Sermon John 20:19-31 “Say What?” April 12, 2015

Have you ever doubted God? Have you ever wondered where God is in a particular situation? Doubt is a common reality of our human nature. We all experience it though most of us are uncomfortable admitting it. Back in the Seventies, when things seemed simple or I was just too young and too self-involved to know the difference, one of my favorite television shows was the sitcom “Get Smart.” If you remember, the hero of the show was a guy named Maxwell Smart who just happened to be a bumbling spy with a mission to fight the ongoing Cold War. He worked for a CIA clone organization called “Control”, which was dedicated to defeating the powers of evil as embodied in the sinister organization “KAOS”.

There was an ongoing verbal gag running throughout the show. It went something like this. Smart would try to intimidate the enemy with a too-good-to-be-true array of bluster and threats, the kind of threats, which stated “help was on the way.” He would say things like this: “You better drop that gun because this yacht happens to be surrounded by the Seventh Fleet … Would you believe the Sixth Fleet? … How about a school of angry flounder?” Another might go like this. “At this very minute, 25 Control agents are converging on this building. Would you believe two squad cars and a motorcycle cop? How about a vicious street cleaner and a toothless police dog?” I loved the show…still do.

Well, our sense of humor might be more sophisticated today than it was 30 years ago, but our sense of uncertainty and moments of doubt are still very much a part of who we are and how we believe. Doubting is pretty human and not really a cause to name one, a sinner. In John’s gospel reading this morning, Thomas has been named one who doubts. We attach his name to any who might doubt calling a person of suspect belief, a doubting Thomas. That doesn’t seem quite fair. After all, Thomas was just being honest. He was just saying what others around him might be feeling but not comfortable verbalizing. He just wanted proof…. “Show me” kind of proof.

The other disciples might have been astonished by Thomas’ bold need to have proof of Christ’s identity or they might have been grateful. One among them had boldly asked what all of them wanted to know. Was this Jesus Christ? And, if so, how had Christ accomplished what no one on earth could accomplish, life after death…a bodily presence with the evidence of his dying still imprinted in the palms of his hands, the mark in his side.

Though it was a bold challenge, Christ didn’t seem to take offense at Thomas’ doubt. Instead, he addressed it. He took it seriously and he gave Thomas the opportunity to satisfy his reservations by offering him an opportunity to do what Thomas said he needed to do to believe … touch the wounds. So Christ said, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Touch is important. We need to be touched physically, emotionally and spiritually to be fully human. And there is proof of our human need to be held and loved. Most of us know about the evidence uncovered many years ago when it was noted that babies and children in orphanages or nurseries responded best when held and touched. Babies receiving a fair amount of touch thrived, gained weight, and were generally happier while those who were not touched lost weight, cried and sometimes died. More recently, the healing art of massage is being incorporated in the daily life of many … the elderly in nursing homes, office workers at their work places, as well as babies in hospital settings. Touch helps to alleviate stress, relieve loneliness, and promote healing. But it does more than that. It connects people. And we do need to be connected.

Touch between two people has the power to re-member them, as in, helping the two to reconnect human to human. And as we re-member, we sense the way in which God envisioned his creation to be … in union with one another, at one with one another. It is for this reason that Jesus offered his body to Thomas to be touched so that Thomas could be re-membered with his brothers and sisters. Reconnected, not set apart by his doubt. He would no longer be outside the experience of the Resurrection. He would be at one with Christ’s followers again. “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” In other words, be at-one-ment, atonement with me and one another, members of the one body which is mine.

It was a powerful moment and one, which would lend courage and hope to the now, newly set apart from the world disciples. They would be called upon to work together to bring the kind of changes needed to institute a faith in the divinity of God made man. It would be a difficult road and we are still traveling on that road, still trying to share our connection with the lost and the least.

Christ knew our need to be touched because he shared it. And with his very being, his body he opened the way for us to stay open to each other. There is no doubt that touch is primal … we need to touch. But there is also the reality that touch can be ambiguous. Like anything good and human, touch can heal but it also can hurt. Difficult as it is, we must work at discerning one kind of touch from another teaching our children how to know the difference. But to make every touch suspect, to deny our need to be touched fearing that touch itself is not good, threatens our very humanity and keeps us outside the human community. It keeps us apart when God aches to calls us closer together. That’s the wonder of Christ’s gift of life. Christ is God’s eternal hand upon us, the touch that gives us life. Christ is God’s at-one-ment, a re-membering of all the parts of the body called into community with each other.

Christ comes to his disciples wishing them peace, reminding them by his very presence of the sacrifice he made for them and for us. This gift of love is permanently burned into their sight. They see Christ’s hands, his side opened and they remember, they remember the gift and why the cross had to be. Because there was no other way to teach love than to be love, broken and shared. Such love continues through us to a world in pain. We can reach out and touch the brokenness we see in one another, reach out offering God’s healing in the lives of our brothers and sisters. To be human, we need each other. We need what the other can offer us. We need to be connected by the love that God gives us and calls us to share, one body in the one being of Christ. Then peace is possible, first within us and then and only then, in the world around us. Amen.

 

Sermon Mark 16:1-8 “Rolling Away the Stone” April 5, 2015

In a short 8 verses, Mark accomplishes what the other three gospel writers fail to do…he is, as we’ve come to expect, brief. This brevity from the gospel of Mark is familiar to us, isn’t it? And, because of Mark’s succinct style of reporting some very important news we’ve come to expect this author to raise more questions than provide answers.

True to form, Mark does not fail us. We are left with more questions than answers, the most obvious of which, is who rolled back the stone? Of course, there are other questions. Where did Jesus Christ go? And, why did the women say nothing? Logically, how could they have said nothing? Someone had to know or we wouldn’t have the story today, would we?

