Monday, April 27, 2015

“Mercenary or Patriot?” (John 10:11-18)

Years ago, when I was working on a master’s degree in counseling, one of the classes I took required some genealogical work.  The assignment was to dig into the family history to learn about behavioral patterns that were perpetuated through the generations.  Outside of the tall tales and myths I heard from my parents from time to time, I really knew very little about the genealogy of my family.  Luckily, there was a great-uncle—one I didn’t even know I had—down in Florida who had done a lot of the hard work of discovering the history and roots of the Keener family.  Let me assure you, it was some interesting reading and a whole lot of revelation.

You might remember that song from the old television show, Hee Haw, in which a bunch of forlorn hillbillies are lying around on the porch and singing a lamenting song:  “Gloom, despair, excessive misery . . . if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.”  I think that is the Keener theme song . . . especially after reading the genealogical history my great-uncle sent me.  We Keeners never seemed to be on the right side of anything throughout history.

For example, let’s take the American Revolution.  My relatives came over from Germany well before the war ever broke out.  When the war broke out they signed up to fight for the freedom of the colonies . . . they chose to be on the side of the revolutionaries.  In their very first battle, like a lot of the battles, they lost . . . they got captured.  Being of German descent they were conscripted into the Hessians and ended up fighting for the British.

British were not too invested in the so-called uprising taking place in the colonies . . . well, at least not enough to go over there and fight their own battles.  Instead they hired an army from Germany—the Hessians.  The Hessians were soldiers for hire . . . mercenaries.  Approximately 30 thousand Hessians fought in the American Revolutionary War—about a fourth of the British forces in the battle.  Because of their German ancestry, and not wanting to die, my relatives apparently did not argue about being conscripted into the Hessian forces.  Of course, we all know the British—even with their army for hire—lost the war.  We Keeners came on the short side of the stick on that one.

This morning I pose a question: Are you a mercenary or a patriot?

A mercenary is a gun for hire . . . a person whose loyalty is with whoever happens to be paying him or her . . . they are not fighting for the cause, but for the money.  A patriot, on the other hand, is one who is fighting for a cause . . . most often for his or her country which he or she loves and strongly supports.  A mercenary fights for reward . . . for money; the patriot for love.  In lieu of our scripture reading this morning . . . I pose the question . . . when it comes to your faith . . . are you are mercenary or a patriot?

I guess the only way that any of us can answer that question is by considering what it is that we expect out of faith . . . what we think we should get out of being faithful . . . what it means to be faithful . . . what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  What does it mean to be “faithful”?

Now for some being “faithful” is like a paid insurance policy that assures us our rightful place in heaven . . . an insurance policy that protects us from the things we shouldn’t do because of our sinful nature . . . allows us to go forth and be fully human and full of free will.  It allows us to live life as we have always lived it and not have to worry about the consequences because Jesus paid off the policy for us.  Being of such “faith” I would think that our faith is driven by the reward . . . driven by what we receive in the end.  The loyalty is not in the one that is being followed, but in the payment that is received.  Such faith is what I would consider to be a mercenary faith.

In our scripture reading this morning we hear Jesus talk about being the Good Shepherd . . . a shepherd that is willing to lay down his or her life for the sake of the sheep . . . a willingness to die in order to save the sheep.  This is not a mercenary, but a patriot.  Jesus says that the mercenary, the hired hand “. . . abandons the sheep and runs away . . . the man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”  The mercenary only cares about what he or she is paid . . . his or her loyalty is for him or herself and what they can make.  The “Good Shepherd”—the patriot—is there because of love . . . love for the sheep.

This reading comes well before the events that happened in Jerusalem.  It is a prophetic statement from Jesus about what is about to come . . . the events that led to his arrest, trial, beating, and eventual death . . . the fact that he was willing to lay down his life for all . . . to lay down his life for the cause.  He is a patriot.  During the Easter season this reading serves as a reminder of what the followers of Jesus are called to be . . . a reminder of who they are to follow . . . they are to be “good shepherds” . . . called to be patriots.

Last Sunday I told you that the call of Easter is to embrace life . . . now, I want to tell you that it is also to embrace Jesus . . . not for the promise of eternal life . . . not for a fail-safe insurance policy; but for the sake of living life to its fullest.  Easter is a call to listen to the voice of the “Good Shepherd” . . . to trust the “Good Shepherd” . . . and, to follow him where he leads.  He leads us towards life . . . he leads us towards the Kingdom of God . . . he leads us to peace.  It is not the life of a mercenary that he calls us to, but to the life of a patriot.  He calls us to life . . . he calls us to love.

