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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Forever (Luke 24:1-12)


Very early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb, bringing the fragrant spices they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they didn’t find the body of the Lord Jesus.  They didn’t know what to make of this.  Suddenly, two men were standing beside them in bright clothing.  The women were frightened and bowed their faces toward the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Then they remembered his words.  When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others.  It was Mary Magdelene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles.  Their words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women.  But Peter ran to the tomb.  When he bent over to look inside, he saw only a linen cloth.  Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.

Why do you look for the living among the dead?  Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)  Today is Easter Sunday, the greatest, highest, holiest, most celebratory and defining day of our Christian faith, and we exchange the traditional Easter greeting with joyful confidence.  Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)

People of Christian faith take the resurrection of Jesus in such stride, almost for granted.  We all celebrate Easter, but it is a predictable and expected celebration.  No surprises.  The same story each year - a good one, but not a surprising one.

If we’re not careful, celebrating Easter takes on an almost perfunctory role - Easter baskets, check.  New clothes for the kids, check.  Bring flowers for the cross, check.  Have another family photo taken in front of it, check.  Sit through that boring Easter church service, check.  Go to Easter lunch at Grandma’s house, check.  Another Easter Sunday, in the books, thanks be to God.

It is easy for us to forget that the resurrection is a defining, earth-shattering, game-changing piece of good news, and we hear the good news itself that “He is not here, but has been raised,” without any surprise and gloss over the question that immediately precedes it - “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Honestly, where else should they have been looking for Jesus?  They had watched him suffer and die on a cruel Roman cross.  They had watched him taken down from that cross and placed in a garden tomb.  They were looking for him there because that’s where he should have been.  “Why are we looking for Jesus among the dead?  Because that’s where we last saw him.  Last we knew, he was dead.”  When someone dies, we expect them to stay dead.

Unless, of course, you’re one of the people, like me, who is following AMC’s hit series, The Walking Dead.  Am I alone in that, or any other zombie watchers here today?  I’ll be honest, I have never been one to follow a television show.  I never got into Lost or Survivor, I don’t know who’s competing on American Idol  or Dancing with the Stars.  That’s just television, I don’t get caught up in that sort of stuff - and then The Walking Dead came on, and that thing just sucked me right in.  Sunday night at 9 o’clock, whatever I’m doing comes to a halt and it’s Walking Dead time, even during March Madness, and that is no small feat with two Duke alumni in the house.

For three seasons now, The Walking Dead has chronicled a small group of survivors’ struggle to stay alive in the midst of a zombie apocalypse - where the dead have come back to life, but only a half-life, if you will, where they essentially do two things - walk, and eat.

What is different about Jesus’ resurrection, however, is that his resurrection was not simply the re-animation of a dead corpse.  His resurrection was not a matter of the dead coming back to some sort of half- or partial-life that was only a shadow of previous life.  Rather, when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was a brand-new life, a new beginning, a fresh start.  What we realize is that life before the resurrection is dull and faded compared to life since the resurrection, where the dead places of our lives give way to the bright, technicolor radiance of the new life in Christ.

The resurrection of Jesus is not just new life for him, it is new life for all of us.  The resurrection of Jesus is a game-changer.  Everything is different now, because in his resurrection Jesus has declared unilateral victory over sin and death.  In his resurrection, Jesus has trampled down the forces of wickedness and darkness.  In his resurrection, Jesus has announced, “I live - and you shall live also.”  The resurrection is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  When Jesus said, “Behold, I am making all things new,” the resurrection demonstrates that what Jesus said, he meant.

In the transforming power of the resurrection, all things are being made new.  Friends, that’s what Jesus does - he makes things new, all things - your life, your heart, your relationships, your attitudes, your faith - Jesus makes it all new.  The good news of the resurrection is not only that it happened once upon a time, in a land far, far, away, no - far from it.  Resurrection, new life, happens again and again.  In the life of faith, every day is Easter.  Every day is an opportunity for God to do something new within us, to awaken something within us, every day is an opportunity for God to do the transformation within our hearts that only God can do.  Easter is happening all the time.

Do you have an Easter faith this morning?  Do you believe that, in Jesus, God is making all things new?  Are you an Easter person?  Or, like the first witnesses of the resurrection who scratched their heads in wonder outside an empty tomb, are you still looking for the living among the dead?  Are you actively living and experiencing a new life in Christ, or are you simply maintaining the cemetery?

There are many people of faith who are not living an Easter faith, who are hanging out in the hollow tomb of a faith they once had.  Friends, if you can’t remember the last time you discovered something new about God, had a life-giving encounter with Jesus, or felt your heart strangely-warmed by the Holy Spirit, then it’s time to update the program.  Sometimes we get so mired in the tomb, so mournful over what was, that we are self-selectively blind to the new thing God is doing now.

The transforming, life-giving, new-making Easter faith of Jesus is happening all around; it’s time to get out of the tomb and experience new life in Christ.

Easter is about experiencing new life in Christ, and one of the oldest traditions associated with Easter are Easter eggs.  I had to listen to someone this week, a very well-meaning Christian, go on a tirade about what in the world eggs and chicks had to do with the resurrection of Jesus.  I just thought, “Really?”  Have we lost so much of our imagination, have we become so literalistic that we can no longer understand symbols and how they communicate things about our faith?  Eggs, in general, have been a sign of rebirth and new life that even predates Christianity.  Just as a bird hatches to new life, so too does the egg symbolize the resurrection of Jesus to new life.

