Hearing in Tongues

(sermon 5/31/20 – Pentecost Sunday)

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Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Numbers 11:24-30

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

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Acts 2:1-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

For We Too Are God’s Offspring

(sermon 5/18/20)

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Acts 17:22-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

Hearing the Wind

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

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Photo by Joshua Abner from Pexels

John 3:1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The (Supposedly) Greater Good

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

Matthew 4:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

Light-Bearers

(sermon 2/9/20)

 

Isaiah 58:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

 

The Trial of the Century

(sermon 2/2/20)

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

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

 

It’s Love, Simon

(sermon 1/26/20)

Kinnereth - Sea of Galilee (Panorama)

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

Matthew 4:12-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

Raise Your Flag

(sermon 1/12/20 – Baptism of the Lord)

 

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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The author of Matthew’s gospel had a problem. Just as any author, ancient or modern might do, he sat down at his version of a blank legal pad and began planning how to structure his work in a way that told his story – in this case, the story of Jesus – in a way that emphasized the points he wanted to make. But one of the first things he had to deal with was a debate going on among the believers about Jesus’ baptism. He had Mark’s earlier gospel sitting in front of him, and other sources as well, to draw from as he composed his own work, and Mark dealt with Jesus’ baptism very simply. In the midst of Mark telling how John the Baptist was baptizing people for repentance and forgiveness of sins, Jesus shows up, seemingly like anyone else, and asks John to baptize him. Mark’s John the Baptist doesn’t seem to recognize in advance that Jesus is the messiah. He apparently doesn’t see any potential theological difficulty with the idea, so he basically shrugs his shoulders and says OK, come on in, the water’s fine. No big deal

But in the ten years or so since Mark wrote his version of the story, Jesus’ followers had started to develop a more complex theological understanding of how Jesus’ reconciliation, his atonement, between God and humanity worked, in which Jesus himself would need to have been sinless, in order, they argued, to be an adequate “sacrifice” acceptable to God to forgive the sin of all humanity. And if that were the case, then why did Jesus get baptized like any other mortal, if Mark was right and baptism was all about repentance and forgiveness of sin?

So as Matthew crafted his account, he had to deal with that. In his account, he doesn’t deny that forgiveness of sin is one meaning of baptism, but he offers an additional meaning to it that helps to soothe some theological discomfort. Matthew’s John the Baptist is in on the knowledge that Jesus is special, the anointed one, when he arrives to be baptized, and he protests – as some believers in Matthew’s time would have – that it would be inappropriate for John to baptize him; in fact, it should be the other way around. But in Matthew’s account, Jesus says no, he should be baptized, in order to “fulfill all righteousness” – which, in Matthew-speak, as he lays out throughout his gospel, means to do in all ways the things that are pleasing to God. So Jesus being baptized is something that would please God.

Now for a moment, I want to move forward to the present-day. Several times a month, George and I will get together with a group of friends, to share a meal together, maybe go out to a show, occasionally play a board game, maybe enjoy some good bourbon and conversation and laughs. Now, there isn’t a person sitting around the table who hasn’t gone through some really thin, difficult financial times in their lives, and everyone gathered there is aware of and grateful for the fact that they’re reasonably secure now. From time to time, though, as the conversations might ebb and flow, someone will say something about some great food – maybe some extremely high-quality beef, or hard-to-find pork, or some delicious exotic cheese they’ve had the pleasure of enjoying; or having enjoyed some exquisite turkey that was organic, free-range, raised by a farmer who they knew; where the turkeys all listen to Beethoven and get daily massages, and the farmer reads them bedtime stories; or maybe having met some famous person, or some other similarly elitist comment – sort of like a real-world version of Lucy van Pelt in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” telling the other kids who are catching snowflakes on their tongues, that she never eats December snow; she will only eat January snow. And often, when that happens in the conversation, someone else might joke to the person speaking that they’re “raising their flag” – meaning that they’re raising their flag of privilege and elitism; that their privilege is showing. Sometimes, instead of actually putting it into words, as the other person is going on, someone will just silently make the gesture with their hands of raising a flag up a flagpole, offering a gentle, good-natured ribbing to whoever’s speaking at the moment, and we’ll all laugh, and the conversation will go on from there.

