Sunday, April 26, 2015

Building An Altar Out of the Rocks of Life

Psalm 81:16   (NRSV)
"I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
    and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”

I have a box of rocks up here this morning.

I collected this the last time I went Trick or Treating . . .
          No, seriously --- I have collected these rocks over my lifetime

Sometimes I picked them up purposefully --- as if I wanted to collect them

Other times, they were piled on me --- sometimes even thrown at me.

The truth is --- you too are carrying around a lot of rocks.

Some of the rocks that we carry are weighing us down.
Some of the rocks are a burden to us.

And there is no doubt but that some of the rocks that we are carrying are holding us back or at least slowing us down.

We all carry rocks - burdens of pain in our lives.
1.    Bad relationship with parents
2.    Lying to friends
3.    Escape with drugs or alcohol
4.    Loss of a friend
5.    Divorce
6.    Breaking the law
7.    Cheating on a spouse
8.    Illness
9.    Death of spouse - parent - child - friend

I don't know what your rocks are --- but what I do know, is that you have some

The bible is filled with stories about people who struggled with their faith

We all carry rocks --- every time we are hurt or disappointed by life we tend to pick up
another rock,
          the question is not whether we have rocks ---

No, the real question is what we do with those rocks?
Do we cart them around?
Do we allow them to crush us?
Do they weigh us down like a millstone around our necks?

If I had to pick a favorite character in the Bible --- I think the answer for me would be fairly simple

When I was asked to pick a "life verse" --- the verse you want to model your life after, I picked a verse from this person’s life

When I need encouragement --- I often find myself turning to this person’s story

I am, of course, talking about Joshua

Joshua had plenty of rocks in his life.

And at one point --- God very directly told Joshua what to do with them

Joshua 4:1-8 (NRSV)
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: “Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’” Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”

The Israelites did as Joshua commanded. They took up twelve stones out of the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord told Joshua, carried them over with them to the place where they camped, and laid them down there.

Joshua is told to take the rocks ---         the rocks of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness
                                                          the rocks of the death of their leader --- Moses
                                                          The rocks of disillusionment and hurt
          God says --- take those rocks and build and altar to God.

But, my God, how do you do that?

There was a young preacher who went to preach at one of those mission stations you find in the inner city.
          They are very strange places,
if you every get the opportunity, you want to attend one, but what makes them so strange is that it is one of the only places where people will get up and disagree with you while you are preaching.

Well, this young preacher was preaching, and he was quoting from Rudyard Kipling's poem, IF, it is a poem that you might be familiar with.

The poem begins by saying
"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; . . .
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone,"
then it concludes with these words
"Yours is the earth and everything that's in it, And --- which is more --- you'll be a man, my son!"

When the preacher had finished the poem, one of the men at the back, one of the few who were still awake, jumped up and screamed out with all his vigor:
"Yah, but what if you can't".

Now that is the issue that I think we all face.

When we come up against the rocks of life, it is not easy to keep our nerve and sinew, it is not easy to persevere.

But we do it, not of our own strength, but in the paradox of that mystery that God is with us, and that the loving almighty God is the God who has the power to overcome evil, who has the power to take the rocks out of the hard places of life and to turn them into an altar, and allow the honey to come forth.

2015 marks the 30th anniversary of Stewart's death.

It was in April of 1985, that the cancer was found in Stewart's body.

The day the discovered the cancer in Stewart's body I was throwing a graduation party in Durham North Carolina.

In the midst of that party came the worse phone call I have received in my life up to now.

Eight short months later --- On November 11, 1985 Stewart Wesley Conger died.

          I have felt the anguish of the rocks of life.

Giving up Celebration Church was like another death to me.

Nancy and I, along with Jessica who, at the time was less than a year old, started that church in our home in Warsaw Indiana.

For so many years I hid my feelings --- because I was afraid that the weight of the rocks would crush me.

Leaving Ridge is no different

We LOVE Ridge Church
          We LOVE you who make up Ridge Church

But much like when I left Celebration church 20 years ago --- I knew that it was time --- despite the pain
          despite the anguish

You too have been thrown against the rocks of life --- but the strange thing is ---
          that in the midst of our pain ----
          in the midst of our anguish --
          in the midst of our darkness there is light.

In the midst of our sorrow there can be joy --- in the midst of our agony there can be sweetness ---- IF WE ALLOW GOD TO BRING FORTH HONEY FROM THOSE ROCKS.

I prayed with all of my heart that God would deliver me from this evil by healing Stewart,
          but God delivered me in a different way --- in a way that I did not expect.

Out of the rock that was Stewart's sickness and death --- God transformed me in a very real way.

I believe that Stewart has placed his mantle upon me.

When I think of him, his spirit is with me and I feel his joy, his enthusiasm, his love for people.

