Thursday, June 30, 2016

Excuses, Excuses

This is the message I preached Sunday, June 26 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church, where we had a wonderful baptism service. A tweaked version was preached at St. Mark. The scripture was Luke 9:51-62.


In today’s gospel, Jesus has reached a turning point. Jesus being “taken up” refers to Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. In Luke’s gospel, everything is now directed toward that end. Jesus’ path to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world is set.
 
Jesus had a single-minded orientation. He knew that the way to Jerusalem meant the way of the cross and his death. Luke uses the expression, Jesus “set his face” to describe his determination. This expression is so important, that it appears three times in the first three verses of today’s gospel: Jesus “set his face” (51), Jesus sent messengers to Samaria ahead of him, which literally means “before his face” (52) and Jesus face was set toward Jerusalem” (v. 53). This expression is an idiom that speaks of a firm, unshakable resolve to do something.
 
Have you ever seen that kind of determination in someone’s face? You can talk to that person until you’re blue in the face and you will never sway them from the course he or she has decided upon.
 
Jesus’ course to Jerusalem and death was offensive to many, like the Samaritans. Jesus and his disciples arrive in Samaria as planned. His disciples had made the arrangements. Most Jewish people would have avoided this place, but of course, Jesus isn’t like other Jewish people. 
 
So what went wrong? Jesus was going to Jerusalem! As the woman at the well explains: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." (John 4:20 NRS). “This mountain” is Mt. Gerizim, the place of the Samaritan shrine.

 For the Jewish people of that day, everything revolved around Jerusalem. Generations of animosity separated these two peoples. Jews looked down on Samaritans as half-breed heretics. Samaritans rejected the Jerusalem based salvation history. Jews and Samaritans had competing views of scripture, messianic expectation and what constitutes real faith before God (Joel B. Green, NICNT: Gospel of Luke). In short, the Samaritans cannot accept Jesus’ understanding and embodiment of the divine purpose. Samaria rejected Jesus.
But fear not, Jesus comes across some people that want to follow him BUT. The first man seems quite enthusiastic, but does he know what he would really be getting into? Following Jesus means persecution. Following Jesus means uncertainty about where one would sleep. Did he know what he was promising?
 
Jesus faces excuses with the next two men. The first wants to wait to follow Jesus until after burying his father. This was an obligation that was binding upon all devout Jews. They were required to care for their parents for the rest of their lives.

 Doesn’t Jesus’ response, “let the dead bury the dead,” seems harsh? Jesus’ words are better understood as, “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead. ”Those who were not following Jesus could discharge that responsibility.
 
The next man wants to say good-bye to his family. That seems fair, doesn’t it? Jesus warns that excessive concern for family ties (looking back) will [diminish] the priority of God’s rule in one’s life. The image is graphic, for who can plow straight ahead toward a goal while looking back? Discipleship cannot be double-minded  (NET notes).
The kingdom of God, God’s rule in our lives changes everything. As we saw with these excuse-filled would-be followers of Jesus, former allegiances are reorganized. These two men called Jesus “Lord,” but by attempting to delay obedience, we see the hollowness of their affirmation.
 
God’s call to discipleship is a call that supersedes all others. It’s a matter of priorities. Whether the concern is care for self, care for the dead or care for family.
What prevents us from wholeheartedly following Jesus? I dare say it’s not a matter of us struggling to choose between good and bad. Our problem is choosing between what’s good and what’s best.
 
Is Jesus saying he doesn’t care about our family obligations? No! But the issue is if they become more important to us than our relationship with God. Good things that take the place of God in our hearts are idols. God wants us to set our faces to fulfilling God’s purposes for us.

Lutheran pastor David Westphal expresses it in this way:
Jesus’ choice here in this passage is so important. Because he goes to Jerusalem, we don’t have to. He goes, dies and rises that we might not only have life, but to clear the way for us. It’s not that our choices don’t matter. They do. What it means, however, is that without the power of Christ, given through the Holy Spirit, our choice is just that: Ours. Only through Christ crucified can our choice also be God’s choice for us; and it is only God’s choice for us that ultimately matters. 


