Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Sermon - 4/23/11 - John 20:1-18 - "Just One More Surprise"

Read the Gospel text here: St. John 20:1-18
Just One More Surprise - Easter Sermon 2011

Christ is Risen!  He is Risen indeed!  It had been a terrifying week for the followers of Jesus.  He had entered Jerusalem in triumph and they all expected that the time had finally come – Jesus was finally going to reveal himself as the victorious Messiah.  All Jesus’ followers were primed and ready to begin the revolution.  But Jesus had withdrawn and had not followed through.  What a disappointment! As time passed, the disciples and the crowds began to get frustrated and angry. What kind of Messiah is this, they wondered? By the middle of the week almost everyone had turned against him. Even Jesus’ closest disciples were grumbling and one, Judas, had begun to make plans to turn Jesus over to the authorities.  Betrayal was in the air.  And it was all because Jesus just didn’t seem to understand what was expected of him. Jesus just didn’t seem to understand what it meant to be the Messiah.  Jesus’ refusal to fulfill his expected role was a surprise to his followers - a disappointing surprise!
But the surprises had only just begun.  The disciples all met in a secret place for the last time in order to share a meal together.  Jesus then surprised everyone when he washed his disciples’ feet – all of them – one after another! What kind of Messiah washes feet?  That is a job for servants and slaves.  Jesus then talked about love and service and commitment!  Jesus then shared bread and wine – but with a surprising twist – the bread is my body, broken for you (he said); the wine is my blood, shed for you.  The disciples were confused.  They didn’t understand.  This is not what was expected.  Then they went out to the garden, and there Judas had arrived leading a group of soldiers to arrest Jesus.  Now it begins!  Finally the time has come when Jesus will reveal himself as the triumphant and victorious Messiah.  Peter drew his sword and attacked.  YES here we go!  But, Jesus rebuked him – put away your sword! He said.  WHAT?!  What a surprise!  What a disappointing surprise!  Jesus arrested, then tried, condemned and crucified like a common criminal.  This is definitely not what was expected. This was a horrible surprise.  In fear and confusion and terror the disciples stayed hidden in a secret place in Jerusalem, not knowing what to do.
A day later, the Feast of Passover came to an end and on that day the women, who had been followers of Jesus, got up early in the morning and went to the tomb where Joseph of Arimethea had had Jesus buried.  They intended to anoint the burial with oils and spices for burial, as was their custom.  But when they arrived, the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb.  Mary ran back to bring the news to the disciples. Peter and John raced to the tomb.  Sure enough, he was not there!  What kind of twist is this – what a surprise! Now what?  They rushed back to the rest of the group leaving Mary there crying.  This whole week has been just one surprise after another.  This whole week has not turned out as was expected at all.  Jesus was the Messiah - they all knew that – but he refused to act like the Messiah was supposed to act.  Jesus was the Son of God, but the Son of God was crucified as a common criminal.  And now Jesus’ body was supposed to be in the tomb, but it was missing.
Expectations and Surprises!  That is what this Easter story is all about: Our expectations and God’s surprises!  We all have lots of expectations of how the world is supposed to work, don’t we?  And we take these expectations into all of our relationships, including our relationship with God.  We have developed expectations of how we think God is supposed to act or what God’s opinion of this and that is supposed to be.  We assume that God is always on our side and that our priorities are God’s priorities.  We try to fit God into our box and we try to manipulate God.  There are so many voices in our society that like to claim they know the mind of God; there are so many who think they need to defend God (as if the God who created the universe needed defending!)  This is God’s position on this or that, they say; God is a republican or democrat or libertarian or tea party member; God acts like this; if you don’t do this or act like this or think like we think or have our priorities then God won’t love youz!  We all are guilty of this.  We’re all guilty of reducing God to our own size through our expectations.
Perhaps we don’t want to admit or to see that God is a God of surprises.  Perhaps it is too threatening or it makes us too insecure and uncertain.  But God will not be limited by our expectations.  The Old Testament is filled with surprises.  God simply refuses to act the way the Israelites think God is supposed to act.  But, Jesus is God’s ultimate surprise.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, John tells us in chapter 1.  God himself becomes en-fleshed; God moves in with us and lives among us!  What a surprise that is!  Do you mean to say that God is not off in the distance watching us impassively from above?  Yes, that is exactly what John tells us in no uncertain terms in the Gospel.  God is not to be found way off in the distance.  Rather, God is right here with us, in our midst.  Through Jesus, God enters into all human experiences.  Through Jesus, God feels loss and grief, God mourns, God loves, God rejoices, God even laughs – all though Jesus.  What a wonderful surprise that is! There is nothing that can befall us that God has not entered into through Jesus; and there is nothing can befall us that God can’t transform and redeem.  For the ultimate surprise is the surprise we celebrate today on Easter: Christ is not in the tomb, where he’s supposed to be.  Christ is Risen!  Death is overcome; the darkness is defeated and light and life are victorious.
So, let’s get back to our story.  We left Mary standing weeping outside of the tomb.  Someone moves in beside her and she starts blabbering on about how they expected to find the body and now it’s gone and what are they going to do, and where did you move it to…..  Mary – says Jesus gently.  Surprise! 
What about us? Life does not always proceed the way we expect does it?  Life is filled with missed opportunities, the grind and monotony of work, failed relationships, destruction caused by substance abuse, broken hearts, disappointed dreams, grief and loss and we could go on and on.  We expect this to some extent, don’t we?  I mean, that is what life is like.  We expect that there is nothing that can be done about it.   That’s just the way it is.     But Jesus is standing there besides us as we are going on and on like Mary, and then he gently speaks a name – your name.  And in that moment we realize that the risen Christ is with us in the midst of our lives – and that no matter what Christ will never abandon us.  In that moment the surprise of resurrection comes to us.  The Easter proclamation – Christ is risen – He is Risen indeed is a joyous and, indeed, a giddy affirmation that God is full of surprises! Christ is Risen – He is Risen Indeed – Surprise!!!!
The title of this sermon is Just one more surprise.  Some of you might recognize that line it comes from the beautiful and popular hymn “Borning Cry.”  This has become John Ylvisaker’s best known and most loved hymn. I think it is easy to see why it’s so popular. The hymn begins with birth and baptism and goes through all the stages of life affirming Christ’s presence all along the way: childhood, young adult, marriage, middle age.  And then the hymn concludes with these words: When the evening gently closes in, and you shut your weary eyes, I'll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise."
Christ is risen – He is Risen Indeed – Surprise!
See this beautifully created music video by Wolfie Productions:

