What Are You Waiting For?

(sermon 3/24/19)

make that change

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

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It seems to happen time and time again. There will be some kind of tragedy – a flood, an earthquake, a hurricane, a wildfire – and within hours some know-it-all TV preacher or blogger will be claiming that the disaster was a sign of God’s wrath; it’s God’s judgment against the people who are suffering. According to these self-proclaimed experts, God was punishing these people because of something or someone they’d voted for, or voted against, or how they worshiped God, or how they didn’t worship God at all, or how they parted their hair, or some other equally ridiculous reason. It’s always seemed odd to me that these experts could discern that when these kinds of things happened to places like New Orleans, or Miami, or somewhere else they considered sinful, the disaster was God’s punishment, but wen a string of tornadoes cuts a swath somewhere through the Bible Belt, it’s just some terrible, inexplicable tragedy that doesn’t indicate God’s judgment at all.

These supposed divine mind readers are really only channeling a misguided way of understanding God and life that’s been around for a long time. Pretty much throughout human history, and across pretty much all cultures and religions, some people have believed that the disasters, large and small, that we experience in life are signs of God’s displeasure with us. The different authors of our own scriptures offer a kind of split opinion on the idea, so proof-texting one passage or another without reading them through the lens of the totality of scripture can offer support for those mind readers.

But it’s here, in today’s gospel text, that might give us the most important insight into how to think about that issue.

In this text, we’re stepping into the middle of an ongoing conversation that Jesus was having with his disciples as he’s headed toward Jerusalem and his own execution. You can imagine that the very short length of time he has left himself is weighing heavily on him, and that it’s the point of origin of his conversation with these disciples.

It came up in conversation about a group of Galileans that Pontius Pilate had killed, apparently for political reasons and apparently while they were in the Temple, based on the way the disciples had described it, as mixing their blood with the blood of their sacrifices. They also discussed people who were killed when a tower, a part of the wall around Jerusalem, had collapsed and fallen on them. It must have come up in conversation that, as many people then might have believed, that maybe these victims were in some way greater sinners than others, and that was why these things had happened to them.

Jesus’ response to their comments was actually a beautiful thing. It’s one of the most simple, elegant, efficient theological statements in the gospels. When this idea comes up – just as it did 2,000 ears later when some televangelists claimed that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment of New Orleans for its sinful reputation – Jesus swats the whole idea away as if it’s nothing more than an annoying fly circling around his head. What? That’s silly; of course God doesn’t work that way; it isn’t even worth wasting any time at all considering that kind of nonsense.

And then, having dispensed with that ridiculousness, he takes the disciples’ comments and spins them in a different direction. What happened to all those people was a terrible tragedy. But learn something from that tragedy. Imagine each of those people. They woke up on those days just like any other and went on with their normal routine thinking they’d get up again the next morning, and the next morning, and many mornings after that. What things in their lives do you suppose they’d put off until some later time, always thinking there would be plenty of time, there would always be another day to do it, until suddenly, there wasn’t? All those things they’d wanted to do, all those changes they’d wanted to make in their lives, all the good they’d wanted to accomplish for others, all of them went to the grave along with them.

Fully aware that he didn’t have much time left himself, Jesus tried to wake up these disciples to the fact that the time they had left to break out of their own normal routines and make similar kinds of changes – to “repent,” to use the old English term – was, in relative terms, just as short. Don’t wait, he’s telling them. The right time to make those changes is now.

Several years ago, I was talking with someone – a very successful person in a respected profession, and a very nice person on top of that – who told me that they were running themselves ragged in their professional life. They’d actually grown to hate what they did for a living; it didn’t seem to have much redeeming or lasting social value. But it did pay very well, and they told me that that was why they kept going – because it was enabling them to save up a big nest egg, and that once they retired, they’d be able to use their savings to allow them to finally do something good and have lasting benefit for others, to finally accomplish something meaningful in their life.

I knew that they sincerely meant well, but I couldn’t help but think to myself what a terrible and tragic plan that was. Beyond the fact that hungry, homeless, hopeless people needed help now, and couldn’t wait a few decades for help, you don’t have to live too many years in this life to know that next year, or next month, or even tomorrow, is never guaranteed to us. In this passage, Jesus is waning us not to live our lives betting that they are, because at some point, sooner or later, we’re all going to lose that bet.

Lent is a perfect time to think about these things. What is it in your own life that you know, as a follower of Christ, you should be doing that you’ve been putting off until some uncertain future time? Why not use this season to finally make that change; to take that turn? Reach out to that estranged brother, sister, child, parent, friend. Reconcile with them, make peace, now, before it’s too late. Restructure your schedule, maybe even giving up something else, so you can have the time, now, to work at the food pantry. To teach kids how to read. To help build a house, or to mentor a struggling teenager. Plan that trip; reconnect with that faraway family member or friend you haven’t taken the time to see in years. Finally carve out the time to go on that mission trip you always wanted to. Work on building and strengthening relationships with others, because those human relationships are of God, and by strengthening and deepening them, you’ll also strengthen and deepen your relationship with God.

The time is now – there’s not time to wait. And by the same token, there’s no excuse in thinking it’s too late, either. Remember, even though it wasn’t a particularly spiritual pursuit, but Ed S_________ started taking piano lessons when he was 95 years old. Jesus is telling us that there’s no time like the present, because it’s the only time we’re guaranteed.

