Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sermon May 15

Last week I went home for my brother's college graduation. Coincidentally, my home synod had their annual assembly that weekend as well, which meant that the pastor would need to be gone, so I was asked to lead the church service. This is the sermon from that weekend.

John 10:1-10

Good morning. I have to start with a word of thanks to all of you. I am truly grateful to be sharing in worship with you this morning, and I am honored to be asked to help out. This week is often called Good Shepherd Sunday—Jesus being the Good Shepherd—and the two verses following this passage inform us, in Jesus own words, that Jesus is the shepherd who cares for the sheep, and the sheep know him and hear his voice. That is a comforting thought. Time to check out—sermon’s over. Haha.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that easy? But, as usual, in addition to the comfort and joy it brings, the good news of the gospel challenges us and pulls us out of our comfort zone.

Ok, so we start at the beginning with the basics. Jesus is the gate, and those who enter are the shepherd. They guide the sheep in and out and to pasture so they may be safe.

Then the tough reality kicks in—there are forces in the world that are not from God. Thieves. This has the potential to be really scary if used to instill fear—the last section says that thieves intend to steal and destroy. It’s easy to think that we need to guard against them, point fingers outward trying to identify them, and be sure to follow the true shepherd. We live in a culture that can be ruled by fear—fear of failure, fear of financial or emotional insecurity, fear of anyone who is not like us, fear of people who we might claim don’t know Jesus. That’s not the case at all. Thieves would know exactly where the gate is. They avoid it at all costs. Thieves also do not break in with firearms and noise, but try to sneak quietly without being noticed.

These are the forces in the world that avoid and sneak around the good news they know to be true. These forces go around it to justify actions that they know don’t adhere to the Word of God, which, according to John, is Jesus. There are systems, diseases, natural disasters that cause damage to the people of God. These forces destroy, steal lives.

The sheep are safe, though. They don’t follow the wrong person, but only the one who enters by the gate—the shepherd. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and follow only that. They are saved because they will follow the one that comes to them and leads them to the pastures they must find in order to survive. The sheep need not be suspicious or concerned about which person is or is not the shepherd. The sheep know the voice of the shepherd, and they follow it to their salvation. This is again not something the sheep control. The shepherd comes to the sheep and calls to them.

There are many voices that may try to call out and promote certain paths—paths of jealousy, greed, etc. These voices may try to weedle their way into a mind and talk it into willfully ignoring the suffering of others for the sake of their own self-interest. Rarely will these real thieves seem like a frontal attack, but more often they come in the form of self-persuasion—a little here, a little there.

The good news, though, is that Jesus is always there—always. Jesus is the gate. The only way to enter into the sheepfold. He is also the Good Shepherd, as we find out in verse 11 of this chapter. He is both guiding and guarding the sheep. Jesus is always there—when the sheep gather together, and when they go out into the world.

Now, the tricky (and maybe uncomfortable) question—who are we in this parable? It’s nice to think that we’re always the sheep—the characters in the parable who are completely innocent. They are the ones who are cared for totally by the shepherd, and are saved without actually doing anything. Sheep have to enter by the gate. The sheep unfailingly follow their shepherd’s voice and ignore all others.

But what of the thieves? It’s easy to point at those things in the world that we fear, that we’d like to blame for what’s wrong with our lives. The ‘others’ that we haven’t even met—systems, religions, politics—that we claim are trying to take us away from God. But here’s the thing…thieves know where the gate is—and what it looks like. They sneak in to steal and destroy. The very definition of sin is the self-interest and self-centeredness that causes those broken relationships with God and one another. Thieves think of themselves, they sneak in to steal—for themselves—and they destroy what was there. Is it so hard to imagine that this might be our own selves?

Now, sin is a human condition—there is nothing we can do to change that. We confess almost every week that we sin in ways we know and ways we are unaware of in our actions as well as our failure to act. We are forgiven through no act of our own, but through the grace of God alone. That doesn’t mean we can go out and do whatever we want, though. We can—we need to—guard against the little voices of the world that try to persuade us that it’s okay to do this or that just once…or once more. The voices that say it’s okay to play by the rules of the system or the world we live in to get what we want—even if it hurts or oppresses others. Those voices are destructive—to others as well as ourselves.

