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Hooray for the Underdog

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June 21, 2015             “Hooray for the Underdog”

1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49

Underdogs are called “underdogs” for a reason.  They are outnumbered, or they are small, weaker or lacking in tools or weapons.  They should not prevail in the contest in which they are entered.  Yet, often, they do. Why?  How could a young shepherd boy prevail in a contest against an armed and dangerous giant?  Some people interpret scripture to say that Goliath was 6’9″ and that the numbers of the description were reversed or inflated.  In either case, Goliath was a lot bigger than David!

We tend to think of David and Goliath as a bedtime Bible story that we read to our children to instill confidence.  Goliath was BIG, fully clad in armor with multiple weapons, ready to attack and kill.  How would we face such an opponent–or any opponent, for that matter?  As I was writing this message, a reverse 911 call came into the office.  I did not know that such a thing existed, so we called the police department to be told that an armed and dangerous male had escaped from the jail across the street.  Lock the doors and remain inside until we receive a call saying that it is safe to go out.  Wow!  Our own Goliath to deal with on a Friday afternoon.  I pray for boredom and this was definitely not the answer I expected from God.

Life in any era presents challenges.  When David went forward to meet Goliath, not usually an advance made by a sole warrior (and David’s presence certainly did not appear to be that of an enemy), Goliath sneered and taunted the youth armed only with a sling and five smooth stones.  David still accepted the challenge to meet Goliath in combat and loaded a stone into his sling, and slung it right at the target–between Goliath’s eyes!

We tend to think of a slingshot as a child’s toy to practice aiming at a target and hitting it with a small projectile of some kind–for amusement, mostly.  The sling David carried was a highly effective weapon.  Armies used them in battle, and shepherds like David used them to protect their flocks from wild animals like lions and bears.  Malcolm Gladwell describes the sling as “a leather pouch with two long cords attached to it, and a projectile, either a rock or a lead ball..” It’s not a child’s toy.  It is in fact, an incredibly devastating weapon.  If you do the calculations on the ballistics, on the stopping power of the rock fired from David’s sling, it is roughly equal to the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun.  When David lines up he has every intention and every expectation of being able to hit Goliath at his most vulnerable spot..between his eyes.  Everything else is covered with armor.

Although this may seem like a surprising victory, it makes perfect sense.  Throughout history, Davids have found ways to conquer Goliaths.  Today the fearsome Bradley Fighting Vehicle has fallen victim to Improvised Explosive Devices.  In response, the army is developing an 84 ton Ground Combat Vehicle that will be massive enough to survive a roadside bomb.  Dads may want one of these vehicles for Father’s Day, especially if a resident teen is looking to get a driver’s permit or new license.  Sorry they will not be available until at least 2019.  In the New Yorker magazine (May 11, 2009) Malcolm Gladwell explained the secret of being a successful underdog.  He begins by talking about the game of basketball, in which towering Goliaths usually win by rising over their shorter opponents.  Gladwell believes that David can win by using the full-court press.  Full court press is when you prevent your opponent from advancing up the court to the basket.  If you are a David, and you allow a Goliath to get to the basket, he will probably score but if you press him, and keep him at the other end of the court for a significant amount of time, you stand a chance of winning.  Isn’t that just what David did when he faced Goliath?  He did not give Goliath any ground, but ran quickly to the battle line.  He used the full-court press.

Each of us has been given a unique talent by God for use in the challenges we face.  The first disciples were fishermen, and Jesus used them to “fish for people.” Paul started out as a passionate persecutor of the church and God used his zeal to preach the gospel. Dorcas was “devoted to good works and acts of charity”, Lydia showed gracious hospitality to Paul, and Apollos used his eloquence to tell people about Jesus.  Fishing, zeal, good works, hospitality, and eloquence.  What a diverse group of talents found in people across the community.  God has given each of us a unique gift, and victory is possible when we put it to use.

David refused to be intimidated and told Goliath, “This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand” (v.46).  David not only tried harder but he believed harder.  He surpassed his fellow Israelites in showing confidence that God would exert effort on their behalf.  David stood up to Goliath and put complete faith in God.  All of us face challenges in our health, in our work, in our education and in our relationships.  In each of these areas we can make the same kind of effort that David did, refusing to give up and run away.  We can trust God to make an effort on our behalf, helping us to survive and thrive.

Sometimes we have to be insurgents by challenging authorities about how things are supposed to be done.  This is hard because we have a negative view of people described as insurgents.  All of the attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere made on innocent people make us cringe at the use of the word.  An insurgent can be a villain or a hero.  We are called to be insurgents for God.  The sudden sprint toward Goliath by David must have frozen Goliath for just a short time, a moment for David to act as a point guard and flick the sling right at the target.

David shows us that we can be victorious when we choose an unconventional approach, when we try harder than anyone else and righteously challenge authority.  We all have been given a unique set of talents by a God who can be trusted to work for good in our lives.  So..pick up your five smooth stones and run quickly toward the battle line.  God’s presence in our lives gives us the courage to face danger and to overcome our fears, for God listens and responds to all who call on the name of the Lord, as David did so long ago. 

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Thru Mortal Eyes

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Message Delivered on June 14, 2015

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Have you ever been a judge for a talent or beauty contest?  Shows like America’s Got Talent, The Voice, The Apprentice and others have been appearing on television.  Hordes of people are watching them.  There is also The Bachelor, Dancing With the Stars and Dance Moms, plus other programs where contestants are being selected because they meet particular criteria.  Some are chosen for beauty, some for skills and talents, and some for their abilities to please others romantically or possess specific vocational credentials.  Our culture is programming us to be involved in these processes.  We are looking at windows of possibility from the exterior appearance, rather than from the inside looking out.

 

In today’s Old Testament reading we look at Saul as a reasonable, understandable, common-sense sort of guy.  From outward appearances, we view Saul as a person facing certain problems and making the decisions he thought were best for his countrymen but the situation was that God commanded Saul to do a certain thing: to go into battle with the Amalekites and to literally wipe them off the map.  He was to see that every man, woman, child and animal was destroyed.  For practical reasons he allowed livestock to be captured and brought back to Israel.  Couldn’t the Israelites benefit from eating those prime animals?  What harm was there in providing food for his nation?  Saul was relenting under the pressure of the people and desiring to be a merciful king, but God was extremely angry with Saul and rejected Saul as king.  The stage was being set for a new king who would rule with wisdom, courage and prudence to maintain stability–and here comes the glitch–it was to be according to God’s rules and regulations–no exceptions allowed!

 

How does God’s commissioned prophet/servant, Samuel, go about selecting the candidate that would meet God’s specifications?  Does Samuel interview brave warriors, people of suitable physique or men experienced in making political and economic decisions while running a country?  Should the candidate be a “local” person or someone from afar with a variety of experiences that would assist the candidate in ruling a God-fearing kingdom?

