Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

Psalm 112
Isaiah 2:1-5
Matthew 24:36-44


The camera pooped out this morning, so no video. Enjoy the written copy, though!

     I never really knew why people dreaded packing so much until I had a child. 100 changes of clothes, toys, games, bottles, ice packs to keep milk cold, coolers for said ice packs, something for the baby to sleep in… and it’s the same whether you’re going away for a month or for a night! So one day away is like some nightmare in which you spend more time packing than being gone. Zeke’s stuff takes up more space than mine and Carissa’s put together!
     But, as annoying as that is, it’s important to be prepared, and start packing ahead of time. The first time we went anywhere with him, we had to delay our trip by like 3 hours because we didn’t really know what we needed, how to pack it, and how much we needed. Now, we’re pros. But back then, we were nowhere near ready for what we were undertaking.
     The theme of today’s Scripture is readiness. Being prepared. It’s one of the hardest things to do in life. About 10 years ago, there were all these shows on TV – Man Vs. Wild, Survivor Man – that focused on the idea of survival in the wild. They had these things you were always supposed to have with you. Duct tape, a flashlight, stuff like that. And those things are really useful, if you’re going to be dropped in the middle of the wild and what you need to do is stay alive. But for those of us who are unlikely to experience that particular circumstance, what are we preparing for, and how are we preparing?
     Today, we begin the new church year. And we begin it as the church year always begins, with the idea of preparation – preparing to meet Jesus. In particular, we are preparing in three distinct, but absolutely critical ways. The first of those is what I’ll call “historical preparation.”
     Historical preparation is all about what’s already happened – the “yesterday” of it all, but the importance of us acting as if it’s happening again. This means, in particular, the telling of the story of Jesus’ birth. We prepare ourselves, in many ways, as those who heard about Jesus first prepared themselves. We ready presents, for example, just like the Magi did. We tell this story over and over and over, so that it’s a part of who we are. We learn the story so well that we almost feel like we’ve lived it. We know all about an angel announcing to Mary; we know about the shepherds fearing at the sight in the skies, and yet how they came running to the side of the manger where Jesus lay; we know all about the travel, and the inn, and everything else.
     Part of what I love about our living nativity is that we are able to share this story with people in a way that makes it real, that makes it tangible. It’s a story that we share, and it’s our story. But that’s not the only preparedness we have in Advent.
     There’s also what I’ll call “imminent preparation.” Imminent means close-by, either in time or distance. And in this case, I mean it in both ways. It’s imminent because, unlike the historical preparation I talked about before, this is preparation for today, for the here-and-now. But it’s also close-by, because it’s about our own hearts and minds, and making room for Jesus.
     There’s nothing closer than our own self. Advent is a perfect time to remember that it is our job to open up our hearts and let Jesus in. We need to let him come into our lives, and what better time is there than Advent for renewed commitment to Jesus?
     Many people engage in increased devotional activity during Advent – perhaps reading something, or spending some extra time in prayer. As we think about Jesus’ birth, it’s also worth thinking about how we let him into our lives. How is he changing us? Where do we need to be more open with him? How to we find the connection with him that we need to sustain our faith? These are all problems of Advent, and things worth considering in our imminent preparation.
     Our passage today is certainly talking about something else, and it also revolves around preparedness. It’s about “future preparation” – preparation for tomorrow. This passage is a bit of a doozy. There are actually a lot of ways I could explain perspectives on this passage, but I need us to step back and look at, ultimately, what this passage is asking of us. It’s telling us about the “coming of the Son of Man.” In other words, it’s about Jesus’ return to earth.
     Now, most churches don’t spend a lot of time talking about Jesus’ return, because it’s not something we can plan for. We don’t know when it will be, or what it will look like. Yet, today’s passage encourages us to think about it a bit.
     It is certainly a cornerstone of Christian doctrine. The New Testament is littered with references to it happening. Communion liturgies mention it. When we say the Apostles’ Creed in worship, as we will this morning, we say, “He (meaning Jesus) will come again to judge the living and the dead.” We affirm that belief every week. Yet we don’t talk about it too much.
     Christ’s return is the “future preparation” we need to do in light of Advent. This is not just about our stories; it’s not just about our hearts. This future preparation is all about the Kingdom of God that is coming one day when Christ returns, when the dead are raised, and when God’s reign comes fully to earth.
     We saw a vision of this in our reading this morning from Isaiah. We see God’s house lifted up, high above mountains, and people stopping their fighting and bickering. Worship becomes the law of the land, and we turn our hearts and minds completely to heavenly things.
     That maybe sounds like a lot of mumbo-jumbo to you, I don’t know. But I do know that God intends more for us in creation. We see the fruits of what is coming in the fact that Jesus Christ did not remain in the grave, but rose from the dead to promise us more to come. We have to hope in that “more.”
     We have to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. He came in the past, to show God’s love for us. He comes in the present to guide us and to keep God in our lives. He will come again in the future to establish justice and equity on earth, to bring about God’s reign fully, and to help us become who we were created to be. Asking us to do all of that in the next month is expecting a lot out of December – but the point isn’t to bring about these things all by ourselves. The point is to make ourselves ready when they come. So prepare yourself, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, so that you are ready to embrace Jesus, in every way in which he comes to you this season. Amen.

Silence – 2016/11/20

Luke 1:68-79
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:32-41


     My father and I are very similar-looking. We’re not all that similar-acting, though. Surely, in some things we are, but overall, I think many people who know us both well are surprised that I could’ve possibly come from him. I’m sure that all of you who have kids have thought about these things – which way your children are like you, which way they’re like their other parent, and which way they’re just a person all to themselves.
     My dad is not interested in owning a room when he walks into it. He’s a classic middle child. He keeps to himself. But he also thinks he’s the smartest person in the room, so he waits, and he waits, and he waits. And then he says one thing – always just one – and goes back to being quiet. That ability to say one thing keeps what he said in people’s memories. It’s more powerful for the tiny number of words he uses.
     As much as my dad is a classic middle-child, I’m a pretty classic only child. I have a job where people are literally forced to look at me and listen to me for an hour every week. In a room, I’m generally pretty interested in making sure that everyone knows who I am and what I do, because that’s how you get to know people. And while my dad tries to persuade people with just a word or two, I’m the opposite. Just like him, I always think I’m the smartest person in the room, but instead of saying one thing, I try to bombard people with a barrage of words so fast and furious that they can barely remember what I’ve said, much less have time to process it. My dad’s about patience and quality; I’m about speed and quantity. It’s just who we are, and how we interact with the world around us.
     There are certainly times when these different responses come in handy. In a situation in which something has to be written, said or done quickly, I’m your man. When something needs a steady hand – well, giving me 2 weeks to produce something generally gives the same results as if you’d given me two hours.
     The thing is, when you’re expecting close, careful deliberation and you get something hasty, it feels forced and thoughtless, even if that’s not how it was meant. If what you’re looking for is something to meet your needs right now, then someone taking their time to think about it is really no good for you.
     And that’s where we meet today’s passage from Luke. Perhaps this passage struck you funny in the rhythms of the church year. It did to me. This is a Good Friday passage – not for the fall. The very act of studying it this week felt strange, and out of place. Usually, this is the kind of thing I’m thinking about in the winter and the spring, not in the fall. Yet, here we are.
     Today, as you’ve undoubtedly seen in your bulletins, is Christ the King Sunday. It’s a little-known (and relatively new) Christian holiday. It comes on the final Sunday before the start of Advent, and it’s only been celebrated for less than 100 years. It was brought up by Pope Pius the XI, to remind us of three things:
• 1. That nations would see that the Church has the right to freedom, and immunity from the state (Quas Primas, 32).
• 2. That leaders and nations would see that they are bound to give respect to Christ (Quas Primas, 31).
• 3. That the faithful would gain strength and courage from the celebration of the feast, as we are reminded that Christ must reign in our hearts, minds, wills, and bodies (Quas Primas, 33).
In our corporate life today, now more than ever, we need these reminders. Just after a presidential election, we need to remember who’s in charge of our lives.
     The issue is, the very concept of “who’s in charge” becomes a very murky one. We need to remember that, as Christians, we never belong to the government. I mean, we’re required to pay taxes and such – but at the end of the day, we belong to Jesus. And Christ the King Sunday is a day to remind us of exactly that.
     So what passage do we have to help us remember that Jesus is in charge? It’s a passage about his death! Isn’t that odd? It seems like, if you’d want to remind people that Jesus is the ruler, you wouldn’t pick a passage in which the human authority executes him, would you? On its face, this passage seems to show humanity on top. And yet, this is what we have for today.
     We have this passage because it’s a reminder that God doesn’t work the same way we do. We have to remember that God is not always going to be playing the same game as the rest of us, as it were. A beautiful reminder of that comes from the very structure of our passage.
     If you followed along in the pew Bible, you probably noticed that Jesus’ famous words in verse 34, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” are in parentheses. That’s because those words are not in our oldest versions of this passage. There are many reasons for their addition (or exclusion, as the case may have been), but that’s not the purpose of this sermon, so I’d ask you, just for a minute, to listen to what happens in the passage if we omit those words of Jesus. Here’s the story without them:
     Two criminals are led away to be crucified with Jesus, one on each side, and Jesus said nothing. The guards who had stripped and beaten him started gambling for his clothes, and he said nothing. People stood watching, and not a word was said. The leaders started to chastise him, talking about how he’d saved others, so he should save himself, and still he said nothing.
     Then the soldiers start offering sour wine, to him, mocking him by calling him a king, and telling him to save himself, and still he said nothing. One of the criminals gets in on the act, and even asks if he himself can be saved, too, while Jesus is at it, if he’s supposed to be so great – but Jesus said nothing.
     Oftentimes, in our lives, we call to God, and we need an answer. We need it now. Yet it doesn’t seem to come. We hear God’s silence, and it is the loudest sound there is.

