Love Hurts

John 13.31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 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.”

2012-04_LT-TrueLoveHurts

 

Two weeks ago I stood before all of you and preached about love. I said, “Here we are, just like the disciples, a few weeks on the other side of Easter. For us the normalcy of life has returned. The shadow of the cross has crept back into our daily lives. We turn on the television and we want to know why we live in such a broken world. We confront people who drive us crazy. We grow tired of the seemingly endless race for the White House. We clench our fits with frustration over our lack of control. We worry about our bank accounts, and our children, and our futures.

“And then Jesus has the nerve to show up in our lives and ask, “Do you love me?If we love Jesus, then we have to love one another.”

I think the message was pretty straightforward. Jesus loves us so we should love each other. In fact, none of you complained about the service while shaking hands afterwards, I received zero emails regarding the content of the sermon, and after singing the hymn “Lord, I Want To Be a Christian” most of us left with smiles on our faces.

Today we are here in church reading about another example of Jesus calling us to love. We love this story. It repeats for us our assumption that whatever it means to be Christian, whatever creeds we affirm, whatever beliefs we proclaim, it at least means we are supposed to be nice and loving toward other people.

The fact that we often boil Jesus down to a guy preaching love makes sense. Jesus talks about love all the time in the gospels, toward all people regardless of circumstances. Love, in fact, seems to be what Jesus is all about. And in this story, during his final night with his friends, in his concluding remarks, he tells them to love one another just as he loved them.

Loving one another like Jesus sounds pretty nice. Don’t you think the world really would be a better place if we could all just get along?

Love is lovely, but it also gets us into trouble. If Jesus really was all about love in the Hallmark sense of the word, if we can whittle the entirety of the gospel down to “love one another” then why did Jesus have to die? Why would you put someone to death who is recommending that we love each other?

Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

loveoneanother

Just as I have loved you…

A couple months ago I was sitting at a coffee shop downtown working on a sermon. As I often do, I was wearing a clergy collar and sitting near the door with a cup of coffee and my computer. For the overwhelmingly majority of my sermon writing coffee shop experiences, everyone ignores the pastor in the corner, but not this day.

A guy walked in, looking pretty disheveled, and immediately bee-lined over to me. His eyes were locked onto my collar and, before I knew what he was doing, he fell to his hands and knees and started to kiss my feet. Embarrassed, I tried to get him to stop, and when he could tell that everyone was staring at us, he asked to speak to me outside.

We sat down on a bench and he began to tell me about his troubles. He was down on his luck, no money, no job, no home. He had been kicked out of a couple local homeless shelters, but heard a rumor that he could get better help in Charlottesville. As he went on I caught myself preparing my response in my head rather than really listening to his dilemma. And as I often do I offered him a few dollars and suggested that he try SACRA or any number of other places in town.

He looked at me blankly and said, “Man, I just need a ride to Charlottesville.”

I don’t remember exactly what I said in response but I’m sure that I made excuses about how much work I had to do, or that I really needed to get back to the church. And as I went on listing my justifications he stood up while I was talking and he left me there sitting on the bench. My voice trailed off as he walked away, and before he turned the corner he said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…

Jesus loved people so much, that he was willing to correct them when they were wrong. When Peter tried to tell him that he was not supposed to die on a cross, Jesus quickly replied, “Get behind me Satan, for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Jesus was unwilling to sit idly by while people continued to miss signs of the kingdom and regularly corrected others when necessary.

And once, while I sat stunned on a bench, Jesus lovingly used the words from the story of the Good Samaritan through a homeless man to correct my understanding of what I was doing. That’s the kind of love that Jesus had for people, correcting them with love when they fell from the path

Just as I loved you…

A friend of mine was vexed when someone from his church continued to cheat on his wife. They all lived in a small community where everyone knew everyone’s business. And this particular man would get in his truck, drive to the other side of town, and cheat on his wife. Of course, the wife remained faithful and steadfast, even through she was traumatized by his infidelity.

Friends tried to convince the man that he needed to stop, and he even admitted that he knew what he was doing was wrong and against God’s will, but he couldn’t help himself. They tried getting him in therapy, they tried calling him everyday to remind him to remain faithful, but no matter what they did, it continued.

One day my friend grew so frustrated with the infidelity of the man that he showed up at his house and demanded the keys to the truck. He said, “It doesn’t seem like you can stop yourself, but you’ll have a hard time getting over there without your truck.”

And you know what? It worked.

