Sunday, November 27 – Sermon on Mark 13 (24-37)

Mark 13 (24-37)

The end of the world is a theme played out a lot throughout history.  In a children’s story from the 1800s, chicken little cries out, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” to its friends, Henny Penny and Goosey Loosey.  In the 1980s, the band R.E.M. made a name for themselves by singing the rock hit, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”  Today we get the same theme in the gospel of Mark for this first week of Advent.  It’s about the end of the world, the second coming of Jesus, the apocalypse, and it is not the story we expect or really want to hear, for that matter, in this post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas season that is meant to be filled with joy and laughter, feel-good tales and Christmas Carols.

I am not sure if there is ever really a good time to talk about the end of the world, yet it seems in every generation or every year for that matter the conversation comes up.  Just this year, we had May 21st slotted as the end, and when that failed, October 21st became the set date.  Next year at this time… I guarantee you there will be much discussion around December 21st, 2012 – the date the Mayan calendar predicts the end.  Whenever a date like this comes around, many of us laugh and make jokes the day before, asking the people we know, “Well, last day on earth, what are you going to do?”  And then when the end doesn’t come, many of us laugh again, saying, “See, those people are crazy.”  But I think that deep down inside all of us, there is a pit in our stomachs when the clock approaches those “predicted times.”  I think there is a small voice in side each of our heads that says, “But what if this time, it really is it?”  Perhaps we don’t often think about it in such supernatural, doom and gloom ways.  But rather, in naturalistic ways, I think we know our planet is in trouble and we can see the signs of destruction.[1]  Signs of species dying out, like the recently extinct black rhino. We hear of collapsing glaciers and recent close-call-collisions with a random meteor that could have altered our planet forever and brought an end to the human race.

Even though many of us do think about and even worry a bit about the end of the world, what on earth are we going to do with this text today, on the beginning of Advent, the time we wait for the birth of cute baby Jesus, not the end of the world?

Sometimes, in order to try and understand a piece of scripture that doesn’t seem to make sense or is just plain hard to wrap your head around, we have to know the context.  Whenever something is written down, it is always influenced by the context around it.  In 1940, the famous author C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Problem of Pain, in which he tried to explain why pain and suffering exist in a world that is claimed to have been created by a good and all-powerful God.  Lewis concludes that pain and suffering are God’s megaphone to get our attention and to turn it towards God (The Problem of Pain, p. 91).  To many, it is a cold and cruel way of explaining the profound pain that so many endure.  But then, in 1960, Lewis’ wife died.  And he wrote a follow up book, A Grief Observed.  Suddenly for him pain no longer seemed like God’s megaphone, now that he had experienced it up close and personal. Instead, pain was more like God’s muzzle, for God seemed so silent.  Our context affects what we write and what we think.

For this reason and in light of this end of the world theme, it is important for us to know the context around the gospel of Mark.  It was written sometime around the year 70, about 40 years after Jesus died.  Which is the same time of the Jewish-Roman war.  The Jewish community led an uprising against the Roman empire, which eventually led to Rome taking over Jerusalem.  During this hostile takeover, hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed and the temple, God’s dwelling place, was destroyed. What does it mean for your faith when so many of your people are killed and the house of God, the place where you believe God to be located, is destroyed?  Suddenly, everyone is asking, where is God when God’s house is torn down?  Is God lost?  It is great and unimaginable suffering.  Perhaps it even feels like the world is coming to an end.  The author of Mark’s gospel, as he is writing, is living in that time of war and crisis of faith.  Now imagine yourself as an original reader of the gospel of Mark, back around the year 70, with smoke and dust from a lost war still lingering in the air, and family members dead and gone.  Listen to the words that Jesus spoke, which seem to relate so much to the suffering that you have just experienced.  “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.  Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”  Can you see what the author is trying to say to his people?  “These days have been dark,” Jesus says, “the violence has been so thick that it feels as if even the sun cannot penetrate it, the moon does not shine through. It is as if the heavens are shaking and the stars are falling on us.  O God, what is happening?  Is this the end?…But then out of the clouds all will see the Son of Man coming.  He will come with such great power and light that the darkness will be cast out to all corners.  Angels will come and they will gather all of you up.  This war will not be the end of you and this violence will not be the last word, for God and the angels are coming.”

This is a message of hope that the author is giving to his people who are hopeless.  It is a message that says the pain and suffering that you experience will not be the last word.

