Sermon Easter Day Yr B

Read my sermon for Easter Day here: Easter Day Yr B.

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Sermon 3 Easter Yr A

You can read my sermon for May 8, 2011 by clicking this link: 3 Easter Yr A

Sermon 7 Easter Yr C

7 Easter Yr C, 16/05/2010

Jn 17:20-26

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Praying for Christian unity”

Once a man had a dream in which his hands and feet and mouth and brain all began to rebel against his stomach. “You good-for-nothing sluggard!” the hands said. “We work all day long, sawing and hammering and lifting and carrying. By evening we’re covered with blisters and scratches, and our joints ache, and we’re covered with dirt. And meanwhile you just sit there, hogging all the food.”

“We agree!” cried the feet. “Think how sore we get, walking back and forth all day long. And you just stuff yourself full, you greedy pig, so that you’re that much heavier to carry about.”

“That’s right!” whined the mouth. “Where do you think all the food you love comes from? I’m the one who has to chew it all up, and as soon as I’m finished you suck it all down for yourself. Do you call that fair?”

“And what about me?” called the brain. “Do you think it’s easy being up here, having to think about where your next meal is going to come from? And yet I get nothing at all for my pains.”

And one by one the parts of the body joined the complaint against the stomach, which didn’t say anything at all.

“I have an idea,” the brain finally announced. “Let’s all rebel against the lazy belly, and stop working for it.”

“Superb idea!” all the other members and organs agreed. “We’ll teach you how important we are, you pig. Then maybe you’ll do a little work of your own.”

So they all stopped working. The hands refused to do lifting and carrying. The feet refused to walk. The mouth promised not to chew or swallow a single bite. And the brain swore it wouldn’t come up with any more bright ideas. At first the stomach growled a bit, as it always did when it was hungry. But after a while it was quiet. Then, to the dreaming man’s surprise, he found he could not walk. He could not grasp anything in his hand. He could not even open his mouth. And he suddenly began to feel rather ill.

The dream seemed to go on for several days. As each day passed, the man felt worse and worse. “This rebellion had better not last much longer,” he thought to himself, “or I’ll starve.”

Meanwhile, the hands and feet and mouth and brain just lay there, getting weaker and weaker. At first they roused themselves just enough to taunt the stomach every once in a while, but before long they didn’t even have the energy for that.

Finally the man heard a faint voice coming from the direction of his feet.

“It could be that we were wrong,” they were saying. “We suppose the stomach might have been working in his own way all along.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” murmured the brain. “It’s true that he’s been getting all the food. But it seems he’s been sending most of it right back to us.”

“We might as well admit our error,” the mouth said. “The stomach has just as much work to do as the hands and feet and brain and teeth.”

“Then let’s get back to work,” they cried together. And at that the man woke up.

To his relief, he discovered his feet could walk again. His hands could grasp, his mouth could chew, and his brain could now think clearly. He began to feel much better. “Well, there’s a lesson for me,” he thought as he filled his stomach at breakfast. “Either we all work together, or nothing works at all.”1

This moral tale also rings true for us Christians. Today, in our gospel, which is the closing portion of Jesus’ high priestly prayer; Jesus prays for his disciples and all future followers of Jesus—including you and I. In this prayer, Jesus prays for Christian unity. He asks “that they may all be one.” The unity of Christians, Jesus asks for is a oneness of Christians that reflects the unity, the oneness of God the Father and Jesus himself. Jesus prays that just as the Father is in him, so he is in his followers, and his followers reflect that unity and oneness to the world. So urgent is Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity that he prays: “that they may become completely one.” Yet, tragically, our Lord’s high priestly prayer has not become a reality—at least not in a complete way. Sad to say, there are still plenty of divisions within Christendom—not only are Roman Catholics, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Churches divided from one another; each denomination is often deeply divided from within. Even on a local, congregational level, there can be some very serious divisions and conflicts.

Adding to the scandal of divisions among Christians are at least two factors occurring right now. The televangelists continue to misrepresent genuine Christianity with their distorted preaching of a selfish, prosperity gospel. Several of these televangelists manipulate their supporters—constantly asking for money and then, once they receive the money, it is not spent to help the needy, but to purchase mansions, private planes, and other expensive items for the televangelists. This unethical and unchristian behaviour is not only a scandal and stumbling block for many Christians, but also for the world. People outside the Christian faith say, “If that’s what Christianity is about, then I want nothing to do with it.”

