Devotion: “Jesus Knocking”

In the building of the church I’m currently serving as interim, there’s  a “Jesus Knocking at the Door” stained glass window.

And there’s a copy of the traditional painting in Fellowship Hall downstairs.  It’s very common; this isn’t the first church I’ve served that’s had that image in the building somewhere.   The pleasant “Nordic” Jesus raps on the heavy door with one knuckle; looks like maybe he’s been going house-to-house and is a little tired.  Needs coffee.  Actually, he wants more.

 “Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if any hear my voice and open the door, I will come into their house and eat with them, and they will eat with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

I used to think that this verse was about his desire to enter the lives of those who don’t believe in him. While Jesus does have that desire, that’s not what the verse is about.  He’s knocking on the door of the church and he’s there because he’s not happy (read all of verses 14-21, to the church of Laodicea, in modern Turkey). They are too comfortable with their stuff; they are “lukewarm.”  He wants the church to take the risk of more faith.  Do something!  He is not happy.

But, Jesus would like to reconcile.  That’s why he’s at the door. He is assuming that the door will open and there will be hospitality on the other side. Can you believe it?  He’s inviting himself for a meal. The nerve!  He assumes we’ll understand his concern and his authority to be there.  It’s his church and we say we are his followers.  He wants to straighten things out.

I like to think of myself as reconciled with Jesus, but he’s looking for a deeper relationship.  He’s asking me to put aside my comfortable stuff and find true reconciliation through meal-type sharing with people God loves. That’s one way to think about it.  He’s also asking me to simply act on what I say I believe – in real ways.  Tap, tap, tap.  “Can we talk?”

When I seem distracted, looking at the south windows, that’s what I’m thinking.  He’s disrupting my moment, but I need to hear what he has to say, to know what he’s thinking.

For a different take on the “Jesus Knocking at the Door” image, check out this devotional by Mary Luti, called “The Threat.”  http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_threat

I recommend the UCC daily devotionals to you:  http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional

Devotion: “Resurrection in Nursery School”

Once upon a time, I had an arrangement with the director of our church’s nursery school to come and give children’s sermons to the three and four-year-olds when the holidays arrived.  At Christmas, I would bring out the Nativity set, and that was pretty straightforward.  The concept of Baby Jesus being God was a little abstract, but that we pay special attention to this birth made sense, mostly.  Angels, shepherds, animals, parents and a baby – it’s all good.  But Easter was a challenge.  I actually had a parent tell me that if I intended to mention anything about death, they would keep their child home that day.  And I wasn’t going to be talking about Easter bunnies.

In the meantime, about once a month or so, I was visiting Doris, a very frail lady, tethered to large canister of oxygen in the corner of her living room.  She lived alone in a small neighborhood of houses near one of the lakes in town.  Although she had one of those portable oxygen units with a shoulder strap, I don’t think I ever saw her outside of her house.  In spite of this limitation, she found ways to enjoy life very much.  She helped her granddaughter with her homework and stayed in contact with her neighbors.  Her oxygen tube was long enough to reach the mailbox by the street and that was her daily adventure when the weather allowed.

Doris had a hobby few people knew about or ever would have expected.  She raised cecropia moths.  Those are the enormous moths you sometimes see in the summer – brownish with big “eyes” on their wings and large, feathery antennae.  Very beautiful, a miracle of creation, really.  Doris knew what the cecropia caterpillars ate, their perfect environment, and every detail of their life-cycle.  It might seem a little creepy to some people, but this was mostly hidden.  The cocoons were in a fridge in the garage for much of the year, and when it came time for them to hatch, they went into an aquarium in a side room so that she could watch the transformation.  She released the new moths each spring.

For a couple of years, Doris supplied me with my Easter children’s sermons.  She could actually time the hatching of the moths with Holy Week.  I would leave a cocoon in the nursery school in a large jar.  By Easter weekend, a moth had emerged and we would talk about it.  The kids were fascinated.  I would describe to them how believing in Jesus also brings new life, a special life that only God can give – that’s what Easter is really all about.  Jesus died, but God brought him back to life, something like the caterpillar in the cocoon.  When we pray to God, God can make us into a new kind of person.  Okay, still a little abstract!

Doris eventually experienced her own re-creation; her body no longer has limitations.  And in the years since she has gone, I’ve found myself paying more attention to butterflies and moths, these temporary visitors to our flower beds, snapping a photo every now and then.  Exquisite and fragile, sometimes wildly colorful, God is able to make them reappear every spring, after a winter of “death.”  Especially in challenging places, especially when things seem lost, there is a promise of hope, new life, and renewal.  Nothing is impossible with God.

4/21/2019 Sermon – “He is Alive!”

Luke 24:1-12. Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, carrying the spices they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, 3 so they went in; but they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 They stood there puzzled about this, when suddenly two men in bright shining clothes stood by them. 5 Full of fear, the women bowed down to the ground, as the men said to them, “Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive? 6 He is not here; he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and three days later rise to life.’”

8 Then the women remembered his words, 9 returned from the tomb, and told all these things to the eleven disciples and all the rest. 10 The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; they and the other women with them told these things to the apostles. 11 But the apostles thought that what the women said was nonsense, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; he bent down and saw the grave cloths but nothing else. Then he went back home amazed at what had happened.

Have you ever tried to look up your family roots?  In the last few years, you might have seen several TV shows encouraging people to do that.  If you’re up to it, you can pay for a subscription that will help you see certain records. You might find some relatives you didn’t know you had. There is actually quite a lot you can find out about your ancestors on-line these days.  Maybe that will shed some light on how you and your family turned out the way you did.  You can submit your DNA and find out some deeper secrets – like where your people were really from.

1886 – Halderson family & farmhouse.

But for some things, you still have to the places where the history happened. So, a number of years ago, I made a trip to rural Wisconsin, to look for the farm of my Norwegian great-grandfather.  It took me two trips, and I finally found it by matching up the line of the hills on an old picture.  It was still rural countryside, but nothing else looked familiar.

I found a cemetery buried in weeds, where some of our family members were buried over a hundred years ago.  It was as if time and everyone else had forgotten about the family farm and the cemetery.  In country places there are small cemeteries like that one – grown over with bushes and trees, in a place you would go to only if you knew someone buried there and you knew exactly where to go.

I went to the farmhouse, and the elderly man who answered the door knew who my great grandfather was.  He had bought the place from someone in my family many years before.  I gave him a copy of the ancient picture of the farm and he said, “I have something for you, if you’re interested.”

In the basement, he had a couple of the family tombstones.  That was a mystery until we realized that these stones had been over graves in the cemetery that were now marked by one big stone with all the family names on it.  So, these tombstones in the basement weren’t necessary anymore. He was offering these stones, and I had to think about it.  Did I really want a used tombstone?  I decided to pass.

Try to imagine that.  What would you do with a used tombstone?  You could put it in the house somewhere, but even if it was out of sight in your basement, your friends and family might think it’s a little odd.  Kind of creepy. You could put it out in the yard somewhere, but that might not go especially well with your landscaping and your neighbors would probably have opinions.  If you were selling your house, your realtor might suggest removing it.  It implies that someone is buried underneath, but it would be a false grave.

Near Mount Joy, PA. CN – 2014.

In the same way, for someone who believes in the resurrection of Jesus, there is probably nothing more unnecessary or irrelevant.  It was a false grave.  “…the men said to them, ‘Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive?’ (Luke 24:5)  Those women who found the tomb empty probably never looked at tombstones or cemeteries the same way again.  And neither should we.

The story about the resurrection of Jesus we hear most often is the one from John:  Mary Magdalene comes to mourn at the tomb and finds Jesus standing outside (see John 20:1-18).  At first, she thinks he’s the cemetery gardener.   But in Luke, he’s not there at all.  They don’t know where he is.  They see angels, but no Jesus.  Peter goes to look, but he only sees an empty tomb and doesn’t know what to think.  Eventually in the story, Jesus goes to Peter and appears to him.

When the disciples first heard it, they thought it was nonsense – the normal response to a story like this.  We are so used to hearing and telling it that we don’t stop anymore to think about how incredible it sounds.  Illogical. Crazy! Nonsense.  But we are here today, in fact, we are here every Sunday because a man was executed on a Friday and came back to life two days later.  We say we believe this.  It’s a stretch.  It takes… faith.

