The Joy of Being Set Free

Sunday, April 28, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
John 20:19-31 & Acts 5:27-32

Look around this morning. You’ll see brightly colored clothes, funny outfits, silly hats or socks, and many other things that make us laugh. Why? As I explained this morning, it is Holy Humor Sunday, a day set aside to laugh with even more gusto. Why? Psalm 150 sums it up perfectly. “Praise God! Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” These words from Psalm 150 speak to why we are here today. We are here to praise God, as the psalmist says, “for God’s mighty acts.” And what acts are these? If we named them all we would be here all day. Think about that. What are the mighty acts God has done?

They started with creation – the universe, the plants, the animals – and God had fun when he was creating some of these animals – think of the zebra (a horse with funny stripes) or the duck-billed platypus (need I say more about that one), or the pink flamingo, or the otters who just live to have fun. Life is about color, and diversity, abundance, and joy. And God made humans with that same array of vibrancy and diversity. This was just the beginning of God’s mighty acts. God rescued God’s people from the slavery in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land. And God continued to rescue people over and over again despite our sinful nature. Until finally God sent Jesus who suffered and died in order to rescue us from sin and death. That’s the great miracle of Easter that we continue to celebrate today. That’s something to rejoice about. That is something to sing, and laugh, and dance about. Because of Easter we have a new life, a transformed life. God created us to live, to have life -not merely exist, but to live life in the abundant and eternal life of God right now.

Yet how many of people, how many of us, simply exist? How easy it is to celebrate the joy of Easter on Easter Sunday and forget that joy the very next day. Our goals and dreams are quickly overtaken by worries, anxieties, and fears as if Christ had not risen from the dead. Even the first disciples experienced this. The gospel read this morning tells us that the early disciples were locked up in the room they were staying at out of fear. They had received the news that Jesus was risen, yet …..they let fear instead joy control their actions. Yet, once again, God’s mighty acts were made known when Jesus came to them, breathed God’s Spirit of life into them, and they were filled with peace and joy.

But one disciple wasn’t there – Thomas. And he didn’t believe that this happened. Just like the other disciples didn’t believe the women on Easter morning that they had seen the risen Christ. They thought it was a made-up “idle tale.” And that’s what Thomas thought about the story the disciples told. He thought they were joking. He wanted to believe it happened. He wanted to see Jesus, but … it just seemed too good to be true. That’s why he doubted. And again, out of God’s great love and compassion, Jesus came back to show Thomas that it was true. Jesus was alive. And Thomas spoke the highest affirmation of Christ in all the gospels, “My Lord, and my God!” Jesus came back just for Thomas that time, and Thomas responded with a living faith because an encounter with the risen Christ infuses in us a confidence that we could not gain on our own.

We see an example of that in the story from the book of Acts. Our first reading today begins right in the middle of the story. The first part of the story explains why the disciples were brought to the council. They had been healing people, and preaching about Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. They were told to stop doing this, but refused, and so were put in prison. While they were in prison, Luke, the writer of Acts said, “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’ ” Luke goes on to say that when the guards when to check on the prisoners, the doors of the cell were still locked, but the disciples were gone. That is where our story picks up today where the disciples were once again captured, and brought before the council only to say, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The disciples couldn’t stop telling people about what happened because they were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. They were filled with God’s Spirit that Jesus breathed on them in that upper room. They were filled with new life because of the mighty deeds God had done through Jesus’ and nothing could stop them now.

And here we are. We too are witnesses to the resurrection. We continue to spread the message that Jesus is alive. We experience Christ’s presence in the bread and wine each week where we once again receive his forgiveness and grace. He breathes into us God’s Spirit of peace and we are filled with joy. We are Easter people! God has set us free. How can we not be filled with joy and gratitude! God has unlocked the doors to whatever it is that is holding us back. We have this new life, we have received these gifts of grace and mercy; we have the confidence to go forward with nothing stopping us now. Let us carry this joy of Easter with us and spread it around. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen!


No Idle Tale

Easter Sunday – April 21, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 24:1-12

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip……” If you recognized those words they are the opening words from the theme song from a popular series many years ago called Gilligan’s Island. It was the fictional story of a group of people who were stranded on a desert island. It was fun to watch, and we wondered if they would ever be rescued, but it was just a story, a tale that someone was telling us.

Or maybe you recognize these lines, “A long time ago in a galaxy far away……” These words that enter the screen are the beginning of the Star Wars movies. Tales, or movies, about the fight between good and evil, and although they remind us of valuable truths, they too are only movies, modern tales.

Tales are just that. They are stories. Sometimes they contain the truth, but they aren’t the truth. Like fairy tales, they help us understand the truth a little better. And for example in the case of fish tales, these real stories start out true, but eventually spin out of control until they are unbelievable. We tend to think of tales as made up stories and we don’t take them seriously.

