Sunday, December 19, 2010

“How’s Our Faith?”

Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
"Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, "God is with us." When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

A Message from the Pastor
He was tired. He was very tired. He hadn’t slept for two days. And now he was lying on his bed of straw in the corner of his one and one-half room house, tossing and turning. It was dark. There was one window in the house, but there was no candle lighted. After all, he couldn’t read so he tried to sleep as soon as it was dark.

He had found out a couple of days ago that the woman to whom he was betrothed was pregnant. And he knew it wasn’t him. He also knew that if he had found out, other people in the community would have, also. He was a pious man and respected his culture. Yet, he was also a kind man. While he didn’t know Mary well since the arranged marriage, he liked her and didn’t want harm done to her. He knew if he married her, he would be shunned by the community, possibly his whole life. It was shameful for a man to marry a woman who was pregnant by another man. In this culture of honor or shame, it would be more than he could tolerate. Yet, if he obeyed the laws of his religion and brought her to court, she could be stoned to death as an adulteress. He didn’t like either option.

As he lay there, he finally came to the conclusion that he would send her off to a distant relative in the Northern part of the nation. While her life would not be very good, if would be better than if she stayed here. She probably would be held in servant hood for the rest of her life, and the child inside her might end up the same way. This seemed to be the best alternative. Reaching that conclusion, he began to sleep, albeit fitfully.

While he was sleeping, he had a dream. A man came to him whom he identified as an angel. The angel told Joseph not to be afraid, but to take Mary as his wife, for the baby who was within her was the one the nation had been waiting for. He was the Messiah. And Joseph was told, that because he was from the lineage of David, he was to name the child Jesus. For Joseph knew that if he named the child, the child would officially be adopted by Joseph and adopted into the lineage of David. He was to name the child Jesus for that name meant “to save us from our sins.” He was the one identified as “Emmanuel,” by the prophesies, God with us. This is the one all the people of God were waiting for. Then Joseph went back into sleep again. When he awoke, he took Mary for his wife and had no sexual relations with her until she delivered the child. Joseph named the boy Jesus.

Okay men what would you do? What would you do if you found out your finance was pregnant, and it wasn’t you? What would you do, then, if you had a dream and were told, by what seemed to be an angel, that what was happening was holy and you were to marry your finance? Would you have the faith of Joseph? Remember what faith means: the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

And just in case the women may be a little smug right now, do you remember what happened to Mary? She was visited by the angel Gabriel. She was told that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Mary had to know that for the rest of her life she would be an outcast and labeled an adulteress and the child she bore would be shunned in shame because he was illegitimate. Would you do what Mary did when she visited her relative Mary? Would you praise and thank God for choosing her?

Just think about these two people, Mary and Joseph. Just think about how faithful and pious they were. Just think about how Jesus was surrounded by two parents who had such a faith in God that they were willing to literally risk all to follow what God wished them to do. Do we ever stop to think about what all this means? It’s not only the faithfulness of Jesus’, parents but the reality that Jesus came to save us from our sins and that God came to us in the form of Jesus to be with us.

Here we are with similar circumstances. We are led by the culture and our religion. We hear the songs, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.” We are told to shop until we drop. We are to spend, spend, spend. And our religion tells us that, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” and, “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas,” whatever those sayings mean.

While we do all the cultural things and are influenced by the sayings from our religion, do we really think about what Christmas is all about? Do we take in the significance that this child came to make us one with God and that God loved us so much that God became one of us?

Furthermore, we need to think about “he came to save US.” We need to consider the words, “God with US.” What about Jesus? After all, Jesus lost his life for the sake of the gospel. He picked up the cross. He died to self as he came from God and became one of us. He asks us to do the same.

Can we really sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel?”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

“What Are We Looking For”

Matthew 11:2-11
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.'
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

A Message from the Pastor
December 12 and it’s the Third Sunday in Advent. Fifteen days have expired of this Advent season. There are twelve days remaining. We’re right in the middle of the season. So far we’ve heard hopeful comments from the prophet Isaiah. We heard comments from Paul, and today from James. Our first gospel reading had us listening to the words of Jesus as he spoke of the last days. Last week and today we heard about John the Baptist.

