Lectionary Sermons, Year A

Scroll down to find the lectionary week you need.  They are listed in ascending order, so Advent 1A is at the bottom of the page.  

Surprise Witness

Matthew 25:31-46

Christ the King, Year A

             A little boy wanted to meet God.  He figured it might be a long trip, so he got out his little overnight bag and filled it with two of his favorite foods, Twinkies and root beer.  He set off down the street.  After a few blocks he noticed and older woman sitting on a park bench, watching the pigeons.  He thought she looked lonely, so he decided to sit down next to her.  He pulled out a wrapped Twinkie and gave it to her.

She smiled and accepted it gratefully.  Her smile made him feel so good that he wanted to see it again, so he also gave her a can of root beer.  Sure enough, she smiled again, and he was thrilled.  The two of them sat together all afternoon, eating Twinkies and drinking root beer.  They watched the pigeons and never spoke.

As dusk fell, the boy realized he should go home, so he got up and started to walk away.  But he soon turned around and ran back to his new friend and gave her a big hug.  There was that big smile again.

When he got home, the boy’s mother wondered why he seemed so happy, so she asked him what he had done all day.  He said, “I had lunch with God.  And you know what?  She has the most beautiful smile that I’ve ever seen.”

The old woman went home too.  Her son that she looked happier than usual, so he asked her about it.  She replied, “I sat in the park and ate Twinkies with God.  You know, he’s much younger than I expected.”[i]

I wonder what you think of stories like that.  It’s heartwarming, but maybe you are like me, a little unsure of the theology of it.  God as an old woman?  As a little boy?  Really?

In the parable of the sheep and the goats that we read this morning, the sense I get is that Jesus identifies so closely with the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, that when one of them is served, he virtually says, “It might as well have been me.”

Either way, it is a strange way for a king to talk about himself.  This last Sunday of the church year is called Christ the King Sunday.  The gospels depict Jesus not as a royal figure, but as an iconoclast—a person who challenges the status quo.  He says that religion is about the condition of your heart, not the establishment of rules.  That forgiveness matters more than good health.  That God has a special fondness for the poor, not for the powerful.

The setting of the parable is the end of times, when Jesus returns.  The last judgment, it is called.  He pictures a throne room, where he will be seated before us.  It will be a great sorting process, but everybody will be puzzled by the groupings.  Why do these get to receive the riches of God’s kingdom, but those others don’t?

Here is where the twist comes.  Jesus is not only the sorter or judge, he is also the surprise witness, for both the prosecution and the defense, if you will.  “I was hungry and you gave me food…I was naked and you clothed me…I was sick and you took care of me,” he said to the blessed ones.  But “I was hungry and you gave me no food” to the ones he condemned.

How?  When…?  “As much as you have done it unto the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it to me.”

What is it about the “least of these” that Jesus identifies with?  Each one is lacking something: food, water, friendship, clothing, well-being, compassion.  If you think about it, these are what Jesus offered to people.  He seemed to have special radar for people’s needs, and he cared for them.

But to Jesus, serving is more than an act of kindness.  He calls the ones broken down by life his own family.  Did you catch that?  It is not simply “the least of these.”  No, he says, “As much as you have done it unto the least of these who are members of my family, you have done it to me.”

That changes the message.  You see, Jesus came to us not just to demonstrate and teach us how to be better people.  He came to call us to a higher life, to welcome us into God’s family, to invite us to experience God’s reign from the inside, as brothers and sisters of the King.  And he calls us family whether we are on the receiving side of compassion—the “least of these”—or on the giving side.  He says that those who didn’t know they were acting like his family are his family too.  They will receive the inheritance prepared for them by his Father.

Jesus has a big family.

Family members resemble one another.  I am one of six siblings, and we share several traits and abilities.  We are all blue-eyed and fair-haired, from our Dutch and German ancestors.  We all love words, writing, doing crosswords, playing Scrabble.  We share a knack for foreign languages and music.  We are not particularly good at sports.  Diabetes runs in the family.

We are in Jesus’ family, and we share his DNA, having received his Spirit at our baptism and eating at his table as we will do again tonight.  We share his inner radar for people in need, his heart to reach out and respond, his hands that help and hold, and yes, suffer.

The surprise witness at the last day will say that these are all my family.  There are those who prefer to remain on the outside, so they will get their wish.

The judgment will be as much a natural sorting as anything, just following through on the reality that already appears in our life here.  The ones who follow Jesus, see with his eyes, heartbeat in tune with his, will be ushered into a similar place where all are loved, and all receive what they need, no questions asked.

Several years ago we had a very heavy snow on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  My aunt was in the hospital in Sioux Falls, in her last days.  I was the only close relative who spent time with her, since her only son is disabled and lives in Georgia, and she had become too feeble to go and see him any more.  I desperately wanted to go and see her, but it was impossible.

I called the hospital and asked to speak to her nurse.  I wondered if I might be able to sing to my aunt over the phone.  The nurse said it was probably not going to work, because she was not responsive any more.  I sighed and wondered what to say next.

But the nurse beat me to it.  “What did you want to sing to her?” she asked.

“’It is Well with My Soul,’” I replied.

“Oh, I know that song.  I’ll sing it to her.”

Another member of the family.  I was so grateful.

They are everywhere, you see.  Brothers and sisters who know what to do because they have been following Jesus for a long time.  It just comes naturally.

The kind of king we have is a compassionate one.  He shows up in our stories, in our acts of love for one another.  In the smile of an old woman.  In the innocent pleasure of a little boy.  In a nurse 100 miles away.  In you, and in me.

Thanks be to God.

[i] Julie A. Manhan, “An Afternoon in the Park,” in A Third Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, 1995.  (Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications), p. 67-68.

Caretakers, Risk Takers, and Thanks-givers

Matthew 25:13-40

Proper 28A…Stewardship Sunday

           “525,600 minutes.”  How do you measure the moments in a year?  That’s what one song asks.[i]  And it is the same number for every one of us.

The steady passage of time might be the only equal measure we are given in our lives.  Otherwise each of us is a combination experiences and talents, ideas and yearnings that make us different from everyone else.

The man who left his servants in charge of different sums of money knew that each servant had different skills, and he doled it out accordingly, but he expected all three of them to do something with it.  In the parable Jesus told in Matthew 25, the master gave to each one “according to his ability.”

On this Stewardship Sunday, we consider this equation.  God gives each of us X amount of time, abilities, possessions, and we are responsible for the other side of the equation, the return on God’s investment in us.  Kind of a crude way to talk about it, but Jesus himself put it in those terms more or less.

He made us stewards of everything we have, and everything we are.  Stewards are caretakers, not owners.  Much as we might like to claim our houses, our land, our families as our own, that is not how we see it in the reign of God.  We see them as entrusted to us for a period of time, to put to good use.

How then do we as “caretakers” take care, really care for what God has entrusted to us?  We might not give it a second thought most days.  But then we read Psalm 90, and Moses talks about numbering our days: “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”  Step back for a moment and realize that your life is finite.  You don’t want to reach the end of it and wish you had used it with more joy, done something more meaningful with your time.

Parables always seem to have a surprise or a twist in them.  Have you noticed that?  Last Sunday the young maidens who had to run off and buy oil were shut out of the wedding feast.  A shepherd searches for one stubborn sheep while risking the other 99.  A woman throws a party just for finding a lost coin.

These happen in Jesus’ stories because he has to help us understand how God’s reign works.  It is different from our way of thinking.

In this case, the servants are commended for taking risks by investing the money.   It was the one who wouldn’t take any risk at all who got thrown into “the outer darkness.”  For burying money in the ground!

Risk is one of those concepts that mean different things to different people.  Some people invest in the stock market directly, while others buy mutual funds, and still others wouldn’t do either one.  I like to travel overseas, but I know people who think flying that long over water is just too risky.

The master expected each servant to risk as much as he was given.  To risk it all, it seems.  So whether they have five, two, or one talent, they were expected to put it to work.  It’s kind of silly, but every time I read this parable, I think of Dolly Levi, the lead character in “Hello, Dolly,” who quotes her late husband: “Money is like manure; you have to spread it around, encouraging young things to grow.”  (Turns out he was quoting Thornton Wilder in The Matchmaker.)

I imagine that the return on investments that God expects from us is measured not in dollars but in the good they do.  We cannot quantify it, but we can expect God to use it in some way.  It never goes to waste.

We might be tempted to see it that way, that there had better be results we can see; otherwise we won’t take the risk of giving.  But faith means giving what God asks of us.  How much does God ask?  God asks for everything.  Jesus said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me,” he says.

We admire Jesus’ commitment, but then we turn away and tell ourselves to be more realistic.  We look for ways to soften this command of his.  We think faith is about feeling secure about life and about the hereafter.  To us faith is no more risky than believing a few things about God and Jesus.  It’s about “getting our theology right and then living a good life and avoiding bad things.”[ii]

But Jesus invites us to discipleship, which means investing our lives, risking them, stepping into what is uncomfortable for the sake of love.  “It is to be bold and brave, to reach high and care deeply.”[iii]  What we discover is that God meets us there with more life and faith and opportunity than we ever expected.

In some ways, faith is like the human body.  To be healthy, the body requires exercise.  A sedentary lifestyle will leave you diseased, can even hasten your death.  You need to “move it or lose it.”

Faith is exercised by accepting God’s invitation to do with God what we could never do on our own, whether it is giving more than you thought you could in the offering plate or finding out that the limits of your strength are greater than you thought.  It is to give out of love because that is just what God’s beloved people do.  God proves faithful in this process, making sure we always have enough left over for ourselves.

So, caretakers are risk takers in God’s reign, it’s a simple as that.

But there is one more thing about that one-talent servant that should not go unnoticed today.  This man had the nerve to blame his caution on the master himself, even accusing him of greed.  “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

I wonder if I have done that, actually blamed God for my disobedience, for not trusting God when I am asked to give.  I’m sure I have.  “God, you would want me to be responsible with this money, wouldn’t you?  You don’t want me to give it to somebody who might not deserve it.”  Does that sound familiar?

Or how about this: “If I get involved, people might think I actually approve of those people’s lifestyle.  You want me to have a good reputation, don’t you?  I think I’ll stay away.”  Or: “I know you’ve been asking me to stop spending so much on myself, but I’m supporting the local economy.”

We find ways to rationalize, when what is operative is fear.  Fear that we might not have enough, or look bad, or be uncomfortable.  So we end up hoarding what God has trusted us to put into circulation for the sake of the world God loves.  The servant had the ability to multiply the master’s money, but he was afraid of making a misstep, and he let that fear paralyze him.

We can tie ourselves in knots with the questions about how much to give, when to invest our time, whether to say yes or no to another request for volunteers.  Let me propose a solution to the anxiety.  It is found in a word I never noticed in the parable of the talents before: joy.

When the master commends two of the servants for increasing his funds, he gave them more to do and said it would be a joy to partner with them: “you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

We find joy also in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians that we read today: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  So, if you aren’t sure what to do, seek joy, pray, and give thanks.

Gratitude is a way of life that will enliven and expand your faith.  It is one of the ways we rejoice.  Instead of agonizing about what to do with what you have, give God thanks for it.  Look around you and start identifying things you appreciate.  They are gifts from God.  Focus on the beauty of your surroundings and give thanks.  Look for goodness in a person you struggle to like, and give thanks.  Pause before you eat, or sleep, or wash your face, and give thanks for your food, your bed, clean water.

Make gratitude a daily, intentional practice, and see how it deepens your faith.   Notice what happens inside you when you give some of yourself away.  Your questions about stewardship will work themselves out.

God’s people are thanks-givers, not just this week on a holiday, but all the time.  It reminds us who is in charge (not us).  Doesn’t that take the pressure off your decision-making?  God is the source of all that you have and are and will be.  You can relax, because everything comes from God and belongs to God.  We are simply caretakers who take risks because we a partnering with a powerful and creative and compassionate God.

What a wonderful reason to give thanks.

[i] From “Seasons of Love” in “Rent” by Jonathan Larson.

[ii] Buchanan, John M. in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, 2011.  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), p. 312.

[iii] Ibid.

Joy in the Big Picture

Matthew 25:1-13…Proper 27A

Be prepared.  Ho-hum.  Is that all we can get from the gospel today?  Make sure you have enough fuel for the party, for the trip, for the day?

At first glance, you might think that’s all Jesus was trying to say with the parable of the ten maidens, five of whom he called wise for having enough oil, and five he called foolish, for grabbing their lamps but not their refill flasks.  But you can learn that lesson in Boy Scouts; you don’t need the Bible for it.

The lamps and the oil aren’t the point of a celebration.  Right?  People fuss over all kinds of things when they want to throw a party, like decorations, and guest lists, and who sits next to whom.  Lots of practical details to iron out if you want to throw a really good shindig.  But then they need to cut loose and enjoy the party itself; otherwise there is no point to all that work.

Back in Jesus’ day, the bridegroom built a room or two onto his family’s house, and when everything was ready, they would make a big deal of his trip to the bride’s house to fetch her and take her to her new home.  (This is what Jesus was referring to in John 14:2-3 when he said, “I am going to prepare a place for you…I will come to fetch you to come and live with me.”)  Her bridesmaids didn’t dress up in frocks they would never wear again and carry flowers down a church aisle as they do today.  Instead they hung around outside her door so they could announce the arrival of the groom and the servants could start pouring the wine.  They needed to have lamps ready to light the way for the procession.  It was just a practical matter to have lamps and oil ready.

So when some of the bridesmaids were too hasty, too focused on themselves or the party or who-knows-what to remember their extra oil, nobody had the patience to make up for their carelessness.  The party was underway, after all.

I don’t like weddings in the gospel of Matthew, where people get left out in the cold for wearing the wrong garment or coming too late.  Better to read John’s version, where Jesus turns water into really good wine.

Leave it to Matthew to keep us in touch with reality.  You do lose out when you are careless, or focused on the wrong things.  Matthew’s warnings might seem harsh, but it is a kindness to make sure we don’t miss out on the great celebration God is preparing for us.

But we do.  We miss out on the fun far too often.  We neglect the practical parts of our faith, practices like simply showing up to be with God, bringing our cares and failures, letting God deal with our brokenness.  We ignore the needs of the poor, elevating our own preferences to the status of necessity, and then wonder why we can’t drum up compassion in ourselves.  We’re out of practice.  The lord of the party has to tell us, “I don’t know you,” because we have stayed away too long.

Or maybe we are not that careless, but we still miss out on the joy.  Our focus is trained on the cares of life that need our attention, but then we forget to look up.  We haven’t stepped back to look at the bigger picture for a while.  Maybe you can’t remember the last time you noticed God’s part in the scheme of things, and joy slipped away when you weren’t looking.

It is remarkable how many times Jesus talks about rejoicing, and joy.  He said his whole purpose was for us to enjoy an abundant life (John 10:10).  He came to free us from the burden of our sin, to forgive us and offer us the life in God’s reign that is all about trust, and love, and compassion.  We are not meant to trudge through life, worn down by our cares.

But it doesn’t work to tell you to be joyful, does it?  You can’t command joy.  Joy has a source, and it isn’t bought or learned or obtained in any way from someone or something else.  It is conceived within, whether it is within your own soul or within the community of God’s beloved.  It is organic, mysterious, alive.

The funny thing is that there are practical things you can do to have joy, as practical as making sure your wick is trimmed and you have enough oil.  Such simple things.

The first is to attend to your soul.  You are doing that this morning.  Do it every day, connecting with God in whatever fashion works for you.  Read the Scriptures, alone and in the company of others.  Listen to music, religious or otherwise.  Dust off that book of poetry you so loved as a college student.  Take a walk.  Watch a child at play.  You will be giving joy a chance to take shape within.

Second, help other people without expecting anything in return.  The prophet Amos voiced God’s disgust with worship that is not accompanied by efforts to do justice, to right the wrongs around us.  “Faith without works is dead,” is how James puts it. (James 2:17)

Last week Jane told me that the van had to be jumped in order to move it in the parking lot.  It hadn’t been used for months, so the battery went dead.  She left it running for a couple of hours to charge the battery.  We need to keep our compassion and servant muscles exercising so they will keep running smoothly.  Joy bubbles up when you give of yourself for the sake of someone in need.

Third, take the time to step back often, to see the big picture.  Get your nose out of your own business and see what is happening in your community, in the world.  Ask yourself where God is in the picture.  Talk to other people about how they see God at work, in your church and in the world.

I make a habit of naming these “God sightings” for the church council every month.  I see God at work among you in big and small ways, all the time!  From your faithfulness in worship and your friendly greetings before and after church, to the renewal of ministries with kids and teens, and a spanking new kitchen.  God is doing things here!  And God is busy in the world everywhere.  Pay real attention to the world around you, and see how God’s fingerprints begin to appear before your eyes, everywhere.  Joy will bubble up in the process.

We don’t have to wait to be joyful for Jesus’ coming someday.  Jesus comes to us every day, in innumerable ways.  He comes to us in the worship, in the Word, in the sacrament, in our mutual care.  He also appears in the reality of our world, in scientific queries and discoveries, in hospital rooms and board rooms, in the cries of the poor and the exuberance of an Irish jig.  His presence permeates everything, and brings us joy when we are aware of him.

In his Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis writes about a group of trolls who are given every opportunity to see the beauty and spaciousness of Narnia, the metaphor for God’s kingdom.  Even when the panorama is put before them, all they can see is ugliness.  When all the characters who follow the great lion Aslan are on their way to the beautiful, eternal Narnia to be with him forever, the trolls are gathered in their tight circle on the ground by the path, muttering and grumbling, unwilling to accept the invitation to a glorious life.  Their reality is confined to a small area a few yards wide, colorless and joyless.  They choose that reality.

I wonder if one of the reasons people are staying away from churches these days is because they aren’t detecting joy among us.  Are we too preoccupied with surviving?  With disagreements over morality or worship or money?  With sustaining programs that have had their day?  I pray that we can find a way to focus on God’s goodness and sharing it generously, joyous in our worship and work and play.  Doesn’t that sound like abundant life that Jesus promised?

If we as God’s people stay awake to the wonder of God’s goodness to us, the beauty of nature, and the big picture of belonging to God’s beloved community, will not joy burst forth and characterize our life together?  Even if it doesn’t have that much force at first, will it not change our own lives for the better?

Every person here is a walking work of art, a marvel of anatomy and memories and ideas and talent.  Each of us is an heir to the kingdom of God, a citizen of a vast universe, witness to the miracles of birth and the wisdom of old age, partakers the holiness of God.  Stay awake!  Let the seed of God’s joy take root and bear its goodness in your life, for the body of Christ, for the world.

When Less is More

Matthew 5:1-12

All Saints Sunday 2017

          Leonard was a wealthy man.  I remember talking with him about that in the last days of his life.  His children would not be inheriting great sums of money or land.  His children were his wealth.  Leonard and Elsie barely scraped by on their small farm all of their lives, but theirs was a happy home.  Their children were devoted to them, and they still spend as much time together as possible.  Leonard was truly wealthy in love and joy, despite what he lacked otherwise.

I have known many people who embody the Beatitudes we read today, including Leonard.  Poor in spirit, meek, merciful.  Blessed are they, Jesus said.

In Jesus’ time, blessing was understood to be material wealth.  Way back in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses was told that those who obeyed God would be blessed.  Their lives would reflect God’s favor.  Somehow that got turned around to mean that if someone was wealthy, they sure look like they were blessed, so they must be pleasing God.  So wealth equaled blessing, and blessing was the same as wealth among the people Jesus encountered every day.

Jesus had a habit of challenging the ideas that people took for granted.  He said that blessing had nothing to do with wealth.  In fact, it was more about what people lacked than what they possessed.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  What does it mean to be poor in spirit?  Is it to lack confidence, or to be discouraged?  Are they actually poor, lacking material goods?  Either way, these blessed ones don’t have what they need to thrive.  They know what it is to ask for help, and to turn around and help others in the same way.  They understand why the kingdom of heaven—God’s ideal—is about everyone having enough.  Do you know anybody who is poor?

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  I guess that covers everyone, because we all suffer from loss.  Those who mourn feel empty, deserted, adrift, having lost someone they love.  They are able to receive comfort because their sadness is real.  They can walk alongside others who are mourning, sharing the burden together.  Know anyone who is mourning?  Are you grieving right now?

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Blessed are those who lack arrogance.  Because they are humble, they are able to embrace God’s values.  They are not busy putting themselves ahead of everyone else.  Sound like someone you know?

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  They hunger for God’s ways, letting go of their own self-righteousness, their own ideas of what God wants.  Living in God’s reign means freedom to love and grow and bless the world.  When you get a taste of it, you are hungry for more.  When you live into the life God created you for, you will be filled with joy and peace.  Are any of your friends longing for a life free of drama and striving, aching to love and be loved?

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  The merciful let go of resentment and revenge.  They refuse to hold a grudge.  They understand that we are all broken, all in need of forgiveness.  Their hands are empty, open to love and not clenched to fight back.  Because they offer mercy so freely, they are apt to receive it in return.  I know a few people like that.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  The psalmist said it centuries before Jesus did:

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

And who shall stand in his holy place?

Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,

who do not lift up their souls to what is false,

and do not swear deceitfully.”  (Psalm 24:3-4)

These pure hearted folks do not cultivate sinful habits like cheating or lying.  Their hearts are not filled with hatred.  They are not preoccupied with covering their tracks or being suspicious.  Instead, when they look around, they can see God shining through nature and people and experiences.  I just had lunch with someone like that last week.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  They lack cynicism, because they live in hope. Peacemakers choose to trust that the goodness of God has been wired into every person.  They look exactly like they were meant to look, like children of the God who loves all people.  Got anybody like that in your family?

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  These do not let fear run their lives.  They know that there are those who may be able to harm their bodies, but their souls are safe in the love and promise of God.  I never knew someone like that personally until the last ten years of my life.  These friends inspire me.

It is always tempting to read the Beatitudes like a checklist, to see them as a kind of Lenten discipline to humble ourselves so we can be considered good Christians.  I suppose you can use them that way.

But I don’t think they were meant to be used.  They are observations that Jesus makes of the people around him.  Remember that the people with power in his time were mostly either Roman soldiers or temple authorities.  Jesus was talking to common people who struggled for survival, for dignity, for joy in the midst of their suffering.  They worked hard, with their hands.  They were meek, poor in spirit, mourning.  They longed for peace, for God’s righteousness to prevail over their oppressors.

So what Jesus was doing was honoring people who never got to be honored otherwise.  You are God’s beloved, Jesus told them.  God sees you, and blesses you.  You are the most able to glimpse and grasp the kingdom of God even if you wish for a better life.  You are God’s people right now, while you struggle.  While you think you lack so much, your lack leaves you open to God’s grace.

Isn’t that what we all need to hear?  That we don’t have to strive so hard to be worthy, to keep up, to be respected?  Perhaps we are too busy filling up what we think we lack.  We think our lives need more activity, more possessions, more status.  Maybe we need to slow down and read the Beatitudes again, to realize that our emptiness is exactly what God needs in order to fill us with divine love and goodness.

What do we usually think about God’s blessing?  Somehow we get it all tangled up with whether or not you are going to heaven after you die, which is a narrow definition of what it means to be saved.  In the New Testament, salvation is not about going to heaven when you die, even though there is talk of that in a few places.  Salvation is about being made whole, being called a child of God.

Jesus proclaimed people saved when there was no such thing as an Apostles Creed, no theories about his death and resurrection, no confirmation classes.  Christ-ordained baptism like ours today didn’t happen until the early church got going.  But Jesus told people they were God’s own, God’s blessed, regardless of what they believed or did to appear worthy as we would measure it.  He looked at the beggars, the lepers, tax collectors, widows forced into prostitution as the only way to make a living, and called them blessed!  That is what our Lord Jesus clearly stated, and we need to pay attention.

Today we celebrate All Saints, when we proclaim our hope in Jesus Christ.  We trust that our loved ones who have died are fully experiencing God’s presence.  They are the saints!

But we are also saints.  Simultaneously sinners and saints, we say, habitually straying from God’s commands but nevertheless redeemed through the cross of Jesus Christ.  “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us,” Paul writes (Romans 5.8).   He calls us beloved, God’s children, blessed, forgiven, able to do even greater things than the works that he did himself.

His beatitudes are for us too.  Blessed are you when you feel downhearted, Jesus tells you.  You are ready for the comfort that is real and true, the promise of my presence and love.  Blessed are you when you miss your spouse or your child who has died.  You understand what love is; you are experiencing the deepest dimensions of the love I gave you when you were together.

We are just ordinary people.  My friend Leonard was an ordinary man.  He loved his family.  He was a pilot of a small plane he used to take his family on trips.  He was disabled, and he had friends all over the world through his ham radio hobby.  He took videos of historic events in his community.  He ate his wife’s delicious cooking, food grown on their own farm.

Jesus looks at our ordinariness and calls it blessed.  He invites us into the circle of the divine with the Father and the Spirit.  He calls us family.

What makes us saints?  Jesus does.  Thanks be to God.

The Power of the Word

John 8:31-36

Reformation, Confirmation 2017

Beloved community of our Lord Jesus Christ,

It has been 500 years this week since Martin Luther nailed his propositions to a door for all to read.  His words were a spark, lighting a tinder of unrest and revolution that he never anticipated or even desired.  He wanted to coax the church back to its center, to remind the church authorities that God’s grace is not found in traditions or transactions but rather in the cross of Jesus Christ and the resurrection he shares with us.

But words have power, perhaps more power than even Luther expected.  His own words sprang from his personal experience with God’s grace.  He wanted everyone to be able to read about it in a Bible of their own language.

Words have power.

On this momentous weekend of both a church anniversary and students undergoing their Affirmation of Baptism, I want to say just a few words about words.

First, the Word of God.  I once stood in the room where Luther was said to have translated the Bible into German, the language of his people.  It was an ordinary room in Wartburg Castle.  That room reflects what God does for us, distilling the wisdom and beauty of God’s intentions for us into one book, in language that we can understand.  Ordinary words like “house” and “sky” and “life” and “shepherd.”  Yet in those simple words, we learn of a God who loves us deeply and eternally.

I am reminded of these words from the book of Deuteronomy, a message to God’s people right before they were to enter the promised land, not unlike the threshold our confirmands face this weekend:

“For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him.  (Deut 4.32-35)

We have these stories that we will know there is no other God. There is no other book in the world that will tell you of such a mysterious and loving God who reaches across eternity, into your mind and soul to draw you into the great story of purpose and meaning and beauty.

In July of 2004, the people of Ranonga, a small, remote island in the Solomon Islands, read the words of Christ for the first time in Lungga, their own language  This followed more than 20 years of fundraising efforts by the local people.  When the finished copies were finally made available and the people held before them the written words of Christ, a local pastor declared: “Today God has arrived in Ranonga.  He has arrived in our own culture and is speaking to us in our own language.”[i]

“Into a world of souls, some listening, others preoccupied, Jesus speaks in words common to all: ‘Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in’ (Rev 3.20). To recognize a voice speaking in a language we understand is so much more than acknowledging a string of inanimate, recognizable words.  We recognize a person beyond the sounds, meaning within the language, an invitation in the face that somehow looks to ours even now.  How much more so this is true of the voice that first spoke into the silence and called the world forth by name.”[ii]

See, we not only have words about God and even words from God, teachings and dialogue from Jesus; we have The Word who is Jesus himself.  The apostle John said Jesus is the Word come to us from God:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1.1-3, 14)

Even if you have trouble understanding the Scriptures, you can still know the Word of God when you know Jesus himself.  He said, “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  I don’t think he was only talking about his teachings.  He walked among us and taught and ate and laughed and suffered and died and rose again so we could see God up close.  He was and is the living message of God for us.

Make it your business to know Jesus in the gospels, and you will understand the rest of Scripture much better.  He is the Word that interprets the rest of God’s Word for us.

So, there is the Bible that we call God’s Word, and there is Jesus, also known as the Word.  Then there are our words.

If Luther lived in a time when written words were scarce and prized, we live in an age that is the opposite.  There is a barrage of words coming at us every day.  Language is thrown around carelessly, as if it has no power.  Yet we know that it does, especially when it is used to criticize, provoke, and insult each other.  How many people have died as a result of words flung at them, whether thoughtlessly or with intentional hatred?  How much has our government become ineffective because they can’t communicate with words of wisdom and compromise?

James writes about the power of our words.  He might as well be commenting on social media, or our public dialogue, or what you texted to one of your friends this weekend:

“…the tongue is a fire…no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” (Jas 3:6a, 8-10)

You know the power of positive language, words of encouragement and of hope and of love.  Some of them you have heard in this room.  You have heard many of them from your parents and mentors and friends in this beloved community.

Confirmands, you are speaking words today that are like a doorway.  Words that are a beginning.  Language that contains far more than all you have been taught in confirmation classes, words whose meaning can’t even be fleshed out by the entire Bible, to tell the truth about it.

This is one of those life passages when you make promises whose meanings you do not yet know.  You are using words like “denounce,” and “Yes, with the help of God.”  But it takes a lifetime and then some to know what you are saying today.  Like all those through whom God spoke in the Scriptures through the ages, you are speaking about things that are too wonderful for you to understand.

Your parents did this at your baptism.  The sacrament that celebrates God’s grace in calling you and forgiving you is a mystery that no human being can fully grasp.  Yet it is a gift that we dare to claim because God invites us to do that.

A similar kind of speaking happens in a wedding ceremony.  Vows are uttered that have to be lived into.  It takes many years to know what is really meant by “for better or worse” and “till death do us part.”  The meaning of those words is learned through tears and heartache and celebration.  The value of those words is learned through trust and forgiveness.  The word “love” takes on dimensions you never dreamed of at the altar.

Today is Reformation Sunday.  We remember Martin Luther challenging the church’s notion that they could dole out words like forgiveness and hope as though they could be bought.  He knew that the good news was not something that should be hoarded or abused; it was free to everyone who had faith in Jesus Christ.  God invites everyone to explore the mysteries of God’s wonderful gifts.

And so, today, you dare to speak.  You can do it because your friends and family who have spoken these words before are here to encourage you that they are good words.  Their hearts are filled with hope that you will live into these words, that the doorway of your promises today is an opening to a life of faith that will not disappoint you.  We speak them again, with you, to live into them ourselves.  Together we confess our faith, and dare to speak, because the Word himself, Jesus Christ, has given us a voice to say a word, to say “yes” to him, with confidence and joy, even though we are only beginning to know what that means.  Thanks be to God.

[i] As quoted at http: http://www.biblesociety.org/index2.htm

[ii] “Slice of Infinity” by Jill Carrattini, Oct. 23, 2009.  Copyright Ravi Zacharias Ministries.

What Jesus Sees

Matthew 22:15-22

Proper 24A

Things are coming to a head in Matthew’s gospel.  We have actually moved from the time of Jesus’ general ministry to the final days before his crucifixion.  This is after his entry into Jerusalem for the Passover.  So much happens during that week, we can’t cover it all in Lent or Holy Week, and by that time, we are focusing on the cross.

Jesus has been explaining God’s intentions in every which way he can, that God invites us to an abundant life in which we are forgiven and cared for.  He is zeroing in on the temple leaders, holding them accountable for undermining God’s intention.  He has been exposing their ambition and greed that compel them to mislead and manipulate the people.  His detractors have had enough of his criticism, and they are looking for ways to silence him.  We know all too well that they will succeed, at least temporarily.

This time the Pharisees teamed up with the Herodians, a faction we don’t know much about, except to presume that they usually don’t occupy the same space as the temple leaders.  Together they come up with what they think is an airtight “gotcha” question.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

If Jesus says it is, then he will be considered a Roman sympathizer, and he will lose his popularity among the people.  If he says it isn’t lawful, he could be accused of treason or sedition.

Instead of walking into their trap, Jesus challenges their agenda: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”  In other words, what is the point?  You have no interest in the answer to that question.  Clearly you are out to get me.

Before they can lob another question in return, Jesus wants to take a look at the coin for the tax.  When they brought one, he asked what seemed to be an obvious question: “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

Now I want to stop right there.  For some reason, the image of Jesus and a Pharisee looking down at a coin in Jesus’ hand captures my imagination.  The Roman coin had the head of Tiberius on one side and his claim to divinity on the other side.  Think for a minute about Jesus peering down at that coin.  Hmm, this man Tiberius claims to be a god.  He demands loyalty, worship, and the payment of a poll tax.  His minions enforce these demands.  He claims to be…a god.

The idea of looking closely make me think of what we read in Isaiah 45 just a minute ago.  It is a message from God to Cyrus, the Babylonian king—not even a king among God’s people.  The Israelites have been captive in his land for decades, and God decides to use this pagan king to allow them to go home and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.  “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.”  (Is 45.5-6)

One chapter before this one in Isaiah, humor is used to make the same point about God.  This is a scathing critique of idol worship, pointing to the wood that they were using for two purposes:

“No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’” (Is 44.19)

It is as though God is saying, “Hold on.  Take a step back.  You used the same log to make a fire for your supper and a carved idol that you worship as if it is alive.  Do you see what is wrong with this picture?”

In case I do a bad job and you miss the point of this message otherwise, here it is:  How does the world look when we see it through Jesus’ eyes?  He was always seeing things differently than other people in the gospel stories.  Or maybe I should say, he noticed things.  He saw the children and was delighted by them, as opposed to the disciples, who could only see distractions.  When he looked at Zacchaeus the tax collector, he saw disillusionment and yearning, whereas everyone else could only see a cheat, in collusion with the Roman authorities.

To be honest, this isn’t usually considered the main point of this gospel story.  But I couldn’t shake the idea seeing what Jesus sees.

When you put on Christ, as we are called to do in our baptism as a daily practice, how do you see the world differently?  What does Jesus see when he looks at the things we value—our coins, our commerce, our government?  If we pause and take a good look at how we order our world, what we value, to whom or what we give allegiance, what will we see?

Just the idea of Jesus peering closely at anything with me makes me think twice.  I have an image in my mind of myself and Jesus side by side, peering closely at something in my hand.  I can think of a lot of things I value that make me wince if I picture Jesus examining them.

When you follow Jesus, you gradually see the world differently than before.  It can be very annoying!  It makes you realize how much your priorities need to change.

Ten years ago I made my first trip to Mali.  I prayed that God would help me to be open to whatever I was meant to see and learn.  While we were in a remote village, we visited the chief and his family.  Because they are allowed to have several wives, they often do, especially in the rural areas.  You can imagine, that means there are a lot of children.

This photo is not the best quality, but it comes from that visit with the chief and his family.  I noticed someone in that picture.  She is a beautiful little girl.  If she is still living now, ten years later, I suppose she is a striking young woman.  But that day I felt God pointing her out to me.  So, I prayed for her, off and on, for a few years.  I never spoke to her, but I named her “Jolie” in my mind, French for “pretty.”  I prayed that she might somehow know that God loves her.  I prayed that she would not be subsumed into a system that dishonors girls and women, and that she would experience the joy of learning and becoming all that God has made her to be.

I have hosted friends from Mali in my home.  I have shopped with my friend Bibi at Walmart both in Spencer and in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Imagining how she views it is mind blowing.  Shopping in Mali consists of going to the street market or stopping at a stall or a small mud hut by the side of the highway.  There are comparatively few transactions that take place inside a modern building there.

Just walking down the toothpaste aisle along with my friend made me feel embarrassed.  How many brands and flavors and whiteners and tartar controllers and cavity preventers do we need, and in eight different sizes?  It is painful to walk beside her, because I have seen the poverty in her neighborhood, heard her prayers when they don’t have enough milk for the children in her orphanage.

Maybe that is a bad example for you.  I know there are reasonable arguments for why I don’t have to be embarrassed about a trip to Walmart with a friend from Africa.  But what matters isn’t what Bibi thinks about Walmart.  What matters is what Jesus thinks about it.

I wonder.

I can’t claim to know what Jesus thinks about Walmart or Sam’s Club or a lot of things.  I have ideas about it, but I can’t tell you anything beyond what Jesus says.  “Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” he said.  We can leave it at that.

Getting back to Jesus, and that coin.  The Jews believe that everything belongs to God.  That coin might have had a human face on it, but the metal it was made of was created by God.  So was Tiberius, and every other person.

In fact, the Scriptures tell us that God’s image is stamped onto every human being.  “Let us make humankind in our image,” is how it goes in Genesis 1.

That calls up a different idea in my mind.  If the idea of leaning over a coin with Jesus is compelling, it is that much more captivating to regard each person’s face with Jesus at my side.

I know people who pray like that.  One friend said that for a long time, she could not pray for anyone unless she could picture them in her mind.

The trouble is that we layer over those portraits in our minds.  Right?  I know some things about you, so your face might be obscured in my mind by the labels and the resentments, maybe some good things—it’s not all bad.

What gets blotted out is the designation, the purest identity of each person, that somehow they bear the image of God.  It is hard to see in some people.  I’ve just been reading The Warmth of Other Suns about the migration of African Americans from the South to the North.  Some of the atrocities committed against innocent people are beyond comprehension.  Where is the image of God in people who do such wicked things?
God’s image in you is the original identity that you can either embrace and embody, or deny and reject.  We cannot erase the fact that it is God’s intent to put inside each of us the same compassion, love, creativity, and power inside of us that Jesus had in his own being.  That sounds like a big claim, but what else does “image of God” mean?

Maybe one of the reasons that God wants us to stop and rest once a week is push a reset button, to get that perspective, to see each other as God sees us.  To peer more closely at the image of my neighbor with Jesus and consider what I see, what he sees.

By the way, did you notice the shadowy figure in Rubens’ painting “The Tribute Money?”  I couldn’t find an explanation of this, but it looks like a toothless, poor woman to me.  Jesus would notice a woman like that.

Something tells me that I can steal a glance at Jesus and catch a look of love on his face when it is your image we are looking at.

What do you think of our politics, Jesus?  What do you think of President Trump, and Colin Kaepernick, and Kim Jung Un, and Harvey Weinstein?  What do you see when you look at Puerto Rico, and Napa, and Houston, and Storm Lake?  What do you see, Jesus?  Can I see what you see?

Mixed Emotions

Matthew 22:1-14

Proper 23A

We are getting down to the wire in the book of Matthew.  Jesus is in Jerusalem, teaching in the temple courts.  His message has gotten much more intense and harsh.  Wicked tenants and angry laborers are populating his parables now.  We are only a few days away from Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  Imagine the roller coaster of emotions that Jesus  must be experiencing: love for his friends, concern for their future, anger at the temple leaders, fear of the pain he will have to endure, determination to complete his mission.

We know that Jesus was fully human.  So he knows what it is like when our emotions run the gamut.  Many times we feel several emotions at once, in the midst of intense situations.  These feelings can motivate us to heroic deeds, or paralyze us with indecision.  They are true indications that we are human.

One example of mixed emotions we feel as parents: waiting for your teenager who is out way past curfew, and they don’t answer their cell phone.  With each passing minute your mind conjures more scenes of mangled cars and injury or death.   You worry desperately, and then when your teenager gets home, you can’t always stop yourself from yelling at them because of what they just put you through.  Profound relief is mixed with anger, and you don’t sleep well afterward because of all the confusion and trauma.

