“Not Just A Bunch of Sheep” John 10:11-18

pexels-photo-288621.jpegSunday School did me a serious dis-service.

I’ll bet it did you one as well.

It wasn’t an intentional dis-service, rather a cute little ditty that sticks in your head and rattles around in there.    Many a VBS teacher or volunteer has known the danger of singing with children and getting this earworm stuck, only to come back to them again and again in the middle of the night.

“I just wanna be a sheep, baa…….”

“I just wanna be a sheep, baa…….”

“Pray the Lord my soul to keep, baa…..”

“I just wanna be a sheep, baa……”

It’s a cute little ear worm, with a number of verses.

There is a verse about not wanting to be a Pharisee, because they’re not “fair, you see.”

One about not wanting to be a Hypocrite, because they’re not “hip, with it.”  (thereby dating the song from the late 60’s or early 70’s.)

Another verse about not wanting to be a Sadducee, because they so “Sad, you see.”

“I just wanna be a sheep…”

On face value there is nothing wrong with the desire to be a follower of Jesus, — “a sheep of his own fold, a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redemption” – as we say in our Baptismal and Funeral Liturgies.  There is comfort to be found in knowing such connection, being assured that we are watched over and cared for and never snatched away from the Shepherd’s reach.

But like that earworm, (a song that won’t go away,) I’m a little afraid we get “stuck” right there.  We get stuck on simply being sheep.

We tend to have a romantic view of Jesus of somehow existing just to take care of us.  He is the “good shepherd” after all, as it says right here in John, there to poke and prod us around to where we need to go, and to expect so very little from us because, we are, (after all,) just sheep.

John’s Gospel however will not let us comfortably graze, minding our own business.

Jesus does all this talking about being the “good shepherd” into a particular context, and that context is what has just happened in chapter 9.

There we read the story of the man blind from birth whom Jesus heals.    The question from the disciples in that story was “who sinned, this man or his parents?”

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned;” Jesus says,  “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”

That does not sound like a particularly passive existence.

Indeed, as soon as Jesus heals the man who had been blind from birth in chapter 9, his life gets, shall we say, “complicated?”

Far from grazing and docilely following Jesus, the man who had formerly been blind finds himself engaged in a confrontation with the Pharisees, and in defending Jesus, and in witnessing to him, and finally a bit perplexed as to how he ended up in this position.

It is then that Jesus re-enters the story with an invitation, and it is not one to simply to “follow” but rather to “believe.”

This man is meant for more than simply occupying space now.  More than being dependent upon the kindness of others.  The encounter with Jesus has made him into one in whom God’s works are revealed, and through whom greater works will be accomplished.

The Pharisees in the story are revealed as mere “hired hands.”  They are more concerned about their own position, their own “skin” and maintaining their position and decorum within the community than with the individual life of the man now healed.

The “good shepherd” Jesus says, “lays down his life for the sheep.”

The “good shepherd” has other sheep to gather, (not to alienate or drive away) so that there will be one flock.

The invitation understood is to become a shepherd now.  To become one who helps in the gathering of those who are “not of this fold.”

Far from being a picture of skittering lambs or thoughtless wanderers, those who hear Jesus and who believe in him find themselves transformed into workers with him in the Kingdom.

So, here’s my beef with the song.

I may just wanna be a sheep, but Jesus appears to be looking for more “good shepherds.”

He is looking for those who will follow, yes, but follows with the intention of maturing into leaders.

You can see this in John’s Gospel in the foot washing event.   Jesus models what it is to be servant and then gives the command, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

That’s “good shepherd” kind of work, serving one another.

And in that same context, in the upper room he gives them another directive.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Having love for one another is a “taking initiative” kind of thing, not just blind following.

That’s “good shepherd” kind of work, to make a decision to set aside differences and divisions, and your own self-interest in order to be intentional about loving one another.

You can see this call to be a “good shepherd” in the final exchange that takes place between Jesus and Peter after the resurrection.  There they are, on the shore of the lake, and after sharing a meal of fish, Jesus looks at Peter and says to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ 

That’s “good shepherd” kind of language.   And Jesus repeats the invitation three times, one for every time Peter had earlier denied him.

A second time (Jesus) said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ 

He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.

What does that sound like to you?

Does that sound like being a sheep is going to be enough?

Does it not sound more like Jesus reminding Peter that he has followed the “good shepherd” not to learn simply how to follow, but also to learn how to love, and to live, and to lead?

“I just wanna be a sheep” is selling ourselves short.

“I just wanna be a sheep” is missing out on the challenge of discipleship, and also on the great joy that comes in helping others to believe and to become more than they thought they were capable of being.

This past week was a remarkable week, did you know that?

Here at St. James we had two members who were approved for Candidacy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  Heather and Sue, both approved to become “good shepherds.”

They are and will be engaged in Seminary.

They will train.

They will pray and be prayed for by us.

They will experience the full range of following Jesus, and they will be sheep of God’s own fold, but they will also aspire to be shepherds as well, and we pray good ones.  Leading, guiding, being exasperated by the tendency of flocks to wander, but ultimately to trust in what the good shepherd has taught them, modeled for them.

They will do “good shepherd” kind of work.

And this past week Emily signed up for her final semester of classes, and in June she will begin her Internship at our sister congregation, Advent in Olathe.   There she will get a chance to experience more fully what it means to shepherd.  She’ll laugh at the antics of the flock, and how they will break your heart, and how she will see them grow and be with them as they die.

She will step a little closer to becoming a good shepherd.

And last weekend, we baptized little Fielding Brenner, and we said the words, “Fielding Brenner, Child of God, let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.”

He may be just a sheep… for now… but we see in him great things to come.  A good shepherd in the making.

Maybe a pastor someday.

Or maybe just one of any number of people whom Jesus has touched, and healed, and who suddenly find themselves not simply sheep anymore but called upon to lead, and a shepherd.

Maybe to shepherd another person.

Maybe to shepherd their own child.

