Archive for May 2011

A Place For You

May 23, 2011

A sermon on the 5th Sunday after Easter

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that 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. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
–John 14:1-14

Children’s time: When was the last time you went on a trip? I mean a road trip? Did you bring a map? Probably not. Most folks these days have a GPS (global positioning device). It sits on your dashboard and basically tells you which way to go. And if you don’t follow it, it will recalculate another route and keep telling you which way to go. Pretty cool! I still use an old fashioned map (show). Can you find your place on it? Where’s Minnesota? When it comes to our faith, we have something much better than a map or GPS: we have Jesus to guide us on our life’s journey. Every day we make decisions about what to do / where to go / who to play with / how we spend our money / how to serve others. When we pray and read the Bible, we’re letting Jesus guide us on that journey. He told the disciples: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” When we’re not sure what to do, let’s remember to first ask Jesus.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Well, I must admit, I’m happy to be preaching this morning to all of you. Although, I did have my doubts whether any of us would be here on Sunday, with the news that the end of the world coming on Saturday. “Should I even bother writing a sermon,” I wondered. Then it dawned on me. If the world ends and we’re still here – we’ll need a message more than ever!

What is it with the end of the world predictions that fascinate us so? I mean, this has really caught on. Isn’t it interesting to me how much traction this story got over the last week. Harold Camping, the 89-year-old church leader from Oakland, CA predicted that it would all end at 6 o’clock Saturday, May 21st. They spent millions in advertising and getting the word out to folks around the world! Just think what that money could have done for the poor and to prevent Malaria in Tanzania?

There are plenty of folks who spend a lot of money trying to get our attention with disastrous predictions. Just last night, as you probably have heard, the MN House voted to put a marriage amendment to the Constitution on the ballot in 2012. That means we’re in for a year and a half of divisive political ad campaigns with millions spent for and against this matter – while our school and basic infrastructure face cuts once again. Just think what that money could be spent on to benefit seniors, the poor and the vulnerable among us!

So, these “end of the world” campaigns are nothing new… in fact, most people ridicule them, though I did hear some thoughtful self-reflection: “Well, am I ready?” “Is there a place for me?”

When I was a kid, author Hal Lindsay had taken the country by storm with his apocalyptic predictions. His book The Late Great Planet Earth became a national best seller. Worries about the rapture (or as some have called it: the mystery of the missing masses) drove some people to Christ simply out of fear.

But that’s not how Jesus operates. He has a different approach in our lesson today. “Fear not,” he says. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He’s just finished telling them about the hardships to come – of how one of them would betray him – and of how he would be handed over to be killed, and would no longer be with them.”

Of course they are troubled. Wouldn’t you be? If the person you’ve come to trust as your leader says good-bye… now what? Notice how Jesus doesn’t leave them alone. He understands the human longing to belong. “I am going to prepare a place for you…”

These are troubling times in which we live. No matter what your station in life is (upper class, middle class, working poor) you know that we’re on some turbulent waters. Some of our boats are more seaworthy than others… but we’re all afloat on the same sea of cultural change. And how do we navigate those waters? How can we “find our place?”

Just what is “your place”?
You can have your place at the table (or your pew when you come to church).
You may go to that “happy place” when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
I might smugly “put someone in his place” with a self-righteous “I-told-you-so!”
Or, in a romantic moment, one might say, “My place or yours?”
There’s first place and last place.
At fine restaurants there’s an entire place-setting!

But is there ever a place Jesus isn’t?

“I go to prepare a place for you,” says Jesus. I can’t tell you how many funerals I’ve read this scripture at – and it has brought enormous comfort to those who are grieving, or tending to a dying loved one. Just the thought that Jesus is preparing a place for us – it’s a promise he makes to his disciples, and to all who claim the name of Jesus as our Lord and savior.

But what if Jesus were preparing a place for you here and now? After all, the book of Revelation doesn’t end with the faithful rapturing up into heaven – instead, God is raptured down – as a New Jerusalem.

To me, this means creating a sense of Belonging here and now – for our brothers and sisters who long for God as we do. What if that “place” Jesus speaks of is here and now… as well as “not yet?”

What is my place if I’m losing my job or my house with a mortgage valued more than my house is worth?
What is my place if my spouse has died and it’s just me coming to church these days? How do I fit in?
What is my place if my child’s marriage is falling apart? Does anyone else know what that feels like?
What is my place when my child is out of control and need medication / and hospitalization to get back on the road to healing?
What is my place if my son is gay and is being bullied, fearful of his life?
What is my place as a new pastor, coming to Oakdale, MN – wondering just what all we would be in for in ministry with the people at Holy Cross?

