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Tuesday, March 20 2018

John 12:20-33  

    My wife Nancy and I have traveled many places together.  We’ve traveled all across this great country of ours.  East coast, west coast and a lot of places in between.  We’ve been across the pond many times.  Together, we’ve been to Israel three times.  I’ve been there five times.   We’ve been to the Galapagos Islands.  Six years ago we took what is without a doubt the favorite of all our travels – a three week safari to Kenya and Tanzania.  Nancy being a big cat lover – wanted to see the big cats in the wild.   And we did!  

    Somebody asked me what I’m going to be doing the morning of Monday, June 11, my first official day of retirement, and I said, “We’re getting on a plane for Sweden and Norway, where we hope to enjoy a Norwegian fjord cruise, and spend some time in Stockholm as well.  And next year we’re looking at South Africa for more safari adventures.  Yes, we like to travel – we like to do the touristy thing – while we still can!

    Of course, tourism is not just a 21st Century phenomenon.  Our Gospel text today tells of certain Greek tourists who are visiting Jerusalem.  They have come to see the sights of the famous city.  It is the time of the Passover festival, and Jerusalem is a crowded place.     
    While there, they hear about a man who is making quite a name for himself.  It is said that this man has raised some guy by the name of Lazarus from the dead.  These Greek tourists are intrigued by this.  They are curious.  So, in an effort to meet him, they approach one of his disciples – the disciple who just happens to have a Greek name – the disciple named Philip.   

    “Sir,” they said, “we wish to see Jesus.”  So Philip goes and gets Andrew, and together they go and tell Jesus that there are people here who wish to see him.

         Now, 2000 years later, the same thing is still true.  2000 years later, people are still wishing – still wanting – to see Jesus.  But the question is – where are they going to find him?  I like the bulletin blooper – and apparently this was a real blooper printed somewhere in some church’s bulletin – one of those churches that have Sunday morning and Sunday evening services.  “This morning’s sermon, ‘Jesus Walks on Water.” Tonight’s sermon, ‘Looking For Jesus.’”   

    But what would you do, if someone walked up to you today and said to you, “We wish to see Jesus.”  What would you do?  What would you say?   
    Now we don’t have the luxury of the human Jesus walking the earth in flesh and blood like Philip and Andrew had.  That doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t here.  Remember what he told his disciples – and us – just before he ascended into heaven?  “Remember, I am with you always.”  Jesus IS with us, through the person and the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is with us, and He is watching over us.

     I like the story that’s told about some seminary students as they walked through the lunch line at the seminary cafeteria.  The chef had propped a sign on a big bowl of apples that said:     

    At the other end of the lunch line, there was a large plate of freshly baked, steaming hot, chocolate chip cookies.  One of the seminarians had put a hastily written sign over it that said:      TAKE AS MANY COOKIES AS YOU WANT.  JESUS IS BUSY AT THE OTHER END WATCHING THE APPLES.  

    Yes, Jesus is with us, watching over the apples, AND watching over people like you and me.  We want to see Jesus, but at the same time we need to remember – we need to know that Jesus is watching over us at the same time.

    It therefore seems to me that if Jesus is present in our lives, watching over us, then anyone in search of Jesus can find Him.  And anyone in search of Jesus needs to come to those places where Jesus can be found.   

    Now let me tell you where I find Jesus.  I find Jesus in the Word, in the Bible.  I see Him in His teachings – and the story of his life, his death and resurrection bring me face to face with Him our living, risen Savior.  In the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion I feel His presence.  I see Jesus in word and sacrament.  
    But I see Jesus in other people’s lives as well.  I see Jesus where the people of God gather together – you know – where two or three or more are gathered together in His name.  I see Jesus where broken lives are healed and mended.

    In his book, A Future and a Hope, Lloyd Ogilvie writes about a woman named Linda.  Linda was a homeless cocaine addict.  She was experiencing serious health problems, including a heart attack, from her addiction.  Linda was in a panic, not knowing what would happen to her and her young son.  She was at the lowest point in her life.

    One Sunday morning she wandered into a nearby church and sat in the last pew.  The people around her could not help noticing that she was crying throughout the service.  That morning Linda heard the Good News about Jesus and his love and his forgiveness.  She heard about how to make a new start in life.   

