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Easter Night Faith: A Sermon on John 20:19-31
April 28, 2014, 8:42 am
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Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

 

We continue the Easter season with a reading that picks up that first Easter evening. Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the beloved disciple have each encountered the empty tomb. But after the sun set, disciples have locked themselves away in a room. They are afraid the Jewish authorities who brought Jesus to his death will do the same to them. They seem either to have not heard or not believed the good news Mary, Peter, and the other disciple ought to have shared: that the tomb is empty and Jesus is risen.

 

In this Easter night story, I see our story. We might follow some of the same patterns the disciples find themselves in. This story is the “what’s next” or the “so what” of the encounter with the empty tomb. This recounting of the empty tomb, disciples behind locked doors, and Thomas’ demand for proof, make me ask: where does Easter evening find you?

 

By Sunday night, I’m ready for an early bedtime while I’m also too hyped up on sugar to fall asleep.

 

 So maybe the better question is: what follows from your encounter with the good news?

Does the proclamation that Jesus is risen change anything in your life?

 

When we first meet them, the group of disciples are hiding behind locked doors. They have removed themselves from the world. They are bound by fear.

 

Jesus comes to them, not repelled by the locked door. Jesus breaks down their fear with his words, “peace be with you.” Jesus comes to the disciples in living flesh so they can be sure he really died and rose to new life. Those who have this experience are able to be solid in their belief. But the disciple Thomas wasn’t there.

 

When the disciples tell Thomas what they have seen, he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” He needs to experience Jesus for himself.

 

A week later, Jesus appears to the disciples, and Thomas is there. Jesus is sure to let him touch the wounds he said he would need to touch, and so, Thomas is encouraged into faith.

 

Reading this text, how do we understand Thomas? What tone do his words take? What do his words and Jesus’ response have to teach us about our own story and God’s faithfulness to us?

I’m very familiar with two year old’s tantrums. Sometimes as I read Thomas’ words, I see my two year old, throwing herself down on her butt, crossing arms across her chest, shouting “no!” and “I want!”

 

My strategy in dealing with this behavior is first to not respond, and most importantly to never give in.

 

Thomas’ “No! I won’t believe- not unless I touch and see for myself” is met with Jesus’ response of giving in to what he wants.

 

I wonder how many of us have asked God for proof. Have challenged God, “if you’re really there, then show me by doing this…” Or have bargained our faith pleading with God, “I’ll believe more fully, I’ll come to church more often, I’ll dedicate my life, I’ll give away my money, if only you…fix this, heal this, forgive this, give me this…”

 

In some ways, this part of the gospel of John isn’t very fair to us. Why does Thomas get his demands answered? Why does he get exactly what he needs for a proven foundation to his faith? Are we supposed to be satisfied with Jesus patting us on the back with his words, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29b)?

 

Maybe I’m not being fair to Thomas. We could read him as the petulant two-year old. We could also see him in his own context. As a disciple, the way he learned from Jesus was as a student to the rabbi. This involved asking questions. It’s about seeking the truth. He’s doing exactly what he’s been trained to do- looking for the teacher to show him the truth, to show him how God is working.

 

Or perhaps Thomas is a character meant to help us see our own struggle to believe Jesus’ resurrection, and need for God to act to create faith in us.

 

Thomas is called the twin. As I met with other pastors to study this text, we tried to figure out why this little detail is included in the text. I’ve always figured it’s because he had a twin, maybe something that made him different from another Thomas among the disciples. The text doesn’t say anything about why he’s called the twin. Maybe we’re told he’s Thomas the twin right at the beginning of this story because Thomas is very much like someone else. Maybe he’s very much like many of us.

 

What Thomas is really after is an authentic experience of Jesus. This isn’t him being needy, demanding, or faithless. Maybe his words, “unless I see Jesus, unless I put my hands on the deathly wounds of this now living Jesus, I will not believe” are a prayer for a real encounter with the living God. Isn’t that what so many of us are longing for today? I think that longing for authentic experience is a good thing. It’s what draws us into a community of faith, and into a vibrant life of prayer, worship, and study. That longing to know God’s presence is what makes us disciples rather than people who simply come to worship out of duty or habit.

 

I love verses 30 and 31, where the author steps back from narrating and talks directly to us who would read generations later: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” These verses, especially following Thomas’ encounter, make me wonder what it takes for each one of us to get to a place where we believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

 

We don’t believe just for our own sake. Our mission as disciples is to disciple others. We’re called to not only be in a relationships with the living and loving God, but to help guide others into the experiences that will help them to come to a place in life where they join Thomas in recognizing God.  God calls us to play a part in nurturing the faith of others, so that they can turn to God and declare, “my Lord and my God.”

