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Sunday, May 21, 2017

“The Seven Next Words of Christ: Go Into the World” Matthew 28: 18-20 Mark 16: 15-18 Luke 24: 45-49

One of my favorite pieces of scripture is found in the verses we read today, which generally are referred to as the Great Commission - the instructions or duty that Christ gave us before he ascended back into heaven to sit at the right hand of God. 
The United Methodist Church believes in the Great Commission so much that we have made it into our mission statement, expressing our entire purpose for being a church “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
But there’s a problem with the Great Commission. We have made it optional in the church. We have started to believe that it is only some people’s responsibility in the church to go. Its the job of “full time vocational folks” like pastors and missionaries to “go”. But, my friends, in all of these statements Jesus is directing what he is saying to those who follow him. Everyone. No exceptions.
Let’s take a moment to put ourselves in the mindset of the early disciple. For the last three years they had traveled - a lot. They first went with Jesus wherever he would go, listening to him as he taught to the crowds and in homes. They watched as he brought healing. Then, after a period of time, he sent them out two by two to do as he did. To go into towns and villages and bring the good news of the Kingdom of God, in word and deed. Then after a period of time they would return to where Jesus was located. Their travels had been temporary, they would always come back to where they left Jesus.
Then Jesus died and the disciples were throw into a tailspin of sorts. Instead of going anywhere, they locked themselves behind closed doors for safety. They feared the outside world and the harm it could cause them, so they seemed to lose all sights of the missional journeys Jesus had sent them on when he walked on earth. 
But Jesus came back. For forty days after he was resurrected, he once again walked the earth with the disciples. However, now the time was approaching for him to leave their presence again so he is taking time to remind them what their purpose is - not to just gather amongst themselves behind closed doors, but to go. To go into the whole world - not just the areas of Judea and Galilee where they had previously ministered - and to bring to all who would listen the good news of the Kingdom of God. This was a broad call. It was a bold task. 
I think there are times in our lives when we all would prefer to gather behind closed doors. To just associate with folks we know are like minded in the faith. To come to church, where we can escape the pressure of the outside world, and meet with our friends in our safe cocoon. Let’s be honest, the cocoon feels nice at times! 
But just like those early disciples we are called to go. Commanded to go. In Matthew we hear Jesus saying that we are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Triune God and to teach them what Jesus taught. Sometimes, if we are honest, the broad and bold nature of what the disciples heard long ago, doesn’t propel us out so much as make us want to retreat even further into our cocoon.
Here’s the deal folks - some people are really called to go. To pack up their homes and families and move around the world to serve Jesus Christ. I’ve met some of them. When I attended college, the bulk of my friends were MK’s - missionary’s kids -  who told amazing stories of what their families did in the name of Jesus Christ in some places that I couldn’t even locate on a map. And that is wonderful!
And there are other people who are called to serve God in vocational ministry, as pastors and youth leaders. Musicians and support staff at churches. And that is wonderful to! But what I want to stress this morning is that it isn’t just the missionaries and those in vocational ministry that are told to “go” and share the love of Jesus Christ. That is all of us by virtue of our baptism. However, to “go” doesn’t mean going half way around the world. It may mean going out our front door and forming relationships with our neighbors who don’t know Christ. It may mean being open about our faith with colleagues. There are so many different ways that we are called to go.
The Barn a Group does religious statistical research. They found that 75 to 90 percent of all people who come to know Christ will do so through a friend or relative. Let that sink in. 7 to 9 out of 10 people who come to accept Jesus do so because of relationships with people who are right there, doing life with them. 
In the Gospel of Luke we hear Jesus saying that the disciples are witnesses. Witnesses of the death and resurrection of Christ. Witnesses of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Witnesses who are sent in the power and name of Jesus to share this life-changing news. We usually think of witnesses as ones who saw, but in this case it is also those who testify. Friends, we are called to testify to how Jesus changed our lives. To testify to how Jesus’s words touched our hearts. To testify to what salvation means to us, because God wants to offer that same salvation to the nations!
Years ago I offered a Bible study around evangelism, or how we share our faith, based off of Bill Hybel’s book Just a Walk Across the Room. The entire premise of the book is that we’ve made testifying harder then it should be. We get so caught up in our own fears in our head, that we make it hard for our legs to go when Jesus is calling us to share. But, friends, if we let our fears get in the way, then the people we encounter in our daily lives miss out on the message of God - the message that we are entrusted to share!

