More to come… stay tuned!
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“The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’ Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” –Mark 3:20-35
Pent2 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 6-10-12
Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
When we were looking for artwork for this Sunday, we came across this image of an old, run down farmhouse. What do you see? The moon? A ghost? Our perceptions matter… We may have no idea what’s going on behind those closed doors.
One of my favorite stories about perception is the one about the woman who was waiting in the airport terminal, ready to board her plane and had bought a bag of cookies to enjoy on the flight. Well, you can imagine her surprise when she noticed the man sitting next to her, tearing open the cookies and helping himself to her snack – with a big grin on his face! The nerve of some people! After he went for a 2nd cookie, she indignantly took one herself to show him that they were her cookies! He just kept on smiling and helping himself. It was a small bag – maybe 5 or 6 gourmet cookies. So, in a gesture of good will, the man broke the last cookie in half and placed it in the bag for her, eating the other half. Well, that was more than she could bear. In a huff, she snatched up the cookie bag and stuffed it in her purse, ready to find another seat – when, to her horror, she discovered in her purse her unopened bag of cookies! (apparently he’d been to the same snack bar!)
When we jump to conclusions about others we are usually not seeing things from their point of view.
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus was being accused of having a demon – of being out of his mind.
It’s early in the gospel of Mark (only chapter 3), but already Jesus has drawn a crowd. He has healed the paralyzed man, lowered down through the roof… eaten with tax collectors and sinners… preached to the multitudes from a boat… healed the man with the withered hand (on the Sabbath, no less)…
Things were really taking off and Jesus’ opponents, by now, were feeling threatened by all this: “He has a demon!” they say. “Somebody call his mother to come and get him.” “He casts out demons by the power of Beelzebul!” (There’s one for the spelling bee!). And he replies with those memorable words: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
When have you jumped the gun and rushed to judgment?
Back to the image of the haunted house. Notice what the scripture beneath it says, from our 2nd lesson: “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2Cor 4:16)
This sermon is more than simply a reminder to not judge a book by its cover. It’s a call to read the book. To get to know the people in that house. To bear witness to the many ways in which God is renewing us, even though we may be aging on the outside, or even in some manner of disrepair.
This September, the Minnesota Council of Churches will be hosting some forums on the upcoming Marriage Amendment, in which Minnesotans will be asked to vote on whether to amend the constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman on the November 6th ballot. The forums are entitled: “Respectful Conversations.” And the purpose is to create some community before diving into the discussion on matters that are near and dear to the hearts of each person attending. So, there will be time for getting acquainted, sharing in some food – don’t expect a quick “for-and-against” debate setting. Rather, the goal as I understand it – is to listen and learn from each other. Not to change anyone’s mind… but to simply see from another’s point of view.
Now, I’m not going to tell you how to vote; but I will urge you to be respectful. And to believe that no one stole your cookies. As we encounter difficult people and situations, my prayer is that we would avoid the easy rush to judgment and try, instead, to understand one another.
It’s easy to call names – to accuse each other as “being crazy” or “out of his mind!”
The “blame game” has been around since Adam & Eve (as we read in our first lesson). But one thing Jesus said that is true is that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” For me the first image that came to mind was that of our nation, divided amongst itself, led by a do-nothing congress, paralyzed by gridlock, unable to span the chasm of ideology and simply get things done!
And yet, what Jesus was talking about was the division in himself – as it was perceived by those around him. “He has gone out of his mind!” Jesus says, “You say I have a demon, yet I cast out demons. I have bound ‘the strong man’ (meaning Satan) in order to plunder his house.”
It’s as if Jesus had said, “In order to save these lost souls, I’m gonna do whatever it takes to tie up the wicked one – only then can people hear some good news. Call me crazy, but that’s what I intend to do. There are people here living in fear, who haven’t heard good news in a long time. Now is their time!”
So, let’s be slow to jump to conclusion in our common life together. No matter what things may look like on the outside, we worship a God who renews from the inside out. That is something worth sharing! Let us pray:
O God we give you thanks for the unconditional grace and love that saves us – in spite of all our failures and sin. Help us to share those cookies with others, knowing that no one can ever take away that which you have given: the salvation of our souls, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.“ Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” –John 3:1-17
Trinity Sunday / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 6-3-12
What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do in life?
Tie your shoes?
Get a job?
Saying goodbye to a loved one?
