The Shortest Sermon Ever

reading torah scroll

(sermon 1/27/19)

Luke 4:14-21

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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Many of you probably know that in the last couple of weeks, the Netflix television personality Marie Kondo was at the center of a minor internet kerfuffle. I you aren’t familiar with her – and honestly, I wasn’t, before this – she’s the host of a show where she gives helpful advice to people about how to simplify and improve their lives through uncluttering and tidying up – getting rid of the nonessential physical stuff that, over time, we all accumulate like barnacles on the hull of a ship. Apparently, one bit of advice that she gave was that you should get rid of a lot of the books that you accumulate, and presumably, never read twice, or sometimes maybe even once. She was quoted as supposedly saying that you shouldn’t keep more than thirty books in your home. Now, I’m pretty sure that some of you here would more likely cut off one of your arms with a pocket knife than cut your personal library down to no more than thirty books, and it’s definitely something that would be an absolute non-starter with most pastors I know. Some of the comments about the “thirty book rule” that I saw online from pastor friends ran along the lines of “What, you mean no more than thirty books on my nightstand?” or “You mean no more than thirty books per topic?” and similar thoughts. And there were a few less-than-charitable suggestions for what Marie Kondo could do with her advice, from pastors and non-pastors alike, that I can’t share here.

In her defense, her entire point – and it’s a valid one – was that in simplifying, a person finds greater joy and effectiveness in their life through forcing themselves to consider what’s most important to them. It’s an important exercise meant to get a person to focus on the core, distilled, crystallized expression of their meaning and purpose.

Today’s gospel text is something like that. You might call it a Marie Kondo moment in the gospels. In this story, Jesus is at the very beginning of his public ministry. He’s already getting some notoriety, word is spreading from town to town about his powerful words, and even some healing miracles that he’d performed. He’s the small-town guy made good, and now here he was back in his hometown, and his home synagogue, undoubtedly surrounded by family and lifelong friends, and a number of others curious to see and hear him for themselves. He’s asked to read from the scriptures, and he goes to this passage from the Book of Isaiah, a text that was understood to be a reference to the one who would come from God, the anointed one, the messiah in whom they would find salvation. And not some pie-in-the-sky eternal salvation somewhere out there in the ether; they were all good observant Jews who knew they were already in God’s loving care – but rather, someone who would save them in a much more immediate sense, saving them from their oppression and troubles on this side of eternity. So Jesus reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And then, he sits down, as was the custom, and he delivers what was probably the shortest sermon ever given in the synagogue, as he says in so many words, “Yeah, that’s all about me.”

We’ll hear next week that his audience didn’t exactly appreciate what he told them, thinking it was a bit cheeky and presumptuous. But this week, I want us to think about  Jesus’ words themselves. Because in those words, I believe we get the perfectly distilled, condensed, Marie-Kondo-simplified essence of what Jesus is saying his entire ministry, his entire message, is all about. This is what Jesus was sent to proclaim and to carry out. In other words, this is how Jesus defines “the gospel”: that God loves, and stays in solidarity with, and is working to help, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the ones who for whatever reason have lost hope.

And since that’s the case, then it’s also the perfect distilled version of the gospel that Jesus calls his church to work for, too.

There’s a scene in the first “Star Wars” movie, where Darth Vader is about to kill Obewan Kenobi, and Kenobi tells Vader “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” In a very similar way, in another section of the gospels Jesus told his disciples very much the same thing in the days leading up to his crucifixion – telling them that after his death, through the work of the Holy Spirit they – the church – will actually achieve these ends, this good news, much more than he would during his short earthly lifespan.

So as we, the church, try to discern whether we’re actually proclaiming the gospel that Jesus did – and this is particularly appropriate today, as we’re about to go into our annual congregational meeting, and we’ll review our past year, where we’ve been, and consider where we’re going – we can consider Jesus’ words as a touchstone. In our actions as Christ’s church, we can ask:

  • Are we working to bring freedom and release to those who are locked behind bars, or in cages, or imprisoned in some other way?
  • Are we working to bring health and healing to those who are suffering from illness or disease?
  • Are we working to bring real hope and love to those who have none?
  • Are we letting others know that God is so focused on these priorities as to enter our existence and live among us, to show solidarity with us and love for us, through Jesus Christ?
  • In short, are we loving others out of gratitude for knowing that God loves us?

If we’re doing those things, then we’re proclaiming the same gospel Jesus proclaimed. And if we aren’t – if we define the gospel as being something strictly spiritual, only concerned with eternity and getting into heaven, and having little if anything to do with working against suffering and poverty and injustice and imprisonment and illness and hopelessness – then we aren’t proclaiming the same gospel as Jesus.

