The Days Are Surely Coming – 2015/11/29

Psalm 25:1-10
Luke 21:25-36
Jeremiah 33:14-16


In movies and on TV, there’s a convention around the phrase, “We need to talk.” If you’ve ever seen a romantic movie or TV show, you know what I’m talking about. One of the characters in the movie will talk to the person whom they’re dating, and they say, “We need to talk.” You know right away that they’re going to break up. You can just tell.

We have a LOT of this kind of thing. When we hear “Once upon a time,” we know what kind of story we’re going to get. There are others, too. We have these cultural and linguistic triggers that tell us something is going to happen. Well, the Bible has these, too, and one of them is how our passage from Jeremiah began today.

Before we get too deep into that, though, let’s take a look at the history of the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet in ancient Judah. Now, one thing it’s important to know about “prophets” is that they weren’t so much in charge of “predicting the future,” which is how we normally use that word, but rather they were more in charge of “speaking the truth about the present.” That meant that, most of Jeremiah’s time as a prophet, he talked about what was going on politically in his homeland.

Jeremiah was an incredibly well-respected prophet. Even those who disagreed with him often respected what he had to say. Imagine a political commentator (remember, that’s what a prophet was) that had the respect of people on all sides of an issue!

Anyway, let’s look at the political reality Jeremiah lived in. What we know today as the state of Israel did not exist. The borders were similar, but it was actually two nations – Israel, in the north with its capital in Samaria and Judah in the south with its capital in Jerusalem. These two political entities are broken apart during Jeremiah’s lifetime. They had broken apart centuries beforehand, and pretty shortly thereafter, the northern state of Israel was captured by a foreign power, while Judah was able to wade off those same attackers. Jeremiah lived in Judah, and the Judeans considered it a sign that, even when compared to the Israelites, Judah and Jerusalem were God’s special and chosen place, and therefore it would be impossible for them to be conquered.

Well, spoiler alert – that’s not how it works out. They do manage to get conquered. And, in fact, Jeremiah spent much of his career telling people to read the signs, and to notice that one military victory a long time ago didn’t guarantee that it was impossible to ever lose in the future. Eventually, the Babylonians come, defeat the Judeans, and take away all the wealthy and powerful, so that they’re not in the Promised Land anymore, and Babylonian citizens can take it over.

The passage we read today was written during this exile, or at least when Jeremiah’s friends and the courtiers and royalty have been exiled. This passage was written in that time when all hope seemed lost. God had put David on the throne in Jerusalem, and the people believed that never again would there be a time without a king from David’s line on the throne. Suddenly, there was none.

Beyond that, the Temple, the place build as God’s house, was in Jerusalem. Now, with the people in Babylon, they were away from the place they believed God should rightly be worshiped – oh, and by the way, the Temple is destroyed by these invaders, meaning true, rightful worship of God could not happen.

Beyond that, the land itself was that same land promised to all the people – that famous “Promised Land” that the people wandered to get into, and that God had said would be theirs – was gone. They were utterly without, not just their homes, but seemingly without the promises that God made to them. It was a dark, dark time for the people of Judah.

So that brings us to today’s passage. That’s the reality Jeremiah and his comrades are facing – torn away from their homes, their religion, and everything else they held dear. Their entire reality has been uprooted and shaken apart. It is not a happy time. So today’s reading began with the ominous, foreboding words, “the days are surely coming.”

The words, “the days are surely coming,” I think, are something like, “Would Kaitlan Laible please report to the principal’s office.” And then all the kids in class go “oooooooooooh…” because we all know Kaitlan’s in trouble. That’s “the days are surely coming.” They are, most frequently, words of judgment. And, for the most part, Jeremiah has been a book of judgment. It has condemned the rulers who treated people unjustly; it has condemned all the people in society for valuing their own self-righteousness more than mercy for those in need; it has condemned the naivete of the people regarding the military.

So I imagine that we would all feel like kids in the classroom when a classmate gets called to the office – except it’s our name getting called – all of us. It’s not just someone in class getting called out. This is like hearing your own name as the one who’s in trouble. That’s what we are supposed to be thinking when we hear the words, “The days are surely coming.” We hear those words, and we are filled with fear.

We often want to see villains get their comeuppance. We like to see bad guys get what’s coming to them. We hear about the attacks in Paris, and we want the villains be punished. We want to hear about bad people being “taken care of.” The problem is, in Jeremiah, the “bad guys” are us. We are the ones who deserve punishment. And “the days are surely coming.”

Instead, though, God doesn’t offer judgment in this instance. No; this time, God offers to do the impossible – to restore the king from the line of David; restore the people to their homeland; bring people back, so that they will declare “The Lord is our righteousness!”

Imagine that promise – “You will be grateful to me.” God’s people have been through hell on earth. They’ve been taken over by foreign kings and seen their homeland taken away. Most of all, they’ve seen those things that God has guaranteed to them, and they’ve seen them taken away. Who wants to be grateful to God after all that?

But you know what? It works! Of course, the people are restored to Judah and Jerusalem. They do rebuild the Temple. Everyone is returned to where they belonged. Yes, it takes generations, but this promise is kept and fulfilled. Well, almost everything. There’s only one thing missing – the king from the line of David.

For us as Christians, though, this becomes an easy interpretation. We know someone who comes from the line of David who is our King – that’s Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. He comes to rule over, not just Jerusalem and Judah, but the whole earth; not just this life, but the next, too. Earthly rulers are limited by time and place, but Jesus does not have those same limits. He is the one ruler who stands above and beyond what any human can do or be.

As I’m sure most of you know, Advent traditionally has four themes, one for each Sunday leading up to Christmas. The first week is “hope.” And in the name of that hope, we have here a story of a people who are pulled away from all they hold dear. But when everything comes back and is returned, it is done even better than ever! The king who is restored is not merely a political leader, returned to the people – it’s God in human flesh, returned to the whole earth!

So think about the hope that comes to us here. We being in the depth of despair as God’s people, ready to face judgment… instead, we’re given hope, and hope in abundance. Instead of facing trials, we are able to see God’s goodness, and God’s reign.

When we should be trembling in fear due to the words, “The days are surely coming,” we’re instead given words of hope – the greatest hope of all: hope of restoration in Jesus Christ.

So this Advent season, remember that, no matter how dark your darkness, God promises redemption and restoration in Jesus Christ – and it will come to pass! Amen.


Also, don’t forget to check out our “older posts” if you missed our Thanksgiving Eve service on 11/25!

Do Not Worry – 2015/11/25

Psalm 126
Joel 2:21-27
Matthew 6:25-34


When I was growing up, kids used to play the stupidest game in the world. It was called “The Game.” It had ONE rule, and one rule only – you can’t think about The Game.

The Game is immensely stupid. According to the rules, everyone is playing it, all the time, whether you want to or not. Anytime you think about The Game, you have to announce it. You have to say, “I just lost The Game.” Of course, that makes everyone within hearing distance lose The Game, too.

