Monday, April 27, 2015

Sunday's Sermon: Who Is Our Shepherd? (April 26, 2015)

The "Good Shepherd" window
at Cunningham United
Methodist Church.
Who Is Our Shepherd?
John 10:11-18
April 26, 2015[1]

It has to be one of the most beloved phrases in the Bible.  “The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want.”  (Psalm 23:1).  I have read this Psalm in every funeral service that I have conducted, including the two that I conducted this week.  These words seem to speak universally to us at our times of deepest needs.  They offer to us in our times of trouble the images of lying down in green pastures, and walking alongside cool, quiet pools of water.  This Psalm even calls to mind the image of a loving shepherd who will gently apply the pressure of the rod and staff to guide us in the way we should travel.  It gives us a note of hope in the midst of our dark times—the hope that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.  It’s no wonder that this Psalm is so universally loved.

It occurred to me this week that the Jewish people living in Galilee and Judea 2,000 years ago would have loved this Psalm just as much as we do.  The life of the shepherd was an even closer reality for them than it is for us. Where we might sometimes become a bit sentimental in reading these words, they knew first-hand the realities of the life of the shepherd.  Shepherding was hard work.

If I am right that this Psalm was as beloved then as it is today, then Jesus must have known this Psalm, as well.  I would have to assume that this Psalm was read at funerals 2,000 years ago.  Perhaps Jesus read these very words when burying his stepfather Joseph: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.”  (Psalm 23:6). 

I mention all this to put into context just how big a step it was for people to hear Jesus proclaim the words of today’s Gospel Lesson, “I am the good shepherd.”  (John 10:11).  We have heard these words so many times that they become tame with familiarity.  For those first century listeners, these words were shocking—for some, they were blasphemous.

For the devoted and faithful followers of Yahweh, there was one Lord, the Lord who was proclaimed in the prayer from Deuteronomy:  “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).  It was the Lord whom they knew as their Shepherd in that Psalm that they knew and loved so well.  It was the Lord God who the prophet Ezekiel was speaking about when he prophesied, “For thus says the Lord God; I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out….  I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…”  (Ezekiel 34:11, 15-16a).  And here was Jesus saying to the Pharisees that He was one with the Father.  He was God.  He was their Shepherd.  And they were appalled!

If we read the context in which this story comes up, we won’t be surprised.  Jesus was speaking these words in the middle of a controversy.  He had just restored the sight of a man who was born blind.  Jesus had made some mud and spread it on the blind man’s eyes and instructed him to go wash it off in the Pool of Siloam.  This took place on the Sabbath, which put Jesus at odds with the Pharisees.  Instead of celebrating with the man who once was blind but now could see, the Pharisees challenged the man who had been healed, told him that he was “born entirely in sins,” and then drove the him out of the temple.  Jesus affirmed to the man that Jesus had come “so that those who do not see may see…”  (John 9:1-40).  To those religious leaders, however, who said, “we are not blind, are we” Jesus said, “your sin remains.”  (v. 41). 

It is at this point that Jesus identifies himself with the Good Shepherd.  Jesus offers His listeners several characteristics of the Good Shepherd that they will find in Him:

·      Jesus says that he is the gate by which the sheep enter the sheepfold.  (John 10:7-9).  Those who enter through this gate will be healed and restored to abundant life, for Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  (John 10:10).

·      Jesus says that his sheep know him. The true shepherd knows his sheep by name; he calls them and leads them.  They will follow him, but they won’t follow the imposter, the stranger, because they don’t know the voice of the stranger.  (John 10:4-5, 14).

·      Jesus says that he is not like the hired hand who runs away; He is the One who lays down his life for His sheep.  (John 10:15). 

Jesus’ description of the Good Shepherd brings to mind the words of the Prophet Isaiah that we hear during the Season of Advent, which promise that God “will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”  (Isaiah 34:11).

How did the religious leaders react to all of this?  Some said that Jesus was possessed by a demon and was out of his mind.  (John 10:20).  But others wondered at His words.  “These are not the words of one who has a demon.  Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”  (John 10:21).

Jesus said “I am the Good Shepherd” in the middle of a heated discussion about blindness—both physical and spiritual.  The spiritual leaders, who should have been able to see who Jesus was, were not up to the task.  In their blindness, they couldn’t see who Jesus was.  They couldn’t see that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, not only would restore sight to the blind beggar on the street; Jesus also would restore their own sight if they asked.  They couldn’t see that Jesus not only would lay down his life for the poor and the oppressed; Jesus would lay down his life for them too.

