Memorial Day Sermon on John 14:15-21, 6th Easter A

6th Easter Year A, May 29, 2011

John 14:15–21

Our Father’s God, To Thee

No country, no nation or people exists apart from its memory.  We are who we are because of the shared memory of our past.  We can walk upon

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stones at ancient sites left behind by ancient Aztecs, Incas, or Egyptians, and see evidence of  civilizations, but with no one there to tell us the stories of their memories of life on this earth, those peoples no longer exist for us, except as silent monuments.

Memorial Day memories

Memory keeps the past alive to us.  So, when we set aside time to remember  our past together publicly, as we do on Memorial Day here in America, we are doing two things at the same time: honoring the past, and enabling the future.  By remembering, we bring our past to life in such a way that it becomes possible for us to be who we are in the present, as a nation, and we set forth who we intend to become in the future.

We remember that our country was formed by people of courage and boldness, who were unwilling to tolerate tyranny.  Our collective “no” to king George was at the same time a “yes” to the craving of every human to be able to live freely, without oppression.   We honor the memory of our past and we make it live for us in the present as we recall the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives for our freedom.

Tyranny did not end in 1776.   Brave men and women have been called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice against the forces of imperialism in the First World War and against the horror of fascism in the Second World War.   Our public act of remembering that cost and those sacrifices of the past tells us who we are in the present.   We look at Libya and Syria and we see ourselves in their longings for an end to repression.  We see no less in the desires of the Palestinians and Yemeni’s as well.

Worship as Memory

It is helpful on this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend to reflect on the power of  shared memory.  Public remembering is exactly what the church does in worship.  We gather together to re-tell the story that forms us, so that we can continue to be shaped by that story.  When we gather around the Lord’s Table, we pray, remembering all God’s gracious and mighty acts on behalf of his people.

Creation

What does that prayer remember, and therefore, what kind of people does that prayer remind us that we are?  We remember the story of our beginning – Adam and Eve in the perfect garden.  Recalling that story re-affirms that we were Created in God’s image; that we were made for God, every bit as much as we were made to be for each other.  In our payer of memory, we reassert that being truly human means living consciously in the presence of God, and in harmony with each other and with the Garden-world he made.

Fall

Our communion prayer also remembers that we are people who have an inborn tendency to walk away from God in disobedience – we all do what they did: listen to the serpent, bite the apple, look for someone else to blame, and  for a fig leaf to hide behind.

Covenant

But our prayer at the Lord’s Table remembers that God never stopped taking the initiative to bring us back.  We remember the Covenant God made

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with Abraham, and the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah – not just one son, but a promise of descendants through whom God planned, long ago, to bless all the people of the earth.  That is who we were, and who we are now: people of the covenant-promise; people of the blessing.

Israel’s Story

Our prayer remembers the long history of God’s people as they journeyed from famine in Canaan to slavery in Egypt; from liberation across the Red Sea to the promised land across the Jordan River; from tribes to a kingdom, and from there to the misery of exile in Babylon.  All along that tortured journey, we remember that God sent passionate prophets to speak the truth to us, even when we weren’t listening.

Jesus

Finally, our remembering brings us to Jesus and the story of God’s final redemption.  We remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice to set us free from the destructive kingdom of darkness.   We remember his resurrection which broke open the tomb that had sealed our hopes.  We remember his gracious words, “Peace be with you.”

Help with Memory: the Spirit of not-forgetting

Today, as we re-tell the story, we re-gather around that table in the upper room.  We are formed by this memory: Jesus promised that he would send to us, his Spirit, who would be with us, and even in us.

18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,” he promised.

More specifically Jesus said,

16 I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

We were made to walk with God in the Garden; to be with him.  Now he promises to be with us, though is indwelling Spirit.

It is so interesting that Jesus calls the Spirit, the “Spirit of truth.”  In Greek, the world “truth” comes from words that mean “not forgetting.”  We live by not forgetting our shared memories – both as a nation and as the church.  We are who we remember we were; our past shapes our identity in the present.

The Most Important Memory: “Love!”