Brothers and sisters, where are you being called to go? Is it just outside of your front door? Are you being called to go into your town and neighborhoods to share the good news of Jesus Christ? If so, what is blocking you from going? If its fear, lets hand that over to God right now. If its worrying that people won’t respond - let’s remember that is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit. If its thinking that you aren’t wise enough - lets look to God for wisdom. Because we are all called to go. But we do not go alone. Let us remember and hear anew the words of Jesus to his disciples and to us, “And remember that I am with you always, to the end of the age”. Amen. And Amen. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Seven Next Words of Christ: Peace Be With You John 20: 19-29

Doubt. At some point in our lives most of us wrestle with doubt, or this sense of uncertainty. I remember for me it came one day on a train platform in Melbourne, Australia. A dear friend and I had just spent most of the day exploring the city, eating good food, and talking about the Trinity. I remember sitting down on the train platform and asking my friend why God wasn’t answering my prayers. 
We had both attended a pretty conservative Christian college, where theology, or God-talk, seeped into our days, not just in our Bible classes, but just in every day conversation. While not something I ever grew up hearing about or believing, I had recently encountered peers who firmly believed that whenever God did not answer the prayers you prayed immediately, and in the way you wanted, it was because you had sin blocking your life and your connection with God.
Through study and prayer, I later would learn that just because God doesn’t give us everything we want when we want it, it does not mean that we have a poor relationship with God or one that is clogged with sin. But I remember in that moment, on that train platform, having serious doubts about who God is, about the power and place of prayer, and even about myself. Doubt creeps into our lives in some of the most unexpected places.
But, for all of that I was not known as Doubting Michelle, nor should I have been. Yet, Thomas, one of Jesus’s disciples, for his doubts has become known as doubting Thomas. Once every few years, pastors preach messages about how we should never have doubts or crisis’s of faith, and look to Thomas as the prime example of what a lack of faith looks like. 
This morning I’m not going to do that. The truth is that I believe that we all have a little bit of Thomas in us, a little bit of doubt. And that doubt actually can help us see how deep our faith runs. 
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples for a moment. A little over a week ago they watched as Jesus was tortured and killed by the government and the religious establishment. They were now leader-less, and had returned to places of safety - behind locked doors, wondering how long it would be before the government and the religious establishment would come after them as well since they were followers of Jesus. 
They had heard rumors that Jesus was alive - from the women who went to the tomb. From the men on the road to Emmaus. But really that just made them more fearful. They were still in shock. Still deep in grief, as their world had been turned upside down. 
And then Jesus showed up. Jesus came, not knocking at the door, but directly into the room where they were hiding and said the strangest thing “Peace be with you”. How could they be at peace! Their hearts and minds were racked with “what ifs” and worst case scenarios and now the one that they thought was dead was standing amongst them. 
At first, we can assume that some of those other disciples had worries and doubts too, because we aren’t told that they rejoiced at the presence of Jesus until after he showed them his hands and his side. Then they rejoiced. Then they could fully celebrate Jesus with them. 
Before Jesus left their promise he gave them a gift - the gift of the Holy Spirit. The gift of a reminder that if they forgive the sins of others then their sins would be forgiven (what a hard challenge after what they had just experienced and seen - the need to now forgive those who killed their Master and Friend). And the gift of being breathed on. Breath that would remind them of God’s creating breath is Genesis, when God formed humans out of the dust of the earth and then breathed into them the very breath of life. This was the life-breath they were in need of. Breath that would remind them of the resurrecting breath of God as told by the prophet Ezekiel, that brought life to dry bones. They were in need of such resurrection.
The problem, however, was that one of the disciples was not present. For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t in the room the day that Jesus showed up. Sure he was told about it second hand by all of his friends who kept saying that they had seen the Lord. But he wanted the experience. He wanted the life breath. He wanted the gifts and the promises. So he made this statement that has gotten him the label of doubting Thomas - “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later exactly that happens, Jesus shows up when Thomas is there and says the same thing, “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus offers Thomas exactly what he needs,  the proof of seeing and feeling the wounds in Jesus’s hands and side. The gift of being in the presence of the resurrected Jesus, a Jesus who speaks directly to the disciples fears, and offers them peace. 
We often see Jesus as chasticizing Thomas when he says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”, but what 
if this statement, too, was not a rebuke but a gift? The gift of the offer of peace. 
Here’s the truth friends, let’s place all of what we struggle with on the table. Sometimes, we have doubts. Sometimes we yearn for that peace that Jesus is describing, because we don’t always have it. In fact, true confessions, sometimes as the church we have screwed up Jesus’s peace. We have made it to look like the peace of the world - the peace of stability and materialism and prosperity. And sometimes we have made the peace into some distant promise that is only brought up at funerals instead of living into the reality of that peace in the presence. But the gift of this passage is tremendous. Int he words of Pastor Shane Stanford, it reminds us that, “Even our failures cannot prevent us from receiving God’s love”. 
This passage also reminds us that Jesus is caring and kind. He cared enough to give Thomas what he needed. So what do we need? That day on the train platform, I needed God to speak to me. And God did. God showed up. Just not in the way I had prayed for. Are we willing to have Jesus show up and say “peace be with you” in unexpected ways? 
What proof, brothers and sisters, do we need. We are now firmly in the season of Eastertide - a season when we celebrate the mystery of our faith. The mystery of Jesus who comes into our lives with these next words and radically loves us, even in the midst of our doubts and demands.

