Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Darkness and Joy - Christmas 2015

What a joyful story this Christmas story is! Angels announcing the birth of the Christ child to a group of shepherds – shepherds, who in 1st century Palestine were treated as untouchables, who were despised and excluded, who were dirty and smelly, but who still are the ones to whom God announces the birth of the child.  And it is these shepherds who then run off to... where? Let’s see the text says about that: Well all it says is that Jesus is to be found laying in a manger – that is a feeding trough.  And feeding trough are to be found where there are animals; and animals, actually goats to be exact, were usually secured in the many caves that can be found throughout the hills outside of Bethlehem.  Why goats? There was no need to put sheep in there because sheep have nice wool coats that enable them to withstand the bitter cold nights, but goats have no coats so would freeze to death if left outside over night.  So, these low-life, despised, dirty shepherds run off and find Jesus and his mother and Joseph in one of these dark and really smelly caves surrounded by goats and the text tells us that then, they worshiped him, they honored him.  Despite the location and the circumstances and the fact that these men were thieves and well, all kinds of other things – they were still overcome by the experience enough to pause to worship!  It is in that where we find the joy of Christmas.  It is not happiness – there is nothing in this story that is particularly happy – Roman oppression, destructive taxation, enforced travel, only able to find shelter with the goats in a cave and then giving birth in that environment, and finally visited by the dregs of 1st century Palestinian humanity - there is nothing happy in this story. 
But it is still a joyful story and we can nevertheless still confidently assert that Christmas is about Joy.  The joy that comes with the birth of the Christ child who is God enfleshed, incarnate – Emmanuel – God with us; the joy of receiving the unexpected and amazing gift of God’s unconditional love and grace; the joy of knowing that no matter what, we are loved and accepted and cared for; and the joy of knowing that through the birth of this Christ child in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago God has brought about our salvation and ushered in the new kingdom.  Joy to the World the Lord has come, let earth receive her king!   But yet at the same time we are still a people who sit in darkness; we still wait for the culmination of God's promise to fully bring about the kingdom; we still wait in Joyful expectation of the light that will not only shine in the darkness but will completely overcome the darkness!
And so, we assert - Christmas calls forth from us a joyful response – Rejoice, rejoice – Immanuel (God with Us) has come to us to ransom, to release those who are captive to the darkness!  But still, I suspect that some of us here tonight may feel that this joy that I am talking about is perhaps a nice idea, but in reality it seems to be so illusive and hard to grasp.  While many of us undoubtedly feel somewhat happy and excited tonight, at the same time I am certain that there are also many of us who are struggling with mixed feelings; that for some of us our feelings of joy are mixed together with feelings of sadness, loss and even fear and uncertainty.  Perhaps we're remembering Christmases past with friends or loved ones who are no longer with us; perhaps we're struggling with an important relationship and feeling some pain and hurt; perhaps we're feeling lonely or exhausted or maybe even hopeless.  And we come together tonight at the close of a very difficult year in our world and nation – terrorism, political inaction and division, cruelty, exclusion, increased poverty and homelessness, violence everywhere we look and an overwhelming sense of fear seems to be settling upon us.  On the face of it the darkness feels like it is overwhelming.  What is there to be joyful about?
So, let us take a moment to stop and look carefully at exactly what it is that we're celebrating tonight.  Christmas - the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  And who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Jesus is Emmanuel - God With Us.  The Angels tells the shepherds that this baby Jesus is a Savior – a savior who has not come to fish us OUT of our humanity but rather a savior who enters INTO our humanity – into the darkness of our humanity.  There is such a tendency to whitewash this story of Jesus’ birth; we clean it up and take away the dirt and the pain and the stench and we add all kinds of things to make the story more spectacular and heart-warming.  But if we can see past all of the escapist glitter and pomp and circumstance that are so popular in our culture, then what we are left with is the birth of an child to a rather ordinary peasant girl in absolutely miserable circumstances; we are left with the announcement of this birth by the angels to the most dirty, dishonest and unsavory bunch of lowlifes in Palestine; and we are left with the proclamation this this child is none other than God enfleshed – God incarnate – God who is born into our world out of incomprehensible love! 
And in that is where we find the joy of this story and the joy of this season! It's not because of the angels, or the chorus or the quaint pastoral scene at the manger - it's because at Christmastime we celebrate the event whereby God plunges God’s self into the depths of the human experience.  God doesn't ease into this; but rather God jumps into the deep end of the human experience.  At Christmas we celebrate that through Jesus the Christ God chooses to get involved in our lives.  Not just during the good times or the happy times or the times when we feel confident and at peace - but also and more importantly God chooses to get involved with us and to remain by our sides during the dark times, the bad times - the times of grief and death and struggle and anger and loneliness and exhaustion and sadness and fear and abandonment and, yes, even during times of doubt and hopelessness.  At Christmas we celebrate that God will never abandon us, God is with us, Emmanuel.  At Christmas we celebrate that even in the face of hopelessness there IS reason to hope and that reason is God's immersion into the human experience through the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
           This is what we have to rejoice about tonight.  This is why Christmas is about joy - not happiness but joy!  May each of you here experience the Joy of God with Us this Christmas; the joy of God's presence in the midst of your lives now and always.  Christ is Born - Joy to the World!  AMEN! 

