Month: March 2008

Sermon Podcast: “Genuine Faith”

Here is the podcast of the sermon I preached last Sunday, March 30, 2008, titled Genuine Faith. The text is 1 Peter 1:3-9. The reading of the scripture passage is not included in this edited version, so you might want to read it for yourself first. Hope you find this message on the importance of the resurrection helpful.

Thru the Bible on Wed nights


Wednesday nights follow a typically Baptist schedule at our church. We meet for dinner at 5:45 PM, followed by prayer and Bible study at 6:30 PM, and choir at 7:30 PM. About 25-30 folks attend on an average Wednesday night, and we enjoy the time of midweek fellowship together. This year I decided we would cover the entire Bible on Wednesday nights during the hour we have for prayer and Bible study. Here’s what we’re doing:

  • I developed a 50-week schedule to move from Genesis thru Revelation in 2008.
  • I hand out a simple outline of the book(s) covered that evening.
  • A key verse is identified which characterizes the book.
  • We look for the overall “story” a book is telling, rather than the details.

Since we announced this Thru the Bible in 2008 study, our attendance and enthusiasm on Wednesday nights has increased. Of course, a study like this only hits the highest-of-the-high points, so you have to lower your expectations on covering detail. But, covering a book a week in less than 45-minutes is an exciting way to get a 30,000-foot view of the Bible. Have you ever done anything like this, and if so, what did you experience?

Podcast: Easter sermon, “Now We Understand”

I’ve fallen way behind in posting sermon podcasts, but am trying to catch up and keep them current.  Here’s the sermon from yesterday, Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008.  The title is “Now We Understand” from the text of Acts 10:34-43.  I hope it’s helpful, and that your Easter Sunday was glorious!  — Chuck

A boat without oars or sail

St Brendan the Navigator In his delightful book Sun Dancing, Geoffrey Moorhouse tells the story of the three men who set out in a tiny boat without oars or sails — for they wanted to be on pilgrimage for the “love of God.” This pilgrimage, called peregrinatio, was a pilgrimage of the heart expressed in a real journey. Peregrinatio was the desert in the ocean, as one author describes it. It was the journey without direction or guidance, except from the Spirit of God.

If you had asked me almost four years ago, before I came to Chatham — Where will you take the church? I would have had an answer for you. Now, however, I see things differently. Planning can certainly be helpful, don’t get me wrong. But, some things cannot be planned. They unfold. They appear on the horizon. They arise out of nothing but the presence of God, and offer themselves as divine serendipities to those with eyes to see.

We are adrift in our church right now, but we are not aimlessly adrift. We are seeking to find the “current of God” where the Spirit of God is flowing. We want to be there when the swelling tide of which hymn writers spoke carries us to the next place with God. So, like the ancient Celtic Christian pilgrims, we are on a journey for the love of God. We do not know the destination, nor do we seek to discern it as we pass landmarks on the way. We only know that we are seeking to travel with the same God who led Israel with a cloud by day and fire by night. The journey and the destination are one, for we are traveling with God. Isn’t that the goal of our lives after all?

Sermon for Easter, Mar 23: “Now We Understand”

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching this Easter from Acts 10:34-43, another lectionary reading for this Easter Sunday.  I hope your Easter celebration is glorious!  He is risen!

Now We Understand

Acts 10:34-43

34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

I’ll Be Glad When You Have Children of Your Own!

I know this is hard to believe, but there were times when I was annoying as a child. As unlikely as this seems, it’s true. And at those times, and usually after I had thoroughly exasperated my very patient mother, she would say something like, “I’ll be glad when you have children of your own, then maybe you’ll understand!”

Little did I know that one day I would have children of my own, and I would indeed understand. Or, at least remember that she had wished that moment on me — the moment that you hear your mother’s voice in your head and you know that she saw this coming long ago, and it is sweet vindication of all your parents ever suffered for you. And, you do understand. Because you’ve had an experience, you’ve grown, you’re wiser, you’ve been changed.

Peter Has A Dream

That brings us to our text today, right out of the book of Acts, the book of the history of the early church. Luke, the same guy who wrote the Gospel of Luke, writes the book of Acts with the same kind of insight and precision we found in his gospel account. The Acts of the Apostles, as it is properly called, is the continuation of the story of those early followers of Christ.

Acts chapter 10 focuses on Peter. This is the same Peter who was always speaking when he should have been listening, who vigorously denied that he would deny Christ, and then did so three times before he could catch himself. This is Peter who could be both arrogant and eloquent. Arrogant when he tells Jesus to wash not only his feet, but his whole body. Eloquent when he speaks words that no one had ever spoken to and about Jesus — “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

The setting for this text is not that first Easter Sunday morning when Peter ran to the tomb and was dumbstruck because it was empty. No, we are a few years past that first Easter Sunday, past the empty tomb, past the almost dozen appearances of the risen Christ to Peter and the disciples. We are past the momentous day of Pentecost, 50-days after Passover, when the Holy Spirit fills Peter and speaks through him and every person present hears the gospel in their own language, and 3,000 of them are saved and baptized.