As a mercenary it is easy to argue that one is living the life of faith.  As mercenary one has confessed loyalty for the one who has bought him or her . . . if faith is declaring allegiance to a savior who was willing to go to the cross for one’s sins, well so be it.  If that is all it takes . . . consider it done.  Remember the loyalty of the mercenary is not in the cause . . . not based on the love . . . but, on where the money is coming from.  If faith is a cheap insurance policy promising heaven and nothing else . . . then the mercenary lives a life of faith.

Yet, that is not what Jesus laid down his life for . . . not for cheap grace.  No, he laid down his life to show us the way . . . the way to life . . . the way to love.  He showed us what it meant to be the “good Shepherd” . . . to be the patriot . . . to die for a cause.  What was the “cause”?  The “cause” was for life . . . for the Kingdom of God . . . for love.  The “cause” was for peace.  Peace that comes from being in an intimate and fulfilling relationship with God that lives up to what God has creates us to be . . . peace that comes from loving others as we love God and ourselves.  The “cause” is life . . . the “cause” is love.  A love that one is willing to sacrifice all for . . . even one’s life.

The challenge of Easter is to embrace life—life through Jesus.  Through Jesus this life was revealed . . . not as the world knows it, but as it really is.  Jesus calls us to be patriots.  What are you?  Are you a mercenary . . . or are you a patriot?  I imagine that it depends on who you are listening to . . . Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me . . . they too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Mercenary or patriot?  It is always our choice.  Let us not do as my relatives did . . . may we all choose wisely.  Amen.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

“Beyond Fear . . . Peace” (Luke 24:36-48)

The date was March 4th, 1933.  Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 32nd President of the United States.  The nation was in the grips of the Great Depression . . . the nation and its people were in dire straits as the economy was pretty much tanked and unemployment was at a staggering 25 percent . . . and times were hard and the future looked bleak.  Into this situation Roosevelt stepped to the podium and began his address to the nation:

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.”

In two short sentences, Roosevelt names the issue and offers the solution . . . the issue is fear, the solution is exploring it.

The dictionary defines fear as “a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, or pain, whether the threat is real or imagined . . . it is a condition of being afraid.”  Others will tell you that fear is “a vital response to physical and emotional danger . . . a necessary response to help us protect ourselves from legitimate threats; but, the problem is that often what we fear is far from life-or-death, and thus we allow it to immobilize us to do nothing.

No one is going to argue that the disciples in our reading this morning weren’t afraid.  They were afraid . . . and, for good reason.  They had just gone through a traumatic event in their lives . . . witnessed a brutal death of their leader . . . and, heard the mood of the crowds and people manipulating them.  They feared that a similar fate would await them.  It is no wonder that they hid . . . they feared for their lives.  The whole situation reeked of fear as everything they had hoped for and dream of had seemingly been flushed down the toilet.

Now fear has a peculiar way of building more fear.  While in hiding the disciples had heard the stories and rumors of people encountering the risen Jesus; yet, their fear kept them from fully embracing the stories and rumors as truth.  After all, people say strange things when under stress . . . see things that aren’t there when stressed out . . . fear makes it difficult to believe. 

Knowing this it should come as no surprise then that when Jesus popped up in their presence . . . it scared the bejeebers out of them!  The writer even tells us that “they were startled and frightened, thinking that they saw a ghost.”  I know that if it had been me, standing there with the disciples, I would probably be excusing myself to go and change my pants.  Yet, Jesus attempts to allay their fear . . . he greets them with the greeting, “Peace be with you” . . . he tells them to look at his hands and feet . . . he asks for food to eat.  A ghost does none of these.  Then he “opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures” . . . and, he tells them it is just as he said it was going to be.

