Salt and Light

(Sermon 2/5/17 – Youth Sunday)

saltlight2

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

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Last week, we heard the Beatitudes as our gospel text, that very familiar part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. What we heard today was the part that immediately follows that one, and it’s probably pretty familiar, too. Jesus tells his followers that they’re supposed to be like light and salt to the world.

Whenever this passage comes around in the Lectionary, preachers pretty much know, and listeners pretty much know, where the sermon is likely to go: since we’re followers of Jesus, and we know God’s good news for all people, we’re supposed to be a very visible, positive model for others to see. We’re supposed to let our light shine, for others to be attracted to like a moth to a porchlight, and to draw others to become followers of Jesus, too. We’re the knowers and keepers of what’s good and right and true, that others are supposed to look toward and be inspired by.

That’s where most of these sermons go. That’s what most people are expecting to hear. That’s where many of my sermons on this passage have gone. And generally speaking, depending on how it’s presented, that’s a good message to get out of this. Jesus’ own words certainly bear out that message. But I think there’s more to it than that, and I think that Jesus’ own words indicate that there’s another way to think about this too.

When I was a kid, I remember helping my Dad as he was doing various things. Dad worked long hours, six days a week, and when he’d get home he’d have a to-do list that would often take him late into the evening to get done. And for a lot of those things, whether it was repairing a leaky pipe in the crawl space, or spending time under the hood trying to keep the aging family car running just a little bit longer, I’d be there beside him, passing him tools back and forth, and most importantly, often holding the big sealed-beam flashlight steady on his hands – so he could see what he was doing, but also, so I could see, because as he worked, he kept up a dialogue with me, explaining just what it was that was wrong, and how it had to be fixed, and what he was doing at each step of the way and why. During those sessions I learned all about the mysteries of the lead-to-tin ratio of solder, or how a distributor or carburetor worked, all periodically seasoned with a mild profanity or two when some all-important screw fell into an inaccessible crack, or he’d skin his knuckles when his wrench slipped. It’s funny how back then, half the time I hated getting dragged away from what I was doing to help him. But now, as I think back on it all, I’m surprised at just how much I learned almost in spite of myself, and how much I value those times with him now.

My point here is that in those times, I was in a literal sense, his light. But it wasn’t light to draw attention to me; rather, it was to focus on, and highlight, and learn from, something else. It wasn’t me, the light, who was teaching anything. I was the one learning something from him, because I was shining a light on what he was doing.

That, I think, is the other part of Jesus’ message in what we heard today. When Jesus calls us the light of the world, it isn’t so much to always call attention to ourselves, or how good or smart or wonderful we might be, or at least think we might be. Often, our job as the light is to focus it, to hold it steady on someone or something else – calling attention to it, not us.

I think this is the point Jesus is making when he calls us the salt of the earth – or, I suppose if you’re on a salt-restricted diet, you could say that we’re the Mrs. Dash of the earth. Think about it: what does salt – or Mrs. Dash – do? It enhances, it draws out, the flavor that’s already in whatever it’s added to. Its whole purpose is to call attention to the other thing, not itself. It isn’t about the salt; it’s about the other thing.

So whether it’s salt or light, an important part of Jesus’ calling us these things is our being those things in order to lift up someone or something else; to make it more visible or noticed.  We’re supposed to use our light to shine it on the good that we see, and to enhance it and learn from it. We use our light so we can see and learn from positive things that people are doing that are making this world a bit more like the Kingdom of God. People who are working to increase educational opportunities where it’s needed, or working to build character or reduce bullying. Or we can shine the light on our youth, so we can see them as the important part of us that they are, and so they can teach us something about faith and worship, instead of always assuming it’s the other way around. We’re also called to shine our light on things that are bad, things that are wrong, too, for people to be aware of it. Shining it on those in our society who endure injustice and discrimination, so we can see what’s really going on, as we listen to them teaching us about its reality and learning from them how to fix it.

There are certainly times when it’s right to think of ourselves as the bright thing, the thing that others are supposed to look to and be drawn to. But there are those other times – personally, I think it’s the majority of times – when the light that Jesus says we’re supposed to be is meant to be focused outward, on someone or something other than ourselves. Using the light to lift up and learn from the good, and to spotlight and help fix the bad, wherever we find it. And really, if we’re that kind of light – humbly turning it outward instead of just using to light ourselves – won’t that actually make others more intrigued and inspired by who and what we are? In the end, won’t that actually make us more the kind of light that Jesus says people will see and be drawn to?

Thanks be to God.

