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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Guest Preacher Caitlin Trussell, 2012/04/29: John 10:1-18

John 10:1-18

I have this memory of an image from childhood.  I’m not sure where it comes from or how old it is.  You may know the kind.  It’s a little hazy around the edges and slightly out-of-focus but a couple of things come through in crisp outline and color.  It pops into my head of its own accord when I hear Jesus talking about being the Good Shepherd.  In this image, Jesus is laughing in a group of children who are also laughing and he is holding a little lamb.  And, after my initial freak-out about overly-sentimentalized religion that would domesticate God, this image rings true for me as I think about the story a friend of mine tells about his Hebrew Bible professor tucking in her children at night.[1]  When she tucks them in she asks them, “Who are you?”  And they reply, “I am Jesus’ little lamb” – a sweet image of mothering and bedtime as she sends her children into the shadows of sleep.  And it rings true for me when I sit with families during funeral planning and they choose Psalm 23 time and time again.  I can hear the psalmist crying out through the families’ tears and from their broken hearts, “The Lord is my shepherd…”

And, for some of us, there are times when it is enough and sometimes quite necessary to allow those texts to wrap around us in the sweet, simple comfort of being cherished and celebrated as Jesus cradles us in light.  But what else might these texts have to say to us?

Wondering about Jesus’ claim of being a Good Shepherd is a good place to begin.  Psalm 23 gives us a glimpse into one of early Judaism’s understandings of God as shepherd.  And the words of Jesus echo deeply from within this tradition as he says, “I AM the good shepherd.”  The ante is upped as Jesus also says the words, “I AM”.  The “I AM” at the beginning of his words is the same “I AM” used in the divine claim by God, by Yahweh, in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus statement is infused with so much divinity it simply spills out all over. In fact, it is THE claim that sets the cross in motion.  The bottom line for us today?  God is made known in Christ.[2]  But how so according to John?

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep.”   Jesus is the good shepherd who died.  There’s a leadership model that would climb the bestseller list today.  A good leader is a dead one?  Why is this?  How is this a good thing?  How is the good shepherd the one who would lay his life down?  Why does the church call the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “Good Friday” anyway?  I know, that last question seems a bit out of order in this exuberant season of Easter resurrection but I will take the liberty of asking it anyway.  How is any of this good?  It is good because God in Jesus, dead on the cross, reveals the depths of God’s love and the lengths to which God will go to wrap us into God.  Belonging to a crucified God doesn’t mean that God is dead but that death is now captured up in the living God.

Jesus tells the story of the good shepherd not in an idyllic, cozy, safe location as my determined memory of the smiling image of Jesus from childhood would suggest.  In this story, there is howling that warns of threat and danger and hired hands who run away in fear, leaving the sheep to the wolf, leaving the sheep to death.  Ultimately the wolf means death in this story.  This infuses quite a different urgency into the mother tucking in her child at night and asking, “Who are you?”  And the child saying, “I am Jesus’ little lamb.”  The sweet image of mothering at bedtime, as she sends her children into the shadows of sleep, reverbs within a fiercer promise of love and protection.  And the wolf’s howl intensifies the prayers of a family and a community as they pray the words of Psalm 23 together during a funeral – “yea, though I walk through the darkest valley, (through the valley of the shadow of death), I will fear no evil.”

One of the things that I am privileged to do with my time over the last year while awaiting a call to a congregation is funerals – lots of them.  All excepting one have been the kind where I receive the call from the funeral director that a family is asking for a Christian minister to be the officiant for their loved one’s funeral within the following three to five days.  Either they or the person they have lost to death are often long unaffiliated with or never been part of any faith community and the element of having a Christian minister seems important.

One could argue lots of things – that there request for a minister is simply an example of a family hedging their bets or covering their bases or whatever might work as a metaphor for thinking their motivations shallow.  Or it could be that it is something that is a supposed-to-be-done.  In some of the stories these lines of thinking might be true.

But as I speak with these families, often torn open by their person’s death and their own grief, there is something more going on.  That something more has to do with the ways in which meaning in their lives had been suddenly shattered into a million pieces.  What had once made sense from the sum of their experiences and gave life meaning, no longer does.  Something more is needed.  This “something more” that is needed is a word that comes from outside of their own experience.  The story of the good shepherd offers meaning not crafted from within ourselves.  Rather it comes from beyond our experience – gifted to us from outside of ourselves through the cross of the one who laid his life down.

