Three’s Company – A Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday

https://soundcloud.com/user-688328025/holy-trinity-sermon

         How easy it is for adults to ignore, gloss over, or to block out some of the pressing questions of faith of youth?  Even to say “I don’t know” is so much better than some flippant or derisive answer.  Today is one of the weird Sunday’s in the church calendar known as ‘Holy Trinity” Sunday. It’s a Sunday in which we come face-to-face with a mystery; the mystery of Almighty God.  Like the children who are trying to wrap their young minds around the concept of God, we too have questions about the Trinity.  Who is God?  Where is God? What is God doing?

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Frederick Buechner, who always has something witty to say about the Christian faith, describes the Trinity in his classic book, “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC” describes the trinity in this fashion: 

If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and confusing, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”

          This is one the days in the church year to ask these questions.  Our appointed readings give us a sense of what God is like.  You might say a glimpse of the Trinity; for we see Jesus, the Son of god, speaking of his father and of the unseen power of the Holy Spirit.  For those who are interested in searching for God, John’s Gospel gives us an unusual perspective.

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         Meet Nicodemus.  You know this story well.  Nicodemus is a man whose questions may have been squashed at one time or another, but he is curious about God.  He has searched for God, and went to one person whom he thought could give him a couple of answers, (or most likely more questions!)  Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews go to talk about God to Jesus by night.  No one of his social significance would take the chance of being seen with a rebel teacher. But Nicodemus was curious, so he meets with Jesus in the dark of night.

         You’ll note in verse 2 of the reading Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Nicodemus pointed to the signs that Jesus did as evidence of his identity.  Without even asking a question, Nicodemus heard an unexpected answer about entering the kingdom of God.  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. 

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         New birth is the entrance into the kingdom of God.  And if it’s the entrance into the Kingdom, it must be pretty significant. To Christians, especially Lutherans, baptism is essential.  God may have other ways of bringing people into the kingdom, but if God does, the Bible doesn’t say.  Someone has said, “God has bound us to baptism, but he has not bound himself to it.”

         What is this kingdom into which we are baptized?  We know it’s not a place.  You won’t find it on a roadmap.  There are no billboards or road signs.  This kingdom is instead a matter of your heart’s allegiance.  God’s kingdom is found in the soul of every believer.  Outwardly to the secular world, the reign of God doesn’t exist.  The domain is invisible.  But the people of the reign are everywhere.  We are gathered here this morning into what we call the church or the body of Christ.  Baptism is God’s new birth, and it changes us and makes us ready to respond to God’s will. It gives us a fresh start, a new beginning. 

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         You and I make all kinds of new beginnings.  New school, new jobs, new marriage, or merely a fresh start to an old way. None of these brings us into God’s kingdom.  Only that which God provides can do it.  The Bible calls it Baptism, by water and the Spirit of God, it is God’s means to enter the kingdom.

         And baptism lasts forever because it is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the name of God in which we baptize. It is God’s grace that saves us- and that never wears thin.  No matter how old we are when it happens, in baptism, we come before the Trinity and receive grace upon grace.  God’s goodness comes to us, washes us clean, and saves us from death and the devil. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of the church has a large swimming pool with all kinds of kids floating around in the baptismal waters. 

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         Because every ministry we do in the name of Christ, we do from the waters of our baptism.  And our baptism isn’t a spectacle.  It is a sacrament featuring God – the Holy Trinity.  That means the spotlight is on God’s love and grace for us, each and every time.  And each of us can be part of the lighting crew that shines forth God’s love. Thanks be to God.

        

Welcoming Vicar Liz Koerner

 

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I am excited to work with my third pastoral intern who starts with our congregation in July 2018.

Vicar Liz Koerner, from New Britain, Connecticut, is a seminary student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  Liz is a graduate of Thiel College ( a Lutheran College) in Greenville, Pennsylvania. She shares she is excited about her journey toward ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and looking forward to her year-long internship in Muscatine.

She loves to craft, read, hanging out with her friends, and LOVES tie-dyed and rainbow and the combination of the two!