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“None Shall Pass”

(sermon 12/4/16 – Advent 2A)

black-knight

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)

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They all stood there on the platform, waiting for the next subway train to come along. It wasn’t as crowded now, on the weekend, as it would have been on a weekday, but that also meant the trains were scheduled a bit further apart. They had a little bit of a wait, standing there in the stale air filed with the sometimes-questionable aromas that seemed to be typical of all subway stations, but it wasn’t so bad – there was a pretty good guitar player playing a little further down on the platform, and more importantly, they were excited about where they were going on their little weekend day trip. Just then, the next train came along; whooshing a gust of air into their faces as it went by, then gradually coming to a stop. Soon enough the doors opened, and a handful of people got off, and then they hopped on and quickly got their seats, just in time to hear the familiar “Stand clear of the closing doors, please!” and with that, they were on their way.

The subway was just the first leg of their trip, getting them to the main train station. There, they hopped on a train that went far out of the downtown core. It poked  up out of the ground in the middle of working-class apartment blocks, graffiti-covered warehouses, sidewalk vendors selling bootleg everything, and mom-and-pop bodegas, and then it kept going – out beyond all the urban buildup, first out into the nicer, quieter, suburban neighborhoods, and then even further – out into the remote, undeveloped area, well past the immediate influence of the city itself. Even though it really wasn’t all that far a distance, and it was a relatively short train ride in real time, from their vantage point this was out in the middle of nowhere; they were out in the wilderness. And then they arrived. The train stopped and over the garbled, barely understandable PA system they heard, “This stop is the end of the line; all passengers must depart the train here.” And that was exactly their plan. From here, they’d go out a bit more; maybe on foot, or maybe a cab or Uber if they got lucky, but that didn’t seem likely given that the stop was such a tiny place it really could barely even be called a town. They were headed out to a spot along the shoreline of the river to see this man who had become famous practically overnight; this man who just went by the single name, John. YouTube videos of this crazy-looking man had gone viral; news crews had come out and reported on him. Everyone in the city was talking about him. Everyone was trying to get out here to catch him in person, to see what he was all about, with his outrageous look, his big, booming voice, the wild eyes, and his fire and brimstone preaching that the Kingdom of God was near – that God was just about to step into the world in a powerful way, and that they needed to turn their lives around, get right with God, to prepare themselves for that.  So they all came out to see him. Some people thought he was right on target; he was just what people needed to hear. Some people thought he was crazy. Other people thought he was just a huckster, a con man looking for some kind of payoff on the backside of all this theater. Some of them laughed at what they thought was just melodramatic shtick; yelling at people, insulting them, calling them children of snakes and other colorful things, and even getting people to wade out into the river, supposedly to cleanse themselves of their sins and be made whole and new – when the reality was that given the murkiness of the water along this particular stretch of the river, they probably came out dirtier than when they went in. Still, lots of people heard what he was preaching, and waded on out there. Whether they thought he was nuts, or a con man, or they took what he was saying to heart, the one sure thing was that they’d all remember him, and what he’d said, long after they got back on the train and made their way home in the city.

Well – maybe going out of the city and going out into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist wasn’t quite like that, but it was probably something very similar. And it’s true – John the Baptist was definitely a memorable person. He was part of the long line of biblical prophets who made their point, who drove home the message that God was telling them to convey, in ways that were often quite memorable, even shocking at times – some of the outrageous things they did to get people’s attention make even the most shocking of actions taken by today’s protestors look bush league by comparison. And every year during the season of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist again. Right in the middle of the anticipation and excitement leading up to Christmas, right in the middle of Advent talk of hope, and peace, and joy, and love… we come face to face with John. Weird John. Socially Unacceptable John. Scary John. As I said in the Thursday email, for people of my generation, he’s kind of the Advent equivalent of the Black Knight in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, sternly warning that “None shall pass!” to all the joy of Christmas, without first encountering him, and all the potential discomfort that he, and his message, bring to us.

John demands that before we can move past him, we first have to seriously examine our lives. We have to see where we’ve followed ways that aren’t God’s ways, and change that. We have to repent – to turn away from those ways, and get back on course, on God’s path. And honesty, no matter how weird John is, and how discomforting it is to do what he tells us, he’s right – we really do have to do it. Because just as you can’t get to the joy of Easter Sunday without the dread of Good Friday, neither can you get to the full joy of Christmas without the serious reflection, and self-awareness of just how much we need it to begin with.

I know that repentance isn’t a very popular idea. We tend to think of repentance in very negative terms – that we’re supposed to be sorry, very sorry, abject, groveling-in-the-dirt sorry. We can think we’re supposed to feel like garbage when we repent, and if we don’t, then we aren’t doing it right.

