Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2009

A Sermon preached at Faith Lutheran Church at Tellico Village, Tennessee

The Third Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2009
Text: Luke 24:36-48

The Rev. Ravi Zacharias grew up in India. His family were long time Anglicans, what we call Episcopalians in this country. After High School his family moved to Canada where he went to college. His first career was a hotel chef; he later went to Bible College and became an evangelist.

In one of his books he tells of how much he liked the book The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Bunyan was a tinker in England in the 1600’s. He was also a street preacher. He spent a lot of time in jail because he was a street preacher in a time in England when it was illegal to preach anything but official Church of England doctrine in official Church of England pulpits.

During one of his stints in jail, John Bunyan sat down to write a story an allegory, about a man named Christian’s journey through life. This barely educated working man ended up writing one of the classics of western literature.

Pr. Zacharias had long been fond of Bunyan’s book and when he spent a year on sabbatical studying at Cambridge University, one of the first things he did was take a short bus ride out to the town of Bedford where Bunyan lived. The town of Bedford had done Bunyan proud. There was a life-size statue in the middle of town and a large, elaborate museum dedicated to Bunyan life and work.

Zacharias had a wonderful day exploring the museum, ending with buying presents for family and friends in the gift shop. By the check-out counter there was a large display of various editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Zacharias chatted for a while with the woman behind the counter. Yes, she was from Bedford. Yes the museum was quite nice and drew a lot of visitors to the town. Yes, she had volunteered at the gift shop for many years.

Then the pastor asked, “What is your favorite part of the book?” She looked at the books and then looked back at Ravi, “Oh, I’ve never read it. It’s quite old, don’t you know, and quite peculiar.”

Zacharias was stunned. How could it be that the woman working at the Bunyan museum had never read the one book Bunyan was famous for, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

And, being a preacher, Zacharias also thought, “Is that how we are in the church? We’re here. We’re doing our duty. We bow in the direction of Christianity. But have we failed to pay attention to the story? Do we know why we’re here? And do we know what God has called us to do?”

British Bishop and New Testament Scholar Tom Wright say:

“People often ask me, ‘What after all is the point of Jesus dying and rising again? It’s no doubt very nice for him to be alive again, but what does it have to do with the rest of us?’ ”

What indeed? What is the point of the story of Jesus and why are we here?

Are we here because it’s the tradition in which we were raised? Because church is a part of the civic fabric of our lives and we would feel a little lost without it. Why, exactly have we formed this new community called a church and set apart this space in which to get together and sing strange songs while hearing short speeches and eating a meal that isn’t actually a meal, more like a snack, really.

What is it all about? Why are we here? Is it because we’re all from somewhere else and are a little lonely for a taste, a touch of home, and a Lutheran Church is a part of home? Is that it?

Three verses in our Gospel lesson are there specifically to tell us why we’re here.

Verse 46: and he said to them, “Thus it is written, the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,

Verse 47: and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem,

Verse 48: you are witnesses of these things.

Three short verses; in English, a mere 50 words; yet they contain our reason for being and our call to action.

First of all: IT IS WRITTEN. Luke wants the early church, and us, to know that what happened to Jesus was not a random act of ugliness; another in a long series of cruelties and indignities that powerful and corrupt people have foisted upon the weak, the innocent and the good.

Jesus life, suffering, death and resurrection were a part of God’s long term plan to deal with the very human problems of sin, evil, hatred, discord, and death.

Bishop Wright points out that the basic human condition is that the history of the world is one long litany of bad things people as individuals and as communities and as nations have done to each other.

And all our attempts to bring an end to these bad things flounder on our very human sense of righteousness. Just look at what happened at the United Nations on Monday. The President of Iran accusing Israel of Racism and delegates of other countries walking out and the United States boycotting the whole thing. It is a scene played out all over the world

Wright says,

“Each one claims that they have the right to the moral high ground and must be allowed redress, revenge, satisfaction.”

