live the message of Jesus for a couple of days.  For this one week, they can be the church of Pentecost.

The truth is, we adults need to take just as much responsibility as the youth are taking this week in their trip, and we need to do it every day.  We need to be sure that the differences we put between ourselves are not things that divide, but things we’re willing to work through.  We have to let the love of God cross every boundary.  We have to let God’s faithfulness be the thing that reaches out to us, not rely on our fallen human condition to be what we’re supposed to be.  After all, we’re reminded in this passage that Jesus shows us that not even death itself is enough to keep God away from us.

We’re going to meet a lot of different people in our lives.  They’re going to be people with whom we agree and disagree, people with whom we share a lot or nothing at all, people with whom we’re able to speak and those we aren’t.  But when we meet those with whom we have these differences, our job as Christians is not to try to beat them into submission, or to shame them, or to try to make them just like us.  Our job as Christians is to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ and tell the world of his love.

We do that when we take care of people who need help.  Jesus tells us that, whatever we do to the people at the bottom of the social ladder is what we do to him.  And at the same time, we’re asked that this not be a secret, but that we are out and open and proud of the fact that we worship Christ  It’s a worthwhile goal to shoot for.  We attempt to be disciples, not by being perfect, not by being the only ones with some special knowledge of Jesus, but by being people who strive to know him better, to hear and share his word, and to love our neighbors.

Sometimes, we may miss the mark.  But the lesson of Pentecost is this:  with God’s help, we can get past any boundary that we as humans create between ourselves and other children of God.  So let us remember that, and let us share in the love of God, in word and in deed, in Marion, in Denver, and all over the world.  Amen.

Understanding – 2017/05/28

Psalm 68:32-35
John 17:1-11
Acts 1:6-14

Sermon

Truly understanding someone or something is probably the most difficult thing we can ever do.  To truly understand someone, we need to know not only what they’re saying or doing, but where they’re coming from.  We need to know basically all the background that led them to this moment, right now, in order to get what they mean.

I can’t tell you how many disagreements with my friends over the years stemmed from the fact that, at the end of the day, we just didn’t understand one another.  Either they were approaching an argument from a completely different perspective, or their life experience and mine were totally different, or we just focused on different things.

I remember one conversation when I was 14 or 15.  When I was in school, a lot of other kids came to me for advice, so I would give it to them, and because they were also teenagers, they’d never listen.  But that’s beside the point.  I remember one girl talking to me about how she and her parents absolutely did not get along, and how she didn’t know what they wanted from her, and how she didn’t trust them to even do what was best for her.

I sat there and argued up and down that, even though she and her parents didn’t see eye-to-eye, they loved her and would love her no matter what – I mean, they were her parents, after all.  To me, that settled the issue.  I would imagine myself as a parent, and knew that I would sometimes have to say and/or do things that my own child would disagree with, and I felt sympathy for this girl’s parents.  Now, being a parent, I know that I was right that we sometimes do things our kids can’t understand, just because they need it, whether they know that or not.  It’s part of the job of being a parent.

And I thought this was a pretty wise answer for a teenager.  And on some level, it was.  I had parents, I knew a lot of other kids’ parents.  I knew how parents acted.  But… did I really?  See, I’ve regretted that conversation for a long, long time, because what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that I was speaking out of my experience.  I believed that parents were trustworthy because my parents were trustworthy.  I believed that parents were always going to try to do the right thing, because my parents always tried to do the right thing.  As I got a little more world-wise, it finally occurred to me that it was possible that this girl’s parents really weren’t looking out for her best interest; they might have been abusive, or negligent, or just bad parents.  But those things didn’t even cross my mind, because I had no life experience that would guide me to even think of that conclusion.  So I’ve always wondered if I let that little 14- or 15-year-old girl down, because I didn’t know where she was coming from.  Maybe I was right that it was just parents making a tough choice their teenage daughter couldn’t understand; but maybe I didn’t actually understand what she was saying; maybe she was trying to get a message to me that I just wasn’t getting.  (If you’re waiting for the resolution to this story, there isn’t one – I have no idea to this day what happened; I just know that it’s gnawed at the back of my mind for most of my life.)

Anyway, I’m talking about understanding because that’s something we see in the disciples today.  Today’s passage from Acts revolves around the Ascension.  “Ascension” is a word that means “going up.”  Interestingly, this is not a day that’s talked about all that much in the Christian calendar, and it’s maybe even something you’ve never really thought about.  We all know about the birth at Christmas.  We all know about how Jesus was crucified and died on Good Friday, and we all know how he came back to life on Easter Sunday.  But maybe you’ve never thought about what happened after that.

After resurrecting, Jesus continued in ministry with his disciples, until it was time for him to return to heaven with God.  At that point, Jesus had his “Ascension” which is what we remember today on the final Sunday of the Easter season in the church year.  But before we get to the flashy part about Jesus flying up into the clouds, we have a really interesting exchange between the disciples and Jesus.

They ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Now, there’s a lot to unpack in this question, so I want to give it the time it deserves.  Maybe you didn’t think about that question when I started reading, but it’s really revealing.   Perhaps you’ve heard before about how there were expectations about the Messiah before Jesus was born.  People expected the Messiah to be a King; he would be someone to overthrow the other political powers of the day, and he would help restore Israel to be its own kingdom.

When Jesus showed up, though, things got very confusing.  For those who didn’t believe in Jesus, it was pretty easy not to – I mean, he was none of those things.  But for those who did believe, they believed him to be the Messiah, the Savior, even though he wasn’t any of the things they expected.  He was born in a barn to a poor family.  He was a great teacher and healer, not a military leader.  He preached Good News for all people, including Samaritans and Romans, not just to fellow Jews.  Jesus upended expectations all over the place.

And yet, when it came down to brass tax, there were obviously still some of his followers who never adjusted their expectations as to what the end-game of Jesus’ ministry was about.  They asked if he was finally going to restore the Kingdom of Israel.  Israel as a kingdom had been gone for literally hundreds of years.  The distance between Christopher Columbus and now is about how long it was between the end of the monarchy and when Jesus came along.  These guys weren’t hoping for a return of something they, or anyone they knew, remembered.

Instead, they couldn’t shake this idea that was hung up in their past.  They still believed that part of Jesus’ ministry was going to be restoring a kingdom they never knew.  And, of course, Jesus was all about a kingdom they had never known – but he wasn’t about an earthly kingdom – he was all about the Kingdom of God.  The problem was a lack of understanding.  And Jesus was the solution.

While the disciples hoped for a return to glory days they never knew, Jesus was showing them a brighter future.  Jesus was about revealing the Kingdom of God, because the disciples needed to see that there wasn’t some perfect time in the past that they could harken back to, but rather that the future needed to be written by God’s hand alone.

I’ve said this in a lot of sermons before, but I always have a lot of sympathy for the disciples.  They have a tough job – they’re trying to follow Jesus.  After all, that’s what we’re doing today.  And I think we too easily laugh at their misunderstandings, or we forget how clueless we sometimes are.  I really empathize with the disciples in this passage, though.

How many of us, if we were asked, “When was the best time in history to grow up?” would believe that when we were brought up was the best time?  I would bet it’s most of us.  The people before us had it too hard, the people after us had it too easy.  The generations before were too hardened and not realistic enough; the generations after us are spoiled and don’t understand the value of work like we do.  That’s how people are – we are limited in our viewpoints.

Similarly, the disciples are limited in their viewpoints.  Even though they’ve been exposed to all of the remarkable things Jesus has done, they cling to this particular vision of “the way things should be.”  They can’t help it, just as we can’t, because they’re just regular ol’ human beings, and all people are limited by their experience and by what they’ve seen in this world.

Undoubtedly, these disciples grew up with stories of King David defeating other kings around him and uniting the Jewish people.  They grew up hearing of Solomon’s great wisdom and riches.  So they thought, “Now those were the days.  If only things were like that, everything would be great.”  But that’s not what God saw – God saw a vision for a future disconnected from the past, but as something entirely new.  And Jesus had to explain that.

Just as those disciples 2000 years ago were confused and misguided, we get that way, too sometimes.  We believe that it’s only our vision of what’s right that could possibly be true.  So we fight for what we think is right.  Of course, though, we have to realize that many other people, including other Christians, fight for what they think is right.  Just as the disciples tried even though they didn’t “get it” all the way, that’s what we do, too.  It’s impossible to know exactly what Jesus would have us do in any given situation, but what we strive for as Christians is a closer relationship with him, so that we can better learn from him to do what’s right.