Life is complicated, and our feelings are seldom experienced in their purest forms.  Love is mixed with anger, forgiveness is tainted with resentment, grief is mixed with love and regret and misunderstanding in varying degrees of intensity from one moment to the next, leaving you exhausted.

One of the great things about the Bible is that these life experiences, this jumble of emotions, is reflected there.  Abraham and Moses display both trust in God and impatience with the divine will.  Miriam is a victorious choir director after the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, but later grows sullen and jealous when her brother Moses seems to be getting all the glory.

And the picture of God is complex.  In fact, we don’t always like it that the sweet taste of the gospel is preceded with the bitterness of God’s wrath.  Sometimes we get the sour taste of judgment and prefer to turn the pages back to something more palatable like Psalm 23.  We’d rather read about comfort and restoration than lament, revenge and terror.

But the Bible has all of it, and it’s a good thing.  Even though we might prefer only words of comfort and promise, we would never locate ourselves in the biblical story if it did not also include the despair, terror and anger that we cannot avoid.  And so as we open ourselves to the Word, we find that it reflects the complexities and dangers that are familiar to us.

The parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew starts out with such promise.  The king’s son is getting married, so the celebration will be grand and memorable.  He pulls out all the stops for this most special occasion, and he anticipates the delight of his friends when they will all share a feast of joy with him.

What a disappointment when his friends refuse to come!  It is unthinkable.  It’s not just that they forget, or that they are too busy.  They refuse.  The king can only wonder if they misunderstood, so he sends out more servants who describe the succulent feast in detail, and they’d better hurry before the veal roast is overcooked.  This time the response is even more shocking: some of the people just walk away, and others turn on the servants and kill them!

Disappointment quickly turned to rage, and the king had his former friends slaughtered.  Anyone else who was willing to accept the invitation was now invited to the feast.  Day laborers and servants and beggars alike found themselves seated in the king’s banquet hall, eyes wide with wonder at the plates heaped with delicacies they had never tasted before.

The excitement and anticipation of the king had turned to disappointment and then rage.  Even after the doors were closed and the guests timidly started sampling their food, the king caught sight of someone who didn’t put on the wedding garment handed to him at the door.  When he suddenly disappeared, the rest of the guests averted their eyes and tried to concentrate on enjoying their good fortune.

So the best we can say is that the parable which began with such good will ends with nervous gratitude and not a little bit of fear.  Not unlike more than one meal we’ve had in our house, when even our favorite foods taste like straw because we’ve just had a terrible argument.  Our home doesn’t feel so safe any more, and the food practically sticks in our throats because we are shaken from the emotions of anger and disappointment.

Well.  This parable kind of sticks in my throat too.  It seems apparent that the king has to represent God, and I don’t like reading about God’s wrath.  Disappointment I can handle.  But when the sadness turns to wrath, and people are cast into the darkness, destroyed and their houses burned, I don’t want to hear about a God like that.  I’d rather talk about Psalm 23, and God’s good care for us.

But if we’re going to read the whole Bible, we have to accept that God has both love and judgment on the divine agenda.  The people who refuse God’s invitation are not invited to come back the next day.  They don’t get doggie bags of leftovers from the feast.  And the one who shows up without the wedding garment is not tolerated.  If you accept the invitation, you accept the terms of it, and the garment of righteousness is required, no exceptions.

It’s a tricky parable to figure out.  And pretty frightening if you put yourself in the place of any of the king’s subjects.  We like to think that we’ll accept God’s invitation to the banquet without hesitating, but what if we make a mistake and show up without the proper uniform?  What if we’re caught off guard and refuse the invitation just because we’re distracted?

I hope I can reassure you with two ideas.  The first is that we often jump to the conclusion that this parable is about going to heaven.  It might be.  But remember that the kingdom of heaven is not just far away in the future.  It is right here, right now.  We just read it in Philippians 4: “The Lord is near.”  So that when God invites us to join the banquet, we can pull up to the table of blessing and grace every single day.  It’s not an all-or-nothing deal.  The punishment of the arrogant may just serve to remind us not to be stupid, or to impress us with the fact that this is serious business.  God’s disappointment when we reject God’s invitation is so profound that it turns to anger.  Don’t be foolish; join the family at God’s table.

The second idea is this.  Even if this parable were only about going to heaven after you die, you don’t have to be afraid of missing your one chance.  No one on earth has the wedding garment all sewn up.  You can only get that when you get to that mysterious doorway between the street here and the banquet hall of heaven.  It will be handed to you through faith in Jesus Christ.

See, that wrath of God’s that we don’t like to read about is real.  But it will not be taken out on you.  Jesus Christ bore the terror, the shame and the death so you won’t have to.  The wedding garment has been crafted of love and forgiveness.   It is pure white, the only color that will be worn among the privileged guests–privileged not just because they were invited, but because that gorgeous, costly garment is free to all who will accept it along with the invitation.

So, even though the parable of the wedding banquet doesn’t have a happy ending, the outcome in God’s plan is very good.  In the meantime, we still have God’s Word to remind us that God means business when the invitations are sent out.  And what fools we are if we do not catch God’s excitement and come to the banquet, dressed in the richest of robes and ready to join the feast, all of it made with love, just for us.

What is it Worth?

Matthew 21:33-46; Philippians 3:4b-14

Proper 22A 

We have a couple of striking images in our text today that bear some thought.  The first is a vineyard, which would have been familiar to the people of first century Palestine.  Then we have an image of a garbage dump, or at least garbage, which of course is familiar to people of all time, everywhere.

First, the vineyard.  We have a few around here.  You might know about Innspiration Vine and Wines up by Linn Grove.  We have one right outside of Spencer, a half mile west of Menard’s.  There is one purpose for cultivating a vineyard: to bear grapes.  Right?  No other reason to go to all that trouble.

So the owner of the vineyard has business elsewhere and leases it to some folks who convinced him they would take good care of it.  A few months pass, and it’s time to divide up the harvest, so the owner sends his servants for that purpose.

What happens next is shocking, horrible.  They beat up one servant, kill another, stone another.  Word gets back to the owner, so he sends more servants, maybe bigger dudes this time, but they got the same treatment.  Now, the owner is either really naïve or desperate, because he sends his own son to straighten things out.  Surely they would respect his son.

But, no.

He underestimated them.  They kill the son.

Jesus makes it clear to the chief priests and elders that they are just like the “wretches” who assault and kill the servants and even murder the son in the parable.  They got the message, and their first impulse was to arrest him, presumably to shut him up.  We don’t know whether or not they understood that the “stone the builders rejected” Jesus talked about was about himself.

There are a lot of things you can say about this parable, and one of them is this: the owner really cared about that vineyard.  He really wanted that fruit.  Why else would he risk the death of his son to obtain it?

If the first scene was ugly, the second is smelly: a garbage dump.  In this dump we find a lot of good things people have thrown away.  Paul in particular has thrown out his Sunday School awards for perfect attendance and Scripture memorization.  His family geneology is on the pile, and all of his precious parchments about the Law that he had carefully studied for years.  His lists of Christians to be arrested—on the trash heap, along with his membership card for the Sabbath Pharisees Club.  All his phone numbers for the other club members have been erased from his cell phone.

You get the idea.  Paul told the Philippian church that all the scholarship and status and ideas about righteousness that he had been known for—honored for—were useless to him now.

What could make him give up all those good things?

One word: Jesus.  Jesus got a hold of him, and he isn’t looking back.  To him, it is worth giving up everything that he used to value just for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ.  Even if it means suffering for Jesus’ sake, it is worth it to keep on experiencing the resurrection power and the joy of trusting his life to Jesus.

Here is what he says, in contemporary language:

“The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. …

“I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.

“I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”

(Philippians 3:7-14 [selected verses], The Message by Eugene Peterson, 2002)

Paul’s life shows that knowing Jesus and making him known was worth leaving everything else behind.  He could not wait to see what God was going to do next.

That is what we should expect to see in every congregation: the anticipation and joy of watching for what God is going to do next.  Leaving outmoded ways behind, celebrating longstanding practices that make Christ known among us, trying new ideas to proclaim the good news in a changing world.

This is not something that can be accomplished overnight, or by a few people.  It has to be a commitment you make together, and it requires some rearranging of priorities for everyone.  Good things that used to work have to be lovingly bid farewell.

I am reminded of the challenges faced by the first settlers of the Midwest and far west United States.  When they came to rivers, they had to leave some cargo behind.  When they reached the mountains, pianos and furniture and fine china were dumped in favor of moving on.  Was it hard to do?  Yes.  Did they do it?  They did if they wanted to get where they were going.

Reaching out for what is next, letting go of what lies behind.  Is that what St. Mark Lutheran Church looks like?  Because you are facing some mountains here.  If you are not going to become another statistic of mainline churches fading away, you have to change and adapt.

I’ll tell you something.  I see signs of new life emerging.  Some of you might not see it yet, but new things are beginning to take shape.  A new program for children learning on Wednesday nights.  Do you know what one of the teachers said to me recently?  “You should have seen them pray, Pastor.  They prayed like adults!”  Isn’t that amazing?  When I see the energy and engagement of the confirmation class, I get excited.  I’m hearing about new ideas for social ministry, new life for the children’s Christmas program, new ideas for fellowship and for small group ministry.  A new kitchen, with potential for wider ministry that God has in mind and we have yet to discern.  A new pastor, sooner or later!

Just as important as these vital signs is the urgency of your mission.  There is a lot of bad news coming at us these days.  National events that horrify us.  But there is bad news next door too, and bad news in your own life.

You are not the only ones who need this church to thrive.  Your neighborhood, your country, the world needs your ministry and message.  Hope is needed more than ever.  Hope is not just a good word; it is lived by you in front of your family and friends.  It is planted and cultivated in the church of Jesus Christ.  You are not merely teaching Bible stories and collecting food and clothing for those in need.  You are teaching the children what it means to be God’s people in a world desperate to see it.  You are showing your neighbors that hope is real, and they don’t have to sink into despair.

This weekend you will vote on whether or not to participate in Congregation Vitality.  Regardless of whether that is the tool you use to move forward, you will move forward.  The question is whether or not you will bear fruit. That landowner in the parable today expected to see results!  The Holy Spirit will do it in exactly the way that is needed within you, through you.

But friends, that is key.  It has to happen within you, as each of you lets go of not only useless things, but also some good things for the sake of what is far greater.  This will be reflected on your calendar and in your checkbook, make no mistake.  Jesus didn’t say, “take up your stuff and your busy schedule and follow me.”  He said, “Take up your cross and follow.”  A cross is not a basket for carrying things.  It is where people and things go to die.

And it has to happen through you as a whole community.  A pastor cannot create the new life that is needed in every single congregation.  We have been told the plan in the New Testament.  It is the Holy Spirit using the gifts, time, passion, and talents of every person.  We are the body of Christ, and every part of the body is needed for the body to function properly.

Think of it.  If you wait for and rely entirely on a new pastor for renewal, all God has to work with are that person’s talents, time, and energy.  OK, maybe those of a few other people too.  But when you all come together as God’s people, you have a huge variety and reservoir of talents, creativity, time, and resources.  It’s no wonder Paul told the Ephesians that God would do far more through them than they could imagine if they would let God’s power unite and use them.  (Eph 3.20-21)

You have a decision to make this weekend.  Whether you vote Congregation Vitality up or down makes no difference.  It really doesn’t.  The covenant for CV is demanding, but it is just an example of what the church needs to look like as you are offering yourselves completely for God’s purposes. Either way you choose, you need to count the cost and pay the cost in order to be God’s robust community of faith making a difference in Storm Lake.

Let’s change that language.  Let’s not ask what it costs.  I think what Paul is asking us today is this: “What is it worth?  What is it worth to have a new sense of purpose, a fresh wind of the Spirit breathing new life you?  What is it worth to see what God is up to, what God will do with your open hands if you will let go of what lies behind?  What will God do among you and through you if all of you go all in for the gospel of Jesus Christ in this place, in this time?”

Here’s what Paul says, again in Philippians 3:

“So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision—you’ll see it yet! Now that we’re on the right track, let’s stay on it.”  (Philippians 3:15-16, The Message by Eugene Peterson, 2002)

The Spirit will show you the way to go, and that it is worth everything you put into it, to know Jesus and follow him wherever he leads.  The question this weekend really isn’t about whether you decide to do Congregation Vitality or not.  The question now is this: Are you ready to reach out for what God has ahead for you, together?  Are you ready, people of St. Mark?


A Change of Heart

Matthew 21:23-32    

Proper 21 A

 Dearly beloved brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ,

A theme that has been running through our worship times in the past month is the generosity, or grace, of God.   Jesus healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman, even though she wasn’t supposed to qualify for his blessing.  Jesus told parables about a servant who took his master’s mercy for granted.  We are supposed to pass God’s grace on to others.  Last week’s gospel text, which some of you may have read this week, had a landowner giving a full day’s pay to everybody who showed up to work, even those who came only for the last hour.  Grace, grace, grace!

Even the gospel text on church discipline was infused with grace.  Don’t write off people who sin against you.  Go to them and try to restore them to the fellowship, and if they’re stubborn, keep trying.

And so we are getting a sense of the heart of God.  God loves us deeply, unconditionally, passionately.  Jesus even depicts God as a fool in a few cases, lavishing rewards on people who seem the least deserving.  That is what happens with us every day.  God lavishes gifts of forgiveness and hope and relationships and material provisions every day, even though we have done nothing worth earning it.

But the parable we are given to ponder today doesn’t mention any rewards.  Instead, the focus is on the behavior of the sons.  How do they react to their father’s instructions?  It is not God’s heart we are considering today; it is ours.

It’s a simple parable.  Dad asks his two boys to get to work.  One of them was tired of seeing his brother get all the breaks, and decided he had had enough.  “I won’t do it!”  Wow.  Bad attitude, huh?  His brother, who he always thought was Dad’s favorite, answered sweetly, “Of course, Dad.  I’ll get right on it.”  He walked toward the vineyard, but as soon as Dad was out of sight, he hustled to the stables and rode into town to see his buddies.

The first son decided to go to his favorite spot in the olive grove while Dad cooled off.  He sat there for a while, stewing in his own self-pity.  But after a while, he got bored.  He tried to think of something fun to do, but nothing felt right.  He started thinking about his future, and what it would be like when the farm would all be his.  He thought about how hard he would have to work, but how satisfying it would be to provide for his family and to produce a good crop.  When he thought about it, he realized that he actually liked working with the grapes.  So that suddenly, the only thing he wanted to do was go and work over in the vineyard.  He hustled his way through the brush and got his tools out of the shed.  When his father stopped by to check the progress, he was surprised to see him working along with the hired help.  He turned and smiled to himself with the knowledge that his son had had a change of heart.

And “change of heart” is a good way to put it.  Most versions of the Bible report that the son changed his mind.  But the word in verse 29 actually means a change of heart.  Those are two different things.  You can change your mind about a lot of things that don’t make much of an impact on your life.  But when you have a change of heart…that goes a lot deeper.

In the time that remains, I’d like to share two stories with you.  The first is about a boy who was my piano student about twenty years ago.  I was pretty good at getting my students to practice, but J.L. was a tough case.  I stumbled onto the idea of giving him some very simple piano arrangements of classical music.  Songs by Beethoven, Bach and others were featured, with very simple lines and fingerings.  Songs he could recognize, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony theme: da da da dum!  Or Fur Elise: la la la…you get the idea.

He ate them up…but he still didn’t practice much.  You see, he like the idea of being a pianist.  He liked to tell people he was playing songs by the masters.  But he didn’t want to act  like a pianist.

Occasionally I sing at various events with my friend Ray, a great accompanist.  He acts like a pianist.  Even though he is one of the best musicians I know, he still practices really hard.  He can play almost anything you put in front of him.  He is truly a” pianist.”

We could say that the “yes” son is like people who want to be identified as followers of Jesus, but they rarely act like it.  Their hearts are hard.  And the “no” son ended up working is like people who don’t worry so much whether they are called Christians or not, but they act like it all the time.  They follow Jesus with their hearts, whether they realize it or not.

This summer I told you a brief story about Jeremy.  Today I want to flesh it out, because he had a change of heart.

Jeremy was acting very strangely.  This 21-year-old young man was claiming that God was calling him to go to Africa on his own, with no money saved up and no plans.  Just go.  He would have two years of college completed, and his parents wanted him to finish school.  They tried to talk him out of his plan.   If he was determined to do mission work, they reasoned, he should at least go with an established organization.  He would not listen to the pleas of his parents, nor his pastor, trusted friends, anybody his parents could find to help talk him out of his foolhardy notion.

Eventually Jeremy’s parents realized that they couldn’t stop him, so they put him in God’s hands.   They trusted that if this was truly God’s will, God would make it happen.

And God did make it happen.

See, Jeremy had been jogging one day when he was stopped dead in his tracks by a message that he could only believe was God speaking to him: I want you to go to Africa, alone, next June, with only the clothes on your back.  Take along no money, no provisions, and I will provide for you.  So the next summer,  in obedience to what he believed to be God’s call, he left home with only the clothes he was wearing, a toothbrush, cell phone, passport, driver’s license, insurance cards and his bank debit card.  He was on his way to an orphanage in Morocco, a mission he had learned about from a friend.  He purchased a plane ticket to Philadelphia for $115, the farthest he could travel with the money he had.  This money had been given to him by a woman at a Bible camp he visited, who felt God telling her to give it to him.

When he got to Philadelphia, he didn’t have money for a hotel, so he slept in the airport.  He made his way downtown, where he saw the sights and eventually ended up in the park.  There he met a man whose dog wandered over to Jeremy.  The man was a former drug addict who had become a Christian.  He was a flight attendant who was able to obtain a flight to Spain, roundtrip and open-ended, for $460, almost all the money for airfare Jeremy had been given by a friend before he left home.  The man also had a backpack he had used on a safari, full of provisions, that he was going to give to his church the next day.  He gave it to his new friend instead.  All the clothes in it were Jeremy’s size.

Oh, there are so many details to this story, we don’t have time for them all.  Will you believe me when I tell you that Jeremy received money, advice and help from strangers all along the way, so that he made his way to that orphanage in Morocco?  And that he spent three months there helping with maintenance and supporting the family groups there?  That he made many new friends and grew to trust God more deeply?  That God has many more plans for him?

Would you also believe that Jeremy is that same young boy—Jeremy—who was my piano student about twenty years ago?  What I didn’t know then was that Jeremy was a very unhappy little boy.  He felt secure with his loving family and faithful church friends, but he often cried himself to sleep from the teasing and loneliness he felt at school.  What I also didn’t know was that he went on the same mission trip as my daughter, a trip to the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota that God used to turn Jeremy’s life around two years ago.  It was there that Jeremy realized that God loved him deeply and eternally, and that God had a plan for his life.  It was there that he had a change of heart, and began to love the things God loved.  It was almost a year later when he sensed God calling him to go to Africa with nothing but faith.

Jeremy changed from a sad boy who wanted to be good at something, but wasn’t willing to put the work into it.  Maybe he just didn’t like the piano; I don’t know.  But look at him now.  He knew without a doubt the moment that God was calling him out of loneliness and a meaningless life to have a purpose.  He is now willing to do whatever God asks him to do, and he is seeing the faithfulness of God every day in his life.  He spent three months in Africa, later in Peru and other mission sites.  Who knows what his next assignment will be?

Jeremy posted several journal entries on the internet for everyone to read.  His story is fascinating and inspiring.  After one day’s post he said, “One month down.  A life to go, in Christ.”

The danger of telling Jeremy’s story is that it is so exotic, so unusual that we might shake our heads and admire him, but we would not see how it is relevant to our lives.  But it is relevant, because Jesus is calling each one of us to follow him.  Young people, boys and girls, I want you to think about this.  You may think your life will consist only of trying to make enough money to stay ahead, maybe buy the things you want.

But God has a purpose for you.  A specific set of tasks, for which God has equipped you.  A set of circumstances where you will see God at work; there will be no other explanation for it.  God calls each of us to see that the harvest is far greater than we can imagine, and that each one of us has a vital part in it.  How will you respond?  You can say you are a worker, or you can be one.

All of us here today say we follow Jesus Christ.  But how much does our behavior match our claim?  We know that God has a huge heart, and will go all the way to the cross to claim us.  We respond with gratitude and worship.  But then God also calls us to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.  To love as he loves.  To give as he gives.  To do whatever it takes to tell people about Jesus and to lift up the fallen and set people free from bondage to sin and poverty and sickness.  The work in God’s vineyard involves more than our words and even our checkbooks!

When we pray here, is it just words, like the son who said, “Sure, Dad,” or will we follow through with our actions?  You see what I’m getting at.  Over and over in the prophets and in Jesus’ teaching, we see the heart of God who tells us, I don’t want your rituals, your religion, unless it means I have you.  I want you to care about what I care about.  We cannot soften God’s call to make it seem easy or comfortable.  God calls us to have faith, to trust, to take the risk that will end up proving God’s faithfulness.

Jeremy looks to me like one of the Old Testament prophets.  People thought they were crazy because they said and did what God told them to do.  I doubt that God is calling you to drop everything and go to Africa, although that might actually be true for someone here.  But God may be calling you to drop your pride and go seek forgiveness from someone.  God may be telling you to talk to your friend about the love of Jesus.  God may have been nudging you to have faith and give more time or money or compassion for the sake of those God loves.  I don’t know what God is calling you to do.  Are you willing to ask, and wait, and walk your talk?  Are you ready to care about what God cares about, and have a change of heart?

God Asks a Question

Matthew 20:1-16…Proper 20A

When is the last time you let God ask you a question?

In the gospel of Matthew we have been hearing questions from Jesus.  I preached from Genesis all summer, and I decided to return to the gospels this fall, because I imagined that at least some of you were anxious to get back to Jesus.  Genesis asks us some uncomfortable questions.  Let’s get back to the comfort of being close to our Lord.

Except where we landed in the book of Matthew, we came smack up against Jesus’ question: Who do you say that I am?  (Matt 16.20)  And before we could come up with an answer, he tells us he is going to be arrested, tortured, killed, and raised again.  We can barely absorb the horror of that before he tells us this (my paraphrase):  “If you want to be close to me, you will have to go with me on the road to the cross.”

It’s enough to make you want to go back to Genesis.  But if you are brave, you stay the course with Jesus.  I will assume you have that kind of courage.  So what comes next in the gospel of Matthew, Pastor?

I’m glad you asked.

The transfiguration, where Jesus lets his inner circle get a glimpse of his true glory, and to see where he gets his wisdom (from Moses and Elijah).  Also what kind of authority he has—enough to tell demons where to go.

Moving on, Jesus repeats his prediction of suffering, which upsets his disciples a lot.  And then, if they are not confused enough, he riles everybody up with his strange assessment of greatness, in the following order, give or take:

  1. Children
  2. People who are lost in their faith or their shame
  3. People who need your forgiveness
  4. Your spouse who is driving you nuts
  5. You

Peter tries to get this ranking straight in his own mind, essentially attempting to correct Jesus’ unfortunate perspective on society.  We didn’t read it in the gospel lesson; it comes before today’s text, in Matthew 19.  Jesus just gets done telling a very godly man that if he really wants to experience God’s kingdom, he should loosen his grasp on his wealth and let it do some good among the poor.  He explains to his disciples that wealth makes it harder to get close to God.

Peter, assuming that he didn’t need that kind of lesson, sets Jesus up for the kind of answer he expects.  And gets the answer he wants:

“Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”

That had to make Peter feel very satisfied.  Jesus finally got it right, as far as he was concerned.  He would get what he deserved.  If only Jesus hadn’t added this: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matt 19.27-30)

Shoot.  There he goes again.  He went on to tell another parable to drive home the point, the story we read just now that one of my Bibles entitled “The Laborers in the Vineyard.”

That title is a little short-sighted in my opinion, because it is not about the laborers.  It is about the landowner.

Let me say that again.  It is about the landowner.

And let me say it a third time.  It is about the landowner.

Jesus was so smart.  He knew that wages matter more than almost anything to us.  It is a common denominator, whether you are rich or poor or somewhere in between.  Fairness about wages is the point for us.  We believe that people should earn what they get paid.

For some reason we let that ethos color our entire perspective on society.  So, if people are upright and industrious, they deserve the good things in life, a sort of payment for being good.  If people are bad, they don’t deserve anything good.  And then we let this color our regard for the poor, or people who are disadvantaged by their skin color or sexuality or ethnicity.  If they don’t have the gumption to improve their situation or be righteous or go through the proper channels, they can’t expect to get the same treatment as those of us who got it right.

I sense a few feathers ruffling.  Hey, Jesus ruffled more than feathers.  He got himself killed by talking like this.  Asking questions like, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

He had the audacity to imply that God decides what is right, not you.  Not me.  We like it when God’s generosity means I am invited to the table.  We do not like it when certain other people are invited to pull up a chair alongside of us.  As in, “Wait, what’s she doing here?”

But we are not the ones doing the inviting.  Jesus also told a parable about a wealthy person preparing a great banquet, and the first ones invited had better things to do.  He then tells his servant to welcome everyone who wants to come, “so that my house may be filled.”  He did not tell his servant to leave some people out.

That is what I would be inclined to do.  I might assume that I knew what kind of people would feel most comfortable at the master’s table, and which ones I would be doing a favor by leaving them out.  Letting them know they should work a little harder at being worthy.  Maybe they will get invited to the next party, or someone else’s.

How could I dare to be so presumptuous?  How can any of us?

Here comes God’s question again: Are you envious because I am generous?  Which begs the next question: What on earth do I have to be envious about?  I haven’t been left out, even though my self-righteousness is the only kind of thing Jesus condemned.  I am not worthy to be included, but I am.  So what is there to be jealous about?

How many times do we read about God’s generosity but subconsciously insert asterisks and clauses and exceptions into it?  Yes, we tell ourselves, God is merciful and loving, except for people who have not repented of being gay, or broken, or lazy.  We do not get to decide who gets the full benefit of God’s love and mercy.

This is the full gospel in a nutshell.  And in case we still don’t get it, guess what comes next, in Matthew 20.  The parable about the generous landowner, and the question God essentially asks us about divine generosity comes right before Jesus’ third prediction of his death.  This is what God’s generosity looks like:  Choosing his own death over condemning us.

Jesus would rather look like the guiltiest of all than to have us comparing ourselves to one another, and judging who comes out more deserving.  He would rather die than let us use the Law against each other anymore.  The Law that was first given as an invitation to life on God’s reign had become in human hands a weapon to exclude people.  Sound familiar?  The Bible gets used that way all the time.  We thought the Law was what was right, but there is a higher authority, and it is God.  On the cross Jesus took the full brunt of judgment so we will know that the Law does not give life.

All we can see in the Law is condemnation.  How did we ever equate that with God?  God gives life.  God’s first, last, and only impulse toward us is to forgive, to get all that sin and judgment and comparison and jealousy out of the way, so we can experience the full force of God’s love in the life God calls us to live.

God deeply, inexplicably loves every single soul who ever walked the earth, and we can’t do anything about it.  It looks as though the only choice we have on the road to the cross alongside Jesus, and in the life that comes after the cross, is to be generous like God.  To live unburdened by the responsibility of judging one another, of deciding what is right and what is not, who’s in and who’s out.  To be free to love as God loves, and to leave the payroll business to God.

It is about God.  Next question, please.

The Power of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35…Proper 19A

What a wonderful gospel text for Kamden’s baptism today!  We wash him with the waters of forgiveness and love, as God claims him to be God’s own.  Kamden belongs in the community of faith, where forgiveness is the norm.  We refuse to live by the world’s script of revenge and violence.  Instead we follow in the footsteps of our Lord, who showed us the way to stop sin’s deadly cycle and instead choose life and freedom from anger.  It is not an easy life, but it is the best life, and we welcome Kamden into this life this is defined by love in Jesus’ name.

The parable we read in the gospel today is practically a cartoon, making it crystal clear how we are to respond to God’s forgiveness.  A man owes the king a debt that is absurdly impossible to repay, or even to incur.  One talent was worth fifteen years’ wages, so the debt amounts to 150,000 years’ worth.  So when he tells the king, “I will pay what I owe,” those listening to Jesus would have chuckled.

But then he turns around and skewers another man who owes him a hundred denarii, one hundred days’ wages.  The contrast between the debts is ridiculous.  How could the forgiven servant even think of being so cruel after he had been released from so great a debt?  You get the idea.

The other servants in the parable seem like stand-ins for us.  They can see the cruelty of the forgiven servant.  The injustice of it was so obvious, and they wouldn’t let it pass.  They had to report back to the king.

It is hard to read the ending of this parable, where the king reinstates his debt, throws him in prison, and has him tortured.  Yikes.  But remember, it is a parable, not a true story, although it does end with, “So my heavenly Father will also do to you…”

My sense is that Jesus uses exaggerated images—including the punishment—so we will really hear what he has to say about forgiveness.  It should make a difference to us.  Experiencing forgiveness is not meant to be a one-off or an ending.  What we do next is critical: how we treat other people, how we are changed by being forgiven.

Sometimes I think we regard forgiveness as a simple matter of bookkeeping.  We sin, God forgives, make sure the accounts are clear with your prayers.  Don’t get behind on your account!

That is shrinking the gospel down to be so small, sterile and practically irrelevant.  Forgiveness is the good news Jesus told his disciples to tell everyone, but it is the hardest thing for us to do.  It is grueling, and painful, but powerful.  Nothing short of transformation is what happens to us when we realize the force of it.  We are forgiven.

God does not forgive us just so we can feel better, although it certainly does that.    Forgiveness is a dynamic force.  Think of it as a seed containing tremendous potential.  It is meant to grow and produce more forgiveness, more freedom and peace and release from shame.

Because we are forgiven, we see other people not as walking debts owed to us, but as those in need of mercy just as we need mercy.  Think of how our relationships would change if we did this consistently.  Think of how different our culture would be.  It would look like the kingdom of heaven.

Regardless of what you have been taught about sin, it is not about God getting what is owed, or erasing a debt, much as that image might help us sometimes.  God is not interested in bookkeeping.  Jesus blew that idea out of the picture when he made the servant’s debt too large to imagine.

God’s mercy and forgiveness are not about a transaction.  God is personal, eager to help you and give you life in every way possible, from the inside out.  That’s why it’s so important to restore the relationship, and to spend our lives letting God’s fierce, forgiving love enliven all our relationships with each other.  So, we extend mercy as we have been given mercy.  The power flows through us to give life to other people.

Friends, this is the greatest miracle God works.  Parting the sea for the Israelites was big, but this is even bigger, because our hearts can be the hardest things on earth to move.  We cannot do it without getting close to Jesus.  He literally died to show us the way through it.  If you are struggling to forgive, invest your time with him and let him work a miracle within you.

I know, sometimes the injury is too much to forgive.  Forgiving your spouse for being irritable and forgiving someone for abuse are two vastly different things.  The only way we can possibly experience forgiveness for others is by going to God again and again, trusting that God’s mercy is big enough and strong enough to overcome your pain and allow you to forgive.  Only God can work on the inside of you to change what seems stuck and hard and impossible to budge.

Did you think it could be any other way?  Have you been fooling yourself, functioning on the “no forgiveness required” plan?  There is no such plan.  If you follow Jesus, then you learn to forgive, no matter how long it takes.

Nicholas James Yarris was convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder and condemned to death at the age of 21.  Twenty-two years later, he walked out of prison a free man.  He proved his innocence through DNA testing in a grueling round of appeals and transfers.  He had spent his entire sentence in solitary confinement.

You would think that Nicholas would emerge as a bitter, broken man.  In fact, he spent his time relishing the outdoors and the taste of foods he hadn’t eaten in years.  He laid in bed with the windows open, the cold night air chilling his room as he gazed at the stars.  His biggest problem was sensory overload as he rediscovered the joy of human touch and the beauty of nature and life itself.

He was asked whether he was angry.  It would be understandable.  If I were in his place, I wonder if the first thing I’d do is go and find the prosecutor who put me in prison when I was innocent.  I might wish that he would suffer the same punishment.  But Nicholas claimed that he couldn’t be angry after he’d been given the biggest gift of his life.

If you can get to forgiveness—and by God’s grace you can—then you will end up with more time and energy than you had before.  You won’t have to waste it all on keeping a grudge alive.  Like Nicholas after being released, life just feels different.  It might even be confusing at first, letting go of all the man-made rules that say you are supposed to stay angry and protect yourself from getting hurt again.  Come to think of it, you will be hurt again.  Yes indeed, if you are human, you will be hurt.

That is why Peter wondered if there might be a limit to all this forgiving.  Isn’t seven times enough?  He thought that was generous.  But Jesus told the story of this nasty servant just to show Peter that this forgiveness business isn’t about keeping a tally of your tolerance.  It’s about being transformed by forgiveness, so entirely changed that you are eager to practice it on other people, time after time after time.  77 times?  Maybe it won’t be as hard to do when you get to the 78th time.  By then it will be a habit, just the kind of habit God was hoping we would get into.  It’s a habit God can’t seem to shake either, which means mercy for you and me, mercy for all.  Thanks be to God.

Why Two or Three are Gathered

Matthew 18:15-20

Proper 18A

I had a short conversation with a person who doesn’t go to church the other day.  I know he doesn’t because I was inviting him to come and worship with us.  I asked him if he was interested in doing that, and he said, “Not really.  Sunday is the only day I get to sleep in.”  I said something to him about the people here who would love to welcome him, and left him a packet of information just in case he changed his mind.

I didn’t tell him that he should read Matthew 18:15-20.  I doubt that would have convinced him to be here this morning.  Jesus’ lesson about church discipline is not the first one we usually go to when we want to woo someone into the kingdom of God.

Not only is this the first Bible passage we think of for evangelism, but one of the verses (verse 20) in this text is often misused.  If we have a low turnout for worship, we shrug our shoulders and remind each other, “Well, ‘where two or three are gathered’…”  Jesus does promise to be among us as we gather, but it’s not some kind of superstition, so if we happen to meet on the street or at a movie, Jesus has to show up.

In the first place, Jesus says, “where two or three are gathered in my name.”  So we come together to worship Jesus, to know him and to follow him.  Jesus is the purpose and focus of our meeting.  In this case, it has to do with how the community functions in Jesus’ name.  If we read the wider context of this verse in the book of Matthew, we get a sense of how the community of faith is supposed to work.  The trouble is, sometimes it works badly, and we need to know what to do about it when that happens.

A reminder of what we have been reading in Matthew’s account:  Two weeks ago we read about Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  Jesus told Peter he was giving him the keys of the kingdom, with would be the church’s tools for binding and loosing.  We talked about that last week, and how we need to keep working at forgiveness and hospitality in our responsibility to loose things.  We want to fling open the gates to all people, regardless of their background or their sins.  Jesus also said that we are supposed to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

He hasn’t been talking about easy stuff.  Forgiveness and welcoming people we don’t like are hard to do.  Taking up your cross, however we define that, is not comfortable.  Jesus calls us to a life of suffering.  He promised abundant life, sure, but the way to joy is through suffering.  There’s no way to put that more gently or make it more appealing.  On the other hand, if we take a closer look, the suffering we are called to undergo has a purpose and a promise embedded in it, and this text is a case in point.

Basically, we are told that if someone offends us, it is our responsibility to go to them and call them to account.  I’ll bet that’s not your first reaction.  It’s not mine.  Well, I take that back.  My instinct is kind of like that.  I want to go and tell them off, and I’ll practice five different ways to do it as I’m running my errands or cooking supper.  But that is not what Jesus is talking about.  He isn’t telling us to blow our tops, because that would guarantee a big rift between us.  Instinct tells us to react by playing that little game of avoiding each other, or ripping each other to shreds in our separate coffee groups.

Jesus teaches us to change the way we respond to offense.  His first instinct is restoration.  He is describing a community in which the ties that bind us together are stronger than the issues that divide us.  Church is a safe place where we are called to be genuine, a place where we will not be ridiculed or ostracized if our real selves are unpolished or broken or repulsive.  It is a community of people who encourage us to face our sin and to move beyond it to follow Jesus.  Here we do not shrink from the hard work of accountability, and forgiveness, and new beginnings.  In the church we hold our pride loosely, and instead use our strength to forge our fellowship, our friendship with one another.

Did you notice?  Jesus repeats here those words that he used with Peter about the keys of the kingdom—whatever you bind here will be bound in heaven, and what you loose here, same in heaven.  As I said, last week we emphasized the loosing.  Let go our hold on our possessions and pride and property, so people will have a clear path to Jesus.  Today we need to think of the binding that characterizes the community of faith, the church.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are bound to his call as well as his promise.  We are bound to one another in the love Jesus taught us to have.  It is a love Jesus actually gives to us continuously, for our own sake, and for the sake of our fellowship together.  We are the agents of his love.  We are the living, breathing, walking-around, fumbling, remorseful, joyful vessels of the love of Jesus Christ.  And because that love is our life—we could even say our life-blood as received at the Lord’s table today—that is how we are compelled to live.

That love is a self-giving love.  It takes the risk of going to a fellow member to be honest, and to seek restoration.  This love makes us do hard things!  It does not see loosing as breaking off a relationship; it sees loosing as forgiving a wrong done to us.  It takes the chance that we will be misunderstood.  It reaches for reconciliation even though that is terribly hard to do.  Most of us would rather die than confront someone else about the pain they have inflicted on us.  And if we’d rather die, that tells us that it is a cross calls us to pick up.  Crosses are about death!  Jesus said they are symbols of self-denial.  I really have to deny my own anxiety to be obedient to Jesus about maintaining the bonds of love…doing the binding that is our call.

So when we call this the passage about church discipline, it is not as much about disciplining one another as it is disciplining ourselves.  Being obedient to Jesus even when it is tough to do.  We can’t do this on our own.  We need the power of the Holy Spirit, which is another way of saying that lifeblood of love that we get from Jesus, to be the community that the church was created to be.

We need each other.  That is what I wanted to say to the man this week about coming to worship.  I wanted to tell him how much he needs us.  He needs us to tell him the truth when he is unkind or selfish, so he can be forgiven and freed to be the man God created him to be.  He needs us to love him with a love that doesn’t let disagreements cancel that love.  He needs to know what it is to belong to a fellowship of believers so committed to one another that we will fight to stay together.  Jesus says to do whatever it takes to restore people to his fellowship.  He doesn’t want anybody to be missing at his table.

We come to this place, we gather here because this is a sanctuary.  It is a safe place, where we know we are deeply loved, and we can’t help but worship the God who loves us like that.  It is a place where we can be ourselves and let everyone else be themselves, and extend forgiveness and tolerance to one another because we ourselves are forgiven and loved beyond this life and this space.  We are willing to suffer for that love, and suffer for each other’s sake, because all of us are held in God’s great love shown to us in the cross of Jesus Christ.  We are bound together by cords of love that Jesus fashioned.  Where two or three are gathered in his name, he is here among us, suffering with us, doing the hard things with us, so that we can know his love fully and spend our lives probing its dimensions together.  Thanks be to God.

