A Proportional Response – 2017/02/19

Psalm 119:33-40
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Matthew 5:38-48


There is a link to the children’s Valentine program at the bottom of this post!

     I got in just a couple of fights with my college roommate, and the biggest one of them was my fault. He and I lived together for four years, and we enjoyed almost every minute of it. I am an only child, so I didn’t have brothers or anything, but this guy I shared a room with for four years was the closest I ever had.
     Of course, we had other friends, too. We liked to play stupid pranks on each other – stealing little stuff from each other and seeing how long it took people to notice, mostly. Dumb stuff like that. So one time, I was out of my room, and some guys decided to play a prank on me. They asked into the room, and my roommate said “yes.” He helped them log onto my computer, and they messed with a bunch of my files, changed the desktop background – simple stuff, really, and nothing to get too upset about.
     Thing was, I was having a rotten day when this happened. I came back to the room, and my computer was all messed up. I was mad. I seethed for a while, until my roommate got home, and asked him about it. He’s a sweet guy, so he was honest – told me that some of the other guys had wanted to mess with me, so he helped them out.
     On that day, I was mad, and I wanted to take it out on someone. Since the people who had actually done it weren’t there, they only person I could blame was my roommate. I mean, sure, it was a violation of trust… but only just barely. So I confronted him over by the window, and a punched him a couple of times in the arm. No big deal. And hey – as boys do, after punching him, I felt a whole lot better. I’m sure the good feeling would have faded, because I would’ve realized that I punched someone for no reason. But it felt great in the moment.
     So anyway, feeling better, I walked away – just turned around to leave the room, feeling better. We were even, far as I was concerned. The only problem with that thinking was this: in my mind we were even, but far from it in his mind. In his mind, we were anything but even. He hadn’t really done anything wrong – just let some of our friends into the room and pointed to my computer. And for nothing, he had gotten punched.
     So, as I walked out the door, he waited until I was juuuuust about out of the room, he reached down by his bed where he kept his baseball glove. One of the many things we enjoyed doing together was playing catch – in nice weather, we’d do it every day. So he reached into his glove, pulled out the baseball, and whipped it as hard as he could, right in the middle of my back. Never mind that it could’ve hit my head, or that our TV or computers could’ve been hit. Never mind that I hit him in the arm from close distance, and he retaliated by whipping a baseball at me when I was defenseless. Never mind that he’s a personal trainer who bench presses 300 pounds and could seriously have injured me. He just did what he thought made us even.
     And that’s when I made the first really good decision of the day. I said nothing, and I just turned and walked away. Grabbed my keys, and out the door I went.
     On that note, we continue today in the Sermon on the Mount. If you’ve been in church the last few weeks, we’re now on the fourth and final section of those famous words that Jesus preached early in his ministry. Jesus took an opportunity, when the disciples had just been gathered, to lay out the most important things – to explain what principles his ministry would be based on, what God is doing in the world, what the Kingdom of God looks like, how we can live that reality today. This sermon is really Jesus’ statement on what it means to be one of his followers, and it is therefore one of the most important parts of the entire Bible. Today is our fourth and final week of examining this great sermon.
     Jesus begins this section of the Sermon on the Mount by talking about the phrase, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This was a common law in the world of the Old Testament. It’s found in the Bible, and it’s also found in the Code of Hammurabi, which some scholars date as the oldest know written code of law. The whole idea of this law is that it’s about fairness. Some people think it’s about revenge; it’s not. It’s about saying, “If you take out my eye, I can’t kill you – all I can take is your eye.” It’s about proportion.
     The problem with me and my roommate that day in college was that we each viewed something as “even” when it wasn’t at all. Instead of getting even, each one of us was escalating the conflict. Had I chosen to retaliate after he threw a baseball at me, I would’ve attacked much harder than the baseball throw. I would’ve hit him in the face, no doubt. I would’ve been out for blood. But see, that’s not fair. He didn’t go for blood. But we, as human beings, have a lot of trouble with the idea of a proportional response. Our instinct is not to “get even;” our instinct is to “get ahead.”
     In this sermon, though, Jesus offers us another response – something that takes more discipline, more mercy, and more grace than a proportional response. What Jesus offers is a generous response. It has the added bonus of helping out the person who’s harmed, as we’ll see.
     There’s a lovely little book called Jesus and Nonviolence, by a theologian named Walter Wink. In it, he discusses how interesting this little passage is. For example, he points out that the passage says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Specifically, it mentions the right cheek. Why? Well, Wink argues that, always, people would slap one another with their right hands – it was shameful to use your left hand for anything (as your left hand was also your toilet paper, if you get my drift). So people would always slap right-handed. Now, the only way to slap someone on the right cheek with your right hand is to backhand them.
     Backhanding someone was then, as now, a sign of disrespect – a sign that the backhander is superior to the backhanded. When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, yes it means being slapped again – but it also means being slapped as an equal. For someone to hit you on the left cheek, they have to look you in the eye, consider your humanity, and then do it. They have to recognize you as an equal, not as an inferior.
     Similarly, Jesus says that, if someone sues you for your coat, you should give them your cloak. That leaves you naked. And in Jesus’ time, seeing someone else naked was shameful, not just for the naked person, but for the person seeing them. This forces the person to give you back some item of clothing. Likewise again, all subjects of Rome were required to carry the pack of a Roman soldier if requested, but you only had to go one mile. Jesus says to offer to take the pack a second. While that would be hard work, it’s also illegal, and forces the Roman soldiers, an occupying force that operated oppressively and with legal impunity, to beg for their pack in order to not break the law. In other words, it put the carrier in a position of power over those who were actually in power.
     This kind of radical resistance was key in Jesus’ time. There weren’t many battles that could be won by a peasant like Jesus (or his friends). But there were these ways to speak truth to power. Fighting back, then, Jesus tells us, is not always the best way to get someone to recognize that we are worthwhile human beings. Perhaps there are these other forms of resistance. They’re harder, but they also force our oppressors to see us in a new light, which can perhaps lead to progress.
     And that leads us to the latter part of our reading for today. Jesus says some things which are necessary truths that we need to hear and keep in mind, whether we’re in Jesus’ day or even today.
     “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” In other words, we are tempted to hate those who oppose us. But Jesus reminds us that God sends rain on them, too. God loves all the children of the earth, whether they’re friends with you or enemies. So maybe the way we solve conflict isn’t by escalating violence, escalating hate, and escalating anger. Maybe the way we solve our problems is be remembering that we are children of God, and offering grace and love to those to whom we’re not inclined to offer grace and love, whether that’s a neighbor or family member who annoys us, or if it’s a different ethnic group from across the world. No matter who a person is, they are loved by God, and we best serve Christ by outdoing one another in love, not in hate.
     So that’s where I finish my personal story. My roommate and I got into this fight. I hurt him, and he hurt me, and that’s when I walked away. We knew one another’s schedules forward and backward (we did live together, after all), so we avoided one another for two days. I came in after he went to bed at night; he got up and left as early in the morning as possible – all so we didn’t have to talk. Two days we did that. And, since it was my fault, I wrote him an e-mail. I apologized, took the blame (it was my fault, after all, for letting something dumb escalate into a real fight). I asked for forgiveness. I chose to end the cycle of violence and anger there, because the truth is, I loved my roommate, and I didn’t want to be at odds with someone I loved.
     He forgave me. Of course he forgave me. We hugged; things went back to normal. We played catch. And this time, no one got a baseball square in the back.
     We have the power to make decisions to end cycles of destruction and violence, and to increase love. That’s within our power. Whether or not we choose to do so is our choice. Jesus has made it clear what we’re supposed to do. Let us have the courage to take that call on our lives, and live as we ought. Let’s give voice to those who don’t have voices themselves. Let’s be willing to stand up to things that seem unfair or cruel in the world. Let’s live in a way that honors what Jesus taught us to do in the Sermon on the Mount. Amen.

