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Monday, April 30 2018

Randy Milleville

John 15:1-8                    

          Jesus talks about being connected in our Gospel reading today.  And he uses an illustration from the growing of grapes to make his point.  Here’s how he describes it.  “I am the vine.  You are the branches.”  In other words, life begins with the vine.  Branches cannot grow by themselves.  The branches grow out of the vine – and produce fruit only when they are connected to the vine.

          This past week I discovered that there is a grapevine in Hampton Court near London, England that is 250 years old.  Some of its branches are 200 feet long, and its single root is at least two feet thick.  Take a look at this YouTube video.

          Because of skillful cutting and pruning, that one vine produces several tons of grapes every year.  Even though some of the branches are 200 feet from the main stem, they bear plenty of fruit because they are joined to the vine, and allow the life of the vine to flow through them.  But that’s nothing.  The oldest vine is nearly 450 years old.  In Slovenia. 

          These really, really old vines are still able to bear grapes because the branches are connected to the vine. 

          That’s what Jesus is telling us when he says, “I am the vine – you are the branches.  Abide in me, and I in you.”  Because, he says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”  He’s using this picture of branches and vines to illustrate how disciples of Jesus Christ need to bear fruit in their lives – and in order to do so – we need to remain connected.  Connected to Jesus the vine. 

          So how do we move beyond this metaphor of vines and branches and bearing fruit?  It’s a nice picture to see.  But just what does it mean to abide?  Let me suggest to you that maybe the better way to understand what it means to abide – is to be and to stay connected.

          Well – I couldn’t help thinking that this is a good time for me to remind you one more time of what we call around here the Six Marks of Discipleship.  We stay connected when we focus on these six marks.

  1.  Worship weekly.  This is where we hear the story of Jesus.  And we hear it over and over again. This is also the place where we offer our prayers, our praise and thanksgiving to the Lord as acts of worship.  So worship – regular worship – is one way we stay connected.
  2. Read the Bible every day.  When we spend time reading the Bible, we learn for ourselves what the story of Jesus is all about.
  3. Pray daily.  In prayer – we stay connected to Jesus.  Lifting up to him our concerns, as well as our reasons to give him thanks and praise.  Prayer is having a conversation with Jesus.  So, praying daily is another way to keep us connected.
  4. Serving others.  This is where being connected produces results – or what Jesus calls bearing fruit.  Serving others.  Helping others.  Being a friend who listens, and when necessary – lends a hand.  These acts of love and kindness are the results of being connected to Jesus.
  5. Develop Spiritual friendships.  Whenever we are together with two or three or more people – in the name of Jesus – we are showing our connectedness to Jesus – AND – to each other at the same time.  After all – we are all in this together.  We are all branches attached to the same vine.
  6. Giving of our time and talent and financial resources.  This is closely related to serving others.  Again – in giving we show to whom it is we are connected.  This is part of the fruit bearing that Jesus is talking about.

      It’s one thing to believe in Jesus – to believe that he was sent from God – that he is raised from the dead – all of that is good, and right, and necessary.  But it is quite another thing to be connected to Jesus.

      So how do I get connected?   Romans chapter 6 – one among many of my favorite Scripture passages – says that when we were “…baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death.  We have been buried therefore with him, by baptism into death, so, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

      Baptism is where our connection to Christ – and his death – and his resurrection – begins.  When we celebrate Holy Communion – that too has the power to help us stay connected to Christ – AND to each other.  Baptism and Holy Communion, along with the Six Marks of Discipleship – not only get us connected to Christ – but keep us connected to Christ – and to each other as well.

     Listen!  There are places – and there are ways in which we get connected and stay connected with Jesus.  And again – it seems to me – that we need to be at those places where the story of Jesus is told – where the story of Jesus comes alive!  We need our alone times with Jesus to be sure.  Times of prayer and personal Bible reading; reflection.  But we also need to be together as the body of Christ.  Why?  In order to stay connected to him and to each other. 

      Fred Craddock tells the story of a congregation he once served in the mountains of Tennessee.  It was near Oak Ridge and the area was experiencing a boom because of the start-up of the Atomic Energy Commission.  The village of Oak Ridge became a city overnight.  There were tents and mobile homes everywhere you looked.  Construction workers arrived form every state in the union. 

     Dr. Craddock’s church was small, seated just about 80 people, had hand-carved pews and a little pump organ over in the corner.  It was a beautiful building, and very aristocratic.

     Craddock called the board together to tell them what a great evangelistic opportunity they had to reach out and evangelize all these thousands of folks who had moved in.  He wanted to make them welcome and bring them into the church.  But the board chairman said, “No way!  They’re not our kind.”

     “What do you mean, ‘not our kind’?”

      The board chairman said, “Well, they’re just living in tents and house trailers and everything.  They’re just transients following construction.  They don’t have roots or anything, and they’re not our kind.  They wouldn’t fit in.”

     They argued back and forth, and called a church meeting next Sunday where the first order of business was a motion.  “I move,” said one elder, “that anybody seeking membership in this church must own property in the county.”  There was a second, and passed unanimously, because in this congregation, the pastor couldn’t vote.

     Years later, Dr. Craddock and his wife returned to that area and had a hard time finding the church because of a new interstate highway.  But finally he found the road that led up to his old church, and there is was … with a parking lot crowded with trucks and cars.

