April 2012 Sermons:
"Prepare the Way of the Lord" — April 1
If there is a better moment in the life of our church than the children’s parade on Palm Sunday, I can’t think what it is! The hymns of this day are wonderful, too. We began with "All Glory, Laud, and Honor" and later we’ll sing, "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna". They’re up-beat, powerful hymns that we all know.
I love the parade story because it’s so dramatic. It has lots of noise and props and parts for children. It has frightened disciples and conspiring politicians. And in the center of the crowd, we find a young man, riding on a colt—a man we know well. This man loves His life. But He is on His way to His death.
I’d like to think that Jesus enjoyed this moment of victory as the crowds shouted "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." But we know how this story will end. We know that He’ll never sit on the throne of King David. On the following Friday, the cheers of “Hosanna!” will become "Crucify him!” We know that a crown of thorns will replace the palm branches. We Know that Jesus is about to die.
For Jesus, this story begins when He decides to leave Galilee for Jerusalem, to celebrate Passover. Jewish pilgrims crowded into the city at Passover time. In fact, the city’s population grew from forty thousand to two hundred thousand at that time of year. It made the Romans nervous. They knew the Jews were celebrating their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Uprisings were common at Passover. That’s why the Romans increased the normal number of troops in the city that week. It was such a dangerous time for the occupying Roman troops that their Governor, Pontius Pilate, moved his headquarters inland from Caesarea to Jerusalem.
So Jesus entered the city at a dangerous time. He had plans to stay with his friends in the outlying village of Bethany. You’ll remember that Bethany was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. In Bethany, Jesus did something strange. He asked for a colt to ride, something He didn’t ordinarily do.
This reminded all His Jewish friends of an ancient prophecy. It was said that the Messiah would come to the city on a colt, "victorious but humble, riding on a colt.” (Zechariah 9:10) And so when people saw it, they got very excited. To them , it signaled the coming of the long-awaited King of the Jews. A man riding on a colt would rally His people and drive out the hated Roman soldiers. People must have expected Jesus to go to the public square and deliver a powerful speech, while the crowd was watching Him and hanging on his every word. But instead, the way Mark tells it, Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when He had looked around at everything, and it was late, “He went out to Bethany with the twelve." In other words, He just left town for the evening. No speech, no public demonstration of any kind! He came to the city, had a look at the temple, and left. Why didn’t he do more rabble rousing? The crowd didn’t understand, but Jesus wasn’t a warrior. He was a man of peace.
Jesus was a peaceful man, and yet He was a man of principle. On Monday, His real troubles began. Jesus went back into the city, and this time there was no parade. This time He went to the temple and upset the tables of the money changers. He argued with the authorities and made them angry. Almost immediately the Pharisees and the Romans got together and figured out a way to have Him arrested.
Why did He do that? He could have stayed in Galilee and lived safely for the rest of His life. Can’t you picture Him working as a carpenter? Can’t you see Him, teaching in the synagogue as a rabbi? But He didn’t pick the easy way. He went back to Jerusalem and did what He had to do. He challenged the corrupt values of powerful leaders. Jesus knew that He would wind up dead, and yet He still did it.
In the story of Holy Week, God is summoning us to live faithfully and with courage. There’s a message here for a church like ours, which has seen one hundred and fifty-seven Palm Sundays. This is one of the days of the year when we feel the Holy Spirit most intensely. The pressures of this world make it so hard to stay Christian. It’s easy for us to backslide by Monday.
In a way, every Sunday is like Palm Sunday. We gather here and we sing hymns, and we say prayers. Then Monday comes, and we find our ideals getting stretched out of shape by the difficult problems we have to deal with—all those situations that arise at work or in our families. Our spirits get deflated like broken balloons. We find ourselves turning aside from praising God, the way those crowds did, after Jesus left town!
Isn't every week a little bit like Holy Week? Hosannas on Sunday, and then all our troubles are waiting for us—maybe even on Sunday afternoon! By the time Friday rolls around, how much of the Holy Spirit can you still feel in your heart?
