Sunday, May 14, 2017

"Trust in God, trust also in me."

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Easter 5 – 14 May 2017
Text: John 14:1-14
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Hidden away in the heart of today’s gospel lesson is a message about relationship – specifically, the trust that is required in order for a relationship to exist. Today’s gospel lesson from John 14 is a part of what we call Jesus’ Farewell Discourse – a long speech (of sorts) that Jesus gives to his disciples before his arrest, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. By this point, Jesus has already told them that he will be killed and raised again, so in this discourse, he is trying to help his disciples see that they’re going to have to have some trust.

The word “believe” comes up a lot in the Gospel of John, but it doesn’t always mean what we think it does. When John talks about “believing” in Jesus, he isn’t talking about a head-belief. He’s talking more about a relationship that must exist. Belief in John has to do with trust. So when Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me,” that second part could very well also be rendered as, “Trust in God, trust also in me.”

So let’s back up for a second and look at the first part of what Jesus says here – “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

OK, Jesus, you got it.

As much as that seems like an unreasonable expectation for us, imagine how it must’ve come across to his disciples. Guess what happens in John 13 right before Jesus tells his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled?

Jesus tells Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

Oh, and right before that is when Judas Iscariot leaves Jesus to betray him to the authorities.


So, into this emotionally challenging evening filled with betrayal and prediction of denial, Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.”

This statement of Jesus, then, is not exactly spoken into a time of certainty – a time in which the disciples would find it easy to trust God or, even, to trust Jesus. Rather, Jesus is speaking this word to them at one of the most challenging points, emotionally – and one of the most critical points in terms of his own life and ministry. Lest we think that Jesus speaks this as a platitude from a place of utter comfort and security – no, we have to look at all this context to see that Jesus says these words after being betrayed by one disciple and after predicting the denial of another.

Someone once said, “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don't throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.” The person who said this knew about trust – she knew about hard trust – she knew about trust that is worked out in difficult times. The person who said this was Holocaust survivor and Dutch resistance leader Corrie ten Boom.

Ten Boom and her family hid Jews and resistance workers in their home after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, making sure that these people were not only kept safe, but had ration coupons to buy food. The ten Boom family was arrested for their work and held in concentration camps.

Corrie was eventually released because of a clerical error, and she went back to taking in those who needed shelter – especially caring for the mentally disabled, who lived in fear of execution by the Nazis. After the war, she cared for the many refugees who emerged from the concentration camps – alive, but often ill and jobless, and through no fault of their own. She tended to the forgotten victims of the war – those whose lives were deeply impacted simply because of who they were when they were born.

All of this work was done out of her deep and abiding trust in God. “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don't throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.” Words spoken by someone who knew better than most about dark tunnels and abiding in trust.

In whom do we place our trust?

When writing about the First Commandment in his Large Catechism, Martin Luther said that “[a]nything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your god.” But, as opposed to all the things in which we might be tempted to place our trust, Luther goes on to say that, instead, our hearts are to cling to God, to grasp ahold of God, so that we entrust our lives to God completely.

Even as we place our trust in God, sometimes our lives will make us question that trust. But today’s Gospel lesson contains good news for us, hidden in all of the questions and uncertainties expressed by Jesus’ own disciples. Why are these questions and uncertainties good news for us?

Because they show us that God can handle our questions and uncertainties.

In God’s house there are many dwelling places, Jesus says – a statement that is very much about the expansive love of God for us. God has room for us, and for our questions, too. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to ask a question. And really, our questions don’t demonstrate a lack of trust. If anything, questions are a show of trust: it’s easier to ask a question if we trust someone than if we don’t!

In whom do you place your trust?

Trust in God, who will still your troubled heart and who will never fail you. Amen.


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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Rehearsal Makes a Difference

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Easter 4 – Good Shepherd Sunday – 7 May 2017
Text: Psalm 23
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Let us begin by reading together Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord,
  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; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
  you anoint my head with oil, 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. 

How many of you have been to a wedding where one of the readings was 1 Corinthians 13?
How many of you have been to a funeral where Psalm 23 was used in some way?

So this is a familiar passage to many of us.

When I was on internship, the pastor and I would periodically lead Bible studies at one of the local funeral homes. Many of the residents didn’t remember much. But somewhere along the way, I began including Psalm 23. This psalm is so familiar to so many, that even in the residents with the strongest cases of memory loss, they could recite part or all of this psalm. It was remarkable.

As I hinted at the outset, these familiar words of comfort are often used at funerals. But this psalm is a prayer not for the dead, but for the living. And it’s a prayer not only for us to give comfort to those who are grieving in their time of deepest mourning, it’s a prayer we would do well to rehearse again and again throughout our lives. This psalm is a prayer for life, not only for death.