That’s exactly what happened to the women who came to the tomb that first Easter morning. Luke’s gospel says that when the women came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body, they found the stone that sealed the tomb already rolled away. They couldn’t believe it. What happened? Who rolled the stone away? Where was Jesus? But while they were trying to figure all this out two angels said to them, “”Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” When the angels reminded them of what Jesus had told them, it all made sense. Yes, it was true. But when they ran back to tell the disciples, they didn’t believe them. The disciples thought they were telling them an “idle tale.” They thought the women made it up.

And why wouldn’t they? After all, they saw Jesus die on the cross. Jesus was dead and dead things don’t come back to life. The soldiers pierced Jesus’ side just to make sure He was dead. So of course the other disciples thought the women were crazy. They all saw Jesus die right in front of them. The disciples thought those women just wanted Jesus to be alive – they all did – but Jesus was dead. They felt the women were just spreading an “idle tale.”

But what would they have to gain by making up a tale like this? Women back then weren’t respected and they certainly wouldn’t have been believed for telling an outrageous story like this. They had to know that the other disciples would think they were crazy, but how could they not tell it? This news wasn’t something they could keep to themselves.

But the disciples felt this story was too unbelievable! It is too unbelievable! That’s why Peter had to check it out for himself. If I came and told you right now that a person we all saw die three days ago, and buried, was now alive, you would think I was crazy! You would say I lost my mind! And if we saw this story on the news tomorrow we would say something is wrong. It’s a hoax. Things like that just don’t happen! It’s an “idle tale.”

It’s understandable to feel that way. Why look for the living among the dead? Why get your hopes up only to have them dash to the ground? Yet, despite all the tragedies we hear every day, there are amazing stories of transformation and resurrection that don’t get the same media coverage. For example, about a month ago PBS News Hour told the story of a little girl in Newton, MA, around the age of three who was born deaf. Her parents said she was increasingly withdraw and felt isolated. So the town of Newton, MA did something unbelievable. They held classes in their town hall for anyone in the community who wanted to learn sign language. The town hall was filled with people willing to help, and now when this little girl is out in town people can communicate with her through sign language. If this is not a story of resurrection, I don’t know what is. It almost seems too good to be true. It seems like an idle tale, but it’s not. And there are many other stories like these – stories of people who have just about given up hope on their dreams, on love, on life – only to have a resurrection experience.

This is why we are here today – to be reminded that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. We are part of the living body of Christ who is risen. Jesus died because he loves us that much. It seems too good to be true, but it is true! And we are witnesses to this great news; we are witnesses to the resurrection. We, like the angels – messengers – in the tomb, can greet people with “Why do you search for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Jesus’ promises are true. The darkness of the tomb has been cracked open with new life. Our lives are cracked open with new hope. Our lives have been cracked open with joy. We may experience periods of darkness, but the light of Christ has overcome the darkness. It will not consume us. Death has been swallowed up by the light of the resurrected Christ!

Today we rejoice in God’s great love for all! Today we rejoice in this most wondrous miracle of Jesus’ resurrection! Today we rejoice that God can bring life even out of death! This is no “idle tale.” This is the truth that changes us and can change the world! Christ is risen; He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen!

Somebody’s Gotta Do It

Maundy Thursday – April 18, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Tonight service begins the Great Three Days – the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.  It’s why we won’t end with the benediction and blessing, because the service is not over. The service continues. Think about that for a minute. When you leave here this evening, the liturgy – the work of the people – has not ended – and so for the next three days until Easter morning everything we say and do will be part of this Triduum service. That’s something that makes us stop and pause, and rightly so.  From the moment we arrived tonight, until Easter morning, we are part of the great three day service.  That affects our thoughts, words, and actions.  We are still part of the service whether we are here or home or at the grocery store or driving in the car. Wherever we go, we will be participating in this great service that doesn’t end until Easter. How will this affect us?  Will we live these next three days differently? Will we stay awake; will we stay present with Jesus during this entire time? This is the challenge that Jesus sets before us tonight.

We’ve all studied the Ten Commandments, but tonight we hear in Jesus’ own words a new commandment. “Love one another.” It would seem at first glance as a pretty simple and easy request. We all know what it means to love someone. We all know how to love. So why would Jesus give us a commandment – a mandate – to love one another? The answer is simple. Jesus wants us to love in a different way than is natural to us. Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus is commanding us – not asking – to love like he loves.  That is not an easy commandment. In fact, it is the hardest commandment of all, because loving like Jesus requires sacrifice. Loving like Jesus requires going out of our comfort zone and doing things that make us feel uncomfortable – like washing each other’s feet. Some churches today try and put a modern context for foot washing by washing people’s hands because that’s what we typically do to make ourselves clean. But Jesus wants us to wash each other’s feet – not just because they may be dirty, but for the very reason that it is uncomfortable. Kneeling down like a servant to wash someone’s feet is a deeply personal and humbling act. We may feel it’s beneath us or that Jesus is asking too much from us. We don’t want to get on our knees to wash someone; we don’t want to place ourselves in such a vulnerable position. That’s a dirty job for someone else.