Then he gave to them the key to overcoming their fear . . . they are to open themselves to their fear . . . to confront it, explore it, and embrace it because there is nothing really to fear.  Then they are to go out into the world and to share the “good news” . . . to bring about the Kingdom of God . . . and, to establish peace.  In a way, Jesus is telling those gathered that they are to step through the fear into the peace.  Or, to use the words of FDR: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

I believe that it is fear that immobilizes us as individuals and as the body of Christ from reaching the full capacity to be what God has created us to be.  Years ago, when singer Jewel put out her first album, she had a song that was called Pieces of You.  The song also happened to be the title of the album.  In this song she talks about how fear makes people act towards other people . . . the bullying and hateful behavior that people display towards others who make them feel insecure or even privileged in their presence . . . people they do not really know, but have preconceived prejudices and understanding built on ignorance . . . built on fear of what they do not know.  She sings of the ugly girl . . . the pretty girl . . . the gay person . . . the Jew.  These are the words she sings about the ugly girl:

She's an ugly girl, does it make you want to kill her?
She's an ugly girl, do you want to kick in her face?
She's an ugly girl, she doesn't pose a threat.
She's an ugly girl, does she make you feel safe?
Ugly girl, ugly girl, do you hate her
'Cause she's pieces of you?

“’Cause she’s pieces of you?”

In Jesus’ appearance among the frightened disciples he tells them to “come and see for yourselves” . . . he knows that it has to begin, not with the group, but with each of them as individuals.  He knows that they must confront their own fears as individuals to begin to move beyond the place where their fear immobilizes them . . . to deal with those “pieces” of themselves that keep them from fully embracing and believing and moving into peace.

So it is for each of us when we choose to follow Jesus.  We, too, must confront that which brings fear into our lives and our faith.  Confront that which keeps us from advancing the “good news” and establishing God’s kingdom in this time and place . . . that keeps us out of the realm of peace.  We must explore that which has us so fearful of fully embracing who and what God has created us to be.  We begin with ourselves.

Are you who God wants you to be?  If not, why?  Is the church—this body of followers—who God wants it to be?  If not, why?  Is the world in which we live, the communities we exist in . . . are they what God wants them to be?  Are they the “kingdom” God calls us to pursue?  If not, why?

Why?  Well, I would venture forth by saying that the reason why is because we are fearful.  In our fearfulness we do what any person would do who is fearful . . . we run and hide . . . we become apathetic . . . we become aggressive, defensive, and attacking towards that which we do not understand.  This is what science has described as the “fight or flight” necessary for survival.  In this nothing gets accomplished . . . nothing gets done . . . we are immobilized. 

Our fear is killing our own faith . . . is killing the church.

It is funny how it always seems to come down to those two commandments . . . to love God with our whole being and, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Funny how it comes down to us as individuals building our intimate relationship with God . . . of fully loving God through who God created us to be.  Funny how it then spins out into doing the same with those around us in the world in which we live . . . to love God and others.  Funny how it has to come down to us as individuals first.  And, because it does, we have to move beyond the fear into the peace.  It has to begin with us as individuals.

I do not know what fears keep any of us from fully realizing the peace that comes from being in an open and accepting relationship with God that is based on love and grace.  I do not know what fears keeps any of us from knowing the Kingdom of God . . . the peaceable kingdom . . . where all of God’s creation and children are welcome and embraced for who God created them to be.  I do not know, but I do know that until we as individuals and as the followers of Jesus can confront our fears it will never happen.  There will never be peace.

The bottom line of Easter is life.  Jesus calls us to life.  Life that is based on love.  For too long we have embrace fear as the motivating—or unmotivating—impetus in our lives and journeys of faith.  We have not known peace.  The call of Easter is to embrace life.

John Lennon wrote: “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”

To know peace we must step through the fear and embrace life.  As Jesus said, “Peace be with you.”  It begins with you . . . it begins with me.  Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

“Startling Faith: He Just Keeps Showing Up” (John 20:19-31)

Has anyone ever met “Kilroy”?  I know I haven’t, but from the evidence found throughout the world he seems to get around . . . so, surely, someone has met the infamous “Kilroy”.  Don’t know what I am talking about?  Well, maybe you have seen those little graffiti drawings of a bald-headed man with a prominent nose peeking over a wall with the fingers of each hand clutching the wall with the words “Kilroy was here” written next to it.  Apparently that is “Kilroy’s” trademark letting people know that he was there. 

According to my research, “Kilroy was here”, was a popular cultural expression that was popular during the Second World War . . . in particular with American servicemen.  It seems that the GIs liked to draw the doodle on the walls and other places where they were stationed, encamped, or visited.  Despite the phrase being written everywhere, it seems no one ever caught up with the infamous “Kilroy”.  No one ever saw the guy but he was showing up everywhere.

As a people of faith I sometimes wonder if we do not have the same problem when it comes to Jesus . . . wonder how many of us have actually encountered Jesus in our own lives . . . seen him with our own eyes . . . touched him with our own hands.  More often than not I think we encounter the reminder . . . the graffiti on the wall . . . that announces that “Jesus was here”.  When we look around our lives of faith it seems as if Jesus has been everywhere; yet, we cannot actually say that we peered into the eyes of our Lord and Master . . . at least not like the early disciples did.

