Becoming Disciples Again – 2017/01/15

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

Sermon:

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

Baptism of Jesus – 2017/01/08

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

Sermon:

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

A Time… – 2017/01/01

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

Sermon:

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

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

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

Sermon:


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

In, Not Of – 2016/12/11

Luke 1:46-55
Isaiah 35:1-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Whitney’s Baptism can be seen at the bottom of this post!
If you normally just read rather than watch the sermon, you might want to watch this week – the last couple minutes were ad-libbed during the service, so they aren’t in written form.

Sermon:

https://youtu.be/tXMvRYxL80I

     I adore my wife’s family – you need to know that at the top of this sermon. We get along really well. But like all families, when you start getting together more often, you consider some things that they do to be odd, and they consider some of the things that you do to be odd. If you ever started spending a lot of time at another kid’s house as a child, or if you got married as an adult, you start to notice all these little idiosyncrasies that vary from family to family. With Carissa’s family, there were lots of little things (as there always are)… and then I celebrated Christmas with them.
     Wow, was their Christmas different from mine. Carissa’s family has traditions like you wouldn’t believe. I was in charge of putting out the e-mail to the family this year, and there’s basically an hour-by-hour schedule in order to get everything in. There are specific games that have to be played, cookies that have to be made, wow. And to top it all off, last year, it took about four hours to open presents. That is not an exaggeration, by the way. I’m not saying “four hours” to convince you it took a long time; it literally took four hours.
     But all of our families have traditions, as do our churches. And one of the things that happens in church every Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, is that we read Scripture passages about John the Baptist.
     On the one hand, this is a little odd. John, if you’ve paid close attention to the first few chapters of Luke when they’ve come up in church, was only about six months older than Jesus – maybe as little as two or three months older. So it’s odd that we seem to act as if John the Baptist was telling people about a baby being born. He was definitely not doing that.
     Instead, we have to picture John as a man in his late-twenties, maybe thirty. He’s an extremely well-known preacher. He moved out to the wilderness, where he survives by eating locusts and wild honey, and he wears a camel skin as his only garment. He’s a smelly, eccentric guy… and maybe the most popular preacher of his day. He’s preaching a really different message than the one preached up at the Temple. John’s message is one of forgiveness of sins. In fact, he starts literally dunking people’s bodies in the river to show the symbolic way that God washes away their sins. And it’s from these baptisms that he gets his common name – John the Baptist. He wasn’t a Baptist, as in a member of a Baptist church. So if you’re waiting for “Tim the Presbyterian” to show up in the Bible, don’t hold your breath.
     Anyway, a big part of John’s preaching was the someone much greater than he was coming after him – the true Messiah. John was just the person to lead the way. And as it turned out, that next person, the true Messiah, was his cousin, Jesus.
     By the time these two cousins were 30, it’d be pretty tough to compare the two. Jesus had a miraculous birth, sure. But so did John! His mother was barren, and considered much too old to have a child. Yet, there came John. Even in early childhood, Jesus may have had the edge as the more impressive kid in the family. But in their 20s, Jesus was just kind of “there,” successful, I’m sure, but nothing like John. John was, basically, world-famous! I can just imagine the awkward family gatherings, with John’s parents talking so proudly, and the other parents in the room thinking, “There they go again…”
     Anyway, at about age 30, boy do things flip, and fast. Suddenly, Jesus is as popular a preacher as John. And while John is still drawing the big crowds and is better known, Jesus is performing all manner of miracles. Those who can’t walk are suddenly able, with just a touch from Jesus. The blind have their eyes opened; the deaf have their ears unstopped.