Law and Grace – 2017/02/12

Psalm 119:1-8
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37


Amy and Keaton Laible’s presentation on their dental mission to Jamaica is at the bottom of this post!

     I had a teacher I really liked in second grade. Mrs. Campbell was her name, and she was a good teacher – fun, helpful, taught me a lot. But she had a problem with some of my work sometimes. I mean, she gave me the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten, but that was in handwriting (and my handwriting is atrocious). But that’s not what I’m talking about.
     Rather, I remember clear as day sitting in conferences with my mom, and Mrs. Campbell saying to us that whenever she gave an assignment to write three to five sentences about something, I always wrote three. This really disappointed her.
     I was dumbfounded by this statement. I had this long conversation with my mother about what this was supposed to mean. I didn’t understand what the problem was. She asked for 3-5 sentences, I gave her three. That’s the deal. Mom explained that, sometimes, people want more than just the bare minimum. My feeling was, if you want five sentences, ask for five sentences. I can give you five, but if you only ask for three, that’s what you’re getting.
     Eventually, I figured out that, if I didn’t want to hear that comment anymore, maybe I should make the effort to write an extra sentence or two. I didn’t like it, it still didn’t make sense to me, but I’d do it. In today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus is going to teach us about God’s standards, and give us the realization that they might be a little (or a lot) higher than we might’ve believed.
     But first, I want to remind you that we’ve been reading passages from the Sermon on the Mount the last two weeks, and this week, and next week, too. The Sermon on the Mount is a sermon given by Jesus at the very beginning of his ministry.
     As perhaps one of the best-known pieces of the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount is a very important passage to many Christians. It will come up again, in fact, as one of the passages traditionally read at Ash Wednesday is also from the Sermon on the Mount.
     The Sermon on the Mount is, at its heart, a sort of manifesto or guidebook for Jesus’ ministry. It tells people about themselves, revealing who we are and what we’re like, but more importantly the Sermon on the Mount is revealing about God.
     So this morning, we’re treated to a just lovely passage that tells us that everyone here is an adulterer, a murderer, and a liar. Now isn’t that a lovely kick-in-the-pants?
     I’ll tell you, one of the most bizarre things about being tasked with preaching is that people voluntarily come to church, yet often the things we read condemn the very people who come! Like, it seems like maybe there are people who aren’t coming who need to hear it; yet the truth of the church is that it’s like a hospital; we’re here because we know that we’re spiritually sick. There are plenty of other people that need to be in here, too, but either way, we know we need to be here.
     So let’s confront this passage upfront, because it deals with ugly things. Jesus begins the passage by stating something I think we can all agree with: murder is bad. That’s one of the least controversial statements one can make. And in an increasingly divided country, where it seems making statements we can agree on is harder and harder, it’s a precious thing when you find something everyone can agree on.
     But from that point on, things get a little dicey. Jesus then says that anger and insults are exactly the same. He tells us that to get angry with someone, or to insult them, is essentially the same as killing them. Obviously, no one dies when we get angry at them. But what Jesus tells us is that, in God’s eyes, when we get angry or insult others, we’re just as bad as murderers.
     Now, there are reasons we might want to push back or argue against that. But here’s the thing: murders don’t happen unless someone gets angry. There’s a root cause. Jesus is telling us that God doesn’t want to stop symptoms of sin, God wants to stop the disease. Anger and insults are things that we feel, and they lead to escalation. If we could rid ourselves of those things, we wouldn’t have murders anymore.
     So take the next passage, which deals with desire. Of course, this is written from a male perspective (as all things would’ve been at the time), so it only addresses men being attracted to women – yet surely it holds true for women, as well. Jesus tells us that, it’s not just the physical action of adultery that’s a sin. Rather, whenever one looks at someone that way, thinks about someone that way, we’ve already committed adultery in our hearts.
     And in that paragraph, Jesus goes on to talk about divorce. Look, everyone knows someone who’s divorced; everyone loves someone who’s divorced. The point of this passage isn’t that divorced people are bad. Jesus does talk about divorce being bad – but I want you to hold on to that for a second, because we’ll come back to it.
     That’s because, at the end of today’s reading, Jesus talks about making promises. Jesus uses the word “swearing,” but he means “making promises.” He says we should just say “yes” or “no,” no need to attach a promise – after all, you never know if you’ll be able to keep it, and if you can’t, then you’re a liar.
     Murderers, adulterers, liars. That’s who Jesus tells us we are in this passage. In fact, he goes so far as to say that, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” That’s a pretty extreme judgment. So why does Jesus go to such extremes with his instructions for us here?
     Well, let’s think about some of these things. Some commentators on these passages have pointed out that some of the things, like being angry or having desire for someone, are things we can’t even help. So it seems like Jesus is saying we’re bad people for what we can’t even help doing.
     But that’s where the turn in the reading takes place. You see, this passage is about human wisdom, and God’s wisdom. It’s about Law, and it’s about Grace.
     God gives us laws, and we make laws. It’s best to follow God’s laws, and it’s best to follow human laws, at least when they’re just. But the problem is, according to Jesus, the laws don’t go far enough. They don’t get us all the way to true righteousness. Following just the letter of the law is when I used to write three sentences instead of five, or six, or thirty. When all we do is keep to the letter of the law, all we’re showing God is that we only care enough to stay out of trouble. What God wants from us – demands from us – is beyond obedience. It’s beyond a mere desire to do the minimum. God is asking us to be all in. We’re supposed to give God our whole selves, including our emotions, our hearts – every facet of our lives. That even means the things that are impossible to give over, like our desires or our anger.
     And that’s where we realize the second thing this passage is about. It’s not just about being a good, or even great follower of the Law. It’s also about how much we need God’s grace. Our state as humanity is something we often don’t think about. We rarely think about just how much we do every day that could be better. We give in to slight temptations often; we hurt others without a second thought being given; we forget the neediest among us and do whatever makes us happy. We spend so much of our time thinking selfishly. And even when we feel bad about it, we usually turn right around and do the same thing again when we wake up the next day.
     Jesus’ words here remind us that we need God’s help. Left to our own devices, we will get angry. Anger turns to murder faster than I think most of us realize. That’s why Jesus tells us that it’s so important to recognize just how much we need God. We need God’s Grace, because our own desires are out of whack with God’s priorities. We need the grace of God to get through each day, and we need the Grace of God so that we’re judged, not based on what we deserve, but based on the love God has for us.
     Finally, I asked you to put a pin in the idea of divorce earlier, and I want to return to it briefly here. Because we have to remember what the Sermon on the Mount is ultimately about. It’s not just a discussion of who we are and who God is. I know I introduced it that way this week, but that’s because I was holding back the big reveal. The Sermon on the Mount is, first and foremost, about the Kingdom of God. When Jesus tells us to avoid divorce, to avoid anger, to avoid lust, to avoid making promises we can’t keep, he’s not just asking us to do something today. He’s also revealing what God is doing in the Kingdom.
     Jesus died on the cross, but his death was not God’s final answer; he rose again from the grave on the third day, to show us that God is in the business of more. What we have here, in our present lives on earth, is full of the heartbreak, loss, sin, death, disease, and pain that come to all people who live. Those things are difficult trials we deal with, and sometimes they seem too much to bear. But we are also promised that God has a Kingdom beyond this.
     We don’t know exactly what shape God’s Kingdom will take, but we do know that Jesus promises us all a place in God’s Kingdom one day, and wants us to know that we can start living into it already. We’re still going to be beset by the problems inherent to this fallen world. So yes, we’re still going to get angry, get divorces, have desires, and promise things we shouldn’t. That’s what it means to be human.
     But Jesus wants us to remember that we shouldn’t just do those things without thinking. We should work for a world in which we live into a Kingdom that others – and even we – can’t yet see. We can live in the Resurrection world already, even when the world around us seems hard and cruel and full of trouble. Jesus is showing us God’s Kingdom to come, and asking us to come along for the ride. It’s a difficult road, but when we make the decision to follow Christ with our lives, it’s the path we choose to take. Have courage; have trust in Christ. He goes with us on the journey. Have faith, and live into his Kingdom today. Amen.