    Linda returned the next Sunday and the Sunday after that, but she was reluctant to fill out the visitor’s card.  But the more she came to church the more she began to feel the love of those sitting near her.  And finally, she filled out the visitors’ card, checking off that she needed help.

    That particular congregation had a program of lay visitation.  That week, she was visited by two of the church’s members.  They brought with them a message of hope and love.  They shared with her that Jesus could help her, that Jesus could heal her.  Linda committed her life to Christ and asked for his healing of her addiction.

     Several months later Linda was radiating joy as she shared her victory over her cocaine addiction.  “I want to share what I’ve found,” she said with enthusiasm.  “I want to work with people hooked on hard drugs.  I want them to know there’s hope!”  Linda now works with teenagers who are addicted and are in need of Christ’s love and hope.

    Linda came looking, and she saw Jesus.  Where was it that Linda saw Jesus?  In the hearts and lives of the people of that congregation.  Not every congregation – not every church – would welcome someone like Linda.   
    Jesus says that he is with us always.  But what does that mean?  Well – it means Jesus is here – right here – right now!  Jesus is present.  And to a hurting and broken world – to all the Linda’s of this world – Jesus is present through people like you and me.  He lives in you – and therefore he is present in you.  He makes himself known – he makes himself present through you and through me.

    Now, you know in my preaching I have always loved to tell stories – stories that make a point.  I’ve already told three so far today.  And as I approach my retirement, maybe some of you have already noticed, and I hope you don’t mind, but I want to retell some of the stories that have been among my favorites.  So that’s what I’ve been doing.  And by the way – if there are stories that your recall from my preaching that you would like to hear again – let me know – and I’ll try to work them in over the next few months.  That said, here is one of my favorites.  Maybe some of you will remember it.  

    There had been no time to brief the class of children at Vacation Bible School about the little boy who came in late.  There had been no time, either, for the teacher to find out how he had lost his left arm and how he was coping with it.  Understandably, she was nervous, afraid that one of the other children would comment and embarrass him, or worse, tease him.     

    Taking a deep breath, she proceeded with the lesson.  No problems there.  No problems with the art work; he drew quite well with one hand and seemed to fit in well.  No problems during snack time either.  Relaxed and quite relieved now, the teacher led her class into the center circle for their closing exercises.      “Let’s make our churches now,” she said, leading them in the familiar activity, “Here’s the church; here’s the steeple; open the doors, and there’s all the people,” when the awful truth of her actions struck her – a second too late.  The very thing she feared had happened – done not by a child, but by herself.   
    As she stood there speechless, the little girl sitting next to the boy reached over, placed her left hand against his right hand, and said, “Let’s build this church together.”

    Folks – where will people who are wishing to see Jesus find him?  I guess the same place where we see Jesus.  Where hearts and hands come together to build – and to be – the church – together.  We see Jesus in his word – we see him in the sacraments.  We see Jesus where two or three or more are gathered together in his name.  We see him where broken hearts and broken lives are mended.  
    Where Jesus dwells in human hearts – where Jesus dwells in our hearts – in our lives – in our homes – there we will see Jesus.                 

Posted by: AT 08:24 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, March 13 2018

John 3:1-17

A number of years ago down in South Carolina an Episcopalian church placed three crosses draped in purple on its front lawn for Lent. After a week or so, the Chamber of Commerce called to complain about these three crosses.

“This is a big season for tourists,” they said.  “We think those crosses could send the wrong message to visitors at the beach.  People don’t want to come down here for a vacation and be confronted with unpleasantness.”

The church stood its ground.  The crosses stayed.  “It’s Lent,” said the church.  People are supposed to be uncomfortable.”

Folks, here we are in the fourth week of Lent.  Do you feel uncomfortable yet?  There’s a lot of good stuff that we teach and preach about in Lent.  Things like repentance.  Confession of sin.  Forgiveness.  There is honest talk about temptation – and how hard it is sometimes to say no to temptation.  You know.  Lent stuff.  Stuff that – sometimes – makes us feel – uncomfortable.  Stuff we need to be aware of all year round to be sure, but – some stuff that maybe you’d rather not want to deal with.   

Here’s the problem.  I – well, you and I – we – live in a success oriented – grab all the gusto – what’s in it for me – I’m entitled and deserving – feel good kind of world – am I right?  Where things that make us feel uncomfortable aren’t always welcome.  

