Too Good to Be True?

“Too Good to Be True?”

Easter He is risen

Luke 24:1-12 – April 21, 2019

Advertisements often promise us marvelous things. If we wash our clothes with this special detergent, our clothes will be whiter than white, cleaner than clean. The brand new car we see advertised is so shiny and the ride is amazingly smooth. If we buy this fancy shampoo, our hair will become unbelievably sleek and silky. The reality never lives up to the hype. We even have an expression for this: “Too good to be true.”

I wonder whether the disciples felt like this on that Easter morning, so long ago?

We need to go back to Friday, to get a better idea of what was happening. The women did not have time to take proper care of the body of Jesus when it was quickly buried late Friday afternoon, just before sunset. And then after Friday night came, it was the Sabbath. All observant Jews rested on the Sabbath day, as prescribed in the Jewish Law. More than that, it was the time of the Passover, an especially sacred time.

This Sabbath observance must have been especially sad and sorrowful for the followers of the Rabbi Jesus, dispersed as they were. I can imagine some huddling together in the upper room where so short a time before Jesus had led them in that Passover dinner on Thursday evening. Perhaps, a couple more hiding in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, a few miles down the road in Bethany. What must have been going through their minds?

The Easter morning story was read for us by Eileen: about the women going to the tomb, shocked to find Jesus’s body gone, and angels there instead. The angels tell the women the Good News, the Gospel message that Jesus is alive again. When they run back to tell the disciples, the men do not believe the women. Here again is what Dr. Luke says: “10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” As we said before, the disciples thought, “Too good to be true.”

The New Revised Standard Version translates verse 11 like this: “11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Rev. Rick Morley, one of the commentators on our Scripture reading from Luke said, “And the disciples thought it was an “idle tale?” How condescending, right? There go those excitable women again…<eye-roll> <knowing-glance to another disciple> <raise of the eyebrows> [1]

Let’s consider historical context: women in Palestine were second class citizens. They had very prescribed roles in life and in the family, had no standing in court, and could not even be witnesses in a court of law.

However—when Jesus called His disciples, He called both men and women. Both men and women followed Him. The Gospels say Mary sat and learned from Jesus’s teaching just as much as any of the male disciples, and when Martha complained to Jesus about how Mary was not “doing her woman’s job” in serving and doing kitchen duty, Jesus corrected Martha. Not to mention His courteous, egalitarian treatment of women throughout the Gospels—the woman at the well, the woman with the flow of blood, the widow of Nain, just to mention a few. Extremely significant to treat women as equals, especially in that time and place.

So, when the women followers—or, disciples—of Jesus ran back to the others with this witness to the Good News, the Gospel that Jesus is alive!—are we surprised to have the women’s witness dismissed as an “idle tale?” “Too good to be true!”

There is another, sadder side to this “idle tale” business. Rick Morley reflects further: “It’s a popular position in the world and an increasingly popular position in the church. I mean how many people—how many self-professed Christians—take Easter as a nice little hopey-springy cute-bunny-loving pastel-wardrobe-opportunity? How many people who almost never come to church, will come on Easter either because their spouse or mother forced them to—and while they’ll play the game and sing the hymns, they see the Resurrection of Jesus as a metaphor at best, or at worst a cute little myth?” [2]

Yet—this Gospel, this Good News was the women’s real experience! Dr. Luke reports “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.” When they ran back to their friends, they did not spout deep theology. They did not expound profound sermons. No, they reported the facts. They told what had happened to them.

Some of these women were at the foot of the Cross on Friday. They had seen Jesus in agony. They witnessed Him suffering for hours, and saw Him die. Some of these same women were now swearing that Jesus was alive again. The angels said so, too!

Rev. Janet Hunt, a Lutheran pastor who has a church in De Kalb, a few dozen miles to the west of us, reflects on this Easter Good News, this Easter promise. She looks at it from a sorrowful perspective. “How will the Resurrection Promise resound in the ears of one whose winter has been long and death has seemed to have had the last say too many times?

“What will it sound like in the ears of one whose week-end is spent in a hospital bed waiting for a risky surgery first thing Monday morning, to the one who has just been arrested for his third DUI and who is waiting his court date, hoping the whole town did not read the police blotter last week, to the one who is afraid to hope that finally this pregnancy will hold?

“What would the gift of life where death has seemed to hold sway mean to those whose fleeing for their lives has left them at our southern border with futures still uncertain? To those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by flooding across our nation’s midsection? To already desperately poor people whose meager existence has been wiped out by natural disaster or disease?

“What does it mean to any and all of these and also to you and me to know that the story does not end with the closing of the tomb on Friday afternoon? Indeed, what if having heard it and believed it, we actually began to live like it was so?[3]

You and I do not need to preach a sermon, or give deep theological reasons why Jesus is alive. People today need to hear that Jesus IS alive. His life makes a difference. Jesus changes lives—he turns them upside down, and your life—my life—will never be the same again.

Is this first-person testimony too good to be true?

“‘I have seen the Lord’ insists that the ways of love will win over the ways of hate. ‘I have seen the Lord’ confirms that the truth of kindness can be heard over the din of ruthless, callous, and vindictive rhetoric. ‘I have seen the Lord’ gives witness to the fact that there is another way of being in the world — a way of being that is shaped by resurrection, that embodies anything and everything that is life-giving, a way of being that is so counter-cultural, so demonstrative of mercy, so exemplary of the truth of Easter that others will listen to you, watch you, wonder about you and say, ‘Wait a minute. Did I just see the Lord?’[4]

This—this right here—is where the Gospel begins, with this first-person testimony—the great Good News that Jesus is alive! This great Good News changes everything, for each of us, and for the whole world.