Jesus loved people so much, that he was willing to disrupt their lives and sensibilities when they were wrong. He once gathered people together and said, “If your arm causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” Jesus was unwilling to sit idly by while people committed horrendous sins against other people and neglected to honor God through their behavior.

And once, through a demand for car keys, Jesus lovingly disrupted a man’s adulterous tendencies. That’s the kind of love that Jesus had for people, disrupting them with love when they fell from the path.

Just as I loved you…

Back in June a young white man entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina for bible study. The group gathered together to study God’s Word, and the man listened while they discussed scripture. However, when they bowed their heads in prayer, he took out a gun and killed nine of them.

After he was arrested, the family members of the nine victims were able to speak directly to the shooter during his first court appearance. One by one, each person addressed the murderer and offered him forgiveness.

“I acknowledge that I am very angry,” said the sister of one of the deceased. “But one thing my sister taught me what that we are the family that love built and we don’t have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray for God to have mercy on you.”

“I forgive you,” said the daughter of one of the deceased. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. May God have mercy on your soul.”

Near the end, the granddaughter of one of the victims stood up and said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

Jesus loved people so much, that he was willing to forgive their faults and transgressions even at the point of his death. While the crowds gathered at the foot of the cross, while the crown of thorns dug into his skin, while he felt his life slipping away he prayed, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus was unwilling to let anger, and aggression, and hatred get the better of him. He witnessed the abandonment of his disciples and followers, he experienced the people’s movement from “hosanna” to “crucify” and he still forgave them.

And once, while a murderer sat in a courtroom surrounded by the families of his victims, Jesus lovingly forgave him through their willingness to forgive. That’s the kind of love that Jesus had for people, forgiving them with love when they fell from the path.

Jesus didn’t get killed for loving too much. At least not in the way that many of us belittle the kind of radical love Jesus had for the people around him. Jesus got killed because his way of loving challenged the status quo and upset sensibilities. Jesus got killed because his love hurt.

On his final night with his friends, the very people that would be responsible for continuing his message of salvation and love, Jesus offered them a final commandment. “You have to love one another. Just as I loved you, you also should love one another.”

Jesus loved people so much that he was willing to confront others in the midst of their wayward behavior. He knew that time is a fleeting thing and that love, God’s love, demands confrontational action when we act selfishly rather than selflessly.

He was also willing to disrupt actions and attitudes that led to brokenness and abuse. He saw all people for their fundamental worth and he challenged others to seek holiness in every way, shape, or form.

And Jesus was convinced by the power of forgiveness when he was betrayed, broken, and even killed. He lived his life as God in the flesh to point others toward the power of grace and mercy.

To love like Jesus will hurt. It will put us in positions we would rather avoid, it will call our kind of behaviors and practices into question, and it will force us to confront the brokenness in one another. But this is the way everyone will know that we are his disciples, if we love each other just as he loved us. Amen.

 

Advertisements

Devotional – Psalm 148.1

Devotional:

Psalm 148.1

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!

Weekly Devotional Image

I met Rev. Alan Combs for the first time at Annual Conference when I was in college. I was a lay representative for my home church and was preparing to start applying to seminary so I spent time wandering around the display areas to learn more about the United Methodist affiliated seminaries. I was standing in front of the Duke Divinity School display when Alan walked over and introduced himself. He was wearing a black clergy shirt with a white collar, he had a ponytail and a goatee, and he had a Chrome messenger bag slung over his shoulder. To put it simply: he looked cool.

Alan

Rev. Alan Combs

Years later I was sitting in a classroom while Alan was leading us through the art of Wesleyan preaching. The room was filled with novice pastors and Alan was trying to steer us in the right direction to avoid falling into common preaching ditches. I remember still thinking he looked cool, but his dedication to the vocation and to the church quickly overshadowed his physical appearance.

Alan guided us through some of Wesley’s sermon, he had us break into groups to talk about our own preaching styles, and he asked for us to share examples of how we plan and prepare sermons. But at the end of the class he offered some advice that has stayed with me ever since: Avoid “lettuce” sermons. There is a strong temptation to take text, pray over it, and then offer a sermon with a conclusion that starts with “let us…” For Alan, the desire to transform every bit of God’s Word into an applicable life lesson only perpetuates the worship focus on the people worshipping rather than on God. The people sitting in the pews have been conditioned to ask, “What is in this for me?” and if we use “lettuce” sermons, we will continue to spend time wrapped up in our own little worlds.

