Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Overhearing Jesus' Prayer

7th Sunday of Easter 2017
John 17:1-11; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

Sometimes, things we say are meant to be overheard by others. 
I think of the times when my children were small, and I would walk into a room and begin talking not to my child, but with the full expectation and intention that they would overhear me:
·         “Where is Billy? I can’t find him anywhere – he must have left the house! We had better send a search party to find him!” I knew of course that Billy was hiding safely behind the drapes, the toes of his sneakers poking out from beneath the fabric. I meant for him to hear me. Another example from those days:
·         “I think I heard noise coming from upstairs, but I am sure that can’t be any of our children! Because they know what’s good for them, so I know that when I go up there right now, I am going to find everyone sound asleep in their beds!” Again I spoke, intending for them to hear me, and hoping they got the message!
In our gospel lesson today, it is Jesus himself who speaks, intending his followers to overhear what he says and what he prays – to get the message.
As the time grows close for Jesus to be arrested and taken away, Jesus appeals to God on behalf of all those who will follow him, who will carry on in his name after he is gone. And so, on the occasion of Jesus’s last evening with his disciples, Jesus engages in what has been called a “heavenly family conversation” between himself and God.
We only hear one-half of this conversation between the Father and the Son, a conversation in which Jesus repeats what he has already told his disciples – that he will soon be leaving them; that he will be returning to his father in heaven; yet he will continue to love these whom he leaves behind, and he will not leave them either unprepared nor alone.
  His meant-to-be-overheard communication with God is a message full of hope, love, promise and truth for his followers. Jesus reveals those things that are closest to his heart – his care and concern for them, his love for them, and his determination that they continue to be united in belief and purpose. Not only united with one another but most assuredly, united with him.
Despite what they will soon witness and endure, through this prayer, Jesus wants his disciples to believe that God will be with them, working on their behalf.
Jesus repeats what he has already told them, just as a good parent repeats ad nauseum the messages their children need to remember for a good life or for safety: you are loved; you are worthy; work hard; tell the truth; be honest in all your doings; wear your seat

Jesus will soon be leaving his disciples, but they will never be left alone, because God has ensured that after Jesus has been “glorified on the cross” and returns to his father in heaven, an advocate, his own Holy Spirit, will continue to protect, teach, guide, strengthen and inspire them.
So on this pivotal night, Jesus, who has so often modeled prayer for his disciples gives them this gift of overheard prayer.
His previous prayers to God have often been for guidance or strength for himself, but here is a wonderful example of intercessory prayer: Jesus prays for them, for us, for all who will follow.  
Despite all the other things that must have been taking up head-space for Jesus that night, his thoughts and concerns were for those he was leaving behind: “I am asking on their behalf,” he says. “I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me because they are yours.” What a beautiful gift!
Intercessory prayer is powerful. It is pure gift and blessing for those who pray and for those being prayed for. How often have you heard someone say that knowing someone was praying for them helped them through a difficult situation? It happens all the time. Maybe it’s even been your own experience.
It is not unusual when I visit with someone who has been going through a difficult time of illness or loss, and tell them that the congregation has been praying for them and in fact we had prayed for them together, aloud, during worship, the response I receive is that in some way the person felt the prayer, and that it made all the difference.
So, what does it feel like, today, to know that Jesus is praying for you? What difference does it make in your life that not only are you being prayed for, but that our Lord Jesus is one who is doing the praying, and that the Holy spirit prays for you, in sighs too deep for words? How does it feel to know that no matter what your circumstance, Jesus knows it well and intercedes for you? How does it impact the work that we do in the name of Our Lord, to overhear this prayer and know that Jesus prays for this community?
There are many things for which Jesus prays on our behalf. Jesus prays for peace. On that night, Jesus prayed that people might continue to know God through knowing him, even after he would be gone from their sight.
Jesus prays for the healing of the world. And in today’s gospel text, Jesus prays specifically that these brothers and sisters, who believe in God and have become disciples of Jesus, will continue in relationship with the God and with one another, following the way of Christ.
Finally, Jesus prays for the unity of those who believe in him. He prays for those who will continue in his ministry, the ones who will share his name as he himself shares in the name of God. Jesus prays that we will be one.  
At the beginning of worship this morning, we remembered and gave thanks for Baptism. In a few moments, as we receive new members into our congregation, we once again recall and affirm that we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and that this faith, a gift given to us, binds us together and makes us one.
We will confess how, through water and the Word, through prayer and meal, the Holy Spirit draws us together, the Body of Christ in the Priesthood of all believers, and those for whom Jesus prays this prayer.
