A Miraculous Thing

(sermon 1/20/19)

wine jars

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

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So there they were – Mary, invited to the wedding of some friends, or the children of friends, and apparently, Jesus was there as Mary’s plus-one. And the disciples are all there too, and since there were twelve of them they paired up nicely and the table placements worked well. Honestly, my heart goes out to the couple getting married in this story. I know it’s enough to think about planning a wedding that will only last a few hours, but in Jesus’ time, a wedding celebration could go on for several days. And when I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about our upcoming wedding, worried that more people will show up than have RSVPd, and we won’t have a seat, or enough cake, or champagne for them all, I can only imagine that couple stressing over the same kind of things for a multiple-day affair.

And yet, despite what must have been massive planning, we hear that something very definitely went wrong – someone really messed up, and they ran out of wine, and apparently pretty early in the game, and it causes Mary to mention it to Jesus. It isn’t clear whether she mentioned it in passing, just disappointed that she couldn’t top off her glass of Cabernet, or if she actually expected him to do something about it. And it isn’t really clear if Jesus’ answer to her was really as sharp and rude as the English translation sounds to our ears, or if we’re missing something through cultural differences, and it was really a more neutral answer. Either way, Mary told people to stand by and do whatever Jesus might tell them to help fix the problem, and Jesus does, in fact, ultimately do something about it – maybe because, as any good son knows, when Mom isn’t happy, nobody’s happy, and it’s going to be a long trip home; or maybe he did it because he had something else – something more important – in mind.

John’s gospel is all about signs – laying out signs that Jesus was, in fact, God’s chosen. God’s anointed. But more than even that, that he is the indwelling of the divine Word, the Logos, the cosmic Son, second Person of the Trinity, eternally coexistent in God and  with God and as God; the creative force through which all the cosmos was created. All living, in the flesh, in this very human being, Jesus – who knows all our human joys and sorrows and gain and loss; and sore muscles after a long, hard day’s work; and the blessedness of enjoying some good wine and music and dancing and celebrating the joys of this life with family and friends. John’s gospel give signs to show Jesus’ identity, and his actions here at the wedding are the first of these signs. It’s a sign not only that Jesus is divine, but it’s also a sign of what that divine being is actually like.

Because the narrator of this story is very concerned about signs, it seems significant that this story, the beginning of it all, occurs on what he says is “the third day” – similar to the end of the story, Jesus’ resurrection on that third day after his death. And maybe it’s also significant that there were six jars of water that were transformed. Some people have suggested that they symbolize the six days of creation, so that, just as Jesus transformed them into a new, better creation, so too does he mysteriously, miraculously, transform all of creation into a new, better creation. I don’t know if that interpretation is what John actually had in mind, but it sounds believable and it certainly doesn’t hurt anything to think about it that way.

One thing that we can say is going on here is that through his actions, Jesus is most certainly honoring and blessing this idea of the wedding itself, and by extension, human joy, and actually, all of human life itself.

As a point of Christian doctrine, we believe that marriage is an illustration of God’s love for the world, and of our love for God. And just as we and God are quite different, marriage involves two people, two souls, who have that mysterious combination of being both alike and different, similar and complimentary, who have found each other and who are committing themselves to each other. Those who think that marriage is really all about procreation have really missed so much; they’ve missed what I think to God is this much larger point: Through marriage, God gives us a distilled illustration of all of the wonder and the value, and the true definition, of love; and the very sanctity of human life as actually lived; and of our connection with God, with one another, and with all of creation. Love, supposedly perfect and pristine and protected in a glass case, is just a shallow and even harmful imitation of real love, as intended by God.

God sanctifies the humanness, the earthiness, of love as we actually experience it. The kind of love that needs to worry about running out of wine at a wedding. Or dealing with conflicting weekly schedules with work, and home, and church. The love that’s seen in the joy of marriages, and births, and graduations, and anniversaries, and binge-watching Netflix and family game nights and once-in-a-lifetime vacations. It’s all of that. But it’s also the love of the depths – of passing on that thing you really wanted because the other person needs something else even more, and two o’clock feedings or diaper changes, and getting back out of bed because you forgot it was your night to take the trash out to the curb, and terrifying childhood diseases, and equally terrifying adult diseases. The depths of money problems and aging and loss of independence and nursing homes and hospice and the heartache of losing the one you’ve lived with for years through all of these things, and now what are you supposed to do?

