Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Psalm 150 and Mark 12:28-30

Pull Out All the Stops

June 2, 2013 Maple Grove UMC

A while back someone excitedly pulled me aside after worship and asked, "Are we really having the Scioto Valley Brass here?" 

I said, "Yep."

"And the percussion too?"

"Far as I know."

"Wow," she went on, "we’re really pulling out all the stops, aren’t we?"

"Yes," I said, "we are!"

That got me thinking about that phrase, pulling out all the stops.  It is, of course, a musical metaphor, though not from brass or percussion, but from the organ. 

--Greg demonstrates organ stops here—

Pulling out all the stops is what the Bible would have us do in our worship and in our love of God.  Psalm 150 says to praise God with trumpet sound (that is, with brass instruments) and with lute and harp (that is, stringed instruments).  It says to praise God with tambourine and dance (really? even dance?).  It says to praise God with loud clashing cymbals (so yes, percussion players, you get in on it too).  Let everything that breathes, it says, praise the Lord!  That’s pulling out all the stops in praising God.

Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy, said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength.  That’s not loving God a little.  It’s not even loving God a lot.   It’s pulling out all the stops for the love of God.

In our praise and worship, in our faith and our love of God, we sometimes sense that there’s something more, something deeper, something beyond the everyday.  Something inside us longs to sing louder, to love more wildly, to pull out all the stops for God.  One of the desert fathers of the 3rd century, Abba Lot, went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can, I say my little liturgy, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What more can I do?"  The older man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven.  His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all fire."1  Now that’s pulling out all the stops!

The New Testament is full of people who pulled out all the stops in their love of Christ.  John 12 tells of a woman who took a pound of costly perfume, worth thousands of dollars, and poured it out on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair.  Zacchaeus loved Jesus so much that he gave half his possessions to the poor.  On Palm Sunday the disciples shouted their praise of Jesus so loudly that the Pharisees tried to shut them up.  And in the book of Revelation, the heavenly creatures worship God by falling on their faces and casting their crown before God’s throne.  That’s pulling out all the stops!

I once came upon a man outside Riverside Hospital playing a trumpet fanfare.  When he paused I applauded and asked him why he was playing trumpet outside the hospital.  "Because I didn’t think they’d let me play inside," he said.  "My wife just gave birth to a baby boy, and I didn’t know what else to do but let loose on the trumpet."  Apparently he came to the maternity ward prepared to pull out all the stops.

One Sunday morning years ago during the closing hymn, Jim came forward to the altar rail and started crying.  No not just crying, but sobbing, heaving.  I went and put my arms around him and asked, "Jim, what’s going on?"  He gathered himself a bit and said, "I just love God so much!"  He proceeded to cry for another forty-five minutes.  We had a potluck dinner after church that day and several of us took turns staying with Jim while the rest of us ate.  All of Jim’s stops got pulled that glorious Sunday morning.

On the day we turned in financial pledge cards a couple of years ago, I showed you a video of how they take the offering at a church in Liberia in West Africa.  The music is loud, the singing is like whooping, and the people dance their offerings up the aisle.  When it came time to bring the pledge cards to the front of the church that morning, lo and behold, I’ll never forget it--Sue Galogly and Connie Austin came dancing their cards up the aisle.  Can you do that at Maple Grove Church, I wondered?  Apparently you can, if you’re willing to pull out all the stops.

One year at Maynard Avenue Church Merv and Martha Matteson, retired pastors, asked if they could plan the 11:00 Christmas Eve service.  "You don’t mind if there’s a little fireworks, do you?" Merv asked me. 

"Not at all," I said, figuring he meant it metaphorically.  He didn’t.  Martha served Holy Communion, then Merv led everyone outside into the crisp midnight air.  He set off a few bottle rockets and then gave everyone a sparkler and told us to wave them in honor of our newborn Savior.  If you’ve been wondering for years why you heard fireworks late one Christmas Eve in the University District—no, it wasn’t OSU students who’d had too much to drink; it was the people of Maynard Avenue Church pulling out all the stops for Jesus.

In our praise and worship, in our faith and our love of God, we sometimes sense that there’s something more, something deeper, something beyond the everyday.  Something inside us longs to sing louder, to love more wildly.  Well, my friends, the brass is here.  The percussion is here.  So go ahead--pull out all the stops today for God.

1Roberta C. Bondi, To Pray & to Love: Conversations on Prayer with the Early Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 7.

Acts 2:1-21

Speaking in Tongues

May 19, 2013 Maple Grove UMC

The day of Pentecost was a day of miracles.  The Holy Spirit descended with power and did not just one, but many miracles. 

  • There was the miracle of the mighty wind and the dancing flames of fire. 
  • There was the miracle of church growth.  The church went from about 120 members to 3120 in one day.  We’ll receive,  um, 8 new members today—that’s a start. 
  • Later in Acts we read how these believers shared with each other so generously that none of them was every in need.  Now that’s a miracle!
  • My personal favorite miracle of Pentecost—at least I call it a miracle—was that after Peter got done preaching, the people asked:  "What should we do?"  They actually wanted to do something in response to his sermon.  I don’t know about Peter.  but as far as I’m concerned, that’s a miracle!

So on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit did these and other miracles.  But the primary miracle of Pentecost was the gift of speech.  At the start of the story the believers are sitting around inside a house, and the next thing you know they’re outside, in public, talking about Jesus.  You know this was a miracle if you’ve ever seen surveys about people’s biggest fears.  Surveys vary with time and place, but the top three answers hold pretty constant.  Number three is usually the fear of high places (I see some of you nodding your heads).  Number two is usually the fear of death—that’s a big one, all right.  But in almost every survey, people’s number one fear is the fear of speaking in public.  Worse than the highest cliff, worse than death itself, is the fear of standing in front of a group of people and opening your mouth to speak.  And yet here the disciples are, telling whole crowds of people about Jesus.  It’s a miracle!

What’s more, they didn’t just speak in public, the disciples talked about God in public.  Nowadays, people seem more comfortable talking about their sex life than about God.  Religion—that’s a personal thing, people say, I don’t really talk about that.  I don’t want to offend anyone—I’ll just keep it to myself.  Yet here the disciples are telling crowds of people about God’s mighty deeds of power.  That is a miracle!

Not only did the disciples speak in public, and not only did they talk about God in public, they also spoke in tongues.  Well, not in the way that Pentecostals do today, which is a kind of personal prayer language that isn’t understandable to people around them.  What the Holy Spirit did on Pentecost was cause the disciples to talk in various actual languages so that people from all over the world could understand them.  What languages?  Parthians and Medes spoke versions of Persian.  The language of Mesopotamia may have been Akkadian or Sumerian.  People from Cappadocia and Pontus spoke dialects of Greek.  Did Egyptians speak Coptic then?  There was Latin for Romans.  And did Arabs of that time already speak something like modern Arabic?  Whatever they were called, that’s a lot of languages. 

But I’ll bet all of those people, as Jews, also knew some Hebrew or Aramiac along with the language of their home country.  So the disciples might have been able to tell about Jesus in Hebrew or Aramaic to almost everyone there.  But here’s the thing—it’s nice, it’s important to hear things in your own language.

And what languages would we need to speak today, so everyone could hear the good news in their own language? Well, there are people in Columbus from Mexico and Somalia, from Bhutan and China. But that’s not the sort of language I’m thinking of this morning. If we want to speak about God to, let’s say, young people, what language would we need to speak? We’d need to speak some form of "technology," which is a foreign language to me. Several years ago we got a new youth leader at Christ Church, a vivacious, 20-something young woman. She was marvelous with the kids and they loved her. My frustration with her was that I could never reach her. I’d leave a message on her phone—nothing. I’d email her—nothing. Finally I bought a new phone so I could text her, and—viola!—she got back to me right away. I had to learn to speak her language.

