EASTER 5 C April 24, 2016
April 24, 2016
EASTER 5 C 2016
APRIL 24, 2016 OSLC
The Gospel of Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount. Its beautiful words begin with the Beatitudes, the words that tell us that the blessed ones are those who are poor in spirit, the meek, the grieving, those persecuted for my name’s sake, and so on. The kingdom of God doesn’t look like the rest of the world. God takes the vulnerable and broken and uses them to show God’s strength at work.
Now that’s an important thing to remember on the Sunday we welcome new members. The kingdom of God doesn’t look like the rest of the world. John’s Gospel, the source of today’s message, doesn’t have a Sermon on the Mount, great and lofty stories that inspire us to keep thinking about the meaning of our community. Instead, John’s Gospel, as our Tuesday morning Bible Study group has been learning, is really divided into two parts, the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory. The book of signs starts with the wedding of Cana in chapter 2, with the shocking problem of running out of wine early in the wedding reception. Mary lets Jesus know there is a problem, tells the steward of the feast to do whatever Jesus tells him, and then the story unfolds. 6 jars of water holding 20 – 30 gallons each turn get turned into the very finest of wines by Jesus. This story isn’t about taking care of the bride and groom and their families. This is 600 bottles of the finest vintage, way more than enough. The story is about God’s incredible goodness and generosity, allowing a whole community to feast in goodness. And the story ends with these words: this was the first of many signs that Jesus performed in the presence of his disciples.
The book of glory takes all the events of Holy Week and shows us Jesus in control, even to giving his life. And that part of John’s Gospel is where we find today’s Good News story. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” These are Jesus’ words to us today.
God’s church is a beautiful and messy thing. We are trying to do what Jesus called us to do, to love one another. We’d like to think that we are succeeding on this day that we welcome new people. We really don’t want our new members to see our failures. We’d like to think that new people wouldn’t hang out with us if we weren’t somewhat loving, or caring, or welcoming, or at least interesting. We’d like to think that our welcome makes a difference, not just to new members, but to the world. I think we all hope that the welcoming statement on the front of our bulletin truly makes a difference.
Frankly, we need to be a little bit humble about that welcome. The issues that come up in any community of believers might make us seem no better than any other community. We are challenged to live with each other’s burdens and to share them. Sometimes we do that well, others times we don’t have a clue. And every group has rules. A lot of them are unspoken. We just expect people to learn them by observing, and by having some awkward moments along the way. And caring for one another? Well, frankly, that’s always a work in progress, and it always starts with our willingness to trust in each other to even voice our concerns or pain.
Can intentional loving, the call of Jesus which is today’s Gospel message, be the sign of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church? Are we willing to risk the make-up of our church to be radically changed? Are we willing to let the racial make-up change? Are we willing to let the average age change? Are we willing to find ways for the homeless around us to turn tables and teach us ways to care for one another? This love thing that Jesus tells us to do really means we are willing to create a pretty messy community, a community that doesn’t always do things the same way every year. Letting the world know that we are disciples of Jesus by how we love one another means that we have a kind of humility, seeking out the other person rather than promoting who we are. We must always look for new ways to share love rather than rely on past methods.
The vision of the Second Lesson from Revelation is the wonderful heartwarming story that God in Jesus Christ is making all things new. What we know so well in this world ends up still bringing us to a place of pain, a place of loss, a place of tears, including the church. Jesus is thankfully making all things new. The One who starts things also ends things and begins again, and heaven is God’s grand new beginning for those who have welcomed God’s Son into their world. Somehow, in this community of love and discipleship called the church, we invite people into this dream and into this hope. And when we are not the perfect place, we point people to the perfect One, Jesus who washed our feet and told us to do the same, and we boldly proclaim that this is the One who will make everything new and wonderful again.
Peter was one of the change agents in the early church. He started out as a conservative, you know. Paul was going out to the Gentiles, expanding the borders of the Christian Church by going on grand missionary journeys into modern day Turkey and to the islands of the Mediterranean. He would go to the synagogues and share the story of Jesus as the promised Messiah, and then he would go into the public forums where goods and ideas were both exchanged. He would use the speaker’s stand as a place to tell the whole community the story about Jesus. So in almost every city that Paul visited, there were both Jewish and Gentile believers. Paul quickly figured out that it wasn’t important to the new believers that Gentiles had to become Jews first. They could take the best of their own background and bring it to Jesus, and Jesus would do the rest.
Peter disagreed. This rocked his Jewish world too much. Peter wanted everyone to be a Jew, to share in that marvelous heritage. But that also meant that everyone needed to keep kosher kitchens, and circumcise the baby boys and all the adult male converts, and also abide by the Jewish cultural rules. That is, until Peter received this vision from God and these words from heaven, an invitation to accompany six men to the Roman capital city of Caesarea, the city of Caesar. And going there, he found that they were filled with same Holy Spirit of Jesus that the disciples had received in Jerusalem. Peter decided that if God could come to these guys, they surely were to be part of God’s working team. In other words, God led the way, and Peter was just open-hearted enough, and smart enough, to follow what God was doing. God was bringing Gentiles into the church. So his witness changed, and he told people that the church had to be open to all. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”. Do you hear the echo of Jesus’ words rolling forward?
Jesus had just washed his disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday evening when He spoke these words. Just a few hours before he offered his life, he was inviting his followers to also offer sacrificial love, love that would change their worlds and the world for those who received God’s love.
Maybe Olav, for that matter, can help teach us. You remember Olav, the snowman in the hit movie Frozen. As he and Sven the reindeer and Anna, the sister of Elsa who had retreated to the ice castle, go on a mission to rescue Elsa, one can hear the snowman open his heart with these words: “Some people are worth melting for”. He was willing to give his very being for Elsa. Now this is Disney, you know, so warmth and springtime return to the Frozen world. And somehow a snow man survives.
But it is not just in Disney movies that wonderful things happen. It is in the church, where God’s people are learning every day what it means to be people in love with those who cross our paths. Being radically inclusive, the experience Peter was sharing with skeptics back in Jerusalem, living the words on the front of our bulletin- it’s a huge risk. For starters, we can often be misunderstood.
But radical inclusivity relies on one thing – the radical hospitality of Jesus, the total acceptance that God in Christ has for each one of us.
So we do one more thing. We come to the One who made 6 jars of water into 600 bottles of great wine. We come to the One who took a Passover meal, something which is being celebrated around the world this week, and He turned it into a new story about his body being broken and his blood being poured out for us, and then He gave us radical hospitality. We receive a meal meant for everyone, food for the world. And having been fed, we go out to invite others to this meal, God’s meal, and we tell them of the day God made our world new by welcoming us to God’s table. We point each other to the day when all things will be brand new, God’s new beginning breaking into our world, and we invite each other into the presence of Jesus who brings total joy. We ask one another to join us in the wait for Jesus to finish His work.
And we say, while we are waiting for that great day of Jesus, do you mind if we practice loving one another in the open-hearted way that Christ has totally accepted us?
EASTER 4 C 2016 APRIL 17, 2016 Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
April 17, 2016
EASTER 4 C 2016
APRIL 17, 2016 OSLC
Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
It is at almost the end of every funeral service when I say these words:” Into your hands, oh merciful Savior, we commend your servant, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” It is the most emotional line in the funeral liturgy for me to say. The shepherd is claiming his sheep.
This is Good Shepherd Sunday, always celebrated in the middle of the Easter season. It is a kind of textual transition in the Easter season. The Sundays right after Easter have the stories of the early earthly encounters with the newly Risen Jesus, the surprise and wonder and excitement that Jesus’ presence brings. . The Sundays after today will raise the question of how this Easter joy shapes our lives. Will we hear the shepherd’s call? Does it make any difference to the sheep of Jesus that the Lamb who was slain is now on the throne of God, shepherding God’s eternal flock?