We love the spontaneous joy of Palm Sunday. We look on with wonder as a young man arrives in the big city-- a young man who loves His friends and His nation and His religion. Jesus lives as courageously as He can, right up to the end. We admire Him for it. But are we ready to follow Him all the way through Holy Week? When the going gets tougher? Can we take it?
In his book, The Johnstown Flood, David McCullough tells the horrific story of an old earth dam that sat high in the hills above Johnstown, Pennsylvania. On May 31, 1889, the dam burst. More than two thousand people were killed as flood waters thundered down the mountain. It was the first catastrophe in this country that required the American Red Cross to set up and serve the American people. Clara Barton herself was the head nurse on duty.
When all was said and done in Johnstown, many people were missing and presumed dead. At that point, people in the town let their imaginations run wild. McCullough writes, "It seemed reasonable enough to figure that some men . . . decided that here was an opportune time to quietly slip away to a new and better life. And," the author writes, "if one of those names on the list of the missing was somebody you had been close to, it was a whole lot pleasanter for you to think of him living on an apple farm in Oregon…than rotting away beneath six feet of river muck." ( David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968, pp. 265-266.)
Is that the way most if not all of us would prefer to think about the disaster coming for Jesus on Friday? We’d rather deal with our own problems than be confronted with His death on the cross. We don’t want to see our Savior suffer. We’d rather see Him at happy times. God comes into all our lives, and not just to comfort us. God challenges us to live as courageously as His own Son did. Jesus gave His life for us, because He loved us, and loves us still. Will you join His procession?
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, we saw you coming. Someone pressed a palm branch in our hand. We cheered with the best of them. We shouted, “Hosanna!” as our spirits rode high, on the crest of the applause. But now you’ve gone. You’ve ridden on, and the palm-strewn street is empty—except for those who have stepped forward to follow. Give us the courage, Lord, to do the same. AMEN
John 13:1-7, 31b-35
Jesus had made the arrangements for the last supper in secret. He had known He was being hunted, so He had to be careful to stay in hiding. In fact, He had decided not to tell the disciples where they would be meeting, until the last minute.
Jesus still had a lot of support from the crowds, it seemed. So far, His popularity had made it difficult for the Romans to arrest Him. Temple officials had recruited Judas to help them find Jesus in a private place. The soldiers wanted to capture Him quietly and without incident. They didn’t want a mob scene like the one on Palm Sunday. Jesus knew this. He knew the secrets His enemies were trying to keep.
There are secrets in the world. It’s no accident that evil often festers in a world of secrets. The danger of secrets is that they tear at our common fellowship. Secrets give those in "the know" the power to deceive others, and to shame and bully them. We need the light of truth to keep us honest. Jesus knew these things, all too well. He knew which one of His disciples had a dark secret.
Let’s imagine ourselves in the upper room, on the night of the last supper. We can only imagine what’s going on in Jesus’ mind tonight. He knows the noose is tightening. Rome has only one emperor. No other gods are allowed. The Messiah, indeed! This man is actually just a troublemaker, they finally decide. The Pharisees have been plotting to rid themselves of Jesus, because He exposed their corruption in the Temple last Monday. When He had overturned the tables of the money changers that had been the last straw. He had to go, and the powers and principalities meant to get rid of Him by Friday.
Tonight’s supper will be the last opportunity for Jesus and His disciples to share a meal together. It's interesting to see what Jesus does, in His final moments of freedom. How do you say good-bye to your best friends? What would you say and do? Be sure to notice what Jesus doesn't do. He doesn't review His teachings to make sure that they understand. He doesn't pass along secret knowledge. He doesn't talk about honor, or prestige, or power.
Instead of teaching, He acts. And He knows just what to do! His identity as God's Son is secure, and that gives Him confidence. So He loves and serves them. He even serves Judas, who’s His enemy now. For Jesus, loving actions matter more than getting it right. Loving actions are more important than saying the right thing.
He does something that shocks them. He gets up from the table, takes off His outer robe, and ties a towel around Himself. He kneels at the disciples’ feet, as a servant might kneel. Then He pours water into a basin and begins to wash their feet. Now their leader is not ABOVE them, not even BESIDE them, but BENEATH them. He plays the part of the slave at the door.
