But Wait, There’s More – Much More

(sermon 5/5/19)

beach campfire

John 21

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

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Today’s gospel text is interesting in several ways. First, in that it’s quite clearly an added chapter to a gospel that had already been concluded with a nice wrap-up at the end of the chapter before – “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” But then you turn the page and you see “But wait, there’s more!” and the gospel continues, by telling this additional story of the miraculous beach encounter between Jesus and some of his disciples. Second, it’s interesting in the way that the disciples recognized Jesus through his repeat miracle of telling them how to catch a huge amount of fish, a parallel to what Luke tells us he’d done early in his ministry when he was first calling some of these very same men as disciples. Related to that, it’s interesting, or maybe more accurately, it’s a little odd, how Peter responds when they realize it’s Jesus on the shore, by jumping up, throwing on some clothes, and jumping into the lake to swim to shore – which everyone knows, unless you’re John Fischbach, that the best way to get back to shore if you’re sitting in a boat is to just stay in the boat with everyone else and row in – and besides, if you’re going to swim in, why do you actually get dressed to jump into the water? You can imagine the other disciples just rolling their eyes and thinking “Well, that’s Peter for you; what are you going to do?”

But I think the most interesting thing about this story is its second part – Jesus’ conversation with Peter. Now Peter, who still has to be stinging from what he’d done wrong – his denial of Jesus on the night of his arrest just over a week before, is talking with Jesus, and Jesus asks him three times if he loves him. And three times, Peter confirms to Jesus that he loves him. Three times, a mirror image of his three denials, each time seemingly erasing the guilt and shame that lingered in Peter’s mind for each one of his denials; and each one being a reconfirmation of Jesus’ having forgiven Peter for those denials. It’s Jesus’ act of giving Peter a new start, and showing his love and acceptance regardless of what he’d gotten wrong before. From Peter’s standpoint, it had to be a powerful expression of love and hope at a time when he needed just that affirmation. That’s an affirmation that we all need at one time or another, when things seem to have gone off the tracks and we’ve messed up, and this story teaches us that Jesus offers it to us just as he did to Peter in this story.

At the same time, as the preacher David Lose has pointed out, Jesus gave Peter  two other things that we all need, too: first, we all need a sense of belonging, of being accepted for who we are by a larger group that helps us have a stable identity and sense of self, and self-worth. Our society touts individualism as maybe the most sacred aspect of our culture, but the reality is that, for better or worse, most of our self-identity comes from how others see and accept us. This is precisely why the way we welcome and accept others is so very important; the way we act and the words we say have immense power to  shape others in their own minds, and to make them feel loved and worthy, or not. In this story, Jesus has let Peter know that there is nothing that he’s done that has removed him from the fold of disciples. He is still a part of the beloved community of faith.

The other thing that Jesus gives Peter is a sense of purpose as a member of this larger community that he’s part of. Feed my sheep, Jesus tells him. Look out for others. Having a sense of purpose – knowing that who we are, and what we do, matters. Knowing that if we weren’t here, if we didn’t show up for life every morning, we’d be missed. It’s a well-proven fact that having sense of purpose in life is a far greater motivator than money, or power, or fame. Understanding that we have something of value to offer to other people is the most important aspect of living a life of joy.

In this story, the risen Jesus offered grace to Peter –  simultaneously offering him forgiveness, and a sense of belonging to a larger community, and giving him a purpose to carry out as part of that community.  And the risen Jesus offers the same to us. Through Christ, here, as members of this community of faith, we have the assurance that we’ve been accepted for who we are by God’s grace alone, and that we belong to this thing larger than ourselves, and that God has called each of us to make a difference, large or small, in this world of God’s creation.

In this world, we all struggle with guilt and shame about parts of our lives, and a sense of isolation and not belonging, and thoughts that we don’t really matter. This story was apparently an afterthought, an addition to John’s first printing of the gospel, but it’s good news for us that it was added – because here, Jesus offers us the cure for all of those struggles – through Christ, we have the assurance of forgiveness and the promise of a new beginning, a sense of belonging, and a sense of purpose. He offers this to us in a way just as real as if, just as he shared breakfast with Peter that morning, he was sharing breakfast with us each morning – and in a very real way, he is.

Thanks be to God.

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Write Your Own Ending

(sermon 3/31/19)

two brothers

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

What Are You Waiting For?

