Ugly Words, Scary Story

(sermon 10/15/17)

banquet

Exodus 32:1-14

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

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Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

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Isn’t this an odd story? Really, when we hear this parable, isn’t it more than a little discomforting? Here’s a story about a king who flies into a fit of rage because people won’t come to a big, lavish party he’s invited them all to, and in his rage, he ends up causing harm, even death, to thousands, and who knows, we don’t know the size of the city, maybe millions of people who haven’t done anything wrong to the king, by obliterating their city, and all because his precious, tender ego had been bruised. Then he sends his people out to bring in other guests – a rental crowd, if you will – just to fill the empty seats and make sure that it looks like the king is great, and very popular, and to give the impression that his wedding party would be the best and biggest one ever. Finally, after bringing in all these new guests, telling them they’re invited and welcome to the party, and the guests all come in under those terms, the king comes in and changes the rules on them after the fact. He throws one of the guests out for not complying with his new rules, throwing him out of the palace and presumably out into the death and destruction of the burning city that the king had destroyed, even though the guest had really been abiding by the rules originally set out for him.

This is an ugly story. And yet, the way most of us have been taught about it over the years is that this parable is an allegorical depiction of what the kingdom of God is like, and that the king in the story represents God. Well, I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t think I buy that. To me, this all sounds a lot more like the pride and ego and capriciousness of the kingdom of this world, not the kingdom of heaven; and the king in the story sounds more like a madman, an egomaniac who wouldn’t deserve respect if he were a human leader in this world, let alone if he were the eternal God of the universe. He clearly doesn’t resemble the God of all love; the God who is portrayed in the scriptures as continually changing his mind in favor of offering mercy to people instead of lashing out in anger, just as we heard in today’s first reading. No, the king in this story doesn’t represent any God that I can comprehend through observing Jesus’ life, and the studying the totality of the scriptures.

Now I will say that I don’t have any doubt that whoever wrote Matthew’s gospel really did mean to portray God in just this way. I’m sure he was trying to portray a God who rejects an initial group of selected people and who will deal harshly with them, and who invites in replacements – but replacements who can’t get too cocky themselves, or they’ll suffer the same fate as the first group. I don’t have any doubt that the writer of this gospel framed this story in a way to denounce and discredit the Jewish religious leaders who rejected Jesus; and to explain, in hindsight, the reason for the Romans’ destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, which had occurred shortly before this gospel was written. And it was intended to claim that Jesus’ followers – who by now were mostly Gentiles – were now God’s new favored ones. I’m sure that was the author’s intent.

But we need to understand a bit of history here. We need to know that this gospel was written at a time of terrible division and bitterness and hatred between the Jewish orthodoxy and Jesus’ followers, and telling the parable this way was the author’s equivalent of sending a letter or email out to someone when you’re the maddest at them and haven’t had time to take a breath and see things a bit more clearly. It was the equivalent of posting a snarky, hurtful meme on Facebook designed to make your own group look good by trashing and insulting the other side. It’s an ugly, and frankly, counterproductive thing when people do it now, and it was just as ugly and counterproductive when the author of this gospel did it in the first century. And back then, just as it is now, once hurtful, ugly words are spoken, they can’t be unspoken – they take on a life of their own, and the hurt they cause can continue for a long time. Unfortunately, this parable has been used hurtfully up until our own present time by some people to want to justify the worst kinds of prejudice and discrimination and violence against Jewish people. To be honest, I think that not only have this writer’s way of telling this parable been harmful, it’s served to disguise what Jesus may have originally said, and what he’d originally meant.

And we can look at this passage with those critical eyes, you know. The truth is, this same story shows up here in Matthew, and again in Luke, and also in the so-called Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian collection of the sayings of Jesus that wasn’t itself included in the New Testament. And in each of these versions, you can see that the author told some basic, core teaching of Jesus, but each of them told it in a way with some degree of editorial “slant” that emphasized their particular overriding message.

If that’s the case then, what might be a better way for us to hear this parable as it appears in Matthew? Is it possible to strip away some of Matthew’s dangerous and ugly editorial slant, and maybe get closer to what Jesus might really have been saying?  Is there a way to hear the gospel here, and reject the hate?

Well, how about something like this summary: The kingdom of God is indeed like a banquet that God is hosting – a banquet that we begin to enjoy here in this life as we live in relationship with God and with one another, and it continues at this Table as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and it continues into eternity. It will be something indescribably good and wonderful, and God will not allow anything in the world to prevent it from happening. And God invites the famous and the faceless, the great and small, the good and the bad, the acceptable and unacceptable. And finally, as the banquet goes on, God does expect those guests – us guests – to show, with God’s own help, some evidence of lives transformed by this act of immense grace, and welcome, and hospitality on God’s part. This is the great joy, the great hope, that all of us guests have through our faith in Christ, regardless of what the kingdoms of the world and the kings of the world might do to crush our hope.

Maybe that’s a good synopsis of Jesus’ original point. Maybe that’s really the good news that we can get out of this parable, after strippng away the storyteller’s harmful editorializing. I don’t know, what do you think? We all have to reach our own conclusions, I guess, but I think it is, anyway. Because that’s the kind of banquet I hope for – that’s the kind of God that I can put my faith and trust in.

Thanks be to God.

