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Sunday, November 24 2013

King of What?

This is one of my favorite Gospel stories.  The ultimate example of that most Lutheran of doctrines, Justification by Faith, the concept that we are made right with God by our belief, not only our actions. By our hearts, not our hands and feet.  At a time when absolutely no one else, including the disciples, can see it, this man, a criminal whose life to this point has presumably been less than faith-filled....he sees it.  He sees a kingdom where everyone else sees a dying man on a cross.

The church language is full of royal imagery.  This is Christ The King weekend.  In a few weeks, we will hear Isaiah refer to the promised son as the Prince of Peace.

With many things we hear or see or say a lot, after a while, they sort of lose their meaning.  We start to go right past them without actually giving the words we say or hear much thought.  So as I prepared for today, I started out with something that would seem pretty basic, but which I am not sure we really think about much when we toss around these royal terms.
Christ the King.  OK, sure.  But wait.  King of......what?

The gospel of John tells us that once, Jesus knew that his followers "intended to make him king by force" (imagine that..."forcing" Jesus to do something!), and so he went off, alone, to get away from them and let the situation settle down. He wanted none of it. We know that the Jews of Jesus' day were waiting for a Messiah that they imagined would be like their great leader from the past,  King David.  And when the religious leaders of Jesus day thought he was going to do just that, they feared it would fail and arouse the retaliation of their Roman authorities, so they got what we would call "proactive" today...they got the Romans to kill him first, with the charge "King of the Jews".  No wonder he wanted to run from all this king stuff!

Today, we would say, they had it all wrong, that wasn't Jesus mission.  But do we have it right? Jesus didn't come to lead a military or political revolt.  He didn't come to raise an army.  But that hasn't kept people from continually trying to fit him into those molds.
During our Civil War, as supposedly intelligent people on opposite sides of the conflict each grabbed their Bibles to show how God wanted us to have (or not have) slaves, someone is said to have asked President Lincoln if he thought God was on the Union's side.  And Abe said "I am not so concerned that God is on our side. I am more concerned that we are on God's side."

In our lifetimes, in the recent past, it is still common to invoke Jesus on our side of political questions.  The "Moral Majority", the "Religious Right"...these are names applied to groups with a political agenda, largely Christian in their make up, who are (or were) not shy about tossing Jesus into the argument. Even the term "Evangelical", which is in the name of our church, has had its definition completely altered in popular usage, and is now a "buzz word" for "crazy right-wing Christian".

So again, I ask, do we have it right?

Pilate asks Jesus "Are you a King?" and his answers are a bit evasive at first, like He knows how much his name and this kingship thing are going to get twisted around by people for their own uses.  Finally, he says, "My kingdom is not of this world." Which doesn't help us understand too much either, does it?

But maybe it does.  Maybe that is the beginning of understanding.

You see, Jesus, despite our efforts to the contrary, was about as UN-political as it gets.  The people of his day asked him about governments and taxes, and he said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and give to God what is God's." He entirely separates himself from the issue of governing on this human infested planet.

He virtually never talks about the Romans, certainly never confronts them or condemns them. He never talks about who the Jews should have in charge of the Sanhedrin, makes no political endorsements. He only talks about people and how they should relate to their God,  and to each other individually. He frequently turns people's complaints back on to themselves...instead of complaining about how you are being wronged, how can you do better?

Governing humans in the real world is about drawing lines and making rules.  Because people, all of us except Jesus, are inherently sinful, you can't have an organized land without laws and enforcement. It's what we have to do to try to counter the sin we know people will introduce into the world. But Jesus understood the weakness in laws; there are always exceptions. Make it a law to rest on the Sabbath...good idea.   But what if you come upon someone sick or hurting and you have the capacity to help them?  Is it OK to do that on a Sabbath, or does that violate the rule about resting?

Of course, we know Jesus' answer to that. And we know that it got him in trouble with the very strictly-by-the-rules bunch of his day.

Which is why Jesus hated rules.  He understood them, understood the need for them in the real world.  But then he went about breaking them all the time to show us a better way.

