All Bartimaeus

(sermon 10/24/21)

Mark 10:46-52

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

He sat there along the side of the road that day just as he did most days, calling out to people as they traveled from there in Jericho to Jerusalem, or from Jerusalem to Jericho and beyond. There was a bit of irony in his situation. He was Bartimaeus – Bar-Timaeus, literally, “son of Timaeus,” his father’s name, which was a variation of a word combining concepts of worth, value, wealth, inheritance; and here he was – broke, considered worthless, cast aside, presumably being punished by God with blindness for some sinfulness in his life, relegated to begging for spare change from people as they passed by just in order to survive, but most days getting more scorn than shekels as most of them tried to ignore him as awkwardly and unsuccessfully as when we might try to ignore the panhandler waving at us while we’re stopped at a red light.

Some days were better for business, as it were, than others. This was one of the better days, as traffic had picked up on the road as large numbers of people were flooding into Jerusalem to observe the Passover. On this particular day the numbers seemed even a little bigger, and based on the conversations he was overhearing it was because Jesus, the itinerant rabbi was passing through town on his way to Jerusalem and a large crowd was following him independent of the Passover festival.

Bartimaeus apparently knew a bit about Jesus – that he was wise, insightful, maybe sometimes even annoyingly so; and having an ability to heal the lame and the sick. Some were even saying that he was the long-awaited messiah. For his own part, Bartimaeus may or may not have thought Jesus was the messiah as he sat there along the dusty road, but at very least he believed that Jesus was able to heal his blindness, and in the process, exorcising several of the social demons, if not literal ones, that were plaguing him. So when Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was near, he began to call out to him for help. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

It was a cry that could have been a reference to Jesus being the messiah; or, it could have been an association of Jesus with Solomon, the literal “son of David” who was widely believed to not only be wise, but also to have been able to heal the sick and cast out demons. Either way, Bartimaeus’ bases were covered, and the double meaning of that term might have pleased him.

As he was calling out, we heard that the people in the crowd told him to be quiet, he was being a bother, annoying; with all of Bartimaeus’ yelling and wailing, they could barely hear what Jesus was saying as he was walking and talking. It was just rude of him to be so disruptive.

But Bartimaeus didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, this was his moment; maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so he just kept yelling and crying out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” On that day, Bartimaeus had the unenviable but real freedom of having nothing left to lose by upsetting the polite civility and conventions around him in order to be heard, and to maybe cause some improvement to his lot in life.

When the people told him that Jesus had heard him and was calling him over, the text says that he jumped up and cast off his… well, something, we’re not totally sure what, because the Greek word used here in the text is ambiguous. It could mean just his outer garment, or it could mean all of his clothing in their entirety; and while the story would still work with either meaning, maybe it would be even more profound, more powerful. if Mark meant the latter. Bartimaeus coming forward to encounter Jesus, naked, completely open and honest, without pretense or cover or camouflage; just as I am without one plea, son of David, have mercy on me.

And in doing what he did, the supposedly sinful and punished Bartimaeus was just one in a long line of people who had exercised that same hard-earned freedom. Job did it before him, as we’ve been hearing in our First Readings the past several weeks. And long after, the supposedly sinful Protestant Reformers did the same, and long after them, supposedly sinful blacks and supposedly sinful women, and supposedly sinful LGBTQ folk, all of them cast off convention and false civility, refusing to be silenced, seeking confirmation of God’s blessing as equal children of God, and seeking betterment of their place in society.

So there stood Bartimaeus, in front of Jesus, waiting. Jesus looked at him, eyes intent, and simply asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus told him. I want to see. He may not have known whether Jesus was the messiah, or just what being a messiah might actually entail; he didn’t understand anything about the fine points of Trinitarian theology or the dual nature of Jesus’ being; he certainly didn’t know anything remotely like any kind of Christian atonement theory. All he knew was that he believed Jesus could help him, in a way that maybe no one else could.

That probably wouldn’t be a sufficiently well-developed statement of faith to get him membership in a lot of churches, maybe most churches, but according to Jesus, it was enough. It was faith sufficient to receive what he’d asked for, and more. He received his sight, yes, but he actually received so much more. He’d been made well, in the deepest sense of the word. In fact, what Jesus actually says here is that Bartimaeus’ faith, his trust, had rescued him, liberated him, healed him – had saved him.

In short, what Jesus did was to make him aware that in fact, he was truly “Bar-Timaeus” – son of value, of worth, of inheritance.

In some way or another, maybe even multiple ways, we’ve all found ourselves sitting in the dust along the roadside of life as all the rest of the world, intentionally or unintentionally, ignores our suffering, our deepest need, however we define that. Maybe they’ll feel sorry for us, maybe some of them will blame us as the cause of our own suffering, but most of them probably just oblivious to us as they go on, wrapped up in their own lives, priorities, destinations. Yes, more than half of us find ourselves in some category of humanity that’s historically had to reject polite rules of engagement, as Bartimaeus did, in order for our voices to be heard and for any real progress to be made. But even if you aren’t in one or another of of those groups, you can still end up sitting in the dust of the roadside, too. The world just keeps going while you struggle with the death of a spouse, a parent, a child. You deal with the stresses of caring for a family member who has special needs, maybe with little or no help from others. Or you deal with uncertain finances, discord in family relationships, or health problems of your own. So many things can put you, put us, in places of suffering as profound as Bartimaeus’. Son of David, have mercy on me.

Frankly, hearing stories like Bartimaeus’ can lead us to consider some really disturbing things: why are other people’s prayers answered but not mine? Does God care more about them than about me? Is God punishing me for something, or rewarding them for something? Does God care about me at all? What was so special about Bartimaeus? Because there were thousands of sick, lame, blind, who Jesus walked past day after day and didn’t heal, and there are countless people who suffer today while others don’t. Truly, Bartimaeus received a gift that very few people do.

But we do have something that Bartimaeus didn’t. He had to wait for Jesus to come along to hear him and save him. We don’t. We don’t have to sit and wait for Jesus to come walking by some day and maybe hear our suffering. For us, Jesus is always with us, when we’re walking down the road, and especially when we’re in the dust alongside it. So with faith – imperfect, sometimes with questions, sometimes doubting, sometimes not fully understanding, but still faith – we still call out to God with our deepest longings, just as Bartimaeus did. And we do still have the great gospel truth that even if we do have to endure suffering, or problems, or neglect, or injustice, or scorn, then God will endure it all along with us. God hears us, loves us, accepts us, even when no one else does. Just as he did with Bartimaeus, Jesus has truly rescued us, liberated us, healed us, saved us. He has literally made us all Bartimaeus – sons of value, daughters of worth, children of inheritance; today, tomorrow, and forever.

Thanks be to God.

Four Lives

(sermon 6/27/21)

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

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

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

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Mark 5:21-43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

Seeing Jesus

Photo by Mark Aaron Smith on Pexels. Used with permission.