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sermon on The Gospel Readings for Palm Sunday - "Expectations!"

Read the Processional Gospel here: Matthew 21:1-11
Read the Passion of St. Matthew here: Matthew 26:14-27:66

What excitement!  The day has finally come – Jesus is finally going to do it.  Jesus is finally going to take the lead in restoring Israel!  After the years of unusual teachings – turn the other cheek, love your neighbor and so forth; after all of the healings and the miracles; after all of those odd and confusing statements about picking up your cross and following and the predictions about going to Jerusalem to be crucified and raised; after all of that – Jesus is finally going to reveal himself as the Messiah!  Jesus is finally going to reveal himself as the one who is the glorious King of Israel and he will destroy the invaders and the infidels (the Romans) once and for all!  Finally!!!
It must have been a heady and exciting time for those crowds that followed Jesus around throughout his ministry, and also for the disciples.  Jesus had attracted a number of followers during the three years of travelling around Judea and the Galilee preaching and teaching and doing miracles – followers such as former John the Baptist disciples and curious Pharisees, peasants and merchants, political revolutionaries and those who were collaborators – even Jesus’ inside group of male disciples included a curious mixture of men who otherwise would probably have never gotten along – merchants and businessmen like Peter and Andrew, James and John, radical revolutionaries like Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, and then there were collaborators such as Matthew the tax collector and on and on.  But the one thing that seemed to unify this group of disciples and the crowds was their fascination and commitment to what they thought was Jesus’ mission: the believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  And this Messiah healed and taught and performed miracles – never before has anything been seen like this in Israel, exclaimed the crowds back in chapter 9.  The disciples had figured it out ages ago, in fact Peter had actually verbalized and told Jesus to his face that he believed him to be the Messiah – and Jesus had not denied it.  Sure, Jesus then made some odd comments about dying and rising, but none of the crowds or disciples paid much attention to that!  “Jesus was the Messiah – and you know what that means, right?  Jesus is going to reclaim the throne of David once and for all and then the reign of God will begin.  Jesus is going to lead his army of followers against the Romans and expel them and destroy them once and for all!”  After all, that is what a Messiah does!
            And so, Jesus enters into the city on a donkey to the cries of Hosanna from the crowd.  Hosanna, Hosanna to the Son of David  - which means – Save Us, Save Us, Son of David!  The crowd could hardly wait – they were pumped and ready to follow Jesus.  They were ready to join his rebellion!  And the disciples were right there with the crowd the whole way, cheering Jesus on and ready to fight! 
            These were the expectations of the crowds and the disciples on the day we remember today: Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah, the King.  This could only mean one thing – Military Victory!  When the crowds cried “Hosanna” or “Save Us” they meant “Save us from the Romans.”  They had very clear expectations, and very clear understandings of what they expected to happen and they are ready for it.
            We can all relate to this, can’t we?  We all have any number of expectations that often form an important part of our relationships.  Parents have expectations for their children; husbands and wives have expectations about what marriage is suppose to be and what we expect of our spouses; we have expectations of our government, our schools, our sports teams and on and on.  And how many times in your life have you had expectations disappointed?  How do you deal with these kinds of disappointments?  Can you adjust your expectations to a new reality or do you incline to stubbornly hold on to out of date or unreasonable expectations? 
