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.

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,”


“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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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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Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series – How Much Bread Do You Have?

During Lent, we ‘re looking at the questions Jesus asked his followers, and we’re pondering how we would answer them. Today’s question comes from the feeding of the 5,000.

SCRIPTURE – Mark 6:30-44 – The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii[i] worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

Questions Jesus Ask Sermon series
How Much Bread Do You Have?
Mark 6:30-44

I try to be a fairly optimistic person, but there are a few things in life that can bring me down in a heartbeat. Losing a basketball game on a last-second shot is one of those. So is knowing your baseball team is so bad that they have been eliminated from the playoffs before the season even starts. Watching it rain when the forecast called for sunny skies? Major bummer. A trivial thing that really sticks in my craw is when I go to make a sandwich and find all that’s left of the loaf are the heels. I’m all ready for a nice PB&J or a toasty BLT, and all I have to work with are two pieces of edible cardboard. I don’t like not having enough bread.

In our scripture passage today, Jesus has the same dilemma, but something tells me he’s concerned about more than just eating the heels. We continue our sermon series today on the questions that Jesus asked his listeners, and how they responded. So far, we’ve learned that, when Jesus asks a question, there’s usually more to it than what’s on the surface. Simple questions like “What are you looking for?” and “What is your name?” take on a whole new significance when Jesus is the one asking them. The same is true for our question today. Although the version we read has Jesus asking, “How many loaves have you?” that sounds too proper to me. So I’m going with my own version of Jesus’ question: “How much bread do you have?”

This miracle story is probably very familiar to you. It’s often invoked at church potlucks when more people show up than signed up. Someone will ask nervously, “Do we have enough food?” and another person will answer, “Loaves and fish.” Then, everyone nods in knowing agreement. “Yes, loaves and fish.” I’ve never been to a church potluck where we actually ran out of food. God provides. Loaves and fish.

Did you know this is the only miracle that’s told in all four gospels? Each gospel writer tells the story a little differently. For example, John has a young boy provide the loaves and fish for Jesus’ multiplication miracle. And Mark is the only gospel in which Jesus asks this question. But all four tell this story, which, for me, lends to its credibility. If all four tell us about it, then it probably happened.

Let’s the stage. Jesus has just learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been beheaded by King Herod. He and his disciples go to a deserted place to rest and grieve this loss, and to get away from the crowds. Jesus is the only pastor I know who was constantly running away from his congregation. But the crowds are persistent, so they follow them, desperately seeking what Jesus had to offer. Despite his own personal suffering, he continues his teaching into the evening.

Finally, the disciples, who are worn out and weighted down with grief, say to Jesus, “Look, rabbi, you’re a really fantastic public speaker, but it’s getting late and these folks are getting hungry. Maybe it’s time to wrap it up.” Jesus responds, quite obtusely, “Well, you feed them,” to which the disciples understandably respond, “Say what? There’s got to be 5000 guys here, not including the women and children. It would take a year’s salary just to buy them bread.”

That’s why Jesus asks our question: “How much bread do you have? Go and see.” I like how the Message translation says it: “How many loaves of bread do you have? Go and take inventory.” They report back to Jesus they found five loaves and two fish, not nearly enough to feed the crowds.

That’s the answer the disciples gave, but I don’t think it was the answer Jesus was looking for. I don’t think he was looking for an actual number. I believe he was looking for an expression of trust. Instead of, “Five loaves and two fish,” I believe Jesus wanted to hear the disciples say, “Enough, Lord. We have enough.”

But that makes no sense, does it? Because it wasn’t enough. Not even close. Five loaves and two fish wouldn’t feed 50 people, let alone 5000. But the disciples forgot a crucial variable in this mathematical problem. They were trying to do multiplication without the X factor. In most cases, 2 x 2 = 4. But when you toss Jesus into the equation, the numbers don’t add up. Five loaves plus two fish times Jesus equals enough food for an arena of people, with 12 basketfuls left over. Just like a church potluck. “Loaves and fish.” “Yes, loaves and fish.”

It’s easy to blame the disciples for their doubt. Had they forgotten that their God worked with different kind of math? Had they forgotten that God rained manna from Heaven to feed the Israelites in the wilderness? Their God is a god who provides. Of course, that sounds good when you’re reading the story in a book, but it’s a different ballgame when there’s a hungry crowd pressing in and you barely have enough food for a sack lunch. It’s not enough, Jesus. It’s not enough.

