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Tuesday, April 26 2016
I grew up reading lots of book, but the ones I remember the most were Dr. Seuss’ stories-- anyone else love his books? My parents would read me the famous books you know, Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, all those—but we also read some of the less known books that he wrote.
One of those stories was The Sneetches. Anyone read that one before…? The Sneetches are tall, yellow creatures who live on beaches. In Seuss' story these creatures are divided into two groups: those who have green stars on their bellies, and those who don't have green stars. The green-starred Sneetches, the Star-Bellies, comprise the "in-crowd." They build exclusive campfires around which they sing their little songs. The Sneetches without green stars on their bellies, the Non-Star Bellies, are the outsiders. They are the losers.
But one day, "a fix-it-up chappy" named Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town with a strange contraption called a Star-On machine. For a mere three dollars, Sneetches can line up and get green stars on their bellies. Naturally, all the no-star Sneetches jump at this chance. The in-crowd Sneetches are no longer distinct; this upsets them very much. But Sylvester McMonkey McBean also has a Star-Off machine. For ten dollars you can get your star, which defined you as an "in" person, removed, thus distinguishing yourself anew.
This back-and-forth escalates until, as Dr. Seuss says, "Neither the Plain nor the Star -Bellies knew whether this one was that one or that one was this one or which one was what one or what one was who."
Star-Bellies and Sneetches aside, it’s a familiar story. If I took a poll (which I’m not going to!) and asked-- who has ever felt excluded before?-- I am pretty sure almost everyone, if not everyone, would raise their hand.
Because, sadly, humans thrive on being in the “in-crowd.” We like knowing all the information, we like belonging to a group that others don’t.
And when we aren’t in that “in-crowd”, when we are the ones outside of that inner circle, what does it feel like…? We feel left out, like a loser, like those Sneetches that didn’t have a star-belly.
On the flip side, though, when we ARE in the “in-crowd”, what usually happens…? Yeah, we want to stay in that group at all costs, and usually, well, that means keeping others out. There’s something special about having a group of your own that has in-jokes and secrets and all that. And when others start coming in, it can feel like the group isn’t special anymore. So, we become like the Sneetches who originally had stars on their bellies—and when the other Sneetches who were outsiders began putting stars on, the in-crowd Sneetches wanted to take theirs off as fast as they could.
I know this comes as a complete shocker, but none of this is new. We’ve got a similar situation on our hands in chapter 11 of Acts.
Before our reading in Acts begins, in chapter 11 Peter just visited Cornelius, a Roman soldier. God sent Peter there, and not only did Peter hang out with Cornelius, but also a bunch of Cornelius’ friends. Peter ate with them, told them about Jesus, and they became believers, received the Holy Spirit, and were baptized. Pretty awesome, right?
The thing is, the early Church leaders did NOT find this awesome, which is where we pick up the story in chapter 11. Peter and the Church leaders were Jews, and all the people who believed in Jesus were Jews because Jesus was… Jewish. And Cornelius and his friends were Gentiles, or non-Jews. Jewish law said that Jewish people were not allowed to associate with Gentiles.
So they had their in-crowd of righteous Jewish believers, with their own laws and rules. They weren’t allowed to talk to or eat with anyone else. You may have heard about the eating rules from the time Jesus ate with “sinners” or people who were considered unrighteous, like prostitutes and tax collectors. The religious leaders went postal.
So, you could say, the Jewish people at the time were Star-Bellied Sneetches—and the Jews who believed in Jesus were a smaller subset of that Star-Bellied group. They were OK with Jews like them joining when they started believing in Jesus—but people outside of the Star-Bellies? No way!
This in-crowd mentality with Jesus’ early followers is actually pretty ironic. Why? For two reasons. One reason is that Jesus was all about including outsiders. He had conversations with Nicodemus, one of the strict Pharisees, or Jewish leaders at the time, and they were clearly against many of the things Jesus taught at the time. He talked with and healed Samaritans, foreign outsiders to the Jews, and told stories that had them as heroes (Good Samaritan, anyone??). As we already mentioned, he hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other people on the fringes of society. Jesus was all about including those who were considered “losers.”
The other ironic part? Check this out. In Jesus’ time and the time of the early Church, the in-crowd for society as a whole was actually those who WEREN’T Jewish. The Greeks and Romans-- those were the important people who had all the power. The Jews didn’t. So the Jews made their OWN in-crowd, so they didn’t feel like losers. It’s a vicious cycle really—when people are excluded from one in-crowd, they make their own in-crowd, and so on and so on.
So it’s not surprising that the early Jesus followers who were Jewish made their own in-crowd—because they were sick of being on the outside, being the outsiders. The sad part is, by making their own in-crowd or Star-Belly group, they also made it so there were non-Star Belly people outside of their group.
