Write Your Own Ending

(sermon 3/31/19)

two brothers

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” 

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It almost never seems to fail that if there are two children in a family, they’ll end up being polar opposites. One will be outgoing, the life of the party, while the other one will be shy and introverted. One will be the athlete, and the other will be the academic. One will be technically oriented, while the other will be the artist. One will follow all the rules to a T, and the other will constantly be coming home late after curfew with their underwear in their back pocket. Some of that is probably innate, but I think a lot of it arises out of every child’s need to stake out their own territory as they develop their own sense of self, independent of the people around them. This is true now, and it was just as true in Jesus’ time, and you can see it in play in this parable.

The younger son can’t wait to get away from home – from the family, the farm, the boring town he grew up in. He wants the city, the excitement, the culture, the restaurants. He wants to live the fast life. Meanwhile, his brother was the one who always knew he wanted to stay right where he’d grown up, where he had roots. He was the straight arrow, the quiet, dependable one who never gave his parents any problems and who probably opened a good universal life insurance policy and a 401k on his eighteenth birthday.

Of course, we know what happens. The younger son realizes that living in that faraway place wasn’t quite as glamorous as he’d pictured. It was a tougher, harder place that could chew up and spit out even a more disciplined and cautious person, let alone someone like him, who spent money like it was going out of style. And when he’s at rock bottom, he decides to go home to the judgment and ridicule that undoubtedly faced him there, but it would still be better than his current situation.

But instead of judgment, he discovers the fact that to most parents, a child can’t do anything so bad that the parent could ever reject them or stop loving them. This is something that seems to be so inherent to us as a species. I know that it happens in some instances, but for the life of me, I can’t understand how. Apparently, that’s what the father in this parable thought, too.

In this section of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is being criticized by religious leaders for keeping the wrong kind of company. For hanging out with the wrong crowd. For associating with the kinds of people who their religious rules condemned. People who were supposed to be shunned, not loved and accepted. According to these religious leaders, it was important to take a moral stand against those kinds of people, and here was Jesus doing just the opposite. Jesus’ answer to that criticism was to tell them a couple of parables, this being one of them, in which he teaches them that God doesn’t really give two flips about their rules that would set up people to be rejected. So first he tells a parable about leaving 99 sheep to go find the one lost one. Interestingly, the way he tells that story, Jesus essentially says to them, “Surely, you’d risk leaving the 99 sheep alone, by themselves, to go find the one lost one, wouldn’t you?” while, to be honest, I’m pretty certain that many of his listeners were probably thinking “Actually, no, I wouldn’t risk the 99 to go look for the lost one that doesn’t exactly fit my risk management plan; I’d just write off the lost one as the cost of doing business.”

And then he tells this parable, showing how the father in the story shows love and acceptance for even this son, who by their rules and standards should have been rejected when he returned. That was what the kingdom of God was like, Jesus was telling them. Your legalistic rules designed to create outcasts simply didn’t hold water in God’s eyes.

While there are other ways to understand the parable, the most common way of relating to it is that the father represents God. Through the father’s unconditional love and acceptance of the younger son, we’re told about the gracious way that God loves us – not according to any human rules, even human rules that might seem logical to us, but according to God’s rules. That no matter who we are, or what we’ve done, or what society’s rules have to say about us, God is working based on a different set of rules – and the most important of those rules is that there is nothing – nothing – that can separate us from God’s love and acceptance.

But if that was all Jesus wanted to teach the Pharisees, he could have told this parable with just the father and the younger son; he wouldn’t have needed an older son at all. So why is he in this story? Honestly, I think he’s every bit as important as the younger son in the story. Through him, we see Jesus’ words of assurance, and warning, to the Pharisees. First, the assurance: Don’t fall into this false sense of threat. Just because God loves these other people that you want to reject, God doesn’t love you any less. Love is not a zero-sum game. It’s the message that every parent has to tell their firstborn child when their baby sibling comes along – don’t worry, you don’t have to resent it when I show love to them; there’s enough love for everyone. That, as the father in the parable tells the older son, he was always with him.

But then comes the warning: Be careful when in your self-righteousness, you set up other people to be unworthy of associating with, or loving, or accepting. This is absolutely not God’s way. When you do that, you become the object of God’s disappointment, not them. Don’t allow your understanding of God, and of what you think God would consider right and wrong, to be guided by narrow-minded legalism, but rather, let it always be guided by the rule of love.

