Sunday, March 31, 2013

Don't Miss Easter For the World

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 24: 2435
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Easter, March 31sth, 2013

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. (Luke 24:5 NRS).

It’s Easter, so let me start this message with a joke about the Easter Bunny.  (It was really about Santa, but since this is Easter…..)  Once the Easter Bunny kept having the same weird dream every night, so he went to a doctor.
Doctor: What was your dream about?
Easter Bunny: I was being chased by a vampire!
Doctor: (giggles quitely) So... what is the scenery like?
Easter Bunny: I was running in a hall way.
Doctor: Then what happened?
Easter Bunny: Well that's the weird thing. In every single dream, the same thing happened. I always come to this door, but I can't open it. I keep pushing the door and pushing the door, but it wouldn't budge!
Doctor: Does the door have any letters on it?
Easter Bunny: Yes it did.
Doctor: And what were these letter.  Could you see what they spelled?
Easter Bunny: Oh, yea, it said "Pull."   (source: http://www.jokebuddha.com/Dream#ixzz2LfdqteHJ).

We’ve all had bad dreams and some of them are just as stupid.   Ten of most recurring dreams have been determined not to completely stupid, but in our minds we must might be dealing with something.  Here are the list of most reoccurring dreams are in reverse order:     
(10) The Number ten dream is being trapped----interpreted as you are wasting something---money perhaps.   
(9)  Then came “excuse me, where’s the bath room”—meaning, get up, your bladder’s full.  
(8)   Another frequent dream was drowning---that is feeling overwhelmed or overcome.
(7)   “Flying” may be a dream of freedom from something or from someone. 
(6)  Walking and going nowhere, could mean there’s a large obstacle you’re facing.  
(5)  Then there’s losing your teeth---perhaps you need to cut out on your sweets or something else.  
(4)  With public exposure or nudity there’s an implication that you may be hiding something. 
(3)  Being lost in your dreams often might mean you’re unprepared for something that could happen.
(2)  Falling may mean something is uncontrollable in your life.  I’ve heard if you hit bottom, you don’t wake up.
(1)  Finally, being chased means you are trying to get away from a problem or some much feared event.
(At the website http://www.toptenz.net).

I wonder what those women were dreaming when they woke up early to go to the tomb. 
Surely everything seemed like a big, bad dream.  When they woke up that morning after the crucifixion, they probably wanted to believe it had all been just a bad dream, but it wasn’t, was it?     Well, it almost was.   I mean it was almost a bad dream all over again.   If it had not been for those angels who appeared at the tomb scolding them about being in the wrong place, these women could have missed Easter.   At least that seems to be how Luke wants us to see the event.   Those angels even sound a little huffy, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead,” they question.   Is that any nice tone to start out with on Easter?   What do you mean,  guys?  Yesterday he was dead.   

But the angels are insistent.  “He’s not here, but He’s risenDon’t you remember what he told you back in Galilee?    Either these angels are rude and crude, seeming as if they are off their rockers, or they can’t bear the idea that these woman just might have missed Easter.
And missing Easter is serious stuff.   I know most of us don’t put Easter up there with Christmas, but we should.   Easter is that big.  It’s even bigger than Christmas.  You must not miss it.   There are a lot of things in life you can miss and you’ll get over it—even though it seems like you won’t.   Remember you thought you wouldn’t get over that first Romeo or Juliet who dumped you?   But you did.   Remember how you thought you’d never get over losing that job?  But you did.  You can get over a lot of things, you never thought you could.   Remember that bad cold, that pneumonia, that broken bone?  Life can be difficult and it came seem like a bad dream, but one day you will wake up and it will be over.  

I’ll never forget about the time I missed a train in Germany, going from Frankfurt in the west to Frankfurt in the east.  I bet you’ve never heard of the little Frankfurt in the East, but this is where the one of the first pipe organs was manufactured by Wilhelm Sauer in the late 1800’s.   On the other side of the river from the little Frankfurt is Poland.   I lived only 10 miles from there and was trying to get back home when I missed my train.  My train was still in the station, but they wouldn’t let me get on.   They said I had missed it.  It sat there for 30 minutes, but even so, they doors were shut.  The time had passed, and this is, Germany.    Ordnung!  So I had to take another train.   But this train didn’t go in the same direction.  I had to go north and then go east.  And the train I had to take after the connection wasn’t a nice German train, but the only train headed toward my home was a Russian train.  And that train wasn’t just going to Frankfurt, but it was going through Frankfurt, and if I didn’t wake up when the train arrived there at 4 in the morning, I’d be waking up a little later in Moscow.  I always wanted to go to Moscow, but not this way.   Trying to sleep that night, I had all kinds of dreams.  I didn’t want to wake up ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’, literally.  I didn’t want to miss my final train home. 

I finally got over missing my train, and I could have survived ended up in Moscow, but missing Easter is something you don’t get over.   The possibility of missing Easter is so serious, that the idea pops in the very next story too.  In this story, Luke tells us about two disciples of Jesus (not from the 12, but two others), who are on their way ‘out of town’ toward a town called Emmaus.    We don’t know much about the town or these disciples, but we do know exactly where they are headed: AWAY!   But in their attempt to escape everything a mysterious stranger joins them along the road.  As the stranger speaks with them, we get a very good picture of what they are feeling and why they are leaving.  They talk to this ‘stranger’ about all these bad things that have just happened.  They talk about how disappoint they are.  They talk about how they are running away from Jerusalem.   Fortunately, you can run away, but you can’t hide from Jesus.   If this mysterious stranger had not come along and opened their eyes and hearts again, they too would have missed Easter.

When people run from things, they can miss a whole lot that could happen next in their life.   And what happens next in this story is that Jesus appears to his disciples in their little ‘locked’ room.   They didn’t run, but they were afraid.  And if Jesus had not walked through that locked door, they too would have missed Easter.   And even when Jesus appears to them, they still think he is a ghost, not a real person.   They almost miss Easter again, so Jesus lets them see him with their own eyes and touch him with their own hands.   Without playing ‘two hand touch’ with Jesus, most all of the disciples would not have believed, and we all would have missed Easter.

Could you still miss Easter?   Could we know this story all of our lives, since the time we were very young and still miss the message and the meaning for us today?   Can we know about the Easter Bunny and not realize how we need to push on another door that might open to deeper meaning?   Could you that person hear today, who, unless you had made yourself get up and come, might have missed the new chance God wants to give you?   The worst part of this is not just what you might miss, but what you will lose and perhaps, never know you lost it.

When I was about 9 years old I lost a brand new ‘toy’ airplane.  I loved airplanes.   My grandfather had helped to build the Statesville airport.   He lived right next door.   Now, the farm my grandfather worked, where I also loved visit and watch the planes, is gone and the land is taken up with a new landing strip.  It’s gone, but I’m glad I didn’t miss that.   But now back to my new airplane.   It was different than the wooden ones I was used to.  This was plastic and you could shot it higher up in the air.  But one day I shot it so high up in the sky that I lost it in the light of the sun and never found it.   I thought I got a glimpse of it when it fell.   I went to the spot and hunted, and hunted all day, but never found it.    I remember saying to myself.  I just had it a moment ago.  It can’t be gone.  It’s got to be there somewhere.  But I searched and searched, and I never found it.  How could I lose something that I just brought home and held in my hand only moments ago?

I wonder if those women were thinking similar thoughts:  How could Jesus, who was so alive, so kind, so promising, and so wonderful be gone?   How could they lose someone who was so real to them all?  How could God let this happen?   The women were frozen in grief.   And they would probably had remained frozen in grief, had not those angels been standing at that tomb pointing them in a very different direction:  What are you doing here in the graveyard?  This is the place for dead people.   He is not here, but he is risen!

Can we miss the meaning in these words?   I think we can and I think we still do.   I think we miss the meaning just as easily as I lost an toy, or missed a train, or what any of us might miss as we think about how it might have been on that first Easter.   Trying to recreate what happen this is a sure way to miss it.   We can hear this message over and over and imagine what really happened or even know what it claims, but we can still miss what it all means?   WE CAN STILL MISS EASTER.