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The Untitled Sermon

(sermon 10/8/17)

many candles

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

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Matthew 26:47-52

While Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

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Sometimes, when you get your Sunday bulletin, you’ll see there isn’t any sermon title listed. That usually means that I just hadn’t come up with what I thought would be a good title by the time the bulletin printing deadline arrived. Today, though, the reason there isn’t a title is that sadly, I’ve preached so many variations of today’s sermon that I’ve just run out of different good titles to use.

It’s been about a week now since the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Since then, we’ve seen what’s now become the all-too-familiar pattern kick into gear like we’re all just following a script. First the shock as we hear the first news reports. Then comes the immediate question, was it Islamic Terrorism – as if the deaths caused by the much more deadly Angry White Man Terrorism is somehow more socially acceptable. Then comes the searching for the terrorist’s motives, and the armchair psychoanalyzing, and filling too many hours of news programming with too little actual information with interviews of the killers’ family and friends and neighbors and third grade teacher, who all say it was a shock, he was such a nice, quiet man who wouldn’t hurt a flea. And then come the demands for more gun control regulation, and then comes the obligatory press release from the NRA, pre-written, ready to go with just the location and death count a fill-in-the-blank. Then come the politicians, who trot out in front of the cameras to say that this is not the time to “politicize” the tragedy, and to piously offer their “thoughts and prayers,” whatever that means to a politician, to the families of the dead and maimed, while wads of gun-lobby money is practically falling out of their overstuffed pockets and onto the floor. And then, after maybe a week and a half, no more than two weeks, filled with live remote reporting and candlelight vigils, the reporters and cameras move on, distracted by the next shiny object in the news cycle, and things generally go back to what we consider normal, and nothing’s changed. Rewind the tape; have it cued up and ready to go in another few months.

So much of this happens because a lot of people have allowed themselves to be sucked into a ridiculous, absolutist reading of the Second Amendment right to own firearms that won’t allow for reasonable limitations. But we know that none of our Constitutional rights is absolute. We know that we have the right to free speech, but we can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We know that we have the right to peaceably assemble, but that the police can still tell us we can assemble on one side of the street but not the other. We know that we have freedom of religion, but we still can’t use our personal religious beliefs to deny other people their own Constitutional rights and equal protection under the law.

We’re so far past the time that we need tighter controls on possession of firearms in this country that I feel stupid even saying it. The rest of the world looks at us, and rightly so, as if we’re crazy, being willing to allow this kind of insane gun worship to continue, being willing to allow the death toll to keep rising and rising, being willing to live in a society where it’s harder to buy three boxes of Sudafed than three semiautomatic rifles. We constantly hear “Guns don’t kill people; *people* kill people!” without someone saying “Right! *People* kill people, so we need to keep guns out of the hands of *those* people!” Instead of that, in the upside-down world we live in today, we pass laws that actually make it easier – not harder, but *easier* – for the mentally disabled to buy guns.

We’re all good Americans; we all value and honor and respect our Constitutional rights. We’re good citizens of the United States. But as Christians, we’re citizens of the Kingdom of God first. We’re a people whose scriptures, whose sacred texts, are full of calls for peace, and injunctions against violence, as in the two texts we heard this morning, and there are countless others. The truth is that there is simply no scriptural justification whatsoever for our gun-saturated mentality, and we wonder what a Christian response should be to it all. Yes, we mourn when these tragic events happen. Yes, we organize candlelight vigils, and we offer our sincere, heartfelt thoughts and prayers. But we can’t just stop there, because when it comes to matters of faith and living as God’s people, we know, as we said just last week, that talk is cheap – and to be honest, prayers are cheap too, if that’s all we do when we can, and should, do more. We know that we’re called in this life to promote God’s way, and God’s way is most definitely not the way of violence – that as Jesus said, those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

We know as a key tenet of our faith that while laws will help, no law will ever solve all of this problem, which is deeply rooted in the human condition, and in our human brokenness. That brokenness leads us to hate one another. To envy what someone else has that we don’t. To want vengeance whenever we’re wronged. At the center of this brokenness is fear. Fear that someone will hurt us. Fear of uncertainty. Fear that others won’t respect our human dignity and worth. Fear for our security. Fear of death, and what awaits us beyond.

Friends, as followers of Christ, we’re called to not give into this fear, to not be part of this culture of violence and death. We’re called to opt out of all that because we worship a God who casts out all fear. We worship a God who offers us the peace that surpasses all understanding, the real, lasting peace that doesn’t come from the end of a gun. Our rock and our salvation is God, not a roomful of people with concealed-carry permits. Our security is Christ beside us, before us, and behind us; not body armor and an AR-15 with a bump stock.

It is absolutely, factually undeniable that our country’s unhealthy obsession with guns has been counterproductive – it hasn’t made us more secure, more safe, it’s made us less so. As Christians, God has called us to love one another, and to care for one another, and to do whatever we can to keep people from harm. In living out that call, all of us – from the most liberal Democrat to the most conservative Republican; from the avid hunter and sportsman and recreational target shooter – and I’m one of them myself; I’ve enjoyed recreational shooting at various times in my life – to the most anti-gun, never-touched-a-gun, never-want-to-touch-a-gun urban cliff-dweller – *all* of us – can agree that the supposed security that comes from the proliferation of guns has shown itself to be a lie. It’s a false security that produces only human carnage and destruction for many, and profit for a few. All of us can all agree that there are reasonable, common sense regulations that would respect our Second Amendment rights, while still preventing many of these senseless acts of evil. As a matter of faith, we all need to stand up against the current situation, against the big-money lobbyists and dealers of death, and simply say “Enough Is Enough!” – which, if I hadn’t already used it, would have been a good title for this sermon.