We are all guilty of doing what the disciples are doing. They are operating from a theology of scarcity. When you do you this, no matter how much you have, you never think it’s enough. So you hold onto what you have, not sharing it with others, not meeting the needs of those around you. You always worry that you’ll only have the heels of the loaf or that your potluck will run out of food. And even when it doesn’t the first time, the second time, the tenth time, you’re just sure that NEXT time there won’t be enough.
What Jesus is doing with the disciples is teaching them to live with a theology of abundance. When you do this, your life is guided by trust and generosity, because you know that no matter how little you have, it will be enough. Living with a theology of abundance can be scary, but it can also be exhilarating, because it releases us from our dependence on possessions and frees us to add Jesus to the equation. I’ve read about and seen this at work, and it is absolutely one of the most powerful things to behold.

Here’s an example. The story goes that a young nun once had a crazy idea, so she approached her superiors and said, “I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage.” Her superiors scoffed and said, “You can’t build an orphanage with three pennies. You can’t do anything with three pennies.” “I know,” said Mother Teresa with a smile, “but with God and three pennies I can do anything.” That’s living with a theology of abundance.

Even when there is almost nothing to work with, a theology of abundance provides hope. In the movie, “Dumb and Dumber” – bet you didn’t expect to hear that in this morning’s sermon – Lloyd Christmas has a huge crush on Mary Swanson, so he takes a leap of faith and confesses his love to her, and asks what the odds are they can be together. Mary says, “Not good.” Lloyd tentatively asks, “You mean, like one in a hundred.” Mary responds, “More like one in a million.” Lloyd pauses for a second, then his face lights up and he says, “So you’re saying there’s a chance!” That’s living with a theology of abundance.

Last Sunday, one of our youngsters came up to me after church, waited until I had talked to everyone in line, and then handed me an envelope. She said with the most earnest look on her face, “Pastor Kory, please give this to the poor.” Inside the envelope was a crumpled-up dollar bill. Whatever we’re teaching back there in the Children’s Wing, we need to keep it up. That’s living with a theology of abundance.

You know, people have tried to explain away this miracle by saying that it wasn’t really a supernatural multiplication. They say what happened was that when the crowd saw the disciples were willing to share their food, they also took out what they had brought, and when everyone’s food was combined together, there was more than enough to go around. If that is how it actually happened, I would say that it was still a miracle. The fact that people were willing to open their hands and share their only sustenance for the well-being of others is pretty miraculous. It’s a theology of abundance, a belief that whatever we have is enough.

To be honest, I believe that is what actually happened. If Jesus wanted to multiply the loaves and the fish, he could have done it. If Jesus wanted to make the fish jump up and dance the jitterbug, he could have done it. But I believe Jesus didn’t want to just show people a miracle, like they were the audience at a magic show. I believe Jesus wanted to encourage people to participate in the miracle, to leave behind their shackles of “not enough,” to embrace the belief that when Jesus is involved, there’s always enough.

In this scenario, we are called to be part of the miracle, to participate in moving from scarcity to abundance. In order for God’s math to work in our lives, we have to be willing to give some things over. Jesus couldn’t have multiplied the bread and fish had they not been given into his hands to bless, break, and share. The disciples could have hoarded what they had, which would have ensured two things: (1) they would have had something to eat, and (2) no one else would have. I can’t guarantee that God will always fix things the way we want them. But I can guarantee that God can’t work with what we’re not willing to give.

How much bread do you have? Could be a whole pantry full of loaves, or it could just be the heels. I mean, really look around at what you have. Then, do two things: (1) give thanks for it, and (2) figure out how to share it with others. I don’t know how much bread you have, but I bet it’s an abundance. And yet, in this local and global potluck in which we leave, there are people who don’t even have the heels. What are we doing to do it about? Are we going to hold on to what we have? Or are we going to open our hands so it can be, taken, blessed, broken, and shared? Is there enough for everyone? Loaves and fish. Yes, loaves and fish.




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Questions Jesus Asks sermon series – What Is Your Name?

SCRIPTURE – Mark 5:1-20 – They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series
What Is Your Name?
Mark 5:1-13
March 26, 2017

A couple months ago, I told you the story about hearing my named called in a museum and thinking it was God, only to find out it was a mother calling her wayward toddler – also named Kory. I swear not two days after I shared that story, I had another name-calling experience. I walked into the Apple store in the mall, and a young sales associate approached me very enthusiastically and said, “Kory! How are you doing?”