It reminds me of the now cancelled television series that aired for over seven years – Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe. Has anyone ever seen it? In that series Mike Rowe – a native from near here in Baltimore – went around the country and spent a day doing the dirty jobs that others do every day. The jobs ranged from golf ball retriever to sewer inspector, septic tank technician to pigeon poop cleanup, and a whole lot more. He did this to highlight the dirty jobs regular people do each and every day.  The idea started from an article he wrote called “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” and it took off from there. “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” but we don’t want to be that person.

Yet, here we are – Maundy Thursday – and Jesus is commanding us – again not asking us – to love one another in the same way that Jesus loves. And that means at times doing the dirty jobs – like taking out the garbage, forgiving that person you’ve been holding a grudge against, or washing the feet of someone else- to show Jesus’ love. This is the key point. We don’t love others because we naturally may be drawn to love them; we love others because Jesus commands us to. Jesus wants us to love even those who may not love us in return, or worse want to do us harm, just like he did. On this night, as Jesus celebrated his last meal with the disciples before he was arrested, Jesus knew what was going to happen next. That’s what makes the events of this night so significant. Jesus 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. He knew he would be tortured and put to death. He begged God in prayer to let him not have to do this if it was at all possible. If there was any other way, Jesus wanted out. But he received in prayer the answer that “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.” Somebody’s gotta save the world. Somebody’s gotta make sure all of God’s creation is saved. Somebody’s gotta show people how much God loves them. And that Somebody was Jesus. It was a horrible, dirty, and painful job that led to the cross, but Jesus was willing to do it, because Jesus loves us that much.

That’s the kind of love Jesus wants us to show one another. Jesus wants us to love like him. He wants us to be willing to do whatever it takes to love like Jesus. He wants us to do whatever we can to ease the suffering of others. He’s not asking us to be their savior; Jesus is the Savior. He’s asking us to live our lives in such a way – with such love – that people will know we are his disciples and will be drawn to be his disciples too. When you look at how much Jesus did for us, washing someone’s feet is not such a dirty or hard a command after all.

During these next three days our service continues. It continues by us doing acts of loving service for one another. Jesus gives us a new commandment: “Love one another.” Somebody’s gotta do it, and Jesus says that somebody is us. Amen.

The Fragrance of God’s Love

Sunday, April 7, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
John 12:1-8

What are your favorite smells – those aromas that invite feelings of comfort and joy? Those smells that bring you back to a moment in time when you were incredibly happy…. For me, I love the smell of lilacs, my favorite flower. As I press my face into the flowers and breathe deeply, I am transported back to my childhood – back to the backyard breathing in the aroma of the lilac bush that grew as tall as any tree I could remember. The yard was filled with the fragrance of their perfume. My mother has always loved lilies of the valley. Small tiny flowers shaped like a bell, but so small you would hardly think they would have any detectable sent at all, yet just one small stem with a few of these tiny flowers fills a room with a magnificent fragrance.

Flowers aren’t the only fragrances I love. I love the smell of coffee (even though I don’t like the taste.), the smell of cinnamon, and especially the smell of the ocean with its invigorating salty sea air. That is my favorite smell and it fills me with life! We all have our favorite fragrances – certain foods, or books, an outdoor farm, or a particular room in a house. Even those things that don’t necessarily smell particularly good, but that remind us of someone we love, like the smell of a particular liniment or cigar that may remind us of a particular relative or friend. Fragrances fill not only the room with their scent, but they fill our senses and flood our souls. They capture us and have a special kind of hold on us.

In John’s Gospel today everyone in the room that day was captured by such a fragrance. “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and
wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, Judas, perhaps another disciple or two…were all gathered together to enjoy a meal together before Jesus went to Jerusalem – before the Passover – and they were all caught up in the smell of the fragrance of the costly perfume that Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet. A dinner had been prepared, but the aromas from that meal were not the ones that everyone smelled that day. No, the fragrance that took hold of them all was more powerful than the meal.

What kind of fragrance could overtake them all? What kind of fragrance was it that shocked all their senses? And I use the word shock because that’s what happened. They were all shocked by what Mary did – each and every one of them. Martha was shocked because it wasn’t proper for a good Jewish woman to let down her hair in public. Sure, Mary was in her home with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus, and Jesus was a close friend, but still….that was no way for a good Jewish woman to behave – so recklessly, so passionately, so emotional….Good heavens, right in the middle of dinner Mary just gets down on the floor and starts anointing Jesus feet with this expensive perfume and wiping them with her hair! If we were there what would we have thought? What would we have done? For Martha this fragrance smelled like embarrassment.

