Hearing the Wind

(sermon 3/8/20 – Second Sunday in Lent)

woman-in-white-and-red-floral-dress-standing-on-green-grass-3605015
Photo by Joshua Abner from Pexels

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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The man had heard the stories about Jesus. He’d heard some of his teachings in person, enough to know that he was the real thing – smart beyond what would have been expected from his age and his decidedly common and uneducated background; his insights giving pause to many older and  far more educated religious scholars and leaders. He really wanted to meet this man, to sit and pick his brain, have a one-on-one conversation with him, but he knew that could cause problems. Jesus’ teaching had ruffled a lot of feathers; Roman, religious, and in general among the man’s social circles. It had gotten to the point that being seen around Jesus could hurt the reputation of a good, respectable person. And Nicodemus was certainly that – a respected and educated member of the community, serious about his personal religious faith, involved in his community in any number of ways. If he lived in our time, he’d probably belong to the Rotary Club and volunteer with the Kentucky Derby Festival, and he’d likely be a good solid Presbyterian, or maybe a Methodist. In short, Nicodemus was a good person, someone we’d like, someone we’d probably like to be like – not the clueless hypocrite he’s been painted as in too many bad sermons and essays.

But this good man still had to consider appearances in order to protect his reputation. So he waited until after dark, when most people were at home and behind closed doors, to visit Jesus. And after circling around the block on the opposite side of the street three times, until the coast was clear and there wasn’t anyone else walking by who could spot him, he darted walked across the street and slipped into the doorway where Jesus was staying, and where the two of them had this conversation that’s gone down in history.

Many times, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus have been portrayed as him offering Nicodemus a scornful rebuke, even a mocking of Nicodemus, that Jesus was angry at him. Sometimes, just as it is with a text message or an email, it’s hard to read the actual emotions and intentions behind written words, and maybe Jesus really was in a mood and throwing shade at Nicodemus; I don’t know for sure. But when I read these words, I think of times when I’ve received similar words of confrontation from someone – times when someone has offered me a challenge, getting me to dig deeper into the real meaning of my own words or thoughts; or what was at the root of the way I felt or responded in some situation. In those times, the person offering me that challenge, that confrontation, wasn’t mocking me or angry with me at all – on the contrary, the words were meant to be constructive, coming from a place of mentoring and compassion, trying to get me to see something important to my own development and growth. You’ve probably had similar experiences with someone in your life, too.

I personally think that was more the tone of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus wasn’t telling Nicodemus that he’d missed the boat and was heading in the complete wrong direction. Instead, he seemed to be telling Nicodemus that he’d compartmentalized his religious faith. He was on the right path; he just needed to take it further. He needed to broaden his understanding of that faith, and to let it touch every aspect of his life. It wasn’t something that could be reduced to strictly a personal relationship with God – it was that, to be sure, but it was also so much more than that. And that’s what Jesus was inviting Nicodemus into when he talked about God’s Spirit being like the wind; we can hear it, and feel it on our skin, but we don’t know where it’s come from, and we don’t really know exactly where it’s going. Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to allow himself to hear and feel the Spirit, and to follow where it was trying to lead him, even if he couldn’t tell exactly where and how that was all going to end up. Jesus seemed to be telling Nicodemus that if there were any consequences to following that holy wind, that Spirit – and in all honesty, there probably would, there always is, as Jesus’ own life offers example – that what he would gain, the experience of living this abundant, more fulfilling way of life, more in tune with God and God’s broader desires for all of creation, and for all people, would be far more than anything he lost in the process. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about being born from above, being born in a new way.

I think that’s why this story is one of our Lectionary texts for Lent. We can all benefit from Jesus’ advice to Nicodemus. Like him, I suspect that most of us aren’t really off on a completely wrong path, but sometimes, we might allow ourselves to compartmentalize our faith, to keep it in a comfortable, non-threatening box, not allowing it to shape and inform the totality of our lives, only hearing the comforting parts and rationalizing away the parts that might make us uncomfortable.

Now no one is recommending everyone quitting their jobs and running off to seminary, or selling all their possessions and checking in at the Gethsemane monastery or the Iona Community in Scotland. It’s really more like this: does your religious faith go beyond just knowing what you believe? Is it just one of many branches of your life, restricted to this area over here, with all the other areas of your life being separate unrelated branches; or is your faith at the root, at the core, and everything else springs from it, and is formed and fed by it?

Does your faith shape how you live? How you treat and relate with other people? How you conduct your business affairs?  It’s a big election year; how do Jesus’ words inform your politics? When something Jesus taught contradicts some political thing we’ve always believed, that we were taught on our parents’ knee, which one ultimately guides how you fill out your ballot? Does it shape and inform how you schedule your all-too-precious time? When there’s a time conflict between participating in something related to your faith, and participating some other pursuit or activity, how often does the faith-based thing come in second place? Some of the time? Most of the time?

Lent is a good time for us all to hear Jesus’ gentle but blunt reminder, his invitation to allow ourselves to hear and feel the wind of the Spirit, not be afraid of allowing it to shape us, and of following where it leads. Following that wind leads us to the cross, to be sure, but it also leads us to the resurrection, and beyond, as well. That wind, the Spirit of God, is leading us all into an eternal kind of life; a life that’s more abundant, not less, and each step of the way as we follow that wind, it’s leading us closer to God.