The entirety of Psalm 148 is a faithful reminder, like Alan’s advice, that it is good and right for us to take the focus off of ourselves. The psalm calls all who hear it to praise the Lord with actions that draw our focus toward all that the Lord has done instead of our little bubbles. It is a powerful proclamation that God is God and we are not. It cautions us against believing that the bible is about us, and forces us to confront the fact the bible is actually about God.

The powerful gift of scripture is the fact that it can speak into our lives. We can pick up our bibles to read, or be sitting in a pew during worship, and believe that those words were meant for us to hear. But our desire to make scripture into our own guidebook (in addition to the many ways we twist God’s Word around to fit our own agendas) is reason enough for us to remember to praise the Lord, and not ourselves.

Let’s Talk About Heaven

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
agnus-dei-window-1024x768

The couple had recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary when they tragically died in a car crash. They were in relatively good health at the time, mainly due to the wife’s dedication to their diet and forcing them to both get exercise, but when the crash occurred they were immediately brought before St. Peter and the pearly gates.

After a quick check-in, much like the first minutes at a tropical resort, St. Peter volunteered to give them a tore of their heavenly abode. The mansion they would be calling home for eternity was filled with more rooms than they could count with a beautiful kitchen, swimming pool, and movie theater in the basement. As the wife squealed in delight with every passing accommodation, the husband grew skeptical and finally leaned over to Peter and asked, “So how much is this going to cost?”

Peter, flabbergasted, replied, “It’s free, this is Heaven.”

Later, they toured the endless golf course that started in their backyard. With perfect rolling hills that they could only have imagined on earth, they took in the beauty that was available whenever they wanted. The old man, again, asked Peter, “So what are the green fees?

Peter replied, “This is Heaven and you play for free.”

Finally Peter brought the couple to the clubhouse that was filled with people from their lives that they had loved and lost. The joyful reunions went on for some time until Peter motioned for the couple to go through the lavish buffet that had been prepared. The old man, still skeptical, quietly asked Peter how much the food would cost.

Peter, now growing frustrated, said, “Don’t you understand yet? This is Heaven, it’s all free!

The old man stood still and then asked, “Well where are the fat free and low cholesterol tables?”

Peter then began to lecture, “That’s the best part. You can eat as much as you like of whatever you like, and you never get fat or sick. This is Heaven!

Immediately the old man went off with a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping out of the clubhouse.

Peter and the wife both tried to calm down the old man and asked what was wrong. The old man looked at his wife and said, “This is all your fault! If it wasn’t for your diet and exercise, I could have been here ten years ago!

What’s heaven like? I get asked this question on a pretty regular basis. I might be in my office with a grieving family who just lost someone they loved and someone will ask what the person is now “doing” in heaven. Or I’ll be here in the sanctuary teaching a lesson to the preschoolers when the subject of heaven comes up and one of them will say something like: My mommy told me that heaven is full of your favorite candy, and you can have as much of it as you want!

What’s heaven like? There are a decent number of times when scripture is descriptive about the beyond, but it is a far stretch from the jokes and movies many of have experienced on the subject. John caught a glimpse of the heavenly glory of God’s presence in a vision and described it like the grandest worship service to have ever occurred. Countless beings that have made it through the great tribulation surround the throne of the Lord where the Lamb is in the center. They sing with full voices and praise the Lord unceasingly for his majesty is beyond comprehension.

Rev 7v9

The problem with talking about heaven is that whatever we say, it is speculative at best. We can point to scripture where it is described, but the descriptions are made in such a way that heaven is beyond our comprehension. The whole point of heaven after all, is that it is totally other from earthly life. It is beyond life. It is glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might in a way that is impossible for us to understand during our earthly lives.

And even though we can only hint at what heaven might be like, it has become the pinnacle concern for many churches and Christians. What do I have to do to make it to heaven? Or what do we have to do in order to get other people to heaven? These questions dominate our thoughts and we grow anxious about whether or not we, and the people we love, will go on to our heavenly reward.

When talking about heaven, there is a strong temptation to make it so appealing with comparisons to earthly beauty that we neglect to think about the fact that we are called to exist here on earth until our deaths. But this text, this worshipful understanding of heaven, lets us know that God never promised we would not suffer. In fact the opposite is true. Suffering has always been part of our story, and even we here in the blessed region of Western civilization are not immune.

Only in death can we receive the gift of resurrection. It was only through Christ’s crucifixion that he could one day be raised again. The same holds true for us. Only when the bell tolls for us will we share in Christ’s victory over death.

