Thursday, March 27, 2008

Second Sunday of Easter, March 30, 2008

The Second Sunday of Easter
March 30, 2008

Text: John 20:19-31

I remember the first time I “went away.” It was 1972 and I was going away to college. My family is pretty low-key about things like this and there was no special dinner or anything like that. If I remember correctly, I milked the cow as usual that morning, worked in the field with Daddy until noon, then we went to the house for “dinner.” (On a southern farm, it’s always “dinner.” Lunch is something you eat in the cafeteria at school.) I took a shower, loaded my box of books and my clothes hamper full of clothes in the back seat of the car and drove the hour and a half down to Guilford College.

But, I did receive a few “going away” presents. Daddy handed me $10, the first time I remember him giving me money that was not payment for work performed. Mama gave me a couple of shirts she got on sale at JC Penney. And my cousin Julia (an English teacher0 and her husband Sam (a librarian) gave me a Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary. I spent the money on gas and wore out the shirts but I still have the dictionary sitting on my bookshelves.

The best going away presents serve two purposes. One, they are a link to the past. And second, they propel us into the future. Every time I look up a word in that old dictionary, I remember Julia and Sam’s encouragement of my goal of getting a college education; and that dictionary, in its own small way, helped me to achieve that goal.

Today’s Gospel Lesson is about “Going Away Presents” But in this case, the gift-giving is done in reverse; the one going away gives the presents.

As the disciples gathered in their hide-away room, they were a very disturbed, confused and fearful community. The events of the last week had overwhelmed them, their brains and their bodies were on emotional overload.

The Bible says they were full of fear. The Greek word here is phobon, from which we get the English word PHOBIA. A phobia is an irrational and unthinking fear, emotional terror. These people were afraid of their own shadows, they were seeing monsters in the closets and boogie bears under their beds. Well, not exactly irrational and unthinking. Their world had turned upside down and inside out. They had left their families and their jobs, their lives and their livelihoods to follow this charismatic healer/preacher. And now this glorious revolution had come to a screeching halt, the wheels had come off the Kingdom of God parade, the movement had collapsed, all was in disarray.

If you want to know what they looked like, just think about the TV images of a favored team in the NCAA basketball tournament that loses. While the winners jump around and celebrate, the losers huddle on the bench, all their hopes and dreams smashed. They sit perfectly still, staring out in space. Or they hide their faces under towels, not wishing to weep on National TV.

The Gospel March had come to an inglorious, confusing, disarrayed halt. Their season was over, and Jesus’ team was left fearful, confused, inept and clueless, groping for a way to make sense of it all. And Jesus, the Risen Christ, came into that locked room with “going away presents.” He brought to them the things they needed to recover and go forward. He brought them Peace, Purpose and Provisions.

Jesus comes to them in the midst of their fear and the first words out of his mouth are “Peace be with you.” This greeting is very important and he repeats it three times in our lesson. In Hebrew, Peace is “Shalom” – and means “completeness, welfare, health.”(1) It is a state in which everything is as it should be. In Greek, Peace is “Eirene” – which in this case means, “harmonized relationships between God and (humanity).”2

Jesus comes into the midst of these most “unharmonic” and incomplete folks, and gives them the gift of being at peace with themselves and the world. This Peace is a most mysterious thing, for it is not tied to nor dependant upon external circumstances; it is not linked to how well you’re doing in your job or how well you’re getting along with your family or how much money you have in your savings account or how well your retirement fund is doing in the stock market.

Paul calls it, “the Peace that passes all understanding.” It is a peace that descends upon on our hearts and spirits as a gift from God.

This Peace is at the core of our Christian worship. Turn to p. 98 in the Red Book, The ELW. This is the standard Communion service. The first three prayers of the Kyrie start with “in Peace . . .” Look at p. 106, between the prayers and the Communion, we pass the Peace. Look at p. 113, the Post-Communion Canticle, “Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace. . . “ P. 114, the Blessing, “”The Lord look upon you with favor and give you Peace.” P. 115, the dismissals, all four of them, “go in Peace, go in Peace, go in Peace, go in Peace.” What are we, a bunch of old Hippies? No. It is vital that we understand the source of the peace that we are praying and passing and singing.

It is not OUR peace, not our love, not our goodwill, not our friendliness, not our serenity; in those moments we are sharing with one another the Peace that Christ has given to us.

After Jesus has comforted the disciples, after he has calmed their fears with His peace, Jesus give these directionless people a PURPOSE, a reason to keep on going. In verse 21 he says, “As the father has sent me, even so I send you.”

