All posts by Pastor Karl Hanf

Telling Secrets

The text for this sermon is Matthew 10:26-27.
Telling secrets. In college, I used to watch Days of Our Lives. I am not proud of this. I am just putting it out there. We’re telling secrets today. My girlfriend Paige, her mom and my mom had watched this soap for years, so I had some familiarity with the characters, Hortons, Bradys, Beau, Hope, Marlena, Roman, Stephano. In defense, this was 1983 and Duck Dynasty wasn’t even a thought in a TV executive’s head.
Behind the tension in nearly all of the stories in Days of our Lives was secrets. Caroline had had an affair with the villain Victor Kiriakas and their son was a handsome boy named Beau Brady. Brady not Kiriakas because Caroline never told either the father or child the truth. We all found out about this when Beau was a grown man, but of course Beau didn’t know. The whole time he is thinking he has good Brady blood, when really evil Kiriakas blood is pulsing through his veins. Caroline his mother is trying desperately not to let him find out her secret because he will be angry at her. While I am yelling at the screen, just tell him already! You are only making it worse. The longer you keep this from him the more angry he will be when he finds out. Pick the scab and be done with it. I learned at 19 by watching Days of our Lives that secrets are evil, corrosive to relationships. The only way to destroy the power of a secret is by taking them out of the darkness and bringing them into the light.
Because Jesus likely never went to college, I am guessing he never watched Days of our Lives, but he was able to still learn the same lesson. “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; what you hear whispered proclaim from the rooftops.” This is part of a larger teaching of Jesus in Matthew about what is expected of being a disciple. Jesus tells disciples to be weary of secrets. The secret Jesus had in mind was not paternity issues like those revealed on the Days of Our Lives, but keeping secret your faith that Jesus is the Messiah. A disciple in the days of Jesus might want to do this because they would likely be kicked out of their family if they said such a thing out loud. It would have been a really big deal, thus better to keep it on the down low.
While it is a questionable use of scripture to relate this very specific passage in Matthew to a comment by Jesus on all secrets, I am convinced that secrets in general keep us from being disciples of Christ because they destroy trust in our relationships. How can we be Christ to someone, present ourselves as disciples of Jesus, if we can’t be trusted to be honest and truthful. The secrets we hold keep us from being honest with the people we love.
Even the minor secrets we keep have the power to damage relationships, especially those already troubled. For years, congregational pastors asked our Southern Ohio Synod to reveal the salaries of key staff people as we did in our congregations. They refused. Why? It made us wonder what was going on. What are they hiding? This secret chipped away at the trust between our Synod and congregation, that frankly already was on a rocky road because of questionable financial practices. When they finally did release the salaries, it couldn’t reverse the damage already done.
Often, we say we need to keep a secret because it would hurt someone we love too much to know the truth. Marriage counselors regularly tell spouses who have had a “minor” affair, not to reveal this. It would needlessly hurt the spouse when it was just too much to drink one night on the road and shrug things happen. I have trouble with this. I understand that it would hurt the other person to hear this truth. However, behind the lame reason for the affair, are the real problems in the marriage that led to the one night stand in the first place. A marriage might not be able to survive this secret coming to light, but at what price is survival? If the problems persist, the unfaithfulness is likely to continue, too. While the secret is kept hidden what is already broken is not being repaired. Even if someone us working hard to repair what is broken, it is a certainty that all of the repair will be lost when their secret comes to light down the road. While we might say we are protecting someone we love, more often it is just our attempt to avoid the consequences of our actions.
We keep our secrets because of shame. We worry what people will think of us if they hear our truth. These are the reasons for my secrets. I am not sure if there is anything about me that no one knows, but there are things that just a few people know. While I have no secrets about harm I have done to a member of Messiah or the congregation overall, I still will keep my secrets to myself. For I fear, if you hear them you will no longer see me as I want you to see me. On some real level, I don’t trust you to love me after hearing my secrets.
This is at the bottom of all of our secrets, isn’t it? Trust. We each work so hard to try to build a facade of who we want others to believe us to be, while desperately trying to hide who we really are. Our secrets reveal us and that is scary because we don’t trust that our friends or family or church will love us when they hear them. We don’t trust that the people who have promised to love us will keep their promises. We don’t trust God to keep God’s promises to love us no matter what.
Our secrets are like weights around us. They burden us. They fester and mildew in the damp darkness. It takes energy to conceal them, to lie, or imply to friends and family truths that we know to be falsehoods. They nibble at us. If we could let them go this burden could be lifted. Exposing them to the light might hurt at first, actions have consequences but freedom from their power over us would follow.
