Take, Eat, and Serve

Maundy Thursday – March 29, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
John 13:1-17-35

Tonight is a holy, yet strange service in the life of the church. Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, named after the Latin word Maun datum or mandate, is unlike any of our other services. On Good Friday we are asked to reflect on Jesus suffering and death, and that is a difficult and painful reality to face. It’s heart-wrenching to think of what Jesus went through because of our sinfulness. Yet tonight is an uncomfortable service for a different reason. Tonight there is a physical responsibility on our part, as we are asked to actually do something. And not merely asked, but mandated or commanded by Jesus to do something – something quite uncomfortable. We are asked to love one another as he has loved us. At first it seems easy enough. We all know how to love one another, at least we think we do. But the kind of love Jesus is commanding of us, his disciples, is not an easy kind of love. What Jesus requires of his disciples is tough. And the reaction to foot washing today is just as shocking as it was for the first disciples. Like Peter, we too protest against having our feet washed because it means we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and allow others to get closer than we’d like.

On this night we remember the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before he was arrested, suffered, and died. Jesus knew what was going to happen and that’s what makes the events of this night so significant. He knew one of his disciples was going to betray him. He knew one of his disciples was going to deny him. He knew the other disciples and followers would abandon him. Yet knowing all this, Jesus gathered them together and shared a meal with them. This was the very last meal, the very last thing that Jesus would do with his disciples. It was no ordinary meal. It seemed like it at first until Jesus got up from the table right in the middle of the meal, and he did something shocking. He took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his waist, and then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. The disciples were shocked! That’s servant’s work, not work for Jesus, their Lord, and the one Peter professed to be the Messiah!

They were just as shocked when only a short time ago some of these same disciples witnessed Mary, Lazarus’ sister, interrupt another meal where they were gathered and drop to her knees and anoint Jesus’ feet with oil and wipe them with her hair. That was not what a woman in Jesus’ time was supposed to do, and this was not what Jesus was supposed to do. At least, not in everyone’s eyes. Everyone but Jesus, that is. For Jesus, these are exactly the actions of a faithful disciple. These are exactly the actions that proceed out of great love.

Yet, Judas protested when Mary dropped to her knees and anointed Jesus with costly oil. Peter protested when Jesus dropped to his knees and washed his disciples’ feet. And we protest today when we are commanded to drop to our knees and show one another our dirty feet and wash them clean. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard for us to do something so intimate. It’s hard for us to be that vulnerable. Sometimes it’s hard for us to allow ourselves to both give and receive love, but in doing so we give each other a gift. Our natural tendency is to want to keep our distance, to not get that close to people, especially people who we may not necessarily like. It’s dangerous to do what Jesus is commanding us to do because it might change the way we feel about people. It might actually change and transform us. And change is something that most people try and avoid at all costs.

But that is exactly what Jesus came to earth to do. He came to change the way we think and the way we act. He came to transform our understanding and perception of life. He came to awaken us a new way of living, a way that is based on sacrificial and self-giving love. Yet that is exactly what caused people to turn against him. On Palm Sunday Jesus began his entrance into Jerusalem greeted with crowds cheering him on and praising his name. Yet, the plot to get rid of him was already underway. And the one who would betray him was one of his own disciples. Judas was sitting right there at the dinner table with Jesus and the other disciples. How could Jesus even be in the same room with him? Yet Jesus celebrated his last supper with the one who was about to betray him. Jesus got down on his knees and washed the feet of the one who was about to betray him. Jesus showed love and tenderness to the one who was about to betray him. That’s what real, true, honest love looks like. And that is what Jesus commands us to do.

That’s why this night is so difficult. That’s why this service is such a challenging one, because Jesus is commanding us to do things that may go against our very nature. He is commanding us as his disciples to love exactly like he loved, which means to love even when you know you will not receive love back. Even when you know that the very things you say or do will be rejected. We are commanded by Jesus to take and eat, and then, fed with the very life of Jesus, to act as he did – to feed others with the grace we have received, to care for their physical and emotional needs, to really listen to people and try to understand them instead of judging them, to listen to their stories, to put ourselves in their shoes. Instead of our own individual needs taking priority, Jesus commands us to focus on others and the mission of spreading the kingdom of God here on earth. We are to love like Jesus. Live like Jesus. Be like Jesus.

Jesus’ call to follow him pushes us to go places we’d rather not go, to try new things, to go beyond our comfort zone, and focus on the real mission of the church. One church community in Atlanta, Georgia, The Open Door Community – takes Jesus’ command of washing others feet so seriously that they now hold a foot care clinic on Thursday evenings where the homeless of that city can come to have their feet bathed and their foot problems treated by medical volunteers. We don’t have to duplicate that ministry, but there are different ministries that the Holy Spirit is calling us to do right here where we are so that others can hear and experience God’s message of love and grace.