I heard this morning that one of our families is moving to Grand Rapids, MN this summer… and you can rest assured that God is preparing a place for you there – to grow as a family, to connect with new friends, and a worshiping community to grow in your faith.

All along – as people of faith – we stake our lives on that promise: “I go to prepare a place for you.” It’s not just about “some day” or having to worry and fear that we’ll be left behind. It’s about here and now. The now and the not yet of Jesus’ promise to prepare a place for us.

O Jesus, build us into a house of living stones – with YOU as the cornerstone – holding us all together – difference and all – with varying beliefs, worries, doubts and fears. With you, Lord Jesus, at the center, our church will stand. We will have a place here now – and on that glorious day – when we will see clearly and stand in presence of the Almighty.

Amen. Thanks be to God!

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Holding the door for others

May 23, 2011

A sermon on the 4th Sunday of Easter:

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” –John 10:1-10

Children’s Time: Do you see this picture of a construction site? What does the sign say? “Road Closed” that’s right! I bet your parents aren’t too excited when they see these signs and you’re on your way to someplace important. Here’s another one: “Do Not Enter.” Well, what are you supposed to do with that? Yeah, go another way. Do you know what Jesus said? He said, “I am the gate! I am the way. You can enter through me and find life.” What I think he means is that we can trust him to take care of us. There are a lot of times in life when you will feel like you’re at a dead end. You won’t be sure what to do. Trust Jesus. He is our good shepherd and won’t steer us wrong. AND… you can lead others to him, too. How many of you were taught that it’s polite to hold the door for people? Right. It’s common courtesy. Should we try it? When you invite others to worship – or tell them about what God has done for you – you’re helping others to live life to its fullest – trusting Jesus as the gate that has no dead ends.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

What road signs have you seen lately?
“ENTER”
“ACCESS DENIED”
“ROAD CLOSED”
“DO NOT ENTER”
“EMPLOYEES ONLY”
“NO ADMITTANCE WITHOUT AUTHORIZATION”

What if every time you saw a road sign, you thought about Jesus as the gate. Or better yet: what if every time you logged on to a website, you imagined that “gate”? And, what if before you click “ENTER” on a website, or hit ‘enter’ on your keyboard – you considered the gate that is Jesus? “Enter here,” he says, “and find life – abundant life!”

Who doesn’t want abundant life? A life full to brimming over – as we hear of in this beloved Psalm 23 “My cup runneth over!” “Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!”

There’s a sign worth following – a door that leads to Christ.

So much of what we pursue and consume in this life only ends up disappointing us. A couple of years ago, I bought a set of matching bikes for my son and I. They were remakes of the classic Schwinn Stingrays from the 70’s! Remember those, with the banana seat and the smaller front tire that gave it that chopper look? Oh, we were going to ride in style, that summer, baby! And we did. It was a blast! But I also knew that these bikes wouldn’t last. They’re not very practical. There are no gears to shift when you come to a hill. And I did look pretty silly with my knees bouncing off the handlebars as I pedaled – even with the seat adjusted to its highest setting! So, my Schwinn is for sale – hardly been used – if you know a buyer.

What are your “entry points”? When have you been duped by a fence-jumper? How often do you “click enter”? I did a quick count of all my usernames and passwords for my online accounts yesterday (I have to write them all down or there’s no way I’d ever remember them). I found 92 accounts that I enter online alone! That includes email accounts, online shopping, bank accounts, newspapers, cell phones, social networking, kids’ accounts at school, charities, Bible studies, and entertainment sites. Whew!

What if every time we hit enter on a keyboard we considered whether this entry point was in keeping with the gatekeeper of our faith?

What makes for good stewardship of our time and our resources? Where do we invest what we hold so dearly?

The abundant life Jesus speaks of is not only there for us – but it pursues us. (That is the literal translation of the Hebrew in Psalm 23) “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life…”

So, how are you doing at observing Easter? Has that goodness and mercy caught up to you yet? Easter is supposed to be a time to set our hearts to dancing – to reveling in the freedom we know, through Christ’s victory over the grave and glorious resurrection!

But I have to admit, while I get Lent… but I don’t always get Easter. We have 40 days of Lent for a reason: to spend time in reflection and self-examination. We “walked by faith” and felt remorse, we made confession, and generally prepared ourselves for the road that leads to Golgotha and the cross. …we know that the new life of Easter cannot be fully realized until walking the path that leads through the valley of the shadow of death. So, fine. We did that. We have made Good Friday a part of our Holy Week.

