Sermon Archive

(Going to start migrating my past sermons here. I’m bringing these over from various other online locations, and in the cutting and pasting, there are some text formatting issues that I’ll eventually clean up, but right now, just getting the raw text here is my priority. This is gonna take a while…)

 An opening note about gender-neutrality when discussing God:

I ascribe to a gender-neutral understanding of God, and I try as much as possible to avoid gender-specific pronouns when referring to God. Most times, it’s possible to structure what you want to say about God in ways that eliminate the need for such pronouns. But there are some instances where no matter what you do, there’s no good way to avoid using an occasional gender-specific personal pronoun. So on rare occasion, I’ll use one. I don’t do it often, or lightly, because I firmly believe it does a disservice to our understanding of the fullness of God, but I also recognize the limits of our language, and that in the end, no human language or cognitive abilities can completely comprehend God, anyway.

As you read through these sermons, you’ll encounter some places where God is called “He,” and probably in a few more places than I’d like. Before writing me off as a sexist, theologically stunted person, realize that I am not only a preacher, but I’m also a pastor, called to be pastoral to a specific group of people, in a specific context, and on a specific point in the theological spectrum. Specifically, most of the sermons you’ll read here were delivered to a very traditional, conservative, rural congregation. Being pastoral in that setting means stretching them wherever that stretching is needed, but in that stretching, understanding and respecting where they are spiritually and contextually, and not stretching them to the breaking point, where all future attempts at stretching will be rejected. I stretch my congregation to expand the understanding and living of their faith in many ways. That includes usually being gender-neutral when talking about God, in addition to other things. But if I twist myself into pretzels using phrasing that’s more concerned about not using a pronoun than it is about conveying something about God in relation to people’s lives, then I’m going to lose the people listening to me. Just as my own personal theology has been, and continues to be, an evolutionary process, so is everyone else’s. If I don’t respect that, then while I might have phrased something in a way that’s acceptable to a seminary’s policy on inclusion and divine gender-neutrality, I may very well have failed as an actual pastor, guiding people in that lifelong spiritual evolution.

So as you read these sermons, keep that in mind. You’ll probably see more “he”s referring to God than I might personally like – and this is more true with the older sermons – but there was a method and a purpose for them, and I think the purpose was a noble one.

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The Samaritan and the Raspberry Slurpee
July 14, 2013
Luke 10:25-37Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”=====

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I’m sure we’ve all seen the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” any number of times. So you know that the story revolves around the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man, accused of raping a young white woman named Mayella Ewell, in a small, racist town in Mississippi in the 1930s. There’s a scene in the movie during the trial where Tom has testified that he went into Mayella’s yard at her request, to take care of some chores for her. The great actor William Windom plays the cocky, racist prosecuting attorney, and while cross examining Tom he asked why he did that. Tom simply answered that it looked like she was overwhelmed with work, and he felt sorry for her. As soon as he said that, the attorney realizes he’s just been handed a gift on a silver platter. He spins around with a look on his face that’s a combination of shock and disgust and he asks, “You felt sorry for her?!” In that time, and place, and culture, it was impossible to even imagine any black person in a position of superiority, where they could feel sorry for any white person. It just wasn’t natural. It was offensive to even think that any black person would be so uppity as to imagine themselves in a position to look down on a white.

That’s much the same way the Jewish people of Jesus’ time felt about Samaritans. They were scorned, despised, looked down on. They were ethnic and religious half-breeds. Culturally, they were the Jew’s natural, perpetual, despised underclass. So it would have been very jarring to the people gathered around Jesus listening to him tell this story, when he makes a Samaritan the hero of the story. Even more shocking, the Samaritan comes off better than even two separate good religious men of God. When the lawyer testing Jesus answers Jesus’ question that the scriptures teach that in order to inherit eternal life, a person is to love God, and to love their neighbor as they love themselves. Jesus congratulates him on this answer, but the lawyer immediately wants to add qualifiers to that answer. He points out to Jesus that while that sounds good in theory, in the real world that’s too simplistic to work. Surely there are limits; surely we have to set some realistic boundaries on who we’re supposed to love in the same way we love ourselves. We have to draw some lines somewhere. So just who are we supposed to consider our neighbor? Just from within our own experience, we can appreciate where the lawyer was coming from.

So to clear the matter up, Jesus weaves this amazing story, where a man was traveling on a journey on a particularly treacherous route – the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was a notoriously dangerous road, with lots of crime, and was especially hazardous to anyone making the trip alone. And somewhere along the way, the man’s ambushed by a gang; he’s robbed, stripped, beaten, and left for dead along the roadway. But wait! Along comes a good guy to the rescue – a fine, upstanding temple priest. But he doesn’t do anything to help the man. To the people listening to Jesus’ story, it would have been like Atticus Finch coming along and ignoring him. And the next man to come along was a Levite, maybe like a local pastor, but he doesn’t do anything to help the man, either. But then along comes this Samaritan – this shiftless, good-for-nothing trash that all good society looked down on. And it’s him who actually had compassion on the man – he felt sorry for him. Jesus’ audience would have been just as shocked and repulsed at the outrageous thought that any Samaritan would be in a position of superiority to “feel sorry” for a good Israelite, as the jury in the movie were shocked to think of Tom Robinson feeling sorry for Mayella Ewell.

How would Jesus tell this story today? I suppose it would depend on his audience, just as it did back then. Today, maybe he’s tell a story about Pat Robertson driving through a rough neighborhood on his way to a taping of “The 700 Club” when his car breaks down, and it’s only then that he discovers his cell phone’s dead and he left his wallet in his other pants. And after any number of cars blow by him, afraid to stop in that neighborhood, a car stops. And out of the car jumps some flamboyant drag queen in high heels and pink ostrich feathers and booze on his breath and more makeup than Tammy Faye Bakker. And he tells Robertson to hop in the car, and they take off down the road while Lady Gaga blasts on the stereo. And the man takes Robertson to the nearest 7-Eleven and buys him a raspberry Slurpee, and lets him use his cell phone to call for help. And then he sits there with Robertson, telling him stupid, corny jokes until he gets Robertson to laugh, while they wait for the truck from AAA. Who was Robertson’s neighbor? Who was he to love as he loves himself?

Or, depending on who he was talking to, maybe he’d tell a story about some bleeding-heart radical liberal feminist with Birkenstock sandals and a butch haircut who’d just left her Code Pink meeting and was on her way to the weekly candlelight vigil and Kum Ba Yah-fest to meditate on world peace, when she’s mugged and stabbed several times. Several of her fellow Code Pink-ers saw her crumpled body lying in the grass along the roadside, but they figured it was just another homeless junkie, and it was a shame, but really, what can you do? But finally, a car comes to a screeching halt, and who hops out of the car to help but Rush Limbaugh? A big cloud of Cuban cigar smoke billows out of the Mercedes when he opens the door. He goes over to her and wipes her face off with a hand towel he took out of his golf bag, and he tears strips of cloth off of his French-cuffed dress shirt to try to bandage her up. Then he carries her to his car, and he folds up his suit jacket to make a pillow for her, and her blood’s getting all over the leather seats as he drives her to the emergency room. And the next morning, he stops by the hospital to visit her, and to bring her flowers and candy, and to tell her stupid and corny jokes until he gets her to laugh. Who was the woman’s neighbor? Who was she to love as she loves herself?

We can see this story through the eyes of the Samaritan, and get the moral lesson that we’re supposed to take care of others in need. And we can see the story through the eyes of the beaten man, and get the moral lesson that we’re supposed to love all people, and that we can see Christ, even those who are radically, drastically different from ourselves. And we can see it through the eyes of the religious leaders who came along, and get the moral lesson that we should always be on guard against thinking too highly of ourselves and avoiding hypocrisy. All of those are good, valid ways to think of the story. But I think there’s another way to see it, too. It’s a question I have, actually: is Jesus himself the Samaritan in the story? Is that another way we’re supposed to see and understand this story?

Are we supposed to see that he’s the one who truly helps us? That’s he’s really our true neighbor. It’s him, the outsider, the scandalous troublemaker from Nazareth who had impure genealogy and who ran foul of the established religious authorities, who sees as we really are, and who accepts us and helps us and sides with us against the whole world and against all conventional wisdom and against all logic. And he doesn’t just pray for us and wish us well and go on his way. He’s the one who does all the dirty, messy work with us, and who pays the price for healing us and making us whole. He’s the one who is so at one with God that he can promise us that everything really is going to be okay, and it really will be.

This is our good news – our great news. The news that we are really, truly helped and saved by Christ, and that he shows us, in his own life, what true love and compassion really is. And it’s through our faith in him that we’re given the ability to see that this is the same kind of love and compassion to extend to the rest of the world. The lawyer was wrong – there are no lines to be drawn, and Christ’s life shows us that. He doesn’t draw any boundary lines with his love for us, and because of that, we can love others without drawing any boundaries, either. It’s Christ behind every act of radical, unconditional, no-boundaries love in this world – even when his face is sometimes hidden behind a mask that looks like a filthy half-breed Samaritan. Or a flashy drag queen. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or Boo Radley, hiding behind the bedroom door in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Or you. Or me.

Thanks be to God.


Humble Soles/Humble Souls

June 16, 2013

Luke 7:36 – 8:3

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

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He’d heard about this Jesus, this wandering rabbi. People had been talking about him and his incredible, insightful teachings about the kingdom of God. They’d told stories about miracles he’d supposedly performed. So when Jesus and his band of disciples came through this town, Simon was determined to check this teacher out for himself. Simon was a Pharisee, a respectable man of faith, respected in the local synagogue and community. He apparently had some social standing. So he found a way to invite Jesus to dinner with him.

And as we heard, during the course of this dinner gathering, there was a bit of a scene. A woman from the city – a sinner of some sort, the story doesn’t elaborate – but someone who definitely wasn’t on the list of approved guests, someone who was definitely the wrong kind of people for decent, respectable company – crashed the party. But where most party crashers would try to keep a low profile and not be noticed, this woman did the exact opposite. She was very visible. She was very in your face, embarrassingly so. Apparently out of love and devotion to Jesus, and out of gratitude for his words and his presence, she was gushing – literally. She was crying, loudly and profusely, and kneeling down at Jesus’ feet, wiping his feet clean with her tears and drying them with her own hair, and rubbing them with ointment.

It must have been an incredibly awkward scene, one that was off-putting to Simon and the rest of the dinner guests. The nerve of it all, Simon must have thought, that she’d barge in here and make such a scene, and in my own house, no less. And in the midst of this socially inappropriate display, Simon thought to himself that this Jesus must not really be a prophet of God, because if he was, he would have recognized what kind of woman this was, and he’d have chased her out of the house. Of course, that isn’t what Jesus did. Instead, he told Simon that the woman’s embarrassing actions were actually an appropriate way for her to respond, based on her feeling of just how deep God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness of her was.

Just earlier this year, there was another foot-washing incident that generated a lot of discussion. On Maundy Thursday, Pope Francis rocked the world of Roman Catholic traditionalists. It’s long been a tradition in the church to symbolically reenact the scene of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet during the Last Supper. Of course, many Protestants also have foot-washing services on Maundy Thursday. It’s an important tradition within the faith because Jesus used it to teach us that if we are truly his followers, we’re to humble ourselves in love and compassion and service to others, just as he humbled himself that evening. Reenacting it is a reminder to Christians of this core understanding of what it really means to be a follower of Jesus.

What was so shocking about the Pope’s actions this year was that he broke all kinds of traditions and church law in the way he chose to do it. Traditionally, this observance has been done inside the Vatican, full of pomp and ceremony and formality and tradition. And by church law, the only people to get their feet washed by the Pope would be men – specifically, a small group of twelve priests, hand-selected for the honor of having the Pope wash their feet. But this year, the Pope left all that tradition behind, and he went to a nearby prison for juvenile offenders. There, he washed the feet of twelve teen-aged prisoners. Ten were male. Two were female. Some were gypsies, a despised and heavily persecuted minority in Europe. Some were North African immigrants, a group almost as despised as the gypsies. One was Eastern Orthodox. Two were Muslim. All of them were outcasts, convicted of various sins against society – drug crimes, theft, assault, prostitution, and the like.

And in this most humble and socially unacceptable of settings, and as someone sang a simple song of praise to guitar accompaniment, the Pope, in a simple white cassock, knelt down at the feet of each one of these prisoners. And as each teen cautiously held out their feet, Francis held them, and poured water over them, and gently patted them dry with a towel. And then, the leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics around the world leaned down even further, and even more humbly, and kissed each foot, one of them covered with tattoos.

If you’ve ever been part of a foot-washing service, you know that it can be an embarrassingly humbling experience, whether you’re the one doing the washing, or the one receiving it. But that was Jesus’ whole point in holding it up as an example to us of how we’re to live as his followers. We’re supposed to love and care and look out for others even at the expense of our own feelings of comfort, and certainly at the expense of any feelings of superiority. It’s meant to remind us, just as the woman in Simon’s house understood, of the full depth of God’s mercy that’s been poured over us, and how undeserving we are of that kind of love and mercy.

That kind of reminder of how humble, how giving and accommodating we’re called to be to others, is always going to be somewhat discomforting and awkward for us. I don’t know, maybe it’s worse for us Presbyterians, who always take pride in doing things “decently and in order,” when so often Jesus and his disciples did things that the supposedly respectable people considered indecent and disorderly. But the really wonderful thing about living our faith in that kind of humble, and humbling, way – the way we saw in the woman washing Jesus’ feet, and that we saw in Francis washing the prisoner’s feet, and both of them essentially saying hang what other people think – the wonderful thing is that when we allow ourselves to have that same attitude, we end up not only being Christ to others, but we open ourselves up; we allow ourselves to see Christ in them. To learn from them. It becomes a two-way street, just as God intended, and as a result, our faith, and our experience of Christ’s love and acceptance in our own lives, is felt even more deeply.

We don’t know what happened to the woman who crashed Simon’s dinner party. And we don’t know if Simon learned anything from Jesus’ point about the gratitude that will naturally flow out of our recognizing how deeply we’ve been loved and accepted by God. What we do know is that we are forgiven, and loved, and accepted by God just as deeply as she was. All that’s left for each of us is to always reflect on how that plays out in our own lives, as we touch the lives of others.

Thanks be to God.


Healing

June 9, 2013

1 Kings 17:8-24

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

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Luke 7:11-17

Soon afterwards Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

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There’s been a lot of mention in the news this past week about the tragic story of a ten-year old girl with advanced Cystic Fibrosis, who’s in urgent need of a lung transplant and who probably won’t survive more than a couple more weeks without one. The problem here is that while there was a lung potentially available, it was an adult lung, suitable for a recipient 12-years old and up, not a ten-year old. Unfortunately, lungs are organs that need to be age-appropriate in order for there to be a reasonable hope that the person’s body will accept the new organ. And the girl’s dilemma caused an outpouring of well-intentioned pleas to grant an exception to the organ donation process, bending the criteria to try to save her by allowing her to receive the adult lung, in the hopes that her body wouldn’t reject it.

In the back and forth of the debate about this, the little girl has been exploited shamelessly by political partisans on both the left and the right, as they use her as a pawn in the ongoing debate about healthcare delivery in the United States, and the proper role of government in that process. But beneath that political angle, there’s still the reality of the story itself. There’s just so much agony in the story, all the way around. The agony of the organ donor’s family, who’s just lost some loved one undoubtedly in some tragic, unexpected way. The agony of the adult waiting for a lung, who would receive the lung if the little girl didn’t – and just imagine if they knew that they’d be receiving the lung might mean a beautiful little girl might die because they received it and not her. The agony of the people who have to prioritize who gets available organs – trying to weigh all the best medical knowledge available, and probabilities, and a host of legal, moral, and ethical dilemmas and contradictions; knowing that whatever they decide, it’s likely that someone is going to live, and someone is going to die based on their decision. And of course, the agony of the little girl herself and her parents. as she edges closer and closer to death, and with some kind of hope, however dim, seemingly so close.

There are all sorts of pain in this life. But I don’t know if there’s any kind of pain worse than seeing your own child dying in front of you. When an older person dies peacefully, surrounded by loving family and friends, sometimes we console ourselves by saying they died a “good death.” But no matter what the specific details, I don’t think there’s any kind of “good death” when it comes to watching your own child die.

Our two scripture readings today deal with two cases of a parent experiencing the death of their children. In each of these cases, the parent was a widow, and the child was the widow’s only son. That makes the stories doubly tragic, since in the culture of the time, in both the Old Testament and New Testament stories, there really wasn’t any way for a widow to support herself. And there wasn’t any Social Security, no pension plans, no 401(k)s. A widow’s only real hope for survival was to be taken care of by her sons. And in both of these cases, these women were suffering, both from the los of a beloved child, as well as their means of survival. In a society controlled by men, where even women with husbands or children to care for them were held in low regard, widows were considered even lower. Without any means of support, they could only become beggars. Scorned, resented freeloaders, thought as well of as most people think of some panhandler with a cardboard sign hanging out on an exit ramp. They were considered the lowest of the low of society. That’s why we find so many commands in the scriptures to care for widows – the lowest, most despised people in the society.

Well fortunately for these two widows, their children were resuscitated through miraculous healings, one by the prophet Elijah and the other by Jesus himself. But as we all know, these kinds of miracles – whether for ancient Semitic youth or modern American ones – are awfully few and far between.

These stories from scripture deal with healings. Most of us are a bit uncomfortable thinking about healing. When we do, we tend to have images of faith-healing TV preachers with tacky suits and mile-high hair, funny voices and even funnier theatrics, and we’re probably embarrassed that these quacks are often what non-Christians think of when they imagine what Christians are like.

But despite that bad image, we *are* a faith that believes in miracles. That while God has established a universe of rule and order, regulated by scientific processes and principles, God still reserves the right to act in the world in rare occasions in ways that defy those rules, or at least our understanding of those rules. There’s that “sovereignty of God” thing again, that we talked about last week. I can tell you that during those late nights working at the hospital, I found myself in the middle of patients’ medical reversals and survivals – even resuscitations – that the doctors and nurses, let alone the chaplain, could only call miraculous healings.

Usually, though, when we talk about God healing people, we tend to over-focus on the physical aspect of healing. One of those late nights at the hospital, I got thrown out of a patient’s room by large family of the woman, who was dying. They wanted me to lead them in a prayer asking for a complete physical healing for the woman, and thanking God and “claiming” the healing for the woman as if it were a done deal – that all we had to do was pray, strongly enough, and believe hard enough and with a pure enough heart, and God would heal the person. I tried to gently explain to them that I didn’t believe that was really how God worked, and that praying that way might only give them false hope and make their grief worse, adding a crisis of faith on top of their loss. The family literally pushed me out of the room, calling me a false prophet and saying that my lack of faith and negative mojo would doom their prayers to fail. So I respectfully left them alone, and I listened to them gather around the woman’s bed, praying to God and claiming their healing and thanking God for it. And I came back, to take care of the paperwork when the patient died about an hour later. And I told the family then that we need to remember that not all healings are physical – that sometimes, God heals people who are so sick and in such pain, by allowing them to put down their physical burdens and allowing them to enter into their eternal reward, in God’s very presence.

That unhealthy over-focus on just the physical kind of healing can rob us of understanding its broader nature – the physical, emotional, spiritual healing that God wants for all of us, and that we desire so deeply. To be healed of the brokenness, the emptiness, the disconnectedness and incompleteness that so many of us feel in our lives. To be really, truly, fully human as God designed us for and as God wants us to be. We carry around these burdens in our lives like heavy suitcases, all of us in one way or another, at one time or another. Suitcases full of wounds that haven’t, and won’t heal, that rob us of being our whole selves, at peace with God, with others, with ourselves. Suitcases filled with hurts, grudges, scars from past and present battles and setbacks and struggles in our lives. Spiritual and emotional aches and pains that we cling onto tightly because in the clinging there might be pain and no healing, but at least there’s familiarity. Letting go of the suitcase, letting go of the illusion of being in control of our own lives, leads to uncertainty, but it leads to real healing. Asking God to take control again – asking God to give us rest from our burdens and to heal hardened hearts and broken hearts and broken spirits. That’s the fuller story of God’s healing. Truthfully, that’s the whole message of the gospel. That’s Christ dwelling within us, healing us from the inside out, That healing of hearts and spirit is actually more important than the “big-picture” kinds of healings like the ones in today’s scripture readings. This is the “little-picture” kind of healing that’s actually just as miraculous, and far more accessible to all of us, and that makes it not so little-picture after all.

These Lectionary passages about healing come at a good time for us. We just decided this past week that four times per year – during our “Fifth Sunday musical worship services – that we’re also going to include a Service of Wholeness and Healing, which will include special prayers, and laying on of hands and anointing with oil for anyone who feels a need for renewal, and wholeness, and healing of whatever type, in their lives. Our first one will be the last Sunday of this month, so it’s a good thing to read these two stories of healing, and to think about their meaning, and the whole idea of the larger, broader, comprehensive healing that God wants for us, and offers to us through our faith in Christ.

We don’t know if the ten-year old girl will get her healing, one brought about not by an ancient holy man but by the miracle of modern medicine. The odds for her survival don’t look very good, even if she gets the lung from the adult donor. We can, and should, pray for her. And we should pray for the adult who might get the lung. And for the family of the person who died, making the lung available to begin with. And for all the people in the organ donation process who have to make these agonizing and imperfect life-and-death decisions, every day. There are suitcases, there are whole steamer trunks, full of brokenness, and pain, and death, and second-guessing and regrets, all through this story and countless other ones just like it, that call out for our prayers for healing for all those involved, whatever that healing looks like.

Thanks be to God.


The Surprising Centurion

June 2, 2013

Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

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They’re a threat. Their whole culture is dangerous. There isn’t any distinction between their religion and their civil government; it’s all one system; a package deal. And that package is geared to spread their culture, their religion, their ideology all around the world – peacefully if possible, but by force if need be. They impose their system and their beliefs on every culture they come up against. Oh, sure, you can continue to keep your own religion if you want, but you can’t try to get anyone to convert from their religion to yours. Under their political/religious system, you can keep your own religion and culture as long as you pay them tribute, a tax, and you have to accept your second-class status in their society. And you have to go along with their way, or they’ll impose their own version of legal justice on you, maybe even kill you for violating that law. They’re all a dangerous threat to our way of life.

Sound familiar? You don’t have to go very far, or read very much, or hear much talk radio, to find those thoughts being expressed these days about Muslims, lumping all of them – about a third of the population of the world – into one big, scary basket as if they’re all radical terrorists. It isn’t true, of course; these comments are based on a flawed understanding of the religion and the Qur’an. The argument follows a logic as ridiculous as claiming that all Christians are dangerous because the members of the Ku Klux Klan claim to be Christians.

Well regardless of whether these claims are true of Muslims today, it’s historical fact that every single one of those statements was true regarding the ancient Roman Empire – the conquering, occupying force that imposed its own culture and religion on ancient Palestine. Granting them all limited, second-class status in their own country, demanding a tribute tax in return for allowing them to continue practicing their own religion and keeping at least some limited amount of their own cultural standards and freedoms. And if you didn’t go along with them, if you were a troublemaker, they would punish you, even kill you in the most gruesome of ways – crucifying you, allowing your bloodied body to hang on a cross while you screamed and begged for mercy as you died a slow, painful death; on display out along the roadside for everyone to watch as a lesson to learn from – the first-century equivalent of posting your death on youTube.

Those were the Romans. That’s what the Jews were enduring, day after day, year after year. At the time of this story in Luke, Jesus was about thirty years old, and he’d lived under that occupation, that oppression, that threat, every single day of his life. He had every reason to hate, and to fight against, the Romans. That was what the Roman centurion was part of. He was part of the military force, the muscle that kept the Jews in their place. He was part of a system that was so hated that there was a group of Jews – the Zealots; we’ve heard of them before – who were calling for armed, violent resistance against the Romans. They were stockpiling weapons, and looking forward to eventually instigating a glorious, decisive battle against the Romans, pushing them out of the land in order to defend the Jewish way of life. To them, the only good Roman was a dead one.

But here was something that just didn’t add up. Here was this centurion – a symbol of all that was wrong in the life of the Jews, but he didn’t fit the stereotype. He was a good man. A respected man. A man who had so much goodwill and respect for the Jews that he’d come up with the money to built their synagogue for them, clear title, mortgage-free. And the local Jewish people liked him; they were more than willing to stand up for him and speak on his behalf to Jesus when the centurion was in need of help. It was a first-century example of interfaith, multicultural cooperation.

And honestly, who knew what Jesus’ reaction would be? He’d endured the Romans just as much as anyone else. He had every reason to hate them, and their system. To lump them all together as worthy of scorn. Jesus could have just told them, and the centurion, to take a hike. Why should he care when this oppressor all of a sudden found himself on the other side of the equation, now being the one who was suffering? Serves him right. Right?

Both Luke and Matthew tell this story, with just a few minor differences. In both of them, whenever the centurion talks about this sick person in his household, he uses a particular word to describe him. There is a word that just means servant or slave. In fact, the centurion uses that word in this conversation when he’s just talking about slaves in general. But the word that he uses to talk about this person is different. It has added meaning; it carries much more personal weight. This word was also used to refer to one’s own children, or some other equally close and beloved member of the family or household. This sick person wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill house servant. Clearly, whatever their relationship, the centurion cared very deeply for this person – he had to, in order for him to reach across the considerable religious and cultural barriers, and to humble himself by asking for Jesus to heal this man.

This is truly an amazing story, all the way around. No one in it acts the way you’d expect or predict. Not Jesus, who’d lived a lifetime of persecution from the Romans. Not the Jews who were willing to stand up for this Roman occupier. Not the centurion himself, who places his own reputation and authority on the line by placing so much trust in this wandering Jewish teacher and miracle-worker – especially since by this time, rumors about him are already circulating – word is starting to spread that he might be the Messiah, who would rout the Romans. He might be a king. Jesus was already a potential enemy of the state – he was already on the imperial Terrorist Watch List. It is an amazing story; even Jesus himself in amazed by it, and it’s in that amazement that Jesus does, in fact, heal the person.

It’s interesting that in the story, even the centurion himself realizes that morally, he’s a mixed bag. He’s simultaneously oppressor and sufferer; both occupier and benefactor of the people. You see this recognition on his part when he sends out a second group of friends to stop Jesus before he reaches the house, claiming that he isn’t worthy to have Jesus enter his house, cross over his threshold, even to meet him face to face in Luke’s version of the story. But he trusts that all Jesus has to do is say the word, right where he was, and the man would be healed. It’s also interesting that neither here in Luke, nor in Matthew’s version of the story, do we ever hear, or even get a hint, that the centurion ended up becoming a disciple or follower of Jesus. Did the centurion experience some conversion moment, where he accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior? Did he give up his position as a centurion and step away from his role as an enforcer of the occupation? We aren’t told. That just doesn’t appear to be an important point to either gospel writer. Those details make this story a bit murky. It makes it hard to tell who’s really acceptable or unacceptable – who’s an insider, and who’s an outsider, in God’s estimation.

This is what we mean in the church when we talk about the “sovereignty of God.” It’s God acting in ways of his own choosing, in the lives of people of his own choosing, in order to achieve his ultimate will, and not dependent upon our take on things or our understanding of those ways. It also goes to the issue of what we mean when we talk about the “visible Church” and the “invisible Church.” The visible Church being the church that we see; the physical, institutional church – and until the end of the age, the visible Church will be a mixture of believers and non-believers, whose identities are known only to God. And then, there’s the invisible Church – the true Church, the real, full body of the people of God; who are found both inside and outside the visible Church, and whose identities are known only to God and not to us.

This story about the centurion and the Jews who stood up for him has a lot to say to us, in our world today – a world that we’ve torn every which way into different factions and divisions, and that’s filled with hatred, mistrust, intolerance; a desire to stereotype and lump people together into groups that we can consider all uniformly bad or good, superior or inferior, across religious, cultural, political, or other differences. Every time we catch ourselves slipping into the desire to do that, we should go back and re-read this story about Jesus, the surprising Jews, and the surprising centurion, who do the “God thing” and not the world’s “conventional wisdom” thing. Reading the story very carefully for what’s in it, and for what isn’t – and remembering that, as we try to understand how we’re to relate to one another, only God knows who’s part of the true, invisible, Church – and that, as Jesus himself points out in this story, God reveals truth to us in many different places, often even in people we would consider outsiders.

Learning that lesson, and acting on it, is the challenge in the story for us. That’s our homework. But the real message of grace, the real good news for us in the story is that when each of us really examines our own lives, in depth, we realize that we’re all just as much a moral mixed bag as the centurion – and still, we receive God’s grace just as he did. Just like the centurion, we might very well say that we aren’t worthy for Christ to cross our threshold – and honestly, we’d be right. But Christ goes ahead and crosses over it anyway, and dwells within us. With Christ dwelling within us, we have new life. We have hope. We have healing. We don’t have to worry if we’re good enough, or pure enough, or worthy enough, to be accepted by God. To have Christ dwell within us. We say we’re not worthy; Christ smiles and says “Yeah, I know, I’m coming in anyway.” In this new life, we have the assurance that no matter what comes our way, good or bad, even death itself, we’re never, ever alone. That’s really an amazing, wonderful thing. If we really take that to heart, if we let the joy of that reality bloom in our hearts, if we live out our lives in accordance with Christ’s teachings in gratitude for that great new life, then this world – with all of its broken and evil systems, ideologies, and prejudices; with its sinful self-interests and hatreds – this world would consider us – Jesus’ followers – the most dangerous people of all.

Thanks be to God.


Trinity – So What?

May 24, 2013

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” – John 16:12-15

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Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. – Romans 5:1-5

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I was watching an episode of the British TV series “Doctor Who” the other day, which, if you’ve never seen it, is about a good, helpful alien – the Doctor – who travels through space and time, helping earth and countless other planets and civilizations do battle with all sorts of evil aliens and mayhem. In this episode, it was all about a future version of humanity coming back in time to modern-day earth, and trying to kill off all the current humans in order to take over the planet Earth.

The story line was a variation of one that pretty much every science fiction show ends up dealing with if it’s on the air long enough. It’s what some people have called “grandfather paradox:” if you traveled back in time and killed your grandfather, how would you have ever been born at all? But if you’d never been born, then you could never have gone back in time and killed him, so you *would* have been born, and then you *would* have ended up killing him, but you couldn’t have, because… well, you get the picture.

That story line deals with one kind of a paradox – something that simultaneously makes two contradictory claims, so it couldn’t logically be true, but yet, somehow, it is true. In another way, we all deal with a paradox when we try to understand the Trinity. This is Trinity Sunday in the church year, when we observe this way of trying to understand something about the nature of God. The idea that God has always been three distinct Persons or Identities – Father, Son, and Spirit – making up one Being called God. Each of those Persons, according to Trinitarian thought, are distinct and identifiable, but are nevertheless still completely engaged with the others in a way that they’re inseparable and the same just as much as they are different. So, for example, you really can’t say that God the Father is a “part” of God who was the Creator of the universe, and the Son is the “part” of God who entered the world in the flesh in Jesus and redeemed the world, and the Spirit is the “part” of God that now sustains us; and that each of these parts has done these things independently of the others. We can’t say that – even though, in reality, we often do – because, according to the idea of the Trinity, the three Persons are so intertwined while also so separate, that to say the work of one is the work of all. In other words, we might just as easily say that it was the work of the Holy Spirit, or God the Father, who redeems us, as to say that it was the work of the Son. Or that the Son or the Holy Spirit is the Creator of the universe, as much as the Father was. But yet, while they’re that much the same, they’re still separate.

You won’t find the word Trinity anywhere in the scriptures to describe how God is one, but you do find places in the scriptures – like the two passages we read today – where all three, Father, Son, and Spirit make appearances, and which are all in various places in the scriptures called divine. So if, as the Scriptures say repeatedly, God is “one,” then there has to be some way for this “one” to be able to also simultaneously be “three,” and vice versa. The early church fathers tried to sort it all out, and to be honest, the best they could come up with was to say, “Based on what Jesus and the rest of the scriptures say about it, God is simultaneously three and one. We can’t really explain it any further than that, but there it is anyway. And in trying to explain it, anything that stresses the threeness over the oneness; or anything that stresses the oneness over the threeness, is heresy.” The early church fathers used better sounding language than that, but in essence, that’s what their words mean. And since any sort of analogy you can try to make to explain what the Trinity is like ends up emphasizing either the threeness or the oneness over the other, any analogy ends up falling flat.

Now that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any value in trying to understand the Trinity, and especially how the three Persons of the Trinity relate to one another, and to us. Theologians have thought about it, and written about it, for two thousand years, and they’re still going strong. But at the end of the day, trying to really get a full handle on the nature of God’s existence is still going to be a mystery. And I’m not going to say I understand it – I don’t – and I’m certainly not going to stand here and pretend that I do, and that I can make it all perfectly clear for all of you in this sermon, or in a hundred sermons.

So instead of trying to do that, I want to think about what might be the more important question for us: So what? Why is the Trinity important to us? What does it matter to me when I crawl out of bed every morning?

I think that both Jesus and Paul explain that in the two passages we read today. It’s important to us because not only have we been reconciled to God through Christ, but through the Holy Spirit, God remains with us, in us, every single day. Giving us hope, a kind of hope that really isn’t possible from the world itself. Through the Spirit, God dwelling within us allows us to have the hope – have the knowledge – that this world is not all there is. That all of its troubles and cynicism and materialism are not the final word. The hope that we have, as a result of the work of God – Father, Son, and Spirit – within us means that we can find strength, and meaning, even in the midst of having to deal with a parent’s long, slow decline into the hell of Alzheimer’s. Or a child’s seemingly impossible bout with inoperable cancer, before he’s barely had a chance at life. Or trying to find a way to live through a loved one’s mental illness that makes her a hazard to herself and others. The Trinity is important to us because it confirms to us that God, by way of the Holy Spirit, is present in the midst of all those personal battles. And that just as God showed oneness with us by way of his own suffering on the cross, and because God understands our suffering, God gives us strength, and endurance in the midst of it. And gives us hope, because through God, we know that all this is not the final word. It is not the final arbiter of what’s right or wrong, or what’s true, or what’s important, or ultimately, what wins. Ultimately, God wins, and because God wins, we win, in the sense that what is now wrong will ultimately be made right – not just as good as things should have been, but better than they were to begin with. That’s God’s promise to us. That’s the hope that we can have – that, in fact, we already have – dwelling within us through the Holy Spirit.

So we don’t fully understand the Trinity. We can’t fully understand the Trinity. But we can know that some way, somehow, God is, in fact, some kind of three-in-one, one-in-three, and that that’s the best possible way to be in relationship with us – constantly and simultaneously creating, redeeming, and sustaining us, giving us hope, and not just hope for a better future some time way off in a future that only Doctor Who could arrive at, but even a better today, in the midst of our own struggles, because we can know that God – the God of the cross – understands, and stands with us through it all. And that’s more important than understanding the Trinity, anyway.

Thanks be to God.


Boundaries

May 12, 2013

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

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Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

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This past week, on May 8, the nation of Israel celebrated “Jerusalem Day – the anniversary of the day that Israel reset its boundaries and took control of both the Israeli and Palestinian sections of the Old City of Jerusalem, during the Six Day War of 1967. The day is meant to observe the “reunification” of Jerusalem, even though based on the reality of things on the ground, the only way you could really call Jerusalem “unified” is if we were living in some parallel universe where up was down, black was white, day was night.

The very next day, May 9th, the Christian world observed Ascension Day in the Christian year. That’s the day, always 40 days after Easter Sunday, that the scriptures tell us Jesus ascended from the earth and returned to the presence of God the Father in heaven. Luke tells us that this happened in Bethany, just a couple of miles outside of the Old City of Jerusalem. There’s a little chapel built in Bethany, originally going back to the early 300s AD, built over the spot where Christians have traditionally said was the place where Jesus was standing when he ascended. It isn’t very big or impressive; it’s a fairly simple, squat, bullet-shaped building. And inside the building, in the middle of the floor, is the very rock that Jesus was supposedly standing on – and that just as Jesus’ foot lifted off the rock, the cosmic, supernatural power of the moment left an indentation in the rock, in the very shape of Jesus’ foot.

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That’s a picture of it overhead. And I suppose it does look like the shape of a person’s foot. From a distance. If you squint. And it’s dark.

The idea behind that stone is weird. But honestly, so is the whole story of the ascension. I’m sorry, but it is. I mean really, just stop and think about it; a person just sort of levitating up into the clouds, and space. And just how far up does he go? Was he peeking at the disciples from behind a cloud just a few thousand feet above them, or did he just keep on going, floating out somewhere past the Horsehead Nebula or something? Or did he just magically pop into the fourth, or fifth, or tenth dimension, out of sight? And where is he now? After all, Jesus isn’t just some ethereal, spiritual being; he has a physical body. That was made clear in the resurrection. So where is he?

Luke tells this story – twice, in fact, as we heard this morning – for a reason. He’s trying to teach a point, to put forward something important to his readers. So what is that point here? On the surface, it seems like the point is Jesus’ sending the disciples outward to proclaim the gospel to all the world. That shows up in both versions of the story Luke writes. But Jesus makes the same point in Matthew’s gospel without any mention or need of a story of the ascension at all. So why is the ascension so important to Luke that he even includes it twice? And beside why it might be important to Luke, what does it matter to us?

I think it’s important for the symbolism of it. It’s important specifically because it is weird – because we can’t really grasp, or understand, or explain it. It’s an event that drives home to us that puts Jesus, and God, outside of our ability to completely quantify or limit or define within our own simple boundaries. It’s a solid reminder for us that God, and God’s truth, transcends even beyond our understanding of time and space.

That’s important, because all through salvation history, we humans have always tried to define God’s time and space and salvation within our boundaries and limits. In ancient times, Judaism believed that it held the lock on God, that it defined the boundaries that God worked within. Jesus and Christianity challenged that, pushing those boundaries outward, proclaiming the gospel beyond Israel, proclaiming that God was bigger than that. In order to do that, Paul, and Peter, and others, had to fight with the other disciples, who wanted to limit what God was doing to remain within Israel. And to the best of their abilities at the time, the early church got that. But then, over time, they calcified their beliefs in a similar way, as the center of the western faith eventually settled in Rome, and became Roman Catholicism, rigidly structured and formalized, and all of a sudden the limits and boundaries that God was supposedly working in became *that* space, and no other. Then we Protestants came along and shook things up for a bit, extending those boundaries yet again. But it wasn’t long before we repeated the error, and we set up “God’s space” as Western European Protestant Christianity. And then, for the past couple centuries, it’s been American Protestant Christianity. But despite all our efforts, God keeps confusing and confounding us, moving our understanding of God’s boundaries further and further outward. Today, it isn’t here in the US, but the big, booming areas in the faith are all the places that we thought were the backwaters, the places inferior to us, the places that we sent missionaries to. Now, the churches in those places – Africa, and South America, and Asia – are often bigger than the home denominations in Europe and the US that originally planted them. Now, we’re the backwater – and those mission plants are actually sending missionaries to *us.*

What God is doing is bigger than us. As part of that, God keeps moving the boundaries of time, and space, and salvation history, and the church. And the ascension is our reminder of that fact.

But this message of the ascension isn’t just important in terms of the whole sweep of history of the church. It’s important to each one of us, too, personally. Because each of us can mistakenly set limits and boundaries on God, and how God works within us, in our own personal lives. Sometimes, we want to allow God access to one part of our lives, our thoughts, our emotions, but hold out other areas as not being part of God’s domain. We’ll line out parts of ourselves as areas where God doesn’t have a voice, or isn’t the Lord of. The truth is, we all do that to some extent or another, and in different areas of our lives or another. We might have fenced off our attitudes about how we conduct our business. Or how we treat our enemies. Or our sexual morality. Or how we spend our money. We all set up these fences, these boundaries, trying to keep God in a comfortable place, a manageable, controllable, limited place in our lives. But the reality is that Jesus is constantly popping out of that fourth dimension, or wherever he went during the ascension, and telling us, “No, when you say I’m Lord, that means I’m Lord of all of you, not just part of you.”

So Luke’s message to us in the ascension story is that Jesus is indeed Lord, transcending even time and space – and because of that, we’re to proclaim the gospel, further and further outward – but also, further and further inward. The really great thing for us – part of the great mystery of our faith, that mystery that the ascension shows us – is that even though it can be hard for us to open up more and more of our lives, our selves, to Christ’s Lordship and control, whenever we do, and we open the doors into new areas of ourselves, we discover that Jesus, the Time Lord, the Space Lord, is already there, waiting for us. And when we do, we open ourselves to greater peace, and more abundant life.

Thanks be to God.


My Peace I Give to You

May 5, 2013

John 14:23-29

Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.

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This morning, just like every Sunday, we pass the peace of Christ among ourselves. I lead into it by saying, “May the peace of Christ be with you…” And you all respond by saying “…And also with you.” This is a very ancient greeting and response; it goes back to the very earliest days of the faith. And it’s a very common thing to hear in the more liturgical traditions of Christianity – Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian, and the “Mainline” Protestant denominations like us Presbyterians, Lutherans, and a handful of others. We say it so often in worship that we hardly even think about it, or what it really means. Some smart alek has said that you can always spot the liturgical Christians in a group watching a “Star Wars” movie, because whenever someone says “May the Force be with you,” they all blurt out, “And also with you.”

But it isn’t just hollow ritual. As we heard in this passage from John, the continuation of Jesus’ farewell to his disciples the night before his arrest, Christ really does want us to live in peace, and to wish, and to work for, others to know that peace, too. Because we’re in Christ, we’re supposed to have his peace within us.

That’s the theory, anyway. But we all know that the reality is something very different. All too often, we aren’t living with that peace. We’re struggling within ourselves, enduring all kinds of anything but peace. Being torn apart over personal problems and tragedies. Relationship problems. Money problems. Health problems. Worry about the future. Guilt over the past. Beating up ourselves, or others, about what coulda shoulda woulda been. And beyond ourselves, it’s clear that there’s very little real peace in the lives of the rest of the world’s 7 billion people, either.

But still, in the face of all that contrary evidence, Jesus says he gives us his peace. So how are we supposed to understand that? How are we supposed to accept that, given all the very real problems and turmoil that we all face, every day, in our lives?

Well, maybe peace isn’t what we typically think it is. We generally think that peace is the absence of trouble or conflict. But it seems like the kind of peace Jesus is talking about isn’t that absence of trouble, but rather, a way of living within it. Peace is a condition within our souls, regardless of the external situation.

And according to this passage, Jesus has given us the ability to know that kind of peace, no matter what those externals are, by granting us the indwelling of both himself and God the Father, through the Holy Spirit within us. It’s the Holy Spirit within us that we feel any time we’re feeling drawn to God, or to want that peace in our hearts, and to want to work toward it. It’s the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that dwelled within the first disciples, and within every Christian worldwide, and across all time and culture – that’s within us and that guides us and inspires us to do and be what God wants for us and calls us to. So Jesus has given us the ability to know that peace. But how do we do it?

He tells us that in this passage, too. He tells us that we will know that peace by loving him. And that love isn’t just a feeling; it isn’t just a warm, fuzzy emotion. It’s action. It’s keeping his words, following his lead. We love him by loving others, without conditions, without strings. Loving others regardless of whether they share our politics or our nationality or our religion, or even whether they love us back – even, to be honest, if they hate us. Even if they want to persecute us, or harm us.

But wait. We can’t really do that. Jesus surely didn’t mean to take things to that extreme. That would mean that we’re supposed to love bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers. We’d have to love Tim McVeigh. We’d even have to love Kim Jong Un, in North Korea, who’s simultaneously starving his own people to death and threatening to lob missiles onto the West Coast. Surely there’s some kind of limit to who’s supposed to receive the kind of love that Jesus calls us to have for others.

The problem is that Jesus says no, there really isn’t. We can search his words, his teachings high and low, but he just doesn’t give us any escape clause. On the contrary, he really doubles down on the point that we’re supposed to love precisely those who hate us.

And that’s just hard. Even with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that’s just hard as nails for us to accept. It goes against all human reason and common sense. Frankly, it can sometimes put us in actual physical risk. And I admit, I have real trouble with this I *want* to hate the Boston Marathon bombers. I *want* to hate the shooters in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado. I *want* to hate Kermit Gosnell, that monstrous abortion doctor in Philadelphia. In fact, I don’t just want to; I *have* hated them all. Maybe I still do. I know I still wrestle with it. You probably do, too.

Jesus tells us, without any grey areas at all, that we’re to love them all. And maybe part of the reason why he does is because he knows, as contrary to human reason and emotion as loving them seems on the surface, that hatred and returning evil for evil is the most perfect boomerang ever invented. It always does far more harm to the soul of the person doing the hating than it ever ends up doing to the other person. We end up doing more harm to ourselves than anything the other person could do to us. I believe that this is what keeps us from knowing and having the real peace of Christ in our hearts – the kind of peace that Jesus wants for us, and that the Holy Spirit makes us crave.

Of course, not all kinds of unconditional loving force us to love people we hate. There are other ways, too.

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This is Taylor. Taylor was a beautiful, smart, happy 13-year old girl from Texas, who was on a skiing trip with her family when tragedy struck, and she was in an awful accident that left her terribly battered and brain dead, unable to recover from her injuries. But in the middle of that tragedy, that worst nightmare that any parent could ever imagine, Taylor’s parents decided to make something good, and wonderful, and beautiful come out of their tragedy, by agreeing to allow Taylor to be an organ donor. They made their decision out of unconditional love for their daughter and what they thought she would want. But it was a decision of unconditional love for others, too. They didn’t agree to donate Taylor’s organs to nice people, or good people, or liberal or conservative people, or Christian people. For all they knew, one of Taylor’s organs might go to a prison inmate. But they didn’t care. In the midst of their loss, they understood how precious every human life is. In point of fact, because of Taylor’s parents’ decision, today Taylor lives on in five different people, with five different stories. Five different faces.

Faces like this one:

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– a mother of two young boys who’s alive today because she received Taylor’s heart.

Faces like this one:

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– Jonathan, a young man in Colorado, who’s alive today because he received one of Taylor’s kidneys.

That’s how Taylor’s family found peace for their souls. That’s loving Christ by obeying his words. That’s loving unconditionally. You see, returning anger, hatred, self-pity or selfishness in the wake of troubles or conflict only hurts us and diminishes our world. But offering love; sacrificial, unconditional, irrational, crazy love – Jesus’ kind of love – expands exponentially as it spreads throughout our world.

Whether it’s wrestling life from death through organ donation, or extending love to the unlovable, or any number of other actions, it’s all part of the great, cosmic, lesson that Jesus teaches us, to say yes to love and no to all the negative forces in the world. And we can do it – we *can* do it, if we always keep in mind just how much, how unconditionally, Jesus loves us – in spite of our own flaws, our own sins, our own brokenness. We can love others, unconditionally, because he first loved each of us unconditionally. And that’s how we’ll find the peace we long for – both the peace with others, as well as the peace in our own souls.

May the peace of Christ be with you…


Something Old, Something New

April 28, 2013

John 13:31-35

Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

*****

Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

*****

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Presbytery’s Springfest conference. I have to say, it really was a great event, with fantastic and inspiring speakers. The keynote speaker was Walter Brueggeman, the great Old Testament scholar and expert on the Psalms. Some of you here know that Dr. Brueggeman was the person in the videos that our Adult Ed class was using in our recent “Psalms of Lament” study series. It was nice to get to meet him and shake his hand – and Roger, you’ll be pleased to know that someone must have said something to him, because he’s trimmed his eyebrows. For those of you who weren’t part of the classes, in the videos, his eyebrows were just out of control – they looked sort of like two electrocuted caterpillars sitting on his forehead.

Well one of the other speakers was a man named David Gambrell, and he’s been one of the people working for the past several years on developing the new Presbyterian hymnal that’s scheduled to be released this Fall. During his workshop, we learned more about the hymnal, and sang a number of songs from it both in the workshop and the worship service that was part of the conference. I’ve got to say that I think the committee in charge of this effort did a really good job. They sorted through more than 10,000 hymns and songs, and ended up choosing more than 850 of them. He said that the new hymnal might be called “Something Old, Something New; Something Borrowed, and Something Blue” – because the hymnal includes very old traditional favorites – including some that were left out of the current, 1990 hymnal, and even some that hadn’t ever been in a Presbyterian hymnal before. And there are a lot of newer favorite hymns, too, and some contemporary praise choruses, and some Taize chants, and some really fun examples of music from the larger global Christian community. And then, there are some really good selections that were “borrowed” from other denominations’ hymnals – I was pleased to see some of my favorites from the Lutheran hymnals that I came to know while in school. And a lot of the selections have been carried over from the current hymnal, the “blue book.” So, the new hymnal is “something old, something new; something borrowed, and something blue.”

The committee that worked on this project had a really tough task. They had to answer a key question: how does the church respond as the faith expands ever outward, in time, in knowledge, in culture, and ways of worshiping? How does the church decide what to hold onto and keep from its past, and what to accept and revise in the present and into the future?

This question that the committee had to deal with was really the same one that the early church had to wrestle with, as it struggled to understand what earlier traditions and scriptural interpretations were to be preserved, and which ones were to be revised or completely tossed out, as the church expanded outward into new cultures and different people. Of course, Jesus’ first followers were all Jews. They had a pretty common understanding of the meaning of the Hebrew scriptures, and their faith in Jesus was shaped by those scriptures. Jesus’ scriptures. *Our* scriptures, the Old Testament. These scriptures had very specifically and clearly prohibited Jews from eating food that was considered ritually unclean, or for Jews to visit in the homes of non-Jews, or to associate with them at all, or they themselves would become ritually unclean. And in the early days of the Christian faith, the apostles and other church leaders believed that these scriptural prohibitions still applied. But this assumption was very quickly challenged as Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God being for all people, spread outward into the non-Jewish world. Our world. Now, people who by definition were considered sinners by scriptural standards, and people who weren’t to be associated with, were becoming followers of Jesus. How was that supposed to work?

This story from Acts – the story of Peter and Cornelius – is a crucial turning point in our understanding of the Christian faith. We can say that the resurrection was when our salvation, our reconciliation with God occurred, but it was only after this event in Acts that the early church came to understand that we non-Jews were even eligible to be part of the story, too. It was only after this event that the early church took its first baby steps forward in realizing that now, after Jesus’ resurrection, God was in the process of doing something totally new, completely unprecedented. As we heard in Peter’s story, in his vision, God told him not to consider anything unclean or profane, that God considered clean and acceptable. Yes, the scriptures were very clear, every animal that Peter saw in front of him was unclean. But God said otherwise. God chose those animals to offer to Peter to eat, regardless of what the scriptures said. And if Peter had confusion about what all this meant, it all came clear to Peter, when he went to see Cornelius, and he saw that in a similar way, God had chosen Cornelius, and his whole household, regardless of what the scriptures said about their being by definition, by birth, unclean, unworthy sinners. That day, God chose them, and blessed them, and sealed them through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – in exactly the same way that God had chosen Peter and the other Jewish Christians.

This was a hard thing for them to accept back in the home office in Jerusalem, and as we heard, Peter was criticized and questioned about why he varied from the clear-cut scriptural teachings – why he chose to ignore the black-and-white content of the scriptures and went into the home and ate with these unclean sinners. And as we heard, Peter laid out for them how God had clearly chosen them and filled them with the Holy Spirit, and if that were the case, who was he to try to obstruct God’s will?

Gradually, slowly, the apostles and the other church leaders came to understand and accept this truth. Their understanding of how they interpreted and applied the scriptures changed because of it. And the church grew – thankfully for us, it grew in a way that enabled each and every one of us non-Jews to be a part of it.

And over time, this process continued as the church came to have a fuller grasp on the meaning of the resurrection, and the kingdom of God. In relatively recent times, the church has made great strides as this same process has continued. Not all that long ago, the church wrestled with the question of whether slavery should be opposed and abolished, even though there are clearly scriptures that accept and sanction it. Later on, the church wrestled with whether there should be equality for women, even though there are clearly scriptures that consider women to be inferior, and that call for them to be quiet and subordinate to men. Still later, even though the church had agreed with the abolition of slavery, it still wrestled with whether there should be racial and ethnic equality, and an integrated society, even though there were clearly scriptures that taught racial inferiority and that called for a segregated society. And of course, the church is currently in the middle of the latest of these struggles, as it wrestles with the question of whether gays and lesbians should have equality, in society and in the church, even though there are clearly scriptures that speak against same-sex activity.

In each of the examples from the past, the church grew and became more Christlike when it confronted the reality of the situation, and discovered that God was at work in the lives of each of these groups of people. That, just as Peter had seen in Cornelius and his household, in God’s eyes, they were exactly the same as he was. That God loved them, and chose them, and called them, and equipped them, and filled them with the Holy Spirit, in the exact same way he had been. In the same way we have been. The church becomes more Christlike when it recognizes that God calls whoever God chooses to call into the kingdom of God, and to serve it. That’s the whole concept of the sovereignty of God, that’s so important to us in the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition. And if that’s the case, who are we to try to obstruct God’s choosing and calling of them?

Friends, God is continuing to do a new thing in this world. It began to unfold with the resurrection, and it will continue to unfold until Christ returns. That’s why it’s important for us, both as the church and as individuals, to keep seeing things through fresh eyes, and a fresh heart, always understanding things through the lens of Christ himself, and through the rule of love. Each one of us is the beneficiary of this process of making the church broader, big enough to accept us. And each one of us is responsible for continuing to apply this reality that Peter learned in Cornelius’ house, in relation to others.

The church, and our own personal faith, will continue to evolve, as we continue to discover deeper ways to see God’s grace in the world, and to love one another in the same unbounded, unconditional way that Jesus loves us. As we do, we’ll go through a process similar to the committee that put that new hymnal together. We’ll keep the essential core, and we’ll revise or throw out what doesn’t hold up. Our faith is, and will continue to be, something old, something new; something borrowed and something blue.

Thanks be to God.


Christ in the Casserole
April 21, 2013

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

***

I was down in Honduras at Montana de Luz one year in early January, and one morning we woke up to some unusually cold weather. All the staff at the orphanage were running around in coats and knit hats and gloves, and clapping their hands and stomping their feet to try to stay warm.

It was 55 degrees.

And all of us gringos were laughing, because we’d just left Columbus, where the temperatures were just barely bumping along above zero.

In late December, the average temperature in Jerusalem is usually around the same range, upper 40s/mid 50s, and for the local residents that’s pretty chilly. So when we read this passage from John’s gospel, we can imagine this scene. It’s winter. Jesus and his followers were at the Temple complex there in Jerusalem, where they were observing the Festival of Dedication – what we now call Hanukkah, which always occurs right around Christmastime. It’s cold and blustery, so instead of being out in the huge open plaza around the Temple they’re in the Portico of Solomon, along the perimeter wall in the part of the complex most sheltered from the winter winds. And the people are peppering Jesus with demands that he stop beating around the bush and say clearly if he was the messiah sent from God or not. And you can hear the frustration in Jesus’ voice, his disbelief that some of these people just don’t get it. Look, he tells them, any Tom, Dick, or Harry could stand here and say they were the messiah. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words, and just look at my actions, look at what all I’ve been doing. All of these things, these very good things – these acts of love, and justice, and healing. You all know the scriptures; you know that these are the actions that God calls us all to, and that God blesses. My works show that I know God like no other human being has. I’m so much at one with God that we’re inseparable, indistinguishable. To see and know one of us is to see and know the other. We are one.

Jesus tells the people gathered around him that what he does – his actions – identify who he is more than any words ever could. His actions illustrate his faith and his unity with God. Not only that, but Jesus says that those who really follow him – us, his “sheep,” as he often calls us in John’s gospel– understand that. We get that. We understand that Jesus’ actions don’t just identify who *he* is, but they also illustrate what *we* should do. We understand that through our actions, we show that we’re not here in this world for ourselves. That our actions give testimony to the world that our faith and trust in Jesus is real, concrete – that we and Christ are one.

I’m re-reading a book right now, called “Almost Christian,” by Kenda Creasy Dean. In that book, she tells this story. Like many other places in the state, Faith Christian School, in the little town of Grapevine, Texas, takes its football program very seriously. In 2008, the team boasted of some 70 players, and 11 coaches, and it had all the newest and best equipment. And the team had a 7-2 record as they were about to go up against their next opponent, the Gainesville State Tornados. Gainesville State couldn’t have been a more different team than Faith Christian. They headed into the upcoming game with an 0-8 record, and had only scored two touchdown the entire season. They only had 14 players and wore old, beaten-up, worn-out gear. Wherever they went, they were escorted by eleven security guards who took the players’ handcuffs off just before each game. You see, Gainesville State was actually a maximum-security youth prison. All of the members of the team had been convicted of assault, robbery, various drug convictions, or similar things. Many of their families had disowned them.

Before the game, the head coach at Faith did something unheard of. He sent out an email blast to the whole, massive parents’ and boosters’ organization, and he told them that, just for that one game, he wanted half of them to cheer for the kids from Gainesville State. “Here is the message I want you to send:” he wrote. “You are just as valuable as any other person on Planet Earth.” And that’s exactly what they did. Half of the fans sat on the Visitors’ side of the stadium. At the beginning of the game, the players took to the field by crashing through a banner that the Faith fans had made for them that said “Go Tornados!” – and once they broke through it, they were shocked to find themselves running through a 40-foot long tunnel of two lines of cheering fans. All during the game, they heard fans cheering for them by their first names, and the coach had even lined up the JV cheerleaders to cheer for them. Later on, the Gainesville players said the whole thing was just surreal; like maybe the fans were just confused or something. They never thought they’d hear people cheering for them, saying they actually *wanted* them to hit their own kids. The world isn’t supposed to work that way. People were always supposed to be afraid of them, stay away from them, not care about them. But not that night.

Of course, Faith won the game that night, 33-14, but you’d never have known it based on the actions of the Gainesville State players, who laughed, and cheered, and practically danced off the field like they’d just won the Super Bowl. And the show of love and support shown to them didn’t stop there. As the prison guards escorted the players back to their bus, each player was handed a bag filed with burgers, fries, candy, a Bible, and a word of encouragement from a Faith player. And as the bus pulled out of the parking lot, people stood alongside its path, smiling, waving, and clapping for the players. Being a private Christian school, Faith had a tradition of having a post-game prayer at midfield, and inviting the visiting team to join in. On this night, everyone was surprised when Isaiah, one of the Gainesville State players, asked to lead the prayer. Here’s what he said: “Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank you – but I never would have known there were so many people in the world who cared about us.”

Jesus says that actions speak louder than words. That our actions are the proof of what we believe. Who we are. Who we belong to.

In writing about the game that night, one sports writer wrote that if Jesus could be present on a high school football field in Texas, he could be present anywhere. And indeed, he can. *That’s* the real presence of Christ in the world today. *We* are the real presence of Christ in the world today. Christ was present on that field. And he is present wherever people step into a situation and offer love, and compassion, and support, and hope where it seems like there aren’t any of those things. Christ was present on Boylston Street in Boston this past week, in every person who ran to help someone whose life had been changed forever in that one fiery, bloody instant – dressing a wound with a torn-off shirt. Helping to carry them to an ambulance. Or just cradling them in their arms and comforting them until help arrived.

Christ was present in Boston. And he’s just as present here, in our own midst, in our own lives, whenever we sheep follow our Good Shepherd – the one who leads us beside still waters, and who calls each of us to lead others to those same still waters. Our actions testify to our faith, and to Christ’s message of love for all. We are the presence of Christ in our world whenever we take a casserole or a meatloaf to a grieving family torn apart by the death of a loved one. Or when we knit a prayer shawl for a frightened unwed teen mother, or a pair of mittens for a poverty-stricken child living in a trailer that isn’t even weathertight, trying to stay warm through winter – a *real* winter. Or when we offer a shoulder to lean on to someone who’s wrestling with difficult decisions about caring for aging parents.

These are the things that show our faith to the world – that we really trust that Jesus is, in fact, God’s chosen one – Messiah, Lord, Savior, Redeemer. These things are part of living eternal life – because the eternal life that Jesus taught about, and has given us, isn’t just something in the future, in the sweet by-and-by, We’re already living it, right here, right now. It’s this new way of living life, living in the way of love that Christ modeled for us. Through our actions, we’re Jesus on the 50-yard line. Through our actions, we’re the bloodied one from Galilee comforting the bloodied ones from Boston. Through our actions, we’re Christ in the casserole.

Thanks be to God.


So I Send You
April 7, 2013

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:19-31

=====

This is the Sunday, I suppose, that preachers are supposed to talk about the apostle Thomas, and the idea of doubt within our faith, and that sort of thing. That seems to be the go-to concept of this passage that usually catches our attention and that we tend to draw out. But today, I’m not going to do that. I’m not, partly because we talked about doubt just last week, but mostly because I don’t think that that’s really the main focus of this story.

The author of this gospel tells us that there were many other events in Jesus’ life, many other stories that a person could include in a simple history of Jesus’ life. But this author didn’t do that. He isn’t trying to write a history of Jesus in the way we’d think about one today. Instead, he’s carefully picked and chosen these particular stories to be part of his gospel, in order for us to a certain belief – that Jesus is God’s chosen, the messiah. In other words, the focus of this story isn’t Thomas at all, but actually, is us. The whole point is to set the stage, to put us right there in that room with those disciples, sharing these experiences, seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, smelling the smoke from the burning oil lamps, feeling the emotional roller coaster of the disciples as the story unfolds.

So what exactly is it that the author of this gospel wants us to get out of this experience? Well, a couple of things, I think. First, by Jesus appearing to the disciples, not as a ghost, but as a resurrected human being with a real, physical body, Jesus shows us that we aren’t just spirits trapped, imprisoned in these physical bodies. It was actually the prevailing philosophical belief throughout the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ time – that our real essence is spiritual, and our physical existence isn’t really part of our true nature; rather, it’s something to escape from. But to John, this story of Jesus’ physical resurrection is important in part to emphasize that our bodies matter. Our physical existence, and the physical world, matters.

The second thing that the author is trying to point out for us – and I think this is maybe the most important thing – is the idea of Jesus’ sending the disciples out into the world – to take this same good news about the nature of God, and God’s love for us, that Jesus has been teaching, and to proclaim it outward to the rest of the world, and to do it in the same way that Jesus had done it.

But while we’re standing there in the room, watching this story unfold alongside the others, we can see the kind of mixed news that this really is. We can imagine, we can feel, the amazement, the sheer joy of the men, women, and no doubt children, all gathered there, when they saw Jesus very much alive and well, right in front of their eyes. Those women who were out at the tomb that morning weren’t crazy; they weren’t lying; they were right. But right in the middle of the laughter, the cheers, the tears of joy, the back-slapping and fist-bumping, came this other thing. This commissioning from Jesus, this sending of us outward to spread his good news about God’s reign, in this world and beyond. And standing there in the room, we can understand that this puts a lump in everyone’s gut. Because Jesus tells them all, “Just as the Father has sent me, so I now send you.” He’s standing there in front of them – the same Jesus who had been pursued, and persecuted, and arrested, and executed by the powers that be. The same Jesus whose body had been hammered through, speared through. The same Jesus sent into the world by God the Father to illustrate God’s love for us, to extend that love to us even to the point of giving his own life for others. For us. To literally love us to death. And now, there he stands, telling the disciples, “Now you go and do the same.”

It was a scary thought. Following Jesus’ sending was going to take them down paths that were unfamiliar, uncertain, and uncomfortable. Fearful, and quite possibly even dangerous. Jesus had just called them into a completely new and different path from the one they’d woken up to that morning, from the one they’d been living up until then. This good news that Jesus had been proclaiming during his earthly life, and that his resurrection was God’s validation of, and that was now becoming clearer to them, was going to require them to step out in faith, to live differently, even differently than when they were just following around behind Jesus. They were going to have to adjust and change and be willing to operate well outside of their comfort zone, in whatever way was required in order to carry out Jesus’ sending of them. Just as we said last week, now, all bets were off. Now, everything is up for reinvention, based on whether or not it serves Jesus’ goal of proclaiming the gospel to more people, and extending God’s love more fully to one another in this life.

It doesn’t take much imagination at all for us to recognize that we’re in the same boat as those disciples. We have to face that same kind of uncertainty and life outside the comfort zone, reinventing and reinvigorating the way we serve Jesus by following the commission he gave to all of us, too, as we stood in that room with him, in spirit if not in reality. And we do have to keep reexamining how we follow Jesus, and serve Jesus, and proclaim the gospel to others as well as ourselves, because as someone once put it, the world only spins in one direction, into the future, and whether we consider it for better or for worse, it never stops and goes back in the other direction. Like it or not, this is the world of iPads and iPhones and Androids and Kindles and podcasts and instant global communication and connectivity 24/7 from almost anywhere in the world. It’s a world where the cursive handwriting that we all learned in second grade or so, whether it was the P.O. Peterson method or Zaner-Bloser, is now as dead in this world as any dinosaur in a museum. It’s a world where confirmation-age kids weren’t even born on 9/11 and most twenty-somethings have never even seen VCR, much less a rotary phone or a typewriter; and the gospel of God’s love for us and for all of creation has something to say to this brave new world. And if we think that this new world doesn’t change how people understand and grasp and internalize information, if we think that this doesn’t change how we need to communicate and bring Christ’s love to this world, then we’re just weapons-grade delusional; we’re living on Fantasy Island along with Tattoo and Mr. Roarke – which, just for the record, now even thirty-somethings have no personal recollection of.

And trying to bring ourselves, and the church, and the way we share and spread the gospel, into the reality of this world – finding the right way to convey the truth of the gospel to the people of this world, can give us a lump in our guts as heavy and frightening as the ones in the guts of the disciples in that room with Jesus. What will it mean? What kind of change will it bring to us? What will the church that truly speaks to this generation and the ones to follow all too quickly, look like? Will we even recognize it? In order for the church to change to speak to, and to meet the actual needs of the younger generations, it might have to become something so different from what we’re accustomed to, from what it’s been for so long, that we ourselves won’t feel comfortable with it. That’s a very scary thought. In that case, it isn’t the death and resurrection of a person, but it may very much like the death of the church that we’ve become familiar with, and a resurrection into something else – something, just as was the case with Jesus’ body, is very much based on its past existence, but is still somehow very different, too.

Jesus’ words to the disciples meant that the disciples had to ask themselves, “Are we willing to move forward into this uncertain, uncomfortable place that Jesus has called us to?” And, as individuals, and collectively as the church, we have to ask ourselves the very same question. Are we really willing to go into the uncertain, unfamiliar, uncomfortable places that are necessary for us to proclaim and live out the gospel into the reality of today’s families, today’s lifestyles, today’s technologies, today’s methods of comprehending? Are we willing to go, and to love, as Jesus has sent us?

As scary as it can be to seriously ask that question, the good news for us also comes out of that same room. When Jesus talks to Thomas, he isn’t criticizing him for doubting. To be honest, Thomas didn’t exhibit any more doubt than any of the rest of the disciples when they were first told that Jesus had been risen. The bottom line here is that this isn’t a story about criticizing Thomas, it’s a story about blessing us – us, the spectators that the author of this gospel has invited into the room to learn something important. Us, the ones who weren’t really there to see Jesus, to touch his wounds. Us, who believe even without having seen him. Jesus tells us that we are blessed – in an important way, even more blessed than the ones who really were in that room. And with that blessing, directly from Christ himself, we can move ourselves, and the church, into this generation and the ones to follow, sharing God’s love and acceptance and the fullness of the gospel with them, and we can do it without being afraid. In that room, Jesus blessed us, the future generations. In that room, Jesus told the disciples gathered there, “Peace be with you.” And so it shall be, for them and for us, and for the next generations, too.

Thanks be to God.


The Stones Will Shout Out

March 24, 2013

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

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

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

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; (Luke 19:28-44a NRSV)

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You probably saw reports in the news last week about President Obama’s trip to Israel and Palestine last week. This was his first trip there while he’s been President. when he got there, the Israelis rolled out the red carpet for him. And of course, he did all things a President is supposed to do on a trip like this. He met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. He reaffirmed U.S. support for Israeli and its right to self-defense. He spoke to the press and with university students. He and the Prime Minister planted a tree together, somewhere, for some reason, while the camera shutters clicked away.

On the second day of his trip, the President traveled from Israel into Palestine, into the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He made the relatively short trip from south to north, from Jerusalem to Ramallah. It was a typical Presidential procession, with armored limousines full of dignitaries and black SUVs full of Secret Service agents and police and military escorts and Predator drones overhead and only God knows what all else. And the whole entourage made its way out of Jerusalem and into the countryside, blowing past all the checkpoints that turn what would normally be a half hour’s drive into one that takes the average Palestinian sometimes hours to get through. And they drove past the twenty-foot tall concrete planks and razor wire that make up the separation wall between these two nations of people, whose hopes and dreams for themselves and their children are remarkably similar, and whose smiles and laughter are exactly as beautiful and infectious, and whose blood is amazingly the same shade of red, and whose tears are exactly as salty, and whose deaths resulting from the violence and warfare in the region are just as gut-wrenching and tragic whether their mangled corpses go to a morgue in Tel Aviv or one in Bethlehem.

And as the procession made its way to Ramallah, the sides of the streets were lined with people who came out for the motorcade – normal, everyday Palestinians, occupied and oppressed and impoverished, holding signs and yelling out protests against the President and against the U.S. foreign policy of pretty much unconditional support for the Israeli policies that maintain their truly awful situation.

When he did get to Ramallah, he met with President Abbas. He spoke with the press, and other groups. And he gave a speech that, regardless of whatever else a person might think of his politics and policies, was actually quite amazing. In very plain language, he called for the establishment of two fully independent, sovereign states, one for the Israelis and one for the Palestinians. He called the Israeli practice of moving into Palestinian land and establishing settlements, and then annexing that land into Israel, wrong, and counterproductive to peace, and that it should stop. He called for the Israelis to stop practices that are occupying, oppressing, and persecuting the Palestinian people in ways that go far beyond any reasonable claims of being necessary for national security, and that the world community has denounced as illegal, immoral, and unethical. And I can tell you that, while I love Israel and the Israeli people, and I support their need for self-defense, I can tell you that I’ve seen with my own eyes that what they’re doing to the Palestinian people now is wrong, very wrong, and needs to stop.

To be honest, the President’s words were brilliant. Unfortunately, they were mostly that – just words, diplomatic theater calculated to strike the right tone to the right people in the right moment. Even worse, they were words that ran in the face of what the U.S. policy toward the Israelis and Palestinians has been, and continues to be, that has only served to make the situation worse. But at least, in this place, in this moment, the President spoke words of truth and of peace.

This morning, we remember another procession that happened over almost the very same dirt, the triumphal procession of Jesus, as he traveled from the east to the west, from what we call the West Bank into what we call East Jerusalem. His procession didn’t include any of the trappings of power and prestige of the President’s procession. There weren’t even any war horses or chariots, which would have been typical of the Roman military processions of Jesus’ time, the first-century equivalent of our SUVs bristling with weapons. There weren’t any soldiers or police escorts. There were normal, everyday people lining his route, but they weren’t holding signs or chanting protests. They were singing songs of praise, and joining in the procession out ahead of Jesus. The people who were following Jesus, and who were excited about his entry into Jerusalem, were all the marginal people, the powerless people, the sick, the lame, the blind, the poor, all the people who were living in an intolerable, unacceptable situation created by the occupying Roman superpower who were supporting the local leadership in their keeping these people burdened and with little real hope, spiritually or materially. They were laying down their ragged cloaks and clothing, and the scriptures say tree branches – we don’t really know what kind of branches, but we’ve traditionally assumed they were palm branches and that’s as good an assumption as any – their version of laying out a red carpet, ushering Jesus into Jerusalem. Because riding on into Jerusalem, on the back of not some powerful war horse but on a humble little donkey, wasn’t just Jesus, but all their hopes that the time of God’s setting everything right, and the end of their suffering, was in sight – maybe just days away, maybe yet that very day. It was all their hopes and dreams for a bright, wonderful, fulfilled, peaceful life that was riding into Jerusalem that day. They were right about that, even if it wasn’t coming the way they expected. And it’s a sign of just how excited and hopeful they were that this Jesus was going to ride into town and solve all their problems, and set everything right, back to the way things used to be in the good old days, and even better. They’d placed an awful lot of expectations on the shoulders of the man riding on the donkey. It’s a sign of just how high those hopes were, to realize how quickly – in just a matter of days – that these very same people were so disillusioned, and how much they came to scorn him and turn on him and reject him, when things didn’t play out the way they thought it was going to go. They didn’t realize the way that Jesus was about to usher the Kingdom of God into the world, and into people’s lives. And they didn’t realize that their assumptions were going to have to be adjusted to accept this new reality. They didn’t realize that Jesus’ changing the world wasn’t going to be by military force, or violence, or worldly authority, but instead, through peace, and non-violence, and the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit in the hearts of people. That’s what we hear in Jesus’ words as he draws near to Jerusalem and mourns over the city, cries over the city and its people – over the destruction and violence throughout its past, and what he sees in his mind’s eye for the city’s future – the repeated destruction and violence and turmoil, from the Romans destroying it in 70 AD and continuing on till the present, when Presidents and Prime Ministers still sit down and try to find peace for this city whose very name means City of Peace.

Jesus certainly did usher in the beginning of that reality of God’s reign. But it certainly isn’t any mystery that it isn’t complete. What we’re doing now is living in the kingdom of God in what some people call a simultaneously “already here/not yet” kind of way. We’re living in this kind of “in between time.” And because of that, because God’s reign isn’t yet complete in this world, every day, people from around the world come to the “Wailing Wall” in Jerusalem, part of the ancient Temple complex, and offer up prayers for peace, and an end to violence, and fighting, and poverty and pain and suffering, in the region and around the world. And for the same reason, every day, people from around the world go to places in Ramallah, and Bethlehem, and countless other places, and go to the edge of town to the separation wall, this modern-day Wailing Wall, and pray for the exact same things to the exact same God.

And we all pray the very same prayers too, wherever we might offer it up. We pray for peace. Peace among nations. Peace within communities. Within churches and across faiths. Within families. Within our own hearts. We pray for an end to violence. An end to warfare, and terrorism, and collateral damage and body bags. An end to the violence of murderers and muggers and rapists. We pray for justice. We pray for an end to the violence that we do to ourselves, whether literally, physically, or emotionally – when we can’t accept ourselves, in our own hearts, for the real goodness and beauty and wonder of our own selves, having each and every one of us been created in the very image of God.

It’s what Jesus does between his entry into Jerusalem and his resurrection on Easter Sunday that has enabled us to be redeemed from our brokenness and reconciled with God. It’s Jesus’ resurrection that is for us God’s validation of Jesus, who he is and what he taught. For us, Jesus’ resurrection means that he was right, that all those prayers are ultimately going to be fulfilled. That even in the darkest and most hopeless of times, whether within the world or within our own skin, we can rely on the hope that God is working all of it to that fullness, that completeness, the setting right, that we all pray for. Because we have that hope, that assurance, we can sing our own songs of praise, our own hosannahs to God, for God’s goodness and the reconciliation with God that Christ has given us. And along with our own songs of praise, the stones themselves will shout out, too – the stones laid up in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and the stones embedded in the concrete wall of Ramallah, will all shout out their own praises to God, and their own prayers that God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done; and for peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

Thanks be to God.


