Sunday, April 24, 2016

“The Times They are A-Changing” (Revelation 21:1-6)

The year was 1963 . . . a year in which the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum . . . a year in which the war in Viet Nam was escalating and pulling the United States into deeper and deeper commitment . . . and, the Beatles’ invasion was storming the shores of our nation and changing forever the understanding of popular music.  It was also the year in which our nation witnessed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  It was a tumultuous year with lots of things changing.

It was also the year that a rising folk singer wrote what is considered one of the greatest folk songs of all-time.  Bob Dylan wrote The Times They are A-Changing in 1963 in the midst of change taking place in the nation and the world.  Dylan recalls writing the song as a deliberate attempt to create an anthem of change for the moment.  He meant it to be a way to ride upon the unvoiced sentiment of a people who were frustrated and growing angry . . . to be a means of being an outlet for those feelings and emotions.  And, in the end, he succeeded.

Less than a month after he recorded the song, President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.  The next night Dylan opened a concert with the song.  Singing it for the first time publically, Dylan was nervous as to how the crowd for take it.  He stated, “I thought, ‘Wow, how can I open with that song?  I’ll get rocks thrown at me.’  But I had to sing it . . . something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding the song.”  Dylan had hit a nerve . . . tapped into an emotional stream . . . given voice to something that was deeply rooted in the psyche of the people and the times.  Dylan wrote a song that transcended the times and is still quite relevant today.

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

I am fairly certain that I would not get too much of an argument from many if I were to say that the times are changing.  It does not take much effort to recognize that when one looks in the newspaper, listens to the radio, or watches television.  We all see the turbulence of our changing times.  And, these changing times has created a frustration and anxiety among the masses . . . a frustration and anxiety we are seeing expressed in this election season.

Times are changing . . . and, being sucked into the vortex of that change is the Church . . . Church with a capital “C”.  The Church, too, is changing . . . after all the Church sits squarely in the world in which it was born . . . the Church is meant to be a major part of the equation . . . a beacon to the masses sort of thing . . . a light to lead the way.  At least that is what is often expressed as the sentiment of many in our nation.  And, this change has created a lot of frustration and anxiety within the Church . . . from the top down to the very bottom.


Because nobody likes change.  Not now and not then.  “Then” being from the setting from which our scripture reading takes places this morning.  Now understand, the Book of Revelation, is a book that is quite familiar with debate and challenge.  It is a book that is written in three different literary genres—epistolary, apocalyptic, and prophetic; of which, everyone seems to have their favorite genre that interprets the book for them.  And, it creates lots and lots of discussion and debate.  Some say that it is a book that describes the historical times in which it was written . . .  some say it is a book of prophecy of things yet to come . . . some just say that it is a book of allegory describing the spiritual path and the ongoing struggle between good and evil.  I guess, somewhere down the road in the future, we will find out; but, in the meantime it is a book that fascinates everyone in one way or another.

So, for consideration, I throw in another point of view.  According to some biblical scholars, The Book of Revelation is a correspondence that was composed in the midst of conflict being waged within the churches in Asia Minor.  The conflict was over whether or not the “Church”—that is, Church with a capital “C”—should engage with or withdraw from the far larger non-Christian community.  These scholars see that Revelation rejects those Christians who wanted to reach an accommodation with society.  Now, this is not to say that Christians in this time were not suffering, for withdrawal from the wider Roman society imposed real penalties.  Revelation offered an escape from this reality by offering an apocalyptic hope.  It was written to give hope in times that were difficult and changing.

Which brings us to our reading for this morning . . . a new heaven and new earth.   In this chapter of the Book of Revelation, people do not go to heaven as most people have been taught but rather God comes down to dwell with humanity.  God is coming to make a home among the humans.  This will be a new creation . . . a creation that God will have a hand in and it will be like nothing ever seen before . . . a new home . . . a new kingdom.  It will be the kingdom as God sees it . . . the kingdom Jesus preached and called all to work towards—not in some celestial place, but here on earth now and forever.

Jesus’ call upon all of our lives is in the business of establishing God’s kingdom in the here and now . . . wherever we are, we are call to build God’s kingdom.  It is not meant to be some sort of reward for being faithful, because if it is, then wouldn’t be easier to just quit and die so that we receive the reward that much quicker?  No, Jesus called for his followers to establish the kingdom of God . . . the new heaven and the new earth . . . where they were in their lives, communities, nations, and even within the places where they gathered to worship.  Jesus called the faithful to bring God on down . . . to let God in.