(sermon 3/24/19)

make that change

Luke 13:1-9

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

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

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It seems to happen time and time again. There will be some kind of tragedy – a flood, an earthquake, a hurricane, a wildfire – and within hours some know-it-all TV preacher or blogger will be claiming that the disaster was a sign of God’s wrath; it’s God’s judgment against the people who are suffering. According to these self-proclaimed experts, God was punishing these people because of something or someone they’d voted for, or voted against, or how they worshiped God, or how they didn’t worship God at all, or how they parted their hair, or some other equally ridiculous reason. It’s always seemed odd to me that these experts could discern that when these kinds of things happened to places like New Orleans, or Miami, or somewhere else they considered sinful, the disaster was God’s punishment, but wen a string of tornadoes cuts a swath somewhere through the Bible Belt, it’s just some terrible, inexplicable tragedy that doesn’t indicate God’s judgment at all.

These supposed divine mind readers are really only channeling a misguided way of understanding God and life that’s been around for a long time. Pretty much throughout human history, and across pretty much all cultures and religions, some people have believed that the disasters, large and small, that we experience in life are signs of God’s displeasure with us. The different authors of our own scriptures offer a kind of split opinion on the idea, so proof-texting one passage or another without reading them through the lens of the totality of scripture can offer support for those mind readers.

But it’s here, in today’s gospel text, that might give us the most important insight into how to think about that issue.

In this text, we’re stepping into the middle of an ongoing conversation that Jesus was having with his disciples as he’s headed toward Jerusalem and his own execution. You can imagine that the very short length of time he has left himself is weighing heavily on him, and that it’s the point of origin of his conversation with these disciples.

It came up in conversation about a group of Galileans that Pontius Pilate had killed, apparently for political reasons and apparently while they were in the Temple, based on the way the disciples had described it, as mixing their blood with the blood of their sacrifices. They also discussed people who were killed when a tower, a part of the wall around Jerusalem, had collapsed and fallen on them. It must have come up in conversation that, as many people then might have believed, that maybe these victims were in some way greater sinners than others, and that was why these things had happened to them.

Jesus’ response to their comments was actually a beautiful thing. It’s one of the most simple, elegant, efficient theological statements in the gospels. When this idea comes up – just as it did 2,000 ears later when some televangelists claimed that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment of New Orleans for its sinful reputation – Jesus swats the whole idea away as if it’s nothing more than an annoying fly circling around his head. What? That’s silly; of course God doesn’t work that way; it isn’t even worth wasting any time at all considering that kind of nonsense.

And then, having dispensed with that ridiculousness, he takes the disciples’ comments and spins them in a different direction. What happened to all those people was a terrible tragedy. But learn something from that tragedy. Imagine each of those people. They woke up on those days just like any other and went on with their normal routine thinking they’d get up again the next morning, and the next morning, and many mornings after that. What things in their lives do you suppose they’d put off until some later time, always thinking there would be plenty of time, there would always be another day to do it, until suddenly, there wasn’t? All those things they’d wanted to do, all those changes they’d wanted to make in their lives, all the good they’d wanted to accomplish for others, all of them went to the grave along with them.

Fully aware that he didn’t have much time left himself, Jesus tried to wake up these disciples to the fact that the time they had left to break out of their own normal routines and make similar kinds of changes – to “repent,” to use the old English term – was, in relative terms, just as short. Don’t wait, he’s telling them. The right time to make those changes is now.

Several years ago, I was talking with someone – a very successful person in a respected profession, and a very nice person on top of that – who told me that they were running themselves ragged in their professional life. They’d actually grown to hate what they did for a living; it didn’t seem to have much redeeming or lasting social value. But it did pay very well, and they told me that that was why they kept going – because it was enabling them to save up a big nest egg, and that once they retired, they’d be able to use their savings to allow them to finally do something good and have lasting benefit for others, to finally accomplish something meaningful in their life.

I knew that they sincerely meant well, but I couldn’t help but think to myself what a terrible and tragic plan that was. Beyond the fact that hungry, homeless, hopeless people needed help now, and couldn’t wait a few decades for help, you don’t have to live too many years in this life to know that next year, or next month, or even tomorrow, is never guaranteed to us. In this passage, Jesus is waning us not to live our lives betting that they are, because at some point, sooner or later, we’re all going to lose that bet.