An egg contains all the promise, potential, and possibility of new life.  But, unless the shell is broken, all that potential for new life remains unrealized.  An unbroken shell becomes a tomb.  All that potential for new life, transformed instead into death, all for the want of a broken shell.  Everything may look fine and good on the outside, but the inner story reveals the truth.  Such was the case for the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, whom he described as whitewashed tombs, beautiful and gleaming on the outside, but inside they were full of filth and decay and rot (Matthew 23:27-28).  The potential for new life was there, but the shells around their hard hearts remained unbroken.

So it is for us, even today: unbroken shells turn into tombs.  But the good news of Easter is that there isn’t a tomb Jesus can’t overcome.  Jesus is in the business of vacating graves, so whatever is dead in your life can still be resurrected to new life, no matter what it is, no matter how long it’s been like that - surely the one who died and descended to the depths of hell and was raised to new life is able to redeem and transform whatever hell you find yourself walking through.  The tombs of life are emptying out because Jesus is alive - the living Lord is breaking shells everywhere he goes.

In Jerusalem, the massive Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built over both the traditional crucifixion and burial sites of Jesus.  When I was there a few weeks ago, I stood in line to briefly touch the notch in the rock where the cross would have been placed.  We then wound our way through the church to the place over the burial site, the Holy Sepulchre itself, where a long line of pilgrims stood in line waiting for their chance to go down into the tomb.  Our guide said, “From here, it looks like the line is one and a half hours long.  But we are not going to be standing in line.  We, as Christians, are not going to go in - and do you know why?  ‘Cause there’s nothing in there.”

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has been raised.”  The tomb is empty and the shells are breaking - Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)   Easter is reality now - The transforming, life-giving, new-making Easter faith of Jesus is happening all the time - it’s time to leave the cemetery and experience new life in Christ.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Footsteps of Jesus in the City (Matthew 14:43-65; 15:1-20; Luke 19:41-42)


Through our worship in this Lenten season, we are re-tracing the footsteps of Jesus.  The backdrop for these sermons in this series is my recent trip to the Holy Land.  From January 29 - February 7, I travelled with a group of young United Methodist clergy from around our conference, all of us age 35 or under, and our bishop, on a spiritual pilgrimage where we walked where Jesus walked.  My hope for each of us is that we will step out with a holy boldness and courage to follow in the life-changing way of Jesus.

First, we followed the footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness.  We remembered that even when we walk through barren and difficult and dry places in our lives, Jesus has already been there, and indeed he still walks with us in those places.

Then, we followed the footsteps of Jesus at the sea.  We remembered that Jesus is walking the shores of our lives, calling us continually to follow him, to feed his sheep, and to fish for more friends and followers to join us in the boat.

Today, we follow the footsteps of Jesus in the city.  The footsteps of Jesus in the city are hard, partly because we can recognize our own footsteps in the story and realize that we have a part to play in his death.  Today, we are challenged - to look to our own hearts, examine our own motives, to become less like those who, whether out of anger, fear, or sport cried out for blood, and more like the one whose humble footsteps led him all the way to the cross.

Suddenly, while Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, came with a mob carrying swords and clubs.  They had been sent by the chief priests, legal experts, and elders.  His betrayer had given them a sign, “Arrest the man I kiss, and take him away under guard.”

As soon as he got there, Judas said to Jesus, “Rabbi!”  Then he kissed him.  Then they came and grabbed Jesus and arrested him.  One of the bystanders drew a sword and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his ear.  Jesus responded, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, like an outlaw?  Day after day, I was with you, teaching in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me.  But let the scriptures be fulfilled.”  And all of disciples left him and ran away.  One man, a disciple, was wearing nothing a linen cloth.  They grabbed him, but he left the linen cloth behind and ran away naked.

They led Jesus away to the high priest, and all the chief priests, elders, and legal experts gathered.  Peter followed from a distance, right into the high priest’s courtyard.  He was sitting with the guards, warming himself by the fire.  The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they couldn’t find any.  Many brought false testimony against him, but they contradicted each other.  Some stood to offer false witness against him, saying, “We heard him saying, ‘I will destroy this temple, constructed by humans, and within three days I will build another, one not made by humans.’”  But their testimonies didn’t agree even on this point.

Then the high priest stood up in the middle of the gathering and examined Jesus.  “Aren’t you going to respond to the testimony these people have brought against you?”  But Jesus was silent and didn’t answer.  Again, the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the blessed one?”

Jesus said, “I am.  And you will see the Human One sitting on the right side of the Almighty and coming on the heavenly clouds.”  Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we need any more witnesses?  You’ve heard his insult against God.  What do you think?”

Then they condemned him.  “He deserves to die!”

Some began to spit on him.  Some covered his face and hit him, saying, “Prophesy!”  Then the guards took him and beat him.

It was the night of what we call the Last Supper.  Jesus has just shared the Passover meal with his disciples in the Upper Room.  They sang a hymn, and went out into the garden.  This was no short walk.  Rather, they walked down from Mount Zion into the Kidron Valley, and then partway up the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane.  Gethsemane is a word that means “olive press,” and appropriately enough, Jesus pressed himself down and poured himself out in prayer in the garden.