How do you react to Jesus when He says that He is the Good Shepherd?  How do you react when you see Jesus breaking the rules to restore sight on the Sabbath?  How do you react when you hear Jesus speak with a tax collector or a woman with a bad reputation?  How do you react when Jesus sits at table with sinners?  Do you join in rejoicing because the lost has now been found, or do you find fault?

“I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  And I lay down my life for the sheep.”  (John 10:14).  This shepherding business is not all still waters and green pastures.  It also means taking the sheep through the Valley of the Shadow.  It also means laying down your life for your sheep. 

It is that way for us, too.  Jesus sends us to love just as He loved.  As our reading from 1 John shows, love is more that words; love reveals itself in deeds.  Jesus “laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  (1 John 3:16).  “[Let] us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”  (1 John 3:18).  We are supposed to love like that. 

During these Fifty Days of Easter, we have spent the first few weeks recalling the historical events recorded in the Gospels—events that describe the Resurrection.  Now, we broaden our focus to the even larger picture and ask, in light of these events, who is Jesus for you?  Who is your shepherd?  Who are you following today?

For Jesus to be your shepherd, you don’t have to understand the theology of atonement.  You don’t have to solve the mysteries of creation.  You don’t have to figure out the secrets of miracles.  You simply listen for the voice of the shepherd, and then follow Him.  You simply need to turn around, to change direction, and to follow the Shepherd in His way of living and His way of loving. 

The Shepherd is looking for you today.  Will you follow?

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on the Fourth Sunday of Easter.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Last Sunday's Sermon: Children of God (April 19, 2015)

Children of God
1 John 3:1-7
April 19, 2015[1]

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1a).  

You have heard me tell our children, over and over:  “we are Children of God.”  I was especially pleased when Pat Carney related to me a conversation she overheard between the Carneys’ youngest son, Caleb, and a friend who was just beginning to attend Confirmation Classes at his church.  Caleb was describing his own experience.  The friend wasn't too sure about what he was getting into.  Jacob told him, "It wasn’t too bad.  You know Jesus, right?"  "Yes."  “Then—all you have to remember is:  you are a child of God, Jesus died for your sins, and Jesus loves you.  Remember these things and you've got it made."   I was so proud!  If Caleb can remember those lessons throughout his spiritual journey, we will have done our job!  

This past week, Pat offered those on the Cunningham United Methodist Youth Facebook page another reminder that we are children of God—but this one added a bit of challenge.  She shared a post by Christian rock singer Toby Mac.  This post contains a quotation from Max Lucado which says, “To call yourself a child of God is one thing.  To be called a child of God by those who watch your life is another thing altogether.”[2]

I also was interested in some of the comments that were posted on Toby Mac’s original Facebook post.  Comments such as one made by a woman named Emily, who wrote, “I thought that we're children of God no matter what humans say....” and a similar one written by a woman named Kelly, who asks “Aren't we all a child of God?? I don't think I agree with this phrase. I am a child of the Most High King and anyone reading this is as well Jesus loves you!!!”  From those comments, and the responses to those comments, I was amazed that such a seemingly innocent phrase could create such confusion. 

·      Some people find in these words a statement of God’s universal love for all people—“no matter what.” 
·      Others find a condition attached to these words, and believe that a person can only claim these words if they have received salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. 
·      Others will take this thought a step further to suggest (quoting Galatians 4 and Ephesians 1) that we become “children of God” through adoption into God’s family when we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ.  
·      And yet others will use this phrase with the added condition that if we have become a child of God, we will live differently.  If you are going to be part of the family, then you need to live like the family.
·      And then there are still others who use this phrase with less of focus on how we become a child of God than on the way God treats His children.  It’s not about us; it’s about God.

A simple phrase used in different ways by different people, each containing an element of truth but no single phrase offers the entire picture.

So I did what I often do when I see confusion over words.  I hit the books.  To my surprise, I found that even the writers of the different books of the Bible had different things in mind when they used this phrase in different contexts.

Some of the confusion is created because of the difficulties inherent in translating Biblical Greek into English.  We find several different Greek words used for concepts often translated into English into the figure of speech we read as “children of God.”  To sort through all of these different nuances is a much larger task than the time you will give me this morning.

But let me offer a few comments.