(sermon 3/21/21 – Fifth Sunday in Lent B)

John 12:20-36

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

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You might not have noticed yet, but this past week we started doing something new. We’re trying to add new content on our Facebook page every day; that way, if you like or follow the church on Facebook you’ll be notified of something going on with us on your timeline every day. Of course, some of this we were already doing. On Mondays, we’d already been posting a text version of the sermon from the day before. Every Wednesday is our Morning Prayer livestream; Fridays you get the weekly announcements email and the sermon preview; and Sunday, we’re worshiping together. In addition to those, now on Saturdays we’re publishing a preview of the music that will be part of the following day’s worship, including maybe who’s performing, what the music is, and maybe a little bit of the history of some of the music. And now on Tuesdays we’re featuring “Tell Us Tuesdays.” A lot of organizations and places do this same thing. Basically, it’s asking some question and having people to share their answers or thoughts about it. The questions aren’t anything hard – I promise we’ll never ask anything that requires advanced calculus – they’re just meant to be something interesting, thought-provoking, lighthearted, and hopefully fun, and something that might allow us all to get to know one another a little bit better.

This first Tell Us Tuesday, we started basic and offered a slightly tweaked version of a commonly-asked question. We asked, if you had a magic superpower that enabled you, once a week, to have lunch with anyone at all, living or dead, who would you pick for your first week’s lunch, and why? And as a follow-up, who might you have the second week’s lunch with? We got several good and interesting answers. One person said that they’d pick Jesus, because it would be a fascinating and deep conversation, and boy did they have a lot of hard-hitting and important questions for him.

It’s an answer that a lot of people offer when this question is asked. You might even remember that George W. Bush was asked a variation on this same question during a presidential campaign – what historical person would you most like to meet – and he gave that same answer, prompting some people to worry that he was “too religious” for the job. Whatever else George Bush’s merits or flaws, I don’t think that his answer to that particular question was really anything to hyperventilate over, since an awful lot of people would, and have, said the very same thing. In fact, I don’t have any statistical data to prove it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, in fact, that wasn’t the single most popular answer to that question, at least within the primarily Christian West. It’s simply true – a lot of people want to see Jesus.

In fact, that’s exactly how today’s gospel text begins, too. Some Greeks had come to Philip, asking to see Jesus. They didn’t ask Philip * about* Jesus. They didn’t ask for a brochure. They didn’t want a link to his website or podcast; they wanted the real thing. They wanted to really, truly encounter him, up close and personal, in the flesh. So as you heard, Philip and Andrew went to Jesus and tell him that there are some Greeks there who want to see him. But then, Jesus starts in on a dissertation about how a grain of wheat has to lose its life in order to be reborn, to grow, and sprout into something bigger and better than itself. Now, we know that in a literal, scientific way, a seed doesn’t actually “die” in order to grow, but Jesus is speaking metaphorically, poetically, here, so let’s grant him a little leeway. After he says that, he continues on about how anyone who would be his follower would have to do something similar; and cryptically saying that he himself has to do the same sort of thing.

From a broader theological and literary standpoint, people have said that this appearance of the Greeks seeking Jesus, and Jesus’ answer, is meant to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ mission beyond Judaism and extending outward to include the Gentile world as well. That’s likely true. But on a more basic level, asking Jesus if he’d see the Greeks who were there, and getting Jesus’ dissertation, I could imagine Philip and Andrew looking at each other and asking Jesus, “So… is that a yes or a no?” Jesus seems to ignore their question completely. But given a second look, maybe that isn’t the case at all. Maybe his response is precisely an answer to the Greeks.

Maybe Jesus is saying “Do you want to see me – to really see me? Look around you. Wherever and wherever you see someone giving of themselves; whenever you see someone who isn’t afraid to risk themselves in order to help, to achieve something bigger, greater than themselves, something that will benefit many more people than just themselves – whenever you see that, you’ve already really, truly seen me. You’ve encountered me. You’ve experienced me.”

Maybe Jesus was saying to them “You have the luxury of wanting to see me while I’m still here in the flesh – a mere circumstance of time and place, for you and me both. But there will be others to come, many others, who will want to see me but who won’t have that luxury. So that’s my answer to anyone, anytime, who wants to truly see me. Any time you see a person willing to put themselves on the line, in a place of risk, anyone willing to put themselves in that place of insecurity that comes from considering the lives and needs of others ahead of their own, you’re seeing me. You’re seeing my very essence, my eternal being and meaning and message, all of it existing since before creation and existing throughout the cosmos and all space and time. It’s an eternal truth: if you see someone doing that, then you are really, truly seeing me. And you are really, truly seeing a follower of me, even if the person themselves would never identify themselves that way, even if they’d be upset hearing that description of themselves. Still, that’s the eternal truth.”

Maybe that’s what Jesus was saying. Maybe in Matthew 25, he’s saying the same thing about where anyone can see Jesus, and what it means to be a follower of him. Maybe.

And maybe Jesus’ words here make the Lord’s Supper all the more poignant a way of being really, truly in communion with him, really, truly united spiritually with him – the one who died and was raised from the dead; resurrected, reborn, for the good of all the world. Think of the everyday, common elements that we use for Communion: A grain of wheat dies, grows, and becomes something greater than itself, life-sustaining bread. A grapeseed dies, grows, and becomes something greater than itself, life-enriching wine. What better way to express this eternal truth of how, and where, and in what, we encounter, experience, see, Jesus?

Given that possibility of how and where we might see Jesus ourselves, I invite you this week to think about your own lives, and to remember where, and in what circumstances, and in whom, you’ve actually seen Jesus. Where have you unwittingly found yourself on holy ground, marveling at being in the presence of the divine – when you’ve seen someone selflessly giving of themselves for someone else’s benefit? And maybe as a follow-up, can you think of any time in your life when maybe someone else saw Jesus when looking at you?

Come to think of it, that might be a good question for this week’s #TellUsTuesday.

Thanks be to God.

Win Some, Lose Some

(sermon 6/28/20)

Offered the morning after the killing of Tyler Gerth in downtown Louisville KY

rembrandt sacrifice of isaac
The Sacrifice of Isaac, Rembrandt, 1635

Genesis 22:1-18

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

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The past few weeks, we’ve heard parts of the story of the life of Abraham. Today, we’ve heard probably the most well-known of those stories, the one of him almost sacrificing his son Isaac, before God stops Abraham from carrying it out.

There’s no question that Abraham was a person of deep faith and trust in God; that comes through in a number of ways in the various stories about his life. But it’s also clear that he was capable of real human failures, as I suggested when we looked at the less-than compassionate way he treated Hagar and his firstborn son, Ishmael. And now we have to consider his actions in today’s story, too.

I mentioned in this week’s email that this particular story has traditionally been interpreted as an illustration of Abraham’s great faith; as one of his most defining, successful moments. But I really don’t buy that. I think the traditional understanding of this story is a load of BS, and it’s led to a lot of harmful theology and ways of thinking about the nature of God.

