Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
July 28, 2013

Scripture: Luke 11:1-13 and Psalm 85
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Psalm 85

1Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.
3You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.
4Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.
5Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
6Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
7Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.
8Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
9Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
10Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
13Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches – finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God

“Let us Pray…But Why?”

Just over a week ago I got back from our youth mission trip to NYC where our youth and adults spent time feeding the poor and homeless and helping to rebuild after hurricane Sandy. We served meals, we cleaned dishes, we listened to life stories… we pulled out nails, we ripped out door and window frames, we carried away debris, we hauled over 3000 gallons of bottled water… we ate lots of ice cream, we stood in Times Square, we enjoyed great pizza, we lounged in Central Park and we saw a Broadway show.

We experienced a lot during our time in the city, but now, a week later, the piece that lingers most vividly in my heart is our visit to the Brooklyn Tabernacle for worship and Bible Study. Around 1500 people packed into a gilded Broadway theater style sanctuary on a Tuesday night… some grubby from serving all day, some coming straight from work…youth groups from all over the country were there… all sorts of people were welcomed just as they were to gather in that place to sing and learn more about God and our part in God’s story.

For me, most of the service felt very familiar, comfortable and expected. For others in our group the songs and style of the message were both unsettling and inviting at the same time. But the one piece of worship there at the Brooklyn Tabernacle that challenged each and every one of us was their practice of prayer.

Early in the service one of their staff members was invited to come and speak to the congregation about a new mission emphasis taking shape in the congregation. This young woman came and spoke to us about a world-wide epidemic. This epidemic is the abduction of young boys and girls. They are simply gone… vanished… sold into the slavery of objectification and used against their wills by those who are seeking to gratify base desires.

She told us about Moldova, a small country in Eastern Europe, where 300,000 young ones have gone missing. She told us this was a problem right here in NYC and a member from our trip helped us know that this is a problem right here in Ohio. She told us that the Tabernacle’s response to this tragedy was still taking shape, but invited us in the meantime to pray for those 300,000 missing children in Moldova.

At this point the pastor leading the service asked us to stand and turn to our neighbors and get into small groups of two or three, women with women and men with men. He asked us to pray aloud together. He asked the women to pray for those who were missing and the men to pray for the systems that create and perpetuate this problem.

As those in the congregation around us leapt into action, our little row up in the balcony froze. To be fair, another Presbyterian youth group in front of us were also equally frozen. I noticed 11 sets of eyes looking at me, asking, “What do we do?” I turned and started praying with two of our youth. I pray all the time in front of other people…it kinda comes with the territory: I pray in meetings, I pray in worship, I pray in restaurants, but I will admit that I felt awkward in that moment.

On that balcony that night I prayed and I watched as those around us joined hands and started praying, I watched the ease with which they entered into prayer. And then I watched our group and the other youth groups around us as they awkwardly went through the exercise.

Later that night, during our group devotional we talked a lot about that moment and about the purpose of prayer. “Why did we pray for those women?” someone in the group asked. “Why did we pray for the world someone else” asked. “Why did we even pray?” someone else asked. The thought behind those questions: The need was so great, the facts of the situation were so dismal, what possible good could come from prayer?

I don’t share excerpts from these conversations to shame those who were with me in New York, I share them because I think they are all too common. I have had this same conversation with youth and adults of every age in every place I have worked.

This might sound strange to you, but prayer is not an easy thing to do. When you aren’t used to praying all the time, it can feel like you are talking to yourself…You can’t prove someone hears you…most times you can’t see the impact of the prayers you offer; and when you aren’t in the habit it can sometimes…oftentimes feel clumsy, the words don’t flow, it’s easy to feel like you are not doing it right.

I imagine the disciples often felt that way when they were around Jesus. He was always stopping off during their journeys to rest and pray. During his time of prayer the disciples must have somehow noticed the close relationship. Maybe it was his posture, maybe it was the language he used, maybe it was how refreshed and renewed he appeared after he prayed. Whatever it was, the disciples noticed and they wanted to know what it felt like. So one of the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray…to help them get closer to God like he was.

Jesus sees their hearts desire and responds with some simple words to use that should frame their prayer life…the Lord’s Prayer and in typical Jesus fashion a story to go along with it. Prayer, he says, is like a friend knocking on the door at midnight. A friend, traveling by night to avoid the heat of the day, has arrived at your doorstep looking for food and a place to sleep. You didn’t expect anyone at this hour of night and your refrigerator is empty and your cabinets are bare. Of course the Heinens is closed at that hour so your only option is to bother your neighbors and hope they won’t mind.

You knock on the door…it’s dark, there’s a chill in the air. “Who’s there?” asks your annoyed neighbor.

“So sorry to bother you. I am sure you were asleep, but would you mind if I borrow a loaf of bread, some grapes and maybe some juice? A guest has just arrived unexpectedly and I don’t have any food to share with him.” “Are you kidding? Go away and come back in the morning!” comes the reply. If you listen close enough you can hear your neighbor grumbling on his way back to his bed, “can you believe the nerve?”

But you are desperate…your guest has been traveling all night and is starving and you won’t be turned away.

You knock again, louder and more insistent this time. “Please, friend…I really need some bread and juice to share…I won’t forget this favor.” The groaning grows louder as your neighbor comes to the door, you hear the latch turning, the door opening and then you see the food shoved through the doorway.

You didn’t get what you wanted because the person was feeling particularly friendly towards you. You got what you needed because you were persistent, because you wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Jesus’ point in this story seems to be that the secret to prayer is persistence. The prayer doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to be eloquent; you just need to keep talking, to keep asking, to keep lifting before God your heart’s desire.

