Sunday, May 28, 2006

1 John 4:7-20 - “A Wedding Sermon: The Deeper Kind of Love”

7th Sunday of Easter (B)
Thursday, May 25, and Sunday, May 28, 2006

(sections in plain print were presented from the center of the altar steps; sections in italics were presented from the pulpit)

Dear beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and of His Church to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in holy marriage.

OK, so I know that this is a regular worship service, not a wedding, but for this sermon, I want you to imagine that there’s a bride and a groom here, that there’s bridesmaids and groomsmen. I want you to pretend that you’re at a wedding during this sermon.

Let me explain. The Epistle reading today from the first letter of John, I preached on that passage for an out-of-town wedding I performed a few years ago. Realizing that this text came up today on the 7th Sunday of Easter, I thought it might be good to take this time to think about John’s words and marriages.

You see, when you’re at a wedding, usually it’s hard to pay attention to the sermon. We all get distracted at weddings thinking about the bride and groom, seeing family and friends. We get distracted thinking about the reception afterwards. The wedding ceremony is meant to help us focus on God’s role in a marriage, but frankly, sometimes we might find ourselves only half paying attention.

So today without all of those distractions, today during this sermon and pretend wedding, I want you to hear the wedding sermon I preached based on 1 John 4:13-21, a sermon I preached like I said for some friends from back home, Dan and Rachel. And I began this way. . .

Daniel, Rachel, family, friends,

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from our Lord Jesus Christ!

Dan and Rachel,

OK, I should pause here to explain what a preacher is thinking as he writes a sermon for a wedding. A wedding is the only time a pastor preaches with people right in front of him. A wedding sermon is written specifically with the couple in mind, but it’s a sermon meant to be overheard. While this sermon I’m sharing with you today was very specific about Dan and Rachel, I meant for everyone there to hear it. When you’re at a wedding, the sermon isn’t just some advice for the couple; it’s meant as words for everyone.

The way I think of it there are five purposes or goals of a wedding sermon. First of all, it is God’s Word for the couple being married that day. Everyone at a wedding ceremony has gathered to support the couple, and the best way we can support a couple is to offer them God’s Word.

But then as the sermon talks about the couple and their new marriage, really it can be encouragement for all couples in the sanctuary. What God’s Word has to say to this couple is also true for anyone who is married.

For the people at a wedding who aren’t married yet, the wedding sermon offers God’s Word as direction as they look for a spouse. A wedding sermon holds up God’s vision for a marriage, and that vision is something that unmarried people can carry with them.

Fourth, even for the people who don’t plan on getting married, the wedding sermon provides words from God that we all can use as advice for others. If you were married, but don’t think you’ll ever get married again, if you’re older and your spouse has died, if you’re young and just can’t see yourself getting married, that doesn’t mean a wedding sermon has nothing to say to you. God can still give you His Word about marriage, so that as you support family or friends who are getting married, you can help point them to God’s hope for their marriage.

Finally, and above all else, a wedding sermon should lift up the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. While most people at a wedding are, like I said, distracted by the wedding itself—the new couple, the people gathered, the party—while most people are just thinking about the wedding, it’s not a sermon if it doesn’t show people their Savior, Jesus Christ. A wedding sermon still has the same basic goal as any other sermon: that everyone who hears the sermon will know that their sins are forgiven through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

With those five goals in mind, let’s go back to the wedding, Dan and Rachel are still standing at the altar. Listen for those five goals: encouragement for the marriage of the new couple, encouragement for all marriages, encouragement for those still to get married, God’s Word that unmarried people can share with others, and that Jesus Christ is our Savior.

Dan and Rachel, when you told me you would like one of the Scripture readings for this service to be from the fourth chapter of 1 John, the chapter which talks about love, I thought it seemed quite appropriate. Weddings are built around love.

You love each other. Now when you first met in a chat room on the Internet some 5 years ago, you probably did not know that you would end up in love, but you have and you are.

(Dan and Rachel really did meet on an Internet chatroom—originally. They dated for a number of years in person before getting married.)

Dan and Rachel, you probably did not know that you would end up in love, but you have and you are. So this wedding is built around your love for each other.

More than that, you are surrounded by your families and friends who all love you. They are here to celebrate with you, because you are special to them. So this wedding gathering is built around love for you.

