“I Am the Gate”

(sermon 5/7/17)

*Mar 24 - 00:05*

[Jesus said,] “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”

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Back in the day in Presbyterian history, churches didn’t always serve Communion very often. In some cases, they only did it once a year, sometimes in big gatherings like this:

presbyterian communion outdoors

 And many times, before you could take part in Communion, you had to be examined by the Pastor and Session, and questioned about your beliefs and actions, and judged to be sufficiently theologically sound and morally pure to be worthy of participating in the sacrament. If you passed muster with them, they gave you one of these:

scottish communion token

This is a Communion token. These were little coins; sometimes they were round, other times they were rectangular, or oval, made out of lead or pewter or sometimes copper. As for size, the oval ones were about the same size as an elongated penny. Presbyterian churches used these, mostly in Scotland and Ireland, but also in England, Canada, some in the U.S., and even some in Australia and New Zealand, in the early- to mid- 1800s, although some churches continued to use them into the early 1900s. On Communion Sunday, you’d show up with your Communion token and present it to a person at the door; if you didn’t have a token, well, no Communion for you.

Could you imagine if we still did that? Could you picture Eddie R______ standing at the door taking tokens, and chasing away people without them? Or maybe now, in the 21st century, everything would be electronic. Maybe we’d all have cards like a TARC pass with a bar code, or a Metro Card for the New York subway system with a magnetic strip, or maybe something like an EZ-Pass transponder or an app for your phone. And on Communion Sunday, you just swiped your card or scanned your phone to get through a turnstile at the sanctuary door. And when your worthiness credits were running low, you could recharge it – maybe go to the church website and take an online quiz about your faith and practices, and get a few more credits added to your account. Making sure you’ve got enough in your account before Holy Week, when you’ll be doing Communion a lot.

Well, all kidding aside, the whole idea of restricting Communion to that degree, having some kind of wall around any aspect of participating in the full life of the church and having some kind of checkpoint, some kind of gate imposed upon it, and requiring Communion tokens and all that, was a quaint bit of Presbyterian history; in my opinion, not one that we should be particularly proud of. But I think there’s something about that weird little part of our history that relates to the gospel reading that we heard today.

This reading is actually a part of a story that had started in the chapter before this. Just before this passage, Jesus had healed a man who had been born blind. That sounds like a good thing, even a wonderful thing. But there was a problem with this particular healing, because Jesus happened to heal the man on the Sabbath. No one was supposed to do any work on the Sabbath, and according to the religious leaders, healing someone met the definition of work. So they criticized Jesus, even hinting pretty strongly that he’d been sent by Satan, and not God, because surely no one from God would violate the Sabbath.

For his part, Jesus fired back at them, telling them that they were sinning by using their authority as religious leaders by setting up all these restrictions and rulings and limitations, like the one that would prevent doing good deeds on the Sabbath, that aren’t God’s intention at all, and imposing those burdens on others. They’d set up their own gate, with themselves as the gatekeeper, judging who was righteous, who was worthy of getting through the wall they’d built around God. Based on their beliefs, even the blind man that Jesus had healed was a sinner because he’d been born that way. According to them, if a person was blind, or had some other illness or infirmity, it was because God was punishing them for some sin in their lives; they weren’t living good lives, and their illness was evidence of that. It was an erroneous, mistaken belief in Jesus’ time, and unbelievably, some people still make that kind of claim today, when it’s even more erroneous and disappointing because now we know better, or at least we should.

In this part of Jesus’ answer to those religious leaders that we heard today, he rejects all those other ways of defining who’s worthy of being considered God’s own. He rejects all those restrictions and limitations and additional requirements that people would use to set themselves up as the judge of who’s worthy of God’s love and acceptance. He compares people who do that to thieves and bandits trying to climb over the wall and steal the sheep, the people, that rightly belong to God, the shepherd. Jesus says that he himself is the gate, not them. He is the one who provides access between the shepherd and the sheep; God, and the people of God. It’s through him, the gate, that God comes to us, and that we come to see and recognize God. It’s through him, the gate, that we and God can move outward, together.

What does that mean, though, that Jesus is the gate – the access point, the conduit, to seeing, and knowing, and following God? How does that work? How do we get through that gate – or more appropriately, how does God get through that gate to us?