As the conversation about the funeral continues with the family, two things quickly become important as the life story about person who died takes shape – having the body or the ashes at the funeral and the commendation at the end of it.  Having the body there speaks a truth about the death that has happened, just as Jesus and the commendation speaks a promise of new life directly into the heart of that truth.  The commendation is a prayer that acknowledges God’s welcome of the person who died.  The prayer of commendation is this…

 “Into your hands, O merciful God, we commend your child. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  Amen.”

When I pray this prayer on behalf of the one who has died, I take quite seriously in our text today, when Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

In the Gospel of John we hear over and over and over again how Jesus came for sake of the world.  In day-to-day living, many, many realities are born out of Jesus’ gift on behalf of the world.  And in the day of dying there is one more.

So hear this gift, the promise of the good shepherd for you this day of Easter resurrection…

By the power of the Holy Spirit of the risen one, who first laid his life down,

Jesus draws you through the cross of Christ into faith, into meaning, into new life.

Jesus, the good shepherd, laid down his life and took it up again for you.

Death is now caught up into God, for you.

New life is here and now, in you and for you, by the power of the risen Christ!

Thanks be to God.


[1] Justin Nickel, personal conversation, April, 24, 2012.

[2] Craig Koester. Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 297.

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Posted by on April 29, 2012 in Sermon

 

Good News! You Already Are Witnesses!

3 Easter (B)

Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4: Luke 24:36b-48

 This text is bad news for those who believe that how we feel about the resurrection of Jesus Christ has any real significance. It’s also bad news for those who want to analyze it and make sense out of it.

Jesus seems to be saying to all of us in this resurrection appearance, “Yeah, yeah, I know; you’re terrified, frightened, doubtful, joyful, disbelieving, wondering, whatever. Hurry up and check it out. Take a look, touch me, watch me eat this fish. See? Now, let’s get on with the important stuff.”

So he opens their minds to the scriptures, basically that his death and resurrection didn’t just happen randomly, but were the culmination of what God had already been doing for centuries: bringing the kingdom of heaven to a broken creation. And now, these disciples are witnesses of all this. They are the ones who are about this kingdom business, one of the keynotes of which is repentance and forgiveness.

I find it very significant that Jesus didn’t tell them to BE witnesses or to get busy about this witnessing work. He tells them they ARE witnesses. Now. Already. Done deal. He has chosen them. That’s it. They are, by virtue of what they’ve experienced, witnesses of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and of repentance and forgiveness in him name. Period. How they feel, believe, or think about it doesn’t enter into the picture. This is just the reality of it.

If there’s ever a description of the church in scripture, this is it, as far as I’m concerned. By virtue of the experience of our baptism into Christ, we are witnesses of the present reign of God, the victory of life over death, the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness. Period. Done.

How many are thinking to themselves, “Uhmmm, not me. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed to anyone about any of that. I rarely talk about Jesus to co-workers, it’s been years since I’ve actually invited anyone to church, I refuse to pass out those “Plan of Salvation” tracts down in Belmar or on the 16th Street Mall. Not only that, but then there’s this whole repentance and forgiveness thing. There are things I need to repent of that I haven’t gotten around to repenting of yet. Other things I haven’t really even thought about whether or not I need to repent of yet. What’s more, there are people I need to forgive that I just can’t seem to forgive. I’m really not a witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus; not even much of a witness to repentance and forgiveness of sins.”

Like the original disciples, how we feel about it, what we think about it, how we analyze and interpret all this doesn’t have a lot to do with it. We ARE witnesses. Jesus lives, comes to us, forgives us, makes us new. So instead of analyzing all the ways we AREN’T witnesses to the reign of God in Christ, perhaps we should be considering the ways we ARE witnesses to these things.

Some of the key pieces of the reign of God—those things most identifiable with God’s kingdom—are: forgiveness, compassion, and generosity. We could probably argue for more, but certainly these are among the basics. We have experienced each of these, which influence our witness of these things. As we embrace and recognize how we’ve experienced forgiveness, compassion, and generosity, we can more readily acknowledge our witness in those same areas of the kingdom of God.

That doesn’t mean we are perfect witnesses.

Forgiveness, for instance, is a process, not an instant feeling. Forgiveness begins with our being forgiven in Christ, and then continues with that playing out in our behavior toward others. Forgiveness is not about liking someone who’s hurt us. But it is about behavior that removes barriers between us. It begins with God’s forgiveness of us, and continues with considering how that experience of forgiveness plays out as a witness in our own lives.

We have the opportunity to do that today, to see how we are witnesses to the reign of God in Christ. There are three “Witness” stations set up around the worship area. In just a minute you’ll have time to go to any, or all, of them and consider your witness there. Simple directions, simple process, so don’t be anxious about it. But the idea is for us to experience those things that shape our witness, and then to recognize some ways that we already are witnesses.

