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Monday, November 30 2015
Will Platnick- Seminarian
When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, I absolutely loved playing in the snow. Though the amount of snow we typically got paled in comparison to the snow that some of the south towns got a year ago, we would typically be shutdown for snow at least a couple times per year. Snow ball fights…no school…building snowmen…no school….making snow angels…no school…I loved every second of it. One day, my friends introduced me to a game called King of the Mountain, or King of the Hill, do you all know what I’m talking about? What do you call it out here? So, for those who don’t know, King of the Mountain or Hill is a game where the object is to make your way to the top of the pile of snow while keeping the people you are playing with off the top of the snow pile and when you claim your rightful place on top of the snow pile, you yell out something like “I AM THE KING OF THE MOUNTAIN”. As you can imagine, the game necessitates a bit of rough housing, and with my friends, a lot of rough housing. People were getting thrown down or tumbling down this gigantic 30-foot snow pile at an alarming rate, and looking back on it, it’s a miracle none of us were extremely injured that day, because although it was a lot of fun, it was also really, really violent.
When we look back throughout the ages, we can see many battles and wars fought between different kings and rulers with an amped up version of the violence we associate with that childhood game, with each king or ruler trying to throw each other off whatever piece of land they were fighting about and trying claiming sovereignty over. If you’ve ever seen the HBO television show Game of Thrones, you have seen this battle between kings and rulers play out, and it is often us, the subject of the monarchy, who suffers most greatly. Historically, we don’t trust our kings and rulers.
Because of our lack of trust in kings and monarchy, we setup a different system of government when we overthrew the British monarchy here in America…but we don’t trust our government much now either, do we? A week ago, the polls showed the congressional approval rating was 11%. In our society, it feels like we are always at odds or fighting with someone because of lack of trust. This lack of trust in each other divides this country bitterly in just about every area. Why do we find it so hard to trust?
In our Gospel reading this week, we hear the story of Jesus being interrogated by Pontius Pilate. In Verse 37, Jesus answered Pilate calling him a king with “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me, to which Pilate retorts “What is truth?” That’s a question that I think all of us constantly grapple with at some level, and I think it contributes to our inability to trust, because what else can we trust in but something or someone that is actually true…and true not like the world looks at true where you have your truth and I have my truth and they’re both true, but real, absolute truth.
I grew up in a non-religious household, my father was a non-practicing Jew and my mother a non-practicing Methodist. My mom grew up the daughter of the church secretary, and was turned off of Christianity because she had an intimate view of how the members there treated each other. When my dad and I talk, he doesn’t have many good things to say about his religious upbringing either. Growing up, I had a curiosity about Christianity, so when my parents would drag me to antique shows, I would sometimes pick up a Bible in the hotel drawer that the Gideon’s left, and start reading Genesis and I would get to family lines and lineages and become so bored that I put the book away, wondering how on earth anybody could read such boring crap. That curiosity soon gave way to hatred and animosity towards organized religion, and Christianity in particular. The only Christians I knew in real life were my Catholic friends, who hated everything about the church, and the ones in Catholic School had the love of God physically beaten out of them by the nuns at the school. I saw this happening to people I cared about, and I got angry. In history classes I read about the Crusades and the ridiculous amount of innocent people killed in the name of Christianity. On television, my view of Christianity was shaped by greased up televangelists trying to swindle poor people out of their money and groups like Westboro Baptist Church, spewing messages of hatred and bigotry. All these things I experienced were 100% true, and because they were all true, I felt confident and justified in my hated towards anybody who was stupid enough to believe in God. Truly, while growing up, I hated every single person here, without ever having met you.
Then one day, God started dismantling this false truth I had created, funnily enough on an online dating site called OKCupid. I was browsing my matches and came across the profile of a woman who was cute, but was finishing up seminary and was going to become a Pastor. Not wanting anything to do with a Christian, let alone a Christian Pastor, I moved on without a second thought. The next day, I saw she visited my profile as well, and apparently she didn’t see anything that she liked about me either, since I didn’t hear from her. Then, one day, I was sitting at work on a Friday around 11 AM, and I get this strong and sudden urge to send that Pastor woman a message, so I hop online and I see that she’s online and send her an instant message. As it turns out, the woman was on the page to delete her profile from the site entirely because of one too many bad dates. If I hadn’t messaged her in that 30 second window, we never would have met. As you can probably guess, the woman in the story was Pastor Becca, my lovely wife.