While he was praying, he was arrested, betrayed into the hands of the religious authorities by one of his closest friends.  And so, back down into the Kidron Valley, and up Mount Zion again, to the home of Caiphas, the high priest, where low and behold, the ruling religious council, the Sanhredrin, had been called to order in the middle of the night.

Over the site of Caiphas’ house, the Church of St. Peter has been built, because we remember that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times in the courtyard of this house.  At Caiphas’ home, at this secret meeting of angry religious folks in the middle of the night, gripe after gripe was brought up against Jesus - no formal charges, really, just that some of these folks hated Jesus and wanted to get rid of him.

Have you ever thought about where Jesus spent the night before the crucifixion?  After his arrest and condemnation before the Jewish council, but before he was taken to the Roman governor, Pilate?  I never had really given it much thought.  But, under the Church of St. Peter, built on the site of the house of the high priest, is a cave, a dungeon, a pit.  It is likely the place Jesus spent his last night before the crucifixion.

We went down into this pit.  Stairs have been built into it, but at the time of Jesus, there were no stairs.  Through a hole in the ceiling, those being placed down there would have been lowered down with ropes, and brought back up the same way.  And so I want you to imagine Jesus - with ropes being placed under his arms after he has been arrested, and condemned, spit on, hit, mocked, and beaten - being lowered down into that deep, dark, pit.  No way out.  Alone, and abandoned.

We know that Jesus knew the Hebrew Scriptures.  His teaching throughout his life referenced them extensively.  Later that day on the cross, he would quote parts of several Psalms.  Down in that pit, our group gathered, and we read the words of Psalm 88 - words I had read so many times before, but never really heard until I heard them in that space.

Read Psalm 88.

Can you feel the abandonment and despair in those words?  But, that feeling was nothing, compared with what was to come when daybreak came and Jesus was lifted out of the pit:

At daybreak, the chief priests - with the elders, legal experts, and the whole Sanhedrin - formed a plan.  They bound Jesus, led him away, and turned him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.”  The chief priests were accusing him of many things.

Pilate asked him again, “Aren’t you going to answer?  What about all these accusations?”  But Jesus gave no more answers, so that Pilate marveled.

During the festival, Pilate released one prisoner to them, whomever they requested.  A man named Barabbas was locked up with the rebels who had committed murder during an uprising.  The crowd pushed forward and asked Pilate to release someone, as he regularly did.  Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?”  Pilate knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of jealousy.  But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas to them instead.  Pilate replied, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

Pilate said to them, “Why?  What wrong has he done?”

They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!”

Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas to them.  He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.

The soldiers led Jesus away into the courtyard of the palace known as the governor’s headquarters, and they called together the whole company of soldiers.  They dressed him up in a purple robe and twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on him.  They saluted him, “Hey! King of the Jews!”  Again and again they struck his head with a stick.  They spit on him and knelt before him to honor him.  When they finished mocking him, they stripped him of the purple robe and put his own clothes back on him.  Then they led him out to crucify him.

We had been down in the dungeon under the house of Caiphas, the high priest, for probably only ten minutes or so.  We ascended the stairs and walked out in the bright sunshine, and perhaps only then I realized how dark it had been down there.  Not so much physically dark but spiritually dark, as we felt the abandonment Jesus must have felt - abandoned by his friends, abandoned by his family, abandoned even by God, condemned to death by good, righteous, religious folks.

I blinked at the rude and intrusive sunshine.  Now, I happen to love sunshine.  Always have.  Ashley and I vacation at the beach, not the mountains - we love sunshine.  Yet, on that particular morning, the sunshine was so bright it was almost rude.  How dare the sun shine - I wasn’t ready for sunshine yet, because the darkness of the pit, that emotional anguish, was still clung close around me.  The brightness of the sunshine seemed so - unaware - of where we had just been.

And it wasn’t only the sunshine.  The rest of the world was just going about its normal business as well.  The sounds of traffic on city streets was all around.  Laundry was flapping in the warm breeze.  People were on their way to work, or home, or lunch with friends.  The squeals of children’s play drifted up from the schoolyard in the valley below us.  It was just an ordinary day.

I wondered if it was also similar for Jesus when he came out of the darkness of that pit of despair.  If, on what would turn out to be the day of his crucifixion, was it simply another ordinary day for everyone around him - children going to school, people on their way to work or to have a meal with friends?  I wondered if, while Jesus’ world was crashing down around him, if the rest of the world just went on with business-as-usual?

Ever been there?  Where, emotionally or spiritually, you are down in some dark place, some lonely place, some hopeless place, some painful place, and all around you it seems like everyone is just oblivious to you and your predicament - just hustling and bustling about in the sunshine of an ordinary day?

If you have, the good news for you today is that we have a friend in low places; Jesus has been there too.

We went down under some buildings which looked pretty old in their own right to a place where you could see the original floor of the courtyard of the governor’s headquarters, or the Fortress Antonia.  Etched in the stone pavers were the markings of some sort of game - no doubt some well-known game the soldiers would play to pass the time and keep themselves amused as they stood watch for hours on end.

As the soldiers took him out into the courtyard to have a little fun with him, a new game was developing, one called “Hail the King.”  Everyone wanted to play.  Everyone wanted to win.