     “Great day!  They must be having a revival,” he said.  Then he saw the sign out front that read: “BBQ Chicken, Pork, Ribs, Beans, All you can eat -- $4.99” The Craddocks went inside and the place was full of people – and formica tables – and chrome chairs.  The little pump organ was still there – but the building had become – a restaurant.

     As Fred Craddock recalls the story, he says, “There were motorcycles out front.  Pickup trucks with rifles hanging in the back window.  You’ve never seen such a crowd.  I turned to my wife Nettie, and said, ‘It’s a good thing this place is a restaurant, because if it were a church – they wouldn’t fit in.’”

     Ironic, isn’t it!  Here was a place that used to be a church – that refused to offer certain people the Bread of Life – that was now inviting them to come and have “All you can eat.”

     I thank God that Zion Lutheran Church is not like that church in Oak Ridge Tennessee.  You know what we call churches that let only certain people in – and keep certain other people out?  Former churches.  Office space.  Restaurants.  Museums. 

     We are a fruit bearing church.  And may this church – this congregation – always be – and commit to being – a fruit bearing church.  A place where no one – no one is excluded.  And everyone is welcome.  Because we have a mission – and a message – and a story to tell.  The story of Jesus and his love.

     That church in Oak Ridge Tennessee cut itself off from the vine – and when that happened – it shriveled up and died. Because it didn’t understand what the love of Christ is all about. 

      So here’s what I want you to do.  Let the Holy Spirit talk to you – as you spend time here in worship – as you read and study the Bible.  Spend time with Jesus talking with Him in prayer.  Just let all of this sink in.

      Do you know why this is so important?  You can’t relate to someone that you are not communicating with.  It’s as simple as that.

      Most of us have been to high school.  For some of us, that was a longer time ago than for others.  But think of the friends you had in high school.  Are you still friends with them now?  If you’re not, the reason is because you’re not communicating with them.  You might not even know where they are anymore.  And that’s okay.  But those that you are still friends with – you’re friends because you are communicating with them – even if it’s only once a year.   I’ve talked to you about the tools you can use – worship, Scripture reading, prayer – spending time with other disciples.  These are so important.  And it’s why church matters.

     Let me invite you to come to those places where you will get and stay connected.  The more you stay connected to Christ the more he will multiply his fruit through you.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  We call these the fruit of the Spirit.  These are what the Holy Spirit gives to everyone who stays connected to Jesus Christ.

      So get connected.  Stay connected.  We are connected to God through Jesus Christ.  And through Jesus Christ, we are connected to each other.   Amen

Posted by: Randy Milleville AT 12:55 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Wednesday, April 25 2018

John 10:11-18, Psalm 23

    Let me share with you a story.  It’s a story that involves Princess Diana, whose son Prince Harry – as I’m sure most of you – will be tying the knot on May 19th.  

    Now, I don’t know why May 19th was selected by Harry and his wife to be, Meghan Markle.  But I find it interesting that back in 1994 – on May 19th – the Associated Press reported that Princess Diana had been jogging in Regents Park and was being driven home.  A group of tourists flagged her car down as it was leaving the park, saying someone had fallen in a nearby lake.

    Diana told her chauffer to call police.  She then dashed to the bridge, where she was joined by Karl Kotila, a Finnish student living in south London.

    Kotila, followed by Diana, climbed over the bridge’s railing onto the bank of the lake.  He passed his backpack and wallet to Diana, then plunged into the lake, swam to the unconscious man and towed him to the bank.  Diana and others who had joined her at the water’s edge pulled the man out.

    Diana then helped turn him on his side as Kotila gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until police arrived and took over.  The man revived.

    Police indicated that the man was a homeless man who had been living on the streets of London for 20 years.  They said he lived under a bridge with 7 or 8 other homeless individuals.

    I would like to think that the first face that the rescued man saw when he came to was that of the former princess.  Of course, the story would have been even better if it had been Diana who had jumped into the water, pulled the man out, and had been the one giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  Think of the story that man could have told all his friends for years to come!

    Let me tell you something.  You and I have that kind of story to tell.  We DO have someone who comes after us – and rescues us – when we are drowning in sin.  When we are drowning in guilt.  When we have chosen the wrong way.  When we have wandered too far.  His name is Jesus.  And like a shepherd who cares for the sheep – Jesus just happens to be our Good Shepherd.  

    So yes – we do have a story to tell.  It is Jesus – no one else – it is Jesus who comes after us and leads us safely home.  

    Listen!  No one – not even an angel – can do for us what God alone can do for us.  And that’s why God sent Jesus to be the rescuer and protector that we need.  That’s why Jesus calls himself – and why one of the ways we can know him today – as the shepherd of the sheep.  The Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.  

    This weekend we use the metaphor of Jesus as a shepherd.  This fourth weekend or Sunday in Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday.  And once again we are introduced to what may be the best known Psalm in the Bible – the 23rd Psalm.  Sometimes it’s called the Shepherd’s Psalm.  I learned it at an early age in Sunday School.  It’s read at almost every funeral that I’ve ever done.  I guess you could say that – like an old friend – the 23rd Psalm comes to us at the beginning of life and again at the end of life.  And at least once a year in between.  

    You also know – most of you know – that I have traveled to Israel five times.  They’ve got sheep and goats all over the place over there.  Raising sheep is an important part of the economy.  Three times Nancy and I had a tour guide by the name of Jael.  And Jael told us of an interesting observation she once made.  She said, “One day, I was watching a shepherd leading his sheep through the rugged terrain of the Judean wilderness, and I realized who the Psalm was talking about when it says, ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.’  Following the sheep were two sheep dogs, and I realized that their names were, Goodness and Mercy.”