It made a difference to one sheep named Dorcas, whose name graces a women’s society here. She who was known to be generous in giving to various charities, she who had a wonderful reputation for sewing and giving her goods to the poor, had fallen deathly ill. And she died. It sounds like it happened very quickly. Peter was in the area, between Joppa and Lydda, which is on the Mediterranean sea coast west of Jerusalem and not far from the modern capital of Israel called Tel Aviv. He hurried to her home, and the power of the Spirit of the Risen Christ was able to fill Peter to bring new life back to Dorcas. With that, the saints, meaning believers, and the widows with whom she had worked, were all encouraged to believe in Jesus as their Lord and shepherd. More people became believers and wanted to follow Jesus. Dorcas experienced her Easter early, and her death and new life were a sign that helped many to believe and join her work.
The second lesson continues the stories of singing in heaven that we heard last week. The heavenly chorus is a choir not only made up of singers of different voices and abilities. It is made up of all tribes and peoples and languages, including, I imagine, Dorcas. I remember being in Jerusalem on a Reformation Day, and we were in the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Arabs and Germans and Norwegians and Americans and Brits and more. When it came time to pray the Lord’s Prayer, we were invited to pray out loud in our own language. It didn’t sound horrible. It was beautiful music, this sharing of a wonderful prayer in our own tongues and languages.
But an article in the Annals of Sociology says that the average Christian congregation in the US has only 10% of the racial variety of the neighborhood in which it is situated. Do you think that could apply to Our Savior’s? Do we bear that study out?
Do we have any idea what a rich joy it is to sing with people of different tribes and languages?
When we talk about the flock today, about the sheep, as well as our good shepherd, I want you to remember that the flocks were not a collection of animals that looked alike. There were sheep and goats mixed together, and some were darker and others lighter. Some even had a few spots of color on them. Some sheep had a slightly reddish hue. Some had thin faces and others round faces. Some have black faces and some have white faces. A Middle Eastern flock is a real mixture on the hoof.
And sheep don’t always listen to their shepherd. Go figure. We’d never do that, would we? We would never go off on our own, away from the shepherd’s voice, to get something we want, would we?
It is good to be reminded that the shepherd’s staff has two ends. One end is the crook. The crook can be used to draw a sheep away from danger, to pull a sheep toward safety, to gather sheep who are not doing a good job of listening. The other end, the blunt end, can be used to prod the sheep, pushing them toward places they would rather not go. A good shepherd is always both protecting and agitating the sheep as needed, gathering the sheep for shelter and leading them out in the right places to graze.
And so it is with Jesus, the good shepherd. Jesus is drawing us toward Him, with the crook. Jesus is drawing us toward Him so that God’s purposes might be fulfilled in us. And there is Jesus challenging us to go in some directions we would rather not go, prodding and pushing us along.
So take a look now at the bulletin cover. Usually the cover on Good Shepherd Sunday shows a lamb being carried by the shepherd, or sheep gathered close by the Shepherd. I’m sure you can picture some of those scenes. But this bulletin cover has the sheep walking away from the shepherd. It is the posture that the shepherd finds us in far too often.
The ones who are singing around the throne of the Lamb of God in heaven are the ones who have come to know that Jesus has loved them with both the crook and the blunt end of the shepherd’s staff. The ones singing in heaven are the ones who know they faced away from Jesus, but Jesus didn’t let them go. Jesus kept calling their name. The ones who are singing the songs of eternal love for Jesus are the ones who know that this shepherd has guided them to the springs of the waters of eternal life. The good shepherd will never take them into places of danger.
Our favorite psalm is the Shepherd’s psalm, the Lord is my shepherd psalm. We are going to sing it today twice, once at that conclusion of this message, and again during the distribution of Communion. What makes a shepherd good? It is even more than the presence walking beside me, the comforting presence whether I am in front of my enemies or going through the valley of the shadow of death. That which makes the shepherd good is more than the acts of protection, and the prodding. It involves the acts of justice and truth and goodness that are hard to deny but difficult to pull off. The good shepherd is steady; steadfast, we say. That means the shepherd is always dependable, even when I, that lamb who likes to take detours, am not.
This shepherd looks out on the crowd at Hanukkah, the festival of Dedication. People are getting testy with Jesus. They don’t know he is the good shepherd. And to those pushing for answers, he promises to always hear the voice of the sheep, and give them eternal life, and never to let them be snatched out of his hand. It is his answer to their question about whether He is the Messiah. He says he is a shepherd, the kind of leader who always takes care of his flock and brings them safely home.
That’s good enough reason to sing today. We know both the crooked and the blunt end of the staff. Jesus has brought us this place, both called and prodded us to quiet waters and green pastures, a place to be fed, our watering hole and our pasture. And no one will snatch us out of His hand.
So we pray: Into your hands, oh merciful Savior, we commend your servants of this place, sheep of your own fold, lambs of your own flock……keep us in your mercy.
Let us hear your voice, calling us. Let us join Dorcas and all the saints of every color and race in the choir that can’t stop singing.
EASTER 3 C 2016 APRIL 10, 2016 Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
April 10, 2016
EASTER 3 C 2016
APRIL 10, 2016 OSLC
Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
You know, as well as I, that the Gospel accounts don’t finish the story of the days after Easter in any similar ways. Mark, of course, has nothing to add beyond the puzzlement and doubt and existential questions of the morning. Luke has Jesus heading to Emmaus, making a journey out into the surrounding area on the day we call Easter. Scholars debate the location of Emmaus, but it is evidently close enough to Jerusalem that the two men who host Jesus for supper could run back that night to tell the story to the other disciples. Matthew, on the other hand, has Jesus telling the disciples to go on ahead of him to Galilee, with the promise that he will meet them there. And then the ascension happens in Galilee on the mountain to which Jesus directed the disciples to gather.
Only John has this fishing story at the Sea of Galilee. It’s a wonderful story. I love fishing stories. They remind me of family time, of time in the outdoors, of adventures enjoyed in special community.
My fishing stories have nothing to exaggerate about, because frankly I am lousy at fishing, but they connect me to many a summer vacation hour in a boat with my father and a sibling or two, and a grandfather who always managed to catch something when everyone else was skunked.
And of recent memory is my first grandchild Andrew, eagerly awaiting the summer of his third birthday, a June day when he was promised to go fishing off the dock at Grandpa and Grandma J’s house. I gave him this small Disney pole, bright red with yellow trim, only a couple feet long. We got our little white waxies. I swaddled him in a child’s life preserver, making sure all the straps were fastened, between the legs and around his little chest. And down the hill to the dock we went. “Bait my hook, grandpa”. So the little waxie got hooked, and Andrew learned how to push the release and let the line down. And instantly the bobber went under the water. Then came the immediate lesson on how to turn the reel, and up came his first fish, in all of one minute. Of course, he was a bit frightened of that wiggling thing. I asked if I should keep it, but he wanted it to go back in the water. And then the hook needed re-baiting. And he caught 14 blue gills in less than 15 minutes. My line never went in the water. And he was thrilled. And tired. And Andrew decided that having so much success was boring, so it was quickly on to something else. Nothing to this fishing thing!
Of course, the next time he came, he wanted to fish. And we sat for 15 minutes, and no bobber even moved. So he learned that fishing goes from highs to lows quickly, and you can never count on success. And we needed to do something else besides sit there. So we went on to something else.
Now we know pretty clearly that Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is probably a later addition to the story. Chapter 20 ends so wonderfully with last Sunday’s words: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” It’s a wonderful wrap-up to the story. It’s a clear evangelical witness, calling forth a response. Let’s all believe in the One whose story has filled these pages.
So we get an Epilogue, chapter 21, probably written year later and probably by another author than John. The early church thought it was crucial to append these words. Why? Why add to the story?
Of course there are scholars who think that this allows Peter to be rehabbed. The one who fishes for fish becomes the one who fishes for people becomes the one who keeps the keys for all the fishing becomes the one who feeds the lambs and all the other fisher folk. It’s a miracle!