That mantle will be upon my shoulder and I will enjoy it for the rest of my life and because of that I gained a new sense of love for people,
          compassion for people,
          understanding for people,
          a new sense of patience and courage and trust.

I have seen the worst that life can throw at me; I have seen a young man who had the bravery and the courage to face it with faith and determination --- who kept the faith to the end.

Out of that Rock, by giving it to God, God brought forth honey.

Remember one thing; it is God who brings forth the honey from our rocks.

We can only give up our rocks and make an altar out of them --- but only God can bring forth the sweetness.

God is willing to give you that gift, if only you will give first your pain to him.

But that is Not easy to do
          We like our pain
                   smooth, comfortable

We can go through life trying to carry all of the world's burdens, or we can take those rocks --- those hard and difficult places of life and build an altar to God --- and we can trust that when we build that altar that God can, and will, bring forth honey out of our pain!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sin Boldly

2 Samuel 11:2-5    (NRSV)
It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”

How many of you have been to County Line Orchard?
          Going Apple picking is always a fun family adventure.

I know it is the wrong time of year, but every fall when I was a little boy, my family would go to the Bell Apple Orchard to pick apples.

It was kind of a tradition for my family to make the trip to Barrington, IL and spend the day picking apples.

One year in particular sticks out in my mind.

We made the trek to the Orchard, paid the man our money and went off to select a bushel basket of fresh ripe apples.

As we set off into the orchard, an old fellow, who looked as if he might of been the original caretaker of the garden of Eden, but was obviously the caretaker of this orchard, said:
"If you want the best apples, you must go deep into the orchard, for the apples along the fringes are picked over, but as you go deeper into the orchard, you'll find the best fruit."

Now you have to keep in mind that my parents had three boys, and if I remember correctly, we were probably about the ages of the Ray boys ---- so being at an apple orchard meant picking apples --- it didn't mean walking, and walking and walking.

But somehow, my parents got us to walk quite a ways into the orchard --- after we had walked for what seemed like forever --- we set down our basket to begin picking apples.

But just as soon as we set down our basket we heard the old man holler
          "GO DEEPER".

So we picked up the basket, went a little further into the orchard, set down the basket, But once again we heard him shouting his advice:
          "Go deeper, the best fruits farther in."

Once again we picked up our basket and walked along deciding that surely we had gone far enough, but just as we set down our basket he hollered once again:
          "GO ON. GO DEEPER!"

This time we went a substantially longer distance, and discovered that indeed he was right.
          The finest reddest, ripest apples were untouched and waiting for us!

It seems to me that what often passes for faith in our lives in not much different than that experience in the apple orchard.

We often stay around the edges --- not trying too hard to deepen our understanding --- content to lead lives that are unexamined.

Lives in which we barely know ourselves and know God even less.

Is it any wonder that often the fruits of religious experience taste bitter in our mouths and seem to bring so little nourishment to the lives of people who are starving and searching for something that will fulfill the deepest hungering of their souls?

But how can it be that a message that is as fresh and invigorating as the Bible offers to us --- often becomes more like taking a dose of castor oil than biting into a juicy, refreshing apple?

Over the last thirty years of ministry, what I have heard from countless people is that religion (Christianity) doesn't have the enjoyment of a fresh ripe apple.

Maybe, it is because we have been too busy picking from the rigid, moralistic trees that lie around the outer edges of our faith, and we have never bothered to take the time or the effort to go deeper into the truly satisfying experience of a God who receives us with love and with tender mercy.

It is at the center of the orchard that GRACE brings forth fruits of judgment and mercy that blossom together.

What we in the church often fail to bring into creative tension, the Bible illustrates marvelously with some of its greatest characters.

One of the great stories in the Bible which seems to illustrate this tension between grace and judgment is the story of David and Bathsheba.

You all know the story don't you?

Well, just in case you have forgotten, let me refresh your memory.

I am going to be using the RSV to tell the story ---- that is the Revised Steve Version.

In the heat of a late afternoon, King David fixed a double scotch and took a stroll out onto his balcony that overlooked the city. He reached down a pinched a good inch and reminded himself that he had better start using that new Nordic track that he bought for the palace. With a bored look, knowing that he possessed all that he could see --- suddenly he stopped breathing --- for he noticed a naked women standing in a shallow pool dripping water over her shoulders with cupped hands. The sweltering afternoon seemed cool in comparison to how he suddenly felt. His passion buckled his knees --- and in an attempted to quench his suddenly parched throat, David tossed down the whole drink and coughed a bit as either the scotch or the woman's beauty caught him off guard.

Like most over achievers, David was always looking for new horizons to conquer, and Bathsheba looked like just the kind of horizon a King might want to explore. It wasn't just her naked sensuality that David couldn't take his eyes off of --- nor was it simply that having seen so much of death he needed some warmth and tenderness to make him feel alive again. NO, what buckled his knees and caused him to gulp his drink was the sudden overwhelming desire to have her at any cost --- and the fear that the cost might be high indeed!!!