But why? Why pray? When the world is full of such heartache? Why pray? What good will it do right here and right now to not only talk about it with God, but to KEEP talking about it over and over again? How often do we see our prayers answered when we say “Amen”? The needs of the world and the needs of our lives demand action. Why should we pray?

Pastor and storyteller, Michael Lindvall answers that question for me in one of his stories from his novel Leaving North Haven.

David, the pastor in the story goes to visit Minnie, a 90 year old woman living with Parkinson’s disease. She was recently very ill allowing the parkinson’s to progress rapidly. She is frail and resigned to what lies ahead for her.

David and Minnie begin to talk about prayer after a 10 year old named James tells Minnie that he has asked God to heal Minnie and he is certain that God will answer the prayer because his Sunday School teacher told him that God answers all our prayers. Minnie looks at her pastor and says in a moment of wonderful honesty, “David, the truth is, I hardly know what to pray for anymore. 10 to 12 years ago, when they first said the word, [Parkinson’s] I prayed to be healed. For years, I prayed that God would just take it away. Finally I stopped praying for God to take away the Parkinson’s and started praying bigger prayers. I just tell God what I think and what I feel. I don’t much tell God what to do. I just tell God I’m afraid, afraid for me, afraid for my old fool of a husband. I suppose God knows this already, but my words seem to make it solid”

Together David and Minnie sat in silence and let the words linger in their hearts and then Minnie continued.

“Well, Pastor, don’t worry. This old lady’s prayers have been answered. Not the answers I wanted though. God didn’t take away the Parkinson’s, but God did take away the fear .”

“God didn’t take away the Parkinson’s, but God did take away the fear.”

The power of persistence in prayer. It wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always eloquent, but Minnie prayed and God answered. Minnie prayed and God worked in those prayers to help Minnie see herself in the very arms of God. God worked through those prayers to create space in Minnie’s heart for acceptance and peace.

It wasn’t what Minnie was expecting, but it was what Minnie needed.

Persistent prayer helps us to see. It helps us to see ourselves more clearly and to experience ourselves being held in the very arms of God. We need to pray persistently in the face of the world’s tough problems because the problems are too big for us to see how to respond. We need to pray persistently for the 30,000 missing to be found. We need to pray persistently for the systems of the world to change… we need to pray for the homeless to have shelter…we need to pray for the sick to find healing…we need to pray persistently so that our fear might be replaced with hope, with peace, with the light of God’s love so that we may see how we are part of God’s solution.

We need to pray persistently because when we pray we put ourselves and others into God’s hands.

And when we put these things into God’s hands, we begin to see more clearly how we are connected one to another; we begin to see more clearly how God is shaping us to respond; when we put these things into God’s hands we begin to see more clearly that God’s doors have no locks, that God’s doors are always open to us; we begin to see and understand that God’s doors are not only open for us, but for those for whom we pray.

It is in our prayers that we begin to understand with whom we stand on that threshold. It is in our prayers that our connections grow one to another and with God. It is in our prayers that our fear is replaced with the hope that God is present and God will act to redeem creation. It is in our prayers that we begin to sense how we are called to participate in that work.

Let us pray bigger prayers; prayers filled with what we think and what we feel. Let’s worry less about telling God what to do and instead just hold others before God because the door’s to God’s home have no locks and God is always waiting to hear our needs.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
July 7, 2013

Scripture: Revelation 22:1-5 & Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Podcast: fpcpodcast20130707.mp3

Revelation 22:1-5

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
2through the middle of the street of the city.
On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
3Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;
4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

“Sent Out”

It was May 1995; I was looking forward to turning 21 and to spending the summer in southeast Alaska where I was going to be serving as a volunteer in mission. I was more than a little nervous because I was going to spend the summer traveling from village to village in small groups leading a vacation bible school with the local children.

I flew from Atlanta to Seattle and then from there boarded an Alaska Air flight to Juneau, which would be our home base for the next three months.

When we gathered for the first time in the basement of the local church where we would be sleeping and training there were 8 college aged kids, an adult coordinator and two year-long young adult volunteers.

We spent two weeks in that basement learning the lessons and having conversations about cultural sensitivity. Our little bit of free time was spent hiking the trails around Juneau before enjoying dinners in church members homes.

On Friday morning of the 2nd week we were paired up into teams of two and given tickets for the ferry at which point we repacked our backpacks and boarded the ferry together.

That night, with the sun low in the sky, but never quite gone, the 8 of us pulled out our sleeping bags on the deck of the ferry and gathered around. Our evening devotion that night was our assigned Gospel lesson for today.

Let us listen for God’s word speaking to us this day from:

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into God’s harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.

5Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.

8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

16“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” 17The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.

20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God.

The disciples and Jesus had been very busy. The 12 disciples had just returned from a very similar trip, going out in the name of Jesus to preach and to heal and to cast out demons. They had returned triumphant, feeling empowered and amazed by the works they accomplished. Then with Jesus they managed to feed 5000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and two fish and did many other amazing things. And then Jesus made up his mind to head towards Jerusalem. This was a milestone moment in his ministry and to mark the occasion he decided it was time for another mission for his followers.

This time it wasn’t just the 12 disciples he sent forth. The text tells us he appointed 70 others and sent them ahead of him. He sent them in pairs to engage in ministry in the places he himself intended to visit. Who were these 70 people? Who did Jesus send out ahead of him? Luke doesn’t give us details about their identity. But theologians through the years have helped us remember that the number 70 in scripture has a special significance.