 

We invite others into discipleship as we model and support them in a life of faith. The liturgy we use for baptism includes promises to nurture young ones, or to be an active newly baptized adult by doing certain things. These promises include sharing the Lord’s supper, being in community with other Christians, reading the holy scriptures, learning the Lord’s prayer, sharing God’s love with the world, and striving for justice and peace. These are not so much a checklist as they are a way to be in the places where faith is nurtured and grown. They are places and activities through which we are most open to God planting and growing faith in us.

 

Prayer, worship, Bible study, justice work, and unconditionally loving all sorts of people are all things God calls us to do to not only for ourselves, but in order to become people who attract others to God. Not in some sort of gimicky or coercive way. But because when we are grounded in God’s love and grace we live differently. We live in a way that makes other curious. What exactly that looks like for each of you is unique. Some might show their a sense of joy, others be able to forgive, some have priorities or life choices that inspire people to ask why. Being a faithful inspiration doesn’t mean you have to have it all together, it may be that in your times of deepest struggle, what inspires others is the way the community of faith holds on to you and supports you through crises.

 

Seekers, those who are beginning to be ready to enter a life of faith, will be brought to faith, in part, by you. By the way you life out your own faith. By the way your life is a reaction to the good news of Jesus’ empty tomb.

 

It’s not easy to be a discipling disciple. Even those most faithful can find themselves stuck, unable to move forward into faithful living, much less be an inspiration to others. These verses from John aren’t only about Thomas. They are also about the struggle the others disciples faced. Those disciples are locked in a room, because they are afraid of the consequences for following Jesus. Then Jesus comes to them, giving them his peace and his spirit. Later, after Jesus has left, those disciples tell Thomas they have seen Jesus.

They seem to be off to a good start, sharing the good news with Thomas. Certainly they have been so affected by proof of Jesus’ resurrection that they are eager to go out into the world to continue Jesus’ work-

 

No, even a whole week later, all the disciples are still locked in the room. Nothing has changed. Their encounter with the risen Lord, their receiving his peace and his spirit, hasn’t broken through their fear. Why would Thomas believe they’ve witnessed the miraculous living presence of the one who died? It hasn’t seemed to change them at all. They are still concerned for their safety. Jesus’ resurrection hasn’t propelled them into faithful living, and so it’s no wonder they haven’t been persuasive evangelists.

 

Some of you, maybe especially the Sunday school teachers, might be feeling the pressure of responsibility. While we are all called to help nurture others in faith, it’s important to remember we do not work alone. It’s not primarily up to us to create faith.

 

It’s God who creates faith within us. Our faith, our ability to trust in God, is based solely on the work of God’s Holy Spirit, and at its center, is something totally out of our control to create in our selves and to create in others. In Luther’s Small Catechism, the explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed states, “by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus my Lord, or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…” God breaks into our lives, just as Jesus broke into that locked room, so that we can recognize and trust in God.

 

Through the proclamation that Jesus is risen, God is working to change your life: and to change the whole world. God invites us into practices and places where we might grow in faith, and God calls us to share our faith. You may have been blessed with an experience of God that solidified your faith. Or you may be among those who believe and long for more. God is faithful to you. God will continue to nurture your faith, and one day will bring you into God’s presence so that your faith is confirmed. 

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Christ is Risen! A Sermon for Easter
April 21, 2014, 9:11 am
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Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

We gathered early this morning in the Cross cemetery. It wasn’t because the cemetery makes a perfect backdrop for a reenactment of the Easter story. It wasn’t a prop. We gathered among markers and bodies of friends and relatives because the good news of Easter is most real there. There our experience of the finality of death, our memories of that moment when the casket was closed, are changed by the proclamation that this is not the end. Graveside is where the good news is most real- and most difficult to trust.

 

As told by the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus’ tomb in the predawn darkness. When she sees the sealing stone has been pulled away from the tomb’s entrance, she goes to get Peter and another disciple. To their confusion, they find the tomb empty. Mary stays by the tomb, weeping in her grief. She believes someone has now added insult to injury, taking away Jesus’ lifeless body so that he cannot even be properly laid to rest. Jesus meets her in her grief. He calls her by name, and she recognizes him. The impossible has happened, Jesus is alive.

