Raise Your Flag

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

raise your flag

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.

The Not-So-Excellent Adventure

(sermon 1/21/18)

cow in sackcloth

Jonah 3:1-10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God’s mind was changed about the calamity that they were to have brought upon them; and God did not do it.

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The Book of Jonah is short, but powerful. It’s only some forty-odd verses long, but in its few short words, it manages to give us some of the most memorable imagery in the entire Bible. Each one of its four short chapters tells what could be a fascinating little story on its own, while still weaving together to form the whole.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the book, but part of what we do know is that it was intended to be a response against an extreme, exclusionary, nativist mindset that had taken hold in society, and that had caused great turmoil by causing the forced breakup of families, where Jews had married foreign non-Jews, and requiring that all people from different places and who had different religions had to leave. The Book of Jonah is meant as a protest against all that, by telling a story to emphasize that God is the God of all people, and the God loves and cares for all people – even, the story makes clear, the despised Assyrians living in the enemy’s capital city of Nineveh.

The book makes its point by telling a story of this poor shlub, Jonah, who really just wanted to be left alone, who didn’t want any part of what God was telling him to do, and as we know, who was willing to go to pretty extreme lengths to run away from it. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he’s afraid that as soon as he’d enter the city and start proclaiming their impending doom, the Ninevites would attack him, or throw him in prison, or worse. And near the end of Jonah’s story, in the last chapter, we also learn that he didn’t want to do it because he suspected that after Jonah put his own life and reputation on the line, foretelling the Ninevites’ doom, before that would happen, God would go all wobbly on him, and have mercy and compassion on them, and not wipe them out, leaving his enemies off the hook and leaving Jonah to look like a fool on top of it. Jonah wants God to take a harder line against his enemies than he trusts God will actually take.

Of course, for his part in this protest story, Jonah represents the political and religious leaders of the time, who, the author is saying, want to take a harder line about who are supposedly the people of God, and who aren’t, than God would take.

So we do have this social/political commentary going on in Jonah, along with all of the great imagery, and even some comic aspects. Just imagine: smelly, seaweed- and gastric-juice-covered Jonah getting barfed up onto the beach, much to the surprise of the fisherman and the sunbathers. The Ninevites being so convicted of their sin, and being so repentant, that they don’t just cover themselves with sackcloth and ashes in the traditional sign of repentance, but they have all of their livestock do the same – which wasn’t some quaint religious tradition of the time; it would have seemed as bizarre and comical to see back then as it would be today. Taken together, it all makes Jonah one of the truly amazing books of the Bible.

But what does it mean for us today? What about it speaks to us, in our own lives? Well, it does pretty clearly offer a word of protest against the similar kind of extreme anti-foreigner, nationalist mindset seen in so much of our current government policies and in the words of so many people. It’s important to know that, and to take that message to heart, but honestly, that’s another day’s sermon. Today, I want to think more about how Jonah’s story resonates with our own personal lives – how we personally hear and respond to God’s call.

Last Sunday, and again today, we heard gospel accounts of disciples who essentially dropped whatever they were doing and immediately followed Jesus, seemingly without question or hesitation. Jonah is the opposite of that. He hears God’s call, and is worried and afraid and not at all happy about where he sees it all going, and he tries to run away from it all. Even when he finally gives in, and he sets off on his not-so-excellent adventure, he enters Nineveh, but he still only does it in half-measures. The author of the story tells us Nineveh was a three-day walk from one end to the other – but Jonah packs it in and leaves town after going just one day’s distance into it.

I know that I’m supposed to be more like Jesus’ trusting and unquestioning disciples. But the truth is, I see much more of myself in Jonah, and the way he responds to God’s call. In all of his crankiness and doubt and self-interest and his wanting God to hate all the same people he hated, I have to say that Jonah seems much more human, much more real, to me, personally, than those disciples who seem to have just dropped their nets and walked away with Jesus without even asking if the job came with health insurance and a dental plan.