Lent is a perfect time to think about these things. What is it in your own life that you know, as a follower of Christ, you should be doing that you’ve been putting off until some uncertain future time? Why not use this season to finally make that change; to take that turn? Reach out to that estranged brother, sister, child, parent, friend. Reconcile with them, make peace, now, before it’s too late. Restructure your schedule, maybe even giving up something else, so you can have the time, now, to work at the food pantry. To teach kids how to read. To help build a house, or to mentor a struggling teenager. Plan that trip; reconnect with that faraway family member or friend you haven’t taken the time to see in years. Finally carve out the time to go on that mission trip you always wanted to. Work on building and strengthening relationships with others, because those human relationships are of God, and by strengthening and deepening them, you’ll also strengthen and deepen your relationship with God.

The time is now – there’s not time to wait. And by the same token, there’s no excuse in thinking it’s too late, either. Remember, even though it wasn’t a particularly spiritual pursuit, but Ed S_________ started taking piano lessons when he was 95 years old. Jesus is telling us that there’s no time like the present, because it’s the only time we’re guaranteed.

This season of Lent, let’s try to think about what’s holding us back from making those kinds of changes – those kinds of improvements, in the name of Christ – and to ask why we allow them to keep holding us back from hearing Jesus’ words of warning here, and to living the life he’s calling us to.

When you think about these things, remember that God understands where you are. Through Jesus, God has experienced all the same kinds of pushes and pulls and pressures that can work to keep us from turning toward the fuller, more eternal, more kingdom-oriented way of living that God has created us for and is calling us toward. And God knows that sometimes, making those kinds of changes can be hard. But we can always have assurance, and confidence, that the one who continued on that road, making the hard journey to Jerusalem and who endured all that played out there, will always be with us – loving us, guiding us, helping us as we try to follow where he’s leading. And it doesn’t take a mind reader to know that.

Thanks be to God.

Belonging

(sermon 5/13/18)

baptism water

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

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John 17:6-19

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

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

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Last Sunday evening, the church staff and their spouses gathered at my place for a little farewell get-together for MB. It was a nice evening, filled with friends, and food, and stories, and laughs and sharing our thoughts about MB, her time here, and her new call. And then, just as we’d had enough to eat and were relaxing a bit, Warren got out of his chair, walked over to the piano, and said, “It’s time.” He sat down and started playing song after song, some requests from us and others that just popped into his head, and we all scrambled to google the lyrics on our phones and sang along.

At one point during that, I sat there looking at the smiling faces, all of us coming from different places, with different backgrounds, different stories, all brought together in this moment, smiling, laughing, singing – and I realized that I was in the middle of one of those very special, almost other-worldly moments that on very rare occasion, we’re blessed to be part of. Surrounded by good friends, and love, and laughter, and music. And it went deeper than it being just an ordinary gathering of friends; this was a group who had been knit together by God, brought together through our common love for God and our desire to serve God, and we were all a part of this truly magical moment. I felt so blessed, and grateful, that I was a part of it, and connected to these people. It was a deep feeling of belonging.

Both of today’s scripture texts deal in different ways with the sense of belonging. In the Acts text, we hear the story of the Apostles naming a new member of the twelve, to replace Judas. They had two equally qualified candidates and basically rolled dice to choose between the two. That sounds pretty arbitrary to our ears today, but even now, every once in a while you’ll hear about an election that results in a tie, and the winner is determined by flipping a coin. Of course, over the years, different parts of the church have come up with different polities, different ways of trying to discern God’s will when faced with making a decision. Some trust the authority of a bishop. Some rely on a congregational vote by the congregation to decide everything. We Presbyterians trust our representative, connectional polity to be the most reliable way of hearing God’s will. The truth of the matter, though, is that whatever the method that we humans come up with to try to hear God’s intentions, God is present in the process, and God will find a way to work within it.

This Acts text deals with finding who God wants to belong to the group of Apostles, and to me that point is important today – whatever the methodology used to hear it, God does call us into being a part of Christ’s Church, and a part of God’s realm. God calls us into this special kind of belonging.

We bear witness to that today, in two ways. Earlier in the service, we recognized the teachers and other volunteers who God has called to a special way of belonging in the life of the church. And in just a little while, we’ll baptize _______, in a sign and seal of God having called him into this special kind of belonging. In his baptism, _______ will begin a lifelong journey of faith, a lifetime of being a part of the covenant, the promise that God has made with us, that we will always belong to the family of God.

But this goes beyond just belonging. Along with that belonging comes the assurance of what Jesus was praying about in the text from John’s gospel that we heard this morning – that _______’s belonging is forever, and that God’s holding and protection of _______ is forever, too.

