Sunday, November 25, 2012

The True Meaning of Power ~ John 18:33-38 ~ Christ the King Sunday

This Thursday, two turkeys by the name of Cobbler and Gobbler became the luckiest turkeys in the United States...

Unlike most of their peers, they did not spend most of her Thanksgiving Day in the oven...  Instead, they were pardoned by the President of the United States from her mealtime fate, and now, they’ll live out the remainder of her days in a petting zoo. 

And while it may seem rather odd—or even a little ridiculous—that the most powerful office in the world is being exercised on behalf of a turkey, this yearly Thanksgiving tradition has much to teach us about the true meaning of power...

With exactly one month until Christmas day, our Gospel takes us not to the little town of Bethlehem, but instead to the headquarters of Pontius Pilate, whose name we mention every week as the man responsible for ordering Jesus’ death.

Pontius Pilate’s official role was governor of what we know as the Holy Land.  You can think of him as the Roman Emperor’s errand boy, whose job was to keep Jerusalem and the surrounding regions firmly under Roman control.  If he kept the Emperor happy, he and his family would enjoy a life of power, prestige, and wealth. 

But Pilate wasn’t the only person wielding power in Jerusalem.  Enter the religious authorities: the Pharisees, the scribes, and the high priest, Caiaphas.  These are the ones whom Jesus is constantly speaking out against; the ones he calls hypocrites and the brood of vipers. They all acted as the gatekeepers to the Temple, and therefore God himself.  Their song and dance routine was to control the people so that they worshipped and served God on their terms.  Naturally, any dissenters would be dealt with swiftly and harshly.

These people didn’t get their marching orders from Rome or from Pilate—but they still owed them both for the power they enjoyed.  So they bribed their way into power, using the money from the Temple treasury which came from taxes and offerings.  This way, they could look and act like they were in charge—and Pilate was happy to play along, provided they kept the cash flowing. 

Then along comes Jesus.  With his signs and miracles and teachings, people were believing that he was the way, the truth, and the life; that he was the way to the Father.  With Jesus, the people had no more need of the temple or the religious authorities.  This is why they were bound and determined to get rid of him.  That is why it was inevitable that Jesus would find himself on trial before Pilate.

Now history has always been a little sympathetic to Pilate.  After all, he found no fault in Jesus—and why should he?  Jesus never said a word about raising up an army to depose Rome.  Pilate knew he was innocent—and Pilate had every power to set him free.  And if the religious authorities didn’t like it, too bad. 

But they didn’t like it.  They wanted Jesus dead.  And if Pilate didn’t play along, he’d be putting all his power, prestige, and wealth in jeopardy.  So Pilate gives in—and in so doing, shows himself to be, in fact, quite power-less.

For Pilate and the religious stooges, their power rested in their ability to get their own way.  And as we see in Jesus’ crucifixion, there was no limit to the brutality by which they would try and hold on to it.  At the same time, their power was quite fragile—because if they offended the wrong people, they could quickly find themselves on a cross...

But Jesus, on the other hand, will show us what true power really is.  Instead of using his power as God’s only Son to ruthlessly oppress and subjugate people for his own benefit,  Jesus uses his power to set us free.  He lays down his life at his own accord for the sake of the world that he loves.  He offers himself as the perfect sacrifice that reconciles a sinful world to God.  Thanks to Jesus, there is nothing that we have to do to get right with God; Jesus does it all for us.  That’s grace, plain and simple.  That is what makes Jesus a different kind of king. 

And furthermore, because of Jesus, the powers of evil and death that wreak so much havoc have no ultimate power over us.  They can cause us pain, they may even take our lives, but their power is no match for Jesus Christ.  Christ the King makes us free—and he will always have the last word over our ultimate destiny. 

As people who believe in Jesus Christ and call upon his name for our salvation, we are given the power to become the children of God.  And we are called to use our power, as Jesus does, for the benefit of others—to set them free from whatever binds them in darkness and despair.  So easily we forget how much power we have from God—to do God-sized works.

What gifts can you give to set people free from poverty and need?  What gifts can you give to free people from loneliness and isolation?  How can you share the gift of your faith, so to free people from despair and hopelessness?  Over the past week, we celebrated Thanksgiving for the purpose of remembering all of the ways God has blessed us.  Now, it’s time for us to ask God how we can use these blessings to set others free.  And there is not one person here today who is without power to set another free.