Amen.

The (Supposedly) Greater Good

(sermon 3/1/20 – First Sunday in Lent)

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we started the season of Lent – a forty-day period of time to consider the fragility and the briefness of human life, time for self-reflection and penitence for the times we’ve given in to the temptation to follow our own thoughts and ways instead of God’s. The fact that Lent is forty days long – not counting Sundays – is significant. This number forty shows up over and over again in the scriptures, each time during some time of trial of temptation. Moses and the Israelites wander in the Wilderness for forty years after they left Egypt for the promised land. During that time, Moses climbs Mount Horeb and fasts and waits forty days and nights waiting to experience and hear God, until God gives him the Ten Commandments. Later, the great prophet Elijah goes to Mount Horeb in the Wilderness too, and fasts and waits to experience and hear the voice of God.

And now, on today’s gospel text, we hear that Jesus spends forty days fasting in the Wilderness, too. The parallel, and the purpose of this story here is clear – we’re to understand that just as Moses was the savior of the Israelites in Egypt, and Elijah was their greatest prophet, Jesus is now combined savior and prophet, too; a sort of super-Moses and super-Elijah rolled into one.

As we hear about Jesus’ time in the Wilderness and the temptation he faces, we can see that there’s a similarity in each time Satan tempts Jesus. In each instance, Satan’s temptation is ultimately a temptation to get more quickly, to short-circuit, to the ultimate end, the supposed greater good, in Jesus’ ministry.

You can hear Satan tempting Jesus: Enough of all this reflection time and fasting and navel-gazing – just conjure up some bread from these stones, eat your fill, and get back into town and get on with your real work; stop wasting time here….

You’re going to have difficulty getting people to believe you; you’re going to waste a lot of time convincing people you are who you are, so why don’t you just cut to the chase – show them some big flashy miracle – throw yourself off a tower, and let them see how God protects you; then they’ll believe and you can get on with your teaching….

Look Jesus, we both know what this is all about – your ultimate goal here is to grow your audience, to reach the hearts and minds of the most people, to get more members into the kingdom of God. Do you realize how long that could take? Do you realize how many lives will be lost, how many wars fought, to just try to grow your movement? Really, it can all be so much easier, less blood shed. Just bow down to me, give me your allegiance, and I’ll give you all of them, all the numbers you want, overnight. After that, you can tell them whatever you want. Do these things, and you’ll achieve the greater good. The details aren’t important; the end justifies the means, right?

There are so many times when we all face that same kind of temptation, that the ends justify the means, when in our hearts we really know they don’t. Give a little here, fudge a little there, in order to achieve the goal, to reach the destination that we think God would want. We encounter these kinds of temptations in society. And we encounter them in our own personal lives, too.

She was a middle-aged black woman, a Presbyterian elder, serving on the Session of her church in a moderate-sized Southern city. The congregation was vibrant, but on the smaller side, and like most congregations regardless of size, they really wished they could buck the trends and see some growth. They paid a lot of attention to coming up with strategies focused on getting more members. Her congregation was well known for being relatively progressive, a bit of theological blue surrounded by a sea of theological red. She and the congregation had always been proud to be seen as the standard-bearer in their community for thoughtful, inclusive, compassionate Christian faith.

But now she faced a dilemma. The church was considering doing something that would definitely get the community’s attention. For the sake of our conversation here, it isn’t important specifically what that was, it could have been any number of things, other than to say that it was a bold thing. a courageous thing. A very good, and very gospel thing. But personally, she worried that if they did this thing, many people in the community would be upset. They might face negative consequences. Maybe they’d get some bad press, or at least bad gossip, in the community. Maybe some people would even picket their church. Maybe their property would be vandalized by some ignorant person. Most of all, she worried about how this might affect their hopes for increasing their numbers. Would all this blow up in their faces? Would new people stay away from the church? As a result of all the potential uproar she worried could happen, would even some of their current members leave?

She hated herself for even thinking these things. In her heart, she knew without any question what the church was thinking about doing was really the right thing. On top of that, she was keenly aware of how much she personally benefited, when the church had taken a bold and courageous stand supporting equality for women and equality for people of color in the past, in spite of opposition from many in their community at the time.

But that was then, and this was now, she worried. Don’t we have to be pragmatic about these things? It might sound crass, but if we want to grow, don’t we have to worry about whether we’ll offend some people, and whether what we do will cause a drop in our weekly attendance – and more to the point, in our weekly offering – and how on earth will God’s will ever be achieved if that happened?

And it was when she asked herself that last question that she realized how silly it sounded. And she realized that, as the cliché goes, life – in this case, life in Christ, life as a member of the kingdom of God – is much more about the journey, not the destination. We see in Christ’s life and teaching, and attested to many times in the scriptures, that God seems to be much more concerned about us not giving in to the temptation of not doing what we know to be right, just because we think that doing the right thing will hurt or frustrate God’s ultimate plans.

During this season of Lent, I invite you to ask yourselves – are there places where you can resist that kind of temptation, where you can have that kind of courage in your faith, and in your witness to Christ? And are there places where we as a congregation can do that?

