Selected Sermons

September 8, 2019

“100 Crosses”

Scriptures: Jeremiah 18:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 and Matthew 11:28.

 

Jeremiah 18:1-11. The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

 

NIV 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength

Matthew 11:28. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing to you O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen

The Prophet Jeremiah was issuing G-d’s warning to Israel. Just as a potter may choose to remake a spoiled vessel, so may G-d choose to remake a spoiled nation. A nation that has become unwise.

A nation chasing after its idols. But a nation that can avert a disaster if it repents and turns back to G-d.

September 11, 2001 seemed to be such a disaster for this country. Every one of our age remembers that time with great sadness. Two days after the terror attacks, Frank Silecchia was working to excavate the rubble at ground zero. He had been working around the clock. He was physically exhausted. He was emotionally drained. Then he saw it. It was standing upright, but at an angle. It was draped with the debris of the destruction, yet it was clearly identifiable.

There was a priest working in the wreckage. By that time Father Brian Jordan was blessing remains, offering comfort and prayer to the workers, and he was just barely hanging on. That is when Frank found him and asked him to come see. It took a minute, but then Father Brian exclaimed, “Oh my God, I see it”. Standing in the rubble was a 17 foot iron cross. It was a massive T-Beam that the explosions, the fire and the destruction had shaped into a cross.

A few days later, Father Brian enlisted the help of some volunteer union laborers, including a crane operator. Together, they lifted the cross out of the rubble and put it on a concrete stand.

Then Father Brian blessed it. And that cross became a center of worship for the people there.

For 10 months, Father Brian held Sunday services in its shadow. People would come to the cross to pray. Families of those who perished came to the cross to seek comfort. The workers often found their rest there. When people on the site were worn out with grief, they went to the cross.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

These are the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28. That is our Gospel lesson for this day. The power of God through the cross calls to us to come. To lay down our burdens. And to find God’s peace. To avert the disasters in our lives.

The World Trade Center cross was moved over to St. Peter’s church as the Memorial was built at Ground Zero. The plans for the Memorial included a central location for the cross and, of course, the atheists fought it tooth and nail.

They said it was an ugly piece of wreckage.

They said it was repugnant.

They said that it connoted horror and death.

And to some extent, what they said was true.

It was pretty much what people said 2,000 years ago when they saw a cross. It was an ugly instrument of capital punishment. It was repugnant to all but the cruelest sensibilities. Indeed the cross was associated with the horror of an ugly, prolonged death. Crucifixion was reserved for the worst of criminals, and the Romans had perfected the process. They didn’t crucify shoplifters or petty lawbreakers.  But they did make a public spectacle of executing the worst criminals in order to deter others from committing crime. And so, death on a cross was a scandal for the entire family. It was a shameful way to die. It was also a symbol of the power of Rome to take a life. It was a sign of the powerlessness of a people to resist Roman law. To even consider that the crucifixion of a person could bring redemption or salvation to a people would be foolishness. It would be shocking.

And so Paul wrote that Jews demanded a sign. But not this sign.

Paul wrote that Greeks look for wisdom. But not this wisdom.

 

The world’s wisdom could not encompass God’s wisdom. The world’s wisdom could not explain such a sacrifice. And so, any association of redemption with the cross would be foolishness to those who look to the world for their own self-image.

To those who are perishing, the message of the cross is incomprehensible. But to those who are being saved, the message of the cross is central to our faith. It is the potter lovingly making a vessel, shaping it with his hands, bringing it to life. Reconciling the clay unto himself, just as sinners are reconciled to G-d through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. That instead of judgment and punishment for our sins, we could be forgiven and in God’s forgiveness, we can have hope and joy and comfort and peace. That we can be changed and remolded and made new.

That we could have salvation.

So Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” as the message of the cross.

And so, all of the theology, all of the preaching, all of our praying, all of our faith can condensed down into the simple image of the cross. The image that brings to mind all that God has done for us is the cross.

The cross stands as a challenge to those who hate.

The cross denies the power of violence.

The cross confronts evil and wickedness.

The cross defies injustice.

The cross pushes back against the idols and the idolaters and the evil that G-d so despises.

