4/1/2012 Sermon: “Turning the Page” Palm/Passion Sunday

 Mark 11:7  And they brought the colt to Jesus, and threw their garments on it; and he sat upon it. 8  And many spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. 9  And those who went before and those who followed cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  10  Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!”

11  And he entered Jerusalem, and went into the temple; 

Isaiah 50:4  The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.  5  The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward.  6  I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting.

7  For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8  he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. 9  Behold, the Lord GOD helps me; who will declare me guilty?

 Philippians 2:5 (p. 182)  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7  but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  8  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

9  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 Leader of the Parade; Suffering Servant.  This is a day of contrasts.  The traditional readings for the day are about as different from each other as they can get.  We have the reading about the suffering servant from Isaiah and the story about Jesus making a parade entrance into Jerusalem.  A Good Friday reading and a Palm Sunday reading.  The meaning is summed up in Philippians by the apostle Paul who says Jesus was “in the form of God…  but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” And they all head toward Easter Sunday.

This Sunday, Palm Sunday, is the opening scene of the most gut-wrenching week of our history as people of God.  Jesus has to walk from Palm Sunday through Good Friday, to get to Easter Sunday.  And we’re his followers right?  You and I are his followers, are we not?  He takes us with him from Palm Sunday to Easter, and it is not an easy trip. We have to get to Easter Sunday by way of Good Friday; it’s a roller coaster ride and it’s an impossible trip without God.  We can’t do this one on our own; God will get us there.

In Bible stories like these, I always place myself in the crowd.  You can do that too, can’t you?  We all understand what it’s like to be part of a crowd.  We’ve got crowds cheering him on today – you and I could be in that crowd – and those crowds are fickle.  They can’t be trusted.  Then Jesus walks straight into Good Friday – the worst abuse humanity could offer.  I think some of us understand the pain of Good Friday too.  Some of us live there.  Some of us don’t see a way out of Good Friday.  You rightly ask, “What’s so good about this Friday?” And today we hear God say, “You might living in Good Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”  Spread the word. Sunday’s coming.

We make this trip every year, and we pretty much know the way, so it’s easy, right?  It’s a hard thing to let go of your pain; it’s hard to let go of your Good Friday. But in order for God to bring Easter Sunday into our lives, God need us to trust, to let go.  Be willing to turn the page and leave Good Friday behind.

There’s story about two Maine fishermen out in their boat, caught in a fog.  They can just barely make out the coastline, but have no idea where they are.  One of them says, “Well, let’s just get out the “Coast-wise Pilot” and have a look.”

So they get out this book of maps.  And after they fumble around for a few minutes one says, “The page we’re on is missin’.  Tore right out of the book!”

And the other says, “Well, Bert, we’re just gonna have to sail onto the next page!”

We’re getting ready to turn the page.  We’re getting ready to walk through Good Friday, and Sunday’s coming.

Today, we have a parade.  Palm Sunday is about a parade.  In fact, I know of churches that have processions on Palm Sunday to remember what Jesus did when he rode into Jerusalemon a colt.

Picture a parade.  Most of us watch parades from the curb. The cheering crowd does not ever move ahead or change its position. The onlookers stay in one place while the parade passes by in front of them. Eventually they see the whole procession without ever having to move. There’s no risk.  No surprises when you’re a parade watcher. No one gets lost.  It’s safe.

Have This Same Mind.  But Jesus is calling you and me to join in; let everyone see that you’re following.  There’s no such thing as a secret parade!  No such thing as secret faith.  Take a step; step off the curb.  Leave the lawn chair behind.

“Have this mind among yourselves” – the mind of Christ, is what the passage in Philippians says.  Live together as followers of Christ.  This is advice the apostle Paul has for Christians in Philippi in the middle of the first century.

Philippi is on the far northeastern coast of Greece, on the Aegean Sea, near Bulgaria, in the part of Greece called Macedonia (read Acts 16).  Paul helped them start their church and these people had been together for 20-25 years. They had a very successful church; it was one of the first churches in Europe.  When Paul talks about how they worshipped and prayed together, he talks about a group of people who really cared for each other – a group of people who really cared for him.

At the time he was writing to them, he was in prison, toward the end of his life, and I can imagine him in some sort of confinement with guards outside the door, and his mind is going back to the good times he had with his friends in Philippi. To this church in Philippi, he quotes an early Christian hymn that says these things about Christ:

Christ is God.  Christ was before Israel or Connecticut or any church.

Christ is a slave, a foot-washer.  As God, what Christ did for us was a choice.  God didn’t have to save us.

 Christ died – on a cross.  He did not have a long, happy career as Savior and then retire.  He died a horrible death for us.  Our sin died with him on that cross.

Christ is alive – God raised him from the dead.

Christ is the ruler of the universe (cosmos) – this same Christ who rode on the donkey into Jerusalem on the way to humiliation.  He didn’t have to do that for us, but he did.  He didn’t have to come, and he didn’t have to care.  But he did.

