Astonished, Challenged, and Healed

Sunday, January 28, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Mark 1:21-28

If you were going to introduce someone to God how would you do it? What kind of advertisement would you invent? What would it look like? What would it say? What words would you use? The writer of psalm 111 uses a lot of descriptive words to describe God: gracious, compassionate, just, holy, awesome, powerful. It’s that last word that holds a lot of weight. Power is a precarious thing. It can be used for the greatest good, or can be a source to destroy. Anyone who holds power has a huge responsibility on how they use that power. Sometimes, the more power someone has, the greater the temptation is to use that power for their own good instead of the good of all.

Our lesson from Mark’s gospel today tells the story of just such an encounter with power and authority. It begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue, and he taught with such power and authority that everyone was astounded at his teaching. They were astounded – surprised, overwhelmed, even confused. That’s certainly the mark of a great teacher! What Mark doesn’t tell us in his gospel is what exactly Jesus said. Don’t you wish you could go back in time and be a fly on the wall to hear what he said – to experience for yourself just what it was that he said and did to make everyone so astonished? Maybe we can’t go back in time, but our story from Mark doesn’t end there, and gives us an example of perhaps what it was that Jesus might have been talking about. Because what happened next is prettying amazing as well…..

A man with an unclean spirit starts making a loud scene in the synagogue.  Right in the middle of the service – maybe when Jesus was preaching and teaching – a man cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Most preachers want feedback from their sermons – an Amen, a shout out – but not that kind! Right in the middle of Jesus’ teaching, he receives quite a challenge. Someone who’s afflicted with some kind of unholy spirit is challenging Jesus’ power. This person knows Jesus has power. He knows Jesus has enough power to destroy. So Jesus is faced with three options.

First, he can retreat from the challenge altogether. Jesus could have just ignored the man. He could have gone on preaching and teaching in the hopes that maybe he would just go away. And that would certainly be an option that many people might choose. When faced with a really challenging situation like that, it’s tempting to just hope it will go away. It’s tempting to just ignore bad or evil behavior because it’s easier. It’s easier than confronting it because it may involve personal risk, but is ignoring it the right thing to do?

Second, Jesus could respond to the man in the same manner. Jesus could start yelling back. He could point out how much power he holds and that all he has to do is say the word and the man would be destroyed, obliterated. Jesus could react to this man’s outburst with even more anger and hatred.

Third, Jesus could continue with God’s original mission or plan for him with even more intensity and passion. Jesus could use this as an opportunity to put into practice what he was just preaching and teaching. This option requires a lot more courage and commitment. It might just make everyone’s head spin, just like his new teachings. Is it worth the risk? Apparently, Jesus thought so.

So, what did Jesus do? Jesus didn’t ignore the unclean or evil spirit that was causing trouble. Jesus faced it. He called it out – literally. And in doing so, Jesus chose the path of peace over the path of violence. Jesus could have used his power to destroy, but instead Jesus chose to use his power to heal not destroy, to rescue not send away, to free not enslave. Jesus chose to use his power to give life instead of taking it away. He used his power to restore the man who was held captive by that unclean spirit and restore him to a life of community. That’s real power. That’s amazing power. That’s the kind of power that had people shaking their heads and asking, “What is this?” “What is going on?” This was a whole different way of using power and authority.

We need that kind of power and authority today because we’re all possessed by unclean spirits of various kinds. All of us in our society, in our country, in our world, are possessed by a spirit of violence, exploitation, greed, racism, discrimination, and fear. We need the power of God to free us from these things that try and rob us from living the life of abundance and peace that God wants for us. We need God’s saving and healing power.

And the good news is that Jesus offers us that gift of healing and redemption over and over again. When we confess our sins and repent and turn back to God, we are restored again to a close relationship with God and with one another. God doesn’t want anyone left on the margins. God doesn’t want anyone to be tossed aside. God longs to bring healing and wholeness to everyone.

Jesus responded to the challenge of violence with love, and we are called to do the same. Our God is an awesome God, and God has been revealed to us in Jesus, who has modeled for us how we are to help bring about the kingdom of God. We are God’s advertisements. People look to us as Christians to see how we will react to these challenges put before us today, and there are so many. There are too many people using their power to divide and threaten and abuse their power over others. The challenge before us today is how will we use the power of the Holy Spirit given to us in our baptism? Will we stay on the course of the mission God has for us individually and as a congregation to bring about the kingdom of God – a kingdom full of love and compassion and justice for all? That’s the question this story asks us today. There are so many ways we can use the power given to us, and Jesus shows us the greatest path. It is the path of non-violence, compassion, love, and justice for all.  May the power of God’s Holy Spirit work in us to bring peace on earth. Amen.