The very beginning of the story says that God decided to test Abraham’s trust by telling him to do this horrible thing. I’ll say right now that I don’t believe that God actually does this kind of thing – to test people like that, to intentionally put us in situations of trial or temptation, setting people up in horrible or painful situations, just to see if they’ll fail the test. As if God was just bored and decided to jerk people around just for sport. I think that for God to act like that would be evidence of a terrible, abusive, uncaring God; a God unworthy of our praise, our gratitude, and certainly our worship; a God completely at odds with what we’re taught about God through Jesus, and through the overarching totality of the scriptures. In the Presbyterian tradition, we have a several principles to use to try to understand scripture. Three of those principles are: the rule of Christ – is it consistent with what Christ taught? The rule of scripture – is it consistent with the overwhelming witness of scripture? And the rule of love – is it the most loving interpretation? The idea of a God who plays with the lives of human beings like that fails on all three of those counts. So no, I don’t think that God tests people like that.

But whether I do or not, the writer of this story did. They lived in a time, and in a social and religious context, in which people did believe gods acted that way with us puny mortals. So for the sake of understanding this story a bit better, at least for the moment let’s assume that God does test people like that. Even if that’s true, when God tested Abraham by telling him to kill his son, I believe that for Abraham to have passed the test, he wouldn’t have had to say yes, but no. If this was a test of Abraham, it was to see if he would use his God-given critical thinking skills to question what he’d been told. If this was a test of Abraham, it wasn’t one that he passed; it was one that he failed.

We know that Abraham had the backbone to stand up to God when he wanted to. We saw it in the say he stood up to, and haggled with, God in the form of the three travelers that we heard in previous weeks, when Abraham was upset over the idea of the loss of innocent lives. So why was he silent here? Why didn’t he put up more of an argument when more innocent life was at stake and in this case, it was the life of his own beloved son?

I don’t have an answer for that. But whatever the reason, he didn’t. He just blindly trusted in God’s authority and accepted what God said without questioning whether it was right or not. The truth is that when Abraham went through with getting ready to kill Isaac, and God had to step in to stop him just before he did, God wasn’t pleased with Abraham; he was appalled.

Clearly, Abraham was an imperfect, very human, soul. The story of his life shows that when it came to getting things right, his overall record was win some, lose some, and contrary to the traditional interpretations, and contrary to even the intent of the original writer of this story, locked in their own historical context, I think this story is an account of Abraham’s biggest failure.

So it seemed to me as I read this story again this week, that as we hear this story now, in our own context, that there are two particular takeaways for me.

First, we need to understand the great danger, the terrible things that are possible, by uncritically accepting what we’re told, particularly by authority figures, simply accepting the truth or the acceptability or the goodness or rightness of the thing just because of who’s saying it. God has given us, as a terribly important part of our having been created in the divine image, the ability to critically think and to question and not to simply accept what we’re told, automatically taking it at face value. This means that we not only can, but we’re called to, we must, question and challenge what we’re told, regardless of whoever and wherever the information is coming from. This is especially important in our own time. We need to be a concerned with the harm and loss of innocent life as sons and daughters, children, men, and women, continue to be sacrificed in our neighborhoods and on our streets, every bit as much as Abraham was about the loss of innocent lives in Sodom and Gomorrah. We have to critically question the narratives, the explanations we’re offered to explain or justify these sacrifices in our own time. As a matter of our faith, we need to hold up what we’re told and to weigh it against those same three principles mentioned earlier: does the situation, and what we’re being told about it, square with the rule of Christ; the rule of scripture; and most importantly, with the rule of love? Using our critical thinking skills is one of the most important things we can do as people of the kingdom of God.

The second takeaway to me is one of extreme grace, one of good news. Because even though Abraham failed this test miserably, God still remained with Abraham. Provided for him. Blessed him. God kept covenant with him, even in spite of the fact that his faith was imperfect, to put it mildly – just as my own faith, and your own faith, our society’s faith, is less than perfect, too.

To consider just how badly Abraham could screw up, and still be forgiven and not abandoned by God, is a story of the amazing breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy and graciousness – it’s a story that affirms to me that given my own ability to get things wrong, and given my own mediocre record of win some, lose some, I, and you, will also remain within that full breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy and graciousness, just as Abraham did. I consider that the best news ever, and to that, I can only say

Amen.

 

Where Do You Draw the Line?

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(sermon 6/14/20)

Genesis 18:1-8, 16-33

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. …

Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

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In Islam, Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” – people of the holy scriptures, the sacred texts, that were the forerunner to, and that laid the groundwork for, their own sacred texts. It might be even more accurate to call us “People of the Story,” since so many of our sacred texts are actually stories. The power of story is immense. These stories are usually powerful in themselves, and carry important messages in their own, individual rite. But we also need to see that the individual stories are strung together to convey some larger, even more important, message.

That’s certainly the case with the portion of Genesis that today’s scripture readings are part of. Today, we heard two connected stories about Abraham, just two parts of the overall story of his life that point to a larger message being conveyed. In today’s first reading, we hear about three travelers who stop to visit with Abraham. It isn’t really explained in the story exactly how Abraham knows this, but somehow he just knows that he’s being visited by God – maybe it’s God accompanied by two angels, or maybe all three of the travelers are collectively God – maybe an Old Testament precursor to understanding God as Trinity. We don’t really know which is the case, but suffice it to say that somehow, when these travelers arrive Abraham understands he’s in the presence of the divine.

And when they arrive, Abraham extends them great hospitality – he invites them to sit and relax, he brings them water to clean up with, and he asks if they’re hungry – “Oh, let me get you a little snack” he says – and then, he goes to Sarah and tells her to get some flour and bake up something special for the visitors – and apparently, plenty of it; he tells her to get three measures of flour, which is about a five gallon bucket full of flour; more than they could possibly eat.

This degree of how far overboard Abraham goes – almost to cartoonish levels – is intentional, and important. It’s meant to drive home how important it is, and to what lengths we should go, to show hospitality to, and to offer help and support to, others who are in need. Part of the message of this story is to teach us that we need to think in terms of this kind of extravagance when considering people’s needs, and to have this level of care and compassion for others. We need to think beyond just helping to fulfill a person’s basic, minimal needs, and to make sure that, as much as it’s within our ability to do so, to care for them and to help meet their needs abundantly.

But the story continues. After Abraham and the three travelers have eaten this feast, they’re sitting in the shade of a tree, letting the meal settle in. Maybe God’s sucking on a toothpick and offers a polite little belch of contentment as they’re relaxing and enjoying the beautiful day.  But as they’re getting ready to get back on the road, there’s something on God’s mind, something disturbing the contentedness of the moment. And finally, God comes clean and tells Abraham the purpose of their travels. They’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah, and they’re going to destroy the cities because of their evil and their unrighteousness. That’s all that we’re told here; God doesn’t offer any more detail about what that unrighteousness is – but we get clarification from the prophet Ezekiel, in the 16th chapter of his Book, when he explains that the “sin of Sodom” was that they were arrogant, full of self-pride; they were overfed, taking up more than their fair share of things, and they were unconcerned with the needs and suffering of others. They didn’t help the poor and needy. In other words, their attitude was the exact opposite of the extravagant consideration that Abraham had just extended to the travelers, and that point was meant to be seen by readers of this story.