Maybe to shepherd a spouse, or a co-worker, or a big brother or sister.

Those same words uttered over Fielding were also uttered over each and every one of us, (those words about about letting your light so shine) – they were spoken not so that we could forever remain sheep, tossed to and fro by every whim, but that we might, (as Paul puts it in Ephesians 4,) “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

That’s “good shepherd” kind of talk, and work, understanding that while we are to follow where Jesus has led the way, we are also expected to walk, and to work, and do the things that the Shepherd has shown us how to do.

So, like I said, Sunday School did me a bit of a dis-service.

I do wanna be a sheep, yes… but that’s not all I wanna be… and that’s not all that a God who sees great things in us wants us to be.

God sees great things in us.

God sees our light shining in this this world.

God sees and your life fitted for “good shepherd” kind of work, in the place where you are.  Amen.

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What Do You Have To Say? Luke 24:36-48

A few years back we were vacationing in Minnesota.  I was standing in the check-out line at Wal-Mart, when someone came up to me and asked me what kind of bait I would recommend to use for Walleye at this time of year.

Now, that’s not an unusual question to hear in Minnesota, but as I looked up to tell the person that I wasn’t from this area and didn’t really know, I saw the familiar face of an old  friend from the small town that I grew up near.   I had not seen him for years!   He just happened to be vacationing in the same area and had come to this store at the same time that I had.

Do you know what I said to him?

Absolutely nothing!

I just stood there with my mouth hanging open.  He had caught me so off guard that I couldn’t think of a thing to say!  I recognized him, but couldn’t think of his name.  I couldn’t put a sentence together at all, and finally just stammered out, “Well, hi.”

I’ll bet you’ve had experiences like that before haven’t you?  You run into someone you didn’t expect to see, in an unfamiliar setting, and you just go blank with surprise.

I think that is part of what is happening in today’s Gospel lesson.

This is Luke’s account of Jesus appearing to the disciples for the first time after the resurrection.

They have heard the strange stories of the women, and the men walking to Emmaus, and you might have thought that those things would have prepared them, but really, how do you prepare to see someone who is supposed to be dead popping up alive again?

I think you could even experience that more than once and still be left speechless by it all!   No matter how good it would be to see that person alive again.  Luke puts it this way, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering….”

Joyful, yes; but it is still hard to believe.  Jesus is here, really here?   That is something to wonder about!

I think that it is still the same way for you and for me when it comes to recognizing the power of the Risen Christ at work in our lives.

We have a hard time believing in the promise that Jesus gave, the promise that he would be with us always.  No matter how we might equip ourselves to look for that, we never quite expect him to really show up.

So it is that when he does pop up, (often in the most unexpected of places,) we too, are just left speechless.

Catching a vision of the Risen Lord popping into you life requires that you begin to look at the events of your life with the eyes of faith.

Catching a vision of the Risen Lord appearing means that we need to pay particular attention to the everyday events and circumstances, so that we begin to see that there are no coincidences in life.

If we take this Gospel lesson at its face value, we find out that Jesus chooses to show up in the ordinary stuff.

It is while you are broiling a piece of fish, while you’re getting ready to eat, while you’re talking with your friends—that’s when Jesus pops in and enters the conversation.  He wants to be a part of the action.

Why are we so surprised when that happens?

In the midst of ordinary conversation things begin turn to matters of faith, of love, of hurt or questions about meaning, and it catches us completely off guard.

I mean, we were just going to have a little backyard barbeque.   All of a sudden out of the blue a friend starts talking about really deep stuff!

How tough life is for them right now.

The trouble they are in.

The doubts they have, or the diagnosis they just heard about, or the trouble with  a child.

It is a sacred moment, a holy moment, when that person opens up.

That is the moment where Jesus is waiting in the wings to enter the conversation.

So then, why does this kind of moment so often leave us speechless?   Has not Jesus given us the very words to speak; the very words of encouragement to give to them?

It is in the ordinary that the Risen Lord meets us.

It is in the ordinary day to day life that Jesus encourages us to remember his words and to speak them.

We know that when the words of Jesus are uttered into the ordinary, they can often take on extraordinary power and significance.  We have the very words that can move people in a new direction.

Words can un-stick the stuck, they can challenge the bitter, they can bring hope and possibility to the despairing.

The words that Jesus speaks to us have power, and they are meant to be shared.

Think about some of those words given to us to speak.

From today’s Gospel we are given, “Peace be with you.”    It sounds archaic perhaps, but there is something powerful about wishing peace upon someone that moves that person deeply.

“Peace, yes, peace, that is what I’m looking for…”,

In this decision I have to make, in this situation I find myself in.  Yes, to have some peace about it, that would be a good thing, and here is someone wishing me peace – in Jesus’ name.

Think of the words, the promises that Jesus has given us to share with others.

“I will not leave you desolate,” Jesus says to us, “I will send the Holy Spirit the comforter to guide you.”

You are not in this alone.  You are not the only one facing this thing, whatever it is, Cancer, addiction, bankruptcy, rebellious children, failing health—“I will not leave you desolate,” Jesus promises.  “I’m sending someone to guide you.”

Think of the words we have to say.

“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of you.”

“Whatever you ask in my name shall be given to you by my Father in heaven, who will hear you.”

These are the words we have to say into the face of this world’s pain and suffering and confusion.

They are words that can encourage us.

Words that remind us that God promises to come to us.

They are words that speak of a Resurrected Lord who pops in to ordinary lives at extraordinary times.

There will be days of course, where you won’t be able to see God anywhere.

The day the diagnosis comes.

The day the job is lost.

The day when the child goes missing, the friend is struck down, or the parent dies.   Those are days that are not ordinary at all, except in the context of a sin- wracked world.

In a sin-wracked world you can expect such things to happen.

And it is because we live in just such a sin-wracked world that it is absolutely critical that we be about the task of being reminded of the words of Jesus in the ordinary times.