I mention that because I think that in a way – a more positive way, to be sure – a large aspect of Matthew’s understanding of baptism, and what fulfilling all righteousness,” doing those things that are pleasing to God, lies in something similar. To Matthew, in addition to baptism signifying forgiveness of sin, it also signifies the flag that, being baptized, we’re now called to live under, and to be loyal to. So Jesus being baptized, then, symbolizes that Jesus is part of this movement – certainly, in the way we typically use that term, but mostly in the sense that he is at the very center of a literal moving of world history, of human existence, in a new direction, into a new era – an era of the partial incoming of the kingdom of God into this life. Through the act of his baptism, God has raised this flag over Jesus, both identifying God’s pleasure and Jesus’ central part in it all.

Matthew might have found a way to address that theological issue regarding Jesus’ baptism. But others remain. In the earliest years of the church, and up until this day, for example, many have suggested that it was at his baptism, and not at the time of his birth – at the time of the Holy Spirit descending upon him and God’s voice of loving approval – when Jesus became God incarnate – as we say, “fully human and fully divine.”

And of course, Matthew’s literary take on baptism didn’t really settle the issue he was trying to settle, either. It continues to this day. Many of our literal neighbors, our Evangelical siblings in the faith, emphasize the idea of baptism primarily signifying forgiveness of sins – and most significantly, that it signifies our choice, the exercising of our free will, to “raise the flag” as it were, to be followers of Christ. On the other hand, we Mainliners, and certainly we Presbyterians, recognize baptism as a sign of forgiveness of sin, but we especially emphasize its being a seal of God making a unilateral covenant with us to be part of this identity, this movement, of Christ-followers and the kingdom of God – and especially, that baptism doesn’t signify us choosing to raise our flag, but rather, it’s a sign of us recognizing that God has chosen to raise that flag over us – that, as I sometimes say when baptizing an infant, we don’t believe baptism is a sign of what we’re doing, but rather, it’s a sign of what God has already done.

Beyond that ongoing theological debate between Evangelicals and Mainliners, one thing is definitely true: after our baptism, we are indeed called by God to “raise our flag” – to visibly do those things that please God, that “fulfill all righteousness,” which, to Matthew, is always acting in ways that are loving and merciful. After our baptism, we’re called by God to act in ways that make it clear to those around us that, in gratitude for the love, mercy, and grace that God has showered us with, we’re trying to live and treat others with that same kind of love, mercy, and grace. Regardless of the finer points of how we understand or want to emphasize baptism, all Christians – all who profess to have followed Jesus into those waters of baptism and come back up out of them wth him – are called to be a visible witness to the world of an alternative way – a better way – than what we see around us on a daily basis. And what do we see? Greed. Arrogance. Selfishness. Violence. Threats of war. Cruelty. The dehumanizing, belittlement, or worse, of people just because they aren’t sufficiently like ourselves. The hoarding of wealth and resources that has created and kept the vast majority of the world’s population in abject poverty.

Every Christian is called, you and I are called – lovingly called, but called nonetheless – to reflect God’s love for us outward to others, by opposing all of those distortions of God’s will, of God’s righteousness – and not just to speak out against them, and not just to pray about them, but to concretely work and fight to end them, regardless of where we find them; in whatever situation, whatever institution; in whatever corporate policy or educational policy or governmental policy; in whatever person, whatever office or position. We’re called to let every human being know that they are loved, and not just to let them know they’re loved, but to actually love them; to actually offer them compassion, and mercy, and justice. To that point, the great twentieth-century priest and theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote, “In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that bridges all divides and heals all wounds.” That, friends, is a flag of privilege that. out of gratitude and love, we should all be ready, willing, and proud to raise.

Thanks be to God.

