Morning

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Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. – Psalm 30:5b

Being a pastor I’m usually aware of quiet a few griefs that folks are going through. In fact, I’d say I’ve seldom met a person who isn’t in some way shape or form going through something that may very well make them weep at night. Their griefs may be for things years in the past, or things presently before them, or even things that are still to come. Some are filled with grief over pain, sickness, or death. Still others are troubled over children’s choices, aging parents, or looming decisions. Grief is brought on by work and school, family and friends, church and interests; you name it, it probably induces grief in some way…and everybody is dealing with it. There’s a simple piece of wisdom that floats around, you never know what people are dealing with so treat them nice. Oh that we would live that piece of wisdom!

Lately as I’ve been thinking about griefs and tears this verse from the Psalms has come to my mind, “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Now I’d like to move this text beyond the platitudes that have chained it down. Far too often we throw this around when someone is feeling gloomy and grief filled. “There, there” we say “stop worrying and crying, you’ll feel better in the morning, the Bible says so.” Does it really say so? So often we go for the simple answer because we’re uncomfortable and it makes us feel better, not the person who’s burdened under by grief and weeping.

This little Psalm tells me two things. The first is about grief. Grief is real, it is present, it is part of life. It hangs around us and won’t go away; the Bible uses the word tarry. Do you know someone who tarry’s? They don’t just pop in then go away; those who tarry often have a way of long outlasting their welcome. That’s how tears and grief and all those things that are tough are; they long outlast their welcome. So, little piece of advice; stop saying that the grief will pass and you’ll be fine soon. The reality is that grief will, in all likelihood, remain as a constant companion for us all the days of our life.

However, this Psalm also tells me about joy. The Psalmist declares that joy comes with the morning. The word morning is used some 200 times in the Old Testament alone. Throughout the Bible the morning time is pictured as the time of God’s powerful, life giving, salvation inducing, joy filled time. There is perhaps no finer example of this than that occasion, early on the first day of the week when a group of women went to a cemetery and found the tomb, a place of weeping and grief and death, empty. Grief was now empty and in its place came joy.
You see, this Psalm is about that lasting joy that we have in Jesus. Grief and weeping is a reality now; it’s present in your life, you know that. But each morning, as the rising sun casts out the darkness that has entombed us through the night we’re reminded of the other son rise that has cast out weeping and grief. That son rise is for us. You see, here’s the thing, those things that cause us grief and pain and tears; be they sickness like cancer or Alzheimer’s or depression; be they worries over children or parents or spouse; be they fears about work or home or tomorrow; whatever it is for you that causes grief and tears, that has an expiration date. It will come to an end and will be no more. It likely won’t be today or tomorrow, but those things will come to an end. You however, you will go on, Jesus will go on, joy will come. Each morning as the light fills the sky, as the sun rises higher before your eyes recall that son rise of 2,000 years ago and remember the words of promise that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. Each morning take some comfort amidst your pain and grief and worry, even as the tears come down, that the light shines in your darkness and one fine day that darkness will be all gone and all that will remain is the joy filled light. Good morning.

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Sermon Scribbles: Labels

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“So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” – Acts 11:2-3

Can you imagine? The nerve of Peter! Going to eat with…with those uncircumcised gentiles. Did he even think about how that might look to others? We’ve never done that before. He didn’t even form one single committee to study this matter and he certainly didn’t ask the church for a vote to have permission to eat with those people.

The believers in Jerusalem criticized Peter, the text tells us, for daring to go break bread with Gentiles. Never mind he also preached to them the gospel, baptized the whole lot of them, and began spreading the kingdom to the ends of the earth. I imagine that some of the criticisms might have gone like the statements above. Have you heard those tossed around in church? I suppose some things never change.

What I find compelling in this text is the use of labels. There are the uncircumcised gentiles; also known as “them.” Then there are the circumcised, the believers who are gathered in Jerusalem. Everyone is kept in their proper category so that never the two shall meet. You stay over there with your kind and I’ll stay over here with mine. Separate but equal was how we worded it in our country in the not so distant past.