Based on Jesus’ teachings throughout the gospels, I think that it boils down to a pretty simple set of things:

When you look at Jesus’ life and teaching, do you see what God must be like? When you look at Jesus’ actions, do you see what God’s will is? Do you understand more clearly how God wants us to treat one another? When you look at Jesus, does the good news that God loves us and is with us become clearer to you?

I believe that that’s what Jesus means when he says he’s the gate. Through him, we come to know God, and be able to follow God, better. Nothing less, and nothing more. I believe that when we try to add more than that to Jesus’ claim of being the gate, when we try to limit or restrict access to that gate, when we try to add things that a person has to believe or do in order to have access to that gate and the God who is accessed through it, then we fall into the same trap as the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, and so many other religious leaders right up until the present.

We human beings are very good at devising complex theologies, ways of understanding God, and we have a lot of different theologies regarding how Jesus acts as this gate that creates access between us and God. Some of those theories are good; others not so good. Some of those theories, in my opinion, are downright harmful. We have Confession after Confession after Catechism after Catechism, many of which were the source of the questions that had to be answered by those poor, sweating Presbyterians who just wanted a Communion token. Now there’s nothing wrong with theology and theological discourse; I love it, and it’s important for us to consider our faith in depth. Still, the great theologian Karl Barth, who himself wrote volume after volume after volume of brilliant, but incredibly dense and complicated theology – including a lot that dealt with this issue of Jesus being the gate – was asked near the end of his life if he could sum up the single most important theological conclusion he’d come to understand, and he answered simply, “Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I think the way Jesus is the gate between us and God is something equally simple – in looking at Jesus, can we see God more easily? In looking at Jesus, can God be present with us more deeply? Despite all of our efforts to make it more complicated, it really is that simple. I think it’s really remarkably easy – even easier than EZ-Pass.

Thanks be to God.

 

Nevertheless, She Persisted

(sermon 3/19/17)

Jesus and Samaritan woman with pussyhat

[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” – John 4:5-26 (NRSV)

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It was a bit of an odd meeting, really, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, since the Jews and Samaritans had been at odds for hundreds of years. Ethnically, the Samaritans were a mix of Israelites and the people of surrounding kingdoms, and they worshiped the God of Israel as well as at least four other pagan gods; while the Jews, centered in the region to the south of Samaria, saw themselves as the truly ethnically pure Hebrews, whether that was factually correct or not, and as the keeper of the true faith and worship of the God of Israel. They were really racial and religious cousins, if not sisters, but the Samaritans saw their Jewish siblings as a bunch of stuffy, exclusive, elitist prigs who were allowing religious rigidity to obstruct true worship of God. The Jews saw the Samaritans as Gentiles every bit as unclean as any Roman or other pagan, if not worse, since based on their history, they supposedly should have known better than to live and believe the way they did. The differences weren’t just left at talk, either; there was sporadic violence between the two groups, with the Jews often seeing the Samaritans as dangerous, uncivilized thugs.  

In order to avoid being made ritually unclean by associating with Gentiles, not to mention watching out for the security threat they saw in the Samaritans, the Jews engaged in a first-century version of Jim Crow segregation. They kept separate from the Samaritans; Jews wouldn’t be under the same roof as Samaritans – they wouldn’t eat under the same roof; they wouldn’t sleep under the same roof; they wouldn’t travel in the same settings. In fact, if the Jews had to travel to the north, somewhere beyond Samaria, they’d go miles out of their way, completely around the region in order to avoid mixing with the supposedly inferior and dangerous Samaritans.

And that’s what makes today’s gospel story so striking even before a word of dialogue is spoken. Here’s Jesus, traveling right through the heart of Samaria instead of going around it like he would have been expected to, and mixing with the people there, sitting at a well and speaking with a Samaritan woman. I was as unexpected scene that was as out of place as a white man in 1960 standing in line to drink out of a “Coloreds Only” fountain in Selma. It was shocking.

It shocked the woman he spoke with, too. By the way, you’ve probably noticed how very often, the names of women in the Bible aren’t documented, compared with the men who show up in the stories. Whether intentional or not, that sent, and continues to send, the message that the women just aren’t as important as the men, in the kingdom of God or otherwise. The Eastern Orthodox church has a tradition that this woman’s name was Photina. Who knows what her actual name was, but out of respect for her, and the idea that women’s lives and names matter in the kingdom of God, that’s what I’m going to call her too.

Once Photina got used to the idea that Jesus was really engaging with her, she ran with it, and they had a deep and important and what likely for her was a life-changing conversation.

