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Tuesday, March 24 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

A long time ago I heard a story of a pastor who got fired.  Do you want to know what he did to get himself fired?  I’ll tell you.  This church had a piano – a grand piano in the front of the church – and he didn’t like where it was located.  He felt like it was kind of in the way.  So he moved it.  He moved it a matter of only three feet off to the side.  Not too extraordinary – but enough to anger the right people – and he was asked to leave.  

Well, about a year or so later this pastor was invited back as a guest preacher.  And he noticed that the piano was sitting exactly where he had wanted it to be – sitting in the very spot that had gotten him fired.  He turned to the new pastor and asked him what had happened.  The new pastor said, “Well, I heard about what happened to you and this piano.  And I didn’t like where the piano was sitting either.  So every week for nearly a year, I would come in here and push the piano over – one inch every week.  And nobody noticed.

Folks, I have heard that story so many times, and in so many versions – that what I once thought to be a true story, I wonder if it really is.  But even so – it makes a point.
Truth is, many people don’t like change.  You’ve heard me tell you before that the only person who likes change is a wet baby.  Even if you don’t mind change – I would guess that the change any of us have ever experienced has come with at least some discomfort at some level.  And as a representative of the baby boomer generation I can tell you I don’t like the changes that come with growing older.  Don’t like it one little bit.  

So when it comes to Christianity – when it comes to our faith – I am here to tell you that change is inevitable.  I can guarantee that as disciples of Jesus Christ – some amount – some degree of change – is going to occur.

And that’s why I want you to listen to the words of the prophet Jeremiah once again.  I Love these words.  Absolutely love these words.  They are among the best there are to be found in all of scripture.  Listen.

“The days are surely coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, even though I was their husband, says the Lord.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Did you catch that last sentence?  “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

These are powerful words from a powerful God.  And did you catch what it is that the prophet Jeremiah – speaking on behalf of God says?  He’s talking a new – what?  Covenant.  A new covenant.  A new contract.  A new understanding.  And whenever you hear that word “new,”– you know that there’s something different coming, right?  Something different has arrived.  New always means what? That’s right.  Change.

And when it comes to your relationship with God through Jesus Christ, let me tell you  it’s not going to happen —in fact it can’t happen – without change.  

A woman by the name of Kathleen Mifsud once said this about men.  Ladies, you are  going to love this.  She says, “Men are like a fine wine.  They all start out like grapes, and it’s our job to stomp on them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something you’d like to have dinner with.”  And no, I am not going to repeat that.  And I also know, that that’s all some of you are going to remember from my sermon today.

But the thing is – I believe that God wants us to mature – men AND women – and children.  And not by stomping on us – or keeping us in the dark – but I believe that God wants to change us – God wants to change us from the inside out.  Sometimes it’s extreme – like moving a piano three feet all at once.  Sometimes it’s subtle – like moving a piano one inch at a time.  But in the end, the result is always the same.  What we get is change – in other words what we get is new life in Jesus Christ.

You see, what Jeremiah is saying is that God is about to do something – new.  Something different.  Why?  Because the old system wasn’t working.  The old system was based on a set of rules.  It was based on Law. 

Now most of you are familiar with the Ten Commandments.  I am teaching our 8th and 9th graders about the Ten Commandments in Confirmation instructions right now.  And you remember the big 10, don’t you?  You shall have no other gods before me; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; honor your father and your mother.  You remember those.     In part they show us the difference between right and wrong.  But anybody who has ever tried to go through even one day without breaking one of those ten commandments – well, you know just how impossible it is.  The Law – the Ten Commandments – cannot make us good.  In fact, they’re not designed to make us good.  They have no power to do that.  They can only show us when and where and how we have messed up.  And that really is the purpose of the Law.  

So God says, “I’m going to try something new.  Going to do something different.  Going to be a few changes around here.”

You see, more than anything else, God desires to be in a loving relationship with you.  Did you know that?  God desires to be in relationship with you.  So God chooses to do something new.  God calls what He is doing a new covenant.  The new covenant takes the old way of relating to God and moves it.  
Moves it from following commandments to living in grace.
Moves it from rules to relationship.

It’s a relationship with Jesus Christ and – by extension – with each other.  That’s really what the new covenant is.  A new way of seeing – a new way of believing – a new way of understanding – a new way of being – a new way of living – a new way of relating to God through Jesus Christ.

