Sunday, April 29, 2012

April 29, 2012- "The Good Shepherd"

John 10.11-18

This is the day the LORD has made … let us rejoice in it, and be glad.

Let us pray:
O LORD our God, great is your name.
And greatly to be praised.
Lift our hearts, we pray, to Jesus.
Inspire us with your Holy Spirit.
Transform us that we might serve you with all that we are.
And all that we hope to be.
Now and forever more.
Amen and Amen!

I am the Good Shepherd, says Jesus.

And what he says is central to everything we know and believe about Jesus.

But where something is said is just as important as what is said.

Where is Jesus when he claims the title, Good Shpeherd?
He’s in Jerusalem.
A city full of shepherds.
And sheep.
Teachers and students.
This and that.
Here and there.
A lot of noise.
Hustle and bustle.
The Temple - in all of its glory.
Gold and silver.
Gleaming stone.
Cedar of Lebanon.
Bleating sheep.
Bawling cows.
Mewling lambs.
Goats and doves and buyers and sellers and the money changers … and pilgrims … always the pilgrims ... from near and far, all around the Empire … to see the fabled city … Jerusalem the Golden … where God is present unto Israel in the Holy of Holies … and present, through Israel, unto the whole wide world.
Mt. Zion.
The City of David.
A place of hopes and dreams.

Here in the center of things, a city filled with shepherds, Jesus says, I am the good shepherd … I’m not the hired hand who runs away at the first sign of trouble … I’m loyal to the sheep, and I’d lay down my life for their safety.

Everyone hearing Jesus knows the larger story … Ezekiel 34 … a withering attack on Israel’s spiritual and political leaders … they take care of themselves, and fail to care for the flock … 

And a flock without a shepherd becomes unruly … fat ones shoulder out of the way the weaker sheep … “Every sheep for itself” … the heart and soul of the flock dies, for want of good leadership … Israel’s shepherds have failed, and failed badly.

Ezekiel 34 is also a promise, a promise that God will provide a new shepherd, a shepherd who won’t fail, who will do it right … who find the lost sheep, feed them, tend them, keep them safe.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd … Jesus doesn’t fail, nor Jesus run away … Jesus provides protection for the flock and leads the flock to good pasture and clean water.

With a Good Shepherd to lead, the flock is no longer unruly … no longer do the strong shove aside the weak … all the sheep are well-fed and well-tended … everyone pays attention to everyone else … no one left behind; no one excluded; all are welcomed!

The classic story … Special Olympics … the starter’s gun fires and a group of children take off for the finish line … as they run the race, one of the children stumbles and falls … all the rest of the racers stop and turn around, to pick up their fallen friend, to help him across the finish line, and they all cross the finish line together - everyone wins; no one loses … the victory belongs to all.

Such is the flock of God … under the care of the Good Shepherd.
We learn from Jesus.
As we care for one another.
Our flock may be large … our flock may be small … but all of us are shepherds.
Parents to children … 
Wealthy to workers … 
Workers to fellow-workers … 
Friends to friends …
We are responsible for one another.
To live a gracious life.
To be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

We forgive, because God forgives us … 
We forget the wrongs done unto us, because God forgets the wrongs we do unto God ...
We seek the redemption of others, because Jesus redeems us from the powers of death … 
We help others find new life, because God gives new life to us.
What we receive from God, we give unto others.

There are so many stories in the Bible about this … giving to others what we receive from God …
The parable of the man forgiven a huge debt, who turns around and refuses to forgive a fellow-worker’s small debt [Matthew 18.23-34] … Jesus makes it clear, the man’s failure to forgive the debt of his co-worker revokes the forgiveness of the master. 

The wealthy employer who refuses to pay a fair wage to the worker [James 5.1-6] … like the Psalmist says: the wicked borrow and never pay back, but the righteous are generous and keep on giving.

With regard to children … Jesus says it would be better to be thrown into the sea with a heavy millstone tied around our neck then to cause a child to trip and fall.

