Monday, March 28, 2016

March 27, 2016 Easter Sermon: "An Idle Tale"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: Luke 24.1-12
An Idle Tale 

            We live in anxious days.  We’re anxious about our jobs, our community’s safety, and our family’s security.  We’re worried about shrinking budgets and rising prices.  We’re nervous about too many too many bills coming due on the same day.  We’re deeply concerned about violence and terror across the globe.  We live in anxious days. 
            Like the Israelites who wandered through the desert--unsure when their next meal would come, unsure when they would arrive at their final destination--we need peace of mind from our anxieties.  Like the women who arrived at the tomb, expecting to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, only to find that he wasn’t there, we worry. 
            This morning, I have Good News for anyone who is anxious: The stone is gone!  Jesus is risen!   
            The women who went to the tomb expected Jesus’ body to be there, expected to prepare it for burial, expected it to be difficult moving rolling away the stone, expected it to be another depressing day in what had been an unbearable week.  Then they saw that the stone was gone.  And their anxiety quickly turned.  They became terrified.  Where was he?  Who had taken him?  And why? 
            Jus then, they were told by people shining so brightly they could only be angels, that Jesus is risen!  Risen? they must have thought.  Is that what he was trying to tell us about being handed over to sinners before being risen on the third day?  And…isn’t this the…third day?  Their terror quickly turned to absolute joy, as they realized what was happening.  They had no reason to worry.  Jesus was alive!  Death could not destroy him!  Violence could not control him!  A cross could not kill him!  So they went to the disciples and shared the good news.  Easter is a day for sharing good news, especially when you live in anxious days. 
I’d like to share a story of good news with you on this Easter.  It’s a story about Robyn and her daughter Millie.  Robyn was my seminary classmate, and she now serves a church in Iowa.  Last year, she and her husband welcomed a baby girl, Millie, into their family. 
Robyn runs marathons, but that could not prepare her, she said, for 24 hours of labor.  She endured, and Millie came into the world, an answer to her parent’s prayers.  Quickly, though, their joy turned to anxiety.  Doctors told them something was wrong.  Perhaps an intestinal blockage.  They would have to do surgery.  “Nothing to worry about,” they said.  “It’s minor.” 
But little Millie, a mere three days old, endured a heart attack and a stroke during surgery.  She suffered brain damage.  And two months after Millie came into the world, she died. 
So this Ash Wednesday, Robyn wrote a letter to Millie in hopes of making peace with these anxious days.  She wrote, “Oh my darling girl, when you passed my world shattered. People told me that it wouldn’t always be this way, but when you’re entombed in such sadness, you can’t see anything beyond it. My head knew it wouldn’t always be this way, but this isn’t something you think through; it’s something you feel, you live, you breathe and fearfully walk one step at a time through it all.”
“But my love, as the nausea subsided, and my sadness remained, something else began to happen. Somehow light, and joy, and laughter began to shine through.”
She says she now knows that, “God sits with us in the ashes and sorrow. And through those painful moments, even if we ourselves can’t feel it, others remind us that morning will come, the light will break forth, again, and we will all vibrate with the singing of the whole world. On Easter Sunday we celebrate that Christ rose, that Christ is rising today in our very lives, and that Christ will rise again.” 
Easter is about sharing good news, not in spite of the anxiety that surrounds us, but because of it.  On Easter, Christians stand and proclaim in a world full of anxiety, death, and terror, that God is not subject to those limitations. 
After the women told the other disciples the good news…“The stone is gone!  Jesus is risen!”…they didn’t believe it.  Their minds were too anxious to have any room for joy.  But later, Peter went to the tomb himself, and he saw the burial cloths which has wrapped Jesus’ body mere days before, lying on the ground.  For Peter, that was the moment when anxiety turned to joy, when he realized that light will break forth, that love does always win, and that Christ was indeed risen. 
I told you Robyn’s story was a story of good news.  At the end of her letter, Robyn tells Millie that she will have a baby sister later this year. 

            What can we do…what should we do…in the midst of these anxious days?  We should keep our eyes on the Lord, we should savor every minute of this beautiful life, and we should do our very best to make this world a better place for the day when Jesus rises again.  Amen.   