So in this season of giving, remember the power you already have to set others free—and discover the true joy of the Lord.

You yourself are God’s gift to the world for setting others free—so challenge yourself to participate in the life of your king and feel the power that comes with doing good in our King’s name.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Living as People of Hope ~ Mark 13:1-8 ~ 25th Sunday after Pentecost

It used to be that I’d watch 24-hour cable news channels as a way of boring myself to sleep...  I stayed awake long enough to see the headlines, and once the news started repeating itself, I’d nod off and the sleep timer took care of the rest...

That was before September 11, 2001...when the world became a much scarier place to live.

Anymore, You can’t NOT pay attention to the news because it is so disturbing...  Every day we hear of wars and terrorist attacks, political upheaval, natural disasters, and economic turmoil...

Now that the election’s over, we’re faced with the “looming fiscal cliff,” which threatens our fragile economy with a tidal wave of tax increases and a tsunami of government debt.

All told, our world is not all that dissimilar to what Jesus is describing in today’s Gospel.  So what are we to think?  Is the end coming soon?

There are many prominent voices within modern Christianity, telling us, that yes—we are living in the end times.

There are best-selling books and blockbuster movies, all of which place the end times in our time. 

Some people go as far as to pinpoint the exact date of judgment day, claiming that the Bible revealed it to be so.  And, sadly, they have led many astray. 

When Jesus’ disciples ask him for signs as to when the end will be, Jesus gives them no time-table—because there’s none to be had.  That information simply isn’t for us to know.

All Jesus says is that there will be great trials and tribulations in the world before his return.  Disciples will be hated and persecuted on account of their testimony.  Families will be divided—and lives will be lost—because of Jesus.

And none of these events shall serve to tell us when the end will be.  All we can know is that the end is coming.  And while this may sound like frightening news, Jesus does not speak these words to make us afraid.  Jesus gently warns us of these things so that we won’t think it unusual when they come to pass.  When persecution and suffering come to pass, the devil is going to be right there telling us either that God has rejected us, or that God isn’t real.  Jesus does not want you to be fooled.  Persecution and suffering are the norm for a disciple of Jesus. 

Yet this is good news.  If we are dragged into court on account of our faith, Jesus promises that the Spirit will give us the words.  If parents or children turn against us, Jesus will still be on our side. 

As the earth trembles, as waters rage, as the nations war, we have nothing to fear.  We will be okay in the end.  Jesus will meet us in our hardships—and care for us every step of the way. For it is in suffering and turmoil that Jesus is born into our lives. 

So let us not get caught up in trying to know the “ifs” and “whens” of Christ’s return.  This is one case where the devil truly is in the details—because you won’t see Jesus if you’re trying to know the unknowable.  Jesus’ work is redeeming the world he loves from the destructive forces that torment it.  So this is where we need to be.  This is where we will see Jesus.  This is where we receive his power.

When death and destruction strike, let us fight back by caring for those who are broken.  When evil strikes, let us fight back by remembering that God’s enemies will never have the last word.  When all signs point to our faith being in vain, let us fight back by remembering Jesus’ promises, and remembering all the ways he’s helped us in ages past.  Nothing can take Jesus away from us—and therefore, nothing can take away our hope.

Hope.  That is what our neighbors need, that is what we need.  This world and its ways are tearing people apart.  And because of that, people need communities of faith just like ours to make it through. With so many lonely and isolated, people need the genuine community of love and support we can provide.  With so many in poverty, people need our gifts of time, talent and treasure.  With so many afraid at what tomorrow may bring, the world needs our church to proclaim the words of God, telling us all that we are going to be okay.  The church may not be what it was in yesteryear, but the world’s need for the church of Jesus is growing by leaps and bounds.  Jesus is our hope—and our work is to make that hope a reality.

We are not a persecuted church—and this is a freedom that not all Christians know.  So let us be good stewards of this marvelous gift by sharing the good news, until the whole world hears the truth.  Christ has overcome the world—and so shall we.  In the meantime, God will take care of us—and see to it that we make it safely to the end, to be raised to new life.

So come, Lord Jesus, come.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Give Until You Rejoice ~ 1 Kings 17:8-16 ~ 24th Sunday After Pentecost

I wasn’t in history class that I first learned about the Great Depression...  I learned about it from my grandparents who survived it.

