Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sermon - 10 Sunday of Pentecost - Year B


John 6:1-21                                                             

A Morsel Which Sustains Us

I have been working this week on the “welcome” materials for incoming students.  They will be here two days after I get back from the alumni trip to Germany.  Realizing that we may only get a paragraph or two of introduction, it is important to craft a message which covers both aspects of what we seek to do.

Here is another way to explain to you what I mean.  You may have already experienced it, if you have come to the communion rail, and knelt next a small child on one occasion and then on another next to an adult friend who struggles with a persistent problem.

When a small child comes to the rail, one who is not receiving the bread and wine, a blessing is given to them.  I don’t have a prescribed text, but I do try to follow a formula.  I tell the child that God loves them.  And I assure the child that God will protect and care for them.  That is the message I want them to hear, and that they need to hearl.

All is well and good, until I finish these words of assurance and turn to the next person.  When that person is someone who has had a long and difficult struggle with a chronic illness or someone whose life has been disrupted by a tragic event; when that next person in line isn’t some adorable little child but a real-life survivor of the world’s harshness; I stumble even over the simple promise that in this morsel of bread, God is promising to be with you.  The young child has been assured that everything will be just fine.  The adult is given a bite of bread and the hope that maybe this will be enough to tide you over.

I guess it isn’t a full blown inconsistency.  But it is at least a stark contrast.  And every time it happens I ask myself over and over again, “Which is the truth?”  I struggle to determine whether both can be true.

This gospel lesson forces us to think about this dilemma.  A miracle occurs in these few verses.  Jesus takes a few loaves and a couple of fish and he feeds a hungry crowd - 5,000 in number.  This gospel lesson supports the blessing offered to those children at the communion rail - God does provide!  But, even as we make our initial reading of the text, powerful symbols break through and help us to see that there are multiple levels of meaning here.  God is providing for hungry children; God is doing something more meaningful that filling a couple of thousand bellies.  They are filled, not as a result of the bulk of food consumed but rather from a blessed morsel - the morsel which comes from God’s hand.

Let’s start with the confident assurance that God does indeed provide.

The Feeding of the 5,000 is a miracle story.  There are lots of miracle stories each of the four gospels.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all include a number of miracle stories.  But, this story, the feeding of the 5,000, is the only miracle story contained in all four gospels.  Mark was written first.  Matthew and Luke came next and as they were being written a copy of Mark was available to the writer.  John comes last and he certainly had access to the other three versions of the Jesus story.  These last three knew what Mark had included.  Perhaps figuring their readers could know about this or that event in the life of Jesus from the other versions, some parts were left out.  But none of them wanted to leave out this story of 5,000 being fed with a few loaves and a couple of fish.

Perhaps they deemed this story as important because in it God is meeting such a basic human need, a need that is persistent and continuous.  People were hungry then, people are still hungry today.  Wherever and whenever the bible was read, there would be hungry people somewhere within the region of the reader.  Perhaps there is no better example of God’s providing than to acknowledge God’s gift of food.  God gives that which we really need.  God gives that which we will continue to need.

Jesus feeds those who follow him.  Jesus has compassion upon them and provides for them.  It has been (and still is) vitally important that believers see Jesus as one who will not forsake them but will provide for them.  A God who cannot satisfy my need is no God at all.

This story, in the bible, in all four versions of the Jesus story, makes it clear that Jesus is God - that Jesus is able to satisfy our needs.

In writing about this story there is a theory as to what really happened.  Sometimes referred to as the “lunch basket” theory - it proposes that there was plenty of food in the pockets and purses of the 5,000.  It just wasn’t equally distributed.  Such a situation would lead to hunger (starvation) for some, gluttony for others and the very real possibility of social unrest when the have-nots saw the abundance of food among the haves.  And so, this little boy shares his lunch basket, sets an example for the others who then share their baskets and all are fed.  It is a good theory - I have even preached a few sermons suggesting such a progression of events.  I am sorry that I did.  It may be a very rational explanation for what happened on that grassy knoll and while the ability to engender the courage to share one’s bread would be very Christ-like; it misses an important point to the retelling of these events.  This story must communicate the truth that in Jesus the world has one who has the ability to meet our needs.

He does feed us!  God does provide!  This is what has to be said - this is what must be understood.  We can talk all we want about “how” he does it.  But unless and until we firmly understand that he is the one who does do it - there is no point to the story at all.

I believe, and I trust in the affirmation that Jesus is the one who will provide for me.  This he does as no one else can.  He is Messiah - he is the One who has the ability to meet my needs.

So, when I place my hands on the heads of those little children, kneeling at the communion rail and I tell them that God will look out for them, that God will protect them and that God will provide for them - I am not lying.  I believe this to be true and I have experienced this to be true.  Unflinchingly I announce that God has the ability, the desire and the trustworthiness to do this.

And then I move on to the next person.  To the person who has not been protected, the one for whom God has not supplied every need.

