Monthly Archives: April 2015

Herding Sheep

A sermon for 26 April 2015 – 4th Sunday of Easter

John 10:11-18  (NRSV scripture included below.)

I know in this season of Easter, it seems like going backwards to hear this text that I’m about to read from the gospel of John. After all, it took place before the crucifixion and the resurrection. Still, every fourth Sunday of Easter we get a nod to at least a part of John’s tenth chapter along with that great Psalm of the Lord as our Shepherd, with us each step. We have no need to want. Good Shepherd Sunday it’s been nicknamed by preachers who probably have grown a little bored with going back to it every year. But maybe, just maybe, at this point a few weeks after the resurrection, we need the reminder. . . . So, listen for God’s word to us in a reading of John 10:11-18. These are words recorded to be on the lips of Jesus. Listen.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

This is the word of God, for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

Some of you may know better than me that there are different ways to herd animals. Think about cattle. You don’t go out in front of cattle hoping they will follow. Cattle are driven – from behind. Poked and prodded to get them to move from this patch of grass or to that river of water. I’ve actually seen it on a trip to Honduras with Heifer International to learn all about the ways training and livestock are making significant differences in the lives of whole communities. . . . Some of you’ve met my puppy and it’s been great fun watching him do that whole Alpha dance. That’s the thing with dogs. They have that pack mentality and need to know which one is in charge: the Alpha. Once established, the Betas all fall in line behind. . . . I’ve heard of a training course on moving horses. Whole companies are getting their leaders to go through it. Because, supposedly, if you get still enough; centered enough in yourself with total calm in your body, mind, and spirit, supposedly you can get the massive beast of a horse to move alongside you where ever you go. As long as you keep centered – no pushing, no pulling, just intently moving forward. Step by step the horse will walk with you. Amazing! . . . For you cat lovers out there who know how much they have a mind of their own, I once met a man who told me his four cats cuddle close as he has near amazing sway over them. I mean, let’s face it: anyone who can herd a bunch of cats has to have a VERY special knack, right?

And then there’s sheep. Sheep are herded from the front (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 2, Nancy R. Blakely, p. 450). Did you know that? Sheep literally learn the voice of their shepherd and then follow where ever their shepherd leads them to go. Out in front, the shepherd will take the flock to green pastures for grazing. And to still waters for the drink of refreshment. The shepherd calls: “Come!” And the sheep come – one after another and all in a bunch. Supposedly sheep even have the capacity to recognize the face of their shepherd. And over time, sheep can be taught to respond to their own names – kind like we humans can (www.sheep101.info/history.html). It’s not really that the sheep trust. They just follow where ever the shepherd leads them to go. Which, of course, can be dangerous if they don’t have a well-meaning shepherd. . . . We hear often that sheep are considered dumb or mindless. And left on their own, the sheep will wander where ever. Even into all kinds of trouble. But if you ask me, sheep are kinda brilliant: following when led by the shepherd from the front. Because rest assured when trouble arises, like a ready-to-strike snake, or a hungry wolf in the middle of the path – the sheep have added protection. First you gotta take out the shepherd before you can get at the sheep. Protected in front like that, no matter where the shepherd leads, together the sheep always are gonna be okay.

Shepherding is one of the oldest professions. Because sheep were one of the first animals domesticated due to their natural ability to follow. One source claims that sheep were the first commodity spawning trade between peoples. The source of international relations because somewhere around 3,500 B.C.E., the production of wool became one of humankind’s most ancient, highly-sought achievements (www.sheep101.info/history.html). Back before we put up fences around our own property to keep in what we wanted in and out what we wanted out; sheep had to have a shepherd to keep them from harm’s way. The flock had to be moved by the shepherd from one place to the next to ensure sources of food and water. And in places like the Middle East where Jesus lived, rocky terrain and arid deserts made the work of shepherds incredibly important to the survival of the sheep.

We know that sheep were invaluable to the ancient Israelite enterprise. It’s part of why the Old Testament is filled with all sorts of ancestors in the faith who at some point in time literally were shepherds of sheep. Sheep provided milk, and cheese, and wool. When slaughtered they provided hides and, of course, meat. . . . Remember too that sheep were one of the most important sacrifices in Judaism: a costly offering to lift up to God. Every year a Jewish family was to remember the Passover when God freed the people from Egyptian enslavement. Jerusalem even had a gate called the Sheep’s Gate, through which sheep would be led right into the Temple for the annual blood offering. . . . We’re not that far from Good Friday and Easter morn. So that you see the parallels. Jesus becomes the sacrificed lamb. Once and for all, the offering is made. Freedom from all that would enslave is accomplished.