Maple Grove speaks a tiny bit of "technology."  We have a new website.  We’re on Facebook.  But those are already ancient languages.  Now it’s Twitter and already kids have moved on from Twitter to something called Vine.  Why should old fogies like me care about new social media?  Because it’s nice, it’s important to hear things in your own language.

What languages would we need to speak today, so everyone can hear the good news in their own language?  Well, music is an important language.  And what musical languages do your kids and your grandkids speak?  Probably not much that’s in our hymnal.  That doesn’t mean we stop singing the good old hymns, but everyone likes to hear the good news in their own language.

We’ve been talking recently here at Maple Grove about "Contagious Ministry Stories."  And to be honest, that’s been a challenge for most of us.  It’s not that we don’t love God and our church.  It’s just that talking about God, telling other people about our church—it’s like a foreign language.  But people are doing it--some with many words, and some with just a few words, but all of it powerful.   It’s a little bit like Pentecost.

Now it would be easy to turn this sermon into a kind of brow-beating, or at least a pep talk.  Come on, church—you can do it!  Get out there and talk about Jesus!  Speak in other languages!  Tell people your God-story!  But that’s not the message today, and for two reasons.  First, I’ve tried that message, and it doesn’t work.  I can preach the most eloquent sermon in the world telling everyone to get out there and tell people about God, and no one does . . . not even me.

The second reason is that in the book of Acts the impetus for "speaking in tongues" does not come from the preacher; telling about Jesus so everyone can hear is not the disciples’ own idea.  It comes from the Holy Spirit, from the power of God.  So rather than try to persuade or convince you this morning, just let me pray for you:

Come, Holy Spirit.

Descend on us with power, set our hearts on fire.

Give us, Lord, a heart for youth and young adults,

A heart for the discouraged and the lonely,

A heart for all who need to hear some good news.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Open our mouths to tell of your love,

Open our mouths to tell of your church

Open our mouths to tell our story of good news.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Descend on us with power, set our hearts on fire.

Give us the courage to speak new languages for you.

Overcome our fear and reluctance,

And make us tellers of the story, ambassadors of Jesus Christ.

Come, Holy Spirit, and do a miracle, today.

Preacher:  Bill Tenney

Scripture:  Luke 10:25-37

Who Is My Neighbor?

Please pray with me:

We give thanks for an ordinary day. We give thanks for the many blessings we know and take for granted—water that cleans and refreshes—and we pray for those who have no running water. We give thanks for the ordinary blessing of electricity that makes our morning coffee and does so many other things for us, and for the people who live without those conveniences. We remember the coffee farmers and fair trade practices for them. As we dump trash into the trash bin and go to the dumpster, we pray for those who seek their food in those dumpsters, or hide in them to keep warm. As we give our pets water and food, we delight in their presence and pray for animals who are neglected and abused, or whose habitat is being destroyed. As we take in the beauty of the blossoming trees, we pray for the places of deforestation. As we get into our cars, we give thanks for easy transportation, and pray for those who must walk a hard road and for injustices in our world created around oil. As we drive to work, we give thanks that we have work, and pray for the unemployed. We take a call from the doctor’s office, telling us the test results turned out just fine, and pray for those whose results are not fine, and for those who have no medical care, or no health insurance. We give thanks for friends who visit to share a simple meal, and pray for the friendless and those who always eat alone.  As we go to bed, we give thanks for rest, for a place called home, and we pray for those who live in shelters, whose homes are destroyed by war, by violence, by storms.  In Jesus name we give thanks for another Ordinary Day. Amen.

When Pastor Glenn first asked me to speak today, Mothers’ Day, I didn’t know if the topic was going to be mothers, but when I found out that the lectionary for the day was the parable of the Good Samaritan, I remained just as perplexed.  For you see, my relationship with my own mother was not the best, and my experiences trying to be a Good Samaritan did not always turn out well—more about that later.  I do want to wish a blessed and happy Mothers’ Day to all the mothers, stepmothers, mothers-in-law, single parents, and parents of either gender in any sort of parenting partnership.

Listening to this story of the Good Samaritan being preached over the years was a lot easier than talking about it myself today.  Researching and praying about this sermon made me fully appreciate the work that Pastor Glenn has to do each week, and I have come to recognize in a very real way what this requires of him. Pastor Glenn, I salute you and thank you.

Our text today has basically two questions: 1. The first part of the story is an answer to the question: What shall I do to inherit eternal life?  2. The second part deals with the question: Who is my neighbor? The lawyer who asks the first question is not like today’s lawyers, who deal with civil and criminal law.  They were experts in the Old Testament Laws of Moses contained in the first five books of the Bible.  The Jewish people don’t have prayer beads like the Catholics.  They have a prayer shawl, called a tallith. On the four corners are fringe made of eight strands of thread that have been tied to form five knots. The knots are called tzitzit and the Hebrew letters for this word is equal to the number 600.  There are 613 commandments in the Torah.  When you add the five knots and eight strands to the word’s numbers, you get 613.  They hold the knots between their fingers as they are praying to honor the commandments and remember the Lord is our God. 

613 commandments—that’s a lot of law. Jesus questions the law, and the hypocrisy of the lawyers who taught it. As one of todays’ lawyers might do, Jesus answers a question about eternal life with a question: "What is written in the law? What do you read there? The answer is "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Then we get to the parable and attempt to learn: who is my neighbor? (The time to mention Pastor Glenn’s weekly word challenge.)

Biblical scholar John Welch describes the allegory of this parable by Origen Adamantius as "The man who was going down to Jericho is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord’s body, the inn, which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. The manager of the inn is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior’s second coming."

That interpretation was taught for several centuries. Theologian Klyne Snodgrass’s interpretation was "On the basis of this parable we must deal with our own racism but must also seek justice for, and offer assistance to those in need regardless of the group to which they belong." Since the Samaritans were Jews who had intermarried with Gentiles during the exile, the Jews did not associate with them and would even detour around Samaria.

The word neighbor in Greek means "someone who is near" and in Hebrew it means "someone you have an association with." Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines it as "one located or near another" or "fellow man."  In Martin Luther King Jr.’s Mountaintop speech he refers to us along with the Priest and Levite when asked the question: "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" King continues: But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" In my layperson’s attempt to keep things simple for my own understanding, I see three attitudes in this story.  There are takers of mercy, the thieves; talkers of mercy, the priest and Levite; and givers of mercy, the Samaritan.

When I worked in law enforcement, as a first responder, it was our job to help others regardless of the situation.  Sometimes being a Samaritan has consequences. Once when I responded to a horrible accident scene, I used my belt to apply a tourniquet to a victim’s mangled leg to stop the bleeding. (This same thing was done by several Good Samaritans and first responders in Boston a few weeks ago.)

The woman I helped, like some of the victims in Boston, lived but lost her leg. This incident was in the days before portable radios, cell phones, and even nearby squads.  I felt good about saving her life, but she later sued me and the city over the loss of her leg.  My training and actions at the time held up in civil court, and fortunately, our side prevailed. Nevertheless, my attempt to help the woman in distress was not without consequences and cost.

Years later, while working in the private sector, I was rushing along with a throng of other folks to catch flights at the Columbus Airport when a man dropped to the floor a short distance ahead of us.  Most people, intent on catching their flight, kept going on past the man, but I stopped and realized he was having a heart attack.  I yelled for someone to call for a squad and did CPR on him until they arrived.  I did make my flight, but to this day I don’t know if he lived. Sometimes, we never know, even when we go out of our way to help someone, whether we did in fact accomplish some good. Sometimes, helping the neighbor must be enough, without knowing the outcome.

