Scroll down to find the lectionary week you need. They are listed in ascending order. The remainder of Year C should be completed in July, 2019.
Notes on Christ the King Sunday, Year C
What would it be like to be Jesus’ public relations manager? To be honest, sometimes I feel as though that is what people think pastors are supposed to do. Make Jesus sound appealing so people will want to follow him. Sounds ridiculous, I know, and I do my best not to fill that role. Instead I am called simply to proclaim the Word of God as it has been revealed to all of us, and to encourage you to be open to what God is telling you.
Still, what would it be like to have to “sell” Jesus? I think of this today because it is Christ the King Sunday, the last weekend of the church year. Except we have a very odd text to read if we are supposed to exalt Jesus as the King. If this were a campaign commercial, the last image we would want to present is a cross if we are advertising a King. Yet here we are, out on the hill called The Skull.
What kind of king is this, on a cross? The sign says it, right up there above Jesus’ head: “King of the Jews.” We might think of this as just another way of taunting Jesus, as so many people were doing that day. But it may have been more than that. It may have been a warning, just one more way of the Romans rubbing the Jews’ noses in the fact that they were powerless in the face of the Roman occupation. As if to say, “This is what happens to anyone who thinks they have any rights or power. This is what a king of your people deserves!”
This king…this looks like defeat. This looks like ruin, despair, any word you can think of for utter loss and unspeakable suffering. The degradation never seems to stop. In fact, Luke appears to want to feature Jesus’ humiliation. Even as he speaks his incredible words of grace—Father, forgive them—the soldiers are rolling dice to see who wins his threadbare and bloodstained garments, just for kicks. As if to say that this is just another day at work, stringing up criminals. Gotta do something to keep it interesting.
The leaders and soldiers are all given speaking parts. “What do you think of yourself now, pal? Not so high and mighty now, are we?” All of them sound suspiciously like the liar whom Jesus met in the desert three years ago. Remember? Before Jesus began his ministry he was taunted by Satan, challenged to prove his authority as the Son of God with that little word: “If.” If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…If you are the Messiah of God, the chosen one, save yourself…If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.
If that weren’t bad enough, even the man hung on his left derided Jesus. All he saw in Jesus was a loser. And Jesus is yet again caught between those who believe and those who dismiss him. The man on his right has had no training as a disciple. He is a common thief or much worse. Yet he recognizes the truth of the sign over Jesus’ head. Or he recognizes something else he sees. Perhaps it is the brokenness in Jesus that speaks to him most clearly.
That is what it takes to recognize this king, you see. One has to go very low to see the real Jesus. A person has to have an honest sense of his desperation in order to understand who can lift him out of it. Jesus said as much. He said, “I have come to seek and to save those who are lost,” and “it is not the healthy who are in need of a physician, but the sick.” These are the ones who see Jesus as the true king.
This is why the job of public relations for Jesus is so tough. You have to get people to realize how desperately needy they are before they will see what kind of king Jesus is. It takes a broken person to recognize a king in a broken man. But Jesus never wavered from his message, that it is in brokenness that healing comes to the world. That if we come to him in our weariness, our failures, our persistent sin, we will find that we are loved.
Because that is the bottom line for this king. For Jesus, the whole reason he stayed up there on the cross and didn’t save himself is love. This is a king who loves, till the end and beyond. This is what the man on Jesus’ right could see, I think. He could see that even though this man Jesus was destroyed in virtually every way, his love would not be compromised. Even to the end, Jesus promised hope to a dying man, because he was still putting others ahead of himself.
Jesus is the king who loves. He loves you. If you are willing to empty yourself of all your burdens and failures and yes, even your successes, you will be able to see the king who loves you. That is the king you need. He is the king we worship. Yes, a king on a cross.
Words of Terror, Words of Promise
Proper 28C…Sunday between November 13 and 20, inclusive
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
“Isn’t it perfect? I wish it could always stay this way.” How many times have you felt that, said it out loud? A golden moment with family gathered, everyone getting along, or at least keeping the peace. The leadership team enjoying synergy, on a roll with ministry that seems to be making a difference. Your house/life/marriage is finally in good repair, everything humming along smoothly.
Peter said it on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured: Let’s just camp out here! (Lk 9.33) Who wouldn’t want to stay where the kingdom seems to have settled into place all around you?
“Well, don’t get too attached. It won’t last forever.” (Lk 21.6, my paraphrase) Jesus doesn’t say it to be mean. He simply reminds them of what he has been saying all along, that the things of this world do not last.
It is hard to know whether he is talking about the temple system—religion they know it—or whether he is talking more globally. Either way, he tells them that it is going to get a lot worse than they can imagine. They can barely picture the temple being destroyed—unthinkable!—but Jesus says that isn’t the half of it. The threats will come from everywhere: natural disasters, war, strange sightings in the heavens, persecutions.
But his predictions include a curious caution: Don’t listen to the people who make predictions. Isn’t that what you just did, Jesus? In one breath you tell us that the future looks bleak, and in the next breath you order us to disregard such negative talk. You can’t have it both ways.
Perhaps the key to this puzzle is in their question: How will we know when it is coming? They want a heads-up, so they can get ready for it. This business of preparing for the worst seems to be what Jesus is telling them to avoid. He reinforces it when he says, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance” (Lk 20.14) when you are arrested and called to testify. “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Lk 20.15)
So, terrible things are coming, and here is how I want you to be ready for it, Jesus tells his followers. Don’t be led astray by people who want to help you get prepared. They might even claim to be me, but they will be lying to you. Don’t prepare your arguments. Make up your mind that your position throughout all of it will be to trust me.
Do not be surprised by disaster or hate or violence. Be unfazed when you are singled out as one of my followers, because I will not abandon you.
There he goes again. Jesus reassures us in a way that nobody else can. “My peace I give you,” he tells them before all hell breaks loose and he is crucified. (Jn 14.27)
Whether it is the biblical warning of persecutions to come (today’s reality for so many of our brothers and sisters in the global church) or the erosion of trust in our political leaders or the rising tides of terrorism and internal strife, there is plenty to keep us awake at night. We want to find a safe place to dwell, but it is elusive. We are even unsettled by controversy in our modern day temples, our churches. Only one thing remains: Jesus’ promise. “I will be with you.”
What difference does that make in all these things? For one thing, he will give us “words and a wisdom” that will defy contradiction. He will help us see it in a way that will ground us, and help us respond without panicking. He knows ahead of time what will eventually take place, and he will personally escort us through even the worst of it. He promises that by trusting him to help us withstand the onslaught, we will experience the life that is truly life. (Lk 21.19)
Sometimes we wish our circumstances could remain the same, like those golden moments with family, like our confidence during a robust economy, like the disciples admiring that beautiful Temple in Jerusalem whose stones were not yet overturned. Other times we wish they would change. We pray for it, beg for God to do something. Some of the terrifying events Jesus predicted would come to pass in the lifetime of his disciples. Today, for some people, the outcome of the 2016 election feels awful. Whatever your source of anxiety, personal or global, your prayer might be, “God, please do something! Make it better!”
Jesus’ promise is that God will not abandon us in such times. God’s presence is as complete and profound, as life-giving and enduring as God has ever been or ever will be in our lives. We do not get more of God at some times, and less of God at other times. God is fully present with you; Jesus is with you; always, always, always. God is our refuge, the psalmist says, “our very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…” (Ps 46.1-2) And the writer of Hebrews: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Heb 13.6)
In November we honor our veterans, who know more than anyone what it is to go through sheer terror, to be forever changed by the horrors of war. I know little of my father’s experiences in the infantry during World War II, because he never talked about them. But I can read the poem he jotted down, a testament to his faith that Jesus Christ was with him in the trenches as they fought their way through France. It is dated December 28, 1944. I quote it not for patriotism’s sake, as much as that means to us. Loyalty to our country is important, but it will not save us. Only Jesus Christ can do that, and he does it every moment of our lives, in good times and bad. Here is an excerpt of John Janssen’s testimony:
“Amidst this conflict we ever find
Our comfort, our strength, our guide
One who will never leave us behind
And be ever present at our side.
In prayer we bow our heads to say,
“Dear God, Lead us safely on,
Safely on the upward way,
Till life’s battles shall all be won.”
“I will be with you.” Jesus knew that these are the words we would need. Matthew records them as Jesus’ last words to his disciples. “I will be with you always,” until the curtain is drawn at the last moment of this age. Thanks be to God.
All Saints Year C….First Sunday in November
What does a saint look like? I imagine when we hear the word, we have different images in our minds, from apostles to Mother Teresa to a longsuffering neighbor. We often think of saints as people who are extra religious, those who have made history of some religious nature, or those who seem to have far more wisdom and patience than the rest of us.
We celebrate All Saints Sunday today, and we have the photographs of people we love in front of us, people who we believe with certainty are in the presence of Jesus Christ in glory. I asked you to bring them so we could celebrate our union with them even though they are not with us physically. The “communion of the saints” is a fundamental part of our faith. It merits a line in the Apostles Creed, so let’s talk about it.
In the interest of time, I won’t take you through the Scriptures and their various references to saints and blessedness. Suffice it to say that Jesus introduced a new concept of blessedness and “saint-ness” in his life and his teachings. Today we read blessings and woes from Luke 6, a version of the Beatitudes that we might not prefer. (The Beatitudes listed in Matthew don’t list those pesky woes.) But here they are, in all their starkness: Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, you who weep, you who are hated/excluded/reviled/defamed, for yours is the kingdom, you will be filled, you will laugh, your reward is great. Woe to you who are rich, full, laughing, spoken well of. You have already received your consolation, you will be hungry, you will weep, you are as honorable as a false prophet.
There is quite a contrast between the two groups. About the only thing we can say they have in common is that they are headed for change. Those who are suffering will be lifted up. Those who are satisfied with their position will have it taken away. This reversal is a bold statement by Jesus. It challenges the centuries-old concept among his hearers that wealth is a sign of blessing, and poverty a sign of punishment for wrongdoing. No, says Jesus. What qualifies as blessed in God’s kingdom has nothing to do with your possessions or reputation. It has everything to do with where your heart is. And then he goes on to tell us how we can tell where our hearts are.
If you love your enemies, pray for people who are mean to you, if you don’t fight back when people strike you, if you are generous to the point of being considered a fool, then your heart is in the right place. You are following my lead, Jesus essentially tells them. In identifying with your enemy, or with the poor, you will suffer. You will feel the pain of those who have to beg for survival. You will seek to understand your enemy, and in so doing, will be exposed to the cause of her anger or fear. You will be hungry for justice. And you will start to look like those blessed people Jesus describes.
This, I think, is a description of saints. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, to all of us who believe in his name and follow him. We are the saints. Paul called the Christians in Corinth ‘saints’ even though he was frustrated with their behavior. They weren’t perfect, but they were believers along with him. They were learning how to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.
And so are we, and so are our loved ones who have gone before us, whether they are pictured here or in our minds. Everyone who is redeemed by the cross of Jesus, forgiven and alive with his life, is a saint. We share the same traits with the disciples Jesus was teaching when he uttered these beatitudes.
We share the family resemblance, all of us who follow Jesus. You know how you can trace the same eyes, or chin, or nose of a great-grandfather to your son. I can see traits of my father in my son, even though my son barely knew Grandpa before he died. He bears his grandfather’s mouth.
All of us who believe in Jesus—all through the ages and throughout the world—bear the same family traits. The number one trait is this: we are forgiven. We have all been cleansed by the same water of baptism, dying to our sin and rising to life in Jesus, life that is free from shame and guilt. We are forgiven people, every single one! What a blessing! In the greatest poverty of all, the desperation of our sin, Jesus comes to us in love and grants us complete forgiveness no matter what we have ever done or will do. That is what we recognize in one another as Christians, as the saints of God, even if we have just met. We smile at each other because we share the joy of forgiveness.
As the saints of God we also bear the trait of compassion. Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies, to do good to everyone—especially those who hate us, to turn the other cheek and to be unbelievably generous are possible only because we have inherited the compassion gene from our Lord. We can’t help but give to those in need. That’s what the saints do.
This is in our DNA as God’s people. It shows in our subconscious habits. The joy of forgiveness and compulsion for compassion may be our inheritance, but they are also learned in the community of faith. Just as a family passes on stories, traditions and ways of life, we as God’s people also learn from the saints around us. We give and love and do as we have experienced in the church. We believe, and sing, and say the creed because of the saints who have gone before us. Saints are not loners. Their identity comes from generations of saints we have never known but who have given us our creeds, our hymns, our liturgy and symbols, our understanding of the Scriptures. Even their failures have taught us how saints of God act and believe and speak. Some of them died so that we could worship and read the Scriptures. We are beholden to people we don’t even know.
Keep in mind that the saints from whom we get our identity do not all look like us. They are of every color and language. The African Methodist Episcopal Christian, the Eastern Orthodox priest, and the new believer in the underground Chinese church all share the table of our Lord with us, and their faith makes ours the richer. The impoverished mother in a Mexico City slum can teach us the meaning of trust in God. The inmate serving a life sentence but who has become a fellow believer can teach us about freedom and forgiveness.
You’ve heard and seen stories on TV about people who have found long-lost relatives. They laugh when they recognize the nose or hands or smile that fits with the rest of the family. They feel connected even though they have just met. A far greater joy is ours in the great family of faith, the company of the saints.
Look around you. Look at the pictures on the table up front. Imagine the people of times past and in various cultures. These are the faces of the saints. God has called us all together to receive mercy, abundant blessing, the joy of giving, the hope of eternal life in the presence of Jesus Christ, all of us together. God has also called us to be faithful to our family resemblance, and to pass it on to our children and future generations.
We bear the mark of our Savior Jesus Christ, and we are united in God’s mercy and compassion. This we celebrate today in our worship, and in our fellowship around the table, in the company of our fellow saints of all times and all places. Thanks be to God!
The Wee Little Man in All of Us
Proper 26C…Sunday between October 30 and November 5 inclusive
You have all heard of J.C. Penney. He was an elderly man before he committed his life fully to Jesus Christ. He had been a good man, an honest man, but he was primarily interested in becoming a success and making money. “When I worked for six dollars a week at Joslin’s dry Goods Store back in Denver,” he recalled, it was my ambition, in the sense of wealth in money, to be worth one hundred thousand dollars. When I reached that goal I felt a certain temporary satisfaction, but it soon wore off and my sights were set on becoming worth a million dollars.”
Mr. and Mrs. Penney worked hard to expand the business, but one day Mrs. Penney caught cold and pneumonia developed, which claimed her life. It was then that J. C. Penney realized having money was a poor substitute for the real purposes of living. “When she died,” he said, “my world crashed about me. To build a business, to make a success in the eyes of men, to accumulate money—what was the purpose of life? What had money meant for my wife: I felt mocked by life, even by God himself.”
I see two aspects of J.C.Penney’s life that compare with a man in the gospel reading today. I see both wealth and a longing for something more meaningful in the lives of both Mr. Penney and Zacchaeus.
You know the song. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” Zacchaeus might have been short in stature, but he had a big profile. That does not mean he was popular. As chief tax collector, he was in charge of all the tax collectors within a district. These men were despised as turncoats, members of the community who worked for the Roman occupiers. They created a great revenue stream for Caesar, since they already knew who worked at what trade and where. They were notorious for taking more than was required and getting rich in the process. Since they had the muscle of the Romans behind them, nobody could do anything about it.
So. A short man, and wealthy. He probably only had friends among other tax collectors, and since they were a shifty lot, he probably couldn’t trust any of them. So, short, wealthy, and lonely too. We can imagine him becoming disillusioned with his wealth, maybe with a sizable chip on his shoulder. His curiosity about Jesus got the best of him, and he risked ridicule just so he could get a glimpse of the teacher and healer everybody was talking about.
Along comes Jesus, who spots Zacchaeus in the tree. That’s the thing about Jesus: he notices people who need him, and he loves them. This is a story of Jesus’ surprising, radical love. Although Zacchaeus lived a long time ago and enjoyed a lifestyle we can hardly imagine, there is something about him that is familiar to us. We share the need for a radical love from Jesus.
Everybody has a little Zacchaeus inside them. After all these years, is there still something that nags at you? An old wound from a friend, or resentment toward a brother or sister maybe? Or you’ve always hated the way you look, wondered if people see you as ugly because of it. Or you never achieved the success you strove for. Or you realize you have relied far too much on money, or other people, or reputation to feel important. Or you never, ever thought you deserved God’s love.
Jesus sees that needful part of you and calls to you. He gives it his attention and isn’t repulsed by it. Instead, he approaches you gently and calls that darkness by name. Yes, he not only knows your name, he knows the name of your secrets. He does not turn away. Instead, he tells you—he doesn’t ask, he tells you—that he is going to come closer. He is coming to your house, your life.
Is that more than you want from Jesus? Do you want him to keep his distance, and not see everything about you in painful detail? We are all afraid of this, until we realize that he does not reject us because of what he finds. He accepts us as we are.
That is just too hard for a lot of people to believe. Jesus accepts me, even after what I have done? Even with the agonizing, shameful memories that haunt me? Yes. Jesus accepts you. If he could accept greedy Zacchaeus, and impulsive Peter, and broken Mary Magdalene, and traitorous Judas, he can accept you. He does accept you, warts and all.
Not only that, but he counts himself among your friends. Jesus was a guest at Zacchaeus’s house, an unexpected honor. He ate from the chief tax collector’s table, knowing everything he did to gouge his neighbors. Jesus associated with Zacchaeus, and he does that for you and me. He gets in the picture when we take a selfie!
In these days before the election, people are brave to put Hillary and Trump signs on their lawns. We have trouble finding anything to approve about these candidates. Yet people are associating themselves with one or the other. You might find that impossible to do. You cannot align yourself with people you cannot respect.
It’s not the same with Jesus. He not only lowers himself to socialize with a man like Zacchaeus, he eagerly comes when any soul invites him. You know the old picture of Jesus standing at the door and knocking. Jesus knocks on every heart’s door and never fails to enter when the door is opened to him.
When he does come in, when he sees the objects we value and the mementoes of our life’s history, he does not turn away in disgust. He is not impressed with our trophies either. Zacchaeus hastened to tell Jesus of his goodness: “See, sir, I give half of everything I possess to the poor, and if I have ripped anybody off, I pay it back four times over.” (Lk 19.8) Maybe that would justify him in Jesus’ eyes.
It was not on the basis of this man’s good deeds, nor of ours, but on the unlimited mercy and love of God that Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he, too is a child of Abraham.” (Lk 19.9)
The salvation of Jesus in the gospels is much bigger than a promise of heaven when you die. It is the beginning of an expanded life, a life free to follow Jesus. It is stepping over the threshold into the reign of God, where deep, eternal love is the substance of life together and hope for the future. It is a place where your past is forgiven, and what you look like or the size of your bank account does not determine your worth.
Back to the story of J.C. Penney. After his wife’s death and several more personal crises, this prominent businessman was financially ruined and in deep distress. That is when God could deal with his self-righteous nature and his love for money. He said, “I had to pass through fiery ordeals before reaching glimmerings of conviction that it is not enough for men to be upright and moral. When I was brought to humility and the knowledge of dependence on God, sincerely and earnestly seeking God’s aid, it was forthcoming, and a light illumined my being. I cannot otherwise describe it than to say that it changed me as a man.”
Mr. Penney had found his heart’s true treasure. It was what he didn’t realize he had been longing for all along: the approval, acceptance, and love of God. It is what we all want and need more than anything else, when everything else falls away.
No matter whether you are in a tree or a wheelchair, wealthy or poor, proud or ashamed, popular or despised, Jesus sees you. He accepts you, comes alongside you, explores your life with you and declares you forgiven, no matter what he finds there. He saves you from your anxiety about measuring up, saves you from your dark secrets, saves you from your short, lonely, sorry self that nobody else sees and calls you his friend for eternity. Thanks be to God.
Polls and Prayers
Luke 18:9-14; Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Proper 25C…Sunday between October 23 and 30, inclusive
Let me begin by saying that I am not going to talk about politics. Just wanted to reassure you before I ask a question related to these stressful times in our democratic process. Here’s the question: How many of you have been contacted to give your opinions in a political survey? Now here’s a question more suited to our worship gathering this morning. How many of you think it is important to pray?
Would anybody dare not to raise their hand? We all know we are supposed to pray, but we have a lot of questions about it. What does it accomplish? How do we know whether a prayer has been answered or it is just a coincidence? What about unanswered prayer?
Those questions are hard to answer, but there is one question I think I can answer. Why do we pray? We pray because Jesus set an example by going off by himself to pray. Jesus also instructed his disciples by teaching them a pattern, what we call the Lord’s Prayer. He told them to do it in secret, and more important, he assumed we would pray. He said, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites” who flaunt their prayers in the synagogues and on the street corners. (Matt 6.5)
Do not be like those people, Jesus said. It seems as though he is saying the same thing when he tells them not to pray like the Pharisee in todays parable from Luke 18. By the way, it is significant that Jesus didn’t use bread or birds or seeds to make his point this time. He used Pharisee and a tax collector. A respected religious person and someone considered a dirty rotten turncoat. He held a mirror up to his listeners and asked them if they recognized themselves in the reflection.
It is hard to pull our gaze away from a story of such contrasts, the villainous Pharisee and the heroic tax collector. A scandalous story, really. Jesus was claiming that God was pleased with the prayers of the guy in the corner, not the religious man up front. It seemed like a new idea: that how you pray reveals the actual condition of your heart and the way God receives your requests.
It wasn’t new at all though. Anybody who knew the words of the prophets understood that it is not great sacrifices or empty words that God wants from us. It is our humility and brokenness that enable us to get God’s attention and compassion. More on that in a moment.
Prayer reveals how we perceive God and ourselves. That makes sense if you think about it. What you believe about God–whomever it is you imagine as you talk with God–determines how you approach God. If you see God as a frowning judge, wouldn’t you be fearful or at least timid in your approach? If you understand God to be welcoming and loving, then you don’t have to be afraid.
And if you see yourself as righteous, I suppose you would not be afraid of God then either. You expect God to be glad to see you. If you feel ashamed of yourself, you might not even pray at all, fearful of God’s condemnation.
This gets at something even more fundamental: our identity. We understand ourselves only in relationship with other people. Think of it. As an infant, then a toddler, a child and so on, you get the idea either that you are lovable or not. That you are capable or not. Pretty or handsome, or not. People tell you these things, and you use them to construct ideas about yourself, whether helpful or destructive. That is just what happens to us.
Here is what God asks us to do. God asks to be the primary Other, the most significant influence on your identity. Since God is your Creator, doesn’t that make sense? We get it in the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God (who brought you out of the land of Egypt)…have no other gods before me.” (Ex 20.2-3)
As we live our lives before God and communicate with God, we receive the affirmation of who we truly are. We get God’s truth about ourselves. Without that frame of reference, the job is up to us. We have to construct our own identity. With only yourself as a resource, this is hard to do. It would certainly lead to a self-centered kind of life, wouldn’t it? Or perhaps a terribly fearful and defensive one.
