Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Easter IV - April 29, 2007

EASTER IV – April 29, 2007
Texts: Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

TITLE: The Good Shepherd

During the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s, a village near Bethlehem refused to pay its taxes, maintaining to do so would be to finance the Israeli war machine that was oppressing them. In response, the Israeli commander confiscated all the farm animals in the village, confining them in a large, barbed-wire pasture.

A woman came to the commander to ask for her sheep back. She said that since her husband was dead, they were her only livelihood and she had several children to provide for. The commander shrugged and pointed at the pasture and said, not kindly, that to fulfill her request would be impossible, he had no way of knowing which sheep were hers.

She bargained, “If I can find my sheep, can I have them?” and the commander agreed. The gate was opened and the woman went into the pasture with her small son. Out of his pocket he took a small reed flute and began to play it. Soon, all over the field, heads began to top up. Soon, the young boy and his mother walked down the road, still playing the flute, followed by 25 happy sheep.

“My sheep know my voice,” Jesus said. They know my voice and they follow me. All of today’s Scripture lessons deal with the issue of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and us, the believers, as his sheep.

In Acts 9, we see Peter living out the promises he made in last weeks Gospel.
Remember how Jesus asked him three times, “Peter, do you love me?” And three times, after Peter said yes, Jesus told him to tend to the sheep, the flock of God. And this week, we see Peter doing just that. This is within a year or so of Jesus’ death, and the believers have scattered outside Jerusalem, to small towns and villages where they feel they can be safe.

And Peter makes his pastoral rounds visiting them, checking on them. In a story just before the one we read, he has healed a sick man, in this lesson he brings a good woman named Dorcas back to life.

Of course Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd,” is full of beautiful imagery about God’s love and support and care for us as our shepherd.

The text from Revelation is a vision of heaven, of the faithful from all times and all places, all countries and all races, gathered around the heavenly throne, and the last verse tells us, in a mixed metaphor, that the Lamb is also our Shepherd, who will protect and comfort us forever.

And in the Gospel lesson, Jesus answers those who question him about being the Messiah with a sheep and shepherd image, as well as an admonition that they should look to his words and his actions if they want to know who he really is.

Our Scriptures for today are very full, and very important for our understanding of who Jesus is and who we are called to be. And all of it hinges on what it means to hear and respond to the voice of the Master.

The shepherd was a very powerful image in Israel. For much of their history, they were a nomadic people dependent upon their sheep. Because of this, sheep imagery was very important, and the King of Israel was often referred to as the Shepherd of Israel, harkening all the way back to King David, the traditional author of Psalm 23, who is The King by whom all kings were measured, and who began life as a shepherd boy.

The ancient kings of Israel were seen to be different from the kings of the nations around them, in that they were seen not as divine themselves, but as human beings who represented God on earth and ruled in his name. The idea was that God had placed the responsibility for the nation in their hands. The kingdom was not theirs, it was God’s and they were to take care of God’s kingdom in God’s name and with God’s help. It was a STEWARDSHIP issue.

A joke that Bishop Leonard Bolick, likes to tell is illustrative here. A retired clergyman organized a Holy Land Tour, he got 20 or 30 people to go and his way was free. While in Israel, he was the Spiritual leader and tour guide. One day the group made a bus trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

Along the way the Pastor told the group how they would see many sheep and shepherds and to think about how Jesus was the Good Shepherd and how shepherds always went in front of the sheep leading them; he never went behind, beating or pushing or shoving them.

Along the way, the bus had to stop in the road for a herd of sheep to pass. The good reverend was shocked to see a man with a stick beating and cajoling and pushing and shoving the sheep along. He got off the bus and confronted the man,

“Look here, everything I’ve read says the shepherd leads the sheep with love, doesn’t come from behind beating and pushing.” “That’s true,” the man said, “but I’m not a shepherd, I’m a butcher.” A true king, a true leader of Israel, was a shepherd, not a butcher.

Now when the folk come to Jesus asking if he is the Messiah, they are asking if he is the one sent from God to free them from the Romans and their puppet king Herod. They all knew Herod was no true shepherd; he was a butcher, a cruel man using his position for his own advantage.

