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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.
The Shape of Us
Proper 18C…. Sunday between Sept. 4 and Sept. 10 inclusive
When you come to worship, what do you expect to happen to you? When you pray, or read the Bible or other material about faith, what do you expect to happen to you?
Does that strike you as an odd question? Maybe you do these things to honor God and learn more about God, to receive some comfort maybe. My guess is that sometimes in the process of doing these things, you actually feel something happening to you that you didn’t expect.
There is a difference between doing the activities of faith and actually growing your faith. The Bible texts we read today talk about growing your faith. We call this spiritual formation.
The word “formation” is key. God not only desires your obedience, your loyalty, and your worship. God actually wants to form you.
I was listening to a talk by Dallas Willard last week, when he made an important statement about how God wants to form you and me. He said that God is not primarily interested in you and me doing good things. God is far more concerned that we are the kind of people who do good things.[i]
Think about that for a moment. God is not primarily interested in you and me doing good things. God is far more concerned that we are the kind of people who do good things. It makes sense if you consider how you want your children to be as adults. I would love to see my children do good things of course, but I would be thrilled if they become the kind of people for whom doing good things comes naturally. Even people with evil intentions can do good things from time to time, but hopefully we as God’s people come to do them as a habit.
There are some great images about God forming us in today’s Scripture texts. From Psalm 139:
13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
Our original design is God’s delight. Isn’t it amazing to think that God cares for us like that from the very beginning of our lives? And we know from Genesis 1 that God somehow put the divine image in us. I could spend all day thinking about that. I am not a mistake, and neither are you. God made each one of us with intention and purpose. Our bodies are not an afterthought either. All of you, every part of you—your body, mind, feelings, thoughts, ideas, weaknesses and strengths, personality—every single part matters to God.
Then there is that image in Jeremiah 18:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
God was speaking to the whole nation of Israel here, but I think it is OK to apply it to our individual selves too. Each of us is formed into a different shape of body, personality, abilities, and so on. And from this Scripture we are assured that when we are broken or messed up, the divine potter can remake us. I’d like to show you a video about this.
What came to mind as you watched that video?
Finally, the gospel lesson is also about formation, even though it might not seem like it at first. From Luke 14:
27[Jesus said,] Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
There are other images in that passage about how following Jesus compares with our families, counting the cost of building, or considering the odds of victory in battle, but let’s stick with the image of rabbi and disciple today. Those who are disciples of a rabbi are expected to follow their teacher so closely that the teacher’s values and even ways of life would become the disciples’ own. The students would begin to act like their teacher. They would make the same moral choices, and see life in the same way. They would virtually take on the form of their rabbi.
So it occurs to me that you and I had better not follow Jesus if we don’t want to end up looking like him, talking like him, moving through the world like him. Caring about what he cares about, loving the way he loves. Taking on the form of Jesus. Paul says it in Romans 8:29a—”For those whom [God] foreknew [were] also predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son…”
I’ve also heard it said that we had better not follow Jesus if we don’t want to end up on a cross. Sobering. But at least we know what happens beyond the cross.
Finally, these ideas about being formed into the image of God and the image of Christ, being woven and knit together before we were born, and being formed like pots by the divine potter are all enough to keep us thinking this week about whether that is what we really want or not. We are given the choice whether to let Jesus form us as his followers.
But it occurs to me that we are being formed one way or another anyway. We get more of our shape from our culture than we want to admit. We let social media and TV shape our ideas. If you don’t think that’s true, just consider what you buy and how you see the world around you and how much of that lines up with what you read and view and listen to. We let our memories form us, both good and bad. We let our friends influence us. We run here and there to support our habits and our possessions. Sports schedules define family life. All these things can form us in some ways.
What or who is forming you?
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 were 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. He needed to show the good God intended for us all along.
This morning I’d like to focus our gaze on the priceless gift of Sabbath.
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.
When we treat Sabbath time as I believe it is meant to be experienced, we have 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 savor God’s many gifts in our lives. Time to get some perspective on what it is we do with the rest of our time.
This doesn’t mean we have to worship or pray all day long. God is present in every thing, in every time. God is delighted with our enjoyment of the world and the relationships we have been given for our well-being. Sabbath is time to look into the eyes of those you love. Time to talk, play, and laugh together. Time to pause and realize what it means to be human, beloved by God.
Because if we don’t, 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.
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 too many hours a week to make ends meet, 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 in the sacrament. I speak to you as one who has been 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. You can too. You can stop and hear the inner voices like the singing congregation in that little church on the coast of Italy, and answer that divine call to simply pause. It 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.”
Jesus Tells the Truth
Proper 15C…Sunday Between August 14 and 21 inclusive
When you read the stories of Jesus or hear them in worship, how do you perceive him? Do you have some images in your mind from your childhood? Perhaps a meek and mild Jesus, who eventually ends up bleeding on a cross.
The trouble is that Jesus was not meek and mild. He said a lot of things that made church people very angry. He accused them of getting religion all wrong, misrepresenting God and exploiting the people they were supposed to care for. He said their rules were not God’s rules. They were pretty sure they were following God properly. The people had been trusting them to do that on their behalf. These were the good guys, and Jesus rattled their cages. So they got him killed.
Jesus gets a little cranky in today’s gospel lesson. I sense some frustration in his voice. He has been teaching the same things over and over, and people just aren’t getting it. He has told them, “Trust God for everything you need. Share what you have with the poor; God will make sure you have enough too. Don’t follow the Pharisees blindly; they say one thing and do another. They aren’t interested in what God wants, only what they want.”
The people sensed Jesus’ authority and wanted to believe him. They kept flocking to him not only for healing but also because what he said had the ring of truth to it. But maybe they were afraid.
Jesus wasn’t afraid. He always said what was true, no matter the consequences. And he refused to be domesticated. “I didn’t come to make everybody feel good and agree on everything. What I’m telling you will create tension, because some people just don’t want to hear it.” That’s my take on it when Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
One problem with these verses is that when some people hear Jesus say, “‘I came to bring fire to the earth,” they instantly interpret this as God’s fiery judgment. Yessiree, they think, all you who have been sinning are headed for the fires of hell if you don’t straighten up!
But that is not the way Jesus has been using the image of fire in Luke’s gospel. Through John the Baptist we are told that Jesus’ fire will purify and refine, not condemn. It will bring out the best, burning away what is unnecessary and corrupt.
Jesus came to kindle a fire of change on the earth. He came to push the reset button on the ideas about God’s ways. His consistent message was about grace and love and forgiveness. He revealed God’s character to us not as a divine bookkeeper waiting to catch us out or some sadistic, trigger-happy warden who is eager to punish us.
Is that the kind of God you were taught to fear? That is not a God you can love. There are plenty of misguided leaders who urge you to love a God who only cares about obedience and purity, but that is not the God of the New Testament.
I can hear the wheels turning. “But what about sin?” you ask.
Try this on for size. Why would God not want us to sin? Why does the writer of Hebrews urge us to “lay aside every weight, and the sin that clings so closely”? Is it because God wants good Christian people to show off as trophies?
Think of it for a minute. What are God’s rules? Respect your parents, don’t steal, don’t destroy your marriage, don’t be consumed with envy, don’t kill or even have murderous thoughts. If you do those things, you will hurt people. Focus on me only, God says, not all those other idols that keep you running errands for them and don’t do anything for you. Stop working once a week to refresh your life and give thanks for all the good things I’ve given you.
Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful life? That sounds like what a loving Father would wish for his children.
Jesus boils it all down to love. Love God (who loved you first), and love each other. What a gift to have it spelled out so simply. What a God who only wants the best for us.
If you decide instead to be greedy and use people and lie and invade other people’s lives with your selfishness, people get hurt.
God doesn’t want us to sin because God wants everyone to feel safe and loved.
So when Jesus wants to bring a fire to burn away the greed and shame and everything else that hurts us, that should be good news. But it is not good news for the greedy, shameless exploiters whose power is threatened. Jesus’ insistence on forgiveness screws up the whole system of rewards and punishment that religious leaders need for their bread and butter.
What kind of world do we live in where love is bad news? When is the last time you heard the word love used in a political platform or speech? People who follow the way of love and even choose to give up their power as Jesus not only taught be did himself, these people are considered weak and stupid.
How interesting, then, that this is how today’s passage ends: “He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
How do we interpret our present time? We scratch our heads to figure out how to solve our society’s problems when the answers could not be more plain. We just don’t like them. Give up your greedy ways, Jesus says. Quit your practices that keep the poor suffering. Stop fighting and start loving. This is not complicated.
If you really think harsh judgment is what God is about, then consider this final word. God’s judgment is less about punishment and all about setting things right again. Turning this upside down world back to its goodness where people feel safe and loved, and everybody has enough. Getting rid of oppression and violence and greed that only end up killing God’s beloved people and destroy God’s beautiful world. The fire of God’s love will burn away everything that is itself destructive, and will preserve all that is good. Thanks be to God, for that is the world God invites us to live into.
For our prayer now I would like to lead you in a different kind of confession and forgiveness. I will guide you in a meditation, allowing some silence for you to listen for the Holy Spirit and observe what appears in your mind’s eye. Please take a deep breath, close your eyes, and join me in a season of prayer. (Leader: Be sure to allow long pauses between sections. It takes time for people to do this work.)
Picture in your mind the image of a burning fire, the fire of God’s love. What does God’s loving fire need to burn up in you? What is keeping you from loving? This can be called a source of sin in you.
Is it fear? Fear is usually about some kind of loss or
hurt. Let it go. In Jesus you will always be safe, because
nothing can touch the reality of God’s image and life in you. (Pause)
Is it the memory of some hurt that needs to be burned up? You have been hurt because you are alive, and pain comes to all of us. You are tired of letting that memory keep hurting you. Let Jesus burn it away and replace it with his love. (Pause)
Do you need to do away with some resentment? You have given power over to someone else’s opinion of you. Let it burn away and live as God’s beloved. (Pause)
Maybe it is the need to control that has to go. You will never have control anyway. It is an illusion that is cutting you off from joy and relationships. Let God burn off this useless thing. (Pause)
Let Jesus burn it all away with the fire of his unstoppable love. (Pause)
Now, let the waters of baptism flow in. Let them wash away any remaining ashes and soot. God forgives you. You are God’s beloved, alive with God’s life!
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.
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.
Proper 13C…Sunday between July 31 and August 6
What is it All For?
Robert Frank wrote a book about what he calls “Richistan.” This is his name for 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. It 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.”
I wonder how he planned to do that, to “be merry.” It begs the question of what makes us happy.
Will piles of crops, or money, or awards, or anything else make you happy? Probably for a while, sure. We must be honest and admit that money does provide us with choices and with access to many things for both life and pleasure. Nobody wants to be poor. It ruins your health and keeps you scrambling for survival. But for some reason, even if we have enough, we always think we need more. Whatever drives our addiction to more and more will never be satisfied. It’s the nature of the beast.
I suppose it depends on whether you see life from a position of scarcity, or of abundance. There are plenty of people with lots of money who can’t stop reaching for the next thing because they worry that they will not have enough at some point. They see what they don’t have instead of what is already theirs. Greed becomes their master. There are plenty of poor people like that too.
I know a family that operated instead from a position of gratitude. Leonard and Elsie were not financially secure for one day of their life. But when I went to see Leonard in his last days, he and I agreed that he was a wealthy man, because his family was devoted to him. Their love was a priceless treasure. They had their share of heartache and tragedy just like everyone else. Leonard was physically impaired after an accident early in their marriage. He found many friends around the world through his ham radio hobby. They worshiped with the congregation they loved in their rural community, and they raised their family as the Bible taught them. None of their kids made it big, but they made it home often.
Elsie died last year, having endured many months of ill health and pain. But she was stoic in her attitude and strong in her faith. I think Leonard and Elsie embodied what Jesus called being “rich toward God.” They operated out of abundance in the things that matter.
Money can fool us. It can make us think we are in control of our lives. The rich man in Jesus’ parable thought he had control over his future. Money made him feel secure. But he had no control over the length of his life, and his security was a fantasy.
Money can make us feel accomplished or worthy. Certainly in our culture, people with money are treated as more worthy. Theirs are the voices heard in the public square. They have influence in part because of their ability to hire workers and spend money in the local economy. But that doesn’t necessarily come with a life of purpose or joy. It has nothing to do with love, Jesus’ highest value.
I remember one afternoon when I was a nursing home chaplain. I wandered into the dining room, and there sat a man in his wheelchair, gazing out the window. He was muttering something to himself, so I had to draw closer to hear what he was saying. “What was it all for?” has asked the trees across the highway. His voice was filled with anguish. I knew that his wife had died just as they were planning to retire and enjoy the fruits of his considerable earnings. His children were estranged from him. That day he was seeing the big picture, filled with regret. His money provided him with no happiness at all.
“Set your minds on things above” Paul wrote to the Colossian church. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven,” Jesus said. What did Jesus treasure? People. Well-being and kindness. Loving relationships. You can’t measure those in the same way you can weigh your corn or tally your earnings. But it’s been my experience that numbers will never make you happy anyway. Achieve a goal and you’ll just set another one. No number on any scale, balance sheet, or report card will make you feel the love you want more than anything else.
That comes from God, and God has already given it to you. Thanks be to God.
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.
I think both of these viewpoints are making an assumption that is common: thinking that every story and teaching in the Bible is a blanket statement, usually a proclamation about morality. Either Mary is good or Martha is good, which makes the other one bad. We have to give God more credit than that. In many cases in the gospels, the Scriptures may simply be showing us how Jesus handled a particular situation.
In the case of Mary and Martha, there is more to their story. We revisit them in John 11, after their brother Lazarus has died. In that story, Martha shows a sophisticated perspective on death and resurrection, painting a different picture than the superficial, Suzy Homemaker caricature we sometimes infer from today’s story in Luke 10.
What if Jesus is simply making a statement about Martha’s mood that day, and Mary’s choice that was frustrating her? Let’s avoid giving this story too much weight with regard to personalities. These days we might call Martha “task-oriented” and Mary “people-oriented,” but that still doesn’t allow for the richness of their entire personalities. It isn’t that helpful to pigeonhole people into one thing or the other.
What we do know is that in this situation, 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. I’ll bet Martha would be a whiz at pie-baking if she were around today.
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 using their wealth to help other people. 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 this congregation too. You can ask yourselves: 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?
The busy-ness that distracted Martha is familiar to us. At least half the time, when people ask me how I’m doing, they don’t wait for an answer before they add, “Are you busy?” It seems to be the honorable way of life for us in our culture these days.
There is nothing wrong with living a productive, active life. But staying constantly busy means we live on the surface, rarely delving into the deeper, richer aspects of human existence. We even schedule our play and rest times as rewards for our hard work. When we take time to be refreshed, it’s for the sake of getting back to business again.
But the psalmist invites us to “be still and know that I am God.” (Ps 46.10a) Why? Because God is interested in the well-being of our entire selves: “heart, soul, mind, and strength.” We were created to love and be loved, not just to perform efficiently and produce as much as possible. We are meant to savor life in all of its richness, including relationships, beauty, experiences of joy, comfort in our pain, pride in our work, the reward of helping other people. That requires not just ticking these items off our list, but actually becoming the human beings God intended, to be able to do all of it with our full attention, with peace within and among us, with energetic love and compassion.
That requires what Paul calls in Romans 12, the “renewing of your mind.” Our actions—our busy-ness—that arise from our inner renewal have an impact because they have purpose. The object of our inner awareness is what drives us. What is going on inside you? God cares about that.
In the same letter to the Romans Paul encourages us to present our bodies as living sacrifices. He isn’t telling us to sacrifice our bodies for the sake of accumulating wealth or power or status. That is what so often happens to us. We find ourselves exhausted from running after so many things. Instead Paul tells give over our minds and our bodies in order to live out God’s purposes for us. And that purpose is to love, not impress people with a well-cooked meal or a well-stocked portfolio or even a clean field of beans.
Spiritual matters are not something we address one day a week on Sunday morning. They are not supplemental to our faith; they are fundamental. How we relate to God, how we receive God’s love and live in conscious gratitude to God shapes the way we spend our time every single day. Tending to the interior life seemed to come naturally to Mary, and Jesus wisely lifted up her example to her sister Martha.
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. 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.
Proper 10C…..Sunday between July 10 and 16, inclusive
The View from the Road
“So, let me get this straight,” the man said. “You have been saying that the whole law boils down to the command of Moses—love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—and the corollary in Leviticus, love your neighbor as yourself. But how do we know we’ve done it right? Can we at least define the people we are supposed to love? Who qualifies as a neighbor?”
As usual, Jesus didn’t give a clear answer. Instead, he told a story. (It’s maddening. If God wants us to follow the rules, why doesn’t Jesus just give them to us? But no. He tells stories instead.)
Suppose, he said, someone travels alone on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He hates to take this road that is notorious for its secluded sections where thieves and murderers lurk. But it can’t be helped. He has business to conduct in Jericho. He will take the money he has saved up to repay the loan to his creditor. It’s not enough, but he will beg for more time so his family can recover from the time he had to miss work for his wife’s illness.
Tragically, he is brutally attacked, robbed, and left for dead. Some time later he regains enough consciousness to feel the gravel under his swollen cheek, taste the blood in his mouth, and begin to grasp what has happened. He tries to move, but the pain of his broken ribs makes it hard to breathe, and he cannot move his head without throbbing, blinding pain. He hears someone approaching, but he cannot see who it is. One eye is swollen shut, and the other is buried in the dirt. He wants to moan, but that, too, is prevented by his fractured ribs.
As the man comes near, he can hear the gasp, the muttering, the hasty footfalls of the donkey as he prods it to hurry on. The wounded man realizes that he appears dead, because his breathing is so shallow that he must seem more like a fresh corpse than a survivor.
Time passes. An hour? Two? It is impossible to know as the victim fades in and out of consciousness. Footfalls close by awaken him to hope once again, but again, all he hears are the gasp and the hasty dance of fear and hurry.
Despair sets in. This is how I am going to die, he realizes. My wife will worry about me when I don’t return by nightfall. My children will be fatherless. My creditor in Jericho will think I reneged on the loan. My family will be destitute.
The sun sinks lower as someone else approaches. But this time, he hears someone land on the ground nearby, rushing to look more closely, appearing in his vision. A kind face, a look of worry. Questions, questions. Finally, the tender, strong arms hefting the broken man, apologizing for the pain of being laid on his donkey. The continual apologies as they have to hurry to Jericho before sunset, or they risk another attack.
And then the disbelief of being taken to an inn, laid on a bed, wounds washed, balm applied. The innkeeper coming in to say that he will stay there until he is healed, and can he notify anyone that he is here? The shock when he casually mentions that the man who paid for it all is a Samaritan. That scum! He was my rescuer?
“Who is the neighbor to the injured man?” Jesus asks. The lawyer cannot bring himself to say it: the Samaritan. An object of scorn. A half-breed who claims the promise of the Israelites but has no business pretending to be God-fearing.
“The man who showed him mercy,” is the obvious answer.
We often think of this parable as a reminder to help people in need. That is fine, as far as it goes. But that is not the reason Jesus told the story. The question was, “Who is my neighbor,” not “What does it mean to be good?”
Your neighbor, Jesus told the man, is somebody who shows you mercy when you need it most. Even if it is someone you least expect to do it. Even if it is someone you hate.
I suspect that other preachers have explained to you that Jews and Samaritans did not mix. There is a history there going back centuries, where Jews not taken in the exile intermarried with the locals in Samaria. When the exiles returned, they hated the Samaritans for the impurity of their bloodline and their practices of worship that were not considered the appointed locations acceptable to God. All this even though the blood of the exiled Jews had not remained pure either, and they had worshipped away from the temple in Jerusalem. Samaritans became the “other,” maybe even lower than other Gentiles for their audacity in claiming to share the same heritage and religion.
Who would have thought a Samaritan could have sympathy, extend mercy, go the extra mile to care for a man who scorned him?
Love him, Jesus says. He is your neighbor.
If we put ourselves in the story, it is always about being the Samaritan, not the priest or the Levite. But you are the victim, Jesus tells the lawyer. You are the one in need of help. Desperate. And the one who comes to your aid is the last you would expect.
Who is your neighbor? It seems you have to start with who your enemy is. Then imagine her being sympathetic to you when you are as far down as you have ever been. She actually cares about you. If circumstances allow her to get close enough, she sees you and offers to help you.
Or maybe she wouldn’t, but how do you know if you never get close enough to find out? Have you ever seen her with her grandchildren, with her dying sister? With tears of grief or pain? How do you know, if you never get past the resentment, the memories, the pain, and keep her at a distance? How easy it is to script someone else’s life and motives without really knowing them.
Sometime I will tell you about my friend who grew up in western Africa, and watched her mother take in the street children who had nowhere else to go. She inherited her mother’s compassionate heart and started an orphanage. Young women who find themselves pregnant in Muslim culture are in danger of being cast out on the street. I met one young woman whose baby died because she fainted from hunger and crushed him. So they leave their babies at the door of the orphanage, knowing that my friend Bibi will take care of them. What a hard choice.
As I came to know Bibi and sought ways to help, she told me her story. There is never any government assistance for her work. There are no such programs. She must rely on benefactors who hear her story. I learned that one source of revenue for a while was Mohammar Khadafi. I was horrified! How would any self-respecting American join in this effort and be linked with such a cruel man?
It’s hard to imagine our enemies having any kind feelings at all. They are evil! They would not do what they do if they have any heart at all.
I wonder if that is what our enemies think of us.
In the back of our minds, we wonder whether God really expects us to love the most evil, despicable people like Khadafi or Hitler. Even God has to have limits, right? How can anybody that seems incapable of compassion be considered my neighbor?
The lawyer cited Leviticus 19:18 when he gave Jesus the correct answer about what is written in the law. Love your neighbor. The word used for neighbor is synonymous with brother. So the assumption for any Jew could be that my neighbor is an Israelite. That is all the farther I need to go with loving and caring for others. It is nice to have it spelled out for us.
But Jesus consistently challenged those boundaries. No. A Samaritan is also your neighbor. He bleeds red just as you do. He loves his children. He worries about providing for his family. He is a human just like you. No categories, please. That’s not how it works.
Jesus did not seem interested in helping the lawyer justify himself. He told the lawyer basically that earning points for being good will not get you anywhere. Don’t see life as a checklist for being good enough. Showing mercy is what matters. The prophets have been trying to tell you for years, but you will not listen.
For some reason Jesus wanted the lawyer to put himself in the place of the victim in order to understand who his neighbor was. Understand what it means to be truly in need, so desperate that you will accept help from anyone, even your enemy. Then see your enemy as a human just like you.
I wonder if we also need to see things differently. Does Jesus want us to put ourselves in the place of the wounded man too? Is he telling us to stop seeing the poor and the victims as some kind of object lesson for our faith to grow? To really see them and know them, not pass by with our pious faith that is only concerned with our own spiritual destinies?
The wounded man could not see because his eyes were bloodied and swollen. He didn’t recognize the Samaritan who came to his rescue. The Samaritan refused to see his nationality or his religion. He only recognized his need.
But there were others who would not see because they did not want to see. The priest and the Levite looked away on purpose. Only yesterday I turned my eyes away from a homeless man by the side of the road, not wanting to witness his desperation, not willing to be touched by his desperation. I have helped sometimes, and so have you, whether it was a sudden encounter or a studied act of mercy. Do we go as far as seeing these people as friends? Are we willing to go the distance for their sake as the Samaritan did? Maybe Jesus is showing us a deeper need to love as he loves, and to receive love. Both need to happen to make neighbors of us.
Someone stands ready to help you. Don’t look at his nationality, or her religion, Jesus says. Look at their heart. There’s your neighbor, right there.
Proper 9C…..Sunday between July 3 and 9 inclusive
Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
When I read the passage from Galatians 6 today, my heart is full of longing. It’s so easy to hear the words of Scripture out of habit—with a sort of church-y filter—that we forget how profound it is. Paul had his work cut out for him to instruct the early Christian church how to live out their discipleship. This was a new thing, a new way of relating to God. How should they follow Jesus together?