Moreover, the recent stories about the cover-up of child abuse by the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, with the Vatican’s protection of abusive clergy and failure to report abuses to the civil authorities; certainly is a scandal and stumbling block to the whole of Christendom as well as the world. Such factors do not fit into the holy purposes of Christ’s prayer for Christian unity! In fact, they further divide Christians and turn those outside the Christian faith even further away from Christianity.

So what is the meaning of Christ’s high priestly prayer? In what way do Christians fulfill Christ’s prayer for the unity of Christians? I think that when Jesus speaks of a unity between himself and the Father; when he says that the Father is in him and he is in the Father and we are in him; that he is employing relational language. The unity and oneness is an intimate relationship of love. Taking a practical example, in real life, we often notice similarities between parents and their children. We hear comments like: “He is his father’s son,” or “she is her mother’s daughter.” Of course the relationship between parents and their children is, ideally, one of love, as well as one of genetics and biology. In terms of Christian faith; we become like God our Father and Jesus our Brother who created us in his image and made us members of his family through the sacrament of Baptism. Furthermore, we also become like those who we look to as mentors, models of faith. Of course our Perfect Exemplar is Jesus. So it is Christ and his Spirit working within us that unites us with him and makes us one in him and with one another as we think his thoughts, speak his words, and do his deeds in loving service and obedience to his will.

Some Christians would say that what Christ referred to in this prayer for Christian unity was an ecclesiastical structural unity—that we merge into one denomination. Other Christians are sceptical about that. Some Christians would say that our quest for unity involves everyone believing the same doctrines in exactly the same way. Again other Christians are sceptical about that. Some Christians would say that unity is in worship. However that too causes some degree of scepticism as some Christians prefer the formality of ancient liturgies and traditional hymnody, while others prefer more informal worship with contemporary rock-and-roll and jazzed-up or bleus songs and choruses. Yet other Christians say that the best opportunity for unity is in the service of humankind through social justice and peace projects. Again other Christians are sceptical about that because of the variety of political ideologies and the desired goals and means to reach them.

Historically, during the last century and now into the twenty-first century; two of the signs of Christian unity are through the reading, study and preaching of the Word and in prayer. Members from a variety of denominations meet together more frequently today for the reading and study of the Bible. Ordained clergy from many different denominations also meet to read and study the Bible to prepare for preaching the Word on Sundays. In many denominations around the globe, Christians now follow a Revised Common Lectionary so that the biblical readings each Sunday are the same in all of the churches. Christians from a wide variety of denominations also meet together for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and World Day of Prayer Worship Services.

I think that many Christians are beginning to realise—some have realised it long ago—that if we are going to reflect the oneness and unity that Christ prayed for; then we too are called into deep prayer for and with one another. We too are called to pray Christ’s high priestly prayer that it may become more of a reality for us today. That reminds me of the following inspirational story on the power of prayer to unite brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe.

After World War II, Martin Niemöller once spoke of how, when he was finally arrested by the Gestapo and taken to prison, his old father had said to him: “Be of good cheer, my son. Remember that there will be Christians praying for you from Greenland to the Pacific Islands,” and of how that knowledge, in the next eight years, many of them in solitary confinement, had kept him not only sane but even joyful. Bishop Eivind Berggrav, the splendid Primate of Norway, who for his part in leading the church resistance had been kept under house-arrest in the forest. He told of how the man who brought the rations to the cottage whispered through the window: “My old woman and I were listening to the BBC last night and we heard the Archbishop of Canterbury pray for you by name.” And Berggrav concluded: “God has been saying to us, during these war years, ‘My Christians, you are one. Now behave as if that were true.’”2

Never underestimate the power of prayer and the power of God’s Word—they can both work wonders beyond our wildest imaginings. So with that in mind, we pray: “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” In Jesus’ name. Amen!

1 Cited from: William J. Bennett, Editor, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (New York, Toronto, London, et. al.: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1993), pp. 386-387.

2 Cited from: Oliver Tompkins, “A Personal Retrospect and Assessment” in: The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 40, No. 3-4, July-October 1988 (Geneva: World Council of Churches), p. 319.

Sermon 6 Easter Yr C

6 Easter Yr C, 9/05/2010

Jn 5:1-9

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Jesus visits Bethesda Pool”

Billie Burke found herself seated on a plane with a man who was struggling with a head cold. She proceeded to advise him about taking care of it. “Drink lots of water, go to bed, do this, do that,” she went on, and then added: “Now do what I said; I know what I’m talking about—I’m Billie Burke of Hollywood.”

