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Tuesday, July 28 2015
This past week, our sanctuary did not look like the typical church setting you might expect. We just finished an amazing week of Vacation Bible School, using Mt. Everest as a backdrop. The theme for the week was “Conquering Challenges with God’s Mighty Power.” And what the kids learned – at least what I hope they learned – is that God has the power to provide, heal, comfort, forgive, and love us forever.
Today’s Gospel reading certainly demonstrates God’s power to provide. Most people know this episode in the life of Jesus and his disciples. It is the only one of the many miracles performed by Jesus that is in all four of the Gospels. We call it the Feeding of the 5000 – and since the 5000 number refers to the number of men who were there, it is a safe bet to say that perhaps as many as another 5000 or more women and children were also present. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of hungry mouths to feed!
Philip is standing there, watching as this huge crowd is coming to them. I’m not sure what he was thinking when he saw all those people, but I’ll bet he was in awe, because he knew that they were coming to see Jesus.
Jesus sees the crowd coming too, perhaps watching over Philip’s shoulder. And he asks him, “Philip, is there some place nearby where we can buy bread for these people to eat?”
Now Philip is a realist. He also is something of a mathematician. He does a quick estimate in his head, and says, “Six months wages would not be enough to feed everyone even a little.” But we are let in on a little secret. Jesus is testing and maybe even teasing Philip a bit here. Jesus already knows what he’s going to do, even before the five loaves of bread and two fish are given to him.
As it happens, some little boy has the bread and fish in a sack that his mother must have packed for him that morning. Most of you know what happens next. Jesus takes that bread – and he takes that fish – blesses it – and has the disciples distribute it among the people in the crowd – and everyone has enough to eat. AND there is enough left over to fill twelve baskets – one basket for each of the disciples to bring back to Jesus.
The question is, how did Jesus do this? How did he do it? There are two very different explanations for this miracle. The first is that Jesus did what only Jesus can do. Since Jesus is God – he has the power of God – and he shows that God has the power to provide. Jesus takes what is placed into his hands and multiplies it – for the glory of God and for the benefit of others.
The second explanation is that when the people saw that Jesus was given the five loaves and two fish – those who had food with them got the idea – reached into their own sacks and shared what they had. I’ve got to tell you I’m tired of hearing preachers tell the story like that. What they are doing is turning the power of Jesus Christ to do what only Jesus can do – in other words – perform a true miracle – and turning it into a Sunday School lesson about sharing.
Now we all know that sharing is a good thing. We all agree with that. But there is no miracle in sharing. Well – maybe for some people it would be a miracle if they learned to share. The only person who shared any food that day was the young boy who gave up his lunch. And if there is a message in that act of selflessness it is that when we take what’s in our hands – and place what we have into Christ’s hands – then all we need to do from there is to stand back and just watch what God can do.
SO yes, the feeding of the five thousand is a miracle that demonstrates God’s power to provide. But the miracle itself is not the message. The result of the miracle leads the people to realize that there is something different – something special about this man Jesus. Verse 14 says that when the people saw the sign that Jesus had done – they said, “This is the prophet – in other words, the Messiah – who is to come into the world.”
Let me tell you something about John’s Gospel and the miracles that John records for us. There are seven in all. John calls them signs – sign to point us to who Jesus is.
1. Jesus turns water into wine.
2. Jesus heals a Roman official’s son.
3. Jesus heals a man at the Pool of Bethesda.
4. The feeding of the 5,000.
5. Jesus walks on water.
6. Jesus heals a man born blind.
7. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
These are the seven miracles John records. Seven signs to point us to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah – the Christ – the anointed One sent from God.
So today’s sign or miracle – the feeding of the 5,000 – is certainly visible to many. And it is spectacular. Thousands of people witnessed it. In fact, they’re so overwhelmed that they want to make Jesus their king.
And this, I think, is why this is more than just a Sunday School lesson about sharing. To get the crowd to share whatever food they had brought with them that day is not going to leave them excited enough to want to make Jesus their king. No. This is a true miracle. A true sign to show the people not only what Jesus can do – but also – who he is.
