Seeing Jesus

Sunday, March 22, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 12:20-33

“We wish to see Jesus.” That’s what the Greeks/Gentiles said to Philip. The Greeks were in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration and they wanted to do more than just catch a glimpse of Jesus. They wanted to have a real encounter with Jesus, spend some time with Him, and find out who he really was. The gospel says that Philip told Andrew and together they went to Jesus. But Jesus’ response was not the straight answer that everyone was expecting to hear. They were expecting to hear, “Sure, bring them here. I’ll talk with them. I’ll answer their questions.” Once there these Gentiles would discover Jesus’ true identity.

But Jesus didn’t say that. He wasn’t being rude or ignoring them, but he was focused on other priorities. While the Greeks were going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, Jesus was going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. They were going to have a good time and Jesus was going to Jerusalem for the last time. Jesus had death on his mind and his answer in parables confused them and his answer confuses many today. It’s disturbing because we don’t want to hear anything about death and dying even if Jesus is referring to seeds. But Jesus isn’t just talking about seeds dying in the ground in order to produce fruit. He’s talking about the importance of his own death in order that the power of death would be destroyed for all. He’s talking about losing his own life in order that through our relationship with Jesus we would always have life eternal. He’s talking about the fact that through the cross all people will truly see who Jesus is. At that point, without the benefit of hindsight and faith that we have today, the disciples and those who came to see Jesus were totally lost and albeit shaking their heads.

They didn’t want to hear about death and we don’t want to hear about death either. Just this morning I announced another death of a member of our congregation. This congregation has experienced too many deaths, too many heartbreaks. Jesus’ talk about death and the cross is far too real for most of us. We know what death feels like. We know how deep loss can cut into our hearts. We too, like the Greeks, want to see Jesus, but we don’t want to see him hanging on a cross. We don’t want to be reminded of any more death. We want to see the shiny cross. The gold or silver one. No one wants to see the cross with the dead body of Jesus hanging on it, so we turn away. That’s not the Jesus we want to see, but that is the Jesus we need to see. That Jesus reveals his true identity.

Yet, like the Greeks and the disciples it’s hard to make that connection. How can something so horrible glorify Jesus? Isn’t it just a reminder of the sinfulness of humanity, of our sin, our guilt, our shame? Yes, it is all of those things, but if we look deeper we see who Jesus really is. Someone willing to die so that death will not have the final say over us.

I wonder if we’re too far removed to make the connection. The disciples and the Greeks lived with Jesus in the flesh, yet for many people today Jesus has become a figure in history, someone who lived a long time ago, and has become a part of the past. Today when we think of Jesus hanging on the cross it doesn’t seem to have the same impact as it would have if it were the person sitting next to us. They are here in the flesh, and Jesus it would seem is not. And so like the Greeks in our gospel today we wish to see Jesus.

Isn’t that what we all really want? Don’t we too want a real encounter with Jesus? It’s more than just a desire to catch a glimpse of Jesus. We want him here among us today. We want to see Him, hear Him, feel Him in the flesh – for real.

It reminds me of a story I heard not long ago about parents who put their child to bed and, of course, a few minutes later, the child calls out. “I’m afraid, mommy/daddy please come in here.” “Don’t worry, we’re right out here.” the parents answer. “No, I’m really afraid, you have to come in here now!” the child continued. “Don’t worry, we’re right here,” The parents continued to try and reassure the child, but the child was relentless. Finally, the exasperated parents said, “Don’t worry, God is right there with you.” After a long pause, the child says, “But I want someone with skin on!”

We want someone with skin on too! And someone with healthy glowing skin! We don’t want to be reminded of a dead Jesus. We want to think of the risen Jesus and more importantly we want that risen Jesus to be right here and now in the flesh. We want a God with skin on!

Yet to many, many people, and I wonder if at times even us – if Jesus is still in the past. He is a historic person we read about from a time long, long ago. Jesus is in the Scriptures, but he’s not here in the flesh. That’s what the seekers or people who don’t belong to any church are looking for. And maybe that’s what we’re looking for too. Deep down we want our faith to be more than just something written on our hearts. We want to see a God with skin on!

