John 12:20-33 – Sermon – Suffering

John 12:20-33
Suffering
03-25-12
We will rely solely upon ourselves until there is no other option but to trust in God.  I wonder if that is the purpose of suffering. 
I have showed you the first of many videos about Ed Dobson because I realized as I prepared this sermon that I have no clue what it is to suffer.  I have lived a privileged life.   There are others out there that have done nothing but suffer in life.  The last ten years of Ed’s life is a prime example and the suffering he continues to do with ALS.  Suffering is part of life and we will all have moments in our lives.  Yet how do we approach it?  How do we understand it?  How do we proclaim it?
We are one week away from Holy Week.  Next week is Palm Sunday and we will wave palms and celebrate Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  Then a week from Thursday, we will gather here and celebrate the night in which Jesus at with his disciples and gave them the sacrament of the Eucharist.  We will feast at the Lord’s supper as we prepare to then remember his death on the cross on Good Friday.  It is a hard week and I invite you to join in all services.  Without it you will miss out on the true nature and spiritual depth of that week.
Now, in this last week of preparation, we hear Jesus say a familiar phrase, “I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  This verse may or may not be familiar to you but it is to me because it is how I open up each committal service I do.  As a family gathers around the grave of a loved one I read this part of John’s gospel.  It reminds us of our purpose here on earth and our purpose in life.  It reminds us that suffering is not to be shunned nor should it be glorified but it DOES have purpose.
There is an interesting part in this scripture.  We hear the voice of God in the Gospel of John.  In John’s gospel there is no baptism story.  There is no heavens tearing open and no Holy Spirit descending and resting on Jesus.  There is no voice who says, “This is my son with whom I am well pleased.”  Yet here Jesus in a moment of reflection about the suffering he is about to partake in says, “Now I am deeply troubled. What should I say?  Father, save me from this time? No, for this is the reason I have come to this time.  Father, glorify your name!”  Then his father answers in a booming voice like thunder and says, “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.”
God is going to be glorified because of his son’s suffering?  Because like a wheat grain falling to the earth he must die?  It is hard to wrap our heads around such an idea but the good news is we get to understand why.
In the last couple of verses Jesus tells us the voice from heaven was not to benefit him, which seems to be the case in the baptism stories of the other gospels.  The voice was to benefit us because, “Now is the time for judgment of this world.  Now the world’s ruler will be thrown out.”  One of the commentaries I read this week said that the word used in our English translation for World doesn’t necessarily mean earth.  Rather it may be translated better to mean “the System.”  Judgment is coming up on the System that holds the world in its place.  The System that keeps the world focused and rotating on itself.  The ruler of this System is sin and it is about to be put in its place by the suffering of God’s only Son.
Let me give you a couple of illustrations to explain.  A video that went viral this past month is the Kony 2012 video.  The people behind this want to shed a light on the suffering of the children of Uganda.  One way to end the suffering, according to this video, is to capture the war lord Joseph Kony who is kidnapping children and turning them into child soldiers.  The video has had over 85 million views on YouTube.  But what it is doing is shedding light on a problem in this world that the world may have never heard of before now.
Another way of thinking about it is to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s peaceful marches.  In his acts of non-violence and standing up to the racist systems of the south, he shed a light on an issue that the world may have not known anything about or thought was important.  Those who lived in the north may have heard that racism was bad in the south but really not thought much about it.  Then there were videos on the news of fire hoses and dogs being turned on peaceful marchers and then people started to stand up and rethink some things.  Those people who decided that suffering ridicule, water hoses, and guard dogs was worth it because the purpose was greater than them. It pointed out a larger problem that society was blinded to.  There have been others like Gandhi’s hunger strike shined a light on Britain’s rule in India.  The sit in at the Woolworth’s dinner in Greensboro brought national attention to our racist ways. 
Yet none of them compare to the suffering that our savior will go through next week.  What System did his suffering point to?  What happens at Christ’s crucifixion is that a mirror is held up to the System of this world and we see how ugly it truly is.  How can an innocent man die in such a way?  The only way to truly understand this suffering is to understand it through the eyes of salvation.  Christ’s death on the cross points to God’s salvific act and in it his love for us.  We cannot understand our own suffering without an understanding of Christ’s found in our salvation.
When we suffer, like Ed does, who does it point to?  Do we point to ourselves and ask for pity and for grief.  Or do we look at our suffering as a way to point out what God can do through us and how his love is still being extended to us in our daily lives?
In a copy of Our Daily Bread there is a story about a person who visited an orange grove where an irrigation pump had broken down. The season was unusually dry and some of the trees were beginning to die for lack of water. The man giving the tour then took Bailey to his own orchard where irrigation was used sparingly. “These trees could go without rain for another 2 weeks,” he said. “You see, when they were young, I frequently kept water from them. This hardship caused them to send their roots deeper into the soil in search of moisture. Now mine are the deepest-rooted trees in the area. While others are being scorched by the sun, these are finding moisture at a greater depth.”
Ed Dobson is turning his suffering into a Yogi Bearer moment.  He says “it ain’t over until its over.”  He has switched his priorities, changed his perspective because of the light that our Lord’s crucifixion has on his situation.  When he looked at his suffering through the eyes of our salvation, he decided to never give up.  We will rely solely upon ourselves until there is no other option but to trust in God.  I wonder if that is the purpose of suffering. 
And all God’s Children said…Amen.

John 2:13-22 – Sermon – Uncomfortable

(here is the rough draft of my sermon for this third Sunday of Lent, enjoy and thank you for practicing forgiveness when you notice the typos.)