All the things that matter most in life involve some kind of struggle. Some kind of work to be done. Even if that work is “a work in progress.”
When Jesus meets Nicodemus in the middle of the night he tells him, “You must be born from above.” Why the language of giving birth? I think he’s acknowledging the struggle of faith we all must endure. They don’t call giving birth “labor” for nothing. It’s hard work, involving muscles contracting and relaxing, the salt of tears and sweat and the cries of pain and joy.
And the child struggles, too, though the situation is entirely out of her hands, as the mother does all the pushing. Still, there she is – emerging from the womb, being thrust out of this warm dark place – gasping for air in an alien landscape!
Being born is scary stuff! It turns your whole world upside down. All that you know as familiar is about to change. And it may be the hardest thing we ever do! But it’s necessary for life to begin. To trust that this alien world outside mommy’s tummy is where we belong. And to drink deeply of the oxygen, to open our eyes and take it all in. To reach out those chubby fingers and take hold of the earth for the first time.
So… being “born again” is not much different.
Times were changing for Nicodemus. His familiar ‘womb’ of laws and rules was having a contraction. A new rabbi was in town teaching the people to do things that had been forbidden before – to associate with people who had been off limits before – to believe in a God he called “Abba” Papa. Dad. “You must be born from above,” says Jesus, “and I’m here to assist with the delivery.”
Whatever the hardship may be: whether it’s graduating and leaving home for the first time, or finding a job in this economy where jobs are scarce – or coming through withdrawal because an addiction has left your life in ruins – or having to put down your beloved pet (a part of the family) because of health concerns – if it hurts and is stretching you to your breaking point it matters to God.
And we struggle in our faith, as well. We wrestle with questions about what’s right and wrong – about whether we should be talking about politics in the church – or welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered brothers and sisters – we wrestle with budgets and feel the growing pains of waning attendance figures in worship. We wonder what in the world God is calling us to in this time and place.
And we find it… here. In this place. Where together we worship and praise God. Where we taste the wine and chew the loaf of Christ – his food for our souls. Here is where we learn that the world needs saving not condemning, as Jesus said in our lesson today: “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son…” That’s what gets us through each contraction of the faith! And why it’s some important to share that knowledge with others.
There is a world out there in need of some midwives. We, who have been through the labor of faith, know that could never “do” it for someone else… but we can coach our neighbors through the process, point them to the one true source of life: the risen Christ.
I’m reminded of the image of the butterfly – which cannot be fully developed until it emerges from the cocoon on its own. To cut open the cocoon and gently lift the butterfly out won’t do it any favors. There’s some pushing involved – some prodding – some pumping of fluid from the body to the wings – some struggle – some hard labor. And YES taking flight when it’s all over!
Be an encourager for others on that journey of re-birth! No, you can’t do it for them. But you can do it. You can share your faith.
Nicodemus didn’t get it all at once. He knew Jesus was the real deal. But it took some time – some hard labor – for him to become Jesus’ disciple – and to eventually care for his burial arrangements. It must have been a struggle for this Pharisee, who’s colleagues were trying to have Jesus executed, to secretly be his follower.
Remember what Isaiah said when he encountered the Lord in the temple? “I am a man of unclean lips, from a people of unclean lips!” Through his confession and humility he was restored, his sins blotted out, ready for mission.” The angel grabbed a glowing coal from the altar fire with a pair of tongs and flew to his side, gently touching his lips with the blazing ember and these words: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed.” Isaiah’s vision involved some inner labor and acknowledging his guilt – but he was made right with God – able to hear the call at the other end: “Whom shall send?” …and to answer with conviction: “Here am I. Send me.”
We can do this – become bearers of God to people in need – having been born from above ourselves each day, through the struggles and the hardships, we know
Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses – you have no idea where it has come from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” We know that this God is way beyond our control, and yet we are invited to go and tell others. Let us pray:
O God, we give you thanks for sending your only Son for the sake of this world – for loving us beyond what we might ever imagine. Help us as we are born again each day, that we might not only take flight and know the joy of your love – but to carry that good news to a world crying out in pain. In your Son’s name we pray. Amen.