However: Jesus doesn’t refer to himself as a sheep here in the gospel of John. Rather, Jesus embraces for himself that traditional metaphor for God from the Israelites beloved sacred Psalms. “I am the good Shepherd,” Jesus proclaims – not just to anyone who will listen; but to some Pharisees of the Jewish people who drove out a recently-healed-by-Jesus blind man (John 9:34). That’s what happened right before chapter 10 of John. In the presence of those who would not properly care for one of God’s suffering children, Jesus declares himself the kind of shepherd that readily protects the sheep. The model shepherd. The pattern of how a shepherd should be. You see, Jesus senses what is going on. He knows that some sort of threat is upon the sheep. A ravenous beast is breathing down their vulnerable necks. No one seems to care that the man born blind from birth finally can see! His own parents are too afraid to speak out (John 9:21). Jesus is the good Shepherd. He hears the cry of his one little precious sheep. He will risk the loss of his own life if that’s what it takes to make that sheep well. Standing between this newly-sighted child of God and the religious leaders whose anger burns hotter each day, Jesus will protect at all costs. His deep love for the one in need will put him in harm’s way so no ill will come upon the one he just has healed.

If Jesus is the good shepherd, then like the newly-sighted man, we are the sheep – known members of his treasured flock – unless we’re busy being like those who ignore the cry of ones in need, or even become the threat to all the rest. . . . Every year the fourth Sunday of Easter brings us to this gospel text. I know many of us have romanticized visions of the LORD, our Good Shepherd. Psalm 23 is by far the favorite of more Christians than almost any other biblical text. . . . And in the good Shepherd, we see one out in front of us calling us to come – herding us to follow to where he needs us to go. One flock listening to the sound of his voice – moving at the recognition of his face. Being kept safe together by a good shepherd who cares so very deeply for us. Isn’t that beautiful? A message we need to hear especially after resurrection when disciples might be wondering where in the world he is. He’s not going to run away at the first sign of trouble. He’s not going to jump out from the front of the pack when the hungry wolf pounces upon the path. He’s sticking right there so that nothing can get at us. Like a momma bear ready to roar and swat so her little cubs won’t be hurt, the good shepherd defends his flock. . . . It’s that same natural instinct that causes him to call us forward as well. Because he knows us. . . . When we’re honest we can admit that all too often, left to our own devices, we sheep will nibble and nibble at one patch until there’s nothing left for us there to eat, right? We’d strip the soil bare and keep right on eating the dust of dirt if it wasn’t for the good shepherd who leads us to new places to be nourished; fresh pastures where we can be fed. Refreshing waters that will quench our thirsty souls. . . . Thank God for our good shepherd – out in front: protecting, providing, willingly becoming the lamb to the slaughter if he must that we might be spared any harm.

For our part, as the Risen Christ’s sheep, we must learn to listen, then follow at the sound of his voice. We know all sorts of other voices are ready to tell us which way we should go. “Over here,” they whisper. “This way,” they beckon. Not always down paths that seem so bad. But certainly away from the ways the good shepherd needs for us to go. . . . For us today, listening for his voice means knowing him. Learning who Christ was and how he lived his life. Where he would go and call us to come follow. Discerning when we see the face of the Risen Christ at work among us today. For through us, with the Holy Spirit in us, the Risen Christ lives yet today! . . . Remember in that parable from Matthew’s gospel when he said feed and give drink to those who hunger and thirst? Welcome the stranger and truly bring them in. Clothe those vulnerable to the elements. Comfort the sick and be with those locked away in any kind of prison (Mt. 25:31-46). Then, indeed, we are face to face with the Risen Christ. . . . Listening for the good shepherd’s voice will get us to where we need to be – individually and collectively as his church. It’s part of what the session of this church continues to seek. The voice of the good shepherd calling this congregation forward. Forward. Forward to the future which the good shepherd has in store for this church. Following the one who walks out in front, protecting, seeking to provide. . . . Until we are left affirming: “the LORD is our good Shepherd! Surely all the days of our lives, and forever, we shall dwell in the midst of our God!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

Healed by Christ

A sermon for 19 April 2015 – 3rd Sunday of Easter

Acts 3:1-20a  (NRSV scripture included below).

