Tuesday, February 24, 2015

People of the Cross

“The Kingdom of God has come near”
Jesus begins his ministry with this announcement.
It doesn’t seem like it always.
If the kingdom of God means a place without pain, death, and sin it doesn’t appear that Jesus knew what he was talking about.
We don’t have that here right now.
We see proof all the time.
For example, I along with all of you was horrified this week over the killing of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS.
I don’t believe that we are living in any worse times than any other time throughout human history.
There has always been horrific violence that people do against others.
But what I was thinking was how far away we still are from the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced.
The problem I have with this particular killing is that it is just so barbaric.
I can’t understand how much hate you need to have for someone, how much you need to dehumanize someone to be able to take a knife and cut off someone else head.
So it appears that what Jesus said was just untrue.
That this kingdom that Jesus said was coming is really not here at all.
And it doesn’t appear that we are going to see it anytime soon.

That is until we look closer at this incident.
First of all, the terrorists called the Coptic Christians that they beheaded, “People of the Cross”.
That is a mantle we as Christians should be happy to accept.
We are people of the cross.
We are people whose leader was killed in the most barbaric way possible.
For most the idea that your religious leader would die is not a good story.
It is a story about a loser.
But what we as Christians believe is that it is there on the cross that God revealed God’s true heart.
As Martin Luther said, “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”
In this instrument of death God was working the whole time.
God was working to bring life out of the dark places of the human heart.
It was there on the cross that God entered into our human pain, knowing what we suffer.
This is the scandal of God in Jesus Christ.
That God used this instrument of death to show us God’s ultimate love.
Think about how much the image of the cross has changed because of Jesus Christ.
The cross is now jewelry.
We have domesticated it, but it is supposed to be shocking.
It is the place that God shows up.
Not in a military triumphant victory, but on a cross, dead.
God is hidden.

In fact, within the Gospel of Mark the people who experience Jesus do experience the kingdom of God.
The blind see, the lame walk, demons are cast out.
5,000 people are fed with only five loaves of bread and two fish.
Storms are calmed.
But the Kingdom is still hidden from people.
Jesus tells us that the kingdom is like the smallest of all seeds hidden from the sight of those who are looking for something bigger and better.
It is found in children, love of our neighbor, in the poor widow’s feeble offering.
The Pharisees they demand from Jesus a sign from heaven as proof of the kingdom.
Jesus tells them that the kingdom comes from denying ourselves and picking up our cross.
Jesus tells them it is not to be found in religious triumphantlism, but in service and love for neighbors.
One of the Coptic Christians before he was beheaded yelled the name of Jesus, maybe out of defiance, but also as one who has followed him to death.
And yes, within these deaths the kingdom of God is at work.
It is hidden, but even there it is present because God through Jesus Christ has told us that God is present even in death, even amongst the most barbaric heinous death we can imagine.

If we dig a little deeper we see that the response to this horrific act has not been to make people afraid, or to turn them away from each other, but has brought people together.
As Father Hani Bakhoum Kiroulos, Coptic Catholic Patriarchate secretary said in a statement.
“This tragedy is uniting the entire country, Christians and Muslims. If their aim was to divide us, they have failed.
Immediate harsh condemnation came from Cairo’s Al Azhar University (the most important theological centre for Sunnite Islam: editor’s note:).
And the swift retaliation on the part of the Egyptian air force on Islamic State bases in Libya also demonstrated that for the Egyptian government its citizens are all equal and that Egypt is suffering as a nation from the bloodthirsty delirium of the terrorists”.
God is hidden in suffering, in death, in the poor, the widow, and in children.

This is not the same thing as saying that God has plan.
That God wanted to these 21 Coptic Christians to die in this horrific way so we could come together and learn a lesson.
It is saying that the world is filled with horrific things that happen all the time.
But that God is in the midst of those things, often hidden from us, working to bring God’s kingdom to earth.

Because what Jesus says to us is that the reaction to this kingdom is to repent, and believe in the Good News.
The action items for you and I are not about retaliation.
It is about us turning around, to be turned around so that we might be able to experience and see this hidden kingdom.
Because what sin does is have us look for it in the wrong places.
We try to find it in shiny things in money, in power, in control over others, in our own safety, and selfish acts, instead of finding it in love, forgiveness, community, and mercy.
God hidden in the things often rejected and despised by the world.
God is hidden in things that the world calls week.