What really shocks you is the fact that not only is this a story from the Bible, but that David is the greatest king of Israel and the author of some of the most cherished poetry of all time.

I am willing to bet that everyone here knows at least one of his poems.
Some of us probably know at least one of them from memory
          How about THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD?

If we were really honest with each other, we would probably have preferred if the Biblical writers had left out this story --- because generally we still like our religious leaders beyond reproach.

But it isn't just David the King that concerns the Bible, nor is it David the psalmist that we see here; instead what this story tends to expose is something more akin to all of us
David the human being whose knees buckled, as a naked women tried to innocently bathe on that sultry afternoon.

When you continue to read the story we find out that this relationship which began with adultery was consummated in the murder of an innocent man, Bathsheba's husband Uriah.

Although the child created out of this illicit encounter dies, as if no good could come from such a liaison,
in time a child named Solomon was born David and Bathsheba
but not before the prophet Nathan came to David with a story that once again had David's knees buckling.

Nathan told a cleverly apt parable about a rich guy with thousands of sheep who killed a poor man's pet lamb and served gyro sandwiches to his friends.

Then Nathan launched into a sermon that gives new meaning to the word GUILT.

By the time Nathan had finished, David decided to cancel all of his appointments for the rest of the day and to slither away and lick his wounds --- and if you know the story, you know that his wounds were numerous!

This story has it all: LUST, ADULTERY, MURDER, DEATH; we open the Bible and it is God's eternal soap opera: "All My Children", "Desperate Housewives" and "Gray's Anatomy" all rolled into one.

If you don't believe me, go home this afternoon and take a close look at Solomon's writings, or better yet --- his life.

Usually this story is told to make moralistic illustrations about sin --- and God knows it has enough sin for any TV series.

And if the story were to end here, there wouldn't be much else to say
so all of us decent church going people can just shake our heads and pray very hard that Steve will get back to the Gospel so that the worship service will be safe for children once again.

But the truth is
whatever sins you and I have committed have been safely hidden or forgotten, and we thank God that prophets like Nathan are few and far between.

HOWEVER, the problem with plastic saints who tell about their triumphs over sin using the past tense and saying wisely, but with just a tone of sadness:
          "Yes, I was once a sinner."
Is that they have missed the most important point about this story!!

It isn't that plastic saints are somehow not sinners anymore, the problem is that it is much more likely that our sins are so much more subtle and thus, potentially even more destructive and corrosive than ever.

If your knees haven't buckled recently from a sudden surge of raw desire and if you haven't done anything stupidly, flagrantly wrong in years, that doesn't necessarily mean that God is going to award you with a plaque for the Christian most likely to succeed.

It may mean nothing more profound than: your life is lived so cautiously and with such great control that even if God wanted to help you there would be no need, because you are managing quite well, thank you very much.

If it doesn't do anything else for us, our religious faith ought to take enough of the plastic out of our lives that we become real to one another and real to ourselves.

The more subtle and hidden sin becomes, the harder it is to get past it.

Sins of the spirit are no less sins than those of the flesh, and maybe our reaction to the story of David and Bathsheba is like that fellow that Jesus pointed out who was praying in the temple.
Do you remember that story?
The man said quite proudly: "I thank God that I am not like other people."

It is in this context that Martin Luther could say, "Sin boldly ... but trust God more boldly still."

I used to get together with some friends and we would share sermon ideas, when I shared the title for this morning's sermon one of my friends turned toward me and said:
protestant reformation.
BOLDLY STILL," reminds us that whatever holiness we may have is not of our own doing, but comes to us as the gracious gift of God.
knowing that God is still in control.

          "You mean Sing boldly, don't you?"

SIN BOLDLY, ... BUT TRUST GOD MORE BOLDLY STILL," said the father of the

By which he meant that religious faith should help us see ourselves honestly, and if we are going to play games with God, hide and seek won't get us anywhere.

The problem with our tendencies to posture and pretend that we are better people then we really are, is that our moralistic games leave us lonely, insecure, and worst of all, unforgiven!

The question that confronts us as we pick around the edges of the orchard is this: WHICH IS STRONGER AND MORE ENDURING, SIN OR GRACE?
          How strong is God's grace?
          How enduring is God's mercy?
          How deep is God's love?

Face it.
If the moral failures of our lives have the power to put us beyond the reach of God's gracious offer to love us and heal us, then God's grace isn't very strong at all.
          Is it?

It seems to me that Luther's wise advice to "SIN BOLDLY, BUT TRUST GOD MORE

And just to remind us of that, God came to us wrapped up in the clothing of human flesh.

When Jesus willing gave himself up to be killed, the point was made forever that God is big enough and has watched the human soap opera long enough to love us with a passion that should buckle our knees of we only understood it!