As Jesus brings us together he blesses us with different gifts, and joins us as one despite our different backgrounds and varied stories.  At the table, Jesus feeds us as disciples and apostles, joined together through the grace of God, and trusting more in the power of the Holy Spirit than in human willpower. “Protect them,” Jesus prays, so that they may be one as we are one.”
Think of all the significant and silly differences we experience in our life together – debates about war and peace, human sexuality, economic justice, the color of the carpet in the chancel, whether we worship God in one service or two. In every age, people have chosen to remove themselves from community over these and other matters. But Jesus prays for us – “may they be one as we are one.”
Think of all the not-so-silly struggles and challenges that the followers of Jesus face. The letter from 1 Peter is a reminder that there are many struggles that we will encounter. The apostle in fact calls this the fiery ordeal that confronts us coming from the world within and around us.
This week once again in very stark circumstances, Christians in Egypt were targeted for violence and death. We look around and we fear death of another kind may one day face our community as we see shrinking numbers in worship and experience a loss of cultural support and respect for religion.
In the prayer of the day today, we expressed the same kind of yearning reflected in Jesus’ prayer: “Unite us with Christ and each other in suffering and in joy, that all the world may be drawn into your bountiful presence.”
How powerful it is to know that Jesus has prayed to God on our behalf! There is no one for whom Jesus did not pray on that last night. Like the prayer of a parent overheard by the child for whom one intercedes, what this prayer reveals, is Jesus’ deep love for us all.
The great prayer contained in this gospel text today evokes longing in us to be fully “one” with Jesus, in the mystical communion of prayer so that his prayer of love for us becomes not a farewell but rather a homecoming.
Jesus prays that his followers, as diverse as we are will be one, not that they will all be the same. Unity is not the same as uniformity.
Our diversity of background and thought brings beauty to the tapestry of our faith communities. Finally, Jesus demonstrates, through this overheard message, what it means to cast all our concerns on God, because God indeed cares for us.
So here is the thing, and I look to the second reading for this where, the seventh verse reads, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” I think that along with the assurance that he himself cares and is constantly advocating for us, this is part of Jesus’ message to us as well.
When Jesus was troubled, what did you do? Pray. When Jesus was thankful, what did he do? Pray. When Jesus was weary, or frightened, or tired, he prayed. And when Jesus was preparing to leave his disciples to go to the cross, he showed them what it meant to cast all his concerns, all his anxiety, all his desires on God, knowing how much God cares for us all.
It’s a good message for the disciples. It is an essential message to us today. Whatever troubles you, whatever gives you joy, whatever it is that you need to be united as one with God’s purpose and in God’s love, trust the faithfulness of God, who loved us into being, to love you with the power that is God’s alone.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Someone with a little skin on

John 14:1-14
One night, a little girl, Lisa, we’ll call her - lay in her bed as storm clouds gathered outside. Soon, there was a full-blown thunderstorm going on right outside the windows of her bedroom. Thunder crashed and blinding flashes of lightening lit up her bedroom over, and over again.  Little Lisa was frightened. She cried out to her dad, who was in the next room, "Help me."
Immediately, she heard his voice respond, "Honey, God loves you and will take care of you."
Another bolt of lightning and clap of thunder caused Lisa to cry out again, "Daddy!" Again, she heard her father’s voice, "Honey, God loves you and will take care of you."
The storm continued to rage and Lisa, now frightened nearly out of her wits, called out yet again; her father's response was the same. But the little girl replied, "Daddy, I know that God loves me, but right now, I need someone with skin on."
Don’t we know that feeling?
Isn’t that sometimes our experience? I know God loves me, but right now, I need someone with skin on.  When we go through the struggles of life, when we have questions about why losses and difficulties and troubling things come our way, we need someone with skin on.
When we are frightened because the storm has gotten way out of hand and we are facing illness or joblessness or changes in our relationships, even betrayals; when the well-planned future we had counted on shifts and changes and when circumstances out of our control threaten the security we worked so hard to build, we want someone with skin on.
When Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem, he came as God with skin on. As he lived his life as one who was at the same time both fully human and fully divine; as he gathered disciples, ministered, healed, preached and taught his followers, he was, in fact, God-with-us – with skin on.
That is what we call the Incarnation; that in Jesus Christ, God became flesh. Jesus was that “someone with skin on.”
The conversation depicted in today’s gospel lesson took place on the night in which Jesus was to be handed over to the Roman officials. It is his last opportunity, the last word that he can give to his disciples before he leave this mortal plane, and he wants to make clear to his disciples that he is indeed, God with skin on.