Mark is the first gospel written but we know there were others…those we have in our canon and some which were not considered worthy of inclusion in the Christian Bible. Answers to the questions I just mentioned might have been offered in these non-canonical writings but, for whatever reason, those well-intentioned answers were deemed, “unacceptable”. The question – who rolled back the stone? It may give us another way to look at how this scripture impacts today.

The stone covering the tomb would have been enormous. No one man could move it without help. There may have been good reasons to enclose the tomb with a stone of this size. Certainly, it would keep grave robbers away. It would insure that Christ’s followers didn’t come and steal the body and then report to all who would listen, “He has risen!” This, in fact, is one such theory to deny the miracle of a risen savior.

But, from our perspective, we might view the stone covering the tomb symbolically. It could lead us, as today’s followers of Christ, to reflect on the stone that might cover over our own hearts, hearts, which fail to live fully into the plan God has for our lives. It might be viewed as a way to define our resistance to change, even when the possibility of change might lead to new life. We like things to stay the way they are, uncomfortable as they may be. It’s in our nature, I guess, but then, is it? If we are truly made in the image of a God who is eternally active in the world, why aren’t we? Why not try something different when the outreach, mission, and ministries of the past aren’t working? Why not try something different when our personal lives are shuttered by the dimness of living life carefully rather than boldly.

So, the stone in front of that long ago tomb had at least two purposes: to protect the contents within the tomb – this would have been common and a natural intention for all who might be buried. But the second reason was to insure that Christ’s disciples couldn’t move the body and then later, declare a miracle of resurrection. After all, Christ had said, “I will rise again.” Rome had heard the statement and the Jewish scribes and Pharisees had also heard the declaration. This was dangerous. Changes might result, which would threaten power structures, status and the way faith might be practiced. This couldn’t be allowed: change was viewed as death to a faith and to an empire.

Those same two reasons might be present in our lives and ministries if what we do is erect stones of resistance in our hearts or refuse to let go of our familiar patterns of behavior or practices. Out of fear that some new future might make claims on our lives in unforeseen ways or that our hearts might feel the discomfort of uneasiness in the face of the profound needs around us, we may want to protect ourselves by encasing our lives in rock solid comfort and familiarity. Say “No” to change and do what we have always done. It’s safe even though it may no longer be productive or fruitful.

But this is Easter morning and we are an Easter people committed to a Christ who did rise from death to life and who, then and now, calls us to follow in like manner. The very nature of our faith calls us to actively embrace and live out change. It is what we see in Christ as Christ challenged the status quo and rippled the waters of sameness. It is what we admire in those who claim Christ as a model of missional love and compassion. And it is what we know Christ’s wants from us…a faith alive, energized and ever-ready to meet whatever changes are required to be the people of God. Christ is risen! We rise with Christ on this Easter morning and embrace each new tomorrow with joy! Amen.

 

 

Sermon Mark 11:1-11 “Here Comes the King” March 29, 2015

Until recently, I never understood the fascination the world seems to have with English royalty. A few years ago, as I began working toward my doctorate, I became aware of the strong connection English history has in the evolution of Christianity. My research, at least in part, brought me into close contact with the Anglican Church and the manner in which Methodism broke free from the mother church in England to become its own theological reality.

Studying John and Charles Wesley and the early Methodists gave me access to the ways in which universal reformation stretched well beyond German influences to incite a spirit of reform in England too. Like Martin Luther, the Wesley brothers never relinquished their hold on either their heritage or their Anglican roots but, like the Catholic Church of Luther’s time, the church in England needed a spring-cleaning. Not surprisingly, much of the need for reform came as a result of royal indiscretions. John and Charles were determined to right the wrongs and restore holy piety, which had sadly been lost to royal privilege and sinful behavior on the part of more than one royal king and queen.

Many of us grew up with the rise of the most recent Queen…Elizabeth II. She was crowned queen in 1953 at the age of 25…I was not quite 4 years old and my brother had yet to be born. If we cared at all, we had the ability to watch as the royal family grew. We could become, if we chose to, spectators at the royal wedding between Prince Charles and Princess Diana and then witness the births of the two royal Princes – William and Harry. We were dutifully scandalized by the suspected affair between Charles and Camilla, duchess of Cornwall and were saddened with the rest of the world over the unfortunate death of Princess Diana. There have been numerous movies, documentaries and books written ad nausea because of our need to know and our desire to enter into a world, which seems so far removed from our own. And now, the day-to-day doings of Prince William and his wife Kate and little Prince George give us more fuel for whatever fire burns in our non-royal hearts.

We want to know what the royals are about even when we profess absolute disinterest. Perhaps the fascination is a leftover from the days when fairy tales held our attention as we read and were read the stories of kings and queens, the Snow Whites, the Cinderellas, and the Prince Charmings of our childhood. More recently, we realize our fascination for a world of royal privilege, intrigue, and pomp and circumstance doesn’t slip away with age or sophistication. We need only look at the array of media opportunities designed to milk our unending attraction to anything royal. Right now, we could flip the switch on our televisions and watch shows like “Game of Thrones”, “Once Upon a Time” and “Grimm. Or head for a theater to catch the new movie “Into the Woods”. Vicariously, we could stroll through the luxurious homes of those who hold some royally placed title and given status such as that apparent in the series “Downton Abbey”. Yes, I’m a fan.

While we hate to admit it, we are both intrigued and appalled at the seemingly purposeless lives these titled and entitled individuals live. Sometimes they surprise us with acts of pure unselfish behavior like the compassionate concern Princess Diana had for the children of the world. But more than likely they shock us by their seeming indifference and downright displays of pitiful lack of concern for anything beyond the realm of their insulated world. Either way, we’re watching and if we’re honest, we are very interested.