Too often, in a fear of failing,
of making a mistake,
afraid of sinning
we do nothing.
We stay on the edges of our faith, where we think it is safe.

God says trust me trust that I will stay with you

Trust that I can make something, even of your mistakes

If you are going to sin - sin trying to do something beautiful for God --- and sin boldly,

Without blinking at sin, without denying it, or rationalizing it, the Christian faith reminds us that sin is not the last word!!

The final word, the eternal word is GRACE!!!

I think that we must take sin very seriously, never blink at it, but yet, still proclaim with joy
(Borrowing the words of Abraham Lincoln) that God must love sinners, "cause he made so many of them."

Deeper into the orchard of our faith we find that, in reality, THE MOMENTS OF OUR

Our faith is not about candles and liturgies, altars or stained glass windows or beautiful buildings; our faith is about living creatively, sometimes failing, often falling short, but going on with our lives anyway, because who knows what God is going to create out of the mess that we have made.

By the way, in case you have forgotten and thought that the story of David and Bathsheba ends in the book of Samuel, and just in case I have left you with the impression that they were just a bunch of adulterers and murderers, let me remind you how the story ends --- and let's see what God created out of this mess.

In both Matthew and Luke we are told that Jesus, the Messiah is the great grand-child of David and Bathsheba

God can, and will --- if we will only go deeper. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Never Ending Story

Luke 24:13-35   (NRSV)
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Nancy and I have been doing lots of reminiscing as we near the end out our time serving together in active ministry.

And as I was pondering my sermon this morning I recalled a story that took place just about 26 years ago.

It was the spring of 1989 and Nancy and I were serving at Pretty Lake Trinity United Methodist Church on the West Side of Plymouth Indiana.  Really, it was out in the country, but I didn't want to admit to that then.

The youth led the Easter Sunrise service each year and that Saturday afternoon we had run through the service ---- It was a beautiful spring day --- warm enough that after the run through we could walk over to the Parsonage and play a little basketball.

The NCAA tourney was heading to the final four the next weekend.

Easter evening Duke would beat top seeded Georgetown in the East Regional Final to propel them to the Final Four.

Duke) lost in the National Semi-Final and Michigan won it's only NCAA Men's Basketball championship, in a thrilling overtime game.

I had set up a basketball goal at the house, so a few of the youth came over and we started playing basketball.

I was 29 at the time, and thought I had all the right stuff.

I remember this as if it happened yesterday.

I was driving to the basket, doing one of my best Michael Jordan moves

I did a little shake and bake and went in for the easy basket

As I soared for the basket --- out of nowhere --- Clyde, a gangly teenager in the youth group --- came out of nowhere and blocked my shot --- stuffing the ball in my face.

And I will never forget --- as I was picking my embarrassed self off of the ground --- Clyde turned to me and said:
"You know --- if you had jumped I don't think I would have ever blocked it."

Heck --- I jumped as high as I could

So why have I embarrassed myself telling you this story of my athletic prowess?

To make a point ---
And that point is that sometimes things happen right in front of us and we don't even notice them

Clyde assumed I had not jumped!
          While the reality was just the opposite.

It reminds me of my favorite phrases that my mother always used to say about losing things in plain sight
If it were a snake (she would say) --- it would have bit you

Too often our lives become:
Too busy
too complicated
so confusing
that it becomes easy to fail to notice all that is going on around you

Many of you know my friend Mark, the pastor at Crown Point UMC, he tells a great story about a time when he was spending a semester of college in Germany

During that semester he had been having a great time --- but he says he remembers becoming very homesick
During the semester he had to have his appendix removed and he spent quite a bit of time in the hospital

He had the opportunity to visit East Germany (for those of you who don't remember --- this was before the wall separating the East and the West existed and Germany was reunified)
That visit made him long for the USA and home

During a break from school his parents decided to come and visit him

His parents flew into Brussels and Mark had to take the train to meet them

He recalls that he got there a couple of hours after their plane was set to land, so he went directly to the hotel they were staying at to meet them

When he arrived at the hotel he found that they had yet to check in, so he left a note with the front desk that he was going to go across the street to a little cafe and have some breakfast and that they should come and join him when they arrived.

As he turned to head to the cafe --- he saw his mother and father walking into the hotel
Mark says that he dropped what he was doing and ran over and embraced his dad

His dad, so startled by the experience called out:
"Please let go of me --- I am just a tourist --- I just arrived"

His dad failed to recognize who it was that was embracing him

I know --- you are all telling me that story is ridiculous --- that it would never happen --- BUT IT DID

If you remember our Easter Gospel story from last week it is virtually identical

Do you remember the story?

Mary Magdalene has come to the tomb early on that first Easter
She finds that the stone which had blocked the tomb had been rolled away

While standing there perplexed she meets a man at the tomb who asks her
"Woman, why are you crying?  Whom do you seek?"

