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Wednesday, June 06 2018
Acts 2:41-47; Romans 12:9-21
In April of 1977, I packed up my stuff and left my home in Niagara Falls to begin my first real job as a programmer-analyst in Dayton Ohio. The adult Sunday School class at my church in Bergholz – a small town just outside of Niagara Falls – laid hands on me and prayed for me as I went on my way.
In Dayton, I attended a church that welcomed me with open arms. Oddly enough – the name of that church was Zion Lutheran. But those folks became my family in a place where I was a stranger. And even to this day, I am still in touch with people from that church.
Some five years later, I packed up my stuff again, and moved back to Western NY, and joined a church in Elma, just south of here. And those folks welcomed me with open arms too. Of course they had to. I had just married their pastor! Actually, no, they didn’t have to. They chose to.
Then, in 1991 – I joined another church – where I also was welcomed with open arms. It was this church. This congregation. And the people who were here then didn’t have to. They chose to. We chose each other. Fewer than 200 of those folks who were here when I started back then are left now. But I will always think of them as my first church.
And yet – I have never served as an ordained pastor anywhere else. Through these 27 years – we have said hello and goodbye to a lot of people. But in all cases – we have been church together. It has been a wonderful partnership.
I remember at my interview with the church council 27 years ago, I asked a question of everyone in the room, asking what each one in the room did at the church. What ministries were they involved in. And after we went around the room – I remember being amazed at how much involvement – how much ministry was being performed by everyone. And then I said, “Keep on doing what you’re doing, because if you don’t do it, it won’t get done.” I was so happy to learn that I would become pastor of a church where the pastor was not expected to do everything. As I have reminded you over and over again – this is and always has been a partnership. The Lord did not give all of the gifts to the pastor alone. But each one of us has been gifted for some ministry – for some service – for the glory of God – for the benefit of others – and for our own good!
And so, we grew. We grew in numbers. We grew in the depth of our faith. We grew in the understanding of God’s Word. We grew to love each other – and to consider each other true brothers and sisters in Christ.
And doesn’t that sound like what the church is about? The head of the church is Jesus Christ. And we – the church – are the body of Christ. Christ followers.
And of all the options I guess I could have preached on today, I wanted to remind you of something that I focus on from time to time. And that is to remind you that we are Romans 12 Christians living in an Acts 2 church.
So – let me remind you one more time. Being a Christian is more than just going to church on [Saturday] [Sunday]. It’s more than just hoping to go to heaven someday. It’s a way of life. I can’t think of a better way of life – or a better way of living.
Romans 12:9-21 is an excellent example of what that way of life looks like.
Do not be conformed to this world. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another... serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering,...persevere in prayer...Extend hospitality. Bless those who persecute you;...Live in harmony with one another;...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
That’s what I mean when I say that we are Romans 12 Christians. What Paul is saying – and what Jesus is saying – is, “Be this.” Be this. If you want to be a disciple of Jesus – then learn to be this.
Again – I don’t want you to get the idea that following Jesus is a system of do’s and don’ts – you know – this is what a Christian does – or this is what a Christian doesn’t do. I want to move beyond that to say that being a follower of Jesus Christ – is a way of life – it’s a way of being – and sometimes that may take a lifetime to develop.
So the Romans 12 Christian gives us an idea of what our lives as individual Christians can look like. The Acts 2 side of the equation? Well the Acts 2 side of the equation shows what our life together as church looks like.
Acts 2 says that those first Christians were devoted to the apostle’s teaching. Since the New Testament had yet to be written, listening to the teaching of the apostles would be the equivalent of us reading our Bibles and getting involved in a Bible study.
It says they joined in fellowship. In other words, they spent time together developing friendships with other Christians.
They spent time together in the temple. And when it says that they broke bread together that’s a reference to the Lord’s Supper. So spending time together in the temple and breaking bread together tells us that they worshipped God together.
It says they devoted themselves to the prayers. This tells me that they were people of prayer.
When it says that they shared things in common, and sell what they had to give to others in need, that tells me that they developed a healthy understanding of what it means to give from their financial resources.
And when it says that they had the goodwill of all the people, that tells me that they were involved in works of ministry, including telling other the Good news of Jesus Christ.
Can anybody tell me what’s going on here? What does it sound like these early Christians were practicing? That’s right. They were being church together – practicing what we call the Six Marks of Discipleship.