I’ll confess that I was a serious doubter. I also thought that it was fairytale-nonsense, until I had my own infusion of faith in the middle of one night, about halfway through college. Giving a silent cry out to God, asking God to be real to me, to help me, God answered by changing me in ways I still find difficult to describe.  I lost my compulsion to worry, and I never doubted this story about Jesus again.  It happened in a moment.  He is alive; I know it personally.

Before he died, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God.  C. S. Lewis said, “Jesus is either the Son of God or he is in the same category as a man who thinks he is a poached egg.”  But then, he proved he is the Son of God.  Because he is alive.  He is risen.  Truly!

I would have to assume that someone here is doubting.  This is fairy-tale-crazy-stuff.   The thing about the Easter story, this Jesus rising from the dead story, is that when you hear it, when you really listen to what’s being said, you have to decide whether it’s true or not.  It’s a leap.  It takes faith.

It’s a risk to believe this story, and the only real proof that it’s true is the power of change it has over us.  The living Christ changes us, and we change our world – not because we have good morals on our side, but because Jesus rose from the dead.  We believe it, and the power of God makes us alive.  The living Jesus is the one who can set us free from the tombs we live in, and give us life, and give us eyes to see the world in whole new way.  That’s the power of God at work when we believe in Christ.

French village at sunset. 2000 – CN.

A story is told of a rabbi in a European village, who one day summoned the townspeople to the village square. He said he had an important announcement. The people gathered, but not without much grumbling at the inconvenience. The merchant resented having to leave his business. The wife complained because she had so many errands to run. But, out of respect, they went unwillingly to the town square.

When all were present, the rabbi said, “I wish to announce there is a God in the world.” That was all he said. But the people understood. They knew they had been acting as if God did not exist.

I would like to announce that Jesus is alive… even though sometimes, we act as if Jesus weren’t alive.  Sometimes, we forget.

Greenwood Cemetery, Wellington, OH. CN – 2019.

I don’t think you have to be physically dead to be in a cemetery.  We have opportunities every day to give up hope.  Every day we have temptations to think that life has no meaning.  Chances to believe that no matter what you do, it will never be enough.  That is living in a cemetery.  And Jesus sets you free from that tomb.

All of that thinking, all your sin, your separation from God, died on that cross.  Faith in the living Jesus, giving yourself to the living Jesus creates a kind of life in you that you can’t get any other way.  Your tombstone is unnecessary, because he is alive.

Where were you when you first heard, or understood, that Jesus is alive?  Some people remember that day.  For other people it’s more of a process and it’s hard to nail down a specific moment.  The point is, it can happen.

If you have believed, you know what I’m talking about.  This news is too good to keep to ourselves; we have to give it away!  It’s not as hard as you think.  It could be as easy as telling somebody you learned some Greek in church today.  You can do it.  We all can do it together.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!

Near Mount Joy, PA. CN – 2014.

On this day, God turned all our thinking about cemeteries and about death upside down.  Because of what happened on this day, at that cemetery outside the city wall in Jerusalem, for Christians, death is nothing more than a transition.  It doesn’t matter that there’s life at the end of the tunnel or even that there is a tunnel.  Death is the next step in living.  I said living.  On this day, God changed the meaning of death by changing what it means to be alive.  God sent Jesus to change life – your life, right now.

On this day, God turned living upside down.  That’s what happens to anybody who meets Jesus.  They begin to live. Physical death is just a moment of transition for those who are alive in Jesus.  That is the point of this story, and that is the point of our being here today.

The Apostle Paul makes it simple:

‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ (Romans 10:8-11)

We are here together because of our faith in something supernatural that happened in a cemetery.  Don’t be confused – it’s our faith in that living one that makes it all work.  Find a moment to tell God you believe, then tell someone else.  It’s not as hard as you think.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.

Prayer

O God, on this day you amazed the world.  You took the worst that the human race had to offer and turned it into the best thing that ever happened.  You saved us.  You make life out of death. Now bring life to us.  Make the living Jesus real to us in ways we’ve never experienced or expected.  Help us make him our Lord.

Bring us out of the tombs we live in and send us on a mission.  Take away our desire for the things that kill us and bury us, and use us to bring life to the world you love and sent Jesus to die for.  Give us opportunities to show people that Jesus lives in us.  Heal our relationships, give us a greater ability to love and forgive. Make us like him.  Give us eyes that are sensitive to pain and injustice, and hands willing to do something that makes a difference.

We pray with faith that as we give ourselves to you, you will give us the kind of life that never dies, because of the risen Jesus.  Amen.

4/21/2019 – Easter Sunrise

John 20:1  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.

2  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.”

3  Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7  and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9  for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10  Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11  But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12  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. 13  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.”

14  When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15  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.”  16  Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17  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.'”

18  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.

Christ is risen!!  He is risen indeed.

I don’t know about other pastors, but I have cemetery stories – things I remember that happened in a cemetery somewhere.

Once upon a time – when we lived in Connecticut – a guy from a Hollywood production company came to see me.  They wanted to use our church building and cemetery for a couple of scenes in a movie they were making. A Hallmark movie with a few well-known actors in it (Diane Lane and Gena Rowlands).  A nice tear-jerker.  The church leadership said yes, and they gave us a little money for the trouble of shutting everything down for a couple of days.  They let me stand nearby while the filming was going on.  (Note: church scene starts at 43:10; cemetery scene starts at 50:40)

The cemetery scene involved an elderly mother, whose four children had died when she was younger.  She was talking to a friend and pulling weeds from around the headstones.  Very sad part of the movie.  Except that it wasn’t real. Of course, it was a movie.  But the way reality was portrayed was really interesting.

The production company used an empty space in the cemetery and had some headstones made to look like the others nearby.  They even made the stones look weathered and planted the weeds that this lady was pulling.  None of it was authentic at all.  Nobody was buried there. They made this little set go away as soon as they were done with the scene.

We just heard about another grave with nobody in it.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.

In fact, the resurrection of Jesus is the point; it is the focus of scripture, the core of our faith.  Somehow, I think you know that!  It. Is. Real.

One of the things I love about the gospels is that they each have a bit of a different take on this reality.  Different people describing the same event from different points of view.  For me, that makes it even more real.

 The story about the empty tomb of Jesus that we hear most often is the one you just heard from the gospel of John:

Mary Magdelene, who was one of Jesus’ closest followers, comes to mourn at the tomb and finds Jesus standing outside.  At first, she thinks he’s the cemetery gardener.   They talk for a minute, and suddenly, she recognizes who he is.  Suddenly, she gets it.  Suddenly, she realizes that Jesus is alive.  She has a sudden infusion of faith.

But in Luke, there is a group of women who go to the tomb (Mary Magdalene is one of them) and Jesus is gone, period.  He’s not there.  They don’t know where he is.  They see angels, but no Jesus, and the angels don’t say anything about where he is, except that he is not there.  Peter goes to look, but he only sees an empty tomb and doesn’t know what to think.

So, here’s a trivia question: as Luke tells it, who is the first one to see Jesus alive?  It’s Peter (see Luke 24:34).  There’s the story of the two disciples who have an encounter with Jesus on the road outside Jerusalem (the road to Emmaus), but when they run back to tell everybody else, they find out that Peter’s already seen him.  There’s no story to go along with it, Luke just says that Jesus appeared to Peter, and that’s it.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t stay at the tomb waiting to be found, he goes to the disciples.  That’s an important thing to know about Jesus:  Jesus does not stay in one place waiting to be found, Jesus goes out finding people, and he changes the lives of everybody who sees him.  And after they believe, Jesus sends them out – Christians aren’t supposed to stay in one place either.

Everyone who believes in the resurrection of Jesus has a mission to take the good news to anyone who doesn’t know.  These believers started ending up in the strangest places, talking to people they never expected to have anything to do with.  They started doing things they never thought they could do.  God gave them the authority (the permission) and the power to change their world, and that still happens.  The resurrection of Jesus gives all of us the permission and the power to change our world.  The permission and power to be radical for God.  What the worst that can happen – death?  Through Christ, God has lifted that burden.

Jesus escaped death; he wasn’t where he was supposed to be, and you never know where he’ll turn up next.  You can never tell who he’s going to find next.  Somebody will find out that he’s alive, and he’ll change them; maybe you, maybe the person next to you.  But they won’t know that this is the year of the Lord’s favor until you tell them.