Let’s use this time of Lent to allow ourselves to hear God’s Spirit speaking to our hearts and minds, encouraging us and empowering us just as Jesus was encouraged and empowered in the Wilderness. And let’s let God worry about the consequences that follow from our doing the right things. Because ultimately, God sets the end goal, God determines what the real greater good is, and achieves it, not us – and in fact, that real greater good might be something very different from what we think it is anyway.

Thanks be to God.

It’s Love, Simon

(sermon 1/26/20)

Kinnereth - Sea of Galilee (Panorama)

The Sea of Galilee – photo by Zachi Evenor    https://www.flickr.com/photos/zachievenor/12325753455/

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

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It’s a pretty common, and healthy, behavior to want to retreat into a comfortable “safe space” after you’ve been hit with some terrible unsettling experience that’s thrown you off your normal balance. In one way or another, I think we all do it, however we define that safe space for ourselves. At the beginning of today’s gospel text, we see Jesus doing this same thing, after getting word that John the Baptist, his own relative, someone whose life and ministry he knew well, had been arrested and thrown in prison.

Just before this in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had been tempted by Satan in “The Wilderness,” the desolate, barren Judean Desert. We don’t know if the events in today’s text followed that temptation immediately, or if some time had passed, but whatever the case, Jesus was still apparently in Judea or somewhere else far from home when he got the news about John. His response to it was to retreat to familiar territory, in Galilee, for some emotional re-centering. He goes back to his hometown of Nazareth, but he doesn’t stay there long. Matthew doesn’t say why. Maybe Jesus thought that if the authorities had come for John, they’d come for him too, and Nazareth would be an obvious place to look for him. Or maybe the memory of home was better than the reality of home – after all, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ first time teaching in Nazareth upset some of his fellow townsmen so much that they’d tried to kill him. Or maybe he just decided to go from Nazareth to Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee because it is strikingly beautiful, then and now, and whose spirit isn’t recharged, and who doesn’t see things more clearly, after a trip to the shore?

So here was Jesus, walking along the Sea, absorbing the warm of the sun, the feeling and the fresh smell of the breeze, the sound of the waves lapping the shoreline, the seagulls and albatross flying overhead, the voices of fishermen going about their work. Putting ourselves in that same place, it’s easy to imagine Jesus’ concerns melting away.

And as we heard, on this particular walk Jesus encountered four fishermen in particular, all of whom would become important in his ministry. The first one of them, at least in this telling, was Simon – Simon, this random, average fisherman who was just in the right place at the right time, who would eventually become known as Peter, and whose passion, and wisdom, and courage, and flaws, would all work together to shape our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus even now, 2,000 years later.

I can’t imagine what it was that Jesus said, or how he said it, that made these four fishermen decide to just drop everything and follow him. Some people have suggested it was just the overwhelming power of the Holy Spirit that convicted their hearts and convinced them to immediately drop everything and take a completely different path in their lives. Maybe. In my own experience, though, I can say that when I sensed my own call to the ministry, even when I was absolutely convinced about its authenticity, that it had come from God, it still took a lot of time and convincing to actually do it. Maybe these four just really hated fishing, and they were only doing it because it was the family business. Maybe ever since James and John were little children, their father Zebedee would take them down to the shore, show them his three rickety, leaking fishing boats, and the old, worn nets that constantly needed repairing, and the unreliable employees and the backbreaking labor and low pay and the constant smell of dead fish that clung to his skin long after he’d gotten home from work, and he waved his arms over it all and told them “Boys, some day all this will be yours!” Maybe it wasn’t such a hard decision after all.

However it happened, it did happen – and a critical, especially intriguing part of that was Jesus telling them that if they followed him, they’d fish for people. What exactly did that mean, Simon must have wondered to himself. Maybe later that same evening, after they’d spent the whole day speaking with Jesus and learning from him, and they’d all gone to bed, it dawned on Simon that Jesus had fished for him. How did he do it?

Apparently, he hadn’t tried to scare him to death by hanging the threat of eternal damnation and suffering in hell over their heads; he didn’t yell at them that they were lost if they didn’t follow him. Whatever the details of their conversation were, it’s pretty clear that Jesus must have shown Simon and the others an alternative to life as they’d experienced it up to that point. A better way. A way that, in a split second, offered an answer to every one of the countless times they’d looked around at the world and thought to themselves, “The world isn’t supposed to be like this. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be. There must be a better way than this.” Whatever he’d said to them, Jesus apparently convinced them that there was.

For the next few years, as they followed and lived with Jesus, he showed them what that better, alternative way of understanding things looked like. This understanding of life wasn’t about power, or wealth, or fame. It wasn’t about just looking out for yourself, or getting ahead or gaining privilege for yourself by pushing other people down or out to the margins. And while life could be hard, and there would always be work to be done, God didn’t expect that to be our whole existence. This way of life that God was calling them into valued work, included resting from work, and activities, and all the busyness; and appreciating beauty, considering the lilies of the field. In the old order of things, strict rules made certain people ineligible to be part of the people of God – but as Simon would travel with Jesus, he saw something new happening. In this new way of understanding God and our world, now persistent Syrophoenician women, despised Samaritans, Ethiopian eunuchs, Gentiles of every kind; sinners, tax collectors, political radicals, religious heretics, weren’t just eligible to be considered God’s people, they were welcomed with open arms.