Last week, Jesus told Nicodemus that God’s love was for the entire world, not just one group of people; and that God’s Spirit moved where God willed it, across all national or racial or religious or any other human categories – stoking embers and kindling fire in the hearts and souls of all manner of people. This week, just a few verses later in John’s gospel, we see Jesus putting those words into practice with Photina, and we can see the Spirit working within her as she’s intrigued by his words. She understands right away that there’s something special about Jesus, even if she doesn’t get the whole picture right away. But she persisted in their conversation, asking him about particular details about worshiping God, and leading into a conversation about the messiah that she’s waiting for to arrive, and with Jesus ultimately telling her that he is the messiah, God’s chosen one.

But this story, Photina’s moment of fame, doesn’t end here, just with her knowledge and belief that Jesus is the messiah. The story continues beyond where we read today. Emboldened by the Spirit of God working within her, Photina persisted, telling the people of the city about her encounter with Jesus, that she’d found the messiah. And because of her persistence, a lot of them went out to meet him, and many of them believed in Jesus, too.

The same Spirit that moved in Photina, and led her to persist in her encounters with Jesus and with the townspeople, is moving in the lives of people today, too. God’s Spirit is present with us today, and moving in our midst, moving in our lives. Some of those times, God is drawing people, leading people, calling people, to particular forms of service in God’s kingdom. We’re recognizing that this morning, as we ordain and install elders to serve and lead the church. Yes, we voted for them, but it really isn’t us who has ordained them, but God, and our voting is really just recognition of what God has already done, calling them to this particular ministry.

Today, we recognize that God is stoking the embers of their faith, and kindling a fire within them just as real as the one that was kindled in Photina.

New elders, you’ve been called to serve and lead this congregation, in all the many ways that we love and serve God and others. In everything that you do as an elder, remember that you haven’t just been voted into something, like joining the Rotary or the athletic boosters club. God has called you to this service. God has placed a hand on your shoulder, and not just called you but equipped you with all the skills, gifts, imagination, and yes, persistence, that you’ll need to do what you’ve been called to. And that isn’t just true with our new elders, but it’s exactly the same with all of us. God has called and equipped each of us here today to some particular form of ministry, too, whatever that ministry might be.

Whether elders or not, I predict that as you carry out your particular ministry, even though you’ve probably known God’s presence in your lives for some time, you’re still going to experience God’s moving within you, guiding you, inspiring and challenging you, in totally new and unexpected ways. I believe that as you follow and serve God, you’ll occasionally feel as surprised by the hand of God in your life, just as Photina was. When that happens, be amazed. Be inspired. And be persistent in being, and doing, what God has called you to. And when you do feel that surprise, and that undeniable knowledge of God’s presence, always be sure to take a moment to recognize it, and to say

Thanks be to God.

Blessed

blessed-tattoo-39

(sermon 1/29/17)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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Several years ago I had to make arrangements for a wedding I was officiating. The couple really wanted to get married in our church, but some relative of the bride, and uncle, I think, was a minister in a Fundamentalist denomination, and she wanted him to have some role in the service. So I called him one morning to walk through the logistics of the service and tell him what part he could play in it. When he answered the phone I said “Hi Jim, how are you?” and he boomed back in a voice so loud I had to hold the hone away from my ear, “Oh, I’ve been blessed by the best!!!”

“Hm, well, OK, I’m glad to hear that. Listen, I was calling to talk to you about –“

“Yes sir, there’s nothin’ like wakin’ up every morning knowing you’ve been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, brother, amen?!”

That was just the first amen; over the course of the next five minutes he peppered his speech with “amens” every five or six words, seemingly at random, in the same way that other people might say “um” or “so,” and so frequently that it lost all meaning, and all in that same booming, overly excited voice. And at the end of the conversation he repeated what he’d started with, “Yes sir, I’ve been blessed by the best!!!”

I have to admit that by the time the phone call was over, I was exhausted – and honestly, a little annoyed. Exhausted from just trying to get him to focus on what we really needed to be talking about, and annoyed because his manner of speech was just, well, annoying to me personally. In my world, normal, sane, rational people just don’t talk that way, at least not constantly. Now please understand, I’m certainly not questioning the sincerity of his faith here, or anything like that; it’s just that that manner of speaking seemed artificial, put on, over the top. And I probably shouldn’t say it, but there were several times during the call that in my head, I was thinking, “Stop. Really, just stop, or I will crawl through this phone and hit you.”