Begin today, by trusting God to hear your secrets and still love you. Believe that. But don’t just tell your secret to God in a silent prayer. Lift it up aloud, this is important. Pray it out loud for a time, until you get used to hearing the words echo that bring you such great shame. This will deflate some of the power from your secret and help you build up courage.
The next step is to trust a Christ filled person to hear it. Though you might not be ready to tell the world or significant people in your life, it is good to tell someone. To say the secret aloud, even to an uninvolved third party like me, deflates even more the power from the secret. Every bit of light cast into this darkness is good. To see a reaction of love not rejection will give you courage to continue on your journey to truthfulness. Even seeing a reaction of horror and disbelief, might force you to wrestle with the gravity, implications and consequences of your actions. Whatever happens when you tell someone, it will be a step towards healing. Of course the final step then is to tell the secret to the one who needs to hear it, the person you are keeping it from.
If we wore our secrets on our chest for all to read, we would be quicker to forgive each other, realizing that we all share the same brokenness. If we could trust each other enough to hear our secrets and to love us afterwards, how much stronger a witness of Christ’s love could we be? If we accepted the consequences of our secrets but were not cast out of the church for them, what a radical looking community the church would become. If we could trust each other to love us no matter what, then maybe we could start believing what we say we believe, that God loves us no matter what. If we believed that, there would be no need for any of us ever to have secrets. Amen

Trusting God in our Transitions

The text for this sermon is Joshua 3:7-17
Do you remember when you graduated from High School? I don’t remember walking across any stage or receiving a diploma, but I remember vividly the unique feeling of the summer after I graduated. It was as though everything had changed and yet nothing really had changed. I was still the same kid that had to get a hall pass to go to the bathroom just a week before, but now my parents were letting me go camping for the weekend with friends, only, no adults. After graduation I was given more responsibility for myself and my future and also more freedom to make wise decisions and very, very, very bad decisions. I can remember the exhilaration of realizing how great the possibilities were for my life, but also real fear about whether I could realize any of those possibilities without some monumental mistake screwing it all up. Clear to me now, in a way not possible then, graduating from high school was a huge transition in my life.
All of our lives, as different and unique as they are, contain many of these huge transitions. Some transitions we understand at the time that nothing will ever be like it was before. Others, we only see in retrospect how much life changed after one particular innocuous event. The crazy thing about transitions is that in the midst of the change that we are swept away in, we are still the same person, with the same gifts, faults, wisdom and stupid thinking. The best gift any of us can receive in a transition is to be surrounded by patient, loving, and caring people centered on Christ and willing to walk with us as we navigate changes.
Our hope is that in the church we find those people. Which is why we emphasize transitions in our worship life together. They are moments to mark an event as important, to pledge publicly our support for our brother or sister, and to pray that God leads them where life seems to be taking them. This is what weddings and funerals are about. Baptisms of infants also contain our promise to walk with the parents bringing their child forward. Honoring graduates today gives us an opportunity to remind these young people, that whether they pop out of the gate running, or stumble for the first few miles, we will encourage and support them.
The church comes by this support of people in transition honestly. It is deeply embedded in our sacred scripture. The story we read in Joshua is about an important transition in the life of Israel. It occurs at the end of the forty years of wandering in the desert that God demanded of the escaped slaves of Egypt before they could receive the Promised Land. The Promised Land was not an empty space waiting for them. The seven nations of Canaan occupied it and they were well aware of the intent of the tens of thousands of Israelites that were on their border, the other side of the Jordan. The book of Joshua is a book of battles against those nations. It is interesting that where the Israelites cross the Jordan it is barren desert on both side. Transitions are like that, right. They mark a point where everything changes, but still so much stays remarkably the same.
The transition happens at the Jordan River. On one side they are slaves of Egypt. On the other side they will be inheritors of the Promised Land that is meant for God’s chosen people. We forget how difficult in the ancient world crossing a river could be, especially for thousands of people moving into enemy territory. There would be no bridges out in the desert. Individuals might cross on rocks lying in the river, but for huge masses of people this was impractical. Armies might be ferried across by boats, but this wasn’t possible for Israel either. Just like God helped the fleeing slaves of Egypt cross the Red Sea, God would help their children cross the Jordan, by stopping the river in her tracks.