Why?  Because, as Simon, soon to be Peter, would come to realize, at the core of everything Jesus did, at the core of everything he taught, at the core at the core of this new way of understanding God and ourselves, was love. The fisherman who was told he would fish for people would come to realize that love – loving God, and showing love and compassion to one another regardless of circumstances – which was really just the most authentic way to love God – was at the very core of that. To fish for people, you don’t surround them with a net that they can’t get out of, or try to snag them on a baited hook, or try to force them at all; and you especially don’t try to scare them into this new way. Fishing for people wouldn’t require slick techniques or glossy brochures or massive door-knocking campaigns. That was old world thinking. Already, Simon could see that in this new way, Jesus’ way, all that would be needed would be to surround people with love – enabling them to experience the same love that Jesus showed them, and this same new, better way of understanding God and life that Jesus had intrigued him with earlier that same day.

I guess it would be a fisherman’s dream if they didn’t have to throw out a net at all, or work to haul them up into the boat, but if instead, the fish just jumped into the boat of their own accord. Over time, Simon wouldn’t just gain a new name. He’d eventually come to recognize that if we treated one another in the way Jesus had treated them, and taught them – offering them love, and compassion, and peace, and mercy, there wouldn’t need to be any coercion in fishing for people. Love would make them jump into the boat on their own, just as he’d jumped in himself. But for tonight, this first night of his new journey, Simon was satisfied in just knowing that wherever this was all going to go, it was love that was at the center of it all. That was enough for him in that moment. And with that, he drifted off to sleep.

Thanks be to God.

Raise Your Flag

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

raise your flag

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

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The author of Matthew’s gospel had a problem. Just as any author, ancient or modern might do, he sat down at his version of a blank legal pad and began planning how to structure his work in a way that told his story – in this case, the story of Jesus – in a way that emphasized the points he wanted to make. But one of the first things he had to deal with was a debate going on among the believers about Jesus’ baptism. He had Mark’s earlier gospel sitting in front of him, and other sources as well, to draw from as he composed his own work, and Mark dealt with Jesus’ baptism very simply. In the midst of Mark telling how John the Baptist was baptizing people for repentance and forgiveness of sins, Jesus shows up, seemingly like anyone else, and asks John to baptize him. Mark’s John the Baptist doesn’t seem to recognize in advance that Jesus is the messiah. He apparently doesn’t see any potential theological difficulty with the idea, so he basically shrugs his shoulders and says OK, come on in, the water’s fine. No big deal

But in the ten years or so since Mark wrote his version of the story, Jesus’ followers had started to develop a more complex theological understanding of how Jesus’ reconciliation, his atonement, between God and humanity worked, in which Jesus himself would need to have been sinless, in order, they argued, to be an adequate “sacrifice” acceptable to God to forgive the sin of all humanity. And if that were the case, then why did Jesus get baptized like any other mortal, if Mark was right and baptism was all about repentance and forgiveness of sin?

So as Matthew crafted his account, he had to deal with that. In his account, he doesn’t deny that forgiveness of sin is one meaning of baptism, but he offers an additional meaning to it that helps to soothe some theological discomfort. Matthew’s John the Baptist is in on the knowledge that Jesus is special, the anointed one, when he arrives to be baptized, and he protests – as some believers in Matthew’s time would have – that it would be inappropriate for John to baptize him; in fact, it should be the other way around. But in Matthew’s account, Jesus says no, he should be baptized, in order to “fulfill all righteousness” – which, in Matthew-speak, as he lays out throughout his gospel, means to do in all ways the things that are pleasing to God. So Jesus being baptized is something that would please God.

Now for a moment, I want to move forward to the present-day. Several times a month, George and I will get together with a group of friends, to share a meal together, maybe go out to a show, occasionally play a board game, maybe enjoy some good bourbon and conversation and laughs. Now, there isn’t a person sitting around the table who hasn’t gone through some really thin, difficult financial times in their lives, and everyone gathered there is aware of and grateful for the fact that they’re reasonably secure now. From time to time, though, as the conversations might ebb and flow, someone will say something about some great food – maybe some extremely high-quality beef, or hard-to-find pork, or some delicious exotic cheese they’ve had the pleasure of enjoying; or having enjoyed some exquisite turkey that was organic, free-range, raised by a farmer who they knew; where the turkeys all listen to Beethoven and get daily massages, and the farmer reads them bedtime stories; or maybe having met some famous person, or some other similarly elitist comment – sort of like a real-world version of Lucy van Pelt in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” telling the other kids who are catching snowflakes on their tongues, that she never eats December snow; she will only eat January snow. And often, when that happens in the conversation, someone else might joke to the person speaking that they’re “raising their flag” – meaning that they’re raising their flag of privilege and elitism; that their privilege is showing. Sometimes, instead of actually putting it into words, as the other person is going on, someone will just silently make the gesture with their hands of raising a flag up a flagpole, offering a gentle, good-natured ribbing to whoever’s speaking at the moment, and we’ll all laugh, and the conversation will go on from there.