[1] http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/2546

“Idle Talk,” Rick Morley, 2013.

[2] http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/2546

“Idle Talk,” Rick Morley, 2013.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/needing-the-easter-promise-now/

Janet Hunt has served as a Lutheran pastor in a variety of contexts in Northern Illinois. Currently she serves as pastor at First Lutheran, DeKalb, IL.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4571

“True Resurrection,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2016.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

Jesus Loved Him

“Jesus Loved Him”

Jesus and The-Rich-Young-Man, Harold Copping

Mark 10:17-27 (10:21,24) – October 14, 2018

One of my favorite movie series made recently is “The Lord of the Rings.” Huge, sweeping fantasy epic, made for the wide-screen. I realize that fantasy is not everyone’s favorite kind of movie (or book), but I absolutely loved it. The ultimate battle of Good versus Evil, with the clash of armies fighting for supremacy in the world called Middle Earth.

One supporting character in this fantasy is an ancient, twisted creature named Gollum, who had the Ring in his keeping for many years, but lost it. The Ring was magic, you see, and the Ring exerted a magical pull or craving on anyone who came near to it. Gollum spent years and years trying to get close to the Ring, and perhaps possibly steal it back. Gollum not only craved the Ring, he thought about it almost all the time, and talked to it. Called it “my Precious.”

In our Gospel reading from Mark today, we have something similar to the situation with Gollum and the Ring. But, I’ll get to that in a few minutes.

What is the centerpiece in this picture from the Gospel of Mark? A rich young man? Is this about a wealthy young person, who had everything in life he could possibly want or desire? Some preachers make use of this bible reading to criticize wealthy people for being stingy. Even more preachers use this as an example of good stewardship, and how Christians are to be generous with the money they have. This sermon is not going to focus on either of those things. Let’s take a closer look at what is actually happening here.

A rich young man comes to Jesus, and asks how he might go to heaven—that is, inherit eternal life. This is not an odd question, for a rabbi. Not out of left field, at all. Rabbis got this and similar questions tossed to them on a regular basis.

Jesus took the young man directly back to his religious training in the synagogue. Jesus mentioned several of the Ten Commandments—all commandments that refer to a person’s relationship with others.19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

The young man seems to be very earnest and sincere.20 ‘Teacher,’ he declared, ’all these I have kept since I was a boy.’”

“We have this rich man (Matthew describes him also as young) coming to Jesus, actually, kneeling in front of him, asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How often do you get rich people asking you that kind of question? Not much, I suspect. But here’s a live one.” [1]

All of these commands—all of these rules and prescriptions and social morés for behavior this young man has followed since he was a boy. Reading between the lines, I suspect this young man felt empty on the inside. He felt there was something missing in his relationship with God. Thus, prompting the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The response of Jesus? 21 “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

It is at this point some preachers say, “Aha!” This young man had too much wealth! Shaking their fingers at their congregations, some advise their congregations to divest themselves of their wealth, and a few preachers even mention how blessed it is to give it all away to others.

Well, yes. At first glance, we all can see that is kind of what Jesus is saying. But as with many things Jesus says in the Gospels, we can read deeper than the surface communication, and get so much more.

It may be that Jesus saw that this man was trapped in his riches, that it had become an idol that needed to be cast away. On top of that, as many have pointed out, what is the man supposed to do after he impoverishes himself?” [2]

Yes, riches and wealth can be a huge obstacle in anyone’s relationship with God. A rich person’s money might be on their mind too much. How are they investing the money? What kind of money manager do they have? How much are they paying in taxes? What if the stock market takes a big hit? And what about making more money? What then?

All of these persistent questions and random thoughts—and many more besides—can preoccupy someone’s mind. They can get in the way when you or I are thinking about having a close relationship with God. Why? Because, our skewed relationship with money or wealth is more important than a relationship with God.

To expand on what Dr. Vander Zee just said was that the relationship with riches had become an idol. It was getting in between the rich young man and God. Isn’t that what idols do? But, let’s go one step further. We are talking idols, what might be all-important to many people. Do you know people who have a real focus on their house? I mean, take care of their home impeccably, even are constantly boasting about it? Is their house an idol to them, maybe?

What about people who put their job first? Work extra-long hours, neglect their spouse and family, but are always available for work-related activities? We can say their job is their idol, even what they would sacrifice much of their life for.

Remember Gollum? I mentioned him a few minutes ago. A sad, twisted creature, so set on the magic Ring. He even called it “my Precious!” Is there anything extra-special in your life, so special you might be tempted to call it “my Precious?” Anything that consumes your mind and heart?

I believe that is something Jesus was so concerned about, with this rich young man. “We all have something ‘precious’ to which we cling. It’s the thing that separates us from God, from our full potential as faithful disciples. In order to see and experience the truth found in Jesus that leads to real life, the rich man has, to turn from his “precious” thing (money/possessions).” [3]

It does not matter what we lift up, what consumes almost every waking moment. Possessions, or physical fitness, or money, family, friends, or education. Any aspect of life can become too-important. Anything can become an idol, and get in between us and God.

