Friday, May 22, 2015

Wind and Fire-Then and Now


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This is the emessage that was sent to God's people at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The scripture text is Acts 2:1-21. I used only part of the passage.

I know I am not alone in thinking this way, but have you ever been awestruck by the manifestation of the works of God in the book of Acts? Miracles were happening all over the place. It's no wonder the church grew exponentially!

There are well meaning Christians of other denominations who would tell us that the age of miracles was completed when the canon of scripture was put together, but is really?

Neal D. Presa takes on this scripture text from Acts in the blog, The Hardest Question, http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yearb/pentecostnt-2/. Here are but a few things he mentioned.

1. This is Pentecost in God's world. The Holy Spirit is on the move. Everything is shaken. We should not be surprised that the "tectonic plates of our fixed expectations and calcified thoughts need to be shaken up and stirred."

2. Everything's at Stake. The Spirit's presence and power demonstrate God's total rule and the summoning of the praise of everyone in everyplace on heaven and earth. God has been drawing to himself a people so that all creation will be drawn to God's self, "a total, complete, comprehensive reconciliation.

3. What is the hardest question? The church is changing. When God acts, people respond in amazement, perplexity and they try to interpret and understand what is going on. With everything on the line, will history repeat itself in our generation? Is the church, are we "ever beyond the point of Spiritual reanimation?" I pray not.

God has promised a mighty outpouring of His Holy Spirit. It happened on Pentecost and continued to happen throughout Acts and the history of God's church.

Dear Lord, help us to have open minds and hearts to the work you wish to accomplish in and through us. In Jesus' mighty name we pray. Amen.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Jesus Tags His Disciples


This is the message I shared on 5/17 with God's people at St. Timothy, Bemus Point and St. Mark, Mayville. The gospel text is Luke 24:44-53.




What is Ascension and why are we celebrating it?
Jesus' ascension to the Father is basically the conclusion of Easter. The ascension both closes the period of Jesus' ministry on earth and opens the period of the church's mission. It is like God is saying, "Tag--you're it! Now you're me in the world."

This important feast is often overlooked in the American Protestant church. The irony is, this is the third pillar of the Christian faith. Christ became incarnate, Christ died and rose from the dead and Christ ascended into heaven. We confess these every week in the Creed.

The Feast of the Ascension is always on a Thursday, right before the last Sunday of Easter. If it is not observed on Thursday, we can observe it on the following Sunday, as we are doing today. Many times it is skipped altogether, but there are important things that happened on the day of Jesus' ascension that are for us as well.

I have a particular fondness for the Ascension because of my time in the Holy Land. On Ascension Day, all the Lutheran churches would take picnic lunches to the Mount of Olives on the land behind Augusta Victoria Hospital. This included the Arabic speaking Lutherans, the Danes, the Germans and the English speaking congregation.

We ate and then had a simple service. The music was amazing. All the tunes were familiar to all the worshippers. The words were sung in the various languages of those attending. I could imagine that  this was the way worship sounded on Pentecost. These are the memories I carry with me into our celebration today.

Jesus leaves his disciples with teaching. Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures (v. 45)
This had to happen prior to Jesus' departure. The ball was going to be in the disciples' court. Practice and training is nearly over and a long season of ministry is about to begin.

Instruction is not anything new. Before this time, the disciples just didn't get it. It's one thing to have someone teach you something, but to have your mind opened to understand is an entirely different matter.

The plan of God in scripture contains a message and an offer that constitutes the charter of the Christian mission. The message is that Christ should die and on the third day rise from the dead (v. 46). What is offered is the gift of repentance and forgiveness of sins (v. 47). This is what should be preached to all nations.

It took a while for the disciples to get the part about the gospel being preached to all nations, even though Jesus had opened their minds and taught them and after they'd received the Holy Spirit. It took repeated revelations by the Spirit to get the apostles to realize that God accepts people from every nation who turn to God.

Today's church also struggles when it comes to preaching a crucified Christ and accepting all people equally.

Jesus leaves his disciples with a blessing.
The departure of Jesus consists of the blessing and the ascension. Jesus' blessing of the disciples is placing them in the care and favor of God. They are assured of God's care and attention even before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
 
Jesus leave his disciples with the promise of the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus said in other places, he does not leave his disciples alone, but with the power of the Holy Spirit. The mission for them is to be Jesus' witnesses. They must not simply launch out, but must wait until God has given them authority from above--being clothed with power from on high.

