Saturday, June 30, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 6, Mark 5.21-43, Unfailing Hope

Grace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus, The Christ.  Amen

Desperate Hope,
Resilient Faith,
And Healing—
                These are the words that come to me today.
We believe in a God who is the author and giver of all life, and Jesus, the Son who came to redeem and heal.
Powerful stories of healing dot our lives.
We’ve heard them, perhaps even experienced them.
And also, there are those times of disappointment, of longing for a healing that did not come.
This is the stuff, the important stuff, of faith and life.
A father is desperate.
His daughter is at the point of death, and so, he reaches out to Jesus, begging him to lay his hands on his daughter and make her well, so that she might live.
Many people have prayed the prayer.
Sometimes we pray because we believe it’s the first thing we should do.  We pray at the first sign of trouble, a diagnosis we did not want, and yet we pray with a degree of confidence in the prognosis, believing that God can heal us through the various gifts of the medical profession.
And indeed, there are so many times when those prayers do not disappoint, when healing comes, and when life is fully restored.
Thinking of my own life, I am reminded of having heart surgery.  My mitral valve had failed.  In time, it might have killed me.
Prayers were offered.  And a skilled surgeon sought out, and healing happened.  A time of thanksgiving.  And then life goes on.  It’s been over fifteen years now and everything is fine.
Such healings come so frequently these days, we hardly even think of them as an answer to prayer.  We tend to think that healing occurred because we had a gifted surgeon.  And a well trained medical staff. 
Yet, we pray because that’s what we do as people of faith, and whether Jesus gets the credit or not, we are healed.
Thanks be to God.
When Jairus came to Jesus, it was not the first thing he had tried.
His was not a prayer of reverent and confident piety offered as a matter of course.
Everything he had tried had failed.
His daughter was at the point of death.
And his prayer was now one of desperation.
Brad was my doctor, the one who had diagnosed my heart problem.
A few years after that, tumors were discovered in Brad’s  brain.  Such news sets all sorts of things in action.  Surgery was not possible, but radiation was, and so the journey began.
Prayers, week in and week out.
But as the weeks and months passed by, those prayers became increasingly desperate, and even hopeless.  At the point of death we prayed more for peace, than healing, and in anticipation of the resurrection.
That’s likely where Jairus was, hoping against all hope, desperate, but also realistic. 
What could it hurt, this one last try.
There was no time to waste.
And so he turned to Jesus.
Here’s where a curious turn of events happened.
On the way, as the crowd pressed in upon Jesus, a woman who had suffered many years from hemorrhaging, snuck up behind Jesus and touched him, hoping that by doing so she might be healed.
And in that moment, she was.
“Who touched me?” was Jesus response.
What ensued was a conversation that Jairus probably found both hopeful and disturbing all at the same time.
That Jesus had healed this woman undoubtedly gave him hope.
And yet time was running out and here they were caught in the crowds, delayed.  And his daughter was at the point of death.
There is a subplot going on here, that we might note.
Jairus was a leader of the synagogue.
The woman, due to her ailment, her bleeding, was an untouchable.  To touch her made one unclean.
Jesus, feeling her touch, would have become unclean himself according to the Law. 
At any rate, it was an outcast that had delayed Jesus going to Jairus’ daughter.  An outcast who was healed.
Imagine if your heart surgery had been delayed because a homeless person had been brought in that day. . .
And then, Jairus’ friends arrived from his home.
It was in fact, too late.  His daughter had died.
So often, this is where we find ourselves.
We are left to offer care and compassion at the time of death.
One morning I received the phone call from my colleague at hospice.  Brad had indeed died.
And so we go, intent on only one thing, doing what needed to be done at the point of death.
A different prayer would be offered.
A funeral would be planned.
We try to find words to comfort one another, but there really are none, grieving is the agenda for the day.
“Your daughter is dead.  Why trouble the teacher any further?”
We have resolved to accept death as a part of life.
Gathered together in Brad’s living room with his wife, and his doctor friends, we dealt with reality that day.
The prayers for healing had long since fallen silent.
As a pastor the scene is all too familiar.
Every time I experience it, I’m reminded of the many times before.
Despair, though, is not the emotion of the day.
There is a resilience of hope, and we do not grieve as those who have no faith.
“Take off your shoes, Moses, for you are standing on Holy  Ground.”
The time of death is a sacred time and a sacred space.
My own ministry was shaped early on by the experience of death, some far too soon, some delayed so long.
I began to see my ministry as “walking people to the gates of heaven.”
We speak of that ultimate hope in the face of death.
We might have preferred that healing had come, but we still have hope.
And yet, as holy as those times are, there is a yearning.
I wish that I had the power to say two words.  Just two words in those moments.
Especially when death comes too soon, like it did for Alison, a fifteen year old, or Paul, a nine year old, or for the Benton’s baby, just five days old, all people who died within a few weeks of each other in my first parish.
Two word I wish I could have spoken.
“Talitha Cum.”
“Little girl, get up!”
But only Jesus can speak those words.
Not I.
Not You.
Not the greatest surgeon in the world.
Just Jesus and him alone.