Even as the cross brings to mind God’s grace at work in our lives. In Paul’s letter, he wrote that the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. God’s power in Jesus to walk to Jerusalem knowing full well that the cross was waiting for him. God’s power in us to face the trials and hurts of this world. G-d’s power to save the world.

But even as we read Paul’s words separating the perishing from the saved, there is something in those words that offer hope. There is something in those words that offers redemption for those who are perishing. There is something in those words that pierces the barriers, that breaches the boundaries of our foolishness and points to the possibility of a new way of life.  There is something that tells us that G-d just might not crush a spoiled pot and start over.

That “something” is G-d’s power to transform us.

It is G-d’s grace calling to us, giving us hope, pointing to Christ and marking the way to salvation. It is the invitation to all to join and sing the hymn of Philippians 2, “that Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore G-d also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of G-d the Father.”

When Father Brian, the priest who ministered at Ground Zero, was interviewed, he was asked about those who came to the cross. Father Brian said that all faiths came. Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, nonbelievers, all were drawn to the cross to seek out G-d’s peace and comfort. He said that the cross took the grief and took the loss and took the pain. The people were able to lay their burdens at the foot of the cross.

G-d’s peace and comfort that we find at the cross is not a talisman against tough times. The cross is not a good luck charm.

Rather, it symbolizes a way of life. Even of our own sacrifice.

Of our own service in the name of the crucified Savior, so that in the words of Christ, in Luke 9:23, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”

So, the way of the cross is not easy and was never meant to be. But the way of the cross is true.

And in following this way we find true joy and fulfillment.

Salvation is not just an end times alternative to judgment.

Salvation is not just our being saved from eternal death.

Salvation is a present hope and comfort in this life, offered daily.

Many of the workers at the World Trade Center were welders. Cutting apart the twisted iron.

Undoing what heat and gravity had done to the frame of those towers. I read that as they took rests, welders at the Ground Zero spent time cutting little replicas of the cross from other beams.

Hundreds were cut out and carried or set up as personal devotions, Reminders. Remembrances.

Something they could hold in their hand and seek G-d’s comfort and peace.

There is something special in holding a cross. There is something that helps us focus our prayers to our G-d.

A few years ago, my friend Ron was in my office and I had a hand cross on the table. He picked it up and held it. But it really did not fit his hand. The angles were too sharp. The size was all wrong.

So I told Ron, I would make him new one.

Some years ago, I received a hand cross on the Walk to Emmaus. It has curves that fit my hand.

It is smooth and seems warm. So I made a template and then I made a cross. Then another. And another.

Cutting, shaping, praying, sanding, staining, waxing and praying some more.

I could not stop. And I prayed, Lord G-d how many? How many crosses should I make?

The Lord’s answer was 100.

Start with 100.

So I made 100 hand crosses and started giving them to whoever asked for one. Some people got them who did not ask, but I was drawn to give one to them.

Then I started making more. We are over a 1,000 now and the inner voice that calls me is as urgent as ever. Lord G-d draws my eyes to planks of wood and I see crosses. I see the empty hands of people who are hurting and I want them to have a cross to hold. And the time I spend in my shop making the crosses has become sacred time to me.

When I wonder how many I need to make, I remember the words of my friend Andy Smith.

He said I should make them until no one needs one anymore.

So, if you want a cross, please come get one. If you know someone who needs a cross, give them one.

In 2nd Corinthians 1:3-4, Paul wrote:

“Praise be to the G-d and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the G-d of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from G-d.”

Sometimes we pray for ourselves and sometimes we pray for others. And that is good. That is right.

Paul wrote in Colossians 2:14.:

“G-d made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”

And James wrote in Chapter 5:15-16,

“15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. ”

We don’t need to hold a cross when we pray, but we must pray. For ourselves and for each other.

When the World Trade Center memorial was completed, the cross was moved back there. Despite the objections of the atheists.

Despite the lawsuit they had filed.

Despite it being an ugly piece of wreckage in some eyes.

The cross was moved back to where it needed to be at Ground Zero. Someone had put a rough plaque on the cross.

It said:

Founded 9-13-01

 Blessed October 4, 2001.

 Temporarily relocated October 5, 2006.

 Will return to the WTC Museum

 A sign of comfort for all.

And Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Amen.

