For We Too Are God’s Offspring

(sermon 5/18/20)

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Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, the one who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to repent, because God has fixed a day on which the world will be judged in righteousness by a man whom God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

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Do you have a favorite movie? I’m talking about the kind of movie that you can watch over and over again, no matter how many times you’ve already seen it. The kind of movie where you have most of the lines memorized, and you know exactly what’s coming next every moment. And that familiarity doesn’t ever make the movie old; on the contrary, since you already know all the plot points, it allows you to see additional smaller, more subtle things going on that you’d never noticed before.

Now imagine if you were watching that movie – and, for that matter, it’s the exact same thing with a favorite book that you can read over and over – but this time, out of the blue, the ending was completely different. This time, the plot unfolded in a completely new and unexpected way.

Well, there’s something like that going on in today’s second scripture reading, from Acts. In the ancient world dominated first by Greece, and then by Rome, the story of the trial of the philosopher Socrates was one of the most familiar stories known, just like your favorite movie or book. Even in the little backwater of ancient Palestine, the story of Socrates’ trial and his being sentenced to death, was well-known to a large chunk of society. In 399 BCE, Socrates had been charged with creating civil divisions and corrupting the youth by allegedly introducing new deities, different gods than the ones officially recognized by the city, and allegedly supporting their worship over the officially recognized ones. He was brought before the tribunal, which met at the Areopagus, in the city of Athens, to face these serious charges. And despite the fact that Socrates was one of the world’s greatest minds, and that his Socratic method of thought laid the groundwork for almost the entirety of Western logic and philosophy, he was still found guilty and sentenced to death.

So virtually anyone who first read or heard Luke’s Book of Acts would have known this story inside and out, and they certainly knew its ending. And it would have immediately come to mind as they heard this story of the apostle Paul that we heard today – being summoned by the Athenians to the Areopagus to explain himself and his positions, telling him it seemed that, just as was the case with Socrates, he seemed to be introducing a new god to the people in his preaching and conversations. Obviously, the stakes were high for Paul.

But in a brilliant maneuver, he was able to succeed where Socrates hadn’t. As we heard in the story, as Paul was out and about in Athens, he’d seen a temple dedicated to “the unknown god” – apparently, an attempt by the Athenians to not upset and suffer the wrath of some deity they’d missed in their official list. So Paul was able to say “No, no, I’m not introducing a new god – I’m telling you about this “unknown” god; you don’t know them but I do, and I’m here to introduce them to you.” And it worked. Paul, or more to Luke’s point, God, had changed the ending of the story.

Another part of how it worked was that Paul quoted two different Greek poets in his argument – including the quote “For we too are God’s offspring.” While that was a line from a Greek poet, it was hardly a concept exclusive to just Greek thought – it was also firmly embedded in Hebrew creation accounts and theology, too.

This particular quote stuck with me as I read this passage this past week. Many people in our own society would repeat that thought too; at least, they’d pay lip service to it. But I wonder how many people really believe that – that all human beings are created equally as God’s offspring, and therefore, all due equal justice, equal social equity, and equal human dignity.

Of course, in just the last two weeks, we’ve heard about the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was killed by two armed white men who chased him down while he was jogging. The two men claimed they suspected him of stealing something from a construction site he’d stopped to look at. It was horrific, terrible. And you know that if it had been me who stopped to wander through that construction site, as I’ve done countless times in my life, or if it had been any one of you who have the same skin color as me, those two wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Plus, I mean, Arbery was in a T shirt and jogging shorts; where, in the name of God, could he have possibly been hiding stolen construction materials? And who appointed these two to be the neighborhood police? Who gave them the idea that they could use lethal force against someone who wasn’t posing a threat to anyone, let alone someone who wasn’t posing any physical threat to them? For Pete’s sake, one of the men admitted to going home to get a handgun before chasing Arbery down; there was no physical threat to these two. And for that matter, where did they learn the sinful, evil idea that preserving property – just stuff; replaceable, material stuff – would ever justify killing another human being – someone who, too, is God’s offspring? Where did they get the idea that it’s legally and morally acceptable to kill another human being just to protect property? Unfortunately, they got it from many places in our society, because sadly, our society has what I would consider a fetish over property rights. That we place such a high value on the right to our stuff, our property, that in the eyes of many people, we have the right to kill other people to protect it. And hand-in-hand with that is another fetish that too many in our society have, that they have the right to protect that property with guns. Gun worship, and property worship; these are the two idols, the false gods that our society faces in so many quarters today, that too many people actually worship over God. That’s the “cake” of the problem, if you will; the icing on that cake is the idea of white supremacy. The idea that these two men apparently had, that they had some kind of God-given right to do what they did because of their racial superiority.