When Becca and I first started dating, she had no requirement that I be a Christian, just that I be respectful of her views as a Christian…though to be honest even that was hard, since I was definitely a bit of a jerk. Being the master of subtlety that my wife is, she invited me to the Alpha course, which is sort of an introduction to Christianity course that, incidentally, is starting up here in a little over a month. One day, it occurred to me that I really don’t know a lot about a group of people who I hated, so wanting to not be completely lost, I downloaded the first Bible app I found, called YouVersion, onto my tablet, and started a reading plan that would walk through the Bible in a year, with not just the boring parts of Genesis I was used to putting down, but also Psalms, Proverbs and Matthew, and it was a completely different experience. One day, I was in the reading plan, and I get to the point in Genesis where God is breathing life into man through his nostrils, when all of a sudden I have this huge, crushing blow on my nose, like someone is placing the palm of their hand against my face and pushing as hard as they can. I was scared out of my mind, and I remember sending Becca a text message saying that either my brain was really enjoying playing tricks on me…or the Holy Spirit just punched me in the face.
I had spent my entire adult life building up this big, false truth, based on smaller, incomplete amount of true things, that God didn’t exist, and people who believed in God were idiotic, hate-filled hypocrites who the world would be much better off without. It was right then that God started tearing all these walls that I had built down to the ground, and showing me that this false story I had created, that the world around me seemed to affirm, was in fact, completely false. Through God, Becca and the congregation at Prince of Peace setting a positive example about what it means to be a Christian and challenging my expectations, the false story I created fell apart…and a few months later, I was baptized and joined the church.
Though my negative experiences with Christianity were true and I thought I could trust what the world was telling me about those experiences, they weren’t together the truth. The world asks us to put our trust and hope in lots of things: wealth, power, our own opinion, and all sorts of vices that make us feel good temporarily. The world lies to us and tells us we can turn to these things to make us happy or to give us purpose, but if we’ve ever looked back in our pursuit of these things, we know that it’s all one big lie. In our text today Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world…that it doesn’t look like what people would expect the kingdom of God to look like. Jesus Christ didn’t come as a conquering king, he came as a suffering servant. Jesus didn’t setup his kingdom through brute force, he built it while dying the death of a criminal on a cross. Nobody saw that coming…that wasn’t anybody’s expectation. I thought I could trust what I saw in the world about God and Christians…but I put my trust in things that were false and would only bring me frustration and death.
It’s important to know that the reason that Jesus was born and came into the world was to testify to the truth because being able to trust in God’s truth…in God’s promises for us, is the cornerstone of our faith. When we are able to trust Jesus Christ as the good and perfect King who loves and cares for his servants well being, we get to see glimpses of God’s Kingdom starting to come down from heaven into our time on earth right now, and there is nothing more amazing than seeing that happen in front of you.
Because Jesus came to testify to the truth and through his death on the cross for our sins and his resurrection 3 days later, we can trust that same God who created life, the universe and everything also cares and loves each person here, intimately. Because Christ is King, we can trust him to lead us not only through the amazing experiences where we see God acting in big ways right in front of us, but we can also trust him to lead us through the really hard and difficult times as well.
When Becca and I’s son Gideon died just a little over a year ago, that trust in God kept us afloat when the world threatened to drown us. Being able to cling to the truth that Jesus loves us and is for us and is mourning with us helped keep us going, even if sometimes it was hard to believe. We clung to the truth that it’s in Jesus’s character as the good and perfect King to be able to take the worst experiences we will go through in life and use them for good, and we got to see tiny glimpses of that good as we mourned. Because we were able to be transparent about our faith, struggles and trust in God in a time in which the world expected us to crawl under a rock and die, lives were changed. Friends and acquaintances, moved by our blog and Facebook posts wanted to talk to us about Jesus. People who hadn’t gone to church in years found themselves wanting to go because they could see God’s truth in our story. We were able to minister to so many people who had been carrying around grief and pain related to birth and parenthood that society had forced them to remain silent about, and in many cases, they were able to minister to us as well. And, I should also say, Pastor Becca and I would not be here at Zion if our son had lived, and while I miss my son tremendously and nothing will ever make his death OK, we also love it here at Zion, and we are grateful to now be a part of this amazing congregation.
We may not trust our government…we may not trust our rulers…lord knows we shouldn’t trust ourselves given how often we’re wrong …but we can trust in Jesus. In our story, Pilate asked, what is truth? The truth is that Jesus’ love for us…it has no end, it’s as deep as the sea and as high as the sky and encompasses everything in between. Life may be going really well for you right now…everything seems to be lining up perfectly…or maybe you’re going through a really hard time and your faith is being tested and it feels like God is far away, but that’s not the truth. The truth is that neither death nor life…neither angels nor demons…neither the present nor the future nor any powers…neither height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation is able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our lord and king…and that’s truth that we can trust in.
