2600 Wade Hampton Blvd, Greenville SC
Phone: 864.244.2836
Sermons

 

Sunday, March 8, 2015 – Third Sunday in Lent

Pastor Mark Cerniglia

Lutheran Church of Our Saviour, Greenville, SC

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

A lot of people have commented to me about the portrait of Jesus that is now hanging in our Fellowship Hall.  It is a very striking portrait.  I had seen it in the artist’s studio which is down along the riverfront in downtown Greenville, across from the Peace Center, and I had always admired it.  So I was really excited when Ebb and Suzanne Culp told me that they had won the painting and wanted to display it at the church because it is too large to hang in their home anywhere.  If you have not seen it yet, take a walk down to the Fellowship Hall after this service and look at it.  It is hanging above where the ramp is in the Fellowship Hall.

 

Actually, there is a pastor in the Lutheran church in Colombia that looks remarkably like the face in this portrait.  Indeed, everyone who meets him—his name is Pastor John Rojas—everyone who meets him has the same reaction.  They immediately say that he looks like Jesus.

 

Indeed, when I took the youth from this congregation to Colombia for the annual youth retreat of the Colombian Lutheran Church, and I served communion to Pastor John, when the youth returned they said, “Pastor, you’re so old, you served communion to Jesus!”

 

Anyway, the reason that I mention this particular portrait of Jesus to you is that it strikes me as different from the traditional pictures of Jesus we might have had in our minds, based on the images we had seen growing up.  My mother has told me that when I was a little boy that she could not hang any pictures of Jesus in our house because I would stand in front of them and cry until she took the picture down and let me hold it.  I don’t remember that.  But if my mother says it is true, it must be.  I’ve never known her to lie to me.

 

What it does tell me is that I have felt God’s hand upon me from a very young age.  I felt called to the ministry from when I was 5 or 6 and have never wavered from that calling.

 

But back to the portrait that hangs in our Fellowship Hall.  It is a very masculine face, painted with bold, strong strokes and colors.  It isn’t the soft glowing image of Jesus that we often see in older paintings—Jesus knocking on the door, Jesus holding a lamb in his arms, Jesus praying in the garden.

 

And that leads me to the verbal portrait of Jesus in our Gospel lesson for today.  As a child growing up in the church, and even now as an adult, whenever I read this story from John about Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple, it has always struck me as seeming to be out of character.  I mean, Jesus seems ANGRY here, am I right?

 

We spend most of the church year painting a verbal portrait of Jesus as being infinitely patient and loving.  Most of us come to church carrying our scars and our pain with us, and we come looking for those comforting images of Jesus.  We come seeking the Good Shepherd who will gather us in his arms like a little lost lamb.  We come seeking the Good Samaritan who will bind up our wounds and heal us.  We come seeking the infinitely patient and loving Lord because we know how prone we are to straying.

 

So this Jesus who loses his cool in the temple is very startling to us, to say the least.

 

Now maybe you’ve heard some background information about this particular Bible story before.  Maybe you know that the Jewish law—the Ten Commandments that are listed in our first reading—forbid the making of graven images, even on coins.  And all the Roman coins had the image of Caesar on them, because the Romans considered their Emperor to be a living god.  That meant that faithful Jews could not use Roman coins to purchase their offerings in the temple.  Hence, the money changers provided a service.  They would exchange your Roman coins for more acceptable temple tokens.

 

That part is acceptable.  However, the money changers got greedy and started charging a hefty fee for the exchange.  I travel a lot and I get annoyed at how much I get charge to change my American dollars for whatever currency I need to purchase food for myself in a foreign country.  Well, these temple money changers were excessive with their charges.

 

So someone who was devout in their faith and wanted to practice according to the Jewish customs that they had been taught was being taken advantage of by this need to exchange coins.  That was what really got Jesus’ dander up.

 

Have you ever wondered why we have an opening in our altar rail?  We only close it when we are having communion to provide more space for people to kneel.  But most of the time the opening remains clear, so that someone has direct access all the way from the narthex, up the center aisle, to approach the altar, as a sign of coming before God’s throne.  There is no impediment, nothing to stand in the way of you coming directly to God.

 

That is not the way it was in the Jewish temple where Jesus threw his fit.  In those days the high altar, the holy of holies, was kept hidden by a veil around it.  Only the priest would see behind the veil.  In general, the people were kept isolated from God’s throne by this veil.

 

But when Jesus rose from the tomb, not only did the earth split from an earthquake, but that veil in the temple was ripped open from top to bottom.  It was as if God reached down and tore it from top to bottom.  No longer would a faithful believer have to go through an intermediary like a priest to have conversation with God.  The opening in our altar rail is a reminder to you that you have direct access to God.  You are not dependent on Pastor Alejandro or me.