Yes, love is everywhere. It is in your hearts. It is in our hearts. It is in the music for today. It is on cards and wrapping paper. It surrounds us today.

But the text you selected, 1 John chapter 4, goes even deeper than all of that. The kind of love John is talking about is more than your love, our love or Hallmark cards. John is talking about God’s love: His love for us and the love He teaches us to have.

Yet, God’s love? How do we really know that God loves us? I mean, look out into the world and it doesn’t seem like there is much love to be found. It would be better to hide in here for awhile since we’re talking about love and seeing it in this marriage, because just outside, there is a world without love. There are families that do not love each other. There is violence and crime. There is disease, sickness and death. There is a deeply troubled world out there. When we look out there, how can we say that God loves us?

Well, John shows us that we do not necessarily see God’s love by looking around us. Rather, God has provided one specific way for us to know that He loves us: Jesus Christ. John says: “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world that we might live through Him.”

God shows His love to us in a very specific, tremendous act. We have all sinned, done things wrong in God’s eyes, and because of this, we deserve eternal death. But God loves us so much that He sent His Son, Jesus, into the world to live on the earth and live a perfect life that we could not. God allowed His Son to be put to death on the cross, so that we would not suffer eternal punishment. Jesus then rose from the dead three days later on Easter, so that we might also live after death with God for eternity. This is love that Jesus laid His life down for us to save us.

Dan and Rachel, this is the deeper kind of love that is a part of your lives. As you go forward today as a married couple, remember that your spiritual lives are founded upon God’s love for you. When your partner struggles in faith and asks, “How do I know that God really loves me?” point to the death and resurrection of Jesus. God loves you, loves you more than you can comprehend. Remind each other of that love, and may you also share that love with others.

So God loves all of us, and He also wants you to show that same love to each other. But how are you able to love each other? Do you just wake up each day hoping that you’ll feel the same way you did when you first fell in love? Do you sometimes hope for that feeling BUT amongst the trials of life: the long days at work, the little arguments, the days that get you down, amongst all of that, the feeling of love never seems to be there? If that’s the case, what’s a better way? How are you able to love one another? You love, because God first loved you.

That’s what John is saying. We are able to love, because God first loved us. We are sinful and unlovable and do not deserve anything from God. But here’s that tremendous part again: God loves us anyway. We aren’t loveable, but God loves us despite that. Loves us so much that He sacrificed His Son Jesus in order to make us loveable again, in order to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all our imperfections. That’s love: to love someone even when they aren’t loveable and then to try to do anything you can to protect and save them.

Dan and Rachel, that’s the kind of love that you are able to have for each other. Love is not something that comes from the inside. Love is not something you have to conjure up with the right moment, the right lighting, the right music. Love comes from your faith in Jesus Christ. Love is seen in the example that God gives us, and love is a decision that you make today to protect and watch over each other.

In a few moments, you will declare your intention to take each other as your spouse. You will pledge your faithfulness, and based on the writings of St. Paul, your pledges reflect the love of Christ for us.

Now let me pause here and ask you to look in your bulletins there at the sermon in the order of service. There you have the declaration of marriage that I adapted from Lutheran Worship. It’s based on Ephesians 4. Rather than just ending up emphasizing that the woman must obey the man, I went back to Paul’s words and realized that God expects servanthood and sacrifice from both the man and woman.

Look at the Declaration:

Marriage Declaration
Lutheran Worship as adapted by Pastor Ben Squires

Pastor to Man:
(Man), do you take (woman) to be your wife, to live together in holy marriage according to the Word of God? Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor her and keep her as Christ keeps His Church, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

Pastor to Woman:
(Woman), do you take (man) to be your husband, to live together in holy marriage according to the Word of God? Do you promise to love him, comfort him, honor him as you honor Christ, and keep him, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, be faithful to him, as long as you both shall live?
Here’s how I explained in the sermon.

Dan, you will pledge to keep Rachel as Christ keeps His Church. Now, Christ keeps His Church through His death on the cross, that death made it possible for those who believe in Him to have eternal life. Dan, this means that you will decide to love Rachel each day so much that you are willing to die for her. This is a decision, a pledge, a daily act on your part, to love Rachel.