Thanks be to God.

Talk Is Cheap

(sermon 10/1/17 – World Communion Sunday)

yes no maybe

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

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As a Lenten study series this coming year, Cathy L______ is going to do an educational offering on the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity. I’m sure it’s going to be an interesting and informative session, and I hope you’ll try to attend it when it comes around. Once, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Give me five minutes with a man’s checkbook, and I’ll tell you what he really believes.” Momentarily putting aside the male bias in the words, which just reflect the age he was writing in, and the fact that the youngest generation of adults today has probably never even had a checkbook, I think the point still comes through – that the way a person spends their money, and even more broadly, the things that they actually do, illustrates what they really believe, far more accurately than what they might say they believe.

There’s a lot of that same idea in Jesus’ words in today’s gospel text. In this lesson, Jesus is in the middle of yet another confrontation with a group of religious leaders who aren’t happy with what he’s been teaching. A lot of what he’s said runs counter to their teachings, and in this exchange, they’re trying to pick him apart, to get him to say something that contradicts their official orthodoxy that they can then use to discredit him. And after a brief back-and-forth battle over words, Jesus tells this short story about a man with two sons; the first one says he’ll do what the Father wants, and then doesn’t do it; and the second one says he won’t do what the Father wants, but ultimately goes ahead and does it anyway; and that it’s the second son who was pleasing in the Father’s eyes. He tells the story to make his point clear: having and saying the right words is all well and good, but what really matters – what actually accomplishes the will of the Father, to use Jesus’ terminology – is actually doing the right things, carrying out the intentions behind the words. In this little exchange, Jesus is saying, in essence, that talk is cheap If those words aren’t enfleshed, if their meaning isn’t made real in the world, then the words are meaningless at best, and just weapons used to divide us at worst.

This is an idea that goes to the very heart of our faith. We say that in the beginning, before even the beginning of measurable time, was the Word – the creative power and essence and wisdom of God, and that God knew that the best way for us human beings to understand God, and God’s will, is for that eternal, spiritual Word to become enfleshed – so that we could see, and know, firsthand, what all the written words about God that only partially and imperfectly pointed toward God, actually were trying to say.

Of course, those religious leaders who were trying to trip Jesus up with words were far from the last to go down that path. The divisions across the full spectrum of the Christian faith over words, over theological jots and tittles run deep. We’ve argued, and divided over, issues like what precisely, scientifically, is happening when we celebrate and embrace the mystery of Communion, the Lord’s Supper. Or whether Jesus is divine and eternally coexistent, uncreated, with God the Father; or divine, but still nevertheless created by God the Father. Or whether the Holy Spirit emanates “from the Father,” or “from the Father and the Son.” Or whether, if God is supposedly trinitarian, how that works – are those making up the Trinity “beings” or “persons;” or are they distinct “parts” of God that only together make up God; or if they’re really just like “masks,” or parts in a play, that the same, unitary God just appears through at various points in time.

Did you keep up with all that? Probably not. And yet, we Christians have debated, and divided, and argued, and excommunicated, and tortured, and killed, and fought wars over those exact things. And just as bad, we didn’t limit our awful behavior to just other Christians. We persecuted people of other religious faiths, and those of no religious faith, because they didn’t accept the correctness of our own particular Christian theology – because they had their own “words” for defining how to love and serve God and humanity, and how they fit into the universe. And through all of our division and dissension and especially the violence over words, God must have been disgusted and heartbroken – and must still be when we do the same things today.

Jesus didn’t say in his story that words aren’t important. They are. It’s a good and proper and important thing for us to try to understand and comprehend God as deeply and correctly as we can with our words. But as Jesus points out here, having the right words isn’t enough. What matters most is whether we’re putting our words to use, to advance God’s will for us, and for this world. And taking that one step further, if we are putting our words, our beliefs into practice, and they aren’t really achieving God’s intentions, then maybe we don’t have the right words, the right beliefs, at all.

Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a time when Christians across a wide spectrum of theologies and beliefs – a wide spectrum of words – all commit to come together to celebrate Communion – the Lord’s Supper – on the same day, as a sign of unity in God’s Spirit. It’s a statement that regardless of the details of our words, we’re committed, together, to do the will of the Father in the world – to love God with all of our essence; to love all people as we love ourselves. To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. World Communion Sunday is a global joint statement that as a tenet of our common faith, talk is cheap without follow-through.

And this Sunday, we need to recognize that while World Communion Sunday is a particularly Christian observance, its message of us turning our words into actions doesn’t stop at the threshold of Christianity. God’s will is that we extend those same loving and gracious and accepting attitudes to all people, because we’re all God’s people, regardless of our particular religious beliefs – regardless of our “words.” In a number of ways, through a number of Springdale’s different mission initiatives funded through our annual general offering – through our “checkbook,” thinking back to C.S. Lewis’ comment – we’re trying to do exactly that.

A man had two sons. Or three. Or three thousand, or seven and a half billion billion. The number wasn’t important. What was important wasn’t what any of them might say, because he knew that at any given time they were likely to say just about anything, and at one time or another, probably have. His question was “Regardless of the words, will they do what I want them to do? Will they love one another? Will they accept one another? Will they treat one another with justice and always strive for peace? Because whatever they might say or not say, *that’s* what pleases me. *That’s* what makes them my children.”

