Sermon Easter Day Yr B

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

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.

 

Sermon 2 Easter Yr C

2 Easter Yr C, 11/04/2010

Rev 1:4-8

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Hope in times of persecution”

When life is full of one trouble after another, what do you need the most? If our government changed their policy from allowing religious freedom to a hostile one of persecuting Christianity—what message would be most appreciated in such circumstances? Well, in our second lesson today, the writer of Revelation, John, in exile on the Island of Patmos, is writing to the Christians in the Roman province of Asia. John was likely writing sometime in the 80s or 90s A.D. when Domitian was the Roman Emperor. Domitian insisted on his subjects worshipping him as lord and god. If Christians refused, they would be persecuted and killed.

John’s message is a little strange. Why? Because it is in the form of a letter, yet it is also, in part, a vision or dream or series of visions and dreams that John was given. The dreams and visions are full of symbols and written in symbolic language. John likely wrote it as an underground code language so that the Christians would receive it and understand it without the Revelation being censored or destroyed by the hostile Roman government. John wrote this apocalyptic literature to encourage the Christians in Asia and give them a message of hope in times of persecution. Even though they suffered under Caesar’s power, John said that they worshipped Christ who was more powerful than Caesar. The slavery and persecution of Caesar could not destroy them. Inside the persecuted Christians were free and could live freely under the power of Christ working in and through them.

People who believe that the powers of oppression have been defeated by the victory that Christ won in the resurrection can indeed live as free people. In his book Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink tells how members of the Solidarity movement claimed freedom even under Communist oppression in Poland:
Solidarity in Poland proved that Jesus’ nonviolent way could be lived even under circumstances of Communist oppression and martial law. People said to one another, in effect, “Start doing the things that you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in freedom of speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.” This behaviour actually caught on, leading to “an epidemic of freedom in a closed society.” By acting as if Poland were already free, Solidarity created a free country. The “as if” ceased to be pretense and became actuality. Within ten years, Solidarity had taken over the government.1

So, too, in the persecuted Church of the first century, the ancient Christians believed and lived “as if” ceased to be pretense and became actuality. The early Christians defied Caesar’s vainglorious lordship and divinity. Listen to the subversive language of John—making superior claims of Christ’s Lordship and Divinity.

John speaks of Christ as “the faithful witness.” In the Greek, the word for witness can also be translated as martyr. So John is referring, in a slightly veiled fashion, to Christ’s death on the Cross. Jesus was “faithful” in that he knew he was going to his most despised death on the Cross—having predicted it at least three times on his way to Jerusalem. If you’re like most folks, you would rather avoid such a cruel and indignant death if you were given the opportunity to do so. Not Jesus. Rather, he was “faithful,” willing and ready—insofar as anyone can humanly be ready—to face his suffering and death. John says Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s will led to him being a witness and/or martyr. The irony and economy of God is such that it reverses everything we, in our human nature value. Jesus was a witness, a martyr because of his faithful, innocent suffering and death. He was a witness to countless others down through the centuries who also would face untold sufferings and cruel deaths. Jesus’ death on the Cross continues to give strength and courage to those who suffer and die today due to injustices and the evil abuse of power. His death on the Cross also provides hope to the hopeless; those whom the world today could and does care less about; the forgotten ones living under oppressive regimes; the lost children and youth who are forced into military and sexual slavery, and drug addiction by evil predators, thugs and bullies. Jesus’ death on the Cross was also, and especially, for the least of these his brothers and sisters.

John goes on to make the claim that Jesus is “the first-born of the dead.” In this claim, John is referring to Christ’s resurrection and the hope that those who follow him shall also be resurrected from the dead. As the “first-born” he is the privileged and honoured One who conquered the powers of sin, death and evil by God raising him from the dead. The apostle Paul says that one of the inheritances of our baptism is that we too shall share in Christ’s death and resurrection. So, again, in response to this inheritance, we are free to live “as if” there is a resurrection in every death that we die. We die in countless ways as we journey through this life. However, death does not have the last word; Christ’s resurrection power transforms our deaths into new, resurrection life because he is the first-born of the dead. Moreover, as the first-born of the dead, he has, as we learn in John fourteen, gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us; waiting with open arms to welcome us into his resurrection presence. We have a foretaste of that already through the Church, the Word and the Sacraments, along with the communion/community of sinner-saints—delighting in each other’s company; you, me, and folks of every tribe and nation.