He tells them to bear one another’s burdens, to not think too highly of themselves, to help each other get past their destructive behaviors, and to quit focusing too much on the Law. In other words, they were supposed to love each other as Jesus told them to do.
Here is Eugene Peterson’s take on it, in a few excerpts from The Message version of Galatians 6:
“Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.
“Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds!
“…let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.”
One of the things Jesus kept saying over and over was that he was showing and telling them what the kingdom of heaven was like. He seemed to be cultivating it among his disciples and getting them started on a new way of being in the world. He had to reboot the religion that had gotten so twisted into legalism that it created anxiety and fear instead of revealing God’s love to the world.
Some people call the kingdom of God “beloved community.” I’ve come to appreciate that way of looking at it. You can test this idea when you read the gospels. Is Jesus creating a beloved community through his teachings?
Even if that doesn’t ring true for you, part of Galatians 6 seems to be aiming toward that. How do we treat other Christians?
What is interesting is that Paul doesn’t provide simple answers or rules. In fact, Galatians 6 can be downright confusing. He says “bear one another’s burdens” but also “all must carry their own loads.”
Huh? Which one is it, Paul?
Isn’t it true that living in community is complicated? Sometimes we do need to help each other out. I’ll bet that is a way of life here in your little part of the world. Somebody dies and you bring food to the house. Somebody gets a cancer diagnosis and you pray for them. A farmer gets injured and everybody pitches in to get the crop harvested. You know how to bear each other’s burdens.
But there is more to it. This advice goes along with the verse it follows, in Galatians 6:1. “…if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.”
That is hard to do. Who wants to take that kind of risk? You’re afraid you’ll come off as self-righteous or condemning. Maybe that’s what the “don’t be tempted” part is about. But this is what it means to be the church. We have to do the hard work of facing our mistakes and helping other people deal with theirs. The key is focusing on forgiveness and restoration, not condemnation. Not purifying the flock, but healing it. That takes discretion and wisdom none of us has down pat, so we need the Holy Spirit to show us how to do it.
Most of the time, bearing each other’s burdens means just putting up with each other. I recently led worship at a church where an elderly woman came through the shaking-hands line and informed me that as a female I had no business being up front. It was a little startling, but not the first time it’s happened. The other folks weren’t horrified or apologetic; they just shrugged and said, “That’s just her.” I knew it too, and it didn’t bother me. At least she was up front about it.
But we do that for each other. “Geraldine has had a hard life.” “Manuel’s girlfriend just broke up with him. No wonder he spouted off in the meeting.” “Yeah, she’s got a mouth on her, but I was a teen once, and I was no angel either.” We make allowances for each other.
And sometimes we need to keep our hands off. “All must carry their own loads.” Some people’s problems really are their own, and it’s time they figured out why they can’t seem to shake them. Maybe you’ve tried to help, but it ends up prolonging their denial. If we help carry their burdens all the time, they won’t face the fact that those burdens are not worth dragging around any more.
It can be just as hard to refrain from helping as it is to help. This, too, requires the Holy Spirit’s help. You can always pray, because God is the only one who knows what’s going on inside us anyway. You can love them while they figure it out.
So this business of loving each other isn’t easy. Dorothy Day said that we know how to love each other in the abstract. We can love an idea or a cause without loving personally. It’s loving the people next to us that’s hard. (from “Meditations.”)
The gospel lesson in Luke 10 has Jesus sending the apostles, delegating some of the work he wasn’t going to get around to doing. What’s remarkable about that passage is how specific Jesus was in his instructions. He usually taught in parables or metaphors, making general pronouncements about love and confounding the Pharisees with his subversive ideas about the Law.
But here he tells them to go in pairs, don’t take along money or extra clothes. No training seminars or fundraisers first. Just go, Jesus said. Depend on the people you’ll be visiting to welcome you. Eat what they give you, and don’t make any special requests.
Go without a plan. That’s hard for most of us. It is especially hard when we want to reach people with the gospel. Isn’t there a strategy that works for this?
Plenty of people have come up with strategies. I followed a few of them in my younger years. But all they seemed to accomplish was making people feel anxious, myself included. I made the mistake of thinking I had to close the deal and get people saved.
It doesn’t sound as though Jesus expected that. It seems that he cared as much about his friends learning a new way to be with people as he did about tallying spiritual victories. See if you can be open to the kind of welcome other people are good at. See if you can develop a rapport and cross cultural or religious boundaries.
He also gave them a way out if people got testy. If somebody won’t accept you in peace but rejects you, he told them, it’s okay to tell them that all you got from them was the dirt on your feet and you will gladly give it back before you move on.
If you think about it, Jesus’ instructions sound a little like the Beatitudes. Be poor in spirit, be meek, keep a pure heart. And don’t be surprised if some people persecute you.
Whether people become your new friends or your new enemies, Jesus said, at least you will be showing them what it means to be members of the beloved community. “The kingdom of God has come near,” once way or the other. You aren’t pushy, you listen to people, you care about where their lives are headed. We act like the God who loves us and showed us just by being with us in the messiness of life. And in both cases—in the church and everywhere else—we are cautioned to respect personal boundaries and accept our own limitations.
As we begin ministry together, whether it lasts for a few months or longer, I hope what you’ll hear from me is that Jesus has a very simple agenda. When somebody asked him what tops his list for following God, he said all that matters is loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
I just finished reading a book by Bob Goff called Everybody Always. I recommend it. He is one of those people who doesn’t make excuses or procrastinate. He says, “we usually don’t need all the plans we make. Sure, plans can help from time to time, but planning to love people is different than just loving people. For some people, it’s easier to make plans than to make time. If this is you, here’s how to fix it: make love your plan. There’s less to write down that way.”[i]
I’ll tell you how I get past the impulse to plan or make excuses or procrastinate. Some of the excuses are based on my assumptions about people. I assume they don’t need my love, or they don’t deserve my love, for example.
Hogwash. Jesus never allowed for those excuses. In fact he made a point of reaching out to people that everybody knew were undeserving.
Jesus knew that everybody is broken. Every Christian, every non-Christian. Every farmer, teacher, mother-in-law, professor, waitress, child, and homeless person. Every. Single. One.
Which means everyone needs love. Jesus told us that is what matters. He wasn’t interested in sorting the good people from the bad people. He focused on healing, forgiving, showing compassion. Just love, Jesus says. I like how the great theologian Mark Twain said it: “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”[ii]
Get past the rules and spend your energy on what matters, Paul said in so many words. I think that’s what he meant when he said that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision mattered. Get over it, people.
And get past your ideas that being his followers gives you some special powers or makes you more right than somebody else. Jesus told his friends to resist the impulse to show off their authority over scorpions and demons. Just be grateful that God loves you enough to call you His children. “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven,” he said.
If we operate out of gratitude for God’s enormous love instead of comparing ourselves to one another or getting all anxious about evangelism, then we’re the kind of people Jesus can use. People will be blessed in our company. The kingdom of God comes near when we love as Jesus loves.
That is not too hard to figure out. That is what it means to follow Jesus together.
So. I can end the message here.
But that still leaves us in the abstract. I’m going to ask you to go one step further today. Think of one person, whether he or she is a member of your church, your town, or your place of work. One person whose burden you need to figure out how to share, or you need to stop trying to help and just pray.
Maybe the person who needs help is you, and you need to find the courage to ask someone you trust how to cope, how to move forward, how to do what you’re afraid to do.
Let’s take just a moment right now to let the Spirit show you a face in
your mind’s eye. If you are resisting
this idea, maybe you need to just sit quietly and be patient with the rest of
us. That is also an act of love. I’ll ask for silence for a full minute or
two, because it takes time to settle down and let the Spirit work. I will break the silence and offer a prayer
for all of us.
[i] Goff, Bob. Everybody Always, 2018. (Nashville: Nelson Books), p. 96.
[ii] Source unknown.
Proper 8C…Sunday between June 26 and July 2 inclusive
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
We love to vacation in Estes Park, Colorado. I go on hikes in the mountains with our friends, and Dean enjoys the view from our hotel. We often visit the Moraine Park museum, which has a treasure of information about local flora and fauna. I also take a wildflower book with me when I hike. Both of these resources help us enjoy the mountains to the fullest.
Imagine what it would be like if I only visited that museum every year, and never went up into the mountains. I would have a lot of information about them, and I would enjoy learning the information. Yet I wouldn’t experience the joy of being up in the mountains myself.
I thought of this while I was pondering Galatians chapter five. The law is a good thing. God gave it to us to show us what kingdom life is like, to help us understand how to love God and neighbor as God commanded us to do. In the book of Galatians, Paul explains that restricting oneself to following the Law, as if that is what comprises life in the kingdom of God, is a poor substitute for the fullness of life God offers us. It is like visiting a museum about the mountains instead of exploring the mountains on foot.
It’s usually not all or nothing though. We want to enjoy the abundant life in the kingdom, but the old Law keeps dogging us. We venture out, but we can’t quite loosen our grasp on the Law, worried that we might go off track and get lost or miss something special without that book to guide our way. I sometimes get too tied to my wildflower book and forget to just enjoy the colors along the way without having to identify each variety.
Here’s the deal. Not only do I have enough information to hike the mountain trails, but there is help along the way. There are signs to direct me so I won’t get lost. There are forest rangers who can answer our questions.
As God’s beloved children, we have everything we need to explore and enjoy the abundant life. We have the Scriptures to guide us. What is even more helpful is that we have the Holy Spirit. God’s life is shared with us as our own life! It is as though I get to have a forest ranger on the whole hike with me. So I am free to experience the blessing of the beautiful mountains without worrying about doing it right, and someone is with me to point out every beautiful thing and warn me about the dangers.
Paul says that we have been freed from slavery to the law. Now freedom is usually from something that restricts us. We are able to take our focus off the list of do’s and don’ts so we can follow the way of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is given to us within, so following is as natural to us as breathing.
We are freed from the law to something. In this part of Paul’s letter, he tells us to use that freedom to love our neighbor. Don’t just throw away the law and do whatever feels good in the moment though. Don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, or self-indulgence, Paul says. But through love become slaves to one another. (v. 13) Give yourself freely to serving one another. None of us wants to be enslaved by someone else, but we are free to become servants to anyone we please. And Paul says that, as children of God, that is what we want to do.
Grace is a force that cannot be contained, hoarded, or exploited. It simply must find more subjects to bless. Because we are forgiven and redeemed through the cross of Jesus Christ—as a gift and not because we can do anything to earn it—God’s grace is filling us up and spilling over into the lives of other people. That is its nature. It will not be contained.
Paul describes this phenomenon as the fruit of the Spirit. It is the life force that flows into us and through us, producing great blessing in our life together. So love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness or generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control naturally develop in us. It characterizes our life. Find these traits and God’s people are right there. Find God’s people, and they’ll have these things dripping off them.
What does this look like? I love a story I heard from J.R. Vassar this week. It is part of a talk about the Holy Spirit that the council members are listening to. He tells about his friend Neil, who cannot contain the life of the Spirit in himself. He was in a Waffle House one day when the cashier seemed to be in pain. He asked her what was the matter, and she said she had a toothache. He asked her why she didn’t go to the dentist, and she said she couldn’t afford it.
As Neil walked out to his car, and he said the Spirit basically told him, “You watch what I do to you if you don’t go back in there.” Whoa! So he went back to the cashier and asked, “Would you go to a dentist if I made an appointment for you and somebody paid for it?” “Of course I would,” she replied. So he got the number of the Waffle House, because she didn’t have a phone. He called the dentist’s office, and the receptionist asked how it was going to be paid for. Neil said, “You tell the doctor that the Light of the World is going to pay for it! Jesus Christ made this woman and he loves her, and he owns all things, and he is going to take care of it!” “Well, OK, sir,” the receptionist said, “but I’m still going to need a credit card number.” So Neil gave her the number of his own card.
The woman kept the appointment, and then Neil got a phone call. The receptionist informed him, “The doctor found her teeth in very poor condition, and he had to do oral surgery. In the process, he found some lesions at the back of her throat that turned out to be cancer. She will be treated for it. And the doctor just wants you to know, he is the light of the world too, and he will take care of the bill.”
The Holy Spirit produced faithfulness in Neil. And joy in the woman who had her teeth fixed! And faithfulness in the dentist too, for that matter.
I had an experience like this, on a smaller scale. My husband and I were visiting his brother in Mankato. It was a day in autumn, when we can’t be sure what the weather is going to do, so I took along both a jacket and a sweater poncho. I was wearing the poncho when we entered the restaurant, and a waitress complimented me on it. While we were having lunch together, I got the strong impression that I was supposed to give that poncho to the waitress. It was unmistakably a prompting of the Holy Spirit. How do I know that? The poncho was new, and I liked it a lot, so it wasn’t my idea to give it away. I’m pretty sure Satan doesn’t want to bless people either, so it had to be the Spirit, right?
Well, I obeyed. I folded it up and gave it to her when she came to check on our table. I told her that God wanted her to know that He loved her very much. She resisted, of course, but I insisted. Before we left, she came to me and told me that she had been having a rough patch the past few months. She had quit going to a Bible study just because things had gotten so depressing. But now she would go back, and she tearfully thanked me for showing her God’s love.
Before you get too impressed with me, you need to know that I have disobeyed more of those promptings than I have obeyed. But the Spirit was producing generosity in me this time, and I would not rest if I ignored what the Spirit was trying to do. And the waitress got to taste some joy fruit that day.
See, we don’t just obey God out of obligation, although it is our duty to obey. We don’t just help other people because we are grateful for God’s grace, although we are. The Holy Spirit lives in us, so we live as Jesus would if he were us. Joy, peace, patience, and all the rest simply flow out of us naturally.
The language in Galatians 5 can be misleading. Paul says “if you are led by the Spirit” (v.18) and “if we live by the Spirit,” (v. 25), but the original language suggests that this is not a choice we make. It is more of an explanation, and the NIV has “since we live by the Spirit.” It is because we have the Spirit within us that we bear these fruits. It is a natural outcome. The same is true with the language in verse 16. In the NRSV Paul seems to be commanding us not to gratify our lusts. But the real sense of the language is that because we live by the Spirit, we will not gratify those desires.
Is this always true for us? Our sin wins out so much of the time. My life isn’t always peaceful and joyful. I am impatient and greedy way too often. But that doesn’t mean the Spirit isn’t living in me. I am simply behaving contrary to the life of God within me.
When we act in opposition to the Spirit within ourselves, we suffer. We feel anxious, and there is tension in our attitudes. It affects our relationships. We are acting contrary to our nature as God’s children. So we get the opposite of the fruits of the Spirit, and what shows up in our lives is destructive: impurity, strife, jealousy, anger.
It is a struggle, to be sure. Lately I have been wrestling with the power of materialism and greed in my own life. I am tempted to buy things for myself that I don’t need. Not a big deal, we might think. You can be excused for that if you are a citizen of the U.S. We’re all about buying fun stuff, after all. But when we do that, we are using up resources that other people need. If I have money to spare, it can be at the Spirit’s disposal to help others. The fruit of the Spirit can flourish. So I need to let the Spirit grow self-control in me, and then even more fruit can be provided for people in desperate need. This is the work of the Spirit by the grace of God. We are weak, contaminated tools that God chooses to use to grow the kingdom for the sake of the world God loves. We don’t deserve to participate in it, but God lets us in on it because God loves us, and loves the people we will bless.
It is an adventurous life, this life in the Spirit. It is productive. But like mountain hiking, it is also hard sometimes, and we take wrong turns too. But we have the Spirit to keep us going, to give us energy, to show us the way. And it is far better than hanging out in a museum of good deeds or hauling around a ledger and a guidebook to keep track of everything. It is beautiful, and the fruits are delicious. It is the life God calls us to, and it is very good.
Proper 7C…Sunday between June 19 and 25 inclusive
Grace Without Asterisks
Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
“Never put a period where God has put a comma.” Have you ever heard that one? I kind of like it. It reminds us to be hopeful, that our present circumstances aren’t the end of the story. It’s funny that a reference to punctuation can give us a little encouragement for our faith.
Today I’d like to propose that there is another bit of punctuation that can remind us what God is about: the asterisk. It’s a handy little tool that can make you spring into action. When you see an asterisk, you know you have to find another one at the bottom of the page or the end of the chapter to read more of what the author wants to say about a specific detail. Sometimes it alerts us to exceptions. So you might write an explanation of high school graduation for students in another culture, and say this: “When students are finished with the 12th grade, they participate in a ceremony in which they walk across a stage and receive a diploma, or certificate, that serves as proof of completing 12 grades in school.*”
The asterisk might be used then to indicate that not every student actually receives their diploma this way, or goes through the 12 grades. There are exceptions, students who drop out of school and get their GRE, for example. The asterisk in this case indicates an exception to the general statement.
Sometimes I think we read the gospel and put asterisks in it without realizing it. Jesus tells us to help the poor, but we might subconsciously put a little asterisk there. Help the poor, except the people who became poor because they used drugs, or they were too lazy, or they committed a crime. Asterisks, conditions we put on Jesus’ commands.
Even though we make exceptions, whether consciously or not, Jesus doesn’t do that. It is his way to include people whom the rest of us would consider logical exceptions, people and circumstances that we think release us from the obligation to obey his law of love. But Jesus makes it clear that his grace is for everyone, with no asterisks, no exceptions. People might refuse his grace and take themselves out of the picture, but his invitation is for all people.
In today’s reading, Paul explains how the law and faith fit into the whole concept of his grace. He uses the image of childhood and discipline. Law was the disciplinarian, the guardian, of God’s people before Jesus came. It was like a hired nanny or tutor, who carries out the wishes of the parental master, getting the child to the point where she will be mature enough her own good decisions. Until then, she has to be subject to the guardian’s instruction and discipline.
A couple of verses before our reading say that before Jesus came, all people who were likely to sin (everybody) were locked up by the law. What’s the point of that? Imprisonment is used for various reasons. It can protect the public from the person in chains, like the Gerasene demoniac in the gospel story today. But it can also protect the person behind bars from the public. That happens on occasion. Yet another way of looking at it is that prisoners have to follow rigid rules, so they are also protected from each other. The law protects everyone from everyone else, we could say.
What’s important to note is that these are external limitations that are necessary when the subject can’t be trusted to behave properly. Immature children and criminals have that in common. Discipline has to be imposed on them.
But then God’s solution is to give us an internal guardian, a motivation to stay within bounds that comes from within. Jesus bore the punishment that we deserve for disobedience, for going out of bounds, for behaving recklessly. He redeemed us so that his Spirit can now live in us and create a new way of thinking, a new way of behaving, because we want to. It is an internal motivation. Nobody has to make us follow God’s way. We want to.
But we still get stuck on the externals. It’s not just the law that gets us hung up. We also form opinions about people by what we have observed in their behavior. Once a lazy bum, always a lazy bum, we think. Not only that, but we also have ideas about each other based on things we can’t even control: our race, our family background, our gender. We judge each other by what we see, by appearances or impressions, even prejudice.
Nobody wants to think they do this, but we all do it. If somebody walked into worship today with torn clothes, messy hair, smelling of booze, we would have a reaction to that. Some might think they don’t deserve to be here. Others of us would automatically assume they were down and out and needed our help. The truth might be entirely different. Maybe the person just spent all night trying to help someone else with a drinking problem, and it was rough. But we form opinions almost instantly.
The cross of Jesus Christ removes any external criteria for grace. What we do or how we look is not a factor. Paul said there is no more Jew/Greek dichotomy. And so the Jews who were considered God’s chosen people are now just one culture on a long list of God’s beloved. “There is no longer slave nor free,” Paul said. So the human constructs we have created to indicate people’s worthiness simply do not apply in God’s kingdom. There is no more male/female ranking among God’s people either. Paul uses Genesis language for this part. Male and female were both created good, and salvation through Jesus Christ restores that declaration: neither gender can lord it over the other.
The cross sets us free from these distinctions that divide and enslave us all. We are forgiven, redeemed, and made right with God. We don’t have to keep score or run errands for these matters any more. Instead we are free to have the mind of Jesus Christ.
So we are back to our verse of the month, Galatians 2:19-20. Let’s read it together again:
“I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. So how does Jesus see other people? I’ve gathered a few images of people Jesus encountered. In every case, he took them seriously and extended love to them without exception. (The Gerasene demoniac, a Samaritan woman, a leper, the woman caught in adultery, Mary Magdalene, the woman with uncontrolled bleeding, a Roman centurion, little children, Bartimaeus the noisy blind man, Zacchaeus the hated tax collector.)
Jesus did not see these people as their illnesses or their brokenness. Those problems describe people; they don’t define them. Jesus still sees every person today with love, so what they do and their appearance is simply not what matters to him. (A thirsty girl, and HIV/AIDS patient, a starving man, a Muslim…an elderly woman, friends of different races…a recovering meth addict). Oh, you might say, but Paul is talking about people in the church! There aren’t supposed to be any divisions among those who follow Jesus Christ. Okay. So if it is only about the church, then we need to embrace our brothers and sisters who worship very differently from us in western Africa, a former terrorist who now claims Jesus as his Lord, folks at a gospel mission, a Hispanic congregation.
Paul says more about this in 2 Corinthians 5:15-17: “And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
Because Jesus is our life, we no longer regard each other from the human point of view that sees only mistakes and takes a posture based on someone’s race or political views or sexuality. Jesus doesn’t tell us to love our enemies except if they hurt us too much, or they are a different race, or they don’t deserve our love for some reason that matters to us. He doesn’t give us permission to slap labels on people just because it’s easier for us. We like labels because we know where to place ourselves in the pecking order, and it helps us know how to act. Respect the ones above you; don’t give any mercy to those beneath you. Relax around the people who are the same as you. Except you’ll have to pay attention; you might step out of line and lose your place in the order. What a complicated life! What a prison. God wants to free us from such ways so we can love every person without conditions.
If Jesus did put exceptions on his grace, then all bets are off. Grace just wouldn’t be grace then, because any standard implies some are worthy and some are not, depending on whether they met the standard. So you could be on the outside, an exception.
Except you are not. The truth is that you are one of the whole human race that stands accused, every one of us as guilty as the next. Every one of us is the Gerasene demoniac. No? Well, we are reckless in the way we treat each other, like the dangerous possessed man. Maybe not as wild, but it is only a matter of degree. Just like the naked demoniac, our carefully constructed garments of goodness are stripped away by the judgment we deserve. And the cross restores us just as surely as that man’s demons were sent into the pigs and drowned in the sea. No longer do we need chains, because we are safe to live together. We follow the way of Jesus Christ, which is the law of love. We don’t need restraints of the law because his love is in our hearts. We are restored to our relationship with God and with each other. God trusts us to treat one another with love and respect, to protect the dignity of every person.
God seems to love variety. We are unique; we all look different. But it is not how we look that makes us equal in God’s eyes. It is the fact that we are all looking in the same direction. We all desperately need what Jesus gives us. We are all broken, all needy, all yearning to be loved in spite of our sins and in the diversity of our appearances. Yes, you are broken, and so are the people sitting next to you. We are all sharing the same leaky boat.
A major symptom of the disease of humanity is our propensity to rank each other, build walls of resentment, go to war over property and power and ancient grudges. Why do we spend so much time and effort and money on status and power? What is the point of it all, when we all are truly needy and desperate for love?
God just loves us all. Why? We don’t deserve it in the least. But that doesn’t stop God. God decided to make us all worthy—to make you worthy—through the life and death and resurrection of the Son, Jesus Christ. No exceptions, no asterisks. Just love.