 

The Shocking News – An Easter Sermon

Late last year, I received a message from someone I didn’t know on Facebook informing that I had lost something that carries a lot of meaning in my life. I didn’t think the item the person claimed was missing and believed I was being baited, so I chose to ignore the message. Later, I received a second attempt through another means of communication from the same person who was attempting to reach me because she believed her husband found something of value that belonged to me. Again, I chose to ignore the message and brushed it aside.

Finally, on the night of New Year’s Eve, I revisited the message from a woman who lived in Wisconsin. She informed me that her husband works in a recycling center and that a class ring was found in the recycling with my name on it. She asked me if I could identify the ring. I was baffled. I take good care of my items and couldn’t imagine how this person could contact me about a personal class ring from my college I received in 1998. So, I went to the place where I kept my jewelry and discovered that the class ring I wear from time-to-time was indeed missing. My heart tightened, and different scenarios began running through my mind. The brain thinks strange thoughts when it is surprised, and reactions are not rational. So, I stepped back and thought, “How can this be?” What on Earth? I had no idea my ring was even missing.

I contacted the person and described the ring. She then sent me a picture of what was indeed my class ring. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. And quite honestly, I am still baffled by this. Somehow my class ring wound up in the recycling either at my home or here at church in the office. I can’t say for sure because I hadn’t any clue it was even missing. From the recycling, it made its way to a recycling center in Beloit, Wisconsin, and Billie Jo’s husband found it while he was cleaning out the box where all the foreign objects went when he discovered it.

What I learned is that trash from seven different states are shipped to this location, and the probability of having something of personal value found is improbable. Billie Jo went on to say that her husband lost his class ring over 20 years ago and they were devastated when they realized it was gone. She found my name on the inside of the ring, did a quick google search and discovered I was a pastor and found my website and reached out to me. Less than a week later, I received a package with my ring inside. I couldn’t repay Billie Jo and her husband despite trying to mail a check or a finder’s reward. Her only request of me was to share the story in one of my sermon’s. How there are still good people out there, who are watching and caring for each other. She and I agreed that somehow God was at work through this encounter and the lesson for her (and for me) is that we need to do right by others.

Sisters and brothers – life is full of surprises. We never know when we will be surprised by the sudden news. That’s the reality of life – we are shocked by some story that makes us anxious or afraid. Some of us live in fear of what could happen. This fear can sometimes paralyze us because we are so scared of what might happen.

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Perhaps that was the feeling of Mary Magdalene when she went to the tomb expecting to anoint the body of Jesus, but all she found was an empty shell. Her surprising message left her confused and afraid. After all, the tomb was empty. Nothing in all of the scriptures points to the fact that Mary Magdalene ever expected the body of Jesus to be missing. She showed up early to visit her Lord and Teacher. Little did she know what she would find.

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You and I get the privilege of getting excited about the empty tomb. It gives us a great hope that Christ has Risen…. But Mary Magdalene was devastated and shocked. She had lost a mentor who had great value for her.  The one to whom Mary had given much glory and devotion had been brutally put to death just three days prior, and now his remains were missing. She had no clue early that Easter morning that Jesus was missing and had risen from the dead. Could it be that someone stole the body? After the betrayal and everything that Jesus had been put through, it would have been heart-breaking for her to discover that someone had desecrated his dead body.

That is not what the Bible says. The Bible says Mary ran to get Simon Peter and another disciple, presumably John, the gospel writer, who ran to the tomb together to see what was going on. Inside the tomb, all that was left was the linen cloth that the body which wrapped the body. 

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The bible isn’t clear why the disciples still did not comprehend what was happening; it merely says the two disciples returned home leaving Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb. When two angels of the Lord appear where Jesus lay and question why Mary is weeping, she turns around and encounters the risen Jesus, whom she mistakes as the gardener. Jesus instructs Mary to go and tell the disciples that Jesus is alive and has not yet ascended to the Father. So, Mary goes as Jesus directs and shares the Good News.

And what does this all mean?   No one had, no has ever been, raised from the dead, and then set loose back in the world. What does that mean: “He is raised?” 

