That Time Jesus was a Hot Mess

Inspired by John 13:33-35

Well, I don’t know about you but I thought Holy Week was over! Since Easter Sunday we have had Gospel readings from primarily the events of post-resurrection Jesus. Except for last Sunday but I ended up preaching about the 23rd Psalm anyway. But since Easter Sunday we have had these beautiful stories of resurrection appearances from Jesus last days on earth, and then bam, like a bucket of cold water on our head, we are thrust right back into the events of Holy Week with today’s Gospel reading—and I can’t help but feeling like it’s too soon. As wondrous and mystical as the services of Holy Week are, they are also difficult, painful, and at times, leaving us vulnerable.

But now we are in Easter! And everything supposed to be tulips and lilies right? With songs of celebration, victory, hope, new life! We were just getting started and now we find ourselves stubbing our toe on Holy Week—and like a stubbed toe I was perturbed to find ourselves here. Because I thought this was behind us, at least for this year, but our lectionary reminds us, yet again, that both the cross and empty tomb, both death and resurrection are always before us, not just behind us.

So, our brief Gospel reading comes from the Last Supper, Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before he died—what we celebrate each year on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. And though these few verses that we read today can ably stand on their own two feet, it is vital that we remember that entire night as we ponder them. Now if you take John’s word for it, it was a long night! Or maybe it just feels that way because there was a lot of talking! Which is the way that the rest of John’s gospel reads. Everywhere that Jesus went he just couldn’t help constantly launching into a speech. You’d have thought he was on the campaign trail!

This night was no different, as he sat with his closest followers, enjoying what he knew was his last meal with them before his death, Jesus shares with them his final thoughts, his most precious lessons from the last three years, as well as a few new ones. Imagine if you can, and maybe some of you have experienced this from the other side, that you knew your death was imminent, and you still had things to say to those closest to you. What would those words be? What shape would those conversations take? This is where Jesus’ heart and mind were on that night.

One of our children and I
demonstrating a footwashing
by washing each other's feet
during worship.
But the night did not begin with him speaking. He didn’t start out with one of his long speeches. The night started with him doing. The night started with a foot washing—and Peter speaking up like he always did, hesitated in utter confusion, wondered what in the world Jesus was doing. And Jesus first words of the night were, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.” Now I always took “later” to mean after Jesus was dead, raised and gone. But what if Jesus meant sooner than that? What if Jesus meant later that night? What if Jesus meant, by the end of the night, you’ll understand? Hold that thought for a moment.

So Jesus begins the night with a foot washing, which completely throws the disciples off guard, but it’s important that you have a mental image of this event in order for us to grasp the words of today’s short Gospel reading. Now, without boring you with a history lesson, the whole point of washing feet when you entered a home in the biblical world was because they lived in a dusty dirty world with no paved sidewalks or roads to walk on just dust and dirt. And, they wore sandals, not shoes. A modern day version of this might be spending a day at the beach and then trying to get as much sand off of your body, and you know that stuff gets everywhere, before you get in the car and certainly before you track it all over the house. Same concept, only this was an everyday ritual for them.

Ok, so with that in mind, Jesus is washing all of his disciple’s feet. Not like the way we do it here, where we all take turns washing each other’s feet, Jesus is washing them all. And there’s no reason to believe that it was just the twelve, in spite of what the paintings of this night may look like. I’m comfortable believing that women and maybe even children were there too. Jesus is washing all of them, and remember, they are dusty and dirty feet. Maybe even more than normal because of all the ministry and preaching that Jesus was doing. So, Jesus is finally finished washing everyone’s feet and this is the image I want seared into your mind.

Jesus is tired, he’s sweaty; Jesus is dirty, his clothes are now all wet so now he’s a bit muddy; he’s smelly, because, well, feet smell. He was looking like a hot mess. And that’s the state Jesus was in when he shared with his closest followers, his final thoughts, his final lessons, his final prayers, his last meal, his hopes and dreams for them—when Jesus sat with them, tired, dirty, smelly, and said, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you.” This is what love looks like. Love is tiring work. Love is dirty work. Love is smelly work. This is Christ’s new commandment for us. Our love for each other and for our world is supposed to leave us tired, dirty, and smelly. That is a sign that we are doing it right.