So will they do it? Will we?

Thanks be to God.

God Isn’t Fair!

(sermon 9/24/17)

unfair god

Jonah 3:10-4:11

When God saw what the Ninevites did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

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Matthew 20:1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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Today, we heard two really deep and rich texts; you could do a month of sermons on either one of them, but I wanted to look at these two texts and think about the one commonality they share. In both of them, we’re looking at things where people perceive that God was not fair. God just wasn’t being fair. You heard that first story; you know the story of Jonah and all of his trials and tribulations as he did what God had called him to do, and of course we’re picking this up at the very end of the story – he’s very upset, because ultimately, at least, Jonah did what God had asked of him; he’d gone to Assyria and told the people of the city, “Forty days, and you’re history – God is going to overthrow you; you’re going to be destroyed. And of course, we know the outcome of that story, that hearing that terrible thing that was about to befall them, they repented and asked for God’s forgiveness and mercy – and God relented. God did not do what was originally the plan. And of course, Jonah is upset at this, for a couple of reasons, I suspect. First, I imagine he just felt like a fool. He told the people of the city what was going to happen to them, and all of a sudden it doesn’t happen, so he’s got a bit of egg on his face. But also the fact that these are the despised Assyrians, the sworn enemies of the Israelites, in our equivalent they’d be like North Korea and Iran and al Quaeda and ISIS all rolled into one; if anyone deserved receiving the wrath of God it would have been them, and it didn’t happen. So Jonah was complaining, he was grousing, he was saying, “God, you are being unfair!”

Then in the second story, this is one of Jesus’ parables, we’re told that the Kingdom of God is like this story, where the workers in the field who were there and worked just an hour are paid the same as the ones who were there working hard all day. The first workers looked at the situation and said, “This is unfair!” And yet, we’re being told that this is the way that the Kingdom of God is. Unfair. And I suppose that’s true; God is unfair, especially if you’re looking at these two stories from one standpoint versus another. If you’re experiencing the first story through the eyes of Jonah, it certainly looks unfair. If you’re experiencing that gospel lesson, the parable, through the eyes of the people who started working at the beginning of the day, it certainly seems unfair.

I think it’s kind of interesting, whenever we hear these kinds of stories from the scriptures – I know I do this, and I suspect most of us do – we tend to experience the story through the eyes of the “good guys.” We tend to automatically put ourselves in the place of the people who are doing what we think God wants of us; we’re the ones who are working hard; we’re the ones who are adhering to what God wants us to do, so we deserve the reward, and the others deserve something else, or something less. We’re the good guys.

But what if that isn’t the case? And frankly, I suspect it isn’t. I suspect that if we look at our own situations, we’re probably like the people who receive the undeserved benefit of God’s unfairness. We’re the ones, like the people in the city of Nineveh, who needed to be reminded, who needed to have it pointed out to us, that where we were headed wasn’t really God’s direction. We are like the latecomers in the parable. From that standpoint, God’s choices don’t seem so bad, do they? We’re benefitting from this unmerited, gracious, extravagant kind of unfairness on God’s part.

I think that’s an important point of both of these stories. They both tell us something about what God is doing in the world; that God’s sense of fairness is somehow different from the way we might perceive it or want it to be. That God is calling each of us into a new and different kind of existence, with different rules. God is actually trying to create a new kind of community. A new kind of being together. Almost a new kind of family, if you will. Through God’s turning things upside-down, God’s changing the world through this new way of understanding and being, God is establishing what we call eternal life. That isn’t just something out in the future, in the sweet by-and-by; God is saying no, I want this to be the way that you live in the here and now, and that means some new rules, some new ways of looking at things and understanding things are going to apply.

One of the things that happens in order to usher in this new way of being is this right here. This – the church. I don’t mean the roof and the walls; I mean you and me. God is calling us into a new way of experiencing life. We’re being called into a new way of being a family.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the church lately, for a few reasons, but one of those reasons was that, as you know, we’re beginning to kick off our annual stewardship campaign, “ENGAGE.” You’ll be seeing and hearing more about that in the coming weeks. As I was thinking about the stewardship campaign, I was considering the reality that there are two primary reasons why someone will support a church with their time and financial resources. The first is that to do so is just the way we were raised; we were taught that this is just the right thing to do; you support your church – it’s a sense of duty; of obligation. And that’s correct; for us, as Christians, it is. The second reason why someone might support a church congregation is because of what it means to us. What is the significance; what’s the benefit; what’s the importance of this group of people in *my* life?

We know that the church gives us opportunities in several directions. First, it gives us a place to explore and deepen our faith; our spirituality; both as an individual and as parts of a larger group, as we work this faith journey out together. It also gives us a good and easy way to engage with the world around us and to do something positive, taking concrete steps to make the world a better place and to improve the lives of the people within it. It gives us a place, and a way, to roll up our sleeves and really make a difference, and not just talk about it, and not just worry about it, and not just share pictures on Facebook about it, but to actually do something about it. And I think the third important thing that the church is to us is that it is this new kind of community. It is this completely illogical, irrational, new way of understanding what the word “family” means.

Family. We’re a family that is brought together not by blood relationship. We’re not brought together by shared socio-economic status. We’re not brought together by race, or ethnicity. We’re not brought together by any of those other categories that the world normally thinks about. We’re called together in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Called – think about that. Each and every one of you have been called by God to be part of this family. What does that mean to you?