Buildings or Bread
March 17, 2013

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:1-8, NRSV

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One Sunday morning while we were in Israel, we were standing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the huge, sprawling church built over what’s traditionally believed to have been the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. At one point, a friend and I were standing along a massive stone balustrade along an area that looked down into an area just inside the main entrance that was several stories high, and was decorated with beautiful mosaics and massive stone columns. That picture was actually taken while we were standing there that morning. And while we were standing there, my friend commented that he felt a little guilty, because despite all the crowds of faithful moving through the church, and the bells ringing, and the priests chanting, and the incense smoking, and what supposedly happened on this site – despite all that, he just wasn’t feeling any particular spiritual connection with God here in this place. It just wasn’t really doing anything spiritually for him at all. And I had to admit to him that I actually felt the same way. I didn’t feel any special closeness to God there; in fact, I was having trouble sensing God’s presence there at all, in the midst of all the crowds. I told my friend that as an architect, and someone who enjoys history, I appreciated the place from that standpoint. But as a Christian, I couldn’t shake the nagging question of whether all this over-the-top, ostentatious, incredibly expensive building wasn’t actually a misguided concern for outward image, and a squandering of the resources of the church that could have done great things in service to the poor, the sick, the oppressed. I said to him that as I stood there, I couldn’t help but ask, “How many people starved to death, for want of the food that could have been bought for the cost of just this one stone column in front of me? How many people died for that column?”

This question about spending large sums of money to build huge churches and other buildings was actually one of the big flash points of the Protestant Reformation. At that time, the church was trying to raise money to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, that’s been on the news a lot lately with the electing of a new Pope, by the selling of indulgences. Essentially, the church told the faithful that if they made a cash contribution to help build the church, God would look favorably on that and would release a dead loved one of theirs from purgatory and allow them to enter heaven – or maybe they could even bank that, for a speedy entry into heaven for themselves. This was one of the 95 things that Martin Luther took offense to, and protested against, a protest that the Pope ultimately thanked Luther for by declaring him a heretic and condemning him to death.

I think about this issue of how the church spends its money whenever I read this story from John’s gospel that we’re looking at today. Whenever we hear this story, we really do have to ask ourselves, what was Mary thinking? First of all, what in the world was she doing with a whole pound of this perfume, that was worth almost a year’s wages? Where did she get that kind of money? Were she and her family that wealthy? They were good friends of Jesus’; were they maybe major supporters of Jesus’ ministry as he and his disciples wandered from town to town in Palestine? I mean honestly, on the surface of things, Judas really does have a point. If I had a spare forty or fifty thousand dollars lying around, I could think of a lot better uses for it than smearing it all over my feet. How many children could have been fed, or clothed, with that kind of money? How many doctor’s visits would it have paid for? How many water wells would it have dug? How many people died for that foot-washing?

It is a valid question. And yet, Jesus’ answer to Judas seems to run contrary to everything we’d expect from him, based on his teachings. Instead of agreeing with Judas, and turning down this world-class, luxury spa treatment, Jesus gladly accepts it. Why? Is he thinking about the pain and suffering and death that he’s about to endure, and he’s just having a very human moment, and in light of his whole life of poverty, he’s saying “Please, Father, just this once, let me feel pampered and treated like royalty. Just this once, let me feel how the other half lives!”

The issue of how we faithfully spend our resources as Jesus’ followers still runs deep. The other day, I sat and listened to two people debating whether a church should involve itself in mission in some faraway place, whether in this country or some other one, when there’s still unmet need right within the same community the church sits in. That’s really just a variation on the Mary-Judas disagreement in the story. Of course, in reality, there has to be a balance of both of them in order for us to truly be living out, and growing in, our faith and discipleship. It’s why today, we’ll gather up all the baby bottles filled with our loose change as an offering for a local mission project, and next week we’ll start collecting our loose change in fish banks as an offering for the worldwide mission of One Great Hour of Sharing. It’s why we make a stewardship commitment to financially support the local mission of our congregation, and a separate offering for our Per Capita contribution that goes to support the regional and national mission of the church. In our discipleship, we’re always involved in that balancing act. The balance between showing our love and devotion for God by offering God our best efforts in art, and architecture, and music; and our best efforts in providing for the poor. The balance between helping people on the next continent as well as the next block.

But how, and where, do we set the boundaries? How do we know where to strike the line, to make the balance? We want to do the right thing, so can’t we look at the scriptures to give us the right answer to that question? Isn’t that the way the scriptures are supposed to work?

Well, no, not always, and this passage is a classic example of that. Jesus doesn’t give us a clear-cut, once-and-for-all answer. And I think that points to one important way the scriptures are meant to speak to us. Through them, God is revealing the big picture to us – who God is; what God is like; how God wants to be in relationship with us; and God’s principles of love, and mercy, and justice, and devotion that we’re supposed to enjoy, and to offer to others. And armed with an understanding of God’s big picture, we’re supposed to use our God-given sense of reason, and to pray, and to discern when, and where, and how, we’re supposed to strike that balance at any given time in our lives of faith, either as individuals or as the church as a whole. To discern whether to help support an AIDS clinic in South Africa or a shelter for abuse victims in Chillicothe. When it’s right to buy new paraments or banners for the sanctuary, and when we should pay to reconnect someone’s electricity. When it’s right to buy buildings, and when it’s right to buy bread.

That kind of discernment is definitely not an exact science. It can lead to us getting things wrong from time to time. Maybe in some instances, it might make us feel guilty: if I’d only paid more attention to this, or to that, then such and such problem wouldn’t have happened. It can be troubling, sometimes, trying to decide when we should follow Mary’s lead, or take Judas’ advice. But even though it might be troubling, I think there’s some very good news for us in this story.

What I mean is this: Notice that nowhere in this story did Jesus ever really say that Mary had actually made the right choice in lavishing that expensive treatment on him. Instead, he just tells Judas to leave her alone. Jesus is accepting the intent behind Mary’s actions – the genuine, sincere love and devotion, whether her actions are really the ideal or not. He’s accepting her on the content of her heart. He’s accepting her based on her faith, not her works.

And that’s very, very good news for us, too. Because no matter how hard we might try, we’ll drop the ball. We’ll get the actions wrong; we’ll put that balance in the wrong spot. The Catholic monk Thomas Merton wrote a well-known prayer, where he makes the point that he wasn’t really sure whether he was on the right path that God wanted for him or not, but still, he knew that right or wrong, just the fact that he wanted to be on that right path – just the fact that he wanted to please God, actually did please God. Maybe that’s a big part of what we can get out of this story about Mary and Jesus. Was she right, or was she wrong? Who knows. Jesus said not to worry about it; to leave her alone. Her heart was in the right place. Hopefully, ours always will be, too.

Thanks be to God.

Bucket List
March 3, 2013

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

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’

He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” (Luke 13:1-9 NRSV)

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Have you ever seen the movie “The Bucket List”? It came out a few years ago; if you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend it; it’s very good. If you have seen it, you know that the setup of the movie is that Morgan Freeman, a man who was studying to become a history professor but who had to drop out of college and become an auto mechanic to support his family; and Jack Nicholson, a quirky and insanely wealthy owner of a healthcare conglomerate, end up roommates in the oncology unit of a hospital, and they both learn that they’ve got cancer and have only got maybe six months to live. And the two of them decide that with the little time they’ve got left, they’re going to live out their “bucket list” – they’re going to do all those things that they’d always said they wanted to do before they died. Some of the things are deep and profound; others are just crazy and what-the-heck. And as the two of them travel around the world on Nicholson’s money, they end up discussing all of the deepest questions that we all carry around deep in our souls. Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? What’s the purpose, the meaning of it all?

Bob had a bucket list of sorts. He didn’t have cancer like the two guys in the movie; his doctor hadn’t diagnosed him with any pending death threat. In fact, he was actually living a pretty routine life, a pretty good life. He’d devoted his whole life up until this point to towing the company line, keeping his nose to the grindstone in the business world, gradually building up to what he considered financial security even if the work itself wasn’t very rewarding, didn’t have any lasting value, and was gradually eating away at his soul a little bit each day. That was OK, Bob told himself. Because he wasn’t like most of the other people he worked with who were just in it for the money – and the money was good. Bill had something else in mind. You see, all Bob had to do was just tough it out for a few more years, then he could retire reasonably comfortably, and then he was going to do something really meaningful with his life; something good for humanity; that’s what he always really wanted to do in his heart. Maybe go to Africa, or Central America. Maybe start a school, teach kids how to read or do math. Maybe work in a clinic in the Sudan, whatever. Yep, that’s what I’ll do, he thought to himself. I’ll finally have the security to do something worthwhile with my life. All I need is just a couple more years in the rat race before I can get started. And he never even felt a twinge of pain when the unknown aneurism in his brain burst and he instantly dropped dead in the street.

Bob’s story, and the plot line of the movie, lead to the questions: would you want to know how much time you had left to live? And if you did, what effect would it have on your life?

In this passage from Luke, Jesus points out that none of us has an infinite amount of time in our lives. None of us knows when we’re going to be laid low by the next bad test result. The next aneurism. The next natural disaster or wall collapse. And Jesus points out to his listeners that these kinds of things aren’t examples of God punishing people because they’re supposedly worse sinners than the rest of us. We probably all remember when Jerry Falwell claimed that 9/11 was God’s judgment against us for our immoral society, or when the televangelist John Hagee claimed the same thing about Hurricane Katrina. In this passage, Jesus says they were both wrong, and so is anyone who makes similar claims about other catastrophes. Jesus says these kinds of things aren’t special punishment sent by God, but he says that we can learn something about our own lives when we realize that those kinds of things happen. We can see those things and know that our own lifespan is uncertain, and even what we consider a long life isn’t really, in the grand scheme of things. And because of that, we all need to seriously think about our lives. To ask the big questions – what is the purpose of all this, anyway? Why are we all here? What are all the ups and downs of this life supposed to be for? In this passage, Jesus is telling us to examine our lives, to understand its meaning, to find the things in them that aren’t what God wants for us, and to adjust our lives to move away from those things and toward what God wants. In other words, to repent. To improve our lives, to improve the way we live as Christ’s disciples. And he makes it very clear, if we have any delusions about the question, that we don’t have forever, and we will suffer consequences if we don’t. Jesus talks about those consequences in other places, the consequences of God’s ultimate judgment. Part of it is eternal, what we call hell. The truth is that what we generally think of as hell is mostly a lot of cultural or traditional thoughts about what hell really is; thoughts and images that go way beyond what the Bible actually says about it. Whatever its actual details, I know that I don’t want any part of it. But even if you set the eternal aspect of God’s judgment aside – even if you were to imagine for a moment that there was no punishment in the life after this one – the punishment that we all suffer in our own lives, here in the present, for living in ways contrary to God’s wishes, and the suffering that others endure because of it, is awful enough for me to think about, and to want to fix.

So as we think about that, as we’re trying to do all through Lent, we have to ask, what is it that pleases God? What do we hold the things in our lives up to, to see if they’re what pleases God? In the movie, there’s a scene where Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson are sitting up on top of one of the pyramids in Egypt, and the whole breathtaking scenery is stretching out for miles all around them. That picture overhead is a still shot of that scene. And Morgan Freeman tells Jack Nicholson about a belief that was part of the ancient Egyptian religion. When a person died, he said, they were asked two questions to determine if they deserved to enter the paradise of the afterlife. The first question was “Did you find joy in your life?” And the second question was “Has your life brought joy to others?” Now, I’m not standing here preaching ancient Egyptian religion, but when I heard that, it struck me as very familiar. Really, it’s just another way of framing Jesus’ words, what we’ve come to call the Greatest Commandment, that all the scriptures condense down to: “Love the Lord with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength” – which brings you joy – “and love your neighbor as yourself” – which brings joy to them. That’s the yardstick, I think, that we need to use when we examine our own lives. So during Lent, I want you all to do this little exercise. I want you to make your own kind of “bucket list,” but it only needs to have one thing on it. Examine your life, and focus on just one single thing that isn’t pleasing to God, and commit to work to turn away from just that one thing. Ask God to help you adjust, realign, regarding just that one single thing, whatever it is. By doing that, you’ll find the joy in your life even more, and it will help you to share that joy to others. By doing that, you’ll live more in keeping with the Great Commandment.

The really good news for us is that God doesn’t just want us to do this, but God will actually help us to do it. In the passage from Luke, Jesus tells this parable about the landowner who has a fig tree that isn’t producing figs and is just taking up valuable space, and who wants to cut the tree down and replace it. But the gardener objects, and says give me some time to work with the tree. I’ll loosen up the soil around its roots, so it gets plenty of water. I’ll fertilize it with manure, to make sure it gets the proper nutrients to grow and produce fruit. When I read that earlier this week, I laughed and I thought that whenever we feel like our own roots that we’ve laid down over time are being loosened up, and challenged to spread out, and when we feel like we’re getting crap dumped on us, maybe we should look at it as a sign that God’s working with us, to lovingly spur us into growth and a more productive life of faith and love.

The good news for us is the reality that God is working in just that way in all of our lives, hoping that we’ll bear good fruit for the kingdom of God here in the world. Yes, God loves us enough to hold us accountable for our faults, but God also loves us enough to forgive us for our sins, and to keep working with us, just like that loving gardener in the parable, all the days of our lives.

Thanks be to God.


Fox/Hen
February 24, 2013

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” [Jesus] said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'” Luke 13:31-35 NRSV

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We’ve probably all been in some situation where we could see something bad was about to happen, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it. Whether it was something in the life of a family member, or a situation at work, or even just something we saw as we were walking down the sidewalk or driving down the road, it’s awful to have to watch some tragic thing unfold right in front of us and there’s nothing we can do.

In part, that’s what Jesus was going through in this passage from Luke. As this passage opens some people have warned Jesus to get out of Dodge, because Herod was gunning for him. We’ve looked at this Herod before; the insecure, third-choice, third-rate not-quite-a king living in the shadow of his great father, the mighty Herod the Great. But when Jesus gets this warning, he sluffs it off, and in the process he tweaks Herod’s nose by calling nothing more than a conniving little fox and saying that if Herod wanted to kill him, he’d have to take a number and get in line. The tumblers in the great cosmic machinery were all aligning, forces were in motion that were going to end up with Jesus being killed whether Herod participated in it or not. And as part of all that, Jesus starts to think about Jerusalem, where it’s all going to play out. Jerusalem, this great, bustling city, full of great good and great evil, and everything in between. The city where for thousands of years, God has been revealing eternal truths in the midst of vendors in the market yelling out trying to sell spices and produce and cashmere scarves and falafel. Where the sacred is never far from the profane, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. The city of Roman occupiers and Israeli occupiers, of saints and suicide bombers. This great mixed bag of a city, then and now simultaneously closer to and farther away from God than any other place on the planet, and yet it’s just this confused and confusing place that Jesus weeps for, laments for, as he sees its past, its present, its future. It’s this crazy place, and these crazy people, that he wants to gather to himself and protect, like a mother hen protects her chicks under her wings. That’s what he wants for Jerusalem, and for all of us, who are just as much a mixed bag, and who he loves just as much in spite of ourselves.

And yet, as nice as that seems, we all know that finding ourselves under Jesus’ wings doesn’t seem to offer us any greater physical protection or safety in this world than anyone else. Toward the end of his life, Mark Twain endured a string of terrible personal tragedies, in which he lost his wife and two daughters. These experiences left him very bitter and angry, and hostile toward God. During this time of his life, he wrote a story called “The Mysterious Stranger.” In the story, the stranger – who is actually Satan in disguise – is instructing some young children about the futility and meaninglessness of life, whether in general or as individuals. In the middle of this, one young girl piped up, “But the Bible says that God sees even a single sparrow fall from its nest!” And the stranger answers “But it falls just the same, doesn’t it?” Yes, it does. And often enough, so do we.

So if that’s true, that we don’t find the kind of fail-safe protection and security when we’re under God’s wings that we’d hope for – and clearly, we don’t – then what difference does it make, whether we’re under those wings or not? If we do stop running around the barnyard trying to fend for ourselves, and we do gather together under God’s wings, what *do* we find there?

Well to start with, we find community. We find ourselves with other people who have understood the need to be under God’s care. We find out that whatever we’re going through, we aren’t alone. We’re part of a larger body, a family – maybe one just as weird and dysfunctional as our own immediate family, but still a family nonetheless – one that loves us, and is there to help and offer support and love as we go through our life’s joys and struggles. Someone once said that we all have our own private hell, but once we share it with others, it’s no longer private and it’s no longer hell. Once we share our stuff and struggles with our brothers and sisters under God’s wing, those problems don’t go away, but the immediately lose a big part of their power over our lives. Jesus says “come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens,” and it’s here, under his wing, in fellowship with him and the others around us, where that happens.

The other thing that we find under those wings – I think maybe the most important thing – is something that we learn about Christ, and about love itself. That mother-hen kind of love that Christ offers to us is dangerous. It leaves the mother hen herself vulnerable. Covering us with her wings leaves her own breast exposed. In that position, it isn’t hard for the foxes of the world to kill the mother hen, and of course, in Jesus’ case, that’s exactly what happens.

But almost every good story and every deep truth contains some odd, unexpected twist, and here’s the unexpected twist in this great truth. That dangerous, vulnerable, self-sacrificing love that Jesus wants to offer to Jerusalem, and to us – that unprotected mother-hen love – is actually the most powerful force in the universe. If you had to come up with just one single idea or way to try to understand what God is really all about, I think this would be it. And the real tricky thing for us, the thing we have to keep considering especially during Lent, is that we’re called by God to show that same crazy kind of love to others. In gratitude for being under Jesus’ wing, and his making himself vulnerable for us, we’re supposed to do the same thing for the people around us – even the people we disagree with as much as Jesus disagreed with so much of what the people of Jerusalem did. The real power of God is hard to see in brocaded cardinals’ frocks and massive cathedrals. The real power of God is hard to see in the megachurch “God factories” whose audiovisual budget is greater than their annual mission giving. It isn’t even found in a community-wide protest to keep a monument of the Ten Commandments in front of a courthouse, or a painting of Jesus in the lobby of a high school. The real power of God is much easier to see in being a friend to someone in need, when it costs you something. When you actually have some skin in the game. It’s seen in standing up for someone who the rest of the community, maybe the rest of the world, looks down on, when they’re being treated in an unmerciful or unjust way – an unchristian way – even when it means that other people, even friends, may look down on you or turn away from you for doing it. The real power of God is seen in the weakness and suffering of the cross.

Gene was a nice guy, someone you’d probably like to share a coffee with if you’d met him. Big, broad smile, outgoing, and smart, too. He was born in 1906 and grew up in the Midwest, part of a good, conservative Presbyterian family. In fact, he became a Presbyterian pastor, and that’s what he was when the civil rights struggles really came to a head in the 1960s. As he studied that issue that was tearing the country apart, he just couldn’t square the discrimination and the racism that he saw, in both the north and south, with the gospel of Jesus Christ that he’d been brought up in since he was a kid. So he started to work, peacefully, for change and for equal rights for African-Americans. He got involved in different groups, and he participated in protests. It’s hard to prove beyond all doubt, but at one point Gene was identified as the first white minister arrested for his protesting for equal rights. For his efforts in working for equality for all Americans, Gene was blasted by a wide swath of the public. At various times, he was called out as a heretic, a preacher of apostasy. He was called a lot of far uglier things that I won’t mention here. Many people considered him a troublemaker who should just stick to preaching nice, harmless Sunday sermons but who should otherwise keep his mouth shut about what was going on in current events. He was called anti-American, and even a Communist, because he spoke out against the very wrong things that were going on in our country, a country that he loved very deeply in spite of its faults. A country of great good, and great evil, and everything in between; a country that sometimes was simultaneously closer to and farther away from God than any other place on the planet. And Gene took all the abuse and hatred that was thrown at him, and he kept on working to fight racism, and to promote that fuller, truer living out of Christ’s gospel, even when it came at very real cost to himself.

Gene’s full name was Eugene Carson Blake. He died in 1985, but for some time he was the head of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA – the so-called “northern church” that merged with the “southern church” to form our current denomination. That merger, and a strong belief in greater ecumenical relations across all Christian traditions, was another strong belief in his life, and it’s what led to him becoming the leader of the World Council of Churches for a time. He was also one of the driving forces in guiding the denomination through adoption of the brilliant and forward-thinking Confession of 1967, which our Adult Ed group studied not long ago. We can look at Blake’s work today and it seems so clear that what he did was right. But back then, it wasn’t so clear to a lot of people. In fact, I’ll bet that there are probably people right here in this room who remember him, and those times, and the controversy that swirled around him. But whatever else might be said, at his core, Eugene Carson Blake had a deep, abiding love for other people; and in the name of Christ, and for the love of Christ, he felt compelled to stand up for them when many others wouldn’t, and at great personal cost. To try to protect them under his own wings, even if that meant leaving himself open to harm from the foxes of this world. This Lent, as we contemplate the cross of Good Friday that looms ahead of us, it’s important for us to remember that that’s the costly, crazy kind of love that Jesus calls us to, while we live as the chicks under his wings.

Thanks be to God.


The Temptations
February 17, 2013

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”

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

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1-13 NRSV)

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The picture that you see overhead is a place called the Mount of Temptation. It’s in the occupied West Bank, near the city of Jericho, and tradition holds that it was here where Jesus was tempted by Satan, as we heard in Luke’s gospel today. If you look carefully at the picture, you’ll see a long, thin building sitting along a ledge about halfway up the mountain. That’s an old Greek Orthodox monastery, supposedly built on the very spot where Jesus was tempted. At any given time, there are three or four monks occupying the building, separating themselves out from the world and dedicating themselves to quiet solitude and prayer. A few years ago, there was a cable car installed up the mountain, and since then, the monks have had to deal with a near-constant flow of tourists coming to their door and wanting to come in for a tour, and they just want to be left alone, so most of the time they keep the door locked and they ignore the tourists who come knocking. You can feel a special connection to this place here, this morning, because this picture was taken in the parking area of a little shop where I bought a box of dried dates. And I brought them in this morning. They’re up here on the Lord’s Table and you can sample them after the service if you’d like; they’re really very good.

In any case, let’s think about this gospel story. Here’s Jesus, out in this sparsely populated area, not far from the place where many people think John the Baptist was baptizing. And Jesus is being tempted by Satan during his 40-day time of fasting and focusing on God and his ministry. This is an important story for us, since it’s a very important thing in our faith that Jesus was fully human, exactly like us. That means that he was really, truly tempted, exactly like us. He didn’t get to use some special power, since he was also fully divine, no “Get Out of Temptation Free” card, in order to not really be tempted. And that’s important, because if he couldn’t really be tempted, then he wouldn’t really be fully human – and he wouldn’t have been able to fully identify with us, and redeem us.

So what kinds of temptations are these that he faces? The first one is to exploit his power as the Son of God to care strictly about his own personal benefit and needs, over God’s will. But Jesus says that human life – in order to be really, truly human as God created us – requires us to be concerned with God’s will, and to trust God, and not think solely about our own personal or physical concerns.

The second temptation was to obtain power or other benefit through compromising God’s will. All Jesus had to do was to give his loyalty to Satan, and Satan would turn over the world to him – Jesus could have done anything he wanted. He could have instantly ended poverty and hunger and sickness, and the whole world would have been in his power. But Jesus knew that it was a false bargain, one that would require him to turn away from God, and one that looked good on the surface, but that would end in disaster. Jesus knew that he already had authority in the world, but that authority came from God, and it was up to God to determine what that authority would look like in the world.

The third temptation was to put God to the test. And really, if we’re being honest with ourselves, in some time of crisis or another we’ve wondered what good it is to believe in God and worship God, if we can’t rely on him to come through when the chips are really down. I mean, if that’s the kind of God God is, why bother? And why shouldn’t Jesus be able to jump off the top of the roof, and allow God to save him? With a spectacle like that on a busy day at the Temple, people would flock to be his followers. And it would have all been achieved so much more easily, and with a whole lot less suffering, than the path God had actually laid out for Jesus, the path that led to hardship, and suffering, and death on the cross. But Jesus rejects this temptation too, because he knows that God doesn’t work that way. That what God wants from us is our faith and love, and if that’s the way God worked – if God were just some kind of big vending machine in the sky that we could go to and get whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted it, as long as we just pushed the right buttons, that wouldn’t really be any kind of love and faith at all.

With this third temptation, I wonder. Jesus is standing there on the highest point of the Temple roof, close to the edge of the city, built on a hill that drops down into the Kidron Valley just outside the city walls, and he could look straight across that valley to the rise on the other side, no more than half a mile away, the Mount of Olives, and the Garden of Gethsemane. I wonder, as he’s standing there, listening to Satan tempt him to call on angels to come protect him and keep him from harm, can he see himself over there in the Garden just a few years in the future, praying to God to spare him from being crucified, and ultimately just praying for God’s will to be done. Could he see that future, in his mind’s eye? Did it help strengthen him in this moment of temptation, to see the path he had to travel, how it was going to have to be?

There’s something important about these temptations that Jesus is dealing with. They’re all *real* temptations. In other words, the ends that Satan lays out are actually, on the surface, pretty good and desirable things, and they weren’t easy choices for Jesus to make. Food, not just for himself, but for the whole world if he wanted. Power to achieve good things for everyone. Comfort, and showing God’s power without any ambiguity to the world. Jesus had to have really struggled with the cost compared to the very real benefits of giving in to these temptations; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been temptations at all.

That’s the way it usually is with us, too. Most of our temptations aren’t clear cut, good versus bad choices. Oh sure, there are some straightforward temptations that we face, but most of them don’t come wearing white hats and black hats so we can easily see the right and wrong moral choices. Most of them occur in the grey areas, and with ambiguity, where we wrestle with making the faithful response and choosing between two options that both include elements of good and bad. How do you balance the dignity of the life of an unborn child, and the life of the mother whose life is being threatened by the pregnancy? Is medical research that uses fetal tissue to save one life at the expense of another morally right? When does the good of the community trump the rights of the individual? Is a higher minimum wage the morally right thing, even if it results in there being fewer actual jobs available? What is the more moral stance, an economy that creates as many jobs as possible, reducing unemployment, or imposing stricter environmental controls on industry that improve the health of the general public but which cost jobs?

These are the kinds of ambiguous temptations and moral choices – spiritual choices – that we have to wrestle with every day. And it’s hard, because our faith, and Christian ethics, don’t come in a nice, neat, pre-packaged system that gives us simple answers for every imaginable circumstance. It wasn’t that easy for Jesus, and it isn’t that easy for us.

As we begin the season of Lent, and we focus more on our relationship with God, and our penitence and turning back to ward God, these kinds of things – how we resolve unclear temptations and moral choices in a faithful way – are important to consider. In trying to understand how we do that, Jesus sets a good example for us in this story, showing us that as we try to work these temptations and choices out in our lives, to apply the same ideas: don’t put our own personal needs ahead of God’s will; don’t compromise the gospel for power or other benefit; don’t try to take the easy path, when Jesus himself took the difficult one. Will we always get things right? No. Will we stumble, and make wrong moral choices and give in to temptations? Sometimes, yes. But we know that just the fact that we’re trying to please God does actually please God. And if we continue to have a spirit of repentance, Jesus will forgive us, and pick us up and strengthen us and keep us going in faith, even if we fail sometimes. The only thing that we can’t do is to try to avoid temptation, and having to deal with making imperfect, ambiguous moral choices by setting up some rigid, legalistic system that tries to give us standardized answers for a very non-standard world; or by trying to live some separate, pious life by trying to isolate and separate ourselves from the world. When we try to separate from the world, the world still finds its way to our front door and knocks – even if we’re hiding on a mountainside, like the monks on the Mount of Temptation, and whether we want to answer the door or not. God calls us, Christ calls us, to live in the world, and to engage in the world; to pray and discern how to do that faithfully, even with all of its ambiguities and uncertainties and grey areas. We have to open the door when the world comes knocking. And that’s OK, because when we do, Christ will be standing right there beside us.

Thanks be to God.


Inside the Clouds
February 10, 2013

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. – Luke 9:28-36

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Mount Tabor is a large mountain in the northern part of Israel, about ten or twelve miles west of the Sea of Galilee. It sits at one end and overlooks the huge Plain of Jezreel – it’s big, and wide, and flat, and fertile, and looks a lot like some of the beautiful farmland just outside of town here. This is some of the most productive farmland in the whole region. The plain, and this mountain that overlooks it, has also been the site of many battles and military struggles. The Book of Judges tells about one of those battles, between the Israelites, led by Barak, and the Canaanite army of Hazor, led by Sisera. In that story, there had been an incredible rainfall, turning the whole plain into mud, clogging up the chariot wheels in the Canaanites’ much stronger army, and enabling Barak to rout Sisera and his men. Sisera ran away, and somewhere on Mount Tabor he ducked into the tent of a woman named Jael, trying to hide. And Jael invited him in, gave him some milk to drink, and invited him to lie down and take a nap. And as soon as Sisera fell asleep, Jael took a mallet and a tent stake, and with a big swing of the mallet, she drove the stake completely through his temples, sticking him to the ground and otherwise ruining his whole day.

That story in the history of the Israelits was a big part of what Mount Tabor had been known for leading up to Jesus’ day. But for us, Mount Tabor becomes even more significant because that’s where tradition has held that Jesus’ Transfiguration, this amazing event that we read about today, took place. This scene where Jesus becomes radiant, dazzling white with glory, and appears with these two Old Testament figures – not Barak and Sisera, but Moses and Elijah, come together to commune with Jesus just before his entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion. It’s an odd story really, and just reading it on the surface leads to questions. Matthew and Mark tell this story , saying that it was six days after Peter’s profession of faith at Ceasarea Philippi, that Jesus was the Messiah. Luke changes that and says it was about eight days. Why the disagreement? And whether it was six days, or eight, why would that be an important detail that the gospel writers wanted to be sure to make? What did it signify? What was the significance of Moses and Elijah appearing to Jesus? Was it because they represent the Law and the Prophets, as a sign that Jesus was the culmination, the fulfillment, of both? Or was it because they represented different aspects of Jesus’ own ministry: Moses feeding the people miraculously with manna, and Jesus feeding the thousands miraculously with a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish; and Elijah being a healing prophet and Jesus’ many healing miracles? Why did Jesus only let those three disciples in on the event? And why didn’t they tell anyone else about it afterward, until much later? It’s a story that can lead to a lot of interesting discussion.

One day early in our trip to Israel, we went to Mount Tabor. That first week, we put up with record-setting cold temperatures, and near-constant downpours, probably dumping as much rain on us as Sisera had to deal with way back in the day. We took our tour bus to the base of the mountain, but from there we had to transfer onto little shuttle vans that were small enough to navigate the little goat-path of a road, and its twenty-some switchbacks on the way up the side of the mountain. On this particular day, we didn’t just have to deal with cold and rain, but fog, too. The whole mountaintop was covered in a cloud of fog so dense that sometimes, you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. We finally got to the top of Mount Tabor and piled out of the van and into the dense fog. We started to walk down the walkway, maybe a couple hundred yards to the Church of the Transfiguration, which was supposed to have been built on the actual site where all this supposedly happened. So we walked through the fog, and didn’t see a thing, until, at just the last minute, the big church loomed out of the cloud, revealing itself to us just at the last minute. The inside of the church was beautiful, and in addition to the main sanctuary, it included two little side chapels, one built in honor of Moses and the other in honor of Elijah. So in a way, Peter’s wish to built shelters for them all eventually got carried out – not as tents or booths, the way he suggested it, but in stone and mosaic and plaster and painting. The picture overhead is the view looking out the front door of the church, and into the foggy mountaintop.

It was actually very appropriate that the mountain was covered in a cloud that morning. As we heard in the gospel reading, when Jesus was transfigured, the mountaintop was covered in a cloud just like that. And Jesus, radiating in his glory, must have given the entire scene and an intense, gauzy glow as it lit up the water droplets suspended in the air all around them.

If you go through the scriptures, you see that these are common themes when God is present – the glowing radiance, and especially God’s glory being enveloped in a cloud. This image of the fullness of God, the glory of God, the encounter with God, being enshrouded in a thick cloud, occurs time and time again. When God met Moses on Mount Sinai to give him the Ten Commandments, the mountain was enveloped in a cloud. When God had the Israelites build the portable tabernacle as they wandered during the Exodus, his presence was seen by the filling of the tabernacle with a cloud. When Solomon built the permanent Temple in Jerusalem, once again, God’s presence was seen by it being filled with a cloud. So for Peter and James and John standing there on the Mount Tabor, and for other first-century listeners, the imagery that God chose to use here was clear: in this moment, they were in the very presence of God.

There are any number of messages that we can draw out of this passage. But at least this year, this week, I was drawn to one particular way of thinking about this story. It’s odd how as we go through our lives, we sometimes feel like we’re surrounded in some kind of a cloud, as it were. Times when it’s hard to understand what’s going on, what the end result will be. Times when it’s hard to know which way to turn, or even whether what we’ve always thought was true really is true. There’s no certainty, there’s no black or white anymore; everything’s just grey. Maybe we’ve experienced the cloud during some personal problem we’ve had to go through. A health struggle, or bad test results, either for you or someone you love. Things not panning out the way you’d hoped on the job, or keeping a business afloat. Arguments and conflicts that threaten to destroy personal relationships. Sitting bedside, or graveside, and wondering why so often, death is cruel, unfair, unkind. Where are the answers? What’s the meaning? Which way do you go to get out of the cloud?

But that seems to be the crazy thing. So often, it seems like in order to truly experience the real fullness, the depth, the downright heaviness of God’s presence and glory shining into our lives and being revealed to us, we have to actually be in the middle of that cloud. I don’t know about you, but I can tell you that’s the way it’s worked in my own life. It’s always been in my most uncertain, confused, stress-laden, stomach-knotted up, anxiety-filled times – in the times that I was in the thickest part of the cloud – that God finally broke through and revealed himself to me in some special way that I needed in just that place where I was in my life. Revealing himself surprisingly, unexpectedly, just like that massive stone church on Mount Tabor seeming to appear out of nowhere. Like Jesus glowing white in the cloud to the disciples. That’s the way it’s always seemed to be for me. Maybe it’s been the same for you, too.

The inside of the cloud can be a scary place, that’s certainly true. But that’s where we meet God. That’s where God works the most profoundly in us. Deepening our faith. Deepening our hope. Shaping us to be more devoted and more true in our discipleship. Giving us the guidance, and the strength, not just to overcome what might be problems that we’re dealing with that put us in the cloud to begin with, but to improve us in ways we haven’t even imagined yet. And when we do experience those intense revelations of God in the midst of our distress, we never forget them. They change our lives forever after. Once you’ve had one of those moments with God – and sometimes, they’re just literal seconds of our lives, where we feel we’ve truly come into the real presence of God – but once we’ve experienced it, the whole world is different. We’re never again the same person we were before, when we eventually step out of the cloud.

And Jesus does tell us to step out of it. Not to bask in that moment, no matter how great it is. Jesus told the disciples, and tells us, that the whole purpose of God revealing himself to us, and transforming us, isn’t to stay there. Not to set down roots, set up shelters, stay where it’s nice and wonderful and comfortable. No. God’s whole purpose for us is to get out of the cloud, to come down off the mountain, to live in the world even more deeply as his child and disciple. To keep moving on, challenged, renewed, strengthened, living out our faith, sharing and living the gospel in connection and in relationship with more and more people in Christ’s name.

And if we do that – if we keep expanding the way we live in Christ, we keep moving outward and upward in terms of how we understand our faith, and how we engage with others in the world as Christ’s followers – it’s very likely that we’ll hit more points of uncertainty, confusion, conflict, and anxiety. In short, we’ll find ourselves in the middle of other clouds, in other ways, on other days. But that’s OK – because when we do, we know who’s inside it, waiting for us.

Thanks be to God.


I Heard the Bells
December 16, 2012

You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

– Isaiah 12

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I think most of you know that about a month and a half ago, I started serving as the Parish Associate for Pastoral Care at W_________ Presbyterian Church. Almost as soon as I started that job, I began to visit a woman named Anita. Anita was 90 years old. She’d been a member of the congregation for 63 years, and now she was in home hospice care as she was coming near the end of a long battle with cancer. Anita died this past Tuesday evening, and I’ll be officiating her funeral this coming Tuesday morning. Anita was one of those people who knew everyone, and everyone knew her. We hit it off the very first time we met. I’d like to think that had something to do with me, but the truth is, I think Anita made friends with pretty much everyone she met. She was this tiny little ball of energy and happiness, and was just full of the joy of life. She was a Deacon, and an usher, and probably a half-dozen other things at the church, and most of them for longer than many of us have been alive. She was ornery, and spent a lot of her time doing things like playing matchmaker, trying to line up dates for eligible young bachelors in the congregation. Through all of her illness, she never gave in to sadness, or depression, right until the very end. She actually told the nurses where she was undergoing her treatments that she was actually glad she developed cancer, because it meant that she was able to get to know them, and the other patients getting treatments – especially the young patients, who she always tried to cheer up. Anita and I would sit together, and read scriptures, and pray, and tell jokes and laugh, and just talk. And she always talked about having been blessed to have lived long enough to see her children and grandchildren grow up and do well in their chosen professions, and in their lives. She would sit there, just days from her death, and with a sparkle in her eye she’d say, “I’ve had a wonderful life. What more could I ask for? I’m just so blessed, and happy.”

Anita’s life was one that was absolutely overflowing with joy – the joy of family and the blessings of this life, and joy in the confidence that she was loved by God, and that soon she was going to enter eternity and into God’s very presence and love. Right up until the very end, she was the personification of the kind of joy that we read about in today’s reading from Isaiah. The joy of knowing that no matter what, God is with us, and for us, and loves us – no matter what. That come what may, God is in control, and that we can draw on God’s strength, so we can trust and not be afraid. That knowing that we should just shout with joy from our rooftops about the greatness and trustworthiness of God.

But it’s hard to do that sometimes. It’s hard to stay focused on joy over God’s goodness when wonderful people are consumed by cancer. Or a young man has to be Med-Flighted to the hospital for emergency surgery to save his life. Or when a Presbyterian organist in Pennsylvania gets shot in the back and killed in the middle of last Sunday’s Advent service, while playing “My Lord, What a Morning.” Or when 27 people – 18 small children, and nine adults – lose their lives in a school shooting that we mourn, and that we try to understand, but can’t really because there’s just no explanation for it. So do we just light that pink candle on the Advent wreath that symbolizes joy and fake the feeling in spite of the events in the news? How can we have joy in times like this? Where is God in times like this?

In the midst of the news about the Connecticut shooting, a friend reminded me of the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, written at Christmastime during a particularly terrible time during the Civil War. The poem is called “Christmas Bells.” You’ll know some of its lines, which were used in the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells”:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

The little bit of Isaiah that we read today is part of a larger story, about another time of real despair, and trouble, and tragedy, this one in the lives of the Israelites. In the midst of all that turmoil, Isaiah reminds the king, and the people, that God is with them, and hasn’t forsaken them, no matter how bad things might seem at the moment. Isaiah told them all that there would come a time when God would send his chosen one to them, to set things right. To comfort them to be their very salvation, and to deliver them from their troubles. And in that day, Isaiah told them, they will shout for joy; they will live lives of joy gushing over them like water drawn from a well.

The time that Isaiah foretold to them was the time that began to be ushered into the world with Jesus’ birth, and as the first disciples experienced with Jesus’ life and ministry, and the amazing, transforming joy that his life, death, and resurrection brought about. It’s a time that is already here in part, but is still yet to come in its fullness at some point in the future, and it’s that waiting that we observe during the Advent season.

So like the ancient Israelites, we wait for the fullness of our joy to be fulfilled. But because of that time already partially breaking into the world, made possible by our faith in Christ, God’s chosen one; who makes all things new; and through whom God reconciles with us; and through whom we are united with God – because of that, we can have joy in our lives, even in the face of great troubles. We can have Anita’s happiness and joy, even in the face of sickness, or tragedy, or death. Yes, it will be hard sometimes, because we won’t always understand how it will all play out, and there will be pain and sorrow and tragedy along the way. But we know that God is faithful, and true to his word. And we know that Jesus promised to return and usher in the fullness of God’s kingdom, when our joy will truly be complete. And we know that God validated Jesus’ teachings by raising him from the dead. So because of that, we can be confident. We can be full of joy. We can light that pink candle, and we can feel, and share, our joy with others, this time of year and throughout the year. God’s promises to us are just as valid, and just as certain to us, as they were to the ancient Israelites, even in the wake of terrible news and tragedies. So when in his despair, Longfellow cries out in his poem that there is no peace on earth, it’s fitting that the poem ends:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

…(church bell rings, 27 times)…

Thanks be to God.

______________________________________________________________________


The Definition of Christ
December 9, 2012

Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

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Sam had a good life going in 1968. He’d gone through college on the G.I. Bill after the war, got a job at the Mead and worked his way up through the ranks, Now he was a department manager and was living a comfortable middle-class life with his wife, Joanne. Sam was a well-liked guy in town, active in the Lions’ Club charities, serious about his faith, and on the Session of his church. Life was good.

In fact, about the only thing that caused Sam any real discomfort at all was his son. The doctors had told Sam and Joanne that they’d likely never be able to have children, but somehow Joanne got pregnant and their son John was born. They called him their “miracle baby.” Sam had high hopes for John. He’d have all the opportunities in life that Sam never had, and if Sam had done as well as he had, he’d groom John to follow the same good, respectable path, and John would live the American Dream even more than he had.

That was the plan, anyway. But then John went off to college, and he came to believe that a lot of the way he’d been raised, a lot of what he’d been taught, may have had good intentions, but ultimately ended up being wrong, mistaken, and was causing problems for other people – people here in our own country, and other places in the world. John became part of the counterculture of the 1960s. He looked at the comfortable life of his father, and he saw inconsistencies and hypocrisies. John just couldn’t buy into the same exact world, the exact same ways and values, that Sam was living by. It was the classic story that every child has to go through, as they find their own path, their own way separate from their parents, as they become their own person. Same would “go along to get along,” and figured it was best not to make waves. John yelled, and chanted, and protested in the streets against war, and injustice and greed. Sam got his crew cut trimmed up every two weeks, and he put on his best suit and went to church every Sunday, because that’s what respectable people did, and how you were supposed to honor and respect God. John wore his hair long and stringy, lived in a commune, wore tie-dyed T shirts and ratty, frayed, bell-bottomed jeans, and met in coffee shops with the kind of people TIME and Newsweek were calling “Jesus Freaks.” Sam supported the good works and mission of the church, here in the States and abroad; John criticized the corruption in the church, and the hypocrites who used the church and the Bible to justify discrimination and unjust treatment of blacks, and women, and others, here and around the world. The father and son loved each other, there wasn’t any real question about that – but it wasn’t easy. Holiday get-togethers were usually strained, and arguments often broke out at the dinner table between the two of them, while Joanne often cried and felt stuck in the middle of it all. The two men seemed to be living in two completely different worlds. The only thing that the seemed to have in common was their deep love for God, and even in that, the way they understood it and lived it out were worlds apart.

Now, what I’m really talking about here isn’t a story from the 1960s about a man in Chillicothe and his radical son John. I’m really talking about first-century Palestine, and a man named Zechariah and his radical son John – John the Baptist. Zechariah Zechariah was a well-respected member of the established priestly class, serving the Temple worship of the Jewish people. As we all know, his son, John the Baptist grew up to be something very different. In the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, we read Zechariah’s prophecy about his son – he will become great in God’s eyes, a wonderful prophet and servant of God. It’s a song of praise to God and love for his son. When you read Zechariah’s words, you can just feel the pride bubbling up in his chest over his son, born even though his wife Elizabeth was barren; the kind of pride that every father has felt as he’s holding and looking at his own newborn child.

But then we jump ahead in the story, to the passage we read today. Luke tells us that now, John’s a grown man, and that he’s living out in “the wilderness” – the unsettled desert, the middle of nowhere, out where normal, reasonable people wouldn’t ever live. Luke doesn’t specify exatly why John’s out there in the wilderness, but we know now that about the only people living out there were a group of people called the Essenes, and it’s widely believed that John may have been one of them. His words sound like theirs, and it would explain what he was doing out there. The Essenes were a group who thought that the religion of their day had become corrupted, and hypocritical. It had lost its way; the religion had lost its real goodness and truth, as laid out by the prophets. And whether intenionally or otherwise, the Temple priests had become accomplices in all this. So the Essenes left the city and the Temple and its worship behind, and set up their own religious commune out there, and they said they were going to be the pure religious remnant. They were going to eliminate that hypocrisy and preserve the true teachings of the faith.

That would be a pretty unusual place for the “miracle child” of a respected Temple priest to be found. It would probably have been pretty disheartening, and disappointing, even embarrassing to Zechariah, who undoubtedly saw his son following in his own priestly footsteps. John’s ministry, as we see it in the gospels, was pretty much a rejection of almost everything the priestly class stood for. You can imagine the family tension that must have caused between Zechariah and John, when you start to think about them not just as characters in a story, but real people, living out lives and relationships just as real and complicated as our own.

And just what, exactly, was John’s message? Turn away from the way you’re living now, he says; the Lord is coming. Live your lives accordingly. Get rid of the hypocrisy in your lives that create obstacles to God’s will. As John, and the prophet Isaiah, put it, God wants all the low places filled, the high places leveled, the crooked ways straightened out, so all people can see “the salvation of God.” God wants *all* obstacles to be removed, so *all* people can see God’s salvation.

Now, we can read John’s words when he talks about God’s salvation, and to our 21st-century Christian ears, we tend to think about our spiritual salvation. John clearly meant that. But he meant more than that, too. This word that John uses here that we translate as “salvation,” is actually very rare in the gospels. It doesn’t mean just a spiritual kind of salvation, but also a literal, physical, real-world salvation from troubles and injustice, and God’s victory over all enemies to his purposes. It’s victory over, and removal of, all those obstacles to all people – all of God’s children – from enjoying the peace, and justice, that God wants us to have in our daily lives. Not just in the sweet by-and-by, but right here, right now, too. John was calling out to people – and across time, he’s calling out to us, too – to turn away from setting up those obstacles, to live out God’s message of love, peace, and justice laid out by the prophets. That’s the same message – the same good news that we find in the story of Jesus’ birth; that the love, the peace, the justice for all people – “all flesh,” as John put it – is now beginning to break into the world. God is entering the world, in the flesh, to redeem us, to show us what that kind of living looks like, and to lead us into it.

You’ve heard me talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer before. Maybe you’re tired of hearing about him, but here’s one more thing from him. He once said that in our faith, the issues of peace and social justice are inseparable; they’re two sides of the same coin – and that working for them is an absolutely necessary part of our truly living as Christ’s disciples. He called these two things the very definition of Christ. He went on to say, “There are certain things which are worth fighting for without any compromise whatsoever. And I think that peace and social justice – in other words, Christ – are just such things.” Think about that: peace and social justice are the very definition of Christ – what the very core of his message, and the gospel, the whole reason for his coming into the world, are all about. The very reason that his birth caused the angels to proclaim “Peace on Earth, goodwill to all humanity.”

I believe that’s John the Baptist’s message. More importantly, I believe that’s Jesus’ message. In his own way, that’s really what Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, worked and fought for as he lived a blameless and righteous life as a Temple priest. In his own way, it’s what John fought for in a very different way, calling for people to repent, out in the wilderness along the Jordan River. In his own way, it’s what Sam fought for on the beaches of Normandy, fighting against the murderous injustice of the Nazis, and later on in the Lions’ Club charities, and as an elder in his church. And in his own way, it’s what his son John fought for in the Jesus Movement, and the protest marches of the 1960s.

This Advent season, as we get closer and closer to remembering Jesus’ birth, God’s coming into the world in the flesh, it’s an especially good time for us to reflect on our own lives, and the life of the church. How are we responding to that call from John the Baptist, and from Jesus, to remove those obstacles to all of God’s children seeing and experiencing the full meaning of God’s salvation, in the world to come and this one as well? What are we doing – what *should* we be doing – to spread the love, the justice, the “peace on earth” that’s the whole point behind Jesus’ birth? There isn’t any one answer to that question; it will likely be different for each and every one of us. But especially this time of year, we need to realize that that’s a crucial question for us in our lives of faith, and that we all need to come up with an answer.

Thanks be to God.

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Bro Cope and Advent Hope
December 12, 2012

Luke 21:25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

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In 1978, the year I first showed up at Penn State, Clarence “Bro” Cope also showed up as a street preacher there. Day after day, he’d stand out on the sidewalk in front of Willard Building, the busiest classroom on campus, and preach fire and brimstone to the undergraduates as they came and went to Econ 101, or Psych 220, or whatever. His message was full of criticism of pretty much the entire college experience, from binge drinking and frat parties, to drugs, to casual sex, to gay pride marches, to dancing, to science courses that taught evolution, to multi-faith gatherings, to rock music, to you name it. To Bro Cope, these were all signs of the coming apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it. We were all doomed, he shouted at all of us, while we were still wiping sleep out of our eyes or fighting hangovers from the night before, or stressing about the exam we were walking into. We were all going to hell, Do Not Pass Go; Do Not Collect $200, because we hadn’t accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Of course, many of us actually had, but Bro never seemed to notice that. Morning, noon, and night, Bro Cope stood out there, yelling at us. He was always the person used as an example to show how naïve and backward Christianity was whenever some smug atheist professor got interviewed in the student newspaper. Many Christian students, like me, thought he was an embarrassment to the faith. Most people just thought he was a nut. He got shouted at, and endured students standing near him delivering their own loud anti-Bro Cope message. There was a lot of his message that I disagreed with back then, and even more that I disagree with now. But in a way, I always respected at least his determination to do what he thought was right, even if I didn’t respect his theology. Oddly enough, he left his post in front of Willard Building, leaving Penn State and Central Pennsylvania in 1982, the same year I graduated. During his time there, he endured pies in the face, and probably worse. But he kept on delivering his message that the end of the world was near, that the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars were going to quake, soon, and that we all needed to repent from our immorality, and right away.

Bro Cope’s view of the coming end of the world was drawn out of parts of the Bible like Jesus’ words here, where he’s making reference to words of the prophets, and the way they described the significance of the eventual coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Bro Cope took those words very literally. And many people, like Bro Cope, used these kinds of scary, frightening images to try to scare people into accepting Jesus into their hearts and picking up their Get Out of Hell Free card.

We need to realize, though, that when Jesus and the prophets were using this kind of language, they were talking in a style of apocalyptic language that was common at the time, not just in the scriptures but found in other sources of the time, too. There were certain phrases used to make a point that often weren’t meant literally, but just to set a mood or make a larger point. Sort of like the idea that you can like Country & Western music, understanding its identifying chord structures, its rhythms and vocabularies, to set a mood in your mind and make a larger point, without having to literally pick up and move to Texas or some hollow in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But whether you take Jesus’ words literally, or you think they’re more of a figure of speech, an analogy for how significant, how different, the coming kingdom of God will be from this current age, it’s often been the case that these words from Jesus have been read with a bit of fear and dread over how terrible those times would be.

In this passage from Luke, Jesus calls all of us, his followers, to continue to be obedient, to listen to his words about the way God wants us to live, and not to lose heart. He tells us not to get bogged down in the ways, or the worries, of this life, because that isn’t what God’s kingdom is all about. He goes so far as to call those things a trap, ready to snare us into losing sight of the amazing, wonderful new life that we’ve all been born into as children of God’s kingdom through our faith in Christ. Some people have characterized being a Christian as a kind of trap, a kind of having to live life in a straightjacket, not allowed to do this or that, not allowed to think, not allowed to dance or listen to the Grateful Dead, according to Bro Cope. That being a Christian means limiting your freedom. But the real truth is just the opposite. It’s worrying and stressing and fretting about all the things the world tells us we should worry about, all the things we’re supposed to have or do in order to be fulfilled or happy in life, that’s the trap that keeps us from truly living life to the fullest, the way God has planned for us, and designed us for. Living as a child of God’s kingdom, as shown to us by God himself in Jesus, makes us *more* free, not less. It opens up a world of new possibility – the possibility of living our lives in love, love of God and love for one another. The possibility of being the face of Christ in the world. Helping to bring in the kind of justice and righteousness that Jeremiah talks about, into our world here and now, a foretaste of the coming kingdom. And we can have hope in that. Not hope that our obedience to Jesus will earn our entry into that kingdom, but instead, hope, and excitement about the full coming of God’s kingdom, because every good thing that we see, or do, or experience from someone else, is just a reminder to us of how wonderful that kingdom is going to be. Imagine a world, a life, that is made up of only the very best things that we’ve experienced in our lives, only a thousand times better. It’s going to be so different from the way we experience life now, that even if the sun, moon and stars don’t literally shake, it will certainly seem like they should. Our hope isn’t that our obedience will earn us God’s acceptance. Our hope is looking forward to that glorious new world, because God has told us that we’re already accepted.

One day, while Bro Cope was out in front of Willard Building, preaching yet another gloom and doom, fire and brimstone sermon, blanket-condemning us all to hell, he told us that we all needed to repent and turn to God, that very moment, because Jesus was coming soon. Just then, there was a little old man with a cane walking by. What he was doing on campus I have no idea, but when he heard Bro Cope warning us all that Jesus was coming soon, he stopped, straightened up, and waved his cane, saying, “What in the world are you talking about? He’s already here!”

That’s the point of Jesus’ words here, at least to me, at least today. Jesus is coming back. But he’s also already here. He has been with us since his Mary laid him in the manger in Bethlehem; since he walked the roads of Galilee, and Jerusalem; since his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. He spirit is still here with us, and in us. And our actions, guided by his spirit and in gratitude for his love for us all, is an important part of the way he works in our world today. That’s why Jesus told his followers, and by extension, us, to remain obedient, even in times when it seems like the world is going to hell in a hand basket. It isn’t, Jesus says. And his birth – God coming into the world in the flesh to be one of us, and to show us face to face, in person, like no book or written page ever could, what God is like, and how much God loves us – is what we remember, especially this time of year.

After a long hiatus, Bro Cope returned to Penn State in 2008, and he’s still going strong in front of Willard Building, preaching fear, fire and brimstone to a fresh new crop of undergraduates. And yes, at some point in time known only to God the Father, Jesus will return, too. This Advent season, we think about the full significance of his first coming. And we think ahead, not with fear or worry, but with joy and excitement and hope, to his return. This Advent season, we think about the full significance of his first coming. And we think ahead, not with fear or worry, but with joy and excitement and hope, to his return.

Thanks be to God.

*****

Future Perfect
November 18, 2012

Mark 13:1-13

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

“As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

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When I was in high school, one of my favorite TV shows was “The Waltons.” In some ways, back then I was a little bit like the geeky, bookish, John Boy on the show – in fact, a couple of my college buddies from New York and New Jersey picked up on what they considered my backward, small-town ways that were so foreign to them, and sometimes they actually called me “John Boy” because of it. Well if you remember the show, you’ll remember the Baldwin sisters, Mamie and Emily. They were the elderly daughters of the late Judge Baldwin, who apparently had been a pretty successful bootlegger in addition to serving on the bench, and after the judge died, the sisters kept the family business going, selling jugs of “The Recipe” to their neighbors – for medicinal purposes, of course. Throughout the story line of the show, the one sister, Miss Emily, was continually pining away since she was a young lady, for Ashley Longworth, the one and only true love of her life.

Apparently, Ashley Longworth had left abruptly one day and never came back. Over the course of the show, it eventually came out that the judge had run him off, thinking he was a good-for-nothing gold-digger who wasn’t good enough for his daughter, but none of that was part of Miss Emily’s fantasy world that she’d built up around him. She was always hopeful and convinced that, even at this late date, Ashley was gong to come back for her, and set everything right, and they’d both live happily ever after together.

Since the earliest days of our faith, Christians have often been accused of living in that same kind of delusion as Miss Emily – waiting and waiting for Jesus to come back for us all and make everything right. In the days shortly after Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension, Christians expected Jesus to return very soon – surely within weeks, months at most. But as time dragged on, people started to make fun of these crazy Christians, waiting for their crucified leader to come back. And even the Christians themselves began to wonder, were they mistaken? Was Jesus really coming back?

In this passage from Mark, Jesus seems to be talking about two things simultaneously – the destruction of the great Temple in Jerusalem – which the Romans did indeed destroy, in 70 AD, when they crushed a Jewish rebellion – while at the same time, he appears to also be talking about his return at some future time.

Jesus had told the disciples that the whole Temple complex was going to be destroyed. This was a pretty bold claim. The Temple had only recently been completed. It took longer to build than Jesus had even been alive. It was massive; it took up more room than six football fields and was the largest religious complex in the ancient world. And it was impressive. It was sheathed in white marble, and the historian Josephus wrote that from a distance, it glistened in the sun like a white, snow-capped mountain. It drew people from all around the ancient world, not just Jews but sightseers, who just wanted to see this great wonder. It was the focal point of the Jewish religion and culture. And yet, Jesus said it was all going to be destroyed, laid flat right down to its foundations. It was outrageous. But he was right.

When the early Christians, who had been passing on stories of Jesus mostly through oral tradition, finally got to the point of saying, “You know, we really ought to write some of this stuff down, so we don’t forget it,” this particular story was very important to them. It seems that Mark’s gospel was first written down just shortly after the Temple was destroyed. Jesus had been gone by that time for about 40 years, and believers were starting to wonder when he was coming back, if ever. But in this story, Christians could say “Look, Jesus made this claim that the Temple was going to be destroyed, and as unlikely as it sounded then, his words came true. So even if his promise to return is hard for us to grasp now, we have this event – and even more importantly, we have the reality of his resurrection – as evidence for us that his word is true, and that eventually, in the time known only to God, he will return, just as he promised.”

This passage from Mark has had a big influence in certain parts of the Christian faith, especially in the United States. The disciples ask Jesus, “When will this be?” and Jesus gives them an answer, one that applied both to the shorter term scenario of the destruction of the Temple, but also to the larger issue of his return, when he would establish the kingdom of God here on earth, and establish the great eternal wedding banquet we talked about last week. Jesus’ answer has been analyzed, and studied, and shoehorned to fit any number of times throughout history, in the attempt by many people to try to determine just when Jesus is coming back – or if not to determine exactly when, at least to be able to say “It’s really getting pretty close; we’d all better get ready!” This line of thought has become an entire industry within the Christian faith, cranking out study Bibles that try to lay out the whole timeline of Jesus’ return. It’s led to countless books like the “Left Behind” series, and similar books. That whole line of trying to establish a specific timeline of Jesus’ return, and what has to happen and when, before it can happen, has become the theological backbone of a lot of churches.

And if you’ll forgive me, I think it’s all a lot of hogwash.

I think that whole line of thought, that way of reading Jesus’ words, completely misses the point Jesus is making. In fact, I think it’s the exact *opposite* of the point he’s making here.

Jesus isn’t laying out a detailed script for his return, that this has to happen, and then this, and then this. If anything, he seems to be saying, “Yes, there will be wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes and famines – but there always have been, and always will – so don’t let anyone tell you that these are a sign of the end times; these will occur all throughout this age before I return.” If you really listen to his words, he’s saying that whatever comes our way between now and that time – trials, tribulations, persecutions, problems, fears and doubts – that we’re to continue to live our lives in faith, and in trust, and that God will provide us with what we need, and when we need it. What seems important to Jesus isn’t that we live our lives so that when he returns, we’re ready for him at *that* time, but rather, that we live our lives so that we’re ready for him at *any* time. Christmas day. Next week. Two o’clock this afternoon.

And while we wait, even when we’re in our most extreme times of crisis, or fear, or doubt – we can hear this story from Mark and get the same message out of it as its original readers. We can rely on Jesus’ word. He was right about the Temple, he was right about his resurrection, and because of that, we can trust him to be right about his return. We can have faith and confidence that there will be an end to the brokenness, and pain, and suffering that we all have to endure in this world now. That he will eventually usher in that new, perfect future.

In two weeks, we’ll start the season of Advent, when we think about Jesus’ first entry into our world, and the baby in Bethlehem; and at the same time, we think about the great hope of his return. As we do that, we should also think about the fact that Jesus doesn’t want us to just sit around on our hands in the shade of the maple trees, just waiting for him to come back like Miss Emily. We’re supposed to live in faith, and hope, and joy over the fact that, unlike Ashley Longworth, Jesus really is coming coming back to set everything right. Who knows – maybe even today.

Thanks be to God.

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Blind
October 28, 2012

Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

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He sat by the edge of the road, like he did every day. There wasn’t anything else for him to do but sit there, begging for handouts. He’d been born with perfect 20/20 vision, but somewhere along the line, something went wrong. Glaucoma. Cataracts. Macular degeneration, something, but whatever it was, he was blind now, and he couldn’t earn a normal living for himself. So he sat there day after day. Holding his little hand-lettered cardboard sign. Wearing an old army surplus parka, hoping enough people would show mercy, or at least pity, on him and toss a bit of money into his cup as they walked by. And as he sat there every day, he’d heard people talking about Jesus, and debating whether he was the messiah or not. From what he’d heard, he might or might not have had all the details about that worked out in his head, but he had heard about the miracles and healings that Jesus had performed, and he believed that Jesus would be able to heal him, too.

And now, on this particular day, here came Jesus himself down the road, on the way to Jerusalem, followed by a throng of people who formed a wall of humanity between Jesus and Bartimaeus. So he did what he could, calling out, yelling at the top of his lungs for Jesus. He made a scene. He discomforted the crowd of people, who would have preferred to ignore this unpleasant-looking man on the fringe of polite society. They began to talk. They told him to shut up and behave himself. But Bartimaeus wouldn’t shut up, and finally Jesus heard him and called him over. So he threw off his ratty old parka and jumped up, and worked his way over to Jesus. And as we heard, because of the faith the man showed, he was healed of his blindness. He could see again.

Today is Reformation Sunday, a day when we remember the historical beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. But we also think about the need for the church to continually reshape itself in order to clearly proclaim the core, essential good news of the gospel in ways that are appropriate and understandable to whatever society or culture the church finds itself in. The need to reform the church didn’t end in the 1500s, it continues to this day, needing to be refreshed and renewed with each new generation, and if it doesn’t, it will become stagnant, and rigid, and legalistic; and it will eventually die and be replaced with some new form of the church that actually does accomplish God’s goals. That’s the whole meaning of the famous motto from the Reformation that’s printed on the front of our bulletins today, “The Church reformed, and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” That’s why before today’s service is over, we’ll have experienced a wide range of music – from our past; the one hymn that John Calvin was known to have written, to hymns played on the bagpipe, in recognition of the Scottish roots of the Presbyterian church here in the U.S. And moving into the very recent past, singing that wonderful contemporary hymn, “Here I Am, Lord,” composed here in the United States by Daniel Schutte – who, in a great irony for Reformation Sunday, is himself a devout Roman Catholic. And finally moving into the present and future of the church, closing with that new hymn we learned a couple weeks ago, “He Came Down” – a traditional tune from Cameroon, in Africa, one of the places around the world where Christianity is exploding. Whether its in music, or in ever-changing forms of worship, the church must truly be reformed, and always being reformed according to the Word of God.

The story of Bartimaeus might be seen as a key illustration of what was a major trigger to the whole Protestant Reformation to begin with. Bartimaeus was healed because of his faith, Jesus said. Not because he’d led a good, moral life; we aren’t told anything about that; we don’t know if he did or not. Not because he thought Jesus was the divine, incarnate Son of God. It would have been a miracle if he believed that; the church itself didn’t even get its arms around that understanding until well after the resurrection. Not even because he took the initiative to get up off the ground and go over to Jesus, making the decision to take control of the situation for himself. No, Bartimaeus wasn’t healed because of any of those things, but because of the *faith* that he had that Jesus could help him, before he ever moved a muscle, before he did any thing. It’s that principle, that we are saved, and reconciled with God, by our faith, that was the single biggest motivator in the Protestant Reformation. It was a reaction against the thinking in the church at the time that our good works either earn our salvation, or at least, that they contribute to our achieving salvation – the idea that we’re somehow a partner with God in achieving our salvation; that God will do some of the lifting, but then we have to do some of the lifting for ourselves in order for God to save us. The Reformers said no – while we’re certainly called to live a changed, moral life in gratitude for our salvation – and that not exhibiting those good works might be evidence that we don’t truly have saving faith – it’s truly, entirely, the faith, and nothing but the faith, that saves us. Even when we don’t have all the answers or facts, even when we don’t have everything worked out perfectly in our heads. Not fully understanding God, or the idea of the Trinity, or being able to fully understand how Jesus can be fully divine and fully human at the same time. Not having perfect theology or making perfectly correct moral choices in our lives. It’s all about the faith, Jesus says to Bartimaeus, and to us. And even that faith itself isn’t our own doing. Being able to have faith is itself a gift from God.

The message of those old dead white European guys of the Reformation. That God knows we can’t ever change to be holy in his eyes, but he loves us and wants to be in relationship with us so much that he decides to be the one to change. To bend his own rules, in order to bring us together. God loves us so much that he enters our world as one of us, to show us what he’s truly like, and that he’s with us, and for us. That’s our good news. That’s what we’re grateful for. And in taking such a radical step of changing himself in order to accept and love us, he shows us that we’re to be willing to be the same way if we’re going to truly follow him, in the person of Jesus. We are also going to have to be radically inclusive in our love and acceptance of one another, just as God is with us. We’ll have to bend, to change our ways, in order to be able to draw closer to others, and accept them, in Jesus name, as we’re called to do.

If we don’t do that, then we’ve missed the point of the Protestant Reformation. If we don’t do that, then we’re stagnant, and rigid, and legalistic, and we haven’t seen and heard the true wonder, we haven’t understood the amazing grace that God’s poured over us. If we don’t do that, we haven’t really taken in the great news of the gospel. If we don’t do that, we’re blind.

Thanks be to God.

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Local Train
October 21, 2012

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

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When we were up in New York last month for Erica’s graduation, my Dad got to experience his very first ride on a passenger train. He’d been on and around trains his entire life, but they were always freight trains loaded with coal. Erica graduated early in the morning, and that evening we all took the train from the cute little station in nearby Poughkeepsie down to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, where we had a nice celebratory diner just a couple blocks away. Dad loved the trip, loved that the train had an actual conductor with that funny little conductor’s hat, punching everyone’s tickets just like in the movies. And when we got down into the city, he was in awe of the expanse of Grand central, and all the people running in all different directions trying to get to their trains.

Those of us who had made this trip more often while Erica had been in school had gotten pretty familiar with the whole routine. We’d gotten to know the train schedules between the two cities, and we quickly became savvy enough to watch for the express trains and if possible to avoid the locals, which made a lot more stops and made the whole trip a good bit longer.

We all like to find the express – the quicker, easier way to get something done. Whether it’s a train or a bus, or the express lane in the grocery store. We see those people who have EZ-Pass, whizzing through the booths on toll roads, while we’re stuck in line, counting out our quarters and dimes, and wishing we were them.

That’s something like what James and John were looking for when they came up to Jesus in this story from Mark’s gospel. They were all on their way to Jerusalem, and just before the passage we read today, Jesus had laid out for them in very blunt language what was awaiting him when they got there. But for some reason – whether they don’t understand him, or they don’t believe him, or they just don’t want to think about it, James and John want to skip over all that unpleasantness and ugliness, and jump ahead to the wonder of Jesus reigning in the Kingdom of God. They wanted the express train to glory. They don’t want to stop at Ossining, or Tarrytown, or Yankee Stadium or Harlem; they wanted to go straight to the glory and grandeur of Grand Central Eternity. And when they got there, they wanted to do it in style. They didn’t want to be in the cheap seats, they wanted to be right in the front row, at Jesus’ right and left. They wanted to be leaders in the whole organization, people with power and authority that everyone else looked up to. They figured that they’d been part of this whole Jesus movement, and part of the whole inner circle, since it began, and they felt like they deserved a bit of special recognition when it all played out.

When we hear this story, it’s easy for us to look down our noses at James and John for what they asked; to think less off them. That’s what the other apostles did, too. But the truth is that they were just upset because each one of them thought *they* deserved that honor. They all had that same ambition; they just wanted the glory for themselves.

Of course, we heard Jesus’ answer to them – that only God would determine the places and types of honor in the coming kingdom; that the favor just wasn’t his to grant. And he reinforced what he’d been telling them all along: that those who really wanted to be the greatest in the kingdom of God needed to be the humblest in this life, the greatest servant to all those around them, just as Jesus was, and as he was about to be even more, through his suffering and death. It was a death that carried some irony, considering James and John’s request to be at Jesus’ right and left when he came into his kingdom, since when Jesus actually did come into his kingdom – suffering and dying on the cross – it wasn’t any of his inner circle, but two others suffering on their own crosses, just like Jesus, on his right and left.

Jesus’ message to James and John, and to all the other apostles, was that there really is no express train to the kingdom of God. It’s a local train, one that stops at the upper room, for the sadness of the Last Supper. It stops at the Garden of Gethsemane, for Jesus’ agonizing prayer that he wouldn’t have to endure this suffering, and his betrayal and arrest. It stops at Pilate’s headquarters, for Jesus’ trial and beating. And it stops at Golgotha, for the crucifixion.

Jesus tells them, and us, that the train to greatness in the kingdom of God stops at humility, and servanthood, to God and those around us. Titles, and prestige, and honor in this world don’t factor into the situation at all. It’s the ones who are the servant to all, who are the leaders in the kingdom of God. And that’s hard for us to accept. It runs counter to what we generally think. Even now in the church, we look at our church structures and we think of the leaders as the ones with titles like pastor, elder, deacon, or in other traditions, maybe bishop, or even cardinal or pope. But Jesus says the truly great ones in God’s kingdom are those who commit themselves to serving others, regardless of whether they have any special title or get any recognition for what they do. Those people, Jesus says, are the true leaders, the truly great ones.

Maybe that sounds a little troubling for us – especially those of us who are pastors, or elders, or deacons! Maybe it seems like in our having these titles, and holding these positions in the church, we’re allowing our ambition to trip us up. That it’s just another example of not being able to meet God’s real standards, and getting it wrong; and this is all just another time that God’s playing Whack-a-Mole with us, beating us over the head again, and we just can’t get anything right.

But notice something important here. Notice that when James and John ask Jesus their question, Jesus doesn’t criticize their ambition. And he doesn’t criticize the ambition of the other ten, either. On the contrary, he tells them that their ambition to be great in the kingdom of God is a good thing. He just tells them they’re trying to be great the wrong way, and he redirects their ambition in the right direction. I think that’s an important point. Maybe the problem in the church today isn’t too much ambition, but to little. Yes, there’s plenty of misdirected ambition. Too many people want to throw their weight around, and set up their own little kingdoms and have their own power bases. But ambition can be redirected, redirected for good. Having no ambition – not caring about being great in the kingdom of God at all – just wanting to be mediocre, as a believer or as a church – now, *that’s* a problem. Imagine what great things God could accomplish through the church if we were all on fire with ambition to be great in God’s kingdom, and we channeled it the way Jesus taught.

It’s truly good news for us that having some impressive title or position in the church isn’t what God considers great. God tells us that whether we have some title or power or not, what matters is how we treat and serve others. Time and time again in the scriptures, it always comes back to that point. And God doesn’t write us off for having ambitions to be great in God’s kingdom, and if we mange to misdirect it. God helps us to fix that. The good news for us is that God has already forgiven us and called us into the kingdom, and has told us what makes us great, and has given us the Holy Spirit to make us able to direct our ambitions in that manner.

For the record, this idea of service to others, and not standing on title or position, is why we Presbyterians usually sit in our seats for the Lord’s Supper, and have the ordained officers of the congregation bring the bread and cup back to us. It isn’t that we’re too lazy to come forward; it’s a visible sign intended to show that those who would be leaders in the church must be the servant to all. I think that’s a good way to keep things in perspective, and of course, the same attitude has to carry itself on out the doors of the church and to all people in need.

What a great God we worship, who operates in this wonderful way, so completely different from the world we live in now, where greatness is determined by money, and power, and position, and fame. It’s a way where all of us, great and small, rich and poor, titled and untitled, are loved equally, and have equal opportunity to be considered great in God’s eyes. The way to greatness in the kingdom of God is a local train; it stops at nursing homes, and food pantries, and trailer parks, and countless other places along the way. If, out of gratitude for the great love and servanthood that God has given to us, we take those stops and we offer that love and servanthood to others, we can be confident, knowing that we’re on the right track.

Thanks be to God.

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Wealthy
October 14, 2012

Mark 10:17-31

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

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Some of you might remember a young man, a friend of mine, named Jon Hauerwas, who was here a while back filling in for me one Sunday. Jon’s got his own congregation now out in Bellingham, Washington, and is doing well. If you remember him, you know that he’s a pretty quiet, soft-spoken guy. But Jon has a cousin, a very well-known seminary professor and theologian named Stanley Hauerwas. TIME magazine put him on their cover a number of years back, calling him “The Most Important Theologian of the Twentieth Century.” That might have been something of an overstatement, but he does continue to be a very important voice in the church today. Stanley is nowhere near as quiet and soft-spoken as his younger cousin. He’s known as being pretty controversial and downright cantankerous at times. He once said that whenever people want to join the church, they should be asked four questions:

1. Who is your Lord and Savior? “Jesus Christ.”
2. Do you trust him and seek to be his disciple? “I do.”
3. Will you be a faithful member of his Church, and this congregation? “I will.”
4. What is your annual income? …

It’s pretty easy to see why Stanley is a professor and author, and not a pastor in an actual congregation. Most American Christians seem to consider their salary to be a subject more sacred than baptism or the Lord’s Supper, and any pastor who would ask that fourth question would most likely be told to mind his own blessed business.

But he was making an important, and correct, point: being called to be a disciple of Jesus, and trusting in him as we profess to do, we’re called to reorient our values and priorities from those of the society and culture we’re in, and that includes the way we prioritize our finances and how we value our material possessions. We’re called to be a community connected to each other and accountable to each other, in both our time and our money, in a way different from the rest of society, in order to support the church and its mission in the world of helping the poor. And not, as happens all too often, just giving to the church and others out of whatever we might have left over after we’ve used our money for everything else that we want or think is important. Stanley Hauerwas’ fourth question, and the follow up issue of what a reasonable level of support to the mission of the church is an important one. Did you know, for example, that it’s the norm in Jewish congregations for members to meet with the rabbi and discuss their income, and to reach an agreement about what a proper and reasonable level of support would be – and then the synagogue just bills them quarterly, or monthly, and the members pay the synagogue just like they’d pay the electric bill. I actually think that the synagogues’ approach to finances is a good way of doing things, and that frankly, we Christian churches could learn an important lesson from them.

