Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Good Sheep for a New Shepherd

1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
April 26, 2015
© 2015
The Good Shepherd
Lee Hedges

In the Church’s early centuries, the favorite and most common way of picturing Jesus was as the Good Shepherd. As I look at some of this early Christian art, I am struck with how young Jesus appears and with wide ethnic variation.
The Good Shepherd image is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, famously the 23rd Psalm. Let’s say it together.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

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

As the Good Shepherd’s sheep of the Highlands Christian Church fold, welcome Jonathan Brink as Jesus’ appointed shepherd and not as your hired hand.
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus contrasted himself with the hired hands, who most understood as the religious leaders.
The word John used for “good” does not just mean one who does a good job but means the beautiful, handsome, model, ideal, noble shepherd.
The Hebrew prophets referred to God as the shepherd of Israel a number of times.
Isaiah 40:11 “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Ezekiel 34:11-12 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered.” Jeremiah 23:3-4Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”

The New Testament picked up on this idea of God raising up new shepherds and applied it to pastoral leadership.
In John 21:15-19, when Peter assures the risen Jesus that he loves him, Jesus tells him to tend his sheep. In Acts 20:28 when Paul bids the Ephesian Elders farewell he said, “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God.” 1 Peter 5:2-3 tells the leaders “to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, (and) be examples to the flock.”

In that tradition, God has appointed Jonathan Brink to be the next shepherd of Jesus’ sheep in the Highlands Christian Church fold. He is not your hired hand.
You might think a sermon about the Good Shepherd should be preached to Jonathan, but we know not all sheep are good; some are bullies, not just bullying pastors but other sheep too.
The Hebrew prophets, again, described bully sheep as those who throw their weight around to get their own way regardless of how it affects the other sheep.
Ezekiel 34:17-22 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

Jesus referred to Gentiles as other sheep that did not belong to this fold (v. 10), but this also pointed ahead to a call for Christian unity, recognizing other Christians as our sisters and brothers when we come together from different ecclesiastical and theological traditions.
Jesus said he must bring other sheep who would listen to his voice. People around Highlands Christian Church are aching to listen to the voice of Jesus. Jonathan Brink is not your hired hand, but the shepherd God has appointed so that people can listen to the voice of Jesus in you.
Both of today’s passages speak of laying down our lives for others as the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep.
To lay down our lives for others is the exact opposite of the bully sheep who insist on getting their own way regardless of who else gets hurt.

In John 10:10 Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 1 John 3:19-21 explains that this abundant life is free of self-condemnation. It encourages us to have boldness before God because He is greater than our hearts when our hearts condemn us. This is the joy of the Gospel; by laying down his life for us, God puts the shame, guilt and condemnation of our brokenness behind us. When we want to please God more than anything else, we can boldly ask Him for whatever it takes to do that. Thomas Merton expressed it well in this prayer from his book Thoughts in Solitude (page 83).
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

When we look at the example of Jesus, we may think of laying down our lives for each other as an heroic act, but 1 John 3:17 puts it in the context of sharing our worldly goods with someone who has an ordinary need, which may be harder to practice than improbable heroics. So when Jonathan Brink comes as God’s appointed shepherd for you, and not your hired hand, you will be called on to let go of hoped for heroics and lay your life down for each other and the people of Lake Highlands in very ordinary and mundane ways.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Too Good to Be True