There is a little bit of Thomas in each of us, but that little but can also open us up to moments of God’s peace. Doubt can be one of the Devil’s greatest tools, but doubt can also help us see just how deep our faith really is. What do you need this day and how will Jesus unexpectedly provide? Amen. 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Seven Next Words of Christ: What Are You So Concerned About Luke 24: 13-34

For years the United Methodist Church through the Upper Room Ministries has offered a three day retreat called Walk to Emmaus. I have both attended this walk as a participant and have served on the leadership team as an assistant spiritual director, as well as encouraged folks to attend. The mission of this retreat is to “offer an opportunity to meet Jesus in a new way as God’s grace and love is revealed to you.” 
I love that purpose statement for the Emmus experience because it so clearly captures the spirit of what happened on that road to Emmaus so long ago. When Jesus comes across two people along the road who were discussing what had happened over the last several days. They were in deep discussion of the death of this man called Jesus, the one who they had put their hope into as the political messiah - the one who could and overthrow Roman occupation. Then a man came near them and started to walk with them, but they were so lost in their conversation that they didn’t recognize him there. Finally he asked them what they were discussing and they told him the story of Jesus, assuming that he was from out of town and didn’t know what was going on.
If I had to describe this moment I would summarize it as awkward. Have you ever came across people who were talking and as you got closer you realized that they were talking about you? Even when they are saying good things it can be such an uncomfortable situation, yet that is exactly what Jesus walked into. Or have you ever had the experience of being deep in conversation, so deep that you seem to forget your surroundings, only to find that someone else has been standing next to you for a while, trying to be part of the conversation. That would have been the men.
Yet, for all of its awkwardness, Cleopas continues to tell this “stranger” about Jesus who was a mighty prophet in all he said and did, yet the chief priests handed him over to die. Its been three days since it took place, yet it seemed to be all people could think and talk about up to this point, including the women who said they had went and found an empty tomb and that Jesus was alive. 
Jesus then called them out for not knowing what it meant to truly be the Messiah. Could you imagine just sharing the most gut wrenching story with a stranger only to have them tell you how you missed the point? And the awkwardness continues. Yet, as they entered into the village and Jesus starts to veer off to part ways, the men invited him to stay. And as he responded to their hospitality and stayed, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and they finally recognized Jesus!
Friends, these disciples of Jesus, followers of his, almost missed the point. They had become so blinded by their grief and expectations that they could hardly recognize who was right in front of them the entire time. In fact they were blinded several times in this story. First, they nearly missed the person joining them on the road because they were so engrossed in their own concerns. Have you been there, brothers and sisters? Have you become so engrossed in what is going on in your life that you miss what’s going on in the lives of others? 
  Sometimes as a pastor I think we miss the point of weekly worship gatherings. Recently I was at a youth retreat called “Recharge”, where the speaker made a great point. As Christians we move from one “recharging” experience to the next - whether it be a high moment in our faith life, or Sunday morning worship, or a conference. But really the point of our faith life, and especially Sunday morning worship experiences when we are walking with Christ is not to continually be needing to be recharged, but instead to care for one another. To be able to go to the person who sits next to us in the pew and ask how they are truly doing. Or to see if someone in the congregation is in need of prayer. Or to offer to babysit for the new mom or bring a meal to the widower. But all to often that isn’t what we use Sunday morning worship for - we don’t make it into a time to encourage our brothers and sisters in the faith, because we are so blinded by our own wants and needs.
Then the disciples became blind to what it means to be the Messiah. Some translations put it as “we thought he was the Messiah” or “we hoped he would have been the Messiah” or in our case “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel”. They had let their own expectations get in the way of seeing that Jesus was the Messiah, just not the conquering, political King that people had expected. 
Friends, we let our own expectations get in the way of our faith walks all too often. First, we have expectations about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. We want to pick and choose how our God should be. There is a saying that goes something like if your God hates who you hate and loves only who you love, it probably isn’t truly God, yet that is exactly how we can act from time to time. Instead of reading scripture to see who God truly is, we make God in our image. Especially looking for a God who can give us what we want, when we want it. We let what who we want God to be block us from seeing who God is.
We also can let our expectations of ourselves get in the way of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. In the gospel of John, as Jesus is preparing to die, we find him telling his disciples that they are going to experience difficulties and persecution. Friends, somehow we have tried to make our discipleship about what we want to receive and miss the point that following Jesus requires real sacrifice. We miss the point that discipleship changes us. In fact, its life changing, continually, because Jesus doesn’t let us settle for the expectations of ourselves but instead pushes us beyond our comfort zones for the sake of the Kingdom. 
Third, the disciples almost completely missed the fact the one that they had been traveling and talking with was in fact Jesus. They had been focusing on other things until Jesus stood before them and blessed and broke the bread for them to share. Haven’t we been there, brothers and sisters? Where we have been like animals with blinders on - only seeing a small part of the picture, thinking that Jesus has abandoned us or hasn’t been preset in the midst of our circumstances, only to have the blinders removed by the grace of God and we come to realize that Jesus was with us the whole time?

