Sunday, April 29, 2012

Laying Down our Lives ~ 1 John 3:16-24 ~ Fourth Sunday of Easter ~ April 29, 2012

We’re certainly not what you'd call "Hoarders..." Not by a long shot...  
But Elizabeth and I maintain a small stockpile of bottled water in our home.  Not a lot; usually no more than half-a-dozen cases.

The reason why we do this is because of an experience I had when I was a teenager.  One day, out of the blue, we lost both power and water service at the same time—and the water was out for four days.

My parents always made it a point to store extra water in the house.  Because of that, we made it through the week with little difficulty.

That experience has stuck with me—and that is why we do what we do.  Water is one thing we know we can't live without.

When I look at our water reserve, one question always comes to mind: “if we were without water—for a long period of time—am I obligated (as a Christian) to share my water supply with those who need it?

This question arises out of the most fundamental of all of God’s commandments: the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We don’t obey this command as a condition for God to love us, because God’s love is without conditions…  We love others because Jesus first loved us…

We were sinners who needed redemption and forgiveness; Jesus saw our need, and he gave his life because that was the only way that we could be saved.

And Jesus’ death on the cross shows us what love really is:

It’s more than just speaking kind words; it’s more than just being nice...  Jesus saved us by laying down his life for us. 

And since Jesus laid down his life for us—we ought to lay down our lives for one another…

The reality is that we will probably never find ourselves in a situation in which we would have to die to save someone else...    But that does not make this command any less lofty for us to obey.

There is still a kind of death that we all must die if we are to live in the love of Jesus Christ.

If we are to live for God, we must die to the god that we make of ourselves.  Self-interest cannot take priority over other people’s needs.  We must be identifying others’ needs—and meeting others’ needs—with the very same urgency as we attend to our own.  It’s not that we’re putting others’ needs ahead of our own; instead, it’s our needs and others’ needs being one in the same. 

This is why it would be wrong for me to keep all my water to myself while my neighbors suffer thirst.  I wouldn’t have to give it all away—but I can’t keep it all, either…

As someone who is loved by Jesus Christ, I am obligated to share my livelihood for the sake of my neighbors.

Self-giving love is never easy.  There are costs to loving others in this way.  It is the scarcity of our time and resources that always makes self-giving love a challenge.  Love means giving generously out of our livelihood; the means through which I become able to live the life I want to live.  In the case of a water shortage, I’d be giving away some of the water that I would need to survive. 

And there are other risks to self-giving love as well:

There’s always the chance that our loving actions will go unnoticed and unappreciated—and that nothing good will come from our efforts… 

And there’s the question of whether or not we can truly make a difference—since there is so much need in the world, and we have so little to give…

The command to lay down our lives in love for our neighbors is a challenge in the Christian life equaled by the challenge of believing in a God whom we cannot see.

But we don’t meet these challenges by our own strength alone…  We believe—and we love others—because of what Jesus does for us.

We are here today because God’s Holy Spirit has brought us here, to feast on the all-surpassing love of Jesus Christ that comes to us in Word and Sacrament.  God’s Holy Spirit has dwelt within us since the day of our baptism, and that Spirit makes us one with Jesus.  As Christ’s self-giving love flows into our lives, we are transformed. 

The self-giving love of Jesus makes us one with our neighbors in need.  And God’s Word makes a radical promise to us today: that promise is that God will give us whatever we ask in order that we may obey God’s commands and do what pleases God. 

By that promise alone, we are free to die completely to self-interest—because we know that it’s not up to us to take care of our needs.  Because Jesus is one with us, and we are one with him when we live in his love, God will take care of our needs.  We can give generously of ourselves; we can share with others those things that we always thought we could never live without.  We will not count the cost—because we don’t need to.  We have God dwelling within us—so what more could we need? 

We never know what tomorrow will bring—but we will always have God with us.

God knows our needs—and will give us whatever we need so that we can live as one with Jesus.  And we can give our gifts with the knowledge that God’s love is the power that can heal this world.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Do You Doubt? ~ John 20:19-31 ~ 2nd Sunday of Easter

For the past eight months, my wife Elizabeth has preached in over two dozen congregations throughout our area…
One of her favorites happens to be a farming community church—which is also the smallest and poorest of all the congregations she’s served.  On a typical Sunday, no more than a dozen people come to worship.  There’s no organist to lead in the music; nor are there any flowers or candles.  Some Sundays, there isn’t even a pastor to preach…  Financially, these are out of their reach.
Many of their people have shared with Elizabeth their doubts that their church has a future…

But one Sunday last December, when the small remnant talked amongst themselves, someone said “it would sure be nice if we could have a full church for Christmas Eve.”
And to that, someone else replied, “who says we can’t?”

