May 2011 Sermons:
Easter is over, isn’t it? The bulletin says today is the “Second Sunday of Easter,” but people have moved on to other things. We’ve planted our tulips and hyacinths. We’ve eaten our leftover ham sandwiches and put away the Easter baskets and egg-dyeing kits.
The choir hasn’t finished with Easter yet. We’re still humming the anthems from that beautiful cantata. Almost two hundred people showed up here, to worship, last Sunday. We were thrilled. We’ll remember that day for a long time. But how does Easter make a difference to us?
The disciples weren’t sure if Easter had made a difference for them. They were still in the dark of Good Friday. Jesus was gone, they had thought. Sunday had come, with the unbelievable news that He had risen from the dead. But the men in the upper room were afraid to go check that rumor out. It was a jungle out there, and they knew it. They were terrified of the Romans and the Pharisees. Maybe they were even afraid of Jesus. In their fear, they had left Him to die alone. Have you ever been afraid to face a friend that you have hurt? So they locked themselves into the upper room, their minds filled with terror. And they waited—half expecting Jesus to rebuke them for their cowardice. I’m sure Peter, James and John thought about going back to what they’d been doing for a living, three years ago. Maybe it was time to buy back their fishing boats and return to the Sea of Galilee. For now, they huddled together behind a locked door, not sure what they were waiting for, or when they would be able to leave.
And all of a sudden, Jesus appeared to them there, without unlocking the door! He sounded the same, but looked different. Now He had a spiritual body. He said to them, “Peace be with you!” Just a simple greeting—as if they should have known He would show up. Then He did something strange. He invited them to touch His wounds. They were amazed—perhaps horrified. Then He brought His friends back to life, by breathing the Holy Spirit into them. Staying together and waiting for Jesus had turned out to be a good idea. This was the beginning of the Christian church. Jesus had passed on the Holy Spirit and given His disciples the power to forgive sins. In Luke’s account in the book of Acts, the church doesn’t get started until Pentecost. But John traces the church’s beginnings back to the resurrection.
A week later, Doubting Thomas met up with Jesus and the others, in the upper room again. Jesus could see that Thomas wasn’t buying the Easter story. Jesus didn’t nag or rebuke his friend. He encouraged Thomas to touch Him and said, “Do not doubt, but believe.” And Thomas did.
Does this story make sense to you? Are you a little bit cynical, like Thomas? Have you ever wondered why, if Jesus’ body could go through locked doors, He still had wounds in His hands and side? If surgeons can do wonders today with scars, why couldn’t our all-powerful God have repaired Jesus’ body and made it perfect again? I, for one, find a wounded Jesus more comforting than a physically-perfect one. We are healed by His scars. Jesus was the first wounded healer.
Touch the palms of your hands. Have you ever felt completely abandoned? Have you ever been betrayed by someone whom, you had been sure, would stand by you? Jesus had been betrayed and abandoned, and He had the wounds to prove it. Don’t we all?
It’s really important that Jesus’ disciples saw and touched His wounds and scars. I believe that Jesus needed to remind them that they had let Him down in a serious way, and that He forgave them and loved them still, in spite of all they had NOT done. In the process of being forgiven, we need to be willing to touch places where our brothers and sisters have bled. Only then can we really understand what they have been through.
Jesus had been wounded long before He died on the cross. He was more than a God. He was a human being—the Word had become flesh in Him. He had been hurt. In our lives we have wounded places, too. Nobody heals completely from the scars of childhood. Nobody survives to adulthood without hurts and losses. I’m not just talking about coming in last in the fifty-year dash, and being laughed at, although that happened to me. I’m not just talking about your best friend moving away, although that happened to me too. Children are often ignored, betrayed, unfairly excluded, and powerless. The wounded Christ was with us when we were kids, and He is with us now. He cares. He comes to you and me, saying: “Peace be with you.”
Touch the palms of your hands. Jesus knows the painful memories that come back to you in flashbacks, and in your dreams. Words you hear and see, places you go, people you meet, open your wounds. Just yesterday, my husband found a pair of old running shoes in a closet. A leaf had fallen out of one of the holes in the sole of his shoe. It was from a beautiful tree. The tree had been, and probably still is, in the front yard of a manse that was an unhappy place for the Smothers family. That green and pink leaf was more than two years old when we found it yesterday. It had survived in two dark closets—one in New Jersey and one in Pennsylvania-- without turning brown. For us, seeing that leaf was not a pleasant experience. It reminded us of a frustrating time in our lives—a wound we still carry with us. But we were able to say, “UGH! The manse in Atlantic Highlands! ”and to laugh about its constantly-flooded basement, its daily power outages, its frozen pipes, and its cramped closets. We gave thanks for the place where we are now.