As you may realize, it’s impossible to win The Game. You can only lose. There is literally no point whatsoever to The Game, except to try to make other people lose.

So, it’s a dumb thing that kids do – but what does it have to do with Thanksgiving? Ah yes – there is a connection here. And that’s that there’s nothing harder than trying to not think of something when someone tells you not to think of it. If someone says, “Don’t think about a pink elephant wearing blue jeans and skiing,” you’ll immediately start thinking about a pink elephant wearing blue jeans and skiing. It’s why The Game is stupid – because once you’ve thought about it, of course you’re going to think about it.

This is not only why The Game is hard, but it’s also why our passage from Matthew is so hard – Jesus tells us not to worry, and we suddenly start to realize just how hard that is.

Jesus says, “Don’t worry about food, because birds can eat, and they don’t have farms or barns or anything, and God takes care of them.” So we start to think about what we need to make Thanksgiving meals tomorrow.

Jesus says, “Don’t worry about clothing, because the lilies of the field don’t worry about it, and they’re a beautiful as anything.” So we start to worry about whether or not we’re dressed appropriately for church; or we think about how our kids are growing out of their clothes, or how the waistline on our own might feel a little tight tomorrow afternoon.

Jesus tells us not to worry about these small things, but this is a rhetorical device. He doesn’t just mean “Don’t worry about food or clothes, but go on worrying about a house and a car and all that other stuff.” He’s using those two things to stand for everything. Jesus doesn’t want us to worry about anything, and that’s a tall order. How do we not worry? Are we supposed to live off of charity? Leech off of others? If we do that, how is the world going to continue functioning, with everyone relying on handouts for everything?

These are all reasonable objections, but I think they all miss the point.

“Not worrying” doesn’t mean never thinking about those things, and carving out some sort of hippy existence. It’s that it’s not we don’t work hard and just wait for “God to provide.” After all, birds DO work for their food; the lilies of the field DO stretch to reach the sun. Likewise, we should work (as we are able) to get what we need. Jesus is not saying to do nothing.

Rather, Jesus is telling us about priorities. Do you know what a flower spends all of its time doing? Being a flower. Do you know what a bird spends its time doing? Being a bird. But how much time does a person spend being a person? A person is someone created in the image of God. God is not greedy; God does not go out hoarding things that aren’t needed or storing up for the future. God is worried about relationships. God is concerned with us.

Likewise, we need to be concerned with God. We need to spend our time focusing on what’s really important – our relationships with people and with God. Work is important – but it’s maybe the fifth most important thing in our lives, not number one – but that’s where we tend to put it. This story isn’t about not caring at all – it’s about putting our labor in its proper place, which is much, MUCH lower than we tend to put it. This is a lesson in reminding ourselves of what matters. Kids are often so good at this: when you ask them what they’re thankful for, they say things like, “Family, friends, God.” When adults ask ourselves these same questions, why do material things so often move up that list?

So this Thanksgiving, let’s not dwell on the material things we have. Let’s dwell on the things that matter most of all. Let’s think about the place of God in our lives. Let’s put our families, our friends, the love we share, HIGH on the list, and work and money and things down where they belongs. Let “things” fall down the list, and people, love, and GOD most of all rise to the top. As the lilies are perfect at being lilies, as birds are perfect at being birds, let us be human. And being human means setting our priorities straight, even though the rat race of life can make that hard.

Christ Our King – 2015/11/22

Psalm 132:8-12
Revelation 1:4-8
John 18:33-37


You all may not know this, but I actually used to be a king. I know, I know – that’s hard to believe, but it’s true. You don’t see too many kings running around these days, but I was one.

I had subjects, and they absolutely had to do whatever I said, without question. They were ready to do what I wanted, when I wanted, and they would never turn me down. Just like any other king, my power was so great that all my subjects lives revolved around mine.

Now, admittedly, my subjects were action figures, they “lived” in my basement, and their lives revolved around mine because they only became “alive” when I gave them words or actions. As an only child, I spent a lot of time in fantasy worlds, telling stories with toys, making up personalities and ways of living. It was one of my greatest joys, and whenever I entered those worlds, I was the absolute ruler.

But while I’m sure you all knew I was joking about being a king from the start of this sermon, I could just as easily said that I was a kingdom, but like Jesus says in our passage from John this morning, that “my kingdom was not from this world.”

That’s the line Jesus uses on Pilate. Now think about that from Pilate’s perspective. This passage takes place when Jesus has been handed over to the Roman authorities. There are people who want him dead, and they are using the long arm of the law to get him, and trying to convince the authorities that he’s done something wrong.

The main charge they come up with is treason. He’s said some things that could be interpreted as him saying that’s he’s the true ruler – of course Jesus has, because he’s God in human flesh. He is the true ruler, while the emperor in Rome is just a human being. Nonetheless, these people plotting against Jesus get him turned over, and he’s examined by Pontius Pilate.

Pilate was the governor of Jesus’ home region. Imagine if we did that today – if all the serious criminals in South Dakota had to get dragged to Dennis Daugaard’s office in Pierre to have a private hearing with him. Anyway, that’s basically what happens. Pilate starts asking Jesus if he truly is a king, and Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

Well, Jesus doesn’t sound like much of a threat now, does he? Take away everything you know about Jesus from outside this one story today (because all Pilate would know is this one interaction), and you’d probably think he was totally crazy, but probably not guilty of any real wrongdoing. In fact, if you read beyond the section of John we read today, you’d see that Pilate does come to this same conclusion: Pilate ends up saying, “I find no case against him.” To Pilate, Jesus talking about a kingdom from another world is the same as some person claiming to be an alien invader or a little boy who says he’s the king of his toys – no threat.

The thing is, though, that we’re not Pilate. We have seen Jesus in action. We’ve seen that Jesus can heal the sick, the he teaches in wise sayings. We’ve seen him rally people to his sides. In fact, living so far away from the moment in history the Bible is recording, we’ve seen Jesus continue to rally people to him, even thousands of years after he left the earth for good! To us, the claim that Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world is not only not crazy, it’s true!

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” says Jesus. Truth is a big theme for Jesus in today’s reading. Jesus wants us to know the truth – that he is here, God on earth, to meet us and welcome us into his care – he is here for us.

But think about that for a second – Jesus being here for us. That puts him in a sharply different category than most of the kings I’ve ever heard of. In fact, to use myself as an example again, I wasn’t the “king” of my toys because I wanted to do something for them – I wanted them to do things for me. When we read throughout history of kings who wanted their subjects to build monuments, or kings who wanted many wives or many goods, we don’t hear about kings who just want to make life better for their people.

And that’s why there are some people who worry that “Christ the King” Sunday can sound like bad news. It sounds like just another person to come and force their will on us, coercing us to do things.

But Jesus doesn’t coerce us into anything. In fact, we’re totally free. He’s the one king who actually gives us a choice whether or not to follow him. No human king does that.