What strikes me so much in this reading? Jesus loved this young man. He loved him. So earnest, such questions, really wanting to find out more about how to have a close, sincere relationship with God. Yet, the young man went away sorrowful, because he was not willing to set aside that idol or riches, of comfort. He was too comfortable, too complacent. Or, perhaps it was because the young man was too set in his ways, and that amount of change may be too disruptive. For whatever reason,

Jesus is calling. Jesus beckons to you, to me, to all of us. Leave behind whatever idol, whatever separates you from God. Embrace a loving, abundant relationship with Jesus, today. Jesus loved this young man, despite his faults and flaws. He loves each of us in exactly the same way, without strings, without conditions. Praise God! His arms are open to welcome each of us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-23b/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

The Center for Excellence in Preaching, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015. Author: Leonard Vander Zee

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2015/10/who-can-be-saved/

“Who Can Be Saved?” Sharron R. Blezard, Stewardship of Life, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Love Drives Out Fear

“Love Drives Out Fear”

1 john 4-18-perfect-love-casts-out-fear.

1 John 4:7-8, 13-19 (4:18) – September 16, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

When I was in grade school, I remember a story I read where a boy was punished very severely. He was beaten, and sent to the barn without any supper. I don’t remember where the story was from (probably in one of my textbooks), but I do remember my gut reaction to the moving and evocative words that described the boy and his situation. Sullen, lonely, filled with anger, but at the same time torn with some remains of love for the brutal father who had beaten him and turned him out of the clapboard house on the frontier into the cold night.

What kinds of fear do you remember? If not fear that you experienced, fear and anxiety of someone close to you? Those feelings, emotions and experiences can be so traumatic. I know, because I dealt with many painful, fearful, anxious situations while a hospital chaplain. And, sometimes, I was completely helpless to do anything to lend a hand.

Is there some fear or anxiety that even now surfaces from deep within? If so, I am so sorry to remind you of that painful experience. Except—in this sermon, in this scripture reading today, the apostle John deals with God’s love, and with personal fear and punishment. We can relate to John’s moving words.

To back up, in this letter John talks a great deal about love. God is love. Love is of God. We love, because God first loved us. Simple words, yet profound ideas. In our reading today, John continues with more of the same: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Yet, you and I know that we cannot love all the time. Because, we are human. We get angry, and lonely, and fearful. Sometimes we back away, isolate, or even snap back at others. All of us do at times. Mile-deep emotions and mile-wide feelings come upon so many as we live our day-to-day lives—in the first century, as well as the twenty-first. Awkward situations and traumatic experiences choke out the joy and delight of living in community, of life in the family of God. What can we do about these complications of living, and of loving?

The apostle John knew very well about this dilemma. He was the youngest of the disciples. He was identified as “the disciple Jesus loved.” He lived the longest of just about any of the direct witnesses to Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. He wrote this letter late in his long life, a life full of hardship and trauma, full of persecution and anxiety. Yet—he was able to write moving words such as these: “Dear friends, let us love one another.” Matter-of-fact presentation of a simple yet profound concept.

John communicates God’s unconditional love to us in this letter, even in difficult circumstances. He shows us Jesus and His love through these simple words.

John understood very well what kinds of horrible things the persecutors could (and probably would) do to any Christians they got in their clutches. From the writings and letters of the second century, we know that John had personal experience with the persecutions. He was finally exiled to a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea called Patmos.

So, what does John have to say about fear? We are talking about gut-wrenching fear. Remember, he was well-acquainted with fear, and its close cousin anxiety. Verse 18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

The word for “fear” John uses here is the Greek word phobo, or the run-of-the-mill word that is found in the suffix “-phobia.” Many of us are familiar with all kinds of phobias, from fear of heights or enclosed spaces, to fear of spiders or snakes, to fear of the dark. Could I remind us of a certain phobia that Charlie Brown had, in the Charlie Brown Christmas special? He was frightened of everything. He had “pantaphobia.”

Perhaps the apostle John “does mean something closer to Charlie Brown’s depression-inducing pantaphobia in which fear becomes a general way to go at life.  John yokes this fear that has no place in perfect love specifically with a fear ‘of punishment,’ which may be an indication that what he is talking about is the fear of still being punished for our sins.” [1]

What a fear, indeed! Being afraid that God probably will not forgive me, no matter how much I do, no matter how hard I try to gain God’s acceptance. That unfeeling, unforgiving attitude from God would break my heart. Sort of like the attitude of an uncaring, unfeeling, even brutal parent. Not at all like Jesus, like the God whom John knew personally.

After this life is done, we move into the life to come. Common questions many would ask: “’How can I be sure I did enough for God to love me?  What if God plays all the sins of my life on some giant screen for all to see?  How will I ever live down the humiliation of that?  How do I know there is grace sufficient for even me?’ This is clearly the kind of fear of punishment John is pointing to.  And it is a miserable thing to have dangling over your head” [2]

Again, we get full assurance from John. And, John intimately knows Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, the Messiah, the creator of all the universe, the Logos, the Word. John is the beloved disciple, the one close to Jesus’s heart. John lets us know that “perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Yet, what are the next words from John? “We love, because He first loved us.” John circles back to this simple yet profound truth.

Commentator Judith Jones says, “God made love real and present by sending Jesus to live among us and to die for us. God continues to show us love through Jesus’ life-giving presence among us.” [3] That is the presence John is a witness to. That is the presence John is willing to suffer for. John loves, and through extension, we all love, because Jesus loves us. Unconditionally, fully, and with all His heart. Jesus loves us. Period.