The ritual God commanded of them in their crossing, is what is of interest to us today. The priests carried the Ark of the Covenant to the center of the Jordan. Trusting that the waters would part for them and keep them dry. They stood in the middle of the Jordan with the Ark while twelve representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel placed stones in the center of the dried up river, around where they stood. Then the people crossed in the path of the priests, carefully moving around them as they remained standing in the center of the Jordan. Imagine the flow of all these people walking in the shadow of this mysteriously damned river. When all had crossed the priests carried the ark to the shore. There they built an altar to God, a memorial of twelve large stones like pillars. The Jordan was then released by God and flowed again.
This ritual was important for Israel. Everyone that crossed knew the difficult days of war ahead and had to trust the promise of peace in the future. Simply crossing the Jordan wasn’t enough, God wanted them to cross in a way that reassured them that God’s presence could be relied upon. The God who could stop a river from flowing, had their back. The twelve leaders of the twelve tribes who brought stones forward and built an altar at the end, was a reminder to all that they were a united community. Life was going to change drastically, but if they stayed together and trusted God in the lead, they would be okay.
This is what the best rituals in the church that mark our transitions do. They cause us to pause in a busy life long enough to thoughtfully consider an important moment in our life. They remind us God has our back in our anxiousness about the change we face. They gather the community around us to pledge their ongoing support when we will need it the most.
A memorable ritual for me was my ordination. It was the moment I became yoked to the church. I was ordained at Grace Lutheran Church in Toledo, Ohio, in the sanctuary where I was confirmed, married, baptized my kids, buried my grandparents and will likely say goodbye to my parents, too. The pastors who laid hands on my head in that ritual, who prayed fervently that I might be a good leader for the institution they loved, was our bishop at the time, Cal Holloway, Pastor Redfern who first championed my call when I was in his confirmation class, Pastor Jacobs who had become a loved part of the congregation after I left, and Pastor Kai Nilsen, who had become a model for my own pastoral leadership and now a good friend. The congregation gathered were people who had known me in Toledo since my childhood, friends from Columbus who wanted to encourage me, family who had always made me feel loved. I remember clearly kneeling in 1999 in that space, as the pastors and everyone prayed fervently for me and my call.
At the end of the ritual, I felt changed, ready for the responsibility God had called me to shoulder. At the end of the ritual I felt exactly the same, just as likely to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and make a mess of it. At the end of the ritual I knew regardless of my strengths and weaknesses, God had my back. God’s people were united to support me.
There is an important role that churches play in transitions for people of faith. As we enter our own Jordan Rivers, we should do so relying on rituals to give us confidence. There is liberating encouragement that is won from the evidence that God is paying attention. There is strength gained in knowing there is a community of people who want good from us, who believe in us, and who sacrifice to serve us. If we let God lead and surround ourselves by the people of God, God will find dry land for us. Amen

Three Beats to God’s Song

The text for this sermon is Acts 2:1-21.
There is a rhythm to how God works in our world. The heart of the Christian journey is to catch that rhythm, to move into it, and let it change you, your words, your thoughts, and your actions. This rhythm has three beats in the song God sings in our world and as many notes as people in God’s creation.
The first beat of this rhythm is the mystery of God that intersects with our world. What is God up to here? How is God found in our lives and our world? What miracle from God did we see today? The second beat is the witness of the people that spot God in our world. They connect the miracle we experienced with the greater story of God. They are the preachers, the prophets, the teachers, the prayer warriors, the faithful. They build a bridge between us and God. The third beat is us, you, me, her, him, them, all of us that experience the mystery, hear the words of hope that connect it to God’s story, then act, reform, repent, change who we are to match who God longs for us to be. Three beats, God acts, people witness, and then we change. Three beats, God, witness, us.
These three beats are behind every story in scripture. God acts and floods the world to cleanse it and start anew. Noah witnesses God’s judgment on the creation, but also finds God’s promise and hope for peace after the flood. Noah’s family acts, builds an ark, saves the creation, starts a new community centered on God. God acts and puts a child in the womb of the elderly Sarah. Abraham witnesses the vision that he will be a father of great nation dedicated to God. Sarah acts and makes room in her old age for the first child of these new people. God acts to give a new direction for the kingdom that Israel has insisted upon. Samuel witnesses to King Saul that he is no longer living in God’s story. David acts, anointed by Samuel begins his march to the throne.
Can you hear the beat? Boom, boom, boom. Boom, boom, boom. God acts, someone witnesses God’s purpose, we act. God, witness, us. The notes are different, the characters, the results, the change, they are all different, but it is the same rhythm. God acts in our world. God actions are connected to our story. The people change their direction after receiving this new blessing from God.