So, when do we get to dance? We have 50 days of Easter (Ha! Take that, Lent! That’s 10 more than you!). How do we observe these days of Easter? Is it like the 12 days of Christmas (which seems like overkill – c’mon enough with the carols already!). I mean, I know Luther taught that “every Sunday is a ‘little Easter’” but what are we supposed to do with these 50 days – to usher people into the abundant life Christ promised – that we aren’t doing every other Sunday of the year?

What if we’re caught up in a dead end “DO NOT ENTER” situation?

I mean, I appreciate the book of Acts 2… (our first lesson from today) and yet, it sounds like utopia… They did everything together – they got along – no one went without. It’s all here: Bible study, fellowship, bread-breaking, sharing, caring for the good will of others, all with glad and generous hearts!

It’s not until we get to the later chapters in Acts that we see how their disagreements soon arose. Paul’s letters, too, seem to paint a different picture of early Christians and their struggles. Seems like it didn’t take long for those bonds to be tested.

We place our hope in persons, rather than “the person of Christ.”

“I AM THE GATE…” said Jesus, “If people do not come in my name RUN THE OTHER WAY!!! They’re fence-jumpers, thieves and bandits!”

When it’s all about me – it’s never about Jesus – who said, “It’s all about the sheep – really. I came for them… that they might have abundant life! So go get them… shepherd them here.. .to me! The gate! Hello, are you tracking this!?! (Can you hear me now?) Listen to my voice.”

“Bring. Them. To. Me. It’s that simple. I’ll take it from there. Don’t jump the fence. Don’t make it about you, and how convincing you can be – but do share your story of how I have made a difference as your shepherd. And then enter here – through me.

Here is where they, and you, will find abundant life.

Let us pray: O God, we thank you that you never stop chasing us with this ridiculous promise of abundant life – of goodness and mercy, ever following us in this life. Help us to hold the door for others who have been duped and deceived by the fence-jumpers in this life – that our hearts might take to dancing through the gates of your love. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.

Holy Halitosis

May 5, 2011

A sermon on the 2nd Sunday of Easter

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” –John 20:19-31

Children’s Time: Would you like a breath mint? How’s your breath today? Do you have bad breath? My grandpa used to eat onions on his hamburger and I could tell because of his breath! What about dog breath? Whew, watch out for that! What do you call it when you wake up in the morning and your breath stinks? Yep, ‘dragon breath,’ ew! Well, Jesus had good breath. It says so in our lesson today. He breathed on the disciples and they received God’s spirit. The ability to forgive sins. In the church, the dragon is often associated with what is evil. So, we for sure don’t want that – to be bitter and hateful or resentful! Let’s pray that when people meet us they find kindness and forgiveness – the fresh, minty clean breath of Easter!

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

You know what I like about this lesson for today – is that Jesus shows himself. The burden of proof in this story rests on Jesus (the one who rose from the dead). If it’s really true, then he needs to show himself, which he does here – wounds and all – and on several other occasions. Jesus appears to them in the upper room, showing them his hands and side. He makes breakfast for them on the beach when they have decided to go back to fishing. Jesus even appears to 500 people, according to Paul in 1Cor. 15!

Funny, no one ever pays much attention to Mark’s gospel on Easter. If you read it in its original form, there’s 2 huge problems: 1) Jesus never appears, and 2) the women don’t tell anyone because they’re too afraid. THE END.

Oh, there are later additions to Mark, written by scribes who thought the ending should be more like the other gospels – so they changed it. But most scholars agree that Mark, chapter 16, ends with verse 8: “8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Fear is where the story ends. 1. No Jesus at the empty tomb; and 2. Their ministry is a failure, because they’re too afraid to tell anybody. Notice how different the other gospel accounts are! It’s almost like the police arriving on the scene of a car accident, getting 4 different versions of what happened. As David Lose (from Luther Seminary) put it: If you read Mark, “there’s only one person left at the end of this story who can tell others what happened – YOU, the reader.”

You, the believer, are blessed for having NOT SEEN! Jesus says it plainly to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (v. 29)

It reminds me of all the stir that’s been created over the President’s Birth Certificate. When we are afraid of something (our life’s situation, the economy, jobs, or the price at the pump) it’s natural to gravitate toward certainty. “Show us the proof,” we say, in our culture of skepticism. Even at the expense of someone’s reputation – we can be duped by lies and racism. Fear has a way of creating hurt and disbelief, and it can lead us down a path of mistrust and hatred.