Now, we are rightfully upset, angry when 21 people are beheaded on a beach.
We might even feel fear that this could be us someday.
But the question that we have to ask ourselves is what will be our response.
I don’t mean, what do you think President Obama should do?
I mean what is your response to things like this that we see.
What does it do to our spirit, to our soul?
As people of faith our response has to be a faithful one.
That what we are about is Kingdom building.
We are people of the Cross who see God hidden in the world.
We see God working through things that others don’t see or understand.
Because of this we will not act out of fear.
We will pray for the lives lost.
We will pray for those who committed this heinous act that they might turn from their ways.
We will pray that God forgive them.
We will pray that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
We will repent of our own hatred and prejudice.
We will repent and turn to God so that we might follow Jesus and pick up our cross and follow him.
We will receive the Good News that God has won the victory over death and sin.
We will receive the Good News that God forgives sinners.
We will receive the Good News that even though it is hidden we still do experience God’s kingdom now.
We will receive the Good News that the blind see, the lame walk, people are fed, the poor are uplifted, and children welcomed.
Because we believe what Jesus told us, that even though the Kingdom is small and hidden like a mustard seed, it still grows to something more than we can imagine.

I want to end with saying that we had two members of our congregation die this week.
We had another member who lost his 2 ½ year old nephew.
It was another one of those weeks for me that I needed God.
I needed to believe that God was in the middle of it all.
Not that all of those things made sense, or had some greater purpose (because a 2 ½ year old dying make no sense, and has no purpose.)
But that God was here now, hidden among those deaths.
I needed to believe in it this week, as I do all weeks.

I thank God that we are people of the cross.
That Jesus came to show us the depths that God goes to show us God’s love.
That Jesus came to show us this kingdom hidden in those small things that everyone else discards.
And this lent let us repent and believe in the Good News so that we can see that God’s kingdom is here hidden amongst us.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Light Shines in the Darkness

Kayla Mueller was a young woman (Only 26 years old) who was taken hostage by ISIS and killed.
She was a young woman who went to Syria to be an aid worker.
It is one of the deaths that are so senseless in our world.
A young woman who went to help and do good is killed.
There are still many questions about how she died.
But one thing that was being reported about her was how she lived.
While in captivity she wrote letters to family and friends.
These letters are testaments to faith amidst difficult circumstances.
She wrote, "I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. ...I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free."
So much promise from this young woman, so senseless and end to her life, but also such a rich life of faith.

This is why we need the transfiguration.
We need to be able to see clearly the light.
We need to be able to see Jesus Clearly for a minute.
To understand how he ties into the life of the other great religious figures.
How Jesus brings God to us.
We need Jesus now because there are too many deaths.
Some days it seems like there is too much darkness.
It seems like we are being overrun.
We need to know that behind all of it is something better, and more glorious.

I wonder after the days of Jesus death if his disciples thought back to that day on the mountain.
When things looked bleak, when it looked like the reign of God that Jesus said was at hand had failed, did they remember that glorious moment?
Did they remember that Jesus stood there with Moses and Elijah, that he shown with a great light, that the voice from heaven called him his beloved.
Did remembering that day help them get through the days after the resurrection, to know that Jesus death couldn’t possibly be the end.
Jesus was on the mountain with Moses and Elijah because they also helped God’s people through difficult times.
Moses and Elijah helped God’s people remain faithful against idolatrous ideas.
They helped God’s people remain hopeful as they suffered the burdens of an abusive political system.

It seems that what God’s people have in common through the ages is suffering at the hands of evil and violence.
Now we don’t suffer the way that Kayla Mueller did.
We are not being held captive by ISIS.
But we are still in captivity.
We are bound by the chains that hold us back from truly being free.
We are bound by hatred, by revenge, by consumerism, by prejudice, by fear.
We are bound by our own sin.
And we cannot break free.
Not because we are bad people.
But because we either don’t know that we are bound, or we are so lost in the darkness we can’t even see the light.