So we start looking around for clues, and we view television shows, sports stars with skills we will never achieve, fashion models with looks we could never imitate, advertising that tells us we need this and that to feel important. We look to the people around us to approve of us: our spouses, love interests, parents, friends, co-workers. And what happens? We move from one ideal to another, back and forth, and we end up not sure of who we are.
We hear a lot about political polls right now. I cannot imagine being one of the presidential candidates (for a number of reasons!), checking the polls daily to see what people think of me. Then playing to the crowd every day: one day it is the women voters, the next day the middle class, and so on.
It is an extreme example, but not that far off from getting your identity from everything and everyone else but the God who made you.
Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is not only about who prays better. It also shows us what people think of themselves in relationship to God. Relationship is what the Bible is all about. You can’t find a page or a scroll that isn’t about that.
Prayer is not only about our relationship with God, it is the substance of that relationship. All of your life is a prayer, spoken or unspoken, conscious or not, because you are never out of God’s sight. All of it is playing out before your maker. Whatever we express, in “thought, word, or deed” as our confession says, either aligns with the reign and goodness of God or veers off in another direction.
But our faith is not merely about being perfectly aligned with God either. Jesus made a point of that. The good guy had it wrong. The straight-arrow Pharisee didn’t seem to need God because he had things all sewn up. He just came to report to God. These days he could send it in by email. No relationship required.
The tax collector couldn’t bring himself to come close, couldn’t lift his head to look at God. But he did come, and he begged for mercy, because he knew how much he was off track. “God, I need help!”
As long as he thought God cared only about being good or bad, the Pharisee could feel good about himself. When you are constantly making sure you are staying within the lines, pretty soon the lines are all that matter. Faith becomes an achievement, an abstraction.
“Abstractions offer the ego lots of payoffs: We can remain seemingly in control; we can live in our heads; we can avoid loving in general or loving anyone in particular; we can avoid all humor, paradox, and freedom. Even God is not free to act outside of our abstract theological conclusion, yet that is exactly what God does every time God forgives and shows mercy…”
God is constantly working to make us ready to receive grace, to experience union with God. It is a never-ending process that has us realizing over and over that we would be unworthy except for the fact that God has made us worthy through Jesus Christ. We see ourselves as we really are, and it doesn’t frighten us. Humility comes more naturally and does not embarrass us. It is a relationship about what is real, not about racking up points or making a good impression.
Biblical rightness is not so much about being good as it is about being in the right relationship. God only asks that we keep showing up just as we are. God will take care of the garbage and confusion, the despair and the shame, the anger and the grief. All of it.
It is so freeing to know that this is all we are expected to do. We can let go of pleasing people just for the sake of earning their respect, and depend on what God tells us instead. We have examples in the other readings for today.
If Jeremiah had relied on the opinions of other people for his self-respect, he would have given up before putting pen to parchment. They threw him in a cistern and threw mud at him. But in today’s reading, he speaks with authority, telling Judah how they can come to God and be hopeful in spite of their past disloyalty. He is able to deal confidently with the reality of their situation and God’s regard for them. He can only do that because he has received his identity and purpose from God alone.
The psalmist also declares his source of hope in Psalm 84: “Blessed are those who strength is in you.” He says that the people can move ahead with faith, through the challenges ahead, going “from strength to strength,” because their source of strength is not themselves, but God. God’s people need to see who cares about them, who is with them, who gives them life and strength.
The writer of 2 Timothy echoes the same basis for his identity. Nobody supported him, but that did not matter. He got his strength, his purpose, and his drive from the Lord. (2 Timothy 4:16-17) He could look back on his life without shame, because God had given him his true identity and led him through every trial.
So take it from Jesus. When you pray honestly to God, you are addressing the One who forgives you, who makes you worthy and capable. In prayer you can face both your failures and your gifts honestly, see them as God sees them, and receive healing and life. The only poll about you that matters is written on the heart of God, and it reads: “100% Beloved.” Thanks be to God.
 Rohr, Richard. 2008. Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press), p. 68.
That’s the Book for Me
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Proper 24C…Sunday between October 16 and 22 inclusive
That’s the Book for Me
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Proper 24 C…October 16, 2016
“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.” Remember that song? In a brief lyric, we teach our children the most simplistic version of an important Lutheran mainstay, sola scriptura. That aspect of doctrine is much more nuanced and rich than a common version we often hear. Maybe you have said this about the Bible: “God said it; I believe it; that settles it for me.” I vaguely remember another song with those very words.
In childhood, the Bible as a solid foundation is a helpful metaphor. We need to know that there are absolutes that do not change, a God we can depend on, a place to go for refuge and comfort and truth. Our reading in Second Timothy might be a basis for such confidence: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Keep in mind that this would have been referring only to what we would consider Old Testament when this was written.
There are other images people use for the Bible: owner’s manual, a tool, a guide book, God’s love letter to us, a road map. The Bible even has an image for itself: a sharp, two-edged sword. (Heb 4.12) I know I have used these expressions many times over the years as a way of encouraging folks to read the Bible regularly.
If the Bible is so important, then I think it is fair to ask what it was written for in the first place. In the past few years as I have done my own research into topics that the church is wrestling with, that was the question that emerged for me. Not only “What does the Bible say about that?” but also more fundamentally, “Why was the Bible given to us in the first place? Can it answer our questions about these matters in a definitive way?”
It is strange to me that these questions are not asked more often. As U.S. citizens, we hear questions about our Constitution. The whole point of the Supreme Court is to interpret cases in light of the Constitution, so the justices have to ask routinely: Why was this written? Why does it matter?
So I asked those questions about the Bible. As I did this work, something interesting happened to me. Have you ever seen a cartoon or movie in which someone is frantically trying to get away from a horrifying, evil predator? The hero dodges all kinds of dangers, maybe scrambling through a jungle or jumping over ice floes, and finally lands on a large rock. Finally, he is safe! He breathes a sigh of relief. But in a few moments, timed just perfectly for full effect, the rock underneath him begins to move, and we discover that he has landed on the back of a huge, terrifying beast. Oh, no!
Well, that is a bit like my experience. The Scriptures I always perceived as safe and reliable, locked in place and somewhat two dimensional, has begun to stir beneath me, and I am unsettled. I detect the sound of breathing below. It is not a fearsome creature I have awakened, although it is not altogether safe either. But it is good, and it is life-giving.
This idea of the Scriptures as life-giving is not a new idea, is it? We feel restored, reassured, enlivened and equipped by what we read. But alive and breathing? I want to suggest today, if only for a moment, that we interpret the phrase “all scripture is inspired by God” not as a basis for regarding the Bible as a body of literature dictated by God word for word. It can also be faithfully translated as “all scripture is God-breathed.” What if we considered instead that God breathes through it as we read it? That it is not just an ancient set of documents for someone else far away and a long time ago?
We don’t treat the Bible as though it is irrelevant, or dead. We believe that the Creator of the universe is communicating with us through it. That is a big deal. We read the Bible together and ask what it might be saying to us today, and we expect something to emerge. We expect something to happen to us as we read it. We hope it will tell us what to do when we don’t know how to proceed. We look for comfort on its pages.
But in the process, we find a lot that puzzles us. What are we to make of today’s gospel text, for example? Jesus tells a story that is presumably about prayer. Only he doesn’t make the promise he offers elsewhere, “Ask and it will be given you.” (Matthew 7:7) This time he depicts God as a cranky, impatient judge who gives in to the persistent widow’s plea just to get her off his back. (Luke 18:1-8) Is that how we are supposed to picture God when we pray? Yikes. That’s not very comforting.
Or the story of Jacob that we read in Genesis 32 this morning. Here we have God blessing a guy who would not be your favorite uncle at the Thanksgiving table. Jacob was a deceptive, self-seeking, spoiled brat, not to put too fine a point on it. Yet we see him finally coming to terms with his warped image of God as divine vending machine, if there were such a thing back then. Years before, when he was fleeing the revenge of his brother Esau whom he had cheated out of his birthright, Jacob had a dream about a ladder—remember that?—perhaps a symbol of his constant compulsion to get ahead, climb higher. After he awoke, he made a deal with God, that if God would bless him with what he wanted, he might consider worshiping that kind of God. As if God should be grateful for the favor.
Yet here we have it: God did bless Jacob. This is not what any self-respecting author of a moral tale should write. But this incident at the Jabbok River is a critical piece of the whole biblical narrative. It reveals a God who blesses beyond our logic, showing favor to someone who clearly does not deserve it. Not only that, but the story implies that blessing comes in a form we usually don’t consider a gift. The wrestling match is the blessing. That intense struggle is where Jacob experiences God, so much so that he receives a new name—and a limp to go with it—to make sure he remembers what happened on the river bank.
His new name is Israel, as in the one who wrestles with God, or in another sense, one who perseveres. Jacob’s story shows us that we experience God’s presence and power and love when we wrestle with God. That is the blessing. It is not in getting what we want that God’s being is known to us directly. It is in the struggle itself, the longing, the frustration, the questions.
There is comfort in the Scripture at times, plenty of it. That, too, is blessing. But in order to go deeper into the relationship and union with God—the ultimate goal of our faith—the biblical story shows us that we have to struggle to get there. That struggle is not only with suffering or tragedy. Sometimes—often, I think—it is a struggle with who God is in the first place. (Isn’t it interesting that Jacob asked his opponent his name, and didn’t get an answer, but afterward he called him God?)
The Bible is not an encyclopedia in which we can look up principles about God that we can apply to life like answers on a test or bandaids or bumper stickers. That is what we want, but it is not what we got. We got a living word that is alive only because God is alive. The Scriptures have been given to us so that we may know the God who is alive. The Spirit of God shows us who God is through story and song and wisdom written down long ago but not locked in time.
As we witness the political madness in the media, we might ask ourselves where we get our hope, what grounds us in the midst of shrill rhetoric and nastiness. We turn to the Bible. Make no mistake, there is greed and power grabbing there too, but what the Bible does is show us what is real and what is not in our circumstances. Stories like those of Abraham, Jacob, and David, Ruth and Rahab, Peter and Paul—these are people like us who long to be known and loved and find through their struggles that they are indeed known deeply and loved eternally.
The Bible is not an easy read. You can bookmark and highlight the parts you like best, but that doesn’t mean the other parts are not there. You can regard the Bible as a rock to build your life on, but then you have to sculpt that rock into an image that suits you, chipping away the parts that make no sense or make you uncomfortable. (Thomas Jefferson created just such a Bible.) You can also use a rock as a weapon, but a rock is a primitive weapon that doesn’t work so well and can end up landing on your own foot.
What if the Bible is a record of the history of God’s people wrestling with who God really is? What if the violent God depicted in the Old Testament is not a true picture of God but is instead a step in a process, a collection of understandings of God that were evolving over the centuries, truth emerging here and there, other ideas tried and discarded. This would not make parts of the Bible false; it makes them real, our own questions reflected in the writings of people whose stories are not that different from ours.
Does that make the Bible seem less reliable to you? It doesn’t feel that way to me. I think it shows the Bible for what you have believed all along as a Lutheran. Luther called the Bible a cradle for the Christ Child. It shows us that guilt from the Law can only be resolved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. It depicts humankind as confused, desperate for the Savior we are given. We continue in that reality when we reach for the body and blood of Christ at the table today, desperate for his mercy and life.
The Bible is about real people wondering about God, getting it wrong and God correcting them. It is the story of God responding to us every time, telling us that we are loved. It is not merely a set of principles and rules to carry around as if that is all God has to offer to us.
Friends, this is such good news. God did not just hand us a dusty old book and tell us to figure it out and good luck to you. Somehow God meets us in the Scriptures if we open ourselves to them. God risks using human language to breathe God’s own self into us, creating both a longing and a confidence, a book that reads us, as some have described it. The Scripture I cited earlier—Hebrews 4:12, about the Bible as a two-edged sword—says that it engages us, even inflicting pain as the Spirit uses it to transform us: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb 4.12) So I suppose we can regard this as fair warning if we dare to let the sacred writings do their work on us.
I will let Malcolm Guite have the last word, because he is a poet, and wordsmiths like him find a way to open our hearts and minds to God:
Begin at the beginning, make an end
Of all your old evasions, make a start
Counting the countless stars, the grains of sand,
And find in them the fragments of your heart.
Open the text again, for it is true,
The Book you open always opens you.
(from “Bible Study,” in Parable and Paradox, 2016. [Norwich: Canterbury Press, p. 10])
This sermon was first delivered in 2015 as a confirmation sermon. Note: It is the SECOND sermon offered for Proper 24C.
Proper 24C…Sunday between October 16 and 22 inclusive
Chances are very good that today will not change you. It is an important day, certainly. We need to publicly speak the words of commitment and faith, whether it is in baptism, holy communion, weddings, or as you are doing today, affirming your baptism as part of your coming of age. We stand before God together and stake our lives on Him, the One who has revealed himself to us purposefully. This is a piece of our story as a community of faith.
Here at Bethlehem we have been scanning the big story of the Bible here at Bethlehem in the past year, dipping into various episodes. Some were familiar, others were more obscure, even a little surprising. And it is through that big story that I have attempted to teach you what matters about God, and faith, and yourself these past three years. We have talked about God calling a people to be His own, to love and trust God in spite of the folks who try to claim power for themselves, the “big deals.” Over and over we have seen that God provides our daily “manna” out of love for us. We have underlined passages in the Bible that speak of God’s great love for you that I hope will help you as you continue your story of faith in the years to come.
Today I want us to go back to the story of one of the patriarchs of the Bible, those characters in Genesis whose lives are given to us as the setting for God’s first dealings with humankind after all the drama of creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah.
You remember Abraham, and his wife Sarah, whom God called to live in a new land to get this story started. Abraham had great faith, to obey God’s call to uproot his family and move to the land God would show him. Just like us, sometimes Abraham had trouble trusting God, but God made him the father of the nation of Israel nevertheless. Remember how he and Sarah had their first child when they were old enough to be great-grandparents? Their son was Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob and Esau. So Jacob was Abraham’s grandson.
Jacob was not a person I would have nominated to be a patriarch. He hung around the family compound, whereas his brother Esau roamed the hills and valleys hunting game. Jacob might have had too much time on his hands, because he often brooded over the fact that his twin brother would inherit their father’s land because he was only five minutes older than he was. Of course he thought he was far more deserving, more intelligent and refined than his brute of a brother, who seemed to be content with having enough to eat and a tent over his head from time to time. He wondered if he could find a way to change his fortune.
When Esau came home famished after a couple of unsuccessful days of hunting, Jacob saw his chance. He offered his brother some soup in exchange for his rights as the firstborn. Esau carelessly agreed. Some time later, when it was time for the ceremony of the birthright blessing, their mother Rachel talked Jacob into fooling his blind father. This would seal the deal. (Jacob came by his scheming nature honestly.) He disguised himself as his brother and pulled one over on his own father, who pronounced the blessing of land and food, leadership of the family and community, and God’s stamp of approval.
When Esau found out what had happened, Isaac was already miles away, having realized that this birthright deal had consequences. Jacob did not have half his brother’s strength, and he would be the loser if Esau got hold of him.
While he was on the run, Jacob had to sleep out in the open, maybe for the first time in his life. It was on one of those starry but uncomfortable nights that Jacob was given a dream, a vision of the traffic between heaven and earth. For reasons that only God knew, God renewed the promise made to his grandpa Abraham and his father Isaac: land, offspring, and the privilege of being the vessel for God’s blessing of all peoples.
Did it change Jacob? No, it did not. I wonder whether it even surprised him, so deep was his attitude of entitlement. He had the nerve to tell God his conditions for the covenant God was making with him. He vowed to trust God if God would protect him, give him enough to live on, and keep his brother from killing him in revenge. That is as close to trusting God as Jacob would come for a long time.
Fast forward to at least twenty years later. Jacob has gotten married, acquired great herds, and is on the run again, this time from his father-in-law Laban. Jacob had met his match: Laban was as much of a shrewd and scheming man as he was. Life together in the same family compound became unbearable. As they say, the place wasn’t big enough for the both of them. Jacob got to thinking again, and a future with Laban was worse than facing the music back home. Surely the land he was promised in the blessing was not his to claim by now, but maybe Esau would be willing to grant him a small corner. So Jacob took his wives and herds to return home.
Jacob got more and more nervous the closer he got to his homeland. He had nightmares of his brother Esau coming at him with his hunting weapons. As they got close enough that Esau might be around the next corner, Jacob sent his family and possessions ahead of him, ready to forfeit most of it if Esau would only let him live. He spent the night at the River Jabbok, and it is there that his life was changed.
He was sitting by the river at dusk, pleading with God to spare his life and those of his family, and trying to work out plans A, B, and C when somebody grabbed his shoulder and tried to pin him down. At first he had thought it was Esau, but this man didn’t smell right or feel hairy like his twin. Jacob fought for his life in a wrestling match that lasted all night long. By daybreak he had suffered an injury to his hip; it was pulled out of its socket. Yet his opponent seemed to be giving in, asking to be released. Jacob said he would only give up if the man blessed him first, making Jacob the winner. His blessing amounted to a new name: Israel, which means “one who strives with God” or “perseverance” for short. Suddenly it was clear who this man was. Jacob realized that he had been wrestling with an agent of God himself.
Jacob was never the same after that. He limped, for one thing. And it seems that he finally understood that it was not through striving and grabbing that he would find life. We see it when he meets up with Esau not five minutes later. Jacob was repentant. He apologized to Esau. He owned up to his past and faced his brother instead of sending a peace offering and hoping for the best. His eyes were opened to see his brother with love instead of competing with him. Listen to what he said to his brother about his gift: “please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” (Gen 33.10-11)
Quite a change. It seems that Jacob finally grew up and stopped trying to make the blessing happen. He had to admit his brokenness before God and other people. The pain in his hip reminded him of it daily. Not that his life was easier after that. Some of his sons inherited their father’s deceitfulness, and they developed a mean streak to go with it.
Not everybody learns how to trust God as Jacob did. He strived and strived a long time before he discovered that it was never enough to satisfy his restless heart. He had to learn that the most important things can only be given, and received. That the beautiful life he was striving for couldn’t be found in things or even people; it is instead a result of allowing God to bless us out of love for us.
To be fair, it is not easy to trust a God like that, a God so generous, who blesses us out of sheer love and doesn’t require any sort of striving to earn it. But Jacob had one son who learned this early on, and didn’t seem to lose sight of it. I’m pretty sure you’ll remember the story of Joseph, Dad’s favorite. God gave Joseph dreams of being the favored one, even though he was toward the end of the line as far as birthrights go. It irritated his brothers to the point of violence. Just as his father had been shocked by a hand on the shoulder and an all-night wrestling match, Joseph found himself unexpectedly at the bottom of a dry well with his brothers shouting curses and spitting at him.
Joseph’s story, while vastly different from that of his father, is also a lesson about faith. His innocent trust in God never seemed to leave him. Remember how Jesus said we should have the faith of a child? Joseph seems like a good example of that. Even though he was sold by his own brothers, enslaved, framed and thrown into prison, Joseph seemed able to keep his eyes focused on a faithful God. As he grew up, he didn’t lose that simple faith. We can be sure it wasn’t easy. He had to be scared out of his wits and beaten up often enough. Bit it appears he inherited the best of his father’s ability to scheme, because he always seemed to rise to the top, whether as a slave, a prisoner, or an aide to Pharaoh himself.
Two very different stories. And there are dozens more in the Scriptures. All of them have one thing in common: a faithful God even when we are faithless. Even when we try to weasel other people out of their blessings and grab them for ourselves. Even when the best of them gave in to their appetites like David in his adultery, and their fears, like Peter in his denial.
What changed them was not a declaration such as the one you will make today. What changed them was being broken and finding themselves utterly dependent on God. And that is where we come in today. Although your vows today are important, and will serve as a touchstone and resource for you in the years ahead, it is the act of coming to God with your brokenness and sin that will always be what changes you. Maturity and faith do not come through wishing for them or by osmosis. We do well to study God’s faithfulness when we are comfortable. But deep faith is developed only times of crisis. We learn it when we come to the end of ourselves, our striving, our pain and the injustices of life and find that God is the only constant.
Maybe you have already faced some real pain, have had to grow up sooner than expected. Then you have had the chance to realize that God’s love is yours no matter what, and that God will never abandon you. Through the scars and disappointments, and in times when you realize that your own plans are insufficient and flawed, you will find that God is faithful. You will have begun to grow up in the faith.
And that is why we come to the table together. We come as beggars. We come with grateful hearts. We eat the bread of Jesus who was broken for us. You will lay the bread that is his body in the hands of your fellow believers today, as one broken person feeding another with the beautiful food of God’s goodness. You will be on your way to growing up in the faith that we all share, faith in a God who loves us throughout and beyond our stories.
This week’s sermon is by guest preacher (and my brother), The Rev. Paul G. Janssen, who currently serves the United Church of Somerville, NJ. It was the sermon at Pascack Reformed Church, Park Ridge, NJ, on Oct. 3, 2010. Thanks, Paul!
God Doesn’t Need You, But God Wants You
Proper 22C…Sunday between Oct. 2 and 8 inclusive
Dearly Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ the Lord,
Whom do you know, who possesses great faith?
Most of us have heard of Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic sister who in the late 1940’s took her vows to devote her life in service to the Lord. Surely she had great faith when she left the convent and began to minister to the lowest of the low in Calcutta – outcasts, lepers, with no one in the world to speak for them, to look at them, no one to even acknowledge their existence. Surely Mother Teresa’s daily acts of compassion, her ability to organize others to serve the poor, surely this was all fueled by a profound level of faith. And yet, we now know, years after her death, we know that she lived most of her life in the dark night of the soul. Prayer was no comfort to her. She doubted whether God even existed; or if there was a God, if he cared about the wretched people to whom she ministered. She rarely felt her faith as a driving passion in her soul. And yet she is remembered as one of the greatest examples of a faith-filled person in the 20th century.
But not one of us knew her. My guess is that we would all point to someone else as a person of great faith. Your mother, maybe, who got up early every morning to read the Bible and pray for you. Or one of the pastors you’ve known, who helped lead you through a rough passage in your life, who believed for you, even when you couldn’t believe for yourself, that all things would work together for your good. Could be a friend or co-worker, someone who’s not especially holy or pious or spiritual sounding, but who just keeps the faith with a blessed assurance of God’s grace.
My guess is that those whom any of us would claim to have the greatest faith would shy away from our saying it. It’s ironic, that those who have the deepest faith are the ones most likely to say, “I am an unworthy servant of God; I am only doing what is my duty.”
People of great faith don’t trumpet it on the street. They don’t wear holier-than-thou expressions, or contend for the super-spiritual prize. They are willing to share their faith, just not to shout it. Our examples of great faith simply are who they are because they’ve learned that God is who God is, and they don’t get the two mixed up. Faithful Christians have no illusion that they could ever stake a claim on God’s mercy, as if they could march into the hallways of the divine courts and say “Look at what I’ve done for you, God! Where’s my reward?” The most faithful people we know are also the most humble. They are most in touch with the immensity of God, God’s grandeur, God’s overwhelming majesty, God’s totally undeserved and totally unconditional love. They understand the meaning of the lyrics of “Rock of Ages,” the ones that say “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; Naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace.”