You know the hurts and pains to which I refer - you share them with me (or another pastor) regularly.  Parkinson’s disease first took from Marvin Dooer the ability to play the organ on Sunday mornings and has now restricted him to a wheel chair.  Gail Paul knew she was having “foggy” days and now her dementia robs her of the ability to know her pastors and even family members.  The child-becoming-adult caught up in alcohol and chemical abuse still doesn’t seen the destructiveness of his actions.  These are very real needs.  They are evils which any one and any God would want eradicated from our midst.  And yet they continue. 

I have lived through a few of these myself.  Times when I wondered “What’s the bother in praying?  God is going to do (or not do) whatever it is that God wants to do.  How can my words have any effect?”  In the midst of such needful situation I have to fight the temptation to slap away the hand which is extended in order to offer me that dry chip of bread.

Sometimes, too many times, a warm smile and a promise are not enough.  I want to know why God hasn’t already responded to my need.  I want to know why God allows my pain to continue.

Here is where we come to those subtle parts of this gospel reading.  Here is where we start to deconstruct and see the hints of a deeper resolution.

I mentioned earlier that the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle contained in all four Gospels.  True as this is, it is important to note the slight variations in each of the accounts.  Only John places this miracle on the calendar.  Verse 4 tells us “Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.”  This is significant for two reasons:

First, the Passover coincided with the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which, according to Joshua 5, commemorated not only the flight from Egypt but also the first food from grain eaten by the Israelites when they reached the promised land. Eating this grain meant that God would no longer send frost-like substance called “manna.”  This bread which appeared each morning kept them alive for years.  Now that they could gather grain and bake their own bread, God would stop sending “bread from heaven.”  Ah, but God is about to resume the practice of sending this bread from heaven.  It won’t be on the morning ground, it will come from a loaf that Jesus will bless and break and give to us.  This bread, like the manna of old, will support us as we journey to the promised land.

A second significant aspect of dating this feeding at Passover is the manner in which it ties this offering of bread to another giving of bread.  It is at a later Passover observance that Jesus will take the final loaf of bread, bless it, break it and give it to those assembled.  He will call that bread his body and the cup they share he will refer to as his blood.  The feeding of the 5,000 is eschatological - it connects the events of this life with the fullness of God Kingdom.

Jesus takes a few loaves and a couple of fish and he feeds the multitudes.  They are satisfied. 

Were their bellies full?  Who can say.  They may have only had the smallest morsel, but that is enough.  Jesus has given them enough of a taste of the future fulfillment.  They can now continue on their journey.  But don’t be concerned if you missed that initial feeding - twelve baskets are full of the remainder.  Twelve being the multiple of three and four - these twelve baskets are enough for all those who dwell within the four corners of the earth or the three levels of the universe.  There was enough, and there remains plenty to spare.

Those chronic illnesses don’t go away.  Our wayward children are yet to return to the fold.  There is still brokenness and hatred.  God hasn’t given us everything.  But yet, we are able to hold on.  We do not lose faith.  We do not turn from this God and go in search of another.  The morsel we have received is enough to affirm our trust in Jesus and to quiet our spirits as we wait for the fullness of God’s gifts.

Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Sermon - 7th Sunday of Pentecost - Year B


Mark 6:1-13   

                                                                      Not in My Hometown!


This Gospel text seems ideal for the special event we are marking today.  As a part of the 11:00 am liturgy, we will commission Christine Hart as a missionary.  Her placement is in Mexico, with the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program. 

The Gospel text speaks of Jesus calling the twelve to himself, and sending them out.  The story we read mimics the events of our liturgical life on this day.  It was said of those first twelve who were sent that they proclaimed God’s Word, they cast out demons, anointed those who were sick, and cures happened.  What a joyful celebration.

We commission Christine with equally high hopes and expectations.  She will be teaching.  She will be accompanying sisters and brothers on their journey.  She will report back to us what gifts could be ours as a result of stronger bonds and deeper commitments to the care of these children of God’s.

This is a very appropriate text for this Sunday in this place and among these people. 

I want to note that we have Christine’s mother and father and sister with us today.  I remember sitting in their position eight years ago.  My daughter also served as a YAGM, in Mexico, about 80 miles from where Christine will be.  I remember the sending forth of our daughter.  And I remember asking, “Isn’t there something you could do a bit closer to home?”  Leigh and Hansel might be asking that very same question.

Here, again, is where the Gospel text for today is helpful.  I started this homily by looking at the ending; the beginning sets up a differing set of expectations and anticipations.

Jesus is once again back in his hometown.  I say “once again,” because the Gospel lesson for June 10 (the last Sunday I preached) also included a trip home for Jesus.  He seems to go home a lot.

But things don’t go well for him when he gets there.  Do you remember four weeks ago?  And the reading from Mark 3?  A crowd gathers around Jesus, “so that they could not even eat.”  When Jesus family hears about this, go out to restrain him, because some where saying he was possessed.  “He has Beelzebul” the ruler of demons!  They say.

What bad thing happens this time?  Here - I would like for y’all to answer.  Look at your bible or the passage as printed in the bulletin.
“They took offense at him.”
Why?
What did he do?  Or what might he have said?  (I don’t really want you to answer those last two questions.)  We would be here all afternoon.