Monday, November 16 2015
Dr. Robert Zielinski
There is an old movie, called “Grumpy Old Men”, about two old retirees, slugging through a cold winter in the north Midwest. One morning, as they are getting ready to go ice fishing, one says to the other, “Hey, did you hear about Harry? His daughter went to bed, left him watching television on the couch, and when she got up in the morning, there he was. Gone.”
After a pregnant pause, the other one replies, “Lucky jerk.”
I often tell my patients and their families that we all want to live to a ripe old age in full control of all our capacities, and then one day, like our fictional friend Harry, just not wake up. But for some reason (and it’s on my list of Things To Ask When I Get There), few of us are that lucky. Hard times befall all of us sooner or later, whether in health or relationships or finances or career. The world can be a difficult place.
And today Jesus delivers us a message about all that.
Don’t worry! Be happy!
In our Gospel reading, the disciples are all giddy about how beautiful the Temple is in Jerusalem. They are not Judeans, remember; it is a couple days hard travel from Galilee, so they don’t get to see Jerusalem and the Temple very often. Many Jewish travelers of the day, when they arrive at Jerusalem, the first thing they do is go to see the Temple. When we went, about 2000 years after this, that’s the first thing we did. Got pretty lost, and it was getting dark, scared the heck out of ourselves, and we were only going to see what was left of one wall on the Temple Mount! So like us excited tourists, the disciples are reveling in the beauty of this magnificent human achievement. And instead of joining them in their joy, Jesus says, “Better enjoy it while you can, because it won’t be here much longer”.
Now note the break in time between this verse and the next. The next words are spoken much later, on the Mount of Olives. This might have taken them an hour, depending, I suppose, on where exactly they stopped on the Mount. Whatever, it’s a long way.
I bet it was very quiet walk. The disciples are probably stunned in to silence, and during this long stroll, they are no doubt wondering, worrying about what the heck Jesus meant, and what awful thing is out there on the horizon waiting for them and the Temple.
It’s similar to the anxiety or fear we may experience when we think about death or coming blizzards or ISIS, or the end of the world, which is what seems to be going on in Daniel’s vision from today’s reading. It can be scary stuff, and having a firm picture of what is to come can be a way to calm those fears and anxieties. No matter how awful the reality winds up being, we generally find it less difficult to deal with than not knowing.
Now let’s think about Jesus in this situation. During that silent walk down from Jerusalem and up the Mount of Olives, I imagine him thinking what a can of worms he opened up by saying that about the Temple, and how he’s going to have to explain that somehow. He’s thinking how difficult this is going to be to get in to with his disciples, his friends. And maybe the human Jesus was a bit overwhelmed by it all himself, knowing all that is to come.
We can empathize with this. Sometimes as adults, you can see so clearly what a child needs to do and why, for their own safety and well-being. Like Jesus, you can see the long run, but the kids can’t. And you can’t really explain it to them because they just don’t have the maturity and experience yet to really get it. So you say “because I said so!” No, wait, that’s not right. When you really can’t explain something you know to be true, you ask them to trust you. Have faith, in other words. Just believe that I understand what you can’t, and trust me that it will work out.
So Jesus says, a lot of bad stuff is going to go on around you, but it isn’t the end of the world. It’s just how the world is. There will always be people who will want to give you all the answers, but don’t be fooled. Instead, as the writer of Hebrews wrote, trust that “he who has promised is faithful.”
I have a friend whose Dad was in the very late stages of prostate cancer. He was dying, and he knew it. He wasn’t in much pain, but so weak that his quality of life was poor, and he was ready. My friend describes how in those last days sometimes, his Dad would awaken from sleep, look around the room for a moment, as if being sure of what he was seeing. And then he would say “O, crap, I’m still here”.
Now that’s a man with faith that whatever came next was going to be OK.
So when it comes to what happens at the end of life, or the end of ALL life, or a lot of other things along the way….. I think sometimes we’re not supposed to know. He wants us to trust him, to have faith sometimes, instead of trying to figure everything out. Or believe someone else who thinks they have.
Now, he knows this uncertainty is scary, and the world will be filled with scary times. Wars and famines and earthquakes. But in the passage of Mark that follows today’s reading, Jesus tells the disciples, “no one knows the day or the hour.” And he specifically includes himself in the “no one”.