But I really think the why is found in this incredible number 153, as in “153 large fish”. You and I know the game wardens would perk up at this number if it were fishing around here. It was a time of nets and feeding villages with the products of those nets. Peter and the disciples went from 0 to 153 just like that, because Jesus told them where to put the nets. I think that is incredibly important. I have no idea what grandson Andrew would have done if we kept going to 153. Nor do I think I could have handled that many opportunities to bait his hook.
0 to 153, just like that. This is more than a story about rehabbing Peter, and talking about early church leadership. This is story about Jesus. I cannot find any commentator who will vouch for a reason for that number, other than that it is a big number. It has no spiritual significance whatsoever. It adds nothing to other intrinsic numerical theologies found in our Bible, numbers like 3 and 7 and 40 that we know so well. Zero to 153: it’s a sign, that’s what it is. This is one more in a string of signs, from the wedding at Cana where a whole community gets to drink the finest wine, to saving professional fisher folk from embarrassment and a total skunking, while letting a whole village eat fish for a meal or two. Zero to 153, this is Jesus, bringing a new reality, an overflowing and abundant reality, God’s rich creation come into focus again. 120 gallons of wine, 5000 people fed with baskets left over, 153 large fish – More than a shore breakfast, we get a sign of the kingdom, a sign of the depth of God’s abundance, a sign of Jesus diving in the middle of our most miserable and difficult days with a new answer.
Methodist bishop William Willimon said some years ago that the problem that mainline Protestant preachers have is that we splash around in the shallow end of the pool.
He meant this: we offer encouragement that is not much different from a good self-help book. We offer advice that in many ways is not different from a good psychology book. Simply put, often what we say and preach is not that much different from what people can get elsewhere.
But we have the deep end of the pool to swim around in, dear friends. We get to talk about heaven. We get to talk about a resurrected Jesus. We get to sing the words of Revelation 5 and tell the world that the children of the Lamb of God get to surround the throne of the lamb and sing His praises forever. We get to tell people that everyone spends so much time talking about what we want on earth, but in the Church we get to talk about heaven, which is where God gets what God wants, and then God shares it with us. And in the days after Easter, we get a glimpse of what God wants. God wants people to find 153 fish on days they are skunked. Jesus will go even farther than that. God wants to entrust the little lambs of faith to the very one who denied Him three times, and then give him a second and then a third chance to make good with the Good News. Feed my sheep. With what? With the deep stuff, the incredible story of 0 to 153, of denier becoming shepherd and all of God’s miraculous signs.
One story about Soren Kirkegaard is that he wandered the streets of Copenhagen asking people if they believed in heaven. Nearly everyone said they did. Then Kierkegaard asked them what difference their belief in heaven made in their lives. He concluded that their belief in heaven made very little difference in their lives. Doesn’t that make us deeply saddened? People are swimming in the shallow end.
The Epilogue is given us so that we know that Jesus remakes our lives. Falling back on old patterns won’t work, whether fishing or going to any other job. When we are skunked, when daily routines are not working, when nights are followed by days without hope, Jesus shows up and shows us where to find our bearings. The net will not stay empty. The ones who pull their nets in are invited to follow Peter and jump right in the water to run toward the One whose words make everything new. We jump in to the deep waters. We have been swimming in the shallow end too long.
Those believers in the seven churches to whom John delivered his vision were struggling with their nights and days, their empty nets, their tribulations. They saw too much emptiness and too much pain. Fear and tiredness and tribulation were squeezing the joy out of their faith. John was inviting them to jump out of their boats into the deep end again, to jump for joy and proclaim that what seems like emptiness is not the end. The story of Holy Week and Easter, of cross and resurrection, is not the end like the last chapter of a book. It is the point of it all, the endings of all endings. This is what the whole story stands for, the purpose and point of it all, to stand before the lamb who was slain and have reason upon reason to sing His praise.
Any church which fails to jump into the deep end, which fails to always lean toward the new heaven and the new earth, loses the tension between what this world is and the world God intends it to be. That’s why the Epilogue is written. That is why the Revelation was given. Remember, 0 to 153 – a sign of God’s new reality.
This is the story that invites us to keep singing “to the one seated on the throne and to the lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and might, forever and ever.” That is not advice or admonition comparable to what you could get anywhere else. It is the talk of heaven, of Jesus among us and Jesus before us and Jesus after us, of Jesus on the throne. We go to the deep end, where 153 large fish lurk, to talk about God at last getting what God wants, disciples, who feed one another with this living story.
EASTER 2 C 2016 APRIL 3, 2016 John 20:19-31
April 3, 2016
EASTER 2 C 2016
APRIL 3, 2016 OSLC
Here’s the setting and the content for today’s Gospel: it’s the evening of the first day of the week, the Sunday we now call Easter; disciples are locked in a house; they are fear-filled; Jesus shows up unexplainably and pronounces peace to them and then forgives their sins and empowers them to forgive the sins of others; Thomas shows up late, having missed Jesus and everything else, and issues his famous demand to see the pierced hands and side or he won’t believe; Jesus shows up one week later and grants that request.
So why were the disciples afraid? The easy answer, probably correct, is that they feared that Jewish leadership would focus on them next, hatch plots to kill them, and then let Roman justice prevail just as it had so negatively for Jesus. But what if it might be true that they were afraid because the thought that Jesus might now be alive and looking for them terrified the whatever out of them? They had all fled in fear. It wasn’t only that Judas had betrayed Jesus. They all had abandoned him, except for the one called “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. It’s obvious that people would be afraid of violence. But what if the women were right? What if Mary Magdalene was telling the truth when she told them that Jesus appeared and called her by name? What would that mean? The Jesus they loved was the Jesus they had betrayed and abandoned. What was next for them?
Perhaps that is the reason that the first thing Jesus offered them was “peace”. Yes, the standard Hebrew greeting, “Shalom”, gets translated into our language as ‘peace’, but I believe Jesus meant even more than a greeting. I think Jesus, the One willing to go to the cross, was continuing God’s great mission to reclaim us as God’s own by continuing the work of the cross. What an amazing thing it was to hear Him say “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. I believe it was this compassionate and open heart while dying, along with His quick death which came by His own words about giving up His spirit and all being finished, that convinced the Roman centurion in charge of this death detail to proclaim that this surely was the son of God.
We are confronted with the question of forgiveness at every great contemporary tragedy. When the gunman took 9 lives at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston where pastors and flock had been having a Bible study, there were family members who quickly offered forgiveness. In the wake of the Paris bombings, the question “Can you forgive terrorists?” has rung out from commentators lips. What would we do? How would we move forward? And thinking that through, what would we expect Jesus to do with those who had left alone, hanging on wood to die?
Divine forgiveness is what Jesus continues to offer that Easter evening. It is as if Jesus is just picking up the conversation from the cross. Peace, he says, and then He breathes on them His spirit, His breath and being, so that they could also forgive others and keep this incredible conversation going.
Nobody in that locked room asked to be forgiven. We do not hear the disciples mutter “I’m sorry”, or say something like “oops, I really let you down”. Jesus spoke first.
No matter how we have failed Jesus, no matter how faltering our walk of faith has been, no matter how much we have neglected or abandoned Jesus, the Easter message comes to us: “Peace. I forgive you. I love you still. I need you to give what you have been given, to forgive as you have been forgiven.”
The recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, says it this way: The whole weight of human failure cannot extinguish the creative love of God”. Later in that sermon, he continues: “if we can accept the unwelcome picture of us and our world that Good Friday offers, we are in the strangest way set free to hear what Easter says,. ‘Give up the struggle to be innocent and the hope that God will proclaim that you were right and everyone else wrong’. Simply ask for whatever healing it is that you need, whatever grace and hope you need to be free, and then step towards your neighbor. Easter reveals a God who is ready to give you that grace and to walk with you.”
Forgiveness is the restoration of a relationship, not just humanly with the victim of the offense, but also with our relation to God. That is what is happening as Jesus meets Thomas a week later. Perhaps Thomas wasn’t an incredible doubter. Perhaps he had meant to be there Easter evening but he was confused. Perhaps he wanted alone time to be with his thoughts and with his grief. Whatever was going on, he felt he had missed his chance. You know what that feels like. The time we turned down an invitation, and dang, we missed something special. The time we were too busy with work, and we missed a wonderful moment in our child’s life. So when told he had missed Jesus, and when he responds with “unless I can see the mark of the nails and put my finger in his side” maybe it wasn’t doubt. Maybe it was pain.