     We come looking for a quick fix. We want this problem taken care of, and we want it now. Only, sometimes, that’s not what God is offering. Sometimes, we don’t get what we ask for, because sometimes, God isn’t on our timetable. Sometimes, God is looking at a different picture than we are. Sometimes, God is unlike me; sometimes, God is not about a quick answer.
     And if there were one time we could allow this total silence from Jesus, it would be this time, right? We’ve all heard about the agony of the cross – about the pain of the nails in his hands, the bitter wine shoved in his wounds, the spear in his side, the thorny crown on his head. We know that he was in horrible pain, so we can understand, this time, that no word comes from Jesus.
     Yet, at the end, the second criminal says to Jesus something simple: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And this time, Jesus doesn’t say nothing. Instead, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today, you will be with me in paradise.”
     In all of this time, Jesus was playing a different game than everyone else. He knew that death would come to him; he knew that his body would be broken. But at the same time, he was playing for bigger stakes. He was playing for the hereafter, for life with God beyond this world and what it has to offer.
     The thing I find most amazing about this passage is that, as I said, we could’ve understood a Jesus who, with his dying breath, held his mouth shut. But to me, that’s the great example for all of us in this passage. We all have hardship in our lives, from time to time. There are times when we’re around, and no one would blame us for giving in, and for focusing solely on ourselves. But you’ll notice that each time Jesus was asked to help himself, he declined. Instead, the one request he listened to was a chance to help someone else.
     Even when he had nothing left to give, Jesus was able to offer of himself to someone else. And that’s a wonderful lesson for all of us. There are going to be times when we’re too strapped financially to give money to the church or to causes that matter to us. There are going to be times when we’re too busy to give of our time. There are going to be times when we’re too stressed to concentrate on any new problems. There are going to be times when we’re so hurt, we can’t possibly go about healing someone else, times we’re so hungry we can’t feed, times we’re so tired we can’t help another rest, times we’re so naked we can’t clothe another.
     Brothers and sisters, those are the times we get to be Jesus. We get to show that we’ve taken his message into our hearts, minds, and lives. Because in those moments, when we have nothing to give, that’s when we’re asked to give generously. That’s when we’re reminded of “the widow’s mite,” which we read last week, when a woman gave the most of all by giving her last pennies. Jesus was able, in his most dire moments, to give of himself. We can do no less.
     I’ve been told many times that the church is dying, that it’s not what it once was in American life. That’s certainly true. Yet, when we think about the church’s place in American life, don’t we now have the opportunity to actually live the life that Jesus led? Jesus spent his whole career speaking the truth to power, because he didn’t have power. He was able to help those in need, because he was in need. Well, now, perhaps, we are, too.
     It is not our job to bully other people into listening; Jesus had power, and yet didn’t exercise it on the cross. The point of being a Christian is not to beat other people into submission; the point of being a Christian is to live out the Good News that Jesus taught us. That Good News comes from a suffering servant, someone who found a way to give more, even when his last had been taken.
     So let us be like Jesus, leading when others would fold, giving when others would hoard, sharing where others would keep, and remembering that in putting others first, we show God’s claim on our lives. Amen.

Courage – 2016/11/13

Isaiah 12
Isaiah 65:17-25
Luke 21:1-19


     Let me tell you a story. It’s a story of a boy who grew into a very special man. He was marked as special from the time he was born. He grew older, and miraculous things were always happening around him. He could do things that others couldn’t. He gathered followers around him to learn from his knowledge and special experience. He taught those followers, and he gained even more. As he grew older, he was rejected in his own hometown. He was hounded by people who disliked him, and there were constantly those who wanted to take his life. In the end, he died to save everyone, as he had to. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he rose again from the dead to defeat ultimate evil and win final victory. You know who this story’s about, right?
     It is, of course, the story of Harry Potter. If you don’t believe me, spend the next couple of weeks combing through the 4,100 pages of those 7 volumes (yes – that is the exact page count, in the original hardcovers, anyway). This remarkably Christian book series that has been scorned by some Christians (for reasons that are, to me, completely silly and have nothing to do with the content of the books) has been a gateway for children to understand how Jesus’ life went. At the very least, these books give a profoundly Christian understanding of God and how Christians see the world – plus there’s cool magic stuff.
     Anyhoo, in the first book – and I apologize here if I’m spoiling this story for anyone – Harry has to be “sorted” into a “house” at school. If you haven’t read the books, the “houses” are like dormitories the students live in, where they’re all sorted by a particular trait. There’s Slytherin for the ambitious, Hufflepuff for the kind, and Ravenclaw for the wise. Harry is sorted into Gryffindor, the house of those who have courage.
     I always thought that was odd. Not because courage is a bad thing, or anything like that. But I could think of people who were all of the other things. I know very, very many smart people – so the Ravenclaws in my own life were easy to spot. Same with the very kind, nice, and pleasant Hufflepuffs. The Slytherins, with all their cunning and ambition, were easy to think of, too. But real bravery, real courage? I mean, how often do you see that? As I was reading those books for the first time, I thought to myself, “Well, that’s all well and good in a fantasy world where you’re going to be adventuring all the time, but in the real world, there wouldn’t be any Gryffindors. In heroes, yeah. But what about the rest of us? I mean, where do we really see “courage” when we think of everyday people?
     Well, in today’s passage, I would argue that there are two really powerful examples of courage, and that we’d be wise to pay close attention to them. The first example of courage that we see is from that well-known passage, known to those of us familiar with the King James Version of the Bible as “the widow’s mite.” In this brief little example, Jesus is, for once, not telling a parable. Oh, sure, it’s a story to illustrate a point. But unlike most of the time when Jesus does that, he’s not making up a story about someone doing something to illustrate a point – he’s just watching something happen in real time, and making an example out of it.
     Jesus directs his disciples to look at the poor, old widow wandering into the Temple sanctuary. Now, in our culture, there’s nothing wrong with losing your loved one; it’s sad, surely. It changes your life forever. But you don’t have a loss of standing in society because of it. But remember that, in Jesus’ day, women, on their own, did not have any rights. Their rights were attached exclusively to men. They couldn’t work, they couldn’t own property. Everything belonged to first their fathers, and then their husbands. When their husbands died, they literally had nothing. That’s why there are so many passages in the New Testament that talk about care for widows – they needed the help of others, because on their own they were, according to the laws of Rome, literally nothing. Anyway, Jesus points to this widow who enters the Temple. She has no source of income but the charity of others and whatever cash was left around when her husband dies, and yet she drops the two coins that she has to her name into the offering box.
     Jesus applauds her faithfulness – being willing to give all she has left to God. Jesus points out that “all” is the most we can give. He says that she has given more than anyone else. Objectively, that’s not true, because what she gave was almost worthless. But what she gave in terms of what she had was everything, and there’s nothing more you can give than that.
     That is courage. And that’s why I began the day talking about the value of courage. Because while our minds – or at least my mind – may think automatically of courage being something useful in a fight, there are many ways to be courageous. This woman chose one. She chose to be brave by putting God first, and having the courage and faith to trust in God, even when she had nothing left.
     And doing that must have been terrifying. There’s no way she wasn’t scared. We’re accustomed, I think, to thinking of courage or bravery as fearlessness – to have courage is to not be afraid, right? Only, it isn’t. Being brave means going on, in spite of being afraid. Think about it: it doesn’t take courage to do something you’re not afraid of. It’s not courageous to brush your teeth – and that’s because brushing your teeth isn’t scary. Courage is about finding the things that we fear, and plowing ahead, anyway.
     When we think of that, we realize that we do see courage, and it does inspire us. Today, so shortly after Veterans’ Day, it’s easy to think of courageous people. Servicewomen and servicemen who put their lives on the line for their country do so with courage; police officers in the midst of things that would shake many of us serve with courage; activists speak out on behalf of the voiceless in what are often acts of courage, knowing that they face arrest or demeaning. Athletes fight through injuries to do whatever they can for team, self, or even country (like in the Olympics), and we see courage. We see people who face disease and death nonetheless get up and go about doing what needs to be done. We see recovering addicts who are willing to go out one more day and face their demons. We find those among us with mental illness for whom just getting up in the morning is often an act of defiance against a world that can seem cold and indifferent, and we know the courage that requires. None of these people does what they do without fear. Yet they do the things that need to be done, anyway.
     And that brings us to our second kind act of courage that we see in the passage today. Remember that the story of the widow’s mite wasn’t the only part of our passage this morning. Immediately after this woman has literally given her last penny, people start talking about the Temple, and how beautiful it is. Jesus overhears these folks talking about how the alabaster gleams, how the gold shines, how the stone sparkles. And in that moment, Jesus thinks hard. He sees that this woman, this widow, who doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from, has given to the Temple, and people are concerned about what the Temple looks like. Jesus realizes that there is an issue of economic justice at play – a poor person giving all she has to a beautiful place, but a question about who’s taking care of her.
     It’s our job as the church to take care of one another, and of anyone who needs it. It’s particularly our job to take care of the most vulnerable among us.
     Jesus reminds us that the Temple, even this beautiful thing, God’s house, which was built especially for the worship of God, will crumble. Even this house of worship will one day no longer stand. This city, this country, will one day be gone. And it won’t be because someone did something wrong necessarily – it will be because all things made by human hands come to an end. This includes governments and militaries, buildings, structures… everything.
     Jesus tells the disciples the many things that happen on the way to everything falling apart: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.”
     In other words, bad things happen. And, of course, Jesus is right. The disciples do face a lot of persecution. But he was also proved right about the Temple in Jerusalem. It came crumbling to the ground about 35 years after Jesus said these words. We, too, will face many of the things we care about coming to an end. Yet, we are called to face them with courage.
     We are called to stand up for what’s right, even when it’s hard. Jesus has courage enough to be honest with his disciples, just as we must be now. Courage is a hard thing, but it’s an important part of faith. Standing up with those who suffer often makes us among the suffering – and yet, that is what Jesus says we must do. After all, suffering and decay come to all things.
     But those things aren’t the end. Jesus reminds his future-suffering disciples that, while these things come, their whole being belongs nonetheless to God. You see, God is not subject to death and decay. God is going to be there, even after all the nations have crumbled, after the last things have been said, after the other things we try to put our faith in have left us abandoned.
     In the seventh Harry Potter book, we learn that Harry’s parents have a Bible quote on their gravestones (from 1 Corinthians 15): “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” Harry has the courage to face his own death, saving everyone, and then is able to return to fight off evil. It’s a silly children’s book about the greatest thing of all: how Jesus loves us, how he risks absolutely everything for us, and how he returns to rescue us, even when things are dire.
     1 Corinthians 13, in the “wedding passage” I’m sure most of us know, reminds us that three things remain: faith, hope, and love. Let us, like Jesus, like the widow, like all those we admire, remember that first comes the courage to live out those three things which remain when all else fails. Let us have the courage to seek after God, and to show the undying love and grace of Jesus to everyone. Amen.