We are sometimes just as confused and misguided as the disciples.  We question Jesus’ wisdom, we question our own hearts, and we get mixed up.  But I think the most important thing to glean from this passage is Jesus’ response.

“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  See, Jesus doesn’t expect us to have all the answers.  In fact, he specifically says that we won’t.  We aren’t going to know exactly what God’s coming kingdom will look like, or when it will come, or who belongs, or who’s been perfectly right.  But that’s because those things don’t matter.  It’s not about being perfect in belief or in practice; it’s about being perfect in love of Christ.  So we make it our goal to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, because we can do that.

After saying this, Jesus goes up to heaven, and the disciples watch.  Suddenly and without warning, two angels appear next to them.  They say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  It’s a brilliant reminder – don’t just stand around waiting for Jesus to return.  Don’t just stare at the clouds hoping Christ is returning to bring the full glory of God’s Kingdom.  Jesus set a task to do in his final words.  We are to be witnesses to Christ.

We witness to Christ in how we treat those who need help, by loving our neighbors, and by loving God.  Jesus doesn’t set us arbitrary tasks, and he also doesn’t ask us to keep our heads in the clouds all the time.  We have work to do.  So whether we know just about everything or just about nothing, whether we’ve got it almost all right or almost all wrong, we have work to do.  Brothers and sisters, let’s love God and love our neighbors, and thereby do the work.  It’s what Jesus asks of us.  Amen.

Claiming Our Faith – 2017/05/21

Psalm 66:8-20
John 14:15-21
Acts 17:22-31

Sermon:

I remember visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington.  It’s very neat.  There are guards, and they’re very fancily-dressed.  They march and march, and protect someone whom they don’t even know.  And it’s not like protecting other graves – this is a place where we don’t know if they have family.  It’s a World War I veteran, but we have no idea who he is, so in a way, he could be anyone.  He stands for everyone by being no one.

And today’s passage from the book of Acts introduces us to a very similar situation.  The book of Acts is the story of the very early church.  It’s about the time after Jesus was crucified, after he was resurrected, even after he returned to heaven.  It’s really about how the very first disciples go about creating the church.

Today’s passage covers a moment when Paul – whom we know from writing much of the New Testament – was in the city of Athens.  Athens had been the capital of the Greek Empire.  When Greece gave way to Rome, the capital moved, but Athens was still a large, powerful city.  And like all large and powerful cities in the ancient world, Athens was the home of many houses of worship.  People would make pilgrimages to Athens just for worship.

Paul was standing at such a place of worship, the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill.  In Paul’s day, there was a worship site there, and it was dedicated “to an unknown god.”  Now, we have to remember that Roman religion was polytheistic – they believed in many gods.  Unlike our Christian faith which believes only in the one true God, revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Romans believed in many of those gods you’ve probably heard of, like Zeus (called Jupiter in Rome) and Hercules and stuff.

So Athens got to a point in their religious belief that they also thought they should have a way of honoring all the gods by honoring an unknown god, much as we do with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery here in the United States.  Paul found himself there, and chose to deliver the sermon we heard today.

In it, he commends the Athenians for being so religious that they want to honor the divine, even if they’re not sure who exactly that is.  But Paul tells them that, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

In other words, Paul tells them that there is no such thing as an unknown god, because now they can know the one, true God.  And that’s when Paul gives his testimony.  He explains that God created everything, and that human beings were made in God’s image and came to be.  But that we are made in God’s image, and that therefore we can’t make idols or images of God.  God made us, not the other way around.  And Paul finishes out his mini-sermon by saying that a time of judgment is coming, so it is the time to change our hearts and lives and follow after what God is doing.

This morning, brothers and sisters, we have the opportunity to welcome new members into this great faith tradition, summarized so succinctly by Paul 2000 years ago.  This morning, we remember that our God, whom we know, has not only created us, but also claims us and sets us forth for new things.  This morning, we confirm two new young men in the faith.  They become full members of this congregation, with the full rights and responsibilities thereof.  But more important than those rights and responsibilities is the faith itself.

Confirmation is about confirming a faith in our hearts.  It’s about saying “yes” to the promises made at our baptisms, if we were baptized before, as both our young men today were.  Or, it’s about finally saying “yes” to faith and being baptized.  But either way, it’s about making our life Christ’s even more.

There’s a sense in the church that, once someone is confirmed, they “graduate” from church.  There are a lot of parents who fall away from the church, only to come back when they have kids.  They take those kids to church faithfully for a long time, and then when the kids get confirmed, they (both the parents and the kids) fall away.  Because confirmation usually happens in the spring, and because there are cakes and parties, people think of it like graduation – and graduation is interesting to think of this morning, because it’s half right, but it’s half wrong.

I’ve often thought that the best thing we could do is go through confirmation a few times in our lives.  It would always be good to be reminded of our faith story, of our history together, and of the kind of life we promise to lead in Christ.  This morning, two brave young men are making that decision for themselves.  And while that’s a celebration, the similarity it has to graduation is that, when we graduate from school, it’s not like we go straight to retirement.  On the contrary, the work gets harder.  We have to go out into the world and make it.

Similarly, confirmation is a day when we are no longer considered to be “just” the youth who need to be taught.  We become full-blown members, with a faith story all our own and with just as many rights, responsibilities, and privileges as anyone else in the church.  But just like heading into the working world following graduation, the work is far from over.

And that’s where the similarities to graduation end.  Because while graduation means we’re done with school, confirmation doesn’t mean we’re done with church.  It means we’re now the adults here; we’re in charge, too.

But being in charge doesn’t mean that the responsibility of learning is done.  The very best workers, including the very best bosses, are always learning new things.  Likewise, the best Christians are always seeking new information.  We don’t get to confirmation and say, “Now I know everything, so I’m done with God.”  Instead, we seek to continue to deepen our relationship.

Just as a wedding is not the end of a relationship growing deeper, but rather the start, so too is confirmation just the beginning of our walk with Christ, when we now possess greater spiritual maturity and can approach as adults.

So we return to Paul.  He tells the Athenians that they should be worshiping the true God, and not just some made-up, unknown deity.  He gives them the shortest confirmation class I can possibly imagine.  Yet at the end, the people in his hearing are given new information to help their spiritual lives moving forward.

Brothers and sisters, while we see two young men confirmed today, let today be a chance for you yourself, no matter where you are in your walk with Christ, to confirm your faith again.  Today is an opportunity to again say “yes” to following Christ.  In fact, every day is a day of confirmation, because every day is another chance to grow in our relationship to God.  We are here today, not just to recognize these two young men, but also to remember to continue to grow in our own faith.

Each and every day is another chance to have the call of Christ confirmed in your lives.  Be sure to follow the examples of the young men you see here today, and say “yes.”  We have met the one true God in Christ Jesus.  It is our honor to serve Christ, to know him, and to grow in his love.  Amen.

The Way, the Truth, and the Life – 2017/05/14

Psalm 31:1-5
1 Peter 2:1-10
John 14:1-14

Sermon:

Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  It’s a common enough phrase.  Probably so common that we think of it without its original context.  Probably so common that we don’t really think about what it means at all.  It’s one of those phrases that has lost its meaning over time because of how common it has come to be for Christians to hear these words.

But what does it mean to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life?  I think of it like going on a trip.  When you go on a trip, you need to have a road, a mode of transportation, and a destination.  You need all three, or the trip doesn’t work.  To see that, I think we need to look at each of these three things – the Way, the Truth, and the Life – individually.

First is the Way.  Maybe you know this, but before Christianity was called “Christianity,” the followers simply called our faith, “The Way.”  There’s something really neat in that simple name – this is our way – the way – to live, to seek after God.  And Jesus says, “I am the Way.”

When I hear “the way,” I think of back in the olden days of , I don’t know, ten years ago, when you went on a trip, and you got out an actual map.  When you had to have an atlas in your car, not as a backup, but because it was the only thing you could have to help find your way if you got lost.  The very last time my parents and I went on a long road trip, we went to Canada, and that’s how we planned the trip.  That was nine years ago (that’s right, Mom and Dad – it doesn’t seem so long, does it?), but even then it was kind of an “old fashioned” way of doing things.  Today, with GPS built into cars and on phones, we have maps walking around with us almost all the time.  But once upon a time, you really had to decide on the path you were going to take, even before you set out on the journey.