The man thanked her and then introduced himself: “And I’m Dr. Mayo of the Mayo Clinic.”1

We may laugh at such a joke; however, there is a serious side to it that I believe has some relevance to our gospel story today. Just as Billie Burke thought she was an authority on head colds, when, in fact, Dr. Mayo would most likely know a lot more; so too, in our gospel story, the man who was ill for thirty-eight years and lying beside the Bethesda Pool thought he could be healed if he was the first into the water after the angel had stirred it up. However, to his great surprise, he is healed by this stranger, Jesus, whom he didn’t know and hadn’t met before.

The story of the ill man of thirty-eight years beside Bethesda Pool is a most interesting one. What would life have been like for this man who was ill for that long? In Jewish society at that time, he would have been an outcast, because many believed that to be sick meant you had sinned in some way, and your illness was a punishment for your sin. Only if you repented of your sin could you be healed of your illness. If you repented and were not healed, then that meant you were still guilty of some sin and hadn’t properly repented of it. Does that sound familiar? Many televangelists and so-called “faith healers” would have you believe the same thing. Jesus did not believe this approach to illness; nor did he avoid the outcasts. In fact, oftentimes he actively made the effort to associate with sinners and outcasts—going to forbidden places where they hung out.

So in today’s story, Jesus pays a visit to Bethesda Pool, the meeting place of those who were ill, because such people, being unclean, were not allowed to go and worship at the temple. The religious leaders and people in the temple were too good for such unclean people. Besides, to associate with outcasts who were ill might mean that they could get ill too by falling into the same sins as these outcasts. So whatever you do, avoid the outcasts at all costs—especially if you were a religious leader in the temple. If you were a religious leader in the temple and you associated with such outcasts, you ran the risk of being banned from your work and publicly scorned by your colleagues. The temple, a holy place, was “off limits” for society’s unclean outcasts.

So the ill gathered at a safe place; a place which gave them a seed of hope and the promise of healing. A place where, as outcasts and folks suffering from various illnesses, they were among equals and could, ideally, support and encourage one another. According to tradition, the place was named Bethesda, meaning House of Mercy or Bethzatha, meaning House of the Olive. So here was this safe place for outcasts; a place of mercy where Jesus who epitomises mercy comes to visit. A place of the olive; olive oil, of course was used to anoint kings and the Messiah himself is the anointed one. In the history of the Church, olive oil has also been used for healing. So here is the place of mercy; the place of the olive; visited by Jesus the Messiah of Mercy; Jesus the Healer; the Great Physician.

The sick and the outcast need a place of mercy; a place of healing. When the Rev. Dr. Wm Willimon asked a woman, “Why haven’t I seen you at church in the past few months?” she responded. “Well, it’s been tough. I’m working two jobs to try to keep the family together. After ten hours on my feet on Saturday, my feet are so swollen that I can’t get my Sunday shoes on. And I know how people would look at me if I showed up at church, dressed in my old work shoes.2 How sad, that this woman would feel so unacceptable among other members of her church because she might happen to wear what they regarded as the “wrong” shoes! For this woman, the church, rather than being a place of mercy and healing was perceived as an unsafe place, a place of judgement.

How many other folks in our communities today perceive the church as an unsafe place, a place of judgement? Too many, I think. In a recent Reader’s Digest article, Canadians were surveyed as to which of forty-one different professions they trusted the most. Guess where clergy came in on the list. They came in twenty-third. Obviously this is not good news for us “men and women of the cloth.” We have a serious credibility problem. Tragically, the news these days has not raised the trust-level and credibility of clergy either. The sex scandals, secrecy, and cover-ups within the Roman Catholic Church have succeeded in violating the trust between clergy and laity even further. For too many, the church is not a safe place; not a place of healing. Rather, the church has been a place of abuse and oppression—making people ill instead of promoting their health and well-being. You, I, every human being needs a safe place; a place of acceptance and healing. So for us leaders in the churches today and our faithful, active members; we have, with Christ’s help of course, some very serious work to do to ensure that our congregations are safe places and healing—especially for the most vulnerable in our society.

Coming back to our text, we learn quite a lot I think from Jesus’ question addressed to this ill man of so many years: “Do you want to be made well?” At first, we might take Jesus’ question in an offensive way, and answer in a defensive way and say: “What do you mean do I want to be made well?! I haven’t hung around this pool for all these years for nothing! Of course I want to be made well!”

Now take a look again at the wording of Jesus’ question. Notice that the word “want” is used to hint at perhaps the man’s will or motivation—does he have the will power to become well? I don’t know about you, but some folks do seem to choose illness over wellness because there is something in the illness that satisfies them or they benefit from.

