Pivot Point

(sermon 1/24/21)

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The word of God came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of God. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God’s mind changed about the calamity that God had decreed to bring upon them; and God did not do it.

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Mark 1:14-20     

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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The scriptures are full of normal, ordinary people, going about normal, ordinary lives, whose ordinary lives are suddenly interrupted by something extraordinary. Last week, it was Nathaniel; this week, it’s Jonah and the two pair of fishermen brothers, Simon and Andrew, and James and John. On the day that God called out to Jonah to go to Nineveh, and on the day that Jesus called out to those fishermen to drop everything and follow him, none of them had awakened that morning expecting anything like that, any kind of divine encounter, and yet, here they were. Of course, Jonah required some pretty extreme encouragement to obey God’s call – he’d just been vomited up onto the beach by the great fish as our first reading began – while the brothers apparently dropped their nets and followed Jesus pretty much immediately. But the point remains this wasn’t the way any of them had thought the day was going to go. They were all faced with a critical moment to deal with on that day.

The story of Jonah features God, through Jonah, telling the Ninevites to repent from their sinful ways. In today’s gospel text, Jesus tells people to repent, too, but at least in this case, he’s using the term in a more general, maybe more neutral, way. The Greek word that we translate as “repent” literally just means to turn from one direction to another, maybe even the complete opposite direction. It isn’t necessarily referring to sin, or even necessarily turning from something bad to something good. When Jesus called these brothers, telling them to turn away from fishing and to follow him instead, there wasn’t anything particularly bad or negative about their current lives or occupations; Jesus was just calling them to set those aside for something else, something better, something that God wanted them to be doing more than what they were doing at the moment. That scenario unfolds numerous times in the scriptures, and I think it’s probably the most common scenario when God calls us today, too.

On the day that God called Jonah, and the one that Jesus called the fishermen, each of them faced a pivot point of sorts in their lives – a change in a moment that dramatically changed the direction of the rest of their lives. We can imagine that in that moment they were all filled with countless questions, probably some resistance, and a lot of uncertainty. I mean, none of us would be likely to turn away from what we’re comfortable with, familiar with, and that seems to be working for us, and to go off in a completely different, unknown direction without some hesitation. It’s that tension that makes these pivot points in life so dramatic, so intense, so interesting; the subject of so much film, so much theater, and yes, so much scripture.

What about your own life? Can you remember any of these kinds of pivot points, any of these key moments? Can you remember how you handled them? Can you remember your emotions, your feelings, your thoughts, your questions?

Dealing with just one of these pivot points can be stressful enough. But as we all know too well, we’re all caught up in multiple, simultaneous pivot points in our lives right now, and we have been for some time, and yes, it can be exhausting.

Our nation is at a pivot point, as a new President and a new political party take the reigns of government.

Our society is at a pivot point, ideologically, and especially as we deepen our understanding of the racial injustice and inequity, the white supremacy, that’s been baked into our culture since its very beginning, and as we wrestle with how we might finally eliminate this sin, this evil, from our social structures.

As individuals, we’ve all been stuck in this pandemic limbo since last March, but now, as vaccines are rolling out, and we’re allowing ourselves to have some hope and to maybe make out the light at the end of the tunnel up ahead, we wonder – after the initial glut of hugging and visiting and traveling and eating out and socializing that we’ll all do again as soon as we can – after that, how will our lives have been permanently changed by all this? How will we be different? And make no mistake, we will be different. What will we have learned in this time? What life-insights will we have gained? What new directions will we follow as a result of this experience?

Clearly, the church – and our church – is at a pivot point, too. Just as is the case with us individually, the church need to assess, to discern where God is in all of this. What is God calling us into? What might God be calling us turn away from, and to turn toward? What does God hope for us as we face this current pivot point?

