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A Fleeting Moment

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Luke 19:29-40

 

19:29 “When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:29-40, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: Holy One, you are our strength in suffering and our hope for salvation, we pray that you will lift up your Word of life and pour out your Spirit of grace so that we may follow faithfully on the way to the cross; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

 

Today is Palm Sunday—the day when HOPE paraded into Jerusalem riding on a colt.  World-shattering Hope rides into Jerusalem and the world will never be the same.  Jesus is that hope and we just read about how he arrived in a parade, on that first Palm Sunday.   Remember parades.   Everybody loves a parade.  People gather on the sides of the street to watch the bands march by, to welcome heroes’ home from war, to celebrate champions and often they are an excuse to have a good time.  While other parades are to mourn, like last summer’s huge motorcade of law enforcement from all over the region, who came to follow the hearse as it processed up Montgomery Road mourning the death of Cincinnati Police Officer Sunny Kim.

 

Remember the last parade you went to. Was it the Opening Day Parade last year? Or was it St. Patrick’s Day Parade? Or Bokfest? Or maybe it was Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City or the Village Fourth of July Parade. Remember all the people, all the excitement, the pomp and circumstance?

 

Now, the story of Palm Sunday is a parade of sorts for Jesus.  It is a story we know all too well.  The story of Jesus coming to Jerusalem and huge crowds joyfully welcoming him into the city as the long awaited king, as their Messiah.  This parade was more the celebratory type, people shouting, singing, welcoming Jesus. They sang from Psalm 118 about the one coming in the name of their beloved King David. They sang praises to God for giving them this promised king, the one who would lead them.

 

Because it is a familiar story to us it is hard to realize how unlikely this procession into Jerusalem really is.   It was a strange event.  Strange because the crowd gets it right as they hail Jesus as the Messiah.   Strange because even as the crowd is correct in celebrating the entrance of the Messiah, they also miss the point — the crowds want him to be a Messiah who leads them to victory without pain or sacrifice.  But the strangest aspect of this story is that Jesus seems to have deliberately orchestrated this procession himself.

 

It is strange because it seems so out of character for him.  Why would Jesus draw all the attention to himself?  When so much of his ministry he commands people to tell no one about what they have witnessed or seen.  So why does Jesus encourage the crowd to worship him when they really have no understanding why they were doing it?  Why would he set the stage to be hailed as the Messiah, when he knows what is ahead of him in the days to come.  Jesus surely knew what was in their hearts.  He surely knew their lack of understanding.   He certainly knew what lay ahead of him in the week ahead.

 

It strikes me that we are not so different from that first Palm Sunday crowd. We focus on the parade, Jesus triumphal entry and the palm branches …because it spares us the agony of what lies ahead for Jesus.  The sorrow of knowing that Judas will betray him for money.  The disappointment that Peter, the rock, the beloved disciple, will deny that he even knows Jesus three times.  We focus on the parade because it spares us the sight of his closest followers, the disciples fleeing when he is arrested.  We focus on the parade because it feels much better than the horror of the week ahead.  We focus on the parade so we can stay happy and skip to the glory of Easter.  It would be so nice and tidy if Jesus just stopped here at the parade and basked in the glory of this day!

 

So, Jesus, the great teacher, is helping them and by extension us to learn something important.  Even though they did not understand the full significance of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem that day, maybe by participating they may come to understand.  W. H. Auden once wrote: “Human beings are by nature actors, who cannot become something until first they have pretended to be it. They are therefore to be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane, who know they are acting, and the mad who do not.”[1]  As he entered Jerusalem that fateful day Jesus may not have been so concerned with rooting out hypocrisy or with rewarding sincerity, but instead with showing the truth.  Jesus may have been providing this crowd of people the opportunity to be part of something so that they could in return become it.  Perhaps they were pretending to be his disciples, his followers, his worshipers, all celebrating his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and into their hearts.

 

You know that we are no different.   Every Sunday we stage a little drama here in worship.   We begin, as this Holy Week begins, with praise and worship of God.  We call each other to worship, and we sing the praises of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   Then we also speak words of confession.   We act out our penitence and we affirm our forgiveness.  We share with one another the peace of Christ in a ritualized, dramatic way — extending the hand of fellowship and even speaking the words, “the peace of Christ, be with you and also with you.”  Then we sit quietly and listen — or at least act as if we’re listening — to the reading of scripture and sermon (the teaching) of the Word of God.  We show our thankfulness as we place offerings in the offering plate.   We sing of our commitment and of our changed lives.   We gather around the Lord’s Table and break bread and share one cup.   Every Sunday is full of drama.

 

Some weeks you may not exactly understand what you are saying or singing.  Some weeks your heart may not be in some parts of the service.   But, just as Auden wrote, “human beings are by nature actors, who cannot become something until first they have pretended to be it.”  Pretend.  Act the part.  Play at praising, at repenting, at committing.   Keep on pretending or acting because we learn to worship God by worshiping[2].

 

But Just like Palm Sunday is not the end of the story for Jesus we too must complete the drama.   It’s easy to move through the praise section and drop out when it comes to the costly acts of confession, making peace, hearing the Word, giving money, making promises.   If you want to become Jesus’ faithful disciples, you have to stay in the drama until the end.  You have to play your part all the way through.  You have to keep pretending until someday it’s not pretend anymore.  That day when we become what we were pretending to be.