The story doesn’t tell us.  No negative encounters are recorded.  All we hear are what seem to be to be positive things happening.  He begins to teach in the synagogue.  Mark records that “many who heard him were astounded.”

The only note as to what brings the change is when they start to remember who he is.  They ask “is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”  They seem to be saying, “We know this kid!  We know where he came from and we know who he is.”  And somewhere, in recognizing him, they begin to take offense at him.

That is when Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor, except in their own hometown.” 

And, “he could do no deed of power there.”

If the bible is to be believed, we are all confronted with the irony that while a particular village might raise up prophets who can speak God’s Word and do God’s will, they may need to be raised up and lifted up and sent out into the world in order to do these tasks.

I wish Christine could stay at home.  But she can’t.  And the call of God won’t let her do so.

In our prayers, we will give thanks for her courage.  For the courage to go.  And we will pray that we too might find that courage and be willing also to leave behind the familiar and comfortable and travel to the places where we too might cast out demons and offer cures.

It does take courage.

But, again, this is something you also already know.

I would be willing to wager that it hasn’t been much longer than seven days since you found yourself wanting to say something, but just couldn’t.  I would wager that each of us has been in that awkward position where we knew what needed to be said, but also knew that the words would hurt too much or cut too deep.

A pastoral care teacher helped me to realize that the more connected a minister becomes the less likely that minister is to point out the obvious.  “You just can’t take the risk of alienating.”  So, you hold your tongue or at best hint at the truth.  Be careful, when the need arises to say clearly the thing you know to be right.

It isn’t simply that the folks in your hometown won’t hear or accept.  It also happens because you know them too well.

I am trying, really hard, to keep to the message of a sermon crafted on Thursday after having stood by Ron Black’s hospital bed yesterday afternoon, reciting the prayers of committal of the dead.  And I understand that many (or most, or ALL) of you UniLu regulars have likely been somewhere else as I rambled on these past thirteen minutes.  You were remembering Ron; remembering others who have died; recalling his role in helping us re-design and re-construct this very building.  And then the preacher stands up and speaks of “no honor in one’s hometown”?  Being from here, this being my hometown, I find it difficult to say what this text is saying to us.

I want to bring this to an end by going back once more to the Gospel lesson from four weeks ago.  Does anyone remember how that one ended?  Jesus redefines what it means to be part of his family.  He says, “’Who are my mother and my brothers (and sisters)?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and brothers (and sisters)!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

If blood is thicker than water, the thickest of all is the invitation as extended to God’s children.  That bond will separate us from those we love and many of those who love us.  That bond does unite us with the community built upon Jesus’ words, ministry, and life.

As is true for the other 87 YAGM’s, Christine Hart will work miracles.  She will do this because she has heard the call of God.  That call came to her at Bethlehem Lutheran in Irmo, and it was given greater clarity during her years at University Lutheran.  She will speak the Word of God because she has heard it – from us.  And she will go to a place where her courage will not falter and she can say what needs to be said.

As we pray for her, we will pray for that same courage.  From her example, we learn the importance of saying what needs to be said and living the life that ought to be lead.

It is a scary and frightening thing – that she is doing.  We know – because we are aware how frightening it is for us – when we do the same thing, here, in our shared hometown.

Amen.



Sunday, June 10, 2018

3rd Sunday after Pentecost - Year B


Mark 3:20-35

                                                                  Doing the Will of God

There are some extremely disturbing things being said about Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading. 

There is a “crowd” following Jesus, or with Jesus.  We would assume them to be supporters or supportive.  But in the opening verses we read that even they were beginning to speak ill of him.  The accusation they level is that he “has gone out of his mind.”

What is the old saying – “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”  Jesus does have enemies.  Last week, it was the Pharisees.  Today we realize that the scribes are also eager to pounce.    When they join the mix, the ante is ramped really high.  The “authority” with which Jesus does these things is attributed to Beelzebul – the prince of all the demons.    

Jesus’ family enter the picture.  No words are put in their mouths.  It is noted that they do not enter the place.  They “sent to him and called him.”

What is going on?  What is Jesus doing or saying that gives rise to such an upheaval?  Before these words can impact our lives we need to find the parallel to our lives.  So I will ask again, “What could possibly create such an uproar?”

If you have your bible, you can flip back through what has happened thus far.    Most significant is the story of his temptation and his announcement of a planned preaching tour through Galilee.  Then, there are the healing stories (Sabbath healing stories) which got him into the dispute with the Pharisees addressed in last week’s Gospel and Sermon. 

What is going on?  What is Jesus saying which would lead to Pharisees, the crowd, the scribes, and Jesus’ own mother attempting to bring Jesus down?

The answer might be simple.  Jesus is speaking the Word of God.

We are inclined to want to believe that whenever the Word of God is present, there will be an absence of conflict.  What is true is when the Word of God reigns, there is such an absence.  Getting to the place where the Word is heard and accepted will inevitably take us through contentious encounters.