This brings us back Acts, chapter 11. The early Church leaders, the Star-Bellies you could say, have just heard Peter hung out and ate with non Star-Bellies. And not only that, Peter welcomed these outsiders into their Star-Bellied group. They are upset, because they have made their in-crowd in reaction to the Greek and Roman in-crowd and the Jewish in-crowd they can’t break into themselves. They criticize Peter, asking him why he hung out with people who are not in THEIR in-crowd, who are not allowed to be associated with.
But Peter explains his vision, and that God told him not to put up walls between Gentiles and Jews. And he says “The Spirit told me to go with them and not make a distinction between them and us.” Peter recognized that the walls that had been built between the two groups had to come down, because of what God was doing.
And Peter explains that they received the Holy Spirit and believed, just like the Jewish believers had. He tells the leaders, “If God gave them the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
And the leaders are stunned. What’s their first reaction…? (vs. 18) Yeah, silence. As I like to say, Peter just blew their minds. They were so used to thinking that they were the Star-Bellies in this situation, and clearly God was now including people not like them, people who had been part of the OTHER Star-Belly insider group. What were they to do?
Well, after the shocked silence, they praised God! Like Peter, they recognized God was doing a new and amazing thing! God was giving all types of people the gift of faith in Jesus! How cool is that??
This story isn’t just something that happened once, in the Bible. This story is happening all the time, today.
We make Star-Belly insider groups, and God blows those walls down and invites everyone to have a relationship with Jesus.
Now, you might be saying, what do you mean, we make insider groups?? Well, I would argue that many times, churches become an insider group. They become like an exclusive club, with their own language, practices, and culture. Lots of times, we don’t do it on purpose. It just becomes that way—because we know what’s going on, we know each other, are comfortable with each other.
And knowing each other is great, don’t get me wrong. That’s one of the things God calls us to do! But sometimes, we are so wrapped up in knowing each other, that we forget that other calling from God—to break down those walls that separate the insiders from the outsiders and help all types of people have a relationship with Jesus, so that they, too, can experience his love for themselves.
And what does that look like? Well, for starters, it’s about loving all people. Jesus loves all people, everyone—and because Jesus loves all people, and Jesus loves us, we are able to love others. No holds barred, no barriers. It’s that groovy ‘70’s Christian song-- “They’ll know we are Christians by our love!”
That means, we love anyone who comes through those church doors. No matter what they’re wearing, what they look like, how they talk or act. We want everyone to be able to experience Jesus’ presence and love.
It also means that everything we do at Zion has to do with those who aren’t here yet. It means not just thinking about the Star-Belliers, but the non Star-Bellies as well. It means every decision we make, everything our ministries do, have to not only take into account the people here, but also the people outside of these walls, who have yet to know the amazing love of Jesus.
God says in our Revelation passage for today, chapter 21verse 5, “See, I am making all things new.”
That’s not just in the past, or in the future. God is making things new, right now. God is making YOU new, God is making ZION new, God is making our WORLD new. And that means new ways of thinking, new ways of talking, new ways of worshipping, new ways of praising God, new ways of people coming to Jesus. And God is doing it all!
“Who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter asks. Who was he, indeed?? And who were the leaders, and the followers of Jesus, to hinder God?? When God is doing something new, we are usually in shock, like those leaders first were. They were silent.
But then they praised God for the new thing God was doing! Like Peter, they were able to see that God was doing something completely new, completely wonderful by bringing outsiders in.
My prayer is that WE are able to do the same. I pray that we are able to see the new wind God is blowing and to praise God for it-- and help God in it. The Holy Spirit is doing amazing and new things here at Zion and in our lives—let’s praise God for these new ways and ask God “What can we do to help???” Amen?
Tuesday, April 19 2016
September 11th, 2001. A date that everyone here knows. A date that we as Americans will always know, even the generations after us will know, because of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It’s the same reason everyone knows “the date that will live in infamy”—December 7, 1941 because…? Right, the attack on Pearl Harbor.
These events are a big deal to us as a nation because we do not get attacked on our own soil very often. By and large, at least from outside threats, we live in a pretty safe country. Other countries in our world are pretty much at war with each other on a regular basis, and sadly, events like this are more commonplace in those countries. According to the Christian Science Monitor, only 1 in 3.5 million people in America have died from a terrorist attack. 1 in 3.5 MILLION. That’s incredibly rare. So here in America, when something like this happens, it’s SO rare that we are shocked into remembering these dates that will live in infamy.
These tragic events also remind us that death happens, sometimes senselessly. When you turn on the news, what kind of stories do you usually see…? Murders. Terrorist attacks. People dying in natural disasters. People dying in wars. Death is almost always the headliner. In my “News Media in America” class in college, I learned the phrase that most news journalists learn very quickly in the biz: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
And even though we hear about it in the media constantly, we avoid death like the plague. Even in the best circumstances, we don’t like to deal with death. We don’t like to talk about it, or even think about it. We usually go out of our way to avoid it. We use phrases like “he passed away”, “she passed on” “so-and-so is gone” or “so-and-so is no longer with us”, just so we don’t have to use the word “died.”