 

As told by the Gospel of Matthew, two women come to the tomb at dawn. Fantastic events begin at their arrival. There is a great earthquake and a blinding, sizzling appearance of an angel, who rolls away the sealing stone from the tomb, and lounges upon it as one who shares in the victory of defeating a powerful enemy. This messenger so frightens the guards at the tomb that they are no longer a threat. But to the woman, he speaks words of encouragement: “do not be afraid.” Jesus is not in the tomb, he has been raised. The women are to share in the joy of Jesus’ defeat of death. They run to tell the other disciples. Jesus himself appears to them as they are on their way. If the angelic messenger was not enough, the reality of this fantastic news that Jesus is alive is confirmed as they touch his living feet and worship him.

 

Each gospel has its own telling of the disciples’ reaction to the empty tomb as they try to sort out what this surprising good news means. In the disciples’ varied reactions, we see our own struggle, sometimes eagerly rejoicing at Jesus’ resurrection, at other times wondering how such a thing can be possible. Every day, we may trust in Jesus’ resurrection, yet every Easter can be different for us. We come to this good news with whatever heartache is most fresh. Perhaps there are lilies in the chancel that mark a new grief this year. Perhaps there are hopes disappointed in your own heart. Perhaps, this year, resurrection, new life, and hope seem foolish dreams. The gospels give us space to come and encounter this risen Christ with whatever lens our faith and our life allow. The telling of Jesus’ resurrection has the power to build hope, even through our skeptic stance.

 

 

God’s action to give life is not dependent on our own work or faith. God has raised Jesus from the dead, the first of all to be freed from death. Through Jesus, all will be raised to life. Death is not the final end for our loved ones. Death is not the final end for you and me. Instead of the cemetery being a place that reminds us how we are severed from our loved ones forever, it is more like a yearbook, through which we are reminded of stories and good times, and which reads out the names of those who now belong to the great gathering of the living saints in Jesus.

 

These holy days are all about how God gathers us up. God comes to us and embraces us. The cross is God’s ultimate act of connecting with us. On the cross, Jesus chooses to come towards us as we reject him.

 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described with a stronger sense of power as he carries his own cross, speaks with authority from the cross, and gives up his own spirit to die. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus has proclaimed that his death will be followed by his rising. Jesus seems most aware in this gospel that through him, God will be victorious over death. Jesus is confident in his path towards us, confident in his path to the cross, and confident that God will work good through death.

 

In the Gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus’ agony in the garden and sense the weight of pain that he prepares to carry in his abandonment and crucifixion. Through this writer’s lens, we hear Jesus cry out, “My God, my God, why have forsaken me?” How alone Jesus must have felt, putting everything he has into reaching out towards us who push him away, who push him even into death. Jesus stays to his difficult course, faithful to us, all the way to his death.

 

From either gospel’s viewpoint, the disciples experience Jesus’ death as final, and are overwhelmed by the surprisingly empty tomb. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s validation of all of Jesus’ work. By raising Jesus from the dead, God declares that Jesus’ movement towards us has accomplished its purpose. Jesus goes to the cross to destroy the power of our rejection. Jesus proves that God is so intent on being in relationship with us, that he continued to move forward into relationship even when that meant we would kill him. By raising Jesus from the dead, God destroys our power to make rejection permanent. That God would establish relationship where one side always works towards rejection doesn’t make sense. That a dead man would be raised to life doesn’t make sense. But this incomprehensible work of God is good news for us.

 

The good news of Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t only change our view when we’re standing in a cemetery. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection changes the way we live today. We do not need to fear our death and so do not need to fill our lives with frantically amassing and achieving other gains to help us forget that death will come. This life is not all there is. We are freed from fear, so that we can spend these earthly days tending God’s creation and serving our fellows in creation.

 

Jesus’ resurrection means we are not alone. Our immediate community, those people we know and interact with each day, are not the only people to whom we are connected. Jesus has drawn us into the family of God, which spans all generations and nations. When loved ones die, those relationships are changed for now, but they are not broken.

 

We live as Jesus lives, for the sake of the whole world. Freed from fear, freed from death, forgiven, and given life, Jesus sends you with joy to share the good news of his resurrection with the world. Do this through your work to alleviate fear, to work freedom, to provide for those in need, and to steward all God’s creation.

 

On Easter, Jesus moves our focus from fear at the grave, to joy at his living presence, to loving service for the sake of the world. Go forth from your encounter with the empty tomb and risen Jesus with wonder and joy.

 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!Image



Cross Connection: A Sermon for Good Friday
April 21, 2014, 9:02 am
Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

 

In the beginning was God. There was nothing else. Then God began to create. Light and dark, suns and planets, water and land, plants and animals. Us. The image we have of God creating humans is one of loving craftsmanship. God’s desire is to be so close to this human creature that God is tactically involved. God scoops up mud, molds it into a body, and breathes God’s own spirit into it. God touch and breath are on the human.