At the Forgiveness Station, you’ll experience God’s forgiveness through individual absolution that I will pronounce to you at the baptismal font, then you can consider who you need you need to forgive and who you need to ask forgiveness of. Simply place a cross to represent those people. No names, just place a cross for each person or situation.

At the Compassion Station, think of your experience of receiving compassion—when someone did something kind for you, and just write the date of that kindness (as close as you can come). Then as a witness to compassion, name a place where LCM’s compassion has made a difference.

At the Generosity Station, draw a quick picture of a meaningful gift you’ve received, one way you’ve experienced generosity. Then you can place an offering in one of the offering plates as a witness of your generosity.

“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

Simple. Take a moment to consider your experience of God’s kingdom in Christ, then how you are witnesses to that. We’ll take as much time as we need, and continue when everyone is done.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2012 in Sermon

 

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The Baptismal Trump Card: A Sermon for 2 Easter (B), 4/15/2012

2 Easter (B)

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; John 20:19-31

So, who’s looking forward to the upcoming Presidential campaign?  Won’t you enjoy the TV ads, with all that love and goodwill? Two men whose campaigns will exhibit nothing but kindness, charity, and grace toward one another. And truth, let’s not forget truth. No spins or trying to take advantage of fears or prejudices this year. A black man and a Mormon man, perfect fodder for preying upon ignorant fears and division.

Ironic, but the office that unites us as Americans will have a campaign that will divide us. There will be continuous and descendingly nasty volleys at the other side. Supporters of each candidate will become further polarized, convinced they are right and good and the other side is the very face of evil. No one will be listening; yet everyone will be talking, claiming moral high ground.

Want to learn how to live in community? Most of us who will become embroiled in this year’s presidential election will show the world exactly what NOT to do.

It’s not just this election. Abortion, war in Afghanistan, capital punishment, homosexuality, how to interpret the Bible – name the issue and chances are people are taking polarizing positions against one another, convinced they are right and the others are wrong. Because apparently that’s what we value: believing we are right. That above all else, it seems. We seem to value that more than forgiveness, more than generosity, more than mercy, more than listening, more than community. Believing we are right—even if that means we can no longer even speak to one another.

Even in the church we’d rather consider ourselves morally superior and separate than recognize we are a broken community made holy only by God’s grace.

I’m not talking about  getting along. Not about no conflict. This is about something much deeper. Unity that based not on agreement, or common interest, similar worship, or even moral right/wrong. Unity based on the very foundational reality that we are sinners who’ve been baptized into Christ.

All three of the texts we’ve read today speak of the importance of unity, of community, of our purpose together taking precedence over things we disagree about.

Unity was so important to the early church that, as we read in Acts this morning, all the disciples sold their property and put the proceeds into one common pot. In this way everyone who had need would be taken care of.

Psalm 133 declares the importance of the community living together in unity. Then it goes on to describe that unity in beautiful, poetic language.

Today’s gospel in John tells of Thomas and the other disciples on Easter Sunday and the next Sunday. The evening of the resurrection, Jesus appears, shows the disciples his hands and side. They now believe he’s raised, which changes everything. It is now the basis from which all decisions are made now. Thomas isn’t there, and so doesn’t believe it. Now there are two divergent paths: Thomas with his unbelief, and the rest with their belief. Make no mistake, they are living in conflict!

Each time the disciples came together during the week, they try to convince Thomas about what they have seen. In v. 25 — “The other disciples kept telling him, ‘We have seen the Lord’.” Thomas kept refusing to believe them. Each side insisting they are right, lining up campaigns, appealing to any means to attack the other side. Well, probably not. So how do they stay in community with such fundamentally differing views?

Here’s the thing — whatever conflicts they had during the week, the disciples didn’t kick Thomas out of the fellowship. And no matter how severe their disagreements, Thomas didn’t leave either. Eventually he had his own experience with the risen Jesus. In the meantime, all the disciples remain bound together even with major differences in experiences and beliefs.

That’s the identity of the church.

The church is in the relationship business. The church is not in the business of telling the world we are right and everyone else is wrong. We are in the business of revealing the reality of God’s forgiveness. But the minute we even hint that being right, and not relationships, is what we are about, we have corrupted the Gospel and have torn at the heart of what we are as a community created by God. The church loses the very thing that binds us together and becomes the good guys in here versus the bad guys out there. We act, then, as if we were nothing more than a presidential campaign.

By loving as Jesus loves, the church reveals God to the world; making it possible for the world to experience something of the grace of God. The church’s purpose, therefore, is not to be the arbiter of right or wrong, but to bear ongoing witness to the love of God in Jesus. Bound together in Christ’s loving forgiveness, we then live in the world including the world in that same love and forgiveness.