“The number 70 implies all of humanity, as Genesis 10 provides a list of all the nations of the world, numbering 70 .” Meaning that not only is salvation for all of humanity, but that each person is sent out to help others know about God’s grace.

Wait, what? Did Luke just say what I think he said? Did he just throw a HUGE rock into a lake and send ripples out in all directions? Did the work of Christ just shift from Jesus and the disciples to all those who believe in him?

We are the 70…we are the ones Jesus sends out ahead of him…we are the ones who are called to go forth in our vulnerability to offer Christ’ peace, to offer Christ’ healing, to help people know that the reign of God has come near.

But here’s the thing, the piece of the story that was so real to me that night 18 years ago on the deck of that ferry in Alaska. This charge makes us vulnerable.

I was barely 21, and I was on a boat in the middle of Alaska with people I barely knew. I was sailing towards a village where I was going to be totally dependent on strangers to provide food and shelter to me in the coming week. We had no money, all we had was the name of a church and the person that was supposed to be meeting us at the dock.

It was clear to those of us on the deck of that ferry that we were where we were supposed to be. We had been charged by Christ to be in that place, to go forth and help others know that the reign of God had come near. But it was also clear that this charge required us to go forth in courage to embrace the vulnerability, to depend on the hospitality of others and to accept what was given to us, for good and for ill with love in our hearts. From village to village we went that summer, eating more rhubarb than I care to remember, talking with adults and children alike about their lives and the joys of living in such remote locations, sharing with them the stories of Jesus that guided our bible school lessons.

That was 18 years ago, before I was married, before I had three children and a mortgage. It was relatively easy to spend that summer in total dependence on God’s grace to provide. It was easy to volunteer my time teaching and talking with children about God’s love, to spend my free time hiking with Trey, my fellow volunteer, and eating in different people’s homes each night.

It was easy to sit in the midst of the unknown on a deck of a ferry boat in Alaska and read this passage and to accept that I was sent forth in vulnerability to love and serve the Lord. But I read it today and it is scary. Am I willing to be that vulnerable today? Am I willing to trust enough to believe that God will provide?

Am I willing to just eat what is given to me, knowing that it might upset my stomach?

Am I willing to offer Christ’ peace to all I meet even if they don’t want to hear it? Am I willing not to curse a person if he or she rejects the peace that is offered?

As we prepare to begin a new chapter in our life together these are important questions.

We need to remember that we have been appointed by Christ…we are the ones being sent out to help the world know that the kingdom of God has come near. As those who have experienced the amazing grace of God in our midst during this time of transition we can be witnesses to God’s work in the world.

But, this requires us to be vulnerable. It requires us to go forth in dependence on God and to believe that God will provide, to believe that the Lord of the harvest will provide ABUNDANTLY.

And this abundance will help us to see the river of the water of life flowing through the middle of the holy city and to claim our place on its shores. We are the trees of life on the shores of the river producing fruits; we are the trees of life and our leaves, the works of our hands and hearts, are for the healing of the nations.

We are appointed…we are sent forth to help others know that the reign of God has come near.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
Sunday, June 2, 2013

Scripture: 1 Kings 18:20-39
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Our text today finds us traveling with the Prophet Elijah during the rule of King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel in Israel. Ahab was a Jewish king, a child of the covenant and should have understood God’s commandments, especially the first commandment to worship God alone. But somewhere along the way he forgot the ways of Yahweh.

Elijah spent his ministry speaking out against the power of these monarchs of Israel because King Ahab introduced the worship of Baal into Israel. Baal was the Canaanite agricultural God, the giver of rain that ensured the growth of crops.

When Ahab began this practice, God, through Elijah, pronounced a drought that would last three years. This drought directly challenged Baal’s power and authority. And then at God’s direction Elijah moved from place to place. Enraged by this drought Ahab began to search for Elijah. When he is finally found, Elijah challenges Ahab to gather the people of Israel and the prophets of Baal to meet him on Mount Carmel for a sort of supernatural smack down. This is where today’s passage picks up the story.

Let us listen for God’s Word speaking to us today from the book of

1 Kings 18:20-39

20So Ahab sent to all the Israelites, and assembled the prophets at Mount Carmel.

21Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word.

22Then Elijah said to the people, “Only I am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal’s prophets number 450.

23Let two bulls be given to us; let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it.

24Then you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” All the people answered, “Well spoken!”

25Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; then call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it.”

26So they took the bull that was given them, prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no answer. They limped about the altar that they had made. 27At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

28Then they cried aloud and, as was their custom, they cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them. 29As midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response. 30Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come closer to me”; and all the people came closer to him. First he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; 31Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”; 32with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. Then he made a trench around the altar, large enough to contain two measures of seed. 33Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood. He said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34Then he said, “Do it a second time”; and they did it a second time. Again he said, “Do it a third time”; and they did it a third time, 35so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water. 36At the time of the offering of the oblation, the prophet Elijah came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. 37Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. 39When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”

The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God

“Who is God?”

In my opinion, the first 5 verses of the 20th chapter of the book of Exodus capture for us the hardest commandment to honor. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”

We shall not have any other gods before Yahweh. This, I believe, must be the hardest commandment to keep.

Throughout time we have proven we are more than capable of making idols for ourselves. They have taken many forms and have demanded our unswerving allegiance:

A Golden Calf; Designer labels; Corner offices; Swiss bank accounts; Fancy cars; Guns and War; Homogeneousness; Safety and Security; Power and Influence; Political Correctness;

Family togetherness; Busyness and productivity

This list is just the beginning of things and attitudes that we have turned into idols; that we have turned and continue to turn into false gods; things that have displaced our loyalty to and trust in the one TRUE God’s sovereignty and love.

