God Isn’t Fair!

(sermon 9/24/17)

unfair god

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When God saw what the Ninevites did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

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Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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Today, we heard two really deep and rich texts; you could do a month of sermons on either one of them, but I wanted to look at these two texts and think about the one commonality they share. In both of them, we’re looking at things where people perceive that God was not fair. God just wasn’t being fair. You heard that first story; you know the story of Jonah and all of his trials and tribulations as he did what God had called him to do, and of course we’re picking this up at the very end of the story – he’s very upset, because ultimately, at least, Jonah did what God had asked of him; he’d gone to Assyria and told the people of the city, “Forty days, and you’re history – God is going to overthrow you; you’re going to be destroyed. And of course, we know the outcome of that story, that hearing that terrible thing that was about to befall them, they repented and asked for God’s forgiveness and mercy – and God relented. God did not do what was originally the plan. And of course, Jonah is upset at this, for a couple of reasons, I suspect. First, I imagine he just felt like a fool. He told the people of the city what was going to happen to them, and all of a sudden it doesn’t happen, so he’s got a bit of egg on his face. But also the fact that these are the despised Assyrians, the sworn enemies of the Israelites, in our equivalent they’d be like North Korea and Iran and al Quaeda and ISIS all rolled into one; if anyone deserved receiving the wrath of God it would have been them, and it didn’t happen. So Jonah was complaining, he was grousing, he was saying, “God, you are being unfair!”

Then in the second story, this is one of Jesus’ parables, we’re told that the Kingdom of God is like this story, where the workers in the field who were there and worked just an hour are paid the same as the ones who were there working hard all day. The first workers looked at the situation and said, “This is unfair!” And yet, we’re being told that this is the way that the Kingdom of God is. Unfair. And I suppose that’s true; God is unfair, especially if you’re looking at these two stories from one standpoint versus another. If you’re experiencing the first story through the eyes of Jonah, it certainly looks unfair. If you’re experiencing that gospel lesson, the parable, through the eyes of the people who started working at the beginning of the day, it certainly seems unfair.

I think it’s kind of interesting, whenever we hear these kinds of stories from the scriptures – I know I do this, and I suspect most of us do – we tend to experience the story through the eyes of the “good guys.” We tend to automatically put ourselves in the place of the people who are doing what we think God wants of us; we’re the ones who are working hard; we’re the ones who are adhering to what God wants us to do, so we deserve the reward, and the others deserve something else, or something less. We’re the good guys.

But what if that isn’t the case? And frankly, I suspect it isn’t. I suspect that if we look at our own situations, we’re probably like the people who receive the undeserved benefit of God’s unfairness. We’re the ones, like the people in the city of Nineveh, who needed to be reminded, who needed to have it pointed out to us, that where we were headed wasn’t really God’s direction. We are like the latecomers in the parable. From that standpoint, God’s choices don’t seem so bad, do they? We’re benefitting from this unmerited, gracious, extravagant kind of unfairness on God’s part.

I think that’s an important point of both of these stories. They both tell us something about what God is doing in the world; that God’s sense of fairness is somehow different from the way we might perceive it or want it to be. That God is calling each of us into a new and different kind of existence, with different rules. God is actually trying to create a new kind of community. A new kind of being together. Almost a new kind of family, if you will. Through God’s turning things upside-down, God’s changing the world through this new way of understanding and being, God is establishing what we call eternal life. That isn’t just something out in the future, in the sweet by-and-by; God is saying no, I want this to be the way that you live in the here and now, and that means some new rules, some new ways of looking at things and understanding things are going to apply.

One of the things that happens in order to usher in this new way of being is this right here. This – the church. I don’t mean the roof and the walls; I mean you and me. God is calling us into a new way of experiencing life. We’re being called into a new way of being a family.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the church lately, for a few reasons, but one of those reasons was that, as you know, we’re beginning to kick off our annual stewardship campaign, “ENGAGE.” You’ll be seeing and hearing more about that in the coming weeks. As I was thinking about the stewardship campaign, I was considering the reality that there are two primary reasons why someone will support a church with their time and financial resources. The first is that to do so is just the way we were raised; we were taught that this is just the right thing to do; you support your church – it’s a sense of duty; of obligation. And that’s correct; for us, as Christians, it is. The second reason why someone might support a church congregation is because of what it means to us. What is the significance; what’s the benefit; what’s the importance of this group of people in *my* life?

We know that the church gives us opportunities in several directions. First, it gives us a place to explore and deepen our faith; our spirituality; both as an individual and as parts of a larger group, as we work this faith journey out together. It also gives us a good and easy way to engage with the world around us and to do something positive, taking concrete steps to make the world a better place and to improve the lives of the people within it. It gives us a place, and a way, to roll up our sleeves and really make a difference, and not just talk about it, and not just worry about it, and not just share pictures on Facebook about it, but to actually do something about it. And I think the third important thing that the church is to us is that it is this new kind of community. It is this completely illogical, irrational, new way of understanding what the word “family” means.