Jonah’s relationship with God is messy, and that resonates with me because I know that my own relationship with God can sometimes be messy. I’ve been known to be a pretty reluctant follower of where God seemed to be calling me. Just as was the case with Jonah, part of that reluctance was that I wasn’t sure I liked what the likely outcome would be for myself. Also like Jonah, I’ve tried to run away from God’s call, and also like him, I’ve found myself in the belly of the whale, as it were, before I learned that there really wasn’t much future in trying to run away from God. Thankfully, I also eventually learned that by following where God was leading, even with doubt and reluctance, God always had something better in store that I could have ever imagined.

Maybe some of you have felt the same kind of feelings as Jonah, too. Have you? Have you ever sensed that God was drawing you to do something that you were less than enthusiastic about? Maybe you’re even experiencing something like that now. Do you sense God drawing you to make some change in your life? To take a turn in some new and unexpected direction, maybe one that promised to take you well out of your comfort zone? Maybe it was, or is, a school choice or a job choice. Maybe it’s some family or business decision that promises to take you into new, uncharted waters. Maybe it’s starting, or breaking off, a relationship. Maybe it involves a change in where you call home. Maybe it’s being called to some new understanding, something that’s different from what you’d always been taught before, something that opens up some new understanding about God that isn’t necessarily in line with what you’ve thought and believed up till now, as was the case with Jonah. The possibilities are endless where and how God may be calling you.

But if you do find yourself being called by God to something new, called to follow God in some different direction you didn’t really expect and frankly may not be excited about, remember Jonah’s story. Even though he went into Nineveh giving it only partial effort, God made something amazing happen. Even with Jonah’s doubt-filled and half-hearted willingness to follow, God still blessed those actions, and through Jonah, God’s will was achieved. And through all of it, if you know how the Book of Jonah ends, you also know that God kept looking out for Jonah – grumbling, self-centered Jonah, the same Jonah with all the doubts and fears and presuppositions and stubborn, bull-headed stances that only end up hurting himself. Until the very end of the story, God continued to work on Jonah’s heart so he could see and understand God in a richer, fuller, truer way – and in the process, so Jonah could see and understand more about himself in a richer, fuller, truer way.

Jonah is you. Jonah is me. And because we worship, and sometimes follow, a God who loves the Jonahs, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

The *Something* of Resurrection

(sermon 4/16/17 – Easter Sunday)

Mary Mag2 by bruce wolfe - old mission santa barbaraMary Magdalene, bronze, Bruce Wolfe, sculptor

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

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Mary Magdalene’s world had spun out of control. Everything she’d come to believe, everything she’d put her faith in, had come crashing down. Jesus was dead. Since Friday, she’d been nearly crushed with grief, and now, early Sunday morning, when she must have thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Now, not only was Jesus dead, something had happened to his body. She couldn’t even give him a decent burial.

She was almost paralyzed in her grief; she couldn’t even pull herself together enough to walk back into town with the others. She just slumped down on the ground, seeming to weigh a ton under the sadness, the dread, the fear.

And then, everything changed. There, at the tomb, Mary encountered the resurrected Jesus. There, in that moment, Mary experienced the power of resurrection – the resurrection of Jesus, and because of that, the resurrection of hope. In an instant, everything was new again – and not just as good as things were before Jesus was killed, but even better, exponentially better. You can just picture Mary making her way back into the city, laughing, giggling at the impossibility of it all, part walking, part running, part dancing, part flying, hurrying back to tell the others what she’d seen; what had happened.

That’s what this day is all about. That’s what we celebrate today – the great truth that we see in the resurrection that no matter how dark things may seem, no matter how much it seems like the wheels are falling off of everything, no matter how bad things might appear, God will never let Jesus’ message of love be defeated. God will not allow darkness, or fear, or evil, or even death, to triumph over love, not in this world and certainly not in the next.  And so today, we proclaim “Christ is risen!” and “He is risen indeed!” and we hold fast to the hope and joy that comes with the resurrection, in good times, and especially in bad.

Resurrection is what our faith is all about. Resurrection is what our faith hinges on. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul wrote, if Christ hasn’t risen, then our faith is just a fairy tale, a pipe dream, and we Christians are the most pitiful people on the planet.