I mention that because I think that in a way – a more positive way, to be sure – a large aspect of Matthew’s understanding of baptism, and what fulfilling all righteousness,” doing those things that are pleasing to God, lies in something similar. To Matthew, in addition to baptism signifying forgiveness of sin, it also signifies the flag that, being baptized, we’re now called to live under, and to be loyal to. So Jesus being baptized, then, symbolizes that Jesus is part of this movement – certainly, in the way we typically use that term, but mostly in the sense that he is at the very center of a literal moving of world history, of human existence, in a new direction, into a new era – an era of the partial incoming of the kingdom of God into this life. Through the act of his baptism, God has raised this flag over Jesus, both identifying God’s pleasure and Jesus’ central part in it all.

Matthew might have found a way to address that theological issue regarding Jesus’ baptism. But others remain. In the earliest years of the church, and up until this day, for example, many have suggested that it was at his baptism, and not at the time of his birth – at the time of the Holy Spirit descending upon him and God’s voice of loving approval – when Jesus became God incarnate – as we say, “fully human and fully divine.”

And of course, Matthew’s literary take on baptism didn’t really settle the issue he was trying to settle, either. It continues to this day. Many of our literal neighbors, our Evangelical siblings in the faith, emphasize the idea of baptism primarily signifying forgiveness of sins – and most significantly, that it signifies our choice, the exercising of our free will, to “raise the flag” as it were, to be followers of Christ. On the other hand, we Mainliners, and certainly we Presbyterians, recognize baptism as a sign of forgiveness of sin, but we especially emphasize its being a seal of God making a unilateral covenant with us to be part of this identity, this movement, of Christ-followers and the kingdom of God – and especially, that baptism doesn’t signify us choosing to raise our flag, but rather, it’s a sign of us recognizing that God has chosen to raise that flag over us – that, as I sometimes say when baptizing an infant, we don’t believe baptism is a sign of what we’re doing, but rather, it’s a sign of what God has already done.

Beyond that ongoing theological debate between Evangelicals and Mainliners, one thing is definitely true: after our baptism, we are indeed called by God to “raise our flag” – to visibly do those things that please God, that “fulfill all righteousness,” which, to Matthew, is always acting in ways that are loving and merciful. After our baptism, we’re called by God to act in ways that make it clear to those around us that, in gratitude for the love, mercy, and grace that God has showered us with, we’re trying to live and treat others with that same kind of love, mercy, and grace. Regardless of the finer points of how we understand or want to emphasize baptism, all Christians – all who profess to have followed Jesus into those waters of baptism and come back up out of them wth him – are called to be a visible witness to the world of an alternative way – a better way – than what we see around us on a daily basis. And what do we see? Greed. Arrogance. Selfishness. Violence. Threats of war. Cruelty. The dehumanizing, belittlement, or worse, of people just because they aren’t sufficiently like ourselves. The hoarding of wealth and resources that has created and kept the vast majority of the world’s population in abject poverty.

Every Christian is called, you and I are called – lovingly called, but called nonetheless – to reflect God’s love for us outward to others, by opposing all of those distortions of God’s will, of God’s righteousness – and not just to speak out against them, and not just to pray about them, but to concretely work and fight to end them, regardless of where we find them; in whatever situation, whatever institution; in whatever corporate policy or educational policy or governmental policy; in whatever person, whatever office or position. We’re called to let every human being know that they are loved, and not just to let them know they’re loved, but to actually love them; to actually offer them compassion, and mercy, and justice. To that point, the great twentieth-century priest and theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote, “In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that bridges all divides and heals all wounds.” That, friends, is a flag of privilege that. out of gratitude and love, we should all be ready, willing, and proud to raise.

Thanks be to God.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

(sermon 21/8/19 – Second Sunday of Advent)

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Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

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Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

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This always seemed like an odd week in Advent to me. We start off with this beautiful passage from Isaiah that we heard earlier, where he speaks so eloquently about this wonderful future time of peace, when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and so on – and then we hear this second reading, about wild, cranky, angry John the Baptist, insulting the people standing around listening to him, calling them a “brood of vipers.” I mean, I get the idea of John’s call to repentance fitting in with the focus of Advent, but his whole attitude seems more than a bit off-putting, especially this week when our Advent litany recognizes the peace embodied in the coming of Christ. It’s like that crazed panhandler that you’re trying to avoid eye contact with while you’re stopped at the traffic signal, who’s yelling at you through the window because you won’t give them any money.

But the more I consider it, I guess I understand it. John knows this passage from Isaiah; he’s read it and heard it many times, and he knows its hopeful vision of a peaceful existence for all the world; and he knows that he’s telling people about this very same vision, this same time, except he’s telling them that it’s about to break into the world. But he looks around, and almost everything he sees is the exact opposite of that vision, and quite simply, he’s ticked. He’s angry at what he sees going on around him, and he’s calling people out for it. What he sees is an existence where sin hasn’t just tainted everything, it’s completely taken over.