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As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. –John 15:9-17
Easter6 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 5-13-12
Children’s Time: When you’re happy how do you show it? A smile? A laugh? Fist pump? Jump up and down? Woo hoo! (show pic of the kid at the Red Cross). This guy’s pretty happy – what is he holding? New shoes! He could really use them. See how beat up his old shoes are? These were given to him by the Red Cross – they help people in times of crisis or war. But this boy is also an orphan (meaning his parents are both dead). Even in sad times we can find joy, pure laughter-filled joy. In our lesson today we heard from Psalm 98: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth!” What are some joyful noises? Singing? Laughing? Saying, “I love you” to your mother? Let’s be people who make a joyful noise this day!
Intro: Grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There once was a couple who wanted to join a church – but they were a pretty strict church. At the new member class, the minister said that one rule they had to follow was “No hanky panky for month! No hugging or kissing or holding hands! You must put God first in your life.” Well they all agreed to give it a try and a month later they came back. The first couple said they did just fine with that. The second one, too, although it was a challenge. But when the minister asked the third couple, they sheepishly looked at each other and said, “Well, we didn’t make it.” “Why?” asked the minister. “Well,” said the husband, “we were at Safeway getting groceries and my wife asked me to go pick up some apples. But instead I decided to pick on her, and got to tickling her. And she started giggling and we were holding hands and… well, one thing led to another and we just couldn’t do it.” Well, I appreciate your honesty,” said the minister, “but you won’t be able to join our church.” “That’s okay,” said the husband, “we can’t go back to Safeway either.”
…So, who stole your joy today? Who made the rules that rob you of your bliss? The scriptures are loud and clear this morning: Jesus came that our joy might be complete! And by the power of the Holy Spirit… it can be so.
So, the Spirit is on the move in our lessons for today. And when that happens, all I can say is, “Buckle up, you’re in for the ride of your life!” When the Holy Spirit is the driving force in our lives we can either resist such change in fear – go along with it begrudgingly – or hang on and enjoy the ride!
Let’s start with the first lesson from Acts 10:44-48. So, when Gentile outsiders were hearing the Word, and being filled with the spirit, Peter knew that this adventure to which he’d been called was way beyond his control. This God who had called them to be the church until Jesus’ return – had bigger things in mind than a few hundred souls based out of Jerusalem. Peter had the dream (in Acts 10) of all those forbidden foods being lowered on a tablecloth and the voice from heaven saying, “Get up and eat.” It was food that was declared unclean by the law of Moses in Leviticus. But God had other things in mind. “Go to the house of Cornelius” (I guess they ate that kind of food at his place).
So Peter goes and preaches to them about Jesus, and before he’s even done praying God bursts into the room with the punchline of the Holy Spirit – filling the place with laughter and speaking in tongues – with lives transformed and ready to follow Jesus.
The status quo was given notice that day – there’s a new spirit in this town – and all these folks who weren’t Jewish / who weren’t circumcised or learning the 10 Commandments – they’re suddenly “in” and a part of this family of God – brothers and sisters in the faith. And ever since then they are now a part of us. And Peter must have been standing there in awe – in this strange land – with it’s weird food and foreign customs – wondering, “What in the world is God up to? Can we really let these guys into the kingdom?”
But he must have caught himself in that moment with the wisdom that it was not for him to decide who was in and who was out. Instead he simply says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” And Cornelius and his family were welcomed with open arms that day into the church of Jesus Christ.
They say that the Spirit is fine for getting a movement started – for stirring up a revolution. But for the established church? Not so much. “We’re fine, thank you.” This drove the religious leaders crazy back then (and still does to this day!). The way this Jesus Movement was taking root, making all things new… doing it right now. And it wasn’t just the Jewish leaders (Pharisees and Sadducees). No, in the very next chapter when Peter goes back to Jerusalem, the first thing they asked him was, “What happened? Why did you eat with them? And let them into the church?”
But the church is operating out of a long tradition of praise and joy. Check out our Psalm for the day (98) we read that even creation itself is in on fire with this joy – the doxology of praise:
“Let the sea roar and all that fills it
Let the floods clap their hands
Let the hills sing together for joy”
Even in adversity – or tragedy – or being taken from your homeland and sent into exile… the seeds of joy are there. The spirit of the Lord helps us carry on.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! We, too, can know such joy. In our 2nd lesson from 1John we read: “Whatever is born of God conquers the world.” There is no need to be beaten down by the “world” (the “domination system”) around us that says we don’t count unless… or we don’t measure up because… or we’d better get in line or else… when our freedom is in Christ crucified and risen from the dead! There is love and there is peace in knowing to whom we belong. As Allen Sager once put it: “If you count in the eyes of the CEO of the universe, that’s all that matters.”