As Jesus was at that table with his disciples on the night before his arrest, with this one last chance to reinforce the one most important memory, the one truth he knew was the most important, what did he say?  Of all his parables, his sermons, or teachings, which one does recall?

15  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

And what commandment did Jesus ever give?  Only one.  Just a moment earlier that night (in John chapter 13) he had said,

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 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  

Sacrifice for the collective good

How should we live?  As a nation, we know how to live now as we are guided by the memory of bravery and sacrifice, as the old hymn says, of the “faith of our fathers.”  We will be people who bravely face the challenges of our times, even when they call for sacrifice from us.  We will not live as merely isolated individuals, but we will be willing, just as they were, to risk our own well-being for the sake of our collective good.

How should we live?  As Christians, we will live in the presence of the Spirit of Truth who reminds us of Jesus’ main point:  “Love”. 

Love in practice

We are formed today by our shared memory of that mandate.  Our job is to put love into motion in every moment of our lives.

We will start every day loving God by giving thanks, by pausing at the very outset  to read his words to us, to be silent before the Spirit of truth, and to present ourselves to him.

But we do not live as isolated individuals as a nation nor as a Church.  We will “love our neighbors as ourselves” as we go through the day.  We will watch the news of Tornadoes and floods as people who have been formed by the mandate of Love, and we will remember, and so we will respond.

We will listen to the stories of people who have lost their jobs in this recession and who have therefore lost their access to health care, and we will be moved to find solutions that work in the real world of budgets and politics based on the love mandate.

We will not turn our hearts away from people who are hungry, just because they live in less fortunate countries or have suffered under tyrannical

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regimes, because we have been and are being formed by the memory of our Lord’s mandate.

On this memorial day of not-forgetting, as we celebrate our hard-won freedom, we will hear the same call to duty, to sacrifice, and to the collective good, and hear the mandate that makes us who we are:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

“…that you love one another.”

For more on “Memorial Day and the Spirit of Sacrifice” see the fine article by By Bruce Epperly at Patheos here.

Lectionary Sermon for 5th Easter A, May 22, 2011, John 14:1-14

Gen. 18:17-19

John 14:1-14

The Wedding

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I met with a couple to plan their wedding service.  They wanted it to be traditional in many respects.  We looked at several different options for the

vows that they would say to each other.  They chose the most traditional form, promising to love, honor, and cherish each other until death separates them.

On the day of the wedding, the bride wore a traditional white wedding dress, carried a traditional bouquet of flowers, and kissed her father goodbye in the traditional way.  She and the groom said their vows and exchanged rings.   But they  were barefoot; it was a wedding on the Gulf Coast beach.

That combination of completely traditional elements like the dress, the vows and the rings, and the simultaneously radically non-traditional

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setting is a lot like what is  going on in the text we have read.

As I began to describe that wedding, did you, at first, picture it happening in a church?  Probably; a church is the default place to have a wedding, so that is what we expect, at first.

In the same way, as we look at this text, we see the disciples as they try to understand what Jesus is telling them.  Their heads are full of the traditional Jewish pictures of what should happen, but Jesus is making some radically new moves.  We get to hear them try to sort it out.  Let’s look at this text, because as we watch the disciples, we are going to see ourselves and hear Jesus talk about our questions  too.

The Somber Setting

Our text, set in Jesus’ final day with his disciples before his arrest, begins with a traditional Jewish holiday meal.  It is Passover; the great annual celebration of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt, to freedom.

There they are, in the upper room at the table, on which sits the freshly roasted Passover lamb.  You would think that the mod would be joyful – this is a holiday, a festival, like Thanksgiving, only more so.  But it isn’t.  Jesus has been talking about his coming departure – so the mood is now somber.

Jesus can sense it – he looks into the down-turned faces around the table.  He begins by going right to the pain that they feel:

1Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

The disciples might be thinking, “That’s easy enough to say; does he have anything to offer as help?”  Yes he does.  There is a way to manage troubling, difficult times, and what he is going to say to his troubled disciples, he says to us as well:

“Believe in God, believe also in me.”

What is “belief?”

Jesus wasn’t speaking English, so let’s slow down for a moment to try to hear this the way he said it.  We have the expression, “trust me.”  Sometimes it’s abused by people who ask for, but don’t deserve our trust, but it can also be said in all sincerity.