Well, we are supposed to be sorry for the ways that we’re not following God’s guidance in our lives; that will always be at last a part of repentance. But as I invite you to do that self-reflection, examining what you should repent of, I also invite you to do it in a more constructive manner than just that. Think of it in terms of just taking a serious look at your life and seeing how you can do better in the future, and move forward from where you are now. Thinking of repentance that way might still be a little discomforting, but maybe it isn’t quite so doom-and-gloom.

If you do examine your life, if you’re like me, you’ll probably find a number of ways that you need to repent, that you need to turn from. And it might even be a bit overwhelming, thinking about how you could possibly make so much change. So maybe during Advent, you could focus in on just one of those things – pick one thing that you want to ask for God’s help in turning around, and improving; making your life more consistent with God’s will. And since today, we lit the candle of peace, maybe that can be how you’ll pick that one thing: is there something in your life that you can change that would establish, or maintain, or improve, peace? That might be peace within your own soul; allowing yourself to forgive yourself for something in your past. Maybe it’s peace between you and a family member, or friend, or acquaintance; maybe finding a way to make peace and move forward in your relationship. Maybe it’s a larger kind of peace that you could work for; some kind of social justice in the world, because we all know that true justice is necessary for any real peace. Whatever it might be that you come up with, hold that thought, and that desire, close to your heart this Advent, and throughout the coming year. Pray for God’s help in making that turnaround, that change. And have the courage to make the change, in every way that you can. Think about this, and pray about it, and work on it. I suspect that if you do focus on how you can be God’s agent of increasing peace in the world – or just in *your* world – it will make this season all the more meaningful, all the more special, because we know that the coming into the world of Christ, the Prince of Peace, is what it’s all about – that’s what’s waiting at the end of the line.

Thanks  be to God.

Enough.

(Sermon 10/4/15 – World Communion Sunday)

Screenshot-Oregon Shooting CNN 2015-10-01-at-11.10.18-PM

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.  – Isaiah 25:6-8

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I was sitting in a local restaurant the other day, working on today’s sermon – or at least, where I thought it was headed at the time. The television on the wall was full of news about the school shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, where, once again, a mentally deranged young man killed and wounded a number of people in order to redress grievances that we don’t even fully understand yet.

These gun-related mass murders happen so often now that they all start to blend together. We can’t even remember the names of all their locations; we confuse the details about the shooter in Sandy Hook with the one in Aurora with the one in Charleston, and soon enough, this one will blend into that mix, too.

While I was sitting in the restaurant, two women and a man were sitting in the booth next to mine. The man blurted out, “Oh great, I see ‘Comrade Obama’ is already using this shooting to call for more gun laws! I’m telling you, what really needs to happen is for someone to take a gun and take *him* out!” At that point, one of his friends shushed him, but he asked, “Why? You worry too much about what other people think.”

As followers of Jesus, we’re called to live in his way of peace. That includes speaking out against the insane amount of gun violence that plagues our society. I believe that as Christians, we have a moral obligation to work to tighten the ridiculously easy access to firearms in this country that make these tragedies all too possible, and all too common. We need tougher laws, and they need to be toughly enforced. People of good will can certainly debate the details of that, but no one can deny that the current situation clearly isn’t working.

But people who say that changing the laws won’t solve the whole problem are right, too. Our society exhibits a terrible devaluation of human life married to a glorification of violence, and as long as that continues, so will tragedies like Oregon. Gun ownership and gun violence are so widespread in our society because we’ve been brainwashed practically from infancy to believe that nothing is ever fully settled as long as there’s still an unused violent option available.

When tragedies like this shooting occur, we wring our hands and wonder where these unstable people would ever get the idea that such actions could ever be justified. We need look no further than the mindset of that gentleman in the restaurant. When our culture produces supposedly normal, sane, people who can, without a hint of shame, publicly advocate the murder of another human being, President or otherwise, that’s evidence of a deep societal sickness.

So there I was, sitting there writing a sermon for World Communion Sunday, a day emphasizing the unity that we have in Christ, and with one another through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. A day emphasizing global Christian unity and a commitment to living together peacefully despite individual differences. The day that we receive our annual Peacemaking Offering. The dissonance between the theme of today’s service and the words coming from the television and the next booth couldn’t have been any sharper.

As Christians, we believe that God’s nature and will is so intensely infused in the life and words of Jesus Christ that we can say that in him, we see and know God in the flesh. If we’re serious about that, we have to take him seriously when he points us to ways of peace and nonviolence. That becomes an inseparable part of our proclaiming the gospel – God’s good news of hope and love for all people. As a matter of faith, and regardless of political affiliation, we have to take a stand against violence in our society – against both the proliferation of the tools that carry it out, and the moral sickness that glorifies or justifies it to begin with.