Jesus’ command to wash the feet of others is only the beginning, but it is where it begins. It begins right here tonight as we wash each other’s feet, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and open to experience the amazing power of God’s love – love that begins with service. There is a power in serving, a power that comes from Jesus and can transform lives. On this night, we have been given new symbols of the Christian church. In addition to the traditional symbols of the cross, a cup, and some bread, Jesus lifts up a towel, a basin, and some water. Jesus kneeled down in service in order to lift up the glory of God. May the Holy Spirit give us the grace and power to do the same. Take, eat, and serve. Amen.

 

 

 

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Seeing Jesus

Sunday, March 18, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
John 12:20-33

As we draw near to the end of Lent and prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday next week, we move into the most solemn time of the church year. It’s a time to really contemplate deeply on issues like life and death. It’s a time that can lead us to think about the many things we so often take for granted. – things like hot water, a place to live, food to eat, or clothes to wear. I wonder how often we really stop and say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for these things that are so common for us, yet for many in our communities and our world these things would be a luxury. So many people are still hungry for the basic necessities we take for granted, unless we find ourselves in a situation without them. I wonder sometimes about what it would be like if I could no longer see or hear. I can’t imagine not hearing the beauty of music, or seeing the magnificence of creation, or the faces of those I love. It’s hard to think about those things, yet Lent is a perfect time to think about just such things.

We hear in our reading from the gospel of John today of a time when Jesus was contemplating on these deep matters of life and death. Many people had heard him preach and teach. They had witnessed miracles of healing, and they wanted to see him. People from all over wanted to see Jesus – to really get a close look at him, and experience for themselves what it was like to really get to know him. And so they sought him out. They looked for him. Philip and Andrew brought this to Jesus’ attention.

But, Jesus was more than a little preoccupied with matters of life and death. He knew that the course of his actions was quickly leading up to when he would be arrested, suffer, and die. He was focused on his mission from God. His focus was on seeing that mission through for the sake of the whole world. Jesus could see the big picture despite the distractions from people and events around him. That’s not easy to do unless you have a practice for doing that – like contemplation and prayer – which Jesus continually did.

What about us? What do we do when we want to see Jesus more clearly? Are we even hungry to see him more clearly or do we let the many distractions in life pull us away from really seeing him?

I’m reminded of a friend and classmate in seminary named Beth who was blind. She was a beautiful young woman whom her parents adopted as a baby from Korea. Beth was an inspiration to me and so many others because she could “see” better than most of us. Her “vision” was broader and wider in that she was more aware of the things around her. She walked from the dorm rooms across campus to the classes with her walking stick with what seemed like such grace. She walked up many flights of stairs to get to classes, not once tripping, while I think I may have on occasion tripped up a flight of stairs. And the reason I did was usually because I was in a hurry, was trying to carry too many books at once, or perhaps was just plain preoccupied. Yet, Beth was aware of the sounds, and the energy around her. And in our theological conversations she could express how she could “see” God far better at times than many other people with actual sight. This was because she wasn’t letting the distractions get in the way of seeing Jesus.

Churches and individual Christians for far too long have let distractions get in the way of seeing Jesus. It’s easy to get focused on things like membership numbers, style of music, and liturgical settings over worshipping God. While these things are worth considering, they can quickly become barriers to our relationship with God. Some congregations have argued so much over details like flower placement, the proper order for lighting candles, or even rug color to the extent that these things take priority over the real reason we gather each week – to worship God – and people in our society are aware of these things. The authenticity or hypocrisy of Christianity is easily seen by others, even if we may at times be blind to our own actions. There may be distractions in our worship spaces that grab our attention, but we need to stay focused on seeing God in our midst vs. focusing on details. It’s the reason we’ve started ringing a bell at the beginning of our service – to bring our focus away from conversations and distractions, and raise our awareness that God is in our midst. If we want to experience God, if we want to see Jesus, it’s important to be present and aware.

In our reading today, those who wanted to see Jesus didn’t have far to look. A voice came from heaven, yet many in the crowd thought it was thunder, or an angel. God was there among them, yet they couldn’t “see” Jesus because they may have been looking for something far different. They weren’t looking for a Messiah who was talking about suffering and death. It’s easy to miss Jesus in the crowd, if you have a certain expectation – if you’re looking for a hero rather than a suffering servant. When we look for the Jesus we want to see, it’s easy to ignore him right next to us.