Oh God, forgive us for conforming to the ways of the world, comparing ourselves to other people, condemning those who we think are cases you ought to consider unredeemable. Exorcize our demons of prejudice, fear, lazy attitudes, and lack of compassion. We have allowed them far too much power over us. Jesus, take their place. Give us your life in the place of our petty ideas of what constitutes life. Convince us that your grace is for everyone, even us. Amen
Hope That Won’t Disappoint
John 16:12-15; Romans 5:1-5
Holy Trinity C
About nine years ago, 33 miners were trapped underground in Chile. Maybe you remember how the world watched anxiously as technicians and engineers worked to rescue the men who were 2300 feet below ground and three miles of tunneled distance from the entrance of the mine. They were brought out not a couple days or a week later, but 69 long days after the mine collapse.
They survived because there were medical personnel and psychologists who tended to their needs and dieticians who sent food down the three-inch pipe that was threaded down to the rooms in the mine where they had found shelter. They were told how to exercise and keep a day and night rhythm to stay healthy. But the most important factor in their survival was hope. They were able to communicate with their families, who continuously sent messages of love and encouragement.
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday. The last thing that would be helpful to you is my attempt to explain the doctrine of a three-in-one God to you. I’m grateful for Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he talks about hope. That is something we have some experience with. And we will talk about how the Holy Trinity is at play in our hope.
Despair, or lack of hope, is about giving up, thinking there is no way out of your situation, no solutions possible. But our mistake sometimes is in believing that God has given up on the world. That somehow God has run out of answers and won’t rescue us from ourselves anymore. That is to imply that God’s patience can run out. But patience is a time-related word, and God’s story is not a time-story about deadlines or dates in history books. God’s story is about love, which isn’t bound by time at all.
The hope we profess and cling to is inspired by love. God embraces the world. We read Psalm 8 this morning, about the glory of God manifested in the vastness of the universe. The most amazing part is in the question: What are human beings that you are mindful of us, mortals that you care for us? Yet you have created us and put us right up there next to You, God. Not only that, you also gave us the world to use and care for in all its beautiful abundance. Wow!
Why would God do that except out of love?
The quintessential image of God’s love is the father of the prodigal son. You remember the parable of the young man who was impatient to get out from under his father’s authority. He asked for his inheritance ahead of time, virtually telling his father that he wished he were dead. The father grants his wish for some reason. The son proceeds to squander all his money on partying and finally ends up in the lowest position imaginable: feeding pigs. He realizes that his only hope is to return to his father’s estate and offer to feed pigs there, where at least his father might have pity on him and give him room and board.
When he limps home, his father is at his post where he has been watching the road every day since his son left. He can hardly believe his eyes when he recognizes his son, haggard and bent over as he is. He runs to meet him, hold him up and walk him the rest of the way. He not only settles him in his bed to recover; he also starts planning a homecoming party.
That is the image of God embracing all the world as it is. Just so, God goes to the periphery to meet all the people there, the ones who don’t fit into the mainstream, middle class ideal. The prodigal son was a lowlife, and God goes to them too.
That’s what the incarnation is all about: God becoming a human being in Jesus the Son, who insisted on hanging out with the rejects like the poor and the sick, foreigners and sinners of all stripes.
In the parable, the father takes the most expensive robe and the heirloom ring to that kind of people like his son the ingrate, not to the people in the center who are taking care of business along with the older son. We don’t appreciate the father taking what we expect to be ours and ours alone and offering it to…well, those other people.
But God invites us to come together, wastrel and responsible, native and immigrant, conservative and liberal, and calls us one. A big, messy, diverse church that follows Jesus together. A place where we struggle to understand one another, but where love drives us to work and worship together despite our differences.
The trouble is, God just won’t stay put. Just when we figure we have God figured out and things are more or less manageable, God goes rogue again and gathers in another group! Back and forth, back and forth God goes from what we consider the center to the periphery.
We don’t like all this commotion, but if you think about it, this is our reason for hope. Because a) we might be fooling ourselves about being in the stable, reasonable center (maybe we are the misfits) and b) God is forever with us in all of our back and forth too. We don’t stay put either!
We need to let go of our compulsion to nail God down to a set of doctrines we can memorize and use as a filter. Ideas don’t create hope; God does. If the Scriptures show us anything, it is that God comes to people in myriad ways, including a burning bush, a shepherd, a mother hen, a judge, provider, protector, helpless baby, quiet breeze, servant, king high on a throne or riding a donkey, fellow sufferer. When God told the people to build a tabernacle, God said it had to be portable, and God has been on the move ever since.
On Holy Trinity Sunday we admit that God is a mystery to us. These three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are not forever posing nicely for a doctrinal portrait. God is the relationship of those three. Relationships don’t sit still either. They are alive, and they change. Any scientist or farmer can tell you that if something doesn’t change, it’s dead.
God is dynamic, life-giving, guiding, cultivating, transforming all the time. Jesus told his disciples that he had revealed as much as they could handle at the time, but the Holy Spirit would go with them, help them learn and adjust and grow. Here is Eugene Peterson’s version of what he said in John 16:12-13: “I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now. But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is. He won’t draw attention to himself, but will make sense out of what is about to happen and, indeed, out of all that I have done and said.”
This is the God we hope in, the God who loves us now and always. Again I’ll borrow from Eugene Peterson as he describes hope in his rendering of Romans 5:1-5:
1-2 By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.
3-5 There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit![i]
Thank you, Rev. Peterson! You call hope “alert expectancy” for “whatever God will do next.” We don’t have to understand God to be excited about what God does. God is a mystery to us, but that doesn’t keep us from experiencing who God is, what God does, and how God loves us. God insists on going with us all the way, calling us forward at times and pushing from behind at others. God wants more than anything to transform our cold, suspicious hearts into warm vessels chock full of holes so the love keeps spilling out. This is the God who resurrects people, and dreams, and hopes! The God driven by self-giving love.
The Apostle Paul had the challenging task of putting all this good news into letters like the one to the Romans. “Hope doesn’t disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…” That love is alive. It has to move, and grow, and spread.
The hope that those Chilean miners clung to wasn’t a commodity that people from the outside could send down the pipe and try to keep robust with their own feeble strength. Hope is like an organism that has to be kept alive.
And here is the good news. Our hope doesn’t come from hundreds of feet above us or miles away from an old way in. God our Creator is with us in the struggle, right beside us and within us to keep us from giving up, showing us the way forward, infusing us with life. Jesus the Son walked the earth to be with us, and sent his Spirit to dwell in us and guide us. Our hope is fueled by a triune, loving, living God who meets us where we are every single day and invites us to share our hope with everyone around us.
The love and hope of God never run out. Not even close. There is so much of God, enough to go around the world and across the universe with the infinite flow of divine, relentless love. The doctrine of the Trinity seems like merely a good start when we try to take it all in.
And here’s the thing. We are made in the image of God! So the force of our love is like God’s, seeking an opening wherever we go. Dispensing hope for everyone whose life is a moving target as well as those who have settled in. Alert for what God is going to do—and do through us—next. Thanks be to God.
[i] Peterson, Eugene. The Message., 2018. (Colorado Springs: NavPress)
The Spirit Arrives, and Asks a Few Questions
Acts 2:1-21…Pentecost C
Today we feel
the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.[i]
Out on a hill ten days before, Jesus told his disciples they would receive power. They had to wait for it in Jerusalem. So they gathered every day, along with Mary and certain other women (Acts 1:14) and prayed. Their sense of anticipation wore off a little each day, so who knows what they were doing on the day the Spirit came? Eating dinner maybe, or praying, or talking about Shavuot, the religious harvest festival being observed in the city.
The Spirit showed up all right, with the sound of a tornado and the look of flames catching on dry tinder. The light illuminated their shocked faces. As if that wasn’t weird enough, they began babbling in strange languages, unable to stop themselves. It was all they could do to keep from screaming in fear, but a strange calm seemed to wash all the anxiety away. They were compelled to go into the street, where visitors in Jerusalem had heard the commotion and had begun to gather. Their faces grew puzzled as they recognized their own languages.
Small groups formed as Jesus’ friends relayed the message that they themselves could not understand. As noisy as coffee time after church! Finally, Peter got up to explain what was happening, and to tell them all about Jesus.
Now I wonder how all those different people understood what Peter was saying. Did the disciples keep speaking on all those different languages, unwitting translators recruited by the Holy Spirit? We aren’t told.
This probably wasn’t the kind of power any of those men and women would have seen coming. But then, with Jesus rising from the dead and ascending to heaven in a cloud, they ought to have expected just about anything.
And well they should have. After all, they were familiar with the ways of God. They knew the history of their people. They celebrated Passover every year, how God helped a million slaves waltz out from under the nose of the most powerful ruler in the world, by parting the waters of the Red Sea no less.
They had the story of creation memorized, every one of them, but maybe they had forgotten that it started with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, sorting everything into beautiful order out of darkness and chaos.
They knew the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley, with God’s Spirit breathing new life into dry bones, and how it came true in the return of God’s people from exile—something as miraculous as resurrection itself.
The story of Moses and the bush that was enflamed but didn’t burn up, well, every little child heard it at their father’s knee. And Elijah’s deeds of power and his ride up to heaven in a chariot, and David and Goliath, and Ruth and Rahab. And that very day Mary stood among them, the mother of their Lord, whose own stories of God’s power were wondrous. Jesus’ miracles of healing, his teachings that stayed with them and changed their hearts. They knew all the stories. True stories.
And so do we. We know this story of the Spirit’s big debut. Yet we don’t quite want to believe such a thing can happen here, today.
Each of us has one. A memory or two or ten about the Spirit knocking loose our expectations and breathing life into our faith on a random Sunday or next to a hospital bed or in a boat on a crystal morning. We’ve all witnessed the wonder of a child’s laughter, the joy of a loved one’s return, the sense of holy presence in the darkest hours.
The Spirit is here now.
I can almost see the Spirit restlessly blowing through this room, pausing to see if there is an opening in you, or you, or you. Swirling to awaken us, glowing in the music, gusting in the reading of the Scriptures.
The Spirit is always looking for the next chance to breathe God’s life into us. The Spirit didn’t send those people out to punish evil or distribute rule books. The energy that filled them was purest love. On the day of Pentecost, God blew down the doors of the old religion, burst into the streets and proclaimed the good news that all are invited to follow Jesus. All belong to God’s family. All can hear and speak the mother tongue, the language of love.
A few questions want to be asked of us.
What is dead around here that needs the breath of life? Are we as God’s people ready and willing to be revived not by programs and leaders, not by the latest ideas from a successful ministry somewhere else, but by God’s own self blowing through us and thrusting us out into the world?
What is standing in the way of God’s love being shed abroad? Have we erected barriers instead of throwing open the doors of welcome?
What tongues need to be loosened, and what do they need to say? What can I say to someone, this very day, that would be good news straight from God?
What needs to be fueled by internal fire? Do you need to let the spark within you catch fire, fire that fuels your life’s purpose, and illuminates the world around you to see God’s magnificent design everywhere?
What needs to be burned away, never to return? What attitudes have not served you well as a child of God? What stale ideas about religion are holding you back from the love you were made to share?
What is parched, in need of fresh water to cleanse and renew?
Let’s take a few moments now to listen for the Spirit. Which of the questions got your attention? Don’t worry about remembering what I just said. You will remember what the Spirit wants you to remember. Is there an image taking shape in your mind? As you are willing, close your eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and let your mind be overtaken by the words, image, or simply God’s loving presence. I will break the silence with a prayer in a couple of minutes. It will seem long to some of you, so I ask you simply to exercise the patience of love.
God of the ages, you who set your Holy Spirit loose in the world never
to be called back, give us willing hearts to receive your Spirit again today in
a fresh way. Show us how flimsy are the
walls we erect and the rules we demand of each other. Blow them away, and throw open the doors of
our hearts to love as you love. Give us
new life today, and tomorrow. We ask in
the name of Jesus who gave his own life for us, so we can be free to live and
love always. Amen
[i] “Pentecost” by Malcolm Guite in Sounding the Seasons, 2012. [London: Canterbury Press Norwich], p. 47.
Singing in the Dark
I wonder, if your power went off last night, how many of you think you could find your way to the place where you keep your candles? Most of us know the way around our houses, even when we can’t see. That’s because it is so familiar to us, right? We know the way because we live in this place where the couch is there, and the door is there, and the dog is lying right there.
Paul and Silas knew their way in the dark too. They sang their way through it.
They were still in Philippi. Remember how the Holy Spirit led these apostles past Asia and Bithynia to Troas, where Paul had a vision about helping the people of Macedonia. So they went across the water and found themselves in the Roman city of Philippi. They went outside the city to the riverside, where they met Lydia, she believed and was baptized. Lydia was a successful businesswoman who immediately offered her home as a sort of headquarters for the apostles.
Sometime after that, a slave-girl started following the two around. Luke tells us she did fortune-telling for her masters, who made a lot of money off her. She probably had an engaging way of interacting with people, clever and outgoing in her manner. She became a pest to Paul and Silas, following them around and blurting out what they were doing. Paul finally had had enough and identified her problem: demon possession. He cast out the demon in Jesus’ name, thus solving his problem and hers in one fell swoop.
Her masters saw it differently. They didn’t want this girl to be made whole, because it would mean a loss of income for them. They grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them to the square where they demanded justice from the authorities. In the process, they whipped up a sympathetic crowd, and things got ugly real quick. Long story short: the apostles were stripped, beaten with rods, and thrown into the high security part of the prison.
Huh. That’s where serving the Lord gets you, in prison? With black eyes and huge welts on your back, with barely enough strength to take a breath?
Though badly beaten, I’m sure Paul and Silas weren’t surprised. By this time they were all too aware of the dangers of spreading the gospel. Paul himself had been the one ordering the beatings of Christians in years past. This was the harsh reality of obedience to Jesus Christ.
So, how did they cope with the situation? If I hadn’t read the story, I might have guessed that they would be asking why this had to happen to them. That’s what I would do. If I were Paul, my prayer might go something like this: “Lord, I’ve done everything you asked of me. I gave my whole life over to you, to bring the gospel to the Gentiles as you told me to do. Why are you punishing me now? Didn’t you promise to rescue your children from danger?”
Maybe Paul was more circumspect, remembering what Ananias told him about God’s call on his life. Jesus had coached Ananias to go ahead and meet with Paul even though Ananias was terrified of the man who brutally persecuted Christians. He said “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Well, Paul was suffering, along with Silas. But they didn’t spend their time agonizing over why this had to happen to them. They prayed and sang hymns.
Now I don’t think they were singing as you would in an old-fashioned hymn sing, with the audience choosing their favorites, and Silas calling out, “Men only on the second verse, women on the third, and all together on the last verse.” No, these men had been beaten badly. Their songs came from split lips, their prayers from the depths of their pain. They were struggling to express their trust in God in the midst of their suffering. And here’s the thing: they knew the songs because they had sung them many times before. They knew their way to God in the dark, because they had walked that road many times in the light.
The rest of the story is a striking reversal of their situation: earthquake, cell doors broken open, shackles falling off, and the jailer falling on his knees, begging for help. God brought life out of what had looked like a hopeless situation.
How do we react to situations that seem hopeless? My guess is that 90% of the time we spend a lot of time asking why it had to happen. Sure, we know that pain and struggle happen in everyone’s life. “Into each life some rain must fall,” we are told, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Every person here today has gone through anguish of some kind. Some of you are in pain right now, and nobody else knows about it.
Spending your energy on trying to figure out why it is happening is a common reaction, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. We like to understand the circumstances of our lives. It is comforting to know the cause and effect of things. Maybe then we could even prevent suffering. But most situations simply escape explanation. Once when Bob Hope received a major award he responded, “I don’t deserve this, but then I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.” Kind of a silly example, but it pretty much sums things up.
Paul and Silas can help us with what to do in the darkest hour. They turned to God. They knew God was with them, because they talked to God and sang hymns to God, trusting that God could hear them, and cared.
See, these men knew the secret, the key to everything that was the driving force in their lives. They knew that God’s love encompasses the entire world, and God’s love will find a way through the darkness to the light and life He has for us. It is love that is not stopped by death, or beatings, or evil people. They knew what Corrie ten Boom said about her time in the Nazi concentration camp: “No matter how deep our darkness, [God] is deeper still.”
Could Paul and Silas have been singing Psalm 97, the one we read today? The psalms were the hymns of their faith, after all.
9For you, O Lord, are most high over all the
you are exalted far above all gods.
10 The Lord loves those who
he guards the lives of his faithful;
he rescues them from the hand of the wicked.
11 Light dawns for the righteous,
and joy for the upright in heart.
12 Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name!
Were the apostles picturing in their minds’ eye the way God rescued them? Did they see the figure on the cross who knew what their suffering was like, and suffered with them even then? It is the cross that tells us God is with us in our suffering. Paul wrote eloquently and often about the cross, his banner of God’s grace, forgiveness, and yes, even strength in the midst of trials.
We could speculate about God sending the earthquake in response to their singing, but there is no explanation of cause and effect about that either. We are not promised that our songs of praise out of our suffering bring instant happy endings. But in this instance, God did have something very unexpected in mind. A great reversal took place when the place shook, and the prisoners were freed. An even greater miracle: the jailer who was freed from his bondage to sin and set free from his identity as a jailer to become, instead, a child of God.
If those miracles of release and salvation were all that transpired that night, it would be good enough reason for Luke to record the story. But I think something else was accomplished that night. Certainly Paul and Silas, and the others traveling with them, grew in their faith. They had personally experienced their own Exodus! But there is still more.
Hear these words to the Philippian church sometime later. The letter was written when Paul was imprisoned in Rome:
“I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.” (Phil 2.12-14)
The people Paul was writing to knew all about guards and jailers who might come to faith in Jesus Christ while Paul was their prisoner. They had seen in happen in their own city! So this was not wistful thinking on Paul’s part; it was a shared experience they all celebrated and credited to the God they trusted still.
Our experiences of God’s faithfulness in the midst of our suffering can do the same for us. They can serve as an ongoing narrative that we live, giving us hope and confidence for whatever we might face. They expand our understanding of the God who is with us. Our hearts are stretched, our eyesight is made keener, our faith is enlarged through suffering. Deep faith simply does not grow in the easy times. The kind of faith we need—and the world needs us to have—is forged only in darkness and difficulty. Only by singing in the dark, finding the familiar way to God in spite of the threatening shadows, can we attain the peace that passes understanding.
writer sees it this way: “If you were
not cast into the abyss, you would have never groped, reached as far as you
could reach, to grasp for anything that you could possibly touch, anything that
you could possibly feel brushing against your fingertips! Funny how in the
darkness, we come to find the things that we never saw before all the lights
departed! It’s like someone needed to turn the lights out, to make us find all
the things that we never looked for when the lights were on! And it’s in that
blackness that we wake up to the true light! My friends, curse not the
darkness! It has given you many things!”
Nose Makoto recounts his experience of this:
During life, there are times when dark clouds crowd in, times when we don’t know what
to do. God seems to have vanished completely. During one such time in my life, I decided that I needed to get away to think; so I left on a trip to explore Hokkaido by bicycle. As I pedaled the snowy mountain road, the cold wind pierced my skin and numbed my hands. It was quiet and still as death with no one around. ‘God, why?’ I cried out as I rode. Exhausted, unable to pedal further, I walked and pushed my bicycle. I was feeling miserable and beaten.
Then, not knowing what else to do and with as much voice as I had, I praised the Lord.
As I did, my eyes were opened to see what the Lord had done for me. And when I heard the
Lord’s voice saying, ‘My grace is sufficient for you,’ I felt as though the fog around my heart had
suddenly cleared away. At that moment, I was given the sense that things had been settled,
that it was time to go home. The struggle of four weeks had ended. I had come to see that
offering up praise is our strength. When we don’t know what to do, we can praise.
We live in a chaotic world, more troubling with each news story: the Boston marathon bombing, innocent-looking neighbors with victims trapped in their homes, political stalemates that threaten our own financial well-being, and now a wet spring creating anxiety. Or more personal darkness: depression, broken trust, financial struggle. All together the challenges feel enormous. We become fearful, or just despair. The relentlessness of it gets to us over time.
can we do? We can trust God. We can rehearse the stories of God’s
faithfulness. We can pray, and sing praises. That is why we need each other, friends—to
remind each other to keep on praying, keep trusting, and don’t stop singing in
 C. JoyBell C., source unknown.
 Nose Makoto, source unknown.
Living the Dash
Acts 1:1-11…Ascension C
About twenty years ago, Linda Ellis penned a poem that begins like this:
I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end
He noted that first came her date of her birth
And spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between the years.
If you’re looking for something to inspire you about leading a life of purpose, it’s a pretty good poem. It goes on to say how relationships matter more than possessions or bank accounts. Jesus made the same point numerous times in the gospels. The poem has been read at a lot of funerals since it was written in 1996.
Tomorrow we observe a day that was established to remember those who have died in the armed forces. Over the years it has come to include all those we want to remember from our past. As a congregation you have been very conscious of the brevity of life during these past months. You have read many obituaries and buried many beloved family members and friends.
So, how do we live our time in the succession of lives? What does your dash contain? Is it only about your own life’s span, or is there something bigger to consider?
I could try to inspire you to live the space between your birth and death by doing great things and creating meaningful relationships. But you have already heard some of that in graduation speeches and perhaps a wedding or two this month.
Instead I’d like to ask about your life and history as a congregation. What is contained in Spirit Lake United Methodist Church’s dash? What has happened here in the years since this outpost of God’s kingdom was established? Have you seen the Holy Spirit use you to reach the people of this area? Have you had an impact on the people who have come through here? How are you living your dash as a congregation right now, as God’s people appointed to witness to the goodness of Jesus Christ, in Spirit Lake, in 2019?
Another way to ask these questions is this: Who would grieve if your congregation were not part of the story of this neighborhood? Who would suffer, who would cry if you ceased to exist? Who is benefiting from your witness to the goodness and mercy of Jesus Christ? Who will be blessed by your ministry this week, this summer, next year? You have a thriving ministry here. What will be its lasting impact? God has bigger plans for your dash than you might be thinking.
As a pastor, I have plenty of experience with death and dying. I have conducted many funerals, and I have helped people struggle with how they are living their dashes, sometimes listening as they regret the way they squandered most of their lives on chasing wealth or petty concerns. One such situation happened a couple of years ago, but this was not an old man.
I sat in the ICU, at the bedside of a young man who was deeply under the influence of a meth addiction. He cried in despair and shame. He begged for prayer. His mother spoke tearfully with me in the hall as they did an x-ray on her son, her only child. I did my best to be a witness to Jesus for this young man. I told him that nothing he has ever done or ever will do can keep him from being called God’s beloved. I told him that God’s love is stronger than the power of methamphetamine.
That young man is also part of God’s great story. His downward spiral cannot take him out of the reach of God’s love. Nor should it take him beyond the reach of the church, Jesus’ agents who have been given divine power to love and speak healing into the life of an addict. You know the message I gave to that young man as well as I do. You know how to reach out with love and compassion, to whomever God brings across your path, whether it is you alone or you as a whole congregation. You know how to care, how to feed, how to love. It is not a specialized skill.
Last Thursday was Ascension Day. Since it doesn’t fall on a Sunday, it is too easy to forget to mark the day that Jesus left his disciples to do greater things than he did. Luke recounts the story of Jesus’ ascension in the book of Acts. We hear the disciples asking Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
They were still thinking in terms of little dashes, the life span of Jesus. But Jesus says, no, no, the kingdom of God is way bigger than that. The kingdom will include peoples all over the world, not just Israel. The disciples would go to “the ends of the earth” to proclaim the gospel, to welcome people into the reign of God.
They needed their perspective expanded, and so do we. So much of our lives are taken up by maintaining our level of security and amassing the possessions we think we need. Of course we need to attend to the details of everyday life. You have to make a living. You need to eat, and put gas in the car, and pay the mortgage.
But there is more to life than that. If the weather cooperates on Ascension Day, I like to fly a kite. It helps me think about Jesus and his disciples out on that hill. Actually, I like to fly kites any time. I get a kick out of the aerodynamics that lift a kite high in the sky, and the tug of the string in my hands.