While there are many great things about our country, and our society, there are also many ways that it’s sick – very sick, and it has been since its very beginning. A lot of that sickness comes from the way we white Americans have exploited, abused, enslaved, robbed, imprisoned, and killed the members of virtually every group of non-white, non-male, non-straight, people we’ve encountered, or dragged to, this continent; and most of the time, we’ve justified these sinful acts as being consistent with our Christian religion – often saying not just that what we were doing was OK; but that we had an actual *command*, a charge, from God to do so – it was our “Manifest Destiny” that white European Americans would subdue the continent and everyone already here or not like us. We did it, and we used our religion to claim, that in fact, we aren’t all equal – that we aren’t all equally God’s offspring and therefore, not all deserving of equal justice, equity and dignity. That whites – and yes, straight male whites – were superior to everyone else.

I know that you know all that. But still, no matter how much we know these things in our heads, the poisons of white supremacy and racism and all other forms of bigotry still show up in our thoughts, in spite of ourselves, and we participate in and benefit from social structures designed to benefit whites at the expense of people of color and other minority groups.

I know that you all know that, too, and that when you hear stories like the one about Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor right here in Louisville, or any of the countless similar stories, I know that your heart breaks, just as God’s own heart breaks. But ultimately, maybe you feel helpless and you throw up your hands and wonder “what can I do about it?”

Well, what we can all do, as a matter of our faith and our belief that we are all God’s offspring, is learn as much as we can about the situation. And that requires listening to the voices of the people being hurt, taking their stories to heart, taking what they say seriously, even when it discomforts us and hurts us and makes us get defensive. And we can work, and vote, and use every means of communication we have to put an end to any law or any system that treats members of any group of people less equally, less justly, than others. You can make your voice heard, calling for an end to the unequal treatment of people in policing, in the courts, in hiring, in lending, and in the provision of adequate social services and education. When you hear people being unjustly treated in our society cry out “Hey, our lives matter, too; we too are God’s offspring!” answer “Yes! I support you!” And just as importantly – maybe most importantly of all – any time you hear someone make a disparaging, dismissive, bigoted comment about any group of people, whether based on skin color, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, economic status, educational status, whatever – any time you hear something like that – something that feeds the kind of ignorance and hatred and white supremacy that got Ahmaud Arbery killed – you can have the courage to speak up and tell that person they’re wrong, and that, as a matter of your Christian faith, and your belief that we are all equally God’s offspring, you won’t let that kind of hate go unchallenged.

I know that can be hard, especially if the person spreading the hate is someone important to you; someone you love. It can be scary. But take heart, and have courage – because the same God who gave Paul courage and the right words to succeed on the Areopagus when even Socrates couldn’t, will also give you courage and the right words, too. Who knows? If we all did that, with God’s help, maybe we can change the ending of our story, too.

Thanks be to God.

An Easter Confession

I’m sitting here at home at two in the afternoon on Easter Sunday. The morning live stream worship service is over, and I’m right in the thick of the day that would normally be reserved for the mandatory weekly Pastor’s Afternoon Nap. But despite feeling exhausted, I’m also so antsy and restless that I can’t sleep. I’ve really tried, but I just can’t.

I spent the better part of the morning leading worship, such as it is, on Facebook Live. I’m actually very pleased that each week that we do this because of the COVID-19 lockdown, we’ve learned new things and made our services better from a technical standpoint, and all in a very short period of time. The staff and volunteers pulling these services together are truly stars – they’re doing an amazing job, and I’m very pleased and proud of them and their efforts.

My message this morning, similar to my messages in recent weeks, emphasized that regardless of the fact that we aren’t able to be physically together in this time, we are still united and one in Christ. We are still this extraordinary community established by God through Jesus, a community that doesn’t ultimately rely on close physical proximity to either Jesus, or even to one another. And for the most part, that’s an important thing for us all to remember now, and it’s very true.

Except when it isn’t. Despite the underlying truth that we are united in Christ regardless of location or distance, it is still a bedrock tenet of our faith, and particularly our Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, that we can’t live our faith in isolation. Our faith requires us to practice it communally, as people gathered together. That’s why we conduct worship services to begin with. It’s why we sing together, pray together, why our Prayers of Confession, and with only a few exceptions our hymns and songs, are always about “we” or “us,” and not just about “I” or “me.” We don’t ascribe to the notion of faith being a strictly individual, private matter. Personal, yes, but private, never.

And right now, I’m really missing that. I miss being present with the wonderful people I call my parishioners, but in most all cases really consider my friends. My family of choice.

On Sunday mornings past, I was able to see and talk with multiple people on Sunday morning, drawing energy and inspiration from them before and during the service – and hopefully, them getting the same in return from me. Now, on Sundays I feel less like a pastor and more like a television director, working on camera angles, trying to get people to the right microphone at the right time, and coordinating with the staff member controlling the video feed.

And no matter how intently I focus my gaze into the camera lens, and no matter how much I can visualize that I’m actually speaking to one person, it isn’t the same to me as speaking to a room full of them. There’s a communal encouragement that I receive while standing in the pulpit and looking into many faces, with many different expressions. Even the ones who seem to not be paying attention, or who have even fallen asleep – just by their presence there, together in that moment, is energizing and affirming to me as I try to offer some message of hope, of good news – as I try to proclaim gospel to people. Right now, it just isn’t there. And I fear it’s having a negative effect on the quality of my sermons, too, which I hate.