This season of Lent, let’s try to think about what’s holding us back from making those kinds of changes – those kinds of improvements, in the name of Christ – and to ask why we allow them to keep holding us back from hearing Jesus’ words of warning here, and to living the life he’s calling us to.

When you think about these things, remember that God understands where you are. Through Jesus, God has experienced all the same kinds of pushes and pulls and pressures that can work to keep us from turning toward the fuller, more eternal, more kingdom-oriented way of living that God has created us for and is calling us toward. And God knows that sometimes, making those kinds of changes can be hard. But we can always have assurance, and confidence, that the one who continued on that road, making the hard journey to Jerusalem and who endured all that played out there, will always be with us – loving us, guiding us, helping us as we try to follow where he’s leading. And it doesn’t take a mind reader to know that.

Thanks be to God.

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(sermon 3/17/19)

christchurch mosque

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

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You can hear the sadness in Jesus’ voice in today’s gospel text. First, some Pharisees come to warn him – look, we know you’re a man of God, we agree with what you’re saying, but you’re ruffling Herod’s fathers. You’ve got to be more careful – there must be some way you could continue to spread your message without upsetting or discomforting people. If you aren’t more careful, there’s going to be a backlash, and you’re going to get squashed like a bug.

It must have been the same kind of feeling that Dr. Martin Luther King felt as he was sitting in the Birmingham jail, reading the letter from the handful of local clergy telling him they agreed with him in principle, but urging him to be more moderate, not to make waves, to take things more slowly and not upset the governmental or social powers that be.

It had to be frustrating to Jesus when people wanted him to moderate and modify his message to make it more palatable. To add an asterisk, fine print, terms and conditions to the good news that God had sent him to proclaim. As he said in this passage, he knew that it wasn’t anything new; people had done the same with the prophets who had come before him, and now it was the same with him.

As he’s considering that reality, he refers to his love, and God’s love, being like that of a mother hen, protecting all of her chicks under her protective wings, and leaving none of them unprotected. It’s beautiful imagery. It’s also one of the times that we see God being described in female terms, reminding us that we always need to try to use inclusive, non-gendered language when talking about God.

But when it comes right down to it, we’ve always had trouble accepting the fullness of that image. It’s easy for us to imagine God’s protective wings for us, but many times we’ve had difficulty understanding that those wings are meant for all of us.

This morning, we’re experiencing yet another in a long line of examples of just what that sinful way of thinking can lead to. Today, God’s heart must ache along with ours in the wake of the terrorist attack on the two mosques by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist terrorists in Christchurch, New Zealand. Just as God’s heart ached when the local Hindu temple was broken into and vandalized. Just as it ached after the terrorist attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Just as it aches in the wake of every church burning and bombing and killing. Just as it aches every time someone tries to mistreat or threaten violence against someone else because of a difference of religion, or any other distinction.

These kinds of tragedies can only happen when we think that some of us are less worthy of being loved by God; less worthy of being under those wings, than we are. They’re only possible when people accept  this vile, obscene argument that God, the Creator and Parent of us all, loves some of us more than others; or even worse, loves some of us but some others not at all.

Some more conservative Christians criticize more progressive Christians by claiming that the progressives portray a God who’s too warm and soft and fuzzy, and that denies that God would ever exhibit wrath. Well, I think it’s in precisely these kinds of times, when we want to put terms and conditions on an unconditional God; when we want to limit which of God’s chicks are worthy of being under God’s protective wings; when we refuse to hear and accept God’s saying “No! All of them; they’re all mine!!!” – That’s when I believe that God’s wrath is real, and at its greatest. I firmly believe that whenever we try to put terms and conditions on God’s unconditional love for all people, that’s when we really risk facing the wrath of God.

As we continue our Lenten journey this season – as we recommit ourselves to hear and follow Jesus, who accepted no terms and conditions on the gospel – let’s also offer prayers for all those affected by the New Zealand terrorist attack. Let’s pour out our compassion and our love for them in this time of their suffering. And just as importantly, let’s examine our social structures, our churches, organizations, governmental systems, and public figures – anyone or anything that would proclaim a false gospel of fear and ignorance and hatred against different groups of God’s people. Let’s examine anyone or anything that would directly or indirectly incite violence against other supposedly less desirable. Anyone or anything that would say that some of us are insiders worthy of God’s love and protection, and others are dangerous “invaders” who aren’t.  As part of our Lenten journey of moving closer to Jesus and closer to the cross, let’s examine all of those people and things that would put forward this obscene false gospel of tribalism and tribal supremacy, however they might want to define the tribe. And whoever t is, and wherever we find it, let’s recommit, in Christ’s name, to having the courage to stand up against it and to call it out as the literal evil that it is – even in cases where it might cause discomfort; even if it might ruffle feathers or make for difficult conversation at the dinner table; even if Herod doesn’t like it.

At the same time, let’s recognize that this false gospel doesn’t only show up out there, in others. In ways large and small, sometimes in ways we don’t even notice, we fall into that same false gospel that there are others outside our own tribe who God cares about less, too. It’s wired into us as part of our evolutionary development; it’s part of the survival instincts encoded into our most elementary, reflexive brain functions. I fall into it; you fall into it; we all do. But through Christ, God has called us new creatures, and has called us to seeing life as God sees it.