The Word of God brings out the gap between the wishes of God and what we might prefer.

We typically don’t like to talk about money, and there is a reason.  None of us are doing with our money what the bible says to do with our money.  It is not the lack of trust in God, spoken of in the parable of the birds or the air having no barns for storage, which results in our 401(k) accounts and our stock portfolios?

  Now, those resources are good, and great, and appreciated as the offering plate is passed.  They make it possible for us to have this beautiful house of worship.  This is a nice place, right?  But used for only a few hours a week.  It sits empty while sisters and brothers struggle to find shelter from the heat and cold.  When asked why we don’t just leave the doors open on wet and dreary nights, the answer usually comes back to the impossibility of trusting those folks who might slip in and sleep here.

These are very real concerns.  And each is valid.  But they do expose places where what we might prefer is at a distance from what Jesus tells us.  The Word of God leads to actions which many if not most would associate with one who has “gone out of his mind.”

So here Jesus is.  Speaking the Word of God.  The Pharisees come at him.  The crowd begins to suspect him.  The scribes add some real heat to the conversation and finally Jesus’ own mother comes to speak with him.

We are much too inclined to listen to those whom others listen to.  We even do it in church.  When a skilled orator becomes a popular preacher, we flock to her and take his messages to heart.  The endless surveys do not merely inform us of what others are thinking, they tend to enlist and bring along those who were previously undecided.  I sometimes wonder if we fear being alone in our opinions more than we fear being wrong in our convictions.

Maybe I should say that again:  I sometimes wonder if we fear being alone in our opinions more than we fear being wrong in our convictions.

The upward call of our Lord and Master will separate us.  The commandment that we love one another as he has first loved us will inform our actions.  The world may teach us that blood is thicker than water, but Jesus clearly says blood is no match for the oneness which exists among “Whoever does the will of God.”

The blasphemy which Jesus so opposes in these verses from Mark 3 is the untruth spoken whenever we ignore the gaps between the Word of God and what we might prefer.  The “eternal sin” happens when we protect the ways which preserve our patterns and ignore the cries of those who have become marginalized by our strength.

With friends like that, who needs enemies?  The followers of Jesus are too easily lead into paths which minimize the conflict present anytime the Word of God is spoken.  It is at our own peril that we failing to identify where and how our lives have become as comfortable as those of the scribes and Pharisees.  It is our own shame when we too seek to silence the call from God to love neighbor, welcome the stranger, and pray for our enemies.

Amen.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pentecost Sunday - Year b


Acts 2:1-21     (Gen 11:1-9)                                      

                                                  The Spirit-Gift to Community for Mission

            Thomas G. Long, professor of homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary, tells of teaching a confirmation class in which he was discussing the major festivals of the Church Year.  The Children knew about Christmas and Easter, but no one in the class could remember the significance of Pentecost.  Dr. Long explained that the day of Pente­cost was the day the Holy Spirit came from heaven with the sound of a rushing wind, and fire rested on the heads of everyone gathered in Jerusalem, and they all spoke in different tongues.  At that point one girl raised her hand and said, "I don't remember that.  My family must have been out of town that Sunday."

            Pastor Long’s story exposes one of the major difficulties which confront us on Pentecost Sunday: how do we bridge the gap between the events recorded in Acts and the experience of the church today.  Many of us are troubled and confused by the circumstances surrounding the birth of the church.  If anything resembling the events in Jerusalem ever hap­pened in our church, it had to have happened on a Sunday that we were away.

            The timing of Pentecost increases the likelihood that we were away.  Today is Pentecost Sunday on the liturgical calendar; on the calendars we carry in our pockets, it’s one of the early summer Sundays.  College is out, summer sessions are yet to begin.  Our congregational calendar is also slowing down.  What do we have one more week of traditional Sunday Church School classes?  Our service at the lake is in two weeks.  With all that comes the general expectation that worship attendance will be lower from now until sometime in August.

            Confusion and calendar location - is it any wonder that the mention of Pentecost is met with blank stares?

            The story of the rushing wind and the tongues of fire is one of the best known stories of the bible.  Unfortunately, its popularity is not accompanied by a high degree of understanding.  All too often, the second chapter of Acts is the source of major misunderstandings about the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community.  The events recorded here are too often used to bolster the mistaken view that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a reward for special righteousness, that the Spirit is concerned only with individual believers, and that the primary manifestation of the Spirit's presence is the speaking in tongues.  In fact, the text itself makes three very different affir­mations: 

1 - The Holy Spirit is a gift, given by God;
2 - God gives the Holy Spirit to the community of faith;
3 - God gives the Holy Spirit to the community of faith for mission.

            First, Luke proclaims that the gift of the Holy Spirit is God's gift.  It is not and cannot be earned; and it is not deserved.  It is simply a gift.  This point is missed or misunderstood by too many of our contemporaries.  While none blatantly insist they have a right to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they speak of spiritual disci­pline in such a way as to imply that one positions oneself for the Spirit's arrival.  The pure, the chaste, the pious - - such members of the community carry themselves in such a way as to suggest that they are more deserving of the Spirit's visitation.  The author of Acts has no such illusions.

