Message 4-2-17: New Life

Before I share the message that I used in our service on Sunday, I need to explain that while I was posting and thinking about other things on Saturday, April Fool’s Day, in Arizona other members of my extended family were having a very different sort of day. Later that evening, we received word that my 67-year-old uncle passed away of an apparent heart attack. I guess there will be a medical examination to determine cause of death before this is all over. I had completed the message before we got the call, and so I did make a few minor adjustments as I was speaking. For the most part what is posted below is what they heard.

One thing I wish to add, the opening song was “Jesus I Come.” As we began singing, I saw the lyrics with fresh eyes. All I could think of was someone saying those words as they were passing from this life to the next. I had not looked at that song quite like that before, and perhaps won’t ever see it any other way.

Here is what I mean:

  1. “Out of my bondage, sorrow and night, Jesus I come…In to thy freedom, gladness and light, Jesus I come to thee. Out of my sickness into thy health, out of my need and into thy wealth. Out of my sin and into thyself, Jesus I come to thee.

The other lines that start with out of include: shameful failure and loss, earth’s sorrows, life’s storms, distress, unrest and arrogant pride, despair, the fear and dread of the tomb, the depths of ruin untold. The other into’s include: joy and light of thy home, peaceful sheltering fold and jubilant psalm among others. It was hard to sing and for a time I could not, but it gave me the courage to give the message with greater conviction. Hope it makes sense to you.

The title of the message was: “New Life.” the scriptures used were: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45.

For a couple of weeks we have been watching the geese fly and waiting for the waters to open. As much as geese signal spring, the sure sign for me is the sound of the cranes. It seems that when the other birds come there is still a chance of snow here or there, and some people swear by the return of the robins, but I have seen snow many times after their arrival, for me the trick is seeing the cranes come back. And even though they fly really high and sometimes there is noise around, somehow their sound always comes through, that whirly, purring sort of sound that is different from other birds. I just love hearing them. Now if I could just get lucky enough to catch some of them with the camera that would be a highlight of my spring.

As for a not highlight of my spring, that was last week. Last week I was not so sure how long it was going to take for me to feel like I would survive. Friday, I started to feel sick, Saturday I was tired and miserable, but I found some old decongestant tablets and so I had a bit of relief. Sunday was not all that bad mostly because I had to get out of bed and get here to be with you, but the afternoon and evening were all downhill. Monday when I should have been able to sleep in and get some rest, I got up and told James I would start jotting down some plans for my funeral because I wasn’t sure how long I would still be breathing. (In light of the news we had Saturday, this remark seems rather inappropriate.)

I know that I shouldn’t joke about something like that, and of course there was no reasoning with me to go to the clinic. First off I realized that when you blow your nose and the stuff coming out does not have a color there is probably no bacteria and no way to treat it beyond over the counter drugs. I also started thinking about what Jessica was told when she went to the Dr. a few weeks back. They told her to wash her hands more and drink plenty of fluids. Wash your hands more is now the standard family joke. Monday afternoon, I purchased some decongestant and life got better. Hopefully this is the worst of the springtime illnesses at our house.

So, I might have been feeling better, but when I finally opened up the calendar and saw the lectionary scriptures for today, I cringed and nearly went back into sick mode. Three years ago this was the Sunday of my installation. So as the cycle goes, we have the same scripture lessons as that day, and I really don’t want to repeat that message. I initially had a hard time figuring out where to go that would be different. And as you can see the epistle lesson isn’t even in the bulletin, so that isn’t an option.

Of course the obvious answer would be to focus on the passage from Ezekiel instead of the story about how Lazarus was raised from the dead. I like that idea even less. I don’t like the Ezekiel scriptures and it is a silly reason, but it goes back to my college days. The man who was president of the college when I attended there was somewhat fixated on Ezekiel and used it often in his writings or speeches. For some reason his presentation turned me off at the time, and after he was asked to leave the post because of financial improprieties, I liked it even less. Maybe I will grow out of this down the line, but for now I am not there yet.