He was a young man, in his late twenties. He was the very definition of his generation. If there was some hot new electronic gadget, he had it. He lived in a city. His parents lived 500 miles away. His siblings and his high school and college friends all lived at least that far away. He saw them all routinely, virtually, on the computer screen, on the phone, on the tablet. He was connected with them through Instagram, and texting, and yes, even Facebook, even though he didn’t like it much but that’s where he could connect with his parents so he did it. He was connected. When he talked about the issues of the day, he did it online, with people from around the world. When he wanted some recreation, some downtime, he grabbed his gaming controller and his headset, and he teamed up with someone from Germany, and someone from Sweden, and someone from Australia, and together they joined up and zapped aliens, or wrestled with trolls, or whatever the online game called for. He’s connected. He is more connected than any other generation that’s ever been – virtually – but then again, he really isn’t. And he knows it. Because he knows that someday, the batteries will die, and when they do, he’s going to be sitting in his apartment, alone. And his parents and his friends are still going to all be hundreds of miles away. And he knows he’ll still be stressed out, because he has to work two jobs just to be able to barely make ends meet, to pay the basic bills and to make payments on his student loan to pay for an education that was a thousand percent more expensive than that of his parents, and he isn’t able to save anything for his future. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and there’s no one around him that he can share all this with. He’s alone. He is part of the most connected generation ever, and he’s still alone.

She was well past retirement. She’d lived a long and productive and happy life along with her husband, but he had died five years ago. And she got out of the house from time to time, but it was different now, being just her. Not experiencing life with the person who was connected to you for decades. And when she did get out, she’d often have the experience shared by so many older people – other people, younger people, and they were almost all younger people, actively avoiding her, maybe not wanting to be reminded that someday they, too, will be older. More often than the active avoidance, though, she experienced that feeling of invisibility that so many older people experience. To walk through a room and have no one notice. When she was home, she was alone. She realized that it had been a month since she’d known the simple, wonderful gift of another human being’s touch. A hug. A hand on a shoulder. The stroke of a cheek. She longed for that. She was set financially, she didn’t have to worry about that, but what she wanted the most was just simple human contact. She was alone.

The two of them both found what they were looking for here – in church. As different as they were on the surface, they ended up being part of the same groups and classes, and volunteering for the same mission projects around town. He sat in one pew; she sat in the pew just behind him. Over time, this odd couple struck up a friendship. They cared for one another; they watched out for one another. They found the personal, human connection that they’d both been hoping for. Through the church, they became family. She danced at his wedding. He cried at her funeral.

They knew what was special about this – the church. They knew the great gift that the world has given to the world, and to us by treating us unfairly, in a way we needed but didn’t’ deserve, by establishing the church and uniting us in the Spirit to be part of it. They knew the great extravagance of the God who calls us together.

So, is God unfair? Friends, you should shout it from the top of your lungs, “YES!!! God is unfair!!!” And for that,

Thanks be to God.

It’ll Teach ’em a Lesson

(sermon 9/17/17)

forgive

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

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When I was maybe five or six years old, I remember a short little animated TV commercial made by the Mormon Church that usually ran on Sunday mornings. The animation was very simple, just a step or two above stick figures. It told a story about a poor, struggling farmer who lived next to a rich cattle rancher. The narrator of the commercial said that one night, out of desperation, the farmer tried to steal a steer from the rancher in order to feed his family – but he got caught. The ranch hands who caught him took him to the rancher, who was in no mood for mercy, and he tells the ranch hands, “String him up – it’ll teach him a lesson.” Then the story shifts, and the narrator explains, “Well that very night, the rancher dreamt that he died, and he stood before his Maker in judgment.” – and at this point, you see the rancher standing there, nervous, hat in hand, fumbling with the brim, a big bead of sweat running down the side of his face – and the narrator continues, “And as he stood there awaiting his fate, he heard a voice say, ‘Forgive him – it’ll teach him a lesson.”

That simple little commercial that I’ve remembered now for fifty years was actually teaching a similar sort of lesson as this parable of Jesus’ that we just heard. This is what’s known as the Parable of the Ungrateful Servant. As you heard in the story, a servant owes the king an astronomical amount of money – ten thousand talents. A talent was a unit of money equal to 70 or 75 pounds of silver – so based on this past week’s price for silver, ten thousand talents would have been a debt of around 200 million dollars. It was an absurd, unrealistic amount, so it’s pretty obvious that Jesus is just making the point that it’s a debt that would have been utterly impossible to ever pay off – and that to forgive a debt like that would show grace and forgiveness of an infinite magnitude. By comparison, the amount that the second slave in the story owed the first slave – 100 denarii – would have been comparable to 14,000, maybe $15,000 dollars today – clearly, nothing like the first slave’s debt, but still, far from pocket change. It was a debt that most average people would be hard put to just let go. It wasn’t something trivial to just write off; to forgive that amount would definitely be felt.

Based on Jesus’ explanation, we can see the king as representing God, and that we’re being warned not to make the same ungrateful mistake as the first slave – that, in gratitude for the full magnitude of God’s living forgiveness of us, we need to offer similar, even costly forgiveness to others.

I know, most times that’s easier said than done. Even though Jesus framed this story in financial terms, I think the people who are the hardest for us to forgive are the ones who have hurt us in other ways. Non-financial ways. Ways that are offenses to our own sense of personal dignity, or offenses against people we love, or offenses against our sense of fairness or justice. Those are the hard things to forgive.