Jesus knows that they think that the mission has ended with his death, but he proclaims to them that it has only just begun. Dietrich Bonheoffer was a German Lutheran pastor who worked against Hitler. He was arrested and imprisoned and eventually hanged. As he was led out of his cell to go to the gallows, Pr. Bonheoffer said to his cellmates and friends, “I know to you this seems like the end of life, but to me it is just the beginning.”

When Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them, he is saying to them, “I know that you thought the Kingdom of God movement was over, but I’m here to tell you it is just beginning.”

Jesus comes to this disheartened and directionless group and gives them a reason for living. He defines for them a purpose, lays out for them their future, puts in front of them their mission. When Jesus shows them his wounds, it is not just a way of identifying himself, not just a way of proving to them that it really is him. NO! In showing them his wounds, his scars, Jesus is telling them who they are, and who they are to be.

Suddenly, things he said begin to make sense. Things like “take up YOUR cross,” and “losing one’s life for the Gospel,” things that seemed so peculiar when he said them, begin to shout out their meaning as the disciples stare at his wounds. “Now I get it,” they think. “Now I understand. We are called to serve the world, to live for the world, to die for the world if necessary, because that’s what Jesus did.” Jesus come into their midst and gives them Peace and gives them a purpose and lastly, he gave them

I have preached, not this sermon but this outline, a couple of times in the last 20 years and I used to make point three POWER, but I’ve done a lot of thinking about that, and I think PROVISION is better. Verse 22 says, He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.”

God provides what is needed to fulfill the purposes God has given us. That is not the same thing as giving us power. It means that God will work through our sometimes feeble efforts to accomplish God’s will in the world. This is demonstrated by Christ on the Cross, which was not an exercise of power, but a demonstration of humility and obedience and faith. God’s promise is to fill us with the Holy Spirit, to provide for us that which we need to do what we are called to do.

Look at Peter. On Good Friday we read about how Peter fearfully denied Jesus three times, scared to death of a serving girl. In today’s lesson from Acts we see Peter preaching on the streets of Jerusalem, afraid of no one.

Look at these disciples, huddled behind closed doors. And look at Church history, where of the 12 disciples who became known as the Apostles, the “Sent Ones,” only one died a natural death. The rest went to the corners of the known world, preaching the Gospel, and were tortured and executed for their efforts.

What made the difference? What changed them? The Risen Christ breathes on them the Holy Spirit, provides them with the faith and courage to live a life devoted to God’s will and way in the world.

The Risen Christ comes to us today. Comes into our locked rooms filled with fear and confused, comes to us with the words and promises he had for the disciples.

Jesus comes and calms our fears with God’s peace.
Jesus comes and channels our lives to God’s purpose.
Jesus comes and charges our hearts with God’s Spirit.
Thanks be to God, Amen.

1 and 2 – Vines Expository Dictionary

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Easter sunday, 2008

Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 28:1-10

“They put him to death on a tree, BUT GOD raised him” (Acts 10:39b-40a)

Those words,” but God”, are the church’s only good answer to the troubles and trials the world offers.

A few months ago there was a TV documentary tracing the personal lives of some of the world’s religious leaders.

There were intimate looks at the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope the Dalai Lama, the chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Rev. Mark Hanson, Bishop of the ELCA and President of the Lutheran World federation.

One of the most moving parts of the show was when Mark Hanson sat at his kitchen table and in measured, flat Midwestern tones, talked about his family’s struggles with his son’s drug addiction.

He said that the most difficult day of his life was the day he left his 14 year old son at a treatment center; feeling as if he had failed as a parent; not knowing if this would work, not knowing if he had lost his son forever; not knowing what else to do.

He then talked about how faith had carried him through when nothing else would. It was for the Hanson family, a deeply personal “but God” moment.

Trying to reason our way through grief and loss, trying to make sense of the senseless, trying to convince a world gone crazy with the desire for more of everything and anything that that desire is deadly of both body and soul; these things are, at the end of the day, pointless.

There is no reason which can assuage our grief, there is no sense to be made of the raging evil we see around us, there is no way to divert the addicted and bloated from seeking their fix, be it oil or drugs. The only answer we have to offer to these things, (that Luther summed up as Sin, Death and the Devil), is those two words, “but God!”

Beginning with Adam and Eve and the Apple, the Devil tempts, people Sin, Death ensues, and God intervenes with another chance.

It is the golden thread running through the Bible; this story of God’s redeeming and forgiving love, this story of God’s willingness to act in response to the world’s evil. This story summed up in the words “but God.”

At Easter we celebrate the ultimate “but God” moment, the raising of Jesus from the tomb.