If we pay attention, there is a tug like that pulling on our consciousness, a sense that God is present and active. If we busy ourselves too much, we will not notice it. But God is at work all the time, everywhere. Our faith helps us know what God is like, and to see the ways God is providing for us and guiding and loving us every day.
When we gather for worship like this every week, that is what we are looking at. What has God done, and what is God doing right now? What is God going to do, if God’s promises really are true? What will God do through you together that cannot be accomplished as individuals?
Don’t just rely on the staff and core volunteers who ask you to help with projects, great as they are. You don’t need someone else to connect you with God’s work. God is tugging at you, waiting to be recognized, ready to show you how you can be operative in your part of the story. You are the only one in your particular setting, with your group of family and friends. Do they need a little help recognizing God’s love and faithfulness? God always has more to do, because God’s love and power at work in us never run out.
Jesus instructed his disciples to wait until they received “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). And they received it! Paul tells the Christians at Ephesus that the spiritual power they have been given is equal to the power it took to raise Jesus from the dead. (Eph 1.19-20) That power is ours too. Resurrection power!
But that’s not all. Did you hear what Paul said is ours right now as God’s people? Friends, these are not just dusty old Bible words, this is reality Paul is talking about in Ephesians 1:15-20.
“15 Since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that 16 I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you when I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers,19 and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength. 20 God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens…”
Do we think we were given “power from on high,” the Holy Spirit’s force within us, only to make more money for each person’s bottom line or to become the most powerful country on earth? We’ll be celebrating Pentecost next Sunday. Why has the church been given the Holy Spirit?
The full force of the Divine One is given to every congregation—to you, for your part of the kingdom story, your dash in the history of the reign of God. You have a dash, and I have one. But this congregation also has one.
You will begin ministry with a new pastor in just over a month from now. You can tell her how things have always been done and expect her to merely keep the gears running. Keep the institution going. But you can also ask her to help you discern the new things God is inviting you all to do in the next chapter of your life together. How can you help people look up from their busy lives and see that God loves them, know the one who is tugging at their hearts to experience the life of purpose and joy in Jesus Christ?
God doesn’t need experts or even great pastors to reach out in love to the world God loves. The disciples were not superheroes, or scholars, or spiritual giants. They were ordinary guys whose former lives were eclipsed by the presence and love of Jesus. God uses ordinary folks like them, like us, each of us with our own little dash, to literally change the world.
There’s No Home Like God
John 14:18-29…Easter 6C
(Senior Recognition Sunday)
I wonder what you think of when you hear the word “God.” Big subject, right? All kinds of stories and descriptions come to mind. Yet we might also have negative feelings associated with God, especially if we have been taught to think of God as the great punisher in the sky.
Here’s another word: home. What comes to mind? Again, there are lots of stories, memories, certain smells and sounds that we associate with home. And for some, the idea of home is not pleasant, because of what they experience there.
In the story of God and us, what God is directing us to is a homecoming, a return to the mutual relationship enjoyed by Adam and Eve and God in the Garden of Eden. And in fact, you have probably noticed that there is a garden at both ends of the Bible. It’s where we came from and where we are going. We read about John’s vision in the Book of Revelation this morning, where there is a garden in the middle of the city of God, with a river and a life-giving tree that will heal the nations.
We read a small part of Jesus’ message to his disciples from John 14 just now, and I imagine him getting a little nostalgic as he talks about his existence in relationship with the Father that he is eager to get back to. But Jesus said they would not sit around missing him, because he is going to be with them in a better, more comprehensive and lasting way.
See, the great direction of the Scriptures is God seeking us and drawing us back into that close relationship depicted in the Garden of Eden. But in story after story, the people end up looking for something better, failing to trust God. Was it because they couldn’t see God? If that was the problem, God’s solution was to come in the flesh and even to die for us to prove His love for us. “Come to me, and I will give you rest,” Jesus said in one of many attempts to express God’s invitation and desire to have a mutual, loving relationship with us.
Back to the gospel, to John 14. We know that the occasion is the conversation Jesus is having with his disciples after dinner. You know how it is after a fine meal together. You relax, you talk about anything and everything. Sometimes the conversation gets a little deep, as it did for Jesus. He knew his time with them was coming to a close, so he made this last hour count. John devotes four chapters of his gospel to what is called Jesus’ discourse with his disciples. In this slice of the discourse, Jesus talks about God as our home. It is a reassuring image for a group of fellows who are going to feel like orphans, and soon. Let’s start at verse 18.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
This had to have the disciples scratching their heads. Jesus is leaving, but then he is coming back? The world won’t be able to see him, but we will? What does Jesus mean by this?
It was only a matter of time before the disciples would understand that Jesus was talking about his Holy Spirit. The Spirit would keep them close to Jesus and his teachings.
Then Jesus tries using a few pronouns and adverbs to describe the union with God that we just said is the whole point: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” It almost sounds like a riddle, and if it is, Jesus helped them solve it by explaining what that union looks like. He says that everybody will be on the same page, keeping Jesus’ commandments (in verse 21) or Jesus’ word (verse 23). Here is verse 23:
“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
We often misread this. We think Jesus is talking about obedience when he says “keep my commandments” or “keep my word.” But that is not what keeping means in the Greek. It means holding something dear, giving it the highest value. To me, that makes it a bigger word than obeying. It means you do something because it is the only way, the best way, the greatest thing you can possibly do. You can’t help wanting to do it not only because it is good, but because the one who taught it to you is good.
Here we also have the idea of Jesus and the Father making their home with us. Again, the word is bigger than we think. The Greek word has God dwelling with us not temporarily, or only if we behave. It is a promise to make a permanent home with us.
So, beyond my sterile little diagram of the relationship, we can picture something real. It is a picture of two people holding onto each other, holding tight. We are clinging to the wonderful teachings and the very being of Jesus because we love him. And we have God clinging to us too, making a permanent home with us. We are holding onto one another, and Jesus says that that is what it means to have God making a home with us.
Graduates, you are probably going to leave home in the next few months, or at least within the next few years. You are probably eager to do it, because you are ready to be on your own. Maybe your parents are ready for it too. But the word “home” is going to take on new meaning for you, if you are lucky enough to have good feelings about that word. I hope it will evoke love and security for you. I hope it will be a feeling you will want to cultivate when you settle on a career and a place that feels like it could be your new home.
Jesus tells us that home is not as much a place as it is a relationship. Have you ever been in someone else’s house where you thought, “This place feels like a home.” Maybe somebody has said it about your family’s house. The family might be busy and running here and there, but they also take time to sit down together. You can see board games with their lids flattened out from all of their game nights. Or two or three fishing poles leaning in a corner. Or a cracked cookie jar, notes all over the refrigerator, a worn Bible on the shelf. Dog hairs on the couch, pictures of family spilling over the hall table. It is a mess, actually, only rarely tidied up.
In God’s home, there is a lot of activity too. The family is huge, and they are all occupied with serving in one way or another. Amid all the chaos there is also a deep sense of peace, and welcome, and love. It is far better than our homes, where makeshift walls can get built up between people and relationships can get damaged beyond repair. This is a home where the Spirit of God dwells. Where the notes God leaves all over are about love and forgiveness and grace.
This is a home where the table is set with the bread and cup of the new covenant. A home where God will always take us in, and love us, and forgive us. A home where the words of Jesus are the words we speak to one another, and the house rules are faded and dog-eared, but that doesn’t matter because we all know them by heart anyway. It is a place where damage gets repaired with solid materials like forgiveness and repentance and hope.
Jesus said he had to go away for this to happen, but he said he won’t leave us with only a memory of himself to keep us going. He promised to send—and we know he did it—the Holy Spirit to keep the vision of God’s home fresh in our minds:
“the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
I went to the women’s conference up at First Lutheran in Milford last Sunday night. Several good friends were there, including my friend Allison. You might remember her husband Dan, who preached here a while back. The kids who go to Bible camp know Dan, because he is such a fun person, and he is very good at making the Bible come alive in his camp messages.
Allison and Dan have three young children, so I said it was probably nice for her to get away from the kids for one night. She said that yes, but it was funny how the kids reacted when she told them she was leaving. They got excited and asked if they were going to have a baby sitter. “Well, no, your dad is staying home, and he will take care of you.” They were disappointed! What they do not realize is that they have the coolest dad around, and they are lucky, lucky, lucky.
Sometimes we forget how lucky we are. Jesus said the Holy Spirit is here to make God’s home with us the real thing. Why would we want to put ourselves under anyone else’s care? Why would we leave the home God has for us and run after somebody else’s idea of a good life? Jesus said that the peace he gives us beats peace of any other kind by a mile.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, you will. No friends on Facebook or your dorm floor, no app or game or job, no amount of money, not even your future spouse can promise and deliver what God has already given you: love that feels like a home because you are forgiven and free at every single moment, forever. God’s home is secure but not confining. It is now and in the future. It is harder work than anything else, yet it is the greatest gift of all.
You will check out other schemes. You grew up in the U.S. where you have been bombarded with messages telling you that you need this product or that house or a body that only a tiny percentage of the population can possibly maintain. All of us have fallen for them. And we let the lure of wealth or fame, or our own impatience get the better of us and we run in the opposite direction from God. We do it in little ways all the time, before we catch ourselves and remember who loves us, like the prodigal son who longed for home and Father after trying it ten other ways.
Jesus talks a fair amount about going and coming in his long discourse in the gospel of John. There is a lot of that kind of talk in the air as you will be graduating this month. “What are you going to do? Where are you going to school/going to work/going to live?” Everybody is asking you these questions.
But Jesus tells us that it is not about where; it is about who. You will hear a lot of lofty talk about dreams and plans and potential for the future, and they are good ideas to ponder. But what matters most is who will go with you into your future. So focus on relationships with people who understand what it is to be at home with you. People who know the path to your door, and that yours is a life where God dwells. When you know God loves you, when you love like Jesus, you will always be home.
Disciples Love Like Jesus
John 13:31-35; Acts 11:1-18…Easter 5C
Last week I had my final “serious” session with the confirmation students. We are going to enjoy celebrating the end of the confirmation year with a little party this week. As I prepared for this last meeting together—truly the last, since I will not teach confirmation here again—I thought carefully about the message I wanted to leave with them. I kept it as simple as I could, but I wanted them to be sure to hear what I had to say about their relationship with a loving God.
Jesus was meeting with his disciples for the last time. He knew it even if they didn’t. So he needed to let them know what mattered most to him. It was at the time of that last Passover meal with them, in that upper room he had told them to prepare for this special meal. (They had to find a room with a really long table so they could pose for the Last Supper painting, right?)
What would Jesus say to them? Would they ever know how much he loved them? How could he tell them that he trusted them to be the messengers of hope he knew they could be? He had to get through to them.
Only someone with unusual determination and focus—and unusual love—could have done what Jesus did at that moment. He had just finished telling Judas to go ahead and do what he was planning to do. Instead of wallowing in self-pity or bolting from the room to save his skin, Jesus turned back to the rest of his disciples and explained that God was about to be glorified in an unexpected way. They wouldn’t understand it at first. And they couldn’t follow him where he was going. But they could do this: love each other. “Love one another,” he said. Then he repeated it, this time with special instructions. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And then a third time, with a prediction. The way that people will recognize you as my disciples is this: your love will be so remarkable that nobody can miss it.
If Jesus had stopped at “love one another,” it would have been much easier. We try to do that, right? Be nice to each other, help people when they need it, and so on. But I don’t suppose anybody would pay much attention to that. Jesus’ disciples wouldn’t stand out much from the rest of the crowd. Jesus wanted his disciples to love the same way he does. We need to love the way Jesus loves. Our own kind of love has its limits, and often doesn’t work out so well. Jesus offers us love that changes everything and everyone it touches.
What kind of love is that? Look through the gospel stories. If you took the time to catalog the encounters between Jesus and people other than his disciples, you would have a list of unexpected characters that the gospel writers took pains to highlight.
Jesus spoke to women, a taboo for Jewish men, who were not supposed to talk to women other than their wives. If that weren’t bad enough, he had a long conversation with a Samaritan woman. Samaritans were kind of half-Jewish people who worshiped in the wrong place. So this woman was not only the wrong gender; her beliefs were wrong too.
Jesus touched lepers when he healed them. He not only risked disease; he also made himself unclean. Jesus healed the servant of a Roman centurion—a Gentile—and made himself unclean just by talking with the man. He touched a woman with a continuous flow of blood—not only the regular flow, a continuous one no less—and healed her while making himself doubly unclean yet again.
Do you remember what Jesus was criticized for doing? He ate at the homes of tax collectors and “sinners” (prostitutes). We can be sure that Jesus was also kind to many others. He healed thousands of people. He did a lot of nice things that we would also do. But there is a clear tone in the gospels: Jesus reached across barriers of religion and social norms to bless people with his love. He restored people to well-being no matter what they believed about God, what they suffered from, who they were, or what they had done. Nothing stopped him. Nothing.
We might think that Jesus was blowing the lid off the Jewish faith by what he did. But we if look carefully at the Old Testament, we can find the same undertone. Here and there, believers outside of the chosen people of Israel are identified as those who act for God, or seek God: servants and alien rulers and foreign wives, a whole list of distinctly un-chosen but nevertheless willing participants in God’s story. Abraham was pegged by God in the first place to be the father of a nation that would make all people groups eager to submit to this God of love and abundant blessing. Rahab, a Gentile woman who ran a bordello, hid the Hebrew spies in their mission to overtake Jericho, yet she is listed in the genealogy of Jesus, as is Ruth the Moabite.
Do we get it? Do we understand that every human being is God’s beloved, no matter what they have done or where or when they were born? Peter got the message loud and clear when he had a dream, and then Gentile messengers showed up at his door. He reported a clear message from the Holy Spirit to follow through on his dream. He had dreamed that a whole mess of unclean animals was laid out before him. In the dream, God commanded him to break the rules and eat them. When he woke up later, messengers from Cornelius appeared, asking him to go with them to their master’s home, the home of a Gentile. Peter had the presence of mind to obey, and he witnessed God’s new law of openness and welcome breaking through before his eyes. Devout Jews were breaking all the rules, finding themselves in a whole new situation where the Holy Spirit was stunning them and their new Gentile friends with grace and power and love.
It happened with another disciple, Philip. God sent him to the side of an Ethiopian (a Gentile) who was a eunuch (considered sexually deviant) who had been to Jerusalem seeking spiritual truth. On his way home, he was reading the prophecy of Isaiah when Philip appeared beside his chariot. He believed Philip’s explanation that Jesus was the one Isaiah was talking about, and asked to be baptized at the next puddle along the route. (Acts 8:26-40) Could the message be any more clear? God is endorsing every human being as a legitimate, beloved member of the new kingdom.
This is not just being nice. This is the kind of love that no human being is capable of, not entirely. No human being wants to love like this, not instinctively. We don’t know what to think about people who are different than we are, to say nothing of those who are real enemies. But Jesus tells us to see them and to love them, because it will transform us, and it will change the world.
Jesus told us to love the same way he loves. To cross whatever barriers we think are impenetrable, barriers of ethics and race and sexuality and economics and religion. To recognize the worth of each person and to show them that we care about them. To go beyond nice, to love that goes the whole distance.
I have no doubt that you have tried this kind of love, probably many times. I hope you have. But it is hard. It’s no wonder Jesus called this a new command. We are not comfortable with new practices. It takes hard work, determination, and time to cultivate a new way of functioning. Other people will think you are crazy. They will encourage you to hate your enemies, to bear a grudge against people who have hurt you. They will tell you that God does not expect you to love people who are hard to love, but they would be wrong.
I suspect that we resist this for a lot of reasons. One reason might be that we think we will lose something by loving like this. It will be hard, and it will take up some of our precious time. It might cost us money, or pride, or our reputation. If you are anything like me, you might listen to Jesus’ invitation with a whole box of asterisks at the ready, excuses about why you can’t do it just now. But when you listen to Jesus and trust that his way is the way to life, you see your excuses for what they are. Then you step out and do it. You might not get rewarded with warm feelings the first twenty times you do it, or even the first fifty times.
But eventually you will find yourself walking in step with Jesus. You will find yourself surrounded by people you never knew were so wise, or kind, or just plain fun. You will find yourself in the kingdom of God.
Truth be told, Jesus’ command to love everybody is actually more like an invitation. He invites you to a life free of barriers and black lists and stupid games about who’s in and who’s out. God knows we need –everybody needs—to get the message that we are loved not for what we do or for whose family we come from or for the color of our skin or for how pristine an image we can maintain.
“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. Nobody else will do it. It will be hard, but Jesus said that we can, and we should get busy and do it already. Let us pray.
Better to Have Loved[i]
prudently prefer the wisdom of the Buddha, who said
“He who loves fifty has fifty woes,
who loves none has no woe…”
for it hurts to care
to let other lives matter
because they suffer
and they fail
and they die
and we’d rather not hurt so
but we are haunted
by Your holy Fool
who cried over Jerusalem
and wept for Lazarus
who feels each pain
and every body’s aches
who suffered about
and loves every soul
as if it were his own child.
We have much to repent
more to learn
most to feel
for Christ’s sake.
[i] Frederick Ohler, Better Than Nice and Other Unconventional Prayers, 1989. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press), p. 30.
A Shepherd You Can Trust
John 10.22-30; Psalm 23.1-6…Easter 4C
I’m going to ask for a little congregation participation this morning. With the next presidential caucuses rearing their heads on the horizon, we’re in the national spotlight again. So the polling will be happening soon enough. I’d like to do my own little poll this morning. The questions will be: How many of you feel completely confident that the next leader will be a good one? How many of you are feeling some anxiety about the next election?
Anxiety seems to dictate a lot of what happens in our political climate these days, most often seen in the executive and legislative branches of our government. We experience the pain of estrangement even in our personal relationships when our ideals clash. And because the church is comprised of human beings, it’s bound to affect even the inner workings of our faith communities.
Why am I talking about politics? I’m glad you asked. Did you know that the term shepherd in the Bible is political? It means “king, sovereign, lord, authority, the one who directs, to whom I am answerable, whom I trust and serve.” There is no competing claim that can draw you away from the One called your Lord and Shepherd.[i]
Think of how shaky everything feels right now. Besides the political situation, we wonder how anybody will be able to exert enough influence to address climate change effectively, whether anybody can help us untangle the complexities that have driven the farm economy into a tailspin. And you have your own concerns to deal with.
The people of Jesus’ day were no less concerned about their future. They were under the brutal thumb of the Romans, and they wanted the promised Messiah to rescue them right now. The religious leaders may have spoken for all the people when they challenged Jesus: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” they demanded. (Jn 10.24)
But Jesus refused to debate his credentials. He insisted that the proof of his identity and authority was in the pudding, in what he had been doing: healing people, teaching them about God’s mercy, valuing each person and listening to their stories.
The blind man he healed in John 9 was harassed by the religious authorities, and when asked how this could have happened, the man replied, “Here’s what I know, though I was blind, now I see.” (Jn 9.25) They insisted that Jesus was not a healer, but a sinner, so he had no authority. Again they tried to claim that it was some kind of trick. But the man was fed up with their shenanigans and spoke boldly to his superiors: “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” (Jn 9.27)
No, they did not. Jesus said as much in today’s gospel: “I have told you, and you do not believe…you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. [This is what makes people my sheep.] My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (Jn 10.25-27)
“You do not believe.” That word believe carries a lot of weight, more than we usually give it. It is not just about agreeing to a set of ideas. The Greek word is pistuo, and it implies not only a mental exercise, but complete confidence, personal trust.
The shepherd calls the sheep, who recognize his particular voice. They know that guy is the caretaker they can trust to lead them to fresh water and to green pastures. The shepherd not only leads them through both pleasant and treacherous places. He also scouts ahead to ensure that pastures are safe, even dams up running streams so the sheep can drink without the danger of falling in and becoming waterlogged.
Do you ever think of God going before you to prepare the way? The image of the shepherd who is with us is reassuring. But to think that he has also gone far ahead of us to minimize the dangers might be a new idea. Think of it. There is no place untouched by God’s presence and love, so whatever we encounter is already familiar to God.
The shepherd prepares food for the sheep even when there is danger nearby. David says the shepherd “prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” (Ps 23.5) Most of us don’t have mortal enemies anywhere close, although that is reality for too many people in this world. What are your enemies, then? I confess that fear is my greatest enemy. It wants to trip me up and keep me from following Jesus with courage.
Maybe your enemy is cancer, or a chronic disease. Perhaps worry has you lying awake with its persistent static in your head. Someone at your job keeps undermining you. Take heart! Your loving Shepherd wants to nourish you even in the midst of this darkness. His care is not limited to someplace beyond; he is with you to give you everything you need right now.
It may be unsettling for you to read the end of Psalm 23 in the version we used this morning: “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.” You want the old King James Version you learned that says, “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
The actual Hebrew version of it is “length of days.” So we could read it either way. But in the gospel of John, “eternal life” is not about how long you will exist. It is about the quality of life, not its quantity. The life Jesus offers us is expansive, purposeful, characterized by peace and love. He waits for you to experience the fullness of his presence and love today.
We might look at the future expecting a series of blows and lucky breaks, and just hope that we can get through it all unscathed. But Jesus asks us to trust that his presence with us changes our perspective. We can handle anything because we are in a rock solid relationship that will not fail us, not ever. Think of how Jesus put it: “No one will snatch [my sheep] out of my hand.”
Did you catch what he says next? “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” (Jn 10.28-29) We are what the Father entrusted to Jesus! He considers you and me the most precious gift he could possess! It’s no wonder he tells us we are safe with him.
See, this is the language we need to hear. It is covenant language, relationship language. Doctrines, religions, church policies don’t get us where we need to go. They don’t keep us safe. Jesus does.
Rachel Held Evans was an author I learned from, and she was a model for my life. Her wisdom in challenging outmoded ideas about God and the Bible enlarged my faith. She died unexpectedly at the age of 37, leaving behind her husband and two young children. Thousands of her admirers reacted on social media with sorrow and dismay.
It reminded me of another story about a young mother who died. Her husband and small son returned from burying her, and they could think of nothing else to do but go to bed.
In the stillness of their grief, the little heartbroken boy called out, “Daddy, where is mommy?”
His father got up and brought him to bed with him, but the son was still restless and kept asking questions like “Why isn’t she here?” and “When is she coming back?”
At last the little boy said, “Daddy, if your face is toward me, I think I can go to sleep now.” In a little while he settled into sleep.
His father lay there in the dark, and then, taking his cue from his precious son, prayed, “O God, I don’t see how I can survive this. The future looks so miserable. But if your face is toward me, somehow I think I can make it.”[ii]
That is an image in the Scriptures that gives us hope. God turning his face toward us is a sign of God’s favor and love. It’s why Jacob called the place where he wrestled with God “Peniel,” because he had seen the face of God and survived. (Gen 32.30) It’s why the psalmist tell his heart to seek God’s face. “Your face, LORD, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me!” (Ps 27.8-9) This is another way to talk about acknowledging and savoring God’s presence.
Friends, this is yours right now. God loves you more than you can imagine. God desires only good for you, peace of mind and heart, wholeness in your heart and body, health in your relationships. God is with you both now and in your future, yes, for both this life and for eternity. None of us needs more of God than we already have right now. We just need to realize what we do have: life that can bear anything and celebrates everything as a gift from God’s hand.
Let’s have another show of hands. How many of you have felt God’s comfort in a dark time of your life? See? It is what God does, not what we merely understand about God that matters. God’s promises are true. God’s presence is real. God will never leave you nor forsake you. Nothing can separate you from God’s love shown to us in Christ Jesus.
I decided to put the Affirmation of Faith at this point in today’s worship for a reason. It’s easy to recite it without thinking. How would it work if we use the larger meaning of belief and applied it to this creed? Today, let’s try substituting the word “trust” for the word “believe,” because faith requires us to focus on our relationship with God more than ideas about God. See if the creed means more to you today when you rely not only on doctrines about God, but on a relationship with God. You are free to keep the original word if this feels wrong. It’s okay. God loves you one way or the other!
