A Courageous Call

February 21, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 13:31-35

 

Trouble was brewing and people were out to kill Jesus. When people get that upset there are two things a leader can do – give in and let the people have what they want and tell them what they want to hear, or stand up, be courageous and tell the truth. How tempting it must have been for Jesus to heed that advice and take the easy way out. But as we heard in last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus didn’t give in to temptation. He stood firm in the promises of God and what God’s mission was for him no matter how hard it was.

When the Pharisees warned Jesus of Herod’s desire to have Jesus killed, you’d think Jesus would have been a bit afraid – and I’m sure on a human level he was, because no one wants to die, especially a brutal death like Jesus knew was coming his way – but instead Jesus answered with what was sure to get those who were against him even angrier…”Go and tell that fox for me….” Followed by words that said essentially he would go to Jerusalem when he knew the time was right, not according to the schedule of others. Those are bold words from Jesus. He had to know he was not making friends by saying these things. Why didn’t he just stop. I’m sure the disciples wondered, “Why didn’t he just back off and lay low for a while? Why did he have to keep riling up the crowds?”

Because he loved them, deeply, entirely, like a mother loves her children, and when you love that much you do what’s best for that person, not necessarily what they want. . “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This lament from Jesus tells us where his heart was. He wanted to gather the people together like a mother hen gathers her brood of chicks under her wings. Jesus wanted to protect them. He wanted to nurture them. He wanted to be the one they would come to for life. Jesus didn’t want to push them away, he wanted to gather them in. But like a mother hen or any other mother or parent, Jesus’ job was to embrace them with telling them the truth in love. And that’s not always easily received. Jesus knew what was best for them, but what’s best isn’t always what’s easy and that’s not always well received.

I remember- and maybe some of you do too – being sick as a child and my mother saying to take a certain medicine that would make me well. She’d say it won’t taste good, but it will cure you. She was right; some of it was just revolting. In fact, I learned that if I held my nose before I swallowed, it wouldn’t taste quite so bad! It was awful, but it did cure the illness. Yet you know, not all children – or pets for that matter (including my cat) – are quite so compliant. They’ll hold their mouths shut so tightly that you need a crowbar to get it open. They know it’s going to taste horrid, so they will resist no matter what. It can become a real fight. And it’s not that the mother or parent wants to hurt the child – despite the angry words to the contrary – but that they want the child to get well. The mom knows the only way to cure the illness is to do what’s necessary.

It’s the same way for achieving any goal be it weight loss, an athletic accomplishment, renovating a house, academic achievement, or spiritual disciplines. These things take hard work and sacrifice and courage to keep at it day after day, week after week, year after year. It means standing firm in your commitment to do what’s necessary by keeping focused on the outcome. It’s understanding that opposition is a part of the journey and there will be people that try and stand in your way, but if the goal is worthy, then the suffering is not in vain.

And there will be suffering. No great achievement comes without suffering and sacrifice and that’s not easy to hear, but that is the truth that Jesus speaks to us. That’s the truth in Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem and for us today. He knows that many are not willing to hear the truth because it’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow, but it is the only thing that will set us free. Jesus spoke the truth in love, but often it was seen as too harsh, like go and sell everything you have and follow me, or you’re your enemies, or forgive seventy times seven. Jesus could have taken the easy path. He could have said the words people wanted to hear and been the kind of leader they wanted him to be, but that would not have been true to who he was and what he was called to do. So Jesus allowed himself to be vulnerable and courageous both at the same time. He was vulnerable in that he was willing to stop at nothing to protect us even if that meant death. He was equally courageous as he spoke the truth from his heart. We as Jesus’ followers are called to do the same.

It’s a courageous call that we all have as Jesus’ followers. It’s not for the weak of heart. And the temptation is to turn back. To tell people what they want to hear, to say yes to everything so as not to hurt someone’s feelings, or to just sit back and give up because the effort is too much for us. For anyone who has cared for children – whether your own or someone else’s – you know how hard it can be. Teachers who work long hard hours with little respect know it too. It’s easy to want to give up, but we need to follow the example of Jesus and not give up.