 

The scene is being set for David, a shepherd lad, who is off tending sheep in one of his father’s fields.  What can David possibly offer in competition with Saul, a great warrior king?  In your mind, try to put on Samuels’ sandals and the responsibility of interviewing a potential new king.  How does Samuel go about fulfilling God’s order to secure a new king?  Why replace Saul, anyway?

 

Saul forgot to listen and obey.  In our culture and time frame, what about humanity has changed?  Listening and obedience are certainly not strong characteristics of twenty-first century people.  We are more prone to talk, rather than listen, and to question, instead of obey.  Who are we willing to obey–to succumb to rather than making our own bold, sometimes brash decisions?  Saul had the characteristics/qualities to be a king:  power, wealth, status, stature, common sense, and the willingness to compromise when the need arose.  Saul lacked the gumption to follow God’s orders and therefore, failed God, and he was ousted from the throne for what boils down to making a bad decision.

 

Samuel proceeds to Bethlehem to make an offering as ordered by God.  Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to join him.  Seven sons were paraded before Samuel until all visible were rejected by God.  “The Lord doesn’t see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearances, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  David had to be called in from the field to stand before Samuel, and ultimately before God, who was searching for a new able-bodied, spiritually-filled king.

 

Saul did not have it in his heart to listen to God and to obey God above all else.  The main qualifications for being king under God was to listen and to obey, in spite of all other pressing considerations at the moment.  God had instructed Saul and Saul had chosen  to follow the will of the people.  It was time to move on and God moved on to David.  Saul’s day was over.  God looked at David’s heart and liked what he saw.  David was not chosen because the spirit came upon him with power and made him competent to be king.  What did God see in David’s heart?  A heart which could listen and obey.

 

In our world we are bombarded with numerous voices pulling us from one side to another on any given issue.  We long to understand clearly what God wants and expects of us.  What we call the human heart is a fairly dependable instrument of God’s will–leading us in God’s way.  In Vacation Bible School we learned about the G-Force, God in us at work.  When we listen to our hearts, things usually work out.  The times we regret our rash decisions are the times we ignored what our hearts were telling us.  Call it the inner sense, the conscience, God at work.  Fear, anxiety, harsh experiences and self-interest can lead us astray from God’s plan for our lives.  Saul experienced “heart failure”, and God, looking into David’s heart, saw some new possibilities.

 

If you have ever watched the “Miss America” pageant and guessed at who the finalists would be, (my Mom would make a list of her favorite ten candidates and then narrow it down to five, predicting on her own who she thought Miss America should be based on her analysis) were you surprised when the “dark horse” candidate won?  Maybe her formal was too long or too short, or did not seem to fit her personality.  When she was asked the final question that would help color the judges’ decisions, often the winner was the one who expressed from her heart her concern for the welfare of particular persons or causes.

 

God plants little seeds that are tended by the Holy Spirit–the G-Force.  They are nurtured until God determines the time to call you forward, to call you into service for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34).  Let your heart lead you where God would have you go.  God has eternal plans for each of us and clearly spells out the qualifications:  listen to your heart and let your eyes lead you in the godly direction.

 

Who would want to be a judge or politician or diplomat in our culture?  Can our mortal eyes see through people to know if their intentions are godly?  Does it matter?  Judging is God’s job and we sometimes have trouble sharing that responsibility with God.  When God is in our hearts and our hearts are with God, we treasure God above all things.  Given half a chance, our hearts will lead us where God wants us to go. 

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

By Reason of Insanity

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Message Delivered on June 7, 2015

Mark 3:20-35                  “By Reason of Insanity”

 

This past week we hosted Vacation Bible School, “G-Force,” God in us.  We learned that if God is truly in us, we move, act, care, follow and share the example Jesus set before us, giving us his all, his life that we might have eternal life.  The kids discovered that it is fun to learn about God and God’s amazing sacrificial love for all people.  Keep these thought on the back burner of your minds.

 Recently, there have been some murder trials and all the media hype surrounding them.  The attorneys’ arguments presented to the jury went something like this: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask that you find my client not guilty.   Yes, my client had motive.  It has been established that my client’s fingerprints are all over the crime scene and he pulled the trigger but that does not mean he should be convicted.  He is absolutely, certifiably insane.  I rest my case.”  Not guilty by reason of insanity; what a plea.  The theory behind this defense is that one who lacks the “malice aforethought” or the intent required to perform a truly criminal act because the person is either incapable of discerning the difference between right and wrong, or incapable of restraint, even in the face of such knowledge.”  Using the defense of insanity raises some interesting questions:

 

[if !supportLists]·       [endif]Can someone be held accountable for doing something bad if his/her mind is clouded with craziness?

[if !supportLists]·       [endif]What is crazy anyway?

[if !supportLists]·       [endif]What is the threshold for craziness that suddenly makes one incapable of being found culpable?

[if !supportLists]·       [endif]What about subjectivity? One generation’s “crazy” is another generation’s “eccentric.”

[if !supportLists]·       [endif]How about the issue of genius?  Sometimes our most enlightened and creative people look, think and act in much the same way as our most unstable ones.

 

Why do I bring up the insanity plea?  In this Scripture Jesus is accused of being crazy.  Why would such a charge be made?  In Mark’s gospel we learn that Jesus is growing in popularity as he performs miracles (kids learned about the healing of a blind man and a paralytic): cleanses lepers, restores withered hands and says strange things like “I am Lord of the Sabbath, your sins are forgiven.” and “Hey, disciples, I give you authority to cast out people’s demons.”  Jesus was drawing an uncomfortable amount of attention to himself.  Those who were closest to him (family and extended family) and those most threatened by him (people in authority: Pharisees and scribes, and other “bean counters” looking for ways to entrap Jesus) were seeking ways to restrain him from religious authorities.  Can’t you hear people asking, “Is this guy crazy?”

 

Jesus’ loved ones are trying to stage an intervention, and fail.  They went out to get him away from the religious establishment, who claimed that he was possessed by Beelzebul (an evil spirit).  We know that Jesus was not crazy, but God in the flesh.  The religious scholars were puzzled because usually sane people do not make claims to be deity or to publicly discuss demons.  That is not normal behavior.

 

Sometimes crazy and genius look similar.  Jesus is not mad, it is just that he is leader of his world, his kingdom, and that surprises everyone who hears it.  Humanity had never seen such power or public display or heard such values being taught.  Jesus was a homeless, self-made rabbi from Nazareth with “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him.”  We most likely would have called him a “nutcase.”

