Sunday, October 25, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 8:31-36

Autumn is my favorite time of year. I’m filled with awe and wonder at the brilliance of the fall colors. Trees ablaze with vibrant red, orange, and yellow hues are the picture from an artist’s canvass. Against a clear blue sky, it’s nothing short of breathtaking. It’s the time of year that we most visibly see the process of regeneration as it moves from one state to another. Change is underway.

The trees begin this reshaping as the lush green leaves of summer come alive with colors from an artist’s pallet, yet these colors don’t last forever. As nature takes its course, the leaves fall to the ground or are blown and scattered. Soon the tree once filled with lush foliage and a refuge and fortress for many of God’s creatures will stand bare amidst the open skies. Change is underway.

It’s during this time when the limbs are exposed to the elements of wind and cold that pruning is most beneficial. The truth of the health of the limbs and the entire tree is now exposed. If any disease is present, it is clearly seen. What was once hidden is now visible to be reshaped, repaired, and reformed.

Truth is at the heart of reformation and this applies to all creation including humans. Truth exposes our imperfections, our sins, our weaknesses. It brings to light those things that cause us to be less than what we were created to be. Truth prepares us to look at the things we don’t wish to see. It can be painful because like the trees, we may be forced to prune, repair and reshape that which is unhealthy and a threat to our survival.

And therefore as humans we often resist change even though as with all the cycles of nature it is inevitable. We want things to stay the same. We want to do things the way we’ve always done them – to look the way we’ve always looked and to live the way we’ve always lived. But nothing in all of God’s creation stays the same. Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves us in directions we would rather not go, but never are we anyplace where God is not already present. Yes, there may be loss – like damaged parts of a tree needing to be cut off – but there will also be new life if we are open to the process. A tree that is damaged and diseased if not pruned and reshaped will die. The same is true for us individually and collectively as the church.

That is why God raises up prophets to speak words of God’s truth in the hopes that people will repent. The prophet Jeremiah preached this message of change and reform, yet like most prophets in the ancient world and even today he was dismissed, rejected, and even worse was often in danger of being killed. Prophets urged people to repent and turn away from their sinful ways and turn toward God. Prophets didn’t sugar coat the truth. They spoke in plain language about how people would be destroyed because of their own selfish and sinful acts. The ministry of a prophet was to speak the truth to people and encourage them to return to God who was waiting to welcome them back with open arms. But power and control are not easily relinquished. People don’t want to give up power and control, not in biblical times and not today. And therefore God -out of God’s great love for us – keeps sending prophets to speak the truth.

Eventually, God sent God’s own son, Jesus to deliver this message of truth personally. Jesus is the truth. Jesus urged people to listen to the truth no matter how hard it was to hear and He urges us to listen to this truth today. Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law. Jesus came to expose the truth, cut away the broken pieces of our lives so that we would grow into the fullness of God’s grace. But the truth isn’t always easy to hear, or see, or face. The truth leads to change and people often resort to fear when change is underway. And fear leads to a multitude of sins. Fear, greed, and the lust for power led to Jesus’ death. Yet the God of reformation and change is still speaking.

God is speaking through the prophets throughout the ages. Prophets like Martin Luther, a 16th century Catholic monk, who once the Holy Spirit opened his mind and heart to the gospel of truth and freedom, set about to get that word of truth out to as many people as he could. He used the modern technology of his time – the printing press – to get the word out in the everyday language of his time so that every person could read the gospel for themselves. Martin Luther had a passion for reform that catapulted the reformation movement of the 16th century.
He exposed the truth of the sinfulness of the early church. He revealed that the church had become corrupt. Instead of working toward God’s mission they were working toward their own. The church had taken the power and authority that belonged to God and claimed it for themselves. Whatever changes were going to happen would be changes they wanted.