Family. We’re a family that is brought together not by blood relationship. We’re not brought together by shared socio-economic status. We’re not brought together by race, or ethnicity. We’re not brought together by any of those other categories that the world normally thinks about. We’re called together in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Called – think about that. Each and every one of you have been called by God to be part of this family. What does that mean to you?

He was a young man, in his late twenties. He was the very definition of his generation. If there was some hot new electronic gadget, he had it. He lived in a city. His parents lived 500 miles away. His siblings and his high school and college friends all lived at least that far away. He saw them all routinely, virtually, on the computer screen, on the phone, on the tablet. He was connected with them through Instagram, and texting, and yes, even Facebook, even though he didn’t like it much but that’s where he could connect with his parents so he did it. He was connected. When he talked about the issues of the day, he did it online, with people from around the world. When he wanted some recreation, some downtime, he grabbed his gaming controller and his headset, and he teamed up with someone from Germany, and someone from Sweden, and someone from Australia, and together they joined up and zapped aliens, or wrestled with trolls, or whatever the online game called for. He’s connected. He is more connected than any other generation that’s ever been – virtually – but then again, he really isn’t. And he knows it. Because he knows that someday, the batteries will die, and when they do, he’s going to be sitting in his apartment, alone. And his parents and his friends are still going to all be hundreds of miles away. And he knows he’ll still be stressed out, because he has to work two jobs just to be able to barely make ends meet, to pay the basic bills and to make payments on his student loan to pay for an education that was a thousand percent more expensive than that of his parents, and he isn’t able to save anything for his future. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and there’s no one around him that he can share all this with. He’s alone. He is part of the most connected generation ever, and he’s still alone.

She was well past retirement. She’d lived a long and productive and happy life along with her husband, but he had died five years ago. And she got out of the house from time to time, but it was different now, being just her. Not experiencing life with the person who was connected to you for decades. And when she did get out, she’d often have the experience shared by so many older people – other people, younger people, and they were almost all younger people, actively avoiding her, maybe not wanting to be reminded that someday they, too, will be older. More often than the active avoidance, though, she experienced that feeling of invisibility that so many older people experience. To walk through a room and have no one notice. When she was home, she was alone. She realized that it had been a month since she’d known the simple, wonderful gift of another human being’s touch. A hug. A hand on a shoulder. The stroke of a cheek. She longed for that. She was set financially, she didn’t have to worry about that, but what she wanted the most was just simple human contact. She was alone.

The two of them both found what they were looking for here – in church. As different as they were on the surface, they ended up being part of the same groups and classes, and volunteering for the same mission projects around town. He sat in one pew; she sat in the pew just behind him. Over time, this odd couple struck up a friendship. They cared for one another; they watched out for one another. They found the personal, human connection that they’d both been hoping for. Through the church, they became family. She danced at his wedding. He cried at her funeral.

They knew what was special about this – the church. They knew the great gift that the world has given to the world, and to us by treating us unfairly, in a way we needed but didn’t’ deserve, by establishing the church and uniting us in the Spirit to be part of it. They knew the great extravagance of the God who calls us together.

So, is God unfair? Friends, you should shout it from the top of your lungs, “YES!!! God is unfair!!!” And for that,

Thanks be to God.

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Nevertheless, She Persisted

(sermon 3/19/17)

Jesus and Samaritan woman with pussyhat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

Where the Wind Blows

(sermon 3/12/17)

glowing embers

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.  – Genesis 12:1-4

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Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”  – John 3:1-17

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He drove past the house as slowly as he could without drawing attention to himself, paying close attention to where the door was, but not just that, also taking in the other buildings around the house – where their doors were, and especially their windows, where people might glance out and see him. At the next corner he turned, then turned again, doubling back toward the house and finally parking his car two blocks away. If anyone saw his car where it was parked, and recognized it as his, there would be plausible deniability – they’d assume that he was in one of the nearby restaurants enjoying dinner. He got out of the car and started to walk toward the house, nervously paying attention to the cars and people on the sidewalk, watching for anyone he might recognize, or more importantly, who might recognize him in the glow of the streetlights. As he got closer to the house, he adjusted his pace, a little slower, a little faster, trying to time his arrival so there wouldn’t be anyone walking or driving by when he got there. As it happened, he timed it right, but still, as he reached the house, he kept his pace until it almost looked like he was going to pass it by, and at the last second, and looking over his shoulder, he quickly darted inside the door. He had to be careful. He had a reputation to keep. A lot of people knew who he was – a well-known religious mucky muck, and it wouldn’t look good at all, it wouldn’t go well for him, if people saw him in a place like this, talking to a person like this.

Still, there was just something inside him that drew him here. He’d seen Jesus around town in recent days, and he’d heard about him for a good while longer. Almost in spite of himself and his religious position and education, Jesus’ words stirred something deep inside him; so much that he took this personal risk to meet him and talk with him personally on this particular night.