It is because we live in a sin-wracked world that we need to be about the task of witnessing, of inviting people to worship, of telling them our faith story and what those words of Jesus mean to us in our ordinary lives.

Because you see, if you haven’t heard the word of Jesus in the ordinary days, (when things are relatively calm and smooth,) when you are confronted with trouble, difficulty and despair, those words can be too faint to hear clearly!

Did Jesus really say he would be with me?  Or was that something I dreamed up?

Did Jesus really promise that he would listen, or is that something I’m just wishing would happen because I’m in trouble here?

When the heat is on in this world, you don’t want to be caught off guard or speechless!

That’s the best reason I can give people for being faithful in worship.  You need to hear these words, sing these songs, let them fill the crevasses of your life, your soul, so that you will have a ready reserve to draw upon in both the good times and the bad.

What do you have to say?  The very words of Jesus have been given to you.

“I will be with you always.”   Jesus promises.  That’s a blessing that is as good for the person in grief as it is for the child being sent off to college or to start their own life.   “Don’t forget, Jesus promised he would be with you.”

“Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy, and by burden is light.”  Jesus said.  That is a word that is as good to hear when you are taking on a new task as it is to hear when you feel overwhelmed and overburdened in life.

“Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”   Jesus said.  Those are good words to hear, and to be reminded of when things seem closed off to you, and equally good to hear when you feel lost in this life.  God is determined to find you, and to be with you.  No door stands in his way.

What do we have to say to this world?   We have the very words of Jesus which can spring across the centuries and bring the very presence of Christ into the here and now!

The Risen Lord pops up still, where you least expect him, in the ordinary days.

Look with the eyes of faith.

Be attentive to the words, and Jesus will reveal himself to you, and through you Jesus will speak into the lives of others, revealing himself again to a world that longs to see him.

Of this, the power of Jesus words to bring life and hope anew, you will be witnesses.

“Show Me” Kind of People John 20:19-31

Thomas is a biblical character that should resonate well with Missourians.   We’re a “show-me” kind of people living in a “show-me” state.

Which is really kind of interesting, because there are two legends as to how the phrase came to be the unofficial motto for the state, you know.

The first is from a speech, (according to Wikipedia) by Congressman Willard Vandiver in 1899, who declared that “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton, cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri, and you have got to show me.”

In this version of the story, Missourians are a stalwart, practical folk who are convinced only when shown sufficient evidence.   Seeing is believing.  And so, like Thomas in the Gospel, we require a look at the details.

“Unless I see the mark of the nails and place my hand in the side…I will not believe.”

Like Thomas, some of us are enamored with proofs, and being shown, and having something to point to, to look at and to measure.

It’s interesting that Thomas wants both the nail prints and the wound in the side.

Nail prints, maybe those are survivable, but an opening in the side?  Now that you can’t fake.  If you can show me that, if I can put my hand in there then I’ll believe that this is Jesus back from the grave.

“Show me” –let me see the evidence.

In another version of the story however, you get a different picture.  During a miner’s strike in Leadville Colorado a contingent of mine workers from Joplin Missouri was brought in to try to break up the strike and keep the Leadville mine in operation.

It did not go well.

In this version of the story, the picture is much less flattering for Missourians.

The Missouri miners were unfamiliar with the techniques required for mining in the granite rock formations of Colorado.  The Missourians were unfamiliar with how to do things and slow to learn, having to be shown how to use the hammer, drill, and set the charges.  “Show me” was a synonym for “I don’t know how this works.”

So, when a replacement miner showed up to work the foreman would condescendingly say, “He’s from Missouri, you’ll have to show him…”

“Show me” – I don’t know how this works, how this is done.

Could this apply to the Thomas story as well?

Thomas was not able to comprehend the testimony of his fellow disciples.   Perhaps he is a little “slow on the pick-up” about this Resurrection thing and how it worked.

So, take your pick, the “show-me” phrase refers to either requiring enough evidence and details, or is descriptive of being slow to learn and to trust in the witness of others, — this is who Thomas is.

And take your pick, this is who we are as well.

We are “show-me” people.

Like Thomas, some of us also live our lives seeming to have “just missed” Jesus, or at very least needing a little more proof of his presence.

We go looking for proof of God in the details.

Sometimes in the church we want a little more proof that Jesus is still around, that this God thing is a real going venture, that the resurrection is a present reality or a future possibility.

We look to the details for proof of that.

“If God is real, there shouldn’t be any suffering.”  We reason.   “The fact that there is suffering in this world is proof that God just isn’t around anymore, at least not for you, or for me.  Suffering is evidence that God doesn’t care, or that God isn’t able to intervene, so “show me” an end to suffering and then I’ll believe in Jesus.”

“Show me suffering can be ended, and then I will follow this God.”

We use perceived absence as evidence.

“If God were really around, our congregation wouldn’t have any money issues. We’d have enough resources, and more young families, and lots of people willing to volunteer.  Show me that, and I’ll believe God is doing something in this place.”

Or, “If God’s spirit was really in this place, people would be nicer to one another here.  Show me a church that doesn’t have people arguing about things, and then I’ll believe and go there.”

“Or….”   Well, you get the picture here.

The details, that’s what we’re always looking for, and just the right ones, don’t you know.

A balanced spreadsheet.

A happy smile on every face.

A miracle or two would be nice.

Evidence of a future.

Like Thomas, we lay out our list of requirements.   We may not think of them as such, but in actuality, that’s what they are.  They are conditional requirements for believing in the Resurrection and its power.

They are the things we quietly say to ourselves that we will need to see before… well you name it.

“Show me….then I’ll invest my time and ability.”

“Show me… .then I’ll give to your cause.”

“Show me this will make a difference, and then I’ll follow and do the same.”

“Show me something tangible, then I’ll believe, or trust you, or give you the benefit of the doubt.”

But when you look at this story in John’s gospel, the first thing that jumps out at you is that in the end it wasn’t any of the details that convinced Thomas at all!

He does not touch the nail prints.