And as if that’s not enough, we’re also given a king who will love us; who will leave 99 sheep who are safe, and come seek us out when we are the one sheep who is lost. We have a savior who promises to save us, not just in this life, but in a kingdom beyond this world.

While as Americans, we have a natural suspicion of kings – our whole country was formed around rebelling against a king, after all – this is a time when such fear is unjustified. And that’s because this king is not bad news at all. Our King is the best news of all – the one who offers a way out of no way; a king who can heal us in body, mind, and spirit; a king who is here for us, not the other way around – a king who offers what no other king can: Resurrection from death.

Jesus is our way, our truth, our life. We serve him, not because he forces us to, but because it is our joy to do so. So let us celebrate this day that, no matter who our president is, no matter what country we live in, we know we have a king – and only for us Christians can that be Good News. Amen.

Prayers of the People – 2015/11/15

Psalm 16
1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10


Whenever we talk to someone, we make all sorts of assumptions that we don’t even say, because saying them will be pointless. For example, I speak to you in English, because I assume you’ll understand. I just used the word “you’ll” which is a contraction, and I assume you’ll know that. I used the word “just” meaning “recently,” not meaning “full of justice” or “only,” which are its other two meanings, but I assume you know that. Otherwise, every single word we say would have to be followed by a paragraph explaining that one word.

If I say something like, “I’m going to go home and watch the game,” that makes perfect sense to everyone here – we know that church in on Sundays, that football games are played on Sundays, that I enjoy football – so we’ll all assume that I’m going to go watch football. But what if, in a thousand years, someone somehow watches the YouTube video of this sermon, and they live in a time where there is no football. Maybe they’re from a non-Christian culture, and they have no idea that this took place on a Sunday. Maybe they won’t know that TVs exist, and they assume “I’m going to go home and watch the game” means that there will be some sort of game being played in my house. Even a simple, simple sentence like “I’m going to go home and watch the game” is loaded with cultural assumptions.

That is, in a nutshell, why reading the Bible is hard. It wasn’t really written for us. It was written by someone else, a long time ago, with a load of cultural assumptions we don’t share. And that’s why sermons exist – to help shed some light on how these ancient texts apply to us, even if they weren’t originally meant for us.

Just look at these readings today, which come from a continuous story in the book of 1 Samuel. It starts off with Elkanah, who has two wives, Penninah and Hannah. We don’t assume that it’s normal for a man to have two wives, but the text doesn’t have any problem with it. I’m guessing if someone walked into church and he had two wives, we might have some questions – but the text doesn’t, because that was normal.

Now, Penninah had children, and Hannah did not. Another assumption the book makes is that, culturally, you were considered an “inferior” woman if you couldn’t produce offspring – particularly male offspring. Now, we know a lot more about science and have an understanding that, sometimes, things just don’t work out. But in those days, you were considered to have been stricken by God with this malady – perhaps because you or your parents did something wrong. It was easy to think that you “deserved” it. But Elkanah loved Hannah, anyway. Her sister-wife, Penninah, though, looked down on Hannah and made fun of her. Again, not normal in our culture – but the text is assuming we know this already.

So the text tells us that this family went to Jerusalem once a year to sacrifice. Perhaps you remember from hearing about the Old Testament that, many years ago, people used to worship God by sacrificing their livestock as an offering for their sins. The only place you were allowed to do this was in Jerusalem. Well, it seems like you sin more than once a year, right? But what if you lived hundreds of miles away, in a time in which there were no cars and it took days to get there? Then, you went once a year and brought a lot of sacrifice – so that’s what Elkanah and his family did.

So that’s most of the background that the text is assuming. But there’s one more thing. While they’re in Jerusalem, in the fancy Temple, Hannah takes the opportunity to pray. She’s shaking and mouthing words because she’s so overcome by emotion. She doesn’t want to be the person who can’t have children. She wants to share with Elkanah in God’s blessing, and for their love to create a child. So she prays, mouthing the words as she does so.

A priest, seeing her praying in this way, thinks she’s drunk, what with the talking to herself. But she tells him how deeply she is in prayer, and he understands. She prays for a son, because she wants to dedicate him to the Lord as a Nazirite. Now that’ a really confusing sentence. She wants a son, not because sons are better than daughters, but because only sons are allowed to work in the Temple.

Hannah wants a child so badly that she’d be willing to give that child up to God if she could just become a mother. So she promises God in her prayer that she’ll keep him as a Nazirite. That’s a holy person, dedicated to God’s service. Nazirites were men who worked in the Temple, who never trimmed their hair or their beards, and who never drank alcohol. They were meant to be kept “pure.”

Hannah makes these promises if she can just have a child – and lo and behold, she does. She has a son and names him Samuel, which means “I have asked God.” That was Hannah’s first prayer – a prayer asking God for something, also known as a prayer of supplication.

But the second reading from 1 Samuel that we had this morning was also a prayer. It was a prayer of thanksgiving; a prayer of thanking God for making things, as Hannah saw them, just and right. She prays about how God humbles the proud and makes the weak mighty; how God makes things right. She also throws in some elements of prayers of adoration, in which she talks about how great God is.

In the children’s sermon, I talked about four kinds of prayers: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Hannah modeled three of those types in today’s readings. The one she missed – confession – is also important and valuable. But for now, let’s not worry about categorizing prayers or talking about which types are which. Let’s just talk about prayer in general.

We heard today about prayers for a child that were answered exactly the way the pray-er wanted. I know people who have prayed for children and never had them answered; I know people who only had their child once they stopped praying.

It’s my job to be the expert; I’m supposed to be able to stand up here and help illuminate things – and I hope that sometimes I can. But the truth is, when it comes to prayer, there’s only so much I can say, because there’s so much we don’t know. We don’t know why some prayers are answered the way we want, and why others aren’t. We especially don’t know why some prayers seem to receive no answer at all.

What I do know is this: prayer is about our ongoing conversation with God. Church shouldn’t be a place where we come so that we can pay the minister to have a spiritual life for us. Church isn’t just about hearing stories that teach us to do better. While we do let church have those functions, a big part of church is building our relationship with God – and that only happens when we take church home with us – when we let church refresh us, renew us, and help us move closer to God.

And building a relationship with God is the same as building any other relationship. That’s the beautiful thing about human relationships – since we’re all made in the image of God, we can find in our human relations little glimpses of what we’re supposed to be with God.

So how do we build relationships with people? We talk with them; we spend time with them; we go for walks, we sit in silence, we take long drives, we work, we watch movies. There’s no place we can go, no thing we can do that we can’t bring God into. That’s how we build relationships.

Today, in churches all over the world, there will be people praying for victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris. There were also attacks in Beirut and Baghdad this week, though not on the same scale as Paris. There have been a ton of tiny tragedies this week – more than we can count – and people all over will be praying for those, too. I’m not sure how that’s going to work out. I’m not sure if people will find what they’re looking for or get what they want.