And doesn’t that sound like Zion? We are a church that worships God the Father in the name of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are a praying church. A giving church. A serving church. We lift up God’s Word as the source and norm of our faith – as the tool by which we learn about all that God has done for us – and who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ. And as I told you last week – the church ought to be a fun place to be. And you agreed. The churchy word for this is fellowship.
One of the fun things that make this place so exciting is the growth we have experienced. As we grew – you weren’t afraid to invest in what God is doing in this place. Thank you for being generous stewards of what God has given you.
Thank you for making the sacrifices – in other words – for giving something that you love for something that you love even greater still. The gifts that you gave that made our building expansion – including the building of this sanctuary 17 years ago – that was so necessary. And debt free after just a couple of years!
But it really wasn’t bricks and mortar and wooden arches that we were investing in. What you have done – what you are really doing is investing in the lives of others. People who are already here. People who have yet to walk through our doors. Infants. Children. Youth. Young adults. Families. Older folks who are retired – or who are about to be retired. Children who have yet to be born. Thanks to you, together we’re touching hearts and changing lives – making a difference in the name of Jesus Christ. And I don’t know about you, but that feels good. Does it feel good to you?
We’re loving God, and loving our neighbor because nothing else matters. I just want to say, thank you to all of you who helped make this mission that we share – this ministry in which we are partners – so effective.
Every day I have been here, I looked forward to being here. Well, okay. There was one day just a couple of years ago when I just didn’t feel like being here. I think it was a Wednesday. I’m serious! Just that one day. But hey! One day in 27 years – I’d say that’s not too bad. Listen! When you love what you do – as I have loved what I do – you’ll never go to work a day in your life. I don’t know about you – but I have been blessed simply because I have been a member of Christ’s church right here, for 27 years.
Well – just as those first disciples understood what it means to be church – heck, they defined what it means to be church for all of the generations who followed – my hope and my prayer for you – is that you continue to do what you are doing – because if you don’t do it – it won’t get done.
Even Jesus couldn’t do it all by himself. Our reading from Luke’s gospel says that Jesus sent out 70 disciples to do the work of ministry and proclaiming the Good News. And you know what? He sends each one of you too!
In fact – until the next pastor is called – there might just be a need for some of you to step and try to do something you might never have done before. Are you ready, willing and able to continue the work that Jesus is calling you to do?
Well. Let me leave you with one more story. Those of you who are opera buffs are familiar with the name Puccini. He wrote “Madame Butterfly,” “La Boheme,” and “La Tosca.”
In 1922 Puccini was stricken with cancer. He said, “I want to write one more opera.” So he set down to write “Turandot.” His students said, “But suppose you die?”
“Oh,” Puccini replied, “my disciples will finish it. Don’t worry.”
In 1924 he died, and his disciples did finish his music. Its premiere was in Milan, Italy at the La Scala Opera House, under the baton of Puccini’s best student, Arturo Toscanini. The performance proceeded and came to that point in the music where the composer had laid down his pen. Tears streamed down Toscanini’s face. He put down the baton and turned to the audience and said, “Thus far, the master wrote – and then the master died.”
Then picking up his baton, his face wreathed with smiles, Toscanini shouted out to the audience, “But his disciples finished the music.”
My dear, dear friends. What Jesus started nearly 2000 years ago – we his disciples continue. There is so much more that still needs to be done. There is so much more music left to write. So many songs to be sung. Here in this place. This is just the end of a chapter. There is more – so much more – that the Lord is going to do here in this place. With you. For you. Among you.
So keep on moving forward. Keep on growing. Keep on keeping on. And see what the Lord has yet to do!
As for me, well, it’s been a good run. And we still have one more week left to go!
Thank you for letting me be your pastor.
Tuesday, May 29 2018
Today is the one day out of the year that the church focuses on our understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Almost sounds like we Christians have three gods, doesn’t it! But no. There is only one God. Not three. A one personed God in three persons. Kind of difficult to fully understand, I know. This understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is, as I am sure you know, the Trinity.
But I am setting aside our annual focus on the Trinity today. And I chose a different Gospel reading for our focus than the one appointed for today. It’s a reading that should be familiar. It’s the parable of the lost sheep – and the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to look for the one that is lost. It’s also the parable about the woman who loses one of her ten coins. And she sweeps her house until she finds it. What we learn from this is that God searches. God searches diligently for his lost children until he brings them home.
But what we often overlook is the last line. It’s the line that says, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Sound like a party to me! The angels of God party. And you know what? So should we. What I want you to hear today – one more time – is that church should be a fun place to be. A place where Christians feel free to party and have a good time together – while we worship and serve God together. A place where your pastor can be unrestrained to tell corny jokes from time to time. Yes? One of the things I want you to remember before I leave – is that the Kingdom of God is a party!