For example, many a marriage counsellor will tell you that he or she cannot help a couple unless both partners want their marriage to work and be a healthy one. Or ask an addictions counsellor about folks that come to him or her with addictions problems. The counsellor will tell you that the addicts have to want to recover before they can be helped by someone. I’ve known some people who grieve the death of a loved one for years because they do not want to recover from their grief. If you speak with them and listen carefully, often they are stuck in their grief because they feel guilty about the death and somehow responsible for it and because of that they do not believe they are worthy of being forgiven.

So, Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?” The man’s answer is, interestingly enough, neither a clear “yes” nor “no.” Rather, the man gives Jesus an explanation about how he might be healed if he could be the first one into the pool after the angel stirs it up. He does not realise Jesus can heal him. He’s thinking about getting into the healing water of the pool. Perhaps in a round-about way, the man is asking Jesus to help him into the pool first so he can be healed.

Look at the last three words of Jesus’ question, here is another telling key unlocking the story. Jesus asks: “Do you want to be made well?” Notice here we have more of a passive sense of the man; of someone doing the action other than the ill man. Is this not hinting at the grace of God through Christ? The man does not seem to have faith—at least we’re not told that he does. Nor does the man repent of any sins. In fact, his answer to Jesus’ question could almost be taken as a complaint, perhaps even self-pity, with the sense of: “See how hard done by I am; won’t you feel sorry for me because I’ve nobody to help me? How much longer do I have to put up with this wretched illness?” So the last three words “be made well,” could suggest God’s grace towards this ill man. Nothing that he has done deserves God’s grace. Yet, it is God through Christ who has chosen this man to receive God’s favour and be healed.

Now comes the “punch line,” the surprise of the story. Jesus basically responds to the man’s answer by telling him he is looking in the wrong place for his healing. The waters in the Bethesda Pool are not going to heal him. No. Rather, Jesus shocks him into reality by a firm and confident command: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” In other words, because Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, he has the power to heal by speaking the words which make it a reality. The story is actually reminiscent of God creating the heavens and the earth in Genesis. God speaks creation into being. God’s word has the power to create life. So it is here too. God through Jesus speaks new life into this ill man by healing him immediately. The man does exactly as Jesus commands him, and is healed, given a new life.

Where is the grace of God through Christ working to give you healing and new life right now? Do you see it and celebrate it? Do you, like that ill man long ago want to be made well? If so, then the one who can make you well is Jesus. He may not always heal you the way you think he has to; the way you expect him to; he may not always heal you physically. Jesus heals in many and various way; in his own time; on his own terms. His healing may come immediately or only after many years of waiting and seeking it. The healing may be physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual—or all of these combined, or any combination of them. So a question I leave with today is: How is Jesus working in your life right now to give you healing?

1 Cited from: Bernard Brunsting, The Ultimate Guide To Good Clean Humor (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, Inc., 2000), p. 198.

2 Cited from: Wm. Willimon, “The Undeserving Poor,” in: Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26, No. 2, Year C, April, May, June 1998 (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos Productions Inc.), p. 32.

 

 

Sermon 5 Easter Yr C

5 Easter Yr C, 2/05/2010

Jn 13:35

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“By this everyone will know”

A young Jew and an old Jew are riding on a bus in Jerusalem.
The young Jew asks, “Excuse me, sir, what time is it?” The old Jew doesn’t answer.
“Excuse me, sir,” the young Jew asks again, “what time is it?” The old Jew still doesn’t answer.

 

The old Jew says, “Son, the next stop is the last on this route. I don’t know you, so you must be a stranger. If I answer you now, according to Jewish tradition, I must invite you to my home. You’re handsome and I have a beautiful daughter. You will both fall in love and you’ll want to get married. And tell me, why would I want a son-in-law who can’t even afford a watch?”1