When some of Jesus’ friends said to him “Increase our faith!”, Jesus recognized a verbal minefield. What would happen if Jesus increased their faith? Likely they’d be on God’s doorstep soon, offering up their faith as proof that they’d been good servants, that they had added value to God’s glory. No sooner would they have increased faith, than they’d use it as a tool to win something for themselves. (“See what a good boy am I!”)
So Jesus the wise teacher turns their request on its head. “More? If you had even the smallest amount you’d do miracles that would make everyone’s head spin! More? How about we start with some? More?”
It sounds harsh, I know, but here Jesus points to a rather elementary aspect of the life of faith: we do not add to God’s value. No amount of good things we do, no amount of volunteering for church activities, no amount of faith, no amount of prayers, no amount of anything spiritual or religious or whatever you want to call it will add even the tiniest drop in the ocean of God’s mercy and grace.
In other words, God doesn’t need you. God doesn’t need me. God doesn’t need us to do God’s work on this earth. Oh, I know the old saying, that we’re God’s hands and feet. I get that. All I’m saying is that what God wants to get done, God will find a way to get done. Whether that involves us or not, that’s a matter of God’s invitation and our response. God is free to choose whatever way God wants. And God freely chooses us.
It always starts with God’s choice, not with our faith. We love because God loved us first. This is the miracle of grace that I want us all to hear, and hopefully feel, this morning:
God didn’t have to love us, but God did. And does.
God loved us first.
God doesn’t need us, but wants us anyway.
God’s work doesn’t require our doing it, but God invites us anyway.
God’s grandeur certainly doesn’t require us to add to it, because there’s nothing we could ever add. “We are unworthy servants.”
And God is a gracious host, inviting us to the table. And God is a loving father, welcoming us home. And God is a generous provider, who made himself low that we might be raised up. And God is a great physician, who was broken so that we might be healed.
Mother Teresa was a very wise woman. This is what she said: “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” Our God is the one who became poor in spirit, that we might be rich in love. Hear the good news, my fellow unworthy servants, you who share with me the faith that is far less than a mustard seed: God loves you, and wants you to come to dinner.
Where One Step Takes You
Proper 21C….Sunday between September 26 and October 1 inclusive
Some of the Missionaries of Charity who operated under the leadership of Sister Teresa served in Australia. She tells the story of one person whose life was touched by them.
“On a reservation, among the Aborigines, there was an elderly man. I can assure you that you have never seen a situation as difficult as that poor old man’s. He was completely ignored by everyone. His home was disordered and dirty.
“I told him, ‘Please, let me clean your house, wash your clothes, and make your bed.’ He answered, ‘I’m okay like this. Let it be.’
“I said again, ‘You will be still better if you allow me to do it.’
“He finally agreed. So I was able to clean his house and wash his clothes. I discovered a beautiful lamp, covered with dust. Only God knows how many years had passed since he last lit it.
“I said to him, ‘Don’t you light your lamp? Don’t you ever use it?’
“He answered, ‘No. No one comes to see me. I have no need to light it. Who would I light it for?’
“I asked, ‘Would you light it every night if the sisters came?’
“He replied, ‘Of course.’
“From that day on the sisters committed themselves to visiting him every evening. We cleaned the lamp, and the sisters would light it every evening.
“Two years passed. I had completely forgotten that man. He sent this message: ‘Tell my friend that the light she lit in my life continues to shine still.’
“I thought it was a very small thing. We often neglect small things.”
Small things. I wonder if any small things would have made a difference to the men in today’s parable. Certainly, the rich man suddenly craved a small thing when he was in torment. Just a taste of cool water was all he wanted.
The parable drips with irony, of course. This man who practically tripped over Lazarus whenever he went through his gate had to have seen his pitiful plight. He chose to ignore him every time. Perhaps it became such a habit that he didn’t even notice Lazarus any more, but just regarded him as a piece of hardware connected to the gate. Now the tables are turned, and he begs Father Abraham to give him some relief. The rich man is so self-centered, so steeped with a sense of entitlement that he expects Lazarus to serve him in his misery.
Abraham explains that the chasm between the rich man and Lazarus is too wide for anybody to attempt the crossing. He says it this way: “a great chasm has been fixed.” At first glance, we might assume that God established the distance between the two points. Yet we might also wonder if the rich man himself created that chasm.
You’ve heard the saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Did the expanse of the chasm begin with one step for the rich man? We can imagine that Lazarus showed up at the gate one day and didn’t escape the rich man’s notice then. But there was a decision at that point to ignore a poor man’s needs. One decision. Even one distraction or sneeze may have turned the rich man’s head away from Lazarus’ pleading gaze. And then it just got easier and easier to walk through the gate without paying any attention to this desperate, dying man.
Could one step toward Lazarus, instead of away from him, have made a difference in the way things turned out? The parable implies that the rich man could have escaped torment had he shown compassion on Lazarus. It wouldn’t have taken much. Even the scraps from the table would have helped, but not a crumb was offered.
Any journey begins with a single step, whether it is toward the needs of other people, or away from them. The Missionaries of Charity took a step out of their doors each night to visit an old man in his sorry, lonely condition. They gave him a reason to light his lamp. Were they blessed also, when they let him touch their lives over time? Did their friendship make the steps easier to take?
Brian Palmer is a man from western Iowa who began teaching in Tototo, Liberia this fall. Certainly he traveled more than a thousand miles to get there. But the trip began with a step toward God’s guidance, a step of openness and obedience. His first comments from Africa included this observation. “The chasm between the haves (almost nobody) and the have-nots (almost everybody) is galactic; we simply aren’t living on the same planet. We who are haves spend most of our time keeping our stuff and ourselves surrounded by high walls iced with rolls of barbed wire stretched out across the top. I guess it’s what you do.”
It’s what you do. How often do we take steps away from the needs of others, without even thinking about it? Do we realize that whenever we purchase something for ourselves, we are saying ‘no’ to something else we could buy? We could be buying meals for the hungry, or mosquito nets for children, or simple medicines for diseases that shouldn’t take the life of one more child in this world. Every time we say ‘yes’ to something, we say ‘no’ to something else. It works both ways. If we say ‘no’ to our luxury, or even our own needs, we can say a bigger ‘yes’ to the poor, providing medicine, food and education where it is so desperately needed. They are at our gates now, whether they live in Iowa, South Dakota or the Sudan. We cannot ignore them.
Back to the parable…It doesn’t end with a simple case of the bad guy getting what he deserved. This rich man didn’t become rich by letting things lie. He thought of his father and brothers, and his negotiating instinct kicked in with another call to Abraham: “Then, father, I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”
Abraham tells him he’s too late for that too. Besides, Moses and the prophets have provided adequate warning. The rich man shrugs and appeals to Abraham’s sense of the dramatic. “Well, they don’t read the Scriptures much. Now, if a resurrected man would show up, then they would sit up and take notice for sure.”
“Moses and the prophets ought to be enough to get the point across. Sorry, the connection is getting worse. ‘Must be that darn chasm. I have to hang up now,” replies Abraham.
So if the first part of this parable weren’t enough to get your attention, this part should. Is Jesus saying this: There is no excuse for a self-centered life, or any misunderstanding about faith. You have everything you need to believe in God and to act like it, to take part in God’s benevolent reign. The Bible spells it out clearly. Don’t ignore God’s gracious appeal. The clock is ticking, and, like the rich man and Lazarus, you will die whether you are rich or poor. You don’t know when that will happen, but you will die where you stand. Pay attention, therefore, to which direction you are taking.
So…we might also think about whether we are moving in the direction of the Scriptures we have been given. Are you heading toward the life God offers, or away from it? Do you head for your Bible before you head out the door? It’s there so you can know Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life.
Or can we track your footsteps along the path to wealth, popularity, or other pursuits? How worn are those paths in your life? With each stroke of the pen in our checkbooks (or credit card swipe), each small decision to visit the dying or to help a neighbor or to build a fence to keep people at a distance, we are either creating a chasm or crossing a bridge.
This may sound like I am making too much of Jesus’ story. I don’t think so. He painted a dramatic picture. Wealth, or lack of it, does create distance between people. Habitually ignoring the cries of the poor will deprive us of both the joy of simple living and the friendship of people we wouldn’t have known otherwise. The chasm in the end is too wide for any human to cross it. Our actions matter that much.
I know, I know. We believe in grace, God’s grace. That is true. Our bad decisions, even our callousness toward the poor is forgiven when we turn to God and repent. God is merciful!
Perhaps the point this time is this: If you realize that you need to turn around, that first step in reverse can be awfully hard to take. It gets harder and harder to turn around the farther you go. We are critters of habit, and once we set our direction, it’s hard to change.
But one step toward God and God’s ways reveals a whole new perspective. Look one way, see one thing; turn around, and see something entirely different. God meets us when we turn around. God transforms us. He shows us how he appears in the faces of the poor, the lonely, the victims of injustice. Just like that man whom the Missionaries of Charity befriended, God brings light to our lives through the lives of those we help.
That quote from Lao-tzu about a journey of a thousand miles might also be faithfully translated like this: “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.” Where do you find yourself today? Do you find yourself in the country of shallow pursuits, or are you exploring the fascinating landscape of God’s kingdom? If you find yourself running back and forth, then the question is: Do you really want to live like that?
I’ll finish with one more thought from the quotable Mother Teresa:
“I think that a person who is attached to riches, who lives with the worry of riches, is actually very poor. If this person puts his money at the service of others, then he is rich, very rich.” Rich or poor, Jesus calls us to care, to pay attention to each other’s needs, to know that every step we take makes a difference to him and to those he loves.
 Mother Teresa, Becky Benenate, ed., In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers (Novato, California: New World Library), p. 53-4.
 Ibid., p. 70.
Whatever It Takes
Proper 20C…Sunday betweeen September 18 and 24 inclusive
Listening to a radio program about the housing market this week, I heard a young adult talk about the quest she and her husband went on to buy a house for a low price. They were aware of many foreclosed and bank-owned houses in their community, and they wanted to get in on a deal. I couldn’t blame them. After hearing about all the homeowners who were in over their heads even before signing their mortgages, and then really drowned when the house values went down, it was refreshing to know that somebody is trying to live within their means.
The funny thing was, the realtors they contacted kept wanting to show them houses that would make them a profit, even after this couple explained that they wanted to see foreclosed and bank-owned houses. We can hardly blame the realtors either, since they have been scrambling for any kind of income they can get too. Everybody is trying to survive.
Which brings us to today’s parable, which features an “Unjust Steward” according to some Bible teachers and a “Dishonest Manager” by others. Either way, he is a curious example for Jesus to use. Actually, “curious” is generous; this guy is downright criminal. He would be serving a lot of jail time these days, and I’m sure his practices were considered just as dishonest at the time of this story’s telling.
We just finished Luke 15, where the parables of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son were pretty easy to figure out. God seeks the lost, and we have to put up with it if we don’t like all the people that includes. The prodigal son is a thankless brat we’d like to teach a thing or two, but then he realizes his depravity and returns home. It seems like too nice an ending for him, but we remind ourselves that God is forgiving and generous to a fault, so it’s okay. And we get a little annoyed with the prodigal’s son’s older brother for being such a goody-two-shoes and resenting his brother’s conversion. He prefers pouting to partying. Well, that guy looks like a saint compared to this character.
He was squandering his master’s property. We don’t know if that means selling off land or goods and misrepresenting the profits, then pocketing some of it. Or maybe he was just a bad manager and didn’t keep a tight rein on overhead costs. The ways a business can be mismanaged are numerous. We do know it involved a lot of outstanding bills. The cash flow was looking suspiciously thin. So, the manager is called in, told to turn in the books, and fired on the spot.
That should be the end of the story. Ah, now the manager is in a pickle. He has lost his usual bravado along with his job. And he asks himself, “What am I gonna do now? Nobody will give me a job. I won’t have any place to live. I gotta do something, fast!” And he proceeds to pretend as though he still works for the boss. He calls in the customers with unpaid accounts and grants them write-downs on their bills. For at least a day or two, he is the local hero.
Or, his master is the hero. We can imagine that when the master does return, he could be met by grateful customers meeting him on the road to shake his hand before he even gets to the branch office. Now, he can do one of three things. He can 1) explain to everyone that these write-downs were not authorized, in which case he will end up as the bad guy. He can 2) accept whatever payment his debtors are now making, but maintain his position that the manager is fired. Or, he can 3) leave things as they are. In the case of the parable, he must have chosen option #3. Surprisingly, he recognizes the shrewdness of his former employee’s actions, praises him, and…well, we don’t get the news that the manager was rehired, but it seems fair enough to assume.
Now I could go a couple of different directions in helping you to interpret Jesus’ message here. I could go with verse 8: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” We could examine our need to be more creative and wise in our relationships and our proclamation of the gospel, so the kingdom of heaven will have a larger population in the hereafter. That is a legitimate interpretation and even tempting, but I’m not going there.
Nor am I going to talk about using our money for good. Money is a tool that we can dedicate to God’s good purposes. That seems to be another good conclusion we could draw, considering verses 10-13: “‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…You cannot serve God and wealth,’” and so on. We all really need to hear that, stated forcefully and often, but it’s not the option I’m choosing today. You will hear a stewardship sermon soon enough this fall.
There are three or four other directions we could also choose, but you get the idea. This parable is a tough one to decipher, and its interpretations vary. We’d rather hear parables we can identify with. I can picture myself as the lost sheep, or part of the 99 in the flock, depending on the day. We get the point of the Good Samaritan, and we know we should act like that guy. We like those parables.
What are we to do with this one? A nice moral is not so easy to pin down. We want to walk away with a packet of wisdom we can wrap up neatly so we can unpack and apply it the next day. But parables aren’t meant to provide that for us. Parables are like peepholes, giving us a glimpse of what God’s great kingdom is like. We can’t possibly grasp all of its complexity and glory, but we can stand a piece of it at a time. Jesus uses pictures and language we can understand to give us a small sampling of something so wonderful that it can’t be described in human words or images.
I wonder if the glimpse we might be getting today is of an unjust steward who could be…Jesus himself. Hold on now, stay with me. I know this seems absurd, even sacrilegious. Well, think about it. In the previous couple of chapters in Luke there’s a nice theme of God’s grace. God heals people, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, he tells parables of God seeking the lost and the poor. He also tells us what it costs to follow him (everything).
Maybe he is putting all of those things together in this depiction of a man who makes a last ditch effort to win his master’s favor, or the favor of his neighbors. He uses dishonest means to do it, but the debts are now within reach for the customers, and the master actually gets some cash flow again. That wraps it up neatly, maybe. Messy, but all’s well that ends well.
Yet even that interpretation could be sugar coating it more than Jesus wanted. Jesus may have been popular with many people, but he was hated by the respectable people, the temple leaders. Jesus may be saying that “grace cannot come to the world through respectability.” We prefer respectable behavior that gravitates toward success, life, winning. Jesus’ grace works through death and losing. A cross, as we have often said, is not a pretty thing. It is the way of sacrifice and pain.
That young couple who was looking for a house? I didn’t hear the end of the story, but when I left it, they were trying to buy a real fixer-upper. It was a smelly, badly kept place that no respectable realtor would ever want to take credit for selling. Animal, mildew, smoke smells. Rotting walls around the bathroom and kitchen sinks. A real nightmare. But it was what they wanted to put their hearts and their hard work into. They made the choice that they could handle, even though it would be a lot of hard work. They didn’t take the easy way, with easy credit.
Jesus took the hard way to get what he wanted. He broke the Sabbath and hung around with crooks. He was executed as a criminal. He did whatever it took to draw us sinners to himself. We are the debtors who owe more than we can pay, and the crafty manager is the only one we can trust to get us off the hook. We can’t deal with the upright owner.
Keep in mind now that parables have limitations. Parables are metaphors, and metaphors always break down at some point. Even so: Jesus isn’t actually dishonest or sinful, is he? But he takes on that look in order to win us over to himself. He doesn’t care what he looks like; he will do whatever it takes to make sure our debt is paid and we can do business with God without guilt. He is the only one who can clean us off well enough to be able to face God at all, ever.
If you don’t like that interpretation, go back and choose one of the others. In three years, when this text comes around again, I may explore one of those options. But if you can stand looking at Jesus with a crooked businessman costume just for this week, maybe you can appreciate how far he is willing to come to get you, in whatever costume you happen to be caught wearing right now. Whatever debt you owe, whatever form it takes, it is too much for you to pay. Jesus says that the situation is not impossible. His surprising, sacrificial solution will make him look bad, and it is bad; the cross is very bad. But we end up free of debt, and grateful. That is what happens in God’s kingdom, for all who accept the offer of forgiveness. Thanks be to God!
 Capon, Rober Farrar. 1988, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 150.
How to Get Lost
Proper 19C…Sunday between Sept. 11 and 17 inclusive
Jesus’ critics thought they had it all together. They accused Jesus of poor judgment because he was hanging around with “sinners.” If he was a rabbi with any sense, he would make better choices about his dining companions.
Jesus proceeded to tell them three stories, parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. We read the first two this morning, but the third is familiar: the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son asks for his inheritance, wastes it in loose living, and comes back with his tail between his legs. Dad forgives him, even throws a party for the wasteful, ungrateful fool. Older brother resents it because he never spent an irresponsible hour in his life. His father tells him he has had it made all along; hard work is its own reward; why didn’t he say something if he wanted to have his friends over for a party?
The parables seem harmless if a little ridiculous. Any responsible shepherd wouldn’t leave 99 sheep in the open to look for a stray. A woman who finds her coin wouldn’t spend it on a party to celebrate. A father ought not take back a son who is unforgivably disrespectful like that. The scribes and Pharisees might have dismissed the stories for being a little puzzling, but then there is the hook at the end. The older brother, scolding his father for celebrating the return of a scoundrel. Eating with a sinner, just what they had accused Jesus of doing.
What they didn’t realize, not then or ever, as far as we know, was that they were the lost ones. The older brother was lost even though he never wandered away. He is just as lost as his brother, only in a different way.
I see four ways of getting lost in these parables, but we’ll go back to the first parable so we can keep things straight. The lost sheep in the first parable is in trouble because he is distracted. Maybe he spies a succulent clump of grass down the hill a bit, just out of eyesight and earshot of the shepherd. By the time he looks up, the flock is gone.
That’s one way we get lost too: from distractions. That is probably the most common way we find ourselves in trouble, or feeling empty. I don’t need to list all the things that distract us, do I? Here’s where you might expect me to rail against obvious evils like pornography or drugs. But even good things distract us. There’s nothing wrong with our work, our families, our studies. But we aren’t so good at moderation, and the obligations begin to pile up. And we have to have a little fun after working so hard all the time. Before we know it there is no time left for care of the soul, or worship, or any kind of pause to get our bearings. Distractions come in many forms, and some are easier to spot than others.
The coin was probably lost through carelessness. A clumsy mistake, or a knot coming loose. The sudden realization that something is missing.
The loss of a treasure, a valued possession, is interesting to apply to our lostness. Do we lose faith from carelessness, inattention, laziness? We procrastinate, rationalize, treat our faith as another component of life that we’ll get to when we have time. Except we turn around one day, and we don’t remember where we put it.
There is lost faith, and there are lost people. Might we lose our children to unbelief if we are careless in teaching them? I wonder sometimes whether we tell them to put God first, but then model putting other things first. That is not a very reliable way to nurture faith in them. We might look back and see that we have been careless and they might end up lost.
So, you can get lost through distraction or carelessness. In the third parable, the prodigal son got himself lost. He stubbornly and methodically pressured his father to violate social tradition by granting his inheritance ahead of schedule. He left home and all the stupid chores, all the door-slamming arguments with his uptight older brother. Freedom! Friends! Fun! While the money lasted. Until he found himself alone, mistrusted and shunned as a foreigner, hungry and ashamed. Lost.
It’s easy to name the people in our lives who have willfully turned their backs on God. Drug addicts, child molesters, atheists. An estranged son or daughter. The people Jesus befriended were just that sort. Of course nobody bothered to listen to their stories, to learn why these “sinners” made such choices, or maybe had no other choices that they could see.
All of these ways of getting lost are not that hard to recognize if we’re paying attention: distractions, carelessness, willfulness. We’ve been warned about these things. “Oh be careful little eyes what you see” we sang in Sunday School. Santa—and God—knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake! Make the right choices, and stay out of trouble, or you’ll be lost.
The fourth kind of getting lost is more insidious. We don’t usually recognize it in ourselves, probably because it comes on so gradually that we become accustomed to it. It is tricky because it looks so much like righteousness, like the right way, but it leads us away from God just as surely as the others.
In fact, we end up being lost even though we haven’t gone anywhere. We haven’t left home, haven’t misplaced anything.
The older brother never left home. He always did what Dad asked him to. But his heart grew cold with resentment, and he tried to warm it up by working harder. He found that if he fell into bed exhausted every night, he didn’t have to think about the injustice, the shame of living with a father who had coddled his fool of a brother, a father who made a fool of himself by pining for his long lost son. If nothing else, he would show what a sensible, hard-working son looked like. Too bad Dad never noticed.
He might have looked as though he stayed home, but his heart had checked out. All he wanted to do any more was to keep his head down until his father died and he could try to rebuild his family’s reputation. The work he used to do to please his father now became a way to redeem himself in the eyes of the community. He figured out a way to make life work, even if it meant his jaw was sore every morning from clenching it in his sleep.
The older brother was not unlike the Israelites who built a golden calf at the bottom of the mountain. Moses commiserated with God for more than a month, much longer than they thought necessary. They didn’t agree with the way God was handling things. They knew every other people group had an idol to worship, so they thought they would just rig up something nice so they wouldn’t look stupid worshiping a God that was invisible.
Both the older brother and the Israelites were guilty of self-righteousness, because they decided what their goodness should look like. The older brother chose hard work and begrudging loyalty. The Israelites chose a golden sculpture. The scribes and Pharisees listening to these parables knew that Jesus was accusing them of self-righteousness too, because he said they honored the Sabbath laws and temple system more than they honored God.
It’s so easy to do though. Drafting your own rules about following God is appealing. You can have it custom made to fit your own sensibilities. Excuse the sins you prefer as, well, just being human. Adhere to the ones you like.
We all do it. I know which parts of following Jesus are more to my liking, and which ones aren’t. Which sins I can’t seem to master, and the good deeds that come easily to me. Righteousness crafted to fit my tastes. Self-righteousness. You do it too. We don’t like to admit it, but Jesus added the older brother to the third parable to make sure we would know that we are all lost. We try to avoid the first three—distractions, carelessness, willfulness, but the fourth will get us every time. If we are good at dodging the first three, then we are especially prone to the self-righteousness trap.
We might think Jesus is cruel, pointing out that we can’t escape the guilt of our sin. Thought you were good, eh? Aha! Caught you being self-righteous!
But that is not the purpose of this trio of parables. The point is not how bad we are, but how faithful God is. We are released from the shame of our sin because God doesn’t want us to suffer punishment for wandering away. God seeks us out. God does what it takes to find us in our lostness. God trudges through the brush and the rocks to find us, helpless as we are, and hauls us home. God peers into the dark places and shines the light of love in order to snatch us up and dust us off. God scans the horizon, waiting for us to appear and stumble into his arms. And God even unmasks our stubborn pride, our silly pretensions, and coaxes us to rejoice with him in a crazy celebration of forgiveness and renewal.
