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The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series: Cars

SCRIPTURE – John 15:12-17 – This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants[d] any longer, because the servant[e] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

SERMON
The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series
Cars
June 18, 2017

What did you want to be when you grew up? Maybe you’re still figuring that out. I wanted to be a Major League baseball player. I just knew I had the skills to be the next Tony Perez or Pete Rose. I was confident that I could overcome the fact that I was slow and uncoordinated. And I didn’t like having the baseball hit toward me. Or thrown toward me. Eventually, I realized that being a baseball player was probably not in the cards for me, so I settled on a more realistic life goal…to be a world-famous BBQ taste-tester! I’m still working on that one.

Is it a good thing to be world-famous at anything? As we have observed, fame comes with a cost. That’s one of themes of the movie, “Cars.” For our summer sermon series, we’re looking the movies from Pixar, the Disney animation studio which has given us such great movies over the years. Last week we learned from “Toy Story” that God’s name is written on our hearts, that God has claimed each and every one of us as God’s favorite. This week, buckle up! We’re taking a ride with “Cars.” By the way, it is a 100% coincidence that we’re talking about “Cars” the same weekend that “Cars 3” opens in movie theaters. That never entered my mind when planning this series. Still, if Disney wanted to write Crestwood a check to thank us for the publicity, we wouldn’t turn it down.

“Cars,” which was released in 2006, was geared toward the fans of Nascar and other types of racing. It tells the story of Lightning McQueen, a super-fast race car who’s in the running to win the season championship. His competition is The King, a well-respected veteran in his final season, and Chip Hicks, a cocky, unlikeable challenger. At the end of the last race of the season, those three are tied for the lead, so one final race is scheduled to decide the champ.

As the movie begins, we learn a few things about Lightning McQueen. He’s very outgoing and friendly, he’s adored by his fans, and he loves being famous. With his signature battle cry, “Kachow!” he dreams of the limelight, of winning the championship, of leaving behind his old sponsor so he can be the spokes-car for an elite new one that would bring even more fame. And we learn that McQueen is so driven to become famous that he doesn’t care who he hurts along the way.

McQueen is the epitome of selfish. He’s already fired several employees because he won’t take their advice, and he believes that nobody can do anything better than he can. Do you know anyone like that? Unfortunately, my wife, Leigh, is married to someone like that. For instance, when I’m putting something together, like a piece of furniture, why take the boring route and use instructions when you can go on the adventure of figuring it out yourself? I’m so good at it that I usually have several parts left over.

We all have that independent streak in us, don’t we? Our country was founded on the principle that no one can tell us what to do, especially some stuffy monarch from across the pond. We are who we are today because of our obsession with independence. But it has a dark underside, as Lightning McQueen learns. There’s a reason Three Dog Night sang, “One is the loneliest number.” McQueen’s stubbornness and refusal to ask others for help gets him into trouble and leaves him alone in his quest to become the champ. At one point, McQueen is offered twenty free tickets for the final race to give away to his friends, and he can’t name a single person to share them with.

On his way to the big race in California, McQueen falls asleep and gets lost, ending up in the little run-down desert town of Radiator Springs. Radiator Springs used to be a popular stop along Route 66 for tourists, but once the new highway was built, everyone focused on getting somewhere on time, not having a good time, so Radiator Springs is struggling to survive. In his effort to get back on track, McQueen tears up the town’s road, and is arrested and sentenced to rebuild the road before he is allowed to leave for California.

Since McQueen is stuck in Radiator Springs, he’s forced to spend time with the local town cars, and he slowly starts to realize the value of spending time with people, not just using them as a means to an end. He goes on a leisurely drive with a girl named Sally and spends quality time pulling pranks with a tow truck named Mater. McQueen’s vroom-vroom has been turned into a ho-hum and he starts to see the benefit of slowing down every once in a while. Is McQueen getting an oil change for his soul? By the time he finishes the road and leaves for California, not only has his tired been rotated, but so has his perspective on life.

McQueen makes it to California just in time for the final race against the King, the good guy, and Chip Hicks, the bad guy. But when the race starts, McQueen realizes he’s missing one very important thing: a pit crew. He’s been so independent that he’s forgotten to ask people for help. That’s when he looks over and sees the gang from Radiator Springs has made the trip to California to be his pit crew and cheer him on. Their presence inspires McQueen to do his best and win the coveted championship and the new sponsorship. With them helping him out, McQueen will be more famous than ever. Kachow!

Except…he doesn’t win. Chip Hicks, the low-down nasty cheat, crosses the finish line first. Wait! I thought this was a Disney movie. The good guys always win is a Disney movie!  On the final lap of the race, Hicks causes the King to crash. McQueen, who’s about to cross the finish line in first place, looks back and sees the King in a pile of metal, unable to finish his final race. So, McQueen stops inches from the finish line and goes back to get the King. While Hicks is crossing the finish line to win, McQueen helps the King back onto his tires and carries him to the checkered flag so that the King can end his career in style. McQueen finishes in last place.

Is this the same Lightning McQueen who ran off all his friends because he was so hungry for fame and fortune? Jesus says, “What good is if it a person gains the whole world but lose their soul?” That’s a question McQueen was forced to wrestle with during his time in Radiator Springs. What good is it to win if you don’t have anyone with whom to celebrate? During his exile in the wilderness of Radiator Springs, McQueen learned that some things in life are more important than winning. Or, maybe a better way to say it is that there are other ways to win than crossing the finish line first.

In speaking about topsy-turvy world of faith, Jesus said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Even though Chip Hicks came in first, it was Lightning McQueen who won by sacrificing himself, by giving up what he wanted to help someone else. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down their life for a friend.” I always thought that line from Jesus meant a person had to die for someone else to be a good friend. But to lay down your life simply means to put aside your own needs to help another person, just as the folks in Radiator Springs did for McQueen, and just as McQueen did with the King.

McQueen had to overcome one of the biggest challenges for anyone, human or car: our inherent selfishness. Every single one of us, to our core, puts ourselves first. That’s not a judgment; that’s human nature. Our vocabulary reflects that. We don’t have words like “otherishness” or “other-defense” or “other-centered.” But we often speak of “selfishness,” “self-defense,” and “self-centered.” I believe selfishness is at the root of all other sins, because we tell ourselves that we’re more important than others, that we don’t need others.

And those others include God. Pastor Will Willamon said this: “We are reasonable well-fixed, fairly well-off, mostly successful in getting the things we want, and we are surprised there is anything, including our situation with God, that is not the result of our own doing. We don’t need God; we can solve most of our problems ourselves.” Sounds like Lightning McQueen, doesn’t it? Does that also describe you? Have you relegated God to the “man upstairs” so you can do your own thing downstairs? Is God a convenience for you, or a necessity?

There are plenty of examples if the Bible of people putting themselves first – Adam and Eve disobeying God, the building of the tower of Babel, Jesus’ disciples asking to sit next to him in Heaven. We’re just not good at putting others first, at “otherishness,” even when God is the Other. Like McQueen stuck in Radiator Springs, sometimes it takes getting a little lost to truly find ourselves, and what we find is that our self is most valuable when it is inextricably linked to others and to God. There’s a reason our vision statement at Crestwood is “connecting people to God and each other.” We have to be intentional about making those connections.