It takes more than compassion and mercy to be a Good Samaritan.  It also takes courage because it can involve risks. Just look at our recent history with terrorism, and the loss of lives and the acts of heroism and compassion we have seen.

Since we live in such a litigious society, a lot of people will not get involved. 

A recent poll showed that only 23% will go to the aid of someone in need, 15% will think about it but not help, and 62% will just continue on.  Remember the part about "loving our neighbors as we love ourselves." 

What Jesus said to the scribe, he says to us- "Go you and do the same." But it’s not only other people who are wounded and in need of help.  Sometimes the neighbor most in need is yourself.  Maybe the person who is wounded and needs attention in my life is me. Maybe you or I suffer from wounds too long unattended or indignities too long endured.  I know for a lot of years I felt a lot of shame and survival guilt about my experiences in the war in Vietnam.  I damaged or was unable to help people close to me because I didn’t love myself.  After counseling and becoming a member of Maple Grove, I took a healing walk with Jesus on the road to Emmaus.  Jon and Marialice Bennett were my sponsors.  I felt like my true healing began that weekend, and I felt renewed from above!

Loving ourselves is a prerequisite to loving others. Do you need help to heal your own wounds? Once we take care of ourselves, we each need to ask who is the neighbor that we are called to love.  Who is lying by the side of your road?  The answer to that question is different for each of us and even different at different points in our lives.  Our gifts and our calls are as varied as the circumstances of our lives.  Maybe it’s someone in the pew next to you this morning, or someone at work, or across the street, or across the city, or on the other side of the globe. Maybe it’s you—maybe you need to take care of yourself. We are called to enter into the lives of our neighbors—all of them—with empathy, compassion, humility, and forgiveness.

Amen.

Revelation 21:22 - 22:5

Healing Stream

May 5, 2013 Maple Grove UMC

Years ago for my birthday a friend went to the dollar store and got me some things to help me as I got older.  There was some BenGay—for all those aches and pains.  Used it!  There was a pair of Grouch glasses—so I didn’t lose my sense of humor.  Love them!  And there was a little night- light—I guess they thought my eyes would fail too.  Which they did!

The nightlight was shaped like Jesus—one of those Catholic "Sacred Heart" Jesuses where you see his heart shining through his chest.  It was meant as a gag gift.  By my daughter Emily, who was just two at the time, saw that Jesus nightlight in the gift bag and latched on to it.  We plugged it in next to her crib and turned it on every night.  For a while, it became part of her nightly prayer routine:  "Thank you, God, for Mommy and Daddy.  And thank you for my Jesus light."  When she moved to a big-girl bed in another room, the Jesus light went with her. 

It doesn’t give a lot of light, of course.  It’s just a 4-watt bulb.  But it is always there, all night, every night.  You can look at a book by it, just barely, if your parents won’t let you leave the main light on.  And it’s plenty of light to keep the monsters under the bed.  The light shines in the darkness, says John’s gospel, and the darkness has not overcome it.  And that is true.

Will you imagine for a moment that 4-watt Jesus light writ large?  In the New Jerusalem, the city has no need of sun or moon because the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb.  And there, there will be no night, for the light of God will never go out.  All night, every night, shines the light of Christ.  In every time of darkness and despair, the Lamb lights the way.  At the end of the day, at the end of your rope, at the end of the world as we know it, shines the light that is God.

That was the sermon I intended to preach this morning, and that’s why the opening prayer asked the light of Christ to shine upon us and why the choir sang I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.  And it would have been a good sermon, too, I think—encouraging, uplifting, filled with light.

That was the sermon I intended to preach, that is, until Marialice Bennett came into my office a few days ago.  We had set up the meeting to plan the next "Journey to Wellness" session—a continuation of the course we offered during Lent.  It’s a chance to study scripture and work together on a "wellness toolkit"--things to help us be healthy physically, emotionally and spiritually.  That’s coming up on Tuesday evening, the 14th, so we started talking about what scripture to read and how to guide the conversation. 

But as soon as Marialice opened her mouth, I knew she was on to something more than one evening’s study.  She showed me how a church in Tennessee has organized their ministries to promote what they call "integrated health," a holistic approach that includes spiritual ministries as well as movement and exercise and medical issues.  It involves help with jobs and careers as well as emotional well-being, focuses on nutrition as well as family and friendships.1  She started talking about the church as a healingCan Maple Grove find ways, she wondered, to bring people together around all of these aspects of life, so that we grow healthier and more centered together—as individuals and families and all of us together as the church? 

And as Marialice talked, it was like the Holy Spirit whispering in my ear:  This is it! I thought, This is what I’ve been searching for!  You see, Maple Grove does a thousand things, all of them blessed and good.  We have over 80 ministries teams that feed the hungry and visit the sick and serve Communion.  We support AA and grief recovery and other support groups.  We teach kids the Bible and mobilize youth to sing and serve.  There’s something for everyone, which is wonderful.

But what I’ve been searching for is a single, simple way to talk about what’s at the heart of everything we do.  Instead of saying, "At Maple Grove we do this, and that, and a little bit of something else," I want to be able to say, "We do this, this one thing—and here are some of the ways we do it.  Wellness, deep and integrated wellness, individual and community wellness—that’s what we’re about in everything we do.

Wellness, though, is kind of a medical word.  What we’re looking for is a spiritual, scriptural language.  Marialice was immediately drawn to John 10:10 where Jesus says, "I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly."  What does your church do?  We’re an abundant life church, and here are some of the ways we live that out!  That may well be the language we’ve been longing for.

But I was immediately drawn to another scripture—today’s scripture from Revelation.  "Then," it says, "the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. . .  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."  Wow!

Maybe it’s just that I grew up in Kansas, where all but the biggest of rivers run dry in summer.  A river that never runs dry sounds live-giving to me!  Or maybe it’s that I’ve had a recurring dream—a peaceful river, lush trees forming a canopy overhead, the water flowing over my feet washing away the cares of the world.  Or maybe it’s how appropriate this image of the tree of life is for a church named after a tree.

But probably it’s that I know where that river comes from and where it goes.  It flows without ceasing from the throne of God.  It is the water, I’m sure, in the 23rd Psalm:  "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters; He restoreth my soul."

Jesus offered a woman a drink from this river.  He called it "living water" and it transformed her life from shame and fear to love and joy.

Jesus took some of this water and washed his disciples’ feet.  Then he gave some to them and sent them out to do the same for others.

We have been washed in the water of this river.  It fills our font and washes away our sin and wets the brows of our babies to claim them as children of God.

This water flows every time a Stephen Minister sits down to listen and soothe an anxious soul.  It flows when Rev. Tolliver visits the homebound and when Rev. Michelle tends her hospice patients.  It flows when Nancy Gay lifts your prayer concerns to God and every time the choir sings.  The youth mission trip will follow the course of this river, the Sprouts splash and play on its banks, and I’m told it flowed powerfully through the Women’s Retreat last weekend. 

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.  It is a healing stream and on either side is the Tree of Life.  It flows from the throne of God into this very place, and through us it flows to the hungry and the lonely, the sick and the anxious.  O church!  O healing stream!  Shall we gather by that river!  No, better yet, shall we be together that healing stream.

1 http://www.chreader.org/docs/The%20Model%20for%20Healthy%20Living.pdf.

Revelation 21:1-8

"Heaven on Earth"

April 28, 2013 Maple Grove UMC

Today’s scripture is the culmination of Revelation.  By some counts it is the seventh vision in the seventh series of visions, seven being the number of perfection.  And in some ways, this passage is the culmination of the whole Bible—which starts with the Garden of Eden and concludes with this new heaven and new earth where God will wipe away every tear, and mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  It doesn’t get any better than that.