I remember trying to help my son, when he was little, to climb back down the jungle-gym ladder in the park.  I was below him; I knew that if he

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just let himself down a bit more his dangling foot would find the next ladder-rung.  But it’s hard to let go when your foot feels only vacant space. “Trust me” I told him; “just trust me.”

It means “Rely on me, I can be counted on; I won’t let you down.  Believe that what I’m telling you is honest and true – how could it not be?  I love you.”

So Jesus tells those anxious disciples, “trust and rely on God, trust also in me.

The Way is where?

Then he tells them about going away to another place to prepare it for them, but Thomas is still picturing the traditional scene, like the wedding in the church, not the radically new beach setting, so he cannot understand.  How will they get to this “place?”

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

What is the way?  We have the same question.  What is the path to the place where God is?  How can you get to the place where the Risen Lord is, the place where you are able to let go and trust him?

The answer is like the beach wedding because it is both traditional and radical at the same time: the lady in the pretty white dress, standing barefoot on the sugar-white sand.  It’s so important to be able to hear Jesus clearly that I’m going to take a minute to set the stage for a good, traditional Jewish understanding, because when we have that in mind, we then can understand how Jesus uses and transforms it in powerful ways.

“The way” in Jewish tradition

First the traditional part.  Jewish people, like all the disciples and like Jesus, had ways of talking about their faith that everyone knew and used.   What did it mean to be a person of faith in God?  It meant that you started with Abraham, and you remembered that God chose Abraham and made a covenant with him; a promise to be his God, and to bless him, and through him and his descendants, to bless all the families of the earth.

All because of that gracious choice and covenant, Abraham now was obliged to “keep the way of the Lord.”   As our OT reading in which God said:

I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice;

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so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (Gen. 18:19)

One of the most traditional ways a good Jewish person could speak of their life of faith was to speak of keeping the “way of the Lord”  which of course meant “doing righteousness and justice.”

All through the scriptures, God’s people were told, to turn neither to the left nor to the right, but to keep the way of the Lord, trusting him that his way is best.

Of course, scripture, God’s torah, his instructions, show how to keep on the path of the “way of the Lord.”  After awhile, speaking of the “way of the Lord” was nearly synonymous with speaking of keeping Torah.

The Tradition that God is “True”

The scriptures, or Torah, taught that the God who said “trust me” would be faithful and true.  In fact the most profound way in which to describe God was to say that he was a God of “steadfast love and faithfulness” (tRmTa‰w dRsRj), or in another translation, “love and truth.”  It’s like the Beatle’s song, “Love me, do” in which the lover proclaims, “I’ll always be true,”  Torah tells us God’s love is true.

“Life” in the Tradition

Every good Jewish person knew that if they were to keep to the way of the Lord, the Torah way, then the consequence would be life.  God promised life as the reward – long life on the land he promised.  Life in abundance.  Life filled with the good things with which God wanted them to be blessed – fruitful crops, healthy flocks, a life of blessed security; that is life.

In celebration, the Psalmist sings:

“You show me the way of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psa. 16:11)

Where is all this located?

Where do you picture the place where they are singing psalms in praise to God who shows his people the way to life?  Where do you picture

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someone reading the Torah to teach the people the way of the Lord who is faithful and true?   Where is that place where God can be found?  How can we know the way?   Is it not, as it traditionally has been, at the temple in Jerusalem?

Jesus looked at Thomas, and then to the other forlorn disciples and announced in the words of their Jewish tradition, where to find the Way of the Lord, the True and faithful God, the blessed Life he promised to Abraham.  He said:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Jesus: the new “way, truth, life”

Now, the Way of the Lord is the Jesus way!  Now, the True and faithful God is found in Jesus.  Now the blessed Life comes from living the Jesus way by trusting God.

Does he need to make it more clear?

7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

This is radical and new, not traditional and expected.  No wonder they were confused.  Where do you go to find God?  You now go to Jesus.  Where do you look to learn about the way of the Lord?  You learn it from Jesus.  Where do you go to find the confidence to trust that God is faithful and true?  You do what he said at the start:

“Believe in God, believe also in me.”