This is the rhythm behind the Pentecost story. God acts in a great and powerful way and God’s spirit lands on our flesh. It is like a rush of wind or a hot, intense fire that encompasses everything. God shows up in that room and makes God’s self-known. It is awesome. It is mysterious. It is surely God that does this. Boom.
The people wonder what just happened. How does that fit into who we know God to be? Are they all just drunk? Peter knows the words, to connect this Pentecost miracle of wind and flame to the story of God. This is God keeping God’s promise in Jesus he tells them. This is God’s presence, not in a temple, not on a mountain, not in heaven, not out there somewhere, but right here, right now. God’s spirit is within us now so that we can live and not die. God has not left us, but is with us powerfully by the Holy Spirit. Peter knows God’s story and how Pentecost fits into that story. Boom.
And the people act. They saw the mystery of God’s action. They hear the story of God’s promise. They change how they live in the world. They create the church to bear one another’s burdens, to lift each other up, to love their enemy, the least and the lost. The love of the early church was so crazy that their neighbors literally thought they were out of their mind. They died to what this world said was important and began to live to the new world the Spirit opened up. They were transformed. Boom.
Glenn Harris shared a powerful story last week. I had asked Glenn to tell the congregation why he supported the sanctuary renewal project in a temple talk. Last Sunday he didn’t talk much about padded pews, an expanded and modern sacristy, less clutter, or better sight lines for worshippers. Instead, he told us about a mystery of encountering God in this space in the back row of a Christmas Eve service when all he could see were hundreds of strangers holding a single candle in the dark. As he was grieving, crying out to God, angry at God, devastated by the loss of his mom, those single flames piercing the darkness as people sang Silent Night, got to him. God was here. Boom.
He didn’t receive any answers he had come to that night to find. Why had his mom died? Why couldn’t he get to her bed before she passed? Why had she suffered after living such a good and faithful life? He did though connect that mystery, that Christmas Eve night with God’s story. He knew that Christmas Eve God sighting was an invitation back to the body of Christ. In the church, his grief could be shared, his burdened lightened, his flame of faith connected to the hundreds of others who call this place home. Glenn made the connection between that night and God’s promise. Boom.
He changed. He became not just an occasional worshipper when it fit into his schedule, Glenn, Kim and Rain have become integral to who we are, leading ministries of teaching, enthusiastically serving the least and the lost with us through meals to the hungry, hospitality to the homeless, clothes, food and furniture to those in need, plus leadership in council and on our landscape group. By the following Christmas Eve, Glenn, Kim and Rain had reordered their lives so completely they were one of us, the church. Boom.
This is God’s rhythm, three beats. This rhythm plays behind our life together now. God is in this place. God can be seen in this community, the church. The mystery of God is in the beauty of our worship. Who could deny God’s presence when taps echoed here a few weeks ago? The mystery of God is in the new faithful servants that God sends us weekly. 75% of our leadership is people like Glenn who have been here less than ten years. The mystery of God is in the thousands of people every year that we serve in shelters, Joseph’s Coat and HEART, homeless ministries and many others.
The beats of God’s rhythm are here. What Glenn found out that Christmas Eve and witnessed last week, I am here to witness today. Our voices are that second beat. Listen. God is declaring life here while the entire world talks about the death of the church. People are being blessed and finding hope here. God’s mystery is felt by visitors in our pew, by strangers we serve, by faithful members every day. God is here. Boom.
We are the final beat to this rhythm at Messiah. So, what are we going to do about it? God has showed up. We have made the connection. Now we need to act. Change. Stop trusting in the scarcity of the Kingdom of Man and trust in God’s kingdom full of abundance. This place is holy, this sanctuary and I will take off my shoes within it. It is not enough for us just to say we believe. God is calling for our transformation, a reordering to match the power and mystery of God’s presence here. You, me, him, her, us, we, the church are that third beat. Boom.
God is here. Like a rush of wind, it looks like God has been blowing things around up here for a number of years. When God acts, things change and this worship space testifies to that. New organ, new piano, new drums, new electric piano, new screen, none of that was up here ten years ago. None of it. They are all gifts from God that have radically changed our worship space. While some may grieve that change, none of us should grieve without hope. There is no going back, only forward. God has acted in this place. Now, it is our turn to act, to respond.
If we didn’t have the resources to clean this place up, then God would be okay with that. We could worship on hay bales and dirt floors and lift a good voice to the Lord. But we do have the resources. It just calls for us to make different decisions with our wealth. It calls for us to act. We are the third beat. We can do this. God knows we can do this. The mystery of God is here.
