Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Jesus Equation

This morning we are going to be talking about the death penalty.
I want to make a few disclaimers at the begging of my sermon.
This is an issue that I know has people on both sides.
I would guess that if I were to do a poll that half of us would be for it, and the other half would be against it.
I am taking a chance this morning that we as a community can handle difficult issues together.
That even when we disagree we can talk to each other about our views.
There is an old saying that pastors are like whale they don’t get harpooned until they start spouting off.
But I am going to take that chance that I might get harpooned this morning I will be spouting off.
And I am not asking this morning that you agree with me.
But I am asking that you be willing to enter into a dialogue.
I never see it as my job to tell you what to believe, or how to think.
Rather my job is to raise questions about what it means to be a person of faith.
To help us to see God at work in our lives, and to help us discern how we live as people of faith.
My sermon this morning is offered in that same spirit, to encourage you to think about this issue not from a political or a philosophical point of view, but from a spiritual point of view.
I trust you all to be able to hear my sermon in that light.

Ever since I was a kid, and I started to think about such things, I was against the death penalty.
To me it does not make sense to kill someone so we can prove that killing is wrong.
I never really thought about it in spiritual terms.
But the more I study the issue, the more I pray about it, I realize that there are many spiritual dimensions to it.
Those are the things I want to talk about this morning.

This morning is Christ the King Sunday.
It is a day when we consider what it means when we say that rules our lives?
What does it mean that we praise a king, who did not win a military victory, but was killed on a cross?
What does the cross mean for us as believing Christians who follow Jesus’ example?

Not too long ago I was talking to a friend who has had a fairly tough time lately.
He lost a lot of things in his life.
Most of it was his fault.
He lost his family and friends because he was an alcoholic.
During that time in his life he had an affair.
He got a rather difficult divorce.
His kids no longer talk to him.
I asked him if he thought that there were simply things that can’t be fixed.
That sometimes there are wrongs that cannot be undone.
He said, “No”.
I asked him why.
“Because I have to believe, and have hope, that I can get back all the things I have lost in my life.”

As people of faith this I think is an essential part of what it means to be a spiritual person.
We have hope that no situation is completely hopeless or lost.
We believe that every day and every moment there is a chance of redemption, of grace, of forgiveness.
Lots of times when we talk about the death penalty we talk about the worst cases.
We talk about people whose acts are reprehensible, makes our stomachs turn, and who do just plain evil things.
Can God work with such a person?

Let us go back to Jesus hanging on a cross.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says something really remarkable.
After having been tried in a sham of a trial,
being whipped,
having to carry his own cross beam,
being nailed down with his hands and feet,
while being mocked and spit on, Jesus says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
We can skip over this moment if we want, we can rationalize it away, but I think this is really extraordinary.
Because Jesus could have said something like, “Father, just wait until I get to heaven with you then we are going to really get revenge on these evil people.”
The death penalty is about revenge.
It is about us making ourselves feel better because, “they got what was coming to them.”

Perhaps Jesus words can be a guide for us.
That forgiveness is better.
Not just for the one who did the horrible thing, but for us as well.
Our spiritual selves are better when we can find our way to compassion and forgiveness.
Hatred, spiritually speaking, only eats at our souls.

Another significant thing happens on the cross.
Jesus is not alone in being crucified.
He is there with two other criminals.
Jesus while dying decides to have a Jesus moment.
He talks to them.
He offers them a hope of redemption.
Sure one of them doesn’t seem to want it, or need it, but it is there as an option.
We say those same words as the criminal.
Jesus remember me.

I am wondering if the criminals of our day know that Jesus does remember them.
Do they know that even when we sin, when we do evil things that Jesus remembers us and calls us by name?
Do we know the power that comes with us calling on the name of Jesus?
Using Jesus name does something significant in our lives.
It is a redeeming act of forgiveness, hope, and redemption.