We are now in the early days of the infant church — struggling, persecuted, misunderstood, yet powerful. Peter takes center stage by force of his personality possibly, but more surely by the power of the Spirit in and on his life. He heals people, he raises a child from death, he stands up to the religious and political leaders — all the things that Jesus did, Peter now does himself in demonstration of the continuing power of the Kingdom which Jesus announced and inaugurated. And, still Peter is a Jew, a devout practicing Jew, as are most of the Christians at that point.

Then, one night Peter has a dream. In the dream, a great sheet is let down from heaven, and on that sheet are every kind of animal. Then, as Peter is looking at all the animals, a voice says, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” In other words, you can eat any of these animals before you.

Now, based on Peter’s answer — “You’ve got to be kidding!” (Actually, “Surely not, Lord!”) — Peter thinks he is passing the dietary law test with flying colors. After all, what is Jewish culture noted for if not its dietary laws? We westerners have even picked up on the seriousness with which Jews take culinary restrictions when we exclaim, “That’s not Kosher!” to protest something that doesn’t seem right. Peter was kosher, if anybody was.

But, the Voice says something strange, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” And, as if to make the point, this happens three times — a sheet full of animals, the command for Peter to eat, and again, and one more time.

Cornelius Has a Dream, Too

Now, while Peter ponders what this means, unknown to Peter, Cornelius, a Roman centurion, has also had a dream. Cornelius is a God-fearer, but not a Jew. Jews of the first century looked down on two groups of people — Roman soldiers, and everybody who wasn’t a Jew. Cornelius was both. But Cornelius was a devout man, and in his dream an angel of God, not just a voice, appears to him. The angel tells him his gifts to the poor and his prayers have come before God as a memorial offering. Because of that, the angel tells Cornelius to send for Peter, who is staying at Simon the Tanner’s house in Joppa.

Cornelius calls two servants and a devoted soldier, and sends them to collect Peter and bring him back. This entourage arrives at Simon the Tanner’s house — a Roman soldier with two servants in tow — asking for Peter. The Holy Spirit has to tell Peter that these guys who have come for him are okay, and to go with them. If you’re a Jew, the last person you want to go somewhere with is a Roman soldier, so the Spirit had to tell Peter “It’s okay.”

When Debbie and I made our last trip to China together, we had dinner one night with about a dozen Chinese men and women, most of whom we did not know, and most of whom did not speak English. Our manager, Mr. Lin, explained who everyone was, and pointed out one man in particular. “He is Chinese CIA,” Lin explained, “Very important government man.” So, we all spent the next hour smiling, and nodding, and eating. With the Chinese military intelligence man. Or spy, or whatever he was.

I really didn’t think much more about him, because Chinese men in Shanghai have a tendency to inflate their resumes, so I really didn’t know if this guy was a military intelligence officer or not. But, when the time came for us to go back to the airport, Lin said, “Mr. Military Intelligence will send a car and soldier tomorrow to drive you to the airport.” Now, we had already tried to take pictures of some Chinese soldiers when we visited a Buddhist shrine, and were warned that was not a good idea. So, we didn’t know what to expect. But, sure enough, the next morning, a white minivan, with a fully uniformed, but unarmed, Chinese soldier arrived at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza to pick us up and take us to the airport, which was about an hour-and-a-half ride. Lin waved to us as we rode off into the sunrise, Debbie and I thinking we might never be heard from again. So, I can imagine how Peter must have felt when a Roman soldier shows up to take him to a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Nevertheless, with the Spirit’s assurances, Peter goes, arrives at Cornelius’ home, and Cornelius falls at Peter’s feet, tells him about his dream, and then Peter understands what his own dream meant: God’s people now included people other than Jews.

Now Peter Understands

Then, Peter begins to speak, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Of course, we agree with that statement, but it’s hard for us to comprehend what a big leap this is for Peter. Peter is a Jew. The Messiah was promised to the Jews. The Promised Land was given to the Jews. God’s covenant was with the Jews. The Jews were God’s chosen people. Not the Gentiles, and certainly not a Roman centurion, his servants and friends.

But, Peter now understands. And he understands because God wanted him to understand. God sent the dream to Peter, and to Cornelius at the same time. God had Cornelius’ men arrive just as Peter is pondering his own dream. God wanted Peter to understand because the next step in redeeming the world is to include more people than just Jews.