To me, that’s as simple and focused an understanding of the gospel possible. That’s as simple and focused an understanding of Christian theology that I can imagine. Everything else, all the billions of words put to paper about it, is just elaboration and commentary. I really believe that. But I’m still not giving up all of my books.

Thanks be to God.

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The Healing Faith

(sermon 2/4/18)

Jesus-Healing-Peters-mother-in-law
An ancient depiction of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s Mother-in-law

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

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Last week, we heard about Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. This week, we heard about him doing more of that, along with more run-of-the-mill healings while they were visiting Peter’s home, and starting with Peter’s own mother-in-law. I once heard a feminist theologian offer a somewhat tongue-in-cheek criticism of that part of this passage, wondering if Peter was really worried about his mother-in-law at all, or if he was just hungry and wanted her to get into the kitchen to make them all sandwiches. I laughed when I heard her say it, and reading the text I can see how she could get that perception. In the end, though, even though I read the exact same words, I don’t draw the same conclusion. I want to believe that Peter did genuinely care about his mother-in-law’s well-being, and even if he didn’t, Jesus did, and he would have healed her anyway, any thoughts of sandwiches notwithstanding. I know the theologian was joking – at least a little bit – but despite that, the fact remains that we were both reading the same exact text, and were different perceptions were coming to both of us, largely because we were unavoidably reading the words through different-colored glasses – glasses that were crafted by our very different, but both very real, life’s experiences.

Beyond Peter’s mother-in-law, the whole issue of healing is all through the gospels and beyond, through scripture. In fact, the whole idea of healing, in different ways, is at the core of the establishment of the church itself. Healing is one of our core reasons for being: Healing spiritual hurts and wounds. Healing physical illnesses, injuries, birth defects, and other physical ailments through the church’s caring ministries. In fact, do you know that the very concept of a hospital, as we understand it today, was the outgrowth of Christian ministries to the sick? There are other aspects of healing that the church is all about, too. Healing social ills by working to change unjust conditions and systems in society. Healing broken relationships.

Healing is a part of the very DNA of the faith, and the church. We were established by Christ, in large part, to be seen as an alternative model over against the way much of the world exists, which in many ways can be anything but healing.

We’re supposed to be a model for healing kinds of relationships, people being in caring, loving relationships who are from across a broad spectrum of who we are – just as the feminist theologian and I saw things through unavoidably different-colored glasses just based on our own life experiences, neither necessarily being totally right or wrong, and both likely having many common points but some differences. We, the church, are called to be this alternative model of being a loving community made up of people with all those different-colored glasses.

That fact is something that any pastor sitting down to prepare a sermon is keenly aware of. Every pastor stepping into a pulpit knows that there’s a fine line between hearing a sermon and a hostage situation – that no matter how many people are in church on any Sunday morning, there’s likely only one with a microphone. It’s a very sobering thought, a sobering responsibility that, I promise you, I think about and pray about every single week: how do I preach a message based on a given text that will be heard and experienced through glasses of as many different colors and prescriptions as there are people present?

Is this week’s text, laid up against the news of the week and the realities of our time, calling for a message that’s more “pastoral” and calming and peaceful? Or is it calling for a more “prophetic” approach, speaking out against some situation in the world that’s contrary to the core teachings of our faith, and that we need to work to correct, but for whatever reason, we’ve grown comfortable with? And whichever of those routes I feel God is leading toward – how do I even really know that my take on it is right? And how do I proceed from there, being aware of  all those different-colored glasses – and realizing that even faster than sugar turns to fat in our bodies, the theological becomes the political?

Well, that’s always been the pastor’s dilemma, but it’s become a more difficult tightrope to walk in current times – when our society has become so polarized, so hardened, on both the left and the right. We’ve allowed ourselves to become tribalized – we only associate with people who are like us – who look like us, who think like us, who vote like us, who basically live in the same area as us, who make about the same amount of money as us. We only read the websites that agree with us. We’ll only watch MSNBC but never Fox News; or we’ll always watch Fox News but never CNN. Friends, the church is called to be the “anti-tribe.” We’re called to be an intentional community, a family, that doesn’t pretend those differences don’t exist, but that forms a loving, healing community across all those lines, all those different-colored glasses. And preachers are called to proclaim the gospel to that diverse community – that diverse family. Sometimes, that will be calming and comforting. And sometimes, it has to be challenging.

That “preacher’s tightrope” is something that I’ve tried my level best to walk ever since I began pastoring. And believe it or not, in the past eleven years that I’ve been preaching pretty much every Sunday, I can tell you that hardly a month has gone by that I haven’t gotten complaints both that I said something too liberal, and that I said something too conservative – and a few of those times, these complaints were about the exact same comment I’d made.