In 1993, a man named Laramiun was shot and killed in Minneapolis by another man named Oshea.  About 6 years ago, 13 years after the shooting, Laramiun’s mother, Mary, went to visit her son’s killer in prison.  After that visit, something happened, she said.  All that hatred and anger she held for so many years against this man who killed her son just melted away.  Now today, 18 years after her son’s death, Mary and Oshea work together for an organization that they founded called From Death to Life, It is an organization that seeks to end violence by bringing about healing and reconciliation between the families of victims and the perpetrators.  It’s a story that made national news.  Mary, a mother, and Oshea, a murderer, have decided that hatred and violence will not be the last word.

Jesus said, “The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light…but they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory.”  This war will not be the end of you and this violence will not be the last word, for God and the angels are coming.

A well-known preacher, Tom Long, tells a story about a congregation in Kentucky.  The congregation is in a town that has become littered with violence.  It is all over the news, it is worried about among the residents, and joked about by the morning DJ’s.  It has become an infection for this town.  The pastor of this congregation decided that another word needed to be spoken by the church.  One Saturday, on an impulse, he took the processional cross from the church and he went to all of the places where violence had occurred in the past week.  He placed the cross in that spot, and he prayed for the victims of violence and for the ones who brought about the violence.  Eventually, word trickled out into the community about what this pastor was doing and now every Saturday, a group of community members goes to the places of violence and puts a cross there, as if to say, “Violence and hatred will not be the end of us and it will not have the last word.”

Jesus says, ““But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, …but they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”

It is a message of hope, you see – this image of Jesus coming in the clouds.  It is a message that says the pain and suffering that you experience will not be the last word.  For God and the angels are coming.

During this Advent season, amidst the easy and sickeningly sweet comfort of holiday cheer, deep down we know that the world is a fragile place and that all is not well with it.  We know that soldiers across the world face violence each day.  We know that many of us struggle to keep our heads above the mountains of debt as we hand over our credit card yet again to the clerk at the store.  And we know how our bodies can seem to betray us and give out sooner than they should.  There is darkness in the world and it seems to be closing in on us as we go to work in the dark and we come home in the dark.

So then what do we do?   In this Advent season, we wait.  Not only for the coming birth of Jesus, which we know to have already happened, but we also wait for the coming of the light of God into this world to make everything right again.  And as we wait, we light one small little advent candle.  And then next week we light another.  And then another.  And then another…for the Son of Man is coming in the clouds with great power and light, which means darkness and despair will not be the last word. AMEN

 


[1] http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2011-11-27/first-sunday-advent

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Thanksgiving Eve – Sermon on John 6:25-35

John 6 (25-36)

Being that it is Thanksgiving Eve, I am tempted to make a Thanksgiving connection to our gospel text from John.  Yet, the only link I can seem to make between this reading from John and this holiday… is food.  The simple difference between the two being that the crowd following Jesus around has already had their Thanksgiving meal.  They didn’t fill their bellies with turkey and stuffing but with loaves and fishes.  And it wasn’t 15 to 20 members of the extended family eating together; it was 5000.  5000 people made up of some families but also strangers.  The only food they could find was five barley loaves and two fish, which didn’t look like enough for everyone.  But the miracle is that it was enough, which is usually how food is.  After everyone ate their fill and loosened their belts by a notch or two, Jesus departed from that place, needing some space to rest and recharge.  But that didn’t last very long. The crowd followed his trail and sought him out.  Because that is what we do with people who feed us.  We do everything we can to stay with them, in hopes that they will feed us again.  It is like my cat Sam, who nuzzles up against, crawls in my lap, and licks my ear only when I have a bowl of cereal in my hand.  He knows that the leftover milk is his.

The thing is Jesus could see right through the crowd and their intentions.  “You aren’t looking for me because of the miracle that just happened with the loaves and fishes,” he said.  “You are looking for me because you ate to your hearts delight, but now your stomachs have started to growl again.”  Like my cat Sam, they are looking for just another bowl of milk.

But Jesus knows that it isn’t the hole in their stomachs they are trying to fill, but the hole in their hearts.  And we are no different then this crowd.  Just go to any meeting with the word “Anonymous” in it and you’ll meet a crowd of people who have tried to fill the holes that life has torn in their hearts with other things.  Alcohol. Food. Sex.  Gambling.  Money.  And the addiction that really plagues America – busyness.

Jesus named what he saw.  To the crowd he proclaims, “Do not work for the food that you eat and digest.  That won’t cut it.  Instead work for the food that endures.  Food that is everlasting.”  Food that, like a needle and thread, can stitch that hole right up.  Jesus says that it is the Son of Man who will give them this food, knowing full well that he is the Son of Man.  But he holds his cards close to him, hoping they can figure it out themselves.

