Watching, Waiting, and Reaching Out

Sunday, May 28, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Acts 1:6-14 & John 17:1-11

 

There are 50 days in the season of Easter. Today is the 7th Sunday of Easter, and we continue to celebrate the joy of the resurrection. We sing alleluias. We proclaim Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed! This season of Easter will end next Sunday on Pentecost when we celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit to all.  We are almost there, but not yet. So we wait.

This past Thursday was the feast of the Ascension, when –as we heard in our first reading from the book of Acts – Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of the apostle’s sight.  Jesus had promised he would return. He also promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to be with us always. The messengers assured them of this, yet the apostles stood there looking up toward heaven waiting for Jesus to return. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Jesus will return, but not yet. The apostles had to wait. Waiting, it’s one of the hardest things of all, isn’t it?

Humans aren’t generally good at waiting. We are anxious to have the things we want right away. Parties, holidays, and family get – togethers, are all things we look forward to, and we can’t wait to begin the celebrations. Then, when we return to our every-day activities, we wait for the next celebration. And if we live far away from family and friends, the waiting is harder, yet we look forward with eager anticipation.

There are other times we wait with dread instead of anticipation. We wait for test results to come back, for results from treatments, for goals to be achieved, for things to turn around, and the waiting at times is so incredibly hard. We can do our best to facilitate movement, but there are often things that are out of our control. There’s a point where we just have to wait, and that is not always easy. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, “To everything there is a season…” and though we may intellectually know this is true, it’s still hard to wait. So what do we do in this in-between time? What do we do in the periods of waiting?

The answer to that question makes all the difference in the world. We can either use the period of waiting as a challenge to overcome or an opportunity to transform. If we see the times of waiting as a challenge or burden we may sink into despair. We may act in ways that are harmful to ourselves or others, arguing with one another out of a sense of fear or power. If however, we use the times of waiting as opportunities to allow God to strengthen us and transform us, we will be open to new possibilities and new ways of seeing the ways God is at work in our lives, and in the world. Periods of waiting don’t mean that nothing is happening. It may be that things are changing far below the surface – like seeds germinating just under the soil – and if we just wait long enough we will see the plants rise from the darkness to the light. The important thing to remember is not to be paralyzed in the in-between time.

That was the question the messengers asked the apostles. “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” In other words, are you going to stand there paralyzed? What are you going to actually do since you know Jesus will return? That question was just what they needed to snap them out of complacency, and they went to gather with the other apostles and devoted themselves to prayer waiting for the Holy Spirit.

Prayer is one of the most important things we can do. It’s not a last resort when things don’t go our way. Prayer is a way of living. It’s the means by which we stay connected to God. In our gospel reading from John today – which is a flashback before Jesus was arrested and crucified – Jesus was praying. He prayed all the time. On this particular night- hours before he was going to be arrested and killed – he prayed not for another way, but he prayed for us. He prayed that we would all be one, just as Jesus and the Father, and the Holy Spirit are all one. Jesus prayed this because he knew he was leaving this world. He knew that no matter what trials or challenges come our way, if we are united with each other we will not just endure, but thrive. Right before this prayer, Jesus told the disciples, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage, I have conquered the world!” Then, after Jesus had spoken these words to the disciples, he looked up to heaven and prayed. Jesus knows that we will face tough times. He knows that we will have heartbreaks. He knows that we will be tempted to despair. That is why he prayed for us.

He prayed that we will all be one, because together we can lift each other up. Together we can remind each other – just like the heavenly messengers – that we can’t just stand there looking up for Jesus to return. We have work that he has for us. We need to continue his ministry of caring for the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, the alien, and the disenfranchised. We need to continue his ministry of compassion, and mercy, and healing. We need to continue his ministry of drawing all people to him through living lives that exude love and grace. Jesus is coming again, and as Jesus said, no one knows when that will be. In the meantime, we wait not by standing around looking up, looking down, or looking in, but by showing others that Jesus is alive through the way we live our lives.

This week, let us listen to the heavenly messengers. Let’s not just look up while we wait, let’s reach out. Let’s reach out with the love of Jesus and listen to each other. Let’s reach out with the heart of Jesus and forgive one another. Let’s reach out with the passion of Jesus and advocate for justice and freedom for all people. Reaching out to be instruments of peace. Jesus prayed that we may all be one. Let’s be one in mission reaching out in Christ’s love and grace. Amen.