 

Martin Luther reminded us that in the Lord’s Prayer, the beginning words address God as “our father”.  That means that each believer is invited to come directly to God, like a child climbing up on his or her daddy’s lap and saying, “Hey, Dad…”

 

The wrath that Jesus displayed then, was toward organized religion or religious communities that put roadblocks, barriers, impediments that get in the way of people coming to faith.

 

Recently, I have been texting with my late son’s girlfriend.  She is the woman that Ben was dating when he died.  She lives out in California where he was stationed.  And for the past three years since his death, she has been unable to climb out of the depression that his loss sent her into.  It’s more complicated than I am explaining it, but the bottom line is that she is still hurting very badly—to the point that I am actually fearful for her.  There is not much I can do for her being on the other side of the continent, so I suggested that she look for a church community that could help support her emotionally as she tries to work through her grief.

 

It made me so sad when she texted me back that her experience of trying to get involved in a church is that there she encountered the people who were the most judgmental of all.  That is such a sad commentary.

 

Now, we could dismiss that as just her perception.  But unfortunately it is the perception shared by many in her generation.  She is only 29 years old.  And her image of church people, based on her own experience, is that we good Christian folk are too judgmental to accept this grieving young woman.

 

So I tried to explain that Lutherans are different from other Christians, that we focus on grace and get beyond judgment.  And I am praying that she will hear me and give it a try.  But when I hear that kind of perception being expressed by someone like her, my blood starts to boil the way Jesus’ did in the temple.  How dare we Christians take the Good News of God’s love and grace and replace it with heavy burdens?

 

In Matthew 23, Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.”  Can there be anything worse than being a stumbling block that somehow obscures people from seeing and experiencing God’s love and grace, like that veil in the temple?

 

During this season of Lent, one of the disciplines we take on is self examination.  We look at ourselves and our behavior to see how we might be standing in the way of the proclamation of God’s grace.  Yes, we come here seeking the comfort of a Jesus who is infinitely patient and loving toward us.  Yet he is also the Jesus who tells us to go and do likewise, to extend the same compassion, grace, and forgiveness that we ourselves have received toward our neighbors.

 

Lord, grant us your wisdom, strength, and courage to follow this Lenten discipline and share the Good News of your love with others.

 

AMEN.  

 

Sunday, June 8, 2014 – The Day of Pentecost

Pastor Mark Cerniglia

Lutheran Church of Our Saviour, Greenville, SC

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

I invite you to take a look inside the back cover of your bulletin this morning, if you have not already done so, and see the cartoon that I asked Karen to place there.  It shows a woman lying in bed with a migraine with a cold wet cloth placed over her forehead and eyes, trying to lay quietly.  Those of us who suffer from migraines can identify with then.

 

Then next to her in the bed is her well-intentioned husband, with the caption reading: “Fred thought a little music might soothe Penelope’s migraine.”  Except that he is holding a bagpipe, the most annoying of instruments, and getting ready to play it.  Keep this cartoon in mind.  We will come back to it.

 

Last week we celebrated the festival day of the Ascension of Our Lord, and I spoke about the two accounts that Luke records about the Ascension, first in his Gospel, and then in the sequel, the Book of Acts.  Well, today is another festival day, the Day of Pentecost, the birthday of the church.  And again, we are reading two different accounts of how the Holy Spirit first came upon the disciples.

 

The first account we read is a really dramatic one.  It is the Pentecost story that we are used to hearing every year.  We can imagine making a movie of this scene with lots of special effects.  The disciples are gathered in their locked room, when suddenly the Holy Spirit comes upon them.  There is the roar of wind almost as loud as a hurricane.  Tongues of flame appear on their heads.  And they are given the gift of speaking in all the different languages that were being spoken by the Jews from various countries who had gathered in Jerusalem.  We illustrated that this morning by having the various linguists in our congregation speak in different languages.

 

But what you may not have realized is that John wrote a very different account of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples in his Gospel.  Well, there is a certain similarity in that the disciples were gathered in their closed room.  But in John’s version, it takes place on Easter evening rather than on the day of Pentecost, and it is Jesus himself who blows the Holy Spirit upon them with his very own breath, rather than the hurricane winds tearing up the place.