Can you imagine what would happen in the upcoming election if love and forgiveness was the attitude of the day instead of who’s good and who’s evil?

Can you imagine what would happen in this country if we included people, loved people, asked and offered forgiveness of people who were on the other end of important issues?

Can you imagine what would happen in our neighborhoods and in our families if we quit trying to prove we’re right and instead started proving that forgiveness is real?

Can you imagine what would happen in this congregation if we quit seeing people at “the other worship service” as “them”? Or people who are older, or younger, or newer, or who are here more often or less often as “them”? Baptism trumps style of worship every day of the week.

This is what God has created LCM to be. A community where forgiveness, love, and care are more core to our identity than issues of conflict, disagreement, or right/wrong.

As people baptized into Christ, this is what LCM is. This is what the world needs.

This is what the risen Christ brings amongst us. This is what we show the world.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2012 in Sermon

 

Hoping the Resurrection is Real: Sermon, Easter (4/8/12)

The Resurrection of Our Lord

Acts 10:34-43; 1 Cor 14:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

If you’ve ever doubted the resurrection of Jesus or some aspect of it, I believe you are in the right place. If you’ve ever wondered this whole “raised from the dead” thing is real, then the church is probably a good community for you. If you’ve ever considered the possibility that this whole Easter message is made up, just a story told by the original disciples for some unknown reason, then being part of a church community is likely to be well worth your time. Because if you have doubts, ever wondered, been skeptical, or out-and-out disbelieve this story of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead, then welcome! You’re in good company this morning. I’m not just talking about the doubt of honest Christians here, but even Jesus’ best, first, and closest disciples.

If you read any of the gospels, including the text from Mark today, you discover that none of the apostles, upon finding the tomb empty, say, “Oh, that’s right, the resurrection WAS today! Should’ve checked my day-planner before I left home this morning.” When confronted with the news of Jesus’ rising by an angel, two angels, or (in today’s text) a young man dressed in white, not one disciple proclaims, as we did this morning, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!”

Every one of them met this news with disbelief, with fear, with confusion, and with surprise. These women in today’s text, Jesus’ most faithful disciples,the only ones who stayed faithful to Jesus all the way through his crucifixion, “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The fact that even the most ardent followers of Jesus sometimes wonder about all this isn’t surprising. For those of you who are church members and for those of you who are not, curiosity and honest doubt about the resurrection of Jesus Christ don’t separate us. You see, there’s a difference between “certainty” and “hope.”

When I read of more civil unrest in Syria, more violence in Palestine, and the longest war in US history continuing in Afghanistan, I hope that there is a God more powerful than death. Because that God is also more powerful than violence. My certainty about the specifics of resurrection aside.

When I see more school bullies, hear more racist remarks, come across self-righteous judgment of our gay brothers and sisters, see cruel policies toward the most vulnerable among us, I hope that there is a God who is capable of defeating the powers of sin and death. Because that God can also defeat the powers that keep us hurting one another. My certainty about the specifics of resurrection aside.

When I understand  there are church people excluding those who believe differently, and clinging to their their status quo lives instead of giving away everything for the sake of the 47,000 people currently living in poverty in Jefferson County,[i]  I hope there is a God who raised Jesus from the dead. Because that God can also raise a church that will lay down its life for those who are different. My certainty about the specifics of resurrection aside.

We can continue to trust our future to politicians, military powers, or human intelligence. But because of resurrection, I have hope there’s something more than that.

The resurrection of Jesus is, above all else, a message of hope. We can stand around and debate the specifics and the details of it all day. The four gospels even differ on the specifics. We can try to convince each other that our personal certainty of what actually happened on that first Easter morning is the only possibility. But more than anything, the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope that the impossible just might be possible after all.

If there is a God who can do the impossible in raising Jesus from the dead, then we can hope that this God can do the impossible by bringing new life in Palestine, in Afghanistan, in Syria. We can hope that this God can do the impossible and bring new life and make schools safe and heal us of our deep-seated resentments and hatreds. We can hope that this God can do the impossible and bring new life and even forgive me for those parts of myself that are dark and shameful.

The resurrection of Jesus creates communities centered on that hope. Rather than fighting over doctrines or competing for levels of spirituality, we can join the God who gives us hope for the future. We can eliminate poverty, not because we are capable of it on our own, but because we act in the hope that we are joining God who brings life from death. We can love our enemies, not because our beliefs are better than others’, but because the God who destroyed the power of death fills us with that kind of love. We can stand with those who doubt, welcome those who are different, empower those who are pushed aside, not because we have perfected the doctrine of grace, but because the God who is more powerful than our differences unites us.