Where’s the baby Jesus? Where’s the Christ child? That’s who we’re waiting for. That’s what all this Advent season is about, isn’t it? We are preparing for the coming of Jesus, aren’t we?

Well, with these readings in Advent, what are we waiting for? What are we looking for?

Do you remember last week’s gospel reading? John the Baptist was in the river Jordan preaching a baptism of repentance. Remember what he said about Jesus? “There is one coming more powerful than I. He has his winnowing fork in his hand. He is clearing the threshing floor. His wheat he will store in the granary. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Wow! That sounds like fire and brimstone. Now, John is not so sure. He’s sent his disciples from where he is in prison, asking Jesus, “Are you the one we are waiting for? Or should we look for another?” Jesus says to him, “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” What is John waiting for? What is John looking for.

Let’s recall the story of Jesus up until the reading for today from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is baptized by John. He is tempted in the desert and then he begins his ministry. We read about all the powerful things that he does. The blind do see. The lame do walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf do hear. The dead are raised. Good news is brought to the poor. I’m sure John heard about that. He probably also heard about some of the things Jesus said. Perhaps that is what confused him.

In most of my years, as I read and heard scripture, I could remember all the miracles of Jesus. I could also remember how he challenged the authorities. (I could hear myself say, “Go get ‘em Jesus!”) Yes, and with that memory of what I read and heard, I would pray for healing of people I knew and loved. I would pray for those who were having difficult relationships. I would pray for those who lost jobs. I would be asking for the same kind of miracles.

I wonder if John heard about Jesus, which happened early in Jesus’ ministry, when he went up the mountain and talked to the people. I wonder if John heard what he said. What I didn’t hear, or I used selective hearing, is what Jesus was saying, either to the people directly or through his parables. “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” That sure doesn’t sound like fire and brimstone to me. But that’s not all. Jesus also said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who curse you.” And, if that isn’t enough, he also said that if you lust for someone, it is the same as committing adultery. Also, he told the people that if you have anger in your heart, you are a murderer. Is that who we are waiting for? Is that who we are looking for?

When I began to think about the whole story of Jesus, his comments shouldn’t have surprised me. He was born to a fourteen year girl. He was born out of wedlock. He had to be an outcast in his community. Then he was born in a feeding trough in a shelter for animals. Let’s be realistic; there would have been a lot of manure, mixed with the straw. Vermin would be there, mice, rats, and the like, along with mosquitoes and flies. Then he and his family had to flee for their lives to Egypt. Is that our Messiah? Is that who we are waiting for? Is that who we are looking for?

Yes, during his ministry he challenged the authorities. Those who followed him loved it, but when he was arrested, they all left him. He was brutally beaten and whipped, and with a bloody crown of thorns on his head, he was hanged naked from a cross. Again, is that our Messiah? Is that who we are looking for? Is that who we are waiting for.

We want someone with power. We want someone with influence. We want someone who can rescue us from political, social, and economic tyranny.

Well, there is one thing we can consider. There is one thing that means all the difference. God loves us so much that God was willing to send his son to us. He was willing to have Jesus become a human. He was willing to have the Son of God become one of us. Jesus knew about being rejected. He knew about being abandoned. He knew about suffering. He knew about broken relationships. He knew about the need for healing. He knew it all because he was fully human besides being fully divine.

As we continue our preparation for the coming of Jesus to the manger, we are also aware of Jesus who will come into the manger of our hearts.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"Hope, Repentance, Fire"

Isaiah 11:1-10
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Romans 15:4-13
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
"Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name";
and again he says,
"Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";
and again,
"Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him";
and again Isaiah says,
"The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope."