It doesn’t work any other way. We cannot pretend to be better than other sinners, because Jesus insists that we are just as lost as they are. And the lost do not find themselves. God finds them. God finds us, catches us red-handed in fact, but refuses to let us feel ashamed. Instead, God restores us and celebrates having us back. Us! Foolish, careless, distracted, willful, shameful, golden calf-worshiping, arrogant, self-righteous saps. You would think God would have better taste in friends. But for some reason God wants you and me in the circle of love, eating together and celebrating the goodness of it.
Yes, we are lost. Might as well admit it. And we can’t do anything to make up for it except let ourselves be found. Thanks be to God.
Proper 18C…Sunday between Sept. 4 and Sept. 10 inclusive
Note: This sermon was delivered on Sept. 13, 2013, hence the reference to past events.
We have spent the week listening to arguments for and against air strikes in Syria. Outrage over the government’s use of chemical weapons on its own people raises deep questions about the United States’ role in international affairs. It reminded me of the debate over whether to get involved in Europe when Hitler was wielding his terrible tools of death in service to his perverted ideals. The situation is different, but some of the issues are the same. Do we police the actions of other governments? How can we uphold the value of human life effectively? It seems that no matter what we choose to do, we are being hypocritical, self-serving, or pompous, for starters. It’s no wonder one congressman, a military veteran, accused us of being paralyzed by the issues instead of taking action. The issues are incredibly complex.
In one op ed piece, the writer quotes a witness to the horrible burns that Syrian victims suffered from chemical weapons. The man posed his questions to the world: “You are calling for peace. What kind of peace are you calling for? Don’t you see this?”
Jesus was thinning the ranks of disciples by warning them that the cost of following him is high. He urges us to see as that man in Syria asks us to see, to take the time to consider the various possible outcomes of our decision. He asks, “…what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.”
Well, that’s just the problem, isn’t it? We can’t figure out what the actual consequences will be if we take military action against Syria, or if we don’t. We can’t control the reactions of President Bashar al-Assad or anyone else in the region or the world. Does that mean we do nothing? That has its own risks too. As the aforementioned commentator said, “Let’s be humble enough to acknowledge that we can’t be sure of the answer and that Syria will be bloody whatever we do. We Americans are often so self-absorbed as to think that what happens in Syria depends on us; in fact, it overwhelmingly depends on Syrians…The truth is that there’s no glib or simple lesson from the past. We need to struggle, case by case, for an approach that fits each situation.”
And again, there’s the rub. Doing what is right isn’t always easy to figure out. Counting the cost isn’t simple at all. We are inclined to reduce our choices to mathematical equations like lives risked or saved, deadlines for military action, quantities of fire power and chemical weapons reduced. But nobody can measure the most important issues: attitudes of the international community toward oppressed peoples, the magnitude of suffering that is always present in our world regardless of chemical weapons used by one regime, the value of one human life.
Yet Jesus tells us to consider what will happen, to count the cost of following him. We don’t know the future about that any more than we can predict what will happen in the Middle East. So, if I take Jesus’ call to take up my cross and follow him, how will it affect my family? You might ask these kinds of questions: What will my family do if I choose to take the high road in their ongoing drama and exercise love instead of revenge? Will I struggle to make ends meet if I follow Jesus’ call to work with children—or study law, or stay at home with my kids, or move across the country—instead of going into the family business? Will my family treat me as an outsider then? Jesus asks us to decide to follow him with complete abandon, but he doesn’t want us to be surprised that it could exact a high price.
It’s interesting that Jesus uses the examples of family, of building a tower, and of going to war. Very different areas of life. But all can be fraught with emotion, and all involve huge risks. So Jesus isn’t sugar-coating the gospel here. He is honest about what is at stake.
We wish it weren’t so. Wouldn’t it be great just to be able to come to church, give your offerings, help your neighbors, and consider yourself a disciple? But Jesus says it is not that simple, because he will lead us to identify with the poor, and that is complicated.
You come to church. That is good. We need to worship God, to acknowledge God’s authority and accept God’s love. We need to support each other in the way of discipleship. But Jesus calls us to do more than sit in the pews together.
I’ll bet you have issues with each other. You’re human; this is bound to happen in any group of people, and Christians are no exception. You have a history together. Jesus doesn’t give you a pass on loving one another, no matter what has happened between you. He expects us to deal with our disagreements and personalities, to talk to each other and not pretend the issues aren’t there.
And as a church, we have to deal with the issues of being God’s people together. We didn’t go through a tense time the past three years because we wanted to; we had to face difficult questions together. This is the ongoing challenge of the church, to wrestle with our response to the pressing issues of our culture. Even if we ignored national and international politics, we still need to face the troubles of our neighbors here in northwest Iowa. Being the church, the body of Christ, is tough business. No wonder so many people opt out of it.
You can give your offerings without much thought, but as disciples, we are called to give more than we ordinarily would consider proper. We are called to risk trusting God with our possessions. Jesus said it in today’s lesson: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33) There’s a lot more to the subject of our giving, but we will save it for later this fall.
We can help our neighbors. That is so important in following Jesus. But here, too, it is more complicated than we want to deal with. I’ve been reading When Helping Hurts by a couple of men with a great deal of experience in helping neighbors near and far. They tell the story of Creekside Community Church, a mostly Caucasian congregation of young professionals in the downtown of an American city.
Around Christmas time, the congregation decided to reach out to the African-American residents of a housing project nearby. The residents struggled with high rates of unemployment, substance abuse, domestic violence, and teenage pregnancy. There were those at Creekside who expressed disdain for the project residents, and all the members were fearful of going there. But Pastor Johnson reminded them that Jesus cared for the residents, and Christmas was the perfect time to show God’s compassion for them.
Convinced of the simplistic notion that poverty is merely about lack of material resources, the church members decided to buy Christmas presents for the children in the housing project. They went door to door, singing Christmas carols and handing out wrapped toys to the children in each apartment. Once they got past the initial awkwardness, the members of Creekside were moved by the big smiles on the children’s faces and the obvious appreciation of the mothers. The congregation felt so good about the experience that they decided to expand the ministry. They delivered baskets of candy at Easter and turkeys at Thanksgiving.
But something interesting developed over the years. Pastor Johnson noticed that it got harder and harder to find enough volunteers to deliver the gifts. At the congregational meeting, he asked the question, wondering why enthusiasm for the ministry was waning. Nobody seemed to want to explain, until one member finally offered the answer. “Pastor, we are tired of trying to help these people out. We have been bringing them things for several years now, but their situation never improves. They just sit there in the same situation year in and year out. Have you ever noticed that there are no men in the apartments when we deliver the toys? The residents are all unwed mothers who just keep having babies in order to collect bigger and bigger welfare checks. They don’t deserve our help.”
What none of them realized was that there was a different reason they didn’t see men in the apartments. In many cases, when the fathers of the children heard the church members singing and peered through the peepholes to see their arms loaded with gifts, they were embarrassed and ran out the back doors of their homes. For a variety of reasons, low-income African-American males sometimes struggle to find and keep jobs. Consequently they feel a deep sense of shame and inadequacy, which in turn make it even more difficult to apply for jobs. These fathers do not feel “blessed” by a group of middle-to-upper-class Caucasians providing Christmas gifts for their children, especially because they could never afford to buy the gifts themselves. The ministry of Creekside didn’t serve to lift the residents out of poverty, and in fact may have made the fathers feel even less able to apply for jobs.
But the complication doesn’t end there. Not only was the ministry less helpful than the church members had imagined, it also affected their own attitudes. At first they developed a subtle sense of pride for helping people in need. Later, when they thought they detected a pattern and jumped to conclusions about that pattern, they became disdainful of the residents. And the gulf between the congregation and residents actually increased.
Following Jesus is hard. Jesus said we would have to take up our crosses in order to follow him. What did the cross mean for Jesus? It meant that he took our place. He submitted himself to the suffering we earned. He identified fully with us. That was no simple thing. Jesus, all-powerful and everywhere-present member of the Trinity, became a human being and endured everything that entailed.
Is Jesus calling us to put ourselves in the very place of others who are broken? He makes it pretty clear that that is what he expects of us. He doesn’t gloss over it or make it sound very appealing. He calls us to care enough to understand other people’s pain, to enter their world, to recognize the source of their despair, before we presume to help them. It takes time, commitment, and sweat.
That most likely has one of two effects on us. We might throw up our hands and say we don’t have that kind of time, and we settle for being fair weather fans of Jesus. Or we can be what Jesus calls disciples, which Jesus said involves the kind of focus and commitment that crowd out a lot of other pursuits in our lives. We can take the time to discern what Jesus is calling each of us to do, and what he is calling us collectively to do, what will actually address the root of the brokenness in our world, and do that.
So we need to not only offer Bible stories to children in our community, we need to offer friendship to their parents, encouragement for their marriages and financial challenges, solutions for child care and health insurance and decent jobs. We need to do more than hire someone to work with our youth; we need to get to know them personally and encourage them, tell them our stories and learn theirs. It may be complicated, but when you get involved, it can also be fun.
You know what all of this means. It means you will have to rearrange your priorities. Every disciple has to take stock of this from time to time, and clear away the clutter. Your schedule simply has to give, and you may have to drop some of the good causes you have taken on over the years. Does that seem harsh, like something Jesus wouldn’t ask you to do? Well, he does. He asks us to give up what seems good for what is best: offering his life, his hope to the world he loves.
Now I know that even at our best, even at our most-committed moments of our lives, we fall far short of what Jesus calls us to do. We have to rely on the grace of God to make us useful for the task anyway. What matters is whether we accept Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him. In so doing we accept the complexity and challenge as our own way of life, and set our lives in that direction through the Spirit’s guidance and momentum.
So I guess there is one thing that is not complicated about following Jesus: the choice. Because it’s all or nothing, according to the one who calls us. Jesus doesn’t offer us a menu of choices, from Sunday-only, low commitment discipleship all the way up to full status. He simply describes what a disciple looks like, and it is up to us to figure out whether he is describing us or not.
It really is complicated, and it can also be scary, even risky at times. Jesus said it would be. But he asks you to follow anyway, because his way is the way to the life that is truly life.
 Nicholas D. Kristof, “The Right Questions About Syria”, The New York Times Opinion Pages online: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/05/opinion/kristof-the-right-questions-on-syria.html?_r=0
 Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 2009. (Chicago: Moody Publishers)
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Proper 17C…Sunday between August 28 and September 3 inclusive
Antwone Fisher lies on his bunk dreaming. What he sees is a banquet of incredible proportions, made possible only in a dream world. He is a young boy in his dream. There are dozens of people standing around the table, smiling at him and waiting for him to be seated and take his first bite. It is a scene of welcome and abundance. He sits at the head of the table and a plate of thick, fluffy pancakes is place before him. Before he can take a bite, he hears the wake-up whistle, and the dream abruptly vanishes. Antwone is returned to the real world, where he is a sailor in the Navy, and his ship is docked. This is the true story of Antwone Fisher, dramatized in a movie of the same name.
Antwone makes his way to the bathroom where he begins shaving. Another sailor begins to taunt Antwone, and we see him trying to control his anger. It doesn’t take long before his rage takes over, and he attacks his tormentor. As a result, he is arrested and disciplined by the naval authorities.
A condition of his return to duty is that Antwone must see a psychiatrist. If you want to picture the professional who receives the charge of treating this sailor, imagine Denzel Washington, who plays Dr. Davenport in the movie. The doctor eventually learns that Antwone was badly abused by his foster parents as a child. He has no parents, having been born while his mother was in prison. He is haunted by the fact that she never claimed him when she was released. His father was murdered before he was born.
We’re shown the story of Antwone’s gradual healing, but he still struggles with his anger, getting in trouble again and again when he cannot control his fury. His therapist insists that he must try and find his birth family to lay the demons of his rage to rest. And so he makes his way back in his hometown of Detroit, where he calls all the possible leads he can find. And finally, he finds his father’s sister.
Imagine the fear of approaching a family that never knew you existed. Would Antwone be rejected yet again? Would they be embarrassed or angry? Antwone was fortunate, because when the front door was opened to his aunt’s house, she embraced him and welcomed him. In the course of their conversation, he learned that his mother was still alive, living only a few blocks away.
Antwone fearfully approached his mother. She was living in a spare apartment, clearly a person who had declared defeat to the forces that had rocked her life. Antwone gently spoke with her and asked her why she had never claimed him, never contacted him. In response she merely wept silently. Before he left he told her that he was a good person. He forgave her and kissed her, thus beginning to release himself from the weight of not knowing what she was like or what her motives were.
And then Antwone returned to the home of his aunt. When he approached her house, he saw many cars parked out front. When he went in the front door, he was greeted by a house full of people grinning, applauding, hugging him. Children held up hastily drawn signs of construction paper with his name on them.
And then it happened. They ushered him to a closed double doors, which were slowly opened to reveal a banquet. Sumptuous foods were surrounded by the older members of Antwone’s birth family. The room fell silent as the matriarch gestured for him to come close. She grasped his hands, then reached up to caress his cheeks and spoke the word he had longed to hear all his life: “Welcome.” The banquet was real this time, and he—Antwone, who had been told countless times that he was worthless—he was the guest of honor.
Whom do we invite to the banquet? Jesus said to invite not our friends or relatives or rich neighbors. In the culture of that time, the social levels were well-defined and carefully maintained. You invited certain people to dine with you to maintain your social status. But Jesus, as he so often did, challenged the customs that made his hearers feel secure. He told them to disregard the unwritten rules and invite people who were considered beneath them.
Was Jesus telling us how to throw a dinner party? Maybe. But I think he was describing the kingdom of God as was his habit. In God’s kingdom, we don’t have to conduct ourselves carefully, through social commerce that raises or lowers our value. Instead, we can see one another as he sees us.
Jesus never regarded the poor, the lame, the diseased as less worthy than anyone else. He would not allow the labels of “poor” or “leprous” or “fallen woman” to define people. He invited them in to his circle of friendship and well-being, and honored them. He saw beyond their afflictions as if they didn’t even exist. He saw the people as human beings, beloved, worthy.
What if we looked beyond the labels? What if we welcomed people as Jesus does? Are our doors open to everyone, considering all who come as those we’ve been waiting to bless? Are there places at our collective banquet table here, empty and waiting for anybody to come and eat with us? Do we even see the people who have been called worthless for so long that they become virtually invisible—people like Antwone?
How are newcomers and visitors treated when they come? Do we introduce ourselves and extend a warm welcome? Do we invite them to join us for coffee and then ask them questions about themselves? Of course it is important to remind ourselves to do this once in a while.
But there is more to it, I believe. Beyond that effort to be more welcoming, I wonder if we even realize that those who enter our doors have something important to offer to us. They are not only recipients of our hospitality; they can teach us about life and about God, and about ourselves.
We need to go back to our story. It is not finished with Antwone’s banquet. He went back to see Dr. Davenport. On that day he was surprised to have his doctor disclose the hardships in his own life, and then to hear him say, “It’s because of you, Antwone, that I am a better man, a better doctor.” Doctor and patient had become more than therapist and patient. Dr. Davenport had opened his life to what a broken young man could teach him. And so they became friends, both better for having known the other.
It is always easier to be the giver. It gives you control. Instead, we need to let our guests teach us. We are called to welcome the strangers, the ones with labels in our community that keep them from being accepted into the social network as “worthy” of our friendship. As we invite them in, we need to let them show us what is behind the well-worn labels. We can’t control the relationship as easily as we might like, but we will get a genuine glimpse of the kingdom of God.
Jesus calls us to take that risk. He wants us to be intentional in our hospitality. To choose to welcome outsiders and one another to the point that it is out of our control. To get past the labels we have put on one another all these years. To go beyond our first impression of anyone who walks in our doors. To go into the community and invite the ones too long considered unworthy, and show them that they are worthy in God’s eyes and in ours. To get to know them. Isn’t that what happens when you share a meal? You get to know someone. And you find that they have something to give you that you never knew before.
We share the space around the table of our Lord today. We kneel together at the railing. Is everyone truly welcome? Do we actually know the people kneeling next to us? We can, if we open our lives, our hearts and our minds to what we can teach each other. We have so much to give to one another, especially because we have first received grace from our Lord Jesus Christ. And so as we approach the banquet God has generously laid before us, let us say to one another as he says to us, “Welcome!”
 “Antwone Fisher” is distributed by 20th Century Fox.
The Gift of Sabbath
Luke 13:10-17; Isaiah 58:9b-14
Proper 16C….Sunday between August 21 and 28 inclusive
My daughter and I were enjoying a long-anticipated trip together on the northwest coast of Italy, hiking on a Sunday morning between the quaint, old villages of Cinque Terre. We wandered past vineyards hanging heavy with white grapes and stopped often to gaze at the beautiful Mediterranean below. As we approached one of the villages, we could hear faint music which grew in volume as we got closer. Our path took us right past a centuries-old church, whose doors were open to the fresh air.
We could hear the hymn ending and the liturgy beginning, all in a language we could not understand. It was lovely, ethereal. I felt an inner tug, a yearning to linger. We paused a while and listened to our brothers and sisters worshipping God. It was only a moment, but it refreshed our souls and reminded us that it was the Sabbath Day.
This is what our faith is meant to do. It calls to us when we are not giving God our full attention, assuring us that we are God’s beloved and that we are not alone. It often lifts us from the mundane or distressing to show us the beauty of God’s gifts and the wonder of God’s presence.
There is a very specific gift that God has given us to enable us to experience this joy and relief on a regular basis. It is called Sabbath. Perhaps you have never thought of this as a gift, or maybe you have forgotten what a treasure it is.
It is significant that there are several stories in the Gospels where Jesus got into trouble for healing people on the Sabbath. Today’s Gospel text is one example. Why would Jesus do this? And what would be the purpose of the writers highlighting these occasions? It seems that Jesus was deliberately violating Sabbath rules to shake up the prevailing system. He had to be doing it intentionally, because every single Jewish male had been drilled in the holy writings in Hebrew school, and the Sabbath laws were as fundamental to them as the multiplication tables were to you and me.
I grew up in a home where the Sabbath was strictly observed. All homework and housework was done on Saturday, with no exceptions other than the work surrounding our meals. We would never buy anything on Sunday, which wasn’t a problem because nothing was open in our little town anyway. The most painful part was that we could not go swimming, because by doing so we would be making the lifeguards work. We had worship at my father’s rural parish twice on Sunday, mandating dresses for the girls and dress pants and shoes for the boys.
If we ever complained, my mother told us that we had it easy compared to the Sundays of her childhood, where even card-playing was prohibited, except for “Rook,” which had something to do with the kinds of pictures that were on the cards.
Of course we want to follow the commandments of God, but when the focus comes the law itself instead of the purposes for which they were given, well, Jesus had to intervene.
I’m not sure what is worse, the strictness of Sabbath keeping that is called Sabbatarianism, or the increasingly prevailing practice of treating Sunday like any other day, in fact filling it with housework, ballgames, and any work you couldn’t finish during the week. Even more distressing is the burden on too many people—perhaps you—to work seven days a week just to provide a subsistence income for your families. Surely you would benefit from one day off per week, but you can’t afford it.
Well, we are not going to solve the economic problems of laborers today, nor put a dent into the pressures of our culture to fill up every moment with work or entertainment or productivity. What I would like to do instead, just for a few minutes, is to turn our gaze to a priceless gift. I’d like to give you a taste so rich and wondrous that you will not be satisfied unless you return to it and yes, even become addicted to it. I guess I could say I’d like to make Sabbath junkies out of all of you.
See, I have done it both ways, and I won’t go back. I won’t return to the life where I feel I have to prove my worth by earning money, or doing good works, or being a perfect mother or wife or pastor or friend and working myself to death seven days a week in the process. I don’t have to prove anything because I know, deep in my soul, that I am God’s beloved. When I forget it, or start to listen to the persistent gremlins that niggle at me to fill every single day to the maximum with good work and good things and good friends, Sabbath time rolls around again, and I can sit back and see those little stinkers for what they are: my own insecurities and the insecurities of everyone else.
When I learned to stop, really stop for one day a week and rest from my labors, I could see what God wanted to show me. Like the people of Israel who were the first to be told about Sabbath, God wanted to show me who I really am, and that I can trust God that six days of labor is enough. See, all the Israelites had known was slavery, oppression, and hard, hard labor seven days a week in Egypt. God not only freed them from oppression, but from being used up by work.
God is not impressed with our exhaustion, but tells us, in the words of Jesus, “Come to me, and I will give you rest.” Not just a good Sunday nap, but relief, respite, and the peace of knowing that all is well. That is true rest, and it is the kind of well-being we are meant to enjoy. When God created humans and said, “They are good,” it was not just a statement about good workmanship. God was delighted to befriend us and cherish our relationship, to be our Source of life and contentment. Observing Sabbath gives u the time and perspective to explore that relationship with God.
The prophet Isaiah gives us a sense of it by reminding us that we don’t have to stress and fuss over endless projects. We can actually practice a more savoring pace in which we appreciate God’s provision, God’s creativity, and God’s companionable guidance. We can be restored when we stop busying ourselves with judging one another (“remove…the point of the finger”) and instead look around to see who could use our help. We can join in God’s great project of restoring others to the well being they lack. We can “take delight in the LORD” instead of wondering whether or not we are good enough for God to like us. We gather together on Sundays to remember this.
The promise in Isaiah 58 is that God will give us what was given to Jacob. Remember him? He was a striver, an achiever if there ever was one. He knew what he wanted, and he made sure he got it, even if it meant stealing his brother’s inheritance, working for seven years in order to marry his beautiful wife Rachel, or tricking his father-in-law out of a whole herd of livestock. He finally met his match when he listened to an uncharacteristic inner yearning to stop for a night alone by the Jabbock River. That night he wrestled with a mysterious figure, and had to claim disability for a lame hip the rest of his life. It gave him plenty of time to sit and realize that all God wanted to give him all along was life and love and the simplest but richest of all blessings, the companionship of God himself.
Which is what we get when we treat Sabbath time as I believe it is meant to be experienced. It is a time to step back from the daily grind, time enough to remember how great is our God and how blessed we are to be called God’s own beloved children. Time to get some perspective on what it is we do with the rest of our time.
Because if we don’t stop, if we keep dancing to the tune of all the other parents and friends and coworkers and those pesky gremlins inside of us, there won’t be much left of us. How much joy can you get when all you have left to offer to your family, or your church, or your friends, or even yourself, is a worn-out remnant who doesn’t even know who you are? Functioning with a cluttered life has you making judgments on the fly, always reacting and never taking the time to make thoughtful choices. Never feeling gratitude for the incredible abundance all around you. Never realizing that you are enough and God is enough, without all that striving. If there is anything I learned from the Sabbaths of my youth, it is that idea that I really can rest and have enough time and energy for all the things that need to be done the rest of the week.
I have seen families and friends implode from running all the time, tragic examples of adultery and burnout and broken relationships, all in the pursuit of some weird notion of success. All of them were convinced that they were doing good things, even godly work. I thought I was.