Could you miss Easter for the same reason:  because you are still ‘looking for the living among the dead?”  The way things happen and the way things were can be very hard to let go.   Recall that song, “The Way We Where?”   Barbara Streisand must have had a difficult time letting go of Robert Redford, when she sang, “Memories, light the corners of my mind!”  Memories can haunt us.  Memories can be something we don’t want to let go.   Memories can be all we have left.   It can be hard to let go especially when all we have left are memories.   “Don’t you remember what he told you in Galilee?”   This is how the angels put it.   We can have good memories too, remembering the people we once knew and loved.   Some memories are ‘misty water colored memories, we try to forget”, while other memories are those we hold on to for dear life.   

There is something wonderful about memories and remembering, but what these angels are trying to tell these women and us is that Easter is supposed to be much more than a memory, no matter how good it was.  If we only remember Easter, or if we only remember Jesus---and if we don’t meet this ‘living one’ along our own road in life, then we’ve missed Easter----the Easter that is much, much more that a memory.

Fred Craddock, one of America's great preachers and teachers of preachers, tells the story of a breakfast experience.   He was stuck in Winnipeg, Canada and in the midst of an early October snow storm which paralyzed the city. Everything was shut down and his host could not even make it to Fred's hotel to pick him up for breakfast.

So, for breakfast, Fred found himself at a crowded bus depot café about two blocks from his hotel. As he entered, somebody scooted over and let him get in a booth. A big man with a greasy apron came over to the table and asked him what he wanted. Not knowing what the café served, Fred asked to see a menu.

"What'd ya want with a menu?" the man asked. "We have soup."
 "Then I'll have soup," he said. Just what he wanted--soup for breakfast.
 The man brought the soup and Craddock says it was an unusual looking soup. It was grey, the color of a mouse. He did not know what was in it, but he took this spoon and tasted it. Awful! "I can't eat this," he said. So he sat in that crowded café warming his hands around the bowl, railing against the world, stuck in Winnipeg.

Then, the door opened and someone yelled, "Close the door," and she did. A woman came in. She was middle-aged, had on a coat, but no covering for her head. Someone scooted over and let her in a booth. The big man with the greasy apron came over and the whole café heard this conversation:
 "What'd ya want?"
 "Bring me a glass of water," she said.
 The man brought the water, took out his tablet and repeated the question. "What'd ya want?"
 "Just the water."
 "Lady, you gotta order something."
 "Just the water."
 The man's voice started rising: "Lady, I've got paying customers here waiting for a place, now order!"
 "Just the water."
 "You order something or you get out!"
 "Can I stay and get warm?"
 "Order or get out."

So, she got up. The people at the table where she was seated got up, people around got up, the folks that let Fred sit at the table got up, Fred got up, and they all started moving towards the door.   "OK," the big man with the greasy apron said, "She can stay." And everybody sat down. He even brought her a bowl of that soup.
 Fred asked the man sitting next to him, "Who is she?"
 "I never saw her before," he said, "but if she ain't welcome, ain't nobody welcome."
Then Craddock said, all you could hear was the sound of people eating that soup. "Well, if they can eat it, I can eat it," he said. He picked up his spoon and started eating the soup.   "It was good soup. I ate all of that soup. It was strange soup. I don't remember ever having it. As I left I remembered eating something that tasted like that before. That soup that day tasted like bread and wine."  (From Craddock Stories).  

Easter is never just a day to remember, when the risen Christ makes his presence known in our lives.   Easter is today, when someone lives and acts like Jesus.  Easter is the future, because our Lord keeps showing up again and again.  You just can't keep a good person down.  Sometimes Jesus shows up in the people who will stand up and do the right thing.   Sometimes Jesus shows up in a little woman who’s cold and just needs a place to get warm.  Sometimes Jesus shows up in the most unexpected meal---even in bad soup.   And sometimes----yes, sometimes----Jesus will make himself known, not just in a memory of the past in how things were, but Jesus shows up in how things can be, could be, should be, if only we would realize who is walking with us, beside us and inviting us to God’s table, so we too can be witnesses to those moments of love and grace we don’t ever want to miss.  

We are all walking toward the tomb.   We all find ourselves walking through days of disappointment.   We might even think, this Jesus stuff is like seeing a ghost.  But Luke’s hope and mine, is that you will stop and consider the truth of these stories again.   It my hope that you won’t imagine what you missed, but you will be able see what you have; what you can touch, see, smell, taste and hear.   “HE IS RISEN!  And he’s not just somewhere, but he’s right here!   Don’t be a ‘dumb bunny’!   Don’t just push against everything, but simply do your part and pull!  Pull up in your heart all these things too good not to be true.  WE too have been invited to God’s table and to eat the bread and drink the cup, and be witnesses of Easter.  Don’t miss Easter for the world.  Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

FOLLOWING THE CROWD AT THE CROSS


A Sermon Based Upon Luke 23: 33-48
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Palm Sunday, March 24th, 2013

And the people stood by, watching;…. (Luk 23:35 NRS).

One Sunday morning an elderly Lutheran pastor stepped into the pulpit ready to preach.    Normally, the pastor would begin his message with the words, “The Lord be with you,” and the congregation would answer,  “and also with you.”  Most of you know that ritual.   Well, on this particular Sunday, the pastor first tapped the microphone to make sure that it was on .   But this time he heard nothing, so he leaned closer to the microphone and said, “There is something wrong with this thing.” The congregation, being well trained church people immediately responded, “And also with you.” 

This story perfectly illustrates the danger of the familiar.   We can be so deeply steeped in routine that at times we stop paying attention to what we are really doing or saying.
This is also the danger we face as we enter the heart of the Easter season. The accounts of the Triumphal Entry, the cross, and Easter are so familiar to us that we can easily go through the motions of a celebration without ever allowing the message of these events to touch us.  So the challenge every year for all of us is to look at these familiar passion stories and learn something new from them.   What does the cross and Easter have to teach us this year?

Dusan Tillinger, a Lutheran minister, says that a few years ago he was walking down Prague´s Wenceslaus Square when he, without realizing it, found himself in the middle of a protest.  It was so easy to blend with them, he said, to get into their middle and march with them, but once he tried to leave that mob, step out and continue on his way, he couldn´t.  Bodies around him prevented him from getting out of the way despite all of his efforts.  He had to go with the flow, or risk getting trampled.  

After Tillinger was finally able to separate himself from the crowd of protestors, he says that it was then that he realized just how powerful and influential even a small group can be, and how ‘easy is to follow the crowd without thinking about where it might lead’ (As told in a sermon “Crowd Behavior”, at sermoncentral.com).  

Most of us, have already discovered, one way or another, just how easy it can be to get caught up in the excitement, emotion, and passion of a crowd.   Crowd behavior can be intoxicating.  It can give you an adrenaline rush you can’t manufacture on your own.    Why do you think people love to go crazy at ball games?   It’s so easy to lose yourself in a crowd.

Sociologists today still find crowd behavior fascinating.  Old theorists, like Sigmund Freud, noticed depersonalizing effects--the stripping of inhibitions--maybe even reverting to animal behavior, when and individual gets ‘lost’ in a crowd.   Most theorists today can’t distinguish much difference between a crowd celebrating a nail-biting win at a sports event from the religious fervor of a charismatic revival meeting.   Both crowds can be exhilarating and may become dangerous.   Only a couple of months ago, when N.C. State had a surprising win over Duke,  a fan in a wheelchair was almost trampled in the crowd frenzy, had he not been saved by star player C.J. Leslie (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/hoop-star-saves-wheelchair-bound-fan-victory-celebration-trampling-article-1.1240623).  This reminds us again, that the most basic behavior of the crowd is that it is most always unstable, uncontrollable, creative, fluid and chaotic.   And the most important warning---crowds can be very easy to follow and very difficult to escape as a power of influence, both good and bad.