 

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A Fishing Expedition

Sunday, January 21, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Mark 1:14-20

“Space. The final Frontier. These are the voyagers of the Starship Enterprise. It’s 5 year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Anyone who has ever watched Star Trek will be familiar with these words. They are a mission statement of the crew on the spaceship. They chart a course and investigate the planet and its surroundings. They have a mission and they have a plan. And so they go off on expeditions. They don’t always know what kind of situation they will find themselves in. They could be walking into danger, but they go anyway. They follow their calling, their mission.

In last week’s gospel Jesus called two disciples, Phillip and Nathaniel, and today we hear in Mark’s gospel that he has just called four more. Jesus is calling people to follow him and the surprising thing is that they immediately stop what they are doing and follow him. They hear his voice and he compels them to change what they are currently doing and follow go in a completely different direction. What’s even more surprising is that like the crew from the Starship Enterprise they are being called to follow into the great unknown. They too will explore strange new worlds, new lands. They will go into Gentile territory; they will go into enemy territory, and spread the good news. The disciples have no idea what they are getting into. They too could be walking into danger. John the Baptist has just been imprisoned, so they know they may suffer because of their association with Jesus. They don’t know what lies ahead, but they go anyway. Jesus is inviting them to a fishing expedition, but it’s not the kind of fishing trip they usually go on.

No, Jesus tells them, “I will make you fish for people.” More accurately he tells them, “I will make you to become fishers for people.” Jesus is not calling them to do something; he is calling them to become something. He is calling them to become more than who they currently are. The disciples had ordinary jobs like fishermen and yet they were created by God to be more than just people who earn a living. They were created with a purpose. They were created in the image of God and Jesus was calling them to live into that being. Maybe that’s why they immediately left what they were doing. It wasn’t that they didn’t enjoy what they were doing, but they heard in Jesus’ voice the opportunity to become even more than they were. They may not have understood what that meant, but they were excited at the possibility to become fishers for people.

What does that mean? It’s an odd statement isn’t it? Jesus wasn’t telling them to catch people in a net like they would fish was he? No, he was inviting them to learn how to gather people together. Jesus was inviting the disciples to learn from him how to gather people together like a school of fish and teach them about the kingdom of God. He was inviting them to learn how to share with others that “the kingdom of God has come near.” And just as Jesus did not have to bait the disciples into following him, they did not have to bait or trick people to get them to hear the good news. They only had to speak the truth of promise and hope as Jesus did to the disciples and the people would gather. They would come as quickly as fish would come to feed. They would gather together in multitudes. Enough that their nets would be overflowing.

Now that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be problems as these fish gather together. It doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be a feeding frenzy, because as fish gather together in great numbers, they can become aggressive for food – the temptation is always there to want to get more for themselves individually, and get their own way. And Jesus’ words don’t always reassure or comfort us. Sometimes they challenge us to do things we’d rather not do, and to face things about us that we need to change. But Jesus’ words of truth are always words that lead to life and wholeness.

And Jesus is calling us today to live into this life of wholeness as his disciples. He is calling us to learn to become more than we currently are. He is calling us to live into the fullness of all that God created us to be. Jesus called the disciples to become fishers for people because they were already fishermen. He wanted them to use the gifts they were given to the glory of God and not just to earn money to live. He was calling them to cast their nets bigger, to think bigger than what they were used to. Their gifts could be used to lead others into a better life, a life of purpose and meaning found in following Jesus.

What are the gifts that God has given to us and how are we using them for the glory of God? If Mark were to write the gospel today perhaps we would hear him say that Jesus called some to be sew-ers for people, because they like to sew. Or maybe there would be singers for people, and artists for people. There might be farmers for people, administrators for people, nurses for people, teachers for people, bakers for people, or even yoga instructors for people. Hey, we all could learn to be a little more flexible and not just physically! Yes, Jesus is calling us to use whatever gifts we have to lead others to God. Jesus is saying that life is more than just earning a paycheck, but life is about relationships – with God and with people. That is our mission.