Friends, life is more than a list of things to do. Please do not listen to those internal or external voices that nag you to work harder, work more, get your kids into every sport and activity. There is a side of you that yearns to engage with God, and with the world, at a savoring pace and not feeling pushed all of the time. God does not push, does not demand, but is that still, small voice inside you that calls you to wellness and joy. “Listen to the other voice within, the neglected voice; it is trying to save you. Let it.”[i]
In Luke’s story of Jesus today, the Lord was teaching about something else in the synagogue when the real object lesson showed up. Jesus noticed her because that is what he does. He notices us, and calls us to the same kind of awareness. He heals us of our burdens just as surely as he healed that woman of the infirmity that had her bent over all those years. And he often does it when we stop long enough—observe Sabbath—and notice the healing he offers us and then receive it.
If keeping Sabbath feels like just another burden, then please discard your version of it and give it another chance. It is meant to free you, to refresh you, to give you life. Keeping a Sabbath obligation for its own sake might make you feel good about pleasing God, might even give you the satisfaction of feeling and looking like a “real” Christian. But it is a hollow, fleeting pleasure.
Sabbath is indeed meant to be a consistent practice, but that is the only way it is to be regarded as a rule. Even if you have to work more than is fair, ask God to help you find a way to carve out and guard time for this. What better habit could you cultivate than to return to the One who loves you, to accept God’s invitation to be refreshed in a love that simply comes to you from the heart of all that is?[ii]
This is the beauty and treasure I commend to you, my friends. Receive it as gratefully as you receive the body and blood of Christ today in the sacrament. I speak to you as one who is driven to do the best and be the best. I have seen burnout up close more than once. I have learned to build Sabbath into my daily and weekly practice. I hear the singing voices like those in that little church on the coast of Italy, and answering that divine call has saved my life. It will save you too. Thanks be to God.
[i] Jones, Kirk Byron, 2003. Addicted to Hurry: Spiritual Strategies for Slowing Down. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press), p. 70.
[ii] Rev. Dr. Al Janssen, in “A Sabbath People.”
Fire and Hammer
Luke 12:49-56; Jeremiah 23:23-29
Proper 15C…Sunday Between August 14 and 21 inclusive
Some time ago I read this in the news: A father and his sons in England were cleaning out their garage when they came across a mysterious object. Not knowing what it was but seeing that it was about the size and shape of a rugby ball, they played an impromptu game with it in the backyard. Later a neighbor happened by and recognized that the object they were playing with was an unspent bomb from World War II. After taking it to the authorities, they discovered that their neighbor was right, and that the bomb was still active!
Imagine, playing ball with a bomb without realizing it. Not knowing that what you are casually tossing across the backyard could fall to the ground and blow up the neighborhood!
I’ve got a bomb here. (Bible) When you think of the Bible, what comes to mind? Maybe the Ten Commandments…the gospel of Jesus…Beatitudes…1 Corinthians 13—love is patient, love is kind, etc. Or maybe verses that you memorized: God so loved the world…the Lord is my shepherd…trust in the Lord with all your heart…etc. I doubt that any of us memorized Luke 12:51—“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Hang on! That doesn’t sound like the angel’s promise when Jesus was born—“peace on earth, good will toward men.” Was Jesus having a bad day?
Maybe. Jesus sounds pretty stressed out. He is impatient for his “baptism” to happen—most likely referring to his death and what it would accomplish. Since he was human like us, he probably wanted to get it over with. He seems impatient with the crowds too. So he puts it plainly to everyone: don’t expect me to be the magic answer to all your problems. Don’t expect everybody to like you if you follow me. Chances are you will make more enemies than friends if you do what I ask of you.
Jeremiah understood this. He had a lot of people who didn’t like him. But he was faithful to God, as much as he knew how. And he knew that the word he was carrying around was a bomb: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
How have we lost the impact of God’s fiery word? How has the hammer blow of God’s truth been softened among us? How can we hear God’s word of truth—the facts of God’s dynamic power and love piercing through our world—and not be flattened by it?
I suspect there are a few reasons, and I won’t presume to put them in any particular order of their impact or influence on any one individual present here today.
First, we are so accustomed to hearing promises and grand schemes from aspiring politicians that have later fizzled under the weight of responsibility or politics (or both) once they have actually made it into office. We generally accept the notion that no politician ends up being as good as we hoped nor as bad as we feared. We are used to being disappointed. So, if we don’t see evidence of God’s promises being carried out in our immediate situation, we are not surprised. And we might then subconsciously assume that they don’t carry any more weight than a flimsy campaign promise.
Another possible reason may be the sheer volume of words we have to contend with. With all the books, newspapers, textbooks, recipes and handbooks that we need to wade through, not to mention all the websites we expose ourselves to, the words of the Bible can easily be regarded as just more of the same. “God, the creator of the vast universe—loves you!” That’s nice. Let’s see how the markets did today…
In the midst of all that information overload, we also need to take responsibility for the quality of the message that you have been given in the church. Have we ourselves—pastors and Sunday school teachers, that is—shown in our own demeanor that we are awed by what we are teaching? Have we presented the Word of God with the reverence it deserves? I’m not saying this hasn’t happened here at Bethlehem; I’m not in a place to make that judgment. But we can’t be surprised if our college students have been more engaged by philosophies they are discovering once they leave, if they haven’t been challenged to think about and embrace the truth here before they leave. If they don’t see the words of Jesus living in us, and if they don’t hear us talking about it as something precious and vital to us, how can we expect them to take it seriously for themselves?
We need to be faithful to our baptismal promises to share the Word and live it for our children. We need to give all the time and money it takes to plant that Word of life in the soil of their consciousness before it becomes too crowded with other world views or too hardened by disillusionment. And I as your pastor must spend enough time in the Scriptures and crafting the proclamation so that you will hear it well. I need to let it be the fire and the hammer among us, and not get in its way.
What else has blunted the effect of God’s Word in our lives? We have to face the reality of our attitudes. Have we developed habits of hearing the Scriptures that keep them from transforming us? Do we translate the words of Jesus in our own minds to make them more palatable to our comfortable lives? Jesus says to visit the sick, give to the poor, lay down our lives, tell people about God, love our enemies. And what do we want to hear? Hire a pastor to do that stuff, let the church committees deal with evangelism and stewardship. Jesus says to love my enemies, but God must not know my enemies; that doesn’t apply in this case. We hear what we want to hear.
We have to be honest with ourselves: our own disobedient hearts blunt the truth of God’s word. We don’t experience the thrill of bringing people to Christ or the stunning outcome of seeing our money at work to save lives because we don’t obey the Word. We don’t understand how the Holy Spirit works in us because we think that’s just for hyper-religious people somewhere else. Folks, this attitude is called sin, and it deadens our faith. It blocks the flow of God’s love. It muffles the impact of God’s truth for our world.
One other reason we might not get the full effect of the Scriptures. Too many people have used them for all the wrong reasons. They claim to represent God, but they speak judgment, or instant prosperity. Somebody with an audience cuts and pastes Bible verses together to suit their agenda. We are suspicious of what they are saying, but we don’t know the Bible well enough to know why. So the edges of God’s word get worn off from being abused.
All of these things keep the fire and hammer of God’s truth away from our consciousness. And yet we gather every week. What do we expect to happen? Do we want to be licked by the fire of God’s Word? Do we sense that we need reworking with that hammer?
Well, I think we read the Bible together here and try to listen, try to get past the clamor of so many other voices, try to hear a word that will speak truth to our lives. We confess our sin that keeps God’s word at arm’s length. And when we get a glimpse of the truth about God, when the Spirit quickens our hearts to know that this is the real presence of God among us, the spirit within us that God created recognizes it. Aha! This love, this forgiveness is what I need! This is the God who was and who is and who is to come! This is the God I can depend on to tell me the truth—which hurts sometimes, yes, but it is what I do need to hear. This is the God who chose me and gave me a job to do. This is truth worth dying for! This is Someone who means more to me than even my own family.
Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that the result of his message would be that some families would break apart. We don’t like to hear that. But think of this: isn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ so much more worth fighting over than a piece of land or an old grudge? Those are the petty things families fall apart over. Man, those things are so inconsequential compared to the things Jesus tells us to believe and do. I’d rather lose a friendship or an inheritance over being consumed by God’s love than over some argument about a plot of land, wouldn’t you?
Jesus didn’t come to make us all feel good. He came to give us peace with God. That peace came at a cost. His life was the price he paid, and my guess is that he considered that a bargain just to win you back. His own family thought he was nuts, tried to get him out of the public eye so he wouldn’t embarrass them. But that didn’t stop Jesus. He just redefined what “family” means.
To Jesus, family is not about who shares your DNA or the table at Christmas time. To him, family is all those who have the same bond with God together. All those who call Jesus “Lord” are members of this family. And it’s his word that we trust—sometimes in opposition to our parents’ words—because he showed us what it means to love, to be family in his name.
Following God’s word in all its truth will not make you popular with everyone. It might even put you on the outs with a brother or sister. But it is truth that is a fire and a hammer. It makes a difference. It is a live bomb, one that will kill off all the parts of you that are dead anyway. It is worth dying for too, and it will change the world if we listen to it and let it—let Him—live among us.
God Holds the Pen
Proper 14C…Sunday Between August 7 and 13 inclusive
Some years ago I took our two children on a trip to New England and New York to visit friends and family. My college friend Cheryl had planned an itinerary during our visit that included a whale watch. For us Midwestern landlubbers, it was a daring adventure. Although the weather forecast was sketchy, we went ahead and boarded a small vessel with a cabin and an upper deck.
It wasn’t long before the winds came up, making the sea choppy. We saw the heavy clouds approaching and winced as the cold rain began to pelt us. Ponchos were handed out, and we resigned ourselves to the conditions as we continued to scan the waves for whales. Some of the passengers grew ill as they took refuge in the cabin. I followed my friends’ instructions to sit on the outer deck, watch the horizon, and press my wrist at the pressure point that would prevent the nausea of motion sickness. My daughter shivered next to me.
My daughter and I were miserable, but we put on a brave face for our friends’ sake. We had no choice but to ride it out. We had no control over the situation except to wear ponchos to stay dry and huddle together for comfort. At least we didn’t get seasick.
Meanwhile, my son was on the upper deck with Cheryl’s husband Jim, laughing gleefully as he hung on while the boat bucked along.
We disembarked gratefully, anticipating the prospect of changing into the warm flannel shirts Cheryl kept in her car for emergencies. We passed a man who was arguing with the tour operator, demanding a refund because we hadn’t seen any whales. He was told that the agreement he signed stated that there was no guarantee of that. Clearly he was frustrated at having no control over the situation.
That’s just it, isn’t it? We are reminded over and over again that we are not in control, and sometimes it makes us angry. A cancer diagnosis, a child who has gone off the rails, losing your job, dealing with low commodity prices or hail on your crops, living with someone who is sometimes hurtful. They make us feel helpless.
The gospel we read from Luke 12 this morning reminds us of this. There are times when I wish I could rewrite Scripture to suit my fancy. Here is what the gospel lesson might sound like, in the New Deb Mechler Version:
32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms, just enough so you don’t feel guilty. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in until you get to heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. You know: life insurance, diversified investments, land, trust funds and so on. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, at least you have something to fall back on.
35 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Better yet, make sure he makes an appointment so you’ll know when he is coming. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, you can do whatever you want until it gets close to the time he’ll be coming. Then you can shape up and be “alert.” he will fasten his belt and have them When Jesus arrives, tell him to sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them so you can serve him a delicious meal. 8If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves because they were all cleaned up and ready to face Jesus.
39 ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he* would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ But don’t worry, because with a few calculations, you can predict pretty closely when he’ll be there! Then you can have your act together in time for the big moment.
We don’t get to change the Bible to suit our liking, and we don’t get to write the whole script for our own lives. God holds the pen. Just ask Abraham about trying to be in control. He obeyed God and left his homeland to go to the land God promised to give to him and his descendants. In the process, there were serious bumps along the way, including famine. So Abraham took his entourage to Egypt where there was food. While he was there, he figured he’d better call his attractive wife Sarah his sister instead, so nobody would kill him to get to her. He compromised his wife’s safety and his own integrity instead of trusting God. He followed God part of the way, but didn’t trust God all the way.
I don’t know anyone—including myself—who isn’t guilty of the same thing. We don’t understand how God will keep the promises in our lives, so we orchestrate events in our favor. Sometimes things seem to turn out all right, so we keep doing it. But we miss out on a deeper trust in God and never know what God had in mind for us if we had trusted God to lead us and provide for us.
Faith is hard work! There is a reason we need God’s help, why we are given the Holy Spirit in our baptism and our daily walk. We cannot do it on our own. Waiting on God, stepping back to let God lead, being still: these are all functions of faith that do not come naturally to us, because we want to be in control.
Here’s the good news: we do have control over a great deal if you think about it. God gives us a lot of freedom to live creatively in many aspects of life. A few examples.
The gospel text tells us that we have control over what we give to God. (Luke 12: 32-33) Stewardship of our money is just one aspect of that, but it is an important one. Giving our finances to the work of caring for the world and the church is an aspect of everyone’s discipleship. Jesus said that our hearts follow our treasures, so if we throw our lot in with God, our hearts will be turned to God too. (Luke 12:33-34)
I remember a man who lived on the campus of St. Luke Homes and Services while I was their chaplain. Ken lived in an apartment in The Highlands (independent living) while his wife was in the nursing home next door. Every once in a while, Ken would approach me, asking me to help him find a way to give. Once he knew about a needy family in his church, so I helped him arrange an anonymous gift to them. He gave his offerings regularly, but he delighted in finding special projects where his money would make a difference.
We have control over how much we give of ourselves to God too. It is the ongoing task of every believer to identify what holds us back from loving God with all of our being, and to relinquish these things to God. I have never met anyone who has regretted this way of life, the gradual but steady abandonment of all things in committing oneself to God. God honors what we offer and blesses us in the process.
We also have control over how we will receive what God offers to us. This is a struggle for many of us. We would rather be in the giving position, which puts us in control. But Jesus said he will come and serve us. (Luke 12:37) That is what Jesus wants to do for us all the time, so we need to accept it as we follow him. It is humbling to receive from Jesus. Remember when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet? Peter didn’t like it one bit. But Jesus gently instructed him that to be in relationship with him means to let him wash us and serve us.
We practice this receiving every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gives us himself, broken to bless us. But receiving is also a stance we can take as we read the Bible, and when we meditate on our own about God’s love for us. We receive from God when we pay attention to God’s Word, God’s presence, and God’s hand at work all around us.
Finally, we also have control over whether or not we trust God, what the gospel writer calls being “ready.” (Luke 12:37, 40) When we expect God to show up, we are much more likely to see God breaking in and acting. This is the essence of faith. Whenever I see the word “faith” in the Bible, I insert the words “trusting God,” which is a much more personal and expectant way to understand the relationship with God that is called faith.
Isn’t it interesting that the writer describes the coming of the Lord as surprising and arresting as having thief sneak in? What might he want to steal from us? Perhaps he wants to take away our mistrust and our fears, and all the things that clutter our lives and keep us from trusting him. But I think the point really is that it will be at a time you and I do not expect. We do not have control over the Lord! The longer we follow him, the more we realize what a good thing that is.
God is in control. God holds the pen, and writes the script. I love this verse of an old hymn called “The Love of God:”
Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole if stretched from sky to sky.
God writes love all over your life and mine, and God gives each of us a pen to write our part: to receive God’s love, to pass it along to others in our giving, and to trust the God who loves us. Thanks be to God.
Note: This message was delivered on August 5, 2007, when a drought threatened the crops in the local rural community. In 2016, we are in the throes of a presidential election that has everyone feeling very uneasy. In both cases, the good news of this text applies.
Proper 13C…Sunday between July 31 and August 6 inclusive
Trusting God with Your Future
What’s so bad about building bigger barns if you need them? Does building a big barn qualify you as a “rich fool,” as some translations call the man in the parable? Here’s what Soren Kierkegaard says about it:
“It is certainly laudable and pleasing to God that a man sows and harvests and gathers into barns, that he works to find food; but if he is willing to forget God and to believe that he supports himself with his labor, then he becomes uneasy about his livelihood. The richest man that ever lived, if he forgets God, and believes that he supports himself by his labor, has financial anxieties…” That sounds a lot like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, doesn’t it?
Last week I heard a little commentary on the radio by someone who wrote a book about what he calls “Richistan.” This is what he calls a fictional country where all the millionaires live. He said that the people who are now worth one to ten million dollars would be considered the middle class in Richistan. Apparently there are a lot more multi-multi millionaires than there used to be. Of course, a million doesn’t go as far as it used to either. ‘Doesn’t go that far on a farm, does it? This author went on to tell about a “rich camp” where he went to do research. Twenty-somethings go there to learn how to deal with their inherited wealth. Many of them have no idea how to work or to manage money. The author predicted that many of them will fritter away their money very quickly because of their lack of skills and maturity with regard to finances. Easy come, easy go, I guess.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable was more careful than that. He built barns to preserve and protect the wealth of his harvest. He had to deal with the problem of abundance. Did I say that right? “The problem of abundance?” How can anybody have too much?
It would be easy for us to focus on the amount of wealth people have and classify them as “good” or “bad” accordingly. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is getting at. True, he does say elsewhere that riches do make it harder for us to enter the kingdom—they can certainly become too important in our lives to the point of idolizing them and turning one’s back on God.
But this man in Jesus’ story was doing more than admiring his riches. He was staking his life on them. He figured his future was secure because he could pay for it. He would never lack for anything. Set for life, he was. Except his life was a lot shorter than he anticipated. He ended up dying in his sleep. And the question God posed to him was, “Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”
Well, the answer to that should be easy, right? His kids will get a big inheritance. They’d better sign up for “rich camp” to figure out what to do with all their wealth. But the parable could just be recycled for them too, couldn’t it? They had no idea how much time they would have to “eat, drink and be merry.”
It almost seems like a cruel joke to be reading this text today, when we are all getting worried about the yield this year, if we get anything at all from this crop. We’ve been praying for rain for a month now. What is usually a rewarding drive through the countryside is becoming worrisome and depressing. What will happen if the crops dry up altogether?
I hesitated to say this out loud, as if putting it into words might somehow make it more likely to happen. We aren’t superstitious, and yet it seems almost irresponsible to verbalize the possibility. But if we are going to face a crisis, shouldn’t we face it together, as God’s people? Can we gather around the table in faith and trust that, even as God provided the sacrifice for our salvation, God will also provide all that we need for our future survival?
Do you remember this verse from Philippians 4—“I can do everything through him who gives me strength?” Do you realize what Paul was talking about in that letter? He was telling his readers that he had been rich and he had been poor. He had learned to be content in either circumstance because Christ gave him the strength to deal with whatever transpired in his life. He could be at peace no matter what his financial status was.
One clue to how Paul could experience this peace is found in the letter to Colossians, the section that follows the one we read today. It reads like this:
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord* has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ* dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.* 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
This is what real life—a secure future—looked like for Paul. I chatted with someone this week whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. Since I talked with Jeanine last, she has been diagnosed with MS. Her husband has lost his job. They have no health insurance. They are wishing they didn’t sell their company several years ago, and they are wondering how they are going to make it. Yet Jeanine seemed completely at peace. She said that her husband seems closer to God than he has ever been. They consciously, daily trust God’s promise to provide for their needs. They have been wealthy, and now they are impoverished, but they know that God will take care of them, and this gives them the hope they need for every day. Their lives are hidden with Christ in God.
If, like the rich man in the parable, we focus on our own possessions, our own ability to produce wealth and make it secure, we will find our life of contentment to be insecure, perhaps even very short. If instead we set our hearts on things above, as Paul exemplified, and as my friend Jeanine has learned to do, we will know the security of God’s loving provision, no matter what form it takes. Paul says that our lives are hidden with Christ in God. That is where our hearts are located—not in our barns or our closets or our bank accounts. Our future is secure because we are God’s. As we come to the table this morning, we give thanks to God that this is most certainly true.
 Kierkegaard, Soren. “The Wild Dove” in Weavings, May/June 1990 (Vol. V, No. 3), p. 28-30.
Proper 12C…Sunday between July 24 and 30 inclusive
Jesus Teaches Us to Pray
“Teach us how to pray.” Imagine being able to make that request of Jesus Christ himself. That’s what the disciples did. They saw the impact that the time Jesus spent in prayer had on his ministry. They wanted to tap into that kind of spiritual power.
Jesus was happy to grant their wish. “Pray like this,” he began. “Our Father…” Let’s stop right there. You and I could rattle off the rest of the prayer without thinking, but maybe we are neglecting the most important words of the prayer. I say that because what you believe about God has a direct influence on your prayers.
Think of it. If you think of God mostly as an angry judge, you probably won’t want to talk with God very often, and when you do, you will approach God meekly, maybe feeling guilty, imagining a frown on God’s face perhaps. If you believe God has gone off and left you to fend for yourself, you might be angry with God, if you pray at all.
Virtually every passage we read in the Bible tells us something about God, and thus affects our prayers. Take today’s readings for example. In Genesis 18, Abraham bargains with God for the city of Sodom. That’s pretty gutsy. To think that God would tolerate such talk requires belief in a patient, understanding God. This God invites our questions and allows us to come near. This God looks past Abraham’s audacious assumption that he is on a level playing field with God. This God listens, and responds. That is something we can glean from Genesis 18.
We read from Colossians 2 also. Quite a different kind of writing, and subject. Paul is making an argument for the church at Colosse that God is all-powerful, Jesus is God’s Son, and this God cared enough to become a human who died on a cross to redeem us. (He was presenting these arguments because there were folks in that area who were spreading the idea that Jesus wasn’t really God.)
What does Paul say about Jesus? He says we’d better get used to giving thanks, because this Jesus is fully God, ruler above all earthly kings. He has authority over everything. He is the risen one in whom God has made us alive. He is the incarnate one, the God-with-us in human flesh. He nailed our sins to the cross through his own suffering and death, so we are forgiven once and for all. If that doesn’t make you want to give thanks, nothing will! We could spend a lot of time just giving thanks for all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ the Son.
But Jesus doesn’t tell us to use a hundred names to address God, even though we could. He starts us off with “our Father.” Even though God is King, our Creator, our righteous judge, and a thousand other titles God is worthy of, Jesus instructs us to go to God as we would a parent.
How wonderful to be given that privilege. Paul expresses the wonder of it in 1 John 3: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Go to God as one who loves you, who is committed to you. Not as some kind of tradesman, even a divine one, who treats us as those who have broken our contract with him. God could do that. We have broken the covenant God made with us. We don’t deserve God’s good gifts. But God is committed to us as a Father is to a child, and invites us to conversation that is intimate and life-giving.
So if you ran out of breath after saying “our Father,” you would be OK. Those words would bless God and give you peace. It is a loaded phrase, and no words can really describe the extent, the depth of the relationship anyway.
