The Voice to Follow

Sunday, April 26, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 10:11-18

Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday. For the past several weeks we’ve heard accounts of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances and today seems like a departure from the typical Easter stories. Today we hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd.” What does this have to do with Easter? We’ve all heard this phrase by Jesus a million times. We hear it echoed in the 23rd psalm, a psalm that gives comfort and peace when we are afraid and feeling alone. We may picture Jesus as the “good shepherd” standing in a field of green pastures and being that non-anxious presence we so desperately need. It’s a beautiful scene. Yet how many of us really understand in the 21st century what shepherding is all about? If you go to places like Ireland – a place I hope to one day visit – you’d have a much better chance of seeing sheep grazing along the green hillsides. Yet here, in Manchester, PA, there aren’t many hillsides filled with grazing sheep. So when Jesus compares us to sheep we don’t really have a good understanding of what he is talking about.

A couple of years ago, I went out to a sheep farm, and got to see first-hand what the life of a sheep was like, at least sheep on a farm. There they were all huddled together and staying close to one another. They are quite social animals. Every so often they would start baaing and I wondered what it was they were saying to one another in their language that I did not understand. Sheep do have their own language. Out of the blue, one of them made a noise and started running and they all turned around and started running after the sheep. I asked the farmer, “where are they going?” He said, “they’re just following the sheep.” They didn’t know where the sheep was going, but they were going to follow. It got me wondering, if the sheep weren’t in an enclosed area, they could have all followed that sheep to their death. They could have run into the road, or off a cliff, or into some other dangerous situation. It’s a good thing the fence was there. And it was a good thing the farmer was there. The farmer – or should I say – a modern day shepherd was there.

Maybe that’s why Jesus compares us to sheep. It’s not that sheep are dumb, they are actually quite smart, but they do like to follow. They aren’t like cows that need to be pushed and prodded from behind. Sheep like to be led, and therefore it’s easy for them to be led astray. Think about all the things that we sheep can be led astray by: fear fed to us by the media, consumerism and materialism by adds telling us we need more, addictions of any kind including overworking, and over extending ourselves. We as a society keep moving at a faster and faster pace and we barely have time to slow down and catch a breath. There seems to be a collective voice that says the busier we are the more we are successful. There’s a collective voice that tells us we can’t slow down, we have to keep moving, keep doing, keep trying, and it’s exhausting us all. We’re following voices from false shepherds that are leading us down a path that can potentially harm us. We’re going so fast that we can’t hear God’s voice – the voice that tells us to slow down, to keep holy the Sabbath day, to be still and know that I am God. The voice of the good shepherd is calling us away from the false voices that try and pull us away from God, away from worship, and back to God who is leading us to life.

That is why this Good Shepherd Sunday is in the middle of the Easter season, because Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Being a shepherd – a really good shepherd – is not an easy job. It’s a hard profession. And it’s not a hands-off kind of desk job. A shepherd gets dirty because he or she is right there with the sheep. (You might think twice about inviting a shepherd over for dinner without a good shower!) A good shepherd doesn’t leave the sheep alone; they are close. They have a relationship. The get to know the voice of the shepherd. And a good shepherd is always watching out for danger. A shepherd can get seriously injured fighting off dangerous animals that try to hurt the sheep.

Jesus is the ultimate good shepherd who loves us so much that he laid down his life for us. And even after Jesus rose from the dead, he came back to reassure the disciples. He didn’t have to, but he did because he did not want them to live in fear. And the Good Shepherd is one of forgiveness. Jesus came back to reassure the disciples who betrayed him, who denied him, who deserted him, and locked themselves up in fear. Jesus came back to lead the sheep who had gone astray – who were led by the voices of fear – back to the fold.

