Sermon: Redeemed

…our flaws and our failures are not counted in God’s judgment of us. What counts is our willingness to do what is right, even if we don’t succeed. … It’s the Heart that matters, not the Head…. God judges our hearts.

gettyimages-660179780-1024x566This morning, I thought we should tie up some of the loose ends I’ve left from our last two sermons.

Two weeks ago, in the sermon “Very Good” we learned that God sees only the goodness that is an inescapable part of who we are; and which God deliberately put into us at the very beginning. All are just as loved by God as we are; and all anyone needs is a revelation of this Love; a love which heals us from all of our iniquities.

Last week, on Palm Sunday we remembered that we’ve all betrayed Jesus, even God betrayed him. And that we cannot help but muck things up, because muckiness is also a part of who we are.

In other messages I’ve given here, we’ve talked about how – because we are conscious of ourselves, and have the freedom to choose right from wrong.  Then we must have the right to fail. This is also part of who we are. And, we not only can fail, we must. We must  have the freedom to fail, and will, even though we don’t want to.

These messages are somewhat at odds with each other. Two weeks ago, we talked about how we are all, in our heart of hearts, “Very Good” and that God sees the goodness in us, and is determined to save us for that reason.

But last week I said we are creatures of sin, we are always making choices that increase our separation from God. This seed of corruption is buried deep within us: and is a very necessary seed.  If we are to be worthy of Love, and not simply puppets of the Almighty, then God must allow us to be able to distance ourselves from God. We must have the right to fail. We must have the right and power to betray others, even betraying the Son of God himself.

So, how do we reconcile all this? Yes, we are, ultimately, Very Good: beloved children of God. And yet, we killed the Son of God through the sin that is part of who we are.

And, how does this all tie into our hope for redemption, for our salvation which is promised by virtue of Jesus’ Resurrection?

First, let’s begin by talking about sin.   When we refer to “sin”, what are we talking about?

Continue reading “Sermon: Redeemed”

An Easter Sermon: A Sissified Jesus?

No, we (who are seen by some as “Liberal” Christians) do not believe in a sissified Jesus. We follow a Jesus who died for us. A Jesus who will never let us go, and a Jesus who loves us no matter what. That kind of love, that walks through any fire, endures any cross, is an uncompromising and fierce love. This is a Jesus who’s Gospel – in whatever form it may take – is for all, not just for some.

Kneeling at The CrossYou know, loving others is hard.

Loving those lost in grief or pain, loving those who have turned away from the world out of their illness or fear or abuse, is hard.

Loving those who are different from us; who’s ways are alien to us; who’s politics or faith, or piercings and tattoos, are offensive to us; is hard.

Loving people when they shout at you, when they refuse to hear what you have to say, when they call you ugly names, when they slander you and despise you and shut you down, is hard.

Loving those who abuse or oppress you, loving those who cannot or will not love you in return, loving others when you are in such pain yourself, loving those who are nailing you to a cross, is hard.

Continue reading “An Easter Sermon: A Sissified Jesus?”

Sermon: The God Who Hugs

Christianity is unique in that it claims that God wants to physically walk with us – a point that comes out very strongly in the Gospel of Luke, in particular. So, it is not just our spirits, but also our bodily existence, that matters greatly to God.

Dad and AJ Cuddling
Dad and AJ Cuddling

I’d like to begin with this photo. Although my Dad had held our son AJ many times before this, this was the first time that AJ really sought out a snuggle with Grandpa. It was a special moment for them, and for me too: my Father still keeps a framed print of this on his nightstand.

Please join me in prayer…

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s message. May it touch our hearts, may it speak clearly to our souls. You have come to earth to reassure us, comfort us and heal us. You understand the importance of presence and touch. Speak to us now, Lord. Help us to love you in the ways you have wanted us to love you since the beginning, and help us learn how to actively share that love with all whom we encounter. Amen.