In the novel The Brothers Karamazov, one of the main characters, Alexei Karamazov, falls asleep and has a dream about this gospel text, the wedding at Cana. In his dream, it’s an indescribably wonderful and beautiful event, and when he awakes from the dream, he does something unusual – especially for him, since he’s certainly experienced his fair share of the depths of life. He gets down on the ground and embraces it, and kisses it, and through tear-filled eyes he forgives the earth and asks it to forgive him, and he promises to love it forever. In his dream, Alexei came to see what Jesus recognized at the wedding in Cana – knowing full well not only the joy of the day, but also all the difficulties the unnamed couple would undoubtedly face during their lives together. That somehow, all the beauty and ugliness are part of a greater, connected cosmic entirety, and that God is actually present with us in it all, sometimes in spite of it all. That God blesses and sanctifies it all, out of love for us, and that in some miraculous, mysterious, incomprehensible way, even when it’s painful, it’s beautiful. A beauty that can cause tears, tears far more deep than just tears over the beauty of the tux or the gown or the flowers. And Alexei, and Jesus, knew that sometimes, recognizing the mystery of that beauty really just calls for a good glass of wine.

(sips a glass of wine)

Thanks be to God.

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Absolute Certainty

eiπ 

Luke 3:15-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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There are some things that you just know. Things that, if you were deep asleep in the middle of the night, and someone shook you awake and asked you the question, without even fully waking up you’d blurt out the right answer. “What’s your name?” “What’s two plus two?” “What color are your eyes?” Things that you just know without even having to think. Here, let’s try that right now – I’ll ask you all a question and you just yell out the answer; don’t be shy. Ready? OK, here we go…. “What city are we in?” “What day of the week is it?” “Who played third base for the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates?” … Well, if you grew up where I did, you’d know the answer to that one. OK, since we’re in Louisville, how about… “What famous horse race takes place here?” “What alcohol is Kentucky known for?” And one last one: “Who baptized Jesus?”

Ah HAH! Not so fast. If you listened carefully to today’s gospel text, at least according to Luke, that couldn’t be right. We read in other gospels that John the Baptist baptized Jesus; that he even protested the appropriateness of him baptizing Jesus, instead of the other way around. But here, according to Luke, Herod had already arrested and imprisoned John by the time Jesus was baptized. So then, according to Luke, who did it? He never really tells us; he just doesn’t seem to think the detail is important. In fact, he doesn’t even give us any details at all; he just reports that it occurred, and he jumps to what follow – Jesus prays, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and God speaks approval and pleasure with Jesus.

Things like this in the scriptures have always intrigued me – texts that we think say something, because we’ve read them or heard them so many times and we think we know the story, but we’re really melding together in our minds different accounts of the same event, and the separate accounts may be saying something different. Or for that matter, the thought-provoking detail in this story of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus here, at age thirty or so. I mean, where has the Holy Spirit been up until then? If Jesus was the incarnation of God in the flesh in Jesus since his conception, wouldn’t the Holy Spirit have already been present within him? Or is this detail a part of a different theological take on Jesus – that up until this point, Jesus was actually just a ordinary, even if chosen, human being, and his actual divinity, his incarnation, began when the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism?

Well, there are volumes of theological discussions about that particular subject, and it’s an important one, but my actual point at the moment is that this, just like the question of who actually baptized Jesus, is something that we’ll never be completely certain of. But it seems that to Luke, the more important thing in this particular story is the significance of the baptism itself. To Luke, both in this story and considering the theological issues that he plays out throughout his gospel, Jesus’ baptism represents God’s having chosen Jesus – God’s having established a bond, a covenant of love, acceptance, and call with Jesus. And Jesus’ being baptized like other humans is also seen as a sign of Jesus’ – and therefore God’s – solidarity with all of humanity, sharing in the entirety of the human condition; the best and the worst, the blessed and the cursed – God loves and is in solidarity with all.

This covenantal understanding of baptism especially resonates with us Presbyterians, as part of the larger Reformed tradition. This is why we Presbyterians baptize infants and children – the sacrament is not a sign of us being of some magical age of reason and our supposedly making a decision to choose God. Rather, it is, as we say, a “sign and seal” of God’s covenant made with us, initiated and established entirely by God, and not at all dependent upon anything we choose or do or profess. As I’ll often say during a baptism, baptism is not a sign of what we’re doing; it’s a sign of what God has already done. While during a baptism, we, or if we’re children, our parents, will profess faith, just as we’d do in any other worship service, that isn’t what the baptism itself represents or depends on. Baptism, just as was the case with Jesus, and regardless of our age, is all about the reassurance that God’s Holy Spirit dwells with us, and that God has called us beloved, and that God is well pleased with us.

Today, we’ll be ordaining several people to become Ruling Elders. This is a very important thing in the life of the church, and in the lives of the people being ordained. Their journey of faith began in the covenant and call of their baptism, and now, through the discernment of both themselves and the whole congregation, that call from God is moving them into a particular kind of service and leadership in the church. In all likelihood, it will be something they remember for the rest of their lives. I can tell you that I’ll never forget my ordination as a Ruling Elder. Kneeling before God, feeling the presence and love of God, and through the laying on of hands, of those ordained before me, was electric. I’ve only rarely felt God’s presence that powerfully, and unquestionably, in my life.