As if they had stopped listening half way through, and completely missing the part where Jesus said this everlasting food will be given to them, the crowd still thinks its about them and what they can accomplish.  So naturally, they are quick to respond, “Well what must we do? How do we perform these works of God to attain this everlasting food?”  Do. Do. Do. Perform. Perform. Perform. Maybe they are addicted to busyness too.  They just don’t get it.  That Jesus isn’t talking about something they do, but something that is given to them.

So Jesus gives it another shot, trying to be clearer this time. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  We should be cautious here.  Because the temptation is to turn belief into another work, another thing to do.  We think belief is something we have to have enough of and cling to, when in fact the word believe might be better translated as, “to entrust.”  And to entrust is to give over or let go of something.  This is the work of God – that you entrust yourself to the one whom God has sent.

But this still isn’t good enough for the crowd.  Perhaps because they are starting to get hungry again, the crowd seems to get restless and irritable and they start to turn on Jesus.  “Well so what are you going to do then?” they challenge.  “You say all we have to do is believe.  So what sign are you going to give us so that we can believe?”

What I love is that nothing has changed in 2000 years. We, like this crowd, still demand a sign from God.  And we hold our own faith hostage until we get it.  Just yesterday, confirmation students were throwing out trump cards against faith.  Why should we believe when we can’t see God?  Why doesn’t God come down and show God’s self to us so that we can know and believe? Sound familiar?  The crowd said to Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us…so that we may see it and believe?”  Tensions start to squeeze tight as the crowd turns up the heat and as they pit Jesus against that other historic leader of God’s people, Moses.  “Moses gave our ancestors manna, the bread from heaven, when they wandered in the wilderness.  What sign are you going to give us?”  Jesus gets a little defensive saying, “Well, Moses didn’t exactly give that bread from heaven, it was really God who gave it.”  And the crowd snaps back, “So give us this bread!”  Finally, having had enough and needing to crack the spine this tension, Jesus shouts, “I am the bread of life!  It’s me, okay?  You want your sign?  Well here it is, right in front of you.  I’m it.”

It is at this climactic moment that our text for tonight ends.   But we can’t really stop there.  If we continue on, we discover that Jesus begins to talk about his body as food and his blood as drink.  What we know as the service of Holy Communion.  Jesus says to this crowd, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  What a strange thing to say.  But if we can get past what seems like cannibalism and vampire-like behavior, we just might be able to hear what Jesus is trying to say.  Jesus says to them, “I am the bread of life.  I am it.  I am one with God.”  But then Jesus makes this relational move.  “If you take my body and my blood and you eat it, you take me into your own body, and I will abide in you and you will abide in me.”  Suddenly, the bread of life, Jesus, who is one with God, is inside….you.   There is an exchange going on between Christ and we who eat of Christ’s body.  That life of God in Jesus becomes our life as well.[1]

This crowd wanted more food and instead Jesus gave them himself.  Which to some of them, probably sounded as good as having saltine crackers for Thanksgiving dessert.  But in giving himself as the bread from heaven, Jesus also gives them the life of God.  Which isn’t food that is eaten and digested, leaving one hungry once again, but is food that endures.

If we can understand that God is in Jesus and through taking and eating of Jesus’ body and blood in Communion Jesus is in us, then suddenly we might not be asking, “Where is God? Show me a sign!” but instead, “Where isn’t God?”  Because God is in you and you and you and you….

The confirmation students are right, you know.  Why should we, or better yet, how could we possibly believe in God when we cannot see God?  Like this crowd, we demand a sign.  But let us not forget:  Jesus says that he is the Bread of life, the food that endures forever.  And then he invites us to take that bread of life into our own bodies, making us a part of that bread of life and the life of God.

So as we depart from here tonight, branches of the life of God go out as well, into your homes and Thanksgiving celebrations.  On this Thanksgiving holiday, I don’t want to tell you to be more thankful for the things in your life.  The nightly news can tell you that.  And by no means can I claim to know your life or how this past year has been for you.  But I do know my life.  And what I do want to say is how thankful I am for you.  When I can’t seem to see God and I want a sign, like it was for this crowd, the sign usually ends up being right in front of me.  In the ways I see you care for one another through life events – suffering through pain together and celebrating together moments of joy.  In the way you have welcomed Lauren and I, strangers, into this community.  In the way you seek to give of yourselves for the sake of others.  When I can’t seem to see God and I want a sign, like this crowd, that sigh, that bread of life, usually ends up being right in front of me in you.  And that helps me to believe again and again and again…

AMEN


[1] David Fredrickson, “Eucharistic Symbolism in the Gospel of John,” http://www2.luthersem.edu/word&world/Archives/17-1_Communion/17-1_Fredrickson.pdf

 

Sunday, November 20 – Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46

Well which are you?  Are you a sheep or a goat?  It is a tough question, but Jesus gives us the criteria so we can know.  According to Jesus, sheep are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of God because they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, gave clothes to the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner.  The goats are those who did not do these things.  So which are you?  Unlike most questions I ask in a sermon, this is not rhetorical.  I want you to turn and talk to your neighbor about that question – which are you, a sheep or a goat?  I know you all well enough that the idea of talking and having discussion freaks some of you out, myself included at times.  But let’s give it a shot and see what we come up with.