Life in many ways wasn’t all that different in the time of Christ. People still watched for opportunities to both hope for something better and at the same time distrusted what they might be witnessing. There were certainly questions as to why Jesus chose this particular moment to enter a city, a city that could only bring him pain and very well might be his final resting place. Death loomed; tempers soared; people drew lines in the sand and stood on either side of the line with or against this outspoken prophet who claimed a special place in God’s plan. And, in very slight ways, Jesus complicated the situation causing further confusion by entering Jerusalem on the back of an untried and inelegant donkey, though the editors of this newer translation read today go with the safer, more believable creature by suggesting the animal was a unbroken, never ridden colt. In either case, the style of entry is less than acceptable for a claim, a proper claim to royal status. Even Jesus’ disciples were distressed by his choices. Why now? Why Jerusalem? Why this never ridden animal whose owner might be mildly concerned when these unknown messengers offer little explanation and then take his property.

One pastor, sharing her views on this story of triumphal entry declares it to be one of disappointed expectations.[1] Some in the crowd wanted a declaration of war against the ruling class. Some wanted a zealot to enter the city armed both with weapons and words or resistance against oppression. Some in the crowd simply didn’t know what to expect but it was a parade of sorts so hosannas and a strewing of palms and laying of garments on the path might be the way to go. No one, least of all the disciples seemed to understand the point of such a mild display and a gentle entrance. What were they to think? And, what are we to think?

Well, at the very least, but perhaps, at the very most, our Christian faith and the Christ we follow is a study of contrasts and paradoxes, an interplay between light and dark, good and evil, gain and loss, hope and despair. All this gives substance to what we believe and in whom we have faith. What we can be assured of is that we need Palm Sunday. We need this day now before the darkness of the coming week descends on us before hope is called into question, before our courage is tested. We struggle daily with the reality of a world in pain, of rampant displays of injustice and prejudice. We struggle with the images of terrorism and bombs, of hungry children and homeless people, with threats of poor air quality and diminishing sources of clean water. We need this day to remind us why there is hope, why we pledge our faith in Christ, why we choose to follow even when the road to a better world is blurred by the present images. Palm Sunday opens a window to another world, a better world, a promised world of triumph where the darkness of death on a cross disappears before the splendor of a risen Lord and Savior and the light of a glorious Easter morning. Resurrection! Indeed, here comes the King! Amen.

 

 

 

[1] The Christian Century, March 18, 2015, Ayanna Johnson Watkins, p. 21

Sermon John 12:20-33 “Yes! We Want to See Jesus” March 22, 2015

The story I just read from the Gospel of John this morning is one, which I’ve long wrestled. Quite frankly, I find this reading from John to be difficult to understand because Jesus responds to the information brought to him by his two disciples, Andrew and Philip with what, at first glance, might be perceived as an irrelevant comment. We’re told some Greeks have come to the festival to worship. They approach Philip whose Greek name and lineage leads them to assume he might understand their language and would be able to relay their message. The Greeks say to Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Philip is apparently uncomfortable with their request so he doesn’t deliver it immediately. Instead, he approaches Andrew and together they go to Jesus bearing the Greeks request for an audience. Now comes the difficult part. Our text tells us Jesus responded, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” and then goes into a long dissertation about grains of wheat, death, and eternal life. We have to wonder: how does this long speech by Jesus relate to the relative simple desire on the part of the Greeks to meet Jesus? Now, my sympathies are with Philip and Andrew. This odd response must have seemed pointless. It didn’t appear to address the immediate need at all. You have to wonder: what was Jesus talking about?

Many years ago, long before I thought of becoming an ordained minister, I was asked to prepare what, for me, would be a first sermon. I would stand for the first time in a pulpit having prepared a sermon written by me and intended to be delivered to my home congregation on Sunday. It seemed a bit cheeky and, as the day approached, I felt my anxiety increase and suffered from a very nervous stomach.  I wondered why I had agreed to preach in the first place. I also wondered if I really had anything worth saying, a question I’ve ask every week since then, as I stand in this awesome place and deliver a sermon to a congregation who just might be asking the same question.

In my favor, I didn’t come into without due preparation. I had researched and soul searched the text I had chosen. I had written and rewritten the sermon and had mounds of used paper to point to as evidence of those rewrites. I had stood in front of the mirror and practiced the final draft until I was so sick of the words I never wanted to hear them again. I spoke into a tape recorder trying to slow down my delivery, and then giggled my way through the playback. I had even practiced in front of a willing friend to ensure that Sunday would not be the first time I spoke in front of an audience.

But frankly, I was still nervous, and now, here I was standing in the same place I would stand on Sunday, looking out at the empty pews, trying to picture them full of the familiar faces they would hold on Sunday morning. I could almost hear the church noises; the whispers of little children, the shuffling feet, the polite quiet coughs, well, pretty much what I hear on any given Sunday standing in the pulpit. I remembered when as a little girl I had asked my mom and dad, “Is it over yet?” and now I wanted to repeat that sentence to myself with a slight twist on the sentiment as I heard my inner thoughts say “Please God, when will it be over?”

But then I remembered the advice of my patient, willing friend who had so graciously listened to my sermon. She said, “When you stand in the pulpit, step back a bit, and look for the words written on the plaque.” So I did and on the small plaque set into the pulpit shelf I read; “We would see Jesus.” Yes! Those were the words I needed in this moment of anxiety. “We always need to see Jesus!” And we can, just by opening our hearts and allowing the love of God to pour into our willing spirits; we can see and we can know Jesus.

