5th Sunday of Easter

5th Sunday of Easter (C)

May 19, 2019

John 13:31-35

“A Crisis of Love”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is today’s Gospel text from John 13.

My dear friends,

Our world is in a crisis of love. Fox News hates CNN. CNN hates the NRA. The NRA hates PETA. PETA hates Fox News and round and round we go all day every day. For each of us, our parents were the first people to carry us, feed us, and protect us, but tragically, the nightly news reminds us some children have to be protected from their mothers and fathers. Our families are fracturing causing our communities to crumble along with them. As a nation we used to think our citizens unconditionally loved this country; “one nation under God,” we stand united. Our enemies always came from foreign lands, foreign shores. Not always the case anymore. More and more people are finding “love” through dating websites and social media apps to facilitate casual one-night stands instead of building long-term relationships. The medications we used to take to help us are now killing our children in the streets where they’d rather be instead of home, assuming they even have a home. Our world is in a crisis of love.

How did we get here? How do we fix this crisis? What is the answer? The answer, as always, is in Christ Jesus, for only in Christ’s self-sacrificing love for us can we finally and truly love one another and, in doing so, we can fix this crisis of love.

   The setting for the Gospel is what we call Maundy Thursday. It is evening in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, identified the one who will within hours betray him, and instituted the Lord’s Supper, an ongoing expression of divine love. And as a kind of last word, Jesus speaks: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (v 34). This is the “new old” command (Maundy=mandatum) to which Jesus calls us. Of course, the Lord taught in the Old Testament, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). So in one sense this command is not new. But it is new here because Jesus changes the wording. He’s changed the basis for love; “just as I have loved you.” He is about to fulfill love. Now, in that fulfillment, Jesus has given each of us an important, lifelong, critical task: to love one another with total self-sacrifice. That’s easy to say in here; harder to do out there.

God calls us to repentance, forgiveness, and love even of our enemy. Satan (almost forgotten him; he hasn’t forgotten you) calls us to consider the good things of life instead, to take it easy, to take care of ourselves; love and serve the “unholy trinity: me, myself, and I” instead of others.

Satan is luring us back to where we were before God’s searching love found us. He wants us staring at our screens – turned in on ourselves, not thinking of God’s glorious creation and good will, but only burning in our hate for others, for organization, and opposing opinions. So we become stingy in our commitments, dried-up in our relationships, curled-in instead of reaching out; we have become a very self-centered world. The world extends no further than the dimensions of our phone’s screen. Then we wonder why life seems so full of hate, so boring, so meaningless, so exhausting. We imagine God is far away…too far away to be an active part of my busy life; if only there were an app for that!

   To rescue us, to bring us back, our Lord Jesus, on the night of his betrayal and arrest, spoke with his 11 apostles: “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him” (v 31). Now? Not Palm Sunday? The Son of Man is glorified now? Judas’s betrayal? It’s true. This betrayal, and its resulting suffering and death on the cross, is the glory of all God’s planning. Jesus’ passion is the fulfillment of all that God had promised through the prophets. He’s the one to bear our iniquity, the one to crush Satan for us, the one to set the captives free, the One to give you a reason to lift your eyes from looking down into your phone to instead look heavenward.

This eternal love of God broke forth into our cold and loveless world ever since the angels proclaimed it at night to shepherds in their fields: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11). God’s glorious plan since the fall was that Jesus would be born, betrayed, suffer and die. And resurrected to new life! Now THAT’S love!

Yet this plan, as ugly and unreasonable as it may seem, is truly glorious because it is done for only one reason: to rescue us. We had been trapped under the reign of death. His death destroys death. He dies in our place as our sin. His life means we can live, and in doing so, we can love.

Through our vocations, our callings – mother and child, husband and wife, boss and employee, teacher and student, family member and friend – God has given us places to love as he has loved us. We are to love not only when someone has done something good for us, but to serve everyone in love all the time. As God’s people we are to put aside our selfish desires and seek to serve our mother, our child, our spouse, our neighbor, even our enemy, the way Christ serves them—forgiving, sacrificing, helping, loving. And that CANNOT happen if you’re always holding a screen in your hand.

In 1867, the British philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill (not Edmund Burke) said in a speech, “All that evil needs to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” Whether you prefer Fox News or CNN doesn’t matter. Instead, can you be like Christ this week? Can you love as you’ve been loved? Can you forgive because God has forgiven you? Can you serve because God in Christ has served you? Go forth, put down your screens, and do what you can in order to alleviate the crisis of love in your homes, communities, work places, schools, country, and even in your church. Friends, go forth and boldly love, because you have been boldly and freely loved as the Lord has commanded you to do: “love one another: just as I have loved you.” That’s not a suggestion..it is a commandment from the Lord. Just sayin…

Amen.