And in our gospel today, Jesus underlines all of this, “I have said these things to you so that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be complete.”
If Jesus wants this for us who are we to turn away from it? What did the blind man do when he was healed by Jesus? Did it show on his face, as he gazed into the faces of those around him for the first time? What did the man born lame do when Jesus said, “Take up your mat and walk?” He probably had a dance in his step as he made his way down that street. What did the disciples do when Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana? Lord knows, God must have a sense of humor for that story – not only did he reveal his son’s glory, but no one went thirsty when Jesus was around!
Now, this isn’t just a sermon to say, “Hey, live a little, why don’t ya!” (okay, maybe I am saying that a little). And that minister wasn’t all wrong to ask his members to put God first in their lives. How might people who are experiencing pain and hardship hear this message. This very Mother’s Day, for me, is a bitter sweet day, since mom died from cancer in 2010.
But that’s when I remember one thing she taught me. Actually, I think she learned it from Jesus, who said: “Love one another as I have loved you”
There is a reason for joy – to revel in this life, even as we strive to put God first in our faith. We may not always be able to see that joy – be we are always invited to the table – to lift our voices in song and dance! To join our hearts in one cosmic doxology. Let’s close by singing that together:
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise God all creatures here below
Praise God above ye heavn’ly hosts
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost
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”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. –John 15:1-8
Easter5 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 5-6-12 / Confirmation Sunday
Children’s Time: bring a stick from home. See this stick and this old branch I cut down last March? They are off an apple tree in my back yard. Do you think they’ll grow if I put them in the ground? No, they need to be connected to the tree, right? If not, it’s just an old stick-in-the-mud. There’s no root here. Only then can we pick apples off them at the end of summer. Jesus said something similar to his disciples: “I am the vine you are the branches.” He wanted his followers to imagine themselves as connected to him – the one, true root of the church. If we stay connected to Jesus we’ll be all right. We’ll bear the fruits of the spirit: peace, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness – all the good things that life has to offer us. Do you want to be that kind of branch or an old stick in the mud? Let’s pray and ask God to keep us close to Jesus – so we, too, can bear much fruit!
Intro: Grace to you and peace, from God our father, and from our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
I want to thank these young people for sharing their faith with us this morning. It’s a big step in one’s faith journey to say “yes” to the promises your parents made for you when you were baptized. To say “yes” to God. “Yes” to the forgiveness of sins. “Yes” to the church, this worldwide family of believers.
We rejoice with you and we’re proud of you in this moment.
“Getting confirmed” isn’t something we do for you, though. And it’s not even something you do for yourself. It’s God’s blessing upon you. Much like those words spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my son/my daughter, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” If only we could remember those words each day – of how God says to you: “My son… my daughter… I love you and I’m proud of you. Well-pleased.”
Let this day be a day of remembrance in your baptism – that moment God reached out to you through the water and the Word and called you “mine.” “This one’s mine.” “No one can lay a hand on this child of mine,” says the Lord. “She is mine for all eternity.” “He is mine to the end of time.” What a blessing to know and trust that you are held in the palm of God’s hands! Not only does God say “yes” to you – you say “yes” to God. The stoles are a sign of that commitment – like a yoke that is put over an ox, we are yoked to Christ in the faith, recalling his words: “Take my yoke up you and learn from me.”
So, let this be a day that changes how you will live your life – knowing how precious you are in God’s sight. Live what you believe. Live like there’s no tomorrow. Love as you have been loved by this maker of heaven and earth. Keep your heart wide open to those around you in need. Watch for the eyes of Jesus in the poor and the hungry. Don’t be afraid of the haters – all those who would threaten this freedom you have living in the power of the Holy Spirit. For the Lord shelters you under her feathered wing. Your foot will not be moved, as you build your house on the Solid Rock of Jesus Christ.
The beauty of this faith is that you get to all say what has meant the most to you – to choose your favorite Bible verse – words to live by – words of hope and healing. And we are blessed in the hearing! I thank you for your faith statements (straight from the heart) about how God is calling you at this point in your life. May your testimony move us to tell our own God stories today. Because we never know when it will be our time to share our faith. This is merely a rehearsal for the day to come when you will be asked to bear witness to the hope that is within you.
