"Seeds of Life"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 3/18/2018


John 12:24-26
“Seeds of Life”
March 18, 2018
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” [John 12:24-26]
Those are words that I find myself speaking most often standing in a cemetery, conducting a burial service.  In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul wanted to reassure them that when a body is buried in the ground, it is not the end of the person, and that God transforms death into life on absolutely every level.
“What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” [I Corinthians 15:42-44]
Before Paul could say that, though, and before any of us could gather around a graveside and talk about something stronger than the natural cycle of birth and death, Jesus confronted his disciples to become his followers, precisely when following him meant to follow him into dying.
            Beware leaders who glorify death.  False messiahs do that all the time, and lead others to destruction.  In 1978, Jim Jones set up a mass suicide/murder situation among the people he led to the jungle in Guyana, and a tape that somehow survived that day has him saying,
"I tell you, I don't care how many screams you hear, I don't care how many anguished cries...death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you – if you knew what was ahead of you, you'd be glad to be stepping over tonight."[1]
Jesus would never say any such thing.  Nor would he have had anything in mind like Marshall Applewhite, the unhinged leader of the cult called Heaven’s Gate, who in 1997 convinced thirty-nine people to put on black track suits and Nikes, to eat applesauce laced with barbiturates, wash it down with vodka, put plastic bags over their heads, and then lie down and cover up with a purple cloth – because a comet visible in the sky at the time was hiding a spaceship that was coming to collect their souls.[2]  Nor would he have been like the Branch Davidians in Waco, who held off the FBI for fifty-one days to protect David Koresh from answering charges of child abuse.[3]  Those are only three modern examples; there are many more if you dig around, people who were overcome by their own demons and dragged many others to their deaths with them.
            Jesus never glorified death, and never sought it.  The gospel of Matthew recounts how, in the Garden of Gethsemane right before his arrest,
“he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’”  [Matthew 26:39]
When soldiers arrived to take him, he didn’t ask his disciples to fight to the death, or to fight at all.  Instead, he stepped up and,
“he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.’”  [John 18:7-8]
The real Messiah is very different from the false ones.  He gave his life for others, rather than ask others to give their lives to save his.
            Yet in asking for followers, people who walk in his footsteps, he knew that there would be the possibility that those followers would face the same dangers that he faced, even death.  It would never be something to be sought, but neither would it be something to be feared.  It is something to be avoided, but not at all costs.
            Maybe it’s someone like a Liberian man named Foday Gallah who was 37 when ebola broke out in the town where he drove an ambulance, presenting him the choice to stay in the middle of the plague or leave for safety.  He stayed.  Someone asked him about it and he said,
“I was trying to save a little boy, a little child. And he survived. He survived. He is alive and well and doing great. He is somewhere in Kakata. And that was my prayer. That was my wish. Even if I had died of Ebola, I still have family, right? But that little boy lost his family. His mother, his brother, his sister. Wiping away his entire family. But I kept him alive. So all my efforts did not go in vain. I survived, and he survived.
I saw him [in the treatment unit]. I got there two days before he was discharged. He was there. And I stayed there for two weeks. He was my son there. He was always around me. I was very happy to see him. I was very happy. Maybe he gave me the strength to live because all my efforts [to save him] did not go in vain with that child.
I don’t regret picking him up, because I prayed for his life, I wanted his life. And today he has his life. So I think I achieved something: his life. At least that can be a representation of his family. So there is one member of the family who survived.
I am going to go back in full swing. I am not going to be afraid. I am going to walk in to fight Ebola with all of my might. I would have died. A lot of people die. But in there I was treated, and cured, and automatically that is the work of God, and I have built immunity to it, so that is a gift.”[4] 
            This is someone who realized that, should he die, it would not be for nothing.  He did not seek his cross, but his cross found him, and he took it up and followed.  And he was only one of thousands, most of whose stories have gone untold, though God has seen them and, one way or the other, seen them through.
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” [John 12:24-26]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonestown#Deaths_in_Jonestown
[4] http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-ebola-caregivers/
"Not to Condemn, but to Save"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 3/11/2018
John 3:16-17
“Not to Condemn, but to Save”
March 11, 2018
            One of my favorite writers and preachers was a man named Walter Wangerin, who died a few years ago, way too soon.  For awhile he was pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Evansville, Indiana, a struggling church in a struggling town, but one where the people knew and loved the Lord.  In one of his books, he tells a story about his own struggles.[1] 
            Across from the church lived a woman named Marie who, like most of the neighborhood, fought to make ends meet.  Wangerin felt for her, and also for her young son, but wasn’t quite sure how he could best help her, and she didn’t make it easy on him when she regarded him with a mix of resentment and suspicion.  He later realized that she made her living in the world’s oldest profession.  He began to look askance at her, too.  Then, one night, Wangerin was working late in his study and all the lights were off except the one at his desk, when he heard suspicious sounds outside.  The church had been broken into a couple of times and he got nervous, so he peeked out a window.  He saw Marie filling water jugs at the spigot on the side of the church that was itself having trouble paying its bills.  “Geez!” he wrote,
“the presumption griped me.  She was busy stealing.  She was reaching into the very heart of the building, even to frighten me in the privacy of my study.  I felt very, very vulnerable.