So what does Jesus do? He shows them his scars – he touches their hearts. More than proving to them it’s really him – he shows what he has DONE for them. “Put your hand here, Thomas.” Oh, that we could all finger those wounds and meditate on their meaning!

And then he simply breathes on them (or into them, as the Greek may also be translated). Receive the Holy Spirit – the words in their original tongue meant just that: ‘holy breath.’ When we’re afraid, we don’t think to take a deep breath. We grow tense and nervous. Not a nerve in our bodies are relaxed and assured.

Do you think the fear went away after Jesus left them? I doubt it. But peace was now on their breath. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” And fear is now cast out, as we hear from Thomas: “My Lord and my God!” Interestingly enough, this is the only place in all of scripture where someone calls Jesus “God.”

Wow, in all this fear of the Jews and wondering if they were next in line for the cross of Golgotha, there’s talk of forgiveness! Of letting go and breathing new life. Of claiming him as Lord and God.

So, how’s breath today? Is it dragon breath, full of fear and resentment? When I was little, I remember going up for communion with my parents. Not being of age, I didn’t yet take communion; but I could smell it on my dad’s breath when we sat down in the pew. When you come for communion today, drink deeply of this gift of his body and blood – and let the fragrance of forgiveness be on your breath.

My prayer is that we may all experience the breath of God this day – Jesus’ mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Don’t settle for stinky dragon breath – breathe deeply of this Easter promise so the whole world will be hungry for the same sweet smell of salvation!

Allelulia and amen!

Hearing Your Name

May 5, 2011

A sermon on Easter Sunday

“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.” –John 20:11-18

Children’s Time: Show an egg with candy inside – share some with the children – then ask what if your eggs were empty? How would you feel? Betrayed? Sad? This is how Mary felt when she came to see Jesus’ grave at the cemetery. The stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty! She thought someone had robbed his grave! So, she was sad and began to cry. But she had a surprise, right? Yes! Jesus himself came to see her (though she thought he was a gardener). And when she recognized him she was happy again. I have one more egg to open. Let’s see what’s inside. Bubbles! Was that a surprise! Let’s thank God for the surprise of Easter – that he is Risen and will always be near us.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

So, who stole your Jesus? That’s the question posed by Anna Carter Florence in a sermon she prepared for Easter. You see, Mary wasn’t crying that day by the tomb because Jesus had died. It wasn’t because they had tortured him and crucified him and laid him in the tomb. It was because someone had stolen his body. That’s the only explanation she could think of when the tomb was empty.

She ran to tell the disciples: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Whoever ‘they’ are, Mary was sure it was true. Jesus’ grave had been robbed. Boy, was she in for a surprise!

When she sees Jesus, she thinks he’s the gardener – or maybe he’s the one who took the body. “Sir, if you know where he is just tell me and I’ll go get him and we’ll pretend none of this even happened.” When you’ve lost something – or had something stolen – seems like everyone is a suspect.

This happened to me last year. I was on my way to the north shore with the family and we stopped at Tobie’s in Hinckley for gas and to eat. I had my wallet, but my debit card was missing! “Think, John, think.” The last place I had used it was early that morning, when I stopped into Walgreen’s to pick up a few things for the cabin. Had I been in too much of a hurry? Had it fallen on the floor in my rush to gather my items and head up north? Hopefully, some kind person just turned it in to the teller.

We called the bank right away to put a hold on the account but it was too late. Someone had racked up a couple hundred dollars worth of gas on my card (good thing it wasn’t at THIS WEEK’s prices!!!). Who would do such a thing! Fortunately, there was kindness from other family members who helped us out. And from my bank who worked everything out so we didn’t get hit with paying a big fine. And this was mild compared to stories of others, who’ve lost everything – valuables, family heirlooms and keepsakes.

Elyn MacInnis tells the story that about a Zen Master, Ryokan, who lived a life of simplicity in a hut near the mountains. He was out one night when a thief broke into his hut and found there was nothing of value to steal. The master returned home while the thief was still there and said to him, “You have traveled far to visit me. I cannot let you return empty-handed. Here are my clothes, please accept them as my gift.” The thief was puzzled by this, but took the clothes and scurried away into the night. “The poor fellow,” the master said, gazing up at the bright moon. “How I wish I could give him this glorious moon!” (http://www.characterreflections.com/ by Elyn MacInnis)

What if we were able to live with such kindness? Calling out the best in each other? It’s what Jesus offers to Mary, who has just accused him of robbing his own grave. “Mary,” he simply says. And she gets it. She realizes he had risen: “Rabbouni!” she cries (which means Teacher, but also, ‘my Lord!’). “Go tell my brothers,” he says “that I am ascending to my father.”