When I hear Jesus say, “I am the Way,” he is telling us that he is the path, he is the road we follow.  We’re supposed to live our lives in him and like him.  We’re supposed to bring healing to those in need of it, we’re supposed to help those in need, we’re supposed to sacrifice out of what we have to provide for others.  That’s what it means to follow along the Way that Christ gives.  And just like making a map and following it, we are meant to follow this path.  Getting to our destination is really, really hard.  Without a map, we aren’t going to get there.  Luckily for us, Jesus provides us with the Way.  And when we stray from it, he’s there to guide us right back onto that highway again.

The second thing Jesus says is, “I am the truth.”  Somehow, in an era when you can’t turn on the television without hearing about “fake news,” hearing someone talk about “the Truth” has a special resonance to us.  We certainly live in a time in which people make their own truth.  And you know, that’s not all bad.  If Thomas Edison hadn’t believed in his own truth, we probably wouldn’t have electric lights, so I’m not one to complain.  On the other hand, we often delude ourselves into thinking that we alone are the ones responsible for everything.  I have a friend who was considering leaving a position in the church, but he was afraid.  He was afraid of leaving because he thought that everything he had worked on would come crumbling down.  I told him, “The church is not yours; it’s God’s.  It’s not all up to you!”

Our own truths can be helpful, and can be necessary.  They can sustain us when the world around us is living a lie.  But sometimes our own truths can fool us into forgetting bigger, more important things than ourselves.  So when Jesus tells us, “I am the truth,” he’s telling us that, whatever we may believe to be true about ourselves, our neighbors, our nation, our world, the most important truth is Jesus himself.  He is the one we can trust, even when we’re not sure what else to trust in the world around us.

To return to the analogy of the road trip:  on the road, you can have all the maps you want, but if you don’t have a good, reliable vehicle to take you where you’re going, you’re in trouble.  Just last week, I talked about walking to Parker.  That is a far walk.  It would take you most of a day to do it.  Imagine if you had no vehicle at all, ever again.  Your world would basically be confined to the five miles surrounding your house, and that’s a big estimate.  And yet, unconfined as we are, we drive to Sioux Falls like it’s nothing.  My family is here, and they came driving 400-some-odd miles in a day.  Jesus never traveled 400 miles in his life.  But you don’t make that journey without a reliable vehicle – something you can trust to deliver you safely, something to fall back on when nothing else around you makes sense.  That’s why Jesus is the Truth – he’s our vehicle to help us get from where we are, to where we’re going.

Finally, we arrive at “the Life.”  How do we describe what life is?  I don’t mean in a medical sense – although even that is increasingly hard to pin down.  Rather, I’m curious what the word “life” means in the context of what it means to have a life.  I think we can all agree that to really make it worth living, it has to have purpose, direction.  We have to be aiming for something.  Jesus is the thing we’re aiming for.  When Jesus says, “I am the Life,” he’s telling us that he’s the goal of this little “road trip” we’ve been talking about.  And the Life we receive in Christ is twofold.

First of all, there’s obviously our lives now.  The goal of our lives is to be a reflection of Jesus’ life; to live as he did.  I don’t mean wearing sandals all the time – that would be a pretty huge mistake in South Dakota.  Rather, I mean that we’re supposed to live a Christ-like life.  But of course, it’s not just our lives today that Jesus is talking about.  It’s also the eternal nature of the life we have from God.  After we are gone, we continue to live, as Christ showed us by resurrecting from the dead.  Even our deaths are not the end of our story, nor of God’s.

So we see in this passage that, if we think of life as a road trip, Jesus is the road we travel, the vehicle we ride in, and the goal of the journey.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  That’s a pretty good way of putting things.  But even after Jesus tells the disciples that, Philip says to him, “Show us the Father.”  Maybe it’s because Philip doesn’t get it; maybe it’s because he’s unsatisfied with Jesus’ description of himself.  We’re not told.  But either way, Philip is still discontented.  So Jesus spells it out even more:  “I am in the Father and the Father is in me. The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”  Jesus tells us that he is God, and that we can trust in him, because he is the very one on whom we rely for everything.

And if the passage cut off there, it would be a nice and easy sermon.  But I realize that we run into the problem of unanswered prayer at the end of this passage, and even though it doesn’t really jive with the rest of what I’m saying, I don’t want to belittle that or omit it.

“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it,” says Jesus.  Obviously, we’ve all had situations in our lives when we haven’t had prayers answered.  So what do we do with that?  I don’t think there’s an easy answer here.  I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “Have more faith;” I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “You don’t deserve it.”  Instead, I think the best answer I can give is this:  life is still complicated.  And when all else fails, when prayers remain unanswered, we continue to follow the Way, seek the Truth, and live the Life.  While we may not get exactly what we wanted, we move closer to Christ.  And when we move closer to Christ, we receive the greatest reward of all.  The best way I think I can explain how we should understand this portion of the passage is to continue the analogy of the road trip that I’ve been using throughout this sermon, as I think it gives us a little insight into what Jesus is perhaps saying at the end of today’s reading.

Like any road trip, our journey of faith is going to be fraught with problems.  There will be weather delays, road construction, bad traffic; there will be changes to the itinerary along the way.  There are always things that ensure that our trip doesn’t go exactly as we envisioned it, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  But when we choose a Christian life, when we decide to follow Jesus, we have made a decision to follow the Way, trust in the Truth, and live the Life.  Even when things let us down, we lean on Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Even when our prayers go unanswered, even when what we want is not what we get, we can still trust in the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Because without the road to follow, the vehicle to carry us, and the destination we’re shooting for, we’re simply lost, alone, and wandering.

So even when things are hard, even when we don’t get what we wanted or prayed for, let us keep faith.  Let us continue to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life, because although he may not deliver exactly what we want, he won’t ever let us down.  Amen.

Serenity – 2017/05/07

Psalm 23
John 10:1-10
1 Peter 2:18-25

Sermon:

Do you know the Serenity Prayer?  It’s used in a lot of 12-step programs, and there are a lot of people who have it as decorative art in their homes.  It’s a prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, a well-known pastor, a little over 50 years ago, and it goes like this:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Most people think of this as a prayer that, at its heart, asks God to bring us peace when we can’t change things.  Surely, that’s the first line, and is important.  But just as important is the next line.  It’s a prayer for courage to change the things we can.  And finally, of course, it’s a prayer for the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change, and what we can’t; what we should change, and what we aren’t going to be able to.

A few simple lines, and yet they’ve been inspirational to people for over 50 years.  In a lot of ways, these lines are ripped right from the life of Jesus.  When he saw that there were people with diseases he could heal, he changed that and healed them.  When he saw hungry people, he fed them, changing them.  But when it came time for him to be betrayed and hanged on a cross… well, that was a little more complicated.  He actually prayed for God to take away that fate, but God did not answer.  Jesus had to go through with it, and in that moment, he needed peace – needed serenity.  Jesus needed to be able to face his fate at that moment, because it couldn’t be changed, so he had to have the strength to face it.

Just so you know, before I go any further, just to let you know, I’m going to be doing a fair bit of reading against Scripture this morning.  The Bible is more than a book – it’s a library.  And, like any library, it’s full of diverse opinions, differing perspectives, and alternative understandings.  This morning, I’ve read for you a passage from 1 Peter, and I think Peter gets a lot of it wrong.  So this morning, I’m going to do as charitable of a reading as I can, trying to give Peter credit for what he gets right; but at the same time, we have to acknowledge the weaknesses in his arguments – the holes that he has in what he says.  And I think, as we examine the words that Peter has for us, we need to keep in mind the life of Jesus, as well as the Serenity Prayer with which I started us off this morning, as I think they serve as good guides for how to best understand what Peter is saying.

So, today’s passage from 1 Peter starts off in a bold way.  Peter addresses his audience and says, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”  Huh.  Well, I’ll tell you this much:  it’s a lot easier to tell a slave how to behave if you’re not a slave.  We, as human beings, are very good at telling other people what they should do; we’re less good at listening to people when they tell us what to do.  We think we know what’s best, and that’s how we’re going to act.