In the end, McQueen gives up his goal of being famous. Because of his heroic actions in saving the King, he’s still offered the lucrative sponsorship, but turns it down to stay with his original sponsor, who stuck with him during the tough times. McQueen moves his headquarters to Radiator Springs, which transforms the town into a major tourist attraction once again. Turns out getting lost was the best thing that ever happened to Lightning McQueen.

Maybe it’s time for you to get lost. Please don’t take that personally. What I mean is that maybe it’s time for you to set aside whatever goal is driving you forward, commanding all your focus and attention. Maybe it’s time to get lost for a bit, lost in prayer, lost in nature, lost in a good conversation over a steaming cup of coffee. Maybe it’s time to get lost in helping someone else, in hearing their story, in feeling their pain. Is there someone around you who needs help in crossing their finish line? What are you willing to give up for yourself in order to help them?

Jesus says in Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Say it again, Jesus, because we need to hear it. Today. And tomorrow. And the next day. There are more ways to win in life than being first. There is love, the kind of love that causes someone to lay down their lives for someone else, just as McQueen did for the King, just as Jesus did for us, just as we are called to do for others. Kachow indeed!

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The Gospel According to Pixar Sermon Series: Toy Story

Today, we start our summer sermon series called “The Gospel According to Pixar.” These movies are a part of our cultural vocabulary and have themes that resonate with both kids and adults. I hope you will hear God’s word for you through these movies and sermons.

SCRIPTURE – Ephesians 1:3-10 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ[b] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,[c] having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this[d] is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

SERMON
The Gospel According to Pixar
Toy Story
June 11, 2017

In 1989, Disney came out with a brand-new animated movie based upon a Danish fairy tale about a mermaid who trades her voice so she can have human legs and marry her prince. Do you remember “The Little Mermaid?” I fell in love with Ariel. I knew all the words to all the songs. I would drag my four-year-old sister to the theater so that I didn’t seem like that creepy college guy at a kids’ movie. “Kory, do we have to see ‘The Little Mermaid’ again? This is the third time this week.” “Yes! Now be quiet and eat your popcorn. The movie is starting. And give me back my Ariel doll.”

Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated with animated movies, especially the ones from Pixar studios, which is owned by Disney. They have this amazing ability to weave together a kid-friendly story, an appealing visual aesthetic, and a great marketing campaign, with complex adult themes that are poignant, moving, and sometimes fairly heavy. And they ARE heavy, right? For example, have you noticed that in almost every Disney movie a parent is either missing, dead, or dies during the movie? I still think I’m scarred from Mufasa’s death in “The Lion King.” Warning: I have cried during every Pixar movie, sometimes more than once, including last night, and will probably cry several times during this sermon series. Disney’s movies, especially the computer-animated ones that have been produced by Pixar studios, have touched us and become a part of our culture vocabulary. If I say “Hakuna,” you say…(Mattata). For many of us, these movies are a part of who we are.

So…what does this have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? You might think, “not much,” but hear me out. I believe God speaks to us in a variety of ways, including scripture, prayer, and other people. But is it possible that God could also speak to us through a wooden cowboy toy, a neurotic clownfish, or furry monster? I believe there are themes in these Pixar movies that not only speak to us as human beings full of emotions, but also as people of faith struggling to figure out how to be followers of Christ in this complex world. These movies may not be explicitly Christian, but they are certainly spiritual.

Today, we start our summer sermon series called, “The Gospel According to Pixar.” Each Sunday, we’ll be looking at one of the Pixar movies and exploring the faith-related themes of characters and storyline. On the Saturday night before, we’ll be showing the movie in our Children’s Wing. But don’t worry if you don’t get to watch it, or even if you’ve never seen any of the movies we’ll be discussing. We will give you a thorough plot summary of each movie so that you’re up to speed with us, and I believe you’ll find that these themes are universal.

We’ll start with the very first Pixar full-length feature, released in 1995. “Toy Story” was the first completely computer-generated animated movie, garnered three Academy Award nominations, and made more than $373 million worldwide. It spawned two sequels that were even more successful, and “Toy Story 4” is slated for release in 2019. Not bad for a movie about a bunch of talking toys, right?

“Toy Story” centers around Woody, an old pull-string cowboy, the favorite toy of a little boy named Andy. When Andy leaves the room or goes to sleep, Woody and all the other toys come to life, including a T-Rex, a Mr. Potato Head, a platoon of green army men, and a bunch of others. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, going with him on trips and sleeping in Andy’s bed at night. He even has Andy’s name written in permanent marker on the bottom of his shoe. On Andy’s birthday, the toys nervously listen in as Andy opens his presents, hoping they don’t get replaced by something new and shinier (except for Mr. Potato Head, who wishes for a Mrs. Potato Head).

Andy’s big present is a game-changer: a state-of-the-art spaceman with flashing lasers and plastic wings named Buzz Lightyear. Buzz immediately threatens Woody’s leadership of the toys. He’s cooler, he has more gadgets, and he can fly. Woody has serious laser envy. Suddenly, Woody has competition as Andy’s favorite toy.

Can you relate? Do you remember the good ol’ days when everything was going just the way you wanted and you were at the top of your game? I can remember a time when I was introduced as the “young” minister at Crestwood. No one introduces me that way anymore. Times are changing, a lot faster than we want, and with it, the nature of our roles and existence change. We’re no longer young. We’re no longer full of potential. Our drawstrings start to frazzle, our joints start to creak, and we’re no longer the “young” minister, or we’re no longer a parent of little kids, or we’re no longer employed, or we’re no longer healthy. Like Woody, we know what it’s like to have life change and feel left behind.

Woody struggles because he no longer feels like he’s important. Andy has a new favorite toy. Woody gets so jealous that he pushes Buzz out of a window to try and get rid of him. Jealousy is a nasty animal. It can make us act in ways that go against who God created us to be. It’s so easy to look around and see people who are wealthier, healthier, better looking, more successful, people who have it all together. What does that do to our self-worth? The less we think of ourselves, the less we think God thinks of us.

If Woody is suffering from a lack of self-worth, Buzz has the opposite problem. He actually thinks he’s a real spaceman, sent to earth to fight the evil emperor Zurg. Despite Woody’s efforts to show Buzz he’s just a toy, Buzz carries this inflated sense of himself. He thinks he’s more important than Woody and the other toys because he has the cool lasers and the wings and the spaceship.

While they have completely different views of themselves, both Buzzy and Woody have fallen prey to the lie that they are defined by external circumstances. We do the same, don’t we? What do we let define us? We are defined by our jobs, our bodies, our families, our intellect, our GPA, our health, our usefulness. And if any of those things make us feel worthless, then we think if we can just improve one of those qualities, it will make us more intrinsically valuable as a person. If I can just change something on the outside, it will make me better inside.

I’m not a great golfer. I’ve never been and I’ll never be. But that doesn’t stop me from buying new golf balls, or new golf clubs, or trying a new swing. I got new irons a couple weeks ago, and you know what I can do now? I can hit the ball even further into the woods than before.  If I can just change this, buy that, then I’ll be a better person, a more desirable person, a more attractive person. It’s a crisis of identity, a forgetting of who we are. Woody thinks he’s no longer worthy to be Andy’s favorite toy, and Buzz thinks he’s too good to be just another toy. Are you not good enough for others? Or are you too good to need others? My guess is most of us fall on one side or another of that divide, sometimes switching sides in the course of a day, depending on a well-placed compliment or an ill-timed criticism.