Augustine, the ancient Church historian and theologian, knew that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. He knew that idolatry lures believers because we are in search of security, in search of the one thing that will help us feel whole and ready for whatever may come.

This search often leaves us frantically dancing to appease powers that are not real; looking for hope in things that cannot provide transformation and life. Whatever drives our search, however we clothe our false idols the truth is they cannot save. They cannot bring peace because the source of our rest and peace is being blocked by our quest for control and safety.

We are not so different from those ancient Israelites from today’s scripture passage. It’s easy to ridicule and dismiss King Ahab. I did for most of the week until I remembered the complex world in which he lived, a world that was just as diverse and demanding as the world in which we live today. He was the king of a relatively small country in the midst of much larger and more powerful neighbors. His own country was filled with people who worshipped other gods and had other beliefs.

In order to solidify control of his territory he married, Jezebel, the daughter of another King and in order to keep control he allowed the introduction of the worship of the gods of her people. Anything to keep the people happy, anything to appear to be doing what he can to control the circumstances of life. But there was Elijah, the prophet of Yahweh, the one who spoke for God, the one who demanded that Ahab return to the ways of the God of his ancestors. There was Elijah demanding that the make a choice.

He says to all the people gathered on Mt. Carmel, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?” In other words, how long will you try and do both? How long will you wear yourselves out trying to worship both? The Hebrew meaning of that phrase is literally, “hobbling on two branches. ” The image it draws upon is probably of a bird literally hopping between two branches looking for sure footing.

He is looking at his people and saying, “aren’t you tired…it’s time to choose” And then, to help make the choice easier he challenges the prophets of Baal to a silly contest. Whose God can burn up the bull offering?

The odds are not in his favor, but Elijah isn’t worried. He watches as the 450 prophets of Baal prepare their sacrifice. He watches as they begin to call upon Baal and he begins to taunt them when they get frantic that their god isn’t answering their plea.

When it is his turn to call upon Yahweh, he uses this opportunity to do more than just make a sacrifice. He uses his preparation time to remind the people of who they are and who was there for them throughout their history. Twice he uses the number 12. He rebuilds the Alter of God using 12 stones, a physical reminder of the 12 sons of Jacob, from whom they are all descended.

Then, to really prove his point he pours 12 jars of water on the wood, another reminder of their identity and the covenant that exists between God and their people. And then, in answer to Elijah’s plea the fire rains from heaven consuming the offerings, proving Yahweh’s power and might; calling the people back to true worship and devotion. In that moment, the people of God remember… they remember who they are and who has been faithful to them throughout their history. In response they fall on their faces and proclaim God’s goodness and power.

That is the point of this whole story. It wasn’t about Yahweh proving who is the real God, it is about getting God’s people to remember who has claimed and named them beloved. In the same way this text invites us to remember…to remember who has been faithful to us throughout our many years and to look at our life to see where we are hobbling on two branches, exhausting ourselves trying to honor God and bow down before other things and attitudes that seek to define us.

In this text Elijah has come near to us asking, “How long will you hobble between two branches?” Our search for security and wholeness is over. It ends right where it began, in the very heart of God. Today we have been reminded of who God is. In the waters of baptism God claims us, washing us clean and naming us beloved. Around the communion table we are fed by the Spirit of God, who lifts us into Christ’ very presence, sustaining us for the journey ahead; filling us with the bread of life; renewing us with the cup of salvation.

We don’t have fire raining down from heaven to consume a bull, but we have plenty of evidence of who God is and how much God loves us. We see the evidence right here in this place. Let us raise our voices in praise. Let us gather and celebrate. Let us proclaim in word and deed that “The Lord indeed is God!”

Amen.

Rev. Eric R. Dillenbeck
April 14, 2013

Scripture: John 21:1-19
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John 21:1-19

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.”

They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.

7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.

8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time Jesus said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

“Feed. Tend. Feed. Follow”

I have Three scenes to describe for you.

The first scene: It was noon on a hot day in the Dominican Republic. Teenagers and adults are resting; sprawled out on pews in a tiny church in a small batey. The remnants of lunch carefully placed in trash bags, but a few members of the group are outside with the extra sandwiches, handing them out to hungry children who are patiently waiting for a bite to eat.

The second scene: it’s a Friday night and youth and adults have piled into a van and driven over to Bethany Presbyterian Church to serve a warm meal. Some are on the line, dishing up piping hot food so that it is pleasing to the eye. Others are carrying plates to tables to serve hungry guests; doubling checking with them that they have all they need and then serving up containers full of leftovers to bring home for the weekend. Together they are creating safe space for brothers and sisters to rest and be nourished.

And the Third Scene: It’s 5:00 in the afternoon and a few members are in the Dining Room preparing a meal to be served to some new guests coming to stay with us for a week. A few other members are attending to final details, making sure the beds are made and are comfortable, that each family will have enough privacy, that the bathrooms are well marked and that the security alarm is off. The dinner table is set and ready, with plenty of healthy options for hungry mouths and empty stomachs. The guests are almost here and we want everything to be warm and welcoming, we want our guests to know they are safe and loved.

Three examples of how Fairmounters are living Jesus’ challenge from this text.

Feeding the lambs. Tending the sheep. Feeding the sheep.

Our text shows us how Christ appeared to the disciples once again in the early morning on a lonely little beach by the sea of Tiberias. He came to feed them, his devoted disciples, and to remind them, to remind Peter to follow him and that following him means feeding his flock.