 

Jesus does not appear to take the insanity accusation very seriously; instead, Jesus takes the response of those concerned and uses it to illustrate a dividing line between saving faith and damning disbelief.  Those who will be forgiven are those who can see that behind the incredible miracles and alarming message is the very Spirit of God (4:28-29).  The Kingdom of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, will always disrupt and disturb a “sane” world.  If “craziness” is persistently violating social norms with little regard for oneself, then the work of Jesus fits the description.

 

The world idolizes logic and reason, but God’s people live by faith and they love mystery.

The world abuses the weak and attempts to fix the poor.  God’s people embrace the lowly as the greatest among us.

The world rewards the strongest and most capable.  We Christians openly confess our struggles and repent of our sins.

The world says, “You are entitled to hate those that hurt you.”  Christians are to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors.

The world is full of people stocking up earthly treasure, but Christians give it away in favor of heaven’s treasure.

The world says to “Love yourself and try not to hurt your neighbor.”  Christians say, “Love your neighbor and be willing to sacrifice yourself.”

The world sleeps later on Sundays and Christians gather to sing praises to a God they cannot see, yet still believe is coming back.

 

God breaks into our world through the Son, the Word and Spirit-filled people.  If the God we worship is not disrupting and confronting some part of our lives, then God must be one of our own creation, not the Creator of the universe.

 

The gospel can be very confusing: incarnation- “Jesus, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  Being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5). Cross- what a confusing message.  “To those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God at work” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  God in the flesh gave his life as a gift for a rebellious, evil humanity.  It is pure foolishness (Paul has said). Salvation- Every other religious system requires the one being rescued to do something–no–Christ died for us while we were still sinners and made us alive when we were dead to sin.  Resurrection- we only need turn to Acts 2 and see how the world responded to the early believers.  They shared everything and celebrated the sacrament eating flesh and drinking blood, and the world called them insane cannibals.  The early believers confronted culture and paid the price.

 

What if the church today embraced the weirdness of the early Christians?

What if the Christians put out Christmas decorations, checked the mail in boxer shorts and sat in the driveway waving to passers by drinking wine out of a box? (My neighbors in Ohio did that.)

What would happen if a homeless person wandered in on Sunday? Would he/she be given a seat of honor?

Would the church create ministries that do more than entertain children and educate the adults?

Would the pastor preach the depths of God’s demands upon humanity?

 

Jesus’ friends and family wondered if he was crazy but we need to ask ourselves if we are crazy enough.  Let us go forth out the door with the reminder that we have been set free as agents in a world turned upside down–in an insane world known as the Kingdom of God.  If by some chance we come under fire for radically and faithfully following Jesus, we have a great defense:  Not guilty by reason of insanity.  Are you crazy for Christ?  Do you have the “G-Force”?  Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Spirit Code – 5/24/2015

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 Message Delivered on May 24, 2015

Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 4b-15

“Spirit Code”
You have heard the traditional readings for Pentecost, often called the birthday of the Christian Church. Paul in his letter to the Church at Rome in Romans 8:22-27 touches on multiple theological principles: soteriology (salvation), pneumatology (Doctrine of the Holy Spirit; that the Holy Spirit intervenes between God and people and eschatology (last things — or the future ahead). The text offers a message of hope to Paul’s audience by encouraging them to look beyond the current experience of groaning to a future hope and intercession from the Spirit.

I read a story this past week about mail delivery in Ireland. We complain about our United States Postal System and it is not quite like the “free” delivery system envisioned by Benjamin Franklin, but it is definitely better than that which exists in Ireland. The practice of the Irish postal system has been to “deliver to the oldest Patrick Murphy first.” If you write a letter to Patrick Murphy in Abbeyfeale, County Limerick, your message might not get to the right man. It could be passed through multiple guys with the same name before it gets to the right Patrick Murphy. Towns in many parts of rural Ireland do not use house numbers or even street names. They do not have postal codes (Zip Codes here in the U.S.)!

So, when a forty year old man, Patrick Murphy, moved to Abbeyfeale, he became the third man by the same name in the neighborhood. None were related. All had different homes, but the addresses were the same. The postman took the letter to the Patrick Murphy who had lived there the longest and then he would pass it on. The new Patrick Murphy said, “My neighbors would get it first, they would have a good read and then they would say, ‘No, it is probably not meant for us.’ ” Definitely not a good system.

Getting our prayers through to God sometimes feels as difficult as getting Patrick Murphy his mail, but there is hope! God knows that we need help with our prayers and Paul says, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” We do not know God’s exact address or even how to phrase our requests.

In Ireland, the government wants to end the mail delivery confusion (what a concept!), so it is instituting its first postal-code-system that will assign an individual number to every home and business. No more letters bouncing from Murphy to Murphy. No more residents experiencing, “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Instead, accurate deliveries.

On the first Pentecost, followers of Jesus were together in Jerusalem and suddenly “There came from heaven a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). God knew exactly where the apostles were and sent a special delivery: the Holy Spirit. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages” (Acts 2:4).

Moments later, they used this awesome gift from God to tell others about God’s deeds of power. The Holy Spirit enabled this news to be delivered accurately and speedily to “Parthians, Medes and people from all parts of the known world who were in Jerusalem that day. What a delivery system was begun that day–the Spirit Code. No more hoping, no more waiting, just accurate deliveries. People in Jerusalem were amazed. How could those Galilean back-country followers of Jesus, not known for eloquent language skills or experience in international communications, speak in all the languages of the people assembled in Jerusalem? Some folks even accused them of being drunk at 9a.m.!