Peter’s experience with God in a dream and in meeting Cornelius gave him a new perspective. Peter was able to say, “Now I understand.”

Peter Tells The Story

But, God wants Cornelius to understand, too. So, Peter tells the story to Cornelius. He says —

36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

Peter tells Cornelius, “You’ve heard the message God sent to the people of Israel, the message of Jesus who is Lord of all.” This message is no longer just for the Jews, it’s for everybody. The events happened in Israel, but Jesus is Lord of all.

And, if that’s not enough, Peter says, “We’re witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and Jerusalem.” The events of Jesus life and ministry happened there, Peter is saying, but they’re good other places, too. And, Peter goes on that after they killed Jesus, God raised him from the dead and caused him to be seen. Not by everybody, but by us, Peter says. We even ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And, Jesus himself commanded us to preach to people and say that he is the one whom God has appointed judge of the living and the dead.

Oh, and by the way, all the prophets say that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins. Everyone. Not just the Jews. Everyone.

Cornelius and His Friends Understand Now, Too

Now, this part isn’t in our reading for today, but the story isn’t complete without it. Here’s what Luke says happened next –

44While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46For they heard them speaking in tongues[a] and praising God.

Then Peter said, 47“Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

Cornelius and his friends are so moved, so open, that the Holy Spirit comes upon them. They speak in tongues as Peter and the apostles did on Pentecost, and they praise God. The Jews with Peter (the circumcised believers) were astonished because these Gentiles were having the same experiences the Jews had — the Spirit was at work in their lives, too. I like Peter’s reply — “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” They had already been baptized with the Spirit, so now everyone there understood. God really was the God of the Gentiles, too.

Jesus Changes Everything

Into the first century world of power politics, racial division, and ethnic hatred, Jesus came with resurrection power. Some followed him, but they still didn’t understand. Peter was among those, those who wanted to follow Jesus, those who wanted a different world than the world they lived in, those who wanted to know God. But, Peter didn’t understand.

Peter didn’t understand what Jesus was doing when he fed the five thousand. Peter didn’t understand what Jesus did when he spoke calm to the raging storm. Peter didn’t understand how Jesus could tell them where to cast their nets, and then he didn’t understand how they could catch so many fish in the blink of an eye when they had been fishing without any luck all night. Peter didn’t understand when Jesus was arrested, and even though he tried to stay close, Peter denied Jesus. All because he didn’t understand.

Peter didn’t even understand when he ran to the empty tomb that Easter morning. Or when he saw the risen Christ, not once but maybe 11 times. He didn’t understand after Jesus’ ascension, as he and the other apostles waited in a room in Jerusalem because they were afraid for their lives.

But, on the day of Pentecost, when the breath of the Holy Spirit breathed into Peter so that he stood to preach a sermon like no one had ever heard, Peter understood. When tongues of fire appeared on their heads, and the sound of rushing wind filled the place, Peter understood. When 3,000 came to Christ that one day alone, Peter understood. And, when a beggar asked for money, Peter and John could say, “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And the man lame from birth not only walked, but he jumped up and walked, following them into the Temple and praising God.

Peter understood that the apostles were now carrying on the work of Jesus — healing the sick, raising the dead, challenging the religious leaders, suffering persecution, gathering the flock. All because his experience changed him.

Forgetting What We Know

Now I wish I could tell you that’s the end of the story. That Peter finally understood, and lived in the light of that understanding for the rest of his life. But, not long after that Paul has to confront Peter. Peter eats with the Gentiles when there are no Jews present, but when a delegation comes from the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem, Peter quits eating with the Gentiles for fear of offending the Jews. Peter’s memory is short, and though his experience changed him, his cultural bias betrays him.

We can say we understand because we had an experience. We can say that a break-through came in our lives when God taught us something, or circumstances arrayed themselves in a providential manner so that we had new insight into what God was doing. And we can live that way for a while.

But one day, we’ll slip back into old patterns if we’re not careful. One day we’ll forget the glow of that life-changing experience. One day we’ll find ourselves like Moses — still wearing the veil to cover our faces but without the glory of God on our faces.

And, that’s where Easter comes in. Because we need to come back from the culture of death that still tries to pull us down. Peter said of Jesus, “They killed him, but God raised him up.” In that resurrection is everything we need to live. Because the resurrection of Jesus is the guarantee that the resurrection is coming one day for us, too. That resurrection of Jesus is the assurance that the tentacles of death — despair, hopelessness, faithlessness, inconsistency, failure, and sin — that they are powerless to take and to hold us.

In the resurrection are the miracles of Jesus, the power of Pentecost, the hope for the future, the gates of heaven, the defeat of death, the end of fear, and the promise of tomorrow. We celebrate Easter as though it happened once, long ago. And it did, but it happens each day, each moment, when someone moves from the Kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of light. When someone dreams a dream that draws them closer to God, when someone hears the Spirit spur them on to a new walk with God.