So here we are again with the story of the death of Lazarus and how his sisters Mary and Martha and their friends were grieving this tragic event. But today I don’t want to talk about the historical facts of that death and I especially don’t want to talk about the grief (yet ironically my family and I are grieving yet again this weekend) or even how amazing it was that Jesus was able to raise his friend who was in the grave for four whole days. Today I would rather look at this a new way. I would like to look at this in terms of what it means for us. If Jesus was able to raise Lazarus whose body should have smelled from decomposition, what can he do for us, who are still here very much alive in a physical sense?

Today I don’t want to think about all that stuff about Jesus talking to the sister and looking at the closed tomb and then actually grieving—crying real tears himself. No, today I want us to think about how Jesus looked at the tomb where he knew his friend was and instead of saying he was sorry not to get there sooner, Jesus raised his voice and he called for Lazarus to come out. That’s what he did, he stood there and called, “Lazarus, come out!” And if you want the substance of the message today, you hear those words with your name in that sentence. Jesus calls us each to come out of the tomb of our existence.

This is where we look at the scriptures differently than we looked at them in the past. Instead of seeing the grief stricken sisters and friends or even considering what Lazarus gave up by coming back, we see the new life that happened. Today we consider that the call of Jesus brought Lazarus to a new life. The simple call of Jesus brought Lazarus not just back to his old life to continue on, but to a new life, to a testimony of truth of the reality of Jesus, to the power of Jesus’ love, to the difference that the call from Christ can make in our lives.

This is the point of these scriptures for us today. It is the call of Jesus, the beckoning of our Christ that gives us new life. In reality this would probably have been a much more appropriate message for me to hear three years ago, but at that time I wasn’t anywhere near being able to imagine it let alone write it or speak it at that time.

New life is more than just the resurrection that we all hope to experience when this life that we now have is over. New life is about our personal survival of so many things. New life is about overcoming an illness, surviving a job change or the loss of a parent or a sibling or a spouse or even a child. I was reading one of the blogs that I follow last week. This blogger was not posting anything for a time, and it seems something has happened to cause the person pain, but they have not revealed details. I have been concerned that maybe something happened to another family member, but slowly the comments about others in the family are returning. I just know that something is different in this person’s life and I tried to leave a gentle encouraging remark on the last post as a way to connect and to let the blogger know I cared. I was relieved when I received a like for my comment.

New life is an adjustment. New things in our lives, whether they are new jobs—or retirement, different homes, new situations, a change in our health and mobility, new family members, or even the loss of someone close to us those are all adjustments we experience in life. Those are even things we grieve for a time, even when we are excited for the new, there are scary points just as much as when we experience loss. What we need to remember is that just like Lazarus heard Jesus call to him to come out of the tomb, Jesus calls to us to come out of our tombs of existence to experience the great love that he has for us. And more than that, Jesus calls us to come out and share that love with all those around us.

We might not know the details of what happened to Lazarus after Jesus called him from the tomb, and he came out alive and restored. But we can be sure that he didn’t hide out away from the world keeping this miracle to himself. Jesus called him to have a new life. Jesus restored Lazarus to life, just a few days before he himself would be betrayed and crucified and then rise from the dead. He didn’t make that call so it would be kept quiet. And Jesus doesn’t call us from our everyday lives in order to come here to worship then quietly slip out the door back to our homes to keep these beliefs and ideas to ourselves. Jesus calls us out of the tombs of our existence to share—to share what we know to be true with everyone around us.

The epistle lesson we didn’t read today comes from Romans 8:6-11 (read it) Paul tells us that when we give ourselves to Christ, we are given new life through the spirit of God. It is the spirit that lives in us that gives us the ability to answer Christ, to come out of our tombs and follow Jesus wherever that may be. Let us go this week with the strength of that conviction, answering that call as joyously as this magnificent spring day demands. Amen!

Fourth of July Message

This was the message in church for July 5th, 2015. We used the scriptures of: Mark 6:1-13, II Corinthians 12:2-10 and Ezekiel 2:1-5.

Independence: Tradition or Change

Corn was knee high

Corn was knee high

“Knee high by the fourth of July” is what James keeps telling me we need to see in the corn if it is to be any good for the year. Ours was well over knee high by yesterday, but the thing is we did not plant eating corn this year. We planted the colored decoration corn, which last time we grew it got to be right around seven feet tall, so knee high might be short for it right now. We did have some corn on the cob for supper yesterday and it was good, but it was not homegrown.

