Peace – March 27, 2016


Acts 2:14, 22-32 John 20:19-31


On that first Easter Sunday…as Mary cried “Rabboni” after Christ had called her name…she apparently threw her arms around Jesus. But…Jesus cautioned her to not cling to him. He wanted her to realize that a new relationship was in the process of being established. The comfort that awaited Mary and her friends was far more than his physical presence could ever give. It is very significant that here…as in the other three Gospels…Christ first appears to the woman Mary Magdalene…not to an apostle…not to the great in society or those with strong faith…but to a particular woman. Christ appeared first to one who in the culture of the time was oppressed…a woman who had known great sin. What a great comfort it should be to us that Christ always comes first to the poor in spirit. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” That truth will never change. How must Mary have felt at that moment? She had been on an emotional roller coaster for days…and now she was deliriously at the top. Off she went on another cross-country run to the disciples. It must have been very satisfying to say to the disciples…”Say…Peter…John…men…I have something to tell you…I’ve seen Jesus.” What a day it had been. Multiple trips to the tomb. Multiple retellings. The report of the encounter on the road to Emmaus. Dark threats and rumors too. By now it was Sunday evening. Despite all the excitement…the band of apostles was afraid…and so…in a private room…behind closed doors…they sat together to try to sort it all out. Suddenly…Jesus appeared to the disciples. He was in their midst though no one had opened the door. Hearts raced. Adrenaline flowed. Goose bumps appeared on goose bumps. Jesus greeted them…”Peace be with you.” Jesus then displayed his hands and his side. The disciples were overjoyed. What a day! Without a doubt it was the most dramatic day in the history of the world. But one disciple had missed the whole thing. Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus came. Now…we all deal with our emotions differently…and perhaps Thomas’ grief had driven him to go elsewhere to be by himself. He was not a coward. He was the man who said…”Let us also go…that we may die with him.”…and he meant it. He had probably simply broken down under the pressure of the last few days…and his way of dealing with problems was to be alone. He was not a person to act like he believed when he really did not. So…when the other disciples approached him saying…”We have seen the Lord!” Thomas answered… “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were…and put my hands into his side, I will not believe it.” (John 19:25) Some say Thomas spoke for the whole world…people who say…”Give me scientific or physical proof and I’ll believe!” I am not so sure. Sometimes I think the world’s view is more like this…”Show me the facts, and I’ll invent another theory. Years ago Hugh Schoenfeld wrote a book entitled “The Passover Plot”. This book popularized the ancient swoon theory. That theory claims Jesus had not actually died but was unconscious when they placed him in the tomb. While he lay there…unconscious…the spices and linen bandages provided a helpful dressing for his injuries. Finally…the dampness of the tomb revived him and allowed the resurrection hoax to take place. Aside from ignoring the testimony of the Gospels…that the soldiers…hard-boiled professionals…proclaimed him dead…that no human could survive the process of torture and execution as the Gospels describe…this theory creates more problems than it solves. Others say the body was stolen by either Christ’s enemies or his disciples. Either alternative is a psychological absurdity. His enemies would not have wanted to encourage belief in his resurrection…and his disciples could never have accomplished it. Besides…they not only believed and preached the resurrection…disciples died for it. Who would die for a lie? The difficulties of belief may be great for some…but the absurdities of unbelief are even greater. The liabilities of unbelief are also much greater…for those who reject the resurrected Christ will never rise to eternal life with him but will instead spend an eternity separated from God because of their delusion. God blessed us with a remedy for Thomas that is also a remedy for us and those we encounter. The Lord gave Thomas time to think about the situation…eight days to be exact…and Thomas did just that. He was fellowshipping with the apostles…a week later… “Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your fingers here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God.” (John 20:27-28) Thomas may have been slow to believe…but he was not slow to grasp the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus was not only his Lord…but his God. The evidence could be felt…it was substantial and clear. Thomas’ faith rested on a solid rock. What about us…and those we encounter? The evidence is still just as substantial and clear. In believing there is always room for more. It is not a ship of fools. We have the prophetic sermons…those that Peter quoted…to confirm faith. We have the testimony of the resurrected lives…as Peter told the crowd. And…the 20th century American novelist and poet…John Updike gave us strong words of proof in his poem…”Seven Stanzas of Easter” Make no mistake: if he rose at all It was as his body; If the cells dissolution did not reverse, the Molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, The Church will fall. And Charles Wesley reminds us so that we can…with joyous music…tell all … like Peter did …in the hymn that’s first in our United Methodist Hymnal…”O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of His grace. My gracious master and my God, assist me to proclaim, to spread through all the earth abroad, the honors of thy name. Jesus! The name that charms our fears, that bids our sorrows to cease, tis music in the sinner’s ears, tis life and health, and peace. He breaks the power of cancelled sin, he sets the prisoner free; his blood can make the foulest clean, his blood availed for me. Availed for you and for me! …for you and for me. The Lord gave one final blessing on those who do not see and yet believe. We have great joy now…and will someday share in the likeness of his resurrection. In the words of Joni Eareckson Tada…the quadriplegic founder of Joni and Friends… Though she’s paralyzed…she says…”I know the meaning of that now. It’s that time after my death when I’ll be on my feet dancing.” Let us prepare for the dancing…prepare by using our tongues…to share the joy and peace that come with belief…not just on this special day…but every day…let us share with all the good news. He’s alive!