Innovation is always met with resistance. The change in Ireland is truly necessary. Amazon.com refuses to “Deliver to the oldest Patrick Murphy first, then figure it out over time.” Initially, the Spirit Code improved person-to-person communication, allowing Jesus’ disciples to speak to people around the world. Deliveries that began on Pentecost are continuing today, helping Christianity to grow into a global religion with more than 2.3 billion followers.
The Spirit Code also helps our prayers to get to God. “The Spirit intercedes with sighs to deep for words,” giving us communication assistance–no more worries about confusing or misdirected prayers. We do not run the risk of praying like a woman, “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept stupid people the way they are, courage to maintain self-control and wisdom to know that if I act on it, I will go to jail.” Probably not the way we should or want to pray. We do not want our prayers to bounce from Murphy to Murphy, so what can we do?
First, begin by accepting help. The Spirit is willing to help us in our weakness, so when we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s help, we find that our prayers move beyond our personal agendas to the wider agenda of Almighty God. Dutch theologian, Hendrikus Berkhof, says that prayers include “thanksgiving for what God does; adoration for who God is and losing oneself in God’s incomprehensible love.” These are God – centered prayers as opposed to self-centered prayers. The Spirit helps us to focus on God’s divine agenda, instead of our human desires.
Second, the good news is that God wants to assist us. The Spirit intercedes–which means that the Holy Spirits acts as a mediator, a “go-between”, between us and God, helping with our communication. Berkhof lists prayers for divine human dialogue as: prayer for faith and forgiveness, prayer for strength in the fight of the faith, a plea for the lostness of our existence, prayer for help in need, wisdom to make the right decisions, for submission and surrender when we see that our wills conflict with that of God’s.” No request to win the lottery, no serenity to accept stupid people the way they are. Instead, prayers for faith, forgiveness, strength, help, wisdom, submission and surrender. These prayers are delivered directly to God via the Spirit Code.
Third, best of all, these prayers are answered. The Holy Spirit enables God’s will to be done in the lives of all who pray to him. We do not get everything we want when we pray to God, just everything we need, according to God’s will. One of the most well-known prayers is the Serenity Prayer, central to recovery from addictions, used by many in 12-Step programs: “God grant me to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” God is not asked for miraculous healing, just to give serenity, courage and wisdom to people so that they can become well. The Serenity Prayer is said in order to change the hearts and minds of people, not God. Prayer does work, in ways that align us with God’s desire for healing and wholeness in human life.
A prayer for help in time of need will always be heard and answered by God. We might not get the answer we want but we will get the answer we need, in accordance with God’s will. Accurate delivery is guaranteed, per the Spirit Code.
Maybe we need to also remember the Senility Prayer: God grant me the senility to forget those people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into those I do like, and the eyesight to tell the difference. 
 Amen

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Building a Legacy – 5/17/2015

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 Message Delivered on May 17, 2015

Acts 1:1-11; John 17:6-19 “Building a Legacy”

Ascension is one of the Christian celebrations that has been somewhat lost in observance. It is still on the calendar but we tend to focus on Pentecost, which follows. Pentecost rushes in with fire and color and gets our attention. Easter has its powerful message for Christians and Christmas is well accepted, albeit overrun with consumerism. Ascension sits on a little shelf in an alcove of our faith.

The Book of Acts is written by a Syrian physician, Luke, who could have believed that heaven was just above the dome of the sky that is clearly visible. The idea of Jesus rising into the sky and entering heaven seemed logical. Luke had no idea that far above the clouds there was an enormity of space containing billions of galaxies, each of them containing millions of stars like our sun. There was no reason to question that the Messiah would return the same way he left. The Jewish hope was that the Messiah would rip open the heavens themselves and descend to earth with chariots and an almighty army of angelic warriors to put aside all disorder and sin, and establish a single kingdom that would rule all the earth. It was a glorious vision, and it kept the Jews going when they were hemmed in by nations that wanted to destroy them.

This hope is evident in Luke’s report that the disciples “gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ ” Despite the crucifixion, which the Romans practiced to instill fear into the people, Jesus’ disciples believed that Jesus would be like the Messiah of legend. They were still thinking of earthly glory, where the nations of the earth, rather than ruining Israel, would be ruled over by Jesus Christ (the Messiah). They had been hoping for this from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. They are still hoping even though Jesus told them to stay together and wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. If Jesus were about to establish an earthly kingdom, what role would the baptism of the Holy Spirit play in that scenario? Jesus had been frustrated from time to time when the disciples did not understand the parables he told, or the healings he had performed. He had done everything to train and educate them for the work ahead to be done. He even died for them. They had not understood the resurrection. Even after his resurrection he had continued to teach and the disciples were still talking about restoring the kingdom to Israel. He tells them, “It is not for you to know.” and then he commissions them: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That commission applies to all of us, as well. We are to report to others all that Jesus has done for us, for others, and for the world. Jesus intended that we bring hope and joy to the world around us.

If the disciples listened closely, they would realize that they had an enormous task ahead of them. They were to preach in Jerusalem (a dangerous proposition), in all of Judea and Samaria (the land of pagans who worshiped in a temple other than the real temple in Jerusalem where God lives). The disciples had traversed on foot from Galilee to Jerusalem, to Caesaria, Sidon and Tyre–but–to go to the ends of the earth would mean to travel by sea which they had never done (Simon Peter, Andrew,

James and John were fishermen on Lake Galilee surrounded by land), preferring to buy goods from others who did the shipping.

The disciples waited…and waited for the inflowing of the Holy Spirit, not knowing that event would transform them, change them from frightened people, hiding in a locked house, into charismatic preachers. Jesus sent them forth to establish God’s Realm, but it was the power of the Holy Spirit that would enable them to begin the transformation of the world. How would they do the work for Jesus in his worldly absence?

In John’s gospel, it is noted that Jesus prayed “Those whom you gave me from the world…the words that you gave to me I have given to them and they have received them.” Jesus’ teaching is the essence of his legacy–one that will remain with the disciples and guide them as they continue his work in the world. This “changing of the guard” from Jesus to his disciples can be compared to late night television hosts Jay Leno (Johnny Carson before him) and soon, David Letterman, who established formats for late night viewing programs. What makes for a lasting legacy? There is no longer-lasting legacy than that of Jesus–one that has lasted over 2000 years, yet is not relegated to the history books. Instead, it is a living, breathing legacy that each Christian contributes to every day.

Words have power and can affect the legacy we leave, especially the negative effect that ill-considered words wield through the power of the internet and social media. When all we have to do is hit the “send” button, it is very easy to let our emotions get the best of us and to say things to the world that once we might have said only to those closest to us. Those words can now impact millions.

Everyone wants to leave a legacy but how is one built? We want to leave behind something that will make an impression, make a difference and create a footprint that will stand the test of time. As talk show hosts retire or move on, President Obama is approaching his final year in office. Young people are graduating from college and at other educational levels, closing a chapter of their lives to being another. Some will be retiring from careers in which they have spent decades. What will graduates and retirees leave for those who come after them? Will goals be higher because of what they did? Will the job be easier or harder because of them? What will be their legacy?

In John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is preparing them for his departure and speaks of the things he wishes to leave for them: the Words God gave to him, which he gave to the disciples; God’s truth in Scripture; Jesus asks for the disciples to be protected and kept in unity and reconciliation. Jesus leaves the disciples the same joy that comes from being in relationship to the Father. Jesus gives the disciples a sense of mission, “I have sent them into the world.” All of the worlds, all of the unity, all of the joy is of no account if it is hoarded, or kept as a trophy or a treasure. Like the bread and wine of Holy Communion, they must be broken, poured out and shared with the world before they can know their true value as refreshment, renewal and empowerment for faith.

Have you ever written a will? Maybe for high school or college, in which you explained what you would be leaving to your alma mater and the underclassmen thereof. I have. They were copied, collated and distributed the last week of classes. Some of the wills were funny and some made little sense, but it was an opportunity for myself and others to consider what would be left behind for those who came after us. My classmates had given me so much. What would I leave in return? Were there any new standards because of something I had done or one of my classmates had accomplished?”

