Keeping Promises – 2017/07/02

Psalm 86:1-10
Genesis 12:1-9
Genesis 15:1-6

Sermon:

Keeping promises is never easy.  The best advice regarding promises, including the advice the Bible will give you, is this:  you probably shouldn’t make promises, because you really don’t know if you’re going to be able to keep them.  Our own health, our financial situations, a change in relationship status to someone – these are all things that can change our ability to keep promises.  And some promises just aren’t worth keeping.

When I was a senior in high school, I was comparing my track medals with my friend Josh’s dad, Gregg.  Gregg had been a track athlete in high school; he ran the 800 meters, which is the worst race.  Anyway, he had all of his medals and ribbons together in this way that made for a nice presentation, when I spied a ribbon cut in half.  It had clearly said “Third Place,” but only half of each letter was readable, because it had been cut right down the middle.  Being a naturally curious person, I asked, “What on earth is this ribbon for?”

“Promise not to laugh?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“That’s from third grade,” he said.  “At my school, we had a field day.  I was in the beanbag toss, and I tied for third, and they didn’t have extra ribbons, so they cut one in half, and that’s what it’s from.”

Needless to say, I did not keep my promise.  Of course I laughed.  It helps that he’s a funny guy, so he delivered the story in a way that would make me laugh.  Even today, he likes to go around when I’m in town, introducing me to people, saying, “This is David.  He’s a minister, and he can’t even keep a promise.  You promised you wouldn’t laugh at me, and then you did!”

The fact of the matter is, though, most of the promises we hear from God are not quite as silly as stories about third grade.  In fact, they’re the most important stories we’ll ever hear.  They’re the stories that help tell us who we are and help us find our place in the world, so the promises we read about in them matter to us a great deal.

Last week, I let people know that I’m beginning a sermon series that will run us through the month of November.  On almost every Sunday I’m here for the next few months, we’re going to be hearing stories from the Old Testament.  For some of us, these will be familiar stories from Sunday school when we were kids.  For others of us, the Old Testament may be a difficult part of the Bible to understand that we associate with God’s anger.  The truth, though, is that, whether it’s familiar or not, the Old Testament is filled with stories of God’s love.  It’s probably weird to think about, but these are the stories that Jesus grew up hearing when he went to worship.  They are how he located himself in God’s story, and they are helpful for us in that same way.  To truly understand our Christian lives, it is important that we know the Christian story.

So today, we jump into the story of Abraham.  Abraham, in today’s culture, usually gets himself a few magazine covers a year.  This is because in Christianity, in Judaism, and in Islam, all three faiths trace their lineage back to Abraham.  All three faiths express their belief in one God, and all three trace themselves back to this one wandered in the ancient world, who was chosen by God to have descendants as numerous as the stars, as we read in our final reading this morning.  If we think of the more than 2 billion Christians, more than 1 billion Muslims, and about 15 million Jews alive today as Abraham’s descendants, it’s easy to see God living up to that very promise.

That promise surely would’ve seemed out of place at the beginning of Abraham’s story, though.  When the story began, Abraham was already an old man, and his name wasn’t even Abraham; it was Abram.

Abram and his wife Sarai were already old when our passage begins; the primes of their lives had passed them by, and they were childless.  They were nomads, meaning that they wandered from place to place.  They didn’t really have a “home” to speak of, other than wherever it was they happened to be together.  On the one hand that sounds like a cheesy line from a romantic film; in real life, in the desert, it’s a lot harsher.

But God called Abram out of his regular life and asked him to move again.  Abram and Sarai took everything they owned and moved into the promised land, because that’s what God said to do.  They were 75 years old.  And in the midst of their life as 75-year-olds, God was making promises about what was going to happen to their offspring, meaning their children and grandchildren.

Interestingly, at this point in the story, they don’t laugh at the idea outright.  (That part actually comes at a later date, so keep it in mind for my sermon in two weeks.)  They just pack up and get going.  There’s something really admirable in that, isn’t there?  To be so sure of what God is doing that you’re willing to just do it, no second thoughts, no regrets.  You know that God’s promises are kept, so you get moving.

And then we read, in chapter 15, that the story continued a couple of years later.  God speaks to Abram again.  Abram had grown very rich, but worked with his father-in-law.  They have a falling out, and they separate.  Abram’s father-in-law, Lot, took his herds to the east, and Abram took his to the west, and they didn’t speak.  Then there were wars, and nations battling.  And all the while, Abram did not see the offspring God had promised.  Promises, like I said, are hard.  But they’re not just hard as the one who makes the promise; they’re hard for the person who is supposed to receive the promise.  There’s doubt, there’s unsureness.  There’s that feeling that you’re counting on something to happen because of a promise, but it hasn’t come yet.

The thing is, brothers and sisters, I told you the end of the story before the beginning in this sermon this morning.  There are three faiths that trace their roots back to this man who wandered the desert with his wife.  In their 80s, in their late 90s, and they couldn’t see it.  But from where we sit today, it seems to have all worked out just the way it was promised.  Often, that tends to be the case for us – time and distance give us perspective.

We live in a culture that tells us that, once we have reached a certain age, we’re done contributing.  Yet, at an old age, Abram and Sarai were still to undergo parenthood, still to have their names changed, were still to utterly change the world.  We live in a culture that tells us that it’s foolish to trust in something we can’t see, yet today’s story tells us about how God’s faithfulness doesn’t always match up with our timing.  We live in a culture that tells us to put ourselves first, yet we read a story about people who are willing to uproot their lives in order to follow after what God wants, and they change the course of history.  They find their fulfillment, not through becoming rich, though Abram did; not through finding love, though they had each other; not through having children, though they managed that in miraculous fashion, too.  Their fulfillment, their joy, came from finding God in their lives and going where God was leading.

We are told each and every day, both openly and subtly, that each of us needs to look out for the person in the mirror first.  The problem is, the world is a lot bigger than just that person you see looking back at you from above the sink each day.  Our story this morning is about courage, it’s about self-sacrifice, and it’s about God’s gameplan being a lot bigger than ours.

Over and over again in Scripture, we see God pick the unlikeliest to do a task.  Sometimes it’s because they’re too old, as in today’s story, or sometimes it’s because they’re too young.  Sometimes, the rich are unlikely, and sometimes the poor.  Sometimes it’s the sick, or the children, or the women, or the carpenter’s son.

But what we come to realize when we’ve read the whole story of Scripture is this:  everyone who’s served God is unlikely, because there’s no such thing as the “likely” person.  No one is perfect in the eyes of the world; certainly not perfect enough to carry God’s message.  But God doesn’t allow that to stand in the way of getting things done on earth.  God loves us far too much to allow little things like our flaws to stand in the way of the things God wants to accomplish.

Each and every person here today is filled with flaws; yet each and every person here today is called by God to live for a purpose.  We are meant to be kind to one another.  We are meant to be forgiving, even when we don’t feel forgiven.  We are meant to help those who need it.  We are, in short, called to live as Jesus lived.  We are called to live the life that Abram and Sarai lived, wherein we put our desires in back of God’s desires for us.