Jesus’ answer to them points them to his actions. “Do I act and talk like a Messiah, like a true king of Israel? Are the things I say and do for the benefit of the people, do they honor God?

He then goes on to make it plain, just as they requested. “My sheep hear my voice,” he says. “They know their true Shepherd and follow and respond to him.” He goes further by claiming that God has put the true Israel into his hands to protect and keep, and that he is doing this on behalf of God, indeed that he is God, “The Father and I are One.”

The hearing of the Shepherd’s voice is the difficult part of this. Just hearing the voice is not enough. Only 25 sheep out of the hundreds in the pasture lifted their heads and followed when the young man played his flute.

This is an issue which has confounded the church for generations; why do some believe and others not? Why do some respond and others turn away?

When people credited Luther with reviving the church, Luther responded that he did nothing but preach the Word of God, after that, he said, I go home and eat dinner and let the Holy Spirit do its work.

Those of us gathered here on a Sunday morning have in one way or another heard and recognized the voice of our master, our savior, our Lord. Some of us are more sure than others, some of us hear it more clearly and distinctly than others, but all of us have heard it; that is why we are here.

And, to various degrees, we have all put ourselves into the hands of that Shepherd; we have trusted Him with our souls and our lives. We feel secure in the promise that we will not be “snatched away,’ and in the hope of praising Him around the heavenly throne.

The one question that remains is what are we to do about that voice here and now, in this time and in this place. Which brings us back to the Acts lesson and our gospel for last week.

In Acts, we find Peter doing what Jesus told him in the last chapter of John, being a shepherd to the sheep, doing what Jesus did. This story, the raising of Dorcas, is very similar to the story in Mark, chapter 5 where Jesus raises the synagogue leader’s daughter. And in the verses just prior to our lesson, Peter heals a man in a way that reminds us of the way Jesus healed the man lowered down from through the ceiling, even to telling him, “Get up and walk.” It is clear that Luke wants us to see Pete as following in the ministry footsteps of Jesus.

And that is our calling as well. In order to follow the voice of the Shepherd, we are to follow him and do what he did. Not just Pastors, but all of us. That is the true meaning of Luther’s idea of the “priesthood of believers.”

We, the church, are the shepherds, and the hurting, lonely, lost people of the world are God’s scattered sheep. And we are called to go out to them with the Voice of the Shepherd, calling them home, calling them home to God, calling them home to safety, calling them home to love.

We are the voice of Christ in the world. What people know of God’s law, they learn from us; what people know of God’s forgiveness, they hear from us; what people know of God’s love, they experience from us.

Too often, we fail to appreciate how important we are, each and every one of us, to God’s work in the world. We fail to realize that Christ our shepherd has placed us in a position to shepherd others and will carry us through.

Gladys Aylward, missionary to China, shy, quiet woman working in an orphanage in the 1930’s. When the Japanese invaded, she was forced to flee, but she would not leave without her flock, a hundred children. With only one assistant, she led them out walking over the mountains to Free China.

Gladys grappled with despair many times in her journey, and after one cold sleepless night, she cried and wept and said, over and over, “I can’t do it, we won’t make it.”

A 13-year-old girl reminded Gladys of their much-loved Bible story of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

Aylward, threw up her hands and wailed, “But I’m not Moses!”

And the girl replied, “Of course not, but God is still God!”

God is still God for us as well. What is the Voice of Christ calling you to do today? Will you answer? Will you follow?

Amen and amen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Easter 4 - April 29, 2007

Here are my notes for my lectionary group this morning.

Texts for April 29, 2007 - Easter Four
Discussion Guide

“Good Shepherd Sunday”

First Reading: Acts 9:36-43
Post-Easter, the first believers have scattered outside of Jerusalem
Peter is exercising a ministry of “oversight” episcopacy? by going out and visiting the small and isolated groups in the small towns where they are hiding. His actions in this story and the one immediately preceding remind us of the ministry of Jesus.