Just for this morning, let me say to you that it just means this; although we are all frail, mortal, finite human beings and are wholly inadequate in our words and our deeds in the face of death-  God – the one who creates and gives us life is determined to be the creator and the giver of life even in death.

Because Jesus is raised, we are bold to believe that we also shall be raised. The end of life is one problem that we can never solve. We can prolong life, but not bring life eternal on our own. We may have been successful in overcoming many of our daily problems. But death is one problem we cannot solve on our own.

And the good news of this day is that we don’t have to solve this deadly problem. Our culture tries it’s best to avoid death and aging, but it’s merely a false reality and message. Here is good news. Here is the best good news you will ever hear: “He has risen!” Do not fear death doesn’t get the last word. God does.

Easter carries with its fear. The Bible says that it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hand of a living God.”  And today, we and all our fears have fallen into the everlasting arms of a living God. God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves:  God triumphs for us in what St. Paul calls our “final enemy” – death. God does do something about our death problem.

So, whether it be fear, doubt, joy, whatever you feel, you can drop whatever it is you are doing and run, tell this Easter message: “He has risen!”  Because this day we can be like Mary Magdalene and my friend, Billie Jo who announced the good news of something that was lost and of value to me is not gone but has been found! Despite our fear and concerns of rejection to tell anyone who will listen in our culture of disbelieving: “He has Risen!  He is risen, indeed.”  Alleluia. To God be the Glory. Amen.

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Pastor of the Day at the Iowa State Senate​

On Tuesday, March 20th, I lead the Iowa State Senate in prayer at the start of the forty-second session day of 2018. I received an invitation and was the guest of Senator Mark Lofgren.

 

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Iowa State Senate Chamber with Senator Mark Lofgren. I am joined by wife, Karen Landahl, and daughters – Analise, Linnea, and Norah. 

 

My wife, Karen Landahl, along with our three girls were able to join me for the day at the capitol. We enjoyed the visit and are thankful for the opportunity to pray with the senators.

 

 

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A quick visit to the office of Governor Kim Reynolds at the state capitol in Des Moines. Unfortunately, we were unable to meet with Gov. Reynolds.

 

My prayer:

Almighty God, bless your servants gathered here today at the Iowa State Senate as they serve Iowans this day and every day.  We pray your Holy Spirit will guide and grant understanding as bill are discussed and votes cast. We pray for and trust in your Holy compassion as our state leaders’ considered issues affecting Iowans.

We ask for you to bless us with the love of your servant Son, as we seek to find meaning ways to make life better for all especially the most vulnerable.  Holy One, assist our Senators in using their authority to serve faithfully and promote justice.

We pray that in times of opportunity, make us a diligent people; and in times of peril, let not our courage fail as we step out in faith, trusting in your guidance. Bless our state with honesty, truth, and integrity. And Mighty Lord, let us always remember the generations who will come after us as we discern your preferred future for our state.

Ageless One, as we look toward Easter, gather us closer to you.  Remind us that we are a loved and forgiven people—and that no one is ever beyond your grace.

We give you thanks for Jesus Christ and ask that this assembly may always know a Holy presence.  We offer our prayers through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

https://soundcloud.com/user-688328025/ash-wednesday-pastor-steven-cauley-february-14-2018

Increasing as I age, I become more aware of my sinful nature. It’s not as if I’m a terrible person, but I realize the powerful effect sin has on my life and the world God loves. Perhaps it is the realization I have that I have the power to destroy and great potential to create distress and havoc. Not that I would ever wish to access my ability to create harm and hurt others, but I am aware of my power and limitations.

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St. Ignatius described sin as putting our hope in the wrong things. From this perspective, I can see how far off my inner drive and thoughts are from the will of God. I think for some it would be just easier to give into sin and live a life without any internal examination to discover the beauty of one’s self. In other words, it is so tempting to live life in these times of transition with the motto, “Do whatever you want as long as you don’t harm anyone.” After all, it is the beginning of the age of authenticity. The point in time where our own experience directs our life and if we don’t like doing something we might as well quit the practice because the cost of missing out on something else is too significant.

