Reconciling Jesus

Here’s how my sermon prep really goes. I read the text, I pick liturgy and hymns a few months in advance, then I don’t really look at it again until the week of. Then I read commentaries are the text works on me (yes, works on me) through the Holy Spirit all week. I look for stories and modern day examples to use, but don’t write a lot of words down, maybe an outline.

I knew this week would be hard because it’s the first time divorce has come up in the lectionary since I’ve been divorced. I looked at past sermons, wow… did I not have a clue how hurtful this text was.

So, here’s my sermon from today, the congregation loved it but so did I. I took a deep breath and disagreed with Jesus. Then, I decided to reconcile with him too. God is not black and white friends, and we can’t take scripture that way either.

Have a listen:

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The Story of Life

This sermon was preached on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 at Ashland Presbyterian Church, Hunt Valley, Maryland. 

John 20:1-18

We gather here this morning to tell the story of Jesus. The story of God’s resurrection.  

The authors of the gospel of John understand the power of story, and the absolute necessity of it. They understand that we cannot know God without stories; that we cannot know ourselves without them either.  

We are a people who love story.  

We speak of getting lost in a story, but part of what draws us to a story is the promise of finding: finding a different world, finding another time, finding ourselves.  

There is something in us that hungers for a story, an empty space that is shaped precisely to its contours. We reach for the threads that a story offers, we enter the rooms it opens to us, we inhabit the skin of another and somehow, in the hands of a good story, we are returned to ourselves.  

And we are perhaps holding the threads of our own stories a bit differently, or entering a new space within ourselves, or finding ourselves able to inhabit our own skin more completely. 

Elie Wiesel says that God created us because God loves stories. (Inspired and quotes from Jan Richardson, Where the Story Begins)

The beginning of the Gospel of John begins with one of the great opening lines of all time.  

In the beginning. 

It’s right up there with… Once upon a time, and in a galaxy far, far away. 

We all know that in order to write a great story, you need to have a great story. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

In him was life, and that life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

The opening of John tells us who we are and where we exist in the story. We are the people, we are God’s story in motion. And where does the power of a story lie? What is it about this story that so compels us?

We are God’s people- alive, through Christ.  

Being the Son of God, “in him was life; and the life was the light of all the people” (1:4).   

Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (14:6).   

 His whole purpose for coming to earth “that we might have life, and have it more abundantly” (10:10).    

And this is not a condemning life, but a gift. For God so loved the world that he gave is son so we may have eternal life. (John 3:16)  

He tells Martha in comforting her after Lazarus dies, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) 

 And of course the Easter story begins just as poetically as any other, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…”

We see a woman, exhausted from the week’s events. She’s tired and frail, unable to sleep she gathers her supplies quietly, and makes her way from the place where she was staying to the private garden, the property of the wealthy patron who allowed 

Jesus’ body to be laid at the last minute.  

She has come to anoint the body, come to pay her respects; she has come to mourn the loss of the life of her dearest friend.  

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, he wasn’t supposed to die. Death wasn’t part of 

the deal, life was. He no longer exists in bodily form; all that’s left of him now is story. 

But that story doesn’t end the way Mary thinks it does. 

Death does not have the last word. As readers and studiers of story we are clued in to the fact that she is in a special place, a garden.  

The garden in which Mary stands mimics the one from another story, the story of creation. When God created a lush garden called Eden and we first learned of Godability to bring forth life.  

The garden is different now – not as pure – tainted with death and overgrown plants, touched by human hands. But that cannot stop God. 

In 1 Corinthians Paul tells the readers that resurrection is like a seed that must die to bring forth life. Jesus tells us that whoever wants to keep their life will lose it.  This is the moment of resurrection. The moment we realize that it is within the darkest, bleakest moments of life that we are at our most vulnerable. 

And like every good story, we have learned that the sweetest joy and the purest love comes from vulnerability. 

Mary is raw, the disciples are exposed. They are living in darkness and scarcity, facing a new reality that they never anticipated, and it came in the most cruel and violent ways.  

But it is within of that moment they find life. Real life. The life that Jesus spoke of, a live of abundant grace, and life of love and mercy, a renewed spirit.  

And they learn this lesson in a garden, the setting of our story. Because, we’re not the only thing God because God loves a good story.  

The garden reminds us that life is renewing, that we must become vulnerable, exposed to death, before we can resurrect into the next thing.  

The garden has a story in and of itself- it teaches us that life will find a way, no matter what.  

We plant a tree and suffocate it with cement.  

  
At it’s most vulnerable it not only survives it adapts to it’s environment. 

a seed scattered to the wind lands in mortar. 