It is both the proof and the promise of our faith. It reminds us of what God HAS done in the past while promising to us what God will do in the future.

On Friday, the “world”; Luther’s trilogy of “Sin, Death and the Devil” had done its best to do its worst to Jesus.

Good Friday appeared to be a complete victory for those forces of destruction which assail all of us, Evil had reared its ugly head and roared; and Good had stood by idly and done nothing.

When Mary went to the tomb, she went in deep sadness and despair, she went into a place of coldness and death, she went to a place with no hope and no happiness, she went to prepare a body for burial, she went to put Jesus in his grave.

But when she got there, she discovered that things had changed, the tomb was empty, the body was missing, and angels were lurking about. Mary had come upon the greatest “but God” moment of all.

Our lives are full of difficulty. Tornados and hurricanes come, friends die, wars drag on, relatives get sick, jobs don’t pan out,
politicians and teachers and yes, even preachers, turn out to be less than they seem. All of life is subject to the painful realities of decline and decay.

But Easter reminds us that the church has an answer and that answer is “but God”. But - - God’s love, but - God’s forgiveness, but - God’s power, but - God’s calling, but - God’s actions in the world.

Easter is more than a promise of life beyond the grave, of happiness in heaven with our loved ones. Easter is a promise that life is good now, Easter is a promise that God’s power is active in this moment, in all place, in all lives. Easter tells us that our eternal life begins now and goes with us through death into God’s future.

Easter tells us that to whatever may happen to us in this world there is an answer, and that answer is ”but God.”

The world says, “Seek success and glory and material well-being above all else,” but God says; “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and all these things shall be added unto you.”

The world says, “It’s a dog eat dog world, it’s a rat race. It’s every man (person) for him or her self,” but God says, “ Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The world says, ”Find your self, your bliss. Do that thing which makes you feel most fulfilled.” But God says, “You shall love the LORD your God, with all your heart, mind and soul; and the second is just like it; love your neighbor as yourself.”

The World says, “Stave off death at whatever cost. The worst thing that can happen is to die and any action that you take to avoid death is good.” But God says, “Those who would save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it.”

The world’s way leads to the death; death of the soul and eventually the death of the body, with no hope for tomorrow and no joy for today. But God’s way leads to life, both now and forever; life full of the joy of loving and serving God loving and serving neighbor with reckless abandon and total trust in God’s will and way.

Life is full of difficulty, disease and death, but God is full of life, and so are we, because Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!

Amen and amen.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday
March 16, 2008

Texts: Matthew 21:1-11, Matthew 27:11-54

A few years ago, when I was a pastor in Nashville, TN, one of my parishioners, a young woman who had recently moved to Nashville from somewhere in the Midwest, dropped by my office for a chat about her love life, or rather about the lack there-of.

She brought along a personal ad she had seen in the Nashville Scene, a free weekly newspaper. She wanted to know what I thought. She was planning to write one like it.

Why she asked me, I don’t know. The last time I had a date with someone I was not married to, I was still too young to buy beer. I got married when I was 20 years old.

Anyway, the ad read like this:
VERY WANTED: 30-ish drummer in rockabilly band like the Billygoats, with a romantic spirit, professional career, blue eyes, Episcopal.

Is it just me, or does that seem a bit too specific?

As I was meditating on the events of Palm Sunday and Holy week, I began to think about how much those folks who welcomed Jesus with shouts of Hosanna resemble those folks who place overly specific and optimistic ads in the personals section.

Both sets of folks are setting themselves up for a fall. The romantic ones because their dreamed of knight in shining armor (or rockabilly Episcopal drummer with blue eyes) is unlikely to exist; and the religious ones because the Messiah they’re looking for isn’t the Messiah they are likely to get.

When the folk welcomed Jesus that long ago morning, they gave him a hero’s welcome, they lauded him in the same way they would a Military or Political leader.
They saw him as someone who remove the heavy Roman boot from the backs of their necks, they applauded him as someone who could lead a revolt against the Evil Empire, someone who would lead them to freedom.

And Jesus disappointed them. He was not 6 feet plus, with abs of steel.
He rode into town on a baby donkey, not a warhorse. He went to pray at the temple; not to protest at the palace. Jesus did not turn out to be their idea of a Savior.

And by Friday, the joyous shouts of “Hosanna, Hosanna,” had turned into derisive and blood thirsty cries of “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!”

What happened? As the week wore on and Jesus taught day after day in the temple, it became more and more clear, first to Judas, and then to many others, that Jesus was NOT the Messiah they had wanted.

What they failed to realize was that he WAS the Messiah they needed.