But, this is a change.  This is a change in the way that we have always done things.  In yesterday’s Billings Gazette Faith and Values section, there was an article about the upcoming regional assembly to be held at Central Christian Church.  The writer interviewed the Reverend Don Beal, retired pastor of Central Christian Church and chairperson of the Regional Assembly Planning Committee.  In the article Reverend Beal talks about the goal of the assembly as an attempt “. . . to ignite people’s passion for something outside of the church that they can do.” 

Reverend Beal explains that in these changing times churches and denominations are seeing a decline in membership and participation.  Because of this they fall into “survival mode”.  Reverend Beal says, “And what they do is put all their energy into trying to save the institution.  And we want people to understand that our calling as Christians has to do with taking Christ into our communities in meaningful ways.”

It is not business as usual.  The “old ways” no longer work.  Old styles of ministry and mission no longer work.  We can no longer wait for the world to see the light and come to us . . . after all, that hasn’t really made much difference since the beginning.  We can no longer go out and “do” for others and expect them to join our ranks . . . to join our churches.  No, we now have to go out into the world and do “with” others . . . to become immersed in the world as we live our faith.  We can no longer keep God up there in the cloud, but we must bring God down here with us . . . we must establish this new heaven and this new earth . . . right here and right now.

That is God’s plan.  God even says it in our reading this morning: “I am making everything new!  Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.  It is done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”

Yes, the times are a-changing . . . but we have heard the “word” of God . . . we have seen that “word” in action in Jesus, our Lord and Savior . . . and, it is the will of God.  Let us keep being living witnesses to the presence of God in our lives wherever we might be . . . a living witness to this kingdom of God’s that is a “new heaven and a new earth” that has never been seen or experienced but shall truly be.  Yes, it can be realize in our day and in our time.  Jesus has shown us the way.  Amen.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

“In the Way He Said My Name” (John 10:22-30)

In Lois Tverberg’s (“tuh-Ver-berg”) blog, Our Rabbi Jesus, she tells the story of a Ph.D. student who spends several months a year in Israel as a part of her studies.  One day while walking on a road near Bethlehem, she watched as three shepherd converged with their separate flocks of sheep.  They all greeted one another and then began talking.  While they were talking, the sheep wandered and intermingled, melting into one big flock. 

Witnessing this she began to wonder how the three shepherds would ever be able to identify their own sheep . . . so, she waited.  When the time came for each of the shepherds to head their own ways, she watched with fascination as each of the shepherds called out to their sheep.  At the sound of the shepherd’s voice . . . like magic . . . the sheep separated into three flocks.

After thousands of years . . . nothing has changed.  The sheep know their shepherd’s voice.

Jesus has called us by name.  He has called each of us by name, and we have responded to that voice . . . we have embraced his call upon our lives to follow him.  And, we know that he walks with us as our Shepherd.  How does the song go?  You know the song . . . In the Garden:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am his own

Like the sheep we know the Shepherd by his voice . . . in the way that he says our name.

In our scripture reading this morning, it is the winter . . . probably around December . . . and the Jews have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Dedication, or what we know as Hanukah.  One day Jesus is walking through Solomon’s Colonnade . . . a very special and sacred place . . . when he is confronted by a group of very devout Jews who begin to question him about when he is going to come right out and tell everyone that he is the Messiah.  These are devout Jews . . . devout people of the faith . . . who are curious about whether or not Jesus is the One, if he is the Messiah.

Of course, Jesus answers them . . . answers them quite bluntly.  He tells him that he has already told them who he is . . . he has done it in the words that he spoke and the actions—the miracles—that he has done.  Then he tells them that basically, they were not listening.  Had they been listening they would have heard, and if they had heard they would be following him . . . they would be one of his flock.  They would have recognized it in his voice . . . in the way that he said their names.

Years ago, Hebert Brokering wrote a small book of modern parables called, I Openings.  In one of the parables he tells the story of a couple who go to a marriage counselor because they are ready to get a divorce.  Instead of talk therapy, the counselor grabs two chairs that she puts back to back in a room.  He tells the husband and wife to sit down in the chairs.  Then he tells them that their task is to call out each other’s names . . . and to keep doing it until they hear their names once again in that way that they did when they fell in love.  She tells them to not come out until it happens . . . then she leaves.

Now I doubt if any couple who were contemplating divorce would put up with such a strange request; yet, at the same time, the counselor understood.  The counselor understood the power of the voice . . . how the voice can break through and bring hope.  It is all in remembering how the beloved has called our names . . . it is in that voice that we recognize the Shepherd.