Also, for me, I am always aware that it was the state sanctioned death penalty that killed Jesus.
No way to get around it.
The Romans killed Jesus, and it was perfectly legal.
Now Jesus was innocent we know that.
But this is exactly one of the issues is what happens when we kill innocent people in a vain attempt to get rid of the evil.
Jesus in another parable warns us against trying to get rid of evil.
Instead Jesus tells us to let the good and bad grow together, and let God sort out the rest.
Spiritually, from a perspective of faith, although we can judge good and bad behavior, we can’t say who is good and who is evil.
That is only up to God.

Perhaps I should make one other disclaimer is that I am not advocating for letting people get away with murder.
When people do evil things then we have to judge them and they have to pay for those crimes.
But death is final.
It gives no room for redemption, for God to work forgiveness in us with us.
It gives no room for miracles.

So the question that we are left with is what will be in our hearts?
What will be left…revenge, hatred?
Will we find hope and the possibility of redemption?
Will we allow for the criminal to be in paradise with us?
Will we allow God to work in the lives of people who do evil?

This morning I am not pointing to any of my clever arguments.
I am pointing to our Lord and savior, ruler of our lives, who hangs on a cross and pleads for God to forgive those around him.
I am pointing us to Jesus as an example of what is possible with God.
Like I said at the beginning this is not to say that you have to come to the same conclusions I do.
All I am asking is that we put Jesus into the equation when we ask such questions just like we should with everything in our life.
Because when Jesus is our guide and is example, then Jesus is truly the ruler of our lives.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Breaking Down Our Temples

Jesus is in Jerusalem at the Temple.
Some people, Luke doesn’t tell us who they are, start talking about what a great mighty thing this temple is.
I have seen only recreated pictures of this temple, because it no longer exists, it was destroyed by the Romans before Luke would start writing his Gospel.
But it was magnificent.
Built by Herod the great it was huge and ornate.
It was a marvel.
If it still existed today I think we would still say what a magnificent building it was.
And the people thought it was a testament to God’s power and might.
It was a testament to religion and how it made us feel safe and secure.
And here is Jesus tearing it down.
Here he is saying that the temple wasn’t that great, saying that it wouldn’t last forever.
It must have been a shock to the people.
No one could have imagined that this strong, fortified, beautiful structure would ever fall.

One of the tricks to preaching is to find connections to the world of the text and us here this morning.
It would seem that we wouldn’t really have any connection to a structure that was destroyed a long time ago.
We have all moved on from that temple.
But I was thinking this week about the structures we build up to protect ourselves, walls we build to remain safe and secure.

We build up all kinds of defenses don’t we?
Sometimes out of mere survival.
We know that things are uncertain, but we don’t want to face those things so we create things that are there to protect us.
We might build up lots of money in a bank account and believe that will keep us safe and secure.
We might build the “perfect family” and think that will help us get through life.
We might create a church with rituals and traditions that make us feel that the world around us doesn’t change.
We might create a fake outside facade of toughness or beauty so that people cannot see what lies beneath.
 Whatever it is we all build walls that are there to keep people out, to make sure that no one knows what is lurking inside of us.
But we also do it to make sure that life is secure.

And then well here comes Jesus to unsettle us this morning, and Jesus starts to talk about the uncertainty of everything.
You think that this temple is great and grand, a monument to God, well that will go away too.
And not only that we won’t know when it will all fall down.
We won’t know when the walls will fall.

That is our experience sometimes isn’t it.
We just don’t know when the next thing will hit.
We don’t know when there will be calamity.
When will our family betray us?
When will we lose all our money?
When will we suddenly find out that we, or someone we love, has an illness that will take their life?
We don’t know when the next war will be or when the next natural disaster will strike?
We don’t know when the structures will fail, when the walls will fall and we are left without our defenses.

Perhaps during these times we look for saviors.
We look for people that have answers, because life seems too uncertain.
We look for someone to make sense out of the chaos.
And that is why Jesus tells us not to follow the people who tell us that they can fix everything or they have some great answer.