Being a disciple of Jesus can be hard because we are going against the grain of what society tells us. We’re told to seek the things we want rather than discern what God wants us to do. I know for myself, that doing what I believe God is leading me to do and speaking the words I feel called to speak are not always received with the grace and love in which they are intended. Sometimes being a pastor means saying things people don’t want to hear, even if it’s for the good of the whole church. We’re all comfortable with doing things the way we’ve always done them, and when someone suggests a different way it can ruffle some feathers. Instead of talking it out with the person, the temptation can be to talk about the person. But Jesus commands us to treat one another with the kind of love he has shown to us, and to not give up.

This congregation has been through a lot over the years – death, and more death, and sickness, and conflict and uncertainty. I know right now that many are concerned about finances, and this is causing a lot of anxiety. There’s an uncertainty about the future that can cause people to react in ways they normally wouldn’t, and a temptation to want to retreat to the way things used to be. But we hear in our readings today to “stand firm in the Lord” and God tells us through the prophets “do not be afraid…I am your shield.” We may be facing uncertainty in our congregation and uncertainty in other areas of our lives, but God is with us to give us courage and perseverance. God is our shield and protection, and will gather us under holy wings if we are open to be vulnerable to that embrace. When anxious times surround us, we can remain steadfast in the security of God’s faithfulness.

This week, as our Lenten journey continues, Jesus calls us to rely on the ever gracious and loving embrace of Jesus who gathers us together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. Jesus calls us to embrace one another with that same motherly love. If you are angry with someone go to them and be reconciled with one another, even if it’s me. And know that every day I am praying for each and every one of you and for this congregation.

Let us pray, O God you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen!

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A Wonderful Life

February 14, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 4:1-13

 

Today is the first Sunday in Lent so after service we are going to lock ourselves in our houses and not eat for 40 days. Okay, just kidding! But I did get your attention. And today’s gospel grabs our attention too. Right after Jesus was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil. Jesus didn’t eat at all during that time and it’s fair to say he was starving and exhausted. Yet he was led there for a sole purpose – to pray and prepare himself for the mission God had for him that he was about to begin.  Being weakened in body was the perfect time for the devil to try and get Jesus to give in to temptation. It was the perfect time to try and get Jesus to choose the easier path.

Luke’s temptation account reminds me of another story, my favorite movie called It’s a Wonderful Life. You may wonder what I am doing bringing up a Christmas story during Lent, but it’s more than just a Christmas story. It’s a story about character, temptation, prayer, and trust just like today’s gospel story. If you’ve ever seen the movie, you may wonder why the title is a wonderful life because the main character’s life is hardly what we would call wonderful. But the dictionary describes wonderful with words like amazing, astonishing, miraculous, divine, and pleasing. That’s something to think about as we look as the main character, George Bailey.

George was a man of great integrity. His life wasn’t easy and he made a lot of sacrifices for the people he loved. He wanted to go away to college and see the world, but he ended up staying in the small town of Bedford Falls where he grew up to run his father’s small savings and loan company so his brother could go to college first. George didn’t want to do that, but he put his family’s well-being and the well-being of the whole town ahead of what he wanted. He did the right thing no matter how hard it was, and the people in the town loved him…. except for Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter was the richest man in the town. He owned everything, but he didn’t use his wealth to help others. He got it through being dishonest and he didn’t care who he hurt to get what he wanted. But there was one person he couldn’t buy and that was George Bailey. Oh he tried all right. George really needed to earn more money for his family, and Potter figured if he wore him down enough George would eventually give in to the temptation of working for and being just as dishonest as Mr. Potter. It would have solved a lot of problems for George. It would have enabled him to provide financially for his family so they didn’t have to struggle so hard. And more money would have enabled him to help others in the community too.

