What Is Truth?

Sermon- Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
John 18:33-37

 

The tension in the courtroom is at its peak. As you watch the scene unfold you hold your breath. You’re on the edge of your seat. Everyone is. What will the response be? Will the truth come out? The scene I am referring to is the courtroom drama in the movie A Few Good Men. Col. Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, is on trial for ordering the murder of a marine. Up until now the inexperienced military lawyer, Lt. Kaffee , played by Tom Cruise, hasn’t been able to come up with enough evidence to convict Col. Jessup. So he decided to ask him directly – or should I say hammer the question – as to whether he ordered the marine killed. After a few tense minutes of badgering Col. Jessup finally yells out the famous line, “you can’t handle the truth!” It’s the most famous line in the whole movie. Perhaps one of the most famous lines in Hollywood. It’s pretty fitting for today’s gospel text.

In John’s gospel today we’re listening in on a courtroom drama too, only it’s not a fictional one. It’s real. Pilate is going back and forth between the “courtroom” if you will with Jesus and outside with the crowd. Pilate wants answers. He asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” “What have you done?” “So you are a king?” Pilate wants answers, but is it really Jesus who is on trial here or is it Pilate? It’s Pilate who can’t handle the truth.

Pilate is standing face to face with the truth and he can’t even see it. He can’t even hear it. But deep down, deep in the recesses of his soul, Pilate knows the truth. Why else would he be asking Jesus so many questions? Why would Pilate be so torn between letting Jesus go and giving the crowd what they wanted? Somewhere deep inside Pilate knows what the truth is and who the truth is, but he doesn’t want to admit it. To admit the truth would be to condemn himself – to admit that he had sold out for power and control – and so he gives in to the will of the crowd. If he gives them what they want then Pilate’s job is secure.

That’s what is at stake for Pilate. If Jesus is a king, Pilate sees it as an earthly kingdom. He doesn’t want to lose his power, his authority. Jesus threatened Pilate’s security and Pilate wasn’t willing to relinquish his power to anyone. So Pilate maintains his control by giving the crowd what they want. At least that’s what he convinces himself. He mockingly says to Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate can’t handle the truth –even when it is staring him in the face.

And what about us? Can we handle the truth? Do we truly believe that Jesus is our King? Do we believe that Jesus is in control of our lives and that everything we are and everything we have belongs to Jesus? We say in the Lord’s Prayer – Thy will be done – but do we really mean that? Are we ready to accept the consequences of uttering that prayer?

If we truly mean the words of that prayer, we are relinquishing control of our lives to God. We are asking for the kingdom of God to take place here on earth as it is in heaven. The kingdom of God is very different than the ones we humans want to be in control of.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Even as Christians, it’s so easy to get sucked into the kingdom of this world. We just enjoyed Thanksgiving, a holiday set aside to give thanks to God for all we have been blessed with and yet stores like Walmart opened up at 8:00pm Thursday night to rush in the holiday shopping season. So employees couldn’t spend a quiet evening at home on a holiday with their families. That is not the kingdom of God.

And the news reported more fights and riots as people worked their way into a frenzy of consumerism. People are searching for truth in all the wrong places. That is not the kingdom of God.

People are killing one another in wars over land. Companies are treating employees as disposable items rather than valuing their worth and dignity. And Christians are fighting with one another over the right traditions. That is not the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is where truth is revealed, where human worth is treasured more than material gain, where peace is valued more than power, where forgiveness is offered over anger, where compassion is shown rather than revenge, where love is given without exception.

That’s what we’re praying for when we say Thy will be done. We’re asking for the kingdom of God to take place here on earth, in, among and through each one of us. That’s no small prayer. They are words of power and truth.

What is truth? Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth is that He died so that we may have eternal life. The truth is that we are children of God and that God loves each and every one of us unconditionally – just the way we are – no exceptions. God knows the secrets we hide from others and ourselves, yet loves us anyway. The truth is that Jesus promised to be with us always and because of that truth we can face whatever circumstances come our way. We can face the truth by looking into the face of truth in Jesus. Amen.

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A Journey of Thanksgiving

Sermon – Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012
St. John’s Catholic Church, Grafton, ND
Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service
Luke 17:11-19

 

The 102 passengers on the small ship, the Mayflower, were on a journey. So were the ten lepers in the story in Luke’s gospel, and so was Jesus. They were all on a journey to a particular place for a particular purpose. They were on a mission and no one and nothing was going to stand in their way. And like any journey there were risks involved.