 

Let us pray:

 

[1] Reverend Laura Smit, A Sermon on Luke 19:28-40 for Palm/Passion Sunday preached at First Presbyterian Church of Clayton, New Jersey on April 9, 1995.

[2] Reverend Laura Smit, A Sermon on Luke 19:28-40 for Palm/Passion Sunday preached at First Presbyterian Church of Clayton, New Jersey on April 9, 1995.

Repentance, Figs and Failing Towers

 

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
Luke 13:1-9

 

13:1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” 6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” (Luke 13:1-9, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of infinite goodness, throughout the ages you have persevered in claiming and reclaiming your people. Renew for us your call to repentance, surround us with witnesses to aid us in our journey, and grant us the courage to fashion our lives anew, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen

 

At first reading, this passage from the Gospel of Luke is scary.   No one wants to hear that if we do not bear fruit or that we don’t measure up and please God, then God will take out the axe and cut us down.   Which leads to the question how do we measure up? How do we produce fruit that will please the landowner…God?   I am getting ahead of myself.  So let’s go back and look at the whole passage.

 

In this passage Jesus refers to two calamities that were probably familiar to ancient audiences.  The first horrific event involves Pilate and his state-sanctioned violence in the killing of the Galileans in the temple.  The second event, the collapse of tower of Siloam was a random accident.   However, in both of these events people died for no apparent reason.   These two ghastly instances are reminders of just how precarious life is.

 

Then Jesus gets to the heart of the story when he poses the questions that must have been on everyone’s minds.  Were those Galileans, who were killed by Pilate, worse sinners than others?   Were the people killed by the collapse of the tower worse sinners than everyone else living in Jerusalem?   Then Jesus, quickly answers his own question, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  He clearly states that the victims did nothing to warrant their deaths but his answer includes a curious statement.

 

It seems is if Jesus is sending a mixed message, here.  He says, “No … but.” As in, “No they weren’t worse sinners, and no they weren’t worse offenders. Their sin did not cause their deaths, but you will meet the same fate if you don’t repent.” Well, which is it?   His statement is confusing.   He seems to be contradicting himself.  First, Jesus makes it clear that there is no rational explanation for these tragedies.  He doesn’t say, “It was God’s will that this Galileans were killed by Pilate.”   Instead it seems as if the Galileans, who were killed by Pilate were victims of the Roman government’s blood thirsty desire for control.  Because, it could have been anybody who was in the temple that day offering sacrifices.  And the people killed by the collapse of the tower?  It could have been anyone who happened to be standing there.  Instead what, Jesus is saying is, don’t look for cause and effect explanation.  It may be what we want, is a cause-and-effect, karma-type scenario that explains why things like this happen, Jesus is saying that is not how God operates.   No, they weren’t worse sinners, but you and I, sinners, will meet the same fate unless we repent and accept the gift of abundant life that Christ is offering.

 

Look at your life?  Look at my life?  We can spend so much time trying to explain things—so much time worrying about why tragedies happen—that we forget to pay attention to how we are living our own our own lives.

 

I know that this is not a satisfying answer because we want to be able to explain why people suffer and die as a way to distance ourselves from it.  Or we want to believe in – works righteousness, we live right to earn God’s favor – even when we say we believe in grace.

 

The problem with making our relationship with God a transactional one rather than a covenantal one is that at some point the math just won’t work.  We will be persecuted by Pilate or those like him – for no reason other than Pilate chooses to persecute us.  Or, the tower will fall on us for no other reason than we were at the wrong place at the wrong time.  We will look for a reason, some logical explanation, some underlying purpose and it simply will not be there.  Then what?  Are we simply bad people who get what we deserve?  Are we sinners in the hand of an angry God?

 

As people of faith, catastrophes and violence raise all sorts of questions that challenge our faith and cause us to question God.  Trying to explain the complexities of life and the horrific events that happen is something we all do— it is a form of protection.   If we can explain it then we can make sure it won’t happen to us.   But, Jesus’ message gets right to the heart of our desire to do so.

 

Jesus is teaching that the outcome is the same if we build our lives upon those well-meaning rationalizations that we use to get us through the day: stating that we are blessed, safe, and able to claim our better fortune than the victims of these events because we have won God’s favor, then we are mistaken.  To focus on this point, share with you an article I read recently in the New York Times.  It was from Sunday February 13, 2016 in the NY Times Review Opinion page, an article written by Kate Bowler, entitled, Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me. Kate Bowler is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School and the author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.”

 

She researched and wrote about the prosperity gospel and its theology.  A theology that claims being good and living a righteous life equates to being blessed by God.  She has recently been diagnosed with stage IV cancer at age 35.   She wrestles with this theology and her own experience. She writes:

Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith…

Tragedies are simply tests of character.

It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

In other words, is she a worse sinner? Did she smoke? Eat poorly? Bad genes? If the answer is no, then what will keep the wolf from my door?

 

Kate Bowler continues:

Cancer has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential…Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.