More Than Voting – 2016/11/06

Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31


     Let’s get one thing clear: the most important election in American history was on November 6, 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected – a move that saved the Union and ferried us through the bloodiest war in our country’s history. I say this, not just because I’m a nerd who loves history, but because I’ve grown very, very weary of what I have heard every four years for my nearly-30-year-long life, including this year: that *this* is the most important election in our nation’s history.
     Now, I know it’s unpopular as it is to hear about politics too much from the pulpit, but you’re going to have to indulge me today a little bit, because we’re heading into an election this week, and it’s just what I’m thinking about – like the rest of us. In this country, we are obviously free to vote, which is something we must be thankful for, as we know too well that far too many people the world over have absolutely no say in who governs them and how. Yet, as I sat this week pondering the election and how I was going to vote, I also happened upon an important truth: elections are not the only way to engage the political process in this country.
     This probably should go without saying, but it’s something we forget too often. There are a lot of ways to engage politically, though, aren’t there? You can make phone calls; fundraise for a candidate; write letters to your representatives; heck, you can even run for office yourself! The American machine is designed to run based on people’s engagement with the process. Even kids or others who aren’t allowed to vote can engage in other ways. If the only way we ever engage the political process is to vote, we’re not all the way there as citizens; we’re only doing things halfway.
     And that’s why it’s our job as American citizens to not only vote, but we’re asked to do more than just vote. Is it hard? Sure. Does it take time? Absolutely. But we’re called to that higher standard. It’s part of the privilege of living in this great country.
     But that’s where we get our sermon hook, brothers and sisters in Christ, because here we are, in church on a Sunday. And that’s when we realize that Sunday church attendance is the “voting” of the life of faith. Showing up here is important; if you don’t show up here, you’re neglecting something. Being part of the body of Christ and worshiping God together is the best way to show support for one another, to see our faith reflected, to hear words of conviction when we need them and words of comfort when they are called for. But just like voting, if the only thing we ever do is show up on Sunday morning, we’re living a halfway life of faith.
     Our text from Luke is pretty clear on that today, isn’t it? You might be familiar with the words here from Matthew’s Gospel (in chapter 5), where these words of Jesus are spiritualized a bit. But here in Luke’s Gospel, they are very raw. Jesus begins with a long call for economic justice. He begins by talking about how God is to bless the poor, because they have nothing. And he does, indeed, go into the opposite, too: that the rich have received their reward, so don’t go looking to God for more.
     This should be a shocking comment; it’s meant as a shocking comment. It’s meant to surprise us into thinking about what it means to have and not to have. To those who don’t have, it’s meant to be hope that, even if this life hasn’t been fair to us, the next one will be. To those who do have, it’s meant to cause us to wonder if we’re using what we have as we should. As Americans in 2016, surely we would’ve all been viewed by Jesus and his followers as wealthy. That makes this passage doubly difficult, because even if we aren’t wealthy by the standards we think about, we have never lived in the kinds of poverty many people in the world experience.
     But I don’t just want to talk about those things having to do with wealth in this passage, because those are the things that really stick out and so it’s my perception that we pay more attention to them. Jesus doesn’t just say, “The rich got theirs, the poor didn’t, and things will reverse later.” In fact, he tells us how we are supposed to live. And, interestingly, the things that he names are things that rich and poor alike can do!
     Jesus says: “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
     These are timeless commands about what Jesus demands of our lives. “Love your enemies” is easy to say. It can mean simply being nice to the person in school or down the street whom you don’t like. But when is the last time you really prayed for that person? When is the last time you thought about terrorists who have attacked our country, and prayed for them – not that they would change their ways, but that God would bless them? We tend not to pray for the well-being of our enemies, yet that is what Jesus asks us to do. “Do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you.” Even if we haven’t been treated well, Jesus asks us to ask God for the best for others.
     That “abuse” one is awfully loaded, so I want to take a minute to talk about it. “Pray for those who abuse you,” is a loaded phrase. It’s certainly a phrase that could be taken to mean that, if you’re abused, you should just deal with it and pray about it. Surely, though, that’s not the best thing. If someone is abusing you, or you know someone being abused, it’s best to speak up about it. You can get out of that situation.
     Jesus doesn’t say you have to stay there and pray for the person abusing you; he just says that, while we pray for the abused, we should also pray that the abuser would come to see the error of their ways, that they would reform, and that they would receive good things for turning their lives around. Similarly, when you pray for enemies, Jesus isn’t expecting that you pray for bad things to keep on comin’; he’s just saying that we must pray for people, even if they hurt us, because, even if they’re misguided, they are made in the image of God, too.
     Jesus continues: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” He doesn’t say, “an eye for an eye” here. Jesus isn’t about vengeance. He’s about helping people first and foremost, even if those people are actively hurting us. Compassion for those who hurt others is a very hard thing. It’s difficult to want good things for someone who steals. Yet here, Jesus asks us to give to someone who steals. That’s because, most of the time, people steal because they’re in need. Jesus asks us to turn the other cheek when someone hits us, not because he wants us to be hit twice, but because he wants those who hurt us to see what they’re doing to another person. It doesn’t mean people have the right to hit you; it just means that people who lash out violently should have to face the people they attack as full human beings, worthy of respect.
     Jesus ends with the command that sums up the others: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Treat people well. Don’t just treat people fairly, because you want more than fair in your life. Grant that same grace to others.
     The political season is perhaps the best and most important time of year to keep these lessons in mind. I’m sure that most of our families can have a meal get sent down a very bad track if we talk too much politics, because there’s always someone with another point of view.
     We must remember, though, that we need to give people the grace to know that they are loved: even if their opinions are different; even if their opinions are wrong; even – perhaps especially – if their opinions are just plain stupid. We have to remember that we are all made in the image of God, and we are all worthy of the respect that should be given to God. Jesus gives us this lesson because it’s hard. Christianity sometimes has a reputation as an easy way of life. To some extent, that’s true. It’s easy because we’re not asked to change our diet, where we live, or what we wear. We are free to speak whatever language we want. We aren’t even required by our faith to go to church.
     But at the same time, we’re also asked to do these outrageously difficult things. We’re asked to help people who need it, even if we need help ourselves. We’re asked to pray for people who are actively doing bad things. And those aren’t just supposed to be prayers for them to come around to our way of thinking; they’re supposed to be prayers for the other person’s well-being.
     Yet, while Jesus calls for these things in the here-and-now, he always does so rooted in the things to come. Today is a great day to talk about the life to come, because today, we are celebrating All Saints’ Day in the church. Traditionally, All Saints’ Day is November 1, but most churches celebrate the first Sunday of November. Anyway, this is a day we remember those who have gone before us – those who have died and now rest with God.
     Christians don’t think of heaven as a place only for those who are perfect – Jesus would be awfully lonely all by himself, if that were heaven. But instead, we recognize that, at our deaths, our slates are wiped clean and we are brought home to God. All Saints’ Day is a day to recognize that many people whom we love, particularly those who have left us in the last year, are now with God forever, enjoying their eternal rest.
     One day, we will all join them. We, too, will sit at God’s great banquet table, relax in fields of God’s love, and run through the streets of mercy and justice that flow forever. But until that day, while we yet run our race, we are called to worship God with fervor, to give of ourselves generously, and to love with reckless abandon. We are called to honor God, not by simply being the minimum amount of Good necessary to earn our way to heaven – there’s no way we’ll be good enough, anyway! Jesus makes us worthy. Instead, we’re called to do things that seem hard, but do them because they’re right. It’s important that we embrace that call, showing that God is part of who we are by acting in self-giving ways that pour God’s love out on the people we meet.
     However you vote on Tuesday, do so in honor of the freedoms we have. But remember that, while Tuesday’s results belong to the American people, every day, every second, every inch of your life – belongs to God. So don’t live a half-way life of only going to church; embrace the whole process of making yourself more and more into Jesus’ image every day. Amen.

