Monday, April 30, 2012

How Would You Respond?

Yesterday I preached on the second lesson 1 John 3:16-24, kinda avoiding "Good Shepherd Sunday" as the 4th Sunday of Easter is often called, but I think this was the more needed sermon for Bethlehem.


I want us to rewind a little and look back on our second lesson from First John.  John 3:16-17 gets so much attention about being the gospel in a nutshell, but in a lot of ways 1 John 3:16-17 is an equally important verse, maybe the commission in a nutshell:  We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? 

It is a beautiful verse but can become a little overwhelming.  In fact this passage is not good news.  Because no matter who we are and how much or how little we have there are still times when we have refused to help someone in need.  No matter who we are and how willing or unwilling we are, it is hard for us to want to lay down our lives for one another.  And so this passage, this commissioning to us to go out and be like Jesus, becomes an impossible standard. 

And when people hear an impossible standard they often react in one of three ways.  The first is to not even try.  Why should I help, or love anyone when there will always be more people to help and love than I can possibly help or love.  The other option is to be overwhelmed. To try and help and love each and every person but then start worrying about those who one cannot help or love, which then causes us to not help and love ourselves, which makes us more worried about helping and loving others so that soon you are out of control in this downward spiral unable to actually help anyone.

The first two options – doing nothing or being overwhelmed – means that you look focus on the numbers and the quantity.  Let’s try a specific example – church growth.  In either mindset, church growth is just a numbers game.  Either you think there will never be enough church members or active congregation participants to fund the budget or do the ministry that you are call to do, so why even bother fighting this losing battle.  Or you see church growth as something that can never stop until you have reached each and every person and until you have reached each and every person you have not yet done true ministry and Jesus true flock is not yet formed and so you have to keep striving and going and well, eventually you just burn out, because there will always be more people you need to reach out to. 

The third option is – to do what you can and be content that you are doing what you can and loving and helping those who God has called you to love and help.  But it takes a different mindset to be content doing what you can. 

When you can be content doing what you know you are called to do, doing what you are doing, you can know that it matters to God.  In that case church growth is not about numbers, quantity, but about quality.  Have you made a difference?  Has one person learned about God, or was helped, or felt loved or served because of the efforts that you did?  If you can answer yes to that, even If that one person was you, then you can be content knowing that God’s will has been served and you can continue to do what you are doing, knowing God’s love is being shared.

The author of First John asks us to lay down our lives for one another just as Christ did.  And that is a scary thought for us.  We see Jesus has laid down his life and died for us so we assume that laying down one’s life must mean that we too must die.  But that is not what laying down one’s life means.  Jesus does not want us to be martyrs, Jesus wants us to live for Christ.  Laying down something means giving it up, so that another might use it.  We are asked to lay down our lives, get out of the way, so that our lives, ourselves may be used by another.

Now going back to our three options of how to respond when one is faced with this impossible task love and help all.  We can do nothing, which is not giving up our lives.  We can strive to do everything, which may seem like we are allowing ourselves to be used by others but instead we are allowing ourselves to be USED UP by others.  Or we can do what we are called to do, make a difference in this world, even if it is just one person’s life and it is then that we are laying down our lives, getting out of the way, so that God may use our lives to help, serve and love another. 

So how will you respond when you are faced with the impossible standard of First John: How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dangerous Jesus

I decided to focus a little more on the first reading from Sunday, Acts 3:12-19, though all the readings on Sunday had a theme of witness.  

Enjoy.  --oh and fair warning, I'm a little snarky in how I try to ignite the congregation to witness to Jesus in their lives. 

In our first reading from Acts, Peter derides the people gathered about how they killed Jesus and meanwhile let a murder go free.  And we think back to Palm Sunday, and Good Friday as we hear the cries of the crowd asking for Barabbas and the echoes of “Crucify him, crucify him” coming from those gathered at Jesus’ trial.  Now this has often made no sense to many Christians.  Why would the crowds want a murder to be set free and meanwhile ask, demand, yell, shout, that Jesus, the messiah, whom we worship, the Lord and Savior who healed the sick and cared for the poor to be sentenced to capital punishment on the cross?