Woody and Buzz’s roles reverse in one of the pivotal moments of the movie. The two have been captured by Sid, the neighborhood boy who likes to torture toys. While in captivity, Buzz sees a TV commercial advertising a new toy…called Buzz Lightyear. And he realizes that Woody is right. Buzz doesn’t have any special powers. His laser is just blinking light. He’s spaceship is made of cardboard. He’s just a toy. And because of that, Buzz now thinks he’s worthless. Guess who comes to his rescue?

Buzz says, “I can’t help anyone… I’m not a Space Ranger. I’m just a toy. A stupid, little, insignificant toy.”

Woody replies, “Whoa, hey, wait a minute. Being a toy is a lot better than being a Space Ranger.”

“Yeah right,” Buzz says.

“No, it is. Over in that house is a kid who thinks you’re the greatest. And it’s not because you’re a Space Ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy. You are his toy.”

Both Buzz and Woody have let their importance be defined by their usefulness, their attractiveness. But the lesson the both learn is that it doesn’t matter how important you are; it only matters how important you are to someone. Woody reminds Buzz that Andy, that little boy, loves them so much that he has claimed them as his own. At that moment, Buzz lifts up his foot and sees Andy’s name written there, just like on Woody’s. His confidence is restored and he and Woody defeat the evil Sid and rescue the other toys.

Do you have those moments where you feel worthless? Like you can’t do anything right? Like nobody cares? Did you know you have someone’s name written on you? It’s not on the bottom of your shoe. It’s in your heart. God has written God’s name on you, permanently marking you as God’s favorite person. You are THAT important. If God has a wallet, your picture is in it. If God has a phone, your photo is on the screen. If God has a refrigerator, your drawing is hanging on it. You are that important to God. God loves you to infinity and beyond. You are God’s favorite.

A few years back, Molly was a part of a large group of elementary kids who sang the national anthem at a Legends game. There were probably 50 kids on the field. But when they started singing, I swore I could hear Molly’s voice over all the others. When Sydney graduated a few weeks ago, even though there were 500 kids in blue robes in Rupp Arena, she seemed to stand a bit taller than everyone else. Have you ever looked at something your child or grandchild or relative has done and said, “That’s my boy! That’s my girl!” That’s what God says about you.

If we let the world define us, if we let others define us, then we are never enough. But, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians, “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” God chose us! There’s a great scene in the movie where Buzz gets trapped in one of those arcade claw machines, surrounded by a bunch of green three-eyed alien toys. Each time the claw descends, the aliens hope that they are the ones who will be chosen. Well, guess what? Like that claw, God has descended to us, in the form of Jesus Christ. And he didn’t choose just one of us. Ephesians says, “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” He didn’t come down and choose one of us, the best of us, the most attractive of us, the most useful of us. God chose all of us. All of us. That includes you.

Our purpose in life is not to be important. Our purpose is to remember we are important.  That’s what Christ reminds us from the cross. We’re so important that Christ died to show us the profound depth of God’s love for us. And because of that, who we are is enough. Just as Woody helped Buzz realize his importance, we are called to do the same for others. Because God has chosen all of us, God has written God’s name on all our hearts. You are God’s favorite.

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This Week’s Sermon – Going Up!

Happy Ascension Sunday, everyone!

SCRIPTURE – Acts 1:1-14 –

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying[a] with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of[c] James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

SERMON
Going Up!
Acts 1:1-14
May 28, 2017

I hope you all are having a good Memorial Day weekend. A lot of us look forward to this holiday because it marks the end of school and the beginning of summer. And who doesn’t like a Monday off? But I’m sure we also are aware of the meaning of Memorial Day, when we remember all of those who’ve gone before us, especially the service men and women of our armed forces. We are free to celebrate this holiday because they sacrificed to make us free, and we give thanks for them this weekend.

This year, this weekend also coincides with another holiday. You probably know the word “holiday” is a contraction of the words “holy day,” and the other holiday observed this weekend is more of a holy day. So what you are you big plans to celebration Ascension Sunday? Did you put up your Ascension Day tree? Are you exchanging Ascension Day presents? I thought Ascension Day was primarily a Catholic celebration, but I was talking to someone who attends a Catholic church about this last night, and she said, “What’s an Ascension?” Culturally, this story doesn’t have the commercial appeal of Christmas or the resurrection joy of Easter, but in the grand scheme of God’s work in this world, what we observe on this Sunday is just as important.
Ascension Sunday falls six weeks after Easter and one week before Pentecost, which is next week. Before we get there, we first must tie up the loose ends in Jesus’ story, like the fact that he’s been resurrected and is walking around making appearances. Now what? Is he just going to keep doing this forever? Two thousand years after the first Easter, would Jesus still be walking the earth, popping up here and there? “Honey, you’ll never guess who I ran into at Target today. Risen Jesus!” Probably not. So we have this story at the beginning of Acts about Jesus’ ascension, which sets the stage for the disciples to take up the torch and continue God’s work.

I think I know why we don’t really celebrate Ascension Sunday. It’s because what is acknowledged on Ascension Sunday is the fact that Jesus left us; it’s the day the present Lord became absent. Who wants to celebrate being left behind? Do we really need a day commemorating Christ’s absence from us? We get too many reminders of that on regular days, divorce days, diagnosis days, death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts days, that God doesn’t always feel as close to us as we would like. We want him around, popping up here and there when we need him. We know all too well what it feels like when Jesus is absent from us. Today reminds us he’s gone, he’s no longer with us, and that’s not something to celebrate.

Celebrating Jesus’ absence is one of the many paradoxes of faith. A paradox is defined as “a statement that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” That pretty much sums up our entire belief system, doesn’t it? Think how absurd this gathering must look to outsiders. We come together week after week with no intention of doing anything productive. The main leaders put on a dress – even the guys! – we sit and face a huge instrument of torture, we close our eyes and talk as if there’s someone there. We eat a small piece of bread and drink a thimble of grape juice and claim it’s some dead guy’s body and blood. We declare things we can’t prove and make promises we don’t always keep to a God we can’t see. Does that sound a bit absurd?

But remember the other part of the definition of paradox: “a statement that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” A possible truth. Can we say a definitive truth? Not definitively. But I’m willing to stake my life on the possibility that God is real. I believe what I know about God is true, and one of the reasons I believe that is because of what happens on Ascension Sunday.

What the book of Acts does, particularly these first 14 verses, is it completes Jesus’ story and fulfills God’s promises. It reminds us that what God begins, God completes. What God promises, God fulfills. This episode brings closure to the story of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, and prepares the way for the fulfilling of the next promise. Jesus says in John’s gospel, “If you love me you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth.” That’s what happens on Pentecost.