Some of the people of Paul’s day thought they knew the hour and the day. They were convinced the end of the world and the second coming were right around the corner, and you know what they did? NOTHING. They stopped working, they stopped contributing. Why bother? How do you think that worked out for them? Then again, in the polar opposite, thinking we’ve got nothing but time, we still get complacent. And do NOTHING. “I should really get over there some time”. “One of these days, I’m get that started.” “Someday, I’d like to volunteer some time there”.
Nah, don’t worry about it today, there will be other chances, do it later, you have time.
Do you? How do you know that?
So here’s the wisdom in our not knowing. When you don’t know the day or the hour, and you accept that you never will, you can hope you have all the time in the world, but realize that maybe you don’t.
When you don’t know the day or the hour, and you accept that you never will, you can try to let go of the worry, trust that He has your back, and just live; live in this moment, not the future you can’t see; live in contentment with whatever blessings you still have, for as long as you have them; live in a way that Jesus would be proud of. Every day, each minute as much as possible, for as long as you have. Don’t worry about what you can’t see, be happy in what you can.
I suppose it’s true that it’s never too late to do something, but the wisdom, the beauty in our not knowing is that it’s never too early either. To do the right thing. The generous thing. The compassionate thing. The forgiving thing. The thing that Jesus would do if he were in your shoes. The thing you’d do if you knew it was going to be your last thing. Go ahead and do that now. Because you really don’t know if you will get the chance again.
Monday, November 02 2015
John 11:32-44, Revelation 21:1-6b; Isaiah 25:6-9
This year our All Saints celebration has a special meaning for me. As most of you know – on March 1st of this year, I lost my mother. On that day, she went from this life and entered into what we call the church triumphant. On April 25th, my beloved wife Nancy with whom I am well pleased lost her mother as she also left this life, and entered into the church triumphant. And for Pastor Becca and Will, yesterday/two days ago was the one year anniversary of the birth – and death – of their beloved son Gideon.
There’s not a one of us here today who hasn’t experienced the loss of a loved one. And on those occasions – our tears flowed. And I want you to know – especially you men – I want you to know that that’s okay. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to let those tears flow – as they did for me when I was writing this sermon on Tuesday. Couldn’t help thinking of my Mom.
Now I don’t know if you caught it or not – but all three of our readings today mention tears. Isaiah says this. Listen!
“[God] will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.”
And the book of Revelation says this:
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,”
Wonderful stuff! Words that perhaps more of us might want to think about having read at our own or a loved one’s funeral, yes? And yes, this reading from Revelation is going to be read at mine. You know. Someday.
And then there’s our Gospel reading – the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. He had two sisters by the name of Mary and Martha. They lived in a place called Bethany.
As our Gospel lesson unfolds, Lazarus has fallen ill, and died. When Jesus arrives on the scene, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, falls at his feet, and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” “Where have you laid him,” Jesus asks. “Lord,” she says, “Come and see.”
They go to the place where Lazarus is buried, and everybody’s crying. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, we are told that, “Jesus began to weep.” Jesus wept.
I want to suggest to you today that Jesus wasn’t crying because Lazarus had died. Jesus knows that death is nothing to be afraid of. AND Mary was right. If Jesus had been there, he could have kept Lazarus from dying. But Jesus used this moment – not just in order to give Lazarus a few more years of life – but in order that God might be glorified.
But the point is that Jesus wasn’t crying because Lazarus had died. He cried because of the grief of his friends Mary and Martha. They were hurting, and therefore Jesus hurt. Jesus cried along with them. Please do not miss this point. When we grieve – Jesus grieves with us. When we cry – Jesus cries too! That’s how much he cares for you.
So Jesus performed a miracle that day. A real miracle. Not some pie-in-the-sky type of thing. You know – like – “If the Bills ever win a Super Bowl – it will be a miracle.” No. This was a real miracle. A living – transforming – display of God’s power in action.
When they arrive at the tomb, Jesus says, “Take away the stone.” By the way. How many of your remember the TV program “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?” What would they say just before they show the family their new house? That’s right. “MOVE THAT BUS!”
I can just picture Jesus saying something like that. Except instead of saying move that bus, he says, “Move that stone!” Say that with me. On three. 1,2,3. MOVE THAT STONE! Yeah. “Move that stone – and then stand back – and watch! See what God can do!”
So they moved the stone. And Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus! Come forth!” And Lazarus comes out of the tomb wrapped in strips of burial cloth. They unbind him – deqth unbinds him – and he is set free.