It is true our scripture doesn’t answer the question, “Was the request made by the Greeks to see Jesus honored?”  But the long and involved monologue about seeds and death and life and light would indicate those who wanted to see Jesus would. The door was swinging wider and many beyond the Jewish faith would find a new belief and hope in Christ. So much so, Paul would later proclaim with authority, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  He would also affirm what Christ wanted his disciples to understand. We are all children of God made worthy by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our transgressions. Yes, seeds must be buried in the soil to grow but seeds also need water, sun and life giving nourishment to produce a healthy, wholesome crop.

If we look again at the text, it becomes obvious that in some way the Greeks’ desire to see Jesus was, for Jesus, a sign, a signal that his public ministry on earth was finished. Jesus had done all that a life in human form could do and now his hour had come. Like a grain of wheat, he must be willing to die and be buried, in order to bring forth a multitude of living, empowered followers who willingly give our lives to serve God and to spread God’s message of love and justice among all people.

Like the Greeks who came to the festival and urgently, almost demandingly sought audience with Jesus we come to this building each week to celebrate our fellowship with each other and with God. We come seeking audience wanting to see Jesus in this place. As I stood in my very first pulpit so many years ago contemplating the words on the small plaque embedded on the small shelf, I was filled with the sense that God was with me. More than any other time in my life, I needed the assurance I wasn’t standing alone. I wanted and needed to see Jesus, the empowered and glorified Christ whom God lifted up and honored. Through the power and presence of Christ, through the death and resurrection, foreshadowed in our gospel message, I knew I was not standing alone. God was with me, the same God that stood with Christ that spoke a message of promised glory and honor; the same God who through Christ promised life eternal to me and to you, to all who willingly serve God and others. We do see Jesus. Everywhere we go and in whoever we meet … potentially we can see Jesus. Jesus, for me, was in the familiar faces that would sit and listen to my first sermon so long ago and in the faces I see before me this morning, your faces as I again preach. As we spend our lives, we gain them. As we lose our lives for one another, we gain life in Christ. Where do you see Jesus? Amen.

Sermon John 2:13-22 “Scattered” March 8, 2015

Growing up Roman Catholic, my somewhat childish impressions of “church”, “sanctuary”, and sacred space still remain, to a degree, intact. The place where God meets God’s creation as in humanity, as in you and me was and still is a holy place, a place to be respected and honored. There were certain unwritten but well known rules about the appropriateness of dress when entering a church sanctuary or chapel. There seemed to be defined places where someone – not of the priestly order like myself – was excluded. There were actions and even a language, ancient Latin, which seemed to be the proper and exclusive language of a few but certainly not intended for the rest of us. Even if we learned how to say something in Latin, we didn’t really understand what it was we had said or its significance and in my childish mind, this seemed to be, well, intentional. We were kept in the dark because the place where God resided was not one to which the common man or woman or child should be allowed to enter.

Having said all that this passage from the gospel of John, from the life of Jesus is a puzzle. Jesus as an observant Jew knew the Torah. He knew the rules governing the Temple and its worship. And he also knew as he must that the moneychangers were doing what moneychangers had been doing since the earliest days of Temple worship, dating back to the animal and harvest sacrifices mentioned in the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Even then, the Law prohibited the free access to the Holy of Holies and to ignore this law was to risk death by stoning. There were many rules. Only the appropriate coins could be used and Roman coin was not appropriate. There had to be a process to exchange the coins, which would be offensive to the Lord making the moneychangers essential. Animals had to be without blemish so yes, there needed to be a stock of appropriate animals and there needed to be those who bred these animals and sold them to the waiting and willing worshipers. Without them, no sacrifices could be made and no appropriate worship could happen. So, what’s the problem?

Somehow in the midst of accommodating the needs proposed by the Law, the meaning behind the sacrifices, behind the relationship a worshiper might have with the One who is to be worshipped was lost. Pandemonium reigned. All the trappings were there but the heart of worship was lost.

It is no surprise to any that proper religious worship is too often defined by the world around us. Music changes, liturgy shifts, noise increases and those worshipping or trying to do so can’t hear the voice of God above the clamor. That’s not to say there is no room in our sanctuaries for Christian contemporary music, for videos and audio presentations, for large screens or new ways to chant our faith. It really isn’t the trappings of worship, which damage the meaning of worship. Rather it’s the failure of those worshipping to hold to a single, focal point…worship is about God, about Jesus, about the relationship we hold with our maker…always. It is never about the next, best thing. Never about the newest multimedia equipment. Never about the kind of music we offer, the kind of prayer we pray, or the kind of message we speak unless all of that – music, prayer, message points away from us and toward the One we seek to exalt. Gratitude and gift, blessing and hope, life now and the promised life, which is eternal.

I think Jesus was trying to share this with those who he scattered from the Temple but most importantly, Jesus wanted us…all his disciples…all those who were trying to find their way back to a relationship with God the creator, all of us who seek out the grace and love inherent in God’s Holy Spirit…that was message. And the message was clear, clearer perhaps for us who have witnessed by virtue of the shared gospel the knowledge that Christ is the resurrected savior. It may have taken 46 years to build a Temple of Stone and mortar but it takes only a whisper of faith to live as followers of Christ and be in sound relationship with the God who loved us enough to give a place in the coming Kingdom. It is an amazing gift, well worth our sincere prayers, presence, gifts, song, witness and faith. Amen.

Sermon John 3:14-21 “Light, Love, Truth” March 15, 2015

The passage we heard this morning from the Gospel of John is probably one of the most familiar to both religious and non-religious persons alike. The only other passage likely to rival this level of familiarity might be Psalm 23…”The Lord is my shepherd….” We’ve seen the words “For God so loved the world…” in some rather unlikely places, places like sporting events or perhaps painted on windows and walls on city and town streets. The familiar may breed contempt but more often it leads to a kind of minimalist understanding of an underlying truth. In other words, we may not appreciate the meaning or completely understand what its impact on us could be. We’ve become too comfortable.