And so this is Easter, and the refrain was, “He is risen, He is risen, indeed!” And when the power of Easter dawns in our own lives, we can say with Peter, “Now we understand.”

Easter sermon: “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time” full text

This is the sermon I preached last year at Easter. However, John 20:1-18 is the Gospel lectionary reading for this year, so here’s the manuscript of that message. The video and audio versions are also available. I’ll post my Easter sermon for this year tomorrow.

Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time

John 20:1-18 NIV1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 8Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

10Then the disciples went back to their homes, 11but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15“Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

17Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ “

18Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

A Week Of Extremes

The events of the past week were a blur for Mary Magdalene. Only a week ago, she and dozens of Jesus’ followers celebrated his entry into Jerusalem with an impromptu parade. Mary Magdalene remembered how the shopkeepers and pilgrims, in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, had stopped to look, then joined in the procession that had moved joyously down the crowded Jerusalem streets.

The days that followed were a confusing mixture of preparation for the Passover, and watching Jesus do things he had never done before. Like giving strange answers to the chief priest and the Pharisees who challenged Jesus as he taught in the temple. Watching Jesus create a small riot as he chased the temple money-changers out of the court of the Gentiles, creating quite a scene.

Then, of course, Mary Magdalene had heard about that Thursday evening. She wasn’t there, but she had heard the story repeated over and over. A meal around the table with Jesus and those closest to him. Jesus, saying things about the meal that he had never said before. Like “this bread is my body broken for you” and “this cup is the new covenant in my blood” – only later would she understand. Later, after Jesus had been arrested and word had come from breathless men, excited and shaking with fear. Men who had vowed to fight the Roman legions, men who had promised to stay with Jesus no matter what happened. The same men who had run away when the chief priest had Jesus arrested.

Mary didn’t know who was more pitiful. Those who had run under the cover of darkness, forsaking Jesus, or Peter who had followed Jesus. At least he did that, but who then denied not once, but three times that he even knew Jesus, much less was a student, a disciple of that Galilean. All were heartbroken. All were shaking, weeping, pounding their chests and foreheads with their fists, inconsolable for having left their friend, Jesus, in the custody of the chief priest’s henchmen.

But then it got worse. As day had broken over Jerusalem, word quickly spread that Pilate was releasing Barabbas. Barabbas was a terrorist, a murderer, an insurrectionist. If Barabbas was being released, something dreadful was happening.

Waiting in the streets of Jerusalem, Mary and the others milled around, trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus, or hear what had happened to him. Pilate will have him whipped and then release him, they told one another. That’s what he usually does when he’s trying to placate the Jewish leaders. A little dose of Roman justice, but not too much, just to keep the Jews happy.

Then Mary heard the cry of the crowd and saw a procession, more like a mob, moving down the street. But, they were jeering and yelling and striking at something in their midst. Mary strained for a glimpse, and at first she thought, “That poor, poor man.”

She saw a figure, hunched under the weight of a Roman cross, blood streaming down the cuts on his back, blood dripping into his eyes from some sort of thorny crown that was pushed into to his forehead. The horror of that scene was enough and Mary began to divert her eyes. As she did, she saw something familiar. A profile she had seen before, disfigured to be sure, but familiar.

And then she realized – this man, this poor man was Jesus. She watched him struggle with the cross, stumbling, falling in the dirt, rising each time under the weight of a beam too heavy for him to bear.

The Roman centurions were tiring of this game, it was taking too long to move this procession-of-the-damned down the street and out of the city. So they grabbed a stranger, ordered him to carry the cross of Jesus, and the macabre parade resumed its march of madness.

The disciples followed, all too aware of how this would end. Once the verdict of death had been pronounced by a Roman authority, there was no reprieve, no second chance, no appeal. All they could do now was follow the cross in horror, weeping as they walked.

The scene at the Place of the Skull was even worse. Two other men were being hoisted up, nailed to crosses, their crimes placarded above their heads. This was Roman justice, this was capital punishment at its cruelest, and most heinous.

Mary could not watch as Jesus was thrown to the ground, Roman soldier on each side, grabbing a leg and an arm, and pulling Jesus into position on top of the cross. Mary heard the sound of the nails being driven through the hands and feet of Jesus. The hands that had touched her and released the power of darkness from her body. The feet she had washed, now bruised and bloodied beyond recognition.

The jarring thump of the cross dropping into its resting place, and the agonized cry of Jesus, caused her to turn and face him. Huddled with the others who loved him, all they could do was weep. Weep for the gentle man who had been their friend, weep for the ache in their hearts, weep because nothing else could be done.

