Sunday, April 30, 2017

“Pay It Forward” (Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 and Acts 2:14a, 36-41)

Who among us has ever experienced a “random act of kindness”?  This past Thursday a coworker and I had to go to Lame Deer and Wyola to do hearing screening in the schools there.  It was a dreary, cold, and rainy day.  Nothing went right in the schools, they had forgotten to get the permission slips from the parents . . . of the 130 kids I needed to test, I only got to test about 35.  Needless to say, it was a frustrating day.  Nothing was going right, and I was getting soaked.

On the way back to the university we stopped for lunch at the Burger Dive . . . an expensive gourmet burger place.  As is the custom, when dining with co-workers, I asked for separate checks . . . and, much to my surprise, my co-worker said lunch was on her.  So, of course, I ordered the most expensive burger on the menu.  No, I didn’t; but, I was floored by her generous and hospitable offer to buy my lunch.  I was the recipient of a “random act of kindness”.

Maybe you remember the movie from 2000 that starred Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment called Pay It Forward based on a book by the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde.  In the story Reuben St. Clair, a social studies teacher, challenges his student to “change the world”.  One of the students in the class is Trevor, who takes the challenge to heart.  As he goes about his day, he wonders what he could do, just a twelve year old student, to change the world.  He starts by showing kindness to a stranger, and from there, moves on to the next person he can help.

Each time he helps someone, he answers their question of what can they do to repay him, with the words, “Pay it forward.”  In other words, he wants them to do as he has done . . . he wants them to do a random act of kindness for someone else.  In fact, he is a little pushy because he tells them not to do it for just one person, but for five people.  Plus, he tells them to challenge those that they help with the same task.  In this way he figures he can change the world with a pyramid scheme of kindness.

Hang on to that idea.

The psalm we heard this morning, Psalm 116, is a psalm of thanksgiving.  The person speaking is thankful for the mercy and grace that God has shown in a time of great need.  In an overwhelming sense of gratitude the person asks, “How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?”  Personally, I think that is a powerful question.  Think about it, what can any of us do to pay back God for what God has done for us?  In this Easter season we have received a gift . . . a wonderful gift of salvation, redemption . . . or grace and mercy.  Jesus paid it for us.  So, what can we give to the Lord to ever repay such a gift?  Kind of throws us into the same boat as the speaker in Psalm 116 . . . we echo the words of the psalmist: “How can (we) repay the Lord for all his goodness to (us)?”

There is nothing . . . absolutely nothing . . . except, ourselves.  The person speaking in Psalm 116 comes to this realization.  The only thing that can be offered to God for this act of kindness, grace, and mercy is one’s life.  The speaker proclaims, “O Lord, truly I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant . . .”  In this realization, the speaker comes to the conclusion that there is only one thing that anyone could ever offer God for such redemption, and that one thing is a person’s life . . . the way that he or she lives life in thanksgiving to the wonder of God’s love and grace.

From that moment on, the psalmist proclaims: “I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord . . .”

And, how shall this individual fulfill these vows?

The person is going to “pay it forward”.

This is how the recipient of God’s love, grace, and mercy pays back the debt of such a huge act of kindness . . . by living a life that reflects the gift received.

Surprisingly, I do not think that there is a person sitting in this sanctuary that does not know what that means . . . to love the Lord with our whole being, and to love our neighbors . . . to reflect the random act of kindness display by Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection.

It is what will change the world.

The Easter Story is not just about the resurrection of Jesus; no, it is about more than receiving the gift . . . it is about how the recipients of the gift respond to it.  And, the only response that anyone can have to such a gift is to “pay it forward”.  Which is exactly what the disciples did . . . they
“pay it forward”.

In our epistle reading this morning we hear Peter stand before a crowd to share the gift of Jesus . . . to share the gift of grace and mercy . . . and, to let the people know that it is theirs for the asking.  The writer of the Book of Acts records the people’s response: When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter tells them to receive the gift and give their lives to God.

The writer then goes on to tell the reader that “about three thousand were added to their number that day.”  Peter was paying it forward . . . he was changing the world.  And, he and the others did . . . they changed the world.  We are here this morning because they chose to “pay it forward”.

This morning we are confronted by the psalmist’s question: “How can I repay the Lord for all of his kindness to me?”  That is the question of Easter.  The response is to receive the gift and to go out into the world and share it with others.  The psalmist proclaims: “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.  I will fulfill m vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.”

How do we answer the question of Easter?

We answer the question, if we have truly received the gift into our lives, by living our lives through random acts of kindness as we pay it forward.  It is all in the way that we live our lives on a daily basis.  Do our actions and words reflect a love towards God and others?  