He does not place his hand in Jesus’ side… even when invited so to do by the Risen Lord.

No, what convinces Thomas is not seeing or verifying the details.

What convinces Thomas is the shared event, the shared experience of seeing the risen Lord with those around him.

Those other disciples who tried to convince him the week previous, they don’t have to say a thing now.

They don’t have to convince him of anything.

They don’t even have to say, “He missed you the first time around Jesus, so show him, just show him….”

They simply have to be present with Thomas now as Jesus reveals himself to Thomas.

And this is what made me wonder if perhaps show-me people in a show-me state are more like Thomas than we care to admit.

We think too, think that it’s the details that will convince us.

What we miss is the event.

The event where Jesus shows up and becomes visible to others.

If we can do what Thomas could not do in that moment, share in that understanding, “we have seen the Lord!” then we might be able to step beyond our own Thomas skepticism.

Do I have to see Jesus to experience his presence, or is the witness of others enough to make me rejoice with them?

What was missing the week before for Thomas was a sense of rejoicing!  Rejoicing at what others had seen.   Rejoicing at what they believed.

Thomas did not say, “Oh, you saw him?  Tell me what that was like!”

Instead he said, “unless I see…”

What if Thomas, instead of insisting on being shown the details, could have for just a moment rejoiced in what the others had seen as the very presence of the Lord in their midst, breathing the gift of the Spirit upon them?

Would this story have been different?

Would our lives be different, our attitudes, if instead of looking for proof or details or verification of the presence of the Risen Lord, if we instead chose to rejoice in the witness of others?

What if I told you that every Monday and Wednesday I see Jesus walk in here?   She comes in with a  wheelie briefcase and sets up to teach English as Second Language, and as she works and prepares her lesson, Jesus also walks in the forms that he promised he would, as the stranger who was welcomed, as the one how had been imprisoned and is now learning, as the refugee, as the one who was looking for a cup of water and a chance to start afresh?

Would you rejoice in that?  Would you say, “You saw Jesus walk in?  What was that like?”

Or would you instead want some proof, some detail of my claim to prove it to you?”

What if I said every Sunday morning and ever Wednesday night I see Jesus walking in with a bag for carrying groceries?    He did say, “I was hungry and you fed me.”

What if I said every Sunday afternoon I see Jesus appear in Pastor Joe’s smiling face, and in the face of those who gather for worship here, as they sing and dance and praise Jesus in a language where all I understand are the words “Alleluia” and “Jesus.”

Would you rejoice with me at the presence of the Risen Lord in their midst, and the privilege of making their gathering possible?   Would you say, “You saw Jesus?  Tell me what it was like?”

What if I said that I’ve seen Jesus carting in milk and carrying around produce and boxes of bananas and multiplying the bananas I’m quite sure, somehow, as surely as they multiplied the loaves and fishes, because they just seem to do that, you can’t stop the abundance.

Would you rejoice with me at that, say, “You saw Jesus doing miracles of feeding!  What was that like?”

Or would you want to proof?  Some detail to prove that it was Christ at work?

What if I told you that I’ve seen Jesus dandle children on his knee in a Sunday School opening here, or felt the presence of Christ in women gathered around a sewing table as surely as Peter must have felt Christ’s presence when he called Lydia from her deathbed?  Or Paul must have felt Christ presence as he stitched tent fabric and dictated his letters to young churches.

What if I told you that I see Christ every time the TLC group gathers around a table and begins to break donuts and pass them around, just as surely as the disciple saw Christ as he said, “take and eat?”

We are “show me” people in a “show me” state and far too much of the time we have just missed Jesus, not because we aren’t in the right place at the right time, but rather because we fail to rejoice with those who are sure that they have just seen him in their midst.

We want proof, when what is needed is worship.

We desire to get details, when what is required is joining in their celebration.

We make our demands for things to be done in certain ways, and in the process become blind to the wind of the Spirit still being breathed in, around and upon those who have seen Jesus in their midst.

We are show me people in a show me state, and we want to see Jesus, and some proof of his presence.

Well, if you need that, just look at the person next to you, and ask them.  Have them tell you what John’s Gospel affirms over and over.

“We have seen the Lord.” – and listen to what they have to say.

Tune your eyes to look for that, and your heart to receive the witness of your neighbor, and as it is shared with you, you will begin to see the Risen Lord everywhere.

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet come to believe.”

“Is It A Resurrection if you’re expecting it? Mark 16:1-8

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It is a happy and strange alignment of things that Easter falls on April Fool’s day, but doubly so because it is the year of Mark’s Gospel.

Talk about an April fool’s.  We come looking for the assurance of resurrection on Easter, but all we get are women running away scared and amazed.

For a Gospel that tends to be particularly lean on detail, where things happen “immediately” and where incidents fall one upon another in fast succession, there is an amazing amount of detail in this story, and time taken to recount it.

The women have waited until after the Sabbath (where work was not allowed) to go and do for the Body of Jesus the things that are usually done as a matter of respect.

This alone is a remarkable thing, showing incredible devotion and love, for it would be one thing to wash, anoint, and prepare a body for burial soon after the death.

Quite another to do the task for a body already well along on the road to decomposition in the Judean heat.

They bought spices.

It is very early in the morning, but the sun has risen.

The stone is a troubling detail, who will move it?  It is very large.  Will we be able to move it?

Then the detail of that very large stone having already been moved, and the man in white seated inside, and the invitation to see where Jesus had been laid, and to go and tell his disciples (particularly Peter by name) to go to Galilee, “there you will see him, just as he told you.”

We trip through all of this detail almost thoughtlessly because it is what we are expecting to hear on Easter.

We expect to hear the “He is Risen!  He is not here!”

But the women, the women did not.

They flee the tomb in terror and amazement we are told, and that is the unexpected part for us.

They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.

It’s a perplexing ending at first, this original ending to Mark’s Gospel.   A troubling one.  So much so that later scribes tried to tack on a resurrection account or two, but the oldest copies we have of Mark’s Gospel all end right here with those women running away and not saying a word.