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The world is getting smaller every day and more focus on the self. Losing sight of the inner relatedness of life is easy.

As Dr. King taught, “all people see in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In other words, what affects one person impacts us all. We might not consciously be aware of, but we are all, as Dr. King suggests, woven together into one fabric of life.

Moving away from our self-centered way of living to a concern for the Commonwealth of all people was Dr. King’s vision of what he called the “Beloved community” in which he meant the Body of Christ dwelling together under the Reign of God. The sin manifests itself when we divide the world into the “good” and the “bad.” Of course, we are always the good ones; the others are bad. The ones who have a problem are still outside of us, and therefore we tell ourselves we must struggle against those outside our group.

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But a real community is different because of the realization that the evil is inside of us – not just inside the community or group, but inside of me. Jesus talks about this as thinking about the need to remove the speck of dust from my neighbor’s eye but overlooking the log that dwells within my eye. Sin dwells within me. Warfare is within me, within my community. We confess that we aren’t living the life God desires for us and that we place our hope in things that do not create an experience for all.

Jesus calls us into living a different vision for life. A life where, through our baptism into Christ’s death, we too are called to live a different narrative. A narrative where we are called to be agents of peace amidst the violent nature of the world while recognizing the warfare that is going on inside of me.

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Jesus calls us to seek the wholeness, in that our souls are restless until they abide with God. Nothing else will satisfy this longing. Many will attempt to fill their spiritual needs with things that are not spiritual, and as a result, they can never find that inner peace as they continuously battle their own self.

Jesus gives us words of great hope this Ash Wednesday. He tells us that he is God’s “Way, Truth, and Life.” There is a need in all of our souls that we cannot meet. It’s impossible for a human to be completely satisfied on our own. We seek for meaning and life outside ourselves.

This is the day we remember how we have placed our hope in those things that are not God. That we have all wondered from the Truth, Way, and Life that God desires for us. This is the day we remember that we are not at peace. We wrestle with far more matters of life than we care to admit. This is the day where we remember that we have neglected God’s call to live peacefully in community with the world God loves. And because of all this, one day our life on earth will eventually come to an end.

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This is a heavy day. But there is hope. Hope is found in the alternative vision Jesus offers in which there are many places to dwell in God’s house. In Jesus, there are many kinds of people who stay and live out what Dr. King called a “beloved community.”

This Lent, we will dig deeper what it means that Jesus is the “Way.” Not “one way” or “a way” but “The Way.” Jesus words in the Gospel speak to us in ways that our culture cannot and will not talk. So, remember to listen to his words as if you were hearing them for the first time. Think about what you are seeing in your life and what God wants to show you. For God is there, ready to receive us and forgive us even in spite of ourselves.

Hear his invitation to repentance and the possibility of growth in your faith again. Trust that where Jesus is, there we may also be. Amen.

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“Keeping the Edges Hot” a Reflection on Matthew 25

https://player.fm/series/1526279/191428889

Each year, after we hear God’s promise of eternal life on All Saints’, we focus our attention on the return of the Son of Man. When we reflect our awareness to what happens around us, it seems to be fitting that following our remembrance of God’s promise on those who have already entered eternal life through our commemoration of the saints, at some point, all we have known and will know will come to an end. We call this the cycle of life, and while our culture does it’s best to distract us from thinking about the end of things, the gospel calls us to be aware of the reality of life.

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         Jesus tells the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids as a way of inviting our attention to the details of our life. In a real sense, it is a parable about spiritual literacy which, according to our passage means being alive to what life is telling us and an awareness of the presence of God in the darkness of the night.

         There are all kinds of delightful and essential things that are happening in front of us, but we often miss most of them because we are either too busy to notice or not awake to realize what is happening. Which seems to be Jesus point in telling this parable.

         This past week in our confirmation class, our class discussed how Christianity is similar and dissimilar to other world religions. Our youth talked about Buddhist and how meditation can lead to Nirvana or an enlightenment as a life path. Buddha says everything in life comes down to one thing- staying awake and being aware. And you remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Watch and pray,” Jesus says. “Remain with me.” He tells the disciples. And yet, the Bible reports that the disciples are unable to remain awake.