1.   For those who interpret “children of God” as a universal statement, I agree that all of us are created as God’s children, and that God loves all of us—universally.  Since all of us are sinners, none of us can claim that God loves some of us more than others.  All of us are loved by God, no matter what.  We proclaim, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16).  That means all of us.  We all are loved without condition.

2.   We all were created with free will, with the ability to choose our own way.  Some have chosen to follow Christ.  The Gospel of John affirms, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”  (John 1:12).  But there is another consequence of being created with free will.  Free will also gives us the capacity to sin—we have egos, we make choices.  Sadly, we can misuse the freedom God gives us to go our own way.  We can see this point illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-25).  The younger son demands his inheritance from his father—what amounts to a declaration that as far as that son is concerned, the father is as good as dead.  Was the younger son still a child of his father?  Yes.  Did the father force him to stay, against his will, with the family?  No.  And yet, did the father continue to love his son, continue to watch for his wandering son to return, and welcome him with open arms, a robe, a ring and a party to celebrate his return.  Absolutely!  God, our Heavenly Father, is continually watching, waiting and hoping for us to return home!  And when we do, God celebrates!

3.   But that is not the end of our Christian journey; that is only the beginning.  Our spiritual rebirth, being “born from above” (John 3:3) marks the starting point in a covenant relationship.  God loves us.  God’s part of the covenant was sealed with a cross, proclaimed by an empty tomb, and continues to be present in our lives through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  But there is a covenant on our part too—to let God transform us so that we can live the way God wants us to live.  That is the point that Max Lucado was addressing in his book.  He is not saying that we should live to earn the praise of others, nor is he saying that somehow we need to earn our way into God’s favor.  But he is saying that when we enter into this new life in Jesus Christ, we will live differently as children of God.  When we respond to the invitation to “repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:4; 15), we will seek to live differently, to lead holy lives.  Max Lucado puts it this way: 

Holiness seeks to be like God. You want to make a difference in your world? Live a holy life: Be faithful to your spouse. Be the one at the office who refuses to cheat. Be the neighbor who acts neighborly. Be the employee who does the work and doesn’t complain. Pay your bills. Do your part and enjoy life. Don’t speak one message and live another.[3] 

Children of God want to become like their Heavenly Father.  It is in that context that Lucado says “To call yourself a child of God is one thing.  To be called a child of God by those who watch your life is another thing altogether.”  Let me put that in different words.  Children of God want to live like God.  We aren’t perfect.  We have not yet arrived at that point that we always get it right.  But we try.  We continually offer our lives to God’s changing, transforming love which helps us become the people God wants us to be.  We are on the journey, being led by, supported by and transformed by our Risen Christ, whose name we bear.

There is another very important sense in which the Bible speaks about children of God—and about the compassion that God has for God’s children.  In Psalm 103, we read these words:  “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to the faithful.”  (Psalm 103:13).  What a lovely expression of the compassion that God shows towards those living in covenant with Him.  

This past week, a member of our congregation told me of a way in which she had recently experienced a powerful demonstration of God’s love and compassion in her life.  I would like to close our sermon time this morning by asking Irene, a Child of God, to tell the story she shared with me this week about how she experienced God’s great faithfulness and compassion in her life this past week.

First, I have to say  for those of you who don’t know who I am,  I’m not anybody special.  I’m not even a very good Christian.  So we need to start by understanding that.  I don’t know why God helped me.  I really don’t.

But last August, I lost my friend of forty years, and I was devastated.  I have an old house, a hundred years or more old.  It is not in very good condition.  I have seven acres.  I don’t know how to run the lawn mower.  And throughout this whole time, members of this church came and clipped my hedges and did my taxes and helped me in so many ways.

The first time I understood that I wasn’t quite alone yet, I was sitting at the kitchen table, and I cried and I cried and I said, “I cannot do this!  I cannot do it.”  Well, I had to finally go out to the mailbox to collect my mail.  I opened up the mailbox and there was God, sitting in my mailbox.  There was a card in there--sometimes it was a letter--to say, “It’s OK.  You’re going to be all right.  We’re counting on you.”  I thought that was marvelous—I couldn’t believe it.