We’re all shepherds to somebody.

Of course, none of us are perfect.
We drop the ball.
We fail to live up to our own expectations.
Sometimes I feel like David who writes, My sin is ever before me.
I sometimes end the day displeased with myself and frustrated by my lack of progress, Let me count the ways I flub and fail … stumble and fall … 
It’s not that we need to dwell obsessively on our faults and failings, but our faults and failings are used by God to keep us humble before God … and kindly toward one another.
God allows us to fall … to fail … to sin … as a means of keeping our pride in check … lest we think of ourselves too highly.
Like Paul’s thorn in the flesh, our foibles and failings are a means whereby we learn of God’s grace … that life is grace, and grace is life. 

We’re always the sinner, saved by grace.
Always the lost, found by God.
Always the blind, given miraculous sight.
Always the sheep of God’s pasture.
Always the Good Shepherd who leads us and shows us the way.

Let us, then, follow him, with heart and soul … abide in his word … take seriously his word to Peter, Feed my sheep.

Dear friends in Christ, there is much work to be done in our world … let us not tarry in the sheepfold … the Good Shepherd leads us into the mountains and valleys of the world … to serve the LORD with gladness, to lift up one another, to make this a better world … to be sure that all are fed, clothed and housed … that the voice of peace rings loud and clear in a world filled with the noise of war … that everyone has a good chance at the fulness of life, especially the children of the world … that the sheep who have much won’t have too much, and the sheep who have little, won’t have too little [2 Corinthians 8.15] … that the mountains might be brought low, and the valleys filled in … that justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream [Amos 5.24].

Amen and Amen.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

April 22, 2012 - "Jesus and Scripture"

Luke 24.13-35

We often talk about growing.
Growing up into Christ.
Like a tree in the sunshine.
A little here.
A little there.
A bud, a leaf, a branch.
A branch reaching out … to catch ever more sunlight.
To grow a little bit more.
This year.
Next year.
Because if a tree isn’t growing, then what?
If a tree isn’t growing, it’s dying.
If a tree isn’t growing, maybe it’s dead already.
It is the nature of life to keep on growing.
Trees keep on growing.
And for us, as a species, we grow, too.
Wiser, we hope.
Older, for sure.
Maybe a little larger than what we want.
In some of the wrong places.
Ears keep growing … 
Maybe that’s an important lesson.
Listening becomes important as time moves on.

We all grow, in some way or another.
Until we take our last breath.
And, then, here, at least, we grow no more.
Dust to dust.
Earth to earth.
Ashes to ashes.
But until that moment, we grow!

Maybe we grow in the wrong direction.
Like an ingrown toenail.
Or an ingrown hair.
Maybe we grow more stubborn.
I guess we can grow in all the wrong ways.

But we can grow in the best ways, too.
We can grow in our capacities to love and forgive.
To put up with life as it comes our way.
To make the best of it.
To keep on loving.
To hold on to large ideas and generous thoughts.
Psalm 37 says it well:
The righteous are generous and giving.

Plants grow when they’re well-tended.
Good soil … adequate water … some weed-pulling.
It takes time to grow.
Weeds grow up quickly.
Beautiful trees take their time.
So does a tomato plant.
Or a child on her way to adulthood.

It takes time to become a Christian.
We are Christians, for sure, in the love of God.
But we’re always working it out, aren’t we?
Paul the Apostle tells us to work out our salvation, with fear and trembling …
Salvation is ours, because of Christ.
What he gives to us, he truly gives.
Yet we have to work some things out.
Lots of things actually.
It’s never a done deal for us.
There’s always another step to be taken.
A new thought to be pondered.
A new demand … a new moment … a new day.
What we knew yesterday doesn’t quite fit the bill today.
We may have forgiven yesterday, but we have to forgive again today.
What we trusted to be true last year may no longer hold up.

Life is always a challenge.
Life is always a gift.
Life requires that we keep on keepin’ on.
Like a tree in the sunshine.
Like that tomato plant in the backyard.

