Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sunday Sermon: Manchester, Memorial Day & the Ascension

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA
May 28, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

You rejoice in Christ your savior.  We rejoice in Christ while we gather and lament.  Though even as we lament, we rejoice in the glory that is to come from our savior who reigns in heaven and on earth.

You saw this week the power that sin has in the world.  It seems that sin and hate have become an epidemic, but then our nation is no stranger to sin and hate.  We have had our own experiences, many of them internal fights.  History reminds us of the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, Civil Rights March, Desegregation of Schools, Vietnam protests, Oklahoma City Bombing.  Moments that make us say woe and remind us of the power of sin.  And we realize, you realize, that Manchester is not alone.

Photos and video images pull on our heartstrings.  I saw video footage from Manchester this week.  I usually don’t look, but I watched the evening news on Tuesday night and so I saw footage from a parking garage of the flash and the sound of the explosion.  I saw people climbing over railings rushing to get out and first responders doing triage.  Then a few pictures of victims identified and the sadness and anger of grief began for people I never met.  

Earlier in the day, Tuesday, while driving to a Legacy Board retreat, I heard them talk about how popular this concert was with young girls, how parents were waiting outside to meet their daughters.  Another reminder that children are vulnerable.  It made me think of Oklahoma City where the rental truck was parked by the building’s day care.  This all made me think of the Church’s Festival of the Holy Innocents. 

The Festival of the Holy Innocents occurs on December 28.  It remembers the young boys killed by Herod around Bethlehem because they happened to be born close to when Jesus was born.  These boys weren’t Christian, may not have even been Jewish.  May have been born to pagan families, and yet the church remembers them as martyrs of the faith.  The festival serves the church as a Memorial Day in our conflict with sin and power and hate.

My reflection on the Holy Innocents continued as I started reflecting on our scripture for this Sunday.  1 Peter, our second lesson, also happens to be the second lesson for the Festival in December.  Three verses for this Sunday overlap with three verses on December 28.  They read:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.”  1 Peter 4: 12-14
God knows that sin tests us.  God created a perfect garden where sin had no power over humans, but man and woman chose something different.  They chose poorly.  And sin tested them, and sin has tested every generation since then, and sin tests us as well.  And as sin tests us, God grieves.  

I suppose I accept this suffering that we have to endure—Christ’s sufferings that we share—but I know that I do not rejoice in it.  Though to be clear, the scripture calls on us to rejoice in the sharing, not rejoice in the suffering.  That we can come here and lament together, there is kernel of love in our gathering for that purpose that is worth celebrating.  If nothing else on this memorial day weekend, I want you to hear that distinction to rejoice not in the suffering, but in the sharing—in the sharing of the cross.

We do not rejoice in the suffering.  In fact, we take stands against the suffering against the sin and the hate.  We take a stand against the fiery ordeal that takes place amongst us and tests us.  And as we take these stands, God stands with us.  We teach that murder is sin.  That hate is sin.  We teach that evil exists and that hating someone because of what they believe, or hating someone because of what they do not believe is also wrong and sinful.  And I believe and have said this before that Jesus’ teachings clearly shows us that a lack of compassion is the worst of sins.  

While we do not rejoice in the suffering, we recognize the beauty of coming together around the cross as we lament and grieve and we share that grief with one another.  We know that some have already, if not forgotten about Manchester, moved it to the back burner of their consciousness.  Others still feel helpless about it.  Others feel sadness or anger as I mention it.  Also, this is Memorial Day Weekend, a time when we remember other wars that our nation has fought.  And a time when people often decorate graves of those they have loved and lost. 

[And that love,] love is what we want to have power over us.  That love leads this congregation to say (as our mission statement) that “The Holy Spirit leads Christ Lutheran to love and serve all.”  We love, because with some people love comes easy to us. And (we love) because Christ taught us to love even when it does not come easy to us—to love those who are difficult to love.  Those folks are included in the love and serve all statement.