In today’s reading, we’re asked to step inside Abram’s and Sarai’s story.  We’re not just asked to see what surface similarities we see.  In putting ourselves in the story, we can’t just ask if we’re the same age or marital status, or if we live in the desert, too.  Rather, ask yourself this:  what do I let stand in the way of being who God is calling me to be?  When do I listen to what the world says about me, instead of listening to what God says about me?  What would I do, who would I be, what would my life look like, if I had the courage that Abram and Sarai showed so long ago when they decided to put God first?  I don’t have answers for you today, beloved.  Those are between you and God.  But I know that, in asking the questions, we sometimes reveal what God is doing, without it even being something that we knew.  So may God answer your questions; may you have the courage to walk the desert ways God is leading you through; and may you find the fulfillment of those who seek after God.  Amen.

Creative Trinity – 2017/06/25

Psalm 46
Matthew 28:16-20
Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Sermon:

Let’s start with a confession:  today is not actually Trinity Sunday.  Trinity Sunday was two weeks ago, but I wanted to be sure to talk about the youth trip that day, and then last Sunday was the reunion service at the school, so I moved Trinity Sunday to today.

I really like Trinity Sunday.  It’s one of only three church holidays that recognizes something that isn’t an event in the New Testament.  Most of the special Sundays in the church year are events in Jesus’ life:  Christmas, Transfiguration, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, etc., etc.  And even Pentecost, which is after the life of Jesus, is recorded in the Book of Acts.

But only All Saints’ Day, Reformation Sunday, and Trinity Sunday recognize something that’s not a specific event in the Bible.  All Saints’ Day is about honoring those who have died, which is a very important function of the church.  Reformation Sunday, for Protestant churches, is a recognition of our particular heritage and when and where it came to be, so it’s still rooted in history.

Trinity Sunday, though, is completely different.  Trinity Sunday is a day that’s all about exploring the mystery of God.  It’s a day that’s about learning, rather than a day that’s about remembering.  So in honor of that fact, it makes sense to me that, even though we missed the date when most of the Christian world was celebrating this day, we would remember it anyway.

And by the same token, I’ve decided to do something else this summer.  Last year, in the summer, I got in a bit of a rut and wound up preaching the New Testament every week.  In fact, I went over a year with nothing but New Testament sermons.  This year, I decided that I would just bite the bullet and plan out half the year with Old Testament texts.

So for the next few months, with just a tiny number of exceptions (mostly for church holidays), I’m going to be preaching on texts from the Old Testament.  I’m doing them in order, so that we can really see the story of God’s relationship with humanity in the Old Testament unfold over the coming months.  And where do we start, other than at the beginning?

So this morning, we have opportunity of both educating ourselves about the Trinity, and being introduced to the Old Testament through the story of creation.  Let us begin with creation.

In English, we use the word “creative” to describe people who have artistic ability, or who are outside-the-box thinkers.  Creative people are people who seem to create something when there is nothing.  That is the definition of Creation, , from a Christian perspective – the making of something out of nothing.  Therefore, the story of Creation is the moment when God decided, “There will be something, rather than nothing.”  And then there was, and it was good.

In Christian theology, we often talk about the idea that human beings can never truly “create,” at least not as God did.  When we build a new invention, or paint a painting, solve a problem, or sing a song, we are merely taking the things in our environment around us and manipulating them to make something different.  We have never actually taken “nothing” and turned it into “something.”

True creation merits a kind of outside-the-box thinking that isn’t even possible for our limited human minds.  While we may think of certain people we meet as being creative, and while they may indeed be blessed with ways of thinking that are beyond most people, there is yet to be a person who could create rather than manipulate.

That’s the most important part of the Christian story of Creation.  God loved, and thus created something where nothing had stood.  God’s love was too great for mere solitude on God’s part.  God needed to share with others.

“Aha!” you may say, if you were paying close attention during our Scripture reading today, or just if you have a working knowledge of the Trinity.  “But God wasn’t alone!”  And yes, there would be some validity to that claim.  Because you see, the Creation story is really the very first time we encounter Trinitarian language in the Bible.  Now, whether this language was intended or not on the part of the author of Genesis is immaterial; the point is that the Trinity is first seen represented here.

The first three verses of Genesis read like this:  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”

I emphasized three words or phrases.  The first was, of course, “God.”  In Christian churches, we must admit the fact that the word “God” stands for two things.  “God” is what we often call “God the Father,” for short.  But we also use the word “God” to mean the entire Trinity.  In this case, let us entertain the idea that it means both of those things.  Bear with me.

The next idea is that of a “wind from God.”  You may or may not know this, but the word for “wind” in Hebrew can mean “breath,” as well as “spirit.”  Add in the fact that Hebrew pronouns and English ones do not have 100% agreement, and an equally likely translation of this phrase is “Spirit of God,” rather than “wind from God.”  Then finally, we hear God speak, and God says, “Let there be light.”

If we remember, the New Testament has its own version of the Creation in the Gospel of John.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Christ, in this passage, is also called “the Word.”  The fact that God creates through words has led people to the conclusion that Christ, the eternal Word, is also present in the Creation story.

So if we consider that the word “God” can refer to God the Father, that the “wind” or “Spirit” could be the Holy Spirit, and that God’s act of speaking through Word is Christ, we see all three members of the Trinity, present and active in the moment of Creation.

Let me take a step back, because I think it’s important again to name the part of the Trinity.  We believe in God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  This is something we confess every week when we share in the Apostles’ Creed.  It’s something we say in our Baptismal liturgy, as Jesus commanded us to in our passage from Matthew’s Gospel today.  We baptize babies in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  So it is something we feel comfortable believing; it’s not just something some bored monk thought up while he was transcribing things.  It’s from Jesus’ own lips to our ears.  The Trinity is important because Jesus, who is God, has told us that it’s important.

Yet, at the same time, we do not say there are three gods.  There is but one, united as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So a lot of people wonder how it works.  How are there three, and yet only one?  If we have only one, how are there three?  The answer is quite simple:  no one really knows.

I mean, there are a million ideas out there.  St. Patrick – you know, the guy for whose birthday we all pretend to be Irish – used the image of a clover (just a regular, three-leaf one, not a four-leaf one).  He talked about its three leaves, and how it was yet only one clover.  Many pastors have used the analogy from third-grade science class of water, ice, and steam – they are all the same thing, yet they are three distinct forms.  Some pastors might be tempted to draw an analogy of their own lives:  I’m a son, I’m a father, I’m a husband; three distinct roles, yet I’m only one person.  Any or all of these three things might be useful, and every one of them has a load of problems as to why it isn’t the answer.

Remember how I said that, in Christian theology, we don’t really believe that people can “create” something?  Well, imagine the kind of creative mind we would need to have in order to understand the mysteries of God!  Perhaps one day, when we’ve returned to God, we will understand.  But for now, our uncreative minds are forced to wrestle with ideas that are often too complex for us, particularly when it comes to talking about God.

And yet, at the end of the day, we do know God is here, and we know that we experience God in really different ways.  Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the majesty of Creation.  We marvel at how big the universe is – how far away the stars, how beautiful the mountains.  Sometimes, we are taken aback by the closeness of God – how we truly feel our prayers answered, or at least when we know they’ve been heard; how we hear a voice that is somehow not our own compelling us to do something we wouldn’t normally do.  Furthermore, we also know that God lived and walked among us as Jesus Christ, fully human and yet fully God.

So we have a vision of God beyond us – God, who cannot be fathomed.  We know God who walked among us as Jesus Christ.  And we have God, who is nearer than our own skin – God who is inside us.  And to these three parts, we give the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  All real, all God.  Separate and distinct in our experience, but together in purpose.  Together, God is one divine mystery, one direction, one love, one hope.