Which is as it should be. Last week’s Gospel – tend my sheep. This week’s Lesson, we see Peter tending to Jesus’ scattered flock.

Tabitha – Dorcas – “gazelle” – a touching scene – she did good works, which in early church involved particularly caring for the widows. When Peter came in to her death room, she was surrounded by grieving widows, showing him the clothes she had made for them.

Luke cites names and places so that people can go check it out, ask in these towns about these people.

Result of Peter’s actions, not belief in Peter, but belief in the Lord.
An aside: Does Lutheran evangelism promote Christ or the church, i.e. ourselves?

Psalm 23

One note, from Carroll Stuhlmueller in Harpers Bible Commentary: “Early church sang Psalm 23 as the newly Baptized person emerged from the font and moved toward the altar for their first Eucharist.”

Revelation 7:9-17
Connection to the “Good Shepherd” theme is the last verse in which it is demonstrated that the Lamb (Jesus) will be the shepherd for all eternity.

This text has caused great havoc with the dispensationalists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. This is a part of the 144,000 discussion, 12,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel, etc, etc.

Important points: the 144,000 are martyrs for the faith, but are not the only folk in heaven. “Other Christians will perish in the “great tribulation” but will enjoy an eternal state of blessedness with the dawn of the everlasting kingdom.

John 10:22-30
Festival of Dedication – Hanukkah – not germane to the story, just a stage setting technique concerning winter, so Jesus on Solomon’s porch, which is on the East side, on the porch, out of the wind, in the sun.

The usual John dialogue of misunderstanding. Tell us plainly they say, are you the Messiah? Say yes or no. Lay it out in no uncertain terms.
Jesus reply is to look at what I have taught and what I have done, and decide for yourselves, am I the Messiah? Throws it back to them.

Good Shepherd, sheep hear my voice and know it, etc. What you hear depends on what you listen for? Those who are in tune with Jesus’ understanding of Judaism and right relationship with God will “get Jesus.”
Those looking for some other version of Messiahship won’t.

NT Wright points out that often Jesus the Good Shepherd is a very soft theme: gentle shepherd, sheep around his neck, children about, walking through a field with a gentle, kind and far-away look in his eyes.

This is not what this is about. This is about power and rule, God’s Kingdom and the world’s kingdom. Israel’s King was its Shepherd

Friday, April 20, 2007

Easter III, April 22, 2007

Text: John 21:1-14

When my son David was a preschooler, we had a book we read every night before bed.It was a Richard Scarry book about getting ready for Christmas.

It was one of his wordless books, filled with panoramic pictures that tell a story as adult and child explore each scene.

In Scarry’s Advent book, we saw a small New England town get ready for Christmas, putting up lights, hanging banners, decorating homes, buying presents, having concerts, baking cakes and cookies, going to church, etc.

On the last page we saw workmen picking up used Christmas trees from the street and taking down lights and banners.

When we got to that page, David would gleefully shout out “BACK TO NORMAL!” and slam the book shut.

After the events of the last week I wish I could slam the book of life shut and cry out, “Back to Normal.” But I can’t. That sort of thing only works in children’s books, not in real life.

There are no words adequate to talk about what happened at Virginia Tech on Monday. There are times when all one can do is stand silently in the face of evil and hold on to God and one another.

Here at Friedens we have found ourselves surrounded by death in the midst of the season in which we celebrate eternal life.

These are times when, like David, we long for things to get “back to normal.” I talked to a pastor friend this week, asking him how he was. I love his response; it’s a keeper. He said, “I am dealing with the tedious consequences of procrastination.”

Things put off, delayed, avoided during Holy Week and Easter and Tax Season come rushing in demanding to be attended to, it is time to get BACK TO NORMAL.

In our Gospel lesson, Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” And does. There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is to see him as deciding he needs a break, a bit of relaxation, a vacation.

But I don’t think this is why Peter went fishing. I think Peter had had enough. Enough tension and stress and death and dying and dead people coming back to life; enough of all of it. It was time to get BACK TO NORMAL. And normal for Peter and many of the others was fishing.