[i] Water Brueggemann, The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness, ed. Charles L. Campbell (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), pp. 91-92.
The Gospel About Peter
John 21:1-19…Easter 3C
His name was Simon. That is, until Jesus gave him a new name. He didn’t know what to think when Jesus seemed to look all the way into his soul, seemed to know him already even though they had only known each other a little while. Not that he minded, really. He was eager to get to know the man who had healed his mother-in-law of a high fever.
Maybe Peter’s brother Andrew was right when he appeared breathless and excited late one afternoon and said, “We have found the Messiah!” Andrew explained that he had heard John the baptizer talking about Jesus, and then spent some time with Jesus himself. When Andrew took Simon to see him, Jesus took one look at Simon and said, “You won’t be called Simon son of John any more. Your name will be Cephas.” (That’s the Aramaic name for Peter, which in turn means “rock” in Greek.)
Was Jesus referring to his massive, calloused hands? Or his rock-hard shoulders and arms, grown by years of hauling in nets of fish? Or did Jesus know that he could be stubborn like a boulder, and sometimes harsh like a stone thrown at an adulterer? Peter knew that he could also be strong and loyal like a rock to those he loved. Maybe that’s what Jesus was saying about him.
It is amazing how much we know about Peter. The gospels are all about Jesus of course. But they also portray the ones who follow Jesus, especially Peter. He is the disciple who asks all the questions, declares his faith, makes mistakes that we imagine we might have done as one living and learning alongside Jesus. Maybe he is more like us than we would like, fiercely committed to Jesus when our faith runs hot and miserably disloyal when it has cooled off a bit.
Peter seemed to believe in Jesus without effort. Early in Luke’s gospel he was so impressed with Jesus’ ability to pinpoint a good fishing spot that he fell at Jesus’ feet and cried, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Well, there might have been more behind his confession than a good catch of fish. Jesus had cured his mother-in-law too, so maybe it was all adding up for Peter.
Still, his tendency to take things at face value got him in trouble sometimes. He was easily distracted by mundane concerns, to the point of being impulsive. He clumsily suggested building booths for Jesus and Moses and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration. He tried to get Jesus to cheer up and stop talking about his impending death. He cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave when Jesus was arrested. He tried to manage Jesus, failing to see that Jesus knew what he was doing and had a larger purpose that Peter had yet to grasp.
You could argue that Peter was an odd choice for a disciple, let alone the founder of the church. Jesus didn’t recruit a well-known rabbi or a respected leader of the temple to train for the job. He chose a fisherman, rough as a rock around the edges. I wonder if Jesus detected a man who was a natural leader, someone who was passionate yet humble and teachable. A man who knew how to work hard, and who also knew that he had no choice but to be patient when the fish weren’t biting.
When Jesus appeared to Peter and the other disciples on the beach after his resurrection, it was an important scene for us to observe. We need to know how Peter went from bitter remorse at the early morning cock crow before Jesus’ crucifixion to the confident leader on the day of Pentecost. How did Peter find peace and forgiveness after having denied Jesus in such a cowardly way? How did he emerge as a leader?
Peter loved Jesus, all right. That was never the question. Peter had told Jesus that he would follow him to prison and even death; he loved him that much. But Peter said that when he hadn’t been tested yet. And when he was tested, when someone recognized him and said, “Hey! Weren’t you one of those that was with Jesus?” he emphatically denied it. After the third time of trying to convince the people he wasn’t who they thought he was, the cock crowed, and Jesus turned and looked at Peter.
That was when the hard edges of the rock that was Peter began to be chiseled away. Who knows what was in that look? My guess is that it was a look of love and sadness, maybe even compassion for Peter. It would have been easier for Peter if it had been an accusing look, the scathing stare that he deserved. Either way, he was undone by the shame of it.
It’s no wonder that when Peter heard about Jesus’ empty tomb that he ran to see for himself. Anxious to make amends for his terrible cowardice, maybe he could find the body of Jesus and make one last gesture of respect. If he recovered the body, the shame might sting a little less. But when Jesus appeared to Peter and the others that very night, his joy was mixed with embarrassment. The shame was still there, stronger than ever. He probably hung back, not wanting Jesus to think he wasn’t sorry for what he had done. Wishing he could get Jesus alone so he could beg for forgiveness.
But Jesus left without giving Peter the chance. The disciples stayed and prayed together for a few days, but then they didn’t know what to do. Peter finally decided that the best thing would be to get back to work and see what happened. There were fish to be caught. They had to put food on the table. Several of the others thought they might as well go with him. It was a quiet night, a somber mood. Perfect for mulling over the events of the past weeks, wondering if they had seen the last of Jesus. Who knew? They thought it was over at the cross, but Jesus proved them wrong. Plenty of time to think about how their lives had changed just by knowing Jesus…but not sure what to do about it now.
Then a man showed up on the beach and started building a fire, cooking breakfast. Nothing unusual. He asked them if they had had any luck. Suggested they try the other side of the boat. Obviously not familiar with fishing, but it was worth a try. And as they felt the ripple and surge of fish swarming into the net, they had a case of déjà vu. The same thing had happened about three years ago, when they first met Jesus. John figured it out first. “It is the Lord!”
Peter wouldn’t miss his chance this time. He threw on his clothes and jumped into the water, eager to get a few moments alone with Jesus before the others rowed in to shore. He had to get to Jesus and make amends with his dearest friend, the man he worshiped. But as he swam to shore, his heart caught in his throat. What could he possibly say to make up for his betrayal? The shame washed over him again. He slowed his strokes, and the others caught up to him, anxious to see Jesus again too.
Jesus was grinning from ear to ear. Proud of the meal he had prepared but sheepish to realize that he didn’t have enough for all of them. He told them to add some of the fish they had just caught. Peter got busy so he could avoid Jesus’ gaze. At least this was something he knew how to do. He helped get the fish out of the boat and onto the shore. He tried to melt into the group as they pitched in to get a meal together. Ate with his friends, listened as Jesus chatted with the others.
After breakfast, Jesus approached Peter and gently led him through the conversation Peter both yearned for and dreaded. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Three times he asked. Did he sense that Peter needed to profess his love three times, to make up for the three other denials? Did he know that Peter’s love would grow stronger with each time he said it? Did he expect that Peter’s shame would spill out and disappear with the tears he shed as he tried to convince Jesus—and himself—that he really did love his friend?
Jesus believed him. The forgiveness in Jesus’ tone of voice was so evident that he didn’t have to say the words. Instead he gave Peter a job to do. He told Peter to feed and tend his sheep. He trusted Peter. This is the grace that would make Peter shake his head with wonder for years afterward. That Jesus could befriend an impulsive, headstrong, bumbling man like him and trust him to start his church. That Jesus could see in him the beginnings of loyalty and strength he would need as a leader, and trusted him even after he faltered.
The rock that was Peter knew then what it meant to be a rock. He knew that Jesus was a rock that was solid. That it was sacrifice and trust and the perseverance of love that made him solid. In the years to come Peter would understand how he could be a rock like Jesus, that he himself was just the first of the living stones Jesus would choose and fashion into a foundation for the church. He would know what he was saying, that old rock that had its rough edges chiseled away by Jesus himself, when he wrote:
Once you were not a people
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10)
The gospel story is about Jesus, but Peter gets a supporting role. Someone just like you and me, who have the amazing fortune to follow Jesus. Ours is the grace of being fashioned and chiseled by our Lord who loves us, forgives us, and calls us to be his church for the sake of the world.
Open or Closed?
John 20:19-31…Easter 2C
We were filled with anticipation. Twenty youth and a few adults were on our way from Iowa to Idaho on a mission trip. We had borrowed an old Suburban from my in-laws to use as one of the vehicles. A couple of hours into the trip, the engine in the Suburban began to make a strange noise. We stopped in Council Bluffs to eat supper, and to consider our options. It seemed hopeless to think that we’d be able to continue our trip that night. It was Friday night, and all the automotive service stations were closed. As we prayed before our meal, we asked God to help us.
This happened before cell phones came into play, so we had only our wits to rely on, and naturally it was the topic of our conversation over supper. When we were almost finished with our meal, a man from a nearby table came over to talk to us. He had overheard us talking about the problem. He explained that he was a mechanic, and that he would be willing to look at our car if we could take it over to his place. We stared at each other in amazement. We were stunned to see our prayers answered so quickly. Even though the signs on all the repair shops said “closed,” here was someone who opened his garage and his home to us.
Open and closed. An “open” sign tells us that we are in business. We are welcome to come on in. A “closed” sign tells us we are out of luck: come back another day!
The room where the disciples were meeting was closed, and locked. Since Jesus’ opponents had successfully gotten rid of the problem that was Jesus of Nazareth, his followers understandably feared for their own lives, and they went into hiding. But the locked door didn’t keep Jesus out. He came and stood among them. He had compassion on his frightened friends, and he told them to be at peace. Everything would be all right.
Think about this for a minute. Walls and doors didn’t mean anything to
the risen Christ. That means that the stone that had been rolled away
from the tomb was not a barrier for Jesus. He didn’t need the tomb to be
opened in order to be raised from the dead. So, why was the tomb opened?
We read the drama of those first moments last Sunday, how the women went with their spices expecting the tomb to be sealed. Yet they found it open. The grave clothes lay neatly folded, because Jesus didn’t need them anymore. The women and the disciples were baffled that Jesus’ body was gone, and angels appeared in the tomb instead. It seems that these things were arranged for the sake of Jesus’ friends. The tomb was open so they could see in, not so Jesus could get out. They needed to know that Jesus’ corpse wasn’t there anymore. Once again Jesus’ friends were left scratching their heads over the strange events that typically happened around their beloved rabbi.
Naturally they gathered that evening to talk about this strange turn of events. Naturally they had the doors locked, since it seemed very possible that a conspiracy was afoot. Somebody must have taken Jesus’ body. What would happen next?
Imagine their shock and delight when Jesus appeared among them. The gospel writer doesn’t tell us how much time they spent together that day, or most of what they talked about. He just says that Jesus showed them his hands and side. It was Jesus, without a doubt!
But Thomas wasn’t there to see him. And he did doubt. It was too much to fathom, Jesus actually showing up in the flesh, alive again when he had been pronounced dead and was entombed. Thomas was the cautious type. No one pulled a fast one on him. We could say that his mind and his heart were closed, maybe because of the pain of losing Jesus. Grief can do that to you.
How good of Jesus to appear a week later for Thomas’s sake. And then Thomas was the first one who addressed Jesus as God. After he got a good look at Jesus and his wounds, he declared, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus responded by pronouncing his last beatitude, one for folks who would not get to see him in the flesh and touch his scars—so that includes you and me. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And so he addressed our intermittent doubts—how much we are like Thomas!—and opened the way for belief that is ignited by the witness of others, not our own direct experience. Jesus challenges our closed minds and hearts to believe what cannot be contained in mere evidence. To believe what we ourselves cannot verify with tangible evidence, but witnesses tell us is true.
But then we ourselves become witnesses too. Centuries later we, too, share the experience of Jesus’ love, his presence, and his forgiveness, and it enlivens our faith. We have to have the experience of his life in us, or we have nothing to proclaim to a world in need of hope. Just as Thomas had to encounter Jesus in person, we also need to face Jesus one on one. We need to grasp the enormity of his forgiveness and love. This is the foundation and source of our faith in him.
There is a thread running through John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection that I want to point out. It is the idea of openness.
First, God opened the tomb to reveal what had happened to Jesus. It was like a display waiting for Jesus’ friends to discover: the open tomb, the grave clothes lying inside, and the angels interpreting what it meant.
It seems to me that this is an example of God’s openness to us. The Scriptures testify how God’s self is revealed at many points throughout history, culminating in the person of Jesus appearing in the flesh and blood of humanity. It is as though God keeps giving the message over and over: “I love you. Come to me, and let me redeem you. I want to give you life. I share my life with you.” And now at the tomb we have another message: “Death cannot stop my love!”
It was a lot for Jesus’ friends to comprehend. Gradually they did absorb it; they did come to understand. To do so, they had to open their hearts and minds to God’s surprising plan. They had to let God clean out all their ingrained ideas about religion and start a new thing within them. It began when Jesus appeared to them in the locked room. Grief and fear were replaced by joy! Jesus had told them this would happen, but who could have blamed them for being skeptical? Now they had to believe it.
Thomas’ heart was not so open. He was cautious about this strange news. I don’t think his reaction is that different than ours when we are presented with new or different ideas about our faith. Maybe Jesus’ resurrection was the jolt his followers needed in order to realize that his entire life and message were revolutionary. He challenged the traditional interpretations of their Scriptures that focused only on the Law. He declared instead that God’s community of love—the kingdom of God—was open to everyone. He offered forgiveness freely. He forgave the most despicable sinners.
Those who listened to Jesus and stayed with him had their ideas about God turned upside down by his message, by the way he embodied God’s expansive grace. They had to open themselves up to this relationship with God that seemed like blasphemy to them at first. But the Holy Spirit came and enabled them to see that this was the “new thing” (Is 43.19) God had promised to do among them. They would have to accept a whole new framework of faith. Once they grasped the beauty and force of this good news, they gave their lives over to proclaiming it far and wide.
So we need to at least examine new ideas about God. We need to rely not only on the interpretations of people we agree with. We need to open the Scriptures and explore what feel like unfamiliar claims to gospel truth.
This is what we do as God’s people gathered together. We recognize how God has been revealed to us, how God has told us that the kingdom of love and forgiveness and life is open to us who believe in the witness we have been given. We throw caution to the wind—we open our closed minds and hearts—and say, yes, it’s true. Jesus did rise from the dead, the first born of all of us who will not be doomed to death but who share life in his name. We don’t understand it, but we open ourselves to it, because we know it is real—more real than anything else in fact. We worship him and gather in his name and celebrate in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper that Jesus rose from the dead, saving us from sin and death.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples as the resurrected one, his authority could never be questioned again. And what did he use his authority to do? He reassured his followers, and he breathed on them his Spirit along with his most urgent command: Forgive. Of all the people in the world, you my disciples have learned the power and truth of this force most deeply. Nobody else can sow the seeds of this loving, divine force better than you can.
See, the open hands that Jesus extended to his disciples were wounded hands. There is no strength in such hands to hold on to bitterness or pride or self-righteousness. Such hands must let all of these things fall away. They can only forgive. When we say that we have the hands and feet of Christ, this is how they must function, or they are not his. Our hands are open to offer peace and healing and forgiveness, wounded hands he has bequeathed to us.
Do we have this story of Thomas, who had to put his hands in Jesus’ wounds, so that we will do the same? We need to accept Jesus as he comes to us, broken yet alive. We cannot let our doubts or our caution or our pride close us off to the living Jesus Christ. Open your heart to the truth God has given through the Scriptures. It tells you that God loves you deeply and eternally. Open your own wounded hands to the world God loves, and see how letting your resentments and bitterness fall away allows you to hold his peace gently to yourself.
This is the life of faith we celebrate in baptism this morning. This is the life that is truly life, free of striving and bitterness and selfishness. A life that is open to God’s love, open to the suffering of others who need to be touched with our healing hands of forgiveness.
We will always have some of the same doubts that Thomas did. We will question whether this life is the true one we are meant to enjoy. When these misgivings arise, we open our hands to receive his body and blood given for us. We accept these tangible reminders of what we know in our hearts to true: we can trust God to fill our open hearts and minds and hands with what we need most, Jesus our Savior and Lord. Thanks be to God.
The Empty Tomb
Mark 16:1-8…Easter Sunday
I once went to a visitation for the father of a friend. I rode over with some good friends of mine. As we entered the church where it was being held, one of them saw the casket on the left and went as far to the right as he could. Later, as we said our condolences to the family downstairs, he disappeared as the rest of us lingered with our mutual friend. He made no secret of his difficulty with this ritual, this viewing of the body and talking about death. He doesn’t like to deal with deadly things.
Well, none of us does, do we? Any acquaintance with funeral directors shows you that they have a special knack for helping people deal with death, and we’re glad they do. There’s a lot of avoidance around sickness and death. We don’t like the thought of it, much less the reality.
In a collection of her poems entitled Averno, Louise Gluck has a poem called “October,” in which she contemplates autumn’s falling leaves, the dimming light, and our own inevitable decline. One line reads, “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.” A stark, foreboding statement to hear. I have the same fearful reaction to it as I do to the old line from John Donne: “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The title Averno takes its name from a crater lake in southern Italy. In the time of ancient Rome, that crater was thought to be the entrance to the underworld. Sometimes death seems like a yawning chasm that people fall into, never to return.
It’s not just the idea of my own demise that frightens me. I think I can handle that. It’s the part about “nor will what you love be spared.” I don’t want my husband, my kids, my friends to die. The anxiety about it visits us often. We are anxious when those we love are late or engaged in risky adventures, because we don’t want them to be hurt or killed. We are overwhelmed when we learn of a bad diagnosis, because it could lead to that parting we fear in the core of our being. It’s as though they are too close to the edge of the Averno, and we can’t always keep them from falling in.
So, we can put ourselves in the place of the women who approached the tomb that day, and Jesus’ disciples. He had succumbed to the dreadful, inevitable end. Why hadn’t he been able to avoid it? He had raised more than one person from the dead, so surely he had the power to escape it himself. It was all so confusing, so troubling, too sad to bear. And it gets worse. The tomb appears to be empty! Who has vandalized the resting place of their beloved Jesus?
But the story turns. It turns so unexpectedly that we don’t always know if we can believe it. The young man—an angel, we have to assume—that they find in the tomb tells them that the tomb is empty not because someone has taken Jesus’ body. He has been raised. Beyond their wildest hopes, Jesus was truly dead, but now he is alive!
We cannot know the amazement of it. My father who died twenty-eight years ago would shock us if he showed up at our Easter dinner. A reversal of physics, logic, reality—it’s no wonder some of those who witnessed it were terrified. This is beyond our comprehension. Jesus revealed God’s matchless power when he was raised from the dead. The stone was rolled away, and the tomb was empty, because its walls could not contain the life God insists on creating, and recreating.
We have the joy of opening this gift of resurrection in a special way every year, on Easter Sunday. We delight in the incredible news once again. How can this be?? No one cheats death, right? But the tomb was empty. Jesus appeared in the flesh to many people, and he is among us still, alive and sharing his life with us. Jesus faced death as we have to, and went through it, and defeated it. This is our greatest gift, then: a release from the dread, a sharing of the burden, a word of hope.
When we get close to that place we dread, that Averno of death, we may be repulsed. We may be frightened. It is hard to say goodbye when we know we won’t be saying hello again. Except we will say hello, won’t we? The graves we fill with our beloved will not hold them forever. They will be opened too. I suppose we could say that God will fill in that huge death crater with the earth that covers our graves. There will be no use for those places of death any more. The tomb is empty. Jesus is risen, and we shall arise! Alleluia!
The Promise Poured Out for Us
The relationship God formed with the people of Israel was a covenant. This is more than a contract or even a calling. It is a promise based on the relationship itself. In this case God makes the terms and binds himself to it. God was committed to taking the punishment even if the people were the ones who broke it, and that is how it played out.
Many years after the covenants with Noah and Abraham and Moses and David, the prophet Jeremiah understood that God wanted something deeper than an agreement. He said that God promised to write the covenant on our hearts (Jer 31.33). The Law wasn’t serving to draw us to God. God’s promise was to draw us instead with cords of love, shown to us in God’s own self becoming human and dying for us.
Now as we enter Holy Week we see how God offered Jesus to us as the fulfillment of the promise, God’s precious love poured out for our sake, like the bottle of expensive perfume poured on Jesus himself during his last visit with his friends in the town of Bethany. The vessel of his life began to be poured out for us from the very beginning, when Jesus became one of us, born in a stable in Bethlehem.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and people. Jesus was baptized, like one of us. He was tempted in the desert, and then began teaching and healing. Jesus’ ministry was not simply a slack period when he enjoyed the freedom of walking among the people and teaching them according to his whims. Jesus was pouring out his soul to his followers, explaining and showing them what the kingdom God was all about. It couldn’t have been easy, because the kingdom he introduced is different from anything we know. He was revealing God’s heart to all of us, taking the risk that we would recognize and honor him as God’s Son and follow him in the path of obedience to God.
4The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. 5The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.
From the beginning, his disciples were puzzled at what he said. Most of what he described about the kingdom of God was contrary to our understanding of how the world works. We trust power, money, and even violence to control our world. Jesus spoke of love, humility and forgiveness. His radical ideas gained him some heavy opposition that gradually grew. But Jesus did not shrink back from the difficulty of his work. When the time came to go to Jerusalem, his disciples discouraged him from going. They knew there were people in Jerusalem who wanted to get rid of him. There were dangers ahead, but Jesus was determined to go.
Mark 11:1-7 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it.
Jesus was emptying himself throughout his life, patiently teaching the disciples and the crowds, healing thousands of people, constantly going against the current of the temple leaders and Roman authorities. We see Jesus’ life gradually being poured out and the last dregs being emptied in his last days in Jerusalem.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
That word ‘emptying’ from Philippians 2 is kenosis in Greek. A very important word. Jesus being poured out even as he threw his leg over the back of the donkey. What we call a Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem was Jesus passing through the neck of the bottle, poured into our lives, “wasted” in the streets of Jerusalem as he set his face toward the cross.
Mark 11: 8-11
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Jesus spent his last few days in the Temple courts, teaching about God’s generosity and answering questions about things like taxes and the resurrection. It was at that time that a teacher of the Law asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, and Jesus summed it all up as loving God and loving each other.
Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples the night before he was arrested. He used the opportunity to demonstrate servanthood by washing his disciples’ feet, then telling them that they needed to become servants too. He called the broken bread his body, and the wine his blood poured out for them. He promised that his Spirit would comfort them and remind them of his teachings.
He asked them to lay down their lives for each other, and not to be afraid when following him would be very, very hard. He said, “Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.”
When the meal was over, they sang a hymn together, and then he went out to the garden to pray. His sweat poured out like drops of blood as he faced the terror of the worst kind of execution devised by humankind. In spite of his anguish, he made the choice not to escape the pain but to accept the suffering, pouring out his life for us.
9Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
10For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
11I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
12I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.
13For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!— as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
14But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.”
15My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love.
We all know what happened after Jesus was arrested. The gospel writers describe how he was passed back and forth from the temple officials to the Roman authorities. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for condemning him to death, so finally the crowd pronounced the sentence: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Sadistic Roman guards unleashed their torture on Jesus as his strength and energy ebbed away.
Isaiah 50: 6-9
6I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.7The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. 9It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
Later this week we will follow Jesus from the Upper Room to the garden, then back and forth in Jerusalem until he is finally crucified. What a contrast from the songs and shouts of praise of today! We often think of it as a week when Jesus went from the great victory of the Triumphal Entry to defeat on the cross. But I don’t think Jesus saw it that way. From the moment he mounted the donkey and went up the hill to the Holy City, he knew what was coming. Nobody understood it then, not even his beloved disciples. But we understand it now. Now we see the whole story of Jesus’ suffering for our sake, and we marvel how he let himself be poured into the confusion and mess of our ignorance.
May it not be so today. May we understand how Jesus emptied himself for us and follow suit as he has called us to do. May we as his body seek ways to rid ourselves of our own ambitions, our meaningless distractions and our self-centered lives, to be the humble servants whose lives he blesses with joy. May we learn what kenosis, or emptying, means in our life of faith. Then we will exalt our Lord Jesus, living out his command to love by laying down our lives for his sake, and for the sake of those he loves.