My hope – my prayer – is that they do get what they need. And in the wake of tragedy, what can be done? These horrible things have happened, and lives have been lost. Even if we go get revenge . . . that never brings anyone back. What’s done is done.

But God can be there for us. We can turn our faces heavenward and pray for God’s peace and comfort. We can hope that everyone finds God a comforting partner in these most difficult of times. Everyone can continue to build a relationship with God. And while that may sound trivial, while that may sound like it’s not doing anything, how else are we supposed to get through these difficult times? The only way we make it is with the love and support of others – and God.

So how do we build this relationship? How do we feel comfortable talking to God through prayer? It’s the things we say to kids – when you need something, ask politely; say thank you; admit when you’ve made a mistake; compliment the people around you. That’s exactly how we should pray. I think a lot of people are intimidated by praying. It seems scary and foreign. But the truth is, it’s really not that different from anything else we do. We all know how to talk to others; we just need to do the same thing with God. But other people can misunderstand us, whereas God can’t.

So don’t let fear of “doing it wrong” stop you from praying. There is no doing it wrong. There is only doing it, or not doing it. And being able to pray is something that helps you build a relationship with God. I don’t know that a stronger relationship with God means you get everything you ask for, like Hannah did. But I do know that, even if it doesn’t, a relationship with God is the very thing that can sustain you when you don’t get the thing you so desperately desire.

So pray like Hannah; go out and tell God what has happened. Build a relationship; listen; take a walk. Do whatever it takes, but make God (and prayer) part of your life. You’ll find that amazing things have a way of happening, whether or not they’re what you expected. Amen.

Ruth – 2015/11/08

Psalm 127
Ruth 1:8-18


This week, I’m preaching on Ruth, and I have a lot of complicated feelings about that, so I’m going to try to get them straight here before I begin.
First, Ruth only appears twice in the entire three-year lectionary cycle. One of them is the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, and one is the 24th. The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost was last week – but that was also All Saints’ so I used the All Saints’ lectionary passages, so we didn’t read Ruth. Therefore today is my only shot at telling her story for the next three years. Since I love her story, I’m not going to pass that up.
Second, this is a complicated story to tell because, while it’s very short (just over four pages in our pew Bibles), it’s very dense. So bear with me.
Third, and most importantly this isn’t the most “theological” story you’re going to hear me preach. But it is our story. It’s our story because it’s part of our Bible. It’s our story because it’s about our forefathers and foremothers (one in particular) in the faith. It’s our story because it’s for us, but it’s also about us. I listened to an interview a couple of weeks ago with Walter Brueggeman, who’s probably the greatest scholar of the Old Testament to have ever lived. He talked about Christians, and he said that our fundamental attribute is not that we act a certain way, or that we believe certain things.
The fundamental thing that defines us is that we are a storytelling people. Those stories tend to revolve around certain things (faithfulness, love, God), but what we do is tell stories. Those stories influence who we are, they teach us who we should desire to be, and they let us know where we come from. But the whole idea of a Bible and of sermons is that we take the time to share stories. So today, I’m going to share with you a story.
Ruth was a foreigner – a Moabite.
She married a boy, and his brother married a woman named Orpah.
Both men and their father died.
Their mother, Naomi, told the girls to go back to their homelands. They both refused a first, but eventually, Orpah listened. Ruth steadfastly refused.
“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
They returned to Naomi’s homeland of Bethlehem, where people recognized her and pitied her. When they called her by name, she asked that they call her “Mara,” which means “bitter” – “Naomi” means “pleasant.”
Ruth and Naomi worked together in the barley fields of her husband’s relative, a wealthy man named Boaz. He hired them.
Ruth decided to look for a husband. Boaz noticed her in his field, and he asked about her.
People told him that she was the Moabite with Naomi, and Boaz saw how hard of a worker she was, taking no breaks all day.
Boaz made sure none of the young men would harass her, and he told her to hang out by the women, where she’d be safe.
She thanked Boaz, and he explained that he knew about the horrible things she and her mother-in-law had been through, and he wanted to help out.
Naomi asked Ruth, “Where you been all day?” and Ruth told her.
Naomi was thrilled – it was a custom in those days that women who were widowed were married or taken in by their husband’s relatives. This meant they would be cared for. Since Boaz was a relative of Ruth’s father-in-law, he could marry Ruth.
Naomi told Ruth to look her best, and at the break after the noon meal, to go to Boaz where he would rest, and there to tell him that they were kin.
Boaz, an older man, was impressed that Ruth went to him rather than one of the handsome young men in the field. He promised to look to see if there was any closer relative who wanted to marry her, but that if there wasn’t, he would love her to be his bride.
Boaz convinced others that he would like to marry Ruth, and that they should not.
So Boaz become Ruth’s husband. And when Ruth bore a son, he was known throughout the land as Naomi’s son, since she had lost her sons and husband.
The boy who was born was named Obed. He later had a son named Jesse. And Jesse had a son named David – King David, ruler of all Israel.
And so Ruth, the woman who would not give up on her mother-in-law whom she loved, became the grandmother of the King of all Israel. And, of course, this also makes her a direct ancestor of Jesus.
Even in a time and place in which women did not have legal status; even in a culture in which foreigners were hated and feared, God was able to use a foreign woman to, eventually, bring about the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ.
This morning, we’re going to be celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism. It’s yet another time for us to welcome someone into our church family, and God’s family. And when we look at little Kade, we can see that he’s just an ordinary baby. But we can also remember that, just like Ruth, God has great things in store for him.
The miracle of our faith is not that we are extraordinary people called to do God’s work – it’s that God chooses all of us, out of our ordinariness. I think it’s wonderful that the story of Ruth came about on a Sunday in which we have a baptism, because the story of Ruth is a story about someone who decided to follow after God. And what is a baptism, really? It’s a choice made that someone will follow after God. Devin and Nick know that Kade’s life as a follower of Christ won’t always be easy; but they’ve made this choice today, just as Ruth did a long time ago, because they want him to follow after God. Our job, as the congregation here today, is to support Kade in all that he does, to help keep him on Christ’s path. When he stumbles, we pick him up. When he succeeds, we cheer with and for him. That is our task.
If the book of Ruth has taught us nothing else, let it teach us this: all of us are called. Let us all have the courage of Ruth and Naomi to answer that call. Amen.

God on Our Side – 2015/11/01

Sorry for the lack of video this week, folks. I forgot to charge the camera, so there’s nothing to watch. Still, enjoy the manuscript version if you’re so inclined.

Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6
John 11:32-44


Have you noticed how, in the last few years, local news shows end with a happy, upbeat story? You’re sitting there watching the 10:00 news, and the last story will be about some kid who donated to a local charity, or an athlete visiting a sick kid, or a marching band competing at some national competition, or a cat who can play the piano or something. Studies have shown that people respond better to these kinds of stories, so news networks have made sure to include them – because too much of the bad news causes people to shut off. People would rather not know what’s going on in the world than only hear the bad stuff.

