Gardening Thoughts

(sermon 7/12/20)

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

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This past week, I was sitting outside and starting to work on today’s sermon. It was just that part of the day where our little backyard was baking in direct, 90+ degree sun, so I’d pulled a chair and a little table to prop my feet up on into the only spot that was in shade – the narrow little eight-foot wide side space between our house and the neighbor’s, a spot that we’re slowly transforming from ugly leftover space into a little “magic garden” leading from the front to the back of the house. Sitting there in the nice natural breeze that gets funneled through the space, I noticed where some bird seed had gotten knocked down out of a hanging bird feeder, and it had gotten watched into a tiny crack between the concrete paving and the foundation wall, and the seed had germinated and was growing. After my initial thought of grumbling that it was just another spot to week, and then thinking that at least it would be easy enough since there really wasn’t enough dirt for it to have taken any real root, I realized that maybe I was sitting in a pretty appropriate place to be thinking about this particular parable from Jesus.

When we hear this parable, and Jesus’ explanation of it, we understand that we represent the different kinds of environment and soil. Going beyond that, we then usually imagine the parable illustrates how we, as individuals, should respond to the good news of the kingdom of God that Jesus was proclaiming. Taken that way, the parable becomes an evangelistic plea, a warning, that we’d better be the good soil, so the seed – the Word of God – will develop and grow within us. I guess that’s fair enough, as far as it goes, but I don’t think that’s the only way we can hear the parable, and I really don’t think that’s the primary message Jesus had in mind when he told it.

What I mean by that is this. Jesus calls this the Parable of the Sower, not the Parable of the Soil. In other words, the parable is meant to teach us something about God, not us. In the story, a sower, God, sows the seed – the Word of God, the good news of God’s kingdom – pretty much everywhere – abundantly, extravagantly, you might even say wastefully by today’s precise farming methods, but that’s just the way God wants to do it, and where God wants the seed to go – and God, the sower, does this completely by themselves, without anyone else’s particular help. The seed, the Word, is already everywhere.

And it’s pretty clear that when Jesus described the good soil, it was to show what the kingdom of God could be like – growing strong, with deep roots, and bearing much fruit – when it was able to be understood, and received, and nurtured, without being stopped or hindered by environmental constraints.

But what if Jesus’s point in this parable wasn’t so much to condemn the less-than-ideal soil, but rather, to recognize and acknowledge the realities of that, given the world’s conditions, and to make it clear that actually, *all* of us fit into those circumstances in one way or another – circumstances that make it very hard, or even impossible, to have God’s Word really be understood and accepted, to take root in people’s lives? Maybe this parable is a message to all of us that we need to play the role of a good gardener – collecting up the stones from the soil and getting rid of them, or maybe using them as a decorative element in the garden. Working to enrich and improve the soil, and getting rid of the weeds that would smother out the good seed. Improving the drainage, or whatever else it might take to make the whole garden a better, more receptive place for the seed to take root and grow.

Our world is full of things that make people’s lives hard, and that can make it hard, or even impossible, for God’s Word to take root within us. It’s hard to think about the higher, deeper, more lofty, spiritual things of life when you’re too busy having to work two or three low-paying jobs and still having difficulty paying the rent and the rest of the monthly bills. It’s hard to accept that God’s love for you is immense and unending, that in fact, God *is* love, when you can’t access some life-saving medical care for your child because none of those three jobs offer you health insurance. It’s hard to focus on the idea that God is good, and that Christ is ushering in a new world, when the water coming out of your tap is poisoned with lead and other contaminants, and has been for years and still no one has done anything to fix it. It’s hard to accept that you’re in God’s loving arms, and that goodness triumphs over evil, when you’ve lost multiple family members to gun violence. It’s hard to accept that you really are precious in God’s sight when you can’t sleep at night because you’re stressed out over terrible problems and crisis situations within your family, or within yourself. The examples of the kinds of things in this life that can make it hard or even impossible for all of us, in some way or another, to hear, to understand, and to accept God’s message  – the things in this life that make us unreceptive soil – could go on and on.

So maybe Jesus’ message here isn’t so much a warning for us on an individual basis to be good soil – maybe it isn’t meant to be a criticism, a shaming of us, or a calling out as some moral failing that these constraints exist that keep the seed from taking root, as much as it is a call to compassion – a call for us all to do what it takes for one another – all of us, all kinds of soil – to help one another be a receptive place for God’s good news to be able to take root and flourish.

Maybe Jesus was looking at this parable less from the standpoint of it being a call to personal piety, and more as a call to collective compassion and communal support – and a call for the church, the communal body of Christ, to be involved in that as a primary mission.

And maybe there’s something else, an additional, secondary communal message in this regarding the very nature, the logistics, the workings of the church, too.