Maybe God is using this moment, in you, in me, in the church, to open our eyes to a different way, a new and better way, to follow Jesus, and to proclaim and live out the gospel, God’s word of love and good news for all people. Maybe what we’re being asked to turn away from – to “repent” of – is something sinful, like the Ninevites’ actions or Jonah’s attempts to avoid following God’s will. Or maybe what we’re being asked to turn away from isn’t anything inherently wrong at all, as was the case with the four fishermen – but rather, maybe we’re being asked, called, to use this pivot point, this moment of clarity, to something even better in terms of living out God’s will.

I wonder if God isn’t using this key moment to call us both as individuals and the church, toward really seeing the social and racial injustices and inequities that have been laid bare in multiple ways for all to see in this critical time; and to turn away from the status quo that most whites haven’t even seen the inequity in; and to work, as a matter of gospel – as a matter of being a disciple of Jesus; as a matter of the rule of God – toward being people, being a church, and being a society that truly models God’s love and desire or justice and equity for all people. Is that at least one thing that God may be opening our eyes to now, in this pivot point in history and in our life of faith?

The ancient Greeks had a word for this kind of time, this kind of pivot point. They understood time in two different ways. First, there was kronos time, the linear kind of time that can be measured and kept track of with a clock; and then there was kairos time – meaning the most proper or opportune time for something; a critical moment when everything was aligned in just the right way for something.

As you think about pivot points in your past, and as you consider the pivot points that we’re all living in right now… as you think about your own life… is there some particular pivot that you sense God might be calling you to right now? Is God trying to open your eyes and your heart to sense that this is some kairos moment for you? Is there some way that you sense God calling you, Jesus calling you, saying, “Follow me. Make the most of this moment. Learn from it, and change your current path to an even better one. Follow me in this direction; it’s time. Just follow me to where we’re going. And don’t be nervous, don’t be afraid, don’t be filled with discomfort or anxiety. I took care of Jonah, and Andrew and Simon, and James and John, and so many more – and I’ll take care of you, too. I love you; always have; always will. So come on – what are you waiting for?”         

Thanks be to God.

Can Anything Good…

(sermon 1/17/21)

Photo by Barbara LN used with permission – www.flickr.com

1 Samuel 3:1-20

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to God under Eli. The word of God was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of God, where the ark of God was.

Then God called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. God called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know God, and the word of God had not yet been revealed to him.

God called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that God was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if God calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, God, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now God came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Then God said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.” Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of God.

Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is God; let God do what seems good.”

As Samuel grew up, God was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of God.

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John 1:43-51  

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

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Nathaniel – Nate, to his friends – was just minding his own business, spending his Saturday afternoon cleaning up the garage, sorting a bunch of stuff into two piles – “Trash to Throw Out;” and “Things to Save Because I Might Need Them Someday;” you can guess which pile was larger – when his buddy Phillip from across the cul-de-sac showed up in the doorway. After an initial greeting, Phillip looked at Nate’s progress on the two piles, and he picked up some odd thing from the trash pile and he asked, “Are you really getting rid of this? If you are, I’ll take it; I think I might be able to use this some day.”

After a several more minutes of sorting, Nate pulled a couple of camp chairs down from a hook on the wall and opened them up. Phillip set his newfound treasure that he’d saved from the landfill alongside his chair, and the two of them sat in the open doorway, enjoying a cold can of some beverage and complaining that the Buckeyes really should have won the national championship a few nights earlier, and how much they both hated Alabama, the football team at least,e and maybe even the whole state the more they thought about the game.  

“So what have you been up to today?” Nate asked Phillip. And that’s when Phillip told him all about this chance encounter he’d had downtown that morning with Jesus, and that he was amazing – and that Phillip believe that he was the messiah – the real, actual one; not another one of those posers who seemed to show up every month or so. Nathaniel was intrigued. His getting all excited about that worthless piece of trash sitting next to his chair notwithstanding, Phillip had a good head on his shoulders. He wasn’t anyone’s fool; he was smart, and serious, so if this guy had impressed Phillip, Nate wanted to know more – right up until he heard where Jesus was from. Nazareth? Nazareth? The messiah coming from that worthless little craphole of a place? That would be like expecting the next Pope to be a Presbyterian. It just wasn’t going to happen. It took some coaxing, but after they finished their drinks, and Phillip put his prized find in his own garage, he managed to get Nathaniel to meet Jesus, and Nathaniel saw how mistaken he was. The next Pope still wasn’t going to be a Presbyterian, but clearly, Jesus was the real thing. God had made something good come out of Nazareth.

