All Bartimaeus

(sermon 10/24/21)

Mark 10:46-52

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

He sat there along the side of the road that day just as he did most days, calling out to people as they traveled from there in Jericho to Jerusalem, or from Jerusalem to Jericho and beyond. There was a bit of irony in his situation. He was Bartimaeus – Bar-Timaeus, literally, “son of Timaeus,” his father’s name, which was a variation of a word combining concepts of worth, value, wealth, inheritance; and here he was – broke, considered worthless, cast aside, presumably being punished by God with blindness for some sinfulness in his life, relegated to begging for spare change from people as they passed by just in order to survive, but most days getting more scorn than shekels as most of them tried to ignore him as awkwardly and unsuccessfully as when we might try to ignore the panhandler waving at us while we’re stopped at a red light.

Some days were better for business, as it were, than others. This was one of the better days, as traffic had picked up on the road as large numbers of people were flooding into Jerusalem to observe the Passover. On this particular day the numbers seemed even a little bigger, and based on the conversations he was overhearing it was because Jesus, the itinerant rabbi was passing through town on his way to Jerusalem and a large crowd was following him independent of the Passover festival.

Bartimaeus apparently knew a bit about Jesus – that he was wise, insightful, maybe sometimes even annoyingly so; and having an ability to heal the lame and the sick. Some were even saying that he was the long-awaited messiah. For his own part, Bartimaeus may or may not have thought Jesus was the messiah as he sat there along the dusty road, but at very least he believed that Jesus was able to heal his blindness, and in the process, exorcising several of the social demons, if not literal ones, that were plaguing him. So when Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was near, he began to call out to him for help. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

It was a cry that could have been a reference to Jesus being the messiah; or, it could have been an association of Jesus with Solomon, the literal “son of David” who was widely believed to not only be wise, but also to have been able to heal the sick and cast out demons. Either way, Bartimaeus’ bases were covered, and the double meaning of that term might have pleased him.

As he was calling out, we heard that the people in the crowd told him to be quiet, he was being a bother, annoying; with all of Bartimaeus’ yelling and wailing, they could barely hear what Jesus was saying as he was walking and talking. It was just rude of him to be so disruptive.

But Bartimaeus didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, this was his moment; maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so he just kept yelling and crying out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” On that day, Bartimaeus had the unenviable but real freedom of having nothing left to lose by upsetting the polite civility and conventions around him in order to be heard, and to maybe cause some improvement to his lot in life.

When the people told him that Jesus had heard him and was calling him over, the text says that he jumped up and cast off his… well, something, we’re not totally sure what, because the Greek word used here in the text is ambiguous. It could mean just his outer garment, or it could mean all of his clothing in their entirety; and while the story would still work with either meaning, maybe it would be even more profound, more powerful. if Mark meant the latter. Bartimaeus coming forward to encounter Jesus, naked, completely open and honest, without pretense or cover or camouflage; just as I am without one plea, son of David, have mercy on me.

And in doing what he did, the supposedly sinful and punished Bartimaeus was just one in a long line of people who had exercised that same hard-earned freedom. Job did it before him, as we’ve been hearing in our First Readings the past several weeks. And long after, the supposedly sinful Protestant Reformers did the same, and long after them, supposedly sinful blacks and supposedly sinful women, and supposedly sinful LGBTQ folk, all of them cast off convention and false civility, refusing to be silenced, seeking confirmation of God’s blessing as equal children of God, and seeking betterment of their place in society.

So there stood Bartimaeus, in front of Jesus, waiting. Jesus looked at him, eyes intent, and simply asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus told him. I want to see. He may not have known whether Jesus was the messiah, or just what being a messiah might actually entail; he didn’t understand anything about the fine points of Trinitarian theology or the dual nature of Jesus’ being; he certainly didn’t know anything remotely like any kind of Christian atonement theory. All he knew was that he believed Jesus could help him, in a way that maybe no one else could.

That probably wouldn’t be a sufficiently well-developed statement of faith to get him membership in a lot of churches, maybe most churches, but according to Jesus, it was enough. It was faith sufficient to receive what he’d asked for, and more. He received his sight, yes, but he actually received so much more. He’d been made well, in the deepest sense of the word. In fact, what Jesus actually says here is that Bartimaeus’ faith, his trust, had rescued him, liberated him, healed him – had saved him.

In short, what Jesus did was to make him aware that in fact, he was truly “Bar-Timaeus” – son of value, of worth, of inheritance.

In some way or another, maybe even multiple ways, we’ve all found ourselves sitting in the dust along the roadside of life as all the rest of the world, intentionally or unintentionally, ignores our suffering, our deepest need, however we define that. Maybe they’ll feel sorry for us, maybe some of them will blame us as the cause of our own suffering, but most of them probably just oblivious to us as they go on, wrapped up in their own lives, priorities, destinations. Yes, more than half of us find ourselves in some category of humanity that’s historically had to reject polite rules of engagement, as Bartimaeus did, in order for our voices to be heard and for any real progress to be made. But even if you aren’t in one or another of of those groups, you can still end up sitting in the dust of the roadside, too. The world just keeps going while you struggle with the death of a spouse, a parent, a child. You deal with the stresses of caring for a family member who has special needs, maybe with little or no help from others. Or you deal with uncertain finances, discord in family relationships, or health problems of your own. So many things can put you, put us, in places of suffering as profound as Bartimaeus’. Son of David, have mercy on me.