The Holy Spirit will bring to the minds of Jesus' first followers all that Jesus has taught them. The church's task with be difficult; special abilities will be needed to accomplish it. It cannot be carried out in mere human strength. Just as Jesus' presence at the table has shown, God's intimate, indwelling presence is necessary to carry out this plan.

The three New Testament writers who speak the most about the Holy Spirit are John, Paul and Luke: for John, the Spirit is the continuation of Christ's presence in the church--leading, reminding, teaching and comforting, for Paul, the Spirit creates in us the Christian life and equips us with gifts for ministry, for Luke, the Spirit empowers the church for its mission in the world. If the power of the Holy Spirit was so important for the mission of the early church, what makes us think we can do God's work without God's direction and power?
When Jesus ascended, according to our reading from Acts, two men in white ask the disciples why they were just standing there looking up into heaven. In other words, don't just stand there, there is work to be done. That work was one of waiting for the power from on high. In this hope they returned to Jerusalem and the temple, full of joy and blessing God.

Prior to the ascension, Jesus appeared to the disciples numerous times. He would come, he'd visit and then he would leave. On Ascension Day, Why didn't Jesus just say, "Good-bye" and go? It was important for his disciples to know that when he went to "sit at the right hand of the father," he was really gone this time. The baton had been handed over to them. He would not be returning until he comes to judge the living and the dead. How could they love Christ in their neighbor if they were always on the lookout for another resurrection appearance of Jesus?

Ascension is the completion of the resurrection. It marks the end of Jesus' earthy ministry, preparing the way for the birth of the church with the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Up until this time, the gospel was about what God in Christ has done for us. Now it is about what God in Christ is doing through us as his church in the world.

What is the most convincing proof of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus today? It is the daily testimony of God's people that Christ is living and that the work of his kingdom continues.

It's visible through disaster relief in Nepal, through neighbors helping neighbors after a tornado, neighbors helping neighbors during and after a mega snow storm. The work of the church is visible through the work of food pantries, homeless shelters, drop in centers, after school programs, programs for the elderly, hospice and lest I forget, the wonderful work of our Honduras mission.

There are many more ways we here at St. Timothy's/Mark's can have an impact on our community. WE need to look with open eyes and open ears to see where the Spirit is guiding us. Amen.


Resources:
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B
John Fairless and Delmer Chilton, The Lectionary Lab Commentary
Brian Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/
Sundaysandseasons.org

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Love, love, love



Worship was just amazing in Bemus Point and Mayville. Every once in a while I get inspired to try something. Well...Sunday it worked! I did a couple of things that were different. The emphasis of the readings and my sermon was on Jesus loving us. It was such an important point to make, that during the passing of the peace, I had the worshippers exchange God's peace, but had them add "Jesus loves you!" People were smiling and seemed to be genuinely touched by this reminder. God is good.

This is the gospel text from Sunday, May 10, John 15:9-17. Immediately after I declared, "The gospel of the Lord and the people responded, "Thanks be to God," this is what they heard. You should have seen the response. Heads were bobbing side to side as everyone sang out, "All you need is love..." Below is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy's and St. Mark's.

I don't know if we have any Beatles fans in the congregation, but I couldn't resist using those lines of the song, "All You Need is Love." Did any of you notice how many times the word love in any form was used not only in today's gospel, but also in the second reading? Do you think just maybe God is trying to us something?

Whenever we are in any of John's writings, we will hear love as the hallmark. It is said of John, that when he was quite old and had difficulty walking, he would be carried into a gathering of believers and all he would say is, "Love one another."

Let's take a look at what that means in today's gospel. Jesus tells his disciples to make themselves at home in his love.This week, I am again using The Message version of the Bible because it spells out so very clearly what Jesus is saying about love and his relationship with the disciples as he approaches his suffering and death on the cross. Rather than, "abide" in my love, we have, "Make yourselves at home in my love" and "remain intimately at home in my love" (vv. 9-10a), which is really what "abide" means.

The key word in this gospel passage is "abide" or "live in." Making ourselves at home in Jesus' love characterizes a relationship of trust, knowledge, love and unity between Jesus and God. Where do we fit in? The love of Christ is the location, the arena, the sphere of Christian living.

When we think of love, we think of that warm feeling we have when we think about or are around the object of our affection. However, in scripture, love is not a feeling or a synonym for "like." Love in the Bible involves acting for another, even at the cost to self. Jesus fleshes this out a few verses later when he tells the disciples that love for another is measured by God's love for the world and Christ's love "which carried out in full and final obedience that love of God" (Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B, 265).