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'"

Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

A Message from the Pastor
You brood of vipers, who told you that you could flee from the wrath to come. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. The axe is lying at the root of the tree. Those trees that do not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. One more powerful than I is coming. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear the threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Merry Christmas everyone! Aren’t those just wonderful comments? It makes you wonder about the season of Advent, doesn’t it? Well, there is significance about what John the Baptist had to say. He was talking about the kingdom of heaven drawing near and that it is a time for repentance. It is one of the three thoughts we will discuss today as we prepare for the coming of Christ: hope, repentance, and fire.

When I read the first lesson, I began to think about an experience I had soon after Frankie and I moved to Jonesborough. We had a red bud tree on our property. I was growing close to a rather large white pine tree, the latter beginning to crowd it out. The redbud was not in good shape. A couple years afterward we had to cut down another white pine because it was infested with beetles. I suggested to the one with the chainsaw to cut down the redbud also. After all, I believed we would have to do so sooner or later. The next year, as I was mowing the yard, I saw a small shoot coming out of the stump of the redbud tree. I was tempted to ride right over it. However, something told me not to. I watched that shoot grow a little each year. Finally, a year or so later, it began to bloom. Tiny red flowers appeared that spring that represented the hope that comes with the spring of every year. The next year, the other white pine was diseased and we had to cut it down. That year the redbud had grown some more. This past spring, with the absence of the white pine, the redbud began to shape itself into a beautiful young tree and bloomed beautifully. Now every year I will think of the Isaiah text and remember not only the hope of spring time but the hope that the shoot of the Jesse tree represents, the coming of Jesus.

When we read the whole Isaiah text we wonder if what Isaiah said could really occur. Personally, it’s easy for me to be cynical. However, when we believe that anything is possible with God, then it brings hope into our hearts, that possibly the kingdom of heaven will continue to draw near.

Paul also talked about hope. His comments related to the situation with the church in Rome. It represented both Jewish and Gentile Christians. There were differences over perspectives on how one acted as Christians. Yet, in the hope that comes from Jesus, we have the hope that our relationship with one another will be in love, with understanding and acceptance of one another.

When we speak of repentance, many times we understand that word to mean our need to be remorseful about how we act and think. In our remorsefulness, we say, “Oh God, I can change. Oh God, be patient with me. I know I can do better.” However, the Greek word for repentance means that we change our way of thinking, we change our perspective of life, and we change our value system. We recognize that the first personal singular is not the subject. God is. What we do say is, Oh God, no matter how hard I try, I can’t. God, you can. God, empower me with the Spirit so that I will be willing to let you. After all, life is about God, not about us.

In the gospel reading for today, there are three references to fire. John says that the tree that does not bear fruit will be thrown into the fire. John also said that Jesus would come and provide a baptism of the Spirit and fire. At the end of the reading, John says that Jesus will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Fire can purify. Fire can make clean.

There is a story I heard, which is supposed to be true, of a team of engineers that went to a South American country to attempt to extract minerals or other materials for their company. They were constantly thwarted by epidemics of malaria. Finally, they thought the only solution was to burn the land to its roots in order to rid it of the lethal mosquitoes. They did so. A couple of years later they returned. They found the land had a ground cover that they had never seen before. The ground cover produced an exquisite blue flower. They cut specimens and took them back with them and showed them to the people at the Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C. The botanists confirmed what they thought. They had never seen that species before. It appeared to be something entirely new. The fire had purified the ground and created something new and beautiful.

So it is with us that began with our baptism. It is the fire of purification from the Spirit that enters us. As the Spirit opens us to the presence of God, through Jesus, the purification process continues each day as we remember our baptism. We are created new and beautiful, made in the image of God to serve God’s desire to have the kingdom of heaven come near.
As we continue our Advent journey, we have the opportunity to embrace our relationship with God through repentance, which is strengthened by the purification of the Spirit’s fire, and produces the joy of hope as we await the coming of Jesus.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

"One Day at a Time"

Romans 13:11-14
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Matthew 24:36–44
But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

A Message from the Pastor
Happy New Year, everyone! Yes, it’s the beginning of the New Year for the Church. It’s the beginning of Advent. It is the season of waiting, expectation, and hope. The paraments on the altar are blue to symbolize our hope. We wait, are expectant, hope for the coming of Christ. I like to think that there are three ways that we prepare for the coming of Christ, with our expectancy, our waiting, and our hope.