Now I have told many stories that I got from sociologist and author Tony Campolo over the years. But the one I am about to tell, well, this one has been my favorite by far. It’s been more than twenty years since I last told it. It’s from Campolo’s book “The Kingdom of God is A Party.” And I stole – I mean – I borrowed that title for this sermon. Listen!
“If you live on the East Coast and travel to Hawaii, you know that there is a time difference that makes three O’clock in the morning feel like it’s nine. If you know of what I speak, you will understand when I tell you that whenever I go out to our fiftieth state I find myself wide awake long before dawn. Not only do I find myself up and ready to go while almost everybody else is still asleep, but I find that I want breakfast when almost everything on the island is still closed. With this background you should understand why at 3:30 in the morning I was wandering up and down the streets of Honolulu looking for a place to get something to eat.
Up a side street I found a little place that was still open. I went in, took a seat on one of the stools at the counter, and waited to be served. This was one of those sleazy places that deserves the name greasy spoon. It was the only place I could find.
The guy behind the counter came over and asked, “What d’ya want?”
I told him I wanted a cup of coffee and a donut.
He poured a cup of coffee, wiped his grimy hand on his smudged apron, and then he grabbed a donut off the shelf behind him. I’m a realist. I know that in the back room of that restaurant, donuts are probably dropped on the floor and kicked around, but I really would have appreciated it if he had used a pair of tongs and placed the donut on some wax paper.
As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.
It was a small place, and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”
Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone. “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing “happy birthday?”
“Come on!” said the woman sitting next to me. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it was my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
When I heard that I made a decision. Is at and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the guy behind the counter and I asked him, “Do they come in her every night?”
“Yeah!” he answered.
“The one right next to me, does she come here every night?”
“Yeah!” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in every night. Why d’ya wanta know?”
“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him. What do you say you and I throw a birthday party for her – right here – tomorrow night?”
A smile slowly crossed his chubby cheeks and he answered, “That’s great! I like it! That’s a great idea!”
“Look,” I told him, “If it’s OK with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about 2:30 and decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake!’
“No way,” said Harry. (That was his name.) “The birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.”
At 2:30 the next morning, I was back at the diner. With crepe paper and a sign that read “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I decorated the diner from one end to the other.
The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes….and me!
At 3:30, the diner door swung open, and in walked Agnes and her friend. When they came in, we all screamed “Happy birthday!”
Never have I seen a person so flabbergasted…so stunned…so shaken. We sang happy birthday to her. As we came to the end, her eyes moistened. Then, when the cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.
Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles Agnes”! If you don’t, I’m gonna have to.” After an endless few seconds, he did. He handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake Agnes. Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake.”
Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look Harry, is it all right with you if I…if I…keep the cake a little while? “Sure,” said harry. “Take it home if you like.”
“Can I?” she asked. Then looking at me she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I’ll take the cake home and be right back. Honest!”
As she left, a stunned silence filled the room. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?”
In looking back it seems like an odd thing to do. But I prayed. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.
When I finished, Harry, with a trace of hostility in his voice said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning/”
Harry waited a moment, and then almost sneered as he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.”
Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all like to join a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning?
Listen! That’s exactly the kind of church that Jesus came to create. Too often we get hung up on being too prim and proper. I mean, just read the Gospels. Pay attention to the number of times Jesus partied with prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinner. These outcasts – these lepers of society, if you will – found in Jesus someone who would eat and drink with them, and they took to him with excitement.
I firmly believe that church ought to be fun – and that the Kingdom of God – is a party. And I hope and trust and pray that the party will continue long after I have left. And hey! I don’t know about you – but let me tell you – I’m still having fun here at this place that we call church. Still having fun after all these years. And in the next two weeks, there’s still so much we have to celebrate.
Hearts that have been touched. Lives that have been changed. Sinners –that’s you and me – saved by God’s grace. For whom the angels rejoice and throw a party.
So today – Jesus invites us to the party. To the table. To the table where there is room for everyone. 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.
There is room for you here. Here – where the Kingdom of God is a party!
Monday, May 21 2018
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15; Acts 2:1-21
“Going Green” is a phrase we are hearing a lot of these days. Everyone – it seems – is going green. And that’s not a bad idea. I’m constantly pulling things out of the trash around here – old worship bulletins, plastic water bottles – that kind of stuff – and throwing them instead into our church’s recycle bins. Oh yes – I know. I drive the staff nuts!