Because, although death happens to everyone eventually, we don’t like to acknowledge the fact that those we love and even ourselves at some point will die.
As Woody Allen once said: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Why do we avoid dealing with death? I think it’s mostly because this is all we know. We have only lived in this world, so far. We don’t really know what happens when we die. If asked, we would say that when someone dies, if they are a believer they go to be with Jesus, but what does that actually look like? What does it actually feel like to die? We don’t know. And no one who’s died can tell us because, well, they’re dead. And when we are unsure of something, how do we usually react…?
Fear. Most of us, whether we admit it or not, are scared of death. We are scared of things relating to death, and we are scared to die.
Some fear of death is healthy—it helps us to make good decisions. If we weren’t afraid of death, we would be doing things like sky diving without checking the parachute pack, or running in front of cars with our friends just to see who stays alive. In short, if we weren’t afraid of death, we would be doing stupid stuff on a regular basis that would eventually kill us.
But fear of death can also be unhealthy. It can stop us from taking some healthy risks that would actually be good for us. It can stop us from doing things and having conversations that should happen. Just a few examples of things we don’t do because we are scared of thinking and talking about death, but should do: writing a will, having life insurance, making plans for the care of loved ones when we die. Our fear of death can actually keep us from doing things that are important and need to be done.
Another way we sometimes deal with our discomfort about death is humor. Laughing. Sounds really inappropriate, but many times the things we are uncomfortable with end up as topics of jokes.
Marvin was in the hospital on his death bed. The family called Marvin’s pastor to be with him in his final moments. As the pastor stood by the bed, Marvin’s condition seemed to deteriorate, and Marvin motioned for someone to quickly pass him a pen and paper. The pastor quickly got a pen and paper and lovingly handed it to Marvin. But before she had a chance to read the note, Marvin died. The pastor, feeling that now wasn’t the right time to read it, put the note in her pants pocket.
It was at the funeral while speaking that the pastor suddenly remembered the note. Reaching deep into her pocket (apparently she hadn’t washed her pants in the days in between), the pastor said “and you know what, I suddenly remembered that right before Marvin died he handed me a note, and knowing Marvin I’m sure it was something inspiring that we can all gain from.” With that introduction she pulled out the note and opened it.
The note said “HEY, YOU ARE STANDING ON MY OXYGEN TUBE!”
See? Death can be amusing. We usually call it “dark humor.”
The thing is, though, no matter how much we remind ourselves that death is a part of life, and no matter how many jokes we tell about death, there is still that uneasiness about death. We are still afraid of death.
This isn’t new. People throughout all of history have been afraid of death. People in Jesus’ time were afraid of death. Jesus knew this. Jesus also knew that people needed to hear the Good News that death isn’t the end of the story.
Jesus tells us this many times in Scripture, and our Gospel reading from John is one of those times. Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them from my hand.”
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”
Now, clearly, Jesus doesn’t mean that we will live forever in our earthly lives. That we know. We know that someday, we will stop breathing, our heart will stop beating, and we will no longer be alive.
But Jesus is talking about a different type of life. Jesus is telling us that, although we will die here on earth, those who have faith in him will continue to be alive, in eternal life. Because he died for us on the cross, and was raised from the dead, we are able to share in Jesus’ resurrection when we die-- and we will have eternal life with Jesus. Forever.
The author of the Book of Hebrews in the Bible also says something that’s really amazing. I’m going to read The Message version. This is Hebrews, chapter 2, verses 14 and 15: “Since [God’s] children are flesh and blood, it’s logical that the Savior took on flesh and blood to rescue them by his death. By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil’s hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death.”
So although death is inevitable, it does not have the last word. Jesus has destroyed Satan’s hold on death, and has freed us from being afraid of death.
We no longer have to be scared of death—we know that, no matter what happens, we will be with Jesus. Jesus has conquered death by being raised from the dead, and we, too, will be raised to be with him. Jesus is the one who offers us this eternal life, this resurrection, this life after death in which we will be held in his love always and forever.
A few days before his death, Dr. F. B. Meyer wrote a very close friend these words: "I have just heard, to my great surprise, that I have but a few days to live. It may be that before this reaches you, I shall have entered the palace. Don't trouble to write. We shall meet in the morning."
We, too, will meet our loved ones “in the morning”, when we die. We will see those who have died before us. When we are raised to eternal life with Jesus, we will see all those beloved family members and friends who we miss. I know that someday, when I die, I will see my son Gideon again. He is with Jesus now, and when I go home to be with Jesus, I will be with Gideon too.
And when we do eventually go home to be with Jesus, we will be able to be with God fully and completely. We will have no pain, no discomfort. All will be perfect.