But Jesus can be dangerous!  For a murder you know what he did, and we don’t know the circumstances of Barabbas, did he kill a Roman guard who first attacked him in self-defense?  Did he kill someone there was a long standing feud with but most of the time he is a nice guy?  I doubt that Barabbas was a psychopathic serial killer.  And so the crowds probably did not think that their lives were in any danger by letting him, a convicted murder, go free.  But Jesus could endanger their lives.

If Jesus was set free, what would happen?  They, the followers of Jesus, could be tried and killed for going against the government.  They could be moved to give away their goods to those more in need.  They could be compelled to leave their families, their community, and their livelihood and follow this itinerant preacher.  They could be persuaded to understand that faith is more that about individual salvation and personal good deeds. They could be convinced that this world, this life that they are leading, is not good enough and God has a better plan, but it requires them doing something about it.  And that is why Jesus is dangerous.

Jesus is dangerous.  Jesus is dangerous because he calls us out of our comfort zones.  Jesus is dangerous because he calls us to think about the greater good, to think about the care of people who are not us.  Jesus is dangerous because he calls to not just acknowledge the poor, the widow, the sick, the orphan, the disenfranchised, the outcast but to care for them.  Jesus is dangerous. 

And so we keep him locked up.  We keep Jesus in this sanctuary, we keep it so that only the pastor is supposed to talk about him.  We, as this congregation, and as the greater church, make it the pastor’s responsibility to evangelize, to witness to others, to invite others to worship, to grow the congregation.  Well guess what?  That is not my job! 

We are all called to be witnesses to Jesus.  We are all called to tell others about his life, his death, his resurrection and how he lives in our lives today.  You are called to be a witness to others.  You are called to let this dangerous Jesus out.  To let him live in your life even if it gets you in trouble.  You are called to let this dangerous Jesus out of this sanctuary, out of this building and into your daily life. Witnessing to Jesus in our lives and telling others about his word is a job greater than any one person can do alone, which is why that is not my job alone. 

It is not my job alone to be the one who grows this congregation, to spread Jesus’ message to others in Redding, Wilton, Weston, Ridgefield and beyond.  That is your job. My job is just to support you, to care for you, to nurture you, to pray for your efforts.  My job is to ignite you to go out and be a witness, to hear Jesus’s words from today’s gospel “you are witnesses of these things” Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and current place in our lives today.  And it your job to let this dangerous Jesus out, into your home, into your work place, into your community, into your whole life. Yes Jesus is dangerous but he can also be life transforming. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Keeping your Doubts with you!

Back to "normal" - whatever that means.  Here is today's sermon based on John 20:19-31

I love this text. I love hearing the story of Jesus appearing to the disciples while they are in the locked room. I love imagining their reaction.  Were they scared, shocked. How many of them grabbed Jesus' hands, touched him to make sure he wasn't a ghost.  I love this story. It is probably one of my favorites to preach on, because I think everyone can see themselves in Thomas and the rest of the disciples. 

Unfortunately Thomas gets a bum wrap.  He is the one called Doubting, but yet each of the disciples doubted.  Even with all the times Jesus warns that he will return from the dead, no one expected to see Jesus alive again after he died.  That is why they proclaimed to Thomas "we have seen the Lord."

And we are right there with Thomas and the other disciples, not truly believing what Jesus has told us, not completely sure how this resurrection took place or what it means for our lives.  We are just like the disciples, wanting to believe with all of our heart soul and mind and yet still worried about our future.  Still worried to completely trust in God for the future of this congregation.  Not able to let go of all of our fears about personal finances or measuring up to coworkers or strangers, we are not able to let go of our doubts when it comes to our relationships both with God and others.  We are like Thomas and the disciples, we have doubts.
But it is okay to have doubts.  It is okay to question, to wonder, to worry about ourselves. Our family, our future, our faith.  It is okay to have doubts because we are not God. We do not know everything. 