Salt & Light – 2017/02/05

Psalm 112:1-10
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

SERMON Salt & Light

     Analogies, metaphors, figures of speech – they’re interesting. Oftentimes, we use them but don’t really think of how specific they are. I remember the first time my mom said to me, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” I had no idea what she was talking about. For those who, like me, have never heard that expression, it means this: don’t be ungrateful for a gift by wishing it was better – it’s free, after all. You can tell a horse’s age by looking at its teeth. If someone gifts you a horse, it’s kind of insulting to look in its mouth to see if it’s “good.”
     My mom said this to me because we were on a road trip, and she told me I could get a magazine. I was holding one in my hand, and I went back to the rack to see if there was another one I would rather have. She snatched the one I was already holding and said, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” I had to ask for an explanation, because this phrase was so foreign to me.
     Of course, part of the reason it was foreign was because I wasn’t in the horse-trading business. But imagine a time and a place when having horses was much more common. In a time and a place such as that, not only would this little phrase not require explanation, it would probably be something relevant to people’s lives. Nowadays, people know the expression, but it’s not really something most of us are likely to encounter.
     So that brings us to the two metaphors Jesus chooses to use in today’s reading from Matthew: salt and light. Those are the things Jesus chooses to compare people to. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly think of those as flattering things to be compared to. Light is everywhere, and seems really ordinary. Salt is just something that raises your cholesterol and makes you less healthy. Why does Jesus choose these things?
     As I mentioned last week, we’re going to be spending the next few weeks in the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon that Jesus gave early in his ministry, and found in Matthew chapters 5-7. Last week, we read the Beatitudes, those famous short sayings that include things like, “Blessed are the meek.” This week, we move on to Jesus’ next words, which include this little section about salt and light.
     Now salt, in the ancient world, was used for many things. Of course, many of us here probably grew up boiling water with salt in it – that was done in Jesus’ day, too. Salt of course was used to add flavor to food. And, more importantly, salt was used as a method of food storage. Keep in mind, it’s not like Jesus and the people in his days had a refrigerator. So food (meat, in particular) was packed in salt to make sure it would keep.
     Salt, then, was not just something in a little container at the table – it was the very food that kept life livable. Salt not only packed meat, but people had to eat spoiled food sometimes. If you’ve ever had to eat something spoiled, let me tell you this: adding a healthy dose of salt will blow away any spoiled taste the food may have left. Salt kept you alive.
     Likewise, think about light in the ancient world. Rarely do we have the opportunity to truly be in the dark anymore. There are streetlights, the glow of the ethanol plant, headlights on cars going by. But in the ancient world, there was none of that. On a night of a new moon, there was nothing to guide the way.
     In a culture where darkness became the norm, think about the power of light. Even a candle, flickering away, was brighter than we can imagine. We’re so used to electric lights in our homes that a candle at night would seem like nothing. But if you want the effect, go down to your basement at night, where it’s truly dark. Go down and light a candle. You’ll see that it’s much, much lighter than you expect it to be.
     And so in this culture, where salt is the difference between eating and starving and where even a candle is a powerful light, we are compared to salt and light. Suddenly, these innocent metaphors that seem almost quaint or meaningless take on a whole new power.
     So what does it mean to be salt and light? Jesus is telling us to live lives that reflect God’s grace. We have to go out and live excellent lives – morally excellent lives, in which we embrace the righteousness of God. In fact, in the second section of the reading for today (which I’m just not going to focus on, but will mention here), Jesus talks extensively about the importance of doing God’s will, following the commandments, and being righteous. So Jesus wants us to live good lives. But more than that, we’re supposed to be visible while we do it.
     When Jesus first compares us to salt, he talks about how salt is no good if it loses its saltiness. That’s true – then it’s just little crystals of nothing on your food. The good news for us is that salt can’t lose its saltiness! This is an example in which Jesus tells us that, without our cooperation in what he wants us to do, we’re like un-salty salt. We become meaningless crystals sprinkled on food.
     Which is why, I think, the analogy of light is so much more useful. Jesus says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” We’re asked to be held up, shining light on others. If we’re insular, if we just shine our light to ourselves, we’re like the light hidden under a bushel basket; we can’t be seen by anyone.
     When we truly follow after Christ, though, we show that light to people. We proclaim what Jesus has done for us and what he is still doing. We speak proudly of our faith, and we direct our prayers to him.
     We offer to be there for people in times of crisis, we make ourselves available to friends in need, we help those less fortunate than we are, we give up something we want so someone else can have what they need.
     In the song, “This Little Light of Mine,” there’s a verse that deals with this issue: “Hide it under a bushel? NO! I’m gonna let it shine!” We want to shine God’s light on people, warming them, showing them the way, and helping them to see clearly what God is up to.
     So friends, remember that you are salt, taking the bitter tastes of this world and making them palatable; you are the salt that helps keep people fed; you are the light that warms people in the cold; you are the light that shows the way in great darkness. Brothers and sisters, go into the world, and be salt; be light. Be who Christ is longing for you to be. Amen.