And in a way, that brings us full circle. Because whether we’re talking about ordination or baptism, they’re both tangible, physical signs of this one fact – that, unlike the question of who baptized Jesus, the reality of God’ covenant – God’s love, acceptance, and claim on us; the reality that God will guide our paths all the days of our lives; and the reality that there is nothing that can separate us from that love, is something in which we can always have absolute certainty.

Thanks be to God.

Revelation

(sermon 11/25/18 – Christ the King/Reign of Christ)

waiting room

Note: Since preaching this sermon, several people have asked about Revelation, the Flannery O’Connor short story summarized in the sermon. If you’d like to read the entire story, you can find it online at

http://producer.csi.edu/cdraney/archive-courses/summer06/engl278/e-texts/oconner_revelation.pdf

Revelation 1:4-8

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

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Today is Christ the King Sunday, or Reign of Christ Sunday – the last Sunday of the year on the Christian liturgical calendar, before we start the liturgical cycle again with the weeks of Advent, and then moving to Christmas. Today is a time for us to think about this idea, this belief that we profess, that Christ is our King, or our Lord, or our Ruler, or our Ultimate Authority. The oldest of professions of our faith is the simple three words, “Jesus is Lord.” We profess the same thing whenever we join the church or are ordained. We profess it in greater length in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, and in our Reformed Tradition we profess Jesus’ Lordship – his Kingship, his reign – in any number of Confessions. Maybe most strenuously among those Confessions, we do so in the Barmen Declaration, the document written by Karl Barth and others in opposition to the Nazis demands for the full and ultimate allegiance of the people, and the Church. Barmen made the bold, clear statement that Jesus is Lord, and no one else is.

We spend a good deal of time professing that Jesus is our King. And we spend a good deal of time talking in one way or another about Jesus’ return. We may differ on our thoughts about how that will all work, but regardless of the details, in our lives, and in our liturgies, we look forward to that time when the fullness of God’s plans for the earth, and humanity, come to fruition; the time when every tear is wiped away; the time of the great eternal banquet; the time when everything is made right, and love, and justice, and mercy, and peace, will rule forever.

Today’s preaching text, from Revelation, refers to both Jesus’ Kingship, his Lordship, as well as that future time of full completion of God’s plans for us. We generally talk about this future time as one that we’re looking forward to, something we’re hoping for, and soon. In this text, though, the writer says that Jesus’ return is something that will make the nations “wail.” That doesn’t exactly sound like something to be looking forward to. I suppose when we think about that aspect of it, we generally suppose it’s the bad people, the other people, who are going to be the ones who are sorry, who are going to be wailing – but I also suspect that most of us, when we’re sitting at home alone late at night, or at some time or another, have had this discomforting feeling in the pit of our stomachs, and we wonder if in fact, we’ll “make the cut” on that day. It doesn’t matter how many sermons we’ve heard about God’s grace, and that we’ve been forgiven, and that we’re a part of Christ’s body, a part of his royal priesthood – sometimes, at the end of the day, we still wonder. On that day, will we be one of the ones rejoicing, or one of the ones wailing?

The great writer Flannery O’Connor wrote a short story shortly before she died called “Revelation.” The story centers around a Mrs. Turpin, who is a white farmer’s wife somewhere in the deep South, sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. She was a proud woman, a proper woman, and in the story, Mrs. Turpin has just gone into her doctor’s office for an appointment. She’s just signed in and is in the waiting room with all the others waiting there, too. As she sits there, she surveys the others, and we get to hear her inner dialogue, what she’s thinking about all of them – more accurately, how she’s judging them, and almost all negatively. This one is lazy, that one is shiftless, that other one has no concept of how to comport oneself in polite society, the woman over there with the cheap shoes, with the little boy with the sunken eyes and runny nose is just triflin’ trash. Mrs. Turpin took great pride in being able to see into the innermost depths of a person’s soul strictly on the basis of what kind of shoes they were wearing. There is one woman, though, that she examines and deems to be in her own social class, and she strikes up a conversation with her. The other woman is there with her daughter, a young woman home from Wellesley College – Mrs. Turpin notes that the young woman is overweight, and has acne, and isn’t very attractive. For her part, the young woman just sits there, glaring and seething at Mrs. Turpin as she goes on and on, offering up all sorts of unfiltered judgment on all the kinds of people in the world who she considers her social  inferior, which seems to be just about everyone.  She saves the worst of her judgmentalism, though, on blacks, letting horrible racists comments slide out of her mouth with the casual ease that was so common among some people of that time, offering up appalling bigotry as nothing more than simple conventional wisdom, with no more apparent moral content than looking at a clock and announcing what time it was. Finally, the young woman had enough of Mrs. Turpin, and she lunges across the waiting room and starts to strangle her. People finally pull her off of Mrs. Turpin, but not until she tells Mrs. Turpin “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!”