Monday, October 19, 2015

John Series #14 - Breakfast on the Beach – Do You Love Me/Feed My Sheep - John 21

We have come to the final story and the final sign that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John. This then is also the final installment in our sermon series on John.  And in this final chapter 21 John brings everything together for us and focuses us on the two most important and central themes in the Gospel.  And these are…
        First – God loves the world! God loves the world and all that God has created more than we can even find words to describe; accordingly God loves you.  We see this love of God’s in the incarnation – the en-fleshing of God in Jesus - and in Jesus’ giving up himself in love at the end in the crucifixion.  And the subsequent resurrection proclaims and celebrates that it is love that will always win in the end.  Nothing is stronger than the power of God’s love. And as long as we remain attached to the Vine we are always connected to the source of God’s abundant love.
         2nd – This unconditional gift of love, this gift of grace upon grace, this love that is showered upon us so freely calls for a response.  What kind of response? It calls for us to love – to bear fruit; to wash the feet of others; to feed and touch and heal and love just as Jesus did for us.
When the chapter begins it is night – now it should not be a surprise that this final story begins in the dark.  We should remember that Nicodemus first came to Jesus at night, he was in the dark; and when Mary Magdalene first goes to the tomb it is also dark.  Neither of them understood, neither of them could see and the disciples here still don’t quite see or understand either. 
“I’m going fishing,” Peter announces and all the others decide to go with him.  They all return to their ordinary lives – their pre-incarnation lives.  But of course you can never go back and their efforts are unsuccessful until they hear a voice calling to them from shore and encouraging them to try throwing the nets over the other side of the boat.  And when they do, they catch some fish – lots of fish – 153 fish to be exact!  They have caught an abundance of fish.  This final sign at the very end of the Gospel should remind us of an earlier sign from the very beginning of the Gospel: “We have no wine” Jesus’ mother says, and Jesus then transforms the water in 6 very large jugs into the lots of very best wine – gallons and gallons of it – an abundance of wine; more than you would ever need or know what to do with.  This is what God does, this is one of the characteristics of God’s love – it is super-abundant – it is mind-bogglingly super-abundant.
“It is the Lord!”  Of course!  The abundance of the catch is a give away.  Only God through Christ is so generous and so obvious.  And Peter is so excited he jumps into the sea and swims to shore.  And, we are told, he is naked – he has stripped himself of all of his pretensions, of all that stands between him and God. 
And when the disciples return to shore they find Jesus cooking breakfast for them.  Jesus is the host and Jesus will serve them one more time; Jesus will feed them once more – just like Jesus fed the 5000 with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and in the end had left overs in abundance; And just like Jesus hosted them and fed them and washed their feet at the last supper.
And so they join their host, they accept the gift of bread and fish from Jesus one last time as they sit around that charcoal fire.  This should remind us of the last time that we encountered a group of people sitting around a charcoal fire.  It was the night of the arrest of Jesus, and Peter was warming himself by the charcoal fire when he is recognized and confronted – “Are you not one of that man’s disciples?”  “I am not!” Note in John, Peter denies his discipleship and this happens three times.  And here we are again sitting by a charcoal fire and Jesus asks Peter a simple question – “Do you love me?”  Peter is taken aback by the question, “Yes, of course I love you!” He says.  “Well then,” Jesus says, “feed my sheep!”  This happens three times.  Peter had denied his discipleship 3 times and now he is called upon to affirm his discipleship 3 times.
This final exchange is so important, because it defines discipleship for us.  God loves us, God gives us Jesus who demonstrates God’s abundant and overwhelming love for us and then calls on us to “come and see,” to follow and to serve – “to wash the feet of those whom we encounter” and to feed the sheep of the Good Shepherd, whose love for the sheep is beyond our comprehension.
Do you love me?  Feed my sheep!  These words are words that are spoken to each and every one of us here!  Do you love Jesus?  If so, then you are called to respond – to serve those whom God loves and whom God places in our paths during our lives.  That now that the incarnation, the en-fleshing, of God has come to an end and Jesus has ascended to the father it is now up to Jesus’ followers – Jesus’ disciples of every time and every place – it is now up to you and me to be the incarnation of God’s love for the world in the way that we reach out and love and care and serve.
The Gospel leaves us with this calling and with the question of whether or not we are willing to embrace our own discipleship.  Do you love me, Jesus is asking you – if so, then feed my sheep.
One last comment – the very last verse of the Gospel leaves us with an important and necessary reminder of the gift of God’s abundant love.  And so I would like to conclude this sermon series by first reading this very last verse and then reading Karoline Lewis’ comment on this verse:
John 21:25 - But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