Before I jump into our next scripture reading, a few words. . . . Monday morning this week, a shot was fired at the West End Synagogue in Nashville. To my knowledge, it hasn’t yet been discovered who did this or why. But what we know is that the shooting happened a few hours before the Jewish community of Nashville was gathering at the State Capitol for Tennessee’s ceremony in memory of the Holocaust. It happened at the time marchers were gathering in Overland Park, Kansas in commemoration of the 2014 shooting on 13 April of three people at a Jewish Community Center and Jewish assisted living center there. (al.com, by Kay Campbell, 13 April 2015). It happened just a few hours after Christians across the world had gathered on the second Sunday of the season of Easter to celebrate the resurrection of our crucified yet risen Lord – Jesus of Nazareth, who was both one of us: a simple Jewish man, and the Holy One in full, God’s anointed Messiah, the Christ. . . . This week more than any other, we need a reminder – especially before delving into a text like this one from Acts that records a debate, if you will – a fierce one to be sure – but a debate nonetheless among Jewish people who weren’t so sure what to make of one of their own, being handed over for death by their own to their Roman occupiers. We’re going to be hearing about it all throughout Eastertide as we hear the stories of the first disciples as recorded in Acts of the Apostles. . . . It was an insiders fight, if you will. Like if HPC’s session would make a decision regarding one of you, for instance, to have you arrested, jailed, and sent off for sentencing for some reason. Certainly we’d have a fight on our hands in here – a taking up of sides regarding the fate of the HPC member we handed over to the authorities for punishment. . . . Remember as we listen for a word from God in this text and all the Acts texts we’ll hear throughout this season of Easter; for they are from the earliest days of the Jewish Christ’s Jewish followers in reference to their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters. He was of a particular time and place as we all are – not for the descendants of that particular time and place to be chastised forever for events we remember but can’t quite fathom. But for us all – Jew and Gentile alike – to know the deep, deep love of the One who first covenanted with this whole creation through our Jewish ancestor Abraham.

With all this in mind, listen for the word of God in a reading of Acts 3:1-20a.

“One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished. When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what God had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”

This is the word of God, for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

I heard a disturbing story this week – one other than the shooting at the West End Synagogue. And it reminds me of this story from Acts – which happened, by the way, right after Pentecost. The story I heard was a woman telling about her brother. She didn’t go into all the details, but it was clear from what she did say that over the years, her brother had been quite a handful for their family. He really had struggled with some things that deeply impacted them all. A few of you might have lived through such situations – as the sibling or the parents or maybe as the struggling person yourself. In fact, some of you might be going through such stuff right now. . . . I mean no disrespect to the woman telling the story, but even as she told it, she kinda was contradicting herself. She said her family had prayed for him for years. And she also said it was all of a sudden that his whole life got turned around. One song he heard on the radio hit him deeply and from that song on, he was a totally different person. Healed. For that she gave great thanks.

Now I realize it feels like that sometimes. All of a sudden something inside shifts and we’re freed from whatever has been haunting us for o so very many years. In an instant, something changes for the better and life is different from that point on. Maybe we too hear something – a song, a sentence, the one word we’ve needed all our lives in order to know our own worth – and presto! Everything inside is all better. One touch, like the touch we hear of from Peter, and legs that never had worked, instantaneously are strong. For all of our sakes, I want it to be like that. It’s just that, in the lives of so many of us, that’s not often how the healing takes place. In fact, I would point out to the sister telling the tale, that it wasn’t all of a sudden that her brother instantly was healed. She said it herself: she and her parents had been praying for him for years. All of their care, all of their concern, all the positive energy of their love had been sent daily to him through the fervent words of their prayers. Certainly that had some part to play in the healing the brother finally came to know. Like dirt being given all that is needed to ready it to be fertile soil. Then and only then does the sprout shoot forth from the ground. Primed and ready to produce in abundance. It might feel like all of a sudden. But so much has been happening with and in that dirt to change it into fertile soil.

We might want it to be as all of a sudden as it was for the lamed man who met Peter and John that day on their way to prayer in the Temple, but don’t we more often see the long hard road of healing? . . . I still can’t get over a few of you who just a year or so ago had backs that didn’t allow you to stand up straight and left you in pain each day. Not to single you all out or anything, but the journey through your surgeries and recoveries wasn’t one touch one day from one person. It was step after step after step and what a blessing to see you mobile and smiling and ready to keep on keeping on. That’s the healing you experienced by Christ. . . . A little over fifteen years ago, I met a young woman at about the time nighttime had turned to nightmares for her. I’ve never known a person with so much fear to sleep and such an inability to make it through each day because when she laid her head down on her pillow, memories of what her father came into her room to do to her when she was a young child haunted her. She was terrified and broken and really an entire mess. Every little thing was triggering all those horrible years. And then I saw her last year for the first time in a long time and she looked well. She looked rested and happy and at peace in work that seemed to have been created just for her to fulfill. She had found a special someone with whom to share her life and they were like kids in a candy shop together. So very deeply in love. It was beautiful to see! It didn’t happen overnight but step after slow, painful step until this woman was healed – if not entirely, at least enough to cherish herself and her life. Years of therapy, journals full of poetry, person after person on her journey treating her differently than she’d been treated as a child at home – until today, she’s a miracle to behold! That’s the healing she experienced by Christ. . . . I’ll never forget the day a woman came to me early in my years as a pastor. She just had found out that her husband had had an affair. It was over – a short lapse – and she was coming to me for someone to listen to how absolutely crushed she was. We talked a few times before she decided to seek out a professional counselor. She had lots of difficult conversations with her husband before they both began to see they each had become something they didn’t really want to be. They still deeply cared for each other, but both of them had failed to love and cherish and be who they once had promised to be for each other. It wasn’t easy and I can’t imagine how they learned how to trust each other again, but after several years of trying and talking and counseling together, they sought me out in my next ministry setting. Five years to the day their world fell apart from that affair, they wanted me to lead them through a renewal of their marriage vows. They finally were healed enough – individually and together – to re-commit themselves to one another and to the journey of growth they wanted to continue alongside each other. All three of us cried through the entire ceremony that day five years after. It was holy ground as we celebrated the healing they had experienced by Christ.