He sat there with Jesus in the back room of the house, far from the noise from the street, as the cool of the evening gradually settled in. He was caught in that uncomfortable place where he wasn’t sure which of the two of them was going to have the upper hand, if he were the teacher or the student in their discussion. It didn’t take long for him to realize which was the case, as Jesus told him that no one can see, no one can comprehend the kingdom of God unless they’ve been born from above. Nicodemus’ brain went into overdrive at this point, so he started asking questions: what does that even mean? We’ve all come into this world the same way; how can a person be born in some new, different way? And just what do you base that claim on, anyway? Where in the scriptures do you find that?

In imagining this scene in his own way, Frederick Buechner wrote that at this point, a strong breeze blew down the chimney, fanning all the embers in the fireplace into a hot, bright red, and they burst into flame again. Being born from above was just like that, Jesus said. It wasn’t anything you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something done by God, and for God, and where, and when, and why, and to whomever God wants. And just as the wind doesn’t stop at the city limits, or the synagogue door; God’s Spirit trespasses across all artificially set human boundaries and limits.

Nicodemus battled sensory and intellectual overload at this idea; it was more than he could process all at once. But bit by bit, he started to tease out the implications of what Jesus had said. And the more he thought about it, the more he recognized how radical, how heretical – how dangerous – Jesus’ words were to the established order of things; certainly the religious order but also the political order. He kept asking questions: So… the kingdom of God is for any and all people that the wind, God’s Spirit, blows on? Yep. But… the Spirit doesn’t blow on everyone, surely. Surely there are some limits to this, right? Well, I don’t know; what do you think? The Spirit is like the wind; are there people out there who have never felt the wind on their face? Personally, I don’t think so, but if there are, I can’t imagine there are very many of them. So… God is stirring up the lives, birthing them from above, all over the place? All over the place. Even the Samaritans; even the Romans? Even them. Even people from other religions, or from nor religion, people who have never heard of the God of the Israelites, or the Law and the Prophets, or frankly, who have never heard of *you*? What am I supposed to make of what you’re saying?

Jesus smiled and got up from where they were sitting, and put a compassionate hand on Nicodemus’ shoulder as he walked over and put another log on the dying fire, because they’d been talking or some time now, and the coolness of the night was settling in more deeply. And as Nicodemus sat there trying to sort out the implications of their conversation, Jesus added fuel to both the fire in the fireplace and the one in Nicodemus’ mind, as he told him that he’d come into the world so that everyone who believes in him, in what he was saying, would be part of that kingdom of God – that that it was God’s intention that Jesus’ message, his mission, his purpose, wasn’t to condemn, wasn’t to keep people out of that kingdom, but instead, to bring the whole world – the cosmos, the whole chaotic, good-bad-and-in-between, sometimes God-denying, sometimes even God-hating world – everyone – into that kingdom of God. Nicodemus wondered to himself, if that’s God’s intention, is there anything or anyone who could thwart God’s plan?

He started to ask more questions. But… but… what does that mean? You’re talking in mysteries. How can anyone save the whole world? How would you save the whole world? How do you do that, specifically?

As his mind was racing, though, Nicodemus noticed the time on his watch. It was much later than he’d thought, and he knew he had to go. He’d told his wife that he was going to a committee meeting at the synagogue, and if he got home too late, she’d know he must have been somewhere else. So with all those unanswered questions – or maybe they really had been answered – still bouncing around in his head, he quickly said his goodbyes, peeked out the side of the curtain in the front window, and when the coast was clear he quickly slipped back out in to the night, and down the street, and into history by virtue of his story becoming part of John’s gospel.

“For God so loved the world as to give the Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Indeed, god did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

During this season of Lent, while we take time to refocus on just what exactly God’s good news for the world really is, on just what it is that we believe, we can listen to these familiar words again, and maybe wrestle with them as much as Nicodemus did. Hearing them as if we’d only now heard them for the first time, without all the historical and cultural baggage that’s gotten attached to them over time like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. From the earliest days of the faith, people have debated exactly what Jesus was saying in this conversation. And everyone from the early church father Origen, to St. Augustine, to John Calvin, to the great 20th-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth, to Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, to John Shelby Spong, have all offered up their opinions of what Jesus meant – how Jesus reconciles human beings and God; and determining who’s supposedly in, and who’s out, of that eternal club. In other words, is the kingdom of God for a select number of people, or in some mysterious way, just as the wind eventually brushes across everyone’s face, will everyone eventually become part of God’s kingdom? Has that been God’s plan all along?

For my own part, I believe somewhere along the lines of Karl Barth. When someone asked him if he were a universalist – if he believed that everyone would ultimately be part of the kingdom of God, and no one would end up in hell, Barth famously answered that he couldn’t categorically say that everyone was going to be saved and be part of God’s eternal kingdom, but that if hell existed, he suspected it was very sparsely populated. And to be honest, the older I get, the more I see, and the more I think about whether God’s will could ever be thwarted; the more I think about the nature of God’s grace and mercy and love, I’ve started to wonder if hell is actually less populated than even Barth thought.