Somehow – someway – Jesus multiplied those loaves and fish. Somehow – someway – Jesus turned water into wine – healed the sick – walked on water – made the blind to see – and raised Lazarus from the dead. That’s the power of God in action!
John tells us about these things – and calls them signs so that we can know – so that we can believe – that Jesus is the Christ – the Son of God – and that believing we might have life in his name.
John lets us know that this is his one purpose in writing his gospel – that we might come to believe. At the very end of his gospel John says that many other signs were done which he did not write down. But in chapter 20 verse 31 he tells us his purpose. “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in his name.”
What a wonderful message! But let me tell you, that this miracle – this sign – of the feeding of the 5,000 – and all of the miracles of Jesus do more than show us the power of God in action. They do more than let us know who he is. It also shows us the compassionate love of our Lord and Savior Jesus, the Christ. Jesus saw the people and their need and he felt compassion toward them. And for us who have heard the Word – and have come to believe that Jesus is the Christ – the Son of God – there is a call for us as disciples of Jesus Christ – to show that same compassion. Since becoming more like Christ is the goal of the believer in Christ – then showing compassion certainly is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Let me share with you a story. Since our Vacation Bible School theme, “Conquering Challenges with God’s Mighty Power,” used Mt. Everest as a backdrop, I thought the following story would be helpful.
Mike Barrett, in his book, The Danger Habit, tells how difficult it is for highly competitive people to be compassionate. He tells about men who tried to climb Mount Everest in 2006 and some of the choices they were forced to make. He tells about a fifty year old climber, Lincoln Hall, who was left for dead by his team, and other passing climbers, on the side of that treacherous mountain. But a small team led by Dan Mazur of the U.S. stopped to help Lincoln down the mountain. In the process they saved his life but they gave up their own opportunity to make it up Everest.
Weeks later, the guide who led the rescue told The Today Show, “We just immediately sprang into action. You have to move quickly up there. If you mess around and start thinking about what to do, he could already be gone.”
But this story of heroism and self sacrifice contrasted with another less heroic story that took place only days earlier on the same mountain. Thirty four year old David Sharp died after forty climbers passed him and refused to help. Think of that. One climber is left for dead, but is rescued and lives. Another is left alone to die . . . and dies. David Sharp was left to die so that other climbers could complete their ascent.
Maybe it’s easy to understand the motivation of those who passed by. Maybe not. They had invested many years of hope and dreams as well as thousands of dollars in their bid to climb Everest. And nothing was going to stop them. Do they throw away all that they had hoped for – dreamed for – paid thousands of dollars for – to throw all that away to help a person who might not survive anyway? They do if they are a follower of Jesus.
As disciples of Jesus Christ – we learn not only who he is – but what it means to be a disciple. To love as Jesus loved. To forgive as Jesus forgives. To show compassion as he is compassionate. To become more and more like Christ every day.
So I hope you learned something about Jesus today. Maybe you’re hearing it for the first time, or maybe it’s a good refresher. The writers of all four gospels – not just John – but Matthew, Mark and Luke as well – want us to know who Jesus is – and then invite us to become more like him.
So – who is Jesus? He is the Christ, the messiah, the Son of God. The things that the gospel writers wrote about him were written so that we might believe – and in believing – we might have life in his name. Amen
Tuesday, July 21 2015
Pastor Becca Ehrlich
A friend of mine attended a funeral for a friend’s mother. She told me how the funeral was pretty standard, for the most part—prayers, a sermon, all the normal parts of the service were there, all done in good order… until the pastor got up after one of the hymns. He stood up, walked over to the microphone and said “Let us all say together the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord is my shepherd….” Knowing full well the pastor had made a mistake, my friend looked around to see the shock on peoples’ faces. But what shocked her even more was that, once people got over the initial dismay of the pastor making the mistake, most joined in the words of the 23rd psalm regardless. Just as they knew the words of the Lord’s Prayer from memory, they also knew the words from this psalm.