Our story opens with a handful of the disciples gathered together in the darkness trying to decide what to do next. Some time before they had been gathered together behind locked doors when Jesus, their teacher, their friend, their resurrected Lord, appeared to them. They had watched as their fellow disciple, Thomas, reached out and touched the Resurrected Jesus and they had been witnesses to many other signs of Jesus’ presence. But Jesus had left them once again and they were unsure of what to do next. They could not stay locked in that Upper Room one more day; they had to begin to do something.

So, Simon Peter decides to venture out into the dark night to do what comes natural; to do what he always did before meeting Jesus. He goes fishing. Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee and a few others love the idea too and decide to join him. They get in someone’s boat and push off from the shore. They spend the night throwing their nets into the sea. Over and over again they toss those nets, somehow managing to miss every school of fish in the sea.

The sun rises and they can just see, by its light, someone on the shore watching them. They don’t know who it is, but he apparently knows them. “Children,” he says, “you have no fish, have you?” “Thank you very much for pointing out that sad fact,” I imagine they think to themselves. “Cast your net to the right side of the boat” he tells them. And to their surprise their haul of fish is so great they can’t pull it back into the boat.

It is at this moment of abundance that the disciple Jesus loved recognizes the man on the beach and tells Peter who it is. Simon Peter puts on his clothes and jumps into the sea. That’s right my friends. At some point Simon Peter had taken off his clothes to fish. And instead of swimming to shore and then getting dressed, Simon Peter gets dressed and then jumps into the water to swim toward Jesus.

Soaking wet, Simon Peter approaches Jesus who sits at a campfire waiting. Knowing the disciples would be hungry from a night on the sea Jesus had some fish already on the fire, but invites them to bring what they have to add to the meal. And then they ate together, they shared a meal together very much like they had on a night not long before; a meal where Jesus predicted Simon Peter would deny him three times.

But at this meal, Jesus does not give Peter the option of denying him. Three times he calls Simon Peter by name and asks him if loves him. “Simon Son of John, do you love me?”

Feed my lambs. Tend my Sheep. Feed my sheep. These are Jesus’ responses to Simon Peter’s admissions of love; these are Jesus’ commands to Peter, to the disciples and to all who hear this story.

Brian, Do you love me? Jesus asks. If so, then feed my lambs.

Stephanie, Are you sure you love me? Jesus asks. If so, tend my sheep.

Kevin, Are you really sure you love me? Jesus asks. If so, feed my sheep.

Jesus keeps pushing Simon Peter. He knows he loves him, but by asking him three times, Jesus is trying to make a point.

Following Christ has to be about more than just loving him.

Loving Christ, means embodying that love for every member of the Good Shepherd’s flock. It means, feeding his Lambs, tending his sheep and making sure everyone has what they need.

• It means volunteering to serve at Bethany or Calvary.

• It means making brail books for the blind.

• It means caring for other members and friends who are in the hospital.

• It means advocating for social programs that will ensure the poorest among us are not forgotten and left behind.

• It means preparing a meal, or eating with our guests in Family Promise. It means washing the laundry after they leave so it will be clean and ready for our next guests. It means spending the night so our guests can rest comfortably knowing they are being taken care of.

• It means giving joyfully of our resources so they can be used for God’s purposes here and throughout the world.

• It means making the things we do from Monday to Saturday be filled with and reflect our Sunday faith.

Following Christ has to be about more than just loving him.

Christ looks into Simon Peter’s heart and sees the love he feels for him. He looks into our hearts, sees the love we have for him and says, “Follow me!”

How do you feed the lambs? How will you tend the sheep? How will we feed the sheep?

“Fairmount, Do you love me?” Christ asks us. If so, “Follow me.”

Amen.

Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
March 31, 2013 – Easter Sunday

Scripture: John 20:1-18

JOHN 20:1-18

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. 2So 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.”

3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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.”

14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus 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.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus 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.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God

“Why Are You Weeping?”

“Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia! Our Triumphant Holy Day, Alleluia!…”

“Thine is the glory, Risen, conquering Son; Endless is the victory Thou o’er death has won….”

Ok, I will stop singing there. Heaven knows I have tortured you enough on this fine Easter morning. But that is the best part of Easter; singing these powerful hymns that speak so eloquently about the triumph of Jesus; singing these hymns that express our faith and belief about the power of God’s love for each and every last one of us.

Words like “Triumphant,” “Conquering,” and “victory” hanging in the air as the amazing sounds of brass and drums and organ fill this space along with the smells of spring. What a triumphant morning. Just what Easter should be. When Missy, Shawn and I were discussing which stained glass window should appear on the cover of the bulletin, we knew there was only one choice. It had to be the Resurrection window, the big reveal, the moment when the women were greeted by an angel and then see and recognize Jesus alive again as he foretold.

But as our scripture passage today tells the story, that first Easter was not so glorious. There were no trumpets, there weren’t any drums, there were no hymns and the followers of Jesus certainly did not feel triumphant, victorious or like conquerors.

Early on the first day of that week, three days after Jesus had been crucified and died, there was darkness, there was grief, there was fear. In the Gospel of John, it is Mary Magdalene alone who braves the darkness of the early morning to journey to the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea. In the other Gospels she is accompanied by other women, but here, we see Mary Magdalene, carried by her grief, come to the place where Christ was buried. As she enters the garden surrounding the tomb she stops dead in her tracks. She thinks the darkness must be playing tricks on her eyes. “Why is it open? Where is the stone covering the entrance?”

She is horrified. You can feel it in the text. She doesn’t take another step toward the tomb. She does not look inside; she does not confirm her assumptions. She turns and she runs! She runs straight to Simon Peter and the other disciple. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

We do not see any conversation about the merits of Mary’s observation. Like Mary, they simply run.