He begins by telling people, essentially, “It doesn’t matter if you’re beaten or mistreated, just deal with it.”  Well, I’ll tell you this much:  that’s terrible advice.  If a situation is abusive, or if someone is being bought and sold as property, or if someone is bullying you, you have dignity and don’t have to be in that situation.  No one deserves those things, period.  Regardless of what Peter says in this letter, human beings have inherent dignity, being created in the image of God.  And we shouldn’t treat people in a way that would be inappropriate to treat God.  So Peter is flat-out wrong in this instance, and that’s why I have to read against this text a bit.

We need to talk about the problematic elements of this bit of writing from 1 Peter, because for years, this passage was used to justify slavery.  It was used to convince women and children in abusive households that they just had to deal with the abuse.  But those things aren’t right.  They aren’t ways that we would treat God; therefore, they’re not ways we should treat one another.  So we need to think about how bad some of this passage can be in order to get what good we can out of it.

And while we didn’t start off too well with the whole slavery thing, things don’t really get much better next, particularly if you think about abuse.  Peter immediately transitions from his mention of slavery to the idea of being beaten when you didn’t do anything wrong, and how admirable that is.  Of course, people shouldn’t be beaten.  That’s just common sense.  And when people are being beaten, they should get out of that situation.  So it’s best not to take Peter too literally here.

However, we also have to give Peter a charitable reading.  And while he’s wrong when it comes to how people should be treated in everyday life, he’s not altogether wrong about taking on punishment you don’t deserve, is he?  We’ve all known (or lived) stories of siblings where one gets in trouble and the other gets away with something.  And I’m sure we also know examples of one sibling taking the blame for something they didn’t even do.  I know I’ve seen it happen.  I’ve also seen close friends take the blame for one another to avoid getting someone in trouble with their parents.  It is admirable to endure suffering, particularly if it’s on the behalf of someone else, when you’ve done nothing wrong.  And that’s what Peter is writing to us about.  While he starts by talking about slaves, I think that’s a misapplication of his own theology.  Ultimately, what Peter is talking about is suffering for others.  That’s not necessarily a goal we should shoot for; rather, it helps us put into perspective what Jesus has done for us.

Our goal is not to become a punching bag, either literally or metaphorically.  Rather, our goal is to recognize the suffering of Jesus, and to live out his message.  There’s a fine line between living out the message of Jesus and deliberately taking on punishment, but I think there’s a bit of guidance in this passage.

Peter talks quite a bit about Jesus in this passage.  He mentions the sinlessness of Jesus – that, although we are sinners, Jesus is not.  So Peter holds up Jesus as an example for us.  And that is certainly something for Jesus to be – an example.  Where Peter has it wrong is that we’re just supposed to arbitrarily accept suffering.  That’s not the case; as I’ve mentioned already, that’s not even what Jesus does.  He sees suffering all the time, and is often unwilling to accept it.  He uses the gifts he has to fight against suffering, as we all should.  Living up to his example means that, whenever we can, we fight back against injustice in the world.

We’re not supposed to give in to bullies, just because they want us to.  We’re not supposed to roll over for disease, just because it gets to us.  We’re not supposed to just accept a government if it starts killing its own citizens.  We’re not supposed to allow people to be bought and sold like goods just because Peter says suffering is good.  Yet, this passage has been used to justify all those things throughout history.  It has been misapplied and misused to try to convince people that they don’t deserve basic human dignity; it has been used to affirm the exact opposite of what Jesus teaches us, which is that we’re all God’s beloved children, created in God’s image.

Thus, a more nuanced approach is this:  suffering happens.  We can’t fight everything, so what do we do when we can’t?  This is what the first line of the serenity prayer deals with, and what a generous reading of this passage tells us, too.  We can (and should!) stand up to evil, because that’s the very heart of Jesus’ message.  But sometimes, we can’t.  Sometimes, it’s too big, or we’re too tired.  Sometimes, we take the punishment for someone else.

And in those cases, what Peter says is spot-on.  In those situations, we remember the life of Jesus.  We remember that he fought against all sorts of evil – demons that possessed people, religious authorities who persecuted him, hunger, disease, racism, sexism, ageism, violence.  There are examples of Jesus fighting against every one of those things.  But when the fight came that he couldn’t win, how did he conduct himself?  What can we learn from that?

And in that context, let Peter’s words wash over you again:  “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”

In other words, when we can’t fight back, we maintain our dignity.  We recognize that we are still fearfully and wonderfully made, created in God’s image.  We have to realize that, even when the evil comes that we can’t fight back, we have Christ at our side.  And when he suffered in those circumstances, he bore that weight with love.

Jesus took his last days and made them about spending time with his friends; giving lessons to those who needed them.  Jesus didn’t let his mortality get in the way of living out God’s call.  Instead, he embraced things twice as hard.  As he was dying on the cross, he took that moment of unbelievable agony to forgive someone else, as the criminal on one side asked for forgiveness.  Jesus gave forgiveness to those who had him put to death, because he realized that they did not know what they were doing.

Basically, Jesus didn’t let a little thing like losing a battle get in the way of winning the war, as the cliché goes.  You only lose the battle when you give up on the principles that put you where you’re supposed to be.  In Jesus’ last moments, he embraced them harder than ever.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus suffered for us, so that we’re not asked to suffer.  We inevitably will because the world is still imperfect.  So when we face things, we’re asked to face them as Jesus did:  with courage, finding the good in a bad situation.  We can bring God into places that seem to dark to go.  And in those dark places, Resurrection light is shined.  It can’t take away the pain of things that are broken, but pain can be transformed into a brighter future when we embrace what God is doing.

We are meant to be more than just slaves, we’re meant for more than to accept harsh treatment by a cruel master.  We’re children of God, created in God’s own image.  We, and everyone, should be afforded the same dignity that God deserves.  So let us go out and boldly live like Jesus.  When we suffer, let us do it in a way that causes the world around us to marvel at who we are, and whom we serve.  When we see others suffering, let us lift them up out of it.  And when we cannot help others, let us remain in solidarity with them, knowing that they suffer just as God did when Jesus came to teach us how to live.

So don’t go out looking for suffering.  And don’t let Peter’s poor turn of a phrase be a reason you have to continue to suffer.  But know that when comes the battle that you cannot win, you emerge victorious, not by refusing to accept things that you can’t change.  Rather, you win by embracing your inner Christ-light, and by living the life Jesus calls you to lead.  Amen.

When We Finally “Get It” – 2017/04/30

Psalm 116:12-19
Acts 2:42-47
Luke 24:13-35

Sermon:

Walking is something very important to me.  Most of you know that I walk my dog twice a day.  It’s an important ritual to me.  Of course, nowadays, with schedules being what they are with a baby to pick up and drop off, we don’t walk at quite the same time every day, but we still do it, rain, snow, or bitterest cold.

Carissa and I have always loved walking together, too.  I remember when we went to seminary, we made really good friends with a girl from California.  She said, “You two walk so fast!”  And then, when winter came, one day out of the blue she said, “I get it now – you walk so fast because it’s cold six months out of the year.  I didn’t know that.”  Pshh – Californians.

Walking is also important to me because, believe it or not, Carissa only agreed to go on a date with me in the first place because we went on a walk.  We were at the Relay for Life event at our college, where you broke up into teams and raised money for cancer research.  You walked all night – at least, someone from your team was supposed to.  We had a lot of mutual friends and wound up walking with the same team, but they walked too slowly for our taste, so little by little we separated from the pack.  And we walked and talked for hours, and I somehow conned her into going to a concert with me the next night, and how she’s stuck with me.

So I know from personal experience that a walk can be powerful.  And even if it’s not quite that life-changing all the time, a walk is also something that serves as a good way to clear your head, or to mull something over, or to just get a little bit of exercise.  I’ve come up with good ideas on walks, and I’ve worked through tough emotional things.  I’ve had deep conversations with friends and I’ve enjoyed the silence of nature.

But I think it’s fair to say that, however great some of your or my walks have been in our lives, we’ve never had a walk quite like the one we read about today from Luke’s Gospel.