In today’s Gospel Jesus said: “Abide in me, I am the vine, you are the branches… Apart from me you can do nothing.” May we all find our voice this day and tell others how we are branching out in our faith, rooted in God. Let us pray:
O God, we give you thanks for these young people and their faith statements. Make us certain that you are them in our faith journey, as well. Give us all we need to thrive and grow, rooted in you. Amen.
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The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. –Psalm 23 (NRSV)
Easter4 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 4-29-12
Children’s Time: Who here has a pet? Do you take care of it? What do you feed it? How about playtime? What would you do if it got away? You’d go after it, right? Having a pet is a big responsibility. They rely on their masters to take good care of them. In our Bible reading today, we hear about Jesus being a Good Shepherd – one who looks after his sheep, takes care of them, defends them, and love them very much. You know, he’s talking about us – all who believe in Jesus and follow him are like sheep of the Good Shepherd. And, while we’re not like ‘pets’ to God, Jesus does love us and watch over us every day. There’s great comfort knowing that God will watch over us. Let’s thank God for that in prayer…
Intro: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, our Rock and our Redeemer.
There comes a time in everyone’s life when we must learn to trust. It may be as simple as trusting the clerk at the store to give you the exact change – to trusting a surgeon to perform a delicate operation in order to save you life. Or, as in today’s case, trusting the Good Shepherd to guide us safely home.
Trust means letting down one’s defenses and leaning back into the unknown.
Trust means finding one’s voice and leaning forward, boldly into what lies ahead.
Trust happens when fear has been shown the door.
In fact, the most common command in all of scripture is not The Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s not the Greatest Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It’s not even Jesus’ command to “Go, make disciples of all nations…” No, the most common command in all of scripture is: “Do not be afraid.” It’s there time and again, through the old and new testaments: “Fear not,” God says to Moses at the burning bush, “Fear not” the angel says to Mary in her bedroom. “Do not fear, it is I,” says Jesus to his disciples, as he came to them walking on the water.
When we fear, we cannot follow. Instead, we are like sheep gone astray – hurried and harried, anxious about every distraction (real or imagined) that might cause us harm.
And nowhere is this more clearly seen in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.”
There is a peace that passes all understanding in the poet’s heart that penned this verse. When can we lie down in peace? When can we sit at table even with our enemies and eat in peace? When Thou art with me.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
I want to trust God in this way – with no reservations – as naturally as breathing.
In a recent article in Weavings magazine, Jan Johnson points out that the Hebrew word for “the valley of the shadow of death” does not mention death – but refers instead to all dark and bitter experiences. This would include surprises and all kinds of disaster, anything that threatens us or creates dread and fear. Such valleys are also filled with physical or emotional pain, diseases, depression, grief, rejection, failure, abuse, or endless toil.
Today we’re raising awareness and money for Cancer research and to support the Tartan High School Relay For Life. There is nothing quite like hearing a loved one say those dreaded three words: “I have cancer.” So begins a long walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Each one travels his/her own way on that path. And yet, as people of faith, we cling to the promise of this Good Shepherd – that no one walks alone.
The cover story from this month’s Lutheran magazine reads: “1 in 3 harmed by domestic abuse.” The statistics are staggering. According to a recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men have reported intimate partner violence – but these numbers underestimate the problem, because so few people report domestic abuse.
And abuse can take many forms – it’s not just physical (where bruises might give away a deeper problem). No, abuse often starts in small ways, in controlling another person, in making them feel inadequate, in name-calling and making threats. In fact, abuse may never come to physical blows and can still be just as destructive.
The Good Shepherd meets us in those dark valleys and walks beside us. In fact, the church has a responsibility to do the same – to reach out to those who are suffering in silence, too afraid to say anything. Remember the most common commandment? “Do not be afraid.”
Jan Johnson concludes her study of Psalm 23 by inviting us to imagine ourselves sitting down at a table across from an enemy (anyone you find difficult today).
As you sit there, I come behind you and rest my hands on your head. Close your eyes and try to feel those hands. Then I being moving my hands down and resting them on your shoulders as if I were releasing oil on your head – anointing you, as God does in this psalm. So as you sit across the table from that difficult person, you feel secure because you are anointed by God. The difficult person sees that you are special, set aside, anointed by God in some way. You have everything you need. But you may still feel anxious across from the “enemy,” so God – again from behind – reaches over you and keeps filling up the cup of water. One’s throat is often dry when afraid, but God can provide everything you need in these tense moments. (Weavings, vol. XXVII, no. 3)
My prayer for us all is that we might know such grace – such peace. Even in our darkest valleys we are not alone. This risen Christ is our aid – our strong deliverer – our cup-filler in dry places.