July 4th celebrations are always a good reason for people to gather in their home towns across our country. As a youngster, I remember years of attending celebrations in Artas and later the rodeo and carnivals in Mobridge. Family members would come home from California, Minnesota or even Rapid City. Later when James and I were married and the girls were youngsters, and even yesterday, we take the day to go to Hull or Westfield (yesterday) to the parade and kiddie races.

Years ago they would have a large meal followed by a church service with an outside speaker, or a musical group. The building would be filled to capacity and hot. I was happy when we finally had children, and I could use the excuse that they needed a nap, so I could go to an air-conditioned home to let them rest.

The frontier books about our area often include stories about the Fourth of July celebrations. Many times the meeting place is the church. Children and adults participate in games, and the stories are always filled with lists of food, usually fried chicken and potato salad and homemade bread wrapped in clean dishtowels. And there would be jugs of fresh lemonade or for the poorer set perhaps a mixture of vinegar and molasses water setting in tubs of ice chunks or even in cream cans. It is hard to imagine how all of that was organized and arranged without plastic Tupperware dishes or Coleman coolers or even refrigerators inside the mobile home campers. And how could those children possibly find anything to do without their smart phones or iPads or any number of electronic devices. Things have certainly changed in our modern times; though I often wonder if we have half the awe and excitement that they did in celebrating the meaning of our independence, or our free manner of life.

The people of Israel in the times of the prophet Ezekiel had lost their awe and longing for following the ways of God. Ezekiel was called as a prophet to go to the Israelites and bring them God’s words, God’s instructions, God’s call to repentance. But God knew what the people were like. He knew they were rebellious and hard hearted and that it would be a tough sell for Ezekiel. God knew it, and he warned Ezekiel that it would be a hard job, but not an impossible one, and not a life threatening one because God was with the prophet and God was there to watch over him so that he could fulfill his mission to bring the message to the Israelites at this time.

The lectionary message that we don’t have in the bulletin today is in II Samuel chapter 5. It is the story of the coronation of King David. If you just read the pieces that are in the lectionary, it sounds like a wonderful relationship between David and the Israelites. It was at times, but it wasn’t an easy start, and it wasn’t always perfect. David had his moments. Yet he was chosen by God, and he took up the mission. He ruled Israel and built it up into a great nation. Yet the people of Israel were still a rebellious people. It took some doing before they accepted the youngest son, shepherd boy as their King. Years later it was not going to be easy to accept a carpenter’s son as the Messiah even if he is one of the descendants of the great King David.

So here we are at the gospel story for today. In today’s passage from Mark, we meet up with Jesus and the disciples just after he has performed two very impressive miracles. He has just healed a woman who was hemorrhaging for 12 years, and then proceeded to restore life to a young girl who was dead, both of whom he should not have even gone near. Now he is back at home in Nazareth, the town where he grew up, the town that knew him as the oldest son of a poor carpenter and his young wife. He is in the place least likely to accept him. And he knows it, and he says it.

You often hear that “Home is where your heart is.” I have a coffee cup that says, “Home is where your Mom is.” There is also the quote of “Home is the place that when you go there they have to take you in.” Actually according to Jesus, “Home is the place that is least likely to accept you as a prophet.” And I suppose it is understandable when you are able to think back to everything that a person was about as a youngster, you might not accept the change in them, especially from someone who was such a nobody.

I remember back to the Centennial Celebration in Herreid. It was in the afternoon, Thursday or Friday, before the activities were in full swing. We were in my mother’s café, and one of the alumni came in. He was so disgusted. He had been across the street watching some of the locals playing pinochle and someone had called him by a derogatory nick name that he had in high school. This was a man who had grown up poor and had been a no one in high school, but had gone on to make out pretty well as an adult. He came back to see some old friends. He came back to show that he really was someone, but no one who had stayed behind was willing to see him as anything different than what he was as a child. His remark that day was that he would never come back to another reunion ever. I remembered that when the next reunion came along, and he had passed away before the invitations went out.