So the small remnant of members began inviting family, friends, and neighbors—and sure enough, their church was full on Christmas Eve.
They joined together that night in celebration and rejoicing.  But that was not the only extraordinary thing God did there that night…  That night, God healed this dying church.  God gave them new life—and hope for the future.  They have yet to pack the church full like they did that night, but there are always new faces present at worship.  New ministries are coming to life, and the people are always excited to tell Elizabeth about all the great things God is doing in their church. 

Where there was doubt, God brought new life. 
We witness something very similar happening in Thomas in our Gospel story for today…

With Jesus crucified and buried in the tomb, Jesus’ disciples had been in the crisis of their lives.  Their Messiah was dead—and by all appearances, their faith in him had been in vain.  And being that they were the disciples of a man who was condemned to die as a blasphemer and enemy of the state, their lives were in danger.  That is why they were hiding out behind locked doors.
Then all of the sudden, the unexpected happens: Jesus appears among them, alive  In that moment, their faith in Jesus is restored.  They now have hope for the future.

But Thomas misses the party.
He doesn’t believe the disciples when they tell him the big news.  He has to see it for himself; and only then will he believe.

By doing this, his reputation is sealed…  He will forever be forever known as Doubting Thomas.
And this is not a good reputation to have…  To be called ‘Doubting Thomas’ suggests that there’s something wrong with him; that he’s awful disciple. 

But is history really being fair to Thomas?  Is doubt the moral weakness it is so often made out to be?
Thomas’ doubting was not something he decided to do.  His doubts were based in reality.  Jesus, the Messiah, was dead and buried.  Messiahs don’t die—and the dead don’t come back to life.  This was just common sense.  This is why Thomas doubted.  And our experience of doubt is very much the same.

None of us wants to be in a position to doubt the existence of God or God’s abiding care in our lives.  But we all find ourselves there.  Things happen; we suffer crises and traumas so great as to call into question everything we’ve ever believed.  We remember all of our sins and our failings, and it’s hard for us to believe that God could ever love us.  And when our prayers don’t get answered, when circumstances get even worse than they already are, the doubts grow even stronger. 
The thing about doubt is that it will always be supported by the painful realities we find ourselves in. 

So doubt is not a moral failing.  It is a sickness that afflicts our faith.  And there is not one person here who does not doubt.  And in the same way that we can’t cure ourselves of sickness, we can’t cure ourselves of doubt.  Only Jesus can heal a broken faith.  And if we pay close attention to Jesus when he appears to Thomas, this is what we will see him do.
Jesus does not rebuke Thomas for his doubting.  He doesn’t call him weak; he doesn’t say that he’s failed…  He says “peace to you.”  He allows Thomas to put his hands into the scars in his hands and side, and he encourages Thomas to believe.

Jesus does not abandon Thomas in doubt and unbelief.  Jesus comes to Thomas in his time of doubt—and Thomas’ faith, which was dead—Jesus raises to life.
In spite of the less-than-stellar reputation history has given Thomas, Thomas really is an example for us to follow.  Thomas was honest about his doubts.  He didn’t try to hide his doubt so as to avoid looking weak around the other disciples; he didn’t try to believe something that he couldn’t.  Thomas named his doubts, before God, and before his fellow disciples. 

So what are your doubts?  What in your life is leading you to doubt God’s existence?  What is leading you to doubt God’s love?
Just like Thomas, we must name our doubts.  We must name all of the hurts and all of the uncertainties in life that steal away the light of Jesus Christ in our lives. 

Doing this is not an act of cowardice—it is an act of faith.  We are coming to Jesus for his healing. 
God does not want us to ignore our doubts—not does God want for us to try and believe something we cannot.  By naming our doubts before God, we are surrendering.  We are saying to Jesus, “I cannot believe in you with the way things are right now.  I need your help to believe.  I need you to give me the faith to trust in you.”

And there is one thing to which we can be certain—Jesus will not abandon us in our doubt, any more than he abandoned Thomas in his doubt. 
The Savior who gave his body and blood for you on the cross will never leave you so that your faith in him dies. Jesus will come and meet you in your place of doubt, to raise your faith to new life.  We don’t know when—or how—Jesus will work, but he will do great things for us—and he will give us eyes to see and a faith to believe that he is at work in our lives, for our blessing.