…She’d shut the water off.  When she passed the window, I saw her from the knees down, lugging in each hand two plastic jugs of water, and then I was alone again – and full of anguish.
…I had no idea what to do about Marie’s little theft – or the arrogance of it.  Well, well, well: water isn’t communion ware, after all.  What do you pay for water?  Pennies.  So let it go.  That’s what I said to myself.  Just let it go.  And I thought: if the city has turned off her water, you can bet they’ve turned off her gas and electricity too.  The woman’s without utilities.  And she’s got a kid who needs to drink and wash and use the bathroom.  So calm down and call it charity and let it go.
Yeah, but that kid nagged at my mind.  What was she teaching her child?  That he could take whatever he needed – whatever he wanted, for heaven’s sake.  Any child, I don’t care who or whose it is, deserves better than this poor kid was getting.
And then that’s the next thing that nagged: what is the ethic for supporting a prostitute, even by inaction and non-involvement?  This is a church, after all.  We have a covenant with virtue, after all, a discipline, a duty, a holy purpose, a prophetic presence.  Shouldn’t I talk to the woman?
Precisely at that point all my abstract inquiry skdded against reality.  Talk to the woman?  Why, the woman doesn’t talk!  She stares at you with a moribund stare.  She scorns you with murderous scorn.
… ‘So let it go.’  I said that out loud in the doorway of my study.”
            So far, so good.  But it continued to rankle him.  Then one day, again working late and hearing the tap running, he took action.
“I thrust my face to the window and looked into midnight and squinted to make my eyes adjust.  I saw the figure beneath the street light.  I saw the body bending at our faucet.  Two feet from mine I saw a concentrating face. …who was this drawing water from the bowels of Christendom? One of the prostitute’s johns!”
He saw things getting out of hand, so he ran into the boiler room and shut off the valve. 
I feel okay using this story in a sermon, because so did Wangerin.  It was a situation where it was important to draw the line and to do it in a way that was considerate.He wrote that
“Even so in the end did a cleric and the church prevail, by cunning, not by confrontation, and no one was hurt, and no one’s feelings or reputation was wounded, neither the church’s nor the prostitute’s.  We could coexist on opposite sides of Gum Stree
Most of the people who heard it understood that.  Most.
            At the church door he spoke with Miz Lillian Lander.  “Pastor?”
“Her voice was both soft and civil.  It was the sweetness of it that pierced me.  … ‘You preached today,’ she said, and I thought of our past conversation.  ‘God was in this place,’ she said, keeping my hand in hers.  I almost smiled for pride at the compliment.  But Miz Lil said, ‘He was not smiling.’  Neither was she.  Nor would she let me go.
… ‘Her grandma’s name was Alice Jackson,’ Miz Lil said, staring steadily at me.  ‘Come up from Kentucky and went to school with me, poor Alice did.  She raised her babies, then she had to raise grandbabies too.  She did the best she could by them.  But a body can only do so much.  Pastor,’ said Miz Lil, ‘when you talk about skinny Marie, you think of her grandma.  You think of Alice Jackson by name.  You think to yourself, she died of tiredness – and then you won’t be able to talk except in pity.’”
            Wangerin’s story is a warning to preachers.  It is tempting to thunder against the dark, hoping that lightning will give a moment of clear vision where there is no daylight.  But those bolts do not belong in anyone’s hands but the Lord’s.  What human being would even be certain to aim them at the right target?  Who would not end up sending one straight through their own heart?  But
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him, the world might be saved.” [John 3:17]
It is a warning to all Christians, because in good faith and in truth we may want to follow God’s will, and want to see others do the same.   Only, where do we see God’s will if not in Jesus?  It cost Jesus more than we will ever comprehend to follow through on his mission.  It cost far more than any of us could ever give.  We get a glimpse of it when more is asked of us than we are ready for, especially if it is asked of us again and again and again, and we are ready sometimes to “die of tiredness”.  Even if we do, it is not the whole story.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” [John 3:16]
Until then, God grant us all grace to look beyond ourselves and to see people in such a way that we won’t be able to talk except in pity – or to act except in mercy and in love.