Not only does Jesus—God’s own Son!—give us a pattern for prayer, he tells us more to encourage the relationship as a child to a father. First he refers to the cultural mandate to provide hospitality. The expectation is that hospitality is to be offered as generously as possible to anyone who shows up at your door. If you have to run to the neighbor and borrow some bread, no matter what time of day or night, the neighbor is supposed to understand the gravity of the situation and help out.
But this neighbor is sleepy. He has to be coaxed. He won’t do what society insists he must do, except his friend won’t stop pounding on the door.
Jesus isn’t saying that God is sleepy and has to be awakened and convinced to help us. He is making a comparison from the lesser to the greater. Even a lazy, grumpy friend will give you a loaf of bread. How much more can we depend on our loving Father who is always alert to our needs?
He continues, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
OK, you say. That sounds very nice. But God doesn’t answer my prayers all the time, even the things that are clearly in God’s will, like salvation, or food for the hungry. What about that?
I am not wise enough to understand or explain our experiences of unanswered prayer. What I can do is tell you what I see in this text.
Perhaps Jesus is spelling out a principle of God’s kingdom reign. It is God’s design that children of God—all those who love and trust God—will receive what they ask for. It may be that this is not what happens in this life for a variety of reasons. Jesus doesn’t explain that part.
What he does explain is the relationship of a father to his children. A loving father will not give his children a snake instead of a fish. A child of a loving father wouldn’t sit down to breakfast and find a scorpion on his plate instead of a fried egg.
So we might ask, if there is injustice and cruelty in this world, does that come from the hand of a loving Father? There must be another source for that. There is an agent to whom God has allowed some leeway while we wait for the full presence and reign of God. Satan is the source of those snakes and scorpions, not our loving Father. If our prayers are thwarted, it is because there is a temporary, evil actor in the drama of the world right now.
But there are some gifts the enemy cannot keep us from receiving, some prayers that God will answer even in this time that is shot through with sin and its outcomes. God will give us the greatest gift for the asking: the Holy Spirit. What God wants to give us most is the gift we will surely receive just for asking for it: God’s own self.
There is no doubt about that. Jesus’ appearance among us was the answer to all the prayers ever prayed before or since. His death and resurrection ensures us that no disappointment will ever get the best of us, not in the ultimate sense. Yes, we will suffer in this life. Many are suffering terribly at this moment. But as Paul says, the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us soon enough. (Romans 8:18)
So, we are to pray, but sometimes God’s will is thwarted or overcome by the evil of this present time. Why pray, then? Because the relationship is what matters. The love of God is the bottom line and the hope we need for life. Living in the confidence of God’s love and faithfulness is God’s deepest desire for you, and it is the fuel for your conversations with God. The relationship needs tending. God has revealed an eternal, deep purpose for you, and you will know it as you talk with God about it daily. Talk with God your Father, the faithful one who loves you.
As we said, reading God’s word informs our prayers because God is revealed in the Scriptures. We are following the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer for this part of our worship, and now it is time to hallow God’s name. The Psalm for today is 138, and it is filled with praises to the God who is holy, ruler of all the earth. God is the personal and caring one, our deliverer, the faithful one whose steadfast love for us never runs out. Let’s read it together as the first of our hymns of praise to God our Father.
Proper 11C…Sunday between July 17 and 23
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10.38-42)
I love to host dinners in my home, especially those casual family dinners when we decide to get together on the spur of the minute. Whether it’s family or friends, everybody congregates in the kitchen, and I have to shoo them out in order to get the meal finished. We don’t have one of those open concept houses where the cook can be in on the conversation while everybody is lounging on the comfy furniture. I don’t like making everybody leave, but if they want to eat, they have to let me and an assistant or two put the meal together.
So I can sympathize with Martha. I don’t like feeling left out of the conversations. Once I started making the meals simpler, I wasn’t stuck in the kitchen so much.
A couple of generations ago, when I was first learning my Bible stories, there seemed to be common understanding of the story of Mary and Martha. Basically Martha was scolded for being too fussy, and Mary was praised for having her priorities straight.
After what was known as the women’s liberation movement, the interpretation changed a bit. There was a popular self-help book published in 1969 by Dr. Thomas A. Harris titled I’m OK, You’re OK. The story of Mary and Martha took on that idea. Mary was OK, and Martha was OK too. They both had their gifts: Martha was a good hostess, a great organizer, task-oriented. Mary was more quiet, relational, people-oriented. God makes all kinds of people and loves us all equally.
But that doesn’t seem to be the message of the story. Jesus said that Mary chose the better part. It doesn’t sound like both parts are OK. What was Martha missing?
Mistake #1: It’s all about the meal.
I don’t think having a nice dinner together is frivolous necessarily. The problem arises when we think the food is the only thing that matters. We invite people over to have a nice evening with them, to have some good conversation, maybe play a game or two. It’s the people around the table who matter, not the food itself. Although I’ll never turn down a good piece of pie.
People matter more to Jesus than anything else. Not rules, not perfection, but people. Helping people with their brokenness, restoring them to joy and life and community.
When Jesus made judgments about people, it was often about the ones who were unkind or exploitative. The religious leaders who focused more on rules and supporting the temple system than on the people themselves. Rich people making their stuff more important than helping other people with their wealth. Disciples concerned more with their own comfort than feeding people who showed up to see Jesus.
People. God loves people. All kinds.
This is a good guideline for decision making. Do we aim to accumulate wealth or power or security, or do we aim to care for people in our family and community? Does our work support the well being of others or simply serve to enlarge my bank account?
It ought to guide the decisions of our congregation too. Do we care more about our building, about appearing modern and prosperous? Or do we focus on people in need of hope and love? How can we focus on people as Jesus did?
Mistake #2: Asking Jesus to fix someone else.
Martha thought Jesus would agree with her that Mary should get off her duff and get busy. “Make her help me, Jesus!”
How often are your prayers like that? Show him that he’s wrong. Make her stop interfering. Give her faith; that should solve everything. Make my husband love me like he used to. Make my wife listen to me; I know what’s best!
Jesus isn’t in the business of running errands for us, following our instructions for a better world, better people. Our perspective is small, and skewed at best. That was made clear at the end of the gospel of John. It was a scene on the beach, after Jesus served Peter and a few other disciples a fish breakfast. Peter asked Jesus about John, who was walking behind them. “What about him?” Jesus answered, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” In other words, mind your own business, Peter.
Then there is the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The workers expected their master to have them pull out the weeds. (Shouldn’t we help you sort through who’s a sinner and who isn’t, Jesus?) But Jesus told them to hold off. He said, “I’ll take care of it when the time is right.”
We want Jesus to fix other people, because we expect Jesus to have the same values as ours. But Jesus made it pretty clear that his priorities and ours are not the same. We are supposed to align ours with his, not the other way around.
We are all misguided, weak disciples. Mary, Martha, Lazarus, John, Judy, Ashley, Josh… Jesus loves us, each one, deeply and eternally. Because he loves us, he doesn’t want us to be stuck in our sin, our messed up values. He calls us to a better life, a life of meaning and relationships untroubled by revenge or controlling each other. Jesus doesn’t just want us to be good little Christians who do all the right things like Martha. He calls us to a relationship with himself, a life of learning from him how to care for another and enjoy the gifts he has given.
Mistake #3: We can “host” Jesus and expect him to follow the rules of our home.
Wow, just saying that out loud shows what a bad idea that is. How arrogant. If we claim that Jesus is Lord, then he is in charge, not us.
Are we guilty of doing this, as a church? Do we invite Jesus’ presence, but only on our terms? Do we come up with programs and schemes and then expect Jesus to bless them? Do I as an individual figure out what I can “do for Jesus” and then expect him to endorse it? The folly of this is reflected in the epistle lesson from Colossians 1:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and inhim all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
Jesus is the head of the church, the host, the sovereign one with all authority. He invites us to his banquet. What he feeds us is not what we expect: himself. He wants to give us himself, take us into his life and put his life into ours. That is what Mary understood, at least that day. Jesus would have us know that we don’t have to impress him with our fussy preparations. Instead we can be captivated and guided by his love. Just love.
So, instead of focusing on impressing Jesus or anyone else, we can focus on people.
Instead of trying to fix other people, we bring what needs fixing in ourselves, and receive from Jesus his healing and love.
Instead of making the plan, we can make our lives about following Jesus, whose plans are perfect.
This all sounds a lot more relaxing than making a fuss. Maybe that is why Jesus said it is the better part. It is more fun to follow Jesus than we think.
There’s More Where That Came From
John 2:1-11…Epiphany 2C
Jesus is beginning his ministry. In the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the first recorded act of his ministry is to preach or teach. John takes us first into an awkward moment. The wine ran out! There are some situations in the Bible we have to work hard to imagine, but this one is easy. We’ve all been embarrassed because we didn’t plan right, or more guests showed up than we prepared for.
So. Jesus comes to the rescue! Well, there’s more to it than that, of course. As those who are committed to following Jesus Christ, we want to see what is revealed about Jesus here. What will lead us to say “aha!”–that’s something I needed to know about Jesus.
What we need to know from this story is that with Jesus, there is always more. Now I have to go against my usual impulse to say that more is not always better. The prevalent attitude in our culture is to do everything bigger, “better,” more. And that is not serving us well, because we’re becoming buried in stuff, overloaded with obligations, frantic to keep up with a “more is better” society. Trying to find meaning and satisfaction just by adding more is killing our souls.
Maybe we have this cultural sickness because we have forgotten that Jesus is enough for us. With him there is always more to discover, more to celebrate and worship. He is the more that we need, not more stuff, more friends, more ways to fill our lives with anything but love and peace. The story of the wedding at Cana shows us that Jesus cares more, does more, and is more than we can ever know.
Jesus cares. We know that he loves to heal and forgive. We know he gives us peace when we are troubled with grief and regret. But here, he cares about a host who got himself into a jam, a social faux pas. His mother notified him of the problem most likely because she knew he could do something about it. She had to coax him a bit, John tells us. But Jesus came through, and the wine was the best they had ever tasted.
Jesus has compassion for people who get themselves into a jam. Who knew? We like to think that “God helps those who help themselves,” but that idea is not actually supported by Scripture, let alone the ministry of Jesus. Jesus knows us, knows that we get ahead of ourselves sometimes. We end up asking, “How did I get myself into this mess?” And we might think we don’t deserve any help from God because it was our mistake. Did your parents teach you what mine taught me? “You got yourself into this. You can get yourself out of it.”
Not that Jesus encourages us to be foolhardy. When he tells us to follow him, he makes sure we know what we’re getting into. He says that we should be like someone who is going to build a tower, estimating the cost of materials and labor before laying the first brick. Discipleship does not exclude wisdom.
The good news of Jesus is that he meets us where we are, and where we are often is in a pickle, to say the least. Too often the situation is serious, and we need help, and he is eager to give it. If you wonder whether Jesus cares about your situation, be assured that he does. He cares more than you may have assumed. Do you ever wonder whether God cares about something that concerns you? Too trivial for God to care about? You think you don’t deserve it? Then turn back to the cross and find your questions answered. Jesus cares.
Jesus always does more than we expect. Mary prodded her son to help a desperate host at a wedding, and he provided far more wine than they needed. It was better wine than they had ever tasted before. They hit the jackpot when they invited Jesus to their party!
Does that mean that God is a divine vending machine, dispensing whatever strikes our fancy? You know better than that. What Jesus did that day was more than provide the beverages for a newly married couple and their friends. Jesus used the water that had been drawn and stored for the purification rites. The water was designated for a religious ritual that had become a stagnant, meaningless obligation. Jesus changed the water into something rich and delightful. Ever since John penned his account of the miracle, we have seen that it was a sign of a new order that Jesus was introducing. He was infusing new life into the concept of the kingdom of God.
Jesus didn’t just do miracles. He was embodying the kingdom God had planned for us. The old sacrificial order had lost its power to bring people to God, thanks to the human tendency of focusing on the ritual instead of what it pointed to.
We don’t want to make the same mistake the people of Israel had been making. We want to recognize the signs Jesus gives us in his ministry, signs that reveal the nature of his glory and his power. He can heal sickness, yes, but it also shows his compassion and authority over the created order. He fed thousands of people with a few fish and loaves, yes. But it also reveals his desire for our well-being.
Do you see? What Jesus did in the gospels, and what he does for us today, is not just about the help he gives us. It shows his faithfulness, his goodness, his love. It reveals his character. We know him better because we receive his blessings. Jesus is more than we might have thought, even more than we have been taught.
This is true even when we don’t experience direct answers to our prayers. Even when God seems silent, God is working all things together for us who love Him. God is providing Christian friends, a church where you belong. God has graced you with spiritual gifts that may be just waiting to be used for God’s glory. God is always at work in your life, even—maybe especially—when we can’t detect the hand of God with our limited minds.
The story of the wedding at Cana continues with the new wine taken to the steward, who was astounded at its quality. Problem solved! He didn’t care where it came from; he was glad to save face and keep the party going. He didn’t recognize the source.
The disciples did see what happened and who made the wine. Witnessing the miracle established faith in them. The sign of turning water into wine made them realize that Jesus was the one they had been waiting for. The miracle revealed Jesus’ glory.
Glory is about more than haloes and heavenly music playing in the background. Glory is also about weightiness, significance. It is about meaning and hope. Jesus was more than he appeared. He was a man, but he was also God’s Son, divine Word come to us to lift us out of our dead-end lives, our empty religion, our small ideas about the world and the God who made it.
When you experience the fullness of life, the good times when everything seems sweet, do you recognize the source? Do you see that God is providing the life you were meant to enjoy? Or do you just think, hey this is fun, and move on to the next distraction? Do you live with a thankful heart? Can you see the handprint of God on every aspect of your life? He is the creator of every good thing.
Jesus is always more than we know. We can spend our whole lives exploring the gospels and the meaning of his presence in our lives. We can never reach the end of his goodness, his character, his love. All we need to do is open the gospels and observe him at work, listen to his wisdom, sense his heart. Gaze at the cross and wonder at the depth of his love for you.
Jesus cares more than we give him credit for. He does more than we can ever detect with our limited sensibilities. He is more than we have recognized. A little water turned into wine? That’s just the beginning. There’s a lot more where that came from.
Luke 3.15-17, 21-22….The Baptism of Our Lord, Year C
There is a woman from Spencer who is a skilled photographer. Judy has captured images of the local flora and fauna with great skill. One of her favorite subjects is the local eagle population. When I was chaplain at St. Luke, I often spotted eagles in Oneota Park across the highway. It would captivate me every time, pushing away any thoughts or concerns in my mind. I love to imagine what it might be like to soar over the trees like these magnificent birds.
If you are a birdwatcher, you might appreciate the way Jesus’ baptism appeared to the people who witnessed it. The gospel writers all say that the Spirit of God appeared dove-like when it appeared from above and rested on Jesus. Luke, more than the others, wants us to know that the resemblance was unmistakable: the dove appeared “in bodily form.”
Why did it happen that way? I am wondering if this was God’s way of getting the people’s attention, to make them look up. To see something special that was happening, something they couldn’t see if they kept their focus earthward.
Now we run into a problem. We often take great pains to say that heaven is not a place, per se, that you can point to and maybe get to if you can figure out the spiritual geography. Yet the notion persists that heaven is up, and the other place is down. This is reinforced by imagery used in the Scriptures. Elijah was taken up into heaven. Even when Jesus left the earth after his resurrection, he ascended, went up.
Paul also talks about our spiritual life in terms of “things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col 3.1). Fortunately, we don’t have to understand whether heaven is really “up there” or not, because we won’t have to find our way there. Jesus himself is the way, so all we have to do is remain with him, and we’ll get there sooner or later.
But the Spirit of God “descended” in this story, and the people were captivated by the flutter of wings and the voice coming from the clouds. Something special was happening with Jesus. It’s hard to imagine how wonderful it was for Jesus to hear the voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus could proceed with confidence and joy. Whatever challenges lay ahead, he knew who he was. He also knew that he was loved.
Being loved—that makes a big difference, doesn’t it? You can put up with a lot that this world throws at you, if you know deep down that somebody loves you. And that they will go on loving you no matter what.
Jesus had not yet begun his public ministry when he received his love message. He was the Son of God, and that was enough for God to call him “the Beloved.” He didn’t have to earn that love in any way. He simply needed to look up and receive it.
A few years ago, a friend faced the cancer she had supposedly beaten before, and this time it would take her life. Myra was a creative, fun-loving person who was loved by her many friends in the theater community. I loved her quirky humor and her unconditional acceptance of every single person.
When she was in the hospital for the last time, over a period of a couple weeks, I felt compelled to visit her. I knew she had a priest, and I wasn’t her pastor. But I still felt drawn to her bedside.
There was nothing I could read to her from the Bible or say to her to soften the blow of what was coming. I knew she wouldn’t stand for it anyway. Even though she could no longer speak, I didn’t want to offer platitudes she might not appreciate. But what came to mind was one word: Beloved. It felt like a word from God for her. So I simply sat with her the two times I went to see her, told her that she was God’s beloved, and prayed with thanksgiving that God loved her like that.
All I can tell you is that she glowed. She beamed her joy and gratitude. This was not a person who was overtly spiritual or religious. But she got the message before she died.
Ever since then, “beloved” is the word I go to for myself, and for everyone else when it is hard to sense God’s presence or God’s love. I know deep down that the word was not just given to my friend, but to me. I am God’s beloved. There is nothing I can do or not do to change that.
Do you need to hear that too? That no matter what you do for the church, you can’t do enough to be called beloved, because that word is yours already. And there is nothing you can fail at that will keep God from calling you beloved.
We all need to know this, the fundamental fact that we are loved. We cannot depend on the love of parents or anyone else, because our even our best attempts to love are fractured. Maybe nobody has ever uttered sincere words of love to you, or it was so long ago it has worn paper thin. You might have someone who tells you that all the time. No matter what your experience has been, no human love can perfectly bear the weight of this world’s troubles or endure into eternity as God’s love can do.
Keep in mind that God’s love is not merely a greater quantity of the kind of love we are familiar with, like supersizing a meal at McDonald’s. It is much richer, more profound, far greater in both ferocity and gentleness. It is all-encompassing and unchanging. It could not be killed, even on a cross.
The reading from Isaiah 43 this morning is a beloved passage we often read for infant baptism. We love to hear God saying, “I have called you by name; you are mine.” But this passage also includes great encouragement: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” I read Eugene Peterson’s interesting version of these verses in The Message: “When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end—Because I am GOD, your personal God, the Holy of Israel, your Savior.”
Whatever problems we are facing, on a personal or national scale, it can feel like a dead end. We can’t go forward, and we literally cannot go back in time. What is there to do? It looks hopeless.
Three years ago my family spent a week on the island of St. Thomas. It is a beautiful place, but the driving is not for the faint of heart. The roads are very curvy and hilly, and they drive on the left side of the road there. Hairpin turns are not unusual. The signage was confusing to me. I counted it a victory when I got to my destination without a wrong turn. We ended up on a dead end at one point. It is a frustrating experience in a place that is unfamiliar. This is not unlike the challenges of navigating through life.
When we feel as though there is no way forward and no way back, we need to look up. With God there is always life ahead. God will be with us in what feels like a box canyon or a blind alley. God also shows us a way out, a way that only God can provide, even if it is only the strength to endure. This is the promise of our baptism, the promise of God who loves us, forgives us, and never stops caring for us.
Jesus lived through his years on earth with the deep knowledge that he was infinitely loved by God. Everything flowed from the core of his being that was fed by the Father’s love.
By entering the Jordan River, Jesus identified with us and our need to turn away from the death-dealing ways of the world, to repent by turning to the life-giving love of God. Maybe repenting for some of us is more than rejecting our sin. It may mean turning away from the reticence or rejection of our parents whose love we craved, to the good news of God’s love made real to us on the cross.
We can identify with Jesus’ experience at baptism because we are also called God’s beloved children in our baptism. You were baptized with water, a tangible sign of being bathed in God’s love and forgiveness. All of your actions, all of your future decisions, every tiny infant breath that you took in your parents’ arms that day and every day since—all of it is permeated by the fact that you are God’s beloved whether you remember it or not. We are all “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved!” (Col 3.12)
But occasionally we forget who we are. We let the world tell us what we should be like, how we ought to be angry and vindictive, how we should spend our time and our money. We too often allow ourselves to be molded by self-seeking and competitiveness and pride. Or we let the old negative scripts from the past drown out God’s message of love. Our passions and habits can get the best of us and make us think we belong on the banks of the Jordan instead of in the water with Jesus.
Our baptism reminds us to look up every day instead and remember who we are. Our lives are “hid with Christ in God.” We are God’s beloved. Let me say that again. You are God’s beloved. God is well-pleased with you just because you are God’s child. If you forget that, stop and look up. Even if there are no doves or eagles around, you may set your sights on the heavens and remember that God’s love for you exceeds the boundaries of this earth, just like the day of Jesus’ baptism when the Father’s love was so big it split the heavens open. Thanks be to God.
Curiosity of the Magi
Matthew 2:1-12…Epiphany C
What comes to mind when you hear the story of the wise men traveling to visit the Christ child? If you’re like me, some images are of children in bathrobes, carrying gold-spray-painted objects to the front of the church in the annual Christmas program. Nothing wrong with that; we want the children to know the story, and the best way to learn it is to act it out.
But we can become so familiar with Bible stories and favorite Scriptures that we can tune out when we hear them again. We assign meanings to different stories, draw conclusions that are helpful to us, and file them away. Then when we encounter them again, we can go to our mental files and pull out the old ideas, satisfied that we have these in our faith memory banks.
The trouble is, when we seal off the stories and other Scriptures like that, we close our minds to what God may want to show us now. Every time you hear the Christmas story, you are a different person. You have different needs and experiences, and the Scriptures are meant to meet you each time where you are.
Some years ago when I was preparing the program for a week of Bible camp, a colleague told me that he asks three questions of Scripture that seem to make sense to both children and adults. These are the questions: What does this tell me about God? What does it tell me about people or humans? How would my life be different if I took this passage seriously?
So let’s see if today’s gospel story seems more fresh if we use these three questions.
What does this tell us about God?
It’s a curious story. Astrologers from a very foreign place determine that something so important is going to happen that they cannot help but seek out the object of their calculations. Wow! God is up to something!
Think of the flow of the gospel of Matthew so far. First, the genealogy of Jesus, which includes some noble characters—including King David—and some unknowns, even some foreign women and women of unsavory reputations. But this is given as a way of indicating that this child to be born is the goal and fulfillment of centuries of history, the great arc of God’s plan.
Then we have the angel appearing to Joseph, a “righteous man” whose betrothed comes up pregnant, and he accepts the prophecy that this child will be “Immanuel,” God with us. These stories are not your average historical accounts, including the one about the magi.
We don’t learn much else about God here, but we sure get the idea that God works in very strange ways. And this is not explained to us. It is simply a monumental, cosmic event that is presented as the context of Jesus’ birth.
So, God is up to something, and can work in strange ways.
What does this story tell us about people?
We have main characters of the magi and Herod. I think it is noteworthy that the magi were people who were dedicated to following their curiosity. It doesn’t matter that they are outside of the Jewish people, and are even practitioners of what was considered a dark art that was prohibited in the Old Testament. (Deut. 18:14; Isa. 47:13-14) They are appointed for some reason to be the ones who travel to a country ruled by a ruthless king. They couldn’t just waltz into Judea; they had to check in with Herod.