I have read these words at more gravesides than I can count, and in that setting they are a great comfort.  Yet as beautiful as this vision from Revelation is, a lot of people still struggle with what to make of it.  It seems too other-worldly, too pie-in-the sky.  People wonder, how can some vision of the end of the world make any difference to me here and now?  Isn’t this kind of vision just fantasy, escapism?  It may be comforting, some people object, but is it real?

Well, let me make the case that this vision is real, that it does make a difference here and now.  First of all, I think it’s a mistake to see this as an other-worldly vision.  It specifically does not say that we are beamed up to heaven or taken away to Shangri-la.  What it says is that a renewed heaven and earth come down to us, here.  Revelation isn’t a vision of what some Christians call the "rapture"--that we’ll fly away to be with God; it’s vision is of what Barbara Rossing calls a "reverse rapture," that is, God comes down to be with us.2  It’s not about escaping to heaven; it’s about heaven coming to earth.

When people think of escaping, of getting away from trouble, they often think of some spacious, well-heeled suburb, a gated community, or better yet, a place in the country.  But that’s not Revelation’s vision at all.  What comes down out of heaven from God is a city, the new Jerusalem.  Revelation’s vision of the good life is an urban life with all its hustle and bustle.  And its vision of the good life never mentions streets of gold or pearly gates.  What makes life good is the presence of God and overcoming that old enemy, death.

Sojourner Truth—the escaped slave who became a powerful voice for the rights of Blacks and women—found fault with the escapism she saw in the Christianity of her day.  She said:  "You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up somewhere and when the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back to walk in triumph over their ashes—this it to be your New Jerusalem!  Now I can’t see anything very nice in that, coming back to such a muss as that will be, a world covered with the nasty ashes of the wicked.  Besides, if the Lord comes and burns—as you say he will—I am not going away; I am going to stay here and stand the fire, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!  And Jesus will walk with me through the fire."2

That’s my first argument—that Revelation’s vision isn’t one of escaping to heaven, but of heaven coming to earth.

Here’s my second argument:  even if this is a picture of the end of time, in the Bible statements about the End are really statements about God and God’s will.3  Therefore this vision from Revelation 21 may not tell us so much what’s going to happen some day as tell us how God wants the world toAnd if this is how God wants things to be—tears wiped away, grief and tears and pain abolished—what should we do about that?  Just sit around and see when that might come about?  Or should we try for all we’re worth to live in that direction?  If God wants tears wiped away, shouldn’t we wipe away tears?  And if God wants grief to be no more, can’t we comfort and encourage those who mourn?  And if God desires no more pain, how can we cause pain to others?

What you long for shapes the way you live.  If your vision of the good life is riches and luxury, that will lead you to live in one direction.  If your vision is of wiping away tears and the presence of God, you will be led to live a very different way. 

Too often people think these heavenly visions in Revelation are things God will do all by God’s self and our only job is to sit and wait for it to happen.  Back before the Iraq war had begun, I encouraged the people of the church I was serving to attend candlelight vigils and to write letters to try to prevent us from getting into that war.  There was one man in the church who opposed me on that.  (Well, there were several people who were upset by it, but one I want to tell you about.)  Bob said to me simply, "I don’t think we need to do all that, Pastor."  It wasn’t that Bob thought the war was a good idea—he was a WWII vet and knew the horrors of war first-hand.  Here was his objection.  He said, "There will never be peace until Jesus comes again, so in the meantime all we can do is wait."

You see, Bob didn’t understand that every statement about the End, is really a statement about God and what God wants.  Only God can ultimately usher in the new heavens and the new earth, but we do get to participate in what God does.  The coming of the heavenly city, writes one commentator, does not abolish our human efforts to create a decent life on earth; it fulfills them.  Every candlelight vigil for peace, every visit to prison, every can of food donated, every tear wiped away matters and is used by God in building the New Jerusalem.4  The aim of the Christian life is not just to get to heaven some day, but by the grace of God to create a little heaven here on earth.

I’ve been trying to convince you that this vision from Revelation, this picture of a new heaven and earth, where grief and crying and pain will be no more—that this vision is real and matters here and now.  Well, let me say one last thing about that.  We all need a vision to live by.  Without vision, says Proverbs 29:18, the people perish.  Vision is hope—something to live not just into, but to live out of and to live for.

The truth is, Revelation’s vision that God will dwell with us and will be with us implies that God does not quite fully dwell with us.  Not that God isn’t with us at all, but we can imagine, we can envision, being with God more completely, more perfectly.  You don’t have vision unless you can imagine that things can be different and better than they are.

Even verse 8—that verse at the end of today’s reading, the one about the cowardly and faithless and murderers going to the lake of fire—even that verse is meant to be a hopeful verse.  While stating it more harshly than I’d like, this verse too is a vision of hope—that in the new Jerusalem there won’t be people who plant bombs, or molest children or lead people astray.  I can say "Amen!" to that vision, while adding that I long for the redemption of sinners rather than their punishment.

Everyone needs a vision.  I’m reading a book right now called The Power of Habit.5  The author tells about Tony Dungy, the longtime NFLDungy coached by teaching his players habits—ways of reacting to every situation on the field so they didn’t have to think about what to do, but could just react, quickly and correctly.  And it worked, mostly.  The problem for Dungy was that his teams were terrific during the regular season, but fell apart in the playoffs.  He was fired at Tampa Bay and the next year that team won the Super Bowl.  And the same pattern started at his new team, the Colts.  It wasn’t until the 2006 season, his tenth year in the league, that Dungy’s team won a Super Bowl.  The difference that year was not so much that the players were better or that Dungy called better plays.  Dungy had always coached well and taught his players the right habits.  What he hadn’t done was help his players believe they could win the big one.  He hadn’t given them a vision of victory.  Once they had that, everything else fell into place.

Probably the greatest visionary in our country’s history was Martin Luther King, Jr.  "I say to you my friends," he said from the Lincoln Memorial, "even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. . .  I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . .  I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  And while King, like Revelation, couched his vision in the future tense--what will be some day--it might have been a vision of the future, but it was a vision for today:  "I have a dream," he said, "today. . .  This is our hope."

And things changed.  And things are still changing, because the people of the United States caught a vision of a different way of life, our own New Jerusalem, a bit of heaven here on earth. . . 

"Then I saw," says Revelation, "a new heaven and a new earth. . .  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.  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; 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."

I’ve been trying to convince you that this is not just about the future but that it matters here, today.  It’s not a vision of going to heaven some day, but of heaven coming on earth.  It’s not just a vision of what will be some day; it’s a picture of the world the way God wants it to be, a guide for our life, our marching orders for living.  Everyone needs a vision.  Just to get out of bed in the morning, to keep plugging away, you have to be able to imagine, to envision something different and better.  Revelation is that vision.

One of the great songs of vision and hope is an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, sung as people marched and suffered, persevered and changed the world.  We shall overcome, we’ll walk hand in hand, we shall all be free, we shall live in peace, the Lord will see us through, we shall overcome some day.  It’s a song in the spirit of Revelation.  So keep the vision, my friends, and be part of a little heaven right here on earth.

1 Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), 141-58.

2 Quoted in Lee Griffith, War on Terrorism and the Terror of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 193.

3 See M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), 215.

4 See Boring, 220-21.

5 Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2012), 60-92.

Revelation 7:9-17

Passionate Worship

April 21, 2013 Maple Grove UMC

It’s been out on our sign that we’re doing a worship series on the book of Revelation.  One person said, "I saw out there that you’re preaching on Revelation." 

I said, "Yeah, for three Sundays."

"Well, it’s about time!" he replied. 

Someone else said to me after church last Sunday, "So we’re going to read Revelation?"

I said, "Yeah, for three Sundays."

