And the Votes Are In…

(sermon 10/17/21)

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

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This past week, I saw that LEO Weekly came out with their “Readers’ Choice Awards,” their annual Best of Louisville roundup where readers vote for their favorite choice in a long list of categories – Best Movie Theater, Best Farmers’ Market, Best Chocolate Shop, and so on. As I looked through the listings, I agreed with a lot of the winners. Keeping away from categories that people might consider politically partisan, or the even more contentious categories like Best Place for Pizza, and just looking at some of the creative categories, I was delighted to see three incredibly talented people get top honors on the list: Jon Cherry for Best Photographer, Kyle Gordon for Best Videographer, and Hannah Drake for Best Local Writer. There were some other choices that I disagreed with, too. I suppose it’s possible that some of those disagreements were just a result of my particular age – I’d have likely voted differently for Best Local Radio Station than most 20 year-olds, for example. And I know that with each trip around the sun that you make, the relevance of certain categories changes. I mean, even if the answers varied, people of any age would have an opinion on the Best Place for a Romantic Dinner, but over time, the odds are that you might be less interested in categories like Best Body Piercing, Best Head Shop, and Best Twitter Feed, and more interested in seeing categories like Best Urologist, Best Orthopedic Surgeon, and Best Place to Buy Sensible Shoes. I’m not entirely there yet, but still, I’m just sayin’…

The LEO list does identify some of the best in our city; people, places, and events that help to make our city great and that really deserve recognition and the glory of being name to the list. But it is a bit subjective, of course, and it will always be more a popularity poll than any kind of scientific, objective determination of the “best of” some particular thing. So while it would definitely be fun to have year-long bragging rights if Springdale Presbyterian was voted Best Place to Worship – we weren’t – I’m not exactly going to lie awake at nights worrying about it.

It’s also definitely true that lists like this one can be subject to distortion by vote-casting campaigns, lobbying efforts on the part of some in order to beat out their competition and get top billing in their particular category.

As we heard today’s gospel text, we were peeking in on a similar kind of lobbying attempt to gain a place of honor and glory. Admittedly, in the case of the apostles James and John asking to be seated at Jesus’ right hand and left hand when Jesus had come into his glory – basically, being named Best Apostles – the stakes were a lot more serious than getting named in the LEO list, but there’s a similar human emotion and motivation involved. We heard that the other ten apostles took a dim view of the brothers’ efforts, and for the most part, biblical commentators and two thousand years’ worth of preachers have, too. It was presumptuous, self-serving, and frankly, just plain tacky. I’ve preached this text that way multiple times in the past, and I probably will again in the future. This time around, though, as I let their words dwell and simmer in my brain, I heard them with a slight bit more grace.

As Mark points out in his lead-in by reminding us of James and John’s father, Zebedee, these two bothers have given up a lot to be there on the road with Jesus that day – family, friends, community, business, a steady income and social respectability – all to follow Jesus, the homeless, wandering preacher and maybe-messiah, relying on charity to survive and undoubtedly being looked down upon by more polite society for it. Keeping that in mind, and granting that their request was self-serving, I can still imagine that at its core was something much more respectable and valid – the basic, existential human need that we all have to know that our efforts, our sacrifices made in order to do what we think is right, was ultimately worth it – put another way, the deep existential need to know that our lives actually mattered.  

Maybe it was with that more palatable way of understanding the brothers’ request that Jesus offered them his answer – that paired along with the need for a childlike nature that we heard about a couple of weeks ago, to be truly great in God’s estimation, in God’s realm, a person needs to be a servant to all. To have a servant’s heart, and not in a grudging or transactional sense, as if we were trying to buy their way into heaven, but rather, recognizing that we’ve already been redeemed; that we and God have already been reconciled. And recognizing the depths to which Christ became a servant to all, we’re grateful, and with God’s help, now we can, and need to, reflect and offer that same servant nature to others, by offering them love and compassion and acceptance and assistance. Jesus didn’t put it quite this way, but maybe we could say that exhibiting that servant nature is the best evidence possible that a person has really, truly grasped the core truth of the gospel, and *that’s* what makes them great, and worthy or real glory, in God’s eyes.

In our Presbyterian tradition, our form of governance and leadership rests on this exact principle. We have a carefully thought-out balance of sharing congregational leadership responsibilities. Certain duties are reserved for the pastor, a Minister of Word and Sacrament, also sometimes known as a Teaching Elder. Other leadership duties are reserved for the Session, made up of the installed pastor – or pastors, if there are more than one – and  Ruling Elders, who are elected and ordained by the congregation. Being elected a Ruling Elder isn’t a small thing. It isn’t the same as being elected to the Board of some social club or organization. It’s something very serious. A person being asked to consider becoming a Ruling Elder first prayerfully seeks discernment from God whether this kind of leadership is something that God is calling them to; and to consider that the call will require them to share their talents, their time, their imagination. And whether we’re talking about Minsters of Word and Sacrament or Ruling Elders, it isn’t a kind of leadership that “lords it over” people, as Jesus says, and our own Book of Order echoes, but rather, to exhibit what compassionate servant leadership looks like as a spiritual discipline.

We believe that the congregation is an equally important part of this discernment process, to correctly sense God’s will. Voting for someone to be ordained and serve as a Ruling Elder isn’t just a vote of expediency in order to just fill a slot. It’s far more meaningful than being voted to a “Best of” slot on the LEO list. In their vote, the congregation is validating the person’s sense that God may be calling the to this particular kind of servant leadership. It’s community affirmation that they’ve carefully, prayerfully considered the person, and in them, they recognize not only an abiding love of God and a strong, mature Christian faith, but also particular gifts for this kind of leadership of the congregation in ways that keep it on the path that God is leading it on. The vote is confirmation that in this person, the congregation recognizes the servant nature that Jesus talks about.

So as a member of the congregation, recognize that every single one of us who drinks of the same cup as Jesus, and who is baptized in the same baptism as him – every single one of us – is called in some way or another to be a leader, by being a servant to all. To have a servant’s heart, and a servant’s way of living the gospel. As a member of the congregation, when we vote on servant leaders for Session and other positions next month, remember what it really represents. And if you yourself end up being asked to consider becoming a Ruling Elder, and if, as you’re considering it, you wonder and worry if it’s worth the effort – remember this particular gospel text, and that in it, Jesus has already cast his vote that most definitely it is.

Thanks be to God.

The Queen’s Gambit

(sermon 9/12/21)

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

Mark 8:27-38  

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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There was an excellent miniseries on Netflix this past year called “The Queen’s Gambit.” It was the fictional story of a Cold-War era girl in Lexington Kentucky named Beth Harmon, and the miniseries followed her through her quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. I hope you got a chance to see it, or that you’ll see it sometime in the future; it’s really very good. Beyond having a Kentucky connection, and it being a compelling story, it reminded me of learning to play chess back in the 1970s when I was young. I was fascinated by the game – I studied it, read books about it, subscribed to a chess magazine, hung out with some good chess players, and even participated in a rated tournament once, and it all taught me a lot. Mostly what it taught me was that I wasn’t very good at it. I think that was because an essential part of chess strategy is understanding the relative worth of the pieces, each of which represents a type of person, and being willing to risk and often to actually sacrifice them in the pursuit of an overall strategy to win the game. In fact, the name of the miniseries, “The Queen’s Gambit,” is the name of a particular series of opening moves, a game-opening strategy where the player risks the loss of a particular piece, one of their low-value pawns, in order to achieve getting the game to proceed a certain direction.  

And even though I knew it was just a game, I had difficulty with that kind of sacrificing pieces, people, whatever. That was partly because I had some difficulty with the idea of valuing people differently and exploiting and sacrificing them. But I don’t want to sound to altruistic or idealistic; mostly it was because of fear, the unknown risk to myself in the game: would the strategy of sacrificing certain pieces really work? Was it going to leave me in danger? Was it worth the risk to give up the security that having those pieces provided me?

In today’s gospel text, Peter exhibits a similar sort of fear. When Jesus tries to explain to his disciples that he, the messiah – the “Son of Man,” as he put it – would have to undergo rejection and suffering even death, Peter rebukes him: “Don’t talk like this, Jesus; it’s counterproductive. We’re trying to build a movement, we’re trying to put butts in pews. That kind of talk is going to hurt our brand. It’s going to keep people from joining with us, and will probably drive away some people who are here now.”