Prayer has its limits.
That’s what I’ve come to believe.
And this is the limit.
No matter how desperate, no matter how resilient our faith, no matter how hopeful – we cannot pray ourselves out of our own mortality. 
Talitha Cum.
Oh that we could speak those words, oh that Jesus would speak those words, to all the Alisons, or Pauls, or dying babies of this world.
Death, however, will never be defeated this side of the grave. 
This is a mystery hidden in God’s wisdom.
We will never know or understand why some are healed, and others die far too soon.
Oh, we know the basics.
Brad died because of the tumors that grew uncontrollably in his brain.
Alison, because she was thrown from a car going about 80 miles an hour.
Paul, because of a blow to his head.
And the Bensons baby because it had been born before its lungs had developed enough.
What we understand though, is merely the cause of death, not the why.
But even more so, Life’s ultimate victory will remain for us a mystery until that day dawns in heaven.
But what we have is a deep, resilient faith, that will not be defeated in the face of the reality of death.
Jesus will speak the words “Talitha cum!”
And we will arise and experience what is spoken about in Revelation:
"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus.  Amen and Amen.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 5, Mark 4.35-41, Peace! Be Still!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
“Peace!  Be Still!”  “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
In the Gospel of Mark there are two storms that the disciples encounter as they attempt to cross the Sea of Galilee.
Dr. Don Juel, the seminary professor under whom I studied the Gospel of Mark made the observation for us that these storms represent much more than just the arbitrary weather patterns of the day.  The storms that the disciples encounter are highly significant in Mark’s telling of the Gospel story, and they reflect the inner turmoil the disciples experienced, not merely a weather phenomenon.
Specifically, it is when the disciples cross over the Sea to the other side that they encounter these storms and come face to face with their fears.
The Other Side.
The region beyond the Sea of Galilee, to the east and north, was a Gentile territory.  Not Jewish.  Foreign ground.
These words were especially relevant to the Church at the time the Gospel was written because Christians were struggling with the question of their mission to the Gentiles.
The message of the Gospel had largely been rejected by those in Israel, and the early Christian believers, following Paul, had to make the journey into the Gentile world of the greater Roman Empire.
They became sojourners in a foreign land.
And this journey, away from their home into the unknown, caused great fear.
“Peace!  Be Still!”  “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Fear is a theme throughout the Gospels.
From the angel’s greeting to Mary, to the disciple’s hiding behind the locked door on Easter evening, fear was their constant companion.
Fear is one of the most basic emotions of the human experience.  It produces within us either the desire to flee, or to fight.  It is part of our survival instinct. 
On the one hand it is our fears that keep us alive. 
But on the other hand, our fears can enslave us.
“Peace!  Be Still!”  “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Fear overcomes us when we feel threatened, when we leave our comfort zone, when we face the unknown, and especially when we are out of control.
We all have our fears, and sometimes those fears come to the surface and get the best of us.
One of our primary fears is of our own deaths.  Actually, I had one person tell me that it wasn’t death that made him afraid, it was dying.  There’s a difference. 
This fear of dying, not death, is most evident in one simple fact:  No one, I repeat, no one, wants to end up in a nursing home for the remainder of their life.  Maybe in senior housing.  If need be, perhaps even in assisted living.  But absolutely no one wants to end up spending their last years in a nursing home unable to care for themselves.
It is one of our greatest fears.
There is another type of fear that grips us.
This is like the fear that gripped the disciples as they crossed over the Sea to the other side, to the Gentile world.  It’s the fear of being a minority.
I’ve experienced that fear.
I grew up in South Dakota.  South Dakota is in fact two very separate and different states.  The first is in the East and is entirely white, and I mean entirely.  That’s where I grew up.
The other is primarily in the West, and it comprises 7 major Indian Reservations.  When, as a white boy, you find yourself on a Reservation where everyone else is native, fear is one response.
I felt the same fear when I first experienced an all black neighborhood.
It’s a fear of feeling displaced, of being the minority, of being out of control.
Such fears grip our nation.  They are causing storms to rage all around us.  They unsettle us. 
That’s at the root of many of our fears that are front and center in our nation’s life.
That is the year according to the United States census bureau that White people will cease to be the majority in our country.  At that point there will be more people of color, be it black, Hispanic, oriental, native, and other groups such as Arabs, or mixed race, than there are White people.  White people will remain for a time the largest ethnic and racial block, but no longer the majority.
2043, just twenty five years from now.
That produces fear within many in our country.  Real, palpable fear.
2043 looms on the horizon for two reasons:  First, because the bulk of immigration to our country is no longer from Europe, and second, because the minorities in our country are having far more children that white people.  This is especially true of Hispanic people who, in part because of their Roman Catholic background, have more babies than any other ethnic group in the United States.  And blacks are not far behind.
The birth rate is significant because even if we sealed the borders of our nation, built a wall, and kept all minorities from immigrating, we would only delay the day when whites become a minority.
This is what is driving the white supremacy movement in our country.
If you want to understand why the issue of immigration has become such a major storm in American politics, specifically along our southern border, you need look no further than 2043.
Last week I mentioned the immigration crisis we are facing as a country, and specifically how troubled I have been about the policy of separating children from their parents as their status is reviewed.
This week I’m deeply grateful that President Trump has taken action to stop this practice.
One of the other things that happened is that when I posted my sermon on-line it generated more responses than any other sermon I’ve posted, by far.
One response in particular struck me:
“Never does He call us to welcome rapists, murderers, pedophiles, hate filled blood worshipping monsters into our homes.”
“hate filled blood worshipping monsters”
Can you hear the fear implicit in those words?