“Because of Winn-Dixie”

July 21, 2019

Summer Reading Program Begins

Sermon Title: “Because of Winn-Dixie”

Scriptures: 1 Peter 5:5-7; Luke 11:9-10

1 Peter 5:5-7. 5 In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for “G-d opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of G-d, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.

Luke 11:9-10. 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. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.


Because of Winn-Dixie is about a dog and a little girl, but really it is about life. It is about asking and receiving; searching and finding; knocking and having doors open for you.

Opal is a 10 year old girl living with her dad in a trailer park in Naomi, Florida. Her dad is the new preacher at Open Arms Baptist Church. Her mom left them when Opal was 3 years old and Opal misses her so much, even though she barely remembers her mom.

The story begins at the local grocery store on a summer day. Opal is there to get a few things, and there is a ruckus as a stray dog ransacks the store. The manager was going to call the pound, but Opal claimed that the dog was hers. That it got in the store by mistake. And so she called the dog by the first name she saw. The store name. Winn-Dixie.

So, Opal took Winn-Dixie home, and told the Preacher that as he is always telling folks to help the unfortunates, she has brought one home. That big, scruffy, smelly stray dog with a smile. A suffering unfortunate. He dad said that she really did not need a dog. But she said, “I don’t need a dog. But this dog needs me.” So, the Preacher saw something that only a dad could see, and the dog found a home. And little Opal said, “And I have to admit. He stunk. Bad. He was an ugly dog, but already, I loved him with all my heart.”

And so, the book is about unconditional love and acceptance. That deep, devoted unquestioning love that only a child can have. That only a parent can have for their children. In his first letter, the Apostle John wrote,  Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from G-d; everyone who loves is born of G-d and knows G-d. Whoever does not love does not know G-d, for G-d is love.

And I believe that G-d gives us pets so that we can learn how to love and therefore know G-d. Now, the thing about Winn-Dixie is that he was terrified of thunder and stormy weather. Many dogs get scared from the thunder, but Winn-Dixie went nuts and Opal and the Preacher learned to just hold him tight when the weather hit. To give him that most comfort they could.

So, the book is about our need to be comforted in the rough times.

It is about loneliness and isolation.

It is about fear and abandonment.

The fears of a little girl, her dog and all the rest of the people in the story and their need for someone to offer them comfort and friendship. To hold them during the storms of life.

As children will do, Opal talked things out with Winn-Dixie. She told him how she missed her mom. How she missed her friends in the town they had come from. And the same was true for other characters in the book. They all seemed lonely. Opal said, “Sometimes it seems that everyone in the world is lonely.”

There was Fanny Block, the librarian in the little town. Surrounded by books, but there was no one to hear her stories. That is, until Winn-Dixie and Opal showed up one day, and then the next until finally Fanny told her the story of her great grandfather. Littmus W. Block. A civil war veteran who, after the war was over, decided that the world needed some something sweet. So, he built a candy factory and the Littmus Lozenge tasted a little like root beer, some strawberries and something else. Something a little sad. Fanny said that Littmus had a special ingredient that took all the sadness from the war, mixed it into the candy, so that people could taste the sweet and the sad of life, all blended together. And in that tasting, they could find peace.

And from scripture, Romans 8, We know that all things work together for good for those who love G-d, who are called according to his purpose.

The good and the bad, the sweet and the sad, all shape us and make our lives what they are.

And there was Gloria Dump. She lived alone in a spooky looking house with an overgrown yard. The Dewberry boys from down the street were about the same age as Opal, but they had no idea how to talk to a girl. So they teased her and taunted her a bit. Those Dewberry boys had declared that Gloria must be a witch and that Opal should not even go near her house. That Gloria would even eat her dog if she got a chance. But Winn-Dixie took off into her yard, and Opal followed. And deep in that grown over yard, she found Gloria feeding Winn-Dixie a peanut butter sandwich.

Gloria was full of wisdom. Full of patience. And full of love. And every day, Opal and Winn-Dixie visited with Gloria. And Gloria would teach her about getting along with others. Not judging others about what they had done but trying to appreciate who they are now. Trying to understand them.

And Gloria listened.

