Thursday, April 10, 2014

Signs



This is the sermon I preached this past Sunday at Bethel Lutheran Church, Portville, NY. It is based upon John 11:1-45

“Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs...Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign” sang the Five Man Electrical Band. In John’s gospel, we don’t encounter parables, but there are plenty of signs. Jesus performed miracles, but they were not the big picture. They were signs, which do not point to themselves, but elsewhere, to Jesus. John’s gospel surprises us with frequent and personal expressions of Jesus’ self-disclosure.

This week’s reading too is fraught with double meanings and further revelation of who Jesus is. The raising of Lazarus signals the beginning of the end of Jesus’ teaching and signs. It was the tipping point of Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish authorities and the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, putting into motion the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ enemies shifted from generalized opposition to a formal decision to have him killed. The story of Lazarus anticipates the events of Holy Week.

As a sign story, the primary function of the event that takes place is to reveal God and to show God’s glory (v. 4). This is why Jesus is persistent in the face of those who did not understand.

We too, often have times in our lives when we wonder where God is in our situation--why God didn’t intervene to save the life of a loved one or why a friend was allowed to lose her job or why Jesus didn’t come early enough to prevent the breakup of my marriage? When we struggle as a church, we may think, “If Jesus had been with us...but he wasn’t.”  Sometimes in hindsight, we’re allowed to see God’s plan while other times we will never understand while we are on this earth. 

From the get go, we are told that the story is not so much about a family crisis in Bethany as about the crisis of a world caught in sin and death, not so much about the resuscitation of a corpse as it is about giving life to the world. This is really what the story of Lazarus is about. Although we think of this story being about the raising of Lazarus, that actual sign takes up only two of the forty-five verses in today’s gospel. The primary focus is Jesus’ interaction with the women—first with Martha and then with Mary. 

When we get to Jesus’ arrival in Bethany, we are at this story’s theological heart. However, no one understands—certainly not Jesus’ hapless disciples who misunderstood Jesus’ metaphor of death or Martha who had trouble understanding Jesus’ delay. She had expected Jesus to do something, so she was complaining. Can you hear the accusation in her words to Jesus, “if you had been here!” (v. 21). It’s ok to complain to God. He’s big enough to take it. Martha’s remarks were so thoroughly Jewish and belonged to the language of faith that we find in the Psalms. In fact, the edge of complaint in Martha’s words gives greater impact to her statement of confidence in Jesus that follows. In the face of Lazarus death, Martha confesses that “even now” God would act in response to Jesus’ prayer (v. 22). She further declares her belief in the future resurrection, much as we confess our faith in the Apostles’ Creed. 

Martha’s understanding of the resurrection was consonant with that of other Jewish people of the time. It was seen as strictly a future event that occurred on the last day. Jesus moves that future into Martha’s present reality when he declares, “I AM the resurrection and the life” (v 25). The promise of resurrection and life is not lodged in some distant event, but is available already in the person of Jesus. Jesus affirms his sovereignty over the present and the future lives of believers. Mary struggled as her sister did, with the belief that everything would have been different had Jesus arrived sooner. 

Nonetheless, Jesus continues teaching that those who believe even though they die, will live and that those who live and believe in Jesus will never die (v. 25). The two statements sound like they mean the same thing, don’t they? The phrases spell out what it means for Jesus to be the resurrection and the life, but they are not the same thing. Jesus as the resurrection means physical death has no power over believers. Their future is determined by faith in Jesus, not by their death. Jesus’ declaration of himself as the life means the believer’s present is also determined by Jesus’ power for life experienced in the gift of eternal life. 

Make no mistake; Lazarus was dead, not just in a coma. He had been dead for four days and was good and stinky when Jesus and his disciples arrived. Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb. This deed follows Jesus’ words. Jesus speaks and acts and there is life. Approaching the grave, Jesus is amid the symbols of death. He encounters the intense grief of the sisters and the other mourners, a skeptical and somewhat impatient audience, the odor of a decaying body and tightly wrapped grave clothes. After he’s raised, Lazarus is still bound by the grave clothes. Jesus doesn’t take them off. Lazarus can’t get out of them. Jesus issues a command to the waiting crowd to “Unbind him, and let him go” (v. 44). The community of faith gathered around Lazarus is invited to participate in God’s redemptive work. It was entirely Jesus’ work, yet the community had to do something that was essential and meaningful. What a wonderful example of what we Lutherans refer to as “God’s work. Our hands.”