And there was Lazarus, reclining at the dinner table, hardly knowing what to say because he was just recently brought back to life. So many people have questions of what it’s like on the other side and here sat Lazarus with that knowledge. What thoughts must have raced through his mind! Lazarus was dead for three days. His body had already started to change. Yet Jesus, his dear friend, who wept at his grave, raised him from the dead. Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. And now the odor of the tomb that once filled Lazarus’ nostrils was now replaced with the odor of expensive perfume. It filled the room. It was the fragrance of life.

Yet that’s not what is smelled like to Judas. Judas smelled the fragrance of money being wasted. That expensive perfume was worth at least a year’s wages. Why on earth was Mary wasting it on Jesus when the money from selling it could have been used to help the poor? Was that really what was troubling Judas? Did he really think about using that money to help the poor or did he want to pocket some of that money for himself? Why did this act of Mary trouble Judas so much? Perhaps it was because Mary was getting so close, so intimate with Jesus while Judas’ relationship with Jesus was growing further and further apart. Maybe Judas really wanted to be close to Jesus, but just didn’t know how anymore. We don’t know, but we do know that Judas protested because for Judas, money not love was the bottom line. He was disgusted by this outrageous act of Mary. For Judas, the room was filled with the fragrance of resentment.

Meanwhile Mary kept pouring out this oil over Jesus and the room continued to fill with the fragrance of it. We don’t know where Mary got this expensive oil from. Did she have enough money to purchase this? Or was it handed down from her family, to one day be used as part of her dowry when she got married? If that was the case, she was throwing away her future by spending it all on this oil for Jesus, because without a dowry she would have no prospects of marriage. She would be alone. Yet none of this mattered to Mary. Jesus had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead! Mary was overcome with gratitude beyond words. Jesus deserved something extravagant. It didn’t matter what the cost. Nothing was more priceless than Jesus. Mary could only smell the sweet fragrance of gratitude for all that had been done for her and her family.

People all over town and into the surrounding towns were talking about it. Jesus had done a great miracle in raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus heard the talk. He heard the quiet whispering of the plots to get rid of him. Jesus knew His life was on borrowed time now. It was six days before the Passover and that meant that the time was almost here for Him to carry out the plan that His Father willed. Soon it would be time for Jesus to suffer and die. That’s why He was there, to spend one last meal with His friends before the final journey to Jerusalem, to His death. And Jesus was shocked by Mary’s actions- graciously shocked. Mary was anointing His feet with this expensive perfume and preparing Him for His burial, whether she fully understood it or not. Because after He was buried three days it would be too late for her to anoint Him with this ritual. It would be too late, because three days after His burial He would be raised. Mary probably didn’t fully understand this, yet it didn’t matter. Mary was passionate about her worship and love of Jesus, as passionate as Jesus Himself was about His love for all of God’s people. For Jesus, the fragrance from this act of loving service was the fragrance of love that gave him the confidence to do what he had to do. He needed that fragrance to carry him forward all the way to the cross, and back to life again.

That’s extravagant love. Like the extravagant love we heard about last week in the story of the Prodigal Son or the Prodigal Father. That’s what this story is all about. It’s about how we as disciples are called to live lives of extravagant love and gratitude. It’s about giving extravagantly – like Mary-of our time, love, and worship to God. It’s about giving extravagantly of our gifts like Mary gave of her money – maybe the last bit she had to live on – in caring for someone else. It’s about doing the right thing no matter what someone else thinks – like Mary who was vulnerable in showing Jesus just how much he meant to her.

We are called to get involved and care for each other and those around us with the love of Christ. It means pouring out on each other an abundance of respect and integrity. It means pouring out an abundance of forgiveness and compassion. It means pouring out an abundance of mercy and justice. It means falling down on our knees like Mary, and not caring what anyone thinks about what we are doing, and being humble before God. We, like Mary, preach the gospel most generously through our actions, our actions of love and peace.

We have all been anointed – anointed by God in baptism. The fragrance of our baptism permeates our entire lives and all those we encounter. Like Mary, we have been touched by Christ and are no longer the same. No one who encounters Jesus is the same. Maybe we feel more like Judas, and we are envious of others, yet he too, was anointed. God’s love and forgiveness was available even to Judas, only he couldn’t accept that. Maybe he thought he was too far gone. Maybe he thought he was too rotten for the fragrance of God’s love to penetrate. Jesus says that there is no one too far gone for God’s love to penetrate. Smell the sweet fragrance of God’s love and be reborn. Let it fill your life and spill out to all those you encounter. Amen.