The story of Jesus includes many stories about crowds.   The New Testament has over 150 references to the “crowd” or “crowds”, most of which are found in the gospels.   Unfortunately,  those of you who still carry the King James version will miss this, because the King James translates the Greek word ochlos, as “people” or ‘press’ and misses this important connection.   In a newer translation, you will also see that the crowd or crowds sometimes has a negative connotation. For instance, the gospel of Mark opens with a story of 4 friends trying to a paralyzed man to Jesus, but it is made more difficult due to the ‘crowd’  (Mark 2.4).   Jesus was nearly ‘crushed’ by the press of the ‘crowd’ (Mark 3.9), constant ‘crowds’ make it difficult for Jesus and the disciples to eat (Mark 3.20), and that Jesus often must leave town (Mark 3.9, 6.5) or preach from a boat (Mark 4.1ff) due to the crowds (Mark, 3.9, 6.5).  

But this image of the ‘crowd’ is not always negative.  It is sometimes neutral and often positive.   We are also told that Jesus had ‘compassion’ on the ‘crowds’ because they were like ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6.34), or that he addressed the ‘crowds’ with sermons (Mark 7.14).  When the ‘crowds’ following Jesus found themselves without food, again we read how Jesus had ‘compassion’ on them and worked a miracle of feeding with loaves and fishes (Mark 8.1).   One of the most positive aspects was that religious leaders were kept from killing Jesus sooner than they wished, because they were much “afraid of the crowd” (Mark 11:13).

However, it is in this final week we call holy week, the week Jesus was crucified, that we see both aspects of the crowd portrayed in the most dramatic contrast.   It is a week that begins with a ‘multitude of disciples’ (19:37) along the road, shouting his praises saying, “Blessed Be the King who comes in the name of the Lord”, and then tragically ends with the people shouting in union for their governor to “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him! (Luke 23.21).   How did this change in the temperament of the people happen so quickly?  How did the religious leaders get the crowd to make the switch?  Why did Pilate end up following the crowd instead of following through on his own desire to ‘release’ him (23:16)?  Everything that happened points us to the power and influence of the crowd.

The moral and spiritual lessons from this final week are legendary and limitless.  There is no way to cover all the angles of the cross in one sermon.   But I want us to briefly focus on just three specific instances of this ‘crowd behavior’ that surround the death of Jesus on the cross.  

THE GOD THEY WANTED
First, the very optimistic crowd welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem reminds us of the “God” they wanted, and the “God” everyone wants.    They wanted a “king” who would come “in the name of the Lord”  (quoting Psalm 118).   They wanted a savior, who would rescue them, deliver them, and save them.   Along with Luke’s image of people ‘spreading their cloaks along the road’  (19:36), in the other three gospels we have the crowd shouting, “Hosanna”, which means, “God save us, now!” (Mark 11.10; Matt. 21.9, John 12:13).   What good is a savior if he doesn’t save us, and save us right now, just the way we want?

There were all kinds of ‘high’ expectations at the beginning of this week.  Even Jesus gets caught up in the enthusiasm as responding to those trying to squelch the excitement, saying: “….if these were silent, the stones would shout out." (Luk 19:40 NRS).   However you want to open up your mind and heart to ‘holy week’, at the center of everything is real human need trying to find help, hope and salvation in the power of this one who comes ‘in the name of the Lord’.

By coming to church today, you have made yourselves part of that crowd too.   You would not be here if you did not want, expect, hope, and believe that you could get something from God that you can’t get anywhere else.   You come here today because you know that your politics, your money, your health, and your own dreams of what makes for a happy life can only take you so far.  You come here today, for the same reason the crowd surrounded Jesus; you think you might just need what Jesus brings.

A couple of years ago, academy award winning director Genghis Blues made a documentary with the simple title, “Happy”.   After discovering that the United States ranks 23rd on a list of happy nations, he wanted to discover just what really makes people happy and how Americans might learn to be happier people.   The documentary tours the world, interviewing people like an Indian rickshaw driver, a family of crab-fishing Cajuns in the Louisiana bayou, to an aging Brazilian surfer.   It leads you to make the discovery that after food and shelter needs are satisfied, economics has little to do with finding happiness and satisfaction with life.   The film attempts to bring one simple message: that “Happy” is not about getting everything we want when we want it, but it much more about appreciating, enjoying and being thankful for what we have.  (http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865550146/Happy-documentary-argues-that-everyone-can-become-happier.html?pg=all).

We all hope that happy comes to us now and then, but the greatest fulfillment in life does not come from getting what we want.   Most often ‘happy’ is bigger than we can now see, and is some distance away from where we are currently sitting.  That’s part of the reason the word “salvation” does not come from the word ‘happy’, but it comes from the idea of ‘wholeness’.   Finding God’s salvation is not about getting the world to be what you want it to be, or getting Jesus to do what you want him to do, but salvation is more about learning how to be who you need to be, and how to have faith, hope, and love in this ‘world’ find yourselves struggling in right now.   One thing for sure; you won’t be happy or know salvation, if you only go after what you want and the ‘god’ you want.

THE GOD THEY GOT
While the crowd in Jerusalem can help ask the right question, it does not lead us to the right answer.   By the time we get from Sunday to Friday, the attitude of the crowd has changed drastically; become negative, even down-right hostile.  Even governor Pilate can’t sway the crowd away from their disappointment with and their anger at Jesus.  What is it that made the crowd angry enough to demand Jesus dead?   

There is a lot that happens between Palm Sunday and Good Friday.   There are many things that Jesus did that week that would make any people mad.    He opened the week telling them it’s too late: “If you, had only recognized on this day the things that made for peace!  But now, they are hid from your eyes.   Indeed, your enemies will… surround you…hem you in on every side…will crush you…because YOU DID NOT RECOGNIZE THE TIME OF YOUR VISITATION FROM GOD. (Lk. 19:41-44)Who wants a leader who tells you the truth?  Everything goes downhill from here.   Then, he takes action, overturning the money-changer tables at the temple, reminding them how the temple was not doing what it was supposed to be doing (Luke 19:45-48).   All this happens in the same chapter as Palm Sunday, and we still have two more chapters until the cross.

Only hitting the high spots, tells us a lot more of why Jesus got under their skin.   From turning over the tables (19 45-48), Jesus refuses to answer all their questions (20:8) and Jesus teaches in parables (20: 9-19) not all can understand (especially when they don’t want to understand).   Jesus also outsmarts the current religious leaders, making them all look clueless, foolish and useless (20:20- 47).   Then, in his final sermon, Jesus preaches that the end of their world has come (21: 5-36) and that salvation will come not when they get the kingdom they want, but he declares that the redemption they seek will only come only as they discover that God’s kingdom is all they have (21: 27-28, 31-33). 

By the time we get to the Passover Meal (22: 7-38) and to Judas’ betrayal (22:39-53), it becomes very clear what is about to happen: the ‘God’ they got in Jesus, was not the God they wanted.   Even the disciples can’t stop arguing over who will be the greatest when the kingdom comes (22:24), and Jesus can’t stop associating even his best man, Simon Peter, with the work of Satan, both in his misunderstanding about the cross and in his denial (22: 31-34).   Everything falls apart in Jerusalem because Jesus was not ‘the one’ people wanted. 

One last thing that needs to be said about the ‘crowd’ that finally turned against Jesus.  It is probably not the same ‘crowd’ that marched alongside him on Psalm Sunday.   We are told that those who came out on Palm Sunday were ‘a multitude of disciples’, but these who cry out for his crucifixion in the crowd are identified simply and tragically, as the “voices who prevailed” (Luke 23:23)---that is ‘prevailed’ when the disciples of Jesus went silent.    Surely, there was enough ‘disappointment’ with Jesus to go around for everyone, from Judas who betrayed him, to Peter who denied him, to the religious leaders who hated him, and to those who did not understand him.  But at the center of all that happened to Jesus is the truth about the God nobody wants.   It is this God, who still tells us the truth we don’t want to hear and is reminding us of what us none of us really want to do.   Isn’t this why the world keeps trying to kill God off?   Isn’t this why it’s always easy to draw a crowd, but it’s much harder to keep one?   Who wants a God who is truly God; who will never let us set on the throne of our own lives?  