In the midst of my attempts to proclaim a message of hope and resurrection and new life to others – a message that I know in my head to be true – in my heart, I just don’t feel that truth, even while acknowledging the truth’s validity.

I just don’t feel it.

I’m depressed that we can’t all be together, even though I know that we can’t be together, that God doesn’t even want us together in this time of pandemic.

I’m depressed that even in the midst of this, I thought that circumstances may have given us a new, positive opportunity – that given the anticipated lower numbers participating, we could have a more intimate, interactive Good Friday observance – almost more of a virtual home Bible study and devotional time than a worship service – only to have it zoombombed by a swarm of troublemakers filling our computer screens with pornography and profanity.

I’m depressed that no matter how proactive we try to be in maintaining our communal ties, the situations and rules seem to be different every single morning, requiring everything to be recreated almost every day. I worry that as I offer information and instructions to our congregation, only to have to revise things and offer different guidelines just a day, or even hours, later, I’m going to cause people to feel like victims of electronic whiplash, and they’re going just throw their hands up and not participate in our worship and other activities at all.

I’m depressed that people celebrate major milestones in their lives and I can’t share in their joy with a hug, or a handshake, or even being within six feet of them. That I can’t visit someone who’s sick, or even who just lives alone and is lonely, and offer a caring hand or word. That people die and can’t have a proper funeral.

All this is making me cranky and irritable, which I don’t really want to be and which I know only makes things worse. I think that under normal conditions, I’m usually very accommodating and welcoming of other people’s opinions, and welcome trying new things and making changes on the fly in the face of new information – I usually thrive on that, actually. But now, I just want something to remain the same, something that I can rely on, something that I’m not going to have to rethink or reconfigure regarding how I continue to do my job from week to week, day to day.

I want to feel Easter. I want to feel resurrection. Don’t get me wrong; I know it. I just want to feel it, too.

I’m not stupid. I know that faith isn’t all about the feelings. That we can go for long periods of time without having the feels of our faith, even while understanding its validity. Mother Teresa famously confessed that she went for forty years without definitively feeling God’s presence, and yet, in faith, she slogged on. And so do I.

But I still want to feel it.

For my own benefit, certainly, but also so I can be energized by it and be a better, more effective pastor in these strange times, to the people God has called me to serve.

I hate the Coronavirus.

Even though I may not feel it in this moment, I know that Christ is risen. And even though I don’t feel it, I know that through the resurrection, God has affirmed the new life and unity, the at-one-ment that I have with God. And for now, I guess just knowing it will have to be sufficient.

But sometime soon, I’d really like to feel it.

Happy Easter.

Hearing the Wind

(sermon 3/8/20 – Second Sunday in Lent)

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Photo by Joshua Abner from Pexels

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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The man had heard the stories about Jesus. He’d heard some of his teachings in person, enough to know that he was the real thing – smart beyond what would have been expected from his age and his decidedly common and uneducated background; his insights giving pause to many older and  far more educated religious scholars and leaders. He really wanted to meet this man, to sit and pick his brain, have a one-on-one conversation with him, but he knew that could cause problems. Jesus’ teaching had ruffled a lot of feathers; Roman, religious, and in general among the man’s social circles. It had gotten to the point that being seen around Jesus could hurt the reputation of a good, respectable person. And Nicodemus was certainly that – a respected and educated member of the community, serious about his personal religious faith, involved in his community in any number of ways. If he lived in our time, he’d probably belong to the Rotary Club and volunteer with the Kentucky Derby Festival, and he’d likely be a good solid Presbyterian, or maybe a Methodist. In short, Nicodemus was a good person, someone we’d like, someone we’d probably like to be like – not the clueless hypocrite he’s been painted as in too many bad sermons and essays.

But this good man still had to consider appearances in order to protect his reputation. So he waited until after dark, when most people were at home and behind closed doors, to visit Jesus. And after circling around the block on the opposite side of the street three times, until the coast was clear and there wasn’t anyone else walking by who could spot him, he darted walked across the street and slipped into the doorway where Jesus was staying, and where the two of them had this conversation that’s gone down in history.

Many times, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus have been portrayed as him offering Nicodemus a scornful rebuke, even a mocking of Nicodemus, that Jesus was angry at him. Sometimes, just as it is with a text message or an email, it’s hard to read the actual emotions and intentions behind written words, and maybe Jesus really was in a mood and throwing shade at Nicodemus; I don’t know for sure. But when I read these words, I think of times when I’ve received similar words of confrontation from someone – times when someone has offered me a challenge, getting me to dig deeper into the real meaning of my own words or thoughts; or what was at the root of the way I felt or responded in some situation. In those times, the person offering me that challenge, that confrontation, wasn’t mocking me or angry with me at all – on the contrary, the words were meant to be constructive, coming from a place of mentoring and compassion, trying to get me to see something important to my own development and growth. You’ve probably had similar experiences with someone in your life, too.