So I want you to think for a moment (silently) and reflect on your doubts.  What are the concerns that keep you up at night?  What questions would you ask God if you were able to? What worries you about the future? What doubts do you have? 

Now take a moment and write them down.  And put them in the egg I'm giving you.  Because we will always have doubt with us.  I want to keep this egg with you, keep it in your purse or your car.  Maybe keep it in your work bag or a bedside table.  Or maybe just take the slip of paper and keep it in your wallet.

We need not hide from our doubts or banish them.  I cringe when I hear people say that we need to not be like Thomas.  Instead embrace your inner Thomas, verbalizing your doubts.  And hopefully in a week or two or a month or a year, these doubts will be answered.  Now some of our doubts will never be answered, and if these doubts are answered others will take their place. 

So why an Easter Egg – well they are a sign of the resurrection, a sign of the empty tomb.  And so hopefully for some of you, some day you will come across this egg and open it and realize that there is nothing really there.  Yes this slip of paper with your writing will be on it, but this doubt that right now is weighing so heavily on you is actually no longer a doubt, it is no longer a concern – that really it is nothing.  Your egg will be empty. 

Because remember doubts are part of faith, and we are blessed by Jesus when we believe, whether we have doubts or not.  And our doubts do change overtime, so let’s be like Thomas and embrace them. 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hiding from Death

Recently I was on a Ravelry chat board that was talking not about over-protective parents, but over-protective schools that want to take words such disease, divorce and birthday banned from standardized test because the words might offend or bring up painful memories.  This lead to various people discussing how either disease and death has been hidden from children by parents and the various repercussions.

And it is easy to knock parents who want to hid death from their kids - the ones who tell them that their dog ran away or that grandpa has gone away for awhile. But really these parents hid death out of love.  They fear that their children won't completely understand or that they will ask questions that they are not able to answer.  And because they love their children, they don't want them to hurt, and so they tell lies and half-truths.

But we can't knock these parents and not see it also in ourselves. This is Holy Week, the week when we walk with Jesus towards the cross.  Yesterday in worship we heard not just of the day when Jesus was celebrated as he came into Jerusalem but also we heard the entire passion narrative as Jesus was anointed before his death, had his last meal with his friends, was betrayed, arrested, put on trial, denied, sentenced to death, died and was buried.  We read the entire passion because many people do not come to the other worship services this week and therefore go straight from Jesus' entry into Jerusalem to his resurrection and they miss hearing about his death, which is where the gospel really lies.

I love Maundy Thursday and Good Friday worship services.  I have often thought that you really can't celebrate Easter unless you have first shared in Jesus' last meal and witness his death.  Yes they are full of sorrow, yes sometimes there are tears.  These are emotions that we may not want to bear witness to, but they are part of the human story, they are part of the emotion spectrum that we as human have been given. And yet I don't know of a single congregation that has double, triple or quadruple the attendance on Palm Sunday or Easter than they will have on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday combined.  Because we want to hid from death, just like those parents who do not tell their children about death.

We can't live Sunday to Sunday - the parade to the empty tomb.  We would be missing an important part to the story.

The story is not that Jesus was loved by the people of Jerusalem and a week later something miraculous happen as a tomb was empty.

The story is that Jesus was loved by the people of Jerusalem, who quickly changed their ways as even one of Jesus' closest friends betrayed him and handed him over to authorities.  Once arrested Jesus was put on trial and the crowds who just a few days before hailed him as king were now shouting for his death.  Jesus then was put to death on a cross and his body was buried as those friends and family were left to celebrate one of the holiest days of the year without the one they loved.

But that is not were the story ends.  Jesus overcame death. Jesus rose from the death.  His body was not there where they had laid him.  He was alive again.

We try to hid death, but we can't.  Eventually children will learn the truth about their dog or grandpa and they might feel betrayed.  Or ideas of zombies or the un-dead develop, but we know those are just stories.  We can however celebrate death, and more importantly celebrate that death has no power over Jesus.  We can realize that death does happen, that regardless of who we are, someday we will die, along with our loved ones and our pets.  Even Jesus died!

But that is not the end of the story, it is just the beginning.