And when was this new covenant inaugurated?  Well – you’ll hear about the event later on in our service.  In fact, you hear it every week when I stand behind that altar and you hear me say or sing, “On the night in which he was betrayed...”   You remember those words, right?  And for those of you who are studying for the test – we call these words the words of institution.  Just thought you might want to know that so could write it down.   Well, I want you to listen – to listen closely when I say, “...and Jesus took the cup and said, ‘This cup is the new’ – what? – the new covenant – the new covenant in my blood.”  The NEW Covenant – the new agreement – the new relationship between us and God.  No longer based on Law.  No longer based on good works.  Those are the things that religion asks of us.  

And I ‘m going to tell you that there is a difference between religion and being in a right relationship with God.  I like to define religion as human effort to reach up to God.  I like to define Christianity as God’s effort to reach down to us.  So Christianity is not so much about religion as it is about a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  

Religion is about the Law – about trying to be good enough.
Religion is about ritual – saying and doing the right things in the right way at the right time and that’s all you need to do.  
Religion is all about what you do – to try to make yourself acceptable to God.

But a relationship – a relationship with Jesus Christ is all about who you are – and who it is that you belong to – and how it is that God wants you to see yourselves.  Sinners saved by grace. 

In our Gospel reading today certain Greeks come to Philip to tell Philip that they want to see Jesus.  They want to – see – Jesus.  Not just hear about him.  Not just know about him.  They want to see him.  

Friends – if that is what you want today – if you have come here today in order to see Jesus – then I am here to tell you that that is what Jesus wants too.  Jesus wants you to see him.  Jesus wants you to know him.  Not just know about him, but to really go deeper – to really get to know him and to grow in your relationship with him.

And this may be the hardest change of all.  You see, for too long too many of us have heard or have otherwise believed that we can do it on our own – that if we are just good enough that God will welcome us into the Kingdom.  I have no idea – short of perfection – what it means to be good enough.  But this I can say.  Being good enough is not good enough.  

It takes Jesus – and what he has done for us on the cross.  It takes entering into a relationship with Him that lets go of all other efforts to make ourselves right with God.  It’s all God’s doing – and it’s all up to God.  Remember God’s promise to you today – speaking through the mouth of Jeremiah – God declares, “I will forgive their sins, and I will remember their sins no more.”  Man, how I love that verse.

Are you beginning to see this difference between religion and being in a right relationship with God?  Religion is something that you do – and you can never do enough, by the way.  Christianity says through Jesus Christ it’s already been done. What you and I need to be in a right relationship with God – has already been taken care of.  It’s already been done.  Therefore – you can trust God who makes you His own daughter – His own son – through faith in Jesus Christ.

Friends, if you’ve been thinking that all you have to do is be just good enough, hen it’s time for a change.  Time to embrace a new story.  A new convenant.  Time to move away from religion that says, “Do this.  Don’t do that,”

A time to embrace grace – cause “it’s all about that grace, bout that grace, bout that grace.”   
Time to embrace a new way of being.  Time to embrace the new covenant that God offers each one of us today in Jesus Christ.  God wants you to know him.  Not just know about him.  But to know him.  To move what we know about God in our heads – and let it be driven into our hearts.  A move from religion to a right relationship with God is all about.  Because that’s what the new covenant with God is all about.    Amen

Posted by: AT 08:38 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, March 17 2015

John 3:14-21

      Let me throw some numbers at you.  What do you think of when I say, 3.1415?  Yeah.  Pi!  Most of you know, I am sure, that today [yesterday was] is Pi day, right?  You do if you’re a math geek.  You remember.  Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.  You were paying attention in geometry class, weren’t you?  

    Today is [yesterday was] Pi day because it is [was] March 14, 2015.  Or in numbers: 3-14-15 which is the first five digits of the infinitely non-repeating number known by the Greek letter Pi. 3.1415. Pi day.  Everybody knows that, right?  

    OK.  Let me throw three more numbers at you, and I want you to tell me the first thing that comes into your mind.  Here’s the number. 3:16.

    Ok! Some of you said “John 3:16,” and some of you started quoting the verse: “For God so loved the world . . . “   If there is one verse from the Bible that most Christians know – it is this one.  John 3:16.  

    But what if I were to ask, “Who can tell me John 3:15?”   What about John 3:14?   John 3:18?  How about John 3:17?  John 3:17: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.”  You know, it’s okay if you don’t have memorized the verses that surround 3:16.  IF the only thing you know from the Bible – is John 3:16 – and understand it – and receive the message of John 3:16 by faith – it is enough.  It is enough.