John 2:13-22
Uncomfortable
03-11-12
“In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen retells a tale from ancient India: Four royal brothers decided each to master a special ability. Time went by, and the brothers met to reveal what they had learned. “I have mastered a science,” said the first, “by which I can take but a bone of some creature and create the flesh that goes with it.”  “I,” said the second, “know how to grow that creature’s skin and hair if there is flesh on its bones.”  The third said, “I am able to create its limbs if I have flesh, the skin, and the hair.”  “And I,” concluded the fourth, “know how to give life to that creature if its form is complete.”  Thereupon the brothers went into the jungle to find a bone so they could demonstrate their specialties. As fate would have it, the bone they found was a lion’s. One added flesh to the bone, the second grew hide and hair, the third completed it with matching limbs, and the fourth gave the lion life. Shaking its mane, the ferocious beast arose and jumped on his creators. He killed them all and vanished contentedly into the jungle.  We too have the capacity to create what can devour us.”[1]
Here we are in the middle of Lent and now Jesus’ message starts to get very uncomfortable.  We are use to him railing into the religious leaders.  Admit it, you all like that a little and so do I, as long as I’m not one of the ones he is railing against.  But that is not what Jesus is doing in this story in John’s gospel.  Today, Jesus is going to church and when he walks in he is crushed by what he sees.  Anger builds up and in a scene that doesn’t feel too much like the Jesus we know from our children’s Bibles.  He grabs some ropes and makes a whip and starts to chase people out of church.  He yells at them, turns over tables, scatters money and kicks all the animals out.
We get uncomfortable because what happened to stain glass Jesus?  What happened to the guy who smiles and is welcoming to everyone?  Is it okay for Jesus to get angry?  Jesus seems more like a bouncer at a night club now.  This is a little threatening and I am sure the people are shocked about what is happening, including his disciples.
This is one of the stories of Jesus’ life that is in all four gospels.  This is important because it is a story told four times.  What is different is when it happens in John’s gospel.  The Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, have this story happening after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  After Palm Sunday Jesus walks into the temple and sees what is happening and then sends them all out.  This happens in the 21st chapter of Matthew, 11th chapter of Mark and the 19th chapter of Luke, but here we are only in chapter 2 of John.  In John’s gospel we have received the poetic opening, John the Baptist’s testimony, the calling of the disciples and the wedding at Cana.  It seems really early but John’s gospel does things a little different.
Each gospel in our Bible comes from a different perspective.  Luke is written for those already in the faith living in the Gentile world.  Mark is written for those involved in the Jewish Roman war.  Matthew was written to bring Jews into the faith.  John came from a different perspective.  His is to prove that Jesus is God’s son.  While the synoptic are not afraid to point out Jesus’ humanity, John leaves some of those stories out to prove without a doubt Jesus’ divinity.  There is no baptism or temptation story in John.  There is no prayer in the garden of Gethsemane.  Instead you have stories that are unique to John’s gospel like the washing of the disciple’s feet at the Last Supper.  This is where we get the “I Am” statements of Jesus, like when he says, “I am the good shepherd” or “I am the light unto the world.”
John’s purpose for his gospel is to reveal God’s purpose and God’s power.  So why is this one of the first things Jesus does in his ministry and not one of the last like in the other gospels?  The answer is simple.  John is setting up God’s power over this world and demonstrating how much change is coming through Jesus.  The second chapter starts off by Jesus turning water into wine.  He takes jugs used in the purification ritual and turns that water into wine.  The act of purification is changing because of Jesus’ ministry and purpose on earth.  It is not the same as it use to be, it is now different because God’s son has come to earth.  Worship and the purpose of the temple is changing as well.  No longer will undefiled animals be needed to atone for sin.  No longer will there even be a need for a temple because Jesus’ body is taking over that purpose.  Jesus’ visit and tantrum happens early in John’s gospel because it creates a foundation of Jesus’ ministry that says radical changes are occurring because God’s Word made flesh will change everything.
Now we are not comfortable with change.  In our human minds we would love it if everything would stay the same as it always was.  But that is the only constant in life, change will always happen.  I am sure that the Temple wasn’t always like what it was when Jesus walked in.  There weren’t always money changers and merchants taking up space in the temple.  I am sure it slowly happened and it made sense to why.  To atone for one’s sins you needed special animals and special money.  It is hard to raise and then travel with those types of animals so people used the space in the temple to fulfill a need for worship.  They had purpose, understandable purpose, for being in there, yet Jesus found it detestable and kicked them out. 
 So here we are again, uncomfortable with Jesus’ attitude and uncomfortable with him kicking out what seems understandable.  But the question that is poses in this story is does necessity equal pleasing to God?  Is the things of our creation devouring us without us even knowing it?  Are we destroying the temple or the Body of Christ in this place, this morning?
This passage hits us right in our gut because Jesus isn’t talking to the religious leaders.  He isn’t talking about some ancient idea that we in modern day don’t worry about any more.  No, he is walking into church, looking around, and throwing out what is despicable in his eyes.  He threatens us, you and me, those in the pews and those behinds the pulpit to look with new eyes at the temple around us and ask ourselves if we have simply gotten comfortable with what is displeasing in God’s eyes.  What do we let slip through our fingers because we have grown blind to see them for what they are?
If Jesus walked into worship what would he throw out?  Would he come in and toss away all phones, Kindle Fires, and game systems in order for everyone to be fully present in worship? [pause]  Would he come in with a claw hammer and remove all the plagues off the walls and pews because it builds up pride in our selves instead of honoring God?  [pause]  Would he step up to the pulpit and rip my manuscript into pieces ashamed that I do not trust the Holy Spirit to provide the words I say on Sunday? [pause]  Would he be happy with our building itself or would he shake his head and remind us that the church is the Body of Christ, not bricks and mortar?
After Jesus tosses everyone out of the temple the people ask, “By what authority are you doing these things.”  That is a funny question because no one asks the question we might ask if Jesus threw out what we hold dear.  No one asks the question “why?”  They know why.  When Jesus walked in and saw what they were doing on some level it was confirmed that it was wrong.  The merchants and money changers, although holding purpose, also held back the true nature of what the temple was there for.  Then Jesus tells them of the temple’s destruction but that he will rebuild it in three days.  The new temple, Jesus’ body, will be killed but he will remake it in three days.  The new temple is not bricks and mortar but a body and blood.
In Lovette Weems’ new book, Focus he says that the United Methodist Church in 2009 owned $52 billion dollars of real estate in the United States.  This included every church building and parsonage.  $52 billion dollars worth of bricks and mortar!  Is that what Jesus had in mind for us to do with his message or are we as guilty as those in the temple?  Are we guilty of perverting the idea of church to suit our own sensibilities and our own egos?
The season of Lent is a time to repent, to admit where we fall short of God’s glory and to beg for God’s forgiveness.  The joy is that forgiveness is graciously shared.  The hardest part for us humans is to admit that we are in need of it.  It is difficult to be honest with ourselves and see the world around us like Jesus does.  We would look past the money changers and merchants because they were understandable.  But today’s passage reminds us that we are to be careful with the understandable.  St. Augustine said, “Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used or using anything that ought to be worshiped.”  Idolatry is so prevalent in our society that we are blinded to it.  We thank God that Jesus comes into our lives to show us where our true loyalties lie.
In a sermon by Rev. Dr. Peter Samuelson he said, “Jesus came to not just destroy the temples we build to serve ourselves but to raise up a new temple for us, a temple in which we can truly be reconciled to God. Every temple made with human hands, every system we attempt to construct, will end up only serving ourselves. In Jesus, God offers us a temple where we can receive the forgiveness of sin without cost, where we can be reconciled to God without trying to make a buck, where we can worship the one true God and be free from our bondage to greed and self-service. In our baptism, we enter this temple, becoming one with the body of Christ, living in the temple of God’s love and forgiveness forever.[2]
How uncomfortable is that?  It’s not.  We desire in our heart to live in the temple of God’s love and forgiveness.  But to get there is the uncomfortable part.  It is the part when we are whipped by the reality that the light of Christ that shines in the areas of our lives, of our temples, which do nothing for the glory of God.  It is hard to admit what we truly worship and what gets in our way of letting God’s temple take over our lives.  We don’t have to ask why because deep down we know the answer.  We uncomfortably have to admit it to ourselves and then let Jesus drive it out.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

Mark 8:31-38 – Sermon – Into Who’s Life

(Here is a very rough draft of my sermon for the week…Enjoy!)