That is the challenge of Easter.

It is reflected in the random acts of kindness as we pay it forward.

It is the only way that we will ever change the world.  One random act of kindness paid forward into the lives of others.  The psalmist recognized the power of this response . . . in the end, he proclaimed, “Praise the Lord!”  Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

“Not Written in This Book” (John 20:19-31)

What if?

It is said that Yellowstone National Park sits on top of one of the largest volcanoes in the world, just waiting to erupt.  The problem is that no one knows exactly when this eruption will take place.  It has also been said that the destruction caused by this eruption would be catastrophic.  Worse than a nuclear bomb . . . it would destroy everything . . . change the landscape, topple buildings, wreck homes, level everything . . . the destruction would be massive.  With such destruction there won’t be a whole lot left.  It has been said that its destruction would be cataclysmic.  And, guess what?  Living approximately a hundred miles from Yellowstone, we live in the area of this future catastrophe.  

Such a happy thought for a Sunday morning, wouldn’t you say?

I doubt if too many of us lay awake at night worrying about the eventual eruption of the volcano lying underneath Yellowstone National Park.  Nor do I think too many of us consider what would be left behind in the wake of such a disaster.  Every so often I have thought about it . . . especially about what would be left behind--if anything . . . what would survive . . . In particular I have even thought about what it would mean for us, the followers of Jesus.  If everything is destroyed--everything, that would mean that our churches would be gone . . . our Bibles would be gone . . . the whole physical foundation of our faith would disappear.  We’d have to start over from scratch.

Think about it . . . there would be no Bibles . . . no written Word.  How would we function as a people of faith if we do have the Word of God to guide us and validate our faith.  After all, it is the Bible that we base our faith upon . . . we are a “people of the Word”.

I imagine that we would be able to gather enough people together to recall all the parts of the Bible from memory . . . surely enough people would remember enough in bits and pieces to put it all back together again.  I assure you, with my memory, that I will not be a part of that group.  Together this group would reconstruct the Bible . . . probably word by word . . . and, again, we would have our proof of faith.  We’d have our stories of God and Jesus.

Or, would we?

Our scripture reading this morning is a curious bit of writing.  The resurrection of Jesus has occurred.  People have begun to encounter the risen and living Jesus.  Our reading tells us of Jesus appearing to his disciples and how they believed . . . except for Thomas who was awol at the grand entrance of Jesus to his disciples.  He refuses to believe and demands proof . . . of which Jesus provides . . . the wounds are displayed.  Thomas then believes.  Jesus tells him: “Stop doubting and believe . . . because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

This is a familiar story . . . we all know about “doubting Thomas”; yet, as the writer of the Gospel of John likes to do, there is a bit more to the story that is shared.  The writer of the gospel shares the story and explains that these stories of the miracles and signs of that Jesus did have been recorded so that others--those reading the scripture--may believe.  Through these stories faith will be found.  Then, almost as an aside--an off-hand remark, the author writes that there are many stories that are not recorded.

Wait a minute.

I thought everything that we know about Jesus can be found in our Bibles . . . everything.  Now this writer is telling us that not every detail . . . not every miracle, every sign, every word . . . every detail of Jesus’ life is not in the book?  That there is more to the story than the words that are written in the good book?  That, maybe, the story isn’t complete . . . that there is actually more to the story than is written down between Genesis and Revelation?

Of course there is!

The story does not end with the final period at the end of the Book of Revelation.  No, the story is a “living story” that is instilled in our hearts when we come to believe.  When we receive the living Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we inherit the story that becomes a part of who we are . . . a story that we live each and every day.  It has been, since that encounter of Jesus with his disciples in which they came to believe . . . a corporate story and a personal story.  A story that is being written every day . . . written every day from the faithfuls’ perspective and experience.  

The story is a never-ending story, and it continues; unfortunately it is just not included between the covers of our most sacred book.  And, just because those stories are not included in the book, does it make them any less holy or valid as those found in the scriptures?  It shouldn’t . . . after all, the writer of the Gospel of John tells us that there are many stories that are not recorded.  Stories like yours and mine.  I’d like to see you try and convince me that my relationship and experience--my stories of Jesus are not authentic, valid, and as holy as any story found in the Bible.  True, they might not be as dramatic as what you would find in the Bible, but they are stories of faith, stories of relationship and intimacy between Jesus and I.

But, for some people, if it ain’t scriptural . . . it ain’t real.  The proponents of this belief cannot and usually will not accept personal stories of faith as proof and evidence of a living Jesus . . . of a living God.  To these “doubting Thomases” I repeat the words of Jesus to the original doubting Thomas: “Stop doubting and believe.”