Frankincense, Gold, & Har Gow

(sermon 1/5/20 – Epiphany Sunday)

 

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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Right after Christmas, George and I hit the road, taking off on a long road trip to visit family and friends. Beyond it just being nice to catch up, this was even more special for George because this was the first opportunity to return to Canada, since he was prohibited from leaving the country while his green card was in process. First, we visited George’s parents in western Ontario, near London. Then, we drove east to catch up with his brother and his family, and to see our nephew playing in a hockey tournament. After that, we went on to Toronto for more visits. Then we turned south, back to the U.S., going to Pennsylvania to visit with some of my relatives, then to Ohio to visit with some more of them, and finally, heading back home to Louisville.

While we were in Toronto, we also made arrangements to reconnect with some of George’s relatives in Richmond Hill – a city of about 200,000 people a half hour or so north of downtown Toronto. Toronto itself is a wonderful racially and culturally diverse city, maybe more so than any other city I’ve been in, and the full range of excellent restaurants there reflects the full breadth of that diversity. But to those in the know, if you want the best authentic Chinese food in the area, you go to Richmond Hill. So, as we’d done in the past, we all got together at a restaurant in Richmond Hill that serves the most amazing, authentic dim sum I’ve ever had. If you aren’t familiar with dim sum, it’s a traditional style of dinner that originated in Hong Kong, where you order a lot of small orders of all sorts of traditional Chinese snacks – barbecued pork steamed buns, soup-filled dumplings, deep-fried squid, meat or shrimp-stuffed rice noodles, and on and on – that are meant to be shared around the table.

So there we were again on this trip, in this huge banquet facility that had at least 250 people in it, and probably more. As I glanced around, I could see that I was one of probably only three of four non-Asian people there, which was fine – I felt completely at ease and welcome sharing this good time with extended family. I only mention that to make the point that this was a very authentic Chinese place, serving an almost exclusively Chinese clientele, which means that the menu was written almost completely in Chinese – what English translations were there were sparse and ambiguous, to put it mildly. So I didn’t really know what a lot of the dim sum dishes on the menu were, as all the Chinese speakers at the table were picking out small plates to order from the menu.

I’ve had dim sum enough to have a number of personal favorites that I think are delicious. But the palate is definitely a culturally conditioned thing, and honestly, I’ve had some dim sum dishes that, to my admittedly limited and deficient Anglo palate, tasted something like grass clippings wrapped in congealed wallpaper paste – but I also knew that the very same plate was delicious to George, who grew up with those tastes and textures, and it brought back all kinds of warm memories of family gatherings from his past.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though – those less-than-favorites dishes for me are actually pretty rare – I really like most of them. And as my own palate is evolving – improving – over time, I’m appreciating more of them all the time. And eating those dishes with the extended family sitting around the table makes it all the better. Still, since I don’t always know what’s coming, one of my favorite parts of these meals is when the food starts to arrive, usually in little covered bamboo steamer baskets, and they’re placed on the table, and the lids are ceremoniously removed, revealing what, for better or worse, is inside.

Even sitting there in that wonderful moment of the big reveal, though, the pastor’s brain is never completely on vacation, and as odd as it might sound, I was still aware that this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday, was coming up – and sitting there waiting to see what was going to be inside when those little bamboo steamers were opened up made me think about the magi, and the treasures, the gifts, that they brought with them and presented to the Christ child.

I started to imagine the scene: Jesus is being cradled in Mary’s arms as she and Joseph, as they welcome these strangers from far away. And did she and Joseph wonder, as I wondered about the dim sum steamers, what would be revealed when they opened the lids of the gifts they’d brought? No doubt, they were grateful for the gold. But did they really appreciate the frankincense? The myrrh? I mean, a little bit of either of them goes a long way. Would burning the frankincense trigger Mary’s asthma? Did they worry that baby Jesus would get ahold of the myrrh and choke on the little crystalline nuggets? All things considered, would they have rather gotten a child seat for the back of the donkey and a Pack ‘n Play? We all know that when you open a gift, you never really know what’s going to be in store when it’s opened.

The journey of the magi from the region that we now know as Iran and Iraq, regardless of how many of them there really were, and regardless of whether they were all men or not, and regardless of even how wise they might have been, has become one of our most beloved aspects of our sacred story of Jesus’ entry into human history. But to take the story further, what meaning can it have for us now?