Love One Another – March 20, 2016

“Love One Another”

Acts 11:1-18 John 13:31-35


In his autobiography…Mahatma Ghandi…the man whose non-violent protests led to India’s independence from Great Britain…wrote that in his student days in England he was deeply touched by reading the Gospels and seriously considered becoming a convert to Christianity. He felt it offered a real solution to the caste system that divided the people of India. One Sunday he attended church services and decided to ask the minister for enlightenment on salvation and other doctrines. But…when Ghandi entered the sanctuary the ushers refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go elsewhere to worship with his own people. He left and never came back. He said to himself, “If Christians have caste differences also I might as well remain a Hindu.” The American poet…Edwin Markham…gave the message another way. “Some draw a circle that shuts men out; Race and position are what they flout; But Christ in love seeks them all to win, He draws a circle that takes them in.” Where would we have Ghandi worship? Where would we draw the circle? As I listen to conversations and watch the news reports I fear too many would suggest Ghandi worship elsewhere and the circle would be drawn very small. Our attitude toward the world…including those who do not know God…is supremely important…especially in this world that seems to grow more divided and angry every day. That is the basis for the book of Jonah. It was the prophet’s bad attitude toward the world that landed him in the belly of the great fish. God was telling him…”Jonah, this is what I think of your self-will, your prejudice, your elitism. Take a good look.” In Christ there is no basis for discrimination of any kind. Prejudice or elitism on the lips of a believer is like an obscenity…whether it be racial, national, cultural or social. James says, “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.” (James 2:1) If only there had been more love and less bias in that usher’s heart when he met Ghandi. The future leader had read the New Testament and had even seriously considered Christianity, but his conclusion was, “I like the New Testament, I like your Christianity, but I do not like your Christians.” What a difference it makes when we look at others with attitudes that are inclusive…open-armed…optimistic…and lovingly and courteously aggressive. The story that Peter told the crowd in Judea reminds us that God wants to create in us his attitude toward the world. The gospel never changes. But we can become unchangeable…inflexible…and thus unusable. What are our attitudes toward others? Exclusive…pessimistic…passive? Or concerned…hopeful…actively loving? We need to regularly consider Peter’s vision and its meaning for us today. We should also consider Jesus’ command. He called it a new command….though the command to love was as old as the days of Moses. Jesus called it new because his radical love demanded a new object and a new measure. The object was “one another”. The Jews of Jesus’ day had so watered down the teaching of Moses that they could love whom they wanted and hate whom they wanted. But Christ changed the object from “neighbor” to “one another”. This was a radical new commandment. The world at that time was divided by prejudicial divisions that make some of our differences seem pale by comparison…master and slave…Jews and Gentiles…and so on. The Greeks regarded the Jews as barbarians. The Jews had the reputation of being haters of the world. There was also a vast chasm between men and women. The Scottish minister…Alexander MacLaren…described what happened because of Jesus’ command. “Barbarian, Scythian, bond and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, learned and ignorant…sat down at one table, and felt themselves all one in Christ Jesus. They were ready to break all other bonds, and to yield to the uniting forces that streamed out from his Cross. There never had been anything like it. No wonder that the world began to babble about sorcery, and conspiracies and complicity in unnamable vices. It was only that the disciples were obeying the new commandment, and a new thing had come into the world…a community held together by love and not by geographical accidents or linguistic affinities, or the iron fetters of the conqueror….The new commandment made a new thing, and the world wondered.” It was like a band of brothers and sisters that the church conquered the world. It was a glorious band of brothers and sisters that sailed the oceans and marched through the continents to both dungeon and throne with the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ! One of the reasons they succeeded is that mankind…severed from one another…longing to come together…witnessed real love among the followers of Christ…and especially among believing Jews…the narrowest…most bigoted…most intolerant nation on the face of the earth at the time. Left to ourselves…we seek our own. Movie stars marry movie stars. Doctors seek out doctors. Middle-classers seek out middle-classers. Bikers seek bikers. But when Christ comes that changes. In the church of Jesus Christ, we discover that the people we love and with whom we fellowship are different from us. The more there is the love Christ told us to have…a real love for one another…the greater will be the diversity within the body of Christ. The commandment was also new because of its measure. Christ thought…if we are making friends and loving those whom we never would have before we met Christ, praise God…the love of Christ is working in and through us! The measure of this love is, “as I have loved you.” Here is the command’s radical nature. While it is sometimes difficult to love your neighbor as yourself as the old command had it…it is far more difficult to love others as Christ loves them. That is sacrificial love. On this Palm Sunday let us reflect on this command. Jesus rode into town on a young donkey just as scripture prophesied…so that people would believe…would follow his command. Yet…he knew the way the week would end. If he had not loved as he wants us to love would he have done so. On this Sunday…when families, friends and our community mourn the deaths of two young men in senseless violence on Friday…let us ask if everyone following Jesus’ command would have prevented the violence and could prevent more. At the last supper that love was defined by Jesus’ dealing with Judas. When Jesus said, “Men, love one another as I have loved you,” the disciples naturally thought of Jesus’ love…his consistency… his washing their feet. But the disciples were at a disadvantage. They could not then know how Jesus was even loving Judas. Though Judas was his enemy, the Savior reached out to him. Within the church if we are to love one another as Jesus loved us, we must reach out in reconciliation…love and forgiveness…to those who are wronging us. And when that is done…it becomes a convincing argument for the gospel. Jesus said…”By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It’s not about pinning labels on someone…or some group…then deciding to love or hate that person or group because of that label. However…that seems to be much in vogue these days. The greatest gift that we as the body of Christ can give the world is to love each other. If we do that, those on the outside will desire to learn more about the gift of gifts, the King of kings himself…the one who rode triumphant on the donkey colt to fulfill the Scripture that we might believe. The radicalness of Jesus’ love in the Upper Room came as he reached out to one with whom he was not in agreement. He expects us to reach out in love likewise.

Rock or King? – March 13, 2016

“Rock or King?”