THE GOD WE ALL NEED
There is so much more that could be said about why people killed Jesus.  But there is one final message the crowd can teach us, and it’s a hopeful one.  It happened while Jesus was still on the cross, after the crowd realized what they have done---that they had demanded the death of an innocent man!   It is then, that we read how “the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts” (23: 48).   Here, in this graphic visual display, Luke leaves nothing to our imagination.  The crowd went home ‘beating their breasts’ because they knew they were wrong.   The most needed people in our world are not those who will do anything to prove themselves to be right, but who will sincerely look within themselves and realize how ‘wrong’ any of us can be.  Such hard-earned self-knowledge is at the heart of the saving power of the cross.

In a powerful story, Fred Craddock tells about speaking at a president’s prayer breakfast.  They were held around the world in places where the military was serving.  This one was in Seoul, Korea.    The General in charge was General Stilwell, a four star general.  All the officers and enlisted people gathered in a large room and they held the breakfast---and then had prayers.   Real prayers, even sentence prayers, like a Wednesday night prayer meeting.   They prayed for mothers, fathers, sisters, wives and babies back home and for peace in the world.  They were serious, moving prayers, Craddock said.   A man played Amazing Grace on a bagpipe right before Craddock spoke.   The general had tears in his eyes from the music as he said, “I love that song.”

After Craddock spoke, they had the benediction and the room began to empty.  Craddock shook hands with the general and thanked him for his gracious hospitality.  Then the general spoke: “I want you to remember us in prayer.”   Craddock acknowledged that he would.  Then the general continued, ‘Not for more power, we have the power.  We could just one afternoon destroy this whole place.’   ‘Instead,’ he said, ‘pray that we have restraint.”   

That general knew something.  He knew that this is why the United States has an Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches, so that we will have restraint.  This is why we make sure the president is  civilian and not a general.  Restraint.  The general knew that it’s not power, but the restraint of power the makes us civilized and humane.   Haven’t you what happens when a parent shakes a little baby too hard?  We all need restraint?
Craddock said that when he left the room, the only one left in it was the general and the colonel, who asked, “General, shall I bring the car around?”  “Not now,” the general answered.  “I want to sit here awhile.  Then he asked a private from Formosa with the Bagpipe to stay around.  When Craddock looked back, he saw the general seated alone in the big room.  There was a private sitting in front of him playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipe.  Here’s the picture, Four Stars shining, listening to the song of restraint, admitting, as we all must, that we need restraint, because more often than being right, we are WRONG  (From  Craddock’s Sermon, “He Could Have, But He Didn’t, p 101-102, Westminister/John Knox, 2011).  

What should we consider?  What’s is the music of restraint we should hear around the cross, if we want to cross to keep saving us?   It is this, says Craddock: “For God so loved the world that he sent his son into the world, not to destroy the world, but to offer salvation through the cross.”   Now that’s restraint! 

Poet Ann Weems wrote about understanding the cross and it’s saving effect on us.   I end with a portion of her poem titled “Holy Week:”
Holy is the week…Holy, consecrated, belonging to God…
We move from hosannas to horror with the predictable ease of those who know not what they do.
Our hosannas sung, our palms waved, let us go with passion into this week.
It is a time to curse fig trees that do not yield fruit.   It is a time to cleanse our temples of any blasphemy.
It is a time to greet Jesus as the Lord’s Anointed One, to lavishly break our alabaster and pour out perfume for him without counting the cost.   It is a time for preparation… the time to give thanks and break bread is upon us.  The time to give thanks and drink of the cup is imminent.  Eat, drink, remember:   On this night of nights, each one must ask, as we dip our bread in the wine,  “Is it I?”  And on that darkest of days, each of us must stand beneath the tree and watch the dying if we are to be there when the stone is rolled away.”   Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

What Jesus Wants?

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 19: 1-10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
5th Sunday of Lent, March 17, 2013

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10 NRS).   

Recently a former deacon in my church in eastern Germany called on the phone.   He’s planning to make a visit to the United States this summer and wants to visit us on the first Sunday in July.  As we were talking, he told me he’d been working on his English language skills and had a grammatical question.  He asked, “What’s the difference between saying, ‘I have to do something’ and ‘I must do something’?   My answer was simple.  There’s not really much difference at all.  It’s simply two ways of saying the same thing.  In both situations you are under some kind of pressure to do something.

In our text today Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus.   He’s a short fellow and having trouble seeing above the crowd.   We all know the story, and how Jesus finally climbs up the sycamore tree to get a good look at this traveling teacher who has come to his town.   But right in the midst of this story is another surprising story.   Jesus wants to see Zacchaeus.    We read that “ When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today" (Luk 19:5 NRS).   The big surprise is that is that the story is not finally about what Zacchaeus wants, but it is about what Jesus wants.   Jesus says in no uncertain terms: “I must stay at your house today”.

I.  WHAT JESUS WANTS   (vs 10)
We do not have to wonder where this story is going.  Vs. 10 tells what Jesus wants and what
God wants.  “For the son of man has come to seek and to save the lost”.  

Of course, this should be of no surprise to us.  It is at core of evangelical faith.   We believe that Jesus came into this world, just as the Bible declares, not just to save, but also to seek us out so that true salvation can be realized in our lives.    But the truth of God seeking us comes as an ironic twist in this gospel story.   Even though the story opens like it is Zacchaeus who is trying to see Jesus, all the while it has been the other way around.  Jesus is looking for him, just in the same way that God is looking for us.

We don't always see faith and religion this way.  We normally see our faith as ‘our’ religion, which is defined as the human person seeking God.   This is how we normally think.   We say: “This is the God I believe in.”  “This is the faith I have chosen.”  “This is what I want for me and my family”.   Many have come to know or have ‘faith’ in this way.   It is what our parents have been.   It is what we want our children to believe.   Or it is the way we have chosen to live and anchor our lives.   This is all well and good, but this story about Zacchaeus takes another angle on the nature of true faith.   Faith is much more than something we have chosen or decided, but at the heart, faith must be a truly ‘first-hand’ faith, much more like a personal experience of truth that has come looking for us, than a truth we sought out ourselves.   This story of Zacchaeus should remind us that true faith is less about what we are looking for, it is about our response to this God is looking for us.

Back in my teen years, while lying in the hospital, I had time to consider the course of the future of my life.   When I shared with my doctor, how God's call for my life became clearer in the midst of this accident, he told
The other interns that I had “found' religion.   That sounded more than a little strange to me.  I had been a person of faith all of my life.   Faith was something that was always part of my life, and it had very little to do with what I had found.   Faith found me, but I had never ‘found’ faith.  This was something he could not grasp. 
Even the Evangelisim department of North Carolina Baptists gets caught up in this kind of language about faith,  inviting others to come to church with the emphasis  'find it here'.  It’s a great appeal, and may turn out to get a lot of people in church this Easter, but the theology does not fit Zacchaeus’ experience. 

And what we find at the center of this story about Zacchaeus is also what we find at the center of the Christian Faith.  In Christ Jesus, our central message is about the Incarnation, that in Jesus, the eternal Spirit of God has come into physical life looking to ‘seek and save’ us, as much for God’s sake as for our own.   As a great poet once imagined it, Jesus came to this earth as the 'hound' of heaven, and he will hound us too until we are caught by his relentless love.   Isn’t this what we all know to be our core belief, that in Jesus, God comes near, and in Jesus, the kingdom comes near, and most of all, through this gospel of Jesus Christ, in the message of forgiving and redeeming love, God has come near to us.   Our faith is based on the whole premise, that everything that has come to us, has come based upon Gods initiative, not our own.