I personally think that was more the tone of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus wasn’t telling Nicodemus that he’d missed the boat and was heading in the complete wrong direction. Instead, he seemed to be telling Nicodemus that he’d compartmentalized his religious faith. He was on the right path; he just needed to take it further. He needed to broaden his understanding of that faith, and to let it touch every aspect of his life. It wasn’t something that could be reduced to strictly a personal relationship with God – it was that, to be sure, but it was also so much more than that. And that’s what Jesus was inviting Nicodemus into when he talked about God’s Spirit being like the wind; we can hear it, and feel it on our skin, but we don’t know where it’s come from, and we don’t really know exactly where it’s going. Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to allow himself to hear and feel the Spirit, and to follow where it was trying to lead him, even if he couldn’t tell exactly where and how that was all going to end up. Jesus seemed to be telling Nicodemus that if there were any consequences to following that holy wind, that Spirit – and in all honesty, there probably would, there always is, as Jesus’ own life offers example – that what he would gain, the experience of living this abundant, more fulfilling way of life, more in tune with God and God’s broader desires for all of creation, and for all people, would be far more than anything he lost in the process. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about being born from above, being born in a new way.

I think that’s why this story is one of our Lectionary texts for Lent. We can all benefit from Jesus’ advice to Nicodemus. Like him, I suspect that most of us aren’t really off on a completely wrong path, but sometimes, we might allow ourselves to compartmentalize our faith, to keep it in a comfortable, non-threatening box, not allowing it to shape and inform the totality of our lives, only hearing the comforting parts and rationalizing away the parts that might make us uncomfortable.

Now no one is recommending everyone quitting their jobs and running off to seminary, or selling all their possessions and checking in at the Gethsemane monastery or the Iona Community in Scotland. It’s really more like this: does your religious faith go beyond just knowing what you believe? Is it just one of many branches of your life, restricted to this area over here, with all the other areas of your life being separate unrelated branches; or is your faith at the root, at the core, and everything else springs from it, and is formed and fed by it?

Does your faith shape how you live? How you treat and relate with other people? How you conduct your business affairs?  It’s a big election year; how do Jesus’ words inform your politics? When something Jesus taught contradicts some political thing we’ve always believed, that we were taught on our parents’ knee, which one ultimately guides how you fill out your ballot? Does it shape and inform how you schedule your all-too-precious time? When there’s a time conflict between participating in something related to your faith, and participating some other pursuit or activity, how often does the faith-based thing come in second place? Some of the time? Most of the time?

Lent is a good time for us all to hear Jesus’ gentle but blunt reminder, his invitation to allow ourselves to hear and feel the wind of the Spirit, not be afraid of allowing it to shape us, and of following where it leads. Following that wind leads us to the cross, to be sure, but it also leads us to the resurrection, and beyond, as well. That wind, the Spirit of God, is leading us all into an eternal kind of life; a life that’s more abundant, not less, and each step of the way as we follow that wind, it’s leading us closer to God.

Amen.

The (Supposedly) Greater Good

(sermon 3/1/20 – First Sunday in Lent)

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we started the season of Lent – a forty-day period of time to consider the fragility and the briefness of human life, time for self-reflection and penitence for the times we’ve given in to the temptation to follow our own thoughts and ways instead of God’s. The fact that Lent is forty days long – not counting Sundays – is significant. This number forty shows up over and over again in the scriptures, each time during some time of trial of temptation. Moses and the Israelites wander in the Wilderness for forty years after they left Egypt for the promised land. During that time, Moses climbs Mount Horeb and fasts and waits forty days and nights waiting to experience and hear God, until God gives him the Ten Commandments. Later, the great prophet Elijah goes to Mount Horeb in the Wilderness too, and fasts and waits to experience and hear the voice of God.

And now, on today’s gospel text, we hear that Jesus spends forty days fasting in the Wilderness, too. The parallel, and the purpose of this story here is clear – we’re to understand that just as Moses was the savior of the Israelites in Egypt, and Elijah was their greatest prophet, Jesus is now combined savior and prophet, too; a sort of super-Moses and super-Elijah rolled into one.

As we hear about Jesus’ time in the Wilderness and the temptation he faces, we can see that there’s a similarity in each time Satan tempts Jesus. In each instance, Satan’s temptation is ultimately a temptation to get more quickly, to short-circuit, to the ultimate end, the supposed greater good, in Jesus’ ministry.

You can hear Satan tempting Jesus: Enough of all this reflection time and fasting and navel-gazing – just conjure up some bread from these stones, eat your fill, and get back into town and get on with your real work; stop wasting time here….

You’re going to have difficulty getting people to believe you; you’re going to waste a lot of time convincing people you are who you are, so why don’t you just cut to the chase – show them some big flashy miracle – throw yourself off a tower, and let them see how God protects you; then they’ll believe and you can get on with your teaching….

Look Jesus, we both know what this is all about – your ultimate goal here is to grow your audience, to reach the hearts and minds of the most people, to get more members into the kingdom of God. Do you realize how long that could take? Do you realize how many lives will be lost, how many wars fought, to just try to grow your movement? Really, it can all be so much easier, less blood shed. Just bow down to me, give me your allegiance, and I’ll give you all of them, all the numbers you want, overnight. After that, you can tell them whatever you want. Do these things, and you’ll achieve the greater good. The details aren’t important; the end justifies the means, right?