(Discussion)

So, what did you come up with?  Did you make any decisions?  Who thought they were a sheep, raise your hand.  Who thought they were a goat?

There is nothing clear or easy about this task.  It doesn’t take long for it to tie our brain up in knots.  Because if you are anything like me, the moment I begin to think of a time I was generous, another time when I wasn’t seems to creep in.  “I usually try to be a good person, but I was just really busy that day…” I say to myself, but those aren’t the rules Jesus set out.  It is not about trying, it is about doing.  If you feed just one person who is hungry….boom….you’ll inherit the kingdom of God.  But if there is just one hungry person you did not feed…just one…then you’ll face eternal punishment.  But if there is just one person who is naked and you give them clothes….kingdom of God.  However, if you encounter a stranger and don’t welcome them…eternal punishment.

Are you a sheep or a goat?  Honestly, I don’t know which I am.  And the beautiful part, is neither did the people Jesus was talking to.  Did you notice that?  Both the sheep and the goats were surprised by their status.  Both groups gasped, “When…when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you?  Or when was it that we saw you sick and did not care for you?”  They didn’t even know.  Which means it is probably a silly question for us to ask ourselves, because we probably don’t know either.  As one person said to me this week, how can we live up to this expectation?  How can we possibly care for all of those in need around us.  And she is right. How can we?  And maybe that is just the thing.  Jesus is preaching a paradox here. It is an impossible standard that cannot be met by anyone. So the truth we are left with is that we are not one or the other, but we are both.  Both sheep and goat.

So if we are both, perhaps the point of this parable isn’t to figure out which side we are on, but to see whose side Jesus is on.   Perhaps the biggest surprise of the text is that Jesus isn’t on the side of the sheep or the goats.  Instead, it is clear he is on the side those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick, or imprisoned.  They are the ones who are closest to Jesus.  So close to Jesus in fact that he counts anything done on their behalf as done unto him.  “Anything you do unto the least of these who are my family, you do unto me,” Jesus says.  So close that he calls them family!  No requirement of having faith or going to church, but simply in need of love.

A couple weeks after moving to Owatonna, the doorbell rang.  Standing on our stoop was young man who looked like he had been wearing the same clothes for the past three or four days.  In one hand was a spray bottle filled with a clear liquid and in the other, a crumpled pamphlet explaining the cleaning solution he was trying to sell.  I couldn’t tell if his eyes were drugged or just desperate, but his sales pitch was impeccable.  There was a demonstration of the cleaner, a couple of funny jokes, and a well-timed push to buy.  But the moment my mouth started to say, “No, thank you,” he was out of there and onto the next house, as if his life depended on it.  And maybe it did.  I really didn’t want or need the cleaner, but was it right for me to say no?  Did I prevent him from buying more drugs or did I keep him from having enough food to eat?    I don’t know.  But what I do know is that I think I encountered Jesus that day and sometimes I still wonder about him.

If I am being true to my heart, I don’t think this parable is about eternal judgment.  About whether you will go to heaven or hell when you die.  Let me be clear.  You can be neither good enough to earn God’s love nor bad enough to lose it.  We are all sheep and goats together. But rather this parable is about the delight of meeting and recognizing Christ right now. And the surprise is that, on this Christ the King Sunday, Jesus comes not as the king we might expect, but “instead appears to us only and always in the need of those around us.”[1]  If you feed one who is hungry, you feed Christ the King.  If you clothe one who is naked, you clothe Christ the King.  If you visit the prisoner, you visit Christ the king. The surprise is that Jesus appears to us here, in Owatonna and Blooming Prairie, only and always in the need of those around us.

And there is great need all around us.  The clothes and coats that we collect here this season are nothing less than clothing for the naked.  The 4,600 pounds of food collected by our youth and other youth around Owatonna at Boo for Food is nothing less than food for the hungry.  The barnyard animals that the confirmation students want to buy for people around the world not only feed, but clothe, give drink, and welcome the stranger.  There is great need all around us and it is in these spaces, spaces of vulnerability and need that Jesus promises to be present.  AMEN