But we’re not there yet. We only have to wait seven days, but the disciples had to wait 40. Forty days in between Jesus ascending and the Holy Spirit coming. The old saying goes, “What goes up must come down,” but it usually doesn’t take 40 days. No wonder they stood there looking up at the sky! I would, too. Ever since the Ascension we’ve been looking up, waiting for a glimpse of God, waiting for Jesus to return and set things right. We’re living in what theologian Karl Barth called “the significant pause,” the time in between Jesus’ first and second coming, the time where we wait with expectant hope for God to do what God has promised. And until then, we stand with the disciples, looking up and wondering and asking, “Now what?”

Now what, indeed. I’ve heard that question asked many times. Now what? The person I thought would always be around is no longer around. Now what? That security I thought I would always have is gone. Now what? The child I thought would always need me is off on their own. Now what? Sometimes the God who used to feel so close now feels so far away, as far as heaven is from earth. And we’re left behind to ask, “Now what?”

God heard the disciples’ hearts crying out that question, because God provides an answer in the form of two angels, who offer a gentle reproof: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?” In other words, “Don’t just stand there; do something!” Jesus spent three years doing ministry among these disciples, teaching them and listening to them and forgiving them and empowering them. He has been preparing them for this moment, when the reins of this fledgling religious group would be handed over to them. It’s time to stop looking up and start looking around. As I heard one pastor say it, “Don’t look for Jesus in the heights; look for him in the depths.” The depths of human life, the deep, dark places in the world, that’s where the disciples will now find him.

So as we sit here this morning, experiencing the paradox of Sunday worship, I wonder if we are guilty of the same neck-craning as the disciples. “Why are you looking up to heaven?” Sounds like a weird question to ask in a church, of all places. And don’t get me wrong. Heaven is wonderful. We need Heaven, there’s a need for the holiness and hope that Heaven provides for us. We need to know that there’s something more beyond our mortal life. But the big problem with looking up to Heaven is that you can’t see the person next to you. Are we looking up instead of looking around? Do we think God can only be found up there? Are we looking to the heights instead of the depths?

If we are, that’s OK. I believe all of us go through times when that’s all we can do, simply be here with our craned necks and our quizzical looks and our hope in a possible truth. The reality of life is that there will be times when Christ feels absent, when we live in the “significant pause” between Christ’s appearances here on earth. Unlike the disciples, we don’t have the benefit of three years of teaching from Jesus. If the disciples just saw the guy, and were standing around looking at the sky, what chance do we have of seeing him, of feeling his presence?

As I was researching this sermon, I came across a painting of the Ascension. In it, Jesus is about three stories up and the disciples are all staring at him. And I saw the most peculiar thing in this painting. On the ground, where Jesus was just standing moments before, are a set of footprints, a reminder that Jesus was here, that his body was real, that it took up space on this earth. Jesus left footprints here.

We don’t have the benefit of seeing the real Jesus here on earth or watching him ascend to the heavens. But we have something else. We have this church. We have God’s word. We have the bread and the cup. We have each other. He is physically gone, so we are now his body, called to be real, called to make footprints in his name, to leave tangible evidence that the body of Christ is here, now, in this place. Remember, right before the divine elevator started going up, Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses to you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That includes Lexington, right? That means we have work to do. But if the extent of our faith – our scripture reading, our praying, our talking about justice and inclusion and being Christ-like – if all that starts and ends here, we’re just looking up.

I believe we are called to come here and look up so that we can go out there and look around. We come here each week to listen and to sing and to taste, to be reminded of who we are and who we’re called to be so we can go out and live that call. We come here to pray so we can go out there and witness. There’s nothing wrong with looking up, with seeking God’s face and waiting with hope for the promise of Heaven. But if we only look up, if we don’t then live out what we believe is true, we’re missing the presence of Christ that’s already here, in our midst.

The answer to “now what” – in our faith and in our culture – is the church, reaching out to comfort the afflicted, to be a companion to the lonely, to confront evil, to speak a word of truth, to leave footprints in his name. Pastor Barbara Brown Taylor says about this story, “It’s almost as if Jesus had not ascended but exploded, so that all of the holiness that was once concentrated in him alone flew everywhere, so that the seeds of heaven were sown over the fields of the earth.” The Ascension isn’t a story about Christ’s absence. It’s a story about Christ’s presence with us in all times and all places, including right here, right now. Christ is here. Is Christ also out there? Let’s go see if we can find him. And where we don’t find him, let’s be him to others.

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This Week’s Sermon – Living Like Rock Stars

SCRIPTURE – 1 Peter 2:1-10 – Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built[a]into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him[b] will not be put to shame.”

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the very head of the corner,”

and

“A stone that makes them stumble,
    and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,[c] in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 Once you were not a people,
    but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
    but now you have received mercy.

SERMON
Living Like Rock Stars
1 Peter 2:1-10
May 14, 2017

            Let me tell you about the last time I preached on this passage. It was July 19, 2009, and I was standing in this very spot preaching my audition sermon to the congregation at Crestwood Christian Church. The following Sunday, the church would decide – based on this one sermon – whether or not they wanted to call me as their next senior pastor. No pressure! True story: while I waited in the hotel lobby to be picked up that morning, a button fell off my dress shirt. I knew I shouldn’t have had that second bagel! The hotel clerk got a needle and thread and talked me through sewing the button back on like she was talking me through landing a 747 jetliner with a blown engine. Thankfully, the button stayed on.

In that July 2009 sermon, I talked about my very first visit to Crestwood earlier that year, when Wayne Shaver, the search chair, sneaked me into the church so I could check it out. We had to crawl through a couple air ducts and hide behind a plant or two, but we made it.

The first thing I did was stand in the pulpit. It was the Sunday after Easter, which may explain why when I got to the pulpit, I found…rabbit droppings. Wayne explained to me those weren’t real; they were actually the choir’s droppings – wait, there’s got to be a better way to say that. Wayne explained to me those were fake rabbit droppings left by the choir for the minister. I had two thoughts simultaneously: (1) What kind of people does this church let into their choir? and (2) this is my kind of church! Apparently, I didn’t screw up too badly, because here I am. Incidentally, that sermon was called, “Who Are You?”

Have we answered that question yet? I’m still asking that about the choir, but it’s more like, “Who ARE you?” We’ve certainly gotten to know each other better over this past seven-plus years, but I don’t think that we can fully say we know each other. That’s because we are constantly changing, learning, growing, so that there’s not a static answer to that question. Each time we are together, we are getting a better sense of who we are, as individuals and as a community of faith, be we are also constantly in the process of becoming.

The audience to whom Peter was writing was undergoing the same kind of transformation and were struggling with the question, “Who are we?” The readers would have been made up of new believers, both Jews and Gentiles, who had given their life to following Jesus, who they believed was the Messiah sent from God. During this period in history – probably around the 60s or 70s – Christ followers would have been in the extreme minority, and would have been facing intense pressure to give up their belief in Jesus and return to their native religions. So, Peter writes this letter to encourage them to stay strong in the face of persecution, because through their suffering they are participating in the suffering Jesus went through for their sakes. In other words, this letter is Peter’s “Hang in there!” to his readers.

One of the ways he does this is by reminding them of who they are. They are no longer Jews or Gentiles. They are not just a collection of individuals. They are not religious fanatics. Through their faith in Jesus, they have become something more than they’ve ever been, and it’s that knowledge that should strengthen them in the face of the challenges they are enduring. Peter says, “Who are you? You are Christians.”