We are limited in our understanding of the infinite and wonderful character of God. The resurrection makes our limits all the more clear. And a faith willing to ask God for something is a bit daring, showing some courage, even risking failure, and that’s what Thomas was asking. He wanted to engage the divine, and He was willing to risk failure.
But just like disciples being afraid that Jesus might actually be alive, perhaps the biggest risk for Thomas was that Jesus would say yes to his daring request. Don’t you wonder if Thomas ever thought there was a possibility that Jesus would show up to answer his demand?
But Jesus did show up, adding to the Easter joy, and Thomas got more than he bargained for. He had the excitement and wonder put back in his life.
Do you know the rest of the story? Thomas is the patron saint of architects, because he is credited with building so many churches. Even today on the southwest coast of far-away India, the Kerala region, the Christian population of the ancient Malabar spice coast call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas.” Not bad for someone we call a doubter, huh?
Disciples huddled in fear, and Jesus forgave the faithful for being unfaithful.
Thomas asked the hard questions, and Jesus gave the answers.
It is our day to take our fears, our doubts, our deep questions, our inquiries, our hard hearts unwilling to forgive, and learn with certainty that Jesus loves our questions. The One who is risen loves to give us His answers! The resurrection of Jesus is unprecedented, extraordinary indeed, and its implications are life changing every day. Ask on!
Garrison Keillor, wonderful humorist and servant of our faith, puts it this way: “Easter is the time when Christians ask themselves two questions: Do I really believe all this stuff? And if so, why do I live this way?” May Jesus point us God’s way.
EASTER: THE RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD C MARCH 27, 2016 Acts 10:34-43; I Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12
March 27, 2016
EASTER: THE RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD C
MARCH 27, 2016 OSLC
Acts 10:34-43; I Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12
We were children, grade schoolers and younger. My parents would cram us into the family station wagon and we would head north to the cabin by Pequot Lakes, MN. There was a ritual. We would always stop in Brainerd at the big intersection where looming above the parked cars was this tall Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Now even as a kid, the clearly concrete depictions seemed fictional. I knew the story of Paul Bunyan, chopping down trees and walking about, creating depressions that filled in with water and formed the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota. It was a tall, tall tale. That is, until we walked in, and Paul Bunyan’s mouth would move and his voice would call out “Welcome Mark. Welcome Ruth. Welcome Tom.” Now how could Paul Bunyan know my name? It made the child in me think and ponder. And of course, I had a story to tell my friends when I got home.
And it was amazing, the first time we children made it in the same station wagon out to the Badlands, years before there ever was Interstate 90 across South Dakota. Of course, the Wall Drug signs led the way. “Wall Drug, 270 miles ahead. Free water.”; signs like this urged us forward. It sounded good. These were days long before air conditioned cars. We drove 55 MPH with the windows cracked. That was the a/c we had. And of course, we pulled into that renowned oasis, and I was captivated by the jackalopes, the horned rabbits that ranged the plains west of the Missouri River. They were amazing critters: full sized rabbits with branched horns to boot, some high hopping and interesting miniature antelope cross.
Idle tales? Paul Bunyan knowing my name? Mounted jackalopes as living, pardon the pun, living proof that there were amazing animals in South Dakota. Now add to that the stories of anyone who has heard Sasquatch. We have “Finding Bigfoot” episodes on Animal Planet TV, and yes, I do watch them on occasion. The eerie sounds and the tree knocking that many have heard, as well as the visuals they report, keep a number of people looking for Sasquatch and others remain highly skeptical of them, since none has ever been found and some videos have proven to be doctored.
And there are those perennial reports of the Loch Ness monster, all sounding similar, but this aquatic phenomenon refuses to cooperate with TV crews and most photographers, so no one knows the truth about this beast.
And UFO’s: ask anyone who has seen and reported one, and they are sure they have seen them. Ask scientists, and they say there is usually an aviation or a weather or a missile or a meteorite or an electrical phenomenon or some other good explanation.
There were three women named by Luke in his gospel, along with uncounted and unnamed other women, who made it to the tomb of their Lord and their Teacher and their friend Jesus on Sunday, the first day of the week. They came with spices for Jesus’ body, to finish burial rituals left undone when the high holy day of Passover came on Friday at sundown. They thought they knew the way, and then the stuff that makes for tales worth telling began to happen: the tomb was open, and that should never have happened. And perplexed and probably worked up about this, they were terrified when two men in dazzling cloths stood right there beside them. Not in front of them, but like they were part of their group, they stood right among them. And these men asked them why they were looking for the living among the dead, and reminded them of the promise of Jesus that he would be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.
We don’t know how long they talked. We don’t know if the men disappeared suddenly, or if the women left the men standing there. We do know that the women left the tomb. There wasn’t any use for their spices now. And they went back to tell their story to the eleven remaining disciples and everyone else still huddled with them. And we are told that the eleven and the others thought theirs was an idle tale.
There you have it. Paul Bunyan, jackalopes, Loch Ness monster, Sasquatch, UFO’s and Jesus, idle tales all. That’s where a lot of people put the Easter story, including the ones who had been with Jesus and heard Him say, at least three times, that he was going to be killed and raised on the third day. I don’t know what stress does to people’s memories, but it appears that the stress of this horrible crucifixion and their own fear of being lined up next in the courts of Israel and Rome had caused some blanking out on Jesus’ essential teaching.
And if the disciples had any excuse, and I’m not going to give this to them, it was that women were not considered expert witnesses. I know, it makes no sense: What is the difference between a man seeing something and a woman seeing the same thing and reporting on it? But in their world, the testimony of women wasn’t allowed in court.
So the eleven and the others disregarded their testimony. It was an idle tale.
Except for Peter. There must have been some niggling feeling that this was worth checking out. It propelled him. He ran. Fresh in his mind was the words of Jesus that he would deny him three times before the day was over, and darn if that hadn’t happened. It would be so good if this story was true. And getting to the tomb, he stopped, saw that the clothes that had wrapped Jesus on Friday were lying there all by themselves, and he went home. And he was amazed, we are told. That means, I think, that no longer did he think the women were untrustworthy witnesses speaking some idle story.
Now ask anyone who has seen Sasquatch, and they will not recant their story. Ask anyone who has seen a UFO, and they will not back down, even at the risk of being considered somewhat of a flake.
Ask Peter, and he spent the rest of his life telling this story. And we know, in the hours ahead on that Sunday that Jesus would show up and it would be more than a pile of clothes and an empty tomb to anchor their stories. There would be accounts of Jesus eating meals with them, and coming through walls to join them, and disappearing just as suddenly.
Some thought it was an idle tale, until their eyes and their minds jelled together and there was only one account they could give: He is risen, just as He promised.
It is the encounter that changes everything.
Easter is a day of faith. I cannot prove the resurrection. Either we have faith that these people saw what they reported, or we do not believe them. Either it is an idle tale, or it rearranges our thinking and empowers our lives.
But hearing these stories, I choose to believe. Everything else in these stories of this week have been so concrete, and so provable: the Garden of Gethsemane, the hill of Golgotha, the courtyard of the priest, the courtroom of Pilate, the judgment seat of Pilate, the unused tomb now meant to hold Jesus. Concrete, physical, knowable places all – they could all be experienced by early believers. The places and events were real.
So I choose to believe that the stories of resurrection are real. I choose to believe that Peter was so amazed that he spent the rest of his life trying to let people know that this story changed his world and could change theirs.
I choose to believe that God came in bodily form among us, and died a bodily death, and was raised to a new body that spent 40 more days visiting people who needed proof that all He had said and done was real and about a living God among us. .And I choose to celebrate that this physical experience is not an idle tale, but the sign of God’s new life and God’s resurrection yet to be experienced by those of us here this morning.
