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Thursday, May 17 2012

John 15:9-17

          In 1940, Nazi Germany was already well on its way in displaying its military might in an effort to bring the entire world under the rule of the fanatical Adolph Hitler.  In that same year, the armies of Germany invaded its neighbor to the north, tiny Denmark.  After just a few hours of fighting, the Danes surrendered.  One of the first edicts handed down to the people of Denmark was that all Jews would be required to wear sewn onto their clothing a yellow Star of David.

          Now the king of Denmark at this time was a popular king by the name of Christian, Christian X.  Christian was famous for riding often down the streets of Copenhagen on horseback, and often unattended.  The day after the Nazis had issued their edict that all Jews should wear the Star of David, King Christian, in a bold act of defiance, was the first person to be seen on the streets of Copenhagen, riding his horse, and wearing, sewn onto his coat, the Star of David.

          The Nazis protested.  “You must not do this!  We want only the Jews to wear the star.”  King Christian replied, “If even one of my subjects is required to wear the star, then I shall wear it too.”  Soon everyone in Denmark, Christian and Jew alike, was seen wearing the star.

          But the greatest act of defiance against the Nazis was not that all of the citizens wore the Star of David, but that secretly, one by one, the Jews of Denmark began to disappear.  In an effort that had no central organization, but happened rather spontaneously, the people of Denmark were able to smuggle the Jews out of Denmark – in boats of every shape and size – across the sea to neutral Sweden.

          As a result – even though 50 Danish Jews did meet their end in the death camps – more than 7,000 Jews were saved from Hitler’s gas chambers.  Denmark would prove to be the only country that did anything on a national scale to protect its Jews in World War II.

          After telling that story at the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on one of my visits to Israel, our guide then told us that to this day, the Jews have never forgotten what the Danish people did.  And the Jewish people learned a valuable lesson from the courageous acts of the Danish people.  And what they learned is this.  They learned that the opposite of love is not hate.  The opposite of love is not hate.  It is apathy.

          In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is sending a message.  He is sending a message to his disciples, and the message is this.  Love one another.  Love one another as I have loved you.  This was not – this is not – a suggestion.  He was saying this by of commandment.

          “This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.”

          What can be said about the love of Jesus is that it is real.  It is authentic.  Let me tell you, there is nothing phony about Jesus.  And he loves you – he loves every single one of you – even though he knows everything there is to know about you. Jesus loves you through and through even though he knows you through and through.  Chew on that for awhile!

          Because I also want you to pay attention to the whole thing, especially that part that Jesus says when he says, “Love one another.”  Love one another as I have loved you.

          Now, let’s be honest – not that we wouldn’t be honest – but let’s be honest.  We all know that loving one another – well, sometimes that’s hard work.  Sometimes it’s not, but a lot of times – it’s hard work.  Sometimes – like King Christian and the Danish people – it involves taking risks.  And it always involves being vulnerable – because you know that sometimes – sometimes when you love that other person – when you love as Christ loves – you risk being hurt. 

          Anyone who has ever reared kids knows how tough loving someone else can be.  I like to borrow a line from the old army recruiter’s slogan and rephrase it to say, “Raising kids is the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

          And because this is Mother’s Day [Weekend], who knows that better than our mothers – and quite frankly our fathers as well? 

          I think that on this day when we’re trying to show our appreciation for the  person we call “Mom,” it is so fitting that we hear Jesus say what he says here in our text: “A new command I give you: Love one another.” Actually, Jesus’ command to love one another is appropriate for any day of the year, but it does take on special meaning simply because this is Mother’s Day [Weekend].

          Now – in the Greek language in which the Scriptures were first written – there are a variety of words that mean love.  Here – when Jesus says, “Love one another,” the word is “Agape.”  This is a self-giving love – you know – that’s the kind of love that Christ loved us with – a love that led Him to give Himself for us.

          Well – this is a self-less love.  We might even call it a love that nourishes.   And isn’t that the kind of love that a mother shows?  Now, I know not everyone has or had a loving, nourishing mother – or father –as far as that goes.  There’s no such thing as a perfect father or mother.  No perfect parent.  BUT – isn’t that the kind of love – the kind of love that nourishes – the kind of love that tells the child, “You are important; you are special; you are someone I believe in.  Just because – just because you are who you are.  Just because you are you.” 