Of course, today’s story was about two disciples walking down the road, contemplating Jesus and what had happened with him.  When the story begins, it’s still Easter Sunday, the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, and they’re walking about seven miles, from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus.  Basically, they’re walking from Marion to Parker.  Of course, I don’t assume that many of us have done that, but it’s a perfect frame of reference, because it’s just about the right distance.  As you know, if you were to do that, you’d be settling in for a pretty long walk.  Anyway, they’re discussing these things that have happened in the last few days (Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, plus the news of the empty tomb they heard from the women this morning), when a stranger comes up and starts walking with them.  They don’t know him, but they are surprised when he seems not to know about the last few days.  Of course, he actually does, because it’s Jesus; but they don’t know that yet.  So they start to share some of their experiences.

They say some really interesting things that might be worth talking about.  For example, they say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  “Had hoped” is past tense – they did want that to be true, but no longer believe it to be.  That’s probably because, with Jesus dead, they didn’t believe he could possibly be the Messiah.  This is very interesting because it rubs against the modern notion that the most important thing Jesus did was come to die.  Of course, Jesus’ death is important, but the disciples at the time saw that as a negative, not a positive.  We can chalk this up to them being shortsighted, but perhaps their wisdom is insightful; God cannot be the God of the dead only.  That’s not very helpful to those of us alive.  Rather, God must be the God of the living as well.  Seeing the man they “had hoped . . . was the one to redeem Israel” die was a crushing blow to them.

But they’d heard this rumor from the women who, earlier that day, told them that the tomb was empty.  Of course, here again we see the ancient world at work.  One of the interesting things about Judaism and Jesus in particular is how valuable they saw women being.  The wider society in the Roman Empire saw women as useless.  But the Judaism of the time had an abiding respect for women that Jesus made an important part of his message.  Many of his followers were women, as we know, so their contributions and reports were taken seriously.  The Roman culture around them would’ve dismissed the report of the women as unreliable, but in a move that finally shows that some of Jesus’ disciples were actually paying attention to his message, they trust the women.  So some of the disciples, hearing this news, go to the tomb where Jesus was buried to see for themselves, and they find it just as the women had told them – empty.

But at this point in the conversation, Jesus (who, keep in mind, these two disciples still don’t recognize) starts to tell them more about this story than they already knew.  He goes back, back, back in time to tell them, beginning with Moses, how God was leading all of creation up to this moment, when Jesus could come to be exactly what they had hoped he would be, even if they didn’t realize it.  Their hope was lost, but these things that he was saying to them suddenly started to make them look at things with fresh eyes.  But even though their conversation was long, it was not long enough for these two, so they asked Jesus to stay with them.

In that moment, they invite Jesus in with a hospitality that shows, for a second time, that they were finally understanding the lessons of Jesus.  Jesus was all about hospitality.  Remember how he washed the feet of others, even though he was the most special person in the room?  Remember how he called little children to his side?  Remember how he invited women to follow him, even when the wider culture around him wouldn’t have done that?  Jesus was all about embracing everyone who needed it – and these two disciples were getting it.

Now, before we get to the meat of the story, I want to take a brief aside to talk about these two disciples.  One of them was named Cleopas.  This is a disciple, but not one of the famous 12.  He’s just one of the many followers of Jesus.  The other disciple is never named.  Sure, we could speculate on who it is.  But one pastor I listened to this week pointed out how ideal this is for us that this disciple has no name, because it allows us to put ourselves in the story in a way that wouldn’t work otherwise.  So let’s think of this story again; you and Cleopas are walking, talking about Jesus.  Suddenly this man comes and talks even more about Jesus.  You decide to offer him a meal and a place to stay for the night.  And that’s when something remarkable happens.

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight,” is what Luke’s Gospel tells us.  In other words, they finally get it.  The man with them was Jesus the whole time!  They were telling him about himself, which is a little weird.  But he told them about himself, too.  They had the full picture.

Now, there are two lessons to take from this Scripture today, I think.  First of all, we as people today are not likely to have this opportunity to host Jesus.  But let’s remember something else Jesus said.  In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Jesus.  In this passage, the disciples saw a fellow traveler and offered him hospitality.  Let me tell you this; even if that traveler hadn’t been Jesus, they would’ve still seen him, because they offered hospitality to someone who could use it.  They offered to share a meal with someone else who was hungry.  Even though they didn’t have much, they shared because someone else needed.  Whenever we do that, we see Jesus, because that’s what we’re called to do as Christians.

The whole point of our faith is to become more like Jesus, and how can we better honor him than by doing the very things he would’ve done?  Just a few days earlier, Jesus had taught these disciples his “New Commandment” – to love one another as he had loved them.  That’s what they do in this passage; the see someone, and love him.  This is so different from the story we read last week about the 12 who decided to lock themselves in a room because they were afraid.  These disciples actually go out into the world, and live the way Jesus told them to.  They live out the faith that Jesus taught in their actions.

And while that lesson cannot possibly be overstated, I don’t think it’s the only point of this story.  I think the best thing about reading and interpreting Scripture every week as we do in church is that the stories we read are so full of delicious little pieces about God that we could go on forever about them.  But while hospitality to others is at the heart of the Gospel, it’s not the only thing we take from this story.  If this traveler had been a random wanderer and not Jesus, this would’ve been a very, very good interpretation, and probably the only one.  Or perhaps it would’ve been a lesson about how we can learn something from others, even if we feel like we know all there is to know – after all, this traveler sure taught them a lot!

But equally important for us to remember is that the traveler they encounter wasn’t just anyone; he was Jesus.  We can forget that Jesus is by our sides.  And in this season of Easter, the theme that keeps coming up is people at their lowest, trying to figure out who they are and what they’re supposed to do.  And over and over again, what they’re going to find is this:  Jesus is right there with them.

They used the past tense to talk about how they felt about Jesus.  “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  But we know from this story that Jesus isn’t about the past; he’s even moreso about the present and the future.

They didn’t need to lose hope, because Jesus is there beside them.  Likewise, we have hope in Christ.  Did their hope make them immortal, or somehow immune from the ills of the world?  No.  But what it did was give them a way forward.  Christianity is not a religion of easy answers to tricky questions.  In fact, it asks more tricky questions about daily living than it answers.  But what it does do is offer us a way to live, regardless of our circumstances.  We can live with generosity, no matter how much the world smacks us down.  We can live with faith no matter how much the world tries to strip it away.  We can show kindness when all we get is cruelty, we can show justice when we’re cheated, grace when we’re pushed to punish, love when we’re shown hate – hope, when it seems all hope is lost.

We can do these things, not because we’re perfect, not because we’re better than everyone else, not because we’re just supposed to have a “positive attitude.”  We can do them because we have Christ right alongside us.  A positive attitude is a powerful thing – but it’s not always what we need.  Look at the disciples in this story – Cleopas and this other disciple, who could be you or me.  They’re talking about lost hope.  They’re in a serious conversation.  And they don’t lose that; they don’t decide to just pluck up, have a positive attitude, grin and bear it.  No; they tell their story.  But more importantly, they live the way they were taught by their Rabbi, Jesus.  In spite of their hardship, they live into their calling.

And brothers and sisters, that’s exactly what we’re asked to do.  We’re not supposed to just be happy all the time; that’s not what Jesus is asking.  Because the kind of Hope Jesus offers isn’t that each day is perfect.  Instead, the Hope offered in Christ is a light in the darkness.  It doesn’t make the whole world bright all the time, but it gives us a way to navigate, even when everything around us seems to be conspiring against us.  These two disciples show us that, by living as we’re meant to, by embracing the call of Jesus, we find him in our lives.

So, beloved, we’re asked this day to not just walk the road, but to walk it with Jesus at our side.  And we’re asked to help the other travelers we meet, not just because they might have something to teach us, but because they, too, shine with the light of Christ.  And we’re asked to recognize and remember that our Lord and Savior Jesus is about a lot more than just dying; he’s about living.  He is about second chances and ways forward.  He’s about being able to be free, because although we, too, will die one day, we will do so in the Lord, and with the Hope of tomorrow, in the face of the world’s great ending.

Brothers and sisters, the Good News of Jesus is here.  We may have hope, because we are loved.  And the one who loves is sitting next to you today, will be driving behind you tomorrow, will be drinking coffee with you the next day, will be playing on the playground with you the day after that.  Take care of Jesus, just as he takes care of you.  Amen.

