Category Archives: Sermon

A Sermon for a Confirmation Class that isn’t Coming Back to Church

Matthew 22:15-22

…Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”… (Read the whole passage here).

Sermon

This morning, after hearing 10 faith statements from our confirmands, we hear Jesus and the Pharisees having a discussion. They are debating how to be someone who has faith in God, and someone who lives in a world full of political and economic powers that divide our attention and allegiances. Do we ally ourselves with God, or Caesar, the symbol of world power. It is all part of our journey through the Gospel of Matthew that began last year, but particularly through the summer we have been hearing Jesus’ teaching along side of our human desire for control, power, easy answers, black and white categories and so on.

And it would seem natural at this point to tie confirmation or affirmation baptism that we will celebrate next week with some kind of choice to stand up for faith, for you confirmands to become “adult Christians.” Kind of like the choice between God and Caesar that Jesus is talking about today. And yes, confirmation has that aspect to it. There is something distinctly adult about standing in front of the church and sharing out loud what Jesus means to you. And some think that confirmation is about making the adult choice to stand up for Jesus.

So confirmands, I think it is important to recognize what you have just done. You have been bold and brave to share your faith and to do it in front of the whole church. But not only have you done that, but you have shared your faith statements after more than two years of study and learning, of classes and community, of coming to this strange place with these strange people while most if your peers and friends were sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

Now your bravery this morning is certainly an example to the rest of us, and we are all proud to see you, our young people, standing among us sharing your faith. But some honesty in this moment is called for as well.

This may be difficult to hear, but bear with me. After the last two years of classes and studying and learning about faith, a lot of you, maybe even most of you will not come back to church very often after next Sunday. A few of you might become regular and active church members, but likely not many. And after today, there will be a lot of things, a lot of other options that will pull you, and that pull all of us away from church and away from faith.

But the options and other things to do on Sunday mornings are not the only thing that will pull you away. And again bear with me.

The things that we talked about in confirmation God, faith, church and the bible, are probably not things that your parents talked much about with you. And studies show that if faith is not talked about in the home, the chance of youth staying involved in church is very low. But this is not about blame. Your parents didn’t talk about faith to you, because their parents didn’t talk to them about faith. And your grandparent’s parents didn’t talk to them about faith.

And even though the small catechism that we used in confirmation to help us learn about the ten commandments, lord’s prayer, apostle’s creed, baptism and communion was written by Martin Luther for parents, particularly fathers to use to teach their children about faith… the church for hundreds of years has been making people think that God and the bible can only be talked about and learned about at church. And that is our fault – pastors and church leaders fault – we are to blame for why parents are not teaching the faith to their children.

So confirmands, (and families), you have now heard me say that most of you will probably not be back to church after next Sunday. But I want to be clear that this is not to make you feel bad. In fact, if the reason you and your families come to church is because you feel like you should… then I don’t want you to come. Church is not a should. Faith is not a should. God is not a should. But back to that in a second.

Remember the debate that Jesus has today about the Emperor on the coin, giving to God what is God’s and giving to Caesar what is Caesars. This is not an easy task. If we feel like we should come to church, but we want to sleep in, or do homework, or go shopping, or play sports, or dance, or whatever… we might try to go to church like good little girls and boys should… but that will last only a while until what we want to do seems much more interesting.

Giving to God what is God’s sounds nice, but let me tell you, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s is a lot more fun.

And here is the thing about church.

If you are looking for great music, the radio will always have something that sounds better. If you are looking for an entertaining sermon, tv and movies will always be more appealing. If you are looking for food that tastes better than bread and wine, any restaurant has better. If you are looking for fun youth events, family programming, or seniors groups, the YMCA, the mall or and most community groups can do more than we can.

The church is just not as cool as the world, as cool as Caesar’s stuff and so the church won’t be entertaining enough to make you come. Guilt won’t be enough to get you out of bed on Sunday mornings. Becoming regular church attenders after next Sunday is something you will have to want to do. And our responsibility is to make this place somewhere that you would want to be.

And so what does the church have offer? What would make you want to come instead of feel like you should?

Remember Jesus talking about Caesar and God. When the Pharisees asked Jesus about paying taxes with Roman coins, he asked for a coin because it has the picture of the Caesar, the emperor on it. And next to emperor’s picture two words were printed – “Caesar God”. The romans thought that their Emperor was God, and so when Jesus said, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s, he wasn’t really talking about this choice between God and the world. Caesar and his image on the coin represented humanity’s desire for control, our desire to be powerful, our desire to define God and Godly power. Jesus is reminding us that this is not true. Jesus is saying that we don’t always get to decide who we are, nor do we get to say who God is.