The were, after all, fishermen, professional fishermen; it was their life and their livelihood. There were bills to pay, mouths to feed, families to provide for. It was time to get back to the normal tedious consequences of procrastination, time to get on with life and forget this crazy Jesus stuff.

The trouble is, post-Easter, there is no getting back to normal, no way to go back to the way things were, not completely, not entirely. Some events change us forever. Because of the presence of the Risen Christ in the world, things can never be quite normal or completely tedious again.

Peter and his friends go fishing. Fishing at night was normal for commercial fisherfolk that’s the way you get fresh fish to market by sun up. And it was quite normal to have bad luck, Fishing, like farming, is a bit of a gamble, and sometimes you come up empty.

And there is nothing unusual, or miraculous, about someone on shore pointing out to those in the boat where a school of fish is hiding. It happens all the time in net fishing in shallow water. It has to do with angles and the glare of the rising sun on the water.

And there’s nothing all that special about the someone on shore having breakfast ready when those in the boat come to shore after a night of fishing.

Indeed, outside of the fact that the someone on shore is Jesus, a formerly dead person now risen from the tomb and flitting about the country in a resurrection body, there’s nothing odd or miraculous about this story at all.

It’s all pretty normal stuff, except for Jesus’ presence in the middle of it. Jesus’ presence says, “Guess what folks, from here on out, there is no possibility of returning to business as usual, no going back to normal.”

As long as the risen Christ is in the world, there is no insignificant activity, there are no merely tedious details. Christ’s presence in the world transforms ordinary busyness into extraordinary opportunities to serve God and humanity.

All too often, we miss God’s activity in the world because we’re looking for something spectacular, Loud thunder, blazing lights, and shows of supernatural power.

Monday night, Franklin Graham was being interviewed on MSNBC about the chaplains who were being sent by his organization to Blacksburg to counsel students and parents.

The reporter asked the Rev. Graham, “How do you explain to parents how a good God could let this happen?” Graham patiently talked about how a chaplain’s job is not explanation but comfort and love and care, and how people in trauma aren’t in a place to deal with those larger questions, nor do they need to. This did not satisfy the interviewer.
Three times he asked, “How do you explain to a parent how a good God lets a thing like this happen?” and three times Graham gave his good answer, “You don’t. You give comfort and care and love.”

The reporter wanted something spectacular and Graham gave him what was simple, yet true.
And it will be in the love and care and quiet comfort provided by the chaplains that the activity of God in this crisis will be found.

In our Gospel lesson, after breakfast, Jesus begins an interesting dialogue with Peter. He asks him, Peter do you love me, not once but three times. The number is not by accident. Jesus is rewinding the clock, turning back time. Remember Peter denied Jesus three times on the night he was betrayed. Now Peter has three opportunities to affirm his love for Jesus, and he does.

But notice also that every time Peter affirms his love for Jesus, Jesus then calls upon him to take care of his “sheep.” Twice his says feed them once he says tend them; in all of it he calls on Peter, and by extension, all the disciples, and by further extension, all of us who call ourselves Christian, he calls on us to take care of and love one another.

Now, think about it; feeding and tending sheep isn’t all that exciting or spectacular. It’s like milking cows and slopping hogs and hoeing tobacco; it’s repetitive and boring and tedious and normal, and oh so necessary.

Or it’s like washing dishes and cooking meals and doing laundry and mowing grass and cleaning house and changing diapers and paying bills and driving kids to school and going to work and drawing a check and sitting up all night when somebody’s sick; which is no where as interesting as being in love and going on dates but is much more like being married.

Just so, the Christian life, lived out in the Body of Christ, the Church, empowered by the Risen Christ, is seldom exciting or spectacular. It is much more often ordinary and mundane, a matter of living together under the leadership of the Will of God and the Way of Christ.

Things like the shootings at Virginia Tech, like the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, like 9/11, like the school shootings at Columbine; these things affect us forever. To greater and lesser degrees, we are all changed by them. There is no going back to normal.

But the Gospel is that the change worked in us and the world by the presence of the Risen Christ is greater than any evil that can befall us. And the call of the Gospel is the call to reach out to a world of hurting and mournful and scared people with simple acts of love and care and concern.