Time went on.  People helped me all the way.  And then—Allie had been cremated.  I had her box up sitting next to her library, her books.  I didn’t know what I was going to do with it—I wasn’t going to do anything with it.  Except we had agreed that whoever survived would scatter the ashes out in the yard, because we loved that place so much, and we took care of it together, which I can’t do anymore.  Since she died, I had to hire somebody to do the lawn because my neighbors would not let me ride the lawnmower; they wouldn’t show me how to do it.  I’m eighty-eight.  They said “for heavens’ sake, what do you think?”  So I hired somebody to come, and this young man has been a blessing to me. 

So one day, he had come and had cut the lawn.  The whole place was stunning, and my gardens were alive with flowers, and it was kind of breezy.  It was gorgeous out there.  I knew God was there, because I heard him.  He said, “Irene, it’s time.”  And I thought, “No, no.  Maybe not today.”  But I had work to do and I went outside and I did my things, and God kept saying to me, “Let it go.  It’s time.”  Well, He had been talking to me all this time and He’d been telling me all these things and bringing me help everywhere.  So I thought maybe He knows, maybe He’s right.  Maybe He knows. 

So I went inside and I got the box and I took Allie’s ashes outside, and I opened up the box and the wind came and blew her ashes all over –all over our precious land and all over the garden and the trees that we had planted.  I thought to myself, “He was right!  It was time.”  And I felt—I laughed—I laughed out loud, I felt so happy.  I felt like I had been let out of prison, because all the sorrow, all that heartache was gone.  Wiped away.

What I want everyone to understand, what I learned, is that you don’t earn God’s grace.  Nothing you do--God’s grace is free.  It came to me free, somebody who isn’t much account in this world.  But it came to me free.  I want people to remember that when it’s the worst day of your life, when the loneliness hits you, when you feel lost, and there is no help anywhere, always remember that God is standing here.  Right here.  Right here.  Every step of the way that you have to go through life.  

Thank you!

 “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” (1 John 3:1a).  God loves us—no matter what.  God will not force us; God will let us go our own way.  When we do leave the family, however, God will keep watching for us to return home and God will welcome us when we do.  God seeks to transform us so that we become like Him.  And God showers us with compassion and love, urging us to leave old ways that harm us, to receive the gift of abundant life, and to become part of God’s work to change the world.  God comforts and consoles His Children.  All of this is packed into the phrase, “I am a child of God.” 

Living as part of God’s family today doesn’t mean that we understand everything.  It doesn’t mean that we are perfect.  It means that we accept the grace God gives us, helping us to trust even when we can’t understand, helping to change us where we need to be transformed, and allowing God’s love and grace to become part of our lives, in good times and in bad.  It's a gift!  May each of us receive the gift God offers to us today!

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia on the Third Sunday of Easter.
[2] Max Lucado, A Gentle Thunder: Hearing God Through the Storm (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson, 1995), 148.
[3] Max Lucado, A Gentle Thunder: Hearing God Through the Storm (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson, 1995), 166.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Sermon: What We Have Heard and Seen (April 12, 2015)

What We Have Heard and Seen
1 John 1:1-2:2
April 12, 2015

Last week, I spoke to you about the first responses of Mary Magdalene, Peter and John to the Resurrection, and I posed the question “Resurrection – Now What?”  How are you and I responding to the Resurrection?

After last Sunday’s Easter celebration, Carol and I had lunch with the family and then we travelled to Corning, NY for a reunion with friends. Friendships that were formed in the late 70s and early 80s in Kent, Ohio, where we all met at Kent United Methodist Church.  Janet and Bob, Becky and Milt, and Carol and I got together for the first time in twenty-five and it felt like we didn’t miss a beat. We selected Corning—not because of any particular association with Corning—but because it was relatively midway between Concord, MA, Cleveland, OH and Palmyra, VA.

We were together from Monday afternoon through Thursday morning.  We did some touristy things; but mostly we ate and talked and laughed—a lot! We especially enjoyed a little coffee shop called the Walker Cake Co. and Coffeehouse. You can recognize it by the floral birdcages in the window, the sign that says, “Hippies Always Welcome,” and the young woman named Danielle who operates the store and who was kind enough to put up with our humor!  We ate breakfast there on Wednesday and liked it so much that we returned for more on Thurdsay.  On Thursday, I brought my laptop with me and told our friends that they had the golden opportunity to write today’s sermon.  They were all too willing to accommodate!  I posed to them a question that is raised by our scripture lesson this morning:  what have you heard and seen that has influenced you in your faith journey?  In so many words, I was asking them how they have responded to the Resurrection.  I stated the question and then I started typing their responses. 

