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.