Mark 8:31-38
Into Who’s Life?
03-04-12
Here we are in the second Sunday of Lent.  The ashes on our forehead are thoroughly scrubbed off and we enter the time of the season when it can be the hardest to continue the spiritual discipline that we agreed upon a week and a half ago.  But the journey is still just beginning.  There are still five more weeks until we celebrate the resurrection.  That seems like forever.
Christianity Today took a poll on Twitter to find out what the most popular thing people gave up this Lent.  Here are the top Twitter itself, Chocolate, swearing, alcohol and soda.  What is interesting is what these say about us.  Substances are by far the most common thing, like chocolate, alcohol and soda.  I am guessing that these items are given up because they have some sort of hold on people’s lives.  They want to make themselves healthier and take part in a Lenten Discipline so they kill two birds with one stone.  Swearing and not being on Twitter constantly are ways one can improve their lives, but what does it have to do with connecting with God?
I am a mentor for a Local Pastor here in town and he was telling me that his confirmands were discussing what they should give up for Lent.  They talked about how their Lenten Discipline could connect them with God and those in need in the community.  What they came up with I thought was brilliant and I had never connected these things before.  One said that twice a week he will sleep on the floor with a sleeping bag to connect with those who will be sleeping outside.  Another talked about giving up her coat in order to feel what it was like to not have one which is more common in our area than we want to know.  These really have nothing to do with attempting to make our lives better but instead deny ourselves something to broaden our horizon.  There are no two birds involved here.  I love the idea and probably will be doing one of these next year.
The scripture today starts off by Jesus telling the disciples for the first time that he will have to suffer at the hands of the religious leaders.  The disciples are put aback by this idea but it is something that they have to hear.  Jesus tells them three times about this, once here in chapter 8 and then again in chapter 9 and 10.  It is important for them to understand but it demonstrates his purpose in this world.  If the disciples didn’t hear Jesus predict his own death and resurrection, it might have looked a little suspicious when it happened.  But since he did predict it, we can now claim it as God’s act of salvation fulfilled.  It happened like God designed because God said it would be so.
But the idea of self sacrifice, the idea of self-denial doesn’t make sense to us and nor did it to Peter.  Peter pulls Jesus aside to rebuke him.  He pulls him into the corner not to make a fuss and to attempt to deal with this idea quietly but Jesus pulls Peter back out into full view of the disciples and tells him, “get behind me Satan.”  Then Jesus goes on to preach to them about self-denial, about taking up our own crosses and following Jesus.  Self-denial, putting ourselves last and God and others first is one of the central messages of Jesus.  Yet it sounds so strange to us in our narcissistic culture.  The fact people will tell the world what they gave up for Lent on Twitter and there is enough of them to do a top 100 list, should be evidence enough to see how self-centered we are as a culture these days.
The idea of self-denial is not for us to play the victim.  It is not crying out to the world in order to show them the cross you have chosen to bear.  Self-denial is the task of looking at the world around you and realizing God is calling you to put him first, others second, and yourself last.  This should be the focal point of our lives too and it is what Jesus calls us to do in this passage today.  We do have examples to look up too.  There have been people in our history who have done this because they felt God pulling them to make a difference in this world.
Harriet Tubman, aka the Black Moses, led hundreds of African-Americans out of slavery and through the Underground Railway to freedom in the north during the Civil War.  There was a huge reward offered for her capture but she still took 19 trips back into the part of the country that would have killed her if they caught her.  She followed Christ’s example to set at liberty those who were oppressed.  Once she was asked about where she got her fearlessness and strength from and she replied.  “It wasn’t me, it was the Lord. I always told him, I trust you. I don’t know where to go or what to do, but I expect you to lead me. And he always did.”  She put herself in danger, looked beyond herself and reached out to help the least and the lost in her time.[1]
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in the states as a professional theologian during World War II.  He could have stayed here as Hitler lay to waste the country he loved.  But instead he chose to go back to Germany and face him head on.  He wrote a great theological book called The Cost of Discipleship and in it he talks about the difference between Costly Grace and Cheap Grace.  True Christians have to go the way of Costly Grace because that is exactly what it cost Jesus.  It wasn’t easy being beaten, flogged, crucified and dying.  Yet Jesus did it for us.  Bonhoeffer stood up to one of the most evil men in history and it cost him his life but for Bonhoeffer it was worth it.  We think dying a martyr’s death is tragic but in his eyes to endure the cross is not a tragedy it is actually the fruit of following our Crucified God. 
I had the great privilege of having Peter Storey as one of my professors at Duke.  I heard his class was great and when I took I realized why.  There in front of me was not just a man who was smart, there were plenty of brilliant people at Duke.  But this was a person who lived out the faith unlike no one I have ever met.  Rev. Storey was the Bishop of the Methodist Church in South Africa during the breakdown of Apartheid.  That was the social system that was in place to hold up huge racial injustices all over South Africa.  People were dying, wars were being waged, and change was happening.  Standing next to Bishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church was Bishop Storey.  He told us stories of his office being bombed, peaceful protest marches that went wrong, and fearing for his safety and the safety of his family. But all of it was worth it because God’s people and God’s love was too big to put himself in front of.
Russell D. Moore in an article I read this week it had this quote, “For too long, we’ve called unbelievers to ‘invite Jesus into your life.’ Jesus doesn’t want to be in your life. Your life’s a wreck. Jesus calls you into his life.”[2] That is where Peter got into trouble.  He decided he knew better than Jesus.  He looked at Jesus and thought he knew what God wanted more than God did.  Dying a death on the cross would serve no purpose in Peter’s eyes.  Even while he watched it happening Peter doubted the reason.  Yet soon he learned he was wrong and became a force that could not be stopped in the world.  What changed is that Peter decided not to put God in his life but to put his life in Gods.
That is a huge difference but it is at the heart of self-denial.  We all have ideas about our lives and we all have hopes.  We have desires and we have dreams but God doesn’t call us to follow OUR dreams.  That is Disney, not Jesus Christ.  Jesus demands that we put God first.  We are to follow God’s dreams, desires, ideas and hopes for this world and our lives.  This means to be true followers we need to shrug off the idea we know what is best for us and start listening for what God is demanding of us.
Our world needs to be changed.  There are huge, GIGANTIC issues that we need to tackle as humanity.  Hungry, poverty, violence, slavery, and injustice are all things that need to be fixed and that is just here in Thomasville.  If you want to be active participants in the Kingdom of God then we need to be doing what we can to fight these issues.  I know what you might be thinking but I am only me.  What can I do to change the world?  Well, I dare you to ask God that question.  I dare you to ask God that question sincerely in your heart.  But let me warn you, he will answer and you better be ready to follow when he does.
Peter Storey said, “We have to get away from the idea that what you believe is your faith.  Your faith only matters when you live it out.”  That is self-denial.  That is following Jesus.  That is taking up your cross and following him.  It is putting what you believe and know to be true in your heart into action in your life and not having any fear over the consequences.  That is not asking God to be in your life, that is putting your life into God’s.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