“They say this nutjob says he’s the king of the Jews!”  “Oh, is that right?  Well, that gives me an idea.  You can’t be a king without a proper robe!”  So someone went and got a purple robe, and they hung it over Jesus’ bloodied back, but they weren’t done.

“Well, hang on a second, where is this king’s crown?”  Someone ran and cut some thorny branches from a plant in the yard, twisted it into a rude crown, and jammed it down on his head so that the thorns pierced the skin around his temples and the blood began to flow, but still they weren’t done.

“A king needs a scepter, a sign of his authority and wealth, and power, and I’ve got just the thing for this king,” one of the others said as he took a cattail reed and thrust it into Jesus’ hand.  A few minutes ago just another prisoner, but now, a proper king of fools.  They gathered around him in mock acclaim, bowing down and saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  They struck him, and spit on him.  What a fun game - everyone got a good laugh.

Does this scene break your heart?  To think of the suffering of Jesus our Lord being turned into a game and something that gave everyone a good laugh - does that break your heart?  It should.  But even more heartbreaking are times when we continue to play games while the body of Christ and the cause of Christ suffer, or worse: that the games we play are inflicting the pain.

There was plenty of game-playing going on that day, and Jesus was the gamepiece in all of them.  Soldiers playing “Hail the King,” the governor playing to public opinion rather than what he knew was right, religious folks, stirring up dissent among the crowd after yet another secret meeting at someone’s home to get rid of someone they didn’t like - games, games, games - and Jesus feels the pain.

Friends, the body of Christ is suffering, and if you are playing the games that are causing the pain, then his precious blood is on your hands.  It’s enough to bring Jesus to tears.

As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it.  He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace.  But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

The Palm Sunday tradition is that Jesus processed from the Mount of Olives down into the Kidron Valley and then up into the city of Jerusalem.  He rode a donkey, a sign of his humility and that all those who follow him are called to lives of humble service.  Partway down the Mount is the Church of Dominus Flevit, meaning, “The Lord has wept,” and on this site, the tradition of Jesus shedding tears for Jerusalem is remembered.

From this site, the city of Jerusalem is in full display just across the valley.  There is one window in the chapel, over the altar, and it perfectly frames the city.  You are far enough away that you can more or less see all of it, yet close enough that you feel like you could reach out your hand and touch it.  Here, tradition remembers that Jesus wept, because they didn’t know of the things that lead to peace.

Too much chaos, too much violence, too much hatred and strife, too much game-playing.  You know, things haven’t really changed that much in 2000 years.  It seems that the more things change, the more things remain the same.  So long as we are people given to these things, like ancient Jerusalem, the things that lead to peace will remain hidden from our eyes, and our lives will never be the instruments of healing for this broken world God desires.

Friends, God needs us to do better.  God has called us to better.  Being a follower of Jesus teaches us in the way of things that lead to peace, and then putting those things into practice as peace-makers.  We are to be both students and teachers of peace.

This week, our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have elected a new pope, who has chosen for himself the name, “Francis.”  I hope and pray that his choice of name is a solid sign that the global church is about to take a crash course on peace, and I will thank our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters - and their new pontiff - for leading us in the way.  My prayer is that Pope Francis will lead us and teach us and guide us, as Jesus has and will continue to lead him, in the way of things that make for peace.  If his life up to this point is any indication, we should expect nothing less, and based on the name he’s chosen, he’s pretty much sealed the deal.

What could be if we made the prayer of St. Francis our prayer (UMH 481):

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light:
and where there is sadness, joy. 

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. 

There is enough violence, enough hatred, enough strife, enough chaos, enough game-playing in the world; Jesus weeps when we who claim to be his followers simply add to it.  The footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness, at the sea, and in the city guide us in the way of peace.  He is faithful; may our feet find his way.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Footsteps of Jesus at the Sea (Matthew 5:1-11, Matthew 14:22-27, John 21:1-14)

Through our worship in this Lenten season, we are re-tracing the footsteps of Jesus.  The backdrop for these sermons in this series is my recent trip to the Holy Land.  From January 29 - February 7, I travelled with a group of young United Methodist clergy from around our conference, all of us age 35 or under, and our bishop, on a spiritual pilgrimage where we walked where Jesus walked.  My hope for each of us is that we will step out with a holy boldness and courage to follow in the life-changing way of Jesus.
Last Sunday, we followed the footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness.  We remembered that even when we walk through barren and difficult and dry places in our lives, Jesus has already been there, and indeed he still walks with us in those places.
Today, our attention moves about 100 miles north to the region around the Sea of Galilee.  In just 100 miles, the landscape shifts from the dry and rocky desolation of the wilderness to the green and fertile lushness around the Sea of Galilee.
The majority of his adult life and earthly ministry took place in this region, and just as the land itself is fertile, so too was it fertile spiritual ground for Jesus.  I invite you to join me in following the footsteps of our Master at the sea.
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain.  He sat down and his disciples came to him.  He taught them, saying:
“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me.”