Janet (Bob’s wife) is a librarian.  Janet has lived the life of a pastor’s wife for over thirty-five years.  She told us that she always has felt and seen God at work in leading her forward.  Janet said, “If I have known in my heart that I should take a particular direction, but I went in a different one instead, God has dragged me back.  There was one time in particular that I lost track of where I was on God’s path.  This took place when we moved to a particular town; the church there was so unfriendly that even my best friend turned on me.  I never heard an explanation of why.  That took me down emotionally to a point where I had to move on.  I eventually realized that I had given someone else the power to judge me that only should belong to God.  Once I realized that the only thing I had left was my faith, I was able to carry that knowledge forward with me each step.” 

Bob reflected on the changes that have taken place in our families, the craziness of all that has happened in our lives – career changes, and children.  Bob said, “There is a love and a bond that carries us through all the craziness that life throws at us.  This is the sort of love that other people notice.”  Bob then told a story about young man named Lance, a teenager that Janet and Bob befriended. Bob and Janet have been active in a spiritual enrichment program called “Walk to Emmaus.”  While attending a “Walk to Emmaus” event, they heard a choir sing that was made up of inner-city kids.  Lance was one of them.  Bob and Janet learned of Lance’s story—that Lance had no place to live.  So, with some mixed feelings, Janet and Bob took Lance into their own home to live with them and their own children.  Lance has said repeatedly “I moved in with a family who took me in when I needed it and kept me until I was able to go to college.”  Lance went on to attend and graduate from Heidelberg College, and he now serves as a Youth Minister at a United Methodist Church in Cleveland.  Bob downplays the importance of what the Machovec family did for Lance.  He says “Janet and I (Steve and Becky) were just one piece of the journey for Lance and his coming to know the love of Christ.  We just give him a roof over his head and a bed for a while.”  But Janet and Bob set the example through their own openness and sharing; Lance learned by their example and now is passing on the love of Christ that Lance learned from Janet and Bob.

Janet added an additional note here—she pointed out that we don’t know what a given step in our journey will lead to.  After having served in parish ministry for more than twelve years, they had moved to Herndon, VA, where Bob was pursuing a counseling ministry. Janet had thought that her life as the wife of an itinerant pastor was over, but God seemed to have different plans for them.  They ended up moving back to the Cleveland area and Bob returned to parish ministry.  The move was not easy, on a multitude of fronts; but, as Janet pointed out, “Our move … was a step on a journey that ultimately made our relationship with Lance possible.” 

It now was Becky’s turn.  Becky told us about the major transition she went through when she moved from the business world into teaching.  As a teacher, she felt compelled not only to teach the assigned subject but also to teach the humanity behind the subject.  She wanted her class to reach out globally, so Becky gave her class the assignment to read a book entitled Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate.  This book tells the story of a boy who was a victim of the civil war in the Sudan.  The Sudanese Civil War destroyed many families, and great journeys were undertaken by thousands of orphaned young children to find safety. This boy found himself being sent to live in new circumstances in the United States, having to adjust to a vastly different world, all the while wondering if his mother had survived.  Coincidentally, while teaching this novel, Becky read an article in the Boston Globe about Kuol Akuek, a young Sudanese man whose story was amazingly similar to the story told in the novel.   Becky invited Kuol to speak to her class.  Kuol told the class his story:  how he wandered with other children for twelve years across Sudan to Ethiopia and Kenya. When he was found by the United Nations he was 19, having wandered since he was 7. He was airlifted to the states and the transition was monumental. He had never seen a toilet, used a stove or been in a grocery store. When Becky met him, he had just graduated from college and was headed back to Sudan in hopes of finding any family. Kuol spoke movingly about the plight of women in the Sudan and of his desire to return home to give to young women there the opportunities for education that he had received during his visit to the US.  He told the class, “Because I have met so many wonderful women who have educated me, I want to take that back to Sudan and provide opportunity to Sudan.”  Meeting him and hearing his harrowing account of his survival really hit home with my students. They realized that we are all one people, and we can make a big difference in someone's life. They held bake sales and raffles to benefit Kuol.

Since teaching the novel and working with Kuol, Becky also worked with Moses Ajou of the Sudanese Education Fund here in Boston. She says, “God truly works in strange ways. I felt that God had put me here to create these connections with people globally.  I think that is what God wants us to do:  to love one another and do all the good that we can.”  Becky recalls Jesus’ commandment to “love one another” and she says "I feel in a small way that I am trying to fulfill his commandment.”