Frankly, hearing stories like Bartimaeus’ can lead us to consider some really disturbing things: why are other people’s prayers answered but not mine? Does God care more about them than about me? Is God punishing me for something, or rewarding them for something? Does God care about me at all? What was so special about Bartimaeus? Because there were thousands of sick, lame, blind, who Jesus walked past day after day and didn’t heal, and there are countless people who suffer today while others don’t. Truly, Bartimaeus received a gift that very few people do.

But we do have something that Bartimaeus didn’t. He had to wait for Jesus to come along to hear him and save him. We don’t. We don’t have to sit and wait for Jesus to come walking by some day and maybe hear our suffering. For us, Jesus is always with us, when we’re walking down the road, and especially when we’re in the dust alongside it. So with faith – imperfect, sometimes with questions, sometimes doubting, sometimes not fully understanding, but still faith – we still call out to God with our deepest longings, just as Bartimaeus did. And we do still have the great gospel truth that even if we do have to endure suffering, or problems, or neglect, or injustice, or scorn, then God will endure it all along with us. God hears us, loves us, accepts us, even when no one else does. Just as he did with Bartimaeus, Jesus has truly rescued us, liberated us, healed us, saved us. He has literally made us all Bartimaeus – sons of value, daughters of worth, children of inheritance; today, tomorrow, and forever.

Thanks be to God.

One Thing

(sermon 7/18/21)

2 Samuel 7-14a

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies.

Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.”

=====

I’m going to guess that at some point or another, most of us have seen the 1991 movie “City Slickers.” If you have, you’ll likely remember that in the movie, Billy Crystal plays Mitch Robbins, a stressed out, angst-ridden guy who’s going through a mid-life crisis who ends up going on vacation with a couple of his equally angst-ridden buddies to a dude ranch out west, to work as cowpokes on the ranch’s annual cattle drive. Pretty quickly, Mitch gets on the wrong side of Curly, the head cowboy, played by Jack Palance. And if you’ve seen the movie, you also probably remember the scene where the two of them are riding along on their horses and having a heart-to-heart conversation, where Curly tells Mitch that the whole secret to life, the whole secret to having a good, fulfilling, contended life, is for a person to just stay focused on one thing, and that, even though he used more flowery language, nothing else mattered. When Mitch asks him what the one thing is, Curly answers “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

That’s more or less the same message that God is reminding David of through the prophet Nathan in today’s first Lectionary text from the Second Book of Samuel. We heard that once David had gotten settled in as the ruler of the united kingdom of Israel, he then turns his attention to making a permanent, sacred space – a temple – to house the Ark of the Covenant and to be a dwelling for God, of sorts, on earth. Maybe David’s motivation was a matter of faith, of devotion and a desire to please God; or maybe it was a concern out of bad optics – that people might take a dim view of his concentrating on his own physical comfort, building a palace for himself without making a space for God and the Ark. In all likelihood his motivation was a bit of both, but ultimately, whatever his motivations, God reminds David that God had never actually asked him to build a temple – that since the time of the Hebrews wandering through the Wilderness with Moses, God had been getting along just fine without any permanent structure, thank you very much, and in essence, God tells David to just stay in his lane – to keep focused on, if not literally one thing, at least, the particular one group of things, that God actually had entrusted to him.

While in this particular story, I don’t think David felt as conflicted or angst-ridden as Mitch in the movie, but what about you? Have you ever felt overstressed because you’ve spread yourself too thin, chasing too many commitments in too many directions, not able to see your real priorities? Henry David Thoreau famously encouraged us all to simplify our lives in order to find peace, contentment, happiness. He certainly wasn’t the first or the last to do so. This text brings home to us that this act of simplification, staying focused, staying in our own lane, isn’t just common sense, or just a good idea, or a bit of Dr. Phil pop psychology, but it’s an important aspect of our faith; it’s an important spiritual discipline – to try to discern where God wants us to focus – either for ourselves, in our own personal lives, or as the church – and then to stay focused, to stick with it, and not get distracted by other directions, no matter how good those other directions might seem. Finding our “one thing,” or probably more accurately, our “one path” of particular things.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll never need to adjust our focus, or, to use the earlier analogy, that from time to time God won’t want us to change from one lane into another. Times change; situations change; God’s will for us will change. So we can’t confuse discernment of focus with just sticking with tradition or “that’s just what we’ve always done.”

