On the Road Again… Again

(sermon 4/29/18)

ehiopian

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 

As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

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He woke up that morning like any other morning, with a list of things to do that he ran through his mind as he had his breakfast cereal and coffee. But then, God spoke to him. Maybe it was a big, bold vision, with the glory of God, and blinding light, and angels singing and cherubim flapping their wings and knocking all the magnets off the refrigerator. Or maybe it was just a gentle, quiet voice seemingly from out of nowhere that popped into his head that irresistibly convinced him that today, he’d set that list aside, just for a day, and what he really needed was a little road trip to clear his mind.

That was how he found himself on the road leading out to Gaza, looking up ahead and seeing a caravan, obvious even from the distance made up of dark-skinned foreigners, and just as obviously, a caravan of someone important. Any other day, it would have been just something to notice for a moment and then move on, maybe like seeing a vintage plane flying over, or a funny youTube video, or a big, wild Derby hat. But this time, that same voice that told him to forget about the honey-do list told him to catch up to them. See who it is. Maybe strike up a conversation.

He sat there in his chariot, proud of the important government position he held – a Cabinet position; Secretary of the Treasury for the Queen of Ethiopia; traveling with al the pomp and ceremony and security that entailed. He was a powerful man. But he was also all too aware that that power had come at a high price. Only a castrated male – a eunuch – was trusted to work so closely and intimately around the queen. As powerful as he was, it was power with an asterisk – in the Ethiopian culture, eunuchs were considered defective, scarred, unnatural – and in some inexplicable irony, they were considered sexually immoral deviates. So even while the eunuch know power, he also knew judgment, hostility, and rejection.

It wasn’t only his own Ethiopian culture that thought this way. In the Hebrew scriptures, both Leviticus and Deuteronomy call out eunuchs as unnatural, deformed, second-guessing God’s design; as such, they were specifically identified in the scriptures as being ineligible to be part of the assembly of God.

But as he was riding along, it wasn’t Leviticus or Deuteronomy that he was reading, but Isaiah, when he noticed the stranger approaching his chariot. The words he was reading were so intriguing, but so confusing, that he actually waved his security people off and waved the stranger over.

He’d read the words over and over, being drawn to this unknown person being described, feeling a sense of empathy and brotherhood and even some solidarity with this one who, similar to himself, had been led like a lamb to be shorn, and who had endured humiliation for it.

Read this. Do you understand it? Who is this prophet writing about? he asked the stranger. And in that moment, Philip realized why he was there, and he began to explain the fullness of God’s good news for all people. Maybe he even rolled the scroll out even further, showing him Isaiah 56, where it’s written that eunuchs like him will not only be welcome in the house and family of God, but will be given a name even better than sons and daughters. And he explained that in fact, this time had already begun to unfold, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was the one whose life Isaiah, whether he’d realized it or not, had foretold.

So what might this story mean to us today – in a time when the kind of caravan we’re likely to hear about isn’t one of an Ethiopian eunuch, but rather, one of Honduran refugees fleeing for their lives, or Syrians, or South Sudanese?

Well, there’s no question that this passage is a crucial teaching for us that God’s love and welcome and kingdom is for sexual minorities in a society, too. Several stories in the Book of Acts, and maybe this one most of all, speak powerfully to the truth that LGBTQ people are part of God’s plan, too, and have been from the beginning. They’re included in God’s realm, and since they are, they’re to be a welcome and important part of the church. It might have taken us 2,000 years to actually hear and understand that part of this story, but it is there, and it’s quite clear.

But there’s more to this story too. This isn’t just good news for LGBTQ folk. What resonated in the heart and mind of the Ethiopian eunuch was that he could identify with the suffering and injustice that was experienced by the one Isaiah was describing, regardless of its particular origins. Philip explained to the eunuch that God understands what it’s like to be humiliated, to be ostracized, to be pushed aside. To be shamed, condemned, or punished by all sources of intolerance, especially by sinful religious intolerance that uses bits of scripture to justify it.