     All of a sudden, John starts to realize something. “Maybe,” he says to himself, “maybe my cousin – Jesus – this guy whose birth was supposedly so special – maybe he’s the real deal after all. Maybe he’s the guy I’ve been preaching about.” We have the story earlier of Jesus’ baptism, when John recognized that Jesus should be the one baptizing him. But maybe, all of a sudden, when the time is coming right down to it, John is getting cold feet. Maybe he’s nervous about the question. Maybe asking your cousin if he’s God’s gift to save the world is awkward, and he just doesn’t know how to do it. Maybe he’s pretty sure, but he just wants to be all the way sure. Whatever the reason for his delay, while John is, I’m sure, mulling this over and trying to figure out how to ask his cousin if he is, in fact, the Messiah, John is thrown in jail.
     We don’t know the exact reason, but we can hazard a guess. John did a lot of preaching about moral purity, and the governor at the time was not the most moral guy. John said some things that more-or-less stated outright that the governor’s marriage (to his former sister-in-law after he had his brother killed) was immoral. Anyway, he gets thrown in jail, and while he’s there, he decides he needs to know for sure that Jesus is who John thinks he is.
     So John sends messengers to go ask, and they do. They show up somewhere where Jesus is preaching to a crowd, and they ask him. Jesus answers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” He says, basically, “Look at what I’ve done. I think you know the answer.”
     And then Jesus addresses the crowd who just saw this little question-and-answer session. he talks about how great John is. He mentions how people didn’t expect what they got from John – they, perhaps, expected someone in the halls of power, dressed fancily. They expected someone was giving them sayings. Instead, they got a Wildman who dunks ‘em in the water.
     And then Jesus tells them, “Of everyone ever born, John is the best – only, compared to what God has in store for us in the Kingdom of Heaven, John doesn’t compare to anyone.” It’s yet another chance for us to see God showing us that God’s plan for the world is not yet complete; that God is doing something bigger, better, and more wonderful with the world.
     And it runs back to that original answer that Jesus had to the question of whether he was the true Messiah. Jesus points out that people who have physical ailments will be healed; that the poor are given Good news for once; and most shocking of all, that even death is not too much for God to overcome.
     Sometimes, in our Advent hearts, we are longing for those same signs in our world today. Sometimes they come, but more often they don’t. Still, whether they come or not, we know that God has in store for us a plan that includes a time when we no longer have to worry about what ails us now, because God is bringing healing! Perhaps that healing is coming, not in our time, but in God’s. But either way, we know that Jesus is faithful.
     What I want to talk about more today, though, is John. Jesus goes on a long discussion in what we read today about just how unexpected John was for people. He was a Wildman, yet people were drawn to him.
     Sometimes, today, our own politics about respectability and who should do what get in the way of seeing what God is doing. But we have to suppress those thoughts, because God often does the unexpected. Remember that Jesus was born to unwed parents, from a lower-class family. His family wasn’t a “good family,” and yet he came to save the world. His cousin was undoubtedly looked at as a kook by some of the upper-class elites… yet some of those same elites came to him for baptism and forgiveness of sins. When we let our human differences infect us, we fail to see what God is up to.
     That’s why today, I’m privileged that we get to baptize Whitney into an aspirational faith – a faith that believes we can be better than we have proven to be in the past. When we perform baptism, it is a sign of being welcomed into God’s community. You don’t have a perfect pastor – that’s easy enough to see. But I don’t have to be perfect to welcome Whitney into the family of God. We don’t have to be perfect in how we treat her in order to be the people God puts in charge of her Christian upbringing. In fact, that is the very charge we take today.
     We’re asked to help raise up this little girl so that she sees the way that God is asking us to see – so that she recognizes that the things we say about one another are not the be-all-end-all, but that God is doing wonderful things when we allow Jesus to open our eyes; that we are capable of astounding feats when we let Jesus heal our hands and feet; that we are capable of hearing the whispered word of God through the noise of the world around us, if we let Jesus unstop our ears.
     Today, brothers and sisters, let us not just ask these things of Whitney, but let us in fact take this mission upon ourselves. Let us be in the world, but not of the world. Let us show that we belong to someone greater, and that our lives are special and set apart by Christ for great things. We do not all have to move out into the wilderness; we can be right here. But we must never let the temptation to interact as people do, interfere from living the way God intends us to. Amen.