So as we go from this place today, our doubts will go with us—but so will Jesus.  And though we will always have doubts as long as we live, Christ will always be with us to assure us that we have not put our hope in a fantasy.      Whenever we feel like our faith is (dying) or dead, Jesus will be there to help us to hold on. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Greatest Story Still Being Told ~ Mark 16:1-8 ~ Easter Sunday ~ April 8, 2012

To have a great story, you must have a great ending…
A great ending rewards us for our interest…  A great ending makes us feel that the story was worth hearing… 
But one thing we could say about the Gospel of Mark is that its ending is a little bit disappointing.

We hear the good news that Jesus has been raised from the dead—but there’s no word of any post-resurrection appearances to the three women in this story—or to anyone else.
Secondly, the three women who witness his resurrection are so overcome with fear and amazement that they tell no one of what they’d witnessed.

And just like that, the Gospel ends.
This ending was so disappointing that it’s believed that two “endings” were added on to the book of Mark long after it was written.  This is suspected because the oldest manuscripts of Mark still in existence don’t include these endings.  Both of these “endings” give accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances which would make for a more satisfying end to Mark’s Gospel story as a whole.

So if we take our Gospel text to be the ending of Mark’s story of Jesus, we may be disappointed with the way it ends. 
But this is not a story about Jesus letting people down…  So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of these three women… 

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were among the few who had stayed with Jesus to the very end.  They were there when he was crucified; they were there when he died.  And they were going to be there for him one more time, bringing spices to anoint his body as it lay in the tomb.
And when they arrive at the tomb, they are met with the last thing they’d expect: the stone is rolled away, and a man in a white robe tells them that Jesus has been raised.  He tells them that they are to go and tell his disciples that Jesus is going home to Galilee.  He promises them that they and the disciples will see Jesus alive.

But they run away; perplexed and scared to death over what had just happened.  And who could blame them?  They saw their Messiah die and be buried in the tomb.  This very event would have been enough to absolutely destroy their faith.  And to find out now that Jesus was alive would have only added to the crisis.
But remember—the white-robed man promised that they would see Jesus.  All they have to do is to go home, and there, they will see him—just as he had promised.

And even though they’re scared; even though they fail to share the good news of the things they had witnessed, Jesus will keep his promise.
This is good news for us because all of us will have walked in the shoes of these three women at some point in our lives.  We know what it’s like to be in crisis.  We know what it’s like to suffer losses and trials so great as to call into question everything we’ve ever believed about God.  And we know what it’s like to hear God’s promises and find them to be un-believable.

But the story of the resurrected Jesus teaches us that he will not leave us behind in our times of crisis.  Jesus goes ahead of us to meet us wherever we are when the crisis comes.  Not only will he be there for us, we will see him.  He will reveal himself to us as one who gives us hope and sustains us in those times when we feel as though we cannot go on.  He will do whatever it takes to make his presence real to us.  A risen and living Savior is not one who stays up in heaven, far removed from us as we struggle down here, below.  A risen and living savior is one who does amazing things to bring hope and new life to all that is dreary and dead in the world. 
And even though we may fail Jesus and by not obeying him or trusting in his promises, Jesus will not fail us.  His love and compassion will continue to flow into our lives even in those times when we cannot see him or believe.

The purpose of God’s Word to us this Easter day is that we would believe in the risen and living Jesus.  And even though this can be so difficult to do, we believe in him by receiving him in all the ways he comes to us.  We’re given the gift of Scripture, through which we come into a relationship with Jesus Christ and learn of his will for our lives.  We’re given the gift of baptism, where he claims us; and the gift of Holy Communion, where he feeds and nourishes us.  And we’re given the gift of sisters and brothers in the faith; in whom we can see and experience Christ’s love.
The story of Jesus is not one that’s confined to the pages of Scripture; it is a story that is still being told in your life and mine.  Your Jesus is alive so that you can experience all of the treasures of God’s unconditional love and ever-present care.  And even though we don’t know what ups and downs lie ahead of us in this life, we know that Jesus will work in our lives to lead us to resurrection and everlasting life in the presence of God. 

What a great hope we have to celebrate this morning! 
And what better way can we celebrate than to join together as One Body in Jesus Christ to tell the story of his love with the world?

Good Friday Homily ~ April 6, 2012

The sights and sounds of our worship testify to the tragedy we remember today…
Last night, in remembrance of Jesus’ humiliation, we stripped the altar of all its paraments and adornments.
Gone are the flowers and banners; gone are our joyous songs and alleluias. 

Today is the day that Jesus Christ, our Lord, was crucified.
Even though this day has been called “Good Friday” for centuries because Jesus defeated death and evil on the cross, our celebration is not jubilation.  Today is a day of grieving.  And as we grieve Christ’s suffering, we cannot help but remember our own sorrows as well.