And, what kinds of expectations do we have of Jesus?  And are our expectations all that different from the crowds that greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem?  Don’t we also incline towards a glorious Messiah?  Don’t we American Christians prefer the risen Christ of Easter rather than the broken Jesus on the cross? Every year churches around the our country are filled on Easter Sunday. Can we say the same about our Good Friday services?  Why is that?  For without Good Friday, Easter is meaningless. There can be no resurrection without crucifixion and this fact alone should call us to take a long hard look at our understandings and expectations, and to reconsider what this means for our faith and what it means for our daily lives.
            For their part, this crowd appears to be not inclined to revise their expectations, not on this day; during this week.  They are excited and waiting for the word from Jesus.  But it never comes.  Jesus lets the moment pass.  The crowds are like a fire ready to burst into flame, but Jesus doesn’t light the fire.  He moves in a different direction.  He stays on the Mount of Olives, he continues to teach and debate and all the while his disciples and the crowds are getting restless and angry, to the point where one disciple finally takes matters into his own hands and tries to force Jesus to act – this is Judas.  Judas is the one who does the act of betrayal, but don’t think that the other disciples weren’t thinking the same thing – they were.  They all wanted to find a way to get Jesus to act like the Messiah they believed he was.  But Jesus hadn’t taken advantage of all that support he had when he entered Jerusalem, so Judas tries to force his hand in the Garden of Gethsemane.  And what do the other disciples do?  At the time of his arrest, one of the disciples draws his sword and strikes a blow! “Ok, here we go – now the insurrection starts….” No – they still don’t get it….
Put your sword back into its place (says Jesus) – for all who live by the sword will perish by the sword!
            What a shock!  This is not what was expected.  Is it any wonder then that the crowds turned on Jesus? Crucify him, Crucify him!   Is it any wonder the disciples all fled in fear and confusion?  “What a disappointment!  Our hopes are completely dashed!  Jesus the Messiah did not meet the expectations we had for him; he wasn’t the kind of Messiah we were expecting!”           
But God doesn’t do things in the way we humans expect.  God’s ways are different than our ways.  God does answer and respond to the calls of Hosanna – Save us; but not in the way we expect.  Through Jesus, God saves us through service; gives victory through weakness; gives life through death.  It is not what we expect.
But it is not like this is a particularly new way for God to act.  We can run through the entire salvation history of Israel and see that this is exactly how God acts.  Surprisingly, God acts consistently through forgiveness and grace and weakness: God chooses Abraham and his wife Sarah to be the patriarch of a great nation through which God will bless the world.  Even though they are homeless wanderers and a little on in years. God stays with this family through all of the deceit and dishonesty and selfish behavior exhibited by Jacob and his sons.  Then God calls a murderer who is on the run to return to Egypt to lead God’s people into a new land.  Throughout salvation history God calls men and women to witness through their lives that God is not about status quo, business as usual. God is about liberation. God is about lifting up the lowly and caring for the poor and hungry and lonely and grieving and destitute. God is about casting the mighty and selfish down from their thrones and sending the rich away hungry.  God works in our midst not through power and might and wealth – but through weakness and love and grace.  This is not what we expect.  The cross as a symbol of liberation and grace – who would have thought?
We are now about to enter into our remembrance of Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem – a week we call Holy.  As we proceed throughout this week we should note that this is a week filled with expectations that are continually dashed by a God who loves us so much that God refuses to be imprisoned by our expectations. From the entrance into Jerusalem, through the Last Supper in the Upper Room, to the arrest in Gethsemane, the trials before Caiaphas and Pilate, the crucifixion at Golgotha – and then the most surprising twist of all: the empty tomb! This is not what we expected! Praise God! For through these events God, through Jesus reaches out to us in love and grace!  It’s not what we expect – thanks be to God!  +

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reflections on the Gospel – John 11 – The Raising of Lazarus