Speaking of love, or falling in love, we are all familiar with the old adage, “Love makes the world go round.” And, many of us, perhaps all of us do believe that to be true, because we are the recipients of love. The best books, poems, movies, and songs extol the virtues of love. Human beings who have influenced us the most in life have likely been loving people. As one of my favourite bands that I grew up with, the Beatles used to sing, “All you need is love,” and that really is true. We know that people who have been loved are most likely going to love others. We also know of folks who have been deprived of love and, tragically, many of them turn out to suffer from various kinds of addictions or become criminals.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is in the upper room, Judas has just left to betray him and Peter is shortly going to deny him three times. Yet, Jesus speaks with his disciples in a most intimate way. He is preparing them for his impending death. In John’s Gospel this time of preparation becomes a farewell conversation with his disciples. Now he gives them a new commandment that they are to love one another as he has loved them. Then he goes on to say: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Did you hear that? Jesus says not just a select few; not a tiny elite; no, rather, everyone will know that the disciples follow Jesus if they love one another. I think, over the centuries, a lot of Christians have not taken these words of Jesus seriously enough—for, sad to say, Christians have been rather poor at loving one another, let alone everyone else. Far too much time, energy and resources have been wasted by Christians fighting with, rather than loving one another. And that is tragic, because it has likely turned a lot of folks away from Christianity. Instead of seeing Christ’s presence and love shining through his followers; folks have seen hurtful prejudices, inner fighting and divisions, and worse yet, hatred and wars in the name of Christ and Christianity. Christians, it is true, are not perfect, they are sinners, just like non-Christians. Followers of Jesus have failed to love as Jesus loved and therefore not everyone knows that they are Jesus’ disciples.

Yet, by the sheer grace of God; along with the workings of the Holy Spirit through God’s Word and the Sacraments; Christians have been able to love one another; they have, in fact, and still do, love as Jesus has loved. Yes, Christians have loved one another as Jesus loves because that is why the Christian faith has survived for over two-thousand years. The love of countless Christians has touched the hearts, minds and lives of millions of people, and continues to do so today. Listen to the following story, which illustrates how love made a difference to someone outside the Church:

Bill came around the church often. Whenever he saw a car parked in the lot, he would come tentatively through the door. Bill was homeless and as far as we could tell, had no family. We were all he had.

It was strange. At first congregation members were leery of this shabbily dressed man who showed up at painting bees, yard cleanup bees, and even the odd potluck. But over time, Bill came to be thought of as one of us.

When Bill was asked one day why he chose this particular church out of all the other churches in the downtown area, what he said shocked yet pleased the members: “Because you are the most loving bunch I have ever seen.”2

Yes, Jesus was right; everyone will know that we are his disciples if we are less shy about sharing his love with one another. Recently I attended a dinner at a favourite Chinese restaurant with members of my former congregation, Grace Lutheran, which now has disbanded. However, several members still wished to meet once a month by sharing a meal together at restaurants. The dinner was well attended, and it occurred to me that we were a rather lively group as we chatted and laughed with one another. If anyone was observing us, I would say that our love for one another was present and quite active. The friendly smiles and laughter; attentive listening; hospitable tone of voice; and enthusiastic conversations all communicated to everyone who was observing us our love for one another. Some members of our group are grandparents, and they were joyfully speaking of their time together with grandchildren over Easter. A retired chemistry teacher told us about his move into a new residence, where he is quite content. A couple of other retired chaps spoke of their woodworking projects; one is planning to build a boat. Concerns were shared about the health of others and prayers for them promised. And we even engaged in an interesting theological conversation on the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Now and then, someone would humour us, and joyous laughter would fill the room. Our love and sharing together with each other was real and contagious for those who had the eyes to see. I know I departed from that dinner meeting encouraged and loved; having communed with Jesus himself through the communion/community of sinner-saints.

If Jesus wants everyone to know that we his followers are his disciples by everyone observing how we love one another; then why are we more like spies monopolizing the greatest secret known to humankind than we are advertising experts communicating with every means possible the Best Message Of All Time so that everyone knows? So go ahead and share the love with everyone! Christ’s love for you has set you free to do precisely that!

We cannot know from the outside how much water is in a big tank or boiler. However, somewhere on the tank there is usually a tiny glass gauge, and by the amount of water in that gauge we can tell how full the boiler is. If the boiler is empty, the gauge is empty too.

Love for other people is a kind of gauge of our spiritual life. We cannot tell how much a person loves God, nor should we attempt to judge others. But if a person says, “How do I know how much I love God?” the gauge that may give the answer is, “How much do you love your neighbour?”3 “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Amen.

1 Cited from: Harry Leichter’s Jewish Humor website: < http://www.haruth.com/jhumor/&gt;.

2 Cited from: Emphasis Online.

3 Cited from: Albert P. Stauderman, Let Me Illustrate: Stories and Quotations for Christian Communicators (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), p. 172.  