 

More importantly though, whereas in the first account we read in Acts, the Holy Spirit really stirs things up, sending the disciples out in such a mad rush that they give the gathered citizens of the city the impression that they are drunk; there is a different sense of atmosphere in John’s account, that we read as our Gospel lesson this morning.  Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples that he comes to bring them a sense of peace.  It’s like the word that I am constantly trying to teach to my grandchildren in Spanish: tranquilo! which means, “calm down, be at peace.”

 

As we celebrate the birthday of the church this Pentecost Sunday, we are keenly aware that the world around us is changing very rapidly.  And those changes affect the way we do church.  I know that you all get tired of hearing me say this, but the context in which we seek to be the church is different from the way it was when we older folks were young.  When I was a kid, Sunday Schools were booming.  My congregation had to create extra space in storage closet rooms to accommodate the number of kids who were coming.  Those days are gone!  It is not because churches are not being faithful or are not working hard enough.  It is because the society around us has changed.

 

At our Synod Assembly last weekend, the keynote speaker was talking about how congregations all over the country and in all denominations are discovering that they can no longer sustain Sunday School and Confirmation programs the way it used to be, the way we’ve always done it in the past.  If Christian Education is going to survive in the 21st century, we have to approach it in new and creative ways.

 

So I know that you get tired of me talking about change.  The rapidity and the complexity of change is enough to give us a collective headache.  We have this nostalgic longing for the good old days and the way things used to be.  If it was good enough for my grandparents and my parents, then it should be good enough for my children and grandchildren.  Then this pastor comes along and is as annoying as the husband in the cartoon who wants to play the bagpipe in response to his wife’s headache.

 

I don’t like having to play that role.  I’m like you.  I am simply overwhelmed by trying to keep up with all the advances in technology.  I get frustrated that the younger generations don’t seem to value the same kinds of things that I think are important.

 

This past week I booked a ticket for a young colleague of mine to travel to Colombia, South America with me this summer.  I am trying to groom her to take over my role as the liaison between the South Carolina Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Colombia.  So we had some email exchanges and I asked her if she could book her own ticket.  She replied asking me if I would book her flights the same as mine.  So I did that and sent her the itinerary.  But then she decided she did not like the itinerary the way I had booked it.  So she called the airlines to change it to something that was more suitable to her personally, even if it meant that our hosts in Colombia would have to make two separate trips to the airport for us.  It was just a frustrating example of the differences between the Boomer generation, of which I am a part, and the Millennials, the generation my younger colleague represents.

 

Now we can complain about those differences and those changes all we want.  Or we can acknowledge that times are different, and seek to hold on to our basic value—the Good News of God’s love—and proclaim it to the world in a different way, in a language that the people out there understand.  That is basically what Pentecost is about.  It is about not keeping the Good News about the resurrected Christ to ourselves, but about finding ways to go out and share it with others, IN A WAY THEY CAN UNDERSTAND.  That’s the key.  It is our responsibility to look for ways to express it in language our neighbors can understand, not insist on their becoming more like us in order to fit in.

 

It seems like a difficult and challenging task.  It’s enough to give you a headache when you think about it.  But that is why the story in John’s Gospel today really stuck with me.  Jesus shares the Holy Spirit to be with us so that—no matter what changes we face, no matter what difficulties challenge us—we can be at peace within ourselves.  Why is that?  It is because we know our Lord is with us.  And if you can rely on his peace to be inside you, then you can weather all the changes in life that swirl around us like a hurricane.

 

At his last meal with his disciples just before he was arrested and executed, Jesus spoke these words: Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me….The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid….Peace be with you.

 

AMEN. 




Wednesday, March 5, 2014
 

Ash Wednesday

Pastor Mark Cerniglia

Lutheran Church of Our Saviour, Greenville, SC

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

Today is that one day on the church calendar when we focus especially on our own mortality.  Those words that I say as I smear the ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross are chilling words indeed, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

 

When I was in seminary I had to spend one summer working as a chaplain in a general hospital in Lexington.  It was required that we have that kind of training.  And it was impressed upon me the importance of being able to have tangible, physical contact with the body of a loved one who dies in the hospital.  It is a part of healthy grieving, taking the time to say a final goodbye.

 

Now part of my territory in the hospital included the emergency room.  And one busy afternoon a woman brought her baby in, but the ER doctor could not save the child.  The head nurse in the ER, who reminded me kind of like Nurse Ratchett, “Big Nurse” in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, she quickly had the baby’s body removed from the ER and taken down to the morgue, before the mother had even had a chance to see it.  That is, until I made the head nurse go back and retrieve the body and bring it to the mother, so that she could sit in a rocking chair in a quiet room and rock her baby to sleep one last time.  It gave her the chance to say a final goodbye to her child.  It is every parent’s nightmare, to lose a child.