Our Gospel for this morning is about the end of all things the time when this world will be transformed into God’s world.
Lots of times we here in these messages warnings about getting our life in order, or behaving for when God returns.
But I don’t here that in Jesus message.
What I hear is a call to have faith during such times.
Not faith in leaders or our own schemes to keep things from falling apart, not in the structures we have built to feel secure, but faith in God.

Jesus tells the crowd; don’t worry when these fall apart.
Don’t prepare for that day with words of defense.
Don’t prepare your testimony, instead live for today.
Live in faith today.
Put down your defenses, tear down your walls, and be present fully today for the world and those around you.

I was watching something this week, I think it was the American Experience documentary about JFK, and someone said that people are more motivated by negative emotions than positive.
So politicians and preachers pry on our fears in order to motivate us to do things.
Sometimes religion has used the negative side to motivate us.
Our fears have been used against us, and we have been told that this thing or that thing is to blame for why life is the way it is.
The Christian message has been portrayed as you better believe the right thing or you will fall into the pits of hell.

I think that Jesus message is much different than this.
Jesus tells us that we cannot build a wall that keeps us safe.
That our behavior however good will not save us.
Jesus tells us that we cannot construct a way to keep away the evil of the world, the unpredictability of it all.
All that is left is to have faith in God.
What is left is not a negative but a positive.
We can live each day in faith.
We can wake up each morning and ask God to be with us as we go out into what is an unpredictable world.
I know that many of you have had these moments when everything just seems to be coming apart.
That it seems that all you have built your life on was a lie, or wasn’t good enough.
Moments when it just seems like the sky is falling, that things are out of place, that we have lost our balance.
I have had some of those moments too.

The day I found out that my Dad died was one of those moments for me.
It was a normal day.
I was getting ready to go on a field trip with the kids from our Congregations summer camp.
I was on the bus taking attendance.
I was living my life, doing what I would normally do.
And then I got a phone call that just made it seem like the world was ending.
In some ways it was for me.
That is the way things happen out of the blue.
There is no warning.
And there is no protection against it.
There is no defense, because the walls are coming down.

Jesus tells us this morning that this is life filled with wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, betrayal of family, death and destruction.
But that we should not prepare our defenses in advance.
Instead we should live in faith.
We should have faith that Jesus will come to us in those times.
Jesus will give us the “words and wisdom” to stand and witness.

So as we go back into our lives.
We go without a defense, but instead with God, and in God we know we will have the endurance to withstand all these things and witness to God’s saving power.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Whose Line Is It Anyway

We have to start this morning by admitting one thing.
None of us knows what happens in the resurrection.
None of us here has ever died.
This morning’s exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees seems a little weird.
It seems like an argument of the absurd nature of religion.
Like when people argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Who knows?
But the bigger and more important question is who cares?
Who cares who will be whose wife in the resurrection?
For many of you that question seems absurd because in our day many people have more than one partner.
Many people get divorced and remarried.
So who cares?
I think that Jesus answer is somewhat along this line of thinking.
He basically says, “It won’t matter.”
The resurrection is not like this world.
It doesn’t have the same rules and obligations.

I bet that if I sat down with all of you individually and asked you about your belief in the resurrection I would get a lot of different answers.
There would be some who think it is just about our spirit floating away to heaven.
There would be some who would think that it was about waiting for the final trumpets to sound and our bodies being raised from the day.
There would be some who would have some kind of hybrid version taken from different religious beliefs.
We would be like the religious people of Jesus day.
We would have different views, with different beliefs.
Just like for Jesus it was Sadducees who only used the first five books of the Torah to draw on their understanding about God.
The Sadducees were the conservative religious people of their day, and because of this did not believe in the resurrection.
On the other hand we have the Pharisees who also used the prophets and the oral tradition.
There was no one group who spoke of some “Jewish” belief but it was varied.
The same is true with us Christians today.