And there’s something very healthy in that. We do need to know what’s most important for us. We do need to make sure we aren’t surrounded exclusively by negative talk and negative things. That kind of thing can send even people who are upbeat into a tailspin if it’s all they hear. And there is good in the world

On the other hand, there’s the counterargument that our culture already does as much as it can to insulate us from any pain. The belief that all pain and any pain is bad, so we’re supposed to block it out or shy away from it. The idea that we’re supposed to smile and show everyone that we’re okay, and if we say it enough, it’ll be true. The idea that the only faithful response church people have in a time of tragedy is to say, “Everything happens for a reason,” and feel better.

I think the most instructive way that our culture does this is the culture that’s developed around antibacterial soaps. I don’t know how much of the research you’re up on, but there are a number of researchers who basically say that Americans today – particularly American children – are too clean. We’ve so insulated ourselves against the ugliness and reality of life that when germs or other bacteria do come along, many people’s bodies haven’t developed the immune response to fight them off, which has led to increased allergies. Of course, there are very good reasons for desiring the ridding of germs – our hospitals are much cleaner, and people die less and less often from simple infections and bacteria. But there’s also a question to be asked about whether we’ve gone too far.

I think one of the ways that we experience this phenomenon is in churches. There are a lot of churches you can see – particularly the TV preachers – who will tell you that life is all hunky-dory, and that God will look on you with favor if you just have a positive attitude. You can clear everything up and be fine. But that’s not the truth, is it?

This week, we had a funeral in church, as I’m sure you all know. Sally McKenzie, our oldest member, died at 98. There’s no force on earth that could’ve prevented that, no matter how much we try to sanitize our workspace or how much soap we use. There’s no smile we can put on that makes a person invincible. We all have our time to die. Pain is inevitable.

That’s what we saw in our Gospel reading today. In this morning’s reading from John, we see Jesus confronted with the loss of his friend Lazarus. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, are crying. And soon, so is Jesus. I always thought that the translation of John 11:35 was an unfortunate one. In this version in our pew Bibles, we see, “Jesus began to weep.” That is grammatically accurate. The traditional “Jesus wept,” is better, though, because it’s more to the point and doesn’t fool around with getting the tense of the Greek right.

But there’s still a problem in the translation of “Jesus wept,” and that’s that “weeping” sounds so dignified. It sounds “official.” I prefer the simple, “Jesus cried.” He was doing something we all do when we’re confronted by the thing we didn’t feel ready to face – he became overwhelmed, and he cried. Even for Jesus, even for God incarnate, the appropriate response to losing someone you love is that you cry.

I love the idea that God cries for us. Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, once wrote that he wasn’t sure why God allowed bad things to happen, but that he was sure that God was the first to shed a tear whenever they did. Jesus is our best indicator of who God is, and when he sees loss, his response is to feel just the way we feel, and to cry. That knowledge, that depth of feeling from even God, whom we often view as “above” our earthly concerns, is a great comfort. God wants us to be well.

But being well does not mean avoiding reality. Being well means acknowledging the truth of the world we live in. Jesus’ tears do that. They show that we can’t just pretend everything is okay when it isn’t, and that we can’t just go on pretending that everything will be okay if we just wish for it hard enough. Sometimes, attitude is everything – a rough day often can be made better with a smile. But sometimes, a rough day is just that – a diagnosis we didn’t want to hear, a loved one lost, a job gone, a fight with a loved one. Having a good attitude doesn’t make the bad thing go away. It still has to be faced.

As I’m sure you all know, we had a funeral here this week. But the church year has its rhythms. And in those rhythms, today is All Saints’ Day. That’s the day in the Christian year in which we remember those whom we’ve lost in the last year. We have indeed lost some saints of the church this year, and we will pray for them later in this service. But while we’ve lost those whom we love, we must remember that this experience is not unique to us – God knows this feeling every day.

There’s a temptation to end with that kind of a thought. For many people, the notion that God is on our side – that God is listening and cares about us – is enough Good News. For some, that’s such a different picture of God from the one that they’re used to that they see it as liberating.

Some people are used to an idea of a God who’s more of a divine accountant, or a master chess player moving pieces into place and scheming in some way that’s invisible to us. For people who see God this way, this idea of a God who cares is enough Good News. But that’s not the end of the Good News that we have.

In the story we read today, we read about Jesus and his friend who died, and he cried, and that shows that God understands and empathizes with us. The difference between us and God, though, is the Good News. The Good News is this: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! That’s normally what we say at Easter, but we have to remember that Sunday has been the dedicated day of Christian worship for 2000 years because it’s the day of Resurrection. Our very act of gathering here today is a proclamation of the Resurrection.

So the story that we read doesn’t end with a God who sympathizes; it begins with a God who sympathizes. But the ending? The ending is something else entirely. The end of the story we read today is about God’s victory. The grave always holds final sway on earth, it seems. Everyone dies. We know that; even animals know that. Elephants, for example, bury their dead. I’ve watched dogs fall into a depression when they lose a companion, human or canine. Even animals know and understand the finality of death.

But Christians? Our greatest audacity – the truly outrageous thing that we claim is that what even animals know – that death is the end – is wrong. We foolishly go around and say that what everyone knows is a bald-faced lie. And that’s because we know the truth: that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and that that same promise is available to us.

We see the first taste of that resurrection power in today’s story about Lazarus. Jesus gives his disciples a first taste of what God has in mind for the future when he raises his friend from the dead, and they all are stunned as they see Lazarus among them again.

This isn’t just some old story, though. It’s not just a display of Jesus’ power and his special ministry. This is a promise. A contract. A pledge. God is on our side, and the promise that God gives to us is that we will live again. Christ will come on the day of Resurrection, and we will be restored, recreated, made new, and be as God truly wishes us to be.

We can’t simply do this on our own; this is something that comes from God. We can’t bring this promise of God to pass any more than we could have made Lazarus rise up from the grave that day. But while we can’t, God can. And, brothers and sisters in Christ, that is Good News. Not only is God at our side when things go wrong, but God is the one who can right all wrongs. Amen.

Roommates, Friends, and Disciples – 2015/10/18

Psalm 91:9-16
Mark 10:35-45


As you all probably know by now, I am an only child. This means I missed out on a lot of things as a child, like fighting with a sibling for the remote, getting teased by an older sibling, bullying a younger one, having to share all my toys, competing for my parents’ attention, being forced to wear someone else’s clothes, getting called the wrong name, arguing over bedtimes, and using the phrase “That’s SO UNFAIR!” Yep; I really missed out. I’m super… uh… jealous, I guess?… of all you people with siblings.

But while I loved being an only child, I understand that some people feel differently about that issue. And it also made for some strange things in my life. For example, I never had to share a room growing up. Therefore, the first time I ever had to do that was in college. I showed up that first day, and met the guy I would live with for the next four years. We got along well enough that we lived together the entire time we were in school.