I choose to believe, like Paul proclaims, that Jesus has put all enemies under his feet, and the last enemy to be destroyed is death.
So all I can do, when I hear this story, is be amazed at well, and speak up, even yelling “He is Risen”. And I don’t think I’m a flake. Nor were those women.
GOOD FRIDAY C 2016 JOHN 18:1-19:42
March 25, 2016
GOOD FRIDAY C 2016
Until last fall I was on the board of Lutheran Office of Public Policy in Wisconsin. Our new director, Rev. Cindy Crane, talks about a book she owns. The cover illustration has a photo of birds perching on telephone lines. That sounds rather bland, doesn’t it? Small creatures, looking as innocuous as notes on line of music. They get center attention because of their tendency to band together and overtake larger birds and larger animals. The book says that if two birds have banded together even once to gain advantage over a target, the likelihood of them doing that and more in the future grows exponentially.
You might guess it. The book isn’t about birds. It’s about us, humans. The word “mobbing” refers to bullying that involves more than one person. Even more, it has institutional buy-in. Think about what is happening with violence at some political rallies. People think that their cause is so right or position is so good that they can physically beat on those who protest, or stand by and cheer the beating. When an agency, school, condo association, workplace, club, place of worship, or political leader condones abuse, then validity is added to our actions. Abhorrent things become less abhorrent. There will always be something that draws us in to join the mob, even if it is moving in a questionable direction. This happens in every society. It is worse than hurtful.
So to public policy and our Lutheran office: one of the things we are called to do as a Church is alert each other to public policies that add to or hopefully diminish layers of discrimination and even the possibility of violent action that have been in our legal code. Sometimes this mobbing effect can be almost invisible and it takes people’s voices to make the harm known. We are trying to do that in this state right now with the insidious and dehumanizing policies of solitary confinement. We have heard about the abuse at our state’s adolescent center Indian Hills. These problems include looking the other way when abuse happened.
Survivors of mobbing sometimes commit suicide. We are told by brain experts that those who have been mobbed or bullied have brain patterns very similar to those who have been raped.
Have you ever witnessed mobbing?
Then listen to what happens to Jesus:
- The need to arrest Jesus outweighs his clear answers to the soldiers and his miraculous healing of the slave whose right ear had been cut off. Wouldn’t that in itself, not running away or fighting back but offering healing, indicate that Jesus might not be guilty of the charges? Might He not be a different person than the one portrayed to the authorities? It still didn’t help.
- The questioning by the high priests with the soldiers, and his clear and honest answers back to his inquisitors that get this response: He gets struck on the face
- The shuttling of Jesus from official to official, from high priest to governor Pilate of Judea to governor Herod of Galilee, Jesus’ home province, and all the goading and prodding and spitting and insulting and hitting with reeds and crowning with thorns that indicate that nobody in any place would offer him a chance or listen to his words
- And of course, the mob scene in front of Pilate. Pilate was sitting outdoors on Gabbatha, the pavement called the Judgment Seat, where pronouncements affecting life and liberty were routinely made by the power of Rome. The crowd wouldn’t let him say his judgment, which was that Jesus was innocent. The mob ruled, yelling louder and louder “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” He felt he had to give in.
Let’s be honest about the Holy Thursday night and Good Friday morning scene. No one comes out looking good when examined by history, no one but Jesus. Judas, the treasurer of the disciples, has taken time to leave the Passover meal and go get the authorities. He must have known Jesus’ routine. The park we call the Garden of Gethsemane was his place to be alone and pray when he stayed across the valley from Jerusalem at Bethany, with Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Judas somehow made his leave from the holy night of the Passover meal and guessed correctly where Jesus would be found.
Annas, a former high priest, the father-in-law of the ruling high priest, and the current high priest Caiaphas, the man in charge of everything about sacred ritual at the Temple, the one who was to speak the words of God to the people, question Jesus in secret about his teaching. Everything Jesus had done was out in the open, and they took him out of circulation to grill him. The one who was charged to speak God’s word to the people of Israel on the high holy days comes face to face with the Word of God in the flesh, and he battles Jesus’ every word.
Peter not only tries to save his skin when he is warming himself by the fire in the courtyard of the high priest’s home, but he lies multiple times. And he curses and swears while he lies. He compounds the nasty words of his total denial with added nasty swear words.
Whenever his is frustrated, Pilate takes it out on Jesus. After declaring Jesus innocent, he offers the mob a deal he thinks they cannot refuse, the freedom of a murderer versus the freedom of Jesus whom they are calling the king of the Jews. This was incredible. Any king is a threat to the power of Rome, yet Pilate has figured out Jesus’ innocence and tries to make a political bargain. He should have known, as any ruler or judge in any century, that justice can never be bargained. When the crowd surprised him and chose Barabbas’ freedom over that of Jesus, he responded in anger and frustration by having Jesus flogged. What will ever be right about that move?
And Pilate continues to turn the morning into a kind of charade. After giving Jesus to his soldiers, who make a crown of thorns to put on his head, Pilate pulls him forward, presents Jesus to the masses, and says, with condescension or a sneer or whatever smugness he could muster “Here is your king”.
Jesus ultimately gets killed because the crowd says that He is a political troublemaker, and the ones who can clearly see that He poses no threat to them bow to the mobbing.
But what is the Jesus we experience?
- He puts that ear back on the slave who had been hurt by the sword, fortunately just having missed his head being opened by the blade
- He calmly confronts the high priests Annas and Caiaphas and urges them to check out his words spoken openly and often at the Temple
- He tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, there would be people fighting on his behalf for his release. And he promises that he will speak truth and always testify to the truth.
- In his dying moments, He cared for his mother and for the disciple whom he loved, the man we believe to be John who wrote down this Good Friday story for history.
- He is in charge of his own death, willfully blowing out his last breath, and saying “it is finished”
Jesus is steady while those around him, friend and opponent alike, display a whole array of shameful responses. Betrayal, denial, mob agitation, police violence, disciples running away. Jesus is a rock.
How do we respond to this story and to this day?
Let me suggest this, that we not lose hope, no matter what our struggle. Our struggle might be a chronic disease, pain that weakens us, the acceptance of our gender identity or sexual orientation, the non-dominant color of our skin. It might be doubts that God does not hear our prayers. It might the feeling that there is nothing we can do to change our world. It could be the words online that try to shame us. It might be debt that seems insurmountable. We brings our struggles today on the day that Jesus struggles with us.
And we watch how Jesus handles the mobbing. He does not lose his connection with His Father. He does not lose his identity. He does not reduce Himself to the standards of those around Him. He does not hate the haters.
Yes, He dies. He is as dead as any human will be. But He shows us His true self. He shows us the heart of God. He shows us that He really is the King. He will own the day, not the other way around. He will never abandon those whom He has called, even those who have denied, betrayed or run away from Him. His inclusive embrace of slave and ruler and inquisitor and governor and thief by his side shows us how we face any mob: we remember who we are, child of God, and we stand fast in that wonderful truth.
Our actions, our response, our work to reflect this dear Jesus in our struggles, they are the sign of faith to the world that we have seen Him, heard Him, bled with Him, cried out with Him, embraced Him, and felt His love. This is how we will face the mob, by being the body of Christ.
HOLY THURSDAY C 2016 JOHN 13:1-17, 31B-35
March 24, 2016
HOLY THURSDAY C 2016
JOHN 13:1-17, 31B-35
The first churches were really gatherings of people in people’s homes. Before there was ever such a thing as church architecture and church buildings, in the first 100 years or so of the growing Christian faith, people met in homes. Which meant, really, that they met in the homes of the wealthy, people who had houses or villas with enough room to handle just such a gathering. And it was not long before they figured out that potlucks worked. They didn’t call them that. They were agape meals, love meals, meals of sharing and welcome in remembrance of the life-giving love of Jesus. Gathering to share food and then Holy Communion with bread and wine set aside from the meal became the norm for Christian meetings.