Foot-washing is a job that the lowliest servants do, in the socially-conscious society of the Roman Empire. In the ancient Near East, the people were very big on hospitality. Even so, nobody with any social status at all would do a job like foot washing. Only a person really desperate for work would have bent over and washed the feet of the guests at a banquet— a king or a lord, or even a rabbi, would never dream of doing such a job. Feet are ugly and smelly. Peter is horrified when Jesus starts to wash his feet. In Peter’s mind, the Messiah shouldn’t be doing that.
Here’s the lesson Jesus wants His friends to remember---that there are no class distinctions among Christians. He teaches this by washing their feet. Real love means being willing to serve all the people we meet, even if those people are stinkers—not just their feet, but their whole selves. Jesus is giving us a powerful model for Christian leadership.
After the foot-washing, Jesus breaks bread and gives it to them. "This is my body." He passes the wine among them. "This is my blood." Whenever they do this, He says, they will be remembering Him.
That's all that is left to do: washing their feet, and then sharing a sacred meal. They will have to remember Jesus in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of the cup. They will have to know Him in the humble service of loving one another. This will have to last beyond death and forever.
Once, in Sunday School, a little boy was drawing a picture of God on a piece of paper. The teacher asked him what he was drawing. Confidently he replied, “This is a picture of God.” The teacher laughed kindly, and said, “Oh, nobody knows what God looks like.” Even more confidently, the boy answered her, “They’ll know when I’m done!”
On this night of glory, we get a glimpse of what God looks like. Come join the throng at Christ’s table and be fed with the richness of Christ’s banquet. Come and experience Christ’s love. Come be washed and refreshed from whatever road has led you to this place. Come and remember whose you are; come and remember who we all are called to be. And may the sacrificial love of Christ inspire you to give of yourself, just as He did.
Almighty God, Soon we will share the bread and the cup that become for us your body and blood, signs of your willingness to lay down your life for the people you made your friends. Help us to allow you to extend your example in our lives. Help us learn to serve gladly, to bend graciously and to love you with all our heart and mind and strength. Amen.
On my half-hour commute to the church every day, I drive past five cemeteries. I can say that I knew some of the good people who are laid to rest there, now that I’ve been your pastor for three years. As I wait in traffic, I read the inscriptions on the stones and recognize familiar last names. I love those peaceful cemeteries, where nothing seems to change--- even the ones on MacArthur Road. Stores in the mall open and close constantly. But the cemeteries near the empty Blockbuster Video and the vacant gas stations seem to go on for eternity. I wonder about those people, who lived their lives before the box stores sprang up in Whitehall. For me, those tombstones are friends. They help me to feel at home in the Lehigh Valley.
Not everyone likes to be reminded of death. A recent survey showed that, in general, older, more religious and more affluent people fear death less than young, poor, nonreligious people. No surprises there!
There are huge advantages to being a pastor. One wonderful advantage I have is that I have been able to come to terms with dying. Working as a chaplain in an emergency room helped me a great deal. ICU nurses, and people like Jay Gilbert, know what I’m talking about. When you see death every day, you begin to realize that dying isn’t the end. Resurrection is more than a theological idea for me. There is such peace in that! I couldn’t preach on the Easter Story every year, and I couldn’t visit patients or meet with grieving families, without being sure that my Redeemer lives. The disciples were eyewitnesses to Christ’s return, and they recorded it and willingly died for it.
Mark’s gospel tells the Easter story, beginning with death. Three women are on their way to a cemetery. They are planning to anoint Jesus’ body with perfume and spices. These women are all preoccupied with how big the stone is, and wondering if they can move it by themselves. Discovering that Jesus may be alive, isn’t part of their plans. After they find the empty tomb of their friend, how do they respond? The Bible says they’re terrified. Today’s gospel reading tells us that the women run away and say nothing. That’s it. Mark doesn’t mention the women telling the disciples that Jesus is risen. If we read only Mark’s description, and we didn’t have other gospels to tell us the rest of the story, we could only guess what happened after the women left the tomb.