Obviously, at some point in time those women did talk, recounting all this detail, but Mark wants to make the point that the resurrection, (though talked about repeatedly by Jesus himself in the run up to the events in Jerusalem,) still caught everyone off guard.

The women did not go to the tomb to see if what Jesus had promised had happened.  They did not come with hope or expectation of meeting a Risen Lord.

They came to anoint a dead body.

They did not come to the tomb with gifts of food and beverage to celebrate with the Resurrected Lord, –  have the first Easter Pot-Luck Breakfast.

They came with funerary spices.

They did not go to the tomb expecting to see a stone rolled back and the tomb empty.

They came expecting to have to figure out how to claw and pry their way in to find Jesus’ decaying body and to have to deal with all the unpleasantness of that.

It is because what they find when they arrive at the tomb is so far out of their expectations that they run in fear and amazement.

It is because of the shock of what they found that the details of the event are seared into their memories.   Much like being in a car wreck or experiencing a trauma, time slows down here for the women and every detail becomes indelibly etched.

The women did not expect a Resurrection.

Which is what got me thinking.   Is it truly a resurrection if you expect it to happen?

There are days when the story of Easter we tell here has all the same characteristics of Ground Hog’s Day.

It is the story we tell every year about Jesus coming out of his hole.  We expect it.

We surround the story with all the same kind of pageantry as Puxatawny Phil, dress in our finery, throw a party, and read proclamations of what the new year will hold.

We have all these expectations of Easter in our assembly.

There must be Lilies…

There must be flowers…

The black has to disappear…

The pastor’s sermon better be good…

The church must be decorated, the greeting must be sincere, (we will evaluate the friendliness of the church on the basis of that) and the service “meaningful.”

There should be an egg hunt for the kids, and a good breakfast, and the place should be filled, pews full of families gathered and maybe trumpet players or special choir anthem or two or at least a barn-burner of an organ prelude…

We come expecting quite a lot out of Easter really, once you think about it.

But the more you look back on Mark’s story of the first Easter, the more you realize how backwards that all is.

The women did not come expecting to get anything out of this required task.

They came expecting to have to do something hard, and something unpleasant, and something that cost them dearly.

They came expecting to have to put their heads down, and just get on with what was required of them.

They flee in fear and amazement because not a single thing that they were expecting was actually there.

No body.

No heavy stone to move.

No grief, sorrow, or unpleasant task.

Just a reminder of a promise, that Jesus made long ago, that where they would find him was in Galilee, back among the people that they worked and lived with every day.

It has been said that one of the things that the ending of Mark’s gospel forces you to do (rhetorically), is to go back and read the Gospel again.

If this is indeed the “Good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, then why does it end like this?   I must have missed something!  Let me go back and read it again.

And if you do go back and read it again looking for what you missed, then you’ll discover something.

Jesus was talking about being “raised” all along, but more than that, he was showing how it was to be done.

He raises Peter’s mother in law from her sick bed.

He raises the paralytic from his pallet.

He makes Levi to rise up from this tax collector’s booth.

Jesus raises the status of the man with a withered hand in the synagogue.

He rises in the midst of the storm to calm it.

He raises the bread and breaks and blesses it before it is distributed.

Jesus raises questions, lots of them, from lots of people, about the nature of the law, and what should and should be done, and who can be forgiven, and who can be accepted, and who God’s mercy is extended to – lots of questions are raised by Jesus, and the answers almost always raise either our spirits or our hackles.

He raises the child with the unclean spirit to health.

He raises the blind beggar and gives him sight.

And….. well you get the point.

Jesus is doing a lot of resurrecting all through the Gospel, all through his ministry, of people lives, and their hopes and their dreams and their abilities, and their gifts.

Resurrection in fact appears to be the by-product of Jesus’ very presence. That’s what makes him “Good News.”

But more than that, such good news is almost always unexpected!   Each of these stories had their own “fear and amazement” moment.

Each of these events broke with the norm, the expectation of the person, or the crowd or even the disciples at the time.

Each of these encounters left those who witnessed it momentarily speechless.

So, I am wondering if it’s truly a resurrection if it is expected?

Should we go to look for the resurrection in the place we expect to find it?  In a church all decked out with lilies and smelling of potent flowers, egg bake and chocolate?

Or if we are looking for resurrection and its signs, would we be better off looking where Jesus (and now the man in the white robe) told us to look.

Go back to where you came from.

Go back to your own home, and your own community, and your own workplace, and your own family, but now go back looking for signs of the Resurrection.

Go back to the places you tend to go with your head down, trying to slog through and just get through life, where you have no grand expectations of God doing anything extraordinary, but now go back with different eyes.

Go back and see what is being raised up.

Go back with your eyes and ears tuned in such a fashion that you are ready for the unexpected as it unfolds.

Go back to the one you thought you could never love, go back and see if Jesus can do the unexpected.

Go back to the one wracked with illness that everyone tells you is unbeatable, go back and look for the unexpected.

Go back to the world where you have always had a “that’s just the way things have always been” attitude now with a bit a fear and amazement to see if things have to remain that way, or whether they can truly change, whether God in Christ Jesus may not already be able at work doing what you never expected ever would happen, raising something up.

It’s not in here that we will find the resurrection at work, it is in our “Galilee” – the place we spend our time that the Risen Christ has promised to go and be present, and the by-product of Jesus’ very presence is resurrection!

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

So, get out of here.

Go!

See what God is up to out there in the world.

See what is being raised, or what is rising, or what questions are being raised.

Where you least expect it, that is where you will find Jesus and the resurrection at work.

That is the witness of the women this day.

“All Eyes On…” John 13:1-35

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All eyes are on the basin and the towel.  We use that as the focal point for this service, read the story at the beginning of the service, order our evening around it.   We meticulously make note of all of Jesus’ actions here.

He takes the towel and wraps it around himself.

He washes the Disciple’s feet.