Eventually, the wedding went off just fine, and when I met him in person, Jim was a very nice At the wedding, we even joked about our differences, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be upset by my impersonation of him this morning, any more than I would be if he teased me in a similar way in one of his services. But ever since then, every time I hear the word “blessed,” I flash back to that phone call. Given this week’s gospel text, the part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we call the Beatitudes, I thought of Jim and that phone call again.

More accurately, it made me think about just what Jesus meant when he talked about being “blessed.” I won’t get into a boring, long-winded discussion about the original Greek word used here that we translate into English as “blessed.” Suffice it to say that sometimes, it was used to mean happy, or fortunate, or well-off. But based on the way it’s used here, that can’t possibly be what he means, since by definition, if you’re poor in spirit, or mourning, or being persecuted and reviled, you aren’t happy, fortunate, or well-off, and you’d probably get mad at anyone telling you that you were.

Obviously, then, Jesus means something else when he talks about being blessed. He’s using the other meanings of this word, which is to have special favor, to have some unique standing, to be emboldened and empowered in some way. It’s only by understanding the word this way that Jesus’ words make any sense.

The great preacher David Lose once wrote that, given this meaning of Jesus’ words, to be blessed is to know that you have someone’s – in this case, God’s – unconditional regard and love. It’s to know that you aren’t, and never will be, walking alone; that God will be with you wherever you go and whatever you find yourself in the middle of.

So who was it that Jesus was talking to; who was it that he was telling God was with them? He was speaking with a group of peasants, farmers, fishermen, mostly. Nobodies, in the estimation of the movers and shakers of the time. Losers. People who had more than their fair share of being poor in spirit – worn down, beaten down by life’s circumstances; more than their fair share of mourning and grief; more than their fair share of having more powerful people pushing them down or aside and treated unjustly. And yet, these were the people that Jesus told were especially favored by God. Jesus does wrap all of it up by saying yes, their reward in heaven would be great, and beneath your current troubles you could have some consolation, some joy in that – but their real “blessing” began in this life, in the here and now. When you’re trying to live with compassion and mercy and justice toward others, even if you get beat down in the process of trying to do it, know that you are *blessed*. You have God’s promise, God’s assurance, that God will walk the walk with you – you aren’t going it alone. You’re pleasing God, and God will embolden and empower you in your efforts, even when the situation looks the darkest.

Jesus’ message to them is his message to us, too. There are going to be plenty of times that we’re trying to live in ways that please God, but we’ll end up hitting a brick wall. Times when we try to uphold God’s mercy and compassion and justice for others, and we’ll be told that it’s unrealistic and even dangerous. Times when we’ll work for peace, and we’re sneered at and told that’s an idealistic pipe dream; you can’t live like that in the real world; that it’s an angry world, and the only response we can have is to return anger for anger. Times when we’ll work to help a refugee family settle into our country and start a new life, and we’ll be told that we’re enabling our enemies; that we’re destabilizing the country because people of that religion, people from that country, supposedly pose an imminent threat to us.

The truth is, in ways large and small, if we try to really live out what Jesus lifted up in the Beatitudes, we’ll be going against what many would consider common sense, living in the “real world.” There will be times when we’ll know grief or mourning, whether because of that kind of pushback that I just mentioned, or just due to the normal difficulties and stresses we encounter in life. There will be times when we’re worn down and poor in spirit, or just poor, period. Jesus tells us that whenever any of this happens in our lives, that God lifts us up, and walks with us – in other words, that God has blessed us. Some days, that might make us feel as wild-eyed and giddy as Fundamentalist Jim. But even when it doesn’t, we’re still just as blessed.

Thanks be to God.

Squeaky Wheel

(sermon 10/16/16)

scary-judge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

“I’m Supposed to *What*?!!!” (sermon 9/4/16)

puzzled baby

Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.- Luke 14:25-33

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This isn’t going to be a fun sermon – because this really isn’t a feel-good gospel text. You just heard it; Jesus’ words here are pretty unsettling, pretty hard to hear for us. I mean, would Jesus really say that in order to follow him, you have to actually hate your family? Did Jesus really mean it when he said that we couldn’t be his disciples unless we got rid of all our possessions? Was he serious about that?