If something is compostable, I throw it into my compost bin at home. I even rip open my used tea bags – and throw the used tea leaves into my compost. And my coffee grounds. I have no need for the compost! But I compost anyway.
Nancy and I have replaced our light bulbs with energy efficient fluorescent bulbs. As we replace our kitchen and washing machine appliances – we buy energy efficient units. Energy star efficient all the way. I guess I do these things because I feel for me it’s the right thing to do. When our 20 year old water tank went on us 2 years ago, we replaced it with an energy efficient tankless water system. And since the furnace was the same age – and although it was working fine – we replaced it at the same time with a high-energy efficient unit.
A number of years ago, the church added solar panels to the roof to generate electricity. Nancy and I have talked about doing the same at our home. A recent power outage that lasted more than a day at my house – I have a wood burning fireplace that I heated the family room with – showed just how much we rely on a variety of sources of power. I want to install a partial-house generator this summer so that I’ll never be without power again.
So the world needs power. But let me tell you something else. The church needs power. And I’m not talking now about solar panels or natural gas. The power I’m talking about when I say the church needs power comes from a different source. I’m talking about the power of the Holy Spirit.
Now – before the church goes green – and now I’m talking about the altar hangings that will be changed to green in just two weeks – we first go red. Today is one of two red days in the life of the church. That’s because today we celebrate the day of Pentecost. One of the three great festivals of the church year.
Christmas is the first. We celebrate the birth of Jesus – God becoming flesh and living among us. The second major festival is Easter. That’s when we celebrate Jesus rising from the dead.
And then there is today. Pentecost. The birthday of the church. The coming of the Holy Spirit in power. You can read all about it in Acts chapter 2.
You see, before the Holy Spirit came, the church was powerless. There were some 120 disciples of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem – in hiding – living in fear of the authorities. Yes, they had seen the risen Savior – Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Some of them had watched as Jesus had ascended into heaven some 10 days earlier. But still they are without power.
And so they wait. They just wait. Jesus had told them in Acts 1:8 that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them. The question is power to do what?
Well, as we heard just a few moments ago, the disciples were all gathered into one place. And there came the sound of a violent wind. Wind power? Not exactly. And then tongues of fire appeared over each one’s head. Burning methane? Not a chance!
What they experienced is the power of the Holy Spirit. And they began to speak in other languages. And Peter – good old Peter – the same dude who denied knowing Jesus – and then went and wept bitterly – now has the power of the Holy Spirit within him. And now in the power of the Spirit he stands up with boldness and preaches a sermon to the crowd that has gathered. And at the end – when he is finished – we read that 3,000 people were baptized that day. 3,000 people were added to the church in one day.
Those first Christians – the first disciples of Jesus Christ – were not powered by wind or methane or solar or fossil or nuclear fuels. No. Their power came from on high. From the Holy Spirit. This power source enabled them to speak in other languages so that those who spoke other languages might hear and understand. This power source enabled them to speak boldly and with confidence about Jesus Christ – the things that they had heard and experienced and seen. They talked about the Good News of Jesus Christ – and in doing so offered a word of hope. They talked about salvation and what it means to have eternal life with God forever.
Now – lest I give you the wrong impression. The Holy Spirit is not just a force. As I tell you so often –He is not like the force in Star Wars. You remember those movies. “May the force be with you.” And if you’re a good Lutheran – every time you watch those movies you’re likely to have the urge to say – “And also with you.”
But no, don’t you dare confuse the force of Star Wars with the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force. The Holy Spirit is not an “it.” The Holy Spirit is a person. The Bible tells us that He has knowledge (1 Cor. 2:11). He has a will (1 Cor. 12:11). He has a mind (Rom. 8:27). He has affections (Rom. 15:30). You can lie to him (Acts 5:3-4). Not a good idea, by the way. You can insult him (Heb. 10:29). You can grieve him (Eph. 4:30).
The Holy Spirit is a person. The third person of the Trinity. And as such, He is the source of the church’s power.
Folks – the church needs power. My question is, how welcome is Holy Spirit power in our lives?
Because, I’m going to tell you, we still need that power. We need that power if God is going to use us to touch hearts and change lives. We need that power if we’re going to be God’s church that brings the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who do not know him. We need that power if we are to bring hope to the hopeless. Joy to those in despair. Fulfillment and purpose to those who find no meaning in life.