Practice saying it – Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!

Prayer

O God, on this day you amazed the world.  You took the worst that the human race had to offer and turned it into the best thing that ever happened.  You saved us.  You make life out of death. Now bring life to us.  Make the living Jesus real to us in ways we’ve never experienced or expected.  Help us make him our Lord.

Bring us out of the tombs we live in and send us on a mission.  Take away our desire for the things that kill us and bury us, and use us to bring life to the world you love and sent Jesus to die for.  Give us opportunities to show people that Jesus lives in us.  Heal our relationships, give us a greater ability to love and forgive. Make us like him.  Give us eyes that are sensitive to pain and injustice, and hands willing to do something that makes a difference.

We pray with faith that as we give ourselves to you, you will give us the kind of life that never dies, because of the risen Jesus.  Amen.

4/14/2019 Sermon: “Jesus, Do Something!”

Palestinian shepherd, not far from Jerusalem. CN – 2011.

Luke 19:28-40.28 After Jesus said this, he went on in front of them toward Jerusalem. 29 As he came near Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sent two disciples ahead 30 with these instructions: “Go to the village there ahead of you; as you go in, you will find a colt tied up that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If someone asks you why you are untying it, tell him that the Master[a]needs it.”

32 They went on their way and found everything just as Jesus had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying it?”

34 “The Master needs it,” they answered, 35 and they took the colt to Jesus. Then they threw their cloaks over the animal and helped Jesus get on. 36 As he rode on, people spread their cloaks on the road.

37 When he came near Jerusalem, at the place where the road went down the Mount of Olives, the large crowd of his disciples began to thank God and praise him in loud voices for all the great things that they had seen: 38 “God bless the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory to God!”

39 Then some of the Pharisees in the crowd spoke to Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “command your disciples to be quiet!”

40 Jesus answered, “I tell you that if they keep quiet, the stones themselves will start shouting.”

41 He came closer to the city, and when he saw it, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But now you cannot see it! 43 The time will come when your enemies will surround you with barricades, blockade you, and close in on you from every side. 44 They will completely destroy you and the people within your walls; not a single stone will they leave in its place, because you did not recognize the time when God came to save you!”

I’ll Be Back.  The story goes that a community-wide Easter pageant assigned various people in the town to play the different parts. The character of Jesus went to one of the most unlikely people – a big, burly, barroom brawler, an oilfield worker, the most unlikely person to be cast as Jesus. After some weeks of rehearsals, the day of the Easter Pageant finally arrived.

When they came to the part of the play where Jesus was being led away to be crucified, one small guy, filling in as a part of the crowd, got caught up in the emotion of the moment.  Probably a method actor immersing himself in the role.  As Jesus was led through the crowd, this guy was loud in the chorus: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  And then, as he was shouting insults at the top of his lungs, he accidentally sprayed some spit in the face of the Jesus as he walked by carrying the cross on his back. So, this big oilfield worker stopped for a moment, reached up and wiped his face dry. And then he looked down and said: “I’ll be back to take care of you after the resurrection.”  -Barry Boulware, via Robert Allen, via Norman Neaves.  Homiletics (March/April, 1992)

Sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger, right? Not exactly a Jesus image, maybe because he was playing a robot when he said that.  But resurrection is a thing in movies.  Keanu Reaves does it in The Matrix, Superman did it in the last couple of “Justice League” movies. Some people say they are Jesus figures. But I’m still not sure that those characters match up with Jesus very well.

Stained glass at the First Congregational Church UCC, Wellington, OH

There is this image of Jesus that many people have:  Peacefully sitting with children and lambs, with a glazed smile and a halo.  Present, but removed from these silly humans.  But the gospels describe Jesus regularly attending dinner parties and hanging out with “fringe” people.  I’m one of those who believe that Jesus not only wept in public sometimes, he had an active sense of humor, laughed hard, and I think he would appreciate that joke.

Temple Mount, Jerusalem. Dome of the Rock, center. Mount of Olives in the distance. CN – 2011.

As he and his “entourage” are coming closer to Jerusalem, the Gospel of Mark says that Jesus was walking ahead of them; [the disciples] were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. (Mark 13:32)  The disciples are amazed he is doing this because it’s common knowledge that there is a contract out on his life.  Everyone is afraid – and you would have been afraid too.  There’s about to be a murder, and it’s not a mystery.

If you follow what he had been doing and saying up to this point in the gospel story, that was pretty close to what he’d been saying all along:  Yeah, they’re going to kill me.  He keeps repeating it.  He isn’t disagreeing with the rumor. At the time, his own people thought it was pretty crazy.  He keeps saying this thing about being killed… and rising from the dead.

Jesus – stop talking like that!  But he’s healing people, walking on water, raising people from the dead.  They decide to just keep quiet about this “being killed and rising from the dead” thing.

Jesus kept repeating that this was going to be a horrific experience, and he would be killed.  And he also says… I’m coming back.  What? We look back now and know that he meant what he said.  The humiliation and crucifixion were horrific – and he came back.  He is back.  For some people that’s good news and for others, maybe it’s not so good.  For those who know life could and should be different, that’s great news.  For those who are keeping God at an arm’s length, who have built a lifestyle around staying away from God, maybe that’s not such great news.  Jesus died, but now he’s back.  He’s alive.  He isn’t going away.  Maybe we can just ignore him!

But, before any cross or tomb, or resurrection, there’s a rowdy crowd at the city gate with a lot of expectations for Jesus.  He’s got a huge reputation by now for hard-to-believe, supernatural things – acts of God.  When people call him the Messiah, he doesn’t deny it.  He is God.

Palestine, near Jerusalem. CN – 2011.

He sent an advance team of disciples ahead to Jerusalem with instructions:  “If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”  Not, “Jesus needs it” – the Lord needs it.

Now, this didn’t necessarily mean that Jesus was using some kind of mind control over the owners of the donkey.  It likely means that he had set this situation up in advance, and that riding into town on the donkey is intended to be a message.  God needs the donkey and it’s going to be a visual aid, an object lesson that Jesus will use to communicate who he is.

For one thing, it’s a sign of humility – the crowd wants him to be a king, like their King Herod (but hopefully nicer).  They want him to take political control, but that’s not what Jesus is about.  He’s not going to conquer anybody by force.  And that is still true.  He never forces his way into anybody’s life and he doesn’t want an office at city hall or at the state house or in Washington.

Donkey tied next to a monastery in Palestine. CN – 2011.

This riding on a donkey is also a fulfillment of prophecy from the ancient book of Zechariah (9:8).

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

As Jesus rides along, the crowd is shouting scripture at him. It is not a quiet scene. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (vv. 35-38 – Psalm 118).  Hosanna!  (Lord, save us!)  Make Jesus the king.  Jesus – he’ll make things right!  He’ll take care of these Romans, yeah, he will.

We could be in that crowd – that’s what we’re waiting for too.  Jesus, straighten out this mess!  What a mess!  Nothing is the way it should be.  We’ve disagreements here and there, people unhappy about this and that, illnesses, divorces, murders, kids out of control.  And Just a little political stuff.  Jesus!  Get off the donkey and do something!

And so, as Jesus comes close to the city, he does do something.  Something that probably no one expected. “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:41-42)

Jesus weeps.  As the parade winds down and everyone goes back to pick up the cloaks they threw in the road, he stops and weeps.  He weeps.  He says it’s because people don’t recognize the things that make for peace, the things that make for their own well-being.  When was the last time you saw a public leader look at a city – or look out at a political rally – and weep for peace?  And I believe he’s weeping for the sacrifice he knows he’s about to make, to help us all have peace when we have faith in him.

E. Herrick Ave., Wellington, OH. CN – 2019.

Here’s a little bit of a challenge: As Jesus comes close to our town, close to Wellington, what do you suppose he does here?  Does he weep?  Maybe he needs to get to know the place first.

When you think about Jesus picking up a local paper at one of the restaurants or coffee shops, can you see him weeping over what he reads?  Maybe.  He might weep over the things that we have the power to do, to change our world into a better place for everyone, and don’t do.

He might weep over the things we do, that are such a waste of time and resources, and don’t help us or anybody.