What does this passage mean for us today? God’s promises are not solely about eternal life in the future with God or even about forgiveness at the last day. “...the Gospel should make a tangible difference now, open up opportunities and options now, transform relationships now. The promises of God are present tense, not just future” [tense] (David Lose). That truth demands a response from us. God is inviting us to make a difference in this world right here and right now. We have the opportunity to act. What are we doing about these things and more? God is telling us “Find a need and embrace it.” God is calling us to claim Christ’s resurrection power now by participating and completing the work God is doing all over the place. 

We have already begun cooperating with God’s work through the Baskets of Promise to help those in need. There are numerous ways and means for God to use us. Maybe there’s someone you have not seen at church for a while. Call them. Visit them. Send them a card. When is the last time you visited people at any of the senior housing or nursing homes or hospital? We’ve all heard stories about elderly residents who go for weeks or months with no visitors. Why? Why aren’t we there visiting?

There are plenty of organizations that need volunteers to fulfill their missions. Why aren’t we there? As the winter turns into spring and hopefully spring turns into summer, we will have many opportunities to make an impact in Portville and the surrounding communities. All we need to do is to come out of our cocoons, shake the dust off and look around us. The opportunities to participate in God’s work are endless. We just have to recognize them.  

God invites us to claim our faith as a present tense invitation to live our promised salvation now. “Why? Because Jesus is the resurrection and the life and has promised to give us, not just more life, but life in all its abundance” (David Lose). Amen!

       
Resources:
Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A.
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A.
David Ewart, holytextures.com
Robert Hoch, workingpreacher.org
David Lose, workingpreacher.org.
Brian Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Water for the Thirsty



This is a picture of Jacob's Well by David Roberts from 1839. Below is the sermon I preached at Bethel Lutheran Church in Portville, NY. It is based on John 4:5-42.


We all have different paths that have brought us to faith in Jesus. Some have dramatic conversion experiences from of a life of sin and unbelief to a life of faith. Others have a relationship with God from childhood and cannot remember a time when God was not real to them. God meets us wherever we are.

Jesus engaged Nicodemus differently than he engaged the Samaritan woman in today’s gospel. He tailored the encounter to the needs of the hearer. Nicodemus was Jewish. We are told his name. He came to Jesus in Jerusalem. The Samaritan woman is a Gentile. We never find out her name. Jesus came to her. Nicodemus could not wrap his mind around a new, spiritual birth, while the woman struggled to understand what it meant to have living water.

There are several unusual characteristics about Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman. The fact that he was in Samaria was odd in itself. Although it took longer, Jews would take an alternate route from Judea to the Galilee, rather than get near the Samaritans. Because of intermarriage, Samaritans were half-breeds rather than pure Jews. Samaritans only observed the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, rather than the scriptures in their entirety. They didn’t even worship in the same holy places. The Samaritans worshipped in Samaria, while the Jewish people worshipped in Jerusalem at the temple. Relationships between these two peoples had been strained for hundreds of years.  And yet, Jesus goes to Samaria and initiates contact with a Samaritan woman. We get to eavesdrop on the longest conversation Jesus had with anyone!
Many taboos were broken in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. It’s no wonder she was so surprised that Jesus not only talked to her, but also asked her for something. Neither Jesus, nor the woman should have been at that well at noontime. It was a “woman’s place.” Drawing the water for the daily needs of the household was “woman’s work” which was not usually done in the heat of the day (Dr. Delmer Chilton, The Lectionary Lab). Is it any wonder the Samaritan reacted with shock to Jesus’ request?

Instead of answering this woman’s question directly, which Jesus never seems to do, he invites her to answer her own question, “If you knew...” If she could recognize the identity of the One with whom she spoke, a dramatic role reversal would take place. The woman would be the one requesting water. Jesus offers the woman living water, which must have confused her even more. She was the only one of them that had something with which to draw water. How could Jesus be in a position to offer her water? The reference to living water has a double meaning. It has the usual meaning of flowing water as opposed to that which is in a cistern. However, in John’s gospel, it also has the meaning of life. Typically, Jesus’ statement was misunderstood and he explains further.
The conversation with Jesus moves to a deeper level as the woman compares him to the patriarch Jacob. Of course, she assumed that Jacob was greater than Jesus was. She challenges Jesus’ ability to match Jacob’s gift of water to her people. However, water from Jacob’s well only temporarily quenches thirst, while Jesus’ gift of living water gives life. And it is lasting because it has become a part of the believer, “gushing up to eternal life” (v. 14).