The reality of the no-strings attached way that Jesus describes God’s love is very good news for all of us, because no matter who we are, at some point when people are trying to define tribes, and who is, and isn’t, worthy of being under God’s protective wings, we’ll all be defined as outsiders, supplanters, invaders. So in these weeks of Lent – this time of self-examination, and meditation on our relationship with God and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, let’s try with God’s help to refocus on the reality that all people are God’s people. Let’s remember the good news from Genesis that God created all human beings and called us very good. Let’s remember the good news from the gospel according to John that God so loved the world, not just part of it. Let’s remember the good news that all of us are worthy of the same love, and protection, and justice, and mercy, and being under God’s wings. All of us. No asterisk. No fine print. No terms and conditions. Not now. Not ever.

Thanks be to God.

Stoichi Mujic

(sermon 3/1019)

bridge of spies

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

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This past week, George and I watched the movie “Bridge of Spies.” If you aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s based on a true story, takes place in the early 1960s. Tom Hanks plays an attorney named James Donovan, who is appointed by the court to defend a Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel against espionage charges. Donovan also later goes on to act as the negotiator who secured the exchange of Abel in return for the downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, and an American grad student named Frederic Pryor, who was being held by the East Germans. Early in the movie, Donovan is confronted by a CIA agent who tells him that the CIA needs him to tell them everything that Abel tells him in confidence. Donovan pushes back, reminding the agent that to do that would be a violation of attorney-client privilege, at which point the agent tells him, “Don’t go Boy Scout on me now; there is no rule book here.” But Donovan pushes back, saying there really, there’s one thing, just one thing, that makes us all American – the “rule book,” better known as the Constitution, which establishes that we all have equal rights, equal freedoms, equal justice, and equal protection under the law, no matter who we are.

The scene prompted me to think about what it is, exactly, that you could point to, that identifies us as people of the Kingdom of God. I mean, we don’t really have a single “rule book;” the Kingdom of God doesn’t have a “Constitution.” We can’t say the Bible works that way, since we all interpret it in so many different ways. And the same is true about any of the ancient creeds and confessions, since when you, or I, or anyone else, recite them, we can be saying that we believe very different things even though we’re reciting the exact same words. Fundamentalists tried to identify a basic “rule book” a little more than a hundred years ago and failed miserably. And in one way or another, every tradition tries to do the same – in the past couple of weeks, we saw in the news the United Methodist Church going through the painful process of arguing about their own “rule book” regarding who’s in, and who’s out, with regard to their own tradition.

In the end, I think that no matter how noble the attempt to have one might be, the idea of a “rule book” of any kind that would define, and unite, and regulate us as people of the Kingdom of God is bound to fail – because ultimately, I think that what really identifies us, in any meaningful sense, as being part of the Kingdom of God is one thing,  just one thing:  that God has unilaterally chosen to instill within each of us the Holy Spirit. The very Spirit of God dwells within each of us, whoever we are – regardless of any of our own differences, beliefs, variations – young or old, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, shy or outgoing, any gender, any race – it doesn’t matter. God has chosen to bestow the Holy Spirit upon us, whether in spite of or because of, all our differences. This is at the very core of our baptism signifies – that God has chosen to receive us, accept us, dwell within us. To comfort us when we need comforting, to challenge us when we need challenging, to strengthen us when we need strengthening.

It’s his same indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but in Jesus, that’s at the beginning of today’s gospel text. Luke sets the stage by reminding us in the very first line of this story that Jesus is filed with the Holy Spirit as these temptations begin. As the story unfolds, Jesus is tempted with three things: bread – sustenance. Power and authority, and you can throw wealth into here as well. And safety and security. Truly, pretty much any temptation that Jesus, or we, could ever face is just a variation on one of those three themes. The preacher David Lose has written that what we can see in each of these types of temptation is an attempt to undercut Jesus’ confidence in his relationship with God; to undermine his true identity and to get him to accept an artificial, lesser one.

It’s the same with us, too. When we’re being tempted, it always distills down to a temptation to stray away from our relationship with God and our true identity as a child of God that’s defined by that relationship.

In each of these three instances with Jesus, Satan tries to instill doubt, to undermine Jesus’ confidence in God. Satan tries to get Jesus to feel that who he is, what he is, in his relationship with God is somehow insufficient. It’s lacking something. It isn’t enough as-is. And in each case, Jesus resists the temptation by using scripture to remind Satan, and undoubtedly himself, of his identity as a beloved child of God – and that in that identity, he has enough and is enough. But not only is he merely enough, he’s actually so much more than that – he is precious, and of infinite worth in the eyes of God. And that is everything.

And in the same way, because the same Spirit dwells within us, we share that same identity. Each and every one of us is also a precious child of God. And that is everything.

In countless ways, the world around us tries to make us forget that identity. To forget how precious we are. To think that we’d be better off following another path. The season of Lent is all about taking time, and allowing this one thing, the Holy Spirit within us, to remind us, to refocus us, on our true identity as precious children of God; and reinforcing this truth within us, that there is nothing in this world, nothing, no matter how tempting it may sound, that could possibly compare with what we already have, and already are.

There’s another scene in “Bridge of Spies” where Abel, the spy, has just lost his case. He and Donovan are in a private meeting, and Donovan is going through all their possible options, filing an appeal and so on. As they’re talking, Abel tells Donovan that he reminds him of a man he’d known when he was a child in Russia. He saw this man, along with his own parents, being beaten by a group of partisan border guards. They beat this man and knocked him to the ground, but when they did, he stood back up. This angered the men, so they beat him to the ground again, only this time beating him even harder. But still, the man got up again. This went on several times, beating the man  to the ground and the man getting back up each time. The men beating him couldn’t believe it, and in their disbelief, they called him “Stoichi Mujic” – Russian for “Standing Man,” and out of respect for his perseverance and determination, they finally left him alone.