The church today struggles with the same sinfulness that Luther tried to reform. The church continues to pray for God’s will to be done, yet collectively the church really wants our own wills satisfied. We don’t want to give up power, or money, or time for the work of the kingdom of God. The truth of the gospel compels us to look at truths we don’t want to see and so often we turn away. We are afraid that the gospel will imprison us, yet Jesus said that if we continue in His word, then we will truly be his disciples. He said, you will “know the truth and the truth will set you free.” That is a word of hope and promise. How will we obtain this freedom? “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” And the Son has freed us! We are free indeed! For the freedom of a Christian, that has been given to us by Christ’s faithfulness, frees us to be servants of all just as Christ was a servant to all.

This is the great and glorious news of the gospel. It is a gospel of reformation. It is a gospel that echoes through the message of the ELCA – “always being made new.” In Christ, we are always being made new. We are always being called to speak this voice of truth and reform wherever we are and wherever we go. We are disciples of Christ and messengers of the gospel today. We are prophets speaking words of truth even in the midst of those who do not want to hear us. And we are called to open our ears and hearts and listen to the voices of others through whom God is speaking to us. Change is underway. Reformation is ongoing.

When the church as the body of Christ acts to help those stricken by poverty – to feed the hungry – reformation is happening. When the church as the body of Christ speaks out against violence and hatred toward any person or group of people, reformation is happening. When the church as the body of Christ chooses to put Jesus before anything or anyone else and live lives of love toward all people, reformation is happening. Any time a person truly prays for God’s kingdom to come and responds with love, and compassion toward another human being, reformation is happening.

The reformation is not just something that happened in the 16th century. The Holy Spirit continues to reform the church today through each one of us if we allow the Spirit to reform us. As Luther so boldly echoed the words of St. Paul – whom himself was reformed through facing the truth about himself – We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” We are “now justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” We don’t need to do anything to earn God’s salvation, because of Christ we are free – free from slavery to sin and death! The Good News – the Great News is that frees us to live lives as grateful disciples of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther based the words to A Mighty Fortress on Psalm 46 and the words are a source of great strength: “Were they to take our house, goods honor child or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day, the kingdom’s ours forever!” It is ours forever because God’s covenant -through our baptism, through this gift of grace – has been written on our hearts. This truth will set us free and is cause to boast – to boast of what Christ has done for us! The words of the reformation still speak out, Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone!  Amen!


The Cup of Life

Sunday, October 18, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Mark 10:35-45

A cup, it seems like such an ordinary simple thing. It seems rather insignificant, doesn’t it? A piece of glass or pottery that holds what it is that we need to nourish us, refresh us, and restore us. Maybe it’s a cup of water when we need it most, or a cup of coffee to get us going, or for those of us who drink tea, a cup of relaxation. A cup filled with nourishment can be a great source of joy. We’ll be offering such nourishment at the Halloween Parade later today as we hand out bottles of water with our poster that someone cleverly came up with …”Get refreshed at Christ Lutheran Church.” It‘s a great message and one that I think we could adopt as our tagline. People need to be refreshed.

But what if the cup we drink it isn’t filled with refreshment? Maybe it’s a cup of juice that’s gone bad, or worse a cup of milk that’s gone bad. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s tasted sour milk! Or maybe it’s a cup of sorrow, or grief, or pain, or worry. Every day we drink of cups from life that are far from refreshing.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus asked James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question and yet James and John said, “Yes, we are able.” I don’t think they understood what was in the cup. In fact, I’m sure they didn’t.

A few verses before the one we read today, Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem and for the third time Jesus explained to the disciples that he was going to suffer, endure great persecution and die. And Mark says “they were afraid.” But then James and John pull Jesus aside and ask if they could each sit on each side of him when he comes into glory. Wow, he just explained the harsh realities of his impending death to them and they were trying to secure a place in glory. They were worried about their own safety not Jesus’ well-being. It’s as if they responded out of fear without even thinking it through. That’s something we can all relate to.