He came to lead us back to the fold because he knows there are other voices that try to lead us and don’t really love or care about us. These other voices only think about profits and gains for themselves. Corporations care about the bottom line – money, and the media cares about ratings and in turn profit. It’s easy to be deceived by false voices that claim they are looking out for our best interests, but really they are looking out for their own. It’s easy to be pulled toward voices that lead us into darkness and leave us alone.

But Jesus came to overcome the darkness. And through the victory of the cross and resurrection, Jesus has overcome the ultimate darkness – death – and so as we hear in the 23rd Psalm, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” Darkness will come from time to time, yet we have the promise that the Good Shepherd is with us. Jesus is a powerful Shepherd. His rod and staff will fight off those things that try to destroy us, and his rod and staff will guide us and pull us back when we stray too far. And if we listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, he will lead us through the darkness into the light.

I remember one particular evening when my daughters were young that the lights went out unexpectedly. Winter storms in New England often result in power outages, but this one happened without warning. I hadn’t laid out the usual candles and matches in preparation. My daughters were afraid. They couldn’t see me and so they were afraid, just like when we can’t see God and so we too are afraid. I reassured them I was there and not to fear. I kept talking to them in the dark as I made my way to get candles and matches for light. I guided them to me with my voice. They couldn’t see me, but they heard my voice, and they followed it, until they eventually were with me, and together we made our way through the dark, and through the storm.

We will all experience times in our lives when we find ourselves suddenly in the darkness. It may be a sudden illness, or death, or some other kind of loss, and we will be afraid, but it is in those times that we must listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, For he loves us. He laid down his life for us, and he will remain with us through whatever storm or darkness we find ourselves in, and bring us to the light. The voice of the Good Shepherd is one that always leads to safety and life.

Today we welcome and celebrate four new members into our congregation, into our flock. As infants, their parents heard the voice of the Holy Spirit leading them to gather at the waters of baptism, where they first entered the family of God. Today, they and all of us affirm our baptismal vows and promise to follow the Good Shepherd and listen to his voice. And we promise to help others to hear his voice as well. For Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

That is what Jesus desires – one flock, tended and guided by one shepherd. Jesus embraced the outcast, oppressed, and marginalized. He embraced those that others did not want to associate with because Jesus saw them as beloved children of God. One flock does not imply sameness. We do not have to be just like the others in the flock. All of us sheep are different, but part of the same flock, the same family of God and the Good Shepherd embraces us all. Listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd for it is the voice we are called to follow. It is a gentle yet powerful voice. One that will lead us on the right path. One that will protect us from those who try to steal our souls. One that will lead us to peace and joy. One that will lead us to life eternal. Listen. Amen.


Experiencing Resurrection

Sunday, April 12, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 20:19-31

“I don’t believe it!” “Show me your scar!” “Show me.” Little children often speak like this to one another. If one of them falls down and has a scar on their knee or their elbow, their friends want to see it. If one of them had their appendix out, they don’t believe it and they want to see the scar. And yes, if they had their tonsils out….open wide….they want to see the scars! Children are infatuated with wanting to see the scars their friends acquire. And often they will compare. Look at my scar; it’s even bigger! Scars for young children seem to be a status symbol. They are signs that say, “Look what I’ve been through.” “I’m brave.” Until … get older.

As children grow up, somehow they lose that ability to be vulnerable. Perhaps it’s around adolescence when they become more self-conscious, but they don’t want others to see their scars any longer.  They don’t want people to see they are not perfect because they might get ridiculed or made fun of and so they hide behind masks. Adolescence can be a time of deep pain, because you want to fit in, but maybe you aren’t like everyone else and it can be painful. Bullying is happening at increasingly younger ages. Bullying is becoming more widespread, and adding new kinds of scars. It’s creating fear and feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem, abandonment, and hopelessness.