          Isn’t that the kind of love we’d all like to have?  Even at those times when we are not all that lovable!  What we need is someone to listen without condemnation.  Someone to love us unconditionally. 

          Can I tell you – most folks don’t need a critic.  What they need is a coach.  A cheerleader. 

          If we are to love as Jesus loved – then our love needs to be genuine.  It needs to be authentic.  It needs to be unconditional.  And yes, that’s not always easy.  And by the way – I think this is a good point to say this – although to love unconditionally is to love the way Jesus loves – that does not mean that anyone – man, woman or child – should ever stay in an abusive relationship.  No one should ever have to put up with abuse or bullying.  That’s not love.  That’s self-centeredness and control.  But it is not love.

          Do you remember what I Corinthians 13 has to say about this?  Many of you should because it is highly likely that these words were spoken at your wedding.  Even though the love that I Corinthians talks about has nothing to do with the romantic love between a man and a woman – it is often read at weddings.  These are words that every one of us should memorize and take to heart.  But do you remember the words?  Again – the word used here is the word Agape.  Listen!

          “Love is patient and kind.  Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.”

          Really – I can think of no better words than these to describe a love that is authentic.  A love that is real. 

          And of course any one of you could rightly ask, “Well, Randy, why should I love like that?  Why should I love other people in this way?”  Glad you asked.  Well, first of all, it is by the Lord’s command.  “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Challenging?  Yes.  Sometimes daunting.  Downright impossible?  Well, yes, sometimes it seems that way.  But just because it isn’t always easy – most of the time it is – but just because it isn’t always easy doesn’t mean you should give up. 

          Why?  Because the benefits are unlimited.  You see, not only will others be built up – not only will others be encouraged – but so will you.  So will you!

          Remember, the opposite of love is not hate.  It is apathy.  You cannot say you love someone – and not care for them or about them.

          Preachers like me often lift up Mother Teresa as an example of selfless – giving – agape love.  And although she is no longer with us – many of you will remember how she dedicated her life to the thousands of hungry, sick and dying people of India.  She wrote a book that offers excellent ideas about loving others as Christ loves us.

          Referring to the parable of the bridegroom and the wise and foolish maidens she writes, “Do not imagine that love to be true must be extraordinary….  See how a lamp burns, by the continual consumption of the little drops of oil.  If there are no more drops in the lamp, there will be no light, and the Bridegroom has the right to say, ‘I do not know you.’

          “My children, what are these drops of oil in our lamps?  They are the little things of everyday life: fidelity, punctuality, little words of kindness, just a little thought for others, those little acts of silence, of look and thought, of word, and deed.  These are the very drops of love – the very drops of love that make our life burn with so much light.”

          The Bible tells us that we love because God first loved us.  We learn to love – we gain the capacity for love – when we ourselves are first loved by someone else.   

          We all need to be loved.  All of us.  And because this is true – everyone here today –  whether you’re a mother or not – everyone here today – myself included – we need to ask ourselves, “How am I doing?  How am I doing at receiving and then demonstrating the love of Christ?  The love that first loved me?  How am I doing?  Am I loving in ways that others experience and know that I love them?

          For love to be love it must be real.  It must be authentic.  It must be genuine.  Like little drops of oil in our lamps that never run out.  A new commandment I give you.  Love one another – love one another – as I have loved you.


Posted by: AT 09:08 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, May 08 2012

John 15:1–8     

          Everyone knows that in life you need to be connected.  People need people.   There’s just no other way to say it. 

          For instance you’re all familiar with the phrase, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”  Right?  I think we’re all familiar with that phrase – and in many situations – it is indeed true.  Not what you know, but who you know.  Knowing the right people might actually help you land the job you’re so eager to get.  So it not only helps to be connected – it pays to be connected.  

          Another word that is used to describe connections these days is networking.  Networking.  Especially online networking.  So we’ve got Twitter, and Linkedin, and of course Facebook.  Hey, let me see a show of hands – how many of you are on Facebook?  Yeah, well, how come you haven’t sent me a friend request yet?  Anyway – studies show that one of the dangers of Facebook is that those who spend multiple hours a day on it makes them less connected.  They are less connected because Facebook actually takes them away from real face to face time with family and friends.  Just saying.

          Actually, I like Facebook.  I don’t go on all that often anymore, but it is helpful.  I have also been encouraged to start a Facebook page for Zion.  I just haven’t gotten around to doing it yet.  I suppose it can be a great way to get the word out about what’s happening here at the corner of Clarence Center Road and Elm.  In other words – it would be a great way for us to stay – connected.    