Another claim that John makes for Christ is that he is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” In making this claim for Christ, John is saying that the exalted Christ is the highest authority over all other earthly authorities. The exalted Christ in heaven is King of kings and Lord of lords as a consequence of his all-sufficient victory over sin, death and the powers of evil. Reference to Christ being first-born and ruler of the kings of the earth is most likely based on Psalm 89:27, where we read: “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” A close study of Revelation shows that John knew the Hebrew Bible thoroughly and quotes from it often, either implicitly or explicitly. This verse from Psalm 89 was interpreted by the Jewish rabbis to be a reference to the Messiah. So here John is saying that Jesus is the Messiah and he rules from heaven over the kings of the earth. Such a claim, once again, of course, is a challenge to the lordship and divinity of the Roman Emperor.

Continuing with the passage, John then moves from highlighting the claims of Christ’s Lordship and Divinity to describing what Christ has done for us. In Lutheran tradition, we are fond of saying to know Christ is to know and receive his benefits.

John says that Christ loves us. His love is perfect love. He is not a fickle, “fair-weather” lover—only in times of joy and success. No. His love is an everlasting love—it is always there for us. He loves us at our worst, at our best and every time between the two extremes. His love is an unconditional love. He does not say, ‘I’ll love you only if you do this or that and fulfill thus and so conditions. No. He loves us without placing any conditions on us. He says, ‘I love you because I love you, without conditions.

Another benefit John says that Christ does for us is he has “freed us from our sins by his blood.” In the Hebrew Bible, God told the Israelites to place the blood of a lamb on their doors; that blood would be seen by the angel of death who would then pass over that door and everyone in the house would be saved from death. Christ for us Christians is our Passover Lamb. His shed blood has atoned for our sins. Just as the Passover for the Israelites saved them from death and brought them freedom from Egyptian slavery; so Christ our Passover Lamb and his shed blood saves us and has freed us from slavery to our sins. We are now freed to love and serve God and neighbour thanks to Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross.

Yet another benefit Christ has given us John says is that he has “made us a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” That is a quotation of Exodus 19:6: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” Jesus has done two things for us.

He has given us royalty. Through him we may become the true sons (and daughters) of God; and, if we are sons (and daughters) of the King of kings, we are of lineage than which there can be none more royal.

He made us priests. The point is this. Under the old way, only the priest had the right of access to God. In the vision of the great days to come Isaiah said: “You shall be called the priests of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:6). In that day every one of the people would be a priest and have access to God. That is what John means; because of what Jesus Christ did access to the presence of God is now open to every (person).2 So for folks living under persecution, such benefits would be most uplifting and motivate them to live life to its fullest with courage and commitment to Christ, their risen Lord and Saviour. May it also be true for us today. Amen.  

1 Cited from: Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 265.

2 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Revelation of John: Volume 1 Chapters 1-5 (Burlington, ON: Welch Publishing Co., Inc., 1976), p. 35.

Sermon Easter Day Yr C

Easter Day Yr C, 4/04/2010

Lk 24:1-12

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“An idle tale or Gospel Truth?”

You have likely heard or even witnessed stories where reality is stranger than fiction. After hearing or witnessing such stories, we might give our heads a shake and say: “This is too good to be true!”

I recently visited the Ripley’s Believe It or Not website. Here’s a couple of stories that claim to be true and real, yet seem stranger than fiction.

Violinist plays during brain surgery: Roger Frisch, a solo violinist from Minnesota suffered from a tremor in his hand, impairing his ability to play the violin.  Doctors performed an “awake” surgery where they used an experimental deep brain stimulation technique.  Keeping the patient awake during surgery allows the Doctors to interact with the patient, to make sure they are hitting the right part of the brain. This isn’t a new concept.  Back in 2008 Eddie Adcock had brain surgery to control a tremor in his hand.  Doctors had Eddie play the banjo while they performed the same deep brain stimulation. You can actually click on videos of these surgeries to see them.