I’m going to end with the last three verses of the passage from Revelation that we read today. The words describe what we have to look forward to when we die and are brought to eternal life, when God brings the new heaven and new earth to us. And when reading it, I’m actually going to change the pronouns “they”, “their,” and “them”, to the pronouns that describe us: “we” “our” and “us”-- because John is talking about us and our future with God in Christ Jesus. Listen to the amazing promise God has for us when we die:
For this reason we are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter us.
16 We will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike us,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb [that’s Jesus] at the center of the throne will be our shepherd,
and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”
Tuesday, April 12 2016
John 21:1-19; Revelation 5:11-14
So let me ask you a question. What are you doing here today? I know that you know that I know that we could all be somewhere else right now – doing – something else right now. So, why are you here? What are your expectations? Okay, that’s more than one question, but you get the idea.
Anybody? It’s okay. You can talk to me. And as I tell you all the time these days – use your playground voice. Why are you here? [Listen for, and repeat the answers.] How many of you are here because your parents made you come?
Does it surprise you that I even ask the question? It seems that we’ve come here for a variety of reasons. And all of them are valid. But may I suggest to you that the primary reason we are – at least the primary reason why I hope you are here today – is to worship. To enter into this place – this holy place –to focus on God – to worship God – to give honor and glory to God.
By definition that is what worship is. It is something that we offer to God. Praise. Thanksgiving. Giving God the honor and respect due His name.
The very word “worship” comes from the old English word “worth ship.” Worth ship. To give worth to. Sometimes we sing, “Worthy is Christ the lamb who was slain.” By the way, if you’ve ever wondered where those words come from, they are right out of the book of Revelation. The reading that we just heard a few moments ago. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Those are worship words. Power – wealth – wisdom – might—honor – glory – blessing. And to whom do these worship words belong? Jesus! The problem is that we want those words for ourselves. Power, wealth, honor, glory and so forth. That’s what we want for ourselves. But worship – Christian worship says, “NO. These things belong to you Jesus, and we gladly – well, sometimes grudgingly – give them to you.”
So regardless of WHY you might be here today – what we are here to do right now is to experience God. To meet God. To enter into God’s presence. To meet Jesus here in this place. And sometimes that experience is a powerful thing. The music, the singing, Holy Communion – baptism – we have two baptisms [this weekend] [today]. And YES sometimes God even shows up in the preaching. But when it all comes together in a powerful way – then you know you’ve been to church. You know you’ve been in the presence of God.
I also know that sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Sometimes for a variety of reasons. Sometimes Pastor Becca and I are off our game. And we know that. Maybe things didn’t flow right – didn’t gel or come together. Or maybe, when we come here our hearts and our minds aren’t quite ready to receive what the Lord wants to give us. I don’t know. But I do know that sometimes the worship is flat. Thankfully – thankfully – that doesn’t happen a lot. And sometimes people go walking away saying, “I just didn’t get anything out of worship today.” Ah yes, I know what you mean, because I have felt that way too. Usually when I’m on vacation, and worshipping at some other church. Okay – that’s not actually true. Well, yeah – I mean – sometimes. But not all the time.
Anyway – the main reason we are here – at least the main reason why I hope we are here today – is to worship. That is what we have come to do. However, there is also a certain expectation that we have. When we come here to worship, we have a certain expectation that we will also take something away with us.
A Catholic priest once told me years ago that people are going to go where they are fed. So yeah – one expectation I have is that we – all of us – we will be fed. Maybe even inspired! You know – get our batteries recharged. AND – AND – to hear once again that our sins are forgiven. And to hear once again that you are standing in the presence of the God who loves you. To meet with friends – because – you know – I believe that God’s people want to be where God’s people are.
It’s all of this. But the main thing about worship is this: worship is primarily about God. It’s not about me, it’s not about Pastor Becca, it’s not about you. It’s about God. The challenge of worship is to give God the place he deserves and the place he desires in our hearts – in our lives – and in our homes. To put God at the center of everything that we are and everything that we do. That’s what worship is all about. Giving first place to God. Because, quite frankly, that which we love the most – is that which we are going to worship the most. Christian worship – is all about giving first place to God.
Lutheran pastor Michael Foss has written a book, Real Faith for Real Life, and in it, he says that worship – is not – an option. For Christians – worship is essential. Regular, weekly, coming together with other Christians for the purpose of worship is essential to a life of faith.
Now, I grew up in a home where we went to church every week. How many of you grew up in a home like that? Didn’t need to get up on a Sunday morning and ask if we were going to church. We were going, even – I remember – when I wanted to stay home and watch cartoons. It was a habit. A good habit. A holy habit. To the point where it no longer became a burden nor an obligation or a duty. I can’t stand talking about worship or any part of it as a duty. It’s something that I want to do. Something that I choose to do.
