God’s Kingdom of Truth

Sunday, November 25, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
John 18:33-38

Here in American we don’t have a king that rules our country. We left that when we broke away from England, yet Americans are still drawn to the life of kings. In May, Americans and millions of people from countries around the globe watched the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. There’s something about royalty that still captures people’s attention.

When we hear the word kingdom, however, it’s usually not England that comes to mind, but the image of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. It’s a place filled with royalty – princes, and princesses – that delight children and adults alike. It’s a kingdom unlike any other on earth, and people by the millions continue to go there. In a recent article, the author writes, “Disney operates as pilgrimage site, creating sacred space where people can transcend the ordinary.” Americans who might scoff at the idea of a medieval pilgrimage, won’t think twice about traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to visit Magic Kingdom, and see cartoon characters incarnated right before their ecstatic children’s eyes.” Even adults become like little children in the Magic Kingdom. But is the kingdom real? It certainly feels like it when you’re there. It seems real and true. But what is truth?

That’s the question that Pilate asked Jesus. “What is truth?” Pilate only knew of one kind of kingdom – the kingdom ruled by Rome. The emperor was treated like god, and he ruled by fear and force if necessary. And he didn’t want anyone trying to take over his kingdom. So the talk of Jesus being a king was a definite threat. Pilate wanted to know the truth, but the truth – Jesus – was standing face to face with him and he couldn’t even see it. He couldn’t even hear it. But deep down, deep in the recesses of his soul, Pilate knew the truth. Why else did he ask Jesus so many questions? Why would Pilate be so torn between letting Jesus go and giving the crowd what they wanted? Somewhere deep inside Pilate he knew what the truth was and who the truth was, but he didn’t want to admit it. To admit the truth would be to condemn himself – to admit that he had sold out for power and control – and so he gave in to the will of the crowd, securing his own job. Pilate didn’t want his earthly kingdom changed, and so he got rid of the threat.

Jesus is still a threat to the kingdoms and rulers of this world, because he forces us to look at the truth, and that is not always an easy thing to do. Life is filled with so many beautiful things and experiences, yet it is also filled with suffering and pain. No one was more fully aware of that than Jesus. But in order for healing to take place, the truth must first be seen and heard. It’s tempting to look away from all the suffering and injustice that is going on in our world.
It’s easy for people to blame one another for the problems, because that only diverts attention away from the problem. What Jesus confronted Pilate with – and what he confronts us with – is facing the truth. Jesus doesn’t want us to look away from the problems, but to face them head on, and to see how we can help to ease the suffering of others. God’s kingdom – God’s way of living and being – is different than the kingdoms of this world. It is not concerned with selfish power or control, but instead is based on mercy and grace. It is based on forgiveness and compassion. It is based on love.

Yet love does not ignore the truth, no matter how hard it may be to see. It does not plug its ears or refuse to listen. Love does not condone sinfulness. It does not approve of violence and greed. Divine love demands justice. Divine love demands mercy. Divine love demands freedom from oppression. Divine love demands servanthood. And that’s a stark difference from the kingdom mentality of this world that encourages individual wants and desires to be served over service for others. People are searching for truth, sometimes in all the wrong places. But there is one sure way to truth.

Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth is that he brought God to us. He brought God’s kingdom here on earth. The kingdom of God is where truth is revealed, where human worth is treasured more than material gain, where peace is valued more than power, where forgiveness is offered over anger, where compassion is shown rather than revenge, where love is given unconditionally without exception.

“Thy kingdom come” is a powerful prayer. It’s a powerful statement of faith that sees the painful truth of the cross and the joy of the resurrection. Christ is King. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is the Almighty who is, who was, and who is to come. And he is with us always. In this we gather and life our voices in thanks and praise. Amen.