He might weep more over the many hundreds of people who travel the roads of our town every day, driving, biking, or walking past this building – whom he would love to know, if only somebody would take the time to make the introduction or work on a relationship.  Surveys show that most people now don’t have a relationship with a church, you know, followers of Christ.

Who are we? We are the First Congregational United Church of… Christ, and that means something.  A congregation united in Christ.  It’s more than a denomination, it’s a phrase that means access to hope when things seem hopeless.  Inner strength when you need it most.  Power when you realize how weak you are.  He is at the center of the things that make for peace.

He doesn’t come into our lives by force.  He waits until we realize that we are empty without him, and that with him, life may not get easier, but it can be different.  The one who died and rose again waits for the invitation.

That’s how it is with Jesus.  Some people are glad when he shows up in their lives.  Some people are resentful.  That’s how it was when he came to Jerusalem at the beginning of that last week. It was – and is – hard to stay neutral about Jesus.  He shows up at the edge of town, at the edge of our lives, and claims to be somebody.  But who?  Who is he to me?  To us?

Cross on monastery wall, Palestine. CN – 2011.

Everything in the gospels hinge on the things that happen this week.  You could say that everything in scripture finds its climax this week, and it’s a roller-coaster ride.  Try to put yourself in the crowd, watching as he comes into town.  Who is he?

Then and now, he shows up in town at this time of year, attracting all sorts of attention to himself.  What does he want from us?  What are the things that make for peace for you?  With faith in him, they will happen.

Story to be continued this week….

Prayer

O God, forgive us for being fickle like the crowds in Jerusalem. We praise you one moment and turn our backs on you the next, depending on who we’re with and how the conversation’s going.  Forgive us.  Take away our fear of being yours and give us strength when trouble comes.  Help us remember that you hold the power that overcomes the worst the world can give, and help us live for you.  Amen.

4/15/2019 Devotion: “The Long Walk”

Hiking the “Abrahamic Trail” in Palestine. CN – 2011.

Last Sunday, “Palm Sunday,” we walked down the Mount of Olives hill with Jesus and into Jerusalem.  Noisy crowds, dusty streets.  In hindsight, we should have known what to expect, because he told us.  It’s been a long walk… a long walk from the north of Palestine to Jerusalem in the south.  He walks on desolate country roads, through villages, sometimes with crowds, sometimes just with his disciples, occasionally taking time to be alone.  “He went on teaching from town to village, village to town, but keeping on a steady course toward Jerusalem.”  (Luke 13:22)  It was mostly the same long walk Mary and Joseph took just before he was born.  He and his people have made this long walk many times.

Folks from other cultures walk much more than we do – most of us anyway.  Last year, I started “walking” on an elliptical machine and I watch the display to tell me the distance.  I get to a certain mile marker and stop, or I watch a clock.  You don’t talk to people much when you’re on the machine. You walk, you finish, and you haven’t really gone anywhere.  I know people in other places who would think that this is a ridiculous way to get exercise.  Why not just walk to the places you need to go?

Jesus is so much more purposeful – he walks for a reason. He’s also more flexible, more open; he wants to be in Jerusalem around Passover time, but seems to have allowed for the unexpected and wasn’t in a hurry.  It’s about a 10-day walk, but he may have taken longer as he teaches, heals, and has meals with outcasts. He knew what was at the end of this long walk – although his disciples couldn’t quite grasp what he was doing this side of the cross, they knew what would happen in Jerusalem and tried to talk him out of it – he understood the purpose of it.  He was busy saving as he walked, preparing to save us all on that cross at the end of the journey.

Maybe that’s a healthy way to think of Lent: our own long walk with Jesus.  The long walk toward Jerusalem with Jesus teaches, heals, and creates fellowship with those who are not in our circle.  We have much to learn from Jesus; there’s a message for us disciples in the long walk toward Easter, and the vital, essential purpose we have: to bond our ourselves, our families, and our community to the One who is saving and walking with us.

4/7/2019 Sermon: “Something New!”

A lot of the bible is about going from one place to another. The Old Testament is a rags to riches to rags story about the people of God.  Israel escapes from Egypt, wanders for 40 years,  and finds the Promised Land.  Israel gets into trouble with God a few generations later, and now, when the prophet Isaiah is writing, Israel is in exile in Babylon (the area of Iraq today).  It’s 700 years before the ministry of Jesus and they are 800 miles from home.  They are dreaming of the good things they miss… will we ever go home?  And Isaiah tells them how God will save them.  God is going to do something new.

Plettenburg, South Africa. CN – 2008

Isaiah 43:16-21.  Long ago the Lord made a road through the sea, a path through the swirling waters.  He led a mighty army to destruction, an army of chariots and horses.  Down they fell, never to rise, snuffed out like the flame of a lamp!

But the Lord says, “Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do.  It is happening already—you can see it now!  I will make a road through the wilderness and give you streams of water there.

Jackal in Kruger Game Reserve, South Africa. CN – 2008.

 Even the wild animals will honor me;  jackals…

Ostrich at Cape Point, South Africa. CN – 2012.

and ostriches will praise me.

In scripture, jackals and ostriches show up when people have abandoned their towns.  I took these photos at the southern tip of Africa, so it’s amazing that the people of the ancient Middle East know what they are – they were part of the natural habitat.  Ostriches and jackals are not bad animals themselves, but a sign of hopelessness in that place.  They have taken over a ghost town.

So Isaiah is saying even Hopelessness makes way for the new thing God is doing.  Hopelessness, get down on your knees and praise God.   

Near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011.

…for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. 

This is a journey.  It starts with a dramatic escape – from Egypt.  God is asking, do you remember that?  There was an army and horses and chariots, remember that?  I saved you.  I’m the God who did that, and I can do it again.  In fact, I will do it again.  God says I know that you have been languishing where you are, suffering in exile, and I would like to bring you home, so…

Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already—you can see it now!  (Isaiah 43:18-19)

God says, look ahead; we’re going to a new place.  Just take the first step; I promise, you will finish the trip.  I never promised it would feel good or be easy.  But I’ll be with you and we need to get on with the next step of the trip.  I’m taking you through the wilderness places where nothing is easy.  There are wild animals and water is hard to find, but I will take care of you.

I know that the church has been through a lot in the last few years.  It’s not been easy.  Can you hear God saying….

Watch for the new thing I am going to do.  It is happening already—you can see it now!

How do you feel about change?  Maybe not so much.  How do you feel about progress?  Better, right?  But you can’t have progress without change!

God wants to know if you’re ready for the next step in the journey.  God says, we’re turning the page.  We are leaving the town of Hopelessness. Maybe this is the year you let go of your personal hopelessness and let God fill the empty place.  God will be doing new things, so get ready.

Of course, the ultimate new thing, the thing that no one saw coming was the empty tomb of Jesus.  If God can do that, think of what God can do with us, with you and me.  Keep in mind that the path to the empty tomb goes through a cross.  God is making a new way. 

The path near Jericho, on the way to Jerusalem. 2011 – CN.

Easter is two weeks away, and today, we’re farther along the path to Jerusalem with Jesus.  We’re almost to Jerusalem.

It’s a journey, it really is.  I mean it.  One thing that seems clear to me from the ministry of Jesus is that he when he asks his people to follow, he doesn’t mean for them to sit in one place and think about following.  They agree with Jesus by getting up and going where he goes.

Now, of course he’s asking us to be a part of the new thing he’s doing.  That’s a heart decision – to say yes to Jesus.  But then, if you’re truly committed to following Jesus, you go where he’s going. He says, “Okay, we’re going to Galilee next week. Get your stuff together.” We stay for a few days, then move on.  We keep moving.  Things to do, people to see.

How about this for a Lenten discipline? Walk about 120 miles over 40 days (the distance to Jerusalem from Galilee).  About 3 miles a day.  About 6,000 steps on your wrist device!

This morning, we’re just outside Jerusalem with Jesus.  You can call this the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning.   You can cut the tension with a knife.  The week we think of as “holy week” was not a spontaneous event; Jesus knew the kind of danger he was walking into and went anyway.