There are three beats. The first beat, God acts in Messiah bringing us a richness of gifts in new people. The second beat is the story of life this has meant. These people have made us vibrant, diverse and alive. Now, it is our opportunity to be the third beat, to change this place to welcome so many more that are longing to hear the Good News. Listen to this music, the rhythm of God and prepare to make a good sacrifice to God and God’s church.

Gathering for Worship

The text for this sermon is Psalm 100.
Thadd and I in these weeks of the season of Easter will talk about the importance and purpose of worship. Whether we worship at Messiah in a “traditional” style, “contemporary” style, “blended” style or any other style that catches our fancy, the skeleton of the worship service will always contain four parts, in this order, Gathering us from our lives to hear the Word. The Word is always the same, God loves us, hearing this moves us to give Gifts and receive God’s gift to us, the living presence in the meal. Grateful for this gift, we move out of the worship space, Scattering to share God excitedly with God’s world.
Worship is not about us. It is always about God. When worship moves our hearts, it is when we are caught off guard by the powerful presence of God in the midst of the service. We had a special moment like that in March at our 4:30 worship service. The attendance was low that afternoon, so I invited the thirty people there up front for prayers with me. We gathered in a circle held hands and Holly, Brian and Michael started our prayers with a powerful song pleading with God to hear us. We all left after those prayers with tears in our eyes. All of us. God had landed like a thud on our hearts in that moment and got our attention.
Sometimes, maybe even often worship can become a powerful moment for us, but it always begins being about God. Pastor Jay Gamelin who used to lead the student ministry at OSU called Jacob’s Porch is now in South Carolina leading a church. Recently, he had a member tell him that she didn’t like the first song they sang. Believe me this is something that pastors hear every week. And it is good to hear, because we never intend to sing songs that most of you won’t like. Some of you, however are harder to please than others. Anyway, without skipping a beat Pastor Jay told that dissatisfied customer,“That’s okay. We weren’t singing that song for you. We were singing it for God.”
Worship is about God and we make the choice to be here to worship God. Worship is a direction that we choose for our life. Unless, you are still a child and your parents made you come, or on this Mother’s Day, guilted you into coming to honor your mother who spent twenty four hours of agonizing pain to give birth to you, all of us made a decision to worship this morning instead of golfing, sleeping in, reading the Columbus Dispatch with a cup of coffee or being the first one at Macy’s in Easton.
There are all sorts of reasons not to worship, but there is really only one reason to worship God. Read it in verse three of Psalm 100. Know that Yahweh is God. It is God who made us. We belong to God. We are God’s people. The sheep of God’s pasture. We worship God because God made us and we belong to God. We worship God because weekly like sheep, we return from our grazing in the world to this pasture, this church that bears the presence of God. Unless, until you believe this, all of the reasons not to come to worship will continue to outweigh the single reason to come to worship. Worship can become a powerful heart thing for us, but it always begins as a head thing, our decision, our choice.
Worship is a direction that we choose for our life. So it only makes sense that we begin with a Gathering that physically directs our bodies towards God. This is what Psalm 100 is about. It is an entrance song, a hymn that would begin a worship service. On festival days, the people would gather outside the gates of the temple and sing this song as they were entering. Gathered as God’s people, God’s sheep they would direct themselves towards where God lived, the center of the earth, the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. Psalm 100 is a joyful song, sung by people who know God, that they belong to God, that God is good, full of steadfast love.
Worship begins when we our gathered as God’s people and physically direct our lives towards God. You may be talking to your neighbor before the service starts, but when worship begins you are asked to turn and face the cross. Your body turns and your eyes follow it past the baptismal font where God called you to faith, past the pulpit where God’s word of grace will be read, forward to the table where God has promised to be present in wine and the bread, below the stunning, enormous cross built into our wall. There are moments when this procession is somber, like Roweena’s funeral on Wednesday. We spoke the 23rd Psalm instead of singing it as the casket of Roweena followed the cross to the altar of God’s presence. More often the entrance is like Psalm 100, fun, and joyful, a grand parade because who doesn’t love a parade?
My daughter Abbey for one. When she was three, we took her to a fourth of July parade in Toledo. My family cheered on the curb of the road in the midst of a big crowd. A clown on a tiny motorcycle participated in the parade. He would stop his motorcycle and get a child from the crowd to get on it with him. Then he would drive around with this child waving and laughing. He would drop them off then get another child. This looked like great fun, except to Abbey, who started to scream in terror when the clown came near her. What she had seen was the clown grab a kid out of the crowd, put him on the motorcycle, drive him away, dump him someplace, then come back without him to get another kid. She was screaming to make sure she wasn’t that clown’s next victim.