There’s a well-known story told by Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who was a young girl during World War II, and whose family considered it their Christian duty to hide Jews in their home from the Nazi occupiers. They did so until they were eventually caught, and the entire family were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. All of her family died there, and it was only through a miraculous clerical error that she was released. After the war, she wrote about her faith and her experiences, and was a popular speaker. She was speaking to a church group in Munich several decades after the war, and after her speech, a man from the audience approached her. Even though he was older now, she recognized him immediately as a former SS guard at Ravensbruck. He introduced himself and said that he had been a guard there, and that after the war he’d become a Christian. He said that he knew in his heart that God had forgiven him for his actions, but it would mean a lot to him if she could forgive him.

This was a man who oversaw the deaths of her entire family. She was dumbstruck. Even though she’d just given a big speech on the importance of forgiveness, here she stood with this man and she didn’t know if she could forgive him. But, thinking about God’s own forgiveness of her, she realized that as much as she didn’t want to, she needed to forgive this man. She recognized that forgiveness wasn’t a feeling but an act of the will. So she offered a simple prayer, telling God that she would offer her hand, a physical, unfelt gesture, but if there needed to be any emotion or anything else, it was going to have to come from God. So taking all the strength she had in her tiny little frame, she mechanically reached out and took the man’s hand. And when she did, she said she felt an indescribable peace, a warmth, and she was able to let go of the anger and hatred and bitterness that she’d felt for him. The man had asked her for forgiveness so he could have some healing and peace, but in the process, she received healing and peace, too. I think that’s precisely why Jesus stresses the importance of practicing this kind of radical forgiveness – the kind that we don’t want to offer and that the other person doesn’t deserve – the kind of forgiveness described in this parable.

We don’t want to forgive someone when we think it would mean the other person has gotten away with something, or it would make us feel like a doormat, a patsy. Jesus is saying through this parable that forgiving others, especially those that are undeserving of it, as counterintuitive as it might seem, is really the only way that we’ll be able to truly know the healing and peace that God wants us to have.

So sometimes we don’t want to forgive because it would seem to be an affront to our dignity, or justice. But other times, I think we can’t forgive others because there are things in our own lives that we haven’t forgiven ourselves for. Sure, like the former guard, we know that God has forgiven us, but *we* haven’t forgiven us. And because of that, we can’t be gracious and forgiving of others. Or maybe we really can’t imagine God forgiving us for something – some terrible thing we did, or didn’t do; some way we hurt another person.

Friends, we need to accept our forgiveness from God, and to accept that if God has forgiven us, then we have no reason to not forgive ourselves. We need to let go of that guilt or shame and accept that we’re the recipients of God’s love and mercy beyond our wildest imaginations. We need to accept the truth of that bit of the service that we do every single Sunday, the Assurance of Forgiveness – that in Jesus Christ, we are really, truly, forgiven; and that God has forgiven us far more than even the king forgave in this parable. There is absolutely no reason to doubt that. There is absolutely no reason to question that. The only question that I might have in all of this, I suppose, might be just *why* God would choose to forgive us with such illogical extravagance – and when I consider that, the only answer I can come up with is that God must think it’ll teach us a lesson.

Thanks be to God.

Lord, When Was It/When Will It

(sermon 8/20/17)

Karl Barth Desk

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

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On the second floor of the library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, there’s a big, formal, rectangular reading room. For some reason, it’s filled with an odd collection of reproduction colonial furnishings, mashed up against ultra-sleek, ‘70s-modern seating. Despite the weird furnishings, it’s still a nice, quiet space that offers a more appealing environment than the study carrels scattered throughout the book stacks. At one end of the room is the entry to a large, formal conference room; I suppose the Board of Trustees probably meet there, and at the opposite end of the room, there’s a simple, well-worn wooden desk and chair, with a little cordon between metal stanchions to keep people from sitting down at it. It really doesn’t look like anything important; you’ve probably seen nicer looking pieces of furniture in yard sales and flea markets. But people have been known to travel for miles, even from other countries, to see this desk and maybe get their picture taken next to it – because this used to be the working desk of the great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth; his son donated it to the seminary back in the 1960s, and it’s been there ever since. It was largely at this very desk that Barth wrote more volumes of brilliant, complex theology than most people could read in a lifetime, and few could fully comprehend. When I was a student there at the seminary, I’d drive in from Columbus, usually arriving a couple of hours before the evening classes would start, and I’d spend that time in the library. Sometimes, I’d use the time to finish up some last-minute homework. Other times, I’d just grab a short nap. There was a nice, thickly padded loveseat that sat right next to Barth’s desk that I’d use to try to catch a catnap, but it was just too short for me. So more than a few times, I’d glance around to make sure no one else was around and I’d kick off my shoes and stretch out on the loveseat, hanging my feet out over the edge, and resting them on top of that desk. I was really very lucky; if anyone ever caught me doing that, they’d have probably dragged me out on the quad and burnt me at the stake. But I guess I can admit it now that the statute of limitations has run out.

It always fascinated me to think about that desk, and the history that it had been witness to. I imagined old Karl sitting there, and maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer leaning up against its side, and they each have a pint of beer in a mug sitting on the desk and leaving wet rings on its leather-covered top, while they hammered out the wording of the Barmen Declaration – that amazing confession of faith written to the German churches and people in the 1930s as a witness to Jesus Christ and a denunciation of Nazism, which is now a part of our own Book of Confessions. I imagine the two of them, and their other associates, recognizing that whether they liked it or not, they were living at a critical moment in history.