As the Easter season comes to an end, let us ask ourselves, “What have we done or created in the name of Jesus Christ that will serve the next generation? What will live on after we are gone that will bear witness to God’s grace and love for those who need to hear it most? Have we set precedents or learned how to turn a negative situation into a positive outcome for the building up of the Kingdom of God? Our words are the testimony we give about what we truly believe and no testimony is more powerful than that of the Christian life. 1 John 5:9-13 says, “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony [of God] in their hearts.” Words can have the power to enlighten as well as to demean (Ephesians 1:15-23 suggests). Given the power that our words can have, it is essential for us to consider how we use them and in whose service we employ them.

Christ gives peace and his words are fully truth and truthful. The words we have from Christ and how we use them are part of the immediate legacy we leave on the hearts of those who receive them. In building a legacy to leave for others, kind and loving words, or sometimes harder truths spoken in love, should be our guides. It takes commitment, patience and love to build a legacy for those who will follow us. Once again, we are waiting for the Holy Spirit to move us to action. 

 Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

We Are Chose – 5/10/2015

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 Message Delivered on May 10, 2015

John 15:9-17 “We Are Chosen”

The Scripture readings for today are reminders that our unity and relating to each other in love flow from God’s love and grace. John’s gospel was probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century and is very different in style from the three other gospels. The book of John has been identified with John, the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved. His authorship has been questioned by many scholars, but Papias, one of the earliest Church fathers, claimed that John was an eye-witness. Papias’ testimony and authentication have lent support that John wanted to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus was in fact, the Messiah, the Son of God.

Chapter 15 is part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, unique to John’s gospel. It includes the teaching of the New Commandment of love and Jesus’ declaration of friendship with the faithful. Jesus says that as the Father has loved Him, so He loves the faithful and exhorts them to continue in the love, and to keep His commandments by abiding in love, just as Jesus in God’s love abides in God’s commands. The New Commandment is to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Jesus did not come to earth to abolish the Ten Commandments, but to encourage everyone to love God and each other. If this were to happen, people would be following the Ten Commandments by loving and respecting God (first four Commandments are to obey God) and by loving and respecting each other (last six Commandments). Jesus’ summary of the Ten Commandments was tao love each other by laying down our lives for each other, just as Jesus was willing to do for us. If we listen to Jesus and follow his words we are acting as friends in Jesus’ footsteps. No matter what we do to displease Jesus, we need to remember that Jesu loves us anyway. I liken it to the bad hair day. We look in the mirror and go “Ugh!” while Jesus looks at us and says, “Ah,” I love you just the way you are. Jesus chooses us to go out and bear fruit that will last: win souls for Jesus and share God’s love, understanding and grace with them.

Jesus had just used the metaphor of the vine and branches, that He is the vine and we are the branches. Jesus has chosen us just as he chose the original twelve to share in ministry. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (v.11).

The disciples knew that in grace Jesus came to them and offered unconditional love. I relate it to a mother’s love. All the wailing and whining of a child melt away as the child smiles at Mom and say, “You are the best mommy ever!” I have been told that labor pains disappear, are forgotten–until the next child is born.

One of the awesome signs of the risen, living Jesus is that he comes to us again and again, even if we do not want to be chose, even if we hide behind skirts of cowardice and say, “Who me? Why me? Pick on someone else.” Jesus pursues us relentlessly. We need to recall that even after dying on the cross, after saying, “It is finished,” Jesus cracked open the tomb door and sprang out of death’s grip that first Easter. (“Up From the Grave He Arose!”) He is alive, calling, gathering and sanctifying us as his disciples.

This passage tells us we are chosen for joy, chosen for love, chosen to be Jesus’ friends. Remember choosing up sides to play kickball or baseball? You would put your hands on the bat until the person holding the bat last was the one who got to make the first choice. It was great to be chosen to be on the team. It is an honor to be chosen and to feel joyful.

The earliest Christians were joyous people. They caught the infection of happiness from their Master; with his unsullied conscience, his uninterrupted communion with God, his perfect trust in God and his unselfish spending of himself for others. Christ offers to share his joy with anyone who will accept it from him. Barnabas (one of Paul’s travelling companions) said: “Christians are the children of joy.” Paul wrote to his congregation in Philippi: “I am glad and rejoice with all of you and in the same way you must also be glad and rejoice with me (Philippians 2:17b, 18).” Think of the song, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!”

We are chosen for joy and love, and are sent out into the world to love one another. It does not always look that way–not even from a mother’s perspective. Often we worry about our investments, the priorities we set, time we allot to people we are supposed to love and the way we use our resources for ourselves, rather than others. God has chosen us to live the kind of life that shows what is meant by loving other people. Jesus reminds us that he has the right to demand that of us–even to give our lives for each other. Jesus gave his life for his friends and asks that we do no less. We understand the theology but have trouble living it. It is like a parent who tells their child, “I love you when you are good,” and the child says, “Daddy, I love you all the time.” The child has the right idea of how God loves.

Jesus chooses to love all the time, that we too, be his friends and he promises, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (v.15). In days gone by a servant of God was to be one of God’s elite–but Jesus is offering far more than servanthood. He is offering friendship. We are ‘selected’ to be his friends. God is not a slave master who will burn us if we do not satisfy him. We do not need to work like crazy to please him so that he will treat us well. No, he comes to us as a loving friend whom we serve because it is a normal response to having loving friends. Aristotle said the marks of a true friend are: he guards you when you are off your guard and does not forsake you in trouble; he even lays down his life for your sake; he restrains you from doing wrong; he enjoins you to do right; he reveals to you the way to heaven. There is a kinship of spirit. There is a propensity to love rather than measure being loved.

In true friendship there is trust, a confidence that is whole-hearted. God is no longer to be feared. Jesus chose us to be his friends; chose us to love; chose us to share joy. On this Mother’s Day, it seems fitting to tell you that my Mom told me before she died that the greatest friend we have in life–after God, is our mother. When a Mom leaves to be with God, there is a hole in our heart that has to be filled with loving memories.

Sybil Dray was a loving wife and mom, and we will remember her every time we walk past the friendship garden in the church’s front yard. We were created by God–in love–and will be lovingly remembered by those whose lives we share. To God be the glory. We are thankful that we are chosen. 