4th Sunday of Easter

4th Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday
May 12, 2019
John 10:22-31
“Not What We Expected”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. Today the sermon is based on the Gospel lesson from John chapter 10.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,
When I say the word “sheep,” what do you think of? For those of you who grew
up apart from sheep, you probably think of those darling creatures hopping and skipping around the feet of Little Bo Peep with their glistening white wool and natural beauty and softness they possess; they would be a perfect pillow, right? Those of you who DID grow up around sheep know completely different. You know the truth. You already know that sheep are dumb and dirty and not all that beautiful. Maybe not what you expected, but that’s the truth.
In St. Louis there is a free zoo called Grant’s Farm. One of the animals you could get close enough to touch at Grant’s Farm was the sheep. Spending time near these things forever changed my attitude about sheep. Their thick wool picked up every branch and twig they got near and got firmly lodged in that tangled, matted mess. They were always bumping into each other and stumbling around; sheep are less than graceful. Their heavy wool hung off them like a big, heavy blanket and summertime in St. Louis was the last place you wanted to be under a blanket. Contrary to popular myths, sheep are not the soft, darling creatures we think they are. Again, probably not what you expected, but it’s true.
When Jesus spoke of sheep in today’s Gospel lesson, it was a less than soft, darling situation. It was a downright ugly situation. Tension was mounting after the events of John 8 and the Jews wanted to stone Jesus, even taking up rocks to do so (8:59). The pressure and jealousy of the Jews was building after our Lord then healed a man born blind in John 9. In John 10, the Jews approach again to know if Jesus was the Messiah. Why? To worship him? Hardly! They are itching to stone someone; looking for a reason to kill Jesus like they had tried in John 8! Not what we would expect from religious leaders, but it’s true.
Let me set the scene for you. It is winter in Jerusalem and it is the Feast of Dedication; that means the Jews were celebrating Hanukkah. Jesus was now walking in the temple area, specifically Solomon’s Colonnade, when the Jewish leaders (Pharisees and Scribes) approached him. “Jesus…how long are you going to keep us in the dark? Are you the Messiah or what?” they asked with fake grins on their faces and rocks in their hands.
That begs an interesting question. Where did they get the rocks? The conduct of the Jews is just the same as it was when our Lord said, “Before Abraham was I am.” They regarded His words as blasphemy, and proceeded to take the law in their own hands, to inflict the punishment due to blasphemy – death by stoning (Numbers 15:36). Okay, a harsh punishment, yes, but that should be what we expect from the Jews of that time. But again, where did they get the stones for stoning?
The Greek word for “picked up” here, is not the same that is used in chapter 8. Here it means “they carried.” No doubt the stones used in stoning to death were not pebbles, but large stones. In other words, we can expect that these moderate sized stones were not lying around in the Temple. The Jewish leaders must have still been carrying them around since their original confrontation with Jesus in chapter 8; they had to carry stones from some little distance for their murderous purpose. We can hardly suppose there were suitable stones just lying around within an old finished building like Solomon’s Colonnade, though there might be stones at a little distance on account of the repairs of the temple. Now…think of the implications of that…carrying around a heavy stone just waiting to use it. I’ll come Bach to that in a moment.
Are sheep the pearly-white creatures we think they are? No…they are not what we expect. They are gross and dirty and they have no way to clean themselves up. That is the way it is with our sin. All of us are born with that awful sinfulness stuck in the wool of our soul with no way to get it out. Romans 3 tells us that we are all sinful and Romans 6 tells us that the wages of sin is death. Sin, then, is why people die…why ALL people die. They are still carrying that heavy blanket of sin and that blanket makes us feel pain and depression and sickness and loneliness and resentment and eventually physical death. Additionally, like the ancient Jewish leaders, we also carry around heavy stones each day – stones of regret and anger and frustration – and we cannot wait to finally throw the stone because we think it will make us feel better. But it doesn’t; the intended relief isn’t there…it’s not what we expected.
The Good Shepherd searches out for us lost sheep and finds us tangled in the muck and brush and the heavy blanket of our sin. But Our Good Shepherd Jesus took his task a step further than most shepherds. He laid down his life for the sheep. In John 10:11, Jesus told the Jews that in addition to being the Good Shepherd, he lays down his life for the sheep. That’s NOT what you would normally expect from a shepherd. A regular shepherd was a hired hand, an employee. They lived by the motto, “live to tend another day.” If the flock is damaged or lost, well, the shepherd finds another flock. Not Jesus. As the Good Shepherd he laid down his life for stinky, sweaty, smelly sheep like us bumping and stumbling our way through this life.
The Good Shepherd calls to you by name every day in and through His Word, and his sheep know his voice. As a result, the sheep follow that Shepherd, and the Shepherd doesn’t give up on the sheep. We no longer live under our yucky blanket of sin but we live under the banner of his grace and love; he isn’t about to let go, for his grace and his mercy and his love are too strong and too great for that. Are you hearing His call? Are you spending time in His Word? If not, perhaps that’s why you feel lost and alone. Just sayin…
It’s easy to love when the one you love is lovable; we would expect that. But even in our rebellion and disobedience, our Good Shepherd continues to love us and hold us fast in the tight grip of his grace. He washes the guilt and stain away from the wool of our soul and he encourages us to drop the heavy stones that we carry around every day for no reason whatsoever. You don’t need that stone; stop fighting a fight that’s already been won.
So much is made of the problems and difficulties of this modern non-church-going world. It becomes easy to be cynical and doubt God’s grip on the world or his sheep. Dear friends, The Good Shepherd is not about to let go. Jesus went to the cross to make it that way for you. And the cross? Well, that’s also not what we expected for sinners such as us, but what a glorious way to bring hope into our otherwise hopeless lives.
Amen.