The only way forward is the way of the Christ, the way of the cross. Jesus came and lived among us and showed us that the one who had the most right, the best claim, to revenge, to redress, to satisfaction chose to go another way. God, in Christ, turned away from revenge and embraced justice; turned away from our death and through his own death gave us life.

This is the world’s only hope, our only way out of the continual cycle of offense and revenge, of insult and retaliation, of wrong piled upon wrong in a deadly version of the children’s game “King of the Hill.”

The only way to bring an end to the nations’ battling is through living out the Gospel call for repentance and forgiveness.

Very often, we read this is a private and individual way. If I, DELMER, repent of MY sins, then God will forgive ME, DELMER, of MY sins. That’s one way to hear it, but not the only or the best way.

What about; WE must ALL repent of OUR wrongful ways, OUR destructive paths, OUR vengeful hearts.

WE are ALL called to turn from ways that lead to death, and WE are ALL called to turn to and follow ways that lead to NEWNESS of LIFE.

And WE are ALL encouraged (?), no commanded, to forgive the sins of OTHERS, to seek reconciliation instead of revenge, to look for life in the valley of the shadow of death.

And what are we doing here?


We are here to be reminded of the story, to continually turn from death to life, to receive forgiveness and learn how to give forgiveness, to support one another in our witnessing in the world, to gather strength from the meal and the community, and to organize our efforts.

As Luther puts it in the Small Catechism, “We are called, gathered, empowered and sent,” by the Holy Spirit into the streets with the message of God’s amazing Grace.

Today, as we set apart this place as the worship space for a community dedicated to the message of new life, we are aware that this place is primarily a Funeral Home.

Some might find that ironic, I find it fitting and more than a little inspirational. The Bible itself reminds us that “in the midst of death we are in life,” and what better place to week after week witness to God’s power over all the things in this world that threaten us with death.

Christ is Risen,
Christ is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.

And we are his witnesses!

Amen and man.

Ravi Zacharias in “Jesus Among Other Gods” pp. 75-76

Tom Wright: “Luke for Everyone” pp. 300-301

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Easter II - NRCL Gospel for April 19, 2009

A sermon preached at the South Dakota Synod Pastor's Conference on April 14 and at St. John's Lutheran Church, Atlanta, Georgia, April 19

The Second Sunday of Easter

Text: John 20:19-31

I was driving back to the church after a hospital visit one wintry afternoon about 30 years ago.

The sun was shining bright and directly into my eyes. I turned left at a lonely country intersection and BAM!

My little Datsun was slammed into by a large delivery truck doing 60 miles an hour.

He hit me right behind the back door and the car spun round and round like a top,

then WHAM! I stopped, wedged into the ditch on the side of the road.

Every window in the car was broken, the steering wheel was broken, the seat was broken.

My head was in the backseat, passenger side and my feet were under the steering wheel and I couldn’t breathe.
I literally COULD NOT BREATHE. That truck knocked the wind out of me.

The wreck was witnessed by one of my parishioners, Kitty Hightower. She ran to my car and leaned in the broken window. “Pastor, Pastor, are you all right?”

Well no, I wasn’t all right. I couldn’t breathe. There was no air in my lungs and I didn’t seem to be able to get any in there.

I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t even move; I just stared at her with my mouth open.

Kitty started crying, and then started screaming to the men rushing over from the country store, “He’s dead, He’s dead. Oh my God, the Pastor’s dead!”

Which is, I assure you, a peculiar thing to have screamed in your ear when you are indeed very much alive.

After what seemed like an eternity I was able to get a bit of air into my lungs and was able to lift a hand and touch Kitty on the shoulder;

which, in retrospect, was not the best thing to do, seeing as how she thought I was dead and all.

When I touched her on the shoulder, she jerked her head up and looked at me with real terror in her eyes.

Finally, I squeezed out the words, “It’s alright Kitty, I’m not dead.”

It was an odd thing to find myself in that position; the one who had been hurt comforting the onlooker.

But that is the position in which we find Jesus in our Gospel
lesson; the one who was hurt bringing solace to the witnesses.