When I was at that little church I mentioned last week, and wanting to break that “hostage situation” where only I had a microphone, I started something new – an “open mic time” right after every sermon. I invited people to offer immediate feedback to what I’d just said. People could ask for some clarification about something I’d said. Or they could say that something I’d said made them think of something they read in a devotional that week that they thought would be good to share with everyone. And sometimes – and I encouraged it – someone would say “You know, you said X – but I don’t really agree with that. I think that’s completely wrong.” And while we couldn’t take the time right then and there to get into it, we would set up a time to get together to discuss it over a cup of coffee or a meal, or it would spin into a topic for a future Sunday School class.

Some of my pastoral colleagues said my open mic time idea was stupid and crazy. I prefer to think it was gutsy and creative. Maybe it was all of those things at the same time, but in any case, it led to some of the most wonderful and remarkable and memorable conversations, for the people in the church, and for me, too.

The upshot of all this is just to say that it’s inevitable that whoever you are, whatever your theology – and therefore, whatever your politics – and no matter how hard I try to walk that tightrope, some Sundays you’ll hear me say things you disagree with. Maybe even something that makes you mad. And if you haven’t yet, I promise, your turn is coming; I’ll get to you. I’ll eventually manage to tick off everyone at some time or another. And when it happens to you, know that I love you, and I’m not trying to upset you. I’m just trying to go where I sense God is leading me on that given Sunday. And also remember that at the end of the day, no matter how hard I’m trying to say and do the right thing, I’m still just a flawed, imperfect human being, and sometimes, I just blow it. I ask for your prayers that those times will be few and far between.

That “open mic time” wouldn’t be a good idea here for a few reasons. But I still want that kind of feedback. I still want to share that coffee with you. I still want to have, I still welcome, those kinds of conversations, especially if I’ve said something that troubles you. Maybe sometimes, after listening to you, I’ll say “You know what, you’re right – I went off the rails with that comment. I was wrong; I’m sorry.” And maybe the outcome of the conversation will be for the two of us to share our different takes, and we’ll share a prayer and just agree to disagree, but we’ll each have a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s different-colored glasses. And most importantly, maybe together, we can come up with a way to show how, with God’s help, people with different-colored glasses can be that alternative model for the world – because friends,  if we can’t, who can?

Thanks be to God.

 

What’s Your Fragrance? (sermon 3/14/16)

death valley spring bloom

Death Valley “Super Bloom”

First Reading – Isaiah 43:16-21:

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.

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Second Reading – John 12:1-8:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

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A few years ago, I was walking through a nice department store when I accidentally strayed into the section selling men’s and women’s colognes and perfumes. Now, I’m not a cologne kind of guy. To be honest, I own exactly one bottle of cologne. It’s still about half full, and I distinctly remember buying it on a trip to Bermuda in 1993. Clearly, I was out of my element in this aisle of the store. One by one, several pretty young women came up to me asking if they could spritz me into olfactory nirvana by sampling whatever bottle they had – explaining that this one had a sporty, adventurous scent with undertones of lilac and jasmine; another one was reminiscent of the great outdoors, with hints of pine and cinnamon.

cologne sales person

One by one I declined their offers, until one of them asked me “Well, what’s your current fragrance?” I felt completely intimidated by her question, like she was expecting to suddenly speak some language I didn’t know, and in the moment I was worried I was going to blurt out that my current fragrance was probably best described as “Decaf coffee with notes of stale Cheetos.”

I was reminded of that experience, and the whole topic of fragrance, when I read our two Lectionary texts for today. When I read the first one, from Isaiah, talking about God creating a new thing that’s springing forth, a rebirth, water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, it made me think of a picture I’d seen online a few days before. It was the picture you have as an insert in your bulletin this morning. It’s the “Super Bloom” in Death Valley. Every year, the Spring rains in Death Valley prompt all of the wild seeds that the winds had blown across the landscape, lying dormant all year long, to suddenly burst forth, filling the place with new growth and beauty. It only lasts for a few weeks, before all the growth dies off again for lack of water, but during that short time, as you can see, it’s an incredible thing. When I saw the picture, I began to imagine what it would be like to be there and experience it with all my senses – the beautiful colors, the fresh air mingled with the smell of all the wildflowers blooming as far as the eye could see. For those few weeks, I guess you could say that God’s current fragrance might be called “Death Valley Wildflowers.”