How to Follow

Matthew 16:21-28; Romans 12:9-21

Proper 17A 

There was a young man who was eager to make his way to the top in the business world.  He went to a well-known millionaire and asked him the first reason for his success.  Without hesitating, the businessman replied, “Hard work.”  After a lengthy pause the young man posed the question, “What is the SECOND reason?”

He wasn’t expecting the answer he got.

Jesus said he would build his church on Peter’s confession, that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  He then proceeded to tell his disciples how that would happen.  He would suffer greatly at the hands of the religious leaders, be killed, and be raised three days later.

Peter, the newly appointed Holder of the Keys of the Kingdom, was dismayed.  “Whoa, Jesus, hold on now.  That is not the program I had in mind.”  A Messiah doesn’t save a nation from oppression by getting killed, let alone the indignity of having to suffer.  Peter, like the rest of us, was in the habit of thinking in binary terms: defeat vs. victory, death vs. life.

Jesus’ reaction was emphatic, perhaps because he knew how tempting it was going to be to abandon his mission and switch to Peter’s version of Messiahship.  “Knock it off!” he commanded Peter.  “You are not serving God this time, but Satan.  He has no idea how God works.”

Even if Peter was reacting out of love for Jesus, he could not dictate to Jesus how to fulfill his purpose.  He didn’t realize yet that Jesus’ way is the way of the cross, not what seems logical to anyone else.

Jesus explained that life comes with a cross.  You will suffer one way or the other at some point.  We all know that hardship and sorrow are inevitable.  Jesus told them the truth about reality.  The question is not whether you will suffer, it is how and why you will suffer.  And it is not whether you will lay down your life, it is what you will lay it down for.  It is not whether you will try to save your life, it is how that happens.

And most important, if you are his disciple, the question is not whether or not you will take up your cross and follow; the question is how.  He was very clear about what disciples do: they follow their master, period.  There is no selection of plans to choose from.  The cross is it.

We can hardly blame Peter for hearing the suffering part of Jesus’ prediction and missing the resurrection part.  He panicked.  He wanted a safe Messiah, a victorious Messiah.  That would mean he could be comfortable and confident about following Jesus.  He would be on the winning side!  But in the process he tried to control Jesus.  Big mistake.

It is tempting for us, isn’t it?  It is easier if Jesus would just act like a mascot, and we can wear a cross on our necklace or lapel so people will know what side we’re on.  Easier if we can just stick to our own way of life, because we don’t want to suffer.  Who wants to suffer?  Nobody expects you to be a doormat, right?

The trouble is, if we decide to go our own way instead, comfort and security quickly become the standards for our choices.  Fear gets to have a say in our decisions.  It is not uncommon.  We live in a culture where minimizing loss and pain are considered wise and good.  We avoid losing admiration, or family togetherness, job, health, friendships.  We talk about defending our way of life as if it were something sacred.  Where did we get that idea?

A few years ago a classmate of my daughter took discipleship seriously and heeded Jesus’ call to go abroad to help the poor.  He didn’t go through any mission agencies.  It seemed foolhardy.  But he was determined, and amazingly, people he met along the way handed him everything he needed.  They said God had told them to help.  Jeremy has had a number of adventures in mission since that first bold step.

But at the start, his parents were beside themselves with worry.  They talked to me about their fears, and boy, did I understand.  It all seemed very risky.  But eventually none of us could deny how God was leading and providing for their son.  It was hard, and beautiful, and scary, and real.

We can get so used to being guided by our fears that it becomes second nature.  We expect everyone else to manage their lives the same way.  So we have developed an entire culture of fear, arguing about what is safest.  We support systems that keep things stable, even if those systems are robbing people of life.

The system of Jesus’ time sure expected to keep him in line with their disapproval and threats.  But it didn’t work.  He had the audacity to walk toward his cross instead of away from it. And he tells us that we need to get in line along with him.

The trouble is, I want to carry a bunch of other stuff along with my cross.  You know, just add a cross to the pile.  But that is a tricky balancing act, and I fail every time.  Trying to follow Jesus that way means a life of constant tension, because we are not functioning the way we were created to do.  We are acting against our nature as disciples, attempting to have it both ways.  We are doomed to failure.

What does it mean to take up our crosses?  That is a very good question, one that we can spend a lifetime unpacking.  I do know this much: I am not supposed to carry your cross, nor you carry mine.  Each of us has our own.  The thing is, I don’t think those crosses are as bad as we imagine them to be.  I have noticed that people are willing to do very hard things for God, but they have different ideas about what is hard and what is not.

For me, travel is a joy.  I don’t mind waiting in airports, or taking anti-malaria pills.  It is excruciating for other people I know.  But it does not feel like that much of a sacrifice for me to go where God seems to ask me to go, so you don’t have to admire me for it.  It seems natural.

You might not mind building frames for houses, or spending hours in prayer, or taking care of little kids, baking a dozen pies, teaching English to immigrants, visiting people in the hospital.  Other people wouldn’t dream of doing those things.  We each have things we love to do, that give us life instead of making us weary.

Couldn’t we call that laying down your life?  Spending your time doing what gives you life so you can give other people life, or hope, or help?

Make no mistake, sometimes what God asks us to do is very hard.  But life is filled with hard things.  Jesus asks us to make our hard things count.  But he asks that not just so we can avoid a guilty conscience.  Not so we can just feel good about ourselves, and so God can admire all the lovely little disciples on Jesus’ team.

Jesus asks us to suffer because other people are suffering.  He leads us through places we would never visit otherwise, because people he loves are there.  They need our companionship, our help, our skills.  They need hope, and Jesus wants them to know that hope looks like us.

It was Ravi Zacharias who said, “I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out.”[i]

This week has been one of the most horrific in U.S. history in terms of disasters.  Hurricane Harvey has dwarfed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.  I’m sure you have been responding with thoughtful donations and prayers.  There are many images of rescue, many stories of hope along with the reports of death and massive devastation.

What would happen if the rescuers weren’t willing to risk their safety for the sake of others?  Thousands more would have died.  I daresay the rescuers responded because they felt they had no choice.  They had to save peoples’ lives.

The mistake we make is not realizing that every time we say yes to Jesus, we are saving lives, either someone else’ or our own.  It is not always about people in peril.  It is about hope, and purpose, and living the life that is truly life, not letting fear or anxiety form our lives for us.

To be alive is to face suffering sometimes.  But Jesus goes further.  He calls us to suffer.  The passage we read in Romans 12 today is filled with uncomfortable and downright agonizing commands.  Following Jesus is not all sweetness and light.  I thought I would try a version of the passage without all the hard things in it.  It ended up being a fraction of the original:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:9-21)

Jesus calls us to die to ourselves so we can follow him with no distractions, competing priorities, or illusions that we can share the spotlight with him.  Not once does he promise that we will avoid death and suffering.  He teaches us instead that there are worse things than death, and living in fear is at the top of the list.[ii]

This is good news: Jesus does not just stand by his disciples and point out the way he wanted them to go.  He did not say, “Well, if you want to be my disciple, you walk a few miles straight down that road, through Jericho to Jerusalem, then to the Temple, and they’ll show you what to do when you get there.  You might run into some trouble, but after all, if you want to be my disciple, that’s what you’ll have to do.”

No, he didn’t do that.  He led the way.  And he is with us on the way, every day, following through on what he said and did and promised.  He shows us how to carry a cross, how to find life in spite of its ugliness and heft, both on the journey and beyond.  Thanks be to God.

[i] Quoted by Kimberly Dunnam Reisman, Following at a Distance, 2005. (Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 75

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Pick Up Your Cross” in God in Pain, 1998. (Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 59

“Who Am I?”

Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-8

Proper 16A

Have you ever participated in an opinion poll?  We get these calls during presidential elections.  I took the bait once and spent 20 minutes on a phone call I was told would be brief.  The candidates want to know how they are being perceived.  Do they change their message when they get the results?  We don’t think much of people who do that.

“Who do people say that I am?”  Jesus posed the question to his disciples.  So they reported the latest buzz.  “Elijah…one of the other prophets…John the Baptist.”

But Jesus was just setting them up for the real question: “Who do you say that I am?”


Well, that’s different.

But Peter was ready.  Only this time he wasn’t sticking his foot in his mouth as he usually did.  “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  And he won the best prize ever for his correct answer.  Jesus said, “Blessed are you” for knowing it and having the guts to say it out loud.

Jesus didn’t need the disciples to tell him who he was.  He knew.  He was—is—the Son of God.  He is the Christ, or Messiah, which means he is the anointed one.  He was sent for a specific purpose for which he received that anointing.  Jesus knew he was the Savior of the world.

But he wanted his disciples to know it too.  They were his disciples, after all.  We’ve heard that word so many times it almost sounds like Jesus’ backup group, like Gladys Knight and the Pips, or Diana Ross and the Supremes (I’m dating myself here!).  Jesus and the Disciples.

Disciples follow their rabbi, or teacher, for the purpose of learning to be like him.  They pattern their thinking and behavior after their teacher.  It is a relationship of deep respect and love.  They spend so much time together that when their teacher dies, they can carry on his way of thinking and living, and teach it to the next generation.

So Jesus needed his disciples to know who he was because it would determine who they were.  He talks about this in his last conversation with them in the upper room before he was arrested.  Remember?  He said, you aren’t just my servants; you are my friends…If you love me, keep my commandments…God is glorified if you become my disciples and bear fruit…make your home in me and my words…This is what must define you as my friends and disciples.

Jesus didn’t let other people define who he was.  If he did, he would have conducted himself much differently.  He might have become a popular teacher who simply taught the party line of the Pharisees, with more eloquence.  I might have hung around with the well-to-do Sadducees and become a darling of the Roman authorities.  Or he could have spent all his time healing people, because everybody loved him for that.

But he didn’t.  Instead Jesus showed us what it means to be truly human.  He walked and talked and had friends and slept in odd places and led a motley band of devoted followers by being himself and no one else.  He taught us what it means to be authentic, accepting reality, at peace with who he was and what he was able to do.  Because he knew who he was and what he needed to do, he didn’t have to spend time impressing anyone or worrying about what they thought.  He could see the people around him and detect their needs, sometimes when they didn’t know it themselves.

Is this a model for us?  If we call ourselves disciples, it is.  Disciples reflect the values and lifestyle of their rabbi.  This is what frames their perspective on the world, what guides their decisions.  You can spot a true disciple a mile away, because they reflect their teacher.  They conform to his teachings, his ways.

Paul said we are not to be conformed to the ways of this world, but to be transformed into living, breathing tributes to God.  “Living sacrifices” is the phrase in our English translation.

“Who do people say that I am?” is a question we might all pose to ourselves.  What do people see when I approach?  Am I a malleable figure, ready to mold myself into someone they might like?  Or am I confident and at peace with who I am in Christ?

So, who are you?  Have you thought of that lately?  The first answers come easily.  I am a mother, a wife, a pastor, friend, grandma, musician.  I love to travel and read, and I love pie.

What are your labels?  Businessman, retired woman, teacher, husband, chef, farmer, hard worker, artist, neighbor.

But that is only our outer shell.  There is an identity that God has placed within you that is called the true self.  It is the part that knows the truth about your weaknesses but also your strengths.  It is where your fondest dreams of goodness lie.  It is the deepest reality of who you are, and I will be bold to tell you who you are in your truest self.  You are a beloved child of God.

As God’s beloved, you are made in God’s image.  Everyone is.

I struggle to remember this.  Do you?  I see the way a person dresses or drives and form an instant opinion of them.   I hate that, but it’s a deeply ingrained habit.

Jesus resisted categories we use for one another.  He didn’t treat people with any bias, but accepted them for who they were, even when other people condemned them.  He didn’t fit any categories himself, but I don’t think he was trying to be different.  He just was who he was.

He invites us to do that too.  Just be who you are.  Try to go beyond the outer appearance and expectations, and listen to that inner voice telling you the truth.  “You are beloved,” it says.  It isn’t lying.

Do you want to know the life that is truly life?  It is when your inner truth and your outer life—the acting, talking, relating self that everybody sees—when those two are lined up.  When you decide to stop trying to be whatever your dad and your friends and your kids want you to be, and just accept and live your real identity.

What difference will this make?  It will change your life.

But maybe you don’t want to change.  You’re fine with the way things are.

If I might offer a little more incentive, then think of this.  The world does not need more carbon copies of mediocrity.  They don’t need half-hearted, fair weather followers of Jesus.  They don’t need churches like that either.  The people around you are desperate to know that they are beloved, and you might be the only person who can show it to them.  You don’t have to memorize a gospel message and convert them.  You just need to let your true self shine, and they will get the message just fine.

Friends, you are God’s beloved.  Live as God’s beloved.

This summer I am following the complementary series of the Revised Common Lectionary, using the stories in Genesis.

Wrestling for Good News

Matthew 15:21-28; Genesis 45:1-15

I mentioned at the outset that I faced planning worship today with some confusion.  To be honest, I was more than a little intimidated.  The issues we have been facing are huge: threats to the shaky peace with North Korea, violence and murder at demonstrations by white supremacists and counter-protestors.  And these are only flash points in an era of violence by and against police, terrorism, rising prices, and imploding health care structures.

It is one thing to feel the unease of inflation and political discord; it is another to witness blatant hatred that we thought had been dealt with fifty years ago.  But if we are honest about it, we knew that although hate crime was all-too-slowly confronted and outlawed, it went underground and has never stopped finding expression.

As God’s people we live in a real place and a time, just as God’s people did in the stories of the Bible.  We are not immune to suffering and disaster, and we are certainly not exempt from sinful behavior.  The things that were feared by Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are the same things we fear: suffering, death, meaninglessness, loss.

The problem comes when we live our lives from the stance of fear.  The way I see it, that is what Joseph’s brothers did.  Their first priority was protection of their tribe.  It was a brutal time in the development of civilization, so we shouldn’t be surprised that defensiveness and violence were native to these men.  All the more reason to pay attention to the ways God communicated to the descendants of Abraham that there is a better way, God’s way.  That our Creator made us in the image of God, and that we were wired to love, not hate.

We have been looking at these stories in Genesis, from Abraham to his great-grandson Joseph.  We have seen how God is faithful even when we are faithless.  How God makes a covenant and keeps it, no matter how disappointing the actions of the humans who are party to that covenant.

These are not pretty stories.  Genesis might be the source of the creation stories and Noah’s ark that we teach our children with colorful images, but they are far from storybook pictures in real life.  You recall that the first murder recorded in the Bible happens only a few chapters in, and it was downhill from there.

The word “Genesis” means beginnings, and we do well to think of how the Bible gets us started thinking about faith.  To me, the pivotal moment this time around is that mysterious night at the River Jabbok, where Jacob wrestled with a man who stripped him of his pride and left him with a limp.  That man, whom Jacob recognized as a God figure, renamed Jacob “Israel,” a name that includes both struggle and victory.  It means “he who wrestles with God and prevails.”

What an odd name for what became the name of an entire nation, the people of God, no less.  We consider ourselves spiritual descendants of those folks, a designation Paul gave us.  We could infer from Paul’s theology that we are God’s “chosen ones.”  That creates all kinds of problems if you think about it.  It makes us insiders and everyone else outsiders, and that is clearly not the way Jesus wants us to operate.  Jesus was all about breaking barriers, welcoming the outsider, blessing sinners.

You might not get that impression of Jesus from today’s gospel reading.  He gave a foreign woman grief for asking for the kind of blessing the Jews thought were theirs and theirs alone.  It is a puzzling exchange.  But in the end, Jesus did heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter, proving once and for all that the blessing is not just for one tribe.  And in the process, he allowed—expected?—her to have a voice in a time when women were not encouraged to speak up, especially about faith, and certainly if you were not a Jew.

It is not the only confusing incident in the gospels.  Jesus had the annoying habit—annoying to the temple leaders, at least—of reaching out to unclean people and foreigners and women.  All.  The.  Time.  That was his modus operandi.  Which makes sense, because his becoming a human in the first place, then dying for us, is the biggest gesture of reaching the lost and unclean that ever was.  Reaching us, in other words.

So now, what about wrapping up the story in Genesis?  We didn’t read all the drama leading up to Joseph revealing himself to his brothers, for lack of time.  You might remember that when they first showed up to get food in Egypt, the ten sons of Israel didn’t recognize the baby brother they sold off years ago.  He was now the virtual viceroy of Egypt!  Joseph had a little fun with them, making them run back and forth to their father a couple of times and framing them as thieves for good measure.

But all’s well that ends well, right?  I have preached the Joseph story that way more than once.  Joseph forgives them, and they live happily ever after.

Let’s be realistic.  Joseph’s brothers were selfish, mean, violent men, and it is unlikely that they changed.  What I like to think about is what life was like for them after they settled in Goshen.  They were refugees, guests in Egypt.  They were beholden to their brother and to their neighbors.  What a humbling experience for such brutes.

They had to deal with people close by, and how they would live together peacefully.  They were the sons of Israel, which meant that they would wrestle with who God is and who they should be in the world God created.  That defines us as God’s people no matter what time we live in, or where we live.  We are those who wrestle with what it means to be God’s chosen, God’s beloved.

Which brings us to today in the United States.  We have to wrestle with racism, and face the fact that we have not made as much progress in eradicating racism as we thought.  White supremacy is evil.  Nobody can claim to be made more in the image of God than anybody else.  We are all God’s beloved, meant to live in community safely, joyfully.

Brian McLaren, a pastor and author who was at Charlottesville last weekend, makes this call to the church:

“All of us, especially people of faith, need to proclaim that white supremacy and white privilege and all other forms of racism and injustice must indeed be replaced with something better – the beloved community where all are welcome, all are safe, and all are free. White supremacist and Nazi dreams of apartheid must be replaced with a better dream – people of all tribes, races, creeds, and nations learning to live in peace, mutual respect, and neighborliness. Such a better world is possible, but only if we set our hearts on realizing the possibility.”[i]

This might be a wake-up call for us, but it is not news to millions of our neighbors.  Here is something I read from an acquaintance who grew up as a white male in Iowa and married his African-American wife, about his children who are now adults:

“You don’t know my children well, but you know they’re African-American. That has all sorts of dynamics for our family, of course, but here is one you may not have thought of. Our kids got about three, maybe four years of bliss on this earth, when everything was wonderful and mommy and daddy loved them and they were cute and they could play with anybody else’s kids. All good. But at some point the light went on – or it went off, I’m not sure how to put it – when they learned that there were people in their own hometown who thought less of them because of the texture of their hair or the color of their skin. My kids. Grew up with the knowledge that there would always be hatred for them in this world. There would always be people who would despise them. People who would rather the world not have anyone in it who looks like them. People who would consider that they were less human, and so less capable of being children of God, a blessing to the earth, the apple of God’s eye.

“Can you imagine what that does inside a person’s mind? You probably can’t; I can’t, because I still think that anyone who got to know me would probably like me. More or less. But how does that change a person? When their internal messaging system goes from ‘life is beautiful’ to ‘somebody out there hates me’?”

When this is the experience of a huge portion of our population—or even if it is the experience of only one of our neighbors—we as God’s people are called to turn that around.  There is no more consistent message from the one we claim to follow, Jesus our Lord: that love is the rule, not hatred, in God’s world.  What that looks like, how we act that out, is the responsibility of each person in this room to discern.  Whether it means changing your attitude toward the person living next door to you or seeking the forgiveness of someone you have wronged in your own family, it is your call as God’s people.  Not only my call as your pastor.  Yours.  Whether you decide to stand up as a congregation and say “No more!” to bigotry and how you might do it, that is for you to decide.

I have been realizing lately that I have to actively ignore the needs of immigrants and minorities if I want to maintain my comfortable life and avoid doing anything.  I can no longer think of this as someone else’s problem.

For you and me, for the whole church of Jesus Christ, I believe we have this threefold mandate:

  1. Stop letting fear or even discomfort determine our response to the troubles of our nation. Millions of people—people we know up close—are suffering from violence and injustice rooted in hatred. We need to act.  We will probably make mistakes, but God even uses mistakes; we learned that in Genesis this summer.  The church is God’s Plan A for the world.  There is no Plan B.
  2. Admit that the white American church has been complicit, sometimes even active in oppressing minorities such as blacks, native Americans, women, and the LGBT community, among others. Jesus didn’t tell us we get a pass on loving anybody. He died for all, and that means all.  We have to face up to our sin, confess it, and be forgiven.
  3. Realize that faith is not about having all the answers. It is about wrestling with God’s love and authority, and taking responsibility for what that means for us as a congregation, and as individuals. You live in an immigrant community.  Deal with it the way Jesus would.

This is unsettling, isn’t it?  But it is also empowering.  Where do we get our power?  We kneel at the railing and receive all the love and life we need from Jesus who was broken for us.  Thanks be to God.

[i] http://auburnseminary.org/what-i-saw-in-charlottesville/

The Right Time for Leadership

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

          Are you a leader?  For the past twenty years or so, leadership has been a buzzword in business and industry.  There is no shortage of books, seminars, and advice about being a great leader.  We think of leaders as charismatic people who can accomplish great things by fostering teamwork and motivating people to maximize their potential.

Wow.  Even though I have not studied leadership beyond the class I took at seminary, it isn’t hard to pick up phrases like “maximizing potential” in a culture saturated with ideas about how to be a great leader.

But here’s the thing.  You are a leader.  Everybody is a leader if you think about it, because leaders are simply people with social influence.  Unless you are a hermit, you have influence whether you know it or not.  If you are a parent, a friend, a co-worker, or a sibling, you have influence on other people.  They either want to follow you or they want to avoid being like you.  That is influence one way or the other.

After spending some time in the story of Joseph the past few days, the idea of leadership emerged from today’s text.

First, a brief review.  Remember, Abraham was first called by God to go to the country where he would eventually bear many descendants.  Abraham and Sarah waited for twenty years before their only son Isaac was born.  Isaac married Rebekah, and they bore twin sons Esau and Jacob.  We spent some time in Jacob’s story the past few weeks, noticing God’s faithfulness in spite of Jacob’s faithlessness at times.  In fact, that theme came through first with Jacob’s grandfather Abraham.  We will see it again in the next generation.

Jacob was renamed Israel, and he had a houseful.  He married sisters Leah and Rachel, although not by choice.  Their father Laban tricked him into marrying both.  His wife Leah bore him six sons.  His two wives’ maids bore him four more sons.  Finally, Rachel bore him two sons.  Twelve sons in all.

But one son was the favorite.  We don’t have to infer this; it is written right there in Genesis 37:3, “Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.”  (You might have been taught that it was a coat of many colors, but the original language is not clear.  Sleeves, color, it doesn’t matter when it is the only fancy coat in the family.)

What we didn’t read a moment ago were the dreams that infuriated Joseph’s brothers even more when he described them in detail.  One was about sheaves of grain that all bowed down to the sheaf that represented Joseph.  The other had the sun, moon, and eleven stars giving homage to Joseph.  Even his father was disturbed by Joseph’s incredible arrogance in telling his brothers his dreams.

Another piece of the story that we left out was an episode where the boys’ sister Dinah was violated by a Canaanite man, and the ten brothers took gruesome, extreme revenge on the entire village of the offender.  Joseph ought to know that these men are not to be trifled with.

They were true to form, muscling Joseph into a pit and then selling him off to a passing caravan as a slave.

Wow.  It is hard to find any good news to preach about in this story.  Maybe we need to see the worst of our human tendencies sometimes and leave it at that.

But of course I won’t.

Not only was Jacob/Israel an ambitious, competitive, selfish person, he was also a poor leader, at least up to this point in the story.  Think of it.  The sons of Israel grew up in a household filled with jealousy and bickering.  So, how did the kids turn out?  Predictably, they were competitive, petty, and vengeful.  They were taught to blame somebody for every problem, and they were good at it.  I am reminded of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he taught us to beware about harboring anger, because it is the root of murderous intentions.  Israel’s boys were weaned on anger.

The atmosphere they were raised in bore logical results: a model of family dysfunction.

Although it is a terribly negative example, it is a cautionary tale about leadership in families.  That might sound strange to call parents leaders, but is that not what we are practicing every day with our children?

What is the right time for good leadership in the family?  Every day is the right time.  The influence we have on our children does not happen in specially planned lessons or events.  It happens every single day, by how we live our lives in front of them.  You have heard the expression “children learn what they live,” and it is true.

Our children do grow up.  They have to take responsibility for their choices.  They might reject our values, but it is virtually impossible to wipe the slate clean from their upbringing.  They usually carry on our values, and we can be dismayed by the messages they received without our realizing it.  There is a reason parenting is serious business!

But at least we have to do our best.  We are given a wonderful pattern for raising our children, one of only a handful of guidelines for parents found overtly in the Scriptures.  It is found in Moses’ instructions to Israel’s descendants centuries later after they were delivered from Egypt and prepared to enter the Promised Land.  It is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

In other words, we need to claim our identity as God’s children and rehearse what that means every day of our lives.  We need to lead our children in the ways of God’s reign.  We don’t have to quote Bible verses and act out Bible stories every day.  We do read the Word of God and live it together by loving God and others as Jesus taught.  We explain why we do that when the questions come.  It is day to day leadership for life.

If you are like me, you know you haven’t done this as well as you think you should have.  Then the Genesis stories can be a comfort, where God proves faithful in spite of human mistakes.

So, the right time for leadership in families is all the time.  But there is also a time for leadership in the moment.  For that, we focus on Reuben.

Reuben was the oldest son of Israel and Leah.  He appeared to be a leader in this story.  He was no saint, and I’ll let you search for what I mean in chapter 35.  But when he heard his brothers’ murderous plans, he rose to the occasion.  Reuben talked them out of killing Joseph, and convinced them to put him in a pit instead.  He planned on rescuing Joseph later once his brothers cooled off.

But we know that he never got the chance.  Joseph was a day’s journey down the road before Reuben finally got the chance to double back and check the pit.  He had to keep the terrible secret of Joseph’s fate, calculating which news would be worse for his father to hear: Joseph’s death or his brothers’ wickedness.

Well, that’s enough drama for now.  At least Joseph is still alive.  If you remember the whole story, you know that God kept him alive for a reason.  He would see his brothers again, and much like their father Israel, they would have to face the evil they had done years ago.

We are all leaders, because we all have influence.  Joseph’s story shows us that our influence matters both in the mundane routine of every day, and also in decisive moments.  We all have an impact, for good or ill, every single day.  Once in a while we even have opportunities to make a real difference.  We can counter the bad news of this world with the good news of God’s love and compassion by what we say and do.

It’s not the most inspiring conclusion to the story, but I think it is valid, and it matters.  At the same time, we shouldn’t gloss over the glaring, terrible actions of these men when they let their jealousy and anger dictate their actions.  If Jesus is right, our anger can take us that far.

Left to our own passions, we can take sibling rivalry to terrible heights.  If nothing else, we are reminded that on our own, we cannot be trusted to do the right thing.  But we have God’s Spirit dwelling within, so that by God’s grace we can have influence that reverses negativity and evil in the public square, in our workplaces, and in our homes.  We can lead with the love of God.  Thanks be to God.

What Happens at the River

Genesis 32:22-31

          We are in the last chapter of the life of Jacob that we will cover this summer, moving on to his son Joseph next week.  We have only been given a few slices here and there: his birth to Isaac and Rebekah, a bit about his upbringing, his shady practices to cheat his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing, his dream on the way to Haran, his relationship to his uncle Laban and marriage to Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel.

Here is a tip for interpreting Scripture: pay attention to what is included, and what is not included.  What is chronicled in the Old Testament, the Gospels, and so on are the parts of the story that make a point.  Why Jesus’ birth and nothing about his childhood, for example?  Why some of his teachings and not others?

Why are we given these specific glimpses into Jacob’s life?

I think one thing we might notice about Jacob’s story is that God kept the legacy of Abraham’s call and blessing alive in his descendants, regardless of how deserving they were.  His story depicts Jacob as an ambitious, savvy, self-serving person.  In Genesis 32 he finally returns to the promised land and out from under his father-in-law’s oppressive thumb.  He knows that he will have to face the twin brother he ‘done wrong,’ and the narrative in Genesis describes his anxiety in detail.

We can’t be sure why he sends his entire company ahead of him, and at first glance it seems a coward’s ploy.  But the day after his night at the Jabbok River has him leading his family to meet Esau, so something significant happened there.

What happened that night?

It is as mysterious as any event in the Bible.  Jacob wrestled with a “man.”  No name.  He was a tough opponent, and the match lasted for hours.  Presumably they had to take a break now and then.  Why didn’t Jacob just run away?

For some reason he had to stay with his opponent.  And when the landscape around them began to take shape in the predawn light, the mystery man finally conceded the fight.  “Let me go,” he asked.

Maybe Jacob’s answer tells us why he stayed in the fight.  “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” he answered.

Huh.  What a strange thing to say.  Can you imagine a high school wrestler asking for a blessing from his rival?

To me, that request seems like the theme of Jacob’s life.  I will contend with you, Esau/Father/Laban, until you give me what I want.  And then he gets it, and finds his prize sifting through his hands.  It is never enough.

But this time is different.  The man’s response is unexpected.  The blessing amounts to a new name, Israel.  Jacob wants to know who exactly thinks he has the authority to rename him, so he asks, and he receives no answer.  Somehow he knows by then that it is God.  Maybe he suddenly recognizes the voice he heard all those years ago during his dream about a ladder.

“I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved,” Jacob declared, and as usual, gave the place a name to commemorate the moment: Peniel, for face of God.

“Face” is a funny word.  Around Jacob’s time, having God’s face turned toward you was a sign of divine blessing.  We love to hear it in the Aaronic benediction: “may God’s face shine on you.”  A face is a part of the body but also a sign of favor.  We turn our face away from things we despise or fear.  We offer our face to someone we love.

“Face” is also a verb, the way we talk about confronting something important.  You face your fear, “face the music,” face your problems.  You deal with them honestly and responsibly.

My sense is that this event in Jacob’s story is a gem with many facets and much value.  He had to face some things, and it changed him.  It is a model for spiritual transformation, and for growing up.

Jacob had to face his past behavior and take responsibility for it.  He had to admit that he had cheated his brother Esau.  In anticipation of meeting his brother, Jacob asks God to deliver him from Esau’s revenge.  Then he sends a huge gift of 440 sheep and goats, thirty camels, fifty head of cattle, and twenty donkeys as a peace offering for Esau.  Since Esau has been seen traveling with 400 men, this was probably a wise move.  Jacob knew he deserved his brother’s vengeance.

He had to face the fact that he hurt his brother deeply.  Most of us have to deal with this at some point.  Whether by accident or design, we do deep damage with our words, speaking volumes in our silence at times.  We mess up, and the destruction is as real as any bomb can render.

God’s people seek forgiveness.  Relationships matter to God more than anything else, so we work to restore what we have done to one another.  It is hard, hard work.  Making the phone call or knocking on the door of someone you have hurt opens you up to be hurt in return.  I have had that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  As God’s people, we take that risk.

Jacob had to face himself.  He was a deceiver from the word go, and he met his match in his uncle Laban.  Maybe one of the reasons he had to get away from Laban was that they were too much alike.  Jacob had to admit that it takes one to know one, and he was aware of the stories told around the campfires about his exploits.  He pretended that it didn’t bother him, that it was part of his bravado.  But he knew better.  He could not run away from himself, and he could not breed enough livestock or sons to cover up his nagging discontent.  He had to get to the bottom of his anxiety.

This is what God’s people also do.  If we not only read the Scriptures but also let them read us, we will find ourselves and our foibles on its pages.  It might be a holy Bible, but it’s full of sinners like you and me.  We have to see our sin in technicolor and face it, before we can appreciate God’s mercy.  People like Jacob make it easy to recognize.

Finally, Jacob had to face God.  He had to admit that his trust in God had so many conditions attached to it, it was hard to tell it apart from his own business plan.  At the Jabbok River, Jacob realized what he had been chasing all along.  It was something he had already been given, but he wouldn’t see it: God’s blessing.  Maybe he never could see it because he thought it had to be earned.  That has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?  You can’t receive or even recognize God’s love because you think it is supposed to come with a checklist, lots of strings attached.

The least likely person to teach Jacob about mercy would be Esau, but it was indeed his long lost twin who made God’s mercy real to Jacob.  When Esau caught sight of him, it was like that scene out of the Prodigal Son parable.  He ran to meet his brother, and fell all over him with love and forgiveness.

But we can’t forget about the limp.  Jacob maybe didn’t run to meet Esau, because he had a fresh injury.  God—or whoever the wrestler was—left Jacob with a souvenir of that night: a hip out of joint.  Maybe Jacob needed that limp, to remember how broken he felt when he faced himself, his sin, and his God up close.  How he felt broken, but healed—whole—at long last.

Our scars do that, don’t they?  They help us remember how not to behave, how to avoid danger, how not to be broken the next time.  But the stories of healing that go with those scars are often the greatest gift.

Do you have stories like that?  Scenes from your past that taught you to be humble, to pay attention, to love instead of harboring resentment.  Jesus kept his scars so we can remember, and be humble, and grateful.

These scars serve us as a faith community.  They help us remember what we have been through together.  They remind us that we are all broken in one way or another, and we come together with our patches and glue and duct tape, ready to hold each other up in the next go-round with the hazards of life.

Jacob had one other souvenir from that night: a new name, Israel.  It gets translated in a few different ways, but my personal favorite is that it means one who wrestles with God, and prevails.  The father of the nation God promised to his own grandfather Abraham gets the name that doesn’t mean “king” or “righteous.”  It means struggle, which is a good word to describe a life of trusting God.  It has all kinds of bumps and detours and confusing turns, but remaining on the journey is what matters.  The relationship with God—the struggle, even—is  the journey, and God promises to get us where we are meant to go.

So, if you have things you need to quit avoiding and face up to, you can hang out with Jacob and know it will be okay.  God can handle your wrestling moves and go the distance with you.  Whether it is your past, your sin, your ugly habits, or an unexpected hardship, God has a blessing for you in it.  Your blessing might look like a scar, but if God is with you through the darkest parts of it, it is a story that has God in it.

But wait.  Jacob wrestled with God, and prevailed.  Why on earth would God give Jacob the satisfaction of winning, when a big head was exactly the problem with Jacob all along?  Why, indeed.  Why does God let us prevail, when we don’t deserve it in the least?  I guess we have to wrestle with that.


“The Lord is in This Place”                                                              

Genesis 28:10-22

          Have you ever noticed that some characters in the Bible are just a little too close to your own type to be comfortable?  Peter comes to mind—an impulsive, fumbling disciple whose best intentions are often overshadowed by his big mouth.  Jacob is another one—a lying, manipulative scoundrel who is just normal enough to look like most of the rest of us.  His mother Rebekah probably had a lot to do with his crafty ways, being quite the manipulator herself.

Last week you heard the story of Jacob’s desperate ploy to obtain his father’s blessing, a blessing that properly belonged to his older brother, even if the gap between their ages was only a few minutes.  Jacob got his wish.  He and Rebekah managed to pull Esau’s blessing out from under him, away from their blind father.  However, it was one of those “be careful what you wish for” times, because once he received the coveted blessing, Jacob had to figure out a way to live long enough to benefit from it.  Esau wasn’t an outdoorsman for nothing.  He could have easily killed his twin and gotten the whole mess cleared up, and it appeared he was waiting around for his ailing father to die so he could do the deed.

Anger like that is hard to cover up, and Rebekah and Jacob’s guilty consciences wouldn’t let them rest easy either.  Jacob was sent away under the pretense of finding a proper wife among his kinsmen.  Isaac certainly couldn’t argue with that, having made his match the same way before his sons were a gleam in his own eye.  Jacob had to leave hastily, without much so much as a bedroll to sleep on.  He headed toward the hill country, making his way up to a high ridge where the light lasted just a little longer.  One has to wonder what he thought of his blessing now.  What good would it be to him in a strange place, where nobody cared about his birthright?  Finding a large rock for a wind break and a smaller one for a pillow, he dropped to the ground exhausted and fell into a deep sleep.

What Jacob dreamed that night was one of those peculiar scenes, of which there are many in the Scriptures.  This one was a ladder, which he somehow knew was braced in heaven.  Angels were seen going both ways, busily doing whatever assignments they were given.  He hears God’s voice (though he later may have wondered how he knew it was God) making the most generous promises of land, offspring, God’s own presence, protection and guidance to a man who does not deserve them in the least.

Jacob wakes up, gets his bearings, and says to himself, “Huh!  I had no idea that God would show up like that in the middle of nowhere!  This gives me the creeps, but on the other hand, it’s really amazing when I think about it.  I feel as though I got to see the gate of heaven with my own eyes.”  He did what people often did back then, and found a rock to mark the spot, and named it House of God.  He reminded himself what God had said in the promise and vowed to follow God as long as God proved faithful.

There are locations in this world that spiritual people call “thin places.”  For some reason the membrane between earth and heaven seems almost translucent, defying explanation or logic.  Rivers, hilltops, islands, chapels, historic sites that have been visited by thousands whose experience of God seems to happen more easily there.  Where the sense of the divine is almost palpable, and one leaves with a feeling of awe.

Jacob seems to have come across just such a place, where he had a dream that there was a staircase connecting it with heaven.  He said, “The LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”  But now he does know, and he erects a marker to remember the place.

Are there places where God is not?  We call some places “godforsaken,” as though they are so miserable or the circumstances so dire that it seems sacrilegious to claim God is present.  Places where there are no traces of God’s goodness that we can see.

It seems easier to contemplate what makes a place holy.

The Scriptures tell us that God is everywhere, as we read in Psalm 139 a moment ago.  We can’t flee anywhere that God is not present.

The physical world as we know it is blessed by God, because God created it, and Jesus chose to live here among us.  So there is no place that is not sacred, that doesn’t have the fingerprint of God impressed upon it in some way.

Jesus taught that wherever we are—God’s people—there God is too.  He calls us his body.  His Spirit lives in us, so that wherever we are, God is there.

I have to tell you a story of another person who was fleeing like Jacob, running away from danger.  Except this person didn’t create the problem Jacob was running from.  She was fleeing injustice and persecution.  She was seeking a safe place.

You are aware that we had two teenage girls from Mali living with us in February and March.  Conditions of their visas required that they return home to their mother.  But the situation they faced was more dangerous than any of us thought.

The girls’ mother’s name is Bibi, a force of a woman who began and developed an orphanage out of virtually nothing.  She was born into a Muslim family and culture, but decided a few years ago to become a Christian.  She lived her faith openly, with joy.

Bibi ran her orphanage with integrity, even though sometimes she had to depend solely on God for donations to come in, to feed the children and care for their health.  But some of her workers were dishonest, and stole things.  She had to fire them.

They decided to band together to take revenge, and told the police that she was selling children on the black market.  One of Bibi’s adult daughters was taken into custody and told that unless she corroborated the lies against her, she would not be released.  They also asked for money for her freedom.

When she heard that her adult daughter was taken, Bibi knew they were after her.  She the girls fled for their lives.  She took them to a cousin in the Ivory Coast and went on to the U.S. to stay with her American daughter in Tennessee.  I received a phone call from her as soon as she got to Knoxville.  She was desperate, exhausted, unsure of what to do next.  I told her to get some rest, and we would talk about it the next day.