Easter is about more than ‘trick eggs’ and zippy little stories to tell. It’s about hearing your name when your whole world is coming undone. And knowing you’re not alone.

Last fall, my mother died from breast cancer that had metastasized to her liver. It was Thanksgiving weekend. And many people called my name in those dark days, reaching out to me through my grief and tears. I still get a lump in my throat when I see her purse or come across a card she sent me last year (which would be her last year with us). Through the care and concern of those around me the risen Christ was calling out my name.

How is Jesus calling your name these days? You see, we must hear our name for it to become real to us. Otherwise, we’ll go on looking for the living among the dead – seeing others with the eyes of suspicion.

Who stole your Jesus? Who took away the Jesus you remember? Was it the faith that you recall with longing from years gone by? Like the prayers or the hymns that have fallen out of use – only to be replaced with something called “contemporary?” Who stole your Jesus? Are you looking so hard to re-create the past that you can’t see him alive and well IN A NEW WAY right here and now?

This coming year we will celebrate our 50th anniversary. It will be a time for remembering and honoring those who have gone before us. Without a sense of your roots, you have no grounding. Those who founded this congregation and planted the seeds of the faith here go deep into the soil of our lives, providing stability so this ‘dream tree’ of a church can bend and sway in the gale winds of culture and do much more than survive – but thrive in the light of Christ!

But those same roots need the shoots – the new life that is emerging at the outermost edges, springing forth with promise and things unseen. We need both roots and shoots in this body of Christ.

This tree of the faith doesn’t belong to any one of us – it is the Lord’s.

Notice that when Mary finally DOES see Jesus, he won’t let her hug him. “Do not lay hold of me. Go and tell my brothers I am ascending to the Father – my God, and your God.” Oh, c’mon, Jesus! She’s been looking for you all morning. Give her a break! There’s this sense of relief that he’s alive – that which was lost now is found (he wasn’t stolen after all)… he’s right here… and yet, she can’t hug him – Mary can’t own him. And neither can we.

Once we “see the light” we, too, must take care that we don’t latch too firmly onto the truth we have found. On “our version” of the truth. We can believe – and act – and share this good news – but we don’t own Jesus, even though he is with us everywhere we go.

Listen to this excerpt from a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye entitled: “Kindness”

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness…

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

~Naomi Shihab Nye

Jesus is raising his head this day, from the crowd: “It is I you’ve been looking for,” he says. And he sends you with a message to go and tell.

Whose name do you need to call today? Who have you seen crying (friend, acquaintance or stranger)? Who needs to hear their name today? To hear a kind word?

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!

Don’t keep that joy to yourself. God is doing a new thing this day. The Spirit is still speaking among God’s people – calling us out of the darkness – beyond our worries about theft – and who did what – to a new life in the risen Christ. I pray for eyes to see who the gardener really is and that God would go with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend. Amen.

Ways of Remembering

May 5, 2011

A sermon from Maundy Thursday

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” –1Corinthians 11:23-26

Children’s Time: What’s your favorite thing to eat? Something that you can have most any day when you sit down for dinner – or come home from school? Do you like bread? Jesus gave his followers bread and told them it was his body. He wanted them to remember him every time they sat down to eat. Then he gave them wine (something that very common – like a juice box would be today) and told them it was his blood. And that they should remember him every time they drank it. This “holy communion” may not look like a lot to eat… but it is food for our souls! Jesus knows we’ll need it to feed our faith. Some day you’ll be ready to join us at this table, like these young people who have come to the first communion class. Let’s say a prayer and thank God for food and for holy communion.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Let’s eat!” Isn’t that a wonderful thing to hear? I get to be the one saying it in my house most nights, as I’m in charge of cooking these days. We ring a little bell that hangs over the stove, and I call out, “Dinner! Let’s eat!”

But you know something? The kids don’t always come right away. It’s like they’re busy or have their earbuds in or something! Some nights have to walk down to their bedroom, open the door and say, “Helllloooo? It’s time to eat!” And even then, I’ll sometimes get a “Oh, okay… alright… I’m coming.”

Let’s just say that no one is suffering from true Hunger in my family. But we are forgetful sometimes of where our food comes from – and of all those who helped harvest the grains and ship the fruits to market. We should give thanks for these good things – especially bread – one of my favorite things to eat!

Don’t you love bread, fresh from the oven? Or at Subway, where you get to choose your favorite kind? And oh, how many kinds there are in the world!

