Being There

(sermon 4/14/19 – Palm Sunday)

palm-sunday

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”

So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.

As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

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So today is the day that Christians around the world remember the amazing event of Jesus’ ride out from Bethany on the Mount of Olives, surrounded by throngs of supporters shouting and singing and dancing, and laying cloaks and branches in the roadway like a red carpet for Jesus, and he and the mass of people entering in through the fortified walls of Jerusalem and into the very heart of the city, into the courts of the Temple in the days before the Passover. This march on Jerusalem is often called Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry,” and most of us have heard enough Palm Sunday sermons to know that there was definitely an aspect of joy and triumph to it. But most of us have also heard enough Palm Sunday sermons to know that this event was also very thoughtfully planned to mock and oppose the local powers of the Roman Empire. That every year during the days leading up to the Passover when the city ballooned to over a million people, the Roman governor and the army would stage a big ceremonial procession through the streets of the city, with fully armored war horses, and carriages, and masses of troops, and music and banners and carriages, all designed as a show of overwhelming power, and a reminder of who was in charge – and that it was OK for all of the little people to observe their quaint, backward religious observance, but if any of them got out of line they were going to get squashed by the superpower who was governing over them. And Jesus’ procession into the city was meant to be the counterimage of all that; Jesus proclaiming the coming of the reign of God; and God’s love and care for the people in the throng over the one on the throne; and that there’s really only one true superpower and it isn’t Caesar.

Given that, while there was real jubilation in this crowd marching in from Bethany, there was also no small amount of trepidation. Worry. Fear. Would they be arrested, mobbed, beaten, killed, for standing up and speaking truth to power? It was the same mixture of emotions felt by the Freedom Riders stepping off the bus to face Bull Connor in Birmingham. Or the mass of people crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the face of armed police, teargas, and attack dogs in Selma. Or the people who had the guts to come out of the closet and go out into the middle of Christopher Street in New York, risking police beatings and arrest to kick off the first Pride parade in 1970.  Or marching to protest the illegal and immoral treatment of refugees and immigrants, and being met by a mass of armed white nationalist radicals. The people in each of those examples, even if some of them wouldn’t have put it in these words, were putting themselves on the line to bring a bit more of God’s justice and peace and equity into our world.

Every year on this Sunday, we need to be reminded of just exactly what Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that day was all about; and that when we all boldly process into the sanctuary singing and waving our palms, we’re recognizing that the very beginnings of our faith are rooted in God’s calling us, and empowering us, to speak truth to power. An essential part of the faith that we proclaim is showing up. Standing up. Being there, in the name of Christ.

“Being there” can manifest itself in a number of ways, all of them just as important, and God might call us to one or more of them. Certainly, the most direct parallel to Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is, as in the examples I offered, when some Christians feel called, as a matter of faith, to stand up for God’s justice “on earth as it is in heaven,” by literally marching, rallying, protesting, praying. But that certainly isn’t the only way of “being there.” Maybe your legs, your body, your schedule, won’t allow for “being there” for the reign of God in that way. That’s OK. Maybe your call to being there  is more like that of the people who volunteer with the group Grannies Respond here in Louisville. When immigration officials at the southern border allow refugees into the country, they just drop them off at the nearest bus station. A national network of groups, including Grannies Respond, will meet these refugees at the bus terminals and help them get the ticket they need, give them advice and directions, provide them with some food and drink and personal care items, maybe a blanket; but just as importantly, to offer them a smile, a warm welcome, and assurance that there are people who care about them. You’ve heard of the Underground Railroad; this network has become known as the Overground Railroad. It’s simple. It’s easy. Anyone *could* do it, but they *are* doing it. And it means everything to the people being helped. It’s taking a stand for God’s justice, and speaking truth to power. It’s showing up. It’s being there.

It’s also being there to be part of our fledgling ride share ministry – getting members to church for worship and other events, or to an appointment, or even to vote. It isn’t complicated or strenuous. All you need is a car, a driver’s license, and a little bit of free time. But it’s so important, and so appreciated.

Being there can be taking a meal to someone who’s mourning a loss, or who’s going through some other stressful time. And it’s being there to tutor or read to a child, or to manage a Little Free Library, or to write a greeting card to a shut-in, or to teach a class or mentor a Confirmand. In these ways and so many others, we’re called by God to be the People of Being There. Being there to proclaim and promote God’s love, and peace, and justice, and equity in this world, and doing it out of gratitude to God, who, through Christ – his life, his teachings, his death and resurrection – was being there, and continues to be there, for us.

The amazing thing about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is that even though it was meant to put the powers that be on notice that something bold and new was breaking into the world, compared to the massive show of force put on by the Romans that same week, they must have looked like a joke. It couldn’t compare. It couldn’t possibly send the message they wanted to. And yet, somehow, by God’s grace it did. It struck fear and worry into the hearts of the civil and religious leadership to see such a bold, in-your-face display of opposition to them – and they knew that for every person in that ragtag march, there were dozens who weren’t there but who felt the same way. In taking to the streets, and boldly proclaiming the reign of God, Jesus and his followers accomplished exactly what he’d set out to.

On that ride out from Bethany and toward Jerusalem as Jesus sat on that donkey, I wonder what he was thinking. Was he caught up in the joy of the moment? Was he feeling resignation and fear over what he knew was going to unfold that week? Could he see beyond that? Could he see all the divisions, the hostility, the hatred and meanness and violence that would be perpetrated in his name across the ages? If he could, I hope that he could also see all the times his followers would stand up, would be there, would speak truth to power, and love to hate. And if he could see that, I hope that he could also see each of us, in our own way, being a part of that.