And yet we still talk about it all the time. It is good and right for us to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, but when daydreams about our everlasting reward later prevent us from serving the needs of others right now it becomes cheap grace.

In many churches, like the ones most concerned about whether others are going to heaven or hell after they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now. Here in scripture John is confronted with the suffering of the great multitude before they arrive at the throne. They are granted a peace they did not have on earth: they will not hunger, nor thirst, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat because the Lamb of God has shepherded them to the springs of life where God wipes away all tears. But before we can rejoice with the Lord in his divine kingdom, we will endure tribulations in our earthly lives.

Imagining that our lives will be free from suffering is what often leads people to leave the church when something goes wrong. I know too many people my age who were forbidden from attending funerals as children, and then when they finally attended a funeral for the first time when they were older they fell away from the church. I also know too many people who lived such perfect and sheltered lives that when they encountered true poverty for the first time they were overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world and have been unable to return to church.

The church is supposed to be the alternative to this overly rosy view of the world. We have the church to help us remember exactly what God has promised, and what God has not. The church is the place where we confront the hardships of life and rely on the people in the pews next to us to help us through the great tribulations we experience. We are not here to prance around pretending that we have perfect lives without suffering, but instead to proclaim that in trusting the Lord we will find the strength and courage to sustain us until that time when we will join Jesus in the victory over death.

The church is the means by which we combat the hells we experience on earth by attempting to give people hope and faith in something greater than earthly life can offer.

bigstock-Cross-against-the-sky-24690071-panorama

In this church, at St. John’s, we strive to help guide and nurture one another through a variety of means. We have bible studies for the young and the old to help us wrestle with how scripture can speak into our everyday experiences. We collect food and clothing and money for others who are desperately in need. We send people on mission trips to build and plant new foundations and relationships for people who really feel like they are living in hell right now.

But we also have a woman here in the church who has made it her calling to help nurture people in the midst of suffering in the best way she knows how. I believe that Dianne Wright is keeping Hallmark in business through the countless cards she sends out to the community. If you’ve been coming to this church for any regular period of time, and have had so much as a cold, you’ve probably received a card from Dianne Wright. They are always thoughtful, they are always written with purposeful words, and they are always filled with love.

I have the added benefit of not just receiving cards when I need them, but I visit enough of you and our shut-ins to know how prized these letters have become. I was visiting someone at King’s Daughters recently when I saw the familiar script sticking out of the cards adorned in a row on the window sill. The woman I visited described them as the most precious gift she had received since she went in to rehab.

Time and time again I will find myself visiting someone and the subject of Dianne’s cards will come up. They might appear to be a simple and casual gesture, but they speak volumes in the realm of how we are sustained by God’s grace through our neighbor Dianne.

As Christians, we are called to combat the countless hells on earth that plague people through our love and presence. For Dianne Wright, this has meant a ceaseless commitment to communicating through cards the love, depth, and peace of God.

Each of us, in some way shape or form, has gifts that we use to share God’s love with others. Perhaps we have the freedom to visit with people who can no longer visit us. Maybe we, like Dianne, have a penchant for penning letters. Perhaps we have been blessed with lucrative careers that allow us to give charitably to help others. Maybe God has molded us with a spirit of prayer and we can lift up the world through our clasped hands. Perhaps we have become familiar with a particular need in the world and all we need is a little nudge to start serving God by serving others. Maybe we have toyed with the idea of a calling to the ministry and we just need to take a step in faith that God can use us to spread the gospel. Perhaps we have the gift of carpentry like Jesus only we’ve been too nervous to ask someone we know if they need any repairs. Whatever our gift might be, God is calling us to use them to draw people into moments of heaven on earth.

When our time comes God will do with us what God wants. In God’s infinite wisdom and glory we will surround the throne and join in one voice with the saints who came before us, and with the saints who will come after us. We will be washed with the blood of the lamb and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

We know not when we will gather with the great multitude, but each day God gives us is a gift. A gift we should celebrate by being a gift for others. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 23

Devotional:

Psalm 23.1

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Weekly Devotional Image

I’ve done a lot of funerals. In my short time as a pastor I have presided over more services of death and resurrection than baptisms and weddings combined. And every funeral, much like every baptism and wedding, is contextual and different. Some families come in with a service already planned out in their minds with specific hymns and scriptural texts, and some families come in with their eyes glossed over and have no idea what they want the funeral to look like. I’ve read scripture from the recently deceased’s bible, I’ve been handed a tear stained eulogy to read aloud because the emotional strain was too high, and I’ve even been asked to sing a solo during a service. But one thing that has united every single funeral I’ve participated in has been the reading of Psalm 23.