Rachel, you will pledge to honor Dan as you honor Christ. Now, as a Christian, you honor Christ with your faithfulness and praise, by serving Him with your whole life. You do not honor Christ because He lords it over you or because He is a tyrant. You honor Christ, because He sacrificed Himself in order to serve you. Rachel, this means that you will decide to love Dan each day so much that you will honor Him with your whole life. This is a decision, a pledge, a daily act on your part, to love Dan.

In this way, Dan and Rachel are a model of God’s love for all of us to see today. Even as Dan and Rachel choose daily to love each other, God has chosen to love all of you. Even as Dan and Rachel choose to make sacrifices for one another, God has sacrificed His own Son for you. Even as Dan and Rachel pledge their faithfulness to each other, God will remain faithful to His promise to protect you and to bring you to everlasting life through Jesus Christ. This is the deeper kind of love that John is talking about, and this is the deeper kind of love that this marriage is built upon.

Dan and Rachel, God loves you. You have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. You are able to love each other, because God loves you and has taught you to love through your faith in Him. God designed marriage as a gift for you and wants love to be at its center: God’s love for you, your love for God and your love for one another. May your marriage be an example of God’s love in Christ Jesus and may God’s love work through your marriage to be a blessing to you and to all whom you meet. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

And that’s where the sermon ended. Now today there’s no reception, dinner, or dance following the service, and I realize that you don’t even know Dan and Rachel, so instead for you, I send you to celebrate your marriage or the marriages of people around you. And now that you’ve heard a wedding sermon without all of the distractions, perhaps as you go to a Christian wedding this summer—the wedding season, you’ll be able to truly see the goal of that sermon: offering God’s Word for marriages but also offering the Word of salvation to all people. If you go to a Christian wedding this summer, pray for the couple, pray for their marriage, but also pray that all of the people there in the sanctuary will hear that Jesus forgives them and gives them the promise of eternal life.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

John 10:11-18 - “Outside Looking In”

4th Sunday of Easter (Year B - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, May 6, and Sunday, May 7, 2006

A poem by Connie Bratcher called “The Good Shepherd”

The Good Shepherd always walks in front
Gently leading the way,
Never behind driving or pushing,
But lovingly guiding each day;
And when a sheep wanders away
From the security of this place,
The Shepherd corrects the wayward one
In love, mercy, and grace.
Oh, what love and tender care,
Such blessings God bestows
Upon the sheep that closely follow
The way The Shepherd goes.

Copyright © 2000-2001, Connie C. Bratcher

Ah, it’s Good Shepherd Sunday making us all think of that beautiful image of Jesus holding a little lamb, Jesus being that happy shepherd watching over those darling little lambs who are pure white on wonderfully green fields. It’s such a beautiful image that Jesus uses to describe how He cares for His people, cares for us like a loving shepherd.

It’s a beautiful image, but do any of you remember how the crowd reacted? The people who heard Jesus speaking that day, the Jews, the leaders, do you know what they thought of what Jesus was saying?

They said Jesus was demon-possessed for saying these words. They said that Jesus was raving mad for what He said about being the Good Shepherd. They were ready to ignore Jesus, if not actually have Jesus kicked out of town like a crazed lunatic.

Why? When we think of Jesus calling Himself the Good Shepherd, we get such a good feeling. We sing nice hymns about it, and make nice paintings of it, and make little trinkets of it, and there are nice greeting cards with nice little poems about it. We think of Jesus being the Good Shepherd as such a nice image that it’s hard for us to remember just what an offensive thing it was that He saying.

To the Pharisees, Jesus was saying something dangerous and rebellious. The Pharisees weren’t going to make a poem about the Good Shepherd; they were going to use those words of Jesus as a reason to kick Jesus out of town.

But just what was so rebellious, dangerous, and crazy about what Jesus was saying? Well, there’s lots in that section of John chapter 10 that probably got the Pharisees upset, but let’s look one thing today. Let’s look at verse 16 and see why that upset them.