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The True Promise of Abundance

Sunday, May 7, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 10:1-10

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up. I’ve got something for you that’s going to change your life! Do you have aches and pains? Do you have bruises and scars? Do you have trouble seeing right? Well, step right up and get this tonic because it’s going to take away all your troubles.  That’s right; this special tonic is going to cure whatever is troubling you.  You’ll be as good as new.  It’s helped hundreds of people already. It’s guaranteed to work.  You have my word on it. I promise.”

These and similar words were spoken by hundreds of dishonest salesmen in the early 1900’s. They soon came to be known as snake oil salesman. And that wasn’t a compliment. Snake oil salesmen were individuals who would go around and sell some crazy concoction – saying it was healing snake oil-  and promise people that it would cure whatever was wrong with them. The problem was that it was all a lie. They were taking advantage of people. Telling them what they wanted to hear. They didn’t care about the people who were being cheated out of their money to buy this nonsense. They only cared about themselves.

You might wonder how they thought up such a scheme. Well, like most lies, it was based on a little bit of truth. In the 1800’s Chinese immigrants came to the United States to work on the railroad. It was hard, back breaking work. The Chinese have been known for thousands of years to treat illnesses with natural herbs. They actually made oil from the Chinese water snake, which is high in omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation. In fact, doctors today urge people to eat a diet high in omega-3 acids to help reduce inflammation and heart disease. The Chinese laborers used to use this special oil to treat arthritis and bursitis and aching joints from working on the railroad. When Americans found out about this they wanted to make their own versions. So they thought they could use the rattlesnake.  However, their versions of this ancient Chinese medicine they were trying to duplicate didn’t work. It didn’t work because rattlesnakes are not Chinese water snakes, and so they ended up using other kinds of animal fat, red pepper, and even turpentine. As you can imagine. This didn’t heal anyone, and even ended up making some people sick. These salesmen were greedy, and tried to imitate something by cheating and lying in order to make money. They were thieves and bandits.

We still have snake oil salesmen today. No, they aren’t trying to sell us snake oil, but they are trying to sell people something that isn’t beneficial to anyone but themselves.  If you look at any number of commercials or magazine ads, they are trying to sell us a false sense of security. “Buy this pill and all your troubles will be gone.” They don’t however, mention all the side effects. Or buy this product and you’re guaranteed to lose weight fast. There are any number of products these snake oil salesmen are trying to sell people to give them whatever their hearts desire.  Just recently I saw that a major store is selling jeans with fake dirt on them – yes, fake dirt for anywhere from $450.00 – $800.00 for fake dirt, so you’ll look like you were out in nature, without actually having to get dirty. And why would anyone spend that kind of money for fake dirt? Because the voice they hear tells them they’ll be part of the in crowd. And people more than anything else want a sense of love and belonging. But all these products and all these voices are not able to deliver real belonging or security. These voices are nothing but empty promises.

That’s what Jesus is addressing in our gospel lessen. In the previous chapter of John’s gospel – chapter 9 – that we read several weeks ago – Jesus heals a man born blind from birth. Only when Jesus healed the man, no one believed that it was true. They thought that it was some kind of trick or hoax, much like the acts from these traveling salesmen.  So the leaders of the religious community kicked this man who was born blind and now healed, out of their faith community. When he was blind they wouldn’t take care of him, and now that he could see they didn’t want anything to do with him either. Yet Jesus went back and found him and invited him to be his disciple. Jesus promised this man security- real love and belonging – when everyone else failed him. Our gospel lesson today is a continuation of that healing event. Jesus is addressing the religious leaders and the others who did not want to take care of this man, but instead told people that they could enter into God’s kingdom by following rules that didn’t help the poor, oppressed, and rejected. They were putting up gates to keep certain people out, instead of using the gates to let them in. Jesus called them thieves and bandits.