I had no idea who this guy was but I didn’t want to seem rude, so I said with a tone of mock familiarity, “Hey there! Great to see you again. How are you?”

He said, “I’m fine.” Then he paused and said, “Have we met before?”

I said, “Well, I don’t think so.”

And he said, “OK. Because you said ‘Great to see you again” like we’ve met.”

And I said, “Well, you’re the one who called my name!”

And he said, “No I didn’t!”

And I said, “You said, ‘Kory’.”

And he said, “No, that’s MY name. When you walked in, I said, ‘Hi, I’m Kory.’”

And I said, “Well, so am I!”

And then we just stared at each other a few seconds and burst out laughing. And then he gave me a free iPhone because we had the same name. Not really. There’s power in knowing someone’s name or in hearing your name spoken.

We’re continuing our Lenten sermon series today, in which we are looking at the questions Jesus asked during his time on earth. We’re not only considering how his listeners responded, we’re also pondering how we would respond. Today, Jesus’ question seems pretty straightforward – “What is your name?” – but it’s the answer that raises more questions for us.

The story starts with Jesus sailing across the Lake of Galilee to the Gentile region of Gerasenes, where he is confronted by a man who lived in the tombs. In that sliver of information alone there is important symbolism at work that would have influenced how Mark’s readers understood this story. It revolves around the separation of clean and unclean in Jewish society. It may seem trivial to us, but that division was as strong and as intense as the Louisville/Kentucky division that exists in our fair state. I’ll let you decide which is the clean or unclean one for you. Much of the Old Testament law that governed Jewish religious life focuses on issues of what constitutes clean and unclean, and those things and people that were considered unclean were excluded or banned. For example, most things dealing with people who were not Jews were considered unclean. Jesus had just stepped onto pagan soil, across the sea from Jewish territory. Jesus was in unclean land.

And he was met by a man who was the embodiment of being unclean. Nothing in Jewish society was considered more unclean than a dead body. There were strict laws about how to handle a corpse and the kind of intense ritual cleansing that must take place afterwards. So for this man to be living among the tombs in a pagan territory meant that he existed in a constant state of uncleanliness.

Not only does he live in an unclean place, but Luke tells us his body is home to unclean spirits. He confronts Jesus and they have this strange conversation. The demon calls Jesus the Son of the Most High God and begs not to be tortured. Jesus then asks, “What is your name?” and the demon in the man says, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” The Legion begs Jesus once again not to be sent out of the area, and instead asks to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs.

One of the questions I have about this story is to whom Jesus directs the question. The passage leaves it fairly ambiguous. Was he asking the man or the demon that occupied the man? The distinction is important, because who answers determines how this man is defined. Is he defined by who he is, or by the demons that haunt him?

There’s power in speaking our name and having our name spoken, and there’s pain in not having it spoken correctly, or at all. I remember vividly when our oldest daughter Sydney was born. The doctor who was getting ready to deliver her was making small talk while we waited, and she asked us, “So what are you naming the baby?” We told her Sydney, and she scoffed and said, “That’s a terrible name! Everyone will call her Squid!” And I wanted to grab a scalpel and say, “You know, doc, a few minutes before our first child is born may not be the best time to offer your critique.” There’s power in a name.

I wonder if part of this man’s mental struggles is the fact that is probably been years since he’s heard his name spoken out loud. Once he started not fitting in with society, he was ostracized, banished to the tombs to be held in chains. At that point, he was no longer Tom or Sam. He was the crazy guy, the village idiot. Frederick Beuchner wrote, “If someone forgets my name, I feel it is I who am forgotten.” I wonder, when Jesus asks this man for his name, if he even remembers what it is. Or is he only defined by his demons?

It’s interesting to note that after this man his healed and returns to his people, the people are afraid and beg Jesus to leave. Why? Maybe it’s because they’ve never met someone like Jesus, someone with more power than a demon. Demon possession is not a part of our modern society, except in horror movies. Frankly, it’s something we don’t understand, although those of us with children might claim we’ve had some first-hand experience. Yet the Bible is full of talk about supernatural beings like demons and angels. We feel much more comfortable believing in the existence of angels because they seem so benign and non-threatening and fluffy. Angels are safe and good; no one would watch a TV show called “Touched by a Demon.” Demons are scary. We don’t know what to do with them. And so we explain them away as a mental disorder, using our intellect to tell ourselves demons don’t really exist.

