Never Abandoned

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was John 14:15-21

A word of explanation: I always invite the “young and young at heart” forward for what I call “Story Time.” I usually find a creative way to tell them the gospel story of that day. Today was different, though. Instead, I invited the kids up front to help me tell everyone a little about malaria. I told them that malaria is easy to prevent, and easy to treat, but nonetheless, one child in Africa dies every two minutes to malaria. Because some countries are so poor, they can’t afford the prevention and treatments. Then we demonstrated that for the congregation by ringing a bell every two minutes while the scripture readings were read. Each time a bell rings, one of the children was taken out of the nave, to represent a child who died. By the time we got to the sermon, four children had been taken out. I invited them all back in, and began the sermon.

To the congregation: How that made you feel? Was it hard to pay attention to the readings? Did anyone feel helpless? Did anyone feel hopeless? Those are understandable emotions in the face of the malaria situation in Africa.

To the kids: Thanks for your help. You did a great job helping me share the bad news with the congregation. But there is some great news. We have made a difference. And by we, I mean Lutherans in the United States. Over the last five years, we, together with Lutherans across the country, have raised over $15 million to fight malaria, and it has made a difference. We did this same exercise three years ago, and that year, we rang the bell once a minute. This year it was once every two minutes. That means that fewer and fewer children are dying of malaria, and that’s partially because of what we have done. That’s really good news. There’s more work to be done, but this gives me hope that we’re not helpless. We can make a difference in the world.

 

I invited the kids to go back to their families.

To the congregation: So, you felt hopeless and helpless. Like I said, those emotions make sense in the face of malaria. But I think those are emotions that come very easy to us anyway. How many of you are used to feeling hopeless? Helpless? Abandoned? Alone? There are many things that can lead us to those feelings. How many of you, know them?

I truly hope that none of the kids who were up here feel like they’re abandoned or alone. I know that they’re not, and I hope they know that too. They have us caring for them. Us, their parents, grandparents, godparents, and fellow members of Prince of Peace. We love those children, and we are watching out for them. They are never abandoned, never orphaned. But what about us? Who’s watching out for us? Part of growing up seems to be learning that nobody will take care of you anymore. That nobody really cares for you. That you can’t, perhaps shouldn’t, rely on others. That you’re all alone in the night.

That’s how we feel sometimes. But it’s not true. Jesus said so in today’s gospel. Jesus had just told the disciples he was about to leave them. They were scared. They didn’t want to live without him. Just the thought of it made them feel abandoned and alone. But Jesus said, You won’t be alone. You won’t be orphaned or abandoned. The Father will give you another Advocate. I have been your Advocate, but you’ll soon receive another one. One who will be with you forever. Who will stand by you. Who will lift you up. Give you comfort. Give you guidance. Give you direction. Give you hope. Give you peace. Give you grace. Every day, forever and ever.

Who is this Advocate? The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit of Jesus himself, the Holy Spirit of God. John tells us the Holy Spirit did come to the disciples on Easter day, as Jesus breathed that Spirit onto them. Luke tells us the Holy Spirit came fifty days later, the day of Pentecost, in the form of tongues of flame. Either way, the Holy Spirit came. And on that day, the disciples did not feel orphaned, even though Jesus wasn’t with them anymore. They did not feel alone, even though they would never see Jesus again. They did not feel abandoned, even though life was often incredibly difficult for them. They received the Holy Spirit, their new Advocate. And they felt loved. They felt chosen.

We have received this same Holy Spirit. You are not alone. You are not abandoned. You are not orphaned. You are not helpless. You are not hopeless.

You are children of God. You have been chosen. God chose you. You. And God didn’t choose you in the sense that you’re the only ones God loves. God loves the whole world. God made all of creation, and loves every molecule, including you. But you have been chosen to be the ones who tell that to the world. The ones who show that to the world. The ones who make a difference. Who are signs of hope in the world. Agents of light in a world with so much darkness. You may not defeat malaria, but you, along with God’s children from all over the world, have already together cut its toll in half. And that is indeed a sign of hope. And you have so much more to do.