  
We create suburban sprawl and waste fully abandon it, but life finds a way. 

  

Death will not have the last word, but it will have it’s day, for Jesus, it was 3 of them in fact. But on the third he was raised to new life.  

 Out of the depth of vulnerability — resurrection.  

So the story continues, and Mary mistakes Jesus as a gardener (poetic isn’t it?) Upon discovering who he is, he tells her not to cling to who he was. He’s different now, transformed by hardship, pain, and a journey.  

 

It’s a story unlike any other, the greatest story of all time the ending yet to be written, a story of relationship between God and creation that continues even to this day. 

May it live on through you and through me. And all God’s people said…Amen. 

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Yesterday, through my great powers of manipulation, a small miracle, or perhaps just dumb luck, I somehow convinced our Director of Christian Education to preach on Rally Day (the day Sunday School returns). Because she is a people pleaser and cannot say no to me, (and because she somewhere must have a deep seeded need to be punished for something she did in a past life) Katie said yes. As if she didn’t have enough to do that day…(FYI- Katie is our Christian Educator, she is a Pastoral Counselor, and has the voice of an angel)

Anyway, Katie, a double PK (meaning both of her parents are ministers) did a beautiful job, really. And as she preached about forgiveness and reconciliation Using Matthew 18:15-20 she preached about how to be the church together, how to be communal. On one hand I felt proud of Katie, I felt happy for the congregation, and I admit, it was also nice to hear a word from our pulpit that is so similar to one I would have given, but as she preached, I felt myself being moved, being preached to, being “fed” by the word. (yes, “fed” is problematic for me, but it’s the only word I can come up with- hold on, I’ll get more coffee).

This is an interesting thing as a preacher. I preach to myself most often. It just happens sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. But I am preaching the word God is wanting me to hear. I often get comments on the way out the door like “You can stop talking directly to me now!” or “How did you know?” or “That was exactly what I needed to hear.” These are high compliments as a preacher, but what I really want to say is, “Yeah… that’s great, but that word the Spirit was bringing, it was for me too.”

But then Katie preached, and I heard the gospel in a new way, I asked her to send me the sermon, she did some good exegesis that I wanted to share:

In the Old Testament there is salach, which most of us would understand as pardoning or freeing from the constraints of guilt. Salach is the forgiveness that God offers as it is exclusively used in instances where God is the subject. Kipper or atonement is related to the journey from sin to forgiveness, again usually between a person or people and God. And then there’s nasa’, which is used in the context of expelling sin from the individual, usually by way of communal sacrifice.  Did we catch that? Individual sin, communal sacrifice. The remedy for one person’s wrongdoing is reconciled within community.

community prayer

Did you catch that? I talk a lot about community here on this blog, it is vital to my faith. But think about this: The way to be reconciled to God, to yourself, to your neighbor is through a communal act. Individual sin. Communal Forgiveness.

We do not sin alone, even if the sin is to ourselves. Say I self hate, that still effects the community. Think about what self hate does to my work, my children, the people I encounter at the checkout line in Target. “Working on myself” is a communal act. We need the community to be free from sin. This is even easier to understand if I sin against another. Then I don’t just effect my bubble, I effect another’s as well.

It was a beautiful message, one worth sharing. One my heart needed to be reminded of, and one that we all need to remember. There is hope for me, me who tries to make it all happen myself. There is nothing wrong with needing others, needing them in order to reconcile with God, with my neighbor, and especially, with myself.

Thanks Katie, and Thanks be to God!

Can I get a Witness?

This sermon was preached on July 28, 2013 at Ashland Presbyterian Church, Hunt Valley, Maryland. I admit, I get lost when I write a sermon in narrative form (I usually preach from an outline). Actually that’s not true, I write a narrative or an outline and then I ignore them completely. So I tried to record it but somehow didn’t get it… So I’m posting the narrative because it was an important sermon in the life of our church and community, an opportunity to BE the Body of Christ in the world.

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Daniel 6:1-28

We don’t know much about the book of Daniel in all honesty.

We lift up Daniel and the Lion’s Den as something we teach our children, mainly. The bad King through Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Daniel prayed, and God saved Daniel.

Sound about right? Okay then, thank you…

Now, if we’re really good, we might know a little more about Daniel, that three chapters ago he and three friends refused to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar and were sentenced to deal by fiery furnace.

Daniel, got a stay of execution, but his friends- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not so lucky.

They were thrown into the furnace but were not consumed and as the king watched he saw 4 figures and the God of Israel is credited at saving them.