Why is this important?  Why is it important to realize that faith comes through the initiative, seeking and saving of God in Jesus Christ?   It is important, because so much of the religious expression we experience today is based mostly on what we want, our desires, our wishes, our needs, our opinions, or our ideas.   The trouble this will bring to us will become obvious.  When faith is based on only on our initiative rather than God’s initiative, it is liable to be less than what God wants. 

In a recent book entitled, Bad Religion,  N.Y. Times Op Ed writer, Ross Duthoth says that because defining faith as what I want, rather than what God wants, is exactly why we have become, ‘a nation of heretics.’   He says that though we call ourselves a ‘Christian nation’ we are only naming it as we want it, not how it really is.  Popular Christianity has replaced true faith with our own chosen religion that is taking further and farther from the orthodox faith of the gospels.  Again, why is this be a big problem?   The answer is simple and scary:  How can God seek and save us with ‘his’ salvation, when we are intent on defining our own way of salvation?  Too easily can we forget what moved Zacchaeus to look for this Jesus who was also looking for him: Zacchaeus was unable to save himself, just as we are unable to save ourselves.

II.  ZACCHAEUS SEEKS THIS JESUS WHO CAME SEEKING HIM  (vs. 3).
Jesus wants to seek and to save the lost, precisely because the ‘lost’ are lost, and don’t know how to find their way back home.   This brings us to the second ‘irony’ of this story: Not only is Jesus seeking Zacchaeus, but Zcchaeus is seeking Jesus, even though, as it looks, Zacchaeus shouldn’t need Jesus at all.   Do you see that?      Zacchaeus is a person who has much.   He’s rich.  He is not just a ‘tax collector’, but he is tax collector in chief.    Why is he, this one who seems to have everything, seeking out this one who has come to town seeking all kinds of other people, who have nothing?  What does rich Zacchaeus have to do with all those other desparate people who came seeking Jesus?
  
What makes the story even more hilarious, is that Zacchaeus, as a short man, does all he can to be seen.  He wants to be found.   He climbs up a tree wanting to see Jesus, but not fully expecting that Jesus will also see all of him.    In this situation, with so much in his life already, most of us would be trying to hide from Jesus.   If you are making your wealth on the backs of the poor, wouldn't you want to hide?  But strangely Zacchaeus despartelys wants to see, and does not mind being seen.   It is as if he wants Jesus to see him, not as big man, but as a very little man, who has gotten himself up a tree.

There is only one way to explain the two-way action of this story.   Zacchaeus is not happy or at peace with who he has become.  He wants Jesus to find him because he feels lost--even in his own skin--even
with his great wealth---and even with all he is and has.  When Zacchaeus learned that Jesus was coming to twon, he not only wants to see Jesus, but he wants Jesus to see him, warts and all, so that somehow, someway, maybe even today, Jesus can help him become someone more. 

The Jesus who also comes looking for us can work on our souls in this way.  His presence causes us to meet
our lost selves for the very first time.   The presence of Jesus can make us meet our great spiritual needs, and he can show us how this need can be met, healed, helped, saved or redeemed.   What is your great need today?  The presence of Jesus not only reveals himself, he reveals the real us.  And Jesus reveals who we are, he has come to be with us and to meet us at our point of need, if we will open ourselves to his truth.

When Earl Brewer, the very talented 79 year old gospel musican, told me of his ordeal with a brain tumor, he shared how the Doctor informed him of the good news—that it was benign.   After several surgeries, and at the final visit with Doctor Pilsbury, who was releasing him,   Earl thanked him for all he'd done for him both physically and spiritually.   It was then that the doctor reached to hug him.  'He never does that' the nurses told Earl.  Something was pulling in both their souls as they rejoiced in the healing and hope that had come.    It was also this same doctor, Dr. Pilsbury, who gave Earl Brewer his new nickname, 'earl the pearl'.   Every time he would greet Earl in his office, he would address him as, “Earl the Pearl”.  

Jesus knows the great healing we all need.   Interestingly, there is nothing about any physical healing in this gospel story.  This is rare in the gospels.  The miracle Zacchaeus seeks is the need for the healing of the human heart.  It is the kind of healing that only comes with the forgiveness and acceptance of God.  All through Scripture there is a desire to find, see and know God.   But this great knowledge of God only comes when we acknowledge our great need to this God who knows and seeks us, right where we are.
  
III.  THE NEW YOU, YOU CAN BE IN JESUS  (vs. 8)
But here comes a final question we ‘must’ put to this story.   We see what Jesus wants.  We see what Zacchaeus wants.   But now comes point the story puts to each one of us:  What do we want?

In reality, there are two people under pressure in this story:  Jesus in under pressure to do the Father’s will to seek and to save the lost.  Zacchaeus is under the pressure of ‘trying’ to see who Jesus was (vs. 3).   But the ‘third’ pressure point of this story is to consider, what we ‘must’ do to see the good news of Jesus realized in our own story today.  

One day, not long ago, my wife came home from getting her hair cut.   She had stopped by “Little Pigs” Barbeque to pick up our lunch, but she got much more than a sandwich.   A couple of Emergency Workers were in line to get food, when they learned that “Little Pigs” does not take credit cards.  They were about to walk away, when a woman handed one of them money and whispered, “pay it forward”.  “No thank you, ma’am, neither of us have any money, we’ll have to go elsewhere.  “She handed them more money and said, “Here, pay this forward too.”   They were grateful.

Upon seeing this unfold, Teresa complimented the woman’s wonderful deed, and the woman said, “oh, no please don’t thank me, then it won’t work.”   It was as if the good deed, would only work if it was done for not acknowledgement at all.   “But that was a wonderful thing you did,” Teresa told the lady again, “let’s not talk about it, I’m so blessed.”   “We are all blessed,” Teresa continued.   “Yes,” the lady responded again, “I did not realize this until my husband developed two brain tumors, and recently had a stroke.”  “How is that a blessing?” Teresa inquired further.  “The tumors are inoperable, but this stroke has cut off the blood supply to the tumor and it is no longer growing.   We would not have realized how blessed we are until we found have now found ourselves overwhelmed and changed by hope.   

This new found blessing of hope had changed this woman into a ‘giver’.  She was no longer content to live her life only as a taker of the blessings that came her way.   That’s what happens when God finds you.   That’s what happens when you go looking for God knows what, and you find what you really need—the God who wants to be with you.   Isn’t this what happened to Zacchaeus?  When Jesus looked him in the eyes and said,  “Zacchaeus, I must stay at your house today,”  Zacchaeus’ life was transformed by God’s forgiving, accepting, and saving love.   With a transformed heart, this man who has everything, starts to give it away:  "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much" (Luk 19:8 NRS).  

What will you start giving back to God, when God gives you everything you really need?   This is how we know that salvation is real ‘today’ and in ‘this house’ (v. 9).   It is not when we get what we want, but it is when God gives us what we really need, and we are able to respond to God’s love and grace, by becoming givers, not just takers.   

Now, after sharing this message, I think I have discovered the small grammatical difference between “have to” and “must”.     “Have to” is used for something that you are obligated to do because you ‘have to’ do something whether you want to or not.  “Must” is used when the obligation is felt from within.  Jesus said, “I must stay” at the Zacchaeus’ house, because he wanted too.  But Zacchaeus ‘had to’ see Jesus, not simply because he wanted to, but because he knew that without Jesus’ love in his life, he would end up with nothing at all.   This is why he ‘had to’ see Jesus.   And when he saw that Jesus ‘wanted’ to see him, his heart and life were transformed forever.   That’s what blessing, love and hope will always do.  It will change you from the inside out.   Is anybody here ‘trying’ to see Jesus?  Let me tell you, that more than you realize, this very day, God in Jesus Christ is looking for and wanting to touch and change someone just like you.  Amen.   

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Prodigal God

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 15: 1-3; 11b-32 NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 10th, 2013

“Then the Father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’” (Luke 15: 31).