Jesus cried out, the soldiers tried to push a foul mixture of soured vinegar and gall in his face, but Jesus turned his head. Time seemed to stand still, Mary felt as if she were in a scene from hell, but it was real.

Hours passed until Jesus died. He cried out loudly, then, as if the cry used his last breath, his body slumped on the cross, lifeless. Suddenly, the sky went dark, the earth shook, people were running, screaming — a centurion fell on his knees and said “Surely this was the son of God.”

Someone screamed, “Jesus said the stones would cry out!” It was as if all of creation were groaning, struggling with the death of the Creator, uncertain what to do. So the sun quit shining, the ground quaked, the sky were darkened, as if the world knew something no one else knew.

Slipping and sliding down the hillside as they, too, ran for safety, Mary glanced back and saw the lifeless form of Jesus, being ripped from the cross by the soldiers. Thrown on a makeshift stretcher without care, the lifeless body of Jesus was born down the other side of the hill, out of sight.

Word came that Nicodemus, kind, curious Nicodemus, and a man named Joseph had asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Joseph had laid Jesus in his own grave, a tomb cut out of the rock. But now it was too late to go, the Sabbath was coming. So Mary and the others stumbled back to a room someone had found, where they huddled together.

The Passover went on, in homes and dining halls around Jerusalem that night, the question was asked by the youngest in each household, “Why is this night different from all others?” And then the family told the story of how God had brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt, out of slavery, out of darkness into the light of God’s promise.

But for the disciples, the Passover was meaningless. The evening passed for them, not in remembering the exodus, but in remembering their friend. It was too soon to tell stories about Jesus – too soon to laugh at the times they had shared together, too soon to recall the amazing things that Jesus had done and taught them. So they wept, and when they were worn out with weeping they sat, eyes burning with tears, in exhausted silence.

The women there began to talk about what must be done. Jesus body had only had a hasty entombment, without proper ceremonial care. So the women would go to the tomb. They left that morning, several of them together, for strength as much as anything, making their way through the darkness of night to the tomb. They were determined to be there when the first beams of sunlight broke the darkness, ending the Sabbath. Jesus would wait no longer than absolutely necessary for a loving and proper preparation.

Arriving at the tomb, the scene was amazing. The stone was rolled away, the grave cloths were in place, but there was no body. The women hurried, running at times, back to the disciples, back to the room where the men huddled. In their excitement, broken sentences, gestures, and tears told of more tragedy — Jesus body was gone.

Peter and John had to see for themselves. They ran, John fastest and most eager, Peter close behind. John, stopped at the opening to the tomb, peering into the darkness. Peter brushed by him, and ducking, shouldered his way into the tomb. The women were right, there was no body. John also looked, and believed that the body was gone. The two of them ran back to tell the others. Mary Magdalene stayed behind, weeping again.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed figures, angels, seated where the body of Jesus had been. Was she imagining these angels, but then they spoke – “Woman, why are you crying?” Mary blurted out, “They have taken my lord away and I don’t know where they have put him.”

Then she turned and saw another figure, a man, not an angel. “Maybe he’s the gardener, he’ll know,” Mary thought.

“Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Then, something happened. The gardener opened his mouth and said, “Mary.”

Instantly Mary knew that voice, that gentle voice. That voice had greeter her many times, that voice had commanded demons to leave her and never return, that voice had blessed broken bread in their homes, that voice had calmed swirling seas.

That voice belonged to Jesus.

“Rabboni,” Mary exclaimed. Grabbing him, holding him, weeping for joy this time. He is alive and he is here.

“Mary,” Jesus says gently, “don’t hold on to me now, for I am going back to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. But, go tell my friends.”

Glancing back over her shoulder, Mary Magdelene runs toward the city, with the news, “I have seen the Lord.” She had seen Jesus, again — for the first time.

Easter sermon: “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time”

I’m still working on the sermon for Easter Sunday, but here’s the sermon I preached last Easter titled, “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time.” The text is John 20:1-18. The manuscript is here, and here’s the audio mp3 and the video. Sunday’s coming!

Where were the pastors?

empty-seat-at-the-table.jpg I just returned from a meeting of community leaders and agencies that work with children and youth in our community.  About 18 people were there including the superintendents of both the city and county schools, and representatives from Social Services, Community Action, Habitat for Humanity, our local community college, Boys and Girls Club leadership, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and others.

The chairperson noted those in attendance, and commented.  “I also invited several local pastors, but I see none of them here.”  (I was invited as representative of the new community center in our town.)

My question is — “Where were the pastors?”  Why wouldn’t a pastor consider a joint meeting of every child advocacy group in our area a good thing to attend?  I know it’s Holy Week, but I made time to attend with more than a week’s notice, so I’m sure others could have also.  If we as pastors are not willing to sit at the table with others in our community to solve our common problems and share a common vision, how will we win a world?