            Those who were gathered in Jerusalem were not seeking the gift of the Holy Spirit, they could only accept it.  They did not create the Spirit's power, they could only claim it.  They did not program the Spirit's arrival, they could only respond to it.  The Holy Spirit is God's gift, freely given to those whom God chooses.

            The second affirmation within the biblical text is the affirma­tion that God gives the Spirit to the community of faith.  In Jerusa­lem, the coming of the Spirit created unity were there had been division.  That long list of difficult names read for us are a remind­er of the variety of nationalities and peoples present in Jerusalem.  The Spirit comes, and diverse people become the one people of God.

            Congregationalism among the modern church has eroded our ability to see the diversity of those who assemble in God's name.  It is our tendency to join congregations where folks look and act and talk in the same way we do.  At Pentecost, the Spirit swooped through the crowd, as with an out-stretched arm.  Gathering together all those who had once been individuals; making of them children of God.

            The events described in Acts 2 are set in juxtaposition with the events in Genesis 11.  This is another well-known, but often not-so-well-understood biblical story.  Genesis 11 is the story of the Tower of Babel. On first reading, the story of the Tower of Babel seems to show human pride destroying human unity - resulting in God's punishment of scattering the people of the earth literally (geographically) and symbolically (linguistically).  But a second reading reveals a more complex plot and deeper meaning.

            The people who settled on the plain of Shinar were unified.  They shared a common language and a common purpose.  They wanted to make a name for themselves and keep themselves from being scattered to the corners of the earth.  The unity they sought, however, was contrary to God's instruction - given in Genesis 1.28 - to be fruitful and multi­ply, and fill the earth.  The Tower of Babel is a warning against all attempts to establish unity on the basis of human autonomy and self-sufficiency.  The unity desired by God is based not upon common lan­guage or common goals but on a common commitment to do God's will and to live according to God's purposes.

            The Holy Spirit is given to the community of faith.  The spirit comes to the individual believer only in the larger context of restor­ing proper relationships in the community of faith and empowering the community of faith for service.

            The third affirmation present in the story of Pentecost is that God gives the Spirit to the community of faith for mission.  The Spirit is God's active presence in the world.

            When the Spirit is considered an individual gift; when the Spirit is considered a reward for pious living; it ceases to be active - rather it becomes a trophy, held with great pride and dis­played for all to see, but never used in the accomplishment of an even greater task.  God's gift to the community of faith - the Holy Spir­it - is given to us so that we might be about the work of God in the world.

            Here again we can learn something from that story in Genesis 11. 
God punished the people by confusing their language so that they did not understand one another.  The word rendered "understand" is the Hebrew shema, the same word that appears in the affirmation "Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God is one Lord."  (Deut 6.4)  This connection is important because it focuses attention on hearing as an essential ingredient in the divine-human relationship and in relationships within the human community.  Whether between parents and teenagers, husbands and wives, men and women, or God and humanity, when hearing fails, relationships fail.

            This emphasis on hearing, not the speaking in tongues, is the link between Genesis 11 and Acts 2.  The word “hear” appears at several crucial points in the Pentecost narrative in Acts (2.6, 8, 14, 22, 37).  The events of Pentecost do not, as is usually assumed, reverse the punishment given to the builders of the tower but rather results in a "fresh capacity to listen."  (W. Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, John Knox Press.)

            In spite of all the speaking in other tongues, those who gathered in Jerusalem heard the gospel in their own language. God did not restore a single language or one homogeneous community.  Instead God enabled the diverse and scattered peoples of the earth to hear one another.  On Pentecost every nation under heaven is embraced.  It is that same Spirit which empowers and sustains the church as it seeks to give voice to God's word of salvation and become a channel of God's work in the world.

            God gives the Holy Spirit to the community of faith for mission.  When we lack an understanding of the mission God has given us; when we consider the Spirit an individual prerogative; when we link the Spirit's arrival with our own faithfulness - it is highly likely that we will be away, should the Spirit ever descend.  Let us open our hearts and our minds, receiving this gift of our God's, allowing it to unify us in Christ and setting us forth to proclaim the Good News.

Amen.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sermon - 7th Sunday of Easter


John 17:6-19                                                                                                                                                  
                                                      A Prayer for the Church

 We pray for our loved ones and we pray for world peace.  We pray for favorable weather and we pray for victories in baseball games.  We pray for those who have died and we pray for those who have given birth.  We pray.  We implore God to hear our cries and we ask God to care for and uphold those whom we name in our prayers.

Jesus also prays.  He prays to The Father, asking the Father to care for and uphold those whom he names.  Toward the end, he will pray for those who persecute him.  He will also pray that the cup which he has been given might be taken from him.  Those prayers come later in the story; when crisis is at hand, at a crisis moment when we would expect a person to pray.