So kids, if you’re parents made you come here today – to be here with the church – then thank your parents for that. Thank them that they love you enough to make sure that you are here to meet the Lord. After all, they make you go to school, don’t they! They take you to the doctor or the dentist when you need to. They also bring you here to experience God along with everybody else who is here. Because we’re all here for the same reason. To worship God. To have an encounter with Jesus Christ. So be thankful that you have parents who love you enough to make sure that you are here.
Now having said all of that about worship – and meeting and encountering God here in this place – it is also true that this is not the only place where we can meet God – or where God can meet us.
Here’s what I want you to remember. And I say this all the time. Remember that Jesus promised that he would be with us always. Not just when you come here. SO – some of what happens here in this place – CAN happen in other places outside of these four walls.
Places where you can actually feel God’s presence. Places where you can feel the power and the presence and the touch of the Holy Spirit. So this isn’t the only place where we encounter God or have an experience with the risen Christ.
Like in our Gospel lesson today. There’s this encounter between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is risen from the dead. He has previously appeared to his disciples – as we learned last week – in what we call the Upper Room in Jerusalem.
Now, and for whatever reasons – the disciples have gone back to doing what they were doing before they met Jesus. They have gone fishing. Back to the familiar. Back to their comfort zones.
But they have an encounter with Jesus – who is now the risen Christ. They recognize him, and when they get their boat, their nets, and their catch of fish back to shore, they find that Jesus is there with a charcoal fire, with bread and fish ready for them to eat.
Now don’t miss this connection. The last time we read in the Scriptures that there was a charcoal fire was when Peter was in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas warming himself. And what does Peter do when he is at that charcoal fire? That’s right. He denies Jesus – how many times? Three times.
Now here on the shore of the Sea of Galilee there is another – charcoal fire. And how many times does Jesus ask Peter, “Do you love me?” That’s right. Three times. He denied Jesus three times – Jesus forgives him three times. Do you think that Peter got the message? And then Jesus calls Peter – and the other disciples – to come and follow him once again.
This encounter is an actual face to face experience with Jesus. But I want you to see that it does not happen within the context of a worship setting. It happens while the disciples are busy doing their everyday work.
Now, we don’t have the luxury of having a face to face encounter with the risen Christ as those first disciples did by the Sea of Galilee. But what I want to suggest to you today is that Jesus can and does come to us at anytime and at anyplace. We can have an encounter – an experience of Jesus Christ – at anytime at anyplace.
So tomorrow when you’re at school. Or when you’re at work. Or when you’re at the store. Be prepared. Just like Jesus showed up to his disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee – he might just make himself known to you wherever it is that you find yourself tomorrow. At your Monday through Friday places. Or maybe in those quiet moments that you have set aside to be alone with God.
So be prepared to meet the Lord in those places and in those moments – where and when you experience God’s love, God’s joy – God’s grace – God’s peace – God’s forgiveness.
And as important and quite frankly – sometimes unexpected – and wonderful – as those experiences can be – you just know I have to say this – they are not a substitute for being here week after week after week. Just so we’re sure about that.
Remember what Michael Foss says. “Worship is not an option – it is essential.” This is a connecting place – a place where we come to get connected with God – and with each other. To come here to tell God how awesome He is. So when you come here – when I come here – I expect God to show up. Amen? I expect to meet God. To worship God. To give Him power – wealth – wisdom – might—honor – glory – blessing – prayer – praise – and thanksgiving. Do I need to repeat that?
And the rest? The rest as they say – is all gravy. Being fed – inspired – fellowship – teaching – forgiveness. It’s getting our batteries recharged. It’s all gravy.
That’s what happens when God shows up. Because here in this place – worship is not a duty – but a delight. Amen
Monday, April 11 2016
What do you know about the disciple whose name is Thomas? Anything? What do you know? Almost everybody knows him by the name – what – it’s okay, you can talk to me. Yeah. Doubting Thomas.
It’s too bad the disciple Thomas didn’t have a better press agent. Thomas, has become well known in history because of one episode in his life. He gained a reputation that has stayed with him now for nearly 2000 years.
Our Gospel reading today – where Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection – happens on the evening of Jesus’ resurrection. He appears to the disciples, but Thomas is not with them. When Thomas gets back together with the other disciples – they tell him that they have seen the Lord. But Thomas does not believe their story.
Well, a week later, Jesus appears again to the disciples. This time, Thomas is with them. And in a moment – in one of THE most dramatic moments in Scripture – Thomas sees the risen Christ – and cries out, “My Lord and my God.”
I love – absolutely love – how Thomas responds to Jesus. He recognizes not only that Jesus is alive after having been crucified – but he also confirms for us in a simple confession who Jesus is. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is God. So thanks to Thomas and his confession – we learn something of who Jesus is.
But this episode in John chapter 20 is not the only reference to Thomas in the Scriptures. And even though I don’t think anything I say today will change anyone’s thoughts about him being forever known as Doubting Thomas – I do think you need to hear – the rest of the story.