Monday, March 21, 2016

March 20, 2016 Sermon: "If a Tree Falls in the Woods"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: John 19.28-40
If a Tree Falls in the Woods…

            If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  Of course, right.  Because you’ve heard trees fall before, and the thud of hundreds or thousands of pounds of wood slamming into the ground creates huge sound waves.  But hearing is a human process requiring ears, a brain, and a sound to decipher.  And if no human was around to perceive what happened when the tree fell, then how could you say anything with certainty?  This is the essence of the debate which has been going on for centuries. 
            The point of this riddle is that perception is reality.  Your only actual knowledge of “reality” is your personal perception of it.  If I asked three different people what they thought of the food at a particular restaurant, they would probably have three different perceptions of it.  If three people observe a crime, they each will tell a slightly different witness story.  With that in mind, let’s think about the Palm Sunday story from different perspectives.   
            What do the crowds perceive?  A coronation.  They’re spreading their cloaks on the road to make way for a king sent by God to save them.  The king isn’t quite what they expected.  He is riding a donkey instead of a horse, wielding a palm branch instead of a sword, and dressed like a regular guy instead of a soldier.  Even so, they chant and cheer.  They see Jesus as a king.  This parade instills hope in them. 
            What do the leaders perceive?  For the Roman and Jewish  authorities, it’s also a coronation, but not a happy one.  The people are bowing down to someone else, someone they don’t control, someone who doesn’t bow down to them.  This parade threatens them.  Deeply. They see a man who could take everything they hold dear from their fingertips.  
            What does Jesus perceive?  Truly, heaven only knows.  It had to feel like a rollercoaster for him.  Thrilling one minute and terrifying the next.  Sure, it was great that folks finally understood who he was.  Sort of.  They recognized him as a king, but he wasn’t the king they expected.  And he knew where the road he traveled would lead.  When they found out who he really was, they would kill him.  He’d known that for a while now, but knowing something will happen one day and then having it happen are two very different things. 
            If a tree falls in the woods with nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound?  If a king is nailed to a cross with everyone watching, can they hear his cries? 
            On Palm Sunday, the creation existed in such harmony that even the stones were shouting hosanna!  The streams looked in awe as Jesus strode by.  The palm branches bowed down before him.  The birds flew by to catch a glimpse of the one sent to save all creation.  Even the stones were shouting! 
            What do we perceive today when we read this familiar story of Palm Sunday?  I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you what I see.  I see a man carrying the weight of the world willingly.  I see the son of God, born in the stable with the animals, now all grown up, fulfilling his purpose, calling forth all of creation, including the animals and the stones he was born amidst.  I see him enduring the crowds and the heat and the threats and the looming violence, because from his perspective, we are worth it.  He hears our every thought, and to him, we are worth every ounce of effort exerted on the long road to Jerusalem.

            This week, I want you to pay attention to trees falling in the forest, birds passing by overhead, wind blowing through the woods, and stones shouting.  Because when you hear the creation groaning for the Savior, you know what it is saying.  Hosanna!  Save us!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Amen.  

March 13, 2016 Sermon: "An Awkward Party"

Stephen Baldwin
NT: John 12.1-8
An Awkward Party

Around here folks don’t often have dinner parties.  We have cookouts and backyard get-togethers.  With the weather like it has been, I bet some of you have been planning a get-together, haven’t you?  But whether we’re talking about dinner parties or cookouts, it’s the same concept.  Invite over some friends or family, cook a bunch of food, and enjoy good weather together. 
The problem with them is that they can be awkward.  Because you don’t know some of the people there or you don’t like the food or you came in your Sunday best when everybody else is in their jeans and t-shirts or so and so brought their disrespectful kids who will pelt you with water balloons, again, or Uncle Eddie will be there wearing his inappropriate jean shorts and white undershirt asking for a hug.  Parties and cookouts can be awkward.  We know that. 
But can you begin to imagine what this dinner party described in John was like for Jesus, Mary, Lazarus, Judas, and everyone else there that night?  On the one hand, it was a time to celebrate…Passover was coming, Lazarus was raised from the dead, Jesus was together with all his disciples and closest friends.  Passover was a huge celebration in Jerusalem.  Over 100,000 people would flood the city for the event.  They had reason to celebrate! 
But on the other hand, it was sort of like the last meal for a prisoner on death row.  Sure, it was nice to have a good meal…but you knew you wouldn’t have anymore after that.  Jesus certainly knows his end is near.  He came to that realization a while ago and made peace with it.  He’s been trying to tell his disciples, but they don’t get it.  Only Mary does.  She understands that her teacher and friend is about to die.  She bought him expensive perfume for his burial, but tonight at the dinner party she decides there’s no need to wait and anoints him with it then and there. 
If something awkward between a couple of people happens at a dinner party, word travels fast.  Right?  If Uncle Eddie double dips in grandma’s famous taco dip, it only takes minutes for everyone to get the message not to have anymore of the taco dip. 
When Mary anoints Jesus, I imagine the party growing so still…so quiet…that you could hear the grass grow.  Everyone stopped and stared.  Everyone wanted to know why.  Everyone wondered what she was doing.  This was a cookout, not a white glove dinner.  There was no need to bring out the china and the $30,0000 bottle of wine for crying out loud…  
Judas is the only one to speak up, chastising Mary for wasting money.  Others probably thought the same thing, but only Judas said it.  Jesus immediately rebukes him, sarcastically making the point that Judas is one who wastes their money on a daily basis, using it to bribe the authorities rather than feed the poor. 
Speaking of the poor, we can’t forget about poor old Lazarus.  A man who was once dead, now alive, but surely feeling stuck somewhere in between.  The same authorities who threaten Jesus threaten him.  Every breath he takes is a slap in their face, and they vow to make him pay for it.  So there he and Jesus are, brothers in spirit, connected by Mary and Martha, caught somewhere between life and death.  It’s enough to make any dinner party, especially this one, feel awkward.  
Lent is supposed to be a simple time of year.  That’s why you don’t see any fancy church decorations.  We don’t even have flowers this time of year.  Gillespie’s sends us simple greenery, which is beautiful in its own right.  That’s because Lent is supposed to be a simple time.  That’s what makes the extravagance of Mary’s gift all the more awkward.  It was too much for everyone at the party…except Jesus.  For it was just what he needed. 
The big question this story raises is why.  Why would Mary do such a thing?  Because she was preparing Jesus for burial?  Because she loved him?  Because the others didn’t understand they wouldn’t have many more gatherings like this?  Because she wanted to expose Judas?  All good possibilities.  But perhaps it was much simpler than that.  Perhaps she simply wanted to support her friend, showing him that he wouldn’t have to go through it alone. 
The thing I admire most about Mary is that she didn’t confine her faith to her beliefs.  She didn’t even say a word.  She didn’t have to.  She acted out her faith in her example.  She showed Jesus that she cared, even if it was awkward for her and the others, even if would mean ridicule and misunderstanding, even if it would mean facing the wrath of Judas. 