The church needs power. For the here and now. Church is not just a place where we learn about a guaranteed place with God in heaven after death. No. And don’t get me wrong, I am looking forward to heaven as much as anyone. But until then, we need God’s power – God’s Holy Spirit power – God’s Pentecost power – God’s resurrection power – to live life in a Christ-like way in the here and now.
Max Lucado in his book, A Gentle Thunder, gives the following analogy. Let me share it with you.
“Let's imagine that you want to learn to dance. So you go to a bookstore and buy a book on dancing. You take the book home and get to work. You do everything it says. The book says sway; you sway. The book says shuffle; you shuffle. The book says spin; you spin.
“Finally, you think you’ve got it, and you invite your wife to come in and watch. You hold the book open and follow the instructions step by step.
“You continue to read, then dance, read, then dance, until the dance is completed. You plop exhausted on the couch, look at your wife, and proclaim, ‘I executed it perfectly.’
“‘You executed it, all right,’ she sighs. ‘You killed it.’
“‘You forgot the most important part. Where is the music?’
Then Lucado says, “We Christians are prone to follow the book while ignoring the music. We know what we believe. We debate the rules. And sometimes, we step around the dance floor with no music in our hearts.
“Dancing with no music is tough stuff.” Living life as a disciple of Jesus Christ without the power of the Holy Spirit is tough stuff.
“Jesus knew that.” And for that reason, before he ascended into heaven, he told the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them. To fill them. To be the power they would need to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and indeed the entire world as witnesses to the life-changing message – the Good News – of Jesus Christ. And in the power of the Holy Spirit, they did indeed turn the world upside down.
“So think about it; have you ever been comforted? Has God ever brought you peace when the world brought you pain? That’s the power of the Spirit to be the Comforter.
“Have you ever sensed a stab of sorrow for something you’ve said or done that you shouldn’t have said or done? Then you’ve been touched by the Holy Spirit.
“Or have you ever understood a new truth? Or seen an old principle in a new way? The light comes on. Your eyes pop open. “Aha, now I understand.” Ever happen to you? If so, that was the Holy Spirit at work in you.
Have you ever shared the Good News of Jesus Christ with anyone? That’s the power of the Holy Spirit at work in you to give you the power to speak with boldness.
“Well, friends, what do you know? Looks like the Holy Spirit has been and is at work in your life already!”
Those are the words of Max Lucado. He has some good stuff to say, wouldn’t you agree? This is the power of God, the Holy Spirit. And these are the things that the Holy Spirit does. In fact, without the power of the Holy Spirit, we cannot come to faith. Without the power of the Holy Spirit, we cannot even say the words, “Jesus is Lord.”
The Holy Spirit gives us the power we need. Power to speak and to share boldly what we hear and know and have experienced. To share and to speak of the difference that being a disciple of Jesus Christ has made in our lives.
We dance together to the music of the Holy Spirit – the music of our lives. The Holy Spirit is the power the church needs. Amen
Tuesday, May 15 2018
John 17: 6-21
Let me ask you a question. To whom does this church belong? Anybody? Yes. This is God’s church. As the weeks count down to my departure, this is what I want you to remember. To whom does the church belong? It belongs to Jesus Christ.
To be sure, you and I belong to the church. We are members of the church. And just in case you missed it – I really don’t like using the word member. Because the word member can imply ownership – it can imply – as the credit card commercial used to say – that membership has its privileges.
Truth is, we are not owners. Christ is the owner – and we are disciples – and that’s the word I prefer to use – disciples instead of members – we are disciples who belong to Jesus Christ. THEREFORE – we are at best caretakers of this place – this building – or better yet – this organism that we call the church.
And I’ve gotta say that I feel a certain amount of pride in this place. Pride in all of you who give of yourselves – you give your time to this place – you give your talent and your financial resources to the work of ministry that is making a difference in so many people’s lives in and through this place.
This is an amazing place because of all the amazing people who are and who have been a part of this place. And I have to say this. This church is not about me. It has never been about me. But sometimes – okay a lot of times – I can’t help looking at this place – thinking about his place – and – you know – just feeling good about what God has done through all of us in this place. But ultimately – we all need to remember – I know that I need to remember – that this church that we love so much – ultimately – this church – belongs to Jesus Christ.
Now here’s the thing. Even though we are not the owners –still – the church – this church – has been entrusted to us. And that’s a big responsibility if ever there was one.
The first disciples in the early days of the church completely understood this. Even before the day of Pentecost – the day we call the birthday of the church – which we will be celebrating next weekend by the way – those first disciples of Jesus Christ understood that the church did not belong to them.