I think it’s pretty clear that Jesus was using hyperbole, extreme language here, not to be taken literally, but just to emphasize the importance of the point he was making. This becomes obvious if you compare these words to the full spectrum of his teachings across the gospels. Just as one evidence of this is that in another gospel story, Jesus criticized people, condemned people, who wouldn’t use their financial resources to take care of their own family members, saying that that money was set aside as their offering to God, to the synagogue, to the church. He condemned them. So we know he can’t be speaking literally when he says we’re supposed to hate our family and only pay attention to him exclusively. In one sense, we can all breathe easier.

But not *too* easy. Jesus is still making the very serious point that being a follower of his comes with consequences – it comes at a cost. He really does expect our lives to be transformed; he wants us to make his priorities our priorities when it comes to all the other demands for our time, our money, our loyalty. In short, he’s warning his disciples in this passage, and by extension he’s warning us, that following him is going to come at a cost – and he expects us to bear it.

It’s important to recognize that what we’re talking about here isn’t about trying to earn our salvation. Our salvation – or redemption, or reconciliation, or justification, whatever you want to call it – is something that God has given us, solely as an act of God’s love and grace. What Jesus is talking about here is what comes after that – how we’re expected to respond to that gracious act of God. And that’s where things can get tricky.

When we think about this topic of priorities in our lives, one subject that often comes up is the question of why so many kids – especially the kids of churchgoing families; “our” kids – drop out of being part of church. And so many of those conversations run along the lines of, “why doesn’t the church leadership, the pastors and others, come up with some way to get these kids to church?” Well, there’s certainly enough blame to go around for how the church has missed the boat with its youth; pastors that don’t pay attention to them, sessions that won’t establish effective ministries and programs for them, congregations that will just patronize them and not recognize them as full, current members of the church family to be integrated into worship and all aspects of the church. But while that’s all true, to be honest, there’s only a very small, select group of adults who have the authority and ability to rustle some teenager out of bed on a Sunday morning and tell them they’re going to church – and it isn’t the pastor or the session. Sorry, Mom and Dad, a big part of this one’s on you here. Actually, could you imagine how that might play out if we really did make it the church’s responsibility to make sure that happened? Just picture it, you’re sitting at the breakfast table Sunday morning before church, and KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK… “Oh, yeah, hi, it’s just us, the Membership Committee. We’re here to wake up Bobby and make sure he gets to church. It’s OK, we’ll just let ourselves in – he’s upstairs, second door on the left, right?” I suspect we’d probably have a tough time staffing that committee.

Christ has expectations of us, parents and kids alike, if we’re going to call ourselves Jesus’ followers – if we’re going to call ourselves Christian. That’s just part of the deal.

Or what about the issue of extracurricular activities – sports, music, job, whatever it is – cutting into church time, Sunday morning or otherwise? And by “extracurricular,” I’m not just talking about our kids; it’s our stuff too. We’ve got the golf league, the quilting guild, whatever. So many times, before we become part of those activities, we know the conflicts with our faith commitment up front – but how often has this kind of conversation happened? A kid and their parents sit down with the coach and say, “Coach, I’m excited about being playing ball, and I’ll be committed to the team – but you need to know right up front that if practices or games are scheduled on Sunday mornings, I’m going to miss those times – I already have a previous commitment; I need to be in church.”

But… but…it’s a team; we need to depend on each other, we have to be there for each other, all do our part! Yes, exactly. And in this passage from Luke, Jesus is pointing out in very blunt language, that we’re actually already on a team. And we need to depend on one another, we have to be here for each other, we all need to show up and do our part. We need to remember that all of us here are already wearing a jersey that says Team Jesus. When it comes to setting our priorities, why is it that it’s only in the rarest of times when Team Jesus wins the day over Team Almost Anything Else?

Finally, what about the way we prioritize our money? Does the way we prioritize our finances reflect our beliefs? This is an important topic for us right now, as we’re gradually easing into our stewardship season. C.S. Lewis once famously wrote, “Show me a man’s checkbook and I’ll tell you what he really believes,” and I think that’s more than just a little bit true. Christ calls us to use our financial resources in ways that advance him and the Kingdom of God. So are we succeeding at it? Do we bump up our annual pledge a bit? Or do we get the premium leather package and upgraded sound system in the new car we’re getting?

Have we ever stopped to ask ourselves just what we *have* actually given up for our faith? Just what consequences, what costs, we’ve accepted in order to put Christ first in our lives?