Jesus brings us the gift of peace as He shows us His wounds. He was abused more than we have ever been. But He forgave even the ones who had killed Him. Jesus said, “Reach out your hand and place it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.”
Jesus had passed through the door of the upper room, like a ghost, in our gospel story. But His spiritual body was human, too. On this second Sunday of Easter, we give thanks that He lives! The gospel of John invites us to believe what was so difficult for Thomas to accept without evidence. Not only has Jesus been raised from the dead, but He has also forgiven our sins. Because He’s breathed His Spirit into us, we can forgive others. What a privilege to have that power!
This morning, we are invited to the Lord’s Table. There we will touch and to taste the spiritual body of Jesus. Each time we take communion, Jesus gives us what we need. By His wounds, we are healed. Let us eat the bread of life and drink deeply of the cup of salvation. May God give us courage to witness to the resurrection, so that others may believe.
Lord, help us to forgive one another as you forgave your disciples, and as you have forgiven us. Replace our instinct for self-interest with a new instinct for compassion and care that we may resemble you in love. Soon we shall share the bread and 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 love you with all our heart and mind and strength. Amen.
I Peter 1:13-25
You’ve already heard an Easter sermon today! Peter’s first letter to Christian congregations is an Easter sermon. It was our New Testament lesson. We think Peter, or one of his followers, wrote it in Rome, around 64 A.D., just before the Emperor Nero began his rule. You’ve heard how that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. He was one of the worst leaders of the Empire. Nero hadn’t started persecuting Christians yet, but it was about to happen. Peter wrote this letter to encourage and teach former slaves from Rome who wanted to find new lives as Christians.
These slaves had settled in Turkey. Two thousand years ago, Turkey was known as Asia Minor, and there were many new churches there. Slaves were welcomed to Christian worship services. Peter, who was the leader of the church, had an interesting way of communicating with these churches. Writing letters was the way he kept in touch. This particular letter would have been hand-lettered onto a huge scroll and carried to every Christian settlement. Peter’s followers would have taken the scroll, on foot, across deserts, and in boats across the sea. Churches in Asia Minor would have heard the letter read in the weeks after Easter, and then passed it on. They were the little house churches that had been started by the Apostle Paul thirty years before.
In the letter, Peter tells them how to live a reverent and holy life. Can we find inspiration in Peter’s words? What does it mean to be a child of God, and to raise Christian children? Are his words of hope, meaningful to us in this day and age? Do we have anything in common with early Christians in Asia Minor?
Exile is an important theme in the Bible. Usually an exile is a move you don’t want to make, to a faraway place for an undetermined amount of time. How many of you have lived in three or four different area codes? How many have lived in area code 610 or 215 all your life? Did you live in eastern Pennsylvania before there were any area codes? You don’t have to be in Timbuktu or the Gulag to feel that you’ve been exiled. Today, even people who have lived in the same town for years feel exiled. Society has changed. Do you feel alienated when you see people with pierced tongues and purple hair? Do you feel you live in an alien culture when your child gets invited to a birthday party scheduled on Sunday morning? Do you feel like you’re in exile when your children talk together on their “droids” and you aren’t quite sure what they are?
Many of you grew up here. Do you remember McArthur Road before fast food restaurants and mattress stores sprang up? Bethlehem has changed, too. John and I used to visit my in-laws there when we were young. We drove to Amore’s on Route 512 to buy corn on the cob. Amore’s was in a cornfield and there were cow barns across the road. Now, Amore’s has condos, single family homes and office complexes within walking distance. The barns are gone. I miss those cows!
The population of the Lehigh Valley has changed, too. Many newcomers in Allentown speak only Spanish, so I’m at a loss to talk with them. The world seems focused on younger people. Older folks wonder why we’ve never heard of the celebrities on the covers of People magazine. We are in a brave new world, not of our making. And that’s how the ancient Christians of Asia Minor must have felt—but for the opposite reason. They had run away from the pagan society of Rome, where Emperor Nero was the god of the hour. Now they were trying to find out how to be like Christ. What an adjustment!