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

They were disciples!
But now it seemed to them as if the road ahead came to an end the day Jesus died.
Rumors of his empty tomb, that’s one thing.
But who knows?
The road came to an end the day Jesus died.
So they take the road home.
And on the way, they’re met by a stranger who strolls along with them, listening to their conversation, and then asks them, What’s going on?
They’re surprised he doesn’t know.
So they tell him.
And what they tell him tells him they don’t have a clue.
They need to grow a little bit more.
Some weeds need to be pulled.
Some hard soil needs to be broken up.
Jesus says, You’re foolish … and you shouldn’t be … you should be smarter than this.
I guess that’s a compliment.
We can be smarter than this.
But who doesn’t need a good teacher?
To explains a few things, now and then.
Jesus does for them what he always does.
Jesus turns to Scripture.
The disciples know it well.
Jesus knows it well.
But knowing the words is one thing.
Knowing what they could mean is another.
Jesus reminds them that suffering is a part of God’s program.
God chooses the hard road, not the easy one.
God gives, and doesn’t take.
And through the hard road, and all the giving, there is glory.
That’s what catches their attention.
It’s not about power and conquest.
It’s not about sword and bow.
It’s not about might and dominance.
It’s not about self-defense or getting the best of others.
It’s a different way of looking at things.
Jesus reminds them: if you look carefully at Moses and go through all the Prophets, you’ll see it … not what you expected … but you will see it.

But enough of words.
Enough teaching.
Night is falling … they reach Emmaus.
Jesus moves away from them, to be on his way.
But they ask him to stay the night.
A little piece of Middle Eastern social behavior.
One never intrudes … or imposes … or expects hospitality.
And one never allows a stranger to go on at night alone.
Jesus does his part.
The disciples do theirs.
And then at the table, something odd.
Jesus becomes the host.
He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to them.
And suddenly, they can see.
Their eyes are opened.
They know him.
And then he’s gone.
That’s all they needed.
Just a little nudge.
Some teaching.
Some bread.

They look at one another.
Weren’t our hearts on fire when he talked with us along the road? … were not our hearts burning when he explained the scriptures for us?
They got up quickly.
They hit the road, again.
This time, back to Jerusalem.
Because the story didn’t end the day Jesus died.
The road ahead goes on.
For those disciples.
And for you and me, too.
To God be the glory.
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

April 15, 2012 - The Power of Together

John 20.19-31

The disciples were afraid.
Who can blame them?
Their leader was dead.
Crucified, dead and buried.

But as bad it was, they were together!
They clung to one another.
They were not ready to let go.
That much they had learned from the Master.
Strength in the company of the faithful.

And now news from Peter - The tomb is empty!
Mary says, I have seen him!

Even as they talk, wondering what’s up.
The LORD comes to them.
In their bewilderment and doubt.
In their uncertainty and fear.
The LORD comes to them.
Not as a reward for faithfulness.
But as a comfort in the hour of need!

Peace be with you.
Wonderful peace.
Peace that surpasses all understanding.
Peace that only Jesus can give.
The peace of God.

That’s where many a Christian ends the reading.
Folks put a period, where God puts a comma.

Jesus says to the disciples a second time: Peace be with you. 
And then adds: As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.
Jesus breaths upon the disciples and bids them, Receive the Holy Spirit.

Remind you of anything in the Bible?

Two powerful stories come to mind:

1) Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel 37 … God commands the Prophet to call the breath, the wind, and the breath enters into the dry bones, and and they come to life and stand on their feet, defeated no more, but ready to move on.

2) And Genesis 2, the primal creation story … God takes the dust of the earth, blows the breath of life into it, and a handful of dirt becomes a living creature.