And if we spoke to most Christians, I think that the results would be the same. The 23rd psalm is one of the most read, most known, most memorized passages from the Bible. And it has staying power—generation after generation, most Christians have learned this passage and can recognize it quickly when it’s read. When we read the psalm a few minutes ago, how many of you nodded your head in recognition of the familiar words, or said “Oh, I know that one!” in your minds? Psalm 23 is so famous, people who don’t go to church or read the Bible know of it and recognize the words.
So what about this psalm makes it so timely? What makes it so famous? Why do we recognize the words to this psalm, when it is just one psalm out of 150? What do you all think??? ….
I think one of the reasons is that it’s short. Seriously! No one wants to memorize a long Bible passage. But there’s more to it than that, of course. There are other Bible passages that are much shorter that most people wouldn’t recognize. The shortest sentence in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” And you don’t hear people quoting THAT on a regular basis!
No, I think the reason that Psalm 23 has an incredible amount of staying power is much deeper. This short psalm—and it is short, only 6 verses—concisely and poetically describes how God acts in our world. So often we wonder how God is acting in our world and in our lives—and this 23rd psalm helps to answer that question: “What is God doing??”
In the first few verses, the psalmist tells us how God provides for us. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, and leads me beside still waters.” The words of this psalm tell us that God is our shepherd, our guide. We are God’s flock and God leads us. God provides us with guidance, and gives us what we need. And God leads us to green pastures—for sheep, that means God provides us food—and beside still waters—God provides us water to drink.
Even more than that, still waters are usually deep waters. Running water tends to be relatively shallow—but deep water, that’s usually still. With deep water comes the danger of drowning. But God leads us beside the deep water. God protects us from the dangers of drowning. Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by all of the things going on in our lives. But God protects us from drowning in the deeps waters, sends us help by way of others people, or events, or direct intervention.
What else in Psalm 23 tells us what God is doing? The psalmist says: “He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his name’s sake.” God is again the guide, showing us which paths to take. If there are right pathways, then that means there are wrong pathways. God keeps us on those right pathways, the ones we should be on. And God does it for God’s name’s sake—in God’s name, God’s provides us guidance on which paths in life to take.
And God revives our souls, that spiritual part of us. Sometimes we’re like a cup of coffee. When you go out to eat, you can get a hot cup coffee. And it’s steaming, warms up our hands when we hold the cup, and you can feel the warmth go down your throat as you drink it. But after a while, the coffee gets lukewarm. And after a longer time, the coffee gets cold. But when the waiter or waitress comes by, they offer a refill—“Would you like a warm up?”-- and new hot coffee is poured into the cup. And the coffee is hot again, steaming and ready to drink.
We’re like that cup of coffee spiritually. We may start out on fire and excited and ready to do things for God, but after a while the enthusiasm starts to fade. We become lukewarm, or even cold. We need God to fill us with that hot coffee again, give us that “warm up,” that fire and enthusiasm to love God and love others. The psalmist reminds us that God refills our souls.
What else does the 23rd psalm tell us about what God is doing? In the next few verses, we hear of God’s presence and comfort when we are in times of trouble. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Walking through the valley of the shadow of death? That sounds horrible. When I was younger and I heard this psalm and we got to that line, I used to picture death as a shadow, stalking me as I walked through a never-ending valley. (Animate) Needless to say, it was a scary image for me.
I taught a class a few years ago, and we looked at the book 3 Colors of Our Spirituality. And in the workbook for the class, the author Christian Schwartz describes what many saints and mystics have called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” As we go through life, and especially during times of spiritual growth, we end up in a valley, like how the psalmist described it—a valley of the shadow of death, a dark valley. These valleys are necessary for our spiritual growth, but, well, they stink. We end up in this low point of our lives, and it feels like we’ll never get out of it, it will never end. But the psalmist also says that there’s no need for fear in these valleys, because God is there in the valley with us. God is leading us and guiding us, comforting us along the way.