What we’re talking about here is stewardship. Stewardship is an important concept in our understanding of our relationship with God and in creation. We’re given many blessings in life, and much opportunity. But with that opportunity and those blessings come responsibility – responsibility not to gather up those blessings in ways that harm or deprive others, and a responsibility not to value those blessings more than we value the God who entrusted them to us. We often hear people saying that our money should be ours and ours alone, and that we have a right to spend it however we see fit. That’s not what God tells us in the scriptures. The money that we receive is not ours alone. First and foremost, it’s God’s, not ours, and it comes to us with strings attached. As Christians, we are not free to spend our money however we see fit. We’re called to be stewards of the money and wealth that God entrusts to us, and to use them in ways that God would intend.

That’s what this story from Mark’s gospel is all about. The man in the story seeks out Jesus and wants to know how he can inherit eternal life. He’s obeyed the commandments faithfully, but apparently he’s unsure if that’s enough, or he’s feeling like there’s something else he’s missing. And we heard what happens next. Jesus tells him that he’s lacking one thing. He needs to sell his possessions and to give the money to the poor, and then he’ll have eternal life. And as we heard, the man turns down Jesus and his advice. His valued his possessions, his material things, more highly than he valued the eternal things Jesus offered him.

Whenever we hear this story, we tend to read it from the standpoint of our own American picture of who’s wealthy. We read it, and we put Bill Gates’ face on the man, or Warren Buffet’s. Jesus is really putting a burden of responsibility on people like that in this story, not on people like us, because we’re certainly not rich, right?

Well, maybe we shouldn’t jump to that conclusion so quickly. When we think about who’s really wealthy, we can’t just consider it from our own perspective, and think “wealthy” means just the top 1% or so of our own society, because from the perspective of the rest of the world, we’re already – all of us Americans – at the top of the economic heap. When we want to know who’s really wealthy – and who Jesus’ warning about caring more about wealth and possessions might apply to – we need to remember that if we’re making $25,000 per year, we’re wealthier than 90% of the world’s seven billion people. Even more strikingly, a full 85% of the world’s population – almost 6 billion people – are somehow surviving on $2,000 per year or less. Given that, can we think that Jesus’ words to this wealthy man don’t speak to us, too?

Sometimes, preachers will preach about this passage, saying that Jesus doesn’t really expect us to live at a lower standard of living than we are now, or with less security through saving for a rainy day in order to give more away. He’s really just exaggerating; he’s using hyperbole to make the point that we shouldn’t turn our possessions and our bank accounts into idols. That Jesus wasn’t telling us that we *had* to live more simply and to give more to others; just that we had to be *willing* to do so.

Honestly, I think that’s a cop-out. If we actually *are* willing to give away more of our personal wealth to others, then why *wouldn’t* we? What good reason would we have for not doing so? Why, in a world where people die by the millions just for want of a few cents’ worth of common medicine or clean drinking water, would we think that Jesus would tell us, “No, I just want you to be *willing* to give more of your money to save their lives – it’s OK with me if you don’t actually *do* it.”

Is Jesus asking you to sell off your possessions, or to live more simply, and use more of your money for his purposes? I don’t know; maybe. I know that we can’t automatically rule that possibility out just because we don’t live like Les Wexner. It is a troubling thought: what if we put our own face on the wealthy man in the story? What if we met Jesus, and he asked us to sell our house? Sell our car? Liquidate our 401k? Give it to the poor. Give it to the mission of the church. Erase our congregation’s budget deficit. What would we do? Would we do it? Or would we turn and walk away?

Sermons are supposed to be more about the Gospel than the Law; more about God’s grace than about our actions. The grace, the gospel, the good news for us this week is that Jesus does, in fact, call us, and offer us eternal life. But with that grace, once given, comes an expectation that out of gratitude, we follow Jesus, wherever and however he leads. And that often comes at cost. Sometimes, great cost. Usually, more cost than we’re comfortable with. To be honest, if we aren’t feeling some discomfort, some stretching, in our lives of discipleship, then we might not be able to say we’re really living in faith at all. If we aren’t feeling some challenge in our discipleship, then we only have comfort. And Jesus doesn’t call us only to comfort, but first, to faith.

I drive a used car with 140,000 miles on it. I don’t own real estate any more. My savings are gone, and I only have a measly $5,000 left in a retirement account. Combining my part-time call to this congregation and my part-time hospital chaplaincy, I live, from paycheck to paycheck, on about $29,000 per year. Yes, I am wealthy. And I need to take Jesus’ words to the wealthy man very seriously. Are you wealthy, too?

Thanks be to God.

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Bent Love
October 7, 2012

(This sermon may be listened to on the Sermon Audio and Video Samples page)

Genesis 2:18-24

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

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Mark 10:2-16

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

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JesusWifePapyrus_m_0919

There were a lot of stories in the news over the past couple of weeks about a little scrap of supposedly ancient papyrus with a handful of words about Jesus printed on it that’s turned up, and the words that were there gave the impression that, contrary to standard tradition, Jesus might have been married. And as you can guess, this possibility has been the subject of a lot of jokes about things that Jesus’ wife might have said: “Hey, “Son of God” – you wanna get your feet off the coffee table?”… “Hah! Water into wine? That’s no miracle. You getting the storm windows up like I asked you, now *THAT* would be a miracle!”… “I don’t care if you can walk on water; I can’t – so remember to put the seat down!”

Well, if it turns out that the papyrus is genuine, and if what it seems to say is true, it might be a big thing in thenRoman Catholic church, where Jesus’ maleness and his unmarried status are a basis for the doctrines of a male-only priesthood and celibacy. But it really wouldn’t be a big deal to us Protestants. It just isn’t something that factors into our theology or doctrine in a major way at all. According to the last stories I saw, the papyrus might be a forgery, but the debate about whether Jesus was married will go on, just as it has for almost two thousand years.

While Jesus doesn’t really tell us anywhere in the gospels whether he was married or not, he does talk about marriage, and divorce, in general. The passage from Mark that we heard this morning is one of those times. In this story, Mark tells us that the religious leaders came to Jesus and tried to trip him up, and get him in trouble with the authorities, by asking about divorce. This wasn’t a random subject they picked; it was a big topic of conversation because of King Herod’s decision to divorce his wife and marry his brother’s ex-wife. Herod faced a lot of negative opinion from the people over it. Publicly criticizing this act of Herod’s was what cost John the Baptist his life. So now, the religious leaders were trying to snag Jesus in the same public relations trap, asking him, is it legal to divorce your wife?

But turning the question back on them, Jesus asks them what the Torah – the Law, handed down from Moses, says about the subject. And showing that they actually already know the answer to their question, they quote the part of the Law that said that divorce was legal and acceptable. So there they had it. But Jesus went one step further. He told them that the only reason God had permitted Moses to permit legal divorce was because of humans’ hard-heartedness – their stubbornness and brokenness, their inability to achieve God’s ideal. That actual ideal, Jesus told them, was that marriages were to be lifelong and not broken up. And as he makes his argument, Jesus refers to the creation account we also read here today. In that story, we heard how God said that it wasn’t good for human beings to be alone; that they should have someone to be their special helper and partner in life, in a direct way that even God wasn’t. But rather than just create someone and just command the human, “Here, this is the one to be your helper and partner,” the story tells us that that’s when, and why, God created all the animals – bringing each one to the human being, leaving it up to the human to name them, and to decide if it was the kind of helper and partner that he would want for himself. Each time, God creating an animal and asking the human, how about this one?… This one?… This one?… and each time, the human not finding the kind of helper and partner he wanted. And then God created another human, a woman, and presented her to the first human, and leaving the decision up to the human, asking again, how about this one? And then, the human agreed that this was the kind of helper and partner he wanted, and he chose her, and we assume, she chose him. So God agreed, and blessed them and their partnership, their relationship together. Jesus told the religious leaders that God’s original ideal then, from the beginning of creation, was for human beings to choose for themselves who will be an acceptable partner for them, and once they’ve chosen, that they should be, and remain, together for life – and that no one should separate them.

Jesus’ words in this passage about divorce is a hard teaching, to say the least. Divorce, and especially divorce and remarriage, are issues that affect a lot of us. Despite Jesus’ words here, we Christians get divorced at the same rate as our non-Christian neighbors. One preacher told of a parishioner who said that every time she heard this passage, she felt like she’d had a load of garbage dumped on her, and that no matter how nicely she’d dressed for church, she ended up feeling dirty. I’m sure that some of us here have also experienced that feeling. I know that I have. It’s a terrible sense of failure and loss that a person feels when even the worst, dysfunctional marriage ends in a divorce. And there is real, lasting damage done to the children caught in the middle of even the most amicable of breakups. Given these realities, it’s very easy to understand why stable, mutually sacrificial, loving, lifelong marriage would be God’s ideal for us.

But notice something here. Even while strongly supporting the ideal of lifelong marriage – and being fully aware of the very real damage divorce can cause, back then even more than today, and how they’re contrary to God’s original ideal – Jesus still doesn’t tell the religious leaders that people should stop getting divorces. Why doesn’t he do that? I think it’s because he recognizes that we human beings aren’t living in the abstract, in the ideal. And God doesn’t love humans only in the abstract; he loves us as we really exist. In our brokenness. On this side of the gates of Eden. And that means that there are times when God’s ideal is going to have to be “bent” in order to accommodate our brokenness in a way that gets us as close as possible to experiencing that original ideal. That “bending” – God’s choice to lower himself to become one of us, to treat us as if we’re ideal when we definitely aren’t; as if we’re perfect and clean when we’re covered in trash – that bending of God’s ideal, that act of love and acceptance of us as we really are – God’s bent love for us – that’s what we’re really talking about when we talk about God’s grace.

God’s ideal isn’t the abstract preservation of the sanctity of the institution we call marriage. The whole purpose of that institution is to express, and receive, love for and with another person. To be a helper and partner, supported and supporting each other. It’s *that kind of love* – not the institution itself – that God’s ideal is all about. So if a marriage isn’t being and doing those things, it isn’t doing anything good in God’s eyes to just keep it going, supposedly in order to defend the institution of marriage, while the people locked inside it die a little bit more each day.

It is clearly not God’s will that an abusive marriage should continue. And given God’s desire, seen in the Genesis creation account that we should have a helper and partner of our choosing in life, I honestly don’t believe that God opposes ending marriages where, in our brokenness, there is no mutual love, or support, or true partnership. Quite the contrary. I believe the message of the gospel is that love is God’s ultimate ideal: if what we’re doing increases and enables love, it is moving closer to God’s ideal and Christ’s example. If what we’re doing prevents or obstructs or is absent of love, we’re moving away from God’s ideal and Christ’s example.

The morning after Lori and I finally decided to split up, I walked into a class at the seminary, still in a deep state of shock and depression. And wouldn’t you know that somehow, without knowing anything about what I was in the middle of, the professor veered into a discussion about marriage and divorce. As I bit my lip and stared at my shoes trying to avoid eye contact, I heard him say, “Some people believe that God has selected one special person in this world, just for you, who’s supposed to be your mate. And it’s your job to find that person, and marry them, and stay together for the rest of your lives. In that view, for the two of you to divorce would be to obstruct God’s will for you, and that would be a sin. But I don’t believe it works that way. I believe that God allows us to find and chose for ourselves the person that we think is right for us. And once we make our choice, God looks at the couple and basically says, “OK, what can I make of this?” And sometimes, God’s plans for you end up meaning that you stay together for your entire lives. And other times, it’s God’s will that the two of you will do certain things together, but at some point God will call you both in different directions – maybe even with other partners. And if that’s the case – if that’s the direction God is leading you – then for the two of you to stay together would be to obstruct God’s will for you – and *that* would be a sin.”

In our society today, it’s all too common to get married for the wrong reasons, or to want to bail out of a marriage too quickly, not wanting to do the real hard work needed to make any marriage work. We need to take Jesus’ words much more seriously than that. Marriage *is* supposed to be a lifelong relationship, according to God’s ideal, and we can’t just sluff that off. If we’re married, and our relationship is in trouble, we need to work hard to save it – getting sound professional help, starting with pastoral care and including professional marriage counseling and therapy for more serious problems. We need to work at keeping and strengthening our marriages and not just taking the quick and easy exit. But all too many of us here today know that not very marriage can, or should, be saved. And if that happens – if you experience divorce – you do not need to feel like trash, unworthy of God’s love or acceptance. If that happens, the good news for us is that God loves us. Not some abstract, ideal image of perfect “humanity.” Us. Real world, broken us, warts and all. And it’s here, in the real world, that God tells us, “You are my precious child, and I love you. And I will work with you so you can experience as close to my ideal as you’re able to. And I will bless that, and I will bless you. And don’t let anyone – ANYONE – tell you that your divorce has made you in some way a bigger sinner or unworthy of my call to you. Those are the kind of obstructionist people I was talking about when I said it would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their neck, and for them to be thrown into the sea. You remember that David was an adulterer, and I still loved him and made him a great king. You remember that Moses was a murderer, and I still loved him and made him a great leader of the people. You remember that Jacob was a con artist, and I still loved him and blessed him, and made him great. And you remember that in your brokenness, I still love you, and call you, and honor you, and bless you, too.”

We might never know if Jesus himself was actually married. As I said, it really doesn’t matter to us. But what does matter is that whoever we are – whether we’re single, married, divorced, or remarried – that we always listen for Christ’s call to us, and that we follow wherever, and however, that might lead. We can accept the great news of God’s “bent” kind of love for us – that we were created in love, and for love. That we have an obligation to give love, and a right to be loved – and no failures in our past can change that fact of God’s will for us. Because of that, we can go on living our lives, assured of God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance, even in our imperfection, and we don’t need to constantly beat ourselves up over those past failures through the guilt and shame of a lifetime of “Yes, but”s. And I suppose while we’re living into that reality, it’s probably still a good idea to remember to put the seat down, too.

Thanks be to God.

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The Greatest
September 23, 2012

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

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:30-37 NRSV)

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I promise I’m not going to start every sermon with a commercial now. But I stumbled into this one this past week and it was a good lead-in to today’s message. That commercial was made during the notorious 2000 presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore. And here we are, twelve years later, and we’re getting bombarded with all the back and forth of politicians trying to make us all think that they’re the best for us and for the country, usually by trying to make us all believe the absolute worst about their opponent. And it goes on and on, and in the meantime, we all get tired of it, and we want to turn off the TVs and the radios and stay off of Facebook until after the election’s over because we’re all just sick of the political yammering. Day after day, news cycle after news cycle, the politicians are all wrestling with each other for our votes, telling us “I’m the greatest!” “No, I’m the greatest!” “No, I’m the greatest!”

Well, Jesus had a few opinions about who’s the greatest, and he lays it out in this passage from Mark pretty bluntly. You heard the story. They’re all gathered there in the little house at Capernaum, there on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Maybe it was Peter’s house; we’re told that he lived there, but we don’t really know if this was his house or not. And, already knowing the answer, Jesus asked the disciples, “So what were you arguing about on the way here?” And they wouldn’t even answer him, obviously realizing that their argument – over who was the greatest among them, who the leader among them should be, what the actual pecking order was within the Twelve – was actually inappropriate. Even before Jesus said anything, the apostles already knew that what they’d been doing was tacky and wrong. So he told them all that the person who is truly the greatest is the one who makes himself or herself the last, the least, the servant of all the others. And to drive the point home, Jesus sat down, just as every good rabbi did when he was about to teach something important to his disciples, and he called them to gather around him. And we heard the passage – he took a child who was running around there in the household – we don’t know if it was a little boy or a girl – and he had the child stand there in their midst. And then he took the child in his arms, he hugged the child, and he told them all that the one who welcomes even a little child like this is doing God’s will to such an extent that in the process, they’re welcoming Christ, and not only Christ, but also God the Father.

We’ve probably all seen pictures of Jesus this scene – Jesus holding a child while the apostles are all gathered around, and it’s a warm, fuzzy, sentimental scene. But to understand the full effect of Jesus’ words and actions, we need to realize that times were different then. In Jesus’ time, the status of children in society and in the home was very different from the way we see them today. Of course, parents loved their children, but in general, they weren’t given much attention in society until they turned twelve or thirteen, when they were considered an adult. Maybe it was because of the high levels of child mortality, that people couldn’t afford to get too emotionally attached to children today – at that time, about 1/3 of all live births ended in death, and 2/3 of the ones who survived childbirth died before they turned 16, often from what today we’d consider relatively minor illnesses that children today who have adequate access to healthcare don’t have to give a second thought to. Even looking through the gospels, most of the children that are mentioned are sick, possessed by unclean spirits, as they described many illnesses then, or were dying. Children were the lowest and most insignificant members of the household and society. Children were supposed to stay with the women of the household, quiet, out from underfoot, out of sight and out of mind from the men of the house as they went about their business. This would have especially been the case here. Here was a meeting of the inner circle of the one they believed was the messiah. They’d just seen him in a miraculous Transfiguration just a few days before, shining as bright as the sun and having a conversation with Moses and Elijah. Jesus was giving them an important teaching about who would be considered the greatest among them. But they could hardly hear what Jesus was saying, because this child kept running in and out of the room, jumping over the furniture, making noise. Dirty face, messed up hair, runny nose. Acting out scenes with his Moses and Pharaoh action figures, or her Ruth and Boaz dolls. Spilling a juice box; crushing a crayon in the carpet. How could the disciples pay attention to the important things Jesus was saying, with this annoying little rug rat running around disturbing them?

But to their surprise, Jesus doesn’t tell the child to run out to the kitchen and leave the menfolk to their business. Instead, he calls the child over and stands them in their midst. And undoubtedly with it firmly on his mind that he’s on the way to Jerusalem, and what’s waiting for him there is rejection and death in the name of serving and loving us – he hugs the child, and says, “This – right here – this is what I’m talking about. If you want to be great in God’s eyes, you have to be the servant of people like this child. And not just children, but all the least and the lowest. All the most ignored or forgotten or unimportant or pushed aside among you. Giving of yourself, your time, your treasure, your love and compassion – maybe even your own life – for the sake of others – this is what makes a person great in God’s eyes.”

We get this same message throughout the scriptures. In Isaiah 58, the prophet Isaiah relays God’s word to the people and he tells them that working for justice for all people, eliminating oppression, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked – doing these things is actually religious observation, the kind that God recognizes and blesses. Jesus makes the same point in Matthew’s gospel when he taught that whenever we do these things to the least and the lowest of the people God has created and loved, we do it for him. And he makes it much simpler, much more bluntly, here in Mark. As God’s people, we’re called to be great – to be servants, in the name of Jesus, and in the same way of Jesus.

In a little more than a month, we’ll all go to the polls and we’ll vote for who we think will be best for this country. As Christians, our thoughts on that question have to be guided by our faith – not only on how we define greatness as a nation, but who we think will most push that kind of greatness forward. In my own opinion, the real way for us to be great as Jesus defines it – by being the servant, and most compassionate to those who are most in need of it, by humbling ourselves instead of puffing ourselves up – would take a combination of social welfare programs and compassion, along with fiscal responsibility and economic growth, that honestly, I don’t hear being proposed by either of these two men or the parties behind them. But if we’re going to vote at all, these two are the only ones to pick from. So in the end, we educate ourselves on the issues, and we try to filter out as much of the liberal bias that we get on MSNBC, and the conservative bias that we get on Fox News, and we try to find the truth that’s somewhere in between. We think for ourselves. Maybe we even stop and have a Snickers, like the guy in the commercial. And most importantly, we pray – that even if we have to hold our nose while we pull the lever, we’ve made the best possible choice. And that our choice will make our nation as great as possible. Not great as the world defines it, but as Jesus defined it as he hugged that nameless little child.

We might not have much control over who wins the election, and even less control over what the government does once the elections are over. But each one of us has a lot more control over our own actions, and whether they’re what God would consider great, every morning that we’re blessed enough to wake up and roll out of bed. Throughout this week, I want you to think about two questions. First, what am I doing in my life – or what could I be doing – that God would consider great, according to this gospel story? What specifically am I doing to be a servant to the unloved and unimportant in our community, in our world? And second, what are we doing as a congregation – or what could we be doing – that God would consider great? These are important questions, because this is what it’s really all about – this is what it means to be the body of Christ in the world.

When you’re driving a bus for special needs children, you might open the door and say “Good morning, how are you?” but in reality, what you just said is “You matter – you’re special, and perfect, and loved, by me, and by God.” You’re great in God’s eyes. When you gather around a shut-in’s bed and sing her favorite hymn, the singing might not be perfect and the lyrics might get botched, but what you really are is part of God’s heavenly choir, bringing peace, and love, and a smile to one of God’s own. You’re great in God’s eyes. When you visit with an Alzheimer’s patient, you might reach out your hand and say “Would you like a cookie?” but in reality, what you just said is “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.”

Sometimes it’s hard to do what God considers great. But we try, with God’s help, to keep moving more and more in that direction, and we do it out of love and gratitude. Because when we imagine this scene – the disciples gathered around Jesus hugging, loving that helpless, hyperactive, misbehaving, little child – we realize that we aren’t one of the adults in the picture. It’s only when we look into the face of the child that we see ourselves.

Thanks be to God.

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The Real Thing
September 16, 2012

(This sermon may be listened to on the Sermon Audio and Video Samples page)

Mark 8:27-38

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

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

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

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Two weeks ago during the Sunflower Festival, I was asked to do the narration of the lead-ins to the songs the Choir performed as part of the Community church service. If you were there, you might remember that in one of the lead-ins, talking about our memories of the “Good Old Days,” there was a line that went something like, “We remember sitting in front of the radio, listening to FDR addressing the nation…” And as I read those words, all I could think was, “*I* don’t remember that – Franklin Roosevelt had died, and was well past the point of making radio broadcasts, 15 years before I was even born!” Now, I know that some of you here today actually are old enough to remember FDR’s “Fireside Chats,” and that’s great – but most of us here aren’t. That isn’t part of our memories, or our definition of the good old days. What exactly are *your* real memories of the good old days? Mine doesn’t have anything to do with the Great Depression, or FDR or WW II. My memories of the good old days includes stuff like this:

That classic old commercial that most of you remember dates back to 1971. I was ten or eleven when it first aired, back hen a bunch of happy, good-looking young people got together and sang about peace and love and brotherhood, and I guess all that was supposed to come about once some American corporation managed to sell a bottle of their carbonated sugar water to every man, woman, and child on the planet. Coke, the commercial told us, was the “Real Thing.”

But most of us here remember those times, and we know that the world back then was full of a lot of anything but peace, and love, and brotherhood. For more than twenty years, the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Communist China had fought proxy wars with each other all around the globe. And we ducked and covered under our school desks, hoping that the wooden desktops and cast iron sides would shield us from thermonuclear holocaust. There was civil and racial unrest everywhere. They assassinated a president, and then a King, and even though we loved our country, we were still tired of the nightly news coming out of Vietnam and the weekly death toll, and many of us wondered what we were really doing there anyway. And during those times, lots of people became disillusioned with the status quo – in our society, in our government, in our churches. Many of them became increasingly dissatisfied with the official answers they were getting to their questions, and they started looking for new answers – sometimes in good ways, sometimes in not-so-good ways. But whether good or bad, they were looking at the craziness and trouble all around them, and they were looking for answers that were authentic, that were genuine. They were looking for the “real thing.”

It was every bit as troubling a time that Jesus and his disciples lived in. Only instead of living as part of a superpower, they were the little country that kept rolled over as the much more powerful nations around them fought war after war. They’d been almost wiped off the map twice. Their country had been occupied and colonized by the Greeks, and then the Romans, to siphon off their wealth and natural resources for the empire, and to use as an outpost for the empire’s military operations. For the better part of a thousand years, the Israelites had endured one terrible thing after another. And in the midst of it all, the scriptures promised that God would send a person who was specially appointed, specially blessed, to be the one to put an end to all that misery, and who would usher in a completely new way of living for them. A living where they would finally have real, lasting peace and prosperity in their land. This person – the messiah – would make all this happen, once and for all. Many of them were looking for this man, and some of them had begun to wonder if maybe they’d found him in Jesus. They wanted to know – was he really the messiah? Was Jesus the Real Thing?

As we heard in this story, Peter had come to the conclusion that he was. Peter had seen with his own all the miracles that the scriptures had said would happen in those times when the messiah would appear. He heard Jesus proclaiming a new kind of life he called the kingdom of God – the reign of God. And Jesus had proclaimed that now, that time was beginning to break into the world through him. Peter had heard this message, and became convinced that Jesus was truly the messiah, and that somehow, Jesus was going to get rid of the Roman occupiers, and all their soldiers, and all their taxes. He was going to get rid of the hypocritical religious leaders – they were all phonies, causing more harm than good. But in everything that he said and did, this Jesus – he was the genuine article. He was the real thing.

The problem was that no sooner had Peter made this breakthrough confession – it was the first recorded time that anyone claimed to believe that Jesus was the messiah – than Jesus started talking about how he was going to be rejected, get arrested and even killed. This wasn’t anything like the messiah Peter, or anyone else, was looking for. But from this point forward, Jesus began to show them that the real messiah isn’t some powerful political or military leader. The real messiah, the one sent by God to help us, is the one who comes to us right where we are, in our problems and our sufferings, and shows us that God is with us, in the midst of all those things. The real messiah is a servant. The real messiah speaks out for a radical new way of living, very different from the conventional wisdom of the world.

And he starts to teach them that this new way of living won’t always be easy. He starts talking about taking up our cross, suffering punishments reserved for the dregs of society, and suffering as a result of living in a way different from the world’s ways. In this story, Jesus was basically telling the crowd, “Do you remember what I said in the Sermon on the Mount? I was serious. I really meant that. Those weren’t pie-in-the-sky words meant just to show you God’s ideal even though you couldn’t live up to it. They weren’t just special instructions that only a few specially chosen people – clergy, or monks, or nuns, or whatever – were supposed to be able to follow, but that didn’t really apply to the rest of you. No, I really meant them for everyone. Out of gratitude for what God has done for you, you’re supposed to actually try to live that way. That’s living the kingdom of God – the reign of God.

“And if you do that,” Jesus says, “the world is going to dislike you, because this kind of life does run contrary to the world’s logic, and values, and the whole way the world thinks you get ahead.”

“Listen to me,” Jesus says. “If you try to get through this life by following the wisdom of this world – and that is definitely an easier path – you’re going to completely blow it. You’ll have swallowed something fake and cheap instead of accepting the real, priceless thing. You’ll have missed the whole point of why you were created, and the kind of real life that brings you real happiness, and real gain.” That’s what Jesus was telling the crowd.

Jesus’ message here, to Peter, and the other disciples, and ultimately, to us – that this new life is one of real, authentic joy, without question. But it’s also a way of life that comes at very real cost, and we can’t deny that. To truly follow Jesus is going to cost us in time, and money, and in the eyes of others – and if it isn’t, that’s something we ought to think hard about. The cost of following Jesus isn’t the kind of thing that a bunch of happy, smiling people are going to sing : “come follow me, go against the world, be disliked, or persecuted, or even killed for me” – not very catchy lyrics. All the big ad agencies are going to pass on that account. It’s just a big loser.

Or is it? What Jesus’ words tell us is that out of pure love for us, and not out of anything we’ve done to earn it or achieve it for ourselves, God has accepted us. We’re already inside God’s big yellow circle, as we put it last week. So now, we can concentrate on living out our real purpose in this life by being a servant, showing God’s love and acceptance to the people around us, just as God has done with us. This life isn’t about moving up the social ladder, or about accumulating power, or glory, or stuff. God has already told us that each one of us – *you,* specifically, by name – are worth far more than all that stuff combined. We’re precious, and loved, in God’s sight. So we don’t need to chase all that stuff, to try to show people that we’re worth something. Life isn’t about all that. It’s about really living. Being really human, loving God, and loving each other, the way God designed us.

She was a widow, who had outlived her husband by some twenty years. Together, they’d raised a big and loving family. But they were all grown now. They all had kids of their own, and even their kids had kids. She lived all by herself in a tiny little run down house that had only gotten indoor plumbing a few years before. Life had always been hard for her. She’d lost seven people in her own immediate family in the great influenza epidemic. Now, she barely squeaked by each month on just her little Social Security check. Every Sunday that she could get a ride, she’d attend the Presbyterian church service that met in rented space in the company-built community building in the center of the little coal mining village. In the world’s eyes, she was a nobody. She was just another foolish old women who still ran off to church, in a time that was defined by riots in the streets, in a world that was too sophisticated for a fairy-tale God who they claimed was as dead as the soldiers coming home in body bags from southeast Asia. But through it all, she had a deep, abiding faith in God that was as big as the mountains she could see in the distance from her little upstairs window. And she kept living by Jesus’ teaching. No matter what, she always managed to smile and to share God’s love with the people around her. She didn’t have much at all in terms of material things. But in God’s eyes, she was more precious than gold, and rich beyond description.

Since she didn’t have enough money for store-bought gifts, she’d cut children’s stories out of old church magazines and paste them onto the front and back of pages she’d cut out of old wallpaper sample books. Then, she’d carefully punch holes all around the edges of the pages, and string different colored yarn through the holes. With a little bit more yarn, she’d bind all the pages together at the edge to make story books out of them, and those would be the presents she’d give to her great grandchildren when they were little. The world would have laughed at the corny little booklets. But with just a few scraps of yarn and glue, they proclaimed the true gospel of God’s love as well as any sermon ever preached.

That was all a long time ago. She’s long since passed away, and those kids are all grown up and grey-haired now. But when they were still little, she’d teach them about following Jesus’ way, and not worrying about what the rest of the world thought of you for it. In her words and in her life, she taught them what Jesus was saying in this passage from Mark. They’d sit together on the front porch and have a cold bottle of pop while they enjoyed each other’s company and watched the day winding down. She gave them cherished memories of the good old days. In the process, she gave them the real thing. And that didn’t have anything to do with what was in the bottle.

Thanks be to God.

*****
The Yellow Circle
September 9, 2012

(This sermon may be heard on the Sermon Audio and Video Samples page)

Mark 7:24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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As many of you know, our daughter Erica is graduating from the Culinary Institute of America on the 28th of this month. As I was thinking about her the other day, just shy of her 21st birthday now, I remembered one of my favorite memories from when she was a little girl. She couldn’t have been more than three at the time. We were sitting at the kitchen table, and I was watching her draw a picture of someone. She drew a body – kind of a lumpy-looking feed sack of a body – and then she put on some spindly, stick-figure-like arms and legs. Then she plopped a circle on top for the head, and very intently, with her tongue stuck through her lips, she very carefully added all the features of a face. When she was done drawing this person, she took a yellow crayon and drew a big, yellow circle all around the person. Then she came over, crawled up in my lap, and she started to tell me all about her picture. She told me it was a picture of her, and she started to explain it to me in great detail: “Here are my arms, here are my ears, here are my brown eyes…” and on and on, until she’d explained the whole picture to me. And I looked at it and told here, “Well, this is a great picture, honey; you did a very good job. But I’m curious – what’s this yellow circle that’s all around you?” Erica turned and looked at me like I was an idiot, and she said, “That’s love, Dad.”

It caught me completely off guard. Here was my three year old daughter, teaching me something about life, from her viewpoint. The love that she felt around her was so much a part of her existence, so real, so concrete, that she could draw a picture of it. It was a real eye-opening experience for me. My three-year old had just taught me an important lesson.

I think that the story of the Syrophoenician woman that we heard from Mark’s gospel is s similar kind of story, where Jesus learns a surprising lesson. When we pick this story up, Jesus had just had another run-in with the Pharisees, and he’d been criticizing them for putting more importance on human traditions and conventions, and conventional wisdom, than on actually following God, and focusing on God’s will. And immediately after that, Jesus goes off to the coastal city of Tyre for a little rest and relaxation. This is really about the farthest Jesus travels in the gospels away from his home base. He must have thought that surely, here, deep in Gentile territory, he’d be able to get some peace and quiet. So we can imagine how upset and frustrated he must have felt when even here, while he was spending time at the beach trying to get away from it all, he still got mobbed by crowds wanting a piece of him. And in the middle of all that, this pushy woman starts in on him; she won’t leave him alone – heal my daughter, heal my daughter, please heal my daughter.

Maybe Jesus was just upset that she was ruining his vacation. Maybe he was just having a bad hair day. It seems that maybe at this point in his ministry, he wasn’t really aware of the full breadth of the ministry that God was calling him into – he seems here to be thinking that his ministry was reserved for the Jews, and not for the Gentiles like this pushy Syrian woman who wouldn’t leave him alone. It was probably a combination of all these things, but in any case, Jesus shoots back at the woman with this awful, rude answer. It’s probably the nastiest thing that Jesus says to anyone in any of the gospels; it’s definitely the rudest thing he ever said to anyone who approached him looking for some kind of help. His words are tough for us to accept. They just doesn’t seem to fit with the way we want to picture Jesus. We want to think of him as kind, and loving, and compassionate. But he doesn’t seem to have any of that compassion for this woman or her daughter. He calls the woman a dog. Now that’s rude enough to us in modern English, but to call someone a dog in Jesus’ time was the rudest of insults; it was the equivalent of the worst kind of profanity or obscenity we could imagine.

So what makes Jesus say this to her? Well, first of all, she’s a Gentile – a non-Jew. And in the conventional wisdom of Jesus’ culture, Jews considered any non-Jew as someone beneath them; almost sub-human. The Jews had been chosen by God, and to them, that meant that no one else was. According to the religious customs and religious traditions of the time, it was forbidden for a Jew to associate with Gentiles. Just to be in their presence made them ritually unclean. And the fact that she was a woman made things even worse – if a Gentile man was a second-class human being, a Gentile woman was a third-class one at best. This was the culture, the tradition, the mindset that Jesus grew up in, and that at this point in his life, was still at least party operational in his thinking.

But the Syrophoenician woman wouldn’t let him get away with it. She kept pestering him. And when Jesus flung this insult at her, she swatted it away like a fly. She cared more about her daughter than her pride, and she shot back at Jesus her famous answer, yes, but even the dogs get the children’s crumbs. Even the dogs get the table scraps, and if God is anything like you describe, Jesus, God created us Gentiles too, and still cares about and loves us, too.

It caught Jesus completely off guard. It shook up the way he’d understood things up till that point. The woman showed Jesus that he was falling victim to the same kind of thing that he’d just been criticizing the Pharisees for. In Mark’s gospel, this is only the second time Jesus helps a Gentile, and it’s the first time he helps a Gentile woman. After getting his clock cleaned by this woman, Jesus takes on a much broader and more inclusive approach in his ministry, toward both women in general, and toward Gentiles.

This story should be a wake-up call for us, too. History has shown that we Christians can be every bit as exclusionary as the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time, if not even more so. We make the same mistake of thinking that God cares more about us than about other people. Oh sure, maybe we’ll say that God loves everyone, but deep down we’re pretty sure that God loves us just a little bit better. That we’re God’s favorites, and everyone else is an outsider, looking in at our special place inside God’s yellow circle of love. All too often, we’ve missed the fact that it was the supposed “outsiders” that God has used to stretch and expand our understanding of God’s love, and to breathe new life into the church. The truth is, the steady decline in membership of most of our churches is evidence of the fact that despite what we want to claim, we haven’t really been very welcoming to the people we see as outsiders. Our idea of Christian hospitality has often been to just be more or less patient and polite with newcomers to the church, while we wait for them to change to become just like us – and if they don’t change, well, we’ll eventually start to push them to the edges in any number of little and unspoken ways, until they finally get the message that they really aren’t very welcome, and they leave. This happens in churches all over the country, every single day, year after year. We’ve gotten so good at pushing people away that it’s a wonder the church has survived at all.

This passage in Mark is one of those rare times in Bible where the real good news in the story isn’t something that God does through Jesus to help someone else. In this case, the real good news is what God does through someone else to help Jesus. The Syrophoenician woman offered Jesus a blessing and an insight that changed him and the direction of his ministry. Frankly, since we’re all Gentiles, who have benefitted from Jesus’ understanding the full breadth of his ministry, we all owe the this woman a debt of gratitude.

I want you all to do a little exercise. Think of the person in your life that you dislike or disapprove of the most. Who’s the person who just completely rubs you the wrong way and gets under your skin? Who’s the person who’s the least like you, and who certainly wouldn’t fit into our church family? Who’s the person you just love to hate? Whoever that person is, whoever you’re thinking of – I can pretty much guarantee you that *that* is your very own Syrophoenician woman. That’s the person that God is trying to use to stretch and expand your faith. That’s the person that God has put in your life to teach you to understand God’s love for all people in a deeper, truer way.

God is using those people in our lives to teach that no one – no one – is an outsider when it comes to God’s love. When it comes to that, no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, we’re all inside God’s big yellow circle. The gospel, God’s good news, is that God loves us – all of us. And in Christ, God has come into the world to be with us – all of us. And for us – all of us. In Christ, God has come into the world to share in our joys and sufferings, and to reconcile us, with God and with each other. God didn’t come into the world just for Jesus’ Jewish countrymen, but for all people. For men and women, slave and free. For rich and poor, city and country, for three-year olds and ninety-three year olds. For all the people we like, and all the people we don’t. For synagogue leaders, and Roman centurions and Syrophoenician women. For you, and for me. For the insiders, and the outsiders – even for the dogs.

Thanks be to God.

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Things Large and Small; Things Easy and Hard
August 19, 2012

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.

Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
(John 6:35. 41-69 NRSV)

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant German theologian and pastor in the 1930s and ‘40s. He worked with the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth, and many others, to establish what was called the “Confessing Church” in Germany, to oppose Hitler and the Nazi regime, and to stand against the official state church, which had allowed the Nazis and the cultural mood of the times to distort its teachings away from Christ. As part of this movement, Barth and Bonhoeffer and the others wrote one of the most significant Christian documents of the 20th century – the “Theological Declaration of Barmen,” a confession that boldly – and very dangerously – stated that Christians, and the Church, have one Lord, and that wasn’t Hitler – it was Christ, and Christ alone. And that we, both as individual Christians an as the Church, need to keep the Church’s message focused on and faithful to Jesus’ message, on his teaching and practices, and to not allow that focus to be distorted by any outside forces that would be contrary to it. We Presbyterians should take pride in the fact that this document, and the bold stand for following Christ that it is, is a part of our Book of Confessions, part of our denominational Constitution.

Bonhoeffer himself went on to say in his classic book “The Cost of Discipleship,” that it is a Christian’s obligation to follow Christ, and Christ alone. Not only when it’s easy and agrees with our own thoughts or preconceptions; when it doesn’t really cost us anything – that’s expecting what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”. But we’re called to follow Jesus even when it might rub us the wrong way, or when his words and teachings seem to conflict with our preconceptions, and when following his lead might cost us something. We’re called to obey even Jesus’ hard teachings. That, Bonhoeffer said, is living out “costly grace,” and it’s that kind of commitment and dedication that God expects from us in gratitude for the extremely costly way that he brought about our reconciliation.

This passage from John’s gospel is an example of one of those hard teachings of Jesus that we have to pay attention to. You can see this scene in your mind: here’s Jesus, teaching people who have packed the local synagogue to hear him. Maybe there’s some nice Jewish family, who had heard so much about Jesus and who came out to hear him speak this day. Maybe the disciples just as excited and hopeful as we are when a first-time visitor comes here, and we hope they have a good experience and want to come back again in the future. And then, Jesus opens his mouth, and drops this bomb on them. Only those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life. You can imagine the disciples doing a double-take. “Jesus – really? Did you just say that? You just lost your whole audience; people are gong to walk out on the service; the offering is going to drop to nothing. And just what do you mean by that, anyway? That’s sick! You know your enemies are going to have a field day with that comment!”

And that’s true; they did. It’s the same today; can you imagine the way Jesus’ words here would be splattered across the evening news and the internet if he’d said them last week? He’d be considered a laughingstock at best, and psychotic at worst. Only an idiot would follow someone who talked like that. Oh sure, we can read his words today, and with the remainder of the scriptures, we can get that he was speaking metaphorically and not literally. We might be able to read his words and it not have quite as chilling an effect on us. But on that day, Jesus didn’t offer any explanations to his words at all. He didn’t leave any wiggle room to make it easier for them to accept what he’d said. His words made being a follower of his hard, and costly. It was offensive. In the book of Genesis, we read another hard story about faith in God, the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his own son, Isaac, as a test of Abraham’s faith and trust in God. It was grotesque. It was inhuman. It ran against all morality and reason. And now, here’s Jesus, laying out a similarly grotesque test of faith, contrary to all morality and reason, to test the faith of those professing to follow him.

And the scriptures say that as a result of the hardness of these words, some people did turn away from him, walk out on him. But ultimately, as hard as the words were to accept, the disciples stuck by him. As Peter said, no matter how hard the words were to accept, where else would they go? Who else could they follow? They knew that, whether his teachings were easy or hard to accept, Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord. It was him, and no one else, that they had to follow.

It had to be a relief to the disciples when, on the night of his arrest, Jesus made it clear to them that he didn’t expect them to be a bunch of cannibals, and to literally cut up his body and eat his flesh and drink his blood. Instead, he took bread, and he told them “*this* is my body to eat; and he held up a cup of wine, and he said *this* is my blood. *This* is what I was talking about. It’s through this meal that you’ll be united with my actual body and blood. I will dwell in you, and you in me.”

And so we’ve done exactly that, from the very beginning of the Christian faith up to the Protestant Reformation, we Christians have taken bread and wine and obediently ate it and drank it as part of the Lord’s Supper. And on through the Reformation, Until the late 1800s, Protestants continued to administer the Lord’s Supper in the manner that Jesus himself instituted and ordained it. But in 1869, something happened. In that year, a man named Thomas Bramwell Welch – a staunch T-Totalling prohibitionist and a communion steward in his Wesleyan congregation, who was so opposed to alcohol that he wouldn’t even take communion because of the sip of wine served – successfully devised a way to pasteurize freshly pressed grape juice, in order to prevent it from fermenting into wine. Once he came up with this process, he convinced his congregation to serve his juice in Communion instead of wine. And about a year or so later, his son, Charles Welch, realized that there was a market to be tapped, a dollar to be made, with his father’s invention. So he set out on an aggressive marketing campaign to sell this so-called unfermented communion wine to other Protestant congregations. In the process, he concocted a baseless, nonsensical, and anti-scriptural argument that the wine in Jesus’ time wasn’t really alcoholic, so this was actually a better choice for Communion use. And in the well-intentioned but misguided Prohibitionist mentality popular in American culture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many congregations bought into Mr. Welch’s marketing efforts. Of course, we’re all aware that Mr. Welch ultimately wasn’t satisfied with the limited church market, and he went on to mass market grape juice for home consumption. But as a result of Welch’s efforts, many churches turned away from the example, the sacrament as Christ himself instituted it and as was practiced without argument or opposition by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant alike for 1900 years. As a result, many Presbyterian churches turned away from administering the sacrament with wine, as is stipulated in the Second Helvetic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession of Faith – all parts of our Book of Confessions, part of our denominational Constitution. Doing so is contrary to our entire tradition – from the way the sacrament was administered by John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition; and John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism; and even John Rankin, the prohibitionist founder of our own congregation, which would have served wine in Communion for more than twenty years before Welch’s pasteurized grape juice was even invented. It is even contrary to the words of the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving that we pray during the sacrament, which are part of our Book of Common Worship. In short, we have allowed outside, cultural forces to alter, to distort, Jesus’ teaching and practice. We have one Lord, and one Lord alone, and it isn’t Charles Welch.

Some of you know that our Session was recently discussing this issue. And it’s no big secret to many of you here that I very much support the idea of serving wine, in addition to grape juice, in the Lord’s Supper. Personally, I feel that doing so is just a matter of being faithful to Jesus and the way he instituted the sacrament. And I personally think our concern about the amount of alcohol in a communion cup – which, by volume, contains less alcohol than a single dose of cough syrup or cold remedy, but which we take, and give our children without a second thought – is a misplaced concern. It isn’t that I think that the Lord’s Supper doesn’t “work” if we use grape juice; that we aren’t being united with Christ. Not at all. And I don’t think that there’s anything mystical or magical about the wine itself. I’m actually more concerned about the bigger issue here.

But I want to be very clear here – I don’t want you to misunderstand. This is not a sermon about the Lord’s Supper, or wine, or a history lesson about the origins of Welch’s Grape Juice. The only reason I mention that whole issue is because it’s an example that points to a bigger, far more important issue; an important point that comes out of this passage from John that we heard today, and that point is this: We’re called to be faithful and obedient to Jesus – to look to him, and him alone, to be our model and guide. To follow his teaching and practices. To follow his lead, when it’s easy, and when it’s hard; when we understand it, and even when we don’t. That’s what was going on in this passage – the disciples followed him even in spite of what sounded very hard, even shocking, to them. And we’re called to be obedient to Jesus even in small things – because it’s being faithful in the little things that builds up and strengthens our faith, so that we’re able to obey him and his example in the big things. As Jesus said regarding the Kingdom of God in Luke’s gospel, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” This is what I’m talking about; this is what I’m thinking about. When I hear this story from Jesus’ life, I want to examine my own life, and ask if there are examples and teachings that Christ has entrusted to me that I’m not being faithful to. I want to ask myself if there are aspects of the way I live my life where I’ve allowed society, or culture, or anything other than Jesus himself, to distort his own teaching, and practices, and model for me.

The real point here today is that whatever the actual details or specifics – and they’ll be different for each of us – we all have little things in our lives that we could be more faithful about in following Jesus’ example. We need to examine our lives, and find those little things, which in the grand scheme of things aren’t really that big a deal, and work on improving them, and being more faithful to Jesus’ own example for our lives. We need to do that, because it faith in those little things that builds up our ability to be faithful in the big things. The really hard things. The things that can really cost us.

Friends, we’ve been fed the Bread of Life. We’ve been given eternal life. That’s our good news; that’s our gospel; that’s our reality that is almost too much to even imagine. And in a spirit of absolute joy and gratitude for that, we’re called to live lives of “costly grace” – to be faithful and obedient to Jesus and his example, his teachings and practices – undistorted by any other outside forces. In ways large and small. When it’s easy and when it’s hard.

 

As a result of his obedience to Christ’s example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp in April of 1945 – one of a number of spiteful, last-minute revenge killings by the Nazis just days before Hitler took his own life and the war came to a close. It was simultaneously a great tragedy, and a great victory, in the Christian faith. Bonhoeffer knew that Jesus gave us teachings that are sometimes hard to understand or accept, and that living obediently to him can, and will, come at great cost. It cost him his very life. But in the end, he knew what Peter knew: no matter whether his teachings are easy or hard, Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one of God. If we don’t follow him and his example, whatever it is and wherever he may lead, where else could we go? Who else could we follow?

Thanks be to God.

__________________________________________________________________

Bless His Heart
August 12, 2012

Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

*****

If you’re on Facebook, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the funny pictures and sayings that people will share and post on their walls for friends to see and enjoy. They’re sort of the 21st-century version of passing around Xeroxed copies of jokes with friends around the water cooler at work, back in the day. I saw one of those Facebook pictures that a friend shared a couple weeks ago that gave me a chuckle. It looked kind of like a greeting card, and there was a line drawing of a beautiful, refined-looking lady wearing an elegant gown. And the caption to the picture read, “There’s no stronger insult or curse that a Southern woman can say, than “Bless her heart.” There’s some truth behind that, I think. There’s something about this idea that we can say the rudest, most hurtful, most malicious of things about someone, said with a smug self-righteousness, and it’s all OK as long as we say it with a smile on our face and we sprinkle a teaspoon of artificial sweetener on top. You’ve heard these kinds of insults:

“Why, she’s got a face only a mother could love – bless her heart.” “He’s so buck-toothed, he could eat an apple through a picket fence – bless his heart.” “Oh, yes, she’s certainly pretty, but if they put that child’s brain on the head of a pin, it would roll around like a BB on a six lane highway – bless her heart.”

And it isn’t just Southerners that use the phrase, and it isn’t just women. We men find our own way to get the same message across, and some days, we Christians in general seem to have cornered the market on self-righteous judgmentalism and insult rolled into one. In a recent argument I was having with a friend on the internet, my friend said to me, “Honestly, Dwain, you really are an idiot, and I mean that in the most Christian spirit of love.” I don’t mean to be telling tales on my friend by sharing that; I know that I’ve said things to him that have been just as bad, and most likely even worse. I know that he’s actually a fine man and a devoted Christian in his own way… bless his heart.

Why is it so hard for us to treat each other with kindness and tender-heartedness, the way we’re called to do in this passage from Ephesians? Why is it so hard for us to live out the second half of “The Greatest Commandment,” the “Rule of Love,” that we talked about last week – to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? I think it has a lot to do with the one short phrase in this passage, almost made in passing; the one phrase that isn’t something that *we’re supposed to do, but something that God has already done – God has forgiven us. *That* is the whole reason why we’re supposed to treat each other in such a gracious and forgiving way. It’s gratitude for the even more gracious and forgiving way that God is treating us. We can love our neighbor as we love ourselves because we know that God loves us and has forgiven us for our own failings and shortcomings, so other people shortcomings won’t seem like such a big deal. And I think that when we don’t treat others with that amount of kindness and graciousness – even those people who really upset us, even those people who are really off base and need to be told what-for… bless their hearts – it’s a sign that we haven’t really come to terms in our own lives with the fullness of what God has chosen to ignore and forgive in us. We haven’t fully come to terms with just how much our own thoughts and actions have angered God, grieved God, and yet, in love, God has forgiven us and continued to love us in spite of ourselves. This is the very core of the gospel, and yet, so often we have trouble trusting that we’ve really been forgiven to that depth ourselves, and so we can’t bring ourselves to understand how gracious and forgiving we’re called to be to others.

Andrea and Hector

This is Hector Daniel Lara Castellanos. Hector is one of the children at Montana de Luz, the orphanage for HIV+ children in Honduras. That’s a picture of Hector and my daughter Andrea, who was at the orphanage, as part of a mission trip, just last week. When he was born in 2003, in addition to having HIV, Hector also had a rare disease known as Sturge-Weber Syndrome, a condition that leads to a number of emotional and physical ailments. One of the most visible sings of Sturge-Weber is the development of a large port-wine stain, almost always on the face, as you can see in the picture of Hector. Hector’s family was very poor and couldn’t provide for his substantial emotional and medical care, and he came to Montana de Luz in 2007, when he was four. Hector was born into an illiterate and largely ignorant family, and in that level of Honduran society there’s a real, and often cruel, amount of discrimination and mistreatment of people with any kind of physical abnormality – including a big, blotchy port-wine stain on your face. And because of that, even as a young child, and even beyond the ostracism that he suffered for being HIV+, Hector was mistreated by many, and was even mistreated and neglected by his own mother. In 2009, Hector’s mother had a strange kind of religious “awakening,” and became convinced that if she just prayed hard enough, God would remove the HIV from her body and she wouldn’t need to take her medication. As part of this awakening, she reclaimed Hector and moved to Mexico, where she stopped taking her antiretrovirals and starting praying hard – never quite seeing that the medications themselves were the actual answer to her prayers. And when she died less than a year later, and feeling a great deal of emotional whiplash, Hector returned to Montana de Luz, this time for good. And the place has never been the same since.

Because of the mistreatment and neglect he’d endured, and the uncertainty of his living conditions, when he came back to the orphanage Hector had severe problems adjusting and trusting. He had a lot of problems with anger, and he often lashed out and even hit people for no apparent reason. In all honesty, emotionally, Hector was a hot mess.

But gradually, Hector came to understand that this was his home. And this was his family. He gradually realized that here, people didn’t care about his port-wine stain, and they certainly didn’t care about his being HIV+, and they weren’t going to mistreat him because of it. Here, people cared for him, and cared about him. Here, he was loved. And here, he learned that it wasn’t just the people who loved him, but to a far greater extent, God loved him. God cared for him. And more deeply than may adults, Hector came to understand just how deeply God loved him, and how wonderfully God had provided for him, and how deeply God had forgiven Hector’s own shortcomings, and angry outbursts, and mistrust.

As that unfolded, Hector became a new, different person. He was filled with gratitude, and love and acceptance, and the sheer joy of life. Hector became the unofficial “mayor” of Montana de Luz, greeting all the incoming mission teams as they arrived. Full of life, and energy, and excitement, Hector talked a blue streak to them, whether they could understand him or not. He talked. And talked. And talked. And when talking wasn’t enough, he sang. And he danced. And then he sang and danced some more. Hector’s singing and dancing became legendary to everyone who came to the “Mountain of Light.” And it all came out of his deep, abiding understanding of how fully God loved him and forgave him, and how wonderful and beautiful and joyful that made all of life. Hector understood just how blessed by God he was, and because of that, he couldn’t help but treat the people around him with that same kind of love and goodwill… bless his heart.

Because of all of his medical problems, Hector has been a frequent flier to the nearby hospital in Tegucigalpa. Last Friday, he wasn’t feeling well again, and one of the housemothers – one of the “tias” – took Hector to the hospital, and they gave him the usual medications. But this time, something went wrong. This time, his little body had a negative reaction to the treatment, and his condition went downhill rapidly. And there was nothing the doctors could do about it.

As he lay in the hospital bed, half-conscious, he said to the tia sitting next to his bed that he felt different. He said that he thought he was walking down a path, and he wanted to run down the path to find out what was at the end of it. “Take your time,” the tia whispered to him. “You’ll get there.”

He got there early last Saturday morning. On that morning, Hector stopped singing and dancing for us, and he started singing and dancing in the very presence of God. He died less than three days after he was running around, full of energy, laughing, and playing, and sitting on my daughter Andrea’s lap while he laughed and sang songs to her. Hector was nine years old.

Friends, always remember that none of us knows when we’ll follow Hector’s footsteps down that same path. Let’s always remember to live our lives, and to treat others with love, and kindness, and tender-heartedness, in a way that expresses the even deeper love and grace that God has shown us, and let’s do it as if today might be our last day on earth, because it just might. Let’s always remember “the Gospel according to Hector”: that we are loved and cherished by God, and that no matter what life might bring, in the end, things are going to be all right, because we will always remain in God’s loving care. That’s a love that’s worth sharing with those around us. That’s something worth dancing about.

Thanks be to God.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/c8qw09cmz5s2h9k/Hector.mpg

*****

Jesus’ “Theory of Everything”
August 5, 2012

John 6:24-35

So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

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My grandfather, Tom Lee – “Pap” Lee – was a character, to put it mildly. That’s a picture of him as a young man that you see up on the screen. Pap was a master storyteller – some might say “liar;” but if anyone ever accused him of that, he’d laugh and say “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.” Beyond being a good storyteller, he also had a real knack for making a point in memorable ways, sometimes blunt and slightly off-color ways, and an uncommon ability to convey a lot of meaning in just a handful of words. One time, Benny Lardin, a long-time drinking buddy of Pap’s, was raving about a new restaurant in town, that the food was great and that he needed to try it out. So one day, my grandfather was all by himself, and he decided to try the new place out. When he got there, he was the only person in the whole place; it was dead as a doornail. And in all honesty, the food left him flat. It was bland, and overdone, and mushy. Not very pleasant or fulfilling an experience at all. So a week or so later, when he saw Benny again, Benny asked Pap if he’d tried the new restaurant yet. Yes, he said, he’d tried it. And Benny asked him, “Well, what did you think? How was the food?” And I apologize for the language in advance, but giving Benny an answer in true Pap Lee form, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “It made a turd.” It just filled his gut. It met a simple need. Nothing more, nothing less. Pap Lee was a man of few words, but he made them count.

Without meaning to, in those few memorable words, Pap gave expression to a basic, universal human need. We seem to be hardwired to enjoy eating, and not just eating and enjoying good food, but eating and enjoying a good meal in common with others. All of us. It’s something that cuts across every country, every culture, every religion, around the world. We all seem to just know that there’s something necessary for our souls, for our very understanding of a life well-lived, about coming together to enjoy the fellowship of a good meal in the company of family and friends.

It was that natural desire to continue to enjoy that sense of fellowship, and camaraderie, as well as the filled bellies, that made the people follow Jesus back over to the other side of the Lake, to Capernaum, after the feeding of the 5,000. They wanted the party to keep going. But Jesus told them that they were focusing on the wrong things. They’d missed the larger point, the whole purpose behind the miraculous sign. He told them to concentrate less on the food that just fills their bellies for a short while, but instead, to concentrate on the more important kind of food – the food that leads to an eternal kind of living, a kind of life-for-the-ages, both in the future and the here-and-now. So the crowd asks Jesus how they do that. But Jesus just tells them that if they want to do the work that God wants, they have to believe in the one whom God sent – they have to believe in him.

But what does that really mean, to believe in Jesus? To have faith in Jesus? To Jesus, to believe in him, to have faith in him, is to live as he lived, and love as he loved. If we aren’t trying to do that, then we don’t really believe in him, and he can’t really have faith in him. This is what he was telling the crowd they had to do in order to please God, in order to believe in the one whom God had sent.

It’s very important to notice that any time people asked Jesus for a list of things they had to do in order to please God and enjoy eternal life, They wanted a list of do’s and don’ts; a checklist that they can run down, to ensure that they’re doing what they need to do in order to make God happy. But Jesus never answered their question the way they wanted. Instead, he always responds with a broader, more general principle, and then forces the person to think for themselves how to actually carry that principle out. He did this because he knew that if he didn’t, we’d get so worked up with the actual specific wording that he used, dissecting it and parsing it out that we’d end up missing the whole point. So he keeps our focus on the big picture. This is the same reason he taught in parables, using stories and illustrations to say a lot with just a few words, and to teach an overarching principle or concept.

And his one overarching principle – you could call it Jesus’ “Theory of Everything”, if you like – is what he tells the man who questions him in Matthew 22 what he must do to enjoy eternal life, and Jesus replies that we shall love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. What we Christians have come to call The Great Commandment. It’s also come to be known as the “Rule of Love.” Love for God and one another. That’s what it all comes down to, Jesus said, saying that all of the Law and the Prophets – ALL of the commandments and stipulations found in the scriptures, written either before or after Jesus’ time on earth – all of them boil down to this principle; they hang on these two commandments, Jesus says. That means that these two principles have dominion over, and interpret, and trump, all the rest of the injunctions and commandments that are written into our scriptures. Obeying the Rule of Love is how we believe in Jesus, the one sent by God.

Jesus knew that we human beings have to need to systematize, and traditionalize, and institutionalize, *everything.* It seems to be in our bones. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees did it. The Sadducees did it. The Essenes out in the desert did it. And countless people have done it throughout the history of Christianity since then, whether it was Thomas Aquinas for the Catholics, or Martin Luther for the Lutherans, or John Calvin for the Presbyterians, or John Wesley for the Methodists. All their teachings, and their systems, have been good, and helpful ways of seeing various aspects of God and the faith, within their given time and place. And they still have value – but only to the extent that they – and even the written scriptures – are subordinate to, and are trumped by, Jesus’ Rule of Love. Placing too much authority in any of those systems and traditions can fossilize and and suck all the life out of the living faith that Jesus calls us into. So if any parts of those systems and teachings are inconsistent with what we would need to do to implement the Rule of Love – to live as Jesus lived, and to love as Jesus loved, here in our time and place, in the specifics of our context – then we are *required,* if we truly believe in Jesus and his words to us, to toss out those old systems, or traditions, or interpretations. And we are *required* by Jesus to find new ways of understanding that allow us to stay consistent with Jesus’ Rule of Love.

In all honesty, it usually isn’t too hard to understand Jesus’ words for us, to know what we should be doing in order to carry out his Rule of Love. It isn’t too hard to see when our systems, and traditions, and institutions are getting in the way of our obeying the Rule of Love. Usually, that’s actually pretty easy. The hard part is having the courage to actually live by those words.

So how do we get the strength to live by them? And when it isn’t so easy to know what we should do, when we’re faced with moral dilemmas, with grey areas, with dealing with situations where there’s no truly good option, and it’s hard to even tell which is the lesser of two evils to choose between? Where do we turn for that kind of encouragement and guidance?

Well, we come *here.* We know that God has promised that together, collectively, we’ll receive guidance and encouragement and discernment through the Holy Spirit as we come here to pray together, to hear and meditate on the scriptures together, to hear the gospel proclaimed through preaching together, to share our thoughts together, and especially as we participate in and enjoy the Lord’s Supper together. That’s why this place, and what we do here, together, is so important to our lives of faith. That’s why, just as I told the kids last Sunday, we can’t be individual Christians, without being part of a collective body worshipping together and lifting each other up.

So Jesus says to believe in him. And he says to believe in him is to listen to his words. And his words tell us that the whole Bible – the entirety of God’s will for us – can be condensed into this: “Love God with all of our being, and love all people as you love yourself.” The Theory of Everything, Jesus-style. Do this, and you will have eternal life.

Like Pap Lee, Jesus was a man of few words, but he made them count.

Thanks be to God.

*****

Loaves and Fishes and Fairy Dust
July 29, 2012

John 6:1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

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Toward the very beginning of the children’s book Peter Pan, author J.M. Barrie is describing a scene in the children’s nursery, and the children’s discovery that, with a little bit of help from some fairy dust from Peter Pan, they can fly. And they’re listening to Peter’s coaxing, and trying to decide whether they should open up the window and fly out with him on an incredible, unknown journey. As it turns out, the children’s parents are standing outside the house, looking up at the nursery window, and against the curtains, they can see the shadows of the children flying around the room. So they run into the house and start up the stairs toward the nursery to see what’s going on, and hopefully protect them from any danger. And here in the story, the author writes, “Will they reach the nursery in time? If so, how delightful for them, and we shall all breathe a sigh of relief, but there will be no story. On the other hand, if they are not in time, I solemnly promise that it will all come right in the end.”

Well oddly enough, the story that we read today from John’s gospel is the exact same one we read from Mark’s gospel last week – Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. I told you last week we’d be able to look at the miracle another time; you probably didn’t think it would be quite this soon. I’m not sure, but this might be the only time in the entire three-year Lectionary cycle that we get back-to-back presentations of the same story from Jesus’ life, as told by two different gospel writers. And here, just as in Mark, this miracle is followed up by the miracle of Jesus walking out on the water of the Sea of Galilee to be with the disciples and to comfort their fears. .

A lot of times, when people think about this miracle of the loaves and fishes, they’ll focus on the “how?” of the story. How did it really happen? Did Jesus, in some way, supernaturally keep regenerating the bread and the fish as it was being distributed – turning the baskets into some kind of miraculous bottomless pit, or a magician’s hat that you just keep pulling rabbit after rabbit out of? Many people believe that it was truly an other-worldly occurrence. Many others believe it was a little more this-worldly. That Jesus’ teaching to the crowd encouraged them to be loving and compassionate, and to care and look out for one another, so when it was time to eat, they all pulled out what little bits of food they’d tucked away for themselves, and shared it with the people around them, ending up with more than enough for everyone – kind of like a Jesus version of the great old story Stone Soup. Maybe the people who think this way would say this was the very first church covered dish.

When it comes right down to it, and whatever you or I believe about what happened that day, the “how?” of the story isn’t nearly as important as the “why?” And in John’s gospel, the “why?” of all of Jesus’ miracles were all presented to us as signs of something deeper, and more important, about Jesus, and by extension, about God. In the other gospels’ accounts of the story, the author doesn’t seem to be trying to tell us anything more than the fact that Jesus provided for the crowd’s material needs; he gave them food. The way John presents the same story, though, this miracle and Jesus’ walking on water, are meant to show us two things: first, that Jesus doesn’t just meet our physical needs – he isn’t just some great, eternal meal ticket or ATM card. Taken together, these stories tell us that more importantly than even our physical needs, Jesus is there to meet our deepest emotional and spiritual needs. Our need to be spiritually filled and enlightened, and renewed. Our need to know that in our times of darkest need and fear – when we’re terrified, like the disciples were, all alone out on the lake in their boat – when we feel the most empty and abandoned – that even in those times, especially in those times, God loves us, and provides for us, and never leaves us.
But what exactly is it that God provides for us? And while we’re thinking about that, what kind of things do we typically ask God for when we pray? Do we usually pray to be strengthened and supported physically, or do we pray for more spiritual strength and depth; to mold us to be more Christlike in our living? What does God promise to provide for us? Is it material things? Is it always having a full stomach, or protection from physical harm? From a child-molesting football coach and a university president who covers up for him? From a mentally deranged man who shoots up a movie theater full of people?

One of the survivors of the Aurora shooting said in the media that she told her mother that God had saved her; that God still loved her. I don’t want to take anything at all away from her, I’m not trying to criticize her at all, and I’m very happy she survived that tragedy. But I don’t believe the God works quite the way this young woman described it, because if you follow her logic to its natural conclusion, it means that if her surviving is a sign that God saved her and still loves her, then it means that God doesn’t love, and has abandoned, the people left inside who died – as well as the shooter himself, for that matter. And that simply isn’t the message of the gospel.

The gospel – God’s good news for us – is that God has promised to always love us, and to always be with us. All of us. Even in our time of greatest need, our worst, most tragic and terrifying of times. Even when things aren’t going our way, physically or materially. When we face trouble, when our boat is out on the lake in the middle of a storm and we’re taking on water, God may not stop the storm – but God is right there with us in the boat, helping us bail it out. When we’re in the midst of enduring our worst suffering, self-doubt, or mental disorder, or pain, even to the point of death itself, God never leaves us, never stops loving us, never stops helping us to deal with whatever burden we have to endure. God loves and will never abandon the children that Jerry Sandusky molested, who have to wrestle with feelings of emotional pain, and shame, and feelings that maybe somehow they were to blame for the evil they had to endure. God loves and will never abandon Jonathan Blunk and Matt McQuinn, who died in that movie theater while using their own bodies to shield loved ones.

In Peter Pan, the children’s parents rushed up the stairs and into the nursery, but of course, it was too late. The window was open; the room was empty. As the author put it, the birds had flown. And so they had. And so have Jonathan Blunk, and Matt McQuinn, and all the others who died in that theater. And in a broader way, so have we all. We’ve all flown out that window, like birds, on the incredible and unknown journey of our life in Christ. We don’t know how it will play out. We’ve been promised that the journey will bring good and bad, plenty and want, safety and danger. Maybe along our journey, we’ll have to deal with our own version of pirates and crocodiles. And like the author of Peter Pan promises, that “it will all come right in the end,” we have the same promise too, but our promise is from God. These two miracles today are signs of that promise, and that as we fly out our own window and live the unfolding adventure of our own journey of faith, it isn’t Peter Pan holding our hand, it’s Christ, who tells us that through thick and thin, no matter who you are, or what you’ve done, or what’s been done to you, no matter what – Christ tells us, “I will never leave you, till the end of the age.” It will all come right in the end.

Thanks be to God.

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The Gospel According to Mayberry
July 22, 2012

mayberry man in a hurry

Mark 6.30-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

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You probably heard in the news that Andy Griffith died recently. And when you heard that news, you probably thought back to the old “Andy Griffith Show,” with Andy, Aunt Bea, Opie, Barney, and the whole crew from Mayberry. I know I did. One of my favorite episodes of that show was one called “Man in a Hurry.” In that episode, a fast-moving, go-getting hotshot businessman from the city is driving through Mayberry on his way to an important meeting the next day, but his car breaks down just outside of town. And he gets upset and frustrated because Wally’s Service station is closed, and there isn’t anyone who can help him get his car fixed and on his way to the meeting. You see, it’s Sunday, and Mayberry is pretty much shut down. Wally the mechanic is off the clock, enjoying his day, just like pretty much everyone else in town. The man gets even more upset when he can’t even make a phone call out of town, since two old sisters, one of whom has moved all the way over to Mount Pilot, get on the party line every Sunday afternoon and catch up with each other for three or four hours, and everyone knows they like to do that, so they all just stay off the phone and let them talk. Of course, by the end of the episode, the “man in a hurry” comes to appreciate life in the slow lane of a Sabbath day in Mayberry. He learns the pleasure of getting off the clock. Slowing down, enjoying simple pleasures, and just taking the day as it unfolds.

Well, two weeks ago, we looked at a passage from Mark’s gospel just a few verses before the one we read today, where Jesus sent the apostles out to proclaim the gospel in the surrounding towns and villages. Now, Mark picks that story back up, and he says the apostles came back return from their having been sent out, and they’re telling Jesus all about their experiences, and they must be excited. But they must be a little tired, too, and in light of that, Jesus’ instruction to them is, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Get away from the work. As important as it is – and it is important – you have to be able to set it aside, and take care of yourself, too. Rest. Relax. Recharge your batteries. Enjoy some Sabbath time.

Often, when we think of observing Sabbath, we just think about going to church. Or maybe some of us will remember how all the stores used to be closed on Sunday, but now it’s rare to find one that does that, and we’ll shake our heads over how that’s a shame and a sign of the terrible times we live in, as we walk into the store to grab a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread on our way home from church. We think of not being able to do certain things. But the idea of Sabbath is more than just going to church, and it isn’t necessarily destroyed because every business doesn’t maintain the same hours as Chick Fil-A. The idea of observing Sabbath runs a lot deeper than that.

God gave the commandment to observe a weekly Sabbath to the Israelites right after they had been led out of slavery in Egypt. For God to tell this bunch of former slaves, who were used to backbreaking labor around the clock, that they were to set aside one day a week to simply worship God, and not work, but to rest, must have been an amazing thing. And not just invited to do so, but *commanded* to. This unheard-of thing of a day off must have been seen as a great gift, not an imposition.

And I wonder how many of us really aren’t all that far away from the situations of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. But in our case, for the most part, we seem to have enslaved ourselves. We buy into the Big Lie of the world – that we’re in control of our own happiness, and the way to that happiness is to keep working harder, and longer, and faster, so we can buy more and more things that are supposed to make us happy, but they really don’t, and we end up not having the time to enjoy them even if they did. We allow ourselves to think that that’s where we’ll find contentment, so we place almost no limits on what we’ll do, and the hours we’ll work, and the personal and family sacrifices that we’ll make, in order to achieve it. We commit to making ourselves content and happy, even if it makes us miserable and kills us.

And it isn’t just material things. We have children because we think that’s part of what will make us happy, but we keep going in the rat race of work, work, work, that we don’t take the time to really be with them, to teach them, to enjoy them. Or we go in the opposite direction. We convince ourselves that our children have to have every opportunity in life, so we sing them up for countless activities, and sports, and programs, and classes, that they don’t have enough time to just be a kid. And all the while, we can’t keep track of whether we’re coming or going to this concert, or that practice, or this game, or that rehearsal, and we mistakenly think that hyperextending our kids like this is actually quality time with them. We send them in so many directions that they practically get dizzy, because we think that’s how they’ll succeed and be the best person they can be, because that’s how we think we’ll succeed and be the best person we can be. And like in the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle,” before we’ve ever realized it, we’ve taught our kids the same Big Lie that’s enslaved us – and if we do ever realize it, it comes way too late, for us and for them.

This is not God’s plan for us. This is not God’s will for us – to work, or to otherwise commit ourselves, almost around the clock in structured activities, leaving very little or no time for us to observe Sabbath in our lives – to really, truly rest, and to genuinely enjoy life. And not just to take a little bit of time away from work, so we can get up Monday morning refreshed and recharged, so we can get back to the grind. No. This time of stepping away from our daily concerns, and just resting, is an important way for us to understand God’s real priorities – to hear God’s voice in our lives. It’s an important part of how we come to understand who we really are, and what our place is in God’s creation. Observing this kind of Sabbath rest is actually one form of worshipping God. Think about that: Taking time to just sit on the back porch with family or friends, eating watermelon and seeing how far you can spit the seeds, can be just as important a part of worshipping God as it is to be here on a Sunday morning. Not a replacement for it, don’t get the wrong idea, but an equally important part of it. And just think – God hasn’t just invited you to take that kind of time – God has *commanded* you to do it.

But too often, that’s hard for us to do. I know it can be hard for me to do. We might think we’re being lazy. We might feel guilty because it isn’t “doing” anything, it isn’t “productive.” But it’s important to notice that not one of the Ten Commandments talks about how much we’re supposed to work. Not a single one of them sounds anything at all like “Keep your nose to the grindstone.” “God helps those who help themselves.” “Work shall make you free.” But there is a commandment that says, “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.”

Sometimes, we have to allow ourselves to hear God’s commandment to us – God’s great gift to us – to just rest, and do… nothing. To accept that we’re not supposed to work or commit ourselves every waking hour, to try to make our own supposed happiness and success, but instead, to trust in God’s promise to provide us with what we really need. And in the grand scheme of things, for our spiritual and emotional well-being, sometimes what we need is just rest.

Last week, I mentioned the professor and preacher, Craig Barnes. This week, I’ll mention David Lose, another very insightful professor and preacher, who once suggested this exercise. Take one of the note cards stuck in your bulletin, and write down on it at least one thing that you will not do this week, in order to get some of this Godly rest. One evening, you’ll turn off your computer or cell phone, one appointment you won’t make, one task you won’t do, one obligation or opportunity you’ll take a pass on, in order to allow you to enjoy some of this Godly rest. Then, on the other card, write down at least one thing that you *will* do – to just sit and enjoy the sound of the birds chirping. To watch the lightning bugs gradually rising up out of the grass as the light of the late afternoon starts to fade. To play Uno and eat potato chips on the porch after dark. To do like the “Man in a Hurry” in that Andy Griffith episode, and try to peel an apple with a paring knife, and to get the whole peel off in one long strand. Something that will help you contemplate the true abundance and blessings that God has already given you, and that will allow you to go to bed that night feeling blessed and grateful. And I want you to carry these cards around with you throughout the week, to help make sure that you remember what you’ve written.

So today’s message hardly got past the first few verses of this gospel text. We just looked at this one little sentence, this one little piece of the Gospel according to Mark, and apparently, the Gospel according to Mayberry. We never even got to the story of the miracle itself. That’s okay. There will be plenty of time to do that, another day.

Thanks be to God.

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Malice in the Palace
July 15, 2012

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

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In today’s gospel lesson, the only story in the entire gospel that doesn’t include Jesus, Mark tells us a story about Herod. This wasn’t Herod the Great, the Herod we read about in the stories of Jesus’ nativity. That Herod was the ruthless and incredibly powerful ruler behind much of the grandest construction and development in the region, and who rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. *This* Herod was the youngest son of *that* Herod. This Herod wasn’t his father’s first choice as his successor. He was really just about the last choice. The only way he came to power at all was because several of his older brothers were killed off by their father for either plotting to kill off the old man, or actually having tried to pull it off. And even at that, Herod the Great father didn’t have faith in him as a completely suitable heir, so he decreed that upon his death, the kingdom would be divided up, and Herod Antipas would only get to rule over a quarter of it. So here’s a ruler who’s been told by everything in his life that he’s not good enough, that his father doesn’t trust him. His subjects have their doubts about his competence and strength. And he has to constantly look over his shoulder, watching out for other family members who would have no problem with knocking him off in their own quest for a bigger piece of the old man’s pie.