2 Samuel 23:1-7 John 18:33-37


Not too long ago I got a break from the routine …and got to do two of my favorite things. I saw a fantastic movie and an even better play. In both…the actors played the roles of people from the past…50 years ago in one case and 150 years ago in the other…and they did it very well. In both I also saw the beliefs…attitudes…and actions of people who live today. This fantastic acting prompts me to think we should spend a few minutes looking at the important actors in the story of Jesus’ trial. As we do…let’s ask whether their scripts are still used today. At the time the Jews were under Roman governance. They could not carry out the death penalty. Only the Roman government could do that. If the Jews had been able to do so they would have done it by stoning. The Law clearly stated that anyone who committed blasphemy would be stoned by the congregation. Jesus’ prophecy that he would be lifted up had to be fulfilled through the Romans’ practice of crucifixion. Through their attempts to use the Romans to kill Jesus the Jews were working to fulfill Jesus’ words…words they did not understand. How often do we find that we…or others…do not understand the words of Jesus? There’s more about the Jews. They began by hating Jesus. But…they finished in a hysteria of hatred…yelling mindlessly “Crucify him! Crucify him!” They were so stirred to hatred that they could not be approached with reason. They had no mercy. Their hatred made them lose all sense of proportion…truth and justice. Have you watched some of the political debates taking place on television and in the coffee shops in this state and nation? Is hatred and fear of those we call illegal immigrants getting in the way of our very humanity? Are great personal and corporate greed helping to fuel hate for the less fortunate…or for the very fortunate? Is fear of those whose lifestyles differ from ours creating hate that makes us forget to love all though they differ in some way? The hatred of the Jews caused them to twist the truth. In order to get Pilate to act the Jews said that Jesus had claimed to be king…when he had done no such thing. Recently I talked with a friend whose work includes assisting others to find a way to survive economically. She told me of a conversation she had the day before with a man who so despised those receiving government assistance that he told the story of how individuals in great numbers could beat the system to live comfortably without working. I won’t use the word my friend used…but she was quick to point out the falsehoods created by the man’s hatred and greed. Pilate is the next character in this drama. He knew that the charges against Jesus were lies…that Jesus was completely innocent. Pilate was impressed with Jesus and didn’t want to condemn him to death. But…through it all he refused to put his foot down and challenge the Jews. In effect…the Jews blackmailed Pilate. They said, “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend.” Maybe you feel sorry for Pilate. He did seem to be in a predicament. He may have wanted to do the right thing…but…he crucified Jesus in order to keep his job. Not all of us have been…or will be in a position…where telling the truth and doing the right thing will cost us our job or something of great importance. You can trust me on this one. It’s not a comfortable position. However…do we find situations where we go along with the crowd…even though it’s not doing the right thing…just to stay in the crowd or to keep its favor? Here’s an example of how many Americans are doing just that. In 1963 the U. S. Supreme Court banned state-sponsored prayer in public schools. Since then there has been much complaining about the ruling. There have been noisy but unsuccessful attempts to overturn the ruling with a proposed Constitutional amendment that hasn’t even made it to a reading in a Congressional committee. There have been loud promoters trying to make us believe that God has been forced out of the schools. Many have jumped on these bandwagons. They are using the court ruling as an excuse for many Christians to stay away from public schools…to go along for the ride. Here’s the situation for us to consider. Just a few minutes away our children and neighbors’ children…are at Gateway elementary