Friends, we follow a God who loves us so uniquely, so profoundly, that we cannot only begin to fathom it. We follow a Christ that is not afraid to love us until Christ is exhausted, until Christ is dirty, until Christ is smelly. May we have the same spirit of St. Peter, and fight any hesitation we may have to allow Christ to love us in this way, so that we too may be refreshed and empowered by his love, to love each other and our world in the same way. May every week be a holy week for us. Amen.

Everyday I'm Shepherd'n

The 23rd Psalm is probably one of the best known Bible passages. Like the Lord’s Prayer, many can even recite this from memory. And even those who can’t, probably know the first line, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And like the Lord’s Prayer, it is short and compact but boy is it full of meaning. Unfortunately, it is also associated with funerals. In fact, it rarely appears in our Sunday readings, which is one of the reasons why I jumped at the chance to preach on it. So, most people are familiar with this at funerals, which can be both god and bad. It associates sadness with this Psalm, but it also associates comfort with it too. However, it is so much more than a funeral psalm.

In fact, outside of the U.S. people don’t use Psalm 23 for funerals. On top of that, it’s not the way this Psalm was read in biblical times. Now, prepare to have your minds blown, unless you’ve heard this before, which wouldn’t surprise me. Psalm 23 was originally meant to be read more like a political tract! I know, crazy right! Now don’t let that ruin it for you, stay with me! My hope is that this will make the 23rd Psalm even more awesome for you! It was a treatise against human rulers, in their case, against the king. And it really didn’t matter which king, which human ruler, it applied to them all. It could be their own king, who wasn’t treating them as a shepherd should, or a foreign king who believed himself to be God on earth.

Here’s another way to think of it. Today, it’s hard to turn on the news and not see protesters protesting something. And they carry these signs. And they are short and to the point. Some of them are very clever. I would never make a good protesting sign because I like words too much. It would be too big to carry by the time I got done. But that’s the way that this Psalm was used, as a protest against a king and/or that king’s government. So, hear it this time, with that implication added in:

The Lord is my shepherd; NOT YOU!
  I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures NOT YOU!
  and leads me be- side still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord, NOT HIM!
  and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;
  for you are with me; NOT HIM!
  your rod and your staff, they comfort me. NOT HIS!
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; NOT HIM!
  you anoint my head with oil, NOT HIM! and my cup is running over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
  and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. NOT HIS HOUSE!

That is the way the ancients heard this Psalm. Different isn’t it? Now I’m not saying that using it in funerals or using it for comfort the way we usually do is wrong. I will continue to use it that way, and continue to use it in funerals but this adds a new layer of complexity for us to use. Especially in the in-between times: for those times when we aren’t in mourning; when we are not at a funeral; when we don’t need comforting; when things are going well. In those times, what does this Psalm have to say for us, and how shall we use it then? This is what I want to stretch us to think about this week.

Possibly the oldest image of Jesus,
 a 3rd-century fresco
from the Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome,
 of Christ as the Good Shepherd.
The image of the shepherd is an ancient model for leadership. Kings and emperors since the beginning of time have called themselves the shepherd of their people. Have they lived up to that standard? The short answer is no, which is why the author of this psalm felt compelled to write. It was their way of saying to human rulers, “So you call yourself our shepherd? This is what a shepherd does. Is this what you’re doing?” Because in this psalm we have a clear description of the characteristics of a shepherd, the shepherd; a shepherd is a provider of nourishment, food and water; a shepherd is a spiritual guide; a shepherd is a protector, a corrector, and a comforter; a shepherd welcomes, shelters, and prepares a place with merciful abundance for his people.