What about us friends? What have we been focusing on instead of Jesus? And how have our distractions almost made us miss what is right in front of us? For some it may be their grief. For others politics. For still others situations at work or at home. It wasn’t until the distractions were out of the way, that the disciples remembered how their hearts were warmed along the road.  Friends, we need to set our distractions aside so we can see Christ anew. We need to get out of our own way so that Christ can fill us and send us out. May God gives us ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to respond so that we can go out and share the greatest story ever told - of how Christ met us along the road and changed our very lives. Amen. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

“The Seven Next Words of Christ - Greetings… Do Not be Afraid” Matt 28: 1-10

I don’t know about you, but when someone tells me not to be afraid, it is usually during the times I am the most frightened. In the New Testament, angels, the messengers of the Lord, often greeted folks like Mary, the mother of Jesus and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist with the words “Do not be afraid.” Jesus told his disciples to not be afraid nineteen times during his ministry. Times such as when they were at the wedding of Cana and the wine was going to run out - a mark of a lack in hospitality. Right before Lazarus was going to walk out of the tomb. When Jesus walked on water in order to calm the storm raging in the sea. All times the disciples should have been afraid, yet Jesus instructed them not to be afraid. 
We are now in the second week of our sermon series about the seven next words of Christ - the seven words of instruction that Christ gave after his resurrection, during the forty days that he continued to meet and teach the disciples. Today we focus on the words “do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid” can be such tricky words. As I said before, they often come at times when people are the most afraid. If we are not careful, such words can come off as a lack of sympathy instead of words of comfort. 
When I was at my first appointment, I traveled to Hershey during the week for chaplaincy training at the medical center. In the mornings we had classwork, and in the afternoon we visited patients in specific units that were assigned to us. In addition, a chaplain was required to be at each trauma call. Whether we were in a patients room or responding to a page, we were to be a calm presence in the midst of the chaos of the hospital, but we were also there to help guide medical staff, especially those in the beginning of their training, in what it looks like to be that calming presence. There was more than one occasion during my time at Hershey where I had the uncomfortable job of pulling medical staff to the side and telling them why there words were more harmful then comforting. I think of one of my favorite patients, who was at the hospital to deliver her second child. Her water broke too early so she was on bedrest hours from home. Most days she was cheerful. One day I found her in tears - a new doctor whom she had never met told her that they were getting an ambulance to move her to a different hospital (which the patient knew was unsafe due to her need for bedrest) because they didn’t have enough beds for her, but not to fear, they would arrange everything. Of course the woman should have been afraid for herself and her baby! A one minute stop in her room changed her life and what she had thought would happen to her over the next several weeks. 
Another young woman, a few years younger than me, went in for a routine delivery of her baby, only to find that he was born without one-third of his vital organs. She was told to not be afraid, as her infant was moved to NICU, which she took to be a promise that he would be okay - only to have him die a few days later. She felt betrayed into thinking that everything would be okay, when it wasn’t. Of course she should be afraid. 
In contrast, when Jesus tells us to not be afraid, he isn’t using the words in a way to diminish what the disciples or we are feeling. He isn’t telling them to buck up or stay strong, instead, he is inviting them the find their rest in God’s care. He is reminding them and us that the presence of Christ walking with us continually, even when we cannot perceive him, strengthens us for whatever lies ahead. 
Today we find a different version of the Easter story. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were headed to the tomb, but as they arrived the earth shook and the angel of the Lord came and rolled the heavy stone blocking the entrance of the tomb away. He shone brightly. The two Mary’s would have heard about angels such as these in scriptures before -maybe they even though of the similar description of angels given by the prophet Daniel, but more then likely they were just as shocked as the Roman guards present that day who shook out of fear.
The angel looked past the guards to the women and told them, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here: for He is risen as he said.” Notice that the angel did not tell them that there was nothing to be afraid of, for surely he knew the journey that lay ahead for the disciples. 
While we know the Easter story, know what came next for the disciples, the women at the tomb that morning did not. They were told to go quickly and tell the disciples that Jesus was risen - which is exactly where they headed. But on their way between the tomb and proclaiming the good news they ran into Jesus. Once he greeted them he too told them to not be afraid, before sending them on to proclaim that he would meet his disciples in Galilee - to gather them together for forgiveness and a mission.
The Gospel of Matthew is filled with extradionary moments - the incarnation, transfiguration, and resurrection. But the moment after the resurrection is just as spectacular, as God interrupted the women’s plan to go to the tomb with a greeting, words of comfort, and a task. 
Think back to the extrondiarny moments in your life. Maybe they didn’t seem so spectacular in the moment, in fact maybe at the time they filled you with fear - but in the scheme of life, they were the moments that changed your life. The women that day were probably frightened and joyful. Or afraid for joy. Yet, Jesus met them in the midst of the unknown, in the midst of the fear and told them to not be afraid.
When was the last time someone told you to not be afraid brothers and sisters? Not told not to be afraid in a way that diminished your feelings by telling you that there is nothing to be afraid of - but in a way that reminded you that nothing we encounter is greater than the love of the God who walks with us through life? And how do you pass on those words of hope and encouragement to others? The gospel message that while we cannot conquer death, God can. The truth that God can use even our most fearful and difficult moments to share the love of our Savior.
One year at a festival I had the opportunity to hear River Jordan speak. She had just finished writing a book entitled Praying for Strangers, her true life story of God leading her to pray for one stranger each day for a year. When she first started she would simply pick a person and pray for them, not knowing their needs. That was scary enough. Then she started to tell people that she would like to pray for them and ask if they had any requests. Now her fear was at a whole new level. But by the end of the year she was asking one stranger a day if she could pray with them! She found that as she responded to the call of God in her life to pray for strangers, that not only their lives were touched, hers was as well.