Read the text here: John 11:1-45

We have come to the end of our Lenten journey, which also means that we have come to the end of our series of Gospel stories from John.  In succession we have heard the story of Jesus' visit with the Pharisee Nicodemus, who visited Jesus at night; then Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the well in the bright light of mid-day.  What a contrast John gives us with these two stories – the insider Nicodemus who is really an outsider because he does not believe and who comes at night which represents to us that he is in the darkness; and the outsider Samaritan Woman who is really an insider because of her belief and whose encounter occurs in the bright light of the day to represent that she is of the light.  Then the man born blind – who has been in darkness all him life – is given sight and he becomes a child of light because of his belief while the Pharisees and officials who can see (technically) are the ones who are really blind and in the darkness.
Throughout these stories in John we can see the important themes of light and darkness, which was first presented in the prologue (John 1:1-5).  The children of light are those who believe; the children of darkness are those who do not believe (1:12-13).  The key to all of these stories is “belief.”  And please note – in John (like in the Old Testament) the noun form (belief) is never used – to believe is always a verb.  It always involves action and response and commitment.  It is never static; it is never cerebral; it is never an intellectual exercise.  Belief in Jesus as the Messiah is a way of life.
We come now to the final story in this Lenten series – the Raising of Lazarus in chapter 11.  This story is the climax of the first portion of the Gospel of John, known as the Book of Signs.  The Raising of Lazarus is the last of 7 signs that have been interspersed with dialogs and teachings throughout chapters 2 through 11.  Chapter 1 was the prologue and Chapter 12 is a transition (anointing) that leads into the Book of Glory that climaxes in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. 
This climactic story both looks back – to the prologue and the previous signs – and it looks forward to the resurrection of Jesus when God’s glory is revealed in all of its fullness.  A couple of things to think about:
1.                    Jesus is met by grief-stricken sisters who reproach him for his tardiness in coming – If you had been here my brother would not have died!  How many times do we feel that if only God is tardy or delayed in the way Jesus is in this story?  If only you had….. – I am sure we can all fill in the blank.
2.                    How does Jesus respond to this emotion?  Does he get angry with the women?  No – Jesus weeps! (And the Word became flesh – 1:14)  Jesus enters into the emotion of the women and grieves with them.
3.                    Jesus then brings resurrection from death.  This is the glory of God, to which John refers in the prologue.  By entering into the human experience God, though Jesus, redeems it from within.  In other words, God brings resurrection from death, joy from sorrow, hope from despair.
4.                    I am the resurrection and the life says Jesus.  And these things are NOW!  Not off in the future in some never-never land fantasy time.  Resurrection and life are NOW, though Jesus.  Just as the gift of Eternal Life is NOW.
5.                    Unbind him Jesus commands.  We are not puppets to be acted upon.  God has work for us too.  We are called to participate in Jesus ministry of resurrection and life.
It comes around as it does in all of the other stories to belief – the verb.  Do you believe?  And it is not enough to say – yes, I believe; how is this faith in Jesus the Messiah manifest in your life?  In what ways does God’s light shine through you?  In what ways does God reach out through you to bring resurrection and eternal life to those whom you encounter?
This week we pause at Bethany to consider these things before we begin the journey to the cross and the empty tomb in the weeks to come.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Sermon on John 9 - "Sin & Belief / Darkness & Light" - Lent IV A