The world, things like school, sports, shopping, tv, dance. Things like power, money, security, control, black and white answers etc… these things are trying to tell us that we get to decide who we are. That we can be anything we want. A rock star, an NHL hockey player, a marine biologist, a doctor, that we can be rich, young, never sick, famous and powerful.

So what does the church, what does God tell us? Here at church God doesn’t let  us decide who we are, but tells us who we are. God tells is in Baptism that we belong to God. That we are children of God and that is the most important identity we have. In communion, God tells us what we are members of the Body of Christ, of this family of faith that gathers here at Good Shepherd and that gathers as Christians all over the world. God tell us who our family is, God gives us brothers and sisters in faith, who are there for us when we struggle, there for us when we celebrate, there for us in daily life.

In God’s church, we are welcome no matter what. We don’t have to be anyone special, we don’t have to be achieve anything, or commit to anything. In God’s church, we are not told us that we should do anything. In church we hear what God has done for us, we hear how Jesus is working in our lives, and we are promised that when we fail, when we are broken and suffering, and when we die, that God is there putting us back together, giving us new life.

So confirmands, today you have given us your faith statements in front of family, friends and the congregation. You have been brave and bold to speak, and we are proud. And while I reminded you that confirmation is not graduation from church, meaning after next Sunday you are not done church, but invited to engage church more. Don’t hear the message today that you should come to church. Faith, church and God are not things you should do.

Instead, hear today that in this place, with these people, with this God you are welcome no matter what, that you are a part of this family and that you belong here and belong to God. And when all those Caesar things, those world things fail to turn you into the things you want to be, here you will always belong, always be family, always be loved. Here, God will always tell you who you are.

Amen. 


Have thoughts on should go to church vs. want to come to church? Share in the comments, on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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A Sermon on Ferguson, Robin Williams and the Canaanite Woman

As a blogger, it can be hard to know where to begin with all the things happening in the world. But as a pastor, I can’t help but preach about where God is in the midst of this mess…

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord… (Read the whole passage here)

Sermon

Have mercy on me Lord. 

These are familiar words. In fact, we just sang them this morning. Given the times and places where we usually say these words, it can feel strange to sing them while we are safe and sound at church. Normally it is in moment of distress, moments of trial and hardship, moments when there is nothing else but to ask for God’s help.

Have mercy on me Lord. 

A news alert flashes across the televisions, computer or smart phone. The top story of the evening news. The front page of the newspaper. They all declare the same thing:

Robin Williams is dead.

Mork is dead, Adrian Cronauer is dead. John Keating is dead. Garp, Peter Pan, Mrs. Doubtfire, Sean Maguire, the Genie from Alladin, Patch Adams and so many more beloved characters from our favourites movies. They are all dead.

And the world mourns, the world cries out for healing, the world begs for more understanding and help for those suffering from depression.

This news is a shock and yet it isn’t. Another star whose personal struggles and demons meant that we all share in the tragic results. We all grieve when a famous star dies.

Have Mercy on me, Lord.

The canaanite woman that approached Jesus must have been desperate. She must have been willing to risk any humiliation for her daughter. She also must have known that God in flesh would hear her plea. The woman who calls on Jesus does so knowing that she is repeating the language of worship, the language that Jesus and all Jews would have used in worship. Words that are spoken to God, this woman speaks to Jesus. A sign that she knows just who this Jesus fellow is.

And yet the disciples try to send her away.

They send her away because she is a gentile, because she is a woman, because she is a beggar. They send her away because she is different. She isn’t one of them, and as open minded to the poor, to the marginalized, to the downtrodden they think they are, this woman is too different and therefore undeserving of their mercy.

Even Jesus doesn’t have time for the woman. She begs him to help her daughter and Jesus says some pretty offensive word to her: It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

This is not the Jesus we know. This is a cruel, uncaring Jesus who doesn’t even see this woman as human, but more like a street dog.

Have mercy on me, Lord. 

In Ferguson, Missouri an 18 year old black teenager was walking down the street, and was stopped by a white police officer. The two got into a scuffle and the police officer shot the teen 8 times, killing him. The boy had his hands in the air, and was saying, “Don’t shoot” as he was killed.

The small suburb of St. Louis is shocked and outraged that a white police officer can kill a black teen without repercussion. Neighbourhood vigils and protests turn into a national movement calling for justice and for acknowledgement of the systemic racism that led to this incident.

Have mercy on me, Lord. 

The canaanite woman who has asked for mercy does not let up. She has a sick daughter, a child suffering from a demon, from an unknown illness. She asking for Jesus’ help not her own behalf, but as a parent. And she is willing to risk rejection, and to keep asking, even if he says no at first.