I had a very deep and dark valley during my life 9 years ago. Shortly after moving to Philadelphia and becoming a children and youth director at a Lutheran congregation, I began to realize that God was calling me to be a pastor. And the more I followed that call, and took the first steps in pursuing ordination in the Lutheran church, the worse my life got. I was engaged to be married at the time, we had been together almost 3 years, and my fiancé decided that he couldn’t handle marrying someone who was going to be a pastor, so he broke off the engagement. A week later, my car was stolen outside of the church I worked at. Family and friends, shocked at my new life path, backed away. I felt alone, rejected, and angry at God.
But the story doesn’t end there. Although that time in the valley was awful, God didn’t abandon me. God was still there, guiding me on the path I was supposed to take. I could have said forget it, and abandoned my call—and quite frankly, it would have made my life easier, at least in the short-term—but I felt God’s call so strongly during that valley time, felt God guiding me where I needed to go, and so I knew God was there and was leading me even when I felt horrible. And knowing that God was there, feeling God’s presence and God’s leading—comforted me, even when I hated what was going on in my life.
And now, looking back, I learned a lot about myself and about my relationship with God during that valley time. I learned that I can only be with someone who is supportive of my calling (and God sent him to me many years later! Thank you God for my husband Will!). And I also learned that God does not abandon God’s children. My life felt awful at the time, but God helped me go through that awfulness, and kept me on the path God had laid out for me. The psalmist’s words have become my words—though I walked through that valley, I didn’t fear evil, because God was with me, and God’s guidance comforted me.
What else is God doing? The 23rd psalm also tells us of God’s promises for us. “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.” Even though the psalmist is surrounded by enemies, God promises a feast, a wonderful meal. God shows us hospitality even when others do not. And we are told that God anoints us with oil, and fills our cup to overflowing. Anointing with oil is a sign of being chosen, being special, being royalty. We are sons and daughters of the King, chosen by God, and filled to the brim with God’s presence and love.
God’s promises continue: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
One day when I was walking in the neighborhood around my church in Philadelphia, I was rooting around in my pocket for my chapstick. I found it and applied it and then stuffed it back in my pocket and kept walking. Shortly after that, I heard a kid yell, “Hey you!” I ignored him. I had had situations in the past where neighborhood kids had harassed me because I stood out in the neighborhood. I kept walking. “Hey you!” he yelled louder. I realized he was following me. I walked faster. He kept following me. I walked as fast as I could, almost breaking into a run. Finally he caught up with me. Huffing and puffing, he held out his hand. In it was a 5 dollar bill. “You dropped this!” he said.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.” The Hebrew word that is translated as “follow” is closer to the word “pursue.” Goodness and mercy pursue us. We can try to run away, like I did with the neighborhood kid, but God’s love and mercy will always pursue us. That kid was going to give me that money back, no matter what. God pursues us with love and mercy and goodness.
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I find this last line describing God’s promise to us maybe the most comforting part of the whole psalm. Maybe it’s because the buildings we live in and worship in get old and start to wear down. Doors break. Blinds and shades cease to work. Toilets overflow. It seems like there’s something to fix, all the time.
But God’s house never wears down. In the 14th chapter of John, Jesus tells the disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you there myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Jesus is preparing a place for us in God’s eternal house, and is even taking us there so that we can live there with him, forever. We will be with Jesus, in God’s house of infinite rooms, always. It’s the perfect ending to the psalm—and to our lives. We will be with Jesus forever, living in his love and goodness and mercy.
It’s all there—no wonder we know and love this psalm! God providing for us, reviving us when we need a spiritual “warm-up”, comforting us and leading us in times of trouble, and promising us life and mercy and love forever-- what more could we possibly need?? God is everything to us. And we will always be God’s beloved children— living in God’s house, forever. Amen.