1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-48
April 19 2015
© 2015

If you’ve been using email for any length of time you’ve received scams from someone in Africa asking you to help them retrieve millions of dollars that they promise to share with you. Ponzi investment schemes and even routine advertising make promises we know are too good to be true.
Though rare, a few things that seem too good to be true turn out to be true. After 46 years of marriage, I would certainly say that about my wife, Candy.
Bewildering grief is even more so when the deceased returns to life, which helps explain the confused responses and accounts of the risen Jesus appearing to his disciples.
It’s not too good to be true! The more we see the risen Jesus, the more we become like him.
We’ve looked at the accounts of Easter morning and evening in John’s Gospel. Today we get another take on Easter evening from Luke 24:36-48. In deep grief and bewildered of reports that the risen Jesus had appeared to some disciples, Cleopas and his wife Mary, I suspect (I can’t prove the connection with John 19:25. Most scholars who comment on this acknowledge Clopas and Cleopas are alternate spellings of the same name but do not think these are the same men. I am pretty sure, and several scholars do agree with this, that Cleopas' companion was his wife, not another man. In 1st century Palestine two Jewish men would not be likely to maintain a household together.), walked home to Emmaus. Jesus met them and they invited him for dinner. When he broke the bread, they recognized him, and he vanished. They rushed back to the bewildered disciples in Jerusalem.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. 44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.
Jesus said, “look and see,” and “touch and see.” (v. 39) Jesus wanted the disciples to see him as he really was. 1 John 3:2 says, “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” Too good to be true!
Jesus appeared right while they were talking about the experiences different ones of them had had seeing him. If the men disciples had dismissed the reports of Mary Magdalene and the other women, now Peter had seen Jesus too. In the middle of this conversation Jesus appeared and spoke to them. It was exciting but too far out of their realm of experience to make sense of it. We might think they should have all believed at once, but they were understandably startled and terrified. It was just too good to be true. So in their joy the disciples were disbelieving and still wondering. (v. 41) We’d probably say, “pinch me so I know I’m awake and not dreaming.”
When Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures, he didn’t stop at “the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead,” but went on to say, “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” If it seems too good to be true that Jesus had risen, how much more wonderful that forgiveness was not only possible but available to all of the world’s people! You witnesses of this get to start spreading the word!
Through their witness, Jesus has been revealed to us! 1 John 3:3 says, “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” The more we see the risen Jesus, the more we become like him. It’s not too good to be true!
1 John 3:1 invites us to see ourselves so identified with Jesus that we know we are loved by the Father and called the children of God. Everything that has come between us and God has been wiped out. It’s not too good to be true!
No matter how contaminated we feel, when we see how pure Jesus is, we have hope in him of purifying ourselves. Paul wrote that we are destined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son in Romans 8:29. And in 1 Corinthians 15:49 that we bear the image of the man of heaven. And in Ephesians 4:13 of reaching the maturity of the full stature of Christ. It’s not too good to be true!
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wrote that Christ is the first fruit of all who will share in his resurrection. Christians have been intrigued by the appearances of the risen Jesus and speculated about what our resurrection bodies will be like: tangible but not limited by time, space or matter. I believe all these speculations are far too limited for the reality that awaits us. It’s not too good to be true!
The disciples didn’t wait around for their resurrections. They began living and proclaiming what they had witnessed: forgiveness and life. The more we see the risen Jesus, the more we become like him. It’s not too good to be true!
Playing “ain’t it awful” is all too easy when we look at the world around us: violence, power and wealth seem to run things at the expense of the weak, poor and struggling. The hope of reign of Christ’s righteousness and mercy, justice and peace will one day prevail seems too good to be true. But we who have seen the risen Jesus know a cosmic joke on the world: by resurrection power already at work though hidden, it’s not too good to be true!
Your new pastor, Jonathan Brink, met with the Elders Thursday evening. I am impressed and confident that he will focus your spiritual eyes on the risen Jesus and lead you to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in Lake Highlands. It’s not too good to be true!

Candy and I do not see our next step yet, and I will admit to moments of anxiety. Yet, we focus on the risen Jesus and believe he will lead us through the transitions of ministry, launching our son Erik, and supporting Candy’s Dad. You may feel that you cannot clearly discern the path immediately ahead of you. Fix your attention on the risen Jesus so you become like him: loved by the Father, becoming pure, hoping in resurrection. It’s not too good to be true!