And Jesus gives a resounding no. He hasn’t come for gentiles, he has only come for the people of Israel. Jesus has come for God’s chosen people… yet this woman, this unclean gentile woman challenges Jesus… challenges Jesus to change his mind.

Have mercy on me, Lord.

Wars continue in Syria, Iraq and Gaza. People are dying in Africa from the deadly Ebola virus. The need for mercy in our dark world feels overwhelming these days as the news is a constant flow violence, sadness and shock.

Have Mercy on me, Lord.

These words are familiar to us. They are words that we pray, words of desperation and words that we practice week after week when we gather for worship. Words that are handed on to us and that we are entrusted to use faithfully.

And so when we don’t have the words and when we don’t know what to say, those familiar words like Have mercy on me Lord, or Peace be with you, or Thanks be to God, they spring to our lips without needing to think of them first. These are the words of the community of faith, they are the words of our forebears in the faith. These are the words that we teach each new generation as they come to worship.

And most importantly, maybe most surprisingly. These are words that change the mind of God.

To imagine words with such power is hard for us. Words that change the mind of God seem like too good to be true. And yet, that is exactly what happens each week, each moment we worship. The words that we hear in this place and the words that we share remind us over and over again, that God’s mind has been changed about us.

We have chosen condemnation, we have chosen death for ourselves. We are sinners who can only choose to die over and over again. Yet with mercy and love, God comes and speaks to us, with forgiveness and grace, God choses life and love for us. As Jesus changes his mind today, he doesn’t just change it about one woman. In Gospel of Matthew, from that moment on, Jesus’ mission was not just for the Jews, but all creation, for Jews and Gentiles alike. We are the ones asking Jesus for mercy and we are the Gentile members of the body of Christ who have received it.

Today, the Good News is that God changes God’s mind to include us. To include Gentiles, to include 21st century Canadians, to include the people of The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. God in Christ has come into our world, to be born, live and die for us. God in Christ has come to give us so much more than scraps from the table, but to give us a place at the table, to welcome us and feed us with God’s own body and blood. To make us into One Body. To hear our cries for Mercy.

And despite the horrible news that we have encountered this week there has been mercy. Since the death of Robin Williams there has been renewed awareness for those who suffer from mental illness and increased giving towards charity.

Mercy given.

In Ferguson, as tensions grew between police protestors, faith leaders and community leaders joined the call for justice but also the call for peace.

Mercy given.

In Africa there is help being sent, including new medicine with the hopes of helping.

Mercy given.

There are calls for peace and an end of violence in Gaza, Syria and Iraq, but most of all people of faith are standing together in solidarity promising to pray for innocent victims of conflict.

Mercy given.

Mercy isn’t about taking the problems away, but mercy is the promise that God walks with us in the midst of the darkness. God promises to be our light in a dark world, to be our healing balm for our suffering, to be the compassion that we so desperately need.

Have mercy on me Lord. These words will cross our lips over and over again. They will be ingrained into our bodies and into our souls, they are the words that change God’s mind, they are words that change us from dead sinners into members of of the body of Christ – forgiven and alive. Mercy is what we need these days.

We cry out,

Have Mercy on us Lord.

And Mercy is what God gives.

Amen.

St. Paul and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Acts 17:22-31

Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, `To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you… (Read the rest).

Sermon

image019It would serve us well to listen carefully to Paul today. Paul is telling us about a radical God that we don’t get to hear about very often. His words might have originated in Athens, from the place where Greek philosophers would gather to argue and debate ideas. But make no mistake, Paul is speaking directly to us. And there is a sadness in his sermon and there is a certain joy. The joy is the proclaiming the living God in whom we live – we move- and have our being. The sadness is in realizing that God is essentially unknown to most North Americans.

The place and people to whom Paul was speaking was not much different than our world today. The Athenians were careful folks who liked to hedge their bets when it came to religion. Scattered throughout the city would have been statues and temples to numerous Gods. To Greek Gods, Romans Gods, Persian Gods, and many more. Newborns would often be dedicated at each temple, just to make sure that all the bases were covered. Zeus, Athena, Mithras, Poseidon were all honoured just to be sure.

And just in case any gods had been overlooked, there was the statue to the unknown God. A coverall, so as not to offend any other gods out there that didn’t have specific statues or temples.