There is a lot of running in this text. Running to discover the truth about their teacher and Lord, but I also imagine their minds are running as well. How can this be? What is going on? All those comments Jesus made about dying and rising again, but that isn’t possible… He did raise Lazarus…But he can’t raise himself… Minds running faster than their feet can carry them.

At first they are running together, side by side toward the garden and tomb, but slowly the unnamed disciple pulls ahead and gets there first. But this disciple just can’t go inside quite yet. He bends down, looks inside and sees nothing but the linen wrappings used to cover Jesus’ body lying in piles on the ground.

About that time Simon Peter, totally out of breath, pushes him aside and without hesitation walks right into the tomb to search for Jesus. He finds the linen grave clothes used to cover Jesus body together on the ground and then in another part of the tomb the head-dressing rolled up and discarded. At that point the other disciple enters and after seeing the full picture begins to believe. What he believes we can’t be sure. He and Simon Peter leave, they walk out of the tomb without another word.

Whatever they believe can’t be too dramatic because the story tells us they return to their homes. We know they gather later that same night behind locked doors with the other disciples, but there is little conversation about what they have discovered. Mary, on the other hand, doesn’t leave. Having run one leg of this trip already she trails the other two disciples back to garden and empty tomb. She arrives, just where she was earlier and approaches the mouth of the cave.

Every step toward the tomb brings waves of grief and tears. In the span of three verses the text tells us three times that Mary is weeping. She must have been inconsolable. She never enters into the tomb; she bends down and peers in, where she sees two angels in white sitting where Jesus had once been laid, but even this sight doesn’t entice her into the emptiness of that space. “Why are you weeping?” they ask her. She barely hears them through her tears, and only gives them a passing response. So focused on missing Jesus, she doesn’t have time for angels in white. Living in the land of grief, she has no time for signs of hope; she has no time for the harbingers of new life; she has no patience for the heralds of grace.

She, like so many of us, never enters into the empty tomb. She never picks up those grave clothes or is able to listen to the Good News echoing from its depths. Grief, anger despair and disappointment hold her back, hold her on the edge, safely away from a real encounter.

We know something about that grief and anger that holds Mary back, those same feelings keep us sitting in the darkness looking at the empty tomb and wondering, “What’s next!” Some of you have been called into a supervisor’s office to be told that your job no longer exists; some of you have received terrible news from doctors; some of you have been or know someone else who has been a victim of violence; some of you struggle or know someone who struggles with addiction; some of you struggle with estranged relationships with children or parents; some of you are overwhelmed by the news about the Syrian refugees; some of you distraught about the tones of wars sounding from North Korea…

Some of you, most of you, probably all of you know something about the grief and the weeping that keeps Mary from entering that tomb.

That place in the darkness in the garden, filled with anger and grief and disbelief is familiar to us, but the empty tomb just does not make sense. We don’t seem to mind walking the tough days of Lent because the way of the cross, the way of suffering and despair is at least familiar. It is easier to accept because we know what it looks like and what it feels like. But when it comes to that empty tomb, we keep ourselves outside in the darkness of the garden because resurrection, because abundant life isn’t so easy to grasp; it isn’t so familiar.

That’s what Mary was doing. She kept herself away from the signs of new life because it just did not fit into her understandings. She was there when Jesus was put into that tomb. She was there when the stone was put in place. She was there. But Jesus isn’t THERE anymore.

So there she stands, on the edge of walking into the emptiness, on the edge of understanding, but unable to take the next steps because her grief has immobilized her. But the story does not end there, my friends. Mary turns to go and practically knocks the resurrected Jesus off his feet. She doesn’t recognize him through the mist of her tears, but he recognizes her. Jesus meets her on the edge of the emptiness, he comes to where she is and calls her by name and in that moment Mary recognizes him.

In the same way the risen Christ comes to us. If we, like Simon Peter, charge right into the tomb to sing the glorious choruses or if we sit in the darkness of the garden in our grief and doubt, the Risen Christ comes to meet us, he comes to call us by name and to send us out so that we may tell the world that “we have seen the Lord.” The Risen Christ does not leave us to dwell in fear and grief. The Risen Christ does not abandon us, he comes to us, wherever we are and calls us by name.

A light shines in the DARKNESS.

And the DARKNESS did not overcome it.

Christ is Risen.

CHRIST HAS RISEN INDEED!

Alleluia! Amen.

Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
March 17, 2013, Lent 5

Scripture: John 12:1-11
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John 12:1-11

W22_CRW_9433Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.

8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

9When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God

“Reflections in the Window: Honoring Christ”

Who doesn’t love a good dinner party? The chance to gather with friends, enjoy delicious food and tell stories should not be missed.

When I was in high school my friends and I used to have dinner parties. Every couple of months one of us would host a dinner party. They started as potluck dinners with board games afterwards, but they quickly evolved into formal affairs. Invitations were passed out secretly in the school cafeteria during lunch and the preparations began. The host family provided the entire meal. The meal was served on the good china with the fancy silver in the formal dining room. The teenage guests all came dressed up in our best outfits to fit the theme suggested on the invitation. It was fun to dress up and eat exquisite food prepared by our friends and their parents. And the parents really enjoyed the experience too. While they didn’t dine with us, they loved helping to serve us and listen to our conversations from the kitchen; probably laughing at our clumsy dinner conversations. I remember everyone was so anxious about those first dinner parties. We worried about using the right forks and spoons; the hosts stressed if the salt and pepper shakers weren’t on the table, or if they forgot something.