There are also other signs of fear in our country.
I’ve shared with you before that one of the troubling things I deal with at my other job is that a number of my co-workers come to work with loaded weapons.  They refuse to drive without a pistol loaded and ready to fire.
It goes beyond simply floundering in a boat amid a storm at sea. 
One of the things about fear is that it often breeds hate.
Fear is why we have ‘hate crimes’ in our country.
“Peace!  Be Still!”  “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
“Then in their trouble they cried to the LORD, and you delivered them from their distress. You stilled the storm to a whisper and silenced the waves of the sea. Then were they glad when it grew calm, when you guided them to the harbor they desired.
Let them give thanks to you, LORD, for your steadfast love and your wonderful works for all people.”
These are the words from our Psalm today.
I encourage you to go home and read the entire Psalm 107 as it deals so beautifully with the fears we face.
Faced with all sorts of fear, time after time the Psalmist declares:
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
Faith casts out fear.
That’s the first thing to bear in mind. 
“Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”
Jesus is in control.
If we really believe that, there is no need to fear.  That’s why we hear so often the phrase, “Fear not!” in the Bible.  Jesus is in control.
Trust in Jesus, and you need not fear, not death, nor people different from ourselves, nor the threats that surround us like a great storm at sea.
A second thing is to have courage.  Courage is different than faith. 
“In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!"
We will have fears, and because our faith is often not yet perfect, those fears remain with us.
Courage, though, is the ability to act even in the face of our fears.  “Good courage”, is the willingness to love, even when doing so makes us vulnerable.
One experience I’ve had as a pastor was helping a woman who was being abused by her husband.  This is very risky, and violence is all too common.
“Are you afraid?” a colleague asked me.
“Yes, I responded, but I still need to do it.”
In that moment God had given me the courage to act even though I was afraid. 
And sometimes that is what we need.
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
How do we do that when we are afraid of our neighbor?  And, in some cases, for good reason.
It takes courage, and that is something God gives us, when we need it the most.
“Peace!  Be Still!”  “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Jesus is with us in the midst of the storm.  Take heart.  Have faith, and be of good courage.  Amen

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 4, Ezekiel 17.22-24, 2 Corinthians 5.6-10 [11-13] 14-17, Mark 4.26-34, Seeking Refuge