When Paul was in Athens, his purpose wasn’t to preach or evangelize. He was just visiting, waiting for his friends to re-join him while they preached in a neighbouring city. Paul, was more like a tourist than a traveling preacher. Yet, when he saw this statue to the unknown God, he must have seen an opportunity. An opportunity to address a culture that was quite concerned with covering their religious bases by doing the right rituals and keeping the right rules. The Athenian philosophy of religion was, make the gods happy and they won’t bother you,

The pluralistic religious system of the Athenians is not all that far off from our modern version of religion that is practiced today. In fact, sociologists have come up with a term for the most widely “practiced” religion in North America, and it is probably not the familiar name of a denomination. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This term was born out of study North American Teens and their views on religion. There was a surprisingly high level of agreement on what teens thought about God and the faith. There was no difference in views between those who were regular church attenders their whole lives to those with no church background at all.

monkimage

 

 

 

 

These are the core statements of their faith:

1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.

5. Good people go to heaven when they die

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is basically the belief that God sets out some ground rules for behaviour which is the moralistic part. The Therapeutic part is that God is a being who exists to make us feel good and solve our problems. Deism is belief in a God who just created the world and left it to its own devices, God does not have much bearing on the rest of our lives and doesn’t really engage us personally.

The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the God of Oprah, Hollywood and financial gain. It is the God of inspirational greeting cards, reality tv, music videos and consumerism.  Making money, being self-centered and ignoring the big issues of life are also encouraged, because God wants to send us to heaven as long we are good people, which most of us are.

This distanced, self centered approach to religion is precisely what Paul’s words address today. And this kind of religion is exactly what our sinful selves wish religion to be. The pluarism of the ancient greeks and modern day Moralistic Therapeutic Deism appeal to us at our basic levels. They are religions were we get to be in control, and God gets to be a divine therapist and butler. They don’t demand anything of us, and they don’t intrude on our daily lives in any kind of real way. They are the perfect religion for a curved in on itself humanity.

As Paul walked around the Aeropagus, looking at the variety of statues he must have been asking himself,

What about sin?

What about evil?

What about death?

What about hope?

What about grace?

What about love?

Grace_wordle

 

 

 

 

For Paul, all of the greek Gods would have been unknown. His are the questions that none of the unknown Gods could begin to answer. These are the questions that sit below the surface when life is going well, but that rise up and force us to consider them when things go wrong, when life begins to hurt, to be painful. The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism seems pretty empty in the face of addiction, disease, divorce and separation, in the face of death. It seems pretty empty in the face love, beauty, sacrifice and wonder too.

In fact, the unknown gods of the ancient greeks and of our modern world are not really gods at all when compared to the God who washes, names, dies with us and raises us to new  life all in the one baptism. These gods not compare to the One who feeds, forgives, joins and loves in communion. The god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism does not compare to the God who was born, who lived with us, who died on the cross and rose on the third day in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Paul sees the opportunity with the statue of the unknown God, to show his audience that God is known. And even more so, that God knows us. As Paul preaches to the Athenians:

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. God is known.

What a radical difference from what the Athenians knew. Paul does not just re-interpret the unknown God, but re-interprets the whole religious system. The God that Paul knows is the one who created all things. The God that Paul knows is the one who gives us life and movement and being — and does not require petty sacrifices in order to show mercy. The God that Paul knows, know us — knows what it is like to be born, to live, and die as one of us.

The God knows us sees us — all of us. Sees our faults and failures, our imperfections and loses. Our confusion and blindness. Our intolerance and bigotedness. Our despair and frailty. Our successes and hopes. Our dreams and desires. Our joys and our loves. All of these God sees.

The God who knows us hears us — our pleas for help. Our anger and frustration. Our sadness and sorrow. Our celebrations and thanksgivings. Our happiness and our wonder. Our normal and everyday words. All of these God hears.

This God who know us loves us — all of us. God loves all of us as a whole. All of us as individuals. All of us personally, intimately, completely. This God loves us despite our sinfulness and despite our faithfulness. This God who knows us simply loves us without condition.

The unknown Gods of ancient and modern times promise heaven for good behaviour.

But the God who knows us promises New Life to those that are dead. New Life for all creation. New Life for each one of us.

In a world that is often looking to cover its bases and for people whose best vision of what God could be is a divine therapist and butler, God offers so much more.

As Paul preaches to the Athenians and to us, the unknown distant gods that we try to make happy are not gods at all. The God of all creation, of all life, of all that moves of all that is. This God is known. This God is known because this God first knew us. As Paul preaches:

What you therefore worship as unknown, I proclaim to you. This God knows us. 

Amen.

Today, God is dead.

We have made it to the cross.
We began our journey on Ash Wednesday.
We have descended into the valley of Lent.
And now we are at the bottom.