In this gospel text, Jesus is most definitely a “stoichi mujic” – a standing man, standing again and again in the face of Satan’s multiple temptations. In a few weeks, we’ll hear the account of him being a stoichi mujic again – refusing to deny his identity and standing up against being interrogated by Caiaphas, and Herod, and Pontius Pilate. And finally, we’ll celebrate the morning where he was a stoichi mujic once more time – when he removed the cloth covering his face, and stood up against death itself as he rose to his feet in the darkness of his tomb on that first Easter Sunday.

This Lent, let’s remember the reality of this one thing that unites us – the Holy Spirit who dwells in Jesus and who dwells in us, too; and that with the help of that Holy Spirit, we can be “standing people” ourselves – standing up to temptation, and even more importantly, against whatever else the world might throw at us, holding on to our true identity as God’s own beloved.

Thanks be to God.

Payback Playback

(sermon 2/24/19)

payback

Luke 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

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So tonight is Oscars night, and many of us are probably thinking about thinking about movies – which ones are up for the major awards; which ones we’ve seen and which ones we haven’t. When I read this week’s gospel text, I thought of a movie too, but not any movie up for an award this year by a long shot. I thought of the classic film, “A Christmas Story” – you know, the one about Ralphie and his family and the Leg Lamp and the Red Ryder BB gun. I thought about the scene in that movie were Ralphie had blurted out a profanity, and as punishment, Ralphie’s mother cleaned his mouth out with a bar of soap.

ralphie soap

While Ralphie sat there with the soap in his mouth, he took comfort in the whole humiliating experience by plotting the revenge he’d get on his parents. After leaving home, he’d come back to visit, and they’d find out he’d gone blind – and he’d revel in the grief it would cause them when he let them know that he’d gone blind as a result of…. soap poisoning. Yeah, they’d be really sorry then…

ralphie soap poisoning

We can’t deny that we seem to be internally wired to retaliate, to seek revenge, when we’ve been wronged, and to get it in a decisive way. Maybe when we think about getting our revenge, we imagine it along the lines of something we’ve seen in a movie. Maybe something dramatic, like Mandy Patinkin in “The Princess Bride”: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

BKE1YY THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987) MANDY PATINKIN PRB 050

Or maybe something even more hardcore, like Sean Connery in “The Untouchables,” “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

The-Untouchables

Or maybe you picture it being less intense, but with far more finesse and style, more poetic justice, like in the movie “The Help,” when Minnie baked her pie.

minnie-pie

In our heads, we know that not forgiving, getting revenge, getting even, is supposed to be wrong. In our heads, we know that it’s really self-destructive. Most of us are familiar with that famous Anne LaMott quote that not forgiving is like swallowing rat poison and then expecting the rat to die – but we know that even if it’s poison, at least in its one brief moment, it can taste sweeter than honey.

But we also know these words from Jesus. Don’t get revenge – love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don’t condemn. We know this is what he’s taught us. But… but… does Jesus mean that we’re all supposed to just be a bunch of pathetic doormats, letting people dump all over us, and we’re supposed to just let them?

Well, Christian thinkers far more intelligent than I am have considered that question, and they’ve come up with a split decision. The history of our faith is full of entire traditions, and many individuals in other traditions, who have come to believe that the only faithful understanding of being a follower of Jesus is to be a pacifist. And you’ve got others who come down on the other side, who believe in one form or another of the theory of “just war” – whether we’re talking about actual war, or just more personal, individual injustices like having a bar of Lifebuoy stuck in our mouths. Over the course of the past several months, we’ve gotten a taste of some of these people and their different takes on this question – from Dorothy Day to Tom Dooley to Reinhold Niebuhr to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I have to admit that I’ve never personally come up with a perfectly consistent, acceptable way to answer this question for myself, again, whether we’re considering it on a personal or geopolitical level. Some days, I think I hold to some version of “just war” theory; that there is a place in some circumstances for forceful, sometimes even violent, retribution. But there are other days that I think that I’m just rationalizing the question, and that whether I like the answer or not, the pacifists are right. I think about the Civil Rights movement – realizing, as you could see in some scenes in the movie “Selma,” that the civil rights protestors were taught, trained, coached, drilled, to not give in to their natural instincts and fight back, retaliate, when they were attacked with dogs and clubs, and beaten, and sometimes even killed.

selma movie scene

I realize that it was because of their non-violent response, when millions of people saw them on television, absorbing merciless beatings, that hearts changed, minds changed, far more quickly and effectively than if the protestors had actually fought back.

So how does this all pull back together for us? What might we take away from all of this to help us when we’ve been wronged and hurt by someone?