There are so many times when we all face that same kind of temptation, that the ends justify the means, when in our hearts we really know they don’t. Give a little here, fudge a little there, in order to achieve the goal, to reach the destination that we think God would want. We encounter these kinds of temptations in society. And we encounter them in our own personal lives, too.

She was a middle-aged black woman, a Presbyterian elder, serving on the Session of her church in a moderate-sized Southern city. The congregation was vibrant, but on the smaller side, and like most congregations regardless of size, they really wished they could buck the trends and see some growth. They paid a lot of attention to coming up with strategies focused on getting more members. Her congregation was well known for being relatively progressive, a bit of theological blue surrounded by a sea of theological red. She and the congregation had always been proud to be seen as the standard-bearer in their community for thoughtful, inclusive, compassionate Christian faith.

But now she faced a dilemma. The church was considering doing something that would definitely get the community’s attention. For the sake of our conversation here, it isn’t important specifically what that was, it could have been any number of things, other than to say that it was a bold thing. a courageous thing. A very good, and very gospel thing. But personally, she worried that if they did this thing, many people in the community would be upset. They might face negative consequences. Maybe they’d get some bad press, or at least bad gossip, in the community. Maybe some people would even picket their church. Maybe their property would be vandalized by some ignorant person. Most of all, she worried about how this might affect their hopes for increasing their numbers. Would all this blow up in their faces? Would new people stay away from the church? As a result of all the potential uproar she worried could happen, would even some of their current members leave?

She hated herself for even thinking these things. In her heart, she knew without any question what the church was thinking about doing was really the right thing. On top of that, she was keenly aware of how much she personally benefited, when the church had taken a bold and courageous stand supporting equality for women and equality for people of color in the past, in spite of opposition from many in their community at the time.

But that was then, and this was now, she worried. Don’t we have to be pragmatic about these things? It might sound crass, but if we want to grow, don’t we have to worry about whether we’ll offend some people, and whether what we do will cause a drop in our weekly attendance – and more to the point, in our weekly offering – and how on earth will God’s will ever be achieved if that happened?

And it was when she asked herself that last question that she realized how silly it sounded. And she realized that, as the cliché goes, life – in this case, life in Christ, life as a member of the kingdom of God – is much more about the journey, not the destination. We see in Christ’s life and teaching, and attested to many times in the scriptures, that God seems to be much more concerned about us not giving in to the temptation of not doing what we know to be right, just because we think that doing the right thing will hurt or frustrate God’s ultimate plans.

During this season of Lent, I invite you to ask yourselves – are there places where you can resist that kind of temptation, where you can have that kind of courage in your faith, and in your witness to Christ? And are there places where we as a congregation can do that?

Let’s use this time of Lent to allow ourselves to hear God’s Spirit speaking to our hearts and minds, encouraging us and empowering us just as Jesus was encouraged and empowered in the Wilderness. And let’s let God worry about the consequences that follow from our doing the right things. Because ultimately, God sets the end goal, God determines what the real greater good is, and achieves it, not us – and in fact, that real greater good might be something very different from what we think it is anyway.

Thanks be to God.

Light-Bearers

(sermon 2/9/20)

 

Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

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Just last week, we heard that well-known passage from Micah, with its memorable final summary sentence – what does God require of us, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. It’s a beautiful example of an Old Testament declaration of what’s at the core of the gospel, that the transcendent, eternal God of the universe knows us, and loves us, and wants love for all of us.

But it doesn’t take more than a few seconds after we hear Micah’s beautiful words before we start wondering what it really means. I mean, they’re really pretty vague. What do those words look like in the real world, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?

Today’s text from Isaiah is a tailor-made answer to that question. Here, the prophet lays out a detailed shopping list of things that God considers pleasing – the truest “fast,” as it’s put here, and the truest kind of worship: undoing injustices. Freeing the oppressed. Feeding the hungry. Sheltering the homeless; helping the afflicted.

It would be easy at this point to make this another sermon banging the drum to do more, more, more to help others, and it can become frustrating, and frankly annoying, to get a message that no matter what we do, apparently it doesn’t seem to ever be enough, because here’s this preacher beating us over the head, telling us again that we still need to do more, and making us feel guilty  because we aren’t.

Well, there no doubt are times for a sermon that calls us to consider our lives of faith, and ask ourselves whether we’re doing all we should, in terms of that list of things that Isaiah lays out. Maybe that’s another sermon for another day; maybe next month, or the month after that; I don’t know. But today, I want to go in another direction, because just as there are times to wonder about doing more, there are also times to recognize the good that we are accomplishing in Christ’s name. It’s important to do that, we have to do that, because even though we are doing many good things, and we are really trying to do them with all the sincerity of our hearts, some days, some weeks, months, it just doesn’t seem to make any difference. The injustice, the oppression, the selfishness and lies, the abuses – the darkness – just keeps coming and what we’re doing doesn’t seem to make a dent in the seeming black hole of evil that fills parts of our world. It can feel like we’re banging our heads against a wall, that it’s all a big exercise in futility, and we’re tempted to just throw up our hands and say forget it, I’m not even trying anymore; I quit.