This Psalm was an ancient way of saying to their rulers, it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. And that’s where it gets a little dicey for us. Because if we are going to point our finger at our human rulers, whether it’s the president, the governor, senator, mayor, whoever, and hold them accountable to their jobs, and we should, then we have to be ready to hold ourselves accountable to our jobs as well, both as citizens of this great country and as citizens of the kingdom of God that we are called to bring to earth here and now.

If we are going to call ourselves followers of the shepherd Jesus Christ, then that means we not only follow where Christ goes, but also how Christ the shepherd goes. How are we being shepherds to our world? How are we providing nourishment to our world? An example of this would be the Gathering In or contributing to Lutheran World Hunger. How are we being spiritual guides for our world? An example of this might be the Journey of Faith. How are we protecting our world? Who in our world needs our protection? How are we comforting our world; welcoming our world; sheltering; preparing a place for our world?

This psalm not only takes our world’s leaders to task, but it takes us to task as well. And rightly so, because we can’t wait for outside entities to take care of our world, whether it’s our government, other non-profits, or whoever, we are called to take care of the world ourselves. And the world needs us now. And in the same way that this psalm is a model for how we are to shepherd this world, we can be a model for the world of what it looks like to be a true shepherd. May we be bold and courageous enough to allow this Psalm to call us into the hard work of shepherding, during those in-between times, when things are good, when we don’t need this Psalm to comfort us, but rather, to take us to task. Thanks be to God. Amen.


The Resurrection of the Hickory Horned Devils

I like bugs. All kinds: spiders, caterpillars, bees; furry, slimy, fast or slow; you name it, if it’s creepy and crawly, I’ll be fascinated by it. I’ve been that way ever since I was a child and it never really went away. Not surprisingly, I’m also one of those “weirdos” who take bugs outside, even spiders, to release—rather than smashing them into a gooey mess.

I also love photography. It’s one of those things that I would love to be able to spend more time doing, maybe even take a class someday! So, as you can imagine, many of my favorite photos that I have taken over the years are of…you guessed it…bugs! So as I was rummaging through my photo collection trying to find one to use on my business card, I naturally chose one of my favorite bug photos…

She’s called a Regal Moth. Citheronia regalis, for those of you even nerdier than I. I found her in my backyard in Chambersburg, PA. She was huge! Six inch wing span! And her coloring was just stunning. I have more pictures, but this one was my favorite, of her face, probably wondering what in the world I was doing.

Now you may not be able to appreciate her beauty like I do, and that’s ok, but if you saw her as a caterpillar, you’d never in a million years believe she’d turn into a Regal Moth, because she looked like this…

Scary, right? Even I would hesitate to touch her! As caterpillars, they are called Hickory Horned Devils. And rightly so! But this got me thinking, as pastors often do, of life, death, and resurrection. Sometimes we find new life in the most unexpected of places, through the unlikeliest of means. The Regal Moth is a reminder to us that resurrection can come from the most improbable, or scariest of places; even in a being with “devil” in her name!

As baptized children of God we would be wise to remember that we have this capacity to be both Hickory Horned Devils, and Regal Moths. That is to say, that though our horns may sprout from time to time, or minute to minute, we have a wondrous God who transforms us into beings altogether new—empowered to bring new life into a world filled with “horned devils”, in whose number we must count ourselves.

May we be given the boldness and courage to look for new life in the most unlikeliest, and sometimes the scariest places, people, or things—and be ready to be profoundly transformed.