So I started thinking about ways in which the truth of God’s love lives out its message in my life suspecting, with a bit of thought on your parts, you each could tell your own stories. Where, when and how have you witnessed evidence of God’s love through examples of the love, compassion, fairness and concern you may have seen by someone in your own experiences?

So here’s my story. For the last 2 and half years my oldest grandson Parker has been studying Tai Kwan Do with a 6th degree black belt master. Periodically he has tested for his various belts in the presence of an 11th degree black belt Korean master. Now Parker is 11 years old so we are really quite proud of his efforts.

Last Saturday, he with two other students, tested for his black belt. The test was rigorous. Each of the three students had to follow a series of patterns, recite memorized bits of Tai Kwan Do history and explain; also by memory, the movements and patterns they were being asked to exhibit. They were then tested individually by following a proscribed pattern, by sparring with another black belt student, and, finally, by breaking two boards with their feet. Parker did well through it all though at one point he became a bit frustrated when he broke pattern and couldn’t get back into it. His Master simply stopped him, told him to take a deep brief and relax, which seemed to do the trick. He completed the pattern without flaw.

The second time Parker experienced frustration was the one most notable to me and the one I saw a flash of God’s grace in the way the Master worked out the problem. Parker had had no difficulty breaking the first board with his foot so we all knew he could do it. But on the second board, the two men holding it, one holding the board, the second providing resistance from behind, were slipping a bit on impact. They weren’t receiving the impact of Parker’s foot in such a way that the board would be steady and firm. As a result, the board gave way causing Parker to catch more air than board. After the second attempt, the Master saw the problem. He stopped the action and came down on the floor, positioned himself directly behind the two men who were holding the board in place and added his own weight to create the necessary resistance. Now, with the added strength of the Master supporting the lifted board and keeping it in place, the board broke easily on Parker’s very next try. It was a triumphant moment and one, which could not have happened had the Master not willingly offered himself to the moment.

“For God so loved the world…” They are such familiar words we often forget how necessary our acceptance of God’s grace, love, light and strength provide us with the means to accomplish anything we’re called to do. I saw an example of how this lives itself out in us. When someone sees a need and steps in to fill it – like Parker’s Tai Kwan Do master – the playing field is leveled. There is needed help and a life test is both fairer and doable. Without his sharp eye, his loving concern for Parker and his intentional effort to make sure Parker had been given a fair chance to excel and accomplish the task of breaking the board, one little boy would have gone home defeated. But, like our God, who gave us love and self in Jesus this became a grace-filled moment of triumph. Light broke through the darkness of frustration, love shone in the caring act of self-giving and there was a ray of truth, which made an impression of students and parents alike. What we can not do on our own, God gives us added weight and strength by standing with us. I dare say none of us who were present will forget the many acts of kindness we saw that day. These young people are learning a skill and a craft but more importantly, they are learning what happens when someone cares enough to give fully. That is a God message. Like our loving God, we are all called to give of ourselves for the sake of another. “For God so loved the world he gave his only son…his own beloved son.” And, we are the beloved children for whom God gave life, redeemed life and continues to sustain life. God’s Word lives in us and for us and because of God’s Word in our lives, we can also become living example of light, love, and truth. Amen.

Sermon Mark 8:31-38 “So, What’s it Worth to You?” March 1, 2015

In the world of antiques and collectibles, things don’t have value unless someone wants them. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been making a half-hearted stab at organizing and packing non-essentials for the eventual move from the parsonage to a new home. In nine years, the house has become full of things – some necessary, some frivolous, but most having some meaning at least to me. Also in the last nine years, my home has become a place for my mother’s things amongst which are a few choice items from my grandmother including linens, glassware and pottery pieces.

I suppose, as these items came to me, they took on whatever value I gave them. In other words, I liked some of what I’d been given but not all of it. Held back from taking some radical measures and disposing quickly of the things I didn’t like by my mother’s insistent dictate to me, which went something like this: “Don’t throw anything away or get rid of it until I’m dead and buried”, I now find myself in the unfortunate role of having become a reduced version of the weekly star from the newest show focusing on hoarding. I’m not quite in the realm of “buried alive” but I do now have to make choices and I’ll have to make them whether my mother lives on or not. Just don’t tell her. One way or the other, I’m going to have to downsize.

The passage from Mark is an interesting one because it asks the question, which we all need to answer: “what do you and I value.” Where do we place our lives? What are we willing to sacrifice or forfeit for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, when it comes to our faith, “what’s it worth to us?” Christ’s life takes on renewed meaning in the lives of those who have chosen to follow him but the price for them is high. If they seek to save their own lives rather than stand with Christ, they will surely forfeit the very prize they seek to save. It’s easy enough to get self-protective, as Peter’s words and actions quickly prove. One moment Peter is claiming Christ the Messiah; the next he is demonstrating he really has no idea what the consequences of such a confession might mean, not only for Christ but for Peter. As one commentator dares to suggest:

“As long as self reigns, we will forever be seeking painless shortcuts

to the kingdom. We will try and try again to substitute another way

for the way of the cross. But only when we deny self and take up the

cross can we follow Jesus. All our efforts to make another way are a

denial of the one who showed us the way, the way of the cross. This

is true discipleship.”[i]

It’s probably a fair statement to say most of us don’t like the cross much. On one hand, we want it to adorn our churches but, on the other hand, we aren’t sure we want it to define our faith. And the reality of our faith is we must acknowledge the necessity of the cross for without it not much of what we believe works. Christ gave his life on the cross so we would never have to see our lives as worthless and without value.