Our gathering parade is hopefully more joyful than Abbey’s experience, but it is always about our choice to redirect our lives to God in worship. When we renovate this sanctuary we will emphasize this physical redirection by angling the pews so everyone is focused on the beautiful cross carved in our wall and the altar where we will be fed. The angled pews will avert our eyes from most of the instruments that lead our worship. The instruments we will see will be God’s people, our choir singing in the acoustically best spot in our sanctuary, right under the cross. In fact all of our music should improve with the renovation. The choir’s leadership from the front will guide us. It will be easier to use the more appropriate instrument, the organ or the piano for the hymn chosen because we will put them next to each other. Vocal and instrumental soloists will have much more room to share their gift, too.
Most Sundays, our gathering is joyful so we want our space to be joyful, too. Which is why when we renovate we will freshen it up, bringing in natural light, new flooring and less clutter. Visitors will know how important worship is for us by the care we take of this space. Pastors, musicians, lectors, worship assistants will move less to lead us, keeping our focus, on the direction we have chosen this morning, God and God’s cross. When we renovate everyone will know they are welcome. People with mobility issues can choose to sit in any pew because every row will have space for a wheelchair or a walker. Plus, a large ramp will be built so that anyone can serve in our choir or aid us in our worship.
Worship is about God and the only gift God wants from us. Worship is a choice we make, to direct our lives to God. When our worship begins, the gathering physically moves us towards God. Like sheep being led into the pen by the Good Shepherd, our worship gathers us into this space, to spend time praising God who created us and knows each of us by name. It is not about us. It is about God. It is a head thing, but watch out in the midst of worship God will show up and land on our heart.

Doubting Thomas

The text for this sermon is John 20:19-31.
We don’t like Doubting Thomas. Thomas makes us all anxious. The only thing worse than being a Doubting Thomas is to be a Judas. I hadn’t really thought about that until this week. Somehow, in the bucket of failed disciples, Thomas has landed in the same bucket as Judas. This hardly seems fair. Judas betrayed our Lord for thirty pieces of silver, Thomas simply wanted what the other ten had received, a chance to see the resurrected Jesus. Yet, Thomas’ unbelief has become a warning sign for true believers.
Doubting Thomas’s make us anxious. I have a lot of friends who are not Christian. Most are not adamant atheists like Richard Dawkins, but rather casual agnostics, as in, if there is a god I can’t imagine that my small uneventful life is going to register on that god’s radar. What these friends tell me, is what Thomas says, I can’t really believe Jesus is God unless you give me some physical proof.
It is frustrating for us to hear these questions and not be able to give some physical proof. This is why so many Christians are obsessed with “proving” the bible is historically accurate. Discoveries of a ship in Turkey that could have been Noah’s ark, a tomb in Jerusalem that could have been Joseph, Mary’s husband, make the news because maybe then we can say to the Doubting Thomas’ in our lives, you see here, right here is the physical proof you need.
Underneath this wish to find a secret video tape of the resurrection though is a gnawing question we ask ourselves, what proof do I really have that any of this is true? The Doubting Thomas’ in our lives bug us because we can’t answer their questions satisfactorily for them or for ourselves. Thomas ends up in the same bucket as Judas because if his question is taken seriously, the whole church/religion/industrial complex will fall apart. Think about it if no one joined our churches unless they put their hand in Jesus’ side and physically touched his wounds, our pews would be even more sparse than they are this week after Easter. Thomas makes us anxious.
In our anxiousness we resort to answers that are nonsensical or even angry. You just have to take it on faith. What does that mean? You just have to believe. Okay…You just have to trust God. Yeah, but if I don’t think there is a god, why/how do I trust that God. God wrote the bible, I believe what it says, and that’s all. Wow, so much for conversation. For many of us, our faith feels so fragile that we fear the Doubting Thomas around us might poke just enough so that all our faith crumbles around us. Doubting Thomas makes us anxious because his insistence on proof might open a chest of questions within us, and who knows where that might lead.
Let’s admit our anxiousness and let Thomas off the hook. He isn’t so bad. Thomas wanted what the other disciples had received, a real and physical experience of Jesus. Thomas wanted what my friends without belief demand, a real and physical experience of Jesus. Thomas wanted what all of us really want, a real and physical experience of Jesus. And, when Thomas got it, he exclaimed his faith, his belief clearly, Jesus is God.