In the days and weeks and years to come, Jesus knows that it is essential for them to continue believing that in him, God has come into the world and that God’s physical presence with them, while about to change in substance, will not change in reality.
Believing in Jesus we come to know that one true God – the one who is at once creating and redeeming; the one who transforms us in love; the one who promises never to leave us, but to abide with us forever. And that is a promise that stands – forever.
Jesus is not just “like” God; Jesus is the embodiment of the one true God. Through his life and his teachings he has shown his followers the full-bodied character of God – forgiving, healing, subversive, despising evil, loving good, inclusive, transforming, peace-loving, and possessing power over life; he is God with skin on, and even after his death he showed his disciples that he lives.
In his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus continues to be God-with-us – our God with skin on. As the fully human incarnation, Jesus died on the cross. This was not a theoretical death or an imaginary death. It was a real death, preceded by unimaginable pain and suffering, feelings of abandonment, fear and despair depicted in our scriptures.  Jesus knows well our suffering, for he endured the same.
Just as we will one day die, Jesus truly died on that cross for us. But Jesus changes the reality of what death means for all of us. Because the thing is, Jesus’ resurrection changes more than just our death. It changes our life. And in that night when the still-living friend and master, Jesus, sat down for the last time with his disciples, knowing what was coming that very night, he shared these final words with them.
They are words of hope, and promise, and expectation. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he tells them, and then he goes on. Believe in me, because in so doing you will know the Father. You will know his love, his forgiveness, his promise.
God has sent his love and presence to you in me, Jesus is telling them, and you will know them simply by the works you have seen in me, the signs you have witnessed, and, in the deeds you do as you follow in my footsteps. Other people will come to know God through you. These, my friends, are the promises of God for abundant life.
The word that we read today as “if” – “if you know me” – could also be translated as since – the same Greek word means both things, and I think translating it this alternative way gives us a better understanding of Jesus’ words. Since you know me you know the Father. Disciples of Jesus know him through his revealing love in action.
And, just as in this gospel of John love is an action word – something you do rather than simply something you feel, knowing God through Jesus and believing in him inspires and even commands a different kind of life, because the truth is, this kind of belief has power over our lives.
Now, it may be that even before today you were familiar with the words of this morning’s gospel because of a funeral that you have attended. Perhaps, even the funeral of a loved one, someone very dear to you. If so, you might be tempted to associate these words only with death; with sadness tinged with hope, with a day you would rather forget. But Jesus gave these words as both comfort and command, as both hope and promise.
So far during this 50-day period of Easter, our gospel texts have reflected Jesus’ post resurrection visits to his disciples and his continued teaching and preparation of them to carry on the mission and ministry to which he devoted and for which he gave his life.
Then, in last week’s gospel, Jesus called himself the gate through which the sheep of God’s own redeeming must pass. Today, Jesus he tells his disciples, on this pivotal night, the night in which he would be handed over to Roman officials to be tried, condemned, and crucified, that he is the Way, calling us out of darkness, into light.
Our identity as God’s children offers us hope and gives us momentum to live as God intends, following the Way of our Savior. Jesus gives us a model and framework within which to understand that this way, which is not always easy and will sometimes lead to struggle, hostility, and an unknown future, but is shaped by the promise offered here in this gospel.
Jesus is the tangible evidence of God in the world – God with skin on. That is the truth and core of Jesus’ very identity. He is God’s attempt to establish meaningful relationship with us. Every religion in the world reflects the human attempt to reach God. Through Christianity, we come to know Jesus as God’s plan to reach humanity. That makes all the difference.
Through the Incarnation, the infinite God took on the form of a tiny baby boy. The Son did not cease to be God when he became a man. He added humanity but he did not subtract deity. He was fully God and fully man. He was, in short, “God with skin on.”
Ponder that for a moment. The Almightiness of God moved in a human arm. The love of God beat in a human heart. The wisdom of God spoke from human lips. The mercy of God reached forth from human hands.
In Jesus, God was wrapped in human flesh, promising for all of eternity a bond with humanity that cannot be broken by suffering or death, by trial or disappointment, by failure and doubt, by fear and despair.
In a few moments, we will confess our faith using the words of the Apostle’s Creed, in the second article of which, we will state who we believe – by the preponderance of our religious identity - Jesus to be. If we could fully believe and embrace those words; if we could fully grasp the meaning of what we say, the troubles of our hearts would be silenced and our faith would be a real power over the whole of our lives. Because we could then experience God with skin on, Jesus Christ, as the real power and fullness of life not only for ourselves but for the world.