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

New Formula for Life – 4/26/2015

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 Message Delivered on April 26, 2015

1 John 3:16-24 “New Formula for Life”

This is traditionally “Good Shepherd” Sunday, but I have probably preached

the texts from Psalm 23 and John 10 at least twenty times in the past twenty-three years, so I decided to do something different and preach from 1 John 3:16-24. Keeping this in mind, I need to begin with the Old Testament Scripture in Leviticus 19:18, which says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As far as formulas go, it is terrific. It has worked well for thousands of years in a variety of forms in most of the world’s religions. Jews, of course, believe the statement in Leviticus. Hindus affirm that “One should not behave toward others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself.” Buddhists say that you should “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” and Muslims believe that “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” (These sound so much like the “Golden Rule”, Matthew 7:12, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”) Jesus endorsed the teaching in Leviticus when he made it part of his great commandment, “Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39)

Since the end of the second century 1 John has been recognized as having been written by the author of the fourth gospel, or by another member of his circle. The letter is a discourse on love claiming that the Son of God laid down his life for us, and so we ought to lay down our lives for each other (v.16). The focus on Christ is in line with the letter’s efforts to address doubts about whether Jesus was truly a human being and whether his death on the cross was a sacrifice for sin. John wants us to know that God’s love gives us boldness and confidence even when we feel guilty and condemned. The spontaneity of good works is suggested by the fact that Christ dwells in the faithful, brought to us by the Holy Spirit and that this leads to loving each other. These works depend on Christ, who is All-in-All.

John’s formula has a new spin on it: “This is [God’s] commandment, that we should believe in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another” (v.23). Believe in Jesus. Love one another. NOT the same old formula.

In recent years, companies have learned the hard way that it is dangerous to change the ingredients of a successful product. Thirty years ago, Coca-Cola changed its formula and introduced a product called “New Coke.” Remember that? The response was overwhelmingly negative. Pepsi stepped in with a “Pepsi Challenge” and folks were invited to taste Pepsi and Coke and see if they could tell the difference. Boy, did I luck out. My father was a Pepsi drinker and my mother was a Coke lover, so I grew up drinking both. I could tell the difference and when invited to take the challenge, I could tell between ten samples which was Coke and which was

Pepsi. I walked away with a 6-pack of Coke and a 6-pack of Pepsi! The response to the new formula for Coke was overwhelmingly negative. “If it ain’t broke, why fix it”? Within a mere three months the original formula was back on the market. Coke learned by complaints, complaints, complaints.

So, what was John up to in today’s lesson? He wanted to put a human face on the commandment to love one another–the face of Jesus Christ. “We know love by this,” he says to his Christian brothers and sisters, “That he laid down his life for us” (v.16). John is wise enough to know and understand that love can become too sweet, with people enjoying the pleasant taste of tender emotions and charitable thoughts. So, he changes the formula to include the bitter truth–the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. A change of ingredients can actually change behavior. John says, “We ought to lay down our lives for one another” following Jesus’ example. Under this new formula, sacrificial giving becomes a part of the Christian life, one that cannot be denied. John asks his followers, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help?” (v.17). That’s a troubling question. Where do you see God’s love in such a person? You do not because it is just not there. Love is seen in action, not in words. “Christ Life” is found in people who love one another and build strong connections to their neighbors. These loving bonds do not just make people feel good–they can actually curb the risk of having a heart attack. A research team at the University of Michigan has found that people who rate their neighborhood highly have a significantly reduced heart attack risk. The difference in risk between people with good neighbors and people with bad neighbors is roughly the difference between a non-smoker and a smoker. Healthy relationships and healthy hearts–that is a good reason to “love one another, just as he commanded us” (v.23). All of this comes from “Christ Life”, a new kind of life for us. The formula is believing in Jesus and loving one another. John links belief in Jesus with love for one another, knowing that the clearest example of love is the sacrificial life and death of Christ. The result of this new formula is a close connection to God, one in which “all who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them” (v.24).

Coke has decided once again to alter its formula, calling it “Coca-Cola Life.” It has been tested in Argentina and in the United Kingdom. Is it healthier than regular Coke, since its formula contains sugar and stevia (from a plant in the chrysanthemum family)? Regular Coke has 140 calories per can and Coke Life will have a mere 89. You can think of it this way:

  • Coke has just started offering Life–or will soon in the United States
  • Jesus Christ has been offering Life for quite some time. The gospel of John begins with the Word of God taking the human form of Jesus, and we are promised that “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4).

Belief. Life. Light. Put them altogether and a new formula begins to emerge. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Love is now in the mix–a life that extends beyond the grave–eternal life.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me, will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Life in his name.

Eternal life.

The Light of life.

Abundant life.

The way, the truth and the life.

Life, Life, Life…

“Christ Life is not the same old formula. It is a new one based on believing in Jesus and loving one another. Believing in Jesus draws us closer to God and to one another and allows us to abide in God–to accept, observe and follow a particular path. So…give it a try. You have nothing to lose, and a new life to gain! 

 Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Powering Up – 4/12/2015

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 Message Delivered on April 12, 2015

John 20:19-31 “Powering Up”

If I were to ask you what you think about when you hear the expression “power up,” what comes to your mind? Maybe it is plugging your phone into the charger to refresh the battery, or turning on your computer (to “boot up” or “power up”), or perhaps you are turning the key in your car’s engine. All of these are possible sources of getting re-energized or ready to perform various tasks.

Think about the tornado that ripped across mid-America and wiped out a small town west of Chicago. That storm did more than “power up.” It cut a huge swath across Illinois, wreaking havoc in its path. Storms that knock out electrical systems help us to focus on systems that remind us how dependent we are upon power. We are grateful when wind filled storms pass over and do not affect the flow of power to our homes. If we are to define power, we might think of possession of control, authority, or influence over others. Some people have natural gifts for applying power. Some are born to power and others seek power, while still others abuse power. The whole matter of authority, jurisdiction, control, command, or dominion is an extremely intriguing one. Often we are locked in international and national debates as to how we should or should not use power. Should the Mideast have nuclear power and the ability to bomb neighbors near or far? Today’s gospel announces how Jesus conferred powers upon his followers when he appeared to them as the Risen Christ. Let us call it “Easter Power.”

John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection appearance takes place on Easter in an Upper Room where the disciples had gathered. Jesus’ appearance is substantiated by Luke. The disciples were in shock, drenched in fear, worrying what might happen to them when it was discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb. The door is locked in defense of any who might come looking for them. It is Jesus who comes looking for them.

Can you imagine what it was like when Jesus came and stood among them unannounced? He does not enter the way a normal person would through the door. He speaks to them to give them evidence that he is their Lord and shows them the badges of his crucifixion: five scars, nail prints in his hands and feet and the wound where he was speared in the side to confirm his death. The scars were proof that he was the living Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, standing amongst them. He was dead but now he is ALIVE!

Jesus’ greeting to the disciples was, “Peace be unto you,” shalom. It is a word used to suggest the fullness of well-being and harmony untouched by ill fortune. It is a lot like the German word, “Gemutlichkeit,” to convey well-being. The word as a blessing is a prayer for the best that God can give to enable a person to complete one’s life with happiness and a natural death. Jesus’ ministry was clear: he had come to introduce the rule of God and to order peace for the world. If only peace reigned in the world then and now!