And as you heard, when God tells Abraham what’s about to happen, Abraham is perplexed. Upset. Surely, he’s been to these two nearby cities many times. His brother Lot and his family live there, and he surely knew others who lived there, too. And he knows that they aren’t all bad – there are some good people there, too, at least in Abraham’s estimation, and so he has the audacity to enter into a bargaining session with God. Surely, you wouldn’t destroy the whole city if it meant killing, say, fifty innocent people as “collateral damage” in the process, would you? And God says No, I wouldn’t kill fifty innocent people. And Abraham presses his case: “You wouldn’t permit the unjust killing of forty-five people in your larger pursuit of justice, would you? And God say No, not forty-five, either. Well then, Abraham says, how about forty innocent lives? Would you consider that an unfortunate but unavoidable trade-off to achieve your bigger plans? And again, God say no, not forty. And it went on and on, all the way down to ten, when God says that even if the rest of the two cities deserved destruction, still, God wouldn’t go through with the plan if even as few as ten righteous, innocent people would be killed in the process.

Among other things, this story is an expansion on the issue of where God’s mind is with regard to extending consideration, and hospitality, to people.

In our lives, so much of our existence deals with trade-offs. Grey areas. Compromises, choosing the lesser of two evils. Living on this side of the gates of Eden means we’ll always end up having to deal in those kinds of compromises. We end up drawing lines of acceptable death somewhere all the time. When a bridge is built, it’s assumed that, say, two construction workers will get killed during the work. But the bridge still gets built; the legal and insurance costs related to that are just factored into the cost of construction. It’s the same with skyscrapers, and on and on all the way down to the most mundane of our consumer items. Sometimes, we’re conscious of the trade-off, and other times we aren’t, but whether we are or not, we’re still drawing those lines in our choices.

Of course, right now, as a society we’re caught up in two different questions of compromise – two different kinds of the calculus of death”: first, considering what number of people who will die as a result of reopening our economy and resuming large gatherings in the midst of the ongoing pandemic would be an acceptable trade-off for the sake of the economy and getting back to normal – normal, at least, if you aren’t one of the dead ones. And second, in a situation maybe more directly  like the Abraham/God bargaining session, how many deaths of innocent people are an acceptable trade-off in the pursuit of justice, in this case, the pursuit of having a safe community by way of policing – and again, “safe” assuming you aren’t one of the innocent ones who gets killed.

So where do we draw the line?

Wherever we draw it, I suspect that God would want us to draw it in a different place. I think it’s pretty clear that when it comes to where we “People of the Book,” we “People of the Story” have currently drawn those lines, the God who we profess faith in – the God who calls us to exhibit the same extravagant compassion and hospitality as Abraham; the God who would destroy entire cities for not extending that kind of compassion and hospitality to people; the God who nonetheless would call off those plans for destruction if it would result in the death of as few as ten innocent people – that God would be disappointed, even appalled, where our current society has drawn its lines.

It’s so hard to know what to think, she thought to herself as she sat in her kitchen. All those protestors yelling and chanting and blocking the streets, and certainly there had been some violence and vandalism, and that was terrible. But still, the protestors had a point, and it just turns your stomach to see the videos of those people being killed by police officers. Police officers! What in the world is going on in this world? Police officers are supposed to protect and serve, and why all of these terrible killings? Lord knows the police have a difficult and dangerous job. Like that nice young man whose family had moved into the neighborhood this past year. Dan was his name; he’s a police officer. He and his family had actually started going to the same church as she did, and she’d had a chance to get to know him as she spoke with him there a number of times. He was a nice man, a friendly man – a good man. And he was definitely having a hard time right now, working long hours as all the protests went on, every day, all day, and every night.

Just then, her oven timer beeped. She went over to the oven and pulled out the cookies she’d been baking. After they’d cooled a bit, she carefully stacked them in a plastic container, and on a piece of tape on the lid she neatly wrote the name of Dan, the police officer. Inside, she’d written a note that said “You have a difficult and dangerous job. I hope that as you carry out your important work, you’ll  do it with care and compassion for the people you are trying to protect. May you have a blessed and safe day.” That should be a nice gesture, she thought. I hope he’ll appreciate it, and it will give him a little boost, and let him know he’s appreciated.

As she thought about having gotten to know Dan at church, she also thought about Simone, a young African-American woman who went to the same church. Simone had grown up in the church, actually; she was baptized there as an infant and had been there ever since, through all the years. The woman had known and loved Simone almost since the day she was born. Now, Simone was a young woman in her twenties, and now she was one of the protestors, out in the street every day demanding justice for the innocent people who have been killed by police – victims of individuals, to be sure, but even more importantly, victims of an entire policing system that was inherently plagued by systemic racism. In fact, Simone’s own 14-year old cousin was an innocent victim of one of those killings.

It’s just so hard to know what to think, she thought. Yes, there are many good police officers out there – people like Dan – but there are many who aren’t too, way too many who aren’t, and the policing system is obviously terribly flawed. She didn’t have all the answers to how to fix things, , but still, she knew that the current situation had to change – this just isn’t right. Too many innocent people are being killed.

Just then, the oven timer beeped again, and she pulled more cookies out of the oven. These went into a container, too – this one with Simone’s name on it. And inside, she’d written a note: “You’ve suffered terribly, and for way too long. This situation is wrong and has to change. I hope that you can achieve that. May you have a blessed and safe day.”

And so may we all.

Amen.

The Eighth Day

(sermon 6/7/20 – Trinity Sunday)

trinity

Lectionary texts: Matthew 28:11-16    Genesis 1:1-2:4a

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So today is Trinity Sunday, and because of that, we hear scriptures that point in some way to this understanding of God being triune yet still one; this way of understanding God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was a way conceived of in the first few centuries of the church in order to try to synthesize all the various things that the church fathers understood about God through the life of Jesus, and the scriptures, and their own experience. It was an attempt at coming up with a way of understanding the totality of God that encompassed all of that. So today, we heard this short text from Matthew where Jesus is quoted as referring to baptizing in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – even though, to be honest, many if not most biblical scholars now feel that this was a later addition to the original text, made by well-intentioned scribes after the doctrine of the Trinity had been fleshed out.

And we hear also hear today’s first reading. Why is this text – the first account of creation, found at the beginning of Genesis, a reading for Trinity Sunday? Well, I suppose because in this, the first of two different creations accounts in Genesis, God is referred to by the Hebrew word “Elohim.” In the second creation account, the Hebrew word used to refer to God is YHWH, but in this first account, it’s Elohim. Elohim is actually a plural noun, literally meaning “gods,” or translated in other places in the scriptures, “angels” or others of the heavenly host. So throughout this account, the Creator is somehow a plural Creator, and of course in this story we hear that beautiful “Let us create humankind in our image…” giving support to the idea of understanding the divine One in some kind of underlying plural way, understanding God as somehow a unitary plural,  that provides some undergirding for imagining God as Trinity.