When people are afraid our natural tendency is for self-preservation. Our fight and flight response takes over. We want to feel safe, but when we react out of fear we can cause a lot of damage to ourselves and others. I have to admit I love the Star Wars movies and a quote from the small, yet wise Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (It sounds much better in Yoda’s voice!) Hate does lead to suffering and most often the roots are fear. We are afraid of terrorists, so we hate anyone who may even closely resemble someone of Middle Eastern ethnicity. We are afraid to be isolated, so we join in with hateful gossip or bullying so that our friends will not turn on us. We are afraid of being hurt again and so we isolate ourselves and don’t get close to people. When we are afraid of being hurt,  we push people away so we don’t get too close. We are afraid of failure so we don’t even try. And sometimes as a church we are afraid of our church attendance getting small so we focus on survival rather than mission forgetting that the early church began with not more than a dozen ordinary people. Fear can be a dangerous and deadly thing because it takes our focus off God and turns it back to us. Sin is a turning in on ourselves and we are all guilty.

It wasn’t wrong for James and John to feel afraid and it’s not wrong for us to feel fear. It’s a natural tendency as humans, that’s why the angels and Jesus are always saying to “fear not” they know it’s normal for humans. But it isn’t good to remain in that fear. It isn’t good to let that fear control us. Even Jesus was afraid, but He knew what to do when he felt afraid. He prayed. He surrendered His will to that of God’s will. Jesus took his fears to God and admitted He was afraid so that God could transform it into glory. Transformation cannot happen without total honesty. Whether it’s in our personal lives or in our communal lives as a church, we must be honest with ourselves and each other or we will not be transformed. That is a difficult cup to drink. And that is what Jesus was asking James and John that day. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Before we say yes, we have to think about it long and hard.

The cup that Jesus is referring to is life, life as followers of Jesus. Life as servant leaders just like Him. What is inside the cup is a metaphor for drinking all of life – the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly. Life is not going to be easy and certainly not life as a follower of Jesus. Sometimes the cup of life will be filled with great joy and we will never want that to end. Sometimes, the cup of life is going to be filled with deep sorrow and we are not going to want to even pick it up. We don’t want to drink that cup. We want to only drink the joys, but that is not possible. Jesus tells us that we cannot enter into the glory of the kingdom without first tasting the bitter cup of sorrow. Unlike the many false prophets out in our world, we are not going to receive fame, fortune, friends and all the comforts we desire if we follow Jesus. If we follow Jesus, we are going to be following Him to the cross. And Jesus asks, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” James and John wanted to sit one on each side of Jesus in glory, but the ones on either side of Jesus were the thieves who hung next to Him on the cross. James and John only saw their own vision of glory and often we do too. We say yes, we too can drink the cup, but we don’t understand.

In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones’ father was trying to find the legendary Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. It was supposed to have healing properties and give life. At first Indiana Jones wanted no part of this quest, but when his father was kidnapped and shot by those trying to steal the fortune, Indiana decided to find the grail to save his father’s life. When they finally reach the room with an assortment of possible cups, the greedy gold diggers select elaborate cups encrusted in jewels only to drink from it and die. Indiana Jones, however, recognizing that the grail would be that of a humble carpenter and not a wealthy king, chose the plainest looking wooden cup. He chose wisely and his father was healed from the cup of life.

The cup of life that Jesus offers is not one filled with jewels and wealth. It’s not filled with power and domination over others. The cup of life that Jesus offers is one of simplicity of focus – one of love not hatred, one of peace not war, one of servant-hood. The cup of life Jesus offers is filled with joys and sorrows, laughter and tears, pleasure and pain, death, but also resurrection. Are we able to drink this cup of life and will we share it with others? Will we serve others cups of love, kindness, compassion and mercy just as Jesus has done for us? On our own we can’t, but by the power of the Holy Spirit we are able.