There has been in recent weeks an argument floating around the internet about the resurrection.
Some prominent Christian thinkers are saying that Jesus did not actually rise from the dead.
Others are arguing how important that is to our belief system.
Just to be clear I fall into the camp of an actual bodily resurrection.
I thought about preaching about how important that is to our beliefs as Christians.
But then I thought that maybe that would be just another way of making it seem like a theoretical exercise.
The resurrection means more than the doctrinal or theological argument.

So what I want to look at is not the doctrine of the resurrection and what camp we fall into, but something deeper.
I want us to consider this morning why we believe it?
Why does it matter to us and our lives?

This week on NPR I heard the story behind the song, “I Drive Your Truck.”
The song won this year’s song of the year at the Country Music Awards.
The song was inspired by a report on the Boston NPR station about a man named Paul Monti, whose son, Jared Monti, died in Afganistan while he was trying to save a fellow soldier’s life.
Jared Monti won the Medal of Freedom for his bravery.
Paul still drives Jared’s black Dodge Ram.
He does it because it reminds him of his son, and when he is in the truck he feels close to him.
Paul has been working on a project called Flags for Vets that puts American flags on soldier’s graves on Veterans Day, which is another way to honor his son and what he believed and died for.

I was thinking of how we all do this in some ways.
When we lose someone we love how we keep them alive.
We tell stories about them.
We keep things from them that remind us of them.
I have some of my Dad’s clothing that my mom gave me after he died.
At times I will take out those pieces of clothing to remind me of him.

This past week when the Red Sox won the World Series the first thing I wanted to do was pick up the phone and call my Dad.
That was the first thing I did after they won in 2004.
I thought about how much he would have loved this year’s baseball season.
We do things like this to ease the pain, to remember, to not let go.

This is why resurrection means so much to us here now.
It is our way of saying that we believe that this is not the end.
That this is not all there is.
Our way of saying that there is more than merely what we see.

Jesus this morning tells us, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
What we see as death, what we experience as the end, God sees very differently.
God does not see death but God sees life.

There are many Sundays when I stand up here and talk about the importance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I was wondering if perhaps sometimes I pass over it too quickly.
We should take more time to linger on that phrase.
These are not just mere words, but they are life giving for us.
So that death and resurrection are not some absurd thing for religious folks to argue about, but something that we carry around in our lives.

How does the world and our lives look different in light of our belief in the resurrection?
It means that all of the things that look to be worn out, dead, burnt out, over, are all just ways that God is bringing new life.
That a truck that seems to be useless takes on a whole new meaning.
Those things that we think should be discarded really have value.
Our pain and loss can be transformed into things that give hope and life to others.
With God there are no endings only new beginnings.
Our God is not a God who brings death, but a God who is alive and brings life to all of us.

That is powerful.
Even though none of knows for sure what happens in the resurrection we know by faith its power in our lives.
We know how important it is for us to believe that God is at work bringing life from death.
Our faith is what gives us strength.
And faith is about what we don’t see and don’t know for certain.
It gives us power in our lives to not be afraid of what comes next.

Jared Monti’s last words were, "I've made peace with God. Tell my family that I love them."
A solider about to die confesses his faith in God’s eternal promise.
Resurrection means everything to us.
It helps us do heroic things even though we know it might mean death.
But God does not see death but life.

This morning I am asking all of us to consider the words of Jesus, to take them not as mere doctrine or theological guess work but truth.
Truth that sets us free from the limits that the world tries to impose on us.
The limits that says that this is all there is, and it is just dead.
Instead to continue to have faith that God is of the living.

To be honest I am not sure how we live without that faith.
I am not sure how we navigate the world.
How do we live in a world of violence, hatred, vengeance, and meanness?
Jesus suggests this morning that we don’t have to.
We can instead see the world through the eyes of God.
We can see our lives through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

May all of us have faith in, and live in the promise of that resurrection so that our lives are strengthened.