God is with you. God came in Christ and was willing to suffer and die on the cross in order that we – yes, even us – might know how much God loves us and how far God is willing to go for us. And God raised Jesus from the dead to show us – yes, even us – that nothing – not even death itself – can keep God from loving and redeeming the whole world.

And God sent the Advocate, the Holy Spirit to us – yes, even to us – in order to encourage us and look out for us and care for us and stay with us and walk along side of us. God comes in the Holy Spirit to be another Advocate, our Advocate, who will not give up on us…ever.[1]

God will never give up on us. Don’t give up on each other, or on yourselves. You are not alone. You are loved. And you are chosen. Receive the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, and share that love with everyone.

Amen.

 

[1] This and the preceding paragraph are based on (plagiarized from) David Lose’s essay, “Easter 6 A: You Have an Advocate!” found at http://www.davidlose.net/2017/05/easter-6-a-you-have-an-advocate/.

United, Following the Way

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The gospel text was John 14:1-14

I was curious. I just wanted to learn about the United Way. Find out what they did. That’s all I wanted.

But here’s what happened. It started with troubles. I got a survey in the mail from the Berwick Area United Way. The survey asked for my opinion on what the biggest troubles were facing the Berwick area. Well, I had just arrived in the Berwick area a few weeks earlier, when I began my ministry across the river in Nescopeck. I didn’t know yet what the problems were. But I also realized I didn’t know much about the United Way. So instead of throwing the survey away, I wrote a note on it, saying I would like to sit down and chat sometime. Just to learn.

Well, before too long, I had a meeting with the CEO of the Berwick Area United Way. She told me about the difference the United Way had made in the community. And then she told me about the future. She said they could do even better, and she believed they would. She told me about a new United Way program called Community Impact, which was a new way of doing business that identifies the problems and the opportunities in the community, and very deliberately funnels resources directly towards those opportunities, to fund programs with measurable impacts. A Community Impact United Way harnesses the money and the passions and the skills of a whole community to make that community better in specific and measurable ways. She saw Community Impact as the future of the Berwick Area United Way. It sounded pretty exciting to me. And then she said, “We are looking for new board members right now. And we’re actually looking for a clergyperson [like me], and for people in their 30’s [like me], and for people from the Nescopeck side of the river [like me].”

I had just wanted to learn.

But I agreed to serve. And as I got involved, I soon discovered that the United Way board was not committed to transitioning to Community Impact. There were conversations about it, but it wasn’t a reality. And guess who got involved in those conversations. Yep, me. And guess who became the chair of the Community Impact committee. Yep, me. And once the board did fully commit to it, guess who was elected President of the board. Yep, me. And guess who was instrumental in making the cultural shift to Community Impact. I had just wanted to learn.

Today’s gospel story opens with troubles. This story takes place at Jesus’ Last Supper. Right before our reading today, Jesus had just told his disciples, I’m leaving you very soon. Certainly, the disciples were troubled by this. We can relate to them. Just look at all the fears we listed a few weeks ago. We’re troubled. Yet our gospel story opens with these words from Jesus’ mouth:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

He’s saying that to us too. And then he goes on to say some wonderful words, words that we often hear at funerals.

“I go and prepare a place for you.”
“I will take you to myself.”
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

That’s good news. At funerals, we hear that as good news that our loved one is in the arms of Christ, and is at peace. At a funeral, we celebrate that all the troubles our loved one lived with have now ended. But we mourn, and we worry about ourselves, and about each other. Because our troubles continue. It’s good to know that paradise awaits us at the end, but what about now? At funerals, people want to see God now. They want a sign that God will be with them, and help them, now. Don’t we all want that?