God knows that! God knows that’s what we want more than anything else in the world. That’s why God became flesh. The Word – God, the great Creator of all things – became human in the form of Jesus Christ. God became flesh to not only understand what we are going through, but to go through it with us, to die like we will die and……here’s the important part, to rise again. Jesus did truly live and die. He did suffer more than we ever will and we need to look at the cross and see him hanging there for us, because only when we feel that deep pain to we feel the great joy of Easter. That’s why we have Lenten mid-week services, and Holy Week services. We draw every day in Lent closer and closer to the cross and the closer we get the more scared we get and like the child we cry out because we want the God with the skin on to be right here with us. After the pain of the cross the resurrection indeed comes, but we can’t bypass the cross and go right to the risen Jesus or we miss that whole experience. It’s no longer real for us. That pain has to cut us deeply so we suffer with Jesus during Holy Week and then and only then can we experience the joy of the resurrection.

It’s not easy. It’s not easy to acknowledge hurt and pain, but as a very wise person told me years ago, “you have to feel it to heal it.” Some of us have wounds so deep that we just try and bury them, but it’s okay to really feel the sorrow and even cry. Jesus says in John that his soul was troubled. Jesus wept. It’s okay for us to feel that pain too because then we understand how much God loved each and every one of us.

And when Easter morning comes and dries up our tears we are transformed. Our sorrow is turned to joy and we understand what Jesus was talking about when he said the seed must die to bear fruit. The seed of Jesus’ death bore the fruit of the resurrection and the fruit of eternal life for all who believe. We need to look at Jesus on the cross and with the eyes of faith see through the darkness into the light of the resurrection.

We all want to see Jesus. And we want to see Jesus in the flesh. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is not just a story we tell. It is the faith we profess. Jesus is present in the flesh for us today. As Lutherans we truly profess that Jesus is present in, with, and under the elements of the bread and wine in Holy Communion. These are not just symbols. It’s important that we understand that. This Holy Sacrament that we receive each week is the means of grace through which Christ mysteriously but truly is present in this gift of grace. When we hold the bread in our hand we are holding the very body of Christ. It can’t get any more real than that.

And when we hold the hands of those near to us – those we love, those we reach out to and those who reach out to us – we are holding the very hands of Christ. For if Jesus is present in the bread and the wine and we take that into ourselves, then Jesus has now entered into our body. Think about that. That is why it’s called Communion – we are one with God and each other.

So when we wish to see Jesus, we need to look no further than into the eyes of each other. And when we go out into our community, we can show people Christ. That is our mission statement – making Christ known in ourselves, our community and the world. Imagine how different our lives would be if we truly lived out what we profess we believe. If we truly lived knowing that Jesus is not dead, but is truly alive – in the flesh – in each of us what would we do different than we are doing today? We’d love each other. We’d reach out and listen. We’d do works of service to build up the church to make it a mission post of spreading God’s love out to all people. We wouldn’t be afraid all the time. We wouldn’t worry all the time. We wouldn’t wonder how things are going to get done, we’d be empowered to be part of the team that gets them done. Our church would be a place where people could experience Jesus with skin on because we’d truly live like we believe Jesus is alive. And Jesus is! Jesus is alive. We either believe this or we don’t. And if we believe it then our lives are lived differently.

We wish to see Jesus. That’s what we all want. We can. Look around. See Jesus in each other. Be Jesus to each other. Live like Jesus for each other. Amen!

Into the Wilderness

Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Mark 1:9-15

“And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Satan, and beasts, and angels…oh my! Okay, so I have the Wizard of Oz on my mind seeing that our youth are performing it this weekend. But I see some striking parallels with the story in Mark’s gospel today. In Mark’s account of the temptation story, Jesus is literally driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. He is not simply led or guided by the Spirit, but compelled or driven out. It is something that he has to do. The word Spirit means breath or wind, and wind as you know is uncontrollable. Oh we can try and harness the wind and use it for energy as in wind turbines, but when the wind wants to, nothing can stand in its’ way. It’s a source of great energy, but also unpredictable and at times, dangerous.

In the Wizard of Oz, a dangerous wind from a tornado blows Dorothy to Oz where she did not intend to go. She was home safe and happy until the wind took her to a strange and unfamiliar place. Both Jesus and Dorothy encounter dangers, and wild beasts, and …. temptations, or trials. It would seem that they have been abandoned. Why would they be taken so far away from the comforts of their daily lives? What reason could there be to send them into such potentially dangerous situations? What could they possibly gain from these wilderness experiences? Where is God?