_______ will grow to know and experience all the joys and sorrows, all the awe and wonder, all the love and loss that this life brings us all. We can, and we do, pray that the laughter will outlast the tears; and that the good will outweigh the bad.  Mostly, we pray that he will always know love – love of family and friends, and church, and most of all of God. However all the chapters of his life will unfold, we all know that through the reconciliation that has been achieved through Christ in his life, death, and resurrection, God has forever claimed him; and that he has been called God’s own and that he will forever be kept in the palm of God’s loving hand – in short, that he belongs. And for that, we can all rejoice, and say

Thanks be to God.

The Peaceful Heart

(sermon 12/10/17 – Advent 2B)

Fallingwater-resized

Fallingwater, Mill Run, PA, 1935 – Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

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

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One of the true masterpieces of modern architecture, not just in this country but in the world – and arguably the most recognized house in the history of modern architecture – is Fallingwater, the house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1930s for the Kaufman family, built over a waterfall in a beautiful wooded area in southwestern Pennsylvania. This house is the definitive illustration of what Wright called Organic Architecture – the idea that a building design should respect and spring from, and be uniquely tied to, its site. At Fallingwater, you can see this in a number of ways – as just a few examples, a large boulder on the site stayed in place and became an integral part of the main floor. Terraces cantilever out over much of the site, making its actual footprint on the land less imposing. Windows are set at a level that makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. Stone walls are laid up using native stone quarried onsite, and in a pattern reminiscent of the natural stone outcroppings that are found around the site. You can see one small symbolic way that Wright expressed this respect for nature, as an integral part of the design, near the entrance of the house. Wright designed a trellis, a series of concrete beams, that spans over the entry drive and ties the house together to an exposed ledge of stone that crops out of the hillside on the opposite side of the drive. But as it turned out, there was a tall, thin tree that was growing right in the path of one of the trellis beams. So instead of just cutting the tree down to make way for the beam, Wright had the beam built to bend and go around the tree, deviating from its straight path and giving the tree room to grow.

Fallingwater trellis with tree-resized

It makes for an interesting design detail, while making an important statement about  incorporating the natural elements of a site into the overall design of a building.

Of course, it only takes a moment or two to realize that trees don’t stop growing just because you’ve built something close to it. Over the next number of years, the tree eventually got too big for the bend in the trellis to accommodate it. It had to be cut down anyway, and another young, thin tree was put in its place to keep the design intent intact. In fact, I’d imagine that it’s been probably been replaced several times since the house was originally built, but I suppose the idea is the important thing here.

For whatever reason, the image of that tree, and how it caused the beam to bend off it’s intended path came to mind when I read today’s gospel lesson – Mark’s account of John the Baptist, calling on people to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord; to make the paths straight and clear for his arrival.

John was offering that message to people who were in many was a lot like us. Most of them had been raised to know about God’s goodness, and God’s love for them. Most of them knew about the prophets who called them to a certain way of treating one another with compassion and mercy, caring for the orphan and the widow, the outcast, the refugee and the resident alien – and that this was the purest and most pleasing way, in God’s estimation, to worship and show love and gratitude to God. They knew the Ten Commandments, and in their hearts, they knew the simple, profound truths found in what we now call the Beatitudes, long before Jesus was even born to teach them – they knew the Hebrew scriptures, so when they would eventually hear Jesus’ teaching years later, they’d know that there was very little if anything in his words that couldn’t already be found in those scriptures.  For the most part, they knew the way of the Lord, and for the most part, we do, too. The path that John was calling us to return to really isn’t too hard to see.

But if it isn’t hard to see, it can still be hard to follow. For the people who came out to hear John, and for us, the concrete experiences of life can sometimes collide with its abstractions. Boulders and trees, of one definition or another, can obstruct the way. Concerns about living life “in the real world” can cause us to make compromises, deviations, from the straight path. And then, as it always works, one deviation will lead to another that builds upon the first, and then another, and another, until eventually we’re so far in the weeds, removed from that straight path that we know in our hearts, that we can’t even see it any more.

And then there are other things that can cloud our vision of the straight path that John called people to, also. Just like those people who came out to the banks of the Jordan River, our minds can get overwhelmed, bogged down, preoccupied with what’s going on in the social, cultural, and political surroundings, the landscape of the times. In thinking, worrying, fearing those kinds of things, we aren’t necessarily led any further away from the right path that God desires for us; they just tend to cloud our eyes so that we can’t see the path through the fog of the 24-hour news cycle and all the worries and anxieties that it can bring.