On the Evening of that first Easter, the disciples were meeting in a room, probably the same room in which they had held their Passover.

They had the door shut, bolted, locked.
They were frightened.
They could not get their bearings.
They could not breathe.

They had given up everything to follow Jesus, and this is not how they expected things to turn out.

Just a week ago, on Palm Sunday, they had entered the city with such gigantically high hope, and now this.

This, this, disaster.
This, this, craziness.
This, this, car crash of an ending.
Indeed, they had the wind knocked out of them.

And on that first Easter evening, Jesus the Christ came to the disciples in that locked and airless room and breathed new life into them.

At one time or another all of us are like the disciples were on that first Easter evening.

We too have had the wind knocked out of us.

Some of us gathered here have lost loved ones unexpectedly,

some of us are struggling with the diagnosis of a long-term illness in the family,

some of us have had job losses,

some of us have lost economic security,

some of us have failed to get that promotion (or that call)
we had hoped for,
our children haven’t worked out the way we hoped,
our marriages are hurting.

All of us have had the wind knocked out of us, sometime; probably sometime lately.

Believe you me, in times like those, the big picture fades away and all your energy is centered on surviving, on breathing, on taking one more precious breathe,
and anything other than present personal experience becomes difficult to believe in or focus on.

Writing in Christianity Today, Tim Stafford talks about an object lesson Pastor Stephen Bilynski uses with his confirmation class.

He comes to the very first class with a jar full of jelly beans and asks the class to guess how many are in the jar. He writes all their estimates on the board.

Then he asks the boys and girls to name their favorite songs and he lists those on the board.

Finally the class counts the beans to see who was closest to right. Then Pastor Steve points to the list of songs and asks, “And which one of these is closest to being right?”

And of course the students protest that there is no right answer; that a person’s favorite song is purely a matter of taste and circumstance; purely personal preference. (Which would, I suppose, explain my predilection for Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.”)

At this point, Pr. Steve comes to the point of the entire exercise: “When you decide what to believe about God, is that more like guessing the number of beans, or more like choosing your favorite song”

In the article, Pastor Steve says he has done this numerous times over the last 20 years, and always, always, the answer, from teen-agers and from adults, is the same:

“Choosing what to believe about God is like choosing one’s favorite song.”

In modern America, we have transferred faith from the realm of fact to the world of feelings; what my friend Tom Ridenhour, Jr. calls the triumph of Schliermacher.

And the problem with that is, we seldom feel like believing.

Or more accurately, those personal experiences that would convince us to believe in God are few and far between, practically non-existent; and those things that would cause us to disbelieve, that knock the wind out of us, are much louder, persistent and frequent.

This is why what Jesus did in that room with those disciples is so important to us. Jesus reminded them where he came from “Just as the Father sent me,” and then he reminded them where they were going, “So I send you!”

Then he filled them with the Holy Spirit the way God the Creator filled the lungs of Adam and Eve with the very air we breathe, the wind that gives us life.

Lastly, he reminded them what their calling was, what they were being sent out filled with the Holy Spirit to do “Forgive sins.”

All this says to us that whether God loves us or not is NOT dependent on whether we’re feeling the love or not.

It is dependent upon God’s choice to love us; a choice God made and will never undo.

Whether God is involved in our lives is not dependent upon whether or not our grand plans and schemes for ourselves or for God are working out or not;

God’s involvement in our lives is again God’s choice, a choice Gad has already made and will not unmake.

All the disciples, Thomas and the others, had an advantage we do not and will not have; they got to see the Risen Lord.

But we have an advantage they did not; we have seen the fact that the Church and the Gospel are still going strong 2000 years later; again, not because of us, but because of God.

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

EASTER: Mark 16:1-8

April 12, 2009
Text: Mark 16:1-8

“Oh, I have heard that story before” the old Nigerian man said after missionary Charles Kraft told him about the death and resurrection of Jesus. “It happened to my nephew, just last year.”

Kraft was puzzled until he learned that the people of the old man’s village thought that being unconscious was the same thing as being dead.