Jesus’ words stuck with Nicodemus. The scriptures tell us that after Jesus had died and was pried off the cross – at a time when it would have been the most potentially dangerous to identify as a follower or even friend of Jesus, Nicodemus came out of the closet, as it were, with his trust and faith and love for Jesus. Along with Joseph of Arimathea, the scriptures say, he laid Jesus in his tomb, affording him all the dignity that he was denied in his death. In the end, what conclusions did Nicodemus reach regarding Jesus’ words that night? We don’t know. But hearing these words again today, and given all that people have written and said since then, and adding considering current events as an underlay to the question, what conclusions about Jesus’ words do you reach? Who’s in, who’s out? I anyone out? Is Hitler in heaven? Is Ghandi in hell? And what effect do your beliefs have on how you live your life? On how you view the world? On how you view the full spectrum of humanity, whether it’s someone you encounter in this congregation, or this city, or on the other side of the planet? What do Jesus’ words mean to you?

Thanks be to God.

It’s a Local Call

(sermon 1/22/17)

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

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

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. – Matthew 4:12-23 (NRSV)

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There was a time just after my architectural firm folded, in the midst of the Great Recession, when my only source of income was what I was making as a part-time, night-shift hospital chaplain, which I promise you, wasn’t much. During that time, I scurried to find some kind of work; *any* kind of work. There just weren’t any jobs available at all in what I was professionally trained to do. There weren’t any jobs doing *anything.* I couldn’t get a job behind the counter at Panera, or as a delivery driver, or even working in a telemarketer’s phone bank. I think that the second worst day of my life was when I’d sunk so low, when things had gotten so desperate, that with six years of pastoral experience at that point, I actually applied for a position to conduct animal funerals at a local pet cemetery. I say that was probably the second worst day, because surely the worst day was when that company called to tell me I hadn’t gotten the job because I wasn’t qualified.

The only job I was able to land during that time was passing out samples of food in grocery stores, trying to catch people’s eye and getting them to sample whatever the item of the day was, telling them all its virtues, and that they could get this wonderful product right over there in aisle 3, and that there was even an amazing sale on them right now.

It was hard on my feet and back to stand there for hours on end. But I made the most of it by chatting up the shoppers, trying to coax them to come over and try this incredible crab dip, this delicious baked-in-store apple pie, this to-die-for dark chocolate and sea salt candy bar. It wasn’t always easy. Some people just stayed away and wouldn’t come over to hear me, even with the temptation of free food, but I could usually get most of them, even the most reluctant ones, to eventually come over.

And I’d go off-script. I’d be over-the-top and theatrical with them. I’d ham it up, try to draw them into a little conversation, and joke with them, and get them to laugh, or at least smile, and to give them, no matter what else might have been going on in their day, just a little zen moment of silliness, and warmth, and happiness, all served up with a little pimiento cheese spread on the side.

I have to admit then when I first started doing that, I was mostly doing it for myself. It was just a way to break the boredom, and to keep my mind off how sore my legs were, and how big a failure I must be, a 45-year old man reduced to doing this just to make ends almost meet. But gradually, it became less and less about me, and more and more about them. Thinking that maybe the silliness, and the smile and warmth and acceptance that I shared with them would be the one thing that stuck with them that day. Maybe it would be the one thing that they’d smile about and tell the others about as they sat around the dinner table that evening. In other words, I came to realize that, notwithstanding the really crappy circumstances of the job, what I was being, the way I was doing what I was doing, was actually an important part of my ministry. It was literally something sacred. It was an important part of my call.

Today’s gospel text touches on this idea of being called. John the Baptist, who makes a kind of offstage appearance in this passage, had been called to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God. And we heard about these first disciples, being called to follow Jesus. The idea of a call, or a calling, from God, is an interesting one. I think that a lot of times, when people consider this idea of receiving a call from God, they only think of ministers or other people who make their living by being a part of the institutional church.

But our tradition has something very different to say about this idea. It runs deep in Presbyterian thought, all the way back to the writings of John Calvin, that every one of us has been called, is being called, by God in some way or another. And that somehow, what we do as an occupation is an important part of that call. That whatever we do for a living, God is calling us to engage in it in some way that advances the Kingdom of God in the world. Sure, I know that we could all think of some illegal or immoral ways of making a living where the way to please God is to just *not* do it, but I think you understand what I mean here.

And we need to make another distinction here, too. For a lot of people, God’s call may not be something specific about precisely *what* you do for a living. We can’t fall into the trap of thinking that if we’re caught in some unbearable, low-paying, dead-end job, it’s because God wants us to be poor and miserable, that that’s just our lot in life – or even worse, that maybe God is punishing us for something, and it’s our job to just shut up and accept our fate. No. That isn’t how our occupations our professions, key into God’s call to us. To be blunt, as much good as I might have done while passing out food samples, I still got out of that job as quickly as I could.

I think that maybe the way we can understand God’s specific call to each of us is this: Whatever you do for a living – or, if you’re younger and in school, whatever you’re doing in school; or if you’re older and retired, whatever you’re doing to fill your days – whatever it is, God has called you to do it in ways that are pleasing to God. And I believe the most concrete way to please God in this world is to live in ways of compassion and care for others, in all of the hundreds of interactions we have with people throughout our week.

