The Day the Earth Stood Still (Easter 2014)

Happy Easter!  This morning I appreciate the pastor’s prayer I heard recently. It acknowledges the anxiety and hope that our Easter sermons match the greatness of the subject.    Last Sunday I announced that my  message would be titled “The Day the Earth Stood Still,”  a title inspired by the 1951 film of the same A 1951 20th Century Fox black-and-white science fiction film directed by Robert Wise, starring Patricia Neal and Michael Rennie.

name. Thanks to my late mother,  I’ve seen this film at least fifteen times. I was raised on “One Step Beyond”  “Outer Limits” and the “Twilight Zone.” However, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” was a perennial favorite. I admit that what the film loses in being hokey, it makes up in getting us to think about humanity’s capacity for violence.  Seen through the lens of Easter, I am reminded of how the plot parallels certain religious themes.

In the film, an alien visitor appears in human form, landing on Earth to walk among us with the goal of delivering an important message to the citizens of earth.  “Klaatu” tells them that the message he bears is so momentous  it must be revealed to all the world’s leaders simultaneously.  However, before he can deliver this message, he is killed by mob violence and resurrected temporarily to complete his mission. When asked if his technology holds the power of life and death, he tells them that only the almighty spirit has that power.  When the people fail to take his request seriously, he causes the world to stand still for one hour. Cars and trains mysteriously stop and nothing but planes already in flight continues.

When Klaatu ultimately does address the world’s scientists, he tells them that our penchant for violence has gained the attention of the universe and because we are beginning to venture into space, the other planets will not allow our violence to extend beyond our borders.  He then leaves behind a robot programmed to maintain the peace, or to reduce us to a burned out cinder if we do not comply.

In a very loose comparison, Jesus was somewhat alien to the people of his day.  God in human form, he came to live among us, bringing a message of peaceful nonviolence, inclusion and love–cut down by the violence of an world not yet ready for the momentous teaching he came to share. Tragically, his thanks was death. His thanks was taking upon himself all the violence the world could throw at him. The difference between the film and the historical Jesus, is that his presence, life, and death were not science fiction.  His mission was and is still very real. But are we any more ready today than they were then? When the ancient world didn’t take his message seriously,  sacred text records that the earth stood still and…”darkness came over the whole land [or, earth] until three in the afternoon.”

And now it’s no longer 1st century Palestine, or 1951 Hollywood. It’s Minnesota, U.S.A., Earth, Easter Sunday 2014. We live in a world where violence for violence sake is all too common. Today our capacity for violence spans the distance between class room bullying and weapons of mass destruction. That said, that the gravity of our response  is more important than at any other time in history.

Paul Nuechterlein is a writer with the Peace and Theology association. He writes “[It’s important to] name God’s startling alternative to violence in any form. God [in Jesus] suffers our violence on the cross, showing it to be impotent compared to God’s life-giving power of love on Easter.”

No, Jesus did not leave us a robot to wipe us out if we got it wrong. He left us the Holy Spirit, to whisper and to guide his community. Christ came to show us who God truly is. The God who placed a rainbow covenant in the sky, placed it as a promise to never again solve the problem of violence by inflicting more violence. That is the God we meet in Christ.

The message of Easter today is centered in God’s radical hope of a “new covenant in his blood”—a world order defined by love, peacemaking, care of neighbor, justice, and equality. On the day the earth stood still, Jesus put death to death and his resurrection changed everything from that day forward.

So what will be our response to Gods radical, boundary-breaking acts of divine love that are at the heart of Easter?

It is my prayer that we will answer the call to live our life so that one day, the lion will lay down with the lamb. THAT is Christ’s ongoing work in, with, and through us.  That is Easter hope, a hope that will only be called science fiction if we fail.

Amen.

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An Invitation to a Miracle Mindset

John 2:1-11

Typically sermons build to a central point, but this morning I’m going to get to the point right up front… Here we go.

What would our lives be like if we expected miracles on a daily basis?  In other words, let’s suppose that extraordinary outcomes don’t happen only to people in the bible or the National Enquirer…. Imagine that your spiritual mindset, your daily and confident expectation, is that you have your very own miracle maker.

That is the example of Mary. Mary had a miracle makerImage as part of her family, her “team.”  What if we, who are also part of ‘Team Jesus,’ were to adopt that same expectation; that same miracle mindset?