And still… still… we really are basing our faith, our hope, on what appears to be a pretty incredible story. People in Jesus’ time certainly knew that people didn’t just come back from the dead, and we’re far more sophisticated than them. We aren’t stupid; we know that things like this just don’t happen. Just this past week, someone said to me that the one real thing they had problem with in the Christian scriptures was the “miracle stuff.” It would all be so much more reasonable, more logical, more believable, without all the miracle stuff. And yet, here we are today, celebrating the granddaddy of all miracles – rising from the dead, and not just in spirit, but in body, and not just the old, normal body, but a new improved one, a transformed one; one that can apparently change appearance so even your closest of friends might not recognize you if you don’t want them to;  one that can seemingly appear out of nowhere or move through walls or locked doors. I mean, really, this is quite a story that we’re being asked to believe. And somewhere, in the middle of singing all the great Easter hymns, and cheering “He is risen!” a voice within us – I suspect within all of us, at some point, or in some way, asks, “Really? Is this really true? Or did someone just make all this stuff up, to feel better after Jesus was killed? Is all this just a house of cards, built on the foundation of this impossible thing?”

I know I’ve asked myself those questions. As I’ve thought about them, I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, even though I know it’s illogical, and to put it mildly, highly improbable, to believe that a person could physically rise from the dead, I believe Jesus did. I suppose I believe it in part because the scriptures say it happened, but I believe it at least as much because based on my understanding of God, I believe that God is capable of, and maybe even enjoys, pulling off the impossible every now and then.

But even though I believe it, as odd as it might sound, it really isn’t the bedrock, ultimate deal-breaker of my faith. In other words, if tomorrow, some archaeologist in Israel stumbled across a first-century tomb, and inside it they discovered an ancient ossuary, a bone-box, and the box said, “Here are the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, who claimed to be the Messiah, and the Son of God;” and if inside the box, in addition to his bones, there were Jesus’ original, long-form birth certificate, his high school yearbook, and his Social Security card – if it proved beyond all doubt that Jesus’ physical, earthly body wasn’t resurrected, I asked myself, would it destroy my faith? Would it significantly change my faith? I have to admit, it really wouldn’t. It wouldn’t substantially change my faith, because I know that, whatever it was, *something* amazing happened on that first Easter Sunday. Something that could only be described as miraculous happened that instantly turned Mary Magdalene’s soul-crushing grief into absolute joy. Something turned her life completely around and made her dance all the way from the tomb into the city. Something otherworldly happened to a bunch of demoralized, terrified disciples to make them believe they saw and touched the one they saw dead as a mackerel just days before, and to turn them into an emboldened, supercharged bunch ready to tell the world about the risen Jesus they’d encountered.  Something very real, and transforming, something life-changing and life-giving. That something – whatever its details – was resurrection.

I believe in the resurrection because of what happened to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, and because of what I’ve experienced of God within myself. I believe in the resurrection because in the kingdom of God, sometimes what sounds like a fairy tale is actually the truest thing, the thing to really believe. I know that just as happened with Mary and the other disciples, the hope, the truth, of the resurrection has the power to change lives. To turn the deepest sorrow into the greatest joy. To turn the most hopeless of situations into the most hope-filled moments of our lives.

So this morning, if a piece of you – whether a small piece, or a large one – brings doubts and cries for logic on this, the most illogical of Sundays, that’s OK.  You don’t need me to tell you that there’s plenty of doubt within the Church, in pews and pulpits alike. But remember that even where there is  doubt, there’s still  faith. The two are absolutely inseparable. And even if our faith is imperfect, that’s OK, because Jesus’ faith is perfect, and it’s Jesus’ faith, not our own, that reconciles us with God. Remember that something that changed Mary Magdalene and the disciples. Remember that something that ended up changing the world – and that eventually has changed, and will continue to change, and give hope, and joy, and life, to you, and to me. Remember the something of resurrection – that indeed, Christ has risen! – and for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God!