All she said was, "Why . . . ?"

Many Christians are obsessed with the Book of Revelation.  Some want to read and talk about it all the time; they make predictions about when Jesus will beam them up and who will get left behind.  Other people are just as obsessed with avoiding all contact with Revelation, believing that such silliness is all there is to Revelation.  It’s not.

Years ago one of my seminary professors wrote an article called, "Preaching the Book of Revelation."1  He acknowledged that Revelation is a difficult book—some of its symbolism is pretty wild, its historical references are unknown to most of us, and its imagery can be uncomfortablyBut he goes on to say that the objections most people have to Revelation are not so much objections to the book itself as to popular but false teachings about Revelation.  For example, the book of Revelation does not teach the so-called "rapture," in which believers are taken away and everyone else is left to suffer.  Revelation never encourages Christians to use violence—it describes a violent world, but the world then was a violent place.  It still is.    Instead, Revelation is one attempt to keep faith and hope alive in the face of persecution and oppression.  Revelation insists on the ultimate victory of God in spite of all that evil can do.  That’s what Revelation is about.

Actually Revelation is many things.  For the first three chapters, Revelation is letters to churches—part encouraging, part scolding, but all written in love.  Much of Revelation is visions—visions of the harm that evil can do, visions of the ultimate victory of good, a vision of life the way God intends it to be.  In places Revelation is like a pep-talk—assurance that this too shall pass and that Christ has overcome it all.  And over and over again, Revelation is worship.  Chapter 4 describes the heavenly worship and so does chapter 5.  There’s worship again in chapters 11 and 15.  And our reading today from chapter 7 is worship through and through.

This chapter offers many insights about worship:

  • Look, for example, at the diversity of people gathered around God’s throne—it’s a great multitude, it says, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.  We tend to go to church with people who look like us and talk like us—not so in the heavenly worship.  Church there is a multiracial, multicultural crowd.  There’s a vision to aspire to.
  • Worship is a corporate activity, something that multitudes do together before God’s throne.  The more, the merrier.  "Spiritual but not religious"—a kind of solo approach to faith--might cut it for some aspects of Christian life, but not for to worship—that we do together.
  • Worship is something that unites us with the angels and all who have gone to heaven before us.  They worship there, we worship here—but we all worship together.  As the Communion liturgy says,

And so, with your people on earth

and all the company of heaven

we praise God’s name and join their unending hymn: 

‘Holy, holy, holy . . .’"

  • Both in heaven and on earth worship is all about singing.  The angels and the elders and the four living creatures belt it out:

Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom

And thanksgiving and honor

And power and might

Be to our God forever and ever!  Amen.

We don’t know what that sounds like--Gregorian chant or a Methodist hymn, Black gospel and or a praise chorus, or all of these at the same time.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because it’s all in praise of God.

  • Above all, worship is about God and for God and of God.  "The chief aim of worship," writes Welton Gaddy, "is to please God."But  somewhere along the way, the purpose of worship shifted.  People began to go to worship for what they might "get out of it" rather than for how they might honor God.  This attitude about worship shows up in how people talk about worship:  "What did you gain from going to church today?" or "I just wasn’t fed by that service."  I don’t mean to suggest that you shouldn’t "get something out of" worship.  Far from it--how can you enter into the presence of God and not be changed?  But it’s your focus, your intention, that matters.  What we do here is not entertainment, though it may be quite captivating.  And what we do here is not a self-help seminar, though it may well change your life.  What we do here is worship—we give honor and praise to God.  Ultimately, worship isn’t for you.  It’s for God; it’s from you.  We gather with the saints and elders and living creatures, we cast our crowns before the throne of God, and cry "holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty."  God is who it’s all about.

Have I told you this story before?  The famous Italian conductor, Arturo Toscanini once led a simply amazing performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  No one had ever heard that great piece played so perfectly and with such emotion.  When the final movement was over, the audience rose to its feet, applauding wildly and shouting, "Bravo!"  But Toscanini waved his arms for them to stop.  He turned to the orchestra and shouted hoarsely, "You are nothing!"  He pointed to himself and shouted, "I am nothing!"  And last of all he lifted his arms and shouted, "Beethoven is everything, everything, everything!"3

Done right, Christian worship does not direct attention to the preacher, it does not direct attention to the choir, it does not direct the people’s attention to themselves.  Worship directs all attention toward the heavenly throne and shouts with the angels and saints:  "God is everything, everything, everything."

  • Finally, the book of Revelation teaches us how and why we worship God in a world filled with suffering and heartache.  Revelation was written for people who were being persecuted by the Romans for being Christians.  Their top concerns were not medical issues or financial problems; they were facing prison or even death for professing Jesus Christ.  And yet here they are, bowing before the Lamb, gathering around the throne of God and singing praise with all their might.  Why is that?

And though it may not be quite as dire that, we too live in a world of terror and tragedy.  Since we last gathered here, two bombs went off in Boston, killing three, one just a child, brutally injuring over a hundred, and then the subsequent killing and manhunt.  But that’s just one news story.  Since we last gathered here, a teenager who goes to my daughter’s school crawled through a burning house and saved her baby girl but died in the process.  And since we last gathered here, members of our own church have had to cope in their families with mental illness and child abuse, a granddaughter with a life-threatening illness and loved ones who just can’t stop drinking.  And yet, come Sunday, here we are with songs of praise.  Why is that?

"Who are these, robed in white," asks Revelation, "and where have they come from?"  The answer is that the ones who gather around the throne have come through the great ordeal, that is, through a time of persecution and suffering.  They are not worshiping because of the persecution, but they are worshiping because God has brought them through the persecution.  And more than that, they worship even in the mist of the ordeal because they know  and believe that God will bring them through. 

Some people think Revelation is only about the end of time, pie-in-the-sky, what will be some day.  But that’s not it.  As one teacher puts it, "The strength of the biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be.  Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth . . . of God."4  Revelation is not mostly about the past or the future; it’s mostly about how to make it throughAnd the way to make it through today is to worship, to give praise to God for the victory of Christ, which is sure and certain, even if not yet obvious.

The persecution of Christians is not something that used to happen a long time ago.  It’s happening today in Syria and Iraq, in China and Nigeria.  In the former Soviet Union churches faced terrible threats from the Communist authorities.  District Superintendents got sent to Siberia, the KGB sent spies to find out who came to worship services.  Churches tried to keep things as quiet as possible, but there just wasn’t any way to disguise the children’s love for Jesus, especially when they sang.  One puzzled KGB spy even asked a pastor, "Why are the children singing?"  He just couldn’t understand that the joy of faith is not about what you see around you, but what you know is true in Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Oh, I have worshiped.  Haven’t you?  Sometimes it can be like I’m going through the motions.  But sometimes it’s like I’m standing before the very throne of God, with angels and elders and living creatures all around, like I’m casting my crown before the Lamb and singing, "Holy, holy, holy."

About a year ago some children and youth and adults gathered right up here, and there were trumpets blaring, and they sang, "I am a friend of God."  There’s just something about children singing for Jesus.  All I could do was clap my hands and sing along.  And the angels cried, "Holy, holy, holy."

Oh, I have worshiped.  Haven’t you?  On Christmas Eve we read how the Son of God was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger.  We held candles, the lights went down, and we sang soft and slow, "Silent night, holy night."  Tears streamed down my face and the angels cried, "Holy, holy, holy."

Oh, I have worshiped.  Haven’t you?  Just a week ago, on a Friday morning, we gathered in this room to praise God and to witness to our faith as we mourned the death and celebrated the life of Sandy Snide.  Then Jennifer Larson, a member of our choir, got up.  And here is what she sang:

And with your final heartbeat

Kiss the world goodbye

Then go in peace, and laugh on Glory’s side, and

Fly to Jesus

Fly to Jesus

Fly to Jesus and live.