Jesus came to tell his disciples about the unbroken relationship with the Father as the chief sign of peace. It was his gift to the disciples to contradict any other form of security offered by the world. His gift was dependent upon his complete victory over sin and death. The community of Jesus’ disciples came to look upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as God’s Gospel of Peace for the whole world.

The welcome greeting was accompanied by Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit upon them, even as God had breathed life into Adam, the man formed of the dust of the earth. On the first Easter evening, Jesus made new creatures of his disciples. Paul wrote later in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

The One risen from the grave brings new life, life that has conquered death and reconciled us to God. New life conferred by the power and force of the Holy Spirit is synonymous with eternal life. The Holy Spirit enables those who share in Jesus’ victory to opt for decisions that make for peace and are conducive to actions of freedom and love. It is a new way of living.

Dying to destroy death was a significant victory. Too often victories are only momentary, but not so with Jesus’ victory over the grave. Jesus’ victory can now be put to universal practice. God had reconciled the world to himself. There is a new basis for God and people to live together. The disciples had authority from Jesus to forgive sins–divine authority. They had authority to reconcile people to each other. They could withhold forgiveness hoping that some folks need to seek out the goodness and mercy of God. Forgiveness of God can be withheld from those who neither love nor trust the God who created them.

Jesus’ power is the power needed in the world for healing. The brokenness of the world can be seen in the inability to live in harmony in marriage, family, work, community, political, national and international relationship. We all suffer from the problem at one level or another. What is not so obvious is that people are inept at overcoming the destructiveness of bad human relationships. Remember “Humpty Dumpty, who had a great fall? All the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put Humpty together again.” At our house we said, “Poor Humpty.” God can and does reconcile people through the power of forgiveness he shares with us.

Spouses can forgive each other to make their marriage new every day. Parents and children can forgive the daily failures they have in their efforts to live together in tranquility. Progress toward better relationships can be made when there are persons willing to be advocates and reconcilers for individual rights and agendas. One of the prevalent problems today is that our nations was born out of Christian traditions and values while other nations do not have the same convictions. Jesus not only gifted the disciples with Holy Spirit, but he also empowered them to believe–to have faith. The disciples’ fear turns to joy and they witness to the Christ. When Thomas comes to the second gathering, the disciples tell him, “We have seen the Lord!”

Thomas can only believe if he sees Jesus’ scars, the signs of death, not life. Jesus offers to let Thomas touch his scars but Thomas confesses his faith. Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have come to believe.” Faith is a miracle given by the Holy Spirit, who can change the hearts of people and help them to believe in Jesus, who has achieved our salvation for us.

John wants us to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and through him, we too will rise again. In the meantime, we are sent into the world as practitioners of God’s reconciliation. I have been to enough doctors lately who are practicing medicine, that I want them to get it right. I want you to get it right, as well. Wherever we are, there is a need for forgiveness of sins. Each Christian has the power to forgive. Jesus trusts us to carry on his work. Power Up. Do you agree to accept this mission? Sometimes it seems like the old television show, “Mission Impossible.” 

Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Lincoln and the Lord – 4/5/15

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Message Delivered April, 5 2015


Mark 16:1-8

In our secular society heroes are openly worshiped.  It is no surprise that on Good Friday, April 15th, 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln was attending a performance of “Our American Cousin” at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. when actor and southern conspirator, John Wilkes Booth, shot Mr. Lincoln in the back of the head.  Mr. Lincoln died the next day–only four days after the Civil War had finally ended.  Americans will once again remember one of its greatest and beloved leaders (beside the IRS) on April 15th.


Lincoln has actually been compared to Moses leading his people out of slavery to the Promised Land and even to Jesus as the savior of his people.  A Baptist minister, Rev. C.B. Crane of Boston, said at Lincoln’s death, “Jesus Christ died for the world.  Abraham Lincoln died for his country.”  Not an actively practicing Christian, Lincoln focused on justice for all, forgiveness and mercy for his enemies, and the liberation of the oppressed–all Christ like qualities but this is where the parallels end.


Lincoln’s body would lie in state at the White House and then in the Capitol Rotunda before the long train ride back to his burial in Springfield, Illinois.  The train stopped over four hundred times for Americans to pay their respects along the way.

Mark tells us that Jesus had been publicly and brutally crucified on Friday afternoon.  A wealthy, secret disciple of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea, asked Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, for Jesus’ body, which was very unusual because most  crucifixion criminals were left on display or discarded into a ditch after death.

Joseph took Jesus’ body and laid it in a newly hewn tomb and rolled a large stone over the opening to seal it.  Lincoln’s body had been carefully embalmed, a new process for American mid-nineteenth century burials.  In the first century it was up to family and friends to do the burial preparations, a two-stage process.  First, the body was washed, wrapped in linen cloths, and covered with spices that would lessen the smell and hasten the decay process.  A year later, the family would gather the bones and put them in a stone box called an ossuary and then, place the ossuary in a niche at the back of the tomb.

Early Sunday morning, the women came to the tomb to do their funeral preparation, found that the stone had already been rolled away, and the tomb was empty.  Had someone stolen Jesus’ body?  What had happened to him?  Grave robbing was so common in the first century that Emperor Tiberias had issued an edict condemning the practice!  The women were shocked when they saw a “young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side of the tomb.”  He proclaimed, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is NOT here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.”  Jesus definitely had been moved but he had been the one to move himself.

Today respectful mourners can visit Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois.  There are monuments to him on Mt. Rushmore, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the massive edifice in Washington, D.C.  He is even pictured on coins and paper money!  In Washington, Lincoln sits on a throne with an inscription over him, “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

  • Lincoln may have saved his country and people from slavery, but the risen Jesus actually saved the world.
  • The slavery Jesus abolished was the slavery that holds humans in bondage to sin and death.
  • Jesus’ emancipation from the tomb means that we all will be emancipated–set free from death and sin.
  • Jesus’ throne is a heavenly one from which he will reign over heaven and earth, Jesus’ kingdom forever. 
  • Jesus has no temple because he is the temple (Revelation 21:22).
  • Jesus belongs to the ages and is the One who will be with us to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

What would the United States be like today if Lincoln had finished his term in the White House and his life span on earth?  Easter tells us that true divinity can only be found in the One who can save us, who is still alive and will make us alive as well.  We can celebrate great men like Lincoln but today we WORSHIP the One who is the risen Christ, the Lord and Savior of us all, forever.  Hallelujah, he is risen, indeed, and lives to reign over his kingdom of heaven and earth, forever!  


Amen.