What in the world do commandments have to do with love? The word translated from the Greek as "keep" is tereo. It has more of a sense of "holding dear" than simple blind obedience. This obedience is a free and joyful response of love.

Remember Maundy Thursday when Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to "Love one another?" It all starts with God the Father. The Father loves Jesus and Jesus loves his disciples the way the Father loves him. The way to remain intimately in God's love is to love one another. As believers, we are not called to do anything other than what God has done in Jesus Christ and what God wills to do through the lives of believers.

Jesus calls his disciples friends.True friendship is rare today in our society. We deal with competitiveness in a mobile society where people experience fragmentation of life. People typically are more isolated than in the past. When someone refers to another person as a friend, they are often speaking of someone who is a mere acquaintance. In this kind of quote friendship, ingredients of deep relationship, empathy, support and mutual struggle are often lost.

It is no small thing to be the beneficiary of true friendship. Any of us who have ever had that very special friend with whom we could share anything--good, bad or indifferent and still remain friends--knows what that means. This friendship love Jesus speaks of isn't one where we can just sit back, relax, and revel in it. It takes commitment from our end. It is a call to lay down our lives for one another, to put our life on the line for our friends, who are Jesus' friends. When Jesus speaks of friends, he is really saying, "those who are loved."

Joy is a result of being in a love relationship with Jesus. We can experience joy while living in the world within the constancy of God's love. That is how we know the joy of which Jesus speaks. Joy's source isn't the circumstances of our lives. Joy's source is God, who is sometimes described as joy. In Matthew 25:21, 23, the good and faithful servant was told, "Enter into the joy of your [Lord]."

Jesus chose his followers.The gospel is all about what God has done, is doing or will do. God needs to be the subject of our sentences. We did not choose him in spite of what some songs say. We have not decided to follow Jesus. He was loving us and working in our lives before we were ever aware of his presence. God always makes the first move.

It's special to be chosen, isn't it? For some of us that were not terribly athletic in school, the choosing of members for a team sport was a humiliating experience. If only just once, could I please not be the last person picked, was my constant thought.

Jesus chose the disciples and he has chosen us as well. I don't have to be the smartest, the cutest, the most eloquent or exhibit any other quality to be chosen. This is one kind of team that the picking process does not create anxiety for me.

We had nothing to do with being chosen. In baptism, God calls us his own. For those of us who were baptized as infants, we know that we had nothing we could bring to God to make us good enough to be made his own.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of being the speaker at a women's breakfast at Tree of Life in Jamestown. They wanted me to tell my story. As I was preparing, a verse from Jeremiah stood out, which I shared with the group as I told my story. It seems appropriate for this morning as well, "The Lord told the prophet Jeremiah, 'Before I shaped you in the womb, I knew all about you. Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you'"(Jer. 1:5).

What are those holy plans?  They are the results Jesus is looking for--fruit that doesn't rot.Jesus is commissioning his disciples, putting them into the world.  Just as a marriage relationship often bears fruit in the form of children, so the disciples' love relationship was to bear fruit as well. Only this was very special fruit because it would not rot. It is the fruit of bringing more people into God's family by sharing God's love, by going and doing works of love. "Fruit that won't spoil" (v. 16) attests to the continual presence of and union with God and Jesus.

Jesus has let his disciples in on everything. He has made God known to them. Because of that, they can pray and will have their prayers answered because what they will is bathed in the knowledge and love of God.

This extends to us as well as followers of Jesus. However, I'm going to qualify this. It does not mean that we can go up to everyone who needs healing and say, "Be healed!" It does not mean that we can pray away violence, poverty and all the other ills of our world. I am not saying that these things cannot happen because when God decides to do something, anything is possible. It's not a question of how much faith we have, any miracle or answer to prayer is done by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit as he chooses, when he chooses. The bigger reality of God's answer to our prayers is often us; by engaging in good works in our community motivated by his love.

Above all, we need to remember the root command to love one another.
Jesus sets the bar high for his disciples and for us. He is not only the example of how to live in God's love; he is the one who empowers his disciples to live a genuine Christian life of love and service.

St. Augustine nicely summed up our love relationship with God in this way, "Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved."   Amen.

Resources.

Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B

Beverly R. Gaventa, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year B

InterVarsity Press, New Testament Commentary

New English Translation notes

Gail R..ODay, The New Interpreters Bible, Volume IX: John.