In today’s gospel text, Jesus was teaching the same message expressed by those non-violent civil rights protestors: that more good is accomplished, for them and for ourselves, by always extending love and forgiveness to others – and this is even more true when we extend that love and forgiveness to our enemies. As hard, as impossible as it is to accomplish without God’s help, more good is accomplished when we stop cycles of hurt or violence by refusing to reflect it back outward after it’s hit us. Jesus isn’t trying to burden us with a task that we can’t pull off; he’s trying to keep us from imprisoning ourselves, harming ourselves, which is what always happens when we refuse to forgive and when we retaliate when we’ve been wronged. Jesus is telling us that it’s in forgiveness, and not returning evil for evil, that we not only see a glimpse of the forgiveness that God has extended to us, but we also find real strength. We aren’t being doormats; we’re feeling the power and strength of God working through us, healing us, and healing others as well. Nelson Mandela was a man who knew a lot about forgiveness, and not retaliating. He’s quoted in one scene in the move “Invictus” as saying, “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”

invictus

That’s precisely what Jesus is trying to get us to understand in this passage, too. With God’s help, we can not only find forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong, but we can also find the strength to forgive others, which will free and liberate us as well.

We all have to wrestle with the question of pacifism versus some kind of concrete response within our own lives, within our own interactions with other people. When we do, we have to be honest and admit that Jesus comes down very strongly – more strongly than we’d often like to admit – in favor of pacifism – in favor of turning a second cheek over taking a tooth for a tooth. On the other hand, I guess we also recognize that Jesus talked about when being forced to walk a mile, to walk a second mile, but he didn’t say anything about a third. So maybe there are limits.

Wherever you might come down on this question as you try to faithfully follow Jesus’ teaching, at very least I think this much is without question: even if we feel that some kind of physical response is called for, it would always have to be in order to stop further harm, and with the intent of correcting the problem. But it can’t – it *can’t* – come from a spirit of seeking revenge. It can’t come out of a desire to feel good watching another person suffer or squirm. We might differ on some points, but on this point, Jesus gives us no wiggle room whatsoever. If we do something out of a spirit of revenge, we are completely off the ranch as far as Jesus is concerned. Seeking revenge is a guaranteed losing proposition, one that God tells us will always backfire in our own faces. When we want to play that dangerous game, we can almost hear Jesus saying “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”

ralphie glasses

Thanks be to God.

The Back Story

(sermon 2/1719)

g-violin3This fine violin was made in Cremona in 1654. Or was it?

Luke 6:17-26
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

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George and I had a couple of friends over for dinner the other night, and at one point in the evening, George invited them into his workshop for a tour, and to show them some of his work in progress. This was actually a pretty big deal – it was the first time since he got here – and it was pretty rare even before that – that he invited someone into the inner sanctum, the “holy of holies,” as it were, of his workshop – where even a coffee cup set on the wrong surface, or a stray oily fingerprint on the wrong piece of wood could cause nightmares in the precision of his woodwork and finishing. As he was showing some of his work, he explained that he never makes instruments that look brand new, pristine; rather, he did a number of things to artificially antique it. But this couldn’t just be done willy-nilly, just randomly scratching and denting the violin; it has to be very carefully, artistically thought out to look like the actual wear that a one- or two-hundred year old violin would be likely to have. Edges have to be worn smooth where the violin would have rubbed on its case or was hung on a peg, while other edges in more protected areas need to stay sharper and crisper. Scratches might be made on the belly of the instrument where over the years, the bow may have scraped the wood surface. Small pockmarks will be made where the strings would have poked the wood while it was being restrung. Varnish will be rubbed off the high points, and where the stubble on someone’s cheek rubbed against it. Fake dirt, in different layers and colors, will be added in the right nooks and crannies in just the right way. To do all that, George has to create a “back story” for the instrument; an imagined life and history for it, that will help guide how to antique it believably. In short, the violin that he creates doesn’t just make beautiful music; it’s also being crafted to frame a particular story.

The writers of the four gospels actually did the same sort of thing, framing their particular version of Jesus’ life story in such a way to emphasize and tell a particular story. We have an excellent illustration of this in today’s gospel text – this part of Jesus’ teaching the multitudes that we call the Beatitudes. We can read about the same basic event in both Matthew and Luke. Most of the story is the same, but some of the details in the two versions are different, and in those differences we can see the equally valid, but still slightly different, back story that the author wanted to put forward.

Matthew’s gospel strongly emphasizes the divinity, the eternal royalty, if you will, of Jesus, and he emphasizes a more spiritual way of understanding the faith. This is Matthew’s back story. So to emphasize these points that Matthew thinks are important, when you read this story in his gospel Jesus climbs a mountain and sits on its top, almost like he’s sitting on a throne, while the people all gather around and below him to hear his royal decrees. Luke certainly agrees that Jesus is divine Lord, but throughout his gospel, his emphasis – his back story – is to stress Jesus’ oneness and solidarity with humanity, especially the poor and suffering. So as you heard, in Luke’s version of this story, Jesus doesn’t climb a mountain – he literally “comes down” to the people, and stands there in their midst, in a level place and on an equal footing, as one of them, to give them his message. And where Matthew’s Jesus blesses “the poor in spirit,” Luke’s Jesus blesses the plain old “poor.” Matthew’s Jesus blesses “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;” Luke’s blesses “those who are hungry now.”

Well, it’s Luke’s Jesus whose words we’re considering today, so what do we make out of his words here? In this passage, Jesus says that the blessed people in this world are the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the hated and despised, the oppressed and persecuted. In other words, all the “losers” in this world. And if that isn’t enough, Jesus puts and even sharper point on things by warning the wealthy and comfortable – “Woe” to them, he says. Enjoy it now while you can; your day is coming.