He models what it is to be servant.

He tells them that they will not understand what he is doing for them now, but will understand later.

He asks them if they have understood, and once again commands them to wash one another’s feet.

“You call me teacher and Lord…”  He says to them.    “So if I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example…”

Yes, all eyes are on the basin and towel and trying to figure out what example Jesus sets there, and of course we should be focused there.

Jesus teaches servanthood.

Jesus models doing for others.

Jesus encourages his disciples to not just to know intellectually about these things surrounding the washing of feet, (that they should serve one another,) but blessed are you if you do them!

And so, we are often so focused this night on the towel and the basin and what Jesus does there that we miss something else that he does, another example set.

It has to do with bread.

We know that Jesus is a little bit “bread obsessed.”

Bread was the focal point of the temptation in the wilderness, to make loaves out of stones.   We tend to view that in utilitarian terms,  but if you’ve ever walked into a room when fresh baked bread has just come out of the oven you know the effect it has on you.

Don’t imagine that the devil didn’t employ all the senses, to try to get to Jesus.

It is the scent of yeast and the action of leavening that Jesus uses to describe what the Kingdom of God is like, infecting, infiltrating, and causing change in whatever it touches or gets into.

In John’s Gospel we have that whole, long extended narrative of Jesus talking about how he is the “Bread of life,” and what kind of bread people are pursuing, and what they are missing.

In the miraculous feedings it is bread that multiplies, that is gathered by the basket full as a sign of God’s abundance and provision.

Jesus takes the loaf to symbolize his own body.

So while all eyes this night tend to be on the towel and basin, it might be important to cast our gaze at least for a moment on the other example that Jesus sets in the bread.

“Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.”  Jesus says.

A shocking revelation that makes the disciple all look at one another.

“Lord who is it?”

Jesus answered,  “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when it is dipped in the dish.”

And here now, all our eyes need to move from the towel and basin to the piece of bread.   We watch intently as Jesus dips, and hands it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, with the comment, “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

Is this an example set as well?

If so, just what kind of example?

Is it an example of how we ought to point out the offenders in our midst?   Single out and expose the traitor, show everyone who and what he or she is, or capable of?

No, because the truth is no one in the room that night picks up on that from Jesus’ actions.

We’re told that the disciples (at that moment) didn’t understand the comment about “do quickly.”

They thought Jesus was referring to some financial matter that needed attending.

They thought it was something to do with the festival.

They had no idea that betrayal was on his mind, and you wonder why that is?   How could you spend so much time, three years walking around with someone and not know what they are capable of doing?

How could they not have known the Judas was going to be the one to betray?

The answer to that is found in the looks they give to one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking.

It could have been any of them. That’s what they are thinking.

He has washed their feet… all of them…. Even the one Jesus said was not clean, but you couldn’t tell who it was from the foot washing that Jesus was talking about.

To find out who will betray, you have to fix your eyes on the bread.

You have to watch Jesus take it, break it, dip it, and offer it with the encouragement to “go and do quickly…”

It is the bread that shows us who will betray Jesus.

And that makes this night’s actions all the more powerful and poignant, for to whom did the bread come this night?

It came to you.

It came to me.

It came from Jesus actions to our lips, and as we taste it we know two things deeply, and simultaneously.

I don’t deserve this… and it could be me who betrays.

We don’t deserve this… this love, this trust, this gift from Jesus meant to sustain us, even those of us intent on betraying him.

Jesus offers bread for the journey to Judas, even knowing what kind of journey he is about to take, and what kind of journey to the cross Judas’ actions will precipitate.

And as such, this is a peculiar gift and comfort to us as well.  For, you see, we know we won’t be able to keep from betraying Jesus either.

We will betray Jesus with our own uncleanness, the choices we’ll make, the comments we’ll spit out thoughtlessly, the things we will do.

We will betray him with our words.

We will betray him with our actions.

We will betray him with our thoughts, and with our thoughtless words and actions.

We will betray Jesus with our inaction on things, the places when and where we could have spoken or intervened but chose not to for fear of being ridiculed or teased.

We will betray him, this we know deeply because we are human and we are susceptible to the wiles of the evil one, and powerless at times over our own appetites, and our desires, and we are terribly short-sighted in our ability to love.

Jesus knows all of this, and still dips the bread and gives it to us, with the command to “do quickly what you are going to do.”

Jesus hands us the bread, his own body and blood to strengthen us in our living, hoping that at least on some occasions what we will do is what something that would be pleasing in God’s sight.

Jesus feeds us.

Jesus also gives us the command to love one another, precisely because he knows, (and we know it as well,) that we are capable of some pretty un-loveable and unforgiveable things, and we will need all the strength we can muster and receive to live into his promised Kingdom.

In this, the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified.   Jesus and God is glorified in the ability to love, and to serve, and to provide for and sustain even those who cannot and will not be able to follow to the end.

And so, to those who eat the bread, and have their feet washed, Jesus gives the commend to love, precisely because it could be any of us who betrays, and Jesus knows that.

So therefore, love one another.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you can have this kind of love, if you are able to love and care for even for the betrayer in your midst.

All eyes were on the towel and basin, but it was the bread that showed us the love of Jesus.  From his hands, to our lips, … love one another, even knowing what you know.

“Why Did You Have to Go and Do That?” Mark 1:1-47

1 As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 

 

Ah, gentle Jesus, why did you have to go there?   If only you had stayed where you belong.    Who would not have loved the folksy “miracle worker” from Galilee who fed the hungry and liked to playfully jab at the stodgy old stick-in-the-mud Pharisees and Scribes?

If Jesus had kept his ministry in and around the Galilee, amongst the poor, the shepherds, the simple fisher folk and rural occupants of the countryside, he likely would have enjoyed the long life of a beloved Rabbi, sought out by many for advice and good stories.

He had all the makings for it.

Jesus told those pithy little parables that made you stop and think and question your motives in a good-natured way.

If only he had kept to his rural roots and his eccentricities in his own little community.