Friends, sometimes we let our fear get the better of us. If River Jordan would not have listened to the voice of God calling her to be not afraid, she may never had prayed for those folks. If the Marys would not have heard the angel and Jesus telling them to not be afraid they may have stayed at the tomb instead of going to meet the disciples. Fear is not a bad thing, but we need to trust God to walk with us through our fears. May these words of an ancient Christian benediction speak to you this day: “May you fear God so much that you fear nothing else at all.” Amen. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

“The Seven Next Words of Christ: Who are You Looking For?” John 20: 1-18

This is a bit odd. Normally we don’t examine the same passage of scripture two Sundays in a row. Normally we look at different scriptures within a theme. But this week is a bit different. The Easter text that we used last week to proclaim “He is Risen” we will re-examine this week, in all of its richness, to hear the words that Christ spoke after his resurrection.
During the season of Lent, and especially on Good Friday, it is common for churches to think about the seven last words of Christ. These were phrases declared by Christ on the cross during his crucifixion. When someone is facing death, the last words they speak are usually important. For Jesus these words include reflections of his heart: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The care that he had for others: “Behold your son: behold your mother.” Words that we don’t quite know what to make of: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” “I thirst.” And the moments when he gave up his spirit to Heaven: “It is finished.” “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
But Christ had a unique opportunity. He was resurrected and appeared on earth with his disciples for forty days after his death. In the church, we celebrate this as the season of Eastertide, not just one day. So Christ was able to continue to speak important words into the lives of his disciples until his ascension. Christ had next words, not just last words.
For the next several weeks we are going to look at the times Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection and these powerful words that he brought to them. Words of hope. Words of peace. Words of compassion and care. While the last words took place on the cross, the next words started with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. Therefore, we return anew to our scripture text from last week. 
Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and John all had similar, yet very different experiences at the empty tomb on Easter morning. Mary was the first to arrive, but she simply saw a scene that disturbed her and ran. Ran to get help. When she declared to Simon Peter and John that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb” they too had a sinking feeling that things were not as they should be. John arrived at the tomb first and made it closer then Mary - he crouched down to examine the tomb a little closer and found that it was worse than he feared. He saw the death clothes discarded. Simon Peter arrived and went into the tomb. Simon Peter and John had to suffer a range of emotions from shock to anger to disappointment, but at some point they realized that there was nothing more they could do, so they returned to their homes.
But not Mary. The whole while as the disciples examined the tomb, Mary was there. Maybe she felt guilty. Maybe she was hoping that the disciples would tell her that she was wrong and that Jesus’s body was in there. Whatever she was thinking and feeling, even after the other disciples returned home she stayed behind. For years it was the women who followed the disciples, those like Mary Magdalene, who took care of the needs of the disciples and Jesus - cooked for them. Financially supporting the work of the ministry. Tending to anything they could. And now she didn’t know what to do or where to go. She simply stood outside of the tomb and wept.
She did look into the tomb at one point and saw something even more disturbing then what the disciples had discovered. Instead of discarded death clothes she found two angels who asked her why she was weeping. To which she replied that they had taken the body of the Lord and she didn’t know where they put him.