Peter is just following the very natural logic of the world here. He’s afraid of accepting the sacrificial way of discipleship that Jesus is laying out for them; he thinks it’s contrary to the ways and logic of the world, and in all fairness to Peter, in this respect, he’s right.

Of course, we all know that Jesus rebukes Peter, even calling him Satan. But then, he pulls back from that rebuke a bit, and he explains to the disciples that anyone who would follow him will need to “take up their cross” and follow him. And that by worrying about ourselves, about saving our own lives, we’ll end up losing them; and only when we surrender ourselves, when we live according to the ways of the Kin-dom of God, in loving service and compassion toward others – *that’s* where we really find, and save, our lives. That’s where we end up experiencing the true wonder, the blessing, the glory, of life, and living as a child in the Kin-dom of God.

It isn’t just wonder and glory that we find, either. When we set down our own concerns and fears – which breeds worry about opening ourselves to risk and vulnerability – when we lay that aside, that’s also when, and where we find our real security, our real power, our real strength, through Christ.

Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t supposed to worry about our own security at all. When Jesus talks about not worrying about saving our own lives, he isn’t talking about being willing to tolerate abuse or oppression or injustice. Some have actually used this text to advise people in abusive relationships to stay in them; or counseling the poor to just accept their poverty and the unjust way they’re being treated as simply their ordained lot in life – that’s just “the cross they have to bear.” That is not what Jesus is saying here. He’s talking about giving of ourselves in a spirit of love, to one another. Loving others equally as we love ourselves. Having the courage, the faith, to set aside our fears and excessive self-interest, and to focus on the humanity, and to see the divine, the face of Christ, in others; and coming together in a spirit of love and community. That’s when we most experience the joy of life, and the love of God, and the security found by dwelling in that love.

In our heads, we know that’s true. We do, and I invite you to think about your own lives, and times when you’ve personally experienced times where you felt the love, the togetherness, and the security that came from setting aside your own self-interest, and you served others in a spirit of compassion and love and respect. I’ll bet you can think of multiple times when you experienced that.

We know this reality in our heads. It’s just hard to follow through on it as the norm in our lives. It’s hard because it does really require some sacrifice on our part. It’s hard for our hearts and our hands to make that quantum leap from following the logic of the world to the logic of the Kin-dom, no matter how much we know it in our heads. It’s hard, because so much of what we experience – in the news, in advertising, in social media, in personal interactions with other people, almost all of them are polarizing in some way, set up to emphasize binary opposition, telling us that whatever we have isn’t enough, and even what we have is at risk of being destroyed or taken away by “others” who we’re supposed to fear and hate and fight; and that we’ve got to worry about Us First. This weekend, as we mark the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, and we think about all that’s happened since then, and we look at the current social and political climate in this country, we’ve seen the horrors of living life through that lens.

But the reality is that it’s all a lie. A tempting one, one that offers a comforting sense of security, but still a lie, and fake security.

Worrying about ourselves in this way won’t bring the security, the peace, the satisfaction, that we’re seeking. The only thing that will make us more human, more accepted, more loved – and in the process, more secure – is connecting with others in a spirit of love and service in community.

That will require sacrifice. It will require giving up some of the chess pieces of our lives in order to achieve this greater, much greater, real good. It turns out that the Queen’s Gambit, sacrificing something small to get something far greater, is actually Christ’s Gambit, too. That’s the cross Jesus wants us to bear, and in the end, it’s actually a pretty light one, since when we do make that sacrifice, we end up receiving so much more in return. In the Kin-dom of God, and really here on earth, too, it’s true that the more we give, the more we get; the more we love, and more we’re loved. That’s what Christ has promised us, that’s what his life illustrates, and that’s what his resurrection validates. As far as we’re concerned, we should consider that check and checkmate.

Thanks be to God.

As Much As They Wanted

(sermon 7/25/21)

2 Kings 4:42-44  

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

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John 6:1-14

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

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Presbyterian. Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic; it doesn’t matter the tradition; it doesn’t matter how similar or different their theologies might be; there’s one thing that virtually every single one of them and all the others say: “If there’s anything that this church does well, it’s cook. Or sometimes, they’ll say “eat,” but ultimately it makes the same point – that they enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of preparing and sharing a common meal. There’s something wonderful, something magical, something genuinely miraculous, that happens in the coming together, the sharing of the work of your hands and hearts, of temporarily setting aside any diets, and indulging in the feast and the festivities. It doesn’t matter when someone says that Presbyterian Mrs. McNeil’s ambrosia is the best in the world, that the truth is it tastes exactly the same as Methodist Mrs. Hudson’s down the street; the added aspect of knowing and caring for the people who made all the food, and the people you’re sitting together eating it with, just makes it taste better, and everyone can say that their church makes the best food, and has the best meals, and for them, every one of them is right.

The whole idea of the goodness of food and table fellowship is an important aspect of life in general, but religious expression in particular. And arguably, nowhere is that more true than in the Christian faith. Of course, that’s rooted in the Jewish faith but we take it yet a step further than our Jewish siblings in faith. Both of our traditions start with the first shared, common meal in the Garden of Eden, and while admittedly, that got things off to a rough start, things definitely got better after that. We both have a shared tradition of God providing manna and quail for the common good and sustenance of the Hebrews as they wandered in the Wilderness, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise of being led into a land flowing with milk and honey. We share instructions from God to always share food and drink and hospitality with others, both those we know and those we don’t, sharing whatever we have whether it’s a little or a lot. We share sacred texts that describe the coming fulfilment of the kingdom of God as being like an eternal, unending banquet of the richest foods and finest of drink. In the Passover meal, Jews remember and give thanks for God’s loving faithfulness, while remembering the blessings, and tragedies, within their faith history, as well as remembering the suffering endured by others who were also caught up in that history. And of course, we Christians similarly give thanks for God’s faithfulness and our own faith history, when we participate in the Lord’s Supper; and we believe that in some inexplicable, even miraculous, way we’re united with the Spirit of Christ in the sharing of the bread and cup; in this meal as actual sacrament.

The symbolism, and the reality, of the table-sharing of food and drink – the sharing of hospitality, with God and with each other – is powerful.

We can hear both of today’s Lectionary texts, and we can savor the richness of the details provided in them while our imaginations can be inspired as we fill in the details the authors left out. One thing that we can do that’ probably counterproductive is to get too wrapped up in trying to understand or explain the miraculous multiplication of food that takes place in both of them. Neither author is concerned with explaining the mechanics, the physics, of how it worked, both of them probably considering it unknowable and in any case unimportant as they both focused on the same actual point: in the midst of human need, the resources available are shared generously, even though it seems completely inadequate to meet the need, and the result is that God will make something happen that is wonderful, beyond any human ability, or expectation, or explanation.

This is the point – the good news – that we can hear in both of these accounts: that the miracle isn’t in the mechanics, but rather, in the reality that God blesses and multiplies our faithful and loving acts of generosity and hospitality, often in ways we may never even see.

This point – this good news – doesn’t deny or sugar-coat the reality that despite our actions, some people will still go hungry or otherwise suffer. We can’t understand why sometimes, we see God at work in the world in some places, but not in other places that need help at least as much as the others. I wish that weren’t the case, but we all know that it is. These stories point out, and the fact remains, though, that God’s abundance is capable of appearing in the midst of human need. So we’re all challenged, then, to be present in the midst of that need and to extend generosity, in the same way as Elisha and his servant, and Jesus and the young boy who gave up his lunch and changed the world. Through our actions, and our resources, no matter how seemingly small, God may very well work a miracle in the life of another.

It’s in that spirit of generosity and hospitality that, in addition to our ongoing commitment to our food ministry with Portland Avenue Presbyterian Church in West Louisville and La Casita Center in downtown and South Louisville, we’re also applying to partner with Dare to Care to create a food pantry here in the east of the city, where hunger and food scarcity is also real, even if often hidden. We’re moving forward, confident of the good news embedded in these two texts, of God’s truly miraculous multiplying abundance.

He’d been out of work for many months now. He’d had a decent job, but that was one of the non-human casualties of the pandemic. Since then, he’d burned through his life’s savings just to survive, and now he’d found some work but it only paid a fraction of his old job, making it just barely possible to keep his head above water most days, and too many days, not. Often skipping meals just to cut corners to the bare minimum, while the calls from the collection agencies made his life a round-the-clock, nonstop living hell. His life had been turned upside-down, going backwards in what was supposed to be the prime earning years of his life, filled with fear and stress and no small amount of embarrassment and shame, as he tried to put on a good face around his friends, and not let anyone see his deep suffering and need.