At this point, I suppose it would be important to recognize just what it is that John considers that sin to be. Just what is it that a Jew in first-century Palestine would consider sin? The biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine has pointed out that we Christians have often been misinformed, mis-taught, that the Jewish religion of Jesus’ time was all about ritual and ritualistic practices; a kind of checklist religion, over against a Christian religion that is supposedly so much different from that, when in fact Judaism then wasn’t any more ritual-based than Christianity is. She goes on to explain that the Jewish concept of sin, then, wasn’t that some set of ritualistic traditions hadn’t been adhered to – but rather, throughout the Hebrew scriptures, whenever sin is discussed, whenever it’s identified, almost without exception it refers to attitudes and especially actions that have the effect of mistreating or hurting other people. Did you hear that? Almost every single description of sin details actions that hurt other people. Actions that treat others without justice, or mercy; actions that exploit or cheat others from enjoying the same existence that a person wants for themselves. It’s a virtual constant in the Hebrew scriptures, and we see the exact same message in Jesus’ words in the gospels.

So John looks around him and sees a society that is completely under the thumb of the Roman occupation. Oh, sure, Rome has given the Jews some degree of autonomy in their local governance and their religion, but not much – they’re on a pretty tight reign. The people are paying heavy taxes to a faraway empire and have very limited freedoms. People are being treated unjustly and abusively. And any time they get even a little bit out of line, the violent power of Rome comes crushing down on them, making sure they understand who’s really in charge. And adding insult to injury, some of their own people are collaborating with Rome to impose the dictates of this occupying force, simply because they realize that if they go along with the Roman occupiers, things will go well for them, and they don’t want to upset their own relative comfort and well-being.

John sees all this – how the people, especially the poor, are being mistreated and exploited. How God’s commands for caring for the widow and orphan, the sick and poor, are being ignored. And he gets mad. He recognizes that this just isn’t the way things should be, especially now, as God has told him that this eternal peaceful kingdom is about to break into the world. Prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. You brood of vipers, you poisonous snakes, change your ways, now, before it’s too late.

And now, as we think about this future time of peace ourselves, we look around us and we see the same thing. We see a society, a culture, that in so many ways seems to have gone off the rails. Poor people – men, women, and children; young and old – who can’t find work and who don’t have enough money to eat are being kicked off of federal food assistance. People legally entering the country seeking refugee status are illegally jailed, and families are separated, often without any plan for reunification, in violation of federal law, international treaties, Christian moral teaching, and just plain common sense and decency. People of color are enduring generations of injustice, being mauled in a criminal justice system designed to destroy individuals and families in multiple ways, and to deprive them of the right to vote, and to essentially create a perfectly legal replacement to Jim Crow society and a return to near-slave era conditions. One particular religious group imposing its narrow, burdensome, discriminatory beliefs on the entire society. Innocent men, women, and children becoming victims of human sacrifice to the false god of gun proliferation. A consumer culture that brainwashes us from before we’re even out of the cradle that we should want everything that we don’t have, and more of everything we already do; and that our worth as human beings isn’t that we’re loved by God and that we’ve been created in God’s image, but instead, our worth is measured by the worth of our stuff. Government leaders who rule with impunity, with no sense of accountability or ethics, only out for their own personal gain at the expense of all of us. Thousands of people being bankrupted every year by outrageous healthcare costs charged by for-profit healthcare corporations, or even dying simply for lack of health insurance or affordable life-saving prescriptions. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist, with nationalist groups, the rise of neo-Nazism and neo-Fascism all despite our thoughts that it could never happen here. But it’s happening here.

If you can see all of those things and not be every bit as mad as John the Baptist, you’re just not paying attention. Just John saw what he saw, we can see and know that this isn’t the way things should be. That it doesn’t have to be this way. That we need to repent from these kinds of things in our own personal lives, to be sure, but also that there are systems at work in our society that are causing and enabling these problems in ways far worse than we could ever cause them on our own. We’re all inescapably enmeshed in these harmful, these sinful, systems. Thinking about all of those things makes John the Baptist’s calling people out as a brood of vipers sounds almost tame.

As a congregation, we’ve signed on to the Matthew 25 vision. Next month, I’ll host a three-week Bible study that focuses on Matthew’s gospel, and Matthew 25 in particular, and just what the whole Matthew 25 emphasis really means to us as a congregation, here, where the rubber meets the road. But as a bit of a preview, I can say that it has a lot to do with exactly that kind of turning away from the current ways, and turning toward God’s ways, that John was calling for in this passage. The Matthew 25 vision echoes the idea that all those things don’t have to be that way, and it calls us to taking concrete steps to try to change them.

John was so upset, so angry, because he could see that same vision that Isaiah saw and told about. It was wonderful, and beautiful, and peaceful. And while we can’t create that final, ultimate peaceful world that only Christ will finally usher in some day, having that vision in our minds is enough for us to see that the current world could be so much better, so much more just, so much more peaceful, than it is now – and that by turning our lives, and especially our social systems and structures, toward God’s paths, toward God’s standards of compassion, and mercy, and justice, we’ll be adding just that much more straw into the manger in preparation for our celebration of Jesus’ birth, and in hope of his eventual return and establishing that wonderful world that Isaiah and John  saw. So have righteous anger at what you see – but don’t stay in the anger. Let that anger become repentance, and let that repentance become action, and in that action, find hope. Hold on to that hope, because those words from Isaiah, and from John, are true; that peace, that shalom, is coming.

Thanks be to God.