When the Losers Win – 2019/01/29

Psalm 15
Micah 1:6-8
Matthew 5:1-12


     Most Christians – and even many non-Christians – are familiar with the Beatitudes. Those are the words we read from Matthew’s Gospel. These “beatitudes” (based on a Latin word that means “blessings” or “happiness”) begin what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, a great sermon given by Jesus. We’re going to be spending the next four weeks (including this one) in the Sermon on the Mount, so we’ll get more familiar with the later parts. But the most famous bit of it is this week’s portion, the Beatitudes.
     Immediately, I think when Christians today read the Beatitudes, they struggle with them. First of all, one of the struggles is with the word, “Blessed.” I mean, is it pronounced like “bless-ed,” or like “blest?” (Answer: either one.) What does it mean? And really, how often do we use that word, and does it even have a place in our lives?
     Let’s begin with the definition. The word used here in Greek can mean one of two things: it can mean “blessed” or it can mean “happy.” Some biblical translations will, in fact, render this passage as saying, for example in verse four, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That reads kind of funny to us, doesn’t it? “Happy are those who mourn.” Well, no, they’re not happy. They’re in mourning; they’re grieving for someone who’s died; of course they’re not happy. So many translations use the word “blessed” instead.
     But let’s think about that for a second. Let me ask you a question. Who here has ever blessed someone? I would bet that nearly everyone here has done so. How about when someone sneezes? Don’t you say, “Bless you,” or “God bless you”? I do. That’s a word of blessing that you’ve given. Now, keep sneezing in mind as we move forward.
     So we’re led to our first big conflict in this passage. It’s the conflict about what it means to be blessed. In fact, if we’re being honest, the people that Jesus is blessing don’t really have it so great. Remember, when Jesus gives these words of blessing, he’s not saying, “Go be blessed;” he says, “Blessed are,” meaning that he says that these people are already blessed. He names the poor in spirit first; the mourners, who have lost someone they love, are named next; the meek are third– that is, those who are intimidated or bullied; then those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Well, if they’re hungering and thirsting for righteousness, that means they’re people who have experienced the world as being unfair; unfairness makes you hunger after fairness. Fifth, Jesus tells us that the merciful are blessed, which sounds pretty good, but also means that these are people who have probably failed to receive justice; sixth are the pure in heart; next are the peacemakers, which again sounds really good, though also very hard; finally, in two separate Beatitudes, Jesus says that people who are persecuted are blessed. Yeah, so if bad things happen, it’s a good thing, maybe?
     This list Jesus gives us is complicated. It’s complicated because Jesus tells us that the people who look least blessed are truly the most blessed. But again, I ask you to think about sneezing. How often do you look at someone who isn’t sneezing and say, “God bless you”? We don’t do that, because those who are well don’t need our blessing; those who are sick do.
     In that light, reconsider Jesus’ blessings. He says, to pick one example, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus doesn’t say that the people who already have it great get to have more, and that those who have nothing will continue to. He inverts the expected social order by saying that those who have nothing are actually blessed to be in that position, because God has special things planned for them. And this leads us to our next important observation about this text, to which I’d call your attention.
     Did you notice that almost all of the Beatitudes are in two different verb tenses, both present and future? For example, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The sentence starts in the present tense – the meek are blessed now – but shifts to the future – they will inherit the earth. This is a critical observation.
     I imagine there are some folks here who have been lifelong Twins fans. In 1982, the Twins lost 100 games for the first time since moving to Minnesota. I imagine that it would’ve been tough to look at someone with a straight face in 1982 and say, “Blessed are the Twins, for they will inherit the World Series.” Yet, the 1982 Twins, losers of 100 games and playing their first season in the zany new park known as the Metrodome, an adjustment with which they struggled. And yet, the 1982 Twins eventually did get used to the ballpark and became virtually unbeatable there; that 1982 team, bad as it was, featured 24-year-old Tim Laudner, 23-year-olds Gary Gaetti and Randy Bush, 22-year-olds Kent Hrbek and Frank Viola, and 21-year-old Tom Brunansky. Every one of them became key contributors on the 1987 World Champs, and several of them were still contributors were on the ’91 team that won it all, too; many of you may recognize those names. But in 1982, those names were just a bunch of young nobodies who didn’t help win games. By 1987, they were some of the brightest stars in baseball.
     This example is illustrative because we see that sometimes, the future is set up in the present, just as Jesus tells us with the very grammar of his sentences. And one of the things that makes this particular sermon so memorable is where it comes in Jesus’ ministry. All that’s happened in Matthew’s Gospel so far is his birth and childhood, his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, and the calling of his disciples. Jesus is just now setting out on the road as a preacher of the Good News for the first time, and he starts with this teaching. He starts by talking about God’s justice, and sets the tone for his whole ministry.
     And that’s the point at which we reach a critical juncture in understanding these Beatitudes. There are three strong “themes” that carry through these beloved words, and I want to talk through each of them. The first theme is what Jesus’ message represents, the second about what we’re supposed to do, and the last about what God is doing.
     In regard to Jesus’ message, look again at the people Jesus is saying are honored by God in this passage: the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. What do they have in common? None of them are honored in their own day. We might think we honor, for example, peacemakers – but what we really honor is winners. Name a peacemaker. The reason our culture celebrates him or her is because that person won. We might celebrate the merciful when they save us – but when they fail to persecute the people we hate, we suddenly turn against them. We pity the mourners, but we don’t celebrate them. The meek – well, the very definition of meek means we don’t celebrate them.
     Yet here Jesus is, telling us that these are the very people God is blessing. Jesus’ implicit message here is this: there’s power in weakness. There’s strength in vulnerability. What the world may look on as foolishness is often actually wisdom. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed in my friends, my country, myself, all sorts of things in my life, for celebrating exactly those things that are easiest to celebrate. We have a tendency to believe that winning is all that matters. Jesus tells us here, though, that it’s not whether you win or lose – it’s how you play the game. “Playing” life with the correct attitude is powerful, even when you don’t win.
     God blesses the weak because the strong never will. But if the strong are wise, what they will do is pay attention to the weak, to see what they have to learn. Oftentimes, it’s more than people think they have to gain.
     And so that leads me to my next point about the text, which regards these categories we see in the Beatitudes. Some of us may be thinking, “Okay, well, Jesus must be calling me to be poor in spirit, or a mourner” or whichever category. But truthfully, that’s not what the text says. In fact, the grammar of the text does not indicate that at all. What the grammar indicates is that Jesus is most concerned with those who are in those states, but not that we’re supposed to put ourselves in them unnecessarily. I’m going to skip the grammar lesson, but I assure you, it’s there.
     Instead, what we’ll see in the coming weeks as we delve into the Sermon on the Mount more closely, is that those who are in power, who don’t share these attributes, are asked to share with others. Not just to share in material goods, but to share in suffering, to share in goodness and kindness. We’re asked to live generously, to give freely, and to live in the way that Jesus did, showing compassion to those who need it most.
     In Scripture, we learn about God through one of history’s great metaphors: the Father who sends his only Son into the world, knowing what will probably happen to him. Yet, God gives this way because of the deep, deep love in which we are held. God loves us enough to do these great things for us, so we are asked to remember our brothers and sisters in need.
     Finally, that brings us to what this passage is about: Christian hope. Jesus is telling us, not that we think God might do these things, not that God will probably do these things, but that these things are done. They are already accomplished, although we don’t see them yet. Jesus is telling us that the neediest among us are already blessed, not because of their needy condition, but because God is accomplishing great things that are as yet unseen. The weakest among us are blessed, not because it’s good to be stepped on, but because God is in the business of balancing the scales in the time to come.
     When Jesus was unjustly crucified, God did not stand idly by. God showed us the great things that will be accomplished. The cross, a human tool of violence and domination, will come to represent God’s victory over sin and death. Jesus, the sinless man and God made flesh, will not be forced to stay in the tomb, but will live again, to show us that we have life to come. Brothers and sisters, today, as we hear these words of Jesus, let us remember that we are promised a future. And we know that we know that we know that the future will come, because God has made it so already. So let us work for justice and righteousness and peace where we can. And where our efforts are not enough, lett us rejoice, knowing that God brings justice, righteousness, and peace, even when we cannot. Amen.