You had the circumcised. Now these folks had the right pedigree as Jews. They had the right belief and they lived in the right place, Jerusalem. Oh, and, shall we say, their flesh looked the right way. Then you had those uncircumcised swine, as they might have been called. Their linage was wanting being that they were gentiles. “They’re not believers like us” those in Jerusalem might have sneered. They lived on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks; do good things come out of Joppa? And, lest we forget, their flesh didn’t quite look right. I don’t mean to belabor the point of circumcision, but isn’t it interesting how often our us versus them labels have something to do with how our flesh looks?

It strikes me as interesting how often in the circles I inhabit labels are prized possessions. What do you do? Where did you go to school? Where did you grow up? Who are your family? I call these first date questions and they’re invariably what we lead with when we meet people. To be honest, the answers to those questions in our lives are treasured truths for us. The answers to those questions, perhaps more often than we’re willing to admit, form in our minds a version of that person. We take in their various labels, categorize them, and then apply a label to them. It could be good or bad, useful or not, worth my time or a waste, an asset to me or a burden. But in one way or another we label them. It’s a way to keep them where we need them…notice how that word “them” keeps popping up?

Here’s the thing though, God is not altogether interested in what labels you treasure about yourself and your friends nor is he interested in the labels you use to distance yourself from others.  To be sure he is very interested in you and all the ways that you are unique, he’s just not all that interested in how you separate yourself from others. You see, way back at the beginning of creation everything worked together harmoniously. Men and women; birds and animals and sea creatures; sun and moon and stars, land and sea and air. Creation was harmony brought out of chaos. Sin brought chaos back into the picture; everyone and every things was torn apart by the new god of my labels make me more special than your labels. Our labels, used as a means to separate ourselves from others, are sin, plain and simple.

Our labels are sin, but the labels that God puts on us are grace. The first label, a label we share in common with all people is that we are a creation of the Lord God Almighty made in his image and likeness. It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, how successful you are or how much of a failure you are. You are not the sum total of your successes or your failures. That is crucially important. What you are, if you have breath in your lungs, a pulse in your veins, a beat in your heart, what you are is a bearer of the image and likeness of the God who created everything, sustains everything, redeems everything. The second label of grace that God places upon us is beloved Child of God. He was willing for his one and only son to die so that that label could be applied to all people. Got that, to all people. He was willing to lose his son so that he could get you. You are, because of Jesus and no matter what, a beloved Child of God. Don’t ever forget that.
This is what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in our world and in your life. He’s breaking down the labels we use to separate ourselves and in their place is binding us together to himself with the two stranded label of image and likeness bearer and beloved Child of God. Who are we to hinder God? Those two, and nothing else, are your labels.

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“Do you love me more than these?” – John 21:15b

We heard this question asked of Peter three times this past Sunday by Jesus. “Do you love me more than these?” This question has reverberated through my brain since then. I wonder, who are the these Jesus refers to?

It may certainly be the case that the these are the other seven disciples gathered with Jesus and Peter. Does Peter love Jesus more than this group of guys? Maybe. Or, are the these Peter’s old way of life, the familiar and comfortable, the practice of fishing? Again, maybe. There may be some subtle nuance in the Greek I’m all together missing that clarifies the whole matter; I was never much good with Greek, just ask my teachers; but it seems to be left vague and open to interpretation as to who the these are in Jesus’ question.

“Do you love me more than these?” I suppose as this question echoes through my soul I’ve been hearing, Jonathan, son of Buck and Cindy, do you love me more than these things that are familiar and make you comfortable? It is, to say the least, a very disconcerting, make you wiggle in your seat, sweat under the collar kind of question. There are lots of things in my life that are familiar, and comfort giving, and joy producing; and any number, if not all of them, may very well be things that I love more than Jesus. As Luther put it in speaking about the first commandment, I may well have many gods that find their way to the front of the line ahead of Jesus. What’s easy to miss is the fact that those false gods and shiny idols may well be good and wholesome things; they need not be, and often times are not, the vices and debaucheries we warn ourselves of.