Interesting story, the heroes of Manchester are two homeless men who had hunkered down in the railway station for the evening, to get some sleep.  When the bomb went off the instinct is to run off, run away, but then both Stephen Jones and Chris Parker turned and ran into the chaos.  They wiped blood away from faces, they pulled shrapnel off of wounds and covered wounds with souvenir t-shirts that lay on the ground.  They reassured people until help arrived, even held a women while she died.
Jones said, “Just because I am homeless doesn’t mean I haven’t got a heart, or I’m not human still,” he told ITV News. “I’d like to think someone would come and help me if I needed the help.”  Since Monday, the people of England have responded to help the two of them as well as the families of those killed and injured.

The cost of love is grief, but we do not, none of us grieve alone.  And in the midst of lament and grief, we gather together and remind one another of the victory won for us by Christ our savior.  With the victory comes the freedom to love and the freedom to gather and the freedom to hope.  We remind one another that between dying and ascending to heaven, Jesus returned to us on earth and not only spoke of his power over death, he promised that we shall not be alone, and that Christ shall come again and reveal his glory in full and bring us together into that glory.

This is Memorial Day weekend, a three day holiday that marks the start of summer.  A weekend that has the joy of children at the end of school, the gathering of communities and picnics and commemorations.  [A weekend set aside] when we remember those who responded to the call to serve, and tend to the graves of those who have died before us, even if they did not serve in the military.   A weekend with a full spectrum of emotions and love.

We share this weekend together, with both its pains and its joys because we are community.  Despite sin in the world, we know the power of love in our community is strong and in that we rejoice.  And we know that the victory won by Jesus has power to make love stronger than death.  In this we rejoice fully and we praise the risen Christ together with heart and soul and voice.  


Monday, May 22, 2017

Sunday Sermon: Connect to the Father's Love

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA
May 21, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  John 14: 15-21

I have three points for today.

I will remind you what the word agape means.  

I want you to know that you are not orphaned.  

And I want you to see how Christ reveals the Father’s love.  

This all comes to you today from the very last verse of the Gospel lesson:  “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”  (John 14:21)

You hear in that passage of scripture four times variations on the verb to love.  The word in Greek is variations on the word agape—one of the Greek words for loveAgape means selfless love, community love, and unconditional love.  The Biblical Greek language has two other words we understand as “love” besides agapePhilos which means brotherly love.  You could think of Philadelphia which means city of brotherly love, a city named by William Penn, a Christian and a member of The Society of Friends.  The third Greek word for love, besides agape and philos, is eros, which people often think of as romantic love, or emotional love.    

You may have heard about agape before today. To help further reflect on the word I have a definition from Christianity Today magazine:  “Agape is “deliberate and unconditional love that is the result of choices and behaviors rather than feelings and emotions.  [In that regard] Agape love is about the values we embrace as a way of life, and [our] determination to behave in a certain way that stems from our regard for other human beings, regardless of how we may feel about them.”  

It sounds unromantic to think about love as a deliberate choice, but that of course is an important point.  Agape is not romantic love, Agape is not being swept off your feet.  Also, I must say, Agape does not mean you treat everyone the same.  You can treat everyone the same and still be a jerk or still be aloof.  Agape/love is about treating people with compassionate values.  

Agape is being gracious to those who may not deserve it.  Being gracious to all, even telemarketers when you mistakenly pick up the phone.  That meaning of Agape guides the rest of our reflection this morning.

“They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me;

Love is actually the only thing the Jesus commands in the Gospel of John.  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  (John 13:34)

Jesus gives other commands elsewhere in other gospels.  For example “you are to love your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and your neighbor as yourself,” comes from Matthew 22 and Mark 12. The same is true about “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and unto the lord the things that are the Lords.”  (Also Matthew 22 and Mark 12)  Also not John.  Even the commands of Jesus on which we base the sacraments—“Go and Baptize” along with “Do this in remembrance of me”— are not found in John.  