Here’s another one from Ripley’s: A car got trapped under a truck. This is amazing!  A large truck didn’t realize there was a car wedged sideways in front of the truck’s front wheels.  A video, taken by a motorist, captured the truck as it continued to drive at high speeds down a highway in West Yorkshire, England. The female driver of the car was thankfully uninjured.1  

Yes, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, too good to be true, yet it is true. Take, for example, today’s gospel. On that first Easter Day long ago, the women, in accordance with Jewish burial customs, came back to Jesus’ tomb expecting to see his dead body inside and to perform their last burial duties with their spices. After all, dead people are dead in a graveyard, aren’t they? I know, if I go to a cemetery, I expect that the dead bodies will still be in their graves. Dead people stay dead, don’t we all believe that? So far I’ve never seen a dead person come back to life. The women on that first Easter morning arrived at Jesus’ grave expecting to see his dead body lying there inside.

However, that is not what they saw! Rather, they saw an empty grave. Jesus’ body was gone. Where could it be? No sooner had they started to feel anxious about this than two men arrive to tell them that they should not be looking for the living among the dead. Jesus was no longer dead, he was alive—just as he had predicted to them before he had died. Now they remembered his prediction and, believing this surprising Good News, went back to tell the eleven apostles and all the other followers of Jesus. These women, in a man’s world, were the first preachers of Christ’s resurrection.

Luke goes on to tell us the response of the apostles when they heard the women’s Easter Sermon. Here’s how Luke describes their doubt and scepticism: “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” A couple of other translations employ the word “nonsense,” instead of “an idle tale.” According to Dr Wm. Barclay: The word used is one employed by Greek medical writers to describe the babbling of a fevered and insane mind.2 In other words, the truth to them seemed stranger than fiction, it was too good to be true. The poor women had lost touch with reality. Were they out of their minds? We know that dead folks in cemeteries stay dead—such news had to be unbelievable, an impossibility.

In the patriarchal society at that time, one also wonders if the scepticism and doubt of those who heard the Easter Good News was because the information was coming from women. Too many people failed to take women seriously for far too long. Back then, according to Jewish law, they were not allowed to be legal witnesses. Even today, many men sadly fail to take women seriously and listen to them. Mary Lynch tells the following story:

I remember one time in particular when I took my car to the mechanic. I described the problems clearly and accurately. The mechanic half-listened to me. The whole time he kept looking past me toward the entrance. When my father approached, the mechanic turned from me, walked over to my father and asked what was the problem with the car. Now my father had never even driven my car. My parents were visiting from out of state. My father had simply offered to drive over in order to drive me home when I left my car there. When my father explained that he knew nothing about my car, the mechanic reluctantly listened to me while I again explained why I was bringing my car to him.3 So, yes, it is quite possible that because the news of Christ’s resurrection was coming from these women the audience failed to hear and believe them.

The radical nature of the women’s message makes it difficult to believe. Even today, I suggest that we too have trouble believing the Easter message. Such a surprising truth of the resurrected Jesus is opposed to what we know and experience in the natural world, is it not? Well, I would answer by saying yes and no. Yes in that I personally have never, as I said earlier, seen a dead person resurrected back to life. Yet, I would answer no to the question because of what I see happen around me in the natural world every year. The cycles of nature show me that death is transformed into new life. Every year the flowers, the grass, and the leaves on the trees come back to life in the spring. Is this just a coincidence that can be scientifically explained or is this the creative work of God who designed creation this way as a parable pointing to the spiritual truth of Jesus’ resurrection and eventually ours?

As I ponder Luke’s story of the women on that first Easter morning, what stands out for me is that even though the women did not see Jesus at the grave, they heard the message that he was raised from the dead, believed the message, then went to proclaim it to the eleven apostles and the other followers of Jesus. We too have not seen the risen Jesus, yet what we have is the story, and, by God’s grace, we too believe the story—even though we cannot prove it. We trust in the original witnesses of the resurrection. Their witness survived the centuries and is passed on to us today. I believe it is quite instructive that in all four gospel stories of Christ’s resurrection the writers all agree on the important facts. All four gospels tell us that the stone was rolled away and that the tomb was empty, Jesus was not inside. And moreover, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the women all receive the message that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And in John, the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. For all four gospel stories to agree on these most important facts—even though they differ on other details—is enough evidence for me to believe that this too good to be true story really is true. I cannot personally prove it, yet I trust that the original eye-witnesses of Christ’s resurrection are telling the truth. Is it an idle tale or is it Gospel Truth? I leave you with the following words of theologian Karl Barth, who once said the gospel: “is not a natural therefore but a miraculous nevertheless.” Amen. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

1 Cited from: <http://www.ripleys.com/&gt;.

2 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Burlington, ON: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd., 1975), p. 292.