Unprepared Peter - or - Peter's Birthday Suit

Inspired by John 21:1-19

What in the world was Peter doing naked on a boat! That was my take away when I first read this passage last week. And it was hard to get that image out of my head! I tried to focus on the usual suspects in this well-known story. The fishing, the nets, the casting, the breakfast, Jesus forgiving Peter, all the obvious stuff that we’ve heard a million sermons on. But I could not get the image of Peter in his birthday suit out of my head! So, in my experience, that usually can only mean one thing, God is doing something there, God wants us to notice something there. So, as weird as it was, I pondered, I wondered, I meditated on naked Peter.
I began asking questions like, why was he naked? Why is it even mentioned? Why would John throw Peter under the bus like that? I mean, Peter is painted as being a bit dense in John’s Gospel, John seems to go out of his way to let you know that Peter isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. But John chooses his words very carefully and wouldn’t include this for petty reasons I hope. Other questions might be: Is this connected to Jesus forgiving Peter over breakfast? What does this mean for us, if anything? So this is what I came up with. 
John is throwing Peter under the bus here, but for good reason, for reasons that even Peter would agree with, the older, mature, Peter that becomes a leader in the church eventually. John wants us to see just how unprepared Peter was when Jesus shows up again, this time on the sea shore while they are fishing. And the fact that he wanted to go fishing is no trivial matter either. Why was he fishing and not doing all the ministry that Jesus told them to do over the last three years? Well, some may argue that they needed to eat too but I don’t think that’s John’s point. 
For some context we have to remember where Peter is coming from and the state of mind that he may have been in because of where he had come from. Not only had he recently witnessed the violent death of Jesus, his friend, his teacher, his pastor, but in a moment of weakness he denied even knowing Jesus, while Jesus was on trial no less! And then the resurrected Jesus shows up and it’s a glorious time and everyone’s celebrating, they find the courage and motivation that they need to leave that locked room. But Peter, Peter is carrying around all this guilt for what he has done and it’s dragging him down. It’s paralyzing him. He’s feeling unworthy to do the ministry that Jesus asked him to do. He’s having troubling following Jesus through his guilt.
I imagine John years later when he is writing his Gospel, asking Peter if he can share these stories. And Peter gasps, saying are you crazy! I don’t want people to remember me that way! How embarrassing! And John says, I know, but people need to hear this, people need to hear about your transformation. Because John has been with Peter since the beginning. He knows the kind of person Peter was when he met him, and sees the wise pastoral leader of the church that he has become. And John is proud of him! And wants to share these stories to give others hope, that if this dumb fisherman can be transformed maybe I can too.
But back to our story. Peter, in all his guilt, goes fishing and is clearly not dressed for Jesus to show up, heck, he’s not even dressed for fishing! Peter is unprepared for Jesus, for ministry, for fishing, for life! Which is maybe why the disciples said, we’ll go with you Pete. And then Jesus shows up, tells them to cast on the other side and then none of them are prepared for what happens next. They literally haul in a boatload of fish, that they were unprepared for, their nets can’t even handle it! And Peter doesn’t even care, because now he knows who is on the shore, that’s his Jesus, Peter may not know a whole lot of things in the state of mind he is in but he knows he needs Jesus, and so dives in after him.
So, here is where I feel we are being challenged by this story. How prepared are we for ministry? How prepared are we for Jesus to show up? How prepared are we for Jesus to ask us to cast on the other side, to change things up, and then be surprised with the results? Which leads to other questions like, how do we even prepare for ministry? How do we prepare for Jesus to show up? How do we even prepare for ministry surprises? 
Well, let me give you an example of how I have already seen that play out here at Bethlehem. This past week has been a rough one for Auburn and for many in our congregation. The tragic death of Trevor and Jared, two students from Placer High last Sunday has shaken the city, the high school, those families involved, and of our youth group here at Bethlehem, many of whom knew Trevor and Jared. Unfortunately, this kind of tragedy is not new to our youth group here. Many have shared with me some heartfelt stories surrounding the death of Hannah three years ago. 
I don’t bring that up to open an old wound but like John sharing those stories of Peter that he’d rather just forget, it’s a part of your history that has formed you into the body of Christ that you are today. It is part of your history that has prepared for the unexpected, like last week’s tragic deaths. And here’s how, in our staff meeting this week, Lisa King, our children’s ministry director, brought up Hannah and all the things that helped Bethlehem cope and process her death, in the hopes that we can find ways to cope, and process, and heal now. That is an example of how a life event, however tragic, can push us to prepare for the unexpected. But it still takes people like Lisa to see and actively use those opportunities; to follow Jesus.
And here’s another example, one that I noticed even before last Sunday’s tragic event. Pastor Casey has actively worked to make a safe place for our youth here; a safe place for them to share their thoughts, their questions, their emotions, their stories. And more than that, he has been able to create an atmosphere here, where the youth themselves are able to care for, and to minister to each other. That is a beautiful thing to behold. I see it in their hugs, their tears, their laughter, their willingness to welcome outsiders, their protective nature with each other, especially in times of sadness and confusion like this past week.
Pastor Casey, Lisa, and the youth handled the past week like seasoned ministers. They were all prepared, even though, if you asked them, it probably didn’t feel that way. But unlike naked Peter jumping out of a boat flailing about in the water trying to reach Jesus out of desperation, they were ready. And when Jesus asked them, What have you caught? They were able to say, we’ve caught another tragedy Lord. But we’ve been working on our nets, and they are strong. We are ready to follow you. Then let’s go Jesus says. Let’s go. That has been a beautiful thing to behold, in the midst of another tragedy. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymn: When Pain of the World Surrounds Us