Philip did. So he said to Jesus, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” He wanted to see God now, see what God’s doing now. And Jesus said, “God’s right here. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God. Right here. Right in the midst of your troubles. If you’re waiting for God to show up on a cloud and take all your troubles away, you might wait a long time. But look. God is here. Just look at what I’ve been doing, Philip. And then watch out. Because you’re going to do even bigger things than I. You’re going to do things you never dreamed of. Because, Philip, I’m not just the destination. I am the way. Come and follow me, and along the Way you will see great things. Along the Way, you will do great things. You’ll see what God is doing. Because God will be doing it with your hands.”

I just wanted to learn what the United Way was doing. I did learn about it, because I became part of it. I got caught up in something I didn’t totally understand, but which I believed in, and through me, God made a difference in the Berwick area.

Have you come here today with questions, wondering where God is, what God is doing? Good. That’s a great place to be. Those questions are good. But I’m going to warn you. Ask those kinds of questions, and God just might answer you. You might just find out that what God is doing right now is forgiving you. And healing you. And calling you. And lighting a fire underneath you. And you just might find out that what God is doing tomorrow is done with your hands.

And you just might find out your life is full of meaning, and full of life, and full of joy.

And then next week you’ll get confused and troubled again. And that’s alright too. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re the church. We figure this out together, by together listening to and talking about God’s Word. We figure this out together, by sharing these gifts of bread and wine with one another, and trusting that Christ is truly present there. We figure this out together, even though we don’t fully understand any of it. Even though we disagree on some of it. We figure this out by listening to God, and following Christ, together. By being UNITED as we follow the WAY.

Amen.

Sheep Tales

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The gospel text was John 10:1-10

Once upon a time there was a pen full of sheep.

Continue reading “Sheep Tales”

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Emmaus

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was Luke 24:13-35. In last week’s sermon, I invited people to write down their fears on index cards, and get them to me. Many people did, and I incorporated some of them into today’s sermon. 

We have been all over the gospels in the Easter season, but we have seen fear at every turn. Two weeks ago, we heard Matthew’s story of the women on Easter morning, and while they had great joy, they also had fear.

Last week, we heard John’s story of the disciples on Easter evening, who were so scared that they kept the doors locked, and how Jesus came to them and offered them peace.

Today, we hear Luke’s story about two disciples on Easter day. Two sad and frightened disciples, one named Cleopas and one named…well, we don’t know. We know nothing about this second disciple. Man or woman? Old or young? Tall or short? So I’m going to take some artistic license here, and give that second disciple a name: the name you. And I’m going to tell this story again, the story of Cleopas and you walking to Emmaus.

It was a Sunday, and you and Cleopas were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all the things that had happened. It was a journey you walked in sadness, a journey you walked with fear, but a journey you walked together. Perhaps you were trying to escape your problems, put distance between you and Jerusalem. Perhaps you just needed to get some fresh air, clear your thoughts, and talk to someone. You were just so scared.

While you were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with you, but your eyes were kept from recognizing him. He said to you, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

You and Cleopas stood still, looking sad. Then he said, “Are you the only stranger who does not know about the things that frighten us?”

Jesus said, “What things?”

And you said:

  • Poor health
  • Growing old
  • Going blind
  • Cancer
  • Epilepsy
  • Losing my husband
  • Dying
  • Being alone

And you said:

  • World peace
  • War
  • Climate change
  • My grandkids growing up in a fearful world
  • So many people hate each other
  • Security in our community

And you said:

  • Losing my job
  • Losing my home
  • Losing family
  • Losing things
  • Our family may never be together again

And you said:

  • Darkness
  • Wolves
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Lightning storms
  • Clowns

And you said:

  • Not being good enough
  • Not taking enough risks
  • Disappointing others and myself
  • Not understanding my purpose
  • Letting my anxiety overcome me

And you said:

  • Never knowing God the way I desire
  • Stepping up or standing up for my beliefs
  • God not being real

There were so many things to be frightened of.