In my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), I serve as a dean. That means I end up in a lot of meetings and a lot of conversations about what God is up to and what is the state of the church. It probably comes as no surprise to those of us in the west that the picture often doesn’t look good. Pews that once were filled now leave more empty seats than those occupied; budgets once were larger and the money always seemed to come; the church building once gleamed where now a mounting list of maintenance and repair looms; perhaps the sound of children that once filled the halls has grown eerily silent…maybe even more concerning than these is the awareness of how long it’s taken us to even notice. Long story short, the church with its structures and systems and ways is becoming untenable. Churches dot the landscape almost equaling the number of people making the weekly pilgrimage to join in the sweet hour of prayer. Do relatively small southern towns need two, or three, or more churches all with in a few miles of one another all of the same particular brand of the church of Jesus Christ? Or, to really hit where our comfort and familiarity resides, does Jesus desire temples built of brick and mortar, or perhaps temples built of flesh and blood? Perhaps it’s no coincidence for us in the ELCA, or the church in the United States, or in the South, that we sat comfortably in our church buildings surrounded by our stuff and our systems on Sunday and heard Jesus ask us three times “do you love me more than these?”
Make no mistake, the church is not going anywhere. Jesus promised that (see Matthew 16:18). But our way of doing and being church may very well perish. Our steeples may fall, our bricks may crumble, our offices may close, and more. But the church, the body of Christ, that will go on, that will prevail. In the midst of it all, even as we ponder the implications and the depths of the question “do you love me more than these?” for our lives there is Jesus who prepares a table for us to nourish us. This Jesus even dares to invite us to bring to the table what we have and hold and cherish to be used in his work of nourishing us, the church, and the world. We may well, and need to ponder the question do we love Jesus more than these? But as we wonder and ponder take joy and confidence that as Jesus is asked the question “Jesus, son of Mary, do you love these people more than anything else?” The answer is yes, Jesus loves us more.

Emmanuel

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“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” – John 20:19

I often see those pieces of artwork that has Jesus, blond hair blue eyed Swedish looking Jesus (funny right?), standing at a door and knocking. It’s a piece of artwork depicting Jesus’ words to the Church of Laodicea from the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and eat with him, and he with me.” (3:20) You often see this artwork on turn or burn leaflets; basically saying get right or get left behind. Now, I suppose that’s all well and good. I mean John does tell us that Jesus did say these words.

But then John also relates a similar story in the Gospel that he wrote. It’s late on Easter day and the disciples are locked behind closed doors off in hidden rooms out of fear. Despite the locked door Jesus appears and stands among them and says “Peace be with you.” No knocking, no door opening. Just locked door and BAM! there’s Jesus.

That’s the funny thing about Scripture, sometimes it says one thing…and then in another place it sounds like it contradicts itself. Can I say that? I suppose we’ll wait and see if I lose my union card. So, which is it? Does Jesus stand at the door and knock; or does he just come right on in invited or not? What if the answer is yes.

See, here’s the thing. I’m of the opinion that Jesus is active in this world, he’s present in all of life’s situations, he’s working in your life right now no matter if you know it or not. I wish I knew how it all worked, how Jesus is present in awful and horrible situations as well as the joyous and happy ones but I don’t. What I do know is that Jesus is all about God’s presence with us! In fact, That’s his name Emmanuel, God with us.
What if this whole discipleship Christian thing isn’t so much about getting saved or believing the right stuff or acting a certain way but more about coming to recognize the presence of God that’s already there, active in your life and all over the world. I think that might be right. In fact, Martin Luther in his Small Catechism’s section on the Lord’s Prayer basically says that. In each petition, explains Luther, we acknowledge that what God does in our lives and in our world he does without needing us or our prayer. Basically then we are praying that we learn to see what he’s already up to. So, one what doors of your life is Jesus knocking? In what locked away places is Jesus appearing? In the midst of what fears is Jesus saying Peace be with you? How and what and where and when are you seeing Jesus?

Sermon Scribbles: Fishing naked…with Jesus

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“That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.” – John 21:7

Fishing naked…with Jesus! Ok, I admit, this is a bit of an attention getter to make you read; but it is there in the text…laid bare for all the world to see. (sorry, I couldn’t resist a little pun; I can’t promise that won’t be the last) We might surmise that these disciples are, shall we say, a little slow on the uptake. Do the math, this scene will now be the third event that Peter and John have seen the Lord Jesus. On Easter morning Peter and John see Jesus; what do they do next? Lock themselves away for fear! Jesus shows up twice more, even with those locked doors; again, what do they do next? They retreat to Galilee to their old stomping grounds and go back to work, fishing…naked. Now it would seem that if you see the Lord, risen from the dead, that might just be a life altering, perspective shifting, make you reevaluate all kinds of stuff type of event…but these disciples are a bit slow on the uptake. I’ve been tempted in the past to name the ending of John’s Gospel the Gospel of the dimwitted. Then again, are we any different? Aren’t we just a bit slow on the uptake? And perhaps a little slack is in order; after all, might it take us all a while to get our brains around seeing someone alive who we knew for certain was dead?