All of a sudden, after step after step after step so many of us experience incredible healing by Christ. Moments when the shame we’ve carried for years loses its tight grip on us. Times when the loss that has defined our lives releases a bit. The mistakes we have made no longer are held against us by others or by ourselves. Whatever it might be. If we sat down to tell our stories, certainly some of us would be able to testify to remarkable healing we’ve experienced all of a sudden after step after step after step. We’d tell of the person who listened. The parent who prayed. The friend who understood in ways nobody else did. The doctor or nurse whose hands skillfully healed. . . . What a powerful role we’ve been called to play in each other’s lives. In the journey of healing so many people are on. . . . Peter said it that day when he reached out his hand to touch: “what I have, I give you” (Acts 3:6). What he had to give was the very same love, the very same presence, the very same Spirit of God living through him. What he had to give is the very same thing we too have to give. To be those who pray each day, if it takes that long. To love unconditionally with full acceptance of the person standing in need before us. To listen to the pains of another with compassion. Maybe even to be a touch that heals instead of hurts. The word of hope another needs to hear. These are the ways Christ still heals . . . through us each day. In that process of all of a sudden after step after step after step, what is it you have to give to those longing at last to be healed by Christ? . . . Freely, in the very same love of Christ, give that healing gift!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

After Easter

A Sermon for 12 April 2015 — Second Sunday of Easter

Click here to read scripture first:

http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrsa/john/passage/?q=john+20:19-31

John 20:19-31

I don’t know about ya’ll, but last Sunday after worship; I was exhausted! I hadn’t even helped out in the kitchen all morning for that wonderful Easter Breakfast as many of you did, but I just was wiped out. Monday and Tuesday I saw all sorts of messages from other pastors, even a blog post or two that showed I was not alone. All across Christendom, it seemed, us preachers were laying low Sunday afternoon through sometime Monday or Tuesday to recover from all the festivities. A few I know have been off all week. They never preach the low Sunday after Easter when guest preachers and Associate Pastors across the land typically are up to bat. . . . I know some of you were here Holy Week on Wednesday night (for choir rehearsal), followed by Thursday night for Maundy Thursday worship, Friday night for Good Friday worship, then shopping or cooking much of the day Saturday in order to get ready for Easter celebrations that began early in the morning Sunday through however your family went off from here to celebrate later that afternoon and evening. Maybe you too found yourself dragging a bit by Monday morning. Wishing that like the church office, you also could have been closed for the day after Easter.

We weren’t even there for all the physical and emotional drama of the first Holy Week. So the level of our exhaustion may not have been as high as that of those first disciples. Come that first Easter Sunday evening, they still are locked away behind closed doors. Their hearts and minds have been put through the ringer, what with the highs of Palm Sunday and that Maundy Thursday supper only to be seized in terror a few hours later when in the dark of night in the garden of Gethsemane, their leader is rough up during his arrest. Drug off to wait in a dark pit under the house of the high priest for the sentencing and execution yet to come. The horror of those hours on the day that was supposed to be their Preparation for the Sabbath feast of Passover. Instead he was humiliated, tortured, and hung up to die. . . . By Holy Saturday, I can’t imagine which was deeper in those first disciples: the grief or the fear. Both are intense emotions that leave us human beings absolutely wrung out. Which might explain why, even after the news of the Risen Christ came to them from Mary Magdalene; according to the gospel of John, we find his first disciples behind closed doors. Locked away – if not to rest up then most probably to hide out. Either way, news of the empty tomb would demand a lot from them. If they weren’t about to be harassed by the same religious authorities and Roman soldiers who saw it done; then another much more terrifying, much more demanding visitor just might hunt them down.

According to the gospel of John, he found them. He hadn’t come to make them more afraid; but I imagine the presence of the Risen Christ sent shivers down their spines. What now? . . . “Peace be with you! Receive the Holy Spirit!” he says. “As I’ve been sent; so now I send you!” Agh! The weight of his commissioning meets the weariness in their souls. It’s only the first Easter evening and according to the telling of the gospel of John, they’re already supposed to get out there with the message of God’s undying love. The same message that just a few days earlier, got their Lord killed. Might that be why a week goes by and still they are locked up there in that Upper Room? Coming back to give Thomas the first-hand experience he too wants, I kinda wonder if Jesus was a little miffed that the rest of them still are there. As the gospel of John tells the story, they weren’t instructed to hide out until the Holy Spirit would be given at Pentecost, fifty days after that first resurrection Sunday. According to the gospel of John, he came to them that first Easter evening with a gift and charge: receive the Holy Spirit and go too as I’ve been sent! No wasting time according to the gospel of John’s telling. It’s of the essence. Those first disciples are to get out there immediately to live the good news!