John’s stark words, and yes, no doubt his slightly scary appearance, cut through the fog and the deviations in the lives of the people who came out to hear him, and across the years, his words can cut through all that for us, too.

I think that often, when we hear his words, what we hear is challenge. We hear yet another “to do” list, a bunch more things to worry about, that we’re somehow supposed to add to everything else we have to get done. We hear more things to take on. More work, and hopefully, all that additional work will make God pleased with us.

But I think that the reality of John’s message for us can be heard a little differently. Instead of it being a challenge to do *more* in order to please God, I think it’s more of an invitation to do *less,* to let go of all those fears and distractions and deviations, in order to see that God is already pleased with us. God already loves us, and to whatever extent that it’s necessary, God has already forgiven us for our shortcomings and failures and deviations from that path, because God knows, literally firsthand, how difficult it is, that it’s truly impossible, for us to completely stay on that path, living in this broken world.

Hearing John’s words as invitation instead of challenge can help to create a peaceful heart within us instead of just adding anxiety on top of anxiety. And after all, isn’t peace, and a peaceful heart, what God desires for us above everything else? Living a life of true shalom, true contentedness and peacefulness through our relationship of love and gratitude with God, and compassion and connection with one another? Isn’t peace what the angels proclaimed to the shepherds in the fields when Jesus was born? Isn’t peace what Jesus repeatedly wished for his disciples after his resurrection? Isn’t having a peaceful heart, and being at peace with God, the entire reason for God’s choosing to enter our world, to live, and laugh, and cry with us, to work, and play, and die with us, so that we can have the peace of heart and mind that comes from knowing that God is truly with us?

Observing Advent is, in a way, our creating a “safe space” where we can help one another live into John’s invitation, and to let go of those things that cause us to lose sight of God’s path, and, like the concrete trellis at Fallingwater, to bend, to turn back around, and to get back on that original path. In this season, we’re trying to hear God’s Spirit speaking to us, enabling us to rediscover our own peaceful heart and to rediscover God’s path of love, mercy, and compassion, the path of hope and peace. In part, we observe Advent to help us to no not miss seeing the forest for the trees.

Thanks be to God.

Compassion in the Stillness

(sermon 7/9/17)

white_coffee_on_the_table_2

Matthew 9:35-38

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

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We’ve been considering compassion these past few weeks, and in this passage from Matthew, we heard that Jesus had compassion for the people he was meeting as he went from town to town. That compassion arose in part out of his perception that they were “like sheep without a shepherd,” as Matthew’s author put it. Just reading it now, we get good general understanding of his meaning with that phrase, but in writing his gospel to an original audience who primarily grew up within Judaism, they would have known that this phrase that shows up multiple times in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly to condemn government and religious leaders who haven’t led the people wisely or well; who haven’t looked after the people’s best interests, and leaving them to fend for themselves.

A lot of times when this passage is used as a preaching text, the sermon emphasis will be on Jesus’ last line – “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” The sermon becomes a call to action; to evangelize more, and to do more for others in the name of the gospel because the amount of suffering in the world is so great.

There’s nothing wrong with taking the sermon in that direction; it’s a perfectly logical message to draw out of Jesus’ words. As we’ve thought about compassion, we’ve certainly emphasized the idea of being the face of Christ, and being more compassionate to others, both inside the church walls and especially beyond. But you know, after a while that can become a real burden, to be told over and over and over again that we need to do more and more for others. We know we’re supposed to be self-giving and compassionate, but there’s just so much need in the world, so much that needs to be done, and with few clear answers on exactly what should be done, and how, that in our efforts to be compassionate, it’s very easy to feel like a ship without a rudder, like sheep without a shepherd. With all the need, we can start to feel like whatever we might do adds up to less than a drop in a bucket. And after a while, we can find ourselves slipping into “compassion fatigue;” that we’re depleting ourselves as we keep trying to do more and more for others. And along with that compassion fatigue, we can start to feel resentful of the continual calls to do more, more, more – and then, when we don’t – can’t – live up to all that, feelings of guilt and shame can set in, and in the end, we don’t feel like being very compassionate at all.