Next week we will be having our annual meeting, a time to see what God has accomplished through Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in the past year, and discern what God is calling us to do next. I hope you’re all planning on being there because our annual meeting is a time to look at the budget not as a spreadsheet of salaries and figures, but as a mission plan, a visible way to see how God is working through us to accomplish God’s mission.  The numbers in our budget reflect how we have provided worship opportunities, pastoral care, Christian education, outreach, evangelism, social ministry, and social justice. It reflects how we have ministered to people and that is cause to celebrate. Our annual report is a way we can see the many ways Good Shepherd Lutheran Church makes a difference in this community. It’s a time when we can begin to think about all the gifts that God has blessed us with and prayerfully listen to how God may be calling us to use those gifts in ways we never imagined. The Holy Spirit can cast the net even wider and deeper than we ever could if we are willing to abandon our small boats, surrender our wills, and follow Jesus. He is calling us to be disciples.

Like the first disciples we may not always know where we are headed, but Jesus tells us -as he did them – to dream big. He tells us to stop trying to go after the little fish, to stop focusing on the things that really don’t matter – those little annoyances that pull us away from focusing on God’s will- for we are called to be more than that. We don’t have time to waste because the kingdom of God is here. That is what truly matters.

God has used this congregation to do so many wonderful things in the lives of people here, in our community and even around the world, and God has even bigger things in store for the coming year. Imagine what would happen if we just left our nets – the way we always do things – and let the Holy Spirit guide our actions! Imagine how we’d be changed if we didn’t let fear get in our way! Imagine the miracles that might be unleashed if instead of worrying about what could go wrong, we believed in the possibilities!

“Faith. The final Frontier. These are the voyagers of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. Its mission: to explore strange new possibilities, to seek out new life and new disciples, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” It’s not a bad mission statement, especially when God is in charge of the expedition. May the Holy Spirit lead us forth with a bold and courageous faith. Amen!

Come and See

Sunday, January 14, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
John 1:43-51

“Come and see.” Children love to grab the people they love by the hand and show them what they made. Whether it’s a drawing, or something molded out of clay, or a lop-sided cake that they made themselves, they are excited to show it off. Or maybe it’s a gift they received for their birthday or Christmas. They can’t wait to see the look on someone’s face when they see that great thing. And so they seek out someone so they can say, “Come and see.” Come and see this great thing!”

And that doesn’t change as we become adults. We go on a vacation and we want to show off the pictures. We receive a gift or get a new car, or a new house, or a new haircut and we can’t wait to show it off and say, “Come and see!” It’s exciting and we want to share that excitement with other people. We don’t want to keep it hidden. In fact, it’s almost impossible to do that, because we are just bursting to share the news. When something makes us that happy we just can’t contain ourselves.

We feel that way about friends too and people who are close to us. We want to introduce them to the other people in our lives. This new person is now a part of our inner circle. They bring joy to our life, and we want to share that with the people we love. People were created to be in community. No one can live a healthy happy life without relationships. We need interactions with other people. They show us who they are and reflect back to us who we are. People need other people and when someone means a lot to us we want to introduce them to others, just like Phillip in today’s story.

Phillip couldn’t wait to invite Nathanael to meet Jesus. After just been called by Jesus to follow him, Phillip now invited Nathanael to come and meet Jesus. Phillip believed that Jesus was the one they had been waiting for. He was the fulfillment of the prophesies of Moses and the prophets. Phillip was overwhelmed with gratitude that Jesus had called him. And now he wanted to invite Nathanael too.

But Nathaniel was doubtful. Why? Why on earth he wondered would he go and meet Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter from Nazareth. Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was an ordinary town and Joseph and Mary were just ordinary people. What would make Jesus so different?

We hear similar words today from individuals insulting certain countries or groups. “Can anything good come out of…………name the place? But God’s goodness is found in the places people reject, perhaps especially in those places. Phillip knew that and was insistent. He didn’t want his friend to just take his word for it, so he said, “Come and see.”

Phillip could have spent a lot of time explaining why he believed Jesus was the one that they had been waiting for. He could have engaged in long arguments with Phillip as to Jesus’ identity, but he didn’t waste any time. Phillip followed Jesus because something about him compelled Phillip to follow. And now he wanted Nathanael to see for himself. So he invited him.

And when Nathanael met Jesus he was changed. He professed that Jesus was the Son of God and the King of Israel, but Jesus hadn’t done anything! Unlike we, the readers of John’s gospel, Nathanael didn’t know Jesus’ identity. He didn’t know He was the Word made flesh. Jesus only said he saw Nathanael under the fig tree. Certainly this was not enough to profess such allegiance! Or was it? What was it about Jesus’ voice that captured their attention and their devotion?

Phillip and Nathanael followed Jesus just from listening to Jesus’ voice. They didn’t see any miracles. They didn’t see the heavens open up or hear God’s voice proclaim that Jesus was God’s Son. No, simply hearing the voice of Jesus was enough for these men to drop everything and follow him. They heard the word of the Lord and that word changed them. They encountered the Word in the flesh and they were transformed.