Mark 1:9-15 – Sermon – Wilderness

Mark 1:9-15
Wilderness
02-26-12
Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, would have been 80 years old today if he was still alive.  He was born today in 1932, to a farmer’s family in Kingsland, Arkansas.  He grew up working in the fields and going to church.  His mother was a devout Christian and use to bang out folk songs and church hymns on her guitar.  As he grew up he had many different musical influences beyond his mother, including those who sang while working in the fields or on the near by railroad.  After graduating he went to Detroit for a short while but then joined the Air Force.  He moved to Germany and started his first band.  While he was there he wrote his famous song, Folsom Prison Blues.” When he returned to the states he married his first wife, Vivian.  They moved to Memphis and he worked as an appliance salesman while attempting to get into the music world.  That same year he got his chance and the following year his single I Walk the Linehit number one on the billboard charts and stayed there for 43 weeks, ultimately selling over 2 million copies.
His success continued and in the 1960s life as a rock star started to catch up with him.  He got into drugs and alcohol.  Vivian divorced him because of his absence due to the long tour schedules and he bouts with drug and alcohol abuse.  The year after that he went into a long drug binge.  At one point he was discovered in a near-death state by authorizes in a small town in Georgia.  There were other arrests and incidents too.  From attempting to smuggle drugs into the US from Mexico or accidently setting a forest fire in Tennessee.  Cash lived a hard life.  During which there were many dark, dark places.
Jesus was accustomed to dark places.  One of the joys we can have, as followers of him, is knowing that he knows our pains when darkness seems to squish in around us.  It is in the scripture I read today that we receive one of these dark stories of Jesus.  Things happen very quickly in the gospel of Mark and this story is no different.  In three verses we get Jesus’ baptism.  In the following two verses we get the story of his temptation and the two verses following that we get his first sermon.  Bam, bam, BAM.  Things happen so fast in Mark’s gospel that you have to take a deep breath and take it all in.  That is what we are faced with today, the task of soaking in these three momentous steps in Jesus ministry.
This is the first Sunday of Lent and every first Sunday we start where Jesus started, in the wilderness being tempted.  In other gospels we get more in this story.  We get a conversation with Satan, an interesting little narrative in Luke and Matthew.  But here in Mark we only get the dry and bare facts.  After Jesus is baptized he is lead by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan and lives among the wild animals while being tended by angels.  Mark uses so many lofty, heavenly or super-natural language that it is hard for us to take it all in.  How do we deal with the heavens being torn open, the Spirit of God, the Voice of God, Satan, angels, wild animals and in the middle of all of it Jesus, God’s Son.  It almost doesn’t seem real, but on the other hand it is almost too real.
I am reading one of the books that is on the UMW reading list entitled Half the Sky.  It is about the plight of the women in the world, especially in 3rd world countries.  So far it has shared some horrific stories of rape, slavery, and dangers associated with child labor in the 3rdworld.  But what has stuck with the most is the what the authors say they would like people to do.  They would not like people just to write checks.  They say that it is wonderful to have money but that doesn’t solve everything.  The best thing a person could do is go over there.  Experiencing something first hand doesn’t just bring the problem into a better light but transforms the person and they are never the same.
I could stand up here and tell you about an Ethiopian woman who was dealing with an obstructed labor.  Because her pelvis was too small, and the fact she was only 14, her baby could not pass through the birth canal.  She spent a week in labor until her family could afford to send her to a hospital, a bus ride away, to have a C-section to remove the baby that died after day two of her labor.  The tissue the baby’s head had pressed up against her pelvis had died and the result was nerve damage that made it almost impossible for her to walk and left fistulas in her bladder.  Now urine and feces simple fall out of body.  The smell, pain, and inability to move causes her family to move her to a hut at the end of the village.  There she lays on the floor in the fetal position for two years.  Eventually he is taken to a hospital by her family who had to sell everything they had to receive the correct treatment and she did survive.
I could go on with other stories but those are only stories.  Now if you went to Ethiopia and spent a week or a month or two working in a hospital that specializes in helping woman with these types of issues how would that change you.  The truth is it does feel good to write a check and help out with money, but real change to both the receivers and you happen when you come face to face.  In this book there is another story about a church that decided to get involved with the rape victims in the Republic of the Congo.  There rape is used as a tool of war and many women are left to die after many men and objected as forced upon them.  The church sent over a person to work with a hospital over there and to make a better connection with the ministry they were starting.  The woman there soon started a school for the kids in the hospital and job and skills training for women with fistulas who were waiting for surgery.  Her life was transformed as she looked upon these people and felt compassion for them.
We are lucky that God did not just send a check or money to pay for our sins.  Instead Jesus was sent down to do a hands on mission trip to provide the care we so desperately needed.  He left the comfort of his family after his baptism and went into the wilderness to experience temptation.  He stepped out of the river, onto the other side of the Jordan and into the wilderness his people had been for 40 years.  There he learned firsthand what we face when sin calls our name so loud that it is the only noise we hear.  He met our temptations face to face in order for us to be able to face our own.
We have moments when we are in the wilderness.  Sure we may take a camping trip and go to the middle of nowhere but that is not what I am talking about.  The wilderness I am referring to is the one where temptation starts to be the center of attention.  We would like to keep our ideas of temptation in the wilderness.  Some there way over there, in the middle of nowhere, where we might visit occasionally but would never confess to living there.  It makes us feel better to think about it far away but the reality is the land of temptation is simply right next to us all of the time.
If you talk to any recovering alcoholic they will tell you they are always in recovery.  There is no time in that person’s life that they will completely recover from that disease.  The temptation to pick up a drink when life get bad will always be there and they are always working to fight against those feelings.  My father quit smoking about ten years ago and still to this day there are moments when he is tempted by the taste and feeling of lighting up again.  I am sure you might have similar stories.  We live right next door to the wilderness and some of us are living in it.  We live in a world when temptation is right there all the time.  Sometimes too close for comfort or too close to even admit to ourselves.
But the good news is that we are not alone.  Jesus at his baptism hears the words “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”  Those words echo in his head as he enters this time of trial.  As Satan tempts him he has to believe in his heart that he is loved by God and because of that he can say no.  Jesus went through the same things we go through with our own wild animals that tempt us in our own lives.  He went through them in order understand what we go through and show us the way through the wilderness.
It is in the midst of Mark’s super-natural language that we find the root of humanity.  We are all sinners and the journey of Lent reminds us of that.  As we placed ashes on our foreheads on Wednesday and were reminded of our mortality we admit to ourselves that we need a savior.  The root of humanity is that we all have fallen short of God’s glory and there is nothing we can do on our own to rid sin from our lives.  If it were not for Christ every time we would face our own wildernesses we would be overtaken by the wild animals of temptation.  Yet by living through it himself, Jesus gives us a way through.
That way through is found in his first sermon he preached.  In it he says, for us to “Change our hearts and lives and trust this good news.”  Another church word that is used to describe this message is printed on my Lenten stole, repent.  Repentance is the admission that we are sinners and need a savior.  It is through that act that we understand who we truly are and ask for the help that we so desperately need.  Repentance is the admission of what we have done wrong and the promise to change.  That is only possible because of Jesus Christ who has already walked through the wilderness and still does with us.
Johnny Cash remembered this in his life.  He married his second wife, June Carter, in 1968.  His addictions to narcotics were taking a toll on his life and June got him clean. She also got him back into his faith.  Many times Cash went back to his old gospel roots and found a path out of his wilderness.
In 2002 he released a song called Hurt.  It was actually a remake of a Nine Inch Nails song that the lead singer of the band, Trent Reznor, wrote in his bedroom during a very dark time in his life in 1994.  Nine Inch Nails and Johnny Cash would be on two different ends of the music spectrum but when asked if Cash could remake the song, Reznor agreed.  That song was then made into a music video and it seemed to capture Cash’s life, struggle, and redemption in a short few minutes.  The song, I think, depicts well what we have to do during this season of Lent.  We have to acknowledge to ourselves where we struggle and where our wilderness moments lie.  But then realize that we cannot do a thing, we simply need the help of someone else, Jesus Christ, who knows his way through the wilderness and can guide us through it as well.
Watch the video now as the end of this sermon.  Feel the pain Johnny Cash had in his life and the redemption he has in the end.  After Trent Reznor saw this video he said that this wasn’t his song anymore, it was now owned by the Man in Black.  But what we can take away from it is that no matter what we face in this world, there is light, there is hope, there is redemption, there is peace, there is a way out of the wilderness.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

John 9:1-41 – Sermon – Opened Eyes

(rough draft of my sermon for this week, enjoy)

John 9:1-41
Opened Eyes
04-03-11

In 3rd grade we had a day when we were attempted to live the school day like a person with has a physical disability. Some kids had to wear ear phones all day that drowned out sound. Some lucky kids got to ride around in a wheel chair all day. Others had to have one of their hands tied behind their backs and others had to wear blindfolds that made them blind. I got to push around a walker all day. I was jealous of the wheel chair kids and I was relieved I didn’t have to be blind for the day. Although that experiment is long past I still remembering wondering what it would be like to be blind, but then again as I have grown up I have learned that in some respects I already am.

The man that Jesus and his disciples stumbled upon had been blind all his life. He knew no other life but one that was in darkness. For his entire life he had to be helped around his town to buy food, pull up the bucket to get water, and begging in the streets and at the gates. He was dependent on the world around him. He was pushed aside because of some sort of sin he or his parents had committed. He was simply sitting around when Jesus and the Disciples come walking by. When the disciples see him they ask Jesus a question, probably for clarification purposes. They asked whether he or his parents sinned to cause his blindness. They wanted to know the juicy details that make our mouths water and our hearts stop for a second. They wanted to know…….why?

We are fascinated with this question, why? If we know why then we can name it, own it, or fix it. If we know why our parents did something when we were children then we can name it as the source of our current struggles. If we know why we do the things we do then we can own them as who we are. If we know why a car is leaking oil, then we can go in and fix that problem. Knowing the answer to the question, why, gives us power and control over the situation and we love us some power and control.

The media is the quickest group of people to do this. Now instead of simply reporting the news they have to fill 24 hours a day with details. It does not take them long to go from what happened to why it happened. When covering a shooting like the one at Fort Hood or Virginia Tech people wanted to know what was happening but they also wanted to know why a person would do such a thing. Why would someone simply snap and shoot people. Now in Japan and in Libya we are asking the same thing. We want to know why we are helping out the UN or why we would help the rebels in Libya. Why do would we help those people and not those in the Sudan who have been suffering for years? We know that plates shift under the earth and cause earthquakes which cause Tsunamis but why wouldn’t the nuclear reactors be protected better?

If we know all the answers to the question, why, then we can sit back and feel comfortable about the situation. Then we are comfortable because we can wrap our heads around it. We can place it in a box and say that happened because of ______. Then we can close the box and move on. Now before you roll your eyes at me we do know people or maybe you are one of them that can never know the answer to the question, why. Because of this they are haunted by this event and it bothers them daily. Why did that car accident happen? Why did my wife get cancer? Why couldn’t my baby live outside my womb? Why can’t I forget what happened? Why didn’t I just say no? Why? Why? Why? We need the answer to this question because we need to place the blame somewhere.

The disciples asked Jesus to place the blame on someone, either the blind man or his parents. When we ask why we are asking who or what is to blame and man do we love the blame game. But just think about the blind man and his parents. For his whole life he has heard from everyone in his village that either he had to commit a horrible sin to go blind form birth or something his parents did caused it. I’m not sure what sin a baby could commit that would cause him to go blind so most of the fault had to lie on the parents. They had to carry this around for years that something they did caused him to be blind. But when asked the question Jesus tells them that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” God takes away our need to ask the question, why?

Why doesn’t really matter. What matters is that something happened and what is it that we are going to do about it. We can’t keep stuff in boxes. We can’t keep God in a box and we can’t keep the people we come in contact with in a box either. People change and God does stuff that shocks us every day. But that doesn’t satisfy us. We still think we need to know.

We can see that in the other people in this story. The community around the blind man doesn’t recognize him when he can see. After he has washed the dirt and spit out of his eyes he can see the world around him but still no one can see him. They only reason people knew of him in this village was that he was the blind man. But now he is just the man and they don’t recognize him.