3rd Sunday of Easter

3rd Sunday after Easter
May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-22
“From Foe to Friend”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the First Lesson from Acts 9.

My dear friends,

Pretend for a moment that you’re going on vacation and you have a pet. You have no one else to ask but one of your neighbors. There is the kindly little old lady next door who loves pets, has dogs and cats of her own, and who has been the best next-door neighbor you’re ever had. OR…do you ask the “wild child” neighbor who lives on the other side of you who revs his motorcycle at all hours of the day/night, never takes care of his lawn, owns 3 large angry-looking pit bulls, and keeps throwing empty beer cans into your yard? Which one will you ask to watch your cat? What’s that you say? “The wild child?” Really! Thought you’d pick the little old lady. Choices like that might seem to defy human reason.
Yet in today’s reading from Acts, we find our Lord making just such a logic-defying choice, as Christ selects Saul – SAUL – the persecutor of Christians, to be his chosen apostle to carry the Gospel of Christ to the nations. What? That makes NO sense whatsoever!
In the earliest years of the Christian Church, it would have been difficult to find a more dedicated foe of Christ than Saul of Tarsus. From supporting the stoning of Stephen to rounding up and imprisoning Christians in Jerusalem, Saul did his best to destroy the Christian Church (Acts 7:58; 8:1–3). As we heard, Saul sought and received permission from the high priest to travel to Damascus to arrest the Christians there and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Arrest Christians? Does that sound like the guy you would ask to be the guest preacher on Anniversary Sunday? I’ll bet not! Jesus, though, had other ideas. Saul set out on the road to Damascus to imprison Christians, but Christ met Saul on that road to set him free.
Christ began by confronting Saul with his sin. The risen, glorified Jesus came to Saul in a flash of blinding light—and having brought Saul to his knees on the dirt of the Damascus road, Christ said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (v 4). In his blindness, Saul called out, “Who are you, Lord?” [The Lord answered,] “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (v 5). It’s ironic…although Saul’s physical sight was gone, he began at last to see things clearly. In persecuting the Church—the Body of Christ—he had been persecuting Christ himself. And Christ, whom he persecuted, is himself the Lord God. That’s not good!
With that heartrending knowledge, Saul was sent by Jesus into Damascus. Over three days of fasting and prayer, he had time to consider what he had done and to begin re-thinking the Scriptures he had long known. Then the Lord sent to Saul a faithful man named Ananias—one of the Damascus Christians Saul had been intending to arrest.
Imagine being in Ananias’ shoes for a minute. “What Lord? Go and baptize WHO? Saul? I gotta get outta Dodge!” Yet, Ananias came to Saul, laid his hands on him, Saul’s eyes were opened to see, and Ananias baptized him into Christ Jesus. Saul was brought out of the darkness into God’s marvelous light. Now that Saul had been brought into the light of Christ, he would serve as the Lord’s instrument to bring that light to the world. Saul had been Christ’s foe, but Christ graciously transformed him into a friend.
In the Second Reading today from Revelation 5, we learn that on the cross, Christ by his blood “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9); every “wild child,” every Saul, every sinner. No one is outside of God’s grace.
And in his gracious wisdom, our Lord chose to send that message out to sinners through sinners. After all, who better than the forgiven to share the good news of forgiveness? Who better than a man like Saul, who could describe himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15), to speak the comfort that Christ is the friend of sinners?
So, beginning from Damascus, Christ sent his Gospel through Saul—also known as Paul (Acts 13:9) —to places like Arabia, Asia Minor (including Greece/Turkey – our destination for our trip in 2020), and Europe bringing Christ’s name before Jew and Gentile alike.
And along the way, Saul suffered greatly for the name of Christ—much like others had once suffered for Christ at Saul’s own hand. But through that name of Christ that he proclaimed, countless souls through the ages have found light, life, strength, peace, and hope in Christ—just as Saul himself did.
Just as Christ was not content to let Saul continue on his dead-end road, our Lord did not want to see any of us lost…not even the wildest child, God desires that “all people (are) saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). So, as he did for Saul, our Lord came to us. As he did for Saul, Christ came to you personally to give you the new life that he purchased for you on the cross. By water and the Word, he shined his light into your heart. Having paid your ransom on the cross, he came to you personally and unshackled your chains whatever they are and no matter how heavy they are. Everyone’s “faith moment” – your own “Road to Damascus” experience – was different, but it was also not a “one-time” deal. Christ continues coming to you in his Word and at his Table—comforting you with his forgiveness, strengthening you in his grace, giving you his peace, giving you hope for a better tomorrow, and giving you life that lasts forever especially when your “forevers” become “nevers.”
Though we have earned none of this, it is all ours as God’s free gift in Christ. For, as we have seen in Saul’s experience and our own experiences, we have a merciful Lord who transforms foes into friends.
For that is the kind of God we have: a God who astounds us with his amazingly gracious choices…sometimes choices we never would have thought of. A God who reaches out to people like Saul—and like you and me—who have lived as his foes, and he chooses us to be his trusted and loved friends.
May we continue to celebrate and thrive in that blessed, eternal friendship for the next 37 years and beyond. Happy Anniversary, Good Shepherd.
Amen.