Today is a day for us to be honest with ourselves—and honest with God—at all that is wrong in our own lives and in the world we live in.  We sin against God and against each other.  We suffer sickness and poverty.  Death separates us from those we love.  And we are mortal.
So today, we journey with Jesus Christ to his cross.  And we take with us all of our sin.  We take with us our hurts and our anger, our worries and our fears, our weakness and our shame—so as to lay them at the foot of his cross.

We do this because Jesus died to redeem us from all these things that bind us in the misery of sin and death. 
And though our sorrow may last well beyond our leaving of this place tonight, it will not be forever.  Beyond the cross is the empty tomb, the place where God’s victory begins.  Out of the humiliation and death of the cross, God brought new life for world in the raising of Jesus from the dead.  It is at the crosses of our own lives that God’s new life will spring forth.

So we never suffer and grieve without hope. 
Today may not be a day of jubilation, but it is a day of hope.  It is a day of hope because Christ’s blood has set us free to live in the love of our God.  And having experienced the bitter suffering and humiliation of the cross, there is nothing we can face in this life that Jesus himself did not endure—and overcome, by the life-giving power of God.  As we carry our crosses, he is there to help us bear the burden—and by his grace, no cross in this world will have the last word.

The cross is not the end of Christ’s story—and it shall not be the end of ours. 
So we meet Jesus tonight at his cross.  And though we come weary and stained by sin, we come to receive God’s gift of redemption—and we come to begin the journey (once again) to the empty tomb, towards the fulfillment of God’s promise to us and to the world for resurrection and new life.

Slaves to Christ, Servants to All ~ John 13:1-7, 31b-35 ~ Maundy Thursday ~ April 5, 2012

If not for the appearance of the word ‘supper’ just once during tonight’s Gospel text, you would hardly know that it is the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples…

Unlike the Last Supper narratives in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there is no mention of food or drink here.  Food and drink are not the focus.  The focus is on Jesus—and what he does for his disciples.
As someone whose disciples call him ‘Rabbi’ and ‘Lord,’ Jesus would have been expected to have taken a seat of honor during the meal, like at the head of the table.  Others would have done the work of preparing the meal and serving him and his guests, the disciples.

But that’s not what happens here.
Jesus leaves his seat of honor, takes off his outer garment, gets down on the ground, and begins washing the feet of his disciples.

Usually what would happen in a meal like this one is that a servant of the host would wash the feet of the guests—immediately as they arrive for the meal. 
And as we can easily imagine, this would not exactly be an honorable job.  People didn’t have shoes.  Most people wore sandals—and because of that, their feet would be especially dirty.  So the servant would kneel down on the ground as the guest sat above them.  Just picture this scene in your minds and you will see how humble a service this really was.

And this is what Jesus does. 
And we should keep in mind that the servants who washed feet were not paid to be in the service of their master.  They were slaves. 

So by washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus becomes as a slave to his disciples.  It is his slave-service that becomes the focal point of this meal—and the key to understanding his crucifixion.
Jesus’ death is a slave service that brings salvation to a lost and needy world.

And when we receive his body and blood at the table, hearing the words “given” and “shed for you,” this is how we are to understand the love behind this great gift. 
In this meal, Jesus serves you his own precious body and blood, which save you. 

And that is so important for us to remember every time we partake of this meal.  We don’t come because we are worthy, either in God’s eyes or in the eyes of people; we come to receive Christ’s body and blood because we need it—and because Jesus graciously gives it to us.
And with this gift Jesus gives us a command—a command that we obey by following his example…

He says, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Or, to use the words of the classic Christian campfire song, “they will know we are Christians by our love…”

Christian love is about so much more than being nice to everyone.  Jesus says that we are to wash each others’ feet—in other words, we are to serve our neighbors as slaves.   As slaves it is our duty to meet the needs of our neighbors. 
And Jesus’ feet washing reminds us how unglamorous it can be to love our neighbors in this way. 

Yet this commandment is a great gift for us. 
When we serve our neighbors with such a self-giving love, our neighbors will encounter Jesus Christ in us—and we will encounter Christ in them.  Lives will be transformed and healed; hope will shine even in times of great darkness. 

What a great gift it is to be a part of a community of people who love one another this way.
So on this night when Jesus was handed over to be crucified, let us remember: Jesus is here to serve you.  He is here so that you may feast on the forgiveness of sins and eternal life through his own precious body and blood.  He is here so that you may be assured of God’s unconditional love for you.

He gives you these gifts not because you deserve them, but because he knows that you need them.—
Tonight Jesus serves you food and drink through which you shall live forever.

Tonight Jesus serves you food and drink which give you the grace and strength to go forth in hope to serve our neighbors.