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Priorities

Sunday, November 18, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mark 13:1-8

In last week’s gospel reading we heard about poor widow who threw in all the money she had into the offering at the temple. This really caught Jesus’ attention. It spoke to his heart as he could feel the woman’s faith. But the disciples didn’t notice her at all. Yet, immediately after they came out of the temple one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” They didn’t notice the poor woman, but the large elaborate building caught their attention. That’s what they noticed. That’s what impressed them. And Jesus’ response was “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The disciples were distracted by this amazing building, but Jesus was trying to get them to understand that nothing physical is permanent. That great temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed, and that caused fear in the disciples. They wanted to know when, they wanted to be ready, and needed a sign for assurance. But Jesus didn’t give them assurance. He continued with words that caused their fears to increase even more – wars, the threat of wars, earthquakes, and famines would happen. And Jesus added, “This is but the beginning…”

That’s not the comfort they were looking for, and it’s not the comfort we are looking for either. When you read this passage, it’s hard not to feel a bit fearful too. Especially because all of these things are taking place now. Actually, they’ve been taking place for centuries. And every so many years certain people and groups start telling us that the end of the world is coming. These alarmists try to strike fear in people. And it works, at least for many. But as Christians, we are to look at these events through a different lens. We are to keep our focus on what really matters. That’s what Jesus was trying to tell the disciples then, and us today – “Keep your eyes on what really matters, and don’t let others lead you astray.” Jesus said, there will be many who will try and do just that. They will say, “I am the savior.” “I’m the one you can turn to who will get you out of this mess.” Jesus says, “Don’t believe them. Don’t be alarmed.” There’s only one Savior, and that is Jesus, the Christ.

But Jesus knows it’s not so easy to stay focused. It’s easy to be distracted by so many things. It might not be large buildings like what the disciples pointed out, but it might be large homes, or cars, or presents. We can get caught up in the drama of all the fear that is spread around both in the media and through individual conversations where power struggles happen because of a lack of listening to one another. We can become drawn into a constant battle of competition as to who is right and wrong, instead of what is God’s way. We live in a society that encourages a 24/7 distractions of electronic devices, entertainment, and constant drama that actually encourages fear. It’s easy to be led astray.

So what do we do? The writer of Hebrews says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” That is what the Church is called to be – the people of God who provoke one another not with fear and intimidation, but with love. The poor widows in last week’s story – both at the temple and at Zarephath – didn’t know when they were going to die – very soon – but just because the end for them was coming they didn’t lose faith and that gave them courage. They didn’t react with fear, but instead relied on the permanence of God’s grace and faithfulness. We are called to do the same.

None of us know when our last day will be. I recently read an article by Matt Fitzgerald, a pastor in Chicago, who talked about the WeCroak App. Has anyone heard of it? He begins his article with, “It feels ridiculous to say that a smartphone app changed my life. I’m not that shallow. But it happened. A smartphone app changed my life.” The WeCroak app is inspired a a Bhutanese folk saying to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily. Each day, they send you five invitations to stop and think about death. Our invitations come at random times and at any moment, just like death. When they come you can open the app to reveal a quote about death from a poet, philosopher, or notable thinker. The app encourages you to take one moment for contemplation, conscious breathing or meditation. They believe that a regular practice of contemplating mortality helps us accept what we must, let go of things that don’t matter and honor the things that do. I’m not sure everyone wants to sign up for the WeCroak app, but it’s message is what Jesus is talking about in this Scripture passage. We need to focus on what really matters instead of all the things that distract us. If we really thought today was our last, wouldn’t we be kinder? Wouldn’t we show more forgiveness and compassion?

None of us know when Jesus will be coming again. But what we do know is that God is true to all the promises God makes. And God has promised to be with us always. God’s covenant has been written on our hearts. It is eternal. Since God’s love is permanent, we can let go of fear and any other distractions, and live with courage. Through faith we can live each day as if it were our last focusing on what really matters – God’s kingdom, God’s will, God’s mission for the world. We can live each day with thanksgiving in our hearts because of God’s great love for us. We can live in a spirit of generosity – a generosity of kindness, a generosity of compassion, a generosity of love. When we focus on God, we shine like the brightness of the sky and lead others to Christ who is our guiding Light. Amen.

Seeing the Divine

Sunday, November 11, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Mark 12:38-44

Imagine what it was like in the temple centuries ago when the events in our gospel took place. It was noisy in the entryway to the temple that morning. There was quite a crowd. People coming and going, talking loudly, animals adding to the noise. People were tossing their money in the collection boxes as they passed. The sound of the brass coins made a lot of noise. It was hardly the kind of place you’d go to find a place to relax, to rest and take a break.