God made something good come out of a bad situation in our first reading, too; an actual bad situation, not just a perceived one as was the case with Nathaniel. It might be a little hard to follow because we don’t hear the full story in today’s reading, but Eli, the leader of the temple at Shiloh, and his sons were using Eli’s position for their own personal gain. Later on in 1 Samuel, we learn the fate of this greedy, corrupt, self-absorbed family – it isn’t anything good, bearing out what God revealed to the young boy Samuel in the part of the story we heard this morning. But despite the tragic situation of the temple being run by this family of greedy, immoral grifters, God worked through the situation and raised up this young boy, Samuel, Eli’s own acolyte, his apprentice, to become a highly regarded prophet, one of the great prophets in the history of the faith.

Our own lives, our own times, are more than full of things that make our heads spin, and our hearts ache, and that make us wonder how things ever got this bad.

Being separated from family, and friends, and church, and pretty much everything else due to a pandemic that’s killed almost 400,000 people in this country and still counting; overcrowding our hospitals and maxing out our healthcare system and overstressing our healthcare workers, and all of this brought on by our own government’s policies regarding the pandemic that range anywhere from half-hearted efforts to outright denial.

Cities in every state reeling in pain and anger over decades, centuries, of racial injustice, and police impunity and brutality directed against blacks and other people of color.

And now, centuries of white supremacy, nurtured and cultivated for almost 40 years now through radical right-wing media, has finally bubbled over into full-fledged armed insurrection. The Capitol two weeks ago; Washington DC delineated into Green Zones and Red Zones for the inauguration like it’s Iraq or Afghanistan; State Capitol buildings boarded up and fenced off and National Guard mobilized; churches that are seen by the radical right as “liberal” being targeted for vandalism and possible violence and being told to be on guard starting today, and through the inauguration and beyond. Combined, it can make us all wonder, as Nathaniel did, whether anything good can come out of all this.

The short answer, I believe, is yes. I don’t say that because I’m a wild-eyed, naïve idealist – truth be told, I have a cynical streak at least a quarter-mile wide. And it certainly isn’t because I think that God has intentionally given us these problems just to teach us a lesson – I don’t believe God works that way, and frankly, I believe that we do a good enough job of creating these kinds of problems ourselves, without any need for God’s help in causing them.

The reason I say yes, something good can come of all of our current stresses and problems and despair, is because we are the people of the God who made something good come out of Eli’s corrupt and greedy leadership of the Shiloh temple. The God who made something good, very good, come out of Nazareth. Out of Nazareth, the place that Nathaniel and so many others saw as just a grubby, unimportant little backwater, God brought out truth, and goodness, and light and life eternal, proclaimed for all people and for all times. We have trusted and we have seen the truth of this God, the God that we worship, the God by whom we were “fearfully and wonderfully made” as the psalmist says; the God who has promised to be with us always, to the end of the age, as Jesus says. This God can, and has, brought so much good out of so much bad, and this God can, and will do the same now.

Through Christ, you and I will be made better, stronger, our faith will be made deeper, through all of this, as long as we allow God to work within us.

Our church will come out of this with a new, refined understanding of, and focus on, God’s mission for us, as long as we allow God’s Spirit to speak to our hearts and we act on it.

As long as we hear God’s call to repentance for our nation’s ills and shortcomings, in this touchpoint of commonality between our civic life and our religious one, even our country can come out of this transformed, by living more truly into the beautiful words of our founding, and truly working for a society of compassion, peace, equity, and justice for all.

Yes, something good can come out of this. For me. For you. Just be still, and know that God is God, and that in all of this, God love you and is with you, and will never leave you.