The same commentator writes: “When we are finally willing to accept Jesus for who he is, the suffering one who lays down his life for others, then we can understand who we are to be, and denying self, we can take up the cross and follow him. [ii] My home has many reminders of Christ’s self- giving act on the cross. I probably have a cross in every room in the house including the bathrooms. Some were gifts. One I bought in Nicaragua many years ago. One has the imprint of the rising dove to remind me of the Holy Spirit. One is an imprinted on a lovely poem framed as a holy reminder of the gift of life Christ gave with his life. Just as we need the cross to fully appreciate the birth and life of Jesus Christ; we need the season of Lent, this time of preparation, reflection, prayer, and gratitude to fully embrace and know the blessing of a risen Lord on Easter morning. There is worth and value in the cross and ever present reminder of our worth and our value in the eyes of a loving God. God gives us the greatest sacrifice in Jesus Christ – life, death, and life again. We are offered the same blessing – to give our lives away in order that we will discover the worth and value God has placed on our very existence. This is, in Paul Tillich’s words, the cross points to the saving love of God for humanity. [iii]

 

 

[i] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2 W. Hulitt Gloer, p. 73

[ii] Ibid., p. 73

[iii] Ibid., Paul C. Shupe, p. 70

Sermon Mark 1:21-28 “Wrestling with Demons” February 1, 2015

One of the things you can count on when reading the Gospel of Mark, is that everything moves rapidly. One moment Jesus is being baptized in the river Jordan; the next, he’s being forced into the wilderness to be tempted to give up on God’s plan and make his own. And before you can take a deep breath or turn a page to the a new chapter, Mark records Jesus’ call for disciples and just as rapidly, gets down to work. His first task is the one we just read…he heals a man with an unclean spirit. All this happens in the first 28 verses. Amazing!

I’ve been reading another book by one of my favorite writers, Anne Tyler. This one, “The Amateur Marriage”[1] seemingly moves at the speed of light. There are chapters but no hint that any real time is passing. One moment there’s a marriage, children, a misplaced kid, a new found grandson, a divorce and remarriage and the next a death, life restored, and a family straining to reconnect. No dates, no sense that the next words will also be the next era, the next 5, 10 years down the road. There’s a passing of time, a lot of time without the sound of a clock ticking or a page in a calendar turning to another day, month or year. I’ve been surprised more than once and yet, not unhappily so. After all, it’s life and life is recorded not by jotting down each precise moment but more often than not by grabbing large chunks of time, huge spaces of things happening and lots of untold, perhaps even uninteresting events clustered into semi-similar categories, which in and of themselves, have little meaning. What we know is that people give life meaning. Human beings with their emotions and needs, their feelings of pleasures and pain, desires and hopes fill the spaces of time in a life lived.

Perhaps that’s why Mark spends most of his gospel recreating images, retelling events, and painting pictures of Jesus doing what Jesus does best…interacting with others…with other human beings. Mark wants to get to the heart and reason for Jesus ministry…to restore God’s people to God’s holy purpose and plan by healing our brokenness and preaching, leading, and loving them. All of them – the good, the bad and yes, as in this passage, even the ugly.

For indeed, this man whom an unclean spirit tormented suffered from an inner demon to such an extent others feared him. He became an outcast, his condition raising up walls of indifference, apathy, prejudice, fear, even hatred. In the eyes of others, he was a voice for evil, a tool of the inner workings of the enemy but under the ugly and challenging words this demon possessed man is forced to utter, Christ sees something worth saving. He reaches out and heals him.

Our own lives may be colored by pale shades of struggle and diminished self-esteem as we wrestle with the demons, which might plague us. Perhaps we are victimized by our lack of resources, our poverty both economic and spiritual. Perhaps we struggle with addictions that rule our existence, alcohol, drugs, a love of money or propensity to want more, and more and more. Perhaps we are battling a hidden secret we dare not share or we have fallen victim to an obsession to make an easy buck by gambling away our assets. Perhaps we feel pinned down by a certainty that the opinions of our parents, brothers, sisters, and friends regarding our worth define how we should live out our lives as worthless. Perhaps we struggle with our short tempers and envious desires to have what others have in the way of goods, looks, money, houses, cars or a position in society. Whatever we might be battling – and we all have such battles whether we admit them or not, the enduring message of Mark’s recording of this event in Jesus’ ministry is very clear. In God’s eyes, by Christ’s love and sacrifice, we are made worthy of healing. No one can take this from us. God has already proclaimed us as worthy, as his own and therefore, as children of God’s divine heart.

And that is who Jesus saw on the edge of the town…not a hideous ogre and fiend but a friend of God, a man of worth, one to whom Christ could and would heal. Once healed the man. Where once the demon possessed man was scorned and rejected now he was freed and made whole, an example of the power of Almighty God and of son, Jesus Christ. This is the God we worship and the One who reclaims us for a divine purpose each and every day of our lives. Amen.

[1] Anne Tyler, “The Amateur Heart” Ballantine Books, NY C. 2006

Sermon John 1:43-51 “Gathering the Troops” January 18, 2015

There’s an unusual phenomenon, which seems to be universal among all living beings, at least all living things with working intellects. Confronted by something new, unfamiliar and challenging most creatures will initially show fear, respect, or a desire to flee. Often, when something new confronts our lives, we want to take flight, ignore this newness, be suspicious of its purpose or its intent. We want to question, to raise up arms against it or we simply want to shut down. But what makes us different from some creatures we, as human beings, also have a healthy, lively curiosity. While running away may seem advisable, at the same time we want to investigate this new thing or idea. We want to take control of it and of our fears about it. We want to conquer it or, in some way, to prove our mettle. We want to stretch beyond what we think are our known limits and test the strength of our character or our wiliness to step up and take on whatever challenge might present itself. This is also very human and very universal.