When pain of the world surrounds us with darkness and despair,
when searching just confounds us with false hopes ev'rywhere,
when lives are starved for meaning and destiny is bare,
we are called to follow Jesus and let God's healing flow through us.
We see with fear and trembling our aching world in need,
confessing to each other our wastefulness and greed.
May we with steadfast caring the hungry children feed.
We are called to follow Jesus and let God's justice flow through us.

The church is a holy vessel the living waters fill
to nourish all the people, God's purpose to fulfill.
May we with humble courage be open to God's will.
We are called to follow Jesus and let God's Spirit flow through us.

We praise you for our journey and your abundant grace,
your saving word that guided a struggling human race.
O God, with all creation, your future we embrace.
We are called to follow Jesus and let God's changes flow through us.

By Jim Strathdee


And Then Jesus Shows Up

Inspired by John 20:19-31

So, I’m guessing my first two Sunday sermons have been pretty challenging for you. I came out of the gate pretty strong. I’m not apologizing for that, but I did want to acknowledge it. Part of my job as pastor is to challenge people. I knew that going in to this field. But don’t ever think that it is easy for me to do. It’s not easy because when you challenge people you’re going to get some push-back and I have to be ready for that.

But it’s also not easy because whenever I challenge you I am also challenging myself, because a good preacher preaches sermons that they themselves need to hear too. The last two Sundays were challenging because the readings were challenging. And a good preacher is always led by scripture, not the other way around. So, the Palm Sunday story is challenging. The Resurrection is challenging.

So, it was with great pleasure, and relief, when I read the Gospel reading for today. And although it has it’s challenging moments too, that I won’t let slip by, overall it is a very comforting text in my eyes. And though I love a good challenge, I know that we need to be comforted too. So, let’s dig in. Our story begins with the disciples who have locked themselves away in a room. Already, we need to stop there. John is communicating so much to us in that one verse alone! John mentions that they were afraid. Fear, another powerful force to be reckoned with, is a killer. To be fair, John does mention that they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, and we know from the previous chapters that they had good reason to be afraid of them.

But what else do we remember from all that John had written prior to this story? Things like, Jesus telling them to love one another, to love the world, to be servant leaders, to feed, to heal, to tell the story! Just to name a few! And here they are locking themselves up in a room, allowing fear to take control, and where is it getting them? Not to mention the fact that they can’t do all those things that Jesus just spent three years and his life, telling them to do! And here’s the kicker, this isn’t Jesus’ first resurrection appearance. Right before this story, in the same chapter even, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, who then told the disciples! They already knew of the resurrection! And it still wasn’t enough. These were his closest followers and they were failing big time.