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
The last night my father was alive, Dad asked if we could talk, and then proceeded to ask me a question:  “Do you have any favorite bible verse.”
I thought for a while, and offered up the verses in our Epistle lesson and following:
“16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
Dad replied that they were important verses, but asked me to back up and read the verses just prior to that, which was his favorite:
“And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”
I was a bit dumbfounded when I opened up the texts for today, this Father’s Day, and realized that the reading was the very verses that I had discussed with Dad in my final conversation with him.
Dad’s verse speaks of the Father’s love for all, a love so deep that he offered Jesus on the cross for all.
I continue to be drawn to those words “for all”.  Jesus didn’t die “for some”.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
A Father’s Love is not for some of his children, but always and forever “for all”.
The second point of Dad’s favorite verses is the “so that”.
So that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”
There is a purpose in God’s redemptive love, and it is that we might no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ.  There are many things in life that would have us put our own self interest ahead of others, but God says “No, it shall not be so among you.”
We are to live, not for ourselves, but for the sake of Christ, AND, we are to see Christ in our neighbor.
We regard no one from a human point of view.
A human point of view judges others who differ from us, sets up dividing walls between people, and far too often, sees others as adversaries.
God, however, “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”
Christ died for all, that we might be reconciled with all, and that we might live for all.
“God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love, and serve, WHO?”  ALL in our local and global community.
There is a radical inclusivity of the Gospel.
It is this inclusivity and diversity of the Kingdom of God that is envisioned by Ezekiel when he uses the Cedar as an image of the Kingdom, and declares that “Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”
Likewise in today’s Gospel lesson:
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Jesus died – for all.
That we might live – for all.
That we might be reconciled – to all.
That all might find refuge within the Kingdom of God.

These are the essentials of our faith as Christians.
We have been reconciled to God through the saving work of Christ, so that we might be agents of reconciliation to the end that all might know the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.
About that, no Christian should have any disagreement.
But what strikes me today is that it is easy to talk of the Kingdom of God in those terms, but much more difficult when we consider what it means to be a “Christian Nation”.
But let me stop here and make one point:
Our nation was not founded as a “Christian” nation, but rather on the basis of “religious freedom”, and indeed, throughout our history we have had citizens who adhered to many different faiths, and others, who profess no religious faith whatsoever.
This is especially true today as the unChurched segment of our population is the fastest growing demographic in the land.
But having said that, many of us have grown up with the understanding that our nation was founded by Christians, and based on the principles of Christianity.
“One Nation, under God” is one of our rallying cries, and most who say that think of Christianity.  Not Islam, or Hinduism, or Judaism. 
But my question today, is directed toward any of us who understand this to be predominantly a “Christian Nation”.
And the question is this:
To what extent should we, as a Christian Nation, be an embodiment of the Kingdom of God?
Are they to be one and the same thing?
Jesus dedicated most of his teaching to the Kingdom of God, as he did in today’s Gospel. 
Almost all of the parables begin with “the Kingdom of God is like. . .”
But when he taught us about the Kingdom of God, did he mean “Christian Nation”.
One would think so.
But it is not quite so clear.
And this is the difference in many of our minds:
I could preach until I’m blue in the face about the Kingdom of God, without any objection at all. 
“Of course,” we might say, “the Church needs to focus on the Kingdom of God.  That’s what we do.”
And yet if I preach on what it means to be a Christian Nation there will be objections that I’m being too political from the pulpit.
We have cultivated an understanding about the Kingdom of God that is separate from the world, and perhaps even irrelevant to earthly nations.
But if we understand the Kingdom of God as having to do with the reign of Christ, here and now, is that to politicize the Gospel.  Yes?  Or No?
And this is the problem:  Jesus teaching on the Kingdom of God should unite us whereas the politics of what it means to be a Christian Nation too often divide us.
But can we separate the two?
I am deeply troubled by what is happening at our southern border with regards to the immigrants from Latin America that have come here seeking refuge.
Most troubling of all is that we have adopted the policy of separating children from their parents, placing the children in various make shift facilities while imprisoning the parents as criminals.
The “politics” of this are troubling and divisive, to say the least.  But I’m not going to debate those political issues, at least not from this pulpit.  If you want to talk about that, let’s arrange to do so at another time.
But what I will ask is does being a “Christian Nation” have anything to do with the “Kingdom of God”?  That is a religious question, a question of faith.
What would Jesus do?
How should we, who claim to be Christian, first and foremost, respond to the situation of the immigrants at our border who come here seeking refuge?
And does it matter that these mothers and fathers and children are fellow members of the Body of Christ?  Most of them would be devout Catholics.
To put it another way, many will debate and disagree how we should handle the situation as a nation, but what about as the Church?
What does it mean to say:
Jesus died – for all.
That we might live – for all.
That we might be reconciled – to all.
That all might find refuge within the Kingdom of God.

"Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
In Leviticus it is written:
“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34
A Father’s Love.
There are no borders or boundaries in the Kingdom of God.
God loves all his children as a Father, not just some.
Are we a Christian Nation, and how does that relate to the Kingdom of God?
I ask you to consider that.
Jesus was clear that “the least of these” are important to him, and as we did it to them, we did it to Jesus.
Above all else we Christians need to be praying about this and seeking God’s guidance.  And listen to his Word when he speaks.
Again, this is difficult for us because it is hard, if not impossible, to separate our politics from our faith. 
One final question:  How can we, as Christians, bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this situation?  That question alone, will say much about whether we can claim to be a Christian nation and part of the Kingdom of God.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 3, Mark 3.20-35, That Crazy Jesus

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, Amen
Were Jesus to come to us today, there is a good chance we might not recognize him, and perhaps, we might even view him as evil, or at least misguided.
Those who are convinced they know him the best may in fact not know him at all.
At least that’s the Biblical witness.
That’s what happens time and time again in the Gospels.
And today’s Gospel lesson is the epitome of that.
He’s out of his mind. . .
That’s the concern of Jesus family, and who better to know him than his mother and brothers and sisters.
This Jesus they did not know.
There were two things that had come up that particularly concerned them.
Jesus was casting out demons.
And those very same demons were declaring Jesus to be the Son of God.
His popularity had spread to the point that he couldn’t even eat, the demands from the crowds being so intense.
I find this a bit humorous.
That Jesus’ family seeks to intervene at this point.  “Jesus, you need to take care of yourself.  Eat!”
But actually, as we go deeper into the lesson, there is a greater concern.
Namely, that he has gone mad.  Out of his mind.  Crazy.
“He has Beelzebul.”
The devil’s gotten into him.
The theme throughout the Gospels is that more than any other group, the religious leaders of Jesus day were most concerned about him, and most convinced that he was not of God.
The Messiah?
No, not this one, for he was a threat to them and all they held dear.
"He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons."
“Beelzebul” means “Lord of the House” and is used by the scribes to refer Satan, as the Ruler of the Demons.
They are quite convinced that what Jesus is doing is not good, but evil.
And his family, likewise, is deeply concerned.
Jesus’ rebuttal of their concerns is strong.
“”Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin" —  for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."
To see good as evil and evil as good, is unforgivable.
That’s what Jesus means here.
If we believe the Holy Spirit to be demonic, we have crossed the line.
Who is Jesus?
Would we know him if we saw him?
 And if we met him, would we too think that at the best he’s gone out of his mind, at the worst, is possessed by the devil?
And is it possible, that we who above all people should be most familiar with him, may in fact be unable to recognize him for who he truly is?
In First Corinthians, the thirteenth chapter Paul writes:
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”
Therein lies the problem.
We see Jesus, in a mirror, dimly.
What that means, I believe, is that as we try in all of our religious fervor, to understand who Jesus is, we see a reflection of ourselves.
During the last couple of centuries one of the theme’s that has dominated Biblical scholarship is “the Quest for the Historical Jesus”.
People want to know Jesus for who he truly is.
But what happens, every time, is that the “historical Jesus” they discover bears a striking resemblance to themselves.
We want to see Jesus, but looking through a mirror dimly, we see instead a reflection of ourselves.
On a most basic level, this phenomenon is evident in how Jesus has been traditionally portrayed in portraits. 
The most familiar paintings of Jesus are from the Italian Renaissance, and Jesus is portrayed as an Italian.
In the Scandinavian churches I grew up in, it was common place for Jesus to be portrayed as white.
If you go to Africa, or the orient, Jesus is portrayed as being black, or oriental.
We imagine Jesus as a reflection of ourselves.
But it goes much deeper than the outward appearances.
The Jesus we believe in is a reflection of who we are.
When conservatives seek out the historical Jesus, they end up with a conservative Jesus.
When liberals seek to understand who Jesus actually was, he predictably, is quite liberal.
People who a moralistic see Jesus as a great teacher of morals.
People who are political activists see Jesus as a political revolutionary.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”
We cannot avoid seeing our own image as we try to look through the mirror to see Jesus.
And that is our heresy, that we see Jesus as a reflection of ourselves.
It is as bad as seeing Jesus as the devil.