Practically every individual, every pastor, and every congregation, is recognizing that we’re currently living in a special time; one where it seems that God may be calling on us to change lanes. For us here, a part of that is discernment about how our focus might change after the closing of our preschool; what new avenues of mission and community connection God may be leading us into. Even as we’re planning for the official recognition and celebration next month of the preschool and the immense impact it’s had in the lives of people for decades, there are other really intriguing and exciting potential new ways for us to engage our faith with the community, and to be even more strongly a Matthew 25 congregation – ways that have seemed almost to arise out of the blue, but I believe it isn’t at all coincidental.

And all that leads to a critical question: how do you know if, or when, or how, God is calling us toward a particular different focus; to a new “one thing” or one path? How can we weigh potential options to determine whether they’re God’s will, or our own? How do we do that in the life of the congregation? How do we do that in our own personal lives?

Well, in the movie, Curly didn’t offer Mitch any specific answers, and in today’s text God leaves it a bit ambiguous with David too, not explaining specifically what he should be focusing on, but only what he shouldn’t. Still, the text points toward a principle that I think can be helpful.

By referring to all the years that the Ark had no permanent home, God was emphasizing that God’s primary presence, and primary focus, was within human lives, human bodies, human concerns. *That* was God’s focus, and God’s home.

So as we go through our discernment process of what our ministry and outreach should look like, maybe our yardstick should be to ask: Is this thing being considered consistent with our goal – as people of the kingdom of God – to glorify God by showing God’s love to others, and making that love real in their lives in clear, concrete ways? Does this thing we’re considering make effective and proper use of the resources God has made available to us? And at the same time, are we avoiding trying to bite off more than we can chew? Are we not trying to take on a job God has in mind for some other person, some other day?

As we think about those questions, it’s possible that we might occasionally get something wrong – I mean, even Nathan originally told David that building the temple was the right thing to do, before having to backtrack after his vision. But the totality of David’s story in the scriptures shows us that even when he got things wrong – and he got a lot wrong; a lot worse than what he got wrong in this particular part of his life’s story – God never abandoned him. God’s love for David remained, his entire life. God made good on the promise to make David a “house”, an eternal dynasty, through Christ. A big part of the good news we can take home from this story, and a big part of what we give thanks for as we share in the Lord’s Supper this morning, is that even when David got things wrong, even in his imperfections, God never abandoned him. And as we continue our process of discernment, as we get some things right and some things wrong, God will never abandon you, or me, or us in our life together. In fact, maybe that promise, that assurance, as far as we’re concerned is God’s own “one thing.”

Thanks be to God.

Two Cousins

(sermon 7/11/21)

Mark 6:7-30  

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

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

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

=====

I had a cousin named John. Actually, he was my mother’s cousin, which I guess technically made him my first cousin once removed, even though we always just called each other cousins. But whatever ancestry.com might consider us, it didn’t really matter because John was only about a year and a half older than me, and we grew up together, went to school together, played on the same Little League team together, and lived in the same small town never more than a mile or so apart, and actually just two doors away on the same street for a while when we were really small; so for all practical purposes we grew up together as if we were brothers.

As adults, we both settled down in central Ohio, built careers, raised families. We stayed pretty close, even though we lived almost an hour apart, but still, family and work obligations and all the other realities of adulthood kept us from seeing as much of each other as I’d have wanted.

At way too young an age, John died from the affects of cancer, diabetes, and ultimately, kidney failure, while I ached to have been able to be an organ donor and wishing I could have spent more time with him in his last days. Still, while had been different than when we were kids, there was, and always will be, a special bond between the two of us.

The gospels tell us that Jesus and John the Baptizer were relatives; traditionally, they’ve been called cousins of some kind. I’ve always been intrigued by the details of their relationship that the gospels don’t give us. Were they close? Or were they cousins like the ones you like, or maybe not, but you only see once or twice a year at weddings and funerals?  We’ll really just never know, but it’s interesting to think about.

The lives of these two cousins intersect in this section of Mark’s gospel. Mark starts to tell a story about Jesus sending out the disciples, two by two, out into the towns and villages to proclaim the gospel, the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God and of God’s goodwill and favor for humankind. Then, right in the middle of the story, while the disciples are out in those towns that we never hear any details of, and before they return to tell Jesus about their experiences, Mark pauses the main action to drop in a secondary story. In this case, as you heard, it’s a story detailing hos John met his end. It’s an open question why Mark did this here. Was it to make a connection in the minds of his readers between John’s proclamation about the coming kingdom, and that of the disciples? That in John’s absence, the disciples now have the primary charge from God to take the message of the gospel outward, even further than John could have himself, and in an enhanced manner? Maybe it was some of that, and maybe even all of that, but maybe it was something else, too.