It’s a question many of us ask today especially when we are driven into times of wilderness in our own lives. We can find ourselves overwhelmed at times with all sorts of trials, sufferings, and pain. They can come one after another and it seems as though we are lost in the wilderness like the ancient Israelites wandering and feeling hopeless….forgetting that God had already delivered them. The news we hear reinforces the evil that happens all over the world and we may worry as to what is going to happen next. And we are tempted to think that God is absent. Perhaps this is the greatest temptation we face today, the temptation to think God has abandoned us.

And this is the reason Lent is so important. It forces us to go to the places we would rather not go and find God in the midst of it. It compels us to go into the wilderness, to face the things that test and tempt us head-on. We began this journey on Ash Wednesday when the ashy crosses were imprinted on our foreheads as a reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Death is not an easy thing to think about, but that is what we are forced to face – our mortality. It is what Jesus had to face as well. Unlike Matthew and Luke’s gospels, we are not told what temptations Jesus had to face from Satan. We do not hear the three accounts of Satan’s temptations. We only know Jesus was tempted and tried. And in the wilderness he was forced to think and pray about his reason for being here. Jesus, newly baptized, had to wrestle in the wilderness with his willingness to accept this vocation – this calling – and claim his identity as God’s Son, the Beloved. His mission from God was to save all humanity even if that meant dying for us on a cross. That couldn’t have been an easy reality to face or say yes to, but he did.

Lent insists that we too journey to the cross, look at the cross –not cover it up or turn away – but look at it and reflect on exactly what it means to us. What significance does the cross have in our everyday lives? Does what Jesus did impact how we live? Has it changed us? Do we think and act differently because we are followers of Jesus? These are deep questions that require a lot of meditation and prayer,
and in our busy lives it’s easy to take these questions for granted, but how we answer them means everything. We can’t experience the joy of Easter unless we experience the journey of the cross to get there. We can’t experience that kind of joy without understanding the pain involved to get there. And so we are compelled by the Holy Spirit to go to the wilderness and seek to be transformed. The temptation is to think that if we delve too deep God will not be there.

The Good News is that Jesus showed us that there is nowhere we go that God is not present. There is no wilderness too barren that God cannot fill our needs. There is no pit that we may find ourselves in that God will not be there. In the wilderness Jesus was tempted by Satan. He was with wild beasts. But he was also ministered to by angels. Though evil was all around Jesus, God did not abandon him. God and the holy angels are with us too.

God has also given us the gift of one another. We, as Christians, are to care and minister to one another, lift one another up, and accompany each other on our journey of faith, much like Dorothy’s friend’s the Tin-Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion. During this season of Lent and self-reflection we have the opportunity to look at ourselves and see our own faults rather than looking for the faults in others. We have the opportunity to see those things that pull us away from God and repent of our sins. And once the curtain has been pulled away, our sins revealed and God’s forgiveness received, our true identity is revealed. We discover who we truly are and the gifts from God that each one of us possesses. Gifts meant to share with the world so that Good News can be heard and received through our proclamation.

Being driven into the wilderness or into a strange place is not a punishment, but a gift when seen through the eyes of faith. These times can be holy places where we have the opportunity to grow closer to God. The promised land is not a place, but a space where God abides. In our journey of faith we will encounter trials and temptations. We will suffer and grieve; we cannot escape that any more than Jesus did. But in the midst of it all we also have the deep joy of knowing that God is with us through it all and will never leave us or forsake us.

As we journey into the wilderness this Lent let’s not think about what we have to give up, but what God gave up for us. Let’s not think about what we have to fear, but how God through Jesus conquered anything we truly have to fear. Amen!

Lighting Makes All the Difference

Sunday, March 15, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 3:14-21

It’s all about the lighting. This expression has been used a lot in reference to making something look really good. Professional photographers and artists know that lighting makes all the difference in the world. Whether it’s the profile of a person’s face or sillouette, lighting is important to highlight the right image and expression. Lighting can make a person’s face seem soft and gentle, angry, or lost. When photographing nature, lighting is critical to capture just the right moment. The vivid oranges and reds of a sunset all demand perfect timing of the light to freeze that one specific moment in time. Film-makers use lighting to cast various moods. Happiness and joy are usually depicted with an infusion of great light, while dark lighting evokes a mood of fear and trepidation. Lighting makes all the difference in the world.