The pilgrims, as they are known now, left everything behind and crossed treacherous seas. The ship could have sunk at any time. One hundred and two people confined on a small ship was a recipe for disaster. Sickness and death were a real possibility. And when they arrived, many throughout the first winter contracted diseases. Over half of them died before the spring. Yet they felt it was worth the risk in order to live a life of freedom. Freedom to prosper and freedom to practice their faith. They were filled with hope.

The ten lepers in Luke’s gospel were on a treacherous path as well, filled with sickness and the inevitability of death. They wanted to live a life of freedom too, but that wasn’t even a possibility for them. They were outcast, shunned by society, foreigners in their own culture….religious outcasts. They too, like the pilgrims, left everything behind, but not voluntarily. They were people without hope.

Until Jesus came along. Jesus was on a journey too, a journey to Jerusalem, a journey toward death. He wasn’t trying to avoid it. He wasn’t trying to figure out a way around it. Jesus was on a collision course to suffering, persecution, and crucifixion. Jesus was on a direct path toward death. Jesus was a man who had no hope and the Son of God who was the hope for all. He was the answer to everyone’s prayers only they didn’t know it. And so the lepers kept their distance.

Instead they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They didn’t want to get too close. They were after all, “unclean.” No one could get near them for fear of contracting whatever they had and becoming unclean themselves. Yet even though they were afraid to go to Jesus, Jesus met them where they were. He saw them and spoke to them out of love and compassion and said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests. “ He gave them a new journey, a journey toward hope. So they listened to Jesus and set out in a new direction and while they were on that journey they were made clean.

In those days, the priests had to examine the lepers to declare they were indeed cured and could re-enter society. They needed that acceptance back into their culture because being an outcast meant no way to live. They needed someone with authority to reintroduce them back into society. Yet, they were so focused on their new mission of seeking out the priests, that I wonder if they even recognized they were cured. They were concentrating on the new goal and didn’t stop to see what had just taken place.

Don’t we often do the same thing? We have a goal to accomplish, a particular place we have to be, a time we have to be there, and we’re so concentrated on the outcome that we forget to enjoy the journey. We don’t see the blessings that are happening along the way. Our mind is either in the past or the future, but the gift of the present moment remains hidden to us. We can’t see that Jesus is present and when we encounter Jesus nothing is the same. We are changed, but do we stop to see this transformation?

One person did. In the brief story in Luke’s gospel one out of the ten lepers who were cured paused long enough to see he was healed. He took the time to go back and thank Jesus for this gift of salvation. Yes, it was more than just a cleansing; this former leper was saved. He was saved from a life of death and transformed into newness of life. And he was a Samaritan.

A Samaritan was the enemy of the Jews. They were people to be avoided at all costs – outsiders. And as an outsider this Samaritan would not have to go and show himself to the priests. He could have kept right on walking – or probably running or jumping at his new found healing – but he didn’t. He stopped to give thanks. Because of that faith, that trust, Jesus said he was made well. Faith is more than just something we have; it is also something we do. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, faith turns us toward God. Faith is living in a new direction and giving thanks is a way we express that faith.

Giving thanks to God for all we have been blessed with is something most of us do before each meal. We take a moment to express our gratitude for the food, for those who prepared it, hopefully aware that there are many who have no food at all. Which leads to the question, “When do we give thanks?” is it only when we have an abundance or do we thank God even in the midst of our lack, or sickness, suffering, or danger? In her book, Left to Tell, Immaculee Ilibagiza, survivor of the Rwandan holocaust, was in fear of her life. She was being hunted to be killed when a pastor took her in and hid her in a tiny bathroom with seven other women. The first thing she said she did was thank God for the tiny room to hide and protect them. She didn’t say Why God, Why Me? She didn’t curse God. She thanked God even though her life was still in danger. That is faith. Faith is an awareness of the presence of God. Thanksgiving is an expression of that faith. It renews us and turns our focus toward God and away for our situation.

The pilgrims gave thanks for their arrival in New England despite sickness, weakness, and death. They were outcast from their own country and outsiders to this one, but the Native Americans welcomed them even though it would eventually lead to their own destruction. That is what faith does. It reaches out in love regardless of the circumstances. It takes risks. It reaches out to the outcasts, the poor, the hungry, and the weak. It gives thanks in all circumstances. Faith enables us to be the answer to others prayers.