Do you love Jesus? Help out a child struggling in school.
Do you love Jesus? Go visit someone who lost a loved one and still grieves.
Do you love Jesus? Help feed the hungry at Loaves and Fishes.
Do you love Jesus? Help Habitat for Humanity build a house.
Do you love Jesus? Do you? Do something simple and ordinary and kind today, knowing God is present in all that you do. Amen and amen.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Easter II, April 15, 2007

EASTER II April 15, 2007

Text: John 20:19-31

A young woman was getting married. Her father was worried that she was rushing into it. She had only known the young man a few months. It just didn’t “feel right”, but yet, he said nothing. On the big day, Daddy and bride were standing in the narthex, the wedding march was playing, everyone was standing, looking back expectantly.

The bride leaned over to her father and said, “Daddy, I can’t move.” All the father’s concerns came pouring out, It’s okay honey. You don’t have to go through with it. You don’t have to do this. We can turn around and walk right out the door.”

“No Daddy,” the bride said, “You don’t understand. I can’t move because you’re standing on my dress!”

In today’s Gospel lesson, we read of the man traditionally known was “Doubting Thomas.” Just as something was holding the bride back from going down the aisle, something was holding Thomas back from believing in the Resurrection.

Lutheran Pastor Peter Marty, writing in the Christian Century, points out that Thomas was not so much a doubter as he was an empiricist; that is, he is something of a scientific man. Thomas was looking for empirical data, facts, hard and sure evidence, measurable and quantifiable, upon which he could base his decision as to whether or not to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection.

In this he is no different than most of us are about most things, most of the time. Suppose I died on a Thursday, the Bishop came and held my funeral on Saturday, and then you missed church on Sunday, just didn’t feel like coming. Then on Monday, you went to breakfast at Pete’s grill and ran into someone from church, who said, “Boy, Pr. Chilton really preached a good sermon about Heaven yesterday.”Would you believe them?

Of course not. If you had seen me dead and buried on Saturday, you would empirically know I could not have been in church preaching on Sunday. It would be an “idle tale.” You would respond like Thomas did to the news about Jesus, “I’d have to see it for myself.”

In our story, Thomas was presented with the necessary evidence, given the opportunity to examine the evidence: the nail prints in the hands and the gaping would in Jesus’ side. Convinced by the evidence, he responded with belief, “My Lord and My God!”

Now, we modern folk, with the same desire for proof and evidence that Thomas had, are in the difficult position of not having the opportunity to examine the evidence. Our text admits this problem in verse 29: Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Obviously, most of us gathered here today do believe, but all of us know those who don’t. And trying to figure out how to talk about our faith in a believable way to those who don’t believe is very difficult.

That is mainly because our culture has separated fact from faith. It has given up on the idea that faith is based on “real” or “true” or “factual” things and has relegated religiosity to the category of taste or personal preference.

Writing in Christianity Today, Tim Stafford talks about an object lesson Pr. Stephey Bilynskyj uses with his confirmation classes. He comes into the first class with a jar full of jelly beans and asks the class to guess how many are in the jar. He writes down all their estimates on the board.
Then next to the list of estimates they make another list, a list of their favorite songs. Finally, the class counts the beans to measure it against the guesses to see who was closest to being right.

After they have determined whose guess was closest to being right, Pastor Steve then turns to the other list, the list of songs, and asks “And which one of these is closest to being right?” And of course, the students protests that there is no right answer; a person’s favorite song is purely a matter of taste and circumstance, personal preference, if you will.

Then Pr. Steve, asks the real important questions:When you decide what to believe in terms of you faith, is that more like guessing the number of beans, or more like choosing your favorite song?’
Pastor Steve says, that he has done this numerous times over the last 20 years, and always the answer, from teen-agers and from adults, is the same; Choosing one’s faith is like choosing a favorite song.”

We have separated fact from faith, mainly because our culture has limited facts to those things which can be discovered empirically, scientifically; through experimentation and proof; therefore, we are highly skeptical of those things, like Jesus’ death and resurrection, which resist such proof.