And the angels sang, "Holy, holy, holy."

Here is what Revelation says about worship:

  • Worship is something we do together, in all our human difference and diversity, in heaven and on earth, together.
  • Worship is not about you in all your need or about me in all my foolish pride.  Worship is for and about and of God and the Lamb upon the throne.
  • And the ones who worship are those who have come through the great ordeal, who have suffered but know the victory of Christ is sure and true.

1 Fed B. Craddock, "Preaching the Book of Revelation," Interpretation (July 1986), 270-282.

2 Quoted in Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 80-81.

3 Donald W. McCullough, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Colorado Springs: NAVPress, 1995), 116.

4 Balmer H. Kelly, "Revelation 7:9-17," Interpretation (July 1986), 294,

Genesis 18:9-15 and 21:1-7

Sarah Laughed

April 7, 2013 Maple Grove UMC

Sarah laughed.  God and her husband are having a conversation, when God suddenly says, "Oh, by the way, Abraham, you and Sarah are going to have a baby before long."  Long before God had promised them a son, and through him a whole nation of descendants.  But now Abraham is 100 years old.  Sarah is 90 and in case it hadn’t occurred to you, Genesis tells us that her childbearing years have come and gone.  Yet here is God talking to Abraham, "So, you and Sarah—I see a baby in your future."

Now Sarah has had her ear to the door of then tent, listening in.  And here’s what she did when God said that:  she laughed.  So God says to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh?"  Now Sarah’s a little afraid, so she says, "I didn’t laugh."  God says, "Did too."  "Did not."  "Did too."  What a scene!

Did you notice—God thinks Sarah laughed because she doesn’t believe she’ll have a baby.  But that’s not why Sarah says she laughed.  Sarah says, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?"  Now if there are impressionable children present or folks who are easily offended, please cover your ears, because I’m about to tell you what that means.  The Hebrew doesn’t mean the pleasure of having baby or of raising a baby."  It refers to the pleasure of making a baby.  Which did she find harder to believe—that she’d conceive in her old age, or that after all these years she and Abraham might once again, well, you know . . .?

So Sarah laughed—Ha!  It was a harsh, cynical laugh.  But wait, there’s more laughter in the story.  A few chapters and about nine months later, Sarah did bear a son, and they named him "Isaac."  That’s Hebrew for "Laughter."  This time Sarah says, "God has made laughter for me, and everyone will laugh with me."  They named their son "Laughter," and Sarah laughed again.  Only this time it was a different kind of laugh.  Not "ha!" but "ha, ha, ha"—a joyful, heartfelt laugh.

Laughter is a sacred sound.  And it is a sacred journey from "ha!" to "ha, ha, ha."  After years of waiting for the child that would not come, Abraham and Sarah settled into a kind of joyless despair.  They try taking matters into their own hands, having Abraham bear a son by their slave Hagar.  And heartache ensues.  Everything feels so deadly serious. 

And we can be like Abraham and Sarah, can’t we?  Our lives, our faith, even our worship can become joyless, deadly serious.  We can be so "spiritual" in the worst sense of that word, while the Bible story is so playful, so lively, so earthy—filled with belly laughs and making babies.

After I’d been at my first church a short time, "Calvin" had a heart attack and died.  He was the only person in the church I’d had conflict with.  I’d mentionws to the Worship Committee that I liked the new hymnal.  And when they asked how I liked to serve Communion, I told them.  Calvin wasn’t on the worship committee, but word gets around.  Next Sunday Calvin bluntly informed me that he would not sing if we got that godawful new hymnal and that the only proper way to serve Communion is in the pews.  I thanked him for his input, and went home and cried.

When Calvin died I got a phone call, "Uncle Calvin’s gone.  You’d better come out to the house."  I hung up and told my wife that I was leaving to plan my first funeral.  She said, "I’m sure they’ll be glad to see you."  I replied, "Ha!"

When I got there, the first thing his widow told me was that I’d been one of her husband’s favorite ministers.  I said, "I didn’t think he liked me."  "Oh, he didn’t," she said, "but he liked the others even less!"  And everyone laughed.  And I laughed.  And for the next hour and a half, people told stories about Calvin, who had been a gruff but loving man.  I’d moved from "ha!" to "ha, ha, ha." 

May it be so for you.

Luke 24:1-12

Journey to Belief

March 31, 2013 Easter Sunday Maple Grove UMC

If you could go somewhere with Jesus, where would it be?  Fishing in the Sea of Galilee?  The manger in Bethlehem?  Or would you have him go with you to your home or place of need?  Maybe you’d have him take you to heaven itself?  Where would you go? 

We have been ‘Journeying with Jesus’ at Maple Grove these past few weeks.  We went with Jesus to the wilderness of temptation and to the cross, we journeyed to the Upper Room for the Last Supper and on the road to Emmaus, we prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane and entered Jerusalem with palm branches and shouts of joy.

Today’s journey, though, is of a different sort.  All those other journeys were to actual places—places with metaphorical or spiritual significance to be sure, but still places you could walk to or plot on a map.  But today’s journey is to something called ‘belief’—belief in the resurrection, belief in new life, belief in the power of God to overcome all manner of death.  How do you get to belief?

Well, according to the gospel reading today, it’s not easy to get there.  The journey to belief takes a while, it comes in fits and starts, it seems to involve roadblocks and detours along the way.

Let’s look again at the story.  Jesus died late on a Friday.  The next day was the Sabbath when they were not allowed to do any work, not even tend to a dead body.  So early on Sunday morning, the third day, the women came to the tomb, planning to treat Jesus’ body with ointments and spices, their normal burial practice.  Only when they got there the stone that sealed the tomb was rolled away.  And suddenly it dawned on them:  the reason the tomb was open was that Jesus had risen from the dead.  They were excited and full of belief—right?  No, actually Luke says they were "perplexed," that is, confused, mixed up, not sure what to make of it.  And that sounds true to me—for most people, the journey of faith does not jump straight to belief, but goes through a time of wondering, of being unsure, of not knowing quite what to make of it all. 

Suddenly two men in dazzling clothes come and stand beside the women.  And they think to themselves, "Look, angels!  This must be a sign that Jesus is alive again.  Thank you, angels, for helping us believe"—right?  No, actually Luke says the women were terrified of the angels, and bowed their heads to the ground. 

The angels tell them the story:  He is not here, but has risen.  They remind the women that Jesus had said he’d be handed over, and crucified, and on the third day rise again.  So the women begin to put it together; they went and told the disciples about all this.  And the disciples believed every word and were ecstatic—right?  No, actually Luke says the disciples thought it was just an idle tale and didn’t believe them at all. 

Later on, Peter got up and ran to the tomb to see for himself.  He looked inside and saw the graveclothes by themselves.  But he doesn’t do anything about it.  He just goes home.  He’s amazed, but he doesn’t yet quite believe.  It hasn’t sunk in yet, hasn’t reshaped his heart and his life. 

The journey to belief, it seems, is not easy or fast.  This difficulty in believing continues as Jesus makes more appearances after the resurrection.  He joins two disciples as they walk sadly along on the road to Emmaus, but they don’t recognize him, don’t even know it’s Jesus until after he’s gone.  Another time Jesus comes and stands right in the middle of the disciples and says, "Peace be with you."  But instead of believing and being at peace, it says they were startled and terrified.  Jesus spends some time with them, eats with them, shows them his wounded hands and feet, and they begin to come around.  But even then, here’s how Luke puts it:  "in their joy they were disbelieving."  They are glad and rejoice, but it’s complicated—other feelings enter in.  They believe at last, but not quite all the way or all the time.  The journey to belief is not always easy or fast.