The temptation now for me, is to conclude this sermon by telling you who Jesus really is—and in so doing simply do what I’ve been talking about, that is, casting Jesus in my own image.
That’s the struggle.
Another way to  state this is that we, in all sincerity seek to conform our lives to Christ, but too often in doing so, conform our image of Jesus, to ourselves.
If I try to tell you who Jesus is, you will probably learn more about who I am, than who Jesus is.
Uff da.
But I’m foolish enough to at least try to cast some light behind the mirror.
What can we say about Jesus, and who he is?
The first thing is simple.
He is not us.
Our human inclination is to see Jesus as a reflection of ourselves, when in fact we are to become a reflection of him.
And he is wholly other.  He is not out of his mind, but rather beyond our comprehension.
Secondly, Jesus is far more spiritual than he is religious.
What drives Jesus is not religious devotion, to the law, for example, but a powerful sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit within him, and a oneness with the Father.
Jesus’ holiness is rooted not in what he did, but the relationship he had with the Father.
“Abba”, “Father”, that is how he addressed God and it says much about who he is.
Thirdly, Jesus cares for the least of these.  Compassionate.  Forgiving.  Loving like no other.
This is in stark contrast to who we’d like Jesus to be.  Too often we’d like Jesus to “kick butt”, that is to confront and condemn those people who differ from us. 
"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus is a healer.
A teacher.
A friend.
There are many other things I suppose we could say, but the most important of all is this:
If you want to see Jesus for who he truly is, you need to look away from the mirror, and toward the cross.
It is in the suffering, in the dying, and the rising from the dead that we see Jesus.  The Crucified One.
And it is this Jesus that comes to us anew, around this table every Sunday.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.
It is in the breaking of the bread that we see the crucified and risen Lord.
Jesus.  His body, his blood, given and Shed for you.
On final note:
A few weeks back I had a moving experience during the communion.  As I looked out, one of you had put down the hymnal, and with hands folded was intently focused on what was happening here at the altar.
It was a reminder for me, at that moment, that this was an incredibly holy thing that was taking place.
Here, in the breaking of the bread, the pouring of the wine, we see Jesus.
We see Jesus.
Stand in awe and deepest reverence.
And know that God is with you.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 2, 2 Corinthians 4.5-12, Rothchilds Wine in a box. . .

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
2 Cor. 4:7
I bought a bottle of Vodka when I went to Russia.
Never much cared for Vodka, but when in Russia do as the Russians do, right?
I didn’t actually buy it for the Vodka.  It was a cool bottle.
Tolstoy Vodka.  Named for the great Russian author.
What was neat about the bottle was that on the front of the bottle was a frame, and then you looked through the frame to see the portrait of Tolstoy on the back of the bottle.  It was kind of cool.
When I purchased it, my friend Bradn informed me that Russians have a saying.
“Nice bottle, bad vodka.”
The point being that if you have to rely on fancy packaging to sell the vodka, there’s not much to be said for the vodka itself.