When the wedding host runs out of adult beverages, it is clear that Mary not only knew Jesus could fix the problem, she expected nothing less than that he would.   It was no small thing to run out of wine at a wedding.  It was how you demonstrated hospitality and it also represented the flow of good fortune that would follow the new couple.  So to run out of BLESSING was an unconscionable faux pas.

Weddings are used throughout the bible as teaching illustrations. The king who gives the wedding feast to a bunch of no shows in Matthew 25.  The “what not to wear” account of the wedding guest who gets thrown out for not wearing the right clothes, in Matthew 22.  The big seating chart dilemma in Luke 14.

What can we take away from this particular wedding story?

Well, stuff goes wrong at weddings as in life. I can attest!

  •  The couple arrives to realize they forgot the rings and the wedding is delayed 45 minutes while they run home.
  • The matron of honor had surgery recently and shouldn’t be standing for a long time and … you guessed it. She collapses during the vows.
  • The bride’s mother threatens to make a scene if her ex-husband (the bride’s father) brings his new girlfriend to the wedding—which of course he does.
  • Or…guests don’t bother to RSVP for the reception, but show up anyway, assuming there will be enough food and drink for them. And there isn’t.

We can wonder if that’s what happened at the wedding at Cana. And so a wedding is the scene John’s gospel uses to tell of Jesus’ first of seven signs of his divinity.

Each of the seven signs in the Gospel of John illustrates the miracles or public actions that reveal his identity. Whether Jesus is changing water into wine, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, or raising Lazarus, each story is told to reveal something  about Jesus and the human condition.

They invite us to take on the role of the people Jesus encounters in each story. Many believe this is why some people remain unnamed. We are to fill in the blank with our own name. That makes it easier for listeners to step into their space to stand with them in the experience of the scene.

At the heart of the wedding at Cana, human resources are at an end. There is no more wine left. In other miracles in John, humans have come to an end of their medical skills, supply of food, or supply of courage. In each case Jesus heals, feeds, and comforts amid the storm. Here he supplies what is needed for the feast to continue: the gift of wine. The gift of wine is given to propel us forward to the hour when the gift will be new life.

Throughout the scriptures we have always referred to these gifts or signs as MIRACLES.  And then…we check out! Miracles don’t exist today, right? And if they do, have you ever seen one?  Or they happen to other people, right?

Wrong.   Just what constitutes a miracle?

Miracles are happenings that we don’t naturally expect.

Why? Because NATURALLY, when left to our limited human limitations, our expectations tend to be pretty low.  Maybe we’ve forgotten that we are part of team Jesus!

Speaking of only our congregation, it was nothing short of a miracle when our Dorothy Hansen fell in her apartment and the man who normally walks the halls earlier, walked later and heard her cries. It was nothing short of a miracle that Marlys Nauman is recovering from a grave medical condition that in part turned out to be due to being given the wrong medication! It is nothing short of a miracle that Salem’s dining hall, over the last 60 plus years has probably fed more than 5,000 cups of Swedish egg coffee, pancakes  and meatball sundaes!

Miracles are when God and humans get together to make something happen.  Mary got that. Next Saturday the north side Lutheran churches are going to get together and confidently expect that God is going to work through them to make something wonderful happen in our neighborhood.  That reminds me…

Years ago I used to hand out special writing pens wherever I went.  I was so struck by these words that I had 300 pens engraved. Would you like to know what was written on the pens?  “The universe rearranges itself to suit your picture of reality.” In other words, you’ll always get exactly what you expect.   If your expectations are low, I guarantee that the universe will line up to verify that for you.  But if your expectations are born of a miracle mindset, watch out, because God will deliver.

We can either live as if everything that happens is ODD or as if everything that happens is GOD.   It is a choice.  Bad things may still occur but ask Kevin McGandy about the unexpected blessings and miracles cancer is bringing into his life.

Our gospel today is an Invitation to Experience the Miracles Ourselves. Team Jesus is about what is possible and… the possibilities are limitless. Because by the way, when Jesus turned water from the stone jars into wine, it added up to 180 gallons of the finest vintage they’d likely ever see.  And it was more than enough.

Amen.

