Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 24

John 11:1-44

This week, we move from the healing of the man born blind, to Jesus being the Good Shepherd that we heard on Ash Wednesday, and now to the raising of Lazarus from the dead. In the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals who he is, not only through the signs that he does, but through several statements where he starts the sentence with the words, “I AM”. Unfortunately, our readings on Sundays have not covered those statements until today, so I will give you a list of what Jesus has said up to this point. In chapter 6, he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In chapter 8, he says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” In chapter 10 he says, “I am the gate for the sheep. . . . Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” And finally, also in chapter 10, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In these statements, we find that Jesus has come to bring us nourishment, light, and protection. And in today’s chapter, we hear what I think is the ultimate revelation of who Jesus is: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus has come to bring life, and when he brings life, he brings it so abundantly that life can spring forth even out of death.

So, let’s take a look at this story in some more detail. Last year, I went to see Disney’s live action version of Beauty and the Beast. Towards the end of the story, the last petal falls from the rose. The beast seems to die, and all of the talking furniture becomes real furniture, instead of turning back into the servants like they would have if the curse had been lifted. And as this moment of the curse becoming permanent seemed to go on for a few beats too many, I sat on the edge of my seat, saying to myself, “Come on, Disney, you’re all about happy endings. Let’s get on with it already.” And, in the end, the curse is lifted, as we expect it to be. But the reason I thought about that moment when all hope seemed to be lost as I was preparing for today’s sermon is this: I wonder if this is the kind of thing that Mary and Martha felt as they watched their brother Lazarus become ill. As his illness worsened and Lazarus grew closer to death, I can see them hopefully, then desperately, watching the door to their house, expecting Jesus to come in at any moment and heal Lazarus. After all, Jesus had healed a lot of other people whom he barely knew. Why shouldn’t he come and heal Lazarus, whom he knew and loved? And then, as the spirit of life slowly leaves Lazarus, and Jesus doesn’t come, the last spark of hope is extinguished. Lazarus is dead, and even though Jesus can do many extraordinary things, the sisters clearly are not expecting Jesus to be able to raise the dead.

I think that we have all experienced these emotions at one time or another. We have been there with Martha, who looks at Jesus and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We have been at funerals where we have heard the preacher say that our loved one will rise again on the last day, and we know, in our minds, that this is correct theology, and our minds trust that theology, but it doesn’t really help when we are in the midst of our grief and we are crying out from the raw pain of acknowledging that the one whom we loved is dead, and we will never see that person again in our life. And, like Mary, we have all been in a place where we throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet, say to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and then weep uncontrollably. This is the reason that today’s story still speaks to us: we look back at this 1st century family, a family who believed Jesus could heal their brother if he would just come, and we know that their emotions are still our emotions so many centuries later. For all of our modern technological advancements, we have still not been able to conquer death. And the feelings that surround the death of someone we love are still the same down through all the years and in different areas of the world.

But Jesus is, indeed, the resurrection and the life, and he proves it by raising Lazarus from the dead. Not long ago one of my pastor colleagues said this, “Lazarus didn’t come back to tell us heaven is for real.  He was raised to show us Jesus was for real.” This story is not about someone coming back from the dead to tell us that there is a heaven and that it’s going to be glorious. No, this is a story to show us, once and for all, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name. Jesus is for real, and Jesus gives us hope for life, even in the midst of death.

The problem becomes this: we are all still going to die. We heard that on Ash Wednesday when I and Pastors Chuck and Victoria marked everyone with the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads: For dust you are, and to dust you will return. Even those who believe in Jesus will one day die; we know that eventually, Lazarus did die again, along with his sisters Martha and Mary. So what does Jesus mean when he says those who believe in him will never die? It means that he, and he alone, has the power to defeat death, and those who trust in him have that promise of eternal life, not just after we die, but starting right now.

So, for us Christians, this puts our grief in perspective. We are confident that Jesus knows our sorrows and understands, for this is the other big part of this story: When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and all of those around her weeping, he first of all becomes angry, and second of all, he begins to weep. When our translation says that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit, the Greek literally says that he snorted in anger, kind of like the snorting of a great warhorse. Perhaps Jesus was angry at death; after all, death was not the original plan for creation. Or perhaps he was angry at himself for having to delay coming to this family whom he loved. After all, it’s all well and good to know, in theory, that you’re going to raise Lazarus from the dead and that it’s all for God’s glory. But when Jesus is confronted by the real pain and suffering that Martha and Mary are experiencing, he becomes angry at himself. And then, finally, he is overcome by the crying around him, and Jesus begins to weep. In movies that have portrayed Jesus’ life, when it comes to this point of the story, they show Jesus shedding one or two elegant tears, as if even that’s too much emotion for the holy Son of God to show. But that’s not what the Greek says. The Greek word used here for weeping means that Jesus had a big, ugly cry, with red eyes and running nose. And that’s how I want us all to picture Jesus when we are mourning someone we love: if we’re having a big ugly cry, then you can bet that Jesus is, too.

This week, our nation mourned again as we witnessed another school shooting that resulted in 17 people being killed. And of course, now the political fallout begins. Is lack of mental health care to blame? Or is it because we need to tighten up gun restrictions? Well, my personal belief is that we need to both improve how we keep an eye on one another and improve access to mental health care, as well as tighten up gun laws. But I’m not going to go deeper into the debate than that right now. What I want to say is this: Jesus is snorting in anger when he sees that people are dying because of this situation. He is snorting in anger that so many people saw signs that this young man was disturbed but could not seem to do anything to get him the help he needed. He is snorting in anger because we seem to lack the willpower to do anything substantial to prevent this from happening again. It seems as though death is winning, even when those who believe in Jesus know that he came to bring us life.

But we also know this: Jesus is weeping with those who mourn. He is having a big ugly cry with all of those parents who have lost their children. He is with the family of Aaron Feis, the assistant football coach who was killed when he threw himself in front of students to protect them from the oncoming bullets. Whether he knew it or not, Coach Feis was imitating the Good Shepherd himself when he laid down his life for those children. Jesus is weeping with all of these people, and he is mourning with all of those across this country who mourn for the people in Parkland, Florida. And we can take comfort from that.

But you know what the even better news is? Jesus does not leave us in the grief and anger in which he finds us. He continues to give us hope: hope that in a culture of death, life will break through and death will one day be conquered. When we are focused on Jesus, we trust that yes, he does have the power to raise us from the dead, and yes, eternal life has already started for us.  When we are focused on Jesus, we are focused on living that abundant life that he brings us here on earth, and thoughts of death and of heaven flee into the background.  When we are freed from thoughts of death, we are freed to love and to serve one another, even to the point of giving up our life for one another, if it comes to that.  And God will come to us in the best way possible to speak to us and to show us what God would have us do, unbinding us from our fears, and setting us free to live life abundantly in Jesus.  The only question is, now that we are free from fear and from death, how is God loosing us to love and serve one another?  The possibilities are endless.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Sermon for Ash Wednesday

John 10:1-18

 

Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday—on Ash Wednesday. We here at St. John’s, and also at Salem, have been trying something new, and have been following the narrative lectionary. We entered into this on the Year 4 cycle, which focuses on the Gospel of John, and we have been going through the Gospel of John somewhat in order for the last several Sundays. I will admit that when I saw that the text the narrative lectionary had assigned for Ash Wednesday was the text about the Good Shepherd, my initial reaction was a bewildered, “Huh?” And I did seriously consider changing it back to the Revised Common Lectionary, with its text from Matthew which says to pray, give alms, and fast in secret, even though it would mean yet again struggling to reconcile that reading with the fact that we’re putting big ugly ash crosses on one another’s foreheads. But then I took a second look at the John reading and saw this verse: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And I realized that this is, after all, what we’re supposed to be focusing on during Lent: Jesus laying down his life for us. Now I’m wondering why the Revised Common Lectionary assigns this text for the fourth Sunday of Easter.