Now that kind of water appealed to the Samaritan woman, but she still didn’t get it. She was still thinking about physical water. Despite her enthusiasm, she missed the point. The Samaritan woman continued to see Jesus through her preconceived categories of physical thirst and miraculous springs. Her request for living water is right, but it’s for the wrong reasons. She thought she would no longer have to come repeatedly to the well to draw water.
The woman has made progress though. She has moved from seeing Jesus as a thirsty Jew who violates social convention to seeing him as someone with gifts she needs. The woman believes Jesus can give her water to quench her thirst. She is willing and open to engaging Jesus in conversation. The woman is willing to receive what she thinks he’s offering, thereby acknowledging her need of him.

Jesus grounded his invitation in the woman’s life. This created a turning point in her understanding of who Jesus is. Jesus didn’t judge her. Jesus’ knowledge of her marital history was what moved her forward in faith. It is this part of the conversation that leads her to declare him a prophet. 

I love it that once she has come to see Jesus as a prophet, she discusses theology with him. She brings up the most pressing theological problem that separated the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’ day—the right place to worship. Jesus didn’t accuse her of trying to change the subject to something less painful. Jesus did not talk down to her like some teachers would have. Rather than disengaging from Jesus, she was engaging him more deeply, recognizing him as a teacher from whom she could learn. 

Jesus revealed himself to the Samaritan woman as I AM. He identified himself as the One in whom God is known. The Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s gospel to whom Jesus makes a bold statement of self-revelation.
The Samaritan woman was so excited about all she had heard and understood, she forgot why she had come to the well in the first place. She ran back to town without her water jar! This woman has now moved from being an outcast to being a witness. 

The way she shared the good news about Jesus bears looking at. She invited the villagers to come and see. This woman told about Jesus using her own experience as the basis of her witness, telling her story.  Rather than hammering her neighbors over the head with the truth, the Samaritan woman engaged them with the question of whether or not Jesus might be the Messiah. She made them think. 

The Samaritan woman may not have had mature, full faith, but she witnessed to the extent of the faith she had. What if she had waited until her faith was mature and she knew more? How would the story have ended then? You know the rest of the story about how the Samaritan villagers listened to the woman, checked it out for themselves and believed. Salvation may have come from the Jews, but it certainly was not limited to them. 

The woman, Jesus’ disciples and the Samaritan villagers all received far more from Jesus than their assumptions had led them to expect. The incredulous Samaritan woman becomes a witness. Jesus’ questioning disciples become co-workers in the harvest. The despised Samaritans spend two days with the savior of the world. 

Just as Jesus treated the woman and the other Samaritan villagers as human beings who were worthy recipients of God’s grace, so God in his mercy has treated us. How should we respond? What is God saying to us here as a community at Bethel? God is calling us to stop shaping life according to society’s definitions of who is acceptable. God is telling us that everyone is acceptable and we are to go out into the world and tell everyone we meet about the  Person who gives living water with no strings attached. God desires us to show the same openness to others—whether they be strangers and enemies or dear friends.

We may be imperfect and we will make mistakes. And yet—if we have been transformed by God’s love and nourished by his word and sacrament, we can hardly hold back from sharing the good news. Let us be bold and fearless in feeding hungry hearts and quenching thirsty spirits, while sharing and caring for one another’s basic needs. May our hearts be opened by God so that we may pour out God’s thirst-quenching love without fear. Amen.

Resources:

Dr. Delmer Chilton, The Lectionary Lab,
Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds, ucc.org.
Gail R. O’Day, The Gospel of John in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume IX.




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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Wet, Windblown Witnesses

This is the message I shared with God's people at Bethel Lutheran Church, Portville, NY. It is based on John 3:1-17. God bless you.