Even though Herod Antipas must have lived a life filled with this sense of inferiority and fear, he must have felt some dysfunctional kind of family victory when he ended up bagging Herodias, a woman who had been married to his older brother Philip, as his own wife.

Herod arrested John the Baptist because he saw him as a troublemaker who threatened his power and authority with the people. John had publicly criticized him for marrying Herodias. That undercut him in public, and it must have touched the raw nerve of his own feelings of inadequacy. He had to do something about that, so he’d arrested John. But oddly enough, Mark tells us, even though John’s words were often discomforting to him, Herod recognized that there was something special about him. He was a righteous person, and even though his words could sting, Herod still enjoyed listening to him. Apparently, he was intrigued, his soul was moved, by what John had to say. It was because of that, Mark says, that Herod was actually protecting John, to some extent, even while keeping him in prison. Mark actually goes out of his way to paint Herod as someone who isn’t totally good or totally evil; in an important way he portrays Herod as the same mixed bag of morality and humanity as any of us.

But now, Herod had boxed himself into a corner. In front of all these important people, he’d made a ridiculous promise to his step-daughter, and she’d called his bluff. And he couldn’t back down now, or he’d lose face in front of all these people whom he knew didn’t really have a lot of faith in him anyway. So, even though he apparently didn’t really want to do it – even though he actually kind of liked John in some strange way – he liked his power and his image even more, so in the end, it was that insecurity, and that pride, that need to save face, that ruled the day. So just like everyone who’s ever spoken God’s Truth to the powers of this world who came before him or since, John paid a price for his commitment to that truth. And just like every politician or power broker before him and since in one way or another, Herod opted in favor of the politically expedient over the morally right.

Herod must have carried guilt over it with him afterwards. It seems like Herod was being haunted by the memory of his killing John – kind of like the main character in the Edgar Allan Poe story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where a man kills someone and buries his body under the floorboards of his house, but then the murderer’s guilt eats away at him until he eventually goes crazy and hallucinates that he can hear the dead man’s heart still beating away underneath the floor. And when Jesus began to be widely known, and when Herod heard what Jesus was preaching, it sounded all too familiar to him. All Herod could think was that it was John the Baptist come back from the dead to terrorize him.

Eventually, Mark tells us, Herod ends up playing a part in Jesus’ execution, too. Maybe as he finally got to meet Jesus in person, all he could see was John’s lifeless eyes staring back at him, accusing him. Maybe with Jesus, he was desperately trying to kill off John the Baptist again, once and for all, to try to get rid of his feelings of guilt. I wonder if it worked. Or did Herod spend the rest of his life dealing with it, trying to get rid of it, locked in a prison of his own making?

And I wonder how many of us have a similar problem. How many of us are still carrying around some terrible guilt from things we’ve done in our past, or even our present? How many of us look into the face of Christ and only see our accuser – our John the Baptist? How many of us struggle with accepting the real freedom, the new life that God offers us in Christ, because we still hear the heartbeats of our past failures coming up through the floor, pounding on our eardrums? Or, how many of us, like John, have paid a price for standing up and speaking Truth to the powers of this world – standing up for God’s Truth, revealed in and through Christ, and against the powers of the world – of unbridled power, greed, self-centeredness, immorality, bigotry, hatred, injustice?

This part of Mark’s story doesn’t end good. There’s no happy ending here; certainly not for John the Baptist, and not for Herod Antipas, either. But this is just like reading one chapter out of the middle of a novel; we need to pay attention to, as Paul Harvey would say, “the REST… of the story…”

The rest of the story, of course, is Jesus. The rest of this story is the cross. The fact is that while we can very much get bogged down in our guilt and shame over things in our lives, like Herod, or while we can and usually will pay a price for standing up for God’s Truth in this world, like John, God has made it possible through Christ to not be destroyed by either of these things. God has shown us that even when things look as terrible, and painful, and shameful, and final – even as bad as death on a cross – that God’s love wins. God’s love is the final chapter, the rest of the story. By looking straight into the face of Jesus on the cross, we don’t see the harsh, accusing eyes of John the Baptist; we see God’s deepest desire to love us, and accept us, and to bring us into that amazing, transformed, abundant way of living that we were designed for. We see God drawing us to himself. We see God saying to us, “Look at me! I am wiping away the ways of the world that are imprisoning you – the guilt and shame that saps the joy of life out of you – the suffering and persecutions that people inflict on you. I will give anything, even myself, to put an end to those things and to save you, to draw you close to me. You are my child. I know you by name; I’ve known you since before you were born. You are precious to me, and I love you. I forgive you, and I accept you. And I’m extending life to you – abundant life, eternal life, new life, in fellowship and communion with me.”

I imagine the scene of the crucifixion: the human misery and agony on public display as Jesus and the two criminals were being put to death. The tears, the laughing, the mocking. The gawkers and onlookers watching the whole grisly scene unfold as the best free entertainment of the day. And somewhere, in the back of the crowd, trying not to be noticed, maybe wearing a hood so no one recognizes him, I imagine Herod standing there. Still racked with guilt and insecurity. Hoping for some kind of closure, some kind of exorcism for his personal demons. Hoping that when Jesus dies, his movement, John’s movement, dies, once and for all, and maybe he can sleep nights again. And I imagine that as he stands there, he sees John the Baptist again – an image of John, standing next to Jesus’ cross, his arm outstretched and his finger pointing at Jesus hanging there. And he looks directly at Herod. But this time, John’s eyes aren’t harsh, or judgmental, or accusing. As impossible as it seems, they’re compassionate and caring. The tell tale heartbeat pounding in his ears finally stops. And as Herod follows John’s finger up to the cross, he looks into Jesus’ face. And it’s just then that he hears Jesus’ words: “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Those beautiful, wonderful words of life that Jesus offers up, that fly in the face of our sense of logic and reason and our tit-for-tat human understanding of fairness and justice. Jesus asks God to forgive those who put him on this cross. He didn’t wait for anyone to think they needed that forgiveness, much less ask for it. He just asked God to do it. From the very cross itself, Jesus asks that it all be put aside. The slate cleared. For the Jewish religious leaders. For the Roman occupiers. For Judas Iscariot. For Herod Antipas. And for you, and me, who nailed him to the cross just as much as any of the others.

And for that incredible, illogical, wonderful rest of the story, we should all say

Thanks be to God.

*****

Let Go of the Whale
July 8, 2012

ahab

Mark 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

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The scriptures tell us that Jesus was some kind of a carpenter, or builder by trade. Not a master builder, in charge of a whole construction project, but someone who was a woodworker, or maybe a mason of some kind. He was what today, we’d call a subcontractor. He was a regular blue-collar guy. A guy-next-door type that most of the people of Nazareth would have identified with. And just like today, when a small-town boy or girl makes it big, and all the people of their hometown like to point out that they’re “one of us,” the people of Nazareth must have felt that way about Jesus. When he was about thirty, after he closed down the workshop or left it to his younger brothers to run, and he started going from town to town picking up disciples, drawing big crowds, and doing some amazing miracles, word about Jesus must have gotten back to Nazareth, and with even more pride than we’d tell people that Urban Meyer’s wife is from Frankfort, they’d brag about Jesus. “Yep, he’s one of us. He grew up in that house right there on the corner. I remember him; he went to school with my older brother…” Jesus put Nazareth on the map; they must have been very proud of him.

Until he came back to town, anyway. Preaching to other people was one thing. And the miracles were great. But when Jesus came home and started to speak in his hometown synagogue, and to teach *them* – and not with the second-hand nature of one of the regular rabbis, but with a claim to firsthand power and authority – well, that was something different. You could hear them mumbling to each other – “Who’s he to tell us this stuff? I helped his mother change his dirty diapers!… I hired him to put the door frames in my new house!… I remember TP’ing old man Eliezer’s house with him when we were kids!… I taught him how to write, and he wasn’t even the smartest in the class!… Who the heck does he think he is?…He went away into this “ministry” of his, and filled his head with all kinds of crazy ideas, and now he has the gall to come back here acting like he’s so much smarter and superior to all of us “little people,” and telling us all what God is really like and what God expects. He’s no better or smarter than any of us. Even his own family thinks he’s gone off the deep end!”

It was completely predictable, of course. Jesus even quoted an old Hebrew proverb that prophets typically got about as much respect a Rodney Dangerfield in their own hometowns, and with their own family and friends. It happened all the time. Still, it had to be frustrating to Jesus. It had to make him angry. It had to hurt, really deeply, for the people he personally cared about the most to reject him and what he had to say.

But even in the midst of his friends and family rejecting him and his words in no uncertain terms, and what must have been a strong desire for them to accept his word, ultimately, he just gave up. He quit trying to change their minds. Mark tells us that he half-heartedly did a few minor miracles there in Nazareth, the divine equivalent ofa few card tricks, and then he left town and moved on.

And as did, he sent his disciples out to other towns, to do the same thing, too. He gave them instructions about what to take, and how to act. And with his own hometown rejection still fresh in his mind, he told them that if people rejected their message, to do the same thing – just move on. Shake the dust from their sandals, he said, and keep moving. There were other towns to visit, other people to meet. They’ll have done their part. The rest was up to God. Jesus knew that no matter what it is you’re doing, there comes a time when, if all you’re getting out of the efforts is rejection, opposition, or failure, you just have to let go, move on, start fresh.

But that goes against our natural instincts. Isn’t that just quitting, giving up? We aren’t quitters! So all too often, when we find ourselves in a situation like that, we don’t quit. We just dig in and keep at the same stupid, fruitless exercise in futility, like Captain Ahab in the novel Moby Dick. His single-minded obsession with killing the white whale, who he thinks has it personally out for him, ends up costing him his ship, and his life, and the lives of all but one of his crew.

So how do we avoid doing the same kind of thing in our own lives? How do we “know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em,” as Kenny Rogers put it? The key is to figure out your real mission in life. God has some particular mission, some purpose, for each and every one of us as part of advancing God’s kingdom, God’s rule, in this world. And once we know what it is, we need to keep it in focus and not get distracted by all the distractions that are all around us. Jesus’ mission, and the mission of his disciples, was to spread God’s good news to as many people throughout the countryside as possible. Making sure that everyone responded favorably to that good news wasn’t their problem; it wasn’t part of their mission. Their mission was just to spread that message of the new kind of life that Jesus was proclaiming, by living it out in their words and in their actions.

Of course, in the big picture, that’s really our mission too, as followers of Jesus. Each of us has some particular part of that mission that we need to focus on, with its own particular details and wrinkles, but in the end, we have the very same mission that they did.

Craig Barnes is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the senior pastor of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church just a few blocks away from the school. He’s a very gifted professor and a brilliant preacher, and he once said to never confuse your *job* with your *mission*. You job is a tool, and it’s really only important, and right, as long as it’s advancing the particular mission that God has entrusted to you. And it isn’t always necessarily a literal job that he was talking about; it could be whatever it is that we’ve invested the bulk of our time and efforts into. Whatever that is, whether we get a paycheck for it or not, whether someone else gave it to us or we gave it to ourselves – that’s our job.

So today, I’d ask you: do you know what your part in God’s mission is? And if you do, is your “job” consistent with that mission? Is it helping, or hurting? Are you clinging onto something that’s holding you back from God’s plans for you, something that you should let go of? If your job is consistent with your mission, that’s great. But if it isn’t, maybe it’s time for some change in your life. Maybe it’s time for a few adjustments. Maybe it’s time to shake the dust from your sandals, let go of the harpoon, stop some banging-your-head-against-the-wall, self-destructive obsession or fear, and move on. To recognize and realign yourself more closely with your part of God’s mission. But how do you know it might be time to make some change like that in your life?

I guess there are a number of ways that you might reach that understanding. But what might be the very best way might also be the simplest: does your job – whatever it is that you’re devoting most of yourself to – make you happy? Do you enjoy it? Does it give you some inner sense of fulfillment and accomplishment? If not – if that job is just constantly sapping the joy and energy out of your life, then that job is probably not consistent with God’s mission for you.

I’m not talking about whether your job is hard work, or if it has periodic frustrations. God doesn’t shield us from those kinds of things, or times of suffering. But that isn’t God’s intent for our norm. It isn’t supposed to be our default setting. If your job – whatever that is – is constantly draining you, and you dread it, and you’re constantly envisioning yourself doing something else – something that would make you experience real joy in your life – then most likely, you’re just beating a dead horse. You’re missing your mission. Christ has more, and better, in mind for you than that. The first question of the old Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” What is the primary purpose, the primary mission, for human beings? And the answer is absolutely beautiful in its simplicity: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Joy, happiness, contentment, fulfillment, accomplishment – all those qualities wrapped up in the Hebrew word “shalom” – that’s part of God’s whole intent and purpose for us, in the future, and in the here-and-now.

Do we live eternally after this life? Absolutely. But *this* is our one shot at enjoying life in *this* world, and all the wonders of this existence that God created and called good. If that wasn’t important to God, we wouldn’t live this life before the next one. Make no mistake – God hasn’t called us to a life of shallowness and just giving up on something at the first sign of any difficulty. And God certainly doesn’t say that we won’t have to endure suffering or frustration from time to time. But the good news, the *great* news, that Christ tells us, is that God’s main wish for us is to enjoy and live life to the fullest. That’s one of God’s greatest gifts, and it’s one of the best indicators of whether we’re really hearing, and following, God’s call for us.

The best way to ruin and waste your life is to try to get everything just right and always succeed at everything. To latch onto some impossible obsession that you can’t succeed at and aren’t really supposed to, anyway. So let Ahab chase his own stupid whale. Sometimes, you’re going to have to just let go and move on. You are not in control; God is. And that good news gives you the freedom to enjoy this life, to be the light that God wants you to be in the world, and to enjoy the ride.

Thanks be to God.

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Six Lives, Three Needs, One Loving God
July 1, 2012

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

=====

2012 AD:

She was a well-known internet blogger, known for her atheism and her debates with Christians about matters of faith. Her fame and her friends – essentially, her whole identity – was all tied to her being such a public and outspoken atheist She had a very loyal following. But she had a problem. Over time, as she engaged in thoughtful debate with Christians, she started to believe that at least on the main points they debated, the Christians were right. But could she ever make that leap of faith and become a Christian? She could lose her whole reputation; she could lose everything. How could she switch teams like this?

***

He was a lifelong, “cradle Christian.” He’d known God’s love, and the love and fellowship of his congregation, his entire life. He was baptized there, confirmed there, had been in youth group there. He sang in the choir, was a deacon, and an elder, very active in the church. But he had a problem. Now, at age 35, after years of struggling and denial, he finally admitted to himself that he was gay, and in love with another man. But how could he ever tell that to his friends in the church? Surely, he would become a complete outcast, a pariah. Couldn’t he just keep living the lie, keeping his true self in the shadows, and just accepting the sense of worthlessness that came from not being able to be completely honest about himself to the people he cared about most? He could lose his whole reputation; he could lose everything. How could he tell them this?

***

All his life, he’d been a mover and a shaker. Someone who’d made his own luck, who’d always been able to fix problems, take care of himself, take care of his family, and always come out on top. But now, he had a problem. Cancer, they told him. Inoperable. Stage IV, and with the dark humor that comes along with that, he told friends there is no Stage V. Get your things in order, they told him. Make peace with the people you need to. Say the things that need to be said. Do the things that need to be done, because it’s all coming to an end, and sooner rather than later. And there’s not a thing you can do about it. It all caused him to have an almost complete crisis of faith. How could his life end like this? Now, for the first time in his adult life, he felt as helpless and out of control as a little child.

***

33 AD:

Jairus was a pillar of the community. A well-known leader of the local synagogue. Wealthy and well-respected. His entire reputation was tied to his beliefs and his place of leadership within the Jewish faith. But he’d been paying close attention to this wandering preacher from Nazareth. Listening to his words, watching his actions. And he’d actually come to believe that this Jesus was an actual prophet sent by God – maybe even the messiah himself, someone with power and authority from God, whose word was Truth. But the words this Jesus spoke were often very different from so many of the received religious traditions that he was the keeper of, the symbol of. And now, he had a problem. His daughter was very ill, and about to die. He was convinced that this Jesus had the power to heal her, to save her. But how could he, the leader of the synagogue, ever go to Jesus to help his daughter? He could lose his whole reputation; he could lose everything.

But in the end, he did it. He stopped worrying about public perceptions, and out of his deep love for his daughter – a love that every parent can identify with – and in the faith that Jesus could help him, he was honest with himself, honest about who he believed Jesus was, and about who he was himself. And just as we really was, dropping all the pretenses, he went to Jesus. And because of his faith, his 12-year old daughter was healed, saved. And in the process, so was Jairus himself.

***

It seemed like she’d been dealing with the problem forever. For 12 long years, as long as Jairus’ daughter had been alive, she’d suffered from this constant flow of blood. She’d blown through every penny she had on doctors and medical bills trying to solve the problem, but now she was broke, and just getting worse and worse. And just as bad as the physical ailment was – maybe even worse – was the disconnect that it caused from those around her. According to the traditions of her faith, this continuous flow of blood made her continuously, ritually unclean. Unable to fully participate in the life, the worship, the fellowship, the human care and compassion of the community of faith. And not only was *she* considered unclean, but so was anyone else who came into contact with her. She was expected to keep herself away from the rest of the people, keeping her condition to herself and not upsetting the beliefs, and rituals, and daily lives of the people around her. She was expected to keep the reality of her life in the shadows, away from good society, out of sight and out of mind.

But she’d heard about this man from Nazareth – this man whose healings and miracles proved beyond a shadow of a doubt to her that he was a man sent from God who could heal her. Even just touching him – even just touching his clothing, she believed – would heal her, save her, once and for all. He could restore her to full health, and to the full love and fellowship of the community. But in order for Jesus to do that, she had to come out of the shadows, do what good society said not to do – to put herself front and center in the moment. To risk the agitation and rejection of the people around her by getting right up front with Jesus himself. It was a terribly difficult decision, but she did it. Just as she really was, dropping all the pretense and the false propriety, she went to Jesus, and through her faith in him, she was healed, saved.

***

The little girl lay there in bed. She was only twelve, but as she lay there in her own sweat-soaked sheets, she knew that she was dying. Her life had barely begun, and now, with a whimper, it was coming to an end. And there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.

But in her helplessness – in her inability to do anything about her own condition – Jesus came to her. In her crisis, in her life-and-death moment of need. Not because of anything she’d done. Not because she’d even asked him to. He came to her. And out of his love for her, he healed her, saved her.

***

Three lives in the present. Each one having parallel needs with the three lives of the people Jesus interacted with in this story from Mark. Jairus and the internet blogger had to risk their reputations and not think too highly of themselves, in order to be honest with themselves, and with God, about their beliefs. The ritually unclean woman with the flow of blood and the gay parishioner had to decide to not be kept in the shadows and marginalized, in order to be honest with themselves and God about their beliefs. The dying twelve year old girl and the dying overachieving man had to come to terms with reality, to be honest with themselves that there was nothing in their power that they could do to save themselves.

In the first two cases, the people learned that it’s only through not thinking too highly of one’s self, or too lowly of one’s self, by dropping all false facades, false pretenses, false proprieties, and by being honest with God, that we can really experience the depth and breadth of God’s love for us. And often, we can only get to that growth point when it seems like we don’t have any other way to turn, or we don’t have anything left to lose. Like Jairus. Like the woman with the flow of blood. When we get to that moment when we can just tell the truth – the truth about who we are, what we believe, what we’re feeling; telling the truth to God and to ourselves. It’s in that moment that the Holy Spirit works within us, and our faith grows deeper, and we feel God’s love more intensely. Someone once said that the only way to trust and experience the fullness of God’s “I love you” is to first hear God’s equally important “I know you.” Just as you really are. No false fronts. Warts and all. “I know you,” God says. “And I love you. Not who you want people to think you are. I love who you *really* are. Completely. Unconditionally.”

***

2012 AD:

As difficult as it was for her to do, she finally wrote a long article on her blog, telling everyone that she was no longer an atheist, but had converted to Christianity. That even though she still had some questions, and didn’t agree with all the official teachings of her church, she’d found faith. And the outcome? Readership of her blog spiked. She lost some readers who felt she was a traitor to the atheist cause. But she also gained a lot of new readers, too. People who respected her intellect, and her wit, and her journey of faith. In her bravery and her honesty, they loved her, and God loved her, even more deeply.

***

As difficult as it was, he finally reached the point where he couldn’t live the lie, the double life, any more – the supposedly straight life, and the secret reality that he was gay, and dealing with the terrible inner feelings of loneliness and worthlessness. So, knowing that he was risking his whole relationship in the life of the church, he came out to them, telling them all what most of them had really already known for years. And the outcome? Some of them rejected him; he’d lost their love and fellowship forever. But most of them knew that he was still the same man they’d all known and loved for years, and they embraced him and supported him. In his bravery and honesty, they loved him, and God loved him, even more deeply.

***

He went back to the doctor, expecting just more bad news. But for some reason, in some way the doctors couldn’t explain at all, all the tests and all the scans came back negative. The cancer was gone. Completely. Not because of anything the doctors did, or he did. It was just gone. He was healed. Saved.

***

God loves us all, completely and unconditionally. And the braver and more honest we are with ourselves, and with God, about who we really are – good, bad, and in-between – we’ll be able to experience God’s love even more deeply. That’s God’s good news for all of us. But even when we’re not so brave – or even when we can’t do anything ourselves to come closer to Jesus – even when we might have our doubts – just like the twelve year old girl, and the modern day go-getter – Christ promises to come even closer to us. Sometimes in amazing, and powerful, even miraculous ways. And that’s the very best news of all.

Thanks be to God.

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Boat People
June 24, 2012

Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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The Solentiname Islands are a cluster of some thirty-odd little islands that sit in the south end of Lake Nicaragua, in Central America. They’re pretty remote; there are only around a thousand people spread over all of the islands. Modern luxuries like electricity and running water are scarce. But the islands themselves are a beautiful natural paradise, with an incredible variety of tropical plants, animals, and birds, all just bursting with color and beauty. And because of that, Solentiname has become a kind of haven for any number of bohemians, beatniks, and artists over the years. But the real native residents of the island are almost all very poor fisherman and their families, people forgotten or ignored by most of the rest of the world, just struggling to get by day by day. And among these people scattered across the islands, there is a very deeply committed, tight-knit Christian community.

She was one of those Christians who lived on the islands. One day, she was out on the lake in a little boat, with her newborn baby, trying to hop from one island to another. Lake Nicaragua is known for storms that seem to come out of nowhere, with large and dangerous waves that can, and often do, capsize boats. That’s exactly what happened on this day. But her boat didn’t just capsize, it was broken to bits. The worst part was that she couldn’t even swim, and as she floundered around in the water, being tossed around like a leaf and trying to hold her infant in her arms, knowing sh was going to drown in the story, she cried out to God. If he wouldn’t save her, she prayed that he would at least find some way to save her baby from a horrible death like this. And then she blacked out, as she started to sink deeper into the water.

It was that same kind of fear – that knotting up of the stomach; that kind of terror that almost steals your ability to even speak, when you know there’s no hope, no way out – that the disciples must have been feeling in that boat out on the Sea of Galilee in this story from Mark’s gospel that we read. That lake was subject to the same kind of sudden pop-up storms as Lake Nicaragua, and these Galilean fishermen knew perfectly well what kind of danger they were in. Water lapping up over the sides, everything’s soaking wet, socks and shoes soaked through, empty beer cans and candy wrappers sloshing around in the bottom of the boat. And in the middle of all that, there’s Jesus, asleep in the back of the boat, like there’s nothing going on at all. He’d just been teaching people on far side of the lake; there had been so many people pushing in on him to get close to him that he’d put out into the water in the boat to speak to them all. He’d been speaking to them in parables, including that parable of the mustard seed we heard last Sunday. It had been a long, hard day, and now he was absolutely exhausted. It was that aching-in-your-bones kind of tired where your body just says “enough” and you fall into a deep sleep no matter where you are.

And it upset the other disciples in the boat. They got mad at him; they yelled at him. Don’t you care that we could all die? Get up off your butt and do something! So Jesus does get up, probably a little annoyed at them for waking him up. And he rubs his eyes, gets his balance in the boat rocking back and forth. And kind of like when you were a kid on a family vacation, and you were acting up in the back seat of the car, and your Dad had to turn around and yell at you – Jesus stands up in the boat and yells at the storm, “Knock it off!” And then he lies back down, pulls a blanket over himself, and tries to get back to sleep. You can just imagine the disciples sitting there, awestruck at what Jesus had just done, and one of them saying, “Gee, we’d have been happy if you’d just helped us bail out the boat!”

There are lots of times when maybe you could call us “boat people” – when we feel the same way as the disciples in that tiny little boat getting tossed around in the waves. Times when it feels like God isn’t there, or isn’t listening to us, or just doesn’t care. Those times in our lives, whether it’s a family problem, a health or medical issue, something job-related, or a crisis of faith, when we pray to God for some kind of answer, some kind of help, those times when we’re at the end of our rope, maybe we’re even on our knees and in tears, when we most want God to give us some direct, immediate answer and help – and it just seems like there’s nobody on the other end, that we’re just praying to the ceiling. Times when we cry out in pain or in anger, “Lord, don’t you know what I’m going through? Don’t you care?!!” And God’s answer seems to be a big, fat nothing.

The whole idea of what seems to be unanswered prayer is one of the toughest parts of our faith. I suspect that more people – good people, sincere people – who have left the faith over what they’ve felt were unanswered prayers in some time of extreme crisis, than any other reason. And let’s face it, we’ve all dealt with this. It’s hard, it seems against all reason, to keep believing when you’re in the middle of some crisis and the God you want to believe in seems to just be asleep somewhere in the back of the boat.

But that’s exactly what God really does ask us to do. To keep our faith even when it seems like God isn’t there. God has promised us that even when we can’t see it or feel it, God has heard our cries and our prayers, and in some way is working to achieve what’s best for us. Often in some way we can’t see in the moment, or some way we can’t even expect. Often, God has something in mind even greater, and better, than we’d even asked for. We ask for God to help us bail out the boat, and God works a way to stop the whole storm.

Like it or not, and even though it can cause us anxiety – *real* anxiety, and real struggles in the moment that don’t just go away – that’s how God hears and answers our prayers. The Israelites just asked God for a bit better treatment and an easier workweek in their captivity in Egypt. God gave them a new life of freedom from slavery and their own land. The Jews wanted God to send them a man who would be a messiah, to save them from the oppression of an occupying government and give them control over their own kingdom; God sent himself as the messiah to all people, to save us from the oppression of the entire world and lead us into God’s eternal kingdom. That’s the way God works.

When she opened her eyes, she was lying in the bottom of a fishing boat, with two fishermen leaning over her. In the background, she could hear her baby crying. Floating out there in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, she was gradually realizing that God had found a way to save not only her baby, but her as well. But as she began talking with the fishermen who had pulled her out of the water, she realized that somehow, even though she couldn’t swim, God had kept her and her baby afloat for more than an hour, bobbing around in the waves like a cork, until the little fishing boat found them. She just wanted her baby to survive; God had something better in mind.

We might not see God working in miraculous ways like that in our lives. Or who knows, maybe we will. But in either case, we can be sure that even in our darkest of moments, even in the times we feel most abandoned, God is still right here with us, and is bringing us an answer to our prayers – maybe an even better one that we’d hoped for.

Thanks be to God.

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Mustard Seeds and Morning Glories
June 14, 2012

Mark 4:26-34

Jesus also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

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One Saturday morning a while back, I think I almost gave Ed Kruger a heart attack. I didn’t mean to, really. I was driving to the church one morning for the Men’s Breakfast, and it was one of those postcard-perfect sunny mornings, with a beautiful blue sky. A lot of the fields had just recently been plowed, and I could see some little purple wildflowers had come up in a lot of them – mostly along the edges of the fields, but I remember one field that seemed to be half full of them, just spreading out toward the horizon. It was a really pretty sight. So when I got down to the breakfast, I said something about them. I described them, and asked if anyone knew what they were, they were so pretty. It was about that point that Ed almost vapor-locked, and he said “Pretty? Pretty?!! Those are morning glories, and I wouldn’t call them pretty. It’s a real pain in the neck keeping them out of the fields; they’re very invasive and they’ll choke out the crops!”

Now, I really didn’t intend to send Ed into cardiac arrest; I just meant that I thought the flowers themselves were pretty. I’ve learned a lot of things in my life, but an extensive knowledge of farming obviously isn’t one of them. Jesus, on the other hand, lived a lot closer to the land, and he had much more of a firsthand understanding of growing crops, and raising animals. A lot of Jesus’ parables meant to teach about what the reign of God is like are framed in farming illustrations. I guarantee you, if Jesus had grown up here in Ohio, he’d have known those weeds were morning glories But as big a pain in the neck as they might be, I still think he’d say they were pretty, too.

The passage from Mark that we read today is a case in point where Jesus uses illustrations related to planting and growing. Most of us are probably familiar with the Parable of the Mustard Seed – Jesus’ parable that the reign of God is like this tiny little seed that grows to be a very large bush, with big, full branches and making a lot of shade for birds to take shelter in.

Over the course of your life, you may have heard a dozen sermons based on this parable. And I suspect that most, if not all of them, drew out a message something like this: God can use what seems to be the smallest, most humble person or thing in the kingdom of God to achieve wonderful results, great things. And that you can’t judge the true nature of a thing just by looking at its outward appearance, or outward circumstances, but it’s what’s inside – what’s in the heart, if you will – that’s really important. That’s the case with the mustard seed. And that’s certainly part of the message in today’s reading from Samuel, about the prophet’s selecting David – the smallest and youngest of all of his brothers – to be the next king of Israel.

Those are good and true messages that we can get out of the Parable of the Mustard Seed. It’s important for us to understand that God does great things while working through the most unlikely of people, in the most unlikely of places and circumstances. We should take courage in that fact.

But I think there’s something going on here that often gets missed. Often, when we hear this parable, we form this mental image of the mustard shrub – it’s this great, grand thing growing out of that tiny little seed, making plenty of shade under big, graceful branches. It sounds kind of peaceful, and beautiful, a pleasant thing. After all, Jesus is describing the kingdom of God, and that’s a good, pleasant thing, right?

But I want to suggest that Jesus wasn’t trying to convey a pleasant image at all. He was telling this story to people whose lives were closely connected to the soil, most of them were likely hardworking subsistence farmers trying to raise enough food to survive on in a land where there’s iffy rainfall and little good agricultural land, a lot of it painstakingly terraced into hillsides that would otherwise be too steep to farm. Every square foot of the land, and every bushel of the crop, was critical. And these people listening to Jesus would have known immediately that a mustard shrub wasn’t anything desirable or to think kindly about. Mustard shrubs are maybe the most pernicious, invasive weeds known in the region. Left unchecked, they can grow to six or nine feet or even more. They threaten the crops by stealing nutrients and water from the soil, and creating shade that keeps crops from growing under or around them. It’s a constant problem keeping them out of the fields. These people listening to Jesus certainly wouldn’t have been having pleasant thoughts in their heads when Jesus was talking about mustard shrubs. Even that image of the shrubs making a shelter for the birds isn’t the pleasant image it might seem to some of us. Birds that come into the fields and eat the seed sown in a field, or the crops as they’re growing, is anything but a happy thought. I mean, people put up scarecrows to keep birds out of the fields, right? Those people listening to Jesus got that. If Ed Kruger were there, he’d have got that.

So what’s Jesus’ point in this? Yes, that you can’t judge a thing by outward appearance, and that even humble things can accomplish big things in the kingdom of God. But most importantly, Jesus was trying to describe the kingdom itself; what it’s like. And here, I think he’s saying that once it takes root, the kingdom of God – the reign of God, not just in the future but in the here and now – grows like a weed. It’s invasive. It’s pernicious. It’s disturbing to the surrounding environment it takes root in, and it isn’t generally a welcome disruption. It can be an annoyance. Discomforting.

When God breaks into the status quo of this world, and shows that there’s an alternative way of living, a better way of living, than the way that the world is peddling, the world doesn’t like that. The world sees that message of an alternative way of living as a threat. It’s going to be seen as invasive and dangerous to those who have a vested interest in things going along as they have been. But that’s the whole point of the gospel – to announce good news of a change in the way things have been, a change that’s come into the world, a change from the established ways to God’s ways. God’s kingdom is spreading into the world like wild mustard taking over a field, to gradually establish a world more like God’s ideal – a world where people care for each other and aren’t taken advantage of, cheated, or pushed off to the margins of life. A world where the sins of greed, and self-centeredness, and the raw ambition for power, aren’t just given more pleasant sounding names and held up as virtues. And we, the tiny little mustard seeds in God’s kingdom, are called to help make that all take root in this field we’re living in.

That can be a pretty disturbing way of understanding what Jesus is saying, if we’re people who are actually benefitting from those established, sinful, ways of the world, in ways contrary to God’s will as shown to us through Christ. If that’s the case, then Jesus’ message in this parable is much more one of judgment and trouble for us. It’s a message we don’t want to hear.

On the other hand, this idea that the kingdom of God is threatening to grow and choke out the ways of this world is very good news if we’re among those who are suffering under those ways. If we’re a parent trying to raise spiritually and morally sound children in a world that sends tem all the wrong messages almost every waking hour of the day. If we have to choose between paying for our medications or food, because we’re uninsured, or an insurance company has refused to cover the expense. If we feel forced to live in silent desperation in an abusive household, feeling like we have nowhere to turn. If we’re struggling to make ends meet on a fixed income and our dollar is being devalued more and more every day because of downright asinine deficit spending policies coming out of Washington. If we haven’t gotten a raise in three years and had our benefits cut back because we’re told times are tough, while the company reports record profits and the CEO gets another multimillion dollar bonus.

This parable is very good news for you, and for me, and for any of us who in one way or another, large or small, are hurting because of the ways of this world.

Through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the seeds have already been sown. The kingdom of God has been planted, and now, through you and me, it’s supposed to be growing. It’s supposed to be disruptive, and invasive, maybe even subversive. It’s supposed to have the power to ultimately take over the whole field, like mustard shrubs. Like morning glories.

Thanks be to God.

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“Net Losses, Net Gains”
January 29, 2012

Jonah 3:1-10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

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One thing that I think we should do, as Christians, is to read the Bible a bit more like it was just any other ordinary book. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Bible isn’t the unique, authoritative word of God. What I mean is that a lot of times, we’ll read something in the Bible, and we place the Bible on such a high pedestal that we don’t question what read. Things that we’d read in pretty much any other kind of book, things that would just jump right off the page and catch our attention, things we’d immediately say “Wait a minute – did I just read that? What’s going on there? – we’ll read in the scriptures and our minds will just gloss over a lot of it. We’ll give some of those unusual things a critical pass, just because, well, it’s the Bible. I think that’s a mistake. I think that it’s often those oddities, those irregularities that God intends us to catch, and to think about. It’s the oddities that help to really draw out much of the message that God wants us to get from the scriptures themselves.

This story from Mark is a case in point. We heard how Jesus had been going about Galilee proclaiming the gospel, and one day he was just walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and he calls out to some random fishermen, “Follow me!” – and they just drop their nets and follow along after him, leaving everything behind them and becoming the first of Jesus’ disciples.

The passage says they did it “immediately.” That’s a fascinating thing. That’s one of those things that sticks out and begs us to think about. Why would these men have done that – just drop everything, walk away from their current life and set off on a completely new and different one? It doesn’t seem to make sense. If you were writing a fictional story, you’d have to add a whole lot more detail to explain why these men were willing to just go like that. In the gospels, though, we don’t get any of that kind of detail to make it easier for us to process it; we’re just told that they did it. Did Jesus come across four fishermen along the lakeshore who just happened to be so absolutely disgusted with their lives as fishermen that they’d just on anything to leave it behind for something else? Had they heard Jesus before, teaching in the synagogue or the marketplace in town, and this was just the result of longer consideration about becoming disciples of his? We just don’t know. What we do know is that there was apparently something different, something special that they saw in Jesus that made them willing to make that drastic, life-changing decision and go off in a completely different path.

Another part of the story that we tend to miss is the repercussions of their up and leaving like that. What about old Zebedee, the father of James and John? How was this going to affect him? Had he been counting on his two sons to take over the family fishing business, so he could take things at least a little easier in his old age? Even if he were impressed with Jesus himself, he still must have had mixed emotions about this, torn with questions and doubts about the wisdom of his sons’ decision.

Were these four fishermen leaving behind serious commitments to family and friends, business commitments, community commitments? How could they make such a major decision, so quickly, just like that? Clearly, based on the rest of scriptures, they weren’t sure that Jesus was truly the Messiah until much later. They were making a decision on faith here, a hunch. How could they be sure what they were doing was right? We have the benefit of two thousand years of history and tradition confirming that they did indeed make the right decision, but to imagine them and their thoughts, in the moment, before everything else unfolded – things had to seem a lot less clear. Still, they heard Jesus’ call, and something apparently deep inside them spoke to their hearts, their souls, and they couldn’t deny it or ignore it. They simply had to go. They left their nets behind, and they went.

Pastors can understand something about hearing that inescapable inner voice, calling us to follow Christ. That’s especially true for us “second call” people entering the ministry. There are very clear questions in your mind and heart about whether you’re hearing a legitimate call. And there are deep, soul-searching questions about changing or leaving earlier commitments. But even that situation is different from what those first disciples faced. There was no call process, no denominational minimum salary requirements, no health insurance, no pension. There was just Jesus, and the road, and the unknown future. That’s a scary place to be.

Actually, we all know someone who’s in that same scary place right now. You probably remember Noah M____, who visited us recently to talk about his mission experience in Thailand; our congregation helped finance his trip. Last Sunday, during the passing of the peace, Connie M____ told me that after a lot of serious discernment and prayer, and no small amount of tears, Noah has sensed a call to leave graduate school, to leave his scholarship and his plans behind, and to return to Thailand to serve God in mission – continuing studies there, but primarily being there in-country to respond to God’s call to him to work in mission to the people of the country. Noah’s got to be feeling a lot of the same things that the first disciples felt, when they left their nets behind – truly, their “safety nets” – and they went into the unknown where God was calling them. And I’m sure that Noah’s parents, and his grandparents, are feeling the same kind of mixed emotions about Noah dropping his nets – his safety nets – and following where he believes he hears God leading him, just as Zebedee must have when his sons dropped their nets and did the same thing.

What would be compelling enough to make you do the same sort of thing – to drop everything and go off in a completely different direction that you sensed God calling you toward? What would it take? Some big, splashy miracle? A sign in the sky, another star in the east? We know that God can speak to us with a quiet, small voice, or with all the subtlety of a 2×4 smacking the backside of our heads – but even in its boldest of ways, it doesn’t come with those kinds of things, or a signed Certificate of Authenticity; a guarantee that you’re doing the right thing. I mean, one of the potentially troubling aspects of this story from Mark for us, is that while we can admire the disciples accepting Jesus’ call, very few of us would likely do the same thing. Even if we were very sure that what we were feeling was a legitimate call from God to do something very different, most of us still hesitate. Our physical stuff, our own best-laid plans, our own chosen priorities – all those things that we see as our safety nets, often actually just end up becoming nets that entangle us. Nets that keep us from obeying God when we hear him calling us to something new and different, or that keep us from hearing God at all. It’s very difficult to get untangled from those nets, but that’s what God asks us to do often enough. To lay them down, in order to find, and enjoy, that truly new, and transformed, and joyful life that God wants us to live. To suffer a “net loss,” if you will, in order to achieve a “net gain.”

And don’t think that God’s voice is always calling us to drop everything and run off to Outer Mongolia to build a school for orphans. Sometimes, Christ is calling us to drop our safety net of pride, to follow him toward reconciling some longstanding hurt and disagreement with a family member or a friend. Or to drop our safety net of dollars, to follow him toward financially supporting the mission of our congregation more than in the past. Or to drop our safety net of comfort, to follow him in reaching out and accepting other people in Christ who are very different from us, and serving them in Christ’s name. To accept a net loss of “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” or “that’s the way we’ve always thought before;” to accept a net gain of “this is the way we need to do it” and “this is the way we need to think about it now.” Because whether we like sitting on the edge of the lake tending to our current familiar old nets or not, Christ’s message to us to be part of his mission to the world today is “Give up your old, right now. Change, or die.”

Dropping our safety nets – accepting a net loss – can be scary, even when we know that what Jesus promises us is so much better. But the good news for us is that that sometimes scary, no-safety-net life that Christ is calling us to really is so much better – and not just later on, in heaven, but today. This afternoon. Right now.

Thanks be to God.

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“Come and See”
January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3:1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

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Back in the 1980s, in the very last days of the Communist-run Soviet Union, there was a Russian comedian named Yakov Smirnoff, who emigrated to the United States. You might remember him. He had a pretty funny act, comparing his new life in America to life in Russia. He actually pioneered an entire style of joke that’s come to be called “the Russian Reversal.” He’d offer up jokes like, “In America, you can get this card, American Express – “Don’t Leave Home Without It.” In Russia, you get Russian Express – “Don’t Leave Home.” or, “In America, comedian can say to a heckler, ‘Your mother wears Army boots!’ In Russia, she probably does, and she can beat you up.” or, “In America, you can always find a party. In Russia, the Party finds you.” In his routine, he’d often make fun of Cleveland, the first city he lived in when he came to America, but then he’d explain, “No, really, every country has a city they make fun of. In America, it’s Cleveland. In Russia – it’s Cleveland.”

He was onto something with his humor, especially with that last example. We do seem to be wired to need something, or some place, to focus our ridicule or our scorn on; to be able to point to some place where the people are lower down on the totem pole than we are. If you live in New York, you look down your nose at – well, everyone, I suppose, but let’s say, for example, Chicago. If you live in Chicago, you look down on Columbus; if you live in Columbus you look down on Chillicothe; if you live in Chillicothe you look down on Frankfort, and if you live in Frankfort, you look down on, I don’t know, maybe Lattaville. It just seems to be human nature to do that. They did that in Jesus’ time, too. In those days, the people of Judea, and the city of Jerusalem, looked down on the people to the north, in the land that was once the Northern Kingdom of Israel – the regions of Samaria, and beyond that, Galilee. In this passage from John, we hear about Jesus wandering around in the region of Galilee, at the beginning of his earthly ministry, and calling his first disciples – first Andrew, who tells his brother Peter to come and see Jesus; then Philip, who goes and tells his friend Nathanael to come meet this Jesus, from Nazareth, who Philip says tells him is the Messiah that they’d been waiting for and whose coming had been foretold. And when Philip heard this, he practically snorts, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?!” Now here’s Nathanael, who’s from a city in the looked-down upon region of Galilee, looking down his nose at a still smaller town in the same region. Could anything good come from there? Still, despite that, Philip coaxes him to come and meet Jesus, and when he does, Jesus doesn’t get into some petty argument about whether Bethsaida or Nazareth is a better place, but he tells Nathanael he’s an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. A good man, a respectable man, someone worthy of respect and goodwill. And Jesus tells him that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree when Philip first called him. Some scholars say that that’s a figure of speech, sitting under a fig tree, that means someone is a scholar of the scriptures, that there’s some historical evidence to that effect. I don’t know if that’s true, or if it just meant that Jesus saw him sitting under a fig tree; either way works fine for me. The real point of it is that even with his cynical outlook, Nathanael saw something different in Jesus. Philip saw it in Jesus, and since he knew Nathanael, and probably expected his sarcastic first response, but he still told Nathanael, come and see. And there was something intriguing about Jesus that disarmed Nathanael’s cynicism. When Jesus spoke, Nathanael listened.

We’ve all known people who seem to have that special something about them that makes people pay attention to them, that draws people toward them. We see it in some politicians. We see it in some professional athletes. I suppose we see it in Tim Tebow now. We definitely saw it in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who our nation recognizes tomorrow. Whoever it is, we can all think of someone who has this special “something” that disarms people, attracts people, not just to them personally, but to their thoughts, their understanding of things. Jesus apparently had this same kind of aura about him, but on an even grander scale. He certainly wasn’t anything flashy, but when you met him, when he spoke – when he said, “Come and see,” it spoke to your soul.

Last week, we highlighted the fact that there are some of us who have been called by Jesus to specific, particular ministries within his church. But of course, we’ve all been called to be ministers within the church in some way or another, whether ordained or not. Jesus says to each of us, “Come and see” what kind of a different, transformed life God offers us. A life where we aren’t held captive to our past, whatever was there. A life where we can feel the burden lifted off our shoulders, where we can simply accept that God loves us, right now, just as we are, not as we might become. A life where we can feel that communion, that fellowship with God, and where that relationship will form and shape every part of our lives, without even thinking about it. A life where we can feel how that relationship makes our lives absolutely better, here and now, than we would have without that relationship. It’s a kind of transformed, new life that would be worthwhile and wonderful to us, even if there were no such thing as life after death. That’s the kind of life that Jesus wants us to experience, to see – that he calls us toward, saying “Come and see.”

And because we know how wonderful this new life is, we can call others to come experience Christ, too. Not beating them over the head, not threatening them with hell, not trying to convince them that they have to come to faith in Christ. We can’t do that; only God can enable someone to come to faith. No. All we have to do is be willing to honestly tell our friends, our family members, our neighbors, just why our faith is important to us. Why coming here to church means anything to us. Why we think its important to support our church financially, more than other charities that we might support. All we have to do is be willing to explain to them what faith in Christ has meant to us, how it’s changed our lives for the better. All we have to do is say, “Come and see.” And let God do the rest.

Thanks be to God.

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The Way Things Are Supposed to Be
January 8, 2012

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

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Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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In the early 1990’s a film came out called Grand Canyon. In one scene in that movie Kevin Kline, who plays a hotshot attorney, is trying to work his way around a traffic jam by taking a side street, but as he’s trying to get back on course, he ends up getting into worse and worse parts of the city until he’s driving alone, at night, through the ghetto, and of course, it’s just at this point that his Lexus breaks down and he’s stuck. He calls AAA on his cell phone and sits there nervously waiting for the tow truck to get there, but before it does, he’s seen by a group of thugs who surround him, harass him, and make him get out of the car. Things look really bad for Kevin Kline, but just then, the tow truck arrives, and out pops Danny Glover, complete with a tire iron, and the thugs bag off – but only for a minute. They quickly regroup, and they start to give Glover a rough time, too, telling him that he’s being too noisy, and he should show them more respect, and they start to interfere with him hooking up the car. It’s at this point when Danny Glover starts to talk to the leader of the gang. He says, “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without askin’ you if I can. And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin’ him off. Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is here.”

Everything’s supposed to be different. There’s supposed to be some natural order to things. People are supposed to get along with each other; we’re supposed to care for each other and be respectful of each other. The world’s supposed to operate in some orderly, just, peaceful way. We might not even be able to put our finger on exactly what things are supposed to be like, but we know that this isn’t it. We don’t have a sensible order to things. Up is down, and down is up. Everything’s a mess. Instead of some peaceful kind of order, the world’s actually full of chaos.

It was chaos in the beginning of it all, too. We were reminded today that in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, everything was chaos. And God created light, and day and night, and the stars and the planets, and the seas and the land and the plants and the animals and us – And God looked on this making of order, making sense of things, and ordaining all of creation, and said “This is good – this is the way it’s supposed to be.”

Later, after the world has been broken and is muddling along, and things are the way they’re supposed to be, Jesus enters the world to reveal to us, in his very nature, the nature of God, and to restore the relationship between us. And at the very beginning of his earthly ministry, when he is baptized, God looks on this making of order, making sense of things, and ordaining Jesus for his special mission of restoring God’s intentions, and said “This is good – this is the way it’s supposed to be.”

On this particular Sunday, we remember Jesus’ baptism. But that day, and its goodness, is only a distant point in history for us, a time past. Our reality is Danny Glover’s reality. Things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. It ain’t supposed to be this way. We can look at the world, with our wars and drought, and nuclear proliferation and radical terrorism and the international slave trade. We can look at our country, with our childish political squabbles, and poverty, and prejudice, and greed. We can look at the Church, with our pettiness and hypocrisy and daily failure to live up to the mission that God has created us for. We can look at our own communities. We can look at our own personal relationships, and our families. We can look inside our own hearts. And at every step, we can find problems, and we know – God has something better in mind for us, and in store for us, than this. It ain’t supposed to be this way.

And God agrees with us. That’s why God didn’t stop decreeing things as “good,” or ordaining things and people to a certain way or purpose, after the creation of the world, or after Jesus was baptized, or even after the last word of the New Testament was put down on papyrus. God continues to work out that ultimate plan for goodness and order in creation, and now, God calls us to be part of that work, too. Today, we are ordaining and installing Deacons and Elders to serve in ordained ministry within our congregation, and the Church at large. We didn’t just elect new members to a board of directors or a benevolence committee. We aren’t just conducting business. Today, we call people whom we believe God has gifted with very particular gifts, for very particular forms of ministry, and whether they’ve been ordained previously and are just being re-installed to service today, or whether they are being newly ordained today, it’s a very special thing they’re about to embark on. It’s a very sobering thought to sit quietly, with just yourself and with God, and think about what it means to have been called out – not just by our congregation, but by God – for a particular form of ministry. Not a form that makes a person more important than others, or that gives a person a higher position or more status, but just the opposite: to be called to a vital, but particularly humble form of ministry, to be a servant to all the congregation, and to the community at large. Today, God looks at those being ordained and installed into these ministries of loving service, to help make order out of chaos, and sees a continuation of God’s own loving intentions for the world. God lays hands on each of these people and says “This is good – now get on with your ministries – to this congregation, to this community, to the world – to help make things the way they’re supposed to be.”

Thanks be to God.

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Impossible
December 18, 2011

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

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Nazareth. A small town of probably no more than a thousand people. The people who lived there farmed, raised livestock, engaged in trades. A quiet little place built mostly on a plain tucked up against nearby hills. The nearest town of any real size at all was twelve miles or so to the west, where the Romans had built a city on the coast of the Mediterranean; or, about twelve miles or so to the east, where the town of Tiberias sat on the edge of the Sea of Galilee; and often, tradespeople who lived in Nazareth had to make their living by working in one of those two places. Ever since the Assyrians overran the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, it had been populated by people looked down on by the people of Jerusalem, some 65 miles away, as country bumpkins. Rednecks. Half-breeds, people who were a mixture of Jews and non-Jews, the same people we’d call Palestinians today – in fact, today, the residents of Nazareth are primarily Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel.

And there in Nazareth was a girl named Mary. No more than fourteen or fifteen; a sophomore at Nazareth High School. A good girl, a nice girl, but not anyone who stood out in a crowd. She was likely just looking forward to getting on with her life, settling down with a decent man who could provide a stable life for her there in the town, living out her life like her parents and grandparents had before her. Mary was just an everyday person.

The scriptures don’t really say that Mary was a particularly religious young girl. Most of the time, the scriptures will make a point to mention how good or righteous someone might be who God chose to work through, but we don’t really get that in the scriptures that talk about Mary. We know that at least later on, she and her family went to Jerusalem each year to celebrate the Passover, but for all we know, maybe that was the extent of her personal religious observance. Maybe, just as we have “Christmas and Easter Christians,” Mary was a “Passover Jew.” We don’t really know. But what we do know is that the scriptures show us that God has a special place in his heart for everyday people over the mighty or powerful. And even without any claims that she was particularly religious, or holy, or had earned any favor from God, God chose her for the amazing role that she had – to be the mother of Christ, God in the flesh. To experience all the pain and all the joy that brought with it, because as Mary would come to know, being touched by God, being called by God to any task, no matter how common or how special, always brought both pain and joy, and always will.

And when the angel came to Mary and told her what God had planned for her, and what was about to happen, she was perplexed. Troubled. Afraid. She couldn’t see how what the angel told her could even be possible for her. Even beyond the fact that she was so young, and not even married, it seemed so amazing. She was going to be the mother of a great king who would restore the throne of David to the people of Israel. The one who would restore peace. The one who would bring down the rich and the mighty who oppressed the poor and the needy. The one who would bring mercy and goodness to them. It was too good to be true – it was impossible!

And it certainly did seem that way. But Gabriel told her, nothing is impossible with God. That was so true for Mary, the everyday person from Nazareth. And it’s just as true for all the everyday people of the world who God reaches out to today with a special plan, a special purpose – not to give birth to a Messiah, but to give birth to a world of love and compassion made possible by that Messiah. Women and men, young and old; poor and rich, living in little farming communities in ancient Palestine or modern Ohio – all touched by the same God, called to do great things, wonderful things, impossible things in the name of the Lord, out of gratitude for the eternal life that God has brought them into through faith in Mary’s son Jesus.

With God, nothing is impossible. Once touched by God, everyday people can make sure that poor, struggling kids in a trailer park in their own Nazareth will have a happy Christmas. Once touched by God, everyday people can make sure no one in their own Nazareth will freeze throughout the winter without warm clothing or a coat. Once touched by God, everyday people can make sure no one in the nursing homes of their Nazareth is left alone and forgotten in their room over the holidays, without receiving the warmth of human compassion. Once touched by God, the loving actions and the excitement of everyday people can transform a sleepy little church with money problems into a thriving, exciting place where people can see God at work, and they want to be part of all these same wonderful, impossible things that somehow, God will make not just possible, but real.

Right here, in our Nazareth, God is calling us into a kind of life so transformed and so full that we can’t imagine it any more than Mary could imagine what lay ahead for her. Even with her concerns and her doubts, quiet, everyday, fourteen year old Mary stepped up in faith and said, “Here I am, your servant, Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary’s answer changed the world forever. And so can ours.

Thanks be to God.

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“Disobedient Obedience”
August 21, 2011

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Romans 12:1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

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The other day, I was reading something a man had written, complaining about the state of things in our country. He complained about the terrible loss of lives and the disruption to families that the war was causing, that it was forcing otherwise good and decent people to do very indecent and immoral things in the name of the higher cause. That the decision to go to war had really been pushed through by a relatively small number of elites who were getting the common people to do their dirty work, and to die, in order to protect their wealth, or power, or both; and that the regular people, if they had their say, wouldn’t ever support this war. He wrote about how shameless it was for the civil government to support policies that hurt so many of the nation’s residents. And the man went on to say that in such cases, it was not just acceptable, but it was, in fact, the morally right thing to do to not support the civil government when it did these kinds of things, to oppose and to disobey these kinds of immoral actions on the part of the government.

The interesting thing about what I’d read was that it wasn’t on a blog or in an op-ed piece on the internet. And the war he was talking about wasn’t Iraq, or Afghanistan, or even Vietnam. The words I was reading were written by Henry David Thoreau in the year 1849, in his book Civil Disobedience, which he wrote about the moral correctness of disobeying the laws of the country that supported slavery and which had just ended the Mexican-American War. Thoreau’s classic book has become required reading for anyone who disagrees with what our government is doing, from abolitionists to women’s suffragists to prohibitionists to civil rights marchers to pro-life demonstrators. From Democrats who don’t like what the Republicans are doing, and Republicans who don’t like what the Democrats are doing. Other than probably Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau probably made the most reasoned and eloquent argument of anyone in the history of our country that there are times when the most moral and correct thing a person can do is to disobey an immoral or unjust law, even if that law was established in a perfectly legal manner.

But before Dr. King or Thoreau, there were Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives living in the days when the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt. We heard their story in our reading from Exodus today. After years of the Hebrews being welcome and valued in the land of Egypt, with Joseph being the highly valued lieutenant of the Pharoah, this passage says that time wore on, and Joseph was long in the grave, and his service to the king was hardly more than a distant memory. A new Pharoah came to power who didn’t have any real connection to, or care about, the Hebrew people living as aliens among his own countrymen. He came to believe that these foreigners, with their increasing numbers and their foreign ways and their foreign religion, would eventually change their own culture – and that their loyalty to the country was questionable; they might even side with the country’s enemies when the chips were really down. For these Hebrews, their morals, their culture, their religion, it was a complete system that wasn’t very compatible with the ways of the Egyptian government or its people. They were considered a national security risk by the Pharoah’s Department of Homeland Security. So Pharoah issued a terrible command, a horrible command that ended up foretelling a future calamity that befell his own people later on in the Exodus story. He instructed the Hebrew midwives to kill all the newborn male Hebrew children, to make sure their population didn’t increase to the point where they’d be a threat to the Egyptian government and culture.

But Shiphrah and Puah couldn’t bring themselves to carry out Pharoah’s orders. They didn’t do what he’d ordered, and when called to account for their disobedience, they offered up a phoney, made-up excuse. They had decided to take a stand, to live out their morals, even if it meant disobeying the law and the direct command of the king.

Their actions weren’t large, bold actions. They didn’t organize protests or marches, they didn’t work up a bunch of media coverage to increase public awareness about the Pharaoh’s unjust law or to ask people to write to the Pharaoh asking him to change his command. They just did what they could do – they decided to refuse to obey it. And because of their very simple, very small acts, they saved large numbers of Hebrew children – and the story is somewhat unclear, but they may have even saved the life of baby Moses himself, who grew up to be a great prophet of God and the great liberator and deliverer of the Hebrew people out of bondage and into freedom.

And we can do the same thing. In our Adult Ed class, we heard the Archbishop Desmond Tutu a while back, saying that none of us is the whole ocean, but each of us is just one drop – and if each of us did just what we were able to do, then there would be an ocean’s worth of good and righteous acts carried out in the name of God and God’s kingdom. God has given each and every one of us particular gifts, as Paul pointed out in the passage from Romans that we read today, and God expects us to have the strength and backbone to use those gifts in the ways we’re supposed to, even if it doesn’t square with current laws. God wants us to be like Shiphrah and Puah, living out our faith – in our case, living our lives and living in relation to others in a way consistent with Jesus’ teachings – even when it goes against the law, or conventional wisdom, or any human institution. To do the right thing, even if it seems like a little thing. Because we never know what the ripple effect of our actions are going to be. One way or another, whatever we choose to do today is going to change the future, for better or worse, and often in ways we’ll never know. We have no way of knowing that when we volunteer to read to, or teach, a child for a few hours a month, we might be lighting a spark for lifelong learning in that child, who grows up to find a cure for cancer, or AIDS. We might be teaching a child who isn’t loved in his own home that there are people who love him, and that he is a special, loved child of God, who will grow up to become a mission worker bringing food and shelter to thousands of people suffering in the next generation’s Somali drought. When we offer help to some scruffy, rough looking woman who’s down on her luck by giving her a sincere smile, a warm meal, and some second-hand clothing, we might be the light of the world to her that finally makes her decide to turn her life around, and she gets clean, and gets married, and her son grows up to be the paramedic that pulls your teenaged granddaughter out of the car wreck and who administers life-saving CPR to her, or the firefighter who breaks through the flames and pulls you out of your burning house to safety. You just never know what kind of ripple effect our choices and decisions will have. But whatever we choose to do – whether we choose to be strong in our convictions and to do the right thing regardless of what the law or conventional wisdom would tell us to do, or whether we don’t – our actions, every day, will shape the world we live in tomorrow, a year from now, a century from now.

So if we’re serious about our faith – if we’ve made the same confession Peter made in our gospel reading today, that Jesus is our Messiah, our Lord – then we’ve got to take very seriously his call to us to be whatever he’s called us to be, and to do whatever he’s called us to do. In ways big and small. In ways legal, and sometimes, I’ve got to say, even illegal.

In the Exodus story, we heard that God richly blessed Shiphrah and Puah for standing up to Pharaoh and doing the right thing, even in what seemed like a small thing in the whole scope of world history. God blessed them and their families. In our case, doing the right thing, being faithful even in what seems like little things, might seem hard, or sometimes even dangerous or risky for us, too. But that’s the cross that Jesus has called us all to take up and to carry. And we can do it. We can all do it, because just as God blessed Shiphrah and Puah, we know the blessings that Christ has prepared for all of us, too. We’re all Shiphrah. We’re all Puah. And in each of our lives, there’s someone whom we won’t know until later on, when we’re in the presence of God, who was our Moses – the one we were supposed to protect. To help. To save.

Thanks be to God.

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“The Outsider’s Hope”
August 14, 2011

Isaiah 56:1-8

Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

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The other day, I started reading a book called Traveling Mercies, written by Anne LaMott. Early in the book she describes growing up in a household that didn’t go to church – in fact, her parents were hostile to religion. Her grandfather had been a Presbyterian missionary overseas, and growing up in that difficult family setting had made her father hate Christianity in general, and especially Presbyterians. Despite that family environment, she writes that as a young girl, she occasionally went to the local Catholic church with one of her friends, and she loved it – the smell of the incense, the ornate altar, the statures, the votive candles, the Stations of the Cross in stained glass, the curlicued plasterwork, the gold-leaf artistry on the ceiling – the tradition and mystery of it all. She envied that. As opposed to her own freewheeling and untethered life, as she puts it, they had all that stuff holding them together, and they got to be so conceited because they were Catholic.

Her words might sound a little harsh, but when I read it, I think I understood what she meant. When I was the same age, my family didn’t go to church, either. And until the time I hit high school, almost all of my closest friends were Catholic – or Orthodox, which as far as I could see was pretty much the same thing, just with more mystery and incense. Growing up with them, I came to sense that same feeling that Anne LaMott was trying to describe. There always seemed to be some special bond, some secret code, that they all understood that I didn’t. To be Catholic was a system, a package. You didn’t have to worry much about reading the Bible; you had a priest, or a bishop, or a Pope to tell you what the important parts were, and what those parts meant. And in all the years of tradition, they’d established an official answer for just about any question you might ask about the faith. It was a package. My friends always knew exactly what was going to happen at church, and when, even down to the exact words, every Sunday. There may have been mystery in the faith, but there was none in the actual words of the Mass. Or if you wanted to sleep in on Sunday morning, you could always go to church on Saturday night, which I always thought was a nice perk of being Catholic. The Catholic kids that went to the local parochial school would walk in a long, straight line across the street to our public school every weekday for lunch, since they didn’t have a cafeteria of their own and apparently, the two schools had worked out some arrangement. Right after lunch, the nuns would reform the column, and they’d disappear back across the street, the boys in white shirts and navy pants, the girls in white blouses and blue plaid skirts, leaving the rest of us behind in our public school Sodom and Gomorrah.

Whatever being Catholic really meant – as opposed to the way a kid perceived it – it was quite clear that they were all part of a special, privileged group – and it was made just as clear that I was not. Even though my Catholic friends and I were very close, in this regard it was clear that I was on the outside looking in.

The Jews of Jesus’ time saw themselves in a similar special category. They didn’t just se themselves as the people chosen by God to reveal his plan of reconciliation of the world through. They believed that this made them superior to the other people around them. This was especially the case regarding the non-Jews and part-Jews living in the regions surrounding them. These people were most definitely not part of the club. In the passage we read today, Matthew tells us that Jesus had managed to poke a stick in the eye of the Pharisees yet again, and then he traveled north to the cities of Tyre and Sidon, just north of modern-day Israel into what is now Lebanon, on the shore of the Mediterranean. There were Jesus and all of his followers – all of them Jews, part of God’s chosen – filing down the road in the midst of the great unwashed Canaanite people around them. And one of them, a woman, is following along beside them as they go, making a pest of herself, calling out to Jesus to help her by healing her ailing daughter. The disciples don’t want her bothering them, and when they ask Jesus to send her away, based on his words he doesn’t want to deal with her, either. First, he ignores her. Then, when he does speak, he says something to her that was so harsh and rude that we Christians have been cringing over it, and trying to explain it away ever since. It just doesn’t sound like the Jesus we carry in our hearts. He tells her that he hasn’t come for her or her kind, but rather, just for the people of Israel. And he goes on, saying that it wouldn’t be right to give the children’s food to the dogs – a particularly scornful and dismissive insult that struck right to the bone. And even in the midst of that hurtful insult, she comes back with the very perceptive comment that even the dogs get the scraps off the table – that God even cares and provides for the outsiders of the world. I felt something like her hurt when I went to church with my Catholic friends as a child, and I wasn’t allowed to participate in Communion with them – I felt like the dog who wasn’t worthy to be given the scrap of a Communion wafer from the table of the supposed privileged ones.
Now, I’m telling you my story about feeling like an outsider with my Catholic friends when I was a kid, only because Anne LaMott’s words brought those particular memories back to me. But each of you undoubtedly has your own story, some other personal example of when you felt like an outsider – in school, at work, with friends, neighbors, even in church. In some way, we’ve all felt how the Canaanite woman felt. We’re all outsiders in one way or another.

So what’s really going on between Jesus and the woman in this passage? Some people have suggested that Jesus truly believed what he’d said to the woman, “plain meaning.” And that when the eternal Son of the Trinity lowered himself to become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, he set aside some divine knowledge, and in his human nature Jesus didn’t fully perceive the fullness of God’s good news for the world, until after his resurrection. And that this persistent Canaanite woman got the better of him in this exchange, teaching him a surprising and valuable lesson. Others say that Jesus was well aware that he’d come for all people, Jew and Gentile alike – certainly, other things that he said made that pretty clear – and that he was just being artificially harsh and rude to the woman, just to test her faith and persistence.

It is clear in the scriptures that God’s plan of reconciling the world to himself is to reveal himself first to the Jews, and then broadened out to include all peoples and nations. This is an important theological point, a way we understand how God has broadly structured his intentions for us. But in the case of the Canaanite woman, and in other cases too, it becomes clear that our theology isn’t absolute, and God isn’t enslaved or bound to any theology, not even this one which was proclaimed by Jesus himself. As valuable as theology is, God will never allow it to stand in the way of his divine compassion or our human faith. That’s what this story is all about. The stubborn, persistent faith to keep asking for God’s mercy, refusing to accept that God would be the kind of God who would ignore her just because of the conventional religious wisdom and theology of her time. In her bones, the Canaanite woman knew that God was bigger than that. And in Jesus’ answer to her, and in the healing of her daughter, he made it clear that she was right. Her persistence was a sign of her faith in that bigger God. It was that faith that made her an insider.

And it’s our faith that makes us insiders, too. Our belief that God is bigger than our own problems and our own current conventional religious wisdom; the belief that God’s love and compassion for us will not be bound by human understanding of the rules or by our best, neatly laid out systematic theology. Some people who want a neatly packaged, systematized faith, might call that heresy. In this passage, Jesus calls it great faith. It’s the kind of faith that Jesus wants us to have.

But the good news for us in this story is that while we’re all equally outsiders, we’re also all equally loved by God. And God is willing to bend and even break the rules in order to extend that love to all of us. That’s the outsider’s hope. That’s our hope.

But we don’t just have hope, we have a responsibility. We’re called to treat those around us in that same way. Since God has bent the rules and bent over backward to consider us insiders, better than we deserve, we’re called to treat those we come into contact with in the same way. Loved. Better than they deserve. Insiders. And if we use our religion to make others feel like outsiders, we’ve missed the whole message of the gospel.

After she became an adult, after a very rocky start in life – and no doubt with her father spinning in his grave – Anne LaMott found faith in Christ, and she was eventually baptized in a small Presbyterian church in Marin City, California. Right out of college, one of my best childhood friends went on to seminary and has been a Catholic priest ever since. And now, I’m a Presbyterian pastor. And each one of us – and each one of you, as different as we all are, and with the vastly different ways of understanding our faith that we all might have – are all equally considered insiders by God, only by God’s grace; by God’s decision to bend the rules, finding a way to reconcile us through Christ’s death and resurrection. Because of that reconciliation that we all have through Christ, now we’re all considered worthy not just for the table scraps, but to sit at the table with Christ himself, enjoying the great eternal feast God has prepared for all of us. Because of God’s bending of his own rules through Christ, none of us – none of us – are outsiders any more.

Thanks be to God.

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“In the Boat, Out of the Boat, In the Boat”
August 7, 2011

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.

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So here’s Jesus, in the passage from Matthew that we just heard. He and the disciples have just miraculously fed the five to ten thousand people on just a few table scraps, and apparently the crowd had finally gone home. After another long day of teaching and healing and being surrounded by mobs of people, Jesus could finally be by himself, alone with his thoughts and in communion with God, which, if you remember, was what he had been trying to do to begin with when the crowd found him. But now, he wanted to be even more by himself in prayer and meditation, so he sent the apostles to the other side of the lake in the boat they’d all arrived in. And then Jesus spent the bulk of the night praying, having his Sabbath, having his communion – recharging his spiritual, emotional, and physical batteries.

And then, of course, all the fun begins. We’ve all heard this story so many times; it’s as common as a worn nickel in our experience of the faith, so much so that we have to make a real effort to keep the images of the story stay alive, so we can really experience it. A bunch of men, some seasoned fishermen, some not, trying to make it across the lake in a strong headwind and waves that are threatening to capsize the boat. Trying to keep the water out of the boat and their dinner in their stomachs. Doing this for hours, all through the night without any sleep, and then, just as the light of morning is starting to push the night out of the sky, they see some human-looking thing actually walking across the choppy water toward them.

What would you be thinking if you were in that boat? I mean, just imagine you were out on a boat up on Buckeye Lake, and the same thing happened to you? That combination of fatigue and confusion and fear that you’d be feeling was the exact same thing the disciples were feeling. They aren’t sure if it’s really Jesus. Before this, they never knew that Jesus could walk on water, so how could this really be him? It must be a hallucination from lack of sleep, or a ghost actually bearing down on them.

Ever since this story, with Peter starting out across the water toward Jesus, and then starting to sink, was first put down in ink on papyrus, preachers have delivered sermons about it, and nine out of every ten of them have said the same thing about it. Many of you probably already know where I’m going to go with this sermon, the same as all those others. I’m going to say that Peter’s problem is our problem, that he stepped out of the boat in faith, keeping his eyes focused on Jesus. But when he got distracted, and took his eyes off of Jesus, he got into trouble and started to sink. So just as Peter needed to keep his eyes focused on Jesus, we need to recommit ourselves to keeping our eyes and our thoughts focused on Jesus, too. That’s the conventional wisdom about what this story should teach us.

Except that isn’t where I’m headed with this sermon at all. As good a thing as it might be to encourage us to refocus on Christ, I think there’s something more, maybe something even more important, to this story. Two somethings, actually.

The first thing is that it doesn’t matter how many preachers in how many pulpits, with however a moving and powerful sermon, encourage us to keep our focus solely on Jesus and nothing else, we aren’t really going to pull it off. Not me. Not you. Not the Pope. Not the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. None of us. To be honest, I’ve come to think that’s a good thing. Don’t misunderstand me. I think that focusing on Christ is a good thing, I’m just not convinced that any of us has a clear enough, complete enough understanding with Christ to be able to perfectly, correctly filter what is Christ, and what isn’t. I’ve come to see that so many of the things in the world that creep into our consciousness that we might dismiss as distractions, are nothing less than a subtly camouflaged Jesus, poking at us for our attention. And that sometimes, what we might focus on, assuming it to be Christ, might in fact be nothing of the sort.

Since we don’t have the ability to truly know every angle of Christ’s wishes, there will always be some degree of uncertainty – some degree of faith needed – that what we choose to believe and focus on is Christ. I believe that ultimately, when we’re in Christ’s presence face to face, we’ll learn that we’ve actually gotten more of our understanding of him wrong than we got right, and that our only saving grace – literally – is that it was our deep-seated *desire* to please God, rather than our actual actions, that actually *did* please God. That’s why I think that taking note of some of those supposed “distractions” that we’re supposedly told not to think about, is actually important, and even good. It’s considering those other things that challenge our assumptions, and possibly correct mistaken attitudes that we might have about what it really means to follow Jesus.

And that’s also why I think a more important point of this story isn’t that Peter needed to keep some kind of laser beam-like focus on Jesus across the waves, but rather, that as soon as Peter started to get in trouble in his attempts to walk out toward him, Jesus’ hand was immediately there to save him, and pull him up out of the water. That’s important. Because when we find ourselves in a similar predicament, when we start to feel like we’re sinking, or we’ve done the wrong thing as we try to follow Christ, we can be confident that his arm is immediately there to pull us up and out of the trouble, too. Whatever is threatening to drag us down under the waves in our own lives, Jesus is there – seen or unseen – ready to reach out to us.

But if you notice in this story, something interesting happens next, after Jesus pulls Peter up. Did you notice that; did you notice what he did? This is the other point that I think is important in this story. Jesus didn’t stand Peter up on the water, beside himself. He put Peter back in the boat. Headed back in the direction that Jesus himself had put Peter on to begin with, not on the other path, out on the waves, that Peter chose for himself.

So where a lot of preachers have argued that this story teaches us we have to have enough faith to get out of the boat, like Peter – in fact, *I’ve* preached that sermon myself – I think that sometimes, the real message of this story is that we’re supposed to have enough faith to stay *in* the boat. Not to get distracted from the path that Jesus has actually placed us, from what Jesus has actually called us to do. No matter how appealing or noble the other direction might look. No matter, actually, if the other direction is even Christ, working and doing other things that he hasn’t called us to be part of. Jesus called the apostles to go to the other side of the lake. And he didn’t call them to walk across the water to the other side, he told them to use a boat. He had a specific purpose for them, and a specific way for them to achieve that purpose, as just one piece of the whole jigsaw puzzle that is the Church, and the Kingdom of God.

Jesus has called us, as a congregation and as individuals, to be our own specific piece in that same jigsaw puzzle. We’re called to have enough faith to stay true to that call – to be the physical expression of Christ, and his love – his good news – to the people of this community. We don’t have to save the world. We don’t have to stray over here and do this part of the work of God’s Kingdom, or over there to do that part of it, no matter how good and Christlike it might be. We’re called to remain faithful to the particular call that Christ has given us. We’re called to have the faith to stay in our boat. To keep rowing our little boat, even against the wind and the waves. To bail out the water from the bottom, and yes, frankly, to come up with the funds needed to keep it maintained and afloat and equipped for the mission Christ gave us. Keeping it on course for our goal of sharing the gospel – being the gospel – for our children, our grandchildren, and especially for those who wouldn’t today even dream of climbing into this boat of ours – but who, tomorrow, just might. So we’d better make sure our boat is here for them when they need it.

See, that’s the kind of focus that I think this story teaches us about. And that’s the kind of faith I think it calls us to have. And it’s that kind of faith that God’s Spirit makes possible within us, so we can stay in our boat, and stay on course. The Holy Spirit strengthens our faith and equips us for our journey across our lake, through events and occurrences that might sometimes seem like chance or coincidence – or even, sometimes, like distractions – that all eventually come into focus, if we really listen, as the voice of God. Once we see the course God has set for our little boat, and the Holy Spirit has strengthened our faith to ride it out even in the face of storms, then our job is to stay in the boat – and to leave the walking on water to Jesus.

Thanks be to God.