Ed Young tells of a father and mother who were seated at the dinner table with their 17 year old son.  And almost in a casual way, yet very planned and deliberate - the boy said, "Dad, I wonder if it would be alright if I used your car tonight.    Bill has a date and I've got a date and we are just going to the movie and if you will let me use your car - I promise you I'll come straight home and I'll be here by 11:30."

The father glanced at his wife with a knowing nod and with unspoken communication that takes place across years of a marriage relationship. The father looked over and said, "I think it will be alright. But you have to make sure that you'll be home by 11:30."

Now this son eats the rest of the meal but he is excited. It is the first night that he has gone out in this way. It's the first time he has been out at night with the car by himself. And so he gets through eating and he leaves and you can be sure that father and that mother were restless that evening. They tried to watch television; they walked around; they read; the telephone rang a time or two and they talked to some
friends - but about 11:15 - they were really on edge ..... just listening for that car to enter the drive.  

The telephone rang.  He picked up the phone and a voice said, "I'm a nurse at the hospital. There has been an accident involving a member of your family. We don't think it is too bad." The Dad interrupts and says, "Is he hurt very bad?" "No. We don't think it is very bad. We think he is going to be alright. He is just shook up a little bit. The car is fine." And then the father says, "You tell my son that I'll be down there immediately to pick him up."  The nurse said, "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. It's not your son who is here - it is your father who is here."  And that Dad looked at his wife and said, "It's not the boy Mabel - it's my dad." And then he commented in almost a haphazard way - "It looks like we've been worrying about the wrong generation!"

I wonder if it is possible that we’ve concerned with the wrong generation in this beloved parable.  It is not just a parable of one wayward son, but it’s really a parable of two sons; one younger and the other, the elder.  The original title was not “The Prodigal Son”, but it was titled by Luke’s first words:  “A Certain Man had Two Sons” (Luke 15:11).  Most importantly, it’s not primarily a story to tell us about these sons, but it’s a story to tell us about God’s attitude toward sinners; both sinners who have been far away and sinners who have stayed close at home.   Which description of a sinner fits you?   Are you someone who has been far away from God, needing to finally come home, or are you a sinner who’s never gone away, but has become hardened, resentful, and cynical of God’s lavish, extravagant, excessive love?   The point Jesus most urgently wants to make with this parable is that both of these “sinners” are loved by the Father. Both of these sons can have all that the Father has.  Both of these sons are invited to the party to celebrate this one who ‘was lost and has been found’.    

In the beginning of my ministry, I purchased a book on the parables of Jesus by Lloyd John Ogilvie, a popular Presbyterian minister at that time.  The book entitled, Autobiography of God helped me to understand how these parables of Jesus are far than moral stories, but they are ‘windows’ to allow us to see straight into the ‘heart’ of God.  Ogilvie opened his book of parables telling about “The Prodigal God”:
“Rivet your attention on him.  Don’t take your eyes off him.  Observe his actions and reactions.  Listen to him, fell his heart break, sense the depth of his relentless love.  He is the central character of Jesus’ greatest parable….The Father.  The spotlight is never off him.  He is at the center stage the moment the curtain goes up.  He dominates every scene even when he’s offstage.  The two sons are but supporting characters, vivid contrasts to the Father.  Change the scenery and his gracious love still thunders through.  He speaks both when delivering his eloquent lines and when he silently waits.  Who is the father?  Jesus hoped we’d ask.  The father is God; and God is the real prodigal.  This is the parable of the prodigal God!  (Autobiography of God, by L. J. Oglivie, Regal Books, 1979, p. 9).

According to Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, when used as an adjective the word ‘prodigal’  means, “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; or wastefully extravagant”.   The synonyms paints the full spectrum of someone who is lavish - profuse - extravagant - wasteful – a spendthrift or squanderer.   We can understand how this could be applied to the wasteful and reckless younger son, who took his inheritance and squandered it in self-indulgent living.   But who would dare refer to God as a wasteful, or as someone has suggested, one who is a loony over love?  Who has a problem with that?  The Elder Brother did. 

Our text tells us how ‘the elder son’ approached the house and overheard the music, dancing, and joy going on inside.  “What’s going on?”  He asked one of the slaves.   “Your brother has come, and your Father has killed the fatted calf, because he got him back safe and sound” (v. 27).  “Then”, our text says of the Elder son, “he became angry and refused to go in” (v. 28a).   Isn’t it rather interesting, that as we come to the conclusion of this story, how it is this ‘elder’ brother--the one who stayed home---the one who was responsible and obedient to the Father---now he is the one who seems so lost and so far away from home?  Ironically, when the story ends, he is the one demanding everything the Father has, only for himself.

The late Henri Nouwen once wrote that, as a Christian, he was constantly reminded that he was much more like the “elder son”, than the younger one (See The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Image Books, 1994,  p. 68ff).   The same is true about most of us who have grown up in church, who come to church, and who want what we can get from God.   Few of us have lived lives like the younger son; making life hard on our parents, wasting our money in wasteful, reckless, spendthrift living.  We were taught better than that.  Most of the time, we’ve done better too.  But all our responsible, righteous living does not mean that our hearts beat with the lavish love of the Father.   Just because we’ve never been away from home, does not mean we now feel at home in God’s house.  We can be lost and out of the Father’s love, not because we’ve run away, or because God has locked us out, but because we ourselves have become callous, selfish, hardened, or stubborn toward God’s work in the world and in us.

For one thing, like the elder son, we too can be lost in the Father’s house when we let our lives become full of resentment.   Don’t you see expression on his face?  Can you see it in your mirror, when others, maybe much less deserving, receive something you wanted for yourself?  

Again, Henri Nouwen writes, “Did you ever notice how lost you are when you are resentful? It’s a very deep lostness.  The younger son gets lost in a much more spectacular way — giving in to his lust and his greed, using women, playing poker, and losing his money.  His wrongdoing is very clear-cut. He knows it and everybody else does, too.   Because of it he can come back, and he can be forgiven.  The problem of being lost in resentment is that it is not so clear-cut: It’s not spectacular.  And it is not overt, and it can be covered by the appearance of a holy life.  Resentment is so pernicious (underhandedly evil) because it sits very deep in you, in your heart, in your bones, and in your flesh, and often you don’t even know it is there. You think you’re so good. But in fact you are lost in a very profound way.”  (From Fear to Love: Lenten Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, (Fenton, Missouri: Creative Communications for the Parish, 1998), 13-14.
 
Speaking of anger and resentment as one of the deadliness sins, Fredrick Buchener wrote: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Perhaps this is how we can best visualize the ‘lostness’ of the elder son, he is “the skeleton at the feast.”
What would bring the elder son home?  What would put flesh back on his bones?  What would enable him to get over his resentment?   With this story of a Prodigal Father, a Father filled with forgiveness, love and grace, even for the worst of sinners, this elder son is invited to the party, to give in to love and to start giving back, not merely holding on.  

 I love the way professor Tom Long, visualized the way home for the lost, elder son, with a story from one of his seminary students. This young man and his father, an inner-city pastor, were jogging in their neighborhood when they decided to have a pizza delivered to their home. On their way to the pay phone a homeless man asked them for change. Without a second thought the father emptied his pockets and said, “Here, take what you need.” Enormously grateful, the homeless man took every last coin.

But as he turned to go, the father suddenly realized that he had given away the change he needed to make his phone call. “Pardon me,” he called to the man. “I need to make a call. Can you spare some change?” Turning, the homeless man emptied his pockets. As he held the change out to the father he said, “Here, take what you need.”   That’s what you find when you find a generous, rather than a resentful heart.

When we live like this, holding on to resentment and holding out on becoming generous with all our hearts, what we miss out on is the very joy of life.  Isn’t this the other way the Elder son was lost?  He was ‘lost’ at home, even though everything was ‘right’ between him and his Father, he lived separated from the Father’s joy because things were not right between him and his brother. 

When things are not right between us and others, the prodigal Father, this God who is even a bit loony over love, invites us all to come to God’s party of grace and restore the joy in our lives.  Do you have the joy?