“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Earthen Vessels.
Red pots.
For ages the most common and ordinary of vessels.
Clay molded by hands, fired in a kiln, sometimes with a pretty glaze, often not.
This is not crystal.
Actually, today, in large part because of the efforts of many fine artists who’ve devoted themselves to the craft of pottery, we love hand thrown pottery as pieces of art.
Personally, I’d love to have a full set of dishes all done by a local potter.  It’d be a true treasure in a world too often typified by mass produced junk.
But that misses the point.
Earthen vessels.
Clay pots.
The most common and everyday.
And yet a treasure within.
I recall another bottle of alcohol.  (Kind of ironic for me to be preaching about alcohol, as a recovering alcoholic, but bear with me.)
One of the first residents to move into Luther Park in Sandpoint was a World War II veteran.
Shortly after moving in, he decided that this was the time to share a bottle with us.
When he, together with the other allied troops liberated France, they were issued a bottle of Brandy, actually Cognac.
It was a plain bottle, with a simple label reading:  “Special Reserve by order of the French Government for the Allied Troops”.
He had carried this bottle home with him in his bed roll and preserved it for the last 65 or so years, and then on this day, shared it with us.
A treasure for what it represented.
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Treasure in clay jars.
The finest wine, in a paper cup.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this motley crew we call the Church.
The treasure.  The clay pot.
Our human tendency is to focus on the packaging, at times, and lose sight of the true treasure.
We want the finest chalice.  And the chalice itself becomes our treasure. 
I did a quick online search for chalices.  It didn’t take much effort to find a chalice and paten, heavily gold plated pieces of art, on sale for $25,000.
That’s the way we tend to think about these things.  The blood of Christ ought to be contained in a sacred vessel, a golden chalice, something worthy of the treasure within.
And yet it’s not about the chalice.
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
If the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the treasure, the Church is the earthen vessel, the clay pot.
And you know what?
I wish the Church was a gold plated, gem encrusted, piece of art, but it isn’t.  It is simply a vessel.  Common.  Ordinary.  Simple.  Plain.
This too often is painfully obvious.
We’re a rag-tag army at best.
At our worst we are a stumbling block, a major hurdle for people to overcome.
The problem with the Church, you see, is that we are all sorts of sinners.
And you don’t have to be part of the church for long before this becomes painfully obvious.
When I look back over my life, and the experience of being in the church, and think about the things that have happened to my parents, to myself, and to my children, I wonder why, just why would I ever want to be part of the church?
I was thinking the other day about the Church and how I would describe it.
The phrase came to me:  “’Minnesota nice’ with a deep mean streak that lies just below the surface.”
There is part of the church that is just plain nice.  “Minnesota nice.”  That’s the part we like to think about.  We say nice things.  We think nice things.  We are friendly.  Sometimes we are even outgoing.  We bring hot dishes to each other when we are sick, or if someone dies.  We make cookies.  Nice.
And then there is the other side.
There is a mean streak that raises its ugly head every once in a while.  Just mean. 
This dynamic was never clearer to me than when I went on disability and had to step away from ministry for a while. 
On the one hand, I had to be in Church, absolutely had to be there.  It was my life line.
And yet, because of the trauma I had experienced in the Church, when I went to church for next few months I experienced seizures, partial complex seizures, brought about in no small part by the emotional strife that simply being in church caused.
“We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
“We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
We proclaim a message of forgiveness, but often we ourselves are not very forgiving.
We proclaim a message of love, when our actions are often not loving.
We speak of peace, amid all the tensions of our world and the interpersonal strife of our communities.
We talk of mercy, all the while that we are judgmental.
In short, we preach Christ, while not being very Christ like ourselves.
But the point is this:   We are not the message, but merely the messengers.  We are not the treasure, merely the clay jars.
We often fail to forgive—
                But God never does.
We are not as loving as we could be—
                Yet God’s love endures forever.
Our world is filled with hostilities—
                God’s kingdom is one of peace.
Amid all our judgmentalism—
                Jesus shows mercy.
The point is that we in the Church are not the Christ.
Never have been.
Never will be.
But Christ is here.
Christ is the treasure, not us.
If you come to the Church and experience grace and mercy, love and forgiveness, peace and reconciliation and all that the Lord has to offer, know this.
That it is not because the church is full of grace and mercy, love and forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. 
No, quite often it is exactly the opposite.
But this is so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
It’s not about us.
It’s about Jesus.

One final note.
As a pastor, I wish I were more forgiving.
I try to be, but often am not.  I remember.  To forgive and forget is not always my strong suit.
And then each Sunday morning I stand before you and declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.
There is a disconnect there.  I, who am not as forgiving as I should be, declaring to you that you are forgiven. 
The clay pot.  And the treasure.
You see the point is that it is Christ who forgives you, not I.  Christ does what we as humans are unable to do. 
We are but messengers, earthly vessels that bear a priceless treasure to the world.
The most expensive wine in the world is Rothchilds Wine, with one bottle alone fetching more than $156,000.
Imagine purchasing such a wine in a box. 
The finest wine in the world, sold in a box.
We are like the cardboard box, the humblest of vessels that contains within itself the rarest of treasurers, namely the love and mercy of God in Christ Jesus.
Hard to imagine, but it is so.