We are at the foot of the cross.
High above us hangs the Messiah that we waiting and hoped for in Advent.
High above us is Jesus who called his followers from their fishing boats
and then healed the sick
and cast out demons
and taught in synagogues

High above us hangs the Christ who rode into Jerusalem a King
and the crowds shouted Hosanna, they shouted save now.
and the Christ ate with his disciples and gave them new bread and new wine.

High above us hangs the God nailed to a cross
by the same crowds who called him King,
by the best political and religious authorities of the day
by those whose power was most threatened by a God who had come close.

High above us hangs the symbol of our greatest power.

We have put God to death.

God_is_DeadToday, God is dead.

We have made it to the bottom of the valley of the shadow of death

And along the way we heard the shouts of Hosanna and crucify him come from our lips.
And along the way we felt the what it was like to hold the hammers and the nails in our hands.
And along we way we knew that the only way we could try to be God, to be our own little gods would be to use our most god like power.

Death.

God came to us.
God showed us his face.
God healed our infirmities.
God reconciled our shame
God called us out of our brokenness
God forgave of us our sin.

And all we could do was respond with death.

God_Is_Dead_by_deviantkupoGod is dead.

And creation killed God.
And humanity killed God.
And we killed God.

We are at the foot of the cross.
High above us hangs the greatest symbol of our power.
A dead God.

And little do we know.

God has come to show us, to heal us, to reconcile us, to call us, to forgive us.
God has come to receive our judgement and to take our death.

As the Messiah hangs, as the Christ hangs, as Jesus hangs, as God hangs, God is gathering us all beneath the cross.

Beneath death.

Beneath not just God’s death, but all death.
Humanity’s death
Creation’s death
All of our death.
Because death is our power.

But God has an even greater power.
God is gathering us at the foot of the cross. To show us greater power.
God is going to turn all of our death into something different.
Into something new.

God is dead.
And yet God is not ended.
And yet God is not over.
And yet God is not finished.

God is transforming death.
God is transforming us.
God is transforming everything.

cross-silhouette1God is not ended, death is ended.

God is not over. Death is over.
God is not finished. Death is finished.

We have made it to the cross.
We have come to the bottom of the valley, to the shadow of death
To the shadow of the cross.

And it is the here.

God is making all things new.
God is making us new.
God is making death into life.

High above us hangs Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, Jesus God in flesh.
Jesus who is putting death to death.
Jesus who is God’s great power.
Jesus who is life.

Lazarus in the Valley of Dry Bones

John 11:1-45

(Read the whole lesson here)…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 feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go… (Read the whole lessons here)

Sermon

ValleyofDryBones-620x3101The prophet Ezekiel said: The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 

We have have made our way through the season of Lent. 5 weeks, 5 encounters between Jesus and another aspect of the human condition. Temptation in the desert, Doubt with Nicodemus, Shame with the woman at the well, Refusal to see with the Blindman. We have journeyed through the Lenten wilderness, one where our flaws and sufferings have been put on display, where Jesus has met us with mercy.

But today, we take a turn towards Holy Week. Jesus still meets us in an aspect of the human condition, in grief. But the story foreshadows what is to come.

The prophet Ezekiel said: The Lord led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.

We begin with Jesus staying somewhere other than where he needs to be. His friends are in trouble, Lazarus is dying. They are hoping that he can come to help. But instead, he stays. And then after a few days of waiting, Jesus announces that Lazarus is dead and then decides to go to his friends in Judea. His disciples are puzzled, but his answer to them tells us that something is about to happen. “Let us go, that we may also die with him”.

As Jesus finally makes his way to Bethany, the real drama begins to unfold. News of Lazarus death is spreading, Jesus has arrived in time to grieve and mourn, but too late help. On is way to town, Martha, Lazarus’s sister comes out and meets Jesus on the road. Martha, the busybody, the one who needs to work goes to Jesus let her grief, her frustration out. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But now I know that God will give you whatever you ask him.” Martha’s word are accusatory. They are desperate. She is filled with grief. She utters words that could very well be our words.

“Lord, if you… than this…” We have all been where Martha is. We have all suffered loss, felt grief, felt abandoned or ignored. We have all suffered and wished for God’s intervention. We know what it is like to be Martha. To want the past to be different, to even be desperate enough to hope that it can still be changed.

drybonesThe prophet Ezekiel said: The Lord said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord GOD, you know.”

Jesus is gentle enough with Martha to let her make her accusations, to let her share her desperation. Jesus could have done something, maybe he still can.

And then Jesus answers Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”

Can we imagine hearing those words? Can we imagine the God of the universe, come in flesh, speaking to us, “Your loved one will rise again.” Can we imagine standing in front of God almighty as God declares that death is no barrier, that the powers of this world that we think are unassailable are a mere trifle to God.