Denise* was a beautiful young woman, a wife, a mother of two wonderful little boys, in North Port, Florida. One day, while her husband – ironically enough, Nate to his friends – was at work, a man came to her door. Before she could do anything, he overpowered her and forced her at gunpoint into his car, leaving the boys behind, alone. As he drove her away, multiple people saw her struggling and beating on the windows of the man’s car, and they called 911 to report it – but in a tragic combination of shift changes, different police jurisdictions, and things just generally falling through the cracks, the worst happened. Denise’s body was found a few days later. Nate and the whole family and all who knew them were devastated, as any of us would have been.

But things didn’t end there. Nate decided that to honor the memory of his wife, he would start a foundation to create improved policies and training for all 911 staffers. The organization was able to get new legislation passed in Florida to make 911 systems more efficient and effective, and they’ve worked in other states to pursue similar legislation there. Without any doubt, many people are alive today who otherwise wouldn’t be, as a result of the foundation started in Denise’s name, in Denise’s honor. God brought something good out of even a situation as awful as that tragedy.

Something good came out of Shiloh. And Nazareth. And North Port. And by holding fast to our God, even when things seem hopeless, completely off the rails – by trusting in God’s steadfastness and love, something good can, and will, come out of our current despair, too. And when we participate together in the Lord’s Supper as we’ll do this morning, even remotely, we’re affirming that we’re a part of this covenant God has made with us. In this sacrament, we not only have a sign of this unchangeable promise from God to be with us always, but it’s actually being enacted withing it – Christ is literally, spiritually present within this sacrament. God is literally with us, and will not abandon us regardless of what we see around us. Something good can come out of all this, and in some ways, already is.

Amen.

* Sermon illustrations are often factual, sometimes fictitious. This particular one is real. For more information, visit the Denise Amber Lee Foundation.

And the Spirit Moved

(sermon 1/10/21 – Baptism of Christ)

Photo by pexels.com – tim-mossholder-1439227

Genesis 1:1-5
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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Mark 1:4-11
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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Before anything – before the earth had form, before the waters had boundaries or purpose, before even the beginning of time, as contradictory as that phrase might sound – Genesis tells us that the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters, and speaking out “Let there be light;” and calling it good, the sacred story of creation begins. Throughout the remainder of this story, God speaks creation into being, creating a unity, a connectedness, assuring acceptance by virtue of that goodness and connectedness.

And the Spirit moved, and is continuing to move.

Before beginning to call disciples and preach to the people, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Mark’s gospel tells us that as he did, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters, and speaking out “This is my Son, my beloved; in him I am well pleased;” and calling him good, the sacred story of his public ministry begins. Through this, the Spirit proclaims the unity inherent in the very nature of our triune God, a God whose essence is a unity of relationship; and assuring acceptance by virtue of his goodness and connectedness with God.

And the Spirit moved, and is continuing to move.

And at some point in your past, just as was the case with Jesus, you were baptized, too. You might actually remember it, as we always remind people to do on this Sunday, Baptism of Christ Sunday; or more likely, you just remember stories that your parents told you about it; it might have been administered with water measured in feet or in fluid ounces; but whatever the details, the Spirit of God moved over the face of those waters, too, and spoke in the same way, calling you good, and the sacred story of you own faith journey began. Throughout the remainder of that story, God has spoken into being within you a unity among Christ and all who trust in him, and an assurance of acceptance.

And the Spirit moved, and is continuing to move.

We see the overall creative witness of the Holy Spirit in the original creation, the creation of the cosmos, and in the new creation seen and made possible through Christ, and in that, there are at least two important things going on that we should take note of.

The first of these is affirmation. Validation. Assurance that the universe is good, and Christ is good; and through your baptism, God affirms and assures you that you’re good, too. There’s no need to worry, or to beat yourself up over whether your good attributes are enough to offset your bad ones in God’s eyes. We believe that what we see in baptism is that God has preemptively proclaimed us good and accepted, and because of that, we can be grateful and not fearful.