2nd Sunday of Easter

2nd Sunday of Easter
April 28, 2019
John 20:24-29
“The Reality of Easter”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our risen Good Shepherd Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is a portion of our Gospel lesson from John 20, verses 24 through 29.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

Last Sunday was a complete waste of our time. That would be the opinion of a group known as the “Jesus Seminar.” The Jesus Seminar does not believe that the resurrection ever happened. The Jesus Seminar’s founder believes that Jesus’ body was placed in a shallow grave and wild dogs ate His body which explains its disappearance. The Jesus Seminar considers the resurrection, the virgin birth, all the miracle accounts, and 82% of all of Jesus teachings “legendary (additions) with no historical foundations.” For example, the Jesus Seminar considers only 3 of the 9 Beatitudes as authentic and only two words of the Lord’s Prayer as authentic – “Our Father.” They believe the rest of the words were made up by someone else.
The Jesus Seminar’s founder, Robert Funk (deceased in 2005; Seminar defunct since 2006), calls Jesus a “secular (philosopher) who satirized the pious and championed the poor.” He also added that “Jesus was perhaps the first Jewish stand-up comic…starting a new religion would have been the farthest thing from his mind.” It’s ironic that a group called “Jesus Seminar” would have such a low opinion of Jesus! Sadly, Funk is not alone in his low opinion of Jesus and Christianity in general. It seems like these days we face more and more open attacks against Jesus and the Christian faith. The church is no longer the institution it used to be. Fewer and fewer people attend Easter morning services. Images of a burning and collapsed steeple at historic Notre Dame cathedral in France doesn’t help; perhaps that situation is a microcosm of the state of Christianity in Europe these days; still standing, but its heart has been damaged. There was the horrible Easter bombing massacre in Sri Lanka leaving more than 300 Christians dead. Back home, American churches rely on the old “bait and switch,” offering cars and mortgages, in order to get new worshippers in the door. It’s no wonder people are questioning. The church has left them in style and practice and theology. Is it any wonder they have questions and doubts? One of the oldest questions is before us today – did Jesus really rise from the dead? The Jesus Seminar would say “no,” but they’re dead themselves, so there’s that…
Of course, this is not a new question. In fact, a great majority of Jesus’ ministry was surrounded by unbelief, as there have always been questions about the identity and actions and authority of Jesus. Jesus came preaching and teaching as the Son of God (which He was), and very few believed in Him. Even His closest followers did not totally believe. Judas betrayed Him, Peter denied Him, Mary Magdalene expected to find His dead body, and Thomas, well, Thomas demanded living proof before he would believe in the resurrection of the Lord.
And so we come to Thomas, whom we consider EVERY YEAR on the 2nd Sunday of Easter. Thomas is often called “doubting” Thomas. This brand, however, is not a fair one for Thomas and neither is it a fair branding for us. It was not so much that Thomas doubted, rather he did not believe what the disciples reported to him. Thomas heard something that caused him call into question the authenticity of what he heard and what he knew. Thomas didn’t necessarily lack faith, he had concerns over what he had heard; maybe Thomas thought this was the first case of “fake news” ever recorded.
There are some BIG verses in John: 3:16, 14:6 (and 6 other “I AM” sayings), 19:30, 44. Perhaps the most important is John 20:31 – “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” As Christians we have faith, and faith always has an object. In our case, it’s Jesus of Nazareth…the Christ. Faith reveals to us that Jesus is the Son of God and the very real and historical fact that Jesus rose again from the grave on that resurrection morning. Jesus is risen! He is risen just as He said He would! Sin is forgiven; death has been defeated! We know this as fact, and are confident in that undeniable truth.
Our faith in Jesus is not contingent on demands of proof. Thomas’s faith was, but he had the luxury of waiting to see if it were true or not. Neither you nor I have that luxury. Jesus has bodily ascended into heaven and we cannot stand around waiting to see if He walks into this room today and, if He does, it’s too late by the way. But do you know what? We can still see Him…and we do see Him. We see Him whenever His Word is proclaimed in all its truth and purity. We see Him in the very meal that He Himself provides yet again today. We cannot see His entire physical body, and yet we believe without having to see; “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.”
We were not there to see when the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus inside Mary, and yet we believe it occurred. We were not there that night with the shepherds in the fields who heard the Good News proclaimed of the birth of the Savior, and yet we believe it occurred. The hymn asks us, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and the answer is “no,” yet we believe it occurred. The reality of Easter is that we were not there when Jesus rose from the grave, and yet we know and believe it occurred. And those beliefs, our Christian faith, means everything, especially in the face of hardship and opposition either in your individual lives or the collective life of the Church.
Our sure and certain hope, our Christian faith, is not physically confirmed like Thomas’. But, like Thomas, we can confess “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). We have looked into the tomb of Christ through His Word and found that He has risen, we have known it and felt it in our hearts. What God has done for us in Christ is what we believe. That is our sure and certain hope – a hope that does not disappoint – for it is the hope for this life and the hope of the life to come.
Our faith in our resurrected Savior gives us conviction in the face of the disbelief of so many people today. It gives us certainty in the face of doubt by others. It gives us strength in the face of sinful temptation. Maybe the kid’s song that we know so well (hymn #588) says more than we realize: “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” EXACTLY! Thank you! As Christians we know what we believe and in whom we believe without seeing because God’s Word – the Bible – tells us so. And that is the truth – the reality – of Easter.
Amen.