That was the lesson that Jesus taught to the Pharisees through the character of the older brother. And it’s the same lesson that some modern-day Pharisees need to hear, too – Modern-day Pharisees who would:

Use their narrow religious beliefs to justify throwing their LGBTQ child out of the house, and into the streets.

Or who, using the same excuse, would fire a beloved, long-term high school guidance counselor because she fell in love and married another woman.

Or who would refuse to help desperate migrants fleeing for their lives just because they crossed our border illegally.

Or anyone, for that matter, who would support any immoral or unjust situation simply on the grounds that it was legal.

That, to me is why Jesus includes both the younger and older brother are in this parable. Through them, they give us glimpses of eternal truth – glimpses of grace, of assurance, and of warning.

At the end of this parable, the father tells the older son not to remain in his state of judgmentalism and anger, but rather, to let go of it, and to come in and join the grand party. But we aren’t ever told if he did or not. It’s the great unanswered question of the parable, and we get to write our own ending to it. So did the older son take the father’s assurance and warning to heart?

And when we find ourselves in the older son’s shoes, will we? We get to write our own ending to our story, too.

Thanks be to God.

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(sermon 3/17/19)

christchurch mosque

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

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You can hear the sadness in Jesus’ voice in today’s gospel text. First, some Pharisees come to warn him – look, we know you’re a man of God, we agree with what you’re saying, but you’re ruffling Herod’s fathers. You’ve got to be more careful – there must be some way you could continue to spread your message without upsetting or discomforting people. If you aren’t more careful, there’s going to be a backlash, and you’re going to get squashed like a bug.

It must have been the same kind of feeling that Dr. Martin Luther King felt as he was sitting in the Birmingham jail, reading the letter from the handful of local clergy telling him they agreed with him in principle, but urging him to be more moderate, not to make waves, to take things more slowly and not upset the governmental or social powers that be.

It had to be frustrating to Jesus when people wanted him to moderate and modify his message to make it more palatable. To add an asterisk, fine print, terms and conditions to the good news that God had sent him to proclaim. As he said in this passage, he knew that it wasn’t anything new; people had done the same with the prophets who had come before him, and now it was the same with him.

As he’s considering that reality, he refers to his love, and God’s love, being like that of a mother hen, protecting all of her chicks under her protective wings, and leaving none of them unprotected. It’s beautiful imagery. It’s also one of the times that we see God being described in female terms, reminding us that we always need to try to use inclusive, non-gendered language when talking about God.

But when it comes right down to it, we’ve always had trouble accepting the fullness of that image. It’s easy for us to imagine God’s protective wings for us, but many times we’ve had difficulty understanding that those wings are meant for all of us.

This morning, we’re experiencing yet another in a long line of examples of just what that sinful way of thinking can lead to. Today, God’s heart must ache along with ours in the wake of the terrorist attack on the two mosques by anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, white supremacist terrorists in Christchurch, New Zealand. Just as God’s heart ached when the local Hindu temple was broken into and vandalized. Just as it ached after the terrorist attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Just as it aches in the wake of every church burning and bombing and killing. Just as it aches every time someone tries to mistreat or threaten violence against someone else because of a difference of religion, or any other distinction.

These kinds of tragedies can only happen when we think that some of us are less worthy of being loved by God; less worthy of being under those wings, than we are. They’re only possible when people accept  this vile, obscene argument that God, the Creator and Parent of us all, loves some of us more than others; or even worse, loves some of us but some others not at all.

Some more conservative Christians criticize more progressive Christians by claiming that the progressives portray a God who’s too warm and soft and fuzzy, and that denies that God would ever exhibit wrath. Well, I think it’s in precisely these kinds of times, when we want to put terms and conditions on an unconditional God; when we want to limit which of God’s chicks are worthy of being under God’s protective wings; when we refuse to hear and accept God’s saying “No! All of them; they’re all mine!!!” – That’s when I believe that God’s wrath is real, and at its greatest. I firmly believe that whenever we try to put terms and conditions on God’s unconditional love for all people, that’s when we really risk facing the wrath of God.