Fishing with Good Bait – 2017/01/22

Psalm 27:4-91
Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23


     I saw this really neat little trick once, to talk about how human memories work. This guy asked people to draw something they’d seen a million times. He told them to draw a one dollar bill. People got SUPER confused – they didn’t know which way Washington faced, didn’t know if his name was on the bill, couldn’t remember exactly what the back looked like, Didn’t remember if the ones in some corners were bigger than others, didn’t know if e pluribus unum or In God We Trust was on there anywhere, didn’t know where the serial numbers went.
     And this is pretty much true for all of us right now, isn’t it? You’ve seen a lot of dollar bills in your life, and you know what one looks like – yet, when pressed for the details, you probably couldn’t remember much, much less draw it accurately.
     When I see some of my high school friends, they often ask me to tell them stories from high school, because I have a pretty good memory for that stuff, and most of them don’t. So they’ll ask who our teachers were, or they’ll have me tell them about somebody that they’ve basically forgotten. As human beings, our memories are selective – they have to be, so we can keep our sanity. But they’re also really different than we think of them as being. Memories are not a picture or a video of events. They’re little impulses in our brain that try to filter out unimportant things. So a dollar – you don’t need to know every exact contour of a dollar, because you know what a dollar looks like. You don’t have to be able to know exactly what it looks like to recognize one. So your brain filters that out, and it leaves other things that are deemed more important. Maybe these other things are more important, and maybe not. But either way, you subconsciously make these decisions every day.
     Now, this leads to problems. It leads to two friends telling a story, and them not being able to agree on who said or did what, or what year it was, or where they were going. Then you watch a silly argument about nothing. Both sides are so sure that they know, that they can’t give in. Yet, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter that much.
     If you paid attention in church last week, you heard about Andrew and Peter becoming disciples. And that story was a completely different one from the one that we see here today. That one had Andrew as a disciple of John the Baptist; this one has him as a fisherman. That story had Andrew telling Peter about Jesus, this one has Jesus meeting the two of them together. This is the kind of thing that happens when human being try to remember. They tell different versions of the same story.
     So if you heard last week’s sermon, and then you heard this passage and thought to yourself, “Well, that doesn’t make sense,” you’re partially right. It doesn’t, because the two stories don’t really “fit” together. But perhaps we don’t need to worry about which one was first, or exactly which disciples it was Jesus was calling out of the boat, or whatever mistake was made. Perhaps the most important thing here is the lesson we see in the passage.
     Famously, this passage includes Jesus’ instruction to Andrew and Peter, asking them to “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” That’s a part of the story that’s very well known. And it’s very clever by Jesus to take what they’re already doing and turn it into a metaphor for what he wishes them to do. And that metaphor of fishing for people has been something that’s stuck with the church for 2000 years.
     We talk about fishing for people because we attempt to reel them in – we’re trying to bring people to Jesus. And it’s still something we should feel inspired to do today. We should still feel the urge to get people in the doors, to ask them to build a relationship with Jesus.
     But what I think we struggle with is something you can’t do actual fishing without – bait. Imagine if you try to go fishing without any lure, without any bait – even, in some cases, it seems – without a hook. You’re just lofting a piece of string into the water and hoping some fish bites.
     Too often, I think, that’s what churches do. We forget what the hook and the bait are. But this passage gives us those things, right at the beginning – right in that part that you probably forgot about as soon as we got to the familiar line about fishing for people.
     In verse 16, Jesus says, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Jesus comes as the bearer of light. He is here for us to show us what we’ve been missing. When we engage with Jesus, our lives open up to experiencing his radical love. We can feel the presence of God. We open ourselves up to witnessing God’s presence in our lives, including answering those prayers we thought unanswerable. Only when we engage in that relationship can we see things anew.
     Jesus isn’t there as a morality tale, as a lesson about someone powerful long ago. He’s here for us, as a real, tangible connection to God, who helps us see how we’re supposed to live, who helps us when we’re in trouble, and to rescue us from our demons. That’s the person in whom we put our faith. He is the light in darkness because he is able to shine his light on the dark places in our lives – our sickness, our weakness, our pain, our brokenness. His light doesn’t always bring the healing we’re searching for, but it always brings an openness and an honesty that helps us deal with whatever we’re dealing with.
     And Jesus rounds that message out with what, in many ways, becomes his catchphrase: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” “Repent” is not a popular word. It’s a word that you’re most likely to see (outside of church) in the context of a mad streetcorner preacher standing on a box yelling at passersby in a movie (although it does happen in real life).
     But “repent,” while a word we’re unfamiliar with, doesn’t mean, “you’re bad and change everything about yourself” – although that’s how it’s often portrayed. It means, “change your hearts and lives.” And it isn’t meant as a commandment, so much as an opportunity. Think about these two fishermen here in our passage. They weren’t doing anything wrong. Yet Jesus offers them a chance to change their hearts and lives. They weren’t actively being destructive or harming anyone, yet they were given this opportunity to repent – to change their hearts and lives – because Jesus was waking them up to what God is already doing.
     Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness. In the darkest darkness of all, as he hung on the cross, the disciples were without hope. They couldn’t know that their sins were dead. They couldn’t know anything that was coming. Yet, in that darkness, in days when it must’ve seemed like they’d wasted their lives following someone who was now dead, Jesus returned, shining light in that great darkness.
     When we fish for people, we awaken them to the opportunity to change their hearts and lives and to embrace the King of Kings, Jesus our Lord and Savior. But repentance is not offered only to fishermen who happened to miss church this morning. Repentance is a choice we can all make. We all can – and must – choose to repent. We can build for ourselves a closer relationship with Jesus. Through prayer and devotion, church attendance and Bible study, through conversation with friends, and (of course!) through fishing for people, we find ways to connect with Jesus. Let us all have the courage of these fishermen to cast away whatever impediments we have to embracing the Christ-filled life. Let us turn ourselves over completely, and let us repent. God’s Kingdom has come near, and we can take part. Amen.

Becoming Disciples Again – 2017/01/15

Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians
John 1:19-42


     In, oh I want to say 4th grade, we had a science teacher at my school who would wander from room to room, pushing her things on her cart. We were learning about how to do science – how to identify a problem, how to test a hypothesis, how to gather evidence, how to follow directions – you know, the basic drill.
     So one day, she walks in with sheets of paper for us. She hands them out and we all get going. You can see right away that, whatever you’re supposed to be doing with this sheet, it’s going to be involved, which makes sense. We’re learning about science. Anyway, the way you can tell it’s going to be involved is that it has like 30 or 40 points just in the directions. So our teacher sets us loose.
     I read the first direction, which is to read all directions before beginning. Then the second is put my name on the top of page, so I do that. The third, I think, was about counting the letters in your name. Then the next was to take that number and write it on the back of the paper. Then you had to draw a picture, you had to do a BUNCH of math problems. I was only in fourth grade, and I remember having to ask how you divide fractions, because somehow I wound up doing that. I asked the teacher, and she told me to be sure I had paid attention to all the directions, so I started over. Ugh. I wound up at the same point a second time.
     In the meantime, one kid had already turned theirs in. I couldn’t believe it! I was always the first person done. But if you looked around the room, everyone was trying furiously to figure this paper out. Then, after what seemed like forever, the teacher gave us permission to stop. She called out the one student who had turned in the paper, and commended her on a job well-done.
     The teacher held up the paper, and ALL that was on it was the girl’s name! Then, the teacher asked us to look at the final direction on this sheet of, I don’t know, 30 or 40 directions. The last one said, “Ignore all the other directions. Write your name in the top right corner of the page, turn in your sheet, and sit quietly at your desk.”
     Well, wasn’t that a nice little lesson in humility? Obviously, this was something that was going to be important for us when we were doing science experiments – read all the directions first, so you know for sure what you’re doing. Don’t just start working without knowing what’s coming next. Ask Carissa – when I cook a new recipe, I’m obsessive about reading the directions all the way through multiple times, and getting everything out and ready. I like to think it’s all residual emotional scarring from this silly sheet of paper we had to do in 4th grade.
     I fell for the trick on that sheet hook, line, and sinker, because I was ambitious, I like to work, I like problem solving, and I enjoyed activities in school. Why wouldn’t I want it? But my eagerness got the better of me. And in school, it’s important that we always follow the directions.
     Most of us, at some point in school, learn that lesson well. It’s either a tricky little worksheet that a teacher gives, or a math teacher who refuses to credit a right answer unless you show all your work, or it’s a science experiment that, perhaps literally, blows up in your face. And because we’re trained that way from so early on in our lives, to follow the directions, I think we often catch ourselves believing that that’s how life should be.
     Unfortunately, life is rarely a precise set of directions laid out for us, telling us exactly what to do and when. In life, we’re forced to wing it a little more than we get to in school. And it’s no different for followers of Jesus, in his time or today, than it is for anyone else. We’re all asked to go with the flow once in a while.
     There were a lot of things to notice in today’s passage from the Gospel of John. Perhaps you were in church last week, and you noticed the references to Jesus’ Baptism, which we talked about extensively last week. Perhaps you noticed that there were a lot of references to Jesus as the Lamb of God. Perhaps you were reading along in the Bible in your pews, and you noticed an inordinate number of statements in parentheses. But perhaps most important of all to notice in this passage is the concept of identity.
     Today’s passage begins with a discussion between the Pharisees and John the Baptist. These Pharisees were asking John who he was. I mean, they knew he was John the Baptist, but they wanted to know what that meant. Specifically, they wanted to know if he was the Messiah.
     “No,” John said, “but there’s someone coming who’s greater than I am.” We’ve all certainly heard variations on that story during Advent, as we lead up to Christmas. John is always a big part of those weeks leading to Christmas, and so we often hear his testimony. But this passage is different, in that it continues. “And lookee here,” says John. “Here’s the one – the Messiah – the Lamb of God.”
     Notice that this is just the first of several clarifications on names or naming that we’re going to get in this passage. John has clarified that he’s not the Messiah, then points to Jesus, who is. John later, in verse 34, states that Jesus is “the Son of God.” After John literally points to Jesus and says who he is, two of John the Baptist’s disciples (one of them Andrew) just stop following John and start following Jesus. They have a new name for Jesus, too – “Rabbi,” meaning “teacher.” Then, Andrew goes to his brother, Simon, and calls Jesus by another name, “Messiah.” And finally, Simon, Andrew’s brother, is brought to Jesus to meet him. When Jesus sees him, Jesus tells him that his name, “Simon,” is no longer what he will be called, but rather he’ll go by “Peter” (well, actually “Cephas,” but that means “Peter”).
     So what’s with all the re-naming? Well, I got to thinking about this passage in light of my story earlier about directions. You see, in life, we’re not given this sheet of directions that says everything we’re supposed to do. Most of the time, we just follow the next thing on the list. Think, for example, about Andrew in this passage. He’s a pretty minor character, you’d think. He began the passage as a disciple of John the Baptist. There he was, just a man following after where he saw God working, trying his best to serve God.
     Then, one day, he finds out from John that there’s another guy who’s even greater. What does Andrew do? Well, I would think there was probably a temptation to quit, to feel like everything has been a waste. Or perhaps there’d be a temptation to say, “Well, that’s nice, John, but I’m already following you, and second-best is good enough for me.” But instead, Andrew rolls with the punches – he just leaves John and follows after Jesus.
     I think we easily underestimate the courage that it takes to follow after a new call that comes later in life. It’s much, much easier to stay the course where we’re comfortable than it is to actually course-change in the middle of things. People stay for years and years at jobs that make them unhappy because the alternative of switching is just too much to bear. And sometimes, that’s the right decision.
     But when it comes to following God, there’s definitely not a roadmap that says that there’s one right way to follow. Throughout your life, you’ll undoubtedly be asked to do different things to serve God. I think about Pastor Carolyn. She was a nurse at the beginning of her career, and insodoing was following God’s call on her life, saving people. Then she became a pastor, and followed God’s will, serving people in a different way. Now, even in retirement, she serves as the “pastor to the pastors” in our Presbytery, helping people who need her advice and counsel.
     It’s not that any of these stops along the way was “wrong” and she should’ve picked the “right” one from the beginning. Sometimes, God throws us into a situation that’s right for a certain time, but it’s not meant to be forever. So the question we need to ask God all the time is this: What are you calling me to do now? Sometimes, we’re going to hear that we’re supposed to stay the course; sometimes, it’s time for a change. Sometimes, it means doing something big and bold with our lives, like giving up a big purchase we’ve looked forward to so that we can give to a charity that really needs our help. Sometimes, it’s a little gesture like checking in on the neighbor who needs a little help in the winter. Sometimes, it’s going to mean finally making that commitment to reading the Bible more regularly. Sometimes it’s going to mean praying differently. There are a hundred different ways God could be calling you to serve. But you don’t find out until you’re ready to ask.
     In conclusion, people (including Jesus!) get different names in this passage, because sometimes God needs us to become something else. Sometimes, we need to be bold and not fear having our name changed. Andrew goes to Jesus, and his name stays the same. Peter comes to Jesus, and he hears his name changed. But the important thing we learn is that the only ones who find out what their name is supposed to be today are those with the courage to ask.
     So take time in prayer; ask God where you’re being called. Talk to the important people in your life about it. Make a bold decision for God, make a private decision to do something personal. Either way, find out how God is leading you right now, and chase after that thing. After all, you don’t want to ignore a call from God. Amen.