How many countless movies have we seen the plot when someone is terribly mangled . . . mangled to the point that he or she is no longer recognizable; but when the person speaks to those closest to them . . . they recognize their loved one.  Or those movies where two people, as children fall in love, move away from each other, and later discover one another again . . . in the way that they said each other’s names.  So it is with Jesus.  We recognize him in the way he says our names . . . we recognize his voice . . . and, we follow.

One of the things about being a shepherd is the responsibility of finding food for the sheep . . . not an easy task, especially in a place like Israel where the grass is valued commodity because of its rareness.  Thus the shepherd moves from place to place, rarely staying in the same spot.  After all, the sheep are not fenced in with the feed being brought to them . . . no, they are going wherever the shepherd leads them.  And, they follow because they recognize the voice in the way that the shepherd calls them to follow him in his footsteps.

Well, Jesus is not a feedlot operator . . . no, he is a shepherd . . . a shepherd who always seems to be on the move . . . from one place to another, from one cause to another.   Jesus doesn’t seem to stand still for too long.  He is always on the move . . . always calling us . . . always calling us to follow.

Think about it.

I would be shocked if any of you who are here this morning wouldn’t
admit that your relationship with Jesus . . . that your journey with Jesus . . .
is different than it was when you first heard Jesus call your name.  That you
are not in the place you were when you first decided to follow that voice.  I
think that we are all in deeper and closer relationships with Jesus . . . and, I
think it would be honest to admit that it has not always been easy, and that
we have not always recognized the voice of Jesus in our lives.  Jesus has
taken us to some places we had rather not go . . . at least not until we
heard him call us by name . . . until we recognized his voice in those places
and situations.

These religiously devote Jews who questioned Jesus about whether or
not he was just going to come out and tell them he was the Messiah, well,
they just could not recognize the voice for whatever reason. Until they
could recognize the voice of God through Jesus, they just were not going to
get it.

Of course, those who hear and recognize their name in the voice of the
Shepherd . . . well, they get it all.  They get all the protection, all the grace,
all the hope, all the promise, and all of the companionship that the
Shepherd provides.  Jesus tells the group that is gathered around him this:
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give
them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them
out of my hand.”  The key is in following the voice that calls . . . that
wandering voice that pulls us through life into new situations and
relationship each and every day . . . calls us into service of others . . . calls
us into compassion . . . calls us into mission.  Not always the places we
want to go.  And, when we do not want to go, we have harder time hearing
and recognizing the voice of the Shepherd.

In the song, In the Garden, we sing:

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And he tells me I am His own

It is in the way that He says our name that we recognize Jesus . . . in the
good times, bad times, and all the times in-between.  We follow where the
Shepherd leads.  Amen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

“The Simple Absurdity of Faith” (John 21:1-19)

A parable to consider:  There once was a man who was a professor who sat in his office at the university researching the scriptures.  He spent every waking moment of his life digging into the scriptures . . . searching deeper and deeper into each and every possible meaning of the nuances of the holy writings.  He wrote descriptive and highly detailed reports with lots and lots of footnotes and references to the obscure theological meanings of the scriptures . . . lots of papers and books.  He impressed lots and lots of people with his knowledge and his recitations of footnotes and quotes.  That is all that he did with his time.  Meanwhile, the world around him passed him by . . . but, he knew his scriptures.

Then one day he died.  Standing there before the Lord Almighty, God asked him, “What have you done for me?”  Of course the professor rattled off all of his impressive writings and books that he had written about the scriptures while God sat there and listened attentively.  When the professor finished, God said, “That is impressive . . . but, what did you do for me?”  Needless to say, the professor was sent off packing from the throne of God despite his best arguments . . . God didn’t want fancy words or deep theories . . . God wanted action.

In several of the resurrection stories, how is it that the disciples recognize Jesus?

As the two disciples walk with the stranger on the road to Emmaus, it is when Jesus breaks the bread that they recognize the stranger for who he is.  And, then, this morning, as the disciples are attempting to fish, a stranger appears on the shore and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat which results in a huge haul of fish . . . 153 fish in all.  Then when they get to the shore, there is the stranger waiting by a fire where he takes the bread and fish, blesses them . . . and they recognize him.  Each time Jesus does some action that opens the eyes of the disciples to see him.

Faith demands action.  God wants action.