As we continue our Lenten journey this season – as we recommit ourselves to hear and follow Jesus, who accepted no terms and conditions on the gospel – let’s also offer prayers for all those affected by the New Zealand terrorist attack. Let’s pour out our compassion and our love for them in this time of their suffering. And just as importantly, let’s examine our social structures, our churches, organizations, governmental systems, and public figures – anyone or anything that would proclaim a false gospel of fear and ignorance and hatred against different groups of God’s people. Let’s examine anyone or anything that would directly or indirectly incite violence against other supposedly less desirable. Anyone or anything that would say that some of us are insiders worthy of God’s love and protection, and others are dangerous “invaders” who aren’t.  As part of our Lenten journey of moving closer to Jesus and closer to the cross, let’s examine all of those people and things that would put forward this obscene false gospel of tribalism and tribal supremacy, however they might want to define the tribe. And whoever t is, and wherever we find it, let’s recommit, in Christ’s name, to having the courage to stand up against it and to call it out as the literal evil that it is – even in cases where it might cause discomfort; even if it might ruffle feathers or make for difficult conversation at the dinner table; even if Herod doesn’t like it.

At the same time, let’s recognize that this false gospel doesn’t only show up out there, in others. In ways large and small, sometimes in ways we don’t even notice, we fall into that same false gospel that there are others outside our own tribe who God cares about less, too. It’s wired into us as part of our evolutionary development; it’s part of the survival instincts encoded into our most elementary, reflexive brain functions. I fall into it; you fall into it; we all do. But through Christ, God has called us new creatures, and has called us to seeing life as God sees it.

The reality of the no-strings attached way that Jesus describes God’s love is very good news for all of us, because no matter who we are, at some point when people are trying to define tribes, and who is, and isn’t, worthy of being under God’s protective wings, we’ll all be defined as outsiders, supplanters, invaders. So in these weeks of Lent – this time of self-examination, and meditation on our relationship with God and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, let’s try with God’s help to refocus on the reality that all people are God’s people. Let’s remember the good news from Genesis that God created all human beings and called us very good. Let’s remember the good news from the gospel according to John that God so loved the world, not just part of it. Let’s remember the good news that all of us are worthy of the same love, and protection, and justice, and mercy, and being under God’s wings. All of us. No asterisk. No fine print. No terms and conditions. Not now. Not ever.

Thanks be to God.

A Coin Called Gratitude

(sermon 10/22/17)

denarius - tribute penny

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

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This morning, we hear another story from Matthew’s gospel, this one immediately following the one we heard last week. At this point in Matthew, tensions are building between Jesus and the various power groups of the time, and this tension is continually building up to the climax point of the story that we all know is coming a just a few chapters later.

In this passage, we’re told that two groups came to Jesus – the Pharisees and the Herodians. It’s an odd coalition, since the Pharisees and the Herodians were political opponents, each vying for power against the other. The Herodians were a political group whose power was derived by their open support of the occupying Roman government. They were the “go along to get along” group within Jewish society. Many people felt that the Herodians were sellouts – that if they could even still be called Jews, they were apostate Jews who had allowed the norms and standards of the day to divert them from the true Jewish faith and what the Jewish scriptures clearly taught, which, presumably, would never permit working with an occupying government. By contrast, the Pharisees derived their power by portraying themselves as the true voice of the people, the supposedly “true,” pure Jews who hadn’t allowed their faith to be distorted by the society around them. In their role, the Pharisees prided themselves on a meticulous, rigorous, highly pietistic observation of the faith. They still pretty much went along with the Roman occupiers, but they gained popularity with the people by at least putting to voice the religious and nationalistic thoughts of the general population before ultimately going along with Rome in the end.

So when it came to the issue of paying the tax mentioned in this story, the groups were really of two different minds. The tax needed to be paid using a particular Roman coin – a denarius. In value, it was a day’s wage for the average worker, the first-century equivalent of Joe Six-Pack. It wasn’t anything big or fancy; in fact, here’s a reproduction of the coin itself – it’s hardly bigger than a modern dime. Being supportive of the Roman government, the Herodians supported paying this tax, considering it just the price we pay for the benefits and protection given by the government, even if it was sometimes heavy-handed. But the Pharisees took the opposite approach, saying people of the Jewish faith shouldn’t be forced to pay this tax – which made them as popular with the people then as any political group who wants to lower your taxes today. The Pharisees’ argument against them having to pay the tax was made on religious grounds. The coin itself bore the image of the emperor, and the inscription that ran around the edge of the coin identified the emperor as divine – which was clearly inconsistent with Jewish belief. The Pharisees argued, then, that for the people to pay this tax using a coin that called the emperor divine would be a violation of their deeply held religious beliefs – it would make them complicit in something that their religion taught them was improper and immoral.