John 12:1-8.  Six days before the Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, the man he had raised from death. They prepared a dinner for him there, which Martha helped serve; Lazarus was one of those who were sitting at the table with Jesus. Then Mary took a whole pint of a very expensive perfume made of pure nard, poured it on Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The sweet smell of the perfume filled the whole house. One of Jesus’ disciples, Judas Iscariot—the one who was going to betray him—said, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would help himself from it.  (John 12:1-8)

It’s important to know what’s just happened:  Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead and the chief Priests and the Pharisees are very upset.  They now want to know where Jesus is so that they can kill him.  This threat is no secret; Jesus has come back to the Jerusalem area knowing that there is a “contract” out on his life.  But they need help.  They need Judas to get upset enough to betray Jesus.

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha. Vermeer – 1655.

The scene opens at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (they are siblings), and there’s a party going on and there’s a festive atmosphere.  The family of Lazarus is grateful to Jesus.

This is like the victim of an accident (and his family) thanking the rescue worker.  That’s what’s going on at this banquet.  This is a dinner being given in Jesus’ honor.  People are happy, maybe a little in awe.  They still can hardly believe that Jesus brought Lazarus back from the grave, but there he is.  Hugs and kisses and tears all around.

And in the middle of the party, Mary puts the most expensive perfume she could find on the feet of Jesus.  She’s using nard (aka spikenard), which is a rare perfume made from a plant found in India and the Himalayas (think about that).  I’d love to know what it smelled like.  The smell must have filled the house.  And Mary’s hair was soaked in it; she was probably smelling it for weeks; she wanted to carry the experience with her for a while.

But it was expensive.  And outside of an obvious use around a tomb (probably used under the nose of a mourner; remember, they had buried Lazarus not too long ago), it was also used in ancient times to anoint kings and priests.  Mary was wiping it on the feet of Jesus, an invitation for somebody at that feast to see dollar signs evaporating into the air.  In a few of the Jesus movies, this was the moment that Judas decided to betray Jesus.

Judas Iscariot. James Tissot (between 1886-94).

Judas was right to point out that it was worth a year’s wages, which brings us to the other side of the experience.  In my imagination, at this dinner, somebody has said, “Hey, let’s get a group photo!”  I wonder if we could pick Judas out of the group.  In traditional artwork, he is the guy with his face in a shadow, the unhappy one.  He never smiles.

And at the party, Judas is on a slow burn. He is not happy.  He is disgruntled, he is concerned about the money, he is not happy about the way Jesus is doing his ministry.

Ministry has to be practical, it has to fulfill some tangible purpose, something for the obvious good of all. The purpose of ministry is social action, right?.  The social action department of Jesus disciples really could have used the money that was spent on that perfume.  And apparently, Judas could have used it too.

So, we have two completely different perspectives on the same event.  Mary sees the expensive perfume as something she can devote to God. Judas does not see why anything should be spent on the worship of Jesus, even if he is the Messiah.

Did Jesus ask for this?  No. The perfume flows out of the bottle and Judas watches dollar signs flow across the feet of Jesus, into Mary’s hair, and onto the floor.

The story ends with a punch-line by Jesus which only makes sense if he’s saying it to Judas: “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”  He may already be aware of what Judas is up to.  “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”  (vv. 7-8)

In one line he reads the mind of Judas and gives the church a mission statement.  We always have the poor among us.  If we’re grateful to God for what God has done for us in Christ, then we always have the opportunity at our fingertips to express our gratitude through ministry to the poor.  You have an opportunity to express gratitude to God through One Great Hour of Sharing today.  When was the last time you were extravagant on God?  Or extravagant on the Body of Christ, the church, in some way?

Hiking on the “Abrahamic Trail.” Palestine, CN – 2011.

Back to the journey…  If I ask, what new thing is God doing in your life?  Can you remember where you were spiritually 2 years ago?  5 years ago?  20 years ago? 40 years ago? Has God taken you places beyond where you were and shown you new things?  Was it easy?  Maybe… A new tolerance?  A new forgiveness?  A new ability?  A new understanding of Christ?

I imagine that these new things didn’t come on suddenly.  It took time.  And some hard journeying, and some difficult following of Jesus to get there with your fellow travelers.  We’re almost there.

Prayer

O God, just as we’re tempted to feel hopeless, we hear your voice saying, “These are my people, with whom I am well pleased.”  Fill us with your Spirit; give us strength to live up to your blessing.  Give us the courage to be extravagant in our love of you.  Make us deeper, stronger in our faith.  Help us remember that you spared no expense on us, and that your love took you through a cross and a tomb, and that Jesus is alive.  We know that you walk with us every step of the way through your son Jesus, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

3/31/2019 Sermon: “The Makeover”

New Orleans. CN – 2015.

One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!” So Jesus told them this parable:

“There was once a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to him, ‘Father, give me my share of the property now.’ So the man divided his property between his two sons. 13 After a few days the younger son sold his part of the property and left home with the money. He went to a country far away, where he wasted his money in reckless living. 14 He spent everything he had. Then a severe famine spread over that country, and he was left without a thing. 15 So he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him out to his farm to take care of the pigs. 16 He wished he could fill himself with the bean pods the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything to eat. 17 At last he came to his senses and said, ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve! 18 I will get up and go to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. 19 I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers.”’ 20 So he got up and started back to his father.

“He was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with pity, and he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him. 21 ‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’ 22 But the father called to his servants. ‘Hurry!’ he said. ‘Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. 23 Then go and get the prize calf and kill it, and let us celebrate with a feast! 24 For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ And so the feasting began.

25 “In the meantime the older son was out in the field. On his way back, when he came close to the house, he heard the music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him, ‘What’s going on?’ 27 ‘Your brother has come back home,’ the servant answered, ‘and your father has killed the prize calf, because he got him back safe and sound.’ 28 The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in. 29 But he spoke back to his father, ‘Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! 30 But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!’ 31 ‘My son,’ the father answered, ‘you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’”  (GNT – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

Madrid. CN – 2018

I suspect you’ve heard that story before – the “Prodigal Son.”  Did you hear the word “prodigal” in the reading?  Nope.  That’s a 16th century word that the writers of the King James Bible used.  It means “wastefully extravagant.”  Prodigal is an antique word, but it’s got a meaning we understand pretty easily: Out of control and with resources.  And separated – the separated one who comes home.  You could substitute the word daughter – gender doesn’t really matter here. It’s another story that makes me love scripture – we understood exactly what Jesus was saying.  How many movies have you seen with this theme?  The separated one comes home.  For that matter, this could be a prodigal father or mother.

I think we know that if we’re being honest, we all have had a “prodigal” in the family or maybe you have been one yourself.  In Southeastern Pennsylvania, they know the Amish word Rumshpringa – a tolerated time during teenage years when young people defy the expectations of parents and explore the world. Most of the time, they come back.  Sometimes not.

Let’s stop for a moment and remember what starts Jesus telling this story in the first place.

One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law (religious leaders) started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!” (Luke 15:1-2)

Jesus eats with people who have bad reputations.  Jesus works on personal friendships with people who are on the outside of his religious world.  Goes out of his way to have dinner with them.  He hangs out with people who don’t present the right image to proper society.  And he did it regularly.  I don’t think you have to work too hard to translate this to today, to now.  This man welcomes outcasts.

There have been lots of prodigals; maybe you’ve known one.  The people of the early 1600’s in Europe might have had this kind of image in mind….

“The Prodigal Son Wastes His Inheritance” – Rembrandt, ca. 1636.

This painting is by Rembrandt, the famous Dutch artist, early in his career.  This is his version of the younger son being prodigal.  I think that also is pretty easy to translate that to today.  Whatever image you apply to this guy being a “party animal,” or wastefully extravagant, it works.  And we say, “Tsk, tsk.”  By the way, he looks a lot like Rembrandt.  Hold that thought.  The Prodigal Son was one of Rembrandt’s favorite subjects, and he can help us  understand what Jesus is talking about.

 So Jesus is telling this story, probably over dinner at somebody’s house. There are these people standing against the wall with their arms folded: The scribes and Pharisees – the professional religious tradition-keepers of the time.  Maybe they are just outside the door so that they don’t have to be in the same room.  These are people who always try to do the “right thing,” especially on the Sabbath.  They know how things in the temple are supposed to be done, and they know how we all should live, thank you very much, because they are experts in the Jewish law.  That might be a little harsh.  They’re just doing the best they can to keep order, something I think we all appreciate, and Jesus keeps coloring outside the lines.