Scholars have been arguing for years that the end of the original scroll of the Gospel of Mark was torn off from the rest of the parchment and lost forever. On page 830 of your pew Bible you’ll see eleven verses, from 9 to 20. They were probably added onto Mark’s gospel by someone else in the second century. Those extra verses agree with the other gospels. We just don’t know who wrote them.
We live in a death-denying culture. We’re fascinated by it, but at the same time we want to look away. When faced with death, the most common reaction people in our society have is silence. Consider, for example, the Pilgrim settlers in Massachusetts. They were “death-denyers” too. In their opinion, when someone died, the best thing to do was to say nothing. And so when someone passed away, as quickly as possible the Pilgrims buried that person without any funeral ceremony, without any prayers, without saying anything.
And those Pilgrim settlers tried their best to teach the Indians to do the same. But it seems that one day a certain Indian died. And so, doing as the Pilgrims had taught them, the Indian tribe silently took the dead body out into the woods to the burial ground and put the body into the grave. And having done that, the tribe then lingered there. Nobody said a word.
Finally, though, even though the Pilgrims had instructed them to say nothing, the Indians felt in their hearts that something had to be said. And so they walked over to a nearby tree and sat down. One of the tribal leaders spoke words of hope. And when he had finished speaking, the tribe joined together in prayer.
If we don't speak a message of hope after someone dies, then somebody else will speak a message of despair. Death has a convincing message that he tries to get us to hear. It’s easy to imagine the Angel of Death standing at the cemetery and saying to us: "Where is your God? The Bible says, in Psalm 121, that the Lord will keep you from all evil, that he will keep your life, from this time forth and forevermore. Look at that grave. Did the Lord keep their life?" That’s what I would imagine the Angel of Death saying.
Wouldn’t you agree that Death seems to have all of the evidence on his side? Look at that lifeless body in the casket. Look at that empty chair at the table. Look at that grave covered with dirt. All the evidence seems to be in Death's favor. The only logical conclusion seems to be that Death has the last word.
And that's the conclusion that the three women came to, as they made their way to the tomb that Easter morning. You see, those women had seen how Jesus had been nailed to the cross. They had seen Him die. They had seen His body put there into that grave, and the stone rolled across the front. So the women figured they had all the evidence, on that Sunday morning, that Jesus was dead. But when the women arrived at the tomb, they were met by a man in a white robe, who suggested to them that things aren't always what they seem. The man announced to them that Jesus had been raised.
When you plant a lily bulb in the ground, you get a lily. That's natural. That's to be expected. When you plant radish seeds in the ground, you get radishes. That's natural. And when you put a dead body in the ground, you get a dead body. That's natural. That's to be expected.
But on Easter, we are invited to believe something more than that. You see, God invites us to believe what He has promised will happen—not just what we can see and feel with our senses. And that's what the man in white said to the women. Jesus is raised, just as He promised.
Fear of dying has a firm grip on us. But God has overpowered death. So, go ahead, look in the tomb. He's not there. God has done, for us, the biggest thing we can’t do for ourselves. God has triumphed over our most dreaded enemy. Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, just as He promised. Let’s go out and pass along the Easter message. He is risen!
Let us pray. Blessed are you, Almighty God. You are the author of life and the savior of our souls. We thank you for the power that raises Jesus Christ from the dead, and through him we trust you to overcome every power that threatens to hurt or destroy. Receive our thanks and praise, through Christ our Risen Lord. Amen.
I feel sorry for this man. His nickname, "Doubting Thomas,” has stuck to him for centuries. And what’s more -- his big moment in the spotlight always comes on the Sunday after Easter, because that’s where the revised common lectionary puts his story. There are people in our congregation who might never hear about Thomas, because fewer of our members come to church on the Sunday after Easter. I’m glad you’ve come to hear his story today.
Just last Sunday, we heard the greatest miracle story of all –the story of Jesus being raised from the dead. We’ve heard that one a lot more often than the story of Doubting Thomas. We forget what an amazing concept resurrection really is. And yet, I realize there are many of you who have never doubted that Jesus was raised from the dead. But what about those of you who have a harder time believing in spiritual things? I think this gospel lesson about Thomas is a story for you.