So, it does not matter what our creaturely, very human selves tell us about phobias. It does not matter what Charlie Brown and his fear of everything whispers to our insides. John’s witness is that Jesus loves us, period. Jesus’s perfect, unconditional love drives out fear. Not only fear about everything on the outside, about fighting, hardship, and persecution, but about illness, loneliness, and sorrow.

Most importantly, His perfect unconditional love drives out the fear that I won’t measure up, that I won’t be able to do enough, be enough for Jesus. We love, because He first loved us. Period. John is a faithful and true witness to Jesus and His perfect, unconditional love.

Do you believe that? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” John tells us so, right here in this reading today. Receive the Good News of the Gospel. Jesus came to save sinners, of which I am chief.

Fear is done with, banished, gone. Jesus came into the world to love us, unconditionally. That is truly Good News.

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-5b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2448

Commentary, 1 John 4:7-21, Judith Jones, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Follow Jesus in Love

“Follow Jesus in Love”

John 3-16 so loved, bible

John 3:14-21 (3:16) – March 11, 2018

Many people like sports. They watch football, baseball, basketball and hockey games on a regular basis. One thing that repeats on occasion at these sports matches, whether college ball or professional matches, is people who hold up signs featuring some important message. One message that keeps getting shown and broadcast on national television is the simple Bible reference of John 3:16. That is all. Held up to the camera on t-shirts, posters, and even more.

Lots of people are familiar with that Bible reference from the repeated broadcasts, but how many can quote the verse, word for word? Even if people can quote it, how many can go the next step and explain it? Talking about the context, the biblical situation, and the reason why the verse appears?

For that, we need to go back to the beginning of John chapter 3, where Nicodemus the Pharisee teacher and member of the Sanhedrin sneaks away to meet the Rabbi Jesus under the cover of darkness. To get a feel for how secretive Nicodemus is, imagine a secret agent or spy going for an undercover meeting. Imagine the caution and care that Nicodemus would be taking.          If other members of the ruling Sanhedrin found out about Nicodemus and his hush-hush visit to Jesus, I suspect Nicodemus would be in big trouble. The Pharisees were not exactly best friends with the Rabbi Jesus, and some of them were extremely antagonistic to Him.

After some talk between Jesus and Nicodemus about being born from above, the Gospel reading for today picks up in the middle of the conversation. Jesus brings up an event that happened back in the book of Numbers. Eileen read this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures for us this morning, too. Jesus breaks off talking about baptism and being born from above, and starts talking about Moses, of all things! Why change the subject to Moses in the wilderness?

The Biblical scholar Nicodemus understood immediately what Jesus was talking about. Of course he did! I bet he knew the Torah, the Books of Moses, backwards and forwards, and could even recite large portions of it, too.

However, the majority of us today do not have a clear understanding of this section of the Bible. Moses? A bronze serpent? Wilderness wandering? And of course, constant griping and complaining. It seemed like the people of Israel were forever complaining and griping. If it wasn’t one thing, it was the other. Gripe, gripe, gripe, gripe!

Listen to John 3:14-15. “14 As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “ That is what Jesus had to say to Nicodemus.

Remember how I talked to the children today about healing, and how Jesus heals people? That was the situation Jesus referred to. Moses and the people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness for a long time. The reading from the book of Numbers tells us that the people kept up their griping and complaining so long, and at such a volume, that finally God said “Enough!” (I’m paraphrasing here, but it is pretty close to what Numbers records.)

I am sure all of us know somebody who complains all the time. I don’t mean some of the time, or even most of the time, but all the time. Complain, gripe, moan. Everything is wrong. Nothing is right. The food stinks. The leaders are constantly wrong, and the people surrounding them can’t do anything right, either.

Wouldn’t that be annoying? Troublesome? Irksome? Even extremely frustrating? How would you feel if everything you always did and said was wrong? According to this really negative person, that is? Take that negativity, and multiply it by a lot. By thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Practically all the people of Israel were thinking, talking and acting like this. Negative thinking and acting. Some people refer to it as “stinking thinking.”

Reading from the book of Numbers: “But on the way the people lost their patience and spoke against God and Moses. They complained, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We can’t stand any more of this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many Israelites were bitten and died.” What an extreme reaction to griping and complaining!

But, don’t you and I act like that sometimes? Don’t you and I talk against leaders, and friends and families? Moan about the food and the accommodations, and complain about God and how we always get the short end of the stick? Gripe about how “It just isn’t fair! Why does that always happen to me? What’s the use?” You know what I mean. People who complain, gripe and moan. Maybe they even look a little bit like you and me?

Jesus reminded Nicodemus that God sent poisonous snakes into the camp. After the people repented and asked God to save them, Moses held up the bronze serpent high on a pole, and everyone who looked at the serpent was healed.

The truth about God and God’s purposes is confusing. Some people just do not get it (like Nicodemus, and like us, too). “Nicodemus finds this Good News confusing (John 3:10) because it demands that he let go of all that he has accomplished and understood — let go and become like a newborn, ready to receive the world on completely new terms.” [1] Nicodemus just did not understand the spiritual healing that God was holding out to him—and to us, too!