There’s French bread, French toast, Texas Toast, Rye bread, Wonder Bread and whole wheat bread. There’s honey oat, pumpernickel, and 7-grain bread. Flat bread, pita bread and garlic bread. Dinner rolls, bread sticks and popovers. And don’t even get me started on bagels & croissants!

Bread is a staple of our everyday lives. It’s “the staff of life.” And tonight’s bread is extra special because it was baked by these children who will receive their first communion in just a few minutes. We celebrate with you this milestone, as we welcome you to the Lord’s table, by Christ’s own invitation.

And then there’s the wine. We had some pretty funny faces when these kids tasted the wine at the first communion class. There they learned about how this meal can help us stay close to God – to be forgiven – to be one family in the faith.

Many folks like a glass of wine, these days – but it was much more common in Jesus’ day – it was probably a lot safer to drink than the water, too. After having traveled to Africa this past summer – and seeing some of the water available to people, I know how much I take for granted every time I turn on the tap! (Let’s just say we drank a lot of Fanta Orange and Coca-Cola those three weeks!)

But wine was readily available to Jesus and his followers. So, there you have it. Bread & wine. Easy to come by – easy to remember.

Remember… huh? Remember what, exactly? And how were they to remember? Well, “as often as you eat and drink.” This is why many families say a prayer before mealtime – that most common of all daily occurrences – to remember. Do you have a table grace?

Those prayers help us remember – not that we’re hungry. Normally, our bodies tell us that. And, if we don’t listen and feed the hunger… we’ll die.

No, there are other ways to be hungry. You can hunger for affection. It’s been said that babies that are not held and cuddled regularly can suffer from emotional distress. You can hunger for Sabbath rest. When we don’t take the time we need to renew ourselves, we are in danger of starvation of a different sort. And then there’s our hunger for God. “Do this to remember me,” Jesus had said.

But he gave them another way to remember: the rooster!

When we were in Tanzania, every morning we were awakened by the sound of a rooster. It’s just what roosters do. They cock-a-doodle-do at the first sign of light. Whether we were in the city of Iringa or in the country visiting our village, the people kept chickens for their eggs and their meat.

And there’s nothing quite like that here in the city. We don’t have that morning wake up call. It’s either the clock radio, the buzz of an alarm, or the ringtone on your cell phone that wakes you to a new day.

And so it was, that Jesus chose something so common (a rooster) to help them remember: “Before the cock crows, you will have denied knowing me 3 times,” he told Peter. And so it was, that Peter denied Jesus when he was spotted in the courtyard, warming his hands by the fire. “I don’t know who you’re talking about. I don’t know that man!” He was afraid, or tired… or just plain forgetful.

Renowned preacher, Anna Carter Florence reminds us of this in a sermon: Somehow Jesus knew these things about us: we get hungry… and we are forgetful. “Every day when the sun comes up, the rooster crows,” she says. “Every day! [So,] Eat, drink, and remember. Deny, repent, turn around. Keep coming to the table. Keep passing the cup to one another.”

Jesus might have said today, “Before you get another text message, you will have betrayed me three times!” Something so common was all he needed to remind us daily of our need for remembering.

This is what holy communion is all about. It’s about getting hungry and forgetting our Lord – and maybe God even has to come down to our rooms to get our attention: “Let’s eat!” Let’s come back to the table to be fed and forgiven every time.

Welcome to the Lord’s Table. The Sacrament of the Altar. The Eucharist meal of thanksgiving. Take and eat and drink and remember. Amen.

High Hopes

May 5, 2011

A sermon on Palm Sunday

“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.” Matthew 27:27-31

Children’s Time: High hopes. Do you ever get your hopes up – only to be disappointed? Like when your favorite sports team is in an important game (maybe even a championship game) and they lose! Or, when you’re hoping for a special present for Christmas or your birthday and it doesn’t come? How do you handle it when you get your hopes up only to see them come crashing down? This is what Palm Sunday is like… the people were so hopeful when Jesus came riding into town on a donkey that they shouted: “Hosanna!” (meaning, ‘God save us!’) And, by the end of the week, they saw Jesus get arrested and then die on the cross. “What happened?” They were very disappointed. Until when? Yes, until he rose again 3 days later on Easter. Let’s pray that we can trust God even when we feel let down and disappointed.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

There’s Betrayal all over this story – not to mention in the weather this weekend! “I had plans, doggone it!” And yet, I know, and trust, that Spring will come. It always does. This present darkness is only temporary. That’s the lesson of Palm Sunday: amid all the pomp and circumstance – amid the grand parade and shouts of victory – there’s disappointment. A temporary setback, if you will. But a permanent hope for tomorrow through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.