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The Greatest Question
July 24, 2011

Romans 8:26-39

 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Paul’s letter to the Romans had a huge impact on the Christian faith; how we understand some of its key theological points and how we’re supposed to live our lives in light of that theology. The study, and the recasting of Paul’s words from the traditional way the church had interpreted them in the past, to a new way of understanding their meaning, was the very bedrock of the entire Protestant Reformation – both in Geneva, with Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, and in Wittenberg with Martin Luther. The last few weeks’ Lectionary texts have been moving through some of Romans; we’ve read some of them together. Today’s Lectionary text from Romans includes several verses that we’re probably familiar with. Throughout this entire section of Paul’s letter, Paul has been speaking to the experiences of the Christians in Rome, who are suffering in ways small and large because of their faith in Jesus as Lord. And the Roman Christians were beginning to buckle under the pressure and even more importantly, they were questioning why, if Jesus were really the risen and triumphant Lord, he would allow anyone, but especially Christians, to have to go through troubles, discrimination, persecution.

It’s a question, an emotion, a doubt, that we’ve all probably run up against in our own lives. I know I have. I know that when I first came into the Christian faith, I had this kind of belief that Christians were supposed to get a better deal in the poker game of life than other people, in return for our faith in Christ. That we were at least supposed to be happier than other people, as a reward from God for our faithfulness. And you can find all kinds of scriptural support in the Bible to support that idea; that God lifts up his people and blesses them with all kinds of favor, not just in the next life but in this one, and not just spiritual blessings but physical, material ones as well. And that God casts down those who don’t follow him. The Psalms, and other places are full of these kind of comments. Sure, you can find other verses that say the opposite, that God sends rain to the just and the unjust, and that we Christians don’t necessarily get any special perks in this life, but there enough of those other verses to plant that seed in our minds that in some way, we’re deserving of a better deal than others.

 

And then, of course, real life kicks in, and we realize that we really don’t get any special considerations from God over everyone else when it comes to enduring hardships. We don’t get any golden ticket to avoid life’s problems; in fact, if anything, the people who don’t follow God can seem to get a better deal, and we can seem to get a worse deal than them. Some of the Roman Christians that Paul was writing to, and trying to encourage, were, in the midst of intense suffering – the kind of all-consuming, aching sorrow and even dread that can overwhelm our souls, and that makes a person unable to even put the depth of their feelings into words. Unfortunately, I suspect we’ve all had our encounters with that. The Romans knew the agony that grew out of persecution for their religious faith. Our own agonies typically come from other sources. A personal tragedy, or a death in the family. A financial disaster. An argument or some other situation that threatens to tear the family apart. A very serious medical diagnosis. An intolerable situation at work with a coworker or boss.

But Paul gives the Romans, and us, the assurance that even when we’re so numb that we can’t even come up with words to express it to God, the Holy Spirit steps in and finds the word for us, interceding for us, communing with us, praying for us. And then there’s tht other verse that we’ve all probably heard before, Romans 8:28 – that all things work together for good for those that love the Lord. Personally, I hate that translation of this verse. It makes it sound like either God has nothing to do with things in our lives, that things are just taking their own course, and the things are going to work out for the best of their own accord – which I don’t believe – or even worse, that God is somehow causing all these bad things to happen to us in order to make us better in some way. I don’t really believe that, either. I think it’s inconsistent to think that a God who is all-powerful and the ultimate definition of loving goodness, would ever need to, or agree to, achieve something good by causing pain and misery, especially pain and misery on the scale seen in our world. And in the past, many people have used that verse to shrug their shoulders and not do anything when they saw people suffering. It’s all part of God’s plan, God’s will. God is achieving good things through that suffering, so it would be pointless for me to try to do anything about it. It might even be considered sin, frustrating God’s plans for those suffering people. That is absolutely not the meaning of this verse. I actually think that some of the ancient texts contain slightly different wording of this verse, and some Bible translations translate the verse with the alternative wording: “God makes all things work together for good.” In that translation, it’s more clear that the bad things are really bad, and they aren’t God’s plans. That when they happen, and they break our heart, that God’s heart breaks along with ours. But God is going to work something, weave something good for us out of those bad experiences in spite of themselves. And it makes it clear that it’s God who’s going to do the weaving; things aren’t going to just work to something good all by themselves.

This message of Paul’s has been a powerful message of hope for us Christians for 2,000 years now. It’s the truth that God never – NEVER – leaves us alone to deal with all the madness and pain that we all have to deal with in this life. We are NEVER alone. God is always with us, and caring for us, even in the midst of the darkest, most desperate nights of our souls.

And if that’s the case, Paul says – if God is truly always with us, working for our good, who or what could possibly be against us and have any hope of actually succeeding? Nothing, Paul says. Nothing. Paul says not anything in life or death – not angels. Not the government. Not our current situation, or our past or future one. Not supernatural spiritual or demonic powers in the universe. Not a troublesome child, or parent, or spouse. Not an inoperable tumor. Not people who would use every opportunity handed them to trash you in the eyes of others. Not the rich or the powerful. Nothing in all of creation could ever succeed in separating us from God’s love and care, God’s walking with us, God’s calling and using us for all great things in the Kingdom of God.

 

That’s what we need to grab onto with both hands, gripping tightly and never letting go, when we endure our times of trouble. It’s one of the greatest promises in the entire Bible. Nothing can separate us from God’s love and acceptance. Coupled with one of the greatest questions in the entire Bible. If God is for us – GOD – who can be against us? I think it’s the greatest question in the Bible because we already know that answer – NO ONE.

Thanks be to God.

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“Beth – El”
July 17, 2011

Genesis 28:10-19

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.

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So here’s Jacob, in this passage from Genesis. Jacob, the just-barely younger twin brother of Esau. And just as we sometimes look at our own children and wonder how they could be as different as night and day, it was the same with Esau and Jacob. Esau, the big, strapping, hairy outdoorsman. The hardworking, physical one. The firstborn, heir apparent to his father, Isaac. A man’s man, and apparently, the favorite of his father. Then there was Jacob. The slighter, smoother one, the one who spent his days inside. He’s a Mama’s boy, Rebekah’s favorite. Jacob’s the thinker, and in the run-up to today’s story and in the later events of his life, we find out he isn’t just smart, he’s an outright con man, a hustler. In fact, that’s what his very name, Yakov, means in Hebrew – supplanter, trickster. And he continues to be pretty much his whole life. Leading up to today’s story, Jacob has tricked his brother Esau into giving up his birthright, his automatic inheritance of the bulk of his father’s estate, for a bowl of lentil stew and a bit of bread. And then, he further tricked his father into giving him the blessing he’d wanted to give to Esau, by wearing animal hides so old, blind Isaac would think smooth-boy Jacob was his hairy older brother. And now, Esau has had enough and decides that as soon as the old man kicks the bucket, he’s going to kill his little con man of a brother. But mom gets wind of Esau’s plans, and she sends Jacob away, supposedly to find a wife but more importantly to save his own skin. And in today’s story, here’s Jacob – the smooth-skinned, smooth-talking con man who prefers the softer life, hanging around inside the tents than spending his time outdoors – on the run for his life, trying to get out ahead of his brother, out in the middle of nowhere. And night falls, and he can’t go any further that day. He doesn’t have a tent for shelter, he’s sleeping out in the open and even has to use a stone as a pillow. This has to be about the low point in the life of this young man of very questionable character.

Now this is the part of the story where we’d want Jacob to get what he deserved. Either Esau catches up to Jacob and gets revenge for the way he’s been double-dealt, or God sends down judgment from heaven and punishes him for the shoddy and sinful way he’s dealt with his father and brother.

That’s what we’d expect. That’s what we’d hope for, anyway. But as we read, God does something completely different. Rather that we’d hope for, God causes Jacob to have this amazing dream where Jacob sees God’s angels ascending and descending on this stepped walkway, this ladder-like thing, right before his very eyes. And God appears to Jacob, and tells him the same promise he’d given Abraham, and Isaac, before him. God promises the land he’s currently in to Jacob, and he promises that his offspring would be so numerous as to be uncountable, and that all the nations would be blessed through him and his offspring. Rather than punish Jacob, God continues to bless him, God promises to use him for God’s own good purposes. Jacob, of all people!

Can you imagine what must have been going Jacob’s mind in the midst of all this? Considering what he’d done, and the fact that he was on the run for his life, he must have been having one of those “oh crap!” moments when suddenly God appears to him, imagining his number’s up; no running away from this judgment. And when it’s all over, and he’s trying to regain his composure, he’s so awestruck at having been in this place, in God’s very presence, that he takes the stone he’d used for a pillow and sets it up in a pillar, and claiming the place is holy. It is “Beth-El” – the house, or place, of God. He’s amazed that here he was, in God’s place all along, and he hadn’t even been aware of it.

Three things come to my mind when I read this story. First is the truth that God very rarely acts in the ways we would expect him to, or that we would predict. God’s ways, the fullness of God’s will and truth are beyond our ability to comprehend or second-guess. Just when we think we have God figured out, he does something like this, that goes against everything we’d expect based on our current understanding of God. That’s an important lesson for all of us, any time we want to presume to state categorically what God would or wouldn’t do, or what the will of God is.

The second thing is that God has a habit, seen over and over in the scriptures, of blessing and using people that we wouldn’t expect. People that we’d write off as being unqualified, or not of sufficient moral character, or otherwise not part of God’s “A – List” of potential agents. Moses was a poor public speaker, and a murderer, and didn’t always completely trust God. David, also a murderer, and adulterer, and yet he’s still considered a “friend of God.” Peter, who denied Christ three times on the night of his arrest. Paul, who participated in the persecution and stoning of early Christians. And the interesting thing is that in all of these cases, these people’s flaws and idiosyncracies didn’t disappear after they turned to the Lord; their problems continued with them all through their lives. That was certainly the case with Jacob. And it will certainly be the case with all of us, too. We heard a couple of weeks ago about Paul’s ongoing internal struggle, and we don’t need to hear a sermon about our own. And yet, in all of our flawed and imperfect glory, God still uses us, and blesses us, and calls and commissions us, flaws and all, to do his work and to achieve his will.

The third thing I get out of this story is that, just like Jacob, we are actually in God’s presence all the time, and we just don’t see it. We just don’t realize it, except in certain surprising moments when God allows us to see through the veil, and to see God in those special moments. To be awestruck, and to realize that we were standing on ground that had been made holy by God’s very presence; that we were in our own “Beth-El.” Judy talked about someone who had that experience a couple weeks ago. I talked with a man the other day at the hospital who had a dream like Jacob’s, in which God appeared to him and told him that his ninety-year old mother was going to die in four days, but not to worry or be afraid, that she was going to be in Paradise. And the other night, I sat with a man who was dying. He was a highly awarded, very successful, nationally acclaimed person in his profession. But to his daughter, who cuddled up against him in his hospital bed, stroking his hair, and kissing him, and telling him how much he was loved, he was just “Dad.” The beautiful gift that she gave to her father in his last moments, this loving and touching goodbye was so moving – the love was so intense – that I realized in that moment, I was also in a Beth-El – a house of God. It brought me to tears. I almost wanted to take my shoes off, in recognition that I was very much on sacred, holy ground in that moment. And that all of the complicated, detailed points of theology and religion paled in comparison to the greatest power in the universe, the power of love. In the end, love, the very essence of God, shared between us and God, and shared among ourselves, is what our entire existence is all about.

So remember that whenever we’re convinced that we know the heart and mind of God, we’ve just set ourselves up for a rude, and sometimes costly, awakening. And remember that you are just as qualified as Moses, or David, or Peter or Paul, or Jacob, for God to bless your life, and to use you for great things in his name, and that God promises to you the same thing he promised to Jacob, that he will always be with you and will keep you wherever you will go. And always keep your eyes open, being ready and willing to see God’s presence wherever you are. And when you do find yourself in your very own Beth-El, marvel in it, revel in it, bask in it, and when you’re in it, be sure to say

Thanks be to God!

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“Crazy Love”
June 26, 2011

Genesis 22:1-14

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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Matthew 10:37-42

[Jesus said,] “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

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Every so often if you’re preaching on the weekly Lectionary texts, passages come up that you’d really rather not preach about. Of course, that’s part of the value of disciplining yourself to preach based on the Lectionary texts; they more or less force you to address difficult passages from the Bible that you might otherwise skirt around. This is one of those weeks. From the very word go, this story about Abraham and his son Isaac is disturbing. It starts by saying that God tested Abraham, to see how strong his faith was. Now, what kind of God, we might wonder, would deliberately bring us into some situation where we’re tempted to deny our faith and morals, our devotion to God? It seems cruel if God actually does that kind of thing – setting us up to fail, especially coming from a God who knows full well just how flawed and unable we are to meet God’s standards anyway. The scriptures tell us that we’re not supposed to put the Lord our God to the test, but apparently, according to this story and others, it seems OK for God to test us. It just doesn’t seem very fair, especially coming from a supposedly merciful and loving God. And then, as if the testing itself isn’t bad enough, the kind of test that God gives Abraham is even more shocking. Show your devotion to me above everything else in your life, by sacrificing your son Isaac. Sacrifice your own son? The son that God had promised him, and that Abraham had waited for so long, , and now he’s supposed to take him up to the mountain, slit his throat open and make his body a burnt offering to God? Do we worship a God who would really jerk our emotions, our very lives, around like that? Let’s be honest with ourselves; it’s a monstrous thought. Absolutely monstrous.

But in some of the other religions practiced in Abraham’s time, as well as the time that the story was first written down many years later, the appalling practice of child sacrifice was relatively common. And as gut-wrenching as it must have been for Abraham, it probably wouldn’t have been surprising to him that God might demand such a thing. It’s just what the gods seemed to expect, and he must have just felt that unfortunately, his number had come up. So if he were going to be faithful to his God, he’d just have to go along with it. One explanation for this event in Abraham’s life is that it was a way of making clear that YHWH – the God of Abraham, the God of the Hebrews – was very different from the pagan gods worshipped by others. Some have suggested that this was meant to be a lesson that might sound barbaric and cruel to us, but to the ancient tribal nomads who first experienced it, and who first heard this story, it would have been a very powerful story, and welcome news about a God who didn’t want child sacrifice, and who was loving and merciful.

So maybe we have a neat, tidy explanation for this story. And, even though we might not ever say it out loud, some of us Christians might think that this is just another one of those disturbing Old Testament stories, like those ones about slaughter and killing during the military conquest of the promised land, that have been made obsolete by the coming of Jesus and the scriptures of the New Testament, and a focus on a kinder, gentler kind of God than that stern old “old-school” God of the Old Testament.

But no sooner do we maybe start to feel a little better about the story, than Jesus turns around in our gospel reading for today, and pretty much makes the same basic point that God had made to Abraham: anyone who loves their family members more than they love Christ isn’t worthy of him. Jesus told his disciples to just pick up and follow him into the unknown, and they did. James and John, and apparently their mother, left their poor old father Zebedee behind to carry on the family fishing business without them. Simon Peter was married, and at one point in the gospels he points out that he left her, and everything else, behind to follow Jesus, and apparently so did others among the apostles. No, Jesus never called for an actual human sacrifice, but he was very clearly making the point that God calls us to a faith, a devotion, that places God above all else – in the case of these two passages, even above family, which is undoubtedly the closest earthly reflection we have of the kind of love that God has for us. That’s the kind of crazy love, and commitment, that God wants from us. And that’s a really hard teaching that Jesus puts on our plate, but there it is, whether we like it or not. Can you do that? Can I do that?

What God was getting at with Abraham, and what Jesus was getting at with the disciples, is that we need to carefully examine our lives to see if there’s anything that we offer deeper devotion or allegiance to, than we offer to God. And that if there is anything like that, then it’s that person, or idea, or thing, that we really worship – that’s our real “God,” regardless of how much lip service we might offer to the God of Abraham.

What we’re really talking about is idolatry. Yes, that’s an old-fashioned word, and usually when we think about idol worship, we think about old Cecil DeMille movies, little gold statues and so on. But in reality, our potential idols are a lot more familiar, a lot closer at hand. Some people love our country, and would even die for it, before they would ever die for God. That’s idolatry. Probably every parent, myself included, has at one point or another said with all seriousness that they’d die in an instant in order to save the life of their child. I wonder how many of us would still keep a Bible in our house, and worship Christ, if doing so were illegal and punishable by death, as it still is in some parts of the world. What about the security of a job with good pay, good benefits, good retirement plan, a job that we’ve worked long and hard to achieve; what about the house we’d built ourselves and made a solid home in – would we be wiling to leave them behind it we sensed that God was directing us in another path? A couple of months ago, I mentioned a congregation that sold its Tiffany windows in order to keep its mission going. Here’s a related issue: if we really want to be inviting to people who are unchurched – if we really want to welcome them and make it easier for them to hear the gospel and be part of our church family – why do we insist on forcing them to sit in some of the most uncomfortable pieces of furniture ever devised for sitting? Why do we continue to have these pews in our churches, when they eliminate any flexible use of the space for different kinds of worship or other activities, and they’re terribly uncomfortable for sitting in for any length of time? We wouldn’t go to see a movie if we had to sit in anything that uncomfortable. We wouldn’t watch a half-hour television show in our own living room sitting in anything as uncomfortable as these things. We sit here every Sunday and we fidget in our seats, trying to pay attention while trying to fight the onset of “stadium butt” – and we actually think that visitors with no church background will want to come in here and do the same thing? And do you realize that the only other place you’re likely to find these things is in a courtroom, where they’re doling out judgment and punishment and prison sentences? Now *there’s* a positive correlation for us in the church. Why do we keep these dinosaurs, these dysfunctional holdovers from some past time that actually work against our bringing new people into the church? Because we like their familiarity? Because we like to be able to say that we’ve sat in the same seat in church since we were eight years old, or that we remember that dear old Bertha Trainor sat in that pew right there, and it brings back fond memories of her when we look at that pew? Because we love the fine, hand-carved woodwork, and we want to show off that beauty to people? That’s idolatry.

My real point here isn’t just to complain about pews, and I’m definitely not saying that God is calling everyone to walk away from family, or home, or job, and into a new and uncertain path as part of following Jesus. But I am pointing out that Christ has indeed called at least some of his disciples to do just that, and we have to keep that in our minds. And I am saying, and these two passages of scripture teach us, that idolatry comes in all forms in our lives. Sometimes our idolatry can be little things. More often, our own personal idolatry revolves around the most important things in our lives, the things that for better or worse we literally make sacred. Those two passages cal us to take a good, hard look at our own priorities – all of them – to see if we’re truly giving our highest devotion – our true worship – through our thoughts, our actions, our finances, our time – if we’re giving our true, highest loyalty to God.

The good news for us is that through the Holy Spirit working within us and challenging us, we can examine our lives and discover if we’re actually worshipping someone, or something, other than God. And we can have hope that we can remove the idols that we worship, whatever they are, because of Christ. Because God actually did what he prevented Abraham from doing – sacrificing his own Son, out of a crazy love for us. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we’re able to be drawn back to God, and reconciled with God. The power that we have in Christ, the gift that we have in the Holy Spirit, will help give us the strength to make changes, make choices – even tough choices – that we might need to make in order to put God back on the throne – to make sure that Jesus is the real Lord of our lives that we profess him to be – and to make sure that we’re really doing what we can to bring Christ to those who need him, materially and spiritually.

Thanks be to God.


“Trinity”

June 19, 2011
2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

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Matthew 28:16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

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A lot of us Christians get nervous, even afraid, about talking with other people about our faith, and getting into the details of our particular beliefs. A lot of us are afraid that if we get into those kinds of conversations, we’ll be asked questions that we don’t have al the answers for; that we’ll get stuck not being able to explain what we claim to believe. It’s hard for us to talk about matters of faith, where there will be times where we just have to say that logic and fact will only take the conversation so far, but at some point we have to go the rest of the distance on faith. That can rub us the wrong way, especially us in American society, where we’re taught from an early age to argue our points to the nth degree, to button every detail up with cold hard facts, and to never, ever, admit that you just don’t have some of those facts.

One of the biggest aspects of our faith that many of us are worried about being asked is to explain this whole idea of the Trinity. This is Trinity Sunday, when we pay special attention to the idea that we worship a Trinitarian God. What’s the Trinity all about, anyway? I mean, we throw a lot of words at the idea; we try to work out complicated, convoluted explanations of how God is three distinct identities, but is still one. The God’s “one-ness” in no way denies God’s “three-ness,” and vice versa. That all three of the one are equally, simultaneously co-eternal and uncreated. That there is no hierarchy of God the Father over two subordinates – a God the Father who is President and CEO, while God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are Senior Vice Presidents who report to him. That the three are distinct, yet it’s accurate to say that each of the three are also participating in the actions of the others.

Now honestly, who can really follow that? Who can really get their arms completely around that kind of thing? And when you try to explain that to a non-Christian, you can see their eyes glaze over, and they look at you as if to say, “Do you actually hear what you’re saying? How can you believe that, when you can’t even explain it?” And you stop talking and retreat from the conversation, feeling like you’ve let Jesus and the whole Chrstian faith down. Eternal, Epic Fail.

If you’ve ever felt that way, don’t worry too much, because in all honesty, none of the greatest theologians, the deepest thinkers in the history of the faith, have ever really been able to totally, completely explain the idea of the Trinity in any way that didn’t generate as many questions as they answered.

And yet, if we take the scriptures seriously, we see that there has to be some manner of understanding God in these three different Persons or identities, while still recognizing that the Being of God is still a Unity. The scriptures speak of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all three in equally divine, equally eternal, equally uncreated terms. Sometimes, to try to make it easy to understand, we’ll try to box them into three different “job descriptions”: that all of creating was done by God the Father, but when humanity and all of creation needed redemption, the Father stepped out of the picture and turned that over for just the Son to achieve while being physically enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth. Then, once that work was accomplished, the Son returned to sit at the Father’s right hand and passed the work over to the Holy Spirit, who is solely responsible for sustaining us in the faith and giving us comfort and encouragement. And we get accustomed to thinking about the Trinity that way – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Each one doing his thing and then stepping off the stage; a kind of tag-team divinity. And there is some truth to that way of seeing things, but not as much as we typically assign to it as we try to keep the Trinity neat and tidy and organized. Because the scriptures tell us that the work of all three identities of the Trinity are intertwined, flowing from, and toward, each other. All of God – Father, Son, and Spirit – is Creator. All of God – Father, Son, and Spirit – is Redeemer. All of God – Father, Son, and Spirit – is Sustainer.

One of the most intriguing ways of defining the Trinity that I’ve ever seen wasn’t in a deep academic volume of systematic theology, but rather, in the popular Christian novel “The Shack” which was very popular a few years ago. I don’t have time to detail it here, but I thought it was fascinating, and I’d recommend the book to you just for that, if you haven’t read it.

So we know that scripture points us to the understanding that God is somehow a unity – a “One” – while still a trinity – a “three.” But if we can’t eve really understand how that all works, that at best it’s an incomplete analogy for understanding the nature of God, we’re tempted to just say, “So what?” What difference does it make to us?

If nothing else, the fact that God exists in some sort of three-way community with God’s self shows us God’s primary focus and teaching. Just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are inextricably connected and in a relationship of love with each other, that’s what God’s ideal is for us, too. Being made in God’s image means that in a way, we’re designed to exist in a kind of trinity of our own. God wants us to be in a similar intermingled relationship of love with God, and with those around us. We’re called to be so engaged in love and relationship one for another that it’s hard to tell where one of us lets off and the other begins. That’s the kind of love God has designed us for, and wants us to live out. This is what’s at the heart of Jesus’ “Greatest Commandment,” to love God with all your being, and to love your neighbor as yourself. We human beings are designed in God’s image to be part of a trinity of love. Everything else flows from that reality.

So think about the theological details of the Trinity. Work them out in your own mind. That’s a good and important thing for us Christians to do, as far as we can. But however you come to understand it, if nothing else, recognize in the Trinity God’s own plan, God’s own design, for us. If you focus on the Trinity in that light, and you structure your life accordingly, to love God and others in that way, then all the fine theological points will be secondary.

Thanks be to God.


“Our Silk Bookmark”
June 12, 2011

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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Today is Pentecost Sunday. We know this story; it recognizes the day that the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, and apparently something like flames rested on their heads. We don’t know particularly what it really looked like, but artists have tried their hand at depicting it ever since it happened; the painting you see above is just one modern, abstract portrayal of the event.

The word “Pentecost” comes from a Greek word that just means “fifty,” and it represents that the event occurred fifty days after Easter. Pentecost is the Greek word that was used to describe the Jewish festival of Shavuot – a festival that comes fifty days after Passover, and observes Moses’ being given the Law fifty days after the Hebrews were led out into the wilderness during the exodus.

What it means to us is that this day is often considered the beginning, the “birthday” of the Church. Jesus had told the disciples to go out into the world and share the message of God’s good news to all the world, but first, he told them to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit would come to them and transform them, and empower them for the job.

So here are the disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and enabled to speak in the many different languages spoken by all the religious pilgrims who were filling the streets of Jerusalem to observe Shavuot. This is just another example of how God is constantly doing a new thing in the world – pushing us into different, uncharted territory. Throughout the scriptures, God is continually pushing, and breaking out of the traditional box, in order to bring God’s truth and message to more and more people – even people who current tradition and religious understandings would have excluded from being part of God’s covenant people. At the time of God’s choosing, God empowered the disciples to do just that, and to do it in a way that these people could understand and relate to.

Of course, that’s exactly what we’re called to do today, too. Wherever there are people in situations where they can’t hear or understand God’s message of hope and love, God has called us to do whatever it takes to make that message understandable to them. We aren’t allowed to just say, “Well, the doors of the church are always open; they’re always welcome to come in anytime.” That might be true, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The people who won’t come into the church already have some idea of what we’re “selling” in here – they think they know what our message is, and they’ve voted with their feet by staying away. Based on history, and maybe personal experience, they may see us as being hypocritical, and exclusive, and rigid and intolerant – and sad to say, all too often they’d be right. These people are in no less loved by God and in need of hearing the message of the gospel than anyone else, and yet, in far too many times it’s just not sinking in, in a tragic failure to communicate. In a way, we’re speaking different languages. It’s like speaking Spanish to someone who only speaks English, like I did in our Call to Worship. What I read was the exact same thing that you repeated in English, but could you understand it?

I was sitting in the hospital chatting with another chaplain this past week, and he was telling me about something that had happened to him years before, when he was a young chaplain working in a ward for those with mental disorders. He told me about one patient – Gerald – who was on the unit. Gerald believed that he was a prophet; that God spoke directly to him, and he would accept no opinions to the contrary. In fact, when this chaplain first came onto the floor, Gerald would literally skirt around him, trying to avoid him and making the sign of the cross with his forefingers, calling the chaplain “The messenger of Satan.” So after a few of those encounters, the chaplain decided to not try to speak with Gerald, other than to just say hello to him when he arrived on the floor, and goodbye when he left. After a while, Gerald started to trust the chaplain, thinking that maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. Gerald started attending the chaplain’s worship services, where he’d always sing “America the Beautiful” for some reason, at the top of his lungs. Eventually, Gerald invited the chaplain to visit in his room, and he showed him a shoebox under his bed. The box was full of index cards, that he’d written prayers for various occasions – prayers for the sick, prayers for the dying, prayers for the fearful, prayers for police and firefighters, and so on. Gerald explained that he used these prayers on the unit as he ministered to, and brought his prophetic word to the residents of the floor. Then, Gerald pulled out a smaller box that was inside the shoebox. He carefully opened it, and showed the chaplain a white silk bookmark, with a few inspirational Bible verses printed on it. Gerald told the chaplain, “Do you see this? This is God’s grace.” Apparently, someone had once told him that the words printed on the silk represented God’s grace, but Gerald wasn’t capable of making an abstract connection like that. To him, this bookmark was physically, literally, God’s grace. And he told the chaplain that God had instructed him to bring that grace to all the people on the floor, so every day he walked around the floor, holding the bookmark out in front of him, while other patients reached out to touch it, and in Gerald’s world, receive God’s grace. And maybe that’s exactly what was happening.

The chaplain said that the day came that Gerald’s insurance had run out, and he was being discharged out onto the street – frankly, without any real change in his status. But when they tried to discharge him, Gerald got belligerent, and hostile. He refused to go, he told the staff, until he’d had a chance to talk to the chaplain. So the chaplain came as quickly as he could. When he arrived in the room, Gerald calmed down, and he got a very serious look on his face. He asked the chaplain to sit on the edge of his bed, and he pulled out his little box with the white silk bookmark. Holding it ever so gently, he reached out and handed it to the chaplain and he said, “I’m going now. Now, it’s your job to bring God’s grace to the people here.”

The chaplain went back to his office, stunned with what had just happened. He sat there, holding the bookmark, and started to cry as he thought about the charge he’d just been entrusted with. Maybe Gerald was a prophet after all.

The message of Pentecost is that all of us who have received God’s Holy Spirit within us – and don’t worry, you don’t need to have experienced tongues of flame resting on you for that to be the case – are called to go where we might not have gone before, in ways we might not have done before – maybe in ways that we thought wasn’t even proper before. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us is God’s entrusting us with our own white silk bookmark, and commissioning us, saying “Go – bring my grace to all the world.”

Thanks be to God.


“The Good Life”

June 5, 2011

John 17:1-11

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

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I saw a magazine article this past week about a famous chef named Ferran Adria and his very famous and trendy restaurant, El Bulli. I’d learned a bit about this chef and his restaurant from my daughter Erica, our own chef-in training, and I’d watched some YouTube videos of some of his amazing work, so I sat down to read the article.

The restaurant itself is very small – it only seats about the same number of people as the restaurant down the street. The wait for a reservation is typically over a year – and if you’re lucky enough to get inside the front door, you don’t even get to decide what to eat. There’s only one meal served. It consists of about 50 different courses, most of them hardly more than a few spoonfuls of food, but all of them showcasing the chef’s legendary culinary and artistic genius.

Apparently, after a long and acclaimed run, the chef has announced that he’s planning to close the restaurant at the end of July and go off on another venture. The magazine article documents a bunch of culinary groupies who were selected by the Dom Perignon champagne company to be part of a very exclusive, and very expensive, “Last Supper” at El Bulli. The writer told all about some of the rich and beautiful people who had somehow scored a place on the trip, being flown to Spain, put up in a swanky hotel, and then, at the appointed time, being whisked off by helicopters helicopters to be dropped into the tiny, out-of-the-way village where the restaurant is.

He goes on to detail some of the other people on the trip, and how to all of them this was the equivalent of making a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem, or Mecca, or getting to see the Dalai Lama. He was impressed by the celebrities who were part of the trip, and he went on about how, factoring in the airfare, lodging, and the whole package, it must have cost more than $350,000 for these fifty people to have their “Last Supper.” He wrote about the attendees trying to one-up each other by comparing how many times they’d eaten at this legendary place, and how one person was so emotionally moved by the food that he was brought to tears.

I have to be honest with you – the whole tone of the article made me want to throw up a little bit in my mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I really appreciate the genius of the chef, and if someone paid my way to fly halfway around the world to eat some of the best and most innovative and artistic food in the world, I’d definitely enjoy it. But the whole tone of the article – the fawning over the whole celebrity culture, the name-dropping, the elitism and snobbishness that dripped from practically every line, the sheer wretched excess of the whole thing – it just rubbed my Calvinist sensitivities all kinds of against the grain. And I think I can honestly say that no matter how good something might taste, and how artistically it’s presented, I don’t think it would ever bring me to tears.

The writer said that as the dinner winded down, he clinked glasses with a fellow diner as they sipped on their thousand-dollar champagne, and he offered a toast: “To the good life,” he said.

Is that the good life? There’s no question it’s the extravagant life. The lavish and privileged life. But is what the writer describes in this article really the good life? Apparently, that’s what a lot of people would think.

Among other things in this passage from John’s gospel, we heard what Jesus considered “the good life” – or, as he put it, eternal life. As Jesus was praying, he said that God had given him authority to give people this “good life,” this eternal life. And then he even defined what he meant by that, saying this is eternal life: to know the one true God, and to do so by knowing Jesus, whom God sent into the world and through whom God reveals himself to us.

That’s eternal life. It isn’t just some unending future life after our death here, although that’s a part of it. Just as much as that, though, Jesus is telling us here that to know God, and Jesus, in this way will transform our current lives in the here and now. We’ll experience a new kind of life, one which comes out of our living our lives faithful to our knowledge of God, and God’s will for us.

That means that, contrary to what some people might think, we’re living the “good life” – we’re living eternal life – while we’re making personal sacrifices to raise our children in a spiritually and morally right manner. We’re living the good life when we give up the money we’d been saving for some special personal perk, and we give it to help flood or tornado victims. We’re living the good life when we don’t get the deluxe leather package and the audio system upgrade we’d like in our new car, to make sure we can be faithful in our commitment to support the church’s financial needs. We’re living the good life when we’re feeding, and changing the adult diapers of a loved one who can’t care for himself anymore.

Living the good life as Jesus defines it – the way God defines it – definitely includes life’s joys, its good times, its laughter and pleasure. It also includes appreciating a great painting, or sculpture, or building, or musical composition. And for some of us who are lucky enough, it can even include enjoying a delicious and artistic meal at the finest restaurant in the world. These are all parts of knowing God, and understanding the beauty and creativity he planned and intends for creation. But at least as often, living God’s “good life” involves the exact opposite of what the world would tell us is the good life. Jesus shows us that it’s the going through the toughness, the difficulty, and sometimes the seeming mundane-ness of life, that actually builds our faith, and that shows us the face of God even more clearly, and that ultimately allows us to enjoy God, and to experience the real joy of this new, eternal kind of life more fully. And yes, in the future, we’ll enjoy this good life in all its glory, and without any of the toughness and troubles, living in the presence and love of God forever. All together, that’s the beauty of the *real* good life, in all its richness and texture and flavor, that Jesus makes available to all of us.

To the writer of the magazine article, the good life requires the rich, the famous, the exclusive, and a lavish meal for their “Last Supper.” But Jesus’ good life – eternal life – is for both rich and poor, both famous and unknown. There’s no waiting list; no reservations required – everyone is invited. And at his meal, there aren’t 50 delicate courses for the refined palate, but rather, some simple bread, some wine, and an invitation to the table – a call to discipleship, and to receive his grace. Because of that, the simple meal becomes the most wonderful feast of all the ages. And at that feast, Jesus lifts his glass too, and offers his own paradoxical toast to the good life: “This is my blood, shed for you.”

Live the good life. Thanks be to God.


“Your Children Will Ask You”

May 22, 2011
Preschool Sunday

Deuteronomy 6:20-25
When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.’

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Mark 10:13-16
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

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One of the oldest continuously observed religious ceremonies in the world is the observance of the Jewish Passover, through the Seder meal. One key aspect of the Seder is that it’s a retelling, a re-teaching, of the history of God’s goodness and faithfulness to the Israelites, calling them out of bondage in Egypt and into a new life of freedom and liberation in God’s care. In fact, the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving that we pray every time we participate in the Lord’s Supper, is intentionally modeled on this same kind of retelling, reteaching to new generations about God’s goodness and love for humanity. As part of the Seder meal, a child asks his elders several questions, and the elders teach the child God’s story by answering those questions. That part of the meal comes directly from this passage from Deuteronomy, where God says, “Your children will ask you… and you will say to them…” – you will teach.

Teaching our children has always been a huge part of our Christian faith. Obviously, we all know that Jesus called the children to come to him, and told us all that none of us could enter into the kingdom of God without the wide-eyed sense of wonder, and imagination, and curiosity, and love, like a child’s. Our children are so very dear and important to us. And because of that, throughout history, the single most significant force for educating people – and all people, not just the elite or upper class – has been the Christian Church. In this country, and in many others, the very idea of a structured, formal system of education, whether talking about elementary education or college, has sprung out of the Christian Church’s mission of education, because of our belief that being educated is an important part of what God wants for us all.

And it’s even the same with preschool. Nationwide, Christian churches play a huge role in providing the increasingly more important preschool education to our country’s children. And locally, the Frankfort Presbyterian Preschool is the longest continuously operating, most established preschool program in the area – and it is the only preschool that teaches children from a Christian perspective, with a faith-oriented curriculum. That doesn’t mean that preschool is just another form of Sunday School. That’s something very different, and just as important, to a child’s education. But the preschool recognizes that a child must be educated, and must develop, academically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually – and that if any of these aspects of a child’s development isn’t nurtured, the child will suffer, short- and long-term.

So we teach the children early language skills. And beginning math and science concepts. And we teach them social skills, as they begin to learn how to interact with each other. And we also teach them that our lives are a gift from God, and that God loves us, and provides for us – that, as they said in their program, “I’m Designed by God, So I Must Be Special.” That our life, our very being, has a purpose – to be in a relationship with that loving God who created us.

So today, we recognize and honor our current group of preschool students. They’re just at the beginning of a lifelong journey of learning – learning about themselves, and about the world around them, and hopefully, about God and their relationship with God. And we recognize the wonderful work done by our preschool teachers. And we recognize the preschool program itself – it’s one of our congregation’s primary means of outreach and mission to our community. It’s our response to Jesus saying to allow the little children to come to him. It’s our response to God’s telling us, “You’re children will ask you… and you will teach.”

Thanks be to God.


“Life Together”

May 15, 2011

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. – Acts 2:42-47

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The Presbyterian Church made it into the mainstream news this week. The proposed amendment to our Book of Order which would allow Sessions to consider non-celibate gay and lesbian Christians for ordination as deacons and elders, and Presbyteries to do the same for ministers of Word and Sacrament was passed. The voting among the Presbyteries is still going on, but this past Tuesday, a Presbytery in Minnesota cast the deciding 87th “Yes” vote, so sometime this July the new standard will go into effect.

There isn’t sufficient time in a short sermon to get into just what the new standard does and doesn’t mean, or discuss all the arguments pro and con, or to get into how the standard affects us into the future. I think I’m going to set up a special time during one or two weeks of our normal Adult Ed time for anyone who has questions or opinions about the issue to have a conversation about it. But while I was discussing the vote with some people this past week, one friend claimed that we Presbyterians had just thrown the Bible out the window, and that these days, we weren’t anything more than a social club – no different than the American Legion, or the Masons, or the Moose Lodge.

Now, I certainly disagree with my friend’s charge that we aren’t being faithful to the scriptures, and I also disagree that we’re nothing more than a social club – although it’s very true that many congregations – across all denominations, all theologies, liberal and conservative, high church and low church – do, in fact, devolve into just social organizations. Groups who come together mostly for some social outlet with other people who are pretty much just like themselves, and who have settled on the same parts of Jesus’ teachings to accept and the same ones to ignore. My friend’s comment made me think about just what it really means to be the Church. What is the Church supposed to be? When it comes right down to it, just what are we really all about?

The passage from Acts that we read this morning addresses that precise question. In this story, we’re hearing about the days just after the day of Pentecost, when the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit and as Peter preached the gospel to all the different people gathered there in the city for the festival. We’re hearing about the very beginning of the Church. And what, exactly, did this first church do? What did they commit themselves to? The passage says that they devoted themselves to four things: some organized form of teaching of the faith; to be in spiritual and social fellowship with each other; to participate communally in the breaking of the bread and the Lord’s Supper; and coming together to communally lift up prayers for themselves and for others. Some people have called these the “Four Pillars of the Church.” It’s still a good summary of what we should really be all about. Being filled with God’s Spirit, and dedicating ourselves to a way of life together where we commit to learn how to deepen our own faith, and how to live it out in community with all other believers and the world at large. When we come here on Sunday for worship, we’re actually dealing with those four pillars as we worship God – fellowship, often enough the breaking of the bread, lifting up our prayers. Of course, there’s certainly an educational aspect to the sermon – it’s intended to inform, or inspire, or comfort, or challenge, depending on the week. But there can only be so much teaching accomplished in a 15- or 20-minute message once a week. Most of the teaching that we need as Christians has to be more in-depth, and as part of a group where there’s dialogue back and forth. Sunday School. A Confirmation Class. Adult Ed. We don’t have any at the moment, but small groups that meet during the week in someone’s home to do Bible study or to discuss a faith-related book is another way this all-important teaching can happen. Those are the places where we can really go deeper into our faith.

It’s important to note, too, that right from the very beginning, the practice of our Christian faith was something that couldn’t just be an individual effort. It meant being part of a group, the whole community of faith and being in covenant with each other, committed to love, and serve, and lift up one another, even as diverse a bunch of believers as Luke tells us those first converts were. A lot of people today think that their spirituality is something that is strictly an individual pursuit. They don’t need to be part of a larger community of faith as part of it. Even a lot of Christians feel that way: “I don’t need to be a part of church; I can be with God by myself when I’m walking the nature trail, or sitting on my back porch watching a sunset.” That’s all well and good. Of course, our faith has an individual component to it. But the Christian faith can’t be *exclusively* an individual thing. We can certainly feel God’s presence on our back porch – but our faith is about much more than that. It isn’t just about feeling God ourselves, but with others, and putting into practice what God wants us to do for others. You see, when we aren’t participating in the life of our community of faith – our church – we aren’t depriving God of our presence. We’re depriving ourselves of the deepening of our own faith into what God wants for us, and we’re depriving others of having their faith deepened by us.

This passage from Acts goes on to show just how committed the early church was to each other. As part of being that community, they helped meet each other’s needs financially. Some of them sold some o their possessions in order to help others within the community. Part of this Christian life together is economic; we’re called to use the resources God’s given us wisely and faithfully, for the benefit of the community of faith and to advance that faith by sharing it with others. If those first for things we looked at were the Four Pillars of the Church, then this is the fifth one. In this life together, we are committed to being financially connected, financially responsible for each other, for God’s purposes. And that’s tough. That’s a really hard part of being part of this community of faith that we call the Church, or even just an individual congregation, that we’ve made our commitment to. We look at that sign over in the corner – the “elephant in the room” that everyone sees, but no one wants to think about – the sign that shows where our annual offering *should be* by this time of year, based on the budget we all voted on and committed ourselves to supporting; and the next line showing where it *actually is.* It isn’t a pretty comparison.

There’s an Episcopal church in Welch, West Virginia, that faced a similar problem some years ago. At one time, there were some 70,000 people in this coal-mining town in the southern part of the state. It was originally set up as a “company town,” with the coal mining company laying out the town, where the streets would be, what would be built where. And the land set aside for churches were on the sides of a steep hillside. The church was a beautiful building, built with big money in the heyday of the coal boom. Beautiful marble floors, exquisite woodwork, stunning Tiffany stained glass windows. But there wasn’t anywhere to park, and to get to the church on foot you had to climb up a long, steep flight of steps built into the hillside. Eventually, the mines played out, new generations left for greener pastures, the city shrank. Today there are only about 2,600 people in Welch. Money is tight, and the Episcopalians are all getting older and fewer in number. Almost no one could navigate the steps leading up to the church. Weekly attendance at Sunday worship dropped to just six or eight people. So in faithfulness to God’s call to them, to be faithful to their own community as well as to share their faith with others, they took a bold step. They couldn’t sell the building. No one wanted it even for the land. So they took out all their beloved stained glass windows and sold them – for $75,000 apiece, setting up an endowment fund with the proceeds. Then, they rented some nice but basic space in a retail center, which was neat, clean, handicapped accessible, had plenty of parking, and was much more economical to heat and cool. As a result, they became a much more visible presence in the town, now that they weren’t tucked away on the inaccessible hillside. Eventually, people starting coming in. Now, they routinely have between 40 and 50 attendees on Sundays, and the trend is continuing upward, even in this small, economically depressed town. They didn’t allow their building to become an idol, a museum, a stumbling block to what God had brought them together for in the first place. Like the early church, they sold off some of their possessions – even some of their most prized ones – to further the needs of their community of faith, and God’s call to them to be the face of Christ to their neighbors.

Could we have done the same thing? Would we sacrifice our windows, our building, our family and historical ties to this building, if that’s what it took for us to live together faithfully as Christ’s church in Frankfort? I don’t know the answer to that. I hope we would.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not implying that we should call in a demolition team to come in and salvage the windows out of *our* sanctuary to help with our budget. I’m just using that church as an example to remind us that the Church of Jesus Christ isn’t just a social club. We’re called to live out those four pillars of the Church – teaching the faith, fellowship of the community, the communal breaking of the bread, and prayer. And we’re called to do whatever it takes for us to honor and maintain the commitment we’ve taken to be a faithful member of Christ’s Church, and this congregation, in word and deed, as we serve our risen Lord. The same Lord who Peter told the crowds about on Pentecost. The same Lord who added people of every sort to the early church’s numbers day by day.

Thanks be to God.


“Lemon Cookies and Cigarettes in Emmaus”
May 8, 2011

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. – Luke 24:13-35

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Two people walking down the road. Two people who have gone down in history because of the story we read today. We talk about them all the time – I mention them at least once a month, as we come together for the Lord’s Supper. We don’t even know the name of one of them, and the other one – Cleopas – his name is really the only thing we do know about him. We don’t know if it was two men, or a man and a woman. And we don’t really know why they were walking out from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but I suppose we could make an educated guess. It must have been an overwhelming day, that first Easter Sunday. Starting with the women coming back from the tomb with their amazing story, and all the excitement and conversation it caused. And still all the activity in Jerusalem, so many of the out-of-town visitors there for the Passover festival, overflowing the streets and the markets and the Temple courtyards, and in the midst of all of that the very real danger that the officials might turn on Jesus’ disciples the same way they turned on Jesus. Maybe it was just too much for these two. Maybe they just needed to get away from things, to put some distance between themselves and the events of the last two days, to try to sort things out in their own minds.

That’s what most of us try to do when things are overwhelming us. We try to find some safe place, whether it’s an actual, real place, or just a place in our minds, where we can feel like we’ve withdrawn from the world around us for a bit. That’s us walking out to our own version of Emmaus. We’ve all defined an Emmaus for ourselves. Frederick Beuchner wrote that for us, Emmaus is “the place we go to escape – a movie, a bar, wherever it is we throw up our hands and say “Let the whole thing go hang; it doesn’t make any difference anyway.” Emmaus might be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes than we really want, or reading a second-rate novel… it’s where we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred, and that eventually, even the best and the brightest, the noblest and most holy, are going to get chewed up and spit out by it.” My own Emmaus – one of them, anyway – is watching some stupid TV show about aliens or the paranormal while I eat the better part of a whole pack of cheap lemon cream cookies with milk. You know what your own Emmaus is.

But we remember those two people on the way to the real Emmaus because on that first Easter Sunday, the risen Jesus appeared to them. He walked along the road with them, but they didn’t recognize him. In what I can only imagine was a playful, ornery attitude, Jesus spent at least a couple of hours with them as they walked more than half the distance from here to Chillicothe, befriending them and opening up new, up-till-then totally unheard-of interpretations of the scriptures – showing them how the pieces fit together; that the messiah had to suffer and die as part of the whole mysterious plan God had from before the beginning of time for reconciling the world with himself.

It’s interesting that Jesus appeared to them, and enlightened them, in the midst of their trying to get away from it all – away from the thinking, away from the being together with the other disciples; trying to get away from whatever came next for all the poor shmucks like themselves who had apparently bet their lives on the wrong horse. And he didn’t criticize them for trying to get away from Jerusalem, and all that meant, for a while. Instead, he met and accepted them right where they were, in their sorrow and grief, in their confusion and uncertainty. But he didn’t leave them there. He offered them hope, and his presence. He offered them the knowledge and wisdom to see that, even if they ducked away to Emmaus for a short while, they needed to get back to Jerusalem – the real Jerusalem, certainly, but more importantly, to their own metaphorical Jerusalem. They needed to get back into the game, to live their lives as disciples of a victorious, risen Lord – to worship God, to let others know this same good news that got them out of their Emmaus, and to help spread God’s love to others by serving them as Jesus had taught.

And of course, Jesus walks with us, as we’re heading to our Emmaus, and sits and eats with us once we get there. Just as the two disciples spent that day listening to Jesus’ voice and didn’t recognize him, he speaks to us while our eyes are clouded and we don’t recognize him at first. Jesus might reach us while we’re there in our Emmaus in something seen in a movie or a TV show. Or something we read in a magazine or on a website. A verse of scripture that we stumble across while we’re looking for something else, or for nothing at all. A surprising idea that creeps into our consciousness as we’re breaking bread together, here, during the Lord’s Supper. Or maybe he’s just that voice, that thought, that pops into our minds, unbidden, while we’re sitting in the silence of our temporary little vacation from the real world, that speaks in some new, unexpected way to whatever it is that’s bearing down heavy on our heart and mind. That just seems to be the way Jesus appears to us – the same way he appeared to these two, indirectly, seen only out of the corners of ours eyes, but vanishing as soon as we recognize him and look directly at him. And we’re just left with a warm sense of peace and comfort, and challenge, too, and a vague understanding that in some way, we’ve been in the presence of God. Some people might call those that coincidence, or even just intuition, and they’re welcome to call it whatever they want. I’ll still see it as Jesus, unrecognized by my distracted eyes and my overstressed brain, walking the road with me.

The two disciples’ trip to Emmaus started in sorrow and confusion, and ended in the final revelation that they’d been in the presence of the divine, risen Lord. So should our own escapes to Emmaus. And we need to realize that, as enjoyable as they might be, eventually, there comes a time to put away the cookies or the cigarettes, to step away from the credit card or the trashy novel, and get back to what we’re really here for anyway: to love God, and to serve God, to enjoy God forever in the process. To forget about the squabbles, large and small, that nip at our heels. To forget about the hypocrisy in the world, or in the next pew, or if we’re willing to be that honest, in ourselves. There comes a time to get out of Emmaus and back to our own version of Jerusalem, as part of God’s family, doing whatever it is that God wants us to be doing, and however God wants us to be doing it. Because the one who offers us burning hearts and unconditional love in Emmaus will keep giving us that same inspiration, and love, and strength, to do it wherever else we go. And who knows – we may even meet Jesus again, just around the next bend in the road. Of course, it will probably take us a while to recognize him then, too.

Thanks be to God.


“Faith and Doubt”

May 1, 2011

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

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Every year right after Easter, we read this story about Jesus and Thomas. For the most part, when we read it Thomas is seen as being the bad, untrusting disciple – “Doubting Thomas,” as he’ll always be known. But was Thomas really so bad? Was he really any worse than the other disciples? The truth is, when Mary Magdalene came back from the empty tomb and told the men Jesus had risen from the dead, they didn’t believe her either. They thought she was talking nonsense, and they didn’t fully believe until Jesus appeared to them in the flesh, later that evening. That’s really all Thomas had said he’d require in order to believe.

The scriptures don’t really tell us why Thomas wasn’t with the others that Sunday night. From what little we know of Thomas, he seems to have been a very dedicated, straightforward guy. When Jesus told the disciples he was going into Jerusalem, and the disciples tried unsuccessfully to prevent him from doing so, it was Thomas who said “let’s follow him into the city, and die along with him there.” With that kind of attitude, it’s easy to imagine that Thomas wouldn’t have been hiding behind locked doors with the others on that night, even just two nights after Jesus was crucified. I could believe that he had decided to continue on living life by his beliefs and on his own terms, and not be intimidated by the mob.

When Thomas finally does meet the risen Lord a week later and believes, Jesus tells him – and the others gathered there – that they only believe because they had seen him in the flesh. And then, in a moment where Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking to them at all, but rather, he seems to turn to talk to the camera – to talk to *us* – and he says, blessed are all of us, who never got the luxury of seeing Jesus in the flesh, but who still believe that Jesus is risen, and is Lord.

It was hard for the disciples to believe in Jesus’ resurrection at first. All their common sense, all that they knew about the way things work, argued completely against it. It was absurd. The New Testament writers understood this; they called the resurrection, the very cornerstone of our faith the Greek word “skandalon” – a stumbling block, an obstacle that any rational, thinking person would have to make a logic leap over in order to understand the message, the truth, of the message of God’s love found in the gospel.

Two thousand years later, it’s even more difficult to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. Truth be told, we couldn’t believe it at all without God’s working within us to enable us to accept it. We look around and we see so many things that argue against the idea of a God who has come into the world, who lived and died and rose again to conquer sin and brokenness. We look around, and instead of Jesus in the flesh, we see people’s lives ruined, blown away by tornadoes. We see people doing everything imaginable to hurt and abuse and take advantage of others – sometimes even using Jesus’ name, and Jesus’ scriptures, to justify it. We see men, women, and children suffering from terrible injuries, disease, and birth defects. Is this really the way the world would be if Jesus really did rise from the dead to reign victorious, seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty?

We wonder. We question. Frankly, we doubt, just like Thomas and the other disciples, at some time or another. But doubt isn’t necessarily bad. Doubt is an important part of faith. To be sure, if God laid out concrete evidence of his existence to us every day – if the risen Jesus stopped by our place every morning for a cup of coffee – the relationship that we’d have with God would be something very different – something far less than what God wants our relationship to be. That was the whole purpose of God becoming one of us, in the flesh, to begin with. To see us with his own eyes, to hear us with his own ears, to speak to us with his own voice, to hold us with his own hand. In short, God wants our relationship to be one of love. And love can only come through choice, not coercion. And without coercion – without that daily visit from Jesus to keep us in line – there will always be some level of doubt.

It’s only through faith, and not concrete proof, that makes us able to respond in love, from the heart, to want to love God and live a life pleasing to God.

C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of books that portray the Christian message, and Christian discipleship, through an epic tale in a land called Narnia, which represents the Kingdom of God. Narnia is ruled by a great lion named Aslan, who represents Christ in the books. There was a scene in one the books where some of the followers of Aslan, the great lion who is the figure of Christ in the books, have been taken captive by one of Aslan’s enemies and brainwashed into a fog-like confusion, where they come to doubt whether they should trust in Aslan, or whether Aslan even exists at all. One of them, a pessimistic, curmudgeonly character named Puddleglum, eventually says, “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” That’s faith, even in the midst of doubt.

But as noble as it is, it’s a kind of a blind faith. The faith of the original disciples was built on something more, on the reality of seeing and touching the risen Lord. We don’t have that luxury, but our faith is based on more than that, too. Of course, we start off with the amazing witness of those original disciples, whose lives were amazingly, miraculously changed overnight, transforming them from a scared bunch of defeated people into an energized group of disciples who went out into the world, sometimes even sacrificing their own lives, based on their faith that Jesus had really risen from the dead, and is who he says he is. But we experience Christ’s resurrected, real presence in our own lives in countless ways. In the comfort we find in Jesus’ words, in the scriptures, in times of stress or difficulty. In life’s joy and laughter that we experience through the love of family and friends. In prayers answered in surprising and unexpected ways. In the way God does provide for us when we do finally let go of the controls and fall back into his arms. In the eyes of a child we’ve just fed, or clothed, or sheltered, in Jesus’ name. Every time we take of the common bread and the common cup, and we hear the words, “Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.” We see him in all these ways and more, just as concretely as if we’d stuck our fingers into his wounds some two thousand years ago.

Our way to faith is different from that of Thomas and the other disciples. Of course, our way includes just as much doubt as their way did. But that doubt is part of God’s plan for our faith, and is necessary for the kind of relationship God wants with us. It’s even necessary for our faith to increase, and for us to become stronger disciples. Not only that, but Jesus called our way to faith blessed. So even if our way is harder than the disciples’ way, in some sense it’s even better.

Thanks be to God.


“The Passion of Bob”
April 17, 2011

Matthew 27:11-54

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross.

And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way. From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o”clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.”
Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

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I heard a story this past week about a church that stopped having Good Friday services, because they just weren’t comfortable with all the horrific, violent, bloody details of the crucifixion. It disturbed their sensitivities to think about Jesus beaten to a bloody pulp – beyond recognition, the scriptures say. When asked about the decision, the pastor just said, “We don’t do the whole blood thing.” A lot of churches are like that. They’d rather focus on Jesus’ life and teachings, and jump over to his resurrection, without the ugliness and gore of Good Friday.

It’s understandable, really. No reasonable person wants to think about what Jesus endured. And to be honest, there are some Christians who seem to go overboard in the other direction. Every other hymn is something about Jesus’ blood – bathed in the blood, fountains of blood, it’s practically gushing everywhere throughout the whole service. You’d think they’d have to slope the floors and install gutters along the sidewalls just to catch it all.

In general though, more churches these days tend to follow somewhat of a “less blood” approach. That reflects different ways we understand how Jesus atoned for our sins and reconciled us to God, and that some of those ways don’t necessitate Jesus having to be tortured and practically bled out in order to achieve it. It’s an ongoing difference within the faith. In fact, you can see that struggle in the musical selections found in the two different hymnals that we use – the older, medium-blue one is a “more blood” hymnal, and the newer, dark-blue one is a “less blood” one. As with so many things, I think there’s an appropriate balance somewhere between the two extremes – between the churches whose worship services sound more like shop talk at a slaughterhouse, and the pastor who turned up his nose and said, “We don’t do the whole blood thing.”

While most churches still have Good Friday services, and rightly so, the services have become less and less attended. Let’s face it; no one likes getting dressed up and going out on a Friday night just to get depressed and being reminded of all that violence. So what’s happened is that for most churchgoers, the services that they attend – the standard Sunday services – jump from Palm Sunday – the excitement of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, the crowds cheering and laying palm branches and their own cloaks in the road to usher him into the city as the Messiah finally come to set things straight; right to the joy of Easter Sunday and Jesus’ resurrection. In the rush to get from “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” to “He Lives” and the Hallelujah Chorus, most Christians completely sidestep “What Wondrous Love Is This” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” Many Christians could go to church for years without hearing the actual story of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and death as the text for a sermon.

That’s wrong. To do that removes us from a very important reality that underlies our faith, that our very divine, very human Lord lived, and breathed, and in the process of his faithfulness to God, and his reconciling us to God, he submitted to being unjustly and brutally killed by people interested only in preserving secular power and the religious status quo; and in the process, completely missing God’s good news for humanity that Jesus showed us. In order to not have most Christian worshippers miss this gut-wrenching but important lesson, many churches will observe this particular Sunday not only as Palm Sunday, but also as Passion Sunday – a Sunday set aside to have Christians focus on Christ’s passion – not the romantic notion of passion that we’ve come to assign to that term, but the original meaning of the word, his pain and suffering. That’s what we’re doing here today.

Focusing on Jesus’ suffering helps us to remember that we can expect to suffer opposition too, as we try to serve as Christ’s disciples in the world. Jesus suffered greatly, terribly. Most of us have probably seen the movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” You probably remember that lots of people complained about it when it was first released. They were appalled by the blood and violence in the film, saying it went over the top, and that it wasn’t necessary to be so graphic in its treatment. I always thought the opposite. If people hadn’t ever before, that movie forced people to focus on the brutality endured by Jesus. We need to understand that brutality; considering what Jesus really endured shapes our own faith. So if it was disturbing for some people, I say good. This was a particularly, I’d even say uniquely, disturbing event in human history. We should all be disturbed by it. That’s part of understanding Jesus.

We have absolutely no right to think that just because we’re Christians, it’s God’s will that we wouldn’t have to endure difficulties in life. In fact, it’s just the opposite. If we commit our lives to living as Christ’s disciples, we are very likely going to face rejection and pushback. In fact, if we aren’t encountering some kind of opposition as we try to be the face of Christ in the world, we’re probably doing something wrong. In the midst of trying to live spirituality and morality taught by Christ, we’ll face scorn, sometimes ridicule. While we’re trying to help someone in Jesus’ name, they’ll be ungrateful and all but spit in our face. While we’re sincerely trying to do the right thing as we go about the mission that Christ has given to all of us – to share God’s love with others in word and deed – We’ll encounter hostility, and pettiness, and hurt. The Christian faith isn’t all about the Passion of the Christ. It’s also about the Passion of Bob, the Passion of Sue; the Passion of Joe, the Passion of Betty.

When Jesus faced all that and more, he accepted it and kept faithful and true to God’s will. He didn’t give in to the temptation of saving himself through his own power, because humanity had shown itself to be completely ungrateful for what he was doing for them. Jesus committed the ultimate act of radical love through the gaping ugliness of the cross, without once demanding to be appreciated or respected for what he was doing. It’s so tempting for us to be more conditional in our love – to expect more appreciation and gratitude for what we’re doing.

There’s a very good book, written in the 1960’s by Shusaku Endo titled “Silence.” It’s based on the true story of the persecutions faced by Christians in seventeenth-century Japan. The story follows a Jesuit missionary, Father Rodrigues, who is sent to Japan to investigate the situation. Rodrigues quickly learns that the reports of persecution were true. Christians were being forced to step on small, crudely carved images of Jesus, as a sign of their rejection of the faith. Those who refuse to do so are thrown in jail and executed by being hung upside down over a pit and allowed to slowly bleed to death. The Christians who do step on the images are forever shamed by their actions. Eventually, Father Rodriques is captured and he’s commanded to step on the carved image of Christ. He refuses to do so, but rather than killing him, his captors proceed to kill other Christians each time he refuses to trample on the little carved image. Several Christians go to their death as Rodrigues is torn between his compassion for them and his unwillingness to deny his faith in Christ. Finally, he looks down on the image of Christ, and it has become alive. Christ’s face is haggard, hollow, exhausted. And in sorrow, Christ looks up at him and says, “Trample on me! Trample on me! It is to be trampled upon by you that I am here.”

As we try to be the face of that same Christ to the same broken world, that’s sometimes why we’re here, too.

Thanks be to God.


Hope Beyond “The Great Sadness”

March 27, 2011

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

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John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

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The man snapped back to attention. The world around him quickly came back into focus as it dawned on him that he’d been staring out the window for at least twenty minutes, which wouldn’t necessarily have been so bad except that he wasn’t really looking at anything. His mind, and his eyes, had just gotten stuck in neutral, thinking one long non-thought and not really seeing anything except a nondescript, unfocused blur somewhere out there.

He’d been doing that a lot, he thought to himself, ever since he’d lost his wife and young son in a tragic car accident. He’d be gong about his day the same as always, and all of a sudden, he’d snap to and realize an hour had gone by while he just tuned the world out. As bad as that seemed to him, at least it was better than the other things he’d been catching himself doing – getting angry, lashing out at other people for little or no real reason. Alternating between sleeping all the time, not even wanting to get out of bed, and not being able to sleep at all. Crying over the littlest thing, or even over nothing. Some days he felt like he was going crazy. Friends would try to offer him words of support – sometimes the right words, sometimes the wrong words, when the truth of the matter is that there just aren’t any words that could make him feel better – and he’d snap at them, and then feel guilty about it. He knew all these things were the result of him grieving over the loss of his wife and son, but the only thing he knew to do was to just push those feelings down and move on with life, because if he did actually focus on those thoughts then maybe he really would go crazy. But it seemed like the more he tried to push those feelings out of his mind, they kept cropping up in their own way – through the forgetfulness, the anger, the obsessing on the small stuff as if the fate of the world depended on them. He even found himself withdrawing from the friends and family that had been there to support him immediately after the accident. Every time he saw one of them, it brought the accident back into his mind. So he tried to change his life, change his patterns, so he even avoided them as much as possible.

That’s the face of grief. In the book “The Shack,” the main character, whose young daughter was murdered, referred to it as “The Great Sadness,” and his life would forever be divided into two parts, before the Great Sadness and after. The great writer and minister Frederick Buechner has spent most of his life coming to terms with the suicide of his father when he was a just a young boy, and in the midst of his efforts to deal with it, he’s brought us all along through some of the best and most thought-provoking Christian writing of the past two hundred years. We’ve all experienced grief. We’ve all tried to find ways to cope with it, to reshape our lives in the aftermath of a loss – and it isn’t necessarily a death. It could be the loss of a person, relationship, a thing, a job – even a pet. Whatever it is for each of us, the pain and the agony of that loss is real. It has changed our lives in some way that means our life will never again be exactly the same as it used to be. And trying to ignore that pain, that grief, by just not focusing on it, trying to push it out of sight, out of mind, and not coming to terms with it, will make any of us just like the man I was just talking about earlier.

The gospel story that we read today deals with this issue. Of course, everyone – the author of the gospel included – has as the main focus of this story, the fact that Jesus resuscitated his friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, from the dead. In the gospel, this is a miracle intended to be a sign that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. But you can’t jump ahead to resuscitating Lazarus without first dealing with his death, and that includes the grief that comes along with it. In the story, you feel the grief that Mary and Martha, and even Jesus himself have over the loss of their brother and friend. Their pain and loss were real, even while Mary and Martha believed in a resurrection out there, some day. And Jesus’ pain was real, too, as he cried over the death of his friend and the pain that it brought to his sisters and himself. That says something about our ability to relate to Jesus – we can be confident that our Lord knows what we’re going through in our lives, because he went through those same things himself. It also says something about the idea of grief, and how we shouldn’t ignore or deny it: even Jesus, the incarnate Son, second Person of the Trinitarian God, who most certainly knew better than any other human being that the promise of resurrection is reality, gives in to the gut-wrenching agony, and cries until he can’t cry any more. If Jesus allows his grief to overflow in a time like this, then it’s a good and right thing for us to do when we’re in similar situations, to. An important part of this gospel story is to point out to us that giving in to our grief is a God-blessed part of our eventual healing – not taking us back to the way we were before our loss, whatever it was; but taking us forward into a new, different existence, where our loss is always there and a part of our lives, and isn’t ignored, but in a way that it doesn’t consume us or define our lives, either.

There are times when, contrary to the hymn that we all know, it is not at all “well with our soul.” And as we cope with those times, we have to find a way to make it well with our soul again. Right now, our congregation is offering one very important way to do that. Last Tuesday, we started to cosponsor group grief counseling sessions, free of charge, and held right here at the church, every Tuesday for the next six or seven weeks from 6:00 till 7:30, for people who are dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one. Participating in sessions like this, and discussing your feelings and thoughts with a trained grief counselor and with other people who are having similar experiences, can be a great help in reestablishing your life given the new realities that you face. I can tell you that I’ve taken part in many similar sessions myself, and there really is no substitute for them. And if you’re experiencing grief like this in your life, I can’t encourage you enough to come be part of these meetings.

Jesus was able to raise Lazarus from the dead in order to ease the grief that he and Lazarus’ sisters felt. We obviously don’t have that option, but if you pay close attention to what happens in this gospel story, what ultimately brought about the healing of Mary and Martha’s grief wasn’t Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, but rather, it came about because of the faith that they had in Jesus as the Son of God that brought about the miracle to begin with. In the same way, we can draw on, and lean on, our own faith in Christ as we go through our own grief and mourning. It isn’t easy; you don’t need me to tell you that. And often, it may take having God place additional help in front of us, like free grief counseling sessions in a familiar and supportive setting. But ultimately, if we have the same trust that Jesus truly is the resurrection and the life that Mary and Martha had, then gradually, over time, we’ll find healing on the far side of our own Great Sadness. Our lives won’t feel as empty and lifeless as Ezekiel’s dry bones, but will be reshaped and brought into a new, transformed life. God the Father, who is strong enough, powerful enough, and loving enough, to bring the Greatest Joy, Easter, out of the Greatest Sadness, Good Friday, promises us that this is true. And God the Son, who felt that grief himself, and who one day stood crying in agony over the death of his friend, will make that promise to us a reality.

Thanks be to God.


“Vision Plan”

March 20, 2011

Usually at this time, we’d read passages of the scriptures, and we’d put the words up on the screen overhead so you can see the words as they were being read, to help everyone follow along. But today, we’re going to do something different. We’re not going to put the words on the screen. In fact, before I start to read the passage, I want you to put on the blindfold that you got when you came in. Close your eyes, and tie the blindfold around your eyes so you can’t see. This is a story about a blind man, and as we hear the story, we’re all going to be blind for a few minutes. At one point in the story, you’ll be able to take your blindfolds off, and you’ll be able to open your eyes for the ending of the story. As you hear the story, I want you to imagine yourself inside it. See the story in your mind. See what’s happening through the eyes of someone standing by and watching the story occur, or through the eyes of the people in the story. Think about what is going on around the action. What’s the surrounding, what’s the background? How do things look to you? I’m going to ask you what you saw, what you felt and thought about the story after I read it, so don’t take this as an opportunity to take a nap! Ready? Blindfolds on? Okay. This is a reading of the ninth chapter of the Gospel According to John:

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it’s just someone who looks like him.” But the man himself kept saying, “Yes, I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They asked him, “Where is he now?” And the man said, “I don’t know.”

They brought the man who had formerly been blind to the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the synagogue. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened the man’s eyes. And the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man Jesus isn’t from God, because he doesn’t observe the Sabbath – working even a miracle is still work, and work is prohibited on the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The religious leaders didn’t believe that the man had been blind and had received his sight until they called his parents and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? Then does he now see now?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we don’t know how it is that now he sees, and we don’t know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the religious leaders, because they had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man Jesus is a sinner.” He answered, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that I was blind, but now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you wouldn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we don’t know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Well here’s an amazing thing! You don’t know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Okay, now take your blindfolds off… Ready? Alright, now the story continues…

Jesus heard that they had driven the man out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

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Okay. As you heard this story, and as you pictured it in your mind:

What images stuck out to you?

Where did you place yourself in the story? Did you see the story through the eyes of a bystander? The blind man? His parents? Jesus? The Pharisees?

Was there anything in particular that you liked about this story? Was there anything in particular that you disliked about it?

This is one of the longest single stories about Jesus’ miracles that we find in the gospels. Why do you think the writer might have included this particular story in his gospel – what do you think he wanted us to learn or gain from it?

[Brief discussion…]

A few things come to my mind when I read this story. Here’s a young man – and he must have been pretty young; his parents were both still living, and it was a time when people lived shorter life spans than we do today, and they felt a need to point out to the Pharisees that the man was of legal age to answer for himself – who was pretty much just minding his own business. There’s nothing in the story that would indicate that the man was seeking out Jesus, or that he started out with any faith that Jesus was the Messiah, or even that he sought out Jesus to heal him. The story says that Jesus just happened across him as he was walking along the road. And here he was, just living out another day trying to beg for enough money to eat. A nobody; just another panhandler hanging out along Bridge Street – until Jesus comes along and heals him. And now, he becomes the focus of attention, the talk of the town. To the Pharisees, the religious leaders, he posed a problem. If this man had really been born blind and now he could see, then a miracle had occurred, and miracles could only come from God. But would God be present in, and work through, someone who violated the time-honored religious teachings of their faith handed down from God through Moses, the way Jesus had apparently done when he did the work of healing on the Sabbath? Or had they maybe misunderstood those teachings all these years? Was there something else going on that they were missing?

So, because it would be such a challenge to their traditional understanding of things if this really were true, they questioned whether the man had really been born blind to begin with, in order to disprove that a miracle had really occurred. They asked the people in town who knew him. The called his parents in to testify whether he was really born blind.

In our time, the same sort of thing goes on all the time. God is working in people, and in the world around us, in so many ways every day. But too often, we’ll fail to see God’s hand at work in something. We’re logical, rational people. We measure things, we weigh things, we study things from their subatomic level to the scale of the universe to understand the laws, the rules, the clockwork of the cosmos. Too often, that leads us to confuse the existence of the clockwork with the thought that there’s no God behind the gears and the springs. It can become a way for us to be able to deny God’s existence and involvement in the world. All the knowledge that we seek with the intent of being able to see things more clearly, can actually end up blinding us to the reality that’s really right in front of us. There are no miracles; there’s nothing to see here; move along, please. Everything must follow a rational, logical, explainable pattern that we can understand. And if there’s something that doesn’t fit the pattern, then it must not have really happened.

And yet, here stands the man. The stumbling block to the reason and logic of the Pharisees. Beyond any reasonable doubt blind since birth, and now seeing at least as wel as anyone else in the room, and maybe even better. And apparently now his eyes aren’t just opened physically, but spiritually, too. Now the young panhandler who lived outside the margins of polite society was taking the older, more learned and respected religious leaders to task, tweaking their noses over their own kind of blindness. You can all talk theology and the religious law all you want to understand what’s going on here, he told them, but the fact remains, and is standing right in front of you: I was blind, and now I see. It’s as simple as that. Deal with it.

The man saw the world differently now. God had worked in him, and healed both his eyes and his heart, and now he understood everything in that new light, from that new viewpoint. It didn’t change the way the world was, but it changed the way he understood the meaning and purpose of it all. That’s how it works with us, too. Once we’ve been touched by God in our own lives, we can never see things quite the same way we saw them before. Once God has taken our blindfolds off, and we’ve felt the love and acceptance of God, the summer sun never again beats down quite so hot; the winter wind never again blows quite so cold. We’ve been given a glimpse behind the curtain, as it were, of how God sees the world, and wants us to see it, too.

Just as the religious leaders did everything they could to dismiss the miracle Jesus performed in the life of the blind man, many of the things that we encounter in our daily lives do everything they can to dismiss God, and Christ, and our faith. Some days it seems like everywhere we turn, we’re bombarded with challenges to our faith. There is no God; we’re just wired to *want* there to be a God, so we invent one for ourselves. The peace and calm and joy that we can feel when we’re deep in prayer – that’s just biomechanics; we’re just willing our own bodies to produce one chemical or another that will make us experience those feelings. Jesus raised from the dead in order to validate him as the Son of God? Nonsense; a fairy tale told by a bunch of people who just *want* it to be true. People who are born blind stay blind. People who die stay dead.

But apparently they don’t. Just as the blind man who was healed was a stumbling block to the logic of the Pharisees, Jesus’ resurrection is a stumbling block to the logic of the world, showing that we aren’t quite as smart as we think. There’s more, much more, behind that curtain we’ve gotten a glimpse behind. And because we’ve gotten that glimpse – because we’ve felt God’s touch, and because God has healed us, when others call into question the existence of God and the faith that we know in our hearts, we can just smile and say, “All I know is this: I was blind, and now I see.”

Thanks be to God.


“Temptation in the Desert”

March 13, 2011

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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Jesus’ earthly ministry began with his baptism in the Jordan River. That had occurred just before what we read today, the account of his being tempted in the wilderness. Like the transfiguration that we heard about last week, Jesus’ baptism was one of the great milestone moments in his life. If the transfiguration showed a bit of Jesus’ supernatural, divine nature, his baptism was an important way that he emphasized his shared humanity with all of us. Just as he is one with us and shares in our lives through his baptism, we become one with him and share in his life, death, and resurrection through our baptism. It’s a powerful image to consider, really: the eternal Lord and Creator of the universe, showing the depth of his love and solidarity with us by taking on human flesh and meeting us at the shoreline, wading out into the river with us. The omnipotent Yahweh, shivering in the coldness of the water, taking cautious steps across river-washed stones of his own eternal making. Mud squishing up between incarnate toes.

And just as Jesus’ transfiguration was followed by having to come down from the mountain and to face the challenges that lie ahead for him, so was his baptism. That’s what today’s gospel lesson is about. Following his baptism, Jesus is led by God’s Spirit out into the wilderness to face challenge and temptation. When we hear the term “wilderness,” we usually think about thick, overgrown wooded areas, but the wilderness of Judea was actually what you see in this picture:

Posted Image

Rugged, barren terrain, sun-parched soil, just some bits of scrub growth here and there. Something like we’d see out west.