My grandmother on my mother’s side grew up in a small coal mining town in Greene County called Crucible.

Her father was a coal miner—and in those days, if you worked in the mines, the mining company was your whole world.  They owned the house you lived in and the stores you shopped in...  And the wages were anything but fair.  A miner was paid based upon the amount of coal he dug out of the ground—and if he didn’t get enough, he would end up in debt to the mining company for the cost of the oil for his miner’s hat light.

He was never without work during the depression—but the family was down to its last dime at one point...  With that, he purchased a can of beans from the company store, and that was their dinner.  There was no guarantee that there would be food on the table tomorrow...

Without a doubt, it was the worst of times—and if there is any vibe to be read from this election season, it is that there is a tremendous fear that we may be headed there again...

That is one reason why the stories from 1 Kings and Mark are very hard to hear. 

In 1 Kings, there is a widow who gives the last of her food to a man she just met, who claims to speak for God; and later at the temple, a widow puts the last of her money into the treasury.  In both cases, their acts left them destitute.  How could they do such a thing—and why?

The trouble with the Gospel story is we know very little about who or what compelled that widow to give what little she had.

On the other hand, we do know a little bit more about the widow of Zarephath...  Elijah spoke the very words of God to her, which promised her that if she provided for Elijah, she would have enough to eat until the rains returned to the drought-ridden land.  And, remarkably, she believes Elijah; she trusts God’s promise.

What a remarkable transformation we see: when Elijah first met the widow, all hope was lost.  But after hearing God’s Word, she gives what little she has, because now, she has hope.  This was a hope offering; not one made out of fear or guilt.  This was an act of faith—and that is what the widow teaches us.

Giving must be an act of faith—because we will never have to look very hard for reasons NOT to give or be generous with the gifts God has given us.

First of all, we know just how much need there is—and when we consider what gifts and abilities we have, they will always seem so insignificant, that we wonder, “how can I make any difference?”

But the biggest challenge to our acts of giving comes from what we see in the two stories: scarcity.  Both widows’ acts of giving put them in the position of being without.  That’s not a position we want to be in.  We don’t want to be without, do without, and fall short of meeting other people’s expectations.  And that will compel us either to give only what we can comfortably spare—or not give at all.  And this is wrong—because God’s love isn’t ruling our lives.  Instead, we’re being ruled by fear and by worry—because we’re too afraid to risk ourselves and our security for the sake of others.  Where is the joy in that?

On the other hand, the joy of the Lord is in giving.  Jesus became a human being and gave of himself for the life of the world.  The invitation for you today is to join him in bringing hope and new life into the world.  Jesus is not out to lay a guilt trip on you and shame you into giving.  Instead, Jesus is affirming that you have the gifts and the abilities to make a difference in the world just the way you are today.  At the same time, he is inviting grow in your faith by trusting him so much that you’ll risk yourselves and your security and see for yourself that your trust will never be in vain.  We all know how quickly health, wealth, and prosperity can disappear.  So God is leading us to receive the indescribably-greater blessings that come by living as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

And you know what else?  Your acts of giving will be far more effective in proclaiming God’s goodness than any words could ever be. 

What a day full of grace we had, right here, yesterday, with our clothing closet.  In these tough and discouraging times, we experienced the grace and goodness of God through the simplest acts of kindness.  About an hour after we opened our doors, a man came up to me and said “the Holy Spirit is alive in this place, I can feel it!”  And how amazing it was, that with all the need there is, there was more than enough to meet people’s needs.  Life may be so difficult, but God is good.  God’s joy is in giving himself through Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.  So hear God’s call to enter that joy.

Challenge yourself to give so generously that “it hurts a little bit.”  But don’t get wrapped up in the hurt.  Seek the joy of giving.

Discover the greater gifts God will give you; greater than what the marketplace, the easy chair, the television, and even your dreams could ever offer. 

Imagine your life and your world being ruled by hope and not fear.  Imagine hope abounding on our streets and in our homes.  Imagine the peace and joy of the Lord filling hearts and minds.  Imagine—then let us act—and see what God can do...

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What Do You Believe? ~ John 11:32-44 ~ All Saints Sunday

The story we heard from the Gospel is one that will be familiar to many of us—even if we’ve never even heard it before...  We’ve lived it...