How does this apply to us at St. Timothy/St. Mark? Earlier this morning at St. Timothy, we had two baptisms. We are renewed each day in our baptismal promises. When someone is baptized, we can answer afresh the call to commitment to follow Jesus with all our heart. Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard said that Jesus wants followers, not admirers.
When Martin Luther struggled with the devil and other issues, he would say, “I am baptized!,” as often as he needed to. Because baptism makes us the Lord’s, we too can be reassured of God’s care for us because we belong to him.
Amen. 
Sources
Feasting on the Gospels--Luke, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary (Kindle Locations 9832-9836). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Søren Kierkegaard, sundaysandseasons.org
David Lose, workingpreacher.com 
Michael Rogness, Commentary on Luke 9:51-62, workingpreacher.com

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

When Pigs Fly

It's been a while. I was off on the 12th. Now I will be posting the sermon from the 19th today and from the 26th tomorrow. This is the sermon I preached on Sun., June 19 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Mark Lutheran Church. The scripture text was Luke 8:26-39.





Look at this gospel passage. It's full of all kinds of images that are hard to understand, let alone believe: a man with demons, living naked in a cemetery, demons going into pigs and pigs jumping off a cliff into the Sea of Galilee, which is a little bigger than our Lake Chautauqua.

As we should all know by now, our Lord Jesus is always going into odd, forbidden places so that outsiders of the faith become his followers. In this lesson, Jesus, is breaking down boundaries that keep people from faith and healing.

Jesus' very presence in the area of the Gerasenes was just one of the boundaries broken. The residents were people that the Jewish people had little, if anything to do with. So, why would Jesus go there in the first place? Jesus went to Gentile places because God called him there. It also shows what the nature of God's kingdom would be like. It would be a kingdom of love including all races and sexes. No one would be excluded in the future ministry of God's church.

The next boundary Jesus broke was that of demons. In ancient times, maladies were attributed to demons. When we read scripture with a 21st century lens, that concept is hard for us to swallow. If we have pain or another physical malady, don't we get on the phone to make an appointment with our doctor? We may knowingly look at this and other passages of scripture with incredulity.

Demons--isn't that something we see in movies like "The Exorcist?" Of course there are lots of shows about vampires and evil as well.

The man told Jesus that his name is Legion, meaning he was possessed by many demons. A legion was a  Roman military unit comprised of five thousand to six thousand men. The man experiences his life as a veritable mob of conflicting forces and has lost his personal identity represented by his own name. In Luke's gospel, the point of the name Legion is concerning the size of the demonic horde that has invaded the poor man.

As much as we treat the perceived demonic maladies of Jesus' time as strictly medical in our own time, evil, demons and the like are real. I don't mean that we should go looking for evil spirits as some Christians do, but we should take the words of St. Paul to heart, "For our struggle is not against enemies of [flesh and blood,] but against ... rulers, against ... authorities, against ... cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). If we doubt evil exists in this world, just look back at the tragedies of the last couple of weeks or longer.

Talk to almost anyone who has been a missionary and ask them if demons are real. You'll get quite an earful. When I was part of a missionary group in Palestine, there were times we stopped everything we were doing and started praying because of a sense that something awful was about to happen. We would look out our living room window and see a very familiar scene--tires and dumpsters being gathered into a heap, with residents of the El Aza refugee camp burning these items in protest, followed by the arrival of Israeli soldiers shooting canisters of tear gas or bullets. Inevitably, someone would be hurt or killed. At other times, as we prayed, we could see the protest fizzle, no soldiers arriving and no one hurt.

According to Jewish law, going into places of death, such as cemeteries, makes them ritually unclean. The man with many demons no longer lived in a home with his family. He lived among the tombs in a cemetery. As tormented as he may have been, this place of death had become home. Living with the dead was familiar to him. It's ironic that the man chose a place of death as his home. Not only was he surrounded by death, he was living death with the many demons inside of him. Jesus broke the boundary of death.