So we reenact theses last days: we march with him down that street, strewing our palms at his donkey’s feet. We join our voices and raise high our hopes. We walk with him to the Upper Room and to the Garden at Gethsemane. We journey to the cross with him and find ourselves amid the voices of those who taunt or question or perhaps just remain silent.

And then there’s Pilate – he gets the short end of the stick. Coming across as powerless among the people. Don’t buy it. Pilate was ruthless despot, who thought nothing of putting to death a trouble-maker to maintain order in his district. It was all in a day’s work to carry out a brutal execution to keep the people in their place. In fact, this has caused some scholars to question whether he really did have such a hard time passing judgment on Jesus. All the hand-wringing and the secret dream his wife had, warning him about Jesus: “Have nothing to do with that man,” she told him. (No one ever asks how Matthew is privy to a private conversation between Pilate and his wife.) So, rather than focus all our attention on him, let’s look again at ourselves and the crowd and the closest friends of Jesus.

It’s been said, “Winning shows some of your character… losing shows all of it!”

Jesus told his friends: “One of you will betray me,” he told them at the Last Supper.
“Lord, is it I?” they began to ask. And, the answer, of course, to that question is always, “Yes.” It is ‘I.’ You and I will, time and again, turn away and pretend we never knew him – we never supped at his table – we never really believed.

I once had a teacher who said that when were baptized God gave each of us a ship that would sail us to heaven! It’s fully stocked with all we need for the journey through life and death – calm seas and gale force winds. “But,” he said “we jump ship every day.” Somehow we imagine we’re better swimmers than we are. We bail on God, choosing to go it alone.

This Holy Week we will encounter all the mood swings that come with this story of Jesus’ final days and triumph at Easter.

This week we will ask “Is it I, Lord? I who betrayed you?” We, ourselves, will be betrayed this week! “I had plans, doggone it!” And yet, we know, and trust, that Spring will come, as it always does. This present darkness is only temporary. When disappointment sets in, as it is sure to do: let us believe that it is temporary – only a setback on the way to the permanent hope for tomorrow through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Let us pray:

O God, we give you thanks that you stand by us even when we jump ship in betrayal and lose faith. Pull us back on deck and set a course for home, our Lord, our captain, our God. Amen.

Thank God it’s never too late!

May 5, 2011

(Sorry I’ve been late in updating this blog… but, stay with this title says it all)

A Sermon from the 5th Sunday in Lent

“Jesus said to [Martha], “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” –John 11:23-26

Children’s Time: Psalm 56:8 – “You have kept count of my sorrows; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” In our lesson today, Jesus cries when he is told his friend has died. Crying is what we do when we’re sad, hurt – or even happy! In the Bible, King David asked God to put all his tears in a bottle. He believed God kept track of every one of them. We can be thankful that God knows our sorrows and that we’re never alone when we’re sad. That is the time God chooses to work. When it seems too late and all is lost God has something else to share – new life!

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“It’s too late. It’s all over. You just missed it, Jesus.” That’s what they said. “He’s dead.”
This is when God does what God does best. When all else fails – and the tears begin to fall – and all that’s left is a pile of bones at our feet – God rolls up God’s sleeves and gets to work at bringing new life.

Lazarus is raised from the dead! And, notice once again, that it’s never just about the miracle… Remember Jesus’ talk with the blind man? Yes, there’s a miracle, but it’s about “seeing” more than simply “receiving your sight.” The same is true here. The raising of Lazarus is about more than Jesus raising him from the dead – it’s about living the life we have in Christ, while we have life and breath within us!

There’s no easy path that leads to life. Anyone who has struggled through hardship can attest to that. Going to the town of Bethany was dangerous for Jesus. It lies a couple miles from Jerusalem where they had just tried to stone him to death. So, he’s taking a risk in going. I want to invite you to come along on this journey – to not skip over the Passion of Christ and Good Friday on your way to Easter.

Today is Cancer Awareness Sunday: We’ve been having this special emphasis Sunday for a few years, now, not only to support our youth who raise money for the Relay for Life benefit to fund cancer research – but also to stand with those who suffer from the effects of cancer, and to pray for healing in body, mind and spirit.

Many of you have heard me speak of my own experience with this disease. Both of my parents died from cancer, just a few years apart, both in their 60’s. My pastor who confirmed me died of cancer. I’ve had youth in our church die from cancer and I have many friends who are survivors of this vicious, relentless disease that overwhelms the body’s ability to function normally.