school…one of the best in the school district…and also one in which better than half the students are receiving free or reduced price lunches. They are living in households in poverty. They are children who don’t have books in their homes…who don’t have educated parents or grandparents to read to them and assist them with their school work. Are we reaching out with Christian love to help these children and their families? Or, are we among those in the noisy crowd using the Supreme Court ruling as an excuse to not get involved…as a way to hear incorrectly the message that Christians are not wanted there? Pilate…at first…tried to evade his responsibility by telling the Jews to judge Jesus by their own laws. He tried to evade the personal responsibility of dealing with Jesus. That’s something no one can do. We can’t let someone else deal with Jesus for us. Dealing with Jesus…creating our relationship with Jesus…is entirely up to us. We must…ourselves…decide whether we will accept or reject Jesus. Pilate then tried to create a compromise. We can’t compromise with Jesus. Not one of us can serve two masters. We are either with Jesus or against him. Pilate was too proud to get involved in what he regarded as Jewish squabbles and superstitions. That pride was exactly what made him a bad governor. No one can lead a people…no one can properly interact with others…without making attempts to understand them and to enter into their thoughts and minds. How many doors are closed…and opportunities missed…because we choose not to interact with and as a result understand others? Do we close those doors out of unwarranted fear of the unknown…out of self-centered complacency? Let us now turn to Jesus in this story from John. The majesty of Jesus never was more obvious than in this time when he was on trial before humans. As John told the story there is no sense that Jesus is on trial. Think about this…when a person faces Jesus…it is not Jesus who is on trial…more likely it’s the person facing Jesus. Jesus spoke with directness and honesty about his kingdom. He said it was not a kingdom of earth. He also said it is not a kingdom based on force. It is a kingdom in the hearts of humans…based on love…mercy and forgiveness…that drives them to reach out to others. Jesus did not deny that his goal was conquest…but it was a conquest of love…love that is sacrificial and active…not passive. Jesus told us why he came into the world. His task was to witness to the truth…to tell people the truth about God…the truth about themselves…and the truth about life. Think about it. There is no half-way about the truth. You either accept it or reject it. Christ is the truth. Are there those who accept and profess Christ only when it’s convenient and to their advantage? Did you notice who was in control? Pilate warned Jesus that he had the power to release him or to crucify him. Jesus responded that Pilate had no power at all…except what had been given to him by God. God and Jesus were working through Pilate to accomplish their goals…and Pilate thought he was in charge. Who do you think is in control? There were times during the trial in which Jesus was silent. Jesus did not respond to Pilate…the High Priest…and Herod. Have you ever had the experience that when talking with other people further argument and discussion are fruitless. That’s what happened to Jesus. So…he stopped talking with them. Can there be anything more difficult than when a person’s mind is so made up…closed by pride and self-will and hurt…that there is nothing Jesus can say that will make any difference. In his dying breath David said, “The Rock of Israel said to me: The person who rules righteously Who rules in the fear of God He is like the light of morning, Like the sunshine bursting forth in a cloudless sky, Like the refreshing rains that bring tender grass from the earth.” (2 Samuel 23:3-4) David’s words told of the coming righteous messiah…and the righteous leadership and living we should all foster…with action as well as words…with interaction not isolation. The questions we asked should prompt us to consider whether we have accepted Jesus’ kingdom…how we are helping others to see his truth…and whether we lead our lives in true righteousness…reaching out in love…as he would have us do.