Jesus is the creator … a new creation … a new creature, to care for the world - no longer defeated, no longer just a fistful of dirt, no longer behind closed doors - to take up the mandate of creation - sent out as the Father sent the Son - to be bread for the hungry and living water for the thirsty, to be hope and peace for a weary world, to lift up and heal broken spirits and broken bodies - didn’t Jesus say that we would do his works, and even greater works [John 14.12]?

Jesus then reminds the disciples of what is prayed in the LORD’S Prayer ever day, all around the world: If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven; if you don't forgive them, they aren't forgiven.
We cannot mistake the words of Jesus as if he were saying “forgiveness is an option.”
“Will I forgive, or will I not?” - forgiveness is never an option in the Kingdom of God. To forgive is divine; to fail to forgive is death.

Forgiveness IS the story.
Forgiveness IS the life and work of Jesus.
Forgiveness IS the heart and soul of the gospel.
Forgiveness IS the power of peace.
Peace with God.
Peace with one another.
Peace among the nations.
God did not fail in the work of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not an option for God.
As if God ponders the question:
Shall I forgive them or not?
Shall I release them from their sin, or shall I hold them accountable?
Shall I forget what they’ve done, so that we can all move on from here … or shall I wallow in my hurt and my pain, and constantly throw it in their face?
God doesn’t play games with forgiveness.
And neither must we.

But forgiveness always comes through the cross.
The New Testament is full of the language of the cross … our cross, our crucifixion, our death with Christ.
With Christ, our old instincts of violence and war are crucified, dead and buried.
The spirit of vengeance and grudge-holding that lurks in our heart …
Bitter memories that take up endless time and dominate our emotions … 
We die with Christ on the cross.
So that the old can pass away, and we’re raised up with Christ, with something new at the center of our life, something new to give away, a better way to live and a better way to love.

God didn’t fail in forgiveness.
And neither must we.

If we fail to forgive, all that’s wrong with the world goes on.
If we fail to forgive, our soul is distressed and anxious.
If we fail to forgive, our relationships are poisoned.
We are sent into the world as the Father sent Jesus … to be emissaries of forgiveness, peace and hope.

Jesus says, I send you as my Father sent me.
Dare we understand how powerful these words are?
Dare we touch them?

Like the burning bush - take off our shoes and spend time with Jesus, there’s no going back, no retreat … only forward, with a great commission.

The same commission God gave to the Son.
The same task.
The same determination.
To face a world of sin and violence and offer the gift of peace.

One of the great challenges facing Christianity today is violence.
Violence of unprecedented scale - nations left destitute … whole populations decimated … violence despoils the environment and ruins the soul … 

From the day Cain killed Able, humankind has foolishly believed that violence can bring peace, death can create life, war can resolve problems, stand-your-ground laws can make us safe.
Humankind foolishly believes that violence, wielded by the “right” person or the “right” nation, sooner or later, will bring about the better world. 
But it never does.
It never will.
It’s can’t.
Violence is the script of hell.

Christians, too, have succumbed to violence, by misreading the the Bible … the violent parts of the Old Testament and a few verses ripped from the Book of Revelation … onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.

1) Last year, a megachurch pastor walked onto the stage with a 50 caliber machine gun and ammo belts draped over his shoulders, like some kind of a Rambo or Terminator, and fired away - blanks, of course … but the point was clear: this was a demonstration of God’s fire-power.

2) Over the last ten years, John Hagee called for the bombing of Iraq and now that Iraq has been laid low, Hagee calls for the bombing of Iran … the man loves the smell of napalm in the morning.
Many a Christian pulpit - filled with violent words of hell-fire and eternal punishment, damnation and death, and that’s just for Christians, and even more violence for evil-doers and sinners.

Death, death, and more death.
Is this the way of Jesus? … … … 
I think not!
He is the Prince of Peace!
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April 1, 2012 - "Jesus Enters Jerusalem"

Mark 11.1-11

Jesus goes up to Jerusalem.
A smarter man might have stayed in Galilee.
Played his cards a little closer to the vest.
Move with more caution.
Pay attention to his critics.
But Jesus goes up to Jerusalem.
The Holy City.
The City on a Hill.
David’s Royal City.