Well as you might expect, that left a lasting impression on Mrs. Turpin. It bothered her all the rest of the day. She was shocked that this horrible person could say such a thing to a fine upstanding person like her. How could she call her a warthog – the very idea! Why, she was a good Christian woman, active in the church and all its good works for the needy! She was educated. She and her husband owned a farm, a business. She knew how respectable people in society were to behave, and how not to behave, not like the trash sitting in that waiting room, and certainly not like that terrible, acne-faced girl. The nerve!

Her thoughts troubled her all day long, until finally, at the end of the day, she was standing in a field observing a beautiful Southern sunset, and as she did, with a heart full of confusion and outrage and hurt, she prayed, “God, how could you have allowed that to happen? Why would you let such a terrible person do such a terrible act, say such a terrible thing, to someone like me?!” Just then, Mrs. Turpin had a vision. She saw, in the red and pink and orange of the clouds, something like a great arcing bridge connecting the earth and heaven. And she saw a long procession of people headed toward heaven on the bridge, all wearing dazzling white robes. And she saw that the very first person in the procession was the awful, acne-faced girl who had called her a warthog from hell. And then she saw the trashy people, and the lazy people she saw in the doctor’s waiting room. And they were followed by all the blacks in town that she looked down her nose at. And then came all sorts of disrespectful people, shifty people, sick people, the mentally disturbed, and they were all laughing and dancing and jumping and singing every which way, in a huge, joyous, chaotic cacophony. Then she saw them – all the people like herself; the respectable, upstanding, decent people, all on the bridge just like the others, but they were bringing up the rear, and she could see on their faces that they seemed a bit confused by that. She noticed that of the whole throng, they were the only ones who were marching in step, and staying in line, and they were the only ones who were singing the right words and the proper parts and in the proper key, but they just didn’t look nearly as joyful as the others up ahead of them. They were in the line, they were still on the bridge to be sure, but it seemed very clear that all the others had been welcomed and invited to the head of the line, and they were definitely happier and more grateful for it.

Flannery O’Connor’s story contains the same sort of mixed feelings as the actual Revelation text we heard today. When we think about that final day arriving, it can make us wonder, and sometimes, maybe worry: are we ourselves more like Mrs. Turpin, or one of the people she judged, who ended up ahead of her on the bridge? I think it’s fair for us to concern ourselves with that question, to guard against being a Mrs. Turpin. But there’s grace for us in this scripture text as well – because even if, on our worst days, we are a bit like Mrs. Turpin, through Christ, we know that we can do better – we can be better. We have the assurance that through Christ, God is working within us to enable us to become more and more the people of God’s Kingdom that we’ve been designed and created to be. And there’s additional grace, good news, gospel, for us in this text in that no matter who we are in life, no matter what social station we might find ourselves in, there’s always a Mrs. Turpin who’s judging us, looking down on us, who thinks they’re better than us, and who’s dismissing or ignoring or mistreating us in some way or another because of it. In some way, each of us is scorned in this life by some Mrs. Turpin. But the grace is that when Jesus walked among us, he was scorned by the Mrs. Turpins of his time, and he identifies with us – and on that final day, when the vision of that bridge is made real, that same Jesus who walked among us, and taught us repeatedly to love God with all of our heart, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and that the first shall be last and the last shall be first; the Alpha and Omega who was, and is, and is to come – that same Jesus has a reserved place at the front of the bridge, at the head of the banquet table, for all the triflin’ trash – trash just like us.

Thanks be to God.

In the Grasp of the Unconditional God

(sermon 10/28/18 – Reformation Sunday)

Reformation Sunday 2018

Jeremiah 31:27-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

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Today, in Protestant churches across the country, congregations will observe Reformation Sunday, when we recognize the great theological movement that changed the face of Western religion, society, and culture. We do that every year on this particular Sunday, the last Sunday in October, because that’s the closest Sunday to the anniversary of Martin Luther having out his period equivalent of a tweetstorm, nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Of course, the Reformation started long before that. Before Luther was Jan Hus, and before him was John Wycliff, and long before any of them was some poor peasant who didn’t like something the Pope had decreed and asked why he had the authority to decree it, and someone answered “He can do it because he’s the Pope!” and the person answered “Well I didn’t vote for him!” and that was the match that lit the fire that eventually became the Protestant Reformation.