Martha is too lost in her grief to really take in the moment, she doesn’t really get who is speaking to her and what Jesus is saying. She responds almost automatically,

“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Martha gives a formulaic response, but one also resigned to death. Martha is clinging to the promise as best she can, but she does not see the immediacy of Jesus’ statement. And still Jesus stays with her, “I am the resurrection and the life”

And the Prophet Ezekiel said: Then the Lord said to me, “Prophesy toUnknown-1 these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

The God of the universe has just declared that Lazarus will live… But we don’t get the impression that Martha has really absorbed what Jesus is saying to her.

And so Jesus continues down the road, and this time Mary, Martha’s sister comes to meet him. She accosts Jesus with the same statement that her sister gave, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And maybe this time it is Jesus who now understands something. These two women cannot see past their grief. They can only experience the rawness of their brother’s death. They can only painfully long for their brother to be alive, they can only see the empty hole their dead brother has left in their world.

This time, Jesus simply stays with these grieving women. He doesn’t try to remind them of who he is, he doesn’t try to buoy their spirits with what he is about to do. He simply shares in their grief. He weeps with Mary. He is moved by their fragility and their weakness. Jesus knows that is about to call Lazarus out of his grave, but still the deep grief that Mary and Martha carry moves him in spirit.

We have all been here. This is the essence of what it means to be human. To know that everything around us is limited. That we only have so many days on earth, we only have so much we get to do and be and experience. And so we grieve the rest, all the things, all the people that we didn’t get enough of.

Maybe this grief is a lesson. Maybe it isn’t the disciples, or Mary or Martha who need to see God’s glory. Just maybe Lazarus hasn’t died so that we can see, but so that Jesus, so that God, can live grief in person. So God can truly understand what it means to grieve.

And when Jesus finally knows incarnate grief, knows what it is mourn like we do, Jesus makes his way to the tomb. Jesus has learned grief, but Mary, Martha, the disciples, the crowds, us, we are about to see what it is like to be God, what death really means when it stands before the creator of life itself.

Ezekiel said: So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

As Jesus, Mary and Martha, the disciples and the crowds stand before Lazarus’ tomb, he declares,

“Take away the stone”

And Martha protests. Martha the one who has just confessed that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, says “There will be a stench for he has been dead four days”.

Martha, stuck in her grief, is telling Jesus there will be a stench. She is speaking to God, to the One who uttered the word “Let there be…” in creation. The one whom is the Word of God made flesh.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus rarely looses his cool, but at this moment, full of grief too, Jesus snaps are Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed…” Jesus has declared that he is the Resurrection and the Life, and we are about to see what that really means.

The prophet Ezekiel said: Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

468304834_640And the stone is rolled away. And that very first promise that Jesus makes to Martha,

“Your brother with rise again”

That promise comes to fruition. Lazarus walks out of the tomb.

And we too are about to enter into Holy Week. Into a period of remembered and renewed grief. We know what is going to happen, we know that Good Friday is coming. We know that humanity is about nail Jesus, that we are about to nail God to the cross.

But we go with these words ringing in our ears,

“On the third day, he will rise again”.

And the promise rings true for also for us ,

“You will rise again”

Amen.

 

Asking Questions with Nicodemus

Preached at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on the 2nd Sunday of Lent. 

John 3:1-17

 …(Jesus said)The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”… (Read the whole lesson here).

Sermon

Each year in Lent, St. David’s would have soup and the word before their regular Thursday Evening Prayer service. People would gather for soup and they would talk over the readings for the coming Sunday together with Father Angelo. After an hour or so, the group would gather in the sanctuary for Evening Prayer.

Heather had been an Evening prayer regular for several months. She wasn’t a member of the congregation, and she didn’t attend Sunday mornings, but she had been faithfully attending Thursday Night Evening Prayer week after week for a while. Father Angelo hoped she would come to soup and the word.

(Pause)

Last week, we began Lent like we do each year. On the first Sunday of the season we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

St-Nicodemus-of-the-Holy-Mountain-frescoToday, we move from Matthew’s Gospel to John’s. We step into the story with Nicodemus. He is a Pharisee who has come to see Jesus at night. Nicodemus has come to Jesus with questions. Nicodemus comes asking questions that eventually lead Jesus to utter what is perhaps the most famous verse in the whole Bible: John 3:16 is memorized and recited by Christians all over world. John 3:16 can cause us to miss the story around it because of the way it dominates our memory. Instead of this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, we hear that verse and imagine a shirtless, beer-gutted man holding up a sign at a football game.