There’s no question that now, the church is undergoing real change right now – serious change that’s forced us to think about what’s essential about church and what isn’t. What does the church really need in ordered to be, and do, what it’s supposed to? What traditional aspects of being church might still be essential, but need to be done, need to be nurtured, differently? And what things just might not be relevant or workable or constructive now, as the sun rises on the seed in the Covid era and beyond, that might need to be left behind?

It wasn’t that long ago – just a few months, really – that we had someone who wanted to become a member of the church, but who would have real physical difficulty being present here to join, and we wrestled with how, or whether, we could find a way to set up the technology in order to have them join remotely, online. Now, just a few months later, our worship is entirely virtual, online, and we’ll receive new members virtually without batting an eyelash.

Just those few months ago, we talked about the possibility of maybe doing live-stream worship, and there was question whether it would be worth the trouble or helpful to us at all. Now, we see that it’s an essential aspect of our congregational ministry, and outreach to the community, and it will be long after the Covid lockdown.

In the same way, just a few months ago, we talked about the possibility of maybe having an online giving option, and we wondered if it was necessary. Now, we have it and we know we need it now and into the future.

And just a few months ago, it was hard to consider whether it might be a good idea for our sanctuary space to have more physical flexibility. Now, after going through these Sunday morning live streaming exercises, we know that making the sanctuary more flexible, to be more responsive to actual current and future worship needs; it’s essential  to our ministry to ourselves, and in our outreach to the community at large.

Soil changes.

What used to be a good, fertile environment for the nurture of the Word of God, for the church’s ministry and mission one year, might become depleted, inadequate soil the next. And likewise, what was once considered a place where nothing would grow, and where nothing needed to grow one year, might become the most productive and important soil the next.

Soil changes.

Maybe the good news in this text for us is that this parable isn’t really an altar call, meant to scare us and make us afraid of going to hell if we aren’t somehow perfect, receptive soil; but rather, it’s an assurance that God knows, and through Christ, understands and has experienced the things of this world that make it hard – the things that make it difficult or even impossible for us to hear and accept and thrive in the good news of God’s kingdom; and that no matter what kind of soil we might be, that God, the sower, is still with us.

And maybe the parable is also a call to mutual, communal uplift and compassion, keeping an eye on the amazing possibility of abundant life with the Word of God thriving in every life, in every condition, in every kind of soil.

And maybe that message, the idea of seed taking root differently in different environments, does also have an important secondary message for the church in these times, too; a message of how we need to think about how changing “soil”conditions require us to rethink how we’re trying to live out, and share, God’s good news in the world. I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe I was just sitting there in the magic garden, looking around and thinking too much about all the gardening work I needed to get done. I’ll let you decide.

Thanks be to God.

Dancing to the Tune

sermon 7/5/20

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus said, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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When you’re reading written words, it’s important to try to get underneath them – to get a sense for the actual emotion and intention behind them, to hear the emotional rhythm in the words, to really understand them – whether it’s a text message, an email, a Facebook post, a letter in the mail – and especially when it’s a passage of scripture.

When I try to hear and feel those rhythms in today’s gospel text, in Jesus’ words, it’s pretty clear that he’s upset as these words start out. He’s tired, fed up, frustrated, done with trying to break through to the people he’s talking to, and getting them to understand the kingdom of God. In his frustration, Jesus makes that comment – “We played the flute for you, and you wouldn’t dance; we wailed and you didn’t mourn.” He explains what he means by saying the John the Baptist came, trying to get them to see the truths of the kingdom of God while being stern, and austere, and separating himself out away from the people; and the respected people all discounted his message – saying he was too dour and rigid; his attitude was unconstructive; he needed to lighten up so more people would listen to him. But then Jesus arrived and tried a different approach to get them to open their eyes and understand. He was, for the most part, congenial, pleasant, always mixing with people in the synagogues and streets and weddings and out and about in public, laughing, eating, drinking. And despite what they’d said about John, the respected people rejected Jesus, too – saying he was too loose, not serious enough, too flippant, and his message wasn’t taken seriously because of the disreputable people he hung out with.

And in this passage, I think Jesus had just had it with them, and in a state of exasperation he was saying “there’s just no satisfying you people” – that their rejection of the message of the kingdom of God obviously didn’t have anything to do with the delivery method; they just didn’t want to hear and accept the truth. It was discomforting to them, so they’d found a convenient excuse to justify their rejecting of it.

This being the 4th of July weekend, it’s impossible to not recognize that it was that same sense of frustration that the American colonists felt after trying unsuccessfully to get the English crown to hear their message, their grievances, in a more civil and proper way and having their words ignored, before they changed to different tactics, tarring and feathering tax collectors, dumping barrels of tea into Boston Harbor, and so on, and finally going so far as to declare themselves independent of England, and fighting a war to make it so.