And one day Opal thought, “Because Winn-Dixie was looking up at her like she was the best thing he had ever seen, and because the peanut butter sandwich had been so good, and because I had been waiting so long to tell someone everything about me, I did”

And here is the part I like.  Opal said “I could feel her listening with all her heart and it felt good.”

Friends, there is no better gift we can give than to listen to people with all our heart. To give them our undivided attention and hear their stories. St. Peter wrote in his first letter, 4th chapter, Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of G-d, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.

Listening to people tell their stories is an act of love.

Listening is a grace.

Listening is a gift.

We might mess up a lot of things. We might have a bit of sin in our lives. But love and G-d’s grace will cover over a multitude of the things we do wrong.

Sometimes listening is hard. Stories get repeated. Real or imagined grievances get aired again and again. Hurts are replayed. Anger can surface and then dissipate. And we are called to listen to all of that.

And so, Paul would write to the church in Ephesus, Chapter 4, to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,

And Paul also wrote to the church to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as G-d in Christ has forgiven you.

And Paul also wrote to the church in Corinth, 13th chapter, that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And Paul wrote to the church in Colossi in the 3rd chapter, Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

And so, we might discern a trend here as Paul writes to his churches to tell them to bear with each other. Because apparently, the churches were not doing a great job of that and were not listening to each other very well. And so, Paul had to fuss at each one of his churches to do a better job of listening with their whole heart; forgiving each other and bearing with each other in love. And across the centuries, the church today needs to sharpen up our listening skills so that folks will say, “I could feel her listening with all her heart and it felt good.”

And once it was clear between Gloria and Opal that theirs was a trusted conversation, a conversation of the heart, then Gloria shared a bit of her story. Gloria showed Opal her “Mistake tree”. A tree with bottles hung from the branches. They were not soda bottles. The tree reminded Gloria each day how she had to fight her battle and that story hit home with Opal. Because her mom had also struggled with alcohol and had made some mistakes in her life. At some point, Opal wondered who held and comforted Gloria when the ghosts of those bottles began to rattle in the wind. Opal could hold Winn-Dixie as the storms thundered, but who held Gloria?

But, let’s move on to Otis. Otis was the manager of the pet store where Opal went to get Winn-Dixie a collar and lease. So that he wouldn’t look like a stray. Opal did not have enough money, so she asked Otis if she could work it off at the store. Otis was worried about having a big dog in the store. In fact, there was a sign on the door. “No Dogs Allowed”. But Winn-Dixie won his heart with that smile, and Opal had a job. But there was a loneliness about Otis. A sort of caged look, and eventually he confided to Opal that he had been in jail. That was why he let the animals out of their cages and played his guitar for them in the mornings.

And the cast of characters includes little Amanda Wilkinson. She was described by Opal as “Pinch faced”. But later Opal would learn that her scowl was a mask for her pain from the death of her little brother. That she too needed a friend.

Finally, there was the Preacher. We never learn his real name. Opal just thinks of him as the Preacher. He is still missing his wife. Hoping that she would come back. But knowing that she likely would not. Opal described her dad as being like a turtle. His head drawn back into a shell. Afraid to come out and experience life.

And so, it was because of Winn-Dixie, who, in one way or another, brought these people together. Out of their loneliness and into fellowship. Out of their anxiety into peace and contentment. First with Opal and the dog, and then with each other. See, Winn-Dixie would not stay by himself. He would not let that little girl out of his sight. He howled and clamored and threw a fuss, and so that is how Winn-Dixie started going to church. And to the library. And to the pet store. Over to Gloria’s house. And everywhere in town, sharing his goofy dog smile and bringing people together. And so, Opal was to say to Winn-Dixie, “You are better at making friends than anybody I have ever known.”

And so, you might be wondering if the story of Winn-Dixie has a plot. Is there a mystery that has been solved? Is there an ending where Opal’s mom comes back and they lived happy ever after? And there is no such ending. Instead, Opal and Gloria planned a party at Gloria’s house. The guests are those Winn-Dixie who has brought together. Gloria made egg salad sandwiches and punch. Fanny brought a bowl of Littmus Lozenges. Otis brought his guitar and they found out that he could play any tune and sing any song. The preacher came to bless and be blessed. Amanda came and no longer looked pinch faced. The boys came and they were no longer teasing or taunting.