Becky mentioned another example.  Her class read about the plight of the homeless in the Boston area and partnered with an organization to provide beds for children in the Boston area.  Her class bought twelve beds for these children.  Becky says, “When opportunities like that arise, I think its God speaking.  God is a God of possibilities; the possibilities to help people are all around us.”

Milt, Becky’s husband, then spoke up.  “I have seen God working through so many people.  It’s not a cliché.  You go to church and hear structured sermons, and it’s all good.  But what has influenced me the most are individuals and how they have responded to adversity in life.”  Milt recalled Merle Andregg, our Choir Director at Kent United Methodist Church. Merle was a huge example to us.  Music was so important in his life.  He would hold up a sheet of music and tell us that that piece of music was only ink on paper until we can all get together and put our voices together to make music.  Milt said, “Our Christian journey is like that.”  Milt told us about a man named Dick.  Dick was a very unassuming person—you would never guess that he had served as an ambassador.  His life changed dramatically when his daughter was kidnapped, raped and murdered.  Dick tracked down in prison the man who committed this terrible crime and used this encounter as an opportunity to form a prison ministry.  Every Christmas, Milt’s church asks people to donate some basic personal items—such as toothpaste, socks, notepaper, etc., to this ministry.  All materials are donated; volunteers assemble gift bags.  You can’t believe the number of people who have responded.  Their church occasionally hears convicts tell them that this was the only gift they received in the year.  Milt said, “God is all around us, but so many of us miss the opportunity to see God working in our lives.”

Milt acknowledged, that sometimes, we miss those opportunities.  He told of one year, when he served as a Confirmation Class mentor, how he took a young man he was mentoring to one of the difficult areas in Boston.  They encountered a homeless man who said that he needed a pair of gloves.  Milt told us “I didn’t connect in my head that I had a pair of gloves with me that I could have given to him.  God gives us opportunities; on this one occasion, I didn’t recognize it.  I felt so guilty for missing that opportunity.”  But Milt added, “There are many, many people that I have been fortunate to know who demonstrate God working through them.  I have become more sensitive as a result of their example.” 

Milt gave us one more example.  Milt has served as a volunteer with a program called Stephen Ministry, which provides intermediate support and care for people who need someone to talk to.  Milt counseled a man named Charles (not his real name) for quite some time.  Charles was the oldest of three boys; but he always felt inadequate.  He flunked out of three or four colleges before he finally managed to graduate.  His dad and his brothers were quite athletic; Charles was not.  The message that Charles constantly received was, “you’re a loser; you’ll never be anything.”  As a result, Charles became delusional.  Milt was able to persuade Charles to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication to treat his mental illness.  By obtaining the needed professional help, Charles’ life has been changed.  By working with Charles, Milt’s life has changed.  Milt has learned the reward that comes when you make a difference in people’s lives.  Milt says, “Charles may have left our meetings feeling good; but I left feeling even better!”  Milt’s story about Charles is just one more example of the ways God can be seen at work through people.

By this time, our breakfast was over.  The six friends had to part company and return to our various lives in Boston, Cleveland and Palmyra.

Six friends.  Six ordinary people, telling their stories.  telling, “what they have heard, what they have seen with their eyes, what they have looked at and touched with their hands, concerning the word of life…” (Paraphrasing 1 John 1:1).  What is their message?  It is their response to Resurrection—a response that is made not only in words but also in every-day living.  It is the same message that John, the evangelist proclaimed, “if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another…”  (1 John 1:7). 

Our Christian journey is a journey of faithfulness; a journey of walking with God and in fellowship with each other.  When we take this journey, we discover the truth that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”  (1 John 1:6). 

You now have heard our friends’ response to the Resurrection.  But there is yet another question to be answered.  What about you?  How will you respond to the Risen Christ?

Tom Frost

Saturday, April 11, 2015

An Easter Sermon: Resurrection - What Now? (April 5, 2015)

Resurrection – What Now?
John 20:1-18
April 5, 2015

During our Sunrise Service, we explored a seldom-read recollection of the events of the resurrection, as told in the Gospel of Mark.  We talked about how the women who went to the tomb early in the morning left “seized by terror and amazement.”  They were afraid.  (Mark 16:8).  The “What Now” question for them was pretty simple.  They ran.