Even though this is Trinity Sunday, I’m not going to dwell much more today on the concept or the doctrine. I’m not going to try to explain it or come up with analogies to show what the Trinity is like, because every single one of them that people have come up with over the last two thousand years fails. As well intentioned as they are, and as much as they might get right, they end up getting at least as much wrong, sliding into any one of countless heresies that orthodox Christianity says the Trinity is not. Three leaf clover, ice/water/gas, God being a single actor playing three different roles in a play, every single one that’s been thought of ends up falling short. So I’m not going to spend any more time trying to get into the details of the Trinity, other than to say that it was the best way the early church fathers came up with as they tried to describe and explain and categorize a God who is indescribable, inexplicable, and impossible to categorize.

Don’t misunderstand me. I still believe firmly in the nature and attributes of God that the Trinity tries to pull together into one comprehensive, “theory-of-everything” concept. And of course, we’ll continue to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Spirit; and we’ll recite the Apostles’ Creed outlining believing in the Father, Son, and Spirit, and mean it all. But I just believe that when it comes to the Trinity, it’s more valuable to consider what the implications of this somehow unitary, somehow plural divine Being might be.

And I think one of those things to consider springs out of this creation story that we heard today.  In this story, we follow along through the six allegorical days, the six movements of the divine symphony of creation. We hear about the creation of the cosmos, and of the earth, and then all of the plant and animal life on earth, and finally, of human beings ourselves, and we’re told that we were created in the very image of the divine Creator. All of us, in our seemingly infinite diversity and variety, all of us being a reflection of the totality of the divine image, which itself also points in an important way toward that unitary/plural concept of God. And then, after those six days, those six movements, we follow along through God’s seventh day, the seventh movement, maybe the John Cage 4’33” movement of creation – the time of Sabbath.

Some people think that it all stopped there. But the story doesn’t tell us that God quit; that creation was all over at that point. On the contrary, Sabbath is a time of rest, a time of  renewal, of being refreshed, in preparation of something yet to come. And what was yet to come in this case was the “eighth day”, the eighth movement, of creation. It’s scientific fact that creation is continuing. All across the galaxy and beyond, throughout the universe, new stars, new planets, are continuing to be created, gases cooling and condensing and giving cosmic birth of whole new worlds. And on a smaller scale, here on earth, creation continues here, too. Yes, on this eight day, God continues to create, but now not alone – now, we’re part of the picture. God created us in God’s own image, including the creative impulse, and has called us to be co-creators.

Back in my undergraduate architecture days, my favorite professor was Arthur K. Anderson. I had Art for several different classes. He was a truly, genuinely good person. He was a gifted architect, a gifted academic. He truly cared about his students, and it showed. One of the things that Art would do, as a class would start, whether it was a design studio or a more traditional classroom, he’d convene the class, drawing us together, rubbing his hands together like this, probably without even consciously thinking about it, and with a big inviting smile and an almost conspiratorial look on his face, he’d say, not literally but in so many words, What great things are we going to do today? What are we going to create today? Every so often even now, I’ll be in a similar setting, and I’ll catch myself rubbing my hands together just like he used to do, and I’ll laugh thinking about that kind of unconscious tribute that I was offering to him even all these years later.

So in this eighth day, in that same spirit, what shall we create? It’s pretty clear just thinking of these most immediate times, we’re creating new ways of understanding the church, and how it lives out its purpose. It also seems that in this eighth day, we have an opportunity to create new ways of being a society, more just and equitable ways; ways more consistent with valuing all human life as being precious in the eyes of God, and all deserving of equity and justice. I pray that we don’t lose the opportunity that we have in this moment to achieve that new creation; I’m hopeful that we won’t lose it.

We also realize that every morning, every day, God is creating something new in us, ourselves. Through the very nature of our creation, we have the opportunity and the ability, with God’s help, to create, and re-create, our own personal ways of living as a person of God; keeping the good, erasing the bad and recreating new, better replacements for the bad.

So on this Trinity Sunday, as you think about the truly inexplicable nature of this unitary, plural God who is the source of all love, and mercy, and justice, and compassion, I invite you to look in the mirror and ask yourself: What will I create today?

Amen.

 

 

Hearing in Tongues

(sermon 5/31/20 – Pentecost Sunday)

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Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again. Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

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Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

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It’s often helpful when hearing a passage of scripture to place ourselves within the story that’s unfolding – and not just doing that once, experiencing the story from just one vantage point, but to move around within it – imagining the story and thinking about the different ways that different people in the story would experience it from their vantage point. What were they seeing in that moment; what were they hearing; what were they even smelling? What were they feeling/ how did they understand what was playing out in front of them?

When we hear this familiar passage from Acts – the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus’ disciples and their going out into the street proclaiming the gospel, speaking its words of prophetic truth in all the languages of the people of the city and all the religious pilgrims who had come there from countless different places – I suspect that most of the time, we hear the story, and imagine it, through the eyes of the disciples. I suspect it’s normal for us to first see ourselves in this story as the ones doing the speaking.

But what if we changed that? What if we changed places? What if we experienced this story from the vantage point of the people who were out in the street, and who were hearing the message from the disciples? There they were, hearing this message from people they didn’t know, people different from them, and even though they were speaking a familiar language, the message they were offering was a discomforting one. One that they didn’t necessarily want to hear. One said they needed to repent and turn away from their current ways.

It isn’t always easy to hear challenging, prophetic words like the ones spoken by the disciples that day; in fact, it usually isn’t. And it’s even harder when those prophetic voices are coming from people who are different from us, and who are conveying their message in a way that we wouldn’t normally expect. We saw that in today’s first reading, from the Book of Numbers, when Moses’ hand-picked 70 elders, the select leadership of the Israelites, had gathered, and the Holy Spirit descended upon them as it had on MOses himself, and as it did on Jesus’ disciples, and the seventy all started to prophesy. But then, two others began to prophesy, too – Eldad and Medad, two men who weren’t part of the leadership, the inner circle – they were just part of the common folk, out in the midst of the people, began to prophesy, and some in the leaders didn’t like it and wanted them to stop. But Moses said no – that the Holy Spirit will move wherever it will, and will speak through whomever it will, and when they speak, they should be listened to.

Today, on this Pentecost Sunday in the year 2020, I have to think that we’re in the midst of a similar moment. A moment where important, prophetic words are being spoken by people who are different from most of us, and they’re conveying their message in ways different from what we might typically prefer. They’re speaking words of truth that can sometimes be discomforting, and that can stretch us into places that might sometimes be hard to accept.

