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Monthly Archives: March 2018

Power, Strength, and Might vs. forgiveness, compassion, and humility (Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018)

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Adults have those familiar formulas too. How many of you have ever watched a Hallmark movie? I hesitantly admit that I’ve watched more than my share. But in watching, there are certain things that are consistent: the main character is engaged but to the wrong person; the main character meets the right person but just doesn’t get along with them; the main character’s best friend is black; there is a straight-talking wise elder who advises the main character to follow her/his heart. It doesn’t matter how many story lines follow that pattern, people keep watching them.

This isn’t new. Every good little Jewish girl and boy knew how the story went. The Hebrew army, against incredible odds, pulls off an amazing victory against a godless nation. In recognition that God has given the victory, the commander—often a king—leads the victorious army into Jerusalem and, riding upon his mighty war stallion, is met with adoring crowds who throw their coats onto the road ahead of him and shout “All hail the king! Thanks be to God for this great ruler!”

Then the victorious king rides directly to the temple and offers sacrifices of thanks to the faithful God who has, once again, shown the might of his arm and saved the good people of God from defeat! Just read 1 and 2 Maccabees in the Apocrypha and various parts of the Hebrew scriptures to hear it for yourself.

It was a familiar formula. And it taught kids a lesson: God is mightier than our enemies and stronger than other gods. And as long as you are faithful to this God you too can be granted mighty victories.

Don’t we still kind of like the formula for that story and expect life to work that way? As long as we love God and confess Jesus, we are supposed to be granted victories in health, in wealth, in power. There are preachers on TV who swear by this. And they attempt to prove it with huge houses and luxurious cars. If you give them money—because you love God, of course—you can receive these same rewards. A mighty victory for the faithful!

Unfortunately, there’s Jesus. Including Palm Sunday. The way gospel-writer Mark tells it, this same beloved formula is followed, but opposite. Jesus is really kind of making fun of it here. It’s satire. Instead of a mighty military victory over godless foes, Jesus has been merciful to beggars, the sick, the demon-possessed, and the blind.

Instead of coming into Jerusalem on a mighty war stallion, Jesus comes in on a young donkey. Greeted with shouts reminiscent of hailing a mighty and victorious king, here the poor cut branches from the fields in the countryside to throw down before him. And instead of offering a sacrifice of thanks in the temple to the God of might, Jesus, kind of irreverently, walks into the temple, looks around, and leaves.

A familiar formula, but a completely different message. The kingdom of God isn’t like that. It isn’t about might and strength and power and victory in war. No, God’s reign is pretty much the opposite of that. It’s about humility and generosity and compassion and mercy. Rather than overcoming enemies, Jesus loves them. Rather than intimidating your foes, Jesus forgives them. Rather than being more righteous than those who believe differently, Jesus cares for them. Rather than putting sinners to death, Jesus dies standing up for them.

Make no mistake, Jesus shows us on Palm Sunday, these two kingdoms are not the same. These two world views are not complementary. They are opposites. One based on overpowering, intimidating, ruthlessly beating your opponents. The other based on mercy, compassion, even loving those who oppose you. As we will find out a week from now, one of these ways leads to death, the other overcomes it.

This is all well and good, and certainly fascinating! But as Christ’s church, the body of Christ, it’s more than that. The kingdom that Jesus reveals so clearly on Palm Sunday is the way of Christ. To follow Jesus includes embracing what he shows us about God’s way. A show of force and intimidating power only leads to death. It opposes God’s way. Jesus mocks it, ridicules these displays of strength.

To the very end, Jesus stands firm in forgiveness, grace, compassion, humility as the way that overcomes death. It is love that leads to life, and Jesus stakes everything on that.

To the very end, Jesus brushes aside our versions of power. Even though that power put him to death, he faced it with forgiveness and compassion, and he was vindicated on the third day.

The worst that our world’s power could throw at him, execution and death, was not enough to overcome the power of love and mercy. It is what Jesus shows us on Palm Sunday and the week following. It is the way of life.

How do we, as a congregation bearing Christ’s name, deal with our world’s versions of power which leads to death? It’s tempting to buy into it, to trust the might, the show of force, the power. It’s easier to follow the old formula of God’s might overcoming evil. But as Jesus shows us, it is God’s grace that does that. It is God’s love that saves us. It is God’s mercy that gives us life. And the power of this world can never touch that. We follow Jesus into compassion, mercy, and love. Because that is the reign of God, it is what Jesus shows us on Palm Sunday, and it is the way to life.

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Posted by on March 27, 2018 in Sermon

 

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We Want to See Jesus, But We Can’t (March 18, 2018)

John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say–“Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

I have a couple of acquaintances who are homeless. Each of them live primarily in their cars and each one stops by a couple of times a year or so. One sometimes wants a shower to recharge her phone, and just to rest a while. The other usually wants to talk, to update me on his health and work situation, pray together, and maybe get a grocery card if it’s not too much trouble. He’s the one I’m talking about here.