    John 3:16 has often been called the Gospel – in other words, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ – the Gospel in a nut shell.  
    But the story – the whole story – the big story – of God’s interaction with human beings winds its way through the entire Bible – both Old and New Testaments.  It has also been called “The Divine Drama.”

    What I’m talking about is the big story – the greatest story ever told.  It is a story of good vs. evil.  Of dark vs. light.  Spoiler alert!  Evil does not win.  Darkness does not win.  Jesus wins!  All because of God’s great love for you and for me.  And nothing – absolutely nothing – expresses this love – expresses this story better than what we find in John 3:16.  Say it with me in whatever version or wording that you know it by:

    “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but may have eternal life.”
    Now, you know that the Bible is filled with stories.  From creation – and the fall into sin – of families and nations and prophets and kings.  Of slavery and freedom from slavery.  Stories of triumph and tragedy.  And all of these stories are part of the divine drama of the Bible – they all feed the one big story – and may I suggest God’s big story is the only story that really does matter.  It is the story of God’s love for humanity – God constantly wooing a sinful and rebellious people back to himself.  And please note that God can only woo.  He cannot force anybody into believing.  God can only woo or call or draw us to Himself.  

    The big story is the story of sacrifice – a sacrifice made for you and for me – and a sacrifice that occurs only through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ himself.  It is the story that tells us that God will stop at nothing to restore us to the rightful relationship that God wants between us and Him – and between us and each other.

    Now – every one of us has a story.  Every one of us is living a story.  And because this is church – this is a good time to ask – how and where and when does your story intersect with God’s story?
    We all have a story to tell.  Ups and downs – joys and sorrows – victories and losses – loves won and loves lost.  Oh – the stories we can tell!  Decisions made that changed our lives – and thus our story forever.  If your story intersects with God’s story so that God’s story is an integral part of your story – in other words – you are living your story within God’s story – then all well and good.  Because I am convinced that God’s story – and I am not afraid to call it God’s love story – God’s love story always ends in amazing grace and joy to the world.

    God’s story is indeed a story of love and grace and forgiveness and joy.  And quite frankly – isn’t that what you really want?  Isn’t that what you really need?  To be loved and forgiven?  That’s God’s story.  And when our story gets interwoven with God’s story – well –it’s a wonderful thing!  

    Because – there is a change.  We are the ones who are changed.  And our stories change.  And we learn what it means not only to be loved by God – or as I am telling the kids going through First Communion instructions right now – we are living’ forgiven.  And since we are livin’ forgiven – it sure does make a difference in how we relate to each other too, wouldn’t you agree?  If we know that we are loved by God – that we are living’ forgiven – then our story is changed.  

    What I mean by that is if John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son – well then – what does that mean for us and our story – and the living of our life?  

    Let me give you another number.  This one you probably won’t know.  But the number is this:  4:32.  Nope?  Doesn’t ring a bell?   Ephesians 4:32.  “…and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  You see, this isn’t just a one way street.   Not only do we have a need to be loved – and to feel loved – to be forgiven and know that we are forgiven – but it just seems to me that because we are loved and forgiven – we also would have a greater desire to love and forgive too.   

    But unfortunately – that doesn’t always happen.

    Some of you may remember the cartoonist Charles Schulz, and the Peanuts gang.  The comic strip still runs in the Buffalo News.  Sometimes his strips carry a message.  

    In one strip he conveys through Charlie Brown the need we have to be loved and through Lucy our inability to love one another.  Charlie Brown and Lucy are deep in conversation:

CB: All it would take to make me happy is to have someone say he likes me.
    Lucy: Are you sure?
CB: Of course I'm sure!
    Lucy: You mean you'd be happy if someone merely said he or she likes you?     Do you mean to tell me that someone has it within his or her power to make     you     happy merely by doing such a simple thing?
CB: Yes! That's exactly what I mean!
    Lucy: Well, I don't think that's asking too much. I really don't. [Now standing face     to     face, Lucy asks one more time] But you're sure now? All you want is to have     someone say, "I like you, Charlie Brown," and then you'll be happy?
CB: And then I'll be happy!
    Lucy: Lucy looks at Charlie Brown, turns and walks away, saying, “I can't do it!”

    What Lucy cannot do, sinful as she is, God does. What Charlie Brown needs, lost and alone as he is, God supplies.