Unbind! Let Go – March 6, 2016

“Unbind! Let Go!

Ezekiel 37:1-14 John 11:1-45


I remember driving to the airport to get a flight out of town one day when I encountered some unusually slow traffic…some of them even stopped. Some of the people had got out of their stopped vehicles and were walking around or standing on bumpers to try to get a better look at what had caused the problem. Of course, they could not see the true cause….just a long line of vehicles as far as the eye could see. I turned off the road and found an alternate route to the airport. I got there in time. As our plane took off I looked out the window and saw the cause of the delay…a major accident…and the long line of vehicles. I then had a better perspective. Today’s story from John is about perspective. God’s perspective. He sees a bit more than we do down here on the ground in our lives lived in a very small part of the world. Lazarus…Mary and Martha’s brother…had died and was buried when Jesus arrived. Mary and Martha were upset that Jesus had not been there earlier. They believed Jesus might somehow have prevented the death of Lazarus. They felt Jesus…the Son of God…had abandoned them…though they had sent a message to Him. For them it was a crisis…a serious loss. Some of us have felt the same way. The death of a loved one has happened for many of us. How can we earthbound creatures…living in and experiencing only a small part of God’s creation…come to understand God’s love…to really believe in God’s love…despite our own crises? First…we must recognize and accept that we never understand His workings in their entirety. When delays…hardships…losses come to us we cannot expect to know all the details…all the answers…all the reasons. If we spend all of our time asking why…we are not using our time wisely. Notice how Mary and Martha felt. Notice how they reacted and what they said to Jesus? Have you ever felt this way. “Where were you Lord? You came too late.” That’s what Martha and Mary asked. We’ve probably asked questions like… “Where were you when my loved one died? Where were you when my marriage dissolved? Where were you when my parents divorced? Where were you when my father became an alcoholic? Where were you when my beloved was sent to jail? Where were you when I was cheated out of a promotion? Where were you when my child went astray?” I have been in a position to ask five of those questions. I’m sure that in our sanctuary this morning there are others who can attest to having been in situations where they have asked one or more of those questions or something quite similar. Notice this. Jesus did not speak harshly…or rebuke the women. Think back to when you asked those questions. Did God speak harshly or rebuke you? You see…it’s not sinful to ask questions or to tell God how you truly feel…just as Martha and Mary did. That might sound like heresy in light of some of the things we have been taught. First… remember that we must always be reverent toward God. After all, He is God. We are His creatures and must always bow to Him. But…that does not mean we are not allowed to express to Him how we truly feel. Routinely…we have feelings that ought to be shared with God. The feelings may not be considered by some to be right, but they are feelings that need to be brought honestly to God. But…too often…once is too often…we do not…for fear of losing something. God is more patient and accepting than we sometimes realize. Read the story of Martha and Mary and their interaction with Jesus again. See the patience. Feel the love. The problem is caused by the misconception…the wrong perception…that New Testament Christianity requires that “good Christians” never cry or express their inner feelings. That’s an incorrect perspective. I remember vividly sitting in the intensive care room of a woman whose life was being sustained by machinery the evening after she had a stroke. Her two daughters had flown to town from Virginia. They were there with me. They were faced with making the decision to end the mechanical support of her