But George didn’t cave in to Mr. Potter’s temptations – which led to more struggles – because George knew who he was and he knew who Potter was. George could see the truth and he trusted in that truth, the truth his father had taught him. That’s exactly what Jesus did when He was tempted by the devil. He trusted in the truth of God’s Word to see through the lies that the devil was trying to tempt him with. The devil was trying to get Jesus not to do something necessarily bad, but to make choices that would actually make things easier for him and others. If Jesus had turned the stones to bread, he could have not only fed himself, but so many other hungry people. Jesus had the power to do it and he very well could have. But Jesus trusted in the Word of God that says “one does not live by bread alone.”

Then the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms and offered to give them to him if he worshipped the devil. Jesus could have overthrown the oppressive Roman government that was taxing people to death. This would have done a lot of good for a lot of people, but again Jesus trusted in the relationship with His Father and said He would serve only God alone. Jesus came to earth with a specific mission from God and Jesus was determined to obey God no matter how tempting making other choices would have been.

The important thing notice in Luke’s account is that the devil repeatedly said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God” do these things. The more accurate translate is since you are the Son of God. You see, the devil knew that Jesus was the Son of God. He knew that Jesus had the power to do all these things and more. But he also knew that Jesus was also fully human, and as such, he was tired, and weak, and hungry,…….and easily persuaded at that point. And he was aware that Jesus was full of love and compassion for people, so it would have been tempting to help others and choose the easy road. Why do things God’s hard way, when it would be so much easier to do it my way? That was indeed a tempting question for Jesus and for all of us today.

It’s easy to be tempted to listen to the voices that urge us to do things the easy way even at the expense of the well-being of others. It’s easy to listen to the voices that tell us to care for ourselves and not the people that need our help like the homeless and refugees. It’s easy to listen to the voices that tell us to keep more money for ourselves and the things we want rather than as in the reading from Deuteronomy that tells us to give our first fruits to God. We are told to give to God first. That’s not an easy path to follow when we are constantly bombarded with voices that tell us to put ourselves first. Yet the example that Jesus gives us is to remember who we are – beloved and claimed by God – and to listen to God’s voice and follow God’s will because we, like Jesus, are filled with the Holy Spirit who is present to guide us.

Yesterday, our congregation once again hosted the annual Valentine’s Day Dinner/Auction to raise money to support the Northeastern Food Pantry. We could easily keep that money for needed money to run operations in the church, but we have been led by the Spirit to hear God’s word and feed the hungry. People may wonder then where the money will come to pay for the things the congregation needs to pay for, and the answer is to listen to God’s word. If we all put God first in our financial stewardship we will have more than enough to carry out God’s mission for this church. Following Christ and his call to listen to God’s word involves sacrifice, but it is not sacrifice that is in vain. If our lives give glory to God then we are living as Spirit-filled disciples.

Today we install the council of this congregation who are charged to live as Spirit-filled disciples. They are charged to pray and seek God’s will for this congregation and not their own. They are charged to work for unity within this congregation and not divisiveness. They are charged to be examples of Christ-like living in regular worship, stewardship, study of Scripture, and servant leadership. They are charged to listen to God’s voice for the direction of this congregation and resist the voices of temptation that want things to be easier rather than glorifying to God.

Our biggest temptations are those things that try and get us to doubt God’s trust-worthiness. They are those things that make us think that God is not going to take care of us, that God is not with us, that God has abandoned us. When we worry about our health, our jobs, our families, our finances, the weather, the economy, or whatever the case may be – we are essentially not trusting that God will take care of us. It’s normal as humans to be concerned about these things, but the temptation is in letting those thoughts or worries consume us. The question is what can we do?

Jesus has taught us by His example of prayer. We are not in control. God is in control and we need to trust that God will be faithful to the promises made to us in Scripture. Prayer reminds us of these promises. Prayer keeps our focus on God and not ourselves. Jesus was able to resist the temptations of the devil because he had been praying the whole time he was in the wilderness. He may have been starving and physically exhausted, but he was strong spiritually. That is what prayer does; it builds us up by bringing us closer to God. And when we are connected to God, we are more connected to each other. We are stronger together than we are apart.