Thomas has a great deal to teach all of us. Our faith reaches a high point on Easter Sunday. It’s simpler to believe in the resurrection when we’re surrounded by others who believe in it, too. On Easter, we sing hymns that lift up our hearts, like “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” All over the world, other believers are also celebrating. We’re able to set aside our doubts and get caught up in the spirit of Easter joy. But by the Sunday after Easter, we start to doubt again.
We’ve just had a week filled with the usual routine. Life in mid-April seems no different from life in October or January. After Easter, we start to think like Thomas, in a more concrete and tangible way. We ask questions like: "You say He’s risen? I’d like to believe that, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it. Show me, and then maybe I’ll be able to believe."
But we’re different from Thomas in one big way. We’ve never had the opportunity to see the resurrected Jesus, standing next to us in the upper room. All of us have come to believe in Jesus through reading and hearing the gospel stories. We may see Him reflected in other people. We may feel His presence. But it’s not quite the same as actually seeing Him, walking along the road, or reaching over and touching Him.?
And so we have doubts. We have to walk by faith and not by sight. We aren’t sure God is looking out for us as carefully as we would like. Even the most faithful people have doubts. I would venture to say that anyone who claims not to doubt God’s existence, once in a while, is either a saint or a liar. Does that make doubters, second-class Christians?
Do you punish yourself for having doubts? Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas. He does tease him about his skepticism, though: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe." Jesus is making a dig at the other disciples, too, when He says this. Remember, they didn’t believe until they had seen Him, either. They were hiding in fear behind a locked door. It’s just that they saw Him a week before Thomas did! But, have you ever thought of yourself as being more blessed than the disciples, because you haven’t seen the risen Jesus, and you still believe? Interesting to think about, isn’t it??
On the other hand, while Jesus doesn’t condemn Thomas for his doubts, He doesn’t praise him, either. Jesus does what He can to help Thomas get past his doubts, so that he can get on with being a disciple—and that’s important for us to do, too. Doubt isn’t a sin, I don’t think. But we could call it a theological weakness. Have you ever known people who are practically professional skeptics, who question everything you say about your faith? That’s not how we are supposed to be! ?
Most of us learn as children that "God is good" and "God is powerful." But as we get older and become more aware of the world around us, we start to wonder. I question my faith when I’m listening to the news. Often I just go to another room so I don’t have to hear what human beings have done to each other. If God loves the world, why does God let school shootings happen? News reports challenge the simple understandings about God that work so well for us on Easter Sunday.
Growing up is a process of reshaping our faith to make sense of our experience. We get so deeply disillusioned by life. I hear a lot of people’s doubts. I can’t simply say "God is good" to a parent who has just lost a child. I listen to his or her doubts about God’s goodness, and I don’t contradict the feelings that have been expressed.. For a parent who’s lost a child, God may no longer exist. I have to let God use that bitter skepticism I’ve heard, to carry me to an even deeper faith.?
A doubting faith is still faith!! Perhaps we can take a lesson from one of the many people who approached Jesus for help during His ministry. Remember the man who prayed, "Lord, I believe – help thou my unbelief?" If we even think about God enough to doubt, that’s a good thing. If we even come to church or attend worship or choir or Bible study, we have a significant amount of faith. The Lord helps our unbelief, when we are ready to do something about it.
Don’t forget that the first words Jesus said to His disciples when He appeared to them after the resurrection were, "Peace be with you." He knew they were troubled and fearful. They had reason to be! They were expecting to be arrested. Jesus had to go through a locked door to get to them! He knew their faith had been shaken. And yet He told them to be at peace.
Jesus says the same thing again a week later, this time with Thomas in the room. And He tells all us Thomases of the twenty-first century the same thing: "Peace be with you. I know you have doubts. I know that some days your faith doesn’t seem adequate to get you through everything you have to face. But be at peace. I am with you always, even though you cannot see me."?