Baptism of Jesus – 2017/01/08

Psalm 72:1-7
Matthew 2:1-12
Matthew 3:13-17


     This is one of my favorite days in the church year – the Sunday after Epiphany. The first Sunday after Epiphany is known as “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday, wherein we read about and celebrate Jesus’ baptism. When Epiphany, which is always on January 6, falls on a day other than Sunday, we celebrate it on the neighboring Sunday. Epiphany is the day we remember the magi coming to give Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
     These two events – the giving of gifts to Jesus and his baptism – have been linked for nearly 2000 years. The church has almost always celebrated these two events together. And in fact, at one time, Christmas wasn’t celebrated at all; Epiphany was the big winter holiday in the early church. I mean, given how we celebrate Christmas, that makes sense – Epiphany is actually the more logical holiday for gift-giving, but good luck trying to get that changed.
     Anyway, I love this day because it’s the day that bridges for us the period of Jesus life between his birth and his ministry. We have no problem thinking of Jesus as a baby. We have no problem thinking of Jesus as an adult, leading people, showing that he truly was God in human form, and telling the parables and working the miracles we all know. Epiphany is a day for us to jump from that phase as an infant into the good stuff. It’s a chance to dive into the time where we’re not just talking about a baby being born, but when we talk about that baby all grown up.
     So today, I’m going to focus on the second half of that bridge. While talking about the magi is very interesting, we’ll save it for another time. Today, I want to talk about Jesus’ baptism.
     Jesus’ baptism is a fairly well-known Bible story. It involves him showing up at his cousin John the Baptist’s river, where he was baptizing people. When Jesus asks to be baptized, John, recognizing that Jesus is the greater of the two of them, asks if Jesus can baptize him. Jesus says “no,” and that he needs to be baptized, too. Put a pin in that, because we’ll come back to the idea of why Jesus had to be baptized.
     Anyway, John baptizes Jesus in the river – that’s where everyone was baptized. And as Jesus is coming up from the water, the heaven burst open, and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove to land upon him; then the very voice of God thunders, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
     We probably recognize those words and that part of the story. We have this picture of a baptism in a river that would just be awe-inspiring to attend. But perhaps there’s more to talk about here than just a miraculous and memorable event.
     Remember when I said we’d return to why Jesus had to be baptized? Well, it’s time to think about that in a little more depth. Jesus tells John, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?
     Well, first we have to think about what Baptism means. It is a washing away of sins, that’s for sure. John absolutely makes that clear in his baptism, and it’s something we continue to believe today. Yet, does that apply to Jesus? One wouldn’t think so, right? Jesus is God in human form – how could he have sins that need washing away? In my research this week, I came across one pastor who talked about the idea of baptism as “repentance,” where “repentance” means “choosing a new direction for our hearts and lives.” That works better than the idea of Jesus needing forgiveness of sins, yet I think it’s still a little unsatisfying. So what purpose does this serve?
     One of the ideas we still hold today about baptism is that it represents our entry into God’s beloved community. Of course, God loved you from before your birth, so baptism isn’t the moment God decides to love you. Yet we do baptisms anyway, not because that’s when God starts loving us, but because it’s a celebration for us of how God already loved us.
     I like to think of Jesus’ baptism as that moment for him. This was a time when he was right on the edge – just about to start his new ministry. In that moment, Jesus goes to the river to be baptized by his cousin, because he needed a chance to enter the community. Jesus needed a public showing of who he was – a beloved child of God. Of course, God makes it a good deal more dramatic from there. But in the first place, Jesus was there like everyone else – to be entered into God’s beloved community… even though he was already there!
     In an ideal world, a sermon is always relatable to our lives today. So today, when we read this story of Jesus being baptized, what stirs in your heart? Perhaps you hear this story and think that it’s just a show of God’s power, or just another recognition of how special Jesus is. Surely, it is those things.
     More importantly, though, it’s a reminder for the rest of us. We are baptized believers in Christ. Even those of us who haven’t yet been baptized are still held in that same love of God. God is well pleased with us, too.
     In today’s service, we ordain and install elders and deacons for our congregation. They renew their faith by making vows of their trust in God and their desire to use their God-given abilities to help our community. They take on the call given to all of us at baptism – to serve the Lord. Whether you’re an officer of this church or not, you are loved by God, and you are encouraged to serve faithfully. You have been brought into covenant with Christ, and you are asked to live that life.
     When Jesus was baptized, God showed up in a way that marked for everyone that there was no turning back; Jesus was forever marked as a man who would follow after God. Think of your own baptism that way. You are someone witnessed by a community of believers, beloved of God, and marked forever with the Holy Spirit as someone who follows God.
     So the question becomes, how are you going to serve God in 2017? You, personally. You are a believer, and God has marked you as special. What are you going to do? Give more or your resources? Give more of your time? Take on a special project? Help someone who needs it? You are beloved and gifted and given the responsibility and the privilege to serve the one who loves you. I can’t say for you how you’re going to respond. Think about it. Genuinely ask yourself, “Who am I as a follower of Christ?” Then listen to God’s answer. You might be surprised, but that surprise can be a very good thing.
     In all likelihood, you’re not going to see a baptism like Jesus’. You’re probably not going to witness the Holy Spirit resting like a dove on someone. You’re probably not going to see the sky torn open and hear the voice of God. But even if you don’t, it doesn’t mean those things aren’t happening. You are being called to serve right now. Embrace the call on your life, so love and serve the Lord! Amen.