To be sure, and just as with the Micah passage from last week, this passage from Isaiah begins with God criticizing the people for not doing these things. But both that passage and this one concludes  with hope, and this one goes even farther and offers a promise –  and it’s that promise that I want to focus on today.

In the second half of today’s passage, God tells the people that if they did those things, if they lived that way and worked toward those things, their “light shall break forth like the dawn.” Their work isn’t ever in vain, no matter how futile it might seem in the moment. That God would satisfy them in the “parched places” of their lives, and they would be like a “watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.”

Have you ever been swimming somewhere on a hot day – maybe you had a favorite swimming hole when you were younger, or maybe even now; maybe some pond nestled in the woods? Maybe the pond where a little waterfall that pours down into it, and you can get under the waterfall and just let the water flow, just cascade down all over you? Even if you never have, you can probably imagine how refreshing it would be; how in that moment, all your cares washed away and you felt renewed in your very soul. That’s the kind of feeling that God is describing here, promising that our efforts to do those things  would not be in vain. God would notice, and the good that we’d sought – our light – would radiate outward from us and would bring light into the world, into places and people we might never know.

So let’s do that today. Yes, we know that there’s plenty wrong with our world. And yes, we know that we need to continue to work to right injustices, and end oppression, to feed and shelter the needy, to end affliction. But right now, let’s just consider what good we actually are accomplishing. I’d like you to take a moment now. Relax; get comfortable in your seats. Close your eyes, or at least bow your heads; don’t look at me. Take a few deep breaths. … Now I want you to think about the good that you are doing as an expression of your faith in God, your devotion to Christ. Think about the things that you do personally…. or your family does… or that we do as a congregation… … Think about the refugees and immigrants that have been helped… think about the homes that have been built…. think about the at-risk children whose needs have been met, the Christmas presents received…. the food that has been put on countless unknown tables….  the people who have been warmed by clothing and blankets…. the grieving who have been comforted…. the sick who have received medical help…. Realize, and accept, that it isn’t an exaggeration to say that because of you, actual lives have been saved…. ……

…. Now as you think of those things, let yourself feel God’s compassion …. feel God’s love flowing down over you like the waterfall flowing into the pond and bathing you, cleansing you, renewing you…. know that what you’re doing, what we’re doing, is making a difference in ways seen and unseen…. know that God knows, and is pleased with those efforts….. your work is not in vain…. you, and the love that you show, are precious in God’s sight…. feel that this morning…… Let yourself accept the love that God is surrounding you with…. let yourself accept that your light is breaking forth…

OK, you can open your eyes. Of course, nothing’s changed since you closed them. There are still a lot of things wrong in the world, still lots of work to do. But there’s also a lot that has been accomplished in Christ’s name, too. Christ’s light is breaking into the world in countless ways and to countless people – and you are a part of that. You are light-bearers – and God calls that very good.

Thanks be to God.

 

The Trial of the Century

(sermon 2/2/20)

My_Trusty_Gavel
Photo: Brian Turner [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:

Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

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It’s always important to understand the context of any Lectionary text, but maybe it’s even more important when we come around to such a well-known passage as this one from Micah. Its words are familiar, but what exactly was the underlying situation that brought it about? In this case, the mock trial imagery of this passage is the culmination of the first five chapters of the book. There, the prophet Micah is laying out a criticism of Judah and Israel – the two kingdoms that once made up the single, unified kingdom ruled by kings Saul, David, and Solomon, before splitting as a result of squabbles within the royal family and underlying political, social, and religious divisions between the north and south. Micah himself was from the southern kingdom, but he laid out his criticism on both the north and south kingdoms, and their capitals, Jerusalem and Samaria, with equal measure. He takes the leaders and the powerful in both kingdoms to task because they treat the people unjustly. According to Micah, they mistreat women and children. Their greed makes them take away other people’s homes, property, ability to make a living, for their own enrichment. They come up with all kinds of schemes to feather their own nests, and they carry the schemes out with impunity because they have all the power, and there’s no one who has sufficient power or courage to stop them. It’s all about money and power to them. Judges are bribed to render decisions that favor the powerful over the powerless. Religious leaders pervert religion, interpreting it in ways that give approval, and supposedly God’s own sanction and blessing, to the rich and powerful, who give them power and wealth in return. Then, after enriching and empowering themselves at others’ expense, they surround themselves with walls to keep others away, and, as Micah puts it, they call out for “Peace” when their own mouths are full, against those who have nothing to eat.

After laying out these charges against them, Micah warns the kingdoms that they have earned God’s wrath, and that both of them will be brought down; both their capital cities will be destroyed and turned to rubble.

All of that, then, sets up today’s text – this dramatic scene of the “trial of the century,” as it were. Now that Micah has spelled out the charges, God steps in and adds icing on the cake. God asks what is was that God had ever done to them to make them act so horribly. God reminds them of a number times in their history when they were saved by God’s hand, and when God was faithful and fulfilled the covenant made between them.