When we or others want to see Jesus, we have to clear our minds and hearts of what we think he looks like or we will miss him too. Jesus is present in the eyes of those we may disagree with, on the faces of those who look dirty or frightening, in the voices of those crying out for help, as well as the in the joyful dancing of children. Jesus is present through the hands of those who show compassion and mercy, kindness and love. He is present in the voices of those who witness for justice and peace. If we want to see Jesus, look around, and really “see” the signs that are all around you in people, and places, sounds, and silence. As we prepare to celebrate Palm Sunday and contemplate on the passion of Jesus – may we have the courage to see him in his suffering and death so that we may enjoy more fully the joy of the resurrection. Amen.

Look to the Cross

Sunday, March 11, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church-Loudonville, NY
John 3:14-21

We’re now four weeks into our six-week Lenten journey, more than halfway there. Where is there? Where is this Lenten journey ultimately taking us? What spiritual practice or practices have we taken up to help us on this journey? If we haven’t taken up any to this point, there’s still time, time to get ready. What is it we’re getting ready for? Where is this Lenten journey leading us?

Since we are following in the footsteps of Jesus – retracing his time from the wilderness to the end of his life – there is only one answer. This journey leads us to the cross. And focusing on the cross is not for the faint of heart. Crosses are displayed on walls, worn as jewelry, and even tattooed on skin. Looking at the cross is a sign of God’s great love for us. We remember the words “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” John 3:16  Yet if we really look at the cross, and contemplate on its meaning, it might be too much to take. Focusing on the cross is not for the faint of heart.

To really contemplate on the cross is to remember that it was a weapon of torture. It was used by the Roman government to slowly and painfully kill criminals. And Jesus was considered to be a political criminal who was trying to undermine government authority. His teachings of God’s power and God’s kingdom were a threat to the government at that time. And anyone who associated with Jesus, was running the risk of being arrested and possibly killed themselves.

That’s why Nicodemus, a prominent religious leader at that time came to talk to Jesus at night. He wanted to find out more about him. He was intrigued by Jesus’ teachings, but didn’t want anyone to know he was talking to him for fear he may lose his own status. Our reading today from the gospel of John picks up in the middle of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. In his discussion of darkness and light, good and evil, Jesus is making the point that in order to follow him one must be willing to face the truth – the light – regardless of how hard that may be. Jesus gives the example from a familiar passage from the Hebrew Scriptures – what we commonly call the Old Testament – about the Israelites journey through the wilderness. God had delivered them from being slaves in Egypt, and was leading them to the Promised Land, yet all they could do was complain. It was a long, hard journey. They started to believe life was better “in the good old days.” Soon they were plagued by serpents, whom they blamed on God as well. We don’t know why the serpents were all around them. Maybe it was just an area they had to pass through. Maybe they were attracted by the leftover food they said they hated. But whatever the reason, now they turned to God for help. And God – as always – heard their cries and healed them in a very unusual way. If they looked at the bronze serpent on the pole that Moses made they would be healed. They had to look at the thing they were most afraid of in order to be healed. They had to face the truth about their own role in bringing this on themselves through their selfishness and complaining. It seems strange, yet that is how healing works. In order to be truly healed from something we cannot ignore it. We have to really look at it and face the truth of what is really going on.

Ask anyone who has ever suffered from any kind of addiction, and they will tell you that in order to be healed they first had to admit they had a problem. Denial while a good coping mechanism for a while, only makes things worse in the long run. It’s hard to face the things that terrorize us. It’s hard to face our secret fears and bring them out into the light. It’s hard to admit our sins – our need for control, our need for power, our need to have things our way. It’s frightening because taking an honest look at our own sins might mean we have to give up something – give up the excuses, give up the false self we’ve been hiding behind, give up some comfort, and give up the way things are for the way they could be. Taking an honest look at ourselves can be frightening, but it will lead to healing, just like the Israelites who looked at the image of the serpent- just like those who believe in Jesus and look at the cross.

To really see Jesus hanging from a cross – an instrument of torture – makes us face the truth that he died because of the sins of humanity – the sins of each one of us. The cross is a reminder of just how evil people can be – evil enough to kill the Messiah, the Savior of the world. Humans can be so evil that they will stop at nothing – not even murder – to satisfy their own needs, even the need for ultimate power. It’s still going on. Instruments of war are still being used to kill innocent people, and no one wants to stand up and say enough is enough because like Nicodemus they are afraid that they may then be targeted. Innocent people are dying because of lack of food, water, and healthcare. Innocent people are being taken away from their families. Innocent people are being targeted as the enemy. The real enemy is greed, fear, and silence. And so evil persists when good people do nothing.

Jesus didn’t keep silent. He spoke out against oppression, and tyranny. He spoke out against the mistreatment of people. He spoke out against not caring for the poor, the alien, and the outcast. He did something to stop the evil in the world. He went as far as allowing himself to be killed by crucifixion.