This time of year most of us are longing for longer periods of light. We just turned our clocks ahead last week, so we would capture one more hour of light at the end of the day. Winter days can be long and dark, and by this time every year, we are in desperate need of more light. We are eager to get out of the darkness and be flooded by the light of spring. Scientific research points out the need for light. Many people are affected with what is known as SAD – seasonal affective disorder – which brings on a state of temporary depression and sadness. Special UV spectrum lights that mimic the sun and release vitamin D can help with this problem until the sun is closer to the earth starting in the spring. In fact, it has been found that most people in the northern hemisphere of the country are lacking in vitamin D because of the lack of sun exposure. To many people, lighting makes all the difference in the world.

And yet, the same light from the sun that heals this vitamin deficiency, can also cause skin cancer if exposed to too high levels. Too much light can be just as dangerous as not enough. As any photographer and he or she will tell you that too much light – an overexposure – can totally ruin a picture. There needs to be a balance between the dark and the light. And this applies to human nature as well. Humans have been trying to find this balance since the beginning of time. And it’s not an easy task.

Ever since sin entered the world, humans want to do what is right – to walk in the light so to speak – but we don’t always do the right things. Sometimes we walk in darkness. At times it’s our own fault and at other times it’s because we have become trapped in darkness because of the sinfulness of others. Shame and blame are some of the worst feelings that keep us trapped in darkness. Soon they begin to breed fear and worry and we don’t know how to find our way out. We can get trapped in the darkness and we need a guiding light.

Nicodemus, a well-respected Pharisee in Jesus’ time knew all about being trapped in darkness. He had heard Jesus speaking. He saw the signs or miracles that Jesus did. And so he went to Jesus to ask Him who He really was. He wanted to know how Jesus could do all the things He did. Nicodemus believed Jesus must have been sent by God, but ….he wasn’t sure. He was listening to too many of his friends instead of believing with his own heart. So  Nicodemus went to talk to Jesus in the dark of night because he was afraid that other people – the people he associated with – would find out he went there. He didn’t want to lose his friends. He didn’t want to lose his place as a Pharisee in the temple. So he kept his visit with Jesus private. In the darkness no one would know.

But things done in the darkness cannot be hidden forever especially went exposed to the light. Our gospel text today begins with Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ questions about the kingdom of God. Yet Jesus’ response seem to add to Nicodemus’ confusion and ours. Jesus reminds Nicodemus of how God saved the Israelites from the biting serpents by making them look at a serpent on a pole. Moses lifted up the serpent and they were healed. Jesus told Nicodemus that the Son of Man must also be lifted up. I’m sure Nicodemus was feeling like he was still in the darkness of confusion. But what Jesus was saying was that we have to look at the things that frighten us in order to be healed.
Snake venom can kill a person, but it is that same venom that is used to make a cure. The cross was an instrument of death, yet through the cross God saved all people. We have to look at things honestly and see what they are. We have to see with new eyes. Lighting makes all the difference in the world.

So Jesus continues his conversation with Nicodemus and speaks probably the most famous quote in Scripture, “For God so love the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And goes on to talk about those who do evil hate the light, and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” I wonder if Nicodemus got it then? Nicodemus who went to Jesus in the darkness, did not want to go to him in the light, because then everyone would know. And Nicodemus did not want to risk his reputation. He wanted to know more about Jesus. He wanted a relationship with Jesus, but he also wanted to stay in relationship with his friends who many were against Jesus. Darkness or light? What was his choice? That is the question Jesus asks of us today.

As wonderful as the light is, it can be painful. Exposing ourselves to the light means revealing all of who we are. If you’ve ever looked at yourself in the mirror in a room with really bright lighting it can be a little scary. All your flaws and imperfections are revealed. There are even lights that doctors can shine on your skin to reveal the underlying sun damage. It’s scary. They say ignorance is bliss and there’s some truth to that saying. Sometimes we actually prefer to live in the darkness, to live in ignorance, because the truth – the light – is too painful. That kind of bright light hurts our eyes. Ask anyone who has battled any kind of addiction and they will tell you that facing the truth is the hardest thing to do. It’s much easier to tell ourselves lies and live in the dark than to face the truth about ourselves. And we’ve all told ourselves little lies. “It’s somebody else’s fault. I’d be fine if it weren’t for him, or her, or something else. I’ll do it tomorrow. I’m not good enough. What’s the point. It’s too hard. They won’t like me if they really know the truth.” The problem with deep dark secrets is that they hurt us more than being exposed to the light because in the darkness they grow into shame and fear. Light on the other hand heals us. But in order to be healed, we have to be willing to be vulnerable and that’s a hard thing for most people. We have to be willing to let the light reveal who we really are. Lighting makes all the difference in the world.