We’ll never teach the unstable members of our society that gun violence is a terrible option if we don’t first successfully teach it to the supposedly normal people like that bonehead in the restaurant. If his mindset passes for acceptable, supposedly “normal” discourse, why should we ever expect unstable people to think differently?

Working for peace and nonviolence might seem like wishful thinking to some. For anyone professing the Christian faith, however, we don’t have an option. We can’t reject Jesus’ teachings as being unrealistic or unworkable in the “real world,” a world that we profess he created and that he rules over. To the contrary, it’s exactly what we’ve been called to do.

So today, as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and World Communion Sunday, let’s all understand that. Let’s all recommit ourselves to do whatever we can to work for peace and nonviolence. Let’s recommit ourselves to do whatever we can to make these kinds of shootings a thing of the past – because I’ve grown hoarse, and sick and tired, of offering up yet more prayers, month after month, for the victims of yet another senseless, avoidable mass murder – and I’ll bet you have, too.

Amen.

What Is It? (sermon 8/2/15)

Manna Snow

What is it? Is it manna? Actually, I think it’s a light dusting of snow, but the idea is the important thing.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not…. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’  – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

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So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. – John 6:24-35

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Today’s gospel text picks up right where we left off last week – it’s right after the story of Jesus Feeding the Multitude. Here, Jesus and the disciples have gone back to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and the crowds have followed him here, too, and are asking for a sign to prove that they should believe in him. I guess we can hope that this request was coming from some new people in the crowd, and not the same people who’d just seen the sign, the miracle of Jesus feeding all those people, because if it were coming from the same people, they must have been pretty stupid or had very short attention spans. And as they asked for a sign, they make reference to the Exodus story of God providing manna, bread from heaven, for the Israelites to eat as they wandered through the Wilderness. We heard that story here this morning, too, and even though it’s a little hard to follow after it gets translated into English, the Israelites called the bread “manna,” because that’s the Hebrew phrase for “What is it?”, and that’s exactly what they asked when they first saw it lying all over the ground.

Some people look at this story and say the point is to not be a complainer like the Israelites. That they weren’t justified and they were upsetting God with their whining. The message drawn out of this story is sometimes that when things aren’t going our way, we should just stop complaining; we should just be patient and trust God, and if we’re having problems, it must just be part of God’s grand plan. Frankly, this story has been abused in countless sermons that criticized people standing up and fighting against all sorts of injustice, inequity, and discrimination.

You certainly read in other parts of the Exodus story that the Israelites’ complaining angered God. But if you read this particular story carefully, you don’t see that response from God at all. The people’s complaint was apparently legitimate, and God heard their complaints and provided food for them. Excellent. That’s a much more hopeful message, and it should give us courage to speak out against problems like that, and that God will hear and honor our prayers.

But that leads us to another problem as bad as the first – the idea that because God loves us, God will always provide for our needs. Not for luxuries, of course, but at least all of the basics that we really need to get by. You hear that message in this Exodus story, and in countless other places in the Old and New Testaments, even in Jesus’ words – ask anything in my name, and I’ll do it for you.

And that’s a big problem, because we all know that this is just not true. According to the UN, more than 18,000 children starve to death in the world every single day. In that same single day, another 2,000 children under the age of five dies from plain old, run of the mill diarrhea, for want of a few pennies’ worth of over the counter medicine. Millions of people die each year for want of the basic essentials of life – food, water, clothing, shelter, or basic medical treatment. How are we supposed to square these realities with this idea that we should be assured that God will provide for us? Are we supposed to believe that maybe some people are important to God, while others aren’t?

I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have a good answer to that question. I can’t square these two things. I don’t know why God seems to provide for some, in abundance, even excess, while seemingly ignoring the pain and suffering of others. And I wrestle with preaching, or offering pastoral counsel about the idea of God providing for us when it seems pretty clear that sometimes God doesn’t, at lest not in any meaningful, immediate way, often for the very basics of life, and I don’t know why.

But I do know this: even while it doesn’t seem like God provides for every need, God does provide for much need. All the time. All around us. And when God does provide, it often comes in a way that we don’t immediately recognize or expect. It comes in a way that initially makes us ask “What is it?” Maybe it comes in the form of a “yes” or “no” in our lives, when all conventional wisdom and our expectations were the opposite. Maybe it comes as some surprisingly wise or perceptive observation made by the person you’d least expect it from. Maybe it comes in the form of some new and different thing, or situation, that you’d never have asked for and frankly, wouldn’t have ever thought you’d want, but through it, you found some new strength, new direction, new hope, new opportunity, to be Christ to yourself and to the people around you. But at first, you ask, “What is it?”