As I have grown and matured, and especially since I have had children, I have relaxed my need to have everything absolutely perfect when we host a dinner party. While we want things to be nice and comfortable for our guests I am firm believer that grace abounds. But having said that, if someone walked in, broke open a bottle of aromatic ointment and started rubbing another guest’s feet I am pretty sure I would be startled.

This is exactly what happened at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Mary, moved by love for Christ, interrupts the dinner party by breaking open a jar of perfume made from nard and anointing Jesus’ feet. I want to cut Mary a bit of slack for this social faux pas because she and her sister had just been wrapped up in the depths of despair. Their brother, Lazarus, had been dead and in the tomb for FOUR days.

Before he died, they had tried to get Jesus to come, but he just couldn’t make it. So Mary and Martha buried their brother and were in deep grief for him. But then Jesus showed up and called Lazarus out of the clutches of death. With the stench of death still around him, Lazarus walks out of the cave in which they had laid him to rest back into relationship with his sisters. Overjoyed by his presence, but also very aware of the huge crowd grumbling around them, Mary and Martha take Jesus and his disciples back to their home in Bethany.

This is the scene depicted in our window. A dinner party thrown to celebrate the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection, a dinner party to remove Jesus from the angry eyes of the Pharisees who had begun to plot Jesus’ death.

If you survey the window from the top down, you can take in the whole scene. We have Martha serving, as she always does. There she is, top left hand side of the window, bringing food to the table in the basket on top of her head. And there are two of the disciples at the table, probably trying to find out from Lazarus what it was like to be dead. “Was there a bright light? What did the Holy Throne look like?” And there on the left behind Jesus is the newly resurrected Lazarus, the one with the blue shirt to match his sister Mary’s. And then we have Jesus with his feet extended to Mary. This is where, in my opinion, our artist got the details a bit wrong.

The text tells us “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.”

But in our window we see Mary’s hair is still safely covered and appropriate. In the text we see that Mary’s gratitude and love for Christ have led her to forget the acceptable social conventions of the day. It would have been highly inappropriate for a respectable woman to let her hair down in the company of a roomful of men, but that doesn’t stop Mary. Jesus has just brought her brother back to life, he has just pulled Lazarus from the clutches of death. In light of this extravagant act of grace Mary is moved to care for Jesus. Like everyone else in the house, she is aware that this miracle has caused quite a stir among the Jewish leadership, it has focused attention on Christ in ways that will lead to serious repercussions.

In this act of resurrection she recognizes in Christ, what she has known all along, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God who has come to extend God’s justice and reconciliation. Moved by this truth, Mary needs to respond with her own act of extravagance, so she goes to fetch the finest ointment to anoint him, to set him apart, to mark him for God’s work in the world.

Susan Hylen, a Professor of New Testament at Emory University tells us that “anointing with oil or perfume had many purposes in antiquity. For kings and priests, anointing meant consecration for a specific purpose. The sick were anointed as a ritual of healing and the dead were anointed for burial.”

So Mary enters the room with a pound of costly perfume, she unwraps her hair and stands before Jesus. In that moment she could have moved around the back of Jesus to anoint his head, a prophetic act signifying him as King. But instead, in the Gospel of John, Mary sits on the floor and anoints his feet, a part of the ritual of preparation for death and burial, and then wipes his feet with her hair.

Nothing about this act fits the social norms. It is an extravagant act of devotion in response to a gift of life that is too big for words. It is an extravagant act of gratitude that highlights the hidden priorities and intentions of everyone else in the room, especially Judas.

He wants to know why Mary is allowed to waste this expensive gift on Jesus’ feet when it could have been sold and used for the poor. The text tells us that this is not really why Judas wants to sell the perfume, but Jesus doesn’t allow the conversation to go any further. “Leave her alone,” Jesus says to him. “She is preparing me for the day of my burial.”

But in our window, this portion of the story is ignored. The artist has Mary’s hair safely tucked away, safely tied back and covered and Lazarus, if present at all, plays no significant part of the rendering of this story. My interpretation: the artist was uncomfortable with the extravagance and intimacy of Mary’s gift so he downplayed the awkwardness of that moment.

Anointing Jesus feet and drying them with her hair. Imagine the posture needed for such an act. Mary would have needed to be bent over the feet of the Messiah; crouched close enough to wrap her hair around his feet to absorb the excess ointment.

What would it have been like to be the other disciples around the table that day? What would it have been like to be Martha or Lazarus, to see their sister in such a position before Christ? What would it have been like to witness such extravagant gratitude?

Our window sums up our reaction pretty well. Not one person other than Christ is actually looking at the blessing taking place on the floor. We don’t know what to do with such expressions. When we are confronted with such exuberance we usually ignore it like the other disciples or attack it like Judas. When Jesus addresses Judas, I wonder if he is also addressing those of us who are pulling back from such unconventional and excessive outpourings of faith, love and service?

Like Mary and Martha we too have received an amazing gift of restored life, of resurrection and new beginnings. We too have been recipients of the extravagant grace of God working in our lives. How do we respond? How do we honor Christ among us? Are we like Martha, busy trying to get the table set and the people fed? Are we like Lazarus, simply sitting at the table with Christ? Are we like the other disciples, unsure of what to say or do? Are we like Judas, trying to find ways to keep what has been given for ourselves? Or are we like Mary? At the feet of Jesus, trying to honor the gift in our midst by extravagantly pouring out all that we have at our disposal?