I said it last Easter, and probably the Easter before and the year before that, and I’ll say again today:  I think that for God, the actual resurrection was the easy part of Easter.  On the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead.  It’s amazing and miraculous to us.  But so far as we know, God did not have any great difficulty pulling it off.  God could raise Jesus from the dead, and God did it.  No, the hard part of Easter for God was, and is, getting people to believe it.  Before they got anywhere close to believing, the women at the tomb journeyed through being perplexed  and terrified; before the disciples believed they journeyed through not recognizing Jesus at all and being startled and afraid.  And I suspect the journey to belief is not so different for most of us.

Now by "belief" I don’t mean just saying you believe, as in reciting some creed—on the third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. . .  I mean, do you believe it?  That God can raise the dead.  That the end is not the end, that evil and suffering do not get the final word, and you shouldn’t give up on God even though your hopes are sealed in a stone cold tomb.  That’s what I mean by believing.  That’s a journey and then some.

One of my favorite preachers, Fleming Rutledge, asks:  Why is it that so many people flock to church on Easter Day, listen to the message that Jesus has been raised from the dead, . . . and then don’t come back?  She goes on:  if you were invited to dinner with someone who had risen from the dead and they asked you to come again the following week, wouldn’t you want to go?  Especially if you were assured participation in that new and risen life, wouldn’t you want to come back more than anything else you might be invited to do?  Who would want to lie in bed and watch Meet the Press if they could receive eternal life?  As I thought about this, she says, it occurred to me that the reason people don’t come back on the Sunday after Easter is that they don’t really believe anything unusual has taken place.  Something nice, maybe; something cheerful and uplifting; but not an honest-to-God resurrection from the dead.

1

Now, I think Rev. Rutledge is mistaken about one thing here:  if people really were assured of participating in new and risen life just by coming back to church next Sunday, everyone would do it.  Who wouldn’t?  The trouble is, church ain’t always like that—at least not with me preaching!  There are lots of reasons besides not believing for not coming back to church next Sunday—Grandma won’t make me come next Sunday, soccer is more fun, church is boring.  (You thought I didn’t know those things, eh?)  Now I, in turn, think many people are a little more critical of church than is warranted, and I’d like to be able to promise you that if you come back next Sunday you will in fact be assured of participating in new and risen life.  But I’m afraid of getting sued for false advertising or breach of contract, so I’d better not do that.

All that aside, Rev. Rutledge does have a point.  If you really believed what we’re saying here this morning---that on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead--wouldn’t it change something about your life?  Maybe it would even be enough to get you to come to church again next Sunday. But if not that, something—enough to give your courage in the face of adversity, enough to make you sing and dance instead of frown and complain, enough to take away your fear of death.  If you really believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, then nothing is the same, nothing can stop you forever, and nothing in all creation can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  What I’m saying is that if you really believe God raised Jesus from the dead, come back to church next Sunday if you want to—I want you to—but whatever you do, don’t live the same old weary, hopeless, fearful life.  He is risen!  Act like it!

There are reasons why the journey to belief isn’t easy or fast.  For one thing, that God raised Jesus from the dead is, well, incredible-- which means, literally, "unbelievable."  It doesn’t fit with our rational, scientific points of view and it seems to be contradicted by the abundance of suffering and death we see all around.  Resurrection is the experience, the witness, of generations of believers, people who have known Jesus to be alive in their hearts and lives, people who have gone through trials and faced their own death with assurance and trust.  But still, it is, well, a bit of journey to believe all that.

And here’s maybe an even harder thing:  the women and the disciples had trouble accepting the resurrected Jesus because they were still looking and longing for the earthly Jesus.  That’s the Jesus they had known and loved; they’d had such high expectations for this earthly Jesus.  A dead and risen Jesus?  Hmm, could be okay, but we’re not there yet, haven’t let go of those old expectations yet.

"This is terrifying," writes Craig Barnes, that "in order to receive this new life, we have to stop clinging to the old one."

  1. Letting go of the old—even the dead and destructive old—isSometimes we’d rather sit by the tomb weeping than embrace the new and risen life—it’s more comfortable, more familiar.  The journey to belief was not, and is not, easy or fast.  But it’s what Easter is for: letting go of the old so we can embrace the new things God has in store.

Lillian Daniel tells about a family new to her church—new to church, period—whose grade-school-age kids had only one year of Sunday school under their belts.  In the middle of what was his second Christmas pageant rehearsal ever, the little boy cried out in total exasperation, "Do you mean to tell me that we are doing exactly the same story we did last year?"

3

People might think that about the Easter story.  Didn’t we tell that story last year, the one about God raising Jesus from the dead?  The answer is ‘yes.’  And we’ll tell it next year.  For that matter we’ll tell some version of that story next week and the week after that and again the following week.  We’ll keep telling that story until we believe it—not just say it, but truly believe it so that our lives our changed, our hearts are lifted, our fears subsided.  The journey to belief is not easy and it’s not fast.  But I’ve got patience if you do, and I know the story well.  God raised Jesus from the dead.  What else do you supposed God can do?  Well, let’s journey together and find out, shall we?

1

Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 300.

2

M. Craig Barnes, "We’re All Terminal," Living by the Word, The Christian Century (April 6, 2004), 18.

3

Lillian Daniel, When "Spiritual But Not Religious" Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 11.

Luke 19:28-40

Journey with Jesus—Joyful Entry into Jerusalem

March 24, 2013 Maple Grove UMC

Palm Sunday has a curious kind of joy.  In between the somber self-reflection of the first weeks of Lent, and the sadness and seriousness of Holy Week, comes this parade, this moment of joy as Jesus enters Jerusalem.  It’s a day of great contrast—this worship service began with palm branches and shouts of Hosanna, but even before we leave here today, we’ll start to prepare ourselves for Good Friday and the cross.  Yes, Palm Sunday has is a curious kind of joy.  But it’s a day of joy nevertheless. 

In the Bible reading you can sense the joy of the day.  Jesus sets it all up so carefully, then rides along as people throw garments in his path.  So enthusiastic and worshipful!  What Luke calls "the whole multitude of the disciples" starts shouting out joyful praise as Jesus comes down from the Mount of Olives.  They remember all the wonderful things Jesus has done, so they cry out with loud voices:  "Blessed is the king whom comes in the name of the Lord!"  There’s joy all over the place. 

And here’s what the joy is about:  Jesus is coming!  After chapters of journeying to Jerusalem, here he is.  The one who does deeds of power—here he is.  The Son of God, the great forgiver, the healer of souls—here he is.  When Jesus enters the holy city, there is gladness.  When Jesus enters our hearts and lives, there is great joy.

Now I am by nature a taciturn, rather serious kind of person, yet recently joy has been ganging up on me from all directions.  For a wedding I performed last weekend, the couple chose a scripture from Philippians 4:  "Rejoice in the Lord always;" it says, "and again I will say rejoice."  So in my sermon I told them that even though in preparing for marriage we work on communication patterns and conflict resolution strategies, ultimately marriage is all about the joy.  I think they believed me!  And I was reminded that even after more than 23 years, that’s still true for me.

Last Tuesday I had the privilege of leading one last Lenten class with Marialice Bennett.  As a concluding exercise everyone took a blank card and wrote on it a daily affirmation, whatever they most need to remind themselves of every day.  I set my card down and asked God to give me the words for my card.  Here’s what came to me:  "It’s all about the joy!"  And so it is.  And I’ve been reminding myself of that every day.