500 Years – 2016/10/30

Psalm 46
John 8:31-36
Romans 3:19-31


     500 years ago tomorrow, a little man in a little town did something that resonates through history. It was, in and of itself, probably a relatively unremarkable act. But sometimes, ordinary things have extraordinary consequences.
     First, transport yourself back to Medieval Europe – Germany, specifically. Given all the German last names in this congregation, that should be the easiest country to imagine, anyway. So, in 1517, life was not exactly easy. There were a couple of churches in town, but they were all the same denomination – “The Church.” There was no public school. There were occasionally festivals and stuff, but everything that happened, happened through the church. There weren’t exactly bulletin boards, so you’d post notices on the doors of the church. It was like the community message board – wedding announcements, death notices, community events, all sorts of stuff. When you needed to find something out, you would read it on the church door – or, more likely, you’d find one of your friends who knew how to read, and they’d tell you what the notices on the church door said, because you were probably illiterate.
     500 years ago today, that’s how things were. They were normal, and nothing could shake the way of the world. Then, 500 years ago tomorrow, on October 31, 1517, a man named Martin Luther went up to that church door, and next to the announcements of babies and the requests for casseroles or whatever went up a document that would change the course of history.
     On that day, Martin Luther nailed his infamous “95 Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. These 95 theses (theses means “points” or “arguments”) were about the abuses in the church that he disagreed with. When he did this, the town got to talking.
     The last Sunday in the month of October, Protestant churches like the Presbyterian Church remember this occasion by celebrating Reformation Sunday. Luther’s small act, a list of disagreements he had with the church, wound up setting off a revolution. The Christian church was forever changed. Suddenly, there were groups that splintered from the church hierarchy as it had always been. Luther wanted to emphasize several things that had been taken for granted before: getting services in the language of the people (they had been in Latin, which almost no one spoke), restoring the tradition of preaching (most churches no longer had a sermon), letting everyone take Communion (many churches only let the presiding minister take, while everyone else watched), and getting Bibles into the hands of everyone, to read the powerful words of Scripture for themselves (this was not allowed previously).
     Luther stuck by those points, and it wound up making him a hunted man for most of the rest of his life. Nonetheless, he felt that God was calling him to bring the church into a new era. His intention had been merely to reform the church as it existed – this is why the movement is called the “Reformation,” as it was about changing things, not starting over. But as it became clear that the wider church viewed him as a threat, Luther’s tactics changed to starting over.
     We in the Presbyterian Church can trace our existence back to this heroic act of faith by Luther. Although our particular denomination traces its roots through other reformers, Luther was a key person in the discussion of who we are today and how we got here.
     One of his most important ideas is something we run across in our text from Romans today, and it’s a text that constantly speaks to every new generation of Christians. It is something that speaks to how we understand God to work, and how we can ever possibly be seen by God as being worthwhile. In verses 21-24 of our reading, Paul says:
     “Now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
     That’s a lot to unpack, so I’ll give you the short version. We have been given God’s righteousness, not just in the laws we read about in the Bible, but through faith in Jesus Christ. We are all sinners, and we have all fallen short of God’s glory. Yet, in spite of our inability to live up to God’s goodness, we have been shown God’s love and grace through Jesus. He is the one who makes us right in God’s eyes – the one who, as the passage says, “justifies” us.
     Paul reminds us that, because we are justified by faith in Jesus, a lot of things about our lives come to an end. We can no longer boast in our works of the law, because those things are not what makes us right in God’s eyes. We can boast only in our faith in Christ.
     Paul points out that Jews like Jesus and himself had had the Laws of God for thousands of years. Yet the Gentiles, those people who weren’t Jewish, didn’t have access to those same laws. Yet, Paul says, even though those things were new, they were going to be judged based on their faith, not their adherence to rules they didn’t know existed.
     Sometimes, we know the rules, and follow them. Sometimes, we know the rules and we break them, because we have to. Jesus was sometimes a rule-breaker. He didn’t force his disciples to wash their hands in the ritual way before eating. He healed on the Sabbath, when he knew that people would be mad. He did those things because he knew that the example we people need is not the example of being perfect rule-followers, but we need the example of someone doing right.
     500 years ago, Martin Luther was able to stand up for what he saw was right. He was able to point a finger at the church and say, “You’re wrong.” This was in a time when the church held absolute sway, and he had no real standing in the community. But it was necessary to stand up for right.
     As Christians, that is what we’re called to do every day – to stand up for what’s right; to see where God is leading us, and to follow boldly. One of Martin Luther’s most famous quotes is “Sin boldly.” He didn’t mean that we should intentionally sin. Rather, his point was that we should do all things boldly, knowing that we’re doing our best to follow God. Sometimes, we’ll be wrong. But the important thing isn’t the destination; it’s our journey with Christ.
     In the Presbyterian tradition, there’s this phrase we’re taught in seminary that’s in Latin, and it was one of the most important phrases to the founders of the Presbyterian branch of the Christian tree. It goes like this: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum dei. It means, “The church reformed, always to be reformed, according to the word of God.” In other words, we have been reformed. We have experience change. But that’s not the end.
     We are constantly listening for God’s voice, and for the next thing Jesus is calling us to do. We should always be ready to hear the voice of God calling us to that next, new, bold challenge. We have been reformed, but God is always reforming us. And on this Reformation Sunday, we must remember that, although much has happened, God has much in store. May we have the wisdom to seek out what God is doing, and the courage to follow where God leads. Amen.