This simple declaration is the foundation of our faith that we build the rest of our faithful lives upon. One thing that might make us less anxious is to narrow what we feel called to defend. I believe Jesus is God. I don’t believe the bible is God. I don’t believe the church is God. I believe Jesus is God. In order for me to believe Jesus is God, I don’t need every detail in the bible to be historically accurate. In order for me to believe Jesus is God, I don’t need every Christian or pastor or congregation to be completely Godly. In order for me to believe Jesus is God, I do need what Thomas needed, to experience Jesus in a real and a physical way.
Thomas got to touch the wounds of Jesus. I don’t think this is as unique as it might seem. Many people testify that they are given this gift of a clear, palpable vision of Jesus. In this congregation, people have told me stories of Jesus appearing to them when their mother died. Waking up in the middle of the night with Jesus at the end of the bed telling you it would be all right. Too cool. That has never happened to me.There are many stories of people floating above the operating table and meeting Jesus, before he tells them it isn’t time, while the doctors frantically work to revive their patient. Too cool. That has never happened to me.
I believe these stories are wonderful gifts, just like the gift that Thomas received when Jesus came back a week after the first Easter Sunday. Why did Thomas get this return engagement and not twenty other people that were just as worthy? I don’t know. Why did you have a vision of Jesus in the midst of your grief and I did not? I don’t know. Yet, the good gifts that others receive do not take away the good gifts that I have received.
I believe Jesus is God because I live in a community of people that are constantly convincing me this is true. In you, I experience the risen Christ. In our office a few weeks ago, Linda and I were helping a young woman who had come to us in need. We were giving her vouchers for food and gas at the Krogers and Sunoco on Main. We do this several times a week. Your offering allows us to do this.
The woman asked me whether we knew where she could get furniture because she has none right now. Mary Deffenbaugh just happened to be in the office so I naturally asked Mary if she could answer her questions. Mary Deffenbaugh is a volunteer at Joseph’s Coat, a large furniture and clothing ministry for people in need that Messiah created and support. Mary began to help this woman in a way that nearly brought tears to my eyes. Linda and I treated her okay. Mary treated her like she was the most precious, important person she had ever met. Mary asked loving questions about her needs. Listened intently then cried with her when she told her story. Mary gave her hope that there was someone who cared and someway forward. Mary was Jesus to her.
I am not saying Mary is Jesus. I am saying that in that moment, I saw Jesus, as clear as day. Like Jesus, Mary was upset with the brokenness of this world. Like Jesus, Mary showed compassion and love to a stranger. Like Jesus, Mary was willing to sacrifice in order for her to be healed. In Mary, in that moment, I saw Jesus and I believed.
I believe Jesus is God. This belief is a gift God has given to me in my baptism. Do I have questions about what this means? Sure. Every day. Do I have doubts? Yes, but I have surrounded myself with all sorts of people like Mary that constantly reassure me. Have I ever had a powerful vision of the physical Jesus like Thomas or some of you? No, that has never been my gift, but as Jesus said, blessed are those, too, who believe without such visions. This was not Jesus yelling at Thomas for not believing without this vision, this was Jesus reassuring me and likely many of you, that we all need to experience Jesus to come to believe Jesus is God, but there are many ways to experience Jesus.
Thomas makes us anxious, but it is not about Thomas. It is us. Our doubts scare us. Don’t let them. Embrace them as part of the intellectual curiosity that surely delights God. However, don’t let those doubts get in the way of what is plain to see. Jesus is God with us, here and now and if our eyes are open, and we surround ourselves by people of faith, we will see proof daily. Amen

Winners and Losers

The text for this morning’s sermon, Matthew 21:1-11.
Two cities and two parades. On the same spring Sunday morning that Jesus rode into Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate led a parade in a chariot pulled by a stunning and beautiful, horse, symbols of his power and wealth. Behind him would have been a cavalry, with each majestic horse walking sprightly. Next, the foot soldiers, legs and arms crisp in their march, their leather armor creaking and helmets flashing light as they made their way down the street. They carried the weapons of war that brought Rome power, swords, spears, knives, and bows. The fabled Roman peace was kept by these soldiers. Pilate’s annual parade at Passover was popular. The streets were crowded with rich and poor craning their heads to see.