In my own experience, I’ve come to see that God is providing so much for us all the time. It covers the ground around us. Through Christ, we have the ability to see it for what it is, and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can discern what God’s intention are in providing these things to us.

I heard a story in a seminar yesterday about a little church congregation with declining numbers in a declining section of a city, that was struggling with understanding what they should be doing as a church, what their role was supposed to be in the kingdom of God. There was a park right across the street from the building, but it was run down and the playground equipment was all broken, so no children ever came to play there. The city just let the park go, saying they didn’t have the money to keep it up. The little church had some memorial funds that had been given for the use of children’s ministries, but it had been years since there had been even one child who attended the church. So they took it upon themselves to use those funds and their own volunteer labor to repair the city park and make it usable for the neighborhood children, and before you knew it, there were dozens of kids playing there at any point during the day. So then the little church thought it would be a good idea to throw monthly parties for the kids, and host a picnic for them, and the kids and their parents loved it. And then a few retired schoolteachers thought it would be a good idea to offer the kids after-school tutoring and help with their homework, and the kids loved it. And before long, some of those kids, and some of their parents, started coming in for worship, and when they did, they were made to feel welcome and accepted as part of the family from day one. And then some other people came, too, because they’d heard about the amazing way this struggling little church had become truly missional, and the great good they were doing in the neighborhood.

Everything they needed to do it had already been given to them by God. It was right there, all of it, right there in front of them. They just needed to see it in a new light, to put the pieces together in a different way than they were accustomed to. They just allowed the Holy Spirit to speak to their hearts, and to see how they could use what God had provided them with.

So today, as we’re sitting here on the lawn, I ask you – what is it that God has provided us with, put right in front of us to use, for us and for others? What is it that God has provided us with as a congregation? And what is it that God has provided you with in your own life? What is it that God calling you, calling us, to do with what we’ve been provided? What is it?

Thanks be to God.

Rabbit Season (sermon 4/19/15)

rabbits

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  –  Luke 24:13-35

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While I was up in Toronto last weekend, we went to worship at the Bloor Street United Church. Most of the Presbyterians in Canada merged with a couple of other Canadian denominations in the 1920s to form the United Church of Canada, so they’re kind of our sister denomination up in the Great White North. And during the service, I noticed that their children’s message was based on a children’s and youth curriculum called “Echo the Story,” which reinforces the overarching message of the Bible through story-based building blocks – each week, adding a new story, a new nugget, and focusing on its significance in terms of the whole arc of the story. But before the storytelling adds the new piece for the week, the whole story up to that point is briefly rewound and retold (a sample video of this curriculum can be seen here). I suppose each time the story rewinds and starts again, some people’s eyes might roll at the repetition, but really, it’s a brilliant idea. Because too many people don’t have any internalization of the Bible, and a lot more have only internalized little bits and unconnected pieces, but they don’t understand how it’s all meant to fit together as one gradually unfolding story. This rewinding and retelling the story from the beginning helps many of the kids – and honestly, many adults, too – to internalize the story, and to understand that we’re all part of a community that’s identified and given meaning by this story.

Watching this unfold in that service last week made me think of another instance of the same kind of thing. The same process shows up the 1970s novel Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Just out of curiosity, how many of you have read it? How many of you threw up your hands before getting through all 500 pages and just read the Cliff’s Notes or an online summary of it for a book report?

Well, if you’ve done either of those things, you know that it’s an allegorical novel about a community of rabbits. At the beginning of the story, the rabbits are living together in a community that’s more or less stable and peaceful. It’s a community run by a relatively benevolent dictator rabbit, supported by a group of strong fighters. And while things overall aren’t terrible, things are still pretty tough for the weaker rabbits, or the ones who disagree with the head rabbit, or who are unusual or different from the norm. So when one of the rabbits sees a billboard posted near their warren and warns that something bad is coming their way, and he proposes that they make a change, that they should move their warren somewhere else, the head rabbit and his inner circle aren’t very impressed or amused with him or his ideas.

But still, a small group of rabbits thinks he might be right, and since they’re all outsiders and marginalized members of the warren, they figure they don’t have much to lose if they followed this rabbit with the discomforting message and left the warren behind.

As the story plays out, this group faces all kinds of experiences and threats. And they get through these challenges for two specific reasons. The first reason is that they spend a lot of time together as a community. They do pretty much everything together, as a community. Since they’re always in community with each other, they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and they learn how to work together and complement one another other for the common good. They learn that every member of the group – even the weakest, most unusual member, has something important and valuable to contribute to the community, and to the lives of each of the rabbits individually, too.