Peter chooses an interesting metaphor to make his point: “As you come to him, the living Stone, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” Comparing believers to stones would have been familiar to Peter. When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter answered, “You are the Christ,” and Jesus responded, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” So, Peter, the original rock star, was now tell his congregation that they were also rock stars, something they shouldn’t take for granite. Get it?

Living stones. Quite an oxymoron, isn’t it? Like “heated igloo” or “safe bungee jump” or “funny preacher.” We shouldn’t be surprised Peter uses such a self-contradicting term, because the Bible is overflowing with them. After all, faith itself is an oxymoron, because the author of Hebrews says faith is believing in things you can’t see. Crucified savior. The least shall be greatest, the last shall be first. Living stones. In this topsy-turvy world of faith, we are walking, talking oxymorons, living stones built together into this spiritual house.

“Built together,” Peter says. That goes against the individuality our culture encourages us to pursue. So, the tension between who we’re told to be by the world and who Peter says we are creates another oxymoron for us that I talked about last week: an individual Christian. Peter would say there’s no such thing. Last week, Jesus reminded us that sheep belong in a flock. Today, Peter implies that you can’t do much with just one stone. Actually, you can do some destructive things with it. Break out a window. Dent a car. Put a lump on the head of a pun-loving minister. But if you take a group of individual stones and put them together, you can do something constructive, like build a bridge or a house or a church. We are called to be living stones, submitting our lives to God so that God can use us to build something greater than we could have ever imagined – a spiritual house, a bridge from “on earth” to “as it is in Heaven.” Each one of us has our place in that building process, and it is so much a part of our DNA that it should be ingrained in every aspect of our lives, including the way we talk about ourselves and answer the question, “Who are you?” How does this fact that we are living stones impact how we define ourselves?

When I served in Chicago, one of the first things I had to do was teach my church how people in God’s country talk. First, I had to teach them how to say “Louisville.” Then I had to teach them that, where I was from, there’s no such thing as a singular second-person pronoun. We don’t say “you.” We say “y’all.” Now, this is not just about dialect or colloquialism; this is highly theological. In this way of thinking, there’s no such thing as an individual. Even one person is “y’all.” Everyone is an individual in the midst of a community, one important part of the collective spiritual house God is creating with us and through us.

So based on Peter’s definition, maybe instead of asking each other, “Who are you?” I should ask a different question: “Who is God building y’all to be?” How closely are we coming to resembling a spiritual house, a holy place where individual stones can find their place in God’s kingdom? Do people see in us the handiwork of the Great Architect? Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines.” Are we planting vines to cover up the work of God in our lives, or are we living our lives in such a way that the Great Architect is visible for all to see?

God’s work should be visible in us, because, as Peter reminds us, we are more than a random grouping of people who happened to end up at Crestwood on a Sunday morning. Remember, his original readers would have been struggling with their new-found Christian identity, and would have been hearing from other people that they were wrong, they were misled, they were stupid for believing in Jesus. Peter counters be reminding them – and us – that they are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Really? Does he know who he’s talking about? I could see saying that about some of the giants of faith…but me? Us? A royal priesthood? A holy nation?

Such lofty words should make us think twice. Do we act in such a way to deserve such titles? Do we treat others as if we have been chosen by God? Do we make decisions that project our holiness? As living stones, are we building something or are we just lying around, waiting to be put to use? Remember, you are a rock star. You are a living stone. You are the church. The church is y’all. Where you go, the church goes. If you think and act one way on Sunday, and then go into a different mode on Monday, you’re planting thick, choking vines that are covering up God’s love in you.

That love is not earned or deserved, but it is given to us nonetheless. You are who you are because of what God has done for you. For once we were a not a people. Once we had not received mercy. Once we were in the darkness. And then God did something else with a stone – he rolled it away from a tomb, and out walked our hope, our light, our new life. We have been given this amazing, undeserved gift in Jesus Christ. That gift is for you. That gift is for me. It’s not our gift to hoard; it’s our gift to share.

This is not the church. This is a building made of lifeless bricks and mortar. People are not going to come to this church because of the beautiful grounds or the amazing architecture or the spacious Mission Center. They are going to come here because they’ve been watching you and they see something there, something they want to know more about. They’ve seen what is being built here, and they want to contribute their stone to this spiritual house. They want to be a part of something bigger than they are, they want to make a difference. And your call as the church is to make room for them, to find a place for their stone in this house, to help them connect to God and to each other.

Who are you? I know who you are. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. You are the church. Never ever underestimate how God is working through you where you each and every day. You are living stones, built together into a spiritual house. You are the church. Not just right now, not just today. At work, at home, in the community, every day, you are chosen by God. You are part of the royal priesthood. You are holy. You are rock stars! You are the church.

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This Week’s Sermon – Feeling Sheepish

SCRIPTURE – John 10:11-18 – “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes[a] it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

SERMON
Feeling Sheepish
John 10:11-18
May 7, 2017

Have you ever been around sheep? This past summer, when my family and I traveled to Ireland, we spent some time on a working sheep farm. We got a chance to see how the shepherd’s collie managed the herd, we got to watch one of the sheep being sheared, and Molly even got to feed one of the lambs. It was a fascinating experience, and I came away with two distinct conclusions about sheep: (1) they are loud, and (2) they are stupid.

It’s a scientific fact that sheep are not the smartest animals in the world. A farmer once said that God created sheep to make chickens look smart. And yet, sheep are one of the most prevalent animals in the Bible. Think of the 23rd Psalm we read and how it employs this imagery. And then the passage from John where Jesus compares himself to a shepherd. So let me get this straight. Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” There’s only one conclusion we can draw from this, and you’re not going to like it: We’re sheep. No less authority than the Bible compares us to these slobbering, smelly, noisy animals. That’s not how I like to think of myself, although those adjectives probably are more fitting than I care to admit. But the Bible’s pretty clear on this one: we’re sheep, and we are called to follow the shepherd.

So, do we? One of our Sermon Talkback folks told the story of a friend of hers who owned sheep. This person usually had a dog herd the sheep where the needed to go, but one day she decided to do it herself. She was moving the sheep from one field to another, so she opened the gate between the two fields and waited for the sheep to walk through. Instead, the sheep just stood there, not moving an inch, not making any effort to go to the other field. I bet chickens would have ran right through that gate! Are we like those sheep when it comes to our faith? We need a shepherd to lead us or we’ll end up standing around in one place rather than making progress in our walk of faith.

In our passage from John’s gospel today, Jesus reminds us that he is the shepherd, and we are the sheep. It’s a reminder we constantly need to hear, not necessarily to emphasize the point that we are sheep, but instead to emphasize the point that we are NOT the shepherd. We are sheep, so we are NOT the smartest person in the room, no matter what room we’re in, because God is in that room, too. We may feel like we’ve got everything together, like we have this faith thing all figured out, that our wool is the shiniest or our “Baa!” is the prettiest, but we are still sheep. We need a shepherd to follow.

That idea doesn’t sit too well in our world today. Being a follower isn’t a sought-after, glamorous position. You know the saying about a dog sled team: If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes. In our world there is an overwhelming focus on the art of leadership and an underwhelming focus on the practice of followership. How many times have you been offered the opportunity to participate in a seminar on how to be a good follower? How many books have you read lately on how to follow an effective leader? Nobody dreams big dreams about being a follower. Nobody wants to grow up to be a sheep.