In verse 16, Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Jesus is using this picture language of a shepherd and sheep and flock and other sheep, but what is Jesus really saying? The Pharisees knew exactly what Jesus was saying. Jesus was saying that in His view of God and God’s kingdom that not only would there be salvation for the Jews but that God would also save the Gentiles, the non-Jews. Jesus was saying that He was sent by God the Father to save the sheep—the Jews—but that He was also sent to save the other sheep—the Gentiles, the non-Jews. God’s kingdom was going to be one big flock—one gathering of God’s people, both Jew and Gentile, all of God’s people together.

Well, that infuriated the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. Who was this Jesus guy? How could Jesus say that God’s kingdom would include the Gentiles, the pagans, the unclean, the uncircumcised? God’s kingdom had been given to the Jews. The Jews were God’s chosen people. Certainly God wouldn’t defile Himself by letting the Gentiles come into the kingdom, into the flock. How dare Jesus imply that God would stoop that low.

That idea that God’s kingdom would come through Jesus to save all people, that idea seems so common to us, and Jesus teaches that idea with the image of a shepherd and sheep that’s become so beautiful and normal to us, so we have a hard time remembering that it seems scandalous, blasphemous, devilish to the Pharisees. Jesus was busting their idea of God’s kingdom, and the Pharisees were furious with Him.

And the Pharisees were wrong, of course. They had an idea of God’s kingdom that was small, limited, and really not in touch with what the prophets had said in the Old Testament. The prophets had already shown that God meant to save all people through the Jews. We have seen this wondrous love in Jesus, the plan of salvation to save all of God’s people.

Thankfully the Pharisees were wrong about that limited view of God’s kingdom, because otherwise, you and I wouldn’t be here. We’d be those other sheep; we’d be the ones the Pharisees didn’t think deserved to be part of the plan. Now, though, we can rejoice that God’s love is much bigger than that. God’s love reaches out to His entire Creation. God sent His Son with a plan of salvation that forgives and restores and resurrects all believers.

If you’ve ever been concerned that maybe you weren’t included in God’s kingdom, weren’t going to be included in eternal life, then just look at the kind of fight Jesus started when we told the Pharisees He was going to include you. When Jesus says that He’s going to save other sheep, the Pharisees say He was possessed by a demon. Now remember: when Jesus said that about the other sheep, He was talking about you. He got those Pharisees all upset, because He wanted to make sure that you were included in God’s kingdom.

Good Shepherd Window at Redeemer Lutheran Church
How many of you know that one of our stained glass windows over here is the Good Shepherd window? You’ll have to come see it after service. There’s a picture of a shepherd’s crook and two sheep—Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep. The other picture brings this together—Jesus with a cross in the background but He is also holding a shepherd’s crook.

We are a Church that celebrates that Jesus is our Good Shepherd with a Good Shepherd window, but do you know what is behind that window?

(open window, youth pokes head in from outside)

There are other sheep on the outside looking in (youth crawls inside).
There are other sheep not yet part of this flock (youth crawls inside).
There are other sheep that Jesus will bring (youth crawls inside).

(Youth go over to sit in front of the pulpit)

These youth today are actors, they represent the other sheep in our community, they represent the people who are on the outside looking in, they represent the people that we might forget, ignore, keep outside, leave outside, these youth represent the other sheep, the kind sheep we sometimes don’t want in this flock.

Who do these youth represent? Who are the other sheep on the outside looking in? Other ethnicities—besides white, of course. Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Arabs, illegal immigrants. And even though we have Hmong in this congregation, could it be that we still have trouble including them?

Then there’s skateboarders and teens who try to dress like gangsters and Gothics and people with tattoos and piercings in different places. There’s homosexuals and other alternative lifestyles. There’s criminals and prisoners and drug dealers and drug addicts and prostitutes.

This weekend with Shantytown all of our youth represent the homeless, the poor, the people who don’t feel they have enough to be part of our club.

These are all examples of the other sheep, the people we have trouble imagining inviting to Church. If you were surprised about three youth crawling through the window today, think of it as a representation of what Jesus is telling us here in John chapter 10. He’s got other sheep, He’s got other people that He wants to bring into His kingdom, and those people might not be the people we’d expect to be in God’s Church. As surprised as you might have been about youth crawling through the window, well, just remember that Jesus as the Good Shepherd is just as surprising.

You see, when you start thinking about who are the other sheep in our world, in our community, now it’s a little harder to think that we’re much different than the Pharisees. The Pharisees didn’t want to include the Gentiles in God’s kingdom; maybe we have trouble including others too.