They take him to the Pharisees to verify that this really happened. It was a Sabbath day so could it really have happened on a day of rest? They debated whether Jesus was a sinner or not. The argument continued and they eventually brought in the man’s parents and asked them if their son was blind but now sees and how it happened. They look at him and give verification that this man is their son who was born blind but they don’t have a clue how it happened, and nor do they want to even think about asking because they were scared of the repercussions. The Pharisees continue to argue and come back at him once again and ask him to tell the truth. He does but they are still not satisfied and they send him away.

A blind man can see. It is a miracle but no one cares. The pillars of his society that should celebrate this glorious event all let the man down. His neighbors don’t believe he is the same guy because they only saw his blindness. The church doesn’t believe him because stuff like this doesn’t happen. If it did it wouldn’t have happened on a Sabbath or by some guy from Nazareth. His parents come in and claim him as their son but then push then leave him to fight his own battle. They leave him to answer the Pharisee’s questions. The people who should be celebrating, his family, his church, his neighbors all fail him and he is left alone.

There in his loneliness Jesus finds him again and comes to him. He reveals to this once blind man that he is the Son of Man. He is the Lord and the blind man believes. We get no verse in this story that the man even asked to see again but Jesus spits in the dirt and rubs away the years of pain and suffering, freeing the man from his darkened prison. The man comes back from the Pool seeing the world for the first time and realizes how lonely it can truly be.

I made it a point to read all 41 verses to us today because what is interesting is that the miracle only takes two verses to explain and happen but the discussion and reaction takes 39. Jesus says, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” For those who see the world they are blind to the moments in which God is at work in it. For those who try and keep God in a box that only follows certain rules on certain days, they will be blind to the reality that God is at work once a need is noticed not after the question why is answered.

Too many times we are blind to the work of God because we are too consumed with getting the facts right first. We have a bad habit in the United Methodist Church. Because we are organized to beat the devil and extremely methodical we have to find away to measure everything. In January of every year we have to fill out Year End Reports which tells the denomination our progress for the previous year. We report on Sunday School class attendance, worship attendance, deaths, small groups, youth and children, money given for capital projects, and a ton of other numbers. But a lot happens in the church that cannot be written down and place a number by it. How do you explain with a number that a person as gotten closer to God this past year because of a Lenten Discipline she decided to continue. Or that a person is wrestling with tough questions and is seeking answers that will pull him closer to God. How do you put a number by the fact that our children are learning about God and the Bible and how to pray? When we caught up in the numbers, in the testing and verifying, in the questioning and arguments we miss out on the opportunities to see God at work.

I had a parishioner who loved the phrase, “I would rather ask for forgiveness than permission.” He used this phrase to give himself cart blanch to do whatever he wanted which made him really look like the rear end of a donkey. Yet we are reminded here in the 9th chapter of John that sometimes waiting for permission is waiting too long. If we wait until we have all the answers to the why questions and when we have all the money and all the resources we need we may be too late. We can feel defeated even before we begin when the rational side of our brain kicks in or when we listen to the media or our neighbors. But God did not call us to a lost cause.

We have to be willing to go into action when the need is seen not when the questions are answered. Jesus doesn’t even ask, he spits, mixes, rubs and commands and a blind man can see. He doesn’t think about the day of the week and if it would be better to do this healing on a Monday. He doesn’t think about the dynamics that will shift when the blind man is not begging at his usual spot. He sees a man in need. A man who has the weight of guilt on his shoulders and is holding his hands out to be fed. Jesus sees a need and fulfills it.

How many others simply walk by? How many times do we rationalize ourselves out of doing God’s work? How many times do we miss out on a miracle because it doesn’t make any rational sense to us? How many times do we ignore the people around us who were transformed by God’s love because if we are honest we have no idea what that even looks like? We think too much. We ask too many questions. We rationalize, intellectualize, and are too concerned with the material side of things to see. We go through the world blind to the work God is doing and the work God is asking us to do.

Today, our prayer is that God will stop in front of us, spit on the ground, and open our eyes to see the world has he does.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

John 4:5-42 – Sermon – Truly Thirsty

(this is a rough draft of my sermon on Sunday)

John 4:5-15
Truly Thirsty
03-27-2011

This past August in Warsaw, Ohio there was an article about a battle between New Beginnings Ministries Church and the Foxhole Club, which is a club that provides adult entertainment using woman gifted in the art of “the dance.” It seems for four years the church has protested the club and had stood outside it with bullhorns, banners and cameras to take pictures of people’s license plates as they arrived at the club. The club owner got tired of this and he and the girls started to protest the church on Sunday mornings. They stood outside the church in bikinis and holding up their own signs with Bible quotes on them talking about ‘false prophets.’

This is one of the craziest things I had ever heard of, a club protesting a church. On some level there is truth in trying to deterring a business, like the adult club, from plaguing a community. Making money off of exploiting women, booze, and married men is not really biblical living. But is yelling at the women going to work and calling them home wreckers and probably worse, the best way to share the love of Christ with someone?

We are now at the third Sunday of Lent and we have less than a month to go before Easter. Last week we heard of the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. It was a story about the private conversation between a Pharisee and Jesus at midnight. Today the lectionary today hands us another personal encounter with Jesus. This time it is with a Samaritan woman at a well at noon. These two people Jesus talks to could not be more different than one another. First let me remind you about Nicodemus. He was an educated man who as a Pharisee was a pillar in the community. He was an insider, a somebody, a person who grew up in the faith and understood it. When he met Jesus in the night, in the darkness, it was a conversation between two men, two Jewish men. The woman Jesus meets at the well of Jacob was not education and was shunned from her community. She was an outsider and a nobody. She did not have a faith that she lived by and was embarrassed by her past. When she met Jesus at noon, in the bright light of day, it was a conversation between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman who was married five times.

The differences don’t stop there. Nicodemus seeks Jesus out but the woman at the well simply stumbles across Jesus. She wasn’t looking for him. She was just trying not to be seen while getting some water. With Nicodemus Jesus was short and direct at times even at one point making fun of him being a Pharisee and not understanding the scriptures better. With the woman at the well he is gentle and guides her. He still calls her out as living with a man who is not her husband and being married five times but doesn’t do it in a brash way. Jesus is happy to take his time with her and explain things in order for her to get it. While with Nicodemus he seems tired of those who are supposed to get it not getting it.

Although they are vastly different the grace Jesus offers up is still the same. In Nicodemus’ story we get the most quoted piece of scripture, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The woman at the well story is one of the most quoted and beloved stories in the gospel of John. Both of these conversations help us paint a picture of God’s grace and how it is different than the world. It demonstrates the levels God will go through to welcome into his flock those who are insiders and those who are outsiders. God’s love is for all.

The question today is; are we ready to accept the grace God offers to all? That is one of the great things about this story. Jesus is sitting at the well with no means to get something to drink. All the disciples are busy shopping at the grocery store getting supplies and Jesus has a seat that Jacob’s well. The Samaritan woman shows up and Jesus looks at her and asks if he can have a drink. “The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans). Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” Jesus takes the everyday act of getting water, a basic necessity of life, and turns it into a chance to offer up the greatest necessity, Living Water.

The woman at the well is ready to drink this Living Water. Her heart desires to finally quench its thirst for good. I encourage you to go home and read the rest of the story because I only read the first part of it. But in the beginning of this story we do know that this woman was ashamed of her past. She comes to the well at noon. Noon is the start of the hottest part of the day. It is not the best time to do the hard work of pulling up buckets of water. That should be done in the coolness of the morning or evening. But here the woman comes at noon because then she will not meet the eyes of others in her neighborhood.

We all have people like this woman in our own neighborhoods. These are the people who cannot seem to get their lives together. Over and over again they make mistakes and gain reputations. You know the people I am talking about. It is that person whose name your mind just thought of. It is that person people point to in the grocery store or avoid eye contact with at a restaurant. It is the person we talk or text about and use the phrase, “can you believe she did that!” The woman at the well was embarrassed that at her age she had already gone through five husbands and is shacking up with a potential sixth. She is tired of the finger pointing and the murmurs so she comes to the well at noon when no else is around. The truth is if you had asked her she would have told you she was not worthy of forgiveness or love. She is a failure when it comes to life, why would she think she deserves the type of grace that could change all that?