Unlike God, we try to write laws to cover all the possible circumstances and exceptions.  God's laws for all of life initially took up two pieces of stone you could carry around with you; no one human is strong enough to even pick up most of the stuff our legislators vote on, and they are written on paper.  You can read the Ten Commandments in about a minute, but our laws are too long winded for anyone to actually read.  And amazingly, with all those words and pages, we still come across a million oversights and exceptions that don't quite fit right in the law. So we have to have courts to fight over those.

Being a King on this earth, or a president, or a prime minister, is sloppy business.  No wonder Jesus was quick to point out that his kingdom was not OF this world.

But here's the really neat part.  His kingdom was and is IN this world.  Not the same thing as of this world. It isn't of this world because it isn't defined by any human laws or rules, but it is here in our world,  all around us every day. Hidden sometimes, most of the time, because the imperfections of the human world make it hard to see.  Someday, we are taught, the human imperfections will all be gone, out of the way, and the Kingdom of Heaven will be the only one left, so you won't be able to miss it.  But until then, you have to work a little bit sometimes to see it. You have to see the child in Haiti smile and giggle and sing with you so you can get past the fact that he has no shoes or pants and hasn't eaten yet today.

In Jesus' kingdom, the rules are really simple. Love God and love your neighbor.  

And here's the thing.  If everybody actually did that, we wouldn't need any other rules.  We wouldn't need to draw lines and enforce boundaries and definitions. No laws. We wouldn't have to fight about health care or immigration or gun control, because "love you neighbor"  pretty much covers all that. It means we would simply take care of each other, not build walls to keep each other out or grab guns to shoot each other.

In this messy world full of imperfect humans, who can't keep his simple rules for more than about five minutes at a time, Jesus knew he could never be the king he wanted to be.  That will have to wait.  So maybe we should stop trying to drag him in to our mess all the time by saying He is on my side of this argument or that argument. How can we be so darn sure of ourselves and our righteousness that we know he is on our side?

Maybe he can't be king of a human world in human terms. But he can be my king. I can stop worrying about what everyone else is doing, about trying to make everyone else do it my way, and just try to make sure I am doing it his way. I can let him lead me, or really try.  And regardless of how well or poorly I do,  you can decide that he can be your king, too.

Right now.  Today. Forget about the enormity of the rest of the world.  The Kingdom of Heaven is here if we live like it is. One person, one interaction at a time.

Dr. Robert Zielinski


Posted by: AT 08:50 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 11 2013

Luke 20:27-38

    One of the most challenging questions any preacher ever has to deal with is this.  “What is heaven like?”  Two books have come out in the past few years that some of you have read.  “Proof of Heaven” is one of them.  “Heaven Is For Real” is another.  And when books like those come out, they become instant best sellers – because – let’s face it.  We all want to know what heaven is going to be like, right?  I for one want to know what there’s going to be for us to do once we get there.  I suspect there will be plenty to do.  And since I love ice cream – and because I am hypoglycemic I really shouldn’t be eating ice cream – and a bunch of other stuff that you see me eating around here – but I for one hope there will be ice cream in heaven.

    Now I suspect that we each have a vision of what heaven might be like – or what we hope heaven will be like – based upon those things that we enjoy here on earth.          
    But folks, I can’t tell you what heaven is going to be like.  I can’t guarantee that there will be golf courses when we get there.  I can’t guarantee that there will be cruise ships or white sandy beaches – or even ice cream for that matter.  The Bible simply doesn’t give us any of those kinds of details.  And quite frankly – I’m okay with that.  

    I like the Family Circus cartoon that had one of the kids in the strip walking out of church, shaking the pastor’s hand, and saying, “I don’t want to hear any more about heaven.  I want it to be a total surprise.”

Let me be clear.  The Bible doesn’t tell us much about heaven.  There are no details about what heaven is – or is going to be – like.  It is going to be a total surprise.  You see, when I read and study the Bible, I don’t find Jesus saying much about it.  I don’t find Paul, or any other of the biblical writers, spending a lot of time telling us what heaven is like.  It’s going to be a surprise.

But I can tell you what Jesus did spend a lot of time talking about.  I can tell you what the biblical writers wrote about.  The resurrection.  The resurrection from the dead.

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus is confronted by a religious group known as the Sadducees.  Now among other things, the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection of the dead.  And that is why they are sad, you see.  Okay, so I’ve told that joke before.  Some of you knew it was coming.