After the death and resurrection it seems that everywhere the disciples went . . . no matter how well they hid themselves . . . Jesus was always showing up.  In our reading this morning we have reference that he showed up numerous times . . . two in particular . . . and mingled with his disciples.  It was the real “McCoy” as they even had the opportunity to touch him and talk to him . . . Jesus was there.  And, the writer of John’s gospel tells us that he even performed other miraculous signs in their presence.

Yep, Jesus was there, and the writer of John’s gospel wrote it all down . . . a sort of theological “Kilroy . . . or Jesus . . . was here” statement . . . so that the readers “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  He does this because it seems that most of us are always a second too late, a dollar short, and always missing that physical meeting with Jesus.  Yet, we are among the blessed for having not actually seen him . . . Jesus tells Thomas:  “. . . blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Few of us have ever had a Damascus Road experience or encounter with Jesus like the Apostle Paul . . . yet, we know he exists and we believe.  We have seen his presence all around us . . . felt his presence surrounding us . . . seen his touch in the lives of those who we know . . . we have seen the miracles . . . we have seen the writing on the wall: “Jesus was here”.  Yet, we long for that face-to-face “show me” encounter—just like Thomas.  We want to put our fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands . . . we want to touch the wound in his side . . .

The journey of Easter is a search for the presence of Jesus in our lives and in the world around us . . . and, surprisingly, Jesus is all around us.  He just keeps on showing up.  And, more often than not, our encounters with the Risen Lord are startling.  Those first encounters of Jesus with his disciples had to be startling affairs.  Here were the disciples in hiding behind locked doors, and Jesus shows up.  Over and over again Jesus shows up, catching the disciples off guard.  And, so it seems he does the same thing to us . . . and, we are startled to realize that we have been in the presence of Jesus.

I think that it is with perfect 20/20 hindsight that we come to this realization . . . what we read the graffiti on the wall.  Yet, in looking back we know that Jesus was there.

We shouldn’t be surprised.  Jesus gave us plenty of examples of when he would be in our presence.  He told us in the parable of the sheep and goats . . . that whenever we encounter “one of the least of these” we would encounter him.  He also told us that whenever two or three are gathered in his name, he would be in our presence . . . he would be with us.  He is there whether we see him or not . . .

. . . and, we have to believe.

During this Easter season, where are we going to find Jesus?

Well, we know that we are not going to find him in the empty tomb because he is not there.  We are going to find him in the world around us.  I do not think that any of us are so oblivious of the world around us that we cannot see those who are considered “the least of these”.  We have seen the hungry, the naked, the lonely, the downtrodden, the poor, the imprisoned, those caught in the middle of war, those who are persecuted, and those on the outside looking in.  The newspaper is filled with such stories on daily basis.  The television and radio blast us constantly with visual reports of those who are less fortunate.  We cannot escape it . . . and, yet, we wonder where in the world is Jesus?

Jesus is there.  Jesus is among the less fortunate.  We know this is true because we have seen the writing on the wall . . . we have heard the stories of his miraculous touch in their lives.  Jesus is alive and well, but he is out there in the world with those who have been deemed as “less than”.  But we will never encounter him until we, too, are willing to walk with and among those who are less fortunate.  It is there that we, ourselves, will encounter the Risen Christ.

That is where we must look for Jesus during this Easter season.  We must be willing to actively participate in the world around us . . . to reach out to those who are less fortunate than ourselves . . . to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to be present to the lonely, to free the imprisoned.  Strangely that is not where we expect to find Jesus, yet that is where he told us he would be.  To find him there is startling . . . startling because it goes against our societal practices of everyone taking care of him or herself . . . of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and moving on . . . everyone for him or herself.  

There is evidence of the presence of Jesus all around us.  We have all heard the stories from those who have encountered his presence in their lives . . . heard the miracles.  Jesus was here.  And, yet, we still long for that for ourselves . . . and, we continue to believe.  We continue to believe because we are among the blessed who have not seen, but believe.  Easter is the time to move beyond belief into faith . . . faith is belief in action.  It is in the action that we will encounter the living Jesus.

May we all encounter the Risen Christ this Easter season . . . may we meet him in the actions that we take to love the Lord our God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  If we do we will find that Jesus is always showing up.  Amen.