My friends, the real power of this gospel is that it contains the uncompromising promise of Jesus that, while still unseen, God abides in us forever, loves us forever, and empowers us to be Christ in the world, revealing the loving nature of God who refuses to let us go, and has gone through such extraordinary lengths to not only prepare a place for us when we die, but to secure our faith, our love, and our commitment to live the life of abundance which we receive in his name, that others may come to know and believe in the one who came to reveal God’s love for the world. By the power of Jesus Christ, God with skin in, may it be so. Amen.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Sheep, Abundant Life, and Jesus

We celebrated Youth Sunday this week. This means that our youth participated in and lead major portions of our worship service, including delivering the proclamation of the Gospel. Here is the script of their message. FYI: "Mobley" is a sheep who makes frequent appearances in our church.

John 10:1-10

Narrator: Today we celebrate one of my favorite Sundays of the year. It’s the Fourth Sunday of Easter and every year, we call this day Good Shepherd Sunday.
Angela – But, why?
Narrator: The scriptures we read reflect the theme of Jesus as Good Shepherd.
Daniel – Shepherds were very important people in Jesus’ day.
Jesus – Shepherds are important people in any age. Even today.
Angela – But, why?
Mobley ­– You cannot over-estimate the importance of sheep – or shepherds. But especially sheep.
Anna ­– Why would you even say that?
Mobley – What?
Anna – You know, sheep are so important! Shepherds are so important. It’s people who are important. They are more important than some dumb sheep.
Mobley – Dumb WHAT!?! Who is calling who DUMB!?!
Narrator: Whom
Mobley – What?
Narrator: Whom. It’s whom. You said, “Who is calling who dumb?” To be grammatically correct, you should have said, “Who is calling whom Dumb?”
Everyone groans
Narrator: Okay, I think we are losing focus here, people.
Mobley- Ahem!
Narrator: Sorry, Mobley. People, and sheep, listen up. As I was saying, the scriptures on Good Shepherd Sunday describe the way that Jesus is our shepherd. Using that metaphor, Jesus as shepherd and those he loves and cares for as sheep, was an easy way for Jesus to get across an important lesson to the people of his time. Because they, the people of his time, were familiar with shepherds and the role of shepherds with sheep.
Anna – Well, I never saw a shepherd.
Angela ­– That’s because you are living in, like, 2017. Jesus lived in like, uh, um. What year did Jesus live?
Daniel – Jesus lived in the first century.
Angela – So what YEAR was that!
Daniel – Let’s just say it was a long, long time ago. About 2000 years ago, in fact.
Narrator: Well, in Jesus’ time, there was no doubt about it. Everyone knew that at least to sheep, shepherds were important people.
Jesus – Throughout the Scriptures, the people of God were referred to as sheep, and those who cared for them – whether kings or prophets, were often referred to as shepherds. And I was sent to be a shepherd to the flock of people - God’s people.
Anna - So, not sheep?
Jesus -  Not exactly.
Narrator: In today’s text, Jesus uses an image familiar to the people of his day, to make a point about spiritual leadership. Good shepherds bring people to life through Jesus, but those who avoid Jesus are dangerous to the flock.
Angela - In what way are they dangerous?
Narrator: They distract people from believing in, and trusting in God. In some cases, they even destroy people’s belief and trust, because they pretend that what they do and say is from God, but then they act in ways that are opposite what God desires.
Jesus: So instead of loving people, being forgiving, and merciful, and helpful to people, they get in the way of people’s faith, say and do hurtful things, are unloving, unkind and dishonest – in other words, they are everything that is the opposite of what I taught is the way that God operates, and what God wants people to do.
Narrator: Jesus came to save people from sin, and to give them eternal life. Believing in Jesus is essential. But there are some people who misrepresent what God wants, and misrepresent how God says we should treat one another.
Jesus: So, what I said is, “Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”
Daniel: Where is the gate?
Narrator: Not where, who.
Anna: Who what?
Narrator: Not what, who. “Who” is the gate?
Mobley: What is this, an Abbott and Costello routine?
Angela: Let me get this straight. The gate is not a thing, but a person?
Narrator: The gate is Jesus.
Daniel: But I thought Jesus is the shepherd.
Narrator: He is. Jesus is both gate and shepherd.
Mobley: I’m confused. Who are the sheep, then?
Daniel: You are, Silly.
Narrator: Yes, Mobley, you are a sheep. And when Jesus told this story, he was being metaphorical. That means he was comparing people to sheep, or saying that the relationship of Jesus to his people, is like the relationship of a shepherd to his sheep.
Anna: Now I’m confused.
Jesus: Don’t feel badly, little sheep. My disciples were confused as well. 