 

 
 

 

 

Sermon 4 Easter Yr C

4 Easter Yr C, 25/04/2010

Ps 23:1

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“I shall not want”

During a Sunday School lesson, the teacher asked if anyone in the class could recite the twenty-third Psalm. One little girl enthusiastically raised her hand, stood up and began to recite: “The Lord is my Shepherd. That’s all I want!” Then she sat down.1 The little girl was profoundly wise and correct, there is a causal relationship between God who is like a good shepherd and not wanting. In fact, the sense of the Hebrew could justify the verse to be translated: “Because the LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Among both Jews and Christians, the twenty-third Psalm is still the best-loved passage of the Bible. Although the twenty-third Psalm was not likely written for the occasion of a funeral—nonetheless, both Jews and Christians often read, sing or recite the words of this Psalm at funerals. When the words of this Psalm are spoken at funerals, I’ve witnessed an almost instant comforting and peaceful effect that it has on the mourners. Almost everyone finds consolation in picturing God as a loving shepherd. In the Bible, several passages refer to God as a shepherd caring for his people. Jesus also speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. As a living sign of how popular this image of God as a shepherd is; all we need to do is observe the names of churches. Many churches are named Good Shepherd, or Shepherd of the Hills, or Shepherd of the Valley. Such names remind us of the importance of this image of the LORD as our Shepherd. So, yes, we can say because the LORD is my shepherd I shall not want.

What do the words “I shall not want” mean? Well, the word “want” here does not give us unlimited rights to wanting anything and everything that our hearts and minds desire. No! The word “want” does not promote values like “shop till you drop,” or “more is never enough.” No, the word does not give us the right to engage in unbridled greed—even though that is how many may choose to interpret it.

Reflecting on this verse of the Psalm, Dr. Ben Witherington III tells the following story:

I once had a parishioner who was developmentally disabled. He was a sweet and very spiritual man in his mid-forties. He was always reading his Bible, and he especially loved Psalm 23. But he was puzzled. He came to me and asked, “Dr. Ben, it says that the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. But why does it say I shall not want? I want him, Dr. Ben—I need him.” I was deeply touched by this simple question and the faith that stood behind it. I explained: “Ralph, it means that because God is your shepherd, you will lack nothing essential.” He smiled broadly and said, “I just knew it couldn’t mean I wasn’t supposed to want him.”2

You, I, and everyone wants—or, more correctly, needs—God. I think that we can misunderstand this verse of the Psalm when we confuse our wants with our needs. Our wants are those things that we desire over and above our needs. We can live without having what we want. We cannot however live without our basic needs being met. You, I, everyone have the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, for example. We cannot live or survive without these basic needs. The psalmist is speaking of these basic needs, plus what I would call the ultimate basic need of being in a trusting relationship with our God.

I shall not lack anything. I shall not have any other yearnings or desires that fall outside the gifts of God. What God gives will be enough for me. This is a statement of enormous confidence in the generosity of God, the one who knows what we need and gives well beyond all that we ask or think. But notice at the same time that this phrase, “I shall not want,” is a decision made against the greed and lust and satiation and aggressive ambition of a consumer society. Our consumer society is driven by the notion that we always must want one more thing, and we are entitled to it, and we will have it no matter what.

And now comes this…invitation: I will refocus my desire. I will not entertain all those other lusts and greeds and yearnings that keep me busy and make me selfish and cause me not to notice my neighbour. Here, I suggest, is a…project for all of us who are competent and affluent and driven and anxious and greedy. Faith in this God requires a refocus of all our desires, because most of our wants are contrived and imagined and phony. This Lord will be Lord of our wants and our needs, and we need much less when we are clear about the wonder and goodness of God. No substitutes allowed or required.3

I don’t know if you have noticed it or not, but compared with ten or twenty years ago, television commercials today are played a lot more often. Back years ago I would say a valid way of describing T.V. would have been: “We interrupt our program for a brief message from our sponsors.” Today, I would say it is the other way round: “We interrupt our commercials for a brief message from our program.” Recently this hit home to me when I was watching a movie. I know the movie at the theatre would have run for two to two-and-one-half hours at the most. On this particular channel the movie ran for four hours! I couldn’t believe how often and how long the commercials were during the movie. In fact, I would say that half the movie time was actually commercials. What is the purpose of these commercials? Well, the top priority of commercials is to get you the T.V. viewer to want to buy whatever the commercial is selling. Then, after that want is created within you, to convince you that your only option is to go out and buy the product.

The fact that there are so many commercials in our mass media, and that the commercials are getting longer, and obviously more expensive to make, is an indication that the freedom you have today is only geared towards the freedom to be a consumer and purchase products. The world out there would have you believe that your image of yourself is based on what you choose to buy, which is based on the advertisements that created the want within you to motivate you to go out and buy their product. So your identity in the world then is not based on who you are in God’s eyes, but who you are in the eyes of other consumers and the stuff that you possess. Your possessions define your identity.