Jesus makes it clear to his disciples.
He will go there and suffer.
He will go there and die.
Because the Holy City isn’t so holy after all.
Big Boys and Girls run the city, manage the Temple, hold hands with Rome - they have their own version of God’s work and God’s purpose.

And why not?
The Temple was huge … beautiful … it made money … hand over fist, it made money … 
And, besides, it was all so religious … so holy … so right and good - the music was grand, the preaching uplifting, huge crowds all the time; pilgrims dreamed of walking the courtyard and buying a lamb for Passover … but Jesus sees it for what it is …
No longer a house of prayer, but a den of thieves.
A sham.
A charade.
Like a movie lot …
A grave shiny and white, but full of old bones and rottenness.

We see the clash coming.
Jesus and Jerusalem on a collision course.
Jesus already had plenty of enemies.
It only took a week for the enemies to get their act together … 
Only took a week for the crowds to realize that what they wanted, Jesus couldn’t give, and what he gave, they didn’t want!
By the end of the week, it came to a crashing halt … a hasty trial … a cross … a cry of agony.

Why would Jesus go up to Jerusalem?
Well, the easy answer first, “He went there to die for our sins.”
And like most easy answers, it’s neither helpful nor accurate.
He didn’t go to Jerusalem to die FOR our sins.
He died BECAUSE of our sins.

He went to Jerusalem to proclaim the Kingdom of God, the return of God to Israel, the end of the Exile, the promise of a new glory to fill and cleanse the temple … a new day for God’s People   .
Jesus chooses the moment carefully.
And chooses to use dramatic imagery … the ancient imagery of the king coming to Jerusalem for Passover.
From the Prophet Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
He is righteous and victorious.
He is humble and riding on an ass.
On a colt.
The offspring of a donkey [Zechariah 9.9].
It’s all been arranged.
The animal tied and waiting.
The password: The LORD needs it.

Why does Jesus go up to Jerusalem?
He could have remained in Galilee, taught for another 30 or 40 years … healed hundreds … anointed his successor like Elijah anointed Elisha … written a scroll like Jeremiah did.
He might have gotten married.
Had children.
Settled down as a revered teacher.
Lived a productive life.
Why go up to Jerusalem?
Jesus goes to Jerusalem because Jerusalem has lost its way.
Bad politics, bad business, bad theology and self-serving values.
The light has gone out … the salt has lost its saltiness.

But old ideas do not yield ground easily … the powers that be would have none of it … they conspired with one another to find a way to kill Jesus.
And they did!

When Jesus died, some thought he was a failure … two of his disciples, on their way home to Emmaus, said to the Stranger beside them, We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
Jesus sat down at their table and broke bread with them, and their eyes were opened.

If Jesus were here today, where might he go? Where would he meet us? And what would see when he opens our eyes?

Maybe Jesus would pay a visit to Sanford, Florida … where 17-year Trayvon Martin died.
We may never know all the details of what happened that night, but this much I know - I see in Trayvon’s story an American story that has played itself out too many times since the days of Emancipation - the death of a black man - lynching, burning, beating and shooting … perpetrators rarely found, and if they are, they’re let off with a slap on the wrist.
I feel for Trayvon’s family … I feel for all the unanswered cries for justice … God said to Cain, Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.

Maybe Jesus would pay a visit to El Cajon, just east of San Diego … Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old mother of five, recently moved to El Cajon, from Michigan, died of a severe beating … a week earlier, a note had been left at the home, telling her, “This is our country not yours you terrorist.”
She thought it was a prank.
A week later, she was beaten to death, and a similar note was left in the home, telling her “go back to your country.”

Where would Jesus go today? Where would he meet us? What would we see when he opens our eyes?

Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
To teach us the better way.
To die the death we all will die.
And when the Father raised from the dead, it was confirmation of God’s Word: This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!
The story of Lent!
To God be the glory.
Amen and Amen!