“This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!”

 He eats with people who don’t follow the Jewish laws or who aren’t Jewish at all, and as a community leader, he sets the wrong example.  What he’s doing can only create division and hard feelings.  But Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing, even if it’s testing the boiling point of the religious people.

Jesus looks at somebody like that prodigal and loves him.  He sees how empty that guy’s life really is.  He is on a search for people who need an inner makeover, and people who need the soul makeover aren’t hard to find.  It’s so easy to find stories about somebody who’s hit rock bottom.  These days we can’t get away from stories of people who lost it all. Or people who have everything, but can’t find meaning in life.

Maybe you can find yourself in this story.  Look for the issues of trust here…

“The Return of the Prodigal Son “(detail) Rembrandt – 1668.

The Father.  He’s tolerant and generous.  He’s loving at his own expense, maybe too loving.  He’s consistent with both his kids and gives them both the space to make mistakes.  Obviously, he’s the God-figure in the story, allowing for plenty of free will.  He has endured the pain of his younger son saying to him, in essence, give me the inheritance; you are as good as dead to me.  I’m leaving.  Can the father be trusted.  Yes, but… he will love in an absurd, ridiculous way.  He will love generously.  He doesn’t care where his son has been on life’s journey, even if everybody else would throw him away.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” (detail), Rembrandt – 1668.

The Older Son. He does everything he’s supposed to.  He’s the typical first child.  He’s the one who stayed home and took care of everything, worked hard, and never gave his father a problem.  Somehow, he knows what his brother’s been up to even though he’s in another country.  He’s responsible, but he’s also got harsh opinions.  He looks out for himself and can’t bring himself to forgive his brother.  He makes sure his father knows what a loser his brother is. Can he be trusted?  Yes, but…  he has his own issues that might make his relationships a little difficult.

New York. CN – 2009

The Younger Son.  It’s so easy to put yourself in the place of the Prodigal Son.  Who hasn’t come to a point at one time or another when the world seemed to be falling apart, or known someone who has had that experience, or is having that experience right now?

Far away from home with most of your options gone.  Full of regret.  It’s no accident that Jesus says he ends up feeding pigs. To a Jew, this means he’s working for a Gentile who raises forbidden food.  He isn’t just poor, he is literally at the lowest level of the Jewish food chain.  These are the consequences of his choices.  But he comes home.  He will need to talk through his issues.  Maybe join a 12-step program.  In the end he will need to forgive himself, let himself off the hook.  He will need to rebuild trust with family and friends, and learn to trust himself again, and that only comes with time.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” Rembrandt – 1668.

I have to admit, I’m a sucker for any moment on TV that involves a reunion:

~ Soldiers coming home from overseas and showing up at their kids’ school.

~ That moment in the weight-loss show when someone gets back together with family and friends after losing 100 pounds.

~ Any show with long-lost relatives.  Family members who might have been unknown to each other for many years find a way to come together.

And I need Kleenex.  There is this overwhelming emotion wrapped around that moment when it feels like some huge incompleteness has been made whole, and it was nothing short of a miracle.

God wants that moment with you.  And with me.  God went on an all-out search to find us, and Jesus makes it possible for us to have that reunion with God.  That is what the cross and the empty tomb is all about.

Every time I hear this story, I see that younger brother coming over the top of the last hill on the way to the family farm.  The father can only see a silhouette, but he knows who it is just by the way he walks. He drops whatever he’s holding and runs down the road to meet him and the son collapses in his arms.

Then I see Rembrandt again, I mean Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son 30 years later.  He painted this version of the “Prodigal Son” in the last TWO years of his life (1668-69).  The son is on his knees and his father stands over him with his arms wrapped around him.  The expression on his face says that he’s not just glad to have his son home; he feels all the pain that his son feels. It’s night, and these two people are lost in their embrace.  They ignore the judgmental people standing over them.  The mother, the older son, and this other guy whom some think is the father’s accountant.

Rembrandt (self-portrait) 1669.

By this time, in some ways, Rembrandt had been the Prodigal.  He had lived beyond his means, made some poor choices, and was living the consequences.

More than any other painting, “The Prodigal Son Returns” is about him.  He is beaten, he is broken.  Rembrandt is pouring himself out on the canvas.  Rembrandt needs that embrace God wants to give to each of us.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” (detail), Rembrandt – 1668.

The French priest Henri Nouwen was so affected by this painting, that he sat in front of it in a Russian museum for several days, then wrote a book about it.  He said…

Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.  

[Henri J. M. Nouwen (1992-04-01). The return of the prodigal son: a meditation on fathers, brothers, and sons. Doubleday Books. ISBN 978-0-385-41867-6. http://books.google.com/?id=b11CPgAACAAJ.]

Something that bothers me is that Jesus doesn’t try to describe what happens next.  Does the older brother ever join the party?  Does the younger brother mess up again?  Which brother is the one who was lost?

His point was to show with this story, God’s deepest desire to embrace the fallen.  He gave this little picture, this story, to show that God’s grace, God’s love, is amazing, beyond logic.  His hope was that his followers would catch that vision.  ‘This man welcomes outcasts/sinners and eats with them.’ 

God will show us where to build bridges among ourselves and who needs a tolerant welcome in our church.  It is possible that our reputation should be: On behalf of the Christ we serve, we are people welcome outcasts and sinners.  I have seen a sign in front of a church building that simply says, “Come Home.”

Prayer

 God, you are building bridges to us and between us.  Through your Spirit, give us the courage to step over that bridge to you.  O God, you have been kind to us so often, and we find ourselves taking your kindness and love for granted.  When we drift away, you are worried about us, and you wait for us to come home.  You’re patient; you let us learn what life is like without you. This is a good day to remember you love us as a father – with firm expectations and a firm hug.  Now deepen our faith and help us teach our community how to love and forgive, and step across bridges to each other.  Amen.

3/24/2019 Sermon: “God, Why Do Bad Things Happen?”

CN – 2010.

This week, we’re continuing to think about trust.

Two weeks ago…  at the beginning of his ministry, when he was weak and famished, Jesus resisted letting evil control him.  Evil could not stop him from his mission.  Jesus can be trusted. Good to remember that the dark side is close by when you are at your weakest.  Jesus can be trusted to be with you in those times.  He has been there.

Last week…  Abram (or Abraham) trusts God to come through on huge promises even though it’s taking a really long time and Abraham seems like the last person God could use.  God will use us when the challenges seem impossible to overcome.

There are times when trusting God is a very difficult thing to do.  Ever have a bad day?  Of course!  There are bad days, really bad days, and then life-altering bad days when something happened and you really struggled to get through it.  You look back and realize that’s when everything changed.  There was a life before and a life after.  And then sometimes, those bad days drag into weeks and months or maybe years.

Just to cut to the chase, God is there in all of it.  Ready to hold you and make you strong again.  Maybe you needed to hear that today.

None of us have exactly the same kind of bad moments. Once upon a time, I had gotten a phone call to visit a family because something bad had happened.  They had gotten some bad news and they just needed to get through the moment with a prayer.  So I went and spent some time with them.  Later in the day, I went to a meeting, and at the meeting was someone who was also having a bad day.  I can only remember that it involved an expensive sweater and something had spilled on it.  And there was more emotion in that moment than I’d seen with the struggling family.

Now, you can make a judgement as you compare those situations, but the fact was that the emotion was very real in both places.  And what I learned was… when you are in the middle of chaos or a crisis, sometimes, big or small, that’s all you can know.  You know you’ve been there.  It doesn’t necessarily matter what it is.  Sometimes, we are stronger in the big, difficult situations than the small surprising ones.  In any case, we can be prone to having anxiety about something and everybody has a different trigger depending on what’s going on.  Over time, if we are open, God toughens us with perseverance and endurance to recognize what the appropriate level of emotion is necessary for the moment.  Every now and then, I hear someone say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Well, your small stuff is probably different from mine.

But in the moment, we are calling out for help, with waves of real emotion washing over us and asking:  God, are you punishing me?

And then with a little more time to think, we ask, “Why do these bad things happen?  God, why?”  That’s the question behind the story in the gospel reading this morning, and Jesus has an answer to at least part of it.  Maybe it’s better to say that he has a perspective.