My Lord and My God – 2017/04/23

Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Sermon:

Let me tell you about some things I trust.  I trust my electronics – probably too much.  I trust that they’re going to turn on, that they’re going to do what they’re supposed to – and when they don’t, it is so frustrating.  I trust people around Marion.  I mean, let’s face it – I run into places with my keys in the car sometimes, which is not something I did when I lived anywhere else.

But I also trust many, many things – I trust the sun to rise, I trust the post office to deliver the mail I send, I trust that my phone calls aren’t actually being monitored by a shadowy government organization, I trust that the beef I order in a restaurant is not actually dog meat, I trust that when I meet someone and ask their name that they’re not lying to me, I trust that when someone says, “Your kid is cute,” they’re being honest and not just polite, I trust my family when they say they love me.  The fact of the matter is, you literally can’t survive if you don’t trust something.  There aren’t enough hours in the day to be suspicious of everything.

But of course, what defines us as people more than anything else is what we choose to trust in.  We certainly have choices in that regard.  In the things I listed, I listed some mundane things – like how I expect that restaurants are serving what they say they’re serving – but I listed serious things, too.  For example, when people in your life tell you they love you, you can trust them, or you can’t.  You really can’t know, but you choose to trust them or not.

The thing about a person telling you that they love you is that it’s not just something people say.  It’s something you show, too.  So you have more evidence than just something someone says.  Their actions also inform whether or not we believe them.

So of course, on this second Sunday of Easter, we get the traditional Second Sunday of Easter passage – good ol’ Doubting Thomas in the locked room with the disciples.  It’s, on some level, a passage all about trust.  Last week, we read about how Jesus appeared to women at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, but he had yet to appear to his male disciples.  In today’s passage, we see a continuation of that story.  Just as Jesus appeared to the women, he shows up in the room where the disciples are gathered.

Now, this was a locked room.  The disciples were, as the Gospel of John tells us, “locked for fear of the Jews.”  Of course, they weren’t afraid of all the Jews – they were Jews, too!  They were afraid, though, of some of the people who had been hostile to Jesus; they were surely afraid that the same people who arranged Jesus’ trial could be coming for them next.  So they locked themselves away and hid in fear.

This is, unfortunately, an example of doing what our human nature does so often, and shows a complete misunderstanding of what Jesus had taught them.  After all, when Jesus was accused in the Garden, he boldly stood up and said who he was.  When Pilate accused him of being the Christ, he did not pretend not to be just to avoid punishment.  But we can give the disciples a break here, just a little bit.  They’ve just lost their friend.  Instead of living as he taught them to, they’re retreating into what feels “safe.”

But suddenly, in this locked room, Jesus appears.  When he appears, though, one of the disciples is missing.  It’s Thomas.  I like to imagine that Thomas was out getting some food.  After all, the disciples ate on Thursday night, and then Jesus got arrested, crucified on Friday, Saturday was the Sabbath so they would’ve scrounged what was left where they were staying.  Surely, by Sunday, they needed some food, and we know from our reading that this story takes place on Easter Sunday night.

Anyway, Thomas isn’t there when Jesus appears.  Yet, Jesus shows up and delivers messages of hope and Good News to the disciples.  So when Thomas returns, the disciples tell him that they saw Jesus, and Thomas doesn’t believe it.

You know, I find Thomas immensely sympathetic in this passage.  Why would he believe the disciples?  I mean, he trusts them.  But think of people you trust.  If they told you that someone you saw died and buried had been in your house an hour ago, I’m pretty sure you’d believe what you had seen, rather than what they said.

We sometimes have a habit of thinking ourselves above characters in the Bible.  We think, “They see all these miracles all the time, and still they don’t trust when things are coming straight from God!”  Well, first of all, people haven’t changed that much in 2000 years.  We’re a little taller, we live a little longer, but we aren’t any smarter.  It was just as hard to tell back then as it is now which messages were from God and which ones weren’t.  I mean, if a message like this comes straight from the mouth of Jesus, perhaps there’s an argument that Thomas is just being stubborn – but this isn’t that.  This is just his friends telling him something he doesn’t know is true.

In short, Thomas doesn’t believe them.  He doesn’t trust in what they say.  And you know what?  I think that’s the right call.  I think it’s how I would feel and what I would do in that situation, too.  Thomas doesn’t have absolute faith in his friends, because they’re flawed people.  They make mistakes.  They make bad judgments.  They make stupid decisions.  They’re just like the rest of us.  What the story of Thomas teaches us is not that the disciples are always right about everything.  What the story of Thomas teaches us is that the only thing we can trust with absolute certainty is Jesus.

When we say we have faith in Jesus, that’s not just a claim that we believe that Jesus existed a long time ago.  It means we trust him.  And we can trust him, not just because he says he loves us, but because he’s shown us that we’re loved.  That is, to me, what the Easter story and its continuation in this story today are all about.  Faith is not just about mere belief – it’s not only about an intellectual acknowledgement that something is true.  It’s also about who we trust, and what that trust means.

One of the things that comes with trust is doubt.  Perhaps this is why I have a little sympathy for Thomas here.  You don’t doubt someone unless you have a reason to trust them first.  Doubt only comes when you have a relationship.  It’s also a necessary part of a relationship.  It’s understandable that Thomas would doubt here, because what he’s being asked to believe is completely incredible.  Similarly, it’s okay for us to sometimes have doubts, because God asks incredible things of us, too.  We don’t just trust anything and everything someone says – we must have some amount of doubt in our lives to survive.  What we see from Thomas here is just the “usual” amount that we show every day.

In the end, though, we read this passage, not because it should make us feel good about the occasional doubt that crosses our minds, but because it’s a reminder of how strong our faith can and should be.  It’s not a story about how it’s good to doubt – it’s a story about how, in spite of our questioning and doubting God, God comes through for us in the end.

Invariably, everything in our lives will let us down sooner or later.  Friends, family, business, technology, you name it.  Sooner or later, it will fail to live up to the hopes we put in it.  But God is different, because God never lets us down.  That’s not to say that our lives are perfect; but then, God never promises us a perfect life.  What God promises is life eternal and love forever.  Only God can be trusted completely.

Probably the best example in human history of someone trusting something else more than God is Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s.  The whole project of Nazism was about putting your trust in something other than God.  They believed that their Germanness was the most important thing in the world, even more important than their identity in Christ.  The story of Nazism is not a story about how everyone alive in Germany in the ‘40s was evil – they weren’t.  But when they put their trust in something that wasn’t God – that was evil.  They believed that their politics and their racial identity were as important as God (Actually, more important – I wrote a 30-page paper about it once, and could literally talk your ears off if you want to hear about it sometime).

And that’s where we remember the great insight of the Presbyterian and Reformed branch of theology – that all sins are idolatry.  We think of “idols” as statues that people used to pray to instead of the one true God.  We think we’re not guilty of idolatry because we’re not building a statue of a golden calf to pray to.  Unfortunately, whenever we sin, we’re committing idolatry, because sin is when we trust something ahead of God.  When we put something else ahead of what God is doing, we commit idolatry; we commit sin.

Now I’ve gotten pretty far afield from Thomas, but I’m going to bring it back home.  Thomas  came to believe only once he saw.  We aren’t so lucky; we weren’t there in that locked room, either.  Nonetheless, Jesus calls us blessed for believing without seeing.  Our faith in Christ is built on a foundation of knowledge; we know that Christ has been raised, and in that, we know that we are cared for and forgiven.  We know that we are loved.  Christ’s resurrection for us is the proof – the proof that God does care, even when things are dire; the proof that God does love us, even when it seems that no one does; the proof that God is on our side, even when we look around and see no one else.

Thomas’ doubt about Jesus was probably justified.  It’s understandable, at least.  But from our perspective, now that we know he has been raised, how can we fail to trust in God?  We know that, come what may, the creator of the universe is on our side.  Whenever things don’t work out, we can rest secure in the knowledge that God is there with us.  No matter what locked room we feel trapped in, Jesus can break into that room to say, “I am here.  I have been raised.  I love you.”  Let us always remember that, wherever our lives take us, God is faithful.  After all, Christ is risen.  Amen.

Fear and Great Joy – 2017/04/16

Psalm 118:14-24
Colossians 3:1-17
Matthew 28:1-10

Sermon:

It’s really funny watching my son navigate the world.  Toddlers are very special – they are learning so much and so fast that it’s easy to miss things.  But, as a huge nerd, one of the things that I really enjoy watching is not just all the mushy stuff, but really thinking about how his brain is developing.  Of course, our brains develop in many ways over our lifetimes, and they’re all interesting.  But toddlers’ brains are growing particularly fast and in fascinating ways.