Except that there were other forces at work. Early Christianity welcomed slaves and free, men and women, in some mixture that wasn’t at all common at the time. Yet as long as there were servants and slaves, class distinctions couldn’t be totally obliterated. So Paul had to write with some frustration to the church in Corinth, because the problems of class were carrying over into Holy Communion, detracting from the meaning of this special religious meal. Rich people with big homes invariably had servants, and the upper class could start eating early as their friends gathered with them. Slaves weren’t off work yet.
Just imagine the slaves getting there a couple hours after the landowners had gathered. They were forced to eat in another room, or maybe outdoors in the courtyard, and their food was simply what remained. If there was food, that is. Sometimes it was gone. And the landowners and wealthy had a couple hours start on the wine as well. They had their happy hour at the expense of the servants and laborers.
So in the earliest story about communion in the Bible, with the words we use every time we gather, including tonight, Paul was really confronting a social issue in the church. The rich were not sharing, and they were going ahead and getting a big buzz on before the meal of God’s love and God’s life was shared, and Paul says, that isn’t Communion. I want to tell you what Jesus said, and then he tells us Jesus’ words “this is my body….this is my blood”, what we call The Words of Institution. And Paul says we need to discern the body of Christ, meaning both Christ’s presence in the meal, and in the people we share the meal with. The problem between the have’s and the have not’s was destroying their community and their witness. The joy of eating potluck together was turning into a fractured version of the meal and gathering that Jesus had envisioned.
It takes hard work to park our status or our lack of status, our self image and our perception of social realities at the door of the church. It is really hard work to be welcome and open to all. In Paul’s words about Corinth, it was a group of people eating better food and drinking better wine and getting a head start on the whole gathering that was tearing the community apart. It is impossible to check social differences at the door. But it is worth the work. Holy Thursday focuses on that work.
And Peter had a great problem checking social differences at the door when Jesus met him on the Thursday we are remembering tonight, the Thursday of Passover and the wonderful meal and gathering that Jesus was hosting. Jesus, the host, was working hard to shatter the social differences. He took off his outer robe, leaving on his working clothes, and he took a towel and got dirty. He was wiping down the feet of those who entered the house. That was servant’s work, and Peter was appalled at Jesus getting dirty with his hands touching feet, including his own.
“You’ll never wash my feet”. Those were Peter’s words. We want our feet nicely wrapped, don’t we, just like the rest of our worlds. It’s only in private that we want to look at our shortcomings, our ugly toes and more. Not in public. Keep everything neat.
But for Jesus it was a chance to wash the feet of someone he loved and cared for. Jesus looked at it differently. Our feet, stinky, ugly, maybe having a bit of toenail fungus, bruised from labor, signs, actually, of our march toward death – these we would rather keep to ourselves. Jesus sees our feet and loves them. And even though it has always been hard to get people to take off their shoes and let me or anyone else wash them, let alone Jesus, we will hear again tonight our Lord’s words to love one another and be servants to one another.
We are going to wash hands. That’s a start. And we are going to wash hands before we have our meal, not just because that’s what we usually do in polite company, washing our hands, but because that’s the way it happened on that night in Jerusalem. We have the work of serving one another, and the work of opening the doors to all social associations, right here in front of us today. We have a new command from Jesus, maundatum – I command, from which we get our name Maundy Thursday. That command is to love one another as Jesus has loved us, ugly feet and all.
Our hands will be bathed by a neighbor. Our mouths will take in bread and wine.
And we will also remember our ancestors who ate a meal in Egypt in haste, barbequing the whole lamb and making quick unleavened bread, frying it, and now we eat in that joyful memory of God’s great work. God gave them freedom, and we have a story of God’s goodness to share in every Passover gathering. And we have a story of a perfect lamb, the Lamb of God, whose sign is on the front of this altar, being God’s total new sacrifice for our freedom. We will both mourn and celebrate that story tomorrow.
We are part of a public which eats way too many meals alone. We eat them alone at our tables, I eat them at my desk as some of you might, and we eat them in our cars. Alone. Tonight is a night to remember the community God gathered in Egypt, and Jesus gathered in Jerusalem, and their meals eaten together. We remember the ways God’s people fail to eat and live in community, and struggle to serve one another, and we commit ourselves again, by the help of Jesus, to work for the welcome of all.
Susan Briehl, one of the hymn writers in our hymnal, describes today this way: “Setting aside our shoes, our reluctance to serve, and our objections to being served, we take up the towel and fill the basin. Washing and being washed, we enact the love we pray to embody every day”.
Potlucks and meals of love that include the embrace of good food and open conversation with all, dirty hands that don’t mind dirty feet, putting on the working clothes of servant – God shows us God’s way today. We are sinners, but our sin does not define us; we are dirty, but our dirt does not define us. The love of God defines us. Now let us eat.
PALM SUNDAY/SUNDAY OF THE PASSION C MARCH 20, 2016
March 20, 2016
PALM SUNDAY/SUNDAY OF THE PASSION C
MARCH 20, 2016
In the mid-1500’s, the Spanish mystic and devotional writer Teresa of Avila wrote the following words: “Christ has no body but yours/ No hands, no feet on earth by yours/Yours are the eyes with which he looks/ compassion on this world/ Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good”. The stories we read today, the walk into Jerusalem on a Sunday and the walk into Jerusalem on Good Friday, are Jesus’ walks. We don’t do them for Him. But they are walks meant to shape our lives. They are walks of love inviting us to pray “thy will be done” and take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Our morning began with a story about two unnamed disciples going into town where they weren’t known, hoping to find a donkey colt and not get caught as thieves. Imagine what it must be like to be branded as a donkey thief. How embarrassing! Not a normal worthy life goal. But in spite of the risk, they found the donkey just as Jesus said, and telling the owner that Jesus needs it worked the trick.
And the story was of people who apparently didn’t know Jesus was coming, yet upon seeing Him, they threw down their cloaks. Jesus wasn’t leading the people anywhere. He wasn’t at the head of a procession. He was just riding into town, perhaps looking a bit ludicrous, because it was the colt of a donkey that he sat upon. People weren’t lining the streets waiting to take their robes off and pave the road with them. They weren’t all lined up waiting, like our lines along the Oktoberfest route and people with their chairs staked out overnight.
One author I read talked about road races, distance runs, where people litter the road with their second hand clothes just before the starting gun goes off. At the Twin Cities marathon, years ago, I had on a garbage bag over my running gear to keep warm in the 37 degree morning. And some stretch gloves. Both were discarded soon after I ran, which is a nice way of saying that I threw them toward the side of the street. Apparently street crews have lots to get rid of at the starting lines of big races. But these people in today’s Palm Sunday story, going about normal morning business, take off their cloaks, their outer heavy garments, for the man on the little donkey. They were devoting themselves in a very profound way to the one who rode by. It sounds spontaneous yet powerful, tribute and service to the One who is about to serve them in a powerful way They then make a loud and boisterous sound as they cheer Jesus on with their cries of joy for all the powerful things He had done.
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in Heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” they yell. It was boisterous, loud, and impassioned, and did you hear that some of the Pharisees, religious leaders, asked Jesus to order the crowd to quiet down? They were interrupting something on a Sunday morning, I don’t know what; probably normal business flow through the city gate. Jesus wouldn’t stop them. He said the stones would cry out if the people couldn’t yell out their praises.
We are the feet of Jesus. We are the body of Jesus. Ours are the lips that will tell this story, of stones ready to cry out if people are silenced.
And then we heard the details that Jesus was willing to let himself be pushed out of the world onto a cross, as the Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it. The man of power becomes the weak and powerless one, pouring Himself out so that He might help us to the end.
People are so mean. I hope you heard that as we read the Passion story. They play parlor tricks on Jesus, blind folding him and asking him to say who hit him. When on the cross, they double dare him to save himself and hop off. The conservatives are against him, the liberals are against him, the revolutionaries are against him, and his disciples are not with him at all. I hope your heart broke a bit as you heard this profound and troubling story. Jesus says “Father, forgive them”, and what follows? They cast lots for his clothes. And why does Herod have him flogged, after both he and Governor Pontius Pilate find him innocent? Probably just because he can. He has power, and he shows that power off, even if he couldn’t prove any guilt. Words pile upon words to tell us the pains our deeds cause the One who will offer innocent life for us.