A Time… – 2017/01/01

Psalm 8
Matthew 25:31-46
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13


     You know the song by the Byrds… you’re probably thinking of it right now. It’s a lovely ‘60s song. There’s a chance, I suppose, that you’re more familiar with the Dolly Parton version, or the Bruce Springsteen version. But most likely, it’s the Byrds you hear in your mind when you see the words to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes.
     These are words that are often perceived as being words of comfort. They’re words that remind us of our smallness as human beings, and that, “This, too, shall pass.” In other words, they remind us – in that necessary way – that nothing we do is permanent. Whenever we wake up thinking we’re the winners… it doesn’t matter, because another game starts today.
     In the US, we see this play out in politics all the time. People are happy that their candidate won… and then they have to start prepping for the next election, to make sure that they stay there. In America, this often leads to people who don’t get much done, because they’re more concerned with having power than they are with using it. But either way, it’s a pattern we see too often – winning is temporary, joy is temporary, pain is temporary, everything is temporary.
     That’s why the book of Ecclesiastes, in its most famous translations, begins, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” It’s very much a book with some depressing qualities. There’s that famous first line that I mentioned, in which the author writes that everything is meaningless. That seems like an odd perspective for the Bible to take, doesn’t it? You’d be more inclined to think that a book in the Bible would talk about how much everything is important, because it’s all made by God.
     But Ecclesiastes is really different. It’s a book that’s not so much about God and God’s role in our lives, but it’s a reflection on the human condition; a meditation on what it means to be a person – and the conclusion drawn by the author is a very interesting one.
     Qohelet, which is the traditional name of the author of Ecclesiastes and means “teacher” in Hebrew, ponders human life and what it means. He points out just how hard we have to work to be alive. Surely that’s less true now, with the advent of modern machinery and equipment. But imagine being alive 3000 years ago, when everything about your life depended on whether or not you had a good crop on a tiny parcel of land. That was basically everyone’s situation in life, so it was a meaningful thing to ponder. Backbreaking labor every day… and for what? The author, Qohelet, comes to the conclusion that it’s all for nothing. You’re going to work hard, and then you die. That’s that.
     That seems like a depressing conclusion, doesn’t it? It would be easy to fall into a depression, an existential despair, when you come to this conclusion. Only, Qohelet thinks a little differently. His conclusion is this: you work hard and then you die… but your time here is awfully short, so you’d better enjoy it while you’re here!
     Isn’t that an odd conclusion? Qohelet basically says, “Life is too short and too hard to be depressed about how short and how hard life is. God has given you this one shot – go make the best of it.” Instead of drawing the melancholy, depressing conclusion that there’s no point in going on, Qohelet actually calls for us to embrace the shortness and hardness of life, and channel it into joy.
     Surely, he says, you’re best off living a good life – keeping God’s commandments, doing what’s right. That’s obvious. But with the rest of the time? Enjoy yourself!
     I called my friend Josh (the rabbi) to talk about this passage, because I wanted to talk with someone who would bring a different lens than my own. He said that he likes to think of Ecclesiastes as a book that reminds us to keep life in perspective. For example, if a person decided this: “there’s so much bad going in Syria. I can’t enjoy my sister’s wedding,” then that person has missed out on the fact that being joyful is something we are fortunate to do in this brief time we have on earth. We’re allowed to celebrate. But at the same time that we celebrate, we have to recognize that things aren’t perfect – this isn’t the end of God’s creation. We’re not at the new heaven and new earth we’ve been promised; not yet. We shouldn’t always celebrate as if everything’s perfect, when we know perfectly well the atrocities in the world every day.
     Here on New Year’s Day, we look forward to the year to come. And on that occasion, we read this third chapter of Ecclesiastes that reminds us of all the times to come. It could be any. There are seasons for all these things:
     2a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
     It is our duty to recognize what time we’re in. And it’s our chance to influence what time we’re in. Certainly, we have some choice as to whether it’s a time to break down or a time to build, to choose one example from among many. But Qohelet isn’t talking about choice here – he’s talking about making the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in.
     When I read this passage, I can’t help but read Jesus into it. In all the times of sadness in his life, how often was there a time to find joy? When he died, people mourned his loss; yet at the same time, though they didn’t know it, their sins were crucified, too. When they mourned his loss, little did they know they would be welcoming back their resurrected friend. Similarly, when we face struggles, we can always find God at hand, working to help us through it.
     The hope and joy brought about by Jesus’ time on earth does not diminish the sadness of the tragedies that we see. But at the same time, as Christian people, it is our duty to witness to what God is doing. And even in times of senseless violence or despair, even when the world seems like a comical parody of what we image it should be like, we are asked to remember that there are reasons to be joyful.
     We don’t know what 2017 is going to be. If it’s a time to weep, then let’s remember to laugh when the good things happen. If it’s a time to dance, then let us not forget to mourn for those who can’t dance with us. If it’s a time to keep, then let us still remember to throw away those things that need to be tossed aside. And if it’s a time to speak, let us remember to keep silences, too, so we can discern the voice of God.
     Our best way of honoring God is to remember that the world is much more complicated than it’s often portrayed as being. There will be seasons that represent every single human emotion and experience. We have to recognize who God is and what God is doing; we have to recognize God’s people – our families and friends, as well as those people across the world who are equally created in God’s image – as they experience the highest of highs and lowest of lows, as well. We honor God when we remember the sadness of life in our joy, as well as when we remember the joy of life amidst tragedy.
     At the start of the year, we’re also asked to keep this in mind: right now, today, it is still the season of Christmas in the Christian year. Christmas begins on December 25 and lasts 12 days – that’s why there’s the song with the drummers, pipers, lords, ladies, maids, and a whole bunch of birds. In those twelve days, we welcome in the New Year, which we do today. As we welcome the New Year and remain in the season of Christmas, let us remember to keep Christ at the center, not just of this season, but of every season. And whatever time it is in our lives, may we face it with courage, with joy, with sober remembrance of those in need, and of hope for the future in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Why Is the Kettle Boiling? – 2016/12/25