In our first reading we heard that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” But just like Phillip and Nathanael, when the voice of God spoke, Samuel was listening and Samuel was about to be changed. He didn’t just ignore the voice. He didn’t go back to sleep, but got up and answered that call. Urged by Eli, Nathanael heard God’s invitation to Come and “see I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” Almighty God was inviting Samuel to “come and see” what wondrous things were going to take place. Even God was sending an invitation and God is still sending invitations.

God is still speaking. The focus of today’s readings are not the people whom God is calling, but that God is still speaking. We live in an age where people can easily say “the word of the Lord is rare in our days; visions are not widespread.” But that does not mean that visions are not still happening. They are, but we must be attentive to hear God’s voice speaking to us. Perhaps the visions and dreams are still as prevalent as in centuries ago only we are not listening. Maybe we are so busy that we cannot hear God speak amongst all the other things we have going on.

That’s why gathering together for worship is so important. Because here, in this place, we take time to focus on God and not let the distractions of our daily lives pull us away. For this brief time in our week, we can devote all our attention to worshipping God, thanking God, and preparing our hearts to hear what God is speaking to us today. We have so much to be thankful for ! We have a God that loves us so much that God became flesh for us. Jesus suffered for us. Jesus died for us and Jesus rose again for us. And when I say us I mean all of us, even those people we may not like, even those people who do not yet know him. Jesus came to save all of us.

How is anyone going to know Jesus if we don’t invite them like Phillip to “come and see.” The best way for people to meet Jesus is if we invite them to experience Jesus like we have. When someone means that much to us, don’t we want to tell everyone about them? Don’t we want to introduce them to this amazing person? What better place than to invite them to worship with us. We don’t need to have long theological conversation with them. We can simply invite them to come and experience Jesus here at Christ Lutheran Church. We can tell them to “come and see.”

And the time is now. The time is now to extend that invitation. It’s tempting to say we will wait to invite someone after our annual meeting, or when things aren’t so hectic, or……when our lives are less stressed, or when we have more time. No, the time is now. God is speaking and people are hungry to hear God’s voice right now. There is no time to wait. For someone, that invitation could make the difference between life and death.

Tomorrow the nation celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preacher, civil rights activist, and prophetic voice of God. In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, he said, “For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This wait has almost always meant never We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the urgency of the gospel message. That was his passion. He understood that God is speaking words of freedom and justice for all people and that voice must be heard. We cannot wait to speak the words of God’s truth.

The time is now. People are hungry. They are hungry for food and for justice. People are hungry for freedom and compassion. People are hungry for peace, but peace can only be found when there is justice. Jesus spoke constantly of caring for the poor and the outcast and we who follow Jesus must do the same. This is not a political platform, but a movement started by God, fulfilled in Jesus, and continues through us as followers and disciples of Christ.

People are hungry to know they are loved by God. Life is short. This may be the day that someone need to be at our worship service. It may not be a time convenient for us, but it is God’s time. The Holy Spirit is leading them to come and hear God’s word and to perhaps speak God’s word to us. We cannot wait to extend the invitation to “come and see.” The time is now. There is no time to wait.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, but it was only a fraction of the dream that God has for all people. We have a God who will fight on our behalf. We have a God who is stronger than any problems we face. We have a God who will never give up on us. This is the God we worship when we follow Jesus. And Jesus is calling each and every one of us to stand up and follow Him. He is calling us to invite others to “come and see.” He is inviting us to listen to God’s word and respond. He is inviting us to open our hearts and allow God’s dream to become our dream. The time is now. We cannot wait. Let God speak through me and you and invite others to come and see what God is doing. Amen.

The Great Epiphany

Sunday, January 7, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
Mark 1:4-11

A life changing moment, that’s what an epiphany is. It’s a moment when your entire being is opened up to a whole new way of thinking and understanding. It’s a relatively rare moment when you see something as if for the first time. Oprah Winfrey would call it an “aha moment.” It’s a moment when you come to the crossroads of a journey, and your life is now led in a totally different direction. You couldn’t go back the same way if you wanted to because you are no longer the same. You have experienced an epiphany.