Several years ago, an American, a Lutheran, was vacationing in a small fishing village in Denmark. On Sunday, he attended services in the ancient village church, which dated back almost a thousand years. He went early so as to see everything. Though he did not understand the language, the service was understandable to him in its outline and its actions. The flow of the service, the standing and kneeling, etc were consistent with his church back home. Except for one thing.

At the beginning of the service, everyone who came in stopped halfway down the aisle and turning to the right, bowed in the direction of the blank wall. Everybody, no exceptions. When the choir and the pastor came in, they too stopped and bowed to the blank wall.

After the service, the visitor stood outside and talked to a few folks who knew English and eventually he asked them about the practice of bowing to the blank wall. And they all said, “We don’t know, we’ve always done that.’’ he asked the pastor, who said, “I don’t know. They were doing that when I came and I saw no reason to stop them.”The pastor did promise to find out and write the visitor.

A few months later he received a letter from the Danish pastor. When the church was built, around the year 1150 AD, there had been a mural of the Madonna and Child painted on that spot on the wall.

At the time of the Reformation, when the Danish church went from Catholic to Lutheran, the mural had been painted over and the people were instructed to stop bowing to the Wall. HAH! Good Luck on that one Pastor! The people had ignored a long line of Ministers telling them to stop bowing to the wall, until the clergy had given up, and eventually the people and the pastors all bowed to wall and all forgot why.

It seems to me that we modern Christians are like the good people of the Danish village. The image of the Real Jesus has been obscured by time and cultural shifts and preacherly reinterpretation.

Over the years we’ve been told Jesus is this, Jesus is that, Jesus is the other thing, until the Real Jesus is hard to see and impossible to know.

And yet, we still come, we still worship, we still bow in front of that which we only barely comprehend. That is a miracle of faith.

We’re not sure who this Jesus really is, but there is something about His life and teaching and witness and death and promise of life again that keeps drawing us back to the Wall of worship, back to the place where we bow and pray and hope and look hard to see God in our lives.

That’s what Holy Week is all about. It is a time to look for Jesus. To look for Jesus in the Scriptures, to look for Jesus in the events of the last week of his life, to look and see what he was all about.

It is a time to look for Jesus in Prayer. To meditate upon his call to follow him, to pray with him His Upper room Prayer for love and unity among all God’s people.

It is a time to look for Jesus in worship, to join the community on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, to receive again His command that we love one another, to witness once again his death upon the cross.

Most of all, Holy Week is a time for us to look for Jesus in our lives.

To see the Real Jesus, Luther said, we must look to the Cross.

For there, Jesus died for us.

There Jesus revealed what God is really like.

There we discover the God who suffers and dies for a sinful but beloved humanity.

There on the Cross, Christ calls us to follow,

Calls us to take up our cross and serve and suffer for the world,

Calls us to trust God’s love now and forever.


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Lent V - March 9, 2008

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

(It may be foolhardy to attempt to preach a somewhat serious sermon while standing here before you with a purple tinged Mohawk, but I am going to try, none-the-less. What’s that they say, “Fools rush in?”)

Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be?

That was the VERY first line of the VERY first sermon preached by a young Anglican Priest in his VERY first parish.

James Insight graduated with a Bachelor of Theology from a well respected British University and was immediately assigned as an associate at an old city parish.

It was the 1950’s and his education had been heavy on academics and very light on practical matters like worship, preaching and visiting the sick. He really didn’t know HOW to write a sermon.

The Monday he arrived, the senior pastor went on “holiday,” leaving him to take the morning service the following Sunday.

In his mail that first Monday, Father Insight found an advertisement for a sermon service which promised to send him, for a modest fee, a fresh sermon every week, written by a “veteran” preacher, and based on the week’s Gospel lesson.

They helpfully included a “sample” sermon, already printed out and ready to preach.

The young Rev. virtuously wadded it up and threw it in the trash-can.

All week he struggled to find time to write a sermon as well as struggling with the fact that he really didn’t know how.

Finally, on Saturday night, he plunged into the trash can, recovered the trial sermon, smoothed it out, and promised himself, “just this once.”

Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be?

That was the first line of that pre-written sermon.

It certainly caught the congregation’s attention. As a sermon, it was not full of mercy, but it was mercifully short, and the young preacher received appreciative mumbles at the door.

Not wanting to overwork the young minister, the senior pastor had lined up another preacher for Evening Prayer. It was a classmate of the new Vicar, a man who had been the star of the class, who took all the prizes in Greek and Hebrew and theology.

Father Insight led the service and then settled down to hear his classmate preach what he expected to be a
fine sermon.