Despite this, the defendant in the trial – the “mortal”, the person in power who’s being called out – just doesn’t get it. Maybe reinforced in their cluelessness by those religious leaders who twisted religious principles to give them cover for their actions, the mortal is actually indignant at having their actions criticized. They’re the leaders of the people, supposedly God’s chosen ones, so how can what they’re doing be wrong? They deserve to be enriched, because whatever is in their own best interest is in the kingdom’s best interest; what’s good for them is what’s good for the kingdom. As far as God is concerned, all they have to do is meet their weekly religious obligation – take an hour or so each week, make your sacrifice, your offering to appease, to buy off, God, and then get back to business the rest of the week.

And then the mortal falls back on what they’re comfortable with. They see everything as transactional; everything boils down to a simple business deal where everyone, and everything, has its price. So all right, I think you’re being unreasonable, the mortal says to God, but come on, we’re all adults here, we know how this works. What do you want? Thousands of rams, rivers of oil, are you so unreasonable that you’d want me to even give up my own child? Of course not; let’s be reasonable. What do you really want?

You can imagine Micah shaking his head at how clueless the mortal is, and he blurts out, are you an idiot? You just heard what God wants. It really isn’t any kind of sacrifice, large or small, that just gives you cover to continue hurting the people to feed your own greed and selfishness. What does God want? It’s simple: Do justice. Love kindness. Get off your “we’re the greatest” high horse and walk humbly with God.

It’s important to recognize here that Micah is calling out the kings, the rulers of these kingdoms that were kings by virtue of royal bloodline or military force; they were chosen by the people. God is calling these two kingdoms, nations, into judgment – just as we see in Jesus’ depiction of the final judgment in Matthew 25, the “judgment of the nations.” I don’t know how that works, but apparently, in some way we are accountable both as individuals as well as collectively  as nations, and how the nations have acted.

Through Micah, God was passing judgment on kings. But we aren’t ruled by a king. We have a say in who governs over us. We have a say in how the rich and powerful are regulated to prevent abuses; how the government will provide for the needs of the poor, the sick, the foreigner; and how our society will provide social equity and justice for all of its people. So we have an obligation, as an integral part of our faith, to always work in ways that call our government to accountability, to act in ways of justice and kindness and compassion for all people, in ways that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel hadn’t.

At the core of the failures of those two kingdoms, according to God, is that they allowed their own self-centeredness and greed to cause them to forget God’s faithfulness – God’s continuing to provide for them and care for them, as part of the covenant God had made, and never broken, with them. As one example, God reminds of them of what happened when they had crossed “from Shittim to Gilgal.” This is a reference to the Hebrews completing their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and finally crossing over into the promised land – Shittim was the last place they were before crossing over the Jordan River into the promised land on its western shore, at Gilgal. That crossing wasn’t just a physical movement; it was the culmination, the fulfillment of God’s promise; it was the evidence that God was being faithful to the covenant between them. This morning, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper, among other things a remembrance and a recognition that we’re in God’s covenant, too. We can, and do, sometimes forget that, and we don’t always live our lives in ways that recognize and honor that covenant. We recognize that even though God was condemning two kingdoms, two nations, for not acting with compassion and equity for all of God’s people, that same charge from God applies to us all as individuals, too. And as a part of our partaking of this meal, this sacrament, we’re recommitting ourselves to be true to that covenant that we’re living within. So this morning, eat the bread. Drink the wine. Recommit to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. And demand a society that does the same.

Thanks be to God.

 

It’s Love, Simon

(sermon 1/26/20)

Kinnereth - Sea of Galilee (Panorama)

The Sea of Galilee – photo by Zachi Evenor    https://www.flickr.com/photos/zachievenor/12325753455/

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

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It’s a pretty common, and healthy, behavior to want to retreat into a comfortable “safe space” after you’ve been hit with some terrible unsettling experience that’s thrown you off your normal balance. In one way or another, I think we all do it, however we define that safe space for ourselves. At the beginning of today’s gospel text, we see Jesus doing this same thing, after getting word that John the Baptist, his own relative, someone whose life and ministry he knew well, had been arrested and thrown in prison.

Just before this in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had been tempted by Satan in “The Wilderness,” the desolate, barren Judean Desert. We don’t know if the events in today’s text followed that temptation immediately, or if some time had passed, but whatever the case, Jesus was still apparently in Judea or somewhere else far from home when he got the news about John. His response to it was to retreat to familiar territory, in Galilee, for some emotional re-centering. He goes back to his hometown of Nazareth, but he doesn’t stay there long. Matthew doesn’t say why. Maybe Jesus thought that if the authorities had come for John, they’d come for him too, and Nazareth would be an obvious place to look for him. Or maybe the memory of home was better than the reality of home – after all, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ first time teaching in Nazareth upset some of his fellow townsmen so much that they’d tried to kill him. Or maybe he just decided to go from Nazareth to Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee because it is strikingly beautiful, then and now, and whose spirit isn’t recharged, and who doesn’t see things more clearly, after a trip to the shore?