   You see – when we stop — and when we focus – on the things that Lent demands that we focus on – there is an acknowledgment – or at least an awareness – that there’s something not quite right – or maybe it’s better to say – there’s something incomplete – with this success– oriented, feel-good culture that we live in.  Well – there’s something I find empty about it.

And so I say to myself, there’s gotta be something else.  There’s gotta be a better way.  Listen.  If you’ve ever felt that way – for whatever reason life feels empty – that there’s got to be something more – well then, I’m here to tell you today folks, that there is a better way.  And in today’s Gospel lesson, we learn what that better way is.

     So – enter a man by the name of Nicodemus.  We first meet Nic here in the third chapter of John’s Gospel.  He comes to Jesus at night.  When it’s dark.  Perhaps he doesn’t want his friends and companions to know that he has come to talk to Jesus.  The Bible says that Nicodemus is a leader of the Pharisees.  Again, the Pharisees are the super religious guys of the day.  And of course, the more we read the Gospels, we find the Pharisees butting heads with Jesus.  Over and over again.  And each time they butt heads, Jesus reveals more and more of their hypocrisy.  

So Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night.  Apparently Jesus is working the night shift – and Jesus and Nicodemus have a little conversation.  A little conversation with great results.

May I suggest to you that the first reason Nicodemus comes to Jesus is because he recognizes that God is at work in Jesus.  He calls Jesus, Rabbi, or teacher.  He says, “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Now the first thing that I want you to notice is that Jesus takes charge of the conversation.  Jesus moves beyond the flattery he has just heard.  Why?  Because
·    Jesus’ purpose – his mission – is NOT to be known as just another rabbi or teacher.  
·    Jesus’ purpose – his mission – is NOT to be known as a miracle worker.  

His purpose – his mission – is to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God.  To bring all people into the Kingdom of God.

So Jesus invites Nicodemus to catch a new vision – a new understanding – of what the Kingdom is all about.  You see, it’s more than miracles.  It’s more than teachings.  It involves a vision of something else.  And it offers Nicodemus a better way.

Now we need to remember that Nicodemus – as a Pharisee –is a religious man.  And may I suggest to you that that’s the second reason why he comes to Jesus.  You see, his is a religion of rigid rules and ritual.  But I’m guessing that Nicodemus just isn’t finding these to be satisfying.  They aren’t enough.  He knows there’s gotta be a better way.  And Jesus offers him the better way when He says, “You must be born from above.”  You must be born from above.  Most of you know the phrase better this way, “You must be born again.”

Of course, good old Nic doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about.  “Can a person enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born again?” he asks.   “No, no, no,” says Jesus.  “You’re not getting it.  Before you can enter into the Kingdom of God, a new birth must take place.  A spiritual birth.  What’s born of the flesh is flesh.  But what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Do you see what Jesus is telling Nicodemus?  
·    When you discover that the old way of life isn’t working – that’s when Jesus offers a better way.
·    When you discover that that old religious system of do’s and don’ts – of trying to please God by being good enough just isn’t good enough – that’s when Jesus offers a better way.
·    When you discover that acquiring wealth for no other purpose than just to have it – when you discover that acquiring more and more toys and things won’t bring you the satisfaction you thought they would – that’s when Jesus offers a better way.

To fully understand what Jesus is talking about, Nicodemus has to understand that something akin to a new birth has to take place.   

To be born of the Spirit – to be born from above – to be born again – means that we take on an entirely new identity – an identity that marks us as a child of God.  Inheritors of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus says that we receive this new birth – our new identity – through water and the Spirit.  And that is why we baptize.  That is why we say – no, why we proclaim at baptism, “Mary – Frank – Joan – Tom – child of God – you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

It is something that God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit does for us.  It is the better way.  It is a new you.  With a new identity.  The better way.  

And the life we now live, we live by faith in Jesus Christ, trusting the promises God makes to us.  To love us.  To be with us always.  To walk with us when life is throwing all kinds of junk at us – but also to celebrate with us at the high points of our lives.  And finally to give us the gift of eternal life with God now and forever.  

And the wonderful thing is that we don’t have to do a thing.  We don’t HAVE to give up anything for Lent.  You can if you want to, but you don’t have to.  As our reading from Ephesians 2 tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing, it is a gift from God so that no one may boast.”  Do you believe that?  And isn’t that a wonderful thing!  Simply believe that these promises of God are true, and that they are for you.  I mean, even the fact that we can say, “This I believe,” – those words spoken from a heart of faith are themselves a gift from God.   