Read the text for today here: John 9:1-41

Well, I don’t know if you have noticed – middle of Lent and I have not spent a lot of sermon time talking about sin, so far.  But that changes today because our Gospel lesson for Lent IV is, in part, about sin.  What exactly is sin? What does it do to us and how do we deal with it?  These are some of the questions posed by this text.
So, what do you think about when you hear the word sin?  I suppose you think about doing bad things – breaking the 10 commandments or doing hurtful things to others.  Perhaps you think of sin in terms of rewards and punishment.  If you are good – God will reward you; if you are sinful you will be punished.  This is a very popular way of looking at sin; in part I suppose because it makes logical sense to us.  That seems to be the way the world works, right? 
Many years ago – when I was in high school I spent my summers, as I think I have mentioned before, working out in the warehouses and in the yard at a lumber company.  My supervisor was an older man named Johnny.  Johnny was very religious, and at the time I was filled with questions so we spent a lot of time talking about Christian faith.  I remember one conversation very vividly.  We were talking about sin and Johnny spelled out the rewards/punishment view and told me that that was how it was – that is how God acts: God rewards the good and punishes the sinners.  As an example – he told me about a young man he knew who was a Christian, but who had fallen into a wild life of partying and then one night after a little too much to drink and a little to much speeding he had an accident and he was killed.  That, said Johnny, proves my point.  God caused that accident – that was the punishment for his lifestyle.  Wow, is that true?  Does God zap us like that?  Are the earthquakes in places like Haiti and Japan God’s retribution for things that may have happened centuries ago – as has been claimed by a certain well-known TV preacher? Is this the way God acts?  And if so – well, where is Grace?
Dealing with sin on the basis of rewards and punishments was as popular an approach in the time of Jesus as it is in our day.  At the very beginning of our Gospel text Jesus and his disciples are walking through a town and they see a blind man begging.  “Look at that man,” says one of the disciples, “he has been blind since birth.  Is he blind because of his own sin or his parent’s sin?”  Notice there is no other option for this questioner – it is assumed it is one or the other.  There is no 3rd option here.  But Jesus rejects this reward and punishment approach to sin out of hand – “Neither his sin nor his parents” says Jesus.  That is not how God acts.  God doesn’t make people blind as a form of punishment; God doesn’t hold grudges for centuries and then visit devastation in the form of natural disasters on places like Haiti as punishment; God did not “take,” (to use Johnny’s word) God did not “take” that young man – the accident was the result of his own bad choices.  In that case, there is a difference between punishment and consequence. 
So, what does Jesus say and do about all of this?  “Through this man’s blindness the glory of God will be revealed.”  And then Jesus proceeds to bring sight to the blind man; Jesus proceeds to bring light into the midst of deep darkness.  That is how God acts! Through Jesus, the light of God’s love and grace illumine even the darkness of sin, and loss and death.  Look, we live in a fallen world – we sometimes make bad decisions for which there are consequences – others sometimes make selfish and self-centered decisions that hurt us – sometimes natural disasters befall us.  The promise is that God’s love and grace will permeate these situations – God is present with us in the midst of them – “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus,” says Paul.  And God brings life from death – joy from sorrow – order out of chaos - light out of darkness.  This is what Jesus means when he says that through this situation the Glory of God will be revealed.  The Glory of God is shown in Jesus – who was crucified and then on the 3rd day rose again.  In other words, God brings resurrection from death.  That is the point.  Death and darkness and loss and fear and grief and violence and unemployment and on and on – they are a real part of our fallen world, with which we must contend and by which we are affected – but they do not have the last word.  The last word is resurrection and love and grace, which is shown forth in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Now, I began this sermon with a series of questions about sin – specifically the question of what exactly is sin, according to this story and the Gospel of John.  As I noted earlier, we tend to define sin very narrowly as bad things we do or as breaking the 10 commandments and so on.  But John has a different approach to the question of sin.  For John our usual way of defining sin is off the mark – doing bad things or not following the 10 commandments should be seen as symptoms of sin rather than as sin itself.  For John the definition of sin boils down to one thing: belief.  Do you believe?  Or not?  If you believe then you like the Blind man can see and like the Samaritan Woman you are in the light and are walking with God.  If you do not believe then like the Pharisees in this story you are really blind and like Nicodemus you are in darkness – you are in sin.  Belief therefore frees us from sin – it frees us to follow, it frees us to love and it frees us to action.
The best example of this is Luther who, as a young Augustinian monk, spent hours and hours in the confessional confessing every little sin he could possibly think of.  And just when he thought he had finished he thought of more.  He could not be free of these sins – they were constantly weighing him down and they paralyzed him.  His exhausted confessor, Johann Staupitz pointed out to Luther that at the core he had a problem with trust.  He needed to trust – he needed to believe that God loved him; that God surrounded him with grace and that Jesus died for him.  This is what John is saying to us – do you believe?  Do you believe that Jesus died for you; that Jesus’ resurrection is for you?  Do you believe that you are loved and forgiven by God and that God’s grace permeates every dimension of your life?  Yes, Lord, I believe – says the Samaritan Woman and the Blind Man and Mary at the grave of Lazarus.  Can  we affirm those words with them?
Does this mean that everything will be perfect from now on – no?  Does this mean that there won’t be consequences for bad decision – or that there still won’t be loss or natural disasters – no.  What it means is that there is hope and that from the darkness of loss and death we know and can affirm that the resurrection of Jesus is the last word; that God’s grace is the last word.
Many of you know the story of John Newton, the man who wrote the words to the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  How he was a slave trader and a really horrid human being, but that at some point in his life he experienced a conversion and a transformation.  This transformation he attributed to God’s Grace – God’s Amazing Grace, which could even save a “wretch” like him.  And despite all of the ups and downs of the rest of his life he could nevertheless still proclaim that it was the grace of God which gave him hope and gave his life meaning.  And I think we can also affirm with John Newton, the important of this gift of grace for us.  For like him…
I once was lost but now am found – was blind but now I see.