Sunday, April 20, 2014

An Everlasting Love

John 20: 1-18, NT page 114-115 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Pater and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in the Hebrew, “Rahbouni!” (which means teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. Sermon This second scripture lesson ends with what is the first Easter sermon, the first mention of the Resurrected Jesus: “I have seen the Lord,” Mary Magdalene announced to the disciples. But while this lesson ends with a statement of faith it begins with running – Mary came to the tomb, saw that the body was gone and ran to tell the disciples. Peter and another disciple whom Jesus loved run to the tomb and Mary runs with them, and all this running is significant because adults don’t often run unless they have to. Children on the other hand are running constantly. Sometimes they run away from things they’re afraid of, but more often children run towards the things that they want – a puppy, a playground, or a grandmother just pulled up in the driveway. They can’t wait to see what wonderful gift this world will reveal to them next, while adults, generally if you see an adult running you can expect that there’s something he’s running after – a child heading towards that puppy and getting too close to the street, the physique that she’ll loose unless she burns some calories, the high blood pressure which could lead to him losing his life if he doesn’t exercise and get it under control – yes I’ve seen many un-athletic people morph into runners when they have something to lose, I suppose that I am one of them. We all run – if not literally, we do run to our jobs so that we don’t lose them, then run to the bank to deposit the check so we don’t lose the roof over our heads – then we run towards our family to keep them happy and together, not walking, because we know that what we have can be taken away. And really that explains all the running in the gospel lesson for this morning. Mary, Peter, and an un-named disciple all run towards the tomb, not like children running down the steps to see what Santa Claus left them under the tree, but running because they fear that not only has their beloved teacher’s life been taken from them, now the powers that be have even snatched his body from the grave. They do not run for the joy of running, they do not run as a child runs to wrap her arms around her father’s neck, they run because they have learned that life will take and take and take and you must fight to keep what you have. Don’t expect any blessings. Don’t wake up expecting this day to be full of gifts and surprises – no – expect today to take a little more than the day before because it’s not what you stand to gain that gets adults out of bed and running in the morning, it’s what you stand to lose. That’s why Mary can’t even see him though he is standing right in front of her. So convinced is she that the world really will suck you dry if you let it. So convinced is she that any blessing must be guarded and protected lest the Romans, lest the IRS, lest the powers of sin and death take it all away. She knew Jesus to be strong, she knew his love to be profound, but she’d never dare image a Jesus strong enough to overcome these realities and that’s why they run. They don’t run because they think he’s risen from the dead – they run because the world has already taken enough and now has come for even his corpse. All the hope she can come up with amounts to such a small thing in comparison to what is right in front of her eyes when she says, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” But in that moment, when even more seemed to be lost, Jesus said to her, “Mary!” The prophet Jeremiah spoke the word of the Lord saying, “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness,” but did they expect to find grace? “When Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away,” but had they already given up? The Lord told them, “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” but do you still believe in love? The world takes and takes and takes, but do not let the world convince you that there is nothing left that’s worth running towards, do not let the world convince you that there are no more blessings to be had, that the power of love does not still govern your existence. All she wanted was to find his body so that she might honor him one last time by preparing his remains for burial – such a small hope it seems in comparison to the joy that the Lord provided her that first Easter morning. “Mary,” he said, and in saying he opened her eyes to an everlasting love that the world taught her to give up on – and this truth must open your eyes as well. There is a balm in Gilead. There is such a thing as hope. Love is the power that rules our world. For he has risen – he has risen indeed. Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Look, your king is coming to you

Matthew 21: 1-11, NT page 23 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, And on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Sermon A large portion of this second scripture lesson is concerned with procuring the animals that Jesus will ride into Jerusalem on, a donkey and her colt. Jesus needs the two animals to fulfill the prophecy which says, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” but Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples that, he simply tells them to go, find the animals and to bring them back. This is a request not to be glossed over, as simply to complete this request is an act of faith. Back in the Wild West, a man would be shot for stealing a horse, and I’d hate to think about what would happen if you had walked into Maury county park last weekend empty, but came out with a couple of mules. I saw some pretty tough looking characters ride through town in the Mule Day Parade, and I would not want to be the one who came between one of them and their prized equine. Even saying, “The Lord needs them,” may not have done much good. The disciples just follow instructions however. They “went and did as Jesus had directed them,” and that’s how we all probably should be. We should be obedient, remembering what happened to Jonah, and trusting that if the Lord calls you need not spend much time thinking about it, it is better just to go ahead and say yes lest you wind up in the belly of a whale. Blind faith is a struggle though, so we lean heavily on knowledge, measured wisdom, and forethought. 