Unlike other readings during funeral services, we print out the entirety of the 23rd Psalm in bold in the bulletins. When the time comes, I ask everyone gathered together to read the beloved words out loud and as we take a collective breath we begin, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” An amazing thing happens when this psalm is read out loud in the context of grief and loss. You can audibly hear the anxiety in the air as the first words are read aloud; people read at different tempos and take breaths at different moments. But as the psalm progresses, so do the voices. It is as if the entire congregation, through the psalm, is able to take a collective breath of fresh air and release a profound sigh of comfort. The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful reminder of the powerful presence of the Lord in the midst of death, and encourages those of us who remain to live as faithfully as the person we have gathered to remember.

This week, no matter what we have going on, let us take a moment to faithfully proclaim the words to the 23rd Psalm with the knowledge that even after we’re gone, people will use these words to mark our Services of Death and Resurrection:

 

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even through I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 

h6bg5t5

Naked and Afraid

John 21.1-17

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana of Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now not of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he 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.”

do-you-love-me-pic

 

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

On the first Easter Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead. The angel at the tomb shared the Good News with the disciples and with the Marys, and later that day Jesus appeared in the room with the disciples. He commanded them to “Go” and spread the Good News to all the earth. But Thomas was not there. Thomas doubted his friends, and their stories about the risen Lord. So a week later Jesus appeared again before the disciples and offered his hands and his side to Thomas to prove the resurrection. He concluded the moment by saying: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

After these incredible moments of resurrected existence, Jesus revealed himself to the disciples for a third time at the sea of Galilee when they returned to their former lives. What a fitting reading for the second Sunday after Easter. Just two weeks ago we were gathered in this sanctuary shouting “Hallelujah!” and praising the Lord for Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. We were living in the light of the resurrection, and boy was it bright! The scent of blooming lilies punctuated the air and invaded our nostrils. No matter what was happening in our lives, God bombarded us with the Good News, death defeated, and we left church feeling filled by the Spirit to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world.

And here we are two weeks later. The lilies are gone, the hallelujahs are still are our lips but they don’t have the same power, and the darkness of life has crept back in. Every year we experience Easter like a mountaintop, but at some point we have to travel back down to the valley of existence.

The disciples, after literally witnessing the resurrected Christ, decide to return to their old lives. Peter says to the boys, “I’m goin’ fishing!” and they reply, “We’re coming with you.”

Do you love me?

It seems strange from our vantage point that the disciples should return to their former occupations, even though Jesus told them to go and spread the news. It feels bizarre to hear about them going back to their boats and nets after their friend transformed the meaning of life and death. Yet, this is how people usually respond to an emotional overload. In the weeks after a baby is born, the new parents wonder about when they will be able to sleep again. After a wife loses her husband she wonders when it will be okay to laugh again. When something deeply and fundamentally transformative occurs, it is only natural to ponder about life before the change.

This story of a reunion by the sea is a reminder that there is no escape from the Lord. Wherever the disciples went, and wherever we go, Jesus is with us.

They were out all night fishing but didn’t catch a thing. Jesus stood on the beach watching the disciple row in to shore, but they did not recognize him. He commanded them to cast out their nets one more time and promised they would catch something. Three years earlier he had said the same thing to Peter and Andrew while they were fishing before they left everything to follow him.

They immediately caught so many fish that they were unable to haul in the net because it was so heavy. In that moment, as the pieces finally came together, Peter recognized who was standing on the shore, put on some clothes and jumped into the sea.

There are many details in this epilogue to John’s gospel: the mention of a charcoal fire draws us back to the charcoal fire around which Peter denied Jesus. The appearance of fish and bread to feed the disciples hunger propels us back to the time when Jesus fed the multitudes with bread and fish. Jesus even asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” which connects with the three times he denied Jesus.

But this simple note that Peter was naked on the boat while catching fish, and decides to put his clothes on before swimming to Jesus, really stands out. It would have been easier to fish under the oppressive heat of the climate without the baggage of clothing, but instead of immediately jumping in (as he had done once before) Peter puts on clothes before he see the resurrected Lord for a third time.

Peter was naked and afraid. Not just physically naked without clothing, but maybe he was afraid of making himself completely vulnerable to Jesus. Perhaps he did not want to address the emotional denial of Jesus prior to his death. Maybe he didn’t want to admit his fallibility, or he did not want his life to be altered. But the resurrection changes everything.