High above the northwestern edge of the lake is the Mount of Beatitudes.  The site commemorates Jesus’ teaching in the 5th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel which was just read for us.  This section of scripture is called “The Beatitudes,” because in Latin, each of these 8 teachings begins with the word beatus, meaning “blessed,” or “happy:” describing life and character traits of true followers of Jesus.
But there’s more to it than that.  A more thorough understanding of what Jesus actually said would be, “You’re on the right track when.”  “You’re on the right track when you’re hopeless, when you grieve, when you’re humble, when you hunger and thirst for righteousness.  You’re on the right track when you show mercy, when your heart is pure, when you make peace.  You’re on the right track when people harass you and insult you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you because of me” - folks, when you’re following Jesus, expect this kind of treatment.  When someone is mean and nasty, when they harass you, when they insult you, you just look them in the eye, and you smile, and you say, “Thank you,” because that mean and grumpy person is helping you to realize that you’re on the right track.
The Beatitudes are a centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching.  The top of the mountain has been developed into a beautiful garden with many places that overlook the Sea of Galilee.  At the center of this beautiful garden is the Church of the Beatitudes; the building’s octagonal shape is a reminder of the eight beatitudes Jesus taught.
We hiked down a trail from the top of the mountain to the water’s edge.  I couldn’t help but think, “I wonder if Jesus himself ever walked down this path?”  We know that Jesus and his disciples were all over those mountains and hills that cradle the Sea of Galilee - could we be walking right where he had walked?  Every rock we passed - was this a place where Jesus might have sat to rest or to teach?
As we walked down the mountain, talking with each other, sharing stories, sharing life, and taking in the beauty of the moment and time - I couldn’t help but wonder if we were experiencing something like what it was for Jesus and his disciples.  Partway down the mountain, at a place where we could see almost the entire sea from one to the other, Bishop Goodpaster stopped our group, called us close, and we turned our attention to a story in Matthew 14:
Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds.  When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray.  Evening came and he was alone.  Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land.  Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake.  When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!”  They were so frightened they screamed.
Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged!  It’s me.  Don’t be afraid.”
Storms on the Sea of Galilee are legendary.  Geographically, the lake sits in a sort of bowl with mountains all around it.  However, on the western side of the sea, there is a gap in the mountains that stretches all the way to the Mediterranean.  And so, what happens is that the wind blows off the Mediterranean, through the gap in the mountains that acts like a wind tunnel, and then spills out into this bowl that contains the Sea of Galilee, and can whip it up into quite a frenzy in no time.
We stood at the overlook, picturing this story in our minds.  It was afternoon, and Jesus sent the disciples to the other side of the lake, which you could see.  He dismissed the crowds, and went up onto a mountain to pray - perhaps it was a place similar to the overlook where we were standing.  Hours pass, evening comes, and still the disciples are out there rowing, straining against the wind.  Then it says, “Early in the morning,” - think about that for a minute - let’s say it’s 6am - the disciples have been rowing against the wind since the previous afternoon, it might have been 15 hours that they’ve been rowing.  Think about how exhausted they must have been.  How discouraged.  How ready to give up.
You ever felt like that?  I have.  You know, there are times in the life of faith where it feels like we’re rowing against the wind - straining, working, wearing ourselves out and just not getting anywhere.  There are times when it feels like we’re going at it alone, and Jesus is far, far away.
What I want you to remember is that there are times when it’s difficult to sense the presence of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus has abandoned us.  Even when we are straining at the oars of ministry against the headwinds of all that would blow us off course and feels like it might even drown us, Jesus is never far away.  He always has us within sight, and he might just be praying for us in our struggle.
But, thanks be to God, there are also places where we experience the overwhelming presence of Jesus so clearly he may as well be in the boat with us.  One of the highlights of any trip to the Holy Land is a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.  Next time I go to the Holy Land, I’ll be leading the trip, and I hope all of you can come along, and we will take a ride on the boat.
You may not realize this, but when pastors get together, we talk about church.  We talk about budgets, we talk about attendance, we talk about worship, we talk about missions, we talk about challenges, we talk about leadership, we talk about headaches and problems - we talk about you, too!
It’s one of the things that is wearying about going to clergy meetings - because you never get away from the business of church.  But on the boat that morning as we travelled across the Sea of Galilee, there was none of that.  No complaining, no bragging, no jockeying for position about who was doing the best or whose situation was the worst.  We talked about life, places we’ve travelled, experiences we’ve had, jokes we love even when we couldn’t re-tell them very well - There was a fellowship and a connection I experienced both with Jesus but also with the others on the boat, and I thought to myself, “This must be a foretaste of what the kingdom of God is like.” 
Later in the trip, when we had an opportunity to express our thanks for some meaningful moment of the trip, I gave thanks for “friends in the boat.”
And here’s the thing - out on the boat, none of us were in charge.  None of us were trying to drive.  None of us knew where we were going.  We did, however, know who we were going with, and that in and of itself was a great blessing and source of joy.
It is no coincidence that one of the early metaphors and images to describe the church was a boat.  So here’s what I want you to consider this morning - are you blessed and joyful because of your time with others in the boat?  Or, are you still complaining, still bragging, still trying to steer?  Instead of being insistent on the boat going where you want it to, try being thankful for the people in the boat with you, and find in them a source of blessing and joy.  If you do, the journey will be a lot more enjoyable for everyone, yourself included.  Let Jesus be the captain, and live the life of faith that gives thanks for friends in the boat.
Another place I had one of those experiences was in Capernaum; a town on the northern shore of the sea of Galilee.  In Jesus’ day, it was one of the busiest towns and the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry.  In fact, it is referred to as the Town of Jesus.  This was his homebase during his ministry.  We often think of Jesus as being “from Nazareth,” which is true in that it’s where his family lived and where he grew up.  But Jesus was “from” Nazareth in the same way that I am “from” Buffalo - I don’t live there anymore.  I’ve said that its a great place to be “from” - Nazareth is a great place to be “from,” as well!