"As this narrative comes to a close, we discover that this abundant grace cannot be contained, neither by the end of the Gospel, nor by the end of the incarnation.  By definition, abundant grace cannot be drawn to a close or wrapped up in a tidy, literary, narrative conclusion.  God's grace extends beyond the confines of this story and even then there are really no restraints or restrictions, no boundaries or borders that can in any way curb or control the extent of God's love... for God so loved the world."

Sunday, October 4, 2015

John Series #13 – The Resurrection, “It is Finished / I Have Seen the Lord” – John 20:1-18

“It is finished!” These were Jesus’ last words on the cross before he died.  But what is finished?  This is the question that John leaves with us as we conclude the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.  It is finished – as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus lovingly care for Jesus’ body, anointing it with spices and wrapping it in a linen shroud.  It is finished - as they then place Jesus’ body in the tomb and the stone is rolled into place.  It is finished!  It is over!  The end!  Now what?
And it is not only those of us who are reading this story who are struggling with this question.  Obviously the disciples, the Judean authorities and even the Romans are pretty convinced that it is all over, it is finished, done!  Well, we took care of that “Jesus” problem!  But, not so fast…
“And the Word became made flesh and dwelt among us…” – and tented among us, and moved into the neighborhood!  God became en-fleshed, incarnate in Jesus; God became fully and completely human in Jesus and lived a human life with real human relationships, reaching out and caring for others, healing, loving, getting angry, being tired, experiencing sadness and loneliness, even despondency, feeling compassion and grief.  It is all there in John – every single one of these human experiences and emotions are displayed in John’s telling the story of God’s en-fleshing.  In fact, in order to take the Incarnation seriously, we must take seriously the complete humanity of Jesus.  Jesus was not half human or sort-of human or pretending to be human.  John wants us to understand that Jesus was fully and completely human, and in this way God enters into the human experience.  And only by taking this Incarnation seriously does the gift that God gives us makes any difference.  So, then what is finished?  It is this human, incarnation experience that has come to a close.  The Incarnation is finished!  The en-fleshing of God has come to a conclusion!  But this is not the end of the story.
Chapter 20 begins with Mary Magdalene coming early in the morning while it is still dark to the tomb.  According to John she comes alone and we don’t know why she is coming – perhaps simply to grieve.  But she is in the dark – just like Nicodemus who came to Jesus in the dark earlier in the Gospel.  Perhaps she believes now that darkness has taken over, and that the light of Christ will never again shine forth.  But she is wrong, for when she arrives she is able at least to see that the stone is rolled away from the tomb and that the tomb is now sitting open.  She reacts to this by running to tell the disciples, and then Peter and the Beloved Disciple themselves run to the tomb to investigate.  The men race each other and it is Peter, who arrives first, boldly entering into the tomb where he is followed shortly afterwards by the Beloved Disciple.  They both find the tomb empty and John tells us – that the Beloved Disciple believes.  But what exactly does he believe?  And who is the Beloved Disciple?  The tradition is to equate the Beloved Disciple with the author of the Gospel, John the son of Zebedee, or at least with the community that can be traced back to him and which produced this Gospel and the three letters of John.  And that may be, but the Beloved Disciple is more than just this character.  We also need to recognize that the Beloved Disciple is representative of believers and followers of Jesus of all times and all places.  He is you and me.  You are the beloved disciple and so am I.  We are the disciples whom Jesus loves.  And what is it that is believed by the Beloved Disciple?  The Gospel is quick to clarify that the disciples did not completely understand about the resurrection, yet.  So then what exactly does the Beloved Disciple believe?  Simply, that the story is not over.  That crucifixion is not the end or the last word.  And there is still more to come.  That the powers of death and hate and violence and oppression and poverty will NOT win in the end.  That the love and grace of God, shown forth in the Incarnation of God in Jesus will have the last word!  And with that the disciples leave and return to their homes.
But Mary is not ready to leave.  She is overcome in weeping.  And there standing besides her is a man, whom she does not recognize.  “Where have you taken him?  Show me and I will take the body and return it to the tomb,” she cries.  And then the stranger speaks – “Mary.”  And she recognizes that this is Jesus.  She had probably not even noticed that the light of the day had begun to overcome the darkness of the night, but when she hears Jesus’ speak, she sees. 
In chapter 10, Jesus had told his disciples that God’s children that are the Sheep of God’s flock would always know and recognize the voice of the Shepherd. And that he, the Shepherd, will always call them by name.  Mary hears the voice of the Shepherd calling her by name – just like the man born blind first heard the voice of Jesus before he regained his sight in chapter 9 – and just like Lazarus who Jesus called by name to come out of the tomb in chapter 11.
Mary’s response?  “Rabboni”  - Teacher!  Not savior, not Jesus, not friend – but teacher.  Who uses that title, teacher?  Only disciples.  So in case there is any question – Mary Magdalene is a disciple of Jesus. And then she reaches for him, but he tells her that he must now ascend to the Father.  And this is the last step in John – the ascension.  And in the ascension we find the gift of Hope.  The resurrection proclaims the victory over human self-centeredness and cruelty, the defeat of death and the victory of light over darkness.  Because of the resurrection we know and can proclaim that no matter what loss, or grief or despair or oppression we experience they will not have the last word.  For the Ascension finalizes this by assuring us not only of Jesus’ abiding relationship with the Father, but of our continuing abiding relationship with God through Jesus as well. It is Jesus’ Ascension to the Father that makes that possible!
And so, the incarnation is finished!  But the story of God’s involvement and overwhelming love for the world, and for all of God’s children and for you and me is not over, it is continuing and continues to this very moment.  God continues to shower us with grace upon grace; God continues to be present with us, especially in our darkest moments in order to remind and assure us that in the end the light will overcome the darkness; that love is stronger than hate; and that life will defeat death.  And as we abide in this love, we know that we, the branches, are constantly nurtured by the Vine of God’s love.  And this then helps us to maintain our relationship with God and helps us to abide.  And not only that, but it gives us the ability to love others and be in abiding relationships with others as well.
        This is what prompts us to be able to confess, with Mary Magdalene, that we too have seen the Lord!  The light of God’s love and grace has overcome the darkness.  The Incarnation is finished – but the story is not over!