Physical touch is such an important thing. In fact, you can find references to physical intimacy (and no, I don’t mean THAT kind of intimacy) all through the Gospels and especially in the Gospel of Luke, beginning with the infant Jesus being held by the elderly Simeon and Anna in the temple in Luke 2, to the woman washing Jesus’ feet and drying them with her hair in Luke 7, to Judas the Betrayer (as a counterexample) hugging and kissing Jesus in Luke 22, and ending with Jesus request that the disciples touch him in this morning’s reading from Luke 24.

As I’m sure you know, research has shown that children who are not cuddled and lovingly held on a frequent basis, starting at birth, do not thrive: they do not develop as fast, and are not as healthy. Even now, at age 5, AJ still reaches for Mommy or Daddy, or his teacher, when he’s distressed. A hug, or even just the touch of a hand, will reassure him, calm him, and help him find stability. And then, once he’s there – he’s off again: playing, tromping in the mud, and climbing on everything!

How many of you remember Leo Buscaglia?

Continue reading “Sermon: The God Who Hugs”

An Easter Sermon: The Missing Link

Good Friday is the day when we hear the first half of this story, where we mourn the death of Christ – and claim him as one of our own. And now, on Easter, we hear the rest of the story, the Divine did not relinquish its claim on Jesus either, but instead raised him from the dead. He is the missing link: we and God both claim him for our own. God has saved us through Christ, just as Jesus told Nicodemus so long ago. Jesus binds us together as members of the Body of Christ, and as children of God. The resurrection is a living reality. But, unless we come to know Christ in the depths of our hearts, unless we take the risk of claiming Christ for our own, the resurrection will never be a living reality for us.

La Descente de Croix - Rubens (1617)
La Descente de Croix – Rubens (1617)

On Easter, we celebrate the heart of our faith, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Why is it so important? How does this narrative bridge the gulf between Human Sin and Divine Grace? And, why does this Act of God from two Millennia ago matter to us today?

Let us pray…

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s message.  May it touch our hearts, may it speak clearly to our souls.  We know that your Word and your love have bridged the huge chasm that separates us from you, and affirmed that all of us are your beloved children. Speak to us now, Lord.  Help us to know you in the ways you have wanted us to know you since the beginning. Amen.

Three years ago, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the place at the heart of the events of Easter. As you enter that Church, to your right and up a flight of stairs, is the shrine of the Crucifixion. To the left, what would be behind me and deeper into the church, is the Shrine of the Tomb. So, on one side is the place where our Sin brought about the death of our Savior; and on the other is the spot where he was resurrected by the Grace of God.

Man’s Sin sent Jesus to his death, and God’s Grace brought him back, but what ties the two together?

The answer is in front of you, unavoidable as you enter the Church: the Stone of Unction.

It is a simple stone, unadorned, surrounded by a few lamps, and just long and wide enough for a body. On the wall behind it is a modern mural that depicts the event that took place at this spot, where Joseph of Arimathea and the Pharisee named Nicodemus laid Jesus’ body after taking it down from the Cross.

“Unction” means “anointing,” and it is here on this stone that they washed Jesus’ body, anointed it with oil, and prepared it for burial.

Why is this important? Why did the designers of this Church orient it such that this spot is right in front of you as you enter the church? And, why is the building laid out such that you must pass by it a second time as you go from Calvary to the Tomb? In other words, why does it matter?

Let’s start by imagining what would have happened if Joseph and Nicodemus had not taken Jesus ‘ body down from the Cross.

Continue reading “An Easter Sermon: The Missing Link”

Jesus Wept

Sermon: “Jesus Wept”
Presented at ARK Community Church in Dalton, MA
April 6, 2014 (Fifth Sunday of Lent)

Scripture readings:
Ezekiel 37:1-14 (from “The Message”),
John 11:1-45 (from “The Message”)

This morning’s reading from Ezekiel 37, and our Gospel reading from John 11, are parallel stories. They both deal with the same issues, are presented in similar ways, and both demonstrate how utterly powerless we are in the face of death and darkness: readings we do well to consider on this, the last Sunday in Lent before Palm Sunday.