          I have no doubt that Zion will have a Facebook page once I – somebody – gets around to doing it.  And I am convinced that Facebook would serve as a helpful tool for those who attend this church – and who also use facebook.  Helpful, but not necessary.  The whole point is to say that regardless of how we do it – somehow – someway – we need to stay connected.  We need to stay connected to Christ and his church.

          So maybe the key question I ought to be asking is, just how connected are you?  How connected are you to Christ and his church?  How you answer that question is critical.  Because being connected to Christ – being connected to His church – as well as being connected to family and friends is what gives life meaning.  Would you agree?  Of course.  Absolutely!

          And this is where our Gospel reading comes in. 

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

          Jesus uses here the word “abide,” and the metaphor of a grape vine and its branches to say just one thing.  Be connected.  Stay connected.  Connected first of all to Christ – and then – when connected to Christ – we are then also connected to each other.

           But I’ve got to tell you, there is something – a trend – that I am seeing today that disturbs me.  Quite frankly, it’s a trend that’s been going on for quite a number of years.  It’s the growing thought among many that I can be a Christian, but I don’t need the church.  It has been referred to for years as the “Lone Ranger” approach to Christianity.  These days, I hear it most often in the phrase, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”  Man, I hate that phrase – spiritual but not religious. 

           You see, here’s the problem – and my concern.  Do you remember the old Burger King commercial that said, “Have it your way?”  Do you remember that?  Here’s the thing.  Too many people are doing just that with their faith.  There seems to be a growing number of folks who want God, who believe in God, but who want their belief in God to be on their terms.  Kind of a do-it-yourself religion. 

           George Barna leads a survey organization that attempts to keep its finger on the pulse of religion in America today, and here’s what Barna said in a September 2011 article in USA Today. 

           “‘We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs — our clothing, our food, our education,’ he says. Now it's our religion.

           [The article goes on to say,] “Sociologist Robert Bellah first saw this phenomenon emerging in the 1980s.  In a book he co-authored, Habits of the Heart, he introduces Sheila, a woman who represents this.

           “Sheila says:  ‘I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way.  It's Sheilaism.  Just my own little voice. … It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself.  You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.’

           “Bellah goes on to say, ‘The bad news is you lose the capacity to make connections. Everyone is pretty much on their own,’ he says.  And all this rampant individualism also fosters ‘hostility toward organized groups — government, industry, even organized religion.’”

           But there are problems with this Lone Ranger, do-it-yourself religion, or the “I believe in God, but don’t need the church attitude,” or those who say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”  (Did I already say how much I hate that phrase?)

1.        First of all, how would someone know that what they believe about God was actually true about God?  How would they know?  Truth here is not relative.  Remember that Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father, except through me.” 

2.        Second, if it weren’t for the church, how would the truth about God, and His Son Jesus Christ – and everything that we proclaim about life, death and resurrection, eternity – and questions about “how then shall we live?” – how would any of these truths—these beliefs – ever be passed on from one generation to another? 

          Those are just two problems I see with do-it-yourself – have it your way – Lone Ranger religion. 

           Folks – we need to be connected.  We were made to be connected.  Just like the branch is to the vine.  We need to get connected and stay connected to God through Jesus Christ – and realize that when that happens we get connected and we stay connected to each other.       And quite frankly, I don’t know how anyone can possibly have either of those connections outside of active participation in the church.      

          I hope you see just how important the church really is.  After all – Jesus is the one who started this body – His body – that we call the church.  As the means by which we are connected to God – and the means by which the message of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ is spread to a world that is in desperate need of God’s love. 

          We need the church – and the church needs us.  In fact – how can I say this – the church is us!  We are the church.  This is such an important topic that I think I want to prepare a sermon series on the church.  I’ve never done a sermon series before – 21 years, and I’ve never done a sermon series.  But part of my study leave of the past week was devoted to pursuing this.  Maybe sometime this summer or in the fall. 

          Anyway, let me close with a selection from Max Lucado’s book, “When God Whispers Your Name.”  Listen. 