Just as an example, if you’re a server in a restaurant, treat the people you serve with kindness and compassion, no matter how lousy they are to you. Because you just never know – maybe that person is on a tightly fixed income, and can only afford to treat themselves out to a meal in a restaurant once a month, and this is their night. Or maybe they just got some terrible news about their health. Or maybe they’re wrestling with some inner struggle that not even their closest relatives even know, and they just need a friendly face and a kind word. Be kind. Be compassionate. That’s part of your call. And of course, the flip side of that scenario is true, too, even though it doesn’t have anything specific to do with an occupation – if you’re in a restaurant, be kind and compassionate to your server, too, even if it took them a little longer than you’d like to bring out the bread sticks or top off your iced tea. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe they’re running a little behind because they’re dog-tired, working two or even three jobs, or they’re near the end of a double shift that they’d had to work just in order to pay the rent that’s already a week past due. Be kind. Be compassionate. That’s part of your call.

Well, that’s just one hypothetical example; no doubt you can imagine a parallel scenario based on your own life situation. The point here is that it isn’t just people like me who receives a call from God. Every single one of you have, too. It’s a different call from mine, but it’s no less important. It’s no less sacred. It’s no less a form of ministry. Each one of you is being called, and drawn, by God, to do something, and to *be* something, specific in this world – to help other people, to be kind and compassionate to them, to show them mercy, and justice, and human dignity, and most importantly, to do it all out of love and gratitude for the God who created and loves us all.

The truth is, everyone’s dealing with something. The truth is, God is calling each of us to help them get through it.

Some people in this world are  called by God to do some big thing, something that makes it on the national or world stage. For most of us, that isn’t the case. Most of us are called to do a whole lot of little things, local things, things that maybe no one will ever know about. But they all add up to a great thing. Just as an example, look at what happened yesterday in this country, and around the world. it was something truly amazing. Millions of individuals did just one simple thing: they just showed up. They just showed up, to be counted, to make it clear where they stood and what they believed and why, and to make it clear that they would work to advance those beliefs. Each one of them just did this one simple thing – but together, they did something record-breaking. Something truly momentous. Something heroic. Something historic.

Those first disciples that Jesus called didn’t set the world on fire on day one. Christianity didn’t circle the globe in its first week. Those disciples started out pretty simple, one day at a time, one little thing at a time, sometimes getting it right and sometimes getting it wrong, as they tried to hear and follow Jesus’ call to them. And it’s the same with us. So today, I just ask you to think about your own, personal, local call from God. What does it look like? It’s probably a series of those little things. A smile, a shoulder to lean on, a few dollars shoved in a pocket, a ride to the doctor. And maybe it comes with a surprise gift of fresh-baked corn bread. Or a casserole delivered on the afternoon after the funeral. Or maybe even a sample of cheese dip in aisle 3.

Thanks be to God.

Christ the King

(sermon 11/20/16)

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Interior of the historically-black Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, Greenville MS, destroyed by arson

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”- Luke 23:33-43

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So today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s meant to be the culmination of the church year, just before we restart the cycle with Advent and our spiritual reflection and preparation for observing the coming of the Lord into the world. It’s meant to be the ultimate, full, shout-it-from-the-rooftops affirmation that God entered our existence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus’ mission in the world was successful, and that Jesus is indeed the Lord and King of all. Given that intent for the meaning of the day, this might seem to be an odd gospel text to hear. If we’re meant to focus on the Reign of Christ, the reality of his Kingship, why not pick some other passage? Why not maybe one from Revelation, with cherubim singing, and saints prostrating themselves on the ground, and Christ returning to earth riding in the clouds; something like that? Why not something that shows a King of power and might, and setting things right? No. Instead, we get this dreadful passage that details the lowest, worst moments of his earthly life. Why?

Well, I think that maybe it’s meant specifically to point out the very different kind of King that Jesus is, and the very different kind of Kingdom that he reigns over. We talked a bit about this idea of Christ the King last week, and how that should play out in our lives, and this gospel text today speaks even more to that point. Christ is the kind of King who stands for God’s compassion for the world, and all who live within it. The kind of King who upholds that message even when it’s unpopular. Even when it’s dangerous and will be opposed by the rulers and powers of this world. And I think this passage reminds us that Christ is the King of a Kingdom that will lose many battles in this world, as his own crucifixion attests. And yet, it’s those same battles that he calls us, his people, to engage in, as a part of our faithful response to professing Jesus Christ as our King.

I think that the next several years are going to be crucial ones for us as Christians in this country. I think that we may find ourselves in a serious time of crisis, one that transcends partisan politics or ideology, or any particular individual leaders or political parties. This crisis lies in many of the policies that are currently being floated as potential directions for our country – and which apparently have a large block of support within the general population. I’m talking about policies that run absolutely, irrefutably contrary to the core teachings of our faith. Policies that would bear down unjustly on immigrants, refugees, and their families. Policies that would permit our government to engage in what the world community considers torture. Policies that would harm women, people of color, LGBTQ people, religious minorities, and others.