Lent is a time when we focus on what Jesus did on the cross for us, and it is a time when we examine ourselves and find that yes, we are still sinful human beings and as such, that we miss the mark in many ways. And when we hear this portion of the Gospel of John, the image that we get in our heads most likely comes from paintings of Jesus as the kindly shepherd, perhaps with a lamb on his shoulders, and with kind-hearted, white, fuzzy sheep frolicking around him. In fact, if you look up at our stained-glass window over the balcony, that’s exactly the image that I’m describing. Well, I’m here to tell you that sheep are not like that at all. Richard Swanson, in his book, Provoking the Gospel of John, describes sheep like this: “. . . to anyone who has worked closely with sheep, it is not a compliment to say that we are the sheep of God’s pasture. Sheep will graze a pasture to the ground and will then eat the roots of the grass, making a desert, unless a shepherd moves them along. Sheep will bloat themselves to death on green alfalfa, lacking the sense to stop eating even when their stomachs start to swell. Sheep are rude, they smell bad, and they leave a sticky slick coating on everything they rub up against so that you come away wondering what the attraction of lanolin in hand lotion might be” (p. 269).

What does it mean for us to be sheep? Well, we like to think of ourselves as those cute and fluffy animals who are so sweet that we see in our pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. And most of the time, we delude ourselves into thinking this is so. But Lent is a time to come clean and acknowledge that we are more like those creatures that Swanson describes so poetically for us: greedy, smelly, and not too bright. It is a time for us to acknowledge that there is something deeply wrong in each of us, and we each have the potential to violate God’s law in the worst of ways. As an example of that self-examination: I have been working my way through the wildly popular cable TV series, “Game of Thrones”. And part of me is appalled at myself that I am still watching this show, because it is probably the most graphically and gratuitously violent thing I have ever seen. I tell myself that I still watch it because the story is compelling and because I want to see who is going to finally end up sitting on the Iron Throne. But what if I’m deluding myself? What if, on some level, I am enjoying the violent side of it as well? What if, deep down, I’m not as good of a person as I imagine myself to be?

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” What does it say about Jesus that he wants to be our shepherd? I have a friend whose father raised sheep, and she told me a story about how one day he came in to the house, fully exasperated with whatever the sheep had done that day, and said, “The only thing dumber than sheep is the man who raises them.” Is Jesus dumber than we are? Well, I don’t think so. But I do think that he has compassion on us. The Gospels tell us in several places that Jesus has compassion on the crowds because “they were like sheep without a shepherd”. And that compassion that Jesus has and that love for us means that Jesus knows us completely: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and he loves us in spite of all that. His love for us is so immense that he is willing to suffer violence at the hands of his sheep and to give his life so that these sheep—us—might live.

This year for Lent, I invite you to contemplate Jesus as the good shepherd, willing to give his life for us dirty, smelly, violent sheep. Many of us will be taking on extra disciplines during these 40 days, such as fasting from something, praying or studying more, and giving money or time to good causes. And that is all good—as long as you remember the reason that you are doing it. If you’re just doing it to have an answer to someone when they ask you, “What did you give up for Lent?” then that’s not a good reason to engage in this discipline. But, if you are doing it to remind you of what Jesus has done for us, how he laid down his life for us, and to grow in your love for him, then do take on that extra discipline this Lent. Jesus is the good shepherd who loves us so much that he lays down his life for us. What awesome love that is, and what a good thing to hold in front of us as we enter the season of Lent. Amen.

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 23

John 9:1-41

This week, we have gone from the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well to the story of Jesus healing the man born blind. There are several chapters of the Gospel of John in between that we have suddenly skipped over, so I’d like to fill you in on what Jesus has been doing in the meantime. After Jesus and his disciples leave Samaria, they go back to Cana in Galilee, where Jesus heals the son of a royal official who lies ill in the town of Capernaum. From there, they return to Jerusalem, where Jesus heals a paralyzed man on the Sabbath, and the Jewish officials start plotting to kill Jesus because he was violating the prohibition against work on the Sabbath. Then Jesus teaches the people about who he is in relation to the Father: that he can do nothing on his own, but does what his Father commands him to do. Next, we find Jesus back in Galilee, where he feeds the five thousand and walks on water, after which he teaches the crowds more about who he is and says that he is the bread of life. Because of his teachings, and especially because he says that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life, many in the crowd stop following him, but the twelve still stick with him. Next, Jesus goes back to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths, goes up into the Temple, and teaches the crowds. Officers are sent to arrest Jesus, but they start listening to him and they don’t arrest him. We then have a short interruption with the story of the woman caught in adultery, where Jesus tells those who want to condemn her, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” We then find Jesus continuing his teaching in the Temple, including one of his I am statements: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” As we enter into today’s story of the healing of the man born blind, keep that “I am” statement in mind, because I think this healing story is, in part, an extended object lesson on what it means for Jesus to be the light of the world.

But first, some things about this story that need to be said. Jesus and the disciples encounter a man who was born blind. And the first thing the disciples ask Jesus is, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus tells the disciples that no one did anything wrong. We like to think that we are past that kind of thinking today—that God is somehow punishing people by making them sick. But we have our own version of this theology today that’s running around in some Christian circles. You might have heard some people say that, when a person becomes ill or when a person dies from an illness, it was because that person did not have enough faith or did not pray hard enough. If you’ve said it in the past, I want you to never, ever say it again. If you hear someone say that, I want you to tell that person to stop talking right now. God does not punish people for sins by making them sick. And God does not refuse to heal a person because the person “doesn’t have enough faith”. Even when we have faith in God, sometimes bad things happen. We are mortal and we will all die eventually. We cannot ask why, because we don’t know the mind of God. But death and disease don’t happen because of a person’s lack of faith.

The next thing that needs to be said about this story is that the argument among the Jews in this story is not necessarily a bad thing. I met a Jewish person once who told me that “where there are two Jewish people gathered together, you will find three opinions.” In the Jewish faith, argument and discussion about God’s law are a part of being faithful to God. It’s like a marriage relationship: You are confident that your spouse loves you. But, you have rules in the house that help you get along with one another in daily life. You don’t follow the rules in order to make your spouse love you; you follow the rules in order to show love and respect for your spouse. And sometimes, the rules need to be reinterpreted or renegotiated in light of new circumstances in your life. So it is with God: the Jewish people know that God loves them, and they want to show God love and respect by being as faithful to the law as possible. The third commandment says to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy by doing no work on that day. The main argument in this chapter of John results from the fact that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath day. Healing was considered to be work, so the Pharisees believe that Jesus has violated the Sabbath, and thus is a breaker of that law given by God. But, this healing resulted in a good thing: the man who was blind can now see. So, the question becomes this: would God allow a good thing to come out of someone breaking God’s law by healing on the Sabbath? This is why the Pharisees are having such an extended discussion about what has happened to this man.

We might answer this question with, “Yes, of course God would allow good to happen even if God’s law is technically violated.” That is also the verdict of John, who tells how Jesus takes in this man whom he has healed when the man testifies that Jesus has done a good thing and the Pharisees end up kicking him out of the synagogue. But that does leave us with an ethical question to ponder, “Do the ends always justify the means?” As an example, when the atomic bombs were dropped in Japan in 1945, they did bring World War II to an end much more swiftly than would otherwise have happened. But, in the process, they killed many people and caused many others to suffer illnesses resulting from the radiation. And, dropping those bombs started a nuclear arms race that we are still dealing with today. Did the end goal of bringing World War II to an end justify the means of dropping the atomic bomb?

Well, that’s a question for us to ponder another time. And I think the original question, that of Jesus violating the Sabbath in order to heal the man born blind, is not necessarily the point that John is trying to make here. In verse 5 of today’s chapter, Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This is what he is demonstrating by healing the man who was born blind: he is bringing light into this man’s world, where the man had previously known only darkness. So then, what does it mean for Jesus to heal our spiritual blindness? When we sing the words in the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see,” what does that mean?

I’m sure many of you have your own personal stories about how Jesus has enabled you to see things you haven’t seen before, and to deepen your faith in him. I encourage you to tell those stories to your friends and to people you meet who are interested in why you believe what you do. Those personal stories make all the difference in bringing people to faith in Jesus. But today I would like to suggest something that is on a larger scale. Our society today is polarized and, despite some recognition of that and some work to make more connections between people, our society is in danger of becoming even more fragmented. Each of us, and I’m including myself in this as well, go into our own “tribes” and think we are right in our viewpoint and everyone else is wrong. A glance at the letters to the editor section in the newspaper will tell you this. And I know that it’s difficult for me to read an opinion piece in the newspaper that has the opposite point of view from my own. I tend to get a few lines into it and then either throw the paper down or move on to something else.