And that’s just what the demons want us to think! Are they really real? I don’t know. But I do believe there is evil in this world. I believe there is something at work in each of our lives, trying to distract us from God’s wonder and work, trying to redefine us, to make us forget our name. It could be something internal to us, our own sinful nature, or something external, like an evil force or a demon. I don’t know what it is or how it works, but each time I am tempted to say the wrong thing, to not do the right thing, to not treat another person as my equal, to put myself before God, I know it’s there. Just as it was actively working against Jesus during his ministry, it’s actively working against us today. A writer once said, “We have renamed the demons of the past, but we have not exorcised them.”

Only one person has that power to do that, as we see in this story. Exorcising the man’s demons should have been a cause for celebration, but I think the townspeople were more scared of Jesus’ power than they were of the demoniac. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? But check this out. If Jesus has the power to deal with the crazy man’s demons, he can do the same for them. And they are not sure they want that, because it would mean admitting they had demons and naming them out loud. You know, sometimes it’s better to leave them alone. The people may not be living the perfect life, but at least they’re comfortable in it. They may not have known what to do with the demon-possessed man, but at least they knew where he belonged. As long as the village has a scapegoat, they had someone to whom they could point to make themselves feel better. “Sure, I may be making a few wrong decisions, but at least I’m not as bad as THAT guy.” But what happens when the village idiot turns out to be smarter than you are? What does that make YOU? Now that he was in his right mind, where did that leave the rest of the people?  So they would rather live with their own demons, which they think they can control, and send the power of Jesus back across the lake.

Do you know how they feel? There have been times in my life when I chose to keep Jesus at a distance. His teachings are helpful and instructive when viewed from afar, but we’re not so sure we want to let his power get to close to us. “Jesus, you stay over there on Sunday, I’ll manage things the rest of the week.” Sometimes it’s easier not to have Jesus around, because when he’s around our demons are named for what they truly are. I’m a lot more comfortable dealing with my demons, which I think I can control, than I am dealing with the power of Christ.

To have our demons named for what they are can be scary. We’ve spent a lot of time building up our defenses, fortifying rationalizations for our thoughts and behaviors with statements like, “It’s just a little thing. No one is getting hurt. I can stop at any time. No one else will know. I don’t have to share what I have. She deserves it. At least I’m not as bad as him.” Have you ever said one of these? I’ve said them all at some point in my life. But then Jesus comes along and shines a spotlight on those dark corners of our lives, exposing the tombs where our demons reside. And then he asks, “What is your name?” What happens if we dare name ourselves for who we truly are? Can we face up to the shame, the guilt we feel for not being perfect, for giving in to our temptations, for falling short of who God created us to be?

The reformer Martin Luther had a Latin phrase he used to describe humanity: “simul justus et peccator.” It means, “both saint and sinner.” Each of us has the characteristics of both inside of us. We are possessed by our sinful nature, inherent to humanity, and we are imbued with the image of God. Both saint and sinner. When we think of ourselves, which one comes to mind? Which name feels more descriptive of us: sinner, or saint?

The power of Christ is a transformative power. We may think, because of what we’ve done, that our name is bad: addict, judger, cheater, selfish, unclean, sinner. But Jesus transforms us, exorcising our demons, reminding us of our real name: child of God. You are a saint, a child of God. No matter what you’ve done, no matter how big and bad your demons are, you are a child of God. The power of Christ is a cleansing power. If we dare to throw ourselves at Christ’s feet and ask for the removal of our demons, we will be healed. But first we have to want to be healed: of that negative attitude, of that destructive behavior, of that grudge we hold against someone else. What do we need to throw at Jesus’ feet? What needs to be removed from us in order for us to be clean? Can we name that out loud so that it can be exorcised?

If Jesus has power over the demons in an unclean Gentile territory, he has power everywhere, including in you and in me. And when we let that power work, we become what Jesus commanded the healed man to be. Jesus said to him, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” When we open ourselves to being made clean by Christ, we become a flashing neon billboard that says, “The Lord is at work here.”

Jesus takes flawed people like you and me and turns them into walking miracles to show the world what he can do, because there are so many other people out there who are fighting demons and need to be made clean. In the kingdom of God, everyone is clean. Everyone. A writer once said, “The indisputable proof of Christianity is a re-created person.” Let the power of Christ transform you and make you clean. Then go, show them how much the Lord has done for you. What is your name? Don’t let your demons answer for you. Be who God created you to be.


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