The whole sordid story of how John was killed is told as a kind of a flashback-within-a-flashback, starting with King Herod and his buddies talking about Jesus, wondering where his authority and power came from, and Herod remembering back to John the Baptizer. The Herod in this story is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born. Now that Jesus is an adult, that Herod is long gone. But before he died, he realized that none of his sons were competent enough to handle the entire kingdom after him, so he divided it into three smaller kingdoms, each of them still under the authority of Rome. In this story, Herod Antipas was trying to be a big shot, impressing his friends with a big, lavish party, and he tries to impress them even further after Salome, his wife’s daughter, dances for him and his drunken buddies, which is actually pretty creepy if you give even a moment’s thought to it, by promising her whatever she asks for, even up to half of the kingdom, which actually wasn’t even his to give away. In the story, Herod gets manipulated by Herodias, his wife, and he doesn’t have the strength to avoid going along with John’s execution. He doesn’t want to lose face with his guests. It’s a story of a very weak ruler, in both power and character. What makes it even worse is Herod’s own apparent love-hate relationship with John – his conscience being pricked by John’s preaching, but still being intrigued and drawn to it. All in all, the flashback paints a picture of a sometimes evil, but always weak and pathetic person.

As I mentioned, Mark starts this inserted story with Herod thinking back to this memory. Now, he and his cronies were talking about Jesus, when Herod offers his opinion that Jesus is the return of John, whom he’d killed. Herod is being haunted, if not literally, at least figuratively – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, by what he’d done in his past.

Maybe that’s why Mark drops this story right here. The disciples are out proclaiming the good news of God’s favor to all people. Proclaiming liberation, redemption, a release from captivity and suffering and sorrow and guilt, a soothing of regrets, because of God’s proactive, unilateral choice to pursue humanity and bring us into covenant and relationship. By putting the Herod story here, is Mark making the case that the gospel could be good news even for someone as tormented and selfish and sniveling and conflicted as Herod Antipas?

In our own way, I believe that each one of us is being haunted by something in our past. It might be something relatively small that’s stuck with us, or it might be something really serious. You uttered a poorly chosen word or offered a careless, hurtful comment. You weren’t attentive enough to your children, your parents, grandparents, siblings, your dying cousin. You exploited someone who trusted you, causing them harm for your own personal benefit, maybe they never even knew it, and then again, maybe they did. You cheated on your taxes; you cheated on your business partner; you cheated on your spouse. You were too afraid to do the courageous thing that you could have done to help someone, but you were more concerned for your own skin or your own image, your standing in other people’s eye, not wanting to upset the status quo your other relationships. Whatever the actual details, all of us – all of us – carry something that haunts us.

And it isn’t just you and me as individuals, either. Our society is haunted by all of its past wrongs, too. Our abuses of power, our concern for our image over integrity. Our cowardly turning our backs on people in order to save face or retain power or preserve economic interests. Our wrongful treatment of so many different minority groups of people here and abroad, and all of these having a very real and negative affect on our present. Many voices haunt us, and sometimes, it can be exhausting.

But eventually, Mark does tell us in his gospel, just after this flashback scene, that the disciples who had been sent out by Jesus returned, and they reported back about what had happened as they proclaimed that good news.

Hear that same good news today. The news that despite whatever you’ve done in your past, or left undone, small, medium, or large, there is nothing you could have done to place yourself out of reach of God’s love and embrace. There’s nothing in our life that’s too much for God to forgive, to remove from your shoulders and your mind. Nothing.

It’s true that God’s love and acceptance doesn’t take away the harm that we’ve caused. It doesn’t remove the hurt, the scars. You can’t fix everything; you can’t bring John back from the dead. And this love and acceptance definitely comes with the expectation that we’ll do everything in our abilities to right the wrongs we’ve caused, to mend the tears, to restore and make reparation for our wrongs. But even with that, remember, dear precious child of God, you are considered forgiven, and precious, and beloved, and worthy by God. Today and always, you are held in the loving, protective, eternal hand of God, and there’s nothing that can snatch you out of that hand, and there’s nothing that will cause God to let go of your hand.

I did let go of John’s hand the last time I saw him, after a long, silent final hug. Yes, the silence spoke the regret for allowing petty busyness to keep us apart, and for lost opportunities to be together as much as we’ wanted. But it also silently spoke of a lifetime of joy, and gratitude, and love. As much sadness as there was in our goodbye, there was peace in it, too, knowing that some day, we’d be reunited again as cousins, or brothers, or whatever we really were, without any nonsense getting in between. And that peace comes out of the assurance, the good news, that those disciples proclaimed in those towns and villages, and by extension to Herodias, and to Salome, and Herod, and to you, and to me.

Thanks be to God.

Three Times

(sermon 7/4/21)

2 Corinthians 12:2-10  

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

=====

Last Sunday I mentioned a few television shows and movies. Not to get in a rut, but as I was studying this particular text from 2 Corinthians, considering its backstory and trying to understand what Paul is getting at, another movie came to mind. The movie “Office Space” is a goofy comedy movie from 1999 about a poor guy with no real ambition, going nowhere, stuck in a dead-end job in the mind-numbing bureaucracy of some big corporation. Part of the overall plot of the movie is that the big corporation has brought in a couple of outside consultants to study their operations and come up with ways to make the corporation more efficient, and ultimately improve the corporate bottom line. It just so happened that both of the consultants were named Robert, so in the movie they just get referred to as “The Bobs.” Now anyone who’s ever worked in the business world knows the dread that comes when you hear the company has hired consultants to come in and streamline things and tell the company how it should really be operating, because this process almost always ends up eliminating some jobs, and adding workload and causing other difficulties for the employees who remain, and while they might get some things right, they can also get a number of things wrong – sometimes really wrong – and in fact, that’s what happens in the movie.