So this isn’t just good news for the Ethiopian eunuch, and all the sexual minorities who followed after him. It’s good news for *anyone* who has endured shame, injustice, humiliation, rejection, and honestly, who of us hasn’t, in some way or another. Because we know that God understands our suffering, has experienced the same suffering, and walks with us through all of our suffering. So this is good news for you if you’ve ever been told that you aren’t “normal” enough.

Or smart enough.

Or good looking enough.

Or young enough.

Or thin enough.

Or funny or witty enough.

Or rich enough.

Or male enough.

Or straight enough.

Or white enough.

Or American enough.

Or Christian enough.

The good news for all of us who have been rejected for these or any other things is that though Christ, God understands us; and through Christ, God has shown us that all of those distinctions and ways that we humans have come up with to separate and reject and humiliate are *meaningless* in God’s eyes. That Jesus, the cornerstone that the builders rejected, is now the risen Christ who is over all; and in a similar way, those of us who have been rejected in all those ways in this life will be welcomed into God’s kingdom by that same Christ.

Never forget that the eternal God of the universe understands you, has felt the same kind of rejection that you’ve felt, and that you may be feeling even now. Know that God stands with arms open wide in love and acceptance. Guilt left behind. Shame left behind. Injustice, humiliation, discrimination, rejection, all left behind.

And knowing that we have that kind of love and acceptance and welcome from God, we’re called to offer the same to others.  We’re called to welcome them into the church, to have places and voices and seats that God has reserved for them long ago.

But before we can welcome them into our churches, we need to welcome them into our communities. We have to offer the same kind of love, welcome, and acceptance that God has given us, to all those we encounter on the road. To Ethiopian eunuchs. And to Honduran and Syrian refugees. And to homeless LGBTQ youth whose parents have thrown them out of the house. And to families torn apart because a parent, or a spouse, has been deported. And people of color who just by virtue of living west of Ninth Street are told their lives are worth less than others’.

We offer that same love and welcome and acceptance – in both church and society, because wherever it’s church or society, it’s all God’s world, and all God’s people. The truth is, once we’ve received that love and acceptance from God, we become Philip.

“So look!” the eunuch said. “Over there; there’s some water. What’s to prevent me from being baptized? What’s to keep me from being a part of the family of God?”

Philip looked at the man, and he carefully took stock of the situation. Here was someone who was from the wrong religion, the wrong country, the wrong sexuality, and whom the scriptures specifically excluded from the kingdom of God.  And it was only because he was being led by the same voice, the same Spirit, that had gotten him out on the road to begin with, that Philip was able to answer him, “Nothing – absolutely nothing.”

Thanks be to God.

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Living on This Side of the Stone

(sermon 4/1/18 – Easter Sunday)

empty-tomb

They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

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

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. – (excerpts from John 19, 20)

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Imagine that scene – that first Easter morning. Walking out to the tomb in the still and the calm and the cool of the morning, your heart and your mind and your feet so heavy with grief and disbelief over the events of the last few days that it’s hard to even keep putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. Then, finally, arriving at the tomb only to find what appeared to be one more shock, piling grief on top of grief, discovering that apparently, crucifixion wasn’t humiliation enough, now someone had even taken his body away.

Imagine the emotions of learning the reality of things. Imagine the confusion of finding these two strangers in white inside the tomb, where no one had been just moments before. And then, the joy of encountering the one you’d seen with your own eyes to be stone-cold dead, but now standing in front of you, face-to-face, every bit as alive as you were yourself.

This is the defining moment of the Christian faith. Resurrection. To be honest, the ethical teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, most all of the major religions of the world, only differ to a very slight degree, But the most significant difference between Christianity and all the others is the issue of Jesus’ resurrection, and if it happened what it meant, and if that’s what it meant, what implications that has for humanity. The resurrection is truly a miracle.

This is where we, as people of faith, can get into trouble. We understand that faith in God, trust in God, is based on hope, on things that are unseen, and not based on physical evidence. At the same time, we honor and value education, facts, evidence, the scientific method; and we know that the universe operates on a set of established scientific and physical rules, a system where miracles really have no place.

So how do we square this contradiction? How do we live, as people of faith, in the tension of these two things?