What do you think?  Would you attend a meeting like this?  If not, why not?  Maybe there’s something I’m missing here, and if so, I’d like to know what it is.

More economic concern

bad-economy.jpg Today is Sunday.  Palm Sunday.  CNN reports that the Federal Reserve, the United States Treasury Department, and JP Morgan Chase have worked out a deal for JP Morgan to buy the troubled Bear Stearns investment bank for $2/share, down from its high of over $150/share last year.  Plus, the Fed also announced an interest rate cut to 3.25% today — on Sunday!  So, what does this have to do with churches, large or small?

Just this — many financial commentators are suggesting that we may be in for a long and difficult economic ride here in the US.  Some are suggesting even more dire consequences to the convergence of the falling US dollar, the subprime/credit crisis, rising oil prices, the stalled US economy, and the global securities market.  In simple terms, when banks sneeze we may all catch a cold, and a really bad one at that.

I’m not a financial wizard, or a prophet, but I am concerned about the implications of the current economic situation for churches.   If ever we need to apply Biblical principles of stewardship, now is the time.  And now is the time to educate our members to do likewise.  Lots of good financial programs are out there, and most hew the same line — no debt, pay cash, save more, spend less, give God that which belongs to God.  These principles apply to churches, too.  Is your church taking specific steps to anticipate a possible economic downturn?  Or, are you just trusting by faith that everything will be okay?  Or, is it all out of our hands?  I’d like to hear your comments.

Sermon for Palm Sunday, Mar 16, 2008: In the Name of the Lord

Blessed Is He Who Comes In The Name of the Lord
Matthew 21:1-111As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5 “Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ “[a]

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna[b] to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[c]
“Hosanna[d] in the highest!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Peace Comes To A Divided Nation

On Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, arrived at the McLean home at Appomattox Courthouse, not far from where we sit today. Lee arrived about 1 PM, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant about 30-minutes later. Grant, the younger and smaller man, began the conversation by telling General Lee that they had met before in Mexico, and that Grant would recognize General Lee anywhere. To which Lee replied, that, Yes, they had met before, but that he — Lee — could not remember any detail of what Grant looked like. They talked on for a while, and then General Lee asked Grant to commit the terms of surrender to paper. Grant did so for the next minutes. As he concluded, Grant cast his eye upon the sword hanging by Lee’s side. Turning back to his paper, he prescribed that the sidearms of the officers, and the private horses of the Confederate soldiers were not to be included in the terms of surrender. The document was signed, and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered.

At about 4 PM, the two men moved outside, where General Lee called for his horse. Seemingly lost in thought, Lee snapped back to the matter at hand when his horse arrived. Mounting sharply, General Lee began to ride slowly from the house back toward his troops awaiting his return.

As General Lee passed, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, removed his hat in a non-military salute to Lee. All of the Union soldiers standing also removed their hats as General Lee passed by. Peace had come at last to a nation torn by war, and Grant, by his gesture, acknowledged that Robert E. Lee had given the peace that to that day the Union forces had been unable to take.

Peace Rides Into Jerusalem

That scene played out in 1865, was eerily reminiscent of the scene that occurred on another day, long before anyone knew to call it Palm Sunday. Jesus, on a circuitous journey to Jerusalem, instructs his disciples only a few miles from Jerusalem, to go into the village of Bethpage and bring the donkey and her colt tied there to him. If anyone should ask them what they were doing, Jesus said, “Tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

Then, Matthew takes a moment to explain to those of us looking on, what all this means.

4This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
5“Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ “

Matthew is quoting from Zechariah, one of the minor prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. Zechariah wrote in the days after the nation returned from the Babylonian captivity, about 500 years before Jesus’ birth. Even after the nation of Israel returned to their land and to Jerusalem, things did not go well. Old enemies reappeared, new enemies threatened to annihilate the weakened, chastened nation. The rebuilding of the temple lagged, the people still in shock over a lifetime of captivity in Babylon. Zechariah, Haggai, and other prophets both challenge and encourage the nation to rise to the moment, to again be faithful, to embrace the God of Israel who has brought them home.

Zechariah’s prophesy of hope extends from chapter 9 through 14. In chapter 9, verses 9-10, Zechariah speaks of the Zion’s King coming to his people –

9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

The king is coming, to repeat that rousing song of a couple of decades ago. The king is coming, and when he comes he comes riding a donkey, more precisely a donkey’s colt. A young, unproven beast of burden known more for its sure-footedness than swiftness. Riding on a donkey was the king’s way of saying, “We’re not at war anymore. We no longer have to mount the horses of war. We can ride slowly, confidently, joyfully because I bring peace.”