Like a cookout or a dinner party, this time of year can be awkward.  If your friends or family just know this as spring instead of Lent, as the time the flowers grow instead of also being the time Jesus goes to die, it can be awkward.  But, if you’re willing to follow Mary’s lead and act out your faith in love…if you’re willing to look around and see what people really need…if you’re willing to pour out the love they need in extravagant measures…even if it means some people around you or even close to you don’t understand…then this time of year can be something much more than awkward.  It can be awesome.  Awe-inducing.  Awe-inspiring.  Awesome.   Amen.  

March 6, 2016 Sermon: "The Prodigal"

*These are bullet-point notes from a sermon preached extemporaneously.

Stephen Baldwin
OT: Joshua 5.9-12

NT: Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32
"The Prodigal" 

o   Cell phone story
§  If you dropped your cell phone in a toilet, would you retrieve it?  It’s a question of priorities. 
§  I read a story this week about a guy in New York City who was riding the train. He dropped his cell phone in a stainless steel commode  as they sped down the tracks.  He couldn’t quite see the phone in the toilet, but he knew it had to be right there. So he undertook a fishing expedition and stuck his hand in to retrieve it. It wasn’t there, so he stuck his arm in farther…and farther…and his arm got stuck.  In the toilet on a train in New York City. 
§  He called for help, the conductor came, they did everything they could, but his arm wouldn’t budge.  The next stop was near a fire station, so the train rolled on.  The fireman were waiting…with power tools…which still could not free his arm.  In a last ditch effort, they used the jaws of life to cut the stainless steel commode off his arm. 
§  The reporter who wrote the story visited the train to see where this all happened.  They showed him the new toilet which had been installed, and he asked if they ever found the phone.  “No,” said the man, “But you wouldn’t want to put that on your face afterwards anyway.” 
§  What does this have to do with the parableof the prodigal son?  Priorities.    

o   Most people think the prodigal son is a story about repentance, because they think “prodigal” means lost or wayward. Prodigal means wasteful. Priorities in the wrong place. 
§  Older brother was prodigal—he wasted all his time worrying about his brother. 
§  Father was prodigal—he gave away his inheritance well before the time was right. 
§  Young son was prodigal—he blew the inheritance in no time for no reason, dishonoring his family. 
§  Lent reminds us that we’re all prodigal.  In the hustle and bustle of trying to keep up with the trends and the neighbors, we waste time on things that don’t really matter…and neglect the things that do matter.   

o   It’s a question of priorities.
§  Most people think having priorities solves that, but having priorities isn’t good enough.  We all have prodigal priorities at time…and sometimes that gets our arm stuck the toilet searching for our cell phone!  It’s about having the right priorities. 
o   So what does matter?  What deserves to be a priority above all else? 
§  Relationships. 
·         Your relationships with the people in your life—the ones you love and the ones it can be hard to love. 
·         And your relationship with God.  Lent is the time to nurture that relationship. 

·         The Bible is clear in prioritizing relationships.  From the story of Adam & Eve to the Exodus to the prophets to the ministry of Jesus to the spread of the church…God prioritizes relationships above all else.  So should we.  Amen.