Almost every year I tell you that one of my favorite songs to sing on All Saints Day is the well-known, “Shall We Gather at the River.” Just love that song. And in preparation for this sermon, I went back to the funeral planning forms that I had filled out three years ago – by the way – you would all make your pastors’ and your loved ones lives so much easier if you would fill one out as well. I know that this is a shameless plug – but there are forms for that purpose on the table in the gathering area. You get to choose which hymns – which Scripture readings – you want at your funeral.
Anyway – I reread my own plans – and to my own surprise – I saw that I had not included “Shall We Gather at The River.” So I’ve made that correction. Thankfully I included “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and “O Zion Haste.” I mean, how could I leave those two out! Again – as far as my own funeral goes – I have no plans for those arrangements to be implemented any time soon.
But I love this hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River,” because it’s a song about eternal life with God. Revelation 22 talks about “the river of life,… flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”
Today – the day in which we celebrate All Saints Day – is a day in which we honor and remember the departed saints who have gone before us. And in the tradition of the Lutheran Church, all baptized Christians – not just the departed, super Christians who the church has declared to be saints – but all baptized Christians can rightly be called the saints of God.
So you – my dear friends – are saints! And those who we remember today are those who have gone on before us. Those who have already crossed over that river – that flows by the throne of God.
So in our Gospel reading, Lazarus had already crossed the river – and is called back. Now have you ever wondered about that? Did God the Father talk to Lazarus and tell him, you’re going back? Did Lazarus say, “Who! What? No! Nobody asked me if I wanted to come back.” Do you think that Lazarus was happy to be back? Well, I don’t know. But I’ve gotta believe that Lazarus – more than anybody – was no longer afraid of death or dying. Lazarus had already been on the other side of that river where the departed saints of God reside. And he is called back.
And I’ve also gotta believe that this experience changed his life. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that he had a new appreciation for God and the power of God. And isn’t that what this story is really all about? Isn’t that what All Saints Day is all about? All Saints Day is not about how good or how great certain Christians lived their lives in the past – and were posthumously elevated to the level of sainthood by a church decree. No.
What we celebrate today is the power of God.
We celebrate the power of God that can take sinful human beings like you and me – and transform us into people that the Bible calls saints. Every. Single. One of us.
We celebrate the power of God that forgives our sins and takes them completely away.
We celebrate the power of God that moves our stones of guilt and shame. That’s what today is all about.
Today we are bold to talk about the power of God that can restore lives that are shattered and broken. Today we are bold to talk about the power of God that raises us up to new life in his Son Jesus Christ. Not just for the life to come – but for the lives that we are living – right here – right now!
God has the power to move stones. God has the power to restore your life to what God designed it to be. It’s not just about what God did for Lazarus. It’s what God has done and is still doing for you and me as well.
To those among us dealing with grief and despair, Jesus says, “I have the power to move that stone.”
To you who are skeptics – dealing with doubts about God – doubts about yourself – or fear of the future, Jesus says, “I have the power to move those stones.”
To you who are dealing with a harmful addiction – alcohol, food, drugs, sex, pornography – whatever – Jesus says, “I have the power to move those stones.”
Folks – when you walked into this building this morning/evening you entered into a place where new things are possible.
A new beginning. A new life. A new hope.
Jesus says, “Move that stone!” And when those stones that are holding YOU back are taken away – let me tell you – it does indeed give you a new appreciation for life. For living. For those things that are truly important.
There isn’t a person here today – including myself – who doesn’t now – or hasn’t at some point in their life – had a stone that needed to be taken away. And I’m here to tell you that they have been – and they can be – taken away by the power of God. God still moves stones. For our own good and for his glory.
So yes – as disciples of Jesus Christ – as beloved sons and daughters of God whom God does not hesitate to call His saints – we look forward to that day. And that day will be a great family reunion. That day when God shall wipe every tear from our eyes. To that day when death and dying shall be no more. To that day when it is our turn to cross that beautiful river.
But until that day arrives – we have a life to live in the here and now. So let me ask you. Have you ever looked back over your life – shaken your head in wonder? Wondering – what your life would have been like if Jesus Christ had not moved your stones – and touched your heart and changed your life?
Where is Jesus Christ at work in your life today moving stones? Rolling – rolling those stones away? Because let me tell you – in this life, when you can’t get no satisfaction – what you need is a rolling stone!
Jesus Christ is in the business of wiping away tears and moving stones. Giving new life to all who desire it. He wants to give you that new life today.
 Based on “Take Away the Stone” from Dynamic Preaching, O/N/D 2000, pp. 37-40.