Whitney’s Baptism:
https://youtu.be/ZxhvFhKd_ZI

World Peace – 2016/12/04

Psalm 72:1-7
Matthew 3:1-12
Isaiah 11:1-10

See bottom of page for “And Love Was Born,” sung by Jaci Donlan

Sermon:

     Traditionally, the second week of Advent is the week when churches discuss the topic of “Peace.” I struggled over how to talk about this, so I thought I’d go personal. You know what the best training I ever got was? It was in 4th grade. I was trained as a “peer mediator.” I don’t know how many of you know what that is, but it was a thing in the 1990s, and still something some schools do today. It’s a program whereby kids learn to solve problems for one another. When students are in conflict, they approach a teacher. The teacher can refer them to peer mediators.
     In our school, that meant that a few of my recess periods were spent inside listening to my fellow students explain their conflicts with one another. You’d let each side talk uninterrupted (that’s very important), listen to them, ask them to describe their feelings with no “blame” language. Then you’d try to work out a manageable solution, which usually just meant people apologizing to one another.
     Well, as it turned out, I wound up using that training way after elementary school. Once, when I had graduated from college, I was back visiting Carissa during her senior year. I got to her room, and she wasn’t back. But two of her roommates were. They had been best friends, but weren’t really speaking. I asked one of them, “How’s it going?” and out came the whole story – the frustration with the other girl, the disagreements, etc., etc. We decided to sit down right then and solve things. They talked it out and cried a lot. Carissa and I, as it turned out, didn’t get to hang out that night, because she just had to let me help solve the conflict in her room!
     End of the day, we wound up switching the rooms around in the apartment. There were four girls in the one apartment with only two bedrooms, and we switched things so the two girls who were fighting didn’t have to be in the bedroom anymore. They started getting along better, and they forged closer relationships with their other two roommates, which helped the rest of the year go smoothly. Carissa often would talk about just how much better things got after that little conflict was resolved.
     Conflicts are, of course, a part of life. But peace can be, too. When we think about peace as a concept, we think about it most often on a global level. And peace is very much something worth pursuing on a global level. Consider this: any kids here today, high school age or younger, have no memory of a time when the United States was not actively at war. Unless you remember the 1930s well or you pretend the Cold War wasn’t a conflict, the rest of us in this room had our most peaceful period from 1991-2001. The causes of this are complex and interesting, but peace isn’t just a difficult idea because of the military-industrial complex and its effects on American culture from the latter half of the 20th century and through to today. Part of the problem of peace, I would argue, is that we see it as a passive state – we see it as a lack of one thing, not a positive presence on its own.
     A house is either on fire, or it isn’t. A car is either running, or it’s not. A wheel is either turning, or it’s motionless. In all of those situations, we see one thing as active, and the other as passive – a non-agent; a state that only exists because of a lack of something else. In other words, those states only exist relative to the alternative.
     Take a running car for example. We think of a car as running. That’s its active phase. It can do things; it has motion and activity. When a car is off, it’s nothing. It’s a big hunk of metal. There’s potential to do something, but that state is nothing special.
     I think that’s how we think of war and peace on a global stage. War is an active state. It’s something we do. Peace is merely the lack of that activity. Peace is a phase that we shift into occasionally, but we can shift out just as easily. And it’s easy to shift out of it, too, because peace is like an unstarted car – it’s basically just sitting there, begging to be changed.
     But today’s reading from Isaiah presents an interesting challenge to our preconceptions about war and peace. Isaiah presents peace, not as a default, but as something that is actively attained. It would seem that war, strife, disagreement – these are the things caused by inactivity. In other words, the “default state” is not peace – it’s conflict. It’s only when we’re actively striving for peace that we achieve it.
     Now, that may be an interesting concept. Maybe you think, “That’s nice food for thought, but I don’t know what I can do about world peace!” And, on the one hand, you’d be right to think that. You’ve got some pastor up here, jabbering on about peace – out of touch with the “real world,” thinking like a preacher, without common sense, and forgetting that he’s just talking to a bunch of regular people, not the people who make decisions about that kind of thing. It’s church talk – something you want your preacher to say, but not something you can really do anything about.
     Well, that may be true; perhaps we can’t really do much. On the other hand, consider this quotation from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Peace, like charity, begins at home.” Roosevelt was talking in 1936 about how the American government should not intervene in the wars of other nations – this was the prevailing attitude of Americans at the time, and kept the country out of World War II for years, for better or worse. However, his quote has greater wisdom to it than just a non-interventionist foreign policy agenda. It’s wisdom that needs to be considered for our daily lives.
     If we believe that God’s peace is something desirable for the planet, how can we expect the world to reflect on a large scale, what we’re unable to do on a small scale? We must be willing and able to invite God’s peace into our own lives, and our interactions with our neighbors. It’s time to realize what God is doing, and reach out to that neighbor we never got along with. Maybe it’s time to, instead of letting ourselves get worked up, actively pray, calm down, and re-approach a problem that vexes us with a new vigor to solve our problems peacefully.
     Advent is a perfect time to embrace this kind of thinking. Days are getting darker, and it gives us more time to think; to pray; to ask questions; to talk. Those are the things that bring peace – calmness, gentleness, even an opportunity to disagree respectfully. And it’s an attitude that keeps us engaged with what God is doing.
     And that’s the why of it all. Peace is not just about world peace, it’s not just about peace between neighbors, and it’s not just about inner peace. It’s all of those things, and they are all desirable, because they’re all a part of God’s vision for the world – the next phase of Creation, the Kingdom of God.
     In this morning’s passage from Isaiah, we see an image of the future presented – an image of a little child leading everyone, of a “peaceable Kingdom,” in which animals that are naturally enemies suddenly get along, in which the social order is drastically uprooted, and in which peace is the governing idea, dictating each thing’s relationship to everything else.
     It’s not just about wolves and lambs coming together, though. It’s about children, who are prone to figuring out how to get along, being the ones in charge. It’s about justice for those who need it, about people who have more in common with beasts and others who seem like prey suddenly being able to get along together.
     This isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky idea, though. This is God’s plan for the earth. Christian theology has long held that we will be raised again from our own deaths, when Christ returns to earth. After we die, we go to heaven – this is something that we all know. Yet heaven, great though it will be, is not the end of God’s plans for us. God intends for Creation to live again, and to live with God’s purposes.
     Our great joy as Christians is that we know that God has accomplished this already. We already know that God is going to do this, because we have seen Jesus raised, and we know that this promise is held steadfastly for all of us, as well. We can live in that reality already, even though it’s not here yet. That’s because we know it’s God’s truth, whether the world is ready for it or not.
     So let us be proactive in bringing about peace. Let us invite peace into our hearts, into our lives, into our homes, and into our world, showing the light of Christ in the darkness, and bringing the world a little closer to God’s plans. Amen.

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

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

Sermon:

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

Sermon:

     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

Sermon:

     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.