Monday, July 13 2015
Pastor Becca Ehrlich
During one of the Alpha Course videoed talks, Nicky Gumbel tells a story of a woman who attended a church one Sunday. It was a church in Central London that was a very formal church and was very formal in how they worshipped. And there was a woman who had just became a Christian, and she was just really excited about how she was experiencing God’s presence. And in the middle of the service she shouted out, `Hallelujah!’ And the head usher was standing at the back, and he came and he tapped her on the shoulder and he said, `Madam, you mustn’t say that here!’ And she said, `But I’m so excited!’ she said, `I’ve got religion!’ He said, `Well, you didn’t get it here, madam.’
Worshipping joyfully. We know what worship means—honoring and reverencing God. We know what joy means—deep delight and gladness. But what does it look like when we put the two together? What does it mean to worship joyfully?
For the Quakers, worshipping joyfully is sitting in silence and waiting for the Holy Spirit to move some of those people present to speak the words that God wants said. I went to a Quaker meeting one time, and it was very clear to me that the meeting room—the only way I can think to describe it was that it was quietly humming--- with God’s presence and the joy the people received from worshipping.
For the church I was a field education student at, an inner-city African-American Lutheran congregation, worshipping joyfully looked very much like that woman in Nicky Gumbel’s story. I first learned to lead worship and preach in this community, where the worshippers felt free to shout out words and phrases during songs, prayers, and the sermon, where people stood when they felt moved, swayed to the music, clapped when they felt they needed to. There was no judgment—people were accepting of many different ways to worship God.
For King David, worshipping joyfully at that moment was singing and dancing with all his might as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the city of Jerusalem. The Ark was considered God’s presence among the people, and in God’s presence David worshipped and let loose with God’s people around him, doing the same. There was singing. There were a whole host of instruments being played. There were sacrifices to God. There was tasty food for everyone to eat. And there was dancing! Twice, it says that David wasn’t just dancing, but “dancing with all his might.” It also says that he was jumping too. With only a loin cloth on.
But David didn’t care that he was almost naked. He was so into his worship of God that he didn’t care what he looked like—he just worshipped the way he felt he needed to. In that respect, he took worship to a whole new level. I think we can agree that most of the time, even in worship, we have that subconscious worry of what we look like, how others view us. We worry that we will look out of place, ridiculous, different.
But what’s so interesting about David is that he didn’t care. He was going to worship God with his whole being, no matter what!
Now I want you to think about a time something really amazing and great happened to you. It could be anything. Something that made you feel like you were on top of the world. Remember that feeling? What did it feel like…?
Now imagine right after that wonderful time someone comes up to you and tells you that you actually stunk up the place, that everyone is actually laughing at you and has no respect for you. NOW how do you feel….?
That’s exactly what happened to David. He comes home, after having this amazing worship experience with the people in Jerusalem, he’s on a spiritual high. And his second wife, Michal, rips into him. It says that while David was dancing, oblivious to everything around him, Michal was watching him from the window, and she “was disgusted with him.” And boy, did she want to voice her disgust when he got home!
She mocks him, tells him that he made a spectacle of himself, that he was basically naked, looking like a fool in front of everyone, and that the maids of the big muck-a-mucks were gaping at him. “You looked ridiculous! What were you thinking???”
It’s important to note that the Bible never actually tells us why Michal despised David when she saw him dancing. We can infer from her outburst, though, that one of the reasons is probably that she was worried about how other people viewed David, and by extension herself. She totally missed the point of David letting loose and worshipping before God with everything he had, and leading others in that joyful worship. She was more worried about what it made them look like to others.
In fact, it sounds like the whole city was out there celebrating, singing and dancing with David. Michal, on the other hand, was holed up in the house, looking out the window and glaring at David. She would rather be miserable and judge others for their joyful worship than actually participate herself.
But David gives it right back to Michal. He reminds her that he was chosen to be king of God’s chosen people, the Israelites, over her father Saul. And he tells her that he doesn’t care what she says—he’s going to continue dancing to honor the Lord, even if it disgraces him more (the word used in other Bible translations is “undignified.” I love that, because it means David isn’t a king that worries about looking dignified and proper in front of the people and the officials—he’s gonna worship the way he’s moved to do so! Imagine if a member of the British royalty took that stance! Can you imagine Queen Elizabeth dancing with all her might??).