 

That moment is one of deep connection. The human, alive and yet still held in God’s hands, still in the process of receiving God’s breath. Then God releases the human to become its own person. There is a necessary separation that occurs in order for there to be relationship. There has to be some amount of distance, God has to relinquish control, in order for this creature to be able to be who the human is and interact with God as someone distinct. God’s intention is still to continue deep connection, even as God allows the human freedom.

 

Those among us who have parented might understand this dynamic best. A pregnant mother knows the child within her is utterly dependent on her for life. Mother and child are connected in a deep way that will never be replicated once the child is born. Yet birth is something we all celebrate: we rejoice that this new creature is beginning her own life and will explore the world through her own experiences. We would not want the child to return to a state of dependence and dissolve back into the control of the mother’s womb.

 

From that moment of birth, parenting is a continual process of letting go. This sometimes painful work is to nurture the child into independence. The most difficult moments are those when independence feels like a rejection of connection, of relationship. A parent’s desire is to love the child and be loved in return.

 

Like a good parent, God’s desire is for the human to be distinct enough from God’s own self to have a self of its own. This independence means being able to live within this creation and experience it as a creature within creation. It means being able to turn towards God in relationship, as separate persons are able to do, rather than simply being consumed or dissolved into God.

 

This means that God experiences the painful side of granting independence. God’s desire to be in relationship with the creature is not always returned. Throughout scripture, we hear of God’s work to build relationship and humanity’s rejection of God’s advances. Holy words paint a picture of God as pursuing lover, attempting to woo the people with promises of lovingkindness, faithfulness and protection. There are moments in which the people respond with faithfulness, and certain heroes of the faith who seem to be more connected with God. But on the whole, the Bible tells a story of a people who are constantly turning away from God, their loving creator.

 

Finally, God chose a different approach. Perhaps there was too much separation between God and humanity. Was God so distinct that the close relationship God desired was too difficult to maintain? Instead of waiting for us to turn to God, God moved and came to us. God set aside glory and power and became truly human. In Jesus, we see the creator choosing to become the creature. Jesus is God with us. Jesus is God’s strategy to fully know what it is to be human, and to restore the deeply connected relationship God intended to have with humanity.

 

Jesus embodied God’s love. His work of welcoming, healing, and forgiving were signs of God’s love for all people. Many people recognized God in a new way through Jesus’ work. Yet others became even more distant. It seemed as if this strategy would end like all the others, with God reaching out, with humanity seeming to respond in relationship, but finally, with humanity rejecting God once again.

 

People certainly rejected Jesus. We heard today the difficult story of his betrayal and denial from the mouths of two of his closest disciples. We heard the crowd calling for his death.

 

Jesus doesn’t back away from this rejection. Instead, Jesus, God come for us, goes directly into this rejection. Jesus enters the cross. This is not simply another strategy to try to turn the people’s hearts back to their true and faithful love. The cross is God’s full and complete coming to us.

 

The cross is the ultimate act of reconnecting.

 

The cross is God’s headlong straight-for-it run into our strongest statement of rejection. It is the epitome of humanity’s statement that we don’t want a relationship with God. But God doesn’t accept that answer. God doesn’t turn away, God doesn’t give up, God doesn’t wait for us to change our minds, God doesn’t take no for an answer. God decides that the God-human relationship is no longer going to depend on human work or choice, God is the one who will solidify it.

 

Jesus dies on the cross to say, “no amount of hurt that you can pour onto me will make me leave you.” Jesus says, “I am with you. Betrayal will not push me away. Denial will not push me away. Death will not push me away. I will always be faithful to you.” Jesus says, “I love you. Now and forever.”

 

As the disciples, beginning to glimpse Jesus’ love, laid his body in the tomb, they thought their relationship was over. It was not. The wonder of Easter morning is that God has raised Jesus from the dead, restored him to his divine position, and there Jesus is able to continually bring humanity into relationship with God. God has done everything to welcome you into a life-giving relationship of love. 



Jesus’ Dinner Party: A Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.

Tonight, we join in a great dinner party. As A* and L* and I met to talk about receiving their first communion, we thought about the special dinners and parties we’ve been invited to. We talked about what it takes to get ready for a party.

How do you prepare?

Whenever I’m about to go somewhere, the one step of preparation that becomes hardest and makes me arrive late is figuring out what to wear. I stand in front of my closet, or start to pull clothes out of the dresser just like my two-year old does… throwing them on the floor or the bed… wondering what it appropriate for the occasion. Am I supposed to look professional or casual? Prepared for hiking or eating at a fancy restaurant? Do I have the right clothes and accessories or enough fashion sense to be accepted and welcomed?