But it was the kind of place that you could blend in with the crowd. The kind of place that one could remain unnoticed – if you wanted to – especially if you were poor. And if you were a poor widow, well, maybe you didn’t want to be noticed, because you knew everyone would look down on you. They’d judge you because you were not only a woman, but were alone with no one to care for you, no job, no way to earn your way into a respectable place in society. You weren’t anyone special. One poor widow that day threw in two coins. The only two coins she had. Hardly anything compared to the coins everyone else was throwing in.

Jesus sat down across from the treasury, next to the places that people were throwing in their money and he watched them. He watched and he listened. All of a sudden, one thing grabbed his attention. What did He hear? What did He see? What was it that caused such a reaction? The disciples didn’t hear or see anything unusual. But Jesus did. Jesus not only heard it, He felt it. He felt the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. He felt the outpouring of faith and trust. He felt the faith of a poor widow who threw in all she had because she believed that it was God who gave her whatever little she had and it was God who would take care of her. It reminded him of the story in the Hebrew Scriptures of the Widow of Zarephath. When the prophet Elijah told her to make him something to eat and give him something to drink, despite the fact that she had only enough for one more meal for her and her son before they would starve to death, she showed hospitality to this stranger, and gave all she had. Jesus remembered that story, and it seemed to come to life for him that day. Because Jesus took notice that day, he saw faithfulness, trust, and complete reliance on God in that widow. He saw the Divine that day because he was aware. No one is invisible to God.

In the busy world we live in it’s just as easy today as it was back then to rush through life without taking the time to “smell the roses.” We can be so busy doing things, or thinking about things, that we don’t live in the present moment. And as a result we miss so much. Sometimes we can walk right by something and not even notice it’s there. If you’ve ever lost your keys only to find they were right in front of you, you know what I’m talking about. We can go about our daily lives without even noticing the people around us. The cashier at the grocery store, the clerk at the hardware store, the person in front of us at the bank….all these people have a name and a story, but how often do we take the time to really get to know them? We’re busy, places to go and people to see, we’re on a mission, but is it a mission from God?

God’s mission is all about people. That’s why Jesus came to save all people. It’s not the amount that the woman gave that struck Jesus, it was her willingness to rely totally on God for everything she needed. Maybe like the widow of Zarephath she put in all she had because she thought that was her last day too. Others may not have noticed, but Jesus did, because faith is an active energy that changes things. It might not always change the situation we are in, but it changes the way we deal with that situation. It changes our hearts, and that is the first place that real change takes place. We have to be the change we wish to see in the world. If we want peace in the world, we first have to have peace in our hearts. If we pray for God to help the poor, we first have to see that we ourselves are poor in spirit, and that in order to help others we must first allow God to work in and through us. And we must see that God works in and through each person – like the poor widow – who was noticed by Jesus.

This story from our gospel is a reminder that we need to follow Jesus’ example and be more aware of the people around us. It’s easy to generalize people. Friday and Saturday – Nov. 9th & 10th –  were the anniversary dates of Kristellnacht – night of the broken glass –  when the Third Reich back in 1938 in Germany began their destruction and genocide of the Jewish people. They didn’t see them as individuals. They were invisible. It’s easy to say that group or those people are doing this or that. It’s easy to label people as good or bad. We hear it all the time in the news. There’s a lot of fear that’s being spread around about caravans of people coming. But do we really know what they are actually going through? Do we know their names? How is God working in their life? What is God saying to us through them?

Throughout history people have looked for God, yet God seemed invisible. Jesus came, yet the messiah still seemed invisible to so many. God is here with us today, yet God still seems invisible because we aren’t opening our eyes. God is all around us. Don’t let the distractions get in the way. Let God use you to be an offering. Let God use your voices, your hands, your all. Get to know people. Listen to their stories. Be kind. Be caring. Be Compassionate. Be generous. God is in our midst if we only stop long enough to see. Amen.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Sunday, November 4, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
John 11:32-44, Isaiah 25:6-9, Rev. 21:1-6a

 

Tears. All three of our readings this morning contain tears. Our gospel reading today contains perhaps the shortest sentence describing Jesus, yet it’s one of the most moving. “Jesus began to weep.” It catches us off guard because we don’t always think about Jesus’ deep humanity. Yet, here in this description of what happened when his friend Lazarus died, Jesus poured out his heart. Tears didn’t just roll down his face. Jesus wept.