Consultants in the business world are an interesting bunch, and having been an architect, I was generally considered a kind of a consultant, so I feel I can talk about them. They usually have some kind of specialized competence, and they try to apply that competence to benefit their clients. But as outsiders, the fist thing they have to do is to learn their client’s actual business model, their operations, their corporate culture, and then, after they’ve got a handle on things, they’ll make recommendations to the client regarding the way they should really be doing things. Many years ago, a business associate of mine said that “A consultant is someone who asks to borrow your watch, and then charges you to tell you what time it is;” and while he meant it to be funny, there’s at least a bit of truth to that. But before they can charge you for anything, they need to get hired, and they do that like any other business – by gaining a client’s confidence thro8ugh touting their qualifications, their expertise, their past successes, and making a case for why they’re the best one for the job.

There’s something very similar to that going on as the backstory to this text we heard today, to what Paul is saying in this passage. Paul takes pride in the fact that he’s the one who got the church in Corinth started. He went to the city, proclaimed the gospel there, made some converts, and got them organized and structured as a church; and then, consistent with the way he understood his call, he moved on to do the same thing in other cities.

But apparently sometime after he left, some others showed up on the scene in Corinth; people who claimed to be able to help them even more than Paul. But these were people who Paul said were in some way, we’re not sure the details, skewing the real message of the gospel. They were apparently touting their credentials to the small church; earlier in this letter he sarcastically refers to them as so-called “super apostles”. Based on what Paul writes in this passage, these newcomers were trying to sell themselves, similar to the Bobs, as having more credibility, more qualifications, more authority than Paul, so the Corinthians should listen to them. You could imagine their arguments: Paul wasn’t one of the Twelve; he wasn’t directly taught by them; he actually used to persecute Christians. What’s so special about Paul? Why should anyone listen to him? It seems that these would-be super apostles were trying to build themselves up by tearing Paul down.  

In response to this, to reestablish his own qualifications and credentials, Paul writes what we heard this morning. He wants to reassert his own authority, but he doesn’t want to sound arrogant or boastful himself, so he engages in this little bit of wordplay where he talks about himself in the third person – “I know someone who was taken up into the third heaven, into the very dwelling place of God, and who heard deep, divine revelations that mortals are forbidden to hear or repeat…” It’s an age-old tactic of saying something without actually saying it or taking ownership of it, while still making the point, and in this case, the point is made. Paul has credibility due to the amazing revelations that he’s received directly from God, he tells them – in fact, it’s enough to make him want to boast about it. IN the English translation, Paul says he needs to be cautious so he doesn’t get “too elated” about the fact that he’s has these special visions or experiences. That translation, “too elated,” is probably a little too polite; the Greek here actually means to be conceited, arrogant, cocky. So Paul tells the people in Corinth that in fact, his credentials are such that he *could* be boastful, but he’d never want to do that; it just wouldn’t be right.

At the same time, we hear Paul say that it’s what he describes as a “thorn in the flesh” –  we don’t really know what that means, exactly, but it’s some kind of problem or distraction – that keeps him preoccupied and unable to be boastful. In fact, he says, it was such a problem that “three times” he prayed to God that this “thorn” would be taken away from him, but to no avail – it’s kind of a parallel, whether he intended it or not, to the three times that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would remove this cup from him, that he wouldn’t be crucified. Paul says that God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Don’t struggle and strive for glory or greatness, or to assert your authority, which doesn’t come from you anyway. There’s no need to be boastful or arrogant; there’s no need to feel cocky or lord it over others because of your standing and place of authority in the kingdom of God.

Arrogance, conceit; they always cloud a person’s vision and ultimately lead to self-righteousness instead of God’s righteousness. Don’t get too full of yourself, Paul, Christ tells him. My grace is sufficient for you.

It’s a good reminder for all of us. We can all, at one time or another, get a little full of ourselves. From time to time, we can all feel like people aren’t respecting our authority or our dignity, and we deserve a bit more deference than we’re getting in the moment. But the message Paul got is the same message Christ gives us, too. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t get too boastful; that just ends up leading you in the wrong direction. Instead, try to remember all the goodness and blessings that God has given you, and remember that it wasn’t through any of your own doing; it was a gift, so rather than boasting, be humble and grateful.

Paul offers a good reminder for us as individuals and as people of the kingdom of God, and given that it’s also Independence Day, it’s a good reminder for us as a nation, too. There are so many great and wonderful things about our country that we can and should be rightly proud of. From our seemingly endless natural beauty, to the beautiful concepts in our founding documents. To the spirit of opportunity, progress, and advancement. To our scientific, cultural, educational, and social advances that have led the world. To the overarching goodwill and good-naturedness of the people.