By the time Peter’s first letter was written, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection had spread like wildfire in the Middle East. Christian communities gathered around to hear what had happened to Him. No one needed Jesus Christ more than these former slaves did. We can ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” They couldn’t, because they had no idea. Remember, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John hadn’t written the gospels yet. The listeners of Peter’s sermon wanted to learn to be reverent. Was eternal life a possibility for them? If they could become holy, would they go to heaven to be with Him? They had so many questions.
According to our epistle lesson for today, the Christian doesn't obey the commands of Jesus Christ in order to get the reward of becoming a Christian. It’s the other way around. A faithful Christian lives out the commands of Jesus Christ because he or she IS ALREADY a Christian! Anyone who comes to the church for baptism is saved already by the Holy Spirit. Good deeds and reverent lives are our response to God’s love for us.
Peter preaches here about love in action. He calls new Christians to love their neighbors “deeply from the heart” because all are children of God. He writes that God’s love is the force that empowers Christians to be kind, and that the force of God’s Spirit is already in them. Parents and children, wives and husbands are to think of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to love one another earnestly. God has called us to live in mutual love with all Christians, Peter writes. He encourages the hearers of this sermon to be reverent, faithful and hopeful, to trust in God, and to obey the truth.
Many of us learned about Christian reverence toward God from our mothers, our grandmothers, and our Sunday School teachers. A mother’s love for her children is God’s power in action. Our moms taught us to love one another with songs, with stories from the Bible, and by the example of the way they lived. My standard of behavior, when I was little, was: “What would my Mother, or my Grandmom, do?” Only in my adult life did I know enough to ask what Jesus would do.
On Mothers’ Day, we celebrate our moms. Love for us, and reverence for God, were the forces behind the meals our moms prepared; the trips to soccer, baseball, ballet and piano lessons; the bedtime stories read to us; all the long walks and long talks. Our moms grew up in an easier time than we live in. But they passed along Christian faith and reverence for life that have helped us survive challenges in our lives, now that the cow barns are gone from Center Street and fast food restaurants have taken the place of cornfields on McArthur Road.
Martin Luther once said that baptism is a sacrament for the whole of life. Today we baptize Nathan, Briana, Dameon, and Kiersten. Baptism stands at the beginning of the Christian experience. It’s their first step in what we all hope will be a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ. The Spirit will direct these young people—but we, as a congregation, must encourage them in the same way Peter encouraged the first Christians in Asia Minor. We must also encourage their parents, Stephen and Erica, who will be their primary teachers for living reverent lives.
This church family has always done a good job of nurturing Christian children. We have had many faithful mothers, fathers, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, and pastors here. They’ve set the bar very high! I pray that we keep up our strong tradition, and I give thanks that the Spirit has sent these children to our congregation.
Beloved Lord God, Your love brings us healing and wholeness. Help us to face challenges honestly and in the knowledge of your compassionate love that we know in Jesus Christ. Let us run into your open and welcoming arms, and never feel separated from you and your Holy Spirit. Amen.
What did “home” look like, for a sheep in Jesus’ time? I’d like to think that it looked like our stained glass window that shows Jesus as the Good Shepherd in a lush green pasture. That window shows the kind of life we’d like Jesus to have lived. But we know that His life was actually very difficult.
It would be hard to find a home for sheep, or a shepherd, that looks like that window nowadays. Sheep live on ranches. They’re herded, in flocks of thousands, by shepherds who don’t carry rods or staffs. Instead, they drive jeeps and fly helicopters. Shepherds don’t look like the picture of Jesus in our window, either. I imagine Clint Eastwood or Josh Brolin as the modern shepherd type. Sheep of the twenty-first century don’t have a personal relationship with shepherds any more. Efficiency and technology rule the modern sheep ranch.
In Jesus’ time, a shepherd had a name for each of his sheep. He knew which ones were lame, and which ones tired easily. The shepherd protected sensitive and fearful sheep with special care. He could walk through his sleeping flock without disturbing a single one. He was a veterinarian, caregiver, bodyguard, and team leader in one.
You can see why Jesus picked shepherds as models of servant leadership. Shepherds knew all the health issues sheep have to deal with. Sheep have a unique problem that calls for a gentle touch. The word, “downcast,” in the English language, was first used in Scotland in the fifteenth century to describe it. Sheep have very heavy upper bodies, especially before shearing. They also have spindly legs. It’s hard for them to get back on their feet after sleeping on the ground. A sheep that can’t pull itself up in the morning is “downcast.”