Now, of course, just because we lived together doesn’t mean we had a perfect relationship. During college, his parents got a divorce. Basically, they might’ve earlier, but he was such a great guy that he pretty much kept the family together. He was having a really rough semester. His girlfriend (now wife) was really supportive, and he couldn’t be mad at her. He was trying to be the peacekeeper between his parents, so he couldn’t be mad at them. He had to be the support for all his siblings, so he had to be their rock. But the truth is, when you’re going through something like that, you have a lot of bottled-up feelings. There were too many people relying on my roommate to do too much. And eventually, his emotions would boil over. And guess who he took them out on?

Now, I’m not saying I was the perfect roommate or that I never did anything annoying – of course I did obnoxious things. But I got way more than my share of it that semester. We had some nice talks about it, and it blew over.

Of course, the next year, I was really mad at him this one time, so I punched him really hard in the arm. He responded by throwing a baseball as hard as he could. It hit me square in the back. We didn’t talk for about two days. We made up eventually. And of course, that was only the beginning of junior year, so we still lived together a whole other year after that.

Now, again, I never had those sibling relationships when I was a child. But when I was a young adult, I got my first glimpse of living with someone else. Oh man, could it be hard. Spending so much time around that one person, you can just grate on each other.

But the one thing that saved my relationship with my roommate more than anything else was that we really weren’t competitive with one another. We have really different strengths and a lot of different interests. We liked to play sports together, but we both like playing more than winning, so that was never really a problem. The truth is, I can imagine that, if we had been competitive, things would’ve gotten really bad sometimes.

And that’s what I thought of when I read this story about James and John, and the other disciples, this week. They lived together – all the time, for a few years. They had no money and no real home. They had to listen to their teacher and try to learn to be a better person. Basically, it sounded a lot like college to me, so I started to think about the destructive little things that ruin relationships.

We definitely see things in sharp relief in this passage. These two disciples, the two brothers, separate themselves and Jesus from the group, and decide they’re going to corner Jesus with a question. They’re going to force him to choose them as the favorites. They’re going to secure for themselves the best seats in the house in God’s kingdom – at Jesus’ right and left hands – by being the sneaky ones to ask. They don’t care what impact this has on the other disciples; they only care about what they can get. In other words, they do the stupid kind of stuff that can ruin friendships.

Thankfully, of course, Jesus calls them out on it at this particular meeting. It’s amazing that they start off this little secret meeting by saying, “Jesus we have a favor, and we want you to say yes, no matter what it is.” That already sounds really sneaky.

For his part, Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” I imagine him here just wanting to help his friends. Or maybe he said it with a smile on his face. You’ll notice that he answers with a question, and he never really says “yes,” so maybe he has some idea of what these sons of Zebedee are up to already.

They tell him that they want those two best seats, one at each of Jesus’ hands, when the Kingdom of God is fully realized. That’s when Jesus challenges them again. He says, more or less, “Well, I’m going to face some tough stuff up ahead. Do you really think you can face the same stuff as me?”

They say, “Yeah, we can do it.” And Jesus doesn’t challenge them on it. I have to be honest – there’s a part of me that wishes I could’ve been there, and that wishes he would’ve said something firm here, like “You cannot do as I must do. Only I have been given this task.” But as so often happens, Jesus subverts our expectations.

Instead of telling off James and John, he says, “Okay. You want the same suffering I’m going to have, it’s all yours. But guess what? I still can’t grant you your wish. So now you have all that persecution to look forward to, and you still might not get what you wanted.”

This isn’t written as some sort of punishment for two people who are greedily asking for something – instead, it’s an honest assessment of what kind of life the followers of Jesus need to live – a life that will sometimes be filled with persecution.

And, interestingly enough, their persecution begins immediately – like, right in the next paragraph. The other ten disciples, of course, hear about what they were asking for, and they get mad. This is what happens with roommates – you really can’t keep anything from each other. They get mad at James and John for trying to sneak these special favors.

But then, Jesus decides to teach a lesson to all of them that they have to be careful to learn. It’s one of those great lessons taught in Christianity that’s completely timeless, and that’s every bit as applicable today as it was then. It’s also, by the way, just great advice for getting along with people.

Jesus mentions how the world measures power – the powerful are the ones who make you do what they say. But Jesus says that the kind of power he’s advocating is a different sort. The power we have through a life in Christ is this: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

In other words, we as Christians are charged with service. We are charged to put these other people – these difficult roommates or family members, these people we disagree with, these people who mistreat us – ahead of ourselves. We’re tasked with helping those who are so eager to ignore us. Our power is supposed to come from being willing to serve Jesus, even when that service is really not what we want.

Now, some of you may be thinking, “But, if I serve everyone, won’t people just walk all over me?” Maybe; but there are two things there. First, Jesus says that we’re supposed to be servants, but never that we’re supposed to be wet blankets – we can still stand up for ourselves when the people we’re called to love decide to repay our kindness by hurting or abusing us. But second, to some extent, we have to be willing to take some risks for the Gospel, and this is one of them. Jesus told James and John earlier in this passage that they will indeed have to suffer trials if they attempt to live as Jesus does. And the reward? Well, the reward in Jesus’ case is death. So that doesn’t sound that great.

But the truth of Christianity is, death isn’t the only reward. There’s also the fact that we know we’re doing the right thing when we put others first. We also get to know that we’re doing God’s will. We also get to know that those spots at the right and left hands of Jesus are open, waiting for us to fill them. And the way that we show how we want those spots is through service to others.

So my friends, as we leave a place that’s dedicated to having a worship “service,” let’s remember that “service” is not just a word that means we go listen to some guy go on about his roommate; “service” is the way we live our lives; it’s how we show our devotion to Christ; it’s how we become more like Christ; and it’s how we find our place at Jesus side. Amen.

The One About Money – 2015/10/11

Psalm 22:1-11
Hebrews 4: 12-16
Mark 10:17-31


Well, I’ve got to say, the lectionary is being none too kind to me and to other pastors out there. Last week, the passage from Mark was the one about divorce; this week, it’s a passage about money.

As we all know, there are three things we don’t talk about in polite company: religion, politics, and money. We kind of have to talk about the first religion in church; now we’re bringing in money. Maybe we’ll stay out of politics for this week, though, shall we?

Anyway, in spite of the perhaps-uncomfortable nature of today’s topic, I’m going to start right in with the story from Scripture, because it begins in a really interesting way. Now, perhaps you were paying attention last week and you noticed that today’s passage follows immediately on the heels of that one. You may remember me mentioning last week that this whole section of the Gospel of Mark is taking place juuuuust before the events of Palm Sunday – so we’re less than two weeks prior to Jesus’ crucifixion. That means that, at this point, Jesus already has quite the reputation as a teacher and as a wise person.