The early disciples knew those feelings well. They were frightened since the crucifixion of Jesus and so they locked themselves in for fear they too might be killed for being followers of Jesus. But then ………..Jesus was raised from the dead! On that first Easter, the disciples heard from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was alive, but they didn’t believe her until they too saw Jesus. Yet even after that, they locked themselves behind closed doors. They were still afraid. So when Thomas shows up (and we don’t know where he was prior to this, but he wasn’t hiding like the others) is it any wonder he doesn’t believe the other disciples when they tell him they saw the risen Jesus?  The disciples tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus, but he doesn’t believe them. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas wants proof. “I don’t believe it! His friends – who supposedly saw the risen Jesus – were still afraid and locked up in a room. If they really saw Jesus would they still be afraid and locked up? It’s a good question to think about. And it’s one that probably contributed to Thomas’ questioning.

“Doubting Thomas” It’s a label that has unjustly been assigned to Thomas over the years. I don’t think Thomas went around as a sceptic, but he was a realist and this news was too unbelievable. After all, Thomas was there and saw Jesus crucified. Jesus was dead; of that Thomas was certain. It’s not that Thomas didn’t want to believe, but his hope was shattered. Jesus was dead. Yes, he was there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but he also knew that going back to Bethany and then on to Jerusalem meant death for Jesus and maybe even for the disciples too. In fact, Thomas was courageous and committed to following Jesus even if it meant death. In chapter 11 of John, Thomas says, “Let us go… that we may die with Him.” Thomas knew the cost of discipleship and he was committed to the cause, even if he didn’t fully understand what that meant. In the 14th chapter of John when Jesus is telling the disciples that He is going to prepare a place for them, Thomas asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Questions don’t mean doubting or lack of faith. Questions are a person’s way of opening themselves up to new possibilities, new insights. What Thomas was questioning in today’s story was whether the hope of Jesus being alive was really true or just a figment of their desires. Thomas was no different from the other disciples. He wanted to see the proof that Jesus was alive. And so do we.

Let’s face it. The story of the resurrection is an unbelievable story! It defies science. It defies reason. It defies logic. Yet, that is what we profess as Christians. But just as the disciples lock themselves up a week after the first Easter, so we often lock ourselves up out of fear or grief.  We know through faith that Jesus has been raised. We celebrate with great festivity the feast of the resurrection. Yet here we are a week later, back from celebrating Easter with family and friends – back to what seems like the repetition of our daily lives. The resurrection has happened yet we ask, “what difference does it make?” Pain and suffering still linger. Illness and disease are still real and present realities. Death still happens. Where is the end to all the pain? Where is the resurrection?

That is the question Thomas asks, and he asks it for all of us. We still suffer at times from a lack of hope. And we, like Thomas, have unanswered questions. We are human beings – flesh and blood – and we want – no we need – to experience the Risen Christ. And I am not just speaking about people in our congregations. People in our communities, our society, our world, are longing to see the Risen Christ too. They are filled with doubts and questions. Where is this Risen Christ when things in the world seem to be going from bad to worse? It’s a question on everyone’s mind. They don’t believe it. Sometimes we don’t really believe it. And we, like Thomas, demand “Show me!” – not out of a need for control, but out of a need for assurance and hope.

And Jesus hears these cries for hope! Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas. He says, “Okay, here you are! See for yourself. Feel and touch these scars. Don’t be an unbeliever, but believe.” Jesus didn’t have to go back and reveal Himself to Thomas, but He did. He knew that Thomas needed this assurance. Thomas needed to see for himself. He needed to know that the crucified Jesus was now the risen Jesus. And this was only possible by seeing Jesus’ scars. And seeing them – not even touching them – Thomas gives the greatest profession of faith in the New Testament, “My Lord, and my God!” Thomas makes the claim that John in the beginning of his gospel professes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is indeed the Word made flesh. Flesh is important – important enough to hold the divine. Important enough for God to be vulnerable. That is what today’s story is really about.

This story in John’s gospel is not about Thomas’ doubts or questions. It’s about God loving all of humanity so much that God became vulnerable – born into flesh as a baby, suffered and died as the Crucified One, and then Risen but willing to reveal the wounds and scars that healed us. It was the scars that revealed to Thomas who Jesus was. It was the scars that revealed what Jesus did for all humanity. Yet Jesus didn’t stop there.