So, I gave them this explanation: “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not to listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Now this is the part I really want you to remember: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
So, believe in me. Follow me. It is through this gate of belief and trust and knowing me, that you will be given full, abundant, true and eternal life.
Jesus exits.
Narrator: You see, Jesus wants abundant life for all people. That is why he came. That is why he continues to shepherd his people. The life he offers is only available through him. But the reality is that there will be people who will try to distract you with fancy words or concepts or other means like denying the very existence of God, or saying that there is another way to the life that Jesus offers besides just following Jesus, listening to his Word, and obeying him.
Mobley – You got all that from this gospel?
Anna: Why did Jesus talk about gates and shepherds?
Narrator: Well, just before this reading, there is the story of the man who had been blind from birth. Jesus healed him, and for the first time in his life, he could see.  
Angela: Jesus healed a blind man, and that made him think of gates and shepherds?
Narrator: Well, what happened after Jesus gave sight to the blind man made Jesus want to warn people about those who were like thieves and bandits, who don’t enter the sheepfold by the gate.
You see, when the blind man could see again, everyone was shocked.
Daniel: Who wouldn’t be?
Narrator: Right. Well, the Pharisees were supposed to be the shepherds of the people of Israel. They were supposed to care for them, and teach them, protect them from spiritual harm, and nourish them. But when the formerly blind man came in to the synagogue, the Pharisees interrogated first his parents, and then him. He told them it was Jesus who had healed him. They wouldn’t believe it. Finally, when the man insisted that it was through Jesus that he was healed, they threw him out. They expelled him from their community. Any good Jew was to have nothing to do with him. They refused to believe that Jesus’ healing work came from God.
Mobley: So, bad shepherds, right?
Narrator: Really bad shepherds.
Daniel: So, what is the point today? We aren’t exactly sheep, you know.
Mobley: Hey!
Daniel: Certain company excluded – meaning, included in our flock.
Mobley: Gee, thanks!
Narrator: Well, what do you think? Are there those today who might be like the bandits and thieves that Jesus spoke about?
Anna: How about people who say other people aren’t good enough to be in their church?
Angela: Or people who say that God doesn’t love everybody or that some people aren’t acceptable to God?
Daniel: Hey! Who says that? I’ll give ‘em what-for!
Narrator: Remember what Jesus said about abundant life? He said that he came to save all people. He came to forgive sins and make all people acceptable in the eyes of God. He came to make sure that everyone could have abundant life. He came to be the gate, to be the one who shepherds all people into that kind of life. And anyone who says that he or she believes in Jesus will do the same by sharing Jesus’ way of love and mercy, kindness and forgiveness.
Daniel: What does a-BUN-dant life mean? I have a hard time even saying that word. A-BUN-dant. A-bun-DANT.
Anna: Doesn’t it mean having a lot of life? I heard it means having a rich life. I want to be rich! Does it mean that if we say we believe in Jesus, that God will make us rich?
Narrator: Not exactly. Abundant life means a full life – a life full of good things. But they are not the kind of things that you put in your piggy bank, or other riches that we pile up, although there are some people who do say that those kinds of riches are signs of God’s blessing.
But Jesus came to give us life that is full to overflowing with God’s loveso full, that we can’t help sharing it with other people, and telling them where it comes from. When the bible, or our pastor talk about eternal life, they aren’t just talking about life after death. They are talking about life that begins here and now, and is made full by knowing the one true God and Jesus Christ, whom God sent into the world.
Abundant life is knowing the voice of the good shepherd who truly cares for us. Abundant life includes life in community, and finding security and nourishment not from material riches, but from being part of the flock of Jesus Christ. It is life that is full of meaning and value which lasts in some way even after we die.
Mobley: You know, it’s really true what Jesus said about sheep.
Narrator: What’s that, Mobley?
Mobley: That sheep know the voice of their shepherd. That they follow the voice of their shepherd. Without a shepherd we struggle to find good food and we sometimes get lost, and then we can’t find our way home. Sheep won’t follow a stranger’s voice, but if our shepherd speaks, we know his voice and we follow him, because we will find our true home in him.
Narrator: Well said, Mobley. There are many voices speaking to us in our world today. But God sent just one voice, the voice of our shepherd Jesus Christ. It is the voice of our one true shepherd, Jesus, that will bring us home, give us abundant life, love us, care for us, protect and nourish us, all for the sake of love.
Narrator: So, people, let’s give God thanks for sending Jesus, who is for us both gate and shepherd, who knows us and whose voice of love and care we recognize.
All Together: AMEN!!!!!!