 

She continues:

But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from my Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.[1]

 

It sounds like Jesus: Life is so beautiful.  Life is so hard.   Life in relationship with the Triune God and with one another is a gift to be received and cherished even when it isn’t fair or reasonable.   So, perhaps, who sinned or who is the worse sinner is irrelevant when Jesus came to save sinners.   So, today we have a precious gift of Life, an opportunity to change our focus from rationalizing suffering and horrific events to focus on the suffering One, Jesus the Christ, who intercedes for us, tends to us and stays with us in all of life and its circumstances.[2]

 

Let us pray:

[1] As found online on Facebook and summarized in an email from Jill Duffield February 28, 3rd Sunday in Lent. Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9 Presbyterian Outlook

(http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html)

 

[2] Jill Duffield February 28, 3rd Sunday in Lent. Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9 Presbyterian Outlook

Do you know who you are?

 

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Luke 4:1-13

 

4: 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. 12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ “13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:1-13, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of wilderness and water, your Son was baptized and tempted as we are. Guide us through this season of Lent, that we may not avoid struggle, but open ourselves to blessing, through the cleansing depths of repentance and the life-giving words of the Spirit. Amen.

 

In his autobiography, the actor Kirk Douglas tells about an experience he had as a young actor.  At the time, he was already a well-known Hollywood star.  On this day he was driving along the California coast when he noticed a young man in a naval uniform standing on the side of the road hitchhiking.  Douglas pulled over and gave the young sailor a ride.  He did not tell the young sailor who he was, but the sailor recognized Kirk Douglas immediately.

 

They talked about where the young sailor was stationed, where he was headed, and what he planned to do with his life after the Navy.  The conversation carried on but after a while, the young sailor couldn’t bite his tongue any longer and he asked, “Mister, do you know who you are?”[1]

 

Do you know who you are? It is the underlying question of our scripture passages for this First Sunday in the Season of Lent.  The Lenten season is a time to retell the stories of our faith, particularly the stories of our Lord, his teachings, his ministry on the way to Jerusalem, and his passion.   Telling stories— the stories of faith— reminds us who and whose we are.  The stories of our faith help to shape our identity and give us purpose and direction in life.  Because there is more to our identity than our name, our family background and our DNA.  Our identity is greatly influenced by the stories and the narratives that have influenced our lives.

 

The biblical narratives are one such influence. Take Moses, for example, He believed that remembering where he and the Israelites had been and their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land would help to keep them faithful to God. So, Moses challenged the Israelites to remember that journey when they brought the first fruits of their harvest as an offering in the Temple.  Moses said, “You say this before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.  He went down to Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and then he became a great nation, mighty and populous. And when his Egyptian captors were harsh on him, he cried out to God and God heard his cry and delivered him and brought us out of bondage.’” Moses encouraged the Israelites to recite this history that was both a confession of their faith, and a statement of thanksgiving to provide boundaries and purpose to their lives.  To this day observant Jews continue to celebrate this history as they say, “Tell it again and again, so we will always remember who and whose, are.” These stories continue to form their collective identity and their faith.[2]

 

In Luke’s gospel we learn that Jesus’ identity is challenged in the wilderness by Satan.  You notice that Satan or the devil tempts or tests Jesus three times in this story.  You will also notice the devil doesn’t ask Jesus to do anything particularity bad.  The devil simply invites Jesus to forget who he is and whose he is.  Jesus has just been confirmed in his identity by the voice of God at his baptism. “You are my chosen, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”[3]  Jesus had been called to live out a story of service for others out of love for God.  And the devil is inviting him to betray his identity and misuse his power.

 

That is the most insidious aspect of temptation.   It is not always an enticement to do something we shouldn’t do because it is bad or wrong.  Temptation can also lure us away from something – namely, our relationship with God and the identity we receive in and through that relationship and Baptism.[4]

Too often, we Christians, have focused on all the things we shouldn’t do, instead of pointing us to the gift and grace of our identity as children of God.  But the devil knows better.  Notice how each of the temptations seeks to erode and undercut Jesus’ identity.  Which is why this passage is really about identity theft.

 

Because all three of these temptations— and as best that I understand, all temptations— are fundamentally intended to shift our trust away from God and onto ourselves.  We see that very subtly in the language that sets up each temptation. Each one centers on the little word, “you.”[5]

If you are the Son of God…

To you I will give all these kingdoms…

If you are the Son of God…

 

This is one reason why we gather for worship each and every week to remind us of our identity as children of God.  We are under constant assault, maybe not as straight forward as Jesus and the devil in this story, but much more covert ways each and every day.

 

We are tempted in so many ways to lose our faith in God and confidence in ourselves.  So, we come to church to be reminded of our identity as beloved children of God. In the face of so many assaults on our identity we come to church to have that identity renewed and restored that we might live in the confidence of God’s abundant life and unending love.[6]

 

Tom Long, Presbyterian preacher tells the story about Hugh Thompson.  Do you remember Hugh Thompson?  On March 16, 1968, Thompson was a young helicopter pilot flying on patrol over the countryside of Vietnam.  When he and his crew flew over the village of My Lai, they saw something horrific taking place below.  The troops of US Army Charlie Company, under the constant pressure of danger and the madness of war, had lost control and their discipline, and their humanity, and they had begun slaughtering unarmed civilians in the village, most of them women, children and elderly men.

 

Seeing this Thompson had to respond. So, he landed his helicopter down between the troops and the remaining villagers.  Then at great risk to himself, he got out of the helicopter and confronted the officer in charge, Lt. William Calley.  Following this confrontation, he and his crew airlifted the few villagers who were still alive out of My Lai.  He then radioed a report of the scene and in doing so saved many civilian lives.