Luke 13:1-9.  At that time some people were there who told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices to God. Jesus answered them, “Because those Galileans were killed in that way, do you think it proves that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did. What about those eighteen people in Siloam who were killed when the tower fell on them? Do you suppose this proves that they were worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem? No indeed! And I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “There was once a man who had a fig tree growing in his vineyard. He went looking for figs on it but found none. So he said to his gardener, ‘Look, for three years I have been coming here looking for figs on this fig tree, and I haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it go on using up the soil?’ But the gardener answered, ‘Leave it alone, sir, just one more year; I will dig around it and put in some fertilizer. Then if the tree bears figs next year, so much the better; if not, then you can have it cut down.’”

Some people have come to Jesus and gotten into discussion about some really awful things that had happened.  Some people coming to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem had been murdered by the Roman governor Pilate (you know, the guy who allowed Jesus to be murdered later), and some others had been killed in a construction accident.  Two awful moments that affected real people.  It’s not hard to translate them into today’s news and this is not a hard conversation to be a part of.

You could put yourself in that moment with Jesus.  We’re sitting around after dinner in the evening, everyone is relaxed, and we’re talking.   You could change the stories to fit so much of what you’ve seen on the news.  Lately, it seems to be non-stop.  So many terrible things – wars, shootings, the worst natural disasters in our lifetimes.  Every week, I see a photo that’s hard to get out of my mind.  Maybe you’ve found yourself asking – can it get any worse?  It’s disturbing, to say the least.  Is it possible to put yourself in the place of some of the people affected by these things?  Is it possible to empathize?

For me, it’s another reason that scripture stories like this are still relevant, still important to hear now, today.  People were asking, Can it get any worse?  What did these people do to deserve this?  That’s really the question they are asking, and Jesus knows it.  In the mindset of these folks, anything bad that happens to you, whether it’s an accident, or something intentional, somehow, you deserved it.  God is not happy with you.  Standing on the outside of that little story looking in, we think, “Silly ancient Bible people.”  As if we are so much more sophisticated. But you know that at some point you’ve asked the same question yourself.  God, are you punishing me?  No, really, something I did?  Were these people worse sinners than other people?  Jesus says “No.”  And he says that to you too.

Whether it’s happening in the news right now or a couple thousand years ago, these things might seem a world away to you, but each of us, each of our families, has a story of huge loss and enormous pain.  If it didn’t happen to you, it happened to someone in your family and you had to watch.  It’s true for all of us.  We all have this story.  And whether you knew it or not, God was walking with you.  The stories may turn into history, but they don’t stop.  Somethings you just can’t get through alone.  You need God and other people.  Here’s a little picture of what I’m talking about:

Ruins in the village of Sourides, on the island of Samos, Greece. CN – 2000.

In a tiny village on a Greek island are these ruins.  Ruins are pretty common in that part of the world, but these aren’t especially ancient.  During WWII, German planes bombed the village and destroyed all the houses.  We’ve heard gut-wrenching stories of those times.  This house belonged to my wife’s grandparents.  They had come to the United States long before the war, escaped poverty and found a better life.  The Greek Orthodox Church in Cleveland helped them make the transition. The house was never rebuilt because the people in the village thought that surely, they would come back to take care of it, but they never did.  But a few years ago, we went and met people who remembered them.  They didn’t talk about it, but I know that people died in bombings like that.

Maybe that story is interesting in a historical kind of way because time has moved on.  But in that place, right now, there’s a different story unfolding, this morning.

Samos is not far from the coast of Turkey (you can see Turkey from the beach) and for the last four or five years, refugees have been coming to Samos in dangerous boats continuously, and landing on the beach just down the hill from “our” village.  Mostly, they are escaping the war in Syria.  So this isn’t far away from us, geographically or personally.  Our family came as refugees from poverty to this country one hundred years ago and other refugees have taken their place. Trace it back far enough in your own family, and I believe you will find a refugee story.  In my imagination, a refugee family has built a house and a life on top of the ruins!

We each have a story and there are many stories.  When the bad things happen, even when death comes, is anyone a worse sinner than anyone else?  Jesus says no.  Life is terminal in so many ways, but does any person’s pain or death mean that they were a worse sinner than someone else?  No.  Not in God’s eyes.

Repent.  But then Jesus says something that seems totally contradictory:  “…unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  I hate it when he does that.  This is so hard to understand, and he says it twice.  Unless you repent, unless you repent.  You know what that word means, right?

Change.  Change!  Unless your life changes.  Ah!  God is not so concerned with the death you die.  That’s what happens to everybody eventually, at some point, in some way.  God is much more interested in your attitude toward him and your relationship with him, which needs an overhaul.  We’re these people being punished somehow?  No. Are we?  No.  The “change” is a spiritual change of heart. What’s awesome is that the change God is looking for is something that God does, not you; all Jesus is looking for is faith in him, looking for trust, looking for a yes from each of us.  Waiting for each of us to open the door. 

There is a life-change that God begins in us when we believe.  It can transform the core our lives, our households, the places where we work, and the streets of our town.

I heard from a church vitality expert not long ago that most visitors who walk through the doors of any church these days are there because they are distressed or suffering in some way.  Most of us grew up thinking that church on Sunday morning is simply the right thing to do.  But today, the church is a refuge for refugees.  We need to think about how we do that.

Mount Joy, PA. CN – 2015

And that’s why Jesus wraps it up with a story about a tree.  The man who owns it wants to tear it down and throw it away.  The person taking care of it says, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”  The ultimate destiny of the tree depends on whether it bears fruit.  You realize that God’s people are the tree and Jesus is the gardener, pleading with God to give us a little more time.  “God, give them a little more time.”  Let me do some pruning and throw on some fertilizer.  Let me work with them.

So, we have today, and maybe tomorrow.  And we don’t know what will happen.  These days are gifts from God.  They are opportunities.  Many times, the people who realize this most are the ones who understand that tomorrow may not come for them.  They are the ones who realize that tomorrow is a gift from God.  Another chance to know God.  Another chance to give God’s love to someone else.  Another chance to help someone meet Christ.  Another chance to love, another chance to bring peace, another chance to offer forgiveness, another chance to bring healing, another chance to work for a cure, another chance to feed a hungry person or offer safety to someone. Another chance to build a house.  Another chance to save a refugee.  Another chance to be Christ’s house, the Body of Christ.

Another chance to not react, and by not reacting, stop a war.  Another chance to be with someone else in their suffering and bring Christ to them.  In other words, another chance to bear fruit. What kind of fruit do you think God is growing in you?  This year, what can we do to make a difference as a church, to bear fruit?

Why do bad things happen?  They just do.  It might be better to ask “Why do we feel pain?”  Because God created us to feel pain.  God feels pain too.  The only other choice is the kind of life that I think none of us want to live.  A life completely free of suffering is also a life free of joy and love.

Through Christ, God has given us special tools to overcome and to help each other overcome.  God has raised up the First Congregational Church of Wellington to bear fruit, to be a force for good.  If you have believed in Christ, God has given you a mission.  You do realize that most of that work happens outside of this building.

Prayer

O God, give us all a vision for tomorrow, as mothers and fathers, as children in your family, as your church.  Live through us and give us the power to overcome the discouragements we see in life.  In spite of what we see around us, the evil, the bad things that happen, help us remember that you are with us, that your mercy surrounds us, even when we forget about you.  When life feels like a tomb, roll away the stone, and help us remember that tombs are only temporary for you.

We pray with faith, because we know that your son Jesus overcame death, and leads the way ahead of us. We pray with hope, because we know that you are already changing us into the people and the church we should be.  Amen.

3/17/2019 Sermon: “Trust Fall”

This week, we’re continuing to talk about trust. “All About Trust.”

Rappelling in the Adirondacks. CN – 2002.

In a previous life, I took groups of high school kids to the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  After some hiking, they would rappel down the side of a 200-foot cliff… bouncing down the rock-face attached to a rope tied off at the top.

First, they had to learn to trust the leaders.  And obey the leaders!  The leaders would show them the trees and rocks where they had tied the ropes.

The leaders would show them how to harness themselves to the ropes and how everything worked.  They learned how to talk to each other, because somebody on the ground was holding the other end of another rope for safety. They only thing left to do is lean back and do a controlled drop.  Could you do that?