These are all policies that must be absolute non-starters to anyone who professes Christ as King. Upholding justice, defending the weak, the powerless, the publicly scorned and rejected – these are absolute, non-negotiable, bedrock essentials of our Christian faith. This is what Christ our King teaches us. This is what Christ our King demands of us.

And I believe that standing up and speaking out, and working to stand up for these members of our society, and opposing these policies, might cause us difficulties. We might be opposed by individuals, we might be opposed by groups, we might be opposed by governmental leaders and even some in the religious community. If we faithfully stand up for these core principles of our faith, we might very well find ourselves in the same unpopular position as those who were part of the Confessing Church movement in Germany in the 1930s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of nationalism and the overreach of state authority, and who gave us the powerful Barmen Declaration, part of our Book of Confessions. We might find ourselves in the same position as those who were part of our own American Presbyterian tradition in the 1960s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of racism, sexism, and other social ills in our own country, who gave us the profound Confession of 1967. We might find ourselves in the same unpopular position as the black church in South Africa in the 1980s, who stood up against the heresy, the evils of apartheid and racial segregation, and other justice issues as well, and who gave us the prophetic Belhar Confession.

In all honesty, I look at the current situation in our country, and I truly wonder if we’re on the verge of the next time of crisis that will end up producing our next major confession – or at least will lead to an energized movement of Christian witness against the popular heresies and sicknesses in our society that will make us just as unpopular as those earlier movements were when they began.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when I was at our Presbytery meeting. Before the meeting began, there was a brief presentation and discussion about the Belhar Confession, and in that session, I read again some of its closing lines. I want to read those lines to you this morning:

“We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things [commanded by Christ], even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence.

Jesus is Lord.”

In other words, Christ is King.

We are currently living in strange times.

We’re currently living in a time when a successful, well-dressed, native-born Asian-American attorney driving a luxury car, living in an affluent community can be harassed and taunted by an affluent, white man at a gas station in that same community, telling the man he doesn’t belong here in this country, and that he needs to go back where he came from. We’re living in a time when a gay senior citizen in Florida can be jumped and beaten by a man who all the while yelled at him that now that we have a new President-elect, it’s OK to kill all the faggots. We’re living in a time when black churches and mosques are burned, and synagogues have their windows bashed out and swastikas painted on the walls. We’re living in a time when people feel emboldened to harm others in ways like this. These are not normal times.

I believe that in order to be faithful to our profession that Christ is King, all of us – each and every one of us – are very possibly going to have to get out of our own comfort zones and stand up to oppose these and other things, and to protect and help those being attacked, either through policies or personal attacks. I believe that we’re going to have to stretch ourselves spiritually to rise to what Christ, our King, is calling us to in these times. What we may have been doing in the past in trying to be obedient to our King may not be sufficient for the living of these days.

We may have to speak out, loudly, maybe even forcefully – even the most soft-spoken and quiet and shy among us. We may have to protest. We may have to take actions to support God’s love, and mercy, and compassion, and justice, and the other key teachings of the gospel that might not seem to be decent and in order at all.

Is this what we’re facing in the next few years in this country? I don’t know.But I do know that if it comes to that; if you and I have to take some unpopular stand in order to uphold the values of the Kingdom of God by standing up for God’s justice for all, especially for the most discriminated against of God’s people; if we face the scorn and rejection of people for doing it – whatever happens, we can remember this awful, dreadful passage from Luke that reminds us that our King suffered for this Kingdom, too. This was the way that our King modeled how we should live, even in the face of opposition, even in spite of defeats. This, according to Luke, is what we mean when we say Christ is King. And we can have hope, because yes, Christ is indeed the King of the cross – but thankfully for his sake and ours as well, he’s also the King of the resurrection.  And for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

So Now What?

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(sermon 11/13/16)

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord. – Isaiah 65:17-25

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When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” – Luke 21:5-19

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It usually isn’t a good idea to try to base a sermon on a melding of two different Lectionary texts of the day, but I think this Sunday might be an exception. In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us about that final, ultimate future coming of the Kingdom of God on earth – a time of joy, and peace, and contentment. A time of new beginning full of hope, the dawn of a new era where all the wrongs of the past will be corrected. A time of that all-encompassing kind of peaceful existence that the Hebrew language captures in the single word shalom. In the gospel text, Jesus is also telling his disciples about future times, too, not the same time to be sure, but still, a future time. It would be a very different kind of time and experience from what Isaiah was describing. This is a future full of suffering, pain, persecution, and refection. A time when the world is not going to respect, or be ordered based on the way that Jesus’ disciples would understand the world should be like.

If you’ve logged onto Facebook or watched any news in the last several days since Tuesday’s election, you know that there are a lot of people in this country who feel that the election of Donald Trump was the ushering in of a joyful new future, the dawning of a hopeful new era for our country, a time when past wrongs will be set right, and life will be good and hopeful – not really in the fullest sense of the vision that Isaiah laid out for us, but something similar to it. And you also know that there are a lot of people – actually a bit more people, looking at the actual popular vote, but still, on a national level it’s about a 50/50 split – who are shocked and crushed by the outcome of the election. They’re afraid that his presidency is going to result in a regressive time that will lead to increased injustice, inequality, discrimination, and violence. An existence much more similar to the  dark picture that Jesus painted in today’s text.