The second thing that the Holy Spirit is doing in these events is creating unity. There is a unity of common goodness and purpose, seen first in the order, and beauty, and connectedness, of the universe that we’re continually discovering more and more deeply. We probably all know that a coin toss has a 50% probability of coming up heads, or 50% tails; and the more times you toss the coin, the closer and closer the outcome will mathematically approach exactly 50/50. But I recently learned that experiments have shown that if a coin is being tossed, and a person is told to concentrate on the coin landing on one particular side, the outcome actually starts to move away from the 50/50 split, and to come out more in the direction the person was focusing on. Similarly, an experiment was performed where a common house plant was placed in the corner of square, windowless room, where the only light source was an electric light designed to randomly beam light into just one of the four corners of the room. But once the plant was put into place, the beaming of the light became less random, favoring the corner where the plant was – and whenever the plant was moved to a different corner, the light began to favor that corner instead.

There is a unity, a connectedness, of being and relationship and purpose throughout creation, and throughout all of us. Our baptism is a reminder to us of both the unity that we have with God through Christ, as well as the unity we have with one another, and that we’re called to live out that unity in all that we do.

That’s an important thing for us to keep in mind, living as we do in times that are full of ugliness, and division, and disorder and chaos. The kind of chaos and division and ugliness and violence – the actual, violent sedition, the insurrection, that we all saw in Washington DC this week. As people of the kingdom of God, we are called to speak out against that kind of chaos and discord and violence, not to mention the underlying oppression of people embedded within it, and we’re called to speak out against anyone who would encourage or enable it, as being completely contrary to the key tenets of our faith; the key teachings of our understanding of our place within God’s creation, and how we’re to live in unity within it.

We are called to live in unity with one another. But I don’t want you to misunderstand what I’m saying. To call for the kind of unity called for within our faith – the kind of unity instilled within us through the Holy Spirit – isn’t just to agree with, or go along with, everything that comes down the pike. This unity isn’t just ignoring serious, harmful, sinful – maybe even evil – differences, pretending they didn’t exist. God’s unity isn’t unity at any cost – there can be no real unity without responsibility. And God’s unity isn’t some sort of always just splitting the difference in any disagreement, because honestly, the truth isn’t always somewhere in the middle, but is often much closer to one end or the other of the spectrum of the debate. We’re called to unity, but a unity for God, a unity for good. We’re called to a unity that renounces sin and evil in the world, as we do in our baptism and when we receive new members, as you’ll hear in just a little while this morning.

I believe that this is one of those times, when we need to be clear in renouncing what we’ve seen – what we’ve all communally experienced – this past week. This isn’t a matter of mere politics or ideology, but is a core matter of our faith. We need to declare without any ambiguity that the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being calls us to stand in peace and unity against violence and division. And that includes standing in unity to renounce any group or any person who would incite, encourage, energize, or justify, that kind of division and violence. It’s important to remember that consistently throughout the scriptures, and as is pointed out powerfully in both the Barmen Declaration and the Belhar Confession, part of our Book of Confessions, the wrath of God is voiced more often – almost exclusively – against authority figures who abuse their position and who work contrary to the good of the people they have authority over. God’s wrath is reserved almost exclusively in the scriptures for leaders who oppress; who suppress; who ignore the health and well-being of the people; who trample on the people in their greed and their lust for power and privilege, and more power and more privilege.

And the Spirit moved, and is continuing to move.

In the beginning, the Holy Spirit moved over the waters, and separated the light from the darkness, the land from the waters, and set into the very essence of creation an inherent goodness and connectedness and unity. At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit moved over the waters and affirmed Jesus’ life and teaching as the very personification of what that unity looks like in human existence. And today, as we think of our baptism, whether we literally remember it or not, remember that the Spirit confirmed and assured us of our goodness and acceptability in God’s eyes, and called us to live in that same eternal kind of unity seen in Christ – a real unity, the unity of being, a unity of essence and of purpose, defined by not by any earthly person or power, but by God; and that it is in God alone that we have our life, and hope, and our greatest joy, and that it is in God, and God alone, that we trust.   

Amen.