In other words, rely on God whom you know in Jesus.  Be the child climbing back down the ladder who will trust that his Father loves him.  Let go of that grip and let your foot down to the solid rung below.

Weighing-in on “the way” of Jesus

But do we?  Do we really?

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Do we trust that the Jesus way works in the real lives we live?  Does it really work to live his way as he taught us in the sermon on the Mount?  Are the poor in Spirit the ones who are blessed?  Is meekness, mercy and peacemaking really an option on the table?  Can a person be pure in heart in this world?

Let me push this a bit further and be practical: when we consider the practical questions of our world, from the personal to the public and political, do we ever bring into the conversation the question: What would God want us to do?

That question, of course, would bring up the question: How would we ever know what God would want?  Which would bring us to this text: We see God in Jesus.  We can find God by following Jesus.  We can understand the Way of the Lord by studying the Way of Jesus who is himself the Way.

What would Jesus think about my personal budget, my investments?

What would Jesus think about my use of time?

What would Jesus think about my relationships – about my family and how we treat each other?

What would Jesus think of every question before our Congress today?

What would Jesus think about every story on the news?

What does Jesus think about the sick?  the poor?  the hungry?  the marginalized?  What do the gospels tell us about the Jesus “way”?

Maybe we are not so much in a quandary about those answers, as this one:

“After getting a hunch that I know what Jesus would want, can I trust him, and through him, trust in God?”

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

We all want to find, in Jesus, the Life.  Can we find that life without following the Way?   His words that night, to his troubled disciples still ring in our ears:

“No one comes to the Father except through me.”

On the execution of Jason Oric Williams in Alabama, May 19, 2011

Today I participated in the vigil in Mobile, marking yet another execution in Alabama.   There were not many of us: we are a nation, it seems, in

Vigil in Mobile

which the
overwhelming popular vote goes to killing our enemies as a solution to our problems.   We barely got over the glee we felt at killing Bin Laden, and now we can rejoice over another death of another killer.  Killing is wrong, so we kill those who kill.

We are a majority Christian country – certainly Alabama is a majority Christian State.  But reading the comments on the web-version of every article about those who have been or will soon be executed, you would think we were all back in the days of Joshua in the Old Testament, ready to slaughter every Canaanite in sight, with justice and joy. Comments went like this:

“use the same gun he used. remember he killed four human beings,so shoot him at least four times.”

Have we learned anything at all since the days of the ancient Near East?

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“Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.”  (Joshua 6:21)

Yesterday’s lectionary daily reading was from Luke 6

27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

There is precious little spirit for giving those words a hearing these days.

Later, at the supper table, my son and I got into a discussion of the question: do

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the ends ever justify the means?  It seems that many people have heard the phrase, “the ends justifies the means” and think that because it is common, it is also correct.  Nothing is more clearly incorrect.  If the end goal is justifiable, then justify it – out of necessity, or moral imperative, or some other criteria.  But the goal we want to achieve is just that, a goal; it is not an argument for the way in which we decide to accomplish the goal.  It may be a good, justifiable goal to have peaceful streets and quiet cities, but that worthy goal does not justify shooting protesters in the streets as they are doing today in Syria.  Ends do not justify means.  If the means are justifiable, then let’s hear the arguments that justify them.

How do we justify the purposeful taking of human life?  How do Christians justify it in the face of Jesus’ teachings?

Today, at the vigil we read John 8, the story of the attempted execution that Jesus was present for.  What did he do?  He stopped it.  It was the case of the woman caught in adultery.  They were ready to stone her.  Their scriptures (the Old Testament) said they should.  They wanted to.  Probably they felt the glee coming on.  Jesus told them:

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  (John 8:7)

We just don’t look at it that way here in Alabama.

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Lectionary Sermon on John 10:1-10 for 4th Easter A, May 15, 2011

John 10:1–10

The Voice we Know and Follow

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I have never met anyone who does not love John 10 and the 23rd Psalm.  Everyone takes comfort from the image of the Good Shepherd caring for his sheep.   No matter what our lives are like on the outside, no matter what success and security we have enjoyed, we all have our sheep-moments.