And so, we often pray for healing of body, mind and spirit. We pray for strength sufficient for each day. We walk boldly into the darkness trusting in the light of Christ. My mother once said: “I may have cancer, but cancer doesn’t have me.” There are victories of life that cannot be measured by blood counts and MRIs.

And even if you have not been affected by cancer, we all have a story to tell – something in your life that has brought sadness, anger, loss and grief. Today’s first lesson (which we’ll get to in a moment, from Ezekiel 37) recounts his vision of a valley of dry bones – the bones of his people living and dying in exile – without a home. The Lord asks him: “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel replies in his grief: “Lord, you know.”

I wrote a song about this that I’d like to share after the sermon – that has helped me put to music the vision of Ezekiel. 2nd:Then during the offering, (1st:A couple weeks ago), we’ll hear the song “Dem Bones” by the choir. It’s a Negro Spiritual born out of the pain and grief of a people who were taken from their land and made slaves here in America.

“The toe-bone’s connected to the… foot bone! The foot bone’s connected to the… ankle bone! The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone – now hear the word of the Lord!”

So, what is your Dry Bones experience? Ezekiel’s Vision will mean something different to you, than it did to the African slaves who wrote it. Allen Dwight Callahan (chaplain at Brown University, Providence, RI) submits this testimony of an ex-slave from Kentucky, who explains how he and his companions would extemporaneously compose Negro Spirituals:

“Us old heads used to make them on the spurn of the moment, after we wrestle with the Spirit and come through. But the tunes was brung from Africa by our granddaddies. They was just militar[y] song… they calls them spirituals, because the Holy Spirit done revealed them to them. Some say Mas [ter] Jesus taught them and I seed them start in meeting. We’d all be at the prayer house the Lord’s Day, and the white preacher he’d explain the word and read where Ezekiel done say—Dry bones going to live again. And honey, the Lord would come a-shining through them pages and revive the old nigger’s heart, and I’d jump up there and then and holler and shout and sing and pat, and they would all catch the words … and they’s all take it up and keep at it, and keep a-adding to it and then it would be a spiritual.”

Did you catch that – how the spiritual was born out of “wrestling with the Spirit?” That’s the kind of work that only happens on Good Friday – or when you’re standing all alone in a valley of dem bones. You can’t wrestle with God when you avoid the hard questions about why things happen.

This came up at our first communion class, when we had children and parents learning about Jesus’ Last Supper. I was teaching about the Passover, the night God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by killing the first born of all the Egyptians (the Jews were protected because they had put lamb’s blood over the doorposts of their homes). Most people have heard this story, but there is a question that lingers in the air if you’re paying attention. One of the parents picked up on it and asked: “How could God do that to those innocent children? Why not just go after Pharaoh and take him out? Those first-born kids didn’t do anything to deserve that!”

And there it was. The wrestling with the Spirit amid the death and the bones. Why do things happen the way they do? Why is this a part of our story?

I didn’t have a neat and tidy answer. I still don’t. There’s nothing tidy about wrestling with God. Jesus modeled that for us when in the Garden of Gethsemane, he questioned God: “If it is your will, let this cup pass from me.” It was a bitter cup to drink… but he freely gave himself for the salvation of the world!

Barbara Brown Taylor said this about it:

“[We have] a God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by working through it instead of around it—creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating faith in the midst of despair—resurrecting us from our big and little deaths, showing us by his own example that the only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday.” (The Christian Century, March, ’96)

There are no shortcuts to the tough questions we have about God or about cancer or about our own personal valley of dry bones. The road to the joy of Easter runs smack through the Holy Cross of Good Friday.

And maybe that’s why Jesus says to Mary: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Some scholars have left out that second part, over the years, thinking it was redundant. “I am the resurrection and the life.” What’s the difference? But there are really two things Jesus is referring to: 1) resurrection on the last day… and 2) the life God intends for us here and now.

Lazarus was raised from the dead… but not resurrected – only resuscitated. In time, he would die a human death. He wasn’t raised to eternal life… he was raised to new life. It’s what God intended for him – for us all – that we have life – and have it abundantly. Why the path to that joy leads through such misery, I can’t say. I would just as soon avoid the pain altogether, and the sorrow along the way.

But thanks be to God that it’s never too late. That it’s never over when we walk by faith. Let us pray: O God, thank you for opening the door to eternal life for us all on the last day – and thank you, even moreso, for the life you give us today. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.