But now, these two opposing groups find a common cause – they’re both feeling the pinch of large numbers of people following Jesus and his teaching, instead of falling in line with one of them. It’s in their mutual interest to find a way to get rid of this upstart. So they come up with this attempt to trap Jesus into saying something that could be used to discredit him. They ask him if it’s right to pay the Roman tax. If he says yes, the people will all turn away from him and hate him. If he says no, then he’s become an enemy of the Roman state, and we all know from history that there was very little future in that.

In the end, Jesus gives them the brilliant answer that we’ve all heard many times. He doesn’t fall for the trap. He rejects the Pharisees’ claim that to pay a tax with the coin that is inscribed with something contrary to their religious beliefs would be inconsistent with their faith. He rejects their argument that to do so would make them complicit in what they perceive as immorality. He simply acknowledges that in this life, there are things that are the emperor’s, and things that are God’s, and we’re responsible for both – but by far, the more important thing for us is not get bogged down with silly, counterproductive arguments, and to focus on giving to God the things that are God’s.

Ever since this story was written, Christians have debated about where that actual divide is. What is the emperor’s – what is the world’s – and what is God’s? What do we owe to our civil government, either in terms of our money or our obedience to civil laws established for the general population which might conflict with our own particular beliefs, and what do we owe to God?

Based on the many times Jesus is quoted in the gospels talking about faithful use of our money, our financial resources, there’s really no question that regardless of how much we might owe the government, we still have an obligation to use our finances in a faithful manner to support the kingdom of God, and most directly, to do so by financially supporting the local congregation in a way that is reflective of our total resources. Someone was said that if a preacher were to preach about money in the same proportion that Jesus is quoted about it, the preacher would deliver 17 sermons about money per year. I’ve never actually checked that statistic, but I suspect it’s probably about right. But don’t worry – I know that if I preached 17 sermons about financially supporting the church per year, you’d run me out of town, so I’m not going to preach that many money sermons – but I am going to preach some, and this is one of them.

You know that we’re in the midst of “Engage,” our annual stewardship campaign. And all through this campaign, you’ve been hearing – and you’re going to hear again today – about some of the amazing and wonderful things about our congregation; the things that should make us really enjoy and be excited about what we’re all about, both in terms of spiritual support and development for those of us who are part of the congregation, as well as in terms of our broader outreach to the community. Springdale is indeed a remarkably active congregation, living out the kingdom of God in both of those directions, and as we truly, prayerfully think about what Springdale means, to the community at large and especially in our own personal lives, we should be grateful to God for this congregation and we should gladly support it financially.

In your stewardship materials that were mailed out to you, you found a “step” chart, that showed how many households were supporting the church at five various levels of giving. I think it’s helpful to see where we ourselves are on those steps in relation to how many are on other steps – and especially, to consider if maybe this is the year that we should step up. Maybe it’s time to step up to the next level on the diagram. Maybe it’s just time to move somewhere up even within the same step, but then maybe next year move into the next level. I can tell you that I’m increasing my pledge this year, and I invite you, I challenge you, to do the same. I’m doing because, yes, I know the pragmatic reality that everything costs money, and every year everything costs more – but mostly, I’m doing it because I know how important this congregation is to my own spiritual life and development.

Being faithful stewards of the financial resources that God has given to us is a very important part of “giving to God what is God’s.” But it’s also important to remember that our time has been given to us by God. And our talents, our skills, our passions, all of these have been given by God. Because of that, we need to be faithful in the giving of those things back to God, too. These are two faces of the same coin, if you will, of giving to God what is God’s, and if the coin in the gospel story is a denarius, maybe we can call this coin “Gratitude” – gratitude for the fullness of the love and mercy that God has blessed us with. That’s exactly why this year, in addition to the standard financial pledge card that came in your stewardship mailing, there’s also the checklist to indicate how you might like to offer your time and talents in service to God. I hope that everyone will fill out both sides of that card, representing both sides of that coin called Gratitude – both sides being important spiritual disciplines that help us to deepen our faith.

In this story, Jesus asks his opponents whose image is the coin created in. For ourselves, we all know whose image we’re created in – God’s. We’re supposed to reflect God’s image in this world. In order to do that, we need to act in ways similar to the one whose image we were created in. And being faithful stewards, with both our money and our time, with both sides of the coin, is how we do that.

Thanks be to God.