Sometimes, the world says “no.” Sometimes, God’s message of Good News just makes no sense to us at all. Sometimes, we are in the same situation as the people of Israel, where they got stuck in their complains and negativity.  One of the commentators I consulted believes “the reason for this is because we are to understand that God has manifested His love for the world in a particular way. Godloved” the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. God “loved” the world by sending His son into the world, so that He might be “lifted up” as a sin-bearer.[2]

We all are familiar with the picture or representation of Jesus on the Cross. Artists in Central America turn this picture around, and paint crosses with pictures or faces of lots of people on them. What a cosmic understanding that our Gospel writer had when he insisted that Jesus was raised up on the Cross, and He drew all the people of the world to Him! [3]

If we look at this from Nicodemus’s point of view, “for Jesus (or John) to say that God loved the world was revolutionary, shocking, and very distressing for a strict Jew. “ [4]

Jesus did not draw not just you and your friends to Himself. No, Jesus did not draw just one particular region or country to Himself. Jesus also drew people of other races, other ethnicities, and other faith traditions to Himself. Think about that. Really think.

God so loved the world. That means everyone, in every part of the world. As the apostle Paul might say, God loves everyone: Jew, Gentile. Slave, free. Rich, poor. No exceptions. Including you. Including me.

For God so loved you. For God so loved me. Praise God.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2394  Lance Pape

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/8-jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

“Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-fourth-sunday-in-lent-march-15.html

Worshiping with Children, Lent 4B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015

[4] https://bible.org/seriespage/8-jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

“Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Fishers of People

Matthew 4:18-23 – January 22, 2017

matt-4-19-fishers

“Fishers of People”

Is everyone here familiar with regular, ordinary work? Some people might call it common or mundane. The ordinary, everyday kinds of things that ordinary, everyday people do on a regular basis. That is what countless numbers of people do, every day, at work and at home.

That is what Peter, Andrew, James and John were doing, as fishermen. As the Gospel lesson today mentions, these men and their co-workers worked on their boat, doing hard work. Doing what they were used to doing every day. Probably, for some among them, doing the same ordinary, everyday things they had done on their boats for decades.

I suspect this day started out for Peter, Andrew, James and John like so many others. But, this day turned out differently, because Jesus showed up. Let’s see what happened from Matthew’s account: “As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.”

As one of the commentaries said, “Fishing was a popular trade on the Sea of Galilee. Fishing was the most common occupation for people residing in the small villages located on the lakeshore. Living on the shores of Lake Galilee with its abundant supply of fish, people understood fishing perhaps more than they did farming. Living on the shores of a fishing lake, the whole town was ‘into fishing.’” [1]

Typical for many people in the town of Capernaum, Peter and his brother Andrew were regular, ordinary working men, doing their regular, ordinary job, with others in their family’s boat. Casting their nets into the sea.

That troublemaking rabbi Jesus walks by the shore and calls out to them. He says, “19 Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” What on earth does Jesus mean by that?

Some people consider their work to be simply that: work. But, a portion of workers think work is something more than just a way to earn a paycheck. They consider their work to be much more: something from which they receive significant satisfaction, purpose, and meaning.

One of the writers I consulted, Dr. David Lose, helped to formulate a survey describing “work,” “vocation,” and “calling.” The survey asked respondents various questions about their work, how they viewed it, and how important work was in their lives.

“Where do [these] people find the greatest sense of fulfillment, meaning, and purpose (terms to which these survey respondents resonated far more strongly than “vocation” or “calling,” by the way)? Relationships. Even those who identified their work as a source of meaning and fulfillment usually cited their relationships at work as the places of particular significance.” [2]

Peter and Andrew were interrupted in the middle of their regular, ordinary day by Jesus. When Jesus called out to Peter and Andrew and said He would make them fish for people, He called to them, to build relationship with Him, first and foremost. Then, to build relationships with others.  

These two guys in the boat? It’s their response that is really extraordinary. Our Gospel reading says: ” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” Immediately! They don’t pause and think about it. Immediately, they go!

So now we have the rabbi Jesus, and Peter, and Andrew, walking along the shore. What happens next? “21 As Jesus went from there, He saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and He called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”

The same thing. These two are sitting in their father’s fishing boat, and the rabbi Jesus calls to them. They get up in the middle of things, leaving the nets half-mended, and they leave.

What on earth is going on here? This reading is difficult to believe. It’s really a stretch of the imagination to think of getting up and leaving everyone and everything these guys know to follow Jesus. I don’t know whether I could do it! Don’t most people figure the disciples were extraordinary, first-century super heroes of the faith? You know. People that we can admire from afar but certainly not identify with.

Dr. Lose refers to some biblical scholars who suggest that “Jesus had been living in Capernaum for a while and had known Peter, Andrew, James, and John for some time, and so this call was neither sudden nor abrupt but was the natural outcome of their friendship. Maybe that was the case (huge emphasis on “maybe”), but given that Matthew reports that when Jesus comes and calls they immediately follow, I think we are meant to take notice.” [3]

Whether Jesus knew these four guys for a long time or for just a little while, Matthew tells us—he stresses they followed Jesus immediately. They didn’t think about it, they didn’t dither, or pause, or tell Him to come back tomorrow. No! They immediately followed and entered into a relationship with Jesus.

And, Jesus? He didn’t call them to come and work for Him. He didn’t just want to be their supervisor or manager. No! He called them into a close, genuine relationship with Him: the best kind of relationship there is! Jesus continues to encourage His disciples, His friends, to bring others into a close, genuine relationship with Him, too. BFFs, best friends forever.