I get it. It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to simply be part of the flock, does it? Who wants to be just go along with the crowd? This country was built on the foundation of rugged individualism and not doing what the King told us to do, and that mindset is still prevalent today. Just about every TV commercial we see tells us that if we want to be unique, we should join the millions of other people who use this product. In a world of billions of people, someone has tried to sell us on the supremacy of individuality, and we’ve bought it. But as we’ve seen, scripture is clear: we are called, not to be the shepherd, but to follow the Good Shepherd, to be part of the flock.

There’s another reason Jesus advises us about the importance of entrusting ourselves to the Good Shepherd. Jesus warns about the dangers of the wolf, who “snatches and scatters” the sheep. That takes on a new meaning for us in our world today, which enables us to be scattered in a couple of different ways. We are scattered internally as our attention is pulled in a thousand different directions and we lose our ability to focus and prioritize. And we’re scattered externally, not bound together by a sense of community or commonality, but divided along political and cultural lines. The wolf has done effective work in our midst, because we are scattered. We need a shepherd.

So what does it mean to be sheep, to faithfully follow our Good Shepherd instead of standing around in one place? There are three things I take away from this passage about being a sheep. First, we need to be aware of the Shepherd’s presence. Our passage talks about how the sheep will know the voice of the shepherd. That’s curious, because when we talk about being aware of God’s presence, we tend to use sight rather than sound as a metaphor for knowing God. We talk about seeing God around us, looking for God’s presence, watching for signs of God’s work. But what if God is more auditory than visual? What if God is better heard than seen? Would we know the sound of God’s voice?

One of the founders of our denomination, Alexander Campbell, talked about the need for a Christian to come within “understanding distance” of the Bible in order to build and maintain a relationship with God. I think we need to come within “recognizing distance” of God’s voice in order to know when God is speaking to us. Are we putting ourselves in places and situations to hear and know God’s voice? In worship, in prayer, in the Bible, in the company of trusted friends. The Good Shepherd is constantly speaking to us. Would we recognize his voice if we heard it? Are we even listening?

There’s a big difference between hearing and listening. Because our ears don’t have mudflaps or earlids, we can’t control all the sound that goes in them. We hear all kinds of stuff every day, whether we want to or not. But we listen for the things we want to hear. Listening implies intent, like paying attention to the words of a song or a baby’s coo. The sheep listen for the sound of the shepherd’s voice. Are you hoping to hear God’s voice, or are you listening for it?

Along with hearing the shepherd’s voice, we also have to respond to the shepherd’s leading. It’s interesting to note an important difference between cows and sheep. If you want a cow to go somewhere, you lead it from the front. But if you want to guide sheep, you herd them. Sheep are meant to be herded from behind. Our dog, Sadie, is part Australian shepherd, and she is constantly trying to herd our other dog, Jack, who then looks at us like, “Did you really have to get a second dog? Was I not good enough?” Sheep are led from behind.

That’s fascinating to consider when you think about God as our shepherd. So often we look for God out ahead of us, showing us the way, sending flashing neon arrows to guide us. And when we don’t see that, we’re disappointed. “Where is God?” Maybe, instead of in front of us, God is behind us, nudging us, encouraging us. Maybe God’s method of leading us isn’t to show us the right decision to make, but rather to encourage us to use the gifts we have – our conscience, our hearts, our brains – to make the decision we feel is best, and then to walk alongside us into that decision. We expect God to lead us like cows – “God, show me what to do” – when the Good Shepherd is saying, “Do what you think is best – that’s why I gave you free will in the first place.” Often times, people will pray, “God, show me the perfect job” or “Bring me the perfect partner.” Maybe God’s role isn’t to make the decision for us, but to empower us to decide for ourselves. I believe God isn’t concerned whether we make this decision or that decision. I believe God wants us to be faithful to and glorify God, no matter what choice we make. Because God will be with us in any decision we make.

So, we have to be aware of the Shepherd’s voice and respond to the Shepherd’s leading from behind. Finally, I hear Jesus in the passage saying that, if we want to be good sheep, we have to be part of the flock. We have to be with other sheep. No matter how smelly they might be, no matter how much noise they sometimes make, no matter if they have a little wool or a lot of wool or no wool at all, community is essential to our survival. If a sheep became isolated, it was vulnerable to attack because it wasn’t protected by the flock. There’s no such thing as a solitary sheep, and there’s no such thing as an individual Christian. We are not religious individuals who happen to be members of a particular community; we are a community first, knit together by our faith and God’s grace. The community is the means of receiving that grace for each of us. This is where we tune our ears to God’s frequency, this is where we listen for God’s voice and learn to follow. Would this place hold the same meaning for us if we each had our own individual worship services? As sheep, we must be part of the flock, which means putting ourselves with our fellow sheep on a regular basis by worshipping together and serving together and just being together. Remember the Cheers television theme? “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name; and they’re always glad you came.” Shame on us if those words are a better description of a bar than a church.

We are called to know each other, because we are all a part of the same flock, under the care of the same shepherd. More sheep are coming through the gates; Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them in also.” And when he herds them into here, we must welcome them by name and make space for them in our pen. We must help them listen for the voice of the shepherd and show them what it means to follow.

We are the sheep, called to be part of the flock and follow the master’s voice. We are sheep. Can I get a “B-a-a?” The Lord is our shepherd, and he is a good shepherd, someone who cares enough to protect us when we are in need and loving enough to find us when we are lost. Thank you, God, for that! May we strive every day to be God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture.

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Easter 2017 Sermon – Whom Are You Looking For?

SCRIPTURE – John 1:1-18 – Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b] “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

SERMON
Whom Are You Looking For?
John 20:1-18
April 16, 2017 – Easter Sunday
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

He is risen! (He is risen, indeed!) That’s all I’ve got (act like I’m sitting down, dialogue with Trish, who encourages me to keep preaching). Ok, ok, I AM a preacher, and it IS Easter Sunday, so I guess I should keep talking. But I’m not sure what else to say. Is there anything to add to “He is risen” that will give it any more power? Maybe a better question is, “Is there anything I can add to ‘He is risen’ that would make it actually make sense?” No way. But we’re all here, in God’s house, so I trust God has something to say to us, either through me or in spite of me. And we want you to know, whether you’ve been with us for the last 51 Sundays or not since last Easter or not at all, we’re really glad you are here.

But not everyone is here. This is the biggest day for church attendance all year and the second-biggest Sunday for prayer behind the Sunday before UK plays for the national championship, and yet there are still folks who stayed home. Maybe they feel church doesn’t have anything to offer them, that the story we just read doesn’t apply to them, and that the God we claim to worship isn’t interested in them. Maybe you feel that way sometimes, too. Maybe they don’t believe in God because they think God is behind all the bad things that are happening in the world right now. That’s OK, I don’t believe in that God, either.

But you are here, so I’m going to assume you have a good reason for being here. Maybe you’re here because, well, it’s Easter and you’re supposed to go to church on Easter. Maybe you’re here because you know that if you skipped church today, Granny would climb out of her grave and whack you with her cane. Maybe you’re here because this was a requirement in order to get an extra piece of pie at the big meal later. There are lots of reasons for being here today.