Some of you are familiar with the story of the raising of Lazarus. You’ll find in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel. There is one verse that often goes unnoticed when we read that particular chapter. I suppose because it is contained in the story of the raising of Lazarus, a story that is so powerful in and of itself – that a brief mention of the disciple Thomas is barely worth noting.
Let me recap that story for you. When our story opens Jesus has just learned that his close friend Lazarus is sick. Lazarus lives in the village of Bethany with his sisters Mary and Martha. At this moment Jesus is a considerable distance from Bethany. However, Mary and Martha hope that Jesus, their close friend who has healed so many other people, will do something to help their brother Lazarus. Yet when he hears that Lazarus is sick, Jesus stays where he is two more days, a fact that greatly troubles Mary and Martha. Finally, however, Jesus says to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
This time it is his disciples who are troubled. You see, earlier Jesus’ enemies in Judea had tried to stone him. There were people in Judea who would not rest until Jesus was forever silenced. “But Rabbi,” his disciples protest, “a short while ago they tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?”
Jesus answers that their friend Lazarus has died, but that he is going there to be with him. At this, one of his disciples steps forward and challenges the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
That disciple – you’ve probably already guessed it – is Thomas. Usually it’s Peter who pipes up – who feels he has to say something. But not this time. This time it’s not Peter, but Thomas who speaks up. It is Thomas who is bold. Although Thomas would later express his doubts about the resurrection – at least here in the story of the raising of Lazarus, he is a man who is willing to die for Christ. So here – Thomas is bold. Thomas is daring. And I think maybe we ought to call him Daring Thomas – willing to die for the sake of Jesus Christ. And yet today – unfortunately – he is still known as Doubting Thomas.
Every year the MOPS moms ask me to meet with them. I remember a number of years ago we met, and we had what I call a “stump the pastor” session. Well, actually, that isn’t quite right. It WAS a question and answer session, and thankfully, they prepared questions ahead of time for me to answer. In reality, they weren’t trying to stump me at all – but asked genuine questions of faith that they were wrestling with. Like this one. “Is it okay to take communion if you have doubts?” I quickly answered, “Yes,” and then said, “Next question?”
But then after my somewhat flippant answer, I parked on that question for a few minutes. And I said, “Let me tell you how I handle my doubts.” And for the record I handle my doubts by coming back to two questions. Again, this is nothing new, I’ve told you this many times before. Number 1: How did we get here? And Number 2: Did Jesus really rise from the dead. The evidence to answer both questions is overwhelming. Since science tells us you can’t get something from nothing, and that space, time, matter, and energy all have to exist in order for any one of them to exist – the only logical conclusion is that there is a creator – a creator whom we confess to be God. And then –as I shared with you last Sunday – and the Easter before that and the Easter before that – the evidence for the resurrection is so overwhelming that all attempts to disprove it fall flat on their face.
Interestingly – one of the MOPS moms was surprised that I – a pastor – would have doubts. Yeah! I also have fears and worries. And if you can believe it, I’m not always Mr. Nice Guy. I know. Hard to believe. But I – even I – can even get a little grumpy once in awhile.
Anyway – I thought I’d throw that in, because today many of our young disciples are experiencing their first communion today. And I want you to know that, yes, it’s okay to have communion – even if you have doubts and fears – or come here grumpy. And I believe that you are here today because this is one of those places where we can wrestle with our faith and our doubts – with our fears. This is a place to do that because this is a place where Jesus is. And today the risen Christ comes to you – in His Word – and in the form of bread and wine.
Let’s get back to Thomas for a moment. One of the things I want you to remember about Thomas is that Thomas was a man of passion. At one point we know that Thomas was willing to die for Christ. At least on this occasion when Christ was going back to Judea where his life was being threatened, would you agree with me that Thomas was more daring than doubting?
But then there is this Gospel reading where we find the Thomas we are dealing with is the Doubting Thomas – the Thomas we are more familiar with. And maybe – just maybe – his doubt arises out of his disillusionment. Perhaps Thomas is thoroughly disillusioned. In his mind, Jesus has let him down.
Remember that at one point, Thomas was willing to die for Jesus. Perhaps he thought Jesus fit the common expectation of a Messiah someone who would restore the glory of Israel – someone who would throw the hated Romans out of the country.
How could the Messiah possibly be put to death? Thomas was disillusioned because he misunderstood why Christ came into the world. He simply did not realize that Christ’s suffering and death had been a necessary part of God’s plan of salvation for the whole world.
Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Thomas was disappointed and disillusioned. But you know what? That didn’t cause Thomas to drop out of the fellowship. Listen! This is so important. Thomas was there with the other disciples when they met together after Jesus’ resurrection. He could have made up any excuse to stop meeting with the rest of the disciples. He could have stayed home. He could have let his disappointment say, “Awe, the heck with it.” But he didn’t. He went to be with the other disciples. In other words, though disappointed and disillusioned, Thomas still went to church.