If you remember, Jesus’ teaching didn’t go over so well in Nazareth.  They didn’t care for his message - partway through his first sermon there, the good folk rose up and angrily drove him to the edge of the hill on which their town was built because they intended to kill him.  Talk about a strong reaction to a sermon!  All I get are blank stares, frowns, and the occasional shaking of an angry fist at the door!
And so, the scriptures tell us that Jesus withdrew from Nazareth and Capernaum is called “his own city,” he made it his new hometown (Matthew 4:12-17, 9:1).  Capernaum was a crossroads city with people coming to it to trade from the east and west. The people of Nazareth had closed off their hearts to anything new, and as a result Jesus withdrew from them.  But in Capernaum, they were open to the words of hope, healing, and reconciliation that Jesus taught.
The ruins at Capernaum are incredibly well-preserved.  We went to the ruins of the synagogue.  This was actually a synagogue built in the fourth century, but like so many things in the Holy Land, it’s built on the site of the previous synagogue, where Jesus would have gone to worship and teach, and give the people a glimpse of the abundant life of God’s kingdom like they had never seen it before
From several places in and around the ruins of the synagogue, you are overlooking the ruins of the rest of the town, and you can see the layout of the streets, the buildings, all of it.  I looked over it, and I could see Jesus, coming in from the shore, walking through the streets, talking to people, laughing with them, buying things in the market.  This was his town, and these were his neighbors.  He knew this place, and this place knew him.
In Capernaum, Ashley just wandered away and went exploring on her own, because she said it was clear I was having a moment.  I was lost in my own little world - Jesus’ world, actually - and she was going to let me hang out there as long as I wished.
Capernaum was also the town where Peter’s mother-in-law had a house.  Her house was homebase for Jesus and his disciples.  Can you imagine her cooking for and cleaning up after 13 men who had been traipsing around the countryside or were off fishing half the night?
Her house likely became the meeting place of one of the earliest churches in existence.  The first churches were house churches, they just met in someone’s home rather than construct a building.  Early Christians in Capernaum began to worship in the home of Peter’s mother-in-law, and they have continued to worship on the very same site for nearly 2000 years.  Today, there is a church constructed right over the ruins of Peter’s mother-in-law’s house.  This was one of our favorite churches of the trip - believe me, we were in and out of a lot of churches! - but the church at Capernaum was exceptional.  An open, modern design, flooded with natural light, and at the center of the church was an open window to the ruins of the house below - connecting the worship of Christians today with those who met in the house Jesus likely called home, and you could see his footsteps everywhere in this little town by the sea.
Later, Jesus himself appeared again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius.  This is how it happened: Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two other disciples were together.  Simon Peter told them, “I’m going fishing.”
They said, “We’ll go with you.”  They set out in a boat, but throughout the night they caught nothing.  Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples didn’t realize it was Jesus.
Jesus called to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?”
They answered him, “No.”
He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”
So they did, and there were so many fish that they couldn’t haul in the net  Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!”  When Simon Peter heard it was the Lord, he wrapped his coat around himself (for he was naked), and jumped into the water.  The other disciples followed in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they weren’t far from shore, only about one hundred yards.
When they landed, they saw a fire there, with on it, and some bread.  Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you’ve just caught.”  Simon Peter got up and pulled the net to shore.  it was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them.  Yet the net hadn’t torn, even with so many fish.  Jesus said, “Come and have breakfast.”  None of his disciples could bring themselves to ask him, “Who are you?”  They knew it was the Lord.  Jesus came, took the bread, and gave it to them.  He did the same with the fish.  This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.
The Sea of Tiberias, named for the large town on the western shore, is just another name for the Sea of Galilee.  So, on that hike I was telling you about as we came down from the Mount of Beatitudes, we ended up at the Church of the Primacy of Peter on the shoreline.
This church commemorates the commission that Peter received from Jesus - “If you love me, feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17).  In that story, three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  And each time Peter responds, “You know I do!”  However, we only have one word in English for “love,” whereas the Greek had several, each denoting a different type and depth of love.  Jesus is referencing agape love - that deep, abiding, sacrificial, perfect love.  He says, “Peter, do you agape me?” and Peter says, “I phileo you” (brotherly love); Peter basically says, “Jesus, I think you’re neat.”  The last time Jesus asks, he softens the word for love from agape to phileo, the same type of love Peter’s been talking about all along.
What does that mean?  Jesus meets us where we are, and works with the best of our understanding.
For our part, we need to listen to Jesus.  Sometimes we are so insistent on doing it our way that we are like the disciples who have been fishing all night, are worn out, and haven’t caught anything.  Jesus says, “Cast your nets on the other side of the boat” and they do, and they catch the biggest haul of fish you can imagine.  The disciples could have ignored Jesus, but my guess is they’d still be out there in that boat, and they’d still be hauling in empty nets.
So here’s what I want you think about: are the nets of your life full, or do you keep pulling them in empty?  Can you hear Jesus asking if you’re worn out yet, and if he told you to, are you willing to change what you’re doing, and put your nets down somewhere else?
 As dusk settled and our surroundings took on beautiful purples and golds, we gathered along the shore, some standing, some sitting, some kneeling, some wading, and we considered these challenges from Jesus - to feed his sheep, to cast our nets where the fish are.  It’s not something we can do on our own, but must fully rely on the grace of God to accomplish what he wants - for us to love him fully, to feed his sheep, to let down our nets and bring more fish - more friends - into the boat.
The sun may be setting, but it’ll be back up in the morning.  His call on us is the same as it’s always been, and it’s always a good time for following, feeding, and fishing.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Footsteps of Jesus in the Wilderness (Matthew 3:1-3; 3:13-4:11)