A New Covenant – 2016/10/16

Psalm 119:97-104
Luke 18:1-8
Jeremiah 31:27-34


     When “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meatloaf plays over the radio, even if I’m late to something, I stay in the car and listen to all 8 minutes and 32 seconds of it. And yes, I sing along. And no, I don’t care that it’s a silly, trashy song.
     I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption, because for a while when I was in high school, they showed it on TNT once a month. And I watched it once a month, because I love that movie. It was that movie that, once I noticed that it was on TV, my next couple of hours were booked, because I wasn’t going to be moving – except during the commercials, of course, because I was in high school and ate like a horse, so I needed snacks.
     I read The Hobbit once a year for nine consecutive years at one point. I’ve seen every episode of The Office multiple times, as well as Frasier, as well as… well, you probably don’t want the whole list, because it’s a long one.
     Carissa and I have stayed multiple times in the same Bed & Breakfast in Door County, WI multiple times. And while they don’t take kids (so we probably won’t be going back for a while), we will almost certainly go to Door County again in the next two or three years, visit the same shops, eat at some of the same restaurants, sample the same wines and cheeses.
     There are things that we are drawn to as people, even if we’ve seen them, heard them, done them, experienced them a hundred times before. There are things that pull us back in, like a magnet to a refrigerator door, that prevent us from being free. Sometimes it’s because those things give us comfort. Sometimes it’s nostalgia. Sometimes it’s because something just gets under our skin and we can’t possibly let it go. Sometimes it’s something we can’t explain.
     Today’s passage is one of those things for me. It’s one of those passages that’s hard to fully articulate why I feel the need to preach it again (as I’ve done twice in the 3+ years I’ve been here). If you want to think of it that way, roughly 2% of my sermons have been about this one passage – just a few short verses, and yet I keep getting drawn in over, and over, and over again.
     So maybe this one doesn’t strike you like it does me; that’s fine. But I can’t help telling you about this passage again, because in my moments of weakness, this is a place I turn for comfort. In my doubts, I see light; in my sadness, I see joy. When I need to hear God’s voice, the end of chapter 31 of Jeremiah is the place I find it.
     I hope most of you were here last week, because I’m just going to quickly gloss what I went over. If you weren’t here, and you want an understanding of the context of this passage, go ahead and check out last week’s sermon on our website.
     Anyway, if you remember – or if you don’t – Jeremiah is writing his book in the context of the Exile. The Exile is when all but the poorest of the poor were taken out of Judah and Jerusalem and moved to Babylon as part of a military takeover by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Empire. It was a difficult time for the Jews spiritually and emotionally, as their Temple – God’s house – was destroyed, and they were trekked off to a foreign land.
     In the course of this move, with their spirituality destroyed, the Jewish people were forced to adapt to new circumstances. Human beings are remarkably adaptable, so this shouldn’t be too much trouble, right? We adapt to all sorts of differing social conditions, climates, and levels of technology. But one of the things that human beings have a difficult time adapting to is a sudden shift in their most deeply-held beliefs and values. For Jews, the most deeply held beliefs were their covenants with God, including the covenant God made with them that a King from David’s line would reign forever in Jerusalem.
     Of course, now here they were – no longer in Jerusalem, and no longer possessed of a king from the line of David. They were without the central promise God made to them. They were outside of the Promised Land God had told them would be theirs. Suddenly, without warning, the underpinnings of their lives were stripped away.
     And what does God offer in that moment of despair? A word of hope, of course. God says, “this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” In other words, God promises that, in a time to come, we are no longer judged based on something from outside ourselves, but that God will correct our hearts and our ways. We will fall in line with God’s desires, because they will be our desires.
     This promise, that God’s law will be written on our hearts, is the very best promise we could receive from God. It’s about God’s ultimate plans for the world being realized. It’s about everything we do lining up with God’s desires for us, because we line up with God. It’s about the joy that we’ll share, living into the plans that were always supposed to be our lives.
     We see a foretaste of this in the Resurrection story of Jesus. We see what God is planning – a re-working of all creation, so that the dead live, the blind see, the deaf hear, and all the people of the earth live together in God’s goodness.
     This passage is about living in the world as God intends. It means grabbing life by the horns right now, and living in the “now” as if it’s the “later.” As Christians, we live in a world in which we’ve seen the Resurrection of Jesus already, but still know that the fullness of God’s new creation has not come yet. This tension of the now and of the still-to-come is part of the life of a Christian. Yet, at the same time, we can glory in knowing what God has promised us.
     God has promised that we are sacred and holy vessels. You are a sacred, holy vessel, fit to carry God’s law on your heart. You are good enough for God, so we must be good to one another. God has made us able to see one another through God’s eyes. And that’s what this passage is about. It’s about more than just God’s promises, but it’s about our ability to live into them in the here-and-now.
     Remember that God is giving this promise to people at their lowest. God is saying, “I’m not just about the tearing down; I’m about the building up.” God is saying, “Even though things are bad right now, there comes a day when things will be good; so live like it today!”
     The thing that Jesus shows us in his life is an ability to live like it’s a different world than the one we see. Jesus shows us a world where the lowly are lifted up and celebrated; where the powers that be can be silenced by a thoughtful word; where a person’s character and actions are more valuable than their social status.
     In a trying and difficult time, God offers hope through a promise of the future. Our greatest comfort as human beings is the knowledge that we will one day receive the fullness of God’s creation. Our most unique opportunity as Christians is to live into the truth that future in the here-and-now, when it hasn’t yet come. So whether you’re in your own personal Babylon or whether you’re in the glories of Jerusalem at its height, know that God wants you to feel comforted, and that God has a challenge waiting for you. Amen.

A New Life in Babylon – 2016/10/09

Psalm 66:1-12
Luke 17:11-19
Jeremiah 29:1-7


     In sixth grade, I switched school districts. I was in a weird place, because I lived in one district, but had gone to school in another. I had an “in” at the school in the district where I lived, and in the school where most of my friends were going.
     There was also a third school in the area. That was the one I really wanted to go to. They had these really cool science labs, and I knew a handful of kids who would be there. It was where I really wanted to be. I told my parents this.
     Unfortunately, during the enrollment period at the school, I didn’t get chosen by the lottery, and I lived in another district. I was, though, first on the waiting list. Well, that didn’t sound so bad to me – within the first week someone would pull out, and I would be in. That was how I got into my elementary school, actually (which I also open-enrolled into), so I knew it wasn’t a problem. And in elementary school, it happened before the first day. So even when I found out about the wait-list, I wasn’t worried.
     Well, the first days of school came, and I had to go somewhere. So my parents told me I would begin the year at my local school. “Fine,” I thought. “It will only be a couple days – a couple weeks, at most. I’ll stay, but by mid-September, I’ll be out of here.”
     One day in early September, I came home from school, and my mom asked who I was sitting with at lunch. I was honest. I said, “No one.” And then, I said a few words that haunted my mom for weeks – years, even. “It’s just me and seven empty chairs.” She assumed I was lonely, heartbroken, awkward. That was so far from the truth. But of course, she was a concerned parent; she didn’t really think it was possible to do that on purpose.
     But for my part, I was acting the way you act when you’re not staying. I made no attempt to make friends. Why make friends with some kids I’m not going to be in school with? Why put time and energy into relationships that could literally be gone tomorrow? So I sat alone, kept to myself, and moved on with life.
     In late-September, thinking t was odd that I hadn’t gotten that call about the school I wanted to be at, I confronted my parents about it. “Hey, have you heard from the other school? Am I getting in soon?” I asked.
     “What are you talking about?” my dad replied. “We took you off that wait list over the summer.”
     Hoo boy… I was pretty upset at that. Well, that’s putting it mildly. I was heartbroken. I couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t be going to school where I wanted. And on top of that, my parents had lied to me. Well, they didn’t so much “lie” as just withhold the truth… but same thing. And it stung extra because of the fact that I thought my opinion mattered. But my parents had decided, without asking me, that since they wanted me to go to high school in my local district (as it’s one of the best public high schools in Wisconsin), I was better off going to middle school in the district, as well, so that I could make friends before the first day; so that I wouldn’t be starting all over again in three years.
     Well, now my family and I can laugh about this. Any time I want to tease my mom, I say something about sitting with “just me and seven empty chairs.” She still gets mad; in fact, when she watches this sermon later on YouTube, she’ll be mad at me for telling this story. (“Hi mom!”) But at the time, when I was 11 years old, it wasn’t funny at all. It was a serious, and it was awful. I really didn’t know how to cope with my new reality. Of course, I started making friends (now that I knew I had to), and everything was fine. But at the time, it was devastating.
     Obviously, that’s not nearly as serious a situation as we see in Jeremiah today, but some of the ideas are the same. The idea of trying to cope in a new place when you don’t know how long you’ll be there; the idea of wondering if the ones making the decisions cared about what you thought; the idea of how your life was supposed to go on in an unfamiliar place; those ideas are timeless, and are right out of the heart of our passage.
     In our passage today, we confront the idea of the Exile. The Exile is probably the single most important event of the entire Old Testament. Most of the prophets deal with it, either directly or indirectly. And since the prophets make up the majority of the Old Testament, then the majority of the OT is about the Exile.
     The Exile is when King Nebuchadnezzar (whose name is tremendous fun to say) of Babylon got mad at King Jehoiakim of Judah (where Jerusalem is). Nebuchadnezzar was powerful, and expected other local kings to pay him money. Jehoiakim refused, since, you know, Nebuchadnezzar hadn’t actually done anything to deserve a tribute payment. “Well,” Nebuchadnezzar said, “let me show you why you should have paid me.” His army marched on Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple where sacrifices to God were made and where God was worshiped – and remember, there’s only the one Temple, so it’s God’s only house of worship. His army took all but the poorest of the poor and forced them to leave the land of Judah. The Jewish people were suddenly without a homeland. They were marched across hundreds of miles of desert and taken to Babylon.
     This was a real crisis. Last week, we read from Psalm 137; that Psalm is all about this time. It starts, “By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Zion, which means Jerusalem, is the place where God was worshiped. How were the people supposed to cope? They’d lost their homes, their land, everything.
     Those who were previously prominent in the community were suddenly starting off as exiles in a new, foreign land where they didn’t speak the language. The diet didn’t meet their needs, because the Babylonians didn’t keep Jewish dietary laws. They had to find a way to build new homes, to start over using whatever skills they had. And worst of all: where was God in all this? “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” asked the Psalmist last week. In other words, when you only know this one way of worship, how are you even supposed to sing your hymns to God if you can’t worship properly anymore?
     And that’s where the prophet Jeremiah gets a word from God. He gives the people his advice: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
     This declaration means, in short: go to this new place, and flourish. Live normal lives. Don’t just go on grieving for your homeland forever, but build something new. And perhaps, most importantly, this letter is about more than just going into a new place and becoming exactly like the people there; it’s about being a blessing to those around. The Jews in this passage are called to more than just assimilation – they’re called to be the light of God in a new land.
     Now, the way I see it, there are two different ways of looking at this letter that are very important for us. One would be to read it as if we were the Jews in the story – taken from our homeland to a new place. The other way to read it would be as if we were the Babylonians, seeing these Jews come into our community.
     We’ll start with the second way first. Perhaps it didn’t occur to you, but how would this letter strike you differently if you were a Babylonian? It’s about people – foreigners – moving into your land and trying to bless you through their presence. Maybe your instinct is to say, “No thanks – I don’t need the blessing of your presence.” Maybe your thought is that you have the blessing, and these new people should be listening to you. But you know what? That’s not the story in today’s passage. This passage encourages the Babylonians – us – to be willing to let our hearts and minds be changed. Are we willing to let the foreigners we receive, whether they’re new people to Marion or South Dakota, or the United States, be a blessing to us? Are we willing to let them change us? Are we willing to see how God is blessing the world through their presence? We need to be. Just as the Babylonians needed the Jews to help show them God’s light, perhaps we need people who are willing to show us a new word from God.
     One of the boldest steps that we can take as believers is to trust God more than we trust ourselves. It can be very easy to be comfortable. But to live only in places of comfort says also that we have let God stop changing us. We have told God, “Only affect me in ways that I’d already like.” But God will affect us in all sorts of ways – some of them comfortable, some not as much. We have to be open to both kinds of God’s intervention.
     So like I said, that’s not the only way of reading the passage. Just as we are sometimes the comfortable Babylonians, sometimes, we are the Jews – unfamiliar people trying to navigate an unfamiliar time and place. So on the other side, let’s look at things from the perspective of these Jews in Exile. Remember first of all that, in Judah, the Jewish religion was king – in fact, it was really the only religion. Suddenly, they were a minority in Babylon. I think there’s a good way to read that situation as similar to our own today, as well.
     There are many people lamenting the fact that America no longer seems like the Christian country it once was, where you could take everyone’s Christianity for granted. And that’s true; that’s not America in 2016. But that means also that this letter is to us. We have to be just like the Jews had to be in Babylon: a blessing to those around us, so that they can see what we have, and what our faith has, to offer. We have to be willing to step out there and show that a life lived for Christ is a life worth living.
     Just as many people today don’t like the changing religious landscape of America, there were absolutely a lot of Jews during the Exile who didn’t like what was happening. Yet, they had to persevere. They had to continue to practice their religion, and they had to show how God was working in their lives. Suddenly, their religion was more than a common thing shared by everyone around. Suddenly, it was a distinct and unique marker, showing God’s claim on their lives. We are presented with that same opportunity today – to let our faith, which can no longer be taken for granted – wash over others, and show them why we believe, what makes our faith so special, and how God is present in our lives.
     This ancient story, even if it’s unfamiliar to you, is still our story. Even though we’re removed by thousands of years and miles, we are these people – both the people of Babylon and the people of Judah. So when you’re Babylon, be willing to let the stranger change you. Be willing to let the “other” show you how God has touched their lives, and how God is using them to touch you.
     And when you’re Judah, be willing to be a blessing to others. Don’t let your status as an outsider prevent you from helping out in the best ways you can. Plant; sow; make friends, make families. It’s okay to let yourself change the people you meet. And in the end, everyone will change for the better, because it will be God driving the way we change. Amen.