What were some things the New Testament tells us about this relationship with God? To bear each other’s burdens, care for each other (especially the vulnerable), and hold onto each other, through thick and thin. Striving to do this, we will always be upheld by God’s grace. [4]

Some people still don’t think they are worthwhile, or good enough to be real disciples. After all, I suspect we don’t have any super duper saints here in this church. No super heroes of the faith! Can God use me? Can God use you?  I know I am imperfect. I’m just a regular, ordinary person, going about my business, doing regular, ordinary things. I suspect that describes everyone here.

I have good news for us all, however. Jesus is still looking for people to come, to answer His call. He is calling to regular, ordinary people in regular, ordinary situations to rise up and become extraordinary.

Jesus is calling to you and to me, holding out His hand to each of us. Jesus wants us to be in a close, genuine relationship with Him, too. Jesus wants us to go the next step and have concern and love for others: to be in a close, genuine relationship with them, too. Not in a mission, or a ministry, or a movement, but in genuine love and caring for one another.

Here’s an action step for you: find one person with whom you are in significant relationship. Perhaps it’s a relationship that brings you particular joy, or sorrow, or frustration, or hope. It doesn’t really matter, just so long as it’s significant. Once you have that person in mind, please take a moment to pray for that person every day for a week … and to believe that God is using you to make a difference in the life of the person for whom you are praying. [5]

Come back next week and let me know what happened. Did you feel closer to God? Did anything change for that person? We all can rejoice, for all of us strive to be faithful. Alleluia! Amen!

 

(A great big thanks to Dr. David Lose for his excellent words and thoughts on Matthew 4 and his bible study “Fishers of People.”)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

[1] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_fishing_for_christGA.htm “Fishing for Christ,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3018  “Fishers of People,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[3] Ibid. (emphasis mine)

[4] https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3018  “Fishers of People,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

Pierced by Love

“Pierced by Love”

Crucifixion woodcut

Isaiah 53:5 – John 19:37 – March 25, 2016

This service tonight is brought to you—to me—to all of us—by the word “LOVE.” All through Lent we have been following Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, following Him as He expressed that love to all He met, in various ways.

On the first Sunday in Lent, Valentine’s Day, we looked at Jesus as He was tempted in the wilderness. While He was here on earth, Jesus made sure His heart was given to His Heavenly Father, And, He advised us on where our hearts ought to be, too. Loving God.

This giant Valentine heart I’m holding is a conversation heart. Can we think of it as a Valentine from Jesus? On one side, it says “Be mine.” On the other, it says “I’m yours.”

Who—or what—do we give our hearts to?

            We heard Jesus compare Himself to a mother hen. Jesus welcomes us into His embrace, into His community of love and caring. Just as a lost little chick who finally finds the way home into the nest, into his or her mother hen’s warm feathery embrace, so we can find our way into a community of caring, love, nourishing and belonging. I hope our church community extends that caring and loving welcome to everyone. Jesus wants us to know that we are welcome with Him, loved by Him, always.

We followed the thread of covenant love given to King David. Are we sharing God’s covenant love with those who need to hear? Many are hiding in loneliness and desperation thinking that no one loves them. We can introduce them to our Lord Jesus. We can tell them of the love of God that we have received through Christ. With our Lord Jesus we can find acceptance and security, and most importantly, love. The thread of covenant love, traced down to today. God is offering that love to us, today. Can you feel it?

Then, the parable of the Prodigal. Jesus gives hope to all those who make bad choices and run away to a far country.(Including us.) God the heavenly Father—the heavenly Parent—is actively looking for us when we make bad choices. When we come to our senses and return to God for forgiveness, God comes running to meet us, from a long way off. If that isn’t love, what is?

We come to Mary of Bethany, anointing Jesus with a whole bottle of unbelievably expensive perfume. She intended this gift as a token of her extravagant love for Jesus. We know Jesus had given real expressions of His love to her and her family, in the raising of Lazarus.

Can you believe, spending a whole year’s wages on a small bottle of perfume? Astronomically expensive. Do you understand why I called Mary’s expression a gift of extravagant love?

I think Mary understood the warnings Jesus had been giving, about very soon entering Jerusalem. About the path He must travel—to the cross. Passover was coming! The Gospel tells us so. She is not only showing her extravagant love, but preparing Jesus for whatever it is that He will face—very soon.

Now, today, Good Friday, Jesus is facing that ultimate gift of love.

When I was in my twenties, recently graduated from a Christian college, it was this time of year. Holy Week. I had connections to several different churches around Chicago, in different denominations. I took the opportunity to attend a service each day at this time, at each place of worship. Thursday night, Maundy Thursday, I attended a Lutheran church. The night our Lord Jesus instituted the Eucharist. We celebrated the Lord’s Supper that night. Good Friday, I went to church at an evangelical church. The church celebrated communion that night. On Saturday at that time, I was in the habit of occasionally attending a Messianic synagogue. I attended that Saturday, and they celebrated that commemoration of the Passover dinner where Messiah Yeshua instituted the Lord’s Supper. And on Sunday morning, Easter morning, I went to a Presbyterian church, where we celebrated Easter communion.

Four very different services at four diverse places of worship. Four separate occasions where I had the opportunity to partake in the Lord’s Supper. With each renewed reminder of the Words of Institution, where we remembered that on the night in which He was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and took the cup at supper. Said, “This is My body, this is My blood, broken and shed for all of you.” And St. Paul in 1 Corinthians reminds us when we eat this bread and drink this cup, we remember the death of our Lord until He comes again.