And so we read Paul’s instruction about following Jesus in our life together as his disciples. We also repeat the hymn Paul quoted in Philippians 2…
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Luke 15:1-32…Lent 4C
The prodigal son. Since the first two parables in Luke 15 are about a lost sheep and a lost coin, we might make the mistake of thinking that “prodigal” is another word for lost. But we would be mistaken. Prodigal means reckless, extravagant wastefulness. Oh, OK. The son was wasteful all right. Makes sense. But there is more waste in the story than meets the eye.
Jesus was wasting his time on sinners, so the Pharisees and scribes said. Maybe he was. He spent enough time talking with Pharisees and scribes, after all. Their problem was that they didn’t realize they were sinners, as much as anybody. So Jesus had a little fun with them.
“Pharisees and scribes” is a mouthful, so I’m going to call them the Big Deals. Big Deals…that sounds about right.
Say you’re a shepherd, Jesus says. (There he goes, being offensive right off the bat. Shepherds were dirty, unschooled men who couldn’t get better work. Never mind.) Say you’re a shepherd, and one of your sheep wanders off. Wouldn’t you go look for it, even if the other ninety-nine are left defenseless in the meantime? The assumed response is, of course not! What a foolish risk for the sake of one stupid sheep. Stick with the flock and hope the stray comes back.
OK, well then, what if you are a woman with ten silver coins, and you lose one of them? Wouldn’t you search high and low until you find it, and then when you do, you would feel like throwing a party to celebrate. Don’t be ridiculous, Jesus. Nobody throws a party for that. Besides, the party would probably cost more than the coin was worth in the first place.
(Big Deals are thinking, how do these examples have anything to do with joy in heaven anyway? The people who make it there will be the righteous ones. It won’t have anything to do with parties and celebrating. Concentrate on getting people to follow the Law, and you’ll be on the right track. Too bad you are wasting your time with sinners, even eating with them! You’re making them think they have a chance. This only proves that you are misleading the people, Jesus of Nazareth. You’re a flash-in-the-pan, sleight-of-hand shyster who needs to be put in his place.)
Well then, Jesus says, as long as we’re talking about wasting my time, here’s a story about a real waste. Yes, sir, every person in this story is a wastrel. See, there’s a young man who has it made. He and his dad and his brother are making a good living with their farm, but this guy is a thrill-seeker. Farm life is bo-o-o-ring. Big brother isn’t any fun, and Dad is a nice enough guy, but he tends to make a fool of himself half the time. He is always giving away stuff, doesn’t keep a close enough eye on the bottom line. So he waits till Dad is in a good mood, and asks if he can have his half of the estate now, when he’s young enough to enjoy life with the proceeds. Believe it or not, his father gives it to him.
(Jesus has the Big Deals’ attention now. What father in his right mind would give his son half his estate? Land is a blessing from God, and it is supposed to stay in the family name. What a fool! What a waste! Nothing that son might do could justify the father’s consent. What a ridiculous story!)
Jesus goes on. Predictably, the young man blows most of the money on a race horse called “Dissolute Living.” He was a sure thing. Down at the track young man made a lot of friends the old-fashioned way. He spent the rest of his money on them. They made him feel important, and the horse was sure to bring in even more cash. Except he didn’t. He came in dead last, and the stable fees and feed and everything else was too much. The friends drifted away. He found himself on the street, lucky to get a day job. Ended up slopping pigs on a bad excuse for a farm. Out on the back forty he had plenty of time to think, and what he thought was what an idiot he was. His growling stomach was the only thing worse than the sting of regret. Room and board were not part of the deal.
The only way to survive was to go back home, hang his head, and ask to be hired on as a slave. At least he would have something to eat. Then maybe he could figure out what to do next. Dad might be mad, but he wouldn’t let his son starve, right?
(Big Deals are thinking he got what he had coming. No way should he go home. He gave up his rights when he turned his back on his father and his community. He closed the gate when he left, and that gate should stay closed. Besides, the neighbors had every right to stone him for the way he shamed his father.)
Jesus continues. The young man did go home. And his father was watching for him, had been watching every day since he left. The servants had shaken their heads, whispered to each other that the old man ought to accept the fact this his fool son was gone and that was that. Get on with his life. Instead he wasted his time fussing over an ungrateful boy who should have been whipped for what he asked of his father. Now he wasn’t taking care of the farm the way he used to. The older son had to carry more weight, and he did it without complaining, most of the time. Better to spend his time on that son, the one who works hard and doesn’t disrespect his father.
(Now you’re talking, the Big Deals are thinking. At least there is one sensible character in this story.)
Father is checking the horizon as he does a hundred times a day, but this time he sees a speck, moving slowly closer. Is it his son? He’s been fooled too many times by travelers passing by. Yes, there it is. There’s something about his profile. It’s him! He came back! And father drops his work to run out to the road. He almost knocked his son over with his embrace, kissing him and crying out with joy. It’s embarrassing. The servants working in the field nearby avert their eyes as their master once again makes a fool of himself. But they can’t ignore him for long, being sent back to the house with orders to get a fine robe and ring, and get a feast prepared as fast as they can. Master keeps muttering something about lost and found, dead and alive. His son seems dazed. Ought to be ashamed of himself, showing up here after what he did. The last thing he deserves is a feast.
(This story gets more and more ridiculous, according to the Big Deals. What on earth does this have to do with sheep and lost coins and behaving properly?)
But Jesus doesn’t quit. This story is getting long. Ah, but there is hope. The elder son comes back into the picture. Nobody remembered to invite him to the feast, so when he gets back from a hard day’s work, he wonders what all the fuss is about. The servant who always liked a juicy bit of gossip takes it upon himself to inform big brother. Your dad is throwing a fancy party for your brother. He showed up today, dirty, hungry, practically in rags. You’d think he was royalty, the way your father treated him!
Older brother is stunned. It is beyond thinkable. This family is insane; there’s no other explanation. Little brother blew through his inheritance, Dad thinks it’s jolly fine, and I’m supposed to act as though nothing is wrong. This is the last straw! Why do I waste all my days slaving over this farm, only to have Dad and little brother waste it all? Not once has Dad offered to give me a party. Not once! And I’m the good son!
Father eventually realizes that one son is missing from the party. He slaps his head, unable to believe his neglect, and goes out to look for him. Where else would he be? He works all hours of the day and night, never takes a break. He’ll be out in the field. Father almost runs into him outside the door, but he hadn’t expected his son to be raving with anger. Heated argument ensues. Big brother can’t get it into his head that little brother’s return is cause for celebration, not this hissy fit. After all, we had him as much as dead, but here he is alive. He was lost to us, but he is back now. All is well.
(All is most certainly not well, the Big Deals think. The irresponsible son is celebrated, and the responsible one is taken to task. The sinner is forgiven, and the good son….wait a minute. The good son is meant to be us. What a twisted story! To make the responsible, faithful ones look bad, and the wasteful father and his good-for-nothing son in cahoots, having all the fun.)
The prodigal son parable is so very comforting for any of us who has strayed, wasted our money or our lives or our time on thrilling pursuits that offer no return. We know what it is to need forgiveness, to know that we don’t deserve it. Or do we? Some of us have never left home, wasted our parents’ money by buying a race horse or any other bad investment. Some of us have been responsible. Some of us have kept the rules and have not wasted our time hanging out with sinners.
Ah, but Jesus says, what are you wasting? Are you wasting your efforts, thinking you can earn my love? Are you wasting your ink on keeping score, tallying points that nobody will ever admire? And why are we talking about waste anyway?
Waste: to consume, spend, or employ uselessly or without adequate return. Jesus can get us riled about about waste, because we have been taught that waste is wrong. If you put something in, you ought to get something out, or you shouldn’t invest in the first place. And you certainly shouldn’t throw good money after bad, wasting even more when you know it doesn’t do you any good.
Jesus seems determined to turn this thinking in its head. Why does life have to be so logical, so efficient? I suppose we like it that way, because we can control it. But control, efficiency, logic—none of these is of any value in the kingdom of God if we forget to celebrate when something that has been lost is found. More accurately, if someone is found. Jesus tells stories that depict foolish people throwing parties over trivial, or worse, undeserving subjects. And he implies that God is like that! Foolish, wasteful, blubbering over dirty, rotten rascals. As if that justifies his habit of going to potlucks with prostitutes and thieves. What a waste of his time and good will.
What next? Will he waste his healing power on people who brought their troubles onto themselves? Will he waste his breath teaching people who just came to see his miracles and won’t remember a word he says? Will he waste his friendship on a bunch of men who will desert him when he gets wrongly accused and arrested? Will he waste his blood, on the cross? Will he waste his love on you, on me? Makes you wonder what really is wasted, and what is not.
How to Thrive on This Ship
Luke 13:1-9…Lent 3C
Six years ago this month, we watched for several days as the Carnival Cruise ship Triumph struggled to serve over 4,000 people after losing power due to a fire. We winced as we heard the reports of filth and lack of supplies for the passengers. There were also stories of people fighting over food and other supplies.
But there were other, more encouraging, accounts. Joseph and Cecilia Alvarez decided to offer hope to their fellow travelers by leading a Bible study. Passenger Ben Vogelzang said that the crew was working hard with what they had, and it could have been worse. Passengers bartered for items they needed. Sandy Jackson was fortunate to have an upper-level room with a balcony and a breeze that kept the air in her cabin fresh. She invited five other people to share her cabin, and they became good friends in the process.
Our responses to stressful
situations vary widely, from remembering to trust God on the one hand, to
taking out our frustrations on other people at the other extreme. What is it like to deal with problems
alongside other people in close quarters?
As the church, we can answer that question. It’s hard. If the people on the cruise ship had to deal with the problems over a period of months, who knows how they would have behaved? We might not have to deal with lack of food, water, and sanitary facilities, but we do face challenges together, over a much longer time period than four days. Getting supplies to survive isn’t usually an issue, but we are stuck with each other in a manner of speaking. As God’s people we are committed to unity in Christ, even when circumstances threaten to tear us apart. Disaster hits, or disagreements emerge. Jealousies flare. The church is not immune to any of the dangers the rest of the world faces.
Jesus brings salvation to us by restoring us to wholeness. This is usually not a solo experience. We are in it together. Restoration happens in the context of the church. How we treat each other in the close confines of the ship we’re riding on together is the substance of our witness to the world. Jesus said that people would know we are his followers by the way we love each other. Do we encourage each other with the Scriptures? Do we share our goods with each other? Do we put our own needs aside and work to tolerate each other’s foibles?
Jesus is in the midst of a rich time of teaching when we catch up to him in Luke 13. He has just been talking with the crowds about settling disagreements between believers properly. He also told them that his message would create controversy. So it seemed like a good time to ask a tough question or two. Someone in the crowd wondered why some Galileans had to die at the hands of Pilate when they were obviously devout people of God. Was their fate some kind of punishment from God?
Jesus would not be pulled into a discussion of cause and effect; instead he cited another incident where 18 people died in an accident. He turned the subject to the need for repentance. He would not take the bait to draw any kind of distinction between the good guys and bad guys either. Hey, quit worrying about who is at fault and focus on your own repentance, he seems to say. Time is running out! If you don’t think so, listen to a parable.
The parable is about a fig tree that isn’t bearing fruit and the vineyard owner who wants it cut down. Time to make space for a more productive tree. But the gardener still thinks there’s a chance, and asks for one more year to make it work. His request is granted, although we never hear whether he was successful or not. Apparently that’s not the point.
What does this passage have to do with the church, you may ask. The discussion addresses the way we form judgments about each other. Why do bad things happen to people of faith? We want to understand how things work, and not suffer the same fate of somebody whose weak faith maybe got them punished. This is the nitty gritty of our life together as the body of Christ, the church. And I don’t have to tell you that it isn’t always pretty. Sometimes we take it upon ourselves to judge, and we act as gatekeepers or faith police, protecting the honor of the church.
Just to be clear, Jesus does not buy the popular notion that because something bad happens to you, you must deserve it one way or another. That connection between suffering and blame was an unfortunate interpretation of the blessings and curses God spelled out in the book of Deuteronomy. Punishment for disobedience made sense. But then all suffering began to be interpreted as punishment, so you must have done something wrong to deserve it. See the problem? The logic was applied backward, and we still make the same mistake. Got bad news? We might not think that you are to blame, at least not consciously. But then our advice often implies otherwise. Even if it’s not your fault, by golly you ought to be able to do something about it to make it better. At least don’t let it rub off on me.
If suffering isn’t punishment, then why do bad things happen? (That is actually an impulse of faith, because it implies that there is a greater Being that has a purpose or at least the power to make things happen as they do.) Michael Curry calls our thinking the “desire to comfort by explanation.” It’s not so bad to want an explanation for unexpected situations. The trouble is when we latch onto the first explanation we come to. Snap judgments and easy assumptions are what get us into trouble.
You know how it works. I just talked with an acquaintance last week about a horrible rumor someone was circulating about her marriage. Somehow even friends from her church believed that she was involved in an adulterous affair. She was trying to handle it with grace and understanding, but it was deeply disappointing to know that people would accept lies as fact without challenging them. How sad that rumors can do such damage.
Rumors aren’t the only culprits. Personal viewpoints passed off as fact are just as deadly. Sloppy interpretations of Scripture wreak havoc.
This is the hard work of community: to deal with the hard questions instead of being lazy and accepting whatever plausible explanation arrives at the door first. Who doesn’t want a quick, simple explanation? Instead, unexamined conclusions to complex matters should be questioned. Love demands the truth, not simple answers. Theological issues that have divided the church in too many cases split congregations because they would not sit down and wrestle with their diverse interpretations of Scripture. Others glossed over the problems and buried them. You can be certain that those problems were buried alive, and they will resurface. Better to deal with them, no matter how uncomfortable it feels, than to kick the resentment down the road when our children will be blindsided by it when the next crisis arises.
The hard work of the church is to face the hard questions, to refuse easy answers, to challenge assumptions that may or may not be based in Scripture. Another pitfall of the church is to give up on people too quickly. That is the subject of the parable Jesus told about the fig tree.
The owner of the property is not actually irresponsible. Two years after a tree is supposed to start bearing fruit seems reasonable as a cutoff date. But the gardener must have a few more tricks up his sleeve, and he advocates for a little more time.
What would be easier? Cut down the tree and start over. But in the kingdom of God, we don’t always do what seems most efficient to a businessman. Mercy, not efficiency, is what we value.
The parallel in the church might look like this. If somebody is driving us nuts with their ideas, or making us look like fools with their antics, it is tempting to cut them loose. But we can be gardeners, advocating for mercy. We can be their patient encouragers, walking alongside them. Take time to understand, and find ourselves growing in the process.
It takes some people longer than others to be restored to faith, to wholeness. I know of one man who struggled with substance abuse, served time in prison, was agonized over in the prayers of his parents for forty years. Forty years! But now he is restored, free from bondage and living his faith in Jesus Christ.
Maybe the problem with church is more personal for you, and you are a victim. You have been hurt by a careless remark or even the intentional actions of a fellow church member. The easiest thing to do is leave. Go find another church, or start one. Better the sharks in the sea out there than the other passengers in here.
Digging around a plant and fertilizing it is dirty, sweaty work. So, too, is facing each other with our hurt feelings or diverse opinions, listening to one another and hashing through it. It would be far easier to just split up and start over. But then we would have missed the deeper joy of forgiveness, the stronger bonds forged through gritted teeth and tears, and finally, hugs and handshakes. Praying for someone you can’t stand is what is required of us, and we accept the orders reluctantly. Yet by faith we trust that there will be restoration on the other side.
Sometimes there isn’t. If the fig tree doesn’t bear fruit in another year, it’s gone. Jesus is not mincing words about judgment here, the judgment of the only righteous Judge. Don’t wait too long to repent, because the day of reckoning will come. Everybody, whether victim of Pilate or victim of an accident, will die. You will die.
Perhaps the message for you this morning is to quit wasting your time on figuring out who is to blame for what and take a look in the mirror instead. You need to repent as much as the next person. Repentance will lead to your restoration, your salvation. You have to turn away from all the excuses that have kept you from experiencing God’s mercy. Could it be that you have been too lazy or too stubborn to admit you need restoring?
There’s another potential problem. You don’t like the people here, the ones responsible for helping restore you, so it’s tempting to go elsewhere. Maybe that is the best solution for you. God sometimes surprises us by taking us in a new direction.
The trouble is, folks on other ships are sinners too. Sinners are the only option you’ve got as traveling companions in the faith. So, it’s time for all of us sinners to step up and be Jesus’ disciples who follow in the way of the cross. Disciples who listen to one another, forgive each other, bear each other’s opinions as well as each other’s burdens.
The call of the gospel today is to say no to our excuses, our comfortable assumptions, our snap judgments, and shallow theological thinking. We need to do what the gardener does: open ourselves up to future possibility. Set aside our small thinking that insists on explanations and blame, and instead step into the mystery and mercy of God. It is a wide open space, a place of freedom.
God’s invitation to salvation is
given out of love. God wants to restore
us to himself, and to one another, because it is the only way to life. The church is the ship God has called us to
ride this life out together. It gets
messy in the process, it’s true. Love is
hard work. But what other choice do we
have? We can abandon ship, I
suppose. But I’d rather deal with the
folks in this ship and figure out how love can restore us. Let the sharks circle us in the water. We’re in this boat together with the only One
who can save us.
 Curry, Michael, in Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 2, 2009. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), p. 93.
Willing to Love
Luke 13:31-35…Lent 2C
Do you like to take tests? Whether it’s an exam in school or a physical in the doctor’s office, we don’t like it. Our palms get sweaty and our blood pressure goes up. We lose sleep over it, afraid that the results will not be good.
We don’t like other tests either: tests of courage, or strength, or commitment. It is downright uncomfortable when the spotlight is focused on us, because we know our failures will be on display for all to see. Every person in this room can remember a test of your poise: an embarrassing moment, whether it was brought on by yourself or someone else. We don’t like to look like fools or failures.
Yet during the season of Lent, we walk toward testing instead of avoiding it. At least in theory. Self-examination for the sake of repentance, of turning back to God, is a necessary discomfort we accept for several weeks before the relief and victory of Easter. And so we study Jesus’ temptation in the desert. We ask ourselves if we are like Peter, who failed the test of loyalty when he denied Jesus three times. We undergo Lenten disciplines to rid ourselves of sinful habits and attitudes. As we approach the celebration of God’s grace poured out for us on the cross, we explore the dimensions of our depravity and realize how desperately we need the forgiveness rendered through that cross.
I’ll tell you right now that I am going to bring you down pretty low this morning before the message of hope at the end. I might even get you riled up a little. Sometimes we need to face the sorry truth about ourselves, the stark reality of our stubborn ways, so we can renew our commitment humbly and sincerely. Lest you think I’m looking down at you, be assured that I consider my words to apply to myself so completely that I routinely wonder why I have any business preaching in the first place. We are all in this together, folks.
What we see when we examine our commitment to God makes us sad. So it is fitting to sit with Jesus for a few moments as he weeps over Jerusalem, to witness the glimmer of his tears as he laments: “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you…”
Even though Jesus’ cry of frustration fits right into this Lenten flow, I struggled with it for quite a while before I found a way for it to speak to us this morning. What I realized was that we need to imagine what Jesus would say about us. If we could eavesdrop on him in a quiet moment looking through a scrapbook of our lives, what would we hear him whisper to himself? What would be the substance of a story called “Jesus Weeps Over (insert your name here)” or “Jesus Weeps Over Bethlehem Lutheran Church”? I know I can’t put words in Jesus’ mouth, and I hope I was being faithful to the gospel when I imagined some laments on his behalf. I began with his frustrations about the people of Jerusalem, but you’ll see that they fit us all too well. As my pencil flew across the page, it became clear to me that Jesus’ laments are timeless.
Jesus says, “I tried to get you to understand that people are more important than rules when I freed a woman from her infirmity on the Sabbath. But you were not willing. You’d rather keep score.
“I called you to repentance, to turn away from the pursuits of money, prestige, and control—all those things that make you serve them but never satisfy. I called you instead to a way of love and trust. But you were not willing. You were suspicious of my motives.
“I described God’s way to you, what I call the kingdom of God. It is the powerful, life-giving force that fuels an exciting, world-changing adventure. My unstoppable love is the essence of this life I call you to follow. But you were not willing. You chose mediocrity instead.
“I told you not to be afraid of those who can kill the body, or your reputation, or your 401K. I asked you to trust me enough to give your life for my sake. But you were not willing. You’d rather keep your life for yourself, even though in keeping it, it is devoid of meaning.
“I entrusted my other children to you. As part of my body, the church, I depended on you to encourage one another in faithful service and watchfulness for my return. I expected you to be so energized every Sunday after worshipping God, that you’d be driven to be a source of hope and rich possibilities as my people. But you were not willing. You preferred to have a cup of coffee and go home.
“I taught you that to love me is to love the least of these my brothers and sisters, my term for the poor and oppressed and discouraged. You saw the joy and wonder of those I healed, blessed, forgave. You knew how much I love them. I asked you to love them too. But you were not willing. You didn’t have time.
“I gave you chances to confess my name in the public arena, and at your own family dinner table. It was your job to proclaim that God is worthy of your worship, that you will bow the knee to no other. But you were not willing. You allowed yourself to be distracted by cheap substitutes.
“I prepared a life for you. My plans for you were developed in love before I fashioned your body and your personality to leave your unique stamp on the world. I could have used you to bless many. Your part would have been hard, but not nearly as hard as following a course you were not fitted to follow. I used many ways to invite you to the adventure. But you were not willing. Instead you defined your own version of adventure and comfort, so you missed out on the amazing, Spirit-filled experiences you could have recounted to your grandchildren as a testimony to my faithfulness.
“I provided ways for you to know me intimately, to be captivated by my relentless love. I gave you my Scriptures to read for this purpose. But you were not willing. You thought it would be too boring.
“I poured out my grace on you in your baptism, offering you the gift of belonging in the church, where you agreed to be set apart from the world, marked by love for one another. But you were not willing. You rationalized that you were too busy to take any initiative for the work of the gospel, even though you spent great amounts of time and effort on many other endeavors.
“I taught you to pray. But you were not willing. You were too tired.
“I gave you spiritual gifts for the building up of my church, so you could know the pleasure of participating in the greatest project ever undertaken: radically changing the world with the power of my love. I called you to share my love with your community, so its families, its unemployed, its disillusioned, its exhausted people could be renewed in hope. But you were not willing to use your gifts for this purpose. You chose to use them for your own ideals instead.
“I created a world of beauty to reveal my goodness to you. I made it productive so that you could use its resources to be sure that everyone had enough. But you were not willing. You bought into the notion that some can have more than others, and that’s just the way things are.
“I asked you to take up your cross and follow me. But you were not willing. You said I was asking too much.
Scathing? Uncomfortable? Unfair? Maybe. You know which ones apply to you. But now for some good news. Bear with me as I explain it to you.
Jesus said we were not willing. What keeps us from doing what Jesus wants? Our first impulse might be to say that we don’t trust him enough, and there is truth in that. But trust is a function of belief, and we will never master that completely. Face it, we fail at belief. Our trust is spotty at best.
I think we don’t trust God because we are afraid. We don’t know what God will ask of us. We like our comfort, even if we know that God offers us more. We fear exchanging what we know for the unknown, even if we have all the Scriptures to convince us otherwise. So what is the solution?
I propose a shift in our thinking about faith. The opposite of fear is not faith. Fear is an emotion, what we feel in our gut. Faith is more in our heads. It is a gift God gives us when we need it. It is a gift celebrated as the church, because faith is so much easier to exercise together. But the opposite of fear is not faith. It is not trying harder and harder to have the right mindset because we will always fail at that, and it won’t keep us from being afraid for very long.
In God’s kingdom the opposite of fear is love. All Jesus wants us to do is love him. Remember? The greatest commandment is to love God with all that we are and all that we have, and the second is to love our neighbors as ourselves. God does not expect great faith from us, but great love. This is genius! Of course it is, because God thought of it. We can’t believe enough to save our souls. But we can love. We can be grateful for what God does for us, and we can love God for it. We can see a baby and love him a lot easier than we can understand his moving parts. Love comes so much more naturally to us because we were wired to love. We can love even when we are terrible at believing or trusting.