These “doubting Thomases” are wrong.  The writer of the Gospel of John clearly explains that not everything we know about Jesus is written down in the scriptures.  Could you imagine if they were!  It would take a semi-truck to haul around that Bible.  Here the theological argument is that Jesus . . . that God . . . can be experienced outside the realm of scripture in the lives of everyday people, like you and me . . . and, that it is real and holy and valid.  The writer is opening the door and allowing us to say that we all have a story of faith . . . powerful stories of faith . . . that are just as holy as the scriptures that we read.  

Our experiences of Jesus . . . our experiences of God . . . are just as real, holy, and valid as anything that we will read in the scriptures.  Even more importantly it that they are our experiences of encountering the Holy . . . personal, intimate stories.  And, with this, we become a part of the story, the never-ending story.  We claim our place in the family of God.

And, when we share our stories of faith, our stories of encountering the living Jesus, we open a door for those who are listening to hear the story in a different way . . . a more personal way . . . an intimate way because they know the person sharing the story.  A connection is shared, the Holy is exposed, and a relationship is possible for those who are listening.  This is not a staunch by the letter of the law sort of thing to establish faith; no, it is a simple story of faith between one who believes and the God that loves them.

Not everything is written in our holy scriptures.  The writer of the Gospel of John tells us that.  The writer also tells us that those stories that are written in the scriptures are important as they help people to believe.  At the same time, the writer is also letting the readers . . . letting us know that there are other stories of faith . . . or miracles . . . and signs that are just as important, but they are not recorded in the scriptures.  These are the stories that we can share as the followers of Jesus.  Personal, intimate, holy stories of the living Jesus in our lives.  We may not always have the Bible, but we will all . . . each and everyone of us . . . have the stories of our relationship with Jesus.  Nope, not everything we know about Jesus is written in the Good Book, a lot of what we know is written in our hearts.  May we share our stories . . . may we share our hearts.  Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

“Respond” (Jeremiah 31:1-6)

Often, at a funeral, the minister tells us that the best way to keep the memory of the deceased alive is to put that person in our hearts and begin to live our lives through the best that that person gave to us.  In doing this, the minister tells us, that person lives on.  In this thinking, the minister is challenging us to respond . . . to respond to the death of someone we loved very much.

To respond . . .

I can remember as a kid really wanting a glass a milk.  So, I went into the kitchen, got down a glass, pulled the milk out of the refrigerator, and proceeded to pour myself a glass of milk.  Then, as I was turning to put the milk away, my elbow hit the glass spilling it all over the table.  Milk was everywhere.  Being a whopping five-years old, I busted out crying.  Of course, that brought my mother running.  

She wanted to know what the problem was.

“I spilt my milk.”

“Well, that is nothing to cry over,” consoled my mother.  “Just clean it up and pour yourself another glass.”

As a five-year old, when you spill the milk and make a mess, your first reaction is to panic and start crying.  Crying never solved anything . . . as they say, “Don’t cry over spilt milk.”  Instead, as my mother was suggesting, do something about it.  Clean up the mess and pour yourself another glass.  Respond . . . don’t react.

On this Easter Sunday that is the message . . . the “good news” . . . that we are being given.  We are to respond on this day, not react.

It may seem strange to be hearing a passage from the prophet Jeremiah on Easter morning, but I think that it sets the tone to the message of Easter that we are being given this morning.  As a prophet he had taken God’s message to the people to change their ways of idolatry and sin or face a major catastrophe.  The people did not listen and they were invaded and defeated by the Babylonians.  The city was destroyed.  The temple was torn down.  The people were exiled to Babylon.  These were not good days for the people of God . . . they had lost everything.  Everything they had known and understood was gone . . . dead.

And, so, they reacted.  They wept and lamented.  They wallowed in their situation.  They regressed . . . got depressed . . . and, generally thought that there was no reason to carry on.  One has to admit, going from what they had to what they got . . . well, it is pretty hard to see much light in the darkness.

Though Jeremiah delivered the words of doom for God to the people, he also brought to them hope.  Those words of hope are the words we heard in our reading this morning:
The Lord says, “The time is coming when I will be the God of all the tribes of Israel, and they will be my people.  In the dessert I showed mercy to those people who had escaped death.  When the people of Israel longed for rest, I appeared to them from far away.  People of Israel, I have always loved you, so I continue to show you my constant love.  Once again I will rebuild you.  Once again you will take up your tambourines and dance joyfully.  Once again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria, and those who plant them will eat what the vineyards produce.  Yes, the time is coming when watchmen will call out on the hills of Ephraim, “Let’s go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.”