The last time he came by, he was contemplating suicide because he couldn’t find work, couldn’t get the medical care he needed, he was in constant pain, and he felt his son (who lives with his ex-wife) is embarrassed to be seen with him. He thought his son would be better off without such a failure of a father. “I think God has abandoned me,” he had told me. “I want to see Jesus, but I can’t see him anywhere.” He was really in a bad way.

I wonder if the Greeks in this gospel text might have been in a similar situation. “Sir,” they said to Philip, “we want to see Jesus.” Because we can’t see him anywhere.

Maybe they just wanted to interview him because he was becoming well known. Get his autograph to impress their friends. Maybe they wanted to be healed of something and heard Jesus did that kind of thing. Maybe they just wanted to see the “water into wine” trick, because that would be amazing.

But somehow I don’t think so. I think there was something much deeper and more significant going on. I suspect something was missing for them, something was wrong. No matter how hard they tried to fix it and make things right, it wasn’t working. They couldn’t see Jesus anywhere.

What do you do when you can’t see Jesus? How do you deal with it when there just doesn’t seem to be any evidence of new life, or love, or compassion, or mercy, or forgiveness that are part of his presence? “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” because we can’t see him anywhere.

What do you do when your classmates are scared to come to school for fear of being gunned down? “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” because we can’t see him anywhere.

What do you do when the person you’ve devoted your whole life to up and leaves you? What do you do when the one you love gets sick and dies? What do you do when you feel betrayed, lost, helpless, alone? What do you do when, despite working hard all your life, your pension is taken from you while at the same time the CEO of your company gets a $300 million golden parachute? What do you do when a so-called Christian university, in the name of Jesus, calls for its students to arm themselves to take care of the Muslims? “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” because we can’t see him anywhere.

Jesus’s answer may not seem very helpful. When Andrew and Philip come to him with this request from the Greeks who want to see him, he starts talking about a grain of wheat dying in order to bear fruit. Although I think we can understand the basic botany behind what he’s saying, that a seed has to die to being a seed in order to grow into a wheat stalk and make grain for bread, what does that have to do with those who need to see Jesus because there doesn’t seem to be any sign of him in their lives?

Then Jesus goes on to say that whoever serves him must follow him, and that following him means giving up our own priorities. Following him means gaining real life. Following him means going with him to the cross and therefore into new life.

Wanting to see Jesus and following him don’t seem to make a lot of sense together until you begin to experience it.

Some young people walked out of their schools, risking suspension or worse, on Wednesday. They did so demanding that adults hear their fear and their experiences and do something about the guns in their schools. In seeking signs of new life, they’ve mobilized a nation. They may not say it this way, but they want us to see Jesus.

Our own youth are preparing to commit to shining the light of Jesus in their schools so that the love and the compassion of Jesus can be more clearly visible. You’ll be hearing more about this, I suspect. Our youth want others to see Jesus.

Our own Renewal Team is going to be entering into a process that will help us all learn how to listen to each other and listen to our neighbors more clearly. Because it’s in the relationships that Jesus is seen. We want them to see Jesus.

Because of your generosity and the hard work of our Samaritan Ministry, we’ll be dedicating 12 new Chromebooks—school laptop computers—for Green Mountain Elementary School today. So much homework, test prep, and learning takes place online that without access to these computers, many students are at a huge disadvantage. We aren’t doing this to benefit ourselves, but to reveal the compassion and generosity of Jesus. We want GMES to see Jesus.

My friend who’s been living in his car and who was so down on himself showed up this week again. This time he came up to me with a big smile on his face. He’s starting a job in May, his health is much improved, and his relationship with his son has never been better. “I showed my son what God’s love looks like,” he said. “I wanted him to see Jesus. I know he was there the whole time, but in showing him Jesus, I could see him myself.”

What do you do when you can’t see Jesus? You show him to someone else. When someone says, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” that’s what we do. We show them Jesus. We show them love, compassion, forgiveness, grace. It’s in following him that we see him.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2018 in Sermon

 

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OMG! We’ve Got to Quit Using John 3:16 as a Threat! (March 11, 2018)

Here’s my goal in this sermon. I want you to dislike John 3:16. You may have it memorized, or are familiar with it. Chances are good you’ve at least heard it, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

I’m not trying to get you to dislike it because I’m just mean (not too much anyway). But I want you to dislike it because the way that it is normally used is not only contrary to the message of John’s gospel, but to the entirety of the scriptural witness in Jesus. Far too often this text is used as a threat or a weapon (believe, or else!). John uses it as part of a call to action!

So really, my goal is not to make you dislike the verse, but dislike how it’s been used to convey a message that counters God’s mission in the world, counters the role of Jesus, and counters the call of the church.