Lots of times in life we simply are not truthful about ourselves.
We are not honest with our motives.
We are not honest about why we do the things we do.
And because of that we can never break free.
We are trapped there, stuck.
The transfiguration is a call to be transformed by God out of that bondage into the light.
The transfiguration is a call to listen to Jesus as we grow in knowing who God is in our lives.
As we become more and more to being the light ourselves.
To God we admit that we bound and we desire to be let free.
Moses took his people out of bondage to the Promised Land.
Elijah saved his people by turning away from the tyranny of the false god Baal.
Both are about being in captivity.
But it is Jesus who shows us through his life, teachings, death and resurrection that we are not bound, but set free.
Just as Kayla was free spiritually even though physically she was in chains.

When we are lost in the darkness it is hard to get out, to see the light, to understand.
This week, in North Carolina, three Muslims were shot and killed.
Again we don’t know everything.
But the New York Times reported that the man who killed them had in his apartment, "at least a dozen firearms — including handguns, shotguns, rifles and a black Bushmaster AR-15 — from Mr. Hicks’s apartment, which was in the same building as the married couple’s.
The authorities also seized an extensive collection of ammunition, holsters, cases and scopes.
Several of the weapons, including the AR-15, still had fully loaded magazines. Others, including a Sig Sauer .22 handgun, were empty of cartridges.”
I want to be clear; I am not talking about the second amendment, or gun control.
This is what I am saying that man was in the dark.
Because the bottom line was that he used guns to kill people.
It was another senseless death of young people who had their whole life ahead of them.
It doesn’t make sense.

Now there will be people who will try to convince us that the killing of Kayla Mueller, Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha are different.
They will try to divide us about these killings by making it about political ideology.
But we know better.
All of these deaths stem from the same human condition.
We are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves.
We are in bondage to violence as a way to solve problems, as a way of life.
We are in bondage to hatred of what we perceive as the other.
We are lost in the darkness and must turn to see the light.

Because it is in the light of Christ that we see what is truly needed in the world.
We need more love more understanding, more tolerance, more mercy, and more forgiveness, more of the powers of good.
This story of the transfiguration does not end on this mountain.
Jesus does not stay on the mountain.
Instead he heads back down into the crowds.
He heads down to confront the powers of the world that hold us in bondage.
He returns to the world of violence that is going to reject and kill him.
He does it because we cannot run from evil we can only face it.
We can only stand up to it and refuse to join in.

But I guarantee for all of us we will find ourselves in moments of despair.
We will look out into the world and think that all is lost.
In those moments we need to tap into whatever Kayla Mueller tapped into while she was being held captive.
We need to see even in our captivity that God is there for us, and with us.
That when all seems lost all we have is God.
And God will unveil the evil in the world.
God will show us that killing is not the way to solve problems.
Isis and Craig Stephen Hicks are both wrong because of how they want to solve their problems.
They were in bondage, and lost in the darkness.
The ones set free can see Jesus shining in all of the glory of God’s only son, and they are willing to follow back down into the crowds to be his disciples.
As we leave here and go back into the crowds may we shine with light given to us in Jesus Christ.
May we shine with the light of love, understanding, mercy, forgiveness, and tolerance.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Transformative Healing

We talk a lot about the benefits of faith.
Rightfully so, we talk about the joy of knowing forgiveness, the peace of mind that comes with knowing that death is not the end but only the beginning.
Knowing God through Jesus Christ has many benefits.
In fact, it is life saving to us who know of those benefits.
When we talk about faith in Jesus we have to know that it is in that faith that we draw strength, and life.
What we see in our Gospel this morning is not only the benefits but the reaction to those benefits.
We see what comes of knowing Jesus is service.

This morning we have another healing story.
And on the surface it seems rather small and insignificant healing.
Jesus goes to Simon’s house and his mother in law has a fever.
Jesus heals her from the fever.
In our day most fevers are not life threatening, but in Jesus day a fever could mean death very easily.
So this is a significant thing that Jesus does for Simon’s mother in law.
There is of course a problem with every story of Jesus healing someone.
We all want to know why Jesus/God doesn’t heal everyone.
Why this person instead of that person.
It is a good question.
In our Gospel for this morning part of the reason is because there are simply too many people that need healing.
Part of the answer is because Jesus needs to move on to preach the Good News.
But I think it is important to realize that Jesus does not stop every bad thing that happens in life that would be impossible given the limits of human life.
What Jesus does is preach a message that transcends the bad things.
It gives us a vision of what can come from the things that we face in life.
It is a message that tells us even through death God can bring new life.
That even through our sin Jesus can make righteousness.