The only drama was that a sudden storm came up and Opal thought that Winn-Dixie had run off. So, she and the Preacher went searching all over town. And when the Preacher finally said that they had done all the searching and calling they could and it was time to go back, Opal’s little heart broke. She cried out to her dad, not to give up like he gave up on mom. “I bet you just let her run off too.” Opal said.  Then the Preacher cried, and they shared such a tender moment. Opal asked her dad if he ever thought mom would come back and the Preacher confessed, finally admitted, that she likely would not. But that they had each other in this sweet/ sad thing called life, and that would be enough. That their love would get them through.

But this is a children’s book. Opal and the Preacher went back to Gloria’s house and Winn-Dixie had been hiding under a bed. So, the party continued inside. And they sang songs together. The Preacher offered some hymns they might sing and that Otis could play.

And after a while, little Opal slipped out back to that mistake tree. In her imagination, she talked to her mom. Shared what had happened. Vowed to learn more about her mom. To keep loving her. But she knew her mom was not coming back, and that she and the Preacher would continue to miss her. But she told her mom. “my heart does not feel empty anymore. It’s full all the way up.”

When we open ourselves to others and listen to their stories. Trust them enough to tell them our stories. When we stop judging and start accepting others and understand that they each have their own gifts and graces. When we learn how to take the sweet and the sad. When we learn how to love.

Our hearts get full all the way up.

Not because of Winn-Dixie, but because of Jesus Christ.

Who loves us without condition. Who turns our anxiety into peace. Who holds us and comforts us in the storms. Who listens with his whole heart. And who accepts us just as we are, but with a divine intent that we will become better.

I hope that you take a minute to read Because of Winn-Dixie. There is much more than I was able to share. More wisdom from Gloria. More love from that little girl. And more to read about that doggie, Winn-Dixie. Friends, wisdom comes from the strangest places. Even from the pages of a children’s book.

To G-d be the glory.


Sunrise Service at William Taylor UMC

“The Message of the Cross”

Pastor Bill Knobles as guest preacher

Scriptures: Luke 24:1-12 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

1 Corinthians 1:18-25. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d.  For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”  Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not G-d made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of G-d, the world did not know G-d through wisdom, G-d decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of G-d and the wisdom of G-d. For G-d’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and G-d’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Luke 24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.


Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women were the early witnesses to the Resurrection according to Luke’s gospel. They came to the tomb early that morning with the spices and ointments they had prepared for Jesus’ body. As a final act of devotion, they would do for him what tradition required. Even though he had died a scandalous death by crucifixion, his body would be treated with respect and love. So, they had prepared the spices and had prepared themselves for what they would find.

But they were not prepared to find an empty tomb.

They were not prepared to find the stone rolled away.

And they were not prepared to find angels saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

And so, they went from being perplexed to being terrified. From being sure that Jesus was dead to trying to figure out what had happened.

Now Peter might have said that the tale was foolish; an idle tale. And he might have thought that the women were delirious, but he got up from his grief. He got up from his shame. He got up from his guilt and he ran to the tomb. And he was amazed at what he found.

And so, we add “amazement” to the list of what they were feeling early that morning.

Perplexed, puzzled, confused, confounded. Then frightened and terrified. And then amazed.

And friends, people receive the message of the cross the same way today. Puzzled, then frightened and then, by grace, amazed. Puzzled because the wisdom of the world says that the story of the cross is foolishness. Frightened because the reality of our sin is terrifying. Amazed because G-d would even consider saving his sinful creatures from judgment.

And so, they look for signs and seek after wisdom. They search after fulfillment and pursue the treasures of this world. And in the end, unless they understand the message of the cross, they will come away empty. Their pursuits wasted.

One thing we might wonder about that first Easter morning was whether the women had wasted the spices they had prepared. Did they waste their money and resources in purchasing the aloes and the myrrh or even the nard used to prepare a body for burial? These items were not cheap, and you opened the containers by breaking them. The contents could not be saved. So, was their preparation wasted? I think not. Because the preparation was a time of devotion. The preparation was a time to consider and think and to pray and to grieve and then to settle into the task that lay ahead.