That was the problem the professor was having in the parable.  He knew his scriptures . . . he was brain smart, but was lacking in the heart department.  He was all talk and no action.  Faith is not a noun, faith is a verb.  As a verb it has to do something in order to be expressed.  Nowhere in the professor’s life was he putting what was in his head into action . . . no, he was too busy digging at every little nuance of the words of scriptures in an attempt to understand the complexities of the faith.  He was making faith more difficult than it had to be.  Faith, in the end, is really simple . . . so simple that at times it seems almost absurd.

As you listened to our scripture reading this morning, what caught your ear?  Was it the fact that Jesus told them where to cast their net in order to catch fish?  Was it the huge haul of fish . . . so large that they could barely get it to the shore . . . with 153 fish?  Was it in them recognizing Jesus when he took the bread and fish inviting them to eat?  Was it the questioning of Peter about his faith?  What caught your ear . . . no, more importantly, what caught your heart?

I imagine for all of us we each would have a different answer; yet, at the same time, I think that there is one little curiosity that pokes our attention.  That curiosity is the number 153.  Why is the number 153 in the story?  Why was the writer of the gospel putting that specific number into the story . . . 153.  Why didn’t the writer just say, “It was a huge load of fish that the disciples caught”?  So big, that it should have torn the net, but it didn’t.  Why didn’t the writer just keep it simple instead of throwing in that little fact that now has the faithful running off, pulling every Bible commentary and dictionary off the shelf in an attempt to find the secretive and deeper meaning of that number.  If we are honest, are we all just a wee bit curious about what that number means in the story.

Well, to be honest with you . . . nobody really knows.  Nobody really knows what the significance of that number is in the story.  And, even for those who think they know, nobody agrees.  There is the argument that the fish represent all of humanity, after all, scholars have stated that there were 153 varieties of fish at the time the story takes place . . . so, surely that is what the number represents . . . all the people.  Thus the disciples are to fulfil what Jesus had earlier commanded them to do . . . to go out into the world and be fishers of people . . . all people.  Makes sense, but as I said, not everyone agrees.  Thus, for the most part, no one really knows what the number represents.

So, let me ask you a question: When it is all said and done, does that number make a difference in your faith?

In the story the disciples recognize Jesus.  They recognize the risen Lord.  But is it enough to just recognize and acknowledge the risen Jesus?  Well, I don’t think so.  I don’t think so because our story does not end with everyone just recognizing Jesus.  No, it ends with Jesus playing a modified version of “21 questions” with Peter.

The symbolism of Jesus’ questioning of Peter is not lost on any of us.  Jesus asks Peter three questions.  We all remember that Peter . . . Peter who swore he would never abandon Jesus, never deny Jesus . . . did exactly that.  Peter abandoned and denied Jesus . . . three times.  In our story, Jesus questions Peters with three inquiries . . . one for each denial.  In doing do, Peter is—more or less—reinstated into the band of disciples.  Right?

At least that is where we might focus our attention . . . in the symbolism.  But it is not the symbolism that is important in the story.  It is what Jesus tells Peter he must be about . . . it is about action.  Jesus does not want words, Jesus wants action.  Jesus does not want faith that is stuck in the head, but faith that is embedded in the heart that brings forth action.  Jesus tells Peter to care for his flock . . . to feed his flock.  Jesus wants action.  Action portrays understanding.  Faith is action.

Trust me, we should all study the scripture.  We should know our Bibles.  Yet, at the same time, we should understand that our Bibles and what is written in those pages is a call . . . a call to action.  When all the words in the scripture are boiled down we are called to action.  What is that action?  Well, it is really pretty simple . . . so simple that it is almost absurd.  We are called to love.  To love the Lord with our whole being.  To love others.  That is what we are called to do.

And, love is a verb that connotes action . . . doing something.

It is probably good that I was not the author of this gospel, despite it being named after me.  If I had put an ending upon this story . . . at least where we heard it end this morning with Peter being questioned . . . I would have had Jesus saying to Peter: “Peter, don’t say it . . . do it!”

I have no doubt that the professor in the story truly believed that he was a faithful person . . . shoot, probably no one knew the scriptures better than he did.  But, in the professor’s case that knowledge was never put into action . . . he never went out into the world and displayed the love that was the very foundation of the words he studied.  God wants action.  Among the faithful, it is not the words that are spoken that matter . . . it is the acts of love, grace, kindness, peace, and justice that matter.

Words are nice, but actions are better.  The way that we live our lives speaks louder than any words ever will when it comes in showing the world around us the love we have for God through Jesus.  In the end, Peter finally learned the lesson.  Amen.