Mary was certain that it was the gardener and so she asks him what has happened to the body of Jesus --- for she wanted to go and prepare the body for burial

Mary FAILED TO RECOGNIZE that the person she was talking to was actually Jesus

But that NEVER happens

Our Gospel story this morning --- Two men are walking home after the death of Jesus.

There wasn't any reason to hang around in Jerusalem any longer --- and it was probably dangerous to do so if you were one of Jesus' followers
          So they were heading home
No doubt --- disappointed

As they were walking along a stranger begins to walk with them

They talk about everything that had been going on in Jerusalem the past week

Only when they broke bread together did they realize it was Jesus.

Do you think you would recognize Jesus if he came alongside you today?

How would you know it was him?

One year when I was working with the confirmation class I asked that question and I loved their answers
          They were of course all over the place

But my favorite of all time has to be when one of the students replied:
"That's easy, I would recognize him because his clothes would be old and look funny."

But seriously --- how would you recognize Jesus today?

Frederick Buechner in his book The Magnificent Defeat writes about finding Jesus when we fail to recognize him:
. . . it is precisely at such times as this that Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but . . . at supper time, or walking along a road. This is the element that all the stories about Christ's return to life have in common: Mary waiting at the empty tomb and suddenly turning around to see somebody standing there—someone she thought at first was the gardener; all the disciples except Thomas hiding out in a locked house, and then his coming and standing in the midst; and later, when Thomas was there, his coming again and standing in the midst; Peter taking his boat back after a night at sea, and there on the shore, near a little fire of coals, a familiar figure asking, "Children, have you any fish?"; the two men at Emmaus who knew him in the breaking of the bread. He never approached from on high, but always in the midst, in the midst of people, in the midst of real life and the questions that real life asks. . . . The sacred moments of miracle, are often the everyday moments, the moments which, if we do not look with more than our eyes, or listen with more than our ears, reveal only . . . the gardener

Somehow we have to open our inner eyes
          The eyes that touch our heart
so that we will not just see a stranger, not just see a simple gardener
But so that we might see Jesus

During World War II a Christian woman in Germany did all that she could do to help save the Jews from persecution (and often death)

Because of her efforts she was arrested by the Nazis and found herself sent off to a concentration camp.

While in the camp she begged the guards to let her hold an Easter service for the other Christians in the camp.

After a great deal of debate she was finally allowed to hold a service --- but was told that it could only last 5 minutes

They spent the five minutes singing hymns and reading the Easter story --- and when the five minutes were over --- the guard came and whisked the prisoners off to their cells

She too was thrown back into her cell --- and the door was slammed behind her

As she lay on her cot in the bare cell --- there was a noise at the window and a guard passed an Easter lily into her cell.

Jesus was real and present in that moment

          Where do you see Jesus?

Do you miss him, or do you find him in the little things?

In a few moments, I am going to invite you to come and share in the Eucharist.

One of the things that I am convinced of --- is that Easter was not a one and done experience.

Nor is it just a once a year celebration

Easter is WHENEVER we encounter Jesus.
at the tomb
walking along the road
at the grocery store
at work
in the midst of our family

whenever we break bread together

As you come to receive these gifts --- ask yourself --- can I see Jesus? 
          Is Jesus real to me --- here and now?

And if the answer is NO? 
          Open your eyes --- for Jesus is all around you

And if you can --- don't keep Jesus to yourself --- share Jesus with as many as you can

The good news --- as we journey through life --- is that the story of Jesus is NEVER ENDING

Jesus is always with us --- if we will just open our eyes and embrace his love

Sunday, April 05, 2015

EASTER Something To Die For

John 20:1-18    (NRSV)
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Somebody asked me a rather interesting question the other day.  They wanted to know if I believed in a "Literal Resurrection of Jesus."

I love questions like that --- don't you?
Because what they were asking me, really wasn't what they asked!

Do I believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus?
The answer to me is simple!

Of course, I believe in a literal resurrection of Jesus

But as we talked it was clear what they really wanted to know was, if we had been there on that day 2,000 years ago --- could we have videotaped the resurrection of Jesus.
And to that question, my answer is a resounding: I DOUBT IT

I do not believe that the resurrection was something that could be captured on film

However, I do believe that it was "real"

Whatever happened following Jesus death was real to those who followed him.

They encountered Jesus in some new and powerful ways --- that I don't think they even expected.

But it changed their lives ---- and it changed history.
And it changed my life

As we gathered together on Friday, I encouraged you to place yourself at the scene of Jesus crucifixion.

And as we remembered and witnessed the terrible events of that day --- I was struck by the words that Jesus called out from the cross.
"Father, forgive them!"
"For they don't know what they are doing."

I meditated on those words all weekend.

Forgive them?

Forgive us?

Do you remember Thursday Evening --- Jesus when in the Garden of Gethsemane asked if there could be another way?

It is becoming clear to me --- there could be NO OTHER WAY for God to show us what God is really like.