Come and See

Who do you follow?” That was the question I was asked while on vacation this past week down in Austin, Texas.  I’m not a huge fan of Texas in general but I love Austin. I served there as an interim pastor in 2007/2008.  You’vecome and see got to love a place where the slogan is “keep Austin weird.”  Austin is a bohemian mix of high tech, hippies, musicians, government types, and mystics. 

It was during dinner one night that I was asked the question. At the dinner table were people who identified as Christian, spiritual, metaphysical, as well as a Christian woman who now practices Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.  She was who wanted to know which spiritual leaders I follow, along with what preachers I listen to.

As curious as she was about me, I became curious about what this woman was looking for that she hadn’t found in Christianity.  Was something missing?  Had she grown tired of Jesus?  Had she never found the growing edge of the faith she grew up with?  Personally, the more I have studied Christianity, the more I find right under my nose. I  want to add that I applaud anyone drawing from multiple spiritual disciplines, however, I also hope they continue to excavate the treasures of them all.

The encounter was on my mind when I got home and opened my bible to see what the gospel passage was going to be for today.   John 1.  Perfect. In all of the gospels, one of the first things Jesus does is call disciples-dedicated followers.

But in John 1 the first question Jesus asks those followers is: “What are you looking for?” At one level, the question asks why they are walking after him. Fundamentally, this is the existential question asked of any potential disciple: “What do you seek when you come to follow Jesus?”  Both questions are worth pondering. Did you notice that they answer his question with another question? They ask him where he is staying.   The Greek word translated as “stay” is menô, a term that signifies a permanent remaining or abiding. Their question asks for more than location. They want to know where Jesus permanently abides, reflecting the innate desire of any disciple is to be in Jesus’ presence always.

That simple encounter conveys a desire for sincere relationship.  Relationship is key. Without mutual relationship, the encounter with Jesus would not have taken. It would have remained a meeting and nothing more.

Then Jesus says something else. He says, “Come and see,” taking it a step further with Nathanael.  In this short passage of sacred text, Jesus lets Nathanael know that he has seen him under the fig tree. In other words, this man Jesus KNOWS him, knows of him, and has SEEN him.   When we come right down to it, isn’t that what we all seek?  That God knows and sees us?

So, what are YOU looking for?  What is it that you seek?  Have you answered Jesus’ call to “come and see?” To “come and see,” is to risk genuine relationship. By saying “come and see” Jesus is inviting us to experience relationship, and to pay attention to what Jesus is up to in your life and in our world. Through this invitation we learn that faith is not a series of answers to be mastered and memorized. Relationship with Jesus is an experiential way of life. And…it cannot be phoned in.

Not long after my son passed, I was introduced to a prayer site on the internet. I was in my first call and at the time didn’t realize that my own relationship with God had been harmed by Jeremiah’s death.  I logged on to www.sacredspace.ie and was surprised by what I found. The site is run by Irish Jesuits and every day holds a different devotional experience. Each begins with an opening thought, which moves you through a prayer, a scripture, and then a time of conversation with Jesus.  Today’s devotion used part of the same scripture as our gospel text. It began with:

A year of grace is ending, and a new one is beginning. Before I ponder what the new year may bring, let me light my lamp and look back on the past year. There I can discover the deft touches of God, and this will give me confidence that the year now unfolding will be equally rich.  (And then it moved to the day’s prayer)

Dear Jesus, today I call on you in a special way. Mostly I come asking for favors. Today I’d like just to be in Your presence. Let my heart respond to Your Love.

And then after reading the day’s scripture, you are invited to imagine yourself talking to Jesus. Imagine Jesus himself standing or sitting at your side. You’re told to “Share your feelings with him.”

It was then that I realized how angry I was with God–not for taking Jeremiah (because I don’t believe that) but rather for the access I no longer had to my child . Relationships stall when we’re angry.  So I imagined that Jesus was sitting next to me and, well, I blasted him! “Where is my son? Why can’t I talk to him? Even a prisoner gets one phone call!” I yelled.

It was in that moment, while sitting in front of my computer, that I felt the presence and heard the voice of Jesus.  And Jesus said, “Jeremiah is fine. He is here, here with me.” The anger drained from me. It was all I needed to restore my relationship.  I knew in that moment that I was seen, I was known, and I was understood. Thanks be to God.

As we begin a new year, I invite us to begin a new relationship with God. God came down for relationship! This year, let us come to a place of knowing that God sees us. And with deep heart knowledge, let us share that good news with a world that needs the peace of that knowing. May it be so.