Monday, September 28, 2015

John Series #12 – The Passion of Jesus – John 18-19

Jesus’ ministry is now over.  The Incarnation, the en-fleshing of God is also coming to an end as Jesus moves from the last supper to the garden where he will be arrested and the events of the Passion will begin to unfold.  Before this though Jesus has performed one more sign and then interpreted this sign for his disciples.  In many ways this final sign – the foot washing – brings together all of the other signs along with Jesus’ entire ministry.  This sign helps us all to see that it all comes down to one thing: LOVE.  Earlier in the Gospel we had met Nicodemus who was struggling to understand what in the world Jesus was doing.  Jesus told him – “God loves the world so much that those who believe, those who are in relationship with God will remain – will Abide – in this love of God’s forever!”  Now the sign, the foot-washing, is a sign of this love that Jesus, God en-fleshed has for the disciples and for the world.  “A new commandment I give you,” Jesus told his confused and scandalized disciples – “that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”  The point – God loves the world – God loves the disciples – God loves you and me and all of God’s creation more than we can ever possibly comprehend.  And this is what we are called to do in response as well – to love others, as God has loved us!
And so, after a prayer Jesus goes out to the garden. And here begins the events of the passion found in chapters 18 and 19.  This narrative can be divided into 3 parts in John: the arrest, the trial and the crucifixion, which includes the burial.
First the arrest - Judas comes with a huge crowd of soldiers to arrest Jesus.  Judas is the thief, the bandit Jesus referred to in the Good Shepherd discourse in chapter 10 and who now stands outside of the sheepfold as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will protect the sheep, his disciples, who are inside the sheepfold.  “Who are you looking for?” Jesus asks, “Jesus of Nazareth,” comes the answer – And Jesus responds with these words: “I AM.”  There is no “he” in the Greek – Jesus does not say, “I am he.”  He only says, “I AM” which as we know from Exodus and from Jesus’ use of the phrase earlier in the Gospel is the name of God.  And so here at the end we are all reminded once more that the “Word had become flesh and dwelt among us” – that Jesus is God en-fleshed.  Judas and the soldiers cannot stand before the great I AM and they fall to the ground until finally they are able to arrest the Good Shepherd and as predicted, the sheep scatter.
Next comes the trial, but whose trial is it in John?  Well, it is Jesus’ trial for sure, but not only Jesus’ trial. Peter’s is on trial too, and by extension so are we, we believers and disciples of Jesus are also on trial.  “Are you not one of that man’s disciples?” The maid asks Peter.  “I am, not!” he responds.  And this response is the mirror opposite of Jesus’ response earlier.  Not only that but Peter is denying not only his status as a disciple of Jesus, but he denies his relationship with God.  Why?  Fear!  Peter is afraid.
At the same time inside the council chambers, Jesus is questioned by the Sanhedrin, the Temple authorities and the High Priest Caiaphas.  They struggle to understand his teaching, but a God that loves us so much, and so unconditionally is threatening and incomprehensible to those who are in power and those who have vested interests in power, wealth and control.  So, they question him, but they end up going in circles.  Finally they take him to the Roman Proconsul, Pontius Pilate, who is able to understand Jesus even less.  “Are you a King?” “What have you done?” Where are you from?” “What is truth?”  Pilate is confused.  Jesus is not the usual hate-filled revolutionary that Pilate is used to dealing with. There is an unusual gentleness, there is a love and there is an authority that Jesus embodies that confuses Pilate.  “I find no case against him,” Pilate finally tells the Temple authorities.  “No! We want Barabbas!” comes the response.  “Crucify him, crucify him!” comes the response.  Pilate stands before the people with Jesus at his side – “Ecce homo – Here is the Man!  Here is your King!” he proclaims.  “We have no King but Caesar!”  And with that the crowd has confessed that they have placed their trust in power and wealth and hate and exclusion and in this way they have denied their relationship with God.  Why? Fear!  And John tells us, Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified – why?  Fear!
