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.

=====

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.

Advertisements

(Another) Unnamed Sermon

(sermon 8/4/19)

8067344217_0f151859b6_z
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.”

=====

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.”

=====

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.

=====

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.

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?”

=====

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.”

=====

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.

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)

=====

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

=====

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

=====

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.