Clothes are a reflection of who we are, or who we want to be, or who we think we’re supposed to be. The bigger issue behind my indecision at the closet is the question of who I am and if that true self is the one who has been invited.

How do you come this night? Who is the self you have brought?

We enter this night after a period of self-examination, of standing in front of a mirror. During Lent, we were invited to enter practices.  These may have helped us become more aware of who we are. If you gave up something during this season, and especially if you found yourself struggling, maybe to stay away from that tempting chocolate bar, you have learned something more about yourself. Perhaps you’ve gained insight into other ways that you do not have the strength of will to follow through with your good intentions.

If you began a new practice of prayer, devotion, or selfless giving, you may have faced similarly revealing struggles. Did you become more self aware through your more frequent encounters with God? For some, Lent may have been a time for you to reclaim your identity as a child of God, as you were brought even closer in your relationship through more regular practices of prayer and worship.

However these last forty days have been for you, whether you gave up or took up a practice or maintained your previous way of life, consider your self-image. Who are you?

Part of how we know who we are comes from our perception of how others experience us. Are you told you are good or bad? Are you welcomed or ignored? Do people look to you to lead or to follow?

Actions speak louder than words, and how we spend our time and resources tells volumes about our priorities. What would your calendar and bank statements say about who you are? In whose interest have you worked these past days?

There are so many layers to who we are. Sometimes we add even more to try to make ourselves more acceptable. We may try to cover up parts of who we are so that we can show a prettier face to the world. We may try to put barriers up between us and others so that they don’t come too close, so they don’t know all of who we are. Most of us have something we’d like to keep covered up. Some part of us might long for intimacy, to be fully known, but often our own fear or shame gets in the way.

Tonight, we enter in to the story of Jesus’ last days as we begin our celebration of the three holiest days of our church year. We encounter Jesus entering ever more fully into human experience.

The Gospel of John depicts Jesus after supper with his disciples, stripped down to a towel, taking the place of a servant at the feet of his followers. This is just one of the unthinkably humble positions we will see Jesus the messiah, son of God, taking in his last hours. Jesus stoops down and uncovers each disciple’s feet, gently cupping it in his hands, and washing it clean. What were the disciples thinking, as their respected teacher took this position? As the one they learned from and tried to impress became so intimate with their far from pretty dirty and calloused feet?

We hear one voice: Peter’s. Peter jumps up to stop Jesus from washing his feet. His is our own fearful voice trying to put up walls between ourselves and Jesus, trying to keep Jesus from seeing those icky parts of ourselves that we’d rather no one knew. The things that we’re afraid might be more than Jesus wants to forgive or love us through.

As Jesus calms Peter, he also reassures us. In Jesus’ knowing all of us comes his forgiveness and the experience of love. Jesus pulls back our layers to know us fully. Jesus knows and embraces all of who you are. Jesus embraces all of what is most often covered up, hidden, and avoided in human experience as he enters the experience of the cross.

Other gospels and the letter to the Corinthians describe the meal Jesus shares with his disciples. As he lifts cup and loaf, Jesus names wine and bread his blood and body poured out and broken for the sake of the world. In this meal, Jesus enacts what he will do on the cross. Jesus gives up his life in order to give us life. Jesus enters in to the experience of suffering and death, so that he would know all parts of what it is to be human.

We celebrate this last supper, the Lord’s supper, in remembrance of the one who hosts it and the servant work he did to know us, forgive us, and give us life.

The readings from both Exodus and Corinthians speak of setting aside a ritual meal for the sake of remembrance. In these cases, remembering is more than simply recalling an event that happened long ago and has no affect on our current experience. “Rather, remembering means to have life and actions reshaped.” (Brian Peterson, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2031) We celebrate Holy Communion to become a part of what Jesus has done for us and to be changed by our on-going experience of what Jesus has done for us. When we eat the bread and drink the wine of communion, we aren’t play-acting or mimicking something that happened long ago. This event becomes real today. In this meal, tonight, Jesus is present. Jesus knows us as we gather. Jesus is feeding us. Jesus is giving us life and forgiveness. Jesus is transforming us to be more like him.

Jesus invites you to this, his dinner party. Jesus turns no one back. No matter what you are wearing, no matter what you are hiding inside, Jesus invites you. Fully knowing your struggles, Jesus welcomes you. Jesus fills you with good, life-giving gifts. Jesus sees you out from the feast to serve in love, as he has served you by giving up life.