We all experience times of weakness and pain, times of vulnerability and fear.  We all wind up sooner or later lying on hospital beds looking up at fluorescent lights, like sheep on a mountain ledge with the sun in our eyes, not knowing what the outcome will be, desperately needing to know that someone is there for us.

Most of us have families that have given us sheep-moments, when we were worried and afraid, and had absolutely no control over the outcome.  All we could do was pray for a Shepherd’s care for those we love, and stand aside, waiting.

All we, like sheep

So, we are the sheep.  I have seen sheep, most of us have.  Frankly I don’t know how they managed to survive as a species.   They don’t have fangs.  They don’t have claws.  They cannot  fly, climb trees, scurry down holes or even run very fast.  Neither do they seem very smart.  Without a protective shepherd, they are at the mercy of predators.  Wolves come to mind first.  Sheep are easy.  No wolf should ever take pride in devouring a sheep – it’s almost as convenient a way to get lunch as a fast-food drive-through.   No triumph there.

They are also attractive targets for human predators: thieves, for several different reasons.  No one wants to go steal a ferret, but sheep are tempting.  As long as you keep them alive, you’ve got a steady supply of wool.  Or, if you prefer, they can be lamb-chops for tonight’s supper.  Both reasons make them tempting targets.

Both of these dangers, animal predators and human bandits, are the dark shadows that loom over this text.  Vulnerability to danger is the reason the sheep need a shepherd.

The Shepherd’s Night-job

So, the shepherd has both a night-job and a day-job if he wants to keep his sheep alive.  At night he has to gather them all into the fold.   The rock

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walls will protect them from incoming wolves on all sides – except the doorway.  In the old days, the shepherd himself had to be the door.  He had to sleep in the entrance, laying down his body between his flock and the wolf-black night.  He had to literally lay his life down for his sheep.  And if a wolf came to test him, he had to put his life on the line for his sheep.

We really are like sheep – vulnerable and unable to fend off predatory fangs and claws on our own.  We are at the mercy of forces we are no match for.  Viruses and cancers, accidents and aging, global economics, domestic politics, family issues – who needs to be reminded of that list?  “All we, like sheep” are at risk.

This is the first take-away from this text.  We can be certain that we are not alone, that we do have a Shepherd.  Our Shepherd loves us and cares for us.  He laid down his life for us.

There is a mystery here; life is not as tidy as a nursery rhyme.  There are bad things that happen.  We are not immortal.  We are not immune from viruses or cancers, accidents, aging and all the rest.  But we do have the confidence that our Shepherd is with us through it all.  We will trust him to be with us, no matter what.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23)

The Shepherd’s Day-job

Sheep are safe in the fold, while the shepherd is there, but they cannot stay there 24/7.  Security is not the only thing necessary for survival; so is food and water, and for those, the sheep have to venture out of the fold into the wide world.

The dangers of the day are as life-threatening as the dangers of the night, only in a different way.  At night, in the fold, sheep have no place to go but to sleep.  In the day time, they might go anywhere.   They desperately need to get to green pastures for food and quiet waters to drink, and then back to the fold for the night.  That’s only going to happen on one condition: they must stay with the shepherd.  He will lead them; and if they follow, they will receive what they need.  If they follow, they will not wander off into danger.

The Voice-Recognition Issue

How will the sheep follow the shepherd by day?  By staying within the sound of his voice.  His call will keep them on the right path.  His voice will guide them.  They may not be smart, but one thing they do know is how to recognize the shepherd’s voice.

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This is what scares me most.  This is where the whole metaphor gets weakest.  We are like sheep in a number of ways, but in this one, they have an advantage over us.  We are not nearly as good at voice-recognition as they.  I wish it were true that we all would automatically know the voice of Jesus in each moment today, but it doesn’t seem to work that way, does it?

It took the church many years to finally hear the Shepherd leading us to abolish slavery – why did we not hear his voice for so long?  It took a lot of suffering before we heard his voice telling us that black sheep and white sheep were of equal value in his eyes, and that we had no basis for discrimination.  Why did we take so long to recognize the Shepherd’s voice?