Squeaky Wheel

(sermon 10/16/16)

scary-judge

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:1-8

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A number of years ago, when my cousin’s son Jack was maybe seven or eight years old, our two families were out at a pizza place for dinner. And next to the checkout counter was a freezer chest filled with all sorts of ice cream desserts – Popsicles, Drumsticks, Klondike Bars, and so on. Jack really wanted an ice cream bar, but his dad kept telling him, no, no, no. But Jack kept up with his continuous attack, whining, crying, complaining, begging, getting louder and louder and getting the attention of other people seated around us, until finally my cousin snapped and said, “All right! I’ll get you your ice cream; just be quiet!” So he went over and bought him the ice cream and brought it back to the table. Jack took the ice cream, and as he started unwrapping it, he smiled and said, “See, I knew if I kept that up, he’d finally give in and I’d get my way.”

I never knew my cousin could move so quickly. In a flash, he jumped up, grabbed the ice cream, and threw it in the trash. Then, he guided Jack outside to their car, where I’m not certain, but I suspect they continued their conversation in a more tactile way.

Whether it was ice cream or something else, I suspect most of us have some experience with a scenario like this one, whether as kids or parents or both. And most of us have seen the same thig play out at work, or in other places – the idea that it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the attention. So when we hear these words from Jesus today, about the widow hounding the unjust, self-centered judge until he finally caves in and gives her what she wants, we all have some firsthand understanding of what’s going on.

It would be easy to hear these words and get the impression that Jesus’ advice to always keep praying was advocating the same “squeaky wheel” philosophy for prayer; that even though God is good and loving, sometimes we need to war God down in order to get whatever it is that we’re praying for.

But I don’t think that’s Jesus’ intention. In fact, he says bluntly in this passage that we don’t have to wear God down like that at all; that with God it’s the exact opposite. God will quickly, without any delay, hear us, and help us, and answer our prayers.

And I have to admit, this is one of those places where Jesus’ words can get troubling for me. Just like so many of you, I’ve personally experienced times when I’ve prayed deeply for something, and not selfishly but with good and selfless motivation, and not gotten what I’d prayed for. And I’ve sat and prayed with other people in times of real crisis – good, decent people who were praying persistently and form a place of compassion, only to see the hopes expressed in their prayers be denied. So sometimes I struggle with these words of Jesus. As I do, all I can think is that if Jesus isn’t crazy and delusional, or if he isn’t deliberately lying for some reason, then I must be misunderstanding his point. So thinking about these words again, what could his point be?

Maybe I’m trying to make the question more complicated than it is. Pastors can do that, sometimes. Maybe his point is just to encourage persistence in prayer, despite the outward appearance that it isn’t effective. Imagine how many times it must have seemed to the widow that her efforts were just a waste of time, not accomplishing anything, but in the end, it became clear that it was all a necessary part of the process – this allowing of herself to always remain hopeful that a good outcome was possible. Not guaranteed, mind you. We can only assume that the widow always remained realistic, and that she must have lived her days assuming the unlikelihood of getting her way, even while she kept working for the unlikely positive outcome. But she kept up hope, knowing that the positive outcome was possible. Maybe it really is that simple. We all understand that God’s ways aren’t our ways, and that God’s vantage point sees the totality of an issue while we can only see a very narrow part of it. Because of that, maybe Jesus’ whole point is just to keep that hope – to have that faith. We aren’t supposed to keep praying because we need to be a squeaky wheel to get God to notice us; we’re supposed to do it because we know that, as Jesus promised, God is answering our prayers, promptly, and in the best way possible as seen from God’s broader vantage point. And knowing that gives us the hope, which comes out of our faith, to keep praying.

This isn’t a long sermon. It isn’t a particularly deep sermon. It doesn’t dig into complex theological positions and arguments about the nature and efficacy of prayer of various sorts. It’s actually pretty simple. It’s simple because Jesus’ words were simple, too: in ways that we can’t always see or totally understand, God’s got this, so in a gospel equivalent of a Nike commercial, Jesus tells us Just do it. Just keep praying. Keep hoping. Keep trusting. And so we do.

Thanks be to God.