Brian Stoffregen, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/John 15x9.htm

Sundays and Seasons


Friday, May 8, 2015

At Home in Jesus

This is the message I preached at St. Timothy's and St. Mark's (with one change). The text is from The Message Bible, John 15: 1-8.

Image result for picture of grape vine and branchesHave you ever been so hungry that you felt like you were about to faint? You are at a friend's house and you see that on the table in front of you is an inviting, delectable-looking bowl of fruit. It must be there to be eaten, so you grab one of your very favorite fruit--your mouth is watering, you can almost taste it-----and then, much to your disappointment, you discover that it is a piece of wax fruit, the fruit is fake. It may look good, but it is phony.

           We are a church that loves to eat, aren't we? We love our  fellowship time with coffee, tea and all kinds of goodies. Food is something we know a lot about. This passage from John's gospel is not some hard to figure out parable. Vines and grapes and branches were very familiar to the disciples, just as they are to us. It was and still is a common Jewish metaphor.

In the Old Testament the vineyard was symbolic of either the land itself or the people of Israel. As the "Real Vine," Jesus is taking an image for Israel and applying it to himself. The identification of the people of God with a particular nation is replaced with a particular man who incorporates in himself the new people of God made up of Jews and non-Jews .In the first three gospels, the vineyard is an image of the kingdom of God and in John's gospel, the vine is Christ. John reinterprets this well-known imagery to give us a picture of Christians united together in Christ.

God's people are a mixed bag and sometimes need disciplining. Jesus speaks of the Father cutting off non-fruit bearing branches and that they are dead wood only good for the bonfire. It's worth noting that Jesus is not addressing the crowds or outsiders when he says this. He is speaking to insiders, to believers who already know him. As branches, believers either bear fruit and are pruned to bear more fruit or do not bear fruit and are thrown away and burned. The crucified and risen Christ is the strong vine without which we die.

          What is the fruit God is looking for? There are different ideas about what the symbol of fruit is referring to. Some scholars believe it is that of bearing witness to Jesus, the fruit of
evangelism. Other scholars believe the fruit is the ethical virtues characteristic of the Christian life. Fruit symbolizes what is at the very heart of both Christian witness and ethics--union with God.

In today’s gospel, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” How does this apply to us? Our society is not communal, like that of the Holy Land. We have a problem. Especially in our culture, we pride ourselves on our independent, can do by ourselves and don't need anyone else's help, way of life. We focus on personal achievement and success. We easily become frustrated when we feel so inadequate. We have always been happy to help anyone in need, but the idea of our needing help and having to ask for it is hard.

However, in theChristian life being inadequate is a good  thing. God calls us. God is the vine grower, Jesus the vine and we are the branches. We cannot live faithfully on our own. Jesus said, "Separated, [from me] you can't produce a thing" (v. 5). If we look closely at a healthy grapevine, can we tell where one branch begins and one ends? They are so intertwined with each other that you can barely see the vine. In one sense though, if you see the healthy branches, you see the vine as they display the vine's life.

Isn't that how our life in Christ is supposed to be? We are to live lives of community together, not in isolation. We should be able to turn to our Christian family when we have a problem. When people see us, they should see Jesus because his life is in us and is lived out through us. Christ's life in us and through us touches the lives of others.

Without a relationship of connectedness to Christ, the vine, the church is:

powerless (vv. 4-5)
wordless (vv. 3, 7)
prayerless (v. 7)
fruitless (vv. 2-8)
hopeless (vv. 2, 6)

In fact, one may question if an organization calling itself a church, actually is one if the characteristics it displays are prayerlessness, fruitlessness etc. It might as well be a club.The mark of a faithful Christian community, is how it loves, not who its members are.

           Making ourselves at home with Jesus and his words (v. 7) includes being in union with him, sharing his thoughts, emotions and power. For a relationship to work, both parties must be engaged. God has already taken the initiative and provides the means and the ability for us to be united with him.

           How then are we responding to God's overtures? An intimate relationship between Jesus and his disciples was not for a community that just wanted business as usual, to rest and take it easy. This is also for a community, like the one here at St.Timothy’s, engaged in service to God and our neighbors. Jesus' words, "Live in me" is more than good advice, more than an invitation. It is a promise that no matter what, Jesus will hold onto us. 
Amen.

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

Fred Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year B

InterVarsity Press New Testament Commentary

New English Translation Notes