But one of his neighbors did see it, though. And one day on a whim, the neighbor invited him to a dinner they were having at the neighbor’s church, figuring that at least that night, he’d be able to enjoy a decent hot meal. And on a whim, and with the same thought in his mind, he accepted the invitation. When they arrived at the church, the neighbor said to him, “Oh, let me give you the nickel tour of the place before we go in to eat,” and they walked around the building, peeking into the sanctuary and the various rooms and spaces.

“And this,” the neighbor said as they stepped into one room, “is what we call Leo’s Little Store. It’s a food pantry that we run, getting free and healthy food into the hands of individuals and families who need a little help getting through rough patches in their lives.” The two stood there for a moment, until the neighbor broke the silence by asking, “Hey, didn’t you tell me once that you had a family member who was having trouble making ends meet? I’d bet they could use a bag of two of free groceries; we could pack some up and you could put them in your car for them. Do you think they’d like that?” It was an obvious lie, they both knew; a plausible fiction that might enable him to accept some help while saving face and without hurting his pride.

He felt his face getting red, fully aware of what his neighbor was asking without asking. He felt simultaneously embarrassed and grateful, as he heard himself saying, “You know, yes, I think they’d really appreciate something like that.”

Once the groceries were stowed away in his car, he and the neighbor went into the dinner, where there was more food than that number of people were ever going to be able to finish; there was going to be plenty left over afterward. He filled his plate to overflowing with all the standard dishes common to pretty much all church potlucks; nothing elaborate but everything warm and delicious, prepared and shared with love. He sat there enjoying the friendship of his neighbor and the conversation and warmth of those sitting at the table along with him. It truly was something miraculous, he thought, how this made him feel so much better to know that people cared for him and were there to help. He momentarily excused himself from the table and went back through the line to get a small second slice of Mrs. Klinger’s cherry pie, and as he did, he thought to himself that this was the best meal ever. And he was right.

Thanks be to God.  

Four Lives

(sermon 6/27/21)

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels . Used with permission

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!”

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Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

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At some point this past month, George and I got hooked on the television series Sense 8, and we ended up binge-watching its entire run in just a few weeks. The details of the show often deal with mature themes, but its basic premise is that there are some people living among us who have this sensate connection with one another, in small groups or clusters – it’s telepathic, but more than that; they can not only feel one another’s joy and sorrow and fear, but they can actually also appear to each other at various times – usually times of personal crisis – they can even live through each other, each one of the very different people from all around the world using their own talents, skills, knowledge base, to help one another get through these crisis times. It’s really a fascinating concept, to imagine people having that kind of a bond. Almost immediately after we watched all of this show, we stumbled across another one called Manifest, which is a much more family-friendly series, with a very different plot, but with a similar premise of a group of very diverse people whose lives, thoughts, feelings, were somehow mysteriously interconnected. As I thought about the draw that these shows have for me, I guess I’ve been attracted to shows like that for some time now. One of my favorite all-time movies is the film “Crash,” which examines the complex ways that a group of random people’s’ lives weave together, in ways not at all as telepathically or mysteriously as those two television shows, but just through very real, everyday events; how the lives of very different people, at their best and their worst, are still connected into some larger whole.

Today’s two Lectionary texts tell us about four people directly, and a few others who are standing just offstage, I suppose. In the first reading, we’re looking through a window, observing the anguish, the grief being suffered by David at the precise moment he learns about the death of King Saul, and especially Saul’s son Jonathan. The scriptures tell us here and elsewhere that David and Jonathan had a very deep, abiding love for one another, and even while David ended up marrying Saul’s daughter Michal, it seems that David had a deeper bond with Jonathan, Michal’s older brother; it was a relationship that David says in this particular passage what “wonderful, passing the love of women.” But now, in this moment, he’s learned that Jonathan is dead. As he eulogizes Jonathan and Saul, there doesn’t appear to be any bottom to his grief.

A thousand years after David, Jairus was beginning to feel similarly overwhelmed with grief as he’s dealing with the reality that his daughter is about to die. Mark tells us that Jairus is a leader in the synagogue – we aren’t sure exactly what kind of leader, or if he’s an official leader or one based on his prominence in the community or the length of time he’d been part of the synagogue, but what is clear is that whatever kind of authority he had, no leader of a synagogue, no leader of a church, not even a future king, can escape the pain and grief of the death of a loved one.

Jairus, beside himself in grief and panic, reaches out in every way he can to maybe save his daughter. He’s heard about Jesus and hopes that the stories about him are true, that he can heal people. Mark doesn’t tell us that Jairus is a secret follower of Jesus, like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea in other stories. Jairus doesn’t ever offer any kind of profession of faith about Jesus being the Son of God, or the Messiah. Honestly, with his daughter in such a precarious position, Jairus would have probably been willing to profess that Jesus was a ham sandwich, if that’s what it would have taken to get him to come heal his daughter, and frankly, in the same situation we’d likely be willing to do the same thing.

At very least, history has given both David and Jairus the respect of telling us their names. Sadly, the men who wrote these stories for us didn’t offer the same degree of respect to the other two people , the women, who we focus on today. We’ve looked through a window observing David’s grief by way of our first reading, and Mark has given us a framed view of Jairus pleading with Jesus to help his little daughter; now he frames another view for us.

As Jesus is on his way to see Jairus’ daughter, we see this woman who had been suffering and in ill health for twelve years. She’d seen a whole hospital’s worth of doctors and bankrupted herself in the process, getting lots of advice and lots of treatments but not any actual improvement; in fact, we’re told she’d only gotten worse. This woman, this one whose name is lost to us, takes control of her own well-being now, working her way through the crowd and somehow pushing through all the others thronging around Jesus at least enough to get a momentary brush of Jesus’ clothing, and after confronting her, Jesus tells her that the faith she exhibited in trusting that Jesus could help her, and doing something about it, has made her whole again, after all those years of suffering.

The fourth person who receives attention the second nameless one – is Jairus’ daughter. A completely innocent player in this whole drama, the one we never hear a single word from, the one with the least power or control over anything. Here, Mark directs our view through one final window, framing one final scene – Jesus and the girl, and her parents, and a small handful of others – Mark isn’t clear whether it was a few of Jesus’ disciples, or some other family members, I suppose it was probably some of both – gathered around her bed as Jesus gently, lovingly holds her hand and said the simple words, “Talitha cum;” “little girl, get up;” the words not in the Greek of Mark’s writing but the Aramaic that was Jesus’ first language, suggesting that whatever else Jesus may or may not have said, he most likely said these exact words, written for posterity, but first recorded to memory, in all probability by someone who had actually been in that room and heard it.

And outrageously enough, she does get up, and while she starts coming to terms with the fact that she’s back in the room and no longer wherever she was just moments earlier, Jesus tells someone to go get her some soup, or maybe some peanut butter and jelly toast, because she must be famished.

People have debated this story since probably it was first told, whether the little girl was really dead or not; whether Jesus actually raised her from the dead or whether she just appeared to be dead. It seems at least that everyone involved in the story believed she was, and no doubt Mark did too as he documented it. But the point remains that whatever a person believes about that, what Jesus did in that room was every bit as much a miracle, because he gave the girl, and Jairus, and all who loved her, new life, new hope, and a new recognition of their interconnectedness. Their sorrow was connected to each other’s sorrow; their joy was connected to each other’s joy. What Jesus said, and did, in that room didn’t just change the little girl’s life, but everyone’s in the room. It seems that Jesus was speaking to the little girl, but not only to her.