I usually am pretty tidy and have a good system for where I put things. But once in a while I will misplace something. You know the thought that comes just before you lose something, “I’ll remember where I put this” which often leads to disaster later on. But I’ve never misplaced something of extreme value that I have not been able to find without some searching. But if I get upset over losing small things that don’t really matter, how much more upset must Mary have been that the body of Jesus had been in her mind, stolen by the Roman government. The “they” that she kept coming back to. 
To add insult to injury first the angels and then a man ask her why she is weeping. But the man takes it one step further - recognizing that Mary was crying out of grief of not being able to find someone whom she is searching for. Mary thinking that either this man helped take the body or may know where it is pleads with him to show her the way to the body.
Depending on the given day, the questioning sales associate asking “Can I help you find something?” can be a welcomed relief or small annoyance. When I have a short time to get in and out of a familiar store, or a place where things have been moved around since the last time I was there, the question is a helpful relief. It acknowledges that they noticed me and probably noticed that I was searching for something. 
Mary, in all of her grief, had been noticed. But what came next wasn’t an agreement to help her, it was simply her name being spoken by a voice that she recognized. She looked up, squinting through her tears, and felt a calm rush over her - the calm that came when she had been listened to and cared for by Jesus. Relief washed over her as she cried “Rabbouni!”
Friends, how long has it been since we have felt such relief wash over us? The relief of being recognized and called by name? The relief of seeing our Savior and knowing that we are being cared for? All too often our lives feel more like a mess. A tangling that we couldn’t have begun to imagine. Other times we seem to be devoid of feelings, simply going through the motions of living, but not finding joy. And still other times, we may enjoy our lives, but we walk around in such a way that we fail to notice the world of God around us. We know that something is missing. We just don’t know what to do next.
While I was in college I studied abroad for a semester in Australia. Our class schedule in Australia was quite a bit different from what I was used to in the States. I had fewer credits and only took classes two days a week. This left a lot of free time to explore, but also to serve. One of the places I ended up volunteering was a drop in center for IV drug users and prostitutes in the second worst neighborhood of Victoria. My job was to help sort through donations and simply talk with the men and women who came in for safety. It didn’t take too many weeks for me to realize that so many of the stories that I heard sounded the same. One bad situation led to one bad decision that simply unraveled out of control to the point where folks didn’t know what to do next. Didn’t know how to change or break the cycle. 
How often have we paused in our lives and had the same feeling - that sinking feeling that we don’t know how we even got here. That feeling of emptiness. When Mary arrived at the tomb that morning maybe that’s how she felt - if only she would have gotten here earlier maybe they wouldn’t have taken the body. If only she could convince someone to help her maybe now she could find the body. Yet, as she starred into the mess around her, she almost missed looking into the eyes of  her Savior. 

Friends, do you here the next words of Jesus in your life today: Why are you crying? Who are you looking for? Are we so caught up in the mess of our lives that we are hindered from hearing the voice of Christ and looking into the eyes of our Savior? What are you looking for this day and how can Christ change your life, in a way that brings care and freedom? Amen. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