 

Thompson’s action went unnoticed for year’s even decades, until finally he was publically recognized. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Emory University in Atlanta.  Standing on the platform at the University’s commencement, Thompson spoke, and he told how he found the courage and the strength to do what he did on March 16, 1968?  His statement to the graduates and the audience both shocked them and brought them to a thoughtful silence.

 

He said, “I’d to like to thank my mother and father for trying to instill in me the difference between right and wrong.”   “We were country people.  We didn’t have much.  I was born and raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and we had very little, but one thing we did have was the Golden Rule.  My parents taught me early on, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’  That’s why I did what I did that day.  It’s hard to put certain things into words.  You graduates are going to have to make decisions in your life.  Please make the right decisions, because we’re depending on yon. God bless you all.”

 

Why did he do what he did?  Where did he find the strength and courage?  Words taught to him in childhood and repeated over and over: “Do unto others…, Do unto others…, Do unto others….” Jesus said, “It is written …, it is written …, it is written …One does not live by bread alone.” There is a script to help you remember who you are.[7]

 

You are a child of God, created and claimed by the Creator of heaven and earth.  You have been claimed and redeemed so that you can live out your life by faith.

 

Let us pray: Holy God, you have claimed us as your own. May we rest secure in our identity as children of God. Amen.

[1] The Reverend Joseph S. Harvard. “Who Are You?” A sermon preached on February 29, 2004 at First Presbyterian Church, Durham, North Carolina. Based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13.

[2] Ibid

[3] Matthew 3:17, NRSV.

[4] The Reverend Dr. David Lose. Lent 1 C: Identity Theft, Luke 4: 1-13 found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-1-c-identity-theft

 

[5] The Reverend Robert Montgomery. “Facing Temptation” A sermon preached on February 21, 2010, First Sunday of Lent at First Presbyterian Church, Pulaski, TN. Based on Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 and Luke 4: 1 -13.

[6] The Reverend Dr. David Lose. Lent 1 C: Identity Theft, Luke 4: 1-13 found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/02/lent-1-c-identity-theft

 

[7] The Reverend Joseph S. Harvard. “WHO ARE YOU?” A sermon preached on February 29, 2004 at First Presbyterian Church, Durham, North Carolina. Based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13.

Christmas Remembrances: Joy

 

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Luke 2:1-14

 

2: 1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:1-14, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of glory, your splendor shines from a manger in Bethlehem, where the Light of the world is humbly born into the darkness of human night. Through the telling of the Christmas story, let our lives be caught up in the story of the Christ child, that we too might join shepherds and all the heavenly host in praising the coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

 

The angel of the Lord boldly proclaims in verse 10:“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

 

What is Joy?  We talk about the joy of Christmas, and we hear about people who live joy-filled lives.  We know that there are moments of joy even in the darkest of lives. We’ve seen them: video clips of joyous families welcoming loved ones home from war; the ecstatic joy in the Olympics when an athlete wins a gold medal; the eruption of laughter and tears and the outburst of joy at the birth of a child, or the joy of children on Christmas morning.  Is this the sort of joy the angel is speaking of?

 

Well, bookstores remind us there is: The Joy of Cooking, The Joy of Living, The Joy of Sex, The Joy of Parenthood, The Joy of Painting, So, what is joy? Where does joy come from?  Does joy come from something you have, or does joy come from something you do?  Is joy a pursuit or a paradox, or worse, is joy an illusion?  Is joy a fleeting moment or is joy a permanent state?  What is joy?

 

We find joy in our spouses, our children, our homes, our jobs, our favorite sports teams.  But the joy that angel of the Lord is speaking of is so much more than that.  The angel of the Lord is speaking of great joy is not merely the squeals of delight of children when they open their gifts tomorrow morning, but this joy is a deep and solid confidence that is built on something firm, real and long lasting.

 

The angel of the Lord spoke to the shepherds about this joy to come. The Shepherds hear this glorious promise from God that “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born a Savior.

 

But there is something that often prevents us from experiencing this deep, abiding joy.  Perhaps it is that we hear the angel of the Lord’s promise with skeptical ears—because we know too much.

 

Apparently, there are two types of joy: internal joy and external joy.  Internal joy comes from within, but external joy comes and goes with whatever is happening in our lives.  It is external because it comes from outside of our selves. When our circumstances change in one direction, joy comes.  When our fortune reverses, joy leaves.  External Joy is fleeting.

 

But internal joy is different.  The joy that lasts is not a fantasy that is out of touch with reality.  This joy is not just giddy happiness but something much deeper and so much stronger.  In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul talks a lot about “joy” and rejoicing.  His joy is more than the “I’ve got a wonderful feeling, everything is going my way” kind of joy.  You may remember that he was imprisoned for his faith.  He even had joy when things were not going his way while he was in prison. The great theologian, Karl Barth, described joy this way, “Joy in this world is always in spite of something.”  It is, as he put it, joy in a “defiant nevertheless” kind of way.

 

This joy is more than happiness because of good times.  It’s joy in the face of, or joy in spite of the irritation, the disappointment, the frustration, and the aggravation of daily living.  It is the kind of joy Henri Nouwen concludes, “That does not separate happy days from sad days, successful moments from moments of failure.”  No, this joy is a divine gift that does not leave us during illness, grief, oppression, or persecution.  This joy does not depend on the circumstances of our lives, or even on our momentary feelings.  “The joy that lasts, that is not externally dependent, that is not dependent on the absence of sorrow and pain, the joy that lasts is rooted, grounded, cemented in the experience with God.[1]

 

A God who is with us.