Imagine being a woman with a husband and three kids and a fulltime job outside the home, and you do all the cooking and cleaning and grocery shopping and laundry and all the other housework and get dry cleaning and get the kids to soccer practice and dance class and youth group and the dog to the vet and your mother to the doctor and make dinner and clean up after dinner and then help the kids with their homework and you give of yourself all day and all night long for the good of your family – so that by the time you flop into bed at night, you’re exhausted, you’re spent, and you realize you haven’t had a moment of the day just for yourself, and you start to wonder if there’s really any “you” left at all – only to get up the next morning, get all the kids out of bed, and ready to go, and get out the door to church… only to hear the preacher – and yes, it’s usually a man – tell you for the umpteenth time that you need to stop being to selfish; you need to  think less of yourself, and that you have to give even more of yourself for others. If that’s your story, I just don’t think that’s the sermon you need to hear.

So today, I want to suggest that we hear this gospel text from a slightly different vantage point. A lot of times, when we hear a story from the Bible, we tend to picture it as if we’re watching it on a movie or television screen, watching it all unfold in the third person. But this morning, Instead of considering Jesus’ having compassion for some abstract group of other people “over there,” picture this story in the middle of the action, as one of those people. Imagine this story, seeing it through the eyes of one of those people that Jesus is helping and healing and having compassion on. I’m suggesting today that it’s important to recognize that we aren’t always the distributor of Christ’s compassion in the world, but we’re the recipient of it, too. It’s important to recognize that we’re worthy of that love and compassion.

That can be hard for us to imagine or accept sometimes. Maybe there’s something in our past, or our present – something that we did that was immoral, or even illegal. We hurt another person. We were unfaithful. We were dishonest. Whatever it was, or is, it’s something that maybe we feel guilt or shame about, and it’s keeping us from feeling that we’re worthy of Christ’s compassion.

And I have to say that some of the language that the church uses feeds into those kinds of feelings. We talk about God’s grace as being something that God extends to us strictly as a matter of God’s own choice; something that God unilaterally decides to offer to us and that we could never obtain from God by way of earning it through our own efforts. That’s very true, and it’s something we should all be grateful for. But then, we take that concept further, saying that we aren’t deserving, we aren’t worthy, of God’s compassion and love. I know that that’s standard, orthodox Christian doctrine. But honestly, I wonder if putting things that way doesn’t go a step too far. I mean, I think of the entire, overall biblical record of God’s dealing with humanity; I think about God’s entering our existence in the flesh; and I think of the crucifixion; and I can almost hear God saying “Unworthy? Unworthy? Look at what I’ve done for you – look at how I’ve walked in solidarity with you in the flesh. Look at how I suffered for you. I did these things precisely to show you that you are worthy of my love and compassion!  I call you precious, and loved, and worthy! So don’t let anyone – not the world, not even the church, not even yourself – call you unworthy after I’ve called you worthy!”

As most of you know, a couple of weeks ago a group of us marched in the Kentuckiana Pride Parade. It was a great time; a lot of fun. But it was more than just fun. We were able to represent our congregation and witness to our welcoming and inclusive nature to some 18,000 people who were at the parade. And with the exception of one or two screaming street preachers with bullhorns, we received a very favorable response from the crowd, and several of us were able to have good conversations about our faith and our church along the way. At the end of the parade, while we were just standing round chit-chatting, a young woman was standing on the sidewalk, and she said to one of us, “Wow, that’s really cool, that a church would march in the Pride Parade and show support for us.” And our member said “Yes, we do.” “And you allow gay people like me in your church?” “Yes, absolutely; in our church we say all are welcome, and we really mean it. You should come check us out sometime.” “Oh, I don’t know. I mean… I loved being part of church when I was younger, before they told me I wasn’t welcome there anymore. I’d like to be part of a church again, but there are just so many things in my life, that make me feel unworthy to go.”

Doesn’t that just break your heart? Can’t you just hear God saying, “I call you worthy; don’t let anyone convince you that you aren’t!”

I want us all to do something this morning. We did this at Montreat; I’ve done it before, too, and probably some of you have also. I want you to get comfortable in your seat, and close your eyes. Sit in the silence; feel the stillness. Now take a deep breath in, and hold it…. Now breath out. Again, breathe in, and as you do, imagine that God, and all goodness and peace and love are entering into you along with your breath, then hold it… and let it out, and as you let it out, imagine all that stuff that’s a barrier between you and God, all that stuff that’s causing the feelings of unworthiness, is leaving your body. So breathe in… hold it… breathe out…. [repeats]. Now imagine yourself in someplace that’s special to you, someplace where you feel at peace, someplace that you have fond memories of…. And imagine that you’re sitting at a table, or maybe on a blanket spread out for a picnic…. And imagine sitting across from you, the most special people in your life, the people you love the most…. And now, imagine loved ones that you cared for the most who have passed away; you’re all there together… And now imagine in the center of them, looking at you, is Jesus… Now imagine that they’re all looking deeply into your eyes, into your very heart, and they’re smiling, they’re beaming at you… and they’re all telling you, assuring you through their eyes, that you are a beloved child of God. That you are loved; that when you were created, God called you very good. That you are worthy…. Embrace the compassion of this stillness; feel it throughout your body….Now, imagine yourself coming back out of this, breathe in… hold it… breathe out…. Breathe in, and as you do feel the warmth and beauty of knowing that you are worthy and loved by God. Hold it… … Breathe out. [repeat]. OK, open your eyes.