A few years ago, some members of a church went on a mission trip to Central America, to Nicaragua.  For three weeks they lived in the homes of Nicaraguan Christians.  They worked with them, studied the Bible with them, ate with them, and worshipped with them.   The American Christians were very impressed by many aspects of the faith of the Nicaraguan Christians, but most of all, by the great sense of joy these people had in their worship and in their lives.   These Nicaraguan Christians were very poor. They had no color televisions, no SUVs, no computers, no cell phones.   All they had was Jesus, and their worship was free, spirited, and full of joy.   The American Christians came home wondering if we were missing something. Where, for us, is the joy, where is the great joy of our faith, the great joy of worship, the great joy of being in the house of God? ( From a sermon by Tom Long, http://day1.org/471-is_there_joy_in_gods_house).

In this parable, of not just the prodigal son, but of the prodigal God, Jesus would like to tell us where the ‘joy’ is.   Jesus says the ‘joy’ of life and the ‘joy’ of God’s house is when we come to the party that welcomes all kinds of sinners---not just the most obvious sinners, but even the most resistant sinners---the most unobvious sinners just like us.   For you see, as Henri Nouwen rightly said, “resentment and joy cannot coexist”.  You cannot have the fullness of joy in God’s house, if someone is holding out on forgiving, accepting, or enjoying the gracious gift of the Father’s love.

However you interpret this parable, beyond all private interpretations about who is a young, wasteful, immoral prodigal, is this only one who is lost in his own house.   The elder brother is the ‘last man standing”, who is stubborn, resentful, and a party-pooper.  It is the Father who leaves the party and goes out into the field seeking the elder, responsible son.  He is the real ‘party pooper’ who is trying to steal the Father’s joy.  However, the Father is not angry with them, but he begs, pleads and invites them to come in the house of joy, of dancing, and feasting on the Father’s extravagant love.   But will this elder son come in?  Will he come to the party?  Will he forgive his brother and accept the Father’s invitation to come to the party?   Or will he be the one son, who will be lost forever, and never, ever really be found?   Jesus did not answer that question, because only you and I can answer it.

Here this final story:  A woman was reminiscing about her father. She said that when she was young, she was very close to her father. The time she experienced this closeness the most was when they would have big family gatherings with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. At some point, someone would pull out the old record player and put on polka records, and the family would dance. Eventually, someone would put on the "Beer Barrel Polka;" and when the music of the "Beer Barrel Polka" played, her father would come up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, "I believe this is our dance," and they would dance. One time, though, when she was a teenager and in one of those teenaged moods and the "Beer Barrel Polka" began to play and when her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, "I believe this is our dance," she snapped at him, "Don't touch me! Leave me alone!" And her father turned away and never asked her to dance again.

"Our relationship was difficult all through my teen years," she wrote. "When I would come home late from a date, my father would be sitting there in his chair, half asleep, wearing an old bathrobe, and I would snarl at him, "What do you think you're doing?" He would look at me with sad eyes and say, "I was just waiting on you."   "When I went away to college," the woman wrote, "I was so glad to get out of his house and away from him and for years I never communicated with him, but as I grew older, I began to miss him. One day I decided to go to the next family gathering, and when I was there, somebody put on the "Beer Barrel Polka." I drew a deep breath, walked over to my father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I believe this is our dance." He turned toward me and said, "I've been waiting on you."  (Also from Tom Long’s, There is Joy in God’s House, Day1.org).,

Standing at the center of our life is the God who says to us, "Everything I have is yours. All that I am is for you, and I've been waiting on you."  God is waiting, not only on the sons and daughters who have lost everything, and need to be saved, but God is also waiting on the sons and daughters who have lost nothing, except the very love the Father has that could bring them so much joy, if they would only come to the party.  Will you come?  Amen.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Hope Full


A Sermon Based Upon Luke 13: 1-9
Preached by Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Lent 3, March 3, 2013

“If it bears fruit next year, well and good; if not, you can cut it down.”  Luke 13: 9, NRSV.

At first glance, today’s Bible text seems to be anything but hopeful.   It opens with the telling of two tragic events; a terrible murder of innocents by a governor Pilate and a tragic accident of an unstable tower falling on unsuspecting people.  Such tragic news has a place in the gospel, because this is the kind of world we all know.  This is the kind of bad news we hear most every day: An Islamic extremist murders people in the name of Allah, terrible storms slam people around like toys; someone in your neighborhood is injured or killed.   Just to reflect upon the bad news that comes in the period of a lifetime can leave the most optimistic among us feeling depressed, alarmed, numb, and much less than hopeful.  

The other part of this passage today does not, at first glance, seem to help matters much.   Upon hearing the questions people raise to try to reason why bad things happen, Jesus challenges these answer seekers with a stern warning, saying: ‘unless’ you change your ways worse will happen to you.  Now, that’s quite a stern word for a world people who are already overwhelmed.  Is this any way to be the Lord of faith, hope and love?   

Now Jesus is certainly telling us the truth.  If we want to face facts, just by being born we are indeed constantly threatened with difficulty, death and destruction.  The reality of death and the possibility of destruction hover over each one of us every day, some days more obvious than others.  There have even been times in human history when it would have been better not to have been born.   Jesus said that himself, on the way to the cross as women along the road were weeping over him:  "…Daughters of Jerusalem,”  he said, “do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.  For the days are surely coming when they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.'  Then they will begin to say to the mountains, 'Fall on us'; and to the hills, 'Cover us.' (Luke 23:28-30, NRS)

The odds in that world and in ours, are in favor of bad news.   Who knows when a big bully will try to hurt us?   Who knows when a deranged person will pull out a gun and start shooting?   Who knows when we will get sick, be in an accident, or come to realize that our days are numbered?   As human beings, whose lives are temporal and transitory, if we are in our right mind, we know this.  But if we want to remain in our right mind, we need to somehow hear it, but also we must put it into the back of our mind, get on with life, and try to find some kind of hope.  Like in the humorous Jim Carey movie LIAR, LIAR, the ‘whole truth, and nothing but the truth” can be an awful big burden to bear in ‘real’ life. 

After telling the hard and difficult truth about his own day, Jesus offers his listeners a parable of hope.  Jesus wisely does not offer any hard and fast answers as to why bad things happen.   Jesus does not allow them or us to point any fingers, except at ourselves.  But Jesus does want to temper this ‘dose’ of reality with a word of hope.  His words could help them and us deal with the daily pressures and perplexity of life.    

The hopeful story Jesus tells is about a man who had a fig tree planted in his vineyard.   Already, we can see that the person in this parable is better off than most people because he has a piece of land and has the means to hire a gardener to work for him.   But even with all his wealth, resources, and know-how, even after three years of effort have gone by the fig tree is still not fruit-bearing.   Perhaps the obvious point is that even people who seem to have everything, will one day be threatened with loss and disappointment.   The privileged and blessed can insulate themselves, but one day they too will feel the threat of ending up with nothing.   

The passage we must consider today is both sobering and serious.   At its very heart is something most people don’t want to have to consider, and probably won’t consider, until threatened with loss and difficulty.   Most of us tend to have much better things to do than to consider Jesus’ twice given warning: “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish!”  If people can find any way to wiggle out of responding to these challenging words, most will try.  If we can find any way to deny the seriousness of our own situations, or to distract ourselves with other things, we tend to do that.  In our own age, many prefer to watch reality on TV (which is anything but reality) than to face the reality of their own lives.   We‘d rather stand by and be entertained by with what we see is wrong in other, rather than do the hard work of taking an honest, painful look at ourselves.  

The awful cycle of hopelessness, despair, with all its positioning, faultfinding, blaming and name calling can still threaten us.  But who might consider, with this biblical word from Jesus, that real hope--the kind of hope that is most needed in our world--still begins today where it always has, and always will begin.  Only when we take a serious look into our own hearts, and take a dose of our own reality, can we find the hope, the peace and the promise we need.  True hope begins, not by finding all the right answers to all the questions, nor by figuring out who should be blamed, or has gotten us into the mess.   No, true hope comes from hearing God’s truth and responding to God’s warning.   Before we can deal with the ‘bad news’ in the world and find hope, we must come to grip with the bad news that gets into us---any of us, even the best of us.