Jesus came home to Nazareth after what had been an amazing and probably pretty draining time of preaching and teaching and healing. Before the most recent healing and raising from the dead, he and the disciples have been traveling around spreading the gospel and casting out demons, and that alone should have been taxing enough. Imagine this: the demons that he cast out understood who he was, but the people he healed and those watching and listening had no idea of his connection to God. And then when he got home to the place where he was raised, the town in which he grew up, they couldn’t understand how he knew what he knew. How was that carpenter’s son supposed to have gained all that knowledge? Where in the world did Mary’s boy learn to interpret the scripture the way he did? It was just not believable. It just couldn’t happen to a boy from Nazareth. He couldn’t possibly be the Messiah.

At the end of the section about Jesus and the disciples in Nazareth, we read that he wasn’t able to perform many miracles. He was only able to cure a few illnesses by laying his hands on some people. It wasn’t because he had lost his touch. It wasn’t because he was so upset that his power was gone. It was because those who came had no faith. It was because they were so unwilling to see Jesus as the Messiah, as the one sent from God, that their faith/or lack of faith, blocked his ability to heal them. That’s sort of a scary thought.

Now, thankfully, we don’t leave the story at this point. If we did, it would be a pretty depressing way to end the service. This would feel more like Maundy Thursday, the end of Lent than the first Sunday in July.  Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples move on. If his hometown is not going to listen and hear what he has to say, they will all take the message to the other villages in the area. This is the place that Jesus takes the disciples and divides them into groups of two and sends them out to spread the gospel.

This part of the story reminds us of the importance of spreading the word to all parts of the world, to every corner of civilization and beyond. And, not only does he send them out and give them authority to do what he has been doing, but he gives them some very specific instructions on what to take with them and how to act. He tells them to take only what they are wearing, no extra clothes, no food, and no money. He does allow them a staff. Perhaps it is for helping them over the steep spots or to chase away a wild animal or maybe to protect themselves from whatever could cause them harm. Mostly he sends them with faith and the power to complete their mission.

Jesus also gave them some pretty descriptive instructions about what to do if they were rejected. He told them to stop at the outside of town and shake the dust of that town off their feet. Apparently that was a custom at the time; it was something the disciples would understand. The Orthodox Jews would shake the dust off their feet when they returned from traveling to the area of the Gentiles. It was a sign that they were having no part of the people in the area they had been through. But from the final verses, it doesn’t sound like they had to use that custom. It sounds like their mission was very successful because it says they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. They had a successful mission.

The delegates, who took up the task of writing the Declaration of Independence for our country, if they were here today, might say their mission was pretty successful. It has lasted for 239 years after all. The settlers, who founded our country, the few who started the colonies, and then those who fought for our independence to become a country to move to a new way of being did so with very little more than what they could carry.

Some, perhaps not all, had faith in God, a belief in Jesus and what he did to allow us salvation. Many of those early Americans were the ancestors of our own wider church. They were people who believed in God, but also in an independent way of doing things. They had a strong commitment to mission and spreading the gospel, and some even had a commitment to equality and fairness and justice for everyone. I like to think those are the ones we try to pattern ourselves after.

This passage in Mark seems to break into two pieces and almost be two separate messages and then you add the timing of the calendar and you wonder, “What is the message for today, what is the actual topic?” If we would have stopped with the first part of the lesson, we could have looked around and said, “Yes, it is so depressing, Jesus was rejected at home, there is no point to go on.” We could have looked around at ourselves and said, “We seem to be rejected, we are small, we feel alone, lost unable to grow, no purpose to be,” And we could be depressed. But the passage doesn’t end there.

Jesus took the disciples and went out to the other villages. Jesus took the disciples and went away from where they were and spread the gospel to those who were away from where they had been. Our church ancestors took themselves away from the country, from the countries where they had been living and rejected and came to a new place to live and be and share the gospel with themselves and those around them. I hope you see what this story, all these stories are telling us.

Jesus did not allow the disciples to sit and wait for the people to come and join them; he sent them to share the gospel with others. Our message is not just for us inside these walls. Our message is not just for Sunday mornings. Our message is for tomorrow and the next day and the next. It is for everyone we meet. It is in every action we do. Sharing the gospel of Christ is all about how we live and act and are. Let’s remember to do that this week, and let’s hope we don’t have to shake any dust off our shoes. Amen!

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