Sunday after Easter, the lectionary sets this story as the gospel story. Fortunately we’ve had a whole week to recover from the weekend of the actual events, so when the gospel of John’s Risen Christ comes to us today, we don’t really have any excuse. Time is of the essence. While the sounds of the Alleluias, the smell of the lilies, and the leftover baskets of Easter bunnies remain; we hear this message: Go! Go now and tell the good news! Live out the forgiveness of God. Spread the hope we now know completely because of the resurrecting work of our God!

Are you ready? Because what’s the point of Easter if it just leaves us exhausted each year? What’s the point of all the extravagant fanfare if we keep ourselves lock up tight behind closed doors? What’s the point if we’ve not once again been changed somehow? . . . This week more than any other, the people whose path we’ve crossed should have been able to sense the spring in our step and the joy in our hearts. If we’ve not grown brave enough yet to speak of our own experiences of God’s resurrecting power; then at least others should have been able to see something different in us. A deeper peace. A brighter joy. A firmer resolve to live a little bit more like our Christ – trusting that we too are God’s: precious, loved, and embraced now and forevermore. . . . We’ve just rehearsed the most incredible story of absolute grace. On the cross, while the worst in us human beings did to him the most unspeakable things, he said: “Forgive them.” If that’s not enough to melt our hearts and motivate our feet, then will anything?

Christ is risen. And as his people, it’s time we get out there to tell. Not just some story about what happened centuries ago. No, the whole reason the Risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene, and then to the rest, and finally to Thomas is so they don’t have to act only on some story someone else told them. We need to know that information and then we need to experience the joy of encountering the God who transforms everything – even death. We need to tell the good news of Christ living and dying and living again. And then we need to tell how we experience that same good news in the living of our days. How the Spirit of God comes to enliven us to face whatever. To give purpose for the living of our days. To be with us as we undergo some of the darkest moments of our lives. To whisper in our hearts through it all “I shall make all things new. I shall make all things new. I make all things new.” . . . Blessed! Blessed all those who don’t just let Easter wear us out but show us the truth we all need to hear – we all need to tell – we all need to live each day of our lives.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

And Then and Then . . .

A Sermon for 5 April 2015 – Easter Sunday

Click here to read scripture first:

http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrsa/mark/passage/?q=mark+16:1-8

Mark 16:1-8

Thursday morning, I woke up to an email from my old mortgage company in Chicago. The subject line read: Easter. It was just the wee hours of Maundy Thursday with all the intense action of Holy Week yet to come. And maybe because my mind was a bit pre-occupied with all the details of that night’s service, along with Good Friday’s, and then the one we had this morning in the old sanctuary on The Hermitage; I opened the Easter message – even though it was a long way to Easter from that early Maundy Thursday morning. Pastels immediately popped on the page in colorful eggs that were underneath a photo of a bat, ball, and catcher’s mit. “HAPPY EASTER,” the message proclaimed in big, beautiful light purple, green, orange, blue, and pink letters. “Dear Jule,” the email continued. “Best wishes for a wonderful Easter filled with sweet treats and the joy of spring.” Then in a special box highlighted with a pretty spring-green background, the message went on: “This weekend we celebrate many of the things that make our country the great place to live that it is. (Terrible English, I know; but it’s a direct quote from the email.) “Easter (bolded out in bright orange) is celebrated on Sunday and brings with it, early signs of spring. The Final Four go at it Saturday evening,” the Easter proclamation continued with a detailed line-up of last night’s games. Then to complete this lesson to me on the true meaning of Easter weekend, the email concluded with the following: “Last but not least, the boys of summer are back on Sunday with the Cubs opening at home on Monday (remember this was from a mortgage company in Chicago) and the White Sox on the road.” So get all excited Jule because so be the gifts of this wonderful Easter day???!!!

Almost immediately I wondered if the last verse of the gospel of Mark that we heard just a bit ago was the final word about it all ever echoed through human history. You might remember how this earliest written gospel is believed originally to have ended. The three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices the morning after Sabbath’s end they go to anoint the dead body of Jesus. They see the huge stone already rolled away before they get there and some sort of young man dressed all in white is sitting in the tomb where they expected to find Jesus’ life-less body. They’re told not to be alarmed. Though let’s face it, who among us wouldn’t have been incredibly alarmed to find a tomb that held the body of one just brutally murdered by the authorities of the land empty when it was supposed to be full. And whoever this young boy is who is giving them a guided tour around the tomb certainly isn’t helping. “Look, there is the place they laid him,” he is saying. “And see: he’s not here. He’s been raised. Now go tell the others, and even Peter who flat out denied him three times, to head back to Galilee where he will meet you.” (paraphrase of Mark 16:6-7). . . . And so, according to the original ending of the gospel of Mark, the trio of women do what most any of us would have done. They high-tailed it out of there faster than anyone could cheer: “On Wisconsin!” . . . They were seized, the gospel writer records – feelings rising up in them that they could not control. Sheer terror mingled all at once with absolute awe. And because they were so afraid, they didn’t speak a word of it to anyone – not even to one another ever again. They dashed off from the empty tomb, each back to their own hometowns or far away from that land altogether so that you and I are left today to celebrate with sweet treats the return of Spring, the Final Four, and baseball – though if you’re like me, Spring might be the only three of these you’re all excited about.