This Good Shepherd window, it’s our mission window, God’s mission to the other sheep, the mission God has given us.

If we just kept the window closed, the other sheep would only hear us saying: YOU’RE WRONG, YOU DON’T BELONG.

But if we open the window, the other sheep will hear: YOU’RE WRONG, BUT YOU BELONG, YOU ARE LOVED, YOU ARE FORGIVEN.

If we keep the window closed—in other words, if we keep ourselves closed off from the people around us, the other people in our community that need to hear about Jesus—if we keep the mission window closed, well, those other sheep quickly get the message: they’re not welcome.

However, if we open that mission window, if we look for ways that God can use us to invite others to hear about Jesus, if we open that mission window, those other sheep will still hear about their sins, about how they’re wrong, but they’ll see that we’re all wrong in our sins. And what else will they hear? What will they hear in here besides that their sins are wrong? They’ll hear that Jesus forgives them, that Jesus loves them, that they belong here, that Jesus started a fight to the death to make sure that the other sheep got to be part of the flock.

Maybe it’ll help us to keep that mission window open if we remember how surprising it is that we’re in the flock. What kind of sheep did Jesus get when He brought you into the flock? If you say that Jesus got a wonderful, good, holy, saintly, upstanding sheep, then I don’t think you’re being honest enough with yourself. If you’re really thinking that Jesus brought you into the flock because you’re just such a prize-winning, blue ribbon sheep, then take another look. If you really look at yourself, what kind of sheep did Jesus get? A prideful, mean-spirited, cheater, liar, gossiper, selfish, sinful sheep.

When you realize that it is just so surprising that Jesus would take you into His flock, when you realize that you were one of those other sheep, one of those people on the outside looking in, when you realize that there’s nothing that makes you any better than any of those other sheep out there, well, then maybe it’s easier to start seeing that we need to open up that mission window. After all, Jesus opened up that mission window for you.

As you think about how this congregation might work to reach out to the other sheep, other ethnicities, illegal immigrants, skateboarders, gangsters, alternative lifestyles, criminals, prisoners, drug dealers and drug addicts, the homeless and the poor, as we think about how to reach out to the other sheep—never accepting their sinful behavior as good, never accepting their false beliefs as truth, but looking instead for ways to show them God’s love, truth, forgiveness, and salvation—as we look for ways to reach out to those other sheep, remember that the mission of Jesus to be the Good Shepherd to all of the sheep, that mission is a part of this church. It’s one of our windows, the mission God has given us to reach out with the Gospel to the other sheep.

If we just keep the window closed, those other sheep will only hear us saying: YOU’RE WRONG, YOU DON’T BELONG.

But if we open the window, the other sheep will hear: YOU’RE WRONG, BUT YOU BELONG, YOU ARE LOVED, YOU ARE FORGIVEN.

God opened that mission window when He brought you into His kingdom, when He gave you faith in your heart. And God will open that mission window to the other sheep out there and will bring them into the flock, the kingdom, His salvation.

I asked Soul Power to sing this next anthem called “Requiem.” Written by singer/songwriter Eliza Gilykson, it’s a prayer for the people who were devastated by the December 2004 Southeast Asia Tsunami. With permission, we altered the words to use it as our prayer in today’s service as the youth raise money for tsunami relief through Shantytown. As Soul Power sings, please use this as your prayer.

By Eliza Gilkyson
From the album, Paradise Hotel
© 2005 Red House Records, Inc. Used and altered by permission.

Jesus Christ, full of grace, awaken
all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken
taken by the sea
Jesus Christ, calm our fears, have mercy
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy
hear our mournful plea
our world has been shaken
we wander our home lands forsaken
in the dark night of the soul
bring some com fort to us all
oh, Jesus Christ, come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced
Jesus, fill the glass to overflowing
illuminate the path where we are going
have mercy on us all
in funeral fires burning
each flame to your mystery returning
in the dark night of the soul your shattered dreamers,
make them whole,
oh, Jesus Christ, find us where we've fallen out of grace
lead us to a higher place
in the dark night of the soul
our broken hearts you can make whole
oh, Jesus Christ, come and carry us in your embrace
let us see your gentle face, Jesus.