And it’s impossible to have this text to preach on this weekend, in this time, and not think about the parallel between Jesus’ words and those of Dr. King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, as he dealt with criticism of the civil rights movement from a group of local clergymen in that city for moving beyond being polite, beyond playing the flute, as Jesus would have put it, and for moving on to wailing and offering a message harder to ignore like John the Baptist’s.

Of course that parallel applies to our own times, too – with so many of our black and brown siblings calling out for racial justice – being for the most part ignored when they try to be nice and work within the system that was deliberately stacked against them; and being criticized and rejected as going about it the wrong way when they try to get their message across in more discomforting ways, ways harder to ignore The parallel between Jesus’ experience in this story, and the exasperation and condemnation embedded within it, is real.

And it’s impossible to have this text, and this reality, to preach today, Independence Day weekend, and not point out that for all that’s good and noble and to be celebrated about our country, and there’s a lot of it, we still have a long way to go in order to live into the noble words of our founding – and to hear the music and the wailing of large numbers of our people, and to finally achieve racial and other kinds of social justice in our country, as a matter of civil society, and even more importantly for us, as a matter of our faith. It was just that understanding of the faith that led Eugene Carson Blake, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, to go so far as to get arrested while taking part in a protest to try to integrate a segregated amusement park in Baltimore, 57 years ago yesterday, July 4th, and serving as a model for Presbyterian clergy, and Presbyterians in general, who would follow.

Those are big parallels. Important parallels between this gospel text and big social movements past and present. But the truth is, while our lives are shaped by movements, we experience life in the moments – the more personal experiences we all know and go through. And there are important parallels between Jesus’ words and those kinds of moments, too. Those moments when we’re trying to get a message across to someone who just won’t listen; someone who ignores us or dismisses us when we’re trying to be nice and polite, and gets offended when we have to change tactics in order to be heard. Times when we feel voiceless and powerless, like we’re hitting a stone wall with, maybe, some government bureaucrat. Or a hospital billing department. Or a bank, or a retail customer service center. Or even when we’re just trying to convey some important message to a family member, who just keeps rejecting us regardless of how we try to get through to them. It can get tiring. It can become draining and burdensome.

Whenever and however we feel that frustration, that exasperation – and we all have, at some point or another – remember this passage, and the fact that we aren’t alone. This text shows us that Jesus felt this same kind of exasperation. When we experience that frustration, in whatever setting, whenever we’re feeling ignored or rejected we can remember that through Jesus, God knows firsthand what we’re experiencing and feeling, and is standing with us, and for us – for us,  and against the ones ignoring our words, our pleas, our wailing and suffering and burdens, and is with us to give us comfort, and strength, too, in order for us, and anyone, to be able to persevere in getting their message of suffering heard by the ones causing it.

At the end of today’s gospel text, after Jesus blasts the people he’s talking to for their stubbornness and self-centeredness, he goes on to vent his frustration as he prays, criticizing those who were ignoring both John and him, and being grateful that God favors the “infants” the ones who are actually suffering at the hands of the others, and who are actually hearing his message.

And then, finally, you can feel a bit of a shift in Jesus’ mood after his prayer, moving out of anger and into tiredness, and maybe resignation, as he simply says “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, for in me you will find rest.”

So today, reading and reflecting on this passage, I have to ask myself: In my own life, which one of those am I? Am I one of the suffering? Am I one of the ones trying to speak truth, but who are being ignored or rejected? Or am I one of the supposedly “wise and intelligent,” as Jesus described them, or a “white moderate” as Dr. King described the same kind of people his Letter? Or in some way, am I both? And beyond myself, where does our society fit on that spectrum Jesus laid out? And where do we, the church, fit on that same spectrum? And what effect does that have, should that have, for us, a Matthew 25 congregation? For us, as people of the kingdom of God – people who have offered our ultimate loyalty, our lives, not to the king of England, not even to a government in Washington, but to the Prince of Peace – the one who plays the flute, and has invited us to dance to his tune?

Thanks be to God.

Win Some, Lose Some

(sermon 6/28/20)

Offered the morning after the killing of Tyler Gerth in downtown Louisville KY

rembrandt sacrifice of isaac
The Sacrifice of Isaac, Rembrandt, 1635

Genesis 22:1-18

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

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The past few weeks, we’ve heard parts of the story of the life of Abraham. Today, we’ve heard probably the most well-known of those stories, the one of him almost sacrificing his son Isaac, before God stops Abraham from carrying it out.

There’s no question that Abraham was a person of deep faith and trust in God; that comes through in a number of ways in the various stories about his life. But it’s also clear that he was capable of real human failures, as I suggested when we looked at the less-than compassionate way he treated Hagar and his firstborn son, Ishmael. And now we have to consider his actions in today’s story, too.

I mentioned in this week’s email that this particular story has traditionally been interpreted as an illustration of Abraham’s great faith; as one of his most defining, successful moments. But I really don’t buy that. I think the traditional understanding of this story is a load of BS, and it’s led to a lot of harmful theology and ways of thinking about the nature of God.