Easter

Easter 2019
April 21, 2019
Exodus 15:1-18
“Against All Odds!”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today for our glorious celebration of Easter is the First Lesson read from Exodus 15.

My dear friends,

At the beginning of the 2018-2019 NHL season, the Tampa Bay Lightning were a 3-1 favorite to win the Stanley Cup. When the playoffs started, they were an 8-1 favorite. Before game 4 of their series against Columbus, they were a 14-1 favorite to win the Cup. How about their chances now! Breathe…breathe…breathe. Okay.
Enough about hockey. What are the odds that you will be struck by lightning? One in three million. A man named Roy Sullivan holds the world record for being struck by lightning. Roy, a park ranger, was struck seven times. Interesting note…Sullivan survived 7 lightning strikes but could not survive depression. He shot himself back in 1983. He was only 72 years old. True story.
The most important “what are the odds” question, though, is this. What are the odds that a man, brutally beaten and then crucified by the mighty Roman Empire, would come back to life? The odds are astronomical, but get this—it happened! It really happened! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! True story!
Today we consider Exodus 15, a song of celebration after Israel defeated Egypt. What are the odds that a group of Israelite slaves who had never fought anybody, would defeat the most powerful military force on earth – the Egyptians – led by that mean and mighty Pharaoh? Probably the same as the lowly wild card Columbus Blue Jackets offing the Lighting in the FIRST ROUND! Breathe…breathe…breathe. Okay.
As the Israelites flee Egypt they look over their shoulders and see Pharaoh madly chasing after them screaming, “Get back here! You’ll have hell to pay!” He was mainly mad at himself; he had let his entire slave workforce leave. But it gets even worse! The Israelites become surrounded and stuck on all sides. Exodus 14:11, “They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?’” They were pretty funny people.
Just when the odds were completely against Israel we come to Exodus 15:4–5, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea…The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.” No wonder Israelites sing in Exodus 15:2, “The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation!” All of this, though, is just a peek, a prelude, and a preview into the Bible’s greatest against-all-odds story ever.
Opposition began early in Christ’s ministry and it never seemed to let up. After 3 years, the religious leaders finally got what they wanted. Once arrested, Jesus is bound, accused, blindfolded, and mocked. But it gets worse. They strip him and beat him into a bloody pulp. But it gets even worse. Jesus is blood-soaked and nailed to a Roman cross and left to die. It took six hours, and then Jesus breathed “it is finished.” He is, as we confess in the Creeds, “crucified, dead, and buried.” True story.
Just when everyone thought it was all over, the angel announced, “He is not here! He has risen just as he said!” Mary shouts, “Teacher!” Then Thomas for the ages, “My Lord and my God!” Against all the odds, Jesus LIVES! True story!
Jesus lives, but no one ever said our lives would be easy. It feels like opposition began early in our lives too and it never seemed to let up. I’m talking about the 1 in 3 people whose parents got divorced. I’m talking about the 1 in 4 women who were sexually abused as children. I’m talking about the 1 in 7 people who grew up with an alcoholic parent. I’m talking about the people who grew up in families with absentee dads, controlling moms, screaming parents, addicted sisters, and abusive brothers. You feel as though the odds are against you.
Maybe we experienced a devastating loss. For some of you, this means your spouse died, your marriage died, your child died, your career died, or your father died. For others, it means your dream died. And I’d venture to guess that for some of you your will to live has died; no more reason to lift your head off the pillow each morning. Maybe we are crippled by a destructive habit. It’s Easter morning…time to come clean. What is it for you? What is making you rlife an against-all-odds situation? Gambling? Drugs? Alcohol? Pornography? Work? True story? As a result, you might feel as though the odds are against you.
All the odds were against a man named Lee Capps. Lee, who didn’t know how to fly, took off in a private plane in 1996 with a friend who was a pilot. When they got up to cruising altitude Lee’s friend, the pilot, had a heart attack and died right there at the plane’s controls. Lee grabbed the radio and cried for help. An air traffic controller in Renton, Washington, heard Lee’s cry. He said, “This is your lucky day. I’m not only an air traffic controller, I’m also a flight instructor. Would you be interested in a flying lesson?” Being otherwise unoccupied, Lee Capps said, “Sure! Why not?” The air traffic controller said, “Lee, you’re going to have to take a shot at landing the plane. No practice, no dress rehearsal, no spring training!”
Lee Capps came in like a drunk duck. He was all over the place. He tried an emergency water landing, but the floats collapsed! Thanks a lot! The 2nd attempt would have to be on hard, solid terra firma. And he hit pretty hard. But Lee Capps walked away from it all with only a few minor cuts. Afterwards, the air traffic controller was interviewed by several TV stations, “Did you really think he would walk away alive?” The air traffic controller responded, “Folks, Lee Capps made it against all odds!” True story!
I know. Oh God, I know. Stuff is going on—a whole lot of stuff is going on in your life. You’re circling the runway and trying to land. Your greatest fear is that you will crash and burn! Let me remind you of two honest-to-God facts. Against all odds, Israel made it out of Egypt. Better yet, against all odds, Jesus Christ is risen today! That fact alone is enough to help you overcome all the long odds in your life.
In John 14:19 Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live.” Talk about beating the odds! Easter happened. Easter is happening in you. We live now and we will live forever. True story! Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Happy Easter everyone!
Amen.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday 2019
April 14, 2019
Exodus 34:1-8
“A New Beginning”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today as we begin our Holy Week journey together is the First Lesson read from Exodus 34.