The Good News is that Jesus is the true Light of the world who has come to bring us into the light. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn or judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus came into the world because of God’s great love for us. He did not come here to judge or condemn us. We need to hear these words from Jesus because they are speaking to us today. Jesus came to save us, to heal us, and  to bring us back into a closer relationship with God. Jesus knows that we are broken and hurting people. He knows that there are hidden secrets that keep us trapped in fear and darkness and his healing light is offered for all people.

We don’t have to try and be perfect in order to have access to this light. In fact in our effort to try and be perfect, we aren’t being true to who God intended us to be. God loves us just the way we are, imperfections and all. St. Paul says in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Out of God’s great love for us we have been given this gift. We didn’t have to earn it. We didn’t have to pass some great test. We only have to accept it and say thank you. And the good things, the good works we do are expressions of our gratitude. They aren’t ways we earn God’s love; we already have that. Our lives are lived in gratitude for the gift of life that God has given to us.

As we continue our journey in Lent, take time to be still. In our busy lives it is hard to find the time, but take some time every day even if just for a few minutes. Close your eyes and thank God for the gift of God’s grace that doesn’t condemn, but that saves. Take time to be silent and feel God’s healing light wash over you. Let it wash away all your fears and worries, all your guilt and shame and pain. Jesus suffered and died so we would have eternal life and eternal life begins here on earth. Eternal life is a change in existence. It is life lived in the unending presence of God. It is life lived in the light of Christ. Live in the healing light of Christ for that light makes all the difference in the world. Amen.

Making Room

Sunday, March 8, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church -Manchester, PA
John 2:13-22

The people who came to worship that day were looking to hear God’s word. They were looking for peace and quiet. They were expecting things to be the way they always were until….the coins flew everywhere. Sheep and cattle were running all over the place. The animals were making noise, the people were running. The man who came into the church that day looked around and overturned the tables, and started yelling for everyone to get all the things out of there! He said to stop making it a marketplace.  He was angry, really angry. And everyone who saw him was shocked. I have to admit, I am shocked too.

I’ve always had a hard time with this story in the gospels. All four gospel writers have written down this episode in the temple although their placement of the story is at different times. In the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – this story is right before Jesus’ arrest. It was the final straw so to speak. In John, it is in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry right after the miracle at Cana. But no matter when this event took place, it’s a troubling one. It was shocking to the people at that time and it is disturbing to us today.

If I heard a story of a man walking into a church – maybe even our church – and knocking things over and yelling, I’d be very concerned he had some kind of anger problem if not an emotional or mental one. It’s fair to say that most of us would be shocked with this kind of behavior from anyone. But for Jesus to be responsible for this angry outburst is troubling. I don’t picture Jesus as getting angry and most of us don’t. Jesus is the son of God. Jesus is perfect. Jesus doesn’t get angry because anger is something that we associate as bad. And Jesus and bad don’t go together. So if Jesus could get angry then it forces us to look at anger in a new light.

What is anger? Anger is a feeling, an emotion. And feelings are neither right nor wrong. They are simply feelings. It is what we do with our feelings that is the problem. Anger is an emotion that can propel people into action. If a person is angry that an injustice is being done, then anger can propel them to make changes. It was anger at the Jim Crow Laws that caused the famous preacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to stand up and fight for civil rights for Black Americans. He took the gospel of Jesus Christ seriously and 50 years ago yesterday he led the march from Selma, Alabama to the capital in Montgomery, but the crowd was met with hostility and is known today as “Bloody Sunday” because of the violence perpetrated by the police toward these peaceful protestors. They paid a huge price – some of them their very lives – for the fight for justice for all people. Martin Luther King Jr. paid a huge price to make room for God’s justice. He paid with his life, just like Jesus.