    Let me tell you one last story.  “Fred Craddock tells the story of his father, who spent years of his life hiding from the God who was seeking him out:

    “When the pastor used to come from my mother’s church to call on him, my father would say, 'You don’t care about me. I know how churches are. You want another pledge, another name, right? Another name, another pledge, isn’t that the whole point of church? Get another name, another pledge.'

    “My nervous mother would run to the kitchen, crying, for fear somebody’s feelings would be hurt. When we had an evangelistic campaign the pastor would bring the evangelist, introduce him to my father and then say, 'Sic him, get him! Sic him, get him!' My father would always say the same thing. 'You don’t care about me! Another name, another pledge. Another name, another pledge! I know about churches.'

    “I guess I heard it a thousand times. One time he didn’t say it. He was at the Veteran’s Hospital. He was down to 74 pounds. They had taken out the throat, put in a metal tube, and said, 'Mr. Craddock, you should have come earlier. But this cancer is awfully far advanced. We’ll give radium, but we don’t know.'

    “I went in to see him. In every window—potted plants and flowers. Everywhere there was a place to set them—potted plants and flowers. Even in that thing that swings out over your bed they put food on, there was a big flower. There was by his bed a stack of cards 10 or 15 inches deep. I looked at the cards sprinkled in the flowers. I read the cards beside his bed. And I want to tell you, every card, every blossom, every potted plant from groups, Sunday School classes, women’s groups, youth groups, men’s bible class, of my mother’s church—every one of them. My father saw me reading them. He could not speak, but he took a Kleenex box and wrote something on the side from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. . . . He wrote on the side, ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”

    My friends – my dear, dear friends.  I want you to know that God is seeking you in love, not in condemnation.  And the moment you realize that – well, it is not until that moment that the gospel becomes Good News for you.  Jesus invites you to let him enter into your story – so that you can enter into His story – so that his story and our story can become one.  And that one story, the greatest story ever told, is this:

“For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”  

    And that’s why we tell the story.  And why we will continue to tell the story – the greatest story ever told.  Because His story can change your story.  Amen

Posted by: AT 01:01 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Wednesday, March 04 2015

Mark 8:31–38

    So let me ask you a question.  How many of you have given up something for Lent?  I’m not going to ask what it is that you have given up – but I am just curious how many make a practice of giving something up.  

    I’ve gotta tell ya, I’m not a big fan of the giving something up for Lent thing.  Nothing wrong with doing that.  Absolutely nothing wrong with that – especially if it’s something you probably ought to be giving up on a permanent basis anyway.  And there are also those who like to make jokes about it – like the guy who said, “I think I’m going to give up going to church for Lent.” Funny – but not a good idea.  

    However – the whole idea behind the practice of giving something up for Lent might very well have something to do with what Jesus says to us today in our reading from Mark’s Gospel, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.”  I think this is where the practice of giving something up for Lent comes from.  But I’m really not sure about that because we Lutherans have never made a big deal about giving something up for Lent.

    But still Jesus says that as his followers we are to deny ourselves.  But notice that Jesus isn’t telling us to deny ourselves something – like giving up something for Lent. No.  He is telling us to deny – ourselves.  

    Now today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel should be well known to most of us.  Or at least I think it should be.  These words of Jesus should be familiar anyway because – well – it seems like I’m preaching a sermon at least once a year – every year – where we hear Jesus talking about denying oneself and taking up one’s cross to follow him.  

    And I think that we know these words because – well, not only do we hear them at least once a year – but when we hear them they tend to stick with us because – we really don’t like to hear them.  

    To quote that great theologian Mark Twain: “Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.”  And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

    Apparently Peter understood what Jesus was saying, because after Jesus quite clearly predicts his own eventual suffering and death by the religious leaders in Jerusalem, Peter not only doesn’t want to hear it, he rebukes Jesus for saying it.  By the way, apparently Peter missed that part about Jesus being raised on the third day.  Either that – or more likely – it was another one of those things Jesus said that he didn’t understand.  

    So Peter speaks up because he understands that suffering and death part.  And he wants none of it – either for himself or for Jesus.  

    But that – as we follow the story of Jesus – is indeed what happens to Jesus.  It was the cost that Jesus counted and thought not too high a price to pay for you and for me.  That will be the message that we will hear in Holy Week.  And as we will hear and discover on Resurrection Sunday –otherwise known as Easter – just five weeks from [today] [tomorrow] – Jesus IS raised from the dead.