And that – brings us back to Lent.   And I don’t know.  Maybe Lent does make you feel uncomfortable.  But if Lent – if Lent does nothing else – it should serve to remind us that the activity of God’s Spirit does not end at our baptism.  And if Lent helps us to refocus our attention on our walk with the Lord – then it will have served its purpose to remind us that we are born again and again and again – each time we come to the Lord in prayer and repentance.  Each time you hear that your sins are forgiven.  Each time you experience an “Ah-ha” moment that reveals to you something of who God is, and who you are in relationship to Him.  

It’s a total transformation.  A total body transformation – and heart – and mind – and spirit.  And it’s good.  Being born form above – being born again – is all about new life in Jesus Christ.  It’s about your new identity.  A whole new you!  

So when you find that the old way no longer works, and you want to talk – come talk to me.  Because I will tell you as I’m telling you now – Jesus shows you a better way.  When we turn our hearts and our lives over to him – Jesus shows us a better way.  If you let Him, He will touch your heart.  He will change your life.   With Jesus – you are never the same again.            


Posted by: AT 08:56 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, March 05 2018

Exodus 20:1-17

          A couple years ago, I was in Tombstone Arizona.  It’s a tiny little town in Southeast Arizona.  It’s famous for something that happened back in 1881– and is something of a tourist attraction because of it.  Can anybody tell me what happened that made Tombstone famous?  That’s right.  The shootout at the OK Corral.  Wyatt Earp.  Doc Holiday.   The shoot out lasted all of 30 seconds. 

          As I said, it’s a tourist attraction.  And as Nancy and I were driving into Tombstone, we passed a church.  I just had to get a picture of this church.  So I turned the car around and – well – take a look. 


          An honest to goodness cowboy church.  Actually, I’ve since discovered that there are quite a number of churches in the Southwest with the name “cowboy” in them.  There’s one in Apache Junction, AZ called “Heavenly Roundup Cowboy Church.”  I kinda like the name!

          Well – sometime back – I came across something called, “A Cowboy Ten Commandments.”  Now, these Cowboy Ten Commandments are not connected to these Cowboy churches I’ve just talked about. At least not as far as I know.  But I thought you might enjoy hearing how a cowboy might interpret what we know as the Ten Commandments. It goes like this:  First commandment: 1. Just one God. 2. Put nothin’ before God. 3. Git yerself to Sunday meeting. 4. Honor yer Ma and Pa. 5. No killin’. 6. No foolin’ aroun’ with another fellow’s gal. 7. Don’t take nothin’ what ain’t yers. 8. No tellin’ tales or gossipin’. Watch yer mouth. 9 and 10. Don’t be hankerin’ for yer buddy’s stuff.

          So in addition to the Cowboy Ten Commandments, the Ten Commandments can also be found in two different books of the Old Testament.  Our reading today from the Book of Exodus is one of those places.  The other is in the book of Deuteronomy. 

          When we think about the Ten Commandments, we almost always think about them as laws or rules that need to be obeyed.  The problem is – I don’t know anybody who’s ever been able to come close to doing that. 

          Can the Ten Commandments inform us of what proper conduct for the Christian ought to be?  Certain behaviors shall we say?  Do this.  Don’t do that.  Well – that depends.  Is that their purpose?  You see – there is a great danger in preaching a sermon that says, “This is how Christians should or ought to behave.”  There is great danger in that kind of preaching.  There is no good news in a sermon like that.  You’re asking me to do something that I cannot possibly do.  AND, that kind of preaching paints a picture of God as someone who comes across as an angry judge – just waiting – just waiting for us to step out of line.  But that’s not the image the Scriptures give us of who God is.

          On the other hand, when sermons talk about the love of God only, and how that love of God showed itself in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – if that’s all we hear – then we are left with a question – “Okay, I’m loved by God, I know I’m forgiven, I know I will go to heaven someday, but what do I do in the meantime?  How then shall I live?”

          We who are preachers – strive to maintain some kind of balance between the two.  And that’s a good thing.  Most preachers I know – and for good reason – we usually focus our sermons on the proclamation of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. 