In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives!  Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”  He was the one whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:
“The voice of one shouting out in the wilderness;
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.”

At that time, Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him.  John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”  Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now.  This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”
So John agreed to baptize Jesus.  When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water.  Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him.  A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”
Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him.  After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving.  The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”
Jesus replied, “It’s written, ‘People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.’”
After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple.  He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘I will command my angels concerning oyu, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.’”
Jesus replied, “Again, it’s written, ‘Don’t test the Lord your God.’”
Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”
Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, ‘You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”  The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Today, we are starting a three-week series of messages called “Footsteps of Jesus.”  I am really excited about this series, and I hope you are, too.  From January 29 - February 7, I was on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of other United Methodist clergy from our conference under the age of 35.  The trip broadened my understanding, deepened my appreciation, and renewed my spirit - and so I offer you the same gift through these messages.
Some time ago, it had been placed on our bishop’s heart to lead a trip to the Holy Land of young clergy.  He lamented that he had been preaching and teaching for 30 years before he made his first trip to the Holy Land, and he didn’t want us to have to wait so long.  He secured funding for the trip from one anonymous donor - whose identity I will probably never know, but to whom I will always be grateful - and off we went: 28 young clergy, 3 non-clergy spouses, and a bishop old enough to be our dad, yet whose heart and spirit may have been the youngest on the trip.
We travelled with an intentionality that we were not tourists, but pilgrims.  The difference is that tourists come and go from site-to-site, snap some pictures, have a good time, and are, more or less consumers of all there is to see and do.  Pilgrims, on the other hand, find themselves consumed by the places they visit, and come home with an indelible mark on their souls.  So it was for us.
Over the next three weeks, we’re going to barely skim the surface of some of the highlights of my spiritual pilgrimage in the Holy Land, as we look for footprints of Jesus in the wilderness, at the sea, and in the city.
Early in the trip, we went down to the banks of the Jordan River in the Judean wilderness.  And when I say down, that is no understatement.  We drove from Jerusalem, which is at 2,500 feet above sea level to the Jordan River, which is about 1,300 feet below sea level.  Any idea how far it is from Jerusalem to the Jordan River?  It’s about 16 miles.  You can’t help but notice the drastic and rapid change as you literally drop into the Jordan River Valley.
The Jordan River flows from north to south from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, and forms the border between Israel and the occupied West Bank on the west, and the Kingdom of Jordan on the east.
We went to Qasr al Yahud, a baptismal site along the banks of the southern end of the Jordan River before it empties into the Dead Sea.  This site opened to the public only a few years ago, and it is actually one of two major baptismal sites along the Jordan River.  The more popular site is up at the northern end of the River, near the Sea of Galilee - it’s much larger, built up, and touristy, as well as green and lush - popular, certainly, but far from the wilderness described in Scripture.
Now, one important note about the Jordan River - there’s not much to it.  It’s more like a creek or a stream, measuring no more than about 20 feet across in most places.  It was almost tempting to see if you could jump across it, except for the presence of Israeli soldiers on one side carrying M-16s and Jordanian soldiers with M-16s on the other - and we realized that border jumping was probably not a smart idea.
We went down to the large platform deck at the river’s edge, and Bishop Goodpaster led us in a service of baptismal remembrance and renewal.  Along the muddy banks of the Jordan River, we knelt, we prayed, we touched the water and remembered our baptisms, and we were thankful.  We remembered God’s gift of grace which is offered to all people, the grace that gives us new birth through water and the Spirit - all of which is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
As we knelt by the river, I looked downstream, and I could see it unfolding in my mind’s eye.  John, standing in the middle of the river, a cross-section of humanity crowding the banks, and Jesus, emerging from the crowd and making his way into the muddy, swirling water, receiving his baptism.  I looked at the bench near the platform, where a dove was simply standing, seeming to look back at me.
We remembered that, in baptism, God has named us and claimed us - baptism may as well be a permanent mark on our forehead that says, “Beloved child of God with whom I am well-pleased; Beloved child of God in whom I delight: Beloved child of God in whom I find joy.”
Just to the west of the Jordan River is the Judean wilderness, where the Scriptures tell us Jesus immediately went following his baptism for forty days of prayer, and fasting, and temptation.  Those forty days are one of the traditions the church draws on for the season of Lent.  The Judean wilderness is a place of rugged hills and mountains, sharp descents and cliffs, deep canyons, and the whole place is rocky.  It receives little to no rain, and so there’s no grass, no trees, no bushes - nothing green - just fold upon fold of brown and tan as far as you can see.
