All posts by Pastor Karl Hanf

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?

Seven Essential Questions of Faith: How do I find fulfillment?

The text for this sermon is Matthew 22:15-22

In the cat and mouse game that makes up a lot of the book of Matthew, the Pharisees are at it again, trying to trick Jesus. With their question about paying taxes he seems to be left with two bad choices. Support the payment of taxes and have the people hate him or be arrested by the Romans for encouraging people not to pay taxes. Jesus chooses option three, by indirectly answering the question, pretty much saying pay your taxes, but telling them and us they have a much bigger tax to worry about, paying God what God is owed. He does all of this while holding on to a coin.
The coin he was holding onto had a picture of Caesar, the leader of the kingdom where it had currency. Jesus told them to spend this coin in the kingdom of the king who minted it, created it, gave it value. Then he looks squarely at the Pharisees, the disciples, the crowds around him and in a real way us. We are like this coin, because God’s image is stamped on each and everyone of us, our King, in our Kingdom. God creates us. God gives us value. God mints us and now God tells us to go and spend our coin, our lives in the Kingdom of God.
Let’s go and spend our coin. We have been fooling with the Seven Essential Questions of Faith during Lent and today we ask a question that not only people of faith ask, but everyone really, what brings us fulfillment? My answer, spending our coin. After fits and starts and thoughts and words and frustration, that is the answer I am sticking with. What brings us fulfillment is spending our coin in the world. Giving our lives back to God, who minted us and gave us value.
We have choices you know, with this coin of ours. We could save our coin. Saving our coin is about not taking risks, not embracing our gifts, not believing the good news, that daily we die to sin so that we can rise and embrace a fresh start. Almost six or seven years ago, we had a thirty something year old visitor to Messiah, that met me in my office before she ever worshipped here. Her husband had just abandoned her and her two kids in an ugly incident that had left her devastated. Her marriage, her family had been everything to her. She had bet her life on it. She had lost the bet.
She had been raised in the church, served in the choir as a teenager, gone on mission trips and youth gatherings, but had not been back much since college. Now, when life seemed really difficult, church seemed like a good place to start over. She had a lot of gifts to share. She smiled even in an otherwise emotional meeting, as she told me what she liked to do, how she would like to start refocusing her life on God in the church, introducing her children to this joy that she had as a child, but had never shared with them before. She came to worship about four times in a row, but then only once or twice a year around Christmas. She is saving her coin, next year, she is going to become a bigger part of the church she told me at Christmas, the last time I saw her.
Saving our coin makes no sense. How long do we want to live life thinking about what we are going to do different next week, next month or next year? How long are we going to read stories about people who make a difference in this world, before committing to be that person this year? How much more groaning in God’s world do we have to hear before we decide to help? Spending our coin will bring fulfillment, making a difference in our lives and the lives of those we serve.
We have choices, with what to do with this coin. Many of the gifts God has given us have value in the Kingdom of Man. Dustin Wissinger spends all week as an accountant for a local company and then at night takes care of our books for HEART Food Pantry. Some gifts have value in both worlds, but we lose on the exchange rate. Have you ever been to Canada and tried to spend American money at the counter of a store? The exchange rate is always less than if you had exchanged your dollars at a bank before the trip. Subject to the clerk’s determination on how much your money is worth that day, you always leave thinking you didn’t quite get as much bang for your buck.
This is what motivated our member Brian Peters to lead the 4:30 worship service. Brian has had some success singing and playing harmonica at clubs and festivals around the area. He has even started his own band, Deuce and a Quarter, like them on Facebook. His coin, his gifts have some currency in the Kingdom of man. Yet, he longs to share these gifts with the Kingdom of God. This is where his heart is leading him. He got to talking with a woman he sings with, Holly about this. Her passion has been in the church for a while. Mike, overheard them at a practice one day making plans to sing at Messiah and asked if he could join them, too. They came to us. Thadd and I had no plans to start a 4:30 service. It was their enthusiasm to spend their coin, share their gifts, that convinced Thadd and I. Our lives have value in the Kingdom of man, but they get redeemed at full value in the Kingdom of God.
Let’s spend our coin on God and find fulfillment for our life. This doesn’t only mean a life of helping the poor, lost or least, although there is nothing wrong with that. Spending your coin might mean, working a morning at Joseph’s Coat and see the delight in a mother’s eyes when she finds a faded short sleeved boys shirt that will fit her son. Stay the afternoon at HEART, the food pantry we support, and help the 70 year old woman who worked her entire life at Lazarus, had donated often to food pantries before retirement, and never once thought she would need to shop at one herself. Surely, God would be delighted if we spent our coin serving and supporting financially these ministries or the many others like it that we are passionate about at Messiah.
There are other good places to spend it, too. Jean Limbers has sewn all of her life, her children and grandchildren have worn her clothes. She created the quilt that says Welcome that hangs in our Welcome Center. A few years ago she gave us a gift that is even more special. A pall is a white sheet we put over a casket in a funeral. It is a symbol of the baptism of the person who died and the trust we have that God will keep God’s promise to bring life from death. Jean heard me say that I felt bad we couldn’t include this special ritual for a member who is cremated. She got to work and created a small pall that is not only beautiful, but identical to the large sheet we have used for years for caskets at messiah. We put it over her good friend Charlotte’s urn, just this year.
Let’s spend our coin and not die holding on to it. Let’s start looking at our entire life as currency that get’s the most bang for it’s buck if spent in God’s kingdom. Each and everyone of us is rich already because we are the highest denomination imaginable. God’s image has been stamped on us. Die broke, having given every piece of our lives to the delight and need of God’s world. Amen