Then Jesus said to you, “How slow of heart you are to believe all that is declared in scripture.” And he began to interpret for you all the good news about him in scripture.

He quoted the Psalms and said:

  • The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

And he quoted Isaiah and said:

  • Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!

And he quoted Ezekiel and said:

  • And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.

And he quoted Paul and said:

  • For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And he quoted the angels and said:

  • Do not be afraid.

And he quoted himself and said:

  • I am with you always, to the end of the age.

His words made you feel a little better. But they also added a little guilt. Why did you have so much trouble believing them? Why were you still afraid? What was wrong with you?

And then the three of you came near to the village to which you were going, and Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But you and Cleopas urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us.” And he did. When he was at the table with you, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to you.

Then your eyes were opened.

You recognized him.

And he vanished from your sight.

And in that moment, it all changed. You and Cleopas now saw that your hearts were warmed, burning even. Things began to make sense. The fear you felt began to wash away. Because Jesus was there. He was alive, and he had been right in front of you. You found that you were confident, you were courageous, you were excited, you were alive. You and Cleopas were no longer walking sadly. The two of you were running excitedly all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

Your fears were still there, but they didn’t hurt as much. The burning in your heart shrank those fears, moved them off to the side, gave you hope and life. Because the risen Christ was there. Just as the risen Christ appeared to Mary, and to Simon Peter, and to Thomas, and to Cleopas, he appeared to you.

Last week I asked you to share with me your fears, and I am honored that you did. They are your fears, and they are real. I know that I can’t stand up here and say, “Don’t be afraid,” and expect you to just say, “Oh thanks, Pastor, I feel much better now.” It doesn’t usually work like that. What I can do is tell you this: the risen Christ says, “Don’t be afraid.” And whatever journey you are on right now, he is walking with you. You may not be able to recognize him right now, and that’s okay. You may know in your head that he’s there, but you just can’t feel it, and that’s okay. That’s the way it often is. But he is there. And sometime, someday, at some point along your journey, your eyes will be opened. You will recognize him. On that day, your heart will burn. On that day, your fears will be burned away. That day is coming. Christ is risen, and he has promised it.

But for now, let us keep walking together. And keep discussing with one another all the things that we are scared of. Together, we will get through each day, reminding one another to trust. Reminding one another that Christ is risen. Reminding one another that he is coming.

Amen.

Jesus is Alive…

…and being held in a secure undisclosed government facility.

Welcome to Pinewood Men’s first Audio production.

To those of you who come to this blog looking for something spiritually uplifting or edifying…this might not be the post for you. Might I recommend another?

Enjoy.

Jesus is Alive! from Pete Barry on Vimeo.

Peace Amid Fear

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached today, the Second Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was John 20:19-31.

I feel like I should be somewhere else today. And what’s pretty strange is that the place I feel I should be is St. Luke Lutheran Church, a little congregation in Archbald, which is near Scranton.

You see, every nine years, I preach at St. Luke. And I’m due this year. Nine years ago, when I was serving a church in Nescopeck, I was at St. Luke on the Second Sunday of Easter, as a pulpit exchange. And nine years before that, I preached there as a seminary student. It’s a strange little tradition, but it just feels like it’s time for me to go back to that little church. I’m not going to, though. But if I did, I know what I’d preach about. Every time I’ve preached there, I’ve talked about fear.

The first time I was there, in 1999, I said these words: The Y2K bug will not mean the end of the planet Earth. The mountains will not crumble; the ocean levels will not rise. But it just might mean the end of our society as we know it. Remember the Y2K bug? That problem with computers in the 90s that was supposed to cause a worldwide crash on New Years Day? I honestly preached, “it might mean the end of our society as we know it.” Silly as it seems now, many of us were honestly scared of that then.

The second time I preached there, in 2008, I said very similar words: This recession will not mean the end of the planet Earth. The mountains will not crumble; the ocean levels will not rise. But it just might mean the end of our society as we know it. Now, I will grant you, the recession of 2008 did have much more lasting effects that Y2K. But the end of our society? Hardly. But many of us were honestly scared of that then.