The following day, Bibi told me that she wanted to take the girls to Ghana, a much safer country for Christians right now.  She had only one contact there, a woman pastor she met a few months ago.

I told Bibi that I know someone in Ghana.  John is a surgeon and a Christian leader, a very resourceful and loving person.  It seemed worth a try to see whether he had any friends who might provide refuge for my friends.  I sent an email to John, and soon received a reply.

John wrote that my email popped up just as he was chatting with friends of ours from Spencer, people who know Bibi and her work, have visited her orphanage, and met her girls when they were living with us.  This conversation was taking place halfway across the world, at a conference in Manila, the Philippines.  He offered to take my friends into his home, and sent a phone number for his brother so that she could go there in Ghana immediately.

What are the odds that I would reach John instantly, and that it was the moment he would be talking with people across the globe who knew Bibi personally?  When I called Bibi the news, she was speechless, crying tears of joy for God’s rescue.

It seems that God truly does “have the whole world in his hands!”  I picture in my mind a map of the world, with lines connecting west Africa to Tennessee to Iowa to the Philippines.  God sees it all and has a hand in our well-being.  God is watching over this precious woman who has cared for poor children for so many years.

I remember visiting the site of that orphanage on the day I met Bibi.  She seemed to sense that this was an important moment.  She drove me to see the site the government had granted to her in a very poor section of the city.  She had erected a sign on that plot, declaring that it was the future site of the orphanage, even though she still didn’t have a penny to pay for it.  And that orphanage was built, thanks to donations from people around the world.

Indeed, God had a plan when another daughter came to the U.S. and got a job with an airline that can fly Bibi wherever she needs to go, for free.  God had a plan when I met Bibi several years ago, so that in July 2017 I could say, “I have a friend in Ghana who might be able to help.”

We are assured that God sees Bibi’s other daughter who is still in custody.  We know that God is working through the faithful women who were left behind to care for the children in the orphanage.  We don’t know how this is going to play out, but we know that God is active in all of it.  God is in that place that seems godforsaken in our eyes.

Surely the Lord is in all these places, in all of these times, just as God was there for Jacob throughout his life.  Do you wonder whether God sees you, and cares about you?  I am here to tell you that “the Lord is in this place,” everywhere you go, and loves you in every place and time.  Thanks be to God.

Arranging a Marriage*

Genesis 24:1-67

             Since we are going to talk about the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah today, I thought we should get some advice on finding a spouse from some experts.  These are elementary age students who have made some keen observations[i]:

 How do you decide whom to marry?

Alan, age 10: “You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff.  Like, if you like sports, she would like it that you like sports, and she should keep the chips and dip coming.”

Kirsten, age 10: “No person really decides before they grow up who they’re going to marry.  God decides it all way before, and you get to find out later who you’re stuck with.”  (Maybe she’ll get stuck serving chips and dip.)


How can a stranger tell if two people are married?

Derrick, age 8: “You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids.”


What do you think your mom and dad have in common?

Lori, age 8: “Both don’t want any more kids.”


How would the world be different if people didn’t get married?

Kelvin, age 8: “There sure would be a lot of kids to explain, wouldn’t there?”


How would you make a marriage work?

Ricky, age 10: “Tell your wife she looks pretty even if she looks like a truck.”

Abraham faced the question of how Isaac would marry and produce heirs.  He wanted to align this next generation with God’s promise of descendants to fill the land that was promised to them.  But it seemed best not to let Isaac marry a Canaanite woman, but to find a wife among the folks back home.  On the other hand, he didn’t want to see Isaac travel in that direction, for fear that he would like it there and not return.

Hmmm, this would be tricky.  Sarah had died by this time, so she could not help.  Finally Abraham hit on the idea of sending his trusted servant to find a wife for his son, who was at least 37 years old.  It was time.

Abraham sends for his servant and explains the plan.  He asks him to make a solemn oath to follow orders.  The servant obeyed Abraham and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor (which also happens to be the name of Abraham’s brother with family in that area).  He stopped and let his camels rest near a well, where he prayed that God would have one of the young women respond to his request for a drink by offering to water his camels.  That would be the sign that she was the chosen bride for Isaac.  Rebekah, depicted as a beautiful virgin, did exactly that.  Considering the fact that a camel requires many gallons of water, this was no small offer.

The servant whips out some gold jewelry and offers it to her, and then asks if her family might have room for him to stay the night.  (This was a common custom in that time, and still is in many remote areas, so it wasn’t as bold a request as it might seem to us.)  In fact, her family was related to Abraham, and she was Isaac’s first cousin once removed.  To make a long story short, Rebekah’s family welcomed Abraham’s servant, listened to his account of his search for a wife for Isaac and the fact that she appeared to be the chosen one, and consented to the marriage.  They wanted Rebekah to wait a week or two to say her goodbyes, but the servant wanted the deal to be done, and she agreed to leave with him right away.

Wow.  Talk about a whirlwind romance.  But this isn’t even a romance yet, because Isaac is still back in Canaan waiting to see who his bride will be.  When the caravan arrives and Rebekah sees her intended walking in the field, it is love at first sight, and the two lived happily ever after.  Well, not exactly, but they did get married, and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

It is a great story about Abraham’s faith, and the loyalty of his servant, the faith of Rebekah in cooperating, and the patience of Isaac as he waited.

What I want to point out this time is one sentence in Abraham’s instructions that is easy to miss.  It’s almost a throw-away line, but I think it is significant.  After the servant poses the question of whether he can actually get someone to come back with him, Abraham tells him that God “will send his angel before you; you shall take a wife for my son from there.  But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.”  (Gen 24.7-8)

The emphasis seems to be on making Isaac stay put, and Abraham is doing all he can to ensure that he does.  But then he allows that the servant might be right.  He might not be able to get a chosen bride to come with him.  It is an asterisk (*) in the plan.  God might make this happen in a way he didn’t expect.

Abraham planned it out as well as he could.  But he had to mind the asterisk, that God might have a different plan.

This potential scenario—that God would override his plans—was wisdom hard-won for Abraham.  He had enough experience to know that he could rely on God, but he could not predict what God would do.  He could not control God.  He had to trust God.

Nevertheless he did make a plan, and in this case, it worked out.

This seems like a good way to go.  Do your best to line up your life with God’s reign, following God’s commands, following Jesus in the way of love and sacrifice as best you can.  But then allow for the asterisk, the potentiality of God showing you a different way.

I have friends who learned this several years ago.  Tom lost his job, and struggled with unemployment for a few months.  At the same time, their close friend and neighbor had a teenage daughter who went off the rails for a while.  She fell in love with a boy who was bad news, fell under his spell, etc.  You know the story.  But her father wasn’t in the picture, and she badly needed a man she could trust to love her through it and to help her out of the situation once she got things figured out.

In retrospect, they could see God’s hand at work, making Tom available to her at odd hours while he was unemployed.  It wasn’t long after that episode that he found a great job and life moved on for all of them, with a little more faith as a benefit.

The next time they sensed God calling them in an unexpected direction, they had more confidence, more trust that God would work it all out.  They never expected to move halfway across the country, but God has proven faithful once again.

Trusting God is sometimes about that asterisk, that openness to God’s unexpected purposes for us.  It is hard to operate this way when you are young and looking out over the unexplored landscape of your future.  It is wisdom gained from a lifetime of trusting God, wandering from God, God picking you up and providing in spite of your mistakes, and gradually, over time, entrusting yourself to God’s goodness.

Sometimes we wonder what God wants us to do.  As a pastor, I get asked that question from time to time.  I think it is all right to proceed as best you can, choosing the most loving and faithful option in front of you, and trusting God to make a course correction if necessary, allowing for God’s asterisk.  That takes plenty of faith by itself, and it works out fine in both big and small decisions, as far as I can tell.  By the grace of God, we can do it as well as Abraham or anybody else.  Thanks be to God.

[i] Source unknown.

“Meet Me at the Mountain”

Genesis 22:1-14

Ann[1] is having quite a summer.  One of daughters had a scheduled surgery last month.  Then her younger daughter had to have a tooth pulled, a frightening experience for someone with a mental disability.  Her husband had to wait for his insurance company to approve major surgery for a painful condition.  Her son injured his leg.  If that weren’t enough, a friend was  killed in an accident.

Some people might say that God was testing her.  I don’t think God devised this as a plan to gauge her faith or commitment.  But you might think otherwise when you read Genesis 22.  It is called a test.  Why would God ask Abraham to sacrifice the long-awaited son God promised?  If God wanted to gauge Abraham’s faith, wasn’t this going too far?

It is a hard passage to grasp.  But I think it is hard because we take it on its own instead of considering the whole story of Abraham, or the historical setting.  It would be good to get a grip on this story so that we don’t have to avoid the horror of it or explain it away with vague, unsatisfying generalities.

“Meet me at the mountain I will show you in Moriah,” God told Abraham.  “Take your beloved son whom I gave you, and give him back to me there.”

That seems like the most unfair, cruel command God gives anyone in the Bible.  It seems like a good reason to stay away from the Old Testament altogether and stick with the Gospels for Sunday worship.

But these are the Scriptures Jesus and his followers read, memorized, and depended on.  Abraham was considered the father of their faith.  They could not avoid the story, nor should we.

Jesus and his fellow Jews knew the whole story of Abraham, how he left his home in Haran, set out to follow this strange, other-worldly command to a new place and a new religion.  We have been taking a short course in the history of Abraham’s faith on his sojourn.  We have seen how he and his wife Sarah struggled to trust God for the promises that seemed impossible—that were impossible!

Abraham and Sarah were told to go, and they went.  Theirs is a story of not only going, but leaving.  Leaving home, leaving family, leaving traditions.  They even had to leave the land God promised to them in order to find food in Egypt.  They forfeited their sense of control over their circumstances.  They forfeited their expectations about how God would give them a son.

Leaving, leaving, leaving.  It turns out that this is what faith looks like.

The apostle Paul holds up Abraham as the primary example of faith for the early church (Romans 4:1-16).  He quotes the only verse in Abraham’s story in Genesis that mentions Abraham’s faith: “[Abraham] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15.6)

Why is that the only verse about Abraham’s faith?  Because faith is not an abstract commodity.  Faith is lived.  It is a story, a way.  Abraham and Sarah were called by God, and they went.  In fact, they went from place to place, and they worshiped in each place.  They learned more about the God they were following in each place.  They discovered that they could trust God in every single situation, about every aspect of their lives.

As we follow them from Haran to Shechem, to Bethel, to Egypt, to Horeb, to Gerar, to Beersheba, in each place we find that they could trust God beyond their expectations, beyond logic, beyond what they could see or touch.  In each place they had to relinquish what they grasped, what they knew, what they expected, and learned to trust God instead.

But now this.

After they had given up everything, it seemed, there was one thing left: their future.  The descendants God promised them could only come through Isaac.  God was very specific about that.  And now God expected them to hand Isaac over.

“Meet me at the mountain I will show you.”

And Abraham went, along with Isaac.  We don’t know how old Isaac was.  No matter how old, we can hear Sarah’s pleading cries at their departure, if Abraham had the nerve to tell her about it.

It is a surprise to us, but it was no surprise to Abraham, apparently.  For one thing, child sacrifice was practiced among the religions of their time.  Even if it weren’t, “sacrifice was the motif by which he had lived for years, the letting go, the leaving behind, the traveling light…By now he has a lived history in which God has provided for him in unanticipated, unexpected ways.  Maybe by now he is used to living trustingly in the seemingly absurd, that which he could not anticipate, that which is beyond his imagining.”[i]

He seemed to be less disturbed by it than we are.  When it was time to leave the young men who traveled with them, he told them “we will worship there, and we will come back to you.”  We.  When Isaac asked where the sacrificial animal was, Abraham assured his son that God would provide the lamb.

Nevertheless he put Isaac on that altar, and bound him, and raised the knife before the angel of God stopped him.

Yikes.  I don’t know whether to call that faith or insanity.

But God called it faith.  “Now I know that you will not withhold anything from me,” is the message to Abraham.

I confess that I struggle with a God who would ask that.  Is God a monster?

That is the real question, isn’t it?

But maybe this is the point God is making on that mountain.  “I am not a monster.  I don’t require child sacrifice like these other false gods you imagine would ask that of you.”

On the other hand, it seems that God wants to know whether we are willing to go that far.  Can we trust God even when it seems that God is asking too much?

It seems like a way to understand the hard things in life, to say that God is testing our faith.  Let’s put aside that idea.  This story is not about life’s tragedies.  Isaac didn’t die of a fever.  He wasn’t killed in battle.  It was a request from God, so it is a situation we might never face.  So please, don’t equate this story with a tragic event in your life, like the series of challenges  my friend Ann is facing.

But we will face our mountain of testing if we are people of faith.  It happens along the journey of faith.  God will ask us to let go of each thing that we want to hold onto as a source of life instead of holding onto God.  It happens here and there, if we are paying attention.  It is forged in times when trusting God is the hardest thing to do, when obedience means real sacrifice.

There are times when you know what God’s command to love requires of you, and it might be excruciating.  My guess is that you have an example in mind right now, and I don’t have to spell it out for you.  This is when our faith is tested, in the knowing, and the struggle.

Sacrifice is not a 21st century word, at least not in our culture.  We laud it in our sports heroes or soldiers or leaders.  But that doesn’t mean we want to do it.

Abraham shows us that faith is lived, and it involves sacrifice. It is about relinquishing everything that makes us comfortable so that we can cast everything we accumulate and enjoy and love—yes, love!—onto God and trust that we will receive even more than we gave up.  Faith is slowly realizing that what we have been holding onto won’t give us the kind of life God offers.  It is no wonder it took Abraham years and years to reach that level of trust.

This strange, horrible story can only be grasped slowly, through trusting God to show us how it works.  Faith in God is a slow, lived process, a giving up of one thing after another so that the way to deeper and deeper faith, the way of following God becomes more and more clear.

God asks to meet us at the mountain where our faith will be tested.  What are the steps, the places along the way where God will ask you to relinquish more and more, bit by bit?  What is God asking you to let go of, right now?  It is a step on the way to a bigger life, a broader landscape of God’s presence and goodness and faithfulness than you can imagine today.

Abraham may be our example of extraordinary faith, but he was a human just like you and me.  He wanted a son.  He was hungry, and afraid, and tired.  But he lived long enough to see that he could trust God every single time, even when the way forward seemed impossible.  Even when all he had left to love was all he had left to give.

I don’t even know if I want to have that kind of faith.  I do know that this is the way God calls us to follow.  As we answer the call, we will see how it’s done.  If we don’t follow, we won’t.  We can meet God at the mountain, or stay home.

Maybe that is the question that haunts us about this story: whether we are ready to take the first step toward the mountain.

So, what’s the good news, Pastor?  The good news is that at every point in Abraham’s life, God loved him.  Whether his faith was strong or weak, God’s love was always strong.  The same goes for you and me.  That is never the question.

The question is, how much of God do we want to see, and know?  The answers are on the way to the mountain.

[1] Not her real name.

[i] Peterson, Eugene.  The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way. 2007.  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 58.

It’s Not a Wonderful Life

Genesis 21:8-21

Ordinary 12A

We are exactly six months from Christmas this weekend.  I’ve been thinking about the classic holiday movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  Remember how it goes?  “Every time a bell rings, ____________.”  (“An angel gets his wings.”)

It’s the story of George Bailey, who runs a Building and Loan.  He always manages to stay one step ahead of bankruptcy, so when his uncle Billy loses the day’s deposits, he becomes distraught.  This is the last straw, and all his failures and unfulfilled dreams come crashing down on him.  He wishes he had never been born.  The angel Clarence is assigned to show George how many people would have suffered terribly if he had not been born.

It’s a great story, and it’s useful as we look at the story of Abraham and Sarah.  Except in their story, I wonder what would have happened if they had resisted temptation.  Let me explain.

Last week we took a broad view of Abraham’s and Sarah’s life from the time God called them to leave Haran up until Isaac was born, twenty-five years.  We could track the way their faith rose and fell through those years.  It was at a low point when they got impatient for the son God had promised them, and they resorted to what I called “the Hagar solution.”  Sarah decided to take matters into her own hands and demanded that Abraham have a son by her slave woman.  Abraham cooperated, and Ishmael was born.

Calling it a “solution” is a drastic euphemism.  This is exploiting a slave in the most dehumanizing manner.  Even if Hagar was consensual, the practice is degrading.  (This is one example of why the stories of the Bible don’t always show us the best way to live.  Sometimes they show us how not to behave.)

And it didn’t make Sarah happy.  Imagine her chagrin at seeing her servant Hagar growing fat with her pregnancy, perhaps lording it over her mistress.  Jealousy is a monster that taunts without mercy.

Nothing seems to indicate that Sarah took on Ishmael as her own child.  But Abraham loved him.  Ishmael was fourteen years old when his half-brother Isaac was born.  Now that she had her own baby, Sarah declared that Hagar and Ishmael were to be cast out.  Abraham was distressed to lose him.

What a mess.  It rivals any modern soap opera.  All because Abraham and Sarah couldn’t wait for God’s promise and decided to make it happen on their terms.

That is called sin.  We don’t usually think of it that way.  One of the most frequent but unrecognized sins is knowing what God wants for us and going in another direction that seems on the surface like a fine thing to do.  There don’t seem to be any terrible outcomes, so we figure we haven’t done anything wrong.  Everything turned out okay, so what’s the big deal?

This story in Genesis shows us the consequences of Abraham and Sarah’s choice: plenty of heartache, jealousy, hatred, fighting.  You can bet that Hagar and Ishmael suffered slights and maybe even harsh treatment in Sarah’s household.  They suffered from their masters’ sin. Even though they were innocent victims, they were punished, removed from the lives they knew, forced to fend for themselves.  God promised to take care of them and to give Ishmael a legacy of descendants, so at least there was mercy in the long run.

But the caution here is hard to miss.  Other people suffer when we sin.  It’s easy to understand this with some sins like adultery or theft or murder.  People get hurt, really badly hurt.

Other sins are more subtle, and aren’t always identified as disobedience to God.  An example would be selfishness, and materialism.  Our culture practically applauds this behavior, promoting products and lifestyles focused on comfort, wealth, and personal satisfaction.  But Jesus warned that such a life is fertile ground for sin.  “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” he said.  (Lk 12.15) Instead, he taught his followers to give to people in need.

He tells us to take up our crosses and follow him.  Not fancy, bejeweled crosses, but real crosses of sacrifice and compassion and love for others.  We can live remarkable lives shot through with meaning and joy when we align ourselves with God’s reign, where everybody has enough because we share our blessings with one another.

Instead, we might rationalize away the needs of other people, telling ourselves they ought to work harder or get help from their families or apply for public assistance.  We don’t bother to investigate whether they have those options available to them.  We are like the priest and the Levite who walk on by the injured man in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We don’t want to get our hands soiled or our pocketbooks lightened by works of compassion.

These are the sins we call omission, failing to do what we know our faith requires of us.   Neglecting to give to people bears a result: people don’t have enough.  Keeping all of our time, our energy, our resources to ourselves leaves people without the means to share in the abundant life.

Our ministries as a church suffer from our self-centeredness as well, which means that ultimately people don’t hear words of comfort, nor the gospel of hope.  Children are not nurtured in the faith, or fed, or provided with decent clothing or a safe home.  Outsiders are not welcomed.  In the ELCA we call it “God’s work.  Our hands.”  That takes obedience, and sacrifice.

Other people suffer from our sin, but we suffer too.  We deprive ourselves of the rewards of discipleship, and our faith remains small, our hope barely registering above average.  Dallas Willard put it this way, “Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil.  In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.”  (The Spirit of the Disciplines. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988)

It is impossible to calculate the lost opportunities and irretrievable blessings—even torments in body and mind—suffered in this world because God’s people failed to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Committing sin affects other people.  Failing to obey God has an impact on the world.  In our prayer of confession we sometimes list these as “things we have done, and things we have left undone.”

George Bailey was shown how life would have been much worse had he not been there to offer help and hope.  He realized at last that his significance, his riches were in family and in a community that helped each other.

I wonder what would have happened if Abraham were shown what would have happened if he and Sarah had not tried to take over God’s job.  Would he have seen how trusting God would have saved him and his wife a lot of heartache?

As it is, we see what happened when they decided to turn from God and run their own lives.  We could call the story, “It’s Not a Wonderful Life.”

That is an apt title for so many people who have suffered from your sin and mine.  It’s not a wonderful life when you are hungry, or lonely, or hopeless, or rejected because somebody failed to help.  It’s not wonderful when someone steals your spouse, or your savings, or your joy.  It is not wonderful when you never hear the good news of a God who loves you. Maybe we need to think about this when we are tempted to commit sins either actively or passively.

It is a wonderful life when we realize what an impact we can have in this world by trusting God even when it is hard, even when we don’t see far down the path where Jesus leads us.  What a difference we can make when we love as God calls us to love, in big and small ways.  Imagine how our own neighborhood would be blessed if every single one of us abandoned ourselves to the ways of Jesus and offered ourselves freely to living the Gospel.

By contrast, we make a difference—a destructive one—when we choose the easier way of comfort and selfishness.  If we wonder whether our sin matters, we need only picture the sad figures of Hagar and Ishmael as they walked away from their home and into the wilderness.  Sin creates a not wonderful life.  That’s why we need to confess, to repent, and to let God’s life and love live in us.

Living the Dash

Luke 24:44-53

Ascension Sunday

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.

I’ve had my own share of funeral experiences lately.  Two weeks ago, we buried my mother’s ashes up in Lyon County, next to the country church where my father grew up.  We buried him 26 years ago in the grave beside hers.  As my daughter and I walked slowly back to the car, arm in arm, I thought of the remarkable similarity she bears to her grandmother.  There was little resemblance in their appearance, but my daughter seems to have the same passion for sharing her faith that my mother did.  It felt as though a torch was passed in that cemetery overlooking the rolling hills and fields southwest of George, Iowa.

Three days later I attended the funeral of an old friend’s mother.  There are four of us girlfriends who grew up in church and school together, and we remain close after all these years.  Three of our mothers have died since last fall.  As I walked arm in arm with another of these friends out to the cemetery, I said, “We are the mothers now, the oldest generation.”  She and I have lost both parents.  The generations keep passing by, and passing along the torch of faith.  As we sat in the sanctuary of my youth during the funeral moments before, in my mind I could see the ghosts and hear the hymns of the generations that have passed on from this life to the next.

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?

Our gospel story begins not at the site of Jesus’ ascension, but while he is still in the room where he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection.  Just as he had done for Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus, Jesus explained how he fit into the great story of God, how he embodied God’s promises from the time of Moses and the prophets and the psalms.  He showed them the bigger picture.  His terrible death and his resurrection were necessary for the next part of the story to proceed.

And we know how it did proceed.  Jesus told them to wait to be “clothed with power from on high” before they started the project of telling people everywhere about Jesus.  They would need God’s power—the power that was described a minute ago in Ephesians 1.  Paul called it “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”  (Eph 1.19)  It would be their job to get the word out to all people that God will change their lives and forgive them if they trust God to do it.

Luke recounts the story of Jesus’ ascension in the book of Acts.  There is a little more dialogue in that account, including 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 have to eat.  But God has a bigger plan, much bigger.  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?

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 have we been given the Holy Spirit?

The full force of the Divine One is given to us for our part of the kingdom story, our dash in the history of the reign of God.  You have a dash, and I have one.  But this congregation also has one.

What is contained in St. Mark’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 Storm Lake?  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 Storm Lake, in 2017?

Another way to ask these questions is this:  Who would grieve if St. Mark 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 fall, next year?  When I heard about your plans to remodel the church kitchen, I thought, “That’s great.  I wonder what God’s plan is for that kitchen.”  Is it just to feed you, or is God setting you up to feed hungry people in this community?  God has bigger plans for your dash than you might be thinking.

I had another experience with death a few days ago.  Well, not death as in a funeral, but death as in hopelessness.  I sat in ICU in Spencer, at the bedside of a young man who is 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 us, 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.

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, to literally change the world, one life at a time.

Here is a concrete opportunity.  Somebody needs to run the pie booth on the Fourth of July.  You know how to do this.  I expect there to be too many volunteers because everybody wants to help raise money that goes for people who are in desperate need, people who are your neighbors.  The love of God just spills over from God’s people, right?  That is what Jesus expected when he rose to heaven so that he could be available to everyone, in every time.  That is why he promised us his Spirit’s power, a force of love that is unstoppable and creative and awesome when God’s people let it drive us into the world.  What a way to live!  What a way to describe our dash in this place, in this time.  Thanks be to God.

What Love Requires

John 14:15-21

Easter 6A

We are in a season of optimism.  Graduations, weddings, Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day remind us of our ideals and hopes.  I called it “Cake Season” in the May newsletter, because it’s also a season of carbs.  One of our hopes is that our feasting and celebrations won’t be followed by increased poundage on the bathroom scale.  Good luck with that.

There is always the ideal, and then reality, right?  But we need the ideals to aim for.  We need them to remember what is important to us.  They can keep us moving in the right direction.

Religion seems to tell us that going in the right direction equals obedience to God.  Obey the Ten Commandments.  I was reminded of that when I was watching the latest rendition of Ann of Green Gables on a Netflix series.  Aunt Marilla asked the minister to come to their home to help them deal with Ann’s disobedience.  She was dishonest about playing hooky to avoid the bullies at school.  He scowled and told her that “God does not look kindly on fibbing.” Of course Ann described her remorse in detail with a litany of big words about repentance.

If we aren’t paying attention, we might think that is the essence of our relationship with God:  Obey God or suffer the consequences.  Be good!

Yet in Jesus’ lengthy instruction to his disciples in John 13-16, obedience seems to be bound up with love.  He says it twice in today’s short gospel lesson.  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (v. 15) “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” (v. 21a)

It shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus integrates obedience with love.  Do you remember how someone asked him to identify the greatest commandment?  Jesus said there are two: to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and then to love your neighbor as yourself.  (Matt 22.37-39)  This sums up how God wants us to behave.

Notice the subtle difference, though.  In John 14 Jesus says if you love me, you will keep my commandments.  In his answer to the greatest commandment question, Jesus said the commandment itself is to love.  So, if we love Jesus, we obey his commandment to love.  The whole discourse with his disciples in John 13-16 is peppered with love language.  People will know we are God’s people (that is, the people God loves!) if we love each other.  Jesus’ “new commandment” is to love one another.  We will abide in the love between God and Jesus when our lives are aligned with God’s reign, a kingdom characterized by love.

And in case you think this is a simplistic or abstract ideal, Jesus dismisses that notion by saying that nobody shows greater love than the one who literally lays down his or her life for a friend.  The cross of Jesus is his last, graphic teaching on the subject.  Love is active and self-sacrificing.

It seems to me that Jesus is trying to get his disciples to embrace a way of life, a way of being, rather than a formula for righteousness.  To be compelled by love, not driven by any other ideal.  It is at once simpler and more difficult than any other kind of life.  Simple, because the only criterion is genuine, self-giving love modeled after our Lord.  Difficult, because love so often asks more of us than we want to give.

But Jesus promised—and delivered—the Holy Spirit, who will enable us to do it.  He called the Spirit our Advocate.  I used to think that meant the Spirit stood up for us in the face of God’s judgment, but that can’t be right.  Jesus already took care of our judgment on the cross.  Instead, maybe the Spirit is advocating to us for Jesus, reminding us of what is true: that love is the only way to life.

You would think that such a basic principle of following Jesus would be common among us Christians.  But so many other factors in life vie for top priority, and we all find ourselves letting them drive us instead of love.

We read Paul’s speech to the people of Athens, where idolatry was as much a part of their ethos as scholarship and philosophy.  The driving force for many of them was attaining knowledge.  Education was a high ideal for the Greeks.  It was fertile ground for idol worship, since idolatry is really about control.  Get your gods in a form you can manage, so you can keep everything in the order of priority that works for you.  Keep learning so you can get better and better at controlling your environment, and cover all your bases.

But that was in ancient Greece.  That isn’t a problem for us, right?  Well, I might as well put on a toga, because the quest for knowledge has played a huge part in my life.  I have had to take a hard look and realize that knowing more doesn’t get me closer to God or other people.  It doesn’t make life easier to control, because challenges and tragedy are going to happen whether I am mentally prepared or not.

And idolatry isn’t a thing these days, either.  We don’t see any statues of Baal or Artemus around Storm Lake.  But idols don’t look like that in 2017, at least not in northwest Iowa.  No, they take the form of houses and cars and clothes and boats and money.  Those are just the idols we can see and touch.  There are others like reputation, and job status, and the perfect family, and so on.  Whatever has you lining up your life to serve it beyond what is needed for your well-being.  We all have them, but some are easier to recognize than others.  They can easily motivate us instead of the love Jesus calls us to.

Another motivation is alluded to in 1 Peter 3 that we read today.  The readers were suffering real persecution for following Jesus.  It cost them something, in ways we don’t witness in North America.  There are many who do suffer for their faith around the world today.  How easy it would be—how understandable!—to deny their faith for the sake of self-preservation.  We need to keep our persecuted brothers and sisters in mind and pray for them.

But we can also be driven by self-preservation, if not for our lives, for our reputations, for our ideas of what makes a good life, for our political or religious views.  We can spend a lot of time defending our way of life, looking for the enemy, making arguments.  You can find plenty to back up your claims, lots of people who will affirm your beliefs or your self-image, in the coffee shop or on Facebook.

A defensive stance takes a lot of energy, but it easily becomes a way of life.  Maybe that describes you.  Jesus challenged that thinking when he debated with the Pharisees.  They were bent on protecting the system—and thus themselves.  It led to exploitation and exclusion, not loving God and neighbor.

Do you see how idolatry and over-dependence on knowledge don’t give you life?  How defending your ideas and your comfort end up stifling your freedom in Christ?  They undermine relationships that are at the heart of the life God has for us.  These motivations keep us always on the alert to do more, be more, have more.  And they don’t serve us when life’s challenges arise.

Some time ago I read a statement about Jesus that has stayed with me:  “Jesus lived open to receiving whatever life offers while remaining faithful to what love requires.”[i]

Remaining faithful to what love requires.  I want that to describe my life.  You might think that word “requires” is kind of constricting, but it isn’t, not really.  The Greek word for “keep” or “obey” that is used in John 14 is tereo, which is not only about rigid compliance.  It has more of a sense of cherishing, guarding, protecting, valuing.  It is a way of life we hold dear and aspire to.  Walking in the way of love that Jesus lived and taught is the way of life I want to follow.  I want to be like Jesus, to love as he loves.

Jesus embodied and taught love.  It’s as simple as that.  Read again the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ parables and teachings, and how he treated everyone.  Love was the substance of his life and ministry.  Above all, it was the purpose for his death as and the driving force of his resurrection.

Jesus said it ten different ways in that upper room with his disciples: Love is the purpose and driving force of the Holy Spirit’s lively work within us, among us, and out there in the world.

So what does love require?  We have the fundamental framework for it in the Law God gave directly to the people on Mt. Sinai.  As Lutherans we understand that we can never live up to the Law, and so it condemns us.  It shows us that we need a Savior.  We need a cross.  But the commandments are not meant to be restraints that can only condemn us or kill our spirits.  They are a map for a life of joy, a life driven by love for God and one another.  They show us a way of being in the world that enables us to live in community and bless the whole creation God made with such joy and creativity.  Jesus said that love is what sums them all up.

Can you look at the commandments at little differently if you see them as the way to love?  Not as a checklist held over your head.  Not a source of anxiety but instead a way of life—your way of life—and a reason for hope.  Let’s review them aloud as our love creed today.

You shall have no other gods.

You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

Honor your father and your mother.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

We don’t have to depend on diplomas or greeting cards to be optimistic about the future.  This is the good news:  you can be open to whatever life offers when you know that you will respond with whatever love requires, because the Holy Spirit of Christ dwells in you.

[i] Jonny Sears, “Befriending Insecurity” in Weavings, Vo. XXXII, No. 1.  (Nashville: Upper Room)

Home is Where You Hang Your Heart

John 14:1-14; Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10

Easter 5A

Location, location, location.  That’s what they say about the value of real estate.  A couple of years ago I went hiking on Mt. Falcon just west of Denver, Colorado.  It’s an easy day hike, and my niece Amy took me to the spot where there is an unusual marker.  Embedded in a rock wall overlooking a lovely valley is a white cornerstone, engraved with these words:  “Summer Home for the Presidents of the United States, A Gift from the People of Colorado, 1911.”

There is no house there.  John Brisben Walker was an ambitious entrepreneur who built himself a stately home on the mountain, and led a fundraising campaign to build a palatial home nearby for the presidents to enjoy.  His project never made it to reality.  Various historic events and Walker’s own misfortune interfered with his big plan.

I wonder why he wanted to build that “western White House.”  Could it be that he wanted to be able to rub elbows with the most powerful leaders in the land?  What a dream, to be a neighbor to the president!  It turns out that Walker’s own home crumbled as surely as his fortunes, when it burned down, and he didn’t have the resources to restore it.

Jesus had big ideas of a different kind.  He promised his disciples that he would prepare a place for them, and he didn’t care how big a project it would be.  Hopefully he will need to reserve a massive block of rooms.  “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places,” he said.  I get the feeling he can’t wait to show them to us.

Jesus’ disciples, and John’s readers, would hear the words “my Father’s house” differently than we do today.  We might think of it as something like a boyhood home.  But it was actually more about kinship than place.  The family home would be more like a compound, a series of rooms for a small community connected by blood and marriage.  I remember seeing family compounds when I was in Mali, a culture that allows polygamy and thus grows big families.  Even if polygamy was no longer the practice in the Israeli culture of the first century, the structure of extended family remained.

But Jesus’ language in John 14 is not about architecture.  It is all relationship language: he is looking forward to taking them to be where he is…knowing the Father through knowing Jesus…Do not be troubled; trust me instead.

Jesus deflected questions about where this all happens and told them that their future would be defined by knowing God the Father and the Son.  “What we know of God in Jesus Christ is that God has chosen not to be God without us.”[1]  Like John Brisben Walker, Jesus wants to be close to somebody important, which is how he sees us.  He is capable of making that happen, both in this life and the next.  This is how the divine love is enacted and revealed to us.

So, to us, home is wherever Jesus is.  You’ve heard the saying, “Home is where you hang your hat,” but we can hang our hats anywhere.  In the Large Catechism, the question about the first commandment is “What does it mean to have a God?”  Luther answers: “God is who you hang your heart on.”

Here’s the amazing part.  Jesus not only wants to be close to us.  He not only wants to be our home.  Jesus also dwells in us, an idea that is rich in meaning and power for us.  (Jn. 15:4, Eph. 3:17) There are several references to this in the Scriptures that use the words dwell, abide, remain.  Words that give a settled, secure feeling.  Words that leave no doubt about Jesus’ love for us.

Stephen’s sermon that got him killed (Acts 7) mentioned that God doesn’t dwell in houses made by human hands (Acts 7:48).  I have stood in a few jaw-dropping cathedrals, in Paris and Cologne and Rome, sacred tributes to God that took decades to complete.  But even the most vast, beautiful structures do not serve as God’s favored dwelling places.

Not only are we unable to contain God with bricks and mortar, God has chosen to come and live among us first in Jesus Christ, and now in the Holy Spirit.  We cannot contain God, but God can and does accommodate himself to our needs and our smallness.  For no logical reason, but purely out of love, God does that.  We are given the unbelievable benefit of God’s power within us, doing what we could never do on our own, warming our hearts with His presence.

Peter wrote about us as buildings, “spiritual houses,” he calls us.  We are God’s special houses through whom God’s mighty acts are revealed.  God enables us to use our own words to tell everyone how God has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.

Consider what that means for your everyday life, for the reason to get out of bed every morning.  Everything else you might do or say or possess is secondary to the privilege of shining the spotlight on God’s goodness.  We can do everything to the glory of God, as Paul says (1 Cor. 10:31).

We cannot build God’s houses on anything except the cornerstone of Jesus, with whom the rest of the house is aligned.  A foundation begun any other way is folly, like the house built on sand.  When storms come, we know which kind of house remains standing.

The odd thing about this cornerstone is that Peter calls Jesus a living stone.  When Thomas asked where exactly Jesus was going to get ready for them, and how could they get there, Jesus replied, “I am the way.”  Not “go this way” or “let me give you instructions.”  I am the way.  The way to the place where Jesus is, if you think about it, is to follow him there.

It reminds me of my visits to the hinterlands in Mali.  There are no roads to speak of after each rainy season.  You have to go with somebody who knows how to get where you are going.  If your guide is heading for his own home and family, you can be sure he knows the way.

Because our cornerstone is Jesus, and he is alive, our spiritual home is changeable.  We go where he leads, often to unexpected places.  My guess is that plenty of you have stories of God’s leading to places or circumstances that you never anticipated, but you are glad you followed Jesus there.  When you follow Jesus, you trust him.  He said that is the basis for a heart at peace: “Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe [trust] in God.   Believe [trust] in me.”

We might prefer to set down a foundation in one place and get comfortable there.  Instead, Jesus calls us to move, grow, change.  Life in Christ is dynamic.  We learn to be aware of what is changing around us.  We become adept at finding and helping anyone who is adrift or forlorn.  We are eager to join forces with people who know the territory where we find ourselves.

We don’t have to be uneasy about this.  John 14 is addressed to Jesus’ first disciples, who would soon undergo drastic change and grief.  They would need to cling to his words about their troubled hearts.  Because they have hung their hearts on God—found their home in Jesus—they would not have to feel threatened.  Because Jesus lived in them—because he lives in us today—we have peace, hope, generosity, forgiveness in never-ending supply.  Anyone is welcome in a home where Jesus dwells.  Dangers that arise do not threaten its integrity.  Jesus is our refuge.

Surely that is why Stephen was able to face the mob with a peaceful heart.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit.  His life was a house for the Holy Spirit, so he could see what they could not: the glory of God being shed on Jesus himself.  They could kill Stephen’s body, but they couldn’t take away his home in God, the source of his peace.

“The Word became flesh and dwelled among us” (John1:14).  God established a home with us, a home where God is lifted up above all else.  In Christ, both of these are illogically but most certainly true: He is our home, and we are his home.  “Location, location, location” not only determines the value of real estate, but—thanks be to God—but it also defines our spiritual value.  The house Jesus builds of us and for us is an eternal house, our ultimate hope, because he is there.

[1] Cynthia A. Jarvis, Feasting on the Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), Easter 5A.

Jesus is the Gate

John 10:1-10

Easter 4A

The pastor of a wealthy suburban church was talking with the children.  He told them the pastor is like a shepherd and the members of the congregation are like sheep.  Then he asked them, “What does the shepherd do for the sheep?”  A little boy knew the answer: “He fleeces them.”[i]

In one of the teaching moments of the week before Jesus’ crucifixion, he levels scathing criticism at the Temple leaders for taking advantage of the poor.  (Mark 12:38-40)  So there was some fleecing going on.  The men in power intimidated the common folk, and dictated the terms of Temple activity in a lot of ways.