Remember that we are indeed called to be compassionate to others; it’s an important, inseparable part of what it means to follow Jesus. But before we can offer Christ’s compassion to others, we have to know it, and be assured of it, for ourselves. So remember the compassion you felt this morning in the stillness – and remember that if you ever start to feel overwhelmed with compassion fatigue, or you feel guilt or shame creeping in, if you feel unworthy again, you can go back to that place in the stillness, and feel that compassion again.

Thanks be to God.

Compassion on Account

(sermon 6/25/17)

using atm

David asked, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” Now there was a servant of the house of Saul whose name was Ziba, and he was summoned to David. The king said to him, “Are you Ziba?” And he said, “At your service!” The king said, “Is there anyone remaining of the house of Saul to whom I may show the kindness of God?” Ziba said to the king, “There remains a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in his feet.” The king said to him, “Where is he?” Ziba said to the king, “He is in the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar.” Then King David sent and brought him from the house of Machir son of Ammiel, at Lo-debar. Mephibosheth son of Jonathan son of Saul came to David, and fell on his face and did obeisance. David said, “Mephibosheth!” He answered, “I am your servant.” David said to him, “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.” He did obeisance and said, “What is your servant, that you should look upon a dead dog such as I?”

Then the king summoned Saul’s servant Ziba, and said to him, “All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s grandson. You and your sons and your servants shall till the land for him, and shall bring in the produce, so that your master’s grandson may have food to eat; but your master’s grandson Mephibosheth shall always eat at my table.” Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. Then Ziba said to the king, “According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so your servant will do.” Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons. Mephibosheth had a young son whose name was Mica. And all who lived in Ziba’s house became Mephibosheth’s servants. Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he always ate at the king’s table. Now he was lame in both his feet. – 2 Samuel 9:1-13

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Being together with our high school students at Montreat got me thinking about when I was around their age. And reading this week’s sermon text made me remember a particular incident that happened when I was just a little older than them. It was right after I graduated from high school and headed off to college, and I was doing all the things that a college freshman moving into a new town had to do to get settled in. One of those things was opening a checking account at a local bank. This was the Fall of 1978, a time when banks were just starting to dabble in having ATMs. Not all the banks in town even had them, and I picked my bank in part because they did – and I liked the flexibility that it offered, being able to do my banking any time of day or night. And I did. I used my new ATM card a lot. One of the times that I used it in the middle of the night, I was pulling an all-nighter in the architecture design studio. It was around 2:00 or 2:30, and I needed a break, and I was hungry. I wanted to go across the street to the Penn State Diner for a Sloppy Joe and a coffee, but I didn’t have a dime to my name at the moment, either in cash or in my bank account. I had actually deposited a check that my parents had sent me in the mail, but the problem was that the bank took three days for an out-of-town check to clear, and here I was, at two o’clock in the morning just before the dawn of the third day. I knew the money really wasn’t in my account yet, but I figured I could walk down to the bank and withdraw twenty dollars, and by the time anyone came in the following morning to see that I’ve overdrawn my account, the deposit would have posted and it would be a moot point. I felt a little guilty about it, but, did I mention I was really hungry? So I walked to the ATM to withdraw the money that I knew wasn’t technically there. I inserted my card and punched in my PIN number and my withdrawal request – but when I did, the machine swallowed my card, and the screen said “Unable to process transaction at this time. Please see a teller during banking hours for more information.” Crap. I was busted. I was mortified, knowing I was going to have to go into the bank in the morning and admit what I’d tried to do, and that I knew it was wrong, and apologize and throw myself on their mercy, and hope I wasn’t going to have to pay some hefty penalty for having tried it. I walked back to the studio, still broke, and still hungry, and now worried about what the morning would bring.

diner state college

The Diner, pretty much as it looked back then on the night of the attempted crime. Oh man, how I wanted one of their Sloppy Joes, a coffee, and an order of their famous Grilled Stickies – sadly, on this particular night, it wasn’t to be.