But….. Jesus was lifted up on the cross and died, but he was also lifted up – raised from the dead – and proved that evil and death have no power over God. And so we look to the cross and face the brutality of human sinfulness, but also the depth of God’s grace. We look to the cross and we are healed knowing that God so loves the world! We look to the cross and feel the forgiveness and grace that Jesus offers. We look to the cross and have courage to face the evils that plague ourselves and our nation. We look to the cross and we are reminded of the power of love to change the world. Amen!

 

Keeping It Simple

Sunday, March 4, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Loudonville, NY
John 2:13-22

When I lived closer to my daughter and son-in-law near Fairfax, VA, one of the things we would love to do is go out to eat at a fabulous Indian restaurant named Jaipur. The room was beautifully decorated with colorful fabrics, and cultural pictures. The wait staff was wonderfully hospitable, and would meet us with a warm greeting. And the food was excellent. The wait staff did something that I had not seen before – although I understand it is the practice in some fancy restaurants. It is the practice called crumbing, though I think it would make more sense to call it de-crumbing. When you are done with your , the first course, the wait staff clears your place setting, and with a small metal instrument sweeps the crumbs off the table. Most restaurants where I have eaten clean the table after you are gone, so this was quite a surprise the first time I ate there. They don’t do this to hurry you up in order for you to leave, but rather clean the table prior to you wanting dessert, another beverage, or just to sit and talk for a while longer. This practice of clearing the table helps guests to focus on enjoying the next part of their meal or just relax during their remaining time together without the distractions of what may be cluttering up the table.

In our reading from the gospel of John today, Jesus is doing some crumbing or decluttering of his own. When he went into the temple in Jerusalem he drove out the sheep and the cattle, he poured out the coins of the money changers, and overturned the tables. Jesus was doing some major cleaning of the temple, and it’s important to look into why he took what seemed to be such drastic measures. He could have just spoken with them, but like guests eating at a restaurant, if given the choice to clean the table on their own, they most likely would not. People are easily distracted, and sometimes we need someone to get our attention, help us simplify our lives, and get back to the basics – what’s really important.

The temple in those days had turned into a marketplace out of necessity. Jewish law required members to present certain animals for sacrifice, yet if they travelled to the synagogue from a distance they needed some place where they could purchase the needed animals. They were also required to purchase these animals with Jewish currency instead of the Roman government currency that they may be using outside of the temple. So, the moneychangers in the table were performing what they felt was an important job for members of the temple. They felt they were fulfilling an important need that no one else was doing. What’s the harm in that? The problem was their tables were full of distractions that were keeping them from worshipping God to the fullest. More often than not our tables are full of distractions as well – both our literal tables and our spiritual ones.

There’s a movement that’s been growing over the years toward building tiny houses. Individuals who want to simplify their lives downsize their house all the way to only a few hundred square feet. They do this to save money on rents or mortgages, and the many other things that are required in bigger spaces. While I don’t think I could ever live in a 250 square foot house, their motivation is inspiring. They have to go through their possessions and get rid of a lot in order to fit only what is needed into these tiny homes. Their clothes, their furniture, their collections all have to be pared down to the bare minimum in order to have a nice living space. It’s hard to imagine sweeping all that stuff away, yet they don’t focus on what they are giving up; their focus is on what they are gaining – room in life for the things that really matter.

That was the focus of Jesus sweeping clean the things that were in the temple in Jerusalem. He wanted them to understand that it wasn’t all those things that made up the temple of God for when the temple would later be destroyed, God wasn’t destroyed, because Jesus was and is the Word of God in the flesh. Jesus was trying to tell them at that time that God no longer was present just in a temple building, but God could be found in Jesus, the Messiah.

And through our baptism in Jesus, God is found within us as well. God is not just in the temple or church where we worship, but God’s Holy Spirit lives in us. And while it’s true that we can worship God anywhere, we gather together each week to be reminded of what’s most important. We gather together around Christ’s table -without the distractions we accumulate during the week- to the body and blood of Jesus, the Christ who took on our human flesh, and suffered, and died, and rose again so that we could see and feel and experience who God is. Gathered around the simple table each week, we are reminded that we are not alone on our journey through life, no matter hard at times that it may get. We receive God’s forgiveness and grace so that we can begin our weeks refreshed and renewed, and gather again once more the following week to be refreshed again.

Every week when we gather, Jesus offers to wipe away the crumbs, the messiness, and those things that distract us from God from our lives. So often we all have so much on our plates, so much on our tables, that there literally isn’t any room to focus on what truly matters – worshipping God. That’s why Lent is such an important season in the church year; it invites us to clear away the things that distract us, to simplify our lives, and get back to the basics of what’s most important – our relationship with God. As we continue our journey through Lent, let us allow Jesus’ Holy Spirit to clear away our distractions in order to allow more space for God’s mercy, love, and compassion to fill us and flow out to others.  Amen!