The Administrative Council met last Thursday and Sherri Scholl had everyone tell what she calls a "contagious ministry story"—something that’s happened to them through this church that is wonderful and powerful.  (You’ll be hearing more about that soon.)  And person after person had a story to tell—of being loved and supported by a Sunday school class through all life’s ups and downs, of getting to be part of Bill’s Backers and spend time together while raising money for the ALS Foundation, of the way this church has cared for homeless and needy neighbors.  Story after story.  And what else was there to do but praise God joyfully for all those deeds of power?

Then this weekend my daughter starred in the school musical; she sang and acted her heart out up there.  Joy doesn’t even begin to describe it!

And here it is again in the gospel today.  Jesus enters, and the response is joy and praise.  It’s all about the joy!

Not that everyone rejoiced.  The Pharisees, you remember, told Jesus to make the disciples stop.  Too much noise, too much enthusiasm, just too much for them.  After 2000 years it’s impossible to know what the Pharisees were really like, but in the gospels they consistently play the role of "joy-killers."  That’s their job in the gospels.  If there’s a negative to be found, they’ll find it.  If there’s any possible reason to disapprove of something, they’ll do it.  If there’s anything to complain about, they’re all over it.  And if there’s any joy in sight, they’ll stomp on it.  That’s their job in the gospels.

Now I’m sure they had their reasons for telling the disciples to be quiet.  Maybe a rag-tag donkey parade didn’t seem appropriate to them.  Maybe they were afraid that in hailing Jesus as king, the disciples might provoke the Romans to violence and everyone would get hurt.  It’s even possible they were trying to protect Jesus from the Romans.  There are always reasons to silence joy.  And there are always Pharisees around, aren’t there, always someone to play the role of joy-killer.

  • There are Pharisees of timing:  How can you rejoice at a time like this? Good Friday is only five days away—how could Jesus let them shout for joy with the cross so close?  But something bad is always about to happen to someone, somewhere.  Does that mean we shouldn’t rejoice and praise God?  Don’t praise God now, somebody just got bad news.  Don’t clap your hands, the pastor doesn’t approve.  Don’t tell a joke, we’re in church.  But I ask you, as we think about Jesus entering into the city and into our lives, if it’s not a good time for rejoicing and praising God, what is it a good time for?
  • There are intellectual Pharisees, people who say, "How can you have such a simplistic belief in Jesus in this post-Christian, post-modern, scientific world?  Religion is just wishful thinking, childish belief.  But there’s more to life than evidence and logic.  There is also joy and praise.
  • There are Pharisees of decorum and good taste.  It’s okay to love Jesus, just don’t get carried away.  Shouting is for ball games and praise is for Pentecostals.  Except, of course, the disciples of Jesus did both of those things, and Jesus just soaked it up.

But the truth is, most of us don’t really need Pharisees of any kind to make us keep quiet about Jesus.  We manage to silence our own selves pretty effectively.  When was the last time you shouted Hosanna to Jesus in public?  Heck, when was the last time you shouted praise to Jesus anywhere? 

The summer that I was 13—that that fearful, awkward age when all you want to do is fit in—I went to church camp for a week.  My friends had all kind of outgrown church camp by that age, but I still loved to go.  Camp Wesley was near Salina, Kansas, nestled into what passes for woods in that part of the world.  It was wonderful.  We’d read and study the Bible together much of the day.  And in between swimming and hiking and capture the flag, we’d talk about our fears and hopes and faith for hours on end.  And in the evening there’d be a campfire where kids would commit and recommit their lives to Jesus Christ.  And every night—I’m dating myself here—we’d sing "Pass It On."  I already knew that song, of course, but that camp was the first time I’d heard it sung with a little addition.  You’d sing the song as usual

That’s how it is with God’s love,

Once you experience it,

You spread his love to everyone,

You want to pass it on . . .

But at camp, towards the end of the song, after we sang, "I’ll shout it from the mountaintop," we’d stand up and shout at the top of our lungs, "Hey, world!" before you finished, "I want my world to know, the Lord of love has come to me.  I want to pass it on."

Hey, world!  And I meant it with every fiber of my being.  I would shout God’s praise from every mountaintop.  I’d tell it to everywhere, everywhere I went:  Hey, world!  Jesus is the Lord of love and I want you to know it and feel it for yourself.  What a week at camp!

Then I went back home.  And a few days later I met a couple of the guys before baseball practice.  They were bullies of a sort, always teasing me about being a "church-boy."  It made me stammer and my ears would turn red when they’d say that.  They asked me, "Where you been, Glenn?  You missed practice last week."

"Yeah," I said, "I was at camp."

"What kind of camp?" they asked, probably innocently enough.

And there was my opportunity.  At that very moment Jesus was riding into Jerusalem, the crowds were gathering.  "Oh, you know," I evaded, "just camp," and I walked away.  No shouting, no praise, no joy from me that day.  "Hey, world?"  I wouldn’t even say, "Hey, David and Joel."  And in that moment I made a vow.  I haven’t always kept it, but I’ve always remembered it.  No Pharisee is going to shut me up!   The Lord of love has come to me, and I want to pass it on. 

I can always think of lots of reasons not to rejoice.  My inner Pharisee is as strong as anyone’s.  There are too many people in the hospital.  Just got some bad news and more may be on the way.  Money’s tight and health care costs more every year.  People are upset about this and upset about that.  But Jesus has entered my life; there are contagious ministry stories all around.  Jesus will have praise if the very stones have to cry out—it might as well come from us.

So who will you be in the Palm Sunday parade this year?  One of the disciples, or a Pharisee?  A joy expresser, or a joy-killer?  Well, again, I am by nature taciturn and serious.  But I, for one, choose disciple.  Jesus is in town, and it’s all about the joy.

Hey, Glenn, where you been?  You missed practice last week.  I was a teenage Pharisee that day.  But there are opportunities for redemption almost every day.  I was at church camp!  And I’ll shout it from the mountaintop—Hey, world!—I want the world to know.  The Lord of love has come to me.  I want to pass it on!  Jesus has come—and it’s all about the joy!

Luke 22:39-46

Journey with Jesus—Gethsemane

March 17, 2013 Maple Grove UMC

We journey with Jesus today to the Mount of Olives, to Gethsemane, where Jesus took the disciples to pray before he suffered.  "Father," he prayed, "if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done."  Jesus may have prayed more than that, but in just that one sentence he prayed so profoundly, including two of the most important movements of prayer.  There are other movements of prayer—thanksgiving, confession, meditation—but these two are deep and vital.

First Jesus tells God what he wants, expresses the longing of his heart: "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me."  The cup is the cup of suffering and death.  He did not want to suffer, he longed to live, and he told God so.  If there is any other way, Lord, make it happen.

In prayer we tell God what we want, express the longings of our hearts.  We do this because the Bible tells us to.  We do this because we need to express them.  And we pray trusting that God listens, that God cares, and that God will respond however is best and possible.  The first movement of prayer in Gethsemane is to tell God what we want, to express the longings of our hearts.

Yet we also pray knowing we don’t always get what we want.  Jesus didn’t.  And so the next movement of prayer in Gethsemane is this:  "yet not my will, Father, but yours be done."  Richard Foster calls this the prayer of relinquishment, which is, he says, not just resigning ourselves to fate.  It’s a true letting go, releasing our desires with hope and confidence in the ultimate goodness of God.1  Even more, I believe that to pray, "Yet not my will but yours be done," is to learn through prayer to embrace what is, to be with God and invite God to be with you, through the most difficult times of life.

In Gethsemane Jesus taught two profound movements of prayer: 

    • Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.  We tell God what we want, express the longings of our hearts.
    • Yet, not my will but yours be done.  Through prayer we learn to let go and to embrace with God what is.

When Jesus was finished praying, he wakes the disciples up and says, "Get up and pray."  So, having traveled with Jesus to Gethsemane today, my friends, "Let us get up and pray." 

1. Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 51-52.

 

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