So when Jesus says we are not willing, how can we be more willing? Not by convincing ourselves to do it, or by reciting a list of theological truths. Not by feelings of guilt because of what you think you’re “supposed” to do. We need to look at the cross, where Jesus gave his life for us because he loves us. We can respond to that kind of love. We can be energized, motivated, blown away by love. We can love. Love makes us willing.
This is the whole message of God to us. Just let me love you! Love each other instead of using each other. Don’t be misled by other gods with their empty promises. They don’t love you! I do.
All those things Jesus calls us to do, all the guilt or anger or sadness you may have felt while I was presuming to quote Jesus about what you were not willing to do, those are the nuts and bolts and struggles of what it means to love him. Love is often hard, and complicated. But love—the authentic, self-giving kind—always wins. It wins our hearts and steers us in the direction of the life Jesus desperately wants to give us. Desperately enough to weep when we resist it. Desperately enough to die so we will know it.
The Secret to Security
Luke 4:1-13…Lent 1C
On Ash Wednesday I told you that we are going to use a specific perspective on salvation during the season leading up to Easter. I’d like us to explore one of the meanings of salvation which is restoration. I made the bold statement that Jesus didn’t come to make us good, but to make us whole. Goodness is a function of the restoration Jesus sought for us, bringing us back to God, offering us life that is abundant with love and meaning. Today we will talk about one aspect of wholeness, a very important one: security. In the past I have explained the Hebrew word shalom, which is a rich word about peace, wellness, and community, as well as many other aspects of life in the kingdom of God. Security is certainly one of those aspects.
I imagine some of you have driven over the Golden Gate Bridge, without much thought to your safety. But during its construction, you may also know that no safety devices were used, and 23 men fell to their deaths. Finally a large net was installed. At least ten men fell into it and were saved from certain death. Besides preserving life, the net can also be credited with increased productivity. 25% more work was accomplished after the net was installed. Security about their safety enabled the workers to serve the project vigorously, without worry.
Security matters to us. Our well-being depends on living without fear of attack, famine, or failure. Children cannot learn unless they feel safe. You can’t rest if you feel threatened. Fear paralyzes us. It blocks creativity and makes it hard to have healthy relationships. There are good reasons why the place we worship is called a sanctuary, a safe place. That is the essence of our life as God’s children. We are secure in God’s love and care.
The story of Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness enduring temptation from the devil tells us something about the security we can claim as God’s people. It happens right after Jesus’ baptism, when he was called God’s beloved Son. He has been filled with the Holy Spirit; in fact it is the Spirit that leads him into the place of testing. We will see how Jesus’ security in his identity and purpose help him meet the challenge.
The devil acts as though Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is rather a fanciful idea, beginning with “If you are the Son of God…” Jesus doesn’t take the bait, because he is confident in who he is. The devil proceeds to question the basis for Jesus’ security, but Jesus uses Scripture to explain that it cannot be taken from him. Even though Jesus is threatened at his very core—his identity and his purpose—the spiritual power alive in him enables him to remain undaunted.
The first temptation addresses Jesus’ self-preservation. Jesus was beyond hungry, and bread would have tasted so good. He could have turned stones into bread in an instant. But he doesn’t have to worry about providing for his needs. His response is more than a simple “no.” It is an affirmation that bread is not our deepest need. Survival is not his highest goal. Life is defined by more than eating and breathing. “One does not live by bread alone,” he replies.
The message of the tempter to Jesus, and to us, is this: “You have to make sure you have enough. You don’t want to go hungry!” We spend much of our lives dealing with this, don’t we? Bringing home the bacon, building up our savings if we’re lucky, visiting the local food pantry if things are tough. Make sure you can eat today, but also make sure your future is secure.
But the message presents a false ideal. Jesus’ response that we need more than bread to live can be restated in our own words: God’s promises are true. That is the basis of my security. God will be sure I have what I need, and bread is not my ultimate need. My relationship with God, my security as God’s child, is what matters more than anything, even more than where my next meal comes from.
The devil tries another tactic. A quick slide show of the world’s kingdoms is played for Jesus, and Jesus is told that he can rule over all of them if he’ll just do this one small thing: worship him, the scam artist who doesn’t hold the deed to any of the property he is offering. Seems like a good deal on the face of it, but Jesus won’t be fooled. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
The enemy thinks he can lure Jesus with the offer of significance. Look how much power you will have! Many nations and tribes will have to honor you as their ruler. What the tempter fails to acknowledge is that Jesus already has authority over all of those people. It is the sneakiest con of all: trying to sell you something that you already own. All for the sake of being considered important, so you can feel significant. Everybody wants to think that they matter.
The way we hear the temptation is this: You don’t matter. You are a nobody! You’d better find a way to look important.
That, too, is a false ideal. Jesus’ security is our security. His response shows us how we can think about our significance. It is probably a little different than the way we might impulsively respond. His affirmation of the commandment to worship God only is also key to our own self-esteem: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” So I am not the center of the universe. Neither is the one challenging my worth. God is the center. My significance comes only from the One I worship. God calls me beloved, and so I am.
Paul refers to this in his letter to the Romans that we read today (10:8b-13). God does not consider some people more worthy than others. Belief in Jesus Christ alone is enough to establish confidence in us, to orient our lives around the truth, to engage us in community together. The faith God gives us makes us significant, important, never to be forgotten by the only One whose esteem truly matters.
A brief story to illustrate. A group of scientists ventured into a remote location in the Alps, searching for new varieties of flowers. One of them spotted a beautiful, rare species through his binoculars. It was growing at the bottom of a deep ravine. If they wanted to obtain a sample, someone would have to be lowered into the gorge.
There was a youngster nearby, so the botanist asked him if he would be willing to help. He was told that a rope would be tied around his waist, and the men would let him down carefully.
The boy was excited but a little unsure. He peered down at the valley floor thoughtfully. “Wait,” he said. “I’ll be back.” He ran off, and soon returned with an older man. He approached the leader of the group and said, “I’ll go over the cliff now and get the flower for you, but this man has to hold the rope. He’s my father!”
We can trust the One who made us, who died for us, who dwells in us, to ensure our place in this world as someone who deserves respect and love. We are secure in our significance because God makes us so.
Finally, the devil appeals to Jesus’ physical well-being. Would God protect him as it was stated in Psalm 91? The devil actually tempts Jesus in more way than one. This is not only about personal safety. He is implying that Jesus is supposed to apply every word of Scripture literally, and if he can’t, then God cannot be trusted. A beautiful song about God’s loving care should not be taken as a contract. Rather, it is a statement about God’s character and the relationship God has with us. The devil wants to twist it into a criterion for God’s trustworthiness. He wants Jesus to feel insecure if his safety is not secured exactly as stated in Psalm 91. He wants to cultivate mistrust in God.
The issue of personal safety touches a nerve with us. We don’t want to be hurt. I have talked with quite a few Christians near the end of their lives. Once they have come to terms with its inevitability, they still fear suffering. Yet we all deal with it at some point. Pain is part of life. Our bodies wear out and malfunction. Pain is very good detractor. The threat of war, violence, and abuse are effective in power struggles because we can’t stand suffering.
And so the power struggle with the devil is often effective when he uses what he thinks is his trump card: pain. You don’t want to suffer, do you? He challenges us with the idea that our physical well-being matters more than anything else.
But those who have endured pain for the sake of higher purposes, or maybe you yourself with your chronic pain, can teach us all what is true. Yes, pain is awful. But our physical comfort is not the ultimate goal in life.
Jesus’ response is interesting. It also helps us put things in perspective. He doesn’t just argue with the devil about what is right or wrong about enduring or inflicting pain. Instead, he says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
That addresses the challenge to jump off the temple and see if the angels come to the rescue. But here’s how I see it relating to our need to avoid pain. Do not question God’s priorities. While God cares very much about our suffering, God does not consider it something to be avoided at all costs. In fact there are numerous cases we could cite from Scripture that show how suffering was a necessary messenger for truth.
More important, if Jesus had jumped, if he had conspired with the devil to see what God would do if he tested the angel rescue theory, how could he possibly be depended on to endure the horror of the cross? Jesus would not test God in this, and he did accept the worst kind of death the Romans could deliver. There is a hint of it as we read the last line of the story, that the devil left but would lie in wait until the time was right to deal with Jesus again.
What strikes me about Jesus in this story is that he isn’t just wrestling with temptations as we might. Jesus is being asked to give up the security that is already his. The tempter is offering fake security, unreliable and short-sighted at best. Jesus’ responses are more than “no.” They are more like, “no, thanks,” because he doesn’t need what is being offered. He doesn’t have to fight a desire for them as much as he has to stand on the truth of what is his: security in his identity and his purpose. He is the beloved Son of God, determined to achieve peace with God for us at all costs.
We can be secure, then, in knowing that Jesus would not be deterred from his mission. He is committed to your eternal well-being and mine. He will not compromise the security he not only has in himself, but the security he promises to us.
The thing about security is that I can’t convince you to feel it. I can’t talk you into it. You have to experience it for yourself. For many of us, just reading the 23rd Psalm takes us to that secure place. What better expression of God’s care for us? Psalm 91 is almost as effective, and we will sing its beautiful message in a moment.
If security must be felt, then baptism is a wonderful sign of it. What feels more loving than a warm bath at the hands of someone who loves you deeply? Today we have the privilege of blessing three children with that experience. They will step up to receive the sign that they have learned is both gift and mystery. They know that it is an outward sign of God’s gift of forgiveness. It is an experience of grace, unearned but joyfully received.
These children, and all of us, never
have to wonder whether we are secure in God’s hands. Over and over in the testimony of Scripture,
we learn that God rescues God’s people.
God shows them what matters. What
matters to God is us! Our
self-preservation, our significance, our safety are defined by God’s purposes
and values. God’s love is the very substance
of our security, and it cannot be taken from us. God is holding the rope! Thanks be to God.
What Glory Looks Like
Luke 9:28-43…Transfiguration C
We sure have ideas about glory. It looks like winning “American Idol” or the Super Bowl, right? Confetti raining down, loud music, cheering crowds. Bright lights. And yet the brightness is about the only image these American “glorious” dreams-come-true have in common with the transfiguration scene in today’s gospel story. Glory shines from Jesus as he talks with Moses and Elijah, and the dazzling appearance of Jesus is burned into the memories of Peter, James, and John.
Jesus’ inner circle of disciples was so awed by the sight, they didn’t speak of it to anyone for a long time. Maybe it was too incredible for words. They might have thought nobody would believe them. Or maybe they actually did get a sense of what glory meant to Jesus once they got some distance from their experience, after having also witnessed his death and resurrection. Because glory to Jesus didn’t mean what it seems to mean in our culture today, with its hype and glitz and glamour.
To understand the glory of Jesus, and our part in it, we have to look at the part the transfiguration of Jesus played in the larger story of God’s interaction with us. That larger story goes all the way back to creation, when God made humans in the image of the godhead, then interacted with them in the garden. God’s delight and disappointment with Adam and Eve set the tone for God’s story, which includes us: the “us” of all humans together, and the “us” of you and me, gathered here on a winter day in Royal.
Moses plays a big part in the story, and we read a bit about him this morning. God actually set up many meetings with Moses, and the shiny kind of glory from God actually rubbed off on him. He had to wear a veil afterward, I guess because they hadn’t invented sunglasses yet, and the people Moses talked with couldn’t stand the glare.
Elijah was another special character in the story of God and humans. He didn’t even die a normal death, but got taken up to heaven by a fiery chariot. That makes a much bigger impression than the stretchiest of stretch limos these days.
Because we have the biblical account of these unusual experiences with God by Moses and Elijah, and a number of other Old Testament characters, we get an idea of the underlying theme of it all. It is astonishing: The God of the universe, “maker of heaven and earth” as we testify in the creed, for some reason loves to interact with us humans. Not only that, but God invites us to actually collaborate in the divine plan to bless the world. Why else would God meet with Moses to give us the Law, or tell Abraham that he would have many descendants who would testify to the world of God’s goodness? Why else would God communicate over and over through the prophets, trying to get people to follow the plan of love and justice instead of mistreating and fighting one another all the time?
God revealed over and over to the patriarchs and the common people that God is interested in us. God is shown to be powerful, authoritative, and fair, but also forgiving, patient, and personally interested in our well-being. But Paul says that the people didn’t understand. Their minds had a veil over them and their hearts were hard (2 Cor. 3:14). The people of God had short memories. They let the distractions and cares of this world obscure their real-life memories of God’s power.
Enter Jesus. The God who intervened again and again to rescue the people finally comes to us in Jesus Christ, the Son of God himself. He is the culmination of God’s story. He has come to us folk who, like Peter, James, and John on the mountain, aren’t fully awake to the purposes of God. But he comes to us anyway! Jesus comes to make God’s plan unmistakable: we are invited to be made whole and to participate in God’s glory. Jesus embodies God’s goodness.
I’ve been reading the book of Luke over and over, trying to get a deeper sense, a clearer picture of the Jesus who appeared in human history. As I read Luke chapter 8 one day (the chapter right preceding this chapter with the transfiguration), I was so impressed with Jesus’ power and goodness, revealed again and again as he exercised his authority over human wisdom, over a raging sea, over demons, over disease. He can’t seem to keep himself from restoring to wholeness every person he comes in contact with. Love and forgiveness and healing pour out of him.
As if seeing Jesus at work as healer and authority over wind and waves were not enough, Jesus invites his inner circle of Peter, James, and John to get a glimpse of his supernatural glory on the mountain. It is a normal day in the life of Jesus to have a conversation with Moses and Elijah, and to bear a bright appearance when he is with them. But it is too much for the men to fathom, and they won’t speak of it to anyone for a long time afterward. They were too awed, too confused to tell anyone about it.
Now here’s where the story turns. We discover that glory for Jesus has nothing to do with his shiny appearance or his divine nature that allows him to have a chat with any person in any time or place. We find, instead, that his glory is inseparable from suffering. Taken in the greater story told by Luke, Jesus goes back down the mountain, to the day-to-day, nitty gritty of ministry. He returns to the demands of demonstrating the kingdom of God through parables and healing and casting out demons.
The very next day Jesus is met again by a crowd. A man begs him to help his son, who is tormented by a demon. Jesus’ disciples had been given power to cast out demons (cf. Luke 9:1), but they couldn’t get it done, presumably because their faith was weak. Jesus has compassion on this man and his son, addresses the unclean spirit and banishes him, thus restoring the son to health. This is what astounds the crowd. This is the glory of Jesus.
But his glory is not confined to feats of power. It is more about the overall mission of restoration, and what it takes to restore us. About a week before the transfiguration, Jesus told his disciples that he would soon undergo great suffering, be rejected by all the religious leaders, be killed and raised again. We don’t have time to go into it here, but elsewhere Jesus calls this his glory. Terrible suffering, rejection, crucifixion, and finally resurrection victory are what constitute glory in Jesus’ book. I suspect we will hear more about that in the Lenten season that begins this week.
When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah earlier in Luke 9, Jesus explained that what the Messiah was up to was sacrifice (Luke 9:18-22). Then he said that if anybody else wants to follow him, they’d better be ready to do the same thing: take up their crosses. Then right after the transfiguration and casting out the demon, Jesus predicts his death again.
There is no question about it. What glory looks like to Jesus is not winning contests, dazzling brightness, or even becoming wildly popular through healing people. Glory, to him, is accomplishing the mission he set out to do: to restore us to God by suffering, dying, and rising again from the dead. And he invites us to collaborate in that mission by sharing in his suffering for the sake of all those who need restoration in our own setting today.
What is the point of the transfiguration then? Why the brightness, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the voice from the cloud? We can’t know for sure, but for one thing, it establishes Jesus’ authority to define glory. Maybe that vision for Peter, James, and John was needed to compel them to follow Jesus in the way of the cross. So they would know without question that Jesus is truly the Son of God, worthy of their worship and obedience. We do need these times of worship to remember who God is, and what a privilege it is to join God in the work of blessing the world.
The thing is, we can get off track so quickly. We might want to follow our first impulse, like Peter who blurted out that it would be great to just hang out on the mountain for a while. He had barely gotten the words out before the cloud surrounded and terrified them. It was as though God slapped Peter upside the head and said, “Hey! This is my Son. Listen to what he has to say and keep your ideas to yourself.” Then the next day Jesus says, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” (Luke 9:44)
Listen, people! Listen to him. Following Jesus is not about staying on the mountaintop where it feels really good to worship God and hang out with other Christians. We get the vision of who God is in worship so that we will have what it takes to do the hard work of ministry. To face the unclean spirits of greed and poverty and violence in our world and in ourselves, send them packing, and serve the world with love instead. This is how we share in his glory.
We have to ignore our human impulse to be comfortable and bask in the fun parts of being God’s people, wasting time that is better spent experiencing the glory of ministry. Peter wanted to suspend time and enjoy the glow. We can’t do that. Time marches on, and people are suffering in unbelief, in despair, in hunger or disease or loneliness. Following Jesus, accepting God’s invitation to participate in the great plan for the world, is to enter the suffering of others—that is, taking up our crosses. Following Jesus means entering mystery—the cloud where God’s voice is the only thing that is clear.
Paul implied in his letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 3:18) that we can still see the glory of Jesus. We ourselves can actually reflect his glory in our own lives, and it is the Holy Spirit within us that makes it happen. He says that we are gradually being transformed into Jesus’ image and his glory by that steady process of his life having its way in us.
Do we get how profound that is? God living in us, reaching the world through us, makes us part of God’s story and reveals God’s glory. We get to share in God’s plan, be agents of God’s love. We are powerful with God’s power in us, and we have to be sure we remember that. Paul says how important it is to keep that in mind: “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Cor. 4:7)
This is real glory. It has nothing to do with TV shows or sports or lotteries or even scoring the perfect job or spouse or house. Instead we get to have God’s glory rubbed off on us. It’s not the shiny kind that Moses had to cover up. It looks more like tears for someone in pain, dirty fingernails from helping an ailing neighbor with their harvest, creaky knees earned from hours in prayer, a small bank balance from having given again to someone who needs money more than you.
What more can you want from life than to share in God’s glory? To know the thrill of a life changed from despair to hope. To see the smile of a child whose life you were blessed to save. To hear the unspoken “thank you” of a friend who needed you to listen.
This is what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. This is what glory looks like.
Reality Under the Reign of God
Luke 6.17-26…Epiphany 6C
On my last trip to Mali in western Africa, I visited my friend Bibi, who lives with her daughters in the poor section of the capital city of Bamako, along with her two daughters. Bibi runs an orphanage on a shoestring and a prayer, and she is a beloved leader in her community. She took me along to a baby shower, where the ladies were dressed in their colorful finery, and the celebration was already in full swing.
Bibi is one of those charismatic people that attracts attention. But as soon as she introduced me as her friend, a Christian pastor, the focus changed. People began to ask Bibi if I could pray for them. I was ushered out of the courtyard and into a room where I could receive people one by one. In my stumbling French, I prayed for healing, for finding work, for tragic situations of many kinds. The people waited patiently and looked at me expectantly.
What is remarkable is that I was probably the first Christian person—certainly the first pastor—they had ever met. These were Muslims. But on my previous visits I had had similar experiences. Need is need, and desperation drives people to the nearest glimmer of hope. They took my prayers seriously, and so did I.
I think of those people’s faces sometimes when the gospels describe crowds of people coming to Jesus. As we read in last week’s gospel lesson, word about Jesus’ healing power and teaching authority traveled fast. They flocked to him and jockeyed for position to be near him.
But Jesus took time to teach them. They needed to know that he was more than a physician or magician. He was the living, breathing, embodied appearance of God’s compassion among them. It was compassion that drove him to tell his version of their situations.
We call this teaching the “Beatitudes,” which means blessings. But this version in Luke includes something the other gospels don’t report: woes. As he explained the difference between the two, at least one theme emerged. Whether they were suffering or comfortable, everybody was headed for change.
If you are poor, you feel your need painfully, every day. You know you need help. You are more or less ready for help, all the time. Which makes you a prime candidate for trusting God. You appreciate every benefit when it comes, because you really need it. Frederick Buechner said Jesus’ blessing is for those “who have nothing to give and absolutely everything to receive, like the Prodigal telling his father ‘I am not worthy to be called thy son,’ only to discover for the first time all he had in having a father.”[i]
Yours is the kingdom of God, Jesus said. The kingdom is not just heaven in the sweet by and by, it is the way God designed the world to work, and the way things are when we follow Jesus as he asked us to do. It happens when people treat one another with love and respect, and care for one another. The poor are offered help in this kingdom.
Likewise those who are hungry, and weeping from sadness or fear or confusion. Likewise those who get a lot of grief for following Jesus instead of letting fear or greed drive them.
There is a reality that you cannot see right now, Jesus is telling them. God sees you. I see you. Your need is the best receptacle for the goodness of God.
But if you think you’ve got this life licked, and you’re sitting pretty, watch out. That high position you scrambled to reach is supported by empty promises and hollow comfort. The money you are holding so tightly cannot buy you real security. Your food and your laughter will run out, and your reputation can’t keep you warm at night.
Jesus doesn’t say it in so many words in this story, but he makes it clear with his own life: the only thing that will not change is God, who loves you. God wants to show you how that kingdom life is deeply satisfying, and gains you friends who will weep when you’re gone from this life. God’s kingdom life is not a bed of roses, but it is simpler, and it is free from the complications of holding grudges and competing all the time. You spend your energy on what matters, not on pointless achievements or petty quarrels.
We have choices about where we get our meaning and purpose. Like trees planted near a river, our life flourishes when we tap into the life-giving love and power of God. You don’t see the roots taking in the moisture, but you know it’s happening.
We can’t always see what is happening in other people either, but we can get a pretty good idea of what defines their life. We experience the blessing of God through some people, and we sense a lack of vitality and hope in others. I suppose there is a mixture of both in most of us, so we need this teaching from Jesus to keep us directed to him as our source.
When I was the chaplain at a nursing home in Spencer, I witnessed daily how looks can be deceiving, but behavior is revealing. One day I realized that there were many people in those wheelchairs and beds who were feeble and confused, but some of them were more “whole” than I was.
Flossie was the mother of one of our nurses. She first lived in our assisted living, but then had to move to the nursing home for more care. When I asked her how she felt about it, she said, “I’m sure I’ll love it there.” As I became more acquainted with her, I realized that this was Flossie’s attitude about all of life. She always saw what she was looking for. She expected nice people and good help, and that is what she experienced.
The opposite was true for many of our residents as well. People who felt “forced” to live there ate bad food, waited too long for help, and were generally as miserable as they expected to be. Too bad they can’t have the attitude of another long-time resident, Betty. She told me many times, “If you can’t live at home, this is the best place to be. It is wonderful!”
Although she had Alzheimer’s disease, Delores could still enjoy a good joke. She sang along with hymns and received communion from her pastors with solemn faith. She even had the wit to make a wry observation or an insightful comment during a Bible lesson. But one day she seemed to be frustrated, so I sat down next to her near the nurses’ station. “What am I doing here?” she asked. “Can’t I get out of here? I want to go home.” I explained why she lived there and sympathized with her desperation to go where she thought things would look familiar to her. How frightening it must be not to recognize or understand the world you live in!
But here’s the thing. People with dementia struggle, and their families suffer too. But they are also walking examples of God’s grace. Grace is when God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, when God blesses us even though we don’t deserve it. Do people lose out on God’s love because they cannot put a sentence together? I don’t believe that for a second. God’s love is just as deep and true as it has ever been. They are blessed in their need.
There were examples of Jesus’ warnings too, those “woes” of Luke 6. One day I wandered into the dining room of one of our assisted living buildings and saw Gene sitting next to the large window that overlooks the woods across the highway. He had a dazed look on his face. As I gently interrupted his thoughts, it became clear that he was experiencing a crisis. “What was it all for?” he repeated over and over.