At some point in the past, Jesus came into our lives when we may not have been expecting him or even seeking him.  It wasn’t difficult to put our faith in him—because we saw his love all around us.  Prayers were answered.  His help came when we needed it.  We had his peace.  Life was never the same again...

But when tragedy strikes, Jesus is nowhere to be found...

This was the experience of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.  Lazarus becomes gravely ill—and immediately, the two sisters send word to Jesus.  But he stays where he was.  Lazarus gets even sicker, until finally, he dies—and still, they wait on Jesus.  After four more days, Jesus finally shows up—and it’s too late.

So where is Jesus when tragedy strikes...when prayers are unanswered...when someone we love dies?

What does Jesus expect us to do when all signs point to his cold and cruel absence?

For answers to those questions, we turn to the Gospel...

There, we see that Jesus does not abandon his friends when he needs them most.  Even as they cry out to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” he does not reject them for their anger or their disappointment. 

Jesus loved these women dearly—as he loved Lazarus.  He was heartbroken that death had struck the lives of his friends. He knew the dreadful power he was up against—because he would soon be facing it head-on at the cross.  But Jesus had a plan.  Death was not going to win.  And being a few days late wasn’t going to thwart that plan one bit...

So they go to the tomb... 

Now, at this point, we’d expect Jesus to perform a miracle, with everyone watching in amazement.  But that’s not what happens...

Jesus tells the people that they must roll away the stone—even as Martha reminds everyone that the smells of death are very much still in the air.

All signs were still pointing to more disappointment; that all they were going to find behind the stone was death.  But Jesus assures them that if they have faith, they will see the glory of God.

Against all odds, they act on their faith by rolling the stone away. 

At Jesus’ Word, Lazarus comes out of the tomb.  Still, Jesus has more work for the people to do—because Lazarus is still bound in strips of cloth.  Once again, they must act on their faith by unbinding him from the grave clothes—not knowing what they’re going to find underneath. 

In the end, they see the glory of God—because they believed Jesus’ word.  First, they confronted the reality of death head on; complete with all its sights and smells.  Then, they answered Jesus’ call to act on their, faith against all the odds.  They saw with their own eyes that death would not have the last word in Jesus’ world. 

That is what this Gospel teaches us—that Jesus can work through every hardship and every loss for the sake of our redemption.  But we must have faith if we are to receive his healing—and not just any faith; a faith that expects to see the glory of God.  We must have a faith that acts...

The tragedies of life have a way of binding us in a darkness that feels as though there is no escaping.  We interpret all of the hardships and frustrations as signs of Jesus’ absence—and resign ourselves to living out our days in fear and misery.  But that is the worst thing we can do—because we are surrendering to the very powers that Jesus defeated at Golgotha. 

Faith, on the other hand, is a bold defiance of death.  It’s more than just the belief in life after death; it is believing that Jesus is right there with you and all who are hurting.  It is also hearing Jesus calling us out of the dark places so to receive his healing. 

Acting on faith means that we receive him where he promises to come to us—in prayer; in Scripture; in sacrament.

One of the most powerful ways that we receive Jesus’ healing is by participating in the healing work Jesus is doing in the world, just we see him doing throughout the Gospels.  He’s caring for those who hurt.  He’s befriending those who are lonely.  He’s giving to those who are in need.  His love is freeing people from misery and despair.

If we as a church do these very things, there’s no limit to the healing that Jesus can accomplish through us.  Jesus can use each one of us to unbind our neighbors from misery and despair and bring them to new life.  And we will be healed as we become Jesus’ healers..  We’ll see that truth, that death will never have the last word in God’s world.

There is healing for all who will hear Jesus call to come to him and believe.  We can bring to him our every hurt, and even our anger and our frustration.  We can bring to him our fears and our worries.  We can bring ourselves to him just as we are, even if we’re the worst sinner in the world—and he will never, ever, reject us.

Jesus is compassionate.  He is faithful.  And whatever the tragedy, whatever the loss, Jesus will always have the last word.  He will work in your life, through that loss, to bring you to a knowledge of his glory.  So hear his call.  Come out of the darkness.  Discover his love for you in the Body of Christ.  Participate in his work.  Receive is healing.  And wait with hope for the life that is to come.