Why would Jesus ever curse a church?

This homily is based on the scripture from Mark 11:12-19 and the second chapter of the book The Last Week, by Crosson and Borg.

On Sunday, Jesus has a royal like parade that mocks the very real royal, militaristic parade that Rome is holding on the other side of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ parade, there are no horses, only a donkey, no army with weapons of war in sight, but only poor peasants to greet him. His parade makes a statement about the type of Kingdom that he is there to announce. At the end of that parade he stops in at the temple to look around. Seeing as how it is late, he decides to do nothing yet and instead finds a place to sleep outside of Jerusalem in Bethany.
The next morning, Monday, bright and early he heads out to the temple again, but is sidetracked by a fig tree. It is a sorry looking fig tree, with no figs to eat on it. A very hungry Jesus is irritated by this. Fig trees that bear no fruit are worthless. This is their only purpose and he curses the fig tree. At the end of our reading, he passes by this fig tree again and it is withered and dead.
This brief, odd, encounter with a fruit tree is not meant to show us how human Jesus is, “Look, even he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes.” It bookends the story of the temple as a lesson of what will happen to the temple, if it doesn’t start bearing fruit. Jesus is not just predicting the temple will wither and die, he is cursing it, willing it to die because it is not serving it’s purpose. A temple that bears no fruit is worthless. This is not the story of Jesus cleansing the temple as it is possibly called, but of Jesus’ cursing the temple.
The authors’ of The Last Week, believe there has been a lot of bad Christian preaching and teaching about what happens in the temple on Monday of Jesus last week. They make the case that Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the temple has nothing to do with a replacement of Judaism by a new and improved religion, Christianity. Similarly, it is not about replacing an old style worship with sacrifices and priests with a better worship that looks like our churches today. This can be a barn burner of a sermon, because everyone likes to be on the winning team, but it is not what is going on.
Nor, is the point a narrow one, that the temple is being abused and misused by dove salesman and bankers. This preaches good, too. I should know I have preached it several times myself. “We should keep the church focused on worshipping God. When we get our Welcome Center’s full with stuff for sale like books, shirts and upcoming dinners, we are losing that focus.”
This may be a grumble that many of you have had as you have driven home from Sunday worship at Messiah, but it is likely not the problem that Jesus had that day. The money changers and dove salesman had to be there because faithful Jews who literally travelled from around the known world to be there that week of Passover, needed the money changer in order to make an offering in a currency that did not bear a graven image, like the Roman money did. They needed the dove salesman to make a pleasing sacrifice to God as a thankful gift for the love and blessing they had received. This sort of commerce was only allowed in the outer courtyard, which is where Jesus found them. The guys working the courtyard that day may or may not have been dishonest, but they were not what lit Jesus’ fuse.
And finally, the authors make the case that this is not a story passed down to make clear to us the humanity of Jesus. “See, he is just like us, he gets irritable when he is hungry and when under stress, like someone would be who is about to die, he loses his cool.” I admit to preaching that, too.
Jesus curses the temple, because the worship had lost touch with her purpose. The temple was to be a place of hope, where ordinary people would encounter God as equals with their brothers and sisters made in God’s image. By the time of Jesus, the temple had become something else entirely. It was not the portal to where God hoped God’s kingdom would begin. It had become instead just another part of the Kingdom of Man, a kingdom that always seeks to control God’s people and deny them justice.
First Herod then Rome had made the temple and the priests who ran it bureaucrats for their government. They were paid lavishly to keep the offering plates full and the people quiet. The Chief Priest and their assistants were no longer from the tribe of Levi, a dedicated tribe of Israel forever gifted to be in service to the God’s temple. Now, they came from one of four aristocratic families and were given their titles and positions of power by the government. History records all sorts of immoral actions by these families and priests in order to gain titles, power and wealth. The governor Pontius Pilate relied on Chief Priest Caiaphas to provide whatever taxes could be squeezed out of the Jewish peasants so more could come to Rome’s coffers and to stamp out quickly and brutally dissatisfaction with Roman rule.
A few decades before Jesus was executed a rabbi convinced his followers to cut down the royal symbol of Rome that King Herod had put over one of the gates of the temple. This symbol of Roman rule had no place in God’s temple where God ruled. The followers of the rabbi were caught. Forty of them were burned alive in front of King Herod. The others were handed over to Rome to be executed. This story alone sums up the state of the temple in the day of Jesus.
Jesus is not symbolically cleansing the temple of dishonest merchants. He is symbolically destroying the temple because it has been thoroughly corrupted. It is a fig tree that bears no fruit. As he is doing so, he quotes Jeremiah 7:5-11. Listen to God speaking through the prophet Jeremiah about his hope for the temple where his presence was promised.
“For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.
And later Jeremiah writes in the voice of God that the temple is not carrying out this hope. And this is the cry of God.
Has this house which has been called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”
The prophet Jeremiah wept over the temple in his day, because they were more worried about petty politics and collecting money than serving the lost and the least. In countless Old Testament scripture that the author’s sight God rejects worship from people that don’t care for justice. Not once in scripture does God reject a people’s justice because of our lack of care for worship. For God, being just with our neighbor is as important as right worship. The temple that Jesus encountered had become a cynical place where the leaders wrongly believed that God could be satisfied with rituals and sacrifices while they abused God’s people. The fruit from the temple was not justice. It needed to be torn down.
The implications are clear for us, today. Faithful, beautiful, right worship of God can never be divorced of our faithful, loving care for our neighbor. The two are intertwined completely. What makes this place holy is not the cross, the sacred vessels, the wonderful instruments, the embroidered paraments or flickering candles. What makes this place holy, full of God’s presence, are God’s people. Whether in here worshiping next to us, or out there living next to us, God’s people must be treated with respect, compassion and love. If that is not the fruit of our worship at Messiah, than Messiah will wither and die just like that fig tree. Amen