Mark frames this view for us, but if we step closer to the window, we can see more of the room within the frame, and maybe we can see that it isn’t only that small group gathered around the bed at all. David is there too, and so is the formerly hemorrhaging woman, and for that matter, Saul and Jonathan are there, too – all of them connected, sharing in this most intimate of human moments, overlaid with this most miraculous of gifts that Jesus gives to all of them. In a very real way, when Jesus told the little girl to get up, and to come into this new realization, this new life, he might just as well have sad *all of you* get up. And we step a bit closer still to the window, and we see even more of the room, and we see still more people are there – and somehow, maybe as if in a dream where time and space bends and twists, it isn’t just the girl’s little room but now it actually goes on forever, and everyone ever born is right there with the little girl and her parents, connected in this moment, gathered around the little girl and her family. All of you, get up, Jesus seems to be saying. All of you. You who are like the little girl, powerless and whose life is being shaped by forces outside of your control. You who are like Jairus, emotionally empty and spent, feeling like you just don’t know how you can keep going as you deal with the illness and suffering of a family member. You who are like David, suffering the deflating, all-consuming gut-punch of having lost the love of your life, regardless of whether they’re the same or opposite sex. All of you – you who are on the top of the world, and you who feel like the whole world is on top of you; you who have deep faith, and you who wonder in your most honest of moments whether religion is all just a con game or a racket. Get up, Jesus says, recognize this life, and this hope that you were designed for, this connectedness that you have with everyone else, great and small. In truth, all of our lives are intertwined, even more intricately and mysteriously than the lives of the people in Crash; and while the premise of shows like Sense 8 and Manifest certainly aren’t the gospel, in one way they aren’t too far from it, either, because we are, in fact, fearfully and wonderfully made, as the Psalmist says. We are more magically, mysteriously, gloriously, intentionally connected to one another by our common Creator as the whole family of God. Get up, Jesus says, and recognize this life that you were really meant to know. Life is uncertain, yes, and it will often be hard, and sometimes even scary, but it is also beautiful, and wonderful, and in all of those things, you aren’t going through them alone. God is with you, and when we’re lucky enough to recognize it, so is everyone else. That’s the good news of the gospel. That’s what Jesus was saying in that room. That’s what the church is, at least on its best of days. Get up, he says – there’s a place in the room, at the Table, in the family of God, for all of you.

Thanks be to God.

Gardening Thoughts

(sermon 7/12/20)

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

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This past week, I was sitting outside and starting to work on today’s sermon. It was just that part of the day where our little backyard was baking in direct, 90+ degree sun, so I’d pulled a chair and a little table to prop my feet up on into the only spot that was in shade – the narrow little eight-foot wide side space between our house and the neighbor’s, a spot that we’re slowly transforming from ugly leftover space into a little “magic garden” leading from the front to the back of the house. Sitting there in the nice natural breeze that gets funneled through the space, I noticed where some bird seed had gotten knocked down out of a hanging bird feeder, and it had gotten watched into a tiny crack between the concrete paving and the foundation wall, and the seed had germinated and was growing. After my initial thought of grumbling that it was just another spot to week, and then thinking that at least it would be easy enough since there really wasn’t enough dirt for it to have taken any real root, I realized that maybe I was sitting in a pretty appropriate place to be thinking about this particular parable from Jesus.

When we hear this parable, and Jesus’ explanation of it, we understand that we represent the different kinds of environment and soil. Going beyond that, we then usually imagine the parable illustrates how we, as individuals, should respond to the good news of the kingdom of God that Jesus was proclaiming. Taken that way, the parable becomes an evangelistic plea, a warning, that we’d better be the good soil, so the seed – the Word of God – will develop and grow within us. I guess that’s fair enough, as far as it goes, but I don’t think that’s the only way we can hear the parable, and I really don’t think that’s the primary message Jesus had in mind when he told it.

What I mean by that is this. Jesus calls this the Parable of the Sower, not the Parable of the Soil. In other words, the parable is meant to teach us something about God, not us. In the story, a sower, God, sows the seed – the Word of God, the good news of God’s kingdom – pretty much everywhere – abundantly, extravagantly, you might even say wastefully by today’s precise farming methods, but that’s just the way God wants to do it, and where God wants the seed to go – and God, the sower, does this completely by themselves, without anyone else’s particular help. The seed, the Word, is already everywhere.

And it’s pretty clear that when Jesus described the good soil, it was to show what the kingdom of God could be like – growing strong, with deep roots, and bearing much fruit – when it was able to be understood, and received, and nurtured, without being stopped or hindered by environmental constraints.

But what if Jesus’s point in this parable wasn’t so much to condemn the less-than-ideal soil, but rather, to recognize and acknowledge the realities of that, given the world’s conditions, and to make it clear that actually, *all* of us fit into those circumstances in one way or another – circumstances that make it very hard, or even impossible, to have God’s Word really be understood and accepted, to take root in people’s lives? Maybe this parable is a message to all of us that we need to play the role of a good gardener – collecting up the stones from the soil and getting rid of them, or maybe using them as a decorative element in the garden. Working to enrich and improve the soil, and getting rid of the weeds that would smother out the good seed. Improving the drainage, or whatever else it might take to make the whole garden a better, more receptive place for the seed to take root and grow.

Our world is full of things that make people’s lives hard, and that can make it hard, or even impossible, for God’s Word to take root within us. It’s hard to think about the higher, deeper, more lofty, spiritual things of life when you’re too busy having to work two or three low-paying jobs and still having difficulty paying the rent and the rest of the monthly bills. It’s hard to accept that God’s love for you is immense and unending, that in fact, God *is* love, when you can’t access some life-saving medical care for your child because none of those three jobs offer you health insurance. It’s hard to focus on the idea that God is good, and that Christ is ushering in a new world, when the water coming out of your tap is poisoned with lead and other contaminants, and has been for years and still no one has done anything to fix it. It’s hard to accept that you’re in God’s loving arms, and that goodness triumphs over evil, when you’ve lost multiple family members to gun violence. It’s hard to accept that you really are precious in God’s sight when you can’t sleep at night because you’re stressed out over terrible problems and crisis situations within your family, or within yourself. The examples of the kinds of things in this life that can make it hard or even impossible for all of us, in some way or another, to hear, to understand, and to accept God’s message  – the things in this life that make us unreceptive soil – could go on and on.

So maybe Jesus’ message here isn’t so much a warning for us on an individual basis to be good soil – maybe it isn’t meant to be a criticism, a shaming of us, or a calling out as some moral failing that these constraints exist that keep the seed from taking root, as much as it is a call to compassion – a call for us all to do what it takes for one another – all of us, all kinds of soil – to help one another be a receptive place for God’s good news to be able to take root and flourish.

Maybe Jesus was looking at this parable less from the standpoint of it being a call to personal piety, and more as a call to collective compassion and communal support – and a call for the church, the communal body of Christ, to be involved in that as a primary mission.

And maybe there’s something else, an additional, secondary communal message in this regarding the very nature, the logistics, the workings of the church, too.

There’s no question that now, the church is undergoing real change right now – serious change that’s forced us to think about what’s essential about church and what isn’t. What does the church really need in ordered to be, and do, what it’s supposed to? What traditional aspects of being church might still be essential, but need to be done, need to be nurtured, differently? And what things just might not be relevant or workable or constructive now, as the sun rises on the seed in the Covid era and beyond, that might need to be left behind?

It wasn’t that long ago – just a few months, really – that we had someone who wanted to become a member of the church, but who would have real physical difficulty being present here to join, and we wrestled with how, or whether, we could find a way to set up the technology in order to have them join remotely, online. Now, just a few months later, our worship is entirely virtual, online, and we’ll receive new members virtually without batting an eyelash.

Just those few months ago, we talked about the possibility of maybe doing live-stream worship, and there was question whether it would be worth the trouble or helpful to us at all. Now, we see that it’s an essential aspect of our congregational ministry, and outreach to the community, and it will be long after the Covid lockdown.

In the same way, just a few months ago, we talked about the possibility of maybe having an online giving option, and we wondered if it was necessary. Now, we have it and we know we need it now and into the future.

And just a few months ago, it was hard to consider whether it might be a good idea for our sanctuary space to have more physical flexibility. Now, after going through these Sunday morning live streaming exercises, we know that making the sanctuary more flexible, to be more responsive to actual current and future worship needs; it’s essential  to our ministry to ourselves, and in our outreach to the community at large.

Soil changes.

What used to be a good, fertile environment for the nurture of the Word of God, for the church’s ministry and mission one year, might become depleted, inadequate soil the next. And likewise, what was once considered a place where nothing would grow, and where nothing needed to grow one year, might become the most productive and important soil the next.

Soil changes.

Maybe the good news in this text for us is that this parable isn’t really an altar call, meant to scare us and make us afraid of going to hell if we aren’t somehow perfect, receptive soil; but rather, it’s an assurance that God knows, and through Christ, understands and has experienced the things of this world that make it hard – the things that make it difficult or even impossible for us to hear and accept and thrive in the good news of God’s kingdom; and that no matter what kind of soil we might be, that God, the sower, is still with us.

And maybe the parable is also a call to mutual, communal uplift and compassion, keeping an eye on the amazing possibility of abundant life with the Word of God thriving in every life, in every condition, in every kind of soil.