Thanks be to God.

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Write Your Own Ending

(sermon 3/31/19)

two brothers

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” 

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It almost never seems to fail that if there are two children in a family, they’ll end up being polar opposites. One will be outgoing, the life of the party, while the other one will be shy and introverted. One will be the athlete, and the other will be the academic. One will be technically oriented, while the other will be the artist. One will follow all the rules to a T, and the other will constantly be coming home late after curfew with their underwear in their back pocket. Some of that is probably innate, but I think a lot of it arises out of every child’s need to stake out their own territory as they develop their own sense of self, independent of the people around them. This is true now, and it was just as true in Jesus’ time, and you can see it in play in this parable.

The younger son can’t wait to get away from home – from the family, the farm, the boring town he grew up in. He wants the city, the excitement, the culture, the restaurants. He wants to live the fast life. Meanwhile, his brother was the one who always knew he wanted to stay right where he’d grown up, where he had roots. He was the straight arrow, the quiet, dependable one who never gave his parents any problems and who probably opened a good universal life insurance policy and a 401k on his eighteenth birthday.

Of course, we know what happens. The younger son realizes that living in that faraway place wasn’t quite as glamorous as he’d pictured. It was a tougher, harder place that could chew up and spit out even a more disciplined and cautious person, let alone someone like him, who spent money like it was going out of style. And when he’s at rock bottom, he decides to go home to the judgment and ridicule that undoubtedly faced him there, but it would still be better than his current situation.

But instead of judgment, he discovers the fact that to most parents, a child can’t do anything so bad that the parent could ever reject them or stop loving them. This is something that seems to be so inherent to us as a species. I know that it happens in some instances, but for the life of me, I can’t understand how. Apparently, that’s what the father in this parable thought, too.

In this section of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is being criticized by religious leaders for keeping the wrong kind of company. For hanging out with the wrong crowd. For associating with the kinds of people who their religious rules condemned. People who were supposed to be shunned, not loved and accepted. According to these religious leaders, it was important to take a moral stand against those kinds of people, and here was Jesus doing just the opposite. Jesus’ answer to that criticism was to tell them a couple of parables, this being one of them, in which he teaches them that God doesn’t really give two flips about their rules that would set up people to be rejected. So first he tells a parable about leaving 99 sheep to go find the one lost one. Interestingly, the way he tells that story, Jesus essentially says to them, “Surely, you’d risk leaving the 99 sheep alone, by themselves, to go find the one lost one, wouldn’t you?” while, to be honest, I’m pretty certain that many of his listeners were probably thinking “Actually, no, I wouldn’t risk the 99 to go look for the lost one that doesn’t exactly fit my risk management plan; I’d just write off the lost one as the cost of doing business.”

And then he tells this parable, showing how the father in the story shows love and acceptance for even this son, who by their rules and standards should have been rejected when he returned. That was what the kingdom of God was like, Jesus was telling them. Your legalistic rules designed to create outcasts simply didn’t hold water in God’s eyes.

While there are other ways to understand the parable, the most common way of relating to it is that the father represents God. Through the father’s unconditional love and acceptance of the younger son, we’re told about the gracious way that God loves us – not according to any human rules, even human rules that might seem logical to us, but according to God’s rules. That no matter who we are, or what we’ve done, or what society’s rules have to say about us, God is working based on a different set of rules – and the most important of those rules is that there is nothing – nothing – that can separate us from God’s love and acceptance.

But if that was all Jesus wanted to teach the Pharisees, he could have told this parable with just the father and the younger son; he wouldn’t have needed an older son at all. So why is he in this story? Honestly, I think he’s every bit as important as the younger son in the story. Through him, we see Jesus’ words of assurance, and warning, to the Pharisees. First, the assurance: Don’t fall into this false sense of threat. Just because God loves these other people that you want to reject, God doesn’t love you any less. Love is not a zero-sum game. It’s the message that every parent has to tell their firstborn child when their baby sibling comes along – don’t worry, you don’t have to resent it when I show love to them; there’s enough love for everyone. That, as the father in the parable tells the older son, he was always with him.

But then comes the warning: Be careful when in your self-righteousness, you set up other people to be unworthy of associating with, or loving, or accepting. This is absolutely not God’s way. When you do that, you become the object of God’s disappointment, not them. Don’t allow your understanding of God, and of what you think God would consider right and wrong, to be guided by narrow-minded legalism, but rather, let it always be guided by the rule of love.

That was the lesson that Jesus taught to the Pharisees through the character of the older brother. And it’s the same lesson that some modern-day Pharisees need to hear, too – Modern-day Pharisees who would:

Use their narrow religious beliefs to justify throwing their LGBTQ child out of the house, and into the streets.

Or who, using the same excuse, would fire a beloved, long-term high school guidance counselor because she fell in love and married another woman.

Or who would refuse to help desperate migrants fleeing for their lives just because they crossed our border illegally.

Or anyone, for that matter, who would support any immoral or unjust situation simply on the grounds that it was legal.

That, to me is why Jesus includes both the younger and older brother are in this parable. Through them, they give us glimpses of eternal truth – glimpses of grace, of assurance, and of warning.

At the end of this parable, the father tells the older son not to remain in his state of judgmentalism and anger, but rather, to let go of it, and to come in and join the grand party. But we aren’t ever told if he did or not. It’s the great unanswered question of the parable, and we get to write our own ending to it. So did the older son take the father’s assurance and warning to heart?

And when we find ourselves in the older son’s shoes, will we? We get to write our own ending to our story, too.

Thanks be to God.

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.

*Terms and Conditions (Do Not) Apply

(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.