“Hey, I Know That Movie!” – 2016/10/02

Psalm 137
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:1-10


Who can identify this movie quote? “Play it again, Sam!” (Casablanca) How about this one: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” (Snow White) And this one: “Luke, I am your father.” (Empire Strikes Back) Another one from a movie with James Earl Jones: “If you built it, they will come.” (Field of Dreams) A creepy one: “Hello, Clarice.” One last one: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” (Jaws)
OK, now here’s the thing: not a single one of those movie quotes was correct. They’re all there, we recognize all or some of them, but they’re not correct. They’re not the right words. Rick never says, “Play it again, Sam!” He says, “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’” The evil queen says, “Magic mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” In The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader’s big reveal never includes Luke’s name. He says, “No, I am your father.” Field of Dreams, which is one of my favorite movies, has a completely different quote, “If you build it he will come.” It’s about Ray’s dad coming back – one guy, not a bunch of people going to see a baseball game. Hannibal Lecter, creepy as he is, says, “Good evening, Clarice,” not “Hello.” And in Jaws, Martin Brody doesn’t yet consider himself part of the group. He doesn’t say, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat;” he says, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Look, it’s not like these things really matter, right? They’re just silly movie quotes. But… here’s the thing. In general, we, as human beings remember things poorly. These quotes are really famous, and we, culturally, have misremembered them. Similarly, sometimes we might remember the words right, but we might get the context all wrong, and if that’s incorrect, then it can throw off our whole understanding.
That’s what happens with today’s Gospel reading from Luke. How many of you all of a sudden had that moment of recognition when you heard the words, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” There are a couple of different times that Jesus talks about mustard seeds, so you’re forgiven if you thought another one. But nonetheless, we have a cultural memory of this passage – this statement that says that, if you just have faith, you can do absolutely anything you want.
Are we sure that’s what the passage says, though? Throughout time, this passage has been abused to say that if bad things happen, it must be because they didn’t have enough faith. It seems that way, if we just look at that one little piece. But if you re-examine the passage, Jesus isn’t saying judgmentally that the only reason bad things happen is because we lack faith; he’s talking to people who are looking to learn how to forgive.
The context of the passage is that Jesus is talking to his disciples. He tells them that it’s okay to make mistakes, but that we shouldn’t let our mistakes drag others down with us – that to cause someone else to fall is far, far worse than falling ourselves. Jesus tells the disciples that they’re going to be held to the highest of standards, including standards of how they treat others, particularly those who have wronged them.
Jesus says that, “if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” That’s an awfully tough thing to do, isn’t it? How do you forgive someone who just keeps wronging you? I mean, even if they’ve shown that they ‘really mean it this time,’ how do you take such a thing seriously? It would try anyone’s patience, wouldn’t it? We might be thinking, “That’s just too much to ask, Lord.” We might be thinking, as the disciples did, “I just don’t have enough faith for that kind of thing.”
So that’s what leads the disciples to say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” They want to do what he’s asking, but it’s really, really hard. I’m reminded of some of my favorite words in any Gospel. In Mark chapter 9, a father asks Jesus to heal his son, and he does so by saying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” It’s a great prayer, because it acknowledges what we feel – that we believe – and what feel when things are at their hardest – that we don’t believe quite enough.
Jesus attempts to ease the disciples minds, telling them that the smallest amount of faith (“the size of a mustard seed”) is enough to move trees (in Matthew’s Gospel, it’s mountains). So if so little faith can do something huge, doing something like forgiving another should be well within the disciples’ grasp.
See, when Jesus is telling them about what faith can do, he’s not giving a literal example. He’s not saying that they can have whatever they want, and that whatever they want to happen will come true if they just believe hard enough. Rather, he’s telling them that faith is powerful enough to have real effects in the world. If it can do big things, then the small interactions between people should be manageable, even when they seem hard.
Remember, Jesus himself, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed for God to take away his fate. Jesus didn’t want to die. Yet, God did not do as he asked. And that’s Jesus. So he knows that we aren’t always going to get what we want, just because we believe. But still, Jesus tells us that we should use what faith we have to change the hearts and minds of the people around us.
To drive this home, Jesus tells a second story, about servants. Our pew Bibles use the word “slaves,” but in Greek, there’s no difference between the two, and I believe that “servant” is, in this case, the preferable word. Anyway, Jesus tells this story about how people who have servants don’t come in from a hard day’s work and ask their servants to sit down beside them. They expect their servants to do their jobs, and serve the meal.
Jesus points out that, not only are these servants not invited to share in the meal, they are also not thanked for doing what they’re supposed to do, even though they, too, likely had a hard day and would like nothing more than to sit down and rest.
Jesus is telling the disciples that they are the servants in this passage. Perhaps, we could read this as saying that they would like a rest, but there’s still work to be done. Perhaps we could read this as saying that we should be satisfied with our lot in life, and never expect anything good.
BUT JESUS DOESN’T SAY THAT! Not exactly, anyway. Surely, he does want us to be thankful for what we have. But when he tells this parable, he’s asking us to empathize with the servants in the story. He wants us to understand that there’s a difference between these servants and us as God’s servants. God doesn’t just expect us to work all the time, and to eat on our own. Instead, yes, we will face hard work. But as we recognize today on World Communion Sunday, Jesus invites us to his table. We are different from those imaginary servant in this parable because we are treated even better than they. We are treated in a way that is far, far beyond what we deserve.
And in fact, remember that this is an illustration about how we treat others. We’re supposed to remember that we are servants, yet God treats us well; we, then, should treat others well, including forgiving when people truly repent. God is willing to forgive our wrongs when we repent, so we must show others that same courtesy.
That may sound to us like people are getting off free – that there’s no cost to forgiveness. But nothing could be further from the truth. We can’t just “say sorry” and make everything better – we must REPENT! Unfortunately, “repent” is a church word that we never use any other time, so it merits some explanation.
Repentance is about more than just saying “sorry.” Repentance is doing the work of being sorry. When you wrong someone, you try to pay them back. When you break it, you fix or replace it. When you hurt someone, you do something for them to help them. Those are the things that come with repentance. It’s about more than making someone feel guilty, or recognizing that we feel bad when we do something wrong. Jesus is specific in this passage to call out those who truly repent. We must be those who repent when we do wrong; but we must also be those who are willing to recognize true repentance, and grant unto those who repent the very grace of God. We have that kind of power.
And that’s because our faith is powerful; it can move trees and mountains, it can do wonderful things. There are certainly things that happen in this world that will hurt us, and they won’t be taken away, even if we have tremendous faith. We’ll never be as faithful as Jesus, and his faith didn’t save him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But his faith was rewarded, because God is always looking to make something new. It wasn’t in the way that anyone would have expected. I think it’s fair to say that it wasn’t in the way that anyone even would have imagined. But nonetheless, God worked even the death of Christ into something beautiful.
Even the worst of situations, God is trying to turn things for good. It doesn’t mean that everything will be hunky-dory if we just have faith; but it does mean that we are meant to seek after God, and to do what Jesus would do. That, in and of itself, will be how our faith helps us. That’s what the Resurrection is about. God didn’t just force Jesus to suffer and let that be the end of it; God transformed Jesus’ suffering into something greater than we could ask, and something that’s promised to all of us, too.
So this isn’t a passage about people only having negative consequences because they’re unfaithful; it’s about how we can be better human beings. It’s not about meaningless platitudes that actually make people feel as if they don’t have enough faith because things go wrong. Jesus had his life go wrong, too, and he had more faith than we ever could. Rather, it’s about the transformation of our faith, from a weapon of defense to a tool for healing; it’s about becoming a better person by helping those around us. Jesus says that telling a tree to move requires little faith – so forgiving someone shouldn’t require too much faith, either. When Jesus tells his disciples that brief story about a tree being uprooted, that’s the point – that’s how easy it is to forgive someone who is truly repenting. So let us go out and seek true repentance where we need it, and grant true forgiveness where we have the right to.
Jesus is calling us, as always, to a deeper, higher, broader standard of ethical living – one that acknowledges the mistakes others have made, and that gives them leeway when they make those mistakes. We can be just like Jesus if we embrace those opportunities for growth and simply help people through their repentance, to save them from falling. So acknowledge the wrongs; help those who would make mistakes; take ownership of your own; repent when you are wrong; grant forgiveness to those who repent of you. Do these things, and you become more Christlike with each passing day. Amen.