And maybe that message, the idea of seed taking root differently in different environments, does also have an important secondary message for the church in these times, too; a message of how we need to think about how changing “soil”conditions require us to rethink how we’re trying to live out, and share, God’s good news in the world. I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe I was just sitting there in the magic garden, looking around and thinking too much about all the gardening work I needed to get done. I’ll let you decide.

Thanks be to God.

Frankincense, Gold, & Har Gow

(sermon 1/5/20 – Epiphany Sunday)

 

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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Right after Christmas, George and I hit the road, taking off on a long road trip to visit family and friends. Beyond it just being nice to catch up, this was even more special for George because this was the first opportunity to return to Canada, since he was prohibited from leaving the country while his green card was in process. First, we visited George’s parents in western Ontario, near London. Then, we drove east to catch up with his brother and his family, and to see our nephew playing in a hockey tournament. After that, we went on to Toronto for more visits. Then we turned south, back to the U.S., going to Pennsylvania to visit with some of my relatives, then to Ohio to visit with some more of them, and finally, heading back home to Louisville.

While we were in Toronto, we also made arrangements to reconnect with some of George’s relatives in Richmond Hill – a city of about 200,000 people a half hour or so north of downtown Toronto. Toronto itself is a wonderful racially and culturally diverse city, maybe more so than any other city I’ve been in, and the full range of excellent restaurants there reflects the full breadth of that diversity. But to those in the know, if you want the best authentic Chinese food in the area, you go to Richmond Hill. So, as we’d done in the past, we all got together at a restaurant in Richmond Hill that serves the most amazing, authentic dim sum I’ve ever had. If you aren’t familiar with dim sum, it’s a traditional style of dinner that originated in Hong Kong, where you order a lot of small orders of all sorts of traditional Chinese snacks – barbecued pork steamed buns, soup-filled dumplings, deep-fried squid, meat or shrimp-stuffed rice noodles, and on and on – that are meant to be shared around the table.

So there we were again on this trip, in this huge banquet facility that had at least 250 people in it, and probably more. As I glanced around, I could see that I was one of probably only three of four non-Asian people there, which was fine – I felt completely at ease and welcome sharing this good time with extended family. I only mention that to make the point that this was a very authentic Chinese place, serving an almost exclusively Chinese clientele, which means that the menu was written almost completely in Chinese – what English translations were there were sparse and ambiguous, to put it mildly. So I didn’t really know what a lot of the dim sum dishes on the menu were, as all the Chinese speakers at the table were picking out small plates to order from the menu.

I’ve had dim sum enough to have a number of personal favorites that I think are delicious. But the palate is definitely a culturally conditioned thing, and honestly, I’ve had some dim sum dishes that, to my admittedly limited and deficient Anglo palate, tasted something like grass clippings wrapped in congealed wallpaper paste – but I also knew that the very same plate was delicious to George, who grew up with those tastes and textures, and it brought back all kinds of warm memories of family gatherings from his past.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though – those less-than-favorites dishes for me are actually pretty rare – I really like most of them. And as my own palate is evolving – improving – over time, I’m appreciating more of them all the time. And eating those dishes with the extended family sitting around the table makes it all the better. Still, since I don’t always know what’s coming, one of my favorite parts of these meals is when the food starts to arrive, usually in little covered bamboo steamer baskets, and they’re placed on the table, and the lids are ceremoniously removed, revealing what, for better or worse, is inside.

Even sitting there in that wonderful moment of the big reveal, though, the pastor’s brain is never completely on vacation, and as odd as it might sound, I was still aware that this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday, was coming up – and sitting there waiting to see what was going to be inside when those little bamboo steamers were opened up made me think about the magi, and the treasures, the gifts, that they brought with them and presented to the Christ child.

I started to imagine the scene: Jesus is being cradled in Mary’s arms as she and Joseph, as they welcome these strangers from far away. And did she and Joseph wonder, as I wondered about the dim sum steamers, what would be revealed when they opened the lids of the gifts they’d brought? No doubt, they were grateful for the gold. But did they really appreciate the frankincense? The myrrh? I mean, a little bit of either of them goes a long way. Would burning the frankincense trigger Mary’s asthma? Did they worry that baby Jesus would get ahold of the myrrh and choke on the little crystalline nuggets? All things considered, would they have rather gotten a child seat for the back of the donkey and a Pack ‘n Play? We all know that when you open a gift, you never really know what’s going to be in store when it’s opened.

The journey of the magi from the region that we now know as Iran and Iraq, regardless of how many of them there really were, and regardless of whether they were all men or not, and regardless of even how wise they might have been, has become one of our most beloved aspects of our sacred story of Jesus’ entry into human history. But to take the story further, what meaning can it have for us now?

Their coming to worship and pay homage to the newborn Jesus, the anointed one of God, and offering him gifts, can certainly be seen as a forerunner to our own worship of him – our own offering of our lives, our devotion, our talents, our resources, all in a spirit of gratitude.

But I think the reverse is also true. The magi presenting of gifts to Jesus can also be seen as a reflection of God’s offering us gifts – first, the gift of Christ himself, but so much else that follows, too. Sitting here at the beginning of a new year, we’re receiving gifts from God, whether we imagine them as treasure chests, or bamboo steamers, waiting to be opened up to reveal what’s inside, or we imagine them some other way.

What will this year bring for you? What will it bring for me? For each of us, the year will bring times of joy and contentment, as well as times of challenge. We might experience real happiness and fulfillment arising out of our relationships with family and friends. On the other hand, those same relationships might bring stress, pain, or grief. We might enjoy good health, or we might face difficult, maybe insurmountable, health problems.

I want to be very careful here – I don’t want to leave the impression that everything that happens to you, or to me, during this year will be God’s choice or will. I don’t believe that God literally deals with us in flippant or uncaring ways, as, for example, the story of Job would indicate, where God takes away everything from Job, health, family, fortune – everything – just over a stupid bet God supposedly makes with Satan. I don’t believe that God sends us troubles, not even with the intention of testing us or making us stronger. And on the flip side, I don’t believe that every good thing that happens to us is a sign of God’s favor, either. So many times you’ll see the survivor of some tragedy, a plane crash, a fire, whatever – and the person will thank God for their survival, saying it’s a sign that God loves them – but didn’t God love the ones who didn’t survive, too? Did God love this survivor more than the others? To be honest, whether we ascribe all of the good, or all of the bad, in our lives to God is actually pretty flawed theology.

The gifts that I think God gives us in our lives aren’t necessarily the actual good thing or the bad thing that we experience – but rather, what’s in the treasure chests that God gives to us – what’s waiting to be revealed inside those bamboo steamers – is God’s own love, and grace, and strength, and guidance to deal with both the good and the bad in ways that please God, and that strengthen our lives of faith, that deepen our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Another of these gifts is the gift of community, the church, this congregation, to help us in the good and the bad. The greatest of these gifts that God serves up to us is the reassurance that through the life of this Christ child, the one worshiped by the magi, God has chosen to stand with us, to walk with us, to let us know that we are loved beyond our wildest dreams, and that whatever may come, good or bad, we will never face it alone.

There will be ups and downs, and no shortage of surprises along the way this trip around the sun, for you and me both. But whatever comes, we can be assured that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. We can know that once God has invited us to the great, eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God, there is nothing that could ever keep us from it. And we can rest assured  that at that banquet in addition to the finest bread and well-aged wine, as the scriptures say, and the choicest of meats filled with marrow, there will also be plenty of xiao long bao, cha siu bao, and har gow.

Thanks be to God.

 

The Right Way

(sermon 8/25/19)

architecture-asphalt-car-2833683
Photo by KML. Used with permission

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

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So there she was – hunched over, unable to stand up straight for almost two decades, in pain all that time, and you know there are few things worse than back pain – and yet she still managed to find a way to get to the synagogue most weeks. This week, she was running a little behind and didn’t get there until after things started. One person shifted a bit to make room for her to sit down there in the back, trying not to disturb anyone while she got settled in. That one busybody that every synagogue seemed to have looking over at her judgingly because she’d come in late; most people not even really noticing her at all.  But Jesus noticed her, and because he did, this would be the day she went down in history. It’s a shame that we don’t even know her name; we really should, but in any case, on this day Jesus healed her from eighteen years of discomfort and misery. Her pain, her burden, had been lifted. And the story tells us that all the people were amazed and rejoiced at what had happened – except for one.