But it’s no big secret that just as we have greatness, we also have great failures. And if you really think about those failures, almost every single one of them arises out of having slid into an attitude of self-righteousness, conceit, arrogance; forcing our own attitudes, trying to assert our strength and power over others. Other countries, other people, even other people within our own country. Our global successes have been great, but those successes have often planted those seeds of boastfulness, exceptionalism, and have led us into paths very different than the ways of the kingdom of God.

We do fail in this regard sometimes. Honestly, it’s inescapable. But that’s why what Paul says here is so important, such good news – that even when we do slide down that wrong path, God is still with us, reminding us that it isn’t all about us. That God has bestowed grace upon us in sufficient measure for all that we need – maybe not all that we want, but all that we need, and as a gift, not through our earning any of it through our actions. So our mindset can be one of gratitude and not boastfulness, and our actions toward others can be actions of grace.

So this weekend, let’s all give thanks to God for all the good that God has blessed us with. Let’s be proud of the real good in this country. Let’s be aware of and repentant for the bad; for the harm that we’ve caused. Let’s recognize that the harm almost always comes out of a boastful attitude that leads us to think that we’re somehow more special, more right, more beloved in God’s eyes than others. Let’s always be thankful for the wonderful news that first and foremost, we’re citizens of the kingdom of God, and that Christ tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Now, if the Bobs offered advice as good as that, they’d be worth their weight in gold.

Thanks be to God.

Hope with Legs

(sermon 12/22/19 – Fourth Sunday of Advent)

Advent-Wreath-4-candles-lit

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

=====

A few weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, the sermon was all about hope, since that was what the first candle on the Advent wreath symbolized. I have to admit, though, that as I preached that sermon, I felt a littlbe bit like a hypocrite, because honestly, as of late I’ve had trouble finding hope, or feeling hopeful, about much. It seems like no matter where I’ve looked, I see the divisions and hostility. I’ll see something awful, and I’ll think “Oh my gosh, things can’t possibly get any worse,” and I wake up the next morning and see the news, and find out it has. And it isn’t just here in this country; it’s a worldwide phenomenon. With all the setbacks that we’ve seen in being a compassionate and just human society, I’ve just reached a point where it’s become very difficult, almost impossible at times, for me to summon up any sense of hope.

And I know that I’m not alone. In fact, it’s become an identifiable phenomenon in mental and emotional healthcare circles, that a large part of our society has developed this same loss of hope, and has settled into a state of dread and despair because of what they’re seeing and experiencing in a world that they increasingly can’t even recognize.

For those of us here in the U.S., this dread has been caused in large part by our own history. As early as the 1830s, the French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville studied and wrote about this relatively new “American Experiment,” and he noted that possibly the most significant difference between Americans and our European counterparts was this hope embedded within us – this strong optimistic belief that in American society, progress and goodness was inevitable – it was nothing more than the linear outcome of just continuing to work at it, and do the right thing. It was something you could count on like the sun rising every day, or the cycles of the tides. And that embedded sense of hope and inevitable social progress is still deeply embedded within us.

But now that core part of our self-understanding has been in large part yanked out from under us. We’ve had to learn the hard lesson that hope, and this idea of inevitable continuous progress just isn’t operational anymore.

At least, it isn’t operational in the way we’ve thought it was. In our society, we’ve always understood success as being defined strictly by the outcome. Success was achieving that goal, meeting that quota, getting the ball across the goal line. If you did that, you’ve succeeded; if not, you were a failure. And that’s precisely where this mindset collides with our faith. It isn’t that outcomes aren’t important, or that we shouldn’t hope for those good outcomes or accomplishments. It’s just that our Christian faith teaches us that, as many people have put it, what is most important is the journey, not the destination. It really is a tired cliché, but it is true. Our hope has to be grounded, first and foremost, in the idea that what’s most important in God’s eyes is how we live our lives in the moment, in every moment. That’s far more important than whether our actions achieve some large goal that we might have had in mind; there are so many variables outside our control that we might never reach those end goals.

I saw a meme on Facebook recently that got to this point pretty well. Someone asked God to tell them what their purpose in life was. Expecting some big, profound answer, God replies, “What if I told you that you fulfilled your purpose in life when you took that extra hour to talk to a kid about their life? Or when you paid for that couple’s meal in the restaurant? Or when you tied your father’s shoes for him?” Simply put, God isn’t interested in your achievements, whether what you’d lived and worked for was actually accomplished – maybe they will and maybe they won’t – but what God really cares about is your heart, and how you’re applying your heart, your faith, in whatever circumstance you’re in.

My long-time pastor and mentor, Phil Hazelton, once put it this way. Phil said that he had a dream where he met God, and God didn’t seem to recognize him. So Phil started to list off all the things he’d done in his life. “I was a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights Movement!” God sat there puzzled, saying “No, I’m sorry, I can’t place you.” Phil continued, “Well, I marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma with Dr. King!” “Hmm, no, I still don’t recognize you.” “I hosted a classical music program on the local public radio station; I’m the Senior Pastor of a thriving, 2,000-member church!” “Look, I’m sorry, your name just still isn’t ringing a bell.” Frustrated, Phil started to run down a complete list of everything he’d done in his life, eventually even getting down to the fact that he fed squirrels in the park, when all of a sudden God’s eyes light up and he says “Oh yeah, Phil, the squirrel guy! Of course I know you; why didn’t you say so before?!”