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Beside Jesus at Bethany – 3/19/15

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Message Delivered on Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mark 14: 1-15


This week is Holy Week and begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, teaching in the Temple and with people everywhere he went.  Thursday is the remembrance of the Jewish Passover, which Jesus celebrated with his disciples in an upper room.  This gathering is the foundation for our Christian celebration of Holy Communion as we remember Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and his glorious resurrection on Easter.

The lectionary for this Sunday recalls the triumphal entry of Jesus as recorded in Mark 11.  The reading from Mark 14 speaks about Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus at the home of Simon the Leper, who would have been considered untouchable, yet Jesus went to his house to eat.  Luke’s account in 7:36-50 tells us that Simon was a Pharisee and that Jesus was eating in his house, when Mary anoints Jesus and is forgiven for her sins.  How ironic that forgiveness is meted out in the home of a Pharisee, one of the leaders Jesus chastises for spouting off the law but not living the law.  In John’s gospel, Jesus visits the home of Lazarus, whom he has raised from the dead.  Jesus is anointed by Mary.  It has always been a troubling question to me: which Mary is anointing Jesus?  Is the identity of the “Mary” using a costly ointment to anoint Jesus important or is the act the important point?

In Jewish tradition anointing was reserved for the dedication of a king in preparation for his reign over his kingdom. Was Mary anointing the “King” of heaven and earth?  The Mary who  humbled herself and anointed Jesus in a selfless act was chastised for her extravagant gift–her gift of love for the Savior.  How did she know that Jesus would die to save us all from sin?  The guests were concerned about wastefulness but Mary understood self-sacrifice.  Jesus had been teaching everyone he came into contact with since his entry into the city.  He had been speaking about forgiveness and the gift of grace.  The Pharisees and other leaders were unwilling to hear or believe.  They had their own profitable system of attaining forgiveness by bringing offerings to the temple to lift up to God for forgiveness.  It was a profitable system based on works righteousness.  Simply put, work to get offerings to present in the temple to literally buy righteousness.

We think that we have to work to effectively to have approval in our world.  If we think we need feathers in our cap, we will find it tough to live without them.  Our culture lies ethically in the dregs of what used to be the Protestant work ethic.  Remember the “blue laws?”  An arrogant woman wired home from her new job, “Made supervisor, feather in my cap.”  A few weeks later another wire arrived, “Made management, feather in my cap.”  A month later they got another wire, “Fired.  Send money for ticket to fly home.”  Her parents wired back, “No ticket necessary, use feathers.”

In the account of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany, one Christian behaved in a way that many Christians have forgotten how to behave.  One Christian is extravagant and accused of being wasteful.  She gives from her heart.  The disciples want to know why the woman with the alabaster jar of expensive ointment (nard) did not sell it and give the money to the poor.  Jesus’ explanation is simple:  “I am going to die soon.  That is why.”  Surely the disciples did not realize how numbered Jesus’ days were, but the woman with the nard knew.  She knew that she would not have many more chances to anoint her Savior.  She was very different from the young woman of the feathers.  She lived for something more than her own interests, she lived for Jesus.

Some of us have become victims of our own feathers and our own pragmatism.  We are committed to efficiency, productivity and saving the poor–but we rarely remember why we are so driven in these directions.  As right as it is to work hard for the poor and to impact the world in a positive way, it is more urgent to remember Jesus–especially on this day of the Palms.  We only had thirty-three years with him.

We think we have to be effective to have approval in our world.  If we think we need feathers in our cap, we will find it tough to live without them.  Our culture lies ethically in the dregs of the Protestant work ethic promoted by the evolution of the blue laws. Middle class men and women live by the dim lights of the Protestant work ethic instead of the light of Christian grace.  Poorer people are beaten over the heads with these dim lights daily.  Why are they poor?  Because they won’t work.  Because they are lazy.  Even though many of the poor are mothers of young children, they are labeled as poor because they do not or will not work.

Well, folks, work is not the basis for our salvation!  Grace is!  In the deep down places of life, grace is real.

The work ethic took something good and turned it into something like control.  The one anointing Jesus at Bethany did not try to control life, she tried to spend her life for Jesus.  The work ethic has become perverted into a ploy to control God, hoping that God will do our bidding.  The work ethic began as a belief that if we work, things will go well for us.  If not, it is our fault for not working.  The God who is implied by the Protestant work ethic needs sacrifices laid at the altar daily:  paystubs, raises, promotions, upward mobility, a well-feathered cap.


The God we actually worship in Jesus is a God who requires none of these sacrifices.  Our God accepts gifts in the form of expensive oil (love gifts with no strings attached), praise and grace-filled living.  Originally Protestants meant to experience the grace of God deeply enough so that they could make and do, buy and sell, trade and travel.  They thought that material prosperity was a sign of their election by God to renew and remake their world.  Was capitalist activity an offering to God?  Since the Reformation, capitalist activity has become a sacrificial, controlling offering.  God has been pushed out and off the stage.  We are now human doings, rather than human beings.  We make and do and do not feel elected so much as oppressed.  We allow ourselves to be busied to death.  We accumulate to our own death, afraid that if we spend we might come up empty.  In fact, if we were to spend what we have, we would come up full!  All kinds of people lay their lifestyles and excuses at God’s feet, having very little memory of what it is like to play or do what you want to do, rather than what you have to do.  The woman at Bethany took time out for Jesus.  She did what she wanted to do.  Some people are too far removed from the holy–time off for rest on the Sabbath.  It is what some might call grace and what others might call ointment.  Can’t you hear the disciples complaining?  The woman did what they could not do.  She spent.  She gave.


 What might God be saying about our human economy?  Neither buying or selling is directly related to our reward, not on earth or in heaven.  There is no salvation with having what we can earn.  We can play our way to salvation.  Play is what you want to do while work is anything you have to do.  Play does not mean that we quit our jobs tomorrow and move onto our couches.  Play is an attitude, a spirituality, a home.  It has to do with what stands inside us when we tell the boss we have had enough.  Play is freedom:  the ability to give away what we have, even in the face of what to some is the ultimate scarcity, death.  Play understands what Jesus understood:  time and life go on after death.  There is an eternity to life.  We can enjoy each other now, even if there is not much time left.  Many fear that play is not plausible.  What is not plausible in the terms of the gospel is the world of works righteousness.  Grace is more plausible than any work–any way you look at it.  


 Reformers proclaimed Solo Gratia, Solo Fide.  We are saved by grace alone.  Some of us take off early some days while others are sitting at their desks.  We do not live a switched life, turn me on, turn me off.  We play at work.  We play with God.  Sometimes we play with our feathers.  If we run into Jesus at Bethany, hopefully we will give him all that we have and are. 


Amen.


 


Categories: Weekly Sermon