Their coming to worship and pay homage to the newborn Jesus, the anointed one of God, and offering him gifts, can certainly be seen as a forerunner to our own worship of him – our own offering of our lives, our devotion, our talents, our resources, all in a spirit of gratitude.

But I think the reverse is also true. The magi presenting of gifts to Jesus can also be seen as a reflection of God’s offering us gifts – first, the gift of Christ himself, but so much else that follows, too. Sitting here at the beginning of a new year, we’re receiving gifts from God, whether we imagine them as treasure chests, or bamboo steamers, waiting to be opened up to reveal what’s inside, or we imagine them some other way.

What will this year bring for you? What will it bring for me? For each of us, the year will bring times of joy and contentment, as well as times of challenge. We might experience real happiness and fulfillment arising out of our relationships with family and friends. On the other hand, those same relationships might bring stress, pain, or grief. We might enjoy good health, or we might face difficult, maybe insurmountable, health problems.

I want to be very careful here – I don’t want to leave the impression that everything that happens to you, or to me, during this year will be God’s choice or will. I don’t believe that God literally deals with us in flippant or uncaring ways, as, for example, the story of Job would indicate, where God takes away everything from Job, health, family, fortune – everything – just over a stupid bet God supposedly makes with Satan. I don’t believe that God sends us troubles, not even with the intention of testing us or making us stronger. And on the flip side, I don’t believe that every good thing that happens to us is a sign of God’s favor, either. So many times you’ll see the survivor of some tragedy, a plane crash, a fire, whatever – and the person will thank God for their survival, saying it’s a sign that God loves them – but didn’t God love the ones who didn’t survive, too? Did God love this survivor more than the others? To be honest, whether we ascribe all of the good, or all of the bad, in our lives to God is actually pretty flawed theology.

The gifts that I think God gives us in our lives aren’t necessarily the actual good thing or the bad thing that we experience – but rather, what’s in the treasure chests that God gives to us – what’s waiting to be revealed inside those bamboo steamers – is God’s own love, and grace, and strength, and guidance to deal with both the good and the bad in ways that please God, and that strengthen our lives of faith, that deepen our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Another of these gifts is the gift of community, the church, this congregation, to help us in the good and the bad. The greatest of these gifts that God serves up to us is the reassurance that through the life of this Christ child, the one worshiped by the magi, God has chosen to stand with us, to walk with us, to let us know that we are loved beyond our wildest dreams, and that whatever may come, good or bad, we will never face it alone.

There will be ups and downs, and no shortage of surprises along the way this trip around the sun, for you and me both. But whatever comes, we can be assured that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. We can know that once God has invited us to the great, eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God, there is nothing that could ever keep us from it. And we can rest assured  that at that banquet in addition to the finest bread and well-aged wine, as the scriptures say, and the choicest of meats filled with marrow, there will also be plenty of xiao long bao, cha siu bao, and har gow.

Thanks be to God.

 

Gratitude

(sermon 10/13/19)

close-up-grateful-gratitude-883466
Photo by Marcus Wökel – used with permission    http://www.pexels.com

(with gratitude to Rev. Dr. David Lose, whose words heavily inspired this sermon)

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

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There are some people I know who do something important every day. It’s something simple, but it’s incredibly powerful. Every single day, in some way or another, they set aside time in their day, which is just as busy as my own, to take stock of what they’re grateful for. They keep “gratitude journals,” or just observe a bit of quiet time to intentionally reflect on the day that’s just passed, and actually name the things that they’re grateful for. Some of them take this a step further and actually jot a note, or maybe more often now, an email, to reach out and acknowledge their gratitude to someone who had something to do with it.

I wish that I were more like these people. I want to be, because there is so much that I really am grateful for. But at least up until now, for whatever reason, I haven’t had the discipline to do this, and I’m the worse off for it. Because without doing this in some way, it’s easy to forget, or at least to take for granted, the things that mean so much to us, the things that we’re so grateful for, and the people responsible for them.