This prompts the central character in today’s story (well, the central character other than Jesus) into action. Someone described as “a man” approaches Jesus. Now, in Matthew’s Gospel, this man is described as “young,” in Luke’s he’s described as a “ruler,” and we know that he’s rich. Naturally, therefore, most of the time, he’s referred to as “the rich, young ruler.”

Anyway, the rich young ruler approaches Jesus and begins with a question – a question that may feel familiar to us. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You’ll notice that the man’s question is not actually a concern about money; it’s an earnest plea from a believer who wants to know if he’s good enough; he wants to know what he needs to do to earn God’s favor, to “get to heaven,” to “inherit eternal life.”

Jesus reminds this rich young ruler of the commandments (at least, he reminds him of some of the commandments) – don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t defraud; honor your father and mother. “You done that?” asks Jesus.

The young man answer, “Yeah, I’ve done that my whole life.”

Jesus looked at the man, the text tells us, and loved him. I think that’s probably my favorite line in this whole story. What won Jesus over? Obviously, this man hadn’t done anything. He just said that he kept the commandments. Did Jesus love this young man because he kept the commandments? I don’t think so. First of all, Jesus has no way of knowing if that’s true. Jesus doesn’t love him because he’s perfect – Jesus loves him because, even though he’s done a lot of things well, he’s still looking for a way to be closer to God.

Sometimes, I watch my dog try to pull a tree root out of the ground. Every once in a while, one of them will be sticking up, and he’ll think it’s a stick. He’ll pull and pull and pull. And in my mind, I think, “There’s no way he’s ever going to get that thing.” But my reaction isn’t to think, “What a stupid dog!” My reaction is, “Well that’s cute! Look at him trying so hard!”

That’s how I think Jesus felt with the rich young ruler. Here’s a person who’s trying to earn his way into God’s heart. And even though Jesus knows that we’re never going to be good enough to earn it, Jesus doesn’t think this man is a fool. He looks at him, and loves him. His reaction isn’t one of pity, it’s not one of sarcastically making fun of the man – it’s genuine admiration for someone who’s trying his hardest. I love that God’s reaction to our best efforts is not scorn, but rather love.

So Jesus tells this young man what he’s missing. “The only thing you need,” says Jesus, “is to sell everything you own and give the money to the poor. If you do that, you’ll earn your place; then, come follow me.” Easy steps, right? Anyone here planning on doing that today? I’m not going to say you should; but I’m not going to say you shouldn’t, either. That’s probably something left between you and God. But we do need to realize that, as Americans in 2015, we probably have a lot more in common with this rich young ruler than we do with Jesus or his disciples, who were basically homeless people without many possessions.

As an aside, I’ll note that this is why I’m so excited about our Mission Fest in two weeks. We’re going to be able to use our power and privilege to help those people who really need a meal. We can help make and pack meals for people who desperately need food. When we end up throwing food away, we can actually help give food to those who don’t know where their next meal is coming from; we get to be a part of it. We are being offered the chance, like the rich young ruler in this story, to give some of our money and our time to Jesus.

So we first need to see how the rich young ruler reacts to this opportunity. You’ll notice that the rich young ruler leaves sadly, “grieving,” the text tells us, “for he had many possessions.” Interestingly, the text doesn’t tell us whether he did it or not. The implication seems to be that he didn’t; that he would’ve been too sad to leave all his stuff behind, so he grieved that he would never inherit eternal life.

But what if we read it the other way? What if we assume that he did care enough about Jesus and what he had to say to actually change his life? What if he actually did sell everything? Well, he would probably walk away shocked and grieving, and lamenting the soon-to-be loss of his possessions. While the traditional interpretation of this text is of a man who’s too in-love with his possessions to change, the exact opposite interpretation is just as valid – a man so in-love with what God wants for him that he’s willing to change everything.

How, though? How do we change? That’s the tough question. Because Jesus tells us, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This isn’t solely about greed or love of money; it’s about what we have to do with our lives to make ourselves rich and successful. We have to sacrifice things that should maybe be more important to us. We have to sacrifice those things in order to attain that wealth. And, in so doing, we might make things harder on ourselves.

Remember that Jesus lives in a time when wealth is thought to be granted by God. The wealthy are born that way, and they deserve it. And here, Jesus says that it’s hard for those people to get into heaven, because they can’t change who they are – none of us can. So the disciples, perhaps for the only time in the Gospels, ask a really profound question: “Then who can be saved?”

See, if even the wealthy, if even those people who seem to have been chosen by God for special things, if even they can’t get on God’s good side, who can? It’s got to be greatly distressing to the disciples. They aren’t anybody special. Just like us today, sitting in this church, they’re not anybody or anything. They’re just regular folks. So if the special people aren’t favored by God, what hope is there for regular people?

This is where Jesus hammers home the Good News. Because the things we’ve heard so far are not that great of news, really. The whole, “no one can be saved” thing just doesn’t sound so great.

So that’s when Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” This has two possible meanings. One, the obvious one, is that anyone (even the rich) can be saved through God. We can all go to heaven, rich or poor. That’s a good message, and I do think that’s a part of what the text is saying.

The other, sneakier, more insidious meaning, is that anyone, even the rich, can be changed through God. The smoker, the drinker, the angry person, the lazy one, the deviant, the greedy, the glutton, the snob – anyone can be given eternal life, because no one deserves it. But God can make us worthy, and do so in two ways – both by being willing to look past our flaws and our deep sins, but also by being willing to help us change and remove those things about ourselves that keep us from God.

So that gets us back to our central question from the story: Why did the man leave grieving? Was it because he loved his possessions so much that he was willing to forfeit eternal life – or because he wanted eternal life so much that he was willing to forfeit his beloved possessions?

We know that it is not possible for us to change without God. We might want to be better people, but we fall back into old habits and patterns of behavior with such ease that it isn’t even funny.

This passage tells us, though, that if we rely on God, we can change. God can actually be there for us, to help us through the difficult times, making us into people we want to be, and truly transforming us, so that we can be more Christ-like. Yes, that means parting with some of the earthly things we love, including money and possessions – and that pain is real, and it is hard. But engaging in that change also means a chance to be closer to God, and to accomplish the work of Jesus Christ in the world. And for that, we can give thanks. Amen.

The One About Divorce – 2015/10/04

Psalm 8
Hebrews 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16


Right off the top, I’m going to be honest: I’ve got about 10 things competing for attention in this sermon, so I’m going to do my best to tie them together, but I give you no guarantees this Sunday.

Let’s start with something fun. I really like weddings. They’re great. They’re fun, and they’re hectic. The food’s always good, you get to see old friends or family, or meet new people. I’ve been to a lot of them; I’ve stood up in like 5 or 6, and I got to perform my first one as a pastor just two weeks ago. And, of course, I had my own.

Anyway, the day of my own wedding was perfect. Well, I mean, it rained, but that’s good luck, right? My bachelor party was the morning of my wedding. We played softball in the park, and I got the game-winning hit in the last at-bat of the day – couldn’t have planned it more perfectly. Carissa was unquestionably, and I say this totally objectively and without bias, the most beautiful bride in history, ever. And our ceremony was wonderful.