So on this Trinity Sunday, go forth into the mysteries and wonders of God’s Creation.  Go, knowing that we may leave this building more confused than we entered it; yet go forth knowing that, though the mysteries of God are all-surpassing and impossible to grasp, the same God who is impossible to understand loves you deeply.  Even though it would be easy to think we would mean nothing to God, instead we mean everything.  So go forth as people renewed, perhaps not in understanding, but fed in love, joy, and worship of the Triune God.  Amen.

Homeless – 2017/06/11

Psalm 8
Matthew 25:31-46

Sermon:

In my preaching class in seminary, we learned a lot of different styles of preaching.  You probably don’t think too much about how someone preaches, or even how they speak in public, but there’s a subtle amount of art to it.  My favorite style of sermon is something called the “Puritan Plain Style.”  This style is named for the way the Puritans used to preach – they would look at the text, and more or less the text only.  Then expound on that.  Yes, they would talk about the other words surrounding the particular passage they read, maybe talk about the context in which it was written, maybe tie it in to modern events, if appropriate.  But first and foremost was talking about the thing in front of them on the page.

That tends to be how I preach each Sunday.  I think about the text for the given week, and I try to do my best to explain it and deliver a message that works for people now.  I doubt that I succeed as often as I should, but that’s the way I’m most comfortable preaching.  Honestly, I usually try to start with a funny story or with something from outside the text – like I’m doing right now – as a kind of warm-up.  It’s like stretching my preaching muscles so they’re ready for the big show, when I can talk about what we’ve read.

Well, I’m not really going to do that today.  In fact, I’m going to go the opposite route.  I’m not too worried about our text for today, because ultimately, it’s a text about how we serve Jesus.  And this week, I don’t want to talk about service to Jesus in a vague way, but I want to talk specifically about how proud I am of the youth of our church, and how glad I am to have spent some time serving Jesus in real, honest ways that can help show us how we’re supposed to be, not just on mission trips like the one we took, but literally every day.

As you saw in the slide show our kids made, we did a lot in really just two days of service in Denver.  Consider how we spent these six days we were gone.  Adding up the time, we spent nearly a day-and-a-half just in the van (including all the driving in Denver), spent another nearly two days sleeping.  The rest of the time was spent in sightseeing, in fellowship, and in mission.  And the missions were glorious.

We had a chance to play bingo at the senior center, and anyone who has been to our 3F nights knows what bingo pros the kids from our church are.  We spent time sorting clothes for a free store.  And not only did we sort them, we sorted nearly three times as much as we were expected to – that’s good South Dakota work ethic those Rocky Mountain folk weren’t prepared for!  We served meals, similar to The Banquet.  We did all sorts of things.  But perhaps most interesting was a little project called “Meet a Need.”

We have to first understand that the main theme of this week was homelessness.  We learned about homelessness in Denver.  We learned that the average age of a homeless person in the United States is nine years old.  So almost everyone here today is “old” by the standard of homelessness.  About 2/3 of homeless people are part of a family, over one-third work full-time.  The causes of homelessness in America are various – high medical bills, wages incompatible with costs of living, debt, disability, mental illness, poor reintegration from prison, and many other causes.  But, however people became homeless, we were asked to go out and meet them.

So, in this “Meet a Need” project, we split into two groups, and each group was given $8 by the organization to help a homeless person meet a need.  As it turned out, neither group was able to spend its $8, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was to go out and talk to the homeless on the streets of Denver – to hear their stories, to make eye contact with them, to laugh with them, to understand how they became who they are.  And we heard varieties of different stories.

One faction of our group got sworn at by one woman because she hates the church; other times, we were greeted enthusiastically because we were from the church.  We got to meet people up close and see and touch and smell them.  That’s important.

In fact, perhaps the most important part of this weekend was a reminder of something we learn at the very beginning of the Bible, something that perhaps we all need reminding of every once in a while.  We are all created in the image of God.  Everyone, period.  No exceptions.  That means that the person you hate most is created in that image, as are you.  Trust me, a bunch of teenagers and I just spent six days and five nights with one another in close, hot, bumpy quarters – there were things that every single person in our group did that drove the others absolutely batty, and you’d have to be a little bit unhinged not to be.  And yet, at the end of the day, we had to try to remember that we were gathered in Denver to serve Jesus and his purposes, not our own.

That meant going out and finding those the world had dispossessed, and making the simple claim that Jesus’ entire earthly ministry was based on – giving humanity to everyone.  When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s Gospel, he was breaking two taboos – mixing with a woman as a man, and talking to a Samaritan, an ethnic group with which the Jews were in conflict.  Yet, he treated her as a person.  In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus gives us an imaginary story that doubles-down on that idea.  When Jesus called the little children to gather around his feet even though the adults wanted them shunned, he was reminding people that children are God’s, too, and that they also carry God’s image.  Every leper he touched, every blind person he healed, every dead body he rose, every Roman soldier he talked to – Jesus was reminding people that people are people, and people are God’s.

It’s probably good to remember here that Jesus himself didn’t have a home, that we know of.  He traveled from place to place, a vagabond, relying on others for housing, stopping wherever his feet took him.  He certainly wasn’t “respectable” as we would think of someone today, and probably had a lot more in common with the people on Colfax Ave., also known as the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” where we met people forced into the streets.  Jesus’ job, as you can probably guess, didn’t pay particularly well.  Yet, to dismiss Jesus because of his housing status would be to make a tremendous mistake.  So when we dismiss another person for the same reason, we commit the same sin.

The Christian life is one of humility.  We recognize that we don’t get to choose who deserves mercy, because, as it turns out, we probably don’t – yet God offers it to us, anyway.  And every day, we should fall down on our knees and thank the Good Lord that we have something for which we’re so undeserving.  How can we, so unworthy, do any less for our brothers and sisters who have, perhaps, not been treated so well?  We all make mistakes.  For some of us, those mistakes wash away like rain down a windshield.  For others, the mistakes they’ve made are things that ruin their lives.

I’m not trying to make it sound as if every single person’s mistakes are all equal – they’re not.  Murder is not the same as forgetting to send a gift to your mom for Mother’s Day.  But more often than not, if we think hard enough about it, that pregnant teen we’ve seen could’ve been us or someone we love; that homeless person we look down on for not managing their money might’ve just been the unlucky “last hired, first fired,” when we were the second-to-last one and got to keep the job.  Life doesn’t treat us all the same, and that’s just how things are.  But Jesus taught us some really interesting things about how to treat people, and frankly, I think his teachings ought to mean a lot more to us than whatever we’ve been brought up with about dealing with “those people.”  And his teachings affirm the goodness and the image of God, even in those people society doesn’t love.

When Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, he doesn’t state, “But only the ones who tried their hardest;” when Jesus tells us to give drink to the thirsty, he doesn’t say, “But only the ones who never made a bad choice;” when Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger, he doesn’t add, “But only if their immigration status is what you think it should be;” when Jesus tells us to clothe the naked, he doesn’t opine, “But only if they don’t own a cell phone;” when Jesus tells us to care for the sick, he doesn’t point out, “But only if you’re not afraid of getting a little sick yourself; when Jesus tells us to visit the prisoners, he doesn’t counter with, “But only if they’re innocent.”  Feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner.  These are commands simple in their grammar, simple in their ideas, and deeply, terrifyingly difficult in their execution, but that doesn’t mean we get an out.  We are asked to do these things, because that’s how we serve, love, and honor Jesus.