The head of the synagogue wasn’t impressed at all. For some reason, he couldn’t see the forest for the trees, he couldn’t see the goodness of helping this woman in need for what it was, because of the way Jesus did it. It broke the rules. Things have to follow the rules, or they obviously aren’t right. There was a right way and a wrong way to do things, even good things, and this wasn’t the right way.

It’s a claim that has run down through history to our current time just as much as the story of the woman’s healing itself. It’s been a continuous point of discussion and debate within the church, and beyond the church, for that matter: what is the relationship of obedience to established laws versus breaking them for what’s perceived to be obedience to a higher moral and spiritual law? When do we obey the laws that govern us, and when do we refuse to adhere to them? This has been the center of the debate whether looking at the way the first Christians were supposed to respond to the persecution they received from Rome, to whether it was right to protest and even separate from the church during the Reformation, to whether the Church should support the Nazi regime in Germany or fight against it, to whether it was right for Dr. King and his allies, including our own Stated Clerk at the time, Eugene Carson Blake, to break the law in their protests for civil rights – was a Christian supposed to obey an unjust law out of respect for the established governance, or was a Christian required to disobey an unjust law as being invalid because it was unjust? I remember being a little boy and hearing my family members sitting around at family functions discussing the events of those times, the mid- to late 60s and the civil rights movement, and saying that yes, there should be civil rights and equality, but the protestors had to stay within the law – that they went a literal bridge too far when they disobeyed the law; that was unacceptable. And I’ve been through Blake’s papers. The letters he got, the personal attacks, were brutal, with people bashing him because as the head of the church he’d had the nerve to break the law and get arrested while protesting to desegregate an amusement park in Baltimore. We think that the social media age has made us all meaner and harsher toward each other, but looking at those letters to him, I can tell you the language was the same back then; the only difference is that back then it came with a postage stamp. And of course, we hear this same issue come up in the current refugee and immigration debates, when people say that migrants need to “do it the right way” when entering the country fleeing for their lives and safety. What’s the answer to this question?

From the standpoint of the scriptures, Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” And throughout Christian history, people who have argued for unquestioned obedience to the established order have quoted this passage as a definitive answer – even while they forget that it really can’t be quite that definitive, since the man who wrote this was himself sitting in a prison cell for defying the laws of the government, and who wrote that he was proud to have done so as a matter of faith, and who urged other believers to stand fast just as he had. Even more significantly, it’s no small thing to remember that at the very center of our faith is the crucifixion of Jesus, which was a direct result of his civil disobedience of Roman authority.

But let’s go back to the woman in the synagogue who was healed. Can you imagine what it must have been like to have been there in the synagogue that day? Everyone having come together from all the different events and cares of their own week, all of their problems, all of their setbacks, the continuous stream of bad and bizarre news showing up on their Facebook feeds to the point of emotional exhaustion – and then this. Something pure, and good, and right, happening before their very eyes, giving them hope that despite all the rest, God was with them, and that God was good. Jesus healing this woman was inspiring, joy-causing proof that there was indeed a right way and a wrong way to do things, and when it came right down to it, to do good – to be kind, to be compassionate, to be helpful, to love, is always the right thing, regardless of what any rules or regulations or laws might say to the contrary. Any rule or regulation or law that didn’t help to offer love offers hate, and any rule or law that offers hate is an immoral and invalid law that in God’s eyes doesn’t need to be obeyed; *should not* be obeyed. To always act in this way is, in fact, “doing it the right way.”

In this story, we hear that the people there rejoiced when Jesus healed the woman. In that moment, all the negativity they were experiencing off their shoulders and they felt refreshed, renewed, inspired.

I believe that it’s the same with us, too.  When we’re faced with questions of whether a rule or regulation or law is good or proper and to be obeyed; or whether to disobey it favor of a greater moral, spiritual good in the kingdom of God; when we have to decide what “doing it the right way” really means, all that we have to do is follow the simple theology of Mr. Rogers – “Just be kind.” Always choose to do the kind, compassionate thing, and we will *always* be doing the right thing. We will always be doing it the right way. And we should do it out of gratitude, knowing that God has been kind and compassionate and loving to us in our own lives, even when the rules and regulations and laws have opposed it. So out of that gratitude, we too are called to do things this right way, regardless of what the rules and laws say. Because it isn’t just Mr. Rogers’ theology, it’s Christ’s theology, too, so it should be all of ours as well?

Thanks be to God.

(Another) Unnamed Sermon

(sermon 8/4/19)

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Photo © Ken Chuchu

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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Imagine this scene: you’re having a conversation with someone and you’re explaining something in great detail, something important, something they really need to be paying attention to; and then, in the middle of that, the person will ask you about something completely unrelated to anything talking about. And you know that they haven’t been listening; their mind has been somewhere else. It’s all been a waste of time, ten or fifteen minutes of your life you’ll never get back. It’s annoying, and frustrating, and at one point or another, we’ve all been there.

It seems that Jesus was there, too, at the beginning of today’s gospel text. As it opens, Jesus has been speaking with a crowd of people, teaching them about the ways of the kingdom of God. And in the middle of his teaching, someone in the crowd pipes up and asks step into a financial dispute between him and his older brother, to convince the brother to split up the inheritance with him. It probably caught Jesus broadside for a moment, realizing the man hadn’t heard a word of what he’d been saying. And after he shook his head for a moment, he said to the man, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Trying to refocus the man’s attention back onto God, the subject of Jesus’ message that day. Then, he essentially offered a warning to the man to be careful what he asked for; that while wealth and personal possessions weren’t an inherently bad thing, it can lead to greed – wanting more and more, and wanting to hoard it all for yourself, and maybe worst of all, eventually leading to a false understanding of where the wealth came form to begin with. For example, if the man in the story did actually get his brother to split up the inheritance, it wouldn’t be long before he’d forgotten that this wealth had been given to him, and he’d be telling people that he’d earned his wealth by his own two hands, his own hard work and smarts.

I say that might be even worse than the underlying greed because not only isn’t it a delusional lie, contrary to facts, it ends up poisoning the mind into thinking that the self is the center and measure of the universe. Greed leads a person to think that they’re a self-sufficient, self-contained system, insulated from needing or considering or caring for anyone else, including even God. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he tells the story of the rich man that he ultimately calls a fool. Did you hear the man’s inner monologue in the story? “What should *I* do?… *I* will do this… *I* will build bigger, taller… *I* will keep more of *my* stuff, all for *me*… it will all be by my doing, without anyone’s help, not even God’s, so *I* will say to my soul, good job; well done, now take it easy – you got yours; let everyone else worry about getting their own….” It’s all about him and his own supposed abilities – it’s a closed system where no one else enters. He’s good at gaining wealth and building things, but his life isn’t connected to anything. His buildings are full but his soul is empty.

Make no mistake: that mindset, regardless of the specific details and wherever and in whoever it’s found, is the complete, polar opposite of the gospel. It is the complete opposite of the precepts of the kingdom of God. It is the complete opposite of Christ.

And make no mistake about this, either: the same mindset that’s embedded within that greed, the wanting to have and to keep more of everything for yourself at the expense of others who are supposedly not as important as you; is exactly the same mindset, taken to its ultimate conclusion, that’s embedded in yesterday’s white supremacist, white nationalist terrorist attack targeting Latinos in El Paso – this man who came to believe that just by virtue of the color of his skin, he had a right to kill or wound 46 people all in the name of protecting the country from the supposed threat of brown-skinned people, and preserving the supposed “whitenesss” and white control of our country. It’s the same self-centered mindset that was behind the shootings in Gilroy this past week, and El Paso yesterday, and then again, not even getting a single night’s sleep after El Paso, early this morning in Dayton. It’s the same damned mindset.

I’m not going to say much about these shootings today, because frankly, I’ve run out of things to say. It’s all been said, over, and over, and over again, and I’m just sick and tired of it. I’m done with trying to craft  another lofty sounding prayer of lament, and asking “How long, O God, how long?” because at this point, I’m pretty much convinced that God’s response to all the beautiful sounding prayers offered up after another mass shooting is to scream at us to just shut up. That our society’s obsession with guns and violence, and using them in order to solve our problems, and that our current lack of common-sense regulation of gun ownership that still respects our Second Amendment rights is just insane. God has given us the intellect and the ability to do something about the problem but for whatever reason, we don’t. So I’m convinced that God’s response is to say stop trying to pin the problem, or the solution, on me; the problem, and the solution, lies with you.

Jesus was trying to get his listeners that day to stay focused on the real truths, the real priorities that he was explaining to them. He was trying to show them that he was talking about an alternative way of living from the insulated, self-focused way the rich man in the story saw life, the way that many people in the world see life.