Fear Factor (sermon 9/20/15)

ahmed mohamed

Watch video of this sermon here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgm-y2NOG0I&feature=youtu.be

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

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”   – Mark 9:30-27

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I’m sure you’ve all seen the story about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year old Muslim-American high school student from Irving, Texas, who used his expertise and passion for electronics to make a digital clock, and took it to school to show his teacher – who completely freaked out and turned him into the school administration saying the clock looked like a bomb. Then the police were called and they handcuffed and arrested him for supposedly making a “hoax bomb.” And even though the police eventually dropped the charges due to the huge public outcry, never once in this whole ridiculous story has the school or the police ever apologized for their overreaction – causing thinking people all around the world to just scratch their heads and wonder if Irving, or Texas, or America, is full of crazy people.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist – which, ironically enough, Ahmed may actually become – to understand that this crazy overreaction was the result of irrational fear, arising out of Ahmed’s name, religion, and the color of his skin. Fear is one of our most basic, reptilian-brain reactions. It’s at the root of virtually every negative thing we do, and every good thing we leave undone. And it’s got a lot to do with what’s going on in today’s gospel text.

We’ve all heard this story many times. We’ve heard the “last shall be first” and “welcome the little children” messages in any number of sermons. But while they can stand on their own as independent thoughts, Jesus is using them here with a very specific purpose. As we heard last week, Jesus had been predicting his arrest and execution, and it wasn’t sitting well with the disciples. It meant that this whole movement they were part of was about to change dramatically. Jesus, the founder and leader of this movement, was soon to be out of the picture, and that caused uncertainty, anxiety, and fear in their hearts. At first, the fear paralyzed them into inaction – they couldn’t bring themselves to ask Jesus for details of what he was talking about. But then that same fear led them to get into a power struggle, arguing about who was the greatest among them – who was the heir-apparent in the movement, who’d take over when Jesus was gone and who’d have power and authority not just in the by-and-by, and also the here-and-now. Their fear, their anxiety, over this looming power vacuum was causing them to think they could resolve things by being the position of power and control, so they could call the shots.

That fear at the root of their actions was what Jesus was speaking to when he said what he did to his disciples. Fear had paralyzed them from doing good, and was goading them to do wrong. Jesus pointed out to them that the solution to their fears didn’t lie in power or position or control. He was telling them that their fear was causing them to miss what God wanted them to focus on. They were missing out on living the abundant, loving, just, compassionate life that God had designed them for and called them to. Instead of focusing on fear, Jesus called on them to focus on faith.

A lot of times, we think that the opposite of faith is doubt. I don’t think that’s really true. Doubt is actually a necessary component of faith; otherwise it wouldn’t be faith at all, it would be certainty. The opposite of faith actually seems to be fear. And faith isn’t just intellectual assent of something. It isn’t just belief. As the preacher David Lose once pointed out, faith is actually movement. Faith is taking a step, even a small step forward to living more like Christ, in the face of doubt and fear. Dr. King meant the same thing when he famously said “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” Faith is movement in the face of feelings that would keep you from moving. Faith is deepened and fear is overcome, in the doing.

Pretty much whatever sin or shortcoming you can think of, fear, in some way or another, is at the root of it. Fear within each of us keeps us imprisoned in a mentality of anxiety and scarcity. It keeps us from living that abundant life that Christ opens the door to for us. So today, when we think about the fear of those disciples and Jesus’ words that spoke to those fears – What are your fears? Are they related to health, family, work, finances?

I fear what the future might bring for me. I fear insecurity and instability in my life, and I fear whether I’ll ever be able to set roots down again and restart a normal life. I fear for the future of my parents as they’re getting older, and I fear for my own health as I age. I fear for my daughters, that they might have to endure some of the terrible things I’ve had to go through in my own life. I fear that some day when I least expect it, someone’s going to come up behind me in a restaurant and sucker-punch me, or worse, just because I happened to be holding George’s hand. I fear over whether I’ll be able to have some financial security in my retirement. Those are some of my fears. Some of the things that make me wake up in a cold sweat and feeling like a steel band is tightening across my chest. That keep me from experiencing and living and enjoying that life that God wants for me.

I share those fears with you because here, in this is the place if nowhere else, we need to be open and honest with each other as God’s people. We need to speak the truth, and hear in truth. And I share those fears with you because it wouldn’t be fair of me to ask you to name your fears, even if only to yourselves, in your own minds, if I didn’t do the same thing. So now I ask you to think about exactly that: What, exactly, are the fears in your life? What’s holding you back? What’s leading you down the wrong path? What is it that wakes you up in the middle of the night?