Jesus was not put off by the man's residence in a cemetery. Nothing could stop Jesus from delivering him from the demons and restoring him to life. Jesus, the Lord of life, entered the forbidden place of death and conquered that which had imprisoned the man for so long.

When Jesus has broken all boundaries, he heals and delivers the man from his multitude of demons. The one who initially begged to be left alone, was now well. We see the boundary breaking/healing Jesus at work. Jesus sends the man home with the instructions to "declare how much God has done for you."

The man took Jesus seriously and could not keep quiet. So how did the people react once they heard the story told by the man Jesus healed? They were outraged and afraid. They were outraged because he let the demons possess the pigs and jump over the cliff.

How would you feel if someone took your herd of pigs? Healing is all well and good, but why did Jesus have to use the farmer's pigs? I suspect most farmers would have a fit if someone trespassed on to their property and took something of theirs.

The people were afraid! They were afraid because someone who had been possessed and who had been considered out of his mind, was now healed and acting as normal as anyone else in the village. This was beyond their level of understanding. The people from the surrounding areas asked Jesus to leave. This healed man, in his right mind, was disconcerting. It shook up the status quo. Even when people live in painful circumstances or have physical issues, experience discrimination or abuse, "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know." These people wanted the status quo and feared change.

We often do not want to leave the familiar to journey to the unfamiliar. I once worked with a man named Jerry. We worked together at a part time job. We could always count on Jerry to bring humor into our conversations. One of his pet sayings was, "Change is bad!" Don't we sometimes feel that way? Change is often good, but at times, it's also difficult.

What boundaries enslave us? Is it discrimination, pain, apathy or a host of other things? We may not be able to break free, so our Lord of life wants to free us, not for our sake alone, but so that we can worship and serve God uninhibitedly. That is one challenge for us today. God wants to free us. Are we willing to let go of those places of death in our lives that interfere with our ability to live as God desires us to live?

The theme of this year's Synod Assembly was In Christ One New Humanity. For the first time, the assembly gathered around the challenging topic of racial justice and race relations in our congregations and communities. The assembly sought to take the first step in a conversation about race relations. While it was only the first step, it was an important beginning.

When we are free to serve God, what boundaries can we break down? This passage of Luke teaches us that the most important lesson is to go beyond the barriers that have been erected between races and classes. Let us not be discriminatory about who we think needs the gospel and who doesn't, who is too far gone, or who is ready. In Christ, everywhere we go we bring the light and power of the gospel, which not only breaks down barriers, but completely eliminates them. What would happen to our church if we went out into Bemus Point/Mayville and proclaimed how much Jesus had done for us?

Amen!

Sources

M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People's New Testament Commentary



The New English Translation, notes.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Two Parades

This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches on Sunday, 6/5.

How many of us enjoy going to a parade? Did you go the Memorial Day parade? Doesn't being at a parade make us feel like children again?
Today's gospel describes a meeting of two parades—one of life (Jesus, and the crowd of followers) and a parade of death—(the dead man, his mother and the grieving crowd). Just what happens when these two parades meet?

The parade of life  was on the move from Capernaum to the small town of Nain. Before they made their way into the town, they could hear the commotion before seeing the parade of grievers. Middle Eastern people do not mourn as we do. Their mourning is loud and passionate and may well be healthier than the way we try to be strong and not let our emotions get the best of us.

One would think that in the parade of mourners, which is a funeral procession, the focus would be on the loved one who died. Of course, our Lord Jesus is never conventional and can be counted upon to do the unusual and unexpected. Rather than focusing on the man who died, Jesus' focus is primarily on his mother, a widow.

In Jesus' time, being a widow meant that the woman was now socially alone and without protection. Besides that, she has lost her sole means of support financially. Without a husband and now without any son to support her, she would become destitute. As crass as this may sound to our 21st century ears, people's children were their retirement. A son was a mother's lifelong protector and her ultimate social security. Jesus' restoration of this widow's son may have meant the difference between survival and destitution.