This comes into play in today’s gospel text. Ten suffering people come to Jesus for help and healing. All ten receive that help, but only one takes the time to thank Jesus for having been healed. I’m pretty sure the other nine were grateful, too, but ultimately, only one of them actually expressed it to Jesus.

Except for some people who have serious psychological and emotional issues, feeling gratitude is a natural, involuntary human emotion. But taking it the extra step, and expressing that gratitude with our words and actions, is a choice – one that can have a huge effect in our own lives, but that also can have a remarkable effect on the people around us. A simple “thank you” is something far more powerful and transformative than would seem possible from just two little words. Just think how you feel when someone takes the effort to just say thank you, or does something nice for you, because of something you’ve done for them. Even when you think that no thanks is necessary, and you mean it, it’s still powerful when that thanks is offered.

There are all kinds of different emotions that we feel in any given day. Whether it’s because of things going on in the news, or some family situation, or a work thing, or a health or aging issue, our emotions can run the full spectrum from joy to sorrow to worry to fear to shame to rage, and everything in between. And there are certainly appropriate times to express all of those emotions. Sometimes, we’re just in a place where we just can’t express gratitude for something even if we’re actually very grateful for it. Our other emotions can come into play and tongue-tie us, even when we can see it happening, and many times, we can’t. It’s OK; we’ve all been there at some point or another. We all understand that. In those times, we see the importance of this, the whole church family, when together, we can help carry one another over those patches; we can lift one another up and offer emotional support and compassion for one another until we can get through those times. Until we can work through those other emotions and get to the point where we really can choose to express gratitude and to live gratefully again.

Like most things, expressing gratitude is something that gets easier the more you do it. And the more you do it, the better you feel – the more grateful you are. And the more you help others. You become an illustration, and example for others.

These days, expressing gratitude is truly a counter-cultural idea. Anger, hostility, violence, distrust, transactional tit-for-tat vengefulness, tribalism, rage – these are the emotions and things that are shaping our culture at the moment. But just imagine how much of that could be defused if we “choose to refuse”. To refuse to play that game. To refuse to express those knee-jerk emotions, and instead, to take stock of the good and to express gratitude to God and others in our words and actions. Expressing gratitude has the power to change the world – it’s the ultimate weapon, the ultimate game-changer, that can defeat virtually all of the ugliness that we find ourselves knee-deep in. We just have to choose to do it.

So I’ll start: I’m grateful to be alive and a part of this amazing, beautiful creation of God’s. I’m grateful that I have two wonderful daughters. I’m grateful for the love of family and friends. I’m grateful that I have a good education, a reasonable measure of good health, a roof over my head, and food on the table. I’m grateful that I’m here in Louisville, and specifically here at Springdale. I’m grateful that I’m your pastor, that God drew us both  together; and that I’m not only your pastor, but that, at least to the extent it’s possible between pastors and parishioners, we’re friends. I’m grateful that I get to work every day with the remarkably gifted, talented, and caring staff here at the church. I’m very grateful for George, that God allowed us to find each other, and that we’re together now. And I’m grateful that you’ve welcomed and accepted him and made him a part of all of this as much as you have with me. I’m grateful to be a part of this journey of faith and life that we’re all on together. I’m grateful for all of this, and so much more.

So, if I never said all of that before, I have now. And now, I invite all of you to do the same. Decide, choose, commit, to sit down daily and take stock of what it is that you’re grateful for, large or small. And then, choose, commit, to finding some way, just as the leper in the gospel story did, to express that gratitude in your words and actions. Maybe it will take the form of making a batch of cookies for someone. Or fixing a storm door, or offering a ride to a doctor’s appointment. Or maybe it’s dropping someone a card, or finally getting around to a thank you note that you’ve been meaning to send out forever. Or maybe it will just be taking a moment to offer a simple, face-to-face thank you. Whatever it is, it will make you feel better, and it will make the person you offer it to feel better, and it will definitely please Christ every bit as much as the thank you he received on that road all those years ago.

Thanks be to God.