There was always something to be afraid of. And now, in 2017, I wouldn’t have any trouble finding something frightening to mention in a sermon at St. Luke.

But let’s look at today’s gospel. This story is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas.” But I think of it more as “Frightened Disciples.” Let’s look.

It was Easter evening. Mary Magdalene had just seen the risen Lord, and she told the disciples about it. And yet the same evening, they were scared, scared enough to keep the doors locked. They probably didn’t believe Mary. But despite the locks, Jesus came right to them. He came right into their midst, right into their fear, and said, “Peace be with you.” And they rejoiced – into their fear, he brought great joy.

But Thomas wasn’t there. So later on, the others told him about it. And just like the disciples didn’t believe Mary, Thomas didn’t believe them. But then a week later, the disciples were in the room again, behind locked doors again. Just a week after the disciples saw Jesus, they locked the doors for fear again.

So what did Jesus do? Did he say, “Oh, hello Thomas. Peace be with you,” and then turn to the other disciples and say, “What is wrong with the rest of you? I was just here last week! What part of ‘Christ is risen’ don’t you understand? What part of ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ don’t you understand?”

No. He didn’t do that. He simply came to them, again, and he said, “Peace be with you.” Just like the week before. Jesus had compassion for his frightened disciples. And it makes me wonder if this is what happened next:

A week later, they were again gathered in the room, and the doors were locked again, because they were scared, again. And Jesus came and stood before them and said, “Peace be with you.” And they rejoiced. And then a week after that, they were gathered in the room, and the doors were locked again, because they were scared, again. And Jesus came and stood before them and said, “Peace be with you.” And they rejoiced. And so on. Week after week, Sunday after Sunday. I wonder if they were scared every week, perhaps scared of the same thing, or perhaps of something new. Because it seems like people are always scared of something.

And then eventually they became us, in places like Archbald and Johnsonville. We keep gathering each week. And we keep locking the doors, because we are still scared. Now, we don’t literally lock the church doors as we worship, but perhaps even here we lock the doors of our hearts. Perhaps we gather here, and pretend we are not scared. We do not admit our fears. We do not talk about them. We put on a brave face so that the people around us don’t know how much of a mess we are inside.

Yet Jesus still comes. Not in person anymore. But he still comes in words of scripture. In moments of preaching. In bread and wine. In the waters of baptism. He still comes. And he still says to us, “Peace be with you.” And we still rejoice when we experience his presence.

I believe that many of us, probably most of us, perhaps all of us, are scared of something right now. It’s hard to talk about this, because often we don’t even want to admit we feel this way. So I won’t ask you to say your fears aloud, at least not today. But I do ask you to think about them. Brings those fears to mind. And I invite you to write them down. There are index cards on your pews. Write your fears there, right now. And then put them in the offering plate, or hand them to me after worship. And then I will talk about them next Sunday during the sermon. I am also toying with a way to publish them, without names. I think that it’s only by being honest about our fears that we can truly hear Jesus’ promise of peace.

So I invite you now to take a minute and write one or more fears on your index card.

[For those reading this sermon as a blog post, feel free to email me with your fears at pastorMJS@gmail.com.]

Thank you. I will have more to say about this next week. But for now, hear the words of Christ, as he comes into our midst, as he comes into our lives, as he comes into our fears: “Peace be with you.”

Breathe the Resurrection (Vigil of Easter)

I preached four times this weekend, during the “Great Three Days” worship service that lasts from Thursday evening through Sunday morning. In current Evangelical Lutheran liturgical understanding, this is one long service that begins with Maundy Thursday and ends with the Vigil of Easter.

Click here for Maundy Thursday.
Click here for Good Friday.
Click here for Holy Saturday (Healing Service).

This is my Great Vigil of Easter Sermon.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

One more time. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathing is a good thing. I encourage you to continue to breathe throughout this sermon.