Let us pray…

Lord God, we ask that your Holy Spirit fill each and every one of us here this morning.  Open the scriptures before us, and enable me to clearly communicate what you intend for us to receive here today.  Make your gospel come alive within each and every one of us, driving all darkness from our hearts.

We rejoice in this opportunity to encounter new revelations and a deeper understanding of your unconditional, living, infinite love; and we ask that we be amazed and transformed by that love.  Help us to embody your gospel, and to live it, in all that we do, think, speak, and are; both individually and jointly, as members of this congregation which stands before you as a portion of the Body of Believers who share your Gospel with their neighbors in this community. 

In Jesus Name, Amen.

Both of our readings this morning deal with dark times, placing us within the narrative of those who have lost all hope, those who have nothing whatsoever left, and see nothing in their future.

We all have such valleys of darkness in our lives, times when the walls close in, times when the way forward is not just unclear, but entirely nonexistent. Times when we cannot see beyond that dark horizon that we cannot penetrate; times when all hope dies and death itself seems all too near at hand, or perhaps not near enough.

Continue reading “Jesus Wept”

A Children’s Message: “Out of Darkness”

Finger Lights
Finger Lights

Preparation:

You’ll need small and inexpensive LED lights to give to the children. I recommend “finger lights” like those shown in the image associated with this posting.  Clicking on the image will bring you to a product page for them on Amazon.com.  Be aware that there are several vendors who make these lights: some are good quality, many are not.  The ones shown here are good and reliable (and cheap, when bought in quantity).

The Presentation:

Tell me what do you think of when you hear the word “darkness”?

(Solicit responses from the children, looking for ways in which they connect to darkness, prompt if necessary.)

Why would we want to talk about darkness here, in Church?

(Solicit thoughts, looking for the idea of salvation and Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter as God’s way of redeeming us from darkness.)

Continue reading “A Children’s Message: “Out of Darkness””

Where All Hope Fails

rays-of-light-shining-throug-dark-cloudsThe last couple of weeks have been an interesting mix of highs and lows for me.

The certainty of our own mortality has intruded itself forcefully into the lives of many in this part of the country recently, with the tragic deaths of two firemen in Boston the other day (and you can be sure, fire fighters are just as much ministers of God as those of us who wear clerical robes).   Also, the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing is coming soon, during Holy Week in fact.

On a more personal note, old friends have recently made known their own brushes with mortality and how the afflictions of age are becoming more and more difficult to ignore, as has also proven to be too true for myself as well.

Finally, two friends of mine have died this week, one an old and dear friend from childhood, stricken down much too early in life following a very brief and devastating illness, much to the shock and dismay of her young students and the community where she lived.  The second was a co-worker whom I’d known as a young man: she was always with a ready laugh and smile, dying after a long battle with a serious illness.  Both great people, and both very much loved by the many whom their lives touched over the years.

Mortality does not play favorites, and (as my father has often said) “there is no get out of jail free card” – no exceptions. We will all someday confront the same dark horizon that these wonderful people (and so many others) have already passed beyond: never to return from the darkness that will eventually devour all lives, all nations and all human hope.

Continue reading “Where All Hope Fails”

Jesus’ Last Command

This week in Boston, we’ve seen so many people in our community coming together to minister in many ways to those who wounded, whether visibly or not, by this tragedy. This reflects how Jesus called upon his disciples to love one another and minister to each other, especially in times if crisis, as we see in this morning’s scripture. It is a story we know all too well – but the disciples didn’t know it, yet.

Sermon presented 4/28/2013, Sudbury Memorial Church, UCC
Scripture: Excerpts from John 13:4-35

This week in Boston, we’ve seen so many people in our community coming together to minister in many ways to those who have been wounded, whether visibly or not, by this tragedy. This reflects how Jesus called upon his disciples to love one another and minister to each other, especially in times if crisis, as we see in this morning’s scripture.  It is a story we know all too well – but the disciples didn’t know it, yet.