And G-d honors such devotion. G-d values our intentions. And G-d uses such a task to focus us, orientate us and consecrate us to do his work. As those women prepared the spices, G-d prepared their hearts to receive a message that would otherwise have been foolishness to them.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d. 

And so, it is good and right on this Easter morning to seek understanding of the message of the cross. To prepare ourselves to help others seek that understanding. And to reject the world’s definition of wisdom. But we start with a scandal. Crucifixion was a scandal. The cross was an ugly instrument of capital punishment. It was a symbol of the power of Rome to take a life. It was a sign of the powerlessness of a people to resist Roman law. And it was repugnant to all but the cruelest sensibilities. Indeed, the cross was associated with the horror of an ugly, prolonged death. And it was reserved only for the worst of the criminals and done in a way to humiliate the family and friends of the victim.

People of faith did not wind up on a cross. The religious leaders did not wind up on a cross. And it was foolishness to even suggest that G-d would use such a scandal to redeem his people from their sin.

Foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews.

And so, Paul would write that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d

Paul presents us with these opposing positions between what the world accounts as wisdom and what G-d tells us is truth.

The power of G-d vs. the power of sin.

The power of reconciliation vs. the cancer of division.

The power of justification vs. the ugliness of condemnation.

The power of hope vs. the agony of despair.

The power of love vs. the sickness of hate.

Each of these dynamic, important and lifechanging alternatives wrapped up in the single most powerful proclamation we make.

That we proclaim Christ crucified. That we proclaim the cross is more powerful than our sin. That we proclaim our faith is more powerful that what the world tells us is important.

And which Paul says is the message of the cross. A message so powerful that it separates those of us who are being saved from those who are perishing.

So, what is the wisdom that the world offers? What is the wisdom of the wise? The discernment of the discerning? What are people running after in their fear and their puzzlement?

Some folks listen to the Hollywood celebrities and the New York power brokers to know what to seek and adore. And they tell us that it is ok to cheat on college admissions. That if you have money, it is justified to spread a little around so that your child is a step ahead of the kid who has worked and earned that slot in school.

They tell us that wealth is power. That might makes right. That status is all important. The world tells us that we should idolize celebrities, worship athletes and pay homage to the royally born. The world tells us that it is ok, even more than ok, to claw your way up and use people as your stepping stones.

That world of wisdom puts us in debt. It stretches us beyond our means.

It comes between us and our church. Even between us and our families as we sacrifice for a bunch of stuff that is just going to break anyway.

And, Oh the wisdom the world has for our children. That it is ok to bully.

It is ok to use mean words on social media. That to be popular, you have to dress a certain way, be with certain people or do certain things. And when it all goes bad, some wisdom that is offered by the world to our children is to just take their own lives.

And when we speak out, the world tells us that we ought to keep silent about our faith because we just might offend those with no faith. This is just a bit of the wisdom the world offers. This is what the world wants us to believe.

And when we say that idolatry, infanticide, pride, cheating, coveting, and hating and snarking and judging and mocking and hurting are wrong, we are called foolish. We are called out of touch and old fashioned. We don’t know how things are and how things are done.

Because the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d. 

It is the power to redeem.

The power to save.

The power to heal.

The power to love

And it is the power to live.

Not just to exist and chase the worldly pursuits, but to have life and have it abundantly and joyfully.

The message of the cross, the heart of the Gospel, the meaning of the empty tomb, is that G-d loves us so much that he gave his one and only beloved son to die so that we might be saved. The message of the cross stands opposed to the message of the world. And the message of the cross is the only answer to our sin and our way to redemption.

When I read my Bible, I am mindful that it takes only 3 chapters before we get into the business of sin and rebellion against G-d. Actually just 2 chapters and then half of a paragraph. And we fall from G-d’s grace. Sin enters this world. And we are evicted from paradise.

And then in Chapter 4, actually it is only the 2nd paragraph of chapter 4, humankind gets into the murdering business as Cain kills his brother Able.

And so, we have our Bible, that from the very start until the final victory in Revelation, is the epic story of G-d trying to get his kids back. Trying to redeem his sinful, foolish children who had much rather look to the world’s wisdom and our own devices for salvation.