Today, there are people on both sides of every issue who will tell you that they are speaking for the Shepherd and we should listen to them.  How do we distinguish?

Practical Steps

I believe there are several important ways by which we can learn to recognize the Shepherd’s voice, and by doing so, to follow him today.  The first is the most crucial and really  the others follow from it: we will only recognize the shepherd’s voice by frequent exposure to it.

I wish we could make it a rule that only those who had a regular discipline of reading scripture, especially the gospels, could ever vote or even speak publicly in the church on issues requiring decisions.   I wish we were certain that the voices we heard in leadership were constantly attuned to the Shepherd’s voice and knew how to recognize it with ease.

This is not a guarantee of course: plenty of slave-owners read their bibles every morning – but it certainly is a foundation without which we have no chance of being corrected.   Certainly it was the teaching of Jesus that the abolitionists took to heart that convinced them that slavery had to cease.   They kept listening to the voice, and eventually they recognized it.

Where to Begin

The second way in which we can recognize the Shepherd’s voice as we face issues of our times is to begin first with what we know for certain, and to work from there to things that are less obvious.

Unity

So what do we know?  We know that Jesus, our shepherd, cares passionately for the unity of the flock.  His long prayer in John 17 repeatedly reinforces the fact that  his sheep, his disciples are one with him in the exact same way he is one with his Father.  Our Shepherd’s voice is clear on the subject of unity.  Therefore, voices calling for division are automatically suspect.

Compassion

We know that our Shepherd cared passionately for people who were suffering.  Whether they were injured, lame, hungry, or diseased, he responded to their suffering with compassionate practical care.  He allowed people in pain to interrupt his plans for the day.  He went out of his way to bring healing, even when it was costly, and even when it was dangerous, as on the Sabbath.  Therefore, any voice telling us that the sufferings of others are not our concern is automatically suspect.

Inclusion

We know that our Shepherd cared passionately for those who had been excluded.  Whether they were excluded because they were ceremonially

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impure or were foreigners, or were notorious sinners, he welcomed them into God’s circle of mercy and grace.  Therefore we are automatically suspicious of any voice advocating modern forms of discrimination.

Spirituality

We know that our Shepherd cared passionately about his relationship with the Father.  He regularly left the group to be alone in prayer.  He brought the Father into his conversations with his friends and even with his opposition.  Everything Jesus did, he did as a consequence of his relationship with his Father in Heaven.  Therefore, we are deeply suspicious of any voice coming from a source which does not give evidence of a deeply spiritual relationship with God the Father.  For us, the authentic voice of the Shepherd is recognizably one  that serves and obeys God, praying that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

I am painfully aware that these ways of recognizing the authentic Shepherd’s voice are not fool-proof.  I know that there will be disagreements among people who genuinely believe they are following the Shepherd.  But this is at least the base-line for us.   At least, let this be our earnest quest.  We wish to follow no other voice, regardless of which party, which network, or which “expert” it comes from.

We have a Shepherd.  In the dark night, he will be with us; we will trust him.  In the day, he will lead us; we will follow his voice.

My greatest spiritual need

Sometimes you read something that catches you off guard and makes you think twice.  That just happened as I read Alyce M. McKenzie’s post in Patheos’ EDGY EXEGESIS: Jesus the Good Shepherd: Reflections on John 10:1-18 – which is the gospel text for this Sunday.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  What is that about, for us?  All comfort, rainbows and butterflies?  Alyce says:

“I’m fine with Jesus as a Good Shepherd who lays down his life for us. But if I’m to find my identity in him, doesn’t that mean that

The Good Shepherd who...

sacrifice for others will be required of me? The “I am” sayings promise to meet my basic needs. But their deeper message is that my most basic spiritual need is to give my life for something bigger than my life. And for that I need to hear Jesus say “I am the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.”

I was caught by:

“my most basic spiritual need is to give my life for something bigger than my life”

That’s a “gotcha” if there ever was one.  My most basic spiritual need is not about me and my growth, my needs, my fulfillment?  She is so right.

