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)

telephone-operators-circa-1965

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)

arson-hopewell-missionary-baptist-church-greenville-ms

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?

trashed-campaign-signs

(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)

trap

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.

 

 

Dinner Reservations (sermon 8/28/16)

place cards

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” – Luke 14:1, 7-14 (NRSV)

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Josiah – Joe, for short – was a man with a keen intellect, an ornery sense of humor, and a big heart. At various times in his life, he was a family man, an accomplished attorney, beloved law professor, university president, and a good Presbyterian elder who’d always wanted to go to seminary but never managed to make it. He was a good and gentle man, and for a time, I was blessed to be able to call him friend. He wrote the first letter of recommendation for me when I applied to seminary, and I always valued his thoughts and insights. I got to know Joe later in his life, after he’d retired from the halls of academia, and he and his wonderful wife Joyce began yet another chapter of life as alpaca ranchers.

I remember visiting with Joe and Joyce one evening. The alpacas had been herded up and gotten into the barn, and we were all sitting in the living room. Their dog, Lorna, had found what she at least felt was a comfortable place to rest, flopped on top of my feet while we sat talking. At one point, the conversation turned to a mutual friend, who’d been very successful in the business world. At the time of this conversation, Hummers – those big, boxy SUVs modeled on the military vehicle – had just come out on the market, and they were all the buzz, the new hot thing; it was something unusual and special to see one on the road – and our mutual friend had just bought one. I told Joe that I’d gone out riding around with the friend in his new Hummer just a few days earlier. And I said that I knew that the vehicle was too big, too expensive, an environmentally unfriendly gas-guzzling symbol of conspicuous consumption that no one should ever own, and a sign of basically everything that’s wrong with our wealth-worshiping society. But then, I chuckled and had to admit – it was actually pretty fun. It felt really good sitting up high in that tricked out fancy leather interior, driving around town and having everyone stopping gawking and looking up at you as you went by. It felt good to be what everyone was looking at. Joe  just nodded as I said that, then he smiled and looked at me and said, “Yes, but what were they *thinking* while they were looking?”

And in those few words, Joe had brought me back down to earth. I recognized that I’d allowed myself to get caught up in that same kind of status-through-money mindset that I hated so much when I saw it in others.

It’s easy to do, and I suppose if we’re honest with ourselves, at one point or another we all get sucked into it. And when we hear this passage from Luke’s gospel, we can see that it isn’t anything new, because that’s exactly what’s at play in this story about Jesus having dinner in the Pharisee’s home. The social situation back then was basically the same as it is today. If you were considered someone important, you got one of the best seats in the house at a dinner. If you weren’t quite on the “A” list, you got seated further away from the host, and you probably didn’t get to see the impressive view out the windows. And if you’d just barely made it onto the guest list, you ended up at the cramped little table near the kitchen door, with all the noise and where you’d keep getting bumped by the servers as they went back and forth. There’s really nothing new under the sun; that just was, and is, the way of the world.

But here, Jesus was telling people about a different way – some would consider it an odd way, but it’s certainly a revolutionary way of understanding things. He was making it clear that in the Kingdom of God, none of the rules that we typically use to assign status and importance applied. We’ve come up with all these categories and labels to divide us into groups – and usually, with the purpose of whoever’s coming up with the labels being to identify their own group as superior to the people in the other categories. We’ve done it on the base of wealth or income; skin color and physical characteristics or physical ability; education level or intelligence; gender and sexual orientation; religious profession, and on and on. Here, Jesus is saying that God isn’t particularly impressed with those kinds of distinctions. In a sense, Jesus is saying that God doesn’t really care whether you drive a shiny new Hummer or a rusty old Hyundai, and if you’ve seen what I’m driving at the moment, you know I’m particularly grateful for that. In fact, Jesus’ point here seems to be that God’s love and grace is big enough and broad enough for all of us, regardless of any of those labels.