Jesus says that how we treat the lowest rung of society is how we treat Jesus; so how we treat the people with the least is how we are treating God.  It’s our job as Christians to remember that, when we see someone, whether they’ve made the choices we would’ve made or not, whether they look or dress or even smell like we think they should or not, it’s not our job to judge.  It’s our job to look them in the eye, to remember that they’re human, and to celebrate our humanity together.  We worship God on Sunday mornings, yes; but we also worship when we serve others.  So let us continue to gather on Sunday mornings and sing songs and pray prayers.  But when we walk out the door, let’s let our words to others be our songs, and let our actions be our prayers.  When we meet those whom the world has denied, let us remember to see the face, not just of ourselves or our neighbors, but the very face of Jesus.  Amen.

Pentecost – 2017/06/04

Psalm 104:24-30
John 7:37-39
Acts 2:1-24

Sermon:

I know it’s a half-year away and that this is hardly the time to bring it up, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to take just a minute today to talk about that weird phenomenon that is “family Christmas.”

We all have an idea of what Christmas with our family is supposed to look like, right?  We have our traditions, whether it’s gathering at a specific person’s house, or what we eat, or what we do.  Every aspect of our celebrations is designed to be something warm and fuzzy and familiar.  So maybe you’ve not thought too much about this, but you know, those traditions change, and have to.

When I was young, I would gather with my parents and my cousins and their parents all at my dad’s parents’ house.  This was simply what happened.  There wasn’t planning, there wasn’t any question – that just how Christmas was done.  Of course, we don’t do that anymore.  My dad’s parents have died, and those who were the grandkids have become the parents, and those who were the parents have become the grandparents, and people have moved all over.  So a necessary shift happens, and we move away from seeing the same people all the time.

And of course, families grow and change as people get married and have kids.  And traditions change with those changing families.  It’s perfectly natural that those things happen, and it’s good that we respond to the circumstances with which we’re presented.  I know that my family traditions around Christmas are different now that I’m not the youngest generation; same with Carissa; and both of us have different traditions since we became a couple and began celebrating with one another’s families.

The day of Pentecost is such a day in the church – a day whose meaning and mode of celebration have changed over time.  In Judaism, Pentecost is a holiday that’s celebrated, though it’s known (most of the time) as Shavuot.  Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of the Ten Commandments.  It’s a big deal because, while God is present in the Old Testament before that moment, if you think about it, there was nothing permanent, nothing codified, nothing written down.  There was no one thing you could point to and say, “THIS is what God is saying to us.”  Instead, there were individual instances of what God was doing, but followers had to pray hard and hope they heard a clear answer.  They had to meet people with spiritual gifts who had a special relationship with God, and follow those individual people.  But the giving of the Ten Commandments made a fundamental change in how Judaism operated.

So it makes sense, then, given how important that moment is in the Jewish faith, that Jesus’ disciples were in Jerusalem for that holiday, and so were Jews from around the world – or at least the world as they knew it, which (since you probably didn’t recognize most of the place-names in our passage this morning) was mostly southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.  Still, there were people in Jerusalem for this particular celebration of Pentecost from all those areas.

So, given the holiday crowd, the disciples decide that this is a great opportunity to reach people.  They have an audience of religious believers, so why not use it?  So they begin to speak. And as they speak, the Holy Spirit comes like a violent wind – something anyone from out here on the prairie can understand – and it looked or felt like tongues made of fire were resting on each of them.  God performed a miracle that day, not in this showiness, but in that, when they spoke, people understood, no matter where they came from.

Most people, in reminiscing about this passage, will think of it as the disciples spontaneously being given the ability to speak new languages.  But a close examination of the text reveals the hidden truth – “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” they ask.  They were listening to the same speaker, yet understanding in different languages!  So God was somehow giving them the ability to speak in some sort of universal language, that anyone could understand.  The miracle was placed on the ears of the hearers, as much as the tongues of the speakers.

So we have a holiday that was celebrated because God chose to be revealed to followers through words; Pentecost shares proudly in that tradition.  Only this time, the words being shared are no words about how we are supposed to conduct ourselves; this time, they are words that bring a message of Good News.

Now, on some level, that’s an assumption, because we never see exactly what the disciples themselves were saying during this portion of the story.  It’s an interesting detail to be omitted, but it’s definitely not there.  Fortunately, we do have Peter’s summary of what they said from the end of our reading today:  “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”  In other words, when Peter needs to summarize what the disciples were saying about Jesus to all these travelers from all over the world, his go-to message is this:  God is stronger than death.  Even the ending that ends all endings is not the end of God’s love and power in Jesus.

That’s the message of Pentecost.  It’s a special day in the church year for a lot of reasons.  It’s really the first action taken by the disciples after Jesus has gone up to heaven, so it sort of serves as the “birthday” for the whole church.  But more important than that, Pentecost is a day on which the Gospel message of Jesus who came, lived, died, and was raised for us and for our salvation was first preached without Jesus even being around.  It’s the message we’re all asked to live out and to share with others.

But one of the coolest consequences we see in this passage is not just the core of the Gospel.  But we see that God chooses this moment, the Pentecost moment, to teach us about things that divide as opposed to things that unite.  Peter’s message focuses on the death of Jesus not having the final say.  Death is the greatest separation of all, and yet it is nothing to God.  But on a more practical level, in our everyday lives, we don’t talk to the dead.  But on the other hand, we may talk to people who don’t speak the same language we do, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in more serious ones.  “Anymore,” “lunch,” and “dinner” are all words I had to re-learn coming to Marion, because I use every one of those words differently than most of the people around here do, and I’ve been speaking English my whole life!  But in this passage, God shows us that language, the fundamental way we communicate, is not a barrier to God’s acceptance of us or ability to desire to be with us.

The human divisions that separate us include many things, like race, country of origin, and language.  And in this one passage, God shows us that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for anyone and everyone.  It’s not limited to just a specific group of people who are given the truth while it’s hidden from everyone else.  Jesus is for everyone.  This message stretches out to be people who aren’t even from Jerusalem, but they get to hear the message anyway.

In just a couple of hours, some of our youth, along with a couple of us adults, are going to leave for Denver.  Our kids are going to have chances to meet people who have, on the surface, nothing in common with them, at least on the surface.  Sure, they will share a language, but maybe not all of them will.  They definitely won’t share economic situation, they won’t share the type of place they live.  They won’t share a background, or life experiences, or any number of other facets of human life.  In short, they’ll have come from vastly different circumstances.  But at the end of the day, there are people in Denver who need a hand of help to reach out and serve them, and our kids are going to get the chance to be that helping hand.  They have the chance to live the message of Jesus for a couple of days.  For this one week, they can be the church of Pentecost.

The truth is, we adults need to take just as much responsibility as the youth are taking this week in their trip, and we need to do it every day.  We need to be sure that the differences we put between ourselves are not things that divide, but things we’re willing to work through.  We have to let the love of God cross every boundary.  We have to let God’s faithfulness be the thing that reaches out to us, not rely on our fallen human condition to be what we’re supposed to be.  After all, we’re reminded in this passage that Jesus shows us that not even death itself is enough to keep God away from us.

We’re going to meet a lot of different people in our lives.  They’re going to be people with whom we agree and disagree, people with whom we share a lot or nothing at all, people with whom we’re able to speak and those we aren’t.  But when we meet those with whom we have these differences, our job as Christians is not to try to beat them into submission, or to shame them, or to try to make them just like us.  Our job as Christians is to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ and tell the world of his love.