          But sometimes, we also need to hear what the scriptures have to say about doing the right thing.  Since you and I are ambassadors of Jesus Christ – what we believe – what we think – what we say – and what we do – these things do matter.

          So how do we strike some kind of balance with God’s Word when God’s Word comes to us as both Law and Gospel?  There is a difference between Law and Gospel.  And if you’ve ever attended one of my new member classes, you know what that difference is.  But let’s do a quick review anyway. 

          The Law – as represented by our reading from Exodus today – the Ten Commandments – the Law lets us know when, where, and how we’ve messed up.  When, where and how we’ve sinned.  You see, the Ten Commandments aren’t given to us so much as rules to be obeyed.  Because you’re never going to be able to do that.  But when we sin – when we mess up – we know we’ve done wrong because the Law – the Ten Commandments – tells us so.  And when the Law convicts me of something that I’ve said or done wrong – I’ve lied or cheated or stolen – that’s how I know I’ve done wrong.  So the Law can never make me a good person.  The Law can only tell me when, where, and how I’ve messed up.  It points the finger and accuse.  What the Law is really good at doing is telling me what a poor miserable sinner I am. 

But there is a second thing that the Law does – and that is to drive me to my knees in repentance.  That’s when I know that I need to come to my Savior Jesus Christ for forgiveness.  Because when I’ve sinned – when I’ve messed up – when the Law points its finger at me – that’s when I need to remember that there is also Good News.  The Gospel – the Good News – tells me that I am forgiven. 

          So God’s Word comes to us as both Law and Gospel.  The Law condemns and the Gospel – the Good News – saves. 

          When I first met Nancy nearly 37 years ago – we met at a worship and music conference in Columbus, Ohio.  She was a pastor – I was an occasional church musician.  But at that conference was an elderly theologian.  Well.  He was younger then than I am now – but he looked old to me.   Hey! I was 26.  His name was George Forrell, and he had this lovely German accent.  And I’ll never forget this – he said, “If you do not understand the difference between Law and Gospel – you should strangle your pastor!” 

          You understand the difference between Law and Gospel?  Yes?  Okay, good.  Whew!

          So – since we are forgiven sinners – how then shall we live?  What are we to do?  How do we who have heard the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness – who have heard the message that Jesus Christ died for sinners – is raised from the dead – and because he lives we shall live also – what then are we to do?  How then shall we live?  I’m talking about something more than just having good manners.  I’m talking about making a difference – about being light in somebody else’s darkness – I’m talking about living our lives for the sake of the neighbor – and in the name of Jesus Christ.

          One of the ways – or at least it seems to me to be so – one of the ways to overcome the spirit of rudeness and the lack of civility – heck – to resist temptations that led us away from God and the person God wants us to be, is to understand the Ten Commandments as a gift from God – as a gift of God’s love and grace. 

In order to live in harmony with the people around you – in order to live in harmony with the communities we find ourselves in – school – work – church – the street where you live – the places where communities exist – we need to know how to live in harmony.  God gave us the Ten Commandments not to take all the fun out of life – not to give us reason to live in fear – fear of breaking any one of the Ten Commandments – but what living in harmony with other people looks like.  So, you’re not going to be taking other people’s stuff, and they’re not going to be taking yours.  You’re not going to be tellin’ tales or gossipin’.  The Ten Commandments show us what the ideal community looks like. 

So, more than laws and rules to be followed, the Ten Commandments are our opportunity to show love and care and concern to our neighbor – and what that is going to look like.  Kind of reminds me of something that Jesus said.  Something we say around here all the time.  And most of you knew this was coming.

Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments when he told us, “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Thanks to Jesus, the Ten Commandments are boiled down to two.  And two is easier to remember than ten!

          In essence, the Ten Commandments are all about loving God and loving our neighbor.  And let that love be genuine.  Let it be real.  Just remember that the Ten Commandments were given to us by God as a gift.  They were given to show us how to live in community.  So let me close with the words of Henri Nouwen.  Listen!

          “All people are searching for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear, and where community can be found.”  The Ten Commandments show us what that looks like. 

          And isn’t that what you’re looking for?  Isn’t that what you really want?  And don’t you think that that is exactly what others are looking for too?  Life without fear.  A place where true community is found.  

That’s what the commandments point us to.  That’s what they’re all about. Amen         

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Zion Lutheran Church
9535 Clarence Center Road

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

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