Now, there might be a command in the foot washing event.  That seems to depend on the translation.  If you wanted to argue that as another command in the Gospel of John, I would not argue against you.  And at the end of John, Jesus commands Peter to feed my sheep and many have embraced this instruction of Jesus.  But the formula in John 13 is distinct, I give you a new command.  You are to love others as I have loved you.”  In the gospel of John, Love, agape, is both the central command as well as our central connection to the Father.

Our second is another observation from our scripture this morning.  There are people out there who still feel orphaned from God.  Orphaned, fatherless.  Detached.  Some of them depressed.  Some of them not.  I do not want you feeling orphaned from the Father.

I thought of that as I was reading verse from Jesus.  “I will not leave you orphaned.  I will come to you.”  Jesus said that and today he says that to you.  “I will not leave you orphaned.  I will come to you.”

You and I seek out and watch for that which makes God real in our lives.  And the realness of God is more than the reality of God.  We believe!  It is not a question about whether or not God exists.  but where is that which makes God real in your life rather than some far out entity that watches from a distance, or a far out entity that doesn’t even watch.  You look and search for that which makes you feel connected, connected to God, and reminders of Christ’s promise to come to you.  And those reminders, and that connection brings you in to the realness of the love of God.  Many of you practice daily devotions.  In that act of stopping and reading scripture and praying, you feel connected to God.  You feel not orphaned.  

Orphaned.  I will not leave you orphaned as spoken by Jesus, what does that mean.  It means that Jesus connects us, connects you, to the Father’s love.  And Jesus says that quite plainly in the last verse.  “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”  To feel orphaned is to feel disconnected from the love of the Father. 

Third, in my own reflection and devotion, especially around preaching, I have focused on revelation lately—the revelation of God to us.  I do not want you feeling orphaned.  I do not want you feeling disconnected or detached from God.  I want you to be able to see reminders of Jesus promise that “I will come to you” and to share these reminders with other people.

How does Jesus connect you to the Father?  Through word, through meal, through prayers answered and compassion given, By sending the Holy Spirit to you.  Christ in many ways connects you to the heavenly Father.  Most of all, however, by dying and rising again.

You see and know of course, agape is costly, Love is generous, love/agape is sacrificial.  Love is frightening.  In Jesus act of cross and tomb once and for all Jesus reveals His and His Father’s agape truly, and for all the world, and for you.  We celebrate that moment of cross and tomb as if it happened just last month.  

Through our actions today, we make Jesus’ victory timeless and for everyone throughout time.  We gather today in worship as an act of agape for the whole world so they to might know of Jesus death for them, and our victory over the grave. Amen

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sunday Sermon: Good bye and Hello

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA
May 14, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  Acts 7: 55-60 John 14: 1-14

“Good bye.”  

Jesus says “good bye” to his followers in this Gospel reading today.  Actually, in the flow of John’s gospel, he says “good bye” as he approaches Jerusalem and approaches  the final week of …. Well, the final week that leads to the crucifixion.  Which has a sense of finality to it, even though we know otherwise.  This has a “good bye” with a glorious “hello” three days later.

Good bye can be like that.  Sometimes in hindsight “good bye” seems ominous, final, and other times “good bye” is a common salutation, that often means, “‘till I see you again,”  even though it has a sense of finality to it.  Truly there are many ways we say “good bye” to one another.  Farewell and Godspeed, so long, ciao, sayonara, Shalom, Aloha.  All ways of saying “good bye” in different places at different times.  

You probably do not remember the first time you left your mother to go to school.  Your mother may or may not have taken a picture of it.  That moment has a sense of good bye to it.  It ends a phase of childhood, but it also begins a new phase of life.

Or how about that first good bye when you took off with the keys to the car.  A transition of independence for your mother to get use to.  

The Good bye as you leave after getting married, or go to college.  A “good bye” said after visiting for a week.  [You know] Not every good bye is final. 