Jesus’ words here are at the core of the understanding that the church has come to call God’s “preferential option for the poor.”

To be honest, that makes me squirm, because I know that by at least any reasonable global economic standard, I fit into the wealthy and comfortable category – the “woe to you” category. And so do you. So – is Jesus saying that God cares bout the so-called “losers,” and not us?

I think I understand this passage a little better after having two children. Any of you with at least two children will get it, too. You love all of your children equally. But at any given time, one on them might need a little bit more attention, a little more help, a little more grace, than the other. Not because you love one more than the other, but specifically because you love them both the same, and you want the same good outcome for them both. There will be times where your love will be expressed differently. So no, I don’t think that God loves the losers and hates everyone else.

To be honest, though, none of us is ever completely outside the “loser” status. We try to put our best face on things so other people think we have our acts together. We look happy when inside, we might be in deep pain. We try to appear popular and well-liked, while inside we might feel estranged, unloved by others and unloved by ourselves. ON the surface, we might make it look like everything’s going great, but really, we’re feeling the pain of being discriminated against, made second-class, based on the color of our skin color; or our appearance; or the body parts or the number of chromosomes we happened to be born with; or the person we love; or the accent in our voices or where we live. While not diminishing the seriousness of those suffering far worse than us, and not ignoring Jesus’ warning to the rich, this is part of the good news for us embedded in Jesus’ words: we’re losers, too, and because of that, the words of hope that Jesus offers here are words of hope and good news for us, too.

But back to those who are indeed suffering more than us, who Jesus called blessed: some people have used these words to say that these people will inherit the kingdom of God someday. They’ll be filled someday. They’ll laugh, and know justice, someday. That it really isn’t their place to question, or complain, or try to do anything to improve their lot in life now because it’s just their God-ordained place in the world, and they’ll eventually get the reward they deserve – someday.

But what if Jesus meant something a little different from – or at least, something in addition to that? What if part of Jesus’ intention, and part of Luke’s back story, is that part of what Jesus was saying was:

  • “Blessed are you who are poor, because you’re waiting for help is over – I’m establishing a church, a group of people, and blessing them with the needed resources, and I’m sending them out to make sure that your basic needs are met, now.”
  • “Blessed are you who are hungry, because I’m sending the church out to feed you, now.”
  • “Blessed are you who weep, because I’m sending the church out to comfort you, now.”
  • “Blessed are you who are hated or suffering injustice, because I’m sending the church out to teach love and compassion, and to work for equity and justice, now.”

Part of the good news for us in Jesus’ words here are that we’re blessed because we’re losers too, in our own ways. But another part of the good news for us is that we’re also blessed because Jesus has made us partners in bringing a bit more of the kingdom of God into the lives of hurting people in the here and now. That’s an incredible thing. An exciting thing. A real blessing, to be entrusted with that.

Maybe that’s what Jesus was saying here. Maybe that’s part of Luke’s back story. If it is, then whether it’s played on a violin or otherwise, it should be music to our ears.

Thanks be to God.

The Eye-Rolling Moment

(sermon 2/10/19)

casting a net

Luke 5:1-11

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

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You are an expert in something. Maybe in a number of things. It doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are, what your background is, there’s something – something about your work, or a hobby or some other interest – that your particular education, training, and life experience has made you very knowledgeable about. And having that expertise, you probably don’t have much patience when someone who knows less about that thing acts like some kind of expert who thinks you don’t know anything about it. The word “mansplaining” has become a part of our language because of this – the situation where a man feels like he has to explain something to a woman, who he assumes knows less about the subject than they do simply because she’s a woman – despite the fact that the woman often knows every bit as much, and often more, about the subject than he does. Every woman here knows that’s a real and terribly insulting thing – and honestly, the same sort of thing happens to other people in other situations, too, and it’s just as insulting.

I remember something similar back in my architecture days. My firm had years of experience across a broad range of project types. And every so often, I’d end up with a client who didn’t want to listen to the advice we offered because of that expertise. Instead, they thought they knew more about design and construction and zoning and building codes and construction law than I did, because they’d had a drafting class in high school and had build a shed in their backyard and they had a $50 CAD program on their home computer. Often when that would happen, after spending far more time than I should have to try to save them from themselves, I’d give in. I hit we could call the “eye-rolling moment.” I’d just smile, and say “OK, fine. If you want me to draw it up that way, just sign right here. And when you see it built that way in the field and you don’t like it and it has to be torn out and redone and all the plans have to be revised, I’m going to charge you more – a lot more – to redo them.” And when that happened – and it always happened – and they came back with their tail between their legs asking me to fix the mess, I’d be polite and never say “I told you so,” even though the bill to get them out of their bind said it just as well as any words would have.

It’s that eye-rolling moment that gets us to today’s gospel text. You can picture the scene. It’s a sunny morning along the Sea of Galilee, or as it’s called here, the Lake of Gennesaret. Simon, a fisherman, and a few of his buddies have come in to the shore after being out all night trying to catch a load of fish, to sell in the market that day. But they’d come up short. The whole night had been a bust for all of them. Now, all they could do was clean their nets and stow them away, and go home to catch a little shuteye before they went out again that evening.