I know. It happens. A person goes through a difficult time when they feel God has let them down and the first thing they do is they stop coming to church. They miss one Sunday, then a second, and before very long, going to church takes far more effort than staying home.
Friends, that’s always a mistake. This is where the people are who care about you. Let the people in this church love you and pray for you. Give Christ a chance to come to you and give you His peace. He wants to help you, like Thomas, to move from being disillusioned to being dynamic. It can happen. Don’t give up.
Thomas didn’t give up. Thomas was hurt but he still went to church. Thomas stayed connected, and in that fellowship of faith the risen Christ appeared to Thomas.
Well. You know the story. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Shalom.” By the way – do you know what shalom means? It’s a Hebrew word, and in Israel, when you say hello, you say, “Shalom.” When you say Goodbye, you say, “Shalom.” It means, “Peace be with you,” but it’s so much more than peace. It means, “May it be well with you. May everything be well with you.” It’s hard to translate into English with just one word.
So Jesus says, “Shalom – peace be with you.” Then he turns to Thomas and says to him, “Hey Tom! Tom! Come over here a minute. Put your finger here; put it right here. And where they put that spear in my side? Come here and put your fist in it. Tom! Stop doubting and believe.”
Now we’re not told whether Thomas actually touched those wounds of Jesus or not. We don’t know. I don’t think he had to. But what I want to believe is that Thomas dropped to his knees and said, “My Lord and my God!”
By the way, would you like to know what happened to Thomas? He went on to become a great Christian missionary. He made his way as far as India. There are churches in India named after St. Thomas. And there he was martyred. You see, he did indeed die for the sake of Christ. Today the oldest of India’s churches ascribe their faith to the missionary work of Daring Thomas.
So let’s stop talking about Doubting Thomas. In fact, let’s start a movement right here, right now. From now on let’s call him Daring Thomas. Are you with me?
You know – I hope there’s a bit of Daring Thomas in you. I hope there’s a bit of Daring Thomas in me. We would not be in this room today if earlier generations of Christ’s followers had not dared enough to share their faith with others.
And even though it’s unlikely that we will ever be martyred for the sake of Jesus Christ, I will ask you this. Are you willing to die for him? More importantly – are you willing to live for him? It’s not always easy. But I can’t think of a better way to live. I can’t think of a better way of life than this – than to dare to be a Thomas. Amen
Monday, April 11 2016
Some of you are familiar with the name Tony Campolo. He is a sociologist – and a well-known author and speaker. In his book “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming,” he tells a wonderful story – it’s a story that I heard Tony tell some years ago when he was a guest speaker at our synod assembly. It’s a story that has been told so many times, that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of you may have already heard it. Well –you’re going to hear it again.
It’s “the story of a black Baptist preacher in the inner city of Philadelphia who preached a sermon Tony says he'll never forget. Tony preached first. He was ‘hot,’ so ‘hot’ he says, that he even stopped and listened to himself. He sat down and said to his pastor: ‘Pastor, are you going to be able to top that?’
“‘Son,’ said the black pastor, ‘you just sit back, ‘cause this old man is going to do you in.’ Now Tony says that in this black church of which he as a white man is a member of – in this church the people in the pews shout encouragement. If the preacher is struggling, someone will shout, “Help him, Jesus!” But if the preacher says something really good, they will shout, “Preach brother! Keep going brother!” And Tony says, “White people never yell, ‘Keep going, keep going.” I know – in this church – you’re more likely to look at your watch – and mumble, “Stop pastor. Land the plane pastor. Land the plane.”
But on this particular day – it was a Good Friday service – and Tony says, “…the old guy got up, and I have to admit, he did me in.” For an hour and a half the pastor got the whole congregation worked up by repeating one phrase over and over again: “It's Friday, but Sunday's comin'.”
Tony said, “I've never heard anything like it. He just kept saying it. The congregation was spellbound by the power of it.”
“It's Friday. Jesus was dead on the cross. But that was Friday, and Sunday’s comin’!”
“It’s Friday. Mary’s crying her eyes out. But Sunday’s coming!”
“The disciples were running in every direction, like sheep without a shepherd. But that was Friday. Sunday’s comin’”
“The Devil thought he had won. But it was only Friday. Sunday’s comin’.”
“It's Friday and evil has triumphed over good. Jesus is dying up there on the cross. The world is turned upside down. This shouldn't happen. But it's only Friday. Sunday's comin'.”
“He kept on working that one phrase for a half hour, then an hour, then an hour and a half. Each time he said, 'It's Friday,' the crowd began to respond, 'but Sunday's comin'.”
“I was exhausted,” Tony said. “At the end of his message, he just yelled at the top of his lungs, “IT’S FRIDAY!” And all five hundred of us in that church yelled back, “SUNDAY’S COMIN’”
“It was the best sermon I've ever heard. The old preacher was saying it and the people were with him. It was powerful,” Tony said. “It was personal.”