A few years ago, Mel Gibson presented a film called “the Passion of the Christ”. He wanted to show what Jesus went through, these floggings and everything else. The movie has so much gore, too much for me. It is enough to know that those who spread their cloaks and spoke out loudly on Sunday were drowned out by the cries of this crowd, yelling “Crucify him”. And it is enough to know that even with the jeers and the hoots and the curses and the voices of the crowd, Jesus words of forgiveness were still heard.
They ring out today. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
The crowd didn’t have a plan. It just happened, and they praised the one on the donkey. It is such a good start to the story. May it also be the end of the story, as we sing and shout and proclaim with our lives that this is the One who comes for each one of us, in the name of the Lord. May it be so loud and strong that the stones will cry out if we do not.
LENT 5 MIDWEEK 2016 March 16, 2016 Isaiah 52: 13-15; Luke 18:31-34
March 16, 2016
LENT 5 MIDWEEK 2016
MARCH 16, 2016 OSLC
Isaiah 52: 13-15; Luke 18:31-34
In sports, we love upsets, unless it’s our team that gets dinged hard:
The 1980 Miracle on Ice, when USA defeated powerful Soviet Union in the Olympic semi-final
2012 NY Giants winning the Super Bowl, overcoming prohibitive odds against the undefeated Patriots
But that followed the upset of the 2011 Super Bowl champ Packers with their undefeated 13-0 record being thrashed by the 5-8 KC Chiefs earlier that year
The 2011 Kansas Jayhawk men’s BB team, the only #1 team left in the tournament, being shocked by the unknown VCU, Virginia Commonwealth University
The 2003 baseball Cubs, waiting to end their long World Series drought, ahead of the Florida Marlins, until a foul ball is caught by a fan instead of their player, and the Marlins get 8 runs, and go on to the World Series and winning it all
USA men’s soccer, outscored 45-2 in the last 7 games, bursting on the international scene with a 2-0 victory over dominating England in 1950
USA women’s softball, undefeated for 8 years since 2000, losing to Japan in the 2008 Olympics
Calvin Borel, riding a 50-1 longshot, fades at the start of the Kentucky Derby in 2009, only to surge back on “Mine That Bird” and win it all
The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, up against the Yankee dynasty in 1960 World Series, winning it with a seventh game bottom of the 9th inning walk off home run by Bill Mazeroski, their first World Series title since 1925
Damian Miller, local baseball hero, catching for the Arizona Diamondbacks, up against the NY Yankees and their lights out closer Mariano Rivera, only to win it all in the 7-game 2001 World Series
1954 Milan High, Indiana, 161 students, defeating Muncie Central, 1600 students, in the Indiana boys’ basketball final that became the movie “Hoosiers”
Texas Western defeating the mighty Kentucky Wildcats to win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1966
Yup, we love these stories, unless it bites us.
Which is what we are talking about today as we are in the fifth mid-week of Lenten renewal and spiritual focus. The series Making Change has already focused on Change of Season and Change of Habit. Change of Circumstance and Change of Heart were themes Pastor Lisa Shank shared over the last two weeks. Today we talk about Change of Plans.
Some changes in plans are about our life goals. I entered college bound and determined never to be a pastor. I grew up in a pastor’s home. I was disappointed in the many events that took Dad away from family time. He always promised to take me hunting, and we lived in prime pheasant territory, but something seemed to come up every fall hunting season, for example. I couldn’t see myself doing this to whatever family I would have. I had faith, loved the Lord, but didn’t love the thought of ministry. Obviously, there has been a change in plans. Clearly you can see that before you.
Those who knew me in college would hear me say that I was going to be a Biblical archaeologist. I applied to all the good archaeology schools: Harvard, Kentucky, Wheaton College with its strong Biblical archaeology department, University of Arizona. I was accepted at all of them. Then I decided to start closer to home, and went to Waldorf College in Iowa for two years. The goal never changed. Leave Waldorf, go on to archaeology.
Until the Band Director at St. Olaf College held an audition on campus, and produced a full ride music scholarship to play percussion there, and be an apprentice with the Minnesota Symphony. That changed everything! That’s why today I am known as a great symphonic percussionist to all of you, right? I’m signing drum sticks regularly, right?
But I took a year off from college, and responded to an invitation. I got involved with singing and guitar playing and talking about faith through Lutheran Youth Encounter, found a passion for sharing Jesus with others, and never made it to St. Olaf. I went to Augsburg College, wanting to use the Twin Cities as a laboratory to learn about human needs, working with Vietnam vets coming back with limbs blown off, and prison inmates at Stillwater prison, and the drug scene and runaways at the intersection of Cedar and Riverside in Minneapolis, just blocks from campus. And I worked in a church in a Native American area, and lived in a mixed racial area of Native Americans and African Americans, and Sharon and I joined the emerging food coop movement and regularly worked in the store as required by our membership.
God intervened. The certain became less certain, and new experiences happened, and new doors opened, and I ended up exactly where I said I would never go, into the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was, and remains, an incredible change of plans. Which means that there have been times when sermon preps are piling up and human crises are multiplying when I wonder, what would life be like playing for the symphony today? Or dusting off some pottery shards in Israel? Do you have those what if moments, too?
I doubt if the disciples knew what was ahead when they responded to an invitation, either. We can psychologize all we want, but we will never quite understand the pull toward Jesus, any more than I can understand the pull toward ministry in spite of my strong words and feelings against it. We can guess that these disciples, men and women, were attracted to a person of powerful care and compassion. We can guess that there were some radicals who saw Jesus as the way to have a stronger voice against Roman oppression, or church bureaucracy, or cultural intransigence, or all of the above. We can surmise that there were disciples who saw Jesus as a revolutionary, teaching about God in a new way that turned tables on the establishment. We can guess that somehow the personality of Jesus inspired others to listen and compelled them to follow. We can say by faith that the spirit of God was at work opening hearts and minds. We can say by faith that miracles were happening as signs of God’s presence through Jesus.
There are lots of layers to answer the question why would anyone leave jobs and family and community to follow Jesus. But no one would say that the reason they left Jesus was to walk to flogging and cross and death. No one would leave a family or a job to head to that end. Revolutionaries might be willing to put their life on the line for a cause, but they would not voluntarily put down the enterprise and the struggle. When Jesus told his disciples that his plan was to head to Jerusalem, embracing what was waiting for him, and not contest it, this was an incredible change of plans for all who were with Him.
They were headed where they had never planned to go.
God’s ways were not their ways. God’s ways were not the ways of their world. This was worse than the undefeated Patriots losing to the Giants, or the 13-0 Packers losing to the Chiefs. The way of the cross is foolish, folly says Paul, to those who do not believe. At this point, the disciples couldn’t believe their ears. You might recall that Peter rose up in defiance and said “No way, Jesus, that I will let this happen”. We’re not going there. To have God change the plans would bite.
Like firefighters at the World Trade Towers heading up toward the flames, Jesus would not turn away from Jerusalem and the cross. Our world wants wins, victories, resurrections, topping the charts, the “we’re #1” kind of accolades. That’s what proves our worth. That validates our existence. That proves the superiority of our products and our teams and our visions.
The way of the cross is a huge change of plans. But it is God’s way of validating our existence.
We are worth dying for. We are worth turning God’s gaze to trial and insults and flogging and much worse. We are worth the life of Jesus, Son of God.
But so is going from a doctor’s visit to an immediate quadruple bypass a huge change of plans. The way of surgery and pain becomes the gateway to new life. So is checking out a lump and finding it is cancerous, and the way of chemo and radiation begins the new way of life. We walk to life through the pain and the sacrifice and the loneliness and the hurt with changed plans and new hope.
And when God changed the disciples’ plans, for Jesus’ plans were never changed, and said that they were headed together to Jerusalem and death, Luke says the disciples understood nothing about this. How could they? How could they assent to this? How could they understand this?