21st Century people, maybe like all people, like to think that the more you know the better off you are. That when faced with a decision the best thing to do is to figure out, to the best of your ability, some kind of cost/benefit analysis before jumping in to anything – before you make a decision it is good to have a fully formed idea of where that decision will take you. Our daughter’s like to wear flip flops, which is fine, but they have to remember that if you wear flip-flops to school you’re going to end up with mulch in your toes out on the playground. It seems wise to look into the future and try to imagine where this decision that you’re about to make is going to take you – if you choose flip-flops you might regret it later. But it is also true that you might not. We tend to think that gathering as much knowledge as possible, utilizing good and measured knowledge and embodying forethought keeping always future possibilities in mind will make life easier, but it doesn’t always. We also tend to think that doing so will lead to happiness, but it may not. Consider marriage. A good metaphor for picking a husband might just be like a little girl and her shoes – as I know plenty who made their decision based on looks more than utility and so have ended up with mulch in their toes. To utilize good and measure knowledge, to embody forethought, always keeping future possibilities in mind seems like the right thing to do. To look him in the eyes thinking realistically about how many times he was going to get lost on the way to the beach while refusing to ask for directions. To interview other wives to get a good idea of just how many hours he was going to spend in front of the TV or exactly how many Friday nights he would chose to stay at home rather than take you out to dinner. To do some real research on just how long it is going to take her to get ready. Is it wise to think through these things while you’re standing outside the sanctuary deciding whether to walk down the aisle or down the street? Surely there are teachers here, who, back then when you were full of idealism and hope – would have chosen another career altogether had you known back then how much time you would spend on standardized testing. And for preachers it’s the same thing. A bitter old pastor got a hold of me one day when I was in seminary – and I bet the same one got ahold of Jennie once or twice as well - he says to me, “If there is anything else you can possibly imagine making a career out of besides the ministry, you should do that.” Had I listened, sure there are some sleepless nights that I would have avoided and maybe there would be a few more hairs on my head - but there is so much joy that I would have missed. Sometimes blind faith is better than a fully informed and measured decision, for while the disciples are doing exactly what he asks when they go off to fetch a donkey and a foal, even while not understanding why, as soon as they get a full idea of where Jesus is going they are not nearly so able to follow. Every step of those hooves takes him closer to the cross, and had Peter known back at the beginning when he was a fisherman, that the cross is where he’s planning to go, I can’t imagine that he would ever have left his nets. He goes from obedience, he goes from following him with a faithful heart, to denying him three times – and you can understand why. When he realizes that the cross is where he is going, that this is what discipleship is like, he goes from embodying blind faith to paralyzing fear. The crowds are the same. They see his donkey and his colt and the words of the prophet come to mind. Seeing him this way makes them realize that this man is not just the son of a carpenter, he is the Messiah, the one coming to save us all. But as soon as they see where his path leads they have no more interest in following him. (Pause) It is not always easiest to make a decision when you have all the information. So often, the less you know the better. Jesus knows however. And Jesus has always known. He knows that while the crowds cheer today, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Soon enough they will be chanting, “Crucify him!” He knows that while they are today laying their coats on the ground and spreading palms along his path, so willing to help him on his journey, as soon as they see him carrying a cross rather than ridding on a donkey only one will give him any aid. And he knows, that while they smile now, when his eyes are black and blood runs down his cheeks, they will spit in his face, mocking his crown of thorns. It can be good not to know what is coming. When it comes to the biggest decisions of our life, ignorance can be a blessing. I am thankful that every bride and groom who is married in this church is full of idealism – not weighed down by the pessimists, just pure and happy and in love. I am thankful that every young teacher is full of a desire to make a difference not yet suffocated by how difficult it will be – for such an attitude isn’t ignorance. Such an attitude can remind us all that love makes all the trials that await us worth it, for the suffering is nothing in comparison to love. While the disciples ran at the sight of the cross, fear and frustration shouting so loudly that they couldn’t hear anything else besides their heart’s wish to turn back, Jesus on the other hand would not have changed a thing. For you he goes towards that cross, and he would not have turned back for anything. Amen.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Making yourself God

John 11: 28-44, NT page 105 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and his feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Sermon Every holiday has its proper greeting. At Christmas it is wonderful to yell out to everyone you see, “Merry Christmas.” So wonderful in fact is this greeting that the idea of wishing someone “Happy Holidays” makes some people angry enough to make bumper stickers. Easter is another holiday with a special greeting. One greeting for Christians at Easter is for one to say, “He is risen,” and another to say “He is risen indeed” in response. And while there’s not an official Mule Day greeting, I received an email from one of our church Elders Joe Kilgore, who was mindful of what gets left behind after a parade featuring hundreds if not thousands of horses and mules – “Happy Mule Day” he wrote, and “watch your step.” “Watch your step” is a good thing for everyone to say on a day like today. For people who grew up on a farm, that’s just part of life, but for someone like me Mule Day celebrates something very new and very exciting because I did not grow up on a farm, and every year on Mule Day I get a taste (or a smell rather) of what I’ve missed out on. I’m not the only one who longs to be more connected to farm life, to food and where food really comes from. In fact, while we were living in Atlanta and I served Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church where our guest choir comes from, it became very trendy to raise chickens in your back yard. Yards were not large in our neighborhood, so the chickens that our next door neighbor raised were cramped and often tempted to jump his fence into our yard. The problem for them was that in our yard they would frequently meet their demise in the jaws of one of our dogs. We had three dogs then, all three we adopted from the pound, and two of the three dealt with these chickens with such cruel efficiency that we suspected they were born somewhere out in the country where they would have developed the skill. The third dog however, she was all city dog, and not only that, she had an under bite, and when she finally had the chance to deal with a chicken all on her own she grabbed it by the wing and sort of danced with it more than anything else, and after about 15 seconds the chicken was huddled under a car, not dead, just roughed up a little bit. I decided that the most humane thing to do would be to put the animal out of her misery, and I had heard from my grandfather about ringing a chickens neck, so I reached under the car, grabbed the chicken by her head and swung her around like a helicopter four or five times. I set the chicken back down, and she weaved her way back and forth back to her place under the car, not dead at all, just really dizzy. You see, I’m not used to dealing with the kind of chicken that has feathers, a beak, and a heartbeat. I’m used to the kind of chicken that comes boneless, skinless, and individually wrapped in plastic from the cooler at Kroger. While any good employee of the Farm Bureau will tell you, “If you eat you are involved in agriculture,” but separated as I am from where my food comes from, I’m not thinking about the chicken coop when I eat at Chic-Fila, nor am I thinking about the heartbeat that stopped beating so that I could have a nice lunch. Death surrounds us, but I’m not always ready to look death in the eye. It might seem from our scripture lesson that Jesus wasn’t always ready to look death in the eye either. He was accused in the chapter before of being a man but making himself God, and that wasn’t true. He was actually God making himself a man, and in this passage we see a striking humanity – he was like us it seems, and it appears that he would rather not go to see his friend Lazarus die. Instead of immediately going to him after hearing that Lazarus was ill, he decides to stay away for two days longer. You may be able to relate. It’s not a pleasant place: the bedside of a dying friend. It can seem better to remember his laugh, not the rattle in his lungs as he breaths the breath that might be his last. It’s better to remember him full of life, not grasping for it. It is easy to stay away, so maybe you don’t go at all until it’s the day of the funeral, and you go then, but it’s not something to be excited about. The funeral home knows that, so rather than focus on the body, now without a heartbeat, there are flat screen televisions covering the walls flashing through old pictures and not much mention of death – a trend today is to call the funeral a celebration of life as life seems better to focus on. We don’t like to look death in the eye, maybe, especially, when witnessing the death of a friend or loved one makes it too easy to imagine our own. After hearing that Lazarus was ill Jesus stays away two days longer, not because he didn’t want to go, but because this death of Lazarus’ was to be so much like the death of Jesus himself. The tomb would be a cave. The door to the cave would be sealed by a stone. And Lazarus would enter a dead man but he would walk out alive. There’s enough in common here, between Lazarus and what Jesus knows is going to happen to him, so just news of the death of a teenager in an accident makes mom’s hold their teenage sons and daughters a little bit closer before they hand over the car keys, just as visiting by the bedside of a lung cancer victim makes smokers stare a little while longer at the cigarette before lighting it, just as seeing a friend lying there in the casket makes your eyes want to look away at something, anything else, you can imagine why, even though Jesus had the power to raise this man from the dead, he was still, our scripture lesson tells us, “greatly disturbed.” He was not a man becoming God. His life on earth is not the process of gaining power, escaping pain, or passing through the clouds and away from you and what makes you hurt – Christ is God becoming man – so he goes to Lazarus, sees the tears of Mary and Martha, and our scripture lesson tells us that seeing their tears he himself “began to weep.” This is our God. He stands outside the tomb, knowing that very soon he will be the one inside it. He calls him by name, in a loud voice, wondering if waking from death will be anything like waking up from deep sleep. And he sees “the dead man came out, his hands and his feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth” and he imagines what it will be like to do the same. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go,” and what had been only a possibility, just a reality that floated around his head without having to be completely real – right then he came to terms with his own death and resurrection, because he was not a man becoming God, but God becoming man – and to be human is to come to terms with death and what lies beyond it. The temptation is so real to turn your head – to keep the casket closed – to remember the good times and shy away from the bad – but Jesus is not a “get out of death fee card,” for we all must go down to the grave, but even there we shall make our song – even at the tomb we are not alone for Christ knows the same fear that you feel. He will walk with you through the Valley of the Shadow of Death – and he will lead you through it because he has walked through it first. He knows the fear that you feel, and here he weeps at the tomb knowing that soon enough the tomb of Lazarus will be his own. He doesn’t ignore it. He doesn’t look away. He doesn’t fight it. And neither should you. As you prepare for Easter it is wise to meditate on the reality of death during this season of Lent, however, you must remember too, that Jesus goes to the grave of Lazarus, but he doesn’t go to preach his friends funeral. Jesus doesn’t preach funerals. He goes to the grave and there he weeps, recognizing, fearing even, the end of one life – but he goes there to ensure that for you, while you must face death, you face it knowing that when the tomb door closes it opens again, and it opens to eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.