God cares far more about how we live in all of our moments, than about whether we’re able to pull off the big things we work for in our lives, if things ultimately turned out the way we’d hoped. Understanding that truth can keep us grounded in our faith, and can keep a spirit of real, and reasonable, hope alive in our hearts.

But – and this is important – hope without action is just a delusion. Hear that again – hope without action is just a delusion. As we’re living all those moments, God very much expects our hope to spur us to action. And the specific action we’re called to – regardless of the situation, and regardless of how things play out later – is the course of love. Love in all things, in all situations, toward all people, and whether they show gratitude for it or not. It’s love that makes hope realistic – it’s what give hope legs.

And that – finally, you might be thinking – actually gets us to today’s gospel text, and to the lighting of today’s Advent candle, representing love. The coming into our world of Christ, God’s anointed one, is the perfect, crystalline moment of love throughout human history. In this gospel text, we hear about Jesus’ birth largely through the experience of Joseph – a good man who is engaged to Mary, who has suddenly become pregnant in a manner that is highly suspicious, to put it mildly. But despite his natural inclination to end the engagement, and to lose hope, Joseph acts, in that moment, in love. In spite of his concerns, he accepts the word of the angel, and he doesn’t break off his engagement with Mary.

Jesus’ birth is this single, blessed moment, in which God shows pure, absolute love for humanity, in spite of ourselves. God giving us this one whose life becomes a model of love and real hope, by being faithful and true in all the moments of his life, regardless of which way the arc of history might bend. The life of this one being born into the world and destined to suffer the ultimate failure of public humiliation and execution, is the greatest illustration that we have that what matters are the moments, what matters is the journey, not the destination. Ultimately, God will take care of the outcome, as we also see in the resurrection of this little one come into the world in Bethlehem.

God has given us the gift of love in the flesh, so we can have hope with legs. So always act with love, as a sign of gratitude and a reflection of God’s love for us. Work for progress, work for good, absolutely. But if things don’t end up the way you’d hoped, don’t despair; don’t dread. Remember that all of history, and all of our faith, is all about the moments – particularly, the moments of love.

Thanks be to God.

The Awkward Moment

(sermon 9/22/19)

awkward

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

=====

 

We’ve probably all been in a situation where we’re in some social gathering and someone is talking, maybe telling a story, and you’re pretty sure you know where the person is going and what they’re going to say before they even say it – but then there’s this awkward moment where they say something completely different. It isn’t at all what you expected; it catches you off guard, and sometimes, depending on what it is that they said, you really aren’t sure how to respond to it. I’m pretty sure that that’s exactly what happened to the people who had gathered around Jesus when he told them this parable, what’s become known as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. Jesus’ audience was almost exclusively people who had grown up within the Jewish faith, and Jewish traditions, and one of the fascinating recurring themes in the Hebrew scriptures, and therefore, of our own, is the concept of the Trickster – usually, the trickster is someone who has been the victim of an injustice, who uses their wits and their creativity to come up with a way to get justice from their oppressor through deceit and trickery. As just one example, Tamar, in the Book of Genesis, would be an example of the trickster in the way she used trickery to get justice from her father-in-law, Judah. Jacob played the part of the trickster in a number of stories; so did David, and a host of others. Whoever it was, and whatever the circumstances, there are many biblical stories of a trickster obtaining what they want over against an opponent who was more powerful and unbeatable using conventional means. In these Even when they were seriously breaking the rules and norms or society, the trickster was always highly regarded, the hero or heroine of the story, because they provided validation. They offered the hope that a powerless person, or a powerless people, as the Jews have been many times in history, could still triumph over their more powerful oppressors.

So Jesus’ listeners were totally familiar and comfortable with a story that would be about a trickster who used deceit and intelligence to correct an injustice. But as Jesus tells this trickster story, his listeners heard something very different. They had their own awkward moment. In this story, we hear about a manager who uses trickery and deceit for a very different purpose.

In the way that most of us have heard this story, and we’ve all heard it many times, it seems really jarring. Unfair. Completely at odds with what we’ve probably been taught to expect Jesus to say.