What matters most

The text for this sermon is Mark 12:28-34

I turned 40 when I got to Messiah and that seemed old to me. Whereas, 20 or 30 somethings rock climb or play sand volleyball, 40, 50 and 60 year olds golf. I figured since I ain’t get any younger, I should learn to golf. And, how hard could it be, right? You just come up next to a little white ball, swing your club back and whack, the ball goes sailing away. And here is the thing, I loved it as soon as I started doing it. I love to golf.
But, it turns out that it is a little tougher than what I thought. I whacked at it a few times and my ball didn’t sail anywhere, it rolled, casually with really no sense of purpose, a few feet that way, or this way. So I asked about twenty different golfers from this church and they all had a suggestion for me. They all had an idea of what was essential for golf. Head down. Knees slightly bent. Feet a little apart. When you come back, don’t bend your arms. Don’t move your feet. Head down. Carry the club to about your head. Don’t swing hard. Let gravity do the work. Head down. Don’t bend your arms. Now, come at the ball, like pendulum. Follow through. Follow through. Get your head up, watch where that ball went.
By the time people were done helping me, I was so focused on the twenty things I was supposed to be paying attention too that I lost track of what I was trying to do, hit that little white ball so it would go sailing like it does on TV. Worse, I was so stressed about keeping my head down, arms stiff, follow through, follow through, that it was maddening when the ball still didn’t sail. So maddening, that it stopped being fun. I was angry and disappointed in myself, wondering why am I golfing anyway?
Funny, huh. Sometimes we work so hard at something we love, that we take all the fun out of loving it. Sometimes, I think it is like that for people of faith. The scribe asks Jesus, what is most important for people of faith to do? Jesus’ answer is wonderfully simple. What matters most is love. Begin by loving the one and true God and that will lead to loving all whom God loves, which is everyone we have ever encountered.
Yet, if that scribe were to ask twenty different Christians today what is most important for people of faith to do, he is likely to get twenty different answers. Maybe it is the inherent problem of people, that we take simple things and make them more complicated. It is definitely true for people in my line of work, religion. We might start with Jesus’ easy answer that what is most essential is loving God and loving God’s world, but we can’t end there. We have to explain what we mean by that.
People have been fussing with exactly how to do something as simple as loving God and God’s world for thousands of years. Jesus’ answer to the scribe is not forging new ground. Central to the Old Testament, the only scripture in Jesus’ day, is a relationship of love between humanity and God. God created us with love to love, in God’s image, and said it is good. The first story in the bible, the first few words of Genesis explain this pretty well.
The ten commandments in the next book of the bible, Exodus, were the first attempt to clarify exactly how to love God. Loving God is honoring God by not misusing God’s name and making time in your life, a Sabbath, to worship God. If we love God, we love what God loves, which is everyone. Loving everyone looks like honoring those relationships closest to you, like mother and father, being truthful to the people around you, not hurting others with violent words or violent actions, not taking from them, not lusting after them or misusing them sexually, not being jealous of their gifts.