We do that when we take care of people who need help.  Jesus tells us that, whatever we do to the people at the bottom of the social ladder is what we do to him.  And at the same time, we’re asked that this not be a secret, but that we are out and open and proud of the fact that we worship Christ  It’s a worthwhile goal to shoot for.  We attempt to be disciples, not by being perfect, not by being the only ones with some special knowledge of Jesus, but by being people who strive to know him better, to hear and share his word, and to love our neighbors.

Sometimes, we may miss the mark.  But the lesson of Pentecost is this:  with God’s help, we can get past any boundary that we as humans create between ourselves and other children of God.  So let us remember that, and let us share in the love of God, in word and in deed, in Marion, in Denver, and all over the world.  Amen.

Understanding – 2017/05/28

Psalm 68:32-35
John 17:1-11
Acts 1:6-14

Sermon

Truly understanding someone or something is probably the most difficult thing we can ever do.  To truly understand someone, we need to know not only what they’re saying or doing, but where they’re coming from.  We need to know basically all the background that led them to this moment, right now, in order to get what they mean.

I can’t tell you how many disagreements with my friends over the years stemmed from the fact that, at the end of the day, we just didn’t understand one another.  Either they were approaching an argument from a completely different perspective, or their life experience and mine were totally different, or we just focused on different things.

I remember one conversation when I was 14 or 15.  When I was in school, a lot of other kids came to me for advice, so I would give it to them, and because they were also teenagers, they’d never listen.  But that’s beside the point.  I remember one girl talking to me about how she and her parents absolutely did not get along, and how she didn’t know what they wanted from her, and how she didn’t trust them to even do what was best for her.

I sat there and argued up and down that, even though she and her parents didn’t see eye-to-eye, they loved her and would love her no matter what – I mean, they were her parents, after all.  To me, that settled the issue.  I would imagine myself as a parent, and knew that I would sometimes have to say and/or do things that my own child would disagree with, and I felt sympathy for this girl’s parents.  Now, being a parent, I know that I was right that we sometimes do things our kids can’t understand, just because they need it, whether they know that or not.  It’s part of the job of being a parent.

And I thought this was a pretty wise answer for a teenager.  And on some level, it was.  I had parents, I knew a lot of other kids’ parents.  I knew how parents acted.  But… did I really?  See, I’ve regretted that conversation for a long, long time, because what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that I was speaking out of my experience.  I believed that parents were trustworthy because my parents were trustworthy.  I believed that parents were always going to try to do the right thing, because my parents always tried to do the right thing.  As I got a little more world-wise, it finally occurred to me that it was possible that this girl’s parents really weren’t looking out for her best interest; they might have been abusive, or negligent, or just bad parents.  But those things didn’t even cross my mind, because I had no life experience that would guide me to even think of that conclusion.  So I’ve always wondered if I let that little 14- or 15-year-old girl down, because I didn’t know where she was coming from.  Maybe I was right that it was just parents making a tough choice their teenage daughter couldn’t understand; but maybe I didn’t actually understand what she was saying; maybe she was trying to get a message to me that I just wasn’t getting.  (If you’re waiting for the resolution to this story, there isn’t one – I have no idea to this day what happened; I just know that it’s gnawed at the back of my mind for most of my life.)

Anyway, I’m talking about understanding because that’s something we see in the disciples today.  Today’s passage from Acts revolves around the Ascension.  “Ascension” is a word that means “going up.”  Interestingly, this is not a day that’s talked about all that much in the Christian calendar, and it’s maybe even something you’ve never really thought about.  We all know about the birth at Christmas.  We all know about how Jesus was crucified and died on Good Friday, and we all know how he came back to life on Easter Sunday.  But maybe you’ve never thought about what happened after that.

After resurrecting, Jesus continued in ministry with his disciples, until it was time for him to return to heaven with God.  At that point, Jesus had his “Ascension” which is what we remember today on the final Sunday of the Easter season in the church year.  But before we get to the flashy part about Jesus flying up into the clouds, we have a really interesting exchange between the disciples and Jesus.

They ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Now, there’s a lot to unpack in this question, so I want to give it the time it deserves.  Maybe you didn’t think about that question when I started reading, but it’s really revealing.   Perhaps you’ve heard before about how there were expectations about the Messiah before Jesus was born.  People expected the Messiah to be a King; he would be someone to overthrow the other political powers of the day, and he would help restore Israel to be its own kingdom.

When Jesus showed up, though, things got very confusing.  For those who didn’t believe in Jesus, it was pretty easy not to – I mean, he was none of those things.  But for those who did believe, they believed him to be the Messiah, the Savior, even though he wasn’t any of the things they expected.  He was born in a barn to a poor family.  He was a great teacher and healer, not a military leader.  He preached Good News for all people, including Samaritans and Romans, not just to fellow Jews.  Jesus upended expectations all over the place.

And yet, when it came down to brass tax, there were obviously still some of his followers who never adjusted their expectations as to what the end-game of Jesus’ ministry was about.  They asked if he was finally going to restore the Kingdom of Israel.  Israel as a kingdom had been gone for literally hundreds of years.  The distance between Christopher Columbus and now is about how long it was between the end of the monarchy and when Jesus came along.  These guys weren’t hoping for a return of something they, or anyone they knew, remembered.

Instead, they couldn’t shake this idea that was hung up in their past.  They still believed that part of Jesus’ ministry was going to be restoring a kingdom they never knew.  And, of course, Jesus was all about a kingdom they had never known – but he wasn’t about an earthly kingdom – he was all about the Kingdom of God.  The problem was a lack of understanding.  And Jesus was the solution.

While the disciples hoped for a return to glory days they never knew, Jesus was showing them a brighter future.  Jesus was about revealing the Kingdom of God, because the disciples needed to see that there wasn’t some perfect time in the past that they could harken back to, but rather that the future needed to be written by God’s hand alone.

I’ve said this in a lot of sermons before, but I always have a lot of sympathy for the disciples.  They have a tough job – they’re trying to follow Jesus.  After all, that’s what we’re doing today.  And I think we too easily laugh at their misunderstandings, or we forget how clueless we sometimes are.  I really empathize with the disciples in this passage, though.

How many of us, if we were asked, “When was the best time in history to grow up?” would believe that when we were brought up was the best time?  I would bet it’s most of us.  The people before us had it too hard, the people after us had it too easy.  The generations before were too hardened and not realistic enough; the generations after us are spoiled and don’t understand the value of work like we do.  That’s how people are – we are limited in our viewpoints.

Similarly, the disciples are limited in their viewpoints.  Even though they’ve been exposed to all of the remarkable things Jesus has done, they cling to this particular vision of “the way things should be.”  They can’t help it, just as we can’t, because they’re just regular ol’ human beings, and all people are limited by their experience and by what they’ve seen in this world.

Undoubtedly, these disciples grew up with stories of King David defeating other kings around him and uniting the Jewish people.  They grew up hearing of Solomon’s great wisdom and riches.  So they thought, “Now those were the days.  If only things were like that, everything would be great.”  But that’s not what God saw – God saw a vision for a future disconnected from the past, but as something entirely new.  And Jesus had to explain that.