Today is Harvest Home Sunday and as I look out on this table filled with food and nourishment for those who don’t have much food to eat, I see this congregation answering Jesus’ call to be servants following in his footsteps. We are doing what Jesus asks of his disciples, to feed and care for those around us. To show Christ’s love through these actions of love. When someone receives a meal from this table, they are receiving the love of God through those of us who are here being refreshed at Jesus’ table. This is an outpouring of the love of God that we have received through Jesus and it makes a difference. You are making a difference in someone’s life!  This is what discipleship is all about. This is the life of faith.

Are we able to drink this cup in faith?  We have received the grace and strength from the refreshing waters of baptism to do the work of discipleship. We may not know what life holds in store at any given moment, but we do know who offers this cup to us and we can trust the simple servant hands of the Carpenter. The cup He offers is eternal life to all who follow Him. Drink deeply from the refreshing and life-giving cup that Jesus offers. Amen.

A Holy Perspective

Sunday, October 11, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Mark 10:17-31

Last week’s gospel text was on the difficult topic of divorce. Today’s gospel talks about another challenging subject, money. With these heavy topics continuing to be brought up in Mark’s gospel, maybe I should consider taking next Sunday off. Who knows what’s next!

Seriously, money is one of those topics that a lot of people don’t seem to want to talk about – not at home, not among friends, and certainly not in church. Somewhere along the way we’ve learned that certain things are off-limits. We can’t talk about them and certainly not in our worship services. But why do we believe this? After all, don’t we believe that God created everything? If everything is God’s creation, doesn’t it all belong to God anyway? Or do we believe that wealth is our own creation and our means of security?

The rich man in today’s story wanted to find out what he had to do to inherit eternal life. He wanted that security. He obviously had a respect for Jesus. He valued what Jesus had to say. This man wanted answers not just about life here on earth, but spiritual matters. He was concerned about eternity. And Jesus could see that. Jesus was aware of the fact that this man was trying. Jesus pointed out the commandments, to which the man replied that he kept them since he was young. Here’s where our story gets interesting. This man is deceiving himself if he thinks that he has kept all the laws. No one is capable of that. No one is good explained Jesus, except God. The point Jesus was trying to make is that is not about keeping anything. It’s not about keeping commandments and it’s not about keeping all of one’s possessions that save anyone; only God can do that. And God did that through Jesus, but we won’t know that if we don’t know Jesus. That is at the heart of today’s story.

Jesus told this man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.” Jesus wanted this man to follow Him, but something was lacking. What could this man who had so many possessions lack? He was lacking a relationship with Jesus. Jesus was giving him an opportunity to get rid of what was between him and Jesus. But the wealthy man didn’t see it that way. He didn’t see Jesus offering an opportunity; he saw Jesus taking away something. The wealthy man was focusing on the wrong thing. He was lacking a holy perspective. He was focused on what he would be giving up – his money and possessions – rather than what he would be gaining – a relationship with Jesus and therefore eternal life.

If we’re honest don’t we lack the same holy perspective? We don’t see giving our possessions or money away as an opportunity. We too see it as a burden, an invasion of our space, an infringement on our control. We don’t want to give things away. Why would Jesus want us to do that? Because being good stewards or caretakers of our money frees up space for us to have a deeper relationship with God.

We, like the man in the story view financially supporting the work of the church as something we are losing – money – rather than something we are gaining – a generous heart. Our financial giving is an opportunity to change lives. Our regular financial giving provides Christian education opportunities for our children who in turn learn to be generous givers to help others. Our financial giving provides pastoral care, food for those in need, blankets, clothing, and so many other blessings. Giving viewed from this holy perspective is not a chore, but a blessing. It’s a way to actually grow closer to God by focusing on what it is that God is calling us to do rather than how much we are lacking.

That was the problem with the rich man. His problem was not that he was rich, but that he had let wealth become his god. Wealth was what he was following, not Jesus. We do that too. I think that’s why most people have a hard time talking about it. The ancient Jews and even Jews today do not say the word for God because it is so holy; it’s sacred. Maybe we don’t talk about money because it has become sacred. It has become our god instead of one of God’s gifts.

