Can we see Jesus? Do we see Jesus? A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2018

We are at a turning point. Lent is drawing to a close; those of you who have been following Lent Madness are watching as the tension builds and the saintly competition comes to an end. If you’ve given up something for the season, you are probably counting the days to Easter and the end of your fast. Here in the office at Grace, we are preparing for Holy Week as you can tell from the notices in the service bulletin.

As we were reciting and chanting the verses from Psalm 51 this morning, I was reminded that we had said this same psalm on Ash Wednesday, after the imposition of the ashes. Then, I and you were hoping for a Holy Lent, a time when we might deepen our relationship with God in Christ, experience repentance and forgiveness of our sins and grow spiritually. Now, as Lent draws to a close, those verses remind me of all the ways my actions and discipline in Lent have fallen short of what I had hoped for, another missed opportunity. I am grateful again, and continuously, for God’s mercy and grace. Continue reading

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This is how God loves the world: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2018

Is there any verse of scripture more familiar in our culture than John 3:16? It may be that for many in our culture it is the only verse they know, or at least, the only verse they know the reference for. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” Over the years, we’ve seen it displayed at athletic events; on bumper stickers or decals on cars, emblazoned on all matter of Christian kitsch.

For that very reason, many of us find its ubiquity and overuse problematic or even offensive. It’s as likely to divide or put people off as it is to attract people to Christianity, for not only does it seem to reduce the truth and beauty of Christianity to a slogan or formula, also, by the over-emphasis on belief, seems divide the world between believers and unbelievers, saved and unsaved, and those of us who struggle with doubt and uncertainty, wonder whether we are included among those who will inherit eternal life. Continue reading

Being Witnesses: A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 2017

In these dark days of Advent, as the days grow shorter and the sun’s light grows dim, the mood of our nation and our world seem very much in synch with the season. It’s difficult for us to ignore all that is occurring around us and focus on the season of Advent, and the coming of Christ at Christmas. Sometimes I feel as though the festivities and hoopla, whether it’s the parties we throw or attend, or the glitz of stores and the blitz of marketing are all intended to distract us from what’s happening—global warming, the threat of nuclear catastrophe, the continuing assault on our constitutional liberties, on democracy itself.

It’s hard to find our way through it all, it’s hard for us to find perspective, to keep our faith when there is so much profoundly wrong and unjust, and the forces of good seem impotent in the face of the evil that surrounds us.

On top of it all, many of us struggle to make sense of, let alone, proclaim, the message of Jesus Christ in this context. When Christianity has been coopted by extreme nationalists and white supremacists, when there seems no connection between the message of love, peace, and reconciliation proclaimed by Jesus Christ, and the dominant voices of Christianity in America, we may want to hide our faith, to keep quiet. We fear being associated with the Franklin Grahams and Roy Moores and silence our voices, out of fear that we might be accused of supporting them. Let me just add, if you are not deeply troubled by the cooptation of Christianity by a certain political agenda in this country, you should examine your beliefs and commitments, for the very soul and future of Christianity is at stake, the gospel is at stake.

Our lessons today remind us of where our focus should be, where and how we should proclaim Christ, where and how we should work for justice.

The reading from Isaiah, the first verses of which provide the text for Jesus first public proclamation in the Gospel of Luke, offer both reassurance and command. As Christians, we read these words as promise of Christ’s coming, of the future reign of God that he proclaimed and for which we hope. We see ourselves as recipients of that good news, and of the promised healing and release.

At the same time, we must see ourselves in this story, not just as recipients of God’s grace and justice but as participants in the coming of that justice. We are called to rebuild the ruined cities—and here we might think not only of literal cities, but of all the ways that human community, the common good, have been undermined and attacked in recent years.

Even stronger are the words from the Song of Mary. It’s always helpful to remember just who she was—a young woman, likely a teenager, mysteriously, shamefully pregnant, as vulnerable in her historical context as a similar young woman would be in our day. Yet from that small, unlikely, reviled person, comes this powerful hymn that witnesses to God’s redemptive power:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

 

This familiar hymn has suffered for its popularity and familiarity. Its use in worship over the millennia has numbed us to its revolutionary power. We need to reclaim it today, sing it with meaning. We need to do more than sing it, we need to work so that it comes into being. We need to imagine the possibility that God is working in this way, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of all our fears, doubts, and despair. We need to believe that the words of a first-century teenaged single mom can inspire to see God at work in the world around us. For remember, the world in which she lived was unjust and violent as well, and for many people hopelessness and terror were ways of life.