One of the places that it’s easiest to see this is when one of his toys gets caught somewhere.  So, if you have something that lands, say, on the other side of the table, you know that you just have to walk around the table.  Except to Zeke, that didn’t occur to him the first time he threw a ball over there.  He had to learn it.  And really, when you think about it, going around a table to get something is really hard and counterintuitive, because it means you actually have to move farther away from it in order to get closer.

When we’re young, we learn this skill when we start to do mazes.  We learn if you start in the upper right-hand corner and you have to get to the upper left-hand corner, it’s not as simply as just drawing a line.  Sometimes, you have to work your way all the way down to the bottom to get back up.  I watch my child learn this skill, and I realize how much I still have to learn about the world around me.  How often am I trying to take the path of least resistance – but how often is that actually harder than the path I should’ve taken?  We can’t always know the answer of course – so often in life, we only get one chance at something, and we’re stuck with the way we chose to go.  But our passage today, I think, really helps us understand when the harder way makes things better.

Of course, this morning is the greatest of all days in the Christian year:  it’s Easter Sunday.  This is a joyful day in the church year.  So let us walk the journey that the followers of Jesus walked that first time around, and remember exactly what happened.

We begin just a short week ago, with Palm Sunday.  This was the day in which Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  He was greeted with people singing his praises.  Throughout the week, he was harassed by some of the religious leaders at the Temple and in the city, as they were trying to take him to trial for sedition – in other words, they wanted him convicted as some sort of terrorist, or traitor.  This would require the Roman authorities to put him to death.  Jesus’ opponents said that Jesus was claiming to be the true king.  Of course, in some ways this was true – but in the realistic ways, the very week that Jesus was arrested, he told some of his opponents that they owed their taxes to Caesar, just like anyone else.  That hardly sounds like someone trying to overthrow the existing political structure.

Anyway, Jesus went from there to having the Passover meal with his friends on Thursday night.  In that meal, Jesus revealed that he knew his death was coming.  He also instituted footwashing, the Sacrament of Communion, and the commandment to love one another.  Then, following the meal, he went to the Garden with his disciples to pray.  He asked that they remain awake, but they fell asleep.  And as they slept, three times he prayed, “Father, if I don’t have to do this, don’t make me – but if I must, then let your will be done.”

That very night, he was arrested.  His disciple Judas, one of his 12 closest followers, betrayed him and handed him over to the authorities.  He was tried and found guilty by Pontius Pilate, the governor of the region.  Given one last chance to free Jesus, some of the people gathered outside were asked if Jesus should be released, and they shouted, “Crucify him!”  Perhaps some of these were the same people who cheered just five days earlier, on Palm Sunday.

Jesus was then put to death on a cross.  Hanging on a cross, I’m sure you know, was a horribly painful way to die.  While you were still alive, you were nailed to the wood, which was unsanded.  I don’t want to get into all the grisly details, but let it be known that this was not a humane way to put someone to death – it was not a firing squad or a lethal injection.  It was meant to be torture.  Jesus called out from the cross, breathed his last, and he died.

Of course, this left the disciples in quite a predicament.  We normally think of the 12, which were Jesus’ closest followers, but we should remember that there were many people following Jesus.  Anyway, they were all suddenly without the most important person in the world to them.  He was their leader, their guide, their guardian.  Some of them had even professed their belief that he was the Messiah, the Chosen One, God’s promised salvation to humankind.  Others knew what we know, too – that Jesus was in fact God in human form, walking among them, showing them how God means all of us to live.

Now, they were without, not just their friend, but without God.  Can you imagine the crisis of faith that proceeds from there?  Where are you supposed to turn?  How are you supposed to cope?  When God is gone, who is left?

Of course, the day that Jesus died was Friday, before sundown.  So he was placed in a tomb, which was the common method of burial in Jesus’ time and place.  He was left there for the night, and no one mourned him.  This is because the next day, Saturday, was the Sabbath.  That’s the day that Jews are required to rest – so none of Jesus’ followers could do the traditional body preparation, nor the proper mourning.  And since the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday, they really couldn’t go until Sunday morning.

And this is where we start to think about what it means to do something counterintuitive.  Remember, Jesus was the guide for a whole bunch of people – and now he was gone.

So some of them, naturally, were probably ready to move on.  Some of them, undoubtedly, didn’t want to have to face their grief.  But some of the others were among the bravest.  Some of Jesus’ closest followers were women, and some of them courageously did something unexpected.  Now, there are many sermons to be preached about the fact that it was women who went to the tomb that first time.  But I don’t want to dwell too hard on that today.  Let’s just suffice it to say that, of even Jesus’ 12 closest male followers none of them show up at the tomb in Matthew’s Gospel which we read this morning.

These women go in their grief.  They went to see the tomb.  There was a great stone rolled in front of it, so they weren’t going to get to see Jesus.  But they could at least look at the place where he was laid to rest.  There could, perhaps, be some closure if they could mourn properly.  So they show up, and that’s when something remarkable happens.

The stone has been rolled away.  An angel is there and tells the women – “He isn’t here.  He has been raised, and he’s headed home to Galilee ahead of you.”  These poor women are a horrible mixture of emotions.  If you read the passage, you see that they begin in grief, move to fear when they see the angel, and then, even after this angel has told them not to be afraid, verse 8 tells us that “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.”

I love those words.  They were still afraid – why wouldn’t you be?  You just saw an angel, and he told you that your friend who had died was now alive again.  That’s terrifying – but it’s also the very best news.

I ask myself what this passage should mean for us today.  Surely, there’s a lot we can take from the cosmic meaning of the resurrection, and we’ll get there this morning.  But I also think it’s important to take out one of the smaller things from our passage.  And the reason we’ve read these texts for 2000 years is that they’re incredibly rich!

One of the things I think this passage is saying to us is something about emotion.  Why the women?  Why were these the ones who heard of Jesus’ resurrection first?  Why didn’t Jesus just appear to the 12, so they could see him first?

My answer for this is simple:  these women were the ones who embraced what they were feeling.  While Jesus’ other followers may have been perplexed or upset, while some may have been moving on, these women came looking for the bottom.  They were interested in feeling the true depth of their feelings, including the bad ones.  And it’s only those people who go seeking out everything they’re given who indeed are able to find the great joy, too.

We live in a culture that tells us that the most important thing to feel is happiness.  We believe that we should be shielded from all unpleasantness, all the time.  But the truth is, no matter how much we try to sanitize our lives, we’ll never be able to remove all suffering.  So instead, we often live in denial.  But these women are a wonderful example to us.  They are sad, and they go out in their mourning to try to find the closure they need.  They don’t run away from the unpleasantness; they run to it.  And it’s in the discomfort of the situation that they find their greatest joy.

Because, of course, as the passage ends, they don’t just see an angel telling them about the risen Lord – they actually meet him on their way to talk to the disciples!  They fall at his feet and worship him.  And the reason they were able to meet him in this place was because they embraced the unusual path.  They found great joy by traveling through great sadness.  Just as my son has to learn to walk around obstacles to find what he’s seeking, these women possessed the wisdom to know that they had to actually confront the bad things in life to find the good.

Brothers and sisters, this is a good lesson for us in this holiest of Christian weeks.  Easter is sweetest when we’ve traveled through Good Friday to get here.

It’s only when we’re reminded of the pain we face that the joy shines through.  It’s only when we allow ourselves to feel alone that we remember how much having companionship means.  It’s only through the confronting of our demons that they are exorcised from our lives.  Most importantly of all, this story of Jesus who came do us an died, who defied the Roman authorities, who helped those with no food or clothes or friendship, who was simultaneously the lowest of humans and God almighty – this Easter story is what we need to know as Christians.  It’s how we know that, when we walk into a dark room, there may be dangers, but there will also always be light in Christ.  There is always hope in the Christian story, because there is always Jesus.  Even death cannot hold back God’s love for us.