Have you ever thought of this familiar psalm as a prayer before? Rather than simply reading the words, have you ever expressed them to God as a prayer?

Let’s pray it together…

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord,
  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; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
  you anoint my head with oil, 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. 

Taken as a prayer, and not simply as a description of who God is and what God does for us, the tone changes. If we pray these words, suddenly, there is a hope to them, and a faith behind them. If we rehearse these words again and again as a prayer, they become a part of us – and a part of our hope and faith and trust in God.

I think I’ve shared with you before about an experience I had in the summer between sixth and seventh grades when our Minister of Music asked me to play a duet on my flute with a church friend who played clarinet. She mailed me the music – it was a setting of the hymn “Now the Green Blade Riseth” – a setting which included – I kid you not – a run of 32nd notes that I found impossible to play. I tried and tried, rehearsing those stupid notes over and over. I’d get partway in to that run of notes and quit because it sounded awful and my fingers couldn’t keep up.

When it came time for my friend and I to rehearse the duet together, I was so embarrassed. Wendy could tell that I’d practiced – she could tell that I’d tried – she could also tell it was beyond my abilities at the time. So she gracefully took that section out of my part and encouraged me to play the rest of the piece. And I did, and it sounded beautiful.

Even though I struggled with that one part, the rehearsing made a difference, and that’s why musicians rehearse.

So, when I suggest rehearsing Psalm 23 as a prayer, this is the spirit in which I intend that to occur. Rehearsal helps us learn. In this case, rehearsal helps us learn the words on the page, but the more these words become a part of us, the more we can live in faith, rather than fear.

This psalm is counter-cultural. We live in a world that tells us that we lack everything – that we are always in want. Think about something as simple as advertising. Advertising’s very purpose is to point out where we are deficient and helpfully provide us with the answers to our deficiencies. And the advertising is everywhere.

This psalm, though, helps us realize that with God as our Shepherd, we don’t have to focus on what we don’t have in order to be content and fulfilled. With God as our Shepherd, we realize that we have what we need. We have God, who loves us, and will never let us go.

This psalm is counter-cultural also because we live in a world that tells us that we can find our own right paths. Recently, a survey of ELCA Lutherans showed that fifty percent of those surveyed believe that in order to be saved, we must do good works.

Now, I’m as big a believer in the power of good works as anyone. Good works help make the world a better place to live. But we don’t do good works to gain salvation of our souls anymore than we can find our own right paths. It’s God our Savior’s work to save us, just as it is God our Shepherd’s work to lead us along right pathways.

This psalm also helps us remember that God is with us each day of our lives. Like I said at the beginning – this is a psalm for our daily lives, not only for our deaths. So wherever it is that God has placed us for this season – whatever our work is, wherever we are in school, whatever it is we do in retirement, God is with us. God leads us, restores us, comforts us, and provides us. All out of mercy and love for us.

This past week, I was reading what writer, teacher, and seminary president David Lose has to say about vocation. Vocation is whatever it is that God calls you to do with your time, energy, and gifts. So think about that for a second…

Some of you might’ve come up with more than one thing, and that’s OK. God calls us to multiple vocations: I am a pastor, but I am also a wife, a stepmom, a dog owner, a family member, a friend. Each of these takes time, energy, and gifts, so each of these can in some way be considered a vocation.

Many of you, I hope, consider the volunteer work you do here at church to be vocational work, and maybe you even from time to time have a sense of God meeting you in the work you do here, whether that’s caring for the property, folding the bulletins, or assisting in worship in some way.

But Dr. Lose asks us to consider this question: Are we prepared to encounter God and be used by God in our everyday lives?

And to apply the filter of the 23rd Psalm to this question: Are we prepared to encounter God as our Shepherd in our everyday lives? Are we prepared for God to lead us and care for us in our daily lives? Are we prepared to fear no evil – even though we may walk in the valley of the shadow of death? Are we prepared for God’s goodness and mercy to follow us all the days of our lives? Not just on Sundays or whenever we are at church – but all the days of our lives?

Let us pray together once more…

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
You restore my soul, O Lord,
  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; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
  you anoint my head with oil, 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. 

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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Known to Us in the Breaking of Bread

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Easter 3 – 30 April 2017
Text: Luke 24:13-35
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Happy Easter – again! On this, the Third Sunday of Easter, we have another post-resurrection appearance by Jesus. This story from the Gospel of Luke is another story set on the day of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s funny – we hear the big resurrection story on Easter morning, and then, maybe we forget that the rest of that day, Jesus kept busy, meeting up with his various disciples in various ways.