Poverty of Goodness – 2016/09/25

Psalm 91:1-6
Jeremiah 32:1-15
Luke 16:19-31


     One of those devices in movies that just never gets old is the one in which you think that it’s telling a lot of different stories, but actually everyone is connected. I can think of two movies, both about ten years old now, that did that trick right around the same time. Babel, which was a Brad Pitt movie, was critically-loved and not as much by audiences. Crash won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
     Crash was this movie in which a bunch of different characters are reacting to their life situations, only you find out that they’re all connected. For example, a policewoman and her partner, whose brother is a carjacker, who (along with his partner) rob the district attorney, who hires a locksmith, whose daughter is nearly killed by the shopowner, whose shop is constantly broken into so he looks for help from the police, one of whom assaults the wife of a Hollywood director, who’s later pulled over by the first cop’s partner. Actually, I’m pretty sure that every character in the movie is connected to every other character in two or more ways, so I’m not going to try to re-hash all the connections, but you get the idea. This device is one of those things that audiences love – seeing that these stories, which have been separate in the beginning, suddenly piece together to form a coherent whole.
     *Crash is a lot more about the complex racial realities of 21st century America than it is about how people’s lives are connected, but the way people connect to one another in spite of differences is a theme, if a secondary one, of the movie. I just want to make sure that we talk about the movie as it’s meant to be discussed!
     In Crash, the characters are all different races, socio-economic backgrounds, genders, and ages. What binds them together is living in Los Angeles, and a 36-hour confluence of events that makes them “crash” together. Today’s parable from Luke is a little bit like that, except that it uses only two characters, and is therefore much more manageable!
     Jesus tells this parable: there’s a rich man who wears only the finest clothing. Right outside his gate lies a poor, diseased man name Lazarus. Both of them die, but the rich man only receives a proper burial. We’re not told what happens to the poor man’s body – maybe it’s just left to rot, rather than the nice burial the rich man gets – but we do hear that his soul is taken up to heaven. The rich man descends to Hades – that’s the Greek term, which just means a generic “land of the dead.” While there, he is in flames and burns, but can see Lazarus sitting next to Abraham, the great prophet. The rich man asks Abraham for a drink of water, but Abraham tells him “no” – this rich man and Lazarus are far apart, both in life and in death. And just as the rich man never helped Lazarus, so, too, can Lazarus never help the rich man.
     Then, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his family, so that they can be warned about the consequences of their actions. Again, Abraham denies the rich man. The rich man insists that his family would listen, if such news came from someone returning from the dead. Yet, Abraham is steadfast: he points out that there have been many prophets who have written the word of God, and they are all dead. If the rich man’s family wants to listen to someone from the dead, they should listen to what they already have.
     So, to recap, our story’s two characters are the Rich Man and Lazarus. Interestingly, in all of Jesus’ parables, only one character ever receives a name – and that’s Lazarus in this parable. The Rich Man, therefore, remains unnamed. And that’s just the start of the differences between these two characters.
     Obviously, one is rich, and one has nothing. The rich man is dressed in the finest of clothes, Lazarus is dressed only in sores. The rich man eats the finest food; Lazarus eats nothing, and in fact what little he has – his own skin – is licked up by the dogs. They are both at the same gate, yet one man can walk freely through that gate, and the other lies there, hoping desperately for someone to have mercy on him. Of course, death comes to both – perhaps the one thing they have in common, besides that gate where all the action happens. Yet even after death, the differences between these two men in the parable do not end.
     Their eternal fates are different, too. Before I go on about that, by the way, I just want to point out that a lot of sermons have been given, assuming that Jesus is accurately describing the afterlife. The truth is, though, that there’s really no reason to believe that. He is telling a parable, which is a made-up story with made-up rules to help make the story good. I’m fairly certain that, whatever the next phase looks like for us, you don’t have a window between two different worlds, and Abraham isn’t there shouting at people across a canyon.
     So anyway, these two men have these different fates. The rich man is in Hades, where his body is licked with flames – much as Lazarus’ skin was licked by dogs during life. Here, it’s Lazarus who has what the rich man wants. Lazarus is by a pool. And now it’s he who keeps the finest of company. While Lazarus’ life would have been a lonely one and the rich man’s full of parties, in death the rich man seems unable to find help, while Lazarus has the ear of God’s first great servant all to himself.
     Of course, the very fact that their final destinations are included in this story at all is another duality in the text – there are two worlds, the physical and the metaphysical, and these men (like all of us) are connected in both. In spite of their differences, these two men are eternally linked in Jesus’ parable. And that’s something we should consider.
     It’s easy to see these two men as completely different, because they’re separated by one issue: poverty. At the center of much of Jesus’ preaching is care for the poor and less fortunate. He constantly goads wealthier followers into helping those who have less. Frankly, it’s probably part of why Jesus was so popular with the poor, the crippled, the widows, the orphans, children in general: those were the people with no rights, and Jesus was sticking up for them.
     So this story is impossible to talk about satisfactorily without talking about poverty. In fact, some commentators on this text have mentioned verse 26, which includes the words, “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” and debated whether this “great chasm” was the very concept of poverty. But I would venture to say that this text is not just about poverty of goods, but rather that it’s about poverty’s companion: poverty of goodness.
     This reading comes right on the heels of last Sunday’s reading (that I didn’t preach on), which you probably don’t remember. But whether you do or not, that reading ended with, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” This is a powerful, fundamentally Christian message, the message that was, in some way or another, the heart of much of Jesus’ preaching, and, perhaps, the most difficult, counter-cultural message for an American Christian today.
     Jesus has to be clear about money, because it is far too tempting for us to trust in it, rather than God. But Jesus wants us to know one thing for certain: MONEY CAN’T SAVE US! Either can politicians, media, convenience, ease, technology, or anything else. Only Jesus saves! Yet, over and over again, we put our faith in things of this world, which inevitably let us down. We have all been to a place where we’ve scrimped and saved and worked for one material thing or another – a specific thing, or perhaps just a cushion in the bank account.
     But the fact of the matter is this: when we receive that thing, we’re happy for a little while, but then find ourselves wanting more. If you want a thousand in the savings account, soon you want two. Then five. Then ten, and fifteen and twenty. Then fifty and a hundred. It’s never enough, and wealth keeps us pursuing it. It is a force unto itself, and we blindly follow after it. And though we may not be in poverty of goods, we can easily find ourselves in a poverty of goodness.
     But Jesus forces us, in this passage, to confront an ugly truth about ourselves. Not just that we have this insatiable desire for more wealth, but that we seek after it at the expense of our own goodness, and in fact at the expense of our own humanity. This rich man in the passage had no compassion for Lazarus in life. But then, interestingly, he does show an ounce of compassion in the hereafter. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family about the consequences of his actions.
     Frankly, there’s a whole sermon in the very idea of a man burning in hell still thinking that he can boss around a guy in paradise, just because he used to be more important. But I’m not going to focus on that today, fun though that would be. Instead, I want us to think about the request he makes, and why Abraham denies it.
     When the Rich Man wants Abraham to warn his family about the consequences he faces, Abraham denies him, saying that if people haven’t listened to God’s word by now, what’s someone returning from the dead going to do? And that’s where, as Christian listeners to this story, our ears should perk up. Coming back from the dead… why, we know all about someone who did that! So that’s where we’re reminded that it’s Jesus telling us this story. He’s telling us an important clue here about his own Resurrection that’s key to us understanding his life, mission and message.
     Jesus is saying that his Resurrection, in and of itself, is probably not going to convince anyone of his message if you didn’t already buy it. That’s a fascinating thing for him to be predicting, isn’t it? He hasn’t yet died and returned at the point in Luke at which he’s telling this story, and yet he already knows how people will react, because Jesus gets human nature. Still, he tells us this story, because wants us to know the importance of what we do with our lives, with our time, and with our riches. Jesus is the one guy who’s actually been all the way there, and come all the way back. If you don’t listen to him, you wouldn’t listen to anyone. And what he calls us to is to remember that we don’t have to live with a poverty of goodness.
     Regardless of our financial realities, we can live with an abundance of goodness, and we can share from those riches with everyone we meet. Whether we have a little or a lot, there’s something we can share. We don’t have to just sit back and feel doomed to our fates. Instead, we’re given dominion over our own lives and actions, so that we can help build a better world, in tune with God’s own desires.
     We’re given the messenger from the dead. It’s not a guy who used to lie in front of the gate of our house. Instead, it’s the Savior of the world, God incarnate, Jesus Christ – coming to tell us that we’re able to live abundantly, giving freely to others. We need to be generous, not because we’re being threatened with the flames of hell if we don’t do it – remember, it’s just a story (though I do acknowledge that as a possible reading). Rather, I think Jesus is compelling us to something more. We’re being asked to give because the opportunity only presents itself in this life. In the next, we either have everything we need, or we don’t. No amount of begging and pleading is going to change what we have. But our earthly lives present an opportunity to make a difference, so we’re asked to embrace that.
     Don’t let yourself be poor in goodness. Let yourself feel free to become the kind of person who chases after Jesus – someone so in love with God that he followed what was right, even giving up his own life out of love. May we be courageous enough to give a little bit of ourselves in his honor, so that we might help every Lazarus we meet. Amen.