Yes, Jeremiah says, God will restore the people; but, in order for that restoration to take place . . . the people will have to respond.  The watchmen will call out to the people to respond by telling them they must “go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.”  This implies that the people are going to do something . . . not react, but respond.  God is not performing a solo dance; no, God is a willing dance partner waiting for the partner to follow in the steps of the dance.  God will lead, if the people will follow.  To follow they will have to respond.  If they respond, all is restored.

In this divine story of restoration and redemption . . . from the very beginning of our scriptures . . . we know that grace is freely given, but that it is not ours until we respond to the gift.  We have to receive the gift, use the gift, and make it our own.  Until then, there really is nothing.  This is a two-way transaction and for it to work there has to be a response.

In the gospel readings for this Easter Sunday the story of Mary Magdalene going to the tomb and discovering it empty is told.  In both stories Mary is distraught over the empty tomb . . . she cries.  Not only had she lost her beloved Jesus to death, now someone had taken the body.  This was insult to injury, and she cried.  Of course, we know that the Risen Jesus appears to her . . . consoles her . . . and, then tells her to get up and do something.  Jesus tells her to go and tell the other disciples that he is alive and they will soon see him for themselves.  Mary responded.  Mary did not have time to cry over spilt milk, she had good news to share.

To respond . . . the gift must be embraced . . . received . . . and made one’s own.  And, how does one know that he or she has received the gift?  Because it can be seen in the way that he or she lives life.  You live in Christ.  Or, as the epistle reading for this morning--Colossians 3:1-4 states it: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

The Easter Story demands a response.  It does not want us to react . . . to jump around the sanctuary doing a happy dance and shouting hallelujah.  No, it wants us to respond and do something that shows ourselves and the world that we have truly embrace its gift, message, and meaning in the way that we live our lives.  It wants us to take it to heart . . . and, by taking into our hearts, it makes us not only walk in the footsteps of Jesus, but to emulate his very words and actions as our own . . . to become Christ-like.

I think that it is fair that we gather together this morning to react to the “good news” of the Easter message.  That is what we call worship . . . we let out the great joy we have in this restoration and redemption story.  We dance a little . . . we shout a few hallelujahs . . . and, we bask in the moment.  But, we need to understand that this is just the prelude to the dance that God is inviting us to join God in.  While we are celebrating, God waits.  God waits for us to respond to the gift being offered.

On the hills of Ephraim, the watchmen are crying out, “Let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.”  

The Lord waits . . .

Let us respond and receive the gift . . . and, may our lives show that gift to the world around us through the words that we speak and the actions that we take.  May we truly continue to allow the resurrected and living Jesus live.  Amen.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

“Against the Wind” (Isaiah 50:4-9a)

There is one thing common to everyone who lives in Montana . . . it is the wind.  There is no place in Montana where one can escape the wind.  It is a natural part of Montana.  The wind blows . . . and, often, it blows hard.  Especially around places like Nye and Livingston.  We Montanans know a thing or two about the wind, especially when it comes to going against the wind . . . it is hard work to walk against the wind.

That phrase, “against the wind”, actually has meaning.  It is a nautical term meaning to sail against the wind . . . a nearly impossible task.  Thus whenever the phrase, “against the wind”, is used it means an attempt at something that is unlikely to succeed.

So, why are we talking about “against the wind” when we have entered into the start of Holy Week in the church liturgical year?  Why are we talking about “against the wind” as we have gathered to celebrate the triumphant entrance of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem on a day we call Palm Sunday?  Seems kind of strange when one considers that we should be dancing in the pews . . . shouting “Hosanna!” . . . and celebrating with those followers of Jesus gathered to mark his entrance.  Why are we talking about going “against the wind” . . . talking about something with little opportunity of succeeding . . . on a day when the hope and joy should be at its highest?

Well, I will tell you why.

A lot happens between the triumphant entrance of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem and the purpose we will gather to celebrate next Sunday . . . a lot!  That’s the problem with only having worship on Sunday mornings, especially during Holy Week . . . we miss a whole lot of the story between this Sunday and next.  In centering upon the joy of the entrance, we miss out on the rest of the story . . . a story that is not much to celebrate, but vital to the whole reason we gather next Sunday.  We miss out on the struggle, the arrest, the defections, the trial, the beatings, the crucifixion, and ultimately the death.

As much as we would love to just skip over that part of the story . . . we can’t.  We can’t because it is in that story that we see the whole foundation of what we have come to celebrate as Easter.  The prophets remind of us this.