But, Zechariah doesn’t stop there. He continues in this prophesy that covers chapters 9-14. Zechariah describes what happens when the Lord comes and reigns –

8 On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter.

9 The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.

Jesus Comes in the Name of the Lord

And so, here is Jesus, riding into Jerusalem, fully aware of the prophecy of Zechariah. The crowd also seems to understand. For their dilemma is not the rebuilding of the Temple. Herod the Great has already accomplished that. The dilemma of the nation in Jesus day is that they are in exile again. Occupied by Roman troops, whose headquarters abuts the Temple compound itself. Rome, with its despised Roman eagle insignia, holds the nation hostage in its own land, in its own city, Jerusalem.

Insurrections against foreign enemies had arisen quickly, but had ultimately been crushed. The latest and most significant was the Maccabean revolt, about 167 years before Jesus, which ended badly for the Jews. Pompey, in 63 BC, conquered Jerusalem and the puppet king Herod the Great was installed as ruler. Now the people again longed for a king, a popular figure, a person of the people, a common man who would be like King David. A king who could unite them, shepherd them with love, stand against their enemies, defend them in the face of foreign foes.

And in that atmosphere, Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt. We do not know how it happened that the crowd began to shout and sing –

Hosanna to the Son of David
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

But in those shouts, those accolades, those songs of triumph were the hopes of everyday people. People who were tired of living in fear. People who were weary of a religion that piled rule upon rule, law upon law, until it was all so heavy that no one could bear it. People who longed for hope and help and kindness and gentleness. People who wished for the impossible.

And yet, here he was. The symbolism of the animal upon which Jesus rode was not lost on them. They knew the scripture, too. His name was not lost on them either. This name which we pronounce ‘Jesus’ they knew as ‘Yeshua.’ In English, Joshua. And they needed a Joshua. Joshua who took the nation into the promised land after the death of Moses. Joshua, with his companion Caleb, who had been the only spies to say, “This land is ours. God gave us this land. We can cross over and take it.” Only that day, the people wanted nothing to do with Joshua. And so they all wandered 40-years until all the naysayers died. And it was left to the next generation to follow Joshua.

All of the people living were the children of the Maccabean revolt. It had been over 60-years since they ruled themselves. What their forefathers had only seized for a brief time — freedom — they wanted for a lifetime. Jesus, the new Joshua, seemed their best hope.

And so they sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Names Meant Something Then

Unlike today, when we name our children for rock stars, names meant something in Jesus’ day. The angels gave the name of John the Baptist to his father, Zechariah. And the angels gave the name Jesus to Mary for her soon to be born son. Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. The same sins from which Joshua saved them — the sins of unbelief and faithlessness. The same sins for which they had suffered in recurring cycles throughout their history.

But, not only did the name Jesus mean something, the title Lord did, too. Jesus tells the disciples to explain that “the Lord” needs the donkey and colt, if anyone asks. Zechariah says that

“The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.

Not only will the Lord be king, but his name will be the only name. So, he who comes in the name of the Lord, comes with the full authority of God the Father. God, whose name the Jews never pronounced until it was lost from any way to vocalize it, was always referred to as “Adonai” — Lord.

To come in the name of the Lord was to come in full authority of God, the God of Israel, the God of manna, and of freedom, the God of a thousand blessings, the God who shepherded his people with kindness.

And to come in the name of the Lord meant mostly to come bringing peace. Peace. Not power, not dominance, not wrath, but peace. Peace to a people who were weary of war. Peace to a people who had no means to fight. Peace to a people who could not seize peace, but who longed for it desperately.

To come in the name of the Lord meant to come bringing peace. On a donkey, without arms, without aggression, with no defense, to bring peace to the midst of chaos.

Just as God had spoken light into darkness at creation, so Jesus came bringing peace.

The King Comes To His Kingdom

Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king who has already won the battle. Peace is his now, and he can give peace to his people. Jesus’ ministry has been about the kingdom of God. His preaching announced it, his teaching explained it, his miracles demonstrated its power. The only thing left is for the kingdom to come in its messianic peace.

Momentarily, the people of Jerusalem think they understand. On that day, they believe that Jesus will bring peace, the kind of peace that means armies are defeated, governments overthrown, power shifted to the powerless. But, Jesus has already told them, “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives…”

Later in the week, they will grow tired of this peace “not of the world” and will impatiently reject Jesus in favor of nothing. “No peace is better than this, they will reason. Peace can’t come if you don’t defend yourself, answer your critics, fight for your freedom. No, we’re better off with no hope than with this Jesus.”

But he who comes in the name of the Lord brings peace, just as surely as Lee brought peace to Appomattox 143-years ago. Peace is given, never taken. Peace is a gift, not a prize. Peace is an act of love, not the result of victory.