And a big part of what holds them together to continually retell their communal stories. These stories tell about the exploits of their common hero, a rabbit whose rabbit-name translates into English as “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies.” These stories focus on how the hero outwits and defeats his enemies, which give them all a common ground for their own actions and moral behavior whenever they face dangers themselves.

The stories aren’t new; the rabbits have all heard these stories a thousand times. If anything, the familiarity of the stories are actually a part of the feeling of community that the rabbits share. And even though they’re very familiar, they end up being retold in new situations and end up having new applications as the rabbits go through new things they’d never experienced or considered before.

This is an important thing for us, too. As Christians, we’re called to be a distinct, identifiable community defined by and centered around our own common story. And this shows up in the stories we have of Jesus after his resurrection, including the one we heard today. I think it’s important to notice that with only one exception, all of the post-resurrection stories about Jesus involve groups – whether it’s just three people, as in today’s story, or the larger group of followers in the locked room in Jerusalem that Jesus appears to, or according to the apostle Paul, at least one time when Jesus appeared to more than 500 people. If there were any doubt before Jesus’ crucifixion, his post-resurrection appearances make it clear that to be a follower of Jesus means that we can’t do it solely as individuals on our own. Jesus’ intentional message of being in community is the same thing the rabbits all had to learn: that we have to be together in the faith, as a community. And a big part of what holds us together, and solidifies our common identity, is the telling and retelling of our story, and instilling it into our hearts and minds.

Jesus understood the importance of the common story. Did you notice that, in this passage from Luke that we heard today? Jesus is walking together with these two disciples, he does the same thing that happened in that children’s message in Toronto. He retells them all their old, familiar stories – rewinding all the way back to the earliest stories in the Torah, and moving through the prophets – but putting them all in the context of their new reality, the reality of Jesus himself and their new experience, their new understanding and application of the old stories. This idea, that we’re an identifiable as a community centered around a common story, is an old familiar story itself. But it’s an important one to really think about this season of Eastertide, for it to be a season when we focus on the same lessons learned by the rabbits in that story.

Even in a general sense, there’s power in community that no individual can ever have. In particular, in order to be a Christian, we simply can’t go it alone, without ties to the larger community. Our own faith is nurtured and deepened, and the community of faith is, too, through sharing the common life together – working together, playing together, eating together, laughing and crying together; really getting to know one another. Complementing one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Valuing one another, even the weakest or most unusual among us, just as it was with the rabbits in the novel. Being gracious about the shortcomings in other members of the community, just as we hope others will extend grace to us when our own shortcomings show up. In short, learning to truly love one another. For us as Christians, the common life begins with the common story.

Our common story is the very same one that Jesus retold to his friends as they were going for a walk together. Have you ever wished you had a time machine, where you could go back in time and experience some great moment in history? If I had one, this walk to Emmaus would be one of the things I’d want to go back and peek in on. Just imagine how Jesus must have explained and told this story, our story. Oh, to have been a fly buzzing around the three of them, listening to the conversation. Or maybe a rabbit, eavesdropping from the grass along the side of the road.

Thanks be to God.

Christ-Song (sermon March 29, 2015 – Palm Sunday)

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When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

  – Mark 11:1-11

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I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of poetry. It’s my own fault, I’m sure; I suppose I just haven’t been exposed to enough of it. A lot of what poetry I have seen seems to be either as sappy and simplistic as the rhyme in a budget-priced birthday card; or some long, rambling free-form thing that doesn’t sound very poetic and doesn’t really convey anything other than making you wonder if the writer had been smoking peyote when they wrote it. Let’s face it; even poetry lovers will admit there’s a lot of bad poetry out there.

One poem that’s always stuck with me, though, is one by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “Hamatreya.” It talks about how generations of people have come and gone, and each one has parceled up the land, and bought and sold it, and put their names on it, and held it, and took pride in saying that the land was theirs and that they had control over it and that it yielded itself to them. Emerson writes about these people, calling them

Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough but cannot steer their feet
clear of the grave.

A little further on, there’s actually a kind of poem within a poem, called “Earth-Song,” where the Earth itself responds to the pridefulness of these people who claimed to be in control of things. The Earth says,

Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Earth endures;
Stars abide –
shine down on the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are the old men?
I who have seen much,
Such I have never seen….
… They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone.
How am I theirs,
I they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?

The Earth’s, or Emerson’s, ironic point about the Earth ultimately having the last word, the word of the grave, regarding the pride, power, and control of things is a sharp stick poked in the eye of the way people understood the world and their importance in it, in his time and in our own.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus is very much using that same sharp stick to poke the supposed powers that be, and for a similar reason. Of course, this is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, when we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in the days leading up to his arrest. Sometimes we call it the “Triumphal Entry,” and in a broad, counterintuitive way I suppose it was that, but to have been there, to have experienced it as it happened, it would have seemed like anything but triumphal. The oddness of it would have seemed like a joke. Or, the more you thought about it, not a joke at all, but that sharp stick in the eye of those in positions of power.