But Jesus’ prayer life was well established long before he arrives at those urgent moments.  And in those “non-crisis” moments, what Jesus prays for is us.  He prays for those who were and who would become a part of the Church.

John 17 is often referred to as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.  It is his plea to The Father that those who follow might not be divided, might not be lost, might be filled with his joy; and might be sanctified in his grace.  Jesus prays for the Church.  And in his prayer he identifies those characteristics which make us more than a voluntary association of individuals.  He speaks to that which makes us The Church - his bride.

Jesus prays: protect them … that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Being “one” is very important for the body of Christ.  Being one, means that we do not disregard how our thoughts and actions affect others.  Being one means we share a common destiny and more importantly that we realize this and act accordingly.  Being one means seeing ourselves as part of an organism – which when separated dies; rather than as a part in a machine which can be removed and replaced by another – sometimes even increasing the machine’s efficiency.  But we are not a machine, we are an organism.  Our future and our fate are inextricably tied to that of our fellows.  We are one; not individually one, but one with those who share this common identity.

Christians are not independent agents, free to have our own personal relationship with God while ignoring those around us.  There may be theological differences; and preferences for one worship style as opposed to another may lead us to gather in differing buildings on Sunday mornings. But Christians, followers of Christ, are to be “one”, united in our common calling and united in our devotion to Christ.

Jesus finishes his prayer, goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and is crucified.  But he rises from the grave and he ascends on high.  In these acts, he makes us one.  It is no longer a hope, expressed by a departing Rabbi.  It is an acknowledgement of what God has done.  We are one.  And even when we discuss issues which have the potential to divide, we must remain one.

Jesus continues to pray.  He says to the Father, While I was with them, I protected them in your name ... I guarded them, and not one of them was lost.  Jesus prays that the disciples may never become lost; that they will never venture too far outside the protective realm of the Church.  Jesus asks God to protect them and prevent them from being lured into false teaching or improper living.

I can’t remember anyone, in my 33 years of ministry, who came to me to tell me that they had decided that they are going to fall away from the church.  Folks don’t report, or display an intentional turning away from the Church and the community of faith.  They may leave one congregation to join another – having identified a part of the body of Christ which does speak of God and worship in a style more fitting to their own experience of God -  but they don’t usually report deciding to stop coming.  Rarely do persons “leave” - instead they simply become "lost."  A new schedule, a different job, additional respon­sibilities, moving into a new house or buying a place on the lake, enroll­ing the kids in soccer/baseball/gymnastics -  these are the reasons why folks find themselves separated from the church.  New habits form; old preferences change – and as a result folks simply come less, then care less and eventually the cease to think less of this as a place where they belong.  They become "lost."

Remember the image Jesus uses, as he looks over Jerusalem and speaks of his desire to gather its inhabitants.  He speaks of a mother hen who gathers her brood under her wings.  Jesus' prayer is that those whom God has called will forever nestle, as baby chicks, under the protective wing of a loving mother hen.  There, God will protect us and prevent us from ever becoming lost.

A third petition which Jesus offers is for those who rest in God's care to be filled with joy.  Jesus prays:  "I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves."  You will notice that he does not pray for their happiness - he prays that joy may be made complete in them.

        In his last published book, Joseph Sittler writes of the difference between joy and happiness.  Sittler points out that happiness is dependent upon the ups and downs of our life.  Happiness is very fragile and easily taken from us.  We are happy when life treats us fair, when we accomplish that which we set out to do, or when our friends do not disappoint us.  Should things not go well, should our plans be thwarted - we are no longer "happy".  A very fragile and delicate thing - this happiness.

Joy is quite different.  Joy is the confidence that our lives have meaning and purpose, regardless of whether happiness is a part of our day.  Even when we are overcome by adversity, boxed in by demands, frustrat­ed with our own ignorance - even so, we can still be filled with Joy.  Joy has a permanence.  It is long lasting; it is not easily de­stroyed.

Jesus’ final petition is for sanctification.  Jesus prays that those who follow him might be sanctif(ied...) in the truth.  Falsehood abounds in our world.  It is attractive, enticing, and alluring.  More often than not, it is that which is false which catches our eye or causes us to pause.  Remaining sanctified in the truth is a diffi­cult thing.

"Truth," in the manner which Jesus speaks, differs from the way we might use the word.  Truth is not simply that which is true or that which can be proven.  Nor is it some fundamental ideal.  Truth, in the New Testament sense, is that which is in accordance with the hope and promise of God.  The Truth is God's hope for our lives, God's desire for us.  It is God's prayer offered within our own lives.  Jesus prays that the disciples might be sanctified in truth; that in truth they might be dedicated to the service of God and God's people.  To live in the truth is to live in the very heart of God.

We will continue to pray for the newborns.  We will always offer our prayers for the sick and ill.  At no time will we cease to pray for those who are in distress or those who are in harm’s way.  We will pray for the lost and lonely.  We will pray for the broken hearted.  But as with Christ, so too must we pray for the Church, for the communion of Saints who bear his mission and proclaim God’s Word.  We pray for oneness; we pray that no one might become lost; we pray for joy; and we pray for sanctification in the Truth.

This Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.  Thus it also becomes our prayer.

Amen.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Devotion - Thursday, May 3

How fitting that for this day the appointed Gospel lesson is Matthew 6:25:  "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?"

I needed to hear these words; and I think they may be helpful to you as well.

Allow these words to help you set aside the worries and anxieties which you face.  There is the immediate issue of one more exam or the grades you will get for the semester.  Among our graduating class are some still looking for a job or path.  There are interviews for co-ops and internships, but the summer will begin before those things are in place.  Allow these words to bring calm into your life.

I will take them to heart, also.  I sometimes apologize for being to paternal in my dealings with y'all.  I do worry about you, and for you.  You are wonderfully gifted and talented and your strength continues to impress me.  But you are put upon from so many angles and I continually pray for you.  When you leave for the summer, I miss you.  When you graduate, a piece of my heart goes with you.  But the Father who watches over me is also watching over you and His presence will keep you and the awareness of His presence will allow me to not be anxious.

Have a wonderful summer.  Face life after graduation with confidence.  And know that we will forever be united in prayer and in our devotion to the one who first loved us.

Pastor Chris

PS:  Summer break is upon us.  Look for additional offerings come August.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Devotion - Wednesday, May 2

In Matthew 6, Jesus states the obvious:  "No one can serve two masters; for he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other."

Most of us live our lives without truly reflecting on the master which we serve.  We go about our lives and our days with a particular pattern and routine.  There are things we know we must do and there are things which we chose to do.

Too often (sadly) our church life and participation fall into a similar category.  We pick and chose a congregation or ministry group because we enjoy the others who have previously picked that location.  We join this club because it does the kinds of things we enjoy doing.

Not that one who carefully examines the master they seek to serve will not also find a group of like-minded servants of God - but there is a clear acknowledgement that this is a place and these are a people who will further one's commitment and devotion to following Jesus.

Martin Luther said, "That to which our heart clings is our god."

To what does your heart cling?  What is the master whom you serve?

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Devotion - Tuesday, May 1

I sometimes wonder if Jesus has just made it too easy for us.

Leviticus 16 sets forth the anual process and procedure for Atonement.  It involves a goat, someone getting the goat to sit still while the sins are named, a person to take the goat to the wilderness, several changes of clothing, and lots of bathing in water specifically set aside for this purpose.

Jesus has made atonement for us - once and for all.

There is that story in which a leper goes to God's servant to be made clean.  He is anticipating lots of rituals to illustrate to God his desire to be made well.  He is told "Go bath in the river."  He is indignant!  One of his servants asks him, "If you do mighty things to be made whole, why not do this one small thing?"

Jesus has made it easy for us.  Not because Jesus thinks we are lazy or too easily distracted or unwilling to perform great ceremony, but because Jesus loves us.  And Jesus understands that all those rituals and ceremonies may be followed to the letter, but do they give us the confidence that our sin will not separate us from God?

Jesus has made it easy for us.  We are thus set free to live in the assurance of our being united with God, our sin will no longer stand in the way.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Devotion - Monday, April 30

Your grades do matter.  And, your studies are very important.  Your job is to be a student, and you are to do that as well as you possibly can.

But how well you do your job should not be seen as the measure of your worth.

God has claimed you and has called you one of his precious children.  That identity and that claim on you is what defines who you are and your status in life.  In truth, the reason you are to do well in school is so that you might do well in the world.  You learn so that you might be a servant.  The information you absorb and the ability to solve problems prepares you for the opportunities you will have to help the world look more as God would have it be.

Study hard; do well.  But when you find yourself becoming too overwhelmed remember the simple phrase used by Martin Luther whenever he was in distress.  He simply spoke - out loud, even if to no one other than himself - "I am baptized."

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sermon - 5th Sunday of Easter


John 15:1-8    

                                                                     Vines and branches 

A few years ago, I got myself organized well enough to get a photo on the cover of the bulletin. I wasn’t quite that organized this week.  The earlier bulletin cover was a flower bed, in my neighborhood, which had been knocked down by a strong wind.  Do any of you remember that?  What some of you are sure to remember is that I went on-and-on in my sermon about this bed of “Day-lilies”, while at least a dozen gardeners and horticulture types were looking at the photo and thinking, “Who is going to tell Pastor Chris that these are NOT day lilies?”  The photo was of Tiger Lilies; or I think Jean got even more specific and told me were Oriental Lilies.

It was a very helpful photo – the impact of which got lost in my lack of knowledge.

Never one to learn from my mistakes, I am going to try it again today.  The lack of an actual photo support might be a draw-back; or it might allow (this time) my image to serve its purpose.

Also in my neighborhood, on the path taken when I go for walk, are four very well cared for and aged grape vines.  They are in the yard of Joe Allen – he taught Chemistry at CU, and his wife established Allen’s Creations.  Trent still runs that family business.

Joe does what you are supposed to do with grape vines – he prunes them.  And when you prune as you ought, what you get is a very well established vine, and only a few runners which are following the wires of the trellis. 