Trad/ission (sermon 8/30/15)

tevye tradition

Watch video of this sermon here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HP1fFNdqdE4

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”   – Mark 7:1-23

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We’re probably all familiar with the story of “Fiddler on the Roof” – where Tevye, the Jewish milkman in a little Russian village at the beginning of the twentieth century, sings praises to tradition – the social glue, the thing that gave order and meaning to life in the family and the village. But Tevye is living in a time of great social upheaval that’s challenging a lot of those traditions, and he’s struggling to keep up. One of his daughters wants to break tradition and receive his permission and blessing to marry the man she wants, instead of the old man picked for her by the traditional matchmaker. Another daughter doesn’t just want to choose her own husband without the matchmaker, she tells him they aren’t even asking for his permission, just his blessing. And as hard as it is for him, Tevye finds ways to navigate and accept these changes to the traditions that had given order to his own life. He finds a new balance, a new normal. But when a third daughter wants to marry outside the faith, that’s a bridge too far. Tevye disowns her and treats her as dead. In their final meeting, all he can mutter is “God go with you,” and he won’t even say that to her face; he won’t even look at her. In this gut-wrenching scene, he can’t let go of his beloved tradition even when it keeps him from having a relationship with his child.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus faces challenge from the religious leadership – basically, the first-century equivalent of all us official, ordained leaders in the church – because he and his disciples weren’t following some of the long-standing traditions of the faith – in particular, they weren’t observing the ritual hand washing, which was more than just washing for cleanliness. But Jesus called them hypocrites, valuing human tradition valuing form and appearance, over actual substance. As Jesus looked around him, he saw disciples who had given up home, family, career, some even social status, in order to follow him; and here they were now, being shunned just for not washing their hands in a certain way.

In all honesty, the religious leaders were just trying to do what they thought was right in God’s eyes. Observing those traditions were what identified them as a distinct people, the people from all the cultures and religions that surrounded them. The Church has a similar concern – we’re called to be an intentional community of faith, distinct in some ways from the culture around us. A lot of our traditions arose out of that same goal. I suppose you could say that the religious leaders who were challenging Jesus just wanted to make sure things were being done “decently and in order.”

In his criticism of them, Jesus wasn’t saying there was anything inherently wrong with human tradition, rules, or rituals. But there’s a problem when adhering to the tradition becomes more important than the underlying issue of God’s will, and God’s mission.

In the church, we’re living in a time of upheaval that’s just as unsettling as the times that Tevye was going through. Just as his traditions helped him in many ways, our traditions can give us a sense of identity and community and comfort. And that’s all very important, and very good – unless we end up making the same mistake that Tevye did, and we allow our grip on tradition to keep us from being in loving relationship with other children of God. Because what does it say if we – you, me, all of us – think it’s more important to hold onto our traditions as they are, rather than adjusting them in order to be more welcoming to others? What does it say if we won’t welcome others into the fold just because they want to wash their hands in a different way?

There were two small, struggling downtown congregations in a city. Covenant Church was a beautiful old building with a rich history. But the surrounding neighborhood had changed, racially, socially, economically. The remaining handful of members, all well past retirement, had moved miles away into the suburbs decades ago and only came into this part of the city on Sunday mornings. They had talked about ways they could change to reach out to the very different people in the neighborhood around the church, but ultimately they decided it would be too much work for them, and that in any case it would be too much of a culture shock for them. It would have meant changing their familiar patterns of worship and church life too much. Oh, the doors would always be open for any of the neighbors to come in, but there was really only so much they could change in order to be appealing to those people. Really, in the end, Covenant will always be Covenant.

Except that now it isn’t. Membership continued to decline in accordance with the immutable truth of actuarial tables. Finally, the congregation folded and the building was sold. Now, the city’s Arts Council owns it, and they host organ recitals and other concerts there, which is nice – but it’s a failure in terms of advancing God’s mission of outreach and serving and loving the people who live in the shadow of the bell tower.

Less than half a mile away sits Old Trinity Church. Another beautiful, even if badly run down, building with a storied past. They faced the same challenges as Covenant, but they realized the reality of the situation they were in, and they decided to rethink their traditions and ways of being the church. It was hard, but they decided to change their worship to be more appealing to their African-American and Latino neighbors. They set up community gardening plots on their vacant lot, for struggling families to grow some of their own food. They started a neighborhood food pantry, and they supplemented the usual staples with surplus fresh fruit and vegetables from the garden plots.