 

When my son was killed in a helicopter crash on Ash Wednesday two years ago, his body was too badly burned and crushed for his family to get to see it.  We were only presented with his ashes, which now reside out in our columbarium.  And I missed having that finality, to get to touch him one last time and say a final goodbye.

 

A few months later I received the autopsy report in the mail.  The doctor who performed the autopsy had had that intimate final contact with my son that was denied our family.  There was comfort in reading that report in that it clearly indicated that he was killed instantly by the impact and explosion of the crash.  So we were relieved to know that he had not suffered.

 

But there was something else in the autopsy that stood out to me.  As the doctor described what she observed, she noted that, despite the burns on the body, she was able to identify several of his tattoos.  And I thought about those tattoos, that Ben was very proud of, and how they were still visible despite the burned and mangled flesh.

 

When I meet with families who are preparing their child for baptism, I usually tell them about the sign of the cross that I trace on each child’s forehead with oil.  And I tell them that it is a permanent invisible tattoo.  Nothing can remove it from this child.  When I make that sign, I say the words, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”  Forever.  Nothing can change the status God has given us by grace, that we are the sons and daughters of God.

 

And I explain that when God looks at us, God sees that invisible cross on our foreheads and says, “Yes, that’s one of mine.”  It doesn’t matter what other kind of clutter there might be in your life, what kind of things have distracted you, that cross stands out.  You belong to God forever.

 

Today I will retrace that same cross on your forehead that some pastor first marked on you on the day of your baptism.  And I will actually use the ashes, the symbol of our mortality, to remind you of eternal life.  In baptism we have died to ourselves and been given new life in Christ.  So what may seem like a curse—the ashes, the reminder that we are nothing but dust—is really the open door to new life.

 

Remember that you are made from the dust and to dust you shall one day return.  But also remember what Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “Listen, I tell you a mystery!  We will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

 

We actually have been changed already.  We are one body with those who have gone before us.  That’s GOOD News for those of us who grieve our own mortality and grieve for the ones we’ve lost.  And so this Ash Wednesday is the low point of the church year.  It is also the beginning of a journey upward, up to the heights of glory that we celebrate in the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Day!

AMEN.



Sunday, March 3, 2014
– The Transfiguration of Our Lord

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Pastor Mark Cerniglia

The Lutheran Church of Our Saviour, Greenville, SC

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 

One of the things I dearly love about living in Greenville is seeing the beautiful Appalachian Mountains on the horizon.  If you didn’t know, Greenville is considered to be a part of the region known as Appalachia.  There is a ridge at the entrance to my subdivision.  And as I drive over it on my way home, I can see the mountain peaks in all their glorious splendor spread across the panorama of my windshield.  It serves as a great reminder to me of leaving all of the stress of my work behind back at the church office and not carrying it home with me, so that I can refresh and replenish and renew myself for a new day in the morning.

 

Mountains cast a special spell on us because of their majesty.  There are many cultures around the world that consider mountains sacred.  That was certainly true for the Jewish people in both the Old and New Testaments.  Moses first encountered God through a burning bush on a mountain, and later received the Ten Commandments from God on a mountain.  Every time the Gospel writers tell a story about something that Jesus said or did on a mountaintop, it is their way of pointing out that this particular part of the Gospel is very important.  We should therefore sit up and pay attention.  The Gospel story we read this morning about the Transfiguration of Our Lord occurs on a mountaintop.  It involves not only Jesus, but also Moses and Elijah, representing the Law (the Torah) and the Prophets, two of the main strains of the Jewish scriptures.

 

Three of Jesus’ disciples were with him on that mountaintop, and they witness Jesus seeming to glow with a bright light, a sign that God’s spirit was present.  But even more than this bright glowing, I was struck by the presence of the heavenly voice giving instructions to the disciples.  Listen to the words of God again.  He said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

 

First of all, God speaks some words that all children long to hear from their parents: “I am pleased with you.”  Then God addresses the disciples and says to them, “LISTEN to him.”  LISTEN to him.  We are not very good at listening to Jesus.

 

I saw a quote on Facebook the other day that said something like, “A lot of people like to be in prayer communication with God, but only as advisors.”  We have this tendency to pray asking God to confirm our desires and plans, rather than trying to discern and follow God’s directions.  Listen to Jesus.

 

I saw another Facebook quote that said that most of the time we are only listening in order to catch our chance to say what we have to say, rather than truly listening to what we might learn from another person.  Listen, listen to Jesus.