We're not just thieves, though. I’d suggest that we—all of us—are both sheep and thief. We are both saint and sinner, after all. We talk ourselves into things we know we shouldn’t do, or ignore things we maybe should. We serve our own interests—think of ourselves—before others’ from time to time. We silently buy into the system without even making ourselves aware of what that means.

That seems pretty horrible, doesn’t it? Well, sin is pretty horrible. Then again, we are also the sheep. We cannot save ourselves. We are completely dependent on the shepherd, but we are unable to go to the shepherd—to Jesus—he comes to us. And, we cannot stay inside the sheepfold forever—we must go out into the world in order to live at all. We survive because Jesus—our shepherd—is leading us.

Jesus is always there—that is the good news, the comfort among all these challenging truths. He guards us as we gather, and goes with us as we go out into the world. We cannot survive forever if we stay guarded. We must go out and live life to survive. Living life—that is Jesus’ purpose for all the sheep. That the sheep may have life and have it abundantly—Jesus died for that reality. And he rose. And he continues to guide us through the continued presence of the Holy Spirit. No matter what happens, no matter what we do, Jesus is always there, coming to us and leading us. Amen.

Sermon May 7-8

Back at my internship site, I gave this sermon on May 8 (Mother's Day).
Luke 24:13-35

Think of an event you have coming up—any event. In May, that’s probably not difficult to do. There are Mother’s Day meals, graduations, presentations, final tests, summer trips, quarterly reports (maybe that’s June) the list goes on and on. For that event that you’re now thinking of, there are probably things to do to get ready for it—make food, gather information or research, invite people, pray you don’t forget all the words—then you’ll actually get there and live through it, and finally, the story of that event will be incorporated into the story of your life with all its twists and turns and meanings.

Stories of any kind are generally lived in three parts—preparation of an event or incident, the incident or event itself, and reflection on it. Reflection, hindsight—it’s where the significance of what has happened is most clearly understood. Hindsight is 20/20—there’s a reason we say that. Looking back on the events of a story, we can usually see more clearly why something happened, what we really did get out of it, or—most often—what we should have done or said.

And That is where we are at the beginning of the gospel reading today. Reflection. Two of the disciples who have been in Jerusalem over the past few days are now walking to Emmaus, seven miles away. During their walk, they begin to process what has happened. They discuss Jesus’ crucifixion and what it all meant.

From somewhere, a person joins their group. Traveling with a group would definitely be safer than walking alone. So perhaps that’s not so unusual—except that the two disciples are clearly upset about what has happened, and someone who has not been with them through it—doesn’t even know about it—suddenly joins in as one of them.

As if to prove how clueless he really is, the other person asks what is going on with them, and they reveal the level of their pain as they stop in their tracks. They describe those events—their expectations, hopes, and disappointment. They relive it all. They reveal just how much they do not yet understand by talking about their disappointment along with the testimony of some of the women of their group—though they have heard the good news, they are still upset. To them, the crucifixion was failure—the cross ended the hopes they might have had in the potential of Jesus.

They do not see yet. Why not? It’s quite possible that their grief and their past experiences in the world have blinded them to what radical truth might be there. The experiences of the world have taught them that those who die generally stay that way. The only person they have seen ever raise the dead is now dead as well. To them, then, logically, Jesus is dead, regardless of what the women say.

Jesus responds by correcting them—as he often did while he was with them before. He explains all the way to Emmaus about the Scriptures as a whole—from Moses onward. This is not an isolated prophecy or one verse somewhere, but the entirety of all the prophets. He speaks the Word, but his presence remains hidden from them. For whatever is left of the seven-mile walk without headphones or billboards or storefront windows they simply talk about the Scriptures with Jesus. Even in this familiar way—teaching the disciples—they do not know him on their own. They still do not see.

Even though they don’t see, they still remember their teachings. They extend hospitality to this stranger who appears to be going further all alone. They invite him in after an afternoon on the road. They share their food and lodging with this stranger to keep him safe from the dangers of the night.

Not until they sit down with this stranger are their lives transformed. Jesus somehow takes on a new role here, playing host, he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. As he does this, his true self is made known to them, and they understand. They know that this stranger that they invited to stay in out of the night is in fact Jesus himself. They understand that he has risen, that, yes, the women were right once again.  They see, and their worldly assumptions about life and death and Jesus are changed forever.