My dear friends,

Jimmy Wayne learned never to trust a soul. That’s why he never unpacked his bag. We can’t blame him. Jimmy Wayne never knew his father, and his mother spent more time in jail than out of jail. When he was a small child, his mother got out of jail…again and took up with a troublemaker…again. They loaded Jimmy into the backseat of their Oldsmobile Delta 88. For a year the car was Jimmy’s home. He learned never to trust a soul. That’s why Jimmy Wayne never unpacked his bag. After living in the back seat of a car for a year, Jimmy Wayne was dumped off at the train depot in Pensacola, Florida. His mother and her boyfriend sped away in their Delta 88. Jimmy Wayne desperately needed a new beginning.
As we begin Holy Week 2019 and celebrate Palm Sunday, we do so with Exodus 34. It’s all about a new beginning. Aaron, Israel’s high priest, needs a new beginning. So does Israel. And—most certainly—so do we! A new beginning is absolutely necessary. Why is that? In Exodus 32, Aaron and the Israelites were faced with a huge crisis. They hadn’t seen Moses for 40 days and 40 nights; was Moses dead? Did Moses leave them? Aaron and the Israelites grew impatient so they made a golden calf and they worshipped it! What does Moses do when he comes down from Mt. Sinai? Moses smashes the Ten Commandments, grinds up the golden calf, mixes it with water, and makes the people drink it!
So, we pick up the narrative today in Exodus 34:1, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke” The Ten Commandments have been smashed! That’s not good; they defined how Israel was to be God’s people; after 400+ years as slaves, they didn’t know “how” to act. Whoa…That’s why new beginnings are absolutely necessary.
Let’s face it. We’re not that much different than Aaron and the Israelites. Sure, making mistakes is a part of life’s imperfections. But what do we frequently do when faced with a crisis? Instead of turning to the 10 Commandments for guidance, we become angry, impatient, faithless, and selfish. We sinfully turn to our “golden calves” and look to them for deliverance. God—the holy and righteous and perfect God—this God has every right to dump the hot mess that is humanity off at a train depot in Pensacola and ride off into the sunset. But he doesn’t! Our God doesn’t do that!
And because God doesn’t do that, a new beginning is completely and totally possible. The Lord comes down and said to Moses about Himself, “The LORD, the LORD, (is) merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…(and) forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” Don’t know about you, but I find it reassuring that Yahweh frequently comes down in the book of Exodus. We can’t go up to God. That’s why God comes down to us, right where we are wherever we are—in the basement of your brokenness and broken lives and broken commandments.
And what does God do when he comes down? Scold you? Shame you? Berate you? Reject you? Condemn you? No! He doesn’t come to say “You’ve been bad!” God comes into the midst of your anger, anxiety, and angst and He cries out in reminder that He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness and forgiving sin. No matter how difficult, dark, or daunting your life and situation may feel, a new beginning is totally possible!
And so that brings us to Palm Sunday. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey on a Sunday because the following Friday he is going to lift up the hot mess that is our sin and place it where? Upon Himself—all wickedness, rebellion, and sin; to give us an eternally new beginning! Jesus is, in the flesh, as He said to Moses thousands of years before, “the merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” (x3) Jesus teaches this love. Jesus lives this love. Jesus demonstrates this love by shedding his blood on the cross for you. Palm Sunday announces it. Good Friday shows it. And Easter Sunday celebrates it! You and I can now rejoice – bask – in that love as it compels us to love others. His love and grace truly are Amazing!
One day, while aimlessly walking around Pensacola, Jimmy Wayne—remember Jimmy Wayne?—little Jimmy Wayne spotted a man named Russ working in his garage. Russ’ yard needed to be mowed and Jimmy could push a mower. Soon Russ and his wife Bea invited Jimmy to live with them. The home was like heaven! A hot bath, hot meals, and even TV! Jimmy Wayne, though, had learned never to trust a soul. Jimmy Wayne still wouldn’t unpack his bag. It took another month before Russ and Bea convinced Jimmy that their love for him was real. So finally, finally—Jimmy Wayne unpacked his bag! He made himself at home.
Jimmy Wayne grew up, got a job as a correctional facility guard, and got advice about songwriting from an inmate. Then he moved to Nashville to pursue a music career. Jimmy Wayne is now a famous country music singer and songwriter. He signed a recording contract, released 3 studio albums, had 9 Top 50 Country hit songs and a #1 hit song in 2008. In addition to music, he is a public speaker, author, and advocate for foster care. His new beginning started when he learned to trust—when he learned to truly love because someone loved him back – and he finally unpacked his bag. And now he’s a country music star.
Friends, our past is behind us; we accept our past. God’s grace is before us; we treasure the present. A new beginning awaits us; we trust the future. So now what? It’s time to unpack our bag! Why do that? Because we finally have a home. Where? Here. With Jesus! Unpack your bag…all your baggage. Jesus would have it no other way. Welcome home!
Welcome to Holy Week in the year of our Lord 2019.
Amen.