How many of us think that too. We look at our past and what we have done and we feel unworthy. When we hear a preacher talk about grace we think to ourselves that is for other people; those creditable enough to gain such things. We look at ourselves in the mirror and we see the scars of the past, the pain that cuts into our hearts, and the sins we have committed that feel like an elephant chained to our ankle. We think we have to somehow getting it all together before we can come in front of Jesus. But the woman at the well didn’t have anything together yet Jesus meets her in her social shame and offers her the cup of living water. The truth is Jesus is standing right here, willing to give you living water, we simply have to be willing to take the cup.

If you are stranded on the ocean, bobbing up and down in a life raft for days, you will start to get thirsty. There you are without food or water for days surrounded by water. But the thing is you cannot drink the salt water of the ocean. It actually does the opposite of what fresh water does for our bodies. Humans can’t drink salt water because the kidneys can only make urine that is less salty than salt water. Therefore, to get rid of all the excess salt taken in by drinking salt water, you have to urinate more water than you drank, so you die of dehydration. It is a weird concept to think about but the more ocean water you drink the more dehydrated you get.

We are all thirsty in life. We have to have water to live but I’m talking about a different kind of thirsty. We are all thirsty for meaning in life. We all want something that makes us feel important, loved, and gives our lives meaning. The older we get I think the more we desire such a thing. This thirst is in all of us and whether we realize it or not we try to quench that thirst. We drown ourselves in things that give us the false sense of fulfillment only to put the cup down and realize we are still thirsty. We throw ourselves into our hobbies hoping that if we can only better our golf game, get that dream buck, capture the perfect moment of our next scrapbook, or take that perfect vacation. We give up our lives for the sake of our children hoping that if they get all the experiences we missed out on then they we can be fulfilled through their successes. We look to quench our thirst in the next relationship, the next job, the next big thing. We stand there gulping up what the world offers up hoping to stop our mouths from being dry. But each time we come away more thirsty than before.

Now back to the story about the church and the adult entertainment club in Ohio. After the story rolled out about the girls and club owners protesting the church some different evangelists showed up. JC’s Girls is a ministry from the Rock Church in San Diego, CA, that reaches out to the women in the adult entertainment industry. These girls use to be part of that industry and now reach out to these women to show them that they are loved by God. They flew out to Ohio and talked with the girls of the Foxhole Club. They shared their testimony and how their lives were changed by the love of God. Then they went to the church and did the same thing. As the church service was happening protests from the club were outside. Inside the people of the church were asked by the JC’s Girls if they were willing to “change the face of Christianity by standing with [them] and truly loving God’s Beautiful Girls just as Jesus would. The entire church stood with [them]…” They left the building and went out to meet the girls protesting. They prayed together, tears flowed, and lives were changed on both sides of the protest lines.

Living water was offered in this moment; water that can quench the truly thirsty. There is nothing like it and whether you feel worthy or not it is offered to you. The good news is Jesus knows your past, knows your faults, knows your sins and stands there ready to offer you Living Water anyway. He opens himself up to us to drink our fill of his grace. The question is, are we willing to receive?

The Men’s Ensemble will be singing our last hymn and I invite them to make their way up and get ready. This is the closing prayer of my sermon today and as we sing please listen to the words. They are truly powerful as Jesus stands here, in our midst this morning, offering us Living Water today.

There are millions in this world who are craving
The pleasures earthly things afford;
But none can match the wondrous treasure
That I find in Jesus Christ my Lord.

Fill my cup Lord, I lift it up, Lord!
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul;
Bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more—
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole!

Good Friday

I stumbled upon this painting by Dali in Glasgow, Scotland when my wife and I trekked through there. We wandered into a gallery near the Cathedral in Glasgow to find a place to use the bathroom and there on the wall was this. In an instant I forgot the reason we entered the building and stood there in awe.

Today Christ died for me. Today Christ died my death. Today Christ died for you. Today Christ died your death. Today Christ died for ALL and today Christ died ALL OUR DEATH. Thanks be to God.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 – Maundy Thursday Sermon – Around the Table

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Around the Table
04-01-10

Tonight we start the last leg of the journey to Easter. Tonight we dive deep into the last days of Jesus’ life here on earth. Tonight we go through a time of celebration and a time of contemplation. Tonight starts the hard part of Lent. The three services that happen within these four days are linked together. They are called the Triduum. It is three days but only one act of worship. Tonight we start the Triduum with the celebration of Holy Thursday and then tomorrow, at Johnsontown we will celebrate a service of Tenebrae or a service of shadows. Tonight we will participate in the first service of Holy Thursday. Then on Sunday we will finish our service with an Easter celebration. All of these services are linked together. When we end this service, it is not truly the end but merely the intermission until the moment our God died.

Tonight starts our Lord’s last day here on earth. Jesus starts this last 24 hours by having a meal with his disciples. The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, tell us that this was the Passover meal. The Holy Meal for Jews to commemorate being passed over by the angel of death during the 10th plague in Egypt. After this they were freed from their slavery and walked through the Red Sea and into freedom with God. This meal is a reminder that they are free in God and through all the symbolism this meal tells their story as a people.

Jesus and his disciples, being good Jews, would have understood all of this and as they went through the Seder meal, Jesus’ heart was probably heavy. He knew his people’s pain as they suffered in Egypt. He knew their struggles and cried alongside the Father as they watched their beloved nation suffer. Yet Jesus had to move past that moment because the reality that was facing him was even greater. God did not just set his people free in Egypt but he had planned to make atonement for all of humanity’s sins. God had decided to make right what went wrong in the start of creation. God decided that in order to bring his children home again he had to send his own child to die our death. That started at this meal.

Jeanne Doering wrote, “When a jeweler displays a fine diamond, he often puts it on black velvet. There, it catches fire from the lights of the room, its beauty multiplied, and its value becomes more apparent. The Lord’s Supper is like that diamond. Sometimes it needs to be pried from traditional settings and thrown against the black velvet of the blackest night in history: the night it was instituted–the night before Christ was crucified.”

In the text today Paul reminds how we are to remember this meal and we hear the familiar words that are said every time we come to this holy table. “On the night when he was betrayed he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Tonight as we come to the table we need to remind ourselves that Jesus gave us this meal as a tool to connect with God, to feel God’s love and grace in our lives, and to remember what he is about to do.

Some members of my congregation and I are reading through Adam Hamilton’s new book, The 24 Hours that Changed the World. In this book Hamilton walks through the last 24 hours of Christ’s life and brings out some nuances that we might have forgotten as we simply hit cruise control during this well known holiday of ours. It is a good thing to step back though and look at the little things because when we do that we can see the big thing differently.

One of the parts that stood out to me the most in this last meal Jesus had with his disciples was the fact that he knew what they were about to do. As they eat the Seder together Jesus is looking around the table at his friends and knows that these are the people that will pass along the message of what will happen tomorrow. These 12 men are the foundation the church will be built on and how the world will know that they are loved by God. Jesus scans the table and there is Peter, Andrew and John. They were his closest friends, the ones he counted on during the biggest moments of his ministry. It was these three that he took up to the mountain of transfiguration and will call upon them to pray with him in the garden later on this evening.

Then there were James, James, Matthew, Philip, Bartholomew, Simon, Thaddeous, Thomas and Judas. These men gave up their lives to follow Jesus and they had learned a lot from him. They had seen amazing things. They passed out the five loaves of bread and two fish that somehow fed thousands of people. They were there on the boat when they saw Jesus walk on water and calm the sea. They had front row seats when Jesus healed the blind, the cripple, the possessed, and the dead. They had heard the parables and the teachings. And now they gather at the table together. They were celebrating their journey, their friendship, their ministry with one another at this meal. There were laughs at inside jokes and arguments about policy and procedures. It was a time to relax and enjoy each other’s company, as a family of misfits who God had called to be disciples.

But like I said, Jesus knew what they were about to do as well. Jesus knew that by morning none of them would be at Jesus’ side. He tells them that one of them will betray him before this night was over. He tells Peter that he will deny him three times. The others will run and hide when things get bad. They will all desert him, abandon him, forsake him in the end. Jesus will die on the cross tomorrow alone, his most trusted friends gone because they were not ready for what it truly meant to follow him.