    But for now, what we need to pay attention to is what Jesus says to Peter – and the disciples – as well as the crowd he’s talking to.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.”

    You know, we talk an awful lot about making disciples – being disciples – around here.  Not just church members – even thought that is what we are – but far, far, far more importantly – the understanding that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. But at what cost?  What’s the cost involved to do what Jesus says when he says we are to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses and follow him?
At what cost?  In some parts of the world taking up a cross for Jesus Christ just might get you killed.  

    So how we define what taking up one’s cross means – and how we put that into practice as 21st Century American Christians is a far different cry than the way some of our Christian brothers and sisters in other parts of the world would of necessity not only define it – but live it!

    I wrestled with displaying a picture of what I mean on the screen, but decided against it.  The picture I had in mind I’m sure most of you have seen.  It s a picture of a row of men dressed in orange clothing, kneeling on a beach in Libya with black hooded men standing behind them.  Do you remember seeing that picture somewhere on the news or on social media?  The men in orange were all beheaded by their black-hooded captors.  What was their crime?  They were Christians.  That was their “crime.”  Their last words were, “Lord, Jesus Christ,”

    Or did you hear about the 100-150 Christians – old men, women and children – that were kidnapped earlier this week in Syria by members of the same group that beheaded the men I was just talking about?  Or the 100 men and boys kidnapped in Iraq this week?  Their crime?  Again – for being Christians.

    In some parts of the world taking up a cross for Jesus Christ just might get you killed.  It is my hope that such acts of terror will soon come to an end. But until then, may these brothers and sisters find the faith, strength and courage to stand strong for Jesus Christ.   Amen?

    Although it is highly unlikely that you and I in this country will ever have to face such horror – I hope you can also see that being a Christian isn’t for sissies.  I also hope you can see that the way we define bearing a cross in this country is something far different from the way Christians in the Middle East understand it.

    I think way too often we define our cross as a burden that is not of our choosing – like some illness, or the loss of a job, or some tragedy that has occurred in our lives.  These are burdens – and they can be tragic, and they can be difficult to deal with.  But they are not the crosses that Jesus is talking about.  
    So a burden is something that we bear that is not necessarily of our own choosing.  The cross we bear on the other hand – is the cross we bear because we choose to bear it.  A cross is something that we choose.  The cross we choose we choose for the sake of Jesus Christ – AND it is something we choose for the benefit of someone else.   

     I think that’s what Jesus is talking about when he talks about denying oneself.  A recognition that it isn’t all about me.  Life isn’t all about me.

    So let me share with you a story.  It’s a story about “…a kindergarten class where the teacher frequently reminded misbehaving children to stop being a WAM.  W-A-M.  The kids straightened up as soon as their teacher pointed out they were being a WAM.

    “What was a WAM?  Why was being a WAM so bad? The teacher explained that WAM stands for “What About Me?”  She was training the children to be less self-centered.  She wanted them to think of others' needs, not just their own.  So, she taught them that no one liked a WAM, a self-centered person who only asked, “What About Me?”

    “Instead, this teacher was teaching the children to be a WAY, W-A-Y, or as she explained it, people who ask, “What About You?”
    Folks, did you know that in the early church Christians were known as people of the Way?  The Way of Jesus Christ?  “You and I are people of the Way. People of the way ask, “What About You?”  And yes, I know, sometimes we forget about that.  Sometimes we forget who we really are.  We forget and we become a WAM.  But today what I hope you hear is that Jesus is calling us to be people of the WAY.   People who ask, “What about you?”

    Let me say this again.  Being a Christian is more than just going to church on Saturday/Sunday.  I hope you are beginning to see, if you haven’t seen it already, that being a Christian is serious business.  It is a way of life and it will cost you something – in a life lived for Christ in service to others.

    Because being a Christian isn’t for sissies.  Which means we do have a choice.  And I am glad that we have a choice.  None of this is being shoved down anyone’s throat, including mine.  We have a choice – to live for ourselves as a WAM – and nobody like s a WAM – or to live our lives for Jesus Christ by serving others as people of the WAY.    

    So a cross is something you and I are free to choose – or not.  Will we find the strength and the courage and the faith – like Christians in the Middle East – to endure to the end?  I hope so.  
    So forget about giving something up for Lent – which I am guessing really isn’t costing you much of anything at all – but instead, how about taking up something.  I’m asking you to count the cost and to take up your cross, and follow Jesus.  

Posted by: AT 01:54 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email

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9535 Clarence Center Road

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

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