3 Cited from: Emphasis, Vol. 24, No. 6, March-April 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co. Inc.), p. 59.

Sermon 7 Easter Yr B

7 Easter Yr B, 24/05/2009

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“The ministry of ordinary people”

 

John drove in a leisurely fashion to the Amtrak station. The twins were on the spring break and were coming in on the 3 o’clock train. He needed time alone to reflect on all that had happened in the past several weeks. Karenza, his spouse, had finished seminary at the end of the fall semester. The spring had been filled with opportunities to interview for parish pastorates. It had been a learning experience for them both.

He had been stunned by some of the bigotry and subtle discrimination his wife had encountered as she offered her talents to the Lord through the church. They would usually debrief after her interviews, sipping cups of hot tea, and discussing what it meant to be called in the face of those other disciples who thought women ought not be pastors. He had never doubted Karenza’s gifts for ministry; he was beginning to doubt the church’s ability to utilize them.

The twins greeted him at the station with enthusiastic stories about campus life. Eric looked at his dad thoughtfully, “How is the whole thing going for Mom now? She beat us to graduation by six months.”

John filled them in on all but his wife’s tears. They were silent for a while until Linda said, “It’s God’s church and she’ll be chosen for something. I know it.” Her firm optimism somehow eased the strain.

The next Sunday they all attended a church where Karenza preached as part of the calling process in that parish. During the coffee break before the meeting to vote on her, Linda struck up a conversation with a man in the coffee line. He sat down with her at a nearby table as they munched cookies.

“You’re a visitor here. We’re about to actually consider a woman for our pastor. I have a hard time with that. After all the Bible says women should be silent.”

Linda looked at him and nodded, “Yes, for a particular time and place that was true. But I understand when we are baptized it means we are all together in this. All the gifts God gives ought to be used, whether they belong to women or men. Jesus said in one of his parables that one of the people who got gold was afraid and hid it in the ground. I think doing ministry means we do not hide our gifts.”

The man looked at her and nodded thoughtfully. Then someone struck a glass with a fork and announced that the meeting was to begin. John and the twins went home to await the news from Karenza.

Two hours later she joined them on the backyard terrace, her face filled with joy. “I’ve been chosen to be their new pastor. The chairperson of the committee was not initially in favour of this but he stood up and talked about someone who visited this morning and he said it was obvious she had heard the gospel and he needed to start listening.”1

In today’s first lesson from Acts, we also learn about a choosing and call process to serve Christ among that first generation of Christians. Like the story of Karenza, we learn that God calls and chooses people whom at first, others may not necessarily have chosen. It is the grace and guidance of God at work in the lives of people that determines the end result of any choice in the call process—at least that is what we hope and believe is true.

An important lesson we learn from this story in Acts today is that Christ has given his first followers a ministry in the meantime, that is, in the between time. Today’s story takes place in the meantime, or between time after Christ’s ascension into heaven and before the day of Pentecost. We, too, live in the meantime, in the between time. And like those first-generation followers of Jesus, Christ has also given us a ministry in the meantime, the time in between. We live in the meantime, the between time after the day of Pentecost and the receiving of the Holy Spirit, and before Christ’s second coming. Do we simply do nothing and wait for Jesus to come for us today? No! We continue to do the ministry he has given us, while we wait for his coming again.

Even in the short between time of the first-generation Christians, they were not content to do nothing. Rather, they were directed to serve Christ by choosing another apostle to succeed Judas. The choosing of a twelfth apostle is consistent with what Jesus had promised earlier in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 22:28-30. In that passage, Jesus promised the twelve apostles they would have a privileged status in his future kingdom. The twelve apostles would sit on thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Therefore it was now necessary here in our passage from Acts to reorganise the sacred band of twelve apostles in fulfillment of this promise to choose and call a replacement apostle after Judas had defected and committed suicide. According to Peter, who is here taking a leadership role among the other apostles and the 120 first-generation followers of Jesus, this reorganizational process was necessary to continue the ministry of Christ and his church.