So what does joy look like, feel like, sound like?

 

I think Joy looks like this.  A friend of mine loves the Christmas Eve service.  He never misses it.  He doesn’t love it because of the beauty of it or the music or the excitement of Christmas morning coming.  He loves it because it had changed his life.  My friend went through a really painful divorce.  He had screwed up—made some bad choices and alienated everyone, especially his wife and kids and she finally had enough and filed for divorce.  It was on Christmas Eve some 20 years ago that he found himself utterly alone, depressed and guilt ridden.  He didn’t know where to turn.  He said he felt like his life was falling apart.  So that evening he made himself get dressed and go to the Christmas Eve service all by himself.   He sat on the back row.  Looking at all the families piled in together.  But then something strange happened.  Someone spoke to him and told him Merry Christmas.  Someone else shook his hand and said good to see you.  The music started “O Come all Ye Faithful.  Joy to the World.  O Little Town of Bethlehem.” “The scripture started settling on his heart.  “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

 

He isn’t sure exactly when it happened, but he started feeling joy— not superficial, happy, joy, but deep abiding joy.  Joy in spite of.  Joy nevertheless.  Joy.  The joy that can only come from a tiny baby born in a manger.

 

My friend has never missed a Christmas Eve service since…and he will be there tonight. Just like you and just like me.  He will hear those familiar carols, he will hear the words of Scripture, “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  He will hold up his candle and sing silent night and yet again, it will be Christmas.  And his heart and his soul just like yours and mine will be transformed and set free to face life without fear and live with joy.

 

Let us pray: Good  and gracious God, on this holy night you gave us your  Son, the Lord of the universe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, the Savior of  all, lying in a manger. On this holy night draw us into the mystery of your love. Join our voices with the heavenly host that we may sing your glory on high. Give us a place among the shepherds that we may find the one for  whom we have waited, Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy  Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen

[1]The Reverend Dr. Ian Chapman “Don’t be Afraid” Program #3611 First broadcast December 20, 1992” http://www.30goodminutes.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/242-ian-chapman-program-3611

 

 

 

Christmas Remembrances: Home

Malachi 5:2-5
Psalm 80:1-7
Luke 1:39-55

1:39 “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:39-55, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of promise, you have given us a sign of your love through the gift of Jesus Christ, our Savior, who was promised from ages past.  We believe as Joseph did the message of your presence whispered by an angel, and offer our prayers for your world, confident of your care and mercy for all creation. Amen.

 

Music has always been important in the life of the church because it speaks to our hearts and it moves our souls, but music this time of year seems even more important.  Think about the Christmas carols we sing.  We know many of them by heart: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “O Come all ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World!” Just to name a few. Every one of us has our favorites and when we hear or sing those carols it makes Christmas for us.

 

It is not only sacred music and Christmas carols that touch our hearts and move our souls it is also popular music.  Apparently the number one song on the secular list of Christmas songs is “White Christmas.”  I learned this week that is the most popular song ever written; it has been recorded more, sung more, played more, listened to more than any other piece of music ever.   The most famous rendition of the song is Bing Crosby, singing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”  It is that line that gets us: just like the ones I used to know…”  It takes us back in time, to those special Christmases of our past.  The great American composer, Irving Berlin, who was actually Jewish, wrote the song in 1941.  It became very popular during the Second World War, when so many young men were off at war separated from their families and loved ones, far away from home.  “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”

 

It is amazing the emotions and memories the song evokes, especially thoughts of home.  We remember Christmases past and what we did; decorating the tree, making cookies, cooking and eating a huge Christmas dinner, opening presents, visiting family, reading special books or watching “It’s a wonderful life.”  We all have memories.  You can close your eyes and still see certain people in certain places and remember what they did and what they said.  It is the power of memory.  The sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas, Christmas past, Christmas at Home.  “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”

 

Think about the songs we sing about Christmas at home.  There is Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…”  Perry Como’s “There is no place like home for the Holidays.”

 

No matter what our situation in life, we all experience homesickness. Homesickness is built into us.  Saint Augustine prayed so long ago, “Our hearts are restless, O God, until we find rest in thee.”  There is a deep longing in each of us for a place we belong, a place to call home.  Scripture tells us that we are all wanderers, exiles, all of us looking for a future home.  Walter Brueggeman writes in his Old Testament commentary that the basic theme of the Old Testament is the people of God longing to go home.

Here we are a few days before Christmas, some of you are preparing to travel home, wherever home happens to be, others of you will have your family come home to you, and some of us can’t go home.  No matter which group you are in, we all have a longing for home.  We all want to be “Home for Christmas, if only in our dreams…”   It is more than a nostalgic journey to return to the home of our childhood, or a highly romanticized Norman Rockwell idea of Christmas past.   As attractive as that is for us this time of year to go back and savor those memories of the past, I suggest that our texts and the angel Gabriel is inviting us to look forward. Our home is before us.

 

Christmas is about God who is for us.  Christmas is about gifts we did not earn or work for or deserve.  Christmas is about the love of God who came to dwell among us and assures us that we have a home.  Christmas is about the conviction that in this birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem, born of a women who was scared to death when she was told that she would have this child; who was amazed that God would work through her, such a lowly person; that God came among us to show us the power and the reality of His love, that God came to forgive us for all we have done that we think is unforgivable; that God came to provide us a place where we know we belong, God came to give us a home –with him.