And finally, the gospel…

We heard the story of John the Baptizer from the Gospel of John. It’s a brief excerpt of a larger narrative, and on the surface it’s rather strange, although you might not have thought anything odd about this when hearing it. In the Gospel of Mark’s description of John that we heard last week, the focus seemed to be on his lifestyle, his clothing and diet choices (camel’s hair, locusts and wild honey). According to Mark, he preached a message, “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Now in John’s gospel none of that is present. While some of his preaching message is consistent, at the heart of John’s portrayal of John is something else, the fact that John was a witness to Jesus Christ. In a rather odd formulation, John writes that “

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”

For that is John’s purpose and role in the fourth gospel—to point toward Christ. John is a witness, the witness. And more than witness, for the Greek word behind the English “witness” and “testify” in the first few verses of the reading is word from which we get our English word “martyr.” John came to bear witness to the light, to testify about Jesus Christ. Later in the first chapter, John sees Jesus passing by, points to him, and tells several of his disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The disciples then leave John and follow Jesus.

These are questions of identity and purpose. The priests and Levites asked John who he was, in a scene that is reminiscent of the scene in the synoptic gospels where Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. John directs their attention away from him toward Christ.

John offers us an important lesson, not just about who he was and who Jesus Christ is. He also reminds us that one of the most important things we do, in our words and in our lives, is point to Jesus Christ. It is in and through us that others learn what it means to follow Jesus and also learn Jesus’ message of love, peace, mercy, and justice. In this time, when so many others proclaim a different gospel, and very different message of Jesus, our witness to him is more needed than ever. May we witness, testify, and point, clearly, unequivocally, and boldly, to the Jesus Christ who stands with the poor, the oppressed, the captive, and the God who casts down the mighty from their seats and fills the hungry with good things.

 

 

 

 

 

My Lord and My God: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, 2017

 

Today, Grace Church is participating again in the second annual Doors Open Madison, a city-wide open house that offers the community the opportunity to explore some of Madison’s signature buildings. It’s a great opportunity for us at Grace—free publicity. It’s likely that including today, last Sunday, which was Easter, and services this week that included a funeral and a wedding, we could expect to have 1500 people enter our space in that time. Continue reading

Raised with Lazarus: A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, 2017

 

I hope that you’ve come to appreciate something of the complexity, depth, and riches in the gospel of John as we’ve worked through these readings over the last several weeks. Today, we have come to the end of this series of stories from John’s gospel, and with this reading, we have come to something of an early climax in the gospel as well. This story of the raising of Lazarus is the last of the seven “signs” recorded by John. It’s a clear demonstration of Jesus’ power but also, in its focus on his emotions it describes Jesus’ humanity in ways that we don’t see elsewhere in the gospel. Continue reading

The Seeing, Believing Man: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2017

 

Today we hear the third of four stories from the gospel of John in this season of Lent. So far we have encountered Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. Next week we will meet Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. Each of the stories explores in detail the relationship between Jesus and these other people; each also offers a wealth of material for our reflection on who Jesus Christ is and how we might enter into deeper relationship with him. These texts are long and complex and it’s impossible to examine in detail the many themes on which they touch. Continue reading

The Jew at the well: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 2017

 

Part of my job as a pastor of a downtown church is dealing with the never-ending stream of people who come by looking for help. Often, their stories are heartbreaking. They’ve lost their jobs and are about to be evicted; they need money for a bus ticket or gas. Sometimes, it’s an elderly grandmother having to take care of her grandchildren because of their mother’s illness or incarceration. Or there’s the 19-year old Nigerian boy whose family was evicted for nonpayment of rent after his father abandoned him and his mother and sisters. I’ve had to develop a thick skin, and an ear for falsehoods, because often the stories aren’t true or are only partly true. Continue reading