Most of us know what it means to weep- at one point in life – to cry so hard that you wonder if the tears will ever stop. You pour your heart out, and wonder if it will ever be the same. That’s how Mary and Martha felt at the site of the tomb of their brother. He was dead. Their hearts were broken. Their grief was painful, and when Jesus finally arrived after a several day delay their response was, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Others added, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Jesus was getting bombarded from everyone with criticism. I can understand the remarks. Can’t you? Jesus and the disciples were out of town and when Jesus received word that Lazarus was sick he didn’t rush to get there. In fact, John’s gospel says that Jesus and his disciples stayed two extra days. Didn’t Jesus care? Certainly that’s what many wondered. They asked, “Where were you?”

It’s a question that’s still being asked today. When accidents happen, when illness strikes, when a loved one dies, when tragedy hits like the recent horrific shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the question arises, “Where was God?” There’s a tendency to believe that God is absent in these situations, but the reality is that God was there. God was weeping and God weeps right along with us. God weeps over the way God’s beloved creations treat each other. God weeps over injustice.  God weeps over the way anger turns into hatred, the way hatred turns into violence and death. God weeps over the sin of selfishness and greed that causes war and oppression and poverty to continue. God weeps.

And then, as Jesus did at the tomb of Lazarus, God brings resurrection. Because of Jesus, death does not and will not have the final say. Evil will not win the day. There is hope. There is salvation. There is resurrection. And while God does not need us for the work of resurrection, God allows us the gift and honor to participate in resurrection. Just as Jesus told the people to unbind Lazarus, Jesus tells us to unbind others. He tells us to unbind them with God’s love. We unbind them with forgiveness, kindness, and compassion. We unbind them by making sure that they are treated with justice. God resurrects, but we participate in that resurrection when we live not just to make our lives better, but to improve the lives of all. God changes the world through saints like us.

Saints are not just those special individuals the church holds up as models like St. Francis, or St. Bridget, or St. Nicholas. We are all saints –those living and those who have died in Christ – because we are God’s beloved creations. We are all saints together. Because of Jesus, our connection with each other and with God is never-ending. It is the reason why when we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we remember that we celebrate it with all the saints both here on earth and in heaven. When we say or sing the Sanctus – Holy, Holy, Holy – we join with all the saints triumphant in praising God. When we are here worshipping together as the body of Christ and receiving the Body of Christ all the saints are here as well. Those who have died as we hear in the readings from Isaiah and Revelation are celebrating with God in a great and victorious feast and we are celebrating in a foretaste of that feast to come. Right here as we gather around this table we gather with all the saints. It is a sacred space when the veil of heaven is thin and we and those we love are united. The Holy Spirit is here; feel this most sacred experience.

And through this sacred experience, this blessed sacrament, Christ comes and dwells within us and works in and through us. Christ unbinds us from our fear. He unbinds us from our worries. He unbinds us from our grief. Death no longer need terrify us and life no longer need terrify us. Yes, terrible things happen in life, but God is stronger than the evil in the world. Some of us are afraid to live again, afraid to experience joy again, afraid to be alive, but through Christ Jesus we are all made alive. He has overcome death and the grave. Jesus has overcome the enemy and removed all reason to fear. It is time to live again. It is time to live as the resurrection people we are called to be.

Jesus unbinds us through His forgiveness and grace and as disciples asks us to unbind those who need to be set free as well.  It is when we do this for one another that we reveal that God is with us in the midst of our suffering. Where is God in the midst of our pain? God is present through each one of us – saints of God. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Hebrews – “Therefore, since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight of sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” On this All Saints Day, look around, we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. Let us begin to live today in the joy of that promise! Amen!