In today’s story, two disciples are walking along to Emmaus, and they are discussing the weekend’s events. To them, the events we remember on Good Friday are still fresh in their minds – Jesus’ crucifixion would’ve happened only three days before this. As they walk and talk, Jesus appears to them, but they don’t recognize him.

He asks what they’re discussing and they sadly recount Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and death. They talk about their hopes for Jesus, too: “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” – in other words, we had hoped that this was the promised Messiah, or anointed one from God. Then, in their limited understanding, they even tell Jesus about the resurrection as presented to them by the women at the tomb.

It’s worth noting here that - according to the Gospel Writer Luke - earlier in the day, when the women tell the other disciples about the resurrection, the disciples think that the women are full of it and telling an idle tale. So, as they are talking with Jesus on that road to Emmaus, they tell him, “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

The disciples still aren’t really sure what’s going on. And here is Jesus’ opportunity – after rebuking them for their foolishness and slowness of heart, he begins to teach them, interpreting things about the Messiah that they know from their Scriptures.

At this point, the narrative hits a little bump as they near the village. Jesus seems to be traveling on, but they ask him to stay – that strong hospitality ethic is at work here. So he goes into the home with them, and at the meal, he takes the bread, he blesses it, he breaks it, and he gives it to them.

And they know – this is Jesus.

Then, just like that, he’s gone.

And these disciples are left with their questions, but with new-found enthusiasm, they return to Jerusalem to find the eleven disciples and their companions and give them the news: “The Lord has risen indeed!” Then they tell what had happened on the road, and how [Jesus] has been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. And I wonder if they ever ate bread again without thinking of this meal that they shared with Jesus.

When I was growing up, my mom found a recipe for lemon-honey cookies in the Little Rock newspaper. She cut it out – it’s a tiny scrap of newspaper. I still have it, after all these years, amazingly. Almost every year of my life around Christmas time, Mom and I would pull out the recipe on the little scrap of paper, pull out the flour sifter and all the ingredients, pull out the rolling pin and the cookie cutters and the baking sheets. We’d mix up the ingredients and eat the dough. Every year, we’d forget to make the dough ahead of time so it could chill in the fridge overnight, so every year, we’d wrap it and carefully stick it in the freezer for a while instead. It was our ritual of love and companionship.

To this day, when I pull out the recipe on the scrap of paper, and pull out the same rolling pin and cookie cutters and flour sifter, and mix the ingredients, all I have to do is smell the lemon and the honey, and I participate again in the ritual of love and companionship that I shared with my mom all those years. It’s different now, of course, but the love is still there. The sense of companionship has changed, of course, but, whenever I make these cookies, I still feel a connectedness to my mom, to our years of baking, and to my history.

Now, what do lemon-honey cookies have to do with Jesus?

Today’s Gospel story gives us the beginnings of our ritual of love and companionship that we share with each other each week. Luke tells us: “[Jesus] took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Does this pattern sound familiar at all? This is the beginning of our own pattern of Holy Communion – taking something as simple as bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it out to anyone who is hungry for Jesus.

If we think that this is only about us in this room, we are wrong. We share this ritual of love and companionship with each other, but also with those first disciples, and with disciples of Jesus all over the world today, and with many disciples of Jesus in between.

The past two days, Renee, Mel, Hattie, and I attended our annual Synod Assembly – a gathering of hundreds of Lutherans from North Texas, North Louisiana, one congregation in Clovis, New Mexico, and one in Durant, Oklahoma. Bishop Gronberg invited many bishops and pastors from other Christian denominations to greet the assembly, and one was from the Roman Catholic Church.

Father Williams was tasked with speaking about the Reformation from his Roman Catholic perspective, which he did beautifully, and in the light of recent agreements made between our own Lutheran church body and the Roman Catholic Church. We still have areas of disagreement, of course – the role of women in ordained ministry being one of those areas - but we are working toward greater unity.

At the end of Father Williams’ speaking time, Bishop Gronberg opened up the floor for questions, and one of my colleagues lovingly asked Father Williams if he thought we would ever share Holy Communion, officially, as Lutherans and Catholics together. His answer was hopeful, and so greatly based on a theology of love and companionship, for he said that it is in Holy Communion where we truly find our unity as Christians.

At that meal in Emmaus two thousand years ago, Jesus was made known to his disciples in the breaking of bread. At our meal here in a few minutes, Jesus will be made known to us in the breaking of bread. In this meal, we find love, we find companionship, and we find the Lord, giving us hope and strength that we may carry on, and giving us the very love of God for us to share with others.

The Lord has risen indeed!

Amen.

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