But no, Jesus had to go and get all political.

Jesus had to set his face toward Jerusalem, and go there.

Why did you have to go and do that Jesus?  Set yourself up as a political figure?

Here you come today, riding into Jerusalem astride a donkey like some conquering king, offering a peaceful regime change after winning the battle.

What battle is that?   What made you think you could make these claims?

Here you are, receiving the adulation of the crowds who call you “Son of David” and laud you as their king.

And, at the same time incurring the scorn of those who are privileged and in power, who want to know by what authority you do these things?

Here you come, questioning the power of Caesar by claiming (or at least not outright rejecting) the imperial titles reserved for the Roman Emperor.  The titles of “Lord,” “Son of God,” “Son of Man” and “Savior.”

You called Herod an “Old Fox” and thumbed your nose at his threats and authority, despite knowing fool well he was the one who cut down your cousin John the baptizer and served his head on a platter.

You entered Jerusalem like this and upset the carefully crafted balance of the religious and the political by turning over tables in the temple, questioning the authority of Caesar with a toss of the coin, and talked repeatedly about establishing a Kingdom.

Oh yes, when questioned you affirmed that your Kingdom is “not of this world,” but make no mistake, following your teaching nevertheless bumps us up against a vision that stands in opposition to the way this world works and this world runs.

You made this about politics.

You made it about politics when you chose to be born in a stable while an occupying government made refugees out of the inhabitants of your homeland.

You made it about politics when you showed up at the temple as a precocious child astounding the elders with your teaching, as a foreshadowing that you would be coming back to questions of them again.

You made it about politics, Jesus when you claimed you were fulfilling Isaiah’s words in the Synagogue.  You quoted the scroll of upending the “business as usual” of this world by proclaiming good news to the poor, the release of captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and most dangerously that the “year of Jubilee” would be observed.  The year when property was to be re-distributed and all the gains and accumulated wealth for the last 50 years divided up so that everyone could have a fresh start on equal footing to build again.

That is what is most dangerous, proposing an end to privilege and a call to parity.

If only Jesus had remained a harmless Rabbi in the backwater of Galilee, doing good things for the needy, he could have lived to a ripe old age.

But Jesus, from early on, shows us this is going to be about politics, because God is after nothing less than the world re-arranged.

Jesus made it political when he set his face toward Jerusalem.

Jesus made it political when he began to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and talk about how “of whom much is given, much is expected.”

Jesus made it political when the words of Hannah, and the Magnificat, and Isaiah were all seen to be wrapped up in his coming.   The poor he has considered, and the rich he has sent away empty.

Jesus made it political when he chose as the symbol of our redemption death on a state sponsored method of execution, a Cross.

It is with the political machinations of the Temple authorities that the plots are hatched to find a way to put an end to Jesus, because he interferes with the business as usual of this world.

It is with the complicity and agency of the Roman Empire that the death sentence is pronounced and carried out, to put an end to the threat of insurrection, protests by crowds and the disruption of the festivities of Passover.

Holy Week is our annual reminder that the matter of faith in Jesus is one which is to be worked out in the collision of competing world views, and it is all Jesus’ fault.

It is Jesus who makes this about changing the world.

Jesus won’t let us simply view him as a “personal Lord and Savior” detached from this world he was sent not to condemn, but to save, and who was sent to engage this world’s events and the realities of worldly choices we are given.

Jesus enters this world fully, and the world shows him just what it is capable of doing to all those who try to throw a spoke in the wheel of the status quo and change the world.

It will crucify.

It will make those who try to call into question the way the world currently works, the powers and principalities and their priorities for this world — suffer.

This world will do its best to silence opposing points of view and will always try to put “in their place” those who advocate for a different way to doing things, a way in step with God’s vision and hopes and dreams for the world.

Holy week is our reminder that Jesus has a nasty habit of not staying where we would like him to stay, or where we might think he belongs.

He did not stay the Gentle Jesus who works in Galilee…

He did not stay the miracle worker, the inspiration, or the wisdom teacher content to care for his own….

He will not stay in the neat separations and compartments we like to make of our personal lives, keeping separate what we do in this world, and or say in this world, or how we choose to live, from his example and call for us to be disciple.

And, he certainly will not stay in the tomb to which the world tries to confine him to get him out of its way…

Why did you have to go and that that, Jesus?  Make your coming all political?

“For the sake of the world, my child.”   Appears to be his answer… “And for you….”

“Expectation” Jeremiah 31:31-34

A little story about expectations.

In a little town not too far from where I grew up there was a café.  It was just one of those small town greasy spoons, the kind that used to occupy the downtown of every little rural community.  Above the door the sign read, “The Best Burgers In the County.”

But, if “truth in advertising” were to be employed, the sign outside the door would have been changed long ago.  For in truth, that café had the worst burgers in the county, or at very least the most inconsistent!

Around any given table, if 4 or 5 people had ordered a burger and dared to raise the top of their bun, they would each find a different issue.  Some would be overcooked, some underdone, each formed by hand and so some would be tightly packed and dry, while others crumbled and fell apart as you lifted it.   You might order your burger any way you like, but it would always be a mystery as to how it actually looked when it showed up on the plate.

Actually, the sign behind the counter above the swinging door to the kitchen was more truthful, if less appealing.  That sign read,

“This ain’t no Burger King, you’ll get it our way, or you won’t get the ______thing at all!”

Despite all this, at 12:00 noon every day, six days a week, the old man who ran the hardware store across the street would come in for lunch and order a hamburger.

Day in and day out, he would order the same lunch, and each day the burger he got would be a little different, but never quite right.

When asked why in the world he kept ordering a burger at this place, he simply smiled and winked through his thick glasses, and said, “well, sooner or later I figure they’ll mess up and get it right, and when they do I want to be the one to tell them.”

What does this little amusing story about hamburgers and expectations have to do with the scripture for today?

In the lesson from Jeremiah today, God is talking about covenants.   God talks about promises made long ago and promises that are yet to come.