         God is in the details, and if we are not paying attention, we will miss the message. Paying attention requires disciple and practice. As a community of faith whose core is the Gospel message, we lift up and affirm our spiritual practices as a way in which we remain aware of the presence of God as a way to express our faith in Jesus Christ as a different way to live and be in this complicated world.

What does it mean to pay attention? Being alive and awake in the case of Jesus parable is to live intentionally without reservation in the here-and-now. To be attentive, we must put ourselves in a place where we are open and receptive and entirely present. This takes work and practice. There is no one “right” way to practice an awareness. Psychologist tells us based on brain scans that people who have a spiritual practice of consciousness and alertness have created more Alpha waves in their brains which in turn translates into a less stressful life and peaceful feeling. And conversely, if we are not aware and alert we can be distracted and eluded from what is supplying energy to our lives a thousand times over.

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         How often has each of us not fully embraces those moments of grace, epiphanies, and great insights because we have been too wrapped up in a hurried pace of life? Too busy to slow down to appreciate the good stuff that gives our lives meaning.

         Spiritually, too many Christians are just playing church. Just going through the motions. We say we want to follow Jesus as long as following Jesus fits nicely into my schedule and doesn’t require any time or monetary commitment from me. We might show up on a Sunday morning, but the message we come away with doesn’t do for us what it does for some of the other folks. We might not be aware of God’s presence in our life because we haven’t given any thought to the matter. And then we are in a rush to start the week ill-prepared because we’ve been so busy during the weekend that by the time Monday rolls around, and we get to the office, God’s message of life and meaning is as distant to us as last year’s vacation. Like the foolish bridesmaid who was ill-equipped for the darkness of the night, they were not alert for the moment at hand.   

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         Each day, each moment has its own needs. Each day has its own set of thoughts and words. Are we living in tune with what God is speaking to us? Because as the parable expresses no moment is trivial since each moment in time contains a spark of the divine. If we are not aware and present, we miss what God is speaking.

         Jesus parable of the bridesmaid is like our reminder of God’s grand banquet that is spread out before us, and God desires that we partake and seize the present moment to recognize God’s presence with us without any regret for the past or the future. Pledge to yourselves this moment and let the moment teach you. Surrender yourself to the moment and make it preach to you because the quality of each moment we are aware of the Life inside us determines the quality of life we lead.

         Where do we start? “Pastor, how can I be more in tune with the life that lives inside of me?” How can I be like the bridesmaid who was alert and awake? The starting point in the recognition that we are already on the journey. We can’t attain the presence of God anymore because we are already entirely in the existence of God. What is missing is our awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us with every breath we take in. Maybe the best way to be aware is not so much about what we need to learn or even attain, but rather what things do I need to unlearn so that I am more aware of God’s presence?

         I mentioned that our confirmation students class time was about world religions. Some might wonder why it would be essential to teach the students about other religions when we are instructing them in faith in Jesus Christ. It’s a fair question to ask, and I would answer that all religious teachers without exception have recognized that we humans do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see.

         And what that might mean for many of us is that to be aware of God’s presences in our lives, we have to accept what is often difficult to realize that it is God who walks alongside the problematic moments in lives. That’s why Buddha and Jesus say with one voice, “Stay awake! And Remain watchful.” We have to learn to see what is there because if we want to remain awake and engage in spiritual practices remember what a spiritual exercise is designed to do – religious traditions help us to get rid of the illusions we hold so that we can be fully present. Spiritual methods exist to help us see who we are, what is happening in life and what is True. On the contrary, our mass culture is like scales over our eyes. We only see life through the material eye which will always desire to acquire more and more.

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   So then, if we are to believe and take to heart these words of Jesus, then we must start with what spiritual teachers coin a “beginner’s mind.” That is to be aware of the voices inside us that presume that we already see what God wants us to see. A beginner’s mind starts with the reality that I know nothing and has everything to learn. A beginner’s mind understands there may be no sufficient answer and that the questions we ask or more important than any answer given. A beginner’s mind is merely an awareness. An awareness that we cannot live in the presence of God, but rather that we are entirely surrounded by God.