As I said in this week’s email, Springdale Church is certainly made up of people who voted for both presidential candidates, but based on conversations I’ve had with a number of you this past week, in person, on the phone, or via email – not to mention your Facebook posts – it seems pretty obvious that this congregation leaned significantly toward supporting Hillary Clinton, and is now more in the “fear and dread” category when thinking of a Trump presidency. There’s a split here, a divide. It isn’t anything near the national 50/50 split, but there is still a split nonetheless.

On a national, secular level, this split is significant because it doesn’t seem to be a simple difference of opinion on how we achieve mutually accepted social goals. We aren’t just disagreeing on what the fairest marginal tax rates are in order to pay for our governance; of whether we should or shouldn’t accept some treaty with one country or another; or the best way to fund our schools to achieve academic excellence for our kids. The split we see nationwide now is much deeper than that. I think we’re in the midst of a fundamental disagreement over what our ultimate end goals should actually be. It’s a fundamental disagreement over our basic understanding of what life in our society, our culture, our nation, should be all about.

So what do we, as Christ’s Church, as this particular congregation, do with that kind of divide? What do we do, how do we direct our fear, if we’re fearful over the election; and how do we channel our joy, if we’re joyful over it? And how do we stay in relationship with family members and friends, maybe the person we’ve sat next to in the pew for decades, when we know they voted for that other candidate; the one that we can’t understand how anyone could have voted for – especially in our context, how could anyone who professes to be a Christian have possibly voted for ________? Fill in the blank, because make no mistake, I’ve heard that exact same comment, verbatim, made by people on both sides of this political divide. How do we move forward, and at the moment, not thinking about that question on a secular level, but specifically for us here, in this place, as members of the kingdom of God, as followers of Jesus Christ?

I guess all I can really say to that question is this:

It really doesn’t matter who you or the person sitting next to you this morning voted for; and it doesn’t matter who won or lost the election. It doesn’t matter – but I say that with a very big, bold, asterisk at the end of that sentence. This statement comes with a condition, a qualifier, specific to all of us who have professed, at the baptismal font or any number of other places that “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” And that qualifier is this:

It doesn’t matter who we voted for, and it doesn’t matter who won or lost, as long as we always remember that our primary and ultimate allegiance is to Jesus Christ, and to Christ alone. Not to Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or any other politician or political party. It doesn’t matter who won the election, as long as we continue to live out the commandments of our God, to always work to help, and lift up, and work on behalf of the downtrodden. The oppressed. The marginalized in our society. To care for the poor, the sick, and the hungry. To care for and provide hospitality to the alien, the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee, living in our midst. To be compassionate to those who are imprisoned. To work for justice for those who are immorally discriminated against, whose human and civil rights are denied, whether in the guise of legality or otherwise.

As long as we who say “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” continue to hear and obey those commands given to us by that Lord, and as long as we hold our leaders accountable – supporting them when they support those goals, and opposing them when they don’t, regardless of whether they’re a Republican or Democrat, and regardless of whether we’re a Republican or Democrat – then it doesn’t matter who we voted for. Then it doesn’t matter who lives in the White House. And if we do those things, then we’ll most certainly be able to continue on in positive, loving relationships with our family members, and our friends and coworkers, and that person sitting next to you in the pews, because even though the nation might be divided from a secular viewpoint about what we should be all about, we have no reason to be divided here – in this place, serving this Lord. Yes, we have legislators and governors and judges and congresspeople and even a president, but here, we also have a King – a King who wasn’t picked by popular vote or the Electoral College; a King who doesn’t have to worry about term limits or polls. And that King, our King, has given us a clear direction, a clear understanding of how we’re called to live and together serving that King, and living and serving one another in this world. It’s in that King where we find our salvation, and hope, and yes, even our joy.

So whether we’re happy or sad about the outcome of this election, in the end we can all be joyful, because regardless of any twists and turns, regardless of the difficulties that Jesus told us we’d endure at various times, we already know the end of the story. We know how the movie ends; we’ve literally read the last chapter of the book. We know that our future is that final, great, shalom-filled existence that Isaiah described for us. On any given day, in any given year, we might be encouraged or discouraged based on one given election or another, but we’ll still be hopeful, even joyful, because of who we call our King.

Thanks be to God.

Past/Present/Future

(sermon 11/6/16 – Stewardship Sunday)

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

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Well, it’s finally here – this week we’ll all go to the polls and vote, and for better or worse, after the dust settles, we’ll have a new President-elect. I suspect that most of you are like me, tired of the whole process. Every day, the candidates trying to find an angle, an edge, something to discredit their opponent and boost their own image. Campaign surrogates and staffs scrambling to score points against the other side, beat the other person down, while simultaneously trying to defuse similar attacks on their own candidate. Some days it seems like it’s all just negative, all sleaze, all just debate and no actual discussion about actual issues. All just trying to score points and make the opponent look bad.