Jesus’ teaching in John 10 about shepherding his people is a comforting image.  But there is more to it.  It is a continuation of the dialogue in chapter 9 between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Chapter 9 is the story of a man born blind whom Jesus heals.  The other players—healed man, his parents, and the folks amazed by the healing—become almost comical characters in an otherwise dramatic exposure of the Pharisees’ faulty theology.

Remember it?  Jesus and his disciples notice a man who had been blind from birth.  The disciples want to use him as a springboard for a theological discussion.  “Whose sin caused the blindness, his own or his parents’?”  They had been taught that infirmities were the direct result of sin.  Jesus replied that it wasn’t about sin; this was a chance to show that God acts beyond the rules of sin and punishment, and Jesus is the agent of God’s compassion.  Then he healed the man.

Predictably, this created some confusion.  The Pharisees were consulted by onlookers who wanted to know how this could happen.  They figured they would go ask the religious men if this man could really have been healed.  Some of the Pharisees said it was impossible that Jesus would have healed the man, since he did it on the Sabbath and broke the rules in the process.  Sin and healing cannot coexist.  End of story.

It is fascinating to observe the behavior of these men.  It is their ongoing job to declare rulings about what fits and what doesn’t line up with traditional teachings:  1) This man violated the Law by healing on the Sabbath, and that is a sin, and sinners cannot heal; therefore, this healing did not take place.  2) This man Jesus could not be from God, because he violated the Sabbath, a deal-breaker for God.  3) To the healed man: you will give glory to God if you agree with us that Jesus is a sinner.

When these rulings confused the people (and some of the Pharisees), the only thing they could do was banish the healed man from the temple.  “This does not fit our paradigm of how God works, so make it all go away.  Let’s forget this ever happened, and move on.”

In their efforts to protect God’s honor and guide the people in obeying God, the Pharisees ended up exercising control over the people.  They approved only those ideas and people who agreed with them.  So instead of enjoying life together with God’s people, they spent all their time checking credentials and making sure nobody was admitted who didn’t belong.  Their impulse was to bar the door.

Charity grew up in a home that struggled to make ends meet.  At first she didn’t notice the difference between her clothes, her school supplies, her backpack, and those of the other children.  Gradually she caught on: her family was poor.

She got creative, found ways to fake it.  When she was old enough, she got a job in her neighbor’s car dealership, cleaning at night.  Good.  None of her friends could see her going in and out.  Besides, they were so busy with their cheerleading and athletics and show choir, they didn’t catch on.  Charity scoured used clothing stores to pad her wardrobe, careful to avoid anything she had seen on someone else.  As far as her friends knew, she was one of the crowd.

Until she wasn’t.

At lunch one day, Charity noticed that Mandy was looking at her funny.  Then she announced to the table that Charity was wearing a sweater she had bought from J. Crew but was too big.  She wore it anyway, but she got a snag in it, so she threw it in the box of clothes her mom set aside for selling on commission.  She knew it was the same sweater, because there was the snag!

Charity didn’t sit with that group at lunch again.  She swallowed her shame, and decided that no matter what it took, she would never be embarrassed like that again.  Her teachers noticed an improvement in her grades.  She applied for college, and worked hard to pay for the gap between her scholarships and the lack of support from her parents.  She set her eyes on law school, aware that this was work where she could earn a good living and be part of the ‘in’ crowd.

Sounds like the beginning of a Hallmark movie, right?  We know how it plays out.  Charity scrapes and claws her way to get into the good schools, the good clubs, the level of society where she can hold her head high.  But then she finds that the air is a little thin up there, and she had to compromise her ideals more than once to get there.  She finds that that exclusive club of the rich and respected-if-not-famous is not worth what it takes to gain entrance.  Et cetera, et cetera.

            We are all familiar with the scenario.  Haven’t we all felt the sting of being rejected, left out, shunned?  To be snubbed for no other reason than skin color, mannerisms, background, level of education, etc.  Or to be judged as sinful, unable to shake the shame of the past.  To feel unworthy.  Maybe you have sat with someone in their confusion and hurt when Christians have condemned them for their political beliefs or sexual orientation, their race or gender, their lifestyle or past mistakes.  This is what religious gate-keepers do, just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.  They decide who’s in and who’s out, based on criteria they have developed to define righteousness.  It is based on God’s good Law, but it fails to achieve the purpose of the Law, to create a society of mutual love.  They focus on standards that nobody can live up to perfectly.

Jesus operated with a different motive.  He came to give life, to nurture it and enlarge its beauty.  His enemy is anyone who would steal that life away.  His relationship with the sheep is what matters most to him.  In fact, he wants more and more people to join the flock.  He prefers to welcome everyone, and then deal with their sin personally, with nobody else interfering.  Anybody who tries to override Jesus’ forgiveness he calls a thief or a bandit.  They steal life instead of promoting it.

Sometimes these bandits aren’t people.  They can be our own memories, or fears, or addictions.  Anne Lamott says that addiction wants you dead, but it will settle for getting you drunk.[ii]  That is not the life we were made for.

Back to John 10.  Jesus promises that he will not only keep the sheep alive and protected,   he also gives them abundant life.  I like to think that the description of the early church we read today in Acts 2:43-47 is an example of abundant life:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

That doesn’t sound like an exclusive club.  It sounds like the kind of community, the kind of church I want to belong to.  And since it sounds a lot like this church, I imagine you feel the same way.

“I am the gate,” Jesus said.  Which means that we are not.

Don’t be a gatekeeper.  It is not the way of life God intended for you, and you cannot be trusted with it anyway.  Don’t think it is your business to let people in or keep them out.  That is his job.

We are all God’s beloved sheep, and trusting the shepherd is what our life is about.  Hard as it is to resist, we can leave the gatekeeping to him.  I think we will find that the life he gives us—the abundant kind—is a lot better that way.

[i] Jesus, the Good Shepherd, Fr. Munachi Ezeogu, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc.

[ii] Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. 2017.

What Blinds Us?

Luke 24:13-49

Easter 3A

If I were the producer of the story of Jesus, or the coach for the Messiah, I would not have Jesus appearing randomly to a few people here and there after his resurrection.  I would recruit an angel choir like the one that sang to shepherds when he was born.

For that matter—as long as I’m the one in control here—I would also change the script before Jesus’ death too.  I would have him spelling out the principles of God’s kingdom on a first century version of Power Point, holding press conferences to explain his miraculous skills, and notifying all the rabbis of his identity as the Messiah they have been awaiting for centuries.  Get this story straight once and for all!

But of course that isn’t how the gospels have it.  They have Jesus appearing out of nowhere and disappearing just as quickly after he rose from the dead.  Didn’t Jesus realize how important it was to document his resurrection?

His disciples weren’t much help.  More often than not, they didn’t fathom the significance of their beloved teacher’s identity.  It’s true, a lot of people were amazed at his healing power and the authority he seemed to possess as he went about his ministry.  They didn’t mind being the recipients of his healing and bread-multiplying miracles, that’s for sure.  He began to attract crowds that could get a little out of hand.  Maybe it was the crowd control problem that compelled him to ask people to keep his activity a secret.

Jesus was not interested in being famous or adored.  Have you ever thought about that?  He didn’t ask people to worship him, even.  The only things he asked people to do was to love God and each other, help each other, work at forgiving one another.  In other words, follow him.  Except it is hard to follow someone who keeps talking in riddles and avoiding attention.

Isn’t it strange that people like Mary Magdalene who knew Jesus well did not even recognize him after he rose from the dead?  We have been puzzling for a long time over verses like Luke 24:16: “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”

What do you suppose blinds people from recognizing Jesus and following him, Pastor?  I’m glad you asked.  I have a few ideas.

The two men walking to Emmaus explained how Jesus had been handed over by the chief priests and rulers to be crucified.  That had to be confusing to them.  Weren’t these men the experts in religion?  Why did they take such offense at Jesus?  They not only had him killed; they also snuffed out the hope of his followers too.  They made it sound as though Jesus was the worst of blasphemers.  Religious traditions were used by the leaders to obscure the true nature of Jesus, painting him as a criminal.  No wonder it was hard for people to reconcile that with the Jesus they knew.  Religion was blinding them.

Religion can do that to us today too.  Preachers and authors are happy to tell you what to think about Jesus, and I’m no exception.  The trouble is, we can get farther and farther removed from the Jesus of the gospels if we take our cue from people who tell us Jesus is the great Problem-Solver or Good Buddy #1 or the best life coach ever.  We can lose sight of the servant who suffered for us and calls us also to a way of self-giving love.  Twice in this one gospel story Jesus points out that he had to suffer.  The cross was part of the plan, not a failed mission.

Culture can also blind us to the real Jesus.  Many of the Jews expected a Messiah that looked more like General Patton than a carpenter who wasted his time hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers.  “We hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel,” Cleopas and his friend told Jesus.  They knew what kind of rescuing they needed, and it wasn’t a message of forgiveness they were looking for.  But notice what Jesus said to them when they got back to Jerusalem with the other disciples.  Did he tell them to infiltrate the population to plot the overthrow of Rome?  No.  Did he tell them to call a council to write a booklet, Seven Ways to Salvation?  Nope.  Jesus revealed his plan, to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.  That is not a political platform you can take to the White House.

So, does our culture blind us to Jesus?  Where do I start?  There is the culture of the family you grew up in.  Did you learn that Jesus loves you but he also calls you to take up your cross to follow him?  That would be my version of the Jesus of the gospels.

Maybe you were taught about a God who is watching you from above, waiting to punish you for one wrong move.  Then redemption is about wiping out all the black marks on your account.  Hard to see a loving God in that scenario; that’s more of a bookkeeper, albeit a benevolent one.  But hey, maybe it made sense to you if your family culture was about keeping score too.

There is the culture of your workplace, or your school, or your friends.  What kind of Jesus do they imagine, if they think about him at all?  Maybe you are considered naïve if you believe Jesus is God’s Son whose cross and resurrection changed the trajectory of your life.  Some see him as an antiquated ideal, not relevant to modern day issues or sensibilities.  Science did away with that superstition long ago, right?

There is the culture of our wider society.  Do you ever notice how Christ-followers are depicted on TV or in movies?  Frequently we are characterized as quaint Luddites or brutal bigots.  Once in a while movie characters and even real news figures are given air time to wrestle publicly with their discipleship, with the challenge of seeking justice or offering forgiveness as Jesus would do.  It is rare, but it happens, in a society that does not often give ground for nuanced faith.  But the false caricatures of Jesus and his followers are much easier to write into a script or edit for a news story.

I also wonder whether the people Jesus encountered on the road were influenced by their emotions.  They had heard first-hand accounts of the women who had seen the empty tomb where angels told them Jesus was alive.  But we still read that “They stood still, looking sad.” (v. 17)  We have to sympathize with them.  They had witnessed a lot of brutality in past 48 hours, and there was no question that Jesus was dead.

A lot of people had gotten excited about Jesus.  I’m sure many saw him as a hero.  Remember how they hailed him as he entered Jerusalem?  How their hopes were dashed when he ended up on a cross!  That was the end of the story.  They never expected to see him walking around alive after that.

Can our emotions overwhelm us so much that we don’t see Jesus even when he is standing right in front of us?  Do emotions have that much power over us?  You bet they do.  Fatigue and self-pity can blind you to the loving spouse who is making sacrifices for you.  Envy can blind you to the love of a friend who also happens to have something you want.  And grief can keep you from recognizing God’s presence with you in the darkest hour.

Religion, culture, and our own background creates expectations in us, so that, like the men on the road to Emmaus, we don’t expect a risen Savior, so we don’t see him.  We fail to see all the ways that Jesus shows up in tender moments, and anguished moments too.  We don’t recognize his scarred hands as those hands that offer us comfort, or ask for help, or need a bandaid.  We don’t see him in the angry person who confronts us, desperate to be taken seriously, or to be forgiven, or to get a break just this once.  We forget to notice him among us as we worship and work together.

Nobody comes back from the dead, right?  So we don’t expect to see it, and don’t see it when it happens.  Resurrection happens everywhere.  When a glimmer of hope shines in the face of a grieving friend.  When we finally understand what someone has been going through that they have been keeping to themselves.  When we share a meal at church or at school or over lunch break at work, and laughter seasons the air between us.  Resurrection happens whenever what could go grim or deadly or flat gets a breath of life instead.  That is not a romantic notion: it is the Holy Spirit of Jesus reading our lives and interpreting it for us to see life instead of meaninglessness there, just as Jesus interpreted the Scriptures for his companions on the road.  It happens more often in the banal than in the spectacular, because Jesus prefers to whisper the truth and stay in the background in order to allow us the joy of discovering it for ourselves.

We simply need to let him open our eyes, to let the shingles of our flimsy expectations fall away and see the risen One among us in every disguise he inhabits.  He breathes life and love into every possible scenario, if we are not blind to it.  He is risen!  He is alive.  He is here.  Thanks be to God.

The Gift of Humility

Palm Sunday A

Matthew 21:1-11

There are times when the only way to get past hard things is to endure them.  You have to submit to anesthesia and surgery even if you are terrified.  If you want to relocate somewhere else, you have to deal with all the hassles and heartache of moving.  When you are the unwilling party in a divorce, you still have to go through the legal steps.  Then there is always grief, losing someone you love.  These things having the feeling I remember from the roller coaster at Arnold’s Park, when you get to the top of the first peak and it says “Point of No Return.”  Yikes.

We know what happens in the story we will review once again this week.  We want to warn Jesus off.  Don’t do it, Jesus!  Don’t enter Jerusalem.  They are going to pull that donkey out from under you, and worse, much worse.  They might seem to want to praise you now, but they are fickle.  They will succumb to the rumors spread by the leaders of the temple, giving in to suspicion.  They will clamor for your crucifixion a few days from now.  Don’t do it!

That crowd may seem naïve at best, deceptive and evil at their worst.  Maybe it’s not even the same group of people from the beginning of the week until the end.  But if we are honest with ourselves, they are not unfamiliar at all.  We are too much like them.

Did you catch what they called out to Jesus?  “Hosanna,” and “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” In Mark’s gospel he adds, “blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”  What is that about?

The people who suffered under the Roman oppressors were nostalgic for the past.  David, the great warrior king, the soldier endorsed by God, was the figure they expected as their coming Messiah.  They knew that the prophecies had it that way.  The anointed one who would be their savior would be a descendant of the great king David.

We’ve never longed for the “good old days,” have we?  Only if we’re like the rest of the human race.  The past is always bigger than life, and the present is too unpredictable, let alone the mysteries of the future.  If we can identify someone who gave us some measure of stability and control, and could find someone like them to lead us, we’d have it made.

Too bad they weren’t paying much attention to the kind of leader Jesus kept telling them he was, and showing them.  He kept insisting on talking about servanthood and submission and helping the poor. He didn’t just talk about those things; he did them, over and over.  Maybe they hoped they could get him to act more like a real leader, somebody who would help them throw off the Roman rule.  This is not always unsuccessful, you know.  There have been kings and even church leaders who gave in to the people’s job description for them.  They have scrapped their ideals in favor of popularity.

But Jesus didn’t give in to their notions of leadership.  Instead of going to the governor’s mansion and helping the people try to overthrow Pilate, he went to the temple.  The people thought that a better political leader was the answer.  The answer was not as simple as they thought.   Jesus knew that the solution to their suffering went much deeper.  They needed redemption, not a revolution.

Jesus could have avoided the whole mess, of course.  He could have taken over in the manner that many in our world have done.  He could have proclaimed victory, exerted his power, avoided the pain.  Some world leaders are still like that today.  We just saw what that looks like in the tragedy that has been unfolding in Syria, actually for many months now, but in the most horrific way last week.  Assad seems to think that his control is the ultimate goal.  His family dynasty’s glory and power are all he seems to care about.

Jesus would not circumvent the cross and opt for the showy, glorious victory.  He did not come to glorify himself or make everyone cower in fear.  In the few days he spent in Jerusalem before his arrest, his message of love and servanthood and sacrifice grew more urgent.

Jesus did not advocate an easy kind of faith, where we isolate ourselves in a cushioned, privileged tower above the suffering or judgments of this world.  He didn’t join in the people’s longing for the past, and try to recreate it for himself and us.  He told us to live in the present, to face the struggle.  He said, “Blessed are the poor, the meek, the pure in heart, those who hunger for God’s reign” every day, and he embodied those qualities.  He told us make love our aim, love for God and for one another.  To care for the poor and to lift up the fallen.   He led us to the cross.

The beautiful, ancient hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians presents Jesus as our model.  The road of discipleship is a way down, not up.  Paul introduces that hymn with these words:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

Only then does he launch into the hymn they were familiar with:

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.

The hymn doesn’t end there, but today it does, because we know what is coming.

The spiritual gift of waiting today in our series is humility.[i]  Waiting reminds you that you are not in control, that you will have to submit to some discomfort for a while because you cannot make things go faster or better.  It makes you lean into the grace of God.  It helps you see life from a lower perspective, an angle you might have been missing.  It helps you see from Jesus’ preferred position.

What humility actually enables us to do is to face reality: who we are, who are the people around us, what we are able to control.  Jesus was in control of how he conducted himself that week, and he chose humility.  In the events leading up to his arrest and crucifixion, there is a remarkable lack of humility on the part of all the players except Jesus himself.  He allowed the temple leaders to have the upper hand even though he—the only rightful authority in the temple—was innocent of all the accusations they hurled at him.  He submitted himself to the legendary brutality of Roman torture and execution.  He was doing more than making a martyr of himself; that would simply make him a hero.  He was taking on himself the shame and humiliation and death that sin inevitably inflicts so that we can be rid of them for good. 

“It’s too much!”  we might say.  We might wish our faith would take us away from the suffering, that we could follow some other path than the humble way.  But Jesus takes us into the world, not away from it.  He knows it is too much; it overwhelmed him too!  But we can bear it because he bears it with us.  He shows us the way to love in the midst of pain.  He shows us how to forgive in spite of the hurt.  He teaches us how to give even when it is hard.  He leads us to the healing and life beyond the cross.

As his followers, we line up behind Jesus and go where he leads.  His approach to Jerusalem seems exciting at first, but it gets darker and more dangerous.  We feel the sense of dread increasing as we walk through this week of his passion.  We need to rehearse this way every year, not only so that we will appreciate Jesus’ suffering, but also because we need reminding that this is how Jesus leads us all the time.  It is the way of discipleship.  The cross is Jesus’ way of loving the world, so it is our way too.

[i] Whitcomb, Holly W., Seven Spiritual Gifts of Waiting, 2005.  (Minneapolis: Augsburg), pp. 73-81.

Those Who Mourn: Man of Sorrows

Matthew 17:14-23

Series: Jesus, Blessed Savior (Lenten Sundays 2014)

             I’m going to start at the end of the story today instead of the beginning.  After Jesus cured the boy with epilepsy, and after he taught the disciples about faith that can move mountains, they gathered in Galilee, where Jesus told his disciples that he would be betrayed and killed, and then raised from the dead.  The disciples were distressed by this news.

Of course they were distressed!  Aside from the fears for suffering of their beloved teacher, they had to be sad that their relationship with him would be altered.  We don’t want to lose the people we love.

What makes us sad? We mourn and cry for many different reasons; among them are loss and empathy.  We grieve the death of people we love, and other losses like losing a job, dashed hopes, relationships that have become fractured.  We cry when somebody we love is suffering, but also for strangers whose anguish we understand, or think we do.

It is the human condition to be sorrowful many times in our lives.  Jesus was human, and he suffered with grief too.  His 33 years surely had their share of the pain we all endure.  But his suffering as the Son of God took on dimensions we can only guess.

The man who came to Jesus with his epileptic son was desperate.  His boy’s seizures were even more dangerous than they would be today, with cooking fires so close at hand and no medical solutions.  The disease acted like a demon, literally seizing his child randomly and casting him into fits that hurt him and those who tried to help him.  They lived in fear every day, and they would have been shunned in a time when people didn’t understand the problem.  Isolated and afraid, their lives were consumed by the disease.

As always Jesus had compassion on this father and son.  He wanted to release them from the physical and emotion bondage they had endured for so long.  And so Jesus cured him, but not before he expressed his disappointment in his disciples.  He called them a “faithless and perverse generation.”  He was tired of putting up with all of it.

See, Jesus mourns not only for our suffering.  He mourns our lack of faith and our sin.  We can see that in other situations where he expressed sorrow.

One of those is in what is called the lament over Jerusalem.  It is found in Matthew 23:37-39.  It happens after Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem for the last Passover, the week of his crucifixion:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say,

‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

The religious leaders that Jesus debated with and condemned for their stubbornness could have helped the common folk identify Jesus as their Messiah and follow him, but instead they fought against him.  The rejected the one who came to save them.  How hard it must have been for Jesus to see them turn so many people away from him.  To watch them dismiss his teachings about a God who loved them, to see the masses of people they influenced, all those who were trapped by the false religion of rigid laws.  Jesus wanted all of them to experience God’s forgiveness, and to be a people with that message of love to share with the world.  Instead he was met with jealousy and pride.

Jesus lamented his disciples’ participation in a perverse society.  The word translated as perversion is a moral statement, but it comes from the idea of a potter having to discard a pot that is ruined, or a tool that has become twisted and useless.  Humankind was created to serve one another and to bless God, but we became selfish and serve other things besides God. We struggle with so much pain because we insist on our own ways instead of God’s ways.  Jesus can’t bear it; he must see us restored and in tune with God as we are meant to be.

It’s no wonder, then, that the activity in the Temple was so disturbing to Jesus when he arrived in Jerusalem for the last time.  He drove out the money changers and sellers of animals at inflated prices.  The building that had been set apart for communion with God was as noisy as the market down the street.  Well, you might say, Jesus was angry in that case, not sad.  Someone once told me that anger is a “second emotion,” so I suggest that Jesus was deeply disappointed at the abuse of the Temple courts, and that is what fueled his tirade.

If Jesus was upset that the building made for worship was violated, how much more must he be saddened by our cavalier treatment of our lives, our bodies that were created to honor him?  Some of us were taught that God frowns on us when we disobey, but I suspect the reaction is more like sadness.  Our stubborn pursuits of money or power or respect are false ideals that God knows will lead only to loss or decay in the long run.  None of those things compares with the deep satisfaction of knowing that you are a child of God, and inviting other people to dwell in the same love that gives life to all of God’s people.

Because he loves us, Jesus cannot bear to see us suffer needlessly.  He came to proclaim release to all who are held captive.  The greatest enemy we court is death, and Jesus came to release us from its grip.

This is clearly seen in another episode of Jesus’ ministry, not long before he went to Jerusalem for the last time.  The occasion is the death of his close friend Lazarus.  Jesus arrived at Bethany after Lazarus had died, and he had to deal with the grief of Lazarus’s two sisters, Martha and Mary.  Martha ran to meet him before he got to the village, and Jesus used the opportunity to tell her that he was in control of all life and death.  Martha fetched Mary to go out and meet Jesus too.  As so often happens when we see someone we love during a crisis, the tears flow, and so it was with Mary.  Here’s what ensues in John 11:33-35: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.”

Jesus broke down when he saw his beloved friend’s sadness, but I think it was more than empathy he was feeling.  Think of all the suffering he had seen up to that point, almost at the end of his three years of ministry.  The enormity of the pain he had witnessed and borne on behalf of many thousands of people took its toll.  Misery comes in many forms, and he had seen it all.  Perhaps the death of his dear friend put him over the edge.  Jesus was truly familiar with grief, as Isaiah predicted, and he was sick of it.

Did his sorrow help compel him to the cross?  Maybe it strengthened his resolve to endure whatever it took to do away with sin’s death-dealing ways.  Did he raise Lazarus just to prove that he could defeat death, and would win the victory a short time later?

When we think of Jesus as a man of sorrows, one other image often comes to mind.  It is the one depicted on the stained glass in our fellowship hall.  Just before he was arrested, knowing he would face the worst kind of torture the Romans could devise, Jesus stole away for one last, private moment with the Father.  What was the substance of his tears that night?  We have some sense that he was afraid, because he asked God to let him accomplish his mission some other way. Yet he did tell his disciples that he was deeply sad: “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Mt 26.38)

I hope I am showing you more than evidence that Jesus was sad sometimes.  What matters is that his sadness was not self-centered, as ours is so often.  He grieved the loss of our innocence, of our pure love for God, of the peaceful and abundant existence we were meant to enjoy as his companions.

And so he did something about it.  He not only mourned our suffering, our faithlessness, and our sin.  He carried it all to a place where his own suffering would remove the power of these things to kill us.  He did not shrink from it.  He entered our suffering and showed us his way through it to healing and life.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” Jesus taught.  Did those words come back to him as he grieved the death of Lazarus, as he brooded over the city of Jerusalem, as he resigned himself to the Father’s will in Gethsemane?  I wonder.  It seems likely that he did remember the promise even as he hung on the cross and mourned the sins of his executioners, begging God to forgive them for their ignorance.

I hope this brief glimpse into the heart of Jesus stays with us when we suffer or grieve.  He understands your pain, because he suffers it with you.  What can you do for him?  Bless him.  Love him.  Worship him, and thus give him the comfort of knowing that his child is at home in his love.

Peacemakers and The Persecuted

Matthew 5:1-12

Series: Jesus, Blessed Savior (Lenten Sundays 2014)

             Someone has written a few extra verses into the Beatitudes of Matthew 5.  The last beatitude Jesus taught was “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Here’s what someone imagined the disciples responding: “12a Waitest thou for one second , Lord.  What about “blessed art thou comfortable”, or  12b “blessed art thou which havest good jobs, a modest house in the suburbs, and a yearly vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast?”

     12c And Jesus said unto them, “Apologies, my brothers, but those did not maketh the cut.”

The same writer accuses us of hijacking the word “blessed” to fit our American values, “creating a cosmic lottery where every sincere prayer buys us another scratch-off ticket.”

He continues, “The truth is, I have no idea why I was born where I was or why I have the opportunity I have.  It’s beyond comprehension.  But I certainly don’t believe God has chosen me above others because of the [sincerity] of my prayers or the depth of my faith. Still, if I take advantage of the opportunities set before me, a comfortable life may come my way.  It’s not guaranteed.  But if it does happen, I don’t believe Jesus will call me blessed.

“He will call me ‘burdened.’”[1]

We’ve discussed why prosperity can be seen as more of a burden than a blessing, so I won’t go into that today.  Instead, I’ll quote missionary Heidi Baker once again:  “When we walk as Jesus walked, we will be blessed.”  You don’t have to follow Jesus in the gospels very long to see that he does not lead us into comfort or riches.  He leads us to the least and the lost, and his way is hard.  He never promised it would be easy, but he did promise that it is the way to life.

Two weeks ago Ethan Batschelet updated us on his work in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.  He has become a full-time missionary, and we are supporting him as a congregation because we trust him and want to help him serve the children whose situations are desperate.  He walks into real danger every day, because gangs control the area where the children live.

Ethan has been robbed more than once, one time with a gun held to his head for more than an hour.  You can imagine how shaken he was by that crime.  He considered leaving to avoid further danger.  But then he realized that the threats were an indication that Satan is fighting hard to get rid of him.  It shows that he is making a real difference.  It strengthened his resolve to stay.

Jesus calls Ethan blessed.  He is persecuted, in danger of death, because he serves the children he loves, the children Jesus loves.  Ethan is allowed to enter those neighborhoods because one of the gangs protects him.  They appreciate what he is doing for the children.  They recognize love when they see it, even if evil has them in its grip.

Simone Weil lived about a hundred years ago.  She fought for the rights of laborers and wrote about her reasons for advocating on their behalf.  She said, “When an apprentice gets hurt or complains of fatigue, workmen and peasants have this fine expression: ‘It’s the trade getting into his body.’”[2]

Do we expect our discipleship to be merely an intellectual thing?  To engage our hearts and minds but not our bodies?  Jesus calls us to lay down our lives for him.  That means we will get our hands dirty.  It will affect our pocketbooks and our schedules.  Ethan will surely never forget the feeling of that gun on his head, but before that, he had to deal with the steely taste of fear in his mouth when confronted by gang members.  He had to eat what his friends in Honduras eat, live where they live, put up with bugs and terrible roads, tote goods and children here and there.

Blessed are the persecuted, Jesus said.  He is not talking about the petty grievances of living in your family or your community.  He is not talking about being the subject of a rumor at school.  He is talking about real opposition that means you sacrifice your reputation, your money, your friends who think you’re crazy for following Jesus.   The way he walked got him killed, remember.

There is no opposition or persecution for those who are conformed to the ways of the world.  If we look like everybody else, nobody is going to challenge us for our faith.  But if we choose to walk into the fray to promote justice, to stand up for the one who has been wrongly accused, to advocate for the poor or serve their needs and suffer loss for their sake, well, now we’re talking persecution.

Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, for they will be called sons and daughters of God.  Why?  Because we are united with the Son of God himself to continue his work of reaching across the great divide to offer hope and life.

When we walk as Jesus walked, we will be blessed.

Mother Teresa said, “The work we do is nothing more than a means of transforming our love for Christ into something concrete.”[3]  Something concrete is exactly what most people in this world need: food, medicine, shelter, a friend, protection, a mother and father.  So Jesus came in the flesh, and he sends us in the flesh, to challenge the forces that kill and oppress and neglect those he loves.

Another story from the ministry of the Bakers.  Because their government was so suspicious of Americans, the Bakers were not welcomed with open arms.  At one point they had to flee in the middle of the night for their lives, taking as many small children with them as they could away from the children’s center to their small office in Maputo.  They prayed that God would take care of them, the children who were with them, and the children they had to leave behind.  Other missionary friends prayed for them from far away.

The government people came in the morning and threatened the children who remained at the center.  The children were ordered to stop worshiping God, but they defied the orders, singing, dancing, and thanking Jesus.  This made the atheist government workers even angrier.  They spit out insults about the Bakers and threw rocks at the children.  They promised to take care of the children if they would shut their mouths.

The children sang even louder, and not one of them deserted the rest.  The children responded instead in the opposite spirit and spoke peace to the workers.  Then they began walking to the office where the Bakers had gone, singing worship songs along the way.  They walked seventeen miles, some of them barefoot.

Here is Heidi’s account:

“None of us knew what to do.

“They came to the little office building where we were staying in the center of Maputo.  We only had two toilets.  Our little office room was lined wall to wall with people.  Their feet were bloody, their hearts were traumatized, and they had been ridiculed and told that God does not exist.

“But they were truly peacemakers!  They knew God was their Father.  They overcame through a love that never fails.  Even if their lives had been taken from them, they would never stop worshiping Jesus!  These were not some famous church leaders.  They were children without shoes who had been beaten up and persecuted but who refused to forsake the gospel.

“They were told they were just street children—without intelligence, without worth, and without any hope in the world.  These children stood up to those leaders who threatened their lives, and they walked in peace.

“In the face of evil, our children showed mercy.   In the face of hatred, they demonstrated Jesus’s kindness.  In the midst of persecution, they did not fight back, but they embodied what it means to be a peacemaker.  Truly they are the sons and daughters of God.”

God provided for the children in miraculous ways while they were struggling in their temporary home.  And they continued to pray along with the adults for their persecutors.  After all, they had been taught to love as Jesus does, without limit.  Their leaders were discouraged, but God provided hope and food in the midst of it.

And how did God work things out for them?  For one thing, the children’s test scores have been the best in their country.  Twelve thousand applications had been made for two openings at respected universities, and they were filled by workers from the center.  In addition, their center in Pemba now has seven times the space than the property where they were forced out.  But most amazing is the fact that years later, the government apologized, workers asking forgiveness for what they had done to the children.  This could not have happened if the Christians had fought their persecutors.[4]

“To love in the midst of pain, to forgive in the midst of evil, to comfort in the midst of agony, to bring peace in a time of war is the heart of God.  True happiness flows from responding in the opposite spirit of what is expected by the world’s standards.  Love never fails, and if you remain in love, you will always win.”[5]  Isn’t that another way of saying that you will be blessed?

I quoted Scott Dannemiller at the beginning, the writer who cleverly imagined the disciples’ response to Jesus’ beatitudes, hoping for a more comfortable option.  Here is how he understands the beatitudes:  “My blessing is this.  I know a God who gives hope to the hopeless.  I know a God who loves the unlovable.  I know a God who comforts the sorrowful.  And I know a God who has planted this same power within me.  Within all of us.”[6]

The beatitudes of Jesus do not need to be updated or improved.  Jesus not only stated what he treasures, he also lived what he taught, and he wants us to live that way too.  If we walk as Jesus walked, we will be blessed.

[1] Scott Dannemiller, at http://theaccidentalmissionary.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/the-one-things-christians-should-stop-saying/

[2] Thomas W. Currie III, 2008.  The Joy of Ministry.  (Louisville: John Knox Press), 114.

[3] Heidi Baker, 2008.  Compelled by Love.  (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House), 118.

[4] Ibid., 108-113.

[5] Ibid., 113.

[6] Scott Dannemiller, Ibid.

“Poor in Spirit: The Compassion of Jesus”

Series: Jesus, Blessed Savior (Lenten Sundays 2014)

Matthew 15:29-39

             Jesus was in the thick of his ministry, trying to meet the needs of hundreds of people, even thousands, who all came to see him at once.  He was out in the countryside, by the Sea of Galilee, healing the sick for three days straight.  His disciples would have had to manage these throngs, creating a system of triage and makeshift waiting rooms out in the open, without computers or even paper and pen to organize it all.  You can bet that they were all exhausted.

But when they had served the last one, Jesus didn’t call for room service and a massage.  Instead he gazed over the crowd and considered their plight.  He knew the stories and struggles of each person he had just encountered.  They were more than a horde to be managed; they were people he loved.  Their individual and collective anxieties were palpable to him.  He had compassion on them.

Sometimes in the effort to understand what is being revealed in the Scriptures, we pastors do what we call a word study.  We see a word like “compassion” and wonder if the gospel writer meant what we might assume about that word.  So we see how the word is used in various places in that same author’s writings, and in other parts of the Scriptures too.  We have to check on the word in the original language, which in this case is Greek.  Then we look for the ways the same word is translated into English, in various parts of the Scriptures.

“Compassion” seems like an important word in this story.  It is, I think, one way of describing “poor in spirit.”  Matthew writes, “Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.’” (Matt 15.32)

In English the word “compassion” comes from com which means “with” or “together.”  Passion actually comes from the suffering and submission of Jesus.  It has come to mean other things in modern English usage, but that was its original root.  In the stories of Jesus, compassion is about feeling pity toward people who are desperate. The original, the Greek word splagchnizomai, means to feel pity in your inward parts.  Jesus recognized the hunger of the people who hadn’t eaten for three days, and he pitied them.

Where are some other places that this word is applied to Jesus?  One is in Matthew 9:36—“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  Jesus could see the distress of the people, and he wanted them to have the security and well-being of sheep who are cared for by a competent shepherd.  He hated to see them suffering with lack of peace.

The same story appears in the Gospel of Mark: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (Mk 6.34)

There’s this one: “When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)  Jesus couldn’t leave sick people alone!  He had to reach out to them, and heal them.  There were so many, and it moved him deeply.

But it wasn’t only crowds that affected Jesus that way.  Jesus met two blind men on his way to Jerusalem and the cross.  It was just outside Jericho, where Jesus had met Zacchaeus and changed his life.  The blind men were noisy and disruptive, and the disciples were annoyed.  They told those guys to shut up.  But Jesus didn’t consider them a bother, or if he did, he looked past that.  He saw their need: “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.” (Matt 20.34)

Jesus met a woman in the midst of her son’s funeral.  Our shorthand name for her is the Widow of Nain.  She was bereft as she accompanied his coffin on the way to his burial.  Here is Luke’s account of it: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”  (Lk 7.13-15)

Compassion plays a part in the parable of the prodigal son that Jesus told.  Remember how the younger son demanded his share of his father’s inheritance and then blew it all on loose living?  We imagine his father spending long hours—long months—at the window, hoping to glimpse his son coming over the rise toward home.  It took a while for Son Two to come to his senses and decide to go home, but Jesus described it: “So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

Did you notice what happened after Jesus felt compassion?  He was moved with pity, yes, but he was also literally moved.  He took action.  He healed the sick, he taught the people, he healed the blind men, and he raised the widow’s son from the dead.

Jesus didn’t just try to feel better when he felt pity.  I heard Carl Hurley last week explaining his absolute hatred of cutting wood for his wood-burning stove.  He always hires it done.  He said, “Looking out the back window, sitting in my easy chair, and watching them work so hard made me feel bad.  So I went to Walmart.”

We don’t like to feel bad, so we avoid the situations that do that to us.  But Jesus didn’t feel pity and then brush it off or turn the TV channel or flip to the next email.  He didn’t tell somebody else to fix the problems.  He let his compassion move him to do something about them.  In fact, when I looked up the word compassion, the definition included acting on one’s feelings, doing something to alleviate the suffering that moves us in the first place.

Compassion is what compelled people to run toward the site of an explosion afterward instead of running away. It is what moves soldiers to reach out to the children in the towns where they are stationed.  It is what draws people to Haiti and Africa and the packing room for the backpacks for hunger program at school.  It is what gets you off the couch and to your recipe box or your checkbook to help out a neighbor who is struggling.

So as we consider the makeup of the word “compassion,” the passion part might seem to be more important at first.  But feeling sorry for somebody does no good without the first part of the word “compassion,” the com part.  The part that says Jesus is with us in our suffering.  The part that moved him to act.

Jesus could have healed his quota of sick people and left a lot of latecomers behind.  First come, first served, and “snooze, ya lose!”  He had every right to send the crowds away to get their own food instead of feeding them himself.  But he knew they would faint along the way, and that was not acceptable to him.

Jesus could have let his disciples keep a safe perimeter around him as he traveled.  Instead he let people in, even annoying, bumbling blind men.  He touched them, and healed them.  He could have walked past the widow in her grief.  Her son would eventually die again.  She might as well face reality, right?  Instead he felt the sadness with her.  He had compassion on her, and gave her more time with her son.

The prodigal son’s father had a lot better things to do than stand by his window pining for his lost son.  He could have been at the local watering hole, speculating about the crop this year and having a pint.  Sure, it’s just a story Jesus made up, but hold on.  Jesus told it to make a point.  So he has the father letting compassion dictate his actions, and it put him in the place of welcome when his son needed him there.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said.  (Matt 5.3)  They not only inhabit the house down the street.  They are at home in God’s story too.  They understand suffering, and they don’t run from it.  They let it move them to action.

Jesus had plenty of practice with poverty of spirit.  He empathized with countless people in a particular place and time.  He lived a human existence, suffering from the same troubles we all face, small and large.  He had to wait along with everybody else for rain to break a drought.  He had to soothe a feverish brow, endure hunger in harsh surroundings, put up with bullies and braggarts and rashes and rocks in his sandals like the rest of us.