Now there are people – colleagues – who say I shouldn’t bring up these issues in church. They say it will make people uncomfortable, but as we read today’s gospel sometimes Jesus made people uncomfortable too. Sometimes anger is necessary to propel us to action. And that is what Jesus was doing that day in the temple. The temple at that time was a marketplace. The Jewish people sacrificed animals in the temple and they had to be animals that were without blemish or marks. So the leaders in the temple including the priests sold those coming to worship their animals, but often at a much higher price than anywhere else. And the people who came to worship had to exchange the Roman coins with the image of the emperor who was worshipped like a god, with the Jewish money that could be used at the temple. But again, price-gouging was often taking place. Sometimes, the people who were the poorest couldn’t even worship, because they couldn’t afford to pay their way into the temple.

This has nothing to do with the biblical concept of tithing or giving 10 % to the work of the church, which we all need to work toward. This was about forgetting what the purpose of the temple was all about. In Jesus’ time, the temple was the place where God actually physically dwelled in the Holy of Holies. The huge curtain that behind it held the Ark of the Covenant where God was believed to dwell. Jesus told them that God dwelled not in the physical temple, but within Him. He was the place where God dwelled. Jesus was the temple. Jesus was the one to be worshipped, because God dwelled within Him. You can see why this caused so much anger among the people and leaders of the temple.

And…I hope you can see why Jesus was so angry. The temple held memories for Jesus. He went there since he was a child. But as an adult he saw the way things were being done that just weren’t right. Jesus was angry because they were blind to what was going on in the temple. The people and the leaders were used to doing the things the way they always did them even when that meant that eventually they were mistreating others. Instead of helping the poor, they were creating more poor. The focus was no longer encountering God, but putting up walls that prevented people from encountering God. They were so used to doing things like they always did that they couldn’t recognize who Jesus was. They couldn’t see God in their midst.

And in case we are quick to judge, we aren’t any different than those in the temple. If Jesus came to our congregation today I wonder if He would be just as angry. What would he be flipping over? Would our offerings go flying all over the place because maybe we are giving out of our leftovers instead of abundantly out of our gratitude for all God has given us? Do we live out of an attitude of scarcity instead of abundance? Would Jesus turn over our tables because we are so used to doing things the way we’ve always done them that we can’t see we are creating barriers for people to experience God? I wonder if we would recognize Jesus if He came in the flesh in our midst today looking like someone right off the street? Would we recognize him? And would he be angry at what He sees that we don’t see?

It’s hard to imagine Jesus that angry. But when people’s lives are at stake, anger is a healthy emotion. I’m not talking about unhealthy anger that hurts people, but a righteous anger that sees an injustice and works to find a solution. Like people today who are angry about domestic violence and work to find ways to stop it. Or people who see that the environment is being abused and work to find ways to help heal the planet. There are people who are hungry physically and we at Christ Lutheran Church are doing things to help feed the hungry. Yet there are other injustices around us that we need to see too.

Jesus was angry because he saw what the people in the temple did not see and he challenges us today to see things differently as well. Maybe Jesus needs to cleanse our temple, our place of worship too. He challenges us to do the things that God wants us to do and maybe that means doing things differently than we’ve ever done them before. Jesus wants us to remember that the church is not ours, it is God’s and we are to do God’s will not ours.

Jesus challenges us to cleanse our physical building as well as our hearts. Jesus challenges us to see with new eyes. Jesus challenges us to make room for others to more fully encounter God and that may mean that we can’t do things the same way we’ve always done them. The gospel message cannot change, but the delivery of that message can. For example, centuries ago people didn’t have the technology we have today, but today we do and we can use things like our church Facebook to draw people to come here and experience God. And once here, we need to make sure they experience God. We can’t put up barriers to hold them back. Sometimes even physically cleansing our building or our temples, can be a way to breathe new life into a physical space so that people feel more comfortable being here. And cleansing our hearts and leaving our burdens and fears and guilt at the foot of the cross can be a way to breathe new life and joy into our lives. We need to make room for encountering God. That is what Jesus was so angry about that day. He wanted people to see that they were blocking people from experiencing God and wants us to see where we may be blocking people from experiencing God too. Maybe even ourselves. Maybe we are getting in our own way. We need to see with new eyes. We need to see from a different perspective and try new things.

Today is also Girl Scout Sunday and the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low was committed to making changes too. She wanted to give all girls an opportunity to develop physically, mentally, and spiritually. Juliette Low wanted to bring girls out of isolation into community service and when she decided to take action she wanted it to be immediate. In her famous quote she said, “I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all of America, and all the world, and we’re going to start it tonight.” She wasted no time in getting the movement going.