Paul says, “have the same mind,” as that Christ.  In your lives as Christians and in your life as the church, “have the same mind.”

Jesus faced a fight to the death with evil — and defeated it by giving in to it, so that he could rise above it.  For you and me.  The traditional description of what happens to Jesus is found in the Isaiah reading, which is why many people might think it’s from the New Testament. I don’t think I have ever heard the Isaiah 50 passage quoted without some reference to Jesus, because it is such a clear prophecy about the Messiah.

It was written several hundred years before the time of Jesus’ ministry and the Hebrew people were in exile at the time.  It’s a prophecy.  Prophecies are words from God ( the prophet is a mouthpiece) and these words can do two things: they give truth from God’s point of view and they explain how God is going to cause things to happen that God wants to happen.  The message in Isaiah is that God is going to make salvation happen at a time when everyone thinks it’s impossible.

The people of Israel were in exile.  To give them hope, God sends this message: God is sending a Savior who is a suffering servant.  This savior is not like a movie action hero who destroys all his enemies.  He gives his back to whips.  His beard is pulled out.  He gives his face to spitting and insults.  And through God is vindicated.  God has the last word.

It’s not a pretty picture, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is not the whole picture.  It’s a Good Friday reading.  Sunday’s coming.

 Turning the Page. A few years ago, I went to a funeral for a person I didn’t know.  He was the pastor of another UCC church in CT.  Toward the end of Lent, early in the week, he committed suicide at home.  There are a lot of things wrapped up in that, and I only knew bits and pieces of it.  If you think about it for just a few minutes, you can imagine the waves this kind of event can send crashing down not just on a family, but on a community. He was in his late fifties with grown children.  He was a good pastor and a very troubled person in ways many people didn’t know. It was obvious that people loved him very much.

The church building was crowded early and I sat in a fellowship hall that had been rigged with a large-screen TV.  Standing room only.  I was there because this was a United Church of Christ and because of that he was one of us and that church is also “us.”  The service lasted for two hours and most of that time was given to family and friends who wanted to say something.  His family assured everyone that there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent this from happening. Unbeknownst to many people, this man had lived in a kind of Good Friday for a long time.  When I first heard about it, I thought, “How will they ever recover?”  But it was clear that God was – and still is – working in these people.  It was a powerful thing to see.

This is the sort of situation that makes you want to ask a lot of questions and make a lot of assumptions, a lot of judgments.  I had never been to this place and I don’t think I had ever met this pastor.  I can’t fill in the details – which may not be important anyway – but I have reason for telling you this story.

One of the people who spoke was a deacon of the church, and he had one of the shortest and best sermons I think I have ever heard.   I need to tell you what he said.

This deacon was the person who was called to the police station to pick up this pastor’s personal effects.  Among the things the police had collected at the scene was a bible.  The reason they had taken it was that the pastor had left it open and it had fresh pen marks in it. A verse had been underlined and the verse that had been marked was Romans 7:15, which says this:

ROM7:15  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

This underlining was the only hand-written marks in the whole book, and the police sergeant said to this deacon, “We’ve been reading this and re-reading it.  I want you to see what happens when you turn the page.  We thought you should see this.”

It had been marked with the kind of pen that bleeds through thin paper, and when he turned the page, there was a verse underlined on the other side.  And it said this:

ROM8:11  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

The sergeant said, “Whoever reads that first verse needs to turn the page.”

This week, can you do that?  Can you turn the page?  Have the faith to turn the page; let God show you what’s on the other side.  Good Friday is around us all the time.  But that’s not where we live when we trust in Christ.  This is a different kind of parade now.  We’re not standing by watching.  We walk arm in arm with somebody who overcame the worst the world had to offer.  He’s alive and Easter’s coming.  Believe it.  Let God give you life.

 Prayer

 God of Grace: On this day we praise you for all that your gracious Son said and did during his last week on earth; for his humility, a servant instead of a ruler; for his boldness in the face of those who wanted to kill him; for his gift of a meal to be shared in remembrance of the gift of his life; for his words of faith and forgiveness even while dying in agony on the cross for us.

We ask your blessing on the services of worship we have planned for this Holy Week. Let your Spirit hold us and reshape us through our self-searching, our grieving, our rejoicing. We pray that this reliving of our Lord’s pain and death leave us uninvolved or unchanged.  Let this week be for us an occasion for re-examining our priorities, achieving greater integrity, and moving into a closer following of you.  Give us the strength and the faith to turn the page. In the name of our Savior and Lord, Jesus. Amen.

3/13/2011 Sermon: “Control Issues”

Genesis 2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’ 

3Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ 2The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ 4But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.’ 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

 Adam and Eve.  The Bible, from beginning to end, is the story of how God stepped into history to save people, and it begins with that story from Genesis.  Tradition says that Moses wrote Genesis – an explanation of how humanity got to where it is, spiritually.  It’s a little window into the soul of all of us.  God says, “Live this way, prosper, and be happy.”  But we say, “Let’s try something else.”  It’s the story of what we do with the gift of free will. 