    Good way to think about how the goodness and mercy of our God follow us throughout our lives.  I like to think of those two dogs – Goodness and Mercy – as the Hounds of Heaven!  And yet!  And yet, the Hounds of Heaven do more than just follow.  The Hebrew word for follow can also be translated, “pursue.”

    Think about it.  Here you are – plodding through life – making the best of every day – and you turn around and take a look.  Who’s that behind you?  Oh yes!  The Hounds of Heaven.  Goodness and Mercy!  Not stalking you.  Pursuing you.  

    Look.  No matter how well you think you know the 23rd Psalm – or how well you know Jesus as the Good Shepherd – it seems to me that we can’t fully comprehend God’s goodness and mercy until we also understand God as the pursuer – the One who pursues us when we’ve wandered away.  There’s a difference – a big difference – between being followed – and being pursued.  There’s a difference between looking over your shoulder and seeing good old reliable Goodness and Mercy just sauntering along behind you – and being pursued by the Hounds of Heaven – a breathless – in pursuit – Goodness and Mercy.

    Let me share with you another story.

    He was known as a mean, old man.  Resentful.  Bitter.  Someone said that his bitterness was justified.  His beloved wife died giving birth to their one child.  The child died shortly thereafter from complications.  “He has reason to be bitter,” they said in town.

    Never went to church.  Never had anything to do with anyone.  When, in his late sixties, they carried him out of his apartment and over to the hospital to die, no one visited, no one sent cards or flowers.  He went there to die alone.

    But, there was this nurse.  Well, she wasn’t really a nurse.  Not yet anyway.  She was a student nurse in training.  And because she was in training, she didn’t know everything that they teach you in school about the necessity for detachment.  The need for distance with your patients.

    She befriended the old man.  It had been so long since he had friends, he didn’t know how to act with one.  He told her, “Go away!  Leave me alone!”

    She would just smile.  Try to coax him to eat some jello.  At night she would tuck him in.  “Don’t need nobody to help me,” he would growl.

    Soon, he grew so weak, he didn’t have the strength to resist her kindness.  Late at night, after her duties were done, she would pull up a chair, and sit by his bed, and sing to him as she held his old, gnarled hand.  He looked up at her in the dim lamp light and wondered if he saw the face of a little one whom he never got to see as an adult.  And a tear formed in his eye when she kissed him goodnight.  For the first time in forty years, he said, “God bless you.”

    As the young nurse left the room, two others remained behind.  Breathless – whispering in the old man’s ears the last word he heard before slipping away.  

    “Gotcha.”  The word was whispered in unison – by Goodness and Mercy.

    So you see?  Do you see?  Yes indeed.  We do have a story to tell.  The story of Jesus our Good Shepherd – and of his goodness and mercy.  It’s a story that says – and by the way – I will never tire of saying this –

    No matter who you are.  No matter what you’ve done.  No matter where you’ve been.  And if you’re prone to wander – no matter how long you’ve been away.  Jesus – our Good Shepherd – comes – pursuing us.  And gently leads us home.  

    He has set the Hounds of Heaven upon you – Goodness and Mercy – to follow us – no!  To pursue us – all the days of our lives.  That we might dwell in the house of the Lord – forever!


Posted by: AT 12:09 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, April 16 2018

Luke 24:36b-48
    Imagine for a moment – just for a moment – that you have just won the Lottery.  And not just any lottery, but either the Powerball Lottery or the Mega Millions jackpot.  And imagine you had won back in early January when the Powerball jackpot stood at $570 million, while at the same time, the Mega Millions jackpot came in at a substantially less amount – $450 million.  Had anyone been able to hit the astronomically impossible odds of getting the selections right for those two lottery prizes – they would have one $1,020,000,000.00!  

    But imagine winning one of those jackpots!  What’s your first reaction when you discover that you’ve picked all of the winning numbers?  What do you do?  I imagine you’d be giddy with excitement.  Jumping up and down.  Screaming and shouting.  “I own!  I won! I won!...I can’t believe I won!”  And then of course – you’d tell someone, right?  You’d want to tell someone.  Your lawyer.  Your accountant.  And of course – your pastor!  

    Now, I have no idea where either of these two jackpots stand today – because I really don’t pay attention.  And quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to win that much money.  I would be like the woman somewhere in New Hampshire who won the Powerball Lottery and who successfully won in court her right to remain anonymous.  

    And I’ll bet –oh – maybe that was a bad choice of words – but I wouldn’t be surprised that in the few minutes that I’ve been talking to you this [evening] [morning] some of you were already dreaming or fantasizing about what you would do with those outrageously huge jackpot amounts.  

    But for those who do win – against tremendous odds – the realization has to be overwhelming.  Overwhelming sense of shock – surprise – and joy, wouldn’t you agree?  A “wow” moment if ever there were one.  Surprised by joy!

    Same things happens with the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes.  You’ve seen the commercials, right?  A sweepstakes crew with TV cameras, lights, balloons, and a man with a huge $10 million dollar cardboard check rings the doorbell.  Someone answers the door – and. well – you’ve seen their reaction, right?  Their mouths are wide open.  Their eyes are bugging out of their heads.  They start screaming and dancing around and shouting, “I don’t believe it!  I won, I won, I won I won!”  

    The same reaction you would have if someone rang your doorbell and handed you a check for $10 million check.  Or a $1000 a week for life – or whatever the amount is now.  