Thomas was a man who wanted to believe, but couldn’t make that leap of faith any more. His heart had been broken on Good Friday. When Jesus invited Thomas to touch His wounds, that’s all it took. Thomas was ready to believe again. Dealing with our doubts is a lifelong journey. We may not reach the end of that journey until we stand, face to face with God. In the meantime, Christ is with us in our struggles. Blessed are we who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, we have doubts, just as your disciples did. We have fears like theirs. We want to be with you, and so did they. Come, Lord Jesus, and stay with us, even when we don’t stay with you. Return to us, as you returned to them, and bring us peace. AMEN
Did you ever think about how different Jesus’ birth and resurrection stories are? Think about the Christmas stories. No one, even King Herod, doubts that the baby lying in the manger will grow up to be a king. But, in the Easter stories, we don’t have a heavenly host pointing toward Jesus. We don’t hear angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” There are no wise men and no shepherds. There is no star of Bethlehem. People don’t travel to find Jesus on or after Easter. Instead, He comes to them, in the midst of their grief and their doubts.
Jesus comes at those times in our lives when we need Him. On Easter morning, He comes to frightened disciples and lonely women. Nobody believes, at first, that He’s risen from the dead. Not in any of the four gospels! In the gospel of John, Mary Magdalene sees the empty tomb, and tells Simon Peter and "the disciple whom Jesus loved." The men see the empty tomb. They go away, puzzled, and don’t say or do anything. Mary stands there weeping. Even when Jesus speaks to her, she is so certain that people can’t rise from the dead, that she doesn’t recognize Him. She thinks He’s the gardener.
We find out a few verses later that the disciples are hiding in the upper room. How many times had Jesus told them that He would suffer and die, and on the third day be raised from the dead? But they aren’t sitting around, reminiscing about Jesus and wondering when He’ll be back. On the contrary, they’ve locked the doors, "for fear of the Jews." They had never believed He’d be resurrected. But suddenly, He appears, and now they believe.
Ditto for Thomas. He was no more of a "doubter" than the others; he simply wasn’t there to see. Once he saw, he believed as well. Luke’s version is similar to the story from John, except in a few details. Here’s how it goes. Just after Jesus has disappeared from the table in Emmaus, and the two disciples there have run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others, Jesus appears among them. Luke tends to give us a lot of physical detail. Luke seems to be more truthful about the disciples’ reaction than John. John merely tells us that they felt joyful. But Luke tells us that, at least at first, "they were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost."
A ghost seems easier to believe in than a resurrected body. Jesus shows them His hands and feet. He invites them to touch Him, to see that He has flesh and bones. But Luke tells us that even in the midst of their joy, "they were disbelieving and still wondering." So Jesus gets a piece of broiled fish from them and eats it. Since everyone knows that ghosts don’t eat, Jesus has proved He has a resurrected body. Now they begin to listen to what He says. Jesus tells them that they are witnesses to the fulfillment of scripture.
But in both cases – Luke’s telling of the story, and John’s – the disciples don’t believe anything good has happened until Jesus shows up in person and makes them believe it. Hang onto that for just a minute, and let’s think about what it means to be a "witness." If I’m a witness in a courtroom, it means that I’m testifying about something I have seen that the jury has not seen. I’m trying to get a group of people to believe my version of a reality they have not experienced.
Eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate. We know that different people can observe the exact same event and remember different things about it. So when I try to be a "witness," part of the job is not only to tell what I know, but also to persuade others that my version of events is the correct one, and that I am telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Being a "witness" when it comes to telling the faith story is similar. Once the disciples had actually seen Jesus, it was no longer a matter of belief. It was a question of evidence. They had all doubted. Not one of the disciples had enough faith to get beyond the horror of Jesus’ death—until He showed up in that room.
But once you’ve seen for yourself, it’s not a question of faith any more. The disciples had it easier than we do. They weren’t being asked to believe an impossible story. They saw their resurrected Lord with their own eyes. Anne Lamott, the writer, once said a wonderful thing in a newspaper interview. “The opposite of faith is not doubt,” she said. “The opposite of faith is certainty.” Think about that. Having faith is different from verifying facts. The disciples didn’t have faith in the resurrection. They watched Him eat a piece of broiled fish. They saw His wounds. To them, He was real. We’re the ones who must have faith to believe that the disciples’ testimony is accurate.