Today, Old Trinity is still small. It’s still struggling. But it’s still there – and it’s growing, because it was willing to adjust its traditions to meet the new realities of the community that God placed them in.

When we think about tradition in the church and how it should work, I think we need to always keep in mind that God is found precisely at the place where church tradition, and church mission, intersect, and where both are mutually advanced. God blesses traditions that create spiritual nurture, a sense of community, and emotional comfort, while not obstructing the mission of reaching out and welcoming others into the church, into the Kingdom of God.

We understand this idea of adjusting traditions in order to advance the overall mission in our own lives, don’t we? Remember being just married, or just beginning a serious relationship, and your spouse or significant other makes you a nice home-cooked meal of your favorite comfort food – meat loaf and mashed potatoes. And as you look at the plate, you think:

“Mmm, meat loaf and mashed potatoes… but what’s this? This meat loaf was made in a round casserole dish; my mother always made ours in a loaf pan. Who ever heard of a round meat loaf? It’s ridiculous!

…On the other hand… it wasn’t made with oatmeal filler, like my mother’s always was. I never liked that; I always hated finding oatmeal hiding in my meat loaf. This has bread filler, it’s smoother; I like that much better.

…On the other hand, why does it have this brown gravy on top? Everyone knows a good meat loaf has to have a ketchup glaze! And God, if I have to endure gravy on top of my meat loaf, would it be too much to ask for at least a little bit of ketchup on the side?!! (sigh…)

…On the other hand… these mashed potatoes – I’m sorry, Mother, forgive me, but your mashed potatoes were always lumpy and stiff and were as bland as wallpaper paste. But these – these are light and smooth and fluffy, and I think they have some sour cream whipped into them; they’re delicious! All in all, this is really not bad…”

You think about all these things, and you realize that your real mission in this relationship is to start a new life together, living and loving and supporting one another, caring for one another, and even forming new traditions together. So you take another bite, and you say,

You know, I think this is the best meat loaf I’ve ever had in my life! It’s just the way I like it!”

And you mean it, not just because it’s good, but because you love the other person. Loving and working together, you’ve established a new baseline. A new normal. A new “TRA – DITIONNNNN!”

Thanks be to God.

Repent! (Sermon 3/30/14)

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John 9:1-41

 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

*****

I don’t know for sure, but this might be the longest Lectionary text in the whole three-year cycle. Maybe it isn’t, but it sure seems like it. It’s really tempting to cut it short, and just highlight one snip of it or another. But I usually try not to do that, because really, the whole thing is such a great story. I mean, there’s a little bit of everything in there – a miracle, drama, intrigue, family dysfunction, people covering their own butts, powerful people behaving badly, and there’s even a little humor thrown in as the healed man tweaks the noses of the religious leaders, just as icing on the cake. It really is a great story – but it’s more than a story, too; it’s full of enough theological issues and questions to stir up more than a month’s worth of sermons. Does God really give people ailments or problems to punish them for their sins, or the sins of their parents, as the disciples think? Would God really make someone suffer a lifetime of being blind just to make some point some day when he’s an adult? Couldn’t God figure out a more humane way to make the same point? Why did Jesus need to make mud with his spit to heal the man? Besides the fact that it’s just gross, he seems to have been perfectly able to heal other people without any special props or theatrics. And what about the blind man himself? In other gospel passages, Jesus isn’t able to work any miracles because the people don’t have enough faith, but this poor guy doesn’t exhibit any faith at all. He just seems to be sitting around begging, minding his own business until Jesus comes along and heals him. It isn’t until the very end of the story, after everything else plays out, that Jesus seeks the man out again and he actually expresses any faith in Jesus.

Since repentance is today’s theme on our “Cross-bound” Lenten journey, I tried to consider where repentance might show up in this story. I suppose we could assume that the blind man decides to repent from the sinful aspects of his life, as part of his believing in Jesus and worshiping him. But really, repentance just doesn’t seem to be a big thing in the blind man’s story. Maybe his story is a better reflection of how God comes to us seeks us out, before we ever seek God, or ask God to come to us or help us, before we can even see God. Maybe Jesus’ healing of the blind man is a way for us to understand why we baptize infants and small children, like we’ll do in the 10:00 service today – that baptism is a sign of God’s coming to us, and making a covenant with us, not the other way around – that baptism is not a sign of what we’re doing, but what God has already done.