We call this scripture passage Jesus’ farewell address—this speech in John that occurs before Jesus enter Jerusalem for the final time, for the most important time.  And we read it this week just a little bit before we celebrate the ascension of Jesus.  The feast of the Ascension takes place always on a Thursday—May 25th this year.  Some congregations will acknowledge the Ascension next Sunday and other congregations, including us here at Christ, will celebrate the Ascension readings in two weeks.  

We read this passage this week before the ascension to know that even as Jesus says “good bye,” his going prepares for another “hello.”  He goes to prepare a place for us.  He goes a way that we will one day travel and he intends to be there ahead of us.

Good byes and hellos have a way of balancing themselves out.  A child leaves in the morning for school and you say “good bye.”  A child returns home at the end of the school day a little bit wiser and you say “hello.”  A teenager leaves with the keys to the car, and you have taught them to be safe, to buckle up, to drive on the right side of the street.  We get a little more nervous with this good bye, and yet thousands of times that “good bye drive safe” is balanced out with “I’m home” and “hello” and a hug. 

A daughter gets married.  That “good bye” is balanced out with a “hello” to a new son.  Or vice versa if a son gets married. Either way you have “good bye” and “hello” in a beautiful movement of life and love.

Nine years ago, you sort of said “good bye” to the C____ family.  They moved to the other side of the sate..  Now many of you heard but lets make sure you all know, the family returns to the area.  We look forward to saying “hello” again to them.  Hello and good bye do indeed balance out.

Jesus says “farewell,” “I am going,” “Good bye.”  But he also assures us that he will see us again.  That he will see you again.  Jesus reassures us that this “good bye” is balanced out with a future “hello.”  And the “Hello!” that he anticipates includes not just himself but his Father, Our Heavenly Father, as well.  I guess that would be more than balanced out.  Our Heavenly Father’s “Hello!” would be shared with trumpets heralding and angels singing. Glorious!

I know today is a day that can run the gamut of emotions.  That some of you have buried mothers and that some of you have buried children.  And those “good byes” seem fresh today.  Others however, still live in the joy of active parenthood.  And you have plans today to celebrate with families and grow the relationships with another set of “hellos.” 

To all of these emotions, Jesus gives the image of home and being welcomed and having a place.  A stable place, a peaceful place, in the presence of the divine and with Christ.  An eternal and everlasting “Hello!”  God grants a final hello that has no good bye to balance it out. 

So on behalf of God and Christ today, I say to you “Hello and welcome.  I am glad you are here.  I am glad you are safe.  You belong in this house and with these people.  Hello.”


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sunday Sermon: Revelation of Christ

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton, VA April 30, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  Acts 2: 14a, 36-41     Luke 24: 13-35

Sadly, many people believe that God has stopped revealing himself to the world.  We have this wonderful, mystical experience in scripture today of Jesus walking on the road to Emmaus with two of his followers.  But some view this piece of scripture as an antiquated story of how it use to be with Jesus. 

Too often, way too often, we approach this story from Emmaus as a historical moment.  One of a handful of post resurrection appearance stories captured by scripture.  Actually, each of the last three weeks, we have had one of those amazing stories placed before us.

First, two weeks ago, Jesus appears to the women at the empty tomb.  They touch his feet and worship him; and he instructs them to go tell his followers that he will meet them in Galilee.

Last week you heard the story from John of the upper room.  One week Thomas missed out.  The next week he gathers with them again, and Jesus appears.  To all of these followers, Jesus breathes on them a Spirit of peace.

This week, you hear the story of the Road to Emmaus and two followers that we know little about, neither of them truly apostles.  Jesus appears to them and instructs them and makes himself known in the breaking of bread.  

When you focus on the appearance of Jesus rather than the revelation of Jesus Christ, you sell the story short.  You date the story in the moment of the past.  These stories go beyond simple appearance and begin the process of revelation.  When you hear this story as a story of revelation, then you can hear what Jesus began that continues today.  The many and varied ways that God and Christ Jesus reveals himself to you, to us, and to the world. 

The revelation of Jesus Christ continues in the 21st Century.  Imagine that.  Be amazed by that.  The revelation of Jesus Christ continues in the 21st Century, two thousand years after the resurrection and the ascension.  God continues to reveal—Christ Jesus continues to reveal—himself to you and to the world.

You come and you worship here because you believe that God reveals himself in this space and place and at this time.  As Jesus revealed himself to his followers, you believe that Jesus reveals himself to you.  We believe in that revelation and that revelation inspires people.  (We teach people not to expect the appearance of Christ).  We teach people how to look for the revelation of Christ.  Because the revelation reminds us that (yes) Christ Jesus is in the world.  That (yes) Christ Jesus works in your life.  And that (yes) the world stands better because of Christ’s revelation.  

The church teaches you to listen for the revelation of God in the reading of Holy Scripture.  So when Peter stands up and preaches to the crowd, God also speaks these words to you.  Peter’s words are for you.  “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ to that your sins may be forgiven.”  Don’t stop listening, because Peter is just getting warmed up.  “And you,” he says, “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”  

The words of Peter for you hold in them the revelation of Christ for your life.  You can take the Acts reading from today and mull it over for the week ahead.  Christ gave the gift of the Holy Spirit for you and for your children.  Peter’s words still have meaning today.  Just like Jesus blessing of peace resonated upon you last week.  This is revelation.

The church teaches you to listen for the revelation of God in the words of contemporary voices, from Peter we go to the example Mother Theresa, who said, 

"I see God in every human being.  When I wash the leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself.  Is it not a beautiful experience?"

Though truthfully, when Mother Theresa compares Jesus to a leper, she is not saying anything that Jesus did not already say himself.  “When you do this unto the least of these,” Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and goats, “you do it unto me.”  Her words echo Jesus’ own words of where to look for him.

Even Mahatma Gandhi, although Hindu and not Christian, recognized this same truth.  He said,

"I am endeavouring to see God through service of humanity; for I know that God is neither in heaven, nor down below, but in everyone." 

In light of these quotes, I think about the quilts that the ladies have on display this morning.  And I think of them in this way.  We send those quilts to Jesus who we cannot see, but is revealed to us.  Remember last weeks scripture passage, “bless those who have not seen but yet have come to believe.”  We send those quilts to Jesus who we cannot see.  And people receive those quilts from Jesus who they cannot see.  (Maybe even people who have yet to hear about Christ Jesus.)  In this exchange of quilts, or food, or prayers, we place Jesus in the middle of it.  He is in the midst of humanity even still today.  Revelation.

I have one more revelation of Jesus for today.  Our scripture tells us, “And he made himself known in the breaking of bread.”  Pastor Kate Costa up in Culpepper Virginia had this experience, which she shared with me and others in the synod.  She writes.

“I remember bringing communion once to M____, a woman who had been blind since her early 40's. When I placed the bread in her hand, she made (what I thought was) an unusual request, "Tell me what this Jesus looks like." I awkwardly told her about the bread, dark and crumbly, baked by a member of the congregation, and confessed that it was a bit burnt on one side. She said, "Ah yes, I see him now. Perfect but scarred. I always like to see Jesus so I know what I'm going to become."

And as Pastor Costa concludes she equates this revelation with another appearance.  

“God appeared to her in that very bread. Through that bread, she was becoming perfect even with her scars. She would become Jesus, sent out to serve him in the world. All that she had came from God, and everything she could give back only reflected that grace more. Jesus had appeared to her.… And Jesus has appeared to us.”

Pastor Costa and  M____ share a 21st Century appearance that reassures you that yes those appearances of Jesus still happen.  Yes, Jesus is in the world.  Yes, Jesus Christ works in your life.  Yes, the world stands better because of the revelation of Christ Jesus.  

And Pastor Costa offers this prayer for you.  “God of Grace, you appear to us in the breaking of bread.  Guide us as we lead and serve, so that all we do may give glory to you.”