Much of Israel’s history could be compared to that café sign.  What they proclaimed to be did not match very well what they actually were.

Outwardly, they proclaimed that they were governed by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But looking around at the political intrigue of kings and priests, it was apparent that they followed their own inclinations.

Outwardly, they understood themselves to be the covenant people, who delighted in the Lord’s law and who followed God’s direction.

Inwardly, they were humans who schemed and dreamed and followed the law when it was convenient for their own purposes and used it as a club against those who did not conform.

In short, for Israel (as for us!) the actions of the people did not live up to the promise of the sign on the outside.  No matter how convincing and appealing that sign on the outside may be that proclaims who you are, the real test is whether you live up to what you profess to be inside.

If you are going to have a sign that says, “The Best Burgers In The County”, then you had best produce such a burger.

If you are going go by the phrase, “We are the Chosen People, the Covenant People of God,” you had best keep up your end of that covenant with that God who has chosen you.

In Jeremiah’s time, that covenant had indeed been broken, and the penalty was death.

The death of their nation.

The death of their dreams and hopes.

The death of their normal and comfortable way of life.

And we might say that is just what they should expect for having failed to live up to what they proclaimed themselves to be.

That is no different from our expectations.

When we do something wrong, we also expect the worst.  The bigger our offense, the bigger the “Oh-oh” we commit, the greater the punishment we expect. To have broken the covenant with God is about as bad as it can get.

But now, see what God does in Jeremiah.

The talk of punishment is simply not there.

Instead, something amazing happens, something completely unexpected.  Instead of applying the rules of the old covenant and doubling down on them, instead of holding these people accountable for how they have failed to live up to the expectation God had of them, God decides instead to give a new promise.

“Behold, the days are surely coming” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant…”  And the hallmark of this new covenant — it will be written now, on their hearts instead of on tablets of stone.  In this new covenant God promises, “I will forgive their sins, and remember their iniquity no more.”

What a strange God!

When a covenant is broken by one party, no one expects the other party to have any responsibility for fixing the situation!

The first bad burger you had in a place that advertises “the best burgers in the county” should have resulted in you never eating there again!

You might even become an “extraordinary communicator” spreading the word far and wide of warning to others.  “Don’t go in there!”

But our God ends up being like that old hardware store owner.

Our God comes back again and again, to see what we are doing this time.

Our God keeps trying it with us, not because he likes what we put out all the time, but because God appears to have confidence that one day we will get it right – maybe even accidentally, and God wants to be there when we do to let us know it!

Over and over again God comes back to God’s people, through the prophets, through the priests and the scribes and the Pharisees, through Jesus and the disciples and the Word of God revealed in scripture.

God will use the full array of witnesses available to drive home what God is really all about.

Over and over again the good news of this new covenant is delivered.  “They shall know me, and I will forgive their iniquities and remember their sins no more.”

Our God is a persistent God.

Our God is a God who is persistent in extending forgiveness to people.

Our God is a God whose memory for wrongdoing is exceedingly short, and whose passion for caring and loving is exceedingly long.

Our God is a God who cares passionately about people.

For what other reason, would God send a new covenant?

For what other reason, would God send his own and only Son?

Here, you see, in Jesus; God is showing us what God has long hoped and dreamed that God would find in us, find us doing as God’s covenant people.

Here, in Jesus, God shows us the one who “looks the way we ought to look.”

God lifts up Jesus for all to see.

Here is the example of an abundant life.

Here is the example of a covenant kept, a promised fulfilled.

Here is the example of a life well-lived in service, and in concern for justice, and in obedience to compassion.

God lifts Jesus up so that we all may see, and we all may be drawn to him, and in drawing near to Jesus be given a glimpse of that new Kingdom, that new covenant promised.

This is the good news that we really need to hear and see in our world right now, because so much of life seems to be about punishing and giving up on things.

We struggle with issues of immigration, and human rights, and personal morality, and corruption in government and too often we hear those who are ready to tell us who should be shipped out, who should be rounded up, and who should be excluded.

This world clamors to make someone pay the penalty, for someone to take the fall.

Or we disparage of the whole thing, you can’t trust politicians, or this group, or that group, or the institutional church, so why even try anymore.

We turn off the news.

We turn further and further in on ourselves, and into our own silos of belief and information.

The world is going to hell in a handbasket, why even bother with it anymore.   We even call it a “God-forsaken world.”

But it is precisely into this kind of world clamoring for someone to pay the price, discouraged with its own performance, saying it is one thing but acting like it is something else that God sends Jesus.

The sign of the New Covenant is not perfection, it is human.  The Word made flesh to dwell among us.

The sign of the new covenant is not us getting everything right all the time.

No, the sign of the new covenant is Jesus, and the way of the servant who goes to the cross, the very sign of brokenness itself, lifted up for all to see.

Here is a sign we can live up to, for it calls us not to be perfect, or to be tough, or to do it all right, but to simply look to the graciousness of God found in Christ Jesus and to live a reflection of Jesus’ life.

Look to the Cross and find there the God who knows all about brokenness and death.

Look to the Cross and behold Jesus, who knows a thing or two about suffering and loneliness, about being persecuted and rejected, a thing or two about loss, and who knows about confusion, fear and every emotion you so often feel welling up inside of you.

Our God is a persistent God, persistent in loving, persistent in coming to us.

Our God comes back again and again to sample what we have done as God’s people, waiting with longing for that day when we offer something close to what God hopes for.  And when we do it, when we even get close, God smiles and calls us his children and says, “well done.”

That café may never have the best burgers in the county, but that doesn’t stop that old hardware store owner with the thick glasses from hoping and coming back again and again.

We may never get God’s vision for the Kingdom right in this life, but that doesn’t keep God from coming back to us again and again, offering the new covenant in Jesus’ body and blood.

Someday, we will have such things written on our hearts, and God will be there to tell us.

In such hope God lives and continues to come to us, in love.