Of course, we are waiting for the coming of the Christ child into the manger, not a palace or a fine home. Jesus comes to us in squalor as he is laid in a feeding trough in a stable. He comes to us as one of us. He comes to us as a common person, living among us. God changes the concept of humanity forever as God becomes part of humanity in the form of his son.

Another way we think of Jesus coming to us is that he does so every day. He comes to us when we are open to his coming. He lives within us.

The third way that we consider Jesus coming is on the “last day.” It is when he comes, so to speak, in the clouds. We think of this each time we confess our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

Now I must confess that I have trouble discussing or talking about this final “coming.” First of all, when we ponder his coming again on the “last day,” we focus on the future, not on the present where it is best to find and relate to God. When we think about the future, we move ourselves out of the present. Secondly, many times when we think of the “last day,” we find ourselves listening to the concept of the rapture, which is that philosophy, that concept, that Jesus will come again as part of a cataclysmic event when he will snatch up those who are true believers, take them to heaven, and leave the rest for one thousand years of trial and tribulation. This is not good theology. Although there is scripture that reminds us of his coming and that he could come in the clouds, there is nothing that says he will come in some dramatic event. The concept of the rapture comes from taking snippets of scripture from different places in the Bible and developing a rapture theology. I believe that scripture should be read recognizing that each author wrote to the people of the time for specific situations that existed at the time. We need to understand that and relate it to our present situation. The theology of the rapture didn’t develop until the late nineteenth century.

As we read these texts, I would rather consider the reality that Jesus comes to us all the time, one day at a time. As we read the gospel story for today, we find that Jesus is saying that he will come again under the most ordinary of circumstances. He will come when they are eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage. He will come when men are in the field and women are grinding meal together. These are things that happen as part of ordinary living, not anything cataclysmic. He comes in the common, everyday part of life. He comes one day at a time.

Jesus does come to us all the time. He comes to us as part of the means of grace and word and sacrament. He comes to us when Polly read scripture this morning. He comes to us when we are baptized and we remember that when we are baptized, it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives within us. He comes to us when we come to this altar to receive bread and wine and you hear me say, “The body of Christ for you,” and a fellow worshipper says, “This is the blood of Christ for you.” Jesus comes to us every time we pray, whether intentionally or otherwise, one day at a time. Jesus comes to us, not only in this worship, but each day as we worship him. Jesus comes to us one day at a time when we open the book of faith and find Jesus. He comes to us as we joyously serve, remembering his words, “When you do this to the least of my brethren, you do it to me.” The same comments from Jesus apply when we generously give. Furthermore, even when we have fellowship after worship and we share with one another our lives, Jesus is with us for he said, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in your midst.
Jesus is always coming to us. And he comes to us one day at a time.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"He's a King?"

Colossians 1:11–20
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers — all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

A Message from the Pastor (As told by a stranger from the past)
I’ve been watching all of you for over one hundred years. I have been watching how you live, where you live, how you work, how you play, what values you have, and how you relate to others. One of the peculiar things I found has to do with your jewelry. Did you know that the most popular jewelry item is a cross? Besides wearing them hanging from your neck, I’ve seen them dangling from ear lobes, attached to a wrist bracelet, and worn on a lapel. I’ve even seen a few of them hanging from a nose or from a lip. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be disrespectful of the cross. I know how important it is to you. It is the symbol of your religion and what you believe.

What is interesting is that they are always shining and bright. Many times they are covered with jewels or etched with a fancy design. I seldom see one with Jesus hanging from it.

I’d like to ask you a question? Would you be willing to wear an electric chair around your neck, or as other kinds of jewelry? After all, that’s what the cross was. It was the principal means of execution at the time of the Roman Empire, just like an electric chair is a popular means of execution today. You see, I wore a cross when I was on earth at the time of Jesus. I was wearing the means of execution as I proclaimed my faith in Jesus.