life. Their emotions ran a gamut…anger …sadness…joy as they shared memories…and finally peace when one of them said that she heard God say that it was time for their mother to come home to an eternal life of peace…happiness…no more pain…and reunion. Their questioning and reaching out to God…even in anger…brought them the answer they needed that night. When King David was disillusioned and filled with sorrow he expressed it to God. It became part of Scripture…what we now call the Psalms. Read them all. In them you’ll find questions of God…anger…and hurt. God did not criticize David…or punish him in some way for his words. I cried when my father died…even as I was saying some words at his funeral. You’ve seen others do the same thing. I’ve been a part of five memorial services in the past 15 days…two of them for people in the prime of their lives…one was 42 years old and the other just 59 years old. They had died from the ravages of cancer. Each time I asked God some questions…shared my hurt…and acted just like Martha and Mary. I’ll probably do it again. But…asking those questions is not a sin. In fact…God wants to hear your questions…God wants to answer your questions. Just as Martha and Mary did…God wants us to pour our hearts out to Him. That is what he wanted from Habbakuk. That is what he accepted from David. That is what he allowed with Martha and Mary. When they had done so…Jesus reminded them that He was the resurrection and the life. He added that whoever believed in Him…will live even though he dies…and whoever lives and believes in Jesus will never die. As we reflect on our years…we can find times when we might have been like Martha and Mary…hurt by the loss of a loved one…or in some other way. We will hurt again. At those times we might want to consider the story of a young seminary intern. He was asked to lead a group of high school students. He thought it was a wonderful experience. During that internship he was mentored by a pastor and experienced lay leaders. The layperson closest to him was named Barbara. She had great conviction and hope. Her heart was devoted to the church and its ministries. She gave him advice and guidance for six months. She was an inspiration to him. One day Barbara phoned him to say that she had a brain tumor. Then he understood why her athletic physique had started to show signs of deterioration. She told him that the tumor was inoperable. He watched her waste away. Two months later…just before she died…she took his hand and talked with confidence about her faith. The young intern could tell that Barbara knew it was hard for him. Her last words to him were “Don’t worry about me. I’m about to go on the greatest adventure of my life.” Soon after that she died. I’ve heard other preachers tell similar stories. I’ve had the privilege of hearing similar thoughts from dying members of churches I’ve served. Think about Lazarus for a moment. Though he was resurrected in the story we heard today…at some point he died a second death. He probably had normal feelings of worry for those he was leaving behind…perhaps even fear. But…he had confidence. He knew that Jesus had a relationship with death like no other. Jesus was resurrection and life. Lazarus knew he wasn’t going to a cold and lonely grave. Perspective is something we can choose. We can be one of those who dwell in the traffic jam…standing on the bumpers…trying to figure out what in the world is going on…maybe talking about it with others with the same perspective. Or….we can…choose to believe in the Scripture….like today’s story from John. We’ll then be moved above the traffic jam. There we’ll see that help is not just on the way…but here…now. We’ll see that God is in control. In so doing we unbind ourselves. We let go of those hurts that keep us from the joyous path that God has for each of us. Let us…from that perspective…celebrate the gift of joy…strength…comfort and release with our Lord Jesus Christ and our sisters and brothers here today. Let the celebration begin at the Lord’s Table. All are invited.