If Jesus were to return today—not in glory, as we hope and expect him to do—but as he came the first time, as a member of our society who teaches us about God, he would not be Republican and he would not be Democrat. He would be neither completely socially conservative nor would he be completely socially liberal. He would not take political sides, but he would be on the side of abundant life. As the light of the world, Jesus would shine his light on those dark corners of our society that do not give life but rather suppress it. For those who claim that they clearly see how things should be, he would name them as blind. And for those who admit that they are blind, Jesus would enable them to see.

Where are we blind and where do we see?  To use a more immediate example: we know that homelessness is an important issue, and some of us give to causes that support people who are homeless. But for those of us who volunteered when St. John hosted Family Promise in January, our eyes were opened to see real life examples of what homelessness looks like, and we wanted to help out even more. I think Jesus was there and helped remove our blindness that week. And if you weren’t able to volunteer last month, St. John’s is hosting Family Promise again in April and I would encourage you to sign up for that. When Jesus removes our blindness, he enables us to have compassion on others and to walk with them through life more easily.

And in the end, that’s what Jesus being the light of the world is about. When Jesus heard that the Pharisees had thrown the man whom he had healed out of the synagogue because he had testified to Jesus’ power, Jesus found the man and invited him into a new community—the group of people who had faith in him and who believed that Jesus was the Son of God. When Jesus removes our blindness, we may have a rough time as we try to communicate what we have seen with those who still do not see. We may be ostracized and we may no longer fit in with our polarized tribes who think one way and are unwilling to see where they may be blinded. Our call, though, is to follow Jesus and to ask that our eyes may be opened in areas where we are blind, and then to testify to others about the one who has opened our eyes. And we have no reason to be afraid, for Jesus is with us through it all. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 22

John 4:1-42

This week, we move from Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus at night to Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well at high noon. But, before we leave Nicodemus behind, I’d like to say a couple more things about him that I did not say last week. While Nicodemus came to speak with Jesus and to try to find out who, exactly, Jesus was, it is not clear by the end of the encounter whether Nicodemus learned anything or came to believe in Jesus. The encounter ends very unsatisfactorily; we hear what Jesus taught Nicodemus, but we don’t hear any response from Nicodemus or what he did next. At the end of chapter 7, Nicodemus reappears briefly as the authorities are arguing over whether Jesus should be believed in or not, and he says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” So we know that Nicodemus, while maybe not quite believing in Jesus or understanding what he learned from Jesus that night, was at the least a just man who wanted to give Jesus more of a hearing in order to understand him better. Then, the last time we see Nicodemus, it is after Jesus is crucified, when he and Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body and bury it. Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of spices to anoint Jesus’ body, so we can gather that, whatever else Nicodemus believed about Jesus, he did not believe that Jesus was going to rise from the dead.

Today, we hear the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, and the contrast between this encounter and the encounter with Nicodemus could not be more pronounced. Whereas Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, the Samaritan woman meets Jesus at the well in broad daylight. Whereas the encounter with Nicodemus does not have a clear outcome, the meeting with the Samaritan woman has a clear and joyful result. So, let’s take a look at this story in some more detail.

Let’s first take a look at the setting of this story: a well. Why is this important? For those of you who went to Sunday school growing up, what stories do you remember that involved a meeting at a well? Here are some examples: Abraham sends his servant back to the old country to find a wife for Isaac, and the servant meets Rebekah at the well. Rebekah gives water to him and his camels, and the servant proposes marriage to her on behalf of Isaac, and she accepts. Later in the story of Genesis, Rebekah’s son Jacob returns to the old country, fleeing for his life from his brother, Esau, and stops at a well, where he meets Rachel and falls in love with her. Generations later Moses, fleeing for his life from Egypt, winds up at a well in Midian, where he defends Zipporah and her sisters from bandits threatening them, and later in the story, marries Zipporah. In Jewish culture at this time, when a man meets a woman at a well, it’s the beginning of a love story. And a love story is likely what John’s congregation was expecting to hear when Jesus comes to a well and meets a Samaritan woman there.

But, this is not an ordinary love story. Like the story of Abraham’s servant and Rebekah, Jesus begins the conversation by asking the woman for a drink of water. Instead of giving him a drink, she stands there, looks him up and down, and says, “You are a Jewish man and I am a Samaritan woman. And you’re asking me for a drink?” In a side note, John tells us that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” There is a long history of why the Jews and the Samaritans did not get along. If you can remember back when we were talking about the prophets before Christmas, I mentioned in one sermon that the Assyrian Empire had come in and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. They scattered the ten tribes of Israel who had been living in the north and brought in other displaced peoples to settle there. And so, the Jewish people in the south, the ones who had returned from exile in Babylon in 639 BC, encountered these Samaritans when they returned. The Samaritans believed that they were the true people of Israel and worshiped the right way, while the returning exiles believed that they were the ones who were the heirs to the land and to God’s promises; who believed that they worshiped the correct way at the restored Temple in Jerusalem, and who looked down their noses at the Samaritans. For Jesus to speak with a Samaritan woman had less to do with male and female and more to do with Jewish and Samaritan. And when John says that Jews and Samaritans do not share things in common, one of the things that he means by that is that Jews and Samaritans do not intermarry. So, if this is a love story, it’s not going to go how John’s congregation is thinking it’s going to go.

Jesus then has a long theological discussion with this unnamed Samaritan woman. This is remarkable, but maybe not for the reasons that you might think. There was no reason that Jesus couldn’t be talking with women, which some interpreters say. We have other stories where Jesus speaks with women and no one remarks on it; Mary and Martha, for example. This conversation is remarkable because the Samaritan woman gets what Jesus is about probably before the Jewish men in the story do. This Samaritan woman knows her theology and she knows how she and her people worship. She holds her own in this theological discussion. And the moment that she gets who Jesus is, she runs and tells everyone in her village.

And, one more note about this. Many interpreters of this passage like to say that this woman was “immoral,” or at least “loose,” because she had five husbands and she’s living with someone now to whom she is not married. Things were different in 1st century Palestine than they are now. Women then had no control over who they married; their families were the ones who arranged the matches and married them off. Furthermore, men could divorce women but women could not divorce men. We don’t know what this woman’s story was. Perhaps her husbands died or perhaps they divorced her. We also don’t know why the man she was living with did not marry her, but she likely had little, if any, control over that either. And if she were loose or immoral, the people in her village would not have listened to her. But that’s not the case: they listened to this woman, then they came to hear Jesus for themselves, and they believed. This is evidently a woman with some status in her community, as well as being educated enough to have that theological discussion with Jesus.

So, I think this is a love story, as John intended his congregation to think it was, but it’s a very different kind of love story. This love story does not end with a wedding. It starts with Jesus crossing boundaries—a Jewish man crossing into a Samaritan village—to find his beloved, the descendants of the so-called lost tribes of Israel, and remind them of what they still had in common with the Jewish people who were descended from the exiles who returned from Babylon. They met at Jacob’s well—a reminder that both groups of people had their ancestor, Jacob, in common. They both had hopes for the Messiah. And Jesus comes to tell the Samaritan people that he is come and it is time for all of God’s people to worship God in spirit and in truth. This is a love story of Jesus searching out all parts of his beloved people from corners of the earth where most people would not dream of going.

And today, we are still part of that love story. Jesus has not only crossed the boundaries from Jewish to Samaritan, but also from Jewish to Gentile, which we are. He has searched us out and told us how much he loves us. He gives us that living water, too, so that all who thirst for that love will have their thirst quenched when they find rest and love in him. It doesn’t matter who you are or what’s happened to you in life, Jesus loves you no matter what and wants you to be a part of his beloved community. And not only does he want us, he wants us to bring others into this community so that they, too, might have their thirst for him quenched.

Isn’t that exciting? To be loved no matter what? To know that you are part of a beloved community whom God loves so much that he sent Jesus to die for us and to rise again, thus giving us the promise of the resurrection and eternal life? So why aren’t we behaving like the Samaritan woman, who ran back to her community and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” What are we afraid of? Jesus tells his disciples just a little bit later that the fields are ripe for harvesting. We have fields all around us in Oberlin and Steelton that are ripe for the harvest. We should be so excited that Jesus loves us that it’s all we can do to contain ourselves. We should be out there telling people about Jesus and about the community of people that Jesus has called together, from all walks of life, to be his beloved.