To regain hope in our lives, even in the most difficult moments, let me first speak about what we must not do.   If we want to have hope, regain hope, bring hope into our world, we must not get caught up in the blaming and shaming game that demands answers to everything that happens.   Isn’t this where Jesus starts?  When Jesus was told about the tragedies around him, he knew what his disciples where thinking and asked: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered this way, they were worse sinners than all others?”     Then without waiting for their answer, Jesus continues:  “Of those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them, do you think they were worse offenders than the all others living in Jerusalem?”  

In both instances, Jesus does not wait for simple answers.  Jesus does not allow his disciples to fall into the trap of blaming and shaming—each other or the world.  Jesus wants his disciples to rise above their personal desire to seek an easy answer or to find fault.  But this is not easy, even for the best of us.   Remember, when the towers fell in 2001, it was Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberson who came out saying that it was more than terrorism, but it was caused by God’s wrath.  Falwell blamed both the ACLU, the abortionists, the pagans, the feminists, the gays and the lesbians, not to mention People for the American Way.   There was no doubt in his mind, he had it all figured out, and Roberson agreed.  

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, was quick to jump in and declare that what happened to New Orleans ‘looked like the curse of God.’  Following these extreme and popular views, it wasn’t long until political candidates and even fringe news reporters got on the bandwagon, suggesting that hurricanes on the east coast and earthquakes in Hati and Japan, were hitting parts of the world where people were worst sinners than others (See Washington Post’s Sally Quinn:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/did-god-plan-isaac-to-punish-republicans/2012/08/28/80ead6a0-f139-11e1-adc6-87dfa8eff430_blog.html). 

It was, and always is easy to easy to get in on the blame wagon when it happens to someone else.  But once you get on that band wagon, how do you get off?   It’s always easy hitch a ride when it happens to someone else, but how are you going to get off that ‘bandwagon’ when, God forbid, the tragic finally comes to you?
This may be why Jesus recommends another wagon to ride on.  Jesus not only tells his disciples what they should not do, he wants to instruct them about what they must do, if they really want to have hope in this world that can seem hopeless.   Even with these very hard, reality facing, direct words or warning, repentance and this promise of judgment, Jesus puts them and us all in this together.  Jesus sees nothing to be accomplished by placing blame or by claiming to have figured out exactly what God is up to in this world, or by claiming to know exactly is being judged by God.   As Jesus sees it, none of us will escape the sure and true Judgments of God.   And understanding this, taking it into our minds, hearts and into our actions, is not meant to terrorize us, but it is meant to warn us, and strangely enough, to bring us hope.    

Jesus’ call to repentance, can bring us hope because even in a bad news world, there is still good that we can do.   And this good we can do must begin with an acknowledgement of our own participation and responsibility with what goes on in this world.   Isn’t this part of what made Abraham Lincoln to come to be admired by both south and north?   When the north clearly had the advantage, and people where asking him to come and pray that God be on their side, level headed Lincoln said no, “Let us pray that we are on God’s side.”  And as the war came to a close, when Lee Surrendered at Appomattox Court house, Lincoln refused to take punish the south any further and he commanded that General Lee be treated with the upmost respect, even when he was wrong.   Two of the most moving moments in Steven Spielberg’s depiction of that time in Lincoln’s history, was not only when he succeeded in freeing the slaves; but also when he freed the south which was also ‘enslaved’ in the slavery of their sin.  Lincoln let God speak for himself as he let the defeat and the humiliation of the south’s surrender speak for itself.   The greatness of Lincoln’s legacy is that he never ceased to recognize the weaknesses, the struggles, and need of every person, including his own, instead of capitalizing on laying blame and bringing more shame.   It was not just the greatness of some, but flaws of all that should “unite” us for aiming for the greater good.

Hope can be found, even in the worst situations, when people, refrain from easy answers and take their own shortcomings seriously.   If we do feel blessed and spared from tragedy, Jesus’s sobering words of warning about God’s ultimate judgment should still steer us away from laying blame and call us to sharing in the responsibility of how things are.   Hope comes, both from what we don’t do (in placing unnecessary blame on each other) and in what we are still called to do (seeking to change our situation by first changing ourselves).  

But the final part of Jesus’ message reminds us of our greatest source of hope.   When the owner of the vineyard discovers that his fig tree is still not producing fruit after three years of investing in it, he is ready to cut it down.  But it is the servant who intervenes.  The owner says strongly and sternly, “Why should I let it keep wasting my soil?”   This is the ultimate “God” question; it is not  ‘who done it’,  and not always ‘what can be done’, but the ultimate question of life is when will God draw the line or let down the final curtain?   Our greatest question of faith is not about ‘if’ but about ‘when’ will God’s true judgment come---to prove what needs to be lifted up that is righteous and true, and to cut down all that is wrong---with Jerusalem, with Washington, or with us?   

It will not come, this parable would say, as long as the servants of God, appeal to God’s grace and goodness.   Jesus wants us to know, that even in the most fruitless situation, God’s constant desire and will is to give Jerusalem, Washington, and to give us, another chance, another year, and another moment.  If God’s servants of righteousness still appeal for grace, God is willing to fertilize us one more time with hope.  

Just the other day, when experimenting with my new chickens and my dog, I put myself into jeopardy.  I wanted to let my three chickens free-range and I dared to let my dog free in hopes that she would not bother the chickens.  They seemed friendly with each other, and I was outside working, so I let them go.   In one moment, I got distracted and looked up to see no chickens and no dog.  I thought to myself, what have I done?  I quickly left my work and moved toward the back of the yard to see if the chickens were safe and where in the world the dog had gone.  When I peek around the building, my eye first came upon the three chickens.  There was the roosters surrounded by the two hens.  Then I noticed that their eyes were on the dog, who had entered the lot with them.  Interestingly, the dog’s desire was not for the chickens, but on eating their manure in the lot.  I found myself strangely warmed by the sight of my dog eating chicken manure.

Our eyes should be on the manure in this passage too.  The fertilizing of the fruit tree is where God wants our energy to find its focus.   In difficult times, in fruitless times, in barren times, even in evil times and in hard times of any kind, we are always faced with a choice.   We can blame someone.  We can cut each other down, and we can close up shop in our hearts, bringing relationships, hopes and dreams to a close.  Or, when we find nothing—no fruit that we wish or need, we could fertilize that tree with all the good we can give it and grant it another chance.   Jesus would like for us, his disciples to set their minds and hearts on this approach.  He wants us to find hope by giving hope another chance, as we focus on what we can change within ourselves while we leave the judgment, the cutting down, and the final closing date to God.  

And God, according to Jesus, always does whatever he can, to give us ‘one more year’ and one more chance.   But, as this text soberly reminds us, ‘there is wideness to God’s mercy, but is also a limit to his patience.’ (Quoted from David Garland in Luke: Exegetical Commentary on the N.T., page 534). 

God is still expecting to find fruit on our tree.   God is still filled with hope, but the answer God awaits is this; are we?   What are we doing with our tree of hope?  Are we still fertilizing it?  Are we still feeding it?  Do we still want to see it grow?  For Israel to find hope in their moment, they had to stop being the Israel they wanted to be and submit to being the Israel God wanted them to be (N.T. Wright).   This was the repentance God was calling for in them, or they would perish.  What is the repentance; the change or the turn around, God is calling for in us?   Are we willing to fertilize that tree?  Are we willing to seek more than the growth and fruit we want, but to seek, hunger for, and even hurt for the fruit God desires and demands?  The Galileans who died in this passage, died of human hate not because of any fault of their own.  The people of Jerusalem, died when a tower fell on them by accident, also because of no fault of their own.  But those who hear Jesus’ words will be held responsible unless they bear the fruit of repentance God seeks---and still seeks, also in us.  Amen.