Jesus is still revealing Himself each time we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Real Presence of Jesus. We, like Thomas, have the gift to see the Risen Christ, to touch the Risen Christ, to taste the Risen Christ. And through this gift of grace we receive the Real Presence of the Risen Christ who now dwells within us. This is a holy meal. We may not fully understand this mystery, but this is where we receive the strength to overcome fear and doubt, and believe. Because of our baptism, because of this holy meal, we are no longer the same, but transformed into vessels of flesh that contain the living Christ! That is something unbelievable! And that is what thousands of people are longing to experience.

People are longing to experience the living Christ. They are longing to experience the resurrection. And since Christ now dwells in us, it is we who are called to reveal Christ to others. In order to do that we must – like Jesus – be willing to be vulnerable and reveal our scars. We must show others our true selves by being honest about who we are. We are at the same time saints and sinners. We are broken imperfect people, but we are loved by God. We are scarred by sickness, and addictions, and sinfulness, but we are saved by grace through faith. By showing others our scars and what Christ has done for and through us, we show them what Christ can and will do through them. When people ask to see Jesus, they are not looking for lofty theological explanations. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel, and when necessary use words.” Thomas’ profession of faith was not because of what Jesus said, it was because of what Jesus did.

When we offer a comforting hand to someone, we reveal the Risen Christ to them. When we take the time to really listen to someone, we reveal the Risen Christ to them. When we make sure someone has enough to eat, we reveal the Risen Christ to them. When we offer forgiveness – to others and even ourselves – instead of holding on to the past, we reveal the Risen Christ. When we speak out against injustice of any kind, we reveal the Risen Christ. When we act out of love and not hatred or prejudice, we reveal the Risen Christ. When we prepare a meal for a family in grief, we reveal the Risen Christ. When we walk the way of peace, we reveal the Risen Christ. Countless people are longing to see the Risen Christ. They are praying, and begging “Show us!” Allow the Holy Spirit to unlock the doors. Jesus is waiting to be revealed through us. He is waiting to speak through us, “Peace be with you.” People want to experience the resurrection. It is here! It is today! Jesus, the Christ is here among us! Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Amen!

Jesus Is On the Loose!

Sunday, April 5, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Mark 16:1-8

“Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when God raised him from the tomb?” It’s Easter morning and we heard these hauntingly beautiful words – words that echo those sung on Good Friday when we ended with Jesus being sealed in the tomb. But now Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! It’s time to be filled with joy. It’s time to rejoice. It’s time to celebrate. It’s time to ……run away? If you’re reading the gospel of Mark, that’s exactly how he describes what happened at the resurrection. Unlike the other gospel writers, who end with post-resurrection appearances by Jesus, Mark ends with people running away in terror. Not the kind of resurrection story you’d expect. In fact if you look in your Bibles, early Christians added shorter and longer versions to the end of Mark’s gospel thinking that he must have intended different endings. But scholars agree that Mark’s gospel – the earliest of the gospels – did in fact end this abruptly with fear, terror, and amazement. Unlike the other gospels accounts, perhaps this is why Mark’s gospel speaks to us most personally today.

There’s a lot of fear going around these days. We hear it on the news and wonder what horrible thing is going to happen next. We worry about our children, our parents, the health of those we love, and finances.  We worry about the future of our churches as less and less people attend services. Every one of you here today comes with some kind of worry or concern. We are afraid of a great many things and it’s hard to live in that kind of fear every day. It’s not the way God intended for us to live. It leads us to feel alone and isolated. Jesus knew that feeling of isolation.