We have come to that time of the church year. The talk of crucifixion is in the air. The Pharisees are plotting and Judas has a plan in mind. The crowds are gathering for the Passover feast. As we look forward to the gift of resurrection we know is coming how do we respond? What posture do we take? What gifts are we pouring out for the sake of Christ?

Let us pour forth our gifts that they may be a bouquet of joy that honors Christ and helps the world know of the extravagant gift so freely given for you…

So freely given for me…

So freely given for all of God’s children everywhere.

W11_CRW_9390Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
March 3, 2013, 3rd Sunday in Lent

Scripture: Luke 13:1-9
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Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8The Gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God

“Reflections in the Window: Teaching and Preaching”

Looking into the window we can see that the picture the artist has created for us is much bigger than this encounter in the 13th chapter of Luke. Look at all the people who have gathered to hear and see Jesus. This is a common motif in our windows because it was a common motif of Christ’ life. It seems that anytime he stopped for too long people gathered. Anytime he traveled from one place to the next, people followed. People wanted to hear what he had to say.

Today’s passage is no different. This is the tale end of a lecture that began way back at the beginning of the 12th chapter of Luke. That text tells us that the “the crowd gathered in thousands, so that they trampled on one another.” It was then that Jesus began to teach.

He said many things to those people that day. As was his habit his words made some people happy and others upset. You can see, if you look at the faces in the window, that this crowd is mixed in their reaction to Jesus’ words. But at the bottom of the window you can see the few who snuck around behind Jesus to ask him about the murderous work of Pilate. They are clearly distressed. Apparently one is so distressed and depressed he can’t even look at Christ, but sits with his head in his hands.

“Excuse us, Jesus, Pilate had a bunch of Galileans killed and their blood was mixed with their sacrifices.” There isn’t a real question recorded in the text, but Jesus seems to understand the implied question behind their statement. “Did those Galileans deserve it?” I don’t really blame them for wanting to ask the question, but coming up short. They represent the familiar point of view that assumes there is a reason for human suffering; they represent the commonly held belief that suffering has something to do with God’s displeasure.

I don’t blame them because this belief is still present in our culture today. I heard it all the time when I was growing up in SC. I distinctly remember a friend saying to me, “My mom says my dad’s in the hospital because God is trying to tell him he isn’t living right!” I heard it many times when visiting with patients while I was a chaplain at a hospital in Atlanta. “I’m here because God is punishing me” distraught patients would say. It was all over the Christian radio stations after 9-11, with religious broadcasters saying the events of that terrible day were a sign of God’s displeasure with America. And I see it every time Westboro Baptist Church decides to picket a funeral. “This person died because God isn’t happy.” We all tend to do this sometimes. Every time something bad happens we want to ask, “Why me?” “What did I do?”

Jesus was in the midst of an entirely different conversation, but he just can not ignore the unasked question lingering in the air. “Did those Galileans deserve it?” He just can not allow people to live with the idea that God is so capricious.

He says to them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And don’t even bother bringing up those involved when that tower fell.

And then he tells them a parable about a fig tree that isn’t producing; in other words he tells them a story about something that isn’t doing what it is supposed to be doing to illustrate God’s nature. The landowner wants to cut the tree down. It isn’t producing so get rid of it. But the gardener says, “Wait, let me try again. Let me fertilize those roots and tend to it a little longer. I just can’t give up on it yet!”

Jesus is trying to tell these hurting individuals and is trying to tell us that just like the landowner, we are the ones who are rushing to judgment about God’s actions and intentions. We are the ones saying the fig tree should be cut down or Pilate killed those Galileans, or so and so got cancer or this happened to me because of God’s displeasure. We are saying those things, not God.

Jesus is trying to tell those who are hurting and he is trying to tell us that God, like the gardener in the parable, is not saying any such thing. God is saying, hold on! Give me more time. Let me pour the waters of my Spirit on you, let me care for you, let me re-form your understandings, let me re-form your lives, let me nurture you so that you may produce abundantly.

When Jesus is confronted with that tough question he does not say, “Well folks, class is done; time to make my way to the next stop on my tour.” He dons his teaching hat and he creates new understandings of who God is and how God wants to be in relationship with us.

The tough questions have not stopped coming. We continue to be asked where God is when bad things happen. We continue to be asked how God is moving in our world today. We continue to be asked if God really cares. We continue to be asked if God even exists.

How do we respond to such questions? As individuals? As a community, how do we respond when the tough questions come our way?

As Christ’s body at work in the world, we are called to teach, to reshape and re-form our understandings so we can help others know and experience the love of God who pours manure on our souls, who nurtures our lives and our gifts so that we may live life abundantly.

We teach! Whether we know it or not, we teach.

Today, we made promises to teach Marshall Breedlove about Jesus Christ, to love him and to care for him and to support his parents as they seek to help him grow and know Christ in his life.

We teach, and not just in Sunday school. We teach children and newcomers alike by how we demonstrate, everyday, the power of the Gospel in our lives. We teach by how we treat the stranger and the outcast. We teach by how we talk about and use our money. We teach by how often we come to worship and by how we worship the one who deserves our praise. We teach by how we share our bread and cup.

We teach by how we respond in word and deed to the tough questions that come our way.

We teach. We are the curriculum that shapes and re-forms our understandings of God and God’s activity in the world. We TEACH.

With the power of the Holy Spirit behind us and dwelling within us may we be about the work of teaching God’s love and justice; may we be about the work of teaching God’s care and compassion; may we be about the work of teaching God’s JOY and presence. May we teach so that all God’s people may come to know the one who claims us in the waters of baptism and feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

Let us teach and be taught by the power of the Holy Spirit alive within us. Amen.