This is just an odd scene all the way around. There is of course the slow uptake of the disciples. Then there’s this business of Peter being naked. Now to be sure nakedness was seen very differently 2,000 years ago. Part of our discomfort here might have more to say about us than the texts what with our fairly puritanical views on the human body despite what magazine covers and tv shows might suggest. Still, I find it curious that Peter’s nakedness is singled out here. It seems odd, all things considered, that Peter is naked in this scene when seemingly none of the others are. Was Peter just a free spirit? Maybe he looked for any excuse to bare it all in the buff! Maybe it was an inside joke among the disciples, “there goes Peter again…letting it all hang out.” Beside this, why would Peter strip down to fish then don water soaking, weight adding, potential drowning hazard clothing to swim ashore?

I’ve been thinking this week that the answer is perhaps in the book of Hebrews. “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (4:12-13) These two verses may well be the cliff’s-notes version of today’s Gospel reading. The word of God is living and active; like Jesus’ dawn time walk along the shore or his morning culinary endeavors. A man naked and laid bare before the Lord; oh and there’s judgment…but we’ll get to that in a second.

It’s not easy to have your whole life unfold before the eyes of all. I used to relish the tabloid news of pastors and politicians, sports stars and celebrities and their very public falls from grace…ok, I still enjoy them a bit. But mostly I find it uncomfortable for someone to have all their faults laid out for all to see. That’s Peter. He’s both literally and figuratively naked. Laid bare before Jesus isn’t just flesh but also the naked deeds of a man who betrayed the Lord in his hour of greatest need…three times! I’m of the opinion that Peter is feeling very vulnerable right about now and those clothes are giving him just a bit of fleeting security in an all too uncomfortable situation.

Dripping wet, recently naked, huffing and puffing from a swim, Peter finds himself standing before the one he betrayed. It’s awkward, it’s tense. Jesus feeds him and his friends. Jesus is always doing that isn’t he? Jesus feeds us, weather we deserve it or not, when we love him or betray him, in the morning at noon and in the night, Jesus feeds us. That’s important.

Now the scene changes a bit, clothed or not, naked Peter is questioned by Jesus. Make no mistake, this is judgment plain and simple. Three times Jesus asks, “do you love me?” Now there’s something that’s lost to us with our English translations. Jesus and Peter are having what might be called “failure to communicate” in Cool Hand Luke’s parlance. Jesus asks do you love me agape (with Godly Love). Peter responds “yes, you know I love you” (with brotherly love). Twice this goes on, then Jesus changes his word, do you love me with brotherly love to which Peter responds yes, with brotherly love. Does Jesus bend? Not really, I’d say that he meets Peter where he is. Ol slow on the uptake Peter is still being a bit dimwitted…like we all can be. So Jesus will do what Jesus does, he goes to Peter instead of making Peter come to him. Jesus takes Peter to himself and will, throughout a life lived bring Peter to where Jesus is. This judgment has become love and acceptance and the start of transformation. Ok, says Jesus, we’ll start with brotherly love and we’ll get to Godly love.

How will they do that? By feeding and tending sheep as Jesus instructs Peter to do and as Jesus has demonstrated in preparing breakfast. You see, loving others (brotherly love) is intrinsic to loving God (Godly love). We’re taught in Scripture that people make up the Body of Christ. We love God by loving one another and we love one another by loving God. love, be it Godly or brotherly, is all bound together…you can’t have one without the other.
At its heart this is a story about all of our vulnerabilities and about the Jesus who breaks through them to love us and feed us and transform us. “Where I am there you shall be” Jesus said earlier in John’s Gospel. That’s true; it was true then, it’s true now, and it will be true forever and always. Jesus will stop at nothing to make that true for you. He didn’t let flesh or blood stop him, nor did he let temptations or passions, cross or death, stone covered graves or locked doors, fishing boats and seas, nakedness or denials or anything else get in the way of making that promise of his true for you.