The way of the rich man – the way of loving self at the expense of others, leads to hatred of the other, and all manner of harm and violence against the other.

Proclaiming and teaching and living out that alternative way, the eternal way of living, is what all this is about. This church family, this building, everything about us, is geared toward proclaiming a reality 180 degrees away from that other sick, twisted way of thinking.

Here, we’re part of a church family that includes people born not only in the United States, but Mexico, Iran, and India, and Hongkong, and England, and those just the examples I can quickly think of. Members of our church family are from all different ethnic backgrounds, and while we’re predominantly white, we are multiracial. Members of our church family are from different religious backgrounds – on a given Sunday, you can find members of all three Abrahamic faiths here in this place. Within our church family and our immediate families, we represent L, G, B, T, and Q. If you aren’t here in the building throughout the week, you may not know it, but with our ESL students and their children, you can often hear laughter and a dozen different languages being spoken. God draws all of us together here, under this roof, which was raised not like the rich fool raising the roof of another barn to hoard his stuff but rather, to shelter all of God’s people under it, to offer the world a witness to the gospel truth that all people are beloved and equal in the eyes of God. We come here, to this Table, to this sacrament, this common meal shared by all, to offer witness to our unity with God and with one another; to say NO to anyone who would preach the evil of separation and division and self-centeredness and the supremacy of one race or one people over another; and YES to the kingdom of God and to the dignity, equality, and value of all of God’s children. Here at this Table there is no room for hatred. There is no room for racism. There is no room for white supremacy or white nationalism. There is no room for xenophobia, for fear of foreigners, immigrants, or asylum-seekers. There is no room for homophobia; there is no room for sexism; there is no room for self-centeredness or exclusion of any kind because here at this Table, Christ says that there is room and welcome for ALL. That is at the core of the gospel. That is at the core of what Jesus was trying to teach his listeners that day. And that is at the core of our response to the evil of white supremacy, white nationalism, and hatred of the other that has become so common in this country today.

Amen.

Schooling Jesus

(sermon 9/9/18)

Jesus and Samaritan woman with pussyhat

Mark 7:24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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A little more than a week ago, Rev. Robert Wood died. He was 95. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him; I hadn’t either until I saw stories about his passing. It turns out that Rev. Wood holds an important distinction in church history – he was the first member of the clergy to write a book calling for the full welcome and acceptance of LGBTQ people in the church, and the church’s performing of same-sex marriages. He wrote his book in 1960. And he was the first member of the clergy to participate in a march calling for full civil rights for LGBTQ folk. That was in 1965. The church owes a debt of gratitude to Rev. Wood.

After reading his obituary, I was curious about his book – I’d never heard of it before – so I started to look for it, and it turns out that the entire thing is available online as a pdf file. So I downloaded it and was reading through it, and the obituaries were right – his ideas about church welcome and marriage were forty or fifty years ahead of where the rest of the church was. But I have to admit, a lot of what I was reading in the book was just… bad. It was peppered with all sorts of misguided negative prejudices, assumptions, and so-called conventional wisdom that the culture of 1960 just *knew* to be true, but which advances in biology, psychology, and other disciplines have now proven to be completely false. The great irony in this is that Rev. Wood was a gay man himself, and even he couldn’t escape internalizing all that negativity that you’d think he’d know  wasn’t really true. In the decades that followed the book’s publication, Rev. Wood’s knowledge and understanding grew, evolved, and truth be told, I’m sure that in the decades that followed, he probably felt pretty silly about some of the things he’d written in 1960.

Today’s gospel text deals with this same idea of the continual growth of understanding over time. In this case, it’s Jesus whose level of understanding evolves. In this story, Jesus is going from place to place, proclaiming God’s good news for the people – but up until this point, that message has really been aimed at Jewish listeners. In this story, though, Jesus is approached by a non-Jew – a Syrophoenician, an unclean Gentile; a religious and ethnic outsider, someone to be scorned and dismissed, and a woman on top of all that. In short, this woman had three strikes against her before she’d even opened her mouth, and when she actually does, Jesus shuts her down by dismissing her with the terribly insulting ethnic slur of calling her a dog. Stop bothering me, he tells her; I’ve got more important things to do than to waste my time with the likes of you.

Of course, we heard her answer – very pointedly telling Jesus I may be a dog, but if your God’s so great, surely, you’d think that God would give the dogs of the world the table scraps.

We don’t really know anything about this woman beyond what we can get out of her words here. Maybe Jesus’ insult hurt her deeply. Maybe she thought Jesus was being an arrogant jerk. Frankly, that’s what I’d have thought, if I were in her shoes. On the other hand, maybe she’d internalized all the negative messages that the culture had dumped on her, like Rev. Wood apparently had, and she didn’t think any better of herself than Jesus apparently thought of her. Maybe she thought that Jesus was right, she wasn’t worthy of Jesus’ time – but at very least, she believed that her daughter was. The preacher David Lose once wrote that she was convinced – she had faith – in the truth that her precious, innocent daughter was absolutely worthy and deserving of Jesus’ attention, and she was willing to do whatever it took to help her – even if it meant going toe-to-toe with this supposed great teacher and healer; even if it meant putting up with his verbal abuse.

Based on the story, it seems that Jesus got her point. It seems that on this particular day, Jesus had gotten himself schooled, and by a most unlikely teacher – an outsider among outsiders. He learned, just as Rev. Wood had, that even he had to gradually learn to get rid of his prejudices, his religious and cultural biases and assumptions, in order to have a fuller, more complete understanding of the fullness, the breadth of the kingdom of God. This gospel text goes on to talk about Jesus healing a deaf man, but as he talked with the Syrophoenician woman, it was his own ears that were opened. And this shouldn’t shock us, or sound like blasphemy. We know that three days after Jesus was born, he wasn’t tying his own shoes, or solving quadratic equations. That isn’t how the incarnation worked. We know that the scriptures say that Jesus grew in stature and wisdom; it didn’t happen instantaneously, so it shouldn’t bother us to imagine that he had to learn this lesson from someone.

Of course, that lesson that Jesus learned is just a short hop, skip, and jump to what we can get out of the story. I think there are two takeaways that we can get from this story. First, we learn these same lessons – that God’s love is for everyone; and that we can gain new insights into God’s love and about the kingdom of God – insights that we might be blind to from our vantage point, from the outsiders of our own time and place, whether we’re considering the church, or society in general. We can be taught, and have our faith deepened, when we hear the voices of those outsiders – whether we’re talking about people from other races, other ethnicities, other nationalities, whatever classifications might make someone an “outsider” to what we’re accustomed to.

I think that in general, Springdale has done a pretty good job at being open to hearing, and learning from, a broad range of people. We’ve probably been better at that than many, if not most, congregations. We’ve been open to, and accepting of, a broad range of people, and we’ll continue to do that even more, and even better, in the future.

There is another important point about this story that I want to point out. Jesus had to learn something in this story, to get a better understanding of the good news that God had called him to proclaim. But we don’t hold it against him that he had to learn this lesson. We don’t hold it against him that he didn’t know the truth of the expansiveness of the kingdom of God before the woman showed him that God’s good news was intended for her, too.

In the same way, we can acknowledge, just as one example, that the Presbyterian Church engaged in terrible abuse of Native Americans, especially Native American children – taking them from their homes and putting them in special schools that tried to strip them of their culture. We eventually grew in our understanding, and saw the great sin that we were engaging in, we repented of it, and we don’t have to hate the Presbyterian Church for its past mistakes. And similarly, Rev. Robert Wood held some really appalling beliefs about gay people, but he eventually grew in his understanding, and we can still consider him a great trailblazer in church history.

My point in all that is that each of us has grown in our own journeys of faith. I suspect that each of us, in some way or another, used to believe something as a part of our faith that we no longer do – that we look back on, and realize we were really mistaken about. Maybe it’s something that we feel a little silly about for having once believed it. Or maybe it’s something that has hurt people. Or whatever – the fact is, we’re all going to have something like that in our experience if we’re living out our faith in an ongoing journey of faith development.

And if we do, maybe it’s something that we aren’t proud of. Maybe that old belief is something that we feel guilt over. Maybe it caused a big falling out within the family, or with friends, or coworkers, or a similar setting. Maybe we’re carrying a bunch of baggage because at some point in time, we’d messed up with our way of understanding our faith, and what God is all about.