In our reading this morning we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah who speaks of the Messiah . . . the one who is yet to come.  In the Old Testament the prophets paint a picture of the Messiah and what that individual’s life is going to be like.  Rarely is the picture that is painted pleasant to look at.

Thus it is that we hear the prophet Isaiah tells us of the struggles of the Messiah . . . of the Holy One who is still to come.  He tells us of the struggles this Messiah is going to have . . . the journey is not going to be easy, nor is it going to be pleasant.  In our reading this morning we hear that the Messiah will encounter much opposition . . . opposition set on stopping the Holy One from succeeding.  Isaiah, speaking for the Messiah, talks of being beaten . . . being mocked . . . being spit upon.  Definitely not a walk in the park.  No, Isaiah tells us that the Messiah will be going “against the wind”.

The Messiah will be facing what seem to be insurmountable odds . . . and, the Messiah knows this.  The Messiah knows of the difficulties that lie ahead; and, yet, the Holy One chooses to go ahead.  Not only does the Messiah chose to move ahead, the Messiah choses to move ahead with great excitement and anticipation.  The Messiah moves ahead because he has been instructed by God to do so . . . “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.”  And, the Messiah embraces this call upon his life with great anticipation and willingness . . . like a student who cannot get enough of what the teacher shares . . . “He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.”  So gung ho is this individual, that he is willing to endure whatever is thrown at him to succeed in doing God’s will . . . and, he does it with enthusiasm.

He is willing to go against the wind.

Against the backdrop of Palm Sunday there is the rest of the story that we cannot ignore.  There is the story of Jesus entering into the den of maleficence in which he is taunted, ridiculed, baited, and eventually arrested.  He is tried . . . beaten . . . and nailed to a cross.  He is left to die.  Not quite the segue one imagines for the glory and happiness of Easter.  Yet it is those days between the triumphant entry and the glorious resurrection that show us the way.  Jesus knew what was coming, and yet, he still chose to do it.  As he said in the garden that night, “. . . not my will, but yours be done.”  (Luke 22:42)

A life of faith is not easy.  It is not easy because it goes “against the wind”.  Ask Jesus.

You don’t have to explain to a Montanan how difficult it is to walk against the wind.  We all know how difficult it is to attempt to swim upstream against the current.  It is hard.  Yet, Jesus chose to go “against the wind”.  He chose to go against the wind because he knew and understood from where the strength and ability to do it came from.  It came from the Lord.  The prophet Isaiah proclaims the words of the Messiah, “It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me.”

It is the Sovereign Lord who calls . . . the Sovereign Lord who teaches . . . and, the Sovereign Lord who sustains.  Who sustains despite the ridicule . . . the public humiliation . . . the physical beatings . . . and, in the case of Jesus, even death upon a cross.  It is from the Lord that the perseverance and audacity come to do the will of the Lord.  Because of this the Messiah, according to Isaiah, proclaims, “Therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.”

The strength comes from the Lord who will not abandon us . . . who will not abandon us no matter how tough the going gets.  

That is the “good news” in our reading this morning.  As we face the “facts” of what happened to Jesus between the time he made his triumphant entrance into the city of Jerusalem and that fateful moment of his death upon a cross, we discover the power of walking “against the wind”.  It is in the “. . . the Sovereign Lord who helps me.”  
As Lent is a season of examination, reflection, discernment, and prayer about our lives being lived in faith, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter up the ante.  They challenge us to examine our lives as to whether or not we are heeding the call of God upon us.  Are we truly walking in the footsteps of Jesus?

The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Messiah recognized his call from God as being one who brings hope to those who are weary . . . “to know the word that sustains the weary.”  As we look around our lives and the world in which we live . . . do we recognize the weary?  I imagine that we do.

From those we encounter on a daily basis to the world at large . . . it is difficult not to see the weariness of God’s children.  To this weariness Jesus spoke words of hope . . . and, we are called to do likewise.  But, we know that the ways of God are not the ways of the world.  We know that God’s ways are often in opposition to the ways of the world.  And, we know that the world will spare no expense in wiping out the ways of God.  We saw that in the death of Jesus himself.

Yet, Jesus persisted.  In the end, he won.

He won to demonstrate that we, too, can win.  Jesus sailed “against the wind” to show us the way.  It won’t be easy, but it can be done.  I do not think that there is anyone among us that does not see this time as a time to go “against the wind”.  Lean forward . . . believe . . . and, God will sustain you in doing God’s will.  It might be tough, but God will be there every step of the way.  Amen.