What comes from God’s actions in our lives?
What comes from God’s transformative healing actions is a life of service.
Simon’s Mother in law is healed and instantly she gets up and starts to serve.
Some might see this as a very sexist thing to say.
But since we know Jesus the greatest honor we can have in life is to be a servant.
What we see is that Simon’s mother in law is a disciple of Jesus.
In some ways a better disciple then Simon, because what Simon and his fellow men want is power and prestige.
They don’t want a life of servitude.
They want a life where they are the boss.
Jesus constantly tells them that is not what it means to know God’s healing power.

And for us who come here Sunday after Sunday.
For us who know this God through Jesus Christ we know the benefits.
But those benefits are not meant for us to be selfish.
This is not about a self improvement.
When we are healed from our sin, fears, selfishness, and resentments, we are able to be disciples through serving others.

This is one of the joys and one of the hard things about being a pastor.
I have seen both in my ten years.
I have witnessed extraordinary disciples of Jesus Christ who give of everything for God.
I have seen people healed from the fever of selfish ambition, to let go of fevers to be able to show God’s love through their lives.
But we all know that church people are not perfect.
I have seen the opposite too.
I have seen people be selfish, only think about what they want.
I have seen people only care about what they think, and not willing to listen to others.
Of course God loves both equally.
It is not about that.
Because God offers both the same healing, God has given generously to both through his Son Jesus Christ.
It is not that one is better than the other.
It is only a matter of perspective.
One is able to see somehow what was given and keep that in the front of their minds.
They have been able to rise up and serve because of the grace of God.
It is why we have these great gifts of God to be able to serve each other, and to show God’s love.

We all are sick in some way shape or form.
We all have our scars that we carry deep within us.
And we all have things about us that we do well.
We all have things that we need to work on.
Healing can come to us when we know Jesus.
Healing can come from knowing that our sins are forgiven so we don’t have to serve perfectly only out of love.
Healing can come from having our fears put aside so that we are able to see in others the good that they have.
Healing can come from having our scars transformed into more compassion for others.

I usually don’t use movies as examples in my sermons.
But our family watched the movie Soul Surfer and my kids told me that I should use it this week in my sermon.
It is a true story about Bethany Hamilton.
She was a top surfer from Hawaii.
She got her arm bit off by a shark, and nearly died.
But she was able to come back to once again compete at a high level as a surfer with only one arm.
One of the things that helped her in her healing was a mission trip she took to Phuket, Thailand who were devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
There she saw what others struggling through a tragedy.
When she was on that mission trip she helped people overcome their fear of the ocean by teaching them to surf.
It is through her struggle and pain that Bethany learns about what it really means to serve others.
It is through her ordeal that she learns to let go and be free.
It is her faith that keeps her going, but she learns that she was given things by God to serve and help others.
Just by her surfing she helps heal others who are struggling with their own limitations.
At the end of the movie a reporter asks her if she could undo the loss of her arm would she.
She says no because now she can embrace more people with one arm then she ever could with two.

This is the thing about our healing.
It might not be that God takes away what is wrong.
But God transforms it into something that makes us more compassionate and better able to understand and serve others.
The Good News is not that God makes life easier, but God transforms sin into righteousness, death into life.

That is what God can do for us.
Help us with our own limitations.
Offer us healing.
And because we are healed we can then serve others with an open heart.
Just as Bethany learned to do.
Just as Simon’s mother in law did.

It is good to always be reminded of all the benefits of faith.
To be reminded about all the good that God does for us.
Because that can help us to know that we are then set free to serve others.
We are let go from our own desires and fears to give to others.
God helps us serve.

That is what we leave here doing.
So we go into our week knowing that we are healed through God’s love and grace given in Jesus Christ, and through that we are transformed into servants of God.