We can’t waste any time either. And so today I am asking you to get up and start right now. It’s time to start seeing with new eyes. It’s time to see things from a different perspective and that means getting up and moving to a new seat. Yes, get up out of the same unofficially self-assigned seats you always sit in and move. I’m not kidding. Get up and sit in a new seat than you normally sit. Those on the left, go to the right. Those on the right go to the left. If you sit in the back, sit up front. If you normally sit up front, try sitting toward the back. Or maybe a few brave souls will come really close to the front. I’m going to ask the choir to sit where I’m usually sitting, and I’ll sit for the rest of the service where the choir usually sits. We need someone to play the organ, so Virginia you can stay there. It may seem silly, but changing where we sit changes our perspective and we do see things differently.

Jesus demands that we waste no time in continuing the movement that He started. Like Jesus, it’s not only okay, but right to be angry over the injustices that are happening in this world. God created all people and does not want them to suffer. As followers of Christ we are to stand up and proclaim the gospel even if others ridicule us. We are to remove the barriers that get in the way. Clean our temples – physically and emotionally – so that we and others can see God who is in our midst. God is here. Let’s make room so God’s glory can shine brightly. Amen!

Promises and Possibilities

Sunday, March 1, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Mark 8:31-38

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Those sound like pretty challenging words – denying yourself, losing your life. Hardly the words of promise. They didn’t make much sense to the disciples near Jesus and in the 1st century and they don’t make a lot of sense to our ears today. We want to follow Jesus, but not if it is going to mean giving up a whole lot. Most of us have worked hard for what we have and any talk of denying ourselves is not something that sits well with us, especially in the consumer-driven capitalist society that we live in. The media tells us that we need more – more clothes, more things, more power, more money, more…everything, because they tell us that more is better. There’s even an AT&T commercial that says, “more is better.” And we believe this lie, this deception. We believe that more will makes us happy and will fill us up, but the truth is that the drive to get more will only leave us wanting more. It won’t fill us up. It will leave us empty and the only way to feel better is to get more. And We the cycle continues.

The media doesn’t talk about denying ourselves. Adds don’t talk about sacrificing our needs for the needs of others. We are continually bombarded with voices that tell us to get as much as we can. And for those who don’t have much, they are told to work harder. Phrases such as “Pull yourselves up by the bootstraps” are expressed to motivate people to action, but they are missing understanding. It’s easy to look at someone who is lacking and think that it’s because they didn’t try hard enough rather than seek to see that the problem goes much deeper. Capitalism itself it at the root of most of the problem. In an effort for people to acquire as much as they can, it’s often done at the expense of others. It’s one of the reasons the middle class is disappearing and the discrepancy between rich and poor increases. Many homeless people actually have jobs, but cannot afford to pay rent. People are having to make decisions between medicine and food. And when universal healthcare or one-payer healthcare is mentioned, people scream that it would be socialism. Everyone is supposed to better their own lives, not deny themselves pleasures in order for someone else to have a little. Yet deny ourselves is exactly what Jesus is demanding that we who claim to be followers and disciples are to do. He says to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” It makes no sense to us or to Peter who heard it first-hand.

Peter had just finished confessing that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. He believed Jesus was going to lead the Jewish people out of their captivity to the Roman occupation. Peter believed that Jesus was going to lead them all to military victory and be the great political leader they wanted and needed. Jesus was going to be the all-powerful leader that would turn their lives around for the better. He wasn’t expecting Jesus to say that He “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter and the other disciples left the comfort of their homes to follow Jesus, and to hear Jesus say that he would be killed was more than Peter could bear. That’s why he protested. Peter had other plans for Jesus and if we are honest so do we.

We want Jesus to be the kind of Savior we want him to be. We’re all in for following Jesus as long as it’s on our terms. As long as we can still do what we want then we can be disciples at the same time. But that’s what’s so troubling about Jesus’ statement today. He is telling us that if we are to be his followers we can’t do whatever we want. We have to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. What exactly does that mean?