What has transpired reveals the reign of God in which Jesus, transforms mortal existence into new life. Jesus raises the widow's son from the dead. That is one miracle, but there's much more.

Jesus paid the most attention to the widow, who was now an outsider. Jesus had compassion for her and told her not to weep. The Greek word for cry means loud wailing or lamenting typical of first century Jewish mourning. The woman was beside herself.

When I was in seminary, one of the first things we learned in pastoral care is that you never tell someone who is crying, "Don't cry. Is Jesus being insensitive? Didn't he know how important it is to be a non-anxious presence when someone is mourning? Jesus could say "Don't cry" because he knew what was going to happen next.

After talking to the widow, Jesus touched the bier, which was a stretcher or wooden plank to transport the corpse to the place of burial. The act of touching it made Jesus ceremonially unclean. However, that did not diminish his compassion and that didn't stop him from healing the man.

The translation we are using says, "Jesus gave [the man] to his mother," but a better translation is that Jesus "gave back" the son. This underscores her restoration and return to a place of protection. The renewal of her future became a time of opportunity instead of misfortune.

How did the crowd respond to the miracle? Their first response was that of fear. I'm not sure about you, but my first reaction to this is that the gospel writers paint a much calmer picture than what may have actually occurred. I don't think when people see someone who is dead, sitting up and starting to talk, they simply stand there and say, "Oh wow." I think there could have been a bunch of people running for their lives. Perhaps in all the commotion, those who remained, were fearful and filled with wonder.

They glorified God and said that Jesus was a great prophet and that "God has looked favorably on his people" (v. 16). That sounds nice, doesn't it? A different way this could be translated is that God is "present" with his people, "with the implication of concern-of being able to help, to be on hand and to aid." Jesus' healing actions point to God's restoration of his people. The hope of resurrection is not grounded in the fact that the widow's son came back to life, but in the fact that the One who had compassion to bring back the woman's son has himself triumphed over death.

Other healing stories in this gospel attribute healing to the person's faith.There's nothing about faith in today's story. Maybe this story is all about grace--pure, unadulterated, unearned, un-asked-for grace. The healing does not happen because of a mother's faith or her son's worthiness. It happens because of Jesus' compassion.

When grace comes into our lives, it requires nothing of us but a choice--to receive it or not. As Christians, we are called to be God's presence and conduit of God's grace in our world. Sometimes that means that we will be with people of light and at other times, people will be in very dark, scary places and we are called to be God's light to them. It may be that we bring hope to the family of someone who died, help a sick person or are a non-anxious presence amidst the commotion,  and at other times, we are the light battling the forces of evil through the power of God's Holy Spirit. 

The question for us to ask ourselves when we are faced with the difficulties of life, is how are we going to react to those situations? Do we trust in God or do we try to go it alone? With Jesus, you never know when a funeral parade just might turn into a street celebration.

May God give us the wisdom and strength to choose wisely.