Who Is Talking? – 2016/09/18

Psalm 79:1-9
Luke 16:1-13
Jeremiah 8:19-9:1


     Every once in a while, I have to get on a conference call. Some of these calls have like 10-15 people on them. If you’ve ever been on one of these things, you’ll know that they are the worst. 4-5 people, they work fine. More than that, it starts to become an issue. People’s voices are distorted by the phone, so it’s hard to tell who is who. The talking starts overlapping. People start side conversations, but there’s no way to whisper, so it just derails everyone.
     In one group I work with, we have to identify ourselves whenever we speak. Ugh. It’s the worst, because, by the time each person has spoken a few times, you realize that something like 15 minutes of your life have been eaten up by people repeating their names before speaking. But, I have to admit, as obnoxious as that is, it definitely has its benefits.
     To be honest, today’s passage from Jeremiah could’ve used some of that spirit of introducing yourself before speaking. Perhaps you don’t know this, but ancient Hebrew doesn’t use quotation marks – nor any other punctuation. Therefore, you have to use the context clues to figure out what people are saying. The most famous time this occurs is around the reading of a passage from Isaiah chapter 40. It could be “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord,’” or it could be: “A voice cries out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord.”
     We sometimes have the idea, when reading our Bibles that everything in them was set in stone. That it’s unchanged and unchangeable, that whoever is putting it down for us is doing so in a way that’s perfectly faithful to the original intent of the authors. But it’s just not possible, particularly in little things like this.
     Today’s passage is an excellent example, because it’s very hard to know when it’s Jeremiah speaking, and when it’s God. Confusingly, English-language Bibles tend not to use quotation marks when God is talking directly to one of the prophets. This is partly practical (because basically all of it would be a quote, then) and partly acknowledges the reality of the situation: we don’t always know who it is.
     So, for example, when Jeremiah writes, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick,” who is it talking? Is that Jeremiah, or is that God? When he writes: “Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored,” is it God asking why we have not yet experienced healing that’s already available, or is it Jeremiah asking God when the healing is coming?
     I’m going to ask you to put a pin in that question. We’ll come back to this idea of who is speaking and why it matters. But first, I want us to know what they’re talking about.
     You probably didn’t realize this, but I haven’t preached from the Old Testament in over 6 months. Partly that’s because we’re in the year in the three-year lectionary cycle in which we read from Luke, and that’s my favorite Gospel. There’ve been too many other things I’ve wanted to preach, so I haven’t taken the time! Part of the reason is that I hit many of this year’s Old Testament texts three years ago, during my first year here. Part of it is that Jesus, as God incarnate, the head of the church, and our Lord and Savior, is the person we talk about most in church, and he’s in the New Testament.
     But let’s face it: part of the issue is that the Old Testament is just harder than the New. It deals with a bigger swath of time, it has way more characters, and the world of the Old Testament is even more different from our world today than the New Testament’s world is. So it always requires a little explanation, and that just makes preaching (and, if we’re honest, listening) harder when we talk about the Old Testament.
     Specifically, in today’s passage, we’re dealing with Jeremiah, who was a prophet in the early 6th century. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was falling on hard times. The Assyrian army was coming from the north. The Judeans had never faced such a threat before – a great army, directly in conflict with them. The Assyrians were interested in taking over Jerusalem and Judah for their natural resources, but also for their reputation as unconquerable.
     There were many natives of Judah who believed that Jerusalem was just that – unconquerable. Jeremiah, though, had more of a realistic, shall we say, opinion of the situation. The truth was, as much as God loved the people of Jerusalem, it was perfectly possible for a powerful army to take them out. And as much as he warned the people of Jerusalem, they still wouldn’t listen.
     And this was a serious threat. The army that was coming was not necessarily known to be the most fearsome army in the land. So while some people were assured that nothing could happen, others were fearful.
     In that context, Jeremiah gave us this word we heard today. It was this context of fear and questioning that we hear Jeremiah’s words… or God’s words, or the Judeans’ words, as the case may be. And see, that’s the point. So we return to the original question of who is speaking, and in so doing, what we’ll learn is this: it doesn’t matter.
     You see, it doesn’t really matter who’s speaking, because this passage starts to teach us something about how God reacts when bad things happen. We have a tendency to think of God as causing all the bad things that happen to us, but God doesn’t claim that every bad thing is a punishment. In fact, many things “just happen!” It’s tempting to think that God must be willing our bad things to happen, but that’s honestly not a very biblical approach to how God understands evil.
     Most of the time in the Bible, God is reacting to evil that’s already present, not authoring evil to harm people. So instead of looking at God as a divine tinkerer, orchestrating every single event that occurs, this passage encourages us to look for where God is, when bad things happen.
     Crucially, this reading from Jeremiah teaches us that, when tragedy strikes, it’s not just we who are frustrated. God is, too! It’s hard to know who’s talking – God, the Israelites, or Jeremiah – because, in real life, when tragedy strikes, we’re all in on the pain, the sadness, and the hurt – and that includes God.
     God is just as upset about things as Jeremiah is, and as the other Judeans themselves are. It’s happening to all of them equally. While God sometimes has the ability to save us, we don’t always know the intricacies of how and why God rescues us, although we can turn to prayer. But what we do know, what we are shown beyond a doubt in this passage from Jeremiah, is that God is right there with us in our greatest suffering.
     After all, this is the same God who came to us in the form of Jesus Christ. This is God, who showed us love be showing a willingness to live right alongside us, and experience everything we experience. That includes suffering and dying. We know that when we suffer, God suffers, too, because Jesus has suffered. And from that suffering, he shows us his love through the promise of eternal life, and the promise of his presence in the here-and-now.
     Jesus’ life is instructive in this case because we remember that God suffered alongside us, but also, that God has felt our pain. God has known what it is like to see trials and tribulations, not just in an intellectual way of “knowing,” but in an experiential way of knowing – God has been there, lived through it, and come out the other side. We are compelled to remember that God is not a distant observer, not a cosmic child playing with a bunch of human dolls, but rather actively participating in our lives, struggling, sighing, hurting, and rejoicing with us.
     But just as God experiences the pain of human existence, God works even that pain and suffering for Good. This is probably the most important lesson that we learn from the life of Jesus. Wherever the suffering comes from, whether an approaching Assyrian army from the north as in Jeremiah, from an oppressive Roman government in Jesus’ day, or from whatever demons and dangers we face in our own, God looks to transform suffering into something Good. Certainly, Jesus’ death could have been the end. God could have told us that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for all our sins, and that all was needed was his death. But God shows us more.
     It’s not just about the death. Rather, the death of Christ teaches us about who God is. You see, God doesn’t leave us with just a dead Messiah, but rather God restores him to life. Insodoing, God shows us that all things can be made whole and restored – perhaps not exactly how we would choose to have them made better, and that’s often our barrier to understanding. But nonetheless, God insists on trying to bend all things for Good, even when the situation is as dire as the grave.
     No, we cannot guarantee that everything will be perfect. Things won’t be. But when we suffer, we know that we have a God who suffers with us. And that same God will work all things for good, even when it seems there’s no good to be found. As we weep, God weeps. But God’s tears are tears of nourishment, like rainwater for the gardens of our hearts; and they will bring new life, new growth, and new hope. Amen.