Once we get past John 3:16 and when we can bring our thoughts back to Nicodemus and Jesus, we can discover a powerful encounter between two unlikely men. The conversation that Nicodemus and Jesus share contains some of the richest images of the bible. Being born again or from above by the spirit, the spirit blowing where it will like the wind, Moses lifting up the snake in the desert, for God so loved the world. These images can be so rich, that we can forget this is a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee.

So lets step back from the conversation for a moment, and imagine the scene. It is night, Jesus is waiting in a convenient spot, maybe beside a fire. Nicodemus comes in secret to speak with Jesus. Nicodemus is on the other team from Jesus. Nicodemus is Pharisee, a member of the group trying to trap Jesus, the ones who will eventually accuse Jesus before the temple authorities chanting “Crucify him.” Nicodemus is risking a lot by bringing his questions to Jesus.  Nicodemus risks being discovered, losing his place in his community, losing all respect from his peers. And Nicodemus isn’t even sure about this Jesus guy.

(Pause)

On the second week of soup and the word at St. David’s, the group talked about the story of Nicodemus meeting Jesus at night. As people asked questions about being born again, or who will be saved and who is condemned, Heather sat in silence. Finally just before the hour was up, Heather chimed in.

“I understand Nicodemus” she started. “I mean, he has questions. He has seen things and heard stories about Jesus, but how is he supposed to know that Jesus is the real deal. How can Nicodemus be sure that Jesus really is the one? I have read the stories, I have heard the testimonies. How can I be sure Jesus really is the son of God? I think Nicodemus gets it. He wants to know his part in this, just like I do. What is my part with God. What am I supposed to do to be born again? To be saved by the Son of God?”

Father Angelo was about to answer, when the worship assistant came ringing the bell for worship. The group got up and headed up to evening prayer. Heather’s question was left hanging.

(Pause)

We can be a lot like Nicodemus when it comes to God and to faith. We want to know how things work before dive in. We are not sure we want to show our hand before we have to. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in secret. And he leaves without being convinced. Sometimes it might be the same with us. We come to Jesus expecting answers, and instead we leave unconvinced.

Faith and church and God can leave us feeling like Nicodemus. As we go about our day, the world keeps us busy and preoccupied. But when the darkness settles in, the questions come. At night, we have the time to sit and wonder. Question rung through out minds lying in bed, or late at night when the television can’t hold our attention. We begin to wonder. Is God for real? Does faith make any sense? We start out unsure, but we can become uncertain. Uncertainty leads to doubt, and we become shaken, afraid, alone. What if God isn’t all that we say God is?

Nicodemus leaves the conversation unconvinced today, but farther along in John’s gospel, Nicodemus shows up again. This time he half heartedly defends Jesus to his Pharisees buddies. As the story of Jesus unfolds, Nicodemus is hanging in there, even if only at the fringe or on the margin.

And maybe, of all the things, all the familiar rich images that Jesus uses today, it is what Jesus doesn’t say that might be significant. Jesus does not condemn Nicodemus. He doesn’t expect Nicodemus to demonstrate his faith. There is no expectation that Nicodemus sign up and become an open disciple. Jesus doesn’t treat this man like the fisherman calling them from their boats. He doesn’t heal Nicodemus with an exhortation to faith. Jesus simply gives Nicodemus time and space. Jesus welcomes Nicodemus, allows him the room to ask questions, and gives him the chance to think. Jesus let’s Nicodemus watch the story unfold.

(Pause)

Throughout the rest of Lent, Heather kept coming to soup and the word. She had more questions, but none as direct as her questions about Nicodemus.

It was the Good Friday custom at St. David’s to have a prayer vigil. Members would sign up to pray at the church for an hour at a time all through the day and through the night. Father Angelo noticed that Heather had signed up for the 8PM shift.

At 8PM Good Friday, he joined her in the candle lit sanctuary, and the two sat in silence for a while. Eventually Heather looked over to him and said,

“Father Angelo, did you know that Nicodemus is the one who comes to bury Jesus after he is crucified? All the other disciples, the ones who boldly followed Jesus for years, they all hid away, afraid. But when Jesus is crucified, it is Nicodemus who comes and asks for the body. When he sees the whole story, he is finally ready to be an out in the open disciple.

“I know” said Father Angelo. “Interesting isn’t it”.

“So why couldn’t Jesus tell him to wait for the rest of the story when Nicodemus first came with his questions?”

“Jesus isn’t about giving answers, Jesus is about showing us God. Nicodemus needed to see that. Maybe you needed to that.”

“I did see it” Heather said. “I finally saw it this week, I saw Jesus today, on the cross. I finally saw the rest of the story.”