What the disciples knew was that Jesus had just washed all of their feet, and told them that if they truly love him they must follow his example by ministering to one another, as he had.  He then foretold his imminent betrayal by one of their own.  Finally, Judas accepted an offering of bread and vanished into the night on some unknown errand.  It was the evening of the “Last Supper.”  The disciples had taken shelter from the darkness outside in the cherished, annual celebration of their love and connection with each other, and with the people of God.

We remember and celebrate this even today, in the sacrament of communion.  The sharing of the bread is seen as the sharing of the Body of Christ that has been broken for us.  By eating of it, we are sharing in his life, in his death, and in the resurrection.  By eating of it together as a community, we are acknowledging that we are all part of the Body of Christ here on earth, working together to continue His ministry and to make manifest the Kingdom of God that is already all around us, even though we may not yet see it in all of its glory and perfection.

Judas took his piece of that bread as he left the light and warmth of his companions, and his Lord, as he retreated into the night.

Why did John think it so important to preserve the memory of this strange offering to the Betrayer?  Judas is someone to be shunned, damned and forgotten for all time – why remember anything about him at all?  Was that gift just for Judas?  I doubt it.  No passage in the scriptures has just one lesson for us – or I’d be out of a job!

Continue reading “Jesus’ Last Command”

Salvation Claimed

Presented at Sudbury Clergy Association’s Ecumenical Good Friday Service at the Martha Mary Chapel at the Historic Wayside Inn, Friday, March 29, 2013.
Scripture reading: John 19:31-42

Seeing this Cross laid out here behind me, I am reminded of my visit last year to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the focal point of the events that take place in our reading from the Gospel of John, and the site of the central narrative of our faith, which we remember in this Good Friday service and on Easter: the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

As you enter that Church, above and to your right, up a flight of stairs, is Calvary, the site of the Crucifixion.  To the left, what would be behind me and deeper into the church, is the tomb.  So, on one side is the place where our sin cost the life of our Savior; and on the other, the spot where he was resurrected by the Grace of God.  Man’s Sin sent him to his death, and God’s grace brought him back, but what ties the two together?  How do we bridge the gulf between man’s sin and God’s grace?

The Stone of Unction: the spot where Jesus' body was laid when first taken down from the Cross.  Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.
The Stone of Unction: the spot where Jesus’ body was laid when first taken down from the Cross. Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.

Continue reading “Salvation Claimed”

The Stone of Unction: What are You Going to Do?

The Stone of Unction: the spot where Jesus' body was laid when first taken down from the Cross.  Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.
The Stone of Unction: the spot where Jesus’ body was laid when first taken down from the Cross. Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.

Presented at a joint Ecumenical Service at Christ Lutheran Church, West Boylston, MA; April 6, 2012 (Good Friday).

Gospel Reading: John 19:31-42.

Seeing this beautiful Cross laid out here before us this evening, I am reminded of my recent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the focal point of the events that take place in this evening’s reading from the Gospel of John, the central narrative of our faith, which we remember in this Good Friday service, as well as on Easter, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

What made the biggest impression on me in that place was not the elaborate shrines of Calvary and the Tomb. It was a humbler shrine near the main entrance to the Church, “The Stone of Unction.”

This stone marks where Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the High Council in Jerusalem, and the Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews; laid Jesus’ body after taking it down from the Cross. It was there that they washed Jesus’ body, anointed it with oil, and prepared it for burial.

Why is the Stone of Unction important? Why did the builders of that Church orient the building such that this spot is so close to the main entrance? Why is the building laid out such that you must pass by the Stone of Unction as you go from the Cross to the Tomb? In other words, why does it matter?

Let’s start by thinking about what would have happened if Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had not taken the body of Jesus down from the Cross.

Continue reading “The Stone of Unction: What are You Going to Do?”