We are all on a journey. A journey of faith that leads to transformation. A journey of faith that leads us to embrace all people, to love all people, and to live lives of Thanksgiving. Amen.

Startling Faith

Sermon – Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
Mark 12:38-44

 

It was noisy in the entryway to the temple that morning. There was quite a crowd. People coming and going, talking loudly. Throwing their money in the collection boxes as they passed. The sound of the brass coins made a lot of noise. It was hardly the kind of place you’d go to find a place to relax, to rest and take a break.

But it was the kind of place that you could blend in with the crowd. The kind of place that one could remain unnoticed – if you wanted to – especially if you were poor. And if you were a poor widow, well, maybe you didn’t want to be noticed, because you knew everyone would look down on you. They’d judge you because you were alone with no one to care for you, no job, no way to earn your way into a respectable place in society. You weren’t anyone special. One poor widow that day threw in two coins. The only two coins she had. Hardly anything compared to the coins everyone else was throwing in.

Yes, lots of people were throwing in coins that day at the temple, the place of worship. The place where you’d go to gather and hear the wise teachers tell you about God. They stressed how you had to follow all the right rules to get in right with God. The religious leaders would stand up in their beautiful robes and say long prayers. Everyone looked up to them. They were respected and valued, unlike the poor. But everyone had to give a certain amount of money, because….the leaders needed it, for the temple of course.

All this was going on that day when Jesus, tired from traveling through Jerusalem preaching and teaching needed a rest. He was tired from the constant questioning by the religious leaders, tired from having to address the endless ways they were trying to trap him. Jesus so wanted them to understand that he wasn’t there to disregard their laws, but to show them there was a better way to live. A way to live a peaceful, nonviolent existence rather than find something to always fight about, something more than who was right and who was wrong. Jesus was tired of the religious leaders pointing to those who were “in” with God like themselves, and on the outside. God cared about everyone equally, why did they have to build walls to separate each other. Why couldn’t they just love each other?

Jesus wanted to get away, even if it was for a little while, from being interrogated and so he sat down across from the treasury, next to the places that people were throwing in their money and he watched them. He watched the people as they talked to one another, as they passed each other by, and as they threw in their coins. And He listened as they talked about what had to be fixed in the building, what they had to buy for the temple, what expenses they had to keep up with. Pretty soon the faces all blended into one as Jesus drifted off into a half-asleep daze until………He heard it.

The sound jostled him from His sleepy state and the disciples saw that he was startled. They gathered around Him. What did He hear? What did He see? What was it that caused such a reaction? The disciples didn’t hear or see anything unusual. But Jesus did. Jesus not only heard it, He felt it. He felt the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. He felt the outpouring of faith and trust. And it wasn’t from the long prayers of the religious leaders who did it just to be seen and honored. It wasn’t from the sound of the money thrown in to support the temple. He felt the faith of a poor widow who threw in all she had because she believed that it was God who gave her whatever little she had and it was God who would take care of her.

It wasn’t the amount of money that mattered. It was the fact that so often we give God what is left over instead of offering all that we have. Now God is not asking us to go and give away all the money in our bank accounts, but what touches God – what touched Jesus that day – is our motivation. If we give to the church just to pay the bills we’re missing the point. The church is the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ and we need to be about caring for the poor, the widows, the orphaned, those in need in our midst. The church needs to be about mission not maintenance. We are here to serve not to be served. The money that the widow gave that day represented her faith, her belief that God would provide all her needs. She believed that would happen through the church and yet the leaders of the church at that time regularly took the money from the poor to help themselves rather than helping the poor.

Do we as the church today give our entire life to spreading the kingdom of God? Do we give all we have in helping our neighbor? Do we give all we have in loving? Do we give all we have in forgiving or do we hold back? Do we give all we have in working together to build up the body of Christ or do we tear each other down? The church is not a building. We are the church, marked with the cross of Christ forever, claimed, gathered, and sent for the sake of the world. We are to put all we have into this mission not into something that will crumble. When we take care of others, God will make sure our needs are met. Our faith needs to be seen in what we do.

What Jesus saw and heard that day was the faith of someone who believed that God would work through the church. What is it that Jesus sees in the church today? My prayer is that He will see an active faith, a faith that gives all we have to spread the kingdom of God, a faith that sees giving not as a sacrifice, but as an offering. Everything we have comes from God. Let our entire lives be an offering of thanks and trust. Amen.