From the opposite end of town, Jesus led his very different parade. He rode a donkey, the animal that common people used if they used any at all. He wore no expensive robes just the two pieces of clothes he likely owned, a tunic and a cloak. There was no army behind him, no weapons of war to enforce the peace he declared. His parade only travelled through the poorest part of the town, not past the villas and palaces. There was a crowd to see him but a fraction of the size of Pilate’s parade. The parade was disappointing, just Jesus, nothing really to see or inspire awe.
Two parades and we have to decide which parade we are going to follow. One is the parade for the winners in this world and the other is for the losers. One is led by a man who sees the people as valuable commodities for Rome. The other sees value in all people. One, brings peace at end of a sword. The other offers peace through love, nothing else. One, understands that in this world compromises have to be made and unfortunately this might mean that bad things happen to good people. The other makes no compromises when it comes to the well being of another. One is led by a man who expects people to bow and serve him, respect him when he comes into a room. The other is led by a man who got down on his knees and washed the feet of his servants. By Friday, one will eat a feast with his wife and the other will lie dead in a tomb.
Two parades and we have to decide which parade we are going to follow. Of course, we want to follow Jesus, but are we likely to follow this Jesus, in this parade on this week, all week? In our Christian imagination we picture Jesus coming back a final time not as a loser by our world’s standards but a winner. In the middle ages, they painted pictures of Jesus returning as a powerful king. In the Left Behind books that were so popular ten years ago, Jesus returns willing to finally fight back and vanquish his enemies. Even our insistence that Jesus could have avoided the cross but didn’t because it was his Father’s will, seems to want Jesus to be someone who he wasn’t. If someone is dedicated to love in all instances, without compromise, can that person ever win in this world. And if not, are we ready to lose in order to love? We want to follow Jesus, but are we likely to follow a Jesus who loses in our world?
I like to win. I received no B’s ever on my grade cards from K-12. Why? My parents were actually worried that I put too much pressure on myself. I wasn’t in the running for the Valedictorian. My friends certainly didn’t care. I was always going to the University of Toledo and they didn’t care. In 1982 the entrance requirement at Toledo was being able to sign your name…on the check to pay for the classes. I certainly had to work hard for A’s, too. They didn’t come easy like for some kids. I got A’s instead of B’s because I hated to lose, and as every year went on without a B, the pressure built internally, within me.
This is a piece of who I am still. I stopped running marathons because I would get too disappointed at the end of a four hour race if I missed my goal time by a few minutes. I cancelled my doctor’s appointment last week because I had gained 10 pounds over the winter and I couldn’t bare to be weighed in and have that recorded…Okay, it was 15 pounds, man, tough crowd. I hated that Messiah’s weekly worship average went down by ten or so people last year. For all of these things, no one cares…but me. They are all defeats rather than victories and I hate to lose.
When I became a new pastor in 1999, I was at a synod function and because of my friendship with Dave Smith, a superstar seminarian, well respected before he ever became a pastor, I was invited to sit with the pastors who were the leaders in our synod, the winners. Nervously, I chortled on about all the ways I was going to change church as we know it, insecurely trying to impress them. Finally, Jim Wilson, pastor at Lord of Life in Worthington, looked at me and said, “Karl, I am not sure what part of the gospel you wouldn’t compromise to succeed.” I was stunned and didn’t say anything else. Now, because of retirements and deaths and the lowering overall of standards, I sit at this same table all the time. I won, but Jim is still at the table, and I have never had the nerve to ask whether he thinks I won by compromising the gospel.
This is who I am. I want to follow Jesus but I want to win, not lose. I want to follow Jesus, but I don’t want it to hurt. I want to follow Jesus, but I want my parade to go through the nicest parts of town, not the worst and I want to ride on a horse, not a donkey. I want to follow, Jesus, but can’t we be pragmatic about it, sometimes tough love has to be meted out, difficult decisions have to be made, for the good of everyone sometimes we have to turn our back on someone in need. I want to follow Jesus, but I want a parade behind me, so if that means keeping 80 sheep happy and letting 20 go, so be it. I want to follow Jesus but I want Easter Jesus, not Good Friday Jesus.
It is time for all of us to realize, that there is no difference between Good Friday Jesus and Easter Jesus. Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade was no fluke, this is who he is, one with us, wearing jeans and a shirt, through the poorest part of our cities, riding a 90’s Taurus not a shiny Maserati. When Jesus comes back, my bet is that he will make the same decisions he made the first time. He will love without compromise. He will forgive even people who aren’t seeking it. He will be hit without striking back. He will be willing to die, rather than do anything to take him out of union with God. Can I follow a loser who will win in the end? Or, will I continue to resist dying to this world, compromising the gospel to win? Whose parade will I be in? You?