The very beginning of the story says that God decided to test Abraham’s trust by telling him to do this horrible thing. I’ll say right now that I don’t believe that God actually does this kind of thing – to test people like that, to intentionally put us in situations of trial or temptation, setting people up in horrible or painful situations, just to see if they’ll fail the test. As if God was just bored and decided to jerk people around just for sport. I think that for God to act like that would be evidence of a terrible, abusive, uncaring God; a God unworthy of our praise, our gratitude, and certainly our worship; a God completely at odds with what we’re taught about God through Jesus, and through the overarching totality of the scriptures. In the Presbyterian tradition, we have a several principles to use to try to understand scripture. Three of those principles are: the rule of Christ – is it consistent with what Christ taught? The rule of scripture – is it consistent with the overwhelming witness of scripture? And the rule of love – is it the most loving interpretation? The idea of a God who plays with the lives of human beings like that fails on all three of those counts. So no, I don’t think that God tests people like that.

But whether I do or not, the writer of this story did. They lived in a time, and in a social and religious context, in which people did believe gods acted that way with us puny mortals. So for the sake of understanding this story a bit better, at least for the moment let’s assume that God does test people like that. Even if that’s true, when God tested Abraham by telling him to kill his son, I believe that for Abraham to have passed the test, he wouldn’t have had to say yes, but no. If this was a test of Abraham, it was to see if he would use his God-given critical thinking skills to question what he’d been told. If this was a test of Abraham, it wasn’t one that he passed; it was one that he failed.

We know that Abraham had the backbone to stand up to God when he wanted to. We saw it in the say he stood up to, and haggled with, God in the form of the three travelers that we heard in previous weeks, when Abraham was upset over the idea of the loss of innocent lives. So why was he silent here? Why didn’t he put up more of an argument when more innocent life was at stake and in this case, it was the life of his own beloved son?

I don’t have an answer for that. But whatever the reason, he didn’t. He just blindly trusted in God’s authority and accepted what God said without questioning whether it was right or not. The truth is that when Abraham went through with getting ready to kill Isaac, and God had to step in to stop him just before he did, God wasn’t pleased with Abraham; he was appalled.

Clearly, Abraham was an imperfect, very human, soul. The story of his life shows that when it came to getting things right, his overall record was win some, lose some, and contrary to the traditional interpretations, and contrary to even the intent of the original writer of this story, locked in their own historical context, I think this story is an account of Abraham’s biggest failure.

So it seemed to me as I read this story again this week, that as we hear this story now, in our own context, that there are two particular takeaways for me.

First, we need to understand the great danger, the terrible things that are possible, by uncritically accepting what we’re told, particularly by authority figures, simply accepting the truth or the acceptability or the goodness or rightness of the thing just because of who’s saying it. God has given us, as a terribly important part of our having been created in the divine image, the ability to critically think and to question and not to simply accept what we’re told, automatically taking it at face value. This means that we not only can, but we’re called to, we must, question and challenge what we’re told, regardless of whoever and wherever the information is coming from. This is especially important in our own time. We need to be a concerned with the harm and loss of innocent life as sons and daughters, children, men, and women, continue to be sacrificed in our neighborhoods and on our streets, every bit as much as Abraham was about the loss of innocent lives in Sodom and Gomorrah. We have to critically question the narratives, the explanations we’re offered to explain or justify these sacrifices in our own time. As a matter of our faith, we need to hold up what we’re told and to weigh it against those same three principles mentioned earlier: does the situation, and what we’re being told about it, square with the rule of Christ; the rule of scripture; and most importantly, with the rule of love? Using our critical thinking skills is one of the most important things we can do as people of the kingdom of God.

The second takeaway to me is one of extreme grace, one of good news. Because even though Abraham failed this test miserably, God still remained with Abraham. Provided for him. Blessed him. God kept covenant with him, even in spite of the fact that his faith was imperfect, to put it mildly – just as my own faith, and your own faith, our society’s faith, is less than perfect, too.

To consider just how badly Abraham could screw up, and still be forgiven and not abandoned by God, is a story of the amazing breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy and graciousness – it’s a story that affirms to me that given my own ability to get things wrong, and given my own mediocre record of win some, lose some, I, and you, will also remain within that full breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy and graciousness, just as Abraham did. I consider that the best news ever, and to that, I can only say

Amen.

 

Where Do You Draw the Line?

crowd-of-protesters-holding-signs-and-kneeling-4614141 - pexels - copyright free

(sermon 6/14/20)

Genesis 18:1-8, 16-33

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. …

Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

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In Islam, Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” – people of the holy scriptures, the sacred texts, that were the forerunner to, and that laid the groundwork for, their own sacred texts. It might be even more accurate to call us “People of the Story,” since so many of our sacred texts are actually stories. The power of story is immense. These stories are usually powerful in themselves, and carry important messages in their own, individual rite. But we also need to see that the individual stories are strung together to convey some larger, even more important, message.