I don’t know about you, but I can identify with Nicodemus. Like him, I have had ideas about the way things are and how God works. But then God decides to do something that is completely outside the box I had put him in. Nicodemus represents each of us who are seeking God and want to do what’s right. 

Ironically, the first words out of Nicodemus’ mouth were “…we know…” Nicodemus came to Jesus with a set of convictions about what was real and what was possible. He heard and perhaps had witnessed the wondrous signs Jesus had done, but Nicodemus didn’t know as much as he thought he did. Here was a man who was devout and learned in the Old Testament scriptures. He was a leader and teacher about God. But even his extensive knowledge of God’s law and the miraculous wasn’t enough to ensure that he understood the workings of God.

Nicodemus knew of Jesus’ mighty deeds, but he stumbled through the night of his own preconceptions about how God should work. All he could do was ask, "How one can be born again?" and "What do these things mean?” The deeper darkness of unbelief obscured the vision of Nicodemus. 

Nicodemus had physical eyes, but he was unable to see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was alive, but he could not enter the kingdom of God. We get to overhear Jesus telling a religious leader that abundant and eternal life is a gift of God’s grace, not attained by achievement, claim or proof. 

Our English language cannot entirely convey the point Jesus was making regarding being “born from above.” This phrase can also be translated “born anew” or “born again.” The Greek word speaks of a time of birth—“again” and the place from which this new birth comes “from above.” Jesus is telling Nicodemus he needs to be born in a new time and in a new place to see and understand God’s reign. What Jesus is saying is that Nicodemus must have a spiritual birth. To become a part of that kingdom of God, takes a birth from water and the spirit. 

We know the rest of the story about Nicodemus’ reaction. He was so tuned into the physical side of life that he could not wrap his mind and understanding around the concept of a spiritual rebirth. When Jesus says that we must all be born anew, Nicodemus is confused, taking his metaphor literally. Jesus contrasts physical life flesh versus life in the Spirit. One of the key elements of Spirit life is freedom to not be bound by the same concerns as those who live in the physical life. Our future and fate are sealed by God’s tremendous love (David Lose).

Nicodemus is also representative of the unchurched people of our world today who describe themselves as “spiritual,” but unaffiliated with any church. They believe there is a God. They may not know much about him, but they are sure God is around somewhere, somehow. Like Nicodemus, they are curious and wonder about God.

A recent study found that about half of Americans read the Bible on their own, and four in five people who read it as part of their personal lives open it at least once a month. The number one reason they pick up Scripture is for personal prayer and devotion. One of the lead researchers of the study concluded that people have spiritual questions and are looking for meaning in their life (The Association of Religious Data Archives, http://blogs.thearda.com/trend/featured/the-lord-is-their-shepherd-new-study-reveals-who-reads-the-bible-–-and-why/).

In order to find such meaning, we have to get wet with the waters of baptism. Just as a physical baby emerges from the waters of the birth canal, so we are spiritually born of water and the Spirit in holy baptism, being transformed by God into his children. 

In baptism, the Holy Spirit blows into our lives. If we allow God’s Spirit to blow where it wills and lead us, we become windblown by the Holy Spirit. Simply put, God will lead us to places and have us do things beyond our wildest expectations. Led by the Holy Spirit, we become witnesses to all God’s work in our lives. 
 
So what is a wet, windblown witness of God supposed to do in this wild and weary world? It begins with prayer to understand how God is leading. Earlier this week while working on Holy Week worship, I came across these words:
... consider these questions: "Is the desire to welcome and receive new Christians listed among the prayer concerns of your parish? Do the weekly prayers of the people at worship include petitions for new men, women, and children to become a part of your community of faith? Is the receiving and welcoming of new Christians a part of the regular opening and closing prayers of the evangelism leadership team and the parish council?" (Faith Forming Faith, 97). (from Sundays and Seasons, http://members.sundaysandseasons.com/rtf_download.php?id=35108&file=PreparThreeDaysYear.rtf.

I hate to admit it, but if we honestly answer these questions, we fall flat on our face as a congregation. I too am guilty as charged when it comes to praying for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ and for God to grow our church with those who are new in the faith. 