 

A young couple, a man with a heavily pregnant fiancé, travel many miles to return home, and when they arrived, they made a home, a birthplace in a cow stall.  They transformed that manger into a home that you and I are invited to return.

 

Home is where Christ is.  That is the home we are invited to, regardless of where we are or what we are doing.  We are invited home. Home is there, that simple manger, it is where we know that we belong, where we know the strong, saving Grace of God, the One who created the heavens and the earth, He is the One who loves the world so much that he gave his only begotten son born into the world; loves the world so much that He never gave up on the world; loves us so much that he will never give up on us; and he continues to work for the redemption, the reconciliation and the peace of the world in unexpected and surprising ways.

 

That is where we are invited this Christmas.  We are invited to find our way home where we know that we are loved, where we are claimed and welcomed by God.  Finding our way home to that place where we will never be forgotten.

 

My friends, my hope and prayer for each of us this Christmas is that you and I will find our way home to Christ, who is our dwelling place, now and forever. Amen.

 

Let us pray:

Non- Superfluous Preparation

Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm (Luke 1:68-79)
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

 

3:1 “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:1-6, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of timeless grace, you fill us with joyful expectation. Make us ready for the message that prepares the way, that with open hearts and accepting minds we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Those names are hard to pronounce.  They seem obscure and superfluous.  Those names at the beginning of our reading from Luke’s Gospel.  Couldn’t we just skip over them and get to the heart of the passage.  I didn’t know how to exactly pronounce each one and no one knows who some of them even are.  Why not just pick up after the names?

 

But, there is not much, if anything, that is superfluous and unnecessary about them.   Luke put those names in there for a reason.  Luke goes to great effort to place the earth changing birth of the Messiah into context.   Luke wants to anchor them in the larger political and historical scene of the world.  You see, these names, these people, are headline grabbers, the ones on the front page of every magazine at the check at the check-out counter.  They were people that everyone would know. It would be like saying:

In the fifteenth year of the twenty-first century, when Barack Obama was President of the United States, and John Kasich was governor of Ohio, and John Cranley mayor of Cincinnati, and Daniel J. Feigelson mayor of the Village of Indian Hill, Michael Curry was presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, and Grady Parsons was the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA and the word of the Lord came to The Indian Hill Church!

 

It would be as if in the year 2015 when all of these important people had positions of power and influence, the Word of the Lord did not come to them, but it came to a no name and not even in a big city like Paris, New York or Hong Kong or Washington DC or a place of religious significance like the Vatican, no the Word of the Lord came in the wilderness, the middle of nowhere.

 

So, you see, the names are important.  They are important, because God did not come to them to get his message out.  God chose a wild person, a strange person, an unconventional person, a person of little power and influence, John the Baptist, to prepare the way for Jesus.  John the Baptist, this no name came to prepare for the Messiah who would be born to a no name-virgin-teenager and would be born away from the glitz of the big city.   Instead will be born in a barn in the middle of nowhere.  It is how God works.  David Lose, Lutheran preacher says this:

So Luke begins his story by making the outrageous claim that God is at work in the weak and small – babies and barren women and unwed teenage mothers and wild-eyed prophets and itinerant preachers and executed criminals – to change the world.  And, to be quite honest, God’s not done yet. God continues to work through unlikely characters today – unpopular teens and out-of-work adults and corporate executives and stay-at-home parents and underpaid secretaries and night-shift workers and police officers and volunteer basketball coaches and even preachers – to announce the news of God’s redemption.[1]

 

So what’s John doing among Luke’s veritable list of “who’s who” in ancient Palestine?  Well, according to Luke, John the Baptist, this itinerant preacher preaching repentance out in the wilderness – you know, the place nobody goes, at least not by choice.  John the Baptist – a “nobody” by all other historical accounts – just happens to be the one to whom the Word of the Lord came. John. Not the Emperor, or governor, not a rulers, or the high priests, but John – a no count, a no body.

 

Oh, and the place, the wilderness is just as important.  God did not choose the oval office or the red carpet at the Oscars or Wall Street or in a sanctuary in a big beautiful church to make the pronouncement of the coming of a savior.   God chose John the Baptist an itinerant preacher out in the wilderness.  There is something about the wilderness that does away with all the pretense of life and gets to what really matters.   There is a gift that comes from the wilderness—in learning how to trust – God when all else falls away.

 

In the wilderness we get down to the core of who we are and who God created us to be.  That is why Advent always starts in the wilderness.  We have to get back to basics, to the core, to the powerlessness of each of us, in order to see the Christ child.  If we stay in the places of power and control, then we don’t know that we need the Christ child.  But, if we go to the wilderness where we discard the fluff of life and of ourselves, then we know how dependent we are on God and God alone.  Perhaps the word of the Lord came to the wilderness, because it was the only place that would listen and hear it— the noise of the city— the places of power and prominence drown it out.

 

So our challenge this the second week of Advent is to allow ourselves to go into the wilderness.  Go wherever the wilderness is in your life, where the fluff and securities and difficulties and stresses fade away and you get to that quiet place where you can hear, really hear the still small voice of the prophet.

 

The Voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.