The truth is, we are greatly limited in what we can prove about Jesus through applying the rules of scientific historical investigation. The best we can say with almost 100% certainty, is that a man named Jesus lived, taught, and was crucified by the Roman Government of Jerusalem, and that after his death, many of his followers reported that the tomb was empty and that they had seen him alive. That’s it, historically, scientifically, empirically.

A second important truth is that even the Bible acknowledges that simply knowing the facts does not necessarily lead to faith. At the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, we find a very interesting short verse. The eleven remaining disciples go up on a mountain in Galilee, where they see him for the last time. Then comes this verse, chapter 29, verse 17. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.

They had left their jobs to follow him, had spent 2-3 years with him, heard him preach, witnessed his miracles saw the Crucifixion, experienced the Resurrection, spent several days and weeks being with the Risen Jesus in a variety of places, BUT SOME DOUBTED!

Contrary to both science and traditional wisdom, seeing is not always believing. Something besides an informed, reasonable decision is going on here. Some who saw the risen Christ still doubted, while others, who have never seen him, believe fervently. We are all like the young woman at here wedding;
when we come face-to-face with Jesus, with the decision of faith, very often we find that there is something holding us back, something standing on our train.
The problem is not a lack of information. I think our hesitancy is a more a product of what we do know that what we don’t know. Mark Twain said, “Some people worry about the parts of the Bible they don’t understand. Me, I worry about the parts I DO understand!”

We know that to commit our life to Christ is to commit ourselves to following Christ and the Gospel wherever it might lead. We know that to commit ourselves to following Christ takes a lot of decisions out of our hands and puts them in the hands of God. We know that to put our decisions into the hands of God is to risk being called to do things we would personally rather not do. We know that the one calling us got crucified, got executed in the cruelest way possible. We know that the one calling us revealed himself by showing his wounds and suffering for the world to the world and that we will be called upon to show our love for the world by being wounded and suffering for those the world has hurt and rejected. We know what it means to believe in Jesus, and our hesitancy to believe may be rooted in our hesitancy to shoulder that cross.

A couple of years ago in Winston-Salem, a couple planned a small family wedding in their Baptist Church. The wedding was on Saturday night, there had been an all-day Missions conference at the church, and the family had only an hour or so after the conference ended to clean up the church and decorate for the 7 PM wedding. It was only after the service that the bride noticed one glaring mistake in their preparations. Across the front wall was a huge banner which read WORTH THE RISK!

The question for us today is a simple one: Do we consider the joys of following Christ worth the risk? The witness of Christians for 2000 years, from St. Thomas to St. Teresa, Is yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Can we, this day, look at the wounds of Christ, hear him calling us to follow him in love and service to the world, and with Thomas fall on our knees and cry out, MY LORD, AND MY GOD!
Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Easter Thoughts

Easter Weekend, 2007

No real sermon commentary this week, just a few observations and stories.

1) In the NO COMMENT department: While driving back from the funeral home in the little town of Liberty, NC, I happened upon Friendship United Methodist Church, a moderate sized brick building at a rural crossroads. Their illuminated sign proclaimed that there would be a
“Drive Thru Crucifixion” on Friday and Saturday Night. Hmm!? In thinking about it I wondered how the crucifiees were chosen and images of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery” came to mind.

2) Back when MY BOYS WERE LITTLE department: They are now a pair of twenty-somethings, but back in the day, when they were 7 and 4, David, the oldest, was asking me about how to connect the Easter Bunny, and Jesus, and why eggs, because rabbits have babies, they don’t lay eggs, etc. etc. Joseph interrupted and said, “Shut up David. It’s candy.”

3) As always, I can’t help thinking about the difference between attendance on Christmas Eve and Holy Week. My wife was talking to her cousin Beth this morning. Beth was raised Methodist in the south, is married to a secular Jewish person and attends a UU church in the DC area. Deborah said something about Holy Week being harder on me that Christmas and Beth said, “Well sure, Holy Week is RELIGIOUS, and Christmas is just FUN!” So, there you go. That’s what we get for being religious.