Just as those disciples 2000 years ago were confused and misguided, we get that way, too sometimes.  We believe that it’s only our vision of what’s right that could possibly be true.  So we fight for what we think is right.  Of course, though, we have to realize that many other people, including other Christians, fight for what they think is right.  Just as the disciples tried even though they didn’t “get it” all the way, that’s what we do, too.  It’s impossible to know exactly what Jesus would have us do in any given situation, but what we strive for as Christians is a closer relationship with him, so that we can better learn from him to do what’s right.

We are sometimes just as confused and misguided as the disciples.  We question Jesus’ wisdom, we question our own hearts, and we get mixed up.  But I think the most important thing to glean from this passage is Jesus’ response.

“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  See, Jesus doesn’t expect us to have all the answers.  In fact, he specifically says that we won’t.  We aren’t going to know exactly what God’s coming kingdom will look like, or when it will come, or who belongs, or who’s been perfectly right.  But that’s because those things don’t matter.  It’s not about being perfect in belief or in practice; it’s about being perfect in love of Christ.  So we make it our goal to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, because we can do that.

After saying this, Jesus goes up to heaven, and the disciples watch.  Suddenly and without warning, two angels appear next to them.  They say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  It’s a brilliant reminder – don’t just stand around waiting for Jesus to return.  Don’t just stare at the clouds hoping Christ is returning to bring the full glory of God’s Kingdom.  Jesus set a task to do in his final words.  We are to be witnesses to Christ.

We witness to Christ in how we treat those who need help, by loving our neighbors, and by loving God.  Jesus doesn’t set us arbitrary tasks, and he also doesn’t ask us to keep our heads in the clouds all the time.  We have work to do.  So whether we know just about everything or just about nothing, whether we’ve got it almost all right or almost all wrong, we have work to do.  Brothers and sisters, let’s love God and love our neighbors, and thereby do the work.  It’s what Jesus asks of us.  Amen.

Claiming Our Faith – 2017/05/21

Psalm 66:8-20
John 14:15-21
Acts 17:22-31

Sermon:

I remember visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington.  It’s very neat.  There are guards, and they’re very fancily-dressed.  They march and march, and protect someone whom they don’t even know.  And it’s not like protecting other graves – this is a place where we don’t know if they have family.  It’s a World War I veteran, but we have no idea who he is, so in a way, he could be anyone.  He stands for everyone by being no one.

And today’s passage from the book of Acts introduces us to a very similar situation.  The book of Acts is the story of the very early church.  It’s about the time after Jesus was crucified, after he was resurrected, even after he returned to heaven.  It’s really about how the very first disciples go about creating the church.

Today’s passage covers a moment when Paul – whom we know from writing much of the New Testament – was in the city of Athens.  Athens had been the capital of the Greek Empire.  When Greece gave way to Rome, the capital moved, but Athens was still a large, powerful city.  And like all large and powerful cities in the ancient world, Athens was the home of many houses of worship.  People would make pilgrimages to Athens just for worship.

Paul was standing at such a place of worship, the Areopagus, also known as Mars Hill.  In Paul’s day, there was a worship site there, and it was dedicated “to an unknown god.”  Now, we have to remember that Roman religion was polytheistic – they believed in many gods.  Unlike our Christian faith which believes only in the one true God, revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Romans believed in many of those gods you’ve probably heard of, like Zeus (called Jupiter in Rome) and Hercules and stuff.

So Athens got to a point in their religious belief that they also thought they should have a way of honoring all the gods by honoring an unknown god, much as we do with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery here in the United States.  Paul found himself there, and chose to deliver the sermon we heard today.

In it, he commends the Athenians for being so religious that they want to honor the divine, even if they’re not sure who exactly that is.  But Paul tells them that, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

In other words, Paul tells them that there is no such thing as an unknown god, because now they can know the one, true God.  And that’s when Paul gives his testimony.  He explains that God created everything, and that human beings were made in God’s image and came to be.  But that we are made in God’s image, and that therefore we can’t make idols or images of God.  God made us, not the other way around.  And Paul finishes out his mini-sermon by saying that a time of judgment is coming, so it is the time to change our hearts and lives and follow after what God is doing.

This morning, brothers and sisters, we have the opportunity to welcome new members into this great faith tradition, summarized so succinctly by Paul 2000 years ago.  This morning, we remember that our God, whom we know, has not only created us, but also claims us and sets us forth for new things.  This morning, we confirm two new young men in the faith.  They become full members of this congregation, with the full rights and responsibilities thereof.  But more important than those rights and responsibilities is the faith itself.

Confirmation is about confirming a faith in our hearts.  It’s about saying “yes” to the promises made at our baptisms, if we were baptized before, as both our young men today were.  Or, it’s about finally saying “yes” to faith and being baptized.  But either way, it’s about making our life Christ’s even more.

There’s a sense in the church that, once someone is confirmed, they “graduate” from church.  There are a lot of parents who fall away from the church, only to come back when they have kids.  They take those kids to church faithfully for a long time, and then when the kids get confirmed, they (both the parents and the kids) fall away.  Because confirmation usually happens in the spring, and because there are cakes and parties, people think of it like graduation – and graduation is interesting to think of this morning, because it’s half right, but it’s half wrong.

I’ve often thought that the best thing we could do is go through confirmation a few times in our lives.  It would always be good to be reminded of our faith story, of our history together, and of the kind of life we promise to lead in Christ.  This morning, two brave young men are making that decision for themselves.  And while that’s a celebration, the similarity it has to graduation is that, when we graduate from school, it’s not like we go straight to retirement.  On the contrary, the work gets harder.  We have to go out into the world and make it.

Similarly, confirmation is a day when we are no longer considered to be “just” the youth who need to be taught.  We become full-blown members, with a faith story all our own and with just as many rights, responsibilities, and privileges as anyone else in the church.  But just like heading into the working world following graduation, the work is far from over.

And that’s where the similarities to graduation end.  Because while graduation means we’re done with school, confirmation doesn’t mean we’re done with church.  It means we’re now the adults here; we’re in charge, too.

But being in charge doesn’t mean that the responsibility of learning is done.  The very best workers, including the very best bosses, are always learning new things.  Likewise, the best Christians are always seeking new information.  We don’t get to confirmation and say, “Now I know everything, so I’m done with God.”  Instead, we seek to continue to deepen our relationship.

Just as a wedding is not the end of a relationship growing deeper, but rather the start, so too is confirmation just the beginning of our walk with Christ, when we now possess greater spiritual maturity and can approach as adults.

So we return to Paul.  He tells the Athenians that they should be worshiping the true God, and not just some made-up, unknown deity.  He gives them the shortest confirmation class I can possibly imagine.  Yet at the end, the people in his hearing are given new information to help their spiritual lives moving forward.

Brothers and sisters, while we see two young men confirmed today, let today be a chance for you yourself, no matter where you are in your walk with Christ, to confirm your faith again.  Today is an opportunity to again say “yes” to following Christ.  In fact, every day is a day of confirmation, because every day is another chance to grow in our relationship to God.  We are here today, not just to recognize these two young men, but also to remember to continue to grow in our own faith.

Each and every day is another chance to have the call of Christ confirmed in your lives.  Be sure to follow the examples of the young men you see here today, and say “yes.”  We have met the one true God in Christ Jesus.  It is our honor to serve Christ, to know him, and to grow in his love.  Amen.

The Way, the Truth, and the Life – 2017/05/14

Psalm 31:1-5
1 Peter 2:1-10
John 14:1-14

Sermon:

Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  It’s a common enough phrase.  Probably so common that we think of it without its original context.  Probably so common that we don’t really think about what it means at all.  It’s one of those phrases that has lost its meaning over time because of how common it has come to be for Christians to hear these words.