But here, in this 20th chapter of the book of Luke, we have the Sadducees confronting Jesus.  They have – or so they have supposed – they have set a trap for Jesus with a question regarding life in the hereafter.  Now remember, they don’t believe in resurrection.  They do believe, however, that death is the end of one’s existence.  

So they set a trap.  And they ask Jesus a question.

“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers; the first married and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.  Finally the woman also died.  In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?  For the seven had married her.”

What a question!  What were these Sadducees trying to prove?  They were trying to prove that the resurrection of the dead is a ridiculous idea, and that Jesus is wrong to teach it.

But, listen!  Much of what Jesus taught – much of what he had to say was based on this one thing – that there is indeed a resurrection from the dead.  In just Luke’s Gospel alone, we find Jesus has these things to say about it:
•    Believers have their names written in heaven (Luke 10:20)
•    Believers will be among those who sit at table in the Kingdom of God (Luke 13:29)
•    Believers have an unfailing treasure in heaven (Luke 12:33)
•    Unbelievers, on the other hand – who will also be resurrected by the way – will find themselves facing judgment – outside of the Kingdom of God (Luke 13:24-28)
•    Add to that, Jesus predicts several times his own death and resurrection (Luke 9:22; 18:33).

So how does Jesus answer these Sadducees?   Well, here we see Jesus at his best.  He meets the Sadducees head on.  What He says is this:

“Marriage is for people here on earth.  But when believers are raised from the dead – when they get to heaven –
1.    they neither marry nor are given in marriage.  
2.    They never die again.  
3.    They are the children of God, for they are raised up in a new life from the dead.”  

Folks, it should be clear that Jesus is telling us that there is a difference between this age and the age to come.  In heaven, there is no need for marriage.  Oh, we’ll know each other.  We’ll recognize each other.  We’ll be reunited with each other.  But the issue of marriage won’t even be raised.

But if you want to know the truth, the Sadducees weren’t really concerned about marriage in the life to come.  Their question was just a smoke screen.  Their real concern – their real question – had to do with the resurrection.  Listen to what Jesus says:

“Even Moses proves that the dead are raised.  You remember the time when God appeared to him in the burning bush?  You remember that?  Do you remember what God said?  God said, ‘I AM the God of Abraham.  I AM the God of Isaac.  I AM the God of Jacob.’”

In other words, if God IS – not was – but still IS the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jesus is saying that Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob must still be alive.  With God.  In heaven.

And then Jesus says, “God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.”

Folks, there is indeed a resurrection.  Unfortunately, the Sadducees didn’t believe it.  And sadly, there are people today who don’t believe it either.  

“Warren Buffett is a financial investment genius and the second-richest man in America.  He has his doubts about life beyond the grave, and it worries him.  Buffett admits, ‘There is one thing I am scared of.  I am afraid to die.’  

“His biographer writes, ‘Warren’s exploits were always based on numbers, which he trusted above all else.  In contrast, he did not subscribe to his family’s religion.  Even at a young age, he was too mathematical, and too logical, to make the leap of faith.  He adopted his father’s ethical underpinnings, but not his belief in an unseen divinity.’  And thus, Warren Buffet, one of the most successful men in the world, is stricken with one terrifying fear – the fear of dying.

“On a lighter note, Buffet once said, ‘What I want people to say when they pass my casket is, ‘Boy, was he old!’’”

Folks – whether we live to be old or not – we don’t need to fear death.  Even though we don’t know much about what heaven is like, Jesus promises a resurrection for all who believe in Him – for all who know Jesus as Savior and Lord – and knowing that – well, that’s enough.

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about heaven.  And I want to suggest that there’s a very good reason why not.  You see, God doesn’t want us occupying our time thinking about heaven – or what heaven is like – not while we’re here on earth.   

Our reading today from Luke tells us that God is the God of the living.  Therefore, the Christian faith is about the living.  Living in the here.  Living in the now.  Oh yes, we do have the hope and the promise of eternal life with God in heaven forever.  That is our hope.  That is a yet to be fulfilled promise.  That is what the resurrection of every true believer will bring us to.

But the focus for us right here and now is on the living.  The Christian faith is about living – about living life to the fullest.  To look at every day as a gift.  No matter what your circumstances are – no matter how tough your days might be.  Listen to me.  Don’t give up.  God is the God of the living.  We don’t have to wait until the resurrection to experience God’s blessings – God’s healing – God’s presence – God’s power.  