To begin with denying ourselves doesn’t mean we are to be doormats. It doesn’t mean we are to put ourselves on the bottom of the list and care about everyone but ourselves. And it doesn’t mean that we are to let others abuse or mistreat us. That is not what Jesus meant when he said to deny ourselves. And taking up our cross doesn’t mean walking around feeling sorry for ourselves and saying things like “this problem – whatever it is – is my cross to bear. That is not what Jesus is talking about. So what does denying ourselves and taking up our cross and following Jesus mean?

It means we are to commit our lives like Jesus to self-sacrificing love. Love was the reason Jesus suffered and died. Love was the reason Jesus stayed on the cross when he had the power to save his life. Love was the reason Jesus denied his power to save himself, and chose instead to save us. Love was the cross that Jesus bore and love is the cross that Jesus asks us to bear. We are to love one another with the same kind of self-sacrificing love that Jesus had. When we follow Jesus we are to follow him all the way. We are to be “all-in” just as Jesus was “all-in” for us.

Just a couple days ago I had the chance to see the new movie McFarland. It is based on the true story of the Central Valley California high school track team and the coach who started it. I won’t tell you the story or give you any spoiler alerts – although I will encourage you to go and see it – but I do want to share with you one scene in the movie. The high school was predominantly Latino and the youth worked early in the fields in the morning before school and again after school. They worked hard, harder than most high school youth. In one scene, Coach White is trying to reach the youth and so he too gets up at 4:30am one morning and works in the field with them. He is shocked at how hard the work is and how they can endure it. His middle-aged back bent over for probably only a few hours picking cabbage, he finally had to stop. He couldn’t do it anymore. He was “all-in” with those youth. He showed a solidarity with them, a self-sacrificing love that said, “I care about who you are and what you are going through.” What Coach White did that day was take up his cross and follow Jesus.

That is what is means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It means to give of ourselves out of love for the sake of the gospel, the sake of God’s love for all people. It means to really do whatever it takes to understand what someone else is going through. It means to take up the self-sacrificing cross of love, the cross of compassion, the cross of justice, the cross of peace, and even when we are surrounded by fear, and sin, and death, we take up our cross and do what Jesus did. We go where we have to go for the sake of love, for love is the reason Jesus took up his cross.

We can start right where we are in our homes, our schools, our places of work, and our congregations. Christ Lutheran Church is a group of people who are followers of Christ and we are commanded as such by Jesus to take up our cross and follow Him. We can start right here in our congregation. There is such a great need in our communities to hear the good news of the gospel and we can be the means through which that message is transmitted. We can start here within our congregation. Each one of us has to be “all-in” to make our congregation thrive as a living body of Christ. It can’t just be a few people doing all the work. We are all commanded to take up our cross. This week, think about what it is that you are called to do right here as part of the congregation. There is a great need for a vibrant Sunday School. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is calling you to take up your cross and be a Sunday School teacher, or the leader of our Christian Education committee. Or maybe you are being asked to take up your cross and be a Eucharistic minister and help visit those who are homebound. We have about a dozen people to visit. They need to see more than just the pastor visit them once or twice a month. They need to know others in the congregation care and they are connected. Maybe you are being called to take up your cross and join the property committee, or outreach, or start a new project in the congregation. There are so many possibilities!

Being a disciple is more than just calling ourselves Christian. It’s more than just coming to worship services. It’s more than just giving a little of whatever we have – time, money, or skills – it’s being “all-in” for the sake of the gospel. It may require hard work and sacrifice, but it is worth it. Jesus took up his cross and our lives are forever changed for the better because of it. We have life because Jesus gave up his. That is something we know that Peter didn’t know when he tried to stop Jesus from going to the cross. Peter was so focused on hearing Jesus say that he would “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” that he totally couldn’t hear the last part of that sentence – “and after three days rise again.”

Have we missed that part too? Jesus didn’t take up his cross for nothing. He did rise after three days. Resurrection happened! He made that promise and he kept it. Just as God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations in his old age. Sometimes what we have to endure seems pointless. At times we may have to face difficulties and problems that seem impossible. We don’t see the solution and we don’t see the answers, but that is why we have been given the gift of faith. We don’t have to see the future; we only have to trust in God’s promises. Maybe it’s time we stop living in fear and live in the possibilities. What if Christ Lutheran Church is known not as a building of brick, but a place of possibilities, a place where anything is possible? Jesus said, “deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.” Take up the cross of self-sacrificing love and see where that love will lead you. Believe in God’s promises. Believe in the possibilities. Believe that resurrection will happen! Amen!