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”

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.”

The People Jesus Prays For

This is an adapted form of a sermon I preached today, the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was John 17:20-26.

You may have heard all this before, everything I’m about to say. That’s the way it goes sometimes. These things get passed on and on. But I think that’s okay. I know I need a reminder all the time, a continual reminder of what Jesus is doing for us. So maybe we all do.

Those who were at Bible Study on Wednesday definitely heard some of this before. At Bible Study we looked at chapter fifteen of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Here’s what we talked about. Paul writes:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

We focused a lot on the first words of that verse: “For I handed on to you what I in turn had received.” We thought about the image of a relay race, how faith is passed on like a baton handed off in a relay race, how Paul handed this faith on to the Corinthians, just as this faith had been previously handed on to him. We talked about how this relay of faith is still going on, nearly two thousand years later, how the book of Acts tells us how the faith was passed on and on and on throughout the Roman world, and how the history of the church shows us that this faith was eventually passed on to people in Africa, and Asia, and Europe, and the Americas, and eventually, to you and to me. We talked about how the first apostles passed on their faith to someone else, and they passed it on to someone else, and so on and so on until it reached you and me. Someone passed the faith onto you. And you have passed the faith onto someone else. Or you will. Or both. That’s the way it works.

But 1 Corinthians is not one of our readings today. That’s not what this sermon is about. This sermon is about the gospel reading today, from the gospel according to John.

In this reading, Jesus is talking, and the apostles hear him talking. But he’s not actually talking to the apostles. He’s praying. He is praying for them. He is praying to his Father for them. But listen, he’s not just praying for them. He prays:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.

He’s praying for his apostles, and also for all the people they will pass their faith onto. He’s praying for the people they will hand the baton to, the second generation of Christians. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that means he’s also praying for the third generation, and the fourth generation, and also for us. Let that sink in. Jesus is praying for us. I used to think that one definition of the church was “the people who pray to God.” And that’s not wrong. But it’s also true to say that the church is “the people for whom Jesus prays.” That’s who we are. We are the people Jesus is praying for.

So what does Jesus pray? Well, he’s not praying for us to be wealthy. Or even to be healthy. He’s not praying for us to have a beautiful building to worship in, or that we have the most exciting youth programs or the best organ music. Or for us to be happy and content. No, he prays this:

I ask this Father, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe.

Jesus prays for us that we may be one. Now, that doesn’t mean that we all think the same or act the same. There is room here for liberals and conservatives. There is room here for extroverts and introverts, busy doers and quiet pray-ers. There is room here for people whose faith is strong and deep, and people who are questioning, skeptical, confused. There is room here for people who are messed up in all sorts of ways, and for people who are unwelcome in all sorts of places. Jesus isn’t praying that we all be identical, or perfect. He prays that we may be one, the way that he and the Father are one. Jesus and the Father are one because they are in relationship with one another. Perfect relationship.

The mystery of the Holy Trinity can be confusing…we proclaim that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus is God and the Father is God and the Holy Spirit is God; but Jesus is not the Father, and neither of them is the Holy Spirit. It’s confusing and mysterious, and well beyond the scope of this sermon, but one thing we can say today is this: In God’s very nature, God is in relationship. God is relationship. The Son loves the Father and the Father loves the Son, and they both love the Holy Spirit. And so Jesus is praying for us that we might be one in the same way, that we might be in relationship with one another and with him.

Relationships are about trust and love. It is not always easy to trust or love one another. Jesus prays that we might do it. It’s not always easy to trust or love ourselves. Jesus prays that we might do it. It’s not always easy to trust or love God. Jesus prays that we might do it.

Jesus says:

I ask this Father, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe.

Let’s remind one another about this. Jesus is praying for you. Jesus is praying for us. Remind yourself of that. Remind each other of that. And tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell everyone who needs to hear it that Jesus is praying for us, and slowly, bit by bit, the world will believe.

 

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You Are Not Alone

This is my sermon from today, the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The gospel text is John 14:23-29. Doctor Who fans might think of this as my “Face of Boe” sermon.

light-path-2

Jesus said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them. And we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)

You are not alone.

Jesus said, “I am going away, but the Father will send the Holy Spirit, who will teach you everything, and remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)

You are not alone.

Jesus said, “Peace I leave you. My peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives.” (John 14:27) I think we’ve all learned that things in this world do not give unconditionally. Things in this world give to us expecting something in return. And in the end, things in this world leave us. Jesus does not.

You are not alone.

Scripture tells us that Jesus is with us as we gather here. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

You are not alone.

Scripture tells us that Jesus is with us as we share communion. Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16)

You are not alone.

Scripture tells us that Jesus is with us wherever we are. Paul wrote, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” (Titus 2:11)

Jesus said, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

You are not alone.

But we feel alone. The authors of scripture knew this, especially those who wrote the Psalms. Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:1, 4)

Psalm 27 says, “For the Lord will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble. I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:5, 13)

Psalm 145 says, “The Lord is near to all who call on him.” (Psalm 145:18)

You are not alone.

And Jesus also knew we feel alone. He said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

And he said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28)

You are not alone.

Sometimes we feel alone because of our guilt, like God could never forgive us or dwell with us. But John wrote, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

And Paul wrote, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

You are not alone.

No matter how lonely you feel, scripture tells us that God is always with us, because that’s what God does. The prophet Zephaniah wrote, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)

You are not alone.

John of Patmos wrote, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

You are not alone.

God is not in some faraway heaven. God is here, among us and within us. John wrote, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14)

And Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

And when Christ is in us, he brings us together. Paul wrote, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) Peter wrote, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) In fact, God never meant for us to be alone. The second creation story in Genesis tells us that after God created Adam, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18) From the very beginning, God never meant for us to be alone.

And you are not alone.

And it is your calling to share the good news that you are not alone with the world. And we need not fear the world. We need not fear reaching out or asking for help. As Moses said to Joshua when he sent him out into an unknown future, “The Lord will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:8)

You are not alone.

And so I join with Paul in saying this: “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.” (Romans 8:38-39)

You are not alone.

And I suppose the last word should be given to Jesus, who said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Amen.