5th Sunday in Lent

5th Sunday in Lent
April 7, 2019
Isaiah 43:16-21
“Holy Water”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the First Lesson as read for you from Isaiah 43.

My dear friends,

Sarasota is a coastal city. We are on the east coast of the Gulf of Mexico and on the west coast of Florida. “Congratulations Pastor, you win the geography bee!” That’s not the point. I bring it up because many people come, including MANY of you, because of our proximity to the water…that, and the beautiful weather of course. In all the research and searching that scientists do in outer space, one of the things they are most anxious to find is not spacemen, but water. Why? Well, if they can find water, it may prove that there are other forms of life in the universe besides life here on earth. Water is always essential to life. I know we think that if we couldn’t shower or wash our clothes for a week we would just die. Been in that situation after Hurricane Irma – didn’t like it – but didn’t die either. But the reality is that without water, there is only death. That was true in the history of the people of Israel, and it’s crucial not only to our physical life, but our spiritual life as the church. When God speaks of or uses water, it usually signals something that is literally of life-and-death importance to his people. Truly, God’s use of water is a holy matter of life and death.
Throughout the Bible, water is a “big deal.” Today’s First Lesson from Isaiah recalls when God destroyed Pharaoh’s army by water. The Israelites, just days after coming out of Egypt, were trapped with water on one side and the vengeful Egyptian army on the other side. Water was their problem; water would be their solution. God provided a way through the water, but when the Egyptian army entered the sea, they were drowned (v 17). For the Egyptians, this use of water was not so good. But for God’s people, those waters were saving waters of life (v 16). For God’s people, the way through the sea was the way to safety and life – a new life of freedom instead of bondage and oppression. Both groups went into the water, but only one group came out alive. This was not just random chance or bad luck; it was the Lord’s mighty, saving hand at work in the midst of His people.
In our text, though, the Lord tells Isaiah’s hearers not to look back on all that: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” (w 18-19a). The something new is a whole new era of history, a time when it would be as if the desert would flow with rivers, providing abundantly for both man and beast! This would be the age of the Messiah, the day when the Christ would come and restore the reign of God, making right all the corruption that sin brought into a once-perfect world.
My friends, this age is now. The new reality – the “new thing” – has happened when Jesus came to earth, lived, died, and rose from the grave. It was no coincidence that when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side with his spear while he was on the cross that blood and water gushed forth (John 19:34). The new age came with death – Jesus’ death on the cross – but in that death He provides what is necessary for His people to have life: His blood and the life-giving water to free us from our bondage and oppression to sin and its consequence – death.
The death that Jesus died, as horrible as it was and as graphic as it is portrayed on TV and in movies especially this time of year with Easter so close, it was for a purpose. By dying Jesus paid the ransom price for our sinfulness that we could never, ever pay. But death is not strong enough to hold Jesus. God’s salvation history does not end with Jesus’ death. 3 days later Jesus rose again from the dead to new life! And because we share in a Baptism like His, we will share in a resurrection like His.
Do not forget, though, that Baptism with water first kills. In Baptism, we die with Christ: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). By Baptism God also makes us alive again.
We don’t keep a special drum of “holy water” around for Baptisms. The water for Baptisms comes right from the sink. Rather, Martin Luther explains in the Small Catechism, it is not the water that does such wonderful things, “but the word of God in and with the water…along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water.”
The water of our Baptisms is long gone, but the words that made that water a life-giving Baptism are still with us, and we are invited to recall them daily. Being baptized is no small matter. From a human standpoint it’s not as dramatic as God parting the Sea, but Baptism is God’s saving hand once again reaching down to save…you. Baptism provides what it says it will provide: the forgiveness of our sins, rescue from death and the devil, and the gift of eternal salvation. These things are of great confidence to us in this life as it reassures us that ultimately things are going to be okay.
Maybe it’s not a lack of running water for you today. But maybe it’s a lack of money, maybe it’s a lack of companionship, maybe a lack of good health, maybe it’s a lack of trust, maybe it’s a lack of confidence or forgiveness or courage or hope or love that makes life hard for us. But when sin and despair and anxiety wrap their icy grip around you, you can remind yourself “I am baptized, and nothing can change that.”
Whether in ancient Israel or in Sarasota or outer space or in your home, without water, there’s no hope of life. We thank God, therefore, that he has done an entirely new thing, better than giving water in the wilderness. Today, give thanks and proclaim his praise (v. 21) that by water – the “holy water” of your Baptism – God has delivered you from death and given you life to its fullest in his Son, Christ Jesus our Lord.
Amen.

4th Sunday in Lent

4th Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
“How Does This Story End?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15.