“Good” said Father Angelo. “But story isn’t over yet… everything is going to change on Sunday morning.”

(Pause)

Like Nicodemus, we can hesitate, we can be unsure about Jesus. We can wonder about God. We might prefer to keep our faith in the dark, in secret, we might leave feeling unconvinced many days. Like Nicodemus we have our questions, and we wish Jesus would just answer them, because we want to know. If we could just know if Jesus, if God is real… than the uncertainty, the fear, the loneliness might leave us.

But that is not how Jesus is with us. Jesus doesn’t come to give us answers. Jesus comes to meet us in our doubts, in our questions. Jesus meets us in the darkness, in our fears and isolation. Jesus meets us and give us space. The space to ask our questions, and the space to watch the story unfold. And Jesus tells us the good news again and again. That God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son to die on a cross for us. God gave his son so that whoever questions, whoever wonders, whoever hears the story from beginning to end, from manger to cross to empty tomb might be transformed for eternal life.

That is how Jesus is, saying what we need to hear, not saying what we don’t need to hear, and giving us the space to discover that we have been caught up by and changed by God’s great love.

Amen. 

 

Ash Wednesday – The Bell Tolls for You

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The flashing red lights of firetrucks and ambulances at an accident scene.

A “Code Blue” announced over the intercom at a Hospital, followed by doctors and nurses rushing down hallways.

A doorbell rung late at night and a door opened to a police officer or pastor bringing bad news of a loved one.

Intrusions all of them. Harsh images that force us to see how fleeting and impermanent we are. They take away the cares and concerns of real life. The price of gas, keeping coffee appointments and promotions at work hardly seem to matter in face of these images.

And it is not out of morbid curiosity that we all slow down to drive by and gawk at that road accident. Or that all conversation stops in a hospital waiting room when all the staff rush away for a Code Blue. Or that we peer out our windows to see why there are those late night and officious looking visitors at the neighbour’s house. We don’t stare because it is fascinating. We stare because it could have been us. Deep within us, we all have the sense that if the wind blew hard enough, we might just drift away like dust in the wind.

ash-wednesdayTonight, on this night of Ashes, we are practicing. We are practicing for the moment when it will be us. “Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust” and sand in the shape of a cross will be laid on our caskets as we wait to be lowered into the grave.

This is a harsh reality that we rehearse tonight. Sin and Death are real. The palms that we waved last year on Palm Sunday have been burned to remind us of this. No matter how much attention we give to all the other goings on in life, no matter how much we care about work, family, sports, entertainment, politics, fashion, money or whatever, we are all subject to the effects of Sin and Death.

And not just sins like lying, stealing, or cheating. We are subject to Sin. To the reality that we are born into brokenness. That we are always on our way to death, from the moment we are born. We are the walking dead.

This is what the Ashes say to us. Just as ancient peoples covered their heads in sack cloths and ashes, as the ashes are placed on our foreheads, they speak of the shame of mortality that we all bear. The shame of being alienated and estranged from each other, and alienated and estranged from God. The shame of having tried to be like God in garden of Eden, and the shame of failing to be like God ever since.

But the shame that the Ashes speak to us is not only our shame. The ashes speak also of God’s shame. The shame that God willingly took on when Christ was born into our dusty flesh. The shame that God willingly endured by living with those who could not understand, those who pridefully mocked, those who maliciously persecuted and those willingly deceived. The shame that God then took to the cross, in humiliation. The shame that God took to the grave in powerlessness.

But out of the shame of the grave, God began the undoing of our own shame. God began the reversing of our mortality. God began the birthing of Life in the face of death. And while the Ashes remind us of sin and death, the cross shape in which they are placed reminds us that Sin and Death have been conquered.

The Ashes will be washed away, but the cross on each of our foreheads remains. Because that cross was placed there in Baptism. It was sealed to our dusty bodies as a permanent sign that out of death comes new life.

The Ashes mark the beginning of our journey into Lent. The beginning of God’s journey down with us into the water’s of baptism. The place where the power of death is washed away. And under the waters, we too die. We die to our shame and to our sin.

And over the next 40 days of Lent, we will be continually washed in baptismal waters, we will be made ready to dine with Jesus at the Last Supper, we will be made ready to lay at the foot cross, we will be made ready to preach the good news of an empty tomb.

But tonight, on day one, as the red lights flash for us. As the Code Blue is announced for us. As the door bell is tolled for us. As the sand is tossed on our caskets, We will confess that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Amen. 

Share your Ash Wednesday thoughts, or Lenten Disciplines in the comments or on Facebook: The Millennial Pastor Page or on Twitter: @Parker Erik