As each service washed over me, my consciousness of my sinfulness and how unworthy I was also washed over me. I love this reading from the prophet, Isaiah chapter 53. This chapter of Isaiah keeps breaking my heart. It broke my heart in my twenties, and still continues to break my heart today. I bow my head in grief as I read about our Lord Jesus, despised and rejected of humanity. A man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Acquainted with grief.

On that Holy Week in my twenties, with the repeated communion services, my sin was repeatedly put before me. Extreme grief and sorrow came over me each time as I repeatedly considered my sins, my transgressions, and these words from the prophet Isaiah.

Jesus was, indeed, pierced for my transgressions. Through His death on the cross, through those wounds He received, I was healed. Healed from all iniquity!

These words of the prophet are not just words on a page. They became vividly real to me some years ago. Just as they are still vividly real, today. Real for me, for you, for everyone. Jesus was pierced for all of our transgressions. Jesus was crushed for all of our iniquities.

“On Thursday—yesterday, Jesus ate with His disciples.  He knew it would be His last meal with them.  When no one washed the disciples’ feet, Jesus did the job.  He even washed the feet of Judas who would turn Him in to the soldiers and Peter who would pretend he did not even know Jesus later that night. That is love!

“On Friday, Jesus endured whipping and being nailed to a cross.  He forgave the soldiers who did the job.  He endured the crowds who mocked him as He died and forgave them.  He watched His mother watch Him die on the cross, and even asked his friend John to take care of her.  That is love!

“By the time he died on Friday, His heart was broken by his enemies, by the crowds, and even by His friends.  But Jesus kept on loving them all.  That is love – God’s love!” (from Worshiping with Children, Palm/Passion Sunday, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.)

Yes, our Lord Jesus did die on the cross. He took upon Himself the sins of humanity, willingly. Lovingly. He was pierced, because of love. The best news of all? Jesus did it because He loved us with God’s love. Boundless, abundant, transforming. Jesus loves without limits.

We have been forgiven. Just as the prophet says, through His wounds we are truly healed.  That is indeed something for which we all can thank God.

That is not the end of the story. No! Jesus may have died that Good Friday afternoon, but He did not stay dead. He rose from the dead! Sunday is coming! However, it is not here yet.

Yes, we sorrow with the women and with John, there at the Cross. Yes, we bow our heads in anguish and shame, guilt and grief.

When someone asks us, “How much did Jesus love people?” We can say, “Jesus loved us this much.” (holding up outstretched arms)

 

(Thanks to Carolyn Brown, for her excellent ideas for a Lenten series on Love! I borrowed freely from  Worshiping with Children, Palm/Passion Sunday, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2016.

http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/01/year-c-palm-passion-sunday-march-20-2016.html )

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers– where I am doing a Lenten journey.  #PursuePEACE – And my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind -Thanks!

Love, Humble and Obedient

“Love, Humble and Obedient”

 

crucifixion sketch

Luke 19:37-40 – Phil 2:8 – March 16, 2016

Have you ever watched a television show or a movie where there are two different stories going on at the same time? A few scenes of the first story, and it gets to an exciting or a suspenseful part; then the show switches to the other story. The second story goes on for a bit and just gets interesting, and suddenly the show changes back to the first story.

This sermon is going to do just that.

Like many stories, the first story we look at today does not start at the beginning. Instead, it interrupts in the middle of the action. Rabbi, or Teacher Jesus, wanted to enter Jerusalem on a Sunday morning. This was a special week. Observing, believing Jews from not only all over Israel, but from all over the world had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast.

People were really starting to talk about this Teacher Jesus! Some people said He was the prophet Elijah who had returned. Others said He was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Even some in Israel said this Jesus might be the Messiah, the Anointed One of God.

So, when Jesus planned His entrance into Jerusalem that day, He knew what people were saying. He wanted to show everyone—the friendly people in the crowds as well as those who doubted or actively disliked Him—that He was the Messiah. Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. He did NOT come in like a conquering king, on a white horse. No, He came in as the Anointed One of God. Humble, and riding on a donkey.

Let’s consider what the Teacher Jesus had been doing for a number of months. Jesus’ words and teaching had authority. He preached with power, which was different from the way the scribes and teachers of the day preached. He healed people, restored sight to the blind and made lame people walk—all of which showed God’s mighty power. And if this wasn’t enough, the Teacher Jesus even forgave sins! He certainly appeared to be from God.

We’re going to shift scenes now. Cut!! Now—instead of looking at a situation two thousand years ago, we are going back before the universe was created. Before God spoke and called anything at all into being. Before the beginning of all things, there was GOD. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There was community and fellowship within the Godhead even before anything else was created in the whole universe.

I’ll focus on God the Son. Fully God. He was always in existence. There never was a time when He was NOT. When God the Son took on humanity, when He became Jesus at Christmas two thousand years ago, the human Jesus had an actual, physical birthday. But God the Son always was, always is and always will be. It’s a mystery! I can’t understand it, much less explain it. This is a part of the God we worship and celebrate.

Let’s compare the two stories now. Take God the Son before the foundation of the world, all-powerful, all-knowing. Take Jesus the Teacher in Jerusalem, teaching, preaching, healing, even forgiving sins! Compare them side by side. These are all ways that we can describe God.