And sitting around a charcoal fire, Peter denies Jesus two more times – “Are you one of this man’s disciples?”  He is asked, “I am not!” comes the answer a 2nd time, and then a third.  Peter has joined the crowd out of fear in denying his relationship with God.  But this will not be the last time that Peter will be asked to make a commitment while he is sitting by a charcoal fire, by the way. 
Where do we stand? John answers the question for us in a way we might not want to acknowledge: we stand with the crowd – we stand with Peter.  We would like to think that is not the case, but John knows that it is the case.  We are all susceptible to the pressures of fear, to the pressures to conform, to the lure of wealth and greed and power and hate and we act too often out of this fear.  But fear is a liar – fear destroys relationship – fear destroys love.  But fear will not have the last word.  Because there is forgiveness and there is always a chance to place fear behind us and move forward, as we will see.
For now though we have moved into the last part of the Passion.  In John Jesus carries his own cross beam to the place of crucifixion – a place that John tells us will become a garden.  And there he is crucified! At the place of crucifixion he is surrounded by the whole world – soldiers from all over the empire, Judaens, the authorities – the whole world is assembled to witness the crucifixion of God incarnate.  And a sign is placed over his head – Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, languages that also represent the entire known world.  The world that God so loves!
And the last thing that Jesus does is to create relationship – “woman here is your son, here is your mother” Jesus speaks from the cross to the Beloved Disciple and his mother.  For this is what God always does – create relationship.  This is what love does – create relationship.  Oh, and who is the Beloved Disciple, it is you and me!  We are Jesus’ beloved disciple, we are the disciple who Jesus loves.  And for us Jesus, God incarnate is always creating relationship, out of love!
And then the one who had given the woman at the well the Living Water speaks these words – “I thirst” and then he proclaims the end of the Incarnation – “It is finished.”  And with that he breathes his last breath.  And the incarnate, en-fleshed God now hangs on the cross dead.  His side is pierced but his legs are not broken.  And he is removed from the cross and lovingly cared for by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who anoint the body and place it in a tomb.
The end! 
No?  No, not the end!  Fear will not be victorious!  Hate will not be victorious!  The power of broken relationship will not be victorious!  The grasping for power and wealth at all costs will not be victorious!  Death will not be victorious!
Jesus is entombed in a garden – yet, another garden.  And soon, in three days to be exact, this garden is going to blossom and boom and yield life and relationship!  This garden will allow love to be reborn and to flourish – because nothing can destroy God’s love.  Nothing can stand between God’s love and those whom God loves.

As night falls we know that very soon the dawn will come, that light will overcome the darkness and that this light of God’s love will obliterate the darkness and Grace upon Grace will be showered upon this world that God loves so, so much!  And so as we gaze on this image of the cross, we should see the God who so loved the world and who continues to shower us with Grace upon Grace upon Grace upon Grace…