Amen.

10Things Downton Abbey and the Church Have in Common

DowntonI’m a recent convert to the PBS miniseries Downton Abbey, the international hit series set in a  Yorkshire country estate amid the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family.  This highly addictive series chronicles the drama-filled lives of both the upstairs aristocrats and the downstairs servants, all of whom are navigating the social  and class changes of the 1920’s. It didn’t take this Lutheran pastor long to see  similarities between the challenges and charms of the mainline church and the congregation known as the Crawley Estate.  In no particular order, here they are: 

  1. The church and the Crawleys are challenged with an urgent and uncomfortable need to modernize, over and against the paralysis of wanting things to remain the same.
  2. The characters of Downton Abbey  and the Church understand that being part of a community includes accompanying one another in times of loss and crisis, birth and gain.
  3.  Both the Abbey and the Church are reluctant experts at employing gossip and innuendo as a way of moving information along in community.  I don’t like this one.
  4. The Crawley family has Violet, the Dowager Countess, expertly played by actress Maggie Smith. Many church congregations also have a matriarch–a colorful woman who knows where all the bodies are buried and whose communication method includes the wisdom and wit of the caustic one liner.
  5. As the inhabitants of 1924 England, and Downtown Abbey in particular, deal with the changing roles of women, so goes the church. According to Hartford Institute, a multi-faith sample of 11,000 American congregations reveals that 12% of all congregations in the United States had a female as their senior or sole ordained leader.  Whether 1924 or 2014, women will continue to exercise their voices and increase their place in leadership.
  6. Downton Abbey and the modern church are both reevaluating the tenets of their existence as well as the best use of their sometimes aging buildings.  The irony exists that even the real Highclere castle, where Downton is filmed, is rented  to the producers to cover rising costs of maintenance.   Does the Crawley estate exist to provide employment and protect tradition, as Lord Crawley and Lady Mary insist? Churches today are asking similar questions and evaluating the best “missional” use of church buildings. How can each continue to be a beacon of hope to the societies that have depended upon them? How best can they re-imagine a sustainable future?
  7.  Downton Abbey has Mr. Carson, the elegant head butler who knows everything going on under his roof, and who struggles with maintaining the standards of the past amid the hopes of the future.   The church has the senior pastor who knows much of what’s going on under her roof, and who also seeks daily to balance the future with the past, the practical with the possible.
  8. Season 4 will see many more guest entertainers to delight the Crawleys and their guests.  Likely several of the guest artists initiated the possibility of appearing at the iconic estate. Churches today are also paying for guest musicians and singers. In the church’s case, these appearances are initiated by a church that needs a few ringers from time to time as congregations age out.
  9.  Downtown’s story lines have artfully brought to light the inequities of class and race, breaking with tradition to welcome “upstairs” a son-in-law who was once employed “downstairs.”   Love is love. The church too has stretched it’s welcome and it’s witness, endeavoring to become communities of transformation and not separation.
  10.  The death of Lady Mary’s beloved husband Matthew will challenge the long held practice of gender based inheritance.  Baby George becomes heir, with Mary taking her place as a head of the Crawley dynasty.  Roles and power are seen to shift in waves.  The church of today would do well to consider its own shifting tides of inheritance,  ownership, and power.  Can anyone own tradition?  And in the long run, isn’t that the wrong question?
  11. OK, just one more.  Both church and Downton Abbey bring together grand collections of unforgettable characters, full of humor, heart, and yes, DRAMA.  I love them both.

Pregnant for Advent

Did you hear the news? We’re all pregnant!  It is the central truth of Advent…that we are all “expecting.” Such a miracle is this!  Mary did not take a test to prove she was with child, it was simply announced and she was open to receiving it. Are we?
The knowledge that we are expecting a holy birth has the power to change everything. When you’re expecting, you are full of hope, excitement, and anticipation. You buy gifts with the baby in mind. And the closer the birth, the more you cannot ignore it. The baby kicks, wakes you up, capturing your imagination with all the ways life will change. So it is with Advent. Advent is pregnancy at its best.
I can’t help but wonder how entering the nativity story “pregnant” could change our experience of it.  Otherwise it’s just Christmas, again. And as Jesus might have said to the disciples, “that ain’t right.”