I started off by asking you to imagine what it was like to be at the tomb on that first Easter morning. But in the truest sense, we really can’t imagine it. We’re people who are living entirely on this side of the resurrection; on this side of the stone at the entry of Jesus’ tomb. We can’t fully understand it; even the people who were really there couldn’t understand or explain what was really happening on that morning. They did their best to explain it, to put words to something that there really aren’t words for. And ever since, we and literally billions of other people have wrestled with the question of what these words were really describing, every bit as much as the people who were there struggled to find words to describe it.

Despite that struggling to understand, though, make no mistake – Jesus’ resurrection is absolutely, unquestionably real. It is as real as the earth and the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars. It’s as real as the immutable scientific facts that water is two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, or that paper cuts hurt way out of proportion to the actual  injury, or that all church pews get really uncomfortable after about twenty minutes. More to the point, the resurrection is as real as the fact that love is real.

How do I explain what physical, scientific, biological processes took place in Jesus’ resurrection? I can’t. More importantly, I don’t really care to; I don’t even think it’s an important question to ask. I know that I’ve said this before, but if tomorrow, archaeologist found a tomb marked with Jesus’ name, and that held his bones, his high school yearbook, his library card and a W-2 Form that proved beyond any doubt that these were Jesus’ physical remains, would it do anything to shake my faith in resurrection? I don’t really think it would. It wouldn’t, because despite that hypothetical box of bones, it’s absolutely, incontrovertibly a fact that resurrection happened that resurrection is real. Without having any idea what happened at the molecular level on that first Easter Sunday morning, we know that something unexplainable – something miraculous – happened that day. Something so powerful and convincing that couldn’t be doubted or denied; something that proved that death and the tomb weren’t powerful enough to contain or defeat Jesus. These people who knew Jesus in the flesh best, and who saw him die with their own eyes, encountered a living, loving, very real Jesus. And at some point not long after all this happened, whatever the details of what God did at that tomb on that Sunday morning, it was so real, so miraculous, that people who had never seen Jesus, or met him, or even heard of him, also came to believe what would otherwise have been unbelievable, and became followers of Jesus. And that evidence, that miracle, is repeated every time God works within the life of any person and gives them the faith to profess that Jesus is Lord, and to see the change within their lives that it causes.

Yes, despite all the nay-sayers and all conventional wisdom that would say otherwise, the resurrection is real. It’s a sign that points to God’s good news for us all – that God loves us, and has reached out to us, and in that love, calls each one of us worthy of being united with God, and called God’s own.

For all of us living on this side of the resurrection – all of us living on this side of the stone – the reality of the resurrection means that the God who created us loves us, and through Jesus, has experienced life like us, even injustice like us, and even death like us. The resurrection means that at every step of the long journey of our lives – every joyful, exciting, hopeful, uplifting step; every fearful, stressful, grieving, soul-crushing step – *every* step along the way, we are *never* without hope. We are *never* without love. We are *never* alone, because the God who somehow made the impossible possible, and the unbelievable believable, walks every one of those steps with us.

*That* is the great reality; *that* is the great truth; *that* is the great miracle that we celebrate today, as we say

Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!

Amen.

Ugly Words, Scary Story

(sermon 10/15/17)

banquet

Exodus 32:1-14

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

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Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

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Isn’t this an odd story? Really, when we hear this parable, isn’t it more than a little discomforting? Here’s a story about a king who flies into a fit of rage because people won’t come to a big, lavish party he’s invited them all to, and in his rage, he ends up causing harm, even death, to thousands, and who knows, we don’t know the size of the city, maybe millions of people who haven’t done anything wrong to the king, by obliterating their city, and all because his precious, tender ego had been bruised. Then he sends his people out to bring in other guests – a rental crowd, if you will – just to fill the empty seats and make sure that it looks like the king is great, and very popular, and to give the impression that his wedding party would be the best and biggest one ever. Finally, after bringing in all these new guests, telling them they’re invited and welcome to the party, and the guests all come in under those terms, the king comes in and changes the rules on them after the fact. He throws one of the guests out for not complying with his new rules, throwing him out of the palace and presumably out into the death and destruction of the burning city that the king had destroyed, even though the guest had really been abiding by the rules originally set out for him.