And this argument clearly had a big impact on both of them, because Michal never had children—a HUGE issue in that time, because the main role women were supposed to fill was mother. Is it because God was not happy with her outburst and kept her from procreating? Or is it because one or even both of them withheld marital relations? We don’t know, the Bible doesn’t say. Either way, this argument about worshipping joyfully was not just some flash in a pan. It had important consequences.
Contrary to a quick read of this story, this is not some random Bible passage that has nothing to do with us today. Arguments about what it means to worship joyfully, worries of how we look to others, and tensions in relationships are timeless. They are part of our human existence.
But, it doesn’t stop there. We can learn quite a bit from this story of David and the people of Jerusalem and Michal.
One thing is that when we argue about what worshipping joyfully looks like, there are probably other things going on in the background as well. What I mean is, if you have tension in a congregation about worship, or anything else, it’s usually aggravated by other tensions in peoples’ lives—problems at work, family problems, or other unrelated problems in the congregation.
Take Michal, for example. She and David had a checkered past. Michal, one of Saul’s daughters, fell in love with David. Saul saw it as an opportunity to try to get David killed. He told David that he’d have to kill 100 Philistines in order to marry Michal—and Saul assumed David would die in the process. David was successful, however, and he and Michal were married. She loved him so much that she later helped David escape from her own father’s troops. But later in the story, Saul decides to give her as a wife to another man, so she had to leave David and go be married to another guy.
Well, after David finally wins and Saul is dead, in both a political and a personal move, he demands that he get Michal back as his wife. Michal’s second husband follows her almost all the way, crying the whole time, until David’s commander tells him to get lost. It never says in the Bible how Michal felt about all this, but I can imagine she wasn’t thrilled to be taken away from a husband that loved her so much he followed her all the way crying. And then we don’t hear anything else about Michal, until this story.
So, with all of that going on, is it any wonder that Michal was feeling some tension between herself and David? And that pent-up emotion seems to have exploded out when she was chastising him for his joyful worship. We do that, too. When we have conflict or tension in one aspect of our lives, it can play out in another area. And one arena it can sometimes play out in is over worship.
But another thing we learn from this passage is that there will always be someone wanting to complain about a joyful worship experience. There will always be a Michal. It didn’t matter that David had felt incredibly close to God and helped the people in Jerusalem also feel close to God, it didn’t matter that they were worshipping joyfully all throughout the city—she didn’t like what was going on and cared more about what people thought rather than the joyful experience of God’s presence. Because that type of worship experience didn’t work for her, she didn’t want anyone else to experience it.
And that’s incredibly important to remember today— there are many different ways of worshipping God. All types of worship services aren’t for everyone, obviously. That’s why here at Zion we actually have three different types of worship services during the year, and two during the summer! Everyone connects with God in different ways, and certain types of worship will speak to some people while other types speak to other people.
But what’s most important is that we worship joyfully, and that we offer as many different opportunities to do so as we can, so that as many people as possible are able to experience God in a way that feels right to them. And within those opportunities, we are open to the fact that people can worship however they are moved to do so. If you’re moved to clap during a song, do it! If you are moved to lift your hands in prayer or in praise, do it! If you are moved to sit in the pew and pray silently on your own, do it! The point of worship is to spend time with God, in community. So we should be able to do it how the Spirit moves us to!
So, with God’s help, we try not to be a Michal and judge people here at Zion and in other congregations based on how they worship. As long as they (and we) are worshipping joyfully and experiencing God—it’s all good! They or we could be letting loose and dancing up a storm like David, or shouting and clapping like the people at my field education congregation, or sitting quietly and listening for God like the Quakers. Let’s leave room here at Zion for those who want to worship joyfully, however the Holy Spirit may be moving them to do so. YOU are free to worship here, however the Spirit moves you!