He is Risen - John 20: 1-18

We have arrived. For the last several weeks we have been journey together. Journey through the season of Lent, marked by spiritual disciplines. Journey through the final word of the cross. Journeying through letting our lives be transformed by Jesus…. 
And now we have arrived. At Easter.
And yet, so long ago, as Mary Madeline approached the tomb she did not see the day as a beginning so much as an ending. She was going to the tomb to pay her final respect to her teacher and Lord, Jesus Christ. Here was a man who had changed her life and now all she had to offer him was some anointing spices for burial. It seemed a meager offering, yet it was all she had. 
So she went to the tomb when it was still dark out, before the rest of the world had begun to stir, to give all she had to give. She had been grieving. The tears just wouldn’t stop. But through the haze of her tears she could still see that something wasn’t right when she reached the tomb - the stone had been rolled away. The stone that was supposed to keep everyone out - the stone that the Romans put there out of fear had been rolled away. And she did all she could think to do - she ran.
The gospel of John tells the Easter morning story as one of haste - one of running. It is so unlike John. If you want to see a gospel where everything moves at a high speed, look at the gospel of Mark. I still remember translating Mark in college and being struck by how quickly everything move. From one point to another. From one story to another. Not true of John. John wanted to make sure the readers got the point. So what is the point of all of this running Easter morning?
John wants us to feel the chaos of what is taking place. This is unexpected. This is not how things should be happening. Mary didn’t know what to make of the stone being rolled away so she ran to get the disciples. Then Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, ran to the tomb to see the emptiness for themselves. Mary hadn’t even looked into the tomb to know that it was empty but that is what she declared - “They have taken the Lord!” So they ran to see for themselves. What thoughts had to be racing through their minds as their feet sped up - who would take the body? Where is Jesus? What can they do? 
When they arrived at the tomb it was just as Mary said - it was empty. The disciple who reached the tomb first bent over and looked in, confirming Mary’s store. But Peter, Peter was a bit braver. He went into the tomb. And saw the death linens lying there - without the body. In that moment were they remembering Lazarus - Jesus’s friend who not so long ago had his own grave clothes? Where they remembering how he stumbled out of the tomb and folks had to help unwrap him? Were they wondering who would take the body and unwrap it? Jesus’s body may not have began to smell,  but it was considered unclean to touch a dead body. Who would want to do that? 
Then the first disciple took the same brave step as Peter and entered into the tomb. We are told that he believed, but he did not understand. What did he believe? That Jesus wasn’t there? That his body had been taken? Because we are also told that the disciples didn’t understand yet that the scripture had been fulfilled. 
Mary didn’t understand either. Even after the disciples returned to their homes, she stayed behind. She still couldn’t believe what happened. She bent down again to look into the tomb and this time it was no longer empty. Instead, there were two angels where Jesus body used to lie. While angels usually came to announce their news with statements such as “do not be afraid” this time they had a question, “woman, why are you weeping?” At which Mary, not even frightened or taken aback by the presence of the angels recounted how Jesus’s body had been taken away. 
Mary then turned around, away from the angels, and saw Jesus, who she didn’t even recognize as Jesus until he called her by name. Then she sprinted forth to declare the good news, “I have seen the Lord!”
The Easter story in the gospel of John wants to scream at us, and at the disciples so long ago, that “He is Risen! Jesus is alive”. Yet, just like the disciples we can often miss the point. We try to dissect the story to make it more palatable, to help it make sense in our minds, while missing the point. 
Theologian Karl Barth said that when we gather for worship any time, but especially on Easter Sunday, we seem to come with one question - is it true? Is the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection true and what impact does it have on my life today? 
We spend so much time trying to prove the gospel that we miss its mystery. Miss its holiness. We start to overlook the beauty of the Easter story - Jesus is alive! Something extradionary happened that changed the world and that can change our very lives if we let it!
Friends, Easter in all of its power and glory isn’t the end of the story of Jesus’s life and ministry, it is the beginnings. A new beginning. Easter is the story of a Risen Savior that no one believed was risen at the time. Even those closest to him. Even those he had repeatedly told about his death and resurrection. And because his disciples could not even grasp that Jesus was risen they also forgot what Jesus had been trying to teach them about the power of his resurrection in each of our lives.
Over the past year we have had several funerals in the parish. Funerals are hard because we come together in deep grief to mourn those who meant so much to us. But funerals can also be celebrations - celebrations of eternal life. Hear these words that are proclaimed at funeral services: Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, they shall live again and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I hold the keys of hell and death. Because I live, you shall live also. And from the apostle Paul “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. These scriptures are true because of the power of the resurrection. 