    I suspect that two things are happening at the same time.  First, their heads are telling them, “this can’t be happening,” and second, their emotions are showing unbridled joy.  If you know what I’m talking about – and you have that image in your head – then you have an example of what it means to be “Surprised by joy!”

    Now – you’ve got that picture in your head?  Hold on to it.  Because I want to think that that is the reaction that the disciples had when Jesus first appears to them after he is raised from the dead.  It’s a perfect description for the way Luke tells this encounter between Jesus and his disciples.  He says that “ their joy, they were disbelieving.” In other words – they were “Surprised by joy!”
     Now you have to understand that when Jesus died – when he was buried – all of their hopes – all of their dreams – all their expectations – had been buried along with him.  You see, they knew that dead people don’t come back to life.  I mean, what are the chances of that happening?  You have a better chance of winning the Powerball lottery, right?

    And yet – and yet – that’s what did happen.  And when Jesus appears to them – it is a real live – flesh and blood Jesus.  
    Still – Jesus has to convince them that he is indeed alive – that he has indeed been raised – just like he told them he would be.  Just like he told them he would be.  

    By the way, if this story sounds the least bit familiar, it should be.  We heard this same story told to us last week from John’s Gospel, remember?  Jesus stands among 10 of the disciples and says, “Shalom.  Peace be with you.”  And of course, Thomas wasn’t there, and he doubts what the disciples tell him about seeing Jesus – and a week later they’re all together again – this time Thomas is with them – and Jesus invites Thomas to reach out and touch him – asking him, “Do you believe because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”  By the way – you know who that is, right?  Yeah – that’s us.  That’s us.

    Today we’re hearing the same story.  Luke tells the story a little bit differently than John, but nevertheless, it’s the same story – and Jesus has to convince the disciples that he really is alive.  

    Again, he shows them his hands and his side – and then he asks them – I don’t know – he asks them like a teenager coming home from school – “Ya got anything to eat?”  I mean, think about it.  He’s been in that tomb for three days.  Probably hasn’t had anything to eat since well – what we call the Last Supper was most likely his last supper. He’s got to be famished.

    “Yeah – Jesus – yeah.  We’ve got some broiled fish over here?  You like it broiled?  Sorry we don’t have much of anything else, but if we’d known you were going to be here we would have…. Oh yeah.  You did tell us, didn’t you?  More than once.”  

    And Jesus eats the fish in front of them.  Now – do not overlook this point.  Jesus has to convince them that it is really he, and that he is not a ghost – he is not a vision – he is not the product of a mass hallucination.  No.  He eats food.  In front of them.  This Jesus who was dead and buried on Friday is alive on Sunday.  

    So now you know why we can say that the disciples were surprised by joy!

    So Jesus appears to them. Talks with them.  Eats with them.  He shows them his wounds – his scars.  And let me tell you this – just in case you might be wondering.  This same resurrected Christ that the disciples saw on that first Easter day – and for 40 days thereafter – is the same Christ that we too will see someday.  And for all eternity –   for all eternity – Jesus will bear those marks – those scars – as a reminder to us of all that Jesus went through on our behalf.  

    Let me share with you the “…beautiful story about the courtship of Moses Mendelssohn, the grandfather of the great German composer, Felix Mendelssohn.   Moses Mendelssohn was a small man with a misshapen, humped back.  One day he visited a merchant in Hamburg who had a lovely daughter. Though Mendelssohn admired her greatly, she avoided him, seemingly afraid of his grotesque hump.

    “On the last day of his visit he went to tell her goodbye.  Her face seemed to beam with beauty but when he entered, she cast her eyes to the floor. Mendelssohn's heart ached for her.  After some small talk, he slowly drew to the subject that filled his mind.  ‘Do you believe that marriages are made in Heaven?’ he asked.  (Talk about a pickup line!)

    “‘Yes,” replied the young woman.’  And do you?’

    “‘Of course,’ Mendelssohn answered.  ‘I believe that at the birth of each child, the Lord says, ‘'That boy shall marry that girl.’  But in my case, the Lord also added, ‘But alas, his wife will have a terrible hump.’

    “‘At that moment I called, ‘Oh Lord, that would be a tragedy for her. Please give me the humped back and let her be beautiful.’
    “We are told that the young woman was so moved by these words that she reached for Mendelssohn's hand and later became his loving and faithful wife.”   Sounds like one of those Hallmark Channe movies, doesn’t it!

    In trying to deal with the meaning of the cross on which Christ died, the early church came to understand that those nail prints in the hands and feet of the Master should have been ours.  But God so loved the world that he sent his own Son to bear the burden brought about by the iniquity of us all.  That’s how much God really cares about us.”

    To know that God loves you that much – that He sent His only Son to die for you – and to know that he is raised – that He lives – and that he bears those scars for all eternity – is an amazing thing.

    So – those first disciples were surprised by joy.  And from frightened and uncertain men and women, they became men and women of great courage and conviction.  

    All because of that day when they were surprised by joy – on that day when they saw and heard and touched the risen Savior.    
    Folks – I cannot stress this enough.  The resurrection is not just some good and wonderful thing that happened to Jesus.  The resurrection is not just some good and wonderful thing that God did for Jesus.  The promise is for us too!   We have seen– and we have heard the good news – and we now know what God can do with dead bodies – and you know what that means.  Someday we too shall have a resurrection.  