In our reading this morning, Nathanael is immediately on guard when he hears of Philip’s new acquaintance. A friend from Nazareth? Nathanael’s derision is blunt and biased; “Can anything from Nazareth be good?” This little dialogue gives us a peek into the workings of social interaction in the days of Jesus Christ. It reminds reader or listener of the Old Testament prophets and their long ago predication. Apparently, Nathanael’s attitude is pretty universal for the time in which this event occurs. Nothing good could come out of Nazareth. The town of Nazareth was a small enclave of some 200-400 people. It had no significance nor was it mentioned in the Messianic prophecies. Wherever the Messiah might hail from it would not be from a town of such small and meager resources. So how could anything good come out of Nazareth?

Interestingly, Philip doesn’t bother to waste his breath arguing his case with skeptical Nathanael. He simply used a phrase that would be repeated throughout John’s gospel – “Come and see.” Come and test my statement for yourself. Don’t take my word for it. Come and see. Nathanael, still a bit smug and overly suspicious follows the advice, goes to meet this so-called Messiah and is immediately turned from skepticism to faith.

We are always a bit more comfortable when we can test a product or service for ourselves. We may appreciate the endorsements of our friends before we buy something or use a service, but in the end, we want to try it out on our own and gather our own opinions as to the validity of worth in the product or service. Smart marketers, car dealers, would soon realize this very human need to try out a product so they allow their customers take the car out for a test spin. If the test went well, the customer would more likely buy the vehicle. Now, if you are someone like me who tends to buy products on line and you’re smart about it, you make sure it is 100% guaranteed. If the product doesn’t live up to the hype, you get your money back…. a full refund. The best part, you get to try it out and that is far more comfortable than simply buying something sight unseen.

Well, we know some things may be a gamble. I always laugh when I think back to a Seinfeld episode a number of years ago when Jerry Seinfeld has bought some melon from the local grocer. Neighbor Kramer comes into the apartment; sees the melon on the counter and asks Jerry where he’s ought it. When Jerry responds, Kramer gets quite agitated – the fruit didn’t come from Kramer’s favorite and trusted fruit and veggie store – Joe’s. Suspiciously, Kramer takes a bite of the melon and immediately spits it out declaring it bad. He tells Jerry he should take the melon back to the grocery store but Jerry’s response is priceless – “I don’t return fruit. Fruit’s a gamble.”

But is life a gamble? Is faith? Is Christ a gamble? Well, at times, our faith does seem a little like a brisk game of poker. The stakes are high; the outcome may feel uncertain and our own skepticism that anything good can come out of this may stand in our way, may keep us from taking a chance, and may cause us to resist the encouragement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Will we hear the words “come and see” and even if we hear them, can we overcome our natural fears, doubts, and uncertainties? Can we let ourselves be led into a new adventure, a new walk, a new possibility without a road map insuring the path we are to follow in order to arrive safely at the promised destination.

While Jesus was actively seeking out a community of men and women who would follow Him, he was not averse to laying some of the responsibility on those who had already said, “Yes” to his invitation. Philip had been one of first disciples and he was so excited by the very real possibility that this Jesus, this man from the scorned town of Nazareth was indeed the promised Messiah; he just had to share the good news. That’s exactly what Christ wanted Philip to do…share the good news. And of, course as Christ’s disciples, we are asked to do the same…to share the good news of redemption, grace and God’s love.

In a commentary about this passage, Stan Adamson writes:

“This gospel passage is about the calling of disciples. Calls are made on us regularly to give our allegiance to various people and institutions. For example, if we want telephone service, mobile or landline, we are invited (recruited, cajoled) into a relationship with a provider and a specific set of technologies. Our experience of the world is filtered through the capabilities of that technology, and can be affected by what we take into our minds and hearts through that portal. I wonder if we carefully examine how we are shaped in this way? I had a ‘Discipleship’ instructor in seminary who repeatedly reminded us that ‘We become like the people we spend time with.’” [1]

 

It is a grand notion and one in which Christ placed much trust. He gathered his troops, his loyal followers, called to disciple one another and then growing in faith together, he encouraged them to reach out, extend themselves beyond their comfort zones, push past their fears and winsome doubts and together learn how to fully share the good news. It is no accident or coincidence that after forty days of solitude in the wilderness Christ would reenter his life and immediately seek out companionship. His need for a community echoes our need for people in our lives who care for us and about us and who will help us be both mentors and students of the faith. In other words, we need each other…the church, our families, our loved ones, the ones who support our ideas and who will challenge us to move past our natural tendencies to stay in one safe spot, doing what we have always done. Christ wants more and a church alive, a faith alive is the evidence of what we can become if the people we spend time with walk a faith walk of risks and hopes. We are Christ’s gathered troops and our field of action is the world itself. It can’t be any other way since the One we follow has already shown us, by his life and ministry who we are to become. Amen.

 

 

[1] LectionAid, Volume 23, Number 1 Year B, The Reverend Dr. Stan Adamson, 33.

Sermon Mark 1:4-11 “On the Way to the Wilderness” January 11, 2015

When I was a kid I remember summers as those special times when we journeyed from my house in Glastonbury to my grandparents’ cottage along the shore in Old Saybrook. It wasn’t really as far as I thought it was but then, I was young and sitting any length of time in our car to head most anywhere seemed like a long, long journey going from our familiar home to something fondly remembered and anticipated. We would go to the cottage a week at a time and this was expected. My grandparents insisted on it though they needn’t have worried too much about our desire to be there. We loved it.