There’s a special significance to so many of Jesus’ teachings occurring around a dinner table or another meal, because at different places in the scriptures, the Kingdom of God is compared to a great banquet, a feast, featuring the best and richest of foods, and the finest of wines. The scriptures don’t make any particular mention of bourbon, but I’m sure that’s part of it, too. In this story, Jesus is saying that the guest list to this eternal, cosmic banquet is based on God’s standards, not ours, regarding who would be invited to the table and who, if anyone, shouldn’t. The guest list is based on the nature of God’s grace, which is broad and inclusive enough for all of us.

There’s a fairly well-known short story by Flannery O’Connor titled “Revelation.” The story’s main character is Ruby Turpin, who considers herself a proper, upstanding Christian woman, a moral pillar of all good society, and who’s obviously superior to all sorts of other social undesirables. Keeping this story short, Ruby ends up getting pounced on, physically attacked by one of those undesirables. After her attacker is subdued, Ruby is sure that this person would see the error of their ways for attacking someone of her stature and apologize, but when the attacker doesn’t show any remorse at all, it causes Ruby to be shocked, and to ponder the meaning of it all. As she was thinking about it, Ruby had an epiphany of sorts, a vision – a revelation; hence the name of the story. In her vision, she sees a big, broad highway, a ramp, moving upward and leading directly to the very gates of heaven. And she sees a whole long line of all the lesser-than, all those people she considers social undesirables, laughing and dancing and joking as they all joyfully walk onward and upward into heaven – and the really shocking thing was that all of them doing so ahead of her and her like-minded friends, who still in the line, but who are bringing up the rear; all headed soberly, reservedly, maybe decently and in order, but as they did, they were all shocked and confused that all the supposed trashy people were getting in ahead of them – that apparently, God’s way of seeing things was so different, so much broader, than they’d ever dreamt. I think there’s a lot of that kind of subtext going on in today’s gospel lesson.

From the place of social and economic privilege that all of us here this morning enjoy, it’s easy to hear these words of Jesus that Luke shares with us, and to maybe feel a bit of sting in his words. It’s easy to feel like he’s shaking a finger at his Pharisee host, and that it extends across the years all the way to us, too. And undoubtedly, some of that sting is justified. Of course, we really do need to consider that message well, and recognize that we need to work harder, with God’s help, to be more broad in our acceptance of others, regardless of their labels, in both church and society. We need to recognize that that’s a key, fundamental part of what it means to live out the truth of the gospel. So yes, there’s a bit of sting there.

But I don’t think that’s where Jesus’ message ends. The reality is that while in one sense, in the sense of our own definitions, yes, we are privileged. But in another sense, we really aren’t. In God’s eyes, we’re really no better than the ones we consider less-than. But God’s grace – God’s love and mercy and acceptance, welcomes us to the banquet, too. In truth, we’re really just as unlikely to have dinner reservations to God’s great eternal banquet as they are – and yet, somehow, we do.  We are invited. And the gratitude, and thankfulness, and joy that should bubble up within us if we truly grasp that great truth, is what should enable us to be more welcoming to the table toward everyone else, and being welcome on equal terms, not treating those others as second- or third-class attendees sluffed off to the table by the kitchen.

Jesus was using the real banquet, the real table in front of him, to teach something important about the Kingdom of God – the great eternal banquet. This morning, as I think about that great banquet, I imagine myself sitting at the table, laughing and smiling. And I have a big platter of some delicious food in my hands, and after I spoon out a helping of it for myself, I turn, and smile, and offer it to Joe, the university president; who will take some, and smile, and pass it on to Tina, the crystal meth addict; who will pass it on to Roger, the police chief; who will pass it on to Jamal, who was kicked out of his parents’ home because he was transgender; who will pass it on to Stephanie, the homeless working-poor single mother of three; who will pass it on Antwan, who grew up in the ghetto and who knew racial prejudice and discrimination his entire short life; who will pass it to Ruby Turpin herself, who will be sitting there looking very shocked and confused by it all, but finally, very happy; and she’ll pass it on… and on… and on.

Thanks be to God.