As Simon sat there picking the seaweed and other crud out of his net, lo and behold here’s this Jesus character, this traveling preacher he’d heard about, standing there not far away from him along the shoreline, speaking to a group of people. As he talked, the crowd continued to grow, and as it did, it was gradually pushing Jesus along the shoreline, closer and closer to Simon, until Jesus was quite nearby, and he asked Simon for a favor. What? Borrow the boat to sit in, so the crowd didn’t press in too close? Sure, preacher, knock yourself out. But let’s put you out a little further down along the shore, so the crowd doesn’t bother me while I’m trying to get my work done.

Simon probably wasn’t in the best mood that morning, and who could blame him since he knew he still had a couple of hours of work to wrap up before he could get home, and he still wasn’t going to make a dime that day. Jesus was still close enough that Simon could hear bits and pieces of what he was saying while he continued to work. I wish life could be like all that, he thought to himself, but here in the real world, preacher, it just doesn’t work that way. This guy had all sorts of pie-in-the-sky ideas, but really a grown man should know better. He really should have stuck to carpentry. Maybe he wasn’t good enough of one to make a living at that, so now he’s trying this preacher angle. Who knows.

Eventually, Jesus finished up, and the crowd all went home. After getting the boat back to shore, Jesus went over to Simon and struck up a conversation. When he heard that the whole night had been a failure for him, Jesus said “You know, I think you should try one more time – maybe right out there,” he said, gesturing to a place on the water not very far out. Simon snorted and said no, I don’t think so I’m going to head home now. Jesus looked at him intently, eye to eye, and said “I really think you should try that spot right there, Simon…”

And it’s at this point that Simon hit his eye-rolling moment. Oh, sure. I’ve been fishing practically since I could crawl. I know this lake better than the back of my own hand. And now here you come, an outsider, a builder, a construction guy now turned traveling preacher, and you’re going to tell me how to fish?

He knew it wouldn’t work, and he’d just have to clean his net all over again. But Simon figured that it would be worth it to put Jesus in his place and show hm he didn’t know what he was talking about. OK preacher, hop in the boat, you’ll see.

Well, you know the rest of the story.

It seems that God must have a wicked sense of humor, because so many times in the scriptures, and so many times in people’s lives, we only become aware of the presence and power and goodness of God once we’ve been pushed to our eye-rolling moment. Maybe we just have to get to that point where there’s no logical explanation for something, there’s no way we can assume that something happened because of our own skill or expertise, before we can find God in a moment; where God can’t be missed; where God stands out from all the background noise.

Can you think of times in your life where you just knew that something wouldn’t work, where it was going to be a waste of time, a move in the wrong direction – and then, when you gave in and did that thing, like Simon did, you learned that you’d been wrong? That in fact, things didn’t go wrong, it ended up being a good idea – things ended up turning out better than you could have imagined?  I think it’s in precisely those moments – when we experience some surprising outcome after pushing through our eye-rolling moment – when our faith grows and deepens. Our personal faith grows. And when the church does the same thing, pushing through its eye-rolling moments, that’s when the church is best able to truly proclaim the gospel; when we’re proclaiming God’s good news to all people through our words and actions. In other words, that’s when the church is really evangelizing, which, of course, is how Luke concludes this particular story.

So today, I ‘d invite you to consider: what is your particular expertise? What’s your particular skill, your talent, your blessing? It’s good to take honest stock in ourselves, and know what that is – and to be grateful for it, because that expertise, that blessing, is truly a gift from God. Then, once you understand what you’re an expert in, think back over your life and consider when that expertise has helped you. And maybe even more importantly, when it’s helped others. Finally, think about when that expertise might have hurt you, or others. When it might have been an obstacle; when it might have caused a blind spot to something. Every blessing has a  shadow side to it, and we have to understand it and work to make sure that our particular blessing doesn’t become our particular curse.

Understanding that shadow side can be hard. Working to keep it from becoming a problem can be even harder. But the good news in all of this is that Christ – the very same one who stood on the shore that morning, and who loved Simon, and who admittedly used a little bit of orneriness to teach him a lesson – that same Jesus loves you and me, too, every bit as much as Simon; and he will help  us to learn when to trust in our own expertise, and when to trust God’s expertise instead.

You know, Simon originally just wanted to catch a boat full of fish. After he finally learned he could trust Jesus, and they’d caught more fish than he’d ever dreamt of, he was probably wondering if maybe he was going to need a bigger boat. If we trust Jesus the same way – pushing past our own eye-rolling moments when it comes to us living out the mission that God has for us, sharing God’s good news with others through our words and actions – we might end up wondering the same thing.

Thanks be to God.

“Is He Serious?”

(sermon 2/3/19)

reading torah scroll

Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

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He got up in the morning just a bit before daybreak, as he did every morning, and as he wiped the sleep from his eyes he gently jostled his wife from her sleep, too. They stretched and groaned their way into consciousness and got up, quickly getting ready for the day. Then she went to wake up their two children and get them started on their morning rotation in the bathroom, showering, brushing their teeth, getting dressed, while she moved out to the kitchen to get them all breakfast. He’d gone out to feed and care for the animals. While he was doing that, he noticed one of a dozen little jobs on his honey-do list that needed taken care of, and he did it. He knew that technically, he wasn’t supposed to do it this particular day, since it was the Sabbath, a day of rest, but he figured it would only take a minute and wasn’t that much work anyway. Once he was done, he went back inside and joined the rest of them for breakfast.

And it was a nice breakfast, too – this was the only day of the week they had time for a good, full breakfast all together as a family, and they enjoyed the time together even though the kids argued about whether one of them had gotten more eggs than the other, and the woman sometimes wondered why this day of rest always ended up meaning more work for her.