That fragrance couldn’t be any less extraordinary than the one that filled the house on the night we heard about in today’s gospel text – Mary expressing this most incredible and intimate sign of her love and devotion to Jesus, breaking out a huge amount of perfume that was so expensive it made Coco Chanel and Hugo Boss look like a couple of posers, and working it into Jesus’ feet with her own hair, of all things. Just imagine being there – Jesus and the disciples are there at the table; and so is Lazarus, who’s been something of a celebrity ever since Jesus rose him from the dead; people looking at him as much as they were looking at Jesus himself. Martha is there, of course, bringing dinner from the kitchen to the table for all of them, when she looks down and oh good Lord, what’s Mary doing this time; and the fragrance of the meal and the perfume are filling the house like incense lifted up to God.

There’s no question that from the standpoint of the ledger sheet, Mary’s actions didn’t make any sense at all. From that standpoint, Judas’ criticism made perfect sense; to be honest, if we’d been there, most of us would probably have felt the same way. But Jesus’ response to Judas was a reminder that neither humanity, nor the Church, live by the ledger sheet alone. There are times and places where extravagance is a justifiable way to express our love and devotion to God.

This story prefigures a struggle that has gone on within the Church since its very beginning. Architects, painters, sculptors, stained glass artists, musicians, and any number of other artists, have been commissioned by the church to express God’s grandeur and transcendence in extravagant and expensive ways. Through their creativity they’ve expressed their own devotion to God, and they’ve made incredible artistic contributions to human civilization in general. Their work was their own fragrant offering of themselves and their talents to God.

At the same time, others in the Church have claimed that these artistic achievements are beautiful, and possibly well-intentioned, but they just aren’t appropriate for a church that was established as the earthly agent of a poor, itinerant rabbi who owned next to nothing and called his followers to personal sacrifice and denial in service to others as a primary way of serving and pleasing God.

You find these two views throughout the entire history of the church, and it’s still going on. When he was in Philadelphia during his recent U.S. trip, Pope Francis made some people very uncomfortable and upset when he complimented the ornate, high walls and beautiful windows of the cathedral he was preaching in, but then pointed out that the church is not at all about building walls, but rather, breaking walls down, using its resources to reach out to others through acts of charity and service.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis in Philadephia, Sept. 26, 2015. (Tony Gentile/Pool Photo via AP)

And of course, Westminster is part of this struggle, too. This congregation is the heir to previous generations of the faithful who expressed their devotion through the beauty of stone and wood and stained glass and organ pipes. The question for Westminster isn’t so much “Were all these expenses appropriate when they were made?” but rather, “What is appropriate for us now, as we follow God’s mission into the future? What, in our time and place, is an appropriate balance between extravagant expression and prudent use of financial resources to serve as many of God’s people as possible?”

As an architect, the issue of this balance was a theological question that I thought about, and wrestled with, long before I entered the ministry. And to be honest, I still haven’t reached a completely sufficient answer to please my own mind, let alone please yours as you think about the question. The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is this: To go to great expense through architecture, art, music, or similar things as an expression of love and devotion to God is a very good thing, and pleasing to God – but only as long as it lifts people’s spirits and makes them more devoted to God, specifically inspiring them to greater acts of helping and serving others in need. If that act of extravagance – whether it’s expensive perfume or a cathedral or the Pietá or a Tiffany window – does that; if it leads the people of God to greater and greater outpourings of service to others, then it’s something pleasing to God. But if it becomes something revered in and of itself, and its preservation takes precedence over the mission of being the body of Christ to those in need in the world, then I don’t believe it’s pleasing to God at all.

Michelangelo-pieta

La Pieta, Michelangelo, 1498-99

And when it comes to that kind of expression, every one of us has to discern what our particular gift is, what kind of extravagant offering we can make to God. Maybe you create art. Maybe you sing, or play a musical instrument. Maybe you make musical instruments.

george and lori at westminster auburn

George Yu, guest violinist this Sunday, and award-winning violin maker. Each instrument bears the inscription Cantet anima mea fervorem Dei salvificantem – “Let my soul sing God’s healing passion”

On the other hand, maybe you know your way around a financial report like nobody else; or maybe you’re a wizard in the kitchen and can plan and organize dinners and social gatherings for the church; or maybe you know how to get through the red tape and bureaucracy at City Hall that needs to be hurdled to get a new homeless shelter up and running. Each of these gifts, each of these talents, used appropriately in service to God and to others, is our own perfume, our own fragrance, that we can offer to God with the same kind of devotion and extravagance that Mary did in today’s gospel text.

Most of us probably know what gift, what talent, what our own fragrance is that we can offer to God. And if we don’t, I think it’s especially appropriate during this season of Lent, this time of deep personal reflection and contemplation of our spiritual lives, that we should do everything that we possibly can to discern what our fragrance actually is. You might even say it should be our

obsession cologne

Thanks be to God.