We go to God first to seek answers to our questions and commit our lives to follow the Holy Spirit rather than our own will. And that is how the character George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life, was able to resist the temptations of Mr. Potter – a modern day devil. George Bailey prayed, his family prayed and his friends prayed. The movie began with all the prayers for George being lifted up to heaven and it ended when those prayers were answered in a most unexpected way. George prayed, “Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way… show me the way.” Like Jesus, following God’s will instead of his own didn’t lead to an easy life for George Bailey, but it led to a wonderful life, an astonishing life, a life lived in pleasing God.

During this Lenten season let’s ask God to show us the way through constant prayer. Like Jesus, like George Bailey, and like countless faithful witnesses across the ages, we will be strengthened to trust in God’s promises. We don’t have to lock ourselves in our houses and fast for 40 days, but if we pray faithfully and continually for 40 days, I guarantee we will be changed individually and as a congregation. Amen!

A Glimpse of Eternity

February 7, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 9:28-43a

 

This past week rostered leaders in our synod gathered to discuss the meaning of Sabbath and what it means to keep this commandment holy. Ever since Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, people have been committing them to memory. Most of us first learned them in Sunday School, and then confirmation class (as our youth are doing now). But the learning doesn’t end there and we need to keep going back to them because they were given to us not to make our lives hard, but as a gift to keep us focused on God. Keeping the Sabbath holy seems to be a really hard commandment to keep for everyone, and we have to ask ourselves why. Why is it so hard to set aside at least one day a week where our focus is totally on God and who we are in relationship with God?

The common answer seems to be that people are much more busy these days than they used to be. Adults are working long hours, children are involved not only in school activities, but extracurricular sports and involvement in other groups like band, scouting, and other interests. I hear from adults and youth alike that there doesn’t seem to be any down time. People are overworked, overextended, and overtired. It’s leading to burnout, addictions, and physical illness, and it’s leaving little time for gathering to worship God and for receiving God’s gift of Sabbath rest.

But I wonder if things really are that much harder today than they were decades and centuries ago? Today – especially in our country – we have so many modern conveniences that make our lives easier. Instead of washing our clothes by hand, we have washing machines. Rather than having to hang our clothes out on a clothes line, we have dryers – some that even enable your clothes to come out wrinkle free. (I need one of those!) We have access to the internet to get information at our fingertips instead of having to walk or drive to libraries. Cars and public transportation make traveling wherever we go much quicker. And that’s not to mention the countless other modern conveniences that are available to us. For those watching football games today, the tv remote will most likely be the most used modern convenience.

Yet for many in our country, and around the world, these conveniences are not available. And they certainly weren’t available or even a possibility when Jesus lived here on earth. In the middle eastern region where he lived it’s estimated that on average Jesus walked about 20 – 25 miles per day. He and the disciples didn’t have access to modern refrigerators, ovens, or modern indoor plumbing. People worked hard – really hard – to live day to day. Taking a day off as Sabbath was just as much of a big deal as it is today. The difference is not in the amount of time one has, but in prioritizing our time. It’s making a choice to put God first before everything else.

Jesus lived his life as a perfect example of this. He was constantly preaching and teaching. He listened to people, engaged in serious theological conversations with them, was involved in their lives, and made time to be present when something needed to be done, when healing was in order. Yet Jesus’ first priority was to do the will of God and in order to do that Jesus had to be in constant prayer. Jesus had to listen to what the Spirit was calling him to do. He had to listen to what direction the Spirit was moving him to next. He had to listen to make sure he was walking the steps that would lead to God rather than his own way. In order to do that he had to get away, to spend long periods of time in prayer, to enter into Sabbath and keep it holy or wholly with his entire being. Jesus didn’t just think about God, Jesus was in total relationship with God. By keeping Sabbath Jesus was not just focused on God, but he was totally immersed in the presence of God. And that changed him.