My grandfather was a builder; actually, a carpenter and he had bought an old cottage and renovated it so it would accommodate his children and their children. Each bedroom was assigned to each of my grandparents’ four sons and two daughters. The rooms weren’t large but they were adequate to sleep two parents and 1 or more children. There was a small bathroom on the second floor of the house…very simple…just a sink and a toilet. We all used the same bathroom taking turns washing up and brushing our teeth. Taking a shower was an outside affair. This was just a metal stall attached to the back wall of the house behind the small kitchen on the main floor. It worked and anyway, we didn’t know anything else so nobody complained, least of all us kids. For us, outside showering was an adventure.

That cottage was everything to us. We looked forward to our summer knowing we would be eating very well and swimming every day. We’d be with our cousins and we could probably get away with a bit more than usual since our mothers were busy talking and cooking and doing whatever our grandmother…everyone called her “Mama” …told them to do.

My grandparents’ cottage was about 1/4 of a mile from the saltwater. We thought it was the ocean and only age and knowledge taught us we were really swimming in the Long Island Sound just off the coast of Connecticut. Some days, when the air was very clear we could see along the horizon the New York mainland. To get to the water, we had to walk carrying all of what we might need for a day at the beach: towels, pails, shovels, blankets, chairs, umbrellas and of course, food for the day. The first dive of the season into the water felt like a baptism…a true cleansing away of the grime of school and city life. We felt renewed and though we didn’t have a word for it then, I would think we felt blessed too.

Reading the scripture that describes Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, I couldn’t help but wonder what he and the many that came to John for baptism might have felt as the waters of the Jordan closed in around them. I wondered if it felt at all like I felt as a child at the beach when I plunged head-first into the saltwater and was totally immersed. Most United Methodists don’t experience baptism in the same way Jesus experienced it. For most of us, our baptisms were rituals that symbolically suggested the total immersion experienced by those that were led to the river Jordan and baptized by John. A gentle sprinkling of water from the baptismal font is our method of baptism but it is enough to remind us of God’s grace, a grace poured down upon us which seals our lives and our destinies as God own children.

Though we are not completely submerged in the cleansing waters of baptism, our baptisms are no less grace-filled than the one Jesus submitted to at the hands of John the Baptist. With our baptisms, we are cleansed and redeemed; we are named and marked forever as God’s own. We are freed to be fully all that God intends us to be. Of course, there is that question, which keeps popping up when we read this scripture. “Why?” Why did Jesus need to travel to the waters of the Jordan to receive baptism from John? It couldn’t have been a matter of redemption, salvation, forgiveness or healing. Jesus didn’t need any of those acts; his life, his ministry, his death on a cross and his resurrection would ultimately all be means for you and I to know the fullness of God’s forgiving love. Jesus was the one who would bring redemption to others. He didn’t need it for himself.

But what did happen on that historic day was important. In that moment, John and those at the water’s edge, even Jesus himself, all received God’s word of hope and certainty. As the Spirit of the divine rested on Jesus and a voice from above spoke his name and his destiny, there could be no doubt, at least in that moment, of God’s grace and love. God had a plan and both John and Jesus were a part of its success.
Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his ministry and mission, a ministry and mission that God had called him to and for which he would eventually die. I think it’s interesting that John the Baptist was engaged in the redemptive work of God in the wilderness. Mark’s gospel tells us that people went to John the Baptist who was preaching in the wilderness in order to receive John’s baptism of redemption. Now, for some of us, being in the “wilderness” is a descriptive way to explain a time of confusion, or fear, or doubt in our lives or in our faith. And yet, the biblical writers seem to put the people of faith about whom they write in the wilderness. Here is where God tests his disciples. Here is where the plan of life is set in place. Here is where a new beginning can be initiated. In the wilderness apart from the hectic-ness of life is a means to make it easier to understand better what God’s hope for life might be.

I believe that God seeks to strengthen us for our tasks, whatever they may be and though we might not fully understand the future and its implications for our lives, we can understand how carefully the path ahead is laid for us to walk. Baptism is a beginning and it marked the beginning of Jesus’ formal ministry. There would be a time for contemplation and reflection and yes, testing, in the wilderness but on the other side of all this preparation, the plan is in place. We spend our lives, like Jesus spent his, seeking out a fuller understanding of our purpose on earth. All this, so that we might more faithfully and energetically live out God’s plan and purpose in us and in our personal lives as well as our corporate lives as Christ’s church.

What lies ahead in this year is uncertain as the beginning of every New Year. But we have the assurance that we do not walk into our future alone. God is with us. We know the task that was ahead for Christ. We can appreciate the burden and blessing he bore as one of us. With the descending dove of the Spirit of God, with the words, “This is my beloved Son,” Christ was confirmed in his life task and affirmed as God’s redeeming action to those who witnessed his baptism. And also to us, who now many years later read these wonderful words of affirmation. This is my Beloved Son of whom I am well pleased.” The same Spirit that touched Christ that day touches us at the time of our baptisms giving us the power to assume the tasks God has for each of us. With our baptisms, we are recognized as God’s children. We are affirmed as God’s beloved sons and daughters. With our baptisms, the Spirit of God moves over our lives and prepares us, as it prepared Christ, for the ministry and mission we have been called to as Christ’s followers. There is for us, as there was for Jesus, work that we are being called to and prepared for. God’s Spirit anointing us leaves no room for fear, discouragement, uncertainty or doubt. We are God’s own. God names us and claims us, even as Christ was named and claimed. Listen! God says to us in the deepest places of our hearts … take courage. “You are my children, my beloved; with you all I am well pleased.” Let us remember our baptisms and be grateful for the Spirit of God is with us. Amen.