         St. Patrick said it like this: “God beneath us, God in front of us, God behind us, God above us, God within us.”

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         To be aware and live means that we cannot earn God. We can’t prove ourselves worthy of God, but rather than that to be awake and alert is to be attentive to the reality that God is already present and because of that, we can enjoy the present moment. Right here. Right now. For sure, there are moments when this happens smoothly for us. When life makes sense, and all is right with the world.

         But Jesus doesn’t leave us there. Jesus pushes us further to see past our social edges. Can you see the image of Jesus in the least of your brothers and sisters? How about your enemies are those whom would cause you harm? Notice this parable says nothing about commands, or church attendance, nothing about church law. Jesus parable is only about our ability to see.

         Perhaps what it means to have oil in our lamps is when we can see the image of God where we don’t want to look and see, then we know not with our own eyes, but with the eyes of Jesus. Amen.

 

Dealing with Conflict – Matthew 15

 

With all the traveling I’ve done this summer, I pulled out an old book on cd and listened to it as I was driving around the country. The book was about guidelines for having meaningful conversations with other people and how to react when communication become what the author calls “crucial” which is an emotionally charged discussion when the stakes are high. His point is that when we engage in critical conversation the most primitive part of our brain, the Amegda takes over, and cause us not to think clearly. Thus, when the stakes are high, and we need to be able to reason at our best, we are not able to because our brains are wired to the fight or flight response to a threating situation or conversation.

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The key in these types of situation is to be self-aware of our response and knowing how to keep the conversation safe so that both parties feel open to contributing to the shared pool of common knowledge. We often shy away from the crucial conversation because they are challenging and we don’t want to upset or disappoint the other person. Often avoiding issues is no good either. It could lead to a passive aggressive attempt to get back to a person if we don’t talk through an issue, or sometimes conversation that isn’t handled well can lead to violence or hurt feelings.
I think Jesus knew that there were going to be disagreements and conflicts when well-meaning people gather. Jesus knew this wouldn’t be easy for you and me to practice our faith together as children of God.

images-4When we are honest with ourselves, sometimes we as people of faith must be engaging in a crucial conversation about a matter that is important to us individually as well as the Body of Christ, but in this passage from Matthew’s gospel Jesus lays out a method for handling sin within the community of discipleship.
How does it work Jesus’ first step is to talk straight with others. You’ve got a problem with someone else? Deal with it directly. Don’t embarrass the person in public – deal with him or her one-on-one. Don’t do it over the phone or letter. Words on paper can be misinterpreted. Do it in person, and don’t beat around the bush. Get right to it. But we are dealing directly with that person, point out the fault and resolve the situation. Don’t talk behind the others back, tear them down. If you don’t have the gumption to deal directly with that person, then keep your issues to yourself. More harm is done to others with “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but did you know….” Speak, speak, speak; don’t keep your mouth shut. You will be held responsible for your silence and for the consequences of your unwillingness to talk.
You see, you can either speak it out, or you will act it out. In the long run, talking with someone is always more productive than acting out by not have a crucial conversation with someone else.

Of course, there are also some folks who have no problem with straight talking. In fact, the trouble is they seem to enjoy it too much. I don’t think that is what Jesus or Paul had in mind when discussion about the conflict in the body of Christ. Paul says when you must speak the truth to a loved one, a friend or fellow church member, tell the truth in love.

As hard as it might be for some of us, it is our job and obligation, to speak the truth lovingly and genuinely when someone has sinned against us. And if the straight talk doesn’t work in resolving the problem, then get other involved, Jesus says. It’s a systematic process, take it to the elders. And if nothing else works, then be done with them. In the end, we are called to love not to be like by everyone. Sometimes our call to love is tough.

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How do you deal with others who have caused problems for you? Jesus has the answer. With straight talk, due process, but most of all, with grace. Knowing that we are all human and everyone we meet is carrying a heaven burden. All of us; there are no exceptions. By treating one another with Grace, you will be fulfilling more than the law and the prophets; you will fulfill the gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.