I knew some of Gene’s story. He had worked hard to achieve financial success. His dreams of spending his retirement years in travels with his wife were dashed when she contracted Alzheimer’s disease and physical limitations. In the process of maintaining control over his affairs he had alienated his children. Now he could see how his priorities had been mixed up, but it was almost too late to do anything about it.
“Woe to you who are rich,” Jesus says. How well did that wealth serve you in the long run?
A tenant in one of our assisted living buildings asked me to sit down and talk with him one day. Leo recounted several experiences from the distant past. Family members and acquaintances had been judgmental toward him in the past. He had had enough sense to know that they were distorting Christian belief. Nevertheless, he had let it keep him from seeking a relationship with God, something he now sensed that he needed. I explored with him how he might have put up some barriers to belief.
I challenged Leo to let go of the pattern he had followed for decades. He had rehearsed the stories of resentment in his mind so often that it was hard to get past them. I wonder whether he was able to let go of the bad news of his past to receive the good news—the blessing—of God’s love.
So, looks can be deceiving. Riches do not spell contentment, and poverty does not equal the lack of it. What makes the difference? Maybe what Jesus was talking about that day was hope. About the confidence that there is a larger reality at play, and it is not wishful thinking at all. It is as real as the tears you weep, as real as the pangs of hunger or loneliness, as real as the bills you have no idea how to pay. It is as real as the creak in your knees as you lay it all before the Lord in prayer.
This hope is as real as the living Jesus standing among the disciples after he was crucified. As real as the callouses on Paul’s feet as he traveled far and wide to tell everyone how he, too, had been resurrected. He was transformed from deadly enforcer of the Law to a servant missionary who could not help but tell everyone about the love of the living Jesus Christ.
Blessed are you, when you have
the hope of Jesus Christ, whether you are wealthy or poor, hungry or full,
praised or rejected. Your circumstances
will change, but God’s love for you will never change.
Is 6.1-6; 1 Cor 15.1-11; Lk 5.1-11
Scene 1: The time is 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. You are in the home of Isaiah, in Jerusalem, in the land of Judah. You are one of his few trusted companions, for most of the people are not interested in hearing Isaiah’s ideas about how the society is going terribly wrong. It is a time of great fear for everyone, because the powerful country of Assyria is sizing up the nations of the west, strategizing the inevitable takeover of smaller nations. King Ahaz has decided to appeal to Assyria’s king and form an alliance so that Judah will not be overtaken by force. Most people have fallen away from worshiping God, so they support Ahaz’s attempt to secure peace through alliances.
But now a private conversation, when Isaiah tells you about a spectacular vision he has had. He has been fretting about the political situation, but this isn’t about that. It depicts a great throne room, huge and majestic. Strange figures are all around, but they don’t make Isaiah afraid for some reason. Instead he hears them crying out in worship to God, who seems both present and transcendent at the same time. Their voices are so penetrating that the whole place shakes, and smoke fills the space.
Isaiah is overcome by awe and humility, and he cries, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Isaiah’s eyes get big as he looks at you in amazement. Then he tells how one of the creatures came at him with a live coal, and touched it to his lips. Instead of feeling burned, he felt cleansed. He felt accepted, loved, embraced. He heard a divine voice asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah could not help but cry out, “Here am I; send me!”
What a strange experience. We consider this Isaiah’s call to be a prophet. But it is unlike almost anything else except some of the visions in Daniel and Revelation. It seems so far removed from us that it almost seems like something out of a movie, special effects and all. Yet it is the critical moment in Isaiah’s life, a prophet whose writings we quote every Christmas at least: “To us a child is born, a son is given,” and so on.
Scene 2: It is about 730 years later, by the Sea of Galilee, where your name is Simon, a fisherman by trade. You are checking your nets after an unsuccessful night, not in the best mood when see that your new friend Jesus is walking up to the beach.
A few days ago he actually healed your mother-in-law in your own house. You are intrigued by his power and his teaching. It’s no wonder he has gained quite a following. He also cast a demon out of a man in Capernaum a few days ago. Word traveled fast. Everybody is wondering how he has authority to do that. He is telling everyone about the “good news of the kingdom of God.” This is interesting language. Everybody wants to know more.
At the water’s edge today, nobody will give Jesus enough space to have a platform, so he improvises by using a boat. Why not? It was no use for catching fish, at least not today.
When Jesus finishes what he has to say, you are surprised at his suggestion that you try the deep water one more time. What’s the point? Thinking you’ve got nothing to lose, you give it a go and row out to the deep water. Who would believe it? The nets were barely lowered, and the fish practically jumped into the boat!
Suddenly the power and presence of Jesus is so electric that you are driven to your knees. You feel humbled and awed by this man at the same time. “I can’t handle this!” you exclaim. “There is no way that I deserve to be in your presence!” You look over at your partners James and John, and they are on their knees too.
But Jesus won’t have it. He smiles and says, “There is no reason to be afraid, Simon. I have a job for you, all three of you. You’re getting a promotion from fishing for fish, to fishing for people!” By now you have seen enough. Your boats and nets seemed ridiculous in comparison to becoming students of this amazing rabbi. You leave it all and go with him.
Scene 3: It is about twenty years later. You are a slave of a wealthy merchant in the bustling and prosperous port city of Corinth. But you are also a member of a congregation of Jesus-followers known as The Way. You are among your fellow believers, listening to the reading of a letter from the Apostle Paul, a friend who established the congregation a few years ago.
You all remember Paul fondly. You were amazed that he treated you as an equal, even though he was a man of some stature among the Pharisees of Jerusalem some years back. A learned man, a great leader with fierce convictions. Yet he acted like a brother. Even more astonishing was the arrival of your master one evening at one of the fellowship meals. He, too, had become a follower of Jesus Christ. Now you are equals in the faith, and your master treats you with compassion and justice.
So hearing from Paul is a joy. He reminds you all that he was once an enemy of Jesus, literally arresting, jailing, and executing Christians for their opposition to both the Temple and the Roman state. Now he is a humble servant and friend, advising you how to make this new thing called the church work more smoothly, since conflicts and struggles have naturally cropped up. Everyone feels more at peace, more willing to forgive one another when you hear once again Paul’s interpretation of the good news of Jesus.
Scene 4: Here we are, almost two thousand years later. We read these stories and claim a connection with them. We want to understand what it means to follow Jesus right now, in northwest Iowa, in the dead of winter in what seems to be a time of political chaos and a farm economy that keeps taking hits from, well, politics as well as other factors. In addition, you have your own worries to contend with. A rebellious child. A dwindling bank account. A difficult marriage. A dead-end job.
It’s not all bleak. You are looking forward to a graduation, a wedding, a job change, a trip. Or maybe just a birthday or a favorite meal—hey we have to find a bright side somewhere, right?
Life is complicated. Faith is complicated. Where is the God who visited Isaiah in a vision, who stood next to Peter and invited him to join his work, who turned Paul’s life around by knocking him off his horse and blinding him with glory? How does God speak to people like you and me?
Just like the stories of Isaiah and Peter and Paul, every person’s experience of God is different. We might think Peter was lucky to see Jesus up close, but that came with its own set of challenges and suffering. The fact is that Jesus isn’t here in the flesh, but his Spirit is here, just as surely as Peter could see the smile on Jesus’ face. We don’t always recognize it, but it is true.
The Spirit gets our attention in many ways: through a nagging sense that there is something you need to do. Or a certain phrase in the Bible suddenly grabbing you. Or the plight of someone on TV or down the street pulling you into helping. The sight of your child’s joyful face, or tearful.
The point is not how God speaks, but that God does speak. Our job is to show up and pay attention. The mistake we often make is insulating ourselves against God’s message, because we think God will demand too much from us. That’s understandable. Jesus asks us to give up everything, after all.
But we forget what he promises: life. Whatever life we are clinging to, whether we are serving our pocketbooks or our careers or whatever calls the shots for you, that life pales in comparison to the life God offers. It is a life of clarity and spaciousness, a life of freedom.
Here’s why. God’s love is what directs that life. We don’t have to fuss and figure out what to do. God says to do what love requires. Period. That doesn’t mean we all have to become missionaries or preachers. We can see how God has equipped us as farmers or teachers or moms or caregivers, and let the force of God’s love drive us to serve the needs in front of us.
That life is free, because it is a life that holds no grudges. Jesus said the good news is about forgiveness. So you live with short accounts, doing the hard work of forgiveness and compromise. I know, there are things that might be unforgiveable in your life, but you offer those to Jesus for healing too. This life is not without suffering, but you have Jesus to suffer with you and show you the way through it. He died for you. Now he lives in you, as the Holy Spirit.
This is the kingdom of God Jesus was telling everybody about. He lived it in front of them, not only healing people but also telling them over and over that they matter to God. Everyone matters, because God made us all to live together in love, under the wise and loving gaze of God our Creator.
It’s no wonder then, that when this God of love visited Isaiah, he responded, “Here am I. Send me!” That Peter said, “I’m in, Jesus!” That Paul said, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” They were overcome not just by a call to action, but by the God of love.
That’s worth giving your life for. Thanks be to God.
This message was given before the congregation engaged in dialogue over a difficult issue in their denomination.
Loving the Jesus Way
1 Corinthians 13:1-13….Epiphany 4C
Have you ever heard of Lincoln Beachy? Actually, with the heritage of small pilots in this area, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people here might be familiar with this otherwise obscure figure in history.
Lincoln Beachy was born to fly. As a kid, he sailed over the hills of San Francisco with his bike, with an innate compulsion to fly through the air. As he grew up he managed to work his way into the flying community. When he was a mechanic he slept near the airport and snuck into the cockpits before anybody else got there and flew the planes, gaining the instincts that it took in the very early years of flight, when one in three flights still ended in disaster.
At an air show, the stunt pilot was injured, and the producer of the air show was desperate to keep the crowds entertained. Beachy volunteered to do the stunts. As he attempted to dip and roll in the way he had seen the other pilot do, he found himself plunging to the earth in a spin. Many stunt pilots had died in just such a tailspin. But Beachy’s instincts kicked in, and he did what all those other pilots had not thought to do. All the rest had tried to pull up, but it only made the situation worse. Beachy instead turned into the spin and used it to catapult himself into an arc away from a head-on crash on the ground. What he did didn’t come naturally to the other pilots, because of course they were in a panic.
Lincoln Beachy dared to do what others never thought to do. What he did was to lean into his worst fear in order to get past certain disaster. He became the innovator of stunt flying, the first to perfect many maneuvers that give us chills as we watch them at air shows today.
This may be what it feels like to you when we talk about engaging in dialogue this morning. Actually getting the issues and our viewpoints out in the open may seem as frightening as facing death. Maybe you anticipate heated debate, and you’d rather do anything else than that. Confrontation and conflict are to be avoided at all costs.
This morning I want to show you that dialogue does not have to be intimidating. In fact, dialogue is loving the Jesus way.
As we have stated many times in the past months, we in the church are called to be different than the world around us. We live in a culture where competition is king. It’s a “winner take all” society, and we train our kids to compete from a young age. The church, on the other hand, is not about competition but community. Here we hold love and respect as our highest values, because we know that God made each of us and calls us to live together in productive, loving community.
The church that Paul established in Corinth was having problems. First of all, there were former masters and slaves trying to treat each other with Christian love. You can imagine how hard that was. It would be tough not to remember how harsh your master was when you were sick and still had to work. Or how your slave did everything the wrong way and embarrassed you more than once in front of your guests. A hundred possibilities easily come to mind.
Add to that tension the explosion of spiritual gifts that marked the early church. Human nature dictated that people would compare their gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, etc. and argue about which were most important. Talk about competition.
And so Paul wrote the letters to the Corinthian church. If you read through both 1 and 2 Corinthians, you’ll get an idea of how frustrated he was with these early Christians. To be fair, it had to be hard to be on the cutting edge of a whole new way of being God’s people. It’s tough enough when we have 2,000 years of experience in the church. Imagine writing the textbook through trial and error. We don’t like to know how sausage is made; this had to be just as ugly.
1 Corinthians 13 is the soul of Paul’s message to the Corinthian church, and to us. It tells us what love looks like in action, a “boots on the ground” strategy for the church. I suppose it might seem a little abstract in its description of love, but I don’t think it’s far from the tough and sometimes petty issues we find ourselves dealing with every day. I’m not sure how you hear it, but I can feel the heat of “love is patient” when I’m irritated with somebody, or “love is not resentful” when I want to dredge up old offenses in an argument.
What love has to do is recognize that people are different. Here’s an example: a six-year-old goes to circus parade and sees clowns, elephants, and acrobats. An 18-year-old goes to the same parade and sees majorettes in flattering costumes and souped-up cars. Another example: when asked what they will remember about the 20th century, men talked about the World Wars and the advances in industry. Women note things like the discovery of vaccines and women’s suffrage. We all have a different perspective. If you’re married, do I really have to tell you that?
And so we have different perspectives about what it means to be a church based on the Word of God. Everybody here agrees that God’s Word is the authority, but we can’t seem to come together about how that looks in moral behavior or church policy. We have run smack into the mystery of God, revealed as Law and gospel, judgment and mercy, transcendent and here among us. We are struggling with truth, with obedience, with faithfulness in this theological soup of ideas.
In the midst of it all stands Jesus, calling us to trust him. He wants us to believe in him with such force that we trust his commands to lead us to truth. He asks us to obey even if it goes against the way of our culture. He calls us to the way of the cross which doesn’t flinch in the face of controversy. He calls us to do the hardest thing of all: to love.
We are doomed to be as polarized as our society is right now with its protests and heated political debate, unless we choose his way of love. We need it in the church, right now. Last week the topic was how to let go of old resentments. Today we’re talking about what the church—what we—have to do right now in order to be called the church of Jesus Christ.
And this isn’t any harder for us than it was for the church of the first century, or the tenth, or the church during the Reformation, or the church during the Civil War. But here’s where we have an advantage: we live in rural America, where hard work is in our DNA. We are not afraid of it!
But just hard work itself isn’t enough. Merely hoping for unity won’t get us there. Please hear this: if we don’t seek to understand and affirm one another around the cross of Jesus Christ, the unity we achieve will be superficial at best and masked hostility at worst. Do not underestimate the power of evil to divide us!
Don’t underestimate God’s power to unite us either. God is in it when we are willing to talk to each other in a spirit of love. He helps us do the hard work of dialogue, overcoming our fears of looking stupid or offending someone in the heat of the moment. He gives us the power to express ourselves graciously and takes away the fear of speaking up in a group. The Holy Spirit is promised to the people of God. The Spirit gives us the humility, love and patience we need if we open ourselves up to His work among us.
Jesus calls us to love. We read the Jesus creed again this morning in Matthew 22: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbors as yourselves. Jesus said in the book of John that people will know we are his disciples by the way we achieve correctness in our theology. Wait, that’s not what he said, was it? He said we will be known by our love for each other.
By now you might be really tired of hearing sermons about unity and love as they apply to our situation. Fine. If you don’t want to think about those things, then apply the Scriptures’ teaching about love to your marriage, your parenting, your friendships. It translates well across the board. (If it didn’t, we wouldn’t read 1 Corinthians 13 at so many weddings!)
Jesus’ gospel is fundamentally about how we treat the “other,” whether the other is your spouse, a fellow believer, an old friend, your enemy, or a stranger. He gives us no options about what to do. We are to love the other if we are to be called his disciples. We are called to hospitality, which is zenophilia in Greek. Literally that means respect for one who is different than I am. And so in dialogue, even though we differ on a given issue, I acknowledge that you are a person of faith—a Christian—a Christian with an unfortunate opinion perhaps, but a fellow believer in Jesus Christ.
Nathan D. Baxter was the dean of the National Cathedral in Washington when he said this in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13: “The answers to deeply complex matters are never in political resolve but in the hard, prayerful work of consensus building among faithful people. In a community the goal is never political victory but the preservation of Christian mission and witness.”
Baxter recalls how his mother used to settle arguments between him and his brother. When they would appeal to her with their arguments, she would say, “Now you boys go back and resolve it, but remember you are brothers.” They would protest: “But he took my ball!” “He said I was a liar!” “He broke the rules.” She would not engage in the argument, just repeat her command, “Resolve it, and remember you are brothers.” She didn’t care nearly as much about the resolution as she did about their relationship, their bond as brothers. She knew they would need that bond in the future.
See, the church is a living thing. We are the body of Christ, a living organism in the world. It is not just our church here, but a universal body of faith bearing witness through the ages to God’s love. As such, the processes we go through, the behaviors we exhibit, the relationship we share are more important to Jesus than whether we agree or not. Even if it feels uncomfortable, even when it gets messy, the church is a living thing, not a monument to principles. Principles won’t feed the poor or welcome the stranger. Only love can do that. Today love looks like dialogue.
Before we begin our dialogue, we will show you some guidelines that will help us stay within the boundaries of love and respect. We all need these reminders, because our emotions can get the best of us, especially in spiritual matters that touch us at our core. I think you’ll find that the guidelines read a lot like 1 Corinthians 13: respect, patience, listening, putting others first, not pouncing on someone else’s mistake or change of heart as a sign of weakness but instead honoring their process of growth, practicing humility. It’s a good list to keep in your Bible, if you are prone to collecting gems of wisdom.
Paul said that we can have the best theological arguments, but if we do not love, they are worthless. We can be the most generous and compassionate toward the poor, but if we do it without love, it is hollow. Even if we can manifest many skills and spiritual gifts for God’s glory, for the good of the church even, but don’t love one another, we might as well be banging on a noisy, irritating cymbal for all the good it does the body of Christ.
He also said that love acknowledges mystery. He said that we only have partial understanding of God and His ways now. We are together in this mystery, but we will also be together when all is revealed at the last day. This hope enables us to be patient with one another in the meantime. This hope reminds us to love when none of us has the complete answer yet. Dialogue enables us to discover new answers we never thought of before, because we are willing to see the complexity of the issues we face.
Love has many forms. You know some of them: driving overnight to bail your son out of jail; sitting at your beloved wife’s bedside day after day, year after year even though she doesn’t know who you are any more; keeping your mouth shut when your friend recites her litany of complaints for the 100th time. You know that love is vulnerable. Then don’t be surprised when it requires vulnerability in the church too. Today, love looks like dialogue that we might not be good at because it’s unfamiliar. But we will try it because we love each other.
Dialogue prevents the heated, destructive arguments that have plagued many churches. Think of it: Longtime friends have parted bitterly over issues they didn’t realize they disagreed on until they were brought up. Folks, this does not have to happen to us. We can follow our Lord Jesus who showed us how to love the other, even if they are wicked, even if they want to kill the truth. Jesus said his message of gospel is forgiveness, not doctrine.
And so we have to do what doesn’t feel comfortable. Listening to each other takes courage and patience. Forgiveness and grace don’t come naturally to us. Like those stunt pilots, some churches and church members have chosen what seemed right at the time, and it led to disaster. They reacted quickly with their gut feelings, turned on one another and destroyed their fellowship. They panicked.
May that not be said about us here. Let it be said of us that we did the hard work of love, that we were tenacious enough about our commitment to one another that we did everything we could to understand one another. That we found common ground at the cross of Jesus, where love has its most shining witness. May others know that we are disciples of the Jesus of the cross, by the way we love one another.
 Nathan D. Baxter, April 2, 1995 in “What the Christian Community Can Offer a Polarized Society,” Program #3825, found on http://www.csec.org.
The Word of God Then and Now
Luke 4.14-21; Nehemiah 8.1-10…Epiphany 3C
Have you ever traveled or lived in another country? Do you know what it is like to be among people whose language you do not understand? I have had a few experiences in unfamiliar places. When I return home, it feels like a luxury to hear English spoken by everyone. The familiar words welcome me home.
In the book of Nehemiah the people of Israel had been living in a foreign land against their will, but now they have been allowed to return. They have rebuilt the city of Jerusalem and its walls. They asked Ezra, the priest, to read the law of Moses to them in the public square. When they heard it, they wept for their sins, for the pain of their years in exile, and for joy in the LORD who was their strength. Perhaps the familiar words read in their home, after years of despair, reassured them that God was in control.
The Word of God at that time was known as the Law. It told the story of God’s special relationship with the chosen people. The Ten Commandments were a key part of this relationship. The Law was more than a set of rules for God’s people. It was an indication of God’s love for them, God’s care in showing them how to live in this world. It gave them an identity as the people characterized by this behavior. Love for God and love for other people was to be the way of life for God’s chosen people.
The proclamation in the public square signified that the people had returned home, to their calling and place in this world. It was harder to realize that in Babylon. Back in Jerusalem they had a renewed sense of hope and restoration. It was good to hear the Word of God.
Now move a few centuries forward to a synagogue in Nazareth. Perhaps by this time the people were becoming complacent about the Law. It certainly didn’t have the impact it did for returning exiles in Nehemiah’s day. You know how it is; the shine wears off with time. The traditions were being upheld, and it was pretty much business as usual, with the Sabbath rhythms keeping folks confident of their place in the world.
Then Jesus stands up and reads from Isaiah. Nothing unusual about that. But what he does next is monumental. He sits down to teach, opening his remarks by saying that he is the fulfillment of the prophecy. He is the one who has been anointed—chosen and empowered by God—to preach good news to the poor. He is the one sent to pardon the prisoners, heal the blind and release those broken down by injustice.
Jesus said what he was going to do, and as we know from the rest of the gospels, he did it. He really was the living, breathing good news. He embodied the Word of God. He went around working to restore things to the way they should be. He knew what the world and all its creatures were supposed to look like, and how they were supposed to act. He was there at the creation of it all, in on the big idea. So he knew how to make people feel right again. No wonder he spent so much time teaching about forgiveness, and healing people from their suffering. Jesus wanted everyone to know that God wants all people to be whole, at peace, restored in every way.
Now move a few centuries forward again. What is the Word of God to us today? Of course we have the Bible. But we also have the anointing and call of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit and calling that Jesus had. We, too, should be able to say to those around us, “Today, the Word of God is fulfilled right in front of you.” We are God’s good news to the world.
Through us, others can know that God is still determined to make us whole again. We can proclaim it in words. We can also proclaim it in our lives. God can do the work of restoration through us. It is our purpose as God’s people to be characterized by love, and to proclaim God’s loving desire to restore everyone to fellowship with their Creator.
How do we do this? Jesus gave a few examples from the book of Isaiah, but he spelled it out for us in numerous ways throughout his own ministry. He fed the hungry, forgave sins, healed the sick. His life was centered on others, not himself. He cared about each one, doing everything in his power to restore them to well-being.
And so that is the life to which we are also called. A life that is centered on others, not on ourselves. We look for ways to serve the people we know. We hear about suffering and do what we can to ease the pain. When we can’t give any money or go to those in need, we pray for them. We support the work and gifts of other folks who are more able-bodied, so that God’s good Word can continue to make a difference.
One of my trips abroad, I met a remarkable woman named Bibi. She was inspired by her mother, who took in poor children in her country of Mali, in west Africa. Bibi fell into the same kind of work, and created an orphanage out of virtually nothing. As a Christian, she finds deep joy in rescuing children from perishing in the streets.
The thing about Bibi is that you can’t get her to spend any money on herself. If you ask her to buy something for herself, she will see someone on the way and give them the money they need more than she does. Bibi has become my dear friend. She has taught me how to be like Jesus, seeing every need and responding with compassion. People in her neighborhood love her servant heart. She is good news to them.
We are called to be the Word of God to the world. God has no Plan B for this. We are the good news, fulfilled today for those around us.
Blessed be God, blessed be God forever,
who in time and eternity lives;
God, the Lord who loves justice and mercy
and who heals and forgives those who fall.
God will bandage the wounds of the broken,
and pay heed to each body and soul;
God has asked humankind not to fear
but to believe that the kingdom’s at hand.
(from a song by Salvador T. Martinez)
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.