 

The problem with trying to listen to Jesus is that he says some very difficult things.  Last week we heard words from Jesus’ most famous sermon, that he gave on another mountaintop—so that means it must be important.  He said things like, “Love your enemy” and “Walk the extra mile in giving service to your neighbor.”

 

Last week I stopped at Strossner’s German bakery and purchased a king cake for this time of Mardi Gras.  As she was boxing it up for me, the clerk said, “Now you know the tradition, that there’s a little plastic baby baked into the cake.  I wouldn’t want you to choke on Jesus.”  Well, I didn’t choke on Jesus, but sometimes we choke on his words.

 

There is another mountaintop experience that Jesus had that is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.  It comes at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel.  It occurs after Jesus has been crucified, died, and was resurrected.  After spending some time with his disciples, he gathers them on a mountaintop outside of Jerusalem for one last motivational rally.  From that mountaintop he will ascend into heaven, never to be seen again until his return at the end of time.

 

I’ve been on top of that mountain outside of Jerusalem.  There is a chapel there at the very top.  And inside it is a rock with what looks like the shape of a human foot in it.  Tradition holds that that is the footprint of Jesus just before he took off from earth and ascended into heaven.  We will celebrate that ascension three months from now, after the seasons of Lent and Easter.

 

But what is important about the Ascension story is the same thing that is important about today’s Transfiguration story.  It is the words that are spoken.  On the mount of Transfiguration, God says, “Listen to my son Jesus!”  On the mount of the Ascension, Jesus then says to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  Those are our marching orders as followers of Christ, who listen to him.

 

We baptized three children this morning at the 8:30 service, three new members of God’s family that we have promised to teach them how to listen to the teachings of Jesus.  “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  Here at the Lutheran Church of Our Saviour, we have stated that same thought in a slightly different way in our congregational mission statement that is printed on the front cover of your bulletin every Sunday.  Take a look at it and read the words with me: “We welcome all to worship Christ and to witness God’s love through caring and service to others.”

 

I remember the last time I had the privilege of traveling with my church youth group to attend one of the National Youth Gatherings of the ELCA.  There was a female African-American Lutheran pastor who was one of the guest speakers, and she posed a question that has stuck with me for more than a decade now.  In her talk she asked, “Is there anybody that the word everybody does not include?”  Is there anybody that the word everybody does not include?  We welcome all to worship Christ and to witness God’s love through caring and service to others.

 

Look at that congregational mission statement again.  There is something missing there.  There is no division between us and them.  There is no mention of caring and serving only people who are members of this congregation.  There is no distinction about what language we need to use.  There is no one who is not included in the welcome.

 

As you perhaps know, we have a member of our congregation, Alejandro Mejia, who moved here from Colombia, South America, and who is working on obtaining his theological degree.  In the meantime, he has been reaching out to the Latino community in the neighborhood around our church.  In his ministry among them, they have been begging him to begin offering worship services in Spanish.  I repeat, they have been begging for worship.  I’m trying to recall when was the last time I had any English-speaking people come to me and beg me for a worship service.  I get a lot of requests to make my sermons shorter, but very little begging for more worship.  So our congregation Council felt that, if there are people requesting to worship, and it does not interfere with our existing worship, why not?  What reason could there be NOT to welcome all to worship Christ?

 

And so this afternoon, Alejandro will preside at a worship service held in Spanish.  But the bulletin will be printed side by side in both language, so that those of us who are predominantly or exclusively English-speaking can follow along in the service.  The people who will be leading and participating in this service want ALL to feel welcome.

 

We welcome all to worship Christ.  Jesus Christ is my beloved Son, listen to him.  Go and make disciples of all nations.

 

There is one more phrase in today’s Gospel story that I’d like to call your attention to.  It is the words spoken by one of the disciples, Peter.  Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here on this mountaintop with you, for we can make some booths and camp out here and remain in this safe place.”  They wanted to stay where it was comfortable for them, to hang out with their fellow Jews, with Moses and Elijah.

 

But Jesus tells them to get up and not be afraid.  There are going to have to leave this mountaintop retreat and go back to the messy complicated streets of Jerusalem where they will mix in with Roman soldiers and Greek merchants and all kinds of sinners.  We likewise are encouraged by the Holy Spirit not to isolate ourselves into a small little circle, only with people who are like us, but to go out from this mountaintop and rub elbows with our neighbors.

 

God said, “This is my Son, my beloved, listen to him!”  And Jesus said, “Do not be afraid.  Get up, go out, and make disciples of all nations.”  We welcome all to worship Christ.

 

AMEN. 




Web Design by TrueZeal.com
Hosting by TrueZealHost.com