At this point, something in us is supposed to be shouting out: “No!” It’s not enough. Sports and Spring because the first to see, at least according to the gospel of Mark’s telling of that initial Easter morning, were too afraid to tell anyone else about it? Absolutely not! Who among us would be willing to be baptized into that? Spend so much of our blood, sweat, and tears – and laughter, love, and fun times too – being community together if that’s all it is – live a good life, try to tell others of God’s love, get absolutely creamed because of it with no further word from those who were entrusted with the rest of the story but were too afraid ever to tell? Uh-ah. That is nowhere near enough!

Through the years a lot of effort has gone into adding other endings to the gospel of Mark. Claiming a few other verses eventually were found. Or writing up a dozen or so more just to make the story of Mark a bit more palatable for readers far from the original event. But there’s a reason we stop the story where we did today. At the end of verse 8 of chapter 16 when the women at the empty tomb leave tight-lipped and too afraid to deliver the message they were given to tell. It’s entirely possible that the writer of the original ending of Mark wants us to get all upset about the story ending there that we might ensure the proper ending takes place. Easter is not supposed to be an event we keep to ourselves. Sure one living again who was tortured and tossed in a nearby tomb because the religious laws of Sabbath said you had to get home to start the meal. Him being alive again is frightening. It turns around the way we thought it always was. That they can mock us and beat us and snuff us out altogether, so in fear we better fall in line. Waste our days on things like baseball and the Final Four – sorry sports fans. But not even pulling for your favorite team is enough. . . . It’s not enough to fill up the precious few moments we have in this life. It’s not enough to keep silent that you sense it all goes another way – even if it doesn’t make one bit of logical sense to minds that too often get stuck on the need for objective proof.

What more proof do we need than their fear didn’t actually end up being the end of the story? We literally would not be here if it did! Their awe eventually overtook. . . . The news of a Risen Christ was too good never to speak of again. Maybe they went back home wondering how it all could be so – too afraid at first to speak it in case they’d be the next hung up on crosses by the authorities who didn’t want to hear any talk of hope or everlasting peace or unable-to-be-snuffed-out Love. Death does not have the final word in our world or in any of our lives. So that eventually, if we pay attention enough. If we open our hearts and minds to it enough, we eventually have to tell. The truth of resurrection we’ve experienced in our own lives. Once we too thought we were at our end. And then . . . somehow. We’re still here. Battle-worn perhaps, but still standing. . . . Do you remember the day your heart no longer felt so smashed to smithereens by the storms of life? Do you remember the moment you knew you could go on – even if you no longer wanted to under the conditions life left for you? Can you recall that time you were down in the dirt of it all – rock bottom they call it in the AA movement. And somehow you got up. You, thanks to the same Life Force that again returned to Christ, you again stood up. That’s resurrection in our lives each day. That’s new life here and now and one day forevermore. That’s what Easter is all about. Not sports and Spring, though Spring is a great gift that shows us this ancient truth of our amazing God. That like Christ, thanks be to God, you and I rise again after every little death of this life and one day in full at our end – just like the Risen Christ. . . . It’s the truth of the Christ, the truth of our lives — the truth of Easter – that this world desperately needs to hear.

What more do I need to say than: go! Finish the story. Tell the good news we celebrate on Easter which we see in our lives each day!

Dome over the Empty Tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.  Photo by JMN, March 2014.

Dome over the Empty Tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem. Photo by JMN, March 2014.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen!

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

And Then . . .

A Sermon for 5 April 2015 – Easter Sunrise

Click here to read scripture first:  

http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrsa/john/passage/?q=john+20:1-18

John 20:1-18

Early in the day standing in the garden just outside the old city of Jerusalem, it is easy to imagine this morning. The world is hushed as the sunlight streams through the tree branches. All kinds of birds gloriously sing. Little flowers open their petals as if to proclaim their own alleluias. Of course, it’s impossible to be there alone these days what with the millions of pilgrims who make the trek to the Holy Land each year. The good news is that this treasure of the Garden Tomb is less crowded than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher inside the old city walls where Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians have built a massive structure over what they claim to be the sites. Not so in the garden – there’s none of that holy bling there. Just an authentic sense of a quiet spot only a stone’s throw from a rocky hill that literally looks like the shape of a human skull. Archeologists claim that was the site, the Place of the Skull, where Rome would have crucified insurrectionist as it was along a main thoroughfare out of the city and right over the spot previously used for religious stonings.