And then Jesus shows up. I would have loved to see the expression on their faces when he just waltzes in their unexpectedly. I imagine it being very similar to when, as a kid, I was told that I was grounded from playing my video games, but when my parents were away I’d sneak in a game or two only to have them come home early and have them ask, “What were you doing?” Oh, nothing, I was just organizing my video games and uh was about to do some dusting, yeah, that dusting you asked me to do,  a long time ago.

So, when Jesus shows up in this story I imagine Peter nervously saying, “Jesus! Hey, we knew you were coming! Mary told us! We were just heading out the door, to the uh local leper colony. Yeah, right fellas, we all signed up to feed dinner to the lepers. Cuz those are the kinds of things you told us to do right? Heh heh. John’s behind Peter, rolls his eyes and says, “Just shut up Pete, he’s not buying any of this.”

They’d been caught. And they thought they were afraid before Jesus showed up? Now they had a whole new fear to deal with as they watched Jesus mouth open to speak, probably about to lay into them. And what does Jesus say? “Peace.” “Peace be with you.” That’s probably all they needed to know that this was indeed Jesus. He probably didn’t even have to show them his wounds! They knew, this was their Jesus, giving grace that they didn’t expect, giving them exactly what they needed in that moment, peace. For them, in that moment, the resurrection meant death to their fear. In those four simple words, Jesus was able to assure them that, in spite of their behavior, in spite of their fear, he was still there with them, and still wanted the best for them.

So that’s scene one of our story, scene two is all about Thomas. Thomas didn’t seem to be having the same problem with fear that the rest were. He was out and about when Jesus appeared to them and missed it! His problem was outright disbelief. He just didn’t believe it! And notice that it doesn’t say that he doubted. The Greek verb here is belief not doubt. You can believe something and still have doubts about it. We often think of doubt as being the opposite of belief but that just isn’t true. I would go so far as to say that belief and doubt go hand in hand, they kind of feed off each other. I have doubts all the time, within my beliefs. In fact, if you think about it, if we had no doubts, what would be the point of faith and beliefs?

So poor Thomas even gets the nick name, Doubting Thomas and it’s just not true. He didn’t believe. And he was pretty bold about it, I’d go so far as to say he was arrogant about it. Because remember, he does not believe that Jesus is still alive. And if he didn’t think that Jesus was alive, then he could be as bold and arrogant as he wants about his disbelief. And then Jesus shows up.

Oh to see his face when that happened! I don’t know who was more afraid of what was about to come out of Jesus mouth, the fearful disciples who locked themselves in a room, or poor unbelieving arrogant Thomas! And what does Jesus say, “Peace be with you.” And though the circumstances are a bit different, his message is the same. In spite of your arrogance Thomas, in spite of your unbelief, I’m still here for you, and I still want the best for you Thomas.”

So one time I was visiting a very elderly lady. It was the first time I had been to her home and she was very anxious to visit with me. She welcomed me with open arms, treated me as if I was royalty, shared some of her life stories with me, and we had a wonderful visit. Then a moment came when she became very serious.

The expression on her face changed, her posture changed, and with her big beautiful, if hazy eyes, she looked me square in the face and says, “I have to ask you a question pastor. I want to know if it’s ok that I ask God to take me. Because I’m ready.” She asked this in almost a whisper, as if God couldn’t hear if she was quiet enough. The guilt she carried around with her all day over this question was unbearable. And I found myself in a position to offer her the same thing that she had already offered me as she welcomed me into her home and into her life, peace.

My hope is that somehow I was able to communicate to her the same message of Christ to his disciples, and to Thomas. “Peace be with you.” That in spite of her guilt, in spite of her weariness, she was able to hear Christ say, I’m still here, and I still want the best for you. No more fear, no more unbelief, no more guilt. Have courage, believe, be free. Peace be with you. This is what we communicate to each other when we pass the peace during worship. In spite of our faults, our failings, our feelings, all that we are ashamed of, Christ still shows up, Christ still wants the best for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.