Psalm 98
Luke 2:1-20
John 1:1-14


     There’s a theologian named John Cobb. I think he’s actually kind of a garbage theologian, honestly, but every seminarian reads him. He’s relatively unsophisticated, but he had one great idea. That was the tea kettle analogy. Do a thought experiment with me:
     You walk into your friend’s house, and you hear the whistle of a teakettle. You ask your friend, “Why is the kettle boiling?”
     Let’s say your friend is very scientifically-minded. Your friend might say to you, “The kettle is boiling because inside is water. When water is placed on a hot stove, the molecules in the water begin to vibrate, increasing in temperature as they move. Once they reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit, they are vibrating so violently that they begin to boil. As the steam attempts to escape, it’s only route is through the tiny hole on top of the teakettle, and as air pressure builds, it pushes through. Fast-moving air through a small hole makes a whistling sound. That’s why.”
     This answer is 100% true. So let’s start this thought-experiment again. You walk into your friend’s house, and you hear the whistle of a teakettle. You ask your friend, “Why is the kettle boiling?”
     Let’s say your friend is no-nonsense, very practically-minded. They answer shortly and simply. “It’s boiling because I turned the burner on a little while ago, and now the water’s ready.”
     This answer is also 100% true. So let’s start this thought-experiment again. You walk into your friend’s house, and you hear the whistle of a teakettle. You ask your friend, “Why is the kettle boiling?”
     Your friend, this time, is a bit of a stinker, a smartaleck, or maybe just someone who thinks a little differently. Their answer is even shorter this time. “Because I wanted tea.”
     Again, we have an answer that’s absolutely, 100% correct. And one of the things that’s hardest as a human being is understanding what people want when communicating. Let’s if you were genuinely curious about what makes the kettle sing, and someone said, “Because I wanted tea,” you’d be frustrated. If you were just making conversation and someone launches into a science lecture, you’re probably going to be annoyed at that, too.If you’re looking for one kind of answer and you get another, it’s always frustrating. And that is, perhaps, something we have to keep in mind when we read the stories of Jesus’ birth that we read this morning.
     So, what was so special about this baby born in Bethlehem?
     Well, there’s one answer that says, “There were wise men and shepherd and angels and a star! It was special because there’s never been another birth like it!” And that’s 100% correct. There’s another answer that says, “It was special because this was the Messiah, the promised one of God who came to save humanity,” and that, too, is 100% correct. And finally, there’s the answer given in John’s Gospel, the one that says, “This birth was special because it was God taking on human form, to live among us, teach us how to live, and show us the Kingdom God is promising to us.” Likewise, that’s 100% correct.
     All of these ways of looking at the birth of Jesus are valid ways, and each one informs the others. But I was forced by part of my research to ask myself this week a very personal question: why is this birth Good News to me?
     Of course, all of the answers given above are good ones. They all inform our lives in terms of how they help us to think about God. But the biggest thing I see about Christmas this year is that it shows us just how far God is willing to go to be close to us.
     Think about this. A human baby is one of the most helpless creatures on earth. When a horse is born, it can walk within minutes. It’s self-sustaining. It can feed itself, run around, and do everything necessary for its own survival. When a human is born, what can it do? Mostly make a lot of noise. Less than ten months ago, I learned all about that. When I look at my own son, I think about how it must’ve been for Mary and Joseph. They held this tiny boy in their hands, knowing that his future rested hugely on them.
     Think about the pressure of being a parent for a moment. Even if you’re not one, think about what it’s like to be responsible for the life of another human being. Now imagine that the human being in question is God. So often, we think like the Bible tells the story of Jesus – miraculous birth, then skip to the miracles and teachings and the good stuff. But Mary and Joseph were charged with an awesome responsibility. When you’re a brand-new parent, every little cry from a baby seems like the end of the world. I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like if you knew your child was God incarnate. Really don’t want to screw that one up.
     But more than just the pressure on Mary and Joseph, more than the idea of Jesus coming to truly show us how to live, rather than just tell us, what I was struck with this week was the idea that Jesus chose to come – “emptying himself” is how Philippians puts it – of divine power, and coming in the weakest form we could imagine.
     God’s love knows no depths, nor bounds. It comes in unexpected and mysterious ways. It crosses lands and nations, classes and social structures, and breaks into the world to set us free. Although it’s Christmas today, whenever we’re in church, we’re forced to ponder the mysteries of Good Friday and Easter – to think about the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. And today, in thinking about the power with which Christ came, I’m more and more amazed by the power given up, rather than the power shown.
     When Jesus used his divine power, it was to heal. When Jesus spoke, it was in ordinary, human words, not special divine ones. When Jesus acted, he didn’t make everyone look at him, but he looked the people he was healing in the eye, and he saved them, unconcerned about what others around him would think.
     I had this really close friend in high school. Her parents occasionally hired me to do odd-jobs – yard work, walk the dog when they’re out of town, stuff like that. I always did so gladly, happy to help a friend. She hated it when they did that, because she always thought it then seemed like her parents were paying me to be her friend! You see, a relationship where we’re coerced or manipulated into having it is not a genuine one at all.
     But when Jesus comes to earth, he doesn’t do so in a flashy way, or in a way that requires us to care for him, love him, or even notice him. He does it in a way that invites us into a genuine relationship. And over and over again, his life is an example of the selfless way in which God loves us.
     Beginning at his birth, Jesus gives up the cosmic might we hear about in John’s Gospel. Instead of lording it over us that all things were created through him, he invites a tax collector to dinner. Instead of bragging about being the light in the darkness, he simply shined his light on others. Jesus was more concerned with establishing relationship with us than he was with telling us what to do.
     But that extended throughout his life, and beyond it. Never once does Jesus force us into believing. He didn’t force Joseph to stay to help raise him (nor did God the Father force Joseph on Jesus’ behalf); Jesus didn’t force the disciples to follow him; he didn’t force people to listen to him; he doesn’t even force us today to follow after him. All he does is open himself up to a relationship with us, and offer to let us in.
     He does that through self-sacrifice. He willingly let humanity do with him whatever we wanted. And we listened to the stuff he said. And when it got too real, too scary, too radical, we killed him by hanging him on the cross. Because that’s what we do with God’s perfect love – we’re grateful for it, until we decide that it’s too inconvenient, and then we kill it.
     I listened to This American Life this week. And there was this dad that was telling his 4-year-old daughter about Christmas. She asked why we do it, and he told her about Jesus. He bought a children’s Bible, and read to her from it every night. He told her that Jesus taught to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” She couldn’t get enough.
     In January, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the girl’s school was off. So the dad took a day off of work, and decided to take his daughter out to lunch. After about a month of learning about Jesus, they were driving down the road, and went past a Catholic church. She saw the crucifix outside, which had Jesus on the cross. She asked, “Daddy, who’s that?”
     He realized they hadn’t gotten to the end of Jesus’ story yet, so he told her that it was Jesus; that his message had been too much for some people; that this message of love caused people to kill him.
     Luckily, this dad was able to explain all of this to his daughter as they ate lunch. And the dad looked at the newspaper. The daughter asked, “Who’s that?” about the picture on the cover of the paper. “Well, that’s Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate his birthday today, and that’s why you’re off of school. He was a preacher.”
     “About Jesus?” she asked.
     “Yeah,” chuckled the dad. “He believed that all people should be treated the same, no matter what color their skin was.”
     The girl thought for a second. “That’s like what Jesus says!”
     “Yeah, I guess so. I never thought of that,” the dad said – which is somewhat surprising to me.
     Then his four-year-old daughter asked the question the father wasn’t ready for: “Did they kill him, too?”
     We have a way of rejecting messages that don’t necessarily jive with what we want to hear, and if that means literally shooting the messenger, that’s what we’ll do. But in spite of our human tendency to do this, Jesus reaches out into this broken world to try to heal us and build a relationship with us. He loves us enough that he won’t let us get in his way! Even when we’re our own worst enemy, Jesus is our greatest friend.
     As Christians at this time of year, we are often fond of saying that we want to keep Christ at the center of Christmas. We talk about what Christmas is really about. But how often do we take the chance to show that same self-emptying love that Jesus shows to us in his birth, on his cross, and in our lives today?
     Christmas is a wonderful time for giving gifts to one another, and that helps us remember the gift of Jesus to us all. But this year, make Christmas more than that. Make it more than just a day to share out of our bounty. Make Christmas a feeling that you carry with you you’re your everyday life. This year, let’s do Christmas, not just celebrate it. Let’s go out from this place in a spirit of generosity unlike any other. Let us go out telling the greatest story ever told; let us go out shouting joy to the heavens; let us go out giving of ourselves relentlessly, building up a relationship with God worthy of the gift of Jesus, building bridges with our neighbors that honor Christ, showing Christ’s love to everyone we meet. Amen.