Think about the Apostle’s Creed. We say it together every week. Do we say, "I know that such-and-such happened"? No, we say that we believe. We didn’t touch Jesus, or speak with Him in the flesh. We can’t have the kind of certainty the disciples had.
Think about it as well in terms of our daily lives and struggles. Do I have to have "faith" that the sun will rise each morning? Or do I just know it? Do I have to have faith that walking in the rain will get me wet? Or is that something I can know? Similarly, do we know what God’s opinions are? Or do we need to have faith that God will guide us to make the best decisions possible? Do we know what God demands of us? Or do we have faith that God will show us what we need to do?
I think the reason that Anne Lamott’s statement captured my attention is that it sums up what’s wrong with fundamentalism. And I don’t mean just Christian fundamentalism; I mean Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism too. When a person is so wrapped up in his own view that he knows he’s right, and anyone who disagrees is wrong, that’s no longer faith.
Too often, we hear that doubt is the opposite of faith. Has anyone made statements like these to you? “Having trouble believing in the resurrection? You just don’t have enough faith.” “Wondering where God is in the midst of a hurricane? You wouldn’t be worrying if you had enough faith.” “Are you grieving over the loss of a friend? If you had had enough faith, your friend wouldn’t have died.” “Unsure about what God wants from you? If you only had enough faith, you’d know.”
Any time someone tries to replace your doubts with their own certainty, then it’s no longer about faith. We can’t know what death is like because we haven’t died. We have to have faith that God is in charge, when sometimes it doesn’t look that way. We don’t "know" that Jesus died and was raised. We have to believe the testimony of the people who were there.
Doubts aren’t an obstacle to faith. But they show that faith can be difficult. We believe because we trust the testimony of those who have seen. We believe because, time and time again, Jesus meets us where we are. He brings peace, if only we will believe.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, long ago you came among your disciples. You spoke to them and touched them. We thank you for coming among us today, in the congregation of believers. Empower us to fulfill, in the community around us, the role you fulfilled for your first followers. O God, may we be for our neighbors the voices of good news they hear, the helping hands they touch. Make us witnesses for the sake of your son, Jesus Christ. Increase our faith, until the day comes, in that world beyond this one, where our faith becomes knowledge and sight. AMEN
In the book of Psalms, there are one hundred and fifty psalms. If I asked you to tell me your favorite psalm, most of you would name the twenty-third psalm, I think. Most people love the King James Version of that psalm that has the old-fashioned phrases like “thou art with me,” and “my cup runneth over.”
We’ve all visited patients who are no longer in touch with reality. A person in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease may not remember who you are, or even who they are. It’s painful to see a loved one gradually becoming less responsive. I can imagine it’s even more frustrating for the patient. As a pastor, it’s a challenge for me to connect with a person whose memory has failed, especially when I meet that patient for the first time. But then I’ll read the twenty-third Psalm aloud, and all of a sudden it’s like a light’s been turned on. That same person who no longer recognizes his own family, will whisper the words of the psalm along with me. There are a few things that one never forgets. When I was a hospital chaplain, there was a young woman who had been in a coma for two months, who could mouth all the words of Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer every day when I read to her from the Bible. And yet she never communicated, in any other way, with me or the rest of the staff.
The word "pastor" comes from the Greek word that means "shepherd." We never see shepherds at all—real ones--- in our urbanized society. But we can many find good shepherds in the Old Testament. Isaiah and Ezekiel, the great prophets, hold up shepherds as examples of good leadership. All through the Bible we find this same message: by following the good shepherd, we learn what it means to live Godly lives.
What is a sheepfold? In the time of Jesus, the shepherds didn’t have barns where they could house the sheep at night. Instead, at the end of the day, shepherds would gather their sheep into sheepfolds that were out in the fields. A sheepfold was a circular pen that was made by stacking rocks. These pens had no doors. Predators were common in the Judean hills, so, to make sure that wolves or foxes couldn’t get in to harm the sheep, the shepherd would sleep at the entryway. For the safety of his sheep, a good shepherd would risk his own life every night by guarding the sheep with his own body. He got little or nothing in return. Shepherds weren’t held in high esteem in Jewish society. They were poorly paid. In fact, they weren’t even allowed inside the Jerusalem temple because they were considered unclean.