When we worship joyfully, we celebrate that God is present with us! We celebrate that God gave us the gift of every breath we take! We celebrate all of the blessings God gives to us in our lives! We celebrate that God loves us and is with us every step of the way! We celebrate those people God places in our lives to help us on our journey! We celebrate the gathering of people here, in this place, worshipping our God! We celebrate the ability God has given us to sing, to clap, to play instruments, and even dance!
Let’s worship joyfully and celebrate all of that, and more!!!Amen!
Monday, July 06 2015
Pastor Randy Milleville
As most of you know, I grew up in Niagara Falls. I went to a Lutheran church in a town outside of Niagara Falls called Bergholz. Anybody here ever hear of it? It’s a small town, about half an hour away from here. Two churches. Both Lutheran. And that’s a tale for another time.
I have been back to preach at my home church four times now. The first time was when I was still in seminary. I got a call from the president of the church council inviting me to preach. When I got off the phone, I said to my beloved wife Nancy, “I’ve just been invited to preach up at St. James. With my luck the text will be, “a prophet is not welcome in his home town.”
A few moments later, I heard a shriek from the other room. Nancy had looked up the text for that day. And yes – it was this one. A prophet is not welcome in his home town. You see, here’s the challenge of preaching in your home congregation. They remember you – and the things you said – and the things you did – growing up – especially in a small town like Bergholz – a small town not unlike Clarence Center – where everyone knows you – and where everyone’s related. Where one woman came up to me and said, “I will always remember you as a little boy.”
I suspect something like that happened to Jesus the day he went back to his home town of Nazareth. You see, they know him. They watched him grow up. And they’re saying things like, “Where did he get all this wisdom to teach? And by what power does he do all these amazing things? Just who does this guy think he is? He’s become just a little too big for his britches.” And the text says that he was amazed at their unbelief.
In this episode in the life of Jesus and his disciples, Jesus brings Good News – the Good News of God’s love and grace to the very place where he was familiar and where he was well known. And it appears that not too many people accepted either him or his message. Familiarity breeds contempt kind of thing.
And that’s what I want to talk about with you today. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are Good News people. We’ve got Good News to tell others about. And it’s all about Jesus. It’s all about God’s love – and forgiveness. It’s about a way of life. And I don’t know how any of you feel about this – but for me being a Christian is just – well it’s just a great way to live. It’s a great way of life.
But here’s what we have to deal with. Not everyone is going to believe our message. Not everyone is going to be accepting of God’s Good News in Jesus Christ. And quite often – quite often – those who are most reluctant to believe the message just might be members of our own family – the people who know us the best.
Now I find it interesting that Jesus’ encounter with the hometown folks – and their rejection of him and his message – is followed immediately with Jesus sending his disciples out on their own to bring the Good News to other villages and towns. And he lets them know up front – “Hey guys! Before you go, I just want to let you know. Not everyone will accept your message. And when that happens – wipe the dirt off from your feet as a witness against them.”
Now I’m not sure I could do that. Because I don’t ever want to give up on anybody.
I like the story told by Josh McDowell. “An executive hirer, a ‘head-hunter’ who goes out and hires corporation executives for other firms, once told me, ‘When I get an executive that I'm trying to hire for someone else, I like to disarm him. I offer him a drink, take my coat off, then my vest, undo my tie, throw up my feet and talk about baseball, football, family, whatever, until he's all relaxed. Then, when I think I've got him relaxed, I lean over, look him square in the eye and say, ‘What's your purpose in life?’ It's amazing how top executives fall apart at that question.
“‘Well, I was interviewing this fellow the other day, had him all disarmed, with my feet up on his desk, talking about football. Then I leaned over and said, ‘What's your purpose in life, Bob?’ And he said, without blinking an eye, ‘To go to heaven and to take as many people with me as I can.’
“For the first time in my career I was speechless.”