Daniel is found in our Bible in the section of the Old Testament called prophetic literature, but the style of the book of Daniel is actually what’s called “apocalyptic”. Think the book of revelation.

The stories take place during the Babylonian Captivity, although now scholars agree it was actually written in the 2nd century BCE (200 years before Christ).

And if you’re REALLY you might have remembering hearing chapter 7 with the vision of the great beasts, which comes up in lectionary every 3 years but no one ever reads it because it’s weird.

So let’s talk a little about what’s going on, the Book of Daniel is split into two parts, the first (ch. 1-6) is a narrative, story of Daniel, his friends, and relationships with the Kings.

The second (chapter 7-12) are a series of 4 visions Daniel has about Babylonian captivity.

The story begins with a brief reference to king Nebuchadnezzar robbing the Jerusalem temple and carrying its treasures back to Babylon.

It goes on to describe how some young members of the Judean nobility, including Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are inducted into the king’s service.

The book teaches the Jews in captivity of a foreign king, that it is possible to remain faithful to the God of Israel all the while serving an earthly king that is not sympathetic to your faith.

Which brings us to the story of the Lion’s Den.

Daniel has climbed the ranks in the Babylonian Empire; in fact he is now the third most powerful person in government position. He and the king have a good relationship, Daniel has proven himself not just politically to the king but also personally.

This cannot be said for the rest of the royalty of the Babylonians.

The other princes and persons in power to not look favorably on Daniel’s success, him being a foreigner and all.

So they scheme together and make a plan to get the king to declare a month of celebration and prayer to him, the king.

Now in polytheistic cultures, royalty and kings were considered god-like, so as the people prayed to multiple gods, this month of prayer devoted to the king would make it illegal to pray to any other God.

Including the God of Israel.

Daniel is aware of the decree, and was probably there when the king signed it into law. He is not ignorant, he knows exactly what this means.

Yet, Daniel does what a faithful follower does. He goes home, opens his window that faces toward Jerusalem and prays.

What’s interesting to me about this is that Daniel doesn’t go ingot the streets and protest, knowing for sure he would probably be killed. Daniel, as far as we know, doesn’t try to stop the law. He simply follows in his routine, following God’s will.

A trap has been set of course and those that wanted Daniel caught now have their proof. They run and tell the king that someone has broken his law and they should be punished.

“Absolutely, says the king, throw them in the lion’s den”

“Great, they say, because it’s Daniel”

This week we had a profound experience in the life of the church. For the last 6 months we have been praying for Rob, his recovery, and what might happen in court regarding his future and jail time.

Finally on Tuesday we would have our answer (and in case you are wondering, yes, I do have Rob’s permission to talk about this, although he asked permission not to be present).

Several of us (about 20) gathered at the District Court House in Towson to show our support and to show a judge that Rob had a strong community. What happened was amazing.

The king was ready to throw whoever had broken the law into jail, or honestly a fate worse than jail, the lion’s Den, certain death, and a slow and painful one at that. Until he found out it was Daniel.

The text tells us that the king spent the rest of the day trying to get Daniel acquitted because they were friends, he was a good man. The king didn’t want to hurt someone as good and faithful as Daniel.

Knowing Daniel, his story, seeing his humanity made all the difference to the king.

As we filed into the courtroom on Tuesday the judge was in recess. It was a small room and we filled the seats. I was standing off to the side with the Rob’s lawyer. And I started to pray.

I prayed that the judge’s heart would be softened. I prayed for love to surround Rob. I prayed for the spirit to move in this place.

When the judge entered everyone came forward and where I was standing I realized that the judge could not look at Rob without looking at me.

Now, those of you who were there were there were commenting because not only was Rob in a tie (Katie walked right by him) but I was in my collar! Which of course never happens.

I was very aware of my feelings at the moment and the prayers continued. The judge felt cold, harsh, as if decision had already been made. Or maybe that’s what I was simply anticipating.

The king was unsuccessful in trying to get a stay of execution for Daniel and the time came for him to enter the Lion’s Den. The king’s only words were “May the king you so faithfully serve deliver you!”

This was indeed the king’s prayer.

Daniel was thrown into a cage with a starved lion and left for dead.

The next morning the king reappears and tentatively called out for Daniel. And he answers. The text tells us the Lord had sent angels causing the lion’s mouth to close so he would be unharmed.

Something amazing happened on Tuesday in that courtroom. The proceedings lasted about a half hour, and it was a pray without ceasing moment. The judge was moved by the presence of community, we humanized Rob for the judge.

As the proceedings went on not only did the mood in the room lighten, but we could feel the spirit moving, grace and mercy were abundant.