In this culture, the world focuses on success. It wants to display things that are shining and bright, not those items that display truly what God is all about as Jesus hangs and dies on a cross. We want to think positively from the world’s point of view. We want to feel good as the world sees it. Humorously, this culture likes to think of Jesus in a similar way to one of your comic book heroes, Superman. He comes to this earth in a strange way, he wanders the earth for thirty-three years and he is almost done in by a Kryptonite Kross. Then he struggles into a phone booth of an empty tomb, comes out with his Easter clothes, and wonderfully leaps into heaven. You like to always think of the Christ as was describe in the second reading for today. He is the image of the invisible God, first born of creation. All things are made through him. He is the head of the body. The fullness of God dwells in him. We like to think of Christ in this heavenly way. We forget about the human Jesus.

In the gospel story for today, we read that, “The people stood by, watching . . .” I was one of those people. I saw him virtually crawling up the hill with the cross over his shoulder. I saw and heard him cry out in pain as they laid him on top of the cross and drove the nails into his hands and his feet. I saw as they hoisted the cross up on pulleys and dropped it into the hole. Is this the kind of king that you want? Do you want a common criminal for a king?

They placed a crown of thorns on his head. I saw the blood from that and the birds pecking at his head because of it while the wild dogs were nipping at his feet. I saw his bruises and stripes from the beating he took. The interesting thing that happened occurred when they were hoisting him up. With all that ugly treatment that he received, he said, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.” Imagine that. After all that treatment he wants them forgiven. Is that the kind of king you want, one that forgives unconditionally? Do you, as his follower, want to be the same?

What is ironical, is that all those around him, the leaders, the soldiers, and even one of the criminals, while scoffing at him and mocking him, called him a king or the Messiah of God. Isn’t that interesting? While, I’m sure, they didn’t believe it, they called him what we consider him to be.

Then the most amazing thing happened. There next to Jesus was the other criminal. He looked over at Jesus and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Imagine that! Here is a man who is suffering greatly. Who knows what kind of person he is. He has to be in utter agony hanging from that cross. Yet, he recognizes Jesus as king. He recognizes that Jesus is coming into his power. He recognizes that Jesus’ reign is about to begin. How can that be? Does it take suffering, hopelessness, helplessness, and a recognizing that he totally lost all control to see who Jesus was? Is that the hiddeness of God? Does God reveal himself most vividly in times of suffering, agony, and defeat? Is that the kind of king that you want?

After all, when one reads about Jesus walking this earth during his three years of ministry, he/she finds him eating with the losers. He eats with sinners, tax collectors, and even prostitutes. He feeds those who are hungry. He has compassion on the ill, the lame, and the broken people. He reaches out to those who are marginalized. Is that the kind of king you want? As followers of a king, do you want to do the same?

This is the end of the church year. It is the time that a person can acknowledge that Christ is King. It is a good time to think about this king we wish to follow. Next week begins Advent. Each has an opportunity to prepare for the coming of the king. No, he wasn’t born in a palace. He was born in a stable and placed In a feeding trough, where manure and other things of a stable would be. Follow him from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Follow him to the cross and then to the empty tomb. But it doesn’t end there. Go into the world and tell others the kind of king he is and how he reveals God’s love to all.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

“Past, Present, Future”

Malachi 4:1-2a
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.

2 Thessalonians 3:6–13
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them.

When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

A Message from the Pastor
Well, this church year is quickly coming to a close. Today is the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost. There is only one Sunday left after this Sunday; it is Christ the King Sunday when we acknowledge the reign of God through Christ. As we come to the close of the church year, the readings always address the “end times,” or so it seems. The Malachi reading for today mentions that, “the day is coming.” Then the writer recites ominous events that will occur. In the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, the writer is also talking about the end times. Unfortunately some people read this text and refer to it as a message against such things as welfare payments, unemployment compensation, food stamps, and the like. However, what had been happening was that there were many who believed that Jesus was coming again, soon. (Even Paul believed that Jesus would come again before he died.) Some of the believers stopped working. The thought process was that there was no reason to work if Jesus would come soon. Some, of course, used the time to be busy bodies and practice idle gossip. The writer of the letter was admonishing them to continue living in an appropriate way. (Martin Luther said that if he knew the Second Coming would happen the next day, he would plant a tree today.)