The guest preacher ascended the pulpit, fiddled with his notes, adjusted his vestments, pulled his glasses down to the end of his nose and, glaring over them at the congregation, bellowed,

Ten minutes after you’re dead, where will you be?”

As the young vicar squirmed in his chancel pew, the guest preacher proceeded to preach the exact same sermon, with the exact same gestures, that he himself had preached that morning.

after that horrid experience, he resolved to always write his own sermons. They might be bad, but they would be his.

But, the question is an important one, isn’t it? Where will we be ten minutes after we’re dead?

What does life after death hold for us? Is this all there is, or is there something more to follow?

And, if there is, what difference does it make?

Is the promise of life after death just pie in the sky, bye-and-bye?

Or, does an awareness of God’s power to overcome death make a difference in how we live our lives? Here. And now.

Each of our Scripture lessons deals with these matters of life and death and life eternal.

Ezekiel looks out over a valley of dry bones and hears God ask:
Son of man, can these bones live?

St. Paul writes to the church in Rome and says:
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

And the Gospel Lesson is the story of the raising of Lazarus, a story containing much talk of life and death, and the startling sign of Jesus bringing a dead man back to the world of the living.

Lazarus is the one man who could have told us much about what effect a second chance at life might have.

Unfortunately, the Bible is mostly silent about what happened to Lazarus after he walked out of the tomb, merely noting his presence at dinner with Jesus 6 days before the Passover.

All of us are familiar with stories of near death experiences. The long tunnel of light and a comforting presence at the end have become a part of popular culture, including being in an episode of the Simpsons.

Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard joked about one of his many heart surgeries by saying that he himself had seen a strange light at the end of a long tunnel.

He said he realized he had gone to Georgia Heaven when a strong voice said, “Attention K-mart shoppers, our Blue Light Special is. . . “

In 1821, a boy was born into a well-to-do St. Petersburg, Russia family. After graduation from the Imperial Military Academy, the young man found that he was more interested in writing than fighting, and so he became a journalist and a novelist, writing about the life of the well-to-do in Czarist Russia.

He also spent much time discussing politics with other young writers, whiling away the afternoons in bars and cafes; filling the time with coffee and communism, rum and revolution.

Czar Nikolas the First quickly learned of the young radicals group and decided to teach them a lesson.

He had them arrested and tried and sentenced them to death by firing squad. They were dressed in White death gowns and led to a public square where the military detail awaited them.

Blind-folded, dressed in burial clothes, hands bound tightly behind their backs, they were paraded before a jeering crowd, and then tied to posts.

The order “ready, aim” was shouted. The rifles were cocked and . . . at just that moment a horseman rode up with a message from the Czar: sentence was to be commuted to four years hard labor.

Fyodor Dostoevsky never fully recovered from this experience. He had peered into the jaws of death and from that moment life became for him precious beyond calculation.

“Now my life will change,” he said, “I shall be born again in a new form.”

In his life after that there were two signs of that profound born again-ness.

One was faith in Christ. As he boarded the convict train for Siberia, a devout woman handed him a New Testament, the only book allowed in prison.

He read the Gospels over and over again while he was in prison and emerged with an unshakable confidence and belief in Christ.

The other was that he came out of prison a different type of writer. His naive views on the inherent goodness of humanity were shattered on the hard rock of the gigantic evil he found in his cellmates.

Yet, over time, he glimpsed the image of God in even the lowest of prisoners. He came to believe that only through BEING LOVED is a human being capable of love.

Out of this transition came his great and moving novels of sin and repentance, forgiveness and grace:
Crime and Punishment
The Brothers Karamasov
The Idiot.

Because we baptize infants by sprinkling and pouring in the Lutheran Church, we sometimes miss one of the great messages of Baptism, a message fully evident in the immersing, the dunking, of an adult convert completely beneath the water. In Baptism we “die and rise with Christ.” Listen to the words of the Funeral service:

When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.” (ELW, p. 280)

That we too might live a new life. The message of the Gospel is that ten minutes after we’re dead we will be safe in the arms of God’s love. Our most important death has already taken place, our death to sin and the devil.

We live each day as new creatures in Christ and death no longer holds any threat for us.

Poet/priest John Donne said, Death be not proud. Why should death not be proud? Because Death cannot win, indeed, death has already lost.

Our calling today is to live each day as persons for whom death holds no fear,

as messengers of the unbelievable Good news that God’s love is more powerful than anything this world can do to us,

we are called to spread the word that Dry bones can indeed live:

Prophecy to the bones, People! Prophecy to the bones!

amen and amen.