So first, G-d calls his people Israel as a sign of his grace in the fallen world and claims them as his people. He rescues them time and time again. He gives them his law and his love. He gives them land and prosperity. And eventually, they become just as foolish as ever. And so, Lord G-d announces through his prophets that he is coming down here to get his kids back. That he is going to make a way of redemption for them. And that he was going to do so in a way that would never be forgotten. A way that was so shocking that people would know of a love so big, grace so divine, that we would confess our sins, repent and submit to G-d’s will.

And so, the message of the Cross is that Christ died for our sin. Taking our stripes. Restoring our relationship with G-d.

The image of that Old Rugged Cross is a sign of what G-d has done to rescue us once and for all, at least those who are being saved because we have faith in our  G-d. Some folks might say to us that the message of the cross is not as enticing as what the world offers. That the empty tomb is not as compelling as a full bank account. That faith is not as fulfilling, not as certain, as the material things the world gives. That we will never sell the message of the cross in today’s world.

And to that I say, “baloney”. I say that is truly foolishness. Because I have sat with those families who thought they had it all, only to find out that what they had was an illusion of prosperity. I have visited with rich folks who would give all their money for just one day of sobriety. We all have wept with people who found that money could never replace what they have lost. That in the end, it is only the message of the cross, the power of G-d, that offers comfort and peace, joy and life.

Friends, our job as faithful Christians is to be a witness to that message. In how we live, how we act, how we worship and how we love.

And just as that first Easter morning the women prepared to serve Jesus, prepared their devotion to their Christ, we prepare this Easter to go and tell the message of the cross. So that people might not perish, but have everlasting life.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of G-d.

But friends, they might be perishing, but they are not gone yet. They might be sinking low, but they are not finished yet. As long as the unrepentant sinner has breath, there is a chance that what seems foolish to them is what will save them.

That what has been rejected will become their cornerstone.

And that they will be saved by the very power of G-d.

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And the people said amen.

 

 

06 MAR 2019

Ash Wednesday Sermon, First United Methodist Church of Luling

Pastor Bill Knobles

“Desperate Prayers”

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and Luke 18:9-14.

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17. 2:1 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near-2:2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. 2:12 Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 2:13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 2:14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?

Luke 18:9-14. He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”


By 70 A.D. Rome had had quite enough of the rebellious Jews of Israel. There had been battles and skirmishes throughout Judea. Entire Jewish cities had been destroyed and the people killed. And now, the Roman army had laid siege to Jerusalem. They had built ramps up to the walls and put their siege engines into position. Battering rams pounded the gates. Jerusalem did not stand a chance. It was a rout and the panic and killing seemed to be without end. The temple was plundered. All of this was chronicled by Josephus, the Jewish historian in his “Wars of the Jews”. And in the end, Caesar ordered the complete destruction of the city of Jerusalem. That no trace of the temple be left. It was to be an object lesson for other provinces with a rebellious streak.

Then, years and years went by. The fighting continued periodically, even as the city was slowly rebuilt. The Romans, Persians, the Jews, the Christians, all loosely wrapped into the Byzantine Empire continued to fuss over the city. But in 636 a.d., the Muslim Caliphate laid siege to Jerusalem and captured the city. They laid claim to Temple Mount and built a mosque where the temple used to stand.

Then came the crusades and the world wars, the creation of the state of Israel and then 1967, the Six Day war when Israel took Jerusalem once again. And the Jews began the excavation of the Western Wall. It was all that was left of their beloved temple. Its probable location had been known for a long time, but years of garbage and junk piling up, haphazard building, had all but buried the wall. Now, it was unearthed and exposed once again.

The Western Wall of Temple Mount is not a wall to keep people in or out. It is simply a retaining wall to create a flat surface for Temple Mount. But it is a holy site to the Jewish people and they come to the wall to pray. In olden times, it was called the Wailing Wall, because the Jewish people came there with their desperate prayers, their cries, their lamentations over the destruction of their Temple. Now, people from all over go to the Western Wall to reverently seek God. To slip their written prayers between the stones. To open themselves to Lord God in a place where they feel that he is near.

Not too far from that wall, Jesus told a parable about two men praying in the temple. One man, a Pharisee, was congratulating himself at how good he was. How generous he was. How faithful he was. How pious he was. The man was self-satisfied, and his prayers were shallow. He asked nothing of God because he believed he had need of nothing from God. He was not convicted by his sin. He felt neither the wrath nor the love of God. He might as well have been standing around the coffee pot chatting with his friends.