Yet this change in plans became the center of their new existence, as they watched Jesus walk toward certain death, embracing all their fears, taking on all their uncompleted goals and undone faith promises and just plain rebellion. He headed toward God’s answer, a king who was marred, as Isaiah said, whose appearance was beyond human semblance, a form beyond that of mortals, and he did it without complaining or yelling. Yes, he agonized. But He did not curse back, or hurl insults, or harm his opponents.
And his disciples watched him get put in the grave. And his disciples tried to live a few days without him, only to find that He would not let them do that. He would never let them alone. He would never let them confuse their plans with God’s plans. He returned to them, alive and full of promise, breathing God’s Spirit on them so that their plans would be changed. They would now be sent to the ends of the earth to share the message of what they had seen and heard.
You and I are met by the same Jesus, ready to embrace our existence, telling us we are worth his life, inviting us to follow. This message may change all our plans. It should never bite. It is Jesus, after all, who will set us up for a surprise in the end.
LENT 5 C 2016 March 13, 2016 Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
March 13, 2016
LENT 5 C 2016
MARCH 13, 2016 OSLC
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Sharon and I were just out in the Sonoran Desert on the edges of Tucson. We were there last year, but we went a month later this time. The surprise, if you haven’t spent time in the desert, is that it is full of life. And with the rains of December and January that came with El Nino’s path, wherever there was shade, there were grasses and blooming plants. Shade might simply mean a patch under a cactus. That’s all it took. Flowers appeared. Oranges and yellows and violets were the most common colors, with a few reds and blues thrown in. It was a wonderful surprise. What had looked brown and lifeless from a distance was anything but that.
And we found waterfalls back in the canyons, and we found water in the river beds. Last year we encountered the largest January rainfall ever, 3 inches in 24 hours, and whole sections of town were cut off by flooded stream beds that were usually dry.
The desert is not necessarily dry or brown.
The Israelites were in Exile, a long way from home, taken by the Babylonian conquerors into a new land without familiar landmarks or frames of reference. These people had hiked hundreds of miles through dry land to get to their new home. The prophet Isaiah was trying to help them keep faith alive. So Isaiah used desert imagery. I am going to make springs come forth. I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the deserts, says the Lord. You will not be dead.
You are feeling like your spiritual and emotional landscapes are barren and dry. You have run out of energy, Isaiah is saying, but God will change all that, just like God can change the desert. And wild animals will honor me, jackals and ostriches, for I give water in wilderness, rivers in the desert. Isaiah uses that refrain twice “…in the wilderness, waters in the desert”, for emphasis. It’s strong imagery of transformation and hope. It’s imagery of wild animals coming to play but not causing fear or hurt. This is God saying that those who listen might feel that they are not in comfortable or normal circumstances, surrounded by wilderness or threats, but God the Lord will make a new day, and that which causes fear will not harm or destroy. In fact, Isaiah says the people will end up praising God.
Wilderness with animals that do not harm, desert with flowing rivers, people praising God– these are pictures of a new day that God will bring to God’s people.
And today’s Gospel shows that new day, even when things are difficult. In John’s eleventh chapter, Jesus arrives too late to help heal his friend Lazarus. Mary and Martha, the sisters, are a bit irate about that. And Jesus is grieved by the death of his dear friend. Yet Jesus changes the scene, for with John’s telling of the Good News story, nothing is ever quite what it appears. It all gets turned around. Lazarus is called to come out of the grave, and we have a grand resurrection story, complete with a formerly dead man all bound up in the strips and cloths of burial coming forth from the tomb, with Jesus commanding people to untie the formerly dead man while he tries to walk back to a reunion with family and friends.
Now, in today’s Gospel story, it is perhaps a week later. After Jesus raised Lazarus, the Jewish leaders finally decided that He was too much, and they began to put plans in place to kill Jesus. For them, it was now or never. Who could stop a guy who raises the dead? So the authorities were hot on his heels, deciding they could no longer ignore what he was doing. He was more troublesome than some normal rabbi. He was causing too much commotion.
It was supper, one week later, and Jesus was back in Bethany, eating with Mary and Martha and Lazarus and more, because Judas is mentioned by name. One can only imagine what the meal conversation was like. What do you talk about when someone who was dead for four days, someone whose sister now serving the meal had called stinking dead, is now back at the table eating? What do you talk about when the One who gave him new life, winning the day against death, sitting right there, is under the death sentence? In John’s Gospel, the last verse before today’s Gospel is this: “now the chief priest and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” What do you say when any neighbor might call the police? This must have been like the horror of Amsterdam in Nazi Germany, as the Van Damm family and the family of Anne Frank sweated out every day of their hiding. Who would notice them and call the authorities?
And then the meal takes a strange turn, for someone changes the scene. Her name is Mary, and she and Jesus appear to be well acquainted. I cannot tell if it is the host Mary, or a different Mary. I’ve read this many times trying to figure out her identity. But it’s a Mary, and she comes with a task to perform. She kneels at Jesus’ feet, breaks the cap off a jar of expensive ointment, and begins to caress Jesus’ feet with her hair and the expensive perfume. This is an intimate scene. She loosens her hair and lets it down, something no respectful person would do in the presence of an unrelated man, let alone a religious authority. She pours the sweet smelling perfume all over Jesus feet. Kings had their heads anointed. This king was anointed on his feet. She then caresses his feet with her hair, an act which of course should never have been done. Then she wipes his feet. It is intimate and evocative and provocative and personal and sweet. It is an incredible scene of love and devotion.
Then Judas speaks up to say that she has gone overboard. It might be a loving act, but it was extravagant and wasteful, he says. Did she have to do all this carrying on? Plus she has wasted a ton of money here, money that could have fed lots of poor people, he points out.
And Jesus sternly tells Judas to leave her alone!
Mary’s actions come directly from a heart tuned to God. What she is doing is a godly gesture. In a Gospel told so that nothing is what it seems at first, here is a dead man, Lazarus, now eating supper, and he is eating supper with a man who will be dead in less than two weeks. The one who raised Lazarus to life will be the one who dies, and Jesus says that she is preparing his body for the day of his burial. Mary is the truth teller here. Mary is the one who shows us what is at stake.
She could have put the oil on Jesus’ head, you know. That would have been a powerful sign that Jesus was the new king. But she put it on his feet, his tired, aching feet. She did what Jewish people do when they prepare a body for burial. They tenderly caress and wash the body of the loved one and put perfumed ointment on the flesh.
And the one whom the crowds will call King in just 6 days now gives an answer to Judas: “the poor you will always have with you.” Instead of making campaign promises about how Israel would be great again, Jesus is telling his friends and the wider world that his kingdom would be made up of the poor, the nobodies, those who suffered, the dead and the dying.
And when Mary appears to hold nothing back as she spends 300 denarii on this costly gift and then uses it all up in one sitting, this scene begins to suggest even more. There will be a day coming soon when the One who was just anointed will not hold anything back, either, and blood will flow until everything is transformed.
Mary was there to honor her relationship with the bringer of God’s new reality. Jesus would bring that new reality in just a few days. The desert had already bloomed in Lazarus’ world. It was blooming for Mary. It will bloom for others. Like a dry desert blooming with flowers with flowing rivers, God continues to bring new life, new reality.
And Paul writes to his friends in Philippi that all he wants is to get to know this God, who in Jesus shared his life in suffering, becoming one with death, and by the power of the resurrection reached the goal God set for Him. I haven’t reached the goal of learning all this, or of understanding all this, or even of coming close to what Jesus has done, Paul admits. I simply make it my goal day after day, straining forward as hard as anything I have ever worked for, to press on for the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ. That’s what God’s promise does for me.
Nothing is ever quite what it seems, but God is working a new plan. It is so wonderful, we press on with the people in Exile and with Paul and with Lazarus and Mary to see and know it. The wilderness will bloom. The dead will come to life. And the Anointed One will pour Himself out for the world. Our hearts wait in hope.