[1] Walter Wangerin, Jr., “Miz Lil” in Miz Lil & the Chronicles of Grace (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).  Quotations here occur from pages 44-48.
"A Temple on the Move"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 3/4/2018


John 2:13-22
“A Temple on the Move”
March 4, 2018
            I can open up any modern book and read the copyright and printing dates.  We cannot do that with the gospels.  Scholars have to make some informed guesses about the place and time of their composition based on language, contents, where they are quoted outside the Bible, and so forth.  John, unlike the other three, seems to have been composed after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, and that makes a difference.  The story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple shows up in all four gospels.  John differs from the other three in that he puts it toward the beginning of Jesus’ active ministry, not at the end, which sort of surprises me because it makes sense to me that something like that would be the last straw for the authorities, as it is in the other three versions.  John, though, uses events from Jesus’ life to make a point more than the others do.  Instead of threatening the end of religious observance, he is promising an ongoing access to God that no catastrophe can change.
            We have our holy places.  There are buildings that matter deeply to Christians.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem occupies the probable site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, and people have been traveling to worship there for sixteen hundred years.  Various branches of the Church have been arguing for nearly that long about who has jurisdiction over the place and there are elaborate agreements that leave some parts of the building in the hands of the Roman Catholics and some parts in the care of the Greek Orthodox and relegate a section of the roof to the Ethiopian Coptics.  But last week, as part of a protest over confiscation of other church properties by the Israeli government, the building was closed for awhile.  I saw some pictures of pilgrims kneeling outside the locked doors. 
           Allowing worship to stop, even temporarily, in the Temple was unthinkable for the Jews of the first century.  Josephus, who wrote a history of the war in which the Romans sacked Jerusalem, says that the priests
“carried on their religious service uncurtailed, though enveloped in a hail of missiles.  Just as if the city had been wrapt in profound peace, the daily sacrifices, the expiations and all the ceremonies of worship were scrupulously performed to the honour of God.  At the very hour when the temple was taken, when they were being massacred about the altar, they never desisted from the religious rites of the day.”[1]
The scriptures we know as the Old Testament had anchored the worship of God on Jerusalem and on the Temple as the place where, out of the whole earth, God had directed his people to gather and where he had said he would meet them.  To destroy that would, they thought, destroy God’s promise.  Imagine – as an analogy – what would happen to Islam if Mecca were wiped off the map, and the Ka’aba that Muslims face to worship, wherever they are in the world, were turned into a hole in the ground?
           The Temple had been destroyed once before, and the people had felt themselves totally cut off, especially those who had been carried away as prisoners.
“By the waters of Babylon –
            there we sat down and there we wept
            when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
            we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
            asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
            ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
            in a foreign land?” [Psalm 137:1-4]
For two generations, their focus was on trying to get back, and Nehemiah led them in the effort, inspired by Isaiah and guided by Ezra.  Zeal for Jerusalem and for the Temple was the burning motivation of their lives.
            On the other hand, if the Vatican or Canterbury Cathedral or St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or every church building on the globe were to disappear, we would be deeply upset and mourn their loss but it would not go to the heart of our faith.  It’s fair to say that we have John’s account of Jesus cleansing the Temple to thank for that. 
“The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’  Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
Our access to God is through Jesus, who has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, whose Holy Spirit is everywhere, not just in one designated spot, however beautiful or time-honored.
            In fact, the Bible calls the Church his Body, and reminds us of Jesus’ own words:
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” [Matthew 18:20]
Sometimes it’s catastrophes that reveal that.  I’ve seen it happen on a plane when it hits turbulence.  I have felt Jesus’ presence standing on a corner by a vacant lot during an anti-drug vigil in Philadelphia.  Mother Teresa knew that she could find Jesus sitting beside people dying in the streets of Calcutta and Dietrich Bonhoeffer shared communion with other believers in a Nazi prison.  Julia Ward Howe looked out from a rooming-house at the Union troops guarding Washington during the Civil War and said,
“I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps.
 I can read his righteous sentence by their dim and flaring lamps. 
His truth is marching on.”
Even so, in the everyday and in the safe places, too, Jesus is right there in the ordinary unremarkable.  He’s there when a family bows its heads to give thanks at the dinner table, and when parents are saying prayers with their children at bedtime.  He’s certainly here with us as we gather at this table in his name.

[1] Josephus, War I. 148, cited in E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE-66CE (London: SCM Press, 1992), 92.
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