Still, as I continued to think about this story, I the idea of repentance does come into play, but in a reverse way, a negative way – it shows up in the repentance that doesn’t happen, on the part of the religious leaders in the story.

So what’s going on with them? We’ve heard this story and others like it so many times, we’ve been trained to automatically understand the religious leaders, the Pharisees, the scribes, of Jesus’ time as the bad guys. As soon as you hear them mentioned, you can almost hear ominous music in the background. Picture Jews in black cowboy hats or something. But if we take ourselves out of our normal frame of reference for just a minute – if we take off our “Jesus glasses, if we look at the story without imagining these religious leaders on one side, and the healed man and Jesus on the other side, and knowing that we know we’re always supposed to be on Jesus’ side, what were these religious leaders saying? What were they doing? All they were doing was trying to uphold the standards of the faith that had been handed down to them. All they were doing was trying to maintain the sanctity of the Sabbath, and to honor the clear content of the scriptures. Jesus healing this man on the Sabbath was a violation of the multiple, clear-cut prohibition of working on the Sabbath. This was one of the primary moral rules of the faith, so if Jesus didn’t uphold it, how could he possibly be of God? Surely he had to be opposed, in order to stand up for the holy lifestyle that God calls us to in the scriptures.

These religious leaders weren’t really bad people. They were actually what most of us would consider good people – honorable, religious people who thought that what they were doing was right in the eyes of God, that they were upholding an important moral standard in the name of God. But no matter the fact that they had good intentions, Jesus still ultimately criticized them, and called their actions blind, and sin.

It’s easy for us to read this story and understand with perfect hindsight that Jesus was telling them that they were missing the point; that by paying such rigorous attention to the letter of the Law in the scriptures, that they were blinding themselves to God’s actual purpose behind it all – that of God’s love and mercy, and extending that love and mercy to others. In this miracle, and others as well, Jesus made the point that love and mercy and grace the real goal, even when that meant bending what was so clear-cut in the black and white of the written scriptures. Jesus’ point in this story is that they needed to repent from their rigid and counterproductive ways, in order to see God’s real intent.

It’s easy for us to see that in this story. But the truth is that this same story has played out time and time again throughout the history of our faith. Time and time again, we, both as individuals and as the church, have had to learn the same lesson that these well-intentioned religious leaders in Jesus’ time had to learn. Time and time again, we’ve had to repent for our clinging to form over substance, to Law over Gospel. And the closer it gets to our own time, and our own lives, here and now, the harder it can be to see.

There’s a Christian charitable organization called World Vision, which does wonderful good works for the poorest, neediest of children around the globe. World Vision found themselves in the news this past week when they announced that even though as an organization they were very conservative theologically themselves, they had decided to change their hiring policies to permit the hiring of gay and lesbian employees, even those who might be part of a legally performed same-sex marriage. In their announcement, they said that while they maintained their scriptural interpretation that these potential employees were living in sinful ways, they realized that not all Christians agreed with that traditional interpretation. And that, in fact, in some way or another, we were all living in sinful ways. And they wanted to show the spirit of Christian unity even within the broad diversity of the faith, to show that very different people can come together in this faith to share Christ’s love with others.

Unfortunately, that new policy didn’t sit well with a lot of World Vision’s financial supporters – people who had signed on to help sponsor the care of a needy child somewhere in the world. They accused World Vision of throwing out the Bible with the bathwater, of not upholding the clear moral teachings of the faith. Some of them even went so far as to say that based on this decision, they weren’t even really Christian anymore. And in their moral indignation, in order to take a stand for what they saw as God’s standards, these supporters decided to pull their funding. They chose to stop supporting the children they’d made a commitment to, to stop supporting the good work of a good organization, because in their eyes, the charity was violating the clear teaching of scripture. The blowback was so intense that within just one day of their announcement, World Vision announced that it had changed its mind, and in order to make its critics happy, it would continue in its discriminatory hiring practices.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

As we continue through the Lenten season, this Sunday we think about repentance. Repentance within ourselves as individuals, when we make the same mistake as the religious leaders in this story, paying more attention to Law than to Gospel. And repentance when we do the same thing collectively as the church. This Lenten season, let’s pray that where we’re blind, that Jesus would heal us, and be the light of the world for us, and give us vision just as he did with the blind man in this story. And let’s pray that the vision we would have for the world would be Jesus’ world vision, and not someone else’s.

Thanks be to God.