In contrast, as Christians, your identity is based on who you are in relation to your Creator, Saviour, and Sanctifier; the LORD your Shepherd—who has made you in his own image. Because he is your Shepherd he cares for you. He provides for all of your needs. He protects you from danger and harm. He preserves your life now, and provides you with eternal life in the future. So rather than living by the mottos of: “shop till you drop” or “you are what you buy” or “more is never enough;” I suggest that as Christians trusting in the LORD our Shepherd, we live by the mottos of “live more simply that others might simply live,” and “less is more,” and “I am my neighbour’s keeper,” and “there is enough wealth in this world for everyone to be rich,” and “in God’s eyes we are all equals,” and “in God’s eyes we are all precious treasures.” Yes, “because the LORD is my shepherd I shall not want; I have everything I need; today, tomorrow and forever!” Hallelujah! Amen!

1 Cited from: Maurice Berquist, DAVID’S SONG (Warner Press, Inc., 1988), pp. 8-9, found at <http://www.epulpit.net/070429.htm&gt;.

2 Cited from: Ben Witherington III, “The Supervising Shepherd and the Heavenly Host,” in: Incandescence: Light Shed through the Word (Grand Rapids, MI & Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), pp. 156-157.

3 Cited from: Walter Brueggemann, “Trusting in the Water-Food-Oil Supply” in: The Threat Of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness edited by Charles L. Campbell, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p. 92.

 

 

Sermon 3 Easter Yr C

3 Easter Yr C, 18/04/2010

Rev 5:11-14

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Hymns of Praise throughout the universe”

When Martin Luther King spoke before the Lincoln Memorial and gave his immortal “I Have a Dream,” speech, it was a rather dark, perilous time for the civil rights movement in America. Things were not going well. The march was meant to infuse new life into the movement, to give new energy so the warriors might fight on, despite the obstacles.

   How do you do that? King gave the assembled throng a vision. He spoke to them of a dream, a dream of a world in which all would be treated as children of God.

   Was this only wishful thinking, fanciful speech, and nothing more? No. His speech rendered a world breaking in, present, yet not totally available. He gave people a dream to keep them moving, a song to sing in the present darkness, a song which spoke of the inbreaking light.

   That’s the way we are. We need to know the final act. We need some song to sing that keeps us marching.

   In a way, that’s what the songs and symbols of Revelation do for us. They remind us, as we go about our daily lives, of the victory of Easter, the way that God defeated death, and continues to defeat death.1

   In today’s second lesson, John of Patmos shares what he sees and hears in a vision. The vision starts off with seeing and hearing a massive heavenly choir consisting of angels surrounding God’s throne, along with the living creatures and the elders. He says they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice. WOW! What a feast for John’s eyes to see and ears to hear. Can you imagine that?! The shapes and sizes and colours of that massive heavenly choir must have been astounding. And then there are all of those voices singing in a hymn of praise to the exalted Christ, the Lamb of God who has been raised from the dead and now ascended into heaven. I wonder what that heavenly choir sounded like. For those of you who have heard this world’s best choirs singing this passage of Revelation from Handel’s Messiah; you might have a foretaste of what you shall hear from the heavenly choir. WOW! I think we’ll all have goose bumps and feel so full of joy and wonder beyond description. Yes, what a beautiful, holy sound that heavenly choir must have made as they praised the exalted Lamb of God.

   John obviously was filled with such inspiration from this vision that he writes it down and shares it with the persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire. As I reflect on John’s details here, I see two important messages for those early Christians and for us today.

   John tells us that those gathered around God’s throne were diverse and numerous. That is encouraging for people who face persecutions. Heaven, contrary to some folks, is not a small, over-crowded place for only a group of elitists. No! Rather, heaven is a spacious place where there shall be room enough beyond our imaginings. Heaven also shall consist of a variety of beings–here John mentions angels, the living creatures and the elders. That, too, is an encouraging detail. I think we’d all grow very bored very quickly if heaven consisted of everyone being exactly the same. No! Rather, heaven consists of an amazing variety of beings–we’ll have no time to get bored with one another.