“’Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here!  Look, there is the place they laid him.’”  (Mark 16:6) The Empty Tomb of Christ at The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem.   Photo by JMN, March 2014.

“’Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here! Look, there is the place they laid him.’” (Mark 16:6) The Empty Tomb of Christ at The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem. Photo by JMN, March 2014.

The day I was there last year with my pilgrim group, the garden was just beginning to bloom as the sun pierced the crisp morning air. I wandered around the garden trying to catch a glimpse of the Risen Christ standing among the fronds of palm trees or sitting among the greenery of what I think were eucalyptus bushes. . . . According to the gospel of John, Mary Magdalene slipped out of the Upper Room before dawn that first day after the Passover Sabbath was over. Presumably overwhelmed yet with grief, can you see her fumbling her in way in the dark along a narrow path. Down the steps near Caiaphas’s house where Jesus would have been held the long night before his crucifixion. Through Zion’s Gate and all the way from the southwest side of the city to just north of the Damascus Gate. Winding west of the Temple mount across the very same path today called the Via Dolorosa where they would have made him carry the heavy beam for his cross. It must have been a risky trek what with the city all a buzz from the swift action of Rome at the urgings of the religious leaders.

The gospel of John doesn’t explain why Mary of Magdala went to the tomb early on that next day, as some of the other gospels tell of spices to be bought for a proper burial anointing. John just says she went. She certainly got in a good workout that morning as she ran back to find Peter and another disciple before racing once again to the empty tomb. Peter and the other disciple are going to be the ones to go in first, into this cave in a garden very near to where their Teacher had been brutally killed by the state just a handful of hours before. The gospel of John makes a big deal about them seeing the linen cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ broken body at his burial. The cloth for his face even receives special mention, as if to note that no one would have raided the tomb to take away a dead body but stopped first to neatly roll up the cloth from his head and carefully place it alone in the tomb where his skull might have laid. No, the gospel wants us to know that his dead body hadn’t been stolen. Something miraculous had taken place. Like lying there in the absolute silence of death, when suddenly the breath of God returned to his lungs. Infused again in every cell with the force of life, almost how the buds of tree branches arouse from their winter’s sleep at the first hint of the warming spring sun. He found himself to be alive again and whether he unbound himself or if God made it happen some other way, it was like that day Jesus proclaimed about Lazarus: “Unbind him and let him go!” (John 11:44). Again in the wee hours before that dawn, he stood up.

I know it’s a tale many minds find difficult to fathom. You might too if in your day to day life you’ve not experienced such resurrection – such moments after the blows of life when you find yourself somehow, miraculously, again standing up. Maybe that’s why the gospel of John gives so much attention to the lingering Mary Magdalene. Peter and the other disciple are reported as leaving pretty quickly after they went into the empty tomb. But Mary of Magdala stood there weeping in the garden. If in fact it was the exact spot, then right there near the same spot I stood to take the photo of the tomb that is on the bulletin cover for today. We don’t know why she wept – if they were tears of anger. Tears of sorrow. Perhaps even tears with a hint of hope, wanting to be filled with great joy. When pressed on it, she simply says: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). When she turns to see who she believes to be the gardener, she makes the outlandish statement that if he knows where the body is, then just tell her and on the adrenaline in her own body, she’ll carry him away alone. Oh Mary! The Risen Christ must have been a little bit tickled at her impossible, impassioned plan. I wish we would been told if he giggled at her first before he finally spoke her name: “Mary!” Then, as suddenly as the Breath of Life must have returned to his body, joy flooded over hers. “My Teacher!” she exclaims. For even here in this empty tomb he is showing her the truth he’s been trying to tell them all along the way.

It doesn’t make rational sense – our logical minds can’t figure it all out. Which really is part of the gift. For in the world all around us, in those we love, and even in ourselves; Life happens again. It’s the underlying truth of it all for us simply to behold. To see. To trust. To wash over any doubt within until we’re left in total awe. The mystery of a Love that never will let death be the final word. Only Life. Life. Wonderful new Life. . . . In gratitude for such an amazing gift, from Mary Magdalene’s first thanksgiving through all the ages and even unto our own; let us join in the long line of great rejoicing. Christ is risen! Alleluia, Alleluia, Amen!