Seriously think about that, and actually put those fears into words, to yourself, because one of the odd things about fear is that just giving it a name, and putting it in concrete words and acknowledging it, automatically takes a lot of its power away. Here’s another little exercise that I stole from David Lose. I’ve done this same sort of thing in other settings, too, and now I guess it’s your turn. When you came in today, you got a 3×5 index card. Take that card, and maybe right now, or maybe some time later today, write down on one side a fear in your life. And then, on the other side, write down some small step of faith that you can make this week – it might be something very small, and it doesn’t even have to be directly related to the particular fear you wrote down. Then carry that card with you, in your pocket, your wallet, your purse. Commit to doing that one step of faith this week. If you get it done, great! Then think of another one and write it down, and keep carrying the card until you get it done, too. The point behind the exercise is that by starting small, taking small steps, we can strengthen our faith to the point where our faith can overcome our fears. It doesn’t mean that the fear disappears, but we’ll have faithful ways to deal with it, to respond to it, to overcome its negative power and control over our lives. Eventually, by repeating that same process of facing our fears, naming them, and taking more and more steps of faith, we’ll be able to overcome even the really big fears and anxieties in our lives. We’ll be able to deal with times of uncertainty or anxiety. We’ll discover that that abundant, peaceful, joyful life that we want, and that God wants for us, is really right here in front of us. And with God’s help, each of us will be able to step out in faith, even if it’s just a little one at first, and grow and strengthen over time as we take more and more steps up the staircase.

We can do that. We can do it! It really isn’t rocket science. Really, we have to do it. Because if we don’t – if we allow our fear and anxiety to overpower us, to take control over our thoughts and actions, then we’ll all just be a problem waiting to happen. We’ll always be just one moment of anxiety away from doing something wrong or hurtful or stupid, taking us further away from the direction God is leading us. In our own lives, in our churches, in our society in general, that’s the ticking time bomb we should really be worried about.

Thanks be to God.

A Literal Problem

Article originally published in the Auburn (NY) Citizen 11/8/14, titled “Westminster Presbyterian: The Bible Wasn’t Always Taken So Literally”:

Pope Francis

In a recent address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, Pope Francis boldly restated the Roman Catholic Church’s position that the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, and the origin and diversification of life through evolution, is not incompatible with the Christian faith. As he put it, God was not “a magician with a magic wand.” I’m very glad that he weighed in on this subject.

This can be a sensitive topic. A significant number of Christians in this country would claim that the Bible must be understood in a highly literalistic way. This leads to the belief that in order to be a good Christian, a person has to believe in a literal reading of the accounts of the creation of the universe found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible: God created every aspect of creation distinctly and uniquely, with no reliance on evolution. Many of them hold that the universe was created by God in six literal Earth days. Others grant that the “days” may be metaphorical and not literal 24-hour periods, but that otherwise, the Genesis accounts are a literal accounting of how we all came to be.

I empathize with and respect these fellow Christians. In fact, I used to be one of them. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand the Bible differently — and, I’d suggest, in a way more consistent with the overall history of how the Bible has traditionally been understood.

The belief that the scriptures must be understood to that degree of literalism — that they are “inerrant” or “infallible,” at least in the way that these Christians would define those terms — is actually a relatively new development. It only started to take off in this country in the 1840s. My own Presyterian denomination was a major proponent of this understanding of the Bible in the late 1800s, until it renounced the viewpoint in the late 1920s.

In reality, from the very beginnings of the faith until now, the vast majority of Christians have not understood the scriptures to be read and understood that way. Of course, some portions were, and are, considered literal, but overall, the Bible has always been understood to be in many places allegorical or metaphorical. It was never intended to be as factual as the morning newspaper or a technical report. The Bible is the collected traditions and writings of a number of pre-scientific cultures, all trying to convey great, transcendent truths about God and us. These days, my own denomination puts it this way: “The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding.” (from the Presbyterian Church (USA) “Confession of 1967”

Why does any of this matter? Simply this: studies have shown that American students continue to lose ground in overall education levels compared against their global counterparts. There are multiple reasons for this, but one important reason is that some groups demand that high school curricula and textbooks minimize teaching of these scientific concepts that are for all practical purposes universally accepted as fact, while also demanding that other, far less scientific theories are taught — “pseudo theories,” as Francis put it — all stemming from a desire to bolster a highly literal reading of Genesis. Constitutionally, this is bad because it imposes the religious beliefs of one subgroup of one religion upon the entire, diverse student body. It’s also bad because it hobbles these students’ academic development — something that our country needs, and that they themselves will need in order to compete in the ever-shrinking global village.