 

In That Land

(sermon 11/10/19)

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Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

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I was online the other day and I saw a guy who was trying to stir the pot in some conversation. That isn’t all that uncommon; if you’re online finding someone like that takes maybe all of about fifteen seconds. This particular guy was commenting on something another person had written – but he wasn’t really all that interested in addressing the first person’s actual point; instead, he was trying to twist that comment into something different, something almost completely unrelated, just so that he could talk about one of his own pet issues. And even if he were successful at turning the topic in that direction, it was pretty clear that he didn’t even really want to have a real discussion, an actual dialogue about that issue; he just wanted a soapbox to stand on while he spouted his own favorite talking points for probably the umpteenth time.

Something very similar is going on in today’s gospel text. In this case, it’s the Sadducees who are playing the part of the internet troll, setting up a hypothetical situation for Jesus to wrestle with – a situation that they didn’t really care about per se, but that they wanted to use as a springboard to one of their own pet issues. As the text says, the Sadducees were a group who didn’t believe in resurrection and an afterlife. Their attitude was basically YOLO – you only live once, so make the best of it. Now, just as is the case with people who believe the same way today, that attitude can go in one of two directions. The first option is to live your life grabbing all you can get for yourself, and without regard for or caring about the needs of others. The second is to live your life being kind and compassionate to others, because that’s actually the definition of living this life well – it’s just the right thing to do, not because you’re trying to score points to get into heaven down the road.

So the Sadducees tried to set Jesus up with this weird, elaborate hypothetical. But rather than get mired down in all the potential rabbit holes in that hypothetical, Jesus just swats the whole thing away and pretty much says OK, you want to talk about an afterlife? Fine, let’s get into it. And then he makes an argument to them about the existence of an afterlife, using an argument based on logic and language that admittedly was probably more compelling to the Sadducees’ ears than it is to our own. But at the end of it all, Jesus’ position was undeniable – he was telling them that there is indeed a resurrection and an afterlife.

To be honest, the church hasn’t always done a good job with that teaching. We’ve either come up with bizarre, limited ideas of what the afterlife will be like – you know, robes, harps, angels’ wings, sitting around on clouds, a musical background that’s all Bach, all the time. St. Augustine writing that in heaven, we’ll all have the body and appearance we had when we were thirty years old; which would seem to trigger a whole new set of questions about people who died when they were ten. At the same time, we’d messed people up by trying to literally scare them to death, and setting up a burdensome set of checklists that they’d have to comply with in order to stay out of hell and get into heaven. We’ve messed things up when trying to understand the afterlife, probably most of all because we’re just finite, flawed human beings, and the very concept of life after this life is something far larger and more transcendent, more infinite, than our finite brains can really get around.

But none of those mistakes take away from the fact that the existence of an eternal afterlife is something that Jesus taught about unambiguously, and repeatedly. Yes, we can still mangle understanding that teaching with Fundamentalist four-step programs to guarantee that we’re part of the in-crowd, and to look down our noses at others who aren’t. And yes, it’s true that there’s a whole sub-genre of Christian literature written by people who have had near-death experiences and returned to write a book about their experiences. Heaven is for Real. Ninety Minutes in Heaven. Twenty-Three Minutes in Hell. My Half -Hour Stuck on the On-Ramp to Purgatory. Well, no, I made that last one  up, but the others are real books. And it isn’t my point here to demean these people’s stories, because I really do believe that there’s something real, and meaningful, and important in their experiences – but it does seem strange that each of them ended up experiencing a heaven, or hell, that was pretty much the kind of place they’d been taught about as a child, whether they continued to hold those beliefs or not as an adult.

One of the outcomes of these stories has been to continue to reinforce an overemphasis on the future eternal life in the sweet by-and-by, over against the current eternal life to live in the here-and-now. And honestly, a lot of people have come to feel awkward, a little squeamish, to think about resurrection and afterlife. I mean, we’re all intelligent, educated, enlightened people. We understand at least the basics of the laws of physics and how the natural world works, and doesn’t work. So we can get a little nervous thinking about miracles, and let’s face it, the idea of resurrection and life after death are really the mother of all miracles. I’ve talked with a lot of people who feel that awkwardness, who ultimately throw their hands up and say “I don’t know if heaven is real or not; I just care about being the best person I can be right now, and honestly, that’s all the reward I really need.” And you know, on one level, I absolutely agree with them. As a follower of Jesus Christ, my focus is completely on living in this life, and being in relationship with God and with people in ways that would please Christ. Pleasing him pleases me. I don’t need anything else. I’m not doing acts of kindness or compassion to earn any future reward or to get some golden ticket into eternity.

But the reality is that we worship a God of extravagant overkill. We don’t need any more reward for a life well-lived in Christ, but according to Jesus, God chooses to give us one anyway.

And whatever the actual details of that life to come really might be, we know, based on Jesus’ teaching, that it’s going to be amazing. When we reach that existence, when we arrive in that eternal land, it’s going to exceed our wildest, most extreme, unreal imaginings. Every wild, crazy, irrational thing that we could imagine as being the ultimate of happiness, contentment, shalom, reconciliation, reunion, peace, justice – that’s what it’s going to be like.

So yes, keep living and loving, and working in this world because you’ve been called to do that. Work to bring compassion, and justice, and peace, and truth, and healing to people in this life, wherever there’s hatred, and fear, and ignorance and injustice, and lies, and brokenness, because we know that the world certainly needs that kind of help. Yes, live this life well in the ways that Christ teaches us, because it’s sufficient as its own reward. Go ahead and live your life as if there’s nothing more to come, as if there’s no afterlife – but still enjoy the assurance of knowing that there really is.