There is no doubt that the judge was impressed and moved by the community and our being there made all the difference. The judge decided no jail time was necessary.

In the end when Rob thanked the judge he said, “thank your pastor, and these people.”

Now there is no doubt in our part in all this, but saying ‘we’ saved Rob is like thanking the lion for Daniel’s life. No, it was the will and the call of God that we responded to.

We responded in love, love which scripture tells us, all love- is from God.

All that was needed was a chance to witness to that love.

Daniel did it through prayer, discernment, and life. The king does it through advocacy, and even when he couldn’t change the other’s minds, he believes and is respectful of Daniel’s God. Even to the point of undoing an unjust law.

Through the Spirit, King Darius decrees:

“For he is the living God

and he endures forever;

his kingdom will not be destroyed,

his dominion will never end.

27 He rescues and he saves;

he performs signs and wonders

in the heavens and on the earth.

He has rescued Daniel

from the power of the lions.”

God is moving in this place, in the lives of others, and we pray to follow that spirit wherever she may go. We responded this week by witnessing the love of God in a courtroom, and it was a beautiful and profound experience for us all.

So how will we continue this week?

God delivers us from a fate worse than death, God delivers us from the mouth of the lion, and the cages- real or imaginary- this world puts us in. We cannot save each other, only God can do that.

We can stand up and be the love of Christ in the world for each other, we can witness to the world that God is love, that every one of us has a story, that God created us unique and we deserve the respect to have our stories heard.

So, where and to whom is God calling us next? It is not us who brings salvation, but the one, true and living God. And for that, we are truly thankful. Yet how and for whom will God call us to witness to next?

For Daniel it was to a king, for us it was to a judge, where else might the spirit lead? Friends, the possibilities are endless.

May it be so for you and for me… And all God’s people said, Amen.

Sermon 04 29 2012

For those that missed it, here is my sermon from April 29, 2012. Although this sermon is not exactly what I preached (we must leave room for the spirit) this is what was written for me to say… It has all the elements.

Luke 24:36b-48

About 18 months ago there was a tragic accident in my church in Albany.  Lou, the patriarch of the church, 89 years old and in great health for his age, walked across the street to his car on a rainy September evening and was struck by a car.  They never saw each other. Not even close.

The next day I am driving to the family’s house and dropping the kids off at a nearby parishioner.  When my, then almost three year old daughter says to me “Mommy, why are you sad?”

Now I try to be open to my children about the realities of life and death, but how to do that is delicate, I do not want to scare them, but I do want them to understand.

I want to be honest because sadness is a real emotion and there is no reason for her to think that it is about her, or to pretend that I am not sad because I am, obviously, very sad.

“Well honey, something bad has happened to Mr. Lou.” “Mr. Lou our church friend?” “Yes, baby, he crossed the street without looking”

Now to an almost three year old crossing the street without looking is just about the sin of all sins.

“Oh,” she says “he’s in BIG trouble” I laugh through my tears “Yes, honey, he is in big trouble.”

Explaining death to a child is just about the most complicated thing I can imagine.  It brings up so many questions… Where do we go when we die? Will grandma still have cancer in heaven? How will I recognize the ones that I love? Will they have the same body? And if so, what will that body look like?

My favorite answer to that last one came from an eighty something year old woman who told me that she believed that when she arrived in heaven she would look like she did on her most perfect day in life.

The day where everything fell in to place, her hair was just so and her makeup just right, and where she felt the most confident about herself.

It is a comfort to us, when we are grief stricken, that when we arrive in heaven we will see those whom we loved most dear to us.  And it is a comfort that although different, we will recognize them by body and in spirit.

In our scripture lesson this morning we meet the disciples again, this time in Luke, huddled together in their fear, frustration, guilt, grief and suspicion. Their leader, their beloved, is dead and now his wounded body is missing. In the midst of their escalating alarm, out of nowhere, Jesus himself appears.

And again, just as in John, the first thing Jesus does is provide comfort and assurance.  “Peace be with you” Jesus says.  And immediately follows it up with “Why are you freaking out?” As then he does something really odd, something very strange, but something he has done so many times in the Gospel of Luke, he asks for something to eat.

These words, this scripture, this moment assures the disciples, this is the same old Jesus- different now but yet the same- once dead but now alive- caring but still fussing.  Jesus is acting as if nothing happened, he seemed normal, natural, just what they had come to expect.