We do this often in our lives as well. We like to look at ourselves and think we are true followers of Christ but when things get tough we cast Jesus aside. As we live our lives there are times when we come in contact with God and we abandon him. We do not feed the hungry like we are commanded. We do not visit the imprisoned. When we are truly honest we really don’t care for the poor as long as we are not among them. Like the disciples, who sat at the table and started to argue about who was the greatest, we look at our own churches and compete for who is best, instead of being the connectional system we are designed to be. We betray Jesus when we think the bronze plague with our names on it is more important than the ministry our churches provide.

Lent is a journey into the depth of our darken soul. We venture into this place because we need to understand who we really are. We are no better than the disciples that will desert Christ in his hour of need. We are no better than Judas who betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. We all have fallen short of God’s glory and if we were there around that table all those years ago, we would run and hide later on tonight as well.

Jesus looks around the table and sees all this. He sees his friend who is about to betray him. He sees his loyal follower who is about to deny him and all the others who will desert him and leave him to die alone. He looks at use today and sees our sins as well; our arrogance, our pride, our egos, our selfishness, our lust, our rage, our anger, our silence, our greed. He saw all this and he still said, “This is my body. This is my blood.” The grace and love of our Savior constant looks past our errors and sins and continues to reach out in love and forgiveness in order to offer us salvation. In the darkest moment of Christ life here on earth, he offered grace to his disciples who were about to disown him. Today, as we approach the familiar table to remember these darkest hours, he offers us the same grace and love.

What I love about the United Methodist Church is our connectional system. I love the fact that no matter what United Methodist Church I am in, that is my church. Fair Grove UMC is as much my church as Trinity is, or Pine Woods, or First, or Johnsontown or any in our denomination. This reminds us that we are not individuals but are one body, just as we partake in one body. I also love that the United Methodist Church practices an open table. Everyone, I mean everyone is welcome to come to the table and receive the body and blood of Christ. John Wesley saw this as a means of grace; a place where we can feel the grace of God and come in contact with our risen savior.

This means that no matter who you are or who you think you are, you are welcomed to this table. If Jesus could break bread with his betrayer, Judas, his denier, Peter, and the other 10 deserters, than he can welcome us. Tonight, come to the table and receive grace, receive love, and receive the forgiveness God is offering. As the body and blood of our savior sinks deep into your belly, may the Holy Spirit transform you and may you understand the gift that is given on Easter morning.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Luke 13:1-9 Sermon – Wasting Soil

Luke 13:1-9
Wasting Soil
03-07-10

It is the 3rd Sunday of Lent, and so I will stand up here today and I will make a confession. A confession many pastors do not like to make to their congregation. It is a confession that makes some laity cringe and others smile. It demonstrates that the rumors from Carolina fans that I wasted good money at a bad school could possibly be true. I admit when I read the scripture for this week’s sermon, I had no clue what it meant.

During Lent I like to stay with the Gospel texts in the lectionary. Lent is a time to get ready for the gift of Easter and I feel to do that we need to stay close to the teachings and life of the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ. Now after 12 years of preaching I may venture off into something else but for now I still I’ll stick with this. This is the first time I have had the chance to preach these pieces of scripture from Luke’s gospel. Many of these are new to me and I had read the parable of the fig tree before but I didn’t much understand it. I also didn’t get the first five verses either. But I am not one who backs down from a challenge and so I dived in and knew God would provide a word for us today. And God did.

Let me share some things I learned. In the first five verses of this 13th chapter there is some insider language going on. They are asking Jesus about some current events of their time and for us, the outsider; it can be a little confusing. They talk about Galileans whose blood was mingled with sacrifices by the hands of Pilate and then another group of people who had a tower fall on them. There is no other place where these two events are mentioned so all we know is what the writer of Luke’s gospel tells us.

Pilate is the Roman Governor of this area and who had his headquarters in Jerusalem. It seems that some people from the area of Galilee came to Jerusalem to give a sacrifice. Jerusalem was the only place to do this so it is natural to assume this is where the event was when it occurred. Pilate was known to be brutal and unjust as he reigned over this part of the world. The Romans were not known for their bedside manner. The best guess for what happened here is that these Galileans were probably causing some kind of trouble for Pilate. Maybe they were instigators in trying to start a rebellion or were revolting over the Roman taxes they had to pay. Whatever the reason it seems Pilate decides to make a point with these people. He has them killed in the same place where sacrifices to God are offered up. This is something unthinkable.

Fred Winters, 45, was preaching in the 8:15 a.m. service with about 150 people in attendance at the St. Louis-area First Baptist Church in Maryville, Ill., when the gunman, walked down the aisle, exchanged some words with the pastor and opened fire, shooting Winters four times in the chest. When the gunman’s .45-caliber semiautomatic weapon jammed, he drew a knife and slashed two church members as they wrestled him to the ground. You might remember this story which happened only a year ago. It is tragic because the sanctuary we come to worship in, the place where they made sacrifices to God, is a holy place and a place where we cannot conceive of evil things happening.

The tower falling was another event that happened that is only mentioned here. Siloam was an area that the city walls of Jerusalem did take a turn around. In John’s gospel the Pool of Siloam is mentioned and it is very conceivable that at this turn in the wall there was a tower placed there. It is also very conceivable that during the construction of this tower that it fell and, as the text tells us, eighteen people were killed. We know what it is like to watch towers fall and the pain that sticks with you after such an event.

Both of these events are tragic and both of them have an era of innocence attached to them. People are not supposed to be killed in the middle of worship. Towers just don’t fall on people every day; it is a horrible and tragic coincidence. But what is also happening is the idea of we are punished for our sins. If you remember Jesus is asked at one point why a man is blind, was it caused by his sins or the sins of his parents? Here the same thing is happening. The underlying question that Jesus can see them asking is, “what did these people do to deserve such an ending to their lives?” “What sins did they commit to deserve a death like being killed in church or having a random tower fall on them?” Jesus answers them, “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

What Jesus draws from these two events is that life is delicate and fragile. Can I tell you with certainty that you will not be T-boned by a car pulling out of the parking lot today after church? No, it could happen but that doesn’t mean God has a certain punishment placed upon you because of something you did. We all have fallen short of the glory of God, and so just as Jesus points out, we all need to repent. Repentance is extremely important and it is what the season of Lent is all about. Even the stole I wear mentions this, “Repent”. When we place ashes on your head on Ash Wednesday we can choose two sayings, “Repent and believe in the gospel” or “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” Both point to the fragile nature of our lives and the need to make our hearts right with God.

The second part of this scripture is also a little hard to hear. It doesn’t make sense to us. The owner of some land approaches a tree that hasn’t given off any fruit in the last three years. He tells his gardener to just cut it down and stop having it waste the soil. That makes sense. If you have a garden and a tree is producing, why keep that valuable soil space filled up with an unproductive tree? Remove it and then plant something that will produce some fruit. How many of would do that? It just makes logical sense to do it.

Yet that is not how God works. The gardener comes out and tells the owner; let me try one more thing before we cut it down. Let me dig around it and put manure on it and see if that will help it. The gardener doesn’t give up on that tree and is willing to try anything to make it bear fruit once again. God looks at us and sees our sins and offers us grace. Grace to dig around our soil and put manure on us to help us grow. Grace to do anything to save us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in during the rise of Nazi German. He was a very smart man and was a founding member of the Confessing Church of Germany and a participant in the resistance movement against the Nazis. When he participated in the planning of the assassination of Adolf Hitler, he was put in prison and right before the war ended he was executed. Not only is he a martyr he’s views on Christianity and the secular world are very good and have a lot we can glean from them today.

One of the things I like the best about his theology is the idea of Cheap Grace verses Costly Grace. The more I read this parable this week the more I realized that what Jesus was talking about was grace, costly grace. Not the cheap kind you can buy at Walmart or in bulk at Costco. My mind went to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship where he explains these two concepts.

Let’s start with cheap grace. Bonhoeffer says that “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the Church…Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.” (pp. 43-44)

Cheap grace is what we often do in our lives. It is the grace we give someone just to smooth things over and give the appearance that things are okay. Like I said it is Walmart Grace. Walmart is known to bring us the cheapest prices in town but we also know that it means it is cheap in quality too. Yes there are good things at Walmart but if you were going to purchase a nice watch, one with fine craftsmanship, great quality, and one that you can pass down to your grandchildren, you wouldn’t be buying it there. If you wanted sweat in and ruin as you exercise, that is the Walmart watch. If you are looking for a type of grace that is as deep as a puddle, cheap grace is what you are looking for.