Those of you who were present on Wednesday night’s combined program of the Park Road churches got to hear from Kevin Brown, one of the priests at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, talk about how when “wilderness” is mentioned in Scripture, it is never just a backdrop, but more like an actual character in the story.  The wilderness is a power and a presence in its own right, often interacting with and influencing the other characters and shaping the outcome of the story.  And now that I’ve been there, I can confirm it: the land has an identity.
Have you ever been someplace that was so quiet that the silence itself was crushing and deafening?  Where even the wind rushing right past your ears sounds like it’s miles away?  Where you could yell at the top of your lungs, but the silence would smother your voice and make your mightiest yell sound like a mouse breaking wind?  Have you ever experienced silence like that?  OK, now double that intensity, and you’re starting to approach the deafening silence of the Judean wilderness.
We hiked through the wilderness to an overlook of St. George’s Monastery, and that’s one of the things that sticks in my mind - the silence.  We were only about two miles from a major highway, but you heard no road noise.  There were no trees, so no birds chirping.  Just the “crunch-crunch” of footsteps on a rocky path - what a perfect place for temptation.
In that barren, silent, steep, rocky place, Jesus faced temptation.  I imagined him spending forty days and nights alone there, sleeping in caves, wandering up and down the mountain paths by day, alone with his own thoughts, consumed by them.
The tempter comes to Jesus with a temptation in the form of a taunt - “You say you’re God’s Son, and yet you’re out here starving yourself in the wilderness, wandering around looking tired and hungry like someone’s raggamuffin child.”  In that barren place, there are millions of round stones that look like loaves of bread - how easy and convenient would it be to just “zap!” turn a few of those suckers into bread - who’s going to miss a few rocks in the desert?  The temptation is for Jesus to use his power for his own needs - it is the temptation of taking the easy way out, and the temptation of self-reliance.
How often do we face similar temptations?  To use our own power and our resources to look only after ourselves?  For Jesus to use his power selfishly would have defeated the very purpose for which he had come to our world.  For us to use what we have selfishly defeats our identity as members of the body of Christ.
Not dismayed, the tempter took him to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and said, “Jump!  God won’t let you even dash your foot against a stone.”  You look around the landscape and realize that there are literally rocks everywhere - you couldn’t fall and NOT hit a stone!  The temptation here is to put God’s power on display on command, like some sort of Disney special effects show.  Again, we face a similar temptation, to think that God’s power is at our fingertips to be summoned at our whim, turned on and off like a lightswitch whenever we so desire.  Jesus doesn’t take this bait, either.
So one last try.  Up to the top of a high mountain they go.  Now, from the Mount of Temptation, one could easily see the kingdoms of the world - Jerusalem, Jericho, Jordan, Syria, Lebabon, Egypt.  From that vantage point, the tempter said, “Jesus, I will give you all this - the kingdoms of the world, their peoples, and their treasures - power, fame, fortune - if you’ll just bow down and worship me.”  And yet, the first flaw in this temptation is that all those kingdoms already belonged to Jesus.  How often do we forget the words of Psalm 24, that “the earth is the Lord’s, and all within it,” meaning everything already belongs to God; there is no such thing even as secular, because it all belongs to God already.
The second flaw in this temptation is to place our trust in earthly kingdoms and nations when we have been called to place our trust and pledge our allegiance to God and God alone.  Jesus says, “You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him” (v. 10), yet how often do we bow down at false altars before false gods, because we have placed more of our trust and identity in the kingdoms of this world than in the kingdom of God?
One more site in the wilderness illustrates this point.  We visited the Herodian, the fortress and palace King Herod the Great built for himself at the top of a high mountain - a mountain he made even higher by leveling a nearby mountain and moving its rock and dirt to the top of his mountain - the grandest, most ostentatious display of power and wealth you could imagine.   And so, when Jesus taught and said, “If you have faith, you can say this mountain, ‘Move over here,’” he was talking about something that people had already seen.  They had literally seen mountains move.
You do know how you move a mountain, right?  One shovelful at a time.  The difference between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God is this: which mountains get moved, and where they get moved to.  The kingdoms of the world and the kingdoms of the world can both, without question, move mountains, and they both do it one shovelful at a time.  No doubt you’ve got a shovelful of something in your hand - so ask yourself this question: are you moving mountains to build God’s kingdom, or are you building some other monument?
Jesus is giving us a choice between two kingdoms, and his footprints from the river of his baptism into the wilderness of his temptation give us the guide for what it’s going to take for us to faithfully live as part of his kingdom, even when the kingdoms of the world are tempting us to do it their way.
Friends, those footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness remind us that the life of faith isn’t always easy, it isn’t always convenient, it doesn’t always conform to what we want.  No, those footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness remind us walking in his way often takes us through difficulty, and suffering, and heaven forbid, inconvenience - and we willingly take all that on - because that’s what the faith of those who are baptized into Christ looks like.
There are times when walking in the footsteps of Jesus, particularly those through the wilderness, can be discouraging.  But whatever you do, don’t you dare give up.
Temptation says, “Why bother?  There’s so much evil in the world; what difference can you make?”  But faith, true faith in Jesus that’s building the kingdom of God?  That sorta faith just reaches for a shovel, and says, “Outta my way; we’ve still got a lot of mountain to move.”