There’s a connection here between Jesus’ temptation and the Exodus experience of the ancient Israelites. God brought the Israelites through the parted waters of the sea and brought them into a time of testing and temptation lasting forty years. And Jesus came through the waters of baptism, with the heavens parting to show God’s approval, and God brought him into a time of testing and temptation in the wilderness for forty days. Even the types of temptation were similar in nature. Issues of trusting in God for food. Not turning to false gods, looking for security, when God seems to have left us to fend for ourselves. Not demanding miraculous signs from God to prove his existence and presence.

But what about the specifics of Jesus’ temptations out there in the desert? The first one, to turn stones into loaves of bread, really doesn’t seem so bad – not bad at all, actually. In fact, Jesus would later do very similar things, when he changed water into wine and fed thousands of people with just a few fish and small loaves of bread. This temptation actually sounded like something good.

On the other hand, the idea of Jesus gaining al the power and authority and wealth of the world by kneeling down and giving his allegiance to Satan – and in the process, forfeiting the salvation of humanity, would definitely be something bad.

And the other temptation; Jesus trying to prove to people that he’s really the Son of God by throwing himself off the Temple and onto the pavement below? Well, not to be too blunt or graphic, but that would definitely get ugly.

So when I imagine this scene, I think about this setting, out in a western-style desert, and the nature of Jesus’ temptations – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and I imagine something like this:

(pastor dons serape and Clint Eastwood-style black hat… theme music from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” plays over sound system…)

It’s the great cosmic showdown. The gunfight at the G-O-D Corral. Jesus and Satan staring each other down. A tumbleweed blows across the field between them. a lizard sits sunning himself on a rock and Jesus spits tobacco juice on him. If Satan can convince Jesus to give in to the temptations of physical comfort, concrete proof of his Lordship, and worldly power and wealth, then Jesus’ whole ministry – God’s good news for us, and our hopes for reconciliation with God – would be over before it ever got off the ground.

(pastor takes off serape & hat)

However you might envision Jesus’ temptation – and whether you imagine Satan coming to Jesus in the desert, literally, physically, or whether you see the evil of the temptations playing out in Jesus’ thoughts as he fasted and prayed over the forty days – Jesus teaches us some important lessons in his example. First, he shows us the real benefit of taking a specified period of time to dedicate himself to fasting and prayer in order to hear God’s voice, to know God’s will, with more clarity. Fasting seems like such an old-fashioned practice; you don’t hear much about people fasting except as a run-up to some medical procedure. But it is still an important spiritual discipline, one that can help us to take our focus off of worldly and material things, and replace that focus with a renewed focus on God. Often you’ll hear about people fasting during Lent – giving up certain meals or giving up a particular kind of food. I’m trying to give up sweets this season. Muslims include fasting as part of their annual observances, where they won’t eat anything from sunrise till after sunset. If nothing else, having your stomach grumble once in a while during a fast, or having an unfulfilled craving for a cookie, reminds us both of those who go hungry ever day out of necessity instead of religious choice; as well as the fact that it’s God, not us, who gives us those good things that we’ve temporarily set aside.

It’s good and important for us to step outside the norm from time to time, and to enter into a time of fasting and prayer. It’s especially important and very much supported in scripture, as a person or group is trying to discern the right answer to an important question. I wonder how many in our denomination are fasting as they try to discern how to vote regarding possible constitutional changes. Maybe as a congregation, we should call for a time of prayer and fasting as we try to discern God’s path for us as we move into the future.

Another thing that Jesus’ example teaches us is that there are going to be times when we won’t feel God’s presence as we go through difficulties. That had to be the case with Jesus; otherwise, Satan’s words wouldn’t have been truly tempting. We might feel like we need some kind of concrete proof that God is present with us in order to trust in God’s Word. Give us a sign – send angels to catch me if I just off the roof. Turn my tap water to a good Merlot; then I’ll put my trust in you. Give me some power, some prestige, some money. Get me a lucrative book deal and get Oprah to plug it, and just see what kind of good I can do for God then.

Thankfully for all our sakes, Jesus saw through the illusion that these temptations would be good. Through fasting, prayer, and being able to interpret the real meaning, God’s real intent, in the scriptures – instead of just quoting a verse or two outside the context of the whole witness of scripture, the way Satan quoted it – Jesus had the strength to stay focused on God’s truth and God’s will for him.

Just as there’s a connection between Jesus’ experience in the wilderness and that of the Israelites in theirs, there’s a connection between Jesus’ wilderness and our own. As we continue to live on this side of our baptism, we often find ourselves in some form of wilderness, too. Unable to feel God’s presence in our lives. Wanting concrete proof that God is here, in the mistaken thought that if we just had that, then we’d really obey God. And in the absence of that proof, clinging to other substitutes for God that seem to offer us some sense of security. There are lots of things in this life that compete with God for our highest allegiance that are really, really tempting. But God-in-the-flesh once came to us to be in unity with us, to love us, to reconcile with us. The one who came to us to know the feeling of mud between toes also came to know the feeling of nails between bones. And he promises us that through faith in him, we will be encouraged and strengthened when we’re tempted throughout all of our days – through the thick and the thin; through the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Thanks be to God.


“On and Off the Mountain”

March 6, 2011

Exodus 24:12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

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Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

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This is Transfiguration Sunday. Each year, just before the start of the season of Lent, we take a look at this story from Jesus’ life where he’s transfigured into a radiant white, and Moses and Elijah appear to him while Peter, James, and John watch in amazement. And it is a pretty amazing story, if you try to imagine it. Throughout the years, artists have tried to convey their own ideas of what it must have looked like; Jesus’ appearance, and these two great servants of God from the past showing up in their midst. Sometimes people will wonder, if we could pick any one person in history that we’d like to have lunch with, and speak with, who we’d choose. Of course, all of us here would probably say Jesus would be our first choice. But after that, maybe we’d pick Abraham Lincoln. Albert Einstein. Shakespeare. John Calvin; Martin Luther. Martin Luther King. But Peter, and James, and John are the only three people in history that I can think of who actually got to do something very much like that, on that mountaintop with Jesus. And just like we would probably end up just engaging in annoying babble as we were in awe of meeting these great people and asking them all the questions on our mind, that’s just what Peter does in the story, too, until they’re engulfed in the cloud of God’s presence, and God tells them to be quiet, be still, and listen to Jesus.

This event occurs just as Jesus is about to set out for Jerusalem, where he’s told his disciples he’s going to be put to death. In that light, we might see his Transfiguration as a means of God’s encouraging and strengthening Jesus for the last phase of his earthly journey, for what he’s got to face once he comes down off the mountain. We might see it as God’s affirmation that this is God’s will for him. We might also see it as a way of giving those disciples something powerful to think back on when all the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion is occurring, to affirm that Jesus is indeed who he claimed to be, and that this is all part of God’s plan.

You probably noticed some similarities between this passage and the one from Exodus that we read today – the passage where Moses goes up to the mountain in order to be given the Ten Commandments. That isn’t an accident; the symbolism is deliberate on God’s part. Moses met God on the mountain. Later in Exodus, we learn that when Moses was in the presence of God, his face began to shine brightly, to radiate light. He was transfigured. And he came down from the mountain to give the people the Law – God’s instructions for living in right relationship with God and with each other. This event was meant to show that Jesus is a new kind of Moses; one even greater than Moses and one who brings the people something even greater than the Law. Jesus goes up to the mountain and he becomes radiant; he’s transfigured in a similar way to Moses. And he comes down from the mountain to enter Jerusalem, and arrest, and death, in order to give the people the gospel – in order to achieve our reconciliation with God, and to show them the truth of his word through his resurrection. Moses came down from the mountain and faced the peoples’ rejection of him and of God, as they worshipped the idol of the golden calf. And in anger, Moses threw down the Law, destroying the people’s ability to read it. Jesus came down from the mountain and faced the people’s rejection of him and of God, as they worshipped the idols of their own world. And in love, Jesus threw down the Law, destroying people’s ability to be condemned by it. In taking up his cross, Jesus showed us God’s more perfect way, the whole intent of all the Law: to love God with all your heart, and love others as you love your very self, in our words and our actions.

I doubt that any of us has had a mountaintop experience with God where we were so energized in the presence of God that we actually started to radiate light. But I suspect all of us, at some point or another, have had experiences where we truly felt God’s presence in a powerful way. Maybe it was calming and comforting in a time of great stress. Maybe it was a feeling of great love and acceptance. Maybe it came on a literal mountaintop, at a spiritual retreat somewhere, or maybe the mountaintop wasn’t so literal – maybe it occurred at a concert, or a retreat. For a lot of us, it’s happened as we watched our children being born, or baptized, or married. Hopefully for many of us, it’s even occurred right here, in this sanctuary. Whatever the setting or the circumstance, we usually wish that the joy, the awe, the wonder of that moment would just keep on going. We don’t want the magic of that magical encounter with the Holy God to end. Like Peter, we want to set up shelters and stay there in the moment, and bask in the emotion and glory of that experience of love.

But life, and following Jesus doesn’t work that way. Jesus wouldn’t have ever gotten to Jerusalem, and been crucified and resurrected, if they all stayed there on the mountaintop. Jesus had to come down off the mountain in order to do what God wanted him to do.

And it’s the same with us. We come here, to this church each Sunday, hoping to have at least something similar to the energizing, renewing experience that the disciples must have had on that mountaintop. We come here and hopefully in some similar way we find God’s presence, and we feel God’s love. We’re lifted up in spirit by being in God’s presence, and in each other’s company.

But as good and important as that is, God doesn’t want us to just stay here in this place, enjoying the warmth of our fellowship together. Our faith isn’t just about us coming together and having our own personal batteries charged. It isn’t about gathering on the mountain together by ourselves, and building shelters and staying there in the comfort of our little getaway, separated from the rest of the world. God tells us to come down off the mountain. To go out from here, because it’s out there, beyond our doors, where we’ll find what God is calling us to be and to do as a follower of Jesus. Look at what it says at the top of the stained glass window behind all of you – I see it from my vantage point all the time. It says “In His Name.” It’s out there, on the other side of that window, that Jesus has sent us to minister to others in his name. It’s out there, off the mountaintop, that we’re supposed to do whatever small part of the kingdom God has entrusted to us.

The disciples, and maybe even Jesus himself, were energized, and challenged, and strengthened to do what they needed to do, to be what they needed to be, by what happened during the Transfiguration on that mountaintop. And because of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit working within us, we can be energized, and challenged, and strengthened to do what God is calling us to do and to be, by what we do here on our own little version of the mountaintop every Sunday morning. There might be severe challenges waiting for us as we follow Christ off the mountain, but because of his resurrection we know they’re worth enduring. We come to get our spiritual batteries recharged in here, to serve some purpose out there. What’s that purpose for you this day? This week? This year?

Thanks be to God.


“Lilies of the Field”

February 27, 2011

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you– you of little faith?

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matthew 6:24-34 NRSV)

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Bill woke up, crawled out of bed, and started getting ready for work. He popped the television on to catch a bit of news as he got dressed and scarfed down a quick breakfast. The reporter on TV went through a summary of the morning’s headlines. Unrest in the Middle East; oil’s over a hundred dollars a barrel; gas is headed to four dollars a gallon. Stocks fell again, shrinking Bill’s already-decimated IRA. The national debt hit new highs, threatening to bankrupt the country. Home values still down; inflation starting to inch up. Soviet-era nuclear material is missing and feared sold on the black market, and we have borders that leak like a sieve.

Bill kissed his wife goodbye as he headed out to the car. Her hair was just starting to come back in after the chemo, and while he teased her about her boyish hairstyle, h silently worried whether the cancer was gone for good. His old car coughed to a start, and he hoped it would hold together at least until their son finished college.

He got to work, grabbed a cup of coffee in the break room while some coworkers were talking about the layoffs that were rumored to be coming. Bill sipped on his coffee as he walked back to his desk, realizing that if he got laid off, he’d never find another job that paid as well, and most employers would be looking for people half his age. He tried to stay focused – he had enough on his mind this Friday. He didn’t really think about it again until his boss stopped by his desk at a quarter to five and asked, “Bill, can I see you in my office?”

When your living in the middle of a world like that, it’s a pretty hard pill to swallow when Jesus tells us “Don’t worry about your life; what to eat, what to drink, what to wear.” Easy enough for him to say; he wasn’t saddled with obligations and a pile of bills that would choke a horse.

In this passage from Matthew, Jesus was specifically telling his disciples that they can’t serve both God and wealth. In the end, only one can dominate. The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis once wrote, “don’t tell me what you believe; show me your checkbook and I’ll tell you what you really believe.” That’s true as far as it goes, but I’d take it a step further to say that whatever you think about the most, whether it’s money, a job, a relationship, your social standing, your health – whatever you’re most protective of – whatever you’re most worried about losing – that’s the real master of your life. That’s your real God.

And the worry that we have for that thing is just the face we give to our fear. We fear that parts of our lives that we’re content with, that we’re comfortable with, are going to be upset and change. We’re afraid that we’re going to lose the balance we’ve achieved in our lives and we’ve come to rely on. We’re afraid that some day, we might lose those things, and our lives will never be the same again. So we ball ourselves up in knots of fear and worry and stress, trying to keep the things in our lives from changing, even though one of the very few things we can know for sure is that our lives will be full of change, disruption, and imbalance.

Jesus tells us not to worry like that. That when we do, we shut ourselves off from seeing God’s presence, breaking through in our lives.

We want security. Jesus says not to worry about what to eat or drink, to consider how God loves and feeds even the birds of the air. We want to pin down everything, so the plans we have for our lives are never upset. Jesus says not to worry about what we wear, to consider how God loves and clothes even the lilies of the field. We want to fix things so they never change. Jesus says that everything in our lives is always changing, and there’s nothing we can’t stop it. The only thing that we can do is to lean into God’s arms, keeping our faith in God our primary focus and trusting and relying on God to provide what we really need.

Now Jesus isn’t telling us that we’re all supposed to quit our jobs, and not have retirement plans, Remember, Jesus pointed out that God provides food for the birds of the air, but they still have to go out and get it. God wants us to take reasonable provisions to care for our needs, our relationships, our health. Still, Jesus’ words that these things shouldn’t be our primary focus, that we shouldn’t worry about them, seems crazy, I know, and maybe even un-American. It seems contrary to all human sense of reality. In fact, it is contrary to all human sense of reality. But Jesus is telling us to open ourselves up to God’s reality, not ours. Because it’s in God’s reality where we will find real hope, real peace, real comfort – real abundance – even when the things that we try to find security and comfort in fall away from us.

Of course, Jesus trusted in God completely and perfectly, even to the point of his death. When, in trust, he leaned into God’s arms while his own were spread out and nailed to the cross, he was living out the advice he gave all of us in this passage. And in order to validate that that advice was trustworthy and true, God raised Jesus from the dead – the ultimate act of being contrary to all human sense of reality. The ultimate proof that our real security and happiness is only found in our letting go – our giving up trying to provide our own security and happiness. Jesus’ death and resurrection were meant to be proof that God’s reality is the right reality. It can be very, very hard to trust in God the way Jesus said to. But with faith and trust in God – letting God, and nothing else, be our master – we can face whatever comes our way life – whether the boss is calling us into the office at the end of the week to lay us off, or just to remind us about the party at his place on Saturday night.

Thanks be to God.


“Homosexuality”
February 20, 2011If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:13 NRSV)

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For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die– yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? (Romans 1:26-2:3 NRSV)

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Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’

But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.

At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (Act 11:1-17 NRSV)

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Of all the controversies we’ve looked at over the past several weeks, maybe none is more controversial in the church than the issue of homosexuality – in particular for us Presbyterians, the issue of whether gay and lesbian Christians should be able to become ordained deacons, elders, and ministers of Word and Sacrament. Our denomination has been debating this question for some 30 years now. The last survey I saw showed that about 45% of Presbyterian ministers supported gay ordination and 45% opposed it, with 10% undecided. Among our general membership, the breakdown was about 60% opposed and 40% in favor. And there’s currently another proposed amendment to our Book of Order which would allow gay ordination being voted on by the Presbyteries. Each Presbytery gets one vote on the question. There are a total of 173 Presbyteries, and a simple majority of 87 votes is needed to either approve or reject it. This past Tuesday, our Presbytery voted on the amendment.

The arguments made by Christians on both sides of this issue could never fit into a single Sunday morning sermon. But in very brief summary, Christians who oppose gay ordination would point to scripture. They would point to the verse from Leviticus that we heard this morning denouncing homosexuality as being sinful. But those who favor gay ordination would point to scripture, too. They would say yes, that verse is there, but it’s in the middle of a bunch of other verses that tell us we aren’t to plant more than one kind of seed in the same field, or to wear clothing made of mixed fibers, or eat bacon, pork or ham, or shrimp, scallops, or lobster. All these things are decreed to be sinful, and yet we’ve dismissed them as not being applicable or sinful to us. When we plant different hybrids of corn in adjacent rows in the field, or we rotate our crops planting corn, wheat, and soybeans, while we wear our cotton/poly shirt after eating our bacon and egg breakfast, we really don’t see ourselves as having committed an abomination in the eyes of God. but that’s what the Book of Leviticus says. And, they would say, if we are to accept what the passage says about homosexuality, then we have to accept the second half of the verse, that homosexuals deserve to be put to death, just like children who mouth off to their parents. And we don’t accept that as being God’s will, do we?

The Christians who oppose gay ordination would point to the passage in Romans that we heard this morning that says that men and women engaging in same-sex relations are unable to make it into the kingdom of God by their own merits. That on their own, they will not enter the kingdom. Those who favor gay ordination would say yes, but the point of the whole passage in its entirety is to give a list of sins that everyone is guilty of in one way or another, to point out that none of us is able to earn our way into the kingdom. That our only hope is through the grace of God, through our faith in Christ, not in our own moral acceptability in God’s eyes. And that we endanger our own hope of salvation if we judge others as being unworthy while we do things just as unacceptable in God’s eyes.

The Christians who oppose gay ordination would say that homosexuality is a sin of choice – that either a person chooses their sexual orientation, or at least that they choose to act on it. As such, they can, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, change their behavior. The Christians who favor gay ordination would say that human sexuality is something innate in the person – it’s something we’re born with, not something we’re taught or choose. And they’d point out that the scriptures make it clear that not everyone has the ability to remain celibate, so we can’t demand of them something that God hasn’t given them the ability to do. And these kinds of debates could go back and forth, and on and on.

A number of years ago, I was angry with the Presbyterian church, because they had released a position paper advocating in favor of allowing ordination of gay deacons, elders, and ministers. I was upset because in my estimation, the denomination had been hijacked by a bunch of bleeding heart liberals who were ignoring scripture and turning away from God, in favor of worldly influences. So I decided I would study the report, and I would take it apart, point by point, coming up with a scriptural rebuttal to it.

But something unexpected happened. I studied the arguments made in the report. I followed their line of scriptural reasoning. And I applied the standards for interpreting scripture that have developed over the last 500 years of Reformed tradition. And at the end of my study, I was as angry as I was when I started, because the more I studied their reasoning, the more I came to believe that they were right, and I had been wrong. And that the historical stance of the church had been wrong, and not just wrong, but harmful to countless people. I’ve continued to study and pray about the issue since then, and I’ve come to believe very strongly that for us to deny ordination to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ who otherwise show the spiritual gifts and the sense of call, is wrong, and contrary to the gospel.

We have a tremendous respect for the scriptures. But we also have to realize the way we’ve historically understood them, and whether we have a right to call into question what past tradition has held to be unquestionable about them. During the Protestant Reformation, we Protestants had the audacity to simply vote to remove 19 whole books from the Bible, books which had been considered holy scripture for some 1200 years, since the very beginnings of the early church. And with as much respect as Martin Luther had for the scriptures, he hated the Book of James – he considered it an “epistle of straw,” an empty, meaningless book that had no value to us Christians, and he called for it to be removed from the New Testament. And today, this debate centers around whether a few small verses stand up to scrutiny.

As I studied the full breadth of scriptures to discern how we should look at this matter, I saw the scriptural account of the apostle Philip baptizing an Ethiopian eunuch into the faith, although the scriptures made it clear that eunuchs were specifically prohibited from being part of the people of God. I saw the scriptural account of the apostle Paul getting into trouble with the church leadership for preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, and teaching them that they did not have to obey all the specific requirements for obedience to God that are clearly laid out in the Old Testament scriptures. I saw the scriptural account of Peter that we heard this morning, getting into trouble with the same church leadership for entering the home of unclean Gentiles, and eating with them, and baptizing them into the faith, disobeying the very same Old Testament scriptural requirements of the faith. And like Peter, I thought about what we as the church are doing today, refusing to accept and allow others to follow the call that they’ve discerned from God into ordained ministry, and I say, If God gave them the same gift as us when we believed in Christ, who am I to try to hinder God?

That’s my opinion. Your opinion may differ, of course. I saw and heard a lot of differing opinions when the Presbytery voted last Tuesday. Before the vote, commissioners who wanted to speak to the issue lined up in two parallel lines, side by side, no more than two or three feet apart, as they waited for their turn at the microphone. Each person got two minutes to speak, and the discussion alternated between those in favor of the motion and those opposed. I heard people quoting scripture, relating personal experiences, each person stating their beliefs with passion. They stood waiting in line to speak about this issue which they felt so strongly about. Many of them having known each other, and been friends, for years. And even as they waited to voice their opposite views, many of them reached across the space between the two lines to shake hands, offer a hug, share a smile and offer well wishes. What I saw happening between those opposing lines was the flesh and blood personification of a very important point of this entire controversies sermon series. Even in the midst of their disagreement, these commissioners were living out one of the great truths of the gospel – that Christ calls us to love and accept one another, and to maintain our Christian unity, even in the midst of our disagreements and our differences.

At the end of the debate last Tuesday, the vote was 118 yes, 65 no, and 2 abstaining. Currently, 39 Presbyteries have voted yes, 30 no, and one tied. Whatever the outcome, a couple things are certain. We Presbyterians will continue to differ on the matter. But those of us who are serious about trying to be Christ’s disciples will continue to work out in our hearts what it means for the church to be one body with many members, having many different gifts, many different thoughts, and many different callings. We’ll continue to reach across the lines of disagreement and offer each other the peace of Christ, not just a piece of our mind.

Thanks be to God.


“Abortion”

February 13, 2011

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:13-16 NRSV)

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“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:21-37 NRSV)

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Some of the early Christians in Greek city of Corinth believed that since we are no longer of this world, but new, spiritual creations, that what we did with our bodies didn’t really matter. We could eat any food, drink any drink, engage in any behavior, do anything at all, since it really didn’t matter – all that really mattered was our spiritual selves. In his letters to them, Paul disagreed strongly with that attitude, telling them in the phrase we’re all familiar with, that our bodies are themselves a temple of the Holy Spirit within us. Paul told the Corinthians that their bodies are not their own – their new, eternal life was bought at a great price, the price of the crucifixion of Jesus, so they do not have the right to do with them as they might please.

The idea that we have the right to do whatever we want with our bodies is obviously still very much a part of our contemporary world. And nowhere in modern times has it come into our national attention more than in the matter of abortion. In 1973, in the case of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme ruled that to terminate a pregnancy is a matter of personal decision, a privacy issue, and is therefore a right protected by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. In the wake of that decision, of the average six million pregnancies in this country every year, about a million of them are terminated through abortion. As we all know, Roe v. Wade was a very controversial decision, one that’s continued to split our country, our politics, our religious faith ever since.

So we try to find some way to balance the rights of the human mother, and those of the unborn human child. For us, as Christians, the passage that we heard from Psalm 139 this morning speaks beautifully to the fact that our very creation, our very formation in our mother’s womb, is a miracle given by God; and that God knows us and loves us, and honors our life, before we’re even born.

We Christians have different opinions about abortion. Surveys show that 76% of Americans profess to be Christians, and 47% of Americans support the right to abortion in most cases. Even discounting those in the survey who professed to be Christian but who don’t really practice the faith, there’s still a significant amount of overlap there – a large number of Christians support a woman’s legal right to an abortion. That doesn’t mean that they believe that elective abortion is morally correct. Some of them would say that it wouldn’t be correct to enforce their own spiritual and moral views on others who don’t share those beliefs, that it should be an issue of “freedom of conscience.” And they would point out that abortion was legal and practiced in New Testament times, especially in the Roman and Greek societies that the New Testament church found itself surrounded by, and the Bible never directly speaks about or opposes abortion anywhere. Some of these Christians might say that at the core of the gospel is to extend compassion to others, and they would offer many passages of scripture to that end, and they would argue that to allow for legal elective abortion actually ends up being the more compassionate option for a pregnant woman who can’t afford to raise the unborn child, or who became pregnant through rape or incest. Even still, most of these Christians would say that even though they feel abortion should be a legal option, they personally believe that elective abortions performed strictly on the basis of parents’ convenience, as just another form of birth control, are morally wrong.

And that moral position – that elective abortion is morally wrong – is consistent with traditional Christian belief. Obviously, this belief comes out of the immense body of scriptural references pointing out the dignity of human life, and the fact that to take another person’s life is an extremely serious matter. But there is some difference in this matter within different Christian traditions. Some Christians have said that a procedure which directly, intentionally ends the life of an unborn child is morally acceptable, if it’s considered medically necessary in order to save the mother’s life; or when the unborn child has such severe physical defects that it won’t survive. Other Christian traditions have maintained that any procedure to directly, intentionally terminate an unborn child’s life, even if it’s necessary to save the life of the mother, is immoral and inconsistent with the faith.

The young couple was presented with a terrible scenario. The woman was six months pregnant, and prenatal scanning showed that her unborn child had severe physical anomalies. Half of his organs had developed outside his body. Both his legs were fractured and badly misshaped. Physically, he couldn’t live outside of the womb for more than a very short time. And now, due to other complications, the pregnancy was endangering the mother’s life. Now, the woman was unconscious, and the husband was told that their child would have to be aborted in order to save his wife’s life. The man was a very deeply devoted Christian, and very committed to his faith tradition. But that tradition held that for him to take this child’s life, even in order to save the mother’s life, was a mortal sin – if he consented to the doctor’s advice, and aborted the child, and if afterward he continued in his belief that he’d done the right thing, and refused to ask forgiveness for having done so, he’d be consigning himself to eternal damnation. Ultimately, even knowing all that, out of love for his wife he made the gut-wrenching decision to accept the doctor’s advice and agreed to the abortion of his unborn son. His faith tradition would say he’d committed a mortal sin. I thought he had actually lived out Jesus’ teaching more than most of us will ever be called to do. Jesus told us that no one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for another. And, at least within the framework of the man’s own beliefs, that’s exactly what he’d just done for his wife.

My own personal views on abortion are that, in general, in the abstract, any abortion that isn’t necessary to protect the life or health of the mother is immoral from a Christian perspective. I believe that to see abortion as just an after-the-fact form of birth control fails to give the dignity due the unborn child’s life, and that to preserve our own level of physical or emotional comfort isn’t sufficient grounds for taking the life of an unborn child. And while every child should indeed be a “planned and wanted child,” I’d suggest that a significant number of us sitting here today were ourselves unplanned, and maybe even unwanted – but that isn’t sufficient reason to deny us the life God gave us. I believe that if, out of respect for the dignity of human life, we were to legislate a prohibition on elective abortion, which would result in a large number of children growing up in unfit homes, then as Christians caring for the dignity of human life, we must also put our money where our mouth is, by working to improve the living situation of those children – either within their own homes, or even creating a network of orphanages in both the public and private sectors to raise those children. Surely, that’s a more noble, and much more moral, use of federal money than some of the insane ways our tax dollars are currently spent.

Those are my personal beliefs about elective abortion. But whatever my beliefs are, or your beliefs are, it’s clear that none of us has a complete, perfect understanding of God’s will in this matter of when, if ever, abortion is morally acceptable. Because of that, I also believe that we need to always remember that people don’t live “in general” or in the abstract; and following the “Rule of Love” that Christ calls us to can mean at times that we have to put people ahead of dogma and doctrine, and sometimes, even the born ahead of the unborn.

Christians can appeal to the scriptures dealing both with the value of human life, and with our duty to live with compassion for others, and reach beliefs along the whole spectrum of this issue. As we’ve said throughout this “Controversies” series, as Christians, we’re never told that we always have to agree on every issue. But as we all try to live out our shared faith as the Holy Spirit works within our own conscience, we are called to live together in Christian unity, and with mutual respect, even when we might disagree.But even more importantly than that, we need to realize something else. There isn’t a person here today who hasn’t had some firsthand experience with this difficult issue, either personally or somewhere within their own family. We need to realize that the decision to have an abortion is rarely made lightly, whether for a Christian or a non-Christian. The person often has to deal with conflicting beliefs and emotions. And often, a woman who has had an abortion carries emotional scarring over the decision for the rest of her life. And as part of our Christian commitment to compassion, we always need to show love, not scorn or judgment, for that person.But that kind of emotional scarring isn’t limited to people who have had an abortion. We all carry emotional scars with us, caused by things others have done to us, and things we’ve done to others. Our scars could come from any number of ways we haven’t lived up to the fullness of Christ’s way of living. They could be damage caused by self-centeredness. Anger or resentment. Addictions. Broken relationships between parent and child. Failed marriages. Whatever the specifics, we each carry some brokenness within us, some emotional burden that we feel the weight of every day, often years after it occurred. Sometimes, the burden can seem unbearable. The good news for us is that in all of our situations, we are all loved by God. We are all given God’s grace, and through faith in Christ, we receive God’s complete forgiveness and acceptance. The grace and love that God extends to a woman who’s had an elective abortion is the exact same grace and love that we all rely on in our own circumstances. By that same grace, through our faith in Christ, we’re reconciled, made right in God’s eyes. We’re given God’s healing, no matter what we’ve done or what we’ve come through. Jesus told all of us who were carrying burdens in our lives to come to him, and have faith in him, and in him we would find our rest. We don’t need to carry those burdens any longer. Jesus takes those burdens off our shoulders. Through faith in him, we have new life, new hope – a clean slate, a fresh start, and the freedom of an unburdened life. We can let go of our past, and live free, whole, and renewed, in Christ.

Thanks be to God.

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“Prayer in the Public Schools”
February 6, 2011Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Thessalonians 5:16-18 NRSV)***

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:5-8 NRSV)

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The parents in the school district were upset. They were tired of their kids being force fed ideas in school that contradicted what they were being taught at home by their parents, and at their church. They were irate that the school district, which they supported with their tax dollars, was subverting the religious principles that the parents were trying to instill in their kids. They complained, but the only thing that happened was that the school, and the teachers, and their neighbors just got upset with them, and called their Christian beliefs into question. Finally, they got so frustrated with the situation that their church started its own school – a Christian school, where the children would be taught in a way that wasn’t contrary to their religious beliefs, and where the children could acknowledge God and pray in the way their parents wanted them to. They knew that they were double-paying for their children’s education, paying for the private tuition while still paying their taxes, but it was a tradeoff they considered to be worthwhile.

If you think I’m telling you a story out of today’s news, think again. Because the situation I just described was taking place all over this country in the 1850’s and 60’s, when Roman Catholic parents were upset that their local public schools required all students to participate in daily religious teachings – which might sound good to us on the surface, but the religious teaching was a school teacher teaching Protestant doctrine while reading from the very Protestant King James Version of the Bible, instead of a priest teaching Catholic doctrine from the Douay translation, the approved Catholic Bible of the time. And the children were forced to recite the Lord’s Prayer, using language that was different from the way the prayer is read in their own tradition. Disputes about this situation cropped up in various places around the country. It became known as “The Bible Wars;” you can learn more about it online if you’d like, and in some places it even became violent. It was in response to this situation that the Catholic church established its system of parochial schools in this country.

As you can see, the dispute over prayer in public schools isn’t anything new. And the dispute wasn’t started by atheists trying to kick God out of school, but rather, it was a dispute between Christians of different traditions, that came about because by requiring, or even allowing, religious instruction and school-sponsored prayer in the schools meant that someone had to pick which religious tradition would be the “official” version to teach. And to make any choice like that would be contrary to the First Amendment to the Constitution, where it’s affirmed that we have a right to practice whatever religion we want, and the government is to stay completely out of the game of establishing a religion or favoring one religion or denomination over any other.

It’s interesting to remember that the first schools in this country were established by Protestant Christians, and those schools were primarily intended to teach children to read the Bible. Music was also taught, not primarily for some abstract musical appreciation, but to give children some level of proficiency in singing church hymns and other spiritual music. The Bible was used to teach reading and writing, and Christian hymns were used to teach music, for over a hundred years in this country. Over time, though, public schools appeared, and the churches began to close their private schools. In a way, we abandoned the role of teaching our children in a way originating within our own religious beliefs, and for a while that worked, since when the public schools did delve into religious instruction they usually did so from a viewpoint roughly the same as our own.

I was taught in a public school system that, at least up until my junior high years, followed that pattern. I remember starting every morning in grade school with the Pledge of Allegiance, a short Bible reading, and reciting the “trespasser’s version” of the Lord’s Prayer. And I owe my lifelong love of African-American spirituals to a music teacher who used them frequently in her vocal music classes. I’ll bet that most of you here today also grew up with those same kinds of experiences. However fondly we might look back on them now, the reality is that those things being done in the public schools, led by teachers and held up as their official, mandatory policies, was wrong. It was another example of us Christians – and us Protestant Christians, to be specific – being given special, more favored status over other religions and traditions, and that is absolutely prohibited by the Constitution, because we are a diverse population. We always have been, and we are becoming even more so now.

So then, what are we to think? As Christians, we’re told in scriptures to pray without ceasing; that’s what we heard earlier this morning. Doesn’t the current state of affairs, and all the Supreme Court rulings, interfere with the free exercise of our religion?

I don’t think so. The overall thrust of all of these decisions is that the school district itself can’t organize or lead prayers. Teachers can’t require or lead prayers, because as representatives of the school, that would be endorsing specific religious belief. As far as prayer in public schools, Christians aren’t to be favored over any other group. Of course, the flip side of that is that is that we aren’t supposed to be given less consideration, either. As long as the school allows all sorts of secular student groups, Christian students have the same rights to form clubs or meet for prayer, or Bible study, or mission projects. Christian students have the right to free speech, which includes sharing their faith with others, and including references to their faith in writing and other homework assignments. Someone once said that as long as there are tests, there will always be prayer in the schools. There’s a serious side to that old joke, of course. We teach our children how to pray, and they can pray anytime, anywhere they want. They don’t need a school teacher to lead them. If we’ve taught our kids that we are, in fact, supposed to pray without ceasing, to be in continual conversation with our Lord as we go through the ups and downs of our day, then the question of whether there’s an invocation at the beginning of graduation or whether the coach leads the team in prayer before the big game really is insignificant.

To be honest, as a Christian, I don’t want some public school bureaucrat making decisions for my children, or anyone’s children, about what will be the official religious teaching, or the official prayer, within their school. As Christians, there are two places of equal importance in teaching our children how to live the faith – here, in church, and just as importantly, at home as a family. Anywhere else would be a distant third, at best. And we have to remember that to offer showy, public prayers in a mixed group is really not the way Jesus told us to pray. Many of those prayers seem to be more intended to make the person praying look pious than they are about actually communing with God about the deepest thoughts of our hearts. That’s what Jesus was getting at in the passage we read today. The fact that we can be in intimate communion with the very God who created the cosmos, that God knows us by name, knows our very innermost thoughts, is such a wonderful and amazing gift that we’ve been given that I think it’s cheapened by the showiness of so many of those “official” public prayers. Its’ through our faith in Christ, our risen Lord who himself taught us how we should really pray, that we’ve received that great gift of communication, access, relationship with God. And it’s available to us anytime at all, in good times and bad, in the day or at night, wherever we are – and without any need for anyone to lead us or tell us the words to use.

Thanks be to God.

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“Euthanasia”
January 30, 2011

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that (my affliction) would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. – 2 Corinthians 12:8-9

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So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.
– 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:6

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We all know that we’re going to die sometime. If someone asked us what we’d want to die from, we’d say old age, peacefully, and in our sleep. If we couldn’t die that way, I think if we were to write the script for the final chapter of our own life, maybe we’d be propped up in bed, resting comfortably, with our family and loved ones gathered around the bedside, together one last time, offering each other our love and support. If it were up to us, we’d paint a beautiful picture something like that.

But we know that the realty for many of us won’t be anything at all like that. With more and more advances in medical technology and the ability to maintain life in broken bodies far longer than was possible in the past, many of us may end up spending our final moments connected to a spaghetti-knot of tubes and wires, maybe connected to machines that maintain the basic body functions that we can’t do for ourselves, maybe in more pain than even the strongest of medication can eliminate. For some of us, our last days and hours might end up not lying peacefully in our bed with family gathered around, but instead, heaving and gasping for every breath, alone in a dark hospital room. It’s a terrible thing to think about; we wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

It’s trying to avoid that awful scenario that’s led many people to call for the legality of euthanasia. The word euthanasia literally means “good death.” In practice, it means the direct taking of life, either your own or someone else’s, either by request or without their consent, in order to alleviate suffering. We probably all remember Dr. Jack Kevorkian – “Doctor Death,” who advocated and engaged in physician-assisted suicide, which is one form of euthanasia. The people who advocate in favor of euthanasia would say that it isn’t caring, compassionate, moral or ethical to allow a human being to continue on for a protracted period of time in pain, or in a vegetative state. They would point out that we even euthanize animals that are in pain, so why would we not allow the same sort of option for human beings. They also would argue that it’s more merciful and loving to help end a person’s suffering, than to prolong it – and that extended suffering is a huge emotional burden not only on the patient, but on the patient’s family as well.

I need to point out again, euthanasia is the direct taking of someone’s life where death is not imminent. The person’s body is still capable of sustaining life by itself, but is being directly, intentionally terminated simply to end suffering, or possibly the extended physical and emotional burden of the person’s condition.

As Christians, we’re called to be the face of Christ in the world, continuing to offer compassion and mercy to the sick and dying. But the traditional, and almost universal, Christian position is that euthanasia is wrong. No one wants a person to suffer, but to almost all Christians, including myself, euthanasia crosses over the line of acceptability.

Time and time again throughout the scriptures, we are told that we are not to intentionally take a life – and there is no distinction made between someone else’s life or our own. We read in 1 Corinthians (6:19-20) that, contrary to the chant commonly heard in another setting, “My body, my choice,” Christians believe that our bodies are a gift from God and belong to God, not us. As Christians, we believe that God is with us, and will carry us through, even the worst of situations. We also believe that God brings about redemption through suffering – not redemption in the sense of eternal salvation; we aren’t saved through suffering – but in the sense of achieving something good, possibly something good we can’t even see, out of something bad. Most Christians would dispute the idea often heard that to die a “good death” only means to dies a struggle-free, pain-free death; and to die in the midst of suffering is to die a “bad death.” Surely, the most universally “good death” was Jesus’ death, and he died in the midst of great suffering. As Christians, we know that even while we don’t understand all of the details, we live in hope and faith through Christ, and that we have the assurance that even when our bodies – our “earthly tents,” as Paul put it – are breaking down, what God has in store for us is so much greater, and that hope keeps us confident and better able to endure the suffering that we might face in any situation. So while we still have our bodies, our “earthly tents,” we’re to do all we can to live in accordance with God’s will, and to a model of God’s love and God’s will to those around us. We’re called to a truly good life, and a truly good death.

But we need to make an important distinction here. There is a big difference between actual euthanasia, and the more common removal of life support. Most Christian ethicists and theologians do not equate the two, and most do not think that withdrawing artificial life support is automatically contrary to Christian morality. Circumstances where most Christians would say it was morally acceptable to stop extraordinary medical efforts to sustain a person’s life under the following circumstances:
a.) when treatments likely to restore a person’s health have been exhausted
b.) when the person will die without the artificial life support
c.) when the life support is only postponing the inevitable – the patient will not recover
d.) when the patient has left written instructions that he or she does not want to be kept alive by artificial means

Some people, even some Christians, will accept the argument that directly ending a patient’s life through euthanasia is morally acceptable, and will take that option with the intention of being loving and merciful. While most of us might disagree with their decision, we really shouldn’t judge them harshly, either, since we aren’t sitting in their shoes, and we can’t truly say how we’d react if we were in the same situation and were agonizing over a loved one enduring great pain and suffering. I’ll be very honest, if I were in that situation I’d have great difficulty seeing anything good coming out of that, and it would be very possible that I’d simply become bitter, and resentful, and angry at God for requiring my loved one to have to go through that literal hell on earth. So while I believe that euthanasia is wrong, I’ll leave it to others to be judgmental, casting stones and accusing those who opt for it of being some kind of moral monsters. Even while I believe it’s wrong, I recognize the desire for love and mercy that I see behind it.

More likely than having to make a decision about euthanasia, though, is that many of us here will have to consider the removal of artificial life support, either for ourselves or our loved ones. One of the most important things any of us can do to minimize emotional distress in the event of such an occurrence is to make sure that we all have completed a “Living Will” stating exactly what our own wishes are in case we’re in a situation where we can’t speak for ourselves. We need to take the time now, while we have it, to make it clear to doctors and to family members what kinds of measures we want, and do not want, if we’re in a situation like that. We all remember the Terri Schiavo incident in the news a few years ago. As tragic as her situation was, all of the uproar that tore the country apart would have been averted if she’d only had a Living Will to tell everyone what her own wishes were.

I met a woman in the hospital a while back who had spent years agonizing over her decision to remove her husband’s feeding tube, allowing him to die. He was in terrible pain, he was not recovering, his death was imminent, and he was only being kept alive by artificial means. While still being able to speak, his wife had Power of Attorney for his health care, and he begged her to allow the removal of the feeding tube, allowing him to end his pain. She had been driven to severe depression out of the guilt she carried with her for years, believing that she killed her husband. If we find ourselves in a situation where we have to consider removal of artificial life support, for ourselves or for others, as Christians we need to know that while we’ll mourn the loss of a loved one, we don’t have to carry the kind of burden with us for the rest of our lives like that woman in the hospital. We do have the moral freedom to make such a decision under those specific conditions we mentioned earlier.

So, as Paul tells us – as Jesus tells us – we are not to lose heart, even in the midst of suffering. We all have to realize that as Christians, whatever suffering we endure in life will ultimately be dwarfed – will be microscopic -in comparison to the eternal joy, and peace, and love that we will live in with God after we do die. The scriptures assure us that if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord; so whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. And while we respect and love the life that God has given us, neither should we fear death and try to cling onto life beyond reasonable measures. We know where we’re going. God will bring us through the valley of the shadow of death and bring us into eternal green pastures and still waters . In that place, God will wipe away every tear. Death will be no more. Pain will be no more. Suffering will be no more. And we will come into our eternal reward for our faithfulness. This is the good news of the gospel for us – we know that we will receive new, incorruptible bodies, made more than whole, to live forever with God. And we know this because Jesus has already received his new body, and has shown it to us as proof that we’ll receive ours, too, by keeping true to our faith in him.

Thanks be to God.


“Death Penalty”
January 23, 2011
Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.

Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
– Genesis 4:8-16

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For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. – Genesis 9:5-6

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If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. – Exodus 21:23-25

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“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” – Matthew 5:38-45a

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There was an article in the Dispatch this week about State Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeiffer, who made a bit of news when he recommended abolishing the state’s death penalty. It was pretty noteworthy, since Pfeiffer is a Republican, and supposedly, Republicans are the get-tough-on-crime, law-and-order guys. What was even more newsworthy is that back in the early ‘80’s, when Pfeiffer was a state senator, he was actually the co-sponsor of the bill that made capital punishment legal. Now, though, he says the law has been used in ways never intended, and it’s really an idea whose time has passed. And yesterday in the Gazette, I saw an article that the only U.S.-approved company that makes one of the three drugs used in lethal injections has decided to stop making the drug, because the plant that makes it is in Italy, and Italy – which outlawed the death penalty years ago – was making the company certify that their drug would not be used for executions. The company said that while it didn’t want its drug used that way, they had no way of guaranteeing that it wouldn’t, so they simply quit manufacturing it.

The debate about whether the death penalty is an acceptable form of punishment has been with us since the very beginning of human civilization. For us Christians, the question has always been a bit tricky. You can see from the scriptures we heard this morning, the Bible seems to send conflicting signals about whether it’s appropriate, and as with all of these controversial topics we’re looking at during this series, deeply committed Christians can be found on both sides of the debate – and both sides have studied the same Bible in reaching their beliefs.

The most common arguments by the general public in support of the death penalty usually run along these lines. First is the argument of retribution – that when someone does something wrong, logic and common sense tells us that there must be consequences. A price must be paid in proportion to the crime in order for there to be justice, and extreme acts of violence deserve extreme consequences. The second argument is that of deterrence – putting the worst criminals to death sends a concrete warning to others of what will happen if they follow in the same path. The third argument is one of safety. Simply put, our world is a safer place by putting these criminals to death and ensuring that they’ll never be loose in public to repeat their crimes. A fourth argument in support of the death penalty is geared toward compassion for the crime victim’s family; the argument of healing and closure. Putting a victim’s killer to death, people would argue, can close one terrible chapter of the families’ lives, and can help them to move on from their tragedy and loss. Another argument is strictly economics – to execute the violent criminal is less expensive than paying to feed and shelter them for the rest of their lives, and they don’t deserve that consideration. And of course, for us Christians, one of the most important arguments is that the death penalty does appear in our scriptures. In fact, it is specifically called for in the Old Testament, for a number of offenses.

On the other side of the argument, opponents of the death penalty would make these arguments. First, they would say that since the criminal justice system acts on our behalf, we end up being participants, accomplices, in perpetrating this violent act on the prisoner, which seems to be taking the morally unacceptable stance that two wrongs actually make a right. Second, they would argue that certain statistics don’t support the deterrence argument – pointing to studies that show no decrease in violent crime, and in some cases actual increases, after a state goes from having no death penalty to legalizing it. The third argument is that innocent people have been wrongfully executed, having been proven not guilty through DNA evidence and other means after their execution. A fourth argument is that while the families of some victims seem to find closure and healing through the prisoner’s execution, many others don’t get any such closure at all – and that many actually end up feeling even worse, coming to see that now, a second innocent family is suffering the same grief and loss that they are. Many families come to feel that the tragedy has actually doubled. Another argument is that executing the criminal fails to recognize the convict’s inherent humanity, and eliminates any possibility of their eventual spiritual redemption. And finally, just as with the Christian supporters of the death penalty, Christian opponents can point to other scriptural passages that would argue against it.

As we’ve already heard, we find “an eye for an eye” in Exodus. In the Torah, there are a number of sins that were punishable by death. Intentional murder, of course. So was any sex outside the bonds of marriage. So was hitting, or even arguing with, you parents… So was not joining in with the people for worship and honoring the Sabbath…. Miss the Sunday service? Death. So we Christians have to be a bit careful when we argue in support of the death penalty because scripture calls for it, because we obviously don’t agree with every type of offense that scripture stipulates it. We can find ourselves in a game of pick and choose, accepting the scriptures that we agree with and ignoring the ones we don’t like.

An important point is that when the Israelites were given the Torah, and the death penalties found within it, it was meant to establish order in a society of nomads. The Israelites were wandering through the Wilderness; they were constantly on the move. They didn’t have prisons, or a police force, or other societal systems that could have kept lawbreakers out of society in other, less lethal ways.

I can certainly see the strength of the argument against the death penalty on the basis that innocent people can be, and have been, wrongfully executed. That’s a terrible thing that no one would ever want to happen. But I can relate to the reality that it happens. I was involved in a civil lawsuit that was to be heard by a judge who also presided over criminal trials where the death penalty was in play. And in my case, the judge – who was later determined to be an alcohol abuser, and possibly a cocaine abuser – made such bizarre pre-trial decisions that even his own staff privately criticized them. Before my experience, I’d always had a pretty high level of confidence in our court system, and I’d been a strong defender of the death penalty, at least for the worst crimes and with the most ironclad convictions. But after my experience, I realized how broken our court system can be, and how easily innocent people could be convicted of crimes. In fact, Jim Petro – former state Attorney General, and another law-and-order Republican – recently wrote a book called False Justice, where he details just how real, and common, that problem is. And in all of this, we all have to recognize that the entire Christian faith came about because of the most wrongful implementation of the death penalty in human history, when Jesus suffered innocent death on the ancient Roman equivalent of the lethal injection bed. After my own experience, and after more study of scriptures, my own views on the death penalty changed.

As Christians, I think the biggest thing we need to examine when we consider this issue is Jesus’ teachings. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus called into question, and reinterpreted, and even negated, parts of the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. We’re called to understand the meaning of *all* the scriptures, Old Testament and New, through the interpretive filter of what Jesus said and did. We can’t hold on to earlier scriptural tenets if Jesus – God in the flesh – countermanded them. We have to listen to Jesus first. And we heard this morning that in the Sermon on the Mount, he very clearly negated the earlier scripture calling for “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.

I believe that the whole point of Jesus’ teaching, and all of the New Testament scriptures, in fact, is that *all* of us – every single one of us – have committed sins for which, according to scripture, we deserve death – but God has extended mercy and grace to us, offering us life, even abundant, eternal life, instead of the death we deserve. And because of the completely illogical, undeserved mercy and grace that God has given us, we’re to extend that same life-giving grace to others – even, Jesus says, to our enemies, and even when our gut tells us something very different.

Regardless of what any of us believe about the specifics of the death penalty, we are all called to follow Jesus and his teachings. Just as the disciples were called to leave their boats and fishing nets behind on the lakeshore, and to follow him, we’re called to leave things behind, too – including any preconceived ideas, or emotions that we might have that are contrary to Jesus’ teachings. We’re called to hear, and accept, Jesus’ words of mercy and grace, for ourselves and for all others as well. We’re called to follow him in truth, wherever that will lead us, or however far we end up from where we’d begun.

Thanks be to God.

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“Creation and Evolution in the Public Schools”
January 16, 2011
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. – Genesis 1:1-2:4a

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[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:15-17

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For many years now, science classrooms in the public schools have been teaching students the basics of the scientific understanding of how the universe came into being, and the theory of evolution to explain how life appeared and developed here on Earth. Most of us here probably learned at least parts of these things in our own public schooling. There have always been some people who took issue with this, on the grounds that what was being taught in these classes was contrary to their religious beliefs. But it seems like these disagreements have increased in recent years, to a point probably not seen since the 1920’s or ‘30’s, in the era of the so-called Scopes “Monkey Trial,” the famous courtroom case that dealt with this debate. In the past decade or so, lots of Christians have lobbied their school boards to prevent teaching these scientific understandings, saying that in essence, was “preventing the exercise” of their religion, to use the First Amendment language we talked about last week. At very least, many of the opponents would say, point to the traditional religious, creationist account as an alternative to evolution in the science classes. Here in Ohio, in fact, the state’s science education standards were changed in 2002 to require a creationist-based counterpoint to evolution, but that standard was removed sometime afterward.

This is a sermon, not a science lecture, but the very simplest of summary of the scientific understanding of origin of the universe, and the theory of evolution, would be this:

The universe began almost 14 billion years ago with what we’ve come to know as the “Big Bang” – that all the physical matter in the universe was initially extremely compacted and dense, and hot, and that there was a nuclear explosion of sorts that expanded this matter outward, first in the form of hot gasses – mostly hydrogen and helium – which were the byproduct of the explosion. Then, over time, the gasses cooled and began to form stars. The ongoing combustion of the gasses in the stars eventually created the heavier physical elements such as carbon, oxygen, and so on. Eventually, as the stars “burned out,” they themselves exploded, scattering these heavier elements out into space, where they became the seed particles, if you will, for the eventual formation of planets and other solid objects in the universe. There are many scientific evidences that this is how the universe developed, but the real determining factor that makes scientists believe that this theory is correct is that they have detected background radiation of the exact type that would have been created by such an initial “Big Bang.”

And, in extreme summary, the theory of evolution is that, life initially developed as a single-cell organism from the basic elemental materials found on earth. Then, over the course of some 4 ½ billion years, these very simple life forms became more complex. This came about as a result of both genetic mutations and the survival of those organisms best able to survive and thrive within the given environment. The diversity of life came about due to different environmental conditions. This theory offers an explanation why there are so many similarities among the various types of plant and animal life on the planet.

Now, that’s as detailed as I’m going to get today. As I said, this is a sermon, not a science lecture. So if you’re a science buff and you’re laughing at how simplistic I made those very complex theories sound this morning, I’m sorry, but that’s as much time as I can give the explanation here.

The problem with these theories being taught in the public schools is that they really do conflict with some of the ways Christians can view these issues. There are basically three ways that Christians can think of the origins of the universe and life on Earth.

The first way could be called the “Young Earth Biblical Literalist” approach. Christians who hold this view believe that the words of the Bible were handed down, verbatim, by God, and that they are to be understood literally – not just in matters of faith or discipleship, but in every manner of things they reference, including scientific and historical issues. They would take the words of Genesis literally, believing that the entire universe and all of life were created in six literal earth days, and was achieved entirely by the direct hand of God. They also believe that the Earth itself is no more than about 6,000 years old, based on doing the math of counting the total number of generations of humanity mentioned in the Old Testament as going back to Adam. In fact, this was the traditional belief within Christianity for almost two thousand years – spanning from the time of Jesus to the beginning of the modern, scientific era.

The second way that some Christians understand our origins could be called the “Old Earth Biblical Literalist View.” This view is very similar to the Young-Earth view, int hat the Bible is the direct Word of God, to be understood literally in all matters, and that God created the universe and all life by his direct hand. But in this view, there are gaps within the Genesis account that these folks would say could actually have been millions, even billions of years, and that when the Bible talks about a “day,” that could really refer to an era – recognizing the scriptural reference in 2 Peter that “With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” So these folks accept the scientific understanding that the Earth is 4 ½ billion years old, but believing in creation through the direct hand of God, they don’t accept the theory of evolution.

The third way Christians view this issue could be called the “Biblical-Scientific Synthesis View.” In this approach, Christians believe that the Biblical accounts of creation aren’t meant to be understood literally. They aren’t meant to address the “how” or the “when” of our origins, but the more important questions of the “who” and the “why.” These Christians would say that these passages of scripture were written by humans inspired by the Holy Spirit, in order to explain the big picture questions of our origins to a pre-scientific culture in a way they could relate to it. Imagine if God laid out all the scientific facts to explain the origins of the universe and life to the ancient Israelites. For that matter, imagine if God did the same thing for us. Even from our own more advanced scientific understanding, we couldn’t completely follow an explanation like that. The Christians who believe this way have no problem with the nuts and bolts, scientific explanations of the “how” of creation. To them, the Big Bang is just a scientific way of saying the same thing as “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’” And to these Christians, evolution is nothing more than an explanation for the way in which God created life – God was using the evolutionary process as a tool in the creation of life, much like a carpenter uses a saw or a hammer to create a house, or an artist uses a chisel to create a sculpture. If anything, as science learns more and more about how the universe originated, it only enlarges our awe and appreciation of God, who is the ultimate Creator behind it all. In fact, even reading the Genesis accounts, we don’t read that God directly created life in the sea, he commanded, “Let the sea bring forth swarms of life…” And he commanded “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind…” Even this allegorical account, these Christians would say, point toward the Earth itself seeming to be a participant in creation – in a way that could point toward an evolutionary development of life.

I’ll be honest with you, that third way is my own understanding of things – how to understand the scriptures and how science and faith speak to each other. It’s also the way our Reformed Protestant tradition, and our Presbyterian denomination, understands it. Even John Calvin, who lived just at the very beginning of the scientific era and knew nothing about the scientific advancements that led to the Big Bang theory or evolution, wrote in a commentary about the Genesis account of creation that the Bible wasn’t to be seen as a science textbook – writing, “He who would learn about astronomy and the other sciences, let him go elsewhere.” And our denomination issued a policy statement some forty years ago to make clear that the theory of evolution is not inconsistent or incompatible with Christian theology or the Christian faith.

Now, I’m sure that those of us here this morning don’t all agree about this topic. If we took a blind survey, I’d bet we’d find some of us in each of the three ways to view this issue. The point of this sermon isn’t to get us all to agree, or for me to try to persuade anyone over to agree with me. One of the real points here are to understand that as Christians, we can look at this issue from different vantage points, and that sincere, deeply committed Christians will disagree – and that’s okay. Jesus never told us that we had to always agree, or to always be right on every issue. What he did teach us is that we’re called to love each other, and to live together in Christ in the manner he taught us, even when we disagree.

The other point is that regardless of which way a Christian understands the scriptural accounts of creation, all of us understand that God is the ultimate, primary Creator of everything. No matter how much we may or may not have pinned down through evolution and the Big Bang theory, science ultimately runs into a few brick walls – namely, where did the matter that exploded in the Big Bang come from? and, even once all the physical elements were together in the Earth’s atmosphere necessary to make up a living organism, how did that first single-cell living organism actually achieve that far more complex state that we call “life”?
In faith, through faith, we Christians believe that we have an answer, if not all the details. We believe that it was God who produced that first matter. That it was God who added that spark called life into the chemical reactions. That it was God who directed all the potentialities and varieties within mutations that led to the diversity of life that God had intended for our existence. And that all of the universe was created by Christ, for the glory of Christ, and it is because of Christ that the entire universe “holds together” as it says in Colossians. Without God’s very being and ongoing provision, the entire universe would simply cease to be.

Now – is that science? No. Can that be proven or disproven via the scientific method? No. Should that part of our beliefs be taught in a science classroom, and to students whose parents may want their children to have very different religious beliefs, or even no religious beliefs? No. In my opinion, that isn’t the job of a science classroom. But is it true? Yes, it is. And I believe that it’s the job of us, the church – not the public schools – to teach our children this important part of the whole picture of our origins. To teach them to appreciate the pursuit of scientific knowledge as a part of our God-given intellect. To want to understand the universe, and our origins, is not something to be afraid of – it’s actually a key part of us being created in God’s image.

Thanks be to God.


“Separation of Church & State”

January 9, 2011
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. – Matthew 5:13-16 (NRSV)***Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. – Titus 3:1-2 (NRSV)=====

Most of you probably saw in the news last month where a resident of Chillicothe had lodged a formal complaint because the City Council meetings were being opened with a Christian prayer. She said that she thought for a government body to begin its proceedings with an exclusively Christian prayer was, effectively, a state endorsement of a particular religion over any others, and that this was unconstitutional. She went on to say that it was also inappropriate because the council members were elected to represent all of the city’s residents, not just its Christian ones.

Of course, there was a lot of public discussion about the whole thing. Petitions were circulated. Christian pastors called for action. One pastor was quoted as saying that to not open a council meeting with a Christian prayer would be the same as saying that we didn’t want God to give guidance to our leaders, or something similar. The upshot of it all is that the Council will continue to invite local clergy to open its meetings with prayer, but it will open the invitation to the clergy of all faith traditions within the community, not just Christians.

This is an issue that comes up fairly often in our culture. Whether it’s an opening prayer, or a nativity scene on the town square, or something else, it’s the same issue – trying to find an appropriate and Constitutional way for our individual and collective religious beliefs to be expressed, and to interact within, public, governmental settings.

Whenever we think about these things, we always bump into the expression, “the separation of church and state.” That’s a term that doesn’t show up in our Constitution, but shows up in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a group of Connecticut Baptists in 1802, trying to describe his understanding of the First Amendment rights of religious freedom. While there are some grey areas about the nature of that “wall of separation” that Jefferson wrote about, it’s very clear that there is a separation between the Church and the government in our country – and that it’s a good thing.

Religion is actually only mentioned twice in the entire Constitution. The first reference is found in Article Six, where it says that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”In other words, the federal government can not require that a person must be of a specific faith, or a subgroup of that faith, in order to be eligible to serve in public office.

Last year during the Sunflower Festival, I was standing outside here, helping with the fish fry. And while I was there, a candidate for a local political office was standing there, talking with another man standing in line. The man asked the candidate, “So tell me, why should I vote for you and not the other guy?” “That’s a good question,” the candidate said. “Why should you vote for me? I’ll tell you why – because I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” Now, it was nice to know that this particular candidate was a committed man of faith, and strong enough to share that conviction with others. And even though I don’t really know anything about the man, I’m willing to believe that his faith does really carry over into his morality and integrity. But his comment made me wonder if that fact alone made him the best candidate for the job. I mean, what if he were running for sheriff, and while he was a fine Christian, he didn’t have any police experience? Or if he were running for auditor, but he didn’t have any accounting experience? While all other qualifications for a particular office are equal, I would likely vote for the Christian, on the assumption that he or she would be looking at the requirements of public service from the standpoint of Christian morality. But it’s also very possible that there are other, equally moral, maybe even more qualified candidates for the job – but who could automatically be disqualified from running for that office because they weren’t a Christian, if it weren’t for Article 6 of the Constituion. Prohibiting religious tests for our political candidates is a good thing. The truth is, there were Catholic and Protestant Christians, and Jews, and Muslims, and atheists, who founded, and fought for, and even died, to establish this nation, so any official government action that would ignore or do a disservice to non-Christian members of our society, is wrong.

Even though our culture has been heavily influenced by the teachings of the Christian faith, we have never been an exclusively Christian nation based on our population. And the second place where the Constitution mentions religion – in the First Amendment – makes it unquestionably clear that we are not *officially* a Christian nation, either, when it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

So what does that really mean to us in the real world? It means that we, as Christians – even though we are in the majority in this country – are not to receive any greater approval or sanction from the government than any other religious group. We aren’t to get any special perks or considerations, just for being Christians. It means that the government is to stay completely neutral in terms of either establishing or endorsing Christianity or any other faith. And frankly, that’s a very good thing, because history has shown us, without exception, that any time the church and state get intertwined, it’s bad for the church. It always either resulted in the church becoming impotent; a paper tiger unable to speak out against the actions of the state when it acted immorally or unjustly; or the church itself became corrupted by the influences of power and money fed to it by the state; and often both bad things happened to the church. History also shows us that the church has always been more true to its faith, and a stronger witness to Christ, specifically when it was *not* officially endorsed by the state. Many of the earliest settlers in the New World understood all too well why the separation of church and state is a good idea. The Puritans and Pilgrims in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Roman Catholics in Maryland, the Huguenots in Florida, all came to this continent fleeing a state that had established or endorsed a particular religious tradition; a government that was telling them what they had to believe, and how they had to pray. So it would be contrary to the very fundamental principles of this country if we were to turn around and try to force others in the same way that our own forefathers fled from.

However, that doesn’t mean that we Christians aren’t supposed to work within the political system to create a society more in keeping with Jesus’ teachings. While the state can’t tell us what we have to believe, we can tell the state – by way of the ballot box and civic participation – how it should enact policies that are consistent with the love for neighbor and justice found in the gospel. We not only *can*; Jesus *calls us* to do so. Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth. We’re to affect change for the betterment of people in our society. We’re to add flavor to life here on earth. We, as the Church Universal, are to act both by ourselves and together with the state, in order to transform our culture to be more consistent with Christ’s teachings.

So how do we do that? Are we being the salt of the earth, the flavor of life, by demanding that the city council opens its meetings with a prayer that ignores or hurts some portion of our neighbors? Are we being the salt of the earth, the light of the world, if we get offended by a prayer offered to God by a rabbi or an imam? If we didn’t open a council meeting with a prayer – specifically a prayer offered “in Jesus’ name” – would it signify that we didn’t want God to guide our leaders, or that we’re denying Jesus as our Lord? Of course not.  Does God only hear the prayers of Christians? Did God hear our own prayers before we professed our faith in Christ? Does God hear the heartfelt longings and desires even of atheists who deny God’s existence?  Of course.

The truth is that in the past, Christians have, in fact, been given special considerations. As unconstitutional and as inappropriate as it was, we have had a kind of wink, wink/nudge, nudge special relationship with the government that put us in a more favored position than people of other faiths, or even of no faith. Our culture is changing now, partly because of changing beliefs within the Christian faith, but just as importantly, because our society and our culture is becoming more pluralistic, multicultural, multifaith. Our “special relationship” with the government has come to an end, and sometimes that chafes a bit. Sometimes, we wish that it was still the way things were in 1950. But that special relationship did us Christians at least as much harm as it did good, and probably did more harm than good. Now it’s time for us to not only live more in accordance with the actual content of the Constitution – to actually live into its words – but also to live more genuinely in our faith, especially when it doesn’t receive any special sanction or privilege from the state.

While that spiritual growth might come with some growing pains, it is still spiritual growth. The good news in all of this for us is that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus had set us right in God’s eyes, and has shown us how to live in order to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, that we’re called to be. And if we spend more time living that way – loving our neighbor, letting our light shine, letting others see our good works and our glorifying God, as Jesus put it – and less time demanding that the government inappropriately endorse our faith above others, then we’ll be a much more effective witness of Christ in the world. Or put another way, we’ll actually end up being a whole lot saltier.

Thanks be to God.


Tidings of Discomfort and Joy
December 5, 2010Matthew 3:1-12In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”=====

This Sunday, our gospel text focuses on John the Baptist and his message as he preached and baptized along the banks of the Jordan River. There’s some disagreement about exactly where John was preaching along the river, but according to the scriptures and the archaeological record, most scholars now seem to think it was at or very near this site that you see overhead. It’s at a narrow, shallow place along the east side of the river, on the side of modern-day Jordan, and about 20 miles outside of Jerusalem.

This passage tells us a little bit about John himself, telling us something about the way he dressed and what he ate, and his in-your-face nature in general. Put bluntly, John was probably someone we wouldn’t feel very comfortable around. He didn’t follow the normal social customs and expectations; you never knew what he was going to say next. Put bluntly, he made people feel uncomfortable.

But that was precisely what God had called him to be – a discomforting voice that called out to people who had gotten comfortable in their understanding of what it meant to follow God. Sometimes I’m tempted to wish that John the Baptist, and Jesus, and all of those who have told the message of the gospel throughout the past two thousand years were just the opposite. I wish that they were all the best looking, best dressed, best spoken, most polished and admired people in society. That would be the most effective way for the message to be heard, for it to be packaged for consumption in the most appealing wrapper. But then I realize that wouldn’t be God’s message, and it isn’t God’s way. Jacob was a con man and a liar, and for most of his life he was physically disabled after his wrestling match with God along the banks of the Jabbock River. Moses was a murderer and such a poor public speaker that he begged God to use his brother Aaron to speak to Pharaoh. Paul apparently was unimpressive physically, and people who had read his inspiring written words were disappointed when they actually met him and heard him in person.

Throughout time, God has used people on the margins of acceptability and even ability to convey his message to the world. That way, it’s clear that God isn’t concerned about the outer trappings of how society sees people – whether it’s the people speaking, or the people being spoken to.
So John the Baptist stood along the banks of the Jordan River, scaring people and being socially inappropriate. If John were just acting on his own, that’s probably where he would have lived and died, and been forgotten, without anyone paying any attention to the crazy man out along the riverbank. And no one today would have ever heard of John the Baptist. But he wasn’t acting on his own. John’s message came from God, and even while it discomforted the people, it stirred their hearts. So rather than staying away from him, the people came from all around the area to hear him and to be baptized by him. They came from the nearby countryside. They even came from Jerusalem, even though the way out to see him was a long journey, and was made by way of the Jericho Road – the dangerous road where Jesus placed the story of the Good Samaritan taking care of the beaten traveler – and once they got there, they had to ford across the river to get to the other side where John was.

In John we hear the message of God, challenging us to be discomforted – to confront those places in our lives that are what some people would call our “learning edges” – those places where the words of our faith haven’t been fully embodied in our thoughts and actions. Where the rubber hasn’t fully hit the road yet. For each of us, it could be something different. Having not forgiven some past wrong. Being overly concerned with how we might look to others. Failing to give up something in our lives that we know is wrong. Being stingy with the blessings God has given us and wants us to share with others. Having hurt someone by not treating them in a loving and humble manner. The list could go on and on, but whatever our own learning edges are, John tells us to prepare the way, in the world, in our communities, in our churches, and especially in our own hearts, for the coming of the Lord, by reflecting on how we can make our own lives more consistent with Jesus’ teaching. John warned the respected religious leaders who came out to see him not to try to rely on the fact that they were descendants of Abraham to save them or to justify their actions. If John walked in here today, he’d likely make the same point to us by saying not to rely on the fact that we’ve been members of the church for years. We’re all challenged by John to examine our lives, and to ask God to help us work on those learning edges we find there. That’s a big part of the message of the Advent season.

The people stayed and listened when they came out to John because his message, which was so discomforting on the surface, ended up being the great, joyful, comforting message of the gospel – that in fact, God has made it possible for us to turn away from the sin that we discover we’ve gotten comfortable with. God has prepared the way for us to find real peace and reconciliation with God, through faith in Christ. And part of that way is to stare our own discomforts in the face, and to deal with them – because very often, it’s when we look honestly at our own personal discomforts that we see the face of Christ staring back.

Thanks be to God.


The End of the World As We Know It
November 28, 2010Matthew 24:36-44“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”=====When I stopped in to visit a woman in the hospital a while ago, she started to talk about her faith. In particular, she started to talk about how so many other people in her family didn’t share her faith, and how at the end of the world they were simply doomed to hell for eternity, and that was that. She was very definite about her conviction, and she was very upset about it. She didn’t want her family to be lost, and the idea of it was giving her terrible anxiety. She was preoccupied with this thought, to the exclusion of almost anything good in their lives or hers, or of much thought about her own recovery – what real difference did it make, since she was destined to live all eternity saved, but lonely? This was one of the rare times that as I did my charting for this patient, I had to say that she had very deep religious faith, but that it was having a negative effect on her recovery process. She was concentrating so much on the end of the world as we know it that she wasn’t able to focus on the meaning of her own life here in the present.In today’s text, Jesus is teaching his disciples something about the reality of that coming judgment that the woman was so upset about. The disciples wanted to know signs, they wanted a date and time, so they could prepare for its coming. But Jesus told them that neither the angels nor even he himself knew the exact day or time, but to be honest, that wasn’t important. The way to be prepared for it, Jesus told them, was to be prepared it every day – as if he were going to return at 2:45 that very afternoon, every afternoon.

Some of us focus on this coming judgment, and love this text. We may even try to watch the news and apply events as fulfillment of specific biblical prophecies, and signs that Jesus’ return is just around the corner. Others of us want to stress God’s love and mercy, and want to try to sidestep this passage and others like it. Honestly, many of us probably have difficulty thinking about texts like this one because we wrestle with the same questions as the woman in the hospital, worrying about the eternal fate of some of our own loved ones.

While there are lots of passages that talk about God’s love and mercy, this is definitely one that falls on the judgment side. And as important as God’s love and mercy is, if we don’t also embrace the reality of God as judge, we run the risk of believing in a God who’s too warm and fuzzy, just a big best friend in the sky who will ultimately just give everyone a big hug and a free pass into eternity. Christ becomes a really nice guy who’d make a nice neighbor – the one you’d trust with your spare key and to pick up your mail while you’re out of town – but not really anything more than that.

Jesus told the disciples that it was a waste of time, and frankly, that it was counterproductive, to worry about the specific time of that judgment, but what did matter was to continually live lives of faith in Jesus and that his words are Truth – lives that would please God. No one will come into the presence of God the Father except through judgment by the Son of Man, Christ himself, according to the terms he set out just a few lines later in Matthew’s gospel. Did you have compassion for others? Did you feed he hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit those who are imprisoned, in whatever manner? When you did, you did those things for me. When you did, you actually showed your love for me. When you did, you professed who the real Lord of your life was.

Jesus’ return, and his final judgment, will separate us – the sheep from the goats, as Jesus puts it in his telling. Some will be taken away, while others remain here to be part of God’s eternal Kingdom established here on earth. It will truly be the end of the world as we know it. But in all honesty, the end of the world as we know it has already begun. Its final chapter will open with the power and might and apocalyptic events and judgment that Jesus foretells. But the good news for us is that God has already written the first chapter. It began with the humility and weakness of a small infant’s cry, as his parents wrapped him up and tried to keep him warm as he lay in his borrowed, makeshift crib. The end of the world as we know it began with the love that God embodied in this child’s birth and makes available to all of us, by being still, and listening to him. Through the observation of Advent and Christmas, God makes it possible for each of us to prepare our hearts and our lives for the final chapter, while remembering and meditating on the beauty and promise and hope found in that first chapter. The end of the world as we know it has arrived, in a person, and his name is Emmanuel – God with Us.

Thanks be to God.


Life Without Training Wheels

November 14, 2010Luke 21:5-19When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

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Just more than a month from now, our older daughter Erica will be leaving home to go to college. As I thought about that milestone approaching, I’ve thought about other milestones in her life – like that fateful day when she was about four, when I went out into the garage, got her tiny little bicycle, and took the training wheels off forever. Erica was about to experience her first day of life without training wheels. I had her fully decked out with protection for the occasion, too – helmet, of course; two pairs of heavy long pants; four sweaters; knee pads; elbow pads. At first, I even strapped two big pillows around her little body, front and back, for added protection. But then I looked at her and realized how silly that was – she could hardly move, much less operate a bicycle with all that on her. So I took the pillows off. I realized that using my wits to do everything I could think of to protect her was counterproductive – it was actually making her less safe.

In today’s text, Jesus talked to the disciples about trying to rely solely on their own intelligence to protect them in difficult or dangerous situations. He told them that they would suffer terrible persecution, be put on trial – some of them would even be put to death. But when these things happened, Jesus said, they weren’t supposed to worry in advance about what their defense would be, what to say, what to do. Jesus said that God would give them the right words – they would need to trust the great promise that God would provide for them in their hour of need.

That probably confused and caused some distress in the minds of the disciples, and reading this story can be just as unsettling to us. Was this advice just meant for those disciples, or does it apply to us, too? And if it does, in what way? Are we supposed to just let everything in life play out by itself, trusting God to take care of everything? Are we not supposed to save for a rainy day, or have health insurance, or use our own wits to get us out of crisis situations?

When Jesus was having his own moment of crisis – as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane just before he was arrested, praying that he wouldn’t have to go through the brutality that he knew was coming – God sent an angel to him, to offer him comfort and the strength to say and do what he had to in the coming hours. We don’t generally seem to have angels coming to us, ringing our doorbell late at night, offering to come in and, maybe over a cup of coffee, give us the strength and wisdom to navigate all of our own difficult situations. So we do, in fact, spend a lot of our time trying to figure out how not to fail – and trying to create a safety net for ourselves in case we do. We use our intelligence and other personal resources as the training wheels for our lives. We find ways to strap pillows of one kind or another around ourselves, trying to avoid all sorts of vulnerability by relying only on ourselves. But in the process, we can end up even more vulnerable – because in our trying to do all that on our own, we can crowd God out of the picture – we don’t allow God to work in our lives in the way that Jesus promised God would do. In our attempt to provide entirely for ourselves, we can get too distracted to hear the angel ringing the doorbell.

Jesus promised his disciples that God would get them through their tough situations. And we can see examples all through the New Testament where this is exactly what happened. God gave them the right words, the right inspiration, at the right moment to achieve God’s will. Jesus’ promise to the disciples was true. And it’s true for us, too. God will give us what we need to endure the difficulties in our own lives, whether in the more routine, day-to-day stresses we encounter, or in those moments of extreme crisis.