Another detail John gives us here is that the beings are busy. They are a massive heavenly choir; singing their hearts out; worshipping the victorious Christ the Lamb. Here I cannot help but think of my late, best friend who has gone to his eternal reward. I wonder what he’s doing now. He used to tell me that he hoped heaven didn’t mean sitting on a cloud all day every day, wearing wings and playing a harp. He said he’d get terribly bored with that very fast! 🙂 Yes, I wonder what he’s doing now–perhaps he’s singing in that heavenly choir. For the persecuted Church, John’s vision of this massive heavenly choir has to be a message of hope–reminding them of better times ahead, filled with joy and celebration; in the presence of Christ the Lamb.

   Turning now to the actual hymn of praise that the heavenly choir is singing, John mentions seven attributes of the exalted Lamb of God–power, wealth, wisdom, might, honour, glory and blessing. John, writing in his symbolic underground language, is fond of the number seven, as we’ve learned before. John sees the number seven as a symbol of completion and wholeness. Seven is an all-inclusive number in reference to God and the Church. Another characteristic of John’s writing in Revelation is his numerous references–either directly or indirectly–to the Hebrew Bible. In this particular hymn of praise sung by the heavenly choir, John may have David’s great thanksgiving to God in mind found in I Chronicles 29:10-12. Listen to the words of that passage now, and see if you can recognize similarities with the heavenly choir’s hymn of praise: Then David blessed the LORD in the presence of all the assembly; David said: “Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honour come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all.” As you can see, there are some similar attributes here ascribed to God as in the passage from Revelation. So John likely was a Jewish Christian, well versed in the Hebrew Bible, seeing continuity between passages from it and what he is writing to the persecuted Church in his day.

   Continuing with John’s vision, the music, the worship and the choir grows even larger, becomes ever more diverse and loud. Now John hears a universal hymn of praise to God the Creator and the Lamb. The choir this time consists of every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing. WOW! The universe now explodes into what must have been a beautiful, holy, deafening hymn of praise, worshipping God and the Lamb.

I like to discover stories about hymn writers and their hymns. Here is one of those stories: Horatio Spafford was a lawyer in Chicago. When Mrs. O’Leary’s cow overturned the lantern the night of October 8, 1871, the great fire that resulted destroyed Spafford’s home and business. Worse yet, the Spaffords’ only son, a six-year-old, was killed.

These disasters put a heavy strain on the family. Mrs. Spafford became so nervous and run-down that her doctor recommended a vacation, so the family laid plans to sail for Europe in November of 1873.

As the date approached, Horatio realized he was too busy to leave with his family. He sent his wife and four daughters on ahead, planning to catch up with them later.

On November 22, the ship carrying the five Spafford women sank beneath the waves of the north Atlantic. Nearly everyone on board died. On December 1, Mrs. Spafford sent a telegram to Horatio from Cardiff, Wales. It said, “Saved alone!”

How much more would one couple have to suffer? Where was God in all of this? Horatio left immediately to join his wife. As he crossed the Atlantic, he asked the captain to show him where the other ship had gone down. When they came to the spot, Horatio stood at the rail, looking out at the cruel gray sea. Did he cry out to God in pain? Probably so. Did he feel cheated by life? Undoubtedly. Did he turn away from God, saying God had let him down? He could have. But he didn’t, because in those moments he wrote these words:

When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.” Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control; that Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul. O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend; even so, it is well with my soul.2

   I don’t think it is an accident that this passage from Revelation has inspired the Christian Church even to this day. In our Holy Communion worship services, the liturgical Hymn of Praise consists of this passage–in my tradition; see Lutheran Book of Worship and Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Some critics of liturgy say it encourages too much meaningless learning by rote. I would challenge that critique and say that the liturgy lends itself to inspiring worship precisely because it is the Word of God set to music. The sung Word of God is powerful; it creates within us an atmosphere, a mood of awe and wonder-filled worship of our Triune God. The familiarity of liturgical worship brings comfort to countless faithful worshippers around the globe every Sunday–reminding them in the sung Word of God of God’s faithfulness and promises in the midst of a troubled and suffering world. The sung Word of God in liturgy and in hymnody connects us with our Triune God in a spirit of adoration and gratitude. In this sense true worship, in spirit and in truth is our spiritual oxygen–we cannot live without it. We, along with John’s four living creatures say, “Amen!” And fall down and worship–for as another biblical passage has it: “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 God the Father.” And let the whole creation cry: “Amen!”    

1 Cited from: Wm. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26 No. 2, Year C, April, May, June 1998 (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos Productions Inc.), pp. 20-21.

2 Cited from: Emphasis: A Preaching Journal For The Parish Pastor, Vol. 40, No. 2, March, April, May, 2010 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 59.