Like we all do when we feel vulnerable, we put on the armor of denial and ignorance in order to protect ourselves from others. Afraid of the inevitable confrontation we sweep things under the rug and pretend that everything has gone back to normal. And then Jesus shows up with his question:

Do you love me?

Sure I do Jesus! I come to church nearly every Sunday, I listen to the pastor up in the pulpit, and I even try to sing the hymns in harmony.

Feed my lambs.

Do you love me?

Of course I do Jesus! I wear a cross around my neck, I always have my check written and ready for the offering, and I post pictures of prayers on Facebook for everyone to see.

Tend my sheep.

Do you love me?

Jesus, you’re making me a little uncomfortable… you know everything and you know that I love you. I’m a good person, I pay my taxes, I give a little money to charity, I try to pray before I eat my meals… what more could you want?

Feed my sheep.

Most of us have probably never faced a time like Peter did when he denied Jesus outright. We’ve never really had to suffer for our faith, and we’ve never really been afraid for following Jesus. But all of us have had moments where we denied him; we just might not realize it.

We might be in our car driving down the road, and perhaps we’re even listening to a Christian radio station, when we stop at a red light and we see someone standing in the median right next to us with a sign asking for money. Perhaps we reach out our hands to lock our doors, or we make judgments about how they got themselves into whatever trouble their in, and before we know it the light turns green and we are able to get on with our lives without being bothered by the panhandlers.

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

We might be having a cup of coffee with a friend and the topic of the recent Panama Papers comes up in conversation. We can feel our fists tightening as we complain about the ultra wealthy evading the taxes that all the rest of us have to pay. Perhaps we start drawing connections between the economically elite with criminals who prey on the weak and underprivileged and we wish someone would do something about it. But before too long the conversation moves on to another topic and we finally feel the tension start to slip away as we talk about something else.

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

We might be having dinner with our family when someone goes on a tirade about a particular political party. We keep our mouths shut because we’ve heard them go off like this but we can’t help but shake our heads in disappointment over their opinion. How could someone be so backward in their thinking? If they believe their candidate can fix all of our problems, then they are going to be sorely mistaken…

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”

The conclusion to John’s gospel is like epilogue in its willingness to address many of the elements that made Jesus’ ministry what it was. As we read it, as we smell the fish cooking on the open fire, and we try to dry ourselves off after swimming in the sea, and as we listen to Jesus’ questions it reminds us of darkness.

do-you-love-me

Through this text we are forced to confront the darkness of our hunger for meaning in our lives, or our failure to recognize Jesus in our midst, or the fact that we have denied him by denying others. But at the same time, this story reminds us that none of the darkness has overcome the light. Christ still died for us while we were yet sinners. God still sent his Son into this broken world to start putting the pieces back together. The Holy Spirit still moves among us and calls us to love one another even when it feels impossible.

Christianity, at its best, is not about what we think or feel about Jesus – it’s about what Jesus does to us. Not a technique for how we can use him to accomplish our goals, but rather his plans for using people like us to transform the world by feeding and tending to the sheep.

Here we are, just like the disciples, a few weeks on the other side of Easter. For many of us, the normalcy of life has returned. The darkness of the cross has crept back into our daily lives. We turn on the television and we want to know why we live in such a broken world. We confront people who drive us crazy. We grow tired of the seemingly endless race for the White House. We clench our fits with frustration over our lack of control. We worry about our bank accounts, and our children, and our futures.

            And then Jesus has the nerve to show up in our lives and ask, “Do you love me?”

If we love Jesus, then we have to start loving one another. Which means that we have to feed Jesus’ sheep by encountering the person on the side of the road asking for money. And not by just addressing their financial situation, but also by treating them with worth and respect. It means that we have to tend to Jesus sheep by helping those trapped by the power of greed to see how their greed affects all of God’s creation. It means that we have to feed Jesus’ sheep when they argue and bicker about politics by listening and loving rather than ignoring and judging.

It is here at the lakeshore of life, that we discover what a strange Messiah we follow. A man who came and was hung on a cross only to forgive his murders; a man who went back to the friends who betrayed him, and ate breakfast with them by the sea; a man who got killed for calling people to serve the last, least, and the lost; a man who expects us to love him by loving others. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 30.4

Devotional:

Psalm 30.4

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name.

Weekly Devotional Image

How often are we really thankful for the people God has placed in our lives? Sadly, it usually takes a profound moment of loss or grief before we are able to recognize how fortunate we were to spend time with them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat with a family while planning a funeral when someone breaks down in tears as they begin to wrestle with how shaped they were by the person now dead. It is a frightening moment when we recognize how blessed we were to have them, and their loss leaves a gaping hole.