The young architect was in trouble. In his desire to land the biggest project yet for his small firm, he ignored all the warning signals, all the red flags that were waving around the potential client. Put bluntly, the client was a crook. Working with the client was excruciating. And when it came time to build the project, the client hired a builder who was quite possibly the only person in the world who was a bigger crook than the client was himself. Problems began immediately. The project became a nightmare. Then came the lawsuits, as the client and contractor each tried to get the better of the other. The architect found caught between a crooked rock and a crookeder hard place, and he was dragged into the lawsuits, too – not because he’d done anything particularly wrong, but more because he had an insurance policy that could be gone after. As the trial date drew near, the architect and his attorney spent long hours preparing, based on the line of argument they’d assumed the other attorney would be making. The architect waded through reams of old paperwork, memorized minute details, rehearsed preplanned answers to questions they were sure the attorney would try to trip him up with. The architect knew he was in the right, but he also knew that being right often isn’t enough in courts of law. The architect’s biggest project had become his biggest moment of crisis. The night before he was to testify, he was beside himself with stress and fear. He prayed for strength and guidance for the next morning. And then he crawled into bed to try to get some sleep.

A few hours later, he had a dream. In the dream, someone asked him a particular question about the project. It was an odd question, about a seemingly unimportant detail about the project, not at all relevant to what everyone thought the next morning’s line of questioning would be. In the dream, the architect thought about the question, and then remembered the answer to it. As soon as he’d given the answer, he immediately woke up and sat bolt-upright in bed, as in his head he heard, “Write it down!” “What? Well, okay, but I don’t know why; that doesn’t have anything to do with what the attorney is going to – “ “WRITE IT DOWN!” So, he crawled out of bed, went downstairs to the kitchen, and jotted the answer down on a legal pad that was sitting on the kitchen table. Then he went back to bed. About half an hour later, the same thing happened – another question, another answer, another wakeup jolt, and another “Write it down!” Half an hour after that, it happened again, a third time, and he jotted the answer down on the legal pad again.

The next morning, as the architect was eating breakfast, he looked at what he’d scribbled on the pad in the middle of the night. Then, he went to testify.

The attorney began questioning the architect with a few unimportant initial questions. Then, out of the blue, the attorney asked – verbatim – the first question the architect was asked in his dream the night before. The architect was surprised at the coincidence, but he was able to answer the question because of the dream he’d had. The answer seemed to catch the attorney off guard; it wasn’t the answer he was expecting. A few questions later, it happened again – the attorney asked the exact question the architect had been asked in his second dream, and he gave the attorney the second answer – and again, the attorney was visibly annoyed with the answer. Suddenly, the architect saw exactly where the attorney was trying to go with his line of questioning. He wasn’t following the line of argument he and his own attorney had expected at all. He was going down a completely different path, and the architect saw the whole thing laid out – and he knew it was going to fail, because of the answers to the three questions he’d dreamt. In that moment, the architect felt great comfort, and peace, wash over him. He smiled. In fact, a few minutes later, he even laughed, as he was able to actually finish the attorney’s sentence for him, as he asked the third question. And with the answer to that question, the attorney’s whole line of argument was shattered. He had to retreat and come up with another line of attack.

It’s natural to want to control our own destiny, and to be nervous about trusting God in the way Jesus says in this passage. And some people might argue that God doesn’t want us to just entrust everything to God. That our brains and talents and guts are gifts from God, and that we’re intended to use them. And they would be right in that argument. Our lives will always be a balance between trusting n ourselves, and trusting in God. But as we try to understand where that balance is, where we draw the line, I suspect there are very, very few of us who have the problem of relying on God *too* much.

Still, God promises when that when we live lives of faith in Christ, and we do give up the training wheels of our own making, God is always right there – running alongside us, never more than a moment away from grabbing our bicycle seat whenever we need a hand.

Thanks be to God.


Gotcha!

November 7, 2010Luke 20:27-38Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”=====There’s a lot about the American political process that I like. The freedom, the ability we have to debate the issues that are important to us, and to try to elect leaders who will advance those issues, is an amazing and wonderful thing. But one part of the process that drives me absolutely nuts is the game of “Gotcha!” that both sides play – trying to find something in their opponent’s past, or to trick them into saying something that can be twisted, taken out of context, and used to discredit them. Rand Paul’s opponent finds some boneheaded college prank he pulled and tries to use it to make him look like an anti-Christian pagan. Barack Obama encourages Hispanic voters to punish their political “enemies,” and conservatives try to claim that he’s trying to start an anti-Anglo race war. It’s crazy.

But it certainly isn’t anything new. We can see something very similar to it in today’s text from Luke. The Sadducees were a sect within Judaism that controlled the priestly duties at the Jerusalem Temple, the focal point of the faith in Jesus’ time. It was a very powerful, and lucrative position to be in. They didn’t want some pesky outsider from out in the sticks coming into the city and rocking the boat. And Jesus was very much rocking their boat. He had become very popular among the people, and the Sadducees had come to see him as a threat to the established order of things, and to their authority. The Sadducees believed that only the first five books of what we know as the Old Testament – The Torah – were valid, authoritative scripture. And they didn’t really find anything in the Torah that talked about resurrection of the dead – not just living on after death in some kind of spiritual state, but a real, physical, body-and-spirit resurrection from the grave at some future time of God’s choosing. References to that kind of eternal life only came later, and sparingly, in the other books of the Old Testament, so the Sadducees didn’t believe in it. And in this passage, they were going to use that belief to try to trip Jesus up. To catch him in a “Gotcha!” moment where he’d be stumped theologically, that they could then use to discredit him in the eyes of the people. To catch him in a first-century equivalent of an embarrassing moment caught on a YouTube video that goes viral.

So they pose this scenario of the woman with seven husbands to Jesus. Even before you get to the resurrection issue in their example, I think there’s a flaw here. I’m not so sure that if a woman managed to kill off seven husbands, any of them would exactly be clamoring to get her back in the afterlife. Or, looking at it from the opposite direction, you could also say that if a woman had endured putting up with seven husbands during her lifetime, she would certainly have earned an eternity’s worth of “just me time” for herself.

The Sadducees really disappeared from Judaism after the Romans destroyed the Temple. But their lack of belief in a real, physical resurrection has survived. Many Jews, and many Christians as well, have difficulty imagining that after we die, we’ll somehow receive a new, physical body and live eternally. We try to wrestle with our own intellectual versions of the seven-husband conundrum. How does a decomposed body come back to life, in any way outside of a zombie movie? What about people who have been cremated? And so on. Plus, you know in general, we Christians have often emphasized the next life, whatever we think it might be like, at the expense of concerning ourselves with living as a member of the Kingdom of God in the world here and now, so maybe we shouldn’t get too wrapped up about thinking about the details of the life to come.

But more to the point, why does this question of physical resurrection matter to us, anyway? Well, for as much as we do need to live as part of the Kingdom of God as it’s already in our midst, we also know that we live in a seriously flawed world of physical brokenness. We live in the world of cancer, heart disease, kidney failure, and Alzheimer’s. In our guts, we know that this just really isn’t the way our physical reality is meant to be. Resurrection says to us that one day, all the physical problems will be made right. The aches and pains of our physical existence will be peeled away, and we will experience what it means to be truly human, body and soul, in the way God had intended for us. One day, the pain of loss of loved ones will be eliminated. We will know them not in the ravages of age, illness, or tragedy that so many of them left this world with, but renewed, as new, vibrant, eternal physical beings. That’s the amazing promise, the powerful message for us – if the resurrection is true.

So there was a lot riding on how Jesus fielded the question from the Sadducees – for him, for the Sadducees themselves, and ultimately, for us. Crazy scenarios aside, is there really a physical resurrection awaiting us?

Jesus brushed aside the Sadducees’ attempt to trip him up by saying that there will be no marriage in the resurrected, eternal life. But in a “Gotcha!” moment of his own, he turns the tables on them, arguing that the resurrection really is attested to within the Torah, which they consider the exclusive authority on the matter – pointing out that God speaks to Moses, saying “I am” the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, indicating that they’re still alive – not “I was” their God. Left with that on their plate to chew on, the Sadducees retreated, caught in their own trap.

Jesus’ answer was sufficient for the Sadducees and the scribes. They got it. But is this a strong enough answer for us? I’ll be honest – I’ll admit to you that while I understand and accept Jesus’ point here, it seems to me a bit like he’s arguing, and winning, on a technicality – when I read this passage, I always wished he’d have come up with a stronger argument. So, can we really place our trust in the amazing hope of a future resurrection, where we’ll become like angels, just based on Jesus’ words here?

Well, maybe – but then again, we don’t really have to. We have an even stronger argument for the truth of resurrection than the Sadducees got that day. We have Easter Sunday. We have Jesus, resurrected, body and spirit, as the ultimate “I told you so,” and as God’s validation that Jesus’ teachings were true. We have Jesus’ playful, almost ornery game of “Gotcha!” that he played with Mary Magdalene on that morning outside the empty tomb. Because Jesus lives – body and spirit – we can have confidence that we will, too. Because he lives, we can know that our very flawed bodies will someday be made not just whole, but even better. Now, there is meaning to our enduring all the problems we face in this life – specifically because death dared to play “Gotcha!” with Christ, and lost.

Thanks be to God.


The Truth of the Migraine

October 31, 2010 – Reformation SundayJohn 8:31-36Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.=====I’m not sure how I managed this, but it wasn’t until just a couple of weeks ago that I finally saw Martin Scorcese’s classic 1988 film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” The movie isn’t primarily based on the account of Jesus’ life found in the gospels, but rather, on the book by the same name which examines Jesus’ complete humanness, including having to deal with all the same temptations that we face, through hypothetical scenarios drawn out of the events we find in the gospels. As the film begins, we see Jesus as an adult, but before the beginning of his earthly ministry. We see him experiencing God’s calling him, but experiencing it as torment. God’s pursuit of him is something that’s causing Jesus pain, like birds clawing into his flesh; like a migraine headache. He doesn’t want anything to do with what God is calling him to do. He tries to escape it. He even goes so far as fabricating crosses for Roman crucifixions, in the thought that it would be something so wrong, so bad, that God would be angry at him and leave him alone, so Jesus would be free to choose to live a normal, regular life like every other man in Nazareth. He knows that it’s really God speaking to him, but to him, this truth wouldn’t make him free, it would enslave him in a life he doesn’t want, doing things he doesn’t want to do. He doesn’t want to obey that call, even though he knows that he should. That’s the guilty truth. The truth of the claws. The truth of the migraine.Now, there are all sorts of theological debates that could be made about this movie, which was very controversial when it first came out, but setting that aside for the moment, that image of Jesus, being portrayed as a model of our own humanity, who hears God but doesn’t want to listen, and then who feels guilt over that, came to mind as I read today’s text. Jesus tells a group of his followers that if they continued in his word, that they would know the truth, and the truth would set them free. We’re all familiar with that famous quote of his. But at first, the followers don’t understand him. “What do you mean,” they said. “We aren’t slaves to anyone; what do we need to be freed from?” And Jesus explains that anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, and really isn’t free at all – they’re just enslaved in a different manner.

It’s the same with us. Freedom of choice is one of the few things that, as a culture, we seem to hold as sacred. We have the freedom to choose more about our own lives, from the trivial to the vitally important, than probably any other people in human history. “What do you mean,” we’d ask Jesus. “We aren’t slaves to anyone or anything.” But then, Jesus says to us, “How’s all that freedom of choice working out for you? Are you choosing to continue in my word?” And with that, we recognize, just as Jesus’ listeners did, that all of our freedom, despite how good it is, has only made it easier for us to choose, but we’ve chosen to be enslaved by sin.

The truth that we’re all slaves to sin is what drove Martin Luther to practically live in the confessional as he dug deeper and deeper into his soul and just found deeper and deeper layers of sin. It’s the truth that John Calvin recognized when he saw virtually all human action as corrupted with self-centeredness – the sin of idolatry – and that this corruption went so far as making us incapable of choosing to continue in Jesus’ word. Even more to the point, it makes us not even completely want to.

We aren’t blind; we aren’t stupid. In many cases, we know the truth that we aren’t abiding in Christ’s teaching. And we know the truth that, in all honesty, we often don’t even want to. And all of a sudden, Jesus’ words “You will know the truth” sound less like a blessing, and more like a curse. That truth is an uncomfortable truth. It’s the truth of the migraine.

But thankfully, Jesus’ truth doesn’t stop there. The rest of his truth to his followers was that, even in their enslavement to sin, there was still hope. Through faith in him, he would give them the real freedom that they needed.

That was the good news that the Reformers heard, as they tried to call the church back to a clearer understanding that our freedom, and our reconciliation with God, comes strictly through our faith in Christ – it’s offered directly from Christ to us, and it doesn’t depend on the perfection of our actions or even of our intentions.

And that’s the good news for us, too. As we go through our lives, we’ve all done things, said things, thought things, that we know aren’t consistent with what Christ taught, and we’ve done them anyway. Maybe at times, we’ve wished God would just leave us alone, so we could just do what we wanted to do without our consciences interfering, and without feeling guilty about it. But in fact, we do feel guilty about it. The good news for us is that we don’t have to stay trapped in our feelings that we aren’t good enough to know God’s love and acceptance. We don’t have to beat ourselves up because sometimes we know God’s word, but we want to follow our own. Christ tells us that yes, we are slaves to sin, and to some extent, we always will be. But through faith in him, we’re able to know God’s peace, and God’s freedom. The good news for us is that the truth of the migraine has been overpowered by the truth of the cross – the truth that makes us truly free.

Thanks be to God.


The Ugly Meter

October 24, 2010Luke 18:9-14Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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There was a news story the other day about a new app for iPhones that’s just come on the market. It’s called the “Ugly Meter,” and the way that it works is that you can take a picture of someone, and the program will analyze the picture and tell you whether the person is attractive or ugly. I’m not exactly sure why you need a program on your phone to tell you if someone is good looking or not when they’re close enough to take their picture, but what the app does is to analyze how symmetrical the person’s face is. Studies have shown that in general, the more close someone’s face is to being perfectly symmetrical, the more attractive most people will consider them. After the program scans the picture, it gives the person a score of one to ten, where one is the most beautiful and ten is the ugliest. And along with the rating, the app will add an editorial comment – if you get a high score on the Ugly Meter, your phone might tell you something like, “You’re so ugly, when you walk past the bathroom the toilet flushes;” or something like that. There’s some concern that it really isn’t all that accurate, though – someone used it to scan a picture of Christina Hendricks, a beautiful television actress on the show “Mad Men,” and she scored a ten, meaning she was supposedly the ugliest of the ugliest. Someone else scanned a picture of Brad Pitt, and he scored an eight. The creators of the Ugly Meter say it’s really just all in fun, and of course, people have complained about the obvious way bullies could use the app to hurt people. I don’t know how accurate, or dangerous, the thing really is, but it is just one of many examples of how we’re all internally wired to want to rate each other on some scale, hopefully one that tells us we’re on the good side of the scale compared to others. We compare ourselves with others regarding our looks, what we wear, what we earn, what we do for a living, what car we drive – some of us even rate ourselves against others when it comes to living our faith.

That’s what’s happening in the parable of Jesus that we heard today – the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee comes to the temple to pray, and in the process makes sure that he points out to God – as if God wouldn’t know anyway – that he’s been meticulous about observing the rules of the faith – he attends worship regularly, he even fasts and tithes a full ten percent of his income. And while he’s praying, off by himself, Jesus says, he thanks God that he isn’t like one of those lowly sinners that he mentions, not even that tax collector sitting way back there in the back row just inside the door. Everyone knows about him; it’s amazing he can even show his face in a house of God, considering the things he’s done. The Pharisee believes that he’s a righteous man, and that this is a sign of God’s approval of him.

And for his part, the tax collector, who has just barely enough courage to even show himself at the temple, who can’t point to anything good that he’s done, who doesn’t even feel comfortable raising his eyes upward toward God, simply and humbly asks God to forgive him for his failings.

One of the things that most of us tend to do when we hear a story like this is to put ourselves in the place of one of the characters in the story. Sometimes, we identify with one character, another time we may identify with someone else. Sometimes, we might change who we identify with partway through the story. And when we hear this story, some of us might identify with the tax collector. Maybe we think about our own lives, and we recognize that there is lots of room for improvement when it comes to living the way Jesus would tell us to. We might think about all of our shortcomings. Maybe some days, we feel that, like the tax collector, we don’t even deserve to grace the door of the church on Sunday morning, seeking forgiveness and comfort from God. My goodness, if some of the people there had any idea what was going on in our lives, they’d kick us out. It’s a wonder the church doesn’t collapse just from the audacity of someone as screwed up as us, daring to go inside.

Or maybe we see ourselves in the Pharisee. We’re not so bad, and in all honesty, the Pharisee wasn’t really a bad guy, either. After all, he was trying to please God with his obedience to the law, and all that he did in his life. And so are many of us, as we live out our lives of faith, and our lives together as part of the church. The good works that we do really are good works, important works. And clearly, whatever else you might say, that really does make us in some way better than the people who don’t live by those standards, doesn’t it? There are standards that God calls us to, and expects us to abide by, if we want God to love us and forgive us, aren’t there?

We’ve all heard that passage from 1 Corinthians that’s often read at weddings, that if we have all faith, the kind of faith that could move mountains, but do not have love, we’re nothing. That if we give away all our possessions, but we do not have love, we gain nothing. Jesus is making a similar point here, about the Pharisee, and to any of us who might feel like the Pharisee from time to time. If we obey all the otherwise good and commendable things about the faith; if we abide by every moral teaching, but we do not have the humility to recognize that we are all equally loved in God’s eyes; and we do not see that none of that gives us any reason to feel superior to others, then we’ve missed the whole point. If we use our good works as a crowbar to beat others over the head with, using our upstanding actions as a way to rate ourselves better on the Ugly Meter than someone else, then we might as well have not done the good works at all. They seem to have done us more harm than good.

The good news in this parable is that God loves both the tax collector and the Pharisee. On that day in Jesus’ story, the tax collector, who honestly understood that he fell short of God’s ideal, and who humbly asked for forgiveness, received God’s forgiveness. And even though the Pharisee may not have gotten it that day, Jesus doesn’t write him off, either. Jesus didn’t say not to do all those good things that the Pharisee was doing. Of course, Jesus wants us all to live as morally and righteously as we’re able. His point was to show that even at that, compared against God’s standards we don’t have any reason to boast that we’re any better than anyone else. His point was that we need to remain humble, and it’s in that humility that we’ll find the ability to truly love one another, since then we’ll see each other more clearly as equally God’s own.

The good news that Jesus offered to both the Pharisees, and the tax collectors and other sinners who heard him speak that day, is the same good news for us. We can be confident that there is nothing that we could have done that will make us so undesirable that God won’t love us. There’s no distance from God that we could have strayed to that will make God say, “That’s too far – don’t bother trying to come back to me!” Like the tax collector, who feels so distressed and unlovable that he can’t even raise his head in the temple – who feels like a ten on God’s Ugly Meter – we can always humbly come back to God, seeking God’s love and forgiveness – and we will receive it.

And even if we sometimes start to think a little too highly of ourselves, because of all the good things we do in our service to God; if we start to look down on others who weren’t as meticulous in following the teachings of scripture – if we rated ourselves as better on God’s Ugly Meter than them – there’s good news for us, too. If we humbly come to terms with the fact that we’re all God’s beloved, and we see and treat others around us a spirit of love and acceptance, then we’ll have gotten Jesus’ point. We’ll receive forgiveness, and we’ll be seen as righteous by God as well. And that’s the beautiful truth.

Thanks be to God.


“A Worthwhile Life”
August 1, 2010Colossians 3:1-11So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!=====Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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Oscar was a guy who understood the potential of computers, and later on the internet, long before most people did. He was in on the ground floor of several technology ventures, made some money, worked harder, reinvested. Before long, he was devoting almost every waking hour to making even more money, even though by that time he already had more money than he could spend in three lifetimes. Eventually, after years of a combination of intelligence, hard work, and some luck, Oscar gave up that solitary, laser-like focus of building up wealth, and took on the new solitary focus of enjoying it all.

Oscar Jones and his wife Emilie retired to a palatial estate in Palm Beach. They dined on the finest foods at the most exclusive clubs and restaurants. Anything they wanted, they bought without a moment’s hesitation. They lived in a kind of opulence that in past centuries could only have been pulled off by royalty. Emilie spent her days reading by the pool, or strolling their private beach collecting interesting shells. Oscar would go out almost every afternoon on his yacht, fishing for a while until he got bored with it, or just lying in a deck chair under a sky so bright and blue that it hurt to look at, or gazing down into the almost glass-clear water below. For years, this was his goal. He’d spent years working to get here. He’d earned every penny of his vast fortune, and now he was spending it all on himself.

What a wasted life.

That’s Jesus’ judgment of Oscar in this passage from Luke that we read today. His parable was the exact same story except Jesus’ man made his money from wheat stalks instead of tech stocks; he kept his wealth in bigger barns instead of municipal bonds. The man in Jesus’ story was basically living the dream. He’d worked hard and prospered. He was set for years to come, maybe forever. Now it was time for him to kick back and enjoy the good life. I think most of us would admire this man. In fact, if we’d never read this story before, we’d probably say “Yes! You go, buddy; job well done!”

But we have read this story before, and we know Jesus’ tag line to the story. God calls this man a fool. A fool.

Now, to be clear, Jesus isn’t saying here, and in the verses that follow this passage, that there’s anything inherently wrong with saving up something for a rainy day, or retirement. What he’s talking about here is greed. Remember that this story started with two brothers arguing over whether, or how, to split up an inheritance, and Jesus cautions us against the kind of greed seen in their dispute. Jesus was condemning the man with bigger barns because of his greed. He had more than he needed, and instead of using his wealth in a way that would please God – instead of helping others out of his abundance – he hoarded it. It was his; he had a right to do with it as he pleased. And legally, he did.

God called him a fool.

God blessed him with material resources, but the man had forgotten that when God blesses us with something, that blessing comes with strings attached. That might sound odd; maybe you’re thinking “Oh, he shouldn’t say something like that,” but it’s true. God’s blessings always come with strings attached. The strings I’m talking about are the expectations that we well use those blessings in ways that the scriptures tell us are pleasing to God. Our blessings aren’t just the things we’re given, but the trust that comes attached to those things, the trust that we’ll act as God’s hands, God’s coworkers, in sharing those blessings with others is part of the blessing itself.

So Jesus isn’t condemning all saving, but greed, and we don’t have to feel totally uncomfortable with his words here. On the other hand, we probably shouldn’t feel all that comfortable, either, since I suspect what most of us, myself included, would consider a list of the basic needs in life is something very different from the list Jesus would come up with. And we can see how the perception of the basic needs of God’s children in, say, Manhattan differs from the perception of basic needs of God’s children in Frankfort differs from the perception of the basic needs of God’s children in Nitro, West Virginia differs from the perception of the basic needs of God’s children in Pyongyang, North Korea differs from the perception of the basic needs of God’s children in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It should give us pause.

We also need to remember that in this lesson, Jesus is talking about money, but he isn’t talking only about money. He’s talking about the greed of hoarding any of our blessings, our resources, in a way that we aren’t using them in ways that please God – in ways that help others. God calls us to live worthwhile lives – to be trustworthy stewards of all of our blessings, because as Jesus pointed out, none of us knows whether we’ll live another fifty years or fifty minutes, and after either of those, we will be expected to account for how we used what God gave to us, and expected us to use to advance God’s will on earth.

So use your money wisely, saving for the future, but also saving others. If you don’t, God calls you a fool.

Use your talents and skills to your own benefit, but also to benefit others who don’t have those same abilities and need them. If you don’t, God calls you a fool.

Use your time for your own wants, but also to benefit your loved ones, your family, and to establish and maintain a loving, healthy, strong home that knows God’s love and lives Christ’s message. If you don’t, God calls you a fool.

Take the entire package of blessings that God has given you, and use them to do God’s work in a world that needs it so very badly. If you don’t….

There was another Oscar. This Oscar was a conniver, a schemer, almost a con man. Always looking for the fastest buck and the easiest life. He had a knack for understanding how the so-called real world actually worked, and he quickly learned how to flatter, and bribe, and work his way into the good graces of powerful people. He used all of his street smarts, connections, and his flair for showmanship to gain fat government and military contracts for his business that made him wealthy beyond even his own wildest dreams. He burned through vast amounts of money on lavish parties and entertaining. He continually cheated on his wife, Emilie. He was, by any moral standard, not a person to be admired. He was actually the kind of man we’d all love to hate. He was living life full-throttle, and looking out only himself.

But one day, Oscar saw with his own eyes the brutal, shocking reality that all the ugly talk he’d heard from his government buddies in Nazi Germany wasn’t just talk. They weren’t just doling out sound bytes of political red meat for the evening news. They were serious – they were really trying to rid all of Europe of every single Jew, once and for all. And in pursuing his own greed, he’d realized that he’d made his fortune helping them achieve that goal.

So Oscar Schindler began to use all of his money and all of his connections to save at least some of them, as many as he could, identifying them as essential factory workers for the war effort. The old, the infirm, the children, the sick, were all listed in official records as being healthy adults in the peak of their productive working lives. Professors, rabbis, artists, musicians, and other “non-essentials” were listed in the records as skilled machinists and metalworkers.

Before it was all over, Oscar Schindler spent nearly everything he had, to buy safety, food, and medical care for some 1,200 Jews, saving them from death in the nearby camps.

Before WWII, there were some 3.5 million Jews living in Poland. The Nazi’s “final solution” was so nearly successful, that there are only about 4,000 Jew in Poland, even today. But also today, around the world there are some 7,000 survivors and descendants of the Jews that Oscar Schindler managed to buy and save with his fortune.

His story was almost entirely forgotten until years later, when a book, and later, of course, a movie, told the world about him. His life didn’t have the storybook ending we’d want it to have. His marriage to Emilie was doomed to failure through his continued infidelity. He tried to start three different businesses after the war, and they all failed. After years of being supported by generous donations from the Jews he’d saved – and after spending that same money almost as quickly as he got it in his hands – Oscar Schindler died in 1974, almost unknown, and without a penny to his name.

What a worthwhile life.

Complex blend of saint and sinner, just like us, Schindler’s story shows us what could be possible for any one of us – what kind of difference any of us might be capable of making – if we really hear Jesus’ words in this passage, and we use all the different kinds of blessings that God entrusts us with – using them in ways that will cause God to tell us, “Yes – job well done.”

Thanks be to God.


“Father Mulcahy’s Prayer”
July 25, 2010Genesis 18:20-33Then 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.=====Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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It’s hard to believe that more than 25 years have passed since the television show M*A*S*H ended. Its final episode, broadcast in 1983, is still one of the most-watched shows in television history. Among other things that happened in that episode, there was a temporary stockade set up in the middle of the medical compound to hold some North Korean prisoners. During that time, the camp was hit by a mortar attack and everyone was running for cover, when they realized that the prisoners were left out in the open like sitting ducks. In an act of real bravery, and at great risk to himself, Father Mulcahy, the mild-mannered chaplain, runs out into the open and unlocks the pen, allowing the prisoners to get loose and run for cover. The prisoners scatter, but before Father Mulcahy can get back to safety, a mortar shell explodes near him, and while he survives, his hearing is severely damaged. Throughout the rest of the show, we see Father Mulcahy dealing with the reality of gradually going permanently deaf.

In one scene, Father Mulcahy is praying, an in a rare example of him losing his calm demeanor, he gets angry and complains to God, “I know there must be a reason, but what is it? I answered the call to do your work. I’ve devoted my life to it, and now how am I supposed to do it? What good am I now? What good is a deaf priest? I prayed for you to help me and every day I get worse. Are you deaf too?”

At some point or another, every Christian who has ever lived has prayed Father Mulcahy’s prayer, just as certainly as they’ve said the Lord’s Prayer. We pray for God to do something, and our prayer seems to go as unanswered as if God really were deaf; as if God sees it’s us on the Caller ID and refuses to pick up. We’ve been taught that we aren’t supposed to pray for trivial things, but still, we can’t understand why God often doesn’t seem to come through even on the big things. For the marriage to be healed. For things to go back to the way they were before, when everyone was happy. For financial security. For the child to get off the drugs. For the test results to come back negative. For the cancer to be cured. Times when we go through the darkest moments in our lives, and we’re told to trust God, but we often end up asking God, “are you deaf, too?”

If we created God – if we designed God to be the way we would want a God to be, we’d probably make things different. We’d make God something like a cosmic vending machine, where we could just drop in a couple coins of obedience and anything we wanted, whatever combination of buttons we pressed, would just drop down into the bin for us. But for all that we don’t know, we most definitely know firsthand that the God we worship doesn’t work that way. We see throughout the Bible, people who lived and died in faith, but who never saw God’s promises to them fulfilled in their own lifetime. Time and time again in the Psalms, we see people raising their voices, sometimes in pain, other times in anger, confronting God directly with the charge that he is allowing pain, and injustice, and evil to occur in the world, to occur in the lives of his people, and they ask “Why? How long? Are you deaf?”

The scriptures tell us that God loves us, and provides for us, and is our friend, while at the same time we see time and time again in those same scriptures, and in our own experience, that our prayers often don’t seem to have any effect when we most want them to. When we most want God’s presence, God can seem most absent. It’s a dilemma that led the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins to write,

“Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me?”

Put more bluntly, Hopkins – who was himself a Jesuit priest – was saying, “God, with friends like you I’m not sure I need any enemies.”

It’s with that experience in our bones, then, that we read this passage from Luke, where Jesus tells us that all we need to do is ask, and it will be given to us; search, and we will find; knock, and the door will be opened to us. How are we supposed to take Jesus’ promise, when nearly every fiber in our bodies tell us the world just doesn’t seem to work that way?

Obviously, Jesus wasn’t telling us that we worship that God-o-Matic vending machine; look at his own prayer in Gethsemane to be spared the agony of his own impending crucifixion. I think that as we try to understand what Jesus is really trying to tell us here, we need to keep a couple things in mind. First, he’s telling us that we’re to pray to God often – persistently, like the man pounding on his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night to borrow some bread – and continually. God wants to be in relationship with us in that way, where we’re in constant communication, where our conversation with God is as natural, and almost as common, as breathing. We’re supposed to realize just how dependent upon God we are for our daily existence. Second, God wants us to be honest – honest with him, and even more importantly, honest with ourselves – about what our real, deepest wishes and desires are, and to share them boldly, even shamelessly, with God. Even if what we want to ask for are things that we’ve been told aren’t what we should pray for. It doesn’t make any sense to not admit to God what it is that’s on our hearts. God knows anyway. But if we bring the issue up with God – whether it’s something deep and selfless, or shallow and selfish – then God can begin to work in our lives regarding what it is we really want, what it is we’re really praying for – which is often something very different that what our words would indicate.

Are you praying for someone’s sickness to be cured? Maybe God will cure the sickness. But maybe God’s better, more important answer to your prayer is to help you come to terms with the reality of sickness, loss, even death in this life, and to help you to question whether you’re placing too much value on personal relationships and earthly comfort. Are you praying for a return to the way things were in some earlier time in your life? Maybe God will make that happen. But maybe God’s better, more important answer to your prayer is that maintaining things the way they were was holding you back from something better – something uncertain, unknown, maybe even scary – but in some way known only to God, better, and more enriching to your own soul.

I know that isn’t an easy answer to the troubling questions raised by this passage from Luke. In all honesty, there aren’t any easy answers to those questions. The answer I’ve proposed doesn’t bring any immediate comfort to us when we’re praying, persistently, for something really important to us. But by comparison, I know that not every answer that I’ve given to our girls, made out of love and with their best interests in mind, was seen by them as a satisfactory answer at the time, from their vantage point.

There was a scene in the movie “Evan Almighty” where God – played very well by Morgan Freeman, and who, in this particular scene is disguised as a waiter in a restaurant, is talking with a woman who is upset because God doesn’t seem to be answering her prayer. And he says to her, “Let me ask you a question. If someone prays for patience, do you think God just gives him patience – or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prays for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him the opportunity to be courageous? If someone prays for their family to be close, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?” Sometimes, it’s hard to know what an answer to a prayer might really look like.

We can have absolute confidence in our faith that ALL of the prayers that we offer to God are being answered – and in the way that is really best for us, whether we see it now or not – because our own experience, across the full breadth of our life in Christ, shows us that Christ’s promises are reliable; that God’s presence is real and his word is true. Because we’ve seen it to be true in the past, we can be confident that it’s true at other times too, even when we can’t see it at the exact moment.

Garth Brooks sang a song a few years ago, where he’d realized that something he’d once prayed for intently, but which didn’t pan out the way he’d wanted, had actually ended up far, far better for him. In the song, he sang that “One of God’s greatest gifts is unanswered prayer.” I like his point, but I think he only got it half right. I think that some of those prayers that we think are unanswered, are actually the most answered prayers of all. The hard part for us is to understand the meaning of the answer.

Thanks be to God.


“Either/Or; Both/And”

July 18, 2010Luke 10:38-42Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”=====I remember being in my twenties, just out of college, backpacking around the cities of Germany and Italy, and visiting some of the great cathedrals – Cologne, Florence, Rome, and other places. I remember being moved in my spirit by the beautiful works of art and architecture dedicated to God’s glory, and sensing the sheer majesty of God just standing in those places in a way I’d never experienced before. There’s no question that these great works of human hands are more than just aesthetic extravagance. They have real, spiritual value that can speak to the heart and teach us about God.Still, in the midst of all that, I could never completely shake the disturbing question of the cost of it all – the monetary cost, and the human cost – of the creation of these wonderful places and things. How much further the gospel could have been shared; how many more people in dire need could have been fed, clothed, sheltered, educated. I know that the grandeur isn’t necessary. I know that the God who is present and glorified in the awesome beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica is the very same God who is present and glorified in the metal-faced Mennonite Church just down the road.

I know that beauty is from God, and that God calls us to be co-creators of that beauty in our world, and for his glory; and that this concern for the physical things can have spiritual worth. But I wrestle with the argument that that much attention and expense lavished on these temporal things are truly what God would want of us. I think that argument would ring hollow to the ears of the millions of people who have endured lives of spiritual and physical desperation, who could have been helped with those same resources. The question isn’t an “either/or;” it’s a “both/and” kind of thing. To be faithful followers of Christ – to properly emphasize all aspects of our love and obedience to God – we need to pay attention to both sides of that debate, to properly balance these two seemingly conflicting priorities. Over the years, people have had different opinions about how that balance should work, where the line should be drawn. I admit that in my own beliefs, I’ve never reached a decision that I’m completely comfortable with about where that line should be.

And Jesus doesn’t make it easy to know where to draw that line. In the gospels, we read that he wasn’t opposed to having someone lavish luxuries on him, in the form of anointing him with very expensive ointment, even when it was pointed out that it could have been sold and the money could have been used to help the poor. Jesus brushed off that argument, saying that we’d have plenty of time to worry about the poor. At the same time, he had harsh words for anyone who would divert money away from taking care of their families in order to give to the church, calling that sinful, and contrary to the gospel.

This story about Martha and Mary is really a variation on that same question of balance, where to draw the line. It’s pretty easy for us to put ourselves in this story. We’ve all hosted people in our homes, people we wanted to extend our best hospitality to. Hospitality is important to us, and it was even more important in the social structure of Jesus’ time. Martha inviting the famous rabbi to dinner in her home would have been something very much like whipping up a Thanksgiving dinner on a moment’s notice. Planning what to make. Getting everything ready. Cleaning. Dusting. Making sure the house looks good. Figuring out the timing of what has to start when; juggling different dishes being prepared in a single oven. Making sure that everything’s done at just about the same time, so the meal will be hot. Getting the tablecloth ironed and the places set. Getting it all cleaned up afterward.

In the midst of all that work to be done, there’s Mary, Martha’s sister. Sitting in the living room, listening to their guest, laughing, smiling, socializing. Not lifting a finger to help. We can sympathize with Martha. It isn’t fair. Maybe if Mary helped out a bit, Martha could spend some time visiting with Jesus, too.

Even though he comes down on the other side of the argument at other times in the gospels, in this case Jesus tells Martha she’s missed the boat. Jesus knows that Martha views what she’s doing as service and devotion to him, but he tells her that in this case, she’s overemphasizing the physical trappings of the visit, at the expense of its real value – spending time in conversation, in fellowship with the Lord. He’s telling her that there’s a time and place for everything. That these very acts of service and hospitality – the physical efforts of preparing a beautiful setting, and a sumptuous feast – can very much be true expressions of love and worship. But if they become our primary focus, in and of themselves, then our efforts are misplaced. Contrary to the gospel. Destructive.

We can all make the same mistake Martha did in the story. We can allow ourselves to get worked up on the external trappings of our life in the church, forgetting that the purpose of the church is to worship God – and to sit at the Lord’s feet, and learn, and then live what we’ve learned about loving God, and loving others as ourselves, and helping those others to hear the same good news we’ve received.

Jesus didn’t tell Martha that logistics, planning, or even concern for aesthetics was wrong. It isn’t. We can’t just sit at Jesus’ feet all day long and ignore everything else around us. That’s as contrary to the full message of the gospel as the opposite. Jesus hasn’t called us to “either/or;” he’s called us to “both/and,” just in proper proportion. We have to remember what we’re called to do, and be, as believers – as the Church.

That’s true of the way we express our faith and live as members of the Church, but it’s also true of the way we prioritize all the run-of-the-mill things we’ve got to deal with in our daily lives. Christ calls us to examine those demands for our time, our loyalty, our efforts, our resources, and to keep our priorities straight. To live as God’s children, as Christ’s disciples, we have to set those priorities in ways that glorify God and allow us to hear, and live, the words spoken by the one we’ve invited not just into our homes, but into our very hearts.

Thanks be to God.


“Bearing Fruit”

July 11, 2010

Colossians 1:1-14Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, 8and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully
giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.=====Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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Jack Nicholson is one of my favorite actors. I honestly can’t think of a single movie he’s been in that I didn’t like. A number of years ago, he played a character named Melvin Udall in a great movie called “As Good As It Gets.” Melvin is a very successful romance novelist, who is working on his 62nd book. Melvin can write about love and romance in a way that sends shivers down the spines of his devoted readers. In his real life, though, Melvin is a train wreck. He isn’t anything at all like his characters. He doesn’t understand or experience love at all. He has no friends. He’s rude, obnoxious, insulting, super-critical of everyone and everything that has the misfortune of being around him. He’s just a terrible, loathsome person, living alone in his upscale Manhattan apartment. Adding to his general nastiness, Melvin has OCD – Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder. He’s a germ freak, washing his hands over and over, scrubbing until you’d think he’d wear the skin off of them, and using a fresh bar of soap each time. He has a half-dozen locks on his front door, and he has to lock and unlock them repeatedly, and in a specific sequence. He keeps a set routine each day, walking to the same restaurant, being careful not to step on any cracks in the sidewalk. Once he gets there, he has to sit in the same exact place, where he opens up his own set of sanitary, plastic-wrapped dinnerware. Only one of the servers in the restaurant can put up with his awful verbal abuse and his idiosyncrasies – a waitress named Carol, a single mother with no health insurance and whose son has an extreme form of asthma and who needs all kinds of specialized medical treatment.

Melvin’s next-door neighbor is Simon, a famous artist, a soft-spoken gay man who dotes on his tiny little dog, Verdell. Of course, Melvin unleashes all kinds of scorn on Simon every chance he gets because of his sexual orientation, and he can’t stand what he considers the unsanitary, yappy little dog. In one of the early scenes of the movie, Melvin actually tosses Verdell down the apartment building’s multi-story trash chute.

But then, the neighbor is mugged and beaten nearly to death, and he’s laid up in the hospital for months. During that time, Melvin is cornered into taking care of Verdell. At first, it’s comical watching Melvin deal with this dog that he can’t stand. He’s repulsed by the hair it sheds, and having to clean up its messes. But gradually, over time, he softens a bit. He warms up to the dog, and the dog warms up to him. Verdell works his way into Melvin’s heart, until he eventually comes to love the little dog, and he dotes on him as much as Simon did. And after his heart is opened that small crack, Melvin is then able to see, at least a bit, the feelings and emotions of the people around him. He’s able to see the tragedy and desperation in Carol, the waitress’ life, as she tries to pay the mounting bills and get her son the medical treatment that he needs. Eventually, Melvin makes arrangements to pay for the best specialists in the city to care for the boy.

And eventually, Simon, the neighbor, is released from the hospital, but the long hospital stay and the multiple extensive surgeries have left him completely broke – destitute, and thrown out of his apartment. In a huge stretch for Melvin, he offers to let Simon live with him, in his spare room.

All through the movie, Melvin learns about love – not just the romance that he’s been writing about all these years, but the true depth of real, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road love for other people. Of course, in true Hollywood fashion, he finds romance, too. But the most interesting thing over the course of the movie is watching as his character develops. He’s growing. He’s becoming better. His story started with a relatively small act of helping someone – actually, in his case, helping a dog – which then strengthened him, and enabled him, to reach out and do something bigger, and better – which then strengthened him, and enabled him to do something even bigger still, and so on, and so on. In the process of helping – loving – others, even when it was difficult at first, Melvin didn’t just help them. His actions bore the fruit of kindness in the lives of others, but in the process, it also bore the fruit of transformation in his own.

Melvin provided medical care, and shelter, to someone in need – just as the Good Samaritan did. I think that sometimes, when we think about that parable, we imagine it through the eyes of the Samaritan; we put ourselves in the story as him. We picture him to be a good person, a kind-hearted soul. And we get the impression that the most important lesson of the parable is that we’re supposed to do good things for others. That’s very true; we are supposed to do good works for others. But that actually wasn’t the primary point of Jesus telling this parable. We have to remember that Jesus told the parable to answer the question, “if I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself, who is my neighbor?” And he ends the parable by asking, who is the neighbor to the beaten man? Who is the one he’s supposed to love?

And who was this man, the one Jesus said was the one to be loved? A Samaritan. On morning of the same day he’d been beaten, the man on his way to Jericho would have considered the Samaritan to be an inferior, less than dirt – a godless, sinning, half-breed who shouldn’t even be acknowledged in polite company. Someone to be disliked, for all the reasonable and respectable reasons. And for all we know, maybe this Samaritan man really was as nasty and loathsome a person in general as Melvin was – but for some reason, this time he felt pity for the beaten man.

Jesus’ message to us in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that we’re supposed to see others – even those we’d normally dislike – as our neighbor, and to love them as we love ourselves. Even Samaritans. Even the Melvins of our world.

That’s often hard for us to do. I know it’s often hard for me to do. But something interesting happens when we really set our mind to it, and we try to love our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus and the scriptures taught. The more we try it, the easier it becomes. Just like in the movie. The more we do it, as we accept, and help, and love one another, the more we grow.

The passage from Colossians says, “we have never ceased praying that you would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, as you bear fruit in every good work, and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

When we bear the fruit of good works toward others, our knowledge of God grows. Notice that: if we want to know God better, we should do more good works to others. The one leads to the other, and vice versa. It’s a cycle. By bearing the fruit in our lives of doing good works for others – whether it’s visiting shut-ins, helping with a community dinner, teaching a child, being a friend to the friendless, offering volunteer labor to help those in need – whatever it is, when we do those things, our relationship with God becomes richer, fuller, more mature. Our faith is strengthened, and as it’s strengthened, we’re able to bear even more fruit. That’s the way we become more and more the person Christ calls us to be. Just like Melvin.

At one point in the movie, Melvin has a terrifying moment of self-realization when he recognizes the tragedy of his own empty, loveless existence, and he asks himself out loud, “What if this really is as good as it gets?” We know that this world, this existence, is not as good as it gets. A better life awaits. And it’s our calling to live our lives in a way that shows that fact to others – to have a faith that bears fruit, for their sake, and for our own.

Thanks be to God.


“A Better Country”

July 4, 2010By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. – Hebrews 11:8-16=====Once every seven years, the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday. So on this day, maybe more than most, we’re faced with thoughts about one of the issues that’s been a constant theme throughout our nation’s history – the question of the relationship between giving our allegiance to our country, and giving our allegiance to God. And that leads into the related question of how we, as Christians, should view our country and our government.That can be tricky ground for us, because if we aren’t careful, it’s so easy for us to allow our politics to shape our faith, instead of the other way around. We’ve all probably seen instances of churches that allow themselves to become exclusive mouthpieces of the political left or right. So how should we look at our country, its legacy and its future, as Christians on this Fourth of July?First, we should look at the history of our nation honestly – not being taken in by the oversimplified propaganda of either the left or the right.

We should acknowledge that a large part of the formation of this country was the result of people’s desire for religious freedom, and the right to worship God in a way consistent with a person’s freedom of conscience. And we should acknowledge that this country was established, maybe more than any other nation in history, on ideas – ideals regarding human rights given to us by God, not the government, and mutual tolerance. We should recognize that the words which founded this nation were, and are, powerful – in some ways more powerful and far-reaching than even the founding fathers themselves initially recognized.

We should acknowledge all of the many great things that our nation has accomplished. We should realize that we’ve been blessed with a form of government and an economic system that has given health, education, and prosperity to more people than would be possible under any other system.

We should be proud that our form of government, and our economic system, has been so successful that many other nations have modeled their own societies on ours. We should celebrate the fact that as individuals, we Americans contribute more to charitable and humanitarian causes, and our government contributes more in foreign aid, than any other nation or people in the world. We should be proud of the advances in industry, medicine, and technology that we’ve achieved. And we should be proud of the spirit of the American people, and that we are willing to defend, and even die for, the rights of ourselves and others, in war and in peace. There is a lot that we should be proud of on this Fourth of July.

At the same time, we need to be honest with ourselves, and recognize that there have been many things in our history that we shouldn’t be proud of. Times when we haven’t lived up to the full meaning of the powerful words that gave birth to our nation. At various times in our history, we’ve denied the equality of mankind held up in our Declaration of Independence, and Constitutional protection, to blacks, and women, and others. We engaged in shameful government-led violence against the Native Americans. We broke virtually every treaty we ever signed with them, then tried to literally, completely wipe them off the face of the earth – and when that didn’t work, we rounded them all up onto poverty-stricken, disease-ridden ghettoes called reservations on some of the worst land available. Then we set out to “Americanize” them, forcing them to accept the white man’s culture in an attempt to wipe out their own.

Even though blacks were a part of this nation long before many of the whites, we were legally, officially defined as a “white nation” by a law passed in 1790 – and, Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution notwithstanding, that legal designation stood, and wasn’t repealed until 1952. We’ve routinely denied immigration and the right to become a citizen to blacks, Asians, Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans, Indians, and many others, based on the pseudoscientific notion that these were all races that were different, and inferior to the white race that this country was supposedly made for.

In the private sector, many of our largest business interests have had major control over entire foreign countries, as they pillaged their natural resources and impoverished their people, in the name of profit. Our government has, unintentionally and intentionally, hurt many people in the pursuit around the world of our supposed national interest. And our great, cherished liberty has also led to almost unimaginable personal immorality.

So as we celebrate the Fourth of July, we should do it honestly. We should celebrate our great successes and the truly miraculous history of our founding, truly unparalleled in human history – while not denying our great failings as well. But one of the things that we can be very, very proud of it that as a people, we do – often slowly, often painfully – gradually recognize many of our shortcomings, those times that we don’t live up to our founding ideals, and we work to improve them – to become a better country, the “more perfect union” that our forefathers wrote about.

As we celebrate honestly, as Christians, we need to always remember that “the American Way” isn’t always the same as “the Christian Way.” And as strongly as we love our country, we can’t offer more allegiance to it than we do to our God. We have to remember that even with all of our blessings and abilities, and no matter how hard we work for it, America will never be perfect. That, even though we are proud American citizens and we love our country, in a more important sense we’re strangers and foreigners here. Our true citizenship, our true allegiance, is somewhere else. In faith, we’re looking forward to that “better country” written about in today’s scripture from Hebrews. The one that really is perfect. The one whose architect and builder is God. The one we celebrate not on the Fourth of July, but on Easter Sunday.

Thanks be to God.


“Living Outside the Dirt Circle”
June 27, 2010For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. – Galatians 5:1, 13-25=====When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:51-62

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There was a small brick schoolhouse that sat at a fork in the road, at the point that marked the beginning of the “West End” of my hometown. Six classrooms on the main floor. The “office” was a heavy old Bakelite desk phone sitting on a little shelf in the main corridor. A low, dark room in the basement was the “gym.” An upright piano that sat in one corner of the room made it double as the “music room.” An old, unused coal-fired stove sat in another corner.

I attended third, fourth, and sixth grades at the West End School. It was close enough to where we lived that we could easily walk there each day. Just behind the school, along the route we walked, there was an old frame building, covered with drab, grey shingles. The first floor had been some kind of commercial operation at one time – an auto repair shop, I think, I can’t quite remember – but that business had been long gone. Tacked onto the side of the building was a long, narrow stairway that led up to a couple of apartments on the second floor. One of these apartments was occupied by a woman and her son, who was mentally disabled and who didn’t attend school. And each morning that weather permitted, the mother took her son out into the side yard and chained him to a tree, with a dog collar and a chain about twenty feet long. And that’s where he spent pretty much the whole day, watching the world go by, or at least that part of the world that found its way into West Masontown. His mother had given him something like a soccer ball to play with, and he would yell out to every one of us who passed by, asking if we wanted to play. Every person. Every time. Every day. In all of those times, I never saw anyone play with that boy. I’m ashamed to say now that I never did, either.

His whole existence was pretty much limited to the 40-foot wide dirt circle that he’d worn into the grass around that tree. From his chain, he could undoubtedly see and hear us kids playing at recess on the playground, probably no more than fifty yards away from him. I can only imagine how much he would have loved to be off that Godawful chain – how much he would have appreciated his freedom.

This passage from Galatians is all about freedom – the freedom that Christ earned for us, and wants us to have in our lives. Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians because there were some teachers there who were telling the believers that in order to follow Christ, they had to continue to obey all the stipulations of the Jewish Law – the Torah. These teachers told the Galatians that Jesus taught that “not one jot or tittle” would be removed from the Law, the scriptures – and there was no black leather-bound Holy Bible at that time; he was talking about the Hebrew scriptures. Therefore, they said, in order to follow Christ, the Galatians had to follow all the requirements of the Torah to the letter.

In this letter, Paul argued very forcefully against that idea. He wrote to them that through our faith in Christ, we have freedom – we have been set free, we’ve been unchained from all the technicalities of the Law, in order to follow the undercurrent of all of the scriptures. As he wrote, and as Jesus taught, the whole Law is summed up by the single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Anything that enabled us to do that is good, and applies to us; and anything that obstructs that goal – even if that is scripture – is wrong, and we are not bound to accept or follow it as we strive to live in Christ. That’s what Paul was saying to the Galatians.

Even though it might not seem like it at first, that’s the same message of the passage we read in Luke today. When Jesus and the disciples entered the Samaritan town and they weren’t welcomed, the disciples asked if they should call for fire to come down from heaven to destroy the townspeople – like the scriptural account they were familiar with regarding Sodom and Gomorrah; or the fire that the prophet Elijah called down on Mount Carmel, that we talked about last week. And when the man telling Jesus he’ll follow him, but first he asks to go home and say goodbye to he parents. Both Jesus and the man were familiar with the scriptural account of Elijah meeting his new student, and the man who would replace him, the prophet Elisha. It was just after Elijah’s hearing God’s voice in the silence on Mount Horeb, that we read about last week, when on his way home, Elijah found Elisha, plowing a field with a team of oxen. Elijah called Elisha, and told him to follow him. Elisha agreed, and asked only to go home first and say goodbye to his parents, and Elijah agreed. So it was a reasonable and scripturally sound thing that the man asked of Jesus, but Jesus said no. Even evoking the Elijah/Elisha story, Jesus says that no one who puts a hand to the plow – in this case, following Jesus – and who then looks back, is fit for the kingdom of God.

Jesus obviously didn’t have anything against family love, or heartfelt goodbyes. In this case, though, Jesus was making a larger point, that he was calling people – and he has called us – to something different, something greater – than what had been in the past. Something that comes from the Spirit, and that lives in the heart, rather than being rote obedience to the Law of scripture, with no more spirit of love than it takes to obey the law and get your taxes filed by April 15th.

In this Galatians passage, Paul argues that the believers in Galatia were, in effect, looking back to their old, familiar ways after they’d put their hands to the plow of following Christ. They were free – they’d been unchained, the collar removed by Christ – and now, they were trying to put their own collars back on. Paul pointed out to them where that led. Chaining themselves back to their old, outmoded ways of religious observance, forfeiting the freedom that Christ had given them, also ended up chaining them to all the problems of relying on their own nature and their own sense of human rationale. You heard that laundry list of things Paul mentioned – impurity, idolatry, strife, anger, quarrels, envy, and more.

I don’t think any of us has to look too far down into that list before there’s something that we find in our own lives in some shape or another. We’ve been unchained by Christ, and reconciled with God. We recognize that we aren’t ever going to be saved by trying to adhere to every point of the Law in the scriptures, and it’s a good thing, since we could never do it. And we certainly rely on Christ, and the way he sets us right in Gods eyes even though we still remain sinners.

Still, if we don’t allow God’s Spirit to transform our lives as he sees fit – if we don’t accept the new way of living – really living – that Jesus calls us to, and giving up those old behavior patterns that Paul talks about, then we’re right back on the chain, stuck on the same small dirt circle of our own making.

Jesus takes us off our chain and calls us to the fuller, broader, more abundant life beyond. He calls us to not continue in the old ways and old behaviors that enslave us, bog us down, spiritually and otherwise. He calls us to let go of them, and through faith in him, to live in the Spirit – and to show those other traits that Paul talked about – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. All that and more is what Jesus has in store for us once we’ve been set free.

But too often, even after our chain is removed, we’re afraid of what might be awaiting us outside of our little dirt circle. We’re nervous to step out into the green grass, the uncharted waters beyond. Outside of the old fixed rules and assumptions. Sometimes having to navigate slippery slopes before getting to the still waters. But that’s where Jesus is leading us to. That’s the abundant life that he came to offer all of us, that he wants all of us to enjoy. But if we reject that abundant, unchained life that he offers us – if we choose to put our own dog collars back on – then for the rest of our lives, we’ll just be going around in circles.

Thanks be to God.


“And Justice for All”

June 13, 20101 Kings 21:1-21Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.” As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.=====

As this story from 1 Kings begins, we can picture Ahab, who is king of the northern part, the northern kingdom, of what was once the single, united nation of Israel under the earlier kings Saul, David, and Solomon. After the Kingdom split, even though the city of Jerusalem was in the south, the northern kingdom was actually far better off economically. The northern kingdom was larger. It had most of the good farmland, it had access to the Mediterranean Sea and shipping trade where the southern kingdom was more or less landlocked, and it controlled the lucrative overland trade routes that ran through it and along its eastern border. So Ahab was the king of a pretty wealthy nation, and he enjoyed the power and prestige that came with that position. His capital was the city of Samaria, and he also had a palace in the city of Jezreel. This story tells us that Ahab wanted to buy a piece of land – a vineyard owned by his next-door neighbor, a man named Naboth. And what Ahab proposed to Naboth sounds reasonable enough to us. He would trade Naboth for an even better piece of land somewhere else, or if Naboth preferred, he would simply pay Naboth cash for it, whatever price Naboth wanted.

But Naboth didn’t go along with Ahab’s offer. The Israelite tradition held that you didn’t part with the land that had been handed down by God to your ancestors – that this was the promised land, and ownership of your own land was your entry ticket into God’s promise for the people of the promised land. Maybe Naboth remembered the scriptural commandment in Leviticus (25:23), where God told his people, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me, you are but aliens and tenants.” This was part of the scriptural teaching in Leviticus that land was only to be sold temporarily – that even if it was sold, its ownership was to revert back to the family of its ancestral owners. That might sound odd to us, but that’s the commandment God gave to the Israelites in Leviticus. Or who knows, maybe Naboth just didn’t like Ahab – according to the scriptures, he was a pretty terrible king – and maybe he was just being cantankerous.

In any case, the story goes on to say that Naboth’s refusal to sell the land causes Ahab to have a meltdown more suitable for a teenager than a king – he closes himself off in his bedroom and refuses to eat.

And here’s where Ahab’s wife comes into the story. Jezebel – one of the most notorious women in the Bible – was King Ahab’s wife. She wasn’t an Israelite. She was a princess, the daughter of a king of the city-state of Sidon, a seaport along the coast of what is modern-day Lebanon, just north of Israel. Maybe the marriage had been an arranged affair, meant to seal a treaty between Ahab and Jezebel’s father; that was a common reason for royal marriages at that time.

So when Jezebel sees her husband moping in the bedroom because the commoner next door had the gall to tell him no, Jezebel essentially told Ahab to “man up” – to find his spine and take care of business; and if he didn’t, she would. She grew up in a palace; she knew how things were supposed to work for a king.

From the story, we know that things didn’t go well for Naboth. Jezebel didn’t particularly care much about the Israelite scripture, the Torah, that said you shouldn’t covet your neighbor’s belongings, you shouldn’t lie, you shouldn’t steal, and you shouldn’t kill. But she knew enough about the Torah to know that if two witnesses would testify against you, claiming that you’d blasphemed against God, the person was subject to the death penalty. So she misused her position of power, and she legalistically manipulated the scriptures – the Law – to perpetrate a terrible injustice, even murder.

We also know from scripture that ultimately, things didn’t go well for Ahab and Jezebel, either. Just as the prophet Elijah told them at the end of this story, a few pages later in the Bible we learn that both of them suffer violent deaths – especially Jezebel, whose death was particularly gruesome.

Like other stories in the Bible, we see here that it’s wrong for those who have power to use that power for their own benefit, in ways that hurt others.

This story is thousands of years old, and it’s still as current as the evening news. Just a couple weeks ago, I saw a news story about the Bono Sawdust Company – a small family-owned business whose property is in an industrial area of New York City, adjacent to the new New York Mets baseball stadium. The city wanted to buy the family’s property, and the surrounding properties – and if the family isn’t willing to sell, the city has threatened to take their land by eminent domain. And for what? A roadway? A new sewer line? A hospital? Some other public works project? No, the city wants to get control of the land and then sell it to commercial developers to build recreational areas and housing developments for sale. Put bluntly, the city doesn’t like the look of the gritty industrial property next to the stadium, and they figure they can get more tax revenues from all the newly developed housing than they can from the business owners. The city has decided that the Bono Sawdust Company just isn’t generating enough money for them, so they want to take their land and sell it to someone who will benefit them more. King Ahab, Queen Jezebel – meet Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The story of Naboth’s vineyard shows us that God is on the side of those who are victims of the abuse of power. It also shows us that like Ahab – who didn’t personally arrange for Naboth’s murder, but who didn’t do anything to stop what Jezebel was doing – if we stand by and let others do things that benefit us at other people’s expense, then we share in the guilt, just as Ahab did.

So we have to be careful. We have to look at what we do ourselves. And we have to look at what we allow and accept other people to do on our behalf. We have to question what our businesses, and our government do in dealing with the public, and other nations and other people. We have to very carefully examine what they do in our name as they work to benefit “business interests,” or “the national interest.” Are they – and by association, are we – hurting other people, treating other people unjustly just for their, and our, personal material gain? Are we supporting things that we, as Christians, shouldn’t be? Are we treating all of God’s people with justice, mercy, and love? Are we allowing ourselves to be participants in taking Naboth’s vineyard?

That’s the negative side of the moral of this story that we have to watch out for in our lives. But there is a positive side, too. At various times in our own lives, all of us will find ourselves in the position of Naboth. We all have been , or are, or will be, the victim of someone abusing their secular, or legal, or religious power over us, oppressing or victimizing us. We’ll all feel powerless in the face of some evil. And we can have great hope in knowing that when we find ourselves in that place, God is on our side – with us, favoring us, for us. As the great old Testament theologian Walter Brueggeman once wrote, we can keep on hoping, not because of what’s happening to us in the moment, but because of what we’ve experienced of God in our past. We can hold fast that God is a God who calls for equal justice for all of us. We can be assured by the historical evidence that eventually, God’s eternal good overcomes temporary evil, mercy overcomes pain, and through Christ, life even overcomes death. Christ is the vine, we are the branches – and out of the vineyard, the wine of gladness will eventually come.

Thanks be to God.


“Dancing God”

May 30, 2010Psalm 8:1-9O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!=====John 16:12-15″I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

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I’d already been spending a fair amount of time in hospitals over the course of the last six months or so, doing volunteer chaplaincy as part of my studies. Over the course of the past two weeks, I’ve added to that, with Lori’s father having bypass surgery, and the day after that, my own father having a heart attack and his own bypass surgery this past Friday afternoon. In fact, the sermon I would have delivered last week, and the one I’m delivering today, were mostly written sitting in one hospital waiting room or another. And as these things tend to happen, I even added to that, since I’d been scheduled to be in an operating room, and observing several surgeries this past Monday morning as an extension of the chaplaincy training – in order to better understand surgery and hospitalization from the standpoint of both patients and the medical staff.

So Last Monday, I showed up at the hospital early in the morning, got changed into my scrubs, and was assigned a particular operating room. Something that really struck me as I watched these procedures was the way the entire staff in the room worked together. I felt really blessed to watch them in action. Each person performing a part, each person anticipating the movers of the other, and anticipating what was to come next. They were serious when they needed to be, but a smile, a joke, and a laugh was never far away. Watching their movements was like watching an intricate clockwork, or a carefully choreographed ballet. Even though each person was doing something specific and different, each thing was dependent upon the other, and it all melded together to become one single, indivisible, unified thing.

That experience kept coming back into my mind as I thought about this week’s Lectionary texts and sermon. Today is “Trinity Sunday,” when we think about that strange, mysterious way we Christians try to understand and describe God.

Of course, we don’t just think about the Trinity – the idea of a “triune” God, who is somehow simultaneously three distinct identities, but still remaining a unified one – on Trinity Sunday. Actually, we talk about it all the time. We sing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty; God in the Persons, Blessed Trinity.” “Glory be to the Father, And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.” We recite the Apostles’ Creed – the first paragraph dealing with the Father, the second paragraph dealing with the Son, and the last paragraph dealing with the Holy Spirit and a laundry list of other things. The concept of the Trinity is at the very core of the way we understand a single God differently than Jews or Muslims.

But if most Christians were asked to try to explain what the Trinity really means, most Christians would fumble around a bit, and then try to offer up some explanation, but they’d run into trouble pretty fast and finally throw up their hands and say, “Well, no one really understands it completely.” And to be honest, that’s true – and I’m not going to make some big breakthrough in the faith and make it all easy to understand in a twenty minute sermon.

To be clear, the Bible never uses the word “Trinity,” and it never really clarifies in one passage the relationship among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But the Bible does talk about all three of them, telling us that they are all in some way divine, while the scriptures also tell us that there is only one Being who is truly God. The concept of the Trinity is the way that the faith has tried to combine those various strands of scripture that talk about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how they relate with and among each other, in order to come up with some way of understanding who God is. In this process, the Church hasn’t really explained how this intertwining, three-in-one and one-in-three relationship actually exists, only that it does, based on the scriptures.

When trying to understand what the Trinity is, it’s actually easier to talk about what it isn’t. First, it isn’t like a board of directors with three equal partners who each have distinct responsibilities. One is strictly in charge of production – in terms of what God is, we could call that the Creator; another in charge of sales and distribution – we could call that the Redeemer; and the last one in charge of customer service and ongoing maintenance – we could call that the Sustainer. If we thought about the Trinity this way – that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each were solely responsible for their separate subcomponent of the total work of God, then we aren’t consistent with the scriptural record that all of God is inseparably involved in Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining. To think of the Trinity this way, we would actually believe in three separate, semi-gods, not one unified God. So this view doesn’t really or completely work.

Second, the Trinity isn’t like an organizational chart that shows a triangular chain of command, with one big cheese – the Father – up here, and two subordinates – the Son and the Holy Spirit – down below. The problem with this view is that while it does retain the idea of one God – the Father – it makes the Son and the Holy Spirit something less than that God, something created and less equal to the Father in divinity. That runs against Jesus’ teaching that he and the Father are one, and that the Holy Spirit is his Spirit. So that view doesn’t completely work, either.

Neither is the Trinity like three football players sitting on the bench, each one going out on the field one after the other – the Father going out first, during the Old Testament times, then the Son going out during Jesus’ time on earth, then the Holy Spirit going out onto the field on the day of Pentecost and until today. This view doesn’t work because it makes Father, Son, and Holy Spirit three separate gods instead of one, and the scriptural record that God is always creating, sustaining, and redeeming, in a way that they cant’ even be separated. According to Scripture, all of God is involved in everything God does, and God is doing all of those things all the time.

All of these ideas, and quite a few others, have been floated in order to understand the Trinity over the years. And while each of them captures some glimpse of what the Trinity must be like, all of them end up with some fatal error, being more wrong than right, according to the full scriptural definition of God. Honestly, most of us, based on our own personality, background, or experiences, will lean toward one or another of these incorrect ways of understanding the Trinity when we try to imagine it or put it into words. Most of us seem to gravitate toward that “organizational chart” view of the Trinity, with the Father as the CEO and Jesus and the Holy Spirit being Senior Vice Presidents, or maybe Regional Presidents or something like that. The triangular arrangement that most of us would probably draw on a sheet of paper if someone asked us to draw a diagram of the Trinity.

In the end, we really can’t ever fully understand the Trinity, and how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit truly relate with and among and to each other. God’s too big and complex for us to really wrap our brains around. So if that’s the case, why should anyone bother trying? What’s the point? Doesn’t that make the concept of the Trinity something that’s at best, a secondary point of our faith? Why is it important?

The reason it’s important is this. We’ve been created in God’s image. God’s ideal, God’s design for us, being made in God’s image, includes inheriting God’s ideal way of being in relationship. So that relationship among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, however it works, actually gives us a picture, some instruction, of what our own relationships should be like. And if we view the Trinity in wrong ways, then those errors in understanding God’s relationships will cause us to have errors in how we form relationships among ourselves.

For example, if we stress a hierarchical God, with the Father as the CEO who has subordinates, then we’re inclined to think that our relationships always have to be structured the same way. Someone’s got to strive to be the top banana. There has to be a superior and inferiors.
For many, many years, the church also looked at the Trinity, and its use of language of Father and Son, in a literal gender sense – always saying that yes, of course God is spirit and neither male nor female – but there must be some special status in human maleness – that the male human is somehow superior to the female human. This view misses the truth in Genesis that we all, male and female, are equally created in God’s image, so if we want to talk about God in gender terms, we could say that God is male and female – and that the terms Father and Son don’t really address maleness, but are really only applied to illustrate that the relationship between the two is one of love, like the relationship between a parent and child.

So you can see how having a skewed view of the Trinity can, and has, led to many problems for us in our own relationships. Understanding the Trinity in the wrong way can be used to justify any number of wrong ways that we can relate to one another as humans.

There is another way of thinking of the Trinity that we Christians have used, that I haven’t mentioned yet. In this view, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit aren’t seen in some triangular hierarchy or organizational chart. Instead, they are seen in a circle – not a vertical circle with a top and bottom, but a horizontal circle. And Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are seen almost as if they’re moving around in this circle, grasping each other’s forearms and in constant movement as a single unity. In fact, the essence of each one of them flows to, and into, and through each other, each one is entirely also each one of the other two. Their existence is completely dependent upon their being held together, they would all cease to exist if they were to ever separate. Whatever one of them is doing, they’re actually all doing. Whatever each of them does is completely dependent upon what the other two are doing, to the point that what they’re all doing is all just a part of one cohesive whole – just as they themselves are part of one cohesive whole. They are truly three-in-one, and one-in three; distinct, yet inseparable. And the relationship among them isn’t hierarchical. There is no top banana. It is a relationship in community with one another. Each of them is what they are, only because they are in relationship with the others. And that says so much about us. We can only truly be ourselves – what God has designed us to be – when we are in that same kind of equal, interdependent relationship with others.

This view was originated by a Christian named John of Damascus in the 600’s AD. The term that he used to describe this way of God being God was the Greek word “perichoresis.” Literally, the word means to move around, in a circular fashion, in a carefully choreographed dance, something like a ballet. Or maybe, like the intricate, choreographed dance of the surgical team – distinct persons united to become one cohesive, unified whole; and the work of each dependent on and ultimately inseparable from the work of the other. That parallel isn’t perfect either, and that way of thinking about the Trinity ultimately has as many theological problems as all the other models I mentioned. But in some way, maybe you can see at least a glimpse of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit amidst the forceps, the scalpels, and suture.

Thanks be to God.


“What’s the Delay?”
May 16, 2010John 17:20-26…”I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”=====Revelation 22:12-21

“See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.

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One of the questions I get asked the most when I visit patients in the hospital doesn’t have anything at all to do with their medical condition, or fears about their upcoming surgery, or of another round of chemo because the cancer has returned. I’ll bet you a quarter of the people I’ve talked with have asked me, “Do you think we’re living in the end times?”

In a way, that’s actually a hopeful question. It means that whatever difficulties they’re facing at the moment, they think they’re going to pull through them, and that they’re going to be around long enough for the answer to the question to be important to them.

But that’s a question that we Christians have wondered about since the very beginning of our faith. Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, Christians have asked, “When are you coming back?”

Jesus himself spoke as if his return might not be long after his departure, even while he admitted that he didn’t really know when it would be – only God the Father knew that. The apostles and the first generation of believers all originally thought, and wrote, and encouraged each other with the mindset that Jesus was going to return and set the world straight, very soon – maybe even yet that week, but surely no more than a month or two from then. But it didn’t take long for the early Christians to come to realize that Jesus’ return was going to take a bit longer than they’d thought. They started to understand Jesus’ words, and the faith, in terms where Jesus might return next Tuesday, or in the year 4000. And ever since then, Christians have been watching the events of the world unfold and have wondered if what they were seeing were the signs that Jesus was returning soon.

I remember when I first professed my own faith back in the ‘70s, people were laying out detailed timelines pegged at the formation of modern Israel, and showing how Jesus would surely return within 40 years of that. Well, we’re all still here. I remember a friend from college who had just gotten married in the early ‘80s, and who was thinking about buying a house – and seriously questioning whether to go with a 20-year mortgage to build up equity faster and save all that interest; or whether to get a 30-year mortgage and enjoy the lower monthly payment, since Jesus was most likely going to return long before that, anyway. Her husband, and the house, are long gone, and we’ve got a few more years before that 30-year mortgage would have been paid off, but so far, we’re all still here.

Still, many of us, when we’re thinking about the big questions of our existence, and our faith – whether it’s while we’re lying in a hospital bed, or just sitting in our own living room at the end of the day – wonder if what we’re seeing in the world isn’t, in fact, the unfolding of the end of the current age.

Sometimes, when people ask me if I think we’re living in the end times, I say yes, and that they started the day Jesus was born. I believe that, but I know that doesn’t really answer their question. I know that we’ve always had eathquakes and floods, wars and rumors of wars, but it is getting worse, at least in the sense that they’re affecting more people, if only because there simply are more people. Yes, I know all about the Mayan calendar and the whole year 2012 business. The significance of the Holocaust, the formation of Israel, isn’t lost on me, and I recognize that it is most likely a second fulfillment of the “dry bones” prophecy found in Ezekiel 37. Global economies are playing havoc with the lives of billions of people. And I do notice that Jesus appeared on the scene just about 2,000 years after God’s covenant with Abraham, and we’re now just about 2.000 years removed from Jesus’ arrival and establishment of the New Covenant. All that does make even a very sane, rational Christian wonder if maybe we are on the verge of Christ’s return, and the beginning of the new age.

This morning, we read from the book of Revelation, the account of John’s vision of Jesus’ return that came to him while he was in exile – basically, living out a prison sentence for spreading the gospel. It was written to believers who were themselves facing persecution and imprisonment for being followers of Jesus, and for sharing the gospel with others. The primary point of the vision was to give reassurance to John, and to the others, that no matter exactly when Jesus’ return was going to be, he was going to return – and all the persecution, the suffering, the problems, the pain, would be worth the trouble of staying faithful to Jesus’ words. Jesus tells them, and us, in no uncertain terms, to not lose hope. He is returning. And in a reversal of our having been banished from Eden, the perfect world that God originally wanted for us, now we’ll be invited back into the gates. There won’t be any more guards there any more, keeping us out. We’ll be back in the garden, with the tree of life, and enjoying eternal life with God.

This past Friday, I gave the invocation at an awards luncheon put on by an organization that provides mental health care services, and addiction recovery programs, in the Columbus area. The event was pretty much what you’d expect. A big hotel ballroom with a small jazz group playing in the corner. A local TV personality is the MC; a favorite politician gives a keynote speech while everyone tries to finish their chicken and rice, and the carrot cake dessert. Awards are given out to people who undoubtedly deserve far more than the little Lucite trophies they get. These things are all pretty typical. I was sitting up on the platform, just trying not to spill my iced tea all over myself.

After it was over, I got to the escalator that led back down to the hotel lobby at the same time as a young man. He was a good looking young guy, maybe in his early twenties, dressed in a nice blue suit, very professional looking. I assumed he was an employee of one of the organizations that had been at the luncheon, and I let him get on the escalator just ahead of me. About halfway down, he turned to me and said, “Would you mind if I asked you something?” He said his name was Jerry, and as we started talking, he explained that he was actually a resident of an addiction recovery center run by the organization that had put on the event. He’d gotten through detox and was in recovery, and he was living at the center with a group of other young men – he called them his brothers – kind of an accountability group, a covenant group of guys who helped support and encourage each other as they tried to plot out what the rest of their lives would look like.

Jerry told me that he’d also recently become a Christian. He told me that it had made all the difference in the world to him. He could feel the transformation within him, and that surrendering himself to Christ had given him strength and encouragement that made his recovery even more meaningful. He’d seen the reason for living – the reason for life itself – in Christ. He told me that he was even sensing a call to the ministry – and he felt especially led to share his faith, and the good news, with his brothers. But he wasn’t sure how to go about that. He was worried that he’d do it wrong, mess it up. And he wondered if I had some time to talk to him about that. I did, and my short conversation with Jerry was probably the highlight of my day.

But what does all that have to do with John, the book of Revelation, and our wondering why it’s taking Jesus so long to return? Maybe this. Maybe God is holding off on Jesus’ return until as many people as possible are touched by the good news of the gospel. Maybe God has been waiting for Jerry to get clean and hear the good news. Or for me to just happen to bump into him on the escalator. Or for him to share his faith with his brothers. Or for you to share your faith with someone God is trying to reach through you. Maybe, in the end, we’re not waiting on God – maybe, instead, God is waiting on us.