Yet Jesus isn’t just addressing the Pharisees and leaders of long ago, but He is addressing us today. Jesus uses a couple of metaphors to describe himself. He says he is the Gate, and the Good Shepherd. Jesus says that he is the gate, by which the sheep – God’s people – enter. Jesus invites people in. He does not push people away. And it isn’t just a certain group of people. It isn’t people who all think the same, or act the same. Jesus says, “ 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 on flock, one shepherd.” Jesus wants all people to enter through him – the gate – so they will all be together in him as one community – one flock. The gate is to keep Jesus’ flock together, so they will be safe. And the gate is flexible. The gate keeps the sheep in at night where they are safe with the shepherd, and the gate opens in the morning to let the sheep go out to pasture.  Jesus is the gate that draws us all in to his place of safety, and then Jesus sends us out while providing for us with everything we need. Jesus – the gate – is a passage to abundant life.

Jesus says that He is the Good Shepherd, unlike those who don’t truly care for anyone but themselves. Jesus always has our best interest at heart. Jesus compares us to sheep, by saying that we like sheep need to be cared for. We need someone to guide us who is trustworthy and won’t merely tell us what we want to hear, but what we need to hear. Jesus will not tell us lies in order to deceive us and harm us. He doesn’t tell us that following him will lead to a life of ease, but that He will be with us through our joys and our sorrows. Jesus’ voice is the voice of truth, and if we stay together with him as one community listening to his voice, we will recognize his voice from the other voices – those snake oil salesmen – who try and deceive us in order to get what they want.

Jesus said that he came that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” What does abundant life look like to Jesus? It’s not having everything we want, because the problem with that is that we always want more. And sometimes the things we think we want aren’t really good for us. Abundant life is having what we need, and sharing with others so they have what they need. It’s seeking first the kingdom of God. It’s knowing that if we have Jesus in our life we have everything. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will never lead us astray. The promises Jesus makes are true and they are never broken. Jesus’ abundant life is one of real protection, real freedom, real sustenance, real joy, and real peace that is beyond all understanding. The abundant life that Jesus promises and offers is a life of resurrection. Abundant life in Jesus is a life that transforms us to being more like Jesus, loving more like Jesus, and living more like Jesus. Abundant life in Jesus is not an empty promise. It is a guarantee, because Jesus laid down his life in order that we would live.

So what are you waiting for? Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up. God has something for you that’s going to change your life- His name is Jesus! And we receive Him this morning in Holy Communion. Do you have aches and pains?  Jesus is walking right beside you. Do you have bruises and scars?  Jesus’ scars from the cross gave you salvation.   Do you have trouble seeing right?  Look at people through Jesus’ eyes and you will see them and love them all like He does.  Trust in Jesus – the Gate, the Good Shepherd – because He’s the one to go to when you have trouble. That’s right, Jesus can cure whatever is troubling your soul. In fact, at your baptism he made you as good as new.  He’s healed millions of people already, through his life, death, and resurrection.  Death has been defeated; He guaranteed it. Jesus rose from the dead! He’s alive!  His promises are true, and life in him is abundant life. Follow Jesus, live in His promise, and share this great news with others. Amen.

Do You See Jesus?

Sunday, April 30, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 24:13-35

 

There’s nothing like a nice long walk to clear your mind. Cleopas and his friend were heading north – about 7 miles northwest of Jerusalem to be exact – to the small insignificant town of Emmaus. Emmaus was known as the place of warm springs or hot baths. Maybe they could soak their troubles away. It was the 3rd day after the horrible crucifixion and they were filled with sadness and disappointment. Why did Jesus have to die? As they walked that dusty, stony parched road, that’s all they could talk about.

Why? Why did this have to happen? They asked each other. What are we going to do now? It doesn’t make any sense, especially today. Those women are delirious! Said one of them. They remembered calling the women’s story of the resurrection an “idle tale.” Their conversation on the road continued.  I mean, I’d love nothing more than to believe Jesus is alive too, said Cleopas.  But, the tomb is empty? Empty? Where is Jesus’ body? And angels? Angels, Cleopas? Really? Don’t you think if Jesus was alive we’d see Him? I can’t take any more of this Cleopas! I just can’t take any more! Do you see Jesus?

And so they continued on their walk, feeling depressed, and hopeless, and lost because things had not worked out according to their plans. But now someone joins them on their walk and asks why they are so upset.  Really? They exclaim.  Have you been in a cave or something that you don’t know what’s happened? (Well, actually this stranger has been in a cave – a tomb – but they don’t recognize who they are talking to.) So Cleopas and his friend tell this apparent stranger all about Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion and about the empty tomb. They tell their story. And then the stranger tells them His story. He explains the Scriptures with boldness and confidence. He tells them why it was necessary for all these things to happen. It was necessary because God loved the world so much that God was not going to let sin and death destroy all people. Jesus died on the cross so all people could have eternal life. And while Jesus is talking to them they are captivated. The Scriptures come alive and they come alive. Their hearts are “on fire” with excitement and they don’t want it to end.