Let’s take a step back and consider the gospel of John as a whole. The author was part of a small Jewish believers-in-Jesus that had been expelled from their local synagogue. They were being harassed and persecuted by their neighbors for continuing to push Jesus-as-Messiah. Regardless of how much they try to convince the majority group that Jesus is the one chosen by God, they continue to be harassed over it.

And, perhaps, some of that persecution is beginning to work. This gospel was written first of all to a small minority group of Jewish believers in order to encourage them to continue Jesus’ mission even though they are being persecuted for it. Their life witness of self-giving sacrifice is the way they reveal Jesus as Messiah, bringing light into a dark world. Following in the way of Jesus of Nazareth is their purpose as a group.

Like pretty much any verse, if we look at John 3:16 as an isolated verse, separated from the rest of John’s gospel, we’re gonna lose something, miss something, read something into it. And that’s exactly what has happened. We been taught in recent decades to put the emphasis on “everyone who believes” part. Meaning that if you, personally, believe that God sent Jesus to die on the cross as a sacrifice to atone for your sins, you’ve got yourself a bona fide ticket to heaven when you die. That is the last thing the author of this gospel ever intended. That thought never occurred to him.

He and his little community are facing all kinds of pressure to give up on following Jesus. In the midst of the daily persecution they are facing, they need encouragement to keep going if they are going to continue Jesus’ mission of being light in the darkness.

For this community, the author is saying, Jesus is lifted up, like the bronze serpent in the first reading, for healing. Not as a punishment for sin or anything else, but as a sign which provides healing and life. Jesus was given by God as a sign of God’s love for the world. Look on him and be renewed. See on the cross how far God’s love for the world actually goes. Let that love encourage you. See? God won’t give up. Keep trusting God whose loves for the whole world extends that far. That love is light in the darkness. The light has come into the world, and Jesus is the one chosen by God to shine that light.

If people understand the light of God’s love in the world, they will be drawn to Jesus. They will follow him and attempt to shine that same loving light. If they believe that light exposes darkness, that love drives out hate, that giving one’s self away defeats evil, they will come to the light that is Jesus.

But, the author writes, there are some who continue to believe that darkness doesn’t matter, or that it can’t be overcome, or maybe even that darkness is better. Those who believe that what hides in the darkness is tolerable won’t be drawn to the light of God’s love in Jesus. It’s not that they’re going to hell, it’s just that their opposition to you as disciples comes from a place of darkness, not light; a place that is hidden, not revealed; a place that won’t recognize Jesus as a sign of God’s loving light. Their persecution and opposition do not come from God’s love and therefore can’t rid the world of evil. Only love can do that. Jesus is the ultimate sign of that love. Keep believing that. Keep living that. Keep shining that light. Let the world see your acts of love.

John 3:16 is but one verse of a much larger piece that is a radical call to action. Believing in Jesus means trusting in God’s love as the response to evil. Believing in Jesus means trusting God’s love revealed in him so much that you are willing to follow the biggest sign of its presence—Jesus himself. “Everyone who believes in him” includes all those who will not hide in the darkness, but will give of themselves in love for the world.

That call to radical, loving action is still given in John. There are still those who love the darkness and hate the light. There are still those who do evil and keep their deeds hidden. But that is not the way of God. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—not to condemn the world, but to save it. And you who recognize that, who believe that only love casts out evil, you will be the ones to overcome the evil of the world by loving the world. Jesus shows us the way. Jesus shines that light. Keep believing that. Keep loving with God’s far-reaching love. Keep on doing it in the face of persecution and harassment. Keep showing the world Jesus, who shows us what God’s love looks like. Because that’s where life is to be found.

God loves the world. Jesus shows how great that love is. Trust that. Believe that. Follow that. And shine that in the world. That is life in Jesus. That is life in God’s love. And that love never ends.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2018 in Sermon

 

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In the Midst of Chaos, Jesus Arises (March 4, 2018)

John 2:13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

Wow. Are you able to imagine this scene? Jesus walks into the temple area in Jerusalem—the high, holy place where God resides—and starts running amuck in there. Driving out animals, turning over tables, creating chaos in God’s house. Jesus is disrupting the entire system of the temple.

Since Moses, people of God have been required to offer sacrifices and tithes, according to God’s law. This marketplace in the temple courtyard allowed them to meet the requirements of the law and be found righteous with God. The system worked for everyone. Yet, even though it was beneficial and in keeping with Jewish (and Roman) law, it didn’t fit with God’s kingdom of love and compassion and mercy for all people. This workable, viable, traditional system of sacrifice for righteousness, following rules and procedures in a specific place, needed to end. Since the focus has always been on righteousness with God, sacrifices in the temple don’t actually do that. Righteousness with God is not centered in the temple, but instead is centered in Christ. So Jesus disrupts a system that doesn’t work according to God’s vision in order to lift up a new system that does.