Pope Francis is absolutely correct. In accordance with the way that most Christian traditions — Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant — understand the Bible, there is no inconsistency or conflict with being a Christian and accepting the reality of the Big Bang, or that life began and diversified via the process of evolution. Our human drive to understand our universe more deeply, and the knowledge gained through scientific endeavor, are gifts from God — not something evil designed to confuse us or draw us away from God. It’s been said, rightly, that God works in mysterious and wonderful ways. I believe that’s correct — and that the Big Bang and evolution are two of those ways.

The Sometimes-Irritating Community of Grace (sermon 9/7/14)

unriend button

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”- Matthew 18:15-20

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This past week, a friend shared an article on Facebook that said that people had assumed that the Internet, with its unprecedented access to global information and interaction, would usher in the dawn of a new era, where all this instant, 24/7 exposure to the world beyond our own thoughts and experience would make us all more balanced, more understanding, more broad-minded. But the reality, according to the article, has actually been the exact opposite. All of the access to ideas and beliefs that challenge our own thoughts come along with access to a potentially worldwide community of people who think and believe the same as us – and rather than taking the tougher route of examining our thoughts and actually allowing them to be challenged, people are just taking the easier route and just finding online communities of like-minded people to associate with and be bolstered by – creating a kind of echo chamber that allows our beliefs to go without serious challenge. The article argues that instead of increasing dialogue across different groups, the Internet has actually served to decrease that kind of interaction, with people becoming more polarized and separate as they moved into their own customized online thought-ghettoes.

Actually, I don’t really think the Internet created this problem as much as it just made it easier for us to be as broad-or narrow-minded as we’re already predisposed. And even if the Internet does bring problems with it, the benefits far outweigh the problems. From my own standpoint, I’d never want to give up having virtually unlimited access to news from around the world, the contents of the world’s great libraries and museums, or the ability to watch that movie that I didn’t catch in the theaters, or funny pictures of cats, or doing my banking and Christmas shopping at three o’clock in the morning in my boxer shorts. That, my friends, is what we call progress.

Still, the article still has some real truth to it. There’s no question that whatever your beliefs, however brilliant or nutty they might be, you can find an online community of websites and organizations and people to support and nurture those beliefs without any serious challenge. And if there’s a website or a person that does challenge you to get out of the echo chamber, and go out beyond your ideological comfort zone, it’s so easy to just not go to that particular website. Block the person. Unfriend them. Problem solved. We live in a time where human relationships can be terminated with the click of a mouse. But in this passage from Matthew, Jesus is describing the way he wants us to be in relationship with each other as his followers, and it’s something very different from that.

On the surface, this passage deals with church order and discipline, and the church certainly needs that. But even at that, we always need to remember that Christ has created his church to be a community of grace – extending the undeserved grace, the mercy and love and forgiveness that God showed to us, outward to others. So while the church needs order and discipline, it needs to be grace-filled order; grace-filled discipline.

But I think that there’s also a deeper significance of Jesus’ words here. Beyond church order and discipline, Jesus is pointing out to us the way we’re all supposed to be connected with each other in the middle of conflicts. Even when in conflict, we’re still all various parts of the one body of Christ. We’re still called to help each other, to be accountable to each other, to love one another – to really, truly, remain in community with each other. It doesn’t matter if we’re Red-Staters or Blue-Staters; liberal or conservative. Doesn’t matter if we’re Presbyterian or Catholic or Episcopal or Baptist or Methodist or Nazarene or Alliance. Male/female, rich/poor, straight/gay, pro-Israeli/pro/Palestinian, Skaneateles or Half Acre, it doesn’t matter. Together, we are Christ’s body. Together, we’re more than we are as individuals; and when one of us succeeds or rejoices or fails or suffers, we all do. So we all have to avoid the temptation of retreating to our own thought-ghettoes and echo chambers, and really hear, and see, and love one another, even those who are very different from us, even those with whom we profoundly disagree, in order for us toreally  be this big, diverse, always-imperfect, sometimes-irritating, community of grace that Jesus called his church.