And the really great news about Advent and getting ready is that it is not all up to us.  Advent reminds us that we do need to do our part in getting ready, but that will never be enough.  God will arrive despite us and God will get us ready.

 

It is the year 2015 and just maybe the voice of the Lord will be heard crying out in the wilderness of our lives.  May we tune our ears and our hearts and our souls so that we might hear it, because you just never know who God might choose to deliver God’s message.

It just might be you.

Amen.

 

[1] The Reverend Dr. David Lose, Working Preacher, December 2012.

With Eyes to See

Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 23
Luke 17:11-19

 

17: 11“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11-19, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: In your love, O God, your people find healing. Grant that the pains of our journey may not obscure the presence of Christ among us, but that we may always give thanks for your healing power as we travel on the way to your kingdom. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

I have given you a drawing. I would like for you to look at it for a while.

 

This picture, My wife and my mother-in-law published in 1915 by the cartoonist W.E. Hill.

This picture, My wife and my mother-in-law published in 1915 by the cartoonist W.E. Hill.

 

What do you see?  Do you see the face of a young woman?  Do you also see the face of an older woman?  It is an optical illusion?  It is an image that is perceived one way that is different from reality.  What the human eye sees is interpreted by the brain in a way that contradicts the real image.  You can look at an optical illusion and see one thing and someone else looks at the very same image and they see something totally different.

Now, another exercise.  Take a look around.  What do you see?  People or Pews? Stain glass windows or a Pipe Organ?  Do you see a church or a congregation?

 

Jesus tells of an experience he had with a group of ten lepers.  These ten are outcasts.  The ten approach Jesus and beg for mercy.   The ten must keep their distance from him because they are unclean.  The ten have been trained by their own bitter experiences not to expect any help from those around them.

 

In response, Jesus instructs the ten to go and show themselves to the local priest.  The ten go to see the priest and they are made well, cleansed of their leprosy.   Then one of the ten returns to Jesus to show his gratitude and to say thanks.

 

This one particular leper was different.  He saw things differently.  He saw what the other nine didn’t or couldn’t see.  He saw salvation, they saw a healing.  He saw a future, eternal life; they saw a return to life as they knew it.  He saw gratitude they saw getting back to family, friends, work.

 

So, unlike the other nine, this one had to return.   The other nine could go and do whatever.  This one leper could not.  Having seen, he had to return and praise God.  He had to throw himself at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving.  This one lepers experience was so overwhelming, so life changing, so joyful, that he had to share it.

 

I must point out that the other nine did nothing wrong. In fact, they did exactly as they were told.  Again, they didn’t do anything wrong and received the blessing that Jesus promised them.

 

All the lepers were healed; one, however, saw, noticed, let what happened sink in…And it made all the difference.  Because he sees what has happened, he recognizes Jesus, his reign and his power.  Because he sees what has happened, he is thankful.

 

This parable serves as an invitation to believers to open our eyes to see. When we open our eyes what do we see?

 

When we look at God what do we see?  Do we see God as a stern judge or loving parent? When we look to ourselves, do we see failure or beloved child? When we look to the future, do we see fear filled uncertainty or a positive open horizon?  There is, of course, no right answer to any of these questions.  How we answer depends upon what we see.  What we see shapes our outlook and our behavior.

What do we see when we look at our blessings?  What do we see when we look at giving to the church?  Giving to the church, Stewardship is not first about giving, but about seeing all that we have been given and rejoicing in a way that cannot help but shape how we act.

 

Before we are called to believe or confess or help or do we are called simply to see…and to help others to see.  We are called to point out blessings.

 

At the beginning of this story, ten men are stuck.  All ten are made well.  But one sees something more.  He has seen Jesus, recognized his blessing and rejoiced in it, and changed his course of action and behavior.  And because he sees what has happened, the leper is not just healed, but is made whole, restored, drawn back into relationship with God and others.  For this leper his healing was more than just having his health restored, he saw that he was saved.   He saw that through Jesus he now had eternal life.  He saw that he was saved from inward focus, he was saved form negativity, and he was saved from sin. He was saved to live a life of gratitude, to live a life enjoying the blessings that God had given him.

 

That is stewardship, that is worship, and that is Christian living.  It is the tenth leper turning back.  For now as then, seeing makes all the difference. And that’s what the nine missed, they didn’t see the same thing the one particular leper saw. It’s not that they did anything wrong; it’s that they didn’t see their good fortune and didn’t voice their blessing, and so missed out on also being made whole.

 

Now on final exercise, as you leave today you will walk out into our community, what will you see?  Will you see troubles? Yes.

 

Will you see blessings, I sure hope so!  You will see, families that care for each other, colleagues who work hard and well, schools where teachers care about their pupils and students are eager to learn, relief agencies that tend the afflicted, service people who regularly put their lives on the line at home and abroad, good neighbors who support one another, and our church where the Word of God is preached, hymns of praise are sung, the importance of faith is taught and the life of faith nourished, and so much more.

 

This world is full of blessing and challenges. Your life is full of blessings and challenges.  Which will you focus on?  Will you see as the tenth leper? Will you find blessings in life or not? Will you turn back to offer God your words of gratitude and praise, or not?  You must open your eyes to see.