So the next morning, I went into the bank and stood in line waiting for a free teller. When one was open, I started to spill my guts to him, explaining that I knew what did was wrong, and I won’t do it again, and I’m sorry, blah, blah, blah, until he finally broke in and said, “No, no, no, wait a minute, hold on! The machine didn’t hold your card because of that. We just instructed the machine to do that the next time you used your card so you’d come into the bank to retrieve it. You see, you use our new ATM more than anyone else in town, and we just wanted a chance to thank you in person for making use of the new service. In fact, we’re actually giving you twenty-five dollars, just as a small token of our thanks for embracing the new technology!”

Well, I was shocked and pleasantly surprised that this didn’t go at all the way I’d expected. But to this day, I still remember the dread and worry and fear that I felt about being summoned to the bank.

That memory came to mind when I read today’s sermon text, the story of David and Mephiboseth. I like this story – and not just because it’s fun to say the name “Mephibosheth.” I can’t help but think that Mephibosheth had to have a similar kind of dread that I had waiting to talk to the bank teller, only much more so, when he was summoned to meet with King David. He knew that not only had his grandfather, King Saul, been killed, but all of Saul’s children were hunted down and killed too, including his own father, Jonathan – partly out of revenge, and partly to eliminate anyone who could claim to be the legitimate heir to Saul’s throne, and posing a challenge to David’s reign. For his own part, he’d suffered permanent injury when he was just a five-year old, when Saul and Jonathan were killed, and his nurse, knowing the great danger that the boy faced, was hurrying so quickly to run away and hide him that she dropped him, crippling him.

I imagine that for the rest of his life, Mephibosheth did everything he could to keep a low profile, and to keep away from David. But now, all these years later, when Mephibosheth was a grown man with a child of his own, David finds him and summons him to the palace. By all normal expectations, Mephibosheth probably thought that this was the end for him, and his son, too.

David undoubtedly recognized the potential political threat that Mephibosheth posed to him. And maybe a part of the way David’s decision to have him live in the king’s palace was a page torn out of Don Corleone’s playbook, to keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

But he was also concerned with something much more important than just that. David and Jonathan, Mephibosheth’s father, had had an intensely close, loving relationship, one that far surpassed any normal friendship. In reality, in the midst of the division between David and Jonathan’s own father, Jonathan’s heart and support were actually with David, even though he stayed on his father’s side out of a sense of obligation owed to his father. Because of the deep, steadfast love that the two had for each other, they had sworn a covenant of commitment, loyalty, and care, for one another and for each other’s families as well. Now, David was making good on his covenant with Jonathan, bringing Mephibosheth into his own household, restoring his grandfather’s property to him, and considering him one of his own sons in the royal household. In a sense, he was adopting Jonathan’s son as his own.

This was an amazing expression of grace that David was extending to Mephibosheth. But it was also an expression of hospitality and compassion – and undoubtedly one that David’s recommended against, in the name of personal and national security. Some people have said that this relationship between David and Mephibosheth is a representation of the relationship between us and God, and the unexpected grace that we receive from God. I guess in some sense that could be true, but I think it’s more an illustration of how we’re supposed to treat one another. David treated Mephibosheth with compassion in spite of the potential threat he posed, keeping his covenant and honoring the deep love that he’d had for Jonathan.

How many times have we withheld grace, or compassion, or hospitality to someone because we see them as a potential threat to our own safety, security, or well-being? How many times have we done that to people we’ve seen as a threat on a national scale? How many times have we done it on a personal level? The story of David and Mephibosheth point us toward a different way, a better way – the way of the kingdom of God.

Whatever else it might be, this story of David treating Jonathan’s child with grace and compassion should be a reminder that just as David and Jonathan were in a covenant of love, so are we in a loving covenant with God, too; one that requires us to extend grace and compassion to all of God’s children. When it’s easy, and especially when it’s hard. When it might even come at personal risk. When others would say we need to think of ourselves first.

It isn’t any secret that showing people this kind of grace and compassion can be very risky business. But we need to do it, and we can do it, because of the grace and compassion that God has already given us – that God has already deposited into our account, expecting us to give it to others, and to do it now, not later. We don’t even need to wait three days for the deposit to clear.

Thanks be to God.