Ultimately, Jesus told us the exact date and time of his return isn’t important; we’re supposed to live every single day of our lives of faith and discipleship as if Jesus were going to return before sundown. He’s promised us that whatever the wait is, and whatever we endure in his name until then, it will be worth it. This passage from Revelation are the very last words in the Bible. They’re the tag line, the take-home point of the whole message of Jesus Christ. And in it, Jesus says, “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”

Whether Jesus’ return is next Monday, or the next millennium, if the reason for his delay is to allow Jerry, and all the Jerrys of the world, to come to the water, and to taste its goodness, then the delay is okay with me. It’s worth the wait.

Thanks be to God.


“Radical Love”

May 9, 2010Jonah 3, 4 (excerpts)The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”And the people of Nineveh believed God. …When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

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John 13;31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

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Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

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Peter and the twelve apostles were trying to sort out what they were supposed to be doing, and how they were supposed to be doing it, in the time after Jesus was resurrected and had ascended into heaven. Jesus didn’t really leave them an instruction manual, or any detailed instructions about how to go out and make disciples. He didn’t ever tell them to start anything like the Christian Church as we think of it today. This was all uncharted territory as far as they were concerned, but we know that at first, they definitely never considered splitting off from Judaism. Jesus was a good Jew, worshipping in the synagogues in Judea and Galilee, and in the Temple in Jerusalem. He took part in the various religious festivals and observances, and of course so did the twelve apostles themselves. There wasn’t any real thought of chucking all that and starting off on a completely different course. So as they tried to come to terms with the meaning of Jesus, and their commission at this point, they did so within the general culture and understanding of the Jewish faith.

One of the most fundamental of all Jewish beliefs at the time was that they were unique in the world, in that there was one God, and one God only – and that God had uniquely chosen them to reveal himself most fully to, and that they were uniquely God’s people to the exclusion of everyone else. From the very beginning of the Hebrews’ occupation of the promised land of Canaan, they had lived with non-Hebrews in their midst – even in the account of Moses and the exodus, we’re told that there were other, non-Hebrew people who were living amongst them. But, in order to preserve the unique nature of the Hebrew people, to keep themselves in accordance with God’s command that they be holy – set aside, special in God’s eyes – they were to keep themselves separate from these people. They were not to worship their gods; they weren’t to intermarry – they weren’t even permitted to visit in their homes, or to eat a meal with them. They were completely and totally “unclean.” That’s what the scriptures said.

That’s the background for this story about Peter. What we read today is actually a recap of something that had just happened. The other eleven apostles are outraged at Peter, because he had just done exactly what the scriptures forbade him from doing – he had gone to the home of a family of non-Jews – and not just any non-Jew, this was even worse. This man, Cornelius, was a Roman centurion – a leader in the army that was occupying and oppressing the Jewish people. It would have been almost as bad as a Jewish man living in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation making a social call, and sitting down to dinner with a lieutenant in the German army. What we read today is Peter giving the other apostles his account of what had happened.

Some people have said that this story is a New Testament parallel of the story of Jonah. In fact, Peter’s actual name – Jesus calls him Simon bar Jonah – “Simon, son of Jonah” – creates a parallel between him and the Old Testament prophet. Peter is in the city of Joppa when he has his vision and he’s called to go preach to Cornelius, the Roman enemy. Jonah was also in Joppa when he tried to run away from God’s call to go preach to the people of Nineveh, the largest city of the Assyrian empire, the enemies of the Hebrew people. Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days. Peter has three repetitions of his vision.

But most important is the parallel in the actual point of the two stories. In each case, God sends someone to preach, to share God’s word, with people outside the group of the “chosen.” In fact, in both cases, they aren’t just outside the flock, they’re actively involved in hurting the flock.

The people of Israel considered themselves God’s chosen people. We Christians also consider ourselves to be God’s chosen – part of the group that has been entrusted with the revelation of the one true God. There is great blessing in this – but there is also great danger. It’s easy to jump from the thought that God has chosen you for one purpose, to the thought that God wouldn’t, and doesn’t, also chose others for some other purpose. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that because God has made you unique for some reason, that God doesn’t care about anyone else. The last verses of Jonah make this point very clear. God tells Jonah to preach to the enemies of Israel, so they will repent and be saved. And when they actually do repent, Jonah is upset. He wants to see them destroyed. They don’t deserve God’s mercy. But God tells Jonah that although they aren’t Israelites, even if they are Israel’s enemies – God still cares for them all, as much as he does for the Israelites themselves.

Peter learns this same thing in his vision. God sets in front of Peter a number of animals, all of which are considered “unclean,” and forbidden by the scriptures to eat. At first, Peter refuses to eat one of them, but God tells him “What I have made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter finally comes to understand the meaning of the vision when shortly afterward, he is called to go visit Cornelius the Gentile. He is not to consider Cornelius unclean, despite what the scriptures say. If God has called him acceptable – clean – then he is clean. God cares for Cornelius and his family, and God enters into Cornelius and his family, in exactly the same way God cares for, and enters into, Peter and his own family.

While explaining this to the other apostles, justifying his actions which were contrary to the scriptures, Peter says to them, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” This was a major turning point, not just in Peter’s life, but in the life of the Christian Church. Though this experience, Peter came to a fuller understanding of that “new commandment” that Jesus had given them, that they were to love one another in the same unconditional way that Jesus loved them. To love as Jesus loves means that it is unacceptable to draw lines between us and others, to say that God loves us, but not those others.

That’s the message for us, today, in this story from Peter’s life. We’re all really good at drawing lines of separation like that, even when we don’t want to admit it – building walls to separate us – the good, the chosen, the loved by God – and all the other poor, God-forsaken riffraff that we shouldn’t associate with. There doesn’t seem to be any end to the kinds of labels we can apply, all the us-versus-them oppositions we can create. Liberal versus Conservative. Republican versus Democrat. Black versus white. Straight versus gay – there’s one our General Assembly will fight over again, in just a little more than a month from now. Catholic versus Protestant. Christian versus Jew versus Muslim versus Hindu versus Buddhist.

But if we’re followers of Jesus, we have to remember that in the end, these groups, these labels, are meaningless. God loves them all. God works in the lives of them all. None of them are inherently “unclean” in God’s eyes, so they shouldn’t be considered unclean in ours. In God’s eyes, there’s only one group, and he calls it “Mine.” That’s the group that God calls us to reach out to, and to love. We aren’t called to just love them, either. Just as Peter learned, when we see God at work in the lives of those outside our own group, we aren’t to disregard it. We’re to recognize it, and honor it as being of God. Peter saw, to his surprise, how God chooses to bestow his grace on all kinds of people, not just some. He asked himself, if God has given them the same grace that he’s given me, who am I that I should try to deny it, or to hinder God’s work, in them? It’s still a good question.

Thanks be to God.


“Peter’s Turning Point”

May 2, 2010Jonah 3, 4 (excerpts)The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”And the people of Nineveh believed God. …When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

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John 13;31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

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Acts 11:1-18

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

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Peter and the twelve apostles were trying to sort out what they were supposed to be doing, and how they were supposed to be doing it, in the time after Jesus was resurrected and had ascended into heaven. Jesus didn’t really leave them an instruction manual, or any detailed instructions about how to go out and make disciples. He didn’t ever tell them to start anything like the Christian Church as we think of it today. This was all uncharted territory as far as they were concerned, but we know that at first, they definitely never considered splitting off from Judaism. Jesus was a good Jew, worshipping in the synagogues in Judea and Galilee, and in the Temple in Jerusalem. He took part in the various religious festivals and observances, and of course so did the twelve apostles themselves. There wasn’t any real thought of chucking all that and starting off on a completely different course. So as they tried to come to terms with the meaning of Jesus, and their commission at this point, they did so within the general culture and understanding of the Jewish faith.

One of the most fundamental of all Jewish beliefs at the time was that they were unique in the world, in that there was one God, and one God only – and that God had uniquely chosen them to reveal himself most fully to, and that they were uniquely God’s people to the exclusion of everyone else. From the very beginning of the Hebrews’ occupation of the promised land of Canaan, they had lived with non-Hebrews in their midst – even in the account of Moses and the exodus, we’re told that there were other, non-Hebrew people who were living amongst them. But, in order to preserve the unique nature of the Hebrew people, to keep themselves in accordance with God’s command that they be holy – set aside, special in God’s eyes – they were to keep themselves separate from these people. They were not to worship their gods; they weren’t to intermarry – they weren’t even permitted to visit in their homes, or to eat a meal with them. They were completely and totally “unclean.” That’s what the scriptures said.

That’s the background for this story about Peter. What we read today is actually a recap of something that had just happened. The other eleven apostles are outraged at Peter, because he had just done exactly what the scriptures forbade him from doing – he had gone to the home of a family of non-Jews – and not just any non-Jew, this was even worse. This man, Cornelius, was a Roman centurion – a leader in the army that was occupying and oppressing the Jewish people. It would have been almost as bad as a Jewish man living in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation making a social call, and sitting down to dinner with a lieutenant in the German army. What we read today is Peter giving the other apostles his account of what had happened.

Some people have said that this story is a New Testament parallel of the story of Jonah. In fact, Peter’s actual name – Jesus calls him Simon bar Jonah – “Simon, son of Jonah” – creates a parallel between him and the Old Testament prophet. Peter is in the city of Joppa when he has his vision and he’s called to go preach to Cornelius, the Roman enemy. Jonah was also in Joppa when he tried to run away from God’s call to go preach to the people of Nineveh, the largest city of the Assyrian empire, the enemies of the Hebrew people. Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days. Peter has three repetitions of his vision.

But most important is the parallel in the actual point of the two stories. In each case, God sends someone to preach, to share God’s word, with people outside the group of the “chosen.” In fact, in both cases, they aren’t just outside the flock, they’re actively involved in hurting the flock.

The people of Israel considered themselves God’s chosen people. We Christians also consider ourselves to be God’s chosen – part of the group that has been entrusted with the revelation of the one true God. There is great blessing in this – but there is also great danger. It’s easy to jump from the thought that God has chosen you for one purpose, to the thought that God wouldn’t, and doesn’t, also chose others for some other purpose. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that because God has made you unique for some reason, that God doesn’t care about anyone else. The last verses of Jonah make this point very clear. God tells Jonah to preach to the enemies of Israel, so they will repent and be saved. And when they actually do repent, Jonah is upset. He wants to see them destroyed. They don’t deserve God’s mercy. But God tells Jonah that although they aren’t Israelites, even if they are Israel’s enemies – God still cares for them all, as much as he does for the Israelites themselves.

Peter learns this same thing in his vision. God sets in front of Peter a number of animals, all of which are considered “unclean,” and forbidden by the scriptures to eat. At first, Peter refuses to eat one of them, but God tells him “What I have made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter finally comes to understand the meaning of the vision when shortly afterward, he is called to go visit Cornelius the Gentile. He is not to consider Cornelius unclean, despite what the scriptures say. If God has called him acceptable – clean – then he is clean. God cares for Cornelius and his family, and God enters into Cornelius and his family, in exactly the same way God cares for, and enters into, Peter and his own family.

While explaining this to the other apostles, justifying his actions which were contrary to the scriptures, Peter says to them, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” This was a major turning point, not just in Peter’s life, but in the life of the Christian Church. Though this experience, Peter came to a fuller understanding of that “new commandment” that Jesus had given them, that they were to love one another in the same unconditional way that Jesus loved them. To love as Jesus loves means that it is unacceptable to draw lines between us and others, to say that God loves us, but not those others.

That’s the message for us, today, in this story from Peter’s life. We’re all really good at drawing lines of separation like that, even when we don’t want to admit it – building walls to separate us – the good, the chosen, the loved by God – and all the other poor, God-forsaken riffraff that we shouldn’t associate with. There doesn’t seem to be any end to the kinds of labels we can apply, all the us-versus-them oppositions we can create. Liberal versus Conservative. Republican versus Democrat. Black versus white. Straight versus gay – there’s one our General Assembly will fight over again, in just a little more than a month from now. Catholic versus Protestant. Christian versus Jew versus Muslim versus Hindu versus Buddhist.

But if we’re followers of Jesus, we have to remember that in the end, these groups, these labels, are meaningless. God loves them all. God works in the lives of them all. None of them are inherently “unclean” in God’s eyes, so they shouldn’t be considered unclean in ours. In God’s eyes, there’s only one group, and he calls it “Mine.” That’s the group that God calls us to reach out to, and to love. We aren’t called to just love them, either. Just as Peter learned, when we see God at work in the lives of those outside our own group, we aren’t to disregard it. We’re to recognize it, and honor it as being of God. Peter saw, to his surprise, how God chooses to bestow his grace on all kinds of people, not just some. He asked himself, if God has given them the same grace that he’s given me, who am I that I should try to deny it, or to hinder God’s work, in them? It’s still a good question.

Thanks be to God.


“My Sheep Hear My Voice”

April 25, 2010Psalm 23The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.=====Revelation 7:9-17After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

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John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

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The TV newsman Tim Russert used to tell a story about when he was just starting to host the show “Meet the Press.” One Sunday morning, his guest was Nelson Rockefeller, the multimillionaire businessman and politician, who at the time was the governor of New York. Russert had a particular question that he wanted the governor to answer, and during the interview he asked the question. Rockefeller gave an answer, but it was one of those typical politicians’ non-answers that used a lot of words, but didn’t address the actual question at all. That frustrated Russert, so as the interview continued, he found a way to reword the question and he asked it again. And again, Rockefeller gave an answer that swerved completely around the actual question, giving a good answer to some question, but not the one Russert actually asked. That frustrated him even more, and he found another way to frame the question, and he pitched it at the governor again. And a third time, the governor completely dodged it. After the interview was over and the cameras were off, the two men were sitting there on the set, talking. Russert complained to Rockefeller, “Governor, I was actually a little disappointed that you didn’t answer that one question. It’s an important issue, and the people have a right to know what you think about it.” Rockefeller looked at Russert like he was a five-year old and told him, “Listen son, I didn’t get to where I am in this world, by allowing kids like you to corner me into answering a question I don’t want to answer.”

It must have been that same kind of frustration that Russert felt that day, that the religious leaders and many of the people were feeling about Jesus in this story from John. They’d heard Jesus’ words. He’d always sort of hinted that he was the messiah, God’s chosen one, but he’d never really come out and said directly, “I am the messiah;” at least not yet. That must have confused and frustrated many people. So on this day in the Temple, the people cornered Jesus and asked him, “How long are to going to keep us waiting for an answer?” More accurately, they used a figure of speech that meant, “How long are you going to continue to annoy us?” “Don’t give us any roundabout teaching. Don’t give us another ambiguous parable. Just tell us; are you the messiah? Yes or no?

So here are Jesus and the crowd in the Temple, in this showdown moment. They’re actually in the midst of celebrating the Jewish Festival of Dedication – today, we know it as Hanukkah. If you remember, Hanukkah is a celebration of when a group of Jewish rebels – the Maccabbees – recaptured the Temple, which had been taken over by the Greek ruler Antiochus IV. Antiochus had desecrated the Temple in the Jews’ eyes – first of all, by allowing Gentiles into the Temple, but even worse, by setting up an altar in the Temple to worship his own pagan gods. Antiochus even gave himself the title “Epiphanes,” which meant that he, himself, was divine; the physical manifestation of God in human form here on earth. He was to be worshipped, and he put up images of his supposedly divine self in the Temple. Hanukkah remembers the historical even of the Maccabbees’ retaking the Temple, and its ceremonial cleansing and rededication to the Hebrew God, YHWH – and only YHWH.

And here they were in the Temple, with that event and that imagery in everyone’s minds, and not under the occupation of the former superpower, Greece, but now under the occupation of the new superpower, Rome. Everyone is wondering when, or if, God will send them a messiah to drive out these foreign oppressors once and for all time. And they want to know from Jesus, is he claiming to be the messiah they’re all supposed to rally behind, or not?

Jesus’ answer to them is “I’ve already answered your question – it just isn’t the answer you’re looking for. Even though I am the messiah, I hesitate to tell you that, because I’m not the kind of messiah you’ve come to be expecting.”

“My answer to you is to look at my life. Listen to my words; look at what I do. My wok is God’s work; God’s work is my work. The two are completely inseparable, indistinguishable, in a way that no other human has ever accomplished. God the Father and I are two sides of the same coin.” But you don’t see it, Jesus says. You don’t comprehend what’s going on here, and frankly, you wouldn’t get it if I stood on top of the Temple, and fire surrounded me, and the ground shook, and lightning shot out from my fingertips, and I yelled out, ‘I AM THE MESSIAH!!!’ Some of you just won’t get it.”

“But some of you will get it,” Jesus says to them. “Some of you will hear my voice, and know who I am and what I am. These are the ones who are my flock – my sheep. I know them, and God the Father has given me the power to give my sheep eternal life. Not just eternal in the sense of future, and unending. Not just eternal in the sense of after the grave, or somewhere else. But also eternal in the sense of a different kind of life from the life of this world. A different quality, a different fullness, a different abundance of life, right here and now. A kind of life that no one, or no thing, or no group, or no job, or no income level, or no socioeconomic status, can ever give you.”

“I know my sheep,” Jesus says, “They hear my voice, and they know who I am and what I am. And my sheep follow me.”

“They might wander off the trail a bit, away from where I want them to be. The Psalm says, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me,” and I’ll use my shepherd’s rod and staff to coax and guide my straying sheep back to where they need to be – but no one will snatch them away from me. I know my sheep, and even when they need a nudge, they’ll follow me.”

“And they have followed me,” Jesus says. “They’ve followed me into times of fear, and uncertainly, and loss, and persecution, and even death. They’ve followed me into places of sickness where they essentially invented the idea of hospitals. They’ve followed me into places of ignorance, where, wanting people to understand God’s word and God’s world more perfectly, they essentially created the idea of systematic education of youth and the university system. They’ve followed me into the alleys and ghettoes around the world, and fed and cared for the poor and the orphans of the world. They’ve followed me into the high places and low places, rich places and poor places, black places and white places and Asian places and Native American places and a thousand other places, where they’ve shared the good news – the wonderful news – that I know my sheep, and I care for and provide for my sheep, and I give abundant, eternal life to my sheep – the ones who hear my voice, and understand my answer to the question, “Am I the messiah?”

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

I think that everyone here today knows Jesus Christ. I think that everyone here today is one of Jesus’ sheep. You hear his voice. But if you haven’t done so lately, ask this: “Jesus – where do you want me to follow you? Am I following where you want me to go; am I doing what you want me to be doing? Or are you trying to use your rod and your staff to correct me, to get me in the direction you want me to head?”

Where does Christ want *you* to follow him? Maybe he wants you to help start some completely new ministry that he wants our congregation to offer to our community. Maybe he wants you to share God’s love by being a volunteer for our annual Vacation Bible School, when you haven’t done that before. Maybe he wants you to pull together a carpool, so we can offer kids whose parents don’t come to church a way to get them here for Sunday School. Maybe he wants you to organize a weekly Bible study or prayer group. Maybe he wants you to break out of your shyness and volunteer to be a lay leader during Sunday worship.

Or maybe your call from Jesus to follow him is more basic than that. Maybe you think that you’ve strayed so far from the flock that you aren’t sure if Jesus’ rod and staff will even reach you to bring you back into the flock. Maybe, based on something in your life, you think he wouldn’t even *want* you back. Maybe you’ve even started to wonder if you were ever part of the flock at all. Maybe you want to rededicate your life to Christ, to make a fresh start, to listen again to whatever it might be that Jesus is calling you to follow him into. To say that just as Easter was the first day of a totally new and changed world, you want to step up and make a new start, to set a first day of the rest of your life in Christ. To say to Christ, “I will follow you, whatever that looks like; wherever that goes.”

When the people in the Temple asked Jesus if he were the messiah, Jesus wasn’t Nelson Rockefeller. He gave their question a real answer. He said, “Look at my life. That’s my answer. If you get it, you’re one of my sheep. And my sheep hear my voice, and I know them. And my sheep follow me.”

Thanks be to God.


“Breakfast at the Lakeshore”

April 18, 2010After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

– John 21:1-19

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Last week, we looked at the story of Jesus appearing to Thomas. This story, about Jesus appearing to the disciples along the lakeshore, follows that one. In the story, we find out that the disciples have basically been hanging out together, trying to figure out what comes next, trying to make sense out of Jesus having risen from the dead. So they do what a lot of guys do when they just need to get away from things for a while – they go fishing. They must have been really hard at it; they were out all night and didn’t catch anything. Then, early in the morning, they see someone on the shoreline, and he yells out to them on the water, to throw their nets out on the other side of their boat. Now you can imagine how many times they’d actually thrown the nets over on that side of the boat all through the day and night that they’d been fishing, but they gave it a shot. And when they did, they caught more fish in the nets than they could even pull onboard. And it must have been then, as they realized that this was exactly what happened when Jesus first called Peter to be a disciple, that it was Jesus on the shoreline.

And if it wasn’t already strange, here’s where the story gets really weird. Peter realizes it’s Jesus. And he’s standing there in the boat, naked, and he’s so excited he decides to swim over to see him – but first, he gets dressed – then he jumps into the water. He gets dressed – to jump into the water. Meanwhile, the other disciples must have been sitting in the boat, thinking, “Well, that’s just Peter, I guess,” and the gospel says they just took the oars and rowed the boat ashore, since they were only about a hundred yards out. For all we know, they may have even beat Peter to the shore. Could you see that, the rest of the disciples, rowing along, passing Peter as they came in?

Before we go any further with this story, notice what had happened. The disciples had been out there fishing all that time and not caught a thing, and then Jesus intervenes and they got what they’d been working for; their nets were filled. That’s the way it is with us, too, sometimes. God will allow us to work, and work, and try to accomplish something by our own hands, our own wits, and not succeed, so that when God does finally grant to us what we’ve been trying to achieve, we can’t claim that it was through our own abilities that it happened. If God allowed everything to come to us easily, we’d never see it as having come from God. It was all us, in charge, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We say it’s all us. But through instances like this, God says no – it’s all him.

In any case, the disciples pull up onto the shoreline, and they end up having breakfast with Jesus. What a time that must have been. A nice, sunny morning. The group of disciples, Jesus risen from the dead, the cookfire, the taste of the fresh grilled fish, the smell of the food, the fire, the lake, in the morning breeze. It’s one of those times I wish I had a time machine, and I could go back and watch it all happen in real time – or maybe even join in the breakfast.

And after they’ve eaten, they’re sitting around, just enjoying the day, and their own company. And Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter answers him, Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” But Jesus asks him again, “Do you love me?” And Peter answers again, yes, I love you. But Jesus doesn’t stop, he asks again, “Peter, do you love me?”

And we don’t even need the scriptures to tell us, we can imagine for ourselves that Peter would be agitated, aggravated, by this point, thinking Jesus is questioning his loyalty and not trusting his word, and he says, “Lord, you know that I love you!”

And in that moment, Peter realizes that what Jesus had just done was to parallel the three times Peter had denied him before the crucifixion. Peter had overpromised his devotion, telling Jesus he would NEVER deny him, and just a few hours later, he’d done exactly that, three times. Now, here on the shoreline, Jesus graciously gave Peter three separate opportunities to rededicate himself, to show his love for Jesus. In the fishing incident, the disciples couldn’t catch any fish on their own, but only through God’s grace And now again, in Jesus’ questioning, even in this most famous of cases of denying Jesus, Jesus offers Peter grace – and love, and forgiveness.

William Loader wrote that the world, and across its history, the church, are littered with broken lives smashed and ground down by the vengeful, judging feet of others. There’s a line drawn at some vague point; cross the line of shame and there is no way back. It’s impossible, Hebrews tells us (6:4-6; 12:16-17). Those kinds of people are not even to be prayed for, according to 1 John 5:16.

Maybe there is a line like that, drawn somewhere. But in Jesus’ eyes, even Peter’s denial after having lived with, and touched, and loved, the physical Jesus, even *that* didn’t cross the line beyond which a person can’t be forgiven. Too many times, in the church, and in our own lives, I think we want to draw that line a lot shorter than Jesus did. The God who had not abandoned Christ in death would not abandon Peter, either. God proposed love, and forgiveness, to Peter, even sinful, denying Peter, yet again.

But there is another aspect of Jesus’ questions to Peter. Maybe you’ve heard this before, but it’s an important aspect of their conversation together that gets glossed over in the translation from Greek to Hebrew. The first time Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” the Greek word for love that Jesus uses is “agape” – that is the all-encompassing, complete, unreserved, unconditional love that God has for humanity. It’s “agape” that’s used in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” But when Peter heard that question, he understood the depth of commitment that that word meant – and maybe thinking about that instance the week before, when he’d over-promised his devotion to Jesus, and not wanting to let his mouth write a check his heart couldn’t cash again, when he answered “Lord, you know that I love you,” the word he used that we translated “love,” was “philio.” That wasn’t the same as “agape” love that Jesus asked of him. This was more of the kind of love that you would have for a friend, something far less deep than agape. A more accurate way of translating this conversation would be Jesus asking, “Peter, do you love me unconditionally and with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?” And Peter answering, “Yes Lord, you know I’m your friend.” And the second time Jesus asked the question, the same thing happened: “Peter, do you love me unconditionally, with all your heart and soul and mind and strength?” “Yes Lord, you know that I’m your friend.” But the third time Jesus asks the question, he now changes his words, using philio instead of agape: “Peter, do you love me as a friend?” And Peter replies that yes, he loves him as a friend. And after that line of questioning, Jesus blesses and commissions Peter in his service and ministry to Jesus. The love that Peter can actually offer – philio – may not be agape love, but it is good enough love. Jesus accepts Peter, and us, as we are; there is no need for us to pretend that we are perfect. We just need to know that we’re loved, and forgiven, like Peter.

Thanks be to God.


“Drawing Lines”

April 11, 2010

The angel of the LORD appeared to (Gideon) and said to him, “The LORD is with you, you mighty warrior.”Then the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.”He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”The LORD said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”Then he said to him, “If now I have found favor with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you.” And he said, “I will stay until you return.”So Gideon went into his house and prepared a kid, and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour; the meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the oak and presented them.

The angel of God said to him, “Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour out the broth.” And he did so.

Then the angel of the LORD reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of the LORD vanished from his sight. Then Gideon perceived that it was the angel of the LORD.

Then Gideon said to God, “In order to see whether you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.”

And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water.

Then Gideon said to God, “Do not let your anger burn against me, let me speak one more time; let me, please, make trial with the fleece just once more; let it be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew.”

And God did so that night. It was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew.

Judges 6:12, 14-22, 36-40

=====

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

– John 20:19-31

=====

This is one of those Sundays where I’m veering away from the Lectionary texts – at least the texts from the Old Testament. A week or so ago, we were discussing the Book of Judges in one of my classes, and we were discussing the story of Gideon, the mighty Israelite warrior in the tribal days of the people of Israel, the days before Israel was ruled by kings, when the people were still trying to occupy and settle the land. When I read today’s gospel text, the text from John that I read this morning, I noticed some parallels in the two stories.

In the part of Gideon’s story that I read this morning, you hear the story of Gideon’s being called to go into God’s service; to stand up and do something standing on faith in God to make it happen. In the story, you heard that when the angel of the Lord came to Gideon, he was doubtful. He didn’t think that he could really accomplish what he was being asked to do in service to God. He told the angel he’s the weakest person in the smallest clan in a small tribe of all the people of Israel. Surely, he said to the angel, if God wanted something done, he could find lots of better qualified, better equipped, more likely people to get it done than him. But God told Gideon not to worry, that God would be with him – that in fact, he was being chosen to do this thing specifically because he was the small one, the weak one, the unlikely one, so that when he succeeded, people would see that it was God, not Gideon, who had been at work and made it happen.

But still, Gideon had doubts. In the passage I read, you can hear Gideon ask for a sign – for proof that God was truly behind this request, and that God was going to come through for him. First in preparing the offering and the angel making it spontaneously burn, and the angel’s vanishing. And then later on, Gideon was still a bit doubtful, and he asks God for two more signs that God would be true to his word. First, that a fleece lying on the ground overnight would be soaked with dew, while everything else around it would be dry; and then that the same fleece sitting out overnight again would be bone dry when everything else around it was wet. And both times, that was exactly what happened.

Gideon was having difficulty trusting in God. It was as if he kept drawing a line in the dirt, and saying, “OK God, if you step over this line, I’ll trust you.” And God steps over that line, so then Gideon backs up and draws another line in the dirt, and says “OK, this time I really mean it – if you step over this line, then I’ll trust you and do what you want.” And on and on, each time Gideon backing up and drawing another line, not wanting to step up to the plate and show trust in God, to have faith that God will provide as he’s said he’d do.

You see that same sort of thing going on in our gospel reading today – the text that tells the story of the apostle Thomas – “Doubting Thomas,” as we all know him. We all know this story – Thomas wasn’t there in the room with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to him, and Thomas won’t believe he’s risen from the dead until he’s seen him with his own eyes, touched him with his own hands, a full week later.

We can sympathize with Gideon, and Thomas. It’s hard sometimes to step out in faith in our walk with God, when other indicators point to take the safe route, the logical route, the concrete route over the more abstract route that requires trust and faith. I’m sure it’s hard for you; I know it’s hard for me.

But time and time again throughout the Bible, we’re given examples of God doing his will through people and circumstances where faith, and trust in God’s providence, is absolutely necessary. That’s a big part of the message of the scriptures, the message that God gives us in Jesus – to have faith, and to trust in God. To take risks in our following him. If there’s anything constant throughout God’s history of revealing himself to us throughout history, it’s that we aren’t supposed to constantly play it safe and cautious, in our lives of discipleship. Doing that is us, putting ourselves in control. But God tells us to allow him to be in control, not us.

That isn’t news to us. We get that; we know that’s what Jesus says, and what the scriptures say. But still, when we’re called on to maybe step out in faith, we’re uncertain. We want signs. We want to draw a line in the dirt and say “OK, God, let me see you cross this line, and then I’ll trust in you like I say I do.”

Think about your life, and how many times God has indeed stepped across that line, and let you know he’s there, and he’s in control. If you really stop and think about it, I’ll bet you can come up with quite a few times when you’ve seen that happen in your life. But still, when the chips are down, and when we’re called on to take a stand, and to really live our faith, in faith – we often want to draw another line and ask God to show us for sure, this time. Let us see another sign. Then we’ll trust. Or we’ll back up and draw another line.

The scriptures tell us that Thomas – “Doubting Thomas” – was known as The Twin. But we never hear anything about his twin. Who was his twin?

Gideon was his twin. In a sermon on this passage from John, the great writer and minister Frederick Buechner said that we’re his twin. We doubt. We want signs. We want evidence to justify our faith, so battened-down tight and inescapable that what we want isn’t faith at all, but certainty. That isn’t what God wants from us. God wants our love – and our trust, our faith, is what shows the reality of our love.

We want to draw a line, and tell God to step across it. The reality is that God has drawn a line, held out his hand, and said, “Let me help you step across it.” We want to draw a line and see God step across it, so we can believe. Jesus told Thomas, “blessed are they who have not seen, and who believe.”

Thanks be to God.


“Taking a Second Look at the Gardener”

April 4, 2010
Easter Sunday
 Isaiah 65:17-25
For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord —
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent — its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.
=====Acts 10:34-43Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”=====

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

=====

Peter was lying in bed, sleeping – at least in theory; to be honest, he’d been awake at least as much as he’d been asleep. The roller coaster events of the whole past week kept playing out in his mind, over and over. The entry into Jerusalem to the joy and support of the crowds, even in the face of the authorities who opposed Jesus. Eating the Passover meal together, as all good Jews were called to do. The warmth, the fellowship – and then, the betrayal and the arrest. “I never trusted Judas,” he thought as he tossed and turned. “I knew there was something wrong about him from the very beginning! Why didn’t I see that coming, and do something to stop it?”

The trial. The beatings. The crucifixion and burial. He’d seen it all, and felt the pain and the horror of it all, almost as badly as if they’d been crucifying him. It was a ghastly thing to watch, and then to see him taken off the cross, wrapped in fine linen cloth, and laid in the tomb, as dead as the iron nails they’d pried out of him to get him off the cross. Well, that was it, then. Time to sneak out of Jerusalem, go back to Capernaum. Go back to fishing, fade into the woodwork. It was all over. A failure. A waste of time.

Then, it seemed like just as he’d finally fallen asleep, just before dawn, Mary Magdalene came knocking on his door. He listened to her story about the body being gone. Now what? Couldn’t they even leave the man’s body rest in peace?

When he got out to the tomb, he went inside to see what was going on. The linen cloths that had covered his body were lying there, the face cover over there, the body covering over there. That didn’t make any sense. Anyone who wanted to move the body, or even steal it, wouldn’t have unwrapped the body and left the coverings here. What was going on? He left, heading back into the city to try to sort all this out.

From reading this story for the past 2,000 years, we know that Peter should have stayed at the tomb with Mary. Like when we’re watching a movie and we see someone about to do something stupid, we want to yell out to Peter, “Stop! Don’t do it!” We want to tell him to stay there just a little bit longer. Of course, we know he doesn’t, and it’s to Mary that Jesus chooses to appear to first. Mary Magdalene is the first person to know the amazing, wonderful, world-changing news that Jesus has risen from the dead – that Jesus is alive.

When people have read this story, they’ve wondered how Mary wouldn’t have recognized Jesus immediately when he appeared to her. Some people have suggested that Jesus had somehow altered his physical appearance, that his resurrection body was flesh and blood, but it was different in some way that allowed him to control how others saw him. There’s evidence to that in several other accounts of Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection. Other people have suggested that Mary was just so emotionally upset tht she just wasn’t paying close enough attention to recognize Jesus right there in her midst. Personally, I think the reality was probably a bit of both. But regardless of the details, we know that at first, Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize Jesus when he first appeared to her that morning at the tomb. She thought he was the gardener.

I wonder how many times Jesus has appeared to me in some way or another, and I haven’t recognized him. Maybe that sounds corny to some people, but I mean it literally. The scriptures tell us that people have encountered angels without being aware of it, and Jesus told his followers that whenever they cared for the least of his children, they did it to him. So I wonder how many times Jesus has actually been right in front of me, speaking to me, and I’ve not noticed.

I can tell you that there have been quite a few times this past year that I’ve stood in hospital rooms and realized that I was experiencing something far more than just another patient visitation. I’ve had hospital patients break down in tears and tell me that I’d knocked on their door right after they’d prayed for a pastoral visit, or for some word to answer a question deep in their hearts – and something I’d said to them spoke exactly to that question; it was the word they needed to hear. I’ve had strangers look at me, like they were looking through me to something else – someone else – and they’ve told me that in that moment, when they’d looked into my eyes, they had felt and seen God.

And I knew they didn’t mean it as any kind of ego booster to me, because in fact, countless times in countless hospital rooms, I’ve experienced the very same thing. Some hospital patient has grabbed my hand and said something to me that has ministered to me, something that spoke directly to the deepest part of my soul, speaking directly to some concern of my own that they could never have known about. And in those moments I’ve looked into their eyes, and I’ve seen them, but also something more than them. I’ve seen someone else, looking through their eyes, as strange as I know that might sound. In that moment, in those eyes I’ve felt a love and acceptance that was so powerful that it felt like it was penetrating into my bones. I knew in that moment that I was in the presence of Christ himself, in a way that has literally made me tremble, and want to get down on my knees. In those moments in the hospital, I’ve experienced something very much like Mary Magdalene must have experienced that morning at the tomb.

Now, I don’t want you to think I’ve gone off my rocker. I’m still the same relatively sane, normal person I’ve always been. But I can tell you that those experiences were very definitely real. And my point in telling you about them is only to tell you that these same kinds of experiences – Christ appearing, trying to break into our lives in a real, concrete way – are going on around all of us, every day.

But all too often, we’re too distracted to notice. We’ve got too much else on our mind to think about whether God is trying to speak in some direct way like that to us. Maybe we even have trouble thinking that God, if there even is a God, works like that, or cares to get involved in an individual person’s life like that.

So we think that as we go through our days, we think were just talking to our husband, or our wife. Our kids. A friend. The neighbor working on the other side of the fence. The person you make chitchat with in the checkout line. The panhandler standing along the edge of Bridge Street. That’s all it is. It’s just them. It isn’t Jesus. It’s just the gardener.

But look again. Maybe it isn’t just them. Maybe it’s someone else, too. Maybe it’s Christ, working through them, trying to tell you something, trying to let you know something that you need to hear, trying to let you feel some love that you need to feel. Trying to touch the deepest corner of your heart.

Let’s all open our eyes this Easter morning. Let’s keep our hearts open to the very real possibility that we just might encounter Christ – the very same Christ who was crucified and was raised from the dead. We might encounter him in a way and place that we’d never have imagined, in the face of a person we’d have least expected – but still in a very real and powerful way. Look for Christ today, in everything around you. See Christ, in the newness and beauty of the season, and the people who surround you. Listen for Christ, because some 2,000 years ago, he wasn’t just killed and buried and forgotten. Listen for Christ because he lives! Because on that first day of the week, God raised him from the dead as validation that Jesus’ teachings were correct, that his word was true. God raised Jesus from the dead in order to say to all the world in the most concrete way possible, “This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him!”

Is every person you meet, every encounter that you have, purely random chance? Maybe. But look again, and listen again. Because not every person you meet in the garden is just the gardener.

Thanks be to God.


“Riding into (our) Jerusalem”

March 28, 2010Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.This is the gate of the LORD;
the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O LORD!
O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD.
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.

=====

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it'” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
And glory in the highest heaven!”

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

=====

Last week, I mentioned how dangerous it had been for Jesus to have gone to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, and to visit and have dinner with Lazarus’ family – basically sing in the backyard of his enemies, the religious leaders based just a few miles away in Jerusalem. At this point, even those religious leaders who didn’t want to physically harm Jesus – who just assumed that over time, he’d fade into disfavor and be forgotten like so many other would-be messiahs – even they must have felt like Jesus was tweaking their noses a bit, forcing them to acknowledge and deal with him being there in their midst. Of course, that’s exactly what Jesus was doing, and as in-your-face as his trip to Bethany was, he was about to ratchet things up even further by riding right into Jerusalem, surrounded by crowds of people cheering him on. Each year, on Palm Sunday, we remember this event. We sing “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” and we read about this event from the gospels. We wave our palm fronds and we hear those words that the crowd called out – “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” These same words that we offer up every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. And each Palm Sunday, we think about that mix of emotions that were part of that procession. The joy, the hope that Jesus was going to ride into Jerusalem and finally set things right for the Jewish people who had been oppressed for so long. The fear on the part of Jesus’ disciples, who realized that Jesus was heading directly into the belly of the beast, and who worried that maybe Jesus was heading toward his own death. And the thoughts of Jesus himself, who knew that they were right.

Jesus’ actions on that day, and the coming days, forced himself into the consciousness of the Jewish and Roman leadership at a time, during the Passover festival in the city, when everyone’s eyes would be focused on how they would handle this challenge to their authority. Through his actions, Jesus’ confrontation – his demand that the world take notice of what was happening – the world was about to turn, to change forever.

Have you noticed that that’s often the way that Christ works in our lives, too? We want to concentrate on something else in our lives – it could be anything at all, the details don’t really matter, whatever it is that draws our attention away from God. Maybe it’s wanting to focus on something that God tells us we shouldn’t. Or maybe it’s something more subtle. Maybe it’s wanting to avoid a difficult situation or decision. We’d rather not think about it, or we worry about the consequences, the fallout, of confronting it. The reality of the thing scares us, so we avoid it. We humans are never more creative than we are when we’re trying to avoid uncomfortable, difficult situations.

But Jesus wants us to confront them. Jesus confronts us in his own way – a way that can’t be ignored, calling us to face those things in our lives. Those painful little pricks to our consciences that come through from time to time, no matter how hard we try to ignore them, are Jesus – riding into our own consciousness on a donkey, with all the fanfare and shouting that we just can’t ignore.

Jesus rides into our existence, pointing out the way to be reconciled with God, and forcing us to recognize the futility of thinking we can do it all on our own. He calls us to come to him, and be part of the parade. And after that, he continues to ride into our own personal Jerusalem, pointing out those difficult choices that we have to face – choices away from living only for ourselves, choices away from avoiding the tough, maybe painful decisions that life sometimes demands of us. And all the while, Jesus never takes his gaze off of you. He tells you, “You can do this! You can make this change that you’re so worried, so afraid of – and it will make you better. It will make you a stronger disciple of mine – I promise!”

One day not too long ago, I was visiting with an old man in the hospital, and he was telling me about some of the tough experiences, the tough choices and difficult situations that he’d had to confront and deal with over the course of his long life within the faith. He told me that his whole life was like climbing up the rough side of a mountain. He said that everyone always wants to climb up the smooth side, the easy side, of the mountain. But climbing up the rough side of the mountain was a good thing, he said – because climbing up the rough side of the mountain makes you a stronger, better climber. Climbing on the smooth side, where there isn’t any resistance, doesn’t build your strength or your character, like the rough side does. And if you’re climbing the rough side of the mountain, if you slip, there are more places to catch yourself and keep climbing – but if you slip on the smooth side, you might just slide all the way back to the bottom.

I was really impressed with the old man’s wisdom as he sat there telling me this. It took something away from the experience when I learned later that week, entirely by accident, that the old man was actually quoting the lyrics, almost verbatim, from an old gospel song recorded by the great gospel singer Dorothy Norwood, and many others, no doubt. But even still, I think it’s a pretty good picture of what we all face in life.

What is it that God is calling you to confront in your own life? Turning away from some sinful thought or action? Facing some difficult situation, maybe something that’s been brewing for some time? Being afraid to step out in faith, and trusting in God? Whatever it is, here comes Jesus, riding into our Jerusalem, forcing himself into our lives – and telling us that even though he may have had to walk his lonesome valley, the path to the cross, all by himself, we don’t have to. Because when we walk through our own valley, whatever it is, he’s promised to walk it with us.

Thanks be to God.


“Crazy Mary”
March 21, 2010Isaiah 43:16-21Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.John 12:1-8Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”=====

If I sat down to write a story, and there was something really big, really important about to happen in the plot, I would very likely include things within the story that will hint at the big thing about to happen. I’d include events that would point toward, or reflect, that big thing; and when the big plot twist occurred, a person reading the story would be able to make the mental connection between the two parts of the story, and see how the whole story is connected.

There’s some of that going on in this passage from John that we read today. To set this particular story in context, Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead – the ultimate showstopper for miracle workers, resurrecting someone who had been dead and rotting in the tomb for four days. Jesus did this miracle in the region of Judea, not far out of Jerusalem, where his powerful enemies were plotting to get rid of him. It was so risky for Jesus to be in the area that when he said he was going, Peter told the other disciples, We might as well go too, and die along with him. John is setting up the big thing coming up in the story.

Shortly after the story we read here today, Jesus make his entry into Jerusalem for the Passover, and all the events of his crucifixion and resurrection are about to unfold. But before that, before all the events of that week, Jesus celebrated this dinner with Lazarus and his family. Just imagine the emotion of that day. The incredible joy that Lazarus is sitting there at the table with them all, alive and eating with them. Just imagine what you’d be thinking if you were one of Lazarus’ sisters, Mary or Martha, or especially Lazarus himself. But even in the midst of that great joy, there’s tension, also. Peter and the other disciples, constantly looking over their shoulders for the religious leaders who wanted them stopped, and while they must have been glad that their friend was alive, they must have also wondered if Jesus had lost his mind. Here he was, practically in the religious leaders’ back yard, rubbing their noses in his authority and his ministry, and practically daring them to come and get him.

We can see in this story of Lazarus being raised from the dead after several days a preview of what’s about to happen to Jesus himself in the very near future. It’s one of those hints, those connections, to the big plot twist about to happen.

And John tells us that during the dinner, Mary took some perfumed ointment – very expensive, and a lot of it – a whole pound of it, we’re told – and she begins to anoint Jesus’ feet with it. This was a double precursor of the events that are about to unfold in the story. This ointment, nard, was often used in the treatment of dead bodies. In fact, Jesus even says something about that in the story. But Mary’s act of anointing Jesus’ feet are also a precursor of the Last Supper, when John tells us that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples in an act of love and humility, telling them that as he acted as their servant, so they are to act as servants to others, or they have no place in the Kingdom of God. So there are at least three distinct connections between the story of Lazarus’ resurrection and this meal with the family, and the events of Jesus’ week in Jerusalem.

John tells us that Judas Iscariot criticized Mary for what she did, saying that she should have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor. According to the story, the perfume was worth 300 denarii. That was about a year’s wages for an average worker.

Let’s put that into local perspective. The average annual income for a person here locally is around $40,000. Can you imagine smearing 35 or 40 thousand dollars’ worth of ointment on someone’s feet? What would people think of that? What would we think of it? It does seem pretty wasteful. That kind of money would have fed and clothed a lot of people. Yet for all of his concern for the poor and the suffering, Jesus told Judas to back off, that Mary was doing something good.

This sort of debate has come up many times in the history of the faith. We see all the untold amounts of money that have been used to create and amass beautiful cathedrals, priceless sculpture and paintings, commissioned by the Christian church. Even in our own small way, in our own humble church building, look at the beautiful stained glass windows. Would the mission of the church have been better served if that money had gone to the poor? If there had never been a St. Peter’s, or a Chartres Cathedral. If Michelangelo had never carved the Pieta. If they’d just gone with an acoustical ceiling for the Sistine Chapel.

I have to admit that, even as an architect, I’ve always had mixed emotions when thinking about this question. I know that we’re called to help those in need, and in ways far more sacrificial than most of us are really willing to accept. But I also know that, as Jesus tells us here, we will always have the poor with us, and that we are called to use our talent and treasure to creatively express our love and devotion to God. It’s still difficult, though, to see the beauty of a Renaissance painting of Jesus commissioned by the church, displayed in a Vatican museum and worth millions of dollars, when the images of starving and diseased children keep coming into your mind. How many people would be fed, clothed, housed, and educated with the proceeds of selling just that one painting?

That debate of where the line is drawn, where the balance of these competing aspects of our faith is struck, will go on probably until Christ returns. But still, we know that Jesus honored what Mary did at that meal. What exactly was it that she did that found such favor with Jesus?

First, she gave her resources, her wealth, in order to give glory to God. And based on the value of the perfume, she must have been giving sacrificially – she wasn’t just giving to God out of her surplus. She wasn’t just “giving until it hurt,” as we might say. She was giving beyond the point where it started to hurt. Plus, she was doing it out of pureness of heart, to express her deep love of Christ and her gratitude. Finally, she was expressing this love and gratitude cheerfully, and without giving a flying leap about what other people might say about it. She was being crazy, but she was being crazy for God. And Jesus blessed and honored her for her craziness.

Just imagine what we could accomplish as a church, as God’s people, if we all acted as crazily as Mary. If we gave to God not just the skim off the top of our resources, but if we even moved just a bit closer to Mary’s lead. If we did it with the same cheerful heart, and the same attitude of not caring what the conventional wisdom would say.

Whether we’re talking about living more faithfully by giving God more of our treasure, or more of our time, or more of our trust, it’s hard. We can all read the scriptures; we know that God tells us that if we’re faithful, and we show that faith through the way we live, that God will be faithful to his promises, and that he will provide for us. That he’ll never let us down. But even though we read it, and maybe we want to show that faith – we want to follow Mary’s faithful example – instead of being Mary, we feel more like Peter, sitting in the fishing boat, and is standing out on the water, telling Peter to walk on over to him, that if he has faith, he can do it. Like Peter, we look out of our boat, and we look at the water, and we want to step out of the boat in faith – but our common sense kicks in and tells us it’s impossible. If we step out of the boat, we’ll sink like a rock. If we give more of our treasure and time to God, we’ll come up short for ourselves. That’s our brain talking. That’s Judas Iscariot telling us to be more prudent and cautious. But we don’t follow Judas Iscariot. We don’t worship Judas Iscariot. We worship Jesus Christ. And Jesus promised us that if we were faithful to God, God would be faithful to us. Jesus honored Mary for the way she gave of herself to him. And he’ll do the same for us – if we’re willing to be as crazy as Mary.

Thanks be to God.


“A Family Portrait”

March 14, 2010

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32=====Today’s gospel reading – the Parable of the Prodigal Son – is one of the most familiar passages in the Bible. Even people with little, or even no, connection with the Christian faith, are often familiar with the parable of the prodigal son, or at least that term, “prodigal son,” to refer to a young man who wastes his money on an extravagant and indulgent lifestyle. Over the years, the parable has been the subject of countless artists – here over my head, you can see one of the most well-known of these, a depiction of the parable in a famous painting by Rembrandt.Of course, the parable is a story that Jesus told to teach us something about God, and us, and the relationships among us. To be honest, the parable should really be called the Parable of the Man with Two Sons – in fact, that’s what it’s becoming known as more and more – because it’s really about much more than just the story of the younger son, as important as that part of the story is. This text, and the historical context of Jesus’ time and culture, tells us a lot about all three of the main characters in the parable – father, younger son, and older son.Jesus starts this story with the opening, “A man had two sons.” All of Jesus’ listeners were very accustomed to stories meant to teach important lessons through accounts of the relationship between brothers and their parents – Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, the sons of Noah, Jacob and Esau; these and many other examples are found in the Old Testament to illustrate and teach important life lessons. So when Jesus’ listeners heard him start this story this way, he already had their attention – what kind of moral lesson was he going to teach?

The passage tells us that the younger son was unmarried, which means in this culture that he was probably in his late teens or early twenties, and that unlike the way that Rembrandt painted the story, the father would have been in his late forties, or at most his mid fifties – in other words, he wasn’t really an old man at all; he was in the prime of his life(!). In other words, he wasn’t anywhere near the grave, and when the young son asked for his inheritance when the father was only at that age, he was really jumping the gun. Jesus’ listeners would have been appalled at the young man’s actions – and his turning around and selling it off for the cash while the father was still alive was an even greater social offense. This just wasn’t done in that culture, where honoring one’s parents – and especially one’s father – was of the utmost importance. Of course, the fifth commandment is to honor your father and mother, and that established the baseline. But in the Old Testament, you find even more stipulations, including the death penalty for any child who hurt, or even disobeyed or insulted their parents. While there isn’t much evidence that the culture ever really followed that strict a standard, it shows just how important the standard of honoring and respecting one’s parents was in the culture. And the young man’s actions in Jesus’ story are the equivalent of him telling his father, “You’re dead to me – I’m getting on with my own life!”

And then the story plays out. The young man ends up blowing a third of the family fortune on wild living, and he finally learns the hard way that there’s no one lonelier than a man who’s just spent his last dollar. At this point, most of Jesus’ listeners must have assumed that the whole moral of the story would be to show how this arrogant little snot was going to get what he deserved.

But we know that isn’t what happened at all. Instead, the young man comes to his senses and comes back to the father, not expecting any special treatment or consideration as his son at all. And for his part, the father runs out the road to meet the son while he was still far away – throwing out all the dignity and decorum that a father was expected to have toward even his obedient children, let alone problem children. He warmly welcomes the young man back into the fold. Look at the Rembrandt painting. The young son, beaten by the world, finally repentant and returning to seek his father’s forgiveness. The father – look at the father’s hands – one hand strong and firm, open wide, supporting and assuring him; the other hand soft, fingers together, comforting and offering compassion to him. And in the background, barely visible, is the older son. The “good son.” The one who stayed home. The one who played by the rules, and never caused his father any trouble. He doesn’t even want to go into the house; he’s so outraged at the weak and shameful way the father is treating his good-for-nothing brother. What will the neighbors think about the old man’s behavior? I mean, there are traditions and standards that we’re supposed to uphold. The scriptures teach us that troublemaking children are supposed to be punished, not rewarded. And let’s face it, now that he’s back, you just know the old man’s going to put him back in the will, and I’ll end up with even less of an inheritance for all my playing by the rules. This just isn’t fair.

Whether we consider it fair by our standards or not, Jesus tells us that’s what’s fair by God’s standards.

Jesus is actually telling us something about all three of the people in this family portrait, that obviously isn’t really about a family of first-century Jewish farmers at all, but about God and us.

There’s the young son who rejects his father and wants to call our own shots. He’s hit rock bottom. Jesus is telling his listeners that, just as the young son found out, there isn’t any depth that we can sink to, or any disgraceful or hurtful treatment that we can show to God, that will keep God from welcoming us back into his loving embrace. Think about how amazing that is: there is *nothing* that we can do that God hasn’t seen a billion times before. Nothing. You just can’t screw up so badly that God won’t welcome you back. If we hit rock bottom in our own lives, whatever that means in our own circumstances, and we come to our senses and want to turn back to God, all we have to do is take that first step on the road home. God will come running out, even while we’re still a long way off, and meet us and usher us back into the house, into the family.

And there’s the older son. The good son. The respectable one; the one who doesn’t like the grace and forgiveness offered to the one who didn’t. The one who doesn’t see anything in it for him for having played by all the rules if the other guy is going to get off scot-free. The truth is, it was the people who identified with the older brother that Jesus was actually trying to reach by telling this parable. His message to them is to remember that God loves all of his children – and there is always room at the table for any of his children who want to come home. In Jesus’ lesson, we need to notice that just because the young son received the father’s grace and love, the older son wasn’t rejected. The older son still has God’s love – he always has, and always will. And with God, there’s plenty of inheritance to go around – just because God shows unbelievable, illogical, limitless grace to others, there’s still an unending supply of that same grace for all of us.

Have you ever felt like one of these two brothers? Do you feel like one of them now? Jesus offers a message of warning, and hope, and grace, to both of them equally. It’s the message of Lent – turn away from the sin of wanting to call the shots ourselves – whether that’s in defining our own lives, or in defining how God should behave – and step onto the road that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation. God’s watching out the window, waiting to run out to greet us.

And look at the father in this story. Look at the picture of God that Jesus paints for us. It’s a picture of a God who won’t be hemmed in by social expectations, traditions or customs that try to define and limit him in how he acts to reconcile his children to himself. A God who won’t stand on formality, who is so strong that he doesn’t worry about being seen as weak. A God who even acts in ways that we, from our human viewpoint, might think is shocking, even scandalous, in order to bring us back into the family. That isn’t just the message of this parable; it’s the message of Easter. It’s a picture of a God who embraces us, whether we think we’re the “good one” or the “bad one,” with the strong hand of support, and the soft hand of compassion, and who says “Welcome home, child – you were lost, and now you’re found.”

Thanks be to God.


“Do-Over”

March 7, 2010I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-13=====At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” – Luke 13:1-9

=====

Do you remember when you were a kid, and you were playing some game, and you messed up – say, you were playing baseball and you struck out; or you were playing a board game and you weren’t paying attention and you made a really bad move – and this was just a friendly game, not some kind of cut-throat competition, so the people you were playing with gave you another chance – maybe another swing at the ball, or to take the bad move back? They let you take a “do-over.”

The scripture readings that we read today are all about the do-over. The whole gospel is the message that no matter how much we’ve messed up, God is offering us a way to get a do-over for our lives.

In the passage from 1 Corinthians, Paul tells us about the ancient Israelites – that they lived “in the cloud” – that is, if you remember in stories from the Exodus, that God was present with them, enclosed within a cloud, and the cloud stayed with them in their encampment. They saw the parting of the Red Sea; they walked on the sea bed as if it were dry land. They actually ate the manna, the bread from heaven that God had given them, every morning, six days a week. They had that much evidence of God’s presence and love and provision for them – and even in those circumstances, being able to witness God’s presence far more concretely than most of us ever will, they still messed up and strayed from God.

Paul says that we need to see the mistakes of the ancient Israelites as a message for us – that if they could trip up even with all the evidence of God’s presence in their midsts, we certainly could, and we shouldn’t get too comfortable. And if we want to think that no one understands, that we’re unique – that no one else has ever had to face the trials, the tests that we’re facing, Paul reminds us that there’s really nothing unique in our experiences. There have been countless thousands, millions of other people who have been tested in the exact same ways that we are. And we can take comfort in, and gain strength from the fact that God has been good and faithful to them, and God will be faithful to us, too. – and Paul tells us that God doesn’t allow us to be tested more than we can bear.

That’s a very bold claim – God doesn’t allow us to be tested more than we can bear. I want to believe that. I think that I believe that. But I’m honest enough with myself to admit that there are times when I have trouble believing it. I mean, I can think of tests and troubles that people have had to endure that could crush any of us to dust. All of the horrendous things that can happen to us in this world. The pain, the suffering, the loss. All those things that can crush our spirits and draw us away from God. But then, the situation wasn’t any different in Paul’s time; in fact, it was undoubtedly worse. And still, Paul tells us that whenever we’re faced with a test in our lives, God will always provide us with a way out of it. Always. God will give us a way to survive our testing and not be destroyed or defeated by it. It might not be the way we expected or prayed for. It might be a completely different way, one that we never imagined. It might even be a way that we’re afraid to accept, one that requires us to step out in faith to accept.. But make no mistake. God is good, and God will provide that way. God always gives us the chance for a do-over.

In the passage from Luke that we read, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. A man owned a vineyard, and there was a fig tree planted in the middle of the vineyard that wasn’t producing any fruit. The owner told his gardener to cut down the tree; it was just wasting space in the garden. And kind of like Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, the gardener says no, maybe this isn’t such a bad little tree after all – maybe all it needs is a little love, and another chance. Let me take care of it, and nurture it, and let’s see if it produces fruit next year. Of course, this is a parable about Jesus offering us a way to find acceptance and reconciliation with God – Jesus is the gardener, and we’re the unproductive little tree that’s been spared for a while longer to see if we’ll produce fruit.

I think it’s striking that there isn’t any mention about what happened when the owner came back the following year. Did the tree produce fruit? Based on another of Jesus’ teaching – that God wants us to forgive “seventy times seven” times, being willing to give an almost endless supply of do-overs ourselves – I can imagine the owner of the vineyard coming back, year after year, and each year, the gardener buying off a little more time for the fig tree – just one more year; just one more year; just one more year.

Of course, there will come a time for all of us when the owner of the vineyard says “enough.” We’ve either produced fruit or we haven’t. None of us know how much time we have left; we just know that at some time, the game will be over for us. There won’t be another day, another do-over.

Lent is a reminder to us that the do-over that God offers us is to give us a chance to really live a life that pleases God, a life modeled on Christ’s example to us – and it’s impossible to be a follower of Christ in a vacuum. We can’t think that our relationship with God is right if our relationships with other people aren’t right. Among other things, Lent is a time for us to reflect on that – to examine whether our relationships with the people around us are in need of a do-over, too.

The chaplain walked into the hospital room and started talking with the man in the bed. He said his name was Bill. He told the chaplain that he was in the middle of chemotherapy, that he was battling colon cancer. The two men talked for a while, and during the process, the man said that at various times, he’d been a Baptist, a Lutheran, and had even been a member of the Nation of Islam for a while, and now he was a nondenominational Christian. The chaplain asked Bill how his diagnosis had affected his life, what sorts of changes the cancer had caused him.

He only thought for a moment, and then he said, “Well, this has made me focus. I think I’m going to get through this, but then again, I might not, and I have to think about what that means to me. I can tell you this, don’t make any mistake about it. I’ve had moments of such unbearable pain, I can’t even put it into words. But even at that, in other ways, I feel more alive now than I think I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I sat here yesterday, just looking out the window. It was snowing, and the snow was those great big, fat, fluffy snowflakes just float down slow and heavy. And I never really took the time before to notice how amazing, how beautiful they really were. Just watching those snowflakes made me a kid again, and I was sled riding with my Dad, and I was trying to catch big snowflakes like those on my tongue. I loved going sledding with my Dad, those were some of my happiest times, and I got to experience that all over again just watching those beautiful snowflakes.”

Bill went on to talk about his youngest son. He’d been estranged from him for years, and the two of them had only recently gotten back together. Bill told the chaplain that his son had called him just before the chaplain came into the room, wanting to borrow some of his clothes to wear to work. “I always got so upset at how irresponsible he could be. He used to borrow my clothes – I’m very meticulous about my clothing; my Dad always taught me that clothes make the man, and he was right – he’d borrow my clothes, and he wouldn’t take care of them, or I wouldn’t get them back at all. I finally told him he couldn’t borrow any of my things any more. But now he asks, and I just look at it as a gift to be able to help him, and to just spend a little time with him. My cancer taught me how much I love him – how precious life is; how precious our time together is; what a great gift I’ve been given.”

Bill and the chaplain talked some more, and they prayed. Just as they were wrapping up their prayer, Bill’s son came in, wearing a dress shirt of his Dad’s, and carrying a necktie he’d borrowed. “Here, Dad, I don’t know how to tie a necktie; you have to tie this for me,” he said, as he handed it to Bill.

Using pretty much all the strength he had, Bill sat up in the bed, putting the tie loosely around his neck and listening to his son talking about his day. Bill’s fingers fumbled through the Double Windsor knot that he was blindly tying from memory. While his son kept talking, Bill sat there, living out his do-over with his son, and with a smile on his face he looked up at me and said, “This is heaven. This is heaven.”

Thanks be to God.

(note: due to a technical difficulty, the last few minutes of this sermon were not recorded in audio format)


“Resident Aliens”

February 28, 2010

Philippians 3:17-4:1Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.=====You probably remember a while back, when I took a Sunday morning off, and Jon Hauerwas, one of the pastors up in Worthington, came down to preach. Jon’s a good friend, and part of that group of “pastor friends” that I like to keep in touch with. But Jon isn’t the only minister out there named Hauerwas. Jon’s cousin – a man named Stanley Hauerwas – is a very well-known minister, seminary professor, and one of the most influential theologians alive today. In fact, back in 2001, TIME Magazine wrote a feature article about him, naming him “America’s Greatest Theologian.” I’m not sure that’s quite accurate, and he’d probably say the same. But still, that gives you some idea of his place in the Church today. He’s written a number of very interesting, challenging, and thought-provoking books and magazine articles. He typically doesn’t bog his writing down in a lot of academic or theological jargon; he writes for all of us. If you ever get a chance, I’d strongly recommend reading some of his books. He’s often considered a thorn in the side of the Church. Sometimes his views can be very controversial – some people would even say outrageous. I certainly don’t agree with all of his opinions, and it’s pretty hard to read any of his books without getting mad at him at least a few times – but I suppose that would actually make Stanley Hauerwas very happy, since most of his writing is meant to challenge people, to make them uncomfortable with their assumptions, and to make them think outside of the normal theological box.One of his publications is a really interesting book called “Resident Aliens.” Don’t get the wrong idea; it doesn’t have anything to do with UFOs or extraterrestrials. That’s actually a biblical term, term that was used to describe the Israelites when they lived in lands ruled by others; or to describe the non-Hebrews who lived among the Israelite people. In the book, he points out that as Christians, we’re living in a very different world, a changed world, from the one Christians knew just a generation or so ago – and he’s talking about a change far more fundamental than just the existence of cell phones, iPods and the internet.

To illustrate the change he’s talking about, he points to a Sunday evening in 1963, when the movie theater in his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina decided to defy state law and opened its doors for business on Sunday. He tells how he and his buddies in the Methodist Youth Fellowship had made a pact – they were going to enter the front door of the church for the youth group meeting that evening, make sure they were seen there, and then quietly slip out a back door and go down to the theater to catch John Wayne on the big screen.

That might sound funny, but Hauerwas correctly points out that an important societal shift occurred sometime between the 1960’s and the 1980’s for pretty much all of us in America. After that shift, you couldn’t just assume that our society was going to give the Christian church the kind of free pass it had been given up until then. That isn’t to say that everyone in America had been living virtuous Christian lives before that; not at all. But in general, and whether it was hypocritical or not, the laws, customs, and general practices in the country really revolved around accommodating “Christian values.”

Before that shift, it was assumed that you were a Christian just by virtue of having been born in America. That was just the default setting. Whether anyone really would have put it in those words, the truth is that almost everyone believed that. And now, just a generation removed, there is a near complete reversal – today, virtually no one believes that. Our society is no longer designed to provide default support for some version of Christian values. Hauerwas goes on in the book to show how, even though it poses certain new challenges for Christians, this is actually a very good thing. It means we Christians can’t rely on that “cultural Christianity” any more. It was a kind of watered down Christianity, anyway – with all the difficult spots rubbed smooth, and the tough individual responsibilities of living our faith largely removed. Now, we’re forced to do what we really should have been doing all along – to focus on what it really means to be a Christian living within our culture. We’re forced to make conscious choices, often difficult choices, to live the Christian faith, instead of according to our surrounding culture. We have to choose to live differently. We’re called to be resident aliens.

Hauerwas’ point in the book is exactly what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Philippians. In the passage that we read from it today, we hear Paul talking about the general culture, and the value system, that the Philippians were living within. Paul called on the Philippian Christians to stand firm in their faith, to live within that world but not to be conformed toward its value system, and away from the Christian value system. Paul reminds the Christians in Philippi – and his words remind us, too – that even though we may be considered citizens of our country, our real “citizenship” is in heaven. Our real loyalty lies with Christ and the Kingdom of God.

Living as a resident alien means that we need to recognize that we’re different from much of the culture we live within. We have to take responsibility for ourselves to live in conformance with our own value system. We can’t expect our society to agree with us, or to do it for us, or even to make it easy for us. We can’t just rely on society to instill a general Christian value system in ourselves or our children; we have to be serious about our own responsibility for doing that. When our children want to do something that our culture says is perfectly fine, but it’s contrary to our faith, we have to teach them “That’s okay for other people, but we believe differently, and we believe that God wants us to live differently.” We say that to our kids, and we say that to ourselves.

Last week, we talked about the idea of asking for God’s strengthening to keep us on the right path and to avoid more sin in our lives. I asked you if you believed that you could do that, and you agreed that you could. This week, the lesson isn’t “You can do it;” this week, Paul’s message to us is “Keep on doing it.” Keep on doing it, because that’s how we live as the real body of Christ in the world. Keep on doing it, because the Son of God loved us so much that he lowered himself – Paul would say “humiliated” himself – to become human, a mere mortal, like us. And because Christ humiliated himself in this way, and because he allowed himself to be humiliated on the cross for us, Paul tells us that we can, and should stand strong in our faith even if we face disagreement, or ridicule, or humiliation, from people around us within our culture. Keep on doing it, Paul says. Keep on doing it, because that’s what Christ teaches us to do. Keep on doing it, because if we allow ourselves to be humiliated for Christ’s sake – if we share in his humiliation, we will also share in his glory.

The cross has become the single most symbol of Christianity. It’s almost everywhere, and on everything. We make crosses out of stained glass, and polished brass. We make them out of gold, and silver, and encrust them with gemstones, and wear them as jewelry. But before the cross became a thing of beauty, it was first a thing of ugliness, and humiliation, and suffering. The real cross was a stark, painful thing, full of splinters, and covered with blood and other bodily fluids, and scraps of flesh from Jesus’ beaten body left there as he pushed himself up on the spike driven through his feet in order to gasp for breath. It stood there mocking Jesus and his followers, looking and smelling of death and defeat after they pulled Jesus’ dead body off of it, the sign still hanging from it – “Here is the King of the Jews.” By Sunday, Jesus would be transformed into a glorious new life with a transformed new body, and the cross would become the transformed symbol of the faith. It would become the diamond-studded gold necklace. But before it could become that, Jesus had to do the heavy lifting of carrying his own cross to his own death and humiliation. In a similar way, we have to accept the heavy lifting required of resident aliens. We have to take responsibility for living our faith deliberately and with integrity, and transmitting the faith to new generations – without expecting society to carry the weight of our cross for us.

Thanks be to God.


“The Temptations”

February 21, 2010

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. – Luke 4:1-13=====If you know anything about President Calvin Coolidge, it’s probably that he was famous for being a pretty quiet guy. He generally kept a pretty tightly-buttoned lip, and when he did speak, it was as short and to-the-point as possible. One Sunday morning, Coolidge went to church, and for some reason his wife couldn’t attend with him. When he got home, she asked him how church was. His only answer was just, “Fine.”“Well, what was the preacher’s sermon about?”“Sin.”“Well, what did he say about it?”

“He was against it.”

Today’s sermon is about temptation, and sin. For the record, I’m against it, too.

We’ve been jumping around in Luke’s gospel over the past several weeks. Today, we heard the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, which Luke tells us happened just after Jesus’ baptism.

When we read this story, most of us probably try to picture it in our minds, to imagine what it must have been like if we’d been there to witness it. And we might come up with a number of questions about the details of this event that the story itself doesn’t really answer. Did Satan appear to Jesus in human form? Did he appear in any physical form at all, or was he invisible, working his temptation through Jesus’ mind? Where could Satan have taken Jesus where he literally could have seen all the kingdoms of the world, or did Jesus see them in a vision? In the ancient – and even the modern – tradition of fasting, it would have been customary to eat nothing during the daytime, but after sunset, a person could eat and drink sparingly. So when Luke says that Jesus didn’t eat anything for 40 days, did he mean that Jesus fasted in the normal sense of the word, or did he mean that God miraculously sustained Jesus on no food, well beyond what’s possible with normal human life?

Whatever the answers are to questions like that, there are a few important points about this event in Jesus’ life. First, these temptations were very real. Jesus wasn’t somehow empowered by his divine nature to make Satan’s temptations easy to avoid. The temptations were actually tempting to Jesus, and he had the very real ability to have given in to them, and it would have been easy for him to have done so.

Second, even as easily as he could have given in to them, the fact is that he didn’t. Being empowered by the Holy Spirit, Jesus was able to be tempted, to wonder if giving in would have been the better choice, and yet to still choose to say “no.”

Third, by going through this time of trial, Jesus shows his complete identity with us, and his life becomes the model for us if we want to avoid temptation. If we want to avoid temptation, we need to live our lives as Jesus lived his. In Luke’s gospel, living like Jesus lived means being empowered by the Holy Spirit. Praying, and fasting, regularly. Being compassionate to the outcast; the afflicted and oppressed within society. To not just have compassion in our hearts toward these marginalized and unpopular people, but to associate with them – to genuinely, openly accept them in a spirit of hospitality and seeing them as God’s creations just as much as we are ourselves. In Jesus’ time, that mean associating with women, tax collectors, and sinners. Our list today might look a little different, but the idea is the same.

In other words, living like Jesus means living out God’s love in ways that will sometimes come with personal consequences. Jesus died a martyr’s death, while praying for those very people who were persecuting him. None of us here is likely to face death for Christ, but all of us are called to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “costly grace” – if our lives of discipleship aren’t creating at least some cost to us, we might want to ask ourselves if, in fact, we’re “doing it right.”

In this story, we see Jesus being tempted to use his power as Son of God for his own personal benefit – in this case, to fill his own belly in a moment of need. We see him being tempted to gain power through compromising his faith in God, by compromising his obedience and service to God alone. And we see Jesus being tempted to put God’s promises to the test – or more accurately, to put God’s eternal promises to some human understanding of those promises.

Jesus was praying, and fasting, and being tempted in the wilderness for forty days. This past Wednesday was the beginning of Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter. During Lent, we’re to pray, and maybe some of us will fast, and we’re to examine our own lives, asking if we’re being tempted in ways that Jesus was. Have we ever exploited our place as Christians, expecting some personal benefit, or expecting some preference given to us over others who aren’t? Have we ever compromised our beliefs, our faith, in order to gain some power or prestige? Have we ever shaved some moral principle in order to gain, or at least to not lose, some special privilege or perk? Have we ever twisted the scriptures, as Satan did in this passage, in order to make it say what we want it to say? Have we ever thought that God wasn’t holding up his end of the deal, because he didn’t come through at some point in our lives, in the way that we think he should have? I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that at some point, we’ve all given in to some of those temptations, which Jesus managed to completely navigate around.

In our own tradition, we hold that since we’re fallen creations, it’s impossible for us to completely avoid temptation and sin. I believe that’s true. But I think that we can use that as a little bit of a crutch sometimes, to. If we’re not living up to God’s ideal, and giving in to some temptation or another, well, that’s just the way things are; we’ll never be able, or expected, to avoid that temptation. People will argue over whether at least some sin is unavoidable, but regardless of that, one thing’s for sure – there’s much more of it pervading our lives that we can avoid, and simply don’t.

The season of Lent is meant for us to take the time to recognize this reality; to identify what those particular sins, those temptations are in our own lives; and with God’s help, to begin to make the changes that we need to keep us from continuing down that same path.

And that’s the good news – the great news, the magical news, that has been given to us: that through the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, you can do that. You can succeed. You can avoid many of those temptations; many of those sins. By modeling your life on Jesus’ life, you can do it! If we start moving more and more toward Jesus’ example, not only will we be stronger and more able to avoid some current temptation, but we’re also creating a foundation, one block at a time, to make it easier to avoid new temptations, different temptations, another day.

Will we ever be able to perfectly resist every temptation? Of course not. But God has given us far more power and ability to resist temptation than most of us are willing to take on. The message of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is clear. Ask for the strengthening and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Live more like Jesus. Pray. Fast. Have, and live out, compassion and acceptance for the people that society would rather forget And in the process, find that you can avoid many more of life’s temptations than you ever thought you could. You can do it!

Thanks be to God.


“The Mountantop”

February 14, 2010Exodus 34:29-3529Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.=====Luke 9:28-3628Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
=====The story from Exodus that we read this morning tells about Moses being in God’s presence, and speaking with God, and bringing back to the Israelites the stone tablets on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments. This was the second set of tablets; earlier in the story, Exodus tells us that Moses destroyed the first set in a fit of anger when he came down from the mountain to find the Israelites engaged in idol worship. When he came down from the mountain this second time, Exodus tells us that Moses’ face was shining, a bright white that must have frightened the people. Apparently, this hadn’t happened the first time he’d come down from the mountain. Maybe this time God made this happen to leave a record, to make sure that the Israelites understood that Moses wasn’t just hiding up on the mountain carving the tablets himself – that, in fact, something supernatural was occurring up there.

It was close to two thousand years after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt that Jesus lived and taught. And in this passage from Luke, something similar happens to him. Jesus goes up onto a mountain to pray, and to speak with God, just like Moses. During this time, we’re told, Jesus is transfigured – transformed. He, and his clothing, begin to glow a dazzling white. Then Moses himself, and Elijah appear, and start to talk to Jesus about his soon-to-be departure. The Greek word used here, which we translate “departure,” is the same Greek word used to translate the Hebrew telling of the Israelites “exodus.” While all this is going on, Jesus’ disciples are amazed. They’re in ecstasy, and not knowing what else to do, Peter starts rambling, talking nonsense. To shut him up, a cloud covers the mountain, and the voice of God comes out of the cloud, just as God’s voice comes out of a cloud in the book of Exodus.

The message here is clear: Jesus is a new Moses – a new kind of Moses. Moses brought God’s Law to the people. Jesus’ life and teaching was the personification of what the Law really meant – how to actually live it.

The experiences of Moses, and Jesus, and even Peter, James, and John, must have been amazing – exhilarating. But eventually, they all had to come down from the mountain, to the reality of life that was waiting for them down below. Over time, Moses’ face stopped glowing, and he went on about the day-to-day work