Do not be afraid! The angel said to the women. Do not be afraid! But they were. Who wouldn’t be afraid? Their friend, their leader, their messiah, had died. They went to the tomb to do their loyal duty.

Who wouldn’t be afraid? Their whole world had changed. The future they envisioned was wiped away.

And then the earthquake. The angel. The guards shaking as though dead.

The angel tells them good news. He is not here! He has been raised! He’s on his way to Galilee! And they are still afraid. They left the tomb with fear and great joy.

And who wouldn’t be afraid? The unknown is one of the greatest sources of fear. And so much was unknown. Perhaps they had doubts about the angel’s trustworthiness. Or perhaps they knew that even with Christ raised, this was still an uncertain future. What did it mean that Jesus was alive? What did it mean for today? For tomorrow? For everything? Who wouldn’t be afraid?

Remember to breathe. Don’t forget to breathe out. Don’t hold your breath in for too long.

When we are afraid, what do we do? We cling to things. We hold on tightly to what we have. Fear leads us to believe that there is not enough, not enough money, not enough time, not enough anything. It’s human nature to do this. And we even do the same with our breath. When we are afraid, we gasp. We hold our breath, almost as though we’re scared there isn’t enough air. But there is. Breathe.

The women were afraid, but that’s not all they were. They left the tomb with fear and great joy. Two emotions that seem surprising together. But perhaps that’s what the resurrection does. The resurrection gives life, and life is unpredictable. Unexpected. Full of surprises. So of course there is fear. But Christ is alive. And whatever surprises life has, he will be there. And neither death nor suffering have the final word anymore. So there is room there for great joy as well.

Perhaps that’s what the resurrection does. Perhaps it takes fear, and transmutes it into great joy.

The good news of the resurrection is that Christ is alive. And that means we are alive. We are full of life. Through our baptism, we are connected to Christ. Christ now lives within us, in the hidden places just beyond our thoughts, just beyond our feelings. Christ is there.

And I wonder if, deep inside, he does something kind of like what our lungs do. When we breathe in air, our lungs perform an amazing exchange, taking in the oxygen we need, and expelling the carbon dioxide we don’t. Every breath, this takes place. Over and over again. Twenty-four hours a day.

I wonder if perhaps Christ also performs an exchange. Perhaps Christ is always working to change our fear into great joy. The fear is never completely gone. Just like our bodies are constantly making carbon dioxide that must be expelled, our human nature is always building up fear. But Christ works to change that into joy. Every moment of every day, as we breathe in, and breathe out, Christ is allowing us to let go of our fear, and to receive the hope, the grace, the life, that leads to great joy.

Are you still breathing? Breathe in. Breathe in the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Breathe in the good news through your ears, as you hear the words of scripture, the words of preaching, the lyrics and tunes of the hymns. Breathe in the good news through your mouth, as you taste the presence of Christ through his body and blood. Breathe in the good news through your nose, as you smell the flowers of spring, the new life returning to the world after a long winter. Breathe in the good news through your eyes, as you see the smiles and the hope of children, the new life in their eyes. Breathe in, and feel the good news filling your lungs, filling your veins, filling your heart. Feel Christ transform all your fear into great joy.

And breathe out. Don’t hold this breath. Don’t hold it in. Just like air, we have to let this breath out, in order that we can receive more. Breathe out this good news. Breathe out by sharing the good news with others. Breathe out by treating one another with love. Breathe out by welcoming the stranger. Breathe out by sharing generously. Breathe out by speaking out for justice. Breathe out by smiling. Breathe out by letting go of the fear, letting go of the worry, letting go of the need for control. Breathe out by trusting. Trusting that God has got it.

And then breathe in again. And then breathe out again.

Because Christ is risen. Come, see the place where he lay. (Breathe in.)

Then, go and tell his disciples that he is risen. (Breathe out.)

Let’s breathe again.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Amen.