Today as we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, we do so on the 1st Sunday of Epiphany. Understanding what an epiphany is helps us to navigate through this short season in the church calendar. From a Christian perspective, when we think of the word Epiphany, we think of the Three Wise Men or Magi whose feast day is celebrated on January 6th. When the three magi – Melchior, Caspar (not Casper), and Balthazar followed the star to find the infant Jesus – they had no idea what that journey would ultimate lead to. As they brought the infant Jesus gifts, they in returned received the greatest gift – the greatest epiphany of all – they realized that this was no ordinary baby. With this new epiphany or sudden awareness they no longer could travel back to King Herod to share their news because they had witnessed the true King.

This is often how it happens in life. We start out on our journeys with a specific goal or idea in mind. We have a plan where we want to go and what we want to do and we go after it with much excitement and passion. We work hard in the hopes that we will eventually reach our goal. But the reality of life is that we don’t always know where our journeys will take us. We don’t know what we will encounter just around the bend. Our journey of life is filled with twists and turns and sometimes these changes are not ones that we embrace with joy or enthusiasm.

Children and adults both know that plans don’t always work out the way we hope. Sometimes we face great personal challenges that can test our faith. We face things in our country that can cause us to be afraid, and we might worry about the future. Plans change all the time because we can’t control every situation, and often that creates a lot of anxiety and fear. It can lead us to stay on the same path or become immobilized by fear rather than set out on a different course. If the magi had not listened to the voice of the Holy Spirit in their dreams telling them to go back a different way, Herod may have succeeded in his plot to kill Jesus. But they did listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit, and their journey from Bethlehem was changed. It was a life-changing moment, an epiphany.

Today we hear about another epiphany in Mark’s gospel. “Just as he (Jesus) was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is the great Epiphany.

This life-changing moment revealed who Jesus was; the Son of God, the Word made flesh. And it changed the course of Jesus’ life too, for after his baptism Jesus began his public ministry. Once again, the Holy Spirit opened up a moment in space and time to reveal this great epiphany. God had once again broke into our world –first at the birth of Jesus, and now at his baptism. And God breaks through at our baptism as well.

Each time a person is baptized it is a life-changing moment, an epiphany when God is revealed to us. We are united with Christ and therefore hear the words of God speaking to each one of us, “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s why Martin Luther said we should remember our baptism daily because when we remember that we are God’s beloved it changes the way we live our lives. As God’s beloved ones we have hope, and courage because we know that God is with us and will not abandon us. We are reminded of the promise of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” And Isaiah continues with God’s promises, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Through the gift of the sacrament of baptism we have a constant reminder that God is with us always, for we have been marked by the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever. The Spirit is with us, whether we feel that presence or not. God’s promises are true and certain and forever.

It’s said that if something seems too good to be true that is usually is not true. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to cling to the promises of God. They seem too good to be true. We may ask ourselves, “How could someone, let alone the God of the universe, love me that much?” “Other people have abandoned me, so why would God be any different?” “How can I be certain of God’s unconditional love and grace?” We can be certain because God said so. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” “You are mine.” God will never let you or I go. Even when it may seem like God is not with us, God is indeed with us. God is present in Christ, Emmanuel – God with us. That is the epiphany that the magi experienced. That is the epiphany at Jesus’ baptism. That is the epiphany at our baptism. And that is the epiphany each and every time we allow ourselves to be opened by the Holy Spirit to hear the word of God and to change us into manifestations of Christ’s light and love right where we are.

The magi searched, and the star led them right to Jesus. The people in Mark’s gospel searched for the Messiah, and the prophet John led them right to Jesus. People today are still searching, yet we don’t have to keep searching for who or what will save us. Jesus has come and is here and has saved us. This is the great epiphany that the Holy Spirit brings to us at our baptism and why we must remember it as often as possible. We don’t have to keep searching for joy and peace and fulfillment. Our joy is in Jesus. Our peace is in Jesus. Our fulfillment is in Jesus. God has been revealed to us in Jesus our Savior, and he is here among us.

How does this epiphany change us? It should stop us dead in our tracks and bring us to our knees in gratitude. We have been saved and claimed by God and nothing else in our lives is more important than that life-changing epiphany. Nothing we have or earn or could hope to acquire could ever be more valuable than that!

God has claimed each one of us and that changes how we live. Through our baptism – just like Jesus’ – we are called to spend our lives in service for others. We are called to love as Jesus loved. This is the new journey we are on now. Like the magi, there is no turning back. Through our baptism in Christ we are a new creation. We have been set on a new journey with a new purpose to make Christ known to all people in our conversations, through our actions, and with grateful and generous hearts. We now journey not to Bethlehem, but from Bethlehem with a Savior who is right here with us every step of the way, every moment of the day. That is the life-changing epiphany of God for each one of us! Amen.