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

Surrender

A sermon for 3 April 2015 – Good Friday

Mark 14:32-36, 15:25-33, 15:34-37

Click here to read scriptures first: 

http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrsa/mark/passage/?q=mark+14:32-36

http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrsa/mark/passage/?q=mark+15:25-37

And so, as the afternoon world turns to night; in full, Christ surrenders. It had begun earlier in this Holy Week. Actually it had begun at his baptism, according to the gospel of Mark. And at the beginning of time according to the gospel of John when the pre-existent Word is ready to take on human flesh and blood in order that we might understand the Way of God from the start. . . . Even then, he surrendered. Gave way fully for the way of God to be – overflowing love between the One-in- Three God. The constant outpouring that is Love itself – that is God. . . . We hear of the struggle in the garden. It wasn’t that Jesus’ mind had to be changed; it was that his whole self had to come into full alignment with the agony he was about to experience. We hardly can imagine how it would be for God in flesh in Jesus to face the tearing of that constant bond between the Three-in-One. That one aspect of God would die on that horrible cross because the world, which God alone had created, would not accept the truth of a love that cannot die. . . . It had to be sheer torture to face that end, knowing it had to be; yet knowing he in full would experience, for once and for all, the hell we know when we are not aligned in full with our God. . . . “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” . . . In that moment – even then, Jesus surrendered himself to the agony of total separation. And somehow, they say, he did it, mysteriously, so that you and I never have to face that fate.

Glory to be to the God who surrenders for the life of all the world! Praise be to the Christ who is the pattern we all are to follow!

“He surrendered himself to death . . .” (Is. 53:12b).   The Servant of the LORD.  House of Caiaphas, Jerusalem. Photo taken by JMN, March 2014.

“He surrendered himself to death . . .” (Is. 53:12b). The Servant of the LORD. House of Caiaphas, Jerusalem. Photo taken by JMN, March 2014.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)

Holy Meals

A sermon for 2 April 2015 – Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Click here to read scripture first:  http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrsa/john/passage/?q=john+13:1-35

The Upper Room, Jerusalem.

The Upper Room, Jerusalem.

As we get ready to enact that most amazing meal which our Lord and Savior shared with his disciples even on the night when they would betray, scatter, and deny; it is fitting for us to spend a few minutes remembering our own experiences of meals. Meals around this table. Meals around the tables in the fellowship hall. Meals shared in homes and restaurants and at picnic tables. Meals shared on days when it felt like the world was falling apart. And meals shared in great joy when we wanted to gather all those important to us to celebrate together. . . . Every day at least once, and better if it’s two or three times, our bodies require that we stop. Hopefully to sit down at a table for sustenance. Sometimes it’s just for the fuel we thoughtlessly shovel in. But hopefully, if not every day, then at least once or so a week, we sit down, like Jesus, with those we dearly love. Whether we talk about the really important things of life or just laugh together about nonsense, what we do together around tables is significant. Not only for the nutrients our bodies crave to keep us active however we need to be for God in this world; but also for what happens between us when at last we sit down to eat. . . . I once heard it said that the surest way to make a friend – even out of an enemy – is to invite them home for a shared meal. Try it sometime with someone you’re struggling with. See if you can stay bitter at someone with whom you’ve broken bread. . . . What is it about sitting down to delight in the bounty of this world that changes things between us? Maybe the act of eating itself reminds us of our frailty. Our mortal bodies were made to stop. Hunger and thirst tell us so. Our hearts have been made to connect – overflowing freely with love that is not to be withheld – that, without great violence to ourselves. You know: building that rock solid wall around our heart which we presume will protect us. That’s the only way love can be stifled as we break bread with one another. . . . Meals are the perfect place for us together to be a little bit more of who God has made us to be. Creatures who know our dependence on one another, on this beautiful world, and on the Mystery that dances all in between – the Mystery we call the Holy One. God.

It was no ordinary meal Jesus sat down to enjoy on this night so long ago. His people were in the midst of the festival culminating in the meal we heard instituted at the Exodus. The celebration of the Mighty One passing over all of their households on the way to giving them something that had been taken from them: their freedom. . . . The meal of Passover was a Sabbath unlike all the others of the year – it was THE meal that reminded them of who they were, to whom they belong, and for what purpose the great act of Passover was done. . . . That night together was a most holy meal, deepened further in meaning as the Lamb that was about to be slain for the Passover feast sat among those first disciples.

According to the gospel of John, he went a bit overboard in the symbols that night at the meal on the night before Passover. He took off his outer garments, got down in the dust at their feet, and humbly washed each one. . . . Foot by foot, did he remember all the steps they had taken together over the years? As he held each person’s feet in his hands, did he recall the day he first called that one? When he told them to love as he had loved, could he see all of the places their feet yet would take them in proclamation of the most amazing love they had come to know in him? . . . Ah, what holy moments around the table of that holy meal.

In the bread and in the fruit of the vine we are about to partake at his command, we are challenged to remember. To wonder what the Christ would be thinking as he held our feet in his hands, then broke the bread and poured out the cup that we might taste the gifts that change us forever: the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation for us! . . . That meal; a holy, holy meal that charges us to go to live likewise.

source unknown; but I LOVE this view of that Holy Meal!

Source unknown; but I LOVE this view of that Holy Meal!

In the silence now, let us be readied to receive such an amazing gift! Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2015  (All rights reserved.)