Sometimes, five thousand or more sheep would graze together on one hillside. At the end of the day, it was common for two or more shepherds to put their sheep into the same sheepfold for the night. But how would the shepherds know, in the morning, which sheep belonged to which one of them? They had a simple solution. They knew their sheep, and their sheep knew them. It was common for the shepherds to give their sheep names and to talk to them, the way many of us talk to our dogs or cats. The sheep would get used to the sound of the shepherd's voice. In the morning, the one shepherd would just have to stand outside the sheepfold and call out to his sheep, and the ones that belonged to him would respond to his voice and come.
So that is the comparison that Jesus draws in today’s parable from John’s gospel. Jesus says that if we truly belong to him, we will recognize his voice and follow Him. He takes us deeper into life itself, where there is a calm center in every storm. The verb, “to know,” in the Gospel of John, refers to a personal knowledge of Jesus that leads us to deeper commitment.
But Jesus warns us that there will be other voices that will call us. Those voices may belong to thieves and bandits. So Jesus warns us to listen closely to see if it is His voice that we hear or if it is the voice of another. We need to be on the lookout for people who offer us rewards for following them, but are really looking out for themselves. If we don’t want to be led astray, then we need to listen to Jesus' voice and to no other. But we hesitate to do that. Instead, when we have some decision to make, we search on Google, or we turn on a TV talk show. And there we hear, from so-called experts, how to live. But Jesus tells says that, if we want real happiness, then we have to listen to the good shepherd.
We hesitate to respond to Jesus' voice sometimes. We see Him standing at the gate of the sheepfold, encouraging us to come out and follow Him. Because we are gullible, we listen to bandits and hirelings, instead. A caregiver took advantage of my 90-year-old mother, stole a credit card from her and bought a car for herself. My mother hadn’t been driving for several years. I’m thankful my brother was checking my mother’s bills as they came in.
Jesus stands at the gate to the sheepfold, begging us to come out and to follow Him. And yet, we keep lingering inside. Sure, we know that Jesus wants us to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, and to care for the poor. But when Jesus comes along and says,
"Who will follow me and do this?" some of us back away from what Jesus calls us to do by pretending to be just a face in the crowd. That’s what I used to do when I had to give oral reports in school. I think the tendency to be a passive pew-sitter happens more in bigger churches. People of faith tend to forget that, to Jesus, none of us is just a face in the crowd. As the passage in the Gospel of John reminds us, Jesus knows each of us by name. He sacrificed His life for us. When He says, “I lay down my life and I take it up again,”
He claims the authority to control His own death. Jesus foretold His resurrection. He willingly gave His life; it wasn’t taken from Him.
For a boy named Bradley, age eight, an awareness of the meaning of sacrifice came one morning just before breakfast. Somehow, he had managed to slip under his mother’s plate, a bill. Scrawled in crayon were these words: “Mother owes Bradley: for running errands, 25 cents; for being good, ten cents; for taking piano lessons, fifteen cents; for extras, five cents. Total owed: 55 cents.”
Bradley’s mother smiled when she saw the note, but didn’t say a word. When he returned home for lunch, Bradley discovered fifty five cents by his place at the kitchen table. He found a folded piece of paper with it. Opening it, he read, in his mother’s handwriting, these words: “Bradley owes his mother, for nursing him through the chicken pox, nothing; for being good to him, nothing; for clothes, toys and shoes, nothing; for his swing set, nothing; for his meals, nothing. Total= nothing.” Bradley learned a valuable lesson about love that day—that it has no price.
Jesus is our one unfailing shepherd. When He calls us to give of ourselves so that others may live, I pray that we will follow in his way and bear witness to what He has done for us.
Let us pray. Jesus, Good Shepherd, guide our steps over the rocky terrain of our lives, and bring us safely to the pasture of your wisdom and grace. Make us selfless shepherds to one another, that we may walk with them through the gate of your peace and compassion. AMEN
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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