So the question for us this morning is not so much is it true but more improbably, do you believe? Do you believe that Christ has the power to conquer death? Do you believe that we can live eternally with Jesus because of the power of Easter? And have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Let us not miss the point this day, brothers and sisters. He is risen! He is risen indeed! 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Transformation: What’s Next 2 Tim 2: 11-13

We are now in the final week of our sermon series on having our lives transformed into the likeness of Christ. For the last several weeks we have discussed what can block such transformation and what can help it blossom. But as we draw near to the end of this series, and the the end of the season of Lent - a time set aside to prepare our hearts for the coming of Easter - the question looms: what’s next?
In order to discern what is coming next we first need to remember. In Psalm 77 we find the words, “I will remember your deeds of old.” Whose deeds? God’s deeds. In order to trust God to move us faithfully into the future, we need to remember who God is and what God has done for us. 
I’ve been involved in different types of ministries over the years. One was an evening Vacation Bible School program that ran throughout the school year for one night a week. At the conclusion of one of the sessions the director gave me a little book that I still treasure today - a book of God’s promises. It seems that we don’t spend enough time in the Church talking about the promises of God. God promises to meet our needs, give us eternal life if we so choose, lead us by the Holy Spirit. God promises to love us, forgive us, protect us and give us peace. The list goes on and on. We need to remember the promises of God and trust God with our very lives. If we don’t know what God has promised, how can we move into these promises in the future?
We also need to remember who we are and whose we are. If someone asked you at a party who you are what would you say? Most people begin with their name. Then follow up with what they do for an occupation. Or something about their families. Or where they live. These are all wonderful things, but they are simply reflections of who you truly are. When you accept Jesus Christ into your life you become a son or daughter of God. That is our primary identity. That is what defines us. Our very relationship to God. 
Additionally, we need to remember the covenants we have made with God and with one another as the body of Christ. A covenant is a holy agreement between God and the people of God. It’s a vow, or promise that we make with our very lives. A contract. We make covenants at important times in our lives. At weddings we promise to have and hold our spouse from that day forward no matter what the circumstances - rich or poor, in sickness or health, until you are parted by death. At baptism we promise to renounce the force of wickedness at our lives and in the world and to claim the freedom that can only be found in God. When someone is baptized we as the church, the local body of Christ, promise to nurture the person being baptized. When we join the church we vow to give of our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness to the work of the Kingdom of God. 
But sometimes we go through our days in such a blur that we forget. We fail to remember the promises of God that claim us. We forget our primary identity - forget who we are. We forget the promises we made, sometimes so long ago, at key times in our faith walk. And when we forget we are more prone to sin.
No one is above sinning. Even if we have known Christ our entire lives we can still sin. In fact, each of us probably have different sins that can lead us astray. At my last appointment one of the churches on the charge took a leap of faith and invited AA to use their building. The local chapter of AA was a bit confused at first when I contacted them first, asking if they would like to use a church building, rent free, throughout the week to hold their meetings. But it was a decision we never regretted as a local church. We formed relationships with the man the woman who oversaw that meeting, and through them we learned one of the lessons of AA - you have to stay vigilant. You cannot let your guard down or you are more prone to relapsing. So it is in our faith lives, brothers and sisters. We have to remember in order to stay vigilant. When we forget and start to let our guard down, sin can overtake us. 
Sometimes as a pastor I will have folks who came to know Jesus in a powerful way come to me desperate to feel the warmth in their hearts that accompanied their salvation. The amazing feeling that overtook them when they were baptized. I always invite them to remember. For folks who have been in any relationship a long time will tell you that feelings or emotions can fade, but love is a choice. We make the choice to remember and love God every single day. Not just days when our hearts are warmed. Not just days when we feel like it or it comes easy. 
But once we remember then what? Where do we go from here? In the words of 2 Timothy, that all depends on what we choose. If we have died with him, we will also live with him. If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we deny him, he will also deny us. If we are faithless - he will remain faithful. Will we choose to die with Christ? Will we choose to endure? Will we continue to live into the covenant? 
As we end this Lenten journey, we leave this place continuing to grow in our relationship with God. Think about the person you are closest to on this earth - a spouse, a friend. Was your relationship the way it is today from the first time you met? Probably not. We grow in our relationships as we spend time with that person. Getting to know them. Having experiences with them. So it is with God. When we spend time with God we grow in our relationship and can trust God more.
We especially trust God more as we seek God’s will. For God doesn’t always reveal the will of the divine in dramatic fashion. In fact, often the will of God is revealed in bits and pieces, where we don’t know all the details. But we come to know more about God’s will by being in relationship with God. Spending time together in prayer and silence and being in the Word of God.

Brothers and sisters, let this not be the end of our journey. Let us remember who God is and who we are as sons and daughters of the Holy One. Let us seek to remember the promises of God and the promises we have made to God. Let us continue to grow deeper in love with God. Choosing to love God daily. Amen.