The people in Jesus’ time were very familiar with the impressive way kings or generals or other powerful people arrived in a parade. Full of official pomp and circumstance, with banners, bands, military escort, wailing sirens, riding on big, strong, armored war horses; black SUVs full of Secret Service agents more heavily armed than some small island nations. And out ahead of them were the crowds – clapping, cheering, holding up signs and waving their hoodies in the air over their heads. That was how a VIP came to town.

Jesus certainly had the crowds. But he didn’t bring any of that other baggage with him as he entered Jerusalem, and a big portion of that was by design.

Many of the most memorable and transformative events we experience look spontaneous, when in reality they were very carefully thought out and orchestrated. Whether it’s something as simple and harmless as a flash mob orchestra showing up one person at a time on the plaza until they’re all there belting out a rousing version of Ode to Joy, or something more serious, like Occupy Wall Street, or an ACT UP protest, or a lunch counter sit-in or selecting Rosa Parks to be the person who refuses to give up her seat, all of these things were very carefully thought out to maximize their impact. And in this gospel story, Jesus does the exact same thing. He and his disciples have been wandering all over Judea and Samaria and Galilee and beyond for several years, and apparently doing pretty much all of it on foot. Now, all of a sudden, Jesus needs some four-footed transportation to get to Jerusalem – a distance that’s about as far away from Bethany as the high school is from us. It was a walk he’d normally have made without thinking about, or even breaking a sweat.

And the writer of this gospel spends a lot of time on Jesus’ instructions about how and where to get it, and what kind to get. In fact, there’s far more detail about that than Jesus’ actual arrival into Jerusalem, which he treats almost as an afterthought. There really does seem to be something important about this little colt.

It seems like Jesus is using it to make a carefully calculated statement. When he rides into town on this weak little animal, it isn’t like the other VIPs from the Roman Empire, who are oppressing the people. This is his way of poking a stick in their eye, tweaking their noses, making fun of them. He’s telling them that real power, and control, and authority, don’t need all those outward trappings. The real King doesn’t need the security detail and all those other things. In this bit of street theater, Jesus is saying there’s only one real King, and it isn’t Caesar.

It’s a very radical, revolutionary statement that Jesus is making here, mocking the Roman occupiers. It’s a very political statement. It’s most likely what got him killed. And the statement that he’s making is that those people who would claim to be in control, and to have power over them, are wrong. They aren’t the power that people should give their loyalty to, and any power that those people use to put them down or oppress them is illegitimate.

A large part of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry revolved around teaching that God’s love, and God’s kingdom, radically contradicts the message coming from all earthly powers and systems that would unjustly try to control or diminish us. The kingdom of God frees us from that, and calls us all to grasp onto that great truth of God’s love and acceptance. This is the good news that Christ came to share with us – that you don’t have to accept the judgment of those who would consider you less worthy, less human, because they don’t like the color of your skin, or your age, or your sex, or how good-looking you are or how smart you are or who your parents were or where you went to school or where you live, or anything else. Christ riding into Jerusalem on that little colt says that God considers us good, and precious, and worthy of justice and love – you, me, all of us; all those other would-be powers literally be damned. Emerson had his Earth-Song; I suppose you could call this the Christ-Song. The people cheering out in front of Jesus thought that he was going to change things and set this new reality into motion, and they were right about that as they sang the Christ-Song, even if they didn’t quite understand how. Today, from our perspective, we can all grasp onto that good news for ourselves, too. We can be singing that same song, and cheering, and waving palms in front of Jesus as he comes riding into Jerusalem – or is it Auburn?

Thanks be to God.

Fooling Around (sermon 3/8/15)

“…For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  - 1 Corinthians 1:25

(In order to understand one reference in this sermon, you need to know that part of the Children’s Message earlier in the service included dancing and wearing foam rubber clown noses)

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For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

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The character of The Fool is a time-honored tradition in plays and other theatrical presentations. It goes way back, to biblical times and earlier, and it continues even now into our own time. The Fool is always a person who doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the crowd, they’re a bit of an outsider, who can make discomforting observations that everyone else seems to have missed, or who can make criticisms or poke holes in the puffed-up egos of their superiors, that no one else could get away with. A prince or a bishop could criticize the king and lose his head for it; the Fool could make the exact same point, just in a more crafty way, and all he’d have to do is smile as he said it, and the king would let it slide. Today, the Fool might be the quirky sidekick to the main character in a movie or TV show, but whether you find them at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival or the Auburn Movie Plex, their role is basically the same – to bring laser-sharp wisdom in ways that everyone else considers foolish, and to wield power from what others would consider a position of weakness.