A big part of the Pentecost story is the part about the disciples speaking in tongues. But this Pentecost, I think that we white people should be less concerned with speaking in tongues, and more concerned with hearing in tongues. Truly prophetic words are coming to us in the past weeks from members of the black community, who are feeling pain. Hurt. Grief, frustration, anger, and yes, rage, and all of it is absolutely justified. We all have hearts; most of us feel those same emotions over the recent tragic news stories about the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and others. But in a sense, we can’t really feel those emotions in the same depth, in the same way that they can, not fully anyway, because not only are they feeling those base emotions, they’re experiencing them through the lens, the filter, of the more than 400 years of abuse and injustice that they’ve endured on this continent at the hands of white people and white power structures – a 400-year history of injustice that Mayor Fisher very properly referred to in his press conference yesterday morning.

The blunt prophetic words coming from black mouths now and landing harshly on white ears are telling us that our governmental and social systems are broken. They have utterly failed people of color. They’re structured in a way that creates privilege for whites and injustices for people of color, and that makes true racial equity impossible. Right now, people are going out into the streets here in Louisville, and Minneapolis, and Atlanta, and countless other cities, speaking words every bit as prophetic and true as the ones spoken by Jesus’ disciples when they went out into the streets of Jerusalem on that day of Pentecost. These prophetic voices of our black brothers and sisters, like the voices of Eldad and Medad, and like the voices of Jesus’ disciples, can’t be ignored. We dare not ignore them. They are demanding – and through them, the Holy Spirit is demanding – that these things have to change. Racism is sin, and the structures in our society that perpetuate racial injustice is just as much sin. As a matter of our faith – as a matter of our hearing and responding to the moving of the Holy Spirit through all of those demanding change now – we have to stand in solidarity with them, and walk alongside them, and work together with them, to dismantle racism and racist structures in our society.

And as we hear those voices, we can’t allow acts of vandalism and property damage, which is virtually inevitable in times of frustration and rage, to distract us from our commitment to anti-racism. As bad as vandalism is, there is no equivalency in it; there is no negating the more life-threatening injustice going on. I heard one store owner whose windows were broken downtown being interviewed. He was saddened by the damage to his store, but still, in a show of support for the protestors and their cause, he said, “my window can be replaced; Breonna Taylor can’t.” To be blunt, if we allow ourselves to get more upset, more enraged, more drawn to action by vandalism than we get over the unjust killing of human beings, we need to be asking ourselves some very serious questions.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that violence is not the answer, that rioting is not the answer, but that still, a riot is “the language of the unheard” – meaning that while violence and vandalism is wrong in the abstract, when pushed beyond a certain threshold, a certain intolerable point of injustice and powerlessness, it is an all but inevitable and understandable reaction from anyone, whoever they are. So the real solution to the problem of people rioting, of engaging in the “language of the unheard,” is to actually *hear* them, and to actually do something about the injustices and powerlessness they face. This time, in the name of Jesus, and literally, for the love of God, let’s really hear them, and working together, and with God’s help, let’s fix this ungodly, unjust, and evil situation.

Amen.

For We Too Are God’s Offspring

(sermon 5/18/20)

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Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, the one who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to repent, because God has fixed a day on which the world will be judged in righteousness by a man whom God has appointed, and of this God has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

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Do you have a favorite movie? I’m talking about the kind of movie that you can watch over and over again, no matter how many times you’ve already seen it. The kind of movie where you have most of the lines memorized, and you know exactly what’s coming next every moment. And that familiarity doesn’t ever make the movie old; on the contrary, since you already know all the plot points, it allows you to see additional smaller, more subtle things going on that you’d never noticed before.

Now imagine if you were watching that movie – and, for that matter, it’s the exact same thing with a favorite book that you can read over and over – but this time, out of the blue, the ending was completely different. This time, the plot unfolded in a completely new and unexpected way.

Well, there’s something like that going on in today’s second scripture reading, from Acts. In the ancient world dominated first by Greece, and then by Rome, the story of the trial of the philosopher Socrates was one of the most familiar stories known, just like your favorite movie or book. Even in the little backwater of ancient Palestine, the story of Socrates’ trial and his being sentenced to death, was well-known to a large chunk of society. In 399 BCE, Socrates had been charged with creating civil divisions and corrupting the youth by allegedly introducing new deities, different gods than the ones officially recognized by the city, and allegedly supporting their worship over the officially recognized ones. He was brought before the tribunal, which met at the Areopagus, in the city of Athens, to face these serious charges. And despite the fact that Socrates was one of the world’s greatest minds, and that his Socratic method of thought laid the groundwork for almost the entirety of Western logic and philosophy, he was still found guilty and sentenced to death.

So virtually anyone who first read or heard Luke’s Book of Acts would have known this story inside and out, and they certainly knew its ending. And it would have immediately come to mind as they heard this story of the apostle Paul that we heard today – being summoned by the Athenians to the Areopagus to explain himself and his positions, telling him it seemed that, just as was the case with Socrates, he seemed to be introducing a new god to the people in his preaching and conversations. Obviously, the stakes were high for Paul.

But in a brilliant maneuver, he was able to succeed where Socrates hadn’t. As we heard in the story, as Paul was out and about in Athens, he’d seen a temple dedicated to “the unknown god” – apparently, an attempt by the Athenians to not upset and suffer the wrath of some deity they’d missed in their official list. So Paul was able to say “No, no, I’m not introducing a new god – I’m telling you about this “unknown” god; you don’t know them but I do, and I’m here to introduce them to you.” And it worked. Paul, or more to Luke’s point, God, had changed the ending of the story.

Another part of how it worked was that Paul quoted two different Greek poets in his argument – including the quote “For we too are God’s offspring.” While that was a line from a Greek poet, it was hardly a concept exclusive to just Greek thought – it was also firmly embedded in Hebrew creation accounts and theology, too.

This particular quote stuck with me as I read this passage this past week. Many people in our own society would repeat that thought too; at least, they’d pay lip service to it. But I wonder how many people really believe that – that all human beings are created equally as God’s offspring, and therefore, all due equal justice, equal social equity, and equal human dignity.

Of course, in just the last two weeks, we’ve heard about the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was killed by two armed white men who chased him down while he was jogging. The two men claimed they suspected him of stealing something from a construction site he’d stopped to look at. It was horrific, terrible. And you know that if it had been me who stopped to wander through that construction site, as I’ve done countless times in my life, or if it had been any one of you who have the same skin color as me, those two wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Plus, I mean, Arbery was in a T shirt and jogging shorts; where, in the name of God, could he have possibly been hiding stolen construction materials? And who appointed these two to be the neighborhood police? Who gave them the idea that they could use lethal force against someone who wasn’t posing a threat to anyone, let alone someone who wasn’t posing any physical threat to them? For Pete’s sake, one of the men admitted to going home to get a handgun before chasing Arbery down; there was no physical threat to these two. And for that matter, where did they learn the sinful, evil idea that preserving property – just stuff; replaceable, material stuff – would ever justify killing another human being – someone who, too, is God’s offspring? Where did they get the idea that it’s legally and morally acceptable to kill another human being just to protect property? Unfortunately, they got it from many places in our society, because sadly, our society has what I would consider a fetish over property rights. That we place such a high value on the right to our stuff, our property, that in the eyes of many people, we have the right to kill other people to protect it. And hand-in-hand with that is another fetish that too many in our society have, that they have the right to protect that property with guns. Gun worship, and property worship; these are the two idols, the false gods that our society faces in so many quarters today, that too many people actually worship over God. That’s the “cake” of the problem, if you will; the icing on that cake is the idea of white supremacy. The idea that these two men apparently had, that they had some kind of God-given right to do what they did because of their racial superiority.