Well, look… I know that this morning’s sermon is a bit of a downer. Now you know why I tried to soften the blow this morning by including pictures of cute babies and funny movie lines in the weekly email. I know that this subject, and mentioning some of the specific examples I used to illustrate the issue, can hit close to home for some. It might cause some discomfort, maybe even some resentment, or thinking that I’m trying to scold or play the holier-than-thou card. Please don’t hear it that way. Know that of all the many examples I could have mentioned, I mentioned those particular ones precisely because I’ve failed myself at various times in all of those situations. I’ve been too lax with my own kids in seeing that they get to church. I’ve allowed extracurriculars, those of the kids and my own, to take precedence over worship services and other church functions. I’ve prioritized my finances to benefit my own preferences over what would best serve the Kingdom of God. I’m sad to say that I’ve done it many times, actually. So when I mention these examples this morning, please don’t hear them as if I’m shaking my finger at you or looking down my nose at you. I’m actually sharing them with you as a fellow traveler in the struggle, trying to hear Jesus’ words about making him and the Kingdom of God the first priority, and trying to apply those words better and more fully as time goes on in my own life. If we’re going to be faithful to Christ, we have to periodically examine this part of our discipleship, even if it isn’t the most pleasant topic.

If there’s any saving grace or good news in this passage from Luke, maybe it’s that no one could possibly, perfectly adhere to Jesus’ expectations here – but what matters more than the actual perfection is the journey itself, and making sure that the course we’ve set on that journey is actually getting us closer and closer to the model for discipleship that Jesus has laid out for us.

Thanks be to God.

 

A New Normal (sermon 8/21/16)

normal offramp

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. – Luke 13:10-17 (NRSV)

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She stepped into the synagogue along with the rest of them, all headed to the same places on the benches that wrapped around the sidewalls of the synagogue where they sat every Sabbath day. She was doubled over, to the point that she could hardly see who was around her, and even though her infirmity would have made her stick out like a sore thumb to a stranger, to most of these people she’d become almost invisible out of familiarity, like a billboard that you pass on the highway every day that you eventually don’t even notice no matter how outrageous the actual advertisement. She didn’t like that fact, but she’d gotten used to it and made do, and there really wasn’t anything she could do about it, anyway. This was her reality, her normal. So like everyone else there that day, she quietly made her way to her seat, just like every other Sabbath.

But we know this story; we just heard it – in fact, this day was different from all the others, because this day, Jesus was there, and even if most of the people around her didn’t notice her, he did, and he called her over. And after laying hands on her, and blessing her, he tells her that she’s healed. And in a scene faked by countless bad TV preachers in the years since, she actually stands up straight, and gives thanks to God.

I wonder what was going through her mind during all this. She’d long ago accepted living with her impairment. Really – she’d undoubtedly heard about Jesus’ reputation as a healer, but when she got to the synagogue that day, she didn’t seek him out or ask him to heal her; he had to call out to her. I wonder if at first, she had misgivings about even going over to him. I wonder, when Jesus said that her ailment was gone, if her first unspoken thought was “Yeah, right.” I wonder if she’d become so familiar with, and accustomed to, life from her own eye level, from her own vantage point, that she wasn’t even sure, after all this time, whether she’d actually even want to have to define a “new normal.” I wonder if she wasn’t even a bit frightened about the possibility of what changes might lie ahead for her.

Still, she’d heard about this Galilean rabbi – that his words stirred people’s hearts, and that he was a miracle worker. So trusting in him, she slowly, cautiously straightened her back, each moment braced against a pain that never came, until she was standing up straight, looking right into Jesus’ smiling eyes.

Now if this story were a movie, it’s at this point that we hear the ominous, foreboding music. Depending on your age, you might hear heavy music out of an old Western, or maybe Star Wars, or maybe even one of the Jason Bourne movies, but whatever soundtrack you hear in your head, you know this music means that the bad guy is about to appear, and that’s just what happens. In this case, it’s the leader of the synagogue, who’s irate that this healing took place on the Sabbath.

Almost every time a religious leader shows up in a gospel story, they’re the villain, which should give pause to every Presbyterian minister and elder, and this story is no exception to that rule. According to this religious leader’s interpretation of the scriptures, of the Law, healing was defined as work, and so it was considered forbidden on the Sabbath, which was supposed to be a day of rest and giving thanks to God, and when work of any kind was prohibited. So he steps in to put a stop to this outrage. And by the way, ladies, did you notice what he did? Or was it so subtle that it went by unnoticed? When this leader of the synagogue step up to criticize what was going on, he didn’t criticize Jesus, the guy who’d actually done the healing. He did what I suppose the men always did – he blamed the woman! And all she’d actually done was just show up for the day. Typical, I suppose.