I want to close with one final blessing – one I hope never to give you until your life has been filled with years of blessings and happiness. You see, whenever I’m called in the middle of the night to a death bed – these words are spoken to call one final time on the Good Shepherd of the sheep.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior,
we commend your servant
Acknowledge, we humbly pray,
a sheep of your own fold
a lamb of your own flock
a sinner of your own redeeming.
Receive her into the arms of your mercy
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.
It is a peace that sustains here and now – and in the life to come. Now, the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
Lent5 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 3-25-12
Children’s Time: A worrying stone. Have you ever carried a rock in your pocket? I have lots of rocks. But this one is especially smooth. When we worry about things in our lives, we can pray about them. We can remember how Jesus worried (in our lesson today) saying, “Now my soul is troubled.” He knew he was going to die on the cross, but instead of praying to get out of it, he prayed that God would get him through it – and be glorified! We all have tough times in our lives – times when we worry a lot! Jesus knows what that feels like, and we can pray (or rub our worry rock) to God in those times, trusting that God is there through it all, each step of the way. (credit: sermons4kids.com)
Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
When was the last time you heard someone say, “That’s a dying church?” It’s not something we often look at as a model for ministry, to b sure. But I want to suggest today, that Jesus is the leader of a dying church.
And I don’t mean in terms of attendance figures, which we do track, or declining involvement of our youth and children. What I mean by dying is what Jesus said in his own words, in today’s lesson: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
When the Greeks came to meet Jesus, wanting to become his followers, he must’ve said to himself: “That’s it. I’m dead.” I mean, any well-meaning Jew would know better than to associate with Gentile Greeks – heathens. It’s not so much that they didn’t worship the God of Israel, it was: what god didn’t they worship – that was the problem. They had a shrine for Poseidon, Athena, Zeus, Aphrodite. And here they were, coming to meet Jesus. Just imagine a born again Percy Jackson. Here come the Greeks, heaven help us!
And Jesus says to his disciples: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” Something had to die in order for the new to be born. Was it the Jews’ status as God’s chosen people? Was it the strict adherence to the Laws of Moses? Or was it Jesus himself who had to die, and be lifted up, in order to draw all people to himself?
How are we doing at dying?
I once spent a month on the Indian reservations in South Dakota (both at Rosebud and Pine Ridge). And there weren’t any Lutheran churches out there at that time, but there were Episcopalians. So the Lutheran and the Episcopal Churches decided to work together, rather than build a new church. They called it “Lutepisc” Ministry! How do you serve Lutepisc? (a little play on words for those of the Norwegian persuasion – lutefisk being a kind of codfish that my grandmother would soak in lye and dip it butter and, yes, actually eat it!)
Anyway… there was some concern in our group (back in the early 90’s) about how the Indian churches were mixing their ‘gods’ with Christianity. Was it ‘New Age’ Spirituality? We saw a traditional star quilt draped over the altar. Some prayed to the Great Spirit as well as the Holy Spirit – or to Mother Earth, as well as the “Our Father…” They had an Indian Version of the 23rd Psalm – using beautiful imagery from the prairies of the Dakotas, as well as the one from the land of Palestine. A call to worship might include the burning of sweet grass and the wafting of the smoke with an eagle feather (a sign of status, something sacred or “wakan”).
So, here I was, trying to make sense of it all. Where do I fit in? We got to do some preaching and teaching. We attended a wake and a funeral at a church at Pine Ridge. Everybody brought Tupperware – because it would have been an insult not to take food home when the host family offered. And of course, I went strait for the fry bread and wojapi (think deep-fried batter, smothered in blueberry sauce – you can keep your lutefisk!).