    Because of the resurrection, we no longer have to live in fear of death.   Jesus had the winning ticket – and won the lottery – the only lottery that really matters.  And Jesus shares that winning ticket with those of us he calls his friends.  
    So don’t be afraid to dance and shout and sing.  Because when Christ won – we won!      

Posted by: AT 10:03 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, April 10 2018

John 20:19-31

    We had quite a crowd here last week.  Thank you for being here today.  

    And what a marvelous opportunity to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus!  More than any other message – I love to share the good news of Jesus risen from the dead.  Because quite frankly – that is the basis for our faith.  Christianity is based on this one thing and this one thing only.  The Resurrection of Jesus.  Everything else we teach and practice stems from that one event.

    So that leaves us with a fundamental question that everyone has to answer for themselves.  Is Jesus alive, or is he dead?  That is THE key question we all need to wrestle with.  If Jesus is not raised from the dead, there is no Christianity – there is not church – and our faith is in vain.

    Even the first disciples needed to answer this question.  Is Jesus dead, or is he alive?  There was no question that he had died as a result of crucifixion.  There was no question that he had been buried, and they knew exactly where his tomb was.    

    As we learned last week, Mary Magdalen went to the tomb and found that it was empty.  She saw the risen Lord face to face.  She runs to tell the disciples.  Actually she ends up telling Peter and John that she had seen the Lord.  They run to the tomb – and again, it’s the right one.  They know where the tomb is.  And they find it empty.  But the Lord they do not see.  

    Well, later that night, 10 of the disciples – and there may have been others with them – were all huddled together in a room with the doors locked.  These were frightened men and women.  Their Lord and Master was dead.  And they didn’t know what to do.  They didn’t know where to go. When suddenly – Jesus appears to all of them at one time.  And when they see the Lord – hear him, touch him – their fears are turned to joy.  SO the question – is Jesus dead or alive – was no longer a question they needed to answer.  They had their answer.  Jesus was very much alive – having been risen from the dead.

    But one guy was missing.  Most of you know who I’m talking about.  Thomas.  When the disciples told Thomas that the risen Jesus had appeared to them – Thomas would not believe them.  

    Now, I think most of you know how I feel about this.  Because Thomas doubted what the others told him, he has become known around the world as Doubting Thomas.  Most of you know that I think this is a bum rap.  After all, we all know Peter denied Jesus three times, and yet no one calls him Denying Peter.  

    And Thomas wasn’t the only one with doubts.  Do you think when Mary ran and told Peter and John that the tomb was empty and that she had seen the Lord, that they believed her?  No. They ran to the tomb to see for themselves.  Quite frankly – I would have run too.  Although not quite as fast as I used to.  I would have wanted to see for myself. So I would have run to that tomb too!  So Peter and John have doubts about what Mary tells them – and they run to the tomb to check it out for themselves.
    And if you remember from another post-resurrection story – from Luke’s gospel – there’s the story of Jesus who joins two of his followers on the road to Emmaus.  What did these two disciples tell Jesus – and remember – they don’t yet recognize him – they tell Jesus that some women from their group found the tomb empty – but it seemed to them as if what the women told them were an idle tale.

    You see – Thomas is not the only one who has doubts.  And yet, he’s the one who gets the unfortunate label of Doubting Thomas.  

    So I’d like to say something positive about Thomas.  For instance, in John chapter 11, Jesus goes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead.  But the disciples are shocked.  Bethany is just a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem.  And the disciples look at each other.  They look at Jesus, and one of them says, “Rabbi, are you nuts?  The Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”  For Jesus to go anywhere near Jerusalem where the religious leaders are extremely hostile towards him is absolute lunacy to the disciples.  But it is Thomas who says, “Let us also go with him – that we may die with him.”

    Now – of all the disciples – Thomas is the one who shows loyalty and devotion.  And quite frankly – courage.  What I want to know is, why don’t we know Thomas as Courageous Thomas?

But, unfortunately, we remember him as Doubting Thomas.  But we shouldn’t be giving Thomas a bad rap.  And let me tell you why.

In some ways I suspect that when we hear about Thomas, most of us are saying to ourselves, “Oh yeah.  I get that.”  And we think that – and maybe some of us have been bold enough to say out loud – “I understand where Thomas is coming from.  Because that’s exactly what I’m feeling right now,” – or – “I used to feel that same way too.”

Let me be clear.  Thomas is not a bad guy for doubting – and neither are you!  There’s nothing wrong with having doubts.  

Notice that when Jesus appears to the disciples again – and this time when Thomas is with them – somehow Jesus knows that Thomas had expressed his doubts.  And when Jesus confronts Thomas, he doesn’t scold him.  He doesn’t yell at him.  He doesn’t call him a nincompoop.  

No.  He invites Thomas to examine the evidence.  “Put your finger here in my hand.  Touch the wound in my side.  Don’t doubt.  Believe.”  Notice, Thomas doesn’t reach out to touch the wounds of Jesus.  He doesn’t have to.  The presence of the risen Lord is all he needs.  And I love Thomas’ response.  A simple declaration of faith.  “My Lord, and my God!”

Thomas and all the disciples were moved from fear and doubt to belief and joy.

SO – let me invite you to step somewhere into this story.  At one time – ALL of the disciples were frightened – or skeptical – or had their doubts.  And I suspect at one time or another – so did we.  I hope that you have questioned this whole resurrection thing.  And I hope you’re still bold enough to ask questions.  I trust that you are aware of the evidence for the resurrection, and that you’ve given the evidence a fair hearing.  And after examining the evidence, you’ve come to a conclusion.  One way or the other.  