Maybe more than anything, the Reformation might be seen as the theological revolution of grace – the understanding that our salvation is entirely the work of God, and that there’s nothing, nothing, that we do to earn that salvation. This grace means that God has called and chosen each of us, directly, which means that God’s favor is not mediated to us through any religious leader. None of them has the authority to grant, or withhold, God’s forgiveness, or God’s salvation, to us. It’s what we call “the priesthood of all believers;” that we definitely value learning and in-depth study to become a spiritual leader, but their charge doesn’t include being that kind of arbiter of God’s acceptance or rejection.

The Reformation’s focus on grace could be seen as the rejection of the conditional God – that *if* we do something, *then* God will forgive us, accept us, save us. That *if* we carried out all the requirements of the “sacramental system” established by the church, and did this, that, and any number of other items on some priestly checklist, then we’d be saved, and we wouldn’t spend eternity in hell. Mind you, after the Reformation, we Protestants didn’t waste any time setting up our own sets of requirements, our own checklists – *if* we accept the statements of the right creed; *if* we believe the right thing about Jesus’ nature and the mechanics of how salvation through him works, *if* we believe just the right thing about the Trinity, or *if* we recite the “sinner’s prayer,” then God will accept us. But at its core, the revolutionary theological foundation of the Protestant Reformation said a resounding “NO!!!” to all of those things. God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and salvation is not a conditional thing. We do not worship a conditional, “transactional” God. We worship a God of grace.

Today, we celebrate two related things – a baptism, and receiving members into our congregation. And the way we understand both of these things is tied very strongly to this theological revolution.

To us, baptism is a sacrament given to us by this unconditional God that we worship – it isn’t a sign of us doing something that makes God happy, and as a result of that, God will give in and stop being angry with us and will forgive us and save us. It isn’t the spiritual equivalent of an economic transaction. To us, baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant that God, completely independently of our words and actions, long before we ever were aware that we needed God, long before we were ever born, chose to make between us. In baptism, when we profess our faith, we are simply acknowledging that we recognize the existence of that covenant, and out of gratitude for it we want to profess it publicly, and live in gratitude for it.

And membership in a congregation is also a very Reformed concept. Before the Protestant Reformation, if you were born within the boundaries of a particular church parish, you were considered a member of that parish, and under the authority of that parish priest, and that bishop, and ultimately, the Pope. In the wake of the Reformation, we understood that being a part of a particular congregation is something that a believer chooses to do – it’s an intentional act, and in and of itself, it becomes a statement of faith as we commit to be part of a community of faith, part of an extended family united in Christ.

The Reformation began a new thing in the world. It began a new thing for all of us – the way we understand God, and ourselves, and the relationship between the two of us. It was also a resurgence in the theological understanding that we were supposed to work for the betterment of the society that we lived within. That while we weren’t doing good things to try to earn our salvation, out of gratitude for God’s grace, we are called to continually work to heal the broken areas of our world. With God’s help, to help create that “new thing” that God is ushering into our existence. To bring God’s love, and peace, and justice to more people. To heal wounds, and to respect one another, to value each and every human being, despite any differences; standing up for their dignity as having been created in God’s image and worthy of our love and care. All of them, without exceptions.

Let’s especially remember that part of the meaning of the Reformation today, at the end of what has truly been a week of hell and agony, ranging from the domestic terrorism of pipe bombs to the racist murders in JTown to the xenophobic mass murders at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. As we honor the great Reformers who came before us, let’s also remember that we’re called to be “the Church reformed, and always being reformed.” We’re called to be reformers, too. Is it possible, given the news, that God is calling us to especially emphasize that last aspect of the Reformation? Can we commit, out of gratitude to God, to stand up to the kind of hate-filled rhetoric that spawns tragedies and near-tragedies like the ones this week? Can each of us say enough is enough, and commit to never spew that kind of hate, even in moments of anger or frustration? Can each of us commit to calling that kind of hate out as the dangerous, ungodly evil that it is, wherever we hear it, as soon as we hear it, and no matter who it is that said it? Can we commit to using our faith, and the courage and strength that the Holy Spirit infuses within each and every one of us – no matter whether we’re liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, because first and foremost, we’re all under the banner of Christian – to stand up and say no more. We choose welcome. We choose love. We choose to be our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s, and the keeper of all those who identify somewhere else on the gender spectrum, too. We choose to be the face of Christ, the hand of Christ, the feet of Christ, and the love of Christ; and because we’re in the grasp of this unconditional God, we also choose to love unconditionally and to literally say, for Christ’s sake, stop the hate speech and the violence.

Amen.