And Herod was not necessarily open to outsiders. He was a harsh, greedy, fear-driven man who even killed members of his own family to prevent them from any claim to his throne. Entering his country would be a little like going to North Korea today. You get the picture.
Herod allowed his fear to determine his every move, and it was devastating to those close to him. When the Scripture says that “all Jerusalem was troubled with him,” it was probably because he was so unpredictable and usually erred on the side of violence.
Very different characters here. There are also the chief priests who helped with the prophecies and of course, the Holy Family themselves. But the main players seem to be the magi and Herod, and the contrast between them is striking. Curiosity on the one hand, and fear on the other.
How would my life be different if I took this passage seriously?
Isn’t that a great question? It asks each of us to bring ourselves and our life situations to the Bible.
You might be thinking of different answers to the questions. That would be great. For myself, I see a couple of things.
First, the curiosity of the magi. For some reason in the church there has been plenty of opposition to curiosity. We believe what it says in the Apostles Creed, and that’s it. No wandering outside the lines, or you are in danger of heresy or condemnation.
But we are all made in the image of a creative God, all given a set of human impulses, senses, intelligence, and so on. And it seems to me that curiosity, when aimed in the direction of God, has a place in our faith. I know that for me, it has led to tremendous growth in the past few years. I have been asking why the Bible was written, what it is for, and what the doctrines of our faith really mean.
There are those who resist scholarship, who claim that using philosophy and history and literary tools to understand the Bible robs it of its original intent. But if the Bible really matters to us, does it not hold up to scrutiny? The scholars I am familiar with really want to know what the Bible means. They are not interested in twisting it to mean something else. Their curiosity serves us well. And so does our own curiosity.
Curiosity led to wonder for the magi. They may not have known exactly what would appear at the end of their quest, but they had no doubt when they got there. And they worshipped the baby. Imagine the looks on Mary and Joseph’s faces when that happened, how they must have remembered what the angel had told them. What a wonder.
So, curiosity and awe have a place in our faith, I think.
And awe is certainly the response when we think how the God who created the stars used one of them as a special gem to mark the place where the Son was born. Think of it. The Milky Way galaxy alone is 200,000 light years across, and right now it is estimated that there are 100 billion galaxies. That God did something important on this tiny blue planet, giving us God’s very own self born as a human infant.
If we take this passage seriously, we cannot help but be amazed along with the magi and Mary and Joseph. That will make your faith a little bigger.
Jesus Grows Up
Luke 2:41-52; Col. 3:12-17…Christmas 1C
We’re doing a little bouncing back and forth on the timeline of Jesus’ life this Sunday and next. Today we follow Jesus and his parents to Jerusalem when he is twelve years old. Next Sunday is Epiphany, the day we celebrate Jesus revealed as the light of the world through the visit of the magi, so we’ll head back to his early childhood for that.
We don’t celebrate today’s gospel story, maybe because it has some tension in it. Jesus is not exactly being naughty, but he is not pleasing his parents either. Joseph and Mary were not as impressed with him as the teachers of the temple, who were “amazed at his understanding and his answers.” They had the same reaction as any parents when our children are lost and we imagine the worst scenarios. They were upset!
But this was a watershed moment for Jesus. He found himself increasingly drawn to the teachers in the temple each year. He could no longer ignore the inner voice that gave him the courage to talk with them. The conversation felt familiar somehow. When he listened to the elders’ conversations, he was amazed that they were discussing questions that had occurred to him too.
He began telling the teachers all the things that had been rolling around in his mind. Questions about God that puzzled him when he saw people struggling with poverty, illness, and oppression from the Romans. Ideas that sprang to mind unexpectedly as he was sorting materials in his father’s shop, ideas that grew and spawned other ideas as he wondered about the world around him and the people of his village. Ideas that none of his friends—not even his parents—could understand, so he had been keeping them to himself.
So when Passover rolled around again, finally he had someone to ask, and he eagerly began to put his questions into words. The teachers’ eyes widened as they listened to a precocious young man, astute about the things of God. Most boys his age had had enough of schooling. They were ready to make their way in the world and were happy to leave Hebrew school behind them.
Jesus was growing up. Like every other adolescent he would need to go through a period called differentiation. It is the transitional time in all our lives when we realize that we don’t think the same way our parents think. We don’t necessarily want to fall in line with their plans for us. Teens and parents are realizing that they are separate individuals, in fact very different people.
It can be a painful time. Even though it is a threshold we all have to cross, it isn’t smooth sailing. Lots of arguing, eye rolling, slammed doors, testing the limits of the children’s boundaries and the limits of parents’ patience. It is normal, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Imagine what it must have been like for Joseph and Mary. If they were mindful of Jesus’ identity and mission, did they also feel responsible for shaping him as the Messiah? Did they think he was taking things too fast with the temple teachers, getting ahead of himself? They reined him in, but it didn’t stop Jesus from maturing.
Change and growth are necessary for us to become adults. They are also required if we are to be faithful disciples of the adult Jesus, who told us to take up our crosses and follow him. You don’t carry a cross very far with beginner’s faith. Jesus expects us to grow up into the challenging life of discipleship.
So, what does that look like? How do we mature in our faith?
If your religious education was like mine while growing up, you learned that you should read your Bible, spend time in prayer every day, and do good works. Help people, give generously, that sort of thing. And go to church! Right?
We could get the impression that there is a standard path we all have to follow in order to be “good Christians.” But then, what happens if it is hard for you to read, and the Bible seems like a huge puzzle? Or praying makes you fall asleep every time? How do you develop your faith if sitting still makes you restless? What if going to church leaves you with more questions than answers? The standard path doesn’t seem to fit your needs.
We can look in the Scriptures and find ways we should grow up, as in the letter to the Colossian church we read this morning: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another …forgive each other…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:12-17)
Isn’t that a beautiful description of mature Christian people? But what does that look like in real life?
We could develop a logical plan for growth. Follow steps A, B, and C, and you will have compassion. Get your badges in kindness and humility like good Scouts.
But it isn’t that simple. “Clothing yourselves” with love and patience is more than a matter of picking up these qualities like paper doll clothing, folding over the tabs and declaring ourselves fully dressed and equipped as Good Christian People.
But we are not two dimensional, blank slates that can be turned out as disciples with a few Bible studies here and a few memorized prayers there, with a good record of attendance at worship to finish checking the boxes.
Growing in Christ looks different for each person. Even if we did start out as carbon copies, our experiences and perceptions over the years would have us looking very different.
Have you ever seen pictures of simple items like a piece of paper or human skin taken through a high-powered microscope? They are full of hills and valleys, with surprisingly deep textures. These images come to mind when I think of the differences among us in the ways we cannot detect with our normal eyesight.
What would the human soul look like if we could put it under a microscope? I suspect they would be vastly different from one to the next, reflecting the intricacies of our inner workings, the scars from our brokenness, the beauty of love and the bright colors of yearning, the dark threads of grief. Each of us is carrying around this record, this shape of our inner selves with the marks of our stories folded into it.
We can’t see inside one another to know the details of each personal story or what is pulsing inside each soul. God has access to that, be we don’t. We have a hard enough time understanding what is going on inside ourselves, let alone having any idea what others are dealing with.
So I wonder why we struggle so much with wanting to change each other? Or being impatient with each other’s process. Why do we presume to know enough about one another to have any notion of what is best for each other?
I don’t know about you, but it would be so much easier if everything and everybody would just hold still so I can know what to expect. Kind of like paper dolls that I can arrange and control and keep them all looking pretty. I don’t want to have to adjust my relationship with you now that you have changed and grown. Can’t you stay the same, so I won’t have to accommodate anything new about you? It takes effort to deal with the growth of another person. The relationship is different now.
I’ve heard that a biological principle of organisms is that if they are not changing, they are dead. So it would be cruel to expect you to stop growing and changing, just so you won’t rock my boat. It also means that I have to expect my faith to grow and change; otherwise it is dead.
We can’t stop other people from growing. Mary couldn’t stop her son Jesus from listening to his inner voice.
We can stop ourselves from growing. Stick with your third grade Sunday School stories or your confirmation lessons and expect it to serve you throughout your life. Which it won’t. When it doesn’t, then what? Do you settle for confusion, tamp down your doubts, get comfortable with despair? When your yellowed, brittle memories of Bible camp can’t accommodate the grief and the anger of today, do you think you have to accept that that’s just the way it is?
It is even more problematic to keep Jesus himself in a freeze-frame of his birth, not allowing him to become a twelve-year-old who asks uncomfortable questions, or his adult self with his radical challenges like turning the other cheek and feeding the hungry. The Jesus who knows who you really are and invites you to a living, growing faith in real time.
I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to settle for faith you have outgrown. God invites you to more spacious faith, more love, more aliveness. It is seldom found during the worship hour on Sunday morning. It cannot be scheduled or mapped out. Instead, it is usually discovered in the dark times if we are willing to loosen our grip on the past and step into the vast welcome of God’s presence waiting for us right…over there. God’s love is felt personally and intimately when our hearts are open, at the time God knows we need it.
Sometimes we see the hand of God most clearly in retrospect. Mary “treasured these things in her heart,” we’re told. She took time to look at the things that happened, to try and detect God’s hand at work in her life. Did she recognize that Jesus was growing into his mission, once she got past her panic and anger?
Our doctrines and religious habits have served us well, to create a framework in which to develop our understandings of God. But the doctrines and habits are not God. They are not even faith. Faith is alive, and breathing, and changing all the time, because that is what life is like, and life is where God is. The Spirit moves freely, in each of us and all of us. Often in spite of us. Thanks be to God.
A Way in a Manger
Tatya was a sweet girl, a typical teen with plenty of homework, friends and text messages. Her parents were model citizens by all appearances. They were almost too busy to recognize Tatya’s increasing silence. They noticed that she was more withdrawn, but they thought it was a normal teenage thing. They hoped it was just a phase.
Tatya herself couldn’t put her finger on the problem. There was just this…emptiness. It was hard to get up in the morning, and it took every ounce of her energy to get herself dressed and off to school. She didn’t care about her classes, even creative writing with her favorite teacher. Then Jose got assigned as her lab partner. He was quiet like her, and nice. They started sitting together at lunch, and within a week they were inseparable. Jose was funny in a shy sort of way, and Tatya liked that he was different from anyone she’d ever met.
Mom and Dad were happy that Tatya seemed more happy, had more energy. Jose’s family was Catholic, they didn’t mind that. They seemed serious about their faith. The kids never stayed out past their curfew, and Jose treated Tatya like a queen.
Then it happened. Tatya started losing her appetite, missing school because she felt sick. Mom was suspicious, but didn’t dare entertain the thought until one day she couldn’t ignore it any more. She confronted her daughter, and Tatya tearfully confessed that she was pregnant.
Their family would never be the same after that. Accusations were hurled, doors slammed. Silence hung heavy for hours, then more bursts of anger and cries of anguish. Tatya would not consider abortion an option, and her parents agreed. She loved Jose, and she loved her baby. Eventually the arguments lost their steam, and acceptance settled over them. Anticipation, even. By the time little Joey was born, both families were thrilled to see the baby. Tatya’s parents provided room in their home for a little one. Jose’s family helped support the baby. The young couple wasn’t sure if they had a future together; it would take time to figure that out. Meanwhile, baby Joey needed lots of love, and he got it.
A baby changes everything. Whether born into a stable home or as a feature on the old reality show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” a helpless infant reminds us what really matters. A new life forces us to rediscover how much we can care and nurture. We change the object of our focus to the needs of a small child instead of all the other aspects of our lives that demand attention. This is what life is all about, we tell ourselves. The baby is worth whatever it takes to protect him and provide for him. Our hearts are captivated by a tiny, wet, innocent baby. We shake our heads and smile, and admit that life is good when it’s all about the baby.
At Christmas we celebrate Jesus who came into our world like that. He was a vulnerable, hungry, sleepy little infant cradled in his mother’s arms. The baby was Joseph’s top priority, and he managed to get Mary a warm, dry place for the night, even though it was among the livestock. What a night for Mary to go into labor! What a strange way for God to appear.
One way of thinking about Jesus is that he came to set things right in the world. You would think that in order to do that, God would make an appearance in a way we could understand—as a mighty warrior king. Powerful, commanding, authoritative. The world needed a firm hand back then. The powers that kept shifting through political schemes and military battles could have been instantly quelled by a show of God’s spectacular strength. Then they would know who was in charge, once and for all.
But God wouldn’t compete for attention like that, with something even louder or more forceful than our own methods of control. I grew up in a large family with five siblings. Mealtimes could get pretty noisy. As the second to the youngest, I had a hard time getting anyone’s attention. I certainly couldn’t holler above the voices of my older brothers and sisters, and that was frowned upon anyway. So I took to quietly tapping my neighbor and then whispering in their ear, “Pass the salt.” It worked; my quiet method of communicating was noticed, at least by one other person, and I got what I needed.
God sent Jesus in the most unassuming, humble, quiet way that demands a different kind of attention than the noise and force of a busy, sometimes violent world. He overturns our understanding of what God should be like to show us how God operates: through the poor, in the quiet, almost hidden. It’s as though God prefers to come in the back door instead of the front.
God’s way is reflected in the song of Mary we read in Luke 1 this morning: “[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
A baby reminds us what is important, and that is what Jesus did. Babies don’t care if we are rich or poor. They don’t know anything about reputations, beautiful homes or sculpted bodies. Babies ask only to be cared for and accepted as they are. They teach us to love simply by loving us without condition. If you think of it, Jesus does that too. He simply asks us to accept his love, accept him as he is.
And of course our innocent little ones aren’t always so innocent. They start knocking over each other’s blocks and pinching their little brothers. They get bigger and cheat on tests and wreck the car. They demand a different kind of attention. Kittens grow up to be cats, they say.
Jesus grew up too, but the message we get from the manner of his birth didn’t change. His birth signaled God’s way, different than that of the respected religious leaders of Mary and Joseph’s time. They emphasized purity and strict obedience, while Jesus grew up to focus on forgiveness and grace.
His way was different than the Roman way too, that of enforced oppression and containment of the masses. It seems that wealth and political power were coveted as much back then as they are today. Jesus insisted that the force of God’s love is made perfect in weakness. He showed how God’s goodness is reflected in humble personal relationships, over time. Jesus’ way is never in a hurry to prove itself.
In order to show us his radically different way, the way of love and mercy. Jesus came into the most vulnerable situation: an infant in a common, working family scraping to get by, subject to the whims of the Roman powers. He asks us to meet him there, not in the temple or the state house. He came in the same way he wants us to follow him, where it is messy and human and often inconvenient.
Maybe his way involves loving your annoying sister-in-law or being patient with the slow progress of your child. It could mean giving in on a longstanding dispute, purposely trying on powerlessness as an act of love and humility. Or standing firm for those who have no voice. In other words, making his way your way, in your own life right now.
There is one other aspect of Jesus’ coming that is easy to overlook. In this season, we have come to think that generosity is God’s way, and that is true. God gave us the greatest gift in Jesus. But Jesus came and also intentionally received from us—from humans—the whole time he was growing up and even sometimes in his ministry. He let his mother Mary raise him. He let his friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus fill his need for friendship and comfort. He enjoyed the friendship of his disciples and sometimes made jokes with them.
We are invited to be givers as God’s people, but giving can also be a position of power. Jesus shows us how to have less control for the sake of more love. His way sometimes means we listen to others and learn from them, even though social or educational or financial status would dictate otherwise. Jesus sees what everyone has to offer and blesses it, blesses us. And he asks us to do the same for each other.
A baby changes your focus for good, if you let the experience affect you from the inside out, like Tatya’s and Jose’s families. It changed Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and Elizabeth. It changed the shepherds and the magi too.
The Christ child demands our focus. Nobody has to tell us “what Christmas is all about.” It’s all about Jesus. The trick is not to discard the infant after Christmas, as you might toss the Christmas cards into the trash. To turn your attention from the noise and demands of popular culture often enough to hear his message of love. Let your heart be moved by Jesus on his terms, in his way.
God did not come to a world that was expecting a baby. It was a messy, obstinate, power-hungry world then, and it still is today. It is a world of chaos and disappointment, greed and violence. We see it in shootings and political standoffs. So many in this world continue to suffer from lack of resources. We are desperate for peace, for well-being, for some idea of what life is about.
And so God calls us to come away to a cow shed, to a makeshift nursery. Our gaze is drawn there to a baby, the Son of God himself bearing God’s unmistakable message of love. Go and find the nearest baby and let Jesus teach you his way, the way of love, the way to life.
Learning to Sing God’s Song
Luke 1:46-55…Advent 4C
Strange things had been happening to Mary. The odd sense that something was about to happen, and then that shining, winged creature visiting her without waking those beside her. Hours of anxious waiting for secret meetings with Joseph, their urgent whispers of disbelief and fear. Her heart in her throat as she tried to act calm, asking her parents for permission to visit Elizabeth; her mother’s disgust at such an unnecessary trip, but her father’s quiet observation, and then reluctant permission granted.
Mary found her way through the streets of Jerusalem, carefully following the directions she had been made to memorize until she could have recited them in her sleep. What a relief when a familiar face opened the door. Elizabeth stood there, looking younger than her years in the glow of pregnancy. First, surprise at seeing Mary, then her trademark smile, then a closer look at her young cousin. What Elizabeth saw evoked a beatitude for Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Lk 1.42b-45)
All of the tension of the past weeks fell away from Mary as the words washed over her and she wanted to dance. She felt a song welling up inside her and heard herself singing…
Sing out my soul,
sing of the holiness of God:
who has delighted in a woman,
lifted up the poor,
satisfied the hungry,
given voice to the silent,
grounded the oppressor,
blessed the full-bellied
and with the gift of tears
those who have never wept;
who has desired the darkness
of the womb,
and inhabited our flesh.
Sing of the longing of God,
sing out, my soul.
She was singing about herself, surely. She was the lowly one lifted up to be the mother of God’s special son. She was poor, but God would fill her needs. She was the timid one who would be given a voice, right? But then why did so many people enter her imagination as she sang? Images of slaves running free, of kings limping and bearing broken crowns, of bedraggled children feasting?
What began as a personal song of joy had become a song of revolution, and it would give Mary plenty to “ponder in her heart” in the months and years to come. Yet the lyrics were not so foreign. They were strangely similar to one of the songs she had learned and sung many times in the circle of family and friends. She wondered why her song was so much like the song of Hannah:
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:7-8)
Hannah’s was only one of many songs in Mary’s repertoire, songs she could sing with her friends any time they worked together in the field or rested around the evening fires. Songs she knew so well that she often hummed them without realizing it. Songs and stories filled the hours and lightened the labors of all but the most stoic people of her village. They were more than entertainment. This was the communal repository that gave them their identity, fortified them with hope, and saturated the children with the faith that would serve them well into their future. Mary learned to sing God’s song simply by being one of God’s people.
But now this. Hers was a new song. It was a song of assurance she would often sing under her breath in the coming months, to give herself and her beloved Joseph the resolve they needed. It was a song of hope for her people, even for those who would belittle her, for those friends who would abandon her, for every person who averted their eyes as she ran her daily errands. They did not know that the child she carried would one day be their savior.
It is amazing how God uses music to give us hope, and joy.
Several years ago, when my husband and I first considered whether to be involved with The Luke Society in Mali, I realized I needed to brush up on my French language skills. I found out that there was a French woman living in Terril who was willing to tutor me. In our conversation one day, Patou mentioned that she had been to an event at the Clay County Fair, and it impressed her that before each concert, and before sporting events, we Americans all stand up and sing the national anthem. I guess they don’t do that in France.
We take it for granted, but for her it was inspiring. She observed a company of citizens united in patriotism. I suppose it does something for us, too, as we sing “The Star Spangled Banner” each time. It helps us keep our national loyalty and unity strong, don’t you think?
The same is true for the songs we sing in worship. We sing not only to praise God and to give voice to what we believe; the music actually helps us to keep believing. And as we repeat the same ones over and over, our children are learning songs too, the hope God gives us ringing in their ears.
The message of Mary’s song is not appreciated by everyone, for it is a prophetic song, a song of revolution. The low will be lifted up, but the powerful ones will be taken down.
I wonder, though. We might think that this is all about switching places. The rich will become poor, and the poor become rich. The oppressed will be freed, and the oppressors will be imprisoned. We could get a sense of comeuppance, or even revenge.
But what if it is more about things evening out? After all, the shalom, the well-being of the kingdom of God is about everybody having enough. The wealthy do not need to be completely impoverished for the poor to receive what they need.
Lest you start getting nervous that I sound like a socialist, well, a label like that doesn’t have to launch us into political debates. We’re simply talking about the way things were meant to be at the creation of the world.
The confirmation students learn about the history of God’s people in terms of manna and mercy, God’s good gifts provided to each one fairly. Manna was given to God’s people in the desert, exactly enough for each person and not a bit more. Mercy, too, is offered to everyone. We need both to live. We need to avoid greed so that everyone can have enough. The people who are big deals have no business hoarding more for themselves, not the way God has set things up. God wants every one of us to thrive, to have enough, and not to be weighed down with too much.
And Mary’s song is about that. It is good news for the poor, but also good news for everyone if justice is applied and all have enough.
On Friday I visited Marvin Pearson at the Prairie View Nursing Home in Sanborn. I asked him if I could tell you about it, and he said of course. He says hello to all of you, by the way.
I read the Magnificat from Luke 1 to Marvin in the process of giving him communion. He has been feeling low, coping with health problems and the inevitability of being cared for by others. But Mary’s song lifted his spirits, and he asked for the reference so he could go over it again later.
We also talked about his new electric lift chair. The old one wasn’t working, so he asked the maintenance man about it. Well, the man said, it works if you jiggle the cord. “Jiggle the cord?” Marv said to me in disbelief. “How did he get to be a maintenance man? You buy a new cord, or a new chair.”
Marvin’s chair is literally for getting him onto his feet, for lifting him up. It made me think of the many songs we hear all around us, every day: songs to sell us gadgets, songs to create a “Christmas spirit” (whatever that is), songs to soothe us or make us nostalgic. Many of them do nothing to lift our spirits, to raise our sights to God’s goodness, to give us hope—not even if you jiggle a cord! God’s song is often mixed in with the rest.
The song in Mary’s mouth lifted Marvin up, and it lifts us up. It gives us hope, because it says that God sees us when we are low, or even if we think we have it all together.
I sang some Christmas carols for Marvin too. We both appreciated the wonderful words of hope in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “O Holy Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” These songs celebrate Jesus coming to give us hope, light in a dark world, provision for the poor, and freedom for those in chains.
I was reading the nativity story to my granddaughter last Monday afternoon. When we got to the page showing Jesus in the manger, she broke out into “Away in a Manger.” (It’s been her favorite song for the past year.) I started to turn the page after the first verse, but she wouldn’t let me go on. She had to sing the second verse, then the third. She wouldn’t let me continue the story until she had sung the song of joy from her heart. It made my heart sing too.