But before I could get there --- I had to wander in the wilderness.
          Not for 40 days and for 40 nights

But in many ways, I have been wandering in that wilderness for almost 55 years.

Tony Jones shares a great story about attending a large youth gathering.

There were hundreds of kids at this event.
No doubt driven by hormones as much as spiritual curiosity

On Friday, the highly touted speaker for the weekend gave a talk in the evening chapel service that endeared him to all of the kids.

He told funny stories about himself in middle school and how nerdy he was, and he set himself up as a credible authority on spiritual matters.

Then, on Saturday night, he brought the heat.

He shared a story that many of you may have heard of the years --- one that I certainly have encountered many times

He told us a long, detailed story about a poor peasant woman in Russia who lived with her toddler daughter in a dismal, Soviet- era apartment.

They had a horrible life, but at least they had each other.

Then, one night as they were sleeping, the shoddy Communist construction gave way during an earthquake, and the building collapsed on top of them.

The mother was pinned beneath a huge piece of concrete.

Miraculously, the young girl was unharmed, but they were both trapped in the rubble, with no way of escape.
A day passed, but no one came to their rescue.
The little girl began to grow weak, and she complained to her mother that she was hungry and thirsty.
Another day passed, and the mother began lapsing in and out of consciousness.
She knew that her young child would die of dehydration soon if she didn’t do something.

On the third day, the mother realized that she was going to have to make a sacrifice for her daughter.
So she reached out for a piece of broken glass, and she slashed open her palm and directed her daughter to drink her blood in order to survive.
The girl did as she was told, and she was rescued.
          The mother, of course, died.

We were on the edge of our seats
what love the mother had to sacrifice herself for her daughter!
          Who doesn’t want to be loved like that?

Now the speaker was worked up into a metaphorical lather, and his voice rose as he addressed the assembled eleven and twelve year olds, turning the rhetorical corner from the Russian mother to Jesus.
Jesus is like that Russian mother, he told us, and we are the helpless little girl.
Jesus’ blood on the cross saves us the same way that the daughter was saved.

Then the speaker went on explaining the ancient practice of execution by crucifixion.

He went into excruciating detail about the pain of having spikes pounded through your wrists and ankles, about the enormous amount of blood, about the humiliation of hanging, naked, six feet in the air, and about how death comes slowly and agonizingly, not by blood loss, but by suffocation.

We heard about the extreme agony, even desperation, felt by a victim of crucifixion as he pulled himself up on the spikes in his arms and pushed himself up on the spikes in his legs to catch a breath until, completely exhausted, he couldn’t rise anymore.
Unable to inhale — coughing, choking, dying.

Now our speaker was screaming, sweating, spitting.
 “That’s how much Jesus loves you!” he cried.

He died for you in the most horrible, gruesome manner that the Romans could imagine!

And as he died, he saw your face!
He whispered your name!
Because you are a sinner, he had to die in your place!

God hated you because of your sin!

When he looked at you, all he saw was your sin!

But Jesus stood between you and God, so now when God looks at you, he only sees Jesus.

Tonight, you can accept what Jesus did for you and go to heaven instead of hell when you die.

You can let Jesus stand between you and the terrifying, holy God.

Tonight you have the chance to drink the blood from Jesus’ hands to save yourself.

If tonight, for the first time, you’ve decided to accept what Jesus did for you, angels are celebrating in heaven; stay after chapel to pray with a counselor.

If tonight you’ve decided to recommit your life to Jesus, angels are dancing and cheering; you should also stay after and talk to a counselor.

And if you aren’t ready to do either of those things, you are dismissed.
There’s popcorn and hot chocolate for you in the dining hall.

I highly doubt that I am the only one who has had an experience like that.

If the way to heaven has to do with a spontaneous, fear-driven, adolescent decision, then the Christian faith is in deep trouble --- it is no more than a desperate sales pitch

Think about that message for just a second
          The God who created you
Presumably out of love
now cannot stand to look at you.
You disgust God,

And the ONLY reason God doesn't explode in rage every time God sees you is because Jesus has stepped in the middle and paid the price.

And this isn't just a lesson to our teenagers.

Listen to this from a sermon that Mark Driscoll, at the time on of the largest congregations in the United States, gave to his church

Some of you, God hates you.
Some of you, God is sick of you. . . . God hates, right now— personally, objectively— hates some of you. . . .
The Bible speaks of God not just hating sin, but sinners.
Because sin is of our nature.
Sin is not just a mistake that we make. . . .
You are the problem, not the solution.
You and I are sinners, and by our nature are objects of wrath.
That’s a quote from the Bible. . . . God doesn’t just hate what you do, he hates who you are.
My job is to tell the truth, your job is to make a decision.

This idea that Jesus HAD TO DIE to pay a price for sin is one that I have wrestled with my entire life
          I JUST DON'T BY IT!