In the midst of the disruption and chaos, Jesus is lifted up so God’s vision for the world can be seen.

As long as the temple system was in place and working, God’s vision would never be seen or participated in. There was no easy way to make that adjustment away from it without complete disruption. In the midst of the disruption and chaos, Jesus is lifted up so God’s vision for the world can be seen.

There are times when some area of our lives just aren’t working. Times when our lives are in chaos, when things simply feel out of control. The confusion in those times can leave us uncertain and unable to see beyond that chaos. Most of us who’ve experienced chaos in our lives being beyond our control can testify to the reality that God is not always visible at that time. We can’t see beyond the next minute, much less recognize the presence of Christ. In the midst of the disruption and chaos, Jesus is lifted up so God’s vision for the world can be seen.

And this is true not just in our individual lives, but in any system or institution or organization that isn’t part of God’s vision of compassion and peace and grace. Not just the temple. Not just the way we run our lives. Bu even Christ’s church itself.

In many parts of the world, especially the US, people are leaving the church in droves. The system—the way of being church that many of us have known all our lives—feels beyond our ability to make work. Our best efforts don’t seem to make much difference at all. Our message of Christ’s love isn’t being heard or believed. No matter what we do, the church doesn’t seem to be able to adapt.

Much like the temple system in Jesus’ day, the church is being disrupted. I wonder if it’s because we are no longer able to see beyond the church system that’s been in place for 1700 years. In the midst of the disruption and chaos, even in the church, Jesus is lifted up so God’s vision for the world can be seen.

Here’s how the church system as we know it has developed.[i]

“Jesus’ apostles were constantly getting in trouble with the religious leaders and power brokers of their. . . . They were beaten, jailed, and finally killed because this way of life was such a threat to the social and political order.

“At the beginning of the fourth century . . . the Roman Empire was feeling increasingly threatened by rising forces beyond its border. In CE 311 the Romans became more open minded about matters of religion. Novel (and desperate) idea: pray to any God if it can help us hold back the barbarians! Christians were granted an indulgence and asked to pray “to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the commonwealth may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.” This was the first step in creating an alliance with the Christian God, whom Constantine considered the strongest deity. Two years later, in CE 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan decriminalizing Christian worship. At that time he was more concerned about social stability and the protection of the empire from the wrath of the Christian God than he was for justice or care for the Christians. Finally the emperor consolidated his power within the church when he convened the first worldwide gathering of Christian leaders at the Council of Nicaea in CE 325. Christendom was born. The Jesus movement was subsumed into the empire and “Christian disciple” became synonymous with “good citizen.”

“Most churches today mirror political institutions in structure, operation, and governance. Denominations gather to vote on doctrine and polity and, in some cases, to elect bishops to oversee the church. Likewise, pastors are trained and carefully credentialed to administer the sacraments and manage their churches. . . . “Don’t rock the boat” is the underlying narrative. . . . In most Christian quarters, subversion is the enemy.

“The era of the Christian society has now ended in the United States. . . . Citizenship no longer means Christian. The church is no longer the center of life. Organized religion, in its Christendom edition, is growing more and more irrelevant and we are at a loss as to what to do about it.

“What would it look like for the church to reclaim Christ’s subversive gospel of abundance and trust that the kingdom of God is at hand? . . . Oftentimes that creation looks like rebellion to the church authorities— or just plain weird.

“Jesus ultimately died a humiliating and torturous death on the cross because he posed a threat to the political and religious powers.

“The Jesus movement, born out of subversion, is at its best when it is subversive.”

In the midst of the disruption and chaos, Jesus is lifted up so God’s vision for the world can be seen.

The major disruption of the temple that felt like the end for Jews in Jerusalem was actually a focus on Jesus as God’s vision for the world. And what feels like the end of the church to many today is the same thing. We are experiencing God at work, a seismic shift away from a church system that works for many, but may not be pointing the world to God’s vision of peace, compassion, and grace for all people. Jesus is stepping in and turning over our tables in order to disrupt the church as we know it. Though we don’t understand and though it’s frighteningly uncomfortable, In the midst of the disruption and chaos, Jesus is lifted up so God’s vision for the world can be seen.

Instead of bemoaning the loss of the temple, let us watch for Jesus to arise. And then, let us run to him and embrace him wherever he is and whatever he’s doing. Let us watch for Jesus to arise, for he is the revealing of God’s vision for peace, for compassion, and for grace for the whole world. In the midst of the disruption and chaos, Jesus is lifted up so God’s vision for the world can be seen.

[i] Era of Christendom source: Estock, Beth Ann; Nixon, Paul. Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century, The Pilgrim Press. Kindle Edition. 2016.

 

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2018 in Sermon

 

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