Of course, these ten commandments just created more questions, that religious people loved to answer. In the next two books of the bible Deuteronomy and Leviticus there are over 600 clarifications, laws and rules, on how exactly we are to keep the ten commandments, which of course were given to clarify how to love God and loving others. So if we take a Sabbath to do nothing else but contemplate our love for God, are we allowed to eat on that day? Yes. You can eat. How about cook? No, you should cook the day before. How about take care of my livestock? Yes, you can feed your livestock. How about tend the fields during harvest? No, you can’t do that.
And it still goes on today. Churches all the time make laws and rules to help their people love God and love neighbor, that made logical sense probably at one point in time during some argument or crazy thing in their community, but a law or rule has a habit of sticking around. No dancing, no card playing, no drinking, no short hair, no rock n roll, no, no, no, no, no. Lest we feel smug, Lutherans have there own lists of no’s too, that are meant to help us say yes to loving God and loving neighbor. No flags in the sanctuary, no communion before the fifth grade, no clapping in church, no politics in our sermons, no hats on men in the pews, no, no, no, no, no.
It isn’t just laws and rules. Our rituals in worship have only one purpose to help us grasp what is most essential to faith, loving God and loving others. Whether it is sacrificing lambs at the temple in the day of Jesus, or eating the sacrificed lamb of God at the table in our church today, the purpose is the same, helping us to love God. Yet, religions, religious people, priests, pastors we all layer extra stuff on top of it. Only men can bless the wine because Jesus was a man, only unleavened bread can be used, wine can’t be used because it’s alcohol, you have to be one of us to eat with us, we need to kneel, we need to stand, we need the pastor to bless the wine and bread with his back to us, we need the pastor to bless the wine and bread with her face to us, we should look to the ground and hold our hands out solemnly, we should look at the pastor and hold our hands out joyfully. We should do this once a week. We should do only once a month. Enough. Stop. We don’t just take the fun out of this important ritual, even worse, we take the “love” out of it.
Religion, religious people, scribes, priests, pastors like me, we are only trying to help but the more we help the more we talk, the more we talk the more questions you have, the more answers to those questions we give, the further we march from the first question, what is most important to our faith? And, before you know it we get so tripped up in laws, rules and rituals we forget not only the question, but the simple answer. Our life of faith becomes more about following laws, rules and rituals and less and less and less about what is most essential, love. And it stops being fun. We wonder why we ever even started going to church in the first place
This is not to say there are not tough ethical questions out there that we can debate. This is not to discourage anyone from living a reflective life of asking challenging questions. I am definitely not saying there is no role for religion or pastors to help us in our faith journey. I have a career to think about after all. It is just a reminder that all the rules and rituals of religion were created with one hope and one hope only, to bring us closer to God. Rules and rituals are not our God. Our God is love. Our God of love, loves you passionately and longs for you to share that love.
If you ask a golfer what is essential for a good golf game, some might tell you straight arms or head down or follow through or other things to make your swing just right. The wisest though will say simply, that before you can golf well you have to love to golf. Jesus, easily the wisest when it comes to God, is telling us that what is most essential to our life of faith is love. Love of God. Love of others. Amen