On Saturday night I received an email from my home church containing the news that a man by the name of Bud Walker had passed away. As my eyes read over the lines in the email it was impossible to not let my emotions get the better of me as I realized that one of the greatest men I’ve ever been privileged to call my friend is now gone.

I met Bud Walker on a Sunday morning when I was 13 years old. I was responding to a volunteer opportunity from the church bulletin about learning how to run the sound system for Sunday services and Bud was going to teach me how it worked. For a month he stood behind me and looked over my shoulder as I twisted nobs and raised levels so that the whole congregation could hear the choir and the pastors, and for that whole month I was terrified of messing up. And yet, even after I passed my training month, Bud continued to stand with me at the back of the church before and after worship just to talk. I learned about his life and his family, I heard stories from his youth, and I saw what it meant to be faithful. During those incredibly formative years of my youth, I learned about God from the sermons, but I learned what it meant to follow Jesus from Bud Walker.

20120730-f0002-D8

At the time, my experience of church was that the adults got to do their thing and the youth got to do their thing. We might all sit in the same sanctuary on Sunday mornings, but there was a clear divide between our activities. Bud never saw that divide. He was one of the first people who pushed me to pursue a calling to the ministry, and he always made me feel like I mattered. And now he’s gone.

Today I sing praises to our Lord for having placed Bud Walker in my life; I am a better person for having spent time with him. As we continue to take steps on the path that leads to following Jesus, let us not take for granted the people God has given to us. Let us find the time this week to reach out to the people who helped to shape us and, if they are no longer living on earth, let us sing praises for the time we had with them.

With A Little Help From My Friends

John 20.19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his said, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

img_1433

 

Before I became your pastor, I was a pulpit-filler. If a pastor became sick, or was otherwise unavailable to preach, I was tapped on to come up with something to say from the pulpit. A phone call would arrive in the middle of a week, or even on Sunday morning, and I would have to whip something together right quick. For years I took the ”undesirable” Sundays: Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Sunday, and the Sunday after Easter; those Sundays when the regular pastor needed a break.

Every time I was tasked with preaching was an opportunity to grow in my faith while attempting to articular the faith for others.

When I was in college I got the phone call one week to preach for a Sunday evening service. I was fairly familiar with the context because I played the drums for the church every week, but this time they wanted me to come out from behind the drum set to proclaim God’s Word.

At the time I was living with a couple of roommates, but of course none of them went to church. Week after week they would rib me for waking up early on Sunday morning, they would jokingly mock me with questions about God’s presence, and they made sure I knew they thought there were better things I could be doing with my time.

So I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get them to church.

It was on a Sunday night, so they couldn’t complain about sleeping in. We would be playing contemporary Christian rock songs, so they couldn’t complain about the music. And I was supposed to preach, so they couldn’t complain about it being archaic or a waste of time (I hoped).

I casually invited them to worship while we were having dinner one night; I shared that I was the preacher and that it would be a relatively short sermon, and I made sure to mention that it would really mean a lot to me if they would come.

Under the weight of my communal invitation and guilt, they all came to church that night and sat together in a pew near the back.

The service went well; the music balance was good, and the sermon was short and to the point, and then we moved to the communion table. Our resident pastor began talking about how whenever Jesus gathered with his friends he would breathe new life into them through his words and his presence. And on his final night he took bread, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “Take. Eat. This is my body.” And then he took the cup and shared it with his friends saying: “Take. Drink. This is my blood.

One by one every person in the sanctuary gathered in the center aisle and started walking forward for communion. The pastor stood next to me holding the bread, and I stood next to her holding the cup and for each person that came forward we said, “The body of Christ given for you.” Or: “The blood of Christ shed for you.” Hands were outstretched penitently while people feasted on the Lord, and then the end of the line came forward, with my roommates.

Unsure of what was actually taking place, they stood up like everybody else and came forward without knowing what to do next. As they stood in front of us, and in front of the whole congregation, the pastor’s eyes darted back and forth between myself, and the ragtag roommates standing in front of us. Her eyes screamed, “Do something!”

So I did what anyone in my position would do. I whispered to my friends as quickly as possible: “I know this will sound weird… But you need to take a piece of bread, dip it in the grape juice, and eat it. Don’t worry I’ll explain it to you later.” And with that they all feasted on the body and blood of our Lord, and returned to their pews confused and bewildered.