This week, look for opportunities in your daily conversations to talk about Jesus. Talk about your faith to others. Tell people why you come to church each week. Tell people about what Jesus has done for you. Tell people to come and see someone who knows you completely and intimately; someone who knows all of the good you’ve done and all of the bad you’ve done, and yet who still loves you. When you’re in love with someone, you want the whole world to know it, right? That’s the kind of attitude we should have when we tell others about Jesus—we are in love and we want everyone to know. That’s what the Samaritan woman did after meeting Jesus at the well on that long ago day. It is a love story, and that story continues on with us. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 21

John 3:1-21

Today’s text includes that famous verse that Martin Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell,”; the one that gets flashed up on signs at sporting events: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. This verse has taken up such a place in our culture that many people don’t always remember the story that surrounds it: Nicodemus coming to visit Jesus by night to try and find out who this Jesus is. So, before we dive in to today’s text, I would like to start by reviewing what John the Gospel writer has told us thus far.

In the first chapter, we get a beautiful prologue that starts with, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” John the Evangelist tells us how Jesus is the Word made flesh, the Word of God now walking among those whom he created. John tells us that Jesus came to bring grace and truth. From there, John the Evangelist tells us about John the Baptist, who testified to those around him about who Jesus was. We then hear about how Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael came to be followers of Jesus. From these stories of Jesus’ first disciples, we move to the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, and finally, last week, we heard about Jesus getting angry and turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. The Gospel writer describes the act of turning water into wine and the act of turning over tables in the Temple as “signs”—they are signs pointing to who Jesus is and the kind of authority he has.

And so, in chapter 3, we have a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus coming to check this Jesus out. He comes by night, presumably so that his fellow Pharisees don’t hear that he is visiting Jesus, so we can surmise that there is already opposition building to Jesus within the ranks of the ruling parties. But he comes, not with the spirit of condemning something without a hearing, but rather with the spirit of seeking knowledge and an open heart. Too many interpreters of this passage condemn Nicodemus either for daring to ask Jesus questions or for willfully not understanding what Jesus was saying. But that’s not what’s going on here. Which one of us, when confronted with someone who was doing things that upset the normal pattern of living, would not want to ask that person questions? And let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes of Nicodemus: if someone said that we needed to be “born from above,” wouldn’t we all scratch our heads and say, “Huh? What in the world are you talking about?” Good students ask the teacher questions when they don’t understand something. And when the teacher responds with something that they still don’t understand, the good student will probe with more challenging questions. This scene with Jesus and Nicodemus is simply a scene between a student and a teacher: someone willing to question what he hears and to learn from the response. Nicodemus is a man who is using the intelligence that God gave him to determine who Jesus is.

So, let’s take a look at what Jesus says to Nicodemus. And, there’s a lot in there: being born from above and what that means; being born of water and Spirit and what that means; and the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. But what I want to focus on today is that verse that we all know so well: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. And the reason that I want to focus on it is this: Many times, we Christians want to use this as a “clobber verse”. And what I mean by a “clobber verse” is this: we use it to hit non-Christians on the head and say that the only way that someone is going to go to heaven is to believe in Jesus. That’s why well-meaning Christians flash it up at sports games, after all: in the vain hope that someone might just read it and be convinced enough to believe in Jesus. But that’s really not the emphasis that we should be using when we tell others about Jesus. I think that what we should be focusing on instead is the first part of the verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.”

I would like us, for a moment, to focus on the Greek word that gets translated as “world”: kosmos. Kosmos means not just “world”, but it implies that the world that God created is beautiful and orderly. It encompasses the natural world and it encompasses every single human being, all interwoven together and intricately bound so that what affects one part of the creation affects another part of the creation. In other words, “all means all.” God loves every human being, every wolf, every blade of grass, every dog, every cat, every snake, every piece of creation—even mosquitoes and cockroaches. God loves it all. And what’s even more miraculous is that God loves each person and each part of creation with exactly the same unfathomable, deep love. We can’t begin to understand how wildly in love with the creation God really is. And the love that God has for the kosmos is so great that God sent the only Son, Jesus, to die a horrible death on the cross for us, so that we might have eternal life. We can’t even begin to understand that kind of love that sacrifices itself so that the beloved might live.

So, what kind of practical implications can we take from this? How do we strive to follow Jesus’ example and love the world so much that we, too, give ourselves away for the kosmos? I would like to share a story from my own life in order to help us with this. My mother has, in recent years, taken up genealogy as a hobby, and about a year or so ago, decided to do the DNA test available on www.ancestry.com to see what ethnicities her DNA would reveal in her. My father also took the DNA test. When their results came back, my father’s turned out pretty much like what we were expecting based on his family’s records: mainly Western and Eastern European, as well as British, with some small traces of other ethnicities. But my mother’s came back as a complete surprise. As far as we can trace her family records back, the only indication that we have is that she is German, with nothing else mixed in. But when her DNA results came back, she discovered that, along with Western European, her ethnicity is actually largely Scandinavian. She was in such disbelief that she thought they must have gotten her sample mixed up with someone else’s, and so she redid the test. Again, it came back Scandinavian. Then I did my DNA test, and, while I’m a good mix of both my father and mother’s DNA, the greatest percentage of my DNA, at 27%, is also Scandinavian. The only thing we can think of is that the Vikings, further back than any written records go, were simply everywhere in Europe and mixing in with the local populations. And it’s fascinating to think that I can claim some of that Viking heritage.

What people are finding when they have their DNA tests done is that they have ethnicities in them that they never thought they had, and even ethnicities that, until that point, they absolutely hated. And I think that is the value of having your ethnicity detected through DNA: not so that you can prove that you are superior to others, but so that you can understand this: there is no such thing as them and us. There is just us, the human race. And if more people understood that, and if more people understood who their ancestors were and where they came from, then they might not be so hostile to other groups of people. We might be able to be kinder to immigrants, to refugees, and to the dreamers in this country, because they are no different than we are. Our ancestors, too, came to these shores—many of them “illegally”—looking for the same things that immigrants and refugees today are looking for. How can we follow in Jesus’ footsteps in showing the kind of love that Jesus showed for each and every human being on this planet, regardless of who they are or where they’ve come from?

Now, here’s the thing about love. The word “love” in English has the connotation of a feeling, a warm fuzzy feeling that we have in our heart. That’s not the connotation that the word “love” has in the Greek. Love is not a feeling; it is an active verb. It’s putting our money where our mouth is, like Jesus did by dying on the cross. We will probably not be called to show our love for the kosmos by dying on a cross. But we may be called to advocate for a more just immigration system than what we have now. Or, we may be called to help a local immigrant who has been living in the country for 40 years, who has contributed to his community, and who is now suddenly facing deportation for no good reason, as in the case of Polish immigrant Lukasz Niec, a doctor in Michigan. The love that God showed the world by giving up God’s Son, Jesus, to death on the cross is a costly love. The love that we are called to show the world and all of the people in it is a costly one as well.

There is no them and us: there is just us. Each one of us is a part of this beautiful, orderly kosmos that God created and that God loves. Each one of us: Mexican, Salvadoran, Polish, Arab, Jewish, Russian, American—we are all human beings, and, if you go back far enough with the DNA, we are all related to one another. And God loves each one of us so much that God gave his only Son, Jesus, to die for us on the cross, so that we might have eternal and abundant life. And that eternal life does not start when we die and go to heaven: it starts right now. While we cannot fully understand this kind of active love that God has for us, we can strive to show that love for one another. Resting secure in the knowledge that God does indeed love us, let us find ways to show that costly love for one another. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 20

John 2:13-25

There is a meme that goes around Facebook whenever the text describing Jesus chasing the merchants out of the temple comes around in our lectionary. It is a picture of Jesus doing just that, and the words describing this picture say, “If anyone ever asks you, ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.” I laugh every time I see this meme, but it points to an important consideration of who Jesus was and is. We like to think of Jesus as a sort of “fluffy cuddle bunny” as one person put it; someone who loves everyone no matter what. And of course Jesus, as the revelation of God, is just that: he does love everyone. But there is another side to his personality as well. When we say that the Son of God became a human being in the person of Jesus, we mean that he became a real human being. And what that means is this: not only did Jesus have those emotions that we consider to be good and right and true: love, compassion, happiness, and all of that, it also means that he had those emotions that we consider to be more negative. The gospels record that he got frustrated with his disciples numerous times when they simply didn’t get it. And, as we have in front of us today, Jesus got angry when he saw what was going on in the temple. Perhaps it was a righteous anger, but it was still anger, and when he acted out on that anger, he disrupted many people’s lives. Those people that he was supposed to love no matter what, and who were just trying to live out their lives as they normally did. So the question that we need to ask ourselves is this: Why did Jesus get angry, so angry that he felt it was necessary to make his point by turning over tables and driving out sheep, cattle, and doves?