In fairness to the leader of the synagogue, he really was just trying to preserve the scriptural teachings and understandings that he’d internalized since he was a young child, and which had been the norm for some 1,500-odd years at that time. He was simply trying to do the right thing, based on what he’d always been taught. But Jesus told him that God’s actual intention behind a Sabbath day of rest was something very different, something much bigger than that understanding – and that in trying to uphold the letter of the Law that strictly, that rigorously, instead of listening for its spirit, the religious leaders had actually ended up missing almost the whole point. In a way, the leader of the synagogue was suffering from a limiting impairment just as much as the woman. The comfortable familiarity and acceptance of his limited way of seeing things had made it just as hard for him to imagine any other kind of reality, any “new normal,” as it was for her.

We can get caught in the same kind of thing, too. We can become set in our ways, our familiar habits and thought patterns and expectations creating a default “normal” for us, a set way of seeing and understanding and making sense of our lives. And when something happens to challenge or question those familiar defaults, it can be just as unsettling for us as it was for the woman in the story and the leader of the synagogue. 

But whether we like it or not, God seems to always be calling us to something new, something different; to some broader, fuller way of understanding the Kingdom of God and what it means to live as its people. This is true for us as individuals, in our personal lives of faith, and it’s definitely true for us together, as this community of faith.

So maybe sometime this week, just as a thought exercise, I want to suggest this: Think about some of the habits or assumptions that you hold onto that help to define your default “normal.”   It’s OK, you can start out identifying simple little things, maybe even insignificant things in the grand scheme of things, just to get the ball rolling. Maybe it’s something like that fact that every morning, when you step into the shower, you always start by washing your left arm. Or maybe it’s that every morning, as you’re making your instant oatmeal, you have to shake the measuring cup twelve times – not eleven, not thirteen – to get all the excess water out of it. And yes, if you’re wondering, I just shared two little examples of my own habits and weirdness with you.  So see, I got the ball rolling; now you try it. But after you think of the little things, maybe think about the more serious things, too. Are there default thoughts or actions that are limiting your experience of the fullness of God’s creation and God’s will for your life? Are there similar self-limiting things that we can identify in the life of the church? And then, if we can identify those limiting things, can we, with God’s help, be willing to accept a new normal?

By now, you’ve figured out that’s why I asked you to move from your normal seats this morning, and to sit somewhere you normally never would. It’s just a very small reminder to us to always be open to hearing and experiencing the Kingdom of God from a different vantage point, from a different eye level. And to always be open to new, exciting possibilities that God has in store for us, and for the church, as God moves us forward.

Just remember, if it was a little discomforting to move your seats this morning, it was discomforting for the woman in our story to move from her seat, too. But look at the new opportunities that were opened up for her because she did. Realize that just because Jesus called her to move out of her seat, and she did, we’re still talking about her, and learning from her, 2,000 years later. Just imagine what seemingly small thing might God be calling us toward that might ultimately cause someone to be talking about us, 2,000 years from now?

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Expanded Reality (sermon 4/3/16 – Easter 2C)

sphere-plane

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

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

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There was a book published in England in the 1880s called “Flatland.” It was a social and cultural commentary of life in the Victorian Era, told in an allegorical style. In more recent times, the same story was updated, with the allegorical setting more resembling contemporary American culture, and made into a feature-length animated film in 2007. In either version of the story, the action took place in a world that exists in only two dimensions. Everything and everyone in this world existed in only length and width; there was third dimension, no height, no depth – hence the world’s name, Flatland. The residents of Flatland can’t even imagine the existence of a third dimension. In fact, an important part of the plot line is that anyone who does suggest that there might be more than just two dimensions is considered a subversive. It might be hard for us to imagine how they could exist in only two dimensions, but in the story, the people seemed to get along just fine – that is, until they get a visitor. A sphere – a fully three-dimensional sphere, from another world, a world with three dimensions, drops into Flatland for a visit. But given the physical constraints of Flatland, the people can’t quite comprehend the sphere. As it first breaks into the less-than-razor-thin plane of Flatland, the sphere appears to just be a dot, a point, that appears out of nowhere. Then, as the sphere continued to pass through that plane, it seemed to become a small circle that mysteriously grew for no apparent reason, getting bigger, and bigger, and then smaller and then back into a dot, until just as mysteriously as it first appeared, it vanished again, disappearing into thin air.