Friday, April 10, 2015

Follow the Signs to Joy

1 John 1:1-2:3; John 20:19-31
April 12, 2015
© 2015
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 1571-1610
I am intrigued that though many if not most commentators on Jesus' invitation to Thomas to touch his wounds do not think Thomas did it, but many painters do want to portray Thomas with his finger in Jesus' wounds. I believe John 20:27-28 is intentionally ambiguous to prompt our pondering. So what do you ponder?
The Sunday after Easter is sometimes called “Low Sunday” because the faithful core people are the ones who come. Associate pastors are assigned to preach to the small crowd. So why should we preach on “Doubting Thomas” when the most convinced are the ones who are there? Nowhere does the New Testament call Thomas a doubter, but “the Twin.” We are Thomas’ twin who believed when he saw, so we who have not seen may be blessed with the joy of life in Jesus’ name.
I will tell Thomas’ story from John 20:19-31 with a couple of variations from the usual translation that I believe are not only more accurate but more helpful.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop becoming an unbeliever and become a believer.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Thomas was no different than the other disciples. They didn’t believe Mary Magdalene when she told them, “I have seen the Lord.” (v. 18) Thomas didn’t believe when the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” (v. 25) When Jesus appeared on Easter evening, he showed the disciples his hands and his side. A week later, Jesus invited Thomas to see and touch his hands and side.
The New Testament does not call him “Doubting Thomas,” nor does any Greek word for doubt occur in this story. The verbs in verse 27 indicate movement in a direction, not a condition. “Don’t move toward becoming an unbeliever, but move toward becoming a believer.”
Jesus does not classify people as believers or doubters, rather Jesus is concerned about the direction we are headed. Even we who have believed for a long time can easily drift toward living as unbelievers without joy.
We sometimes think believing means affirming a correct understanding of God’s existence and nature. But verse 31 is clear that believing is not the goal but rather the path that takes us toward joy-filled life in the name of Jesus.
We are Thomas’ twin who believed when he saw the risen Jesus, so we who have not seen may be blessed with the joy of life in Jesus’ name.
When read as a question, verse 29 sounds like Jesus is scolding Thomas. While it could be a question, the NIV is correct that it may also be an affirming statement, “Because you have seen me, you have believed.” Read that way, Thomas has seen the risen Jesus on behalf of all of us who have not, thus we are blessed through Thomas’ seeing Jesus.
1 John 1:1 speaks of the Apostolic witness of having heard, seen and touched the word of life – the risen Jesus.
Jean Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche movement of over 100 communities of compassion for mentally handicapped folk, through whom Christ is revealed. He wrote, “Jesus invites each one of us, through Thomas, to touch not only his wounds, but those wounds in others and in ourselves, wounds that can make us hate others and ourselves and can be a sign of separation and division. These wounds will be transformed into a sign of forgiveness through the love of Jesus and will bring people together in his love. These wounds reveal that we need each other. These wounds become the place of mutual compassion, of indwelling and of thanksgiving. We, too, will show our wounds when we are with him in the Kingdom, revealing our brokenness and the healing power of Jesus.” Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John
We are Thomas’ twin who believed when he saw the risen Jesus, so we who have not seen may be blessed with the joy of life in Jesus’ name.
Jesus spoke to all of us when he said to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” By the Holy Spirit, Jesus sends us to announce the forgiveness of sins. The first verb in each clause (forgive, retain) indicates an instantaneous action, while the second verbs indicate an enduring condition that began before the first verbs. So it is not that we create forgiveness by ourselves, but we announce the forgiveness God has already made available through Jesus.
1 John was not written as an evangelistic tract but for Christians. It assures us that when we acknowledge our struggle with sin the one who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That is what empowers us to proclaim forgiveness to all. 1 John 1:4 promises joy for those who both announce and receive forgiveness by coming to believe in Jesus.
Jonathan Brink will soon become your pastor to announce Christ’s forgiveness to you and to lead you in proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness to your neighbors. Hebrews 13:17 encourages us to follow our spiritual leaders so that they keep watch over our souls with joy and not sighing. Making our spiritual leaders sigh is harmful to us, but we receive joy when watching over us is a joy to them.
We are Thomas’ twin who believed when he saw the risen Jesus, so we who have not seen may be blessed with the joy of life in Jesus’ name.