Jesus is God appearing here, without fanfare or sweeping gestures of power.  He takes up residence in our smelly, broken, twisted world and stays.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians tells it this way:

“Christ Jesus…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. (Phil 2.6-8)

As we watch Jesus through the lens of the Beatitudes, we see what Paul was talking about.  Jesus was poor in spirit, on purpose.  Poverty means you are helpless.  Your options are limited or nonexistent.  You can’t do anything to make things better.

Jesus is helpless in the sense that he will not force our love or obedience.  He extends his forgiveness freely and invites us to the community of the beloved, but he will not coerce us to accept.  He must wait, and hope, just as the poor must do.  He depends on us to come to him with our hearts full of love, or broken.  Either is fine with him.  He even lets us choose death instead of life, though it causes him great anguish.  He is helpless in that way.

In his poverty and patience, Jesus pays attention to us.  He feels our pain.  Jesus has compassion on you.  You may feel as though he is far away, unmoved by your suffering, but you are mistaken.  He is with you.  He knows what pain is, and he, more than anyone else, understands the shape and color of your particular pain.  His compassion always compels him to act.

And so the question is, how is he acting for you in your pain?  How does he respond when you face your terrible choices?  I cannot answer how Jesus may come to you, but I can assure you that he will, because that is what he always does.  We have seen it in the way he treated the people then, and he has not changed.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are you.  Blessed is Jesus, whose spirit knows poverty as well as you do, and even more.  Thanks be to God.

Jesus, Blessed Savior (Lenten Sundays 2014)

Hungering and Thirsting for Righteousness

Matthew 4:1-11

             Recently I was chatting with someone who got to go to an Iowa State basketball game for the first time.  She was excited because she had a school assignment of writing about college coaches, and she was focusing on Fred Hoiberg, the Iowa State men’s coach.  Before she found out she was going to go, she would have to use reports about his coaching.  Imagine how thrilled she was that she would get to watch him in action up close.  She would be able to write a much better essay.

For the Sundays during Lent, we are going to try to observe Jesus as closely as we can, especially in the way he practiced the Beatitudes that he taught his disciples.  For the past four Sundays, we learned from children in Mozambique what it means to live the Beatitudes.  Now we’re going to see how Jesus embodied them in his own life.  The values he taught were more than noble principles.  He followed them even though it was hard to do, despite the powerful leaders who were deeply offended by what he did.

Before he even began teaching and healing, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness so that he could be tempted by the devil.  Does that seem odd to you?  We pray, “lead us not into temptation,” but Jesus exposed himself to his enemy on purpose.  It seems that it was necessary for him to face temptation in order to be prepared for his ministry.  Matthew, the gospel writer, implies that this was part of the plan.

Jesus came to earth to seek righteousness for us, ensuring our forgiveness and making us holy.  The devil tried to get Jesus to settle for less than his ultimate goal of righteousness for you and me.  He maneuvered his way into Jesus’s thoughts and tried to find a weakness in Jesus.  The first attempt was the obvious one: hunger.  “Hey, you’re reeeeeally hungry, aren’t you Jesus?  But you can create anything, so why not turn some stones into fresh, tasty bread?”  Easy as pie, or, bread in this case.

Jesus must have been tempted throughout his ministry with the same bait.  Just take a shortcut once in a while!  You’re the Son of God, or so you say.  Empty stomach, full stomach, which do you prefer?  Take the easy way and win the Pharisees’ approval, instead of the hard, long road for the sake of all humankind.

The showdown in the wilderness was the same old fight that Satan engaged in since the bit with the fruit in the Garden of Eden.  This time it proceeded dramatically, a play in three acts.  Jesus used the same defensive weapon every time: the word of God.  He would use it again and again in the next three years, especially as Matthew reports it.  The deceiver tried to pull Jesus off course, but Jesus returned to the truth of Scripture every time to maintain his position of obedience to God.

Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness.  Forty days is a long time to consider whether his quest for righteousness was worth the cost.  It was a harsh environment, and Jesus chose to abstain from food for an added benefit.  About the third day in it had to start getting rough, and he had 37 more days to go.

Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation.  You sign up for a self-improvement program and find that the daily demands are a grind.  It’s hard to stay on track.  The weeks stretch out before you in an endless road beyond the horizon.  And you’re not even in the wilderness as Jesus was.

Matthew is the gospel writer who is specific: Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.  What’s the point of that?  It would not have escaped Matthew’s readers that Moses also spent forty days—and forty nights—on the mountain receiving the law from God.  Moses fasted from food and water in the process.

Jesus and Moses:  this is a significant connection.  In fact, all the quotes that Jesus uses to fight the devil’s schemes come from Deuteronomy, Moses’s last message to the Israelites before they entered the promised land.  Is there a parallel between the Law of Moses and Jesus?  Is this meant to show us a new Law that Jesus introduces?  Or is the righteousness that Jesus is seeking the same righteousness God was aiming for when the people were given the Ten Commandments?

Lots of parallels can be traced here, but we don’t want to get so caught up in the exercise that we miss the obvious.  Jesus and Moses both wanted us to keep our eyes on the ball.  Worship God only, trust God only, and don’t be fooled by the distractions or temptations that will lead you far from the One who loves you and gives you life.

I noticed something interesting about the temptations of Jesus and the Scriptures he uses to thwart his enemy.  All three of them have to do with our appetites.  As Jesus is hungering and thirsting and seeking the righteousness God has in mind for us, he quotes Moses from situations where food and drink were involved for the Israelites.

The first temptation is simple.  You’re hungry, Jesus, so make some bread out of stones.  Jesus replies, “‘It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

That quote comes from Moses’s advice to the Israelites to be obedient to God no matter what.  It is in Deuteronomy 8:  “2Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. 3He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Go back to the lesson your ancestors learned, Jesus reminds them.  You depend on God not only for food, but for life itself that is found in loving God and loving one another (the essence of the Law).  Over and over in the Scriptures and in our own lives, we are reminded of the lesson of the manna in the wilderness: trust God in everything!

Next Jesus is taken to the highest point of the Temple.  The tempter wants him to hurl himself off that height to prove to everyone that angels would save him.  It would be spectacular, and there would be no doubt that Jesus is the Son of God.  Notice that the devil quoted Scripture (Psalm 91) to get Jesus to do what he wanted.  But it wasn’t merely quoting Scripture that gave Jesus authority.  Anybody can do that, even Satan.  Jesus was referring back to an incident in the wilderness when the people were frustrated and complained to Moses that there wasn’t enough water for them.  Jesus said, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Jesus lifted that out of a warning from Moses in Deuteronomy 6: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” (verse 16)  God had told Moses to strike a rock with the staff he had used for divine miracles before, and when Moses did it, water gushed forth.  Quite a pleasing outcome, with a hint of magic or miracle involved.  Moses named the place Massah.

Jesus would not abandon his quest for righteousness for the temporary satisfaction of a trick or two.  Jump off the pinnacle and angels appear, if you are the Son of God!  He would not give in to the human appetite for recognition or showy miracles.  God could satisfy the thirst of His people when and in the manner that God chose to do it, but God will not be manipulated for the sake of our appetites.

The devil pulls out his last trick.  It is so baldly desperate that it is almost laughable.  It is the oldest con in the book: selling you what you already own.  He shows Jesus the kingdoms of the world and points out all their splendor, as if Jesus didn’t create them himself.  They can all be yours for the low, low price of handing over your loyalty to me.

And Jesus dispenses with his enemy for the last time, at least for this act of the play: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

That retort comes from Deuteronomy 6: “When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.”

            In the book of Deuteronomy, the people were on the brink of entering the promised land, and Jesus is in a similar situation.  He is about to embark on his ministry in the land and to a people for whom God had promised a Savior.  He would have to keep his focus, maintain his obedience to the plan and purposes of God.  It could be that his wilderness experience was not so much an object lesson for our obedience, but training for his own mission when he would face fierce opposition and intense frustration.  He would be tempted by his appetites for everything from food to instant fame and glory.  But he would resist filling those appetites with things that would not satisfy, easy answers that would derail his mission.

It should not escape our notice that angels appeared to minister to Jesus after he had endured the test.  They didn’t show up on Satan’s cue, but they did rescue him eventually.  Jesus said it in the same sermon as his Beatitudes: “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things (food, clothing, etc.) will be yours as well.”  (Matt 6.33)

Jesus pursued righteousness for you and me.  He had to stick with the plan, and he did whatever it took to obtain our salvation.  He fasted and prayed for forty days—forty days!—before he began a grueling and ultimately deadly mission for our sake.

How did Jesus face the test in the wilderness?  He knew the Scriptures and more important, the purposes of God revealed in the writings.  He knew the story of God’s people and used the words of Moses, God’s agent for cultivating righteousness and love among them.  Jesus knew that hunger and thirst were the best ways to describe not only our fickle appetites but also the yearning for a relationship with God.  Food will not satisfy your deepest hunger.  Only God himself can do that.

Stop, Look, and Listen

Matthew 17:1-9   

Transfiguration of Our Lord (A)

I went on a one day spiritual retreat with some other Lutheran pastors a couple of weeks ago.  We gathered at the Creighton Retreat Center a couple hours south of here to share stories and worship together.  It was refreshing to take some time away from all of our responsibilities to reflect and be spiritually restored through conversation and worship in that setting.  Retreats of various kinds are helpful to our faith, because they give us time to step back, to see how God is at work, and to rest in God’s presence with no other distractions.

Jesus took Peter, James and John with him on a little hike up a mountain.  They had been following Jesus in his ministry for many months, watching him heal and absorbing his teachings.  From time to time Jesus would take time away from the crowds and even from his disciples.  He needed a break.  This time, something remarkable happened.  Imagine seeing Jesus glow with dazzling light, then suddenly catching sight of two other men speaking with him, and knowing somehow that these men were Moses and Elijah.  And then hearing the voice from the bright cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  (This is stated by a disembodied voice over a microphone.)

Does that get your attention?  It got the disciples’ attention.  They fell on the ground trembling with fear.

Did you learn this little caution from your kindergarten teacher?  We were told that before we crossed the street, we needed to “stop, look and listen.”  The story that we call Jesus’” transfiguration” can also caution us in a similar way.  Today I’d like us to see what this story can teach us about paying attention.  How does it inspire us to “stop, look, and listen?”

First, stop.  How often do you stop to take a break from the stresses of your life?  I mean really step back and breathe—not just watch TV for an hour or take a half hour lunch break.  Do you ever remove yourself from all the distractions and responsibilities that face you every day?  Jesus took time to do that.  And this time, something extraordinary happened right in front of the disciples’ eyes.  We certainly can’t expect something quite so stunning when we take time away, but then, the disciples couldn’t have anticipated it that day either.  Nevertheless, just stepping out of the routine enables us to see things in a better perspective.

We begin the season of Lent this week.  During Lent we take time to focus on Jesus in ways that are more intentional than the rest of the year.  We pause to appreciate him, to worship him, to see if there is something we haven’t noticed before.  Or perhaps to simply be reminded of the truth we have known for many years.  That is why we as Christians make a practice of turning away from other things in our lives: habits, distractions, sin—so we can spend some time with Jesus again.  You are doing it right now, by dedicating this time to worshipping God.

Think of it.  Peter, James and John may have had other tasks on their minds when Jesus asked them to go up the mountain with him.  But because they left those behind and took time to be with Jesus, they saw him in his glory as no one else did.  A good reason for us to stop too: to see Jesus in a new light.

So this year during the season of Lent, you might want to evaluate whether or not you are stopping often enough to let the presence of Jesus penetrate your life and do the spiritual work in you that will renew your faith and give you life.  Can you do it daily, if only for a few minutes?  Every week, for worship or for a longer time alone with God?  How can you stop, so that you can pay attention to God?

We need to stop, and also look.  Look at what Jesus may be trying to show you.  It’s interesting, in the story on the mountain, that one of the things the three disciples saw was a conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  We can draw various conclusions from the appearance of those men who were long dead.  A common interpretation is that they represent the law and the prophets.  That seems likely.  But it hints at something else:  that Jesus was acting on a plan.  He was part of a grand scheme that spanned centuries and continents.  Moses and Elijah were privy to the plan, and Jesus needed to discuss it with them.

That is what we might also observe when we take time to step back from our routines.  We recognize that God has a bigger plan than our goals and obligations would have us believe most days.  If we dedicate time to reading the Bible, we can see God’s greater purposes for us there.

When my husband and I go to Colorado, we always drive up on the Trail Ridge road, and we can look down on the roads and lakes and towns.  We can see the big picture.  One of the reasons I like to go there is because the mountains and the views are so big.  It gives me a good perspective on my life, to see that I am only a small part of a much bigger plan.  It leads to a deeper sense of God’s grace, because God cares about “little ol’ me” in the face of all that vastness.

In Psalm 2 we get that same sense, that God’s plans are far grander, more meaningful and far-reaching, than our small schemes.  The image is striking.  “He who sits in the heavens laughs” at our presumptuousness.  At the same time remember that God has an important part for  each of us in the divine plan.  How did God use the people in the biblical story?  Might God use me in such a way too?

Today we also need to look at—pay attention to—the holy among us.  Jesus is present here.  He is with us as we read his Word, as we gather around the table and font.  He gave us physical objects to look at—water, Word, bread and cup—so we can remember whose we are and that he is with us even now.  But we can also observe other extraordinary signs among us: our fellowship together, the hands of one another that care and work and give.  We can see the candles that symbolize God’s presence.  We can let the children show us what is catching their attention, and be renewed in wonder at God’s gifts.

So we stop, and look.  And we listen.  The voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  We remember that we heard this voice before, when Jesus was baptized.  Except this time there is a command: listen to this man!

Peter, James and John knew what Jesus had taught.  They also knew what he had told them only six days earlier.  He had predicted his suffering and death.  Peter objected, saying that this was not supposed to happen.   Jesus scolded him right back, or scolded Satan for planting this idea in Peter’s head.  Then he told them that they would also have to carry their own crosses if they were going to follow him all the way to the end.  Is this what the voice was telling them to hear, and take seriously?

Listen.  We come away here every week to listen for the voice of God.  Let’s stop and listen right now, heeding God’s invitation to “be still and know that I am God.”  Let’s cooperate for a couple of minutes to create some silence among us.  Don’t try to fill the silence with ideas.  Don’t let distractions take you in another direction.  Just acknowledge the distracting thoughts and let them move on without you.  Just sit, and be still.  If it would help you to concentrate on a word or phrase like “know that I am God” or just “God,” then use that to help you sit in the stillness.

I wonder what that was like for you.  Maybe refreshing, or uncomfortable, or surprising.  Or maybe you had to resist falling asleep; that’s normal too!  God has something to say to you today, whether it is in the stillness or in the written Word or in an unexpected encounter.  You need to pay attention to the One who loves you and gives you life.

The confirmation students have to take notes on our worship together, you know.  They are learning to stop, look and listen.  They need your help, frankly.  They need to hear from you what has touched you in worship.  But they and their younger friends and siblings also need to hear and see how God is present in your life tomorrow and Tuesday and Wednesday.  How much richer our faith can be if we share these stories of what God is doing in each of us.

Peter wrote in his letter about that unforgettable day on the mountain when he saw Jesus’ majesty and heard God’s voice.  It seems that image of Jesus was burned into his memory and colored the rest of his life.  He didn’t forget what he heard and saw that day.

When have you sensed that God was near?  Do you want to know God’s presence again?  Pay attention, be patient, and see how God answers your longing to experience the divine, loving reality of God’s presence.

Our trust in God expands because of what he see and hear when we pause to worship God.  We listen and celebrate that God is present with us here and everywhere we go.  This needs to be a habit of our hearts, to stop, look and listen for what God has to show us and tell us.  “Show and tell”—there’s another little piece from kindergarten.  Well, Jesus did tell us to “come as a child,” after all.

Stop, look, and listen…and then show and tell others what God is telling you.

This was unexpected.  When I started writing this sermon, it took the form of a script.  You just never know how the message is going to play out each week.  

Copying God

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48

Epiphany 7A

Pastor: “You shall be holy.”  Wow.  I read something about this last week I thought was interesting.

Here’s the bad news: God wants you to be holy.

Here’s the good news:  God is holy.

Joe:      Wait a minute.  Only God is holy, so how can we be holy?  And who wants to, anyway?  Nobody likes goody-two-shoes, holier-than-thou kind of people.  They are no fun at parties.  They tend to alienate people on radio talk shows.  Aren’t they the ones who warn everybody that they are going to hell?  No, thanks.

Pastor: But the command is right there in Leviticus 19:2. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Joe:      “Shall.”  Yeah, I guess that’s command language, like “thou shalt not kill.”

Pastor:  Not necessarily.  Maybe it is a description, or a prediction, as in, “you are going to be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.”

Joe:      That’s better.  God’s chosen people will wear the “Holy” jersey because they are on God’s team, right?

Pastor: Well, now you are taking all the meaning out of it.  We aren’t just wearing a name on our uniforms like Minnesota Twins or Boston Celtics.  Nobody expects those athletes to be actual twins or to do a river dance.  “Holy” will describe us because that is what we really are.

Joe:      Last time I checked, you weren’t holy.  And I sure don’t claim to be.

Pastor: If we’re judging by appearances, then yes, I am not holy.  Far from it.

Joe:      Then why would God describe us like that?  God ought to know how bad we are.  God knows everything!

Pastor: We have to go way back in history to figure this one out.

Joe:      History as in the Bible, right?  Back to Jesus?

Pastor: Even farther back, to Moses.  Are you ready?

Joe:      No time like the present…er, a couple thousand years ago.

Pastor: About 3400 years ago, actually, give or take.

The Law was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai while the people were wandering in the desert, having escaped from Egypt.  The people had been slaves for at least a couple hundred years, so they did not know how to conduct themselves.  They needed help, and God was happy to help them.  The Ten Commandments showed them a way to live.

But the commandments were more than merely good ideas, more than just “how to be nice to each other and make God happy.”  Everyone who has gone through confirmation might remember that there are three uses for the Law.  First, they establish an orderly world to live in.  We can thank God for that, right?  Without laws, things would get ugly pretty quickly—and they do, judging from human history.

Second, the Law shows us how holy God is, and by contrast, how wretched we are.  We break the commandments routinely, if not literally, at least in our attitudes and thoughts.  We need someone to deal with all of our sin and guilt from breaking the Law.  So the Law shows us that we need a Savior, who is Jesus.

Third, I suppose we could say the Law does show us how to be nice to each other and make God happy.  But we shouldn’t sell it short.  It is a great way to live, with no fear of people hurting you or lying about you.  And by following the Law, we are honoring our Creator, who knows how things work the best.

If you think about it, the Law was a great gift to the Israelites.  They needed help.  Out there in the desert, the only way they could make it was to depend on God.  And God loved them so much, they were guided by God’s cloud by day and God’s fire at night.  The Law helped them get along as they were following, and reminded them of who was in charge.  They learned to actually trust God out there in the desert, and when they trusted God enough to follow the Law, things went well for them.  Not just because God was rewarding them, but also because following the Law is its own reward.  Life just works better that way.

Now here is what is interesting.  God commanded the people to create a special container for the Law.  It was an ark, a beautiful gold box with golden angels perched on top.  God wanted it to be so precious that God had them build a whole set of rooms and coverings of fine materials to surround it, called a tabernacle.  This was to be at the center of their camp, so that they all knew that God was basically living with them out in that desert, and God moved with them wherever they went.  The Law was an expression of God’s goodness, and it was at the center of their life.

Leviticus spells out a lot of the details about how they could follow the basic Big Ten.  But did you notice that when we read some of them today, after each one it said, “I am the LORD.”  See, our holiness depends completely on God’s holiness.  We couldn’t begin to be holy without God showing us the way and actually being at the center of our life.  We need the Holy Spirit of God to give us what we need to live God’s way.

And it was the Leviticus account of moral law that shaped the teachings of Jesus.  The Sermon on the Mount has some remarkable similarities to Leviticus.  And there is a really important connection between Leviticus 19 and Jesus’ interpretation of the Law.  It’s right there in verse 18. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”  Do you remember when Jesus summed up the Law?  He said it boils down to only two requirements.  Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself.  He was quoting Leviticus in that last part.

Although Jesus made it simpler, He didn’t make things any easier for his followers.  Leviticus tells us not to hate our brothers.  Jesus goes a lot farther: “Love your enemies.”

Joe:      Now there you go. If we have to love our enemies, I will never, ever be holy.  Just last week I tried to talk to my cousin about politics.  It was all I could do to keep from wringing his neck!  I can’t even love my cousin, let alone somebody in ISIS.  I guess I will never be as holy as I should be.

Pastor: Well, being perfect isn’t what it is all about.

Joe:      Yes, it is!  We read it this morning.  Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Holy…perfect.  It doesn’t matter how you slice it.  We can’t do it.

Pastor: In this case it helps to know a little Greek.  The word for perfect here is telos, which means more like bringing something to completion.  Something is on its way to being whole, perfect, exactly as it was meant to be.  That doesn’t mean it is perfect yet.

 Joe:      So, we are working at being perfect.

Pastor: Yes, and no.  Perfection or holiness aren’t things we strive for, not for their own sake.  We could never get there on our own anyway.  Holiness is more like a neighborhood where God has bought the property and moved us in to live with Him there. (1)  It is where God’s love and goodness are the norm, and when we accept that reality and line our lives up with it, we find that life is wonderful.  We live with God—or, God lives with us—so we copy God’s ways, basically.

Joe:      So, we aren’t holy in the sense of being super duper Christians.  We are holy because we hang out with God?

Pastor: I couldn’t have said it better.  That is the part where our holiness depends on God’s holiness.  God is at the center of our life, the ground of our existence, the divine one who made us and wired us to live together in love.  I think that is what Jesus was getting at when he re-framed the Old Testament laws and told us to follow them with so much enthusiasm that we practically kill each other with kindness.  Figuratively speaking, of course.

Joe:      That stuff sounds pretty hard though.  Somebody takes your shirt, and you’re supposed to give him your coat too?  If an enemy makes you walk a mile, you smile and walk two miles, then pray for him after you’ve gotten blisters on your feet?  Makes no sense.

Pastor: Well, you’re in good company.  Paul said as much to the Corinthian church, that the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom don’t line up.  See, Jesus wanted his hearers to know that the Law was about more than getting along really well.  It could only be powered by love, or it wouldn’t work.  And it’s not a mushy kind of love.  Loving your enemy has some teeth to it.

Joe:      You can say that again.

Pastor: It is really hard to do, and the natural reaction of most people is to take revenge on their enemies, not work for understanding and reconciliation.  What Jesus asks us to do is to let the love of God become such a strong force in our lives that it can overcome hate.

Joe:      Sounds pretty idealistic.

Pastor: You’re close.  It is the kind of world the Law imagines.  It is the vision Jesus was casting.  And he calls us to live that vision right now, as much as we can.

Joe:      It will save the world!

Pastor: Careful.  Only Jesus can do that.  But it will change the world, little by little.  It will change us first, which is not a bad thing either.

Joe:      So, we let Jesus save the world, and we let him save us by giving us a taste of the kingdom right now.  And that changes the world.

Pastor: That’s the idea, I think.  And we get to show people what it means to have God at the center so that everybody has enough, everybody is safe, and the love of God flows through us and all around us.

Joe:      Kind of like that tabernacle.

Pastor: Yes.  You might have noticed that Paul calls us God’s temples now.  We are built on the foundation of Jesus, and we are built as the strong, straight walls of a place that offers hope to the world.  God’s love defines our lives because God is our life, and the Law is just the way we live when we live in God’s neighborhood.

Joe:      It’s a lot to think about.

Pastor: And a lot to do.  It would be overwhelming to try and do everything Jesus says at once.  It seems to me that one step at a time is the way to go.

Joe:      I could work on loving my enemies for a few years.  But I guess that is one of the miracles God works in us, huh?  Forgiving and loving our enemies is more than I could ever do, but God can do it through me.

Pastor: Absolutely.  Just start by praying for your enemy.  If you have the chance, try to learn their story.  Once you know what’s going on with them, you might even find yourself sympathizing with them.  God can change their heart, and in the process your heart will most likely change too.

Joe:      I’m not too stubborn to know that my heart getting changed is really a good thing.

Pastor: Good news indeed.  Thanks be to God.

(1)  _________, 2008.  Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms.  Rolf A. Jacobson, ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg), p. 86

You are God’s Field

Matthew 5:21-37; 1 Cor. 3:1-9

Epiphany 6A

I grew up in rural Kossuth County, northeast of here a little over 100 miles.  Although my father was a minister, we were surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans in a parsonage five miles north of Titonka. I became familiar with a few aspects of farming and even got to do chores like gathering eggs and walking beans.  I became aware of the farmers’ habit of checking out each other’s fields as the growing season wore on.  We called that “rubber-necking” from the driver’s seat.  Weedy fields were regarded with disgust.  Plants flattened by storm damage evoked pity.  A farmer’s competency was judged by the condition of his or her fields.

I thought of this when I read the gospel text and the epistle lesson for today.  “You are God’s field,” Paul says.  (1 Cor 3.9)

Our part of the country is a center of agriculture.  It is interesting that the word agriculture is related to other words, like culture, and cult.  When I was in Mali, I talked with my Christian friends about their culte, which refers to their act of worship.  We think of a cult as a negative thing, but it is actually a more neutral word about groups that worship together, and its root is also about tilling the soil.

Culture is also in this word family.  The definition of culture I am interested in today is this: “the sum total of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.”  (www.dictionary.com)  So we talk about the culture of Japan, or of Mexico, or of the United States.  Right now in our home, we feel the drastic differences between the cultures of the U.S. and Mali because of the teenage girls who are living with us.  Ways of managing a household, eating, social contacts, language, and so on are all functions of our different cultures.  We don’t often think about our culture, but it affects us every day.  It forms our commonly held assumptions for living together.

The ideals of our American culture have come to the forefront in the past year.  The ideal of individualism—a very western notion not shared by many other global cultures—is showing its dark side.  For some time we have been wrestling with personal rights vs. the good of the society, and we have different ideas about how that affects our life together in this country, and among the peoples of our world.  We are blessed to enjoy freedom of speech, but this last election had us debating our ideas to the point of viciousness and even violence in a few cases.  A lot of people I talk with feel beat up by the public discourse that was uncivil at best and shameful at worst.  It still feels like a free-for-all while our new administration works through its agenda and opponents respond negatively.

Depending on your point of view, you might even be despairing about the condition of American culture right now.  I read this comment about the U.S. last week:

“…we are doing something to ourselves and to our culture which undercuts the value of all our idealism.  We are fostering the hypocrisy which says that if all our principles are high our practice is irrelevant.  We nurture the deceit that if we know the good it doesn’t matter if we do evil.  We feed the falsehood that those who have heard the gospel of a great society can forget the law of all previous covenants.”[1]

Now here is what is interesting.  The sermon from which that is taken was delivered on June 9, 1968, three days after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Our nation was fraught with anxiety and troubled by upheaval, not unlike the situation we find ourselves in today.  Isn’t it remarkable how timely that sounds forty years later?

One person who has emerged as a commentator on matters of faith these days is Krista Tippett, who interviews theologians, artists, scientists, and social activists about what matters to them and how they understand God’s interaction with humanity.  Having picked the brains of such people for about fifteen years now, she makes an interesting observation herself.

“We chose too small a word in the [sixties]—tolerance—to make the world we want to live in now…But tolerance doesn’t welcome.  It allows, endures, indulges…It doesn’t ask us to care for the stranger.  It doesn’t even invite us to know each other, to be curious, to be open to be moved or surprised by each other.”[2]

We settled for too small an ideal, and now many are realizing that what we need is love.  Yes, even in the public square, where the word has been overused, abused, and rendered virtually meaningless.  In our efforts to be tolerant, we didn’t do the hard work of listening to and even entering one another’s stories, to sit with each other’s wounds, to let compassion be cultivated within us out of our mutual brokenness.  What we really need is love.

What does this have to do with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and today’s gospel from Matthew 5?  We are members of our culture.  Individualism and superficial tolerance have been cultivated in us from without, and we gather for worship today with all of that virtually running in our veins.  Our cultural ideals influence the culture of a congregation.  We know that the values of the kingdom of God are different from those of our society, but we don’t realize how deeply those anti-kingdom ideals are embedded within us.

And so, when we find ourselves interpreting the Bible in different ways about say, sexuality or consumerism or pro-life/pro-choice debates, we find ourselves copying the behaviors of our politicians and talk show hosts.  When we are troubled by the attitudes and actions of our presidential candidates, we find ourselves empty-handed, lacking the tools for civil conversations.

But, “You are God’s field.”

What have we cultivated within the church?  What is the culture that people observe when they visit this particular congregation?  What is valued among God’s people, here?

Jesus began his ministry with preaching, probably because nothing less than prophecy was needed to counter the religious values that had evolved through the Temple system.  Temple taxes were crippling the poor.  Rigid Sabbath laws and purity laws could be paralyzing.

Jesus had to re-interpret the Law as God’s love ideal.  He had to turn the people’s gaze—our gaze—away from the indicators of success in both religion and society, toward the purest examples of trust and love that he could find: the poor, the meek, those who mourned or who suffered persecution or felt desperate to know God.

We call his blessing on such people the Beatitudes.  Then Jesus went into detail about how those blessed people behave.  How do they embody the values of the kingdom of God?  How do God’s beloved people show forth God’s values to the world God loves?

We are God’s beloved, so this is supposed to be a description of us.  What do God’s people do?  For one thing, Matthew 5 says we don’t let our anger get the best of us.  We won’t even call anybody a fool, because we have learned that how you regard people makes a big difference.  If you see someone only as a threat, you will probably want to do them harm.  Anger is the seed of murder.  About adultery: If you see a woman only as an object of lust, you will not treat her with dignity.  Regarding divorce: If you treat your wife as a commodity to suit your needs, to be discarded on a whim, you reveal that you have no compassion, no love for her.

How we treat each other matters, whether it is your co-workers at the office, your fellow church members, or your family.  Because with each word, each action, you are planting a seed of love or of resentment.  You are either cultivating life or hastening some kind of death, whether it is actual murder or the death of a relationship, or the death of someone’s hope.

“Choose life!” Moses told the people.  (Deut 30.19)  The blessings and curses are laid out for you.  What will you decide?  It is a choice we make every day, whether to see one another with compassion as God sees us, or with our defenses at the ready, and thus cultivate hearts that are at war with one another.

Jesus pointed out one of the symptoms of a sick society, a depraved culture.  Anti-kingdom-of-God, we could say.  It is one where yes can be twisted into no, and no can be perceived as yes.  A place and time when you have to add oaths to your promises, because people are so accustomed to having them broken.

Let’s take this one step further.  Your faith as an individual affects the faith of this community at St. Mark.  Every step you take toward God or away from God affects the person sitting next to you in the pew.  Your trust in God or lack of it will contribute or take away from the corporate faith of this body, because we are all connected, or should be as God’s people.

And to be connected takes time.  It takes a second look.  Jesus said that how we see each other and behave toward one another matters!  Whether we see each other as Republicans vs. Democrats, public school vs. private school, gay or straight, rich or poor, in other words, simply labeling each other and not going to the trouble of hearing each other’s stories.

Friends, our world is fractured.  Our society is overcome by tension and bewilderment.  If we as God’s people do not show them what it is to love, to speak and listen to one another graciously, where else will they get their examples?  They need to see what love, what real community looks like.  Especially the children.  Especially the children. 

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are not alone.  We are together in this great laboratory called the church, which God created to plant and cultivate the seeds of love in our world.  We are on mission together to plant these seeds near and far, wherever hope is missing, wherever love can heal and make life flourish.

Every word, every action matters.  You are either salty, or you’re not, Jesus said.  You are my field, my city set on a hill.  You can’t hide from the world or take a day off from cultivating the love I pour into you and expect you to spread freely.

It isn’t too hard for you, Moses said.  God’s mandate to love is spelled out in the Law, which is not that hard, folks.  It is not encoded on some mysterious stone to be pursued like Indiana Jones seeking the lost ark.  It is not across a wide sea.  I put it right there in your heart, God says.  It’s right there.

And your neighbor is right there too.  Right beside you in church, in your car, in your classroom, at your table.  See them as I see them, says Jesus, and let love be the operative force in each moment.  You are God’s field, after all.  People are watching.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Thor Hall, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” in Sermons from Duke Chapel, 2005.  William H. Willimon, ed. (Durham and London: Duke University Press), p. 100.

[2] Tippett, Krista, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living, 2016. (New York: Penguin Press), p. 15-16.

Getting There

Matthew 5:13-20

Epiphany 5A

One of the reasons I love living in rural Iowa is the simplicity of it.  Do you ever go to a big city and enjoy the sights, maybe take in a major league ballgame or a concert, shop at a big mall, but then get home and feel grateful that you don’t have to go through traffic like that every day?  I live in Spencer, where it takes five minutes to go to the grocery store, ten minutes maximum to get to the mall.  I love it.

In some of those urban areas you can find yourself in a spaghetti works of on ramps and off ramps.  There have been times when I could see where I wanted to get to, but it was confusing how to get there.  Ever done that?

Religion can seem like that sometimes.  You know that you want to get to God, but there are different ideas about how to get there.  We could say that about different world religions, but I think it can be the case with Christianity itself too.

Now the goal of Christianity isn’t what you might think.  Maybe you have always heard that going to heaven when you die is the point.  But that is not the message of the Bible; it is a popular notion that gradually emerged over time.  Not that going to heaven is a bad thing; of course it isn’t, and we all want to end up there.

The Scriptures show us that the main idea of our faith is to have a close relationship with God, or as some would say it, union with God.  Think about it.  The easy, beautiful relationship that Adam and Eve enjoyed is what we lost and what we are trying to get back to.  Jesus made it sound like a place: the kingdom of God.  But if you think about it, the kingdom, or reign, of God is about things being restored to the way they were meant to be in the first place.  God in charge of everything not in an autocratic way, but in a state of love and mutual care for one another.  When you read in the Bible about the way God wants us to treat each other, that is what it looks like.  Share the goods so everybody has enough.  Treat each other with respect and compassion.  That sort of thing.

I’m going to do something today that I don’t often do in a sermon.  I’m going to start at the end and work backward, at least in the gospel text.  If you think of it as that situation with the on ramps and off ramps, I’m starting at the end point and working backward to where we are right here.

So, the kingdom of God is where we end up in Matthew 5:13-20.  Jesus tells his hearers, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v. 20)  Wow.  So to participate in this life of goodness and closeness to God, we have to be better than the scribes and Pharisees.  They were experts at keeping the Law.  They were the best!  How can we better than they were?

We can’t.  So what are we supposed to do with the Law?  Jesus said it is here for good.  It will not be rescinded.  No compromises or write-downs.  And if you teach anybody to disobey it, you are in big trouble.  So we’re stuck with it, right?

But Jesus said something else about the Law besides the fact that it remains the standard and always will be until “all is accomplished.”  He also said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  He himself came to fulfill them.  I wonder what that means.

Well, we read the words of one of the prophets this morning, the prophet Isaiah.  Chapter 58 has the prophet describing a sort of half-hearted attempt by the people to seek God and please God.  It sounds sincere enough at first: “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’”

The people think they are doing everything right, but they still don’t have the sense that God is drawing near to them or guiding them.  “What’s wrong?” they ask God.  “Aren’t we worshiping the way you told us to?”

We get our answer in verse 4 and following:

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. 5Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 6Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

Aha.  It is like something else I read in one of the prophets: “The people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”  God judges the people’s hearts by the way they behave toward one another, and especially in the way they behave toward people who need their help.

Loosing the bonds of injustice, breaking the yoke, sharing bread with the hungry, helping the homeless and the naked.  That is the way to the kingdom.  That actually is the kingdom, right?  The way to get near to God is to follow this kind of path, the path that goes past the hurting ones but doesn’t actually pass them by.  So, to get to God from where you are means you go the way of caring for people in need.

Sounds like somebody we know: Jesus.  Right?  (Remember, the answer must be Jesus this time.)  This is exactly the kind of thing Jesus tells us to do.  He doesn’t tell us to make sure we are singing the right songs on Sunday mornings or have our theological concepts lined up “just so.”  He says, go help the poor.

If you think I am reading my kingdom map the wrong way, take a look at what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians.  Paul says, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  He goes on to say that it is the Holy Spirit who shows us what’s what, in powerful ways.

Paul says there are lots of opinions about what matters in this world, including the opinions of the rulers of this age (like presidents and prime ministers, we could say).  But they don’t know, Paul says.  Even he himself can’t describe the life God wants for us: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  Only the Spirit—which is the Spirit of Jesus himself—can show us this.

Again, there we have it.   Keeping the Law doesn’t get us to God.  Believing precisely the right doctrines don’t get us to God.  Jesus is the wisdom of God (John 1), and his Spirit leads us to God.  Not only that, but it is the crucified Jesus, the one who let himself be killed for preaching justice and forgiveness instead of saying the Pharisees had it all together.  The way to God is through Jesus, who fulfills the Law and the prophets.

But now I am going to show you something on the map that might surprise you.  I’m still going backward in the gospel lesson, in Matthew 5.  Jesus is explaining that he came to show us the way through the Law and the prophets to God.  But why is he telling us this?  Because he has just told us that we are the salt of the earth.  We are a city set on a hill.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.

Huh.  The way to God is through Jesus.  But the way to Jesus is through…us.  Because we are following Jesus, the way that others will locate him is through us.  We do what Jesus does: caring, feeding, helping, being the good news.  Acting as though the kingdom is already in place, because it is.  Jesus said it.  He told his apostles that when they went out to preach and heal, they were to say that the kingdom of God has come near (Luke 10:9).  God has already overtaken our hearts and is operating within us, through us.  Through you and me!

Wow.  No wonder that blew the lid off everything and got Jesus killed.  What kind of God would trust us to show everyone God’s ways?  The kind of God who would die for us, that’s who.  The kind of Son who breaks himself open and offers his life to us every single day.  The kind who tells us to take up our crosses and follow him, so we can get busy and live the wonderful life God meant for us to live in the first place.  And then to be Pied Pipers leading the way across the ridiculous mess of roads that get so many people off track, all the way through to Jesus, to God, to the life that is truly life.

Receive this life, this power, this purpose from Jesus himself today as you partake of the feast at his table.  Jesus gives us what we need to be salt, and light, and guides in the kingdom.   He gives us himself.  Thanks be to God.

Mercy and Purity of Heart

Matthew 5:7-8; 18:23-35

Epiphany 4

             Heidi Baker found Luis on the street.  He was very sick, but he was also very angry because bandits had burned him and his house.  Now, the house was only a cardboard box, but the bandits had tied a rope around it while he was sleeping, poured gasoline on it, set it on fire, and left him to die.  Luis had to spend many months in the hospital recovering from the burns.  He was sick, diseased, and furious about being treated so badly.

Luis had made his living stealing and beating people up or knifing them.  Now his misery brought him to a place of complete brokenness.  He had nothing, and he was filthy and helpless.  Heidi spent time with him and became his friend.  Luis was eighteen years old.

Heidi told Luis about Jesus who had given up his riches and his home and walked the streets.  She described how Jesus left heaven and came to earth to find Luis.  She told him that Jesus loved him deeply.  Luis said, “I must know this man.”

Things changed very slowly for Luis.  His new Christian friends gave him clothes and a home and tried to show him mercy.  Then one day, Luis came to Heidi and said, “Mama Aida, I am going to come with you to the street and tell those guys who tried to kill me that I forgive them.”

He did forgive the bandits, and he went on to show great mercy to many others on the streets.  The kindness of God poured through his life.[1]

Luis’s story sounds very different from the man in Jesus’ parable.  The servant who was forgiven ten thousand talents did not have a clue how much he was forgiven.  Jesus used an amount that didn’t even make sense; it was more money than many hundreds of people would make in a lifetime.  The servant could never have repaid the debt.

Luis knew how much he had done wrong.  He knew he didn’t deserve God’s love, but it was his anyway through Jesus who died for him.  And he had to pass it along to people who owed him a great debt too.

If Luis could do that, what about you?  Can God do a work of mercy through you?  Blessed are the merciful, Jesus says, for they will be shown mercy.

I have tried to get a grasp on this beatitude.  Why is our receiving mercy dependent on giving it to others?  The only way I can figure it is this.  When we open our hands to help someone else, to give aid to them or to offer a hand in forgiveness, our hands remain open to receive God’s mercy.  Our hands are ready for receiving when they are used to giving.  They are open hands.

Lack of mercy binds us with fear and pain.  It closes off our freedom to enjoy life and to love each other.  It creates barriers of resentment and fear among us and especially in our relationship with God. This is not the way we are meant to be with each other.  It is not what God wants in relationship with us.  That is why Jesus died on the cross: to release us from the terrible bonds of fear and resentment and pain.  He cuts through all of that, releasing us from the compulsion to hold on to our pain.  He doesn’t want us to live in pain, but in freedom and in love.

“Who can ascend the hill of the Lord?” the psalmist asks.  (Psalm 24) “He who has clean hands and a pure heart.”  We are able to enjoy God’s mercy because Jesus has made us pure, has cleaned us up.  We are not hobbled by shame, not fettered to our resentments, not hesitant because of our fears.  Jesus has shown us how to purify our hands with acts of love.  He has forgiven us everything.  Instead we are treated like royalty!  Think of it.  It is incredible.

Mercy is God’s great impulse, and it is our birthright as God’s adopted children.  But then it is in our DNA, and we cannot act without showing mercy.  It is our life.

Ramadan was a tough little kid when he first came to the children’s center with the Bakers.  He would run around and kick people.  He was miserable.  His early childhood was very bad, and he had never known love.  His parents had died.  He was so full of shame and sadness that he couldn’t look anyone in the eye.

In the Bakers’ home, the children were allowed to get food or Coke from the fridge any time they wanted it.  It was the Bakers’ way of showing these children who had been so deprived and rejected before that they were accepted and loved.  Ramadan had never seen a fridge before, and he would not go near it.  Heidi took him by the hand and told him, “That fridge has a Coke in it.  You can go get that Coke whenever you want it.”   She also told him, “Ramadan, I’m going to tuck you in and sing you a song.  I will look you in the eyes, and I will love you.”

God began to transform that little boy’s heart.  Finally, one day Ramadan walked up to the fridge and took the drink.  When he opened the fridge door and realized he belonged to the family, joy flooded his heart and spread across his face.  He realized he had full access to that house and that family.[2]

Heidi Baker has observed the behavior of many, many orphans.  She says that orphans are like many of us, competing with each other, comparing and worrying that there is not enough.  We think that if God blesses somebody else, we might miss out.  We are like orphans who stand at the fridge door and wonder if God is going to slap our hands if we dare open it and share in the Father’s food.  We think God might be low on Cokes or might want to save them for someone who is more special, or maybe for us when we are good enough.  But that is the orphan spirit.

We are sons and daughters of a loving God who shows mercy to us.  Those children who come to know Jesus through Iris Ministries in Mozambique soon love Jesus in a way that is pure and beautiful.  They learn to trust God in everything.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” Jesus promised.  We do not have to hold back, hiding in the shadows and watching other people get blessed.  We can come out into the open and love Jesus.  In 1 John we’re told that when Jesus appears, we will be like him.  But we don’t have to wait until he comes.   We can ask him right now to free us from that orphan spirit, the worrying and competing, the rotten motives and false ideas about God.

Only when we let Jesus purify us can we see him clearly.  As he purifies our hearts, he improves our vision.  Our favorite scene is not a sunset or a rainbow, a mountain vista or a beautiful beach.  It is the face of Jesus that fills our hearts with joy.  If we have enough courage to lock our gaze on the face of Jesus, his gaze will bless us and give us peace.  His eyes are flames that burn his eternal love in our hearts.[3]

We don’t have to look at the dangers around us or focus on the filthiness of our own sin.  Jesus died so we can look on his resurrected face, a face that can only show love.  His grace is sufficient for us, and we are at home dwelling in him.

The poor children of the ministry in Mozambique are profound teachers of what it means to be pure in heart.  They fall on their faces in worship before Jesus.  They run to him.  Heidi says, “They teach me to stay hidden in God’s heart and to be fully possessed by His sweet presence.”[4]

Crispen was about twelve years old when he had a vision during a Friday night chapel service.  “Suddenly he had the vivid experience of something very dark flying out of his heart.  He then saw a brilliant white light come into his heart and explode.  Then he heard a voice say, ‘We are more than conquerors.’”

Crispen went to Heidi and asked if she knew what that meant.  “He was undone by the Holy Spirit; tears were streaming down his face.”

His visions came at a good time.  The leaders were exhausted and discouraged, overwhelmed by needs and corruption and disappointment.  Crispen’s childlike faith gave them God’s reassurance in the midst of great turmoil.  They asked Crispen to pray for them, and even though he was untrained in the Bible, his tearful prayers ministered to them.[5]

I could prepare a sermon that explains the Beatitudes in theologically correct ways.  I could find examples that are closer to home.  But the stories of these children are not too far removed to show us God’s heart.  These children are not different from ourselves; they were just born into much greater suffering.

Here is another beatitude: We are blessed to have the tools to read and hear the stories of these poor children.  They are so close to the heart of God, having come to Jesus with their broken lives and being healed of that brokenness by their beloved friend and Savior.

We are just as needy!  Our hearts are broken too, and none of us has experienced anything worse than these children have—brutality and disease and loss that is too much to fathom.  We might think we don’t have as far to go to reach Jesus, but we are all just as wretched in our sin.

And if they can extend mercy to such fiendish enemies, how can we stand here and say that we have more reason to hold onto our resentments and hatred?  My defenses are completely overtaken by the simple faith and courageous acts of such children.

To think that we will meet them one day in the presence of Jesus!  I look forward to hearing their stories of his miraculous provision and healing.  In their purity of faith, they have seen God, over and over.  May we be able to say the same thing.

Lord Jesus, show us the bonds of resentment, hatred, and pain that are binding us and cutting us off from you and from each other.  Give us courage to name them now.  Cut through them, and release us from them, so we may know your love and share it with one another.  This we ask in your name not because we are worthy, but by the power of your cross.  Amen

[1] Baker, Heidi, 2008.  Compelled to Love.  (Lake Mary, Florida: Charisma House), p. 78-9.

[2] Ibid., p. 98-9.

[3] Ibid., p. 91.

[4] Ibid., p. 90.

[5] Ibid., p. 88-9.

How Will We Make Disciples for Jesus?

Matthew 4:12-23

Epiphany 3A

(Annual Meeting Sunday) 

Here we are again on the Sunday of our annual business meeting, the formalities we need to conduct to make sure we have the leaders we need, and to cross our t’s and dot our i’s to maintain our status as a church in our society.  But the formalities don’t define our unique identity as a congregation.  We are defined in reality by the way we act, the way we communicate, the way we worship together.  Our mission statement is the written form of our intention to act, communicate, and worship in ways that bring people to Jesus:

“Bethlehem Lutheran Church is committed to making Jesus Christ through our thoughts, words, and deeds.”

So, let’s talk about making disciples for Jesus Christ this morning.  We can judge how well we are doing that by fleshing it out a bit.  Because I have the pulpit, I get to interpret what making disciples means.  You might not agree with my take on it, and that is perfectly fine.  Discussing our ideas is the best way for us to understand it and work together.

I’ll use the word “MAKE” as an acronym this morning, an active verb to be sure.         Jesus made disciples out of twelve men, and charged us with making disciples too. (Matt.28:19)  The question we might ask ourselves as a congregation is this:  How can we create an environment for making disciples?  How can we see to it that disciples emerge and are sent forth from our midst?


First, disciples are on the move.  Jesus called Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, who were fishing.  They left their nets and followed Jesus.  They didn’t stay where they were.  Jesus didn’t offer them a correspondence course in being disciples.  He didn’t even train them personally for two years before taking them into ministry.  The disciples had on-the-job training.  You might have noticed that the very next verse after the disciples were called and followed Jesus (Matt. 4:18-22) is this: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” (Matt. 4:23)

Last week I attended a Lutheran pastors’ meeting, and the week before that I attended a Reformed pastors’ retreat.  The frustration voiced by so many was this: people are willing to study the Bible, but so many of them won’t go and do what the Bible says.  What’s the point of the Bible if we keep it all to ourselves?  We don’t get to see the amazing things God will do if we never step out in faith to obey.

There are good examples of learning on the go.  Our Wednesday afternoon education program is far more organized and effective and fun than it was five years ago when we simply stepped out in faith to try what we sensed the Holy Spirit was calling us to do.  Seventy kids in the building can be pretty noisy and even seemed chaotic at times.  We have learned effective ways of helping the children learn the stories of the Bible, how to pray, how to worship.  We still have a lot to learn, but we didn’t wait until we had the perfect methods.  Children are coming to Jesus now, and there is no time to lose.

We will learn on the job in our newest mission venture, in southeastern India.  We are helping the Girls’ School with their operating needs as well as a new garden to help them become more self-sustaining.  Can we send people there?  Of course, if we have the will and God makes a way for us.  Will we learn about the awesome power of God in new ways?  Absolutely.  But we have to take the first steps.

We are not called to have all the answers.  We are called to follow, which is another active verb.  Jesus shows us the way as we go.  It is an adventure with promises built in, that we will not be stranded or without power.  The Holy Spirit is in us, ahead of us, among us.  We can trust the Spirit while we are on the move.

The question for each of us is this: Are you on the move, or are you creating weight for other people to carry?  My challenge to you is to be actively supporting at least one ministry of our congregation, and to be actively following Jesus to have an impact on your circle of influence outside these walls.  Be on the move for Jesus.

Be Aware

We can be sure that one of the most basic and important things the disciples did was to watch Jesus.  They had to be aware that he was different from any rabbi, even the most respected rabbis up to that point.  Jesus taught with authority.  He commanded demons and diseases and forces of nature with authority.  He loved people with authority.  They were following someone who could give them that same authority, and they knew it was real.  They experienced his power when the Holy Spirit filled them at Pentecost and when they taught and healed people in Jesus’ name.

Students of a rabbi want to be like their teacher, so they watch him closely, and do their best to emulate him.  By the time Jesus rose from the dead, they could draw no other conclusion than the fact that he was the Son of God.

We, too, need to ask the question, “How do we see God at work?”  I see God at work when you greet each other and promise to pray for one another.  When you rise to confess your faith.  When you make meals for Aaron and Amanda.  When you stitch quilts, and meet for breakfast, and drive someone to the hospital, and write checks for youth trips and mission projects, and teach the children.

A story about disciples, and fishing for people.  During the civil rights movement of the last century, there was a large church in the South that was striving to serve the people of the community through an after-school tutoring program for children who lived across the street in government housing.  One of these children was an African-American girl named Twila Fortune.

Twila and her mother, Winifred Bryant, began to visit Sunday School and joined in Sunday worship.  That should have been cause for rejoicing.  We could say that two fish had jumped out of the water into the boat.  But in the eyes of some people, these weren’t the right kind of fish.  Their color and social status was off.

After several years of visiting, Twila told her mother that she was ready to make her profession of faith and be baptized.  Winifred contacted the pastor, and he came to visit them in their home.

In that church’s tradition, a vote of the membership was required to receive new members.  When Twila and Winifred went forward, they were told that the church wasn’t receiving new members at that time.  Over the next few weeks with many late night discussions, their application for membership was presented three times, and was voted down every time.

After the third vote, a layman named Dr. Byrn Williamson stood up during worship and said he wanted to talk with anyone who would like to be part of a church that welcomes people like Twila and Winifred.  Something unexpected happened.  Three hundred other lay people stood with Dr. Williamson and walked out of the sanctuary to start a new church where all God’s people are loved and accepted.  That church is still on mission for Jesus Christ.[i]

We might not always recognize when God is at work, but the first disciples didn’t realize it at first either.  If we stick with Jesus, we will get it eventually!  How do you see God at work among the people of Bethlehem, and in your own life?  What better way to be Jesus’ disciples than to show up where the action is and pitch in?

Know Christ and Make Him Known

We read in Psalm 27 today (verse 8) one of the most beautiful expressions of faith in the Scriptures:  “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”  No doctrine or person or experience can match the peace and joy that is ours when we simply gaze on the face of our Lord.  Even though we cannot see him, we know him.  He is the one who loves us perfectly, who died for us and gives us life.

Paul told the Corinthian church that they had to be “united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” (1 Cor. 1:10)  Nothing can hold us together the way Jesus can.  Because we all need his forgiveness and receive it without condition, we are on equal footing.  Our purpose to serve him and those he loves is the same purpose, with millions of different versions.

Paul said that the cross of Jesus is our source of power.  The love of Jesus who doesn’t lord it over us but instead serves us is what compels us to love.  Jesus said his whole message, his whole purpose was love, and so that is our purpose too.

As an orchestra warms up for a concert, the concertmaster rises and plays a note.  Every single musician tunes their instrument to that note.  They make beautiful music when they are all in tune.

How do we know Christ?  By following him, and letting the Word of God shed light on our way together.  We have to be students of the Scriptures, not just so that we can know a lot about God.  We need to be in the Word because the world needs the Word!  The world needs Jesus, and we know him by studying the gospels and living it, on the move together.

Have you spent time with Jesus lately?  I’ll ask the question I posed to the children last Sunday.  “What do you like about Jesus?”  (Time allowed for answers.)

Every Hour, Every Dollar

Sometimes I wonder if the way the disciples followed Jesus keeps us from following him as fully as we should.  I know I’ve often thought, well, they left their work and followed Jesus, but of course they were the chosen twelve in a special time.  We can’t do that today—leave everything behind to follow Jesus.

The funny thing is, there are a lot of people these days who do that.  And they aren’t only the people in full time ministry of some kind.  Lots of people in agriculture and business and education and social work and technology and the arts have dedicated every part of their lives to following Jesus Christ.  And that is as it should be.  God doesn’t need 3 billion pastors and missionaries and Christian college teachers.  God needs farmers and teachers and parents and computer programmers who ask, “How can I serve the world God loves with my work today?  How can I use my gifts to bless Jesus in the church?  In my family?”

Those fishermen that Jesus called to be his disciples started fishing for people.  Jesus taught them how to use their time and their fishing skills to reach people with the good news of God’s forgiveness.  Matthew was a tax collector.  You can bet he used some of his business savvy to talk with people about God’s love.  Paul was not just an evangelist; he was a tanner.  Do you think he stopped talking about Jesus when he was busy scraping hides?

As a congregation, we have to ask ourselves whether we are totally committed to serving Jesus as his disciples.  Every hour, every dollar we spend needs to serve our mission to make disciples.  If we find ourselves serving traditions instead of the Lord, we are wasting our time and money.  If sacred cows like styles of worship or social norms are getting in the way of reaching people, we’d better think hard about them.

The question we might ask ourselves at the annual meeting time of year is this: “Are our structures and ways of being together  supporting or not supporting our mission to make disciples for Jesus Christ?  How can we get better at it so every hour, every dollar is spent for the mission of reaching people for Jesus Christ?”

One final story about the disciples, and fishing, from John 21.  Remember what happened after Jesus was crucified, and the disciples did not yet know he was risen?  Peter and his friends went fishing.  They fished all night long, without catching one fish.

Then Jesus showed up on the shore.  He told them to cast their nets in another place.  They didn’t think there were any fish there, but they were wrong.  Once again Jesus surprised them with his authority and his knowledge.  The nets were almost too heavy to haul in.

Hey, we know what that’s like.  When we first opened our doors for children on Wednesday afternoons, we didn’t know what to do with all of them!  But with God’s help, we figured it out.  What a joy, to see children coming to faith in Jesus.  Was it like that for the founders of this congregation?  Did they have to figure it out too?  Of course they did.  The problem comes when we think what worked 125 years ago or 50 years ago is what will still work today.

Do we get stuck fishing the same way, in the same place?  Do we assume there aren’t any fish to be caught where we are?  I think we’re learning that there are people who don’t know Jesus right next door.  We work with them.  Our kids go to school with them.  And “them” is supposed to become part of “us.”  At least we can invite them.

Jesus made disciples out of ordinary people.  He tells us to do the same thing, to let him make us into disciples, and to make disciples of our children and our neighbors.  And so that is our purpose.  We need to keep moving, keep looking for what God is doing, keep Jesus at the center, and spend everything we have for the greatest cause the world has ever known: to make disciples for our wonderful Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

[i] Scott Hoezee, “Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B,” The Lectionary Commentary.  Cited by The Rev. Sarah Jackson Shelton, http://day1.org/1326-the_sleeping_jesus.

Knowing Enough                                         

John 1:29-42

Epiphany 2A

 In a cathedral in Copenhagen, Denmark, there is a famous and beloved statue of Jesus by Bertel Thorvaldsen.  After he finished his work, the artist stood back to admire the figure of Jesus with arms reaching upward in a triumphant pose.  After he left the clay to dry and harden, conditions overnight affected the sculpture drastically.  A sea mist crept into the studio and caused the arms and head to droop, leaving the figure of Christ in a posture of gentle invitation.

At first the artist was upset by the damage.  But as he gazed on the transformation, he gradually realized that this was a version of Jesus Christ he needed to consider and appreciate.  He left it in its changed form, and it has inspired millions ever since.[i]

We all have different perspectives on Jesus.  In this passage alone, Jesus is called Lamb of God, Son of God, Rabbi, and Messiah.  What are some other names for Jesus that you can think of?  (Examples would be Name Above All Names; bread of life, Lion of Judah, Rose of Sharon, way/truth/life, good shepherd, Redeemer, Lord)

At various stages in our lives, we see Jesus differently as a result of our own growth and experiences.  We come to appreciate the many characteristics of Jesus Christ.  In times of stress we might focus on Jesus’ invitation from the gospel of Matthew: “come unto me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  (Matthew 11:28)  Jesus is a comfort in such times.

When you are confused, perhaps troubled by the actions of a co-worker, or upset by a fellow student who asks you to cheat for her, you might turn to Jesus as your good shepherd, trusting him to guide you in what feels like darkness.

In times of joy–the birth of a child, a breakthrough in a tense relationship, a new job you worked hard to obtain–you might give thanks to Jesus for bringing new life where things seemed dead or hopeless.

When you are sick, Jesus appears as your healer, and as your companion, your Immanuel (God with us).  When you keep vigil at the bedside of someone you love as they are dying, or as you approach your own death, the presence of Jesus your Savior resonates and calms you.

When shame threatens to paralyze or isolate you, Jesus your Redeemer comes to the fore.  His cross of forgiveness stands out in stark relief.  It can save your life.

But our experiences can also betray us, skewing our images of Jesus so that we operate from false assumptions about Jesus.  There are those parents who use the idea of God to threaten their children into submission, and unwittingly drive them from Christianity once they have grown to adulthood.  Uninformed notions of Jesus as a wimpy, romantic ideal can throw you off when you hit a rough patch.  Jesus as a buddy is another notion that won’t serve you well when you need him to speak into your life with authority, when repentance is what you need most.  If you never face the suffering of Jesus honestly, never wrestle with unanswered questions about him, you will need to deepen your relationship on those terms.

John the Baptist himself wasn’t sure of Jesus’ identity, even though he was charged with preparing the way for him. He recognized who Jesus was when the Holy Spirit came to rest on him.  John didn’t really grasp who Jesus was—or we could say the jury was still out–even after Jesus’ ministry revealed his power and authority.

The disciples themselves were confused too.  Imagine being one of them.  Someone who looks just like your neighbor back in Nazareth is being hailed as the long-awaited Messiah.  It seemed as though Jesus often spoke in riddles.  It is no surprise that the enormity of Jesus’ identity was lost on them when they were with him.  We have the benefit of centuries of theology, but the disciples were figuring this out in real time.

So, what do we need to know about Jesus?  Through the benefit of hindsight, we know much more than Jesus’ first disciples did when they chose to follow him.  Surely we know enough, that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins.  We often point to the fact that the thief on the cross knew enough for salvation in his brief encounter with Jesus.  We know enough to tell others about Jesus, just as Andrew went and got his brother and told him, “We have found the Messiah.”

We might wonder if we know enough about Jesus to share our faith with other people.  Do we compare it with advertising, maybe?  The best form of advertising ever invented wasn’t invented at all.  It is known as word of mouth.  People telling other people.  We trust our friends and family to tell us what works, what is worth our time and effort.

That is what the makers of the old Packard automobiles relied on several decades ago.  They were the last auto makers to get into advertising.  Whenever somebody approached Mr. Packard about buying ads, he said, “Don’t need any; just ask the man who owns one.”  After he died, that became the company’s first advertising slogan: “Just ask the man who owns one.”[ii]

We are not selling a product, but telling other people about Jesus can be as simple as the advertising for a Packard.  “Just ask the one who knows Jesus.”  It isn’t so much about what you know or what technique you use; it’s about who you know, and why you love him.  The disciples did not embark on a program of evangelism out of some sense of obligation.  They told everyone who would listen about Jesus because they loved him, and because they had witnessed the love and person of Jesus breaching the boundaries of death.  This was the most amazing shift in reality and religion the world had ever known, and they were compelled to tell everyone about it.

Don’t expect other people to see Jesus the same way that you see him.  He comes to each of us as we are and as he is.  Of course there are limits to this.  We have the revealed Scriptures to help us test our understandings, so that an image of Jesus as a psychopath or  a cheese sandwich doesn’t hold up.  On the other hand, we don’t have to dress up the truth about Jesus Christ in order to make him more palatable to our friends.  We know that Jesus will meet each person with compassion, opening up his or her life to the truth about the world, about themselves, and about God.  He does this for one reason: to give us life that is shaped and permeated by the love of God.

The person, presence, and promises of Jesus define our lives and drive every aspect of our lives as his followers.  We can trust him completely in the process.  The Lamb of God sacrificed himself for you and me and everyone throughout all time.  As Paul summed up our testimony about Jesus in Romans 8:31b-32: “If God is for us, who can be against us?  The One who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will  he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” That is what we know about Jesus, and that is enough.  Thanks be to God.

[i] King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com

[ii] Daniel G. Mueller, Just Follow the Signs, CSS Publishing Company

The View from the River

Matthew 3:13-37

The Baptism of Our Lord…First Sunday After the Epiphany

We read about that day in the desert only a few weeks ago, in Advent, as we prepared our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child.  John gave Jesus a big build up: “When I baptize you, it is to get you going on the right way, to turn you away from your death-dealing habits and on your way to the One who will clean you up properly and do away with your wretchedness once and for all.  He is the Real Deal!”

This is how I imagine it.  Jesus arrived while John was busy in the river, blended in with the other sorry souls, and waited for John to recognize him when it was his turn.  “Hold on!” John exclaims, then leans in so that only Jesus can hear.  “You don’t belong in this line.  Let’s start a new line so you can get to work!  And may I be the first to humble myself under your cleansing hand.”

Or something like that.  We often scratch our heads over the fact that Jesus submitted to a rite about turning away from sin.  He did not sin, so why did he get in line?

I think that question puzzles us if we consider God’s work in baptism, and the saving mission of Jesus, to be only about settling accounts.  From sin to no sin, that is the point, right?  Now God can let us into heaven.

The incarnation was about so much more than erasing marks for being naughty.  The psalmist (in Psalm 29) describes God as the One who “thunders over the mighty waters” and “makes Lebanon skip like a calf.” God is not preoccupied with the business of bookkeeping.    God is the One before whom all cry, “Glory!”  Jesus is the agent of God’s scheme to “give strength to [the LORD’s] people…to bless his people with peace.”

Jesus got into the river with humans, experienced the sensation of water washing over him, sensed the humility of those around him, the joy of those who felt release from their burden of shame.  As he made his way out of the water, he saw heaven opened, and the Spirit dove gliding down the rays of God’s glory from the heavens to his own body.  He heard that mysteriously powerful, familiar voice blessing him with the peace and strength and love he would need in order to move forward into ministry.  He would need the memory of that moment as he made his way among the people he came to bless.

Did he have to go through that river in order to see and hear the presence of God-with-him?  Could he have had that epiphany while walking in the streets of Nazareth?  I wonder what he meant when he said that he had to be baptized in order to “fulfill all righteousness.”

Jesus’ baptism had to be more than a necessary step to be checked off his list as he went about the business of obtaining righteousness for us.  As he proceeded to teach and heal, he demonstrated that living in God’s reign is about so much more than getting a clean slate.  His righteousness involves meekness, poverty, agonizing forgiveness, generosity, compassion.

Jesus couldn’t get his point across by removing himself from the messy and mundane life of humanity.  He did it by getting into the mix, being born in a cow stall, stepping into the muddy river, touching lepers, hanging out with prostitutes and shepherds.  Toward the end of his ministry (Matthew 25:31-46) we find him teaching that real holiness is found in soup kitchens, by hospital beds, in prison visitation lounges.

In my efforts to follow Jesus in this way, I had a frightening, humbling experience.  It happened five years ago in Mali.  (It is where I will be as you read this, God willing.)  I had finished a week of visiting our Luke Society partner Indielou as well as my friend Bibi who runs an orphanage in the capital city of Bamako.

On the day of my departure, I arrived at the airport too late for my flight to Senegal.  I scrambled to purchase a ticket on the next plane an hour later.  It was a harrowing experience to negotiate this in French when I was feeling anxious.  Finally, I was cleared to approach the gate area, but I had one more barrier to cross.  A tall man in camouflage and holding an automatic weapon scowled at this flustered American woman as I struggled with heavy luggage on my own.  He quizzed me on my reason for visiting his country.

This man had no business making me struggle with an explanation and making me feel small, but I had to get past him nevertheless.  By the time I made it to the gate, I was shaken and emotionally exhausted.

The most significant part of that experience was after I finally boarded a plane and settled in for the short flight west.  As I gazed out the window at the clouds, I realized that, even if I had gotten into real trouble–even if I faced real danger in the process–I was willing to do it again.  It would not deter me from going back.  That was a very freeing moment.  It was a spiritual experience that was very grounded in my heart, mind, and body.  I knew that God would not forsake me, but would give me the courage and ability to get through whatever God would call me to do in the future, frightening or otherwise.  It felt like a threshold I had crossed, a kind of baptism.  I could not have reached that conviction without those fearsome moments at the airport.

Make no mistake: my initial motives for going to western Africa were not purely altruistic; one of my failings is the desire to be the hero.  But it only takes a few hours in a developing country to realize that the challenges are enormous, complex, and deeply embedded in the culture.  Heroics won’t help anybody, least of all the erstwhile hero.

Neither was Jesus a hero, not of the popular variety.  The needs he came to see up close and to experience alongside us were not the type a hero could address with a flourish and be on his way.  He had to walk with us, feel the desperation of our condition, endure the brutality of the only solution.  He had to go through the baptism of humanity to get him to the baptism of suffering, and then to see with unmistakable clarity the cross that would take us beyond it all.

It is one of the many paradoxes of suffering as a servant: it has the potential to make you stronger and more determined to keep going.  Perhaps my epiphany on a flight to Senegal was not unlike Jesus’ view from the river after he went through the water with everyone else.  The glory of God, the reassurance that he was on the right track, the clouds parting to give him the clarity and courage he would need to face what lay ahead, these were granted to him as he launched his mission in a muddy river among ordinary people.

Mystery and Certainty

Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12

Epiphany…January 6

Life is full of mysteries.  If you have email, you’ve read some silly ones.  Examples: if you own land, do you own it all the way down to the center of the earth?  Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of a bottle?  Can you cry under water?  And is the Hoky Poky really what it’s all about?

One could argue that life is shaped by the questions we seek to answer.  Examples: How can I be ensured of the best future for my children?  What is the quickest way to make a lot of money?  Can I be happy even though I am challenged by a disability?

Nobody would argue that our faith holds much mystery, and we need to tolerate our unanswered questions in order to have faith in God.  William Broderick is a former monk who writes mysteries.  The detective hero is himself a monk, and he is visiting a young woman who had lost a dear friend.  In response to her questions, he advises, “if you keep listening, you…don’t get any answers, but more often than not, the questions slip out of reach and cease to be questions.  The bad news is that it takes about ten years.”  The woman responds, “Thanks.  And what about the ones that stay?”  The monk replies, “We’ve a choice—either the whole shebang’s absurd…or it’s a mystery.”

We have to be satisfied to know that we will never learn the answers to all of our questions about God.  In fact mature faith has been defined as the ability to live with the paradoxes, the mysteries of faith.  I like what Rainer M. Rilke said about this: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart.  And try to love the questions themselves.  Do not seek the answers that cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing, live along some distant day into the answer.”

In our time, mystery is considered a puzzle to be solved.  We live in a scientific age, where observation and experimentation often lead to resolution.  The diseases that don’t have a cure?  We assume that someday down the road, science will provide an answer.  In the meantime, the mysteries nag at us.

Yet for the Ephesians to whom Paul was writing, mystery was not a negative thing.  It was a treasure to be revealed.  The mystery Paul shared with them was that the salvation God offers through Jesus Christ is for all who believe, not just the Jews.  That was news, a mystery revealed, back then.  It was a big deal.

There is mystery in the story of the magi we read in Matthew 2.  These were people skilled in strange arts.  They made calculations about the signs they saw in the heavens, and so their conclusions led them to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  We wonder whether they knew anything at all about the child they sought.  For the people Matthew was writing to, it was a true mystery: Gentiles came to worship a king of the Jewish people.  Gentiles!  And what would compel them to travel so far on their quest?

At the end of the magi’s quest, they found what they were looking for.  They worshipped the child Jesus and offered him precious gifts.  Then they lived up to their nickname “wise men” and skedaddled out of Herod’s orbit before he could use them to find Jesus, or worse, kill them for the knowledge they possessed.

We celebrate Epiphany today, the revelation of Jesus to the world.  The magi represent the world, having come from a far country.  The word “epiphany” itself is defined as “a sudden, intuitive … insight into the … essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence….” (www.dictionary.com)

It is an “aha” moment.  Has this happened to you lately?  You read a sentence that captures the meaning of your life just as you would say it if you could.  You step into a room or onto a path or out of the office and suddenly the world feels whole and safe and good.  You glance at your spouse casually and suddenly you are taken back to your youth, and you see them again afresh, your new love, only more vivid and real and cherished now than you ever perceived before.

Everything falls into place in a moment of epiphany.  The birth of Jesus is just that kind of event, because he makes sense of all that comes before him.  The exiles who were suffering, yearning to return home, were encouraged by the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” (Isaiah 60:1-2)

Neither they nor the prophet himself knew that the one who would embody all their hopes would arrive in the person of an infant.  But God offered the always-intended solution to their troubles, and Jesus’ arrival formed the shape of their yearning many years later.  Everything after Jesus was illuminated by his birth too.  Jesus was the “new thing” God had promised to bring to pass, and his cross established God’s mercy toward us for all time.

We love those epiphanies.  “…the veil parts, we see the not-yet now, we glimpse the mystery and beauty at the heart of all that is, we see things as they really are and not as they usually appear.”[1]  An “aha” moment makes everything crystal clear, but it only lasts that long—a moment.  For some reason our native air in this life is mystery.

The vastness and other-worldly nature of God require that we remain ignorant for the most part.  We could not grasp the realities of God any more than a fish can imagine riding a camel.  In quiet moments we experience the mystery as an unnamed yearning, an awareness that there is more that we are made to be connected with somehow.

But there is paradox here.  We have been taught that mystery is the realm of things we cannot know.  Yet God has chosen to be revealed to us in many ways, in many times.  Another way to regard mystery is that it is infinitely knowable.  The whole is out of our reach, yet we continue to glimpse the parts, one at a time, seeing enough to reassure us that God is there, and wanting more.  Always wanting more.

Living with mystery is what faith and trust are made of.  Once we realize that mystery is not a cosmic puzzle to be solved on a deadline, that it can coexist with faith just fine, we find that it actually frees us.  We don’t have to know all the answers, prove every point, control information and every other aspect of our lives.  This freedom is possible because we trust the One who holds all the mysteries in tension, and reveals the truth we need to know at the time we need to know it.

Lest we become too enamored with mystery itself, it is important to remember that there is a difference between mystery and ignorance.  Knowing God as God has chosen to be revealed is our joy in life.  Shrugging our shoulders and bumbling through life without the benefit of a relationship with the living God simply because it takes effort is a poor substitute for faith.  That’s not mystery; it’s just lazy.

We love certainty though, don’t we?  It is so satisfying to understand, finally, what has escaped us.  Yet certainty is rare in the life of faith.  We are given what we need.  The danger is assuming that we have been given more than we have.  We can fall into the trap of being certain of what we have learned, what we have calculated and researched, even what God may have allowed us to discover in an “aha” moment.  Be careful about certainty.  It can close your heart to whatever God wants to show you next.

There are so many things about which we want to be certain, but we cannot.  The Scriptures do not tell us everything.  Perhaps God has made it that way so that our minds will not be overwhelmed with more than we can bear.  But these things are clear: a star, a cross, an empty tomb.  A bit of bread in your hand and the taste of wine on your lips to keep your senses tuned to the mystery we depend on.  And this: the love at the heart of the universe came to us as a baby, and that love calls you.  Like the magi, you must heed the call, or be lost.

[1] Kimberlee Conway Ireton, “Waking to Mystery,”  Weavings (Vol. XXI, No. 1), p. 22.

Living Between Dreams and Danger

Matthew 2:13-23…Christmas 1A

Some years ago my husband and I traveled to Rome to visit our daughter as she spent a semester there for her degree in design.  We relished the opportunity to walk in the Forum and imagine the Caesars there, to picture the people jostling for seats in the coliseum, and to view the great works of art like the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica and the many great paintings housed in the Vatican museum.  But we were also sobered as we stood in the Circus Maximus, where not only chariot races entertained the crowds for centuries, but Christians were also martyred for sport as Nero looked on from atop Palatine Hill.

The citizens of the old section of Rome live among these stories.  The historic tension between noble beauty and heinous acts is not unique to Rome, of course.  We walk on bloodied ground to view the relics of great moments in history all over the world, from Jerusalem to Warsaw, from Brazil to Japan, from the Trail of Tears to Timbuktu.  I was once visiting a historic plantation in Louisiana when the guide explained the economic successes enjoyed by the original owners, made possible by “free labor.”  I couldn’t believe my ears.  The suffering of the American slaves was not free; it was extremely costly to them.

Only a week ago we celebrated the great mystery of Christmas, how God became a human being.  We often overlook the cost of the nativity around Christmas time.  Today’s gospel text is a rude awakening, not what we would call gospel–“good news”–by any stretch.  This feels like the sinister, shadowy side of the beloved incarnation story in Luke 2 that was read around the world on Christmas Eve.

Jesus’ birth signaled the radical inbreaking of God into a dark world where those in authority would not yield their power to anyone, least of all an infant.  The magi unwittingly tipped of Herod in their search for the baby.  Herod was a sociopathic, insecure ruler whose wrath exacted a heavy toll on the families of Bethlehem.  He reacted to the news with a horrifyingly specific command to wipe out every young male who might be concealing his royalty in the body of an infant or toddler.

And so, Jesus’ entry into this world was met with more danger than delight.  By the time he was born, Joseph and Mary knew enough to take their dreams seriously when they featured a certain heavenly messenger.  “Get up and get going to Egypt.  You have no time to waste!”  And so they did. They leapt into action and hurried their little son away from Herod’s deadly orbit.  But the others in Bethlehem were not so lucky.

As Malcolm Guite writes in his sonnet titled “Refugee:”

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

(See the entire sonnet below.)


It seems pointless.  There are no satisfying answers.  Herod’s insatiable thirst for power is the only explanation for such a massacre.

From the beginning, then, Jesus’ entry into this world invited reaction.  He challenged the values of the incumbent ruler and threatened his control over the Jews.  And so began a long, storied history of rulers becoming unhinged by Jesus or by his followers.

The danger for believers is just as real today as it was back then.  Syria comes to mind first these days, but the risks are great in other places like North Korea, the south Pacific, Egypt, Pakistan, Mexico.  While there are many stories of hope and rescue, the number of Christian martyrs is still frighteningly high.

This feels a little more personal to me, because I will be leaving for Africa tomorrow.  Last year’s trip was cancelled due to terrorism in the city where I was headed.  I go to western Africa, the country of Mali, for The Luke Society and also to visit a friend who runs an orphanage.

Leaving the U.S. is not a big deal when you go to Paris or the Bahamas for pleasure.  But when you enter countries where gun-toting guards are stationed at every airport, checkpoint, and ATM, you realize how sheltered we are.  Our Luke Society director in Mali, Indielou Dougnon, is not threatened by religious extremists, but they do hold sway over parts of his country.  He has a friend in Mauritania who was killed because of his Christian faith.

Indielou’s work as a nurse and evangelist does put him at risk, though.  The political situation in Mali is not as stable as it used to be, and extremists have made their presence known.  In addition, he lives in a place where the medical care for serious illnesses is dubious at best, and the public schools are dismal.  His family makes great sacrifices to live where they do, because he feels that God will not let him abandon the needs of thousands of Fulani, Pulaar, and Soninke tribespeople.

Yet he and other Christians in Africa are encouraged by testimonies of believers on the continent.  God is still communicating with people in dreams, manifesting the divine presence and provision in the remotest of places.  On my last trip, I met a man who had walked the length of Senegal, having been guided in a dream to the people of God and their faith.  There are countless such stories in Africa, so I assume that God is doing things like this everywhere.

Joseph was guided in a dream to flee to Egypt.  His was not unlike the dreams of that other Joseph centuries before, who ended up in Egypt after his brothers sold him to a passing caravan in order to get rid of him.  He and the prophet Daniel not only had dreams but were given the gift of interpreting them, those dreams being more symbolic and even apocryphal.

I haven’t had any remarkable, divinely populated dreams lately, but maybe you have.  Either way, God does guide us in various ways.  So many of the questions pastors get are along this line: How do I know what I’m doing next is God’s will?  Just this week I got this promotion for a book on the subject: I Didn’t Sign Up for This: Navigating Life’s Detours.  Sounds like a book Joseph might have appreciated.

I’ve taken to answering people’s questions about God’s will this way.  If God wants us to be obedient, then wouldn’t God love it when we ask for guidance?  Might not God make it pretty clear what we are to do at some point, if we are patient?  And if we aren’t getting a clear message, then maybe it’s OK to do what your best judgment leads you to do.  Do it, move on, and don’t second guess yourself.  God knows your heart, and will not penalize you as though we are in some kind of cosmic board game.

You can serve God any day of the week without having a special message, can’t you?  It seems to me we can stay pretty busy with the two greatest commandments to love God and others, so we don’t need help knowing what to do most days.

And most days is where we live, right?  Between special moments of wonder or guidance—those mountaintop moments—and the times of risk or danger.  That is where Mary and Joseph and Jesus lived too, in the mundane moments of daily life.  Getting enough to eat, working and playing and resting.  Mary had several children, so she spent a good share of her time raising them.  On the fast trip to Egypt, Jesus still had to be fed and burped and his diapers had to be changed.  That’s the stuff of living, and we don’t need divine direction to do it.

So, the life of faith is like that.  Usually straightforward, sometimes messy, sometimes monotonous.  Occasionally we get to be heroic like Joseph, or we get a glimpse of beauty or the bigger picture.  And then there is the danger, which we won’t always escape.

In the midst of it all, the reality of what we believe to be true is not always observable to the naked eye.  Sometimes what is most real is hidden, or sensed in an odd moment, or given to us when we are not otherwise occupied, even in our sleep.  Sometimes what is most real is unexpected, or small, like a baby.  If we are paying attention, we mightfind that there is more to us than we thought, having responded with faith and action to what we sense God is urging us to do.

Our story is taken from the gospel of Matthew, which is also the account where Jesus says he is hidden in other ways too.  Many chapters later in the gospel, he tells a story about sheep and goats, and how you can tell them apart on the Day of the Lord.  You know them by whether they helped the poor, the sick, the prisoners, and so on.  He said that helping those in need is helping him.

And so the refugees who are today fleeing violence every bit as terrible as Herod’s—I’m thinking of Syrian Christians in Aleppo right now—those Christian brothers and sisters count Jesus in their number.  And the message from Jesus is as clear as any command Joseph ever received.  “As much as you do it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me,” Jesus said.  So we peer into those faces crowded onto boats or begging for asylum at other countries’ borders, and we see Jesus there.  And we act: we pray, we send help, we don’t look away but instead seek ways to meet the needs that are right next door.  Yes, they are far away geographically, but face it, these days we can do a lot from our laptops.

We might not be in danger right now.  Your biggest problem today might be deciding where to have lunch.  You don’t need a heavenly vision to know what to do for those who aren’t so lucky.  Whether it’s the family struggling to make ends meet or the immigrant down the street who could use a hand with his English or the crowd-funding link to assist the Christians in Syria, like Joseph, you have what it takes to be instrumental in their rescue.

Now, I want to say something you might not expect at this point.  We are all at different places in our discipleship.  You may already be occupied with practices of faith or acts of mercy that God has led you to explore.  If so, I hope this message affirms what you are doing.  But there are others of you, maybe only a few, who have sensed God calling you to acts of justice or mercy, to reach out to a neighbor, or to investigate what it would take to do mission work either domestically or overseas.  You are the ones I want to focus on as I close the sermon today.  Has God been tugging at your heart and mind, calling you to move beyond your hesitation and to trust that the way will be made clear?

Get yourself to a wise person who can help you discern your next steps.  If you already know what to do, what are you waiting for?  For the love of God, for the love of that infant we worshipped with our candlelight and songs only a week ago, get up and do it.  That is the good news of this story, friends.  The shrieks of the mothers and fathers in Bethlehem can be heard even now, in many places. God’s people will surely heed and respond with love.  Won’t they?  Won’t we?  We must not close our ears and our hearts to them.  At the very least, please pray for them.


We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,

Or cosy in a crib beside the font,

But he is with a million displaced people

On the long road of weariness and want.

For even as we sing our final carol

His family is up and on that road,

Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,

Glancing behind and shouldering their load.

Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower

Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,

The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,

And death squads spread their curse across the world.

But every Herod dies, and comes alone

To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

(Malcolm Guite in Waiting on the Word)

The Jesus Story

Luke 2:1-20….Christmas

Here we are, gathered around the manger, pleased to be together to celebrate the wonderful story of Jesus’ birth.  In our minds we see the nativity set of our childhood, or perhaps the nativity scene on a Christmas card you received just today in the mail.  We are not certain exactly how that looked.  But in nearly every depiction of the scene, there seems to be a glow, an indication that the one in the manger is holy, God’s own Son.

An interesting thought about that scene is that it is only one of many scenes in Jesus’ life.  If Mary were into scrapbooking, she could have filled the pages with images of Jesus as a little boy, Jesus helping his father in the carpentry shop, Jesus performing miracles.  The nativity is a symbol of our faith, but for Jesus, it was just the snapshot of his birth, the beginning of a much larger and significant story.

For us, the nativity is a story that is at the center of all our Christmas celebrations.  We don’t celebrate an abstract concept, or a stunning, historical victory.  We focus on the story of God becoming a person, wrapping himself in a cloak of vulnerable humanity subject to all the pitfalls of this life.  He came in a time of danger and political oppression.  He came into a family that was away from home, parents who found shelter with the animals so they wouldn’t squander the money required for the tax imposed by a greedy Caesar.

Mary and Joseph were subject to forces beyond their control, making their way to Bethlehem at the worst possible time for Mary to be traveling.  This couple was just beginning their story together, and hardship was the underlying theme from the moment Mary announced her pregnancy to her betrothed.

How amazing is it, then, that out of this story of hardship would become the story that changed everything for the better?  This is Jesus entering into the story of the world, casting light into the shadows of our troubled lives.  This is a baby daring us to believe that God comes to us quietly, in meekness, in the most unexpected turn of plot.  Daring us to notice that God is with us even now.

Have you ever thought of this parallel between Jesus’ story and ours?  Like Mary and Joseph, many of us return to the town of our heritage at this time of year.  We may go to our hometowns with great anticipation of the family connections.  Grandma rocking the new baby, Grandpa down on the floor with the kids, laughter around the table.  Others among us return through a sense of duty or even compulsion, dreading the tension that descends over the family every year, wondering if the story might possibly have a better ending this time, please, just this once.  Our stories are all different, all of them complicated by the threads of joy and sadness that are irreversibly woven together.

If the nativity scene is the image of our faith story this time of year, what is the image of your family story?  Maybe you’d rather not go there.  Perhaps it is not a scene that lends itself to art, not a picture you would put on a card to send to anyone.

But here’s the deal.  Jesus is born into each of our lives, wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum of happiness or dysfunction, whatever that means.  The one who was born in the last place his mother would have chosen, to a people suffering under an oppressive regime, in a working class family, is willing to be born in your life whether the scene right now looks good or bad.  No matter how crude, shameful, disbelieving or disheveled your life looks, he insists on being born smack in the middle of it.  He does that because he wants to transform your story into one of hope and purpose.

Maybe you think it’s too late for your story to change, that nothing can make the scene this Christmas look any brighter than it has for years now.  Let me tell you about a man who had every reason to think his sad story was almost finished.

Pat Stropko-O’Leary, director of the hospice program in Medina, Ohio, was caring for a dying man “whose great tragedy was his estrangement from the son who shamed the family by landing in the state penitentiary.  For weeks the hospice staff urged him to go to the prison and visit his son, but the man adamantly refused.  Finally, when it seemed that death was imminent, he had a change of heart.  But by then he could no longer travel.  Desperate to help him find closure, the hospice staff pleaded with prison officials to allow the son to come home.  The answer was no.  Prisoners were not allowed to visit private homes, including their own or [that of] their family.

“But the hospice workers refused to be deterred.  They arranged instead to have the father transported by ambulance to their facility and the son brought there also, under armed guard.  On the day of the meeting, the prison vehicle pulled up at the hospice door at the precise hour, and the conditions of the visit were spelled out.  Two guards would remain present throughout the meeting, and it would terminate in exactly one hour.  To offer the dying man support and to monitor his oxygen and other medical equipment, Pat and the hospice social worker would remain present also.

“Imagine this scene!  Imagine seeing your father for the first time in years, shrunken by disease and laboring for every breath.  Imagine seeing your son shackled and dressed in the bright orange jumpsuit of the prison system, knowing it is for the last time.  Imagine revisiting decades of painful stories as four strangers look on and the clock ticks thunderously in your ears.  It is unfathomable that holiness could ever find its way into such a setting, but holiness is not easily deterred either.  Before the hour was over, Pat and the social worker had to leave the room—it seemed an abomination to bear witness to such sacred, wrenching joy.  Not long after the son returned to prison, his father died.”[1]

I wonder if that man and his son felt the glow of Jesus in that room.  I wonder if the son’s story changed after that, and how often he returned to that scene in his mind.  I also wonder whether Jesus was in the story.  Actually, we should probably put it the other way around.  We are all part of Jesus’ big story.  It’s only a question of where we place him in each scene of our lives, and whether we will recognize him wherever and whenever he appears in each situation.  He is there.  He is our Immanuel, God with us.  Can we open the lens a little wider to see him there, right there?

It takes courage to let Jesus be born in our lives, doesn’t it?  It isn’t easy to let down your defenses, let go of your ambitions and let him change your story.  It is no small thing to invite him through the corridors of your life and into the main living spaces where he longs to dwell with us and redeem our story.

He will not violate your trust.  Let him write your story, change it, be in it, and make it meaningful and true to his purpose for you.  Isn’t it ironic that we will spend hundreds of dollars on gifts, travel many miles, give up vacation time to celebrate Christmas, but we are reluctant to give any ground to the Christ child himself?  The greatest gift you can ever receive at Christmas or the other 364 days of the year is to receive his love, his forgiveness, his presence in your life and allow him to be the main character in your story.  We all need to let Jesus write our story continually, because the temptation to take it back and try to write and star in it ourselves is intense.

Keep in mind that the story usually doesn’t change overnight, nor do we always get the ending we thought we wanted.  Mary and Joseph didn’t suddenly have it easy.  In fact, their lives changed drastically when they had to take their infant and flee to Egypt for safety.  They stayed there for many months, until it was safe to return to Israel.

Your story with Jesus may not necessarily be safe, or fun, or easy all the time.  You may still go for long stretches with pain and uncertainty.  You may battle demons and dangers all your life.  But his presence in your story will enable you to have the peace you long for, the forgiveness of your own sins and the ability to forgive others, the joy that goes deeper than any heartache, and the knowledge that the end of the story truly, truly will be wonderful.  Because that scene, that beloved nativity scene, is only the beginning of Jesus’ story that blends into our stories.  As we receive the bread and cup tonight we celebrate God’s wonderful invitation to join the Jesus story.  We peer into the stable and know that there is a cross coming, a cross that transforms our stories.  We gather in song and celebrate the hope we have in this Christ child, who shows us that we are just beginning a story with not just a happy ending, but never ending joy.  Joy to the World, indeed!

[1] Eileen Sylva Kindig, 1997.  Remember the Time…? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press), pp. 69-70.

My series for Advent this year follows the theme, “Wake Up!”

Wake Up!  God is With Us

Matthew 1:18-25…Advent 4A

Christmas is only a few days away.  If you are young, you are probably counting the hours, anxious to wake up on that special morning when you can have all the goodies you want, you will open your gifts, maybe play with cousins, and generally experience the fullness of the day of all days that comes but once a year.  Or perhaps you are not so lucky, and you are dreading the emptiness of a holiday that seems to glow behind other people’s windows but not yours, not as you dream it ought to be.  In your house there is only darkness with the occasional dim light of hope.

See, Christmas evokes many intense feelings, but they are not always good ones.  Yet if we pause for a moment today and think about it, that is why we need Christmas in the first place.  Because the promises of God we learned about in Sunday School and confirmation might seem more like wishful thinking now, like the brand new bike you wanted but never received.  The gifts we anticipated are bigger than the actual size our lives ended up to be.  The husband or wife with whom we expected to live happily ever after doesn’t always live up to their part of the deal.  The family picture we hoped would delight us is marred by pain and disappointment.  Our dreams of a fulfilling career are a dim memory; now the mundane and worrisome details at work keep us awake at night.  In short, we live in a world where God does not seem present all that often.

Yet we do celebrate God’s promises at Christmas.  We don’t give up hope, because the promise was given to Joseph in a name like no other name: Immanu-el.  God with us.  The one named Immanuel would be Jesus—the one who saves.  God with us is the one who saves us from our sins.

Now we could put this message on autopilot and move right to Calvary 33 years later.  Jesus dying on the cross saves us from our sins.  We all know the creed.  We know our catechisms.  It is true; salvation comes through Jesus, who died on the cross so that we may have eternal life.

But I wonder what “God with us” meant to Joseph.  How did Jesus’ birth mean “God with me?” to Joseph?  He was on the cusp of the great divide of human history.  He could look back to Isaiah and hear what the people of God anticipated in their Messiah.  He was there at the birth.  He was given a promise for the future, of what this child would potentially accomplish.

Joseph was a righteous man.  He had it all figured out—how to be godly and upright.  Maybe he was even somewhat rigid in his behavior and beliefs.   And Mary’s condition was not part of the plan.  An apparently illegitimate child.  His lovely betrothed striking a decidedly un-virgin profile.  And all control of his reasonably ordered life was lost.  Starting to sound more like us?  Loss of control, loss of expectations, loss of hope…this is our experience at some point, maybe for you this year.  Joseph must have been profoundly disappointed and even angry with Mary.

But then he had a dream.  Not just a dream like your coach tells you to have, of state tournament glory.  Not even a dream of a Nazarene version of a nice house with a picket fence.  A much bigger dream that did not promise Joseph personal satisfaction, but a dream starring a messenger of God.  It must have taken him days to absorb what he was told by that unearthly being: “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife just as you planned.  The baby is from the Holy Spirit, and the son born to her will be named Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

It was Matthew the gospel writer who gave us the other name, remembering that Isaiah had spoken it first: Immanuel.  God.  With.  Us.   There are all kinds of ideas that brings to mind, not the least of which is that it is utterly impossible to comprehend.  God decides to go from a position of immeasurable power to abject weakness in the form of a tiny baby whose first cradle was a cow’s feeding trough.  Risking the dangers of a time and place where many babies didn’t survive even to their first birthday.  Crossing a chasm of unlimited distance.  As I said, we cannot begin to understand it.  And so it is hard to see how this God-with-us translates into your life this week.

Maybe this will help.  Consider how God’s favor looked to the psalmist Asaph.  “Make your face shine on us,” he said, “that we may be saved.”  The face of God turned in our direction is a saving glance.  And yet a human face is what Mary saw.  The face of a baby.  Can this be the face of God looking up at her from the manger, not yet able to focus on his mother’s smile?  Could it be that God’s face is here, in this baby’s face?   If it is, isn’t this the best kind of face to look at?  Precious, beloved, vulnerable.  A face we are not afraid of.

If Jesus did not come to us as a baby, God’s face turned toward us would evoke a different reaction.  Wouldn’t we be afraid to think of God looking our way?

I remember once seeing a gorilla at the Como Zoo in Minneapolis.  I had never seen one before, and I was fascinated.  As I stared at it, it stared right back at me, unblinking, terrifying.  I felt as though it were looking deep into my soul, despising me. It was unsettling.  When I think of God turning my way, I can get a lump in my throat real fast, and feel the same way I felt that day at the zoo.  Terrified, because God sees it all.  “God with me” means that God sees everything about me, goes everywhere with me.  To tell the truth, I’d just as soon God would stay home sometimes and let me go places where God doesn’t belong.  Let me keep some parts of my life to myself.

But I also have to admit there are times when I’m really glad God is with me.  Times when nobody else seems to be “with me.”  When I feel out of place, or abandoned, a very sorry soul.   Times when I have failed, and yet I can sense God more as a healing presence than a gorilla.  Places that seem so remote and godforsaken, yet in the stillness I know that God is unmistakably there.  Times when I am reminded that even though life is disappointing, God is in it with me.

The story is told of a young man whose wife had died and left him with a small son. They returned from the cemetery and then went to bed early because there was nothing else the father could bear to have them do.

As he lay there in the darkness, grief-stricken and heartbroken, the little boy broke the stillness from his little bed with a disturbing question, “Daddy, where is Mommy?”

The father got up and brought the little boy to bed with him, but the child was still disturbed and restless, occasionally asking questions like “Why isn’t she here?” and “When is she coming back?”

Finally his son said, “Daddy, if your face is toward me, I think I can go to sleep now.”  And in a little while he was quiet.

The father lay there in the darkness, and then in childlike faith, prayed this prayer: “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.”

I could explain to you why the psalmist wrote about God’s face.  How the Hebrew cultural notion of the face being turned toward you was a sign of favor.  Instead, I’d rather suggest we think of it as that father did that terrible night.  Somehow we can make it if we know God’s face is turned toward us, and it is not a frowning face.  It is, first and last, a face of love.  It is the face of a fragile baby sleeping in a manger.  It is the hopeful face of the young Jesus talking with the teachers in the temple.  It is a determined but tired face, healing the sick.  It Jesus’ tear-streaked face, mourning the death of his dear friend Lazarus.  It is an angry face overturning the merchant’s tables in the temple meant only for prayer, not commerce.  It is the dying face of your Savior.  It is the loving face that forgives you.

It is the first face you will see when God gives you a new body and you step into eternal glory with him.  And as you walk through your life with all its surprises, God’s face is upon you, loving you and giving you hope if you will only look in God’s direction and see.

When I read the story of Joseph and his dream, I think of the notion of “God with us” one another way too.  I think of how God changed Joseph from a righteous man to a loving father.  I’m sure he wasn’t perfect, but he was faithful to the dream he had and to his beloved Mary.  He kept her with him; he stayed with her and her baby.  He treated Jesus as his own son, and protected him.  He was the face of “God with us” to his family.  He was the face of mercy and acceptance for Mary and Jesus even though occasionally they caught a glimpse of confusion in his expression when he thought they weren’t looking.

And so God is with us, in the face of the infant Jesus, and maybe also in our own faces as we gaze on one another today and tomorrow and the next day.  Do we believe the angel as Joseph did—that God would actually choose to be with us even here?  That the child born in Bethlehem lived not only then but is also dwelling within us and making his presence known among us now?  That we can be the face of hope and mercy and love for one another, so that those we love and those we meet can believe it too?  That God can be impossibly, inconceivably and yes, often imperceptibly, be with us here and now?

Wake up!  God is with us.  God’s face is turned this way.  God is here, now and always will be.  How can this be?  If it had not been perceived by Isaiah and all the other prophets, and revealed to Joseph, and witnessed by the shepherds and the teachers in the temple and the disciples and children and lepers and prostitutes, and recorded by the gospel writers, and imprinted on our hearts through the witness of the church through the ages… if all we got was a visit from a stranger as Joseph did, we might not believe it.  We might think we were crazy.  But Joseph did believe, and we do too.  God is with us.  This is our hope, no matter how dark or bright our Christmas will be this year.  We are here to worship because we know that God is here, our Immanuel.

This week’s guest preacher is Rev. Paul G. Janssen.  The original title of the sermon is “Those Who Do Not Learn from the Future…”

Wake Up!  The Future is Calling

Matthew 11:2-11…Advent 3A

Dearly Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ the Lord,

“Since John the Baptist came, up to this present time, the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm.”

But John wasn’t supposed to be the one who would bring violence. He was supposed to be the one who would prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight a highway in the wilderness. Make the crooked straight, and the rough places plain. That is the plan as we are familiar with it: John would make people ready for Jesus to come. He would be the divine bulldozer, cutting through the soil of the human soul, breaking ground for God to reach down again into the messy muck of human cruelty and mold it into the new Adam, the new humanity, starting with Jesus. John would make a way, then he would get out of the way, and Jesus would be on his way, and would in fact be the way, the truth, and the life. And all would be well and tidy and the story would flow peacefully.

But these words of Jesus make us stop short before we turn the page so quickly: “Since John the Baptist came, up to this present time, the kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence and the violent are taking it by storm.” The kingdom of Heaven subjected to violence? The violent take it by storm? Why foul the sweet, smooth story with the stench of man’s inhumanity to . . . well, man’s inhumanity to God, as Jesus puts it?

One way to interpret this hitch in the story is to note that, well, that’s the way things generally do go. John does his good deed for God, and, as so often happens with good deeds, this one doesn’t go unpunished. Quite literally, John is being punished; he’s in prison. How many of us have been figuratively where John is? I was speaking with a good friend the other day who told me that all his life he had eaten low-fat foods and had exercised and taken as good a care of himself as best he could, and still he’s in cardiac rehab now three times a week. All his good deeds, and what did it get him?

When we go a bit deeper, we come closer to the inner meaning of Jesus’ words. The closer things are to getting better, the worse they are going to get for a while. It is a common enough experience in counseling that before a person’s perspective emerges from a kind of haze into relative clarity, he may well experience nightmares, cold sweats, inexplicable, jarring moments of rude and impertinent memories invading his consciousness. Hopefully, the counselee will get beyond the torment, but it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the cost of living through a kind of hell is too high a price to pay for what will in the end be only a flawed version of heaven.

But Jesus paints on an even larger scale. He speaks of God-sized matters, of a monumental, universal change, of a kind of worldwide earthquake that will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. The kingdom of God is coming near. The final day of justice, and peace, and joy is at hand. It’s so close, it’s right before your eyes. All creation can taste it, and see it; it’s not a light at the end of a tunnel. The planet is at the end of the tunnel, just one small step away from the light. And it would all be so marvelous if we could just take that one last stride into sheer, unbounded love!

And that kingdom is subjected to violence, and the violent are still taking it by storm. The sad fact is that there is something afoot on this earth, there are powers, that do not want God’s kingdom to come. There are great interests, financial powers, political principalities, important people, who resist the invisible and persistent and transforming grace of God. And they will use any means necessary, even violence, to keep God’s kingdom from coming. We don’t have to go far back in our history to remember water cannons being blasted at peaceful protesters during the civil rights movement. We don’t have to go back that far at all. Why, here in our own country, where you would have thought the dollar was almighty, major television networks are refusing to accept money from the United Congregational Church because they want to air an advertisement that says “Jesus never turned anyone away – neither do we.” The powers that be don’t like to think that they may soon be the powers that used to be. Even now, the kingdom of Heaven is being subjected to a kind of economic violence that says ‘if we don’t like your message, then we’ll just make sure it doesn’t get out.’ Apparently even speech that you pay for, speech that doesn’t even pretend to be free, the kind of speech that welcomes the despised, you know, Jesus speech, can’t get a hearing these days, especially since it conflicts with the agenda of the powers that be.

What can we say in such a time as this, in such a topsy turvy world in which we are bombarded hour after hour with sex and violence but a church advertisement can’t even buy 30 seconds of broadcast time?

We can moan all we want about how wretched the world has become. But that won’t get us anywhere. We need to get our bearings, much as a sailor would, not just by knowing our location, but also by keeping our heading in mind. Yes, we pay attention to the swells around us, but if we don’t have a sense of where we’re going, how will we ever get there?

Recently I came across a cartoon in which a teacher stood before a room of eager youngsters and said this: “Remember, children, those who do not learn from the future are bound to make mistakes in it.” Those who do not learn from the future are bound to make mistakes in it.

What can we learn from the future? What’s our heading?

Close your eyes for a second, and look again in to the future:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

That’s what we’re aiming for. In spite of the resistance of the powers that be. In spite of the violent structures that keep homeless people homeless and hungry people hungry. In spite of the violent entertainments that enthrall the minds of untold millions. In spite of the violent practices that despoil the earth for short-term profits. In spite of the violence that has so conditioned us that we use it in our most intimate and fragile relationships. In spite of the violent set-up of the modern shopping mall that is so carefully crafted as to tell our teens that they are mere cogs in an all-consuming economic machine, that their value can be tallied according to the number of dollars in their wallets and pocketbooks. In spite of the fact that the harder we work at living in the direction of God’s kingdom, the more resistance we can expect.

We strive toward God’s day of a peace so profound that there is no word for ‘predator’ or ‘prey.’ We lean forward toward God’s future, a tomorrow that is beautiful, and pleasant; a delight to the eye, perfume to the nose, playful music to the ear, sweet wine to the tongue, a tender embrace to the touch. We band together in hope to see this world transformed, changed, made over, made new, in Christ a new creation. To be specific, we cook meatloaves in our homes and haul them to Hackensack because we know that God wants people fed. We send school supplies to Ghana (of all places!) because God wants minds opened. We are learning from the future. When tomorrow comes, we don’t want to make the mistakes of the arrogant and the proud, those poor benighted emperors of the age that think the whole world is theirs, who would silence any voice that dares tell them that they aren’t wearing any clothes. We’re learning the songs that we’ll one day be singing, when it’s our turn to come into Zion.

And we do all these things, even though we know they might not pay off. In fact, we can expect that they’ll be subjected to violence. But, praise God, the Lord gives us many graces, and one of them is a wry and even joyful sense of irony. When we say “well, no good deed goes unpunished,” we say it with a wink in the eye and the melody of a new song in the voice.

Why? Because we stand on this side of the resurrection, on this side of the defeat of the power of violence. We’re a stubborn lot, we who’ve been given to believe that one little word can fell the grim prince of darkness; we whom God has called to share the good news that Christ has dispersed the powers of death at their worst. We will not, we will not, we will not (!) be discouraged by the violent who would take the kingdom of Heaven by storm. Who do they think they are? The kingdom of heaven doesn’t belong to them! They can’t have it! Why, the kingdom of God is within you! Yes, people of God, the violent are taking you by storm; but you don’t belong to them! You belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ. You belong to the one at whose coming the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And nothing can ever separate you from God’s love, and nothing can take your joy from you!
Yes, the violent attempt to take God’s kingdom by storm. They huff and puff and threaten to blow God’s house down. But don’t be distracted. Your life is built on the strong foundation of God’s tomorrow. Learn from the future. Look, and listen, and leap, and let out shouts of holy joy. Your God is coming to save you.


Wake Up!  Your Spirit is Calling

Matthew 3:1-12….Advent 2A

We have a room in our house that we call the sun room.  It is made of all sliding glass doors on the north side of our house, so it gets a lot of indirect sunlight.  I like to sit and read there sometimes.  If I start later in the day, I can find myself straining to see the words because it has gotten dark so gradually that I didn’t even notice it.  I have to turn on a light.  We can’t read in the dark.  Can’t do much else either, except sleep.

But during Advent, we are encouraged to wake up.  So often we find ourselves in the dark without meaning to go there.  As we approach Christmas and focus on the coming of our Savior, our hope is growing brighter.  For some churches, the color for Advent is blue to symbolize the pre-dawn sky, and Christmas will be the dawn—Jesus the Light coming into a dark world.  Whether we use blue or purple for the weeks leading up to it, we will light the Christ candle on Christmas Eve, celebrating the truth of John’s gospel statement: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (Jn 1.5)  Or Isaiah’s prophecy: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them has light shined.” (Is 9.2)

As the approaching light gets brighter, we can see our way better.  We have enough light to read and work by.  We don’t have to stumble as we would in the dark.  But there is another thing that happens as the light gets brighter.  We can also see each other more clearly.  We can be seen better too.  No hiding any wrinkles or blemishes.  It’s all out there for everybody to see.

We don’t like anybody looking too closely though, do we?  Use a bright light and look at me carefully, and you’ll see a lot of flaws.  That is what John the Baptist was in the habit of doing.  He got right in people’s faces and pointed out what was bad.  “Repent!” he told them.  “Get cleaned up so you’ll be ready for the kingdom of heaven when it is bearing down on you.  It’s getting close—no time to lose!”

These days we would think he was a nut and ignore him.  But back then people were taking bus trips from all over to see John in his desert habitat.  They were captivated by what he was saying, and they let him baptize them too.  What was it that was so appealing about John? It sure wasn’t his looks or his charisma.  Sounds like he was known more for his smelly clothes and bug breath.

Yet they came…I wonder if they couldn’t resist John because there was something he said that seemed oddly familiar, something dark and yet compelling.  Something about their connection with God that nobody had said quite like this before.  Something different from what the Pharisees and Sadducees talked about, respected as they were.  Somebody who dared to challenge those Pharisees and Sadducees, which was puzzling, because everybody had always thought those devout men had the inside track on God.

Maybe they needed to hear from somebody who wasn’t afraid to talk about sin.  Oh, the Pharisees and Sadducees weren’t afraid to talk about it either, but with them you felt as though you could never, ever measure up.   No use even trying.  John…promised some hope.  But it was an unexpected kind of hope.   He said there was somebody coming who would baptize with the Spirit and with fire.  He would clear away what the others have tried to accomplish but failed to do.  He would do what is right and true instead.

The one who was coming was Jesus, of course.  John, that earnest but brooding, accusing prophet, wants to get us ready, to warn us that Jesus will see the truth and deal with it.  So the best thing to do is uncover your sin and take a good look at it, so you will have some idea of what Jesus will see when he gets here.  John is really good at showing us our sin.  He wants so badly to get us ready for Jesus.  He even seems to get a little pleasure out of making people squirm.  He makes you feel as you did when Mom said, “Wait until your father gets home!”  Yikes, I’m done for.

But if you’re expecting the ax to fall when Jesus shows up, you are in for a surprise.  The judgment of Jesus, while truthful, is not harsh.  Jesus does not come to condemn us for our sin.  Instead he helps us see ourselves not merely as sinners, but instead, as we were created to be.  His intention is to forgive us and show us the way back to wholeness.  Yet we avoid this truth-telling, this scrutiny under the light of Jesus’ presence because we are afraid of what it will mean.    Can we bear to see the enormity of our sin, its ugliness and its scope?  Will it hurt to let Jesus remove it?  Can we live without it, accustomed as we are to having it around, even expecting it to always be there?

It’s funny how we would rather live in the dark sometimes.  We would rather live with regret and pain and bondage to our old habits than to let Jesus set us free from all of that.  Why do we do that?  I’ve heard the excuses.  We don’t like change.  Jesus might ask us to do something different and get all “religious.”  Anything but admit that each of us has a damaged spirit, because that would mean paying attention to something we don’t quite know how to deal with.  And so we let everything else have our attention.

Now what I mean by “spirit,” I’m not sure.  It’s like trying to describe love, or music, or the sea tides to a child.  We know it’s there, but we’re not sure how it functions.  We just know it drives us and warns us and sometimes makes us cry or laugh or sing.  It is the part of us that recognizes what John is talking about when he tells us to repent and be ready for the kingdom of heaven.  It’s that tug of familiarity and joy you feel when you hear Jesus calling you to follow, and you want so much to say “yes!”

Part of your spirit is what we call a conscience.  That piece of your awareness that knows you have done wrong.  It is the part that makes you want to make up for hurting someone else, that is willing to be hurt just so you can be forgiven and move on.  So you can show you mean it that you’re sorry.

But Jesus isn’t interested in punishing us.  Jesus comes not with a whip made of harsh words like John.  This is what it is all about, so listen closely.  John helps us understand how much we need to be rid of our sin, because sin has the power to destroy.  You know that; I don’t have to tell you.  Sin leads to pain and shame and death.  But Jesus—who sees every detail of your sin with more clarity than you ever will—Jesus brings forgiveness and healing.

I remember once having an argument with my father.  We were both really good at debate, and we could really go at it sometimes.  I remember that night in particular, because I went too far.  I don’t remember what I said, but I recall sitting in my room and thinking what an awful thing I had done.  I can still feel the heat on my face as I went downstairs and went up to my father and asked him to forgive me.  And he did.  He didn’t hesitate.  My spirit woke up that night, matured a little, and learned what it means to repent, and to be forgiven.

Jesus isn’t coming to burn us up because we are sinners, even if listening to John the Baptist makes you feel as though you stood too close to the fire.  I don’t think we are the chaff that Jesus will burn up to get at the wheat.  Jesus sees us as the wheat, and our sin is the chaff that has to go.  He knows we won’t get rid of it, so he will do it for us.  In fact he already did it for us.  He died for us.

We come to Jesus so we can be clean and whole.  I don’t think repentance is wallowing in guilt or digging for every piece of trash in our past that we can find.  Repentance is simply bringing your whole self to Jesus, facing him honestly and humbly and knowing that the look on his face will not be disappointment or disgust.  He will welcome you with a look of love.  He will take the ugly parts you can’t hide from him, and he will remove them permanently and without comment.

Remember what John did in the wilderness.  He called people to repentance and baptized them.  We, too, have been baptized, and we need to live the reality of our baptism.  Because all of this coming to Jesus, all of this exposure to the light of Jesus’ truth happened at the cross, and we celebrate it in our baptism.  It’s already done.  God already knew every sin you would ever commit, and forgave you.  Even before the world began, God knew you, and loved you.

We could not bear to come close to God, even knowing that our sins are forgiven.  God’s holiness and love are too dazzling for our human eyes.  So, what does God do?  The Son comes as a baby, and we are drawn to his purity and beauty.  God invites us to a lowly manger to behold the gift of grace, to hold the tiny hand of love, to let his gentle light reveal our yearning to be forgiven and made new.

You don’t have to live in the dark.  That’s a stupid way to live; admit it.  You can’t see very well, and you stumble around too much.  As a child of God you don’t belong in the dark.  Wake up!  Your spirit is calling, and it is telling you to come out into the light where you will be at home with Jesus, where you are forgiven, and clean, and loved.  Thanks be to God.

Wake Up!  The Time is Now

Matthew 24:36-44

Advent 1A

Do you like surprises?  Most of us love them, especially when we get to surprise someone else.  Some of you were there this summer when Betty pulled off a great surprise party for Roger.  Somehow it seems to make the anticipation of the party and the actual event more fun.

But we don’t like unpleasant surprises.  Getting a terrible diagnosis or an unexpected phone call during the night are most dreaded in our minds.  They change our lives unexpectedly and permanently.  So we do what we can to avoid them, using caution in our travel and keeping ourselves as healthy as possible.

Jesus said that his return will be a surprise.  God is keeping the date a secret.  And Jesus warned his disciples that they should be ready no matter when it will happen.  Keep watch, he says.  Be ready.

We can take that several different ways.  One way would be to always be on the lookout, focusing all our attention on the skies so we might be the first to spot him coming on the clouds.  Some people do that, and spend a lot of time trying to determine exactly when Jesus will return, even though he said that it would be at an unexpected time.

In a previous job, I did a lot of traveling by air.  Back then, people were still allowed to come to the gate to meet the people coming off the plane.  As I returned from one of my trips, I was struck by the looks on the people’s faces as we came through the door.  Everybody was looking for somebody.  They weren’t reading or doing crossword puzzles as they might have been doing ten minutes earlier.  Everybody was looking at the line of passengers expectantly, excited to see the ones they were waiting for.

I remember thinking to myself that that is how we should be waiting for Jesus.  Eager for his return, expectant.  But as I talked with a friend about this, he corrected me.  He said that we shouldn’t spend all our lives looking up at the sky.  That would keep us from doing all the tasks God has called us to do.  It would keep us from paying attention to the people we love.  I think he was right.  I doubt that this is how Jesus wants us to follow his command to “keep watch.”  He wouldn’t want us to neglect the people around us or miss the details of our daily lives.

All we have is the present, after all.  If you’re familiar with the movie “Rent,” you’ve heard the song that says we have 525,600 minutes in each year.  The people in that movie were determined to live in the present.  But some of the characters in that movie learned the danger of taking that idea too far, of acting as though there is no future, so anything goes for now.  Jesus reminds us that the people living in the days of Noah made that mistake.  They behaved as though their actions didn’t matter at all, as if momentary pleasures were all they lived for.  They used their time only to satisfy their lusts.

How should we spend our time?  How do we live each day and “keep watch” as Jesus told us to do?

It’s helpful to recognize how both the past and the future affect our lives today.  As we mark the beginning of the Advent season this morning, we acknowledge that we are living between two advents: Jesus’ incarnation and the time when he will return.  His life, his death and his resurrection form the gospel around which we live our lives and identify ourselves as his followers.  His promised return gives us hope.

But the time we live in between is not just a void.  It is not a sort of holding pattern where we do the best we can to have faith and improve the world.  There is an advent in each day.  Jesus comes to us every single day in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  He is with us this morning as we celebrate the Eucharist.  His coming among us right now is just as real and significant as his coming in Palestine and his return in the clouds.  Those events seem more dramatic, more worthy of our attention.  But Jesus tells us to keep watch today, right now.

Jesus is calling us to live fully every day, not to put our spiritual awareness on autopilot.  A friend of mine used to work for Winnebago in Forest City, where they make RVs.  He said that when he was working there, more than one person complained to the company because they couldn’t put their RV on cruise control and go to the back to use the bathroom.  They expected it to work like autopilot on an airplane.

We might not be so naïve, but we face other hazards.  These days we are warned not to drive distracted.  Don’t use your cell phone or try to switch discs in your CD player while you’re driving.  Sometimes we do that, though.  Could we be accused of doing the same thing in the spiritual aspects of our lives?  Do we pretty much expect things to keep moving along in our faith as long as we keep our hands off the steering wheel?  Do we fail to recognize God’s presence in our lives, to Jesus’ advent in each day?

Instead, Jesus tells us to keep watch.  I think that means we should pay attention.  Look around you and see how Jesus comes into your life every day.  He is not only a constant, abiding presence in the Holy Spirit; he also shows up in thousands of ways that you can see, ways that are new or unexpected.  We need to wake up and look at our lives with fresh eyes.  To see how Jesus is involved in every day, how God is at work all around us.

Here’s an example:  Jesus comes to us in the people who need our help.  He said as much, remember?  He talked about the sheep and the goats who will be sorted at the time he returns, and he said that the line you end up in depends on how you treat people who are hungry, lonely, destitute and so on.  He said that our treatment of people is our treatment of him, dollar for dollar, mile for mile, teardrop by teardrop.  He comes to us in the needs of his people.

He comes to us in many other ways:  In the beauty of the world he created and is still creating.  In the laughter of the children he loves.  In the satisfaction of doing well what he as designed and called you to do.  In the Scriptures where he speaks so compellingly.  In the bread and the cup that we bless and consume.

He comes in all these wonderful experiences.  But he also comes to us in the hard times.  He shares our despair when we are wounded.  He cries with us when the news is dreadful.  He stands with us when fear and pain rock our world.  He keeps his promise to be with us always.

In every situation, every day of our lives, we need to pay attention to see Jesus.  Recognize both his abiding presence and the surprises he brings to our lives.  He gives life to us as we acknowledge the sadness and the beauty that are vividly presented to us every single day.  He shows us the gift of a simple meal.  He points out the loneliness in a fellow shopper’s eyes.  He created the light and the snow and the children and the music that lift our hearts during the Advent season.  He is here!

We live during the in-between time, but we do not have to live an in-between life.  As we pay attention to the events of each day, we wake up to the wonder of Jesus’ presence in every moment.  Now is the time to live as his beloved disciples.  Now is the time to see Jesus.