But I want you to know that I am here to help you with those questions.  With your faith struggles.  And if I ever get that book finished – the one that I’ve been working on for over a year now– the one I’ve entitled “Examining the Evidence – Why We Believe What We Believe” – I am hopeful it will help believers – doubters – skeptics – or wherever you find yourself today asking questions and looking for answers – I am hopeful this book will be a resource for you – or for someone you think could benefit from it.  If I don’t finish it before I retire in June – I will focus on it this summer until it’s done.

Anyway – Thomas struggled.  All of those first disciples struggled somehow, someway.  SO I’d like to think that when we struggle that we’re in good company.

And since we’re in good company, let me ask you, where have you struggled?  When has your faith been tested?  Did you ever want to give up on this faith thing?  And maybe you did for a season.  But you came back.  Years ago – or as recently as – I don’t know – last week.  But you came back.  Like the Prodigal Son – or the Prodigal daughter.  You came back.  

Because – as I like to say – because you know that something must have happened that first Easter morning.  The church has always proclaimed that something must have happened that first Easter morning to change those first disciples of Jesus from fear and doubt to belief and joy.  Something must have happened.  How else do you explain that the church spread like wild fire?  It could not be based on a lie.  It had to be based on something that actually happened.  

Those first disciples really, truly, sincerely believed that they had seen Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead.  A literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

This could not have been the result of wishful thinking, a mass hallucination, or a desire to make something good come out of a bad situation.  Something extraordinary must have happened.  Because you need something – something extraordinary to explain the very existence of the church.

    The resurrection is the basis for our faith.  If it were not for Jesus – crucified and risen from the dead – we would not be here today.  

The resurrected Christ changed the lives of those fearful and doubting disciples.  And the amazing thing is – is that the resurrected Jesus – through the power and the presence and the person of the Holy Spirit is still touching hearts and changing lives today.  A dead Messiah – a dead Jesus can’t do that.  

    Only a risen Savior – a living Christ – can turn our fear and doubt into faith – belief – and joy.  That’s what a risen Savior does!  

Posted by: AT 02:24 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Thursday, April 05 2018

   Easter Sunday     

John 18:1-20, I Corinthians 15:1-20

    It’s not often that April Fools' Day and Easter Sunday fall on the same day.  The last time Christians celebrated Easter on April 1st was in 1956, and it won’t happen again in this century until 2029 and 2040, and then not again until 2108 and 2170.  I tell ya, I can’t wait!  What’s amazing is that there is someone somewhere who has taken the time to calculate this!

    How many of you have tried to catch someone already this morning in an April Fools’ prank?  How many of you have fallen victim so far today to an April Fools’ Day prank?  [Turn to someone and say] By the way, did you know that your shoe’s untied?  

    Let me tell you about one famous prank from 1957.  The BBC broadcast a film on TV showing Swiss farmers picking freshly grown spaghetti from spaghetti trees in what they called the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. The BBC was flooded with requests to purchase a spaghetti plant, forcing them to declare the film a hoax on the news the next day.  If you Google “Swiss Spaghetti Harvest,” you can watch it.  It’s about two and a half minutes long.

    Well, we’re here to celebrate the most important event in all of history – and that event is of course the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  You know that there are some who would say we are fools for believing that. You know that, don’t you?  Some would say we’re fools.

    And apparently – the early Christians were thought to be fools too.  I mean, how could anybody believe what they were saying?  They were making these wild, unbelievable claims that the man known as Jesus of Nazareth – who had been crucified – was now alive.  Risen from the dead!  I mean, come on!  Everybody knows dead people don’t come back to life.  What nonsense!  What fools!

    The Apostle Paul – in what I think is one of the best defenses for the resurrection – Paul in our reading today from I Corinthians chapter 15 takes on those who cannot accept the resurrection of Jesus from the dead because, as they say, dead people don’t come back to life.  Everybody knows dead people don’t come back to life.

    So Paul says, “You are absolutely right.  You’re right!  If there is no resurrection – in other words – if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been for nothing. We’ve wasted our time.  And everything we told you – what you yourselves believed – is based on a lie – and your faith has been for nothing.  If Christ has not been raised – then we are of all people most to be pitied.  We are fools to believe that Christ is risen, if it is true that dead people don’t come back to life.”

    So – are we fools too?  We’ve believed what the church has taught and proclaimed for 2,000 some years.  Are we fools too?  Has someone played the worst of the worst April Fools’ joke on us?  

    Or is there evidence – is our faith based on actual, historical evidence for the resurrection?  For years now – it seems like I can go back any number of Easters – and find in my Easter sermons where I have presented the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, and at the same time dismantled all of the efforts that attempt to explain away the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as a lie or a hoax.  Many of you have heard those arguments year after year.  For that reason – not wanting to repeat myself one more time – I’ve chose to do something else.  But I want you to know that it is important for me for you to know that the evidence remains overwhelming in favor of a literal, physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

    So rather than repeat in this sermon once again what I’ve been saying year after year about the evidence for the resurrection – I have printed for you on a half sheet of paper the most compelling pieces of evidence for the resurrection.  I did this for everybody – but especially if this is your first Easter here with us – and you’re hearing about the evidence for the first time.  Or maybe you’re not sure of this whole resurrection thing – you’re skeptical – or you just can’t believe that what I am saying is true.  I want you to look it over.  You’ll find it on that yellow slip of paper that has the flower memorials on the other side.  And if after reading that – not now of course – later – but if after reading that you would like to have a discussion – please call me.  I would be happy to have a conversation about this – the most important thing that ever happened – and the whole reason why there is an Easter to start with.
    So – are we fools for believing this stuff?  Is the joke on us?  Or did somebody else get caught in an April Fools’ joke?  Did Jesus have the last laugh?  