But whenever I heard someone who was bothered by this mixing of the faiths – I always remembered what Steve Charleston said (he was a Native American professor at Luther Seminary at the time): He said, “That’s my ‘Old Testament.’ Yes, I believe in Jesus, but that’s my ‘Old Testament.’” So, why would we ask anyone to give up their ‘Old Testament’ – the story that shaped who they are – their rituals and traditions? Maybe there were some over-the-top traditions that needed to be done away with. Personally, I’m glad we don’t have to sacrifice live sheep on the altar anymore! That’s a part of our Old Testament. However, the Sabbath is still a life-giving – the Ten Commandments help guide our lives and provide order for society. The cry for justice from the prophets rings true today as it did then. That winter I had to rethink my beliefs about Indian peoples. And we continue to face the challenges of racism and white privilege in our society.
This year, marks the 150th anniversary of the hanging of the 38 Dakota after the Dakota Conflict in SW Minnesota. Most people I talk to have never heard of this chapter in Minnesota history. The months preceding the hanging had been marked by several battles, and killings (on both sides – between white settlers and the Dakota) with some of the heaviest fighting occurring in New Ulm and Hutchinson. Originally, over 300 Indians were rounded up and sentenced to death by swift military trials. President Abraham Lincoln personally intervened and pardoned all but 38 of the prisoners prior to the hanging, which occurred the day after Christmas, Dec 26th, 1862. A large, square gallows was constructed so that they could all be hanged simultaneously. It was (and remains) the largest mass execution in US history, and it occurred right here in Minnesota (just blocks from the church I served for 4 years, in Mankato).
But those numbers pale in comparison to the genocide committed in this young nation’s history against native peoples across the continent. Hundreds of thousands of Indians were simply wiped out in the name of Manifest Destiny, blankets infected with Smallpox were deliberately given to entire villages; treaties were signed, with no intention of abiding by them; land was snatched up, leaving the Indians little choice but to move onto reservations.
So, why should any of this matter to us today? We weren’t there when our ancestors committed such crimes against humanity. Neither were the descendants of the Dakota, who live on in our time. But all that garbage from back then still pollutes the waters today – when we neglect the work of true reconciliation – of dying to our pride and arrogance and being born again as brothers and sisters in God’s family.
The system of racial superiority is alive and well, on the streets of Florida, where Treyvon Martin was shot dead, leaving more questions than answers. “He looks suspicious” is the line from George Zimmerman’s 9-1-1 call that keeps haunting me, before Trayvon died from a fatal gunshot wound. I think it’s too early to know all the facts and to pass judgment. But what is indisputable is the suspicion in the air. “He looks suspicious.”
Today, I want to think with you about what was at stake for Philip and the disciples when they were approached by those Gentile Greeks (in today’s lesson). When Jesus heard they wanted to see him he speaks of death in his future, but also of glory and fruit that would come of it. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies…” To lose one’s life was not just a metaphor, it was a call to actually risk welcoming the stranger.
Through Jesus Christ, Jeremiah’s prophecy from our first reading was coming true: “The days are surely coming, when I will make a new covenant, not like the one I made with your ancestors. This covenant shall be written on human hearts – not tablets of stone. On that day, they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest.” So, how are we doing at being the hands and feet of Jesus, drawing “all people” to himself through us? Even those we hold in suspicion? Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me.” Such promise & peril have always been part & parcel of the life of a disciple of Christ.
So I ask you, who are “the Greeks” that enter your life today? Who stands on your threshold ready to meet Jesus? Just this week I was approached by 2 pastors from different ethnic churches: one a Guatemalan church and the other a Liberian church – asking if they could rent space from us to worship on Sunday afternoons. I was glad the Guatemalan pastor brought his two daughters, when he dropped by the office, as they served as interpreters. Both pastors said they both have 40 or so members each. We still don’t know all the facts, and the council is gathering more information about what they specifically would need.
I’m a bit hesitant, (maybe even a little suspicious, if I’m honest with myself). We’ve only just gotten used to renting space with Head Start these last two years; and that’s brought several children of immigrants and varying ethnic groups into our building. But I’m also not one to second guess the work of the Holy Spirit in reaching out to our neighbors right in our own backyard.
How about you? Who are the Greeks at your doorstep these days? Would you welcome them to join a dying church today – a church that lifts up Christ as its head, through prayer, worship and sharing of the Lord’s Supper?
Thanks be to God, in Christ Jesus, who bears the promise of fruit and grain, from the dying seed of God’s people. Let us pray:
O God, you bid us come and die. We cling to our sin, pride and prejudices. Open us up when we fall through the cracks and let us be born anew, bearing much fruit, in your Holy and precious Name. Amen.