That’s certainly the case with the portion of Genesis that today’s scripture readings are part of. Today, we heard two connected stories about Abraham, just two parts of the overall story of his life that point to a larger message being conveyed. In today’s first reading, we hear about three travelers who stop to visit with Abraham. It isn’t really explained in the story exactly how Abraham knows this, but somehow he just knows that he’s being visited by God – maybe it’s God accompanied by two angels, or maybe all three of the travelers are collectively God – maybe an Old Testament precursor to understanding God as Trinity. We don’t really know which is the case, but suffice it to say that somehow, when these travelers arrive Abraham understands he’s in the presence of the divine.

And when they arrive, Abraham extends them great hospitality – he invites them to sit and relax, he brings them water to clean up with, and he asks if they’re hungry – “Oh, let me get you a little snack” he says – and then, he goes to Sarah and tells her to get some flour and bake up something special for the visitors – and apparently, plenty of it; he tells her to get three measures of flour, which is about a five gallon bucket full of flour; more than they could possibly eat.

This degree of how far overboard Abraham goes – almost to cartoonish levels – is intentional, and important. It’s meant to drive home how important it is, and to what lengths we should go, to show hospitality to, and to offer help and support to, others who are in need. Part of the message of this story is to teach us that we need to think in terms of this kind of extravagance when considering people’s needs, and to have this level of care and compassion for others. We need to think beyond just helping to fulfill a person’s basic, minimal needs, and to make sure that, as much as it’s within our ability to do so, to care for them and to help meet their needs abundantly.

But the story continues. After Abraham and the three travelers have eaten this feast, they’re sitting in the shade of a tree, letting the meal settle in. Maybe God’s sucking on a toothpick and offers a polite little belch of contentment as they’re relaxing and enjoying the beautiful day.  But as they’re getting ready to get back on the road, there’s something on God’s mind, something disturbing the contentedness of the moment. And finally, God comes clean and tells Abraham the purpose of their travels. They’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah, and they’re going to destroy the cities because of their evil and their unrighteousness. That’s all that we’re told here; God doesn’t offer any more detail about what that unrighteousness is – but we get clarification from the prophet Ezekiel, in the 16th chapter of his Book, when he explains that the “sin of Sodom” was that they were arrogant, full of self-pride; they were overfed, taking up more than their fair share of things, and they were unconcerned with the needs and suffering of others. They didn’t help the poor and needy. In other words, their attitude was the exact opposite of the extravagant consideration that Abraham had just extended to the travelers, and that point was meant to be seen by readers of this story.

And as you heard, when God tells Abraham what’s about to happen, Abraham is perplexed. Upset. Surely, he’s been to these two nearby cities many times. His brother Lot and his family live there, and he surely knew others who lived there, too. And he knows that they aren’t all bad – there are some good people there, too, at least in Abraham’s estimation, and so he has the audacity to enter into a bargaining session with God. Surely, you wouldn’t destroy the whole city if it meant killing, say, fifty innocent people as “collateral damage” in the process, would you? And God says No, I wouldn’t kill fifty innocent people. And Abraham presses his case: “You wouldn’t permit the unjust killing of forty-five people in your larger pursuit of justice, would you? And God say No, not forty-five, either. Well then, Abraham says, how about forty innocent lives? Would you consider that an unfortunate but unavoidable trade-off to achieve your bigger plans? And again, God say no, not forty. And it went on and on, all the way down to ten, when God says that even if the rest of the two cities deserved destruction, still, God wouldn’t go through with the plan if even as few as ten righteous, innocent people would be killed in the process.

Among other things, this story is an expansion on the issue of where God’s mind is with regard to extending consideration, and hospitality, to people.

In our lives, so much of our existence deals with trade-offs. Grey areas. Compromises, choosing the lesser of two evils. Living on this side of the gates of Eden means we’ll always end up having to deal in those kinds of compromises. We end up drawing lines of acceptable death somewhere all the time. When a bridge is built, it’s assumed that, say, two construction workers will get killed during the work. But the bridge still gets built; the legal and insurance costs related to that are just factored into the cost of construction. It’s the same with skyscrapers, and on and on all the way down to the most mundane of our consumer items. Sometimes, we’re conscious of the trade-off, and other times we aren’t, but whether we are or not, we’re still drawing those lines in our choices.

Of course, right now, as a society we’re caught up in two different questions of compromise – two different kinds of the calculus of death”: first, considering what number of people who will die as a result of reopening our economy and resuming large gatherings in the midst of the ongoing pandemic would be an acceptable trade-off for the sake of the economy and getting back to normal – normal, at least, if you aren’t one of the dead ones. And second, in a situation maybe more directly  like the Abraham/God bargaining session, how many deaths of innocent people are an acceptable trade-off in the pursuit of justice, in this case, the pursuit of having a safe community by way of policing – and again, “safe” assuming you aren’t one of the innocent ones who gets killed.