That’s what Peter, James, and John saw that day on the mountain when Jesus went up to pray. They saw him changed from the person they were used to being with, transformed into someone they barely recognized, and transfigured into the very image of a light that nearly blinded them. They saw the light of Jesus’ authenticity. In that moment, they saw who Jesus really was. They saw a glimpse of eternity. All of that was a result of Jesus’ communion with God through prayer. Jesus was transfigured through the life-giving power of Sabbath. That is what God intended Sabbath to be for all of us, a life-giving glimpse of eternity.

Maybe that’s why deep down Sabbath is hard for us to keep. We’re blinded by the light of what is revealed to us in our Sabbath time. We’ve forgotten who we really are and we can’t even recognize our authentic selves. We see a glimpse of eternity, a vision of the greatness of God, and instead of reveling in that wonder and majesty we can be overshadowed by the voices of our own inadequacies. But God tells us to go there, to enter into the Sabbath, and to hear the voice of truth, God’s voice, that tells us we too are God’s beloved. And when we stay there long enough to let that fill us up, we can then see ourselves and others in the light of God’s glory. We can then see a glimpse of the vision that God has for all people – a vision of love and peace.

And once you witness and experience that glimpse of eternity, you don’t want it to end. Peter certainly didn’t. He wanted it to last forever. He wanted to freeze that moment -to suspend time – so that he could witness eternity forever. But Sabbath is not meant to be eternity, but only a glimpse, a glimpse that transfigures us into the likeness of God, just like Jesus, so that renewed and strengthened we can show forth the glory of God to others through our true and authentic selves. Sabbath time changes the way we see things. It changes the way we see ourselves and the way we see others. It clears our vision to see from God’s perspective. It opens our ears to hear God’s voice and not the voices of doubt and fear that try to overshadow us. Taking time for Sabbath reveals who we truly are and whose we truly are – beloved children of God, followers of Jesus Christ, and empowered disciples through the Holy Spirit.

This kind of power can’t be contained. It wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to be shared, revealed, and experienced by everyone. People are waiting to experience this glimpse of eternity and we as the church are commanded like Moses to bring it down off the mountain. We’re sent like Jesus to heal the brokenhearted, the poor, the oppressed, and to set the captives free through living lives of love and grace and mercy like Jesus. We bring the glory of the mountaintop, the glory revealed in Sabbath to those who need to experience it.

Today we celebrate Scout Sunday, and give thanks to God for their witness in the world. Scouts see the challenges in our society and promise to do something about them. They promise to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, and clean. They acknowledge that if they respect themselves and their brothers and sisters, and see them as gifts of the goodness of God, they live on a higher plane. They are acknowledging that mountaintop experience. The Scouts live as a group of people committed to being examples of living as God wants them to live through caring for others and God’s creation. They are bringing God’s vision for the world to those around them. And today we are grateful for the Scouts in our community and the charter we have with them, and we are grateful they are with us in worship here today.

What better place to do this than in our weekly worship services where people are longing to experience a glimpse of eternity. We’re all longing to filled with joy; longing to sample a foretaste of the feast to come. Gathered together at God’s table in Holy Communion we can experience that and be forgiven and transformed. That is what our congregational worship can bring to people, a glimpse of eternity to start our week. And we can come back each week to experience it again. We need this week after week because living as Jesus’ disciples isn’t always easy. We, like Jesus, pray to God to direct our steps, yet if we listen carefully our steps, like Jesus’, lead to the cross. That’s not an easy road to travel, but the cross is not the end. The cross leads to resurrection. With a weekly glimpse of eternity through entering into Sabbath, we are transfigured into the likeness of Jesus to walk with grace and light. May we like Jesus keep the Sabbath wholly – with our whole beings – hold that vision of eternity with us in Sabbath moments each day, and be the light of Christ to others. Amen!