After the ceremony ended, we stood in the receiving line, and eventually the pastor came through. She said to us, “Actually, you know I skipped part of the ceremony by mistake. I don’t really feel comfortable signing the license until I’ve done everything. So can I do it here?”

In this context, “here” meant, “In the receiving line.” “Sure,” we said, and she proceeded to share this one, eensy-weensy part of the ceremony. What was that part? Why, it was a part from our reading in Mark today! It was verses eight and nine, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

So today’s passage from Mark deals with divorce. It’s not a topic I look forward to preaching; I can’t imagine that it’s a topic that anyone particularly enjoys hearing about. I’d venture to say that every one of us has had a friend or family member who’s been divorced, if we haven’t ourselves. It’s just inevitable in today’s culture. So how do we see what a Christian response is?

Well, as we should as Christians in all things, let’s look first at what Jesus says. First of all, note that the passage begins with Jesus being surprised and ambushed by some of the religious authorities at the time, the Pharisees. They attack him with a question they to which they already know the answer. They ask whether it is “lawful for a man to divorce his wife,” Jesus asks what the Old Testament says, and they respond correctly that a man would be allowed “to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

Okay, so if that’s how it is, why did these people start by asking Jesus a question they already knew the answer to? Well, if you’re familiar with the stories of Jesus’ life, you’ll know that the religious authorities in Jerusalem were always trying to get Jesus in trouble. They tried to trick him with questions that forced him to answer in a way that could get him into trouble. This behavior was most pronounced right before Jesus was crucified, which is where this story takes place.

So how was this straightforward question designed to trick Jesus? Well, as I was reading commentaries this week, it became clear that Herod, the King at the time, had divorced his wife so that he could marry his sister-in-law. And his sister-in-law divorced Herod’s brother, so she could marry Herod! It was a big scandal. The religious authorities were hoping that they could get Jesus to say something incriminating against the King. Maybe, just maybe, they could get him executed for saying something against the crown.

So at first, Jesus avoids the bait by having the Pharisees answer their own question. But then he says that this commandment is not really what God wants. This rule is there because of fact that we people are sinful and make mistakes. We’re not perfect, so the law is meant to help us.

But God intends for marriages to last; after all, that’s why so many of us choose to marry in a Christian ceremony. We could invite our friends and family to a courtroom to witness a legal marriage; but a Christian wedding is about how we want God involved, too. And specifically, it’s about how we want for a marriage what God wants. Jesus tells us in this passage that God’s intention is that marriages will stay together.

So then, Jesus continues the teaching to the disciples and says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” There are a couple of interesting things going on here. First of all, this is where Jesus first identifies divorce with adultery. Part of the reason he does this is that, at the time, most divorces were handled by someone saying, “I don’t want to be married anymore,” walking away, and shacking up with someone else – which sure looks a lot more like adultery to us. But this identification with divorce and adultery just goes to further show how seriously Jesus takes marriage – it’s meant to be a forever commitment, although he acknowledges the necessity of a way out for our human fragility.

The second interesting thing here is that it claims that women have rights in marriage. You’ll notice that in the religious authorities’ original question, they ask only if a man is allowed to get a divorce. Jesus notes, though, that it’s not only the man who can be sinned against during a divorce, and it’s not only the woman who’s capable of sinning. Everything goes both ways, in Jesus’ eyes.

Look, there are a lot of good reasons to get divorced. Some marriages have abuse, infidelity, or a complete loss of trust. I don’t think that anyone in today’s world can say that divorce is altogether bad. The question Jesus is asking, though, is, “What kind of marriage does God have in mind?”

There’s one more group that I think could best be described as “married,” and that’s churches. You may not know this, but the first Sunday in October is always World Communion Sunday. That’s a day when churches all over the world agree to celebrate Communion with one another. It’s a day when Methodists and Catholics and Presbyterians and Lutherans and Mennonites and non-denominational churches and Episcopalians and Orthodox and people of all stripes share in the body and blood of Christ together.

And as much as this is a wonderful celebration of unity, it’s also a stark reminder of the divorces our churches have been through. It reminds us of the pain and the hurt that comes as a part of who we are. Individual churches torn in two, denominations ripped apart; trusts broken and people disappointed. These things are all, just like human divorces, tragedies that result from our brokenness. Our inability to get along, our tendencies to wander away from those people we pledge to be together with, our desires to do what’s best for “us” alone without considering our partners.

The kind of marriage Jesus presents in this Scripture reading is a marriage unlike many of the ones we know from real life. It’s most definitely unlike the marriages we see between and within denominations. We have trouble staying together forever. We have trouble living up to what God wants of us; what God has in mind for us.

So what can we do, if we know we’re going to fall short of what God has in mind for us? Well, one thing we have to realize is a wonderful quote I read this week: “Jesus’ counterquestion [to the Pharisees], an element in stories of verbal combat, turns the tables on his opponents by demonstrating that they are only interested in preserving the Law as they understand it, not in doing God’s will” (NIB Commentary, 642). We need to be sure that we’re looking out for growing God’s love and God’s purposes, not just looking out for our own understanding of the way things ought to be.

This gets brought home beautifully in the second story in today’s passage, the one about the children. In this story, people bring their children to Jesus, so that he can bless them. The disciples want to shoo these kids away. After all, keep in mind that children were not really considered “people.” They were not seen as “innocent” or as “ideal,” the way our society depicts children today; rather, they were utterly, totally, and completely dependent on the families.

Yet, in spite of their official stance as “non-entities,” Jesus sees these children and grants them grace. They don’t “earn” their way to Jesus’ side. They’ve done nothing. As far as anyone else is concerned, they’re not even people. But to Jesus, they are everything. You are everything. We are everything.

In a week that’s seen a rash of violence in schools, first in Harrisburg and then in Oregon, we realize that we are truly weak; we truly need to rely on God, because we can’t hope in our fellow human beings. People let us down. Only God is capable of accepting us, holding us, and always being there for us. And God’s response, as Jesus shows us, is that, in spite of our imperfection, we are welcome. We are brought into the family of God, and shown grace upon grace.

Jesus welcomed children who were last and least to his side. We can often marginalize the divorced – and we must remember that they, too, are often the “least of these” to whom Jesus now beckons. And as we look at all the “divorces” we see, individual in families and corporate among churches, let us remember that brokenness belongs to us. As we see that same brokenness in cities and communities throughout the world, we see that we are utterly reliant upon God. We are broken; Christ is not. Today, we will break bread, and I will remind us that, “Because there is one loaf, we, many as we are, are one body; for it is one loaf of which we all partake.” On this World Communion Sunday, let us remember that we, God’s children, are called to God’s side. Not because of our worthiness, not because we have behaved perfectly, but because God is full of Grace. Amen.