Folks – Sunday’s here – and Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed!] Ah – see? Even Lutherans can shout back to their pastor while he’s preaching. Well, at least once a year, anyway! Amen? [Amen] Hey, Pastor Becca, it works! I think we’re getting used to your amen’s when you preach. Even I’m loosening up, and can get an amen response! Preach it, brother!
Well, whether you’ve heard Tony Campolo’s story before or not, there is a story that you have heard before. And it is the reason why we are all here today. What we call the Easter story – the Day of Resurrection story – is THE single most important episode in the life of Jesus and his disciples. A moment in history that changed everything.
As Luke tells the story, a group of women came to the tomb at early dawn – on Sunday morning – expecting to find the body of Jesus. On Friday – the day that Jesus died – they didn’t have time to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial. So on this first day of the week – they brought spices to do just that. And what they found was an empty tomb. And two angels – two angels who reminded them about what Jesus had told them – that on the third day, he must rise again.
It was now the third day. They went to the tomb to anoint the body with spices, and discovered that Jesus had risen.
By the way – do not – DO NOT overlook the fact that it was women who were the first to discover the empty tomb. Do not overlook the fact that it was women who were the first to proclaim that Jesus is risen from the dead. I say that, because skeptics and the critics like to say that the resurrection of Jesus never happened. That the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus is a fairy tale – a tale manufactured for who know what purpose. I seem to be telling you this every year now. If the resurrection of Jesus is a lie – then those who manufactured this lie would never – never – have written it to say that it was women who were the first eye witnesses to the resurrection. Never. In those days – the testimony of a woman was not accepted. Hey, ladies! That’s just the way it was. So because of this – if the resurrection is just a story – a made up story – then those who made up the whole thing would have told it in such a way that Simon Peter or the disciples would have been the first eye witnesses at the tomb, but not a group of women. In all four gospels, it’s women.
And even the disciples didn’t believe it at first. Luke says that they thought it was “an idle tale.” And even today, the skeptic will say the same thing. It’s an idle tale – a fairy tale. The resurrection of Jesus Christ never happened. But if it never happened – then just what exactly did happen? Because something must have happened. If it never happened – then how do you explain it away? Let me tell you – every effort I have ever read about or heard about to explain away the resurrection is so full of holes – they all simply fall flat on their face.
So yes – something must have happened. Listen! The greatest piece of evidence for the resurrection is in its power to change lives. Here’s what we know. Within weeks following the death and resurrection of Jesus, his disciples were transformed. These men and women were changed. They were changed from scared and depressed men and women, hiding from the authorities – into bold and magnificent preachers and teachers – proclaiming all that they had heard and seen and experienced – men and women who spread the Good News of Jesus risen from the dead – taking that message all across the world. Ten of the original disciples were executed for their beliefs. Their lives would have been spared if they had just denied that Jesus rose from the dead. But they would not. They could not. No one is going to willingly die for something they know to be a lie. Nobody! They simply could not deny what they had heard – and seen – and experienced.
So, you can make of this whatever you want. The first witnesses were women. The disciples to a person refused to say it was a lie. And there can be only three responses to this. You can doubt that the resurrection ever happened. You can be in a place where you’re just not sure. Or you can believe it.
But wherever you are right now – this one thing cannot be denied. Not only were the lives of those first women and men changed – but the resurrection still has the power to change lives today.
And that’s Good News. It’s good news because –as you know – life is full of Good Fridays. We’ve all had Good Friday’s in our lives. Failure. Being bullied. Loss of a job. The breakup of a marriage. Unpleasant relationships that we just feel stuck in. And maybe the darkest Good Friday of all – the loss of a loved one. And that’s why I am happy to tell you – that even though it might be Friday for you right now – you just wait. Sunday’s comin’!
Just over a week ago – Pastor Becca and I were called to the home of Linda Zielinski – two days before she died. We prayed the prayers for the dying – as I have done numerous times for many in this congregation. And I will never forget – Pastor Becca had brought her oil stock with her – and anointed Linda on her forehead – making the sign of the cross – and saying these words, “Linda – child of God – you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit – and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
In the depths of her – and Bob’s – and her family’s Good Friday – we remembered together her baptism – and recalling the promise of resurrection – we in essence proclaimed that though it was Friday, Sunday’s comin.’
Let me tell you. Linda’s life was transformed years ago through Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection. And what’s more – I know that my life has been changed. And so many of you have told me how your lives have been changed. That’s the power of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Touching hearts. Changing lives. Making a difference. Offering hope even in the face of death.
Hey, listen! Listen good – ‘cause I’m about to land this plane. Even in the darkest of your Good Friday’s – here’s what I want you to remember. Sunday’s coming! And even though we are a mostly white – and very Lutheran congregation – you can talk back to the preacher. Amen? [Amen] So get ready!
It’s Friday! [Sunday’s Coming!]
Christ is Risen! [He is risen indeed!]