          “Take a fish and place him on a beach.  Watch his gills gasp and scales dry. Is he happy?  No!  How do you make him happy?  Do you cover him with a mountain of cash?  Do you get him a beach chair and sunglasses?  Do you bring him a Playfish magazine and a martini?  Do you wardrobe him in double-breasted fins and people-skinned shoes?  Of course not!  So, how do you make him happy? You put him back in his element.  That's what you do.  You put him back in the water.  He will never be happy on the beach because he was not made for the beach.”

          Hey!  May I suggest to you that when we are counted among the saints – when we find ourselves connected to Jesus Christ – precisely in this place – in this body that we call the church—that we find ourselves in the place – in the element where Christ wants us to be? 

          Just as a fish was made to live in water – we were made to be connected to Jesus Christ and to live in fellowship with Him and with each other through his body, the church.  And quite frankly – nothing is going to take the place of that.  Not the lone ranger approach to Christianity – not Sheilaism – not claiming to be spiritual but not religious – and certainly no “have it your way” religion.

          Nothing can take the place of being connected to Jesus – like branches to a vine – and through Jesus to each other in this marvelous thing that we call the church.                                           


Posted by: AT 08:50 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Wednesday, May 02 2012

Luke 24:36b-48

          I’m sure you all remember that just a few weeks ago there was the largest Powerball jackpot ever!  Do you remember how high the jackpot got?  That’s right.  $640 million!  Now I’m not going to ask if any of you bought tickets – but if you did – I’m sure you had your dreams and fantasies about what you would do with your winnings – right?

          But three people did win – and shared that $640 million jackpot.  One couple this week came forward and the man said that when he told his wife he had the winning numbers – he said that she started giggling – and giggled for about 4 hours. 

          Well, I suspect that he was exaggerating, but for those winners I would think that when they realized that they were winners that their surprise at winning was overwhelming.  It was a “wow” moment – a wow moment when they were surprised by joy.

          Now you’ve all seen those Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes commercials, right?  You’ve seen them.   A sweepstakes crew with TV cameras, lights, balloons, and a man with a huge $10 million dollar cardboard check rings the doorbell.  Someone answers the door – and you notice their reaction, right? 

          The same reaction you and I would have if someone rang our doorbell and handed us a $10 million check.  Their mouths are wide open.  Their eyes are bugging out of their heads.  They start screaming and dancing around and shouting, “I don’t believe it!  I won, I won, I won I won!” 

          Two things are usually happening at the same time.  Their heads are telling them, “this can’t be happening,” and their emotions are showing unbridled joy.  If you know what I’m talking about – and you have that image in your head – then you have an example of what it means to “disbelieve for joy.” These folks are surprised by joy.

          Now if you’ve got that picture in your head, hold on to it.  Because I want to think that that is the reaction that the disciples had when Jesus first appears to them after he is raised from the dead.  It’s a perfect description for the way Luke tells this encounter between Jesus and his disciples.  He says that they “disbelieved for joy.”

           Now you have to understand that when Jesus died – when he was buried 00 it is as though all of their hopes – all of their dreams – all their expectations – had been buried along with him.  You see, they knew that dead people don’t come back to life.  I mean, what are the chances of that happening?  You have a better chance of winning the Powerball lottery, right?

          And yet – and yet – that’s what did happen.  And when Jesus appears to them – it is a real live – flesh and blood Jesus. 

          You see – Jesus has to convince them that he is indeed alive – that he has indeed been raised – just like he told them he would be.  Just like he told them he would be. 

          By the way, if this story sounds the least bit familiar, it should be.  We heard this same story told to us last week from John’s Gospel, remember?  Jesus stands among 10 of the disciples and says, “Shalom.  Peace be with you.”  And of course, Thomas wasn’t there, and he doubts what the disciples tell him about seeing Jesus – and a week later they’re all together again – this time Thomas is with them – and Jesus invites Thomas to reach out and touch him – asking him, “Do you believe because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

          You remember that, right?  Well here we are – it’s the same story – the same story told by Luke.  Luke tells the story a little bit differently than John, but nevertheless, Jesus has to convince the disciples that he really is alive. 

          Again, he shows them his hands and his side – and then he asks them – I don’t know – he asks them like a teenager coming home from school – “Ya got anything to eat?” 

          “Yeah – Jesus – yeah.  We’ve got some broiled fish over here?  You like it broiled?  Sorry we don’t have much of anything else, but if we’d known you were going to be here we would have…. Oh yeah.  You did tell us, didn’t you?  More than once.” 