While there are many great things about our country, and our society, there are also many ways that it’s sick – very sick, and it has been since its very beginning. A lot of that sickness comes from the way we white Americans have exploited, abused, enslaved, robbed, imprisoned, and killed the members of virtually every group of non-white, non-male, non-straight, people we’ve encountered, or dragged to, this continent; and most of the time, we’ve justified these sinful acts as being consistent with our Christian religion – often saying not just that what we were doing was OK; but that we had an actual *command*, a charge, from God to do so – it was our “Manifest Destiny” that white European Americans would subdue the continent and everyone already here or not like us. We did it, and we used our religion to claim, that in fact, we aren’t all equal – that we aren’t all equally God’s offspring and therefore, not all deserving of equal justice, equity and dignity. That whites – and yes, straight male whites – were superior to everyone else.

I know that you know all that. But still, no matter how much we know these things in our heads, the poisons of white supremacy and racism and all other forms of bigotry still show up in our thoughts, in spite of ourselves, and we participate in and benefit from social structures designed to benefit whites at the expense of people of color and other minority groups.

I know that you all know that, too, and that when you hear stories like the one about Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor right here in Louisville, or any of the countless similar stories, I know that your heart breaks, just as God’s own heart breaks. But ultimately, maybe you feel helpless and you throw up your hands and wonder “what can I do about it?”

Well, what we can all do, as a matter of our faith and our belief that we are all God’s offspring, is learn as much as we can about the situation. And that requires listening to the voices of the people being hurt, taking their stories to heart, taking what they say seriously, even when it discomforts us and hurts us and makes us get defensive. And we can work, and vote, and use every means of communication we have to put an end to any law or any system that treats members of any group of people less equally, less justly, than others. You can make your voice heard, calling for an end to the unequal treatment of people in policing, in the courts, in hiring, in lending, and in the provision of adequate social services and education. When you hear people being unjustly treated in our society cry out “Hey, our lives matter, too; we too are God’s offspring!” answer “Yes! I support you!” And just as importantly – maybe most importantly of all – any time you hear someone make a disparaging, dismissive, bigoted comment about any group of people, whether based on skin color, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, economic status, educational status, whatever – any time you hear something like that – something that feeds the kind of ignorance and hatred and white supremacy that got Ahmaud Arbery killed – you can have the courage to speak up and tell that person they’re wrong, and that, as a matter of your Christian faith, and your belief that we are all equally God’s offspring, you won’t let that kind of hate go unchallenged.

I know that can be hard, especially if the person spreading the hate is someone important to you; someone you love. It can be scary. But take heart, and have courage – because the same God who gave Paul courage and the right words to succeed on the Areopagus when even Socrates couldn’t, will also give you courage and the right words, too. Who knows? If we all did that, with God’s help, maybe we can change the ending of our story, too.

Thanks be to God.

Hearing the Wind

(sermon 3/8/20 – Second Sunday in Lent)

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Photo by Joshua Abner from Pexels

John 3:1-17

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.

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The man had heard the stories about Jesus. He’d heard some of his teachings in person, enough to know that he was the real thing – smart beyond what would have been expected from his age and his decidedly common and uneducated background; his insights giving pause to many older and  far more educated religious scholars and leaders. He really wanted to meet this man, to sit and pick his brain, have a one-on-one conversation with him, but he knew that could cause problems. Jesus’ teaching had ruffled a lot of feathers; Roman, religious, and in general among the man’s social circles. It had gotten to the point that being seen around Jesus could hurt the reputation of a good, respectable person. And Nicodemus was certainly that – a respected and educated member of the community, serious about his personal religious faith, involved in his community in any number of ways. If he lived in our time, he’d probably belong to the Rotary Club and volunteer with the Kentucky Derby Festival, and he’d likely be a good solid Presbyterian, or maybe a Methodist. In short, Nicodemus was a good person, someone we’d like, someone we’d probably like to be like – not the clueless hypocrite he’s been painted as in too many bad sermons and essays.

But this good man still had to consider appearances in order to protect his reputation. So he waited until after dark, when most people were at home and behind closed doors, to visit Jesus. And after circling around the block on the opposite side of the street three times, until the coast was clear and there wasn’t anyone else walking by who could spot him, he darted walked across the street and slipped into the doorway where Jesus was staying, and where the two of them had this conversation that’s gone down in history.

Many times, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus have been portrayed as him offering Nicodemus a scornful rebuke, even a mocking of Nicodemus, that Jesus was angry at him. Sometimes, just as it is with a text message or an email, it’s hard to read the actual emotions and intentions behind written words, and maybe Jesus really was in a mood and throwing shade at Nicodemus; I don’t know for sure. But when I read these words, I think of times when I’ve received similar words of confrontation from someone – times when someone has offered me a challenge, getting me to dig deeper into the real meaning of my own words or thoughts; or what was at the root of the way I felt or responded in some situation. In those times, the person offering me that challenge, that confrontation, wasn’t mocking me or angry with me at all – on the contrary, the words were meant to be constructive, coming from a place of mentoring and compassion, trying to get me to see something important to my own development and growth. You’ve probably had similar experiences with someone in your life, too.

I personally think that was more the tone of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus wasn’t telling Nicodemus that he’d missed the boat and was heading in the complete wrong direction. Instead, he seemed to be telling Nicodemus that he’d compartmentalized his religious faith. He was on the right path; he just needed to take it further. He needed to broaden his understanding of that faith, and to let it touch every aspect of his life. It wasn’t something that could be reduced to strictly a personal relationship with God – it was that, to be sure, but it was also so much more than that. And that’s what Jesus was inviting Nicodemus into when he talked about God’s Spirit being like the wind; we can hear it, and feel it on our skin, but we don’t know where it’s come from, and we don’t really know exactly where it’s going. Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to allow himself to hear and feel the Spirit, and to follow where it was trying to lead him, even if he couldn’t tell exactly where and how that was all going to end up. Jesus seemed to be telling Nicodemus that if there were any consequences to following that holy wind, that Spirit – and in all honesty, there probably would, there always is, as Jesus’ own life offers example – that what he would gain, the experience of living this abundant, more fulfilling way of life, more in tune with God and God’s broader desires for all of creation, and for all people, would be far more than anything he lost in the process. This is what Jesus meant when he talked about being born from above, being born in a new way.

I think that’s why this story is one of our Lectionary texts for Lent. We can all benefit from Jesus’ advice to Nicodemus. Like him, I suspect that most of us aren’t really off on a completely wrong path, but sometimes, we might allow ourselves to compartmentalize our faith, to keep it in a comfortable, non-threatening box, not allowing it to shape and inform the totality of our lives, only hearing the comforting parts and rationalizing away the parts that might make us uncomfortable.