Bill Cosby does a routine that I think explains it pretty well, a paraphrase of that story you just heard.  

The First Parent.   Whenever your kids are out of control, you can take comfort from the thought that even God’s omnipotence did not extend to his kids.   After creating heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve.  And the first thing God said to them was: “Don’t.”  

“Don’t what?” Adam asked.  

“Don’t eat the forbidden fruit, said God.”  

“Forbidden fruit? Really? Where is it?” Adam and Eve asked, jumping up and down excitedly.  

“It’s over there,” said God, wondering why he hadn’t stopped after making the elephants.  

A few minutes later God saw the kids having an apple break and he was very angry.  

“Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?” the First Parent asked.  

“Uh huh,” Adam replied.  

“Then why DID you do it?” God asked, exasperated.  

“I dunno,” Adam answered.  

God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own. Thus the pattern was set and it has never changed. But there is a reassurance in this story. If you have persistently and lovingly tried to give your children wisdom and they haven’t taken it, don’t be so hard on yourself. If God had trouble handling his children, what makes you think it should be a piece of cake for you?

The allegory is easy to imagine: Adam and Eve living in a garden full of God, animals, and fruit.  The story says that their job was to take care of the place.  Till it and keep it.  That means the first job opportunity in the world (for humans) was farming and landscaping.  So, we were originally meant to be cultivating the garden, taking care of the plants and animals, making everything grow.

But there’s one animal we can’t seem to manage, an animal with an attitude – a serpent – who raises an interesting question:  when we know that God doesn’t want us to do something, does God mean what God says?  We’re supposed to eat from these trees, not that one over there.  Hmmm… did God say?  A conflict with the management.  The serpent has distracted the garden managers from their job and touched a button, and the button is called “Control.”  I could have sent the serpent packing, but now I’m thinking.  I want to be in control.  I want to be in charge.  Who is in control?  Me or God?  Being my own person, I decide to do what I think is best for me at the time.  I can always apologize later.  The scenario of sin always starts with the question: did God say?  And it ends with our house of cards falling.

The end of this story has us outside the garden, feeling shameful and blaming the creature we were supposed to be managing.  We got fired.  Is that fair?  Doesn’t God love us?  If God loved us, wouldn’t God just be firm, give us a stern talking-to and let us back into the garden?  Then we could get on with life as if nothing happened.  One of our control issues is that we think we can make God into our image.  God should be more flexible! 

But the problem is that something did happen – something with consequences.  And outside the garden, we are helpless, unless God wants to do something about our situation, and it’s a good thing God does.  God sends Jesus to the rescue.  Jesus clears the way for us to come back into the garden, back into our relationship with God. Through our faith in Christ, our sin dies with him on the cross.

 That’s the simple version of the history of salvation.  The word “sin” isn’t in the passage, even though sin is the theme, sin defined as separation from the God who loves us. Eve and Adam learned the hard way that sin has consequences.

It’s not a hard step to accept that human beings are sinful, that they are less than perfect, and everybody is affected.  But what can we do about it?  We are sinful human beings, therefore…  what?  Follow the rules?  Be as good as we can be?  What standard do you use?  Will you ever be good enough?  Who do you compare yourself to?

When I was teaching in a Catholic high school, I knew several kids who were planning on entering religious orders so that they could get some control over their lives.  They thought that if they just joined a group of people with lots of rules, if they became priests or nuns or brothers, that eventually, because of the discipline imposed by the rules, they would be able to live stable lives.  I never heard the priests or nuns or brothers say this; it’s what the kids thought. 

 But this is what many people think.  To get back into the garden with God, all you have to do is be be good and live according to the rules.  If you think this, you have a hard question to answer: if you could make it back into the garden by yourself, if you could color between the lines on your own, follow the rules and do favors for God – if you could save yourself, why did God bother to send Jesus? 

 I love AA’s 12 steps.  The first three go like this:

 1.  We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.  The word alcohol can be replaced by almost anything.  Or, you could just admit that you are powerless, period.

2.  [We] Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  Give up the need for control.

3.  [We] Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.  Surrender to the God who loves you.  The first words of faith are always, “God help me.”  And God does.

The reason that we are here is to help our friends and family know that there is more, that life will not ever be perfect, but through Christ, God has opened a door to a new kind of life that can give you hope and help you live.  And now our job as believers, as a United Church of Christ, is to bring as many people as we can back into the garden, using all the tools, and skills, and gifts God gives us.

 Prayer

 O God, as we walk with Jesus toward the cross and resurrection, we examine ourselves.  We realize how imperfect we are, and how much we need you; we are empty and need to be filled.  We have taken your good creation and scarred it with our selfishness and thoughtlessness; we have abused our brothers and sisters, thinking only of ourselves.  Forgive us, God – thank you for your forgiveness.  You reach out to us through Christ and walk us back into the garden to be with you. And even beyond forgiveness, you stay with us, giving us the strength we need to overcome the temptations and struggles that confront us day after day.  Thank you for the life you give us through Jesus, in whose name we pray.  Amen.