I wonder if there’s a deeper reason you’re here, a reason that compelled you to come. The question I have for you is the same question Jesus asks Mary in our reading today: “Whom are you looking for?” As an aside, can I admit that I get a little giddy when Jesus uses proper grammar? “Whom.” That’s a savior after my own heart. I bet he also was a stickler for the Oxford comma. But, I digress. You came here today for some reason. Whom are you looking for?

That’s the question Jesus asks Mary in the garden. We know whom Mary was looking for, because she answers: she’s looking for Dead Jesus. That’s the only rational, logical answer to that question. She looked into the tomb, she saw the body was missing, she knows people don’t actually come back to life once they’ve been crucified, so there’s only one thing Mary could possibly be looking for: Dead Jesus. There is no multiple choice here. It’s the only answer. But what she found wasn’t what she was expecting.

What would you do if you woke up one morning, and what you expected to be there wasn’t there? When I was in seminary in Indianapolis, Leigh and I lived close to a not-so-nice part of town. That never bothered me until one morning when I walked out to my car. I went to unlock it and saw that the lock had been popped out of the door. Uh-oh. As a seminary student my first thought was, “I hope they didn’t steal my theology textbooks!” Thankfully, my car wasn’t broken into by Billy Graham because my textbooks were still there, but my car stereo and CDs were missing. That’s not how I expected my morning to start. If you’ve ever had something stolen from you, you know the feeling of expecting one thing, but instead finding something very different.

Mary had something stolen from her. She was expecting to find Dead Jesus; she wasn’t expecting Easter. Are we expecting Easter? I don’t mean on our calendars, because that’s a given. We may not know how to figure out what day it falls on each year, but we do know it’s going to happen. Happens every year. This is my 46th Easter, so I think I’ve got it pretty much down pat by now. I imagine you have, as well. It’s almost old news, isn’t it? We’ve heard it so many times that we probably don’t even really hear it anymore. We hear, “Early in the morning on the first day of the week…” and we start thinking about Easter dinner. I’m saying, “And then she turned around and saw Jesus standing there…” and you’re thinking, “I wonder if we’re having corn pudding and mashed potatoes?”

Really, why listen? Don’t we know this story? Hasn’t this story been retold in a million ways? TV news specials and popular books and magazine covers. Do I know the Easter story? Of course I do! I’ve watched “The Passion of the Christ.” I own the soundtrack to “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I know this story. I know what to expect on Easter. Stone rolled away. Empty tomb. I wonder if we’ll have ham or turkey? Strips of linen. Angels in white. Is Kory done talking yet? Risen Jesus. Yawn. Another Easter.

The problem is if we think we know this story, if we’ve experienced it more than a few times, if we don’t come here looking for someone, we run the risk of thinking that tomorrow is going to be like yesterday. And we run the risk of leaving this place today the same person we were when we came in. We have the perspective of 2000 years of knowledge, history, and tradition. Has that dulled our appreciation of the magnitude of this day? Do we respond to the empty tomb with indifference and detachment? Another Easter.

But could there be more to this day than what we know? The one thing I do know about the Easter story is that I don’t know anything about the Easter story, even after hearing it 46 times, because Jesus has this pesky knack for not letting himself be pinned down and pigeonholed. If Jesus can escape from a sealed-up tomb, then Jesus can also escape from our pre-conceived notions of who we think he is. The question is, are we going to insist he be the Jesus we’re expecting, or are we going to open ourselves to experiencing Easter in a new way? Are we willing to look for him again this year?

Do you remember chasing lightning bugs when you were a kid? It was one of my favorite summertime activities. Once it got dark, we’d go stand in the yard and wait to see that little flash of light. Then we’d run to the spot where we saw it, but it then it would appear in another part of the yard. So we’d run over there and wait for the flash of light again and repeat this process until we finally were able to catch one.

Keeping up with Jesus is like chasing a lightning bug. You see a flash of light at the empty tomb, so you come here today to see Jesus. But then the light flashes in a locked room full of scared disciples, or on the road to Emmaus, or on a beach where the disciples are fishing. And each time that light flashes, it’s Easter all over again. That doesn’t just happen once a year; that happens every day…if we are looking for it. We can be standing in a yard filled with lightning bugs and never see one of them if we’re not looking. That doesn’t mean their lights are flashing all around us; it just means we’re too preoccupied to notice.

I believe, if we’re willing to admit it, that each one of us are here because we’re looking for something. We may not even be able to put a name to it, but I can. We’re looking for resurrection. Something in us has died this past year – a dream of a better job, a hope for restored health, the strength to face a challenge in front of us, the desire for a restored relationship, the longing for a deeper faith. There is heartache in every pew this morning. Something in our lives has died. Have we come here today expecting those things to stay dead? Or are we expecting God to do something new?

Every Easter there’s something within us that needs to be resurrected. That’s not going to happen if we keep looking for Jesus, the a historical figure locked away in a 2000-year-old story that we think we know so well. What if God has something new to say to you today, something about rolled-away stones and empty tombs and resurrections? What if Christ really is alive today? Are you willing to chase the light of Jesus into the future God has for you? It might lead to places you don’t expect – into a new job, a new relationship, a new leadership role…or back here to church next week. Are you willing to follow that light, to see what new life God has for you, or would you rather keep looking for the Jesus of the past?

You know, I thought I knew what to expect today. I expected to see lots of people and to sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” After all, I know what this day is like. Another Easter. But then I heard this story, old but somehow new, about an empty tomb and a garden encounter, and I realized: nothing will ever be the same. God is going to do something new. Something that I thought was dead is going to be resurrected. A new Easter! He is risen, indeed! When I came here today, I was expecting it would be Easter, but I wasn’t expecting resurrection. Are you?

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Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series – Who Do You Say That I Am?

SCRIPTURE – Mark 8:27-33 –

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

SERMON
Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series
Who Do You Say That I Am?
Mark 8:27-33

“Were your ears burning?” When someone asks you that question, you know what it means. Someone has been talking about you. Whenever someone asks me that, I cringe a little bit. You mean, someone has been talking about me? Without me being there? What were they saying? I guess if it were bad, the person wouldn’t ask you about your ears, because they wouldn’t want you to know that people were talking about you. Wait a minute…does that mean when someone DOESN’T ask you if your ears were burning, they’ve been talking about you but don’t want you to know it? Should we start every conversation with, “So, you didn’t ask if my ears have been burning. What exactly have you been saying about me?”

In our passage today, Jesus wants to know what people are saying about him, but that’s just a precursor to a deeper question that we are all challenged to answer. Today, we continue our sermon series on the questions Jesus asks in the gospels. So far, none of them have been ice-breakers or conversation starters. No “how about this weather?” or “did you see that game last night?” Jesus has a way of cutting right to the chase.

In today’s story, Jesus asks two questions, both of which reveal much about how his earthly ministry has been perceived. At the end of a flurry of activity, Jesus decides to take his disciples on a road trip, away from the demands of the crowds and his day-to-day ministry. The place where Jesus and his disciples retreat is a peculiar choice. The name of the city was originally Banian, named after the Roman god Pan. The city was in the domain of Herod Phillip, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth. In order to get on the emperor’s good side and proclaim his own sovereignty, Phillip changed the name of the city to Caesarea Phillipi. The city was well-known for its pagan worship, and was dominated by an enormous temple dedicated to Caesar, as well as several smaller temples dedicated to other gods. This was as far away from Jerusalem as you could get and still be in Israel.