We don’t think about money as a gift from God to be shared and used to honor God. Instead, we honor money. We worry about it when we don’t have it and cling to it when we have too much. They say a lot of divorces happen because of fights over money. Congregations get into arguments because they don’t feel money should be brought up. It’s sacred and personal and something that we think belongs to us, but the truth is it all belongs to God. Even though we work hard for it, it is still a gift from God. It is one of God’s blessings and we are asked – like the rich man – to use this blessing to help others. Seen for what it is, money then loses that hold on us, and we are free to follow God.

What is it that we are lacking that prevents us from following Jesus? It’s not always money or the lack of it. Sometimes it’s our feeling of inadequacy, of failing, of worrying, of not trusting, of not believing that keeps us from following Jesus. Often it’s just a lack of a holy perspective. A holy perspective that knows God has blessed us to be a blessing to others. The man in our story today asked Jesus, “what must I do to inherit the kingdom of God?” Jesus was trying to stress to him that the kingdom of God is not just for one person; it is the community of believers caring for one another that makes up the kingdom of God. And it is not just something that will happen in the future. It is here and now. As disciples or followers of Jesus we are called to issue in the kingdom of God here on earth not just in the world to come. We do that out of gratitude that God has loved us so we can love others. God has embraced and forgiven us so we can forgive others. Jesus is offering us an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, to change lives, to bring hope to others, and to make Christ known through our actions.

What do we lack as we try to follow Jesus? The answer is to stop trying to follow Jesus and just follow Jesus. Do what he asks of us even if it seems hard. Jesus has our best interests at heart. He will never steer us in the wrong direction. If we follow Jesus, we lack nothing. Amen!

Wounded Healers

Sunday, October 4, 2015
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Mark 10:2-16

The text from Mark’s gospel this week is not one I would have chosen to preach on. In fact, every time I’ve heard this passage read in church it’s made me cringe. And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. You see, hearing this as a person who has been divorced, it sounds more than a little condemning. No one wants to go through a divorce. Even though it’s been over twenty years, it’s still hard for me to say I am divorced because many people still attach judgement to it. That’s especially true when you’re a public figure and even worse if you are a religious leader. In fact, when I first came here a comment was made to me that, “I see you are divorced.” It’s extremely painful especially because people don’t know the circumstances. There are many reasons divorces happen and even if it’s to get out of an abusive situation, there’s still a stigma that seems to be attached to it. People can be judgmental and even down right cruel. And sometimes those in the Christian community rather than extending the love of Christ can be the hardest critics of all.

It wasn’t any different during the time of Jesus. The Pharisees were religious leaders who wanted to do everything right in order to make sure they were right with God. They wanted to follow all the religious laws, adhere to all the right moral codes, and do nothing that would possibly make them unclean or unrighteous in the eyes of God. They were going to be as perfect as they could be to the point of being self-absorbed. And they weren’t going to let anyone threaten that.

They felt Jesus was a threat to them. He didn’t follow all the right religious laws of the time. He healed people on the Sabbath. He spoke and associated with lepers (the most unclean in society at that time), tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves, and all other kinds of outcasts. Jesus was seen by the Pharisees and other authorities as a political subversive. His message was to love and follow the will of God and not the will of society. Love is a dangerous and powerful thing, more powerful than all the laws that the Pharisees tried to follow. It was love after all, not the law, that compelled Jesus to suffer and die on the cross.

So when the Pharisees came up to Jesus that day, they were trying to test him. They were trying to show everyone that Jesus didn’t care about the law. They were trying to make Jesus look like the bad guy. So they asked him if it was lawful to a man to divorce his wife. They knew that it was and so were trying to get Jesus to say “no, of course it’s not okay.” Then they could say that Jesus was telling people to break the law and they could have him arrested. (Jesus was on his way at this point to Jerusalem, and he knew it was only a matter of time before that would happen.) But Jesus knew they were trying to trick him and so he answered their question with another question. “What did Moses command you?” Jesus studied the Hebrew Scriptures. He knew that Moses said in Deuteronomy 24 that men could indeed divorce their wives, but Jesus pointed out that it was due to the hardness of their hearts that Moses established that law.