I always admire Joe’s little vineyard.  When I realized I would be preaching on John 15, I took a little extra time to look at those vines, and to learn from them what Jesus is trying to say to us when he calls himself the vine, and his Father the vine-grower, and us the branches.

Have any of the rest of you kept up a vineyard?  Or paid attention to one?  Feel free to point out errors as I go along.  But, do me the opposite favor and if anything I say matches your experience, you could offer an audible, “Yes,” or the more traditional church refrain of “Amen.”

So, back to Joe’s little vineyard and the reason that I wish I had photos.  When Joe prunes, the vine looks pretty pitiful.  It was only a few days or weeks earlier when the trellis is hidden by the leaves and fruit.  There are sometimes birds hiding in there – big birds – eating their fill.  On more than one occasion, a deer was there, unnoticed Laura’s dog startled and the deer ran away.  The vine looks so huge.  And then, Joe cuts all that away.  And one would be inclined to ask, “Why?”

The answer is that leaves thick cover don’t produce fruit.  Only strong and vigorous branches.

When Jesus says that the vine-grower is coming, with pruning shears in hand, I think about Joe’s grapevines.  And as much as I hate to think of the removal of thick green leaves, I know that when God prunes it strengthens the harvest.  It may look a bit weird or counter-productive to push aside and even discard what is pleasing to the eye and so easily mistaken for indications of a plenty.  But this is what God does.  The vine-grower knows the end toward which we need to move.  And while the steps needed to get to that end might not seem good to us – they do, in the wisdom of the one who has carefully tended to the vine and the branches.

Sometimes the Church and its ministries become too attached to the leaves and the overgrowth.  In too many instances, we shy away from the pruning which will make the next season’s harvest rich and lush and flavorful.

There may be times when the pain of pruning so overwhelms our senses that we fail to share in God’s celebration of the harvest which this pruning makes possible.

That’s the first thing I want to draw from this text for this congregation, today.  We may see Farewell as painful – and it can be.  But it is also a Godspeed.  And Godspeed is what joins our gaze to that of our Father (the vine-grower) who is able to see how this separation allows the good news to move from one location to many, many others.

Here is the second thing I observed about Joe’s grape vines.  And, I want to be careful.  I realize that this observation may not sit well with a number of God’s precious children.

That vine, growing out of the ground, isn’t very straight.  It is really crooked.  And while few things ever grow perfectly straight, at least part of the reason a grape vine bends from side to side is because of the tugging of the branches.  The branches, when they get going, pull mightily on the vine.  And the force they exert does affect the vine.

As an image, not as some divine revelation, this encourages me to remember how responsive the vine (and the vine-grower) are to the efforts of the branches.

Jesus establishes his Church; and then he entrusts it Peter, and James, and John, and the rest of his followers.  God and Jesus may never change, but the way they live in the midst of the Church does (possibly) change. 

We waste too much time trying to return to an earlier mindset or construct of doctrinal affirmations.  The ancient creeds of the Church will also be foundational and essential to our life as Christians.  But, from the image of the vine and its branches draw the awareness that over the years and through the seasons what happens in the life of the branches exerts influence and bends the vine.

In preparing for next season’s growth, the vine-grower will take note if the vine is being pulled too far in one direction or another.  And the pruning shears will address the problem.

Do not be afraid or shy away from the ways in which you, as a precious branch on the vine is tugging and pulling.  Even when you realize that the vine is being moved. 

Among the things most important for any preacher to communicate is the depth of God’s love for us and the assurance that God interacts with us.  To be a person of faith is to live in the presence of God and to know that God is living among us.  Branches are not dead, impassionate objects.  They are living and growing and changing and producing.

The last image I would attempt to share with you from Joe’s vineyard, is how the vines and the branches have utterly destroyed the trellis.  The power and strength of those little bitty branches have snapped 4X4’s in half.  Joe has patched it up, with some new boards and stakes, but it is a losing battle.  The vines and the branches are going to do what they are going to do.  And the structure imposed by a mere mortal ain’t going to get in the way.

Keep that in mind.  Like others, I have come to think that the Church is going through a time of transition every bit as significant as the one experienced in 1517ff.  The vine, the branches are likely to crush more than a few of the structures so carefully crafted by decision makers and policy setters.  That is okay.  Don’t fret.  Trust the vine and the vine-grower.

If you haven’t observed a vineyard, I hope you will find a chance to do so.  The images of the bible drew on what people experienced in their daily lives.  Our lives are so distanced from an agrarian culture it may be difficult for us to comprehend the image.  That is one of the reasons why so many new writers are retelling the ancient stories in differing ways.  Their images and style may surprise or shock us – shock us because we fail to realize how shocking the twists Jesus put on the agrarian were in the stories he told.

1.       Don’t be afraid of the pruning
2.      As a branch – tug with all your might in order to correct the previous misalignment of the vine
3.      And when structures and institutions come crashing down – do not be afraid.  The vine and the branches are much stronger than frames erected to hold them.

Amen.