Jesus, as He comes into Jerusalem, is greeted by crowds of people waving palms and shouting ‘Hosanna!’ They quoted Psalm 118, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ This is a clear sign of what the crowds who greeted Jesus on that day were thinking. This was the way the people of Jerusalem had greeted the conquering king Jehu several centuries before. They greeted Him as Messiah, the Anointed One, who comes in the name of the Lord.

Consider God the Son, before the foundation of the world. The Apostle Paul tells the believers in the city of Philippi that He set aside His God-ness. He laid it aside. Jesus emptied Himself, willingly, of all things related to being God, to become Man. After being in on the creation of the heavens and the earth, after speaking the world into existence, after being all-knowing and all-powerful, God the Son became a baby. Think of a baby you know, a cute, cuddly, helpless little baby. God the Son willingly became like that.

We all know the Christmas story. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a barn to a young, homeless couple. Jesus was Jewish, from Israel, an oppressed people-group, in an occupied country. Jesus was marginalized and shunted aside from the very start.

Think about Israel in the first century—occupied territory! People oppressed, terrorized by not only the Roman soldiers, but also by Herod’s soldiers. Looking through history, we can read the fear of occupation and domination from first-person, historical accounts. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a letter written during the time of the Underground Railroad, a diary from Nazi-occupied Holland or a personal account from a victim of human rights abuse from Guatemala today. Horror. Violence. Oppression.

God the Son breaks into this mess of a world. God over all the universe, the Word made flesh, became a baby named Jesus. He became powerless, most vulnerable, least of all. In this fallen world, where power and influence are everything, Jesus came to be with us as a helpless baby.

But I’m not done with the story—yet. Or should I say, the stories? Plural.

Jesus the Teacher could have hidden Himself. He could have just laid low for years, taught quietly, stayed on the outskirts, far away from large towns. But, NO. Jesus did just the opposite. Jesus decided to come to Jerusalem, where there were large crowds, many Jewish leaders, and also many Roman soldiers. He walked into this situation with his eyes wide open.

Some people—I’m thinking of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes and other temple leaders—were awfully uneasy. For them, Jesus was their worst nightmare. Dr. Luke tells us in chapter 9 of his gospel that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. Our Lord Jesus made up His mind to travel that path. Certain death awaited Him. But He determined to go, nevertheless.

Let’s see what the Apostle Paul says in Philippians 2. Jesus is described as humbling Himself. Humble? The people in Jerusalem that Palm Sunday morning certainly didn’t expect a humble, quiet guy. No! They expected someone who would take charge, rally the people, and mount a rebellion! They wanted someone who would turn things upside down!

Think about the world the Jews were living in. They were subjects of the Romans, the most powerful nation in the world. So the Jews did not like this oppression much at all. People would pop up, claiming to be the Messiah, the Anointed One, and attempt to rally an army to himself. These attempts never went anywhere. The Romans quickly put an end to any rebellion.

When the Apostle Paul wrote about the person and work of our Lord Jesus, he uses terms familiar to his audience. Paul communicates it in simple, matter-of-fact words. Listen to just a part: Jesus “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, and coming in human likeness.” Even at that Passover dinner on Thursday night, Jesus did not lord it over the disciples. He washed their feet. He did not seek to dominate others, like the Romans did. So many people want power over others. Instead, Jesus wanted to serve. Just like the Apostle Paul describes here in Philippians, Jesus took the form of a servant. He humbly, willingly and lovingly decided to serve others.

Wow. I repeat, WOW.

Let’s get back to the story. Back to Jerusalem. While Jesus went through the turbulent events of Passion Week, with all of the confrontations and discussions, and especially Passover dinner on Thursday night, we see only a portion of the events of this week. Almost the highlights of the week, what you might see if you were watching a video or a television show in two parts, and at the beginning of the second part they showed you the story so far, up to this point.

Why did Jesus come to earth, empty and humble Himself? He did it for us. We can’t understand it. It is pure love from Jesus. And, we can praise God that Jesus did this, for us.

Remember the people on that Palm Sunday morning, the ones who said ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ They were looking for a savior, a conqueror. Jesus was a savior, He was a conqueror, all right. Just not in the way everyone else expected.

Paul tells us that Jesus became obedient, obedient to death, even the death of the cross. Jesus could have turned away. Jesus could have stepped aside. But He didn’t. We even hear it in what Jesus prayed in the Garden. He said to His Father, “Not My will, but Thine be done.” He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

Jesus knew that some of that crowd who cried “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday morning would be screaming “Crucify Him!” on Good Friday morning. On Palm Sunday morning, He entered Jerusalem. Jesus was preparing Himself to be obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, one of the most horrible kinds of execution ever thought of by anyone, anywhere.

We can ask . . . WHY? Why did the God over all the universe, the Creator of the heavens and the earth come down from heaven and die a criminal’s death on a cross? It was LOVE.

Jesus shows us a love we could not resist, that melts our hearts. This is what causes us to fall at His feet in worship and praise. As the final step, the culmination of His amazing love for us, Jesus has been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God the Father! Jesus receives the name which is above every name. Jesus Christ is Lord. Did you hear? Do you know? At the name of Jesus every knee should bow! Every knee of those in heaven, and those on earth, and those under the earth. Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Praise God. Amen, and amen!

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers– where I am doing a Lenten journey.  #PursuePEACE – And my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind -Thanks!