 

Let us pray:

 

The Importance of Questions

Psalm 17:1-8,
Job 19:23-27,
Luke 20:27-38

Reverend Stephen Caine

 

20: 27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:27-38, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of faithful surprises, throughout the ages you have made known your love and power in unexpected ways and places. May we daily perceive the joy and wonder of your abiding presence and offer our lives in gratitude. For it is in Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

 

As a father, I have fielded countless questions from my children; why is the sky blue?  Why is the ocean water salty?  Why are their fifty states?  Children ask wonderful questions.  I have been asked those types of questions and have often been frustrated when I could not answer them.  Thank goodness for Google— where I can search for anything and any question.

 

As young people we are asked – What do you want to be when you grow up?  Where do you want to go to college? What do you want to study?  Where do you want to live?

 

Google won’t help answer these questions.

 

As a Pastor, I have heard many questions from parishioners; especially youth.  For example, Can God create a rock too heavy for God to move?  Then really tough ones – Why did God allow that to happen?  How can I survive this grief?  Will God see me through this chemotherapy?

 

Ah the questions…

 

You have questions about me, who is this guy?  What does he believe?  Will he be there for me when I need him?  Will he like me?  Will I like him?  Can he play golf?  Will he be a good fit for our church?

 

I also have questions for you?  How does this whole Episcopal Presbyterian marriage work?  Will you love my family and help them get assimilated?  Will you laugh at my humor?  Will you have grits and sweet tea when we share a meal?

 

Ah the questions…

 

The Sadducees had questions for Jesus.

 

Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem and ultimately the cross, when the Sadducees asked him a number of questions.  The Sadducees weren’t really looking for answers.  They are looking for a fight.  Their questions were a game of “Gotcha.” They asked Jesus about a hypothetical widow of a man with seven brothers.  When he dies she marries a brother.  When he dies she marries another brother and on and on.  The clincher of their game was whose wife will she be in the heaven?

 

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection because it is not talked about in the Pentateuch, (the first five books of the bible, the “Books of Moses”).  The Sadducees question also play on the levirate marriage law from Deuteronomy 25.  That law sought to insure the preservation of the man’s family name by stipulating that a childless widow must marry her brother-in-law.

 

So, their hypothetical question is meant to take an ancient practice to the extreme in order to show the whole idea of resurrection was foolish. Their purpose was to embarrass Jesus and to trap him by saying something heretical.

 

Jesus reflects for a moment before he answers.  Then he says to the Sadducees, God is God of the living, not the dead.  Jesus is basically saying “Our concern should be with the living.”

 

Questions are important; I believe they can be more important than the answers.  It is interesting to me that as a pastor I am supposed to have the answer(s) but I find that what I really do is help people ask questions.  There is a funny story about a child in a children’s sermon.  The pastor is describing a small furry animal that climbs trees and stores nuts.  The child says, “it sounds like you are describing a squirrel but I know that the answer has to be Jesus!”  In questions of faith we often think that the answer is Jesus even it doesn’t fit our questions. The questions of our lives.  Can I trust God?  Can God heal my illness?  Can God fix my broken relationship?  Can God bring peace to the earth?

 

The questions we ask tell a great deal about us. Jesus knew the Sadducees weren’t really looking for an answer.

 

It’s clear in the gospels that Jesus wants us to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  It is clear that Jesus believes that the Sadducees, the overseers of the Law spend too much time on the minutia of the Law instead of the two basic commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself.  Who cares who will be married to whom in heaven — it is about living — loving God and loving neighbor.

 

Jesus seems to like questions because he responded to questions throughout the Bible.  Jesus stops and he listens.

  • Remember Jairus when he fell at Jesus feet and asked Can you heal my daughter child?

 

  • Remember the Leper who asked Jesus, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”

 

  • I have a demon that torments me and I can find no rest. Can you help me?

 

  • No one will come near me–because they say I am unclean. Do you love someone like me?

 

When people ask these questions to Jesus, the answer he gives is not a slogan or a sound bite.  The answer he gives is himself, he gives his life.

 

When the Sadducees or the Pharisees ask Jesus their trick questions, they usually get parables: stories that will puzzle their minds and invite them to look at the world in a new way. But when women and men bring Jesus their deepest yearnings, he doesn’t talk to them; he engages them. When genuine people come to him with genuine questions, he often doesn’t say anything, but he touches, he encounters, he relates.  He invites people to journey with him on the Way.

 

The root of the word “question” means “to seek.” It’s where we get the word “quest.”  To ask a real question is to enter on a journey; it’s to begin traveling on The Way.  Jesus seems exasperated with the Sadducees because they just want to play games. They aren’t right or wrong; they are just wasting their life.

 

Ultimately Jesus doesn’t answer their questions: because there is no answer. Resurrection is not something we can define in human terms or apply human laws too.

 

But what Jesus does is…

 

What Jesus does is invite us on a journey with him, to see what life with him is like, to see how resurrection hope changes how they live.  Jesus invites us on that same journey with him.  I imagine that we will still have many questions.  And that is a good thing because it means we are alive.  It means we are invested in this journey of faith.

 

I am so excited and look forward to the next step in the journey in my life and faith.  It is a journey with you and the Indian Hill Church.  I look forward to listening to your questions and asking many of my own.  I look forward to discerning / seeing how God leads. So may we keep seeking, keep searching, continue on this quest together to live into who God created us to be as a community of faith.

 

Let us pray: Ever giving and ever generous God pour out your Holy Spirit upon us so that we might follow you. In the Name of Jesus, your Son and our Savior we pray. Amen.