John recalls the story quite differently than Mark—this shouldn’t surprise us, because the two accounts were written from different perspectives and different contexts. Mark reports that three women made their way to the tomb—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1); John recalls that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone (John 20:1).  While Mark recalls that the three women “said nothing to anyone” (Mark 16:8), John recalls that Mary immediately ran to tell Peter and the “other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved.” (John 20:2).  Mark reports that the three women saw a young man dressed in white in the tomb (Mark 16:5); John does not report any meeting between Mary and anyone inside the tomb at this first visit.  She finds two angels in the cave after Peter and the other disciple leave the tomb.  (John 20:11).

John gives us a number of responses by people to the Resurrection.  Let’s focus on three of them. 

When Mary returns to the tomb, running behind Peter and the other disciple, she has a dramatic encounter in the garden.  She fails to recognize the very one she was there to find.  She mistakes Jesus for the gardener; it is only when she hears Jesus call her by name that she recognizes Him. (John 20:16).  It seems that people recognize resurrection at their own pace.   But that meeting with Jesus changes Mary completely.  At the end of her meeting with Jesus, she returns to the disciples to proclaim, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).

Then there is the reaction of Peter and the other disciple.  They engage what sounds almost humorous—the other disciple gets there first but remains outside.  Peter, bold impetuous Peter, charges right past him and sees the linen cloths folded neatly and placed on the place where Jesus had been laid.  We are not told anything about the emotions that Peter experienced standing there.  It seems that he is standing back—perhaps remembering with shame that he did, in fact, deny three times that he even knew Jesus.  It’s the other unnamed disciple –the one that we assume must be John—who “saw and believed.”  (John 20:8).

John then gives us a detail that sticks in my mind.  Then, John says, “the disciples returned to their homes.” (John 20:9).  We get no indication of joy, of fear or any other emotion.  No connection with the words of Jesus spoken several times indicating that He would be killed but would rise on the third day.  It wasn’t until they personally encountered the Risen Lord that they dared to give themselves over to joy.

Those words stick in my mind.  After visiting the tomb, the disciples returned to their homes.  It sounds hauntingly familiar.  How many years have we come together with our families to sing some familiar hymns, to hear the story proclaimed again, and then we go homes and get on with our lives—business as usual.

My hope is that this year, things will be different.  Perhaps I should say that I hope you and I will be different.  My deepest hope for this Easter is that you and I will be changed by the resurrection.

You might say that things would be different for you, too, if Jesus appeared in our midst.  I have news for you.  He has!  Jesus is here—in this very room.  This Jesus, who promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age, has kept his promise.  The challenge is for us to let go of our expectations of what Jesus will look like for us and open our eyes to the revelation that is here.

How is Jesus revealed here?

Jesus is reflected in the eyes of the children.  In the deepest yearnings you feel in your soul.  Jesus is here in the songs of “alleluia.”  Jesus is here in the Word proclaimed.  Jesus is here in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.

Jesus is here in the stirrings you feel—in your desire to know and love God better.  In the beating of your heart as you are challenged to love your neighbor.  Jesus is here in the times of silence.  In the laughter.

Jesus is here, inviting you to take up your cross and follow Him.  Jesus is here, encouraging you to love God and love your neighbor. 

The good news is that we are no longer dependent upon having Him here in the flesh.  By the gift of the Spirit, He is with us always.

The question for us to consider is, “Now what?”

What will you do with this Good News of the resurrection?

Will you go home, business as usual?

Will go undercover, behind locked doors, so that you won’t be discovered?

It would be a great tragedy if you did.  Jesus greets us and, in love, tells us that He gave His life for us, that we might have life more abundantly (John 10:10), life that He calls eternal.

Or will you reach out to embrace Him?  To try to hold on to Him?

Or will you follow His instruction, just as Mary did?  He said to go and tell the Good News.

Will you follow in Mary’s footsteps?

Will you proclaim, “I have seen the Lord!”?

In the newsletter this month, I mention the word that I have missed so much during the past six weeks of Lent.  It is the word, “Alleluia.”  It is a word but it is an imperative.  It means “Praise the Lord.”  We put that word aside during the somber, reflective season of Lent.  But today, we have Good News and no other word quite expresses the feeling of joy, of hope, of salvation, of grace.  Christ is Risen.  Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

The question I ask you is this:  What will you do with this Good News?  Now what?