Then we have the gospel reading for today in which Jesus responds to comments about the temple, its beauty and magnificence. He told them that nothing would be left standing. There would be no stone standing upon another. He talked of wars and insurrections, nations against nations, kingdoms against kingdoms, great earthquakes, famine and plagues, and dread portents and signs from heaven. They were all ominous to hear. When we read this text we can think about the past, present, and the future.

We focus on the past by considering when Jesus spoke these words. When we read more deeply into his comments, we find that Jesus was not predicting the end of the world, but was talking about how to deal with what they would face. We’ve always had wars, nations against nations, great earthquakes, famines, plagues, dreadful “signs,” and great developments in the heavens. What he did say was not to be fearful, and, then, the critical comment, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” That last comment does not necessarily say that by endurance you will go to heaven. In speaking of our souls, I believe Jesus is talking about knowing who we are and whose we are. Our “soul” represents all of who we are and what we are about.

The past continues when we think about the time this gospel was written, which was circa 90 AD. The readers were being persecuted as Christians. In 70 AD, Jerusalem was laid waste and the temple was completely destroyed with no stone left upon another. Furthermore, before this gospel was written, Mt. Vesuvius had erupted. If we remember the results of Mt. Helena, we know that such an event can be seen from great distances. The people in the Mediterranean Basin would have been well aware of the utter destruction this natural disaster caused. It would give one pause to think that the world was coming to an end. The gospel writer was reminding them what Jesus said that we are to endure and to testify to our relationship with God, through Christ.

When we skip to the future, this is what some people use to predict what is going to happen in the near future. They use fear to bring us to think the way they wish. When we are fearful, we change the way we think. We change our perspectives, our priorities, and our values. People use the words of Malachi and the Gospel of Luke to evoke that fear.

When we think of the present, I suggest we remind ourselves that God is the creator of time and space. As such, God is always in the present. To God there is no past or future. And it is in the present where we meet God and develop a relationship with God. We are reminded that, in the present, God will be there to help us testify and to strengthen us in our endurance through life.

When we hear the words of Jesus in this gospel text for today, it may not be easy to relate to what Jesus said. None of us are persecuted. Families, friends, or other relatives do not betray us. We will not be put to death. We will not be brought to trial because of our belief. However, we do need to remember that God will give us the words to speak and that we need to endure.

We have our own wars that we fight as we struggle with life. We have our own personal earthquakes as events shatter us. We have our own famines as we sense our starving for attention or love. In the midst of all this, we are called to testify, although differently than the early Christians. In fact, we have all known people who have had a difficult life dealt to them. It seems to me that this is when we see God more clearly, if we are open. God reveals himself at such times. There is a person in a church I was serving. She lost her husband at age fifty-five. She has a son who is mentally ill and a daughter who deals with certain issues. In addition, if I had a large sheet of paper, I could fill it with the list of diseases and illnesses that she experiences. Yet, whenever I talked to her, she would always demonstrate her great love, faith, and hope in God. She was positive about life. This is how she testified.