Thanks be to God.

Gratitude

(sermon 10/13/19)

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Photo by Marcus Wökel – used with permission    http://www.pexels.com

(with gratitude to Rev. Dr. David Lose, whose words heavily inspired this sermon)

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

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There are some people I know who do something important every day. It’s something simple, but it’s incredibly powerful. Every single day, in some way or another, they set aside time in their day, which is just as busy as my own, to take stock of what they’re grateful for. They keep “gratitude journals,” or just observe a bit of quiet time to intentionally reflect on the day that’s just passed, and actually name the things that they’re grateful for. Some of them take this a step further and actually jot a note, or maybe more often now, an email, to reach out and acknowledge their gratitude to someone who had something to do with it.

I wish that I were more like these people. I want to be, because there is so much that I really am grateful for. But at least up until now, for whatever reason, I haven’t had the discipline to do this, and I’m the worse off for it. Because without doing this in some way, it’s easy to forget, or at least to take for granted, the things that mean so much to us, the things that we’re so grateful for, and the people responsible for them.

This comes into play in today’s gospel text. Ten suffering people come to Jesus for help and healing. All ten receive that help, but only one takes the time to thank Jesus for having been healed. I’m pretty sure the other nine were grateful, too, but ultimately, only one of them actually expressed it to Jesus.

Except for some people who have serious psychological and emotional issues, feeling gratitude is a natural, involuntary human emotion. But taking it the extra step, and expressing that gratitude with our words and actions, is a choice – one that can have a huge effect in our own lives, but that also can have a remarkable effect on the people around us. A simple “thank you” is something far more powerful and transformative than would seem possible from just two little words. Just think how you feel when someone takes the effort to just say thank you, or does something nice for you, because of something you’ve done for them. Even when you think that no thanks is necessary, and you mean it, it’s still powerful when that thanks is offered.

There are all kinds of different emotions that we feel in any given day. Whether it’s because of things going on in the news, or some family situation, or a work thing, or a health or aging issue, our emotions can run the full spectrum from joy to sorrow to worry to fear to shame to rage, and everything in between. And there are certainly appropriate times to express all of those emotions. Sometimes, we’re just in a place where we just can’t express gratitude for something even if we’re actually very grateful for it. Our other emotions can come into play and tongue-tie us, even when we can see it happening, and many times, we can’t. It’s OK; we’ve all been there at some point or another. We all understand that. In those times, we see the importance of this, the whole church family, when together, we can help carry one another over those patches; we can lift one another up and offer emotional support and compassion for one another until we can get through those times. Until we can work through those other emotions and get to the point where we really can choose to express gratitude and to live gratefully again.

Like most things, expressing gratitude is something that gets easier the more you do it. And the more you do it, the better you feel – the more grateful you are. And the more you help others. You become an illustration, and example for others.

These days, expressing gratitude is truly a counter-cultural idea. Anger, hostility, violence, distrust, transactional tit-for-tat vengefulness, tribalism, rage – these are the emotions and things that are shaping our culture at the moment. But just imagine how much of that could be defused if we “choose to refuse”. To refuse to play that game. To refuse to express those knee-jerk emotions, and instead, to take stock of the good and to express gratitude to God and others in our words and actions. Expressing gratitude has the power to change the world – it’s the ultimate weapon, the ultimate game-changer, that can defeat virtually all of the ugliness that we find ourselves knee-deep in. We just have to choose to do it.

So I’ll start: I’m grateful to be alive and a part of this amazing, beautiful creation of God’s. I’m grateful that I have two wonderful daughters. I’m grateful for the love of family and friends. I’m grateful that I have a good education, a reasonable measure of good health, a roof over my head, and food on the table. I’m grateful that I’m here in Louisville, and specifically here at Springdale. I’m grateful that I’m your pastor, that God drew us both  together; and that I’m not only your pastor, but that, at least to the extent it’s possible between pastors and parishioners, we’re friends. I’m grateful that I get to work every day with the remarkably gifted, talented, and caring staff here at the church. I’m very grateful for George, that God allowed us to find each other, and that we’re together now. And I’m grateful that you’ve welcomed and accepted him and made him a part of all of this as much as you have with me. I’m grateful to be a part of this journey of faith and life that we’re all on together. I’m grateful for all of this, and so much more.

So, if I never said all of that before, I have now. And now, I invite all of you to do the same. Decide, choose, commit, to sit down daily and take stock of what it is that you’re grateful for, large or small. And then, choose, commit, to finding some way, just as the leper in the gospel story did, to express that gratitude in your words and actions. Maybe it will take the form of making a batch of cookies for someone. Or fixing a storm door, or offering a ride to a doctor’s appointment. Or maybe it’s dropping someone a card, or finally getting around to a thank you note that you’ve been meaning to send out forever. Or maybe it will just be taking a moment to offer a simple, face-to-face thank you. Whatever it is, it will make you feel better, and it will make the person you offer it to feel better, and it will definitely please Christ every bit as much as the thank you he received on that road all those years ago.

Thanks be to God.