Ubuntu

(sermon 10/7/18 – World Communion Sunday)

ubuntu

Luke 22:14-30

When the hour came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this. A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

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Presbyterian. Baptist. Methodist. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and on and on and on. All the different traditions, branches, and denominations under this one umbrella we call “Christian.” One often-cited source identifies 33,000 of them worldwide.  Other people scoff at that number, disputing that group’s methodology, saying that the real number is really only about a third of that, but 11,000 is still an awfully big number. And today, World Communion Sunday, this observance that first started at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, is the day we especially set aside to proclaim and profess the unity that all 33,000, or 11,000, or however many groups there are, have through profession of faith in our common Lord Jesus Christ.

On one level, it’s nonsense, of course, since anyone with two eyes and three brain cells can see that Christians and Christian groups exhibit all kinds of characteristics, some wonderful and some atrocious, but unity doesn’t even seem to make it into the list of the top ten. In fact, we can’t even get out of the month of October, which starts with celebrating our unity today, without recognizing Reformation Sunday on the 28th, which, while we’re thankful for much of its theological progress, precipitated one of the two largest splits in church history. Some days it seems like we Christians can find a way to disagree about anything, from atonement theory to the dual nature of Christ’s personhood to the meaning of baptism to the color of the sanctuary carpet. I’ve wondered if in retrospect, Jesus wishes he’d have said “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there will be an argument.”

So on one level, the idea behind World Communion Sunday might seem a little silly, if not downright hypocritical.

But still, on another level, it’s a very good and important thing. Good because it reminds us of the hope that we’ve all been called to through Christ. Good because it reminds us of the unity that Christ wants us to have, not necessarily in every thing, but in the important things: in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. In loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength; and loving others as we love ourselves.

And it’s good because it reminds us that this unity that we, the church, are supposed to exhibit is meant to illustrate to others the kind of unity and connectedness that God has designed us all for. It’s a reminder to the church, the world, and ourselves, that it’s absolutely impossible to be truly human as an individual. We’re wired within our DNA to be connected with, to be in relationship with, to understand and be in unity with, others. Given the news of the past 48 hours or so, and the divisiveness, and the pain and suffering and disconnectedness and separation being felt by so many people this morning, I can’t think of a more timely, and important, and good thing for us to celebrate and call for in church and world. The message of World Communion Sunday, and Communion in general,  is this message of hope that, even if we proclaim it imperfectly, we need to proclaim it louder than ever, and to model it in our own lives.

The Zulu term Ubuntu captures what I think is at the heart of what World Communion Sunday is all about. Literally, the term translates as “I am because we are,” and as a concept, it refers to the belief in a universal bond of sharing and connectedness that unites all of humanity. A big part of the gospel that we believe and that we’re called to proclaim is this very same idea.

The playwright Del Shores has written several plays; they’re all insanely funny, wildly irreverent, and always carry a deep message. In one of his plays, there’s a character named Benny, a wild, brash, over-the top young man who had suffered terrible bullying, abuse, and brutality growing up in a strict fundamentalist church. He carries a lot of bitterness and resentment about that, and he spews a lot of it in one scene – but after some reflection, he gets philosophical and makes a profound, deeply theological observation – that everyone, the good and the bad, even those who had hurt him so badly, were all like individual bits of colored glass in a big stained glass window; all interconnected, all needing one another for support; and that the light of God shines through each one of them to tell us something that God wants us to know, and to make the world what it is. Everyone.

One of the hymns we sang last week captured this idea too, in a particularly Christian sense. For everyone born, a place at the Table. Woman and man; young and old; just and unjust; abuser/abused. Everyone.

This faith, this Table, this sacrament, proclaims that by God’s design and through Christ who strengthens us and reconciles us, we are to lift up one another. To share in one another’s lives, to bear one another’s burdens, to rejoice with one another in our joys, to mourn with one another in our mourning – and most importantly, even recognizing our differences –  even sometimes profound differences – to celebrate the new life that we all have in common through our one common Lord,  Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

23 Words

(sermon 9/23/18)

dirty-faced boy

Mark 9:30-37

[Jesus and his disciples] went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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It was an uncomfortable moment for the disciples. Jesus had told them while they were in Caesarea Philippi that he was going to be killed. The first time he’d said it, they didn’t believe him, and Peter even scolded him for it, as we heard last week. But then he’d done it a second time, and after that, the disciples seem to have taken his words to heart. So as they were walking from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum, which probably took them two, maybe even three days, they talked about it. If it’s really true, and Jesus was going to be killed, they thought, we need to start making some plans in order to keep this movement going. We need to have some kind of a plan for succession. One of us is going to have to become the new leader. So as they walked, they debated who that new leader would be, based on who was the greatest, who was the most important among them; all the while trying to keep their conversation quiet, without Jesus hearing them, because that would have been a bit awkward.