As soon as they realize all this, though, Jesus disappears, leaving them to reflect again on this new experience. They think about how things had changed for them on the road once he showed up, and they perhaps realize just what it was they were doing in going to Emmaus so alone, forlorn, and hopeless. They get what the cross was about now. It’s about hope, not failure. Their realization of the significance of this event moves them so much that they get up and make the seven-mile trip back to Jerusalem—on foot, once again—to let everyone know about it. Their time in fellowship with Jesus has moved them from their little meal to action.

They go back to Jerusalem to tell everyone the good news, but why would anyone believe it? Why, when the testimony of the women and the explanation of the Scriptures wouldn’t do it, would the rest of the disciples believe them now?

Is it that there are now two sets of witnesses to corroborate the women’s testimony? Maybe.

Is it that Jesus himself walked with them, interpreting the Scriptures? Perhaps. Remember, though, that they did not understand the total truth at that point.

Is it that Jesus was present at the meal? This is perhaps the most likely answer, though it could be a combination of all three. You have to admit, the supporting evidence is starting to stack up.

This, though, is perhaps the tipping point. In the taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing of the bread, the disciples’ eyes were opened and they saw Jesus—they themselves actually did nothing. They didn’t open their own eyes. Their eyes were opened by something beyond their own power or ability. Jesus is the one who acts.

Jesus acts, and only then can the disciples act—only then can they believe. They have realized their calling, and now they are off to live it.

Hindsight teaches us. Remembering and reflecting on an event will help us realize the actual significance of it—whether it’s something of great significance that we need to share or of little significance that we need to let go of.

Hindsight helps us learn…but only about what to do next. Should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve are not possible to do—not really. The closest we get to that is to tell someone we’ve affected that we were wrong or wanted to say something else. It still doesn’t change what happened.

The disciples can’t go back in time and listen with new ears to all that Jesus said about the Scriptures again. They can, however, tell the rest of the disciples that he appeared. They can begin to move forward and tell others about their experience, the hope that has been communicated to them for the whole world. Notice, those are all responses, forward actions lived out in the future, not re-writes of the past.

We, too, move forward. We go from fellowship with Jesus into living out our calling. We are empowered to act only because Jesus acts first. We remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We gather at a table with family, friends, and strangers. We experience Jesus’ real presence in the taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing of the meal, and then we leave the table and go out into the world to live out our calling, communicating the hope of Christ in all we do. AMEN.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Sermon May 1

This past weekend I was a guest seminarian preacher for a two-point parish about an hour or so away. The sermon focuses on the gospel reading for the day, and tries to incorporate some measure of seminary explanation.

John 20:19-31

Good morning. I am honored to be able to share this morning with you. My name is Sarah Timian, and I am an intern at First Lutheran Church in Lincoln. Basically that means I am in my third year in seminary, which is graduate school for pastors. I attend the one in Gettysburg, PA, where I will return next year and continue studying to be a pastor someday. At Gettysburg, my friends and I do study a lot—it’s graduate school after all—but we also like to just hang out, take study breaks, and we love to laugh.

I was thinking the other day about some of the jokes I’ve shared with my friends at Gettysburg, and I realized that to even understand some of them without so much explanation you ruin the joke, you’d have to be a seminary student. Some of them, you’d have to be a seminary student at Gettysburg, and even some of those you’d need to be a Gettysburg seminary student who knows Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In other words, some of the inside jokes are over my head.

You don’t need to be in seminary to understand inside jokes, though. Almost every group has them. Co-workers, families, circles of friends, whatever—the point is, you have to have some sort of inside knowledge to understand what’s going on. No one is going to get the significance of this or that unless they know Aunt Mabel or Uncle Fred, unless they were at that reunion picnic, unless they understood the accountants’ system.

In today’s reading, we have the same thing happen. The disciples are locked in a room, probably hiding from the Roman authorities, afraid for their lives, and suddenly Jesus is with them. He breathes on them and says, “Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit.” What an unimaginable experience. The disciples have been through the death of their leader and friend. Now they not only see that he has risen, they have been bestowed his peace and given the Holy Spirit to sustain them through whatever they may face. I can’t imagine the sort of joy, relief, and sheer happiness that must have taken place. God had played the ultimate joke on the world—death has been cheated, defeated, and Jesus lives again! Fear is gone! Peace is with them.