Now, we all know that this sounds good, it’s easy to say, but in the real world, it’s awfully hard to put into practice. And at least half the time, even when we try to do that, it fails. So why should we even try? What’s the use? What good is going to come of it?

She was a very progressive minister in a mainline Protestant denomination. After growing up in a very affluent home in an exclusive suburb of a major northeastern city, she’d gotten a bachelor’s degree from Vassar, then went on to Harvard Divinity school, went through the battery of difficult and drawn out ordination standards of her denomination. She loved world travel and being exposed to different cultures, and the dividends from her trust fund that supplemented her pastor’s salary enabled her to do that.

He was a conservative pastor in a Fundamentalist Protestant congregation. He grew up in the Deep South, in a lower middle-class family where some months, just making it from paycheck to paycheck was tough. Working at the local plant and going to school part-time, he’d put his way through community college and then on to the state university. He felt a call to the ministry, and so he took a handful of classes online and at a local non-accredited Bible college, and he was ordained by the vote of his home congregation. He’d never had the ability to travel much; in fact, the furthest he’d ever traveled in his life was when he moved from his southern hometown to take on his new pastorate, in the same town where she was the pastor of “that godless liberal church” down the road.

They first met each other at the local ministerial association’s monthly meeting. She was looking sharp in her brand-new outfit from Talbots and the latest hairstyle. He was wearing black loafers, white socks, plain black pants, white shirt with short sleeves, and a skinny black tie. If it weren’t for his flat-top haircut, he’d have looked like one of the Blues Brothers who’d forgotten sunglasses. And they immediately hated each other. She hated his slow southern drawl; her nasal Yankee twang set his teeth on edge. And they hated each other’s theology. He questioned outright whether she could be considered a true Christian. She thought it wouldn’t be proper to think the same thing of his beliefs and wouldn’t ever say it out loud, but in the quietness of her own mind, she actually thought the same of him. You’d think that you couldn’t find two more different people under the sun.

A couple of months after that, they bumped into each other again, but in a very different setting – they were both standing in hip waders in the cold water of a nearby stream. As odd as it might sound, it turns out that they both had a passion for fly fishing, of all things. He’d enjoyed it since he was a little boy and his father would take him out with him; it was their father-son time together and their escape from some of the difficulties of their lives. Her grandfather had taken her out and taught her the joys of fly-fishing in the stream that ran through their summer property in Maine. And it was through fly-fishing that these two first, grudgingly, struck up a friendship. And the friendship blossomed. They ended up spending time together showing each other how to tie their favorite flies, and sharing their favorite “secret” fishing spots.

And once their friendship grew, they discovered that they both also shared another passion – they both sensed a call to reach out to help the local immigrant population. So, against all logic, this theological Odd Couple got their congregations together to establish joint outreach programs for the local immigrant community. And it thrived. They provided material assistance, provided daycare for single mothers trying to work, taught English as a Second Language. The lives of hundreds if not thousands, of men, women, and children were made better through their joint efforts. Once they found some common ground, these two very different people, with very different worldviews, were able to see the humanity in the other – and not just the beauty of their humanity, but through that, they saw the very image of God in each other. They discovered that even while their differences were real, compared to what they had in common, those differences weren’t enough to keep them from what God was calling them to do in Christ’s name, together.

The great writer and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner once wrote that “Where people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and for them and they are doing God’s will.” Jesus said the same thing in this passage today when he said “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Friends, when we commit to sticking together, staying in relationship and community with each other even when we’re in conflict, there’s no end to what God can do through us, together. But in order for that to work, when we come into conflict with each other, we can’t just throw up our hands, say the hell with it, and click “Unfriend.”

Thanks be to God.