Our first reading from the book of Acts tells us that the disciples are waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. And as they wait, they feel it necessary, after the death of Judas – to name a successor to Judas. A man by the name of Matthias is selected to take his place among the twelve. Again, they understood that Jesus had entrusted the church to them – and that if the work and the mission and the ministry of the church had to continue – that it was up to them to make sure that it happened.
Pastor Bill Hinson tells the story of a husband and wife team who made a significant impact on the world of science, Pierre and Marie Curie. They were the French scientists who discovered radium. They worked closely together in their laboratory until the day Pierre absent-mindedly walked in front of a wagon and was run over and killed. Marie was devastat¬ed. Pierre had only recently been appointed to a prestigious chair in the Academy of Science.
A few days after Pierre’s death, Marie was invited to take that chair in his place. She accepted with gratitude. A great scientist in her own right, she entered the hall that day to an overflow crowd. They all wondered, “What will she say? Will she eulogize her husband?”
When she mounted the platform she began reading these words, “. . . when I consider the vast progress which science has made . . .” The crowd realized that she had picked up exactly where Pierre had left off when he had been interrupted while reading a paper he had been presenting to them before his untimely death.
Then Hinson makes this observation, “As Christians, we should bear with pride the fact that we pick up where Jesus left off, because we are His body in the world.”
That’s the understanding that the first Christians had. They knew that Jesus had called them – to carry on the work that Jesus had started. They knew it was up to them to carry on the work of the church.
And in the middle of all this – they remember that Jesus prayed for them. They remember that on the night just before his betrayal and arrest, Jesus prayed for them. A portion of that prayer is in our Gospel reading from John’s Gospel. And we need to remember this. Just as Jesus is praying for his disciples – he is praying for you and me as well. Listen.
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.…As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world….I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.”
Did you catch that last sentence? We are those who believe through the word and witness of those first disciples. Jesus sent those first disciples out into the world – and he sends us out into the world too! To share the good news. To make disciples. And what’s more – the owner of this place is praying for us. The owner of this place is praying for you!
So Jesus is praying for us – and what he prayed for is that we might be one. Do not miss that point! We are a body – the body of Christ. We are a family. That’s why we come together – to be together – to worship together – to pull together – to support each other.
You see – there is a difference – a big difference – between just being a part of a crowd – and being a part of a congregation.
A man by the name of Charles Jefferson once described the difference between an audience and a church. I like what he has to say. Listen.
“An audience is a crowd. A church is a family.
An audience is a gathering. A church is a fellowship.
An audience is a collection. A church is an organism.
An audience is a heap of stones. A church is a temple.”
And he concludes, “Preachers are ordained not to attract an audience, but to build a church.” And I have to add to what Mr. Jefferson says here, and that is to say, that it is not just the job of the preacher to build a church. This is not a task just for the preacher – but a calling for every one of us here today. We have all been in this together. And it has been a great run – a wonderful partnership. And we’ve still got a few weeks left. And I am confident that after I have stepped aside – well – I just know that your partnership with each other will continue. Yes? You will partner with each other – AND when the next pastor is called – you will continue to partner with whomever the Lord sees fit to call here.
Because – the owner of this church is Jesus Christ – but still, it is our job to build it.
I am often asked by guests at weddings and funerals, “How long has this church been here?” And my answer – this year – is 164 years.
“No. How long has the building been here?”
“Oh! We moved into this sanctuary 17 years ago.”
And almost without exception, the response has been, “Well, it’s just beautiful!”
And it is, isn’t it! A number of you remember when we watched this building go up. Arch by arch. Brick by brick. But when I talk today about building the church – I’m not talking about brick and mortar and wooden arches. I’m talking about the people who visit us for the first or second or more times – people who for the most part are here primarily because you invited them. You invited them to “come and see” – or they have come here because of this place’s reputation. People looking for a church home. People looking to be connected with God’s people in the body of Christ. AND – you made them feel welcome. DO NOT stop doing that! That’s how the Lord uses you and me to help build his church.
I got to thinking this week that today is the 27th anniversary of my first Sunday here with you. And I had a goal to teach this congregation to be friendly, not just among themselves, but to visitors. After two weeks, I realized I didn’t have to teach them that, because they already knew how to do that. By the way, how many of you were already here before I got here? Let me see a show of hands. Yeah, not that many. That means that all of the rest of you have come here sometime in the last 27 years, and you decided to stay because you realized what a wonderful church family this place is.
So when I talk about building a church – I’m not talking about brick and mortar and wooden arches. I’m talking about changed lives. People looking for a relationship with Jesus Christ, or looking to grow deeper in their relationship with Jesus Christ. People who have been changed and are changing. I’m talking about a church that’s alive.