Why would Jesus want to come here to get away? It’s like someone who hates seafood having lunch at Red Lobster.  This is hostile territory for Jesus and his followers. Well, one of the benefits is that Jesus was pretty much assured of not being recognized or bothered. He was far from the center of Jewish activity, so there was little chance of him being stopped on the street corner or followed by a large crowd, which has happened repeatedly in Mark’s gospel.

There was a deeper reason for Jesus bringing his disciples here. They were surrounded by all sorts of statues and monuments and temples dedicated to pagan gods. In the midst of this cultural conglomeration of false religions, with idols all around looking down on them, Jesus asks the disciples to stand up and make a statement of faith. All of these false gods promise prosperity and bumper crops. Following Jesus will bring trials and suffering. To whom do the disciples pledge their allegiance?

But before he asks the real question, he wants a sampling from the grapevine. So he takes his own Gallup survey: “You fellas have been out among the people. You’ve heard the talk on the street corner. My ears have been burning. What are you picking up? What’s being said about me?” The disciples report that Jesus has a favorable rating in the polls. While we don’t necessarily believe people come back from the dead (unless you count zombies and Elvis), back then it was a common belief. So some thought he was the recently beheaded John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for the true Messiah. Some thought he was Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet, returned from the dead to pronounce the return of the Messiah. All of these speculations pay great respect and tribute to Jesus, because it means they saw him as a great man and forerunner of the Messiah, God’s anointed one who will rescue the Jews from Roman oppression. The disciples lay out the facts of what people are saying.

But Jesus wants more than facts from them. They’ve been with him for three years now, following him around, watching his ministry, experiencing the kingdom of God through his teachings and miracles. Jesus is now ready to ask the real question: Do the disciples get it, or are they still the Duh-ciples? Do they understand him? Do they know who he really is? So he looks them in the eye, and he says, “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” They could no longer report what others were saying. They had to say it for themselves.

Have you ever had to say for yourself what you believed about Jesus? It’s hard to be put on the spot like that. Disciples pastor Fred Craddock says that, “you don’t know what you believe until you hear yourself say it.” I spent four years in seminary with my nose buried in books, studying all about this kind of thing, but one of the hardest questions I faced when I interviewed at my first church was, “Share with us your belief in the one God and your acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” Uh…um…well. How would you answer that? Who do you say he is?

Peter, never a person to miss an opportunity to open mouth and insert foot, pipes right up to provide an answer. “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” He’s the first human being in the gospel to say who Jesus really is (a few demons had already identified him as the Son of God). Finally, after eight chapters, someone gets it. Jesus must have thought the same thing, because he follows up Peter’s declaration with a statement about what’s going to happen next. Now that the disciples are finally clear-headed about who Jesus is, he wants to let them know how God’s plan will be carried out. Jesus will suffer, be rejected by the Jewish leaders, be killed, and then rise again.

And they still don’t get it. Just when Jesus thought he gotten through, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him for this downer of a prediction. At this point, Jesus must be looking for a brick wall to bang his head against. The verb for “rebuke” conveys a sense of superiority, as if Peter had the right to tell Jesus what God’s mission really was. “You’re the Messiah, you can’t die! If you die, the bad guys win.” Notice Peter doesn’t seem to get the last part of the prediction about Jesus rising again. That seems like a kind of important part of the plan, but Peter can’t get past the first line: “The Son of Man must undergo much suffering.”

Why does Peter respond so sternly to Jesus? Because that’s not how it’s supposed to happen! The prophets said the Messiah would come in glory, bringing with him victory over the oppressors and the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth. The Messiah would be a conquering hero, vanquishing the Romans and re-establishing David’s reign. It’s the same assumption the Palm Sunday crowd makes. They think Jesus is coming to open up a can of you-know-what on the Romans. The Messiah suffering and dying? Are you kidding me? The Christ, by definition, is a winner, and yet what Jesus has just told Peter is the exact opposite. So just as the crowd will later call for Jesus’ death, Peter rebukes Jesus, completely missing who he really is.

Not that we do any better, you know. It’s really easy to latch onto the Jesus who does miracles and heals people and says really wise things, but not so easy to understand the Jesus of the cross. Jesus’ message is so easily misunderstood, which is why in Mark’s gospel he constantly tells people not to talk about him. He didn’t want folks getting the wrong idea about who he was. Depending on which parts of the gospels you read, and which parts you choose to believe, Jesus could be a revolutionary, a nonviolent teacher, a charismatic healer, a Galilean holy man, a fervent prophet, a nice guy, a peasant leader, or a wandering Cynic. In the gospels, he is all of these things, and at various times in our lives, we need him to be these things. But he is also more than these things.

Peter almost got that, but in the end, he tries to define the Messiah in terms that best suit him. What he didn’t realize is that as soon as you call someone “Messiah,” you give up the right to define what that means. Confessing faith in the son of God automatically assumes that we relinquish faith in all the other gods around us clamoring for our time and attention. As Peter learned, when talking about Jesus, we have to do more than just get his title right. We have to be willing to follow him.

Maybe that’s what truly tripped up Peter. When Jesus starts to predict all that’s going to happen to him, perhaps Peter realized that to follow Jesus not only means following him to Galilee and Tyre and Sidon and Caesarea Phillipi, it also means following him to Jerusalem, where he will be accused of blasphemy; and following him to the Upper Room, where he will talk about his broken body and spilled blood; and following him to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will be betrayed and arrested; and following him to Pilate’s house, where he will be tried and convicted; and following him to Golgotha, where he will be crucified. It’s easy to follow a Messiah who’s a winner, but not this Messiah. I believe to maintain our integrity when we profess the name of Jesus Christ, we must be consistent in following him, regardless of where that leads us in our lives.

That’s hard work, and it may lead us to some places we’d rather not go. Maybe it leads us to the hospital room of a dying congregation member, as we provide comfort to them. Maybe it leads us to a meeting where we help a ministry team as it carries out its plans. Maybe it leads us to a Sunday school classroom as we help the children of Crestwood take their next step of faith. Maybe it leads us to a soup kitchen, or a women’s shelter, or the steps of the Capitol, or an English as a Second Language classroom. If we really believe Jesus is the Messiah, if we are going to speak his name, we have to be prepared to follow him, no matter where it leads.

Who do you say I am? That’s not a question we can only answer once in our lives. It’s not even a question we should only answer each time we join a church. I believe it’s a question we have to answer every day. Can we stand up amidst the foreign gods all around us and confess our faith? I admit that there are days when I don’t want to follow Jesus. It would be a lot easier to do my own thing, and sometimes I do. But each new day is another opportunity to answer the question. “Who do you say I am?” A teacher? A prophet? A nice guy? A figurehead? Or is he something more? You are the Messiah, the Christ, the son of God. I hope for us that’s more than just a title. I hope it has an impact on how we live our lives, on the choices we make, on the way we decide what gets our time and attention and money. If someone were to observe your life for one day, would they know at the end how you would answer the question? What about you? Who do you say he is?

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