And as I have studied the Bible, neither does the biblical witness

Tony Jones in his powerful book Did God Kill Jesus in response to this payment model says this:

In the end, the God behind Payment/Penalty/Punishment is a quid pro quo God. God won’t do this unless his subjects do that. But his subjects are constitutionally incapable of doing what he demands. Instead of realizing that fact and coming up with an alternative solution to his problem, God looks around for someone else who can satiate his thirst for justice, and he settles on his own son.
God swings the barrel of his gun away from us, takes aim at Jesus, and fires.
That’s the God of the Payment model. He may be a God to be feared, but he’s not a God to be loved.

So why did Jesus die?

Like I have said, I am convinced it was not to appease an angry God.

I think Jesus dies for a number of reasons.

One is that we wanted to get rid of him --- We didn't like his message of LOVE.

Jesus demonstrated to us that God is Love and nothing --- not being falsely arrested, or beaten or even death would stop that love.

Jesus shows us that violence is never the way --- the only way is love.

But I think there is a second reason.

Jesus life and death were to demonstrate that God went from observer to participant in the whole gamut of human existence.

Jesus has been there and done that in all of human life

There is NOTHING that we can go through that Jesus has not walked that road already.

And the GOOD NEWS of the resurrection is the promise that nothing will ever stop Jesus from walking that road with us EVERY DAY.

God is revealed in the crucified Jesus --- giving himself to the very last breath --- GIVING AND FORGIVING.

And there could be no other way to show us what we are truly to seek to become.
Like Jesus
          GIVING AND FORGIVING to the very last breath!

And if we are to become like that --- if we are to follow the example of Jesus

The single most important characteristic of any Christian is hope.

In the face of strife and conflict, we are called to hope.

And that hope springs directly from the crucifixion - resurrection event, God’s promise that his commitment to us is not just here and now, but is everlasting.

Yes, God dies in a terrible --- horrible way on the cross, sharing our sorrows.

But God overcomes death and sin and grief and trouble on Easter morning.

And he invites us down the same path with the same promise.

The way of the cross leads to resurrection on a beautiful Easter morning.

That is our hope.

Tony Jones: Did God Kill Jesus

Brian McLaren: We Make The Road By Walking

Friday, April 03, 2015

What Are You Expecting? Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday --- the day that we celebrate Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem

Can you imagine for a moment what it must have been like to have been there that day?

To watch the crowds gather and scream as Jesus headed down the Mount of Olives and back up the hill to the city of Jerusalem.

What were they thinking?

What were they expecting to happen?

What were they expecting of Jesus?

They believed that Jesus was THE ONE
·         The one who would overthrow the Imperial Romans
·         The one who would reestablish the Jewish nation
·         The one who would restore the temple and it's practices

The people all assumed they knew what Jesus was about

Sometimes when I have shared this with groups they have told me that they are surprised at how short-sighted the people were

Why could they not see who Jesus really was?
Why could they not see what Jesus was coming to do?

And when I hear that I have to laugh

Laugh --- not because I think they are foolish --- but laugh because we have the same problem today

We came here this morning with EXPECTATIONS about what we think
          Jesus is about
What we think
          Jesus came to do
What we think
          The resurrection means for us and humanity

But do we?
Do we really understand?

2000 years ago, Jesus and his rag tag followers crossed over at Bethany and started the decent into the Kidron valley and up the hill on the other side into Jerusalem.

Listen to Mark tell the story:
Mark 11:1-11  (The Message)
When they were nearing Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany on Mount Olives, he sent off two of the disciples with instructions: “Go to the village across from you. As soon as you enter, you’ll find a colt tethered, one that has never yet been ridden. Untie it and bring it. If anyone asks, ‘What are you doing?’ say, ‘The Master needs him, and will return him right away.’”

They went and found a colt tied to a door at the street corner and untied it. Some of those standing there said, “What are you doing untying that colt?” The disciples replied exactly as Jesus had instructed them, and the people let them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus, spread their coats on it, and he mounted.

The people gave him a wonderful welcome, some throwing their coats on the street, others spreading out rushes they had cut in the fields. Running ahead and following after, they were calling out,
Blessed is he who comes in God’s name!
Blessed the coming kingdom of our father David!
Hosanna in highest heaven!
He entered Jerusalem, then entered the Temple. He looked around, taking it all in. But by now it was late, so he went back to Bethany with the Twelve.

It was a parade, a huge celebration for Jesus who was coming into town and would kick some Roman butt, and all the Jews who were in cahoots with them.

The way Mark tells the story, the whole town came out to greet Jesus and his followers.

They were so excited at the prospect of his getting rid of the Romans that they were busy waving Palm Branches.

And that was a really dangerous and subversive thing to do.

The Palm Branch was a nationalistic symbol for the Jews.

It symbolized freedom and independence.

So to pull it out and wave it at a parade was making a very clear statement to the Roman authorities.