A Survey of World Christianity

Mark Noll begins in his book, The New Shape of World Christianity, with the following observations:

  • This past Sunday more Christian believers attended worship in China than in all of Europe.
  • This past Sunday more Anglicans attended church in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the United States combined.
  • This past Sunday there were more members of Brazil’s Pentecostal Assemblies of God at worship than the combined number in the two largest U.S. Pentecostal denominations.
  • This past Sunday the churches with the largest attendance in England and France had mostly back congregations, and half of the churchgoers in London were African or African-Caribbean.
  • This past Sunday the largest congregation in Europe was in Kiev pastored by a Nigerian Pentecostal.
  • This past Sunday there were more Roman Catholics at worship in the Philippines than in any single country in Europe.

From: Mark A. Noll, The Shape of World Christianity, pp. 20-21

Easter- Evidence or Experience? A Sermon for Easter

 

The Bible makes a definite point that Jesus died.  He hung on the cross until he was dead.   It wasn’t a spiritual death, but a physical one.  His body was dead.  The heart of man stopped beating.  Furthermore, when he was taken down from the cross by the soldiers, they made sure there was no mistake about it – they speared him in the side to drain the blood.  Eventually, the body of Jesus found its way to the tomb of a wealthy man, Joseph, because Jesus had no tomb of his own.  The body was laid to rest in the grave, and the tomb was sealed off from the world, placing a stone in front of the grave, the guards were ordered to watch the tomb to protect the order of the empire from the people’s uprising.

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Everyone thought the story was over.

The death of Jesus on the cross was like a baseball announcer thanking everyone for coming out  to watch the game following a disappointing home team loss,  but it’s now time to return to your cars and depart for your homes.

The game was over. Even those who followed Jesus had already returned home try to make sense of all the events that took place.

 

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Then early on that third day, the gospel accounts record that the women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb to out of respect for their spiritual leader to anoint the dead body with oil and spices so to remove the stench of death. We are not sure what the disciples thought about their teacher, but no could have suspected that he rose from the grave.  That’s just not humanly possible, nor does it follow any logic of the natural order!  As Jesus hung on the cross, folks though he was just one more honorable person who had said and done some amazing things, but who died like everyone else.

 

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The Bible says that early on that first Easter when the women arrived at the tomb, they met an angel of the Lord, who came and rolled the stone away.  The women boldly make their way to the tomb when the angel appeared the men, the guards were the ones who stood in fear and were rendered useless.   “Don’t be afraid,” the angel told the women.

You remember those words, “Don’t be frightened!” Don’t you?  They happen all the way back when at the beginning of the gospel at Jesus’ birth when the angel speaks to the shepherds on the hillside.   This time the words are articulated to the women as he announces the good news of Jesus resurrection.  “Jesus isn’t here.  Come and look for yourselves. And then, go and tell…”

And then Jesus appeared to them, calms them, and tells the women to continue to Galilee and to tell the men to go to Galilee where his brothers will see him.

You have before you and have heard for yourselves the story of Jesus resurrection.  None of us were there that day, the gospel writers left us this evidence of the resurrection.    This morning I want you to know that there is a vast difference between the evidence of Easter in God’s Word and the experience of Easter.

This Easter morning, I can stand before you and offer you every possible view of the empty tomb.  I can try to explain to you in human ways in which the empty tomb might be possible, and I can point you to all the evidence of Easter, with all the emotional fanfare of the celebration of the Easter season. But what I cannot do for you that you should decide for yourself is to experience the empty tomb.

What I’m getting at here is the experience of an empty tomb to deepen our faith and trust in the resurrection of Jesus.  Evidence only can do so much, but the important step is going to the empty tomb of Jesus for yourself.