God is the God of the living.  And as long as we have breath in our bodies– we are called to love God.  To love our neighbor.  To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God.   These are the things that Jesus talked about most often.  And as His followers, these are the things Jesus wants us to be most concerned about too.

So let’s not worry about what heaven is like.  It is enough to know that there is a heaven.  It is enough to know that there is a resurrection.  For you.  For me.  And Jesus paved the way.  

I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of looking forward to the surprise.



Posted by: AT 08:29 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, November 04 2013

Luke 6:20-31
    Let me tell you the story about the doctor who said to a new father, “You have a cute baby.”
    The proud daddy smiled and said, “I bet you say that to all the new parents.”
    “No,” said the doctor. “Just to those whose babies really are good-looking.”
    “So what do you say to the others?”
    “To the others I say, ‘He’s the spittin’ image of you.’”

    Folks – I want you to know that each one of you is the spittin’ image of somebody.  And usually more than just one somebody.  Each one of us has been molded – each has been formed – you are the person you are today – because of the influence of other people in your life.  

    Did you know that?  You are who you are in large part because of the influence of other people.  To one degree or another we imitate others.  The way we think.  The things we believe.  How we talk.  Heck – maybe even the way we walk.  You and I are products of the people of influence in our lives.  Again, to one degree or another.   We are the spittin’ image of someone.

    By the way, do you know where the phrase “Spittin’ image” comes from?  Occasionally I get a blog posting in my inbox from a man named Steve Goodier.  Sometimes I print his stuff in the “Thought for the Month” section of our monthly newsletter.

    Goodier says that the, “…term “spittin’ image” stems from an old misunderstanding.  Joel Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories, explained that when someone from the southern United States seemed to be saying, “spittin’ image,” what they were really saying was “spirit and image.”  Now listen.  I’m going to try to saying it with my best southern accent.  Ready?  “He’s the spittin’ image of his daddy.”  (Hey Merritt!  How’d I do?)  That was pretty good, wasn’t it?

    When we say that someone is the spittin’ image of somebody else, we usually mean that someone looks like somebody else from the outside.  But it can also mean that they are like somebody else on the inside.  

    Nearly a thousand years ago there was a monk by the name of Bernard of Clairvaux.  He said, “What we love we shall grow to resemble.”  What we love we shall grow to resemble.  Maybe today we might say we become the spirit and image – or the spittin’ image – of that which we love the most.  We are shaped by that which we value – by what we admire – or by the people that we love the most.   

    So I want you to hang on to that thought – the thought that, “What we love we shall grow to admire.”  And because today [tomorrow] is All Saints Sunday, I think that that is particularly important.  All Saints Day is a day that the church has celebrated for centuries.  The actual date is November the 1st, but since this is the first weekend after that date, we celebrate it today.  

    On the one hand, it is a day in which we honor and remember the departed saints – those who have gone on before us.  And in just a little while, during communion, we will project onto the front wall up here the names of all those among us who have departed this life in the last 12 months.  Their names are printed in your Mission Minutes as well.

    But I want to suggest to you that today is a day to remember – not just those who have gone home to be with the Lord in the past 12 months – but also anyone who has been an impact saint – in your life.  So today is a day we celebrate the lives of all the saints who have impacted our lives – whether living or dead.  

    And just so you know – in the tradition of the Lutheran Church, we declare that all the baptized are the saints of God.  We are first and foremost Christians, but since we are Christians we can also say that we are numbered among the saints.  

    Now I know that some of you come from other faith traditions that hold that the saints are those who led exemplary, sacrificial Christian lives – and that a saint is someone whom the church has declared to be a saint.  And that’s okay.  That’s okay.