 

 

 

Where Is God?

Sermon – Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012
Zion Lutheran Church, Hoople, ND
John 11:32-44

 

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These are the words spoken to Jesus by both Martha and then Mary in today’s gospel story. And some of the people added, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Jesus was getting bombarded from everyone with criticism. I can understand the remarks. Can’t you? Jesus and the disciples were out of town and when Jesus received word that Lazarus was sick he did not rush to get there. In fact, John’s gospel says that Jesus and his disciples stayed two extra days. Didn’t Jesus care? Certainly that is what everyone must have been wondering. What they were all saying is “Where were you? Where were you Jesus?”

It’s a question we’re all still asking today. When someone we love dies, we often ask, “Where were you Lord? Why didn’t you prevent this?” When our health or the health of those we love is struck down, we ask, “Where are you Lord?” Life is filled with tragedies that make no sense. Good people are afflicted with problem after problem. Accidents happen that take the lives of people who have barely had a chance to live. Look at the most recent hurricane/storm in the Northeast. Some of these people have lost everything. Their houses and lives are destroyed. Their dreams are broken and shattered. It will take years for them to rebuild and now the latest weather predictions forecast another storm, not anywhere near as large, but certainly not something they need on top of all this. Where we ask, are you Jesus? Why didn’t you prevent this? Isn’t Jesus the Son of God, the Messiah?

John’s gospel gives us seven I AM statements about who Jesus is. “I AM the Bread of Life. I Am The Light of the World. I AM The Gate. I AM The Good Shepherd. I AM The Resurrection and The Life. I am The Way, The Truth, and The Life. I AM the Vine.” These statements tell us that Jesus is the Source of our nourishment, our protection, our connection to God. The exude a sense of power and strength and are a source of hope. Yet two words in today’s gospel say more about Jesus and God than any of these statements. Jesus wept. These two words speak volumes. Jesus was not a distant Messiah. Jesus was and is present with us in the midst of our pain. When Jesus saw Mary and the others weeping over the death of Lazarus whom they loved, He wept too. Jesus wept because He was and is intimately connected to us. When we suffer Jesus suffers and when we are grieving Jesus grieves with us. Love does not stand on the outside and avoid getting hurt. Love takes action. Love gets involved even if it means the possibility of getting hurt.

In the very beginning of John’s gospel we hear that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus is the Word made flesh. God saw that the world was hurting and suffering. God saw that the humanity was going to be lost to sin and death and because God loves us, God took action. God came down from heaven by sending Jesus to us to save us from ourselves. God loved us so much that God would do whatever was necessary to save us even if that meant death, death on a cross. So when Jesus was weeping at Lazarus’ tomb he was weeping at the fact that death had won, temporarily. Lazarus was dead for four days and all seemed hopeless, but with God nothing is hopeless. Whatever it is that binds us, we are not too far gone. God worked through Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead and unbind him and God has worked through Jesus to set us free as well. It is this hope that we celebrate today on All Saints Day. Death does not have the final victory!

And God works through us too. When Jesus called Lazarus to come forth from the tomb, he told those around him to unbind Lazarus. Jesus freed Lazarus from death, but asked those around him to free him from the rest of his bindings. And Jesus asks us to free those around us.

In the midst of our sufferings, we often ask Jesus, “Where are you?” but Jesus asks us the same question. “Where are you? Where are you when your brothers and sisters are in need? Where are you when those around you are suffering?” God is with us in the midst of our suffering and works through us to help set people free. As followers of Jesus, we too like those around Lazarus are asked to unbind those who are in need of being released. God works through us to bring food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless, and comfort to the afflicted. God works through us to bring the Good News of hope to those who need to hear it – a phone call, a card, a letter, an email or text, a hug, a smile, or even a hand to hold. When someone needs to feel the presence of God, it is our hands that God wants to work through. It is our voices that God wants to speak through. And when we are at a loss for words, we can weep along with those who suffer, just as Jesus weeps with us.

Jesus asks us to unbind those who need to be set free. It is when we do this for one another that we reveal that God is with us in the midst of our suffering. No matter how long we have been dead to sin or how rotten and decomposed our life is, Jesus breathes new life into it. Jesus can make us come alive again! He calls us out of our lives of darkness and into a life of light with Him, the Light of the world! Where is God in the midst of our pain? God is present through each one of us – saints of God – every time we answer Jesus’ command to unbind each other and set God’s people free!  Amen.