If you find yourself a little low on hope, this is your day.

If you’re not sure about all this resurrection business, this is your community.

If you long for a better future than humanity has been able to provide, this is your story.

On this Easter Sunday, this day of resurrection, we are given the gift of hope. Whether we all believe the specifics of the first Easter morning in the same way or not, we hope for a future that a God-more-powerful-than-death now promises.

So, all doubters and questioners, skeptics and disbelievers, welcome. We join with countless others who have gone before us, and who’ve probably asked better questions than we have, as we boldly proclaim a new reality, a new future, a new hope.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Halleluiah!

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2012 in Sermon

 

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Swords vs. Palm Branches: Sermon, 4/1/12 (Palm Sunday)

Palm Sunday

Zechariah 9:9-10; Mark 11:1-10

Some scholars claim that there are actually two processions into Jerusalem happening simultaneously on that Palm Sunday.

One is the procession we are celebrating: From the east comes Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a simple colt, the common crowds lining the street and waiving branches.

And from the west comes Pontius Pilate to keep order during Passover. He comes draped in all the glory of Roman power: horses, chariots, rows of soldiers in gleaming armor.

As Jesus enters, the multitudes of disciples are throwing their coats on the road and waving branches and shouting, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

As these two processions enter Jerusalem, there will be a clash of kingdoms when they meet. Who will win? Who will be king? Caesar or Christ?

Rome is dominating, powerful, ruthless. By virtue of sheer might and intimidation it has brought submission and accompanying lack of conflict to the known world. Yet this is the kind of kingdom Jesus refused when tempted in the wilderness. It is this kingdom of force, of power, of violence, of control that he rejects.

The kingdom of God that he is bringing is one of mercy, forgiveness, love, giving away power and strength. It is letting go of domination and siding with the powerlessness. It is getting to know the lowest in society while turning away from the privilege of being highest. And doing all this very publicly in the face of the culture.

Who will win?

In the next several days during this Holy Week, we will hear the clash of these two kingdoms. We will hear on Maundy Thursday about the betrayal and the arrest of Jesus, and his command to love one another anyway. On Good Friday, we will hear the crowds as they cave in to the influence and seduction of worldly powers, crying out for the crucifixion of Jesus.

But the clash of these two kingdoms isn’t confined to the events of Holy Week. It is something we live with every day.

Every day we experience clamoring for power and security, backstabbing, gossip, resentment: both as things we do and things that are done to us. And there is also the gospel call to forgive, to serve, to love. Every day we experience the lure of our culture: the yearning for control, the temptation to keep more for ourselves, the longing to secure our own futures, even if that means ignoring the suffering of others around us. And there is also the gospel call to give away money, power, control.

This is the story of two kingdoms colliding, culminating in the life and death of Jesus the Christ. It is our story, the story of our struggle of living in both these kingdoms at the same time.

We long for the allure of power, comfort, and security that the world around us offers, the culture that surrounds us with messages of supremacy, influence, greed, getting ahead.

But we are also at our baptism given a new life in Christ, a kingdom-of-God life, an eternal life. We are called through our baptism into Christ to reveal God’s kingdom of grace, forgiveness, generosity, and mercy in the face of our culture’s power.

At times, it looks like our culture is winning. Through the events of this Holy Week, it will look as if Rome has won.

Jesus will be killed by the power of Rome.

In our lives we are confronted by the powers of this world.

But we know that the death of Jesus at the hands of his culture is not the end. So in the same way we can trust that the illusion of the victory of our culture is also only temporary.

We are in Christ. Though we experience the influence of our culture in this world, can be overwhelmed by it, and sometimes fall victim to it, it is not the end. There is more. Though the world around us can corrupt us, feed our greed, overpower us, prey upon us, break us, cast us aside as useless, hate us, wear us down, shame us, judge us, it will not be the last word about us or for us.

The kingdom of God has the last word. The kingdom of grace, love, forgiveness, and hope cannot be stopped by the world’s deceptive victories. Not even the death of Jesus can prevent the kingdom of God.

Nothing we experience can stop the ultimate victory of the kingdom of God. Nothing the powers of this world do to us will stop God from forgiving us, from loving us, from being present with us. That is the victory of the kingdom of God. The victory we not only experience, but are called to share.

There’s a clash of two kingdoms. Regardless of how it appears today, the kingdom of God emerges victorious.

We are in Christ.

Though we know the power of this world, it cannot prevail against the kingdom of God.

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

Who will win? The victory has already happened.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2012 in Sermon

 

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