Well, let’s start out with what this wasn’t: it wasn’t a protest against the sacrificial system of the Temple. Most of the people going up to the Temple were Jewish people. The Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, were full of descriptions of how God’s people were supposed to come before God with sacrifices. The merchants who were there the day that Jesus drove them out were helping people get the appropriate sacrifices so they could come before God in the Temple. Jesus himself was an observant Jewish man, and the Gospels talk about how he came up to the Temple for Passover and other Jewish holidays. The setting of this story today, in fact, is the Passover. This may be the first time Jesus comes up to Jerusalem for Passover, but it won’t be the last. So, if Jesus was not angry at the sacrificial system itself, then what caused him to drive out the sheep and the cattle and overturn the tables of the money changers?

In her book, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Professor Amy-Jill Levine suggests that Caiaphas, who was the high priest when Jesus lived, moved the merchants selling cattle and sheep for Temple sacrifice, and the money-changers, off of the Mount of Olives and into the Court of the Gentiles, which was the outer court of the Temple. Now, this would make good sense in that the animals would be right at the Temple, and the people who bought them wouldn’t have to drive them all the way from the Mount of Olives into the Temple. But, there’s a problem with this: putting these merchants in the Temple prevents the Gentiles from worshiping God. Remember that Gentiles were anyone who was not Jewish. Those who were not Jewish, if they were drawn to worship God, could not go any further into the temple than the Court of the Gentiles. But, if you move all of the merchants into this area, it crowds the Gentiles out of the only place in the Temple that they are allowed to approach the mystery of God. It would make sense, then, that Jesus would be outraged by this. He cries out, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” All parts of God’s house should be used for worship, including those parts designated for those who were considered to be outside the boundaries of God’s people. It’s no wonder that Jesus was angry enough to take matters into his own hands.

I don’t know if we have a similar situation in the church today. I know that when the church has bake sales, or bazaars, or some other kind of fundraiser, we don’t usually hold those in the sanctuary and by so doing, prevent any group of people from worshiping. I don’t know that Jesus would come into our churches today and tell us to stop making his Father’s house a marketplace, although maybe there are certain places where he would. And so I have struggled with this text this week. I want to boldly proclaim God’s word to you, but I also want to be true to the text. And so, we may have to stretch the story a little bit in order to make it meaningful for us. So, this is what I think God is telling us today. We have a tendency, especially in the Lutheran church, to make Jesus, and therefore God, into a loving God. So many of us have been burned by the church in the past, especially those preachers who have made God into a God who is angry with us all the time, that I especially want to convey to you all how much God truly loves you. But, here’s the thing: to truly love someone is to open yourself up to pain when that person fails your expectations. And, just as we get angry when that situation happens, so God gets angry when God’s children sin and let God down.

So then, what are the things that God gets angry about? Now, I do want to be careful here. I am trying not to fall into the trap of saying that God sends natural disasters as punishment for people’s sins. But I think that we can get a general idea of what God gets angry about from what is taught to us in the Scriptures. When people mistreat and abuse one another, as in the case of the parents who abused their thirteen children that came to light this week, God gets angry. When the federal government shuts down because politicians are using people, needy people like immigrants, refugees, and poor children who need health insurance, as pawns to make political points, God gets angry. When we misuse and waste the resources that God gives us, and when we are not as generous with our material gifts as we could be, God gets angry. I have a feeling that if Jesus were physically present and teaching us today, he would be overturning a lot of our tables, and in places where we would least expect it.

But I think the good news in this is the way that the Gospel of John interprets Jesus turning over the tables and driving everyone out. When asked for a sign that showed that he had the authority to do this, Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Of course, the people who heard this didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them, and the disciples only understood much later. When Jesus said this, he was talking about himself, and he was talking about how he would go to the cross, die for us, and then three days later, rise again. This kind of passion, this righteous anger, that Jesus had against something that was blatantly wrong, would drive Jesus, out of love for us, to die a horrible death on the cross for our sake and then to rise again, so that we might have hope. This is a hope that things will not always be this way and that Jesus will one day return and turn all of the injustice in the world back into justice.

As a people of hope, there are times when we may be called to get angry and turn over some tables of injustice. And there is plenty of injustice in the world to get angry over. But this is not a call to be angry for anger’s sake; it is a call to love someone or something so passionately that you channel that anger into making this world a more just place. Are you angry because so many people in this world suffer from hunger? Then get involved: donate to ELCA World Hunger, donate to the local food bank, learn about why so many people in the world go hungry, and then advocate for ways to fix the system. Are you angry because so many people suffer when natural disasters hit? Then channel that anger into helping groups like Lutheran Disaster Response, into learning about why hurricanes are so devastating, and by advocating for things like conservation that will make these natural disasters less devastating to the lives of people when they hit. Do you get upset when people misuse the natural resources of the earth and exploit them for personal gain? Then channel that anger into helping organizations that work to restore the earth.

There are so many problems on this earth that we could get passionate about. But the emotions of passion and of anger show that we care about what is going on around us, just as Jesus showed that he cared about the injustice of what was going on in the Temple on that long ago day. Find those causes that you’re passionate about and channel that emotion into doing something good in the world. Now, there will never be complete justice in the world until Jesus returns. And we are not responsible for bringing in the kingdom of God: Jesus is. But, that does not mean that we cannot participate in that coming of the kingdom. As people of hope, we do not sit around and shrug our shoulders at the injustice that we see around us. Hoping in the return of Jesus means that we do what God is calling us to do, while we are waiting for Jesus to return, to show others that injustice will not have the final word: God will. So while we wait, we actively hope, and we actively participate in the coming of the kingdom of God. Amen.

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 19

John 2:1-11

 

If you’re writing a really good story, you want to have a great opening line so that your readers remember it and take it with them as they continue into the book, movie, or TV show, so that they know what the story is going to be about. So, for example, here are some famous opening lines, and I want to have a little quiz this morning and see if you know where they’ve come from. This will also help me to see who’s awake and who’s not! So, here we go:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . . Star Wars

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

Call me Ishmael. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . . Genesis 1:1

This last line was so memorable that John the Evangelist chose to base the opening of his book on it: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” This is John’s statement of who Jesus is: the Word of God come down in flesh. The rest of his Gospel tells us what that means. And today’s story from his second chapter begins to flesh out, if you’ll forgive the pun, what it means for Jesus to be the Word of God made flesh.

So, let’s step back a moment and do some review. In between John’s beautiful poetic opening to his gospel and today’s story, we heard John the Baptist testifying that Jesus was both the Lamb of God and the Son of God, and his proof was how he saw the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism. We saw Jesus inviting his first disciples to “Come and see” him. And now, we have Jesus’ first public act declaring who he is. Each of the Gospels has a different “first public act” of Jesus to show what Jesus is all about. Matthew has Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, setting forth the theme of Jesus as a teacher. Mark shows Jesus driving out a demon as his first public act, thus setting the theme of Jesus as a worker of miracles, bringing order to a creation that has gone off kilter. Luke shows Jesus giving a sermon in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth and being rejected by the people there, putting forth the idea of Jesus as a prophet, in line with the Old Testament prophets, whose message, like theirs, was rejected by his people. And now we return to John. In John, Jesus’ first public act is attending a wedding and turning water into wine. What kind of Jesus is John trying to show?

Well, let’s look first at the setting of this story. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are at a wedding. A wedding, even though it’s a special occasion, is a part of ordinary life. At some point in all of our lives, most of us will have the opportunity to go to someone’s wedding. And, if we’re really lucky, we will have the opportunity to be a part of the bridal party. Jesus has been invited to this wedding, not because the people know that he is the Son of God—they don’t—but because he is their friend and they want him to take part in this joyous occasion. But then, at this wedding, the unthinkable happens: the hosts run out of wine. Can you imagine what that must be like? In today’s society, if we’re hosting a party and we run out of alcohol, it’s embarrassing, yes. But usually we can send a friend or a family member out to the store to buy more of it. It wasn’t quite the same in this time and this place. For the host to run out of wine showed poor planning on his part, and in the little village of Cana, everyone would find out about it. The host would have lost status in the eyes of the rest of the village, and that stigma would have followed him around for a very long time.