Lectionary Sermon for Easter 3A, May 8, 2011, Luke 24:13-35

Isaiah 53:1-12

Luke 24:13-35

 The Complication

The Three Parts of a Story

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Every good story, so I’ve been told, has the same three-part structure: a situation, a complication, and a resolution.  Like this: Situation – Little Red Riding hood starts out on a walk to grandma’s house; Complication – a wolf comes into the story, bad luck for Grandma; and then, Resolution – a woodsman appears just in time to resolve the story nicely (if a bit violently).

How about this familiar storyline: Situation – God makes a good world; Complication –  evil corrupts it; Resolution – God saves it by sending his Son, Jesus.

The Real Story: Complicated, Yet Unresolved

“Not so fast,” I can hear you say.  “It makes a nice three part outline, but that’s not how it works in real life.”  Why not?  Because, if the complication was evil in the world, then the resolution hasn’t happened yet. Evil remains.  The wolf is still in the house, and the woodsman has not yet appeared to dispatch him.

Evil remains all around us: Bin Laden may be gone, but Al Qaeda is not.  The Taliban is not gone from Afghanistan.  Corruption in government and in law-enforcement is not gone.  They are still finding more bodies by the dozens in Mexican mass graves.

And on the interpersonal side, all the Ten Commandments are being broken; people still abuse other people, lie, cheat, steal, do unkind things, say hurtful things, damage is done, relationships unravel.  If the plot of this story is complicated by evil, then the resolution has not happened yet.

Here is another story: situation – Israel, the people of God, find the promise to Abraham still unfulfilled, they suffer from Roman oppression; complication – Messiah comes but is crucified and buried; resolution – ah, that’s the  rub.  What resolves this story?  Resurrection, right?  Not so fast.  It’s not that easy.

Jesus and the Resolution?

The text for today is a story about this problem.  The problem is not new with us; the early church faced it.  For the first believers, Jesus had

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come, it was fantastic!  He had taught with authority and freshness about God as Heavenly Father and Good Shepherd.  He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he broke bread with outcasts and sinners, included women at his table – it was going really well.

And then, he was captured and killed.  There were reasons enough, for some, to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.  There were strange sightings – the women reported visions of angels, Peter himself said he saw the risen Jesus.  The tomb was opened and empty, and no one had produced the body to stop the rumors, even though several groups had it in their interest to do so if they could.

Resurrected but Apparently Absent?: Unresolved

But a resurrected Jesus who was now apparently absent left the church with a complicated, unresolved story.   How did it make sense?  How did a resurrected, absent Jesus resolve the story of God’s intervention in the world to end evil?  How did it fit into the story of Israel and her hopes for a resolution accomplished by Messiah?

The early church had to face the problem that Jesus wasn’t around anymore to be seen or touched.  You couldn’t talk to him, ask him a question, come to him with a problem.

In many ways, we are in the same position today.  In a world of continuing evil, how are we to make sense of our Easter faith?  Jesus is risen; how does this resolve the complications?

The Story

The text we read from Luke’s gospel is the part of the story that provides the answers.

We meet these two otherwise unknown disciples on Easter afternoon, walking away from Jerusalem back home to Emmaus, discussing what had just happened three days ago with great sadness and disappointment.  We do not know them; they are just generic followers of Jesus – perhaps we are meant to see ourselves in them.

Their struggle is that Jesus is not there.  He used to be there – they were counting on him being there, but now he is gone.  They do not see him.

The next thing that happens is that Jesus is there, with them.

15 “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,”

This is one of those mysterious, almost creepy scenes in which more is left unsaid than is explained.  How did Jesus get there?  Why don’t they recognize him?  What does it mean that  16their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”?   Kept by whom?

Help Towards Understanding

What we are going to watch is Jesus gently helping these fragile believers to understand how to live with a resurrected, apparently absent Jesus, in a world still suffering from the destructive power of evil; exactly what we need as well.

So first Jesus coaxes them to explain what they know about what has happened.  They tell him about “Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,” and how they had pinned their hopes on him.   But they described his wrongful death at the hands of their leaders, and then about the mysterious sightings that followed.