The ancient Greeks recognized two different kinds of time. There was kronos, which was linear time, clock time, the way we measure hours, days, months, years. And then there was kairos, which was more about the significance of a time rather than its literal measurement. Kairos represented a particularly opportune, critical moment within which some especially important things would play out.  Sometimes, it’s very clear when you’re in a kairos moment; other times it only becomes apparent after the fact, in the rear-view mirror. Working together at that old desk, I’m sure that Barth and Bonhoeffer certainly knew that they were in the midst of a kairos moment, where they had to take a bold, vocal, and even dangerous stand to confess Christ and denounce evil in their society.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus describes the final judgment, and what criteria God used to invite, or disinvite, people to inherit the kingdom of God. As he tells it, those who are invited into the kingdom seem stunned and surprised at being told that they had – or hadn’t – actually cared for God many times throughout their lives, whenever they had cared for the poor, the sick, the oppressed. Over the course of their lives, they’d been in the midst of kairos moments without even realizing it.

Well, you know where this is all going.

I think that we’re in a kairos moment right now, one that has parallels to both Barth and Bonhoeffer’s moment around that desk, and the ones experienced by the people in Jesus’ parable. For the two theologians, the society of the time was in a period of social unrest, uncertainty, and fear. That fear bred racism, nationalism, white ethnic supremacy, homophobia, and fear of the foreigner, as people looked for a scapegoat that they could blame for all of their problems. These evil views were held by many average people, and they were fed, nurtured, even proclaimed at the highest levels of their government as well. At the same time, most of the churches in Germany wouldn’t criticize, and in many cases even supported, the pursuit of these evils, all while wrapping themselves in claims to national patriotism that put the policies of the politicians over the commandments of Christ.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the very real, and dangerous, parallels between that time and our own. It is unbelievable that we’re now living in a time when we actually have to have discussions to explain why Nazis, the KKK, bigotry, white supremacy, and homophobia are evils that always deserve our unflinching opposition – and that those who are the targets of those evils deserve our unflinching support and help.

I want to be clear – for us, as Christians, here under this roof, this is far deeper, and far more important than just a political issue. This isn’t a Republican or Democrat thing; it’s a Jesus thing. As followers of Jesus, we’re aware of the importance of caring for, and standing up for, those who are suffering. We might sometimes ask “Lord, when was it that we helped you?” but we also know the tragic truth that on the flip side of that issue, there are people continually asking, “Lord, when will it be that you’ll help us?” and that Jesus has called us to be the agents of that help.

For their own parts, Barth and Bonhoeffer responded to being in their kairos moment in very different ways. The elder Barth continued to write, encouraging the German church to turn their focus back to Christ and his teachings, and to boldly oppose the evils of their society. At the same time, Bonhoeffer took a more direct, active role in resistance, taking part in an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Hitler that ultimately led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution in the last handful of days of the war.

In a similar way, each of us has to listen for the voice of God to guide us in how we’re being called to respond to our moment in time. But make no mistake, every single one of us is called to respond to it in some way. We each have to discern how we’re being called to be the face of Christ. How God is calling us to resist, how to stand against the evils that we saw on parade in Charlottesville and other cities this past week. How to stand for the ways of the Kingdom of God to our families, our friends, our coworkers, our political leaders, whenever they might stray down these evil paths. We have to discern how we’re going to stand with the people who are the targets of all that hatred.

What should your response be? I don’t know – but it’s got to look like something. Maybe it will be writing good, thoughtful letters to political leaders, or letters to the editor. Maybe it will be joining together with Jewish brothers and sisters in an interfaith sign of support. Maybe it will be taking part in workshops that open our eyes to systemic and other forms of racism all around us, and help us understand a better way forward. And maybe it will be a bit bolder. Maybe it will be physically inserting yourself between a Muslim, or a transgender person who’s being abused in some public place by a bully. Maybe it will be taking part in counter-protests wherever the promoters of evil gather to spew their hate.

Our response needs to be something. Your response needs to be something, because these are truly not normal times. And it needs to look something like Jesus’ parable, recognizing that sometimes, caring for those who are suffering might look like offering a food, clothing, shelter – and at other times, it might look like chanting, carrying a sign, serving as a human shield. Because whatever the details, as people of the gospel, as the people of God’s good news proclaimed for all people, we’re called to love and serve the God who is always hiding in the face of the ones who are suffering and in danger.

Thanks be to God.

The Borders of Compassion

(sermon 8/6/17)

ice arrest

Deuteronomy 10:12-22

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.

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A while back, I was online and stumbled across a site that was selling T shirts. One of the shirts they were advertising that made me laugh was one that said, in big, bold print, “JESUS LOVES YOU” – and then below that, in smaller print, it said, “…But I’m His Favorite.”

There’s a little bit of that mindset in this passage from Deuteronomy that we heard today. According to the passage, God tells the Hebrew people that they’re especially chosen; that God loved and chose them and their ancestors alone. I’m going to say right now that I don’t literally believe that for a moment – that God really did only love the Hebrews and no one else. In fact, there’s plenty of Old Testament scripture that shows that to not be literally true. And since I don’t believe that, I certainly don’t believe that Christians have now replaced Jews as God’s exclusively loved and chosen people. That’s a particularly nasty and dangerous theological idea that’s caused unbelievable harm over the last two thousand years, and that we especially need to reject now, in our post-Holocaust world.