But in this story, it seems as though when Jesus’ mother points this problem out to Jesus, only a few people knew about the potential impending doom for the host. There was no great outcry—just a few people starting to whisper that the wine was gone. And after Jesus’ mother prods him a bit, Jesus changes water into wine. And it’s not just Mogen David or Manischewitz. This is the good wine, the richest wine, the best-tasting wine possible. I’ve always wondered about this, because I am not a wine drinker—I really don’t like the taste of most of it. And there are some people who prefer a sweet wine, while others prefer a dry wine. I like to think that the wine that Jesus provided that day in Cana tasted different according to the taste of each person who drank it. For some it was the sweetest wine, and for others it was the driest. But whatever it tasted like, for each person there it was what they needed the most, and was the best-quality wine there ever was.

So, what does all of this say about Jesus in John’s Gospel? It says that Jesus is present in the ordinary times of life, the everyday rituals, and it says that Jesus provides what we all need—but not just a little bit. If you notice, in this story, there were six stone water jars, each holding around twenty to thirty gallons. That comes out to 120 to 180 gallons—gallons!—of the best-tasting wine there ever was. Jesus provides what is needed, and even more than that—Jesus gives to us abundantly. And he does it freely. Most of the people at that wedding had no idea where this wonderful-tasting wine had come from. But they drank of it and it gladdened their hearts, regardless. This is an example of what John means when he says, in the first chapter of his gospel, that “From his fullness, we have received, grace upon grace.” Grace is the gift of Jesus, who abundantly gives of himself all that we need, and even more than that.

Where have you seen Jesus give grace upon grace in your lives? In our congregational life, I have seen this grace upon grace as St. John hosted Family Promise this week and Salem, Trinity, and St. Peter’s supported St. John in this ministry. I have seen grace poured out upon us as we have gotten to know the people who are in the Family Promise program. I have seen grace poured out upon us as we had an abundance of food with which to feed the people. I have seen grace poured out upon us as our members cuddled a newborn baby and played with the older children. I have seen grace poured out upon us as what we originally thought was a fire in the basement turned out to be a burst pipe that caused water damage, but did not interfere with Family Promise coming to stay with us. I have seen grace poured out on us in the form of the people who came to clean up the water in the basement, and I have seen grace poured out on us that this accident did not interfere too much with the operation of the day care. I have seen grace poured out on us in the fact that, despite our ugly winter weather, no one was hurt in driving the van back and forth from Lemoyne. And I have seen grace poured out on us as the people in the program have seen God’s love and grace through us this week. God has indeed been gracious to us, and has given to us abundantly, much more than we have deserved.

And that’s the thing: we don’t deserve any of God’s grace. We are sinful human beings, and the Son of God becoming flesh in Jesus is pure gift to us. And when the Son of God came, he did not come to the people who were well-off and on top of the world. He came instead by being born in a little town on the outskirts of Jerusalem; he was not even born in that great city where a mighty king ruled. And then he was brought up in a little town in northern Galilee, a backwater, a place where we heard Nathanael say last week, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” A place which today, the president of this country would call a vulgar name. And yet, Jesus gives us, too, those who are well-off in this world, grace upon grace, and that love and grace comes in such abundance that we cannot even understand how much it truly is. That love and that grace of Jesus comes abundantly to all people, and all means all: not only to Americans, but also to Haitians; not only to those of European descent, but also to those people who come from Nigeria, Ghana, El Salvador, and Mexico. God’s grace, poured out in Jesus, the Word become flesh who would die on the cross for us, is for everyone. No exceptions.

So this week, I would like to ask us to keep our eyes open for instances of God’s grace in our lives. Let’s look for that love and that undeserved grace in every ordinary detail of our lives, and when we see it, let us give thanks to God for it. And let’s also do a spiritual house cleaning this week. Any time we are tempted to think that we are superior to someone else, whether that is because of race or class or circumstance, let’s put a check on ourselves. Let’s remind ourselves that God gives grace and love to another person just as much as to us. And then let’s also make an effort to show that grace and love to another person, especially those who we don’t know. If we see someone struggling, let’s find a way to help them—even if it’s just offering to help them get their groceries in from the car. We don’t have a corner on God’s grace, and there is more than enough of it to go around. So let’s show that grace to other people. Amen.

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 18

John 1:[19-34], 35-51

Welcome back to our journey through the Bible! Right before Christmas, we finished up a series of readings from the Old Testament prophets. At Christmas, if you were at St. John’s [here] for the Christmas pageant, you may remember hearing me read a passage from the first chapter of the Gospel of John talking about Jesus as the Word of God become flesh. In those verses, we also got a glimpse of John the Baptist, who we’ve heard more about today in the section of the first chapter of John that I’ve just read for you. From now until the Sunday after Easter, we will be hearing readings from the Gospel of John. So I’m going to start us out today with some background information on John before we dive in to today’s text.

We have four Gospels in the Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are all accounts of Jesus’ life: how he was born (in Matthew and Luke only), where he lived, what he did, and what he taught. All four Gospels also tell of how Jesus was arrested, tried, crucified, and on the third day, was resurrected from the dead. Apart from that, the Gospels are all different in the details. Think of it this way: when we tell a story of some big event in our family history, each person who was there is going to remember different things about how it happened. Just because one person remembers that Grandpa slipped and fell on the icy path while another person remembers that Grandpa tripped over a rock doesn’t negate the fact that Grandpa fell and broke his hip and needed a hip replacement.  In the same way, we can look at each of the four gospel writers as members of the Christian family telling the same basic story about Jesus, but remembering different details about what he said and did, and the events that happened around him. Having said that, there is something else that we need to know about these Gospels: even though they were inspired by God, they were not written in a vacuum. Each author was writing to a particular group of Christians and wanted them to know something about Jesus that would speak into their particular situation. This also accounts for the differences in the stories that they tell.

Now, let’s look at the Gospel of John in particular. Scholars think that John was written much later than the other three Gospels, and so it was a very different situation that this early group of Christians was facing than were the other three congregations for whom Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written. What we’re going to find as we go through the stories of John, aside from the many beautiful passages about Jesus, are some not so beautiful things. There will be repeated references to “the Jews” in unflattering terms. What we’re going to see reflected in this gospel is a separation between groups of Jewish people who did not believe in Jesus and groups of Jewish people who did; in other words, the first Christians and our ancestors in the faith. This Gospel reflects an internal argument over which group was right, and these unflattering references to “the Jews” should not be carried over from the first century into the 21st century. I will leave it at that for now and will be reminding you of that when it comes up in this gospel. Another thing that we should know about John is that he has a different definition of sin than the other three Gospel writers do. In John, sin is not a moral failing, but rather it is a failure to believe in Jesus, the One whom God has sent. Keep that also in mind as we journey through this gospel together.

And so, let’s look at this first chapter of the Gospel of John that is before us today. Here we see John the Baptist—who is not, by the way, the same John who wrote the Gospel—testifying to what he saw when he baptized Jesus. He says that he saw the Spirit descend and remain on Jesus when he baptized him. John says further that Jesus is the Lamb of God and the Son of God. John the Baptist is proclaiming this about Jesus to anyone who will listen. And then, one day, two people do listen. John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And two of John’s disciples immediately leave John and start following Jesus. And Jesus invites them to, “Come and see.” Come and see where Jesus is staying. Come and see what Jesus is doing. Come and find what their hearts have been searching for and yearning for.

And then, the next day, Jesus gains more disciples. One of them, Philip, goes to Nathanael and tells him that they have found the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And Nathanael’s response? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” You see, Nazareth was a backwater town. I went to college in a small town in Vermont called Middlebury, but up the road a ways from Middlebury, in the Green Mountains, was an even smaller town called Ripton. We used to make fun of Ripton because the people who lived there tended to be what we would call hicks, and this was exemplified by the ice machine in the front of the general store which had the word “ice” misspelled “i-e-c”. So Nathanael saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” would be roughly equivalent to Middlebury folks saying, “Wait a minute. You found the Messiah in Ripton? Yeah, right.” But in response to such skepticism, Philip responds in the same way that Jesus had, “Come and see.” And what Nathanael sees of Jesus wins him over.