This is an ugly story. And yet, the way most of us have been taught about it over the years is that this parable is an allegorical depiction of what the kingdom of God is like, and that the king in the story represents God. Well, I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t think I buy that. To me, this all sounds a lot more like the pride and ego and capriciousness of the kingdom of this world, not the kingdom of heaven; and the king in the story sounds more like a madman, an egomaniac who wouldn’t deserve respect if he were a human leader in this world, let alone if he were the eternal God of the universe. He clearly doesn’t resemble the God of all love; the God who is portrayed in the scriptures as continually changing his mind in favor of offering mercy to people instead of lashing out in anger, just as we heard in today’s first reading. No, the king in this story doesn’t represent any God that I can comprehend through observing Jesus’ life, and the studying the totality of the scriptures.

Now I will say that I don’t have any doubt that whoever wrote Matthew’s gospel really did mean to portray God in just this way. I’m sure he was trying to portray a God who rejects an initial group of selected people and who will deal harshly with them, and who invites in replacements – but replacements who can’t get too cocky themselves, or they’ll suffer the same fate as the first group. I don’t have any doubt that the writer of this gospel framed this story in a way to denounce and discredit the Jewish religious leaders who rejected Jesus; and to explain, in hindsight, the reason for the Romans’ destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, which had occurred shortly before this gospel was written. And it was intended to claim that Jesus’ followers – who by now were mostly Gentiles – were now God’s new favored ones. I’m sure that was the author’s intent.

But we need to understand a bit of history here. We need to know that this gospel was written at a time of terrible division and bitterness and hatred between the Jewish orthodoxy and Jesus’ followers, and telling the parable this way was the author’s equivalent of sending a letter or email out to someone when you’re the maddest at them and haven’t had time to take a breath and see things a bit more clearly. It was the equivalent of posting a snarky, hurtful meme on Facebook designed to make your own group look good by trashing and insulting the other side. It’s an ugly, and frankly, counterproductive thing when people do it now, and it was just as ugly and counterproductive when the author of this gospel did it in the first century. And back then, just as it is now, once hurtful, ugly words are spoken, they can’t be unspoken – they take on a life of their own, and the hurt they cause can continue for a long time. Unfortunately, this parable has been used hurtfully up until our own present time by some people to want to justify the worst kinds of prejudice and discrimination and violence against Jewish people. To be honest, I think that not only have this writer’s way of telling this parable been harmful, it’s served to disguise what Jesus may have originally said, and what he’d originally meant.

And we can look at this passage with those critical eyes, you know. The truth is, this same story shows up here in Matthew, and again in Luke, and also in the so-called Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian collection of the sayings of Jesus that wasn’t itself included in the New Testament. And in each of these versions, you can see that the author told some basic, core teaching of Jesus, but each of them told it in a way with some degree of editorial “slant” that emphasized their particular overriding message.

If that’s the case then, what might be a better way for us to hear this parable as it appears in Matthew? Is it possible to strip away some of Matthew’s dangerous and ugly editorial slant, and maybe get closer to what Jesus might really have been saying?  Is there a way to hear the gospel here, and reject the hate?

Well, how about something like this summary: The kingdom of God is indeed like a banquet that God is hosting – a banquet that we begin to enjoy here in this life as we live in relationship with God and with one another, and it continues at this Table as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and it continues into eternity. It will be something indescribably good and wonderful, and God will not allow anything in the world to prevent it from happening. And God invites the famous and the faceless, the great and small, the good and the bad, the acceptable and unacceptable. And finally, as the banquet goes on, God does expect those guests – us guests – to show, with God’s own help, some evidence of lives transformed by this act of immense grace, and welcome, and hospitality on God’s part. This is the great joy, the great hope, that all of us guests have through our faith in Christ, regardless of what the kingdoms of the world and the kings of the world might do to crush our hope.

Maybe that’s a good synopsis of Jesus’ original point. Maybe that’s really the good news that we can get out of this parable, after strippng away the storyteller’s harmful editorializing. I don’t know, what do you think? We all have to reach our own conclusions, I guess, but I think it is, anyway. Because that’s the kind of banquet I hope for – that’s the kind of God that I can put my faith and trust in.

Thanks be to God.

“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.