          And Jesus eats the fish in front of them.  Do not overlook this point.  Jesus has to convince them that it is really he, and that he is not a ghost – he is not a vision – he is not the product of a mass hallucination.  No.  He eats food.  In front of them.  This Jesus who was dead and buried on Friday is alive on Sunday – and eating fish! 

          What a surprise!    Surprised by joy!

          So Jesus appears to them. Talks with them.  Eats with them.  He shows them his wounds – his scars.  And let me tell you this – just in case you might be wondering.  I am not alone in this when I say that the resurrected Christ –this same resurrected Christ that the disciples saw on that first Easter day – and for 40 days thereafter – is the same Christ that we too will see someday.  And for all eternity –   for all eternity – Jesus will bear those marks – those scars – as a reminder to us of all that Jesus went through on our behalf. 

          So yes, you see, God loves you very much!  God loves you that much and proves it to you – by allowing Jesus to go to the cross for you and for me.   Now maybe it’s tough for you to believe.   Maybe it’s tough for you to believe that God does care for you that much.  Maybe it’s tough sometimes to believe that God’s not mad at you.  God’s not mad at you.  Does that surprise you? 

          Let me share with you the “…beautiful story about the courtship of Moses Mendelssohn, the grandfather of the great German composer, Felix Mendelssohn.   Moses Mendelssohn was a small man with a misshapen, humped back.  One day he visited a merchant in Hamburg who had a lovely daughter. Though Mendelssohn admired her greatly, she avoided him, seemingly afraid of his grotesque hump.

          “On the last day of his visit he went to tell her goodbye.  Her face seemed to beam with beauty but when he entered, she cast her eyes to the floor. Mendelssohn's heart ached for her.  After some small talk, he slowly drew to the subject that filled his mind.  ‘Do you believe that marriages are made in Heaven?’ he asked.

          “‘Yes,” replied the young woman.’  And do you?’

          “‘Of course,’ Mendelssohn answered.  ‘I believe that at the birth of each child, the Lord says, ‘'That boy shall marry that girl.’  But in my case, the Lord also added, ‘But alas, his wife will have a terrible hump.’

          “‘At that moment I called, ‘Oh Lord, that would be a tragedy for her. Please give me the humped back and let her be beautiful.’

          “We are told that the young woman was so moved by these words that she reached for Mendelssohn's hand and later became his loving and faithful wife.”

          In trying to deal with the meaning of the cross on which Christ died, the early church came to understand that those nail prints in the hands and feet of the Master should have been ours.  But God so loved the world that he sent his own Son to bear the burden brought about by the iniquity of us all.  [Does that surprise you?  Does that still surprise you? ] Can you believe that God really cares about us that much?”

          To know that God loves you that much – that He sent His only Son to die for you – and to know that he is raised – that He lives – and that he bears those scars for all eternity – is awesome.  It’s wonderful!  And like those first disciples on that first Easter day – we might even disbelieve for joy!

          Hey!  When was the last time you can recall being consumed with overwhelming, unexpected joy?  When was the last time you were surprised by joy? 

          The wonderful thing is that because Jesus lives, because those early disciples were witnesses to his resurrection – and they couldn’t keep from telling others about it – well the wonderful and surprising thing is that we too have heard that same Good News. 

          Those first disciples were surprised by joy.  And from frightened and uncertain men and women, they became apostles – disciples – of great courage and conviction. 

          All because they were surprised one day when they saw and heard and touched the risen Savior.  All because they were surprised one day by joy. 

          Folks – I cannot stress this enough.  The resurrection is not just some good and wonderful thing that happened to Jesus.  The resurrection is not just some good and wonderful thing that God did for Jesus.  The promise is for us too!   We have seen– and we have heard the good news – and we now know what God can do with dead bodies – and you know what that means.  Someday we too shall have a resurrection.  And we will be surprised by joy!

          Because of the resurrection, Satan’s number is up!   Jesus had the winning ticket –and won the lottery – the only lottery that really matters.  And Jesus shares that winning ticket with those of us he calls his friends. 

          So don’t be afraid to dance and shout and sing.  Christ won! We won!  Surprised? Surprised by joy!  Indeed!


Posted by: AT 08:17 am   |  Permalink   |  Email

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Zion Lutheran Church
9535 Clarence Center Road

PO Box 235
Clarence Center, NY 14032
Phone: 716-741-2656

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