We live today in an age of skepticism, where many people believe that the church is simply not relevant to society any longer. There are many reasons for this perception in society, and some of those reasons are justified. And yet, here we are. There are still some of us who come to worship faithfully on Sundays and who participate in the life of the church. So, my question to you is this: Why do you come? Is it something that you think you should be doing even if it doesn’t mean much to you anymore? Or is there some deeper meaning involved in coming on a Sunday? Jesus continues to ask us the same question today that he asked his first disciples so long ago: What are you looking for? What do you hope to see?

From my perspective as a pastor, this is what I hope to see when I come each week to lead you in worship: I hope to see Jesus. And, there are many possible ways to see Jesus in a church. Last week, when I was in Florida, I had a choice of where I wanted to worship. I could go with my parents to their church, which is part of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, or I could go to the local ELCA church. I made my decision based on worship times and nothing else: my parents go to the 8:00 a.m. service at their church, while the ELCA church started worship at 10 a.m. I was on vacation; I didn’t want to get up early. When I entered the doors, I was promptly greeted and directed to where the restrooms were and the sanctuary. The worship service was nice, but the pastor was very soft-spoken and low-energy, and the sermon that day didn’t speak to me that much. But Jesus made his presence known to me during communion, when both the pastor and the assistant asked what my name was, and then said, “Tonya, the body of Christ given for you. Tonya, the blood of Christ shed for you.” In that simple act, I knew that Jesus loved me and was present with me.

Now, each person is different, and each week is different. Jesus is always present in every part of the service, but each person in the congregation will perceive Jesus in a different way. My human ego gets really excited if you see Jesus in the sermon that I preach, but if you instead see Jesus in some other part of the service, such as the Scripture reading, or the children’s message, or Holy Communion, that is wonderful. And, you know what another important part of the church is? It is the people. Jesus makes himself known in the community that is gathered. Every time you comfort another person when they are sad, lonely, sick, or in despair, Jesus is present. Every time the community comes together and works to make the outside world a little bit better, such as with the Family Promise hosting week that starts tonight [at St. John’s], Jesus is present. Every time an argument is resolved and the people involved forgive one another, Jesus is present. All of these things contribute towards an authentic worshiping community where Jesus comes and makes himself known.

So now, here’s the hard part. When you speak to someone outside of the congregation and invite them to worship with you, what do you do if they respond by telling you about some way that the church has hurt them in the past? Or, what if they want to debate on some social issue that they think the church has taken the wrong side on? I would like to suggest to you that engaging in debate or argument with the person will not bear the fruit that you would like to see. Instead, I would suggest that you respond as Jesus responded, and as Philip responded, and invite the person to “Come and see.” Invite them to come and see Jesus in our worship service and in our community. Invite them to come and see the one who can give their restless hearts peace. Simply invite them to come and see why you return to worship each week in a culture that thinks church is irrelevant. Invite them to come and see.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine addresses God and says, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Jesus invites us to come and see him, to experience his love for us, to experience that rest, and that sense of wholeness and peace that we are lacking. He invites us to come and worship him each week, and then to go out into the world, with our hearts full, and invite others to come and see him. And he invites us into an amazing adventure of discipleship, where we will see things that we thought impossible become possible. Are you ready to come and see what following Jesus is all about? Are you ready to make room for people that you never thought would come and be a part of the body of Christ? Then keep speaking and keep inviting, and let Jesus show you and all who come how truly loved you all are. Amen.

 

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017

Note that this is a “repeat,” with some editing, of a sermon I preached two years ago in Wyoming.

Luke 2:1-20

 

Nativity scenes are beautiful, aren’t they? And they often have such special meaning for us. I have several Nativity scenes at home. One of them belonged to my grandmother and was given to me after she died. It comes complete with shepherds, wise men, animals, and some other random characters, but does not include angels. So this year I placed it under my tree and hung angel ornaments around it to make it complete. Oh, and by the way, the wise men have been relegated to the hallway, because they don’t arrive until Epiphany. Tonight is just about the shepherds. Another Nativity scene that I have is the one that I grew up with, and it would be placed under our Christmas tree each year. When my mother decided that she wanted a new one, she let me have that one because she knew that I liked it. I placed that one on one of my window sills this year. Nativity scenes give us a sense of the holy at Christmas time, with a serene and beautiful Mary gazing in wonder at the new baby Jesus, and a fatherly Joseph looking on, ready to protect his wife and her child from anything that might threaten them. And then, of course, there is “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” lying in the manger, looking out at those around him with curiosity.

But, there’s just one problem with these beautiful, perfect-looking Nativity scenes. And that is this: while they give us the sense of something holy at Christmas time, they also give us the sense of something that is not real. These perfect looking human beings don’t seem to have much relationship to the real world. The plastic or porcelain figurines don’t give any indication that Mary has just given birth to her baby, her firstborn, without the benefit of any pain medications. I’ve never given birth myself, but from what my mother tells me, it’s not a pleasant process, and pain medications help a lot. Our stable scenes don’t remind us that, with animals around, there is going to be a mess and it’s not going to smell very good. If any of you here tonight have grown up around farms, you can vouch for that. A Lutheran pastor colleague in Cody, Wyoming, was telling a group of us pastors a few years ago that someone in her congregation wanted to have a Nativity scene in the church building complete with a baby donkey, and seemed unaware that a baby donkey would not only make noise, but would probably make a mess because it was nervous. She had to tell that person gently, but firmly, that there would be no baby donkeys in the sanctuary that Christmas.

The technical theological term for God becoming human in the person of Jesus is incarnation. And incarnation is not a beautiful, perfect process, because to become human is messy. We are messy creatures, both physically and spiritually. God could have chosen not to deal with our mess. God could have chosen some other way to save us from our sinfulness. But no, God, the perfect and holy, loved us so much that God chose to become one of us messy human beings. He chose to go through that untidy birthing process, to live and to die as one of us, in order to understand us completely and fully. So, yes, I’m willing to bet that Mary screamed in pain when she gave birth to Jesus. Jesus himself probably looked like a typical newborn and wasn’t very pretty when he was first born. And that line about “no crying he makes”? Please. Jesus cried. Because healthy human babies cry and get hungry and make messes. That’s what being human is all about, and that’s why God came to earth in the person of Jesus—to be one of us, with all that being human means.

Now, I’m not saying this to ruin anyone’s Christmas. Quite the contrary. What I want is to bring you the good news: God became one of us when he was born in the person of Jesus in that manger in Bethlehem. Jesus was part of a real human family, with real human problems, and was not in some stylized, perfect, static picture that we have in our Nativity scenes. And because Jesus became human, because he entered into our messy lives, we know that we ourselves don’t have to be perfect to become his followers. We don’t have to “clean ourselves up” and “get our lives in order” before we come to worship. We can come with all of our sinfulness: our broken relationships, our broken dreams, our bad habits, our addictions, and so on, and know that Jesus loves us for who we are in all of our messiness. And as we lean over the manger and look at the baby Jesus, we might feel an odd sensation. And that sensation is God embracing us, and kissing us, saying, “It doesn’t matter that you’re a mess. I love you for you. But I won’t leave you in your mess. I will be the one to wash you and make you clean.”

Isn’t that wonderful news? God, the holy one, comes to us in our mess, but doesn’t leave us there. God is the one who washes us and makes us clean. We don’t have to do it ourselves, because we are quite unable to clean ourselves up. But you know something? The messiness of the human condition doesn’t make Jesus dirty. Instead, somehow, Jesus makes the messiness, the ordinariness, holy. Just in case you didn’t hear that, let me say it again: Jesus doesn’t become sinful by taking on our humanity. Instead, he makes us holy. Somehow, in the stinky mess we make of our lives, Jesus is still with us and makes us holy. And as his beloved and holy people, we are called to broaden that circle of Jesus’ love for us. We are called to tell all whom we meet about this baby in the manger, God come down to earth to show us how much he loves us.

And with such great love, how can we keep from telling all we meet about Jesus? The shepherds understood that.  The angels had come down to them in their messiness: unclean because they could not keep all of the religious purity laws, outsiders in society, and told them about the Savior of the world. The shepherds heard the news—not the Pharisees, not the rulers of the people, but poor and lowly shepherds. They saw the baby and “they made known what had been told them about this child” and then returned to their fields, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen”.  The Gospel tells us that all of the people whom the shepherds told about this were “amazed” at the news. But then we don’t hear any more. Did the people of Bethlehem go to see the baby? Or, did they brush it off, saying, “Oh, those crazy, unclean shepherds,” and go back to their daily lives? Perhaps there was a little bit of both. It still happens that way today, when we tell others about Jesus. Some people listen, and the Holy Spirit brings them to trust in Jesus, while others continue to go about their daily lives as if nothing had changed. When that happens, we should not be discouraged. Instead, we should continue telling all those we meet about the miracle of God loving us so much that he became one of us, making us holy and making us his beloved children.