But there was another man. A desperate man. A man who knew his sin and it was ever before him. He could not even look up to heaven as he prayed. He felt unworthy and so he prayed away from the others. Tax collectors in Jerusalem were compromised people. They were in league with the Roman tyrants. Their contract was to collect a set amount of taxes for Rome and they could keep any excess. It was a system fraught with abuse. The Romans suspected them, and the Jews hated them. And sometimes, the tax collectors hated themselves. And if they were people of any faith, all they could do was to pray to God for mercy. To repent and plead to God for forgiveness. To try to turn their lives around and extricate themselves from the web of deceit and excess and abuse that they had gotten themselves into.

Such a life was hard to get into and even harder to get out of. It still is. We find ourselves in messes and we wonder how we got in so deep. This season of Lent will be a good time to lay out our prayer life and examine what we find. To see what we have gotten ourselves into.

Among our prayers will be those of praise. Of thanking God and celebrating his goodness. That will probably be a large, orderly stack of prayers right in front.

Over here, we have our prayers, our vows, to serve our God. It is not a real large stack, but the prayers are well intended.

But over here are our prayers of supplication. Our prayers for others. For the neighbor who is fighting cancer. For the child who is wandering. For the friend who is lonely. For the world that is in chaos. For the church that is struggling. This stack is not orderly but is a little scattered. The prayers seem incomplete. Some are even dampened by our tears. Wrinkled by our heartache.

Then, over there is a crumpled mess of prayers for our self. Our hurts. Our shortcomings. Our sins. Our confessions. Our repentance. Our pleas for forgiveness. They are a sodden lump of prayers, anointed by our weeping; baptized by our fears. Some prayers have but a single word of “help!”. On others, there are no words at all. Just a sound of our groaning.

These are our desperate prayers. Prayed while we are under siege. Prayed while our temples are torn down. Prayed while our loved ones are scattered. I think that when God hears our prayers, these are the ones he turns his attention to first. These are the prayers which are like an emergency room. They need some attention now, and not later. We are not distracted when we pray these desperate prayers. No, these hurts have our full attention. These needs are urgent. Our sin is ever before us, accusing us and trying to curse us. These are not prayers for around the coffee pot. These prayers are not for show. These are prayers from the gut, offered to God with trembling hands and on the knees of our hearts.

Paul wrote about such prayers.

In the 8th chapter of Romans, verse 26, he wrote Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

What does God do with our desperate prayers? Jesus said that the tax collector went down to his home justified before God. Justified is a rather curious word here. In common English, it means that a person’s actions are proven right and reasonable and just. But that definition does not hold true here. The sinner is not declared right, but forgiven. In the Christian sense, justification is an act of God. It is an act of God not based on the work of the sinner, but on the work of Jesus on the cross. And it is that work, through our faith in Christ, which is imputed to us. Claimed by us.  Grasped by us and held tightly by us. Received by us through faith. And by which God declares that we are no longer guilty of our sin. We are released from its penalty. And restored as righteous before God. In a right relationship with God.

Some might think, even believe, that it is too late for them. That they are too far gone for forgiveness and restoration. That their desperate prayers cannot be heard by God. And they would be wrong. Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart. These are the words of the prophet. Even now. After the sin. After the recriminations. After the heartbreak. Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart.

Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing

Even now. That “now” has come in this time of Lent. And the now is the taking of the ashes. Ashes of repentance. I am asking folks, if you were in Jerusalem, at the Western Wall, what would be your prayer? There is a prayer wall in the Narthex. Fashioned after the Western Wall, with places to add your prayers. Slips of paper to write on. Cracks and niches to receive them. There is no need to sign your name. They will remain personal to you. I will read them and pray over them. We will do this throughout Lent. Paul said that we should pray without ceasing. So, we will all add prayers, joys, concerns, prayers of celebration, prayers of heartbreak, even desperate prayers all through Lent. But as we prepare for this time of deep prayer in the church, we first take on the ashes of our repentance. (and we continued worship with the litany of the imposition of the ashes.)