But rather than get stuck on that point in this reading, let’s consider the bigger point that’s being made. According to one place in the passage, God is saying, you, Hebrews, are special and beloved and chosen by God, whether exclusively or not – and because of that, you have a special, higher obligation to be attentive to God’s ways, and to do likewise in your own lives. In other words, yes, you’re chosen, but it’s a kind of chosen that comes with homework.

So what is that homework? That they must love the person in need, and the stranger in their midst; the foreigner living within their borders. They need to provide them with food and clothing, caring for their unmet physical needs. They need to do this, God says, because at one time, they themselves were in the same boat – they had been resident aliens in Egypt, exploited and kept in poverty doing hard physical labor for the financial benefit of others. In fact, the entire Old Testament Law, the entire Jewish faith, has this idea of being compassionate to the foreigner, the resident alien living within their borders, as a constant undercurrent. It’s an absolute essential tenet of the faith – and by extension, it’s an essential tenet of ours, too. So when we hear those familiar words of Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” that are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore –
send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

When we hear these words, we know that they aren’t just a reflection of some of our most cherished national principles, they also reflect a core, non-negotiable, baseline principle of compassion within our Christian faith.

These days, it’s almost impossible to escape the topic of the stranger, the foreigner living within our borders. It seems like every day, there’s another news story about refugees or immigrants. An ICE crackdown that arrests and deports a dozen men in south Louisville, ripping them away from their wives and children. A proposed federal law that would could legal immigration and refugee entries almost in half. A state law that would prohibit cities, universities, and similar institutions from establishing themselves as safe havens for immigrants, and imposing stiff financial punishment on them if they tried to do so. Almost every night, another public statement of extreme isolationist, white-nationalist, alt-right ideology being spouted; men in suits offering up words that used to be reserved for men in hoods.

Well, this is the pivot point in the sermon. Some people might call it the “lettuce” point – the point where the preacher has laid out some situation, some problem, and then says, “So therefore, let us work harder to [fill in the blank];” “Let us go forth and be even more diligent about [whatever]. But I’m not going to do that today, because I know that you already get it when it comes to immigration and refugees. I’ve seen how this congregation has worked with Kentucky Refugee Ministries for years. I see the mountains of donated good that this congregation collects to help new refugee families get settled in. I’ve seen a Session that had the courage to take a stand against an unconstitutional ban on Muslim refugees and immigrants, and I’ve seen us host thoughtful community discussions on the topic. Every week, I see members of this congregation helping to teach immigrants English as a second language, and helping them prepare for their citizenship exams.

So today, I just want you to think about all those great things you’ve done. Be glad of the fact that together as a church family, Springdale gets it. And you’ve done it all because you’ve known and felt God’s love in your lives. You’ve heard, and lived the gospel – God’s good news of reconciliation and compassion for all people – and you’ve acted out of gratitude for it. And most likely, also because you remember some time when you benefited from someone else’s help, We may not have ever been slaves in Egypt, but all of us have likely known what it feels like to be in need.

So think about all that today. Recognize the good the you’ve done. Own it. Embrace it. Be grateful that you’ve been able to do so much.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that can just rest on our past achievements. We do always need to watch for ways to be just as compassionate in the future. See, I guess maybe there is a little bit of “lettuce” in this sermon after all. We should always be alert to new and unexpected ways we might be asked to show that there’s no green card in the kingdom of heaven; that God’s compassion knows no borders.

In 2003, on my fist trip to Montana de Luz, the orphanage in Honduras, I met Ramon. He was part of the bricklaying crew I was working with. That week, and one week every year for the next five or six years, I got to know Ramon. We worked together, ate together, laughed together. Once, he’d rushed to help me when I was hurt in a little accident. I was a guest in his tiny little home. I met his family. Simply put, Ramon became my friend.

About four years ago, I got a call out of the blue from Ramon. Through his broken English and my broken Spanish, he told me that he’d paid a coyote – a human smuggler – to take him on the very dangerous, and often deadly, trip north through Central America and Mexico, and to get him across the border into the U.S., where he could make enough money to send home to his family to keep them sheltered and fed and his children in school. But when they got to the border, the coyote changed the rules. Now, he wanted even more money to complete the job and get him across the border. Ramon was desperate. He didn’t have any money; he didn’t know what to do. So he called me, and asked if I might be able to send him $200 to help him get across.

I told him that as much as I’d like to help him, what he was asking was illegal, and that we’re a nation of laws, and that whether we like the law or not, we still have to obey it. So I told him no.

And I’ve been ashamed of my answer ever since. Every time I think of Ramon, I think of his face, and the face of his children. And I think of the poverty, and hunger, and destitution, and hopelessness that I allowed him to remain in. For two hundred dollars and so I could say I hadn’t broken the law.

I guess if there’s any “lettuce” in this sermon, I guess it’s this: let us always be on the lookout for ways to show compassion to the stranger, the foreigner in our midst, because it’s a bedrock teaching of our faith. And let us use our words, our voices, and yes, our votes, to keep immoral people from enacting unjust laws. Let us avoid becoming modern-day Pharisees, blindly obeying unjust laws that are already in place. Let us never be too timid to love the way that God has called us to. And let us always remember the great truth of another T shirt that was on that website I told you about. That T shirt was right next to the first one; this one said “JESUS LOVES YOU – But Then Again, He Loves Everyone.” And so he does.

 Thanks be to God.