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The Easter story was never really meant to be argued about if it’s true, or real, or relevant, a waste of time, or otherwise.   Look at those Easter Lilies; they don’t argue; they just bloom.  The changing of the seasons doesn’t argue or listen to our popular opinion on the matter, the seasons just come.  Same as the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.  It just is part of a natural process.  Around these parts, we could say the same when a farmer buys a bag of seeds and plants it in the earth.  It just does with it does without argument.  The same thing is true for music and beauty.  Sure, we have our favorite styles of music, and each of us has a differing appreciation for the beautiful things in life, but music and beauty are meant to inspire us and beckon us into a deeper appreciation of life.

The Easter story was made to invite us to experience the resurrection of Jesus as being true.  It’s intended to invite us into a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.  The Easter story is only genuine when we experience the resurrection of Jesus and the impact that resurrection has on our collective life together.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the occasion to proclaim God’s Word to many who have lost a dearly departed loved ones. And one simple verse that we preachers proclaim at the time of death is from the Gospel of John 14 in which Jesus assures us: “In my father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?”  It’s Jesus way of saying to his disciples, believe me!  Trust me!  I’m not pulling your leg.  “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be,” Jesus tells us there will be a reunion and a resurrection.

Like the fear experience by the guard at the tomb on that first Easter morning, death can and does create much anxiety in our life.   The Apostle Paul says that death is our last enemy that Christ has defeated for us.  But also like the words “Do not be afraid” that appear at the beginning of the gospel and Jesus’ resurrection, on the other side of all our lives at our birth, the prospect of coming and begin born into this world must be scary.  Think about it.  There is no way we can be born into this world understanding all the differences and ways of being.  We live without air in the womb.  How then can we live with it and breath on our own?  We live without light in the womb, yet how can we imagine the world without light?   In a certain way, birth seems like it is a death, wrenched away from all that sustains us in the womb.

But in the miracle of creation, God has prepared a place in this world for us.

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They say that a newborn’s first experience of the world, our first awareness in this life is of the strong arms that surround us and keep us warm; eyes that consider ours with love and tenderness.  Someone had anticipated our coming.  Created is a place for us to dwell.  Unknown to us we began to develop an awareness of our eyes and start to see the light, unknown to us was that we had a pair of lungs that we would need to breathe, ears to hear.  If God so carefully planned our entry into this world, what would make us think that he would have anything otherwise prepared for when we depart? Remember Jesus saying: “I go to prepare a place for you.

Sisters and brothers – Easter isn’t something that we can prove happened.  At the end of the day, Easter isn’t about the evidence of Jesus resurrection.  Faith, after all, is not provable.

Think about the last time you cried.   For some of us it may have been as recently as this week, others we may have gone for an extended period without the need to shed tears.   What is a tear?  It depends, doesn’t it? I can give you a dictionary definition of crying, but I’m not speaking to your personal experience, am I? Here’s the evidence:

A tear is a drop of the watery saline fluid continually secreted by the gland between the surface of the eye and the eyelids, which serves to moisten and lubricate these parts and keeps them clear of foreign particles.” 

That’s a tear?  Really?

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I give you no more evidence of Easter – I want to invite you to be aware of Easter and experience God working through the power of our final enemy –death- to create life.  Ask a child, “What does Easter mean to you?” and she might say (as my 4-year-old told me at Aldi) this week, “Easter is about the Easter Bunny and the chocolate rabbit.”  Ask a teenager, “What does Easter mean?” and he might answer that Easter means, “Christ rose from the dead.”  And if you ask a mature person of faith the same question, “What does Easter mean?”  That person might reply:

“Easter means that I have only begun to live.” 

The good news of Easter isn’t only that it is a celebration of a future gift in another life, but that it is ours to experience right now!   Today!

Easter is getting in touch with that same power that brought Jesus out of the tomb and into life.

Come to the tomb and see for yourselves!  You don’t have to fear like the guard at the tomb, but stand strong with the women – the Mary’s.  Don’t bend down in shame, hold your heads up high and proud.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t look for evidence of the resurrection.  It’s not there, at least in any form we can prove to the world! Just trust that experience of transformation will happen without anything we think, say, or do.  It’s all God!  So, embrace the resurrection moments.  Embrace the experience of the Lord who is risen and alive!  And who comes to offer to walk with us.

No matter what else comes our way.  Christ goes with us!  Amen.