    Was Pontius Pilate – the Roman governor – the guy who sentenced Jesus to the cross – and who later washed his hands of the whole episode – was he fooled?  

    Maybe it was the high priests and religious leaders.  After all – they were the ones who wanted Jesus out of the way.  They’re the ones who convinced Pilate that Jesus was a threat and therefore he ought to be crucified.  Were they fooled?

    Or how about the disciples?  Were they the fools?  After all, they had given up everything – their jobs – their homes – their families – for three years to follow him.  And now this.  They all ran away and deserted him.  Were they the fools?  

    How about Peter?  Was Peter the fool?  Peter denied Jesus three times.  “I..I don’t know the man! (Please don’t do to me what it looks like you’re going to do to him!)”  And he’s the guy who swore he would never leave Jesus.  Was Peter the fool?   

    Or Mary Magdalene.  Was she the fool?  What did she expect to find when she went to the tomb early on that first Easter morning?  Yes – at first she was fooled when she thought he was the gardener.  Take a look at that stained glass window behind me!   I often wish there were a second panel with the look of surprise on her face when she turns around and recognizes Jesus.  And maybe even a third panel showing the look on her face as she tells Peter and John.  

    Or how about Thomas.  Remember Thomas?  He doubted the report from the other disciples after Jesus appeared to them very much alive.  Was Thomas the fool?

    Were they all fooled?  How about you and me?  Have we been fooled all these years?  The unbelieving world thinks we’re crazy.  

    No, the biggest April fool is not Pontius Pilate, not the religious leaders, not the disciples, not Peter, not Mary Magdalene, not Thomas.  And not you and me either!

    Let me suggest that the biggest April fool – the real losers – are none other than sin – death – and the devil.  You know, right at the beginning, Satan failed to tempt Jesus to sin.  So – at the end – Satan gave it his last, best shot.  And with the crucifixion – Satan thought he had won.  “There!  We’re done with Jesus!  His time is over.”

    But it wasn’t over.  Death could not hold him. The grave could not contain him.  And now it's Easter morning, and Jesus is risen!      
And thanks to the resurrection – we now know what God can do with dead bodies.  Death does not have the final word.  Jesus has the final word.  And that final word is resurrection.  Therefore – Because Jesus lives, we too shall live.  And that means our friends – our loved ones – who have passed on before us – they too shall live – with God in Christ forever and ever.

    And if nothing else – that should give us hope.  Hope to carry on now – as fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.  And hope to face the future with the certainty that someday – though we die – we too shall live.
    And that’s why today we proclaim that Jesus is alive!  And we have this moment to reaffirm once again that we too believe that Jesus is indeed risen from the dead.  We’d be fools to say otherwise.  

    With that said, I invite you to join with me in prayer.  “Lord Jesus, many people might not think it's the smartest thing in the world to follow you. In fact, some might think we’re crazy, and that you yourself were something of a lunatic. But we have just enough foolish faith to believe that you pulled it off, that you conquered death and brought life and light to this darkened world.  So we recommit our lives to you – to be your fools, to live for you, and to seek support in that company of fools we call the church.  In your holy name we pray.  Amen”

    “Christ is risen!”  [“He is risen indeed!”]
    “Christ is risen!”  [“He is risen indeed!”]
    “Christ is risen!”  [“He is risen indeed!”]
                                Hallelujah!  Amen    


Posted by: AT 12:27 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, April 03 2018

John 13:1-17,31b-35; I Corinthians 11:23-26; Exodus 12:1-14 
    How many of you have ever watched the TV game show “Family Feud?”  It’s been around for a long time.  It’s interesting in that the contestants are not asked to get answers to questions right.  They’re challenge is to try to guess the most popular responses to certain questions or statements.  

    I understand that one such challenge was this.  “Name one of the 12 Apostles.”  Pretty easy, don’t you think?  You think?  Well let me ask you.  How would you respond if I were to ask you to name one of the 12 apostles?  Just anybody.  Shout them out.

    Okay, very good.  Now can you guess which of the twelve Apostles – at least on the game show – of the twelve – whose name was most popular?  Anybody?  Yeah, I would have thought Peter, or John.  But the most popular answer was – Paul.  Paul!

    Hang on to that for a minute, because I’m going to ask if anyone knows who sang at the Last Supper?  Famous singing group…Peter, Paul and Mary.   I remember my childhood friend, Michael, telling me that joke.  And of course, I had to repeat it.  SO I went and told my mother that joke, and she said, “The problem with that is, that Paul wasn’t at the last supper.  He wasn’t yet a follower of Jesus.”

    So now you see the problem – both with the joke and the Family Feud answer. Although he did become an Apostle after his conversion to Christianity, he was not at the Last Supper because he was not one of the original twelve.  And since he wasn’t one of the original twelve, you understand the problem with the most popular answer given on Family Feud.  Which really says something about the general populations’ understanding of just who’s who in the Bible.