But what does it mean to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life?  I think of it like going on a trip.  When you go on a trip, you need to have a road, a mode of transportation, and a destination.  You need all three, or the trip doesn’t work.  To see that, I think we need to look at each of these three things – the Way, the Truth, and the Life – individually.

First is the Way.  Maybe you know this, but before Christianity was called “Christianity,” the followers simply called our faith, “The Way.”  There’s something really neat in that simple name – this is our way – the way – to live, to seek after God.  And Jesus says, “I am the Way.”

When I hear “the way,” I think of back in the olden days of , I don’t know, ten years ago, when you went on a trip, and you got out an actual map.  When you had to have an atlas in your car, not as a backup, but because it was the only thing you could have to help find your way if you got lost.  The very last time my parents and I went on a long road trip, we went to Canada, and that’s how we planned the trip.  That was nine years ago (that’s right, Mom and Dad – it doesn’t seem so long, does it?), but even then it was kind of an “old fashioned” way of doing things.  Today, with GPS built into cars and on phones, we have maps walking around with us almost all the time.  But once upon a time, you really had to decide on the path you were going to take, even before you set out on the journey.

When I hear Jesus say, “I am the Way,” he is telling us that he is the path, he is the road we follow.  We’re supposed to live our lives in him and like him.  We’re supposed to bring healing to those in need of it, we’re supposed to help those in need, we’re supposed to sacrifice out of what we have to provide for others.  That’s what it means to follow along the Way that Christ gives.  And just like making a map and following it, we are meant to follow this path.  Getting to our destination is really, really hard.  Without a map, we aren’t going to get there.  Luckily for us, Jesus provides us with the Way.  And when we stray from it, he’s there to guide us right back onto that highway again.

The second thing Jesus says is, “I am the truth.”  Somehow, in an era when you can’t turn on the television without hearing about “fake news,” hearing someone talk about “the Truth” has a special resonance to us.  We certainly live in a time in which people make their own truth.  And you know, that’s not all bad.  If Thomas Edison hadn’t believed in his own truth, we probably wouldn’t have electric lights, so I’m not one to complain.  On the other hand, we often delude ourselves into thinking that we alone are the ones responsible for everything.  I have a friend who was considering leaving a position in the church, but he was afraid.  He was afraid of leaving because he thought that everything he had worked on would come crumbling down.  I told him, “The church is not yours; it’s God’s.  It’s not all up to you!”

Our own truths can be helpful, and can be necessary.  They can sustain us when the world around us is living a lie.  But sometimes our own truths can fool us into forgetting bigger, more important things than ourselves.  So when Jesus tells us, “I am the truth,” he’s telling us that, whatever we may believe to be true about ourselves, our neighbors, our nation, our world, the most important truth is Jesus himself.  He is the one we can trust, even when we’re not sure what else to trust in the world around us.

To return to the analogy of the road trip:  on the road, you can have all the maps you want, but if you don’t have a good, reliable vehicle to take you where you’re going, you’re in trouble.  Just last week, I talked about walking to Parker.  That is a far walk.  It would take you most of a day to do it.  Imagine if you had no vehicle at all, ever again.  Your world would basically be confined to the five miles surrounding your house, and that’s a big estimate.  And yet, unconfined as we are, we drive to Sioux Falls like it’s nothing.  My family is here, and they came driving 400-some-odd miles in a day.  Jesus never traveled 400 miles in his life.  But you don’t make that journey without a reliable vehicle – something you can trust to deliver you safely, something to fall back on when nothing else around you makes sense.  That’s why Jesus is the Truth – he’s our vehicle to help us get from where we are, to where we’re going.

Finally, we arrive at “the Life.”  How do we describe what life is?  I don’t mean in a medical sense – although even that is increasingly hard to pin down.  Rather, I’m curious what the word “life” means in the context of what it means to have a life.  I think we can all agree that to really make it worth living, it has to have purpose, direction.  We have to be aiming for something.  Jesus is the thing we’re aiming for.  When Jesus says, “I am the Life,” he’s telling us that he’s the goal of this little “road trip” we’ve been talking about.  And the Life we receive in Christ is twofold.

First of all, there’s obviously our lives now.  The goal of our lives is to be a reflection of Jesus’ life; to live as he did.  I don’t mean wearing sandals all the time – that would be a pretty huge mistake in South Dakota.  Rather, I mean that we’re supposed to live a Christ-like life.  But of course, it’s not just our lives today that Jesus is talking about.  It’s also the eternal nature of the life we have from God.  After we are gone, we continue to live, as Christ showed us by resurrecting from the dead.  Even our deaths are not the end of our story, nor of God’s.

So we see in this passage that, if we think of life as a road trip, Jesus is the road we travel, the vehicle we ride in, and the goal of the journey.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  That’s a pretty good way of putting things.  But even after Jesus tells the disciples that, Philip says to him, “Show us the Father.”  Maybe it’s because Philip doesn’t get it; maybe it’s because he’s unsatisfied with Jesus’ description of himself.  We’re not told.  But either way, Philip is still discontented.  So Jesus spells it out even more:  “I am in the Father and the Father is in me. The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.”  Jesus tells us that he is God, and that we can trust in him, because he is the very one on whom we rely for everything.

And if the passage cut off there, it would be a nice and easy sermon.  But I realize that we run into the problem of unanswered prayer at the end of this passage, and even though it doesn’t really jive with the rest of what I’m saying, I don’t want to belittle that or omit it.

“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it,” says Jesus.  Obviously, we’ve all had situations in our lives when we haven’t had prayers answered.  So what do we do with that?  I don’t think there’s an easy answer here.  I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “Have more faith;” I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, “You don’t deserve it.”  Instead, I think the best answer I can give is this:  life is still complicated.  And when all else fails, when prayers remain unanswered, we continue to follow the Way, seek the Truth, and live the Life.  While we may not get exactly what we wanted, we move closer to Christ.  And when we move closer to Christ, we receive the greatest reward of all.  The best way I think I can explain how we should understand this portion of the passage is to continue the analogy of the road trip that I’ve been using throughout this sermon, as I think it gives us a little insight into what Jesus is perhaps saying at the end of today’s reading.

Like any road trip, our journey of faith is going to be fraught with problems.  There will be weather delays, road construction, bad traffic; there will be changes to the itinerary along the way.  There are always things that ensure that our trip doesn’t go exactly as we envisioned it, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  But when we choose a Christian life, when we decide to follow Jesus, we have made a decision to follow the Way, trust in the Truth, and live the Life.  Even when things let us down, we lean on Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Even when our prayers go unanswered, even when what we want is not what we get, we can still trust in the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Because without the road to follow, the vehicle to carry us, and the destination we’re shooting for, we’re simply lost, alone, and wandering.

So even when things are hard, even when we don’t get what we wanted or prayed for, let us keep faith.  Let us continue to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life, because although he may not deliver exactly what we want, he won’t ever let us down.  Amen.

Serenity – 2017/05/07

Psalm 23
John 10:1-10
1 Peter 2:18-25

Sermon:

Do you know the Serenity Prayer?  It’s used in a lot of 12-step programs, and there are a lot of people who have it as decorative art in their homes.  It’s a prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, a well-known pastor, a little over 50 years ago, and it goes like this:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Most people think of this as a prayer that, at its heart, asks God to bring us peace when we can’t change things.  Surely, that’s the first line, and is important.  But just as important is the next line.  It’s a prayer for courage to change the things we can.  And finally, of course, it’s a prayer for the wisdom to know the difference between what we can change, and what we can’t; what we should change, and what we aren’t going to be able to.