My dear friends,

So far, I have only seen 1 show at the Van Wezel; I saw some magicians back in 2018. If you’ve ever watched a good magician, the tricks will prompt you to ask, “How did he do that?” Magicians will tell you that much of what they do happens by way of distraction. If the magician can get you to look intently in one direction at what he’s doing, you won’t see what he’s doing elsewhere, and the result will leave you stunned. So, get ready for some sleight of hand as Jesus tells perhaps the greatest short story ever told – the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Parable of the Lost Son, the 3rd parable in a string of 3 consecutive parables.
To be “prodigal” is to recklessly waste and squander resources. The younger son does live up to that title! His request for his father to divide the inheritance was offensive, ludicrous, outlandish, and an implicit wish for his father’s death. Just as bad, he put the family’s financial health at serious risk by demanding that inheritance. Now the father has less working capital/land with which to conduct the family business.
Word of his shameful request no doubt had spread throughout the village as the younger son sold off the family’s land and possessions. The son doesn’t want land…he wants cash…liquid assets. The family is humiliated by the younger son’s offensive request followed by ridiculous squandering of all those resources through immoral living. Who of us wouldn’t think, “I hope this kid gets what he deserves!”
Jesus assures us that the young man did not escape the consequences of his foolishness. The only work he found was feeding pigs, a humiliating job for a Jew. No one, not one of his newfound party buddies, bothered to help him out, and as the audience, we celebrate his misfortune: “You got what you deserved!” If the parable had stopped there, we’d be reassured that the wheels of justice still turn efficiently.
But that’s not the end of the story…not by any means. Jesus tells us that the young man woke up. He had an epiphany; he came to his senses. “If Dad would take me back as a slave, my life would still be better than this!” So he packs his meager belongings and on the way back home begins to rehearse his apology. “Dad, I messed up. I’m not worthy to be called your son, but could you find it in your heart to give me a job as one of your hired hands?” If nothing else, we as hearers of the parable are certainly pleased that he has to “eat crow.” The prodigal son wanted pleasure, but he got pain; he wanted freedom, but he got bondage. His big plans for himself will only land him a servant’s job, if that. The magician certainly has our attention!
Then he draws our attention more forcefully. Just when you expect that dad is going to make this kid bow his face to the dirt and grovel for mercy, Jesus creates an unexpected twist: dad runs (1st century patriarchs don’t run) out to greet him as though he were the dignitary! Dad throws a filet mignon on the grill, arranges a welcome-home banquet complete with music and singing, and, in front of everyone, puts a ring (father’s) on the kid’s finger, Ecco shoes (father’s) on his feet, and a Brooks Brothers suit (father’s) on his shoulders. “Whaaat? Whoa whoa whoa. This isn’t fair!” we protest. But the magician smiles and continues. Here comes the slight of hand.
Because now it’s time to re-introduce the character with whom he knows we’ll be eager to identify: the older son. And when dad explains what all of the hoopla is about, the older son expresses his and our indignation. “Why, I’ve served you all these years. I never disobeyed you. Never gave you any grief. Yet you couldn’t even throw me a pizza party! I’m not celebrating the return of this son of yours as though he were some kind of hero. Forget it!” And we, the audience, are thinking, “Finally! Someone with a clear-thinking head on his shoulders! This clueless father needs a wake-up call, and, thankfully, the older son has the guts to say what needs to be said.” And the magician smiles even more.
“Son,” he begins. Now maybe the significance of this word escaped you because, in case you missed it, the elder son had just heaped quite an insult on his dad. “These many years I have served you,” but in Greek the word “serve” is also “slave.” “Really? That’s how you think of your generous dad—a slave master? You think I’ve treated you as just one of the hired hands? Only given you slave-quality food? Slave-quality accommodations?” And then there were the other words, “This son of yours.” “Are you saying you aren’t part of this family? Are you implying that he and you are not brothers? That you don’t have the same mother?”
But Dad has graciously chosen to ignore these insults. “Son,” he begins. And he then reassures him that this welcome home has done nothing to damage the relationship between them. “All that I have is yours. But we had to celebrate. For this brother of yours who was dead is alive, who was lost is found.” The previous 2 parables – the lost sheep and lost coin – feature celebrations not for the sheep or the coin, but for the one who found what was lost. The banquet is not a reward for the prodigal! No, it’s in honor and celebration of the father who found what was lost.
And now we know. Now we get it. The sleight-of-hand trick distracted us with this Prodigal Son stuff to sneak up on us and confront us with our own older-son sins of resentment, our own sins of begrudging forgiveness to those we don’t think deserve it, our own sinful disrespect for a Heavenly Father who continues to love us especially when we offend him and are unlovable. And thanks to his skillful storytelling, like a good magic trick we didn’t even see it coming which leaves us wondering, “how did he do that?
Speaking of which, how does the story end? The lack of an ending is intentional; how you finish it says a lot about you. If you think the older son should refuse to enter the celebration and begrudge his father’s grace, well, Jesus shakes his head in sorrow. You don’t get that you are in God’s family by the same forgiving love that sent the Father’s Son to the cross for those sinners you think are worse than you. It is fitting that those who do not forgive as they have been forgiven remain outside the party, because that’s where they will spend eternity—outside the endless celebration of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ. But those who rejoice with the angels over one sinner who had been lost but is now found will enter into the feast that knows no end.
Knowing that, so how does the story end for you? Amen.