    So Paul wasn’t one of the original 12 disciples.  He wasn’t at the Last Supper.  And yet, when it comes to our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it is Paul’s words that we are most familiar with.  Not Matthew’s.   Not Mark’s.  Not Luke’s.  But Paul’s.  I’m talking about the Words of Institution.

    Now all of you fourth graders – you remember that, right?  You remember we talked about the Words of Institution?  It starts this way, “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread….”  You remember those words, right?  And you remember that we call those words the Words of Institution.  And that’s because Jesus started something – he instituted something new that night.  And we call it the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion or – remember that funny Greek word that means to give thanks?  Anybody?  Eucharist.  Sometimes we call it the Eucharist.  Which simply means to give thanks.

    So Paul wasn’t there.  And neither were we.  And yet – and yet – I would like to suggest that in a way, we are.  We are there.  And I want all of you who are celebrating your First Communion tonight – I want you to know that you are participating in something that has been going on in the church ever since Jesus instituted – ever since Jesus started – this meal with his disciples almost 2,000 years ago.  In an unbroken line from where we are tonight – going all the way back to that first night with Jesus and his disciples – Christians have been celebrating the Lord’s Supper for a very long time.  

    It’s almost as though we are eating bread and drinking wine with every Christian in every time and every place going all the way back to Jesus.  SO in that sense you could say that we are there with Jesus – or more importantly – tonight Jesus is also here with us.

    But there is something else that is important about this night.  The lesson that we read tonight from John’s Gospel does not have the Words of Institution.  In fact you’re not going to find those words in John’s Gospel at all.  But what we do have is something that only John has.  Matthew, Mark and Luke chose to leave this part of the story out.

    And what John tells us that none of the other Gospel writers tell us is that at the Last Supper, Jesus takes on the role of a servant.  So here they are – Jesus and the disciples – all together in the upper room.  And apparently – and we have to go to Luke’s Gospel to discover this – apparently the disciples are arguing among themselves about who among them is the greatest.  And I have this picture in my head that – that while they are arguing among themselves about which of them is the greatest – Jesus silently slips out of his robe – and wraps a towel around his waist – and takes a basin of water – and begins – one by one – to wash the disciples’ feet.

    Now you’ve got to understand.  The folks with Jesus that night are disciples of Jesus, and they call him Lord.  They call him Master.  And yet, here he is – their Lord – their Master – washing their feet.  This – folks – this is a job that is reserved for the servants of the house.  

    I can just see it.  The room grows quiet.  No more talk about who among them is the greatest.  Jesus – their Lord their Master – their teacher – has just taught them another lesson about what it means to be a disciple.  

    I’m not convinced that even at this point that they fully get it.  

    And Jesus says to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

    Wow!  Now I don’t think that Jesus was suggesting that every time we meet that we take our shoes and socks off and wash each other’s feet.    Can you imagine?  Can you imagine if we announced, “We need volunteers next Sunday who will wash the feet of everyone who comes here for worship.” Does anyone here want to volunteer to do that?  No?  Didn’t think so.

    And yet, Jesus says, I have set for you an example.  To serve others.  And he also says, “I give you a new commandment.  To love one another as I have loved you.”  

    By the way, that’s where we get the name for this night.  Maundy Thursday.  Maundy comes from the Latin word “mandatum,” – we get our English word mandate from there.  Jesus gives us a new com-mand-ment – a new mandate.  To love one another.  And to love by serving.

    Now, quite frankly, I’m not sure we always want a Jesus who asks us to serve.  I don’t think we want that kind of Jesus at all.  What we want is a Jesus who will die for us.  A Jesus who will forgive us.  A Jesus who will give us what we need.  And you know, we do have a Jesus who does those things for us.  And yet, we also have a Jesus who says, “I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.”  In the church, we call this discipleship.  Being “Christ like.”  Being like Christ.  Learning what it means to be one who serves.

    But it isn’t always easy to be Christ like, especially when it comes to serving others.  But you know something?  As disciples of Jesus Christ we are called to be servants in this world – just like Jesus.  To become experts with towels and basins.  To learn to be servants to others.  Just like Jesus.  

And let me let you in on a little secret.  The happiest people I know – the most joy-filled people I know – and studies bear this out – the happiest people in the world are not people who live for themselves – but people who have learned to love and to serve others.  Just like Jesus.

    Jesus’ purpose is that he came to love us and to serve us.  And it is our calling to have that same mind – that same attitude that was in Christ Jesus.  To become Christ-like in our serving when it comes to living with others – working with others – going to school with others – worshipping with others – and when the traffic is heavy and we have to share Transit Road with others.  

    So tonight, we share in a supper of love and forgiveness.  Given to us by our Lord – our Master – our Teacher Jesus Christ.  Who says to us tonight, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

    But the part of the story that we don’t always hear – or at least don’t always remember – is that the Lord Jesus Christ – on the night he was betrayed – took a towel and wrapped it around his waist.  He took a basin of water and he washed the disciples’ feet.  [Pointing to the towel and the basin of water…] And he said “Do this.  Do this too.”

    Remember that as you come to the table tonight.  As you are given the bread.  As you are given the wine.  Remember that there is a towel and a basin of water waiting for you.  And if you choose to do so – feel free to dip your finger in the water – make the sign of the cross in remembrance of all that Christ has done for you.

    But tonight.  Become an expert with towels and basins.  Jesus makes a difference in your life.  Now it’s our turn.  Make a difference in someone’s life for the sake of – and in the name of Jesus Christ.



Posted by: AT 08:31 am   |  Permalink   |  Email

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