Now no one is recommending everyone quitting their jobs and running off to seminary, or selling all their possessions and checking in at the Gethsemane monastery or the Iona Community in Scotland. It’s really more like this: does your religious faith go beyond just knowing what you believe? Is it just one of many branches of your life, restricted to this area over here, with all the other areas of your life being separate unrelated branches; or is your faith at the root, at the core, and everything else springs from it, and is formed and fed by it?

Does your faith shape how you live? How you treat and relate with other people? How you conduct your business affairs?  It’s a big election year; how do Jesus’ words inform your politics? When something Jesus taught contradicts some political thing we’ve always believed, that we were taught on our parents’ knee, which one ultimately guides how you fill out your ballot? Does it shape and inform how you schedule your all-too-precious time? When there’s a time conflict between participating in something related to your faith, and participating some other pursuit or activity, how often does the faith-based thing come in second place? Some of the time? Most of the time?

Lent is a good time for us all to hear Jesus’ gentle but blunt reminder, his invitation to allow ourselves to hear and feel the wind of the Spirit, not be afraid of allowing it to shape us, and of following where it leads. Following that wind leads us to the cross, to be sure, but it also leads us to the resurrection, and beyond, as well. That wind, the Spirit of God, is leading us all into an eternal kind of life; a life that’s more abundant, not less, and each step of the way as we follow that wind, it’s leading us closer to God.

Amen.

The (Supposedly) Greater Good

(sermon 3/1/20 – First Sunday in Lent)

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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This past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we started the season of Lent – a forty-day period of time to consider the fragility and the briefness of human life, time for self-reflection and penitence for the times we’ve given in to the temptation to follow our own thoughts and ways instead of God’s. The fact that Lent is forty days long – not counting Sundays – is significant. This number forty shows up over and over again in the scriptures, each time during some time of trial of temptation. Moses and the Israelites wander in the Wilderness for forty years after they left Egypt for the promised land. During that time, Moses climbs Mount Horeb and fasts and waits forty days and nights waiting to experience and hear God, until God gives him the Ten Commandments. Later, the great prophet Elijah goes to Mount Horeb in the Wilderness too, and fasts and waits to experience and hear the voice of God.

And now, on today’s gospel text, we hear that Jesus spends forty days fasting in the Wilderness, too. The parallel, and the purpose of this story here is clear – we’re to understand that just as Moses was the savior of the Israelites in Egypt, and Elijah was their greatest prophet, Jesus is now combined savior and prophet, too; a sort of super-Moses and super-Elijah rolled into one.

As we hear about Jesus’ time in the Wilderness and the temptation he faces, we can see that there’s a similarity in each time Satan tempts Jesus. In each instance, Satan’s temptation is ultimately a temptation to get more quickly, to short-circuit, to the ultimate end, the supposed greater good, in Jesus’ ministry.

You can hear Satan tempting Jesus: Enough of all this reflection time and fasting and navel-gazing – just conjure up some bread from these stones, eat your fill, and get back into town and get on with your real work; stop wasting time here….

You’re going to have difficulty getting people to believe you; you’re going to waste a lot of time convincing people you are who you are, so why don’t you just cut to the chase – show them some big flashy miracle – throw yourself off a tower, and let them see how God protects you; then they’ll believe and you can get on with your teaching….

Look Jesus, we both know what this is all about – your ultimate goal here is to grow your audience, to reach the hearts and minds of the most people, to get more members into the kingdom of God. Do you realize how long that could take? Do you realize how many lives will be lost, how many wars fought, to just try to grow your movement? Really, it can all be so much easier, less blood shed. Just bow down to me, give me your allegiance, and I’ll give you all of them, all the numbers you want, overnight. After that, you can tell them whatever you want. Do these things, and you’ll achieve the greater good. The details aren’t important; the end justifies the means, right?

There are so many times when we all face that same kind of temptation, that the ends justify the means, when in our hearts we really know they don’t. Give a little here, fudge a little there, in order to achieve the goal, to reach the destination that we think God would want. We encounter these kinds of temptations in society. And we encounter them in our own personal lives, too.

She was a middle-aged black woman, a Presbyterian elder, serving on the Session of her church in a moderate-sized Southern city. The congregation was vibrant, but on the smaller side, and like most congregations regardless of size, they really wished they could buck the trends and see some growth. They paid a lot of attention to coming up with strategies focused on getting more members. Her congregation was well known for being relatively progressive, a bit of theological blue surrounded by a sea of theological red. She and the congregation had always been proud to be seen as the standard-bearer in their community for thoughtful, inclusive, compassionate Christian faith.

But now she faced a dilemma. The church was considering doing something that would definitely get the community’s attention. For the sake of our conversation here, it isn’t important specifically what that was, it could have been any number of things, other than to say that it was a bold thing. a courageous thing. A very good, and very gospel thing. But personally, she worried that if they did this thing, many people in the community would be upset. They might face negative consequences. Maybe they’d get some bad press, or at least bad gossip, in the community. Maybe some people would even picket their church. Maybe their property would be vandalized by some ignorant person. Most of all, she worried about how this might affect their hopes for increasing their numbers. Would all this blow up in their faces? Would new people stay away from the church? As a result of all the potential uproar she worried could happen, would even some of their current members leave?

She hated herself for even thinking these things. In her heart, she knew without any question what the church was thinking about doing was really the right thing. On top of that, she was keenly aware of how much she personally benefited, when the church had taken a bold and courageous stand supporting equality for women and equality for people of color in the past, in spite of opposition from many in their community at the time.

But that was then, and this was now, she worried. Don’t we have to be pragmatic about these things? It might sound crass, but if we want to grow, don’t we have to worry about whether we’ll offend some people, and whether what we do will cause a drop in our weekly attendance – and more to the point, in our weekly offering – and how on earth will God’s will ever be achieved if that happened?

And it was when she asked herself that last question that she realized how silly it sounded. And she realized that, as the cliché goes, life – in this case, life in Christ, life as a member of the kingdom of God – is much more about the journey, not the destination. We see in Christ’s life and teaching, and attested to many times in the scriptures, that God seems to be much more concerned about us not giving in to the temptation of not doing what we know to be right, just because we think that doing the right thing will hurt or frustrate God’s ultimate plans.

During this season of Lent, I invite you to ask yourselves – are there places where you can resist that kind of temptation, where you can have that kind of courage in your faith, and in your witness to Christ? And are there places where we as a congregation can do that?

Let’s use this time of Lent to allow ourselves to hear God’s Spirit speaking to our hearts and minds, encouraging us and empowering us just as Jesus was encouraged and empowered in the Wilderness. And let’s let God worry about the consequences that follow from our doing the right things. Because ultimately, God sets the end goal, God determines what the real greater good is, and achieves it, not us – and in fact, that real greater good might be something very different from what we think it is anyway.

Thanks be to God.