So where do we draw the line?

Wherever we draw it, I suspect that God would want us to draw it in a different place. I think it’s pretty clear that when it comes to where we “People of the Book,” we “People of the Story” have currently drawn those lines, the God who we profess faith in – the God who calls us to exhibit the same extravagant compassion and hospitality as Abraham; the God who would destroy entire cities for not extending that kind of compassion and hospitality to people; the God who nonetheless would call off those plans for destruction if it would result in the death of as few as ten innocent people – that God would be disappointed, even appalled, where our current society has drawn its lines.

It’s so hard to know what to think, she thought to herself as she sat in her kitchen. All those protestors yelling and chanting and blocking the streets, and certainly there had been some violence and vandalism, and that was terrible. But still, the protestors had a point, and it just turns your stomach to see the videos of those people being killed by police officers. Police officers! What in the world is going on in this world? Police officers are supposed to protect and serve, and why all of these terrible killings? Lord knows the police have a difficult and dangerous job. Like that nice young man whose family had moved into the neighborhood this past year. Dan was his name; he’s a police officer. He and his family had actually started going to the same church as she did, and she’d had a chance to get to know him as she spoke with him there a number of times. He was a nice man, a friendly man – a good man. And he was definitely having a hard time right now, working long hours as all the protests went on, every day, all day, and every night.

Just then, her oven timer beeped. She went over to the oven and pulled out the cookies she’d been baking. After they’d cooled a bit, she carefully stacked them in a plastic container, and on a piece of tape on the lid she neatly wrote the name of Dan, the police officer. Inside, she’d written a note that said “You have a difficult and dangerous job. I hope that as you carry out your important work, you’ll  do it with care and compassion for the people you are trying to protect. May you have a blessed and safe day.” That should be a nice gesture, she thought. I hope he’ll appreciate it, and it will give him a little boost, and let him know he’s appreciated.

As she thought about having gotten to know Dan at church, she also thought about Simone, a young African-American woman who went to the same church. Simone had grown up in the church, actually; she was baptized there as an infant and had been there ever since, through all the years. The woman had known and loved Simone almost since the day she was born. Now, Simone was a young woman in her twenties, and now she was one of the protestors, out in the street every day demanding justice for the innocent people who have been killed by police – victims of individuals, to be sure, but even more importantly, victims of an entire policing system that was inherently plagued by systemic racism. In fact, Simone’s own 14-year old cousin was an innocent victim of one of those killings.

It’s just so hard to know what to think, she thought. Yes, there are many good police officers out there – people like Dan – but there are many who aren’t too, way too many who aren’t, and the policing system is obviously terribly flawed. She didn’t have all the answers to how to fix things, , but still, she knew that the current situation had to change – this just isn’t right. Too many innocent people are being killed.

Just then, the oven timer beeped again, and she pulled more cookies out of the oven. These went into a container, too – this one with Simone’s name on it. And inside, she’d written a note: “You’ve suffered terribly, and for way too long. This situation is wrong and has to change. I hope that you can achieve that. May you have a blessed and safe day.”

And so may we all.

Amen.

The Eighth Day

(sermon 6/7/20 – Trinity Sunday)

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Lectionary texts: Matthew 28:11-16    Genesis 1:1-2:4a

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So today is Trinity Sunday, and because of that, we hear scriptures that point in some way to this understanding of God being triune yet still one; this way of understanding God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was a way conceived of in the first few centuries of the church in order to try to synthesize all the various things that the church fathers understood about God through the life of Jesus, and the scriptures, and their own experience. It was an attempt at coming up with a way of understanding the totality of God that encompassed all of that. So today, we heard this short text from Matthew where Jesus is quoted as referring to baptizing in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – even though, to be honest, many if not most biblical scholars now feel that this was a later addition to the original text, made by well-intentioned scribes after the doctrine of the Trinity had been fleshed out.

And we hear also hear today’s first reading. Why is this text – the first account of creation, found at the beginning of Genesis, a reading for Trinity Sunday? Well, I suppose because in this, the first of two different creations accounts in Genesis, God is referred to by the Hebrew word “Elohim.” In the second creation account, the Hebrew word used to refer to God is YHWH, but in this first account, it’s Elohim. Elohim is actually a plural noun, literally meaning “gods,” or translated in other places in the scriptures, “angels” or others of the heavenly host. So throughout this account, the Creator is somehow a plural Creator, and of course in this story we hear that beautiful “Let us create humankind in our image…” giving support to the idea of understanding the divine One in some kind of underlying plural way, understanding God as somehow a unitary plural,  that provides some undergirding for imagining God as Trinity.