In addition, anyone I have talked to, who has had difficult times in life and has been connected to God in a strong personal relationship always talks about the blessings they receive through such experiences. For example, when I was serving a congregation in Florence, there was a group of people “out to get me.” It was not a fun time. In the midst of it, Frankie developed situational depression. A month later, I did the same. (It was really a fun time in our home.) In the midst of it, a friend of mine said at a meeting that blessings would come out of it. She told me to endure and walk through it. About a year later, exactly on Easter Sunday, at the sunrise service, I knew the depression had left me. It was true, blessings did come. I had gained my soul in another way.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we look for misery or catastrophes so we can be blessed or can testify. However, by revering God as Malachi says, and doing what is appropriate, we can, by our endurance, know who we are and whose we are. We will gain our souls.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

“Being a Saint in the Church”

Ephesians 1:11–23
In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Luke 6:20-31
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

A Message from the Pastor
It was not easy to prepare for the message today for two reasons. First of all, there are some “cradle Lutherans” here today that have no problem recognizing All Saints Sunday and what it means. It happens every year, the first Sunday after All Saints Day, which is always on November 1. However, there could be some who are worshipping who are not used to a liturgical service. They could have picked up today’s bulletin, saw that it was All Saints Sunday, and wondered what the heck this was all about. Well, we do celebrate and commemorate those who have gone before us. However, we also acknowledge that we are saints. Yes, we are sinners. That’s why we make confession at the beginning of every worship service. But we are saints. Martin Luther said that we are saints and sinners at the same time. Well, what is a saint all about?

The other challenge was the readings for today. How do those readings connect with being a saint? The first one, from Daniel, is prophetic. There are some people who believe that this reading prophesizes the end of the world in the near future. The second reading, from Ephesians, is a glorious description of God’s relationship to us and ours to God through Jesus Christ. However, the Ephesians text is not the easiest to read. The author writes as if it’s a stream of consciousness. Then we have the Gospel of Luke, and what do we hear? Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor.” How does that connect with being a saint?

Let me begin by reading from the Letter to the Ephesians as written by Eugene Peterson, in The Message.
It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the over-all purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

It’s in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free – signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life.

That’s why, when I heard of the solid trust you have in the Master Jesus and your outpouring of love to all the Saints (these are believers who are alive), I couldn’t stop thanking God for you – every time I prayed. I’d think of you and give thanks. But I do more than thank, I ask – ask the God of our Master Jesus Christ, the God of glory – to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, [the) eyes [of your heart] focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for [Saints], oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him – endless energy, boundless strength!

All this energy issues from Christ: God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. (Folks, that’s us. We are the church.) The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

We are the church. We are the body of Christ. Yes, we are sinners. That’s why we confess our sinfulness every time we worship. However we are also saints. We are at the center of God’s world, through Christ. This world is on the edge of God’s world, the one to which we belong; although I’m sure it doesn’t always feel like that. You see, we have been marked with the cross of Christ forever, since we are signed, sealed, and delivered through the Holy Spirit. What has happened to us, through Christ, doesn’t wash off. We are marked forever as a saint.

Well, if we are saints then what is all this about in the gospel when Jesus says the poor, hungry, and mournful are blessed. What connection does that make? Well, as we develop and maintain a more personal relationship with God, we begin to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. We begin to see how God might perceive God’s kingdom.

The word “poor” used by Jesus in this reading is the description of the poorest of the poor. If someone is poor but knows that there is someone poorer than him/her, then it isn’t her/him that Jesus is talking about. And why are they blessed? When you have nothing, when you are utterly empty, all you can depend upon is God. It is then that you might realize and experience God’s reign breaking through. And being poor brings on sorrow and hunger. God promises that such people will laugh and be filled. That’s what we begin to understand as saints. Unfortunately, in the world, we “automatically” think, when we see people who have material goods, who appear to be wealthy, and are in good spirits, that they are blessed. Not so, says Jesus. Jesus helps us to understand that God turns our perception of life upside down.

And with that understanding, Jesus continues to make everything “topsy turvey” from the world’s perspective. He says we are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us. What kind of silliness is that?

The world doesn’t think that way. Just think of this last election campaign. Did you ever hear about loving our enemies? Was it ever suggested that we do good to those who hurt us? Did we see anyone blessing those who curse them? Or did any candidate pray for those who abused them? That’s not the way the world operates.

However, as we become closer to God, through Christ, we begin to see how God’s world operates and how we are to become. Oh, yes, we are sinners. There’s no doubt about that. But, we are also saints.