Friday, April 3, 2015

No Going Back to Normal

1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18
April 5, 2015 Easter Sunday
© 2015

Though “apostle” does have a broader meaning in the New Testament, it often indicates someone who announced that they were eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus. Paul had this in mind when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:8-9 that he was the last eyewitness of the risen Jesus and the least of the apostles.
In that sense, John 20:1-18 reports that Mary Magdalene was the first eyewitness of the risen Jesus, the first one to announce his resurrection. Thus she is sometimes called the first apostle and the apostle to the apostles.
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.
In the middle of Mary’s story, we read that neither Peter nor “the other disciple” yet understood the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Yet “the other disciple” believed when he saw Jesus’ grave clothes in the tomb. I wonder what he believed and what he understood, and I wonder about Peter’s response.
In his Gospel, John is not trying to prove the reality of Jesus’ resurrection but to show it effect on those who have been encountered by the risen Jesus. Once seeing Jesus, neither they, nor we, can go back to normal.
Mary Magdalene is the only person named in the resurrection accounts of all four Gospels. While there is a lot of nonsense circulating about her to discount – that she was a prostitute or Jesus’ wife – one legend grew out of seeing her as the first apostle. She had an audience with Caesar Tiberius and brought an egg as a symbol of the sealed tomb from which Jesus rose. Tiberius said no one could return to life after Roman crucifixion any more than that egg could turn red, which it did as she held it, which is one reason we color eggs for Easter.
You may remember the song Mary sang in Jesus Christ Superstar, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” But love him she did. She was first at the tomb, probably with other women (“we do not know where they have laid him” v. 2). Her weeping was unfazed by the appearance of the angels (v. 13). With no consideration of practicality, she offered to take Jesus’ body away (v. 15).
For all that, she did recognize Jesus when he spoke her name (v. 16). She had heard him call her name before.
As a child growing up hearing this from KJV, when Jesus says, “Touch me not” (v. 17), I thought he was still wet like a new butterfly. But “do not hold on to me” is better. With her grief, Mary doesn’t want to let go of Jesus again.
Jesus could have appeared to Peter or the other disciple, but he chose this personal encounter with Mary, and she could never go back to normal; she must tell that she had seen the Lord.
Jesus made his choice personal by calling Mary by name. His personal relationship with her was central.
When he said not to hold onto him, he assured her he’d be there, and when he ascended to the Father, she’d be ready
The message Jesus gave Mary was also highly personal. Not tell “my disciples” but “my brothers.” Not just “my Father and my God” but also “your Father and your God.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, professor at Piedmont College and Columbia Theological Seminary, both in Georgia, tells of her childhood fascination with cicada shells as evidence a miracle had occurred. They looked dead but through the slit a living creature had escaped. She compared it to Jesus’ tomb which he outgrew. It was too small for his resurrection. The miracle was not in the tomb but his living encounters with people. (Christian Century, April 1, 1998, page 339)
Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary says the question we must answer about Jesus’ resurrection is not “Do you believe?” but “Have you been encountered by the risen Christ?” (Christian Century, March 13-20, 2002 p. 16)
Sometimes we talk about hearing God’s call to a ministry or to a vocation or location.  But Jesus calls everyone’s name to recognize him as the brother with whom they share their Father and their God. Jesus is calling your name. Have you heard him? Once you do, you can never go back to normal. Since you can’t go back to normal, where are you going forward with the risen Jesus?
Jesus is calling your name to share resurrection life with him, not waiting for the sweet by and by, but now, starting today. Our world is infected with hostility and violence. Jesus is calling your name to be his presence of love and peace to people around you. Our world is infected by fear and anxiety. Jesus is calling your name to be his presence of faith and hope to people around you. Our world is infected with pain and grief. Jesus is calling your name to be his presence of healing and comfort to people around you. When you hear Jesus call your name you cannot go back to normal brokenness but move forward in his resurrection to exuberant wholeness.