That same thing is very much what’s going on in the gospel text that we heard this morning, this story of a group of Sadducees questioning Jesus. The Sadducees were a religious group who were almost exclusively made up of the social elite, the upper crust. Because they were the group that was the most collaborative with their Roman occupiers, they became a powerful group politically. For the most part, they were the wealthy, the well-educated, the well-connected, and they looked down their noses at other parts of Jewish society. And as Luke points out, it was part of their religious beliefs that there really wasn’t any resurrection of the dead. To the Sadducees, you live this life, in this world, and when you die, that’s it. There’s no final judgment or accounting, and certainly no resurrection, so you’d better make the most of things while you’re here.

Luke tells us that this particular group of Sadducees came to Jesus and posed this question to him. And just like so much of our presidential campaign, it wasn’t really a serious attempt at discussion; they weren’t really trying to open up a meaningful conversation about the question; they already knew what they believed about it. Their intent was to try to get Jesus, this uneducated country bumpkin from the backwater of Nazareth, to say something that they could use to discredit him in the eyes of the large numbers of people who had begun to follow him. He was a threat to the Sadducees’ power, so they were trying to neutralize the threat by trapping him with his own words.

So what’s their question, which sounds so bizarre to us, all about, anyway? Well, it has to do with what’s called the concept of Levirate marriage. According to this part of the biblical definition of marriage, the scriptures say that God commanded that if a married man died childless, the next oldest of his brothers was required to marry his widow and the widow was required to marry the brother. The brother really didn’t have any say in the matter, and neither did the widow, who in this culture was considered the dead man’s property – more important than his other forms of property, but still, property nonetheless. And the two were supposed to have a child, who would then be considered the dead man’s son. This was important for several reasons. First, in a time before social security, pension plans, and 401(k)s, society relied on children to care for and provide for their aging parents. Second, and just as importantly in that culture, a son was needed, in order to keep the man’s wealth and assets, especially his property, in his family’s name.

So the Sadducees ask Jesus this question, stretching this scriptural command to the point of absurdity, and then asking Jesus whose wife the woman would be – more to the point, whose property she would be – after a supposed resurrection. It was intended from the get-go to argue that it wasn’t reasonable to believe in an afterlife and resurrection.

But Jesus doesn’t hesitate to use their question, and other points from scripture, to point out the shortcoming inherent in both the question and their beliefs. He told them that they were getting caught up in the letter of the Law, the literal words, and in so doing, had missed God’s actual intent behind the words. Inherent in his answer to them that he understands that marriage itself was intended to be an important part of God’s declaration in Genesis that it was not good for human beings to be alone, and that human beings should have the ability to choose a partner and helper in life to love, and be loved by, and and be in relationship with – but that it was only something that was needed in this life. Marriage wouldn’t be necessary to achieve those things in eternity, in an afterlife; they would be fulfilled simply by virtue of being in the presence of God.

In offering the Sadducees this explanation of the scriptural commandment of Levirate marriage, and warning them not to miss the real meaning behind the words of scripture, he points them to the future. He tells them to not get trapped in the past, and not to live only for the present, but to also be mindful of the future that God has in store. He invites them to open their minds and eyes and hearts, and to imagine what that future will be like – and how it will set right everything that’s wrong in this life. Just imagine: loneliness will no longer exist. Any unfulfilled need to love and be loved will no longer exist. A need to have one’s physical, spiritual, and emotional needs met will no longer exist – because all those things will be completely fulfilled, directly by God.

Anyone in this life who knows suffering, grief, illness, poverty, discrimination, oppression, will know full justice and health and love and mercy. Jesus tells the Sadducees that all of us, even those that the Sadducees would likely consider the lowest of us, will be on par with the angels – children of God. Jesus points them toward the incredible, wonderful reality of that future. He points them to this good news, this great news, for everyone who is part of God’s kingdom.

Well, this is a good week for us to think about the future, too, and not only about what the future of our nation, and our society, might be like in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election. This Stewardship Sunday, as we make our pledges of financial support for the congregation, we’re recognizing our past and our present, and we’re using the resources that God has entrusted to us to work for that future. To help our congregation continue to live out the particular mission that God has given us, and to make this world in the here and now at least somewhat more like that future world that God has in store for us.

But it’s also a good time to think about our own personal past, present, and future, too. Dr. Martin Luther King said that the arc of moral history is long, but it continually bends toward justice. In a similar way, we can all examine our own lives and ask if the great, overarching arc of our lives of faith are in fact, continually bending closer and closer to Christ. As we mature in our discipleship, and travel farther along in our faith journey, are we allowing ourselves to adjust our lives and beliefs to be more in accord with God’s will, as ultimately seen in Christ? I hope that when we examine our lives, even while we’ll undoubtedly see the occasional stumbling and steps backward, we can see ourselves progressing, moving forward on that arc.

And as we consider that, whether for our congregation or for ourselves, we can have hope because through Jesus’ answer to those Sadducees, he also assures us that even though we’ll never achieve that fullness of living out God’s will ourselves, God will ultimately establish us in that kind of abundant, eternal life. And on that point, there shouldn’t be any debate.

Thanks be to God.