We help each other learn God’s song, you see. Little Rydia helped me sing the song of celebration in a quiet moment together. Marvin helped me sing the song of hope on Friday in his room at a nursing home. As we sing the words of the hymns and praise songs each Sunday in this place of worship, we are not just following tunes and lyrics to pass the time. We are singing the songs of hope in a world that needs to hear and to learn God’s song. We give strength to one another as we sing together. We sing not only because we believe, but so that we will continue to believe. God puts the songs of hope in our hearts, and no one can take them away. Thanks be to God.
 Janet Morley, “A Eucharistic Prayer for Christmas Eve,” in All Desires Known, expanded edition (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse Publishing, 1992), 48-49.
Advent Gets Personal
Luke 3:7-18…Advent 3C
All around us the stores and schools and everyone else seem to be celebrating Christmas already. It’s understandable; we can’t do it all on December 25. But in the church we are still in the Advent season, when we are looking at the scriptures for ways to push back the darkness. Not only is December the month with the shortest days in the year and hence a lot of darkness, we also huddle in our homes where, if we’re lucky, we see a little more of each other.
We can also see more of ourselves in these times. There we discover darkness as well, the shadowy recesses of sin and sorrow that are easily hidden with a little ingenuity.
The hope of Advent is that the light is up ahead. We can see a glow just over the horizon, and if we’ve been paying attention to the Christmas specials and cards we’ve received, we can imagine what is just out of sight. It must be a nativity scene, where we can creep up silently and bask in the soft light shed by the haloes encircling the heads of the holy family, and the mystical beams of luminosity emanating from the manger. Once again we will experience the magic and mystery of the incarnation.
But wait. As we get closer, we realize that the light is coming not from a stable, but from a fire. And there is a crowd gathered round, a mixture of farmers and soldiers and women and tax collectors and children. For some reason, they seem enthralled by a hairy fellow who is ranting about repentance and waving his axe in the air for emphasis. This is not a scene you’ll see rendered in counted cross-stitch, adorning the mantles of Christians during Advent.
In order to get to Christmas, if we are following the lectionary texts, we have to pass John the Baptist on the way. And he is not one who can be easily appeased or ignored. It seems that, in the midst of our steady diet of warm, fuzzy Christmas goodies, comes a bitter pill. We must confront John, the one hand-picked by God to get people ready for the Messiah.
It seems odd. John’s ministry happened 30 years after the birth of Jesus. What is it doing on the list for December next to all those texts about rejoicing?
I think the reason is that it would be dangerous to go without it. Without the preaching of John, we would have a perspective on the incarnation of Jesus that would be far too broad, and consequently, meaningless. We can discuss Jesus’ birth in terms of his accommodation to our needs. He came as a human, as a helpless baby, to identify with humankind, among other reasons. We often talk about his purpose for coming to earth, the angels singing “Gloria,” etc. because the way has been made clear for us to come to God. And thus we can keep it all in the realm of theology and creeds, at arm’s length along with the presents and decorations and programs we have carefully arranged in our annual ritual.
But John won’t let us get away with that. Maybe that’s why God picked him—he was a sharp one, and he wasn’t easily fooled. We might want to celebrate God redeeming the whole lot of us. But John gets in among us and peers into the eyes of the one least wanting to be noticed and says, “What about you? Are you really one of the redeemed, or are you just trying to sneak in for the ride? Don’t tell me you are a descendant of Abraham, whether you’re the Old Testament type by blood or a New Testament version by faith. Show me your lifestyle, and I’ll tell you if you’re serious about it or not!”
See, John helps us examine ourselves during Advent. You might not think that’s what you signed up for, but no one gets out of an interview with John. He’ll help you ask yourself some questions, like: “Does God’s coming make a difference in my life? How can my neighbors, my kids, my co-workers, my fellow students tell that I am a follower of Jesus Christ? Do they see Jesus coming when I walk down the street? Am I good news to the discouraged; do I share my goods with the poor?”
If God’s coming is not seen in us—in the way we live unselfishly—John says we are in the way, not on the way, and we might as well let the fire burn us up completely for all we’re worth to the kingdom of God.
Strong words there. We like to think of Jesus as a sweet, tiny baby. Instead, John moves us fast-forward all the way to Judgment Day, where Jesus is working up a sweat bringing in the harvest. Like the Ghost of Christmas Future showing Scrooge the bleak outcome of his miserly ways, John shows us how we might end up like the chaff that gets swept off the floor and burned. The good wheat is safely in the bin, but we could be caught off guard, doomed for eternity because we happened to dose off during the repentance sermon.
Whew! It’s no wonder this judgment talk has become so unpopular these days. Better to avoid those images of fire and brimstone, or we’ll never get more people to come to church.
But if we pause long enough by John’s campfire, we can understand why people didn’t run away from his harsh words. For some reason the people were ready to hear what he had to say. They needed what John had. The call to repentance—surprise!—did not turn the people off. In fact, they wanted to know specifics. How do we bear this repentance fruit?
John didn’t disappoint them. He said it all boils down to how you see your stuff. When you look at your closet, do you see shirts that other people really need more than you do? When you put a price on the goods or services you sell, do you try to make it fair, or do you see how much you can get away with? Are you content with what you have, or do you always have catalogs marked with the next items you plan to add to your collection? How high does your pile have to get before you call it enough?
I know this makes us uncomfortable, but only because we tend to think of repentance as one more obligation, a straining toward the goal of righteousness. Repentance is not, however, a moral tune-up so we can prove something to God. Instead, it is transformation that God brings about within us. “It was never Christ’s purpose to bring about self-improvement…the Word became flesh so that the same amazing life that broke into the world when Jesus Christ was born actually becomes realized in our own lives here and now.”[i]
If John wants us to become holy in preparation for the Lord’s coming, then we need to understand what holiness is. It is not a personal achievement. It is not something we add to our stack of possessions and responsibilities. Instead, it is an emptiness we allow within ourselves. It is space for God to live and to work, and where God’s fire and light can have an impact on both us and others without impediments.[ii]
When the light of God shines on us, we can be honest with ourselves. The persistent light forces us to see what has to go. The fire of God’s presence burns away the unnecessary. We are freed from being held back by our pet ideas, our sin, and our stuff.
The child in the manger will make demands on us, and John tells us we might as well get ready. I like how Brennan Manning puts it: “All the Santa Clauses and red-nosed reindeer, fifty-foot trees and thundering church bells put together create less pandemonium than the infant Jesus when, instead of remaining a statue in a crib, he comes alive and delivers us over to the fire that he came to light.[iii]
Fortunately, John also tells us that the infant Messiah comes as a package deal, with the Holy Spirit included. Jesus calls us not only to receive and live out the righteousness he offers, he also provides the Holy Spirit to make it happen. He makes the Word germinate in our spirits, and by God’s grace we grow and produce fruit that is abundant, with plenty to share.
As the light of God approaches, we find that it is brighter and hotter than we expected. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that God’s coming is “frightening news for everyone with a conscience.”[iv] Indeed, we become much more aware of our sin when the light of God’s holiness shines upon us. Yet it is not a light of judgment for the children of God. It is a light promising forgiveness and contentment, joy and peace for all who get in line for the baptism of repentance.
It’s obvious that neither John nor I would encourage you to increase your purchases this week. But I do suggest one new item for your holiday season. Why not add the figure of John the Baptist to your nativity scene? If you can find something that resembles that eccentric prophet in the wilderness, you’ll be lucky. But God’s messenger will remind you that you can come close to the light and not be afraid, because God has done and is doing a true work of repentance in your soul if you allow it. He’ll be a sign for you that God just wants room in your life to live there. It’s no wonder we need John’s unexpected message to help us get ready for the Lord’s coming.
[i] Philip Britts, in Watch for the Light, Dec. 9 entry. Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing. 2001.
[ii] Ibid. December 20 entry by Brennan Manning.
[iv] Ibid., December 21 entry.
Luke 3:1-18…Advent 2C
Do you remember the story by Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol?” Ebenezer Scrooge is the stingiest, meanest man in town, with a “bah, humbug” for every person who greets him with holiday cheer. He is visited on Christmas Eve by three specters: the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future. That last one is really scary, because it reveals the dire consequences of Scrooge’s attitude. He will have alienated so many people that he will die alone and miserable, with no one even noticing his passing other than the paupers who steal his bedclothes.
We like the story because it has a happy ending. Scrooge tests the message and changes his ways. He buys food and gifts for Bob Cratchit and secures proper medical treatment for Tiny Tim. But I wonder, would the story be a classic if it ended at the graveyard with Scrooge wailing in despair at his mistakes? Not likely. Nobody likes a sad ending like that. Instead, we can handle the dismal chapter of the story because Dickens used it to change the hero and align him with everyone else to make a happy Christmas.
John the Baptist seems a lot like that Ghost of Christmas Future to me. He is a real historical figure, so it is even more compelling to find out whether his warnings had any effect. Advent is a time of preparation, so maybe he is a good one to help us get ready for Christmas, even if we don’t especially like the tone of his preaching.
There is no subtlety to the message of John. He puts it plainly: clean up your act, or you will fall victim to the coming wrath! Just in case we might not take him seriously, he throws in a few images to scare us straight. “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Regarding Jesus he says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Yikes! Turn or burn, we could say.
Unpopular as his message may be, John was hand-picked by God to prepare the way for Jesus. I’m not sure if God planned for him to speak quite so harshly, but such is the risk God takes in using human beings to do the work. And the people of John’s day actually showed up in droves to hear him, so he must have been doing something right. They came to be baptized by John, and they took heed of his warnings. They even asked what they could do differently now that they had decided to turn over a new leaf.
Here’s where we can believe John really was sent by God, and wasn’t just some kind of religious fanatic. He told the people to help the poor, don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t be greedy. That sounds like the sort of advice Jesus might offer. That sounds like good news, at least good news for the people who are poor, victims of false accusations and greed, and so on. Good behavior for Christians, who are expected to behave properly, and obey the Ten Commandments.
Does that mean we have to be good enough before God will accept us into the kingdom? This is always the sticking point when we read about John the Baptist. He preaches about repentance and forgiveness, but we can so easily conclude that if we act better, God will like us better.
Here are a couple of ideas about that. First, repentance seems to be not only a turning away from sin. It is a denial of self. A turning away from self-interest, relinquishment of my own desires for the sake of something God is inviting me to do. When the people asked John what they should do, John responded by telling each one to consider the needs of other people and share what they had. Don’t abuse the power that you may have over someone else, and give them what they need if you have the means to do that.
Which leads to the second idea: our repentance and obedience is not for the purpose of being saved. That is very clear in the Scriptures. It is by God’s grace through faith that we are saved. So why do what John asks? Why do what God asks of us?
I think if we follow the commandments of God, whether it is the Law given at Mt. Sinai to Moses or the teachings of Jesus that expand on those first commandments, we are accomplishing God’s work in the world. We are not on some self-improvement plan to make us good enough for God. We are agents of God to make the world a better place, a more welcoming, life-giving place. When we share our goods with the poor, they have hope. When we refuse to participate in economics or politics that take advantage of certain groups of people, we are acting like citizens of God’s kingdom, and those people get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom looks like.
Remember how Scrooge changed? He started sharing his wealth with desperate people, and the joy spread like wildfire. It didn’t just change him; it changed the world around him.
We do the good God calls us to do because we love God and the ways of God. We love the people God loves. We hurt the way God hurts when people are victimized. We encourage people who are in despair, we speak a word of grace and forgiveness, we look to the interests of other people above our own because that is what God’s people do. That gives hope to the world and witnesses to the love and reign of God. So then Jesus, who was called Emmanuel—God with us—is seen here with us and among us because we are willing to be God’s agents for the sake of the world God loves.
It is good that John preached about repentance, because we are easily distracted from this mission. We get involved in our own concerns, and we sin in our selfishness. We are walking away from Christ when we do this. If we repent—turn around—and walk toward Christ, we see the beauty of the Lord, and our eyes are opened to all those in need around us whom he loves.
No one says that this will be easy. It requires total surrender. We need to give up our own ideas about life in order to receive the life of Christ. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement. He is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—that is the only way out of a hole. This process of surrender—this movement full speed astern—is repentance.”
As you hear John telling you to repent, what is it that burns in your heart? What sin is hindering you from being all that God has made you and invited you to be? Why do you hold onto it so tightly? Are you like the boy who got his hand caught inside an expensive vase? His upset parents applied soap suds and cooking oil, without success. When they got ready to break the vase to release his hand, the frightened boy cried, “Would it help if I let loose of the penny I’m holding?” The sinful habits we don’t want to give up will cost us so much more if we choose them over God’s invitation to repent and choose the way to life. And it will cost other people too, because they won’t have the benefit of our generosity and love.
It’s not hard to see why we pay special attention to this in Advent. Jesus came into the world to make things right, to lift the fallen, to redeem us from our sin, to get God’s kingdom back on track. If we are interested in that, we walk toward the manger and away from our sinful selves.
When we heed John’s call to give up our own habits and desires, we are on that highway where the mountains have been cut down and the valleys have been filled in. It’s a level path that allows us to see Jesus coming to us in love, with big plans for us and the rest of the world. Somehow giving up our own ways and getting involved in God’s plan for the world helps make that road ready for Jesus. The mountains of possessions and self-interest are removed. The barriers of hatred and oppression are torn down. The valleys of self-pity and regret are filled in with the love and grace of God, and with deeds of mercy that God does through us. Our crooked ways of avoiding God’s good plan for us are straightened out, and we see the way clear to the One who comes to us in love.
Last week we read how Jesus told us to lift up our heads when he comes again for us, because we are confident that he is bringing redemption to us. That is good news! Now we read John’s advice to give up whatever it is that keeps us from meeting Jesus on the road. More good news! Prepare the way for the Christ child who comes to love us and redeem us from our selfishness and sin.
The Difference Hope Makes
Luke 21:20-25…Advent 1C
“Starry Night” is a famous painting by Vincent Van Gogh that could be used to illustrate our gospel reading today in Luke 21. Jesus predicts fearsome events on the day of his second coming, events that involve an upheaval of nature itself. Van Gogh knew all about upheaval and dread. He suffered serious consequences of his lifestyle, which not only took its toll on his health but on his sanity. He painted the village of St. Rhemy as seen from his hospital room. The sky looks like an apocalyptic event.
It’s a hard passage to read. As a sign that Jesus is about to return to earth, there will be much distress among all peoples when the oceans and the heavens will be shaken by the hand that formed them all. The crowning moment, of course, will be when Jesus Christ comes “on a cloud with power and great glory.” It will far surpass any special effects that film technicians use to scare us out of our seats.
In the next breath, though, Jesus says that we should raise our heads and look up instead of being afraid. We can actually be confident, fearless, since it is the sign that we will soon be taken into the fullness of God’s presence, the “everlasting life” we have been promised as children of God.
Still, the passage from Jeremiah (33.14-16) is much easier to hear as we bake cookies and order gifts in preparation for Christmas. The “branch of David” will appear to carry out God’s plans for peace and justice. That sounds more like good news that belongs in a beautiful season. Though it still seems a bit strange to put on a Christmas card, it’s better than tsunamis and stars falling from the heavens.
Why do we read this stuff at the beginning of every Advent season? We are warned to be ready for Jesus when he comes back to take us to heaven. Don’t be caught sleeping, or carry a lamp that’s low on batteries, or oil, when the bridegroom arrives.
I suspect it fits in Advent because it is about looking to the future. If we are ever looking forward, it’s in December. The anticipation of Christmas is in the air for a month or two, at least as far as retailers are concerned. I’ve been baking cookies for a couple of weeks now. If we’re going to look ahead, we might as well give some thought to what’s in the future for us, not only in the manger, but beyond it into next year and into the greater ‘beyond’ of the next life.
We look forward to Christmas because it has such meaning for our faith. Without the hope that Jesus established for us both by coming to earth as a baby, and by overcoming death and redeeming us through the cross and resurrection, Christmas would be just an excuse to eat a lot and exchange presents. Christmas gives us hope. Yet it is not the only hope our faith depends on. We need both the hope of Jesus’ first coming and his second coming in order to have any hope at all.
We have hope both for our immediate future, and for eternal life, because of Jesus. His first coming was explained by the angel who told Mary she would bear a son. He said that this child would be Emmanuel, God with us. (Matt. 1:23) Jesus renewed that promise himself when he told the disciples God would come to them in the Holy Spirit. We have hope because God is with us now. This is the first installment on our hope, if that makes any sense.
But God’s plan wasn’t just to make us feel good while we are living on the planet created for us, and when we die it’s all over. Paul said it in 1 Cor. 15:19 when he was talking about our resurrection through Jesus Christ: “If for this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” The plan is for us to be a whole community dwelling with the Trinity eternally. We will be excited, not afraid, when Jesus returns, because God’s wonderful plan for us will be coming to pass.
Hope is crucial to life and to faith. Without it, neither can thrive. In his often-quoted reports of life in the Nazi concentration camps, Victor Frankl tells of prisoners who were losing hope of ever being released. They were apathetic, lying on their bunks, no longer motivated by threats of punishment or death.
In 1944, there was a rumor that the war would be over by Christmas. Weak and diseased men struggled to complete their tasks with new light in their eyes. Some could even be heard laughing. Hope had energized them.
But Christmas came and went. The war continued. In the week after Christmas those same prisoners died by the dozens. There was no change in the conditions at the camp. No disease befell them. They simply lost hope.
Another example: You’ve heard of the placebo effect. One group receives an experimental drug, and another group is told they receive the same drug, but it is an inactive substance. The drug’s effectiveness is questionable if patients who receive a placebo have similar results as those who took the actual medicine.
Karl Menninger proposed the theory that what the patients are responding to is not a drug or a non-drug. They are injected with hope. They begin to feel better as a result.
Hope makes a difference. People in extremely dangerous situations can survive if they have hope. Jerry Linenger was an astronaut who, in 1997, was only a month into a four-month assignment on the Russian Mir space station when a fire broke out. It was followed by a near-crash and an oxygen system that kept breaking down. They would have to endure months of waiting for rescue. Linenger and two Russian crewmates relied on hope to get them through.
So we can see that hope is vital to survival. We might think that only applies to drastic situations like concentration camps or space stations. But take away your health, your financial security, or someone you love, and hope instantly becomes critical. Even our daily work depends on some measure of hope that what we do matters, and that is a kind of hope too.
It’s important to point out what hope is not. It is not the same as a set of wishes. “I hope we get enough rain this summer.” “I hope my MRI shows no cancer.” “I hope I get a date for the prom.” These hopes are more accurately called wishes, and they are more about fear than faith. You wish for rain so the crops will grow and not wither. You wish for a good diagnosis so you will not have to suffer. You wish for a date so you won’t feel so lonely.
These things are important to us, but they cannot be a basis for hope. They are not dependable outcomes. One person said, “The hope on human brows is written in small letters.” Our wishes are a way of trying to control our future, so we won’t have to be afraid.
Real hope is trusting that something will happen according to God’s promises, not merely according to our wishes. There is a vast difference between the two. If your hope depends on the outcomes you wish for, you will surely lose hope many times.
God calls us instead to hope in Him. Trust the One who made you, the Christ who died for you, the Spirit who dwells in you, to lead you into the future without fear. God’s love will not change; by faith your future with your loving God is guaranteed and sealed by the cross of Jesus Christ.
Other ideas come disguised as hope too. We might think that hope means we deny reality. We might try to avoid discomfort and call that hope. The problem is, denial and avoidance actually keep us locked up in fear. We spend all our energy on pretending trouble isn’t there. That does not qualify as hope.
These fears that paralyze us are a symptom of distrust in God. You maybe never thought of it that way, and that seems like a harsh judgment. Let’s be honest about it though. Everything in life changes. Troubles are inevitable. People die. We die. We fear the loss of comfort, of security, of relationships. The question is: Are we going to live in fear of these inevitable events, or will we plant our hopes in the solid ground of God’s faithfulness? God will help us face those fears squarely with the knowledge that He will not lose His grip on us. God will show us the way through scary times. Of course we’ll struggle with the fear. We’re not good at trusting God 100%. That’s why we need God to give us the hope itself too.
If we let go of our fears, release whatever things or people we are clinging to as our source of security, we are able to open ourselves to God’s purposes. The time we spent in worry or denial can be given to the work God has prepared for us. We can enter the flow of God’s life. We find that we aren’t always staking our lives on something in the future, nor are we grasping those things we think will give us life. We recognize the frailty of our own ideas, the undependability of any person or thing to make us feel secure. Instead we wait on God and find God faithful. That is the basis of our hope.
So how does that help us to wait for God’s promises, whether they are promises for answers in this life or for eternal life with God? We have to acknowledge that our hope does not lie in anything we can do. It is not based on any ideas any human has ever cooked up. We have to stop looking for hope anywhere but in God. It is God who will mold our lives according God’s love and not according to our fears. We become aware of God’s real presence right now. We trust that the same God who is with us now will bring new things to pass, events that surpass our wishes. That is the radical stance of hope.
So there is the hope that comforts and compels us in this life. The other dimension of hope is the long range kind: the promise of eternal life. This far-reaching hope cannot be separated from this present hope. We could almost say they are intertwined yet separate, like the mystery of the Trinity. Knowing that we are loved beyond this world and moving toward eternal life with God motivates us now. It calls us to spend ourselves “for him toward whom we are moving.”
Jesus depicts events that are dramatic and frightening. We couldn’t bear the thought of them if we didn’t already know the Savior who will come on the clouds. Faith in him courses through our veins as the Spirit gives us life and hope. Jesus reminded his disciples in Luke 21 that everything else we might have trusted will pass away at the end. His words will not pass away. (v. 33) We can trust our Lord Jesus. He is the focus of our gaze, not any fearsome events in the present or the future.
Jesus lived among us. He knows firsthand about all the temptations and worries of this life that can distract us from the hope that is ours. Don’t let these things pull your attention away from the one who overcomes every trouble. If you let them, they will dominate your life and extinguish your hope. Then the Day of the Lord will catch you off guard, and it will be bad news instead of a welcome sight.
We hope together. Hope binds us to one another as God’s people. We are a community gathered around God’s promise. This is why we can encourage each other with promises to pray, promises to be present with each other through the hard times.
“[The church] is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us. In this way we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness. That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love even when we see hatred all around us. That is why we can claim that God is a God of life even when we see death and destruction and agony all around us. We say it together. We affirm it to one another. Waiting together, nurturing what has already begun, expecting its fulfillment—that is the meaning of …community, and the Christian life.”
And so, as we make our way slowly to the manger, we know that God’s Son who comes to us is the author of hope both for today and for eternity. He was, he is, and he will be with us, leading us toward the fulfillment of God’s great promises for us. Thanks be to God for the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ
 Plantinga, Cornelius, Jr., 1980. Beyond Doubt: A Devotional Response to Questions of Faith. (Grand Rapids: Board of Education of the Christian Reformed Church), p. 222.
 Set Borenstein, Associated Press, August 26, 2010.
 Plantinga, p. 221.
 Nouwen, Henri, 2001. Watch for the Light. (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House), Nov. 28 entry.
 Plantinga, p. 222.
 Nouwen, ibid.