The man told the children that in church that morning, they were going to hear a guest preacher, someone he and their mother had grown up with, right there in their little hometown. He told them that when they were little boys, they’d done everything together – playing ball, stomping grapes in their bare feet together at the village wine press, attending synagogue together, sitting there laughing at the old man who fell asleep every week, paying tic-tac-toe and drawing pictures in the margins of their bulletins as the sermon droned on. There was even this one time where the two of them had – well, maybe best not tell that particular story, not now anyway, the man thought, as he noticed his wife looking over the top of her glasses at him from across the table. Well, in any case, he said, now everyone was talking about what a great preacher he is, and that maybe he’d even performed a few miracles, too (even though he suspected that was a bit of exaggeration, but he didn’t say so) – and now, he’d come back to his home synagogue, and he was going to preach today.

The man and his family sat there in the synagogue in their usual place, and when Jesus started in, everyone was paying close attention. He preached that now, this time, this place, was the beginning of God’s good favor for all of them who were suffering – all of them there who were poor, which was most of them, and suffering from physical ailments, which was a lot of them, and the captive and oppressed, which was all of them, under the thumb of the Roman occupiers. And here he was putting them all on notice of God’s good news for them; that God’s favor was about to be poured out upon all of them.

The man sat there amazed by it all. Where did he learn to speak like this? How did he learn to give people this kind of hope, this kind of inspiration? It was with a good deal of pride, and also a small bit of cynicism, that the man thought to himself that wherever he’d learned it, he had the entire crowd in the palm of his hand in that moment.

And then it happened. Jesus reached that point that occurs in so many sermons – maybe call it the “prophetic pivot” – that point that’s struck fear in the hearts of probably every preacher in history except Jesus, where they have to move from the part of the message that offers their listeners comfort, and makes them feel good; to the part that challenges them, when the preacher has to tell them something they don’t want to hear, something that discomforts and maybe even angers them.

The man felt that discomfort as he sat there. He heard his old friend refer to the old expression “Physician, heal yourself.” They’d heard that all their lives, and it made sense. Caring for others was all well and good, but your first priority has to be yourself and your kind. Charity begins at home. Galilee First. Don’t talk about helping others somewhere else when there’s still one homeless person living on the streets of Nazareth. And you certainly don’t owe your sworn enemy any care or consideration; when it came to that it was eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth territory. That common sense had been instilled in them practically since birth. It filled many of the stories in the scriptures that they’d learned together. They were exceptional. They were God’s favorite, God’s chosen over all other people. But now Jesus was telling them that this was wrong. That this good news of God’s wasn’t meant only for them, but for others, too. He heard Jesus remind them of stories from the scriptures where God’s favor was bestowed on a poor widow and her son in the foreign city of Sidon. The man wasn’t a big fan of Sidon. It was a big business center and a major seaport, and his brother lost his job at the local pottery factory when it closed and moved to Sidon because of better business conditions there. Still, he thought that at least in that story, God blessed the widow and her son because she was kind to the prophet Elijah, one of us. Wasn’t that the point of the story? Apparently not, since Jesus pushed the point even further, reminding them all of when God favored not just any foreigner, but Naaman, a general in the army of their arch enemy, Syria – their biggest threat. In that story, Naaman certainly didn’t do anything kind to any of their people; in fact, the only way he knew to seek out the prophet Elisha to help him with his physical ailment was through a slave girl that he’d taken captive during a war with his people. And yet, God still healed him.

His old friend was even saying that not only weren’t they the only people God loved, but that God would judge them unfavorably if they thought they were. It was all very confusing.

Well, this prophetic pivot was just a bridge too far for Jesus’ listeners this morning. The people there that morning all shook their heads, angry, asking themselves “Is he serious? Are we supposed to accept this nonsense?!!” His message broke with tradition, and even countered some scripture. It crossed a line, and the crowd didn’t just throw him out of the pulpit, or even just out of the synagogue, but they ran him completely out of town and chased him up a hill to try to throw him over it. The man followed the crowd outside to see what was going to happen. He quietly kept his thoughts to himself, but he was relieved to see that his old friend managed to escape and make it safely out of the mob. But as he walked home with his family that morning, he kept tossing these thoughts around in his mind. He knew about those parts of scripture that called his people God’s chosen, but he also knew about those other parts where God blessed others, outsiders, too. The contradiction had always been right there in front of them, but it was glossed over, but Jesus put a sharp point on it today. Jesus was saying that at least now, God’s favor, God’s good news, was for all people. And as people of God, they were all to show love, compassion, and justice to all others – regardless of borders or boundaries; people from different cultures, different religions, different philosophies. Even people considered dangerous.

The man wondered if this was really a time when God’s boundaries were expanding – or maybe, God never had any boundaries to begin with, and they all just had to realize that they’d been missing the point all along. So we’re supposed to love foreigners from Sidon who hurt our economy, and even people from Syria, who are a constant threat to our security. And if that’s the case today, he thought, who might we be told we have to love and accept next week? Two years from now? Two hundred years, two thousand years from now? Where will it all end? Love, compassion, and justice are all well and good, but don’t we end up having to draw a line somewhere?

He was still thinking about that as he crawled into bed that evening, and kissed his wife goodnight, and fell asleep, ready to get up the next morning and do it all over again.

Thanks be to God.