On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, after appearing to Mary Magdalene and calling her by name, Jesus appeared before the disciples. They were locked away in a room full of fear and trembling when Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” Perhaps they were afraid of being crucified like he was by the Jews, or they were afraid of how the crowds would taunt them when they came out of hiding, or they were afraid of seeing their risen friend in their midst. But Jesus found it fitting to speak words of peace in the midst of their terror.

And immediately Jesus outlined what they were supposed to do: “Go. As the Father sent me, now I send you.” With his proclamation, Jesus empowered his friends to proclaim the Good News for everyone to hear.

But Thomas, one of the disciples, was not there to experience the resurrected Jesus. The disciples tried to explain what they had seen, heard, felt, and experienced. Yet, their eyes and fingers were not enough for Thomas. He did not trust his friends. He wanted to see and touch Jesus for himself.

09b

Sure enough, a week passed, and Jesus showed up again before the disciples and Thomas. Again Jesus greeted them by saying, “Peace be with you.” And he told Thomas to feel the scars on his hands and side, but before Thomas could even reach out he declared, “My Lord and my God!” And thus Jesus concluded the moment by saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Thomas gets a pretty bad rap. Every year we follow Easter Sunday with this reading about doubting Thomas. He is the one disciple who gets a qualifier in front of his name. We don’t refer to eager Peter, or betraying Judas, but we do say doubting Thomas. For years pastors like me have used this Sunday and this story to call people like you to learn from the example of Thomas, to not doubt the Lord, to believe without seeing.

But the real problem with Thomas is not his lack of faith in the Lord, but his lack of faith in his friends. For three years he had traveled with this ragtag group of disciples, shoulder-to-shoulder they had watching Jesus perform countless miracles, and now when they tell him the Gospel, he does not believe them.

After the episode of my friends confusedly attending worship and receiving communion, I avoided the topic of church. I knew they had a strange experience through their lack of addressing the service in any way shape or form, and they stopped mocking me for going to church. At the time, I thought they thought I was nuts.

A few weeks passed and the topic of faith was still avoided like the plague until one morning I walked down the stairs and discovered one of my roommates crying on the couch. He had just received a phone call from a long time friend of ours whose father had died. The man was a staple in our community, regularly coached little league sports, and was another father figure for most of us. And when my roommate received the news, it devastated him.

I slowly made my way across the room and sat down next to him. For the longest time neither of us spoke. Finally my roommate looked up from his tears and he said, “I want you to pray for me.

I sat shocked. I didn’t know what to say. But he continued: “You know I don’t know much about God or church. But I know it’s important to you. When you were standing up before us in church I could tell that you really believed. I don’t know what I believe. And I can’t describe it, but I really feel like you need to pray for me.”

So I did.

When Thomas heard the news of the risen Lord through his friends, he didn’t believe them. Even though they were some of the people he should’ve trusted the most, he refused to accept their words.

When my friend felt the sting of death and loss, he didn’t know what to believe. But, for better or worse, he trusted me. Even though he had every reason to be suspicious and weirded out by what he had experienced in worship, he believed in God’s presence through prayer.

Thomas’ kind of radical suspicion of his friends still takes place in our lives today. We view church as a private thing, something we do on the weekends and don’t need to bring up during the week. We might know people in our lives that are suffering or are alone, but we assume that God will send them to us when they’re ready.

SnapshotImage

If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, then me must stop distrusting our friends and neighbors. At the very least, we should stop questioning motives or thinking the worst in others when they express a difference of opinion.

To be faithful followers of Jesus requires a willingness to be sent by God to people who do not know God. It requires us to be vulnerable and uncomfortable while inviting others to discover God’s love in a place like this. It requires us to be the agents of belief for people who have not yet seen.

All of us are here because we are the product of someone influencing our faithfulness. Whether a parent or a friend or even a stranger, we were once invited to discover God through the power of church.

Friends, I promise you that the days of people showing up to church because a church is in their neighborhood are long gone. Today, people discover God’s presence, they begin to believe what they see and see what they believe when people like us are brave enough to invite them to church.

Because, for us, this table is the closest we can get to the presence of Christ. In the bread and the cup God invites us into the upper room when Christ shared the meal with his friends. When we feast on his body and blood we receive the grace necessary to be Christ’s body in the world.

This thing we call communion, whether at the table or just gathering in worship, has transformed my life. If you’re here in church, it’s probably changed your life too. So, may the God of grace and glory give us the courage to invite others to be transformed as well. Amen.