So here was Jesus, walking along the Sea, absorbing the warm of the sun, the feeling and the fresh smell of the breeze, the sound of the waves lapping the shoreline, the seagulls and albatross flying overhead, the voices of fishermen going about their work. Putting ourselves in that same place, it’s easy to imagine Jesus’ concerns melting away.

And as we heard, on this particular walk Jesus encountered four fishermen in particular, all of whom would become important in his ministry. The first one of them, at least in this telling, was Simon – Simon, this random, average fisherman who was just in the right place at the right time, who would eventually become known as Peter, and whose passion, and wisdom, and courage, and flaws, would all work together to shape our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus even now, 2,000 years later.

I can’t imagine what it was that Jesus said, or how he said it, that made these four fishermen decide to just drop everything and follow him. Some people have suggested it was just the overwhelming power of the Holy Spirit that convicted their hearts and convinced them to immediately drop everything and take a completely different path in their lives. Maybe. In my own experience, though, I can say that when I sensed my own call to the ministry, even when I was absolutely convinced about its authenticity, that it had come from God, it still took a lot of time and convincing to actually do it. Maybe these four just really hated fishing, and they were only doing it because it was the family business. Maybe ever since James and John were little children, their father Zebedee would take them down to the shore, show them his three rickety, leaking fishing boats, and the old, worn nets that constantly needed repairing, and the unreliable employees and the backbreaking labor and low pay and the constant smell of dead fish that clung to his skin long after he’d gotten home from work, and he waved his arms over it all and told them “Boys, some day all this will be yours!” Maybe it wasn’t such a hard decision after all.

However it happened, it did happen – and a critical, especially intriguing part of that was Jesus telling them that if they followed him, they’d fish for people. What exactly did that mean, Simon must have wondered to himself. Maybe later that same evening, after they’d spent the whole day speaking with Jesus and learning from him, and they’d all gone to bed, it dawned on Simon that Jesus had fished for him. How did he do it?

Apparently, he hadn’t tried to scare him to death by hanging the threat of eternal damnation and suffering in hell over their heads; he didn’t yell at them that they were lost if they didn’t follow him. Whatever the details of their conversation were, it’s pretty clear that Jesus must have shown Simon and the others an alternative to life as they’d experienced it up to that point. A better way. A way that, in a split second, offered an answer to every one of the countless times they’d looked around at the world and thought to themselves, “The world isn’t supposed to be like this. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. There must be a better way than this.” Whatever he’d said to them, Jesus apparently convinced them that there was.

For the next few years, as they followed and lived with Jesus, he showed them what that better, alternative way of understanding things looked like. This understanding of life wasn’t about power, or wealth, or fame. It wasn’t about just looking out for yourself, or getting ahead or gaining privilege for yourself by pushing other people down or out to the margins. And while life could be hard, and there would always be work to be done, God didn’t expect that to be our whole existence. This way of life that God was calling them into valued work, included resting from work, and activities, and all the busyness; and appreciating beauty, considering the lilies of the field. In the old order of things, strict rules made certain people ineligible to be part of the people of God – but as Simon would travel with Jesus, he saw something new happening. In this new way of understanding God and our world, now persistent Syrophoenician women, despised Samaritans, Ethiopian eunuchs, Gentiles of every kind; sinners, tax collectors, political radicals, religious heretics, weren’t just eligible to be considered God’s people, they were welcomed with open arms.

Why?  Because, as Simon, soon to be Peter, would come to realize, at the core of everything Jesus did, at the core of everything he taught, at the core at the core of this new way of understanding God and ourselves, was love. The fisherman who was told he would fish for people would come to realize that love – loving God, and showing love and compassion to one another regardless of circumstances – which was really just the most authentic way to love God – was at the very core of that. To fish for people, you don’t surround them with a net that they can’t get out of, or try to snag them on a baited hook, or try to force them at all; and you especially don’t try to scare them into this new way. Fishing for people wouldn’t require slick techniques or glossy brochures or massive door-knocking campaigns. That was old world thinking. Already, Simon could see that in this new way, Jesus’ way, all that would be needed would be to surround people with love – enabling them to experience the same love that Jesus showed them, and this same new, better way of understanding God and life that Jesus had intrigued him with earlier that same day.

I guess it would be a fisherman’s dream if they didn’t have to throw out a net at all, or work to haul them up into the boat, but if instead, the fish just jumped into the boat of their own accord. Over time, Simon wouldn’t just gain a new name. He’d eventually come to recognize that if we treated one another in the way Jesus had treated them, and taught them – offering them love, and compassion, and peace, and mercy, there wouldn’t need to be any coercion in fishing for people. Love would make them jump into the boat on their own, just as he’d jumped in himself. But for tonight, this first night of his new journey, Simon was satisfied in just knowing that wherever this was all going to go, it was love that was at the center of it all. That was enough for him in that moment. And with that, he drifted off to sleep.

Thanks be to God.