The issue of trust is all around us, in countless ways. Out on the road, you have to trust that other drivers will do what you expect them to do, right?  And the list goes on.

Jesus at Gethsemane – stained glass at the Cleveland Museum of Art. CN – 2015

During Lent, we have a lot of readings about commitment, and travel, and trust.  The Gospel readings describe the things that happen while Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem.  He’s made a faith commitment to you and me.  God the Father trusts him to come through – for you and me.  This is not an easy thing.  And God knows that it’s not an easy thing he is asking us to do, to trust Jesus and what he is going to do in Jerusalem.  But the journey actually began 2,000 years before that.

After this, Abram had a vision and heard the Lord say to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I will shield you from danger and give you a great reward.”

But Abram answered, “Sovereign Lord, what good will your reward do me, since I have no children? My only heir is Eliezer of Damascus.  You have given me no children, and one of my slaves will inherit my property.”

Then he heard the Lord speaking to him again: “This slave Eliezer will not inherit your property; your own son will be your heir.” The Lord took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.”

Abram put his trust in the Lord, and because of this the Lord was pleased with him and accepted him.

Then the Lord said to him, “I am the Lord, who led you out of Ur in Babylonia, to give you this land as your own.”

But Abram asked, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that it will be mine?”

He answered, “Bring me a cow, a goat, and a ram, each of them three years old, and a dove and a pigeon.” Abram brought the animals to God, cut them in half, and placed the halves opposite each other in two rows; but he did not cut up the birds. Vultures came down on the bodies, but Abram drove them off.

When the sun was going down, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and fear and terror came over him. When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch suddenly appeared and passed between the pieces of the animals. Then and there the Lord made a covenant with Abram. He said, “I promise to give your descendants all this land from the border of Egypt to the Euphrates River…” (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18)

The Old Testament story you heard a few minutes ago is about a trust relationship between God and Abram.  This story happens before God changed his name to Abraham (Genesis 17:5).  Abram means something like, “exalted father,” and Abraham means, “father of a multitude.”

Bedouin tents near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011

2000 years before Christ, Abram was a wandering nomad living in what is now Iraq.  There are still nomadic people living in that part of the world.  They live in structures we would think of as tents (that can be very large) and might move with the seasons to take advantage of water and pasture for animals.  Sometimes, they stay in a place for a few years.

God has been speaking to Abram for a long time, promising land and a big family and now years later, Abram still has no land of his own, and still has no children.  In other words, he has no future, unless God steps in.  Children and land mean salvation to Abram.  He packed everything up and moved, just as God told him to, and he’s waiting, waiting, waiting.  Looking at his watch and waiting.

Now, it seems like this will never happen.  God makes the promise one more time: “Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.”

Palestinian shepherd near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2001.

But there are still many more years to go in the story before Isaac comes along.  And many miles to go before he gets to the land God had promised.

This is one of the old Hebrew stories that explains how Abraham became the father of the Hebrew people (and our spiritual ancestor).  He was following God’s directions, which might have made no sense to him at the time.  He had to give himself to God and trust, and so do we. Say to God, “I trust you.”  Their relationship is based on promises for the future.

Abraham and God have a covenant between them.  The idea of covenant goes back thousands of years.  Covenants describe relationship and they are one of the main reasons we are here.  Think about the promises, the covenants, that are made in this room.

Some are obvious: baptism, marriage, church membership.  Hundreds, or maybe thousands, of people have stood in this room and made vows of one kind or another.  But the main promise that brings us here and makes us what we are is the promise God makes to us through Christ.  Many people don’t realize that being a Christian is not about how good we can make ourselves; it’s about believing that God has already done that for us in Christ.  When we believe in God, when we trust in God, understanding that it’s God who saves us, that’s when we begin to change into the kind of people we should be.  It’s God who does that, not us.

But it’s hard to trust.   It’s hard to lean back on the rope with God.  Most of the time, trusting does against our human nature.  Abram has been traveling and God has been slow to act.  Will God keep promises?

God answers the question by way of a strange ceremony, a ritual.  Abram makes an animal sacrifice, and God passes between the pieces in the form of fire and smoke.  The ritual is how God makes an oath to Abram that the promise of land and children will be kept.  In these ancient times, one of the meanings of a sacrifice like this was to seal a treaty, as if to say, “May I become like these animals if I don’t keep my promise to you.”  Abram was doing his part, and the burden is on God to come through for Abram: to save Abram, to give Abram a future.

God will come through on the promise not because he and Abram are great friends.  They don’t have a close relationship like God did with Moses.  God will save Abram simply because that’s what God promised to do.  God’s specialty is working miracles in impossible situations. Read more about Abram in case you think you’re a lost cause.

Like so many Bible people, Abram/Abraham is not exactly a perfect guy.  As you find out later in his story, he is “morally flexible.”  His family life is dysfunctional.  He is not even a religious type (like David or Moses).  He is… ordinary.

What makes him a hero?  He simply trusts.  And God counts his faith as righteousness, that is, being right with God.  That’s what makes his story so important.

Likewise, God does not expect perfection from any of us.  To be righteous, or acceptable to God, to be right with God, all Abram has to do is believe – and start walking. Throughout the entire bible, this is how salvation works.  Salvation happens not because Abram, or anybody else, is a good person.  Salvation happens when we depend on God, step out, and let God come through for us.  Then God does extraordinary things with ordinary people.

Can we just throw ourselves onto God and trust that God will be there for us?  I say that there is no other way.  Our relationship with God doesn’t work unless we can completely trust God.  Our life as a church is stagnant unless there are ways we step out in faith.  The people of God are always going from point A to point B somehow. Always moving into a future.

Think about communion for a moment.  Each time we have the Lord’s Supper, I say something that might pass you by. “This is my body, given/broken for you.  This is my blood of the new covenant.”  Jesus is the sacrifice that seals the promise.  What is God’s promise in Jesus Christ? To save us, to give us a future. In Christ, our sin dies on the cross and Christ comes out of the tomb alive.  In Christ, God makes a covenant with us.  All we have to do is believe.  Make a commitment.  Say yes to God.

Palestinian shepherd, not far from Jerusalem. CN – 2011.

A few more things to know about Abram…  Abram was not young (75) when her first heard the promise, and neither is his wife Sarah. And the years went by. Time and human age seem to make no difference to God.  After more than 20 years went by, God finally says, okay, next year, you’ll have a son and we’ll get started with the nation building.  The story says that Abraham fell on his face laughing (Genesis 17).  Sarah heard it from outside the tent and she started to laugh (Genesis 18).  And God didn’t care. God sees things differently.  God sees with the eyes of possibility – and God had a promise to keep no matter what Abraham or Sarah thought.

Abram doesn’t just have doubts. In the night, “fear and terror came over him.”  (v.12)  Is that when you find your mind going to things that keep you awake, maybe terrified?  Maybe you need to move to a window, or a the porch, or the yard (if it’s not too cold) and look up.

The Lord took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.”

Look at the sky.  Try to count the stars.  One of the best times for God to speak to us is when we are looking at the sky…  If we have believed in the living Jesus, those descendants include us!  And like Abram, our job is to leave the past behind and create a legacy of descendants, to leave behind us people who believe.  People whose lives are changed through faith in the living Christ.

Abram put his trust in the Lord, and because of this the Lord was pleased with him and accepted him.

The temptation is strong to be nothing more than a civic group, a group of good people.  We come together to believe, to trust God together, letting the Spirit of God change us into the people God needs us to be.  This is how God is pleased.  It starts with faith.  When we believe, God just may do something we thought was impossible.

Let’s say the mission together.

Our mission is to make the love of God real in our community and world with what we have, through what we say, and by what we do.

Prayer

Lord, you are the God of Abraham, and Jesus Christ, and the Congregational Church in Wellington, Ohio.  You have always been and always will be.  We may not be able to comprehend everything you are, but that does not stop us from believing you are with us.  We trust you.

O God, this Lent, remind us of our covenant with you, our promises to you to be your people.  Find ways to remind us of who we are and whom we belong to.  Help us believe, in spite of what the world tells us, in spite of what we see and hear.  Help us learn to trust you more.  Help us remember that our faith is not based on the promises we make to you, but in the promises you’ve made to us.  We believe; help our unbelief.  Through Jesus, we pray.  Amen.