Well if that’s happened, this story shows we’re in good company. Jesus got it wrong in this passage. And the good news for us is that God didn’t beat Jesus up over having to learn this lesson the hard way, and neither will God beat us up when we have to go through the same thing. God knows that we call it a faith journey for a reason; that we’re engaged in a faith-building process. So in faith, and with God’s help, let’s be open to hearing what God wants to teach us, and from whatever teacher God may use to teach it. Let’s learn the lessons we need to learn. And let’s turn the rest over to God, and trust in God’s love, and not beat ourselves up over the reality that we aren’t perfect and never will be. God knew we weren’t perfect long before reaching out to us, and letting us know that we’re loved and accepted.

Thanks be to God.

Make It So.

(sermon 2/18/18 – First Sunday in Lent – Scout Recognition Sunday)

Courier-Journal 2018-02-18

2 Corinthians 8:10-14

And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.

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If you saw the church’s email this week, you know that this Lenten season, our worship will be based on themes suggested by the 2018 Lenten Calendar issued by the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Our Creation Care Ministry Team first brought the calendar up for discussion, and after looking it over, it seemed like a good resource for us all to focus on during Lent. The calendar is really very good. Each week, there’s a scriptural reference lifting up a particular theme – some issue of how we might live in ways to help create a more just world, not only in terms of creation care but other related areas of justice, as well. The rest of the days of the week offer thoughts and questions for reflection, easy action items to do, and other things that are related to the weekly scriptural text and theme. Each Sunday in Lent, the preaching text will be that weekly scripture passage from the calendar, so using this Lenten calendar will be an easy way to relate what we get into on Sunday, throughout the following week. I hope that you’ll make use of this calendar; Thursday’s email included a link to download a copy of it, and if you can’t make that work, if you call the church office we’ll make sure you get a copy of it.

This first week’s topic is giving. Helping to create a more just world, in all the ways we talk about justice, is at the core of how we show gratitude to God for God’s goodness. It’s at the core of how Jesus teaches us to be his followers. Short of worship itself, it’s the primary way that we express our love for God. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the actions that we take to create a more peaceful and just world for all of God’s people, and the creation that we’re part of, are themselves a form of worship.

In this part of Second Corinthians that we heard this morning, Paul points out that God wants us to give of ourselves, not out of a sense of burden – and certainly not out of some attempt to buy our salvation through good works – but rather, as an expression of our faith, and out of thanks for knowing that we’re already part of God’s beloved community. Paul lays out some fairly straightforward thoughts, that in this kind of giving out of thanks to God, it’s what’s in the heart that matters, not the actual numbers. He essentially says the same thing here that Jesus did when he pointed out the poor widow who dropped three pennies in the offering plate, saying that she’d given more than all the others who were better off – because they had all given only out of their surplus, but that she’d given all that she had.

When we think of giving, that’s usually what we picture – putting money in the plate. Mailing a check. Automatic Bill Pay. Maybe giving materials in kind. But there’s another way to think about our giving, too. How about the idea of giving to create a more just world, by buying the more expensive Equal Exchange coffee, or chocolate, that you know the producers are being paid fairly for? Or spending a bit more for produce that was grown without using dangerous pesticides that pollute the environment or wipe out the honey bee population, which all our agricultural industry depends on? Or making the upfront investment on energy-saving retrofits, to cut down on electricity produced by burning fossil fuels? Or spending more for clothing or shoes that you know weren’t made by children working as slave labor? I know as well as anyone else that those lower prices are tempting, but it really is important to us, as followers of Christ, to live in ways, including the way we spend our money, that help to eliminate injustice and to care for our creation however we can. And if we don’t act in ways that eliminate or minimize those injustices, then we become complicit in them.

But there’s another kind of giving, as a component of our faith, that Paul talks about in this passage, that I think we have to think about this morning. It’s the giving of our full attention to something. Giving our commitment to see something through. Paul says to the Christians in Corinth that if they’d set out to do something, or had even thought about doing it, that now was the time to follow through and finish it. Stop all the talking. Make it so. I’ll bet that the scouts here today have been taught the same thing in their training – to have the perseverance to see something through to its conclusion. Even if it’s hard, even if you hit obstacles, if it’s the good thing, the right thing, then push through and complete it.

We’re in a time now where we have some major incomplete business in our society. We come here today with our hearts grieving over the most recent mass school shooting, in Florida. We haven’t even fully processed the last school shooting, the one here in Kentucky just a month ago, and now we’re dealing with another one.

You know, in a sense there really aren’t any new arguments to make about this issue. There aren’t any new insights that haven’t been offered, over, and over and over again. After every single one of these tragedies, one group calls for stricter gun control laws, and says that the problem is caused by too many guns being available, and points out that an eighteen-year old can’t buy alcohol because we don’t believe they’re mature enough to use it responsibly; but they can buy an AR-15. Another group says it isn’t a gun issue at all, it’s really a mental health issue – that there were plenty of guns when they were growing up, and every kid had a gun or two and even on occasion brought them to school to show off, and these kinds of shootings weren’t taking place. Another group says it’s all because we’ve lost our moral compass as a society, and that we’ve failed to instill in people an understanding of the value of human life and human dignity, and that the violence that bombards us continually on television and online and in video games has morally desensitized us. We have become morally numb, morally tone-deaf; and if you need any evidence of that, all you have to do is look at the front of today’s Citizen-Journal – the Sunday after this terrible mass murder, they don’t see how morally reprehensible it is to wrap their paper in a four-page wraparound ad for rifles and handguns.

To be perfectly honest, each one of those issues has contributed to the situation. The problem is complex; there isn’t any one single fix – but in the middle of the bickering and arguing, *none* of the problems get addressed. Not only are our gun control laws not reasonably adjusted for better safety and protection of us all, some of the laws already in place have been cut back. And there really is no adequate mental health care delivery system in this country, but in the wake of any shooting-of-the-moment, no one seriously proposes any legislation to fix that problem.  So lines get drawn, and all the ugly stereotypes get dragged out. Gun owners are all a bunch of stupid redneck hillbillies who just want to go around shooting up stuff and don’t care about innocent lives being lost. People calling for better gun regulation are all a bunch of wussified libtards who don’t understand guns, who hate guns, or are afraid of guns, and who want to take away everyone’s guns and get rid of the Second Amendment. And in the end, everyone just gets mad at each other, and everyone keeps talking across one another, and not a single blessed thing gets done.

Stepping into that, you know that tonight we’re hosting a Community Conversation on Guns and Gun Violence – not  because we think we’re going to come up with some new argument, or some easy one-step-fixes-everything solution. We’re doing it so that all of us, who come to this problem from different vantage points, different beliefs, different backgrounds, can have a civil conversation. So we can grant good, noble intentions of the other. So we can honestly hear one another, and maybe, just maybe, as we see the goodness and good intentions and humanity of one another, we can find some common ground, and find some way to move the conversation forward.

Because it’s time – no, it’s way past time, that we come together as God’s people to demand an end to this craziness. This is not a partisan political issue; it’s a matter of being God’s agents of love in this world. It’s a matter of faith. And as a matter of faith, all of us have to demand that our leaders enact sensible legislation that addresses all sides of this complex problem – because the problem has to be solved. Close loopholes and fix problems in the current gun laws. Enact national policy that establishes adequate, affordable, accessible mental health care, and that most definitely makes it impossible for the dangerously mentally ill to have access to guns. As Paul advised the Corinthians, it’s time for our leaders, and for us as people of God, and the people who put those leaders in place, to finish doing this good, this right, this important thing. And Church, if our society is in a state of moral failing, it’s on us – not the government – to reinstill that respect for human dignity and human life, and helping people to see how we’re all created in God’s image, and worthy of love. So if you think the answer is better gun legislation, contact your members of Congress and tell them to get to work on it. Make it so. And if you believe that this is a mental health problem, then contact your members of Congress and tell them to get to work on that. We need to do this, because just as with other forms of our giving, if we can do something to help end an injustice, and we don’t do it, we become complicit in it.

God calls us, God leads us, God is begging us to do this – because just as every time one of these tragedies happen, and our hearts break, God’s heart breaks, too.

We need to work toward a time when people remember “active shooter drills” in schools as some odd thing from the past, the same way that we now think of the “duck and cover drills” that came before them. In the name of Christ, whose name we carry, we need to work to make the kind of peaceful and just society where the biggest thing these scouts have to worry about is who’s going to win the Pinewood Derby.  It’s time, and it’s our calling, to make it so.

Thanks be to God.