Wel need to listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading regarding the spiritual condition of a neighbor or friend or a stranger we just happen to strike up a conversation with. We will experience setbacks as we live out the windblown life of God’s Spirit directing us. All the bumps along the road we experience are temporary because God is redeeming the world in and through our Lord Jesus. We are free to experiment and struggle and succeed and fail and live and love and die … all knowing that in Christ God has already worked to redeem the whole world. Redemption is God’s responsibility, not ours. Our job is to identify and share where we see hints of that redemption already. However, sometimes our independent ways of thinking and our preconceptions about life in general bleed over into our understanding of God’s ways.

Jesus teaches about the kind of faith that is a commitment to the One whose death reveals the things of heaven. It creates an openness to the uncontrollable wind of God and an embracing of the mysterious newness of God.

Just as Jesus upended Nicodemus’ understanding of spiritual things, let Him turn our worlds upside down. Get ready and hold on to your hat because the Spirit of change is blowing. Open yourself up to where it will take you. Amen.
           
 
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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Claiming Our Identity


This is the message I shared with the people of God at Bethel Lutheran Church, Portville, NY. The scripture it is based on is Matthew 4:1-11

Today’s gospel passage comes right on the heels of the account of Jesus’ baptism, with the Father’s declaration that Jesus is his beloved son. And that was way back in January. God loves his Son so much that...the Holy Spirit leads Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (v. 1). Doesn’t that seem a bit contradictory? Why would God do that? It’s a set-up! 

            The first words out of the devil’s mouth are, “If you are the Son of God..” (v. 2).  Prove it! You’re hungry. Do something about it. Turn these stones into bread. After all, what’s wrong with that? Jesus had fasted for 40 days. Of course, he was hungry. 

Jesus’ response was to quote scripture to the devil. Jesus does not appeal to his divine rights, but identifies with humanity. Being God’s Son meant accepting his humanity and depending on his Father for daily bread. The real issue for Jesus is not bread and hunger, but who he is and what his Father’s will is.

In the second temptation, the devil ups the ante. He challenges Jesus to prove who he is by throwing himself down and letting God’s angels rescue him. But the problem is the devil takes scripture out of context and twists its intended meaning. It is as if the devil is saying, “If you’re so dependent on God, let’s take it a step further. You trust God to feed you. Do you believe God will keep you from harm?”

In the third temptation, the devil promises power and dominion. He would give over all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus with just one little condition—that Jesus would worship him. If Jesus takes the bait, he acknowledges the rule of someone other than his Father. But knowing who he is and that he has been sent to manifest God’s reign over all, not the devil’s, Jesus does not sell out or stray from his mission. In fact, Jesus orders Satan to leave and he does!

Jesus refuses to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with the Father—giving worship and allegiance to him alone. By defining “Son of God” not by privilege or power, but by obedience to God, Jesus has already begun his journey to the cross. The devil may have left, but there will be other temptations like the betrayal of his disciples and ultimately the crucifixion.

The problem with each of the temptations in today’s gospel is they come from a source that leads us away from the word of God and our relationship with the Father. Like Jesus, we too experience a daily assault upon our identity in Christ. It likely comes from other people, perhaps even loved ones. Our culture tries to seduce us by creating in us a sense of lack, insecurity and inadequacy. This is the worst kind of identity theft because it subtly creeps up on us.

The devil doesn’t normally approach God’s children with bold-faced lies, but by stretching the truth. Our temptations are not to do horrendous deeds, but to do good things for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time. So, how are we to deal with obvious and subtle temptations? Know the word of God. Know your identity as a child of God and tell the devil to leave you alone.

God’s word flies in the face of the lies of the devil. God loves us, provides for us and cares enough that he sent his son for the entire world. Jesus died to show us how much God already loves us, just as we are, and has declared that we are not just acceptable, but treasured and priceless beyond measure. 

As we leave this church today and we are faced with the subtleties of temptation, think about what God says about you—you are God’s beloved child and in Christ you are more than adequate and worthy of all God’s love and blessings. Remember the words at your baptism: “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever?” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 231). Use the strength of God’s word to point you in the direction of the Father. Use the strength of God’s word to make an informed choice on what to do in dealing with the temptation. Revel in the strength of your relationship with the Father.  Make the right choice and tell the devil to get lost. Amen. 



Resources used:

Brian Stoffregen

Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A.

Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A.

Judith Jones, workingpreacher.org.

David Lose, workingpreacher.org.