But the awkwardness came anyway, when they got to Capernaum and Jesus asked them what they’d been talking about on the road. Maybe it was Jesus’ divine knowledge, or maybe the disciples just hadn’t been as discreet as they’d thought, but one way or another Jesus knew what they’d been talking about, and he asked them about it. And at first, when asked, the disciples just stood there, looking a bit sheepish, and feeling ashamed, and not knowing what to say.

A lot of people who have written about this story have said that Jesus’ response to them was to criticize them and to say that their discussion about who was the greatest among them was inappropriate. That might be true, but honestly, I don’t think that’s right. The passage doesn’t really say that Jesus was criticizing them; I think that’s us reading something into that probably isn’t there. I picture this scene, and hear Jesus’ words, as they’re written, and I think it’s Jesus actually *validating* their conversation. At this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has shifted gears from trying to gain followers, and he’s been trying to teach these disciples about deepening their discipleship and preparing for when he wouldn’t be with them – so what the disciples were discussing would have been completely appropriate. I believe that in this story, we’re seeing Jesus trying to help them along, telling them how they should think about what discipleship really is, and how greatness is really measured.

In order to help make his point, Jesus showed them a little child. Now, the people of Jesus’ time loved their children every bit as much as we love our own, but in that culture, children were completely at the bottom of the pile. They were powerless. They were voiceless. They had no real rights; they supposed to serve, not to be served. They were supposed to stay with the women. They were to be seen and not heard, and truth be told, not even seen by the men when they were doing supposedly important “men things;” especially things like discussing deep subjects of God, and religion, and determining how to lead and continue a new movement.

So it was odd when Jesus stood this dirty-faced little kid in front of them in the middle of this important conversation and told them – serious adult men, now part of the great teacher’s inner circle – and told them “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes not only me, but the one who sent me.”

Just like that. Twenty-three simple and totally unexpected words that encapsulated for the disciples how to order their lives of following Jesus, and how to measure true greatness in God’s eyes. Whether a literal child or otherwise, humble yourself and welcome the powerless. The weak. The friendless. The one most in need. In my name, he said, serve those who are the least, and that will make you great.

It was 1963, in Warsaw, Poland, and memories of the horrors of World War II were still raw, and fresh in the minds of many people. The old man was one of those people. He was a doctor, running a clinic in his neighborhood, highly respected by the community as a man of learning and status. Life had definitely thrown him a twist, though, when his daughter had married a young German man. A German! One of those people who had nearly wiped his beloved city off the map; one of those people who had been responsible for untold human carnage, including the deaths of many in his own family. Granted, the young man himself seemed to be nice enough, and he was only a toddler during the war; he hadn’t hurt anyone – but still, his father had served in the army during the war, and had taken part in only God knows what.

The man had been terribly upset about the wedding, which was bad enough. Then, shortly after that, the couple had had a child. But now, barely a year after the child had been born, the young man had been killed in an automobile accident, leaving an uncertain future for the old man’s daughter and her child. At this same time, she had been accepted for advanced study in the United States. It would open up a world of opportunities for her and her child, but it would have been all but impossible for her to complete her studies while also caring for the child all by herself, and in a completely foreign environment. So she asked her father, the old man, could the child stay with him and her mother, there, until her studies were complete; then she’d send for him?

Impossible. Unthinkable. It would never work. But then, he looked into his grandchild’s eyes, so full of wonder, and love, and curiosity, and no small amount of fear. Yes, his other grandfather may very well have even killed some of this grandfather’s own brothers and sisters. But this child – this utterly helpless child with the troubling bloodlines, and whose future looked bleak otherwise – this child hadn’t hurt anyone. He needed someone. So the old man said yes.

From the very beginning, and contrary to all social expectations, the old man formed a very strong bond with the child. In that time and place, taking care of a child was totally women’s work, not a man’s, and for a man of his stature, a distinguished highly respected doctor, it was completely inappropriate, degrading, even scandalous. But for some reason, despite all of that, the old man did it. He cared for him. He dressed him, and changed him, and bathed him, and laughed and played with him, in a completely undignified manner. As the child grew, the old man let him help with the gardening, and visit with him at the clinic. For the next few years, the two spent countless hours together like this, and whenever people told the old man he was being undignified, he disregarded it – he just didn’t care. He’d found very deep meaning, and great love, by humbling himself and not caring what society said, in order to care for this little one. If he didn’t help him, who would?

Decades later, the little child, now a man who had grown up and lived in the United States for most of his life, stood on the street corner in Warsaw where his grandparents’ house had once been, long since replaced by an apartment building. Standing there on the same sidewalk where years before his own much smaller feet had stood alongside his grandfather’s as they tended to the flowers in front of a house that was now just a memory, he recognized that his grandfather – who wasn’t a religious man at all; his faith had been a casualty of the war – had actually personified those all-important 23 words of Jesus: “Whoever welcomes such a child as this in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sends me.”