So – how have you been changed? How have you been changed by what you hear – what you see – what you experience in this place? I want to know – because that’s always been a goal of mine – it’s a goal I have for each one of you – that we be changed – that we be transformed – that we grow in faith – in our love for God and for each other. That we become more and more like Christ in our thoughts – in our words – and in our actions. This is my hope – and this is my prayer – for you.
And to that end, I also want to ask you, are you praying for this church – this congregation? For its leaders? For its pastor? Would you pray for our Call Team whose job it is to interview potential pastoral candidates on your behalf? And then – and most especially – pray for that person – that man or that woman – that God is calling to be the next pastor at this church. Pray for that pastor whoever he or she may be.
Remember – this church is not my church. This church belongs to Jesus Christ. And just as Jesus prayed for those first disciples – he also prays for us. Therefore – we need to pray too. Will you promise to do that? Will you promise to pray for Zion and its mission? In fact, I invite you to join with me in doing that right now. Let us pray.
“Father God, we come to you in the name of Jesus, the head and the owner of this church. Lord, we love this church – this place – and the people gathered together here today to worship you. May we continue to reach out – and invite – and pray for those who have not yet walked through our doors – but who we know you are sending this way. Continue to work in and through us through the power of your Holy Spirit. We turn to you for strength and for courage to do what needs to be done every step of the way. In the name of Jesus we pray. And all God’s people said…. Amen.
Tuesday, May 08 2018
You know that I love to tell stories in my sermons. And from your reactions over the years, you love to listen to them. Shortly after I announced my retirement three months ago, I let you know that I hoped to retell some of my favorite stories. The story I am about to tell you happens to be among my favorites. Listen!
In 1940, Nazi Germany was already well on its way in displaying its military might in an effort to bring the entire world under the rule of the fanatical Adolph Hitler. In that same year, the armies of Germany invaded its neighbor to the north, tiny Denmark. After just a few hours of fighting, the Danes surrendered. One of the first edicts handed down to the people of Denmark was that all Jews would be required to wear sewn onto their clothing a yellow Star of David.
Now the king of Denmark at this time was a popular king by the name of Christian, Christian X. Christian was famous for riding often down the streets of Copenhagen on horseback, and often unattended. The day after the Nazis had issued their edict that all Jews should wear the Star of David, King Christian, in a bold act of defiance, was the first person to be seen on the streets of Copenhagen, riding his horse, and wearing, sewn onto his coat, the Star of David.
The Nazis protested. “You must not do this! We want only the Jews to wear the star.” King Christian replied, “If even one of my subjects is required to wear the star, then I shall wear it too.” Soon everyone in Denmark, Christian and Jew alike, was seen wearing the star.
But the greatest act of defiance against the Nazis was not that all of the citizens wore the Star of David, but that secretly, one by one, the Jews of Denmark began to disappear. In an effort that had no central organization, but happened rather spontaneously, the people of Denmark were able to smuggle the Jews out of Denmark – in boats of every shape and size – across the sea to neutral Sweden.
As a result – even though 50 Danish Jews did meet their end in the death camps – more than 7,000 Jews were saved from Hitler’s gas chambers. Denmark would prove to be the only country that did anything on a national scale to protect its Jews in World War II.
After telling that story at the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem on one of my visits to Israel, our guide then told us that to this day, the Jews have never forgotten what the Danish people did. And the Jewish people learned a valuable lesson from the courageous acts of the Danish people. And what they learned is this. They learned that the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is not hate. It is apathy.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is sending a message. He is sending a message to his disciples, and by extension to us as well. And the message is this. Love one another. Love one another as I have loved you. This was not – this is not – a suggestion. He calls it a commandment. Listen!
“This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.”
What can be said about the love of Jesus is that it is real. It is authentic. There is nothing phony about Jesus. Please don’t forget what I have been saying to you for many years now – “God loves you – Jesus loves you – just the way you are. But he loves you too much to let you stay that way.” And he loves you – he loves every single one of you – even though he knows everything there is to know about you. Jesus loves you through and through even though he knows you through and through. Chew on that for a while!
But don’t miss that part where he says, “Love one another.” Again, not a suggestion. Not a request. But something that we are commanded to do.
Now, let’s be honest – not that we wouldn’t be honest – but let’s be honest. We all know that there are just some people who are difficult to love. Sometimes loving somebody is just plain hard work. Most of the time it’s not – but sometimes it is. Sometimes – like King Christian and the Danish people – it involves taking risks. And it always involves being vulnerable – because you know when you love that other person – when you love as Christ loves – you risk being hurt.