Easter is the day when we see Christ come again in glory.  The Resurrection is not icing on the cake that God has given us – the Easter story is the very heart of the Good News of Jesus; it is the part of the story that reminds us that there is not one thing that can make God’s love for us fail.  I am reminded of the eighth chapter of Romans, and will conclude with these words from Paul that summarize what Easter means to me: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

On Easter Sunday, we see that love fulfilled.  We see Christ who has conquered sin and death.  The grave, the final answer of the world, does not hold God’s love for us. God can’t be contained, put in a box, put in a tomb, squirreled away for some other time.  Christ is not just a good guy who lived a long time ago.  Jesus is alive, here and now, to remind us that we are not alone, that we are taken care of, and that our future is full of hope, no matter how dire things may be.  God is literally bursting forth from the ground, ready to embrace us and show us the truth.

And that truth is this:  you are loved.  Jesus has literally crossed every boundary to show you that – even death itself.  Therefore we, like those women nearly 2000 years ago, have no reason to fear the bad things that come in life.  Instead, we must embrace our mourning when sad things happen.  It is in embracing the depth of our pain in the night that we find the joy that comes in the light of day.  And as you embrace everything life throws at you, do so remembering that your Lord and Savior suffered a violent death, yet returned from the grave healthy and whole, promising God’s better things to come.  And he did that all because he loves you.  So go forth from this place knowing that love, sharing it with others, and feeling renewed and warmed in God’s embrace.  Amen!

Church – 2017/04/13

We didn’t film this sermon for Maundy Thursday, but you’re welcome to read the text of David’s sermon here!

1 Corinthians 11:23-32
John 13:1-17

Sermon:

I’ve often wondered why the best times I’ve had church in my life have so rarely been on Sunday mornings sitting in a pew.  It probably doesn’t surprise anyone here that, when you’re a pastor, you’re not really necessarily in the most “worshipful” headspace when you’re leading others – you’re thinking about the next thing to come in worship, and it’s hard to be as moved by the words that you spent the week writing – though I will admit to getting a bit choked up once in a while.

But even when I’ve been a worshiper, I’ve so often found that the best church often happens in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.  I’ve had great church around the campfire, in the bar, at restaurants, and at friends’ houses.  Sometimes, it’s been intentional – with a service planned and everything.  Other times, it’s been something that arises spontaneously, when the Holy Spirit just chooses a moment and says, “Yes; right now, I am here, and you need to feel my presence.”

Those are really special moments.  I hope you all have had or will have those moments in your lives, because it’s truly a special thing.  I’m also not saying that Sunday mornings are worthless, because they’re not – they’re a weekly time to reconnect with God, to slow ourselves down and intentionally take time that could be spent doing something for ourselves and instead do something for God.  Instead, what I’m saying is this:  church on a Sunday morning is a discipline; it’s something we do to do it.  And we can’t expect that really excellent, rare, “special” kind of church every single Sunday – because even if we did get it every week, it would become routine, too, and we wouldn’t care as much.

But I think Maundy Thursday is a really interesting service, because it’s a time to remember one of those special circumstances when Jesus and the disciples had “church,” without having church.

Remember first of all that there was no such thing as a church in Jesus’ day.  That didn’t come until after Jesus ascended into heaven.  After all, when he was on earth, his followers took the word “follower” literally – they literally just “followed” him around.  But after he was no longer on earth, people discerned a need for Christian worship.  During his life, though, we know that Jesus and his disciples regularly did attend services.  We know this because Jesus mentions it, and we have multiple stories of him actually being in worship – reading the scroll of Isaiah, turning over the tables in the Temple, being left behind as a 12-year-old, etc.  He worshiped, that’s for sure, and it’s where many of his conflicts with religious authorities came about.

Yet, while Jesus and the disciples attended services all the time, you have to imagine that they, like we, didn’t always see every service as Spirit-filled.  Sometimes, you know… it was just… normal.  Nothing special.

But Maundy Thursday, well – that was another story.  On Jesus’ end of things, of course, he knew that this was the last meal he was going to have with the disciples.  Or if not the last meal ever, that it was one of the last ones.  He could tell that the time was coming that he would be arrested, and he knew he would probably be put to death.  So there was some pressure on Jesus that night; but instead of folding under pressure, he stepped up to the plate in a big, big way.

This final night is filled with three major events.  Jesus does three things that are still important to us today, and they all come on this night.  They are three commandments, three tasks, three things to do – and they all still resonate strongly with us.

The first thing he does is something we read about in our reading from John – that’s footwashing.  Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.  We’re not going to do a footwashing this year, but we did last year, if you’ll remember.

Anyway, in the ancient world, footwashing was a powerful symbol.  You have to remember that there weren’t exactly paved roads – everywhere people walked was dusty.  It was common, therefore, to have people’s feet washed when they entered a home.  If you were wealthy, a servant would do the washing.  If you didn’t have a servant, whoever was of lowest status would do the washing – like a child, or a woman.  But usually, it was the guest who did the footwashing.  The host was being gracious to allow you in; in return, you washed their feet.  Plus, chances are that the host was of higher social status than the guests – after all, they were able to provide a meal.

Of course, what makes Jesus’ footwashing so different is that he inverts all of these things.  He is the one of highest status of all, yet he insists on washing feet.  He is hosting the meal, yet he insists on putting himself in the lowest of places.  Jesus here is showing us just how far God goes to meet us.  God wants to come find us, wherever we are.  It’s not our job to find God, as if God is some Easter egg hidden for us to find.  We are the Easter eggs, and God is searching for us – with the good news that we are found!

But while Jesus is willing to cross these social divides to show us true hospitality and God’s love for us, that’s not all he did.  That night, he also gave us the sacrament of Communion.  He taught us that the bread and cup were his body and blood, broken and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.  We, of course, remember this every month, and will again later tonight when we share in the sacrament.  But of course, again, Jesus was not just giving us a way to have a meal with other Christians.

The sacrament itself is a means of grace – a way of knowing that God loves us and cares for us.  It is something visible, something tangible, something tactile.  We can see it, smell it, taste it.  And as our senses are excited, we are reminded that this is a sign of the grace God provides.  That without our deserving it, Jesus was willing to come to earth and live among us.  He was even willing to suffer and die at our own hands, just to show us how much we are loved.  And then he asks us to share in this meal of remembrance – commands it, in fact.  “Do this in remembrance of me,” he says.

And that’s where we have to remember the name of this day – “Maundy Thursday.”  The word “Maundy” is a corruption of the Latin word “Mandatum,” which is related to the word “Mandate,” which means “commandment.”  In other words, this day is “Commandment Thursday.”  It’s the day when Jesus gives us multiple commands – to remember the hospitality he showed in washing feet by showing that same hospitality to others; to remember the grace of God that we see in the Sacrament of Communion as we share in the New Covenant, the new promise, God gives us.  But there’s one more commandment given that day.

The first two we’ve seen have been commandments that have a physical component.  There’s something to see, to touch.  But the final commandment that Jesus gives is, in some ways, the most difficult.  In others, it’s the most important.

Our passage from John comes from the “Farewell Discourse,” in which Jesus is giving his last words to the disciples before he’s crucified.  And in those words, he chooses one last commandment to give them:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  So when Jesus has a chance to sum everything up, it’s not the signs or symbols he goes with – it’s love for one another.

This makes sense, doesn’t it?  Jesus is about to go to his death, simply because he loves us.  So he reminds us of that, telling us to love one another as he loves us.  Imagine if we really did it – imagine if we truly loved one another as Jesus loved us.  That would be a sign that we were all his disciples.  If we were truly willing to lay down our lives for one another, to go any distance, cross any barrier, climb up on any cross.  We would be recognized for that trait.

So I have a simple challenge for you this Holy Week.  As you sit in church tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday, think about just how much Jesus loves you, and think about how you can show that love for someone else.  That’s it – one other person.  Pick someone who needs to see God’s love in you.  Maybe it’s a friend, maybe you’re bold enough to show love to an enemy.  Maybe someone you haven’t talked to in too long.  But show someone you love them.  And I don’t mean someone you’re obligated to love – not a family member.  But really go out there and show the love of Jesus.

When we do that, we’ve found a true way to honor Jesus, not just on Maundy Thursday, and not just by obeying his Commandment – but by honoring the life he led, and the death he died.  When we honor him, we become true Christians.  The word “Christian” means “little Christ.”  May we all have the courage to honor our Lord and Savior every day, becoming “little Christs” by loving one another as he loved us.  Amen.