So, let us go from here to spread the good news about this baby in the manger. Let us tell everyone that Jesus knows us, and knows us intimately, because he was one of us. He was born, just like we were, he cried when he was hungry or when he fell down and hurt himself or when a friend of his died. Let us tell everyone that they don’t have to clean themselves up and make themselves right before coming to worship Jesus, for Jesus loves us as we are, in all of our human messiness and broken relationships and broken dreams. Jesus is the one who comes to us, who speaks his love for us, and who makes us holy. Isn’t that great news? Now, let’s go and tell it out to everyone we meet. Amen.

 

 

Sermon for Narrative Lectionary Week 15

Isaiah 55:1-13

Today we come to the last reading from the Old Testament prophets in our narrative walk through the Bible. We started out with Amos, that prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah who went to the northern kingdom of Israel, criticized the economic system there, and said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We then went to Isaiah, a prophet who lived in Jerusalem during frightening political times and who proclaimed a word of hope from God to the king by announcing the birth of a child. Next, we heard from Jeremiah, who wrote a letter to the first group of Jewish exiles in Babylon, telling them to stay there and to adjust to a new culture, and reassuring them that God had plans for their future. We then heard a story from the Book of Daniel about three men thrown into a fiery furnace and miraculously saved—a story to inspire the exiles to maintain their Jewish identity in the face of pressure to change and worship Babylonian gods. And finally, last week, we heard from Ezekiel, the prophet to the Babylonian exiles who saw a vision that God can make bones that have no life in them live once more.

We may think it strange, then, that our series brings us back to the prophet Isaiah, since we heard from Isaiah once already. Well, this is a later section of the book of Isaiah, and it is, possibly, a different prophet than the Isaiah we met who lived during the reigns of King Ahaz and Hezekiah. Scholars who are much better at the Hebrew language than I am point out that the later chapters of Isaiah are written in a Hebrew that has changed significantly from the first chapters of the book. It’s like I’ve told my Thursday morning Bible study group: we who live in 21st century North America and speak English can read the King James Version of the Bible and admire its beauty and its poetry, but we don’t speak like that anymore, and it’s sometimes difficult for us to understand. It’s the same language issue with the first part of Isaiah and the second. Scholars think that perhaps the latter part of Isaiah was written by a disciple of the original Isaiah who prophesied in Isaiah’s style, and whose prophecies, therefore, were attached to the scrolls of the original book of Isaiah.

Another reason that scholars think the latter chapters of Isaiah were written by someone other than the Isaiah who lived in Jerusalem during the reigns of King Ahaz and King Hezekiah is that these chapters are speaking to a different situation. The first chapters of Isaiah find us with the people of Jerusalem facing war against Assyria and the northern kingdom of Israel. The chapters in the last part of Isaiah are speaking to the exiles as they are being allowed to return home. Yes, the exiles are going to go back to the land of Israel. The Babylonian Empire fell to the Persian Empire in 539 BC, and that area came under the rule of King Cyrus of Persia. King Cyrus thought it would be a good idea to allow those people that the Babylonian emperor had captured to return to their homelands, including the Jewish people. And so, the prophet who speaks in today’s chapter of Isaiah is interpreting these events as the Lord relenting from his anger against the people of Israel. The Lord will renew the promise God made to David to have steadfast love for David’s family forever. And God will renew this promise to David by bringing the exiles back to Israel and reestablishing a nation and rebuilding the temple.

But when the exiles return, they find things in Jerusalem to be not as they expected. The temple is still in ruins. They have very few resources. And the land had not lain empty while they had been in Babylon. It had been settled by foreigners who did not know that this land had once belonged to the Israelites. There were fights between those who were returning, who remembered that certain plots of land had been their family’s home, and those who had moved in and lived there in the approximately 50 years that the exiles were in Babylon. The returning Jewish exiles are now asking this question: Why is God bringing us back here, if God is not going to miraculously restore our nation to its former glory? Should we have stayed in Babylon (now Persia) after all? If this is what God has promised us, why is this so difficult?

In response, the prophet tells us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways. But, he also reassures us that God’s word will not return to God empty, but that it will do what God intends for it to do. What does this mean? It means that the exiles who returned to the land of Israel to rebuild have made the right decision. It does not mean that life will be easy and that God will magically wave a wand and *poof!* the city of Jerusalem and the Temple will reappear in all of their former glory. It does mean that the exiles will have to work hard to rebuild and they will have to negotiate with the people who have moved in there over the last 50 years. But they should have confidence that God will fulfill the promises that God made to them, even if it takes many years longer than they were expecting. This God is a God that they can believe in and trust to fulfill words spoken to them.

This God that the Jewish people of that time trusted in to fulfill the promises spoken to them is also the God who we trust to fulfill the promises spoken, because they have also been given to us. This is something that the Holy Spirit continually reminds us of. God has not promised that, once we become Christian, everything will be easy for us and all will be well. God has promised that God will be with us through everything that happens in our lives, good, bad, and ugly. And God has promised that the word that God speaks will accomplish its purpose, even if it takes 50 years or more for that word to be fulfilled.

We live in a culture where we want everything right now. Why wait for something when you can have it right now? The radio station that I usually listen to started playing nonstop Christmas music at the beginning of November. Stores start putting Christmas merchandise out right after Halloween. Mostly gone (although I believe some stores still have this) is the idea of layaway, where you make payments on a larger item for several months and when you have made all of the payments, then you get the item. Most of the time now credit cards allow you to have something instantaneously and pay it off after you receive it. And if you can’t find a certain item in the stores around you, you can go on to Amazon and pay for next-day shipping. Instant gratification is so much more satisfying than waiting for something.

And even in the church, we fall prey to this, including me. I confess to you that I get frustrated and wish our congregations would grow instantaneously and be flourishing. But, God doesn’t work like we human beings do. The prophet tells us that God’s Word works more like the snow and the rain. Just because it’s snowed quite a bit in the last week and the moisture has seeped into the ground, that doesn’t mean that the flowers and the trees are going to bloom overnight and it’s going to be spring again. No, the ground needs time to absorb the moisture, and the earth needs time to travel around the sun so more light returns before the grass gets green and the trees and the flowers bloom. This is how God’s Word works: when we tell people about Jesus who have not heard of him before, we are planting seed. And that seed needs time to get the nutrients it needs before it begins to grow and blossom in the heart of a person. It needs time to be watered and fertilized. And the time for God’s Word to grow is different for every person: sometimes it will sprout overnight and sometimes it will lie dormant for 50 years before it blooms. But what we are told is that God’s Word will accomplish what God wants it to do, and that it will not fail.

It is often incomprehensible to us that the God who we believe is all-powerful and all-knowing would choose to work in this way. And we don’t know why God works this way, but there it is. But while we are waiting for God’s word to accomplish its purpose, we do not sit and twiddle our thumbs. We are to be actively waiting. We are to be sowing the seed. We are to be seeking the Lord while he may be found and calling upon him while he is near. We are a people of hope, and we are to be spreading that hope that we have in Jesus to everyone we meet. And we are doing that through many of the activities that our four area churches are doing together and separately. But we are to be doing this active waiting freely, not expecting to see the results of the labor, but trusting that God will bring about the results, and rejoicing if we are lucky enough to see those results. And another thing: those results may not look like what we think they will look like, because God is a creative God who delights in doing new things.

The Jewish people who returned to Israel from exile in Babylon did succeed in rebuilding the Temple. But it was smaller compared to the Temple that had been destroyed, and the book of Ezra tells us that some of the older people who remembered the former Temple wept when the foundation was laid, while the younger people rejoiced. So, too, as God works with our congregations in the Steelton-Oberlin-Highspire area, what is going to happen will not look like the glory days of old. God will create a new thing, and some of us may not recognize this new thing. Those who remember the former days, the glory days, may weep when they see that the church does not look like what they remember. But, we know that God keeps the promises God makes, and we can trust that God’s word will not return empty, but will accomplish that which God purposes for it—no matter how different it looks. The God who loves us is the God who keeps promises, and in that we can trust. Amen.