I know. I’ve told you that story before. But as your pastor – and as disciples of Jesus Christ – I want to ask you, what’s your purpose in life? It would be my strong hope that you would see – at least as part of your purpose – as a father – as a mother – as a son or a daughter – a sister, a brother – a neighbor, a friend – no matter how you see your role in life – that you would be concerned not only about going to heaven some day, but also taking as many people with you as you can.
Now it’s not always an easy task. I get that. People have to be ready to hear the Good News. You’re never going to argue anyone into the Kingdom. You can’t shame them in. You can’t force anyone to believe. So what can you do?
Well, here’s what you can do. Nothing beats the love of Christ coming through the hearts – the minds – the lives of fully committed disciples of Jesus Christ. So love the ones you’re trying to reach. If they won’t believe your words – then show them – show them what the love of Christ looks like in action.
Then when the moment is right, tell them about Jesus. What does that other person believe about Jesus? Who was he? At the risk of sounding like a broken record – who was he? Legend, liar, lunatic or Lord? Tell people not just what you believe – but why you believe. Tell them why you believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ just cannot possibly be a story that could have been made up. Tell them that all efforts at explaining away the resurrection of Jesus as a myth or a lie fall flat on their faces.
And you know what? No matter how much they argue with you about how they can’t possibly believe that stuff – that God stuff – that Jesus stuff – that stuff in the Bible – then just tell them what your experience of Jesus has been. You tell them what He has done for you. They might try to argue with you on every other point. But no one can take your experience of the risen Christ – and what He has done for you – no one can take that away from you.
So the message of The Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ is one more reason why church matters. And sometimes we forget what we as the church are all about. Some folks think that the church is all about getting their needs met. And quite frankly – I hope that by being here – by being a part of this faith community that whatever your needs are – that we – to the extent that that is our duty and are capable of doing it – that you are getting certain needs met.
But let me tell you something. Getting your needs met – or me getting my needs met – is not our primary task.
Sometimes we get so focused on meeting people’s very real – and sometimes their perceived needs – that we forget to keep the main thing the main thing. We really have only two tasks as the church. And they belong together. To share the Good News (the big church word for that is evangelism), and to make disciples of those who have been evangelized. That’s it. Everything we do – from keeping the bushes trimmed and the weeds pulled – to keeping the bathrooms clean – to welcoming people when they walk through our doors – everything we do in worship – and Sunday School – and pastoral care – to having a hot cup of coffee or tea in the coffee house – just everything we do should have either or both an evangelism or a disciple making focus to it.
And the best way to get started is to show people that we care. That we truly, genuinely care about them.
There’s a story I heard years ago, that goes something like this. There was this nurse in World War II working with wounded soldiers in a make shift hospital. A reporter happened by, and watched her tending wounds. Sometimes the wounds were already infected and created a terrible smell. The reporter said to her, “I wouldn’t do that for a million bucks.” And the nurse replied, “Neither would I. But I would do it for Jesus.”
Folks, we’ve got a story to tell. But before we tell the story, people need to know that we care about them. And that we care about them in the name of Jesus. As I have told you numerous times over the years, people won’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.
You know, it’s sometimes tough for a preacher to preach in his or her hometown. Sometimes it’s tough for anyone of us to share the Good News with the folks who have known you all your life. There are a couple of you in this church who knew me back when. Elementary school. High school. I’m glad there’s no one here who knew me in college!
But, you know what! So what! So what! It doesn’t matter if I was a saint or a sinner – because truth be told I was both. And I still am – both saint and sinner. But the messenger does not diminish the message. The messenger does not get in the way of the message. In fact – that familiarity that you have with the folks you want to share the Good News message with – and that they have with you – the people who know everything there is to know about you – warts and all – that knowledge about you and who you are – will actually make your story more believable.
So if you find your purpose in life is to go to heaven and to take as many people with you as you can, then be honest about who you are. Don’t be afraid to tell the story about this God who loves you. No matter what your life might have been like at one time – don’t be afraid to tell the story of how Jesus has touched your heart and changed your life.
In fact, your story to the people who know you the best just might go something like this: “You see who I am. You know who I was. Jesus made the difference.”