One of them is missing, though. Jesus has appeared to the disciples, but Thomas is not there. His circle of friends tries to tell him, but Thomas insists it’s one of those “you had to be there” moments. He doesn’t get it. He declares that he will not believe unless he sees it for himself.

That’s probably understandable. Thomas asks to be granted what the other disciples have been given without asking. He perhaps feels like they’ve gotten something better than he was allowed to have. Perhaps they feel they’ve got some inside information that he isn’t privileged to receive. Where was he? We don’t ever find out—all we can say is that he wasn’t hiding with the others.

So he asks, actually, he demands an answer. As a seminarian—a student—I love Thomas’ story. It gives me so much hope because I know I have questions all the time. Sometimes I have more questions than my professors or my supervisor would like, I’m sure. The idea that one of the disciples would have questions or demand equal explanations to come to a conclusion is awesome. Thomas doesn’t fiddle around with little things, either. He asks the most fundamental question of all—did Jesus really rise from the dead? The others have seen it, and he demands their experience before he will share their understanding. He wants to be an insider, too.

Is it okay to question? Like I said, as a student, I really hope so. For Thomas, it is more than okay. Look at the next line “a week later…” A week later! The disciples lived with this person and his uncertainty for a whole week—to the point that he was with them the following week. Despite their differences, they were able to stay together even though there was no apparent resolution to their disagreement. Are we so kind? Can we live with those who differ from us on our most basic beliefs? Can we get along with people of other denominations? Other faiths? Other values systems? Other political views? I think we have a lot to learn about accepting others from this little phrase, this half-verse that says “a week later.”

Okay, so the disciples make it through a week together and gather again—this time Thomas is with them. Once again, Jesus appears among them. Thomas isn’t scolded or reprimanded because of his questions. Rather, Jesus offers Thomas what Thomas said he needed for his faith.

Turns out, Thomas doesn’t even need what he said he did. He doesn’t stick his fingers into Jesus hands and side, but answers straightaway with the first declaration in this book of personal faith after Jesus’ resurrection “My Lord and my God!” Thomas has been given what the other disciples had—he has now seen the risen Christ, and taken his place again as an equal to them in this experience.

Thomas didn’t need what he thought he did. Does that mean he shouldn’t have asked? No way. This is another reason I love this story. So often I know I—and I suspect others—don’t get it right the first time. I have trouble separating what I need from what I want. Thomas wants to stick his fingers in Jesus’ side and hands. He needs to see and hear Jesus’ voice. Jesus helps separate out what is needed from what is wanted, but that doesn’t mean we as humans can’t or shouldn’t voice what we think we need.

Had Thomas not asked, that desire would have gone suppressed, maybe even destroyed his relationship with the other disciples over time. We shouldn’t suppress those questions and concerns we may have, either. Only through voicing and exploring them do we slowly go deeper and deeper into our faith—growing up as we go beyond shallow and simplistic beliefs. Only through voicing and exploring them do we find out what we truly need and what is just a want. Perhaps we also discover a little more clearly what it is we actually do believe. Thomas, receiving what he needed, is able to articulate his faith at last.

Thomas is given what the others had experienced, and brought into the disciples’ inner circle. And then Jesus does away with this insider/outsider nonsense. “Blessed are those who believe without seeing.” Those who were able to witness first-hand the resurrection of Jesus are not superior to those who didn’t simply because of that factor.

So what’s the point of all this? This sermon has gone off in at least four different directions, but how does it all come together? It comes together in us—here and now. In fellowship and community, as the disciples were, we take and learn and discuss and grow. Like Thomas, we are allowed to question, to demand what we think we need—even if we don’t really need it. We realize that doesn’t mean we’ll get what we demand, but that Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and those around us will help us see what we do actually need. We hold one another accountable, and we live together anyway when we do not agree.

We are invited to go beyond the surface levels of belief to deep faith, to cry “My Lord and My God!” We are blessed to receive the Holy Spirit, and like the disciples, we are given the peace of Jesus, who comes to us in our fearful times. We are blessed to be given faith without always seeing—that is sheer grace from God, given to us as we come together and as this story comes together in its many layers in us. We are called to live this story—our story. Strengthened by Jesus to go ever deeper, we question, we cry out “My Lord and My God” and we live out that confession. Amen.