Even though this is Trinity Sunday, I’m not going to dwell much more today on the concept or the doctrine. I’m not going to try to explain it or come up with analogies to show what the Trinity is like, because every single one of them that people have come up with over the last two thousand years fails. As well intentioned as they are, and as much as they might get right, they end up getting at least as much wrong, sliding into any one of countless heresies that orthodox Christianity says the Trinity is not. Three leaf clover, ice/water/gas, God being a single actor playing three different roles in a play, every single one that’s been thought of ends up falling short. So I’m not going to spend any more time trying to get into the details of the Trinity, other than to say that it was the best way the early church fathers came up with as they tried to describe and explain and categorize a God who is indescribable, inexplicable, and impossible to categorize.

Don’t misunderstand me. I still believe firmly in the nature and attributes of God that the Trinity tries to pull together into one comprehensive, “theory-of-everything” concept. And of course, we’ll continue to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit; and we’ll recite the Apostles’ Creed outlining believing in the Father, Son, and Spirit, and mean it all. But I just believe that when it comes to the Trinity, it’s more valuable to consider what the implications of this somehow unitary, somehow plural divine Being might be.

And I think one of those things to consider springs out of this creation story that we heard today.  In this story, we follow along through the six allegorical days, the six movements of the divine symphony of creation. We hear about the creation of the cosmos, and of the earth, and then all of the plant and animal life on earth, and finally, of human beings ourselves, and we’re told that we were created in the very image of the divine Creator. All of us, in our seemingly infinite diversity and variety, all of us being a reflection of the totality of the divine image, which itself also points in an important way toward that unitary/plural concept of God. And then, after those six days, those six movements, we follow along through God’s seventh day, the seventh movement, maybe the John Cage 4’33” movement of creation – the time of Sabbath.

Some people think that it all stopped there. But the story doesn’t tell us that God quit; that creation was all over at that point. On the contrary, Sabbath is a time of rest, a time of  renewal, of being refreshed, in preparation of something yet to come. And what was yet to come in this case was the “eighth day”, the eighth movement, of creation. It’s scientific fact that creation is continuing. All across the galaxy and beyond, throughout the universe, new stars, new planets, are continuing to be created, gases cooling and condensing and giving cosmic birth of whole new worlds. And on a smaller scale, here on earth, creation continues here, too. Yes, on this eight day, God continues to create, but now not alone – now, we’re part of the picture. God created us in God’s own image, including the creative impulse, and has called us to be co-creators.

Back in my undergraduate architecture days, my favorite professor was Arthur K. Anderson. I had Art for several different classes. He was a truly, genuinely good person. He was a gifted architect, a gifted academic. He truly cared about his students, and it showed. One of the things that Art would do, as a class would start, whether it was a design studio or a more traditional classroom, he’d convene the class, drawing us together, rubbing his hands together like this, probably without even consciously thinking about it, and with a big inviting smile and an almost conspiratorial look on his face, he’d say, not literally but in so many words, What great things are we going to do today? What are we going to create today? Every so often even now, I’ll be in a similar setting, and I’ll catch myself rubbing my hands together just like he used to do, and I’ll laugh thinking about that kind of unconscious tribute that I was offering to him even all these years later.

So in this eighth day, in that same spirit, what shall we create? It’s pretty clear just thinking of these most immediate times, we’re creating new ways of understanding the church, and how it lives out its purpose. It also seems that in this eighth day, we have an opportunity to create new ways of being a society, more just and equitable ways; ways more consistent with valuing all human life as being precious in the eyes of God, and all deserving of equity and justice. I pray that we don’t lose the opportunity that we have in this moment to achieve that new creation; I’m hopeful that we won’t lose it.

We also realize that every morning, every day, God is creating something new in us, ourselves. Through the very nature of our creation, we have the opportunity and the ability, with God’s help, to create, and re-create, our own personal ways of living as a person of God; keeping the good, erasing the bad and recreating new, better replacements for the bad.

So on this Trinity Sunday, as you think about the truly inexplicable nature of this unitary, plural God who is the source of all love, and mercy, and justice, and compassion, I invite you to look in the mirror and ask yourself: What will I create today?

Amen.

 

 

Hearing in Tongues

(sermon 5/31/20 – Pentecost Sunday)

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Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

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Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

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It’s often helpful when hearing a passage of scripture to place ourselves within the story that’s unfolding – and not just doing that once, experiencing the story from just one vantage point, but to move around within it – imagining the story and thinking about the different ways that different people in the story would experience it from their vantage point. What were they seeing in that moment; what were they hearing; what were they even smelling? What were they feeling/ how did they understand what was playing out in front of them?