Now – in the Greek language in which the Scriptures were first written – there are a variety of words that mean love. Philos refers a brotherly or sisterly love. Eros refers to the romantic love between two people who are married to each other, or those entering into marriage. Here – when Jesus says, “Love one another,” the word is “Agape.” This is a self-giving love – the kind of love that Christ loved us with – a love that led Him to give Himself for us.
This is a self-less love. We might even call it a love that nourishes. It’s the kind of love that says, “You are important; you are special; you are someone I believe in. Just because – just because you are who you are.”
Isn’t that the kind of love we’d all like to have? Even at those times when we are not all that lovable! What we need is someone to listen without judging. Without condemnation. Someone to love us unconditionally.
Let me tell you – most folks don’t need a critic. What they need is a coach. A cheerleader. Moms and dad, listen up! Your kids don’t need a critic. Be a coach, not a critic.
Listen! If we are to love as Jesus loved – then our love needs to be genuine. It needs to be authentic. It needs to be unconditional. And yes, that’s not always easy. And by the way – I think this is a good point to say this – although to love unconditionally is to love the way Jesus loves – that does not mean that anyone – man, woman or child – should ever stay in an abusive relationship. No one should ever have to put up with abuse or bullying. That’s not love. That’s self-centeredness and control. But it is not love.
Do you remember what I Corinthians 13 has to say about this? I like Romans 12 starting with verse 9 and following, by the way. But I Corinthians 13 is a great way to understand what agape love is all about. Many of you should be familiar with I Corinthians 13 because it is highly likely that these words were spoken at your wedding. Or, I am sure, you have attended a wedding where this passage was read. Even though the love that I Corinthians talks about has nothing to do with the romantic love between two people – it is often read at weddings. These are words that every one of us should memorize and take to hear. But do you remember the words? Again – the word used here is the word Agape. Listen!
“Love is patient and kind. Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Really – I can think of no better words than these to describe a love that is authentic. A love that is real.
And of course any one of you could rightly ask, “Well, Randy, why should I love like that? Why should I love other people in this way?” Glad you asked. Well, first of all, it is by the Lord’s command. “Love one another as I have loved you.” Challenging? Yes. Sometimes daunting. Downright impossible? Well, yes, sometimes it seems that way. But just because it isn’t always easy – most of the time it is – but just because it isn’t always easy doesn’t mean you should give up.
Why? Because the benefits are unlimited. You see, not only will others be built up – not only will others be encouraged – but so will you. So will you!
Remember, the opposite of love is not hate. It is apathy. You cannot say you love someone – and not care for them or about them.
Preachers like me often lift up Mother Teresa as an example of selfless – giving – agape love. And although she is no longer with us – many of you will remember how she dedicated her life to the thousands of hungry, sick and dying people of India. She wrote a book that offers excellent ideas about loving others as Christ loves us.
Referring to the parable of the bridegroom and the wise and foolish maidens she writes, “Do not imagine that love to be true must be extraordinary…. See how a lamp burns, by the continual consumption of the little drops of oil. If there are no more drops in the lamp, there will be no light,…”
“My children, what are these drops of oil in our lamps? They are the little things of everyday life: fidelity, punctuality, little words of kindness, just a little thought for others, those little acts of silence, of look and thought, of word, and deed. These are the very drops of love – the very drops of love that make our life burn with so much light.”
The Bible tells us that we love because God first loved us. We learn to love – we gain the capacity for love – when we ourselves are first loved by someone else.
We all need to be loved. All of us. And because this is true – everyone here today – myself included – we need to ask ourselves, “How am I doing? How am I doing at receiving and then demonstrating the love of Christ? The love that first loved me? How am I doing? Am I loving in ways that others experience and know that I love them? That they know the love of Christ through me!
For love to be love it must be real. It must be authentic. It must be genuine. Like little drops of oil in our lamps that never run out.
Remember that! As the weeks are counting down now to my final Saturday/Sunday with you – my joy will be complete to know that just as you have been doing for so many years in my presence – so you will continue to do in my absence – to love one another just as Christ loves you.
Monday, April 30 2018
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.
- 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.
- Read the Bible every day. When we spend time reading the Bible, we learn for ourselves what the story of Jesus is all about.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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!
Monday, April 16 2018
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 “...in 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!
Tuesday, April 10 2018
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!
Thursday, April 05 2018
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!”]
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