Costly Grace is something far different. Bonhoeffer says, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son; “Ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Our Costly Grace sums up his parable by saying “If [the fig tree] bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.” Within that year though the tree’s foundation will be turned up, fertilizer put down, watered and cared for, and shown love and forgiveness. That tree will understand that although the last three years have not been good ones, it doesn’t matter, it can still produce fruit.

Today as we approach the table of God, in this holiest of seasons, we need to be reminded of the grace that is before us. When we taste the elements we need to remember the cost of the grace we are receiving. We are merely trees. Some of us produce fruit year in and year out. Some of us feel God has already chopped us down. Some of us do not feel worthy of even trying to bear fruit because of what we have done in our lives. But God doesn’t care and God is ready to forgive. What God is looking for and what repentance is all about is our ability to name our sins, admit our failures and truly desire to be fruitful once again. If we simply think God’s grace will make up for what we have done in order to keep doing what we are doing, that is Cheap Grace and God doesn’t want anything to do with that.

Costly grace is sought after by the sinner and given freely by our God. If we are not willing to do the work, then off to shop at Walmart we go. If you are tired of wasting soil, than come to the table and receive true grace. It cost God everything, and it costs us everything as well.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Luke 13:31-35 Sermon, The Fox and the Hen

Luke 13:31-35

The Fox and the Hen

02-28-10

Sarah sat down in a familiar seat. There were only two foot panels on either side of her, which were created to give the illusion of privacy. A phone hung on one of them and the shatter proof glass smiled back at her once again. As she waited, a tear dripped from the corner of her right eye. The plastic chair didn’t give her any comfort as her guest sat down. From the other side of the glass she watched as the shell of what use to be her son sat down and picked up the phone on his side. Sarah couldn’t pick up the phone yet, she simply starred at her son. He had lost weight and sleep. The bags under his eyes were heavy with grief. He attempted to hide his pain but she was his mother, she could always see through the walls he attempted to put up. After her brain finally processed all the clues from her son’s appearance she picked up the phone and said hello.

When a child does something wrong something within the parent dies a little. Like a potter watch a vase fall and break into a thousand pieces, something shatters within a parent. All their hard work, their hours of teaching morals and what is right and wrong, seems to be gone. What Sarah saw as her life’s work came up short of her lowest expectation. Instead of the ideal life she had thought of and planned for, she received nothing but heartache, grief. After the conversation with her son, the officer lead him back through the barred doors and into the inner chambers of the prison. Sarah sat there, in the warm plastic chair, and her heart lamented.

“Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:22) He was teaching to the people the lessons of the Kingdom of God. He was telling them how things should be. He was giving them parables about mustard seeds, fig trees, and faith. He was healing crippled women and others who were in need. He was telling them that only a few will go through the narrow door and that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The last heard this message. They were the sinners, the outcasts, the poor, the hungry. The firsts were also listening to this message. They were the religious leaders, the scribes, the Pharisees. What happens when the firsts hear a message that they will become last? Well it can only lead to dark thoughts and plans to keep what they feel were rightfully theirs.

That is the thought of The Fox. Herod Antipas was the ruler of this area. After his father died, he received a quarter of Herod the Great’s kingdom. His quarter landed him in the heart of many New Testament stories. Herod was King of the Jews and when someone goes around and is being called the King of Kings, of course things will start to get a little muddy. The political conversations started to happen and allies were made, alliances forged, and plots where thickened.

The religious leaders of the day joined up with Herod. They held power over the people and were in places of influence and wealth. Then along came this guy named Jesus who was preaching good news to the poor and doing miracles that couldn’t be explained away. He was starting to have a large following. He was starting to stir the pot. He was starting to pull the power and authority away from those who had it. He was starting to become an annoyance. Something had to be done to get rid of him.

While Jesus was preaching and teaching a group of Pharisees came up to him and told him of a plot to kill him. They told him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” Now this threat was truly real. Herod was the one who put John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Literally. He had John beheaded and his head placed on a platter after telling a girl who danced for him he would give her anything she wanted. Look it up in Matthew’s gospel. Herod was not a man to be messed with but this threat that the Pharisees inform Jesus about was really just part of another plot.

Politics are in everything and they were all over this comment to Jesus and Jesus saw it. If you are a political junkie then you have been enjoying these last couple of days during the healthcare summit. If you hate politics, then you have been hating these last couple of days. But what we are experiencing in 2010 America is nothing new. Politics were being played right here within this. How we handle politics tells us a lot about a person. One person says that politicians are like diapers, they should be changed often and for the same reason. Another one says, The penalty that good men pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by men worse than themselves. (Plato) Another says, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” (Earnest Benn) Yet another says, Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.

Jesus understood what was going on. Herod and the Pharisees were trying to get rid of Jesus. If he took the bait and got out the area he would have been under someone else’s jurisdiction. What this means is Herod would no longer be in charge of what happened to him. Herod, King of the Jews, only could do some things to some people. Pilate, the Roman governor, was in charge if a Jew went out of Herod’s jurisdiction. To scare Jesus just a little away would make him Pilate’s problem. Pilate could do a lot of things, which included putting him to death. We know they will eventually succeed at this, but here Jesus’ is not afraid.

This would be the third time his life was threatened and not the last. When he was born Herod the Great killed off many of the infants in hopes of erasing Jesus from the map. Matthew’s gospel tells us he fled to Egypt until Herod died. Then after Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth people tried to throw him off a cliff. All Jesus did was read some scripture and say, the person the prophets are talking about is here, the scripture is being fulfilled. They laughed him off but then when he told them a prophet can never be heard in their hometown, they got angry and a mob grabbed him and attempted to throw him off a cliff but Jesus slipped through them and got away.

Now he hears that Herod might kill him. Oh no, what shall he do? The truth is Jesus understood when and where his death was to happen. It wasn’t outside Jerusalem, but inside that holy cities’ walls. Jesus does call Herod out as a fox but he had all the right to go postal on them in this moment but instead of lashing out he laments. Lamenting is the act of grieving audibly. It is to express mourning or anguish. Instead of anger, Jesus’ heart turns to grief.

As he was there when the world was created, Jesus understood what this city was to be. Jerusalem was to be a city that all other looked up to and admired. It was to be the example of God’s chosen people for the rest of the world to seek to imitate. But that wasn’t the case. After years of being run by Judges, Jerusalem wanted and begged for a king. God didn’t want it to happen but listen to his people and gave them a king. As they progressed through time and kings they got farther and farther away from the true meaning of their nation.



God sent prophets to come and tell them how they should live and the Kings, one by one, would listen for a while but then would get rid of them. Instead they knew of the power they held and the riches they had. That was too much to get rid of and instead they held tightly to it and got rid of the one making waves, the prophets. Isaiah came and preached to the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is located, but was martyred by being sawed in half. Jeremiah also preached to Judah but was killed by stoning. Ezekiel also preached to the same kingdom and he too was martyred. These were a couple of the major prophets but some minor ones found the same path. Micah and Amos’ lives were both ended like the others. Jesus knew Jerusalem’s history and when he hears the leaders of this area are now after him, he grieves, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

As Sarah looked at her son through the glass of the meeting room, Jesus looked to Jerusalem, longing for it to live up to his Father’s expectations. Instead of killing everyone off, why not listen to them? Instead of thinking God will rid you of power and glory, why not focus on the work God can do through you instead? Jesus simply wanted to bring all of them under his wings and protect them, mostly from themselves.

We are only in the second week of Lent and we know the journey Jesus must take. It is hard for us to fathom that instead of anger he laments. Instead of wanting control he give them the free will to chose? He does this with us too. We all have the ability to either see God in our midst or to cast him out? If our eyes are only concentrated on what is in it for us, than we will miss him. We will miss him in the smile of the person on the street or the care of a loved one. Will we miss him?

Jesus longed to transform the heart of Jerusalem but the truth was, just as he says it, they were unwilling. Jesus looks at his children and he too wonders if our hearts are too hard as well. Are we unwilling to listen to the prophets around us who tell how to live Godly lives or will with stone them with our deaf ears and shame? Living in modern day Rome, will we be too consumed with our own desires as a nation and as individuals that we forget the awesome work God can do through us? When the time comes will we see Jesus and be able to say “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord?”

And all God’s people said…Amen.