When we think about our own lives of faith, it’s good for us to go back to the source, to always reflect on just what Jesus himself taught, and what he said was important for us to keep in mind – and how we could show gratitude and love for the God who has shown us such great love and mercy. If we want to be seen as great in God’s eyes, we need to be ready to humble ourselves and to welcome and help the helpless and the powerless, even if it means raising a few eyebrows in the process. And we don’t do it out of a sense of duty or obligation or burden; we do it out of gratitude – because long before we could ever offer that kind of welcome and acceptance to others, the helpless, dirty-faced child who stood in front of God, and who received that kind of welcome, was us.

Thanks be to God.

Who, and So What?

(sermon 9/16/18)

banias

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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It was a really incredible thing – a big cliff face, looming straight up from the grassy area below, the rocks as red as anything you’d see in Sedona. At the very bottom of the cliff was a large cave opening. Inside the cave, there was a large natural spring that bubbled up and poured out of the mouth of the cave, and flowed down through the valley. In ancient times, it was the site of a temple to a pagan Canaanite god. Then the Greeks, who never missed a chance to make a bold architectural statement, rededicated the place to their god Pan, and they built an impressive temple directly over the mouth of the cave, and the water ran through the temple and flowed out the front, down a spillway built for it. Later, additional shrines and niches dedicated to other Greek and Roman gods were added to the cliff face and the grounds around the temple, making the place a major pilgrimage site for followers of any number of different deities. The fact that it was just a stunningly beautiful place only added to the number of people who visited there.

That was the state of things in the ancient town of Banias, which had been renamed Caesarea Philippi by the Roman occupiers, when Jesus and his disciples visited the place and enjoyed its natural beauty and the water flowing out and giving life to the valley below. It was in the midst of people all around them, arriving to pay their respects to the various gods, and all the religious cross-talk that any crowd like that was bound to have, that Jesus asked that question, “Who do the people say that *I* am?” And the disciples tell him, and then Jesus asking “Who do *you* say that I am?” And Peter gives his answer, the first time in the gospels anyone professes that Jesus is the messiah.

You’d think that this would be a bigger thing, something getting more supernatural attention. We get angels appearing in the sky and singing at the Nativity; we got clouds rolling back, the Holy Spirit descending, and the very voice of God voicing approval when Jesus was baptized. But now, when Peter makes this big, world-changing profession… nothing. If Monty Python had made a movie of this, you could imagine all the disciples pausing and looking up at the sky, waiting for at least some glorious, dramatic background music, something, anything. But instead, all they heard was the water flowing on past them and down into the valley.

And then they heard the most amazing thing – Jesus actually telling them *not* to tell anyone about it. Then he goes on, laying out in very plain terms that he’s going to suffer, and even be killed, by the religious and civil powers because his message – the actual good news from God that he’d been sent to proclaim – was a threat to both of them. And then, in the worst promotion and growth strategy in the history of marketing, Jesus invites them all to come along and suffer and die along with him.

When the disciples naturally balk at the idea, Peter especially, Jesus doubled down on what he’s said. It’s nice enough to profess that he’s the messiah, but by itself, that isn’t enough. If he’s the messiah, then so what? If he’s the messiah, that has to have real-life consequences. If he’s the messiah, then the way they lived needed to reflect that, consistently. And thinking only in human terms would ultimately be disastrous for them, an exercise in futility.

What sense does it make, he asked them, if you gained the whole world, if you gain it by throwing away God’s truth? If you compromise on the things that are really important to God, just to gain what you think is important in the here and now? And what does that make of your profession that Jesus really is the messiah?

Jesus criticized Peter for thinking in human terms. But how could Peter, or how could we, really think in any other terms; we are human beings after all. We do live in this very imperfect, very human world, governed by very imperfect, very human ways. Everything in our life is tempered by that reality. In fact, as a theological sidebar, that’s what John Calvin meant when he talked about “total depravity” – not that everything we do is bad; rather, that everything we do, no matter how noble, still has some element of human self-interest embedded within it.

This conflict within us is unavoidable. Still, Jesus tells us we need to resist that most common of human shortcomings. To not fall victim to giving in, to selling out God’s good news, in order to get, or to maintain, something we want in this life. Jesus’ words here are a stark warning to us even when we’re pursuing some good end goal, to very seriously ask if the end really does justify the means.

Not falling victim to that can be hard. Really hard. Jesus spoke to those disciples as they stood there next to the flowing waters, and across time he speaks to us, telling us to trust in the goodness and wisdom of the God who we encounter in the waters of our baptism, and to trust that this God can and will work within us, and help us to think less and less in human terms, and more and more in the ways of the one who was first called messiah on that fateful day in Caesarea Philippi.

Thanks be to God.