Those of us with weak knees can identify with downcast sheep. When I was at seminary, I started having problems with my knees. A Christian Education professor would make us sit on the floor to tell stories. I got downcast at the end of class. I was stuck to the ground and couldn’t get up! I had to ask younger classmates to help me stand. When a sheep is downcast, a skillful shepherd slides his hands under the sheep’s body and puts it back on its feet. We all get weak-kneed at times in our lives. We need Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to lift us from the ground and stand by us. Jesus tells us, in the gospel reading, that He came to us so we might live abundantly.
What is an abundant life? Sheep that have good shepherds watching them, are able to live long, safe lives, but I doubt they live abundantly. They just eat grass and sleep and get sheared. We aren’t sheep, and of course we realize that Jesus is really offering us humans the gift of abundant life. He’s not describing a life of health and wealth and comfort. We all want something more than that, or we wouldn’t be here today. Sheep are happy to graze and sleep. We like challenges!
“Life” is one of John the gospel writer’s favorite words. He uses it in reference to Jesus, at least twenty-five times. For John, Jesus is the source of all life in the universe. John makes the purpose of his gospel clear—that “in believing (we) may have life in Jesus’ name.” For John, life in Christ means living in fellowship with Him and with the Father who sent Him. Is that kind of life comfortably lived out in green pastures? Maybe for a sheep --- but not for a human being!
To have an abundant life, according to John’s gospel, we must love the things Jesus loves. We must desire what He desires for us, and live with the kind of purpose that Jesus calls us to have. If we live abundantly, Christ is the “bread of life” that fills us and the “living water” that quenches our thirst. A life caught up in Christ can be very satisfying. I’m thinking of Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer. Both gave up comfortable lives to serve God under difficult conditions, and asked for no more than that.
Crises are important parts of the abundant life. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ biggest concern is that Christians live ethical lives. He leads people through their crises, and helps them to find the blessings hidden in their troubles. A person who leads an abundant life copes with disaster and finds the way to the other side. Think of Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus dies. Or think of the blind man in chapter nine, whose healing I preached about a few weeks ago. They rose to unthinkable challenges.
Jesus knew life’s cruel trials. Ancient Palestine had sheep grazing in green pastures, but it also had famine and disease and Roman oppression. Jesus warned His disciples that they would suffer for their faith. But He promised that He would send the Holy Spirit to comfort them and guide them home.
Jesus cared little for comfort. He reached out and healed and fed the needy and gave them a foretaste of eternity. When Jesus says He came to earth so we might live abundantly, He’s talking of a life lived in close relationship with Him—so close that, no matter how painful our challenges are, we handle them in the way of love, with the Good Shepherd by our side. Abundant lives are lived generously and kindly and resourcefully. We can live abundant lives, even in this chaotic, senseless world, if Christ is our guide.
We have to trust the Good Shepherd and follow where He leads. Society tells us to be independent, but we can’t rely on our instincts alone—even though we are smarter than sheep! E. Stanley Jones, a great Methodist preacher, tells the story of a missionary who got lost in an African jungle when trying to find his way home. Looking around, he saw nothing but bush. He stumbled around until he saw a hut. He asked an African, living there, to lead him out of the jungle and back to the mission station. The man who lived in the hut agreed to help him.
The missionary thanked the man and then asked, "Which way do we go?" His guide replied, "This way, but we are going to have to walk." So the two men hacked their way through the jungle for more than an hour. In pausing to rest, the missionary had the same overwhelming sense that he was lost. All he saw was bush and a few clearings. "Are you quite sure this is the way?," the missionary asked. "I don’t see a path."
His guide looked at him and replied, "Bwana, in this place I am the path." God is the path for us. God protects us and leads us where we need to go. Our well-being depends on our willingness to let Jesus guide us. He is our Good Shepherd, and He is the way home. Thanks be to God!
Good Shepherd, we thank you for watching over us and bringing us to safety, so far in our lives. Increase our faith and renew our courage. Show that you are still with us, guiding us toward home, even if we wander away from you, as we all do sometimes. Bless all good shepherds, including all parents as they raise their children to lead godly lives. Bless the Case family, on this day of Mackenzie Christine’s baptism, and bless our new members, Anne and Julee, and their families, Help all of us, in this congregation, to be selfless shepherds as we care for one another. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray. 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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