Haven’t you ever been in the company of a great story-teller? Someone who is so engaging that you cling to every word? Someone so captivating that you lost track of time? Or maybe it was a movie that drew you in and you were on the edge of your seat. You planned to watch a few minutes and before you know it you watched the whole movie because you just couldn’t tear yourself away. That’s the way it was with Cleopas and his friend. They were drawn in to the greatest story ever told and they had no idea what was happening. They were on the road to Emmaus trying to get away from their pain. All they could see were their troubles. They were trying to find some comfort, but Comfort found them in the person of Jesus – only they didn’t recognize him.

And here we are, the third Sunday after Easter and we’re walking our own road to Emmaus. Maybe we’re not headed toward an insignificant village on a dusty, stony road, but perhaps we’re trying to get away from our own kind of pain. We too have heard that the tomb is empty, but so are many of our hearts. We’re still dealing with illness, disease, broken relationships, poverty, and death. The tomb is empty but so are the tables of many who have nothing to eat, or nowhere to live, or no one to call them friend. Maybe our hearts are burning, but they’re burning with anger or hatred or hunger. What kind of hunger? Is it a hunger for justice or a hunger for revenge? Is it a hunger for Jesus or a hunger for something else to satisfy our deepest desires? What are we looking for, and do we realize that no one can satisfy our hunger but Jesus? Nothing can fill the void but God.

So how do we see Jesus through everything that is going on in our daily lives? Where is Jesus in the midst of our turmoil and pain? If the tomb is empty, where – like the question of Cleopas and his friend – is Jesus? He’s right beside us only we don’t always recognize Him either. We too are lost in our own conversations, and inner dialogues that we can’t see who it is talking to us.  We can’t hear God speaking to us because we don’t always want to hear what God is saying. We want God to make life easier even though God never promised us that life would be easy. What God has promised is that God will always be with us. And God is faithful to those promises.

There are many ways in which God comes to us and most often it’s through other people. Jesus comes to us on our journeys as well. We don’t have to go crazy looking for Him, He is right here with us. So often when I find myself feeling lost or alone Jesus walks up next to me by an unexpected phone call from a friend. Sometimes it’s an email, or a card in the mail, or a cashier at the store who is particularly helpful, or a smile from a stranger. Who knows how much gospel is exchanged between smiles. And sometimes it’s in the beauty of a song, or a poem, or laugher, or the open arms of a hug when there’s nothing words can say. God uses the ordinary to reveal the Divine.

The two on the road to Emmaus that day recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread and that’s where we can find Him too. He is most present in the breaking of the bread. We come on Sunday mornings not to remember the Lord’s Supper, but to participate in it. Communion is not just ordinary bread and wine. It is significant. It is the true presence of Jesus Christ who suffered and died and rose for each one of us. When we hear the words The Body of Christ given for you and the Blood of Christ shed for you, they aren’t just words. Jesus is here, hidden in the ordinary things, yet visible through the eyes of faith.  Jesus is alive.

I’ll never forget one Sunday when a couple and their young son who were originally from India came to our church and when it was time for Communion they walked up to the front with no shoes. The next few Sundays I continued to pay attention and every time before they went up for Communion they took off their shoes. I was moved, because like Moses when he encountered God in the burning bush, they were acknowledging that this was Holy Ground. They recognized that Jesus was truly present in the bread and the wine. And every time we receive the bread and wine in Communion we are in the presence of the living God. Are our hearts not on fire too?

We don’t have to look for Jesus; Jesus comes to us. And because His Spirit dwells within us we can be that comfort to one another. We can be Christ for others. No one has to walk the difficult roads of life alone. Reach out and pray for one another. Share a word of hope and comfort. Step out of your comfort zone and get to know someone who is different from you and show them the love of Christ.  Share Christ’s hope and peace with them.  Forgive one another and pray that your enemies will become friends. Turn around. Do you see Jesus? He’s right here. Amen.