People of Peace

On Thursday, Debbie and I drove to Roanoke to attend the funeral of Donnie Bower’s father, Orville. Donnie grew up in the Old German Baptist Brethren Church, and his mother and father were faithful members of that group their entire lives. The Old German Baptists Brethren maintain some of the old traditions of our Anabaptist forebears. They wear long beards without moustaches, like some of the former ministers of this congregation. The men wear dark suits, but from an old pattern style — jackets without collars, white shirts worn without ties, matching vest and trousers. Women wear modest high-necked, long-sleeved dresses with low hemlines almost to the floor. A head covering of a white net cap tied tightly under their chin rounds out their wardrobe. Black bonnets are worn out of doors.

You might think that these folks would be joyless and stiff, dressed as I have just described. We arrived about 5-minutes late, because google maps sent us to the wrong road near Boone’s Mill. As we walked up to the meeting house door, the sounds of singing rang through the building. In unison and without accompaniment, as one great strong voice, the congregation was singing as we entered the meetinghouse. A bearded minister stood at the front of the large meeting room, “lining” the hymn — he spoke the verse, which the congregation then sang. The sound reminded me of vespers at a monastery retreat I took several years ago. Almost a chant, the melody soared and fell in a slow, deliberate cadence that was solemn, but not sad.

Debbie and I sat down, only to realize upon looking around that we were seated on the left section filled with men only. The center section contained families — husbands, wives, children — and the right section of pews seated only women. All the pews faced the front of the room, which could probably seat about 400. One group of pews on the left faced toward the ministers. Deacons occupied those pews, I was later told.

The meetinghouse was well-constructed, but plain — a wood floor, newly polished; white unadorned walls; flat ceiling about 14-feet high; and plain pews with no hymn racks. The rectangular room was lined with pews in three sections, all facing the wall opposite the door. The two entrance doors were on the south wall, the pews faced the north wall, both were the longest walls, so that the congregation was broader than it was deep.

As I looked at the front of the room, there was no platform and no pulpit. The ministers, who are elected by the congregation and are unpaid, sat on two rows of pews facing the congregation. In front of those pews, between the ministers and congregation, was a long wooden table. I had read that the earliest Baptist meetinghouses had a central table around which the congregation was seated. I was witness to that 300-year old arrangement at the Old German Baptist Brethren church today.

After the hymn singing ended — each person carried their own small hymnal with words but no music — a minister stood to speak. Although he used no microphone, his words resounded off the floor and walls with crisp clarity. “This is what a service must have been like 200-years’ ago,” I thought to myself, although the room did have plain electric lights hanging from the ceiling.

The service included two speakers, two or three hymns, two prayers during which the entire congregation of men knelt on the hard wooden floor, and the Lord’s Prayer followed each prayer. From 10 AM to 12 noon we sang, prayed, knelt, and listened as this funeral “meeting” offered words of comfort, and a community of support.

After the funeral, we drove the short distance to the church-owned cemetery. As we stood by the graveside, brief words were spoken. Then cemetery workmen lowered the casket into the vault, secured the top of the vault, and lowered both into the grave. As they did so, two of the Brethren came alongside with long tamping poles. As the vault was lowered, they inserted the poles down each side, guiding the vault away from the sides of the grave into the center. What followed was remarkable.

The gathered congregation began to sing. As they sang, bearded men in black suits picked up shovels and began to shovel dirt into the grave. These hands were not strangers to work, and as they shoveled, other men holding the tamping rods tamped the dirt vigorously as the grave filled. One song gave way to another as one by one, bearded men and family members shoveled dirt into the grave, and tamped it lovingly into place. Some tears were shed, but most wore pleasant expressions of seeing an old friend off on a long journey. As the grave filled, other men brought rolls of sod, covering the smoothed dirt with green grass.

The hymns ended. A minister spoke of the journey of their brother, a journey that had taken him safely home. A prayer was offered and then another minister thanked everyone for their loving kindness to the family.

As Debbie and I stood among these gentle people dressed in clothes belonging to another place and time, I marveled at how they had gathered to take care of their brother even to the duty of laying his body in the ground. This was a community of faith. A community carrying out centuries-old traditions, but not without meaning. This community gathered from all over the country, as automobile tags carried the designations of many states. They gathered, greeting each other with hugs and holy kisses, to do what communities do — to cry, to pray, to help, to support, to do the work that one friend does for another.

Most of those Old German Baptists were old. Gray beards and gray-bonneted hair were in the majority. I felt we were witnessing the passing of an era. An era when people believed together, worshipped together, mourned together, and rejoiced together. An era when life was simple, families were close, and faith was real. These were people who brought peace to a family. People who had come in the name of the Lord.