So, Peter proceeds to lay out the qualifications of a new, replacement apostle to be chosen among those 120 first-generation of Christians. The first qualification, so it seems, is that the successor of Judas must have been present with Jesus in his earthly ministry from the time of the baptism of John until the day of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. In other words, the person should not be a recent convert who had not accompanied Jesus in his earthly ministry. This qualification makes a lot of sense, because the continuing ministry of Christ on earth; if it were to be successful; had to reach people with the preaching of the Gospel. The Gospel message, of course, is Christ-centred, therefore who better to preach the Gospel than the closest friends and followers of Jesus? The first-generation apostles had an advantage over everyone else, because they were with Jesus in his day-to-day earthly ministry; they remembered what he said in his preaching and teaching; and they witnessed his miracles and signs. The apostles then were the most qualified folks to “go and tell,” to spread the Gospel to into the world.

The second qualification that Peter spells out is that the replacement apostle “must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” In other words, the resurrection was “the” single, most important Christ-event of them all. Therefore, the replacement apostle had to be an eye-witness to Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection was “the” single, most important life-changing event out of which the Christian church was born. Christ’s resurrection confirms God’s saving power over the powers of evil, sin, and death. If God works in a saving way through Christ’s resurrection for all people, by giving the promise that one day, those who believe in Christ and his resurrection; then, all people would need to hear the Good News of Christ’s resurrection. Who better to spread the Good News of Christ’s resurrection than the original, first-generation eye-witnesses to the resurrection?

Out of the 120 first-generation followers of Jesus, two people are suggested as candidates that meet the two qualifications for a replacement apostle, they are: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. One of the fascinating things about these two followers of Jesus is that we have zero information about them, other than their names—nowhere else in the New Testament are they mentioned again.

What does this teach us? Well, I believe that it teaches us Christ can and does call ordinary people; folks who may not be that popular or famous. You don’t have to be a world famous televangelist to spread the Good News to others. Christ is able to bless the ministry of even the least among us. In fact, the least known may be the most common way in which Jesus works in the church. If we were to number the total membership of active Christians in the world today and compare that with the total number of the most famous and popular Christian leaders; I think there would be way more ordinary, unknown Christians than there would be popular, famous ones. The vast majority of Christians today are not well known and famous—rather, they are like Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and Matthias, little, if anything is known about them. Yet, Christ chooses and calls such ordinary folks as you and me to share in his ministry equally as much as he chooses and calls the rich and famous. We ordinary folks are equally as important in Christ’s eyes as are the most popular people in the church.

So, in the meantime, the between time, it was not at first clear which of these two candidates should be chosen and called to replace Judas as an apostle. The group of those first-generation Christians then turn to the Lord in prayer to ask for guidance as to who is to replace Judas. After that, being Jews, they turn to a familiar method of casting lots to determine which of the two people is going to replace Judas. For them, God was at work even in the chance aspect of casting lots—whether it was choosing straws, rolling dice, or some other method, we do not know. What we do know is that the lot fell on Matthias, and the other apostles, along with the 120 followers of Jesus accept Matthias as the new, replacement apostle. After that, we have absolutely no information on the ministry of Matthias in the New Testament.

In the meantime, the between time, we too, like that first-generation of Jesus’ followers, need to turn to the Lord with one mind and heart and pray for guidance. Prayer, when we listen as much as speak, can and does change our hearts and minds or confirms the truth as we already know it. Prayer is our spiritual oxygen, as I’ve said on many other occasions. If this is so, then we shall want to be in constant communication with the Lord to discern his will for us both as individuals and a congregation. So, may the Lord’s will be done among us individually and as a congregation—that we, like that first-generation church may be faithful witnesses to Christ and his resurrection power. Amen.

1 Cited from: Susan K. Hedahl, “Opening The Door,” in: 56 Lectionary Stories For Preaching: Based Upon The Revised Common Lectionary Cycle B (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 1993), pp. 63-64.