Now it’s Jesus’ turn to speak, and still unrecognized, he says,

25 “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

Start with Moses and the Prophets

If you want to understand, Jesus says, you have to start at the beginning, with the Old Testament, with Moses  and the Prophets, and see what God was doing.

The prophets were famous for declaring that there would be a dramatic day, the called it “the day of the Lord” when God would come in final judgement on evil and put the world to right.

But there were also these poems in the prophets that introduced a new wrinkle.  They spoke of a mysterious person called the “servant of the Lord”.  A man who would come at some point before that final day of judgment.  As Isaiah described him in those opaque poems, the Servant of the Lord would come, not as a conquering hero, but as a suffering servant.

Who was this person?  Sometimes it sounds like Isaiah means that the whole nation of Israel was God’s servant (he calls them “my servant, Jacob”).  But at other times, he seems to be a mysterious individual.  The people rejected his ministry, they beat him, pulled out his beard, and buried him in a rich man’s tomb.  And yet God used his suffering redemptively.

12because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.  (Isa. 53:12)

Jesus: Messiah as the Suffering Servant

As the early Christians reflected on the meaning and significance of what Jesus had done, they came upon these Suffering Servant poems in Isaiah, and saw Jesus in them.

This put the pieces together.  Messiah was resolution of the complication of evil – before the final day of judgment.  God’s will was always to redeem his wayward people, not merely to punish the bad guys.  And Jesus, as God’s Suffering Servant, did just that.  In his death, he took upon himself all the wrongs, all the violence, all of the evil that humans could dish out.  As the Servant poem says:

5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

He died and was buried.  But God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead.

The Apparent Absence Complication

“OK,” those two disciples on the road to Emmaus must have thought, “that explains part of the problem of making sense of his suffering, but it still leaves us with a resurrected but apparently absent Jesus, and a world of evil still un-redeemed.”

This next part of the story is exactly what they (and we) need.

They invite the still-incognito Jesus into their home.  They all gather at the supper table.  Luke tells us:

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 

Eucharistic Verbs

Did you hear those actions Jesus performed: “took, blessed, broke and gave to them”  – those are Lord’s Supper actions.  Those are “eucharist

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verbs.”  Jesus had done the same actions at the Last Supper before his death.  And what happened when Jesus shared the Lord’s Supper with them?

31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

Luke does not want us to miss the importance of what has just happened, so he lets us hear the central point again.  This time those two disciples get to say it.  They hurry back to Jerusalem, find the disciples together, all a-buzz about Jesus-sightings, and listen to what they report:

35 “Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

We See the Present Risen Christ

How will we, post-Easter disciples cope with a world still full of evil an an apparently absent Jesus?  We will gather together, open the scriptures together, and we will gather around a table, the Lord’s table.  As we do, we too will get to see Jesus-sightings of the risen Lord.

How?  We will see him, as we “take bread” and “bless” it, and “break it.”  The risen Jesus will become known “in the breaking of the bread.”

Notice: the risen Lord is not known to us simply in the bread itself, but in the breaking of the bread.  Only broken bread shows us the Suffering Servant, who was broken for the evil of the world in order to redeem the world.

At that Last Supper, before he died, Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks, he broke it and said “This is my body, broken for you.  Do this remembering me.”

Being the Broken Bread

Now our prayer is this: “As this bread has been Christ’s body, broken for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.”

This is how God is now at work in a broken world, still full of evil’s complication, to resolve the story: we are to go out to be the broken bread for the world.  We are to be broken on behalf of those who do not know that God is their Heavenly Father and Good Shepherd, offering the bread of Life, the message of the Gospel.

We are to be the body of Christ, heart-broken over the damage that evil always does, to people themselves, to relationships, to families, to

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communities, even to nations.

We are to be the body of Christ, willing to be broken to feed the hungry, rebuild tornado-wrecked homes, and schools, and churches and communities.

We are to be the body of Christ, broken for those who are marginalized, excluded, powerless and voiceless, the widows, the orphans and the strangers among us.

We are not alone.  The Lord has risen and has appeared to Peter.  The Lord is risen, and we have seen him, and will see him again, in the breaking of the bread.

And he is sending us out, right now, to be the broken body of Christ in the world!