Because the story of a man dying and coming back to life was old and very common news to him, the Gospel didn’t sound like Good News to the old man.

You know what? I’m afraid the Easter Story is old news to us too; and because of that we sometimes forget what really GOOD NEWS it is.

Most of us in this room today have heard the story of Jesus’ last week on earth so many times and in so many ways that we have ceased to be “alarmed” or “terrorized,” or “amazed” or “afraid.”

We are just bored. Like the old man, we just shrug and say, “I have heard that story before.”

It’s not that we don’t believe it. If we didn’t believe it, most of us wouldn’t be here today. It’s just that the story no longer moves us; it no longer seems to have the power to change our lives.

While we still profess belief in the final resurrection of the body in the last days; as the years go by it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out what the Death and Resurrection of Jesus 2000 years ago has to do with us, here, in Cullman, Alabama, in the year 2009.

So, on Easter, we celebrate the coming of Spring. We dress up in new clothes and decorate eggs and eat chocolate bunnies; which are symbols of natural fertility and life, but not of a supernatural victory over death. We do these things because we’re just not really sure what to make of this resurrection business.

Now, when Mr. Kraft heard the old man say he had heard the story before, he did a brilliant thing.

Instead of arguing with the man, or trying to explain to him the difference between being unconscious and being dead; Mr. Kraft asked the man a question;“Okay, if that’s not Good News; what would be Good News to you? What would be the BEST news you could hear?

The man thought for a few minutes, then said, “If I knew there was a power greater than the spirits that trouble me?”

That really is the Good News. That God is a power greater than the spirits that trouble all of us.

There are a lot of problems in the world today. There is war, and hunger and poverty, and the economy, and racial hatred, and drugs, and the environment.

And there are personal problems that are often a result of those larger problems. Loved ones sick with incurable diseases, family discord, loss of jobs, personal poverty, broken friendships and strained work relationships.

There are many powers in our world and in our lives that trouble us. And the Good News of Jesus Christ is not just about one man coming back from the dead. It is that but it is oh so much more than that.

It is a story that shouts out to us that there is a power that is greater than the spirits that trouble us. And that power is the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead.

The power of Easter is shown the life of the Church, the Risen Body of Christ in the World.

The power of the Resurrection is in the changed lives of the believers. The power of the empty tomb is this: the Truth that Jesus taught continues to be taught, the Unconditional Love that Jesus lived out continues to be lived out and shown, sins are forgiven, spirits are healed, Relationships are restored; all in Christ’s name and all by Christ’s power.

The witness of the women at the tomb, the witness of the apostles who spread the word around the Middle East, the witness of the early Church Fathers, the witness of the monks who clung to the faith throughout the middle ages, the witness of saints and martyrs and ordinary folk for 2000 years is that Christ does live on and is the best possible news because the Love and Forgiveness and Compassion of God are the power that is greater than the spirits that trouble us.

The witness of the ages is that the Empty Tomb is the power of God to give us new life and new hope for overcoming the spirits that trouble us and hold us back.

French writer Henri Barbusse wrote a memoir of his experiences in WWI. He writes of one day when his regiment had attacked the German lines and were driven back under a barrage of heavy gunfire.

Collapsing into the momentary safety of a muddy trench, Barbusse found himself up to his knees in mud, pressed against the trench wall while German machine guns laid down heavy fire just inches above his head.

He looked to his left and saw a man horribly wounded, his face disfigured, obviously dying. The wounded man reached over and grabbed a companion by his side and pulled him close to his face and began to speak, really to shout loudly, loud enough for Barbusse to hear. The wounded man said,




And so, with tears running down his face, Dominic exchanged identities with his friend and then held his friend in his arms as he died. He left that ditch, that “tomb,” a new man with a new life.

That is the promise of Easter for us. That is the power of the Resurrection in our lives. The Gospel is true. Sins are forgiven. Lives are changed. Love is more powerful than hate. Life is stronger than death. God can and does overcome the spirits that trouble us.

Christ is risen,