They believed that Jesus was the ONE
The one who was going to overthrow Rome and establish a Jewish nation once again.

They believed Jesus was their true King

They had huge expectation about who Jesus was and what he was to do

But, unfortunately our story doesn’t end there.

Jesus disappoints all those who had gathered on Sunday for the parade welcoming him into town.

By the end of the week he had angered and disappointed every single Jewish group in town

They decided that maybe he wasn’t the one, after all.

And before the week is over, another parade begins to form.

And once again, people come out to celebrate with the victors.

But this time the victor was Rome, and it was a parade through the streets of Jerusalem out to a hill where Rome would crucify their political prisoners.

The crowd that on Sunday was shouting hosanna was now shouting crucify him.

And we scratch our heads and wonder how could that happen?
          How could people shout hosanna one day and crucify him the next?

But should we be so surprised?

We enter relationships with people and when they fail to live up to our expectations --- what do we do?
          Too often we turn on them.

Jesus came preaching a message that the crowd failed to understand.

Their expectation was that Jesus had come for just them and no one else.

But when Jesus began preaching about:
caring for our brothers and sisters,
caring for the widow and the orphan,
making sure that nobody falls through the cracks of society ---
they decided they didn’t like that message too well.

They began to wonder
Maybe Jesus wasn’t the ONE after all

And so they turned on him

When he wasn’t willing to champion their causes, their agenda, they no longer were interested in him.

But even the Disciples --- the ones who followed Jesus from the Galilee and into Jerusalem really didn't understand

Think of Peter --- Peter who if there was an opportunity to misunderstand something that Jesus said --- always seemed to manage to do so.

Just a few weeks before Palm Sunday, Jesus and the disciples were in the village of Caesarea Philippi way up in the north.

While there, Jesus posed a question to them

Mark 8:27-29  (The Message)
 “Who do the people say I am?”

“Some say ‘John the Baptizer,’” they said. “Others say ‘Elijah.’ Still others say ‘one of the prophets.’”

He then asked, “And you—what are you saying about me? Who am I?”

Peter gave the answer: “You are the Christ, the Messiah.

Peter EXPECTED certain things from Jesus
·         he knew who Jesus was
          The messiah, the Christ, the chosen one of God

·         He thought he knew what that meant
·         Peter and the other Jews expected the messiah to be
·         a great king like David
·         the that God would use to intervene in history and achieve by supernatural means that which they had not been able to achieve by natural means
·         the messiah would totally destroy all of God's (the Jew's) enemies
·         the messiah would restore Jerusalem
·         the messiah would gather the dispersed Jews
·         Israel would be made the center of the world, and all the world would be subject to Israel
·         the messiah, after cleaning up our mess, would bring an everlasting peace

But as the story continues, it is almost as if Jesus understood that Peter does not "get it" and so he says to Peter and the disciples:
Mark 8:31    (NRSV)
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Peter EXPECTED something from Jesus
He thought he had him figured out
He put his money into the machine --- but what came out wasn't what he expected

Almost thirty-five years ago, I was a student at the Divinity School at Duke University.

In the school there was a demonic Coke machine

It was one of those old fashioned machines that you put your money in, a cup dropped down, filled with ice and then your drink of choice

But this machine was possessed --- you never knew exactly what you would get
Sometimes it would take your money and do nothing
Other times:
it gave you a cup but no drink
or a cup, drink, but no ice
MY FAVORITE, however
          ice, drink --- but no cup
When that happened you had to quickly make a choice
          1.       make a cup out of your hands
          2.       watch your drink go down the drain

Once I was sitting in the hall near this "famous" coke machine --- studying (I am sure) when all of a sudden --- this well dressed, drop dead gorgeous woman came up to the machine

She got out her money, put it in the machine, and made her selection

She pushed the buttons again --- tried the coin return --- but still NOTHING

After a few minutes of trying to get the machine to work --- this classy young lady began to beat and kick the machine

SHE EXPECTED something from the machine --- and she didn't get what she expected

We EXPECT something from Jesus
          And I think we need to be honest and ask ourselves what that is

Too often we become seduced by the message of the prosperity gospel which seems to suggest that
If we send in our money --- everything will turn out great

or tune in, or come to the church and you will have it made

God will protect us and bless us

All of our problems will be solves

Like Peter, we sometimes are confused by what Jesus is telling us.

We say: "Are you crazy?  You expect us to follow you, where??"

Jesus says --- if you want to follow, you must
take up your cross
risk your life for God

So let me ask you, What kind of God did you come here seeking?

For many of us, God has become like that Coke machine at Duke
When we put our money in --- we expect certain things in return

And when it does not come out like we planned --- we become angry and disillusioned with God

We need to be careful what we expect from God
          God is not called to live up to our expectation

God is not some pop machine that we can put our money and expect certain things in return

God is calling us --- and is expecting certain things from us.