You see, in those days, a man could divorce his wife for no reason at all. If she just didn’t thrill him anymore he could divorce her, meaning he could just sign on a piece of paper he wanted her out and she would be left out on her own. With no one to care for her she would have little chance of surviving and perhaps would resort to prostitution for money to survive. Moses set up that law because the men were already doing it anyway; their hearts were already hardened.

Jesus, however, cares about all people, especially those in society who are left out in the cold. He pointed out that this is not the way God created men and women to live. From the beginning of creation men and women were created to be equal. They were created to be partners not only with one another, but with God. They were supposed to help take care of all creation, but that’s not how human beings are. Ever since sin entered the world humans have wanted to be more than human. We have wanted to be God. We want the answers to all the questions.

The disciples are a good example of this. After Jesus spoke with the Pharisees, the disciples continued to question Jesus about this in the house. And so Jesus said that when men and women remarry they are both committing adultery. This sounds incredibly harsh. What is Jesus’ point? Is he just trying to keep people from divorcing or remarrying? Is he trying to make people feel worse than they already do?

Jesus is not condemning divorced people. He is not condemning those who are divorced to a life of loneliness. He is not insensitive to the anguish and hell that people who have been divorced experience. What Jesus is pointing out in this passage in Mark is that because of sin people’s hearts have been hardened. People can be stubborn and selfish. They don’t treat one another as equals, but instead mistreat one another. Our hearts have been hardened and we are slow to forgive. Our hearts have been hardened and we are slow to listen to the troubles others are experiencing. Our hearts have been hardened and we don’t easily see that Jesus is present in each and every person. Jesus has compassion for those who have been mistreated and pushed aside. As one who suffered, Jesus walks with us in our suffering. And as His followers we are called to do the same.

The Pharisees were trying to obey all the right laws to enter into the kingdom of God, but were blinded by their own selfishness. Jesus says that the kingdom belongs to those who receive it like little children. Children have not had time to have their hearts hardened. Little children in that culture had no status. They were considered nobodies, just like the women that the men divorced. Yet Jesus doesn’t treat anyone like a nobody. To Jesus, we are all somebodies.

Jesus embraced and blessed the children and Jesus embraces all of us because we are all God’s children even though our hearts have been hardened because of our sinfulness. Our hearts have been hardened because we have suffered so much that we choose to shut ourselves off from others. We – like the Pharisees – try so hard to follow the letter of the law that we forget how to simply love one another. Divorce is excruciatingly painful and those who have been touched by it are left with deep scars. Yet scars can be reservoirs of deep healing. God can use our scars to be channels of blessings to others. In the words of Henri Nouwen, we can be “wounded healers.”

Scars of any kind can lead to a harsh and critical character, but they can also lead to a deeper compassion for others. Scars can be pools of shame and regret, but they can also be a witness to forgiveness and grace. Scars can leave one feeling empty and rejected, but they can also lead to wholeness and renewal. Our scars show that we have endured trials and suffering, but the good news is that because of the grace of God we have endured them and have been shaped by them. As followers of Jesus – the One who endured unmentionable anguish for each one of us – we are called to help be healing ointment to one another and not issuers of judgment.

Through the wounded scars of our savior Jesus the Christ we are all healed. Through the wounded scars of our Savior we are given a second, a third, a fourth….innumerable chances. The wounded healer embraces us all with grace and will turn our scars into hope. We are all wounded in one way or another, but through God’s grace we are empowered to be healers. It’s more than okay to show our scars, to show our vulnerability, because Jesus was the most vulnerable of all and showed us His scars and through them we are transformed. We are empowered to reach out and embrace one another, not to judge, but to be sources of healing and hope. We are called to make Christ known through our scars, through our tears, into a loving relationship with Christ who is with us always.  Amen!