    But I want you to know that in our tradition, we declare that all the baptized are saints.  And our authority – our model for saying so is from the Scriptures themselves.  The word “saint” or “saints” is mentioned some 60 times in the New Testament.  And Paul, the Apostle Paul, when writing letters to various churches would often say, “To the saints who are at Philippi,” or “to the saints at Colossae.”  Sometimes, he would put it this, way, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints…”

    So you dear friend – are a saint.  Whether you feel like one or not.  And even though we use this day to remember the saints among us and those who have gone before us – it really is a day that honors God.  Why?  Because He is the One who declares that you are a saint.  And he declares you and me to be saints because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

    Remember what we said last week?  One of our readings last week was from the book of Jeremiah.  And there God is speaking through the voice of Jeremiah when he says, “I will forgive their sins, and I will remember their sins no more.”  Do you remember that?  When God forgives, God forgets.  God’s got this cosmic memory issue going on – and if our sins are forgiven – if God forgets our sins – then where are our sins?  They’re gone.  They don’t exist anymore.  So if someone who is without sin is a saint – then that means that we are all saints, right?

    Now, each of you have had at least one special person in your life who taught you what it means to be a person of faith, right?  At least one person.  For almost all of us it is more likely that we have had far more than just one person – more than just one saint who has been an impact saint in our lives.  Someone who introduced you to Jesus.  Told you about him.  Read the Bible to you, and so on.

    And then there were others who built upon that foundation – through the lessons they taught – either by the examples of how they lived their lives – or by some other means – maybe it was a Sunday School lesson or – maybe a sermon some preacher  preached – or whatever.  In each one of your lives there is someone who loved you enough to share with you in word – or they taught by example – what it means to be a disciple – a follower of Jesus Christ.  

    So when it comes to who you are as a disciple of Jesus Christ – you are the spirit and image – you are the spittin’ image of those saints who have made a difference – who have had an impact in your life.

    The other side of this is that you too are a person of influence too.  Just as you are the spittin’ image of at least one other person of influence – so too you are a person of influence.  You are a saint – and you are leaving your mark on others.  There are people who are the spittin’ image of you.  Now there’s a scary thought!  BUT because you are a disciple of Jesus Christ – and you are making a difference.  You are a model of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

    Let me share with you another story.  This comes from Tony Campolo – a wonderful story teller – who tells about a man named Joe.  At one time in his life, Joe had a problem with alcohol, and he lived on the streets.  But one day Joe was converted at a Bowery mission.  If you’re familiar with the City Mission in downtown Buffalo, then you know what I’m talking about.

    Prior to his new life in Christ, Joe had gained the reputation of being a hopeless, dirty, good-for-nothing for whom there was no hope.  But following his conversion to a new life in Christ, everything changed.   Joe became the most caring person that anyone associated with the mission had ever known.

    Joe spent his days and nights hanging out at the mission doing whatever needed to be done.  There was never any task that was too lowly for Joe to take on.  He cleaned up after men who got sick.  He scrubbed toilets after careless others left them filthy.  Joe did what he was asked with a smile on his face, grateful to be offered the opportunity to help.  He would help feed feeble men who wandered into the mission off the street.  He took care of men who were too out of it to take care of themselves.
    One evening when the director of the mission was delivering his evening evangelistic message to the usual crowd of still and sullen men with dropped heads, there was one man who looked up, came down the aisle to the altar, and knelt to pray, crying out to God to help him to change.     
    The repentant man kept shouting, “Oh God!  Make me like Joe!  Make me like Joe!  Make me like Joe!”  The director of the mission leaned over and said to the man, “I think it would be better if you prayed, ‘make me like Jesus!’”
    The man looked at the director with a puzzled look on his face and asked, “Why?  Is he like Joe?”
    That’s it, isn’t it?  Isn’t that what being a saint is all about?  Isn’t that what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is all about?  Living so much like Jesus that people don’t know where Jesus begins – and we leave off.
    In his letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”  Paul walked in the spirit and image of Christ.  And he encouraged the people of Corinth – and today he encourages you and me too – to walk in the spirit and image of Christ.

    Please don’t misunderstand.  This is not a sermon about you trying to be a better person.  That’s not what this sermon is about.  I just want you to know that as a disciple of Jesus Christ
    1. You are a saint.
        2. You are the spirit and image – the spittin’ image – of those impact Christians who shared the Good News of Jesus Christ with you.
            3.  Since you also are a person of influence – I want you to ask, “Who are the people who are the spittin’ image of you?”  
                4. Am I walking in the spirit and image of Christ?  

    What we love we shall grow to resemble.  We are shaped by that which we admire most, and by the people we love the most.  Amen


Posted by: AT 01:32 pm   |  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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