At Jesus’ crucifixion all his friends left him. Peter denied him, the disciples ran away and hid in fear, but the women stayed. The women stayed and experienced the agony of watching the one they loved die. We hear today that three days later in the dark early morning hours, they went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body with oil and spices as was the customary practice. This was their last act of love and caring for the person they had loved. This act alone shows that they did not believe that Jesus was resurrected as he had promised. How could they. They watched him die. They were still stricken with deep grief and sorrow. The one they had come to love and follow was gone and they were beside themselves in grief.

For those of who came to the Good Friday service here just a couple of days ago, you know the feeling. We prayed and meditated on Jesus’ death on the cross. Many of us left with tears in our eyes, because this pain is real. God became truly human in Jesus and actually died a horrible tragic death. It leaves one feeling like the women did as they went to the tomb that morning – filled with sorrow and grief. It’s natural to feel that way when someone you love dies.

This congregation has experienced a lot of death, both in the past and recently. Death is a hard part of life. I learned this myself from an early age as I grieved the loss of all my grandparents. Before I was even a teenager I grieved the loss of others in my family – beloved aunts, uncles, and friends. While still in my early twenties my best friend suddenly died. Later, I would grieve the sudden and tragic loss of my nephew, then my father, and most recently my sister. At times I wished I didn’t love people so much because then I wouldn’t experience the deep pain of their loss. I know many of you have felt and feel the same way. Love is a costly thing. Yet the pain is even more severe if you stop loving because then you miss out on all the joy. Love is a costly thing. God knows – it cost him a son. Jesus knows; it cost him his life. .

So why do we talk about death on this joyous Easter morning. Many people purposely avoid Good Friday services so they can avoid thinking about death, but death has everything to do with Easter. Jesus was human. He ate, he slept, he was tired, he wept, and he died. Mark makes that plain. But he also really was raised from the dead. Easter is the celebration of how Jesus overcame death and the grave. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, he broke the chains of death’s hold on us. Our earthly bodies will die, but they will be resurrected again on the last day. Jesus has promised this to us. And Jesus does not go back on his promises. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection death will no longer hold us prisoner. It is only temporary. The stone has been rolled away. Jesus is not there. He is risen. Jesus is on the loose!

That’s what terrified the women that first Easter Sunday. Jesus was on the loose! He really was raised like he said he would be. Of course it terrified them! They could not deny the power of God. They were speechless. They were in awe. God had done the unthinkable. God had undone the power of death. Wouldn’t you run?

Wouldn’t you run if you were there? And don’t we as disciples still want to run on hearing the truth of these words? The resurrection changes everything! There is nothing God cannot do! And when we find ourselves lost, and grieving, and afraid, we no longer grieve like those who have no hope because we know that God is more powerful than even death itself.

Mark ends his gospel without the resurrection occurrences because Jesus is on the loose! It leaves us wondering in awe and amazement. Where is he? Is he in my house? At my school? Where I work? On the highway? In the grocery store? In our neighborhoods? Our communities? In the face of the stranger? The face of the person I don’t get along with? The person sitting right next to me? And the answer is yes! Yes! Yes! Jesus is everywhere! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! This really happened! It’s not just a story we tell once a year. This is what we as Christians believe. This is the foundation of our faith. This is why we are here this morning, to hear once again that Jesus is risen and is on the loose. We don’t know where we are going to bump into him next. And this should give us reason to be excited and a little afraid at the same time. We don’t know where Jesus will show up next. That means we have to be ready. We have to love one another as Jesus commanded us to do.

There’s a lot of things that could cause us to be afraid. The news is full of reports of them, but we have bigger news to report. Jesus is alive! Each and every day – everywhere we go – Jesus is right here with us. And once the women who were the first to witness the empty tomb understood this they did go and tell everyone. How else would the news have spread. Once they got over the initial shock, they couldn’t stop telling people and neither can we. Jesus is alive! He is with us and in us and the world is waiting to encounter Jesus through us. Jesus is on the loose. Spread this Good News wherever you go! Live in the joy of the resurrection. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen!