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
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
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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”
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*
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”
Ann 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.
 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
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
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
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
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.” 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.
 Cynthia A. Jarvis, Feasting on the Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), Easter 5A.
Jesus is the Gate
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?
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
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
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
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.’”
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.’”
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.” 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.
“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.” 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.”
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.
 Thomas W. Currie III, 2008. The Joy of Ministry. (Louisville: John Knox Press), 114.
 Heidi Baker, 2008. Compelled by Love. (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House), 118.
 Ibid., 108-113.
 Ibid., 113.
 Scott Dannemiller, Ibid.
“Poor in Spirit: The Compassion of Jesus”
Series: Jesus, Blessed Savior (Lenten Sundays 2014)
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
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
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.
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
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
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.”
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.”
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.
 Thor Hall, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” in Sermons from Duke Chapel, 2005. William H. Willimon, ed. (Durham and London: Duke University Press), p. 100.
 Tippett, Krista, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Mystery and Art of Living, 2016. (New York: Penguin Press), p. 15-16.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
 Baker, Heidi, 2008. Compelled to Love. (Lake Mary, Florida: Charisma House), p. 78-9.
 Ibid., p. 98-9.
 Ibid., p. 91.
 Ibid., p. 90.
 Ibid., p. 88-9.
How Will We Make Disciples for Jesus?
(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.
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.
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.
[ii] Daniel G. Mueller, Just Follow the Signs, CSS Publishing Company
The View from the River
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
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.” 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.
 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
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.”
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!
 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 sunroom. 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
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.
Notes on Christ the King Sunday, Year C
What would it be like to be Jesus’ public relations manager? To be honest, sometimes I feel as though that is what people think pastors are supposed to do. Make Jesus sound appealing so people will want to follow him. Sounds ridiculous, I know, and I do my best not to fill that role. Instead I am called simply to proclaim the Word of God as it has been revealed to all of us, and to encourage you to be open to what God is telling you.
Still, what would it be like to have to “sell” Jesus? I think of this today because it is Christ the King Sunday, the last weekend of the church year. Except we have a very odd text to read if we are supposed to exalt Jesus as the King. If this were a campaign commercial, the last image we would want to present is a cross if we are advertising a King. Yet here we are, out on the hill called The Skull.
What kind of king is this, on a cross? The sign says it, right up there above Jesus’ head: “King of the Jews.” We might think of this as just another way of taunting Jesus, as so many people were doing that day. But it may have been more than that. It may have been a warning, just one more way of the Romans rubbing the Jews’ noses in the fact that they were powerless in the face of the Roman occupation. As if to say, “This is what happens to anyone who thinks they have any rights or power. This is what a king of your people deserves!”
This king…this looks like defeat. This looks like ruin, despair, any word you can think of for utter loss and unspeakable suffering. The degradation never seems to stop. In fact, Luke appears to want to feature Jesus’ humiliation. Even as he speaks his incredible words of grace—Father, forgive them—the soldiers are rolling dice to see who wins his threadbare and bloodstained garments, just for kicks. As if to say that this is just another day at work, stringing up criminals. Gotta do something to keep it interesting.
The leaders and soldiers are all given speaking parts. “What do you think of yourself now, pal? Not so high and mighty now, are we?” All of them sound suspiciously like the liar whom Jesus met in the desert three years ago. Remember? Before Jesus began his ministry he was taunted by Satan, challenged to prove his authority as the Son of God with that little word: “If.” If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…If you are the Messiah of God, the chosen one, save yourself…If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.
If that weren’t bad enough, even the man hung on his left derided Jesus. All he saw in Jesus was a loser. And Jesus is yet again caught between those who believe and those who dismiss him. The man on his right has had no training as a disciple. He is a common thief or much worse. Yet he recognizes the truth of the sign over Jesus’ head. Or he recognizes something else he sees. Perhaps it is the brokenness in Jesus that speaks to him most clearly.
That is what it takes to recognize this king, you see. One has to go very low to see the real Jesus. A person has to have an honest sense of his desperation in order to understand who can lift him out of it. Jesus said as much. He said, “I have come to seek and to save those who are lost,” and “it is not the healthy who are in need of a physician, but the sick.” These are the ones who see Jesus as the true king.
This is why the job of public relations for Jesus is so tough. You have to get people to realize how desperately needy they are before they will see what kind of king Jesus is. It takes a broken person to recognize a king in a broken man. But Jesus never wavered from his message, that it is in brokenness that healing comes to the world. That if we come to him in our weariness, our failures, our persistent sin, we will find that we are loved.
Because that is the bottom line for this king. For Jesus, the whole reason he stayed up there on the cross and didn’t save himself is love. This is a king who loves, till the end and beyond. This is what the man on Jesus’ right could see, I think. He could see that even though this man Jesus was destroyed in virtually every way, his love would not be compromised. Even to the end, Jesus promised hope to a dying man, because he was still putting others ahead of himself.
Jesus is the king who loves. He loves you. If you are willing to empty yourself of all your burdens and failures and yes, even your successes, you will be able to see the king who loves you. That is the king you need. He is the king we worship. Yes, a king on a cross.
Words of Terror, Words of Promise
Proper 28C…Sunday between November 13 and 20, inclusive
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
“Isn’t it perfect? I wish it could always stay this way.” How many times have you felt that, said it out loud? A golden moment with family gathered, everyone getting along, or at least keeping the peace. The leadership team enjoying synergy, on a roll with ministry that seems to be making a difference. Your house/life/marriage is finally in good repair, everything humming along smoothly.
Peter said it on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured: Let’s just camp out here! (Lk 9.33) Who wouldn’t want to stay where the kingdom seems to have settled into place all around you?
“Well, don’t get too attached. It won’t last forever.” (Lk 21.6, my paraphrase) Jesus doesn’t say it to be mean. He simply reminds them of what he has been saying all along, that the things of this world do not last.
It is hard to know whether he is talking about the temple system—religion they know it—or whether he is talking more globally. Either way, he tells them that it is going to get a lot worse than they can imagine. They can barely picture the temple being destroyed—unthinkable!—but Jesus says that isn’t the half of it. The threats will come from everywhere: natural disasters, war, strange sightings in the heavens, persecutions.
But his predictions include a curious caution: Don’t listen to the people who make predictions. Isn’t that what you just did, Jesus? In one breath you tell us that the future looks bleak, and in the next breath you order us to disregard such negative talk. You can’t have it both ways.
Perhaps the key to this puzzle is in their question: How will we know when it is coming? They want a heads-up, so they can get ready for it. This business of preparing for the worst seems to be what Jesus is telling them to avoid. He reinforces it when he says, “make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance” (Lk 20.14) when you are arrested and called to testify. “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” (Lk 20.15)
So, terrible things are coming, and here is how I want you to be ready for it, Jesus tells his followers. Don’t be led astray by people who want to help you get prepared. They might even claim to be me, but they will be lying to you. Don’t prepare your arguments. Make up your mind that your position throughout all of it will be to trust me.
Do not be surprised by disaster or hate or violence. Be unfazed when you are singled out as one of my followers, because I will not abandon you.
There he goes again. Jesus reassures us in a way that nobody else can. “My peace I give you,” he tells them before all hell breaks loose and he is crucified. (Jn 14.27)
Whether it is the biblical warning of persecutions to come (today’s reality for so many of our brothers and sisters in the global church) or the erosion of trust in our political leaders or the rising tides of terrorism and internal strife, there is plenty to keep us awake at night. We want to find a safe place to dwell, but it is elusive. We are even unsettled by controversy in our modern day temples, our churches. Only one thing remains: Jesus’ promise. “I will be with you.”
What difference does that make in all these things? For one thing, he will give us “words and a wisdom” that will defy contradiction. He will help us see it in a way that will ground us, and help us respond without panicking. He knows ahead of time what will eventually take place, and he will personally escort us through even the worst of it. He promises that by trusting him to help us withstand the onslaught, we will experience the life that is truly life. (Lk 21.19)
Sometimes we wish our circumstances could remain the same, like those golden moments with family, like our confidence during a robust economy, like the disciples admiring that beautiful Temple in Jerusalem whose stones were not yet overturned. Other times we wish they would change. We pray for it, beg for God to do something. Some of the terrifying events Jesus predicted would come to pass in the lifetime of his disciples. Today, for some people, the outcome of the 2016 election feels awful. Whatever your source of anxiety, personal or global, your prayer might be, “God, please do something! Make it better!”
Jesus’ promise is that God will not abandon us in such times. God’s presence is as complete and profound, as life-giving and enduring as God has ever been or ever will be in our lives. We do not get more of God at some times, and less of God at other times. God is fully present with you; Jesus is with you; always, always, always. God is our refuge, the psalmist says, “our very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…” (Ps 46.1-2) And the writer of Hebrews: “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Heb 13.6)
In November we honor our veterans, who know more than anyone what it is to go through sheer terror, to be forever changed by the horrors of war. I know little of my father’s experiences in the infantry during World War II, because he never talked about them. But I can read the poem he jotted down, a testament to his faith that Jesus Christ was with him in the trenches as they fought their way through France. It is dated December 28, 1944. I quote it not for patriotism’s sake, as much as that means to us. Loyalty to our country is important, but it will not save us. Only Jesus Christ can do that, and he does it every moment of our lives, in good times and bad. Here is an excerpt of John Janssen’s testimony:
“Amidst this conflict we ever find
Our comfort, our strength, our guide
One who will never leave us behind
And be ever present at our side.
In prayer we bow our heads to say,
“Dear God, Lead us safely on,
Safely on the upward way,
Till life’s battles shall all be won.”
“I will be with you.” Jesus knew that these are the words we would need. Matthew records them as Jesus’ last words to his disciples. “I will be with you always,” until the curtain is drawn at the last moment of this age. Thanks be to God.
All Saints Year C….First Sunday in November
What does a saint look like? I imagine when we hear the word, we have different images in our minds, from apostles to Mother Teresa to a longsuffering neighbor. We often think of saints as people who are extra religious, those who have made history of some religious nature, or those who seem to have far more wisdom and patience than the rest of us.
We celebrate All Saints Sunday today, and we have the photographs of people we love in front of us, people who we believe with certainty are in the presence of Jesus Christ in glory. I asked you to bring them so we could celebrate our union with them even though they are not with us physically. The “communion of the saints” is a fundamental part of our faith. It merits a line in the Apostles Creed, so let’s talk about it.
In the interest of time, I won’t take you through the Scriptures and their various references to saints and blessedness. Suffice it to say that Jesus introduced a new concept of blessedness and “saint-ness” in his life and his teachings. Today we read blessings and woes from Luke 6, a version of the Beatitudes that we might not prefer. (The Beatitudes listed in Matthew don’t list those pesky woes.) But here they are, in all their starkness: Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, you who weep, you who are hated/excluded/reviled/defamed, for yours is the kingdom, you will be filled, you will laugh, your reward is great. Woe to you who are rich, full, laughing, spoken well of. You have already received your consolation, you will be hungry, you will weep, you are as honorable as a false prophet.
There is quite a contrast between the two groups. About the only thing we can say they have in common is that they are headed for change. Those who are suffering will be lifted up. Those who are satisfied with their position will have it taken away. This reversal is a bold statement by Jesus. It challenges the centuries-old concept among his hearers that wealth is a sign of blessing, and poverty a sign of punishment for wrongdoing. No, says Jesus. What qualifies as blessed in God’s kingdom has nothing to do with your possessions or reputation. It has everything to do with where your heart is. And then he goes on to tell us how we can tell where our hearts are.
If you love your enemies, pray for people who are mean to you, if you don’t fight back when people strike you, if you are generous to the point of being considered a fool, then your heart is in the right place. You are following my lead, Jesus essentially tells them. In identifying with your enemy, or with the poor, you will suffer. You will feel the pain of those who have to beg for survival. You will seek to understand your enemy, and in so doing, will be exposed to the cause of her anger or fear. You will be hungry for justice. And you will start to look like those blessed people Jesus describes.
This, I think, is a description of saints. Jesus is speaking to his disciples, to all of us who believe in his name and follow him. We are the saints. Paul called the Christians in Corinth ‘saints’ even though he was frustrated with their behavior. They weren’t perfect, but they were believers along with him. They were learning how to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.
And so are we, and so are our loved ones who have gone before us, whether they are pictured here or in our minds. Everyone who is redeemed by the cross of Jesus, forgiven and alive with his life, is a saint. We share the same traits with the disciples Jesus was teaching when he uttered these beatitudes.
We share the family resemblance, all of us who follow Jesus. You know how you can trace the same eyes, or chin, or nose of a great-grandfather to your son. I can see traits of my father in my son, even though my son barely knew Grandpa before he died. He bears his grandfather’s mouth.
All of us who believe in Jesus—all through the ages and throughout the world—bear the same family traits. The number one trait is this: we are forgiven. We have all been cleansed by the same water of baptism, dying to our sin and rising to life in Jesus, life that is free from shame and guilt. We are forgiven people, every single one! What a blessing! In the greatest poverty of all, the desperation of our sin, Jesus comes to us in love and grants us complete forgiveness no matter what we have ever done or will do. That is what we recognize in one another as Christians, as the saints of God, even if we have just met. We smile at each other because we share the joy of forgiveness.
As the saints of God we also bear the trait of compassion. Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies, to do good to everyone—especially those who hate us, to turn the other cheek and to be unbelievably generous are possible only because we have inherited the compassion gene from our Lord. We can’t help but give to those in need. That’s what the saints do.
This is in our DNA as God’s people. It shows in our subconscious habits. The joy of forgiveness and compulsion for compassion may be our inheritance, but they are also learned in the community of faith. Just as a family passes on stories, traditions and ways of life, we as God’s people also learn from the saints around us. We give and love and do as we have experienced in the church. We believe, and sing, and say the creed because of the saints who have gone before us. Saints are not loners. Their identity comes from generations of saints we have never known but who have given us our creeds, our hymns, our liturgy and symbols, our understanding of the Scriptures. Even their failures have taught us how saints of God act and believe and speak. Some of them died so that we could worship and read the Scriptures. We are beholden to people we don’t even know.
Keep in mind that the saints from whom we get our identity do not all look like us. They are of every color and language. The African Methodist Episcopal Christian, the Eastern Orthodox priest, and the new believer in the underground Chinese church all share the table of our Lord with us, and their faith makes ours the richer. The impoverished mother in a Mexico City slum can teach us the meaning of trust in God. The inmate serving a life sentence but who has become a fellow believer can teach us about freedom and forgiveness.
You’ve heard and seen stories on TV about people who have found long-lost relatives. They laugh when they recognize the nose or hands or smile that fits with the rest of the family. They feel connected even though they have just met. A far greater joy is ours in the great family of faith, the company of the saints.
Look around you. Look at the pictures on the table up front. Imagine the people of times past and in various cultures. These are the faces of the saints. God has called us all together to receive mercy, abundant blessing, the joy of giving, the hope of eternal life in the presence of Jesus Christ, all of us together. God has also called us to be faithful to our family resemblance, and to pass it on to our children and future generations.
We bear the mark of our Savior Jesus Christ, and we are united in God’s mercy and compassion. This we celebrate today in our worship, and in our fellowship around the table, in the company of our fellow saints of all times and all places. Thanks be to God!
The Wee Little Man in All of Us
Proper 26C…Sunday between October 30 and November 5 inclusive
You have all heard of J.C. Penney. He was an elderly man before he committed his life fully to Jesus Christ. He had been a good man, an honest man, but he was primarily interested in becoming a success and making money. “When I worked for six dollars a week at Joslin’s dry Goods Store back in Denver,” he recalled, it was my ambition, in the sense of wealth in money, to be worth one hundred thousand dollars. When I reached that goal I felt a certain temporary satisfaction, but it soon wore off and my sights were set on becoming worth a million dollars.”
Mr. and Mrs. Penney worked hard to expand the business, but one day Mrs. Penney caught cold and pneumonia developed, which claimed her life. It was then that J. C. Penney realized having money was a poor substitute for the real purposes of living. “When she died,” he said, “my world crashed about me. To build a business, to make a success in the eyes of men, to accumulate money—what was the purpose of life? What had money meant for my wife: I felt mocked by life, even by God himself.”
I see two aspects of J.C.Penney’s life that compare with a man in the gospel reading today. I see both wealth and a longing for something more meaningful in the lives of both Mr. Penney and Zacchaeus.
You know the song. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” Zacchaeus might have been short in stature, but he had a big profile. That does not mean he was popular. As chief tax collector, he was in charge of all the tax collectors within a district. These men were despised as turncoats, members of the community who worked for the Roman occupiers. They created a great revenue stream for Caesar, since they already knew who worked at what trade and where. They were notorious for taking more than was required and getting rich in the process. Since they had the muscle of the Romans behind them, nobody could do anything about it.
So. A short man, and wealthy. He probably only had friends among other tax collectors, and since they were a shifty lot, he probably couldn’t trust any of them. So, short, wealthy, and lonely too. We can imagine him becoming disillusioned with his wealth, maybe with a sizable chip on his shoulder. His curiosity about Jesus got the best of him, and he risked ridicule just so he could get a glimpse of the teacher and healer everybody was talking about.
Along comes Jesus, who spots Zacchaeus in the tree. That’s the thing about Jesus: he notices people who need him, and he loves them. This is a story of Jesus’ surprising, radical love. Although Zacchaeus lived a long time ago and enjoyed a lifestyle we can hardly imagine, there is something about him that is familiar to us. We share the need for a radical love from Jesus.
Everybody has a little Zacchaeus inside them. After all these years, is there still something that nags at you? An old wound from a friend, or resentment toward a brother or sister maybe? Or you’ve always hated the way you look, wondered if people see you as ugly because of it. Or you never achieved the success you strove for. Or you realize you have relied far too much on money, or other people, or reputation to feel important. Or you never, ever thought you deserved God’s love.
Jesus sees that needful part of you and calls to you. He gives it his attention and isn’t repulsed by it. Instead, he approaches you gently and calls that darkness by name. Yes, he not only knows your name, he knows the name of your secrets. He does not turn away. Instead, he tells you—he doesn’t ask, he tells you—that he is going to come closer. He is coming to your house, your life.
Is that more than you want from Jesus? Do you want him to keep his distance, and not see everything about you in painful detail? We are all afraid of this, until we realize that he does not reject us because of what he finds. He accepts us as we are.
That is just too hard for a lot of people to believe. Jesus accepts me, even after what I have done? Even with the agonizing, shameful memories that haunt me? Yes. Jesus accepts you. If he could accept greedy Zacchaeus, and impulsive Peter, and broken Mary Magdalene, and traitorous Judas, he can accept you. He does accept you, warts and all.
Not only that, but he counts himself among your friends. Jesus was a guest at Zacchaeus’s house, an unexpected honor. He ate from the chief tax collector’s table, knowing everything he did to gouge his neighbors. Jesus associated with Zacchaeus, and he does that for you and me. He gets in the picture when we take a selfie!
In these days before the election, people are brave to put Hillary and Trump signs on their lawns. We have trouble finding anything to approve about these candidates. Yet people are associating themselves with one or the other. You might find that impossible to do. You cannot align yourself with people you cannot respect.
It’s not the same with Jesus. He not only lowers himself to socialize with a man like Zacchaeus, he eagerly comes when any soul invites him. You know the old picture of Jesus standing at the door and knocking. Jesus knocks on every heart’s door and never fails to enter when the door is opened to him.
When he does come in, when he sees the objects we value and the mementoes of our life’s history, he does not turn away in disgust. He is not impressed with our trophies either. Zacchaeus hastened to tell Jesus of his goodness: “See, sir, I give half of everything I possess to the poor, and if I have ripped anybody off, I pay it back four times over.” (Lk 19.8) Maybe that would justify him in Jesus’ eyes.
It was not on the basis of this man’s good deeds, nor of ours, but on the unlimited mercy and love of God that Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house, for he, too is a child of Abraham.” (Lk 19.9)
The salvation of Jesus in the gospels is much bigger than a promise of heaven when you die. It is the beginning of an expanded life, a life free to follow Jesus. It is stepping over the threshold into the reign of God, where deep, eternal love is the substance of life together and hope for the future. It is a place where your past is forgiven, and what you look like or the size of your bank account does not determine your worth.
Back to the story of J.C. Penney. After his wife’s death and several more personal crises, this prominent businessman was financially ruined and in deep distress. That is when God could deal with his self-righteous nature and his love for money. He said, “I had to pass through fiery ordeals before reaching glimmerings of conviction that it is not enough for men to be upright and moral. When I was brought to humility and the knowledge of dependence on God, sincerely and earnestly seeking God’s aid, it was forthcoming, and a light illumined my being. I cannot otherwise describe it than to say that it changed me as a man.”
Mr. Penney had found his heart’s true treasure. It was what he didn’t realize he had been longing for all along: the approval, acceptance, and love of God. It is what we all want and need more than anything else, when everything else falls away.
No matter whether you are in a tree or a wheelchair, wealthy or poor, proud or ashamed, popular or despised, Jesus sees you. He accepts you, comes alongside you, explores your life with you and declares you forgiven, no matter what he finds there. He saves you from your anxiety about measuring up, saves you from your dark secrets, saves you from your short, lonely, sorry self that nobody else sees and calls you his friend for eternity. Thanks be to God.
Polls and Prayers
Luke 18:9-14; Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Proper 25C…Sunday between October 23 and 30, inclusive
Let me begin by saying that I am not going to talk about politics. Just wanted to reassure you before I ask a question related to these stressful times in our democratic process. Here’s the question: How many of you have been contacted to give your opinions in a political survey? Now here’s a question more suited to our worship gathering this morning. How many of you think it is important to pray?
Would anybody dare not to raise their hand? We all know we are supposed to pray, but we have a lot of questions about it. What does it accomplish? How do we know whether a prayer has been answered or it is just a coincidence? What about unanswered prayer?
Those questions are hard to answer, but there is one question I think I can answer. Why do we pray? We pray because Jesus set an example by going off by himself to pray. Jesus also instructed his disciples by teaching them a pattern, what we call the Lord’s Prayer. He told them to do it in secret, and more important, he assumed we would pray. He said, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites” who flaunt their prayers in the synagogues and on the street corners. (Matt 6.5)
Do not be like those people, Jesus said. It seems as though he is saying the same thing when he tells them not to pray like the Pharisee in todays parable from Luke 18. By the way, it is significant that Jesus didn’t use bread or birds or seeds to make his point this time. He used Pharisee and a tax collector. A respected religious person and someone considered a dirty rotten turncoat. He held a mirror up to his listeners and asked them if they recognized themselves in the reflection.
It is hard to pull our gaze away from a story of such contrasts, the villainous Pharisee and the heroic tax collector. A scandalous story, really. Jesus was claiming that God was pleased with the prayers of the guy in the corner, not the religious man up front. It seemed like a new idea: that how you pray reveals the actual condition of your heart and the way God receives your requests.
It wasn’t new at all though. Anybody who knew the words of the prophets understood that it is not great sacrifices or empty words that God wants from us. It is our humility and brokenness that enable us to get God’s attention and compassion. More on that in a moment.
Prayer reveals how we perceive God and ourselves. That makes sense if you think about it. What you believe about God–whomever it is you imagine as you talk with God–determines how you approach God. If you see God as a frowning judge, wouldn’t you be fearful or at least timid in your approach? If you understand God to be welcoming and loving, then you don’t have to be afraid.
And if you see yourself as righteous, I suppose you would not be afraid of God then either. You expect God to be glad to see you. If you feel ashamed of yourself, you might not even pray at all, fearful of God’s condemnation.
This gets at something even more fundamental: our identity. We understand ourselves only in relationship with other people. Think of it. As an infant, then a toddler, a child and so on, you get the idea either that you are lovable or not. That you are capable or not. Pretty or handsome, or not. People tell you these things, and you use them to construct ideas about yourself, whether helpful or destructive. That is just what happens to us.
Here is what God asks us to do. God asks to be the primary Other, the most significant influence on your identity. Since God is your Creator, doesn’t that make sense? We get it in the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the LORD your God (who brought you out of the land of Egypt)…have no other gods before me.” (Ex 20.2-3)
As we live our lives before God and communicate with God, we receive the affirmation of who we truly are. We get God’s truth about ourselves. Without that frame of reference, the job is up to us. We have to construct our own identity. With only yourself as a resource, this is hard to do. It would certainly lead to a self-centered kind of life, wouldn’t it? Or perhaps a terribly fearful and defensive one.
So we start looking around for clues, and we view television shows, sports stars with skills we will never achieve, fashion models with looks we could never imitate, advertising that tells us we need this and that to feel important. We look to the people around us to approve of us: our spouses, love interests, parents, friends, co-workers. And what happens? We move from one ideal to another, back and forth, and we end up not sure of who we are.
We hear a lot about political polls right now. I cannot imagine being one of the presidential candidates (for a number of reasons!), checking the polls daily to see what people think of me. Then playing to the crowd every day: one day it is the women voters, the next day the middle class, and so on.
It is an extreme example, but not that far off from getting your identity from everything and everyone else but the God who made you.
Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is not only about who prays better. It also shows us what people think of themselves in relationship to God. Relationship is what the Bible is all about. You can’t find a page or a scroll that isn’t about that.
Prayer is not only about our relationship with God, it is the substance of that relationship. All of your life is a prayer, spoken or unspoken, conscious or not, because you are never out of God’s sight. All of it is playing out before your maker. Whatever we express, in “thought, word, or deed” as our confession says, either aligns with the reign and goodness of God or veers off in another direction.
But our faith is not merely about being perfectly aligned with God either. Jesus made a point of that. The good guy had it wrong. The straight-arrow Pharisee didn’t seem to need God because he had things all sewn up. He just came to report to God. These days he could send it in by email. No relationship required.
The tax collector couldn’t bring himself to come close, couldn’t lift his head to look at God. But he did come, and he begged for mercy, because he knew how much he was off track. “God, I need help!”
As long as he thought God cared only about being good or bad, the Pharisee could feel good about himself. When you are constantly making sure you are staying within the lines, pretty soon the lines are all that matter. Faith becomes an achievement, an abstraction.
“Abstractions offer the ego lots of payoffs: We can remain seemingly in control; we can live in our heads; we can avoid loving in general or loving anyone in particular; we can avoid all humor, paradox, and freedom. Even God is not free to act outside of our abstract theological conclusion, yet that is exactly what God does every time God forgives and shows mercy…”
God is constantly working to make us ready to receive grace, to experience union with God. It is a never-ending process that has us realizing over and over that we would be unworthy except for the fact that God has made us worthy through Jesus Christ. We see ourselves as we really are, and it doesn’t frighten us. Humility comes more naturally and does not embarrass us. It is a relationship about what is real, not about racking up points or making a good impression.
Biblical rightness is not so much about being good as it is about being in the right relationship. God only asks that we keep showing up just as we are. God will take care of the garbage and confusion, the despair and the shame, the anger and the grief. All of it.
It is so freeing to know that this is all we are expected to do. We can let go of pleasing people just for the sake of earning their respect, and depend on what God tells us instead. We have examples in the other readings for today.
If Jeremiah had relied on the opinions of other people for his self-respect, he would have given up before putting pen to parchment. They threw him in a cistern and threw mud at him. But in today’s reading, he speaks with authority, telling Judah how they can come to God and be hopeful in spite of their past disloyalty. He is able to deal confidently with the reality of their situation and God’s regard for them. He can only do that because he has received his identity and purpose from God alone.
The psalmist also declares his source of hope in Psalm 84: “Blessed are those who strength is in you.” He says that the people can move ahead with faith, through the challenges ahead, going “from strength to strength,” because their source of strength is not themselves, but God. God’s people need to see who cares about them, who is with them, who gives them life and strength.
The writer of 2 Timothy echoes the same basis for his identity. Nobody supported him, but that did not matter. He got his strength, his purpose, and his drive from the Lord. (2 Timothy 4:16-17) He could look back on his life without shame, because God had given him his true identity and led him through every trial.
So take it from Jesus. When you pray honestly to God, you are addressing the One who forgives you, who makes you worthy and capable. In prayer you can face both your failures and your gifts honestly, see them as God sees them, and receive healing and life. The only poll about you that matters is written on the heart of God, and it reads: “100% Beloved.” Thanks be to God.
 Rohr, Richard. 2008. Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press), p. 68.
That’s the Book for Me
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Proper 24C…Sunday between October 16 and 22 inclusive
That’s the Book for Me
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Proper 24 C…October 16, 2016
“The B-I-B-L-E, yes that’s the book for me. I stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.” Remember that song? In a brief lyric, we teach our children the most simplistic version of an important Lutheran mainstay, sola scriptura. That aspect of doctrine is much more nuanced and rich than a common version we often hear. Maybe you have said this about the Bible: “God said it; I believe it; that settles it for me.” I vaguely remember another song with those very words.
In childhood, the Bible as a solid foundation is a helpful metaphor. We need to know that there are absolutes that do not change, a God we can depend on, a place to go for refuge and comfort and truth. Our reading in Second Timothy might be a basis for such confidence: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Keep in mind that this would have been referring only to what we would consider Old Testament when this was written.
There are other images people use for the Bible: owner’s manual, a tool, a guide book, God’s love letter to us, a road map. The Bible even has an image for itself: a sharp, two-edged sword. (Heb 4.12) I know I have used these expressions many times over the years as a way of encouraging folks to read the Bible regularly.
If the Bible is so important, then I think it is fair to ask what it was written for in the first place. In the past few years as I have done my own research into topics that the church is wrestling with, that was the question that emerged for me. Not only “What does the Bible say about that?” but also more fundamentally, “Why was the Bible given to us in the first place? Can it answer our questions about these matters in a definitive way?”
It is strange to me that these questions are not asked more often. As U.S. citizens, we hear questions about our Constitution. The whole point of the Supreme Court is to interpret cases in light of the Constitution, so the justices have to ask routinely: Why was this written? Why does it matter?
So I asked those questions about the Bible. As I did this work, something interesting happened to me. Have you ever seen a cartoon or movie in which someone is frantically trying to get away from a horrifying, evil predator? The hero dodges all kinds of dangers, maybe scrambling through a jungle or jumping over ice floes, and finally lands on a large rock. Finally, he is safe! He breathes a sigh of relief. But in a few moments, timed just perfectly for full effect, the rock underneath him begins to move, and we discover that he has landed on the back of a huge, terrifying beast. Oh, no!
Well, that is a bit like my experience. The Scriptures I always perceived as safe and reliable, locked in place and somewhat two dimensional, has begun to stir beneath me, and I am unsettled. I detect the sound of breathing below. It is not a fearsome creature I have awakened, although it is not altogether safe either. But it is good, and it is life-giving.
This idea of the Scriptures as life-giving is not a new idea, is it? We feel restored, reassured, enlivened and equipped by what we read. But alive and breathing? I want to suggest today, if only for a moment, that we interpret the phrase “all scripture is inspired by God” not as a basis for regarding the Bible as a body of literature dictated by God word for word. It can also be faithfully translated as “all scripture is God-breathed.” What if we considered instead that God breathes through it as we read it? That it is not just an ancient set of documents for someone else far away and a long time ago?
We don’t treat the Bible as though it is irrelevant, or dead. We believe that the Creator of the universe is communicating with us through it. That is a big deal. We read the Bible together and ask what it might be saying to us today, and we expect something to emerge. We expect something to happen to us as we read it. We hope it will tell us what to do when we don’t know how to proceed. We look for comfort on its pages.
But in the process, we find a lot that puzzles us. What are we to make of today’s gospel text, for example? Jesus tells a story that is presumably about prayer. Only he doesn’t make the promise he offers elsewhere, “Ask and it will be given you.” (Matthew 7:7) This time he depicts God as a cranky, impatient judge who gives in to the persistent widow’s plea just to get her off his back. (Luke 18:1-8) Is that how we are supposed to picture God when we pray? Yikes. That’s not very comforting.
Or the story of Jacob that we read in Genesis 32 this morning. Here we have God blessing a guy who would not be your favorite uncle at the Thanksgiving table. Jacob was a deceptive, self-seeking, spoiled brat, not to put too fine a point on it. Yet we see him finally coming to terms with his warped image of God as divine vending machine, if there were such a thing back then. Years before, when he was fleeing the revenge of his brother Esau whom he had cheated out of his birthright, Jacob had a dream about a ladder—remember that?—perhaps a symbol of his constant compulsion to get ahead, climb higher. After he awoke, he made a deal with God, that if God would bless him with what he wanted, he might consider worshiping that kind of God. As if God should be grateful for the favor.
Yet here we have it: God did bless Jacob. This is not what any self-respecting author of a moral tale should write. But this incident at the Jabbok River is a critical piece of the whole biblical narrative. It reveals a God who blesses beyond our logic, showing favor to someone who clearly does not deserve it. Not only that, but the story implies that blessing comes in a form we usually don’t consider a gift. The wrestling match is the blessing. That intense struggle is where Jacob experiences God, so much so that he receives a new name—and a limp to go with it—to make sure he remembers what happened on the river bank.
His new name is Israel, as in the one who wrestles with God, or in another sense, one who perseveres. Jacob’s story shows us that we experience God’s presence and power and love when we wrestle with God. That is the blessing. It is not in getting what we want that God’s being is known to us directly. It is in the struggle itself, the longing, the frustration, the questions.
There is comfort in the Scripture at times, plenty of it. That, too, is blessing. But in order to go deeper into the relationship and union with God—the ultimate goal of our faith—the biblical story shows us that we have to struggle to get there. That struggle is not only with suffering or tragedy. Sometimes—often, I think—it is a struggle with who God is in the first place. (Isn’t it interesting that Jacob asked his opponent his name, and didn’t get an answer, but afterward he called him God?)
The Bible is not an encyclopedia in which we can look up principles about God that we can apply to life like answers on a test or bandaids or bumper stickers. That is what we want, but it is not what we got. We got a living word that is alive only because God is alive. The Scriptures have been given to us so that we may know the God who is alive. The Spirit of God shows us who God is through story and song and wisdom written down long ago but not locked in time.
As we witness the political madness in the media, we might ask ourselves where we get our hope, what grounds us in the midst of shrill rhetoric and nastiness. We turn to the Bible. Make no mistake, there is greed and power grabbing there too, but what the Bible does is show us what is real and what is not in our circumstances. Stories like those of Abraham, Jacob, and David, Ruth and Rahab, Peter and Paul—these are people like us who long to be known and loved and find through their struggles that they are indeed known deeply and loved eternally.
The Bible is not an easy read. You can bookmark and highlight the parts you like best, but that doesn’t mean the other parts are not there. You can regard the Bible as a rock to build your life on, but then you have to sculpt that rock into an image that suits you, chipping away the parts that make no sense or make you uncomfortable. (Thomas Jefferson created just such a Bible.) You can also use a rock as a weapon, but a rock is a primitive weapon that doesn’t work so well and can end up landing on your own foot.
What if the Bible is a record of the history of God’s people wrestling with who God really is? What if the violent God depicted in the Old Testament is not a true picture of God but is instead a step in a process, a collection of understandings of God that were evolving over the centuries, truth emerging here and there, other ideas tried and discarded. This would not make parts of the Bible false; it makes them real, our own questions reflected in the writings of people whose stories are not that different from ours.
Does that make the Bible seem less reliable to you? It doesn’t feel that way to me. I think it shows the Bible for what you have believed all along as a Lutheran. Luther called the Bible a cradle for the Christ Child. It shows us that guilt from the Law can only be resolved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. It depicts humankind as confused, desperate for the Savior we are given. We continue in that reality when we reach for the body and blood of Christ at the table today, desperate for his mercy and life.
The Bible is about real people wondering about God, getting it wrong and God correcting them. It is the story of God responding to us every time, telling us that we are loved. It is not merely a set of principles and rules to carry around as if that is all God has to offer to us.
Friends, this is such good news. God did not just hand us a dusty old book and tell us to figure it out and good luck to you. Somehow God meets us in the Scriptures if we open ourselves to them. God risks using human language to breathe God’s own self into us, creating both a longing and a confidence, a book that reads us, as some have described it. The Scripture I cited earlier—Hebrews 4:12, about the Bible as a two-edged sword—says that it engages us, even inflicting pain as the Spirit uses it to transform us: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb 4.12) So I suppose we can regard this as fair warning if we dare to let the sacred writings do their work on us.
I will let Malcolm Guite have the last word, because he is a poet, and wordsmiths like him find a way to open our hearts and minds to God:
Begin at the beginning, make an end
Of all your old evasions, make a start
Counting the countless stars, the grains of sand,
And find in them the fragments of your heart.
Open the text again, for it is true,
The Book you open always opens you.
(from “Bible Study,” in Parable and Paradox, 2016. [Norwich: Canterbury Press, p. 10])
This sermon was first delivered in 2015 as a confirmation sermon. Note: It is the SECOND sermon offered for Proper 24C.
Proper 24C…Sunday between October 16 and 22 inclusive
Chances are very good that today will not change you. It is an important day, certainly. We need to publicly speak the words of commitment and faith, whether it is in baptism, holy communion, weddings, or as you are doing today, affirming your baptism as part of your coming of age. We stand before God together and stake our lives on Him, the One who has revealed himself to us purposefully. This is a piece of our story as a community of faith.
Here at Bethlehem we have been scanning the big story of the Bible here at Bethlehem in the past year, dipping into various episodes. Some were familiar, others were more obscure, even a little surprising. And it is through that big story that I have attempted to teach you what matters about God, and faith, and yourself these past three years. We have talked about God calling a people to be His own, to love and trust God in spite of the folks who try to claim power for themselves, the “big deals.” Over and over we have seen that God provides our daily “manna” out of love for us. We have underlined passages in the Bible that speak of God’s great love for you that I hope will help you as you continue your story of faith in the years to come.
Today I want us to go back to the story of one of the patriarchs of the Bible, those characters in Genesis whose lives are given to us as the setting for God’s first dealings with humankind after all the drama of creation, Adam and Eve, and Noah.
You remember Abraham, and his wife Sarah, whom God called to live in a new land to get this story started. Abraham had great faith, to obey God’s call to uproot his family and move to the land God would show him. Just like us, sometimes Abraham had trouble trusting God, but God made him the father of the nation of Israel nevertheless. Remember how he and Sarah had their first child when they were old enough to be great-grandparents? Their son was Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob and Esau. So Jacob was Abraham’s grandson.
Jacob was not a person I would have nominated to be a patriarch. He hung around the family compound, whereas his brother Esau roamed the hills and valleys hunting game. Jacob might have had too much time on his hands, because he often brooded over the fact that his twin brother would inherit their father’s land because he was only five minutes older than he was. Of course he thought he was far more deserving, more intelligent and refined than his brute of a brother, who seemed to be content with having enough to eat and a tent over his head from time to time. He wondered if he could find a way to change his fortune.
When Esau came home famished after a couple of unsuccessful days of hunting, Jacob saw his chance. He offered his brother some soup in exchange for his rights as the firstborn. Esau carelessly agreed. Some time later, when it was time for the ceremony of the birthright blessing, their mother Rachel talked Jacob into fooling his blind father. This would seal the deal. (Jacob came by his scheming nature honestly.) He disguised himself as his brother and pulled one over on his own father, who pronounced the blessing of land and food, leadership of the family and community, and God’s stamp of approval.
When Esau found out what had happened, Isaac was already miles away, having realized that this birthright deal had consequences. Jacob did not have half his brother’s strength, and he would be the loser if Esau got hold of him.
While he was on the run, Jacob had to sleep out in the open, maybe for the first time in his life. It was on one of those starry but uncomfortable nights that Jacob was given a dream, a vision of the traffic between heaven and earth. For reasons that only God knew, God renewed the promise made to his grandpa Abraham and his father Isaac: land, offspring, and the privilege of being the vessel for God’s blessing of all peoples.
Did it change Jacob? No, it did not. I wonder whether it even surprised him, so deep was his attitude of entitlement. He had the nerve to tell God his conditions for the covenant God was making with him. He vowed to trust God if God would protect him, give him enough to live on, and keep his brother from killing him in revenge. That is as close to trusting God as Jacob would come for a long time.
Fast forward to at least twenty years later. Jacob has gotten married, acquired great herds, and is on the run again, this time from his father-in-law Laban. Jacob had met his match: Laban was as much of a shrewd and scheming man as he was. Life together in the same family compound became unbearable. As they say, the place wasn’t big enough for the both of them. Jacob got to thinking again, and a future with Laban was worse than facing the music back home. Surely the land he was promised in the blessing was not his to claim by now, but maybe Esau would be willing to grant him a small corner. So Jacob took his wives and herds to return home.
Jacob got more and more nervous the closer he got to his homeland. He had nightmares of his brother Esau coming at him with his hunting weapons. As they got close enough that Esau might be around the next corner, Jacob sent his family and possessions ahead of him, ready to forfeit most of it if Esau would only let him live. He spent the night at the River Jabbok, and it is there that his life was changed.
He was sitting by the river at dusk, pleading with God to spare his life and those of his family, and trying to work out plans A, B, and C when somebody grabbed his shoulder and tried to pin him down. At first he had thought it was Esau, but this man didn’t smell right or feel hairy like his twin. Jacob fought for his life in a wrestling match that lasted all night long. By daybreak he had suffered an injury to his hip; it was pulled out of its socket. Yet his opponent seemed to be giving in, asking to be released. Jacob said he would only give up if the man blessed him first, making Jacob the winner. His blessing amounted to a new name: Israel, which means “one who strives with God” or “perseverance” for short. Suddenly it was clear who this man was. Jacob realized that he had been wrestling with an agent of God himself.
Jacob was never the same after that. He limped, for one thing. And it seems that he finally understood that it was not through striving and grabbing that he would find life. We see it when he meets up with Esau not five minutes later. Jacob was repentant. He apologized to Esau. He owned up to his past and faced his brother instead of sending a peace offering and hoping for the best. His eyes were opened to see his brother with love instead of competing with him. Listen to what he said to his brother about his gift: “please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” (Gen 33.10-11)
Quite a change. It seems that Jacob finally grew up and stopped trying to make the blessing happen. He had to admit his brokenness before God and other people. The pain in his hip reminded him of it daily. Not that his life was easier after that. Some of his sons inherited their father’s deceitfulness, and they developed a mean streak to go with it.
Not everybody learns how to trust God as Jacob did. He strived and strived a long time before he discovered that it was never enough to satisfy his restless heart. He had to learn that the most important things can only be given, and received. That the beautiful life he was striving for couldn’t be found in things or even people; it is instead a result of allowing God to bless us out of love for us.
To be fair, it is not easy to trust a God like that, a God so generous, who blesses us out of sheer love and doesn’t require any sort of striving to earn it. But Jacob had one son who learned this early on, and didn’t seem to lose sight of it. I’m pretty sure you’ll remember the story of Joseph, Dad’s favorite. God gave Joseph dreams of being the favored one, even though he was toward the end of the line as far as birthrights go. It irritated his brothers to the point of violence. Just as his father had been shocked by a hand on the shoulder and an all-night wrestling match, Joseph found himself unexpectedly at the bottom of a dry well with his brothers shouting curses and spitting at him.
Joseph’s story, while vastly different from that of his father, is also a lesson about faith. His innocent trust in God never seemed to leave him. Remember how Jesus said we should have the faith of a child? Joseph seems like a good example of that. Even though he was sold by his own brothers, enslaved, framed and thrown into prison, Joseph seemed able to keep his eyes focused on a faithful God. As he grew up, he didn’t lose that simple faith. We can be sure it wasn’t easy. He had to be scared out of his wits and beaten up often enough. Bit it appears he inherited the best of his father’s ability to scheme, because he always seemed to rise to the top, whether as a slave, a prisoner, or an aide to Pharaoh himself.
Two very different stories. And there are dozens more in the Scriptures. All of them have one thing in common: a faithful God even when we are faithless. Even when we try to weasel other people out of their blessings and grab them for ourselves. Even when the best of them gave in to their appetites like David in his adultery, and their fears, like Peter in his denial.
What changed them was not a declaration such as the one you will make today. What changed them was being broken and finding themselves utterly dependent on God. And that is where we come in today. Although your vows today are important, and will serve as a touchstone and resource for you in the years ahead, it is the act of coming to God with your brokenness and sin that will always be what changes you. Maturity and faith do not come through wishing for them or by osmosis. We do well to study God’s faithfulness when we are comfortable. But deep faith is developed only times of crisis. We learn it when we come to the end of ourselves, our striving, our pain and the injustices of life and find that God is the only constant.
Maybe you have already faced some real pain, have had to grow up sooner than expected. Then you have had the chance to realize that God’s love is yours no matter what, and that God will never abandon you. Through the scars and disappointments, and in times when you realize that your own plans are insufficient and flawed, you will find that God is faithful. You will have begun to grow up in the faith.
And that is why we come to the table together. We come as beggars. We come with grateful hearts. We eat the bread of Jesus who was broken for us. You will lay the bread that is his body in the hands of your fellow believers today, as one broken person feeding another with the beautiful food of God’s goodness. You will be on your way to growing up in the faith that we all share, faith in a God who loves us throughout and beyond our stories.
This week’s sermon is by guest preacher (and my brother), The Rev. Paul G. Janssen, who currently serves the United Church of Somerville, NJ. It was the sermon at Pascack Reformed Church, Park Ridge, NJ, on Oct. 3, 2010. Thanks, Paul!
God Doesn’t Need You, But God Wants You
Proper 22C…Sunday between Oct. 2 and 8 inclusive
Dearly Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ the Lord,
Whom do you know, who possesses great faith?
Most of us have heard of Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic sister who in the late 1940’s took her vows to devote her life in service to the Lord. Surely she had great faith when she left the convent and began to minister to the lowest of the low in Calcutta – outcasts, lepers, with no one in the world to speak for them, to look at them, no one to even acknowledge their existence. Surely Mother Teresa’s daily acts of compassion, her ability to organize others to serve the poor, surely this was all fueled by a profound level of faith. And yet, we now know, years after her death, we know that she lived most of her life in the dark night of the soul. Prayer was no comfort to her. She doubted whether God even existed; or if there was a God, if he cared about the wretched people to whom she ministered. She rarely felt her faith as a driving passion in her soul. And yet she is remembered as one of the greatest examples of a faith-filled person in the 20th century.
But not one of us knew her. My guess is that we would all point to someone else as a person of great faith. Your mother, maybe, who got up early every morning to read the Bible and pray for you. Or one of the pastors you’ve known, who helped lead you through a rough passage in your life, who believed for you, even when you couldn’t believe for yourself, that all things would work together for your good. Could be a friend or co-worker, someone who’s not especially holy or pious or spiritual sounding, but who just keeps the faith with a blessed assurance of God’s grace.
My guess is that those whom any of us would claim to have the greatest faith would shy away from our saying it. It’s ironic, that those who have the deepest faith are the ones most likely to say, “I am an unworthy servant of God; I am only doing what is my duty.”
People of great faith don’t trumpet it on the street. They don’t wear holier-than-thou expressions, or contend for the super-spiritual prize. They are willing to share their faith, just not to shout it. Our examples of great faith simply are who they are because they’ve learned that God is who God is, and they don’t get the two mixed up. Faithful Christians have no illusion that they could ever stake a claim on God’s mercy, as if they could march into the hallways of the divine courts and say “Look at what I’ve done for you, God! Where’s my reward?” The most faithful people we know are also the most humble. They are most in touch with the immensity of God, God’s grandeur, God’s overwhelming majesty, God’s totally undeserved and totally unconditional love. They understand the meaning of the lyrics of “Rock of Ages,” the ones that say “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; Naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace.”
When some of Jesus’ friends said to him “Increase our faith!”, Jesus recognized a verbal minefield. What would happen if Jesus increased their faith? Likely they’d be on God’s doorstep soon, offering up their faith as proof that they’d been good servants, that they had added value to God’s glory. No sooner would they have increased faith, than they’d use it as a tool to win something for themselves. (“See what a good boy am I!”)
So Jesus the wise teacher turns their request on its head. “More? If you had even the smallest amount you’d do miracles that would make everyone’s head spin! More? How about we start with some? More?”
It sounds harsh, I know, but here Jesus points to a rather elementary aspect of the life of faith: we do not add to God’s value. No amount of good things we do, no amount of volunteering for church activities, no amount of faith, no amount of prayers, no amount of anything spiritual or religious or whatever you want to call it will add even the tiniest drop in the ocean of God’s mercy and grace.
In other words, God doesn’t need you. God doesn’t need me. God doesn’t need us to do God’s work on this earth. Oh, I know the old saying, that we’re God’s hands and feet. I get that. All I’m saying is that what God wants to get done, God will find a way to get done. Whether that involves us or not, that’s a matter of God’s invitation and our response. God is free to choose whatever way God wants. And God freely chooses us.
It always starts with God’s choice, not with our faith. We love because God loved us first. This is the miracle of grace that I want us all to hear, and hopefully feel, this morning:
God didn’t have to love us, but God did. And does.
God loved us first.
God doesn’t need us, but wants us anyway.
God’s work doesn’t require our doing it, but God invites us anyway.
God’s grandeur certainly doesn’t require us to add to it, because there’s nothing we could ever add. “We are unworthy servants.”
And God is a gracious host, inviting us to the table. And God is a loving father, welcoming us home. And God is a generous provider, who made himself low that we might be raised up. And God is a great physician, who was broken so that we might be healed.
Mother Teresa was a very wise woman. This is what she said: “The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.” Our God is the one who became poor in spirit, that we might be rich in love. Hear the good news, my fellow unworthy servants, you who share with me the faith that is far less than a mustard seed: God loves you, and wants you to come to dinner.
Where One Step Takes You
Proper 21C….Sunday between September 26 and October 1 inclusive
Some of the Missionaries of Charity who operated under the leadership of Sister Teresa served in Australia. She tells the story of one person whose life was touched by them.
“On a reservation, among the Aborigines, there was an elderly man. I can assure you that you have never seen a situation as difficult as that poor old man’s. He was completely ignored by everyone. His home was disordered and dirty.
“I told him, ‘Please, let me clean your house, wash your clothes, and make your bed.’ He answered, ‘I’m okay like this. Let it be.’
“I said again, ‘You will be still better if you allow me to do it.’
“He finally agreed. So I was able to clean his house and wash his clothes. I discovered a beautiful lamp, covered with dust. Only God knows how many years had passed since he last lit it.
“I said to him, ‘Don’t you light your lamp? Don’t you ever use it?’
“He answered, ‘No. No one comes to see me. I have no need to light it. Who would I light it for?’
“I asked, ‘Would you light it every night if the sisters came?’
“He replied, ‘Of course.’
“From that day on the sisters committed themselves to visiting him every evening. We cleaned the lamp, and the sisters would light it every evening.
“Two years passed. I had completely forgotten that man. He sent this message: ‘Tell my friend that the light she lit in my life continues to shine still.’
“I thought it was a very small thing. We often neglect small things.”
Small things. I wonder if any small things would have made a difference to the men in today’s parable. Certainly, the rich man suddenly craved a small thing when he was in torment. Just a taste of cool water was all he wanted.
The parable drips with irony, of course. This man who practically tripped over Lazarus whenever he went through his gate had to have seen his pitiful plight. He chose to ignore him every time. Perhaps it became such a habit that he didn’t even notice Lazarus any more, but just regarded him as a piece of hardware connected to the gate. Now the tables are turned, and he begs Father Abraham to give him some relief. The rich man is so self-centered, so steeped with a sense of entitlement that he expects Lazarus to serve him in his misery.
Abraham explains that the chasm between the rich man and Lazarus is too wide for anybody to attempt the crossing. He says it this way: “a great chasm has been fixed.” At first glance, we might assume that God established the distance between the two points. Yet we might also wonder if the rich man himself created that chasm.
You’ve heard the saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Did the expanse of the chasm begin with one step for the rich man? We can imagine that Lazarus showed up at the gate one day and didn’t escape the rich man’s notice then. But there was a decision at that point to ignore a poor man’s needs. One decision. Even one distraction or sneeze may have turned the rich man’s head away from Lazarus’ pleading gaze. And then it just got easier and easier to walk through the gate without paying any attention to this desperate, dying man.
Could one step toward Lazarus, instead of away from him, have made a difference in the way things turned out? The parable implies that the rich man could have escaped torment had he shown compassion on Lazarus. It wouldn’t have taken much. Even the scraps from the table would have helped, but not a crumb was offered.
Any journey begins with a single step, whether it is toward the needs of other people, or away from them. The Missionaries of Charity took a step out of their doors each night to visit an old man in his sorry, lonely condition. They gave him a reason to light his lamp. Were they blessed also, when they let him touch their lives over time? Did their friendship make the steps easier to take?
Brian Palmer is a man from western Iowa who began teaching in Tototo, Liberia this fall. Certainly he traveled more than a thousand miles to get there. But the trip began with a step toward God’s guidance, a step of openness and obedience. His first comments from Africa included this observation. “The chasm between the haves (almost nobody) and the have-nots (almost everybody) is galactic; we simply aren’t living on the same planet. We who are haves spend most of our time keeping our stuff and ourselves surrounded by high walls iced with rolls of barbed wire stretched out across the top. I guess it’s what you do.”
It’s what you do. How often do we take steps away from the needs of others, without even thinking about it? Do we realize that whenever we purchase something for ourselves, we are saying ‘no’ to something else we could buy? We could be buying meals for the hungry, or mosquito nets for children, or simple medicines for diseases that shouldn’t take the life of one more child in this world. Every time we say ‘yes’ to something, we say ‘no’ to something else. It works both ways. If we say ‘no’ to our luxury, or even our own needs, we can say a bigger ‘yes’ to the poor, providing medicine, food and education where it is so desperately needed. They are at our gates now, whether they live in Iowa, South Dakota or the Sudan. We cannot ignore them.
Back to the parable…It doesn’t end with a simple case of the bad guy getting what he deserved. This rich man didn’t become rich by letting things lie. He thought of his father and brothers, and his negotiating instinct kicked in with another call to Abraham: “Then, father, I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”
Abraham tells him he’s too late for that too. Besides, Moses and the prophets have provided adequate warning. The rich man shrugs and appeals to Abraham’s sense of the dramatic. “Well, they don’t read the Scriptures much. Now, if a resurrected man would show up, then they would sit up and take notice for sure.”
“Moses and the prophets ought to be enough to get the point across. Sorry, the connection is getting worse. ‘Must be that darn chasm. I have to hang up now,” replies Abraham.
So if the first part of this parable weren’t enough to get your attention, this part should. Is Jesus saying this: There is no excuse for a self-centered life, or any misunderstanding about faith. You have everything you need to believe in God and to act like it, to take part in God’s benevolent reign. The Bible spells it out clearly. Don’t ignore God’s gracious appeal. The clock is ticking, and, like the rich man and Lazarus, you will die whether you are rich or poor. You don’t know when that will happen, but you will die where you stand. Pay attention, therefore, to which direction you are taking.
So…we might also think about whether we are moving in the direction of the Scriptures we have been given. Are you heading toward the life God offers, or away from it? Do you head for your Bible before you head out the door? It’s there so you can know Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life.
Or can we track your footsteps along the path to wealth, popularity, or other pursuits? How worn are those paths in your life? With each stroke of the pen in our checkbooks (or credit card swipe), each small decision to visit the dying or to help a neighbor or to build a fence to keep people at a distance, we are either creating a chasm or crossing a bridge.
This may sound like I am making too much of Jesus’ story. I don’t think so. He painted a dramatic picture. Wealth, or lack of it, does create distance between people. Habitually ignoring the cries of the poor will deprive us of both the joy of simple living and the friendship of people we wouldn’t have known otherwise. The chasm in the end is too wide for any human to cross it. Our actions matter that much.
I know, I know. We believe in grace, God’s grace. That is true. Our bad decisions, even our callousness toward the poor is forgiven when we turn to God and repent. God is merciful!
Perhaps the point this time is this: If you realize that you need to turn around, that first step in reverse can be awfully hard to take. It gets harder and harder to turn around the farther you go. We are critters of habit, and once we set our direction, it’s hard to change.
But one step toward God and God’s ways reveals a whole new perspective. Look one way, see one thing; turn around, and see something entirely different. God meets us when we turn around. God transforms us. He shows us how he appears in the faces of the poor, the lonely, the victims of injustice. Just like that man whom the Missionaries of Charity befriended, God brings light to our lives through the lives of those we help.
That quote from Lao-tzu about a journey of a thousand miles might also be faithfully translated like this: “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.” Where do you find yourself today? Do you find yourself in the country of shallow pursuits, or are you exploring the fascinating landscape of God’s kingdom? If you find yourself running back and forth, then the question is: Do you really want to live like that?
I’ll finish with one more thought from the quotable Mother Teresa:
“I think that a person who is attached to riches, who lives with the worry of riches, is actually very poor. If this person puts his money at the service of others, then he is rich, very rich.” Rich or poor, Jesus calls us to care, to pay attention to each other’s needs, to know that every step we take makes a difference to him and to those he loves.
 Mother Teresa, Becky Benenate, ed., In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers (Novato, California: New World Library), p. 53-4.
 Ibid., p. 70.
Whatever It Takes
Proper 20C…Sunday betweeen September 18 and 24 inclusive
Listening to a radio program about the housing market this week, I heard a young adult talk about the quest she and her husband went on to buy a house for a low price. They were aware of many foreclosed and bank-owned houses in their community, and they wanted to get in on a deal. I couldn’t blame them. After hearing about all the homeowners who were in over their heads even before signing their mortgages, and then really drowned when the house values went down, it was refreshing to know that somebody is trying to live within their means.
The funny thing was, the realtors they contacted kept wanting to show them houses that would make them a profit, even after this couple explained that they wanted to see foreclosed and bank-owned houses. We can hardly blame the realtors either, since they have been scrambling for any kind of income they can get too. Everybody is trying to survive.
Which brings us to today’s parable, which features an “Unjust Steward” according to some Bible teachers and a “Dishonest Manager” by others. Either way, he is a curious example for Jesus to use. Actually, “curious” is generous; this guy is downright criminal. He would be serving a lot of jail time these days, and I’m sure his practices were considered just as dishonest at the time of this story’s telling.
We just finished Luke 15, where the parables of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son were pretty easy to figure out. God seeks the lost, and we have to put up with it if we don’t like all the people that includes. The prodigal son is a thankless brat we’d like to teach a thing or two, but then he realizes his depravity and returns home. It seems like too nice an ending for him, but we remind ourselves that God is forgiving and generous to a fault, so it’s okay. And we get a little annoyed with the prodigal’s son’s older brother for being such a goody-two-shoes and resenting his brother’s conversion. He prefers pouting to partying. Well, that guy looks like a saint compared to this character.
He was squandering his master’s property. We don’t know if that means selling off land or goods and misrepresenting the profits, then pocketing some of it. Or maybe he was just a bad manager and didn’t keep a tight rein on overhead costs. The ways a business can be mismanaged are numerous. We do know it involved a lot of outstanding bills. The cash flow was looking suspiciously thin. So, the manager is called in, told to turn in the books, and fired on the spot.
That should be the end of the story. Ah, now the manager is in a pickle. He has lost his usual bravado along with his job. And he asks himself, “What am I gonna do now? Nobody will give me a job. I won’t have any place to live. I gotta do something, fast!” And he proceeds to pretend as though he still works for the boss. He calls in the customers with unpaid accounts and grants them write-downs on their bills. For at least a day or two, he is the local hero.
Or, his master is the hero. We can imagine that when the master does return, he could be met by grateful customers meeting him on the road to shake his hand before he even gets to the branch office. Now, he can do one of three things. He can 1) explain to everyone that these write-downs were not authorized, in which case he will end up as the bad guy. He can 2) accept whatever payment his debtors are now making, but maintain his position that the manager is fired. Or, he can 3) leave things as they are. In the case of the parable, he must have chosen option #3. Surprisingly, he recognizes the shrewdness of his former employee’s actions, praises him, and…well, we don’t get the news that the manager was rehired, but it seems fair enough to assume.
Now I could go a couple of different directions in helping you to interpret Jesus’ message here. I could go with verse 8: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” We could examine our need to be more creative and wise in our relationships and our proclamation of the gospel, so the kingdom of heaven will have a larger population in the hereafter. That is a legitimate interpretation and even tempting, but I’m not going there.
Nor am I going to talk about using our money for good. Money is a tool that we can dedicate to God’s good purposes. That seems to be another good conclusion we could draw, considering verses 10-13: “‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…You cannot serve God and wealth,’” and so on. We all really need to hear that, stated forcefully and often, but it’s not the option I’m choosing today. You will hear a stewardship sermon soon enough this fall.
There are three or four other directions we could also choose, but you get the idea. This parable is a tough one to decipher, and its interpretations vary. We’d rather hear parables we can identify with. I can picture myself as the lost sheep, or part of the 99 in the flock, depending on the day. We get the point of the Good Samaritan, and we know we should act like that guy. We like those parables.
What are we to do with this one? A nice moral is not so easy to pin down. We want to walk away with a packet of wisdom we can wrap up neatly so we can unpack and apply it the next day. But parables aren’t meant to provide that for us. Parables are like peepholes, giving us a glimpse of what God’s great kingdom is like. We can’t possibly grasp all of its complexity and glory, but we can stand a piece of it at a time. Jesus uses pictures and language we can understand to give us a small sampling of something so wonderful that it can’t be described in human words or images.
I wonder if the glimpse we might be getting today is of an unjust steward who could be…Jesus himself. Hold on now, stay with me. I know this seems absurd, even sacrilegious. Well, think about it. In the previous couple of chapters in Luke there’s a nice theme of God’s grace. God heals people, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, he tells parables of God seeking the lost and the poor. He also tells us what it costs to follow him (everything).
Maybe he is putting all of those things together in this depiction of a man who makes a last ditch effort to win his master’s favor, or the favor of his neighbors. He uses dishonest means to do it, but the debts are now within reach for the customers, and the master actually gets some cash flow again. That wraps it up neatly, maybe. Messy, but all’s well that ends well.
Yet even that interpretation could be sugar coating it more than Jesus wanted. Jesus may have been popular with many people, but he was hated by the respectable people, the temple leaders. Jesus may be saying that “grace cannot come to the world through respectability.” We prefer respectable behavior that gravitates toward success, life, winning. Jesus’ grace works through death and losing. A cross, as we have often said, is not a pretty thing. It is the way of sacrifice and pain.
That young couple who was looking for a house? I didn’t hear the end of the story, but when I left it, they were trying to buy a real fixer-upper. It was a smelly, badly kept place that no respectable realtor would ever want to take credit for selling. Animal, mildew, smoke smells. Rotting walls around the bathroom and kitchen sinks. A real nightmare. But it was what they wanted to put their hearts and their hard work into. They made the choice that they could handle, even though it would be a lot of hard work. They didn’t take the easy way, with easy credit.
Jesus took the hard way to get what he wanted. He broke the Sabbath and hung around with crooks. He was executed as a criminal. He did whatever it took to draw us sinners to himself. We are the debtors who owe more than we can pay, and the crafty manager is the only one we can trust to get us off the hook. We can’t deal with the upright owner.
Keep in mind now that parables have limitations. Parables are metaphors, and metaphors always break down at some point. Even so: Jesus isn’t actually dishonest or sinful, is he? But he takes on that look in order to win us over to himself. He doesn’t care what he looks like; he will do whatever it takes to make sure our debt is paid and we can do business with God without guilt. He is the only one who can clean us off well enough to be able to face God at all, ever.
If you don’t like that interpretation, go back and choose one of the others. In three years, when this text comes around again, I may explore one of those options. But if you can stand looking at Jesus with a crooked businessman costume just for this week, maybe you can appreciate how far he is willing to come to get you, in whatever costume you happen to be caught wearing right now. Whatever debt you owe, whatever form it takes, it is too much for you to pay. Jesus says that the situation is not impossible. His surprising, sacrificial solution will make him look bad, and it is bad; the cross is very bad. But we end up free of debt, and grateful. That is what happens in God’s kingdom, for all who accept the offer of forgiveness. Thanks be to God!
 Capon, Rober Farrar. 1988, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 150.
How to Get Lost
Proper 19C…Sunday between Sept. 11 and 17 inclusive
Jesus’ critics thought they had it all together. They accused Jesus of poor judgment because he was hanging around with “sinners.” If he was a rabbi with any sense, he would make better choices about his dining companions.
Jesus proceeded to tell them three stories, parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. We read the first two this morning, but the third is familiar: the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son asks for his inheritance, wastes it in loose living, and comes back with his tail between his legs. Dad forgives him, even throws a party for the wasteful, ungrateful fool. Older brother resents it because he never spent an irresponsible hour in his life. His father tells him he has had it made all along; hard work is its own reward; why didn’t he say something if he wanted to have his friends over for a party?
The parables seem harmless if a little ridiculous. Any responsible shepherd wouldn’t leave 99 sheep in the open to look for a stray. A woman who finds her coin wouldn’t spend it on a party to celebrate. A father ought not take back a son who is unforgivably disrespectful like that. The scribes and Pharisees might have dismissed the stories for being a little puzzling, but then there is the hook at the end. The older brother, scolding his father for celebrating the return of a scoundrel. Eating with a sinner, just what they had accused Jesus of doing.
What they didn’t realize, not then or ever, as far as we know, was that they were the lost ones. The older brother was lost even though he never wandered away. He is just as lost as his brother, only in a different way.
I see four ways of getting lost in these parables, but we’ll go back to the first parable so we can keep things straight. The lost sheep in the first parable is in trouble because he is distracted. Maybe he spies a succulent clump of grass down the hill a bit, just out of eyesight and earshot of the shepherd. By the time he looks up, the flock is gone.
That’s one way we get lost too: from distractions. That is probably the most common way we find ourselves in trouble, or feeling empty. I don’t need to list all the things that distract us, do I? Here’s where you might expect me to rail against obvious evils like pornography or drugs. But even good things distract us. There’s nothing wrong with our work, our families, our studies. But we aren’t so good at moderation, and the obligations begin to pile up. And we have to have a little fun after working so hard all the time. Before we know it there is no time left for care of the soul, or worship, or any kind of pause to get our bearings. Distractions come in many forms, and some are easier to spot than others.
The coin was probably lost through carelessness. A clumsy mistake, or a knot coming loose. The sudden realization that something is missing.
The loss of a treasure, a valued possession, is interesting to apply to our lostness. Do we lose faith from carelessness, inattention, laziness? We procrastinate, rationalize, treat our faith as another component of life that we’ll get to when we have time. Except we turn around one day, and we don’t remember where we put it.
There is lost faith, and there are lost people. Might we lose our children to unbelief if we are careless in teaching them? I wonder sometimes whether we tell them to put God first, but then model putting other things first. That is not a very reliable way to nurture faith in them. We might look back and see that we have been careless and they might end up lost.
So, you can get lost through distraction or carelessness. In the third parable, the prodigal son got himself lost. He stubbornly and methodically pressured his father to violate social tradition by granting his inheritance ahead of schedule. He left home and all the stupid chores, all the door-slamming arguments with his uptight older brother. Freedom! Friends! Fun! While the money lasted. Until he found himself alone, mistrusted and shunned as a foreigner, hungry and ashamed. Lost.
It’s easy to name the people in our lives who have willfully turned their backs on God. Drug addicts, child molesters, atheists. An estranged son or daughter. The people Jesus befriended were just that sort. Of course nobody bothered to listen to their stories, to learn why these “sinners” made such choices, or maybe had no other choices that they could see.
All of these ways of getting lost are not that hard to recognize if we’re paying attention: distractions, carelessness, willfulness. We’ve been warned about these things. “Oh be careful little eyes what you see” we sang in Sunday School. Santa—and God—knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake! Make the right choices, and stay out of trouble, or you’ll be lost.
The fourth kind of getting lost is more insidious. We don’t usually recognize it in ourselves, probably because it comes on so gradually that we become accustomed to it. It is tricky because it looks so much like righteousness, like the right way, but it leads us away from God just as surely as the others.
In fact, we end up being lost even though we haven’t gone anywhere. We haven’t left home, haven’t misplaced anything.
The older brother never left home. He always did what Dad asked him to. But his heart grew cold with resentment, and he tried to warm it up by working harder. He found that if he fell into bed exhausted every night, he didn’t have to think about the injustice, the shame of living with a father who had coddled his fool of a brother, a father who made a fool of himself by pining for his long lost son. If nothing else, he would show what a sensible, hard-working son looked like. Too bad Dad never noticed.
He might have looked as though he stayed home, but his heart had checked out. All he wanted to do any more was to keep his head down until his father died and he could try to rebuild his family’s reputation. The work he used to do to please his father now became a way to redeem himself in the eyes of the community. He figured out a way to make life work, even if it meant his jaw was sore every morning from clenching it in his sleep.
The older brother was not unlike the Israelites who built a golden calf at the bottom of the mountain. Moses commiserated with God for more than a month, much longer than they thought necessary. They didn’t agree with the way God was handling things. They knew every other people group had an idol to worship, so they thought they would just rig up something nice so they wouldn’t look stupid worshiping a God that was invisible.
Both the older brother and the Israelites were guilty of self-righteousness, because they decided what their goodness should look like. The older brother chose hard work and begrudging loyalty. The Israelites chose a golden sculpture. The scribes and Pharisees listening to these parables knew that Jesus was accusing them of self-righteousness too, because he said they honored the Sabbath laws and temple system more than they honored God.
It’s so easy to do though. Drafting your own rules about following God is appealing. You can have it custom made to fit your own sensibilities. Excuse the sins you prefer as, well, just being human. Adhere to the ones you like.
We all do it. I know which parts of following Jesus are more to my liking, and which ones aren’t. Which sins I can’t seem to master, and the good deeds that come easily to me. Righteousness crafted to fit my tastes. Self-righteousness. You do it too. We don’t like to admit it, but Jesus added the older brother to the third parable to make sure we would know that we are all lost. We try to avoid the first three—distractions, carelessness, willfulness, but the fourth will get us every time. If we are good at dodging the first three, then we are especially prone to the self-righteousness trap.
We might think Jesus is cruel, pointing out that we can’t escape the guilt of our sin. Thought you were good, eh? Aha! Caught you being self-righteous!
But that is not the purpose of this trio of parables. The point is not how bad we are, but how faithful God is. We are released from the shame of our sin because God doesn’t want us to suffer punishment for wandering away. God seeks us out. God does what it takes to find us in our lostness. God trudges through the brush and the rocks to find us, helpless as we are, and hauls us home. God peers into the dark places and shines the light of love in order to snatch us up and dust us off. God scans the horizon, waiting for us to appear and stumble into his arms. And God even unmasks our stubborn pride, our silly pretensions, and coaxes us to rejoice with him in a crazy celebration of forgiveness and renewal.
It doesn’t work any other way. We cannot pretend to be better than other sinners, because Jesus insists that we are just as lost as they are. And the lost do not find themselves. God finds them. God finds us, catches us red-handed in fact, but refuses to let us feel ashamed. Instead, God restores us and celebrates having us back. Us! Foolish, careless, distracted, willful, shameful, golden calf-worshiping, arrogant, self-righteous saps. You would think God would have better taste in friends. But for some reason God wants you and me in the circle of love, eating together and celebrating the goodness of it.
Yes, we are lost. Might as well admit it. And we can’t do anything to make up for it except let ourselves be found. Thanks be to God.
Proper 18C…Sunday between Sept. 4 and Sept. 10 inclusive
Note: This sermon was delivered on Sept. 13, 2013, hence the reference to past events.
We have spent the week listening to arguments for and against air strikes in Syria. Outrage over the government’s use of chemical weapons on its own people raises deep questions about the United States’ role in international affairs. It reminded me of the debate over whether to get involved in Europe when Hitler was wielding his terrible tools of death in service to his perverted ideals. The situation is different, but some of the issues are the same. Do we police the actions of other governments? How can we uphold the value of human life effectively? It seems that no matter what we choose to do, we are being hypocritical, self-serving, or pompous, for starters. It’s no wonder one congressman, a military veteran, accused us of being paralyzed by the issues instead of taking action. The issues are incredibly complex.
In one op ed piece, the writer quotes a witness to the horrible burns that Syrian victims suffered from chemical weapons. The man posed his questions to the world: “You are calling for peace. What kind of peace are you calling for? Don’t you see this?”
Jesus was thinning the ranks of disciples by warning them that the cost of following him is high. He urges us to see as that man in Syria asks us to see, to take the time to consider the various possible outcomes of our decision. He asks, “…what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.”
Well, that’s just the problem, isn’t it? We can’t figure out what the actual consequences will be if we take military action against Syria, or if we don’t. We can’t control the reactions of President Bashar al-Assad or anyone else in the region or the world. Does that mean we do nothing? That has its own risks too. As the aforementioned commentator said, “Let’s be humble enough to acknowledge that we can’t be sure of the answer and that Syria will be bloody whatever we do. We Americans are often so self-absorbed as to think that what happens in Syria depends on us; in fact, it overwhelmingly depends on Syrians…The truth is that there’s no glib or simple lesson from the past. We need to struggle, case by case, for an approach that fits each situation.”
And again, there’s the rub. Doing what is right isn’t always easy to figure out. Counting the cost isn’t simple at all. We are inclined to reduce our choices to mathematical equations like lives risked or saved, deadlines for military action, quantities of fire power and chemical weapons reduced. But nobody can measure the most important issues: attitudes of the international community toward oppressed peoples, the magnitude of suffering that is always present in our world regardless of chemical weapons used by one regime, the value of one human life.
Yet Jesus tells us to consider what will happen, to count the cost of following him. We don’t know the future about that any more than we can predict what will happen in the Middle East. So, if I take Jesus’ call to take up my cross and follow him, how will it affect my family? You might ask these kinds of questions: What will my family do if I choose to take the high road in their ongoing drama and exercise love instead of revenge? Will I struggle to make ends meet if I follow Jesus’ call to work with children—or study law, or stay at home with my kids, or move across the country—instead of going into the family business? Will my family treat me as an outsider then? Jesus asks us to decide to follow him with complete abandon, but he doesn’t want us to be surprised that it could exact a high price.
It’s interesting that Jesus uses the examples of family, of building a tower, and of going to war. Very different areas of life. But all can be fraught with emotion, and all involve huge risks. So Jesus isn’t sugar-coating the gospel here. He is honest about what is at stake.
We wish it weren’t so. Wouldn’t it be great just to be able to come to church, give your offerings, help your neighbors, and consider yourself a disciple? But Jesus says it is not that simple, because he will lead us to identify with the poor, and that is complicated.
You come to church. That is good. We need to worship God, to acknowledge God’s authority and accept God’s love. We need to support each other in the way of discipleship. But Jesus calls us to do more than sit in the pews together.
I’ll bet you have issues with each other. You’re human; this is bound to happen in any group of people, and Christians are no exception. You have a history together. Jesus doesn’t give you a pass on loving one another, no matter what has happened between you. He expects us to deal with our disagreements and personalities, to talk to each other and not pretend the issues aren’t there.
And as a church, we have to deal with the issues of being God’s people together. We didn’t go through a tense time the past three years because we wanted to; we had to face difficult questions together. This is the ongoing challenge of the church, to wrestle with our response to the pressing issues of our culture. Even if we ignored national and international politics, we still need to face the troubles of our neighbors here in northwest Iowa. Being the church, the body of Christ, is tough business. No wonder so many people opt out of it.
You can give your offerings without much thought, but as disciples, we are called to give more than we ordinarily would consider proper. We are called to risk trusting God with our possessions. Jesus said it in today’s lesson: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33) There’s a lot more to the subject of our giving, but we will save it for later this fall.
We can help our neighbors. That is so important in following Jesus. But here, too, it is more complicated than we want to deal with. I’ve been reading When Helping Hurts by a couple of men with a great deal of experience in helping neighbors near and far. They tell the story of Creekside Community Church, a mostly Caucasian congregation of young professionals in the downtown of an American city.
Around Christmas time, the congregation decided to reach out to the African-American residents of a housing project nearby. The residents struggled with high rates of unemployment, substance abuse, domestic violence, and teenage pregnancy. There were those at Creekside who expressed disdain for the project residents, and all the members were fearful of going there. But Pastor Johnson reminded them that Jesus cared for the residents, and Christmas was the perfect time to show God’s compassion for them.
Convinced of the simplistic notion that poverty is merely about lack of material resources, the church members decided to buy Christmas presents for the children in the housing project. They went door to door, singing Christmas carols and handing out wrapped toys to the children in each apartment. Once they got past the initial awkwardness, the members of Creekside were moved by the big smiles on the children’s faces and the obvious appreciation of the mothers. The congregation felt so good about the experience that they decided to expand the ministry. They delivered baskets of candy at Easter and turkeys at Thanksgiving.
But something interesting developed over the years. Pastor Johnson noticed that it got harder and harder to find enough volunteers to deliver the gifts. At the congregational meeting, he asked the question, wondering why enthusiasm for the ministry was waning. Nobody seemed to want to explain, until one member finally offered the answer. “Pastor, we are tired of trying to help these people out. We have been bringing them things for several years now, but their situation never improves. They just sit there in the same situation year in and year out. Have you ever noticed that there are no men in the apartments when we deliver the toys? The residents are all unwed mothers who just keep having babies in order to collect bigger and bigger welfare checks. They don’t deserve our help.”
What none of them realized was that there was a different reason they didn’t see men in the apartments. In many cases, when the fathers of the children heard the church members singing and peered through the peepholes to see their arms loaded with gifts, they were embarrassed and ran out the back doors of their homes. For a variety of reasons, low-income African-American males sometimes struggle to find and keep jobs. Consequently they feel a deep sense of shame and inadequacy, which in turn make it even more difficult to apply for jobs. These fathers do not feel “blessed” by a group of middle-to-upper-class Caucasians providing Christmas gifts for their children, especially because they could never afford to buy the gifts themselves. The ministry of Creekside didn’t serve to lift the residents out of poverty, and in fact may have made the fathers feel even less able to apply for jobs.
But the complication doesn’t end there. Not only was the ministry less helpful than the church members had imagined, it also affected their own attitudes. At first they developed a subtle sense of pride for helping people in need. Later, when they thought they detected a pattern and jumped to conclusions about that pattern, they became disdainful of the residents. And the gulf between the congregation and residents actually increased.
Following Jesus is hard. Jesus said we would have to take up our crosses in order to follow him. What did the cross mean for Jesus? It meant that he took our place. He submitted himself to the suffering we earned. He identified fully with us. That was no simple thing. Jesus, all-powerful and everywhere-present member of the Trinity, became a human being and endured everything that entailed.
Is Jesus calling us to put ourselves in the very place of others who are broken? He makes it pretty clear that that is what he expects of us. He doesn’t gloss over it or make it sound very appealing. He calls us to care enough to understand other people’s pain, to enter their world, to recognize the source of their despair, before we presume to help them. It takes time, commitment, and sweat.
That most likely has one of two effects on us. We might throw up our hands and say we don’t have that kind of time, and we settle for being fair weather fans of Jesus. Or we can be what Jesus calls disciples, which Jesus said involves the kind of focus and commitment that crowd out a lot of other pursuits in our lives. We can take the time to discern what Jesus is calling each of us to do, and what he is calling us collectively to do, what will actually address the root of the brokenness in our world, and do that.
So we need to not only offer Bible stories to children in our community, we need to offer friendship to their parents, encouragement for their marriages and financial challenges, solutions for child care and health insurance and decent jobs. We need to do more than hire someone to work with our youth; we need to get to know them personally and encourage them, tell them our stories and learn theirs. It may be complicated, but when you get involved, it can also be fun.
You know what all of this means. It means you will have to rearrange your priorities. Every disciple has to take stock of this from time to time, and clear away the clutter. Your schedule simply has to give, and you may have to drop some of the good causes you have taken on over the years. Does that seem harsh, like something Jesus wouldn’t ask you to do? Well, he does. He asks us to give up what seems good for what is best: offering his life, his hope to the world he loves.
Now I know that even at our best, even at our most-committed moments of our lives, we fall far short of what Jesus calls us to do. We have to rely on the grace of God to make us useful for the task anyway. What matters is whether we accept Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him. In so doing we accept the complexity and challenge as our own way of life, and set our lives in that direction through the Spirit’s guidance and momentum.
So I guess there is one thing that is not complicated about following Jesus: the choice. Because it’s all or nothing, according to the one who calls us. Jesus doesn’t offer us a menu of choices, from Sunday-only, low commitment discipleship all the way up to full status. He simply describes what a disciple looks like, and it is up to us to figure out whether he is describing us or not.
It really is complicated, and it can also be scary, even risky at times. Jesus said it would be. But he asks you to follow anyway, because his way is the way to the life that is truly life.
 Nicholas D. Kristof, “The Right Questions About Syria”, The New York Times Opinion Pages online: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/05/opinion/kristof-the-right-questions-on-syria.html?_r=0
 Corbett, Steve and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts, 2009. (Chicago: Moody Publishers)
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Proper 17C…Sunday between August 28 and September 3 inclusive
Antwone Fisher lies on his bunk dreaming. What he sees is a banquet of incredible proportions, made possible only in a dream world. He is a young boy in his dream. There are dozens of people standing around the table, smiling at him and waiting for him to be seated and take his first bite. It is a scene of welcome and abundance. He sits at the head of the table and a plate of thick, fluffy pancakes is place before him. Before he can take a bite, he hears the wake-up whistle, and the dream abruptly vanishes. Antwone is returned to the real world, where he is a sailor in the Navy, and his ship is docked. This is the true story of Antwone Fisher, dramatized in a movie of the same name.
Antwone makes his way to the bathroom where he begins shaving. Another sailor begins to taunt Antwone, and we see him trying to control his anger. It doesn’t take long before his rage takes over, and he attacks his tormentor. As a result, he is arrested and disciplined by the naval authorities.
A condition of his return to duty is that Antwone must see a psychiatrist. If you want to picture the professional who receives the charge of treating this sailor, imagine Denzel Washington, who plays Dr. Davenport in the movie. The doctor eventually learns that Antwone was badly abused by his foster parents as a child. He has no parents, having been born while his mother was in prison. He is haunted by the fact that she never claimed him when she was released. His father was murdered before he was born.
We’re shown the story of Antwone’s gradual healing, but he still struggles with his anger, getting in trouble again and again when he cannot control his fury. His therapist insists that he must try and find his birth family to lay the demons of his rage to rest. And so he makes his way back in his hometown of Detroit, where he calls all the possible leads he can find. And finally, he finds his father’s sister.
Imagine the fear of approaching a family that never knew you existed. Would Antwone be rejected yet again? Would they be embarrassed or angry? Antwone was fortunate, because when the front door was opened to his aunt’s house, she embraced him and welcomed him. In the course of their conversation, he learned that his mother was still alive, living only a few blocks away.
Antwone fearfully approached his mother. She was living in a spare apartment, clearly a person who had declared defeat to the forces that had rocked her life. Antwone gently spoke with her and asked her why she had never claimed him, never contacted him. In response she merely wept silently. Before he left he told her that he was a good person. He forgave her and kissed her, thus beginning to release himself from the weight of not knowing what she was like or what her motives were.
And then Antwone returned to the home of his aunt. When he approached her house, he saw many cars parked out front. When he went in the front door, he was greeted by a house full of people grinning, applauding, hugging him. Children held up hastily drawn signs of construction paper with his name on them.
And then it happened. They ushered him to a closed double doors, which were slowly opened to reveal a banquet. Sumptuous foods were surrounded by the older members of Antwone’s birth family. The room fell silent as the matriarch gestured for him to come close. She grasped his hands, then reached up to caress his cheeks and spoke the word he had longed to hear all his life: “Welcome.” The banquet was real this time, and he—Antwone, who had been told countless times that he was worthless—he was the guest of honor.
Whom do we invite to the banquet? Jesus said to invite not our friends or relatives or rich neighbors. In the culture of that time, the social levels were well-defined and carefully maintained. You invited certain people to dine with you to maintain your social status. But Jesus, as he so often did, challenged the customs that made his hearers feel secure. He told them to disregard the unwritten rules and invite people who were considered beneath them.
Was Jesus telling us how to throw a dinner party? Maybe. But I think he was describing the kingdom of God as was his habit. In God’s kingdom, we don’t have to conduct ourselves carefully, through social commerce that raises or lowers our value. Instead, we can see one another as he sees us.
Jesus never regarded the poor, the lame, the diseased as less worthy than anyone else. He would not allow the labels of “poor” or “leprous” or “fallen woman” to define people. He invited them in to his circle of friendship and well-being, and honored them. He saw beyond their afflictions as if they didn’t even exist. He saw the people as human beings, beloved, worthy.
What if we looked beyond the labels? What if we welcomed people as Jesus does? Are our doors open to everyone, considering all who come as those we’ve been waiting to bless? Are there places at our collective banquet table here, empty and waiting for anybody to come and eat with us? Do we even see the people who have been called worthless for so long that they become virtually invisible—people like Antwone?
How are newcomers and visitors treated when they come? Do we introduce ourselves and extend a warm welcome? Do we invite them to join us for coffee and then ask them questions about themselves? Of course it is important to remind ourselves to do this once in a while.
But there is more to it, I believe. Beyond that effort to be more welcoming, I wonder if we even realize that those who enter our doors have something important to offer to us. They are not only recipients of our hospitality; they can teach us about life and about God, and about ourselves.
We need to go back to our story. It is not finished with Antwone’s banquet. He went back to see Dr. Davenport. On that day he was surprised to have his doctor disclose the hardships in his own life, and then to hear him say, “It’s because of you, Antwone, that I am a better man, a better doctor.” Doctor and patient had become more than therapist and patient. Dr. Davenport had opened his life to what a broken young man could teach him. And so they became friends, both better for having known the other.
It is always easier to be the giver. It gives you control. Instead, we need to let our guests teach us. We are called to welcome the strangers, the ones with labels in our community that keep them from being accepted into the social network as “worthy” of our friendship. As we invite them in, we need to let them show us what is behind the well-worn labels. We can’t control the relationship as easily as we might like, but we will get a genuine glimpse of the kingdom of God.
Jesus calls us to take that risk. He wants us to be intentional in our hospitality. To choose to welcome outsiders and one another to the point that it is out of our control. To get past the labels we have put on one another all these years. To go beyond our first impression of anyone who walks in our doors. To go into the community and invite the ones too long considered unworthy, and show them that they are worthy in God’s eyes and in ours. To get to know them. Isn’t that what happens when you share a meal? You get to know someone. And you find that they have something to give you that you never knew before.
We share the space around the table of our Lord today. We kneel together at the railing. Is everyone truly welcome? Do we actually know the people kneeling next to us? We can, if we open our lives, our hearts and our minds to what we can teach each other. We have so much to give to one another, especially because we have first received grace from our Lord Jesus Christ. And so as we approach the banquet God has generously laid before us, let us say to one another as he says to us, “Welcome!”
 “Antwone Fisher” is distributed by 20th Century Fox.
The Gift of Sabbath
Luke 13:10-17; Isaiah 58:9b-14
Proper 16C….Sunday between August 21 and 28 inclusive
My daughter and I were enjoying a long-anticipated trip together on the northwest coast of Italy, hiking on a Sunday morning between the quaint, old villages of Cinque Terre. We wandered past vineyards hanging heavy with white grapes and stopped often to gaze at the beautiful Mediterranean below. As we approached one of the villages, we could hear faint music which grew in volume as we got closer. Our path took us right past a centuries-old church, whose doors were open to the fresh air.
We could hear the hymn ending and the liturgy beginning, all in a language we could not understand. It was lovely, ethereal. I felt an inner tug, a yearning to linger. We paused a while and listened to our brothers and sisters worshipping God. It was only a moment, but it refreshed our souls and reminded us that it was the Sabbath Day.
This is what our faith is meant to do. It calls to us when we are not giving God our full attention, assuring us that we are God’s beloved and that we are not alone. It often lifts us from the mundane or distressing to show us the beauty of God’s gifts and the wonder of God’s presence.
There is a very specific gift that God has given us to enable us to experience this joy and relief on a regular basis. It is called Sabbath. Perhaps you have never thought of this as a gift, or maybe you have forgotten what a treasure it is.
It is significant that there are several stories in the Gospels where Jesus got into trouble for healing people on the Sabbath. Today’s Gospel text is one example. Why would Jesus do this? And what would be the purpose of the writers highlighting these occasions? It seems that Jesus was deliberately violating Sabbath rules to shake up the prevailing system. He had to be doing it intentionally, because every single Jewish male had been drilled in the holy writings in Hebrew school, and the Sabbath laws were as fundamental to them as the multiplication tables were to you and me.
I grew up in a home where the Sabbath was strictly observed. All homework and housework was done on Saturday, with no exceptions other than the work surrounding our meals. We would never buy anything on Sunday, which wasn’t a problem because nothing was open in our little town anyway. The most painful part was that we could not go swimming, because by doing so we would be making the lifeguards work. We had worship at my father’s rural parish twice on Sunday, mandating dresses for the girls and dress pants and shoes for the boys.
If we ever complained, my mother told us that we had it easy compared to the Sundays of her childhood, where even card-playing was prohibited, except for “Rook,” which had something to do with the kinds of pictures that were on the cards.
Of course we want to follow the commandments of God, but when the focus comes the law itself instead of the purposes for which they were given, well, Jesus had to intervene.
I’m not sure what is worse, the strictness of Sabbath keeping that is called Sabbatarianism, or the increasingly prevailing practice of treating Sunday like any other day, in fact filling it with housework, ballgames, and any work you couldn’t finish during the week. Even more distressing is the burden on too many people—perhaps you—to work seven days a week just to provide a subsistence income for your families. Surely you would benefit from one day off per week, but you can’t afford it.
Well, we are not going to solve the economic problems of laborers today, nor put a dent into the pressures of our culture to fill up every moment with work or entertainment or productivity. What I would like to do instead, just for a few minutes, is to turn our gaze to a priceless gift. I’d like to give you a taste so rich and wondrous that you will not be satisfied unless you return to it and yes, even become addicted to it. I guess I could say I’d like to make Sabbath junkies out of all of you.
See, I have done it both ways, and I won’t go back. I won’t return to the life where I feel I have to prove my worth by earning money, or doing good works, or being a perfect mother or wife or pastor or friend and working myself to death seven days a week in the process. I don’t have to prove anything because I know, deep in my soul, that I am God’s beloved. When I forget it, or start to listen to the persistent gremlins that niggle at me to fill every single day to the maximum with good work and good things and good friends, Sabbath time rolls around again, and I can sit back and see those little stinkers for what they are: my own insecurities and the insecurities of everyone else.
When I learned to stop, really stop for one day a week and rest from my labors, I could see what God wanted to show me. Like the people of Israel who were the first to be told about Sabbath, God wanted to show me who I really am, and that I can trust God that six days of labor is enough. See, all the Israelites had known was slavery, oppression, and hard, hard labor seven days a week in Egypt. God not only freed them from oppression, but from being used up by work.
God is not impressed with our exhaustion, but tells us, in the words of Jesus, “Come to me, and I will give you rest.” Not just a good Sunday nap, but relief, respite, and the peace of knowing that all is well. That is true rest, and it is the kind of well-being we are meant to enjoy. When God created humans and said, “They are good,” it was not just a statement about good workmanship. God was delighted to befriend us and cherish our relationship, to be our Source of life and contentment. Observing Sabbath gives u the time and perspective to explore that relationship with God.
The prophet Isaiah gives us a sense of it by reminding us that we don’t have to stress and fuss over endless projects. We can actually practice a more savoring pace in which we appreciate God’s provision, God’s creativity, and God’s companionable guidance. We can be restored when we stop busying ourselves with judging one another (“remove…the point of the finger”) and instead look around to see who could use our help. We can join in God’s great project of restoring others to the well being they lack. We can “take delight in the LORD” instead of wondering whether or not we are good enough for God to like us. We gather together on Sundays to remember this.
The promise in Isaiah 58 is that God will give us what was given to Jacob. Remember him? He was a striver, an achiever if there ever was one. He knew what he wanted, and he made sure he got it, even if it meant stealing his brother’s inheritance, working for seven years in order to marry his beautiful wife Rachel, or tricking his father-in-law out of a whole herd of livestock. He finally met his match when he listened to an uncharacteristic inner yearning to stop for a night alone by the Jabbock River. That night he wrestled with a mysterious figure, and had to claim disability for a lame hip the rest of his life. It gave him plenty of time to sit and realize that all God wanted to give him all along was life and love and the simplest but richest of all blessings, the companionship of God himself.
Which is what we get when we treat Sabbath time as I believe it is meant to be experienced. It is a time to step back from the daily grind, time enough to remember how great is our God and how blessed we are to be called God’s own beloved children. Time to get some perspective on what it is we do with the rest of our time.
Because if we don’t stop, if we keep dancing to the tune of all the other parents and friends and coworkers and those pesky gremlins inside of us, there won’t be much left of us. How much joy can you get when all you have left to offer to your family, or your church, or your friends, or even yourself, is a worn-out remnant who doesn’t even know who you are? Functioning with a cluttered life has you making judgments on the fly, always reacting and never taking the time to make thoughtful choices. Never feeling gratitude for the incredible abundance all around you. Never realizing that you are enough and God is enough, without all that striving. If there is anything I learned from the Sabbaths of my youth, it is that idea that I really can rest and have enough time and energy for all the things that need to be done the rest of the week.
I have seen families and friends implode from running all the time, tragic examples of adultery and burnout and broken relationships, all in the pursuit of some weird notion of success. All of them were convinced that they were doing good things, even godly work. I thought I was.
Friends, life is more than a list of things to do. Please do not listen to those internal or external voices that nag you to work harder, work more, get your kids into every sport and activity. There is a side of you that yearns to engage with God, and with the world, at a savoring pace and not feeling pushed all of the time. God does not push, does not demand, but is that still, small voice inside you that calls you to wellness and joy. “Listen to the other voice within, the neglected voice; it is trying to save you. Let it.”[i]
In Luke’s story of Jesus today, the Lord was teaching about something else in the synagogue when the real object lesson showed up. Jesus noticed her because that is what he does. He notices us, and calls us to the same kind of awareness. He heals us of our burdens just as surely as he healed that woman of the infirmity that had her bent over all those years. And he often does it when we stop long enough—observe Sabbath—and notice the healing he offers us and then receive it.
If keeping Sabbath feels like just another burden, then please discard your version of it and give it another chance. It is meant to free you, to refresh you, to give you life. Keeping a Sabbath obligation for its own sake might make you feel good about pleasing God, might even give you the satisfaction of feeling and looking like a “real” Christian. But it is a hollow, fleeting pleasure.
Sabbath is indeed meant to be a consistent practice, but that is the only way it is to be regarded as a rule. Even if you have to work more than is fair, ask God to help you find a way to carve out and guard time for this. What better habit could you cultivate than to return to the One who loves you, to accept God’s invitation to be refreshed in a love that simply comes to you from the heart of all that is?[ii]
This is the beauty and treasure I commend to you, my friends. Receive it as gratefully as you receive the body and blood of Christ today in the sacrament. I speak to you as one who is driven to do the best and be the best. I have seen burnout up close more than once. I have learned to build Sabbath into my daily and weekly practice. I hear the singing voices like those in that little church on the coast of Italy, and answering that divine call has saved my life. It will save you too. Thanks be to God.
[i] Jones, Kirk Byron, 2003. Addicted to Hurry: Spiritual Strategies for Slowing Down. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press), p. 70.
[ii] Rev. Dr. Al Janssen, in “A Sabbath People.”
Fire and Hammer
Luke 12:49-56; Jeremiah 23:23-29
Proper 15C…Sunday Between August 14 and 21 inclusive
Some time ago I read this in the news: A father and his sons in England were cleaning out their garage when they came across a mysterious object. Not knowing what it was but seeing that it was about the size and shape of a rugby ball, they played an impromptu game with it in the backyard. Later a neighbor happened by and recognized that the object they were playing with was an unspent bomb from World War II. After taking it to the authorities, they discovered that their neighbor was right, and that the bomb was still active!
Imagine, playing ball with a bomb without realizing it. Not knowing that what you are casually tossing across the backyard could fall to the ground and blow up the neighborhood!
I’ve got a bomb here. (Bible) When you think of the Bible, what comes to mind? Maybe the Ten Commandments…the gospel of Jesus…Beatitudes…1 Corinthians 13—love is patient, love is kind, etc. Or maybe verses that you memorized: God so loved the world…the Lord is my shepherd…trust in the Lord with all your heart…etc. I doubt that any of us memorized Luke 12:51—“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Hang on! That doesn’t sound like the angel’s promise when Jesus was born—“peace on earth, good will toward men.” Was Jesus having a bad day?
Maybe. Jesus sounds pretty stressed out. He is impatient for his “baptism” to happen—most likely referring to his death and what it would accomplish. Since he was human like us, he probably wanted to get it over with. He seems impatient with the crowds too. So he puts it plainly to everyone: don’t expect me to be the magic answer to all your problems. Don’t expect everybody to like you if you follow me. Chances are you will make more enemies than friends if you do what I ask of you.
Jeremiah understood this. He had a lot of people who didn’t like him. But he was faithful to God, as much as he knew how. And he knew that the word he was carrying around was a bomb: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
How have we lost the impact of God’s fiery word? How has the hammer blow of God’s truth been softened among us? How can we hear God’s word of truth—the facts of God’s dynamic power and love piercing through our world—and not be flattened by it?
I suspect there are a few reasons, and I won’t presume to put them in any particular order of their impact or influence on any one individual present here today.
First, we are so accustomed to hearing promises and grand schemes from aspiring politicians that have later fizzled under the weight of responsibility or politics (or both) once they have actually made it into office. We generally accept the notion that no politician ends up being as good as we hoped nor as bad as we feared. We are used to being disappointed. So, if we don’t see evidence of God’s promises being carried out in our immediate situation, we are not surprised. And we might then subconsciously assume that they don’t carry any more weight than a flimsy campaign promise.
Another possible reason may be the sheer volume of words we have to contend with. With all the books, newspapers, textbooks, recipes and handbooks that we need to wade through, not to mention all the websites we expose ourselves to, the words of the Bible can easily be regarded as just more of the same. “God, the creator of the vast universe—loves you!” That’s nice. Let’s see how the markets did today…
In the midst of all that information overload, we also need to take responsibility for the quality of the message that you have been given in the church. Have we ourselves—pastors and Sunday school teachers, that is—shown in our own demeanor that we are awed by what we are teaching? Have we presented the Word of God with the reverence it deserves? I’m not saying this hasn’t happened here at Bethlehem; I’m not in a place to make that judgment. But we can’t be surprised if our college students have been more engaged by philosophies they are discovering once they leave, if they haven’t been challenged to think about and embrace the truth here before they leave. If they don’t see the words of Jesus living in us, and if they don’t hear us talking about it as something precious and vital to us, how can we expect them to take it seriously for themselves?
We need to be faithful to our baptismal promises to share the Word and live it for our children. We need to give all the time and money it takes to plant that Word of life in the soil of their consciousness before it becomes too crowded with other world views or too hardened by disillusionment. And I as your pastor must spend enough time in the Scriptures and crafting the proclamation so that you will hear it well. I need to let it be the fire and the hammer among us, and not get in its way.
What else has blunted the effect of God’s Word in our lives? We have to face the reality of our attitudes. Have we developed habits of hearing the Scriptures that keep them from transforming us? Do we translate the words of Jesus in our own minds to make them more palatable to our comfortable lives? Jesus says to visit the sick, give to the poor, lay down our lives, tell people about God, love our enemies. And what do we want to hear? Hire a pastor to do that stuff, let the church committees deal with evangelism and stewardship. Jesus says to love my enemies, but God must not know my enemies; that doesn’t apply in this case. We hear what we want to hear.
We have to be honest with ourselves: our own disobedient hearts blunt the truth of God’s word. We don’t experience the thrill of bringing people to Christ or the stunning outcome of seeing our money at work to save lives because we don’t obey the Word. We don’t understand how the Holy Spirit works in us because we think that’s just for hyper-religious people somewhere else. Folks, this attitude is called sin, and it deadens our faith. It blocks the flow of God’s love. It muffles the impact of God’s truth for our world.
One other reason we might not get the full effect of the Scriptures. Too many people have used them for all the wrong reasons. They claim to represent God, but they speak judgment, or instant prosperity. Somebody with an audience cuts and pastes Bible verses together to suit their agenda. We are suspicious of what they are saying, but we don’t know the Bible well enough to know why. So the edges of God’s word get worn off from being abused.
All of these things keep the fire and hammer of God’s truth away from our consciousness. And yet we gather every week. What do we expect to happen? Do we want to be licked by the fire of God’s Word? Do we sense that we need reworking with that hammer?
Well, I think we read the Bible together here and try to listen, try to get past the clamor of so many other voices, try to hear a word that will speak truth to our lives. We confess our sin that keeps God’s word at arm’s length. And when we get a glimpse of the truth about God, when the Spirit quickens our hearts to know that this is the real presence of God among us, the spirit within us that God created recognizes it. Aha! This love, this forgiveness is what I need! This is the God who was and who is and who is to come! This is the God I can depend on to tell me the truth—which hurts sometimes, yes, but it is what I do need to hear. This is the God who chose me and gave me a job to do. This is truth worth dying for! This is Someone who means more to me than even my own family.
Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that the result of his message would be that some families would break apart. We don’t like to hear that. But think of this: isn’t the gospel of Jesus Christ so much more worth fighting over than a piece of land or an old grudge? Those are the petty things families fall apart over. Man, those things are so inconsequential compared to the things Jesus tells us to believe and do. I’d rather lose a friendship or an inheritance over being consumed by God’s love than over some argument about a plot of land, wouldn’t you?
Jesus didn’t come to make us all feel good. He came to give us peace with God. That peace came at a cost. His life was the price he paid, and my guess is that he considered that a bargain just to win you back. His own family thought he was nuts, tried to get him out of the public eye so he wouldn’t embarrass them. But that didn’t stop Jesus. He just redefined what “family” means.
To Jesus, family is not about who shares your DNA or the table at Christmas time. To him, family is all those who have the same bond with God together. All those who call Jesus “Lord” are members of this family. And it’s his word that we trust—sometimes in opposition to our parents’ words—because he showed us what it means to love, to be family in his name.
Following God’s word in all its truth will not make you popular with everyone. It might even put you on the outs with a brother or sister. But it is truth that is a fire and a hammer. It makes a difference. It is a live bomb, one that will kill off all the parts of you that are dead anyway. It is worth dying for too, and it will change the world if we listen to it and let it—let Him—live among us.
God Holds the Pen
Proper 14C…Sunday Between August 7 and 13 inclusive
Some years ago I took our two children on a trip to New England and New York to visit friends and family. My college friend Cheryl had planned an itinerary during our visit that included a whale watch. For us Midwestern landlubbers, it was a daring adventure. Although the weather forecast was sketchy, we went ahead and boarded a small vessel with a cabin and an upper deck.
It wasn’t long before the winds came up, making the sea choppy. We saw the heavy clouds approaching and winced as the cold rain began to pelt us. Ponchos were handed out, and we resigned ourselves to the conditions as we continued to scan the waves for whales. Some of the passengers grew ill as they took refuge in the cabin. I followed my friends’ instructions to sit on the outer deck, watch the horizon, and press my wrist at the pressure point that would prevent the nausea of motion sickness. My daughter shivered next to me.
My daughter and I were miserable, but we put on a brave face for our friends’ sake. We had no choice but to ride it out. We had no control over the situation except to wear ponchos to stay dry and huddle together for comfort. At least we didn’t get seasick.
Meanwhile, my son was on the upper deck with Cheryl’s husband Jim, laughing gleefully as he hung on while the boat bucked along.
We disembarked gratefully, anticipating the prospect of changing into the warm flannel shirts Cheryl kept in her car for emergencies. We passed a man who was arguing with the tour operator, demanding a refund because we hadn’t seen any whales. He was told that the agreement he signed stated that there was no guarantee of that. Clearly he was frustrated at having no control over the situation.
That’s just it, isn’t it? We are reminded over and over again that we are not in control, and sometimes it makes us angry. A cancer diagnosis, a child who has gone off the rails, losing your job, dealing with low commodity prices or hail on your crops, living with someone who is sometimes hurtful. They make us feel helpless.
The gospel we read from Luke 12 this morning reminds us of this. There are times when I wish I could rewrite Scripture to suit my fancy. Here is what the gospel lesson might sound like, in the New Deb Mechler Version:
32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms, just enough so you don’t feel guilty. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in until you get to heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. You know: life insurance, diversified investments, land, trust funds and so on. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, at least you have something to fall back on.
35 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Better yet, make sure he makes an appointment so you’ll know when he is coming. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, you can do whatever you want until it gets close to the time he’ll be coming. Then you can shape up and be “alert.” he will fasten his belt and have them When Jesus arrives, tell him to sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them so you can serve him a delicious meal. 8If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves because they were all cleaned up and ready to face Jesus.
39 ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he* would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ But don’t worry, because with a few calculations, you can predict pretty closely when he’ll be there! Then you can have your act together in time for the big moment.
We don’t get to change the Bible to suit our liking, and we don’t get to write the whole script for our own lives. God holds the pen. Just ask Abraham about trying to be in control. He obeyed God and left his homeland to go to the land God promised to give to him and his descendants. In the process, there were serious bumps along the way, including famine. So Abraham took his entourage to Egypt where there was food. While he was there, he figured he’d better call his attractive wife Sarah his sister instead, so nobody would kill him to get to her. He compromised his wife’s safety and his own integrity instead of trusting God. He followed God part of the way, but didn’t trust God all the way.
I don’t know anyone—including myself—who isn’t guilty of the same thing. We don’t understand how God will keep the promises in our lives, so we orchestrate events in our favor. Sometimes things seem to turn out all right, so we keep doing it. But we miss out on a deeper trust in God and never know what God had in mind for us if we had trusted God to lead us and provide for us.
Faith is hard work! There is a reason we need God’s help, why we are given the Holy Spirit in our baptism and our daily walk. We cannot do it on our own. Waiting on God, stepping back to let God lead, being still: these are all functions of faith that do not come naturally to us, because we want to be in control.
Here’s the good news: we do have control over a great deal if you think about it. God gives us a lot of freedom to live creatively in many aspects of life. A few examples.
The gospel text tells us that we have control over what we give to God. (Luke 12: 32-33) Stewardship of our money is just one aspect of that, but it is an important one. Giving our finances to the work of caring for the world and the church is an aspect of everyone’s discipleship. Jesus said that our hearts follow our treasures, so if we throw our lot in with God, our hearts will be turned to God too. (Luke 12:33-34)
I remember a man who lived on the campus of St. Luke Homes and Services while I was their chaplain. Ken lived in an apartment in The Highlands (independent living) while his wife was in the nursing home next door. Every once in a while, Ken would approach me, asking me to help him find a way to give. Once he knew about a needy family in his church, so I helped him arrange an anonymous gift to them. He gave his offerings regularly, but he delighted in finding special projects where his money would make a difference.
We have control over how much we give of ourselves to God too. It is the ongoing task of every believer to identify what holds us back from loving God with all of our being, and to relinquish these things to God. I have never met anyone who has regretted this way of life, the gradual but steady abandonment of all things in committing oneself to God. God honors what we offer and blesses us in the process.
We also have control over how we will receive what God offers to us. This is a struggle for many of us. We would rather be in the giving position, which puts us in control. But Jesus said he will come and serve us. (Luke 12:37) That is what Jesus wants to do for us all the time, so we need to accept it as we follow him. It is humbling to receive from Jesus. Remember when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet? Peter didn’t like it one bit. But Jesus gently instructed him that to be in relationship with him means to let him wash us and serve us.
We practice this receiving every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gives us himself, broken to bless us. But receiving is also a stance we can take as we read the Bible, and when we meditate on our own about God’s love for us. We receive from God when we pay attention to God’s Word, God’s presence, and God’s hand at work all around us.
Finally, we also have control over whether or not we trust God, what the gospel writer calls being “ready.” (Luke 12:37, 40) When we expect God to show up, we are much more likely to see God breaking in and acting. This is the essence of faith. Whenever I see the word “faith” in the Bible, I insert the words “trusting God,” which is a much more personal and expectant way to understand the relationship with God that is called faith.
Isn’t it interesting that the writer describes the coming of the Lord as surprising and arresting as having thief sneak in? What might he want to steal from us? Perhaps he wants to take away our mistrust and our fears, and all the things that clutter our lives and keep us from trusting him. But I think the point really is that it will be at a time you and I do not expect. We do not have control over the Lord! The longer we follow him, the more we realize what a good thing that is.
God is in control. God holds the pen, and writes the script. I love this verse of an old hymn called “The Love of God:”
Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole if stretched from sky to sky.
God writes love all over your life and mine, and God gives each of us a pen to write our part: to receive God’s love, to pass it along to others in our giving, and to trust the God who loves us. Thanks be to God.
Note: This message was delivered on August 5, 2007, when a drought threatened the crops in the local rural community. In 2016, we are in the throes of a presidential election that has everyone feeling very uneasy. In both cases, the good news of this text applies.
Proper 13C…Sunday between July 31 and August 6 inclusive
Trusting God with Your Future
What’s so bad about building bigger barns if you need them? Does building a big barn qualify you as a “rich fool,” as some translations call the man in the parable? Here’s what Soren Kierkegaard says about it:
“It is certainly laudable and pleasing to God that a man sows and harvests and gathers into barns, that he works to find food; but if he is willing to forget God and to believe that he supports himself with his labor, then he becomes uneasy about his livelihood. The richest man that ever lived, if he forgets God, and believes that he supports himself by his labor, has financial anxieties…” That sounds a lot like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, doesn’t it?
Last week I heard a little commentary on the radio by someone who wrote a book about what he calls “Richistan.” This is what he calls a fictional country where all the millionaires live. He said that the people who are now worth one to ten million dollars would be considered the middle class in Richistan. Apparently there are a lot more multi-multi millionaires than there used to be. Of course, a million doesn’t go as far as it used to either. ‘Doesn’t go that far on a farm, does it? This author went on to tell about a “rich camp” where he went to do research. Twenty-somethings go there to learn how to deal with their inherited wealth. Many of them have no idea how to work or to manage money. The author predicted that many of them will fritter away their money very quickly because of their lack of skills and maturity with regard to finances. Easy come, easy go, I guess.
The rich man in Jesus’ parable was more careful than that. He built barns to preserve and protect the wealth of his harvest. He had to deal with the problem of abundance. Did I say that right? “The problem of abundance?” How can anybody have too much?
It would be easy for us to focus on the amount of wealth people have and classify them as “good” or “bad” accordingly. But I don’t think that is what Jesus is getting at. True, he does say elsewhere that riches do make it harder for us to enter the kingdom—they can certainly become too important in our lives to the point of idolizing them and turning one’s back on God.
But this man in Jesus’ story was doing more than admiring his riches. He was staking his life on them. He figured his future was secure because he could pay for it. He would never lack for anything. Set for life, he was. Except his life was a lot shorter than he anticipated. He ended up dying in his sleep. And the question God posed to him was, “Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”
Well, the answer to that should be easy, right? His kids will get a big inheritance. They’d better sign up for “rich camp” to figure out what to do with all their wealth. But the parable could just be recycled for them too, couldn’t it? They had no idea how much time they would have to “eat, drink and be merry.”
It almost seems like a cruel joke to be reading this text today, when we are all getting worried about the yield this year, if we get anything at all from this crop. We’ve been praying for rain for a month now. What is usually a rewarding drive through the countryside is becoming worrisome and depressing. What will happen if the crops dry up altogether?
I hesitated to say this out loud, as if putting it into words might somehow make it more likely to happen. We aren’t superstitious, and yet it seems almost irresponsible to verbalize the possibility. But if we are going to face a crisis, shouldn’t we face it together, as God’s people? Can we gather around the table in faith and trust that, even as God provided the sacrifice for our salvation, God will also provide all that we need for our future survival?
Do you remember this verse from Philippians 4—“I can do everything through him who gives me strength?” Do you realize what Paul was talking about in that letter? He was telling his readers that he had been rich and he had been poor. He had learned to be content in either circumstance because Christ gave him the strength to deal with whatever transpired in his life. He could be at peace no matter what his financial status was.
One clue to how Paul could experience this peace is found in the letter to Colossians, the section that follows the one we read today. It reads like this:
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord* has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ* dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.* 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
This is what real life—a secure future—looked like for Paul. I chatted with someone this week whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. Since I talked with Jeanine last, she has been diagnosed with MS. Her husband has lost his job. They have no health insurance. They are wishing they didn’t sell their company several years ago, and they are wondering how they are going to make it. Yet Jeanine seemed completely at peace. She said that her husband seems closer to God than he has ever been. They consciously, daily trust God’s promise to provide for their needs. They have been wealthy, and now they are impoverished, but they know that God will take care of them, and this gives them the hope they need for every day. Their lives are hidden with Christ in God.
If, like the rich man in the parable, we focus on our own possessions, our own ability to produce wealth and make it secure, we will find our life of contentment to be insecure, perhaps even very short. If instead we set our hearts on things above, as Paul exemplified, and as my friend Jeanine has learned to do, we will know the security of God’s loving provision, no matter what form it takes. Paul says that our lives are hidden with Christ in God. That is where our hearts are located—not in our barns or our closets or our bank accounts. Our future is secure because we are God’s. As we come to the table this morning, we give thanks to God that this is most certainly true.
 Kierkegaard, Soren. “The Wild Dove” in Weavings, May/June 1990 (Vol. V, No. 3), p. 28-30.
Proper 12C…Sunday between July 24 and 30 inclusive
Jesus Teaches Us to Pray
“Teach us how to pray.” Imagine being able to make that request of Jesus Christ himself. That’s what the disciples did. They saw the impact that the time Jesus spent in prayer had on his ministry. They wanted to tap into that kind of spiritual power.
Jesus was happy to grant their wish. “Pray like this,” he began. “Our Father…” Let’s stop right there. You and I could rattle off the rest of the prayer without thinking, but maybe we are neglecting the most important words of the prayer. I say that because what you believe about God has a direct influence on your prayers.
Think of it. If you think of God mostly as an angry judge, you probably won’t want to talk with God very often, and when you do, you will approach God meekly, maybe feeling guilty, imagining a frown on God’s face perhaps. If you believe God has gone off and left you to fend for yourself, you might be angry with God, if you pray at all.
Virtually every passage we read in the Bible tells us something about God, and thus affects our prayers. Take today’s readings for example. In Genesis 18, Abraham bargains with God for the city of Sodom. That’s pretty gutsy. To think that God would tolerate such talk requires belief in a patient, understanding God. This God invites our questions and allows us to come near. This God looks past Abraham’s audacious assumption that he is on a level playing field with God. This God listens, and responds. That is something we can glean from Genesis 18.
We read from Colossians 2 also. Quite a different kind of writing, and subject. Paul is making an argument for the church at Colosse that God is all-powerful, Jesus is God’s Son, and this God cared enough to become a human who died on a cross to redeem us. (He was presenting these arguments because there were folks in that area who were spreading the idea that Jesus wasn’t really God.)
What does Paul say about Jesus? He says we’d better get used to giving thanks, because this Jesus is fully God, ruler above all earthly kings. He has authority over everything. He is the risen one in whom God has made us alive. He is the incarnate one, the God-with-us in human flesh. He nailed our sins to the cross through his own suffering and death, so we are forgiven once and for all. If that doesn’t make you want to give thanks, nothing will! We could spend a lot of time just giving thanks for all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ the Son.
But Jesus doesn’t tell us to use a hundred names to address God, even though we could. He starts us off with “our Father.” Even though God is King, our Creator, our righteous judge, and a thousand other titles God is worthy of, Jesus instructs us to go to God as we would a parent.
How wonderful to be given that privilege. Paul expresses the wonder of it in 1 John 3: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Go to God as one who loves you, who is committed to you. Not as some kind of tradesman, even a divine one, who treats us as those who have broken our contract with him. God could do that. We have broken the covenant God made with us. We don’t deserve God’s good gifts. But God is committed to us as a Father is to a child, and invites us to conversation that is intimate and life-giving.
So if you ran out of breath after saying “our Father,” you would be OK. Those words would bless God and give you peace. It is a loaded phrase, and no words can really describe the extent, the depth of the relationship anyway.
Not only does Jesus—God’s own Son!—give us a pattern for prayer, he tells us more to encourage the relationship as a child to a father. First he refers to the cultural mandate to provide hospitality. The expectation is that hospitality is to be offered as generously as possible to anyone who shows up at your door. If you have to run to the neighbor and borrow some bread, no matter what time of day or night, the neighbor is supposed to understand the gravity of the situation and help out.
But this neighbor is sleepy. He has to be coaxed. He won’t do what society insists he must do, except his friend won’t stop pounding on the door.
Jesus isn’t saying that God is sleepy and has to be awakened and convinced to help us. He is making a comparison from the lesser to the greater. Even a lazy, grumpy friend will give you a loaf of bread. How much more can we depend on our loving Father who is always alert to our needs?
He continues, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
OK, you say. That sounds very nice. But God doesn’t answer my prayers all the time, even the things that are clearly in God’s will, like salvation, or food for the hungry. What about that?
I am not wise enough to understand or explain our experiences of unanswered prayer. What I can do is tell you what I see in this text.
Perhaps Jesus is spelling out a principle of God’s kingdom reign. It is God’s design that children of God—all those who love and trust God—will receive what they ask for. It may be that this is not what happens in this life for a variety of reasons. Jesus doesn’t explain that part.
What he does explain is the relationship of a father to his children. A loving father will not give his children a snake instead of a fish. A child of a loving father wouldn’t sit down to breakfast and find a scorpion on his plate instead of a fried egg.
So we might ask, if there is injustice and cruelty in this world, does that come from the hand of a loving Father? There must be another source for that. There is an agent to whom God has allowed some leeway while we wait for the full presence and reign of God. Satan is the source of those snakes and scorpions, not our loving Father. If our prayers are thwarted, it is because there is a temporary, evil actor in the drama of the world right now.
But there are some gifts the enemy cannot keep us from receiving, some prayers that God will answer even in this time that is shot through with sin and its outcomes. God will give us the greatest gift for the asking: the Holy Spirit. What God wants to give us most is the gift we will surely receive just for asking for it: God’s own self.
There is no doubt about that. Jesus’ appearance among us was the answer to all the prayers ever prayed before or since. His death and resurrection ensures us that no disappointment will ever get the best of us, not in the ultimate sense. Yes, we will suffer in this life. Many are suffering terribly at this moment. But as Paul says, the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us soon enough. (Romans 8:18)
So, we are to pray, but sometimes God’s will is thwarted or overcome by the evil of this present time. Why pray, then? Because the relationship is what matters. The love of God is the bottom line and the hope we need for life. Living in the confidence of God’s love and faithfulness is God’s deepest desire for you, and it is the fuel for your conversations with God. The relationship needs tending. God has revealed an eternal, deep purpose for you, and you will know it as you talk with God about it daily. Talk with God your Father, the faithful one who loves you.
As we said, reading God’s word informs our prayers because God is revealed in the Scriptures. We are following the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer for this part of our worship, and now it is time to hallow God’s name. The Psalm for today is 138, and it is filled with praises to the God who is holy, ruler of all the earth. God is the personal and caring one, our deliverer, the faithful one whose steadfast love for us never runs out. Let’s read it together as the first of our hymns of praise to God our Father.
Proper 11C…Sunday between July 17 and 23
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10.38-42)
I love to host dinners in my home, especially those casual family dinners when we decide to get together on the spur of the minute. Whether it’s family or friends, everybody congregates in the kitchen, and I have to shoo them out in order to get the meal finished. We don’t have one of those open concept houses where the cook can be in on the conversation while everybody is lounging on the comfy furniture. I don’t like making everybody leave, but if they want to eat, they have to let me and an assistant or two put the meal together.
So I can sympathize with Martha. I don’t like feeling left out of the conversations. Once I started making the meals simpler, I wasn’t stuck in the kitchen so much.
A couple of generations ago, when I was first learning my Bible stories, there seemed to be common understanding of the story of Mary and Martha. Basically Martha was scolded for being too fussy, and Mary was praised for having her priorities straight.
After what was known as the women’s liberation movement, the interpretation changed a bit. There was a popular self-help book published in 1969 by Dr. Thomas A. Harris titled I’m OK, You’re OK. The story of Mary and Martha took on that idea. Mary was OK, and Martha was OK too. They both had their gifts: Martha was a good hostess, a great organizer, task-oriented. Mary was more quiet, relational, people-oriented. God makes all kinds of people and loves us all equally.
But that doesn’t seem to be the message of the story. Jesus said that Mary chose the better part. It doesn’t sound like both parts are OK. What was Martha missing?
Mistake #1: It’s all about the meal.
I don’t think having a nice dinner together is frivolous necessarily. The problem arises when we think the food is the only thing that matters. We invite people over to have a nice evening with them, to have some good conversation, maybe play a game or two. It’s the people around the table who matter, not the food itself. Although I’ll never turn down a good piece of pie.
People matter more to Jesus than anything else. Not rules, not perfection, but people. Helping people with their brokenness, restoring them to joy and life and community.
When Jesus made judgments about people, it was often about the ones who were unkind or exploitative. The religious leaders who focused more on rules and supporting the temple system than on the people themselves. Rich people making their stuff more important than helping other people with their wealth. Disciples concerned more with their own comfort than feeding people who showed up to see Jesus.
People. God loves people. All kinds.
This is a good guideline for decision making. Do we aim to accumulate wealth or power or security, or do we aim to care for people in our family and community? Does our work support the well being of others or simply serve to enlarge my bank account?
It ought to guide the decisions of our congregation too. Do we care more about our building, about appearing modern and prosperous? Or do we focus on people in need of hope and love? How can we focus on people as Jesus did?
Mistake #2: Asking Jesus to fix someone else.
Martha thought Jesus would agree with her that Mary should get off her duff and get busy. “Make her help me, Jesus!”
How often are your prayers like that? Show him that he’s wrong. Make her stop interfering. Give her faith; that should solve everything. Make my husband love me like he used to. Make my wife listen to me; I know what’s best!
Jesus isn’t in the business of running errands for us, following our instructions for a better world, better people. Our perspective is small, and skewed at best. That was made clear at the end of the gospel of John. It was a scene on the beach, after Jesus served Peter and a few other disciples a fish breakfast. Peter asked Jesus about John, who was walking behind them. “What about him?” Jesus answered, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” In other words, mind your own business, Peter.
Then there is the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The workers expected their master to have them pull out the weeds. (Shouldn’t we help you sort through who’s a sinner and who isn’t, Jesus?) But Jesus told them to hold off. He said, “I’ll take care of it when the time is right.”
We want Jesus to fix other people, because we expect Jesus to have the same values as ours. But Jesus made it pretty clear that his priorities and ours are not the same. We are supposed to align ours with his, not the other way around.
We are all misguided, weak disciples. Mary, Martha, Lazarus, John, Judy, Ashley, Josh… Jesus loves us, each one, deeply and eternally. Because he loves us, he doesn’t want us to be stuck in our sin, our messed up values. He calls us to a better life, a life of meaning and relationships untroubled by revenge or controlling each other. Jesus doesn’t just want us to be good little Christians who do all the right things like Martha. He calls us to a relationship with himself, a life of learning from him how to care for another and enjoy the gifts he has given.
Mistake #3: We can “host” Jesus and expect him to follow the rules of our home.
Wow, just saying that out loud shows what a bad idea that is. How arrogant. If we claim that Jesus is Lord, then he is in charge, not us.
Are we guilty of doing this, as a church? Do we invite Jesus’ presence, but only on our terms? Do we come up with programs and schemes and then expect Jesus to bless them? Do I as an individual figure out what I can “do for Jesus” and then expect him to endorse it? The folly of this is reflected in the epistle lesson from Colossians 1:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and inhim all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
Jesus is the head of the church, the host, the sovereign one with all authority. He invites us to his banquet. What he feeds us is not what we expect: himself. He wants to give us himself, take us into his life and put his life into ours. That is what Mary understood, at least that day. Jesus would have us know that we don’t have to impress him with our fussy preparations. Instead we can be captivated and guided by his love. Just love.
So, instead of focusing on impressing Jesus or anyone else, we can focus on people.
Instead of trying to fix other people, we bring what needs fixing in ourselves, and receive from Jesus his healing and love.
Instead of making the plan, we can make our lives about following Jesus, whose plans are perfect.
This all sounds a lot more relaxing than making a fuss. Maybe that is why Jesus said it is the better part. It is more fun to follow Jesus than we think.