In today’s Epistle Lectionary text, Paul is writing to the small church in Corinth. It’s a very cosmopolitan, highly commercialized city in ancient Greece, and the Greek love of wisdom and learning, at least their version of it, was a very important thing there. And the Christian message that God shows love for all people, and saves all people, by way of an unschooled Jewish peasant, a nobody, who’s convicted and executed I the most humiliating way imaginable, and who then is supposed to have risen from the dead… well, it was just a ridiculous thought. It didn’t make any sense at all. It was monstrous, and insulting to a person’s intelligence to even think about. It was pure foolishness.

The members of the church in Corinth seem to have been wavering in their faith, starting to worry about whether it stood up to public scrutiny and conventional wisdom and the proper rules of Greek philosophy and rhetoric. They seem to have been worried that staking out a position for the church that the rest of the city considered one of weakness was the wrong path. Maybe they should adopt a strategy, a different mission plan, one that sounded more consistent with the way most of their neighbors understood the world.

But Paul’s point was that God is wise enough to not teach the great truths of the Kingdom of God by way of the supposedly wise, or rich, or powerful. Instead, God makes the point, reveals the truth, offers the real wisdom, in a way no one would expect. It was the greatest of wisdom originally seen as foolishness, the greatest of power originally seen as weakness.

We often face the same kind of concerns. I mean, we want to think of ourselves as rational, intelligent people, and let’s face it, our faith is focused on the life of Jesus, a story that’s quite unusual to say the least. And the whole emphasis that the Christian faith places on meekness, and peacefulness, praying for our enemies and turning the other cheek and not returning violence for violence, it really is a hard pill to swallow sometimes.

But Paul says to stay strong in the faith, because the wisdom and power in the message of Christ crucified is more wise and more powerful than the wisdom and power understood by the world. That strength put into action through love – which was often seen, in ancient Corinth and today as disgusting weakness – is actually the greatest wisdom and strength of all. It’s capable of moving mountains in the effort to make the world more like Christ, more like the kingdom of God.

That was how the church originally spread so rapidly, you know. The one thing that people in the first years of Christianity noted about Jesus-followers was their seemingly unbounded way of peacefulness, forgiveness, and love for others, even their most dangerous enemies and persecutors. Even their enemies said that about them. When the church keeps true to those characteristics, it always grows. When individual Christians are true to those characteristics – put another way, when they play the role of the Fool, as the world would see it – their faith always deepens and they always become powerful forces for the gospel and all good in the world.

This isn’t just how the church grew, either. The exact same principle can be seen in many different times and places throughout the history of the church and the world. The strength and wisdom of Christ crucified was exactly what empowered those people who, fifty years ago yesterday, walked unarmed, peacefully, two-by-two over the narrow sidewalk of the Edmund Pettus Bridge into the face of state and local police armed with guns, and billy clubs, and dogs, and horses, all literally hell-bent on preventing them from advancing any further. These were people who knew what was likely to happen to them. And yet, they still marched over that bridge and into the living rooms of people all over this country and into history. They had been trained to turn the other cheek, to remain peaceful in the face of violence, to not return evil for evil. Many of them paid a heavy price for doing so. But by remaining peaceful, and not returning violence for violence, the images of that horrible, brutal day made a far more indelible impression on millions of people who finally said “enough!” and who began to accept the idea of racial equality. It was utter madness in the eyes of the world. They were Fools. They were, indeed, and thanks be to God for it. The wisdom of their foolishness, grounded in the message of the gospel, changed our country, and the world, forever.

Fifty years later, in addition to the ongoing fight for equal rights for all, there are other battles, other issues, other missions that the church, collectively and as individuals, is being called to take up in the name of Christ, too. And time and again, history has shown us that the greatest strategy to achieving gains in those battles is the way of the cross – taking up, and focusing on, and implementing the wisdom of the cross as opposed to the wisdom of the world. As we continue through Lent, and as we continue to reflect on the full meaning of taking up our own cross as we follow Christ, let’s realize that God is calling each one of us, in some way, to advance God’s will by concretely implementing the wisdom of the cross – by being a Fool for God, as a witness to the world. Let’s take the time to pray, and ask, where it is that God is calling us to speak the wisdom of the Fool into the world around us. And once we know where that is, let’s not be afraid. Be bold. Stand up in whatever way God is calling you. For the sake of Christ and the Kingdom of God, don’t be afraid to dance when the world says not to. Don’t be afraid to be a Fool for God. Foam rubber nose is optional.

Thanks be to God.