Let’s take the story apart for a moment. The characters in the story are the rich man, his manager, and a group of people who are in debt to the rich man. When we think about the story from the viewpoint of the rich man – and as people of relative financial comfort and well-being ourselves, we often do – the manager’s actions were obviously, clearly unfair and unethical. The manager was giving away debts that people owed to him; how could that be right? Many biblical commentators have suggested that the rich man was dishonest, and was cheating his debtors, so when the manager cut the bills, he was only adjusting them to what they should realistically have been. Other people have suggested that the manager essentially worked on commission, getting a percentage of each of the transactions, and that he wasn’t really giving away any of the rich man’s money, only the money that would have been his. There have been any number of similar explanations to get the manager, and by extension, Jesus, off the hook for what he says in the story. Personally, I like looking at stories from multiple angles, and using imagination to fill in gaps to come up with creative ways of looking at and understanding them. But I’ve got to say that as valuable a tool as that can often be, I don’t really buy any of those explanations in this case. And I’ll be honest; I’ve preached on this text before offering up explanations similar to the ones I just mentioned. But for some reason, when I read the story this time around, I heard it differently. As I read it again this time, I thought that those explanations were a stretch with little of no evidence to support them, and that I think end up denying or at least obscuring a couple of points that I think Jesus was really trying to make.

The first of those points has to do with Jesus’ comment to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” That might just be the most jarring comment Jesus is ever recorded as saying anywhere in the gospels. Unless… unless Jesus was speaking from the standpoint of understanding that in some way or another, *all* wealth is somehow inherently dishonest. Now bear with me here; I’m not losing my mind, and I’m not suggesting we all stop trying to earn a living or working for financial stability, far from it. But I don’t really think it’s a stretch to admit that, no matter how personally ethical or socially responsible we might be in how we earn and spend our money, somewhere in the grand, overall web of interrelated economic transactions that ultimately result in our income, our wealth, there have been, and continue to be, dishonest practices, unethical dealings, unjust treatment of people in order to maximize profit, at any number of places along the way, and in both past and present. And no matter how aware and careful we are, or what retail stores  we might not shop at, or whose chicken sandwiches we won’t eat, or what brands we avoid for unethical business practices, even though it’s good to do all of those things, none of us can ever really, completely avoid it. All of our income is ethically tainted in some way or another, and we really ought to admit it. It’s inescapable. Unavoidable. It’s just a reality of living life on this side of the gates of Eden. So now maybe Jesus’ words don’t sound so harsh, if those words are based on his presumption of that reality. Of course, then, we’re called as Christ-followers, to use that “dishonest” wealth to pursue the principles of the kingdom of God. So that’s point one.

As important as that point is, though, I think the second point is even more important. Maybe the biggest difficulty that we have with this parable is that we’re looking at the situation through the wrong person’s eyes. Maybe we need to have an awkward moment of another kind, one where we realize that instead of looking at it through the eyes of the rich man, or the manager, maybe Jesus intended the story to be heard from the viewpoint of the people who owed those debts to the rich man. I mean, really, the odds are that the people who were listening to him that day were a lot more likely to have been debt-owing poor people than rich ones. And if you’re one of the debtors in the story, wouldn’t it sound wonderful to have big chunks of your debt erased? Not because you didn’t really owe the debt, you did, but for some reason completely out of your control and not because you actually did anything to earn it, to just be taken off the hook for it? Imagine if you woke up one morning and discovered that somebody had just paid off half your mortgage, or your student debt, or your credit card bill, for no reason at all, and no strings attached – just because. A complete gift. Clearly, someone who’d had a person do that for them would be very grateful, and very loyal to the person who’d given them that gift, just as the debtors in the story were grateful to the manager. Well I hope it doesn’t seem too offensive, but I think that of we look at this story from that angle, the character that we’ve come to call the “Dishonest Manager” is actually a representative of Christ himself.

Simply put, I think that what Jesus is trying to teach in this story is the concept grace. The manager extends grace, unearned mercy, to the debtors, and for doing so, the rich man is pleased with the manager, in spite of the fact that it would seem illogical for him to do so. And Jesus extends a similar kind of unearned mercy to us, and God is pleased with him for having done so – causing reconciliation by way of unilaterally forgiving a debt owed. And Jesus instructs his listeners to extend that same kind of unearned mercy to others, and that it’s the extension of this kind of grace to others, through whatever means we have available to us – “dishonest wealth” or otherwise – and that that pleases God.

Now, I realize that looking at this parable in that way has its limitations. Like any parable, it isn’t a perfect one-to-one analogy, and it can certainly be stretched too far. I realize that God was never upset with Jesus, like the rich man was with the manager, and I know Jesus wasn’t extending grace to debtors in order to feather his own nest, like the manager in the story did. And I know that we don’t teach that Jesus came to take away fifty percent of the sins of the world, or twenty percent, like the manager in the story did, but all of them. Still, I think the most important thing we can all do is listen to this story, to really hear it, from the standpoint of the debtors. Because don’t we pray, every Sunday morning, that that’s exactly what we are in the eyes of God? “Forgive us our debts…”? And if we really think that we are debtors to God, then this parable shouldn’t make us feel awkward – in fact, maybe it should be our favorite parable of all.

Thanks be to God

But Wait, There’s More – Much More

(sermon 5/5/19)

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.

=====

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.

Write Your Own Ending

(sermon 3/31/19)

 

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.’” 

=====

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)

 

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.’”

=====

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)

 

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.

=====

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.

=====

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.