Yet he still carries the marks of his brutal death. And the very fact that he shows up after his cry of abandonment is anything but normal or expected. Earthly, human power had triumphed over him, it has seemed. The high priest, the scribes, the governor, soldiers, and the innocent bystanders had all condemned Jesus as a scoundrel and blasphemer.

Even God seemed to have condemned the verdict. There were no rescuing angles, no last minute acquittal, no surprise witnesses to change the verdict. According to the law he got what he deserved and this should be the end of the story.

But we are surprised- for God and Jesus are in cahoots against the powers of the world. By raising Jesus from the dead, God declared to the political leaders, “This is not about you!”

While they thought they had the upper hand and exercised all power that mattered, God declared that God has been working behind the scenes the whole time.

Today’s text brings the work and ministry of Christ full circle. Luke tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption for all of creation. God transformed a tragic consequence into a new thing- an acquittal and ultimate redemption. The ugliness of crucifixion gave way to the power of resurrection.

As we think the story over, we see God had something to say. It has always been about God and continues to be so.  Jesus did not launch into explanations about the mechanics of the resurrection, nor did he provide an itinerary about his whereabouts since Friday…

Instead, Jesus did what Jesus does best: he taught and commissioned: his whole life, death, and rising were about what God is doing in the world- reconciling the world back into the arms of God.

From the law of Moses, to the prophets, to the Psalms, it has always been about God and God’s purposes, aims, and agenda for us- it has always been about repentance that leads to forgiveness of sins and creating God’s shalom- peace, wholeness, restoring the world.

And that restoration is not far and it did not die with Jesus, because he was raised, here, in front of them, eating fish of all things! One of the greatest moments in Luke’s resurrection stories is this moment of Jesus eating fish.  This resurrection, this body- it lives.

It not only lives, it is real and tangible.  You can touch it, he can smell and taste, he can feel things like hunger and hear the disciple’s cries.

The risen Christ appears to groups and couples to assure them that he lives; to teach them to put their fear and doubts in the context of God’s grand plan; to open their understandings of the scriptures. To commission them as witnesses of all that God has done and is doing in the world.

Jesus makes it abundantly clear to his disciples and commissions them to put their fears and doubts in the context of God’s grand plan, so they may be able to witness of all that God has done and is doing for the world.

They are now ready to witness in Jerusalem, and to all the nations because of what they have seen and what they now know.

The work of Christ begins and continues because we are the witnesses and bearers of the promises of resurrection!

Today we live in a world where fear and doubt overwhelm us.  And we ask: where is God? Because the powers of the world- war, poverty, disease- seem to have won.  Today we are looking for that reassurance, that God is not powerless to the evils of this world.[i]

Yet here we are, witnesses to the resurrection, bearers of the gracious mercy of God. And we too have been commissioned to spread the good news of the gospel, to live the good news.  But the real questions becomes how will we do this?

What in our communities needs the presence of the risen Christ? What kinds of experiences or understandings so we need so that we can be credible witnesses to God’s reconciliation in the world?

What is our communal response to God’s presence and work in the world? How do we participate in God’s work on earth?

Although I do love that woman’s answer about what she will look like in heaven, I think I would change it a bit.  I pray that in heaven I will look like I did on my best day.  But not about hair and makeup, but the day I was the most kind, the most generous, the most forgiving.

I pray that when I arrive in heaven there will be all those whom I love being the best and most authentic selves, the people God called them to be on earth.

So why not start today?

Answering questions about death is hard, answer the questions about how we will bear witness to the resurrection may be harder still, but that doesn’t mean we don’t give it our best shot to answer them.

Years ago, Winston Churchill planned his own funeral. And he did so with the hope of the resurrection and eternal life which he firmly believed in.

And he instructed after the benediction that a bugler positioned high in the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral would play Taps, the universal signal that says the day is over.

But then came a very dramatic moment as Churchill had instructed. Another bugler was placed on the other side of the massive dome, and he played the notes of Reveille (I can’t get em up), the universal signal that a new day has dawned and it is time to arise.

That was Churchill’s testimony that at the end of history, the last note will not be Taps, it’ll be Reveille. There is hope beyond the grave because Jesus Christ has opened the door to heaven for us by his death and resurrection.[ii]

Jesus commissions us to declare the presence and power of God in the midst of tragedy, despair and death.  They are not ultimate- God is. And the risen Christ makes himself known to us in ways big and small.  So as people of faith we are to be witnesses to Christ’s people among us, in our words and in our deeds.

May this be so for you… Amen.

[i] This section from Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 2, Luke 24:36b-48

[ii] 750 Engaging Illistrations for Preachers, Teachers, and Writers from Craig Brian Larson and Leadership Journal #127