Except, of course, it really hadn’t. The sphere never changed at all, and even after it passed completely through Flatland, even though it was less than a millimeter away from them, the Flatlanders couldn’t perceive that the sphere was actually still right there beside them.

A number of people have suggested that maybe something like this is going on in the accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, including today’s gospel text. Ever since Einstein published his Theory of Relativity, we’ve known through mathematics and physics that the universe does actually exist in more dimensions than just the three that our own senses perceive. And if we believe in a transcendent God, then God exists within and transcends all of these different dimensions. So for the resurrected, divine, now multi-dimensional Jesus to visit with the disciples, stepping back into just these three dimensions, it might just have looked like he appeared from out of nowhere. It would have looked like he just walked through the wall, or the locked door, or just magically materialized in the middle of the room, like the sphere visiting Flatland. I think that’s fascinating.

Something else that fascinates me about this particular story is the very fact that Thomas wasn’t there with the rest of the disciples, cowering behind locked doors in fear. Based on what little we know about Thomas from other scriptural references, I think he was just very strong-willed. When Jesus was making his final trip into Jerusalem, people were warning him not to go, that he’d be killed there, but still Jesus kept going on – and Thomas determined that he’d go along with him, he may as well die in Jerusalem with Jesus. So now, after the crucifixion, he wasn’t going to let fear consume him either. He was going to continue living his life, boldly, and whatever else may happen will happen. And then, when the others told him that they’d seen Jesus, his distrust of them certainly wasn’t distrust in Jesus. He’d seen the crucifixion. He’d seen the death in Jesus’ eyes. If he were going to accept that Jesus had risen from the dead, he was going to need more than just the ranting of a roomful of terrified people experiencing shock, whether they were his friends or not.

Of course, the truth is that Thomas is really a lot like us. We’d have undoubtedly reacted the same way. Contrary to the bad rap that Thomas has sometimes gotten over the years, let’s face it, his response to what the other disciples were claiming was perfectly logical and reasonable.

And that leads me to another thing that fascinates me about this story. When Thomas said he needed more data, more evidence, to accept that Jesus had risen, far from scolding or refusing him, Jesus gladly returned and gave it to him. “Here I am – see me; touch me.” Through his actions, Jesus was drawing Thomas into a larger view of God and the universe, into an expanded reality of life. He was allowing Thomas to catch a glimpse of, and marvel in, that expanded reality that isn’t based on superstition or tradition or ignorance, but rather, on increased knowledge and understanding.

Thomas’ desire for more knowledge, the desire that Jesus honored, is the exact same desire, the same curiosity, that drove people to develop quantum physics, and the Hubble Telescope, and the Large Hadron Collider. After all, when we do search for, and find, deeper understanding about the workings of the universe, at its smallest or largest scale, aren’t we, in essence catching a better glimpse of the face of God? Maybe we aren’t touching God, as Thomas did, but I think we’re doing something pretty close to it. God is honoring our desire for deeper understanding, and self-revealing through it – it’s God saying “Here I am – see me; touch me.”

Beyond what I see as God’s validation, God’s honoring of our continual search for more knowledge and understanding in this story, I think there’s an even more important thing going on; something more immediate and personal. If it’s really true that God exists in that multidimensional, all-dimensional way we’d mentioned earlier, sort of like the sphere in Flatland, then we have great reason for hope. If that’s true, then it means that whenever we’re going through our most difficult of times – maybe we’re facing problems at work or financial insecurity; we don’t know what to do about a child’s struggles with addiction; or we’re battling addiction ourselves; or we’re trying to help aging parents in ill health; we’re locked in a dead-end relationship that’s unraveled and we don’t know what to do and we don’t see any way out – whenever we’re going through these things, and we feel alone and isolated and it’s hard to feel God’s presence in any of it, we can take hope and have strength knowing that despite our immediate perceptions, we aren’t really going through it alone at all. We never were. God has always been, will always be, right within our very midst, right here… less than a millimeter away. The One who created us, and loves us, and accepts us; the One who walks with us and gives us the strength to navigate those difficulties, is now and always will be there for us, with us. We can have this great hope and confidence in our lives because we know and we trust in a God who would walk through walls for us – and that’s flat-out amazing.

Thanks be to God.