Amen.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Green, Grow and Go

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 29 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The scripture text is Luke 7:1-10.
We have begun the time of the church year that is symbolized with the color green. It is called ordinary time, not because it is every-day, but because the weeks of this time are numbered. As many have said, "Ordinary time is anything but ordinary."
The green season is a time for us to grow in our faith. As we grow, God will bring us people to share our faith with as we go along in the duties and pleasures of our everyday lives. Throughout this time, which can be most extraordinary, we will be concentrating on the works of Jesus in Luke's gospel. We are in this green season so that we can grow and go to share the good news.
A lot of coming and going takes place in this story in Luke. Jesus had finished with the beatitudes, and was once again on the road. Note that Jesus did not seek out the centurion. Jesus was approached while he was on his way to Capernaum.
A military man, a Roman centurion plays a key role in this passage. The centurion was the backbone of the Roman army. Centurions were commanders of the forces that occupied Palestine in the time of Christ.The centurion was an experienced, veteran soldier who held a prestigious position, with pay that was around 15 times more than that of the average soldier and he had far more authority to boot. A centurion did not have the reputation of being a warm, cuddly character. However, despite his authority, power and money in his own world, the centurion Luke writes about was powerless in the face of the disease that tormented his servant.
The centurion knew power when he heard it and he had heard of Jesus’ ability to heal. But, the centurion and Jesus were from two different worlds and their status in society could not have been more dissimilar. This particular centurion, humbled himself and asked the Jewish elders to go to find Jesus for him. The elders acted as a bridge between the Gentile and Jewish worlds, telling Jesus about how deserving the centurion was of Jesus’ intervention.
It’s really quite shocking considering the picture that is often painted of the Jewish elders. Here they are actually praising a despised Gentile, acting on his behalf to get help for a slave, of all people. This centurion further humbles himself by sending friends to tell Jesus he does not need to come into his house to heal the servant because the centurion considered himself unworthy.
But what is really the point of the story? Is it simply a healing story like so many others in the gospels? There are so many unusual characteristics to this story that it would have made the heads of its hearers spin.
This centurion outsider had such great conviction about Jesus’ power that even Jesus was amazed. The centurion knew that his own power originated from somewhere outside of himself. In his case it was Rome. The centurion did not need to see Jesus or speak with him personally or receive Jesus into his home in order for Jesus to work on his behalf. He simply trusted in the authority and power of Jesus’ word to heal his servant, asking that Jesus, “only speak the word...” (v. 7)and his servant would be healed.
Jesus’ word was enough because of Who stood behind that word. Could the centurion have been expressing faith in God as the authority behind Jesus? Perhaps! However, we don’t know if he was simply recognizing the concept of God as the creator of the universe and the source of all power or whether he was recognizing God as the God of Israel.
God’s word is powerful whether it is spoken by Jesus or his followers because of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Luke relates parallel events of Jesus' life in his gospel and the life of the early church in Acts. We have the unnamed centurion in the gospel and Cornelius the centurion in Acts. In the gospel, the centurion was good to the Jewish people and in Acts Cornelius was a good man who had a deep faith and who was generous to others. In the gospel, Jesus reaches out to Gentiles and in Acts Gentiles become a part of the church.
Luke’s gospel foreshadows the mission to the Gentiles and provides authoritative precedent for that mission in Jesus’ ministry. Neither of the centurions saw Jesus. In this way, Luke anticipates believers yet to come after the earthly life of Christ. And God anticipated us who, like the centurions, have never seen Jesus and yet have experienced the word of God’s power through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
The Word of Christ is effective and present to faith in all times and places. It creates and sustains the church. Biblical scholar, R. Alan Culpepper describes our situation this way:
Although we may never see Jesus or witness his mighty works, where his word is present, there the power that was evident in his works also continues to be present. The Lord we worship is mighty in word, responsive to our needs, and compassionate to heal. (R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke, 156)

Resources
R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter's Bible: Luke
Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis
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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Healing Rain of Tears

Sunday, we had healing services at both St. Timothy Lutheran Church and at  St. Mark Lutheran Church in Mayville. It is a part of our liturgy which I always enjoy. We do this whenever there's a fifth Sunday.

A few came forward at St. Timothy and it was a significant time for folks whether they came forward or remained in their seats. When we began this part of the service at St. Mark, nearly everyone that I laid hands on threw there arms around me and many said that they needed to pray for me. They had tears in their eyes. The Holy Spirit fell and visited us in such a special way. Nearly everyone came forward for prayer and God's presence was with us in such a sweet way.

Reflecting back on that time, the words of Michael W. Smith's song, Healing Rain came to mind. Along with that there was the thought that the tears that were shed on Sunday were God's healing rain of tears. Here is the You Tube of Healing Rain.

I am asking for your prayers as well. I have four bulging discs in my back which are on nerves. Walking and standing aggrevate the situation and then my feet become completely numb and feel like concrete. Physical therapy hasn't helped. Injections haven't helped. Friday morning I am seeing a back surgeon. Thanks for praying.

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