When we hear this familiar passage from Acts – the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus’ disciples and their going out into the street proclaiming the gospel, speaking its words of prophetic truth in all the languages of the people of the city and all the religious pilgrims who had come there from countless different places – I suspect that most of the time, we hear the story, and imagine it, through the eyes of the disciples. I suspect it’s normal for us to first see ourselves in this story as the ones doing the speaking.

But what if we changed that? What if we changed places? What if we experienced this story from the vantage point of the people who were out in the street, and who were hearing the message from the disciples? There they were, hearing this message from people they didn’t know, people different from them, and even though they were speaking a familiar language, the message they were offering was a discomforting one. One that they didn’t necessarily want to hear. One said they needed to repent and turn away from their current ways.

It isn’t always easy to hear challenging, prophetic words like the ones spoken by the disciples that day; in fact, it usually isn’t. And it’s even harder when those prophetic voices are coming from people who are different from us, and who are conveying their message in a way that we wouldn’t normally expect. We saw that in today’s first reading, from the Book of Numbers, when Moses’ hand-picked 70 elders, the select leadership of the Israelites, had gathered, and the Holy Spirit descended upon them as it had on MOses himself, and as it did on Jesus’ disciples, and the seventy all started to prophesy. But then, two others began to prophesy, too – Eldad and Medad, two men who weren’t part of the leadership, the inner circle – they were just part of the common folk, out in the midst of the people, began to prophesy, and some in the leaders didn’t like it and wanted them to stop. But Moses said no – that the Holy Spirit will move wherever it will, and will speak through whomever it will, and when they speak, they should be listened to.

Today, on this Pentecost Sunday in the year 2020, I have to think that we’re in the midst of a similar moment. A moment where important, prophetic words are being spoken by people who are different from most of us, and they’re conveying their message in ways different from what we might typically prefer. They’re speaking words of truth that can sometimes be discomforting, and that can stretch us into places that might sometimes be hard to accept.

A big part of the Pentecost story is the part about the disciples speaking in tongues. But this Pentecost, I think that we white people should be less concerned with speaking in tongues, and more concerned with hearing in tongues. Truly prophetic words are coming to us in the past weeks from members of the black community, who are feeling pain. Hurt. Grief, frustration, anger, and yes, rage, and all of it is absolutely justified. We all have hearts; most of us feel those same emotions over the recent tragic news stories about the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and others. But in a sense, we can’t really feel those emotions in the same depth, in the same way that they can, not fully anyway, because not only are they feeling those base emotions, they’re experiencing them through the lens, the filter, of the more than 400 years of abuse and injustice that they’ve endured on this continent at the hands of white people and white power structures – a 400-year history of injustice that Mayor Fisher very properly referred to in his press conference yesterday morning.

The blunt prophetic words coming from black mouths now and landing harshly on white ears are telling us that our governmental and social systems are broken. They have utterly failed people of color. They’re structured in a way that creates privilege for whites and injustices for people of color, and that makes true racial equity impossible. Right now, people are going out into the streets here in Louisville, and Minneapolis, and Atlanta, and countless other cities, speaking words every bit as prophetic and true as the ones spoken by Jesus’ disciples when they went out into the streets of Jerusalem on that day of Pentecost. These prophetic voices of our black brothers and sisters, like the voices of Eldad and Medad, and like the voices of Jesus’ disciples, can’t be ignored. We dare not ignore them. They are demanding – and through them, the Holy Spirit is demanding – that these things have to change. Racism is sin, and the structures in our society that perpetuate racial injustice is just as much sin. As a matter of our faith – as a matter of our hearing and responding to the moving of the Holy Spirit through all of those demanding change now – we have to stand in solidarity with them, and walk alongside them, and work together with them, to dismantle racism and racist structures in our society.

And as we hear those voices, we can’t allow acts of vandalism and property damage, which is virtually inevitable in times of frustration and rage, to distract us from our commitment to anti-racism. As bad as vandalism is, there is no equivalency in it; there is no negating the more life-threatening injustice going on. I heard one store owner whose windows were broken downtown being interviewed. He was saddened by the damage to his store, but still, in a show of support for the protestors and their cause, he said, “my window can be replaced; Breonna Taylor can’t.” To be blunt, if we allow ourselves to get more upset, more enraged, more drawn to action by vandalism than we get over the unjust killing of human beings, we need to be asking ourselves some very serious questions.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that violence is not the answer, that rioting is not the answer, but that still, a riot is “the language of the unheard” – meaning that while violence and vandalism is wrong in the abstract, when pushed beyond a certain threshold, a certain intolerable point of injustice and powerlessness, it is an all but inevitable and understandable reaction from anyone, whoever they are. So the real solution to the problem of people rioting, of engaging in the “language of the unheard,” is to actually *hear* them, and to actually do something about the injustices and powerlessness they face. This time, in the name of Jesus, and literally, for the love of God, let’s really hear them, and working together, and with God’s help, let’s fix this ungodly, unjust, and evil situation.

Amen.

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.