A few simple lines, and yet they’ve been inspirational to people for over 50 years.  In a lot of ways, these lines are ripped right from the life of Jesus.  When he saw that there were people with diseases he could heal, he changed that and healed them.  When he saw hungry people, he fed them, changing them.  But when it came time for him to be betrayed and hanged on a cross… well, that was a little more complicated.  He actually prayed for God to take away that fate, but God did not answer.  Jesus had to go through with it, and in that moment, he needed peace – needed serenity.  Jesus needed to be able to face his fate at that moment, because it couldn’t be changed, so he had to have the strength to face it.

Just so you know, before I go any further, just to let you know, I’m going to be doing a fair bit of reading against Scripture this morning.  The Bible is more than a book – it’s a library.  And, like any library, it’s full of diverse opinions, differing perspectives, and alternative understandings.  This morning, I’ve read for you a passage from 1 Peter, and I think Peter gets a lot of it wrong.  So this morning, I’m going to do as charitable of a reading as I can, trying to give Peter credit for what he gets right; but at the same time, we have to acknowledge the weaknesses in his arguments – the holes that he has in what he says.  And I think, as we examine the words that Peter has for us, we need to keep in mind the life of Jesus, as well as the Serenity Prayer with which I started us off this morning, as I think they serve as good guides for how to best understand what Peter is saying.

So, today’s passage from 1 Peter starts off in a bold way.  Peter addresses his audience and says, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”  Huh.  Well, I’ll tell you this much:  it’s a lot easier to tell a slave how to behave if you’re not a slave.  We, as human beings, are very good at telling other people what they should do; we’re less good at listening to people when they tell us what to do.  We think we know what’s best, and that’s how we’re going to act.

He begins by telling people, essentially, “It doesn’t matter if you’re beaten or mistreated, just deal with it.”  Well, I’ll tell you this much:  that’s terrible advice.  If a situation is abusive, or if someone is being bought and sold as property, or if someone is bullying you, you have dignity and don’t have to be in that situation.  No one deserves those things, period.  Regardless of what Peter says in this letter, human beings have inherent dignity, being created in the image of God.  And we shouldn’t treat people in a way that would be inappropriate to treat God.  So Peter is flat-out wrong in this instance, and that’s why I have to read against this text a bit.

We need to talk about the problematic elements of this bit of writing from 1 Peter, because for years, this passage was used to justify slavery.  It was used to convince women and children in abusive households that they just had to deal with the abuse.  But those things aren’t right.  They aren’t ways that we would treat God; therefore, they’re not ways we should treat one another.  So we need to think about how bad some of this passage can be in order to get what good we can out of it.

And while we didn’t start off too well with the whole slavery thing, things don’t really get much better next, particularly if you think about abuse.  Peter immediately transitions from his mention of slavery to the idea of being beaten when you didn’t do anything wrong, and how admirable that is.  Of course, people shouldn’t be beaten.  That’s just common sense.  And when people are being beaten, they should get out of that situation.  So it’s best not to take Peter too literally here.

However, we also have to give Peter a charitable reading.  And while he’s wrong when it comes to how people should be treated in everyday life, he’s not altogether wrong about taking on punishment you don’t deserve, is he?  We’ve all known (or lived) stories of siblings where one gets in trouble and the other gets away with something.  And I’m sure we also know examples of one sibling taking the blame for something they didn’t even do.  I know I’ve seen it happen.  I’ve also seen close friends take the blame for one another to avoid getting someone in trouble with their parents.  It is admirable to endure suffering, particularly if it’s on the behalf of someone else, when you’ve done nothing wrong.  And that’s what Peter is writing to us about.  While he starts by talking about slaves, I think that’s a misapplication of his own theology.  Ultimately, what Peter is talking about is suffering for others.  That’s not necessarily a goal we should shoot for; rather, it helps us put into perspective what Jesus has done for us.

Our goal is not to become a punching bag, either literally or metaphorically.  Rather, our goal is to recognize the suffering of Jesus, and to live out his message.  There’s a fine line between living out the message of Jesus and deliberately taking on punishment, but I think there’s a bit of guidance in this passage.

Peter talks quite a bit about Jesus in this passage.  He mentions the sinlessness of Jesus – that, although we are sinners, Jesus is not.  So Peter holds up Jesus as an example for us.  And that is certainly something for Jesus to be – an example.  Where Peter has it wrong is that we’re just supposed to arbitrarily accept suffering.  That’s not the case; as I’ve mentioned already, that’s not even what Jesus does.  He sees suffering all the time, and is often unwilling to accept it.  He uses the gifts he has to fight against suffering, as we all should.  Living up to his example means that, whenever we can, we fight back against injustice in the world.

We’re not supposed to give in to bullies, just because they want us to.  We’re not supposed to roll over for disease, just because it gets to us.  We’re not supposed to just accept a government if it starts killing its own citizens.  We’re not supposed to allow people to be bought and sold like goods just because Peter says suffering is good.  Yet, this passage has been used to justify all those things throughout history.  It has been misapplied and misused to try to convince people that they don’t deserve basic human dignity; it has been used to affirm the exact opposite of what Jesus teaches us, which is that we’re all God’s beloved children, created in God’s image.

Thus, a more nuanced approach is this:  suffering happens.  We can’t fight everything, so what do we do when we can’t?  This is what the first line of the serenity prayer deals with, and what a generous reading of this passage tells us, too.  We can (and should!) stand up to evil, because that’s the very heart of Jesus’ message.  But sometimes, we can’t.  Sometimes, it’s too big, or we’re too tired.  Sometimes, we take the punishment for someone else.

And in those cases, what Peter says is spot-on.  In those situations, we remember the life of Jesus.  We remember that he fought against all sorts of evil – demons that possessed people, religious authorities who persecuted him, hunger, disease, racism, sexism, ageism, violence.  There are examples of Jesus fighting against every one of those things.  But when the fight came that he couldn’t win, how did he conduct himself?  What can we learn from that?

And in that context, let Peter’s words wash over you again:  “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”

In other words, when we can’t fight back, we maintain our dignity.  We recognize that we are still fearfully and wonderfully made, created in God’s image.  We have to realize that, even when the evil comes that we can’t fight back, we have Christ at our side.  And when he suffered in those circumstances, he bore that weight with love.

Jesus took his last days and made them about spending time with his friends; giving lessons to those who needed them.  Jesus didn’t let his mortality get in the way of living out God’s call.  Instead, he embraced things twice as hard.  As he was dying on the cross, he took that moment of unbelievable agony to forgive someone else, as the criminal on one side asked for forgiveness.  Jesus gave forgiveness to those who had him put to death, because he realized that they did not know what they were doing.

Basically, Jesus didn’t let a little thing like losing a battle get in the way of winning the war, as the cliché goes.  You only lose the battle when you give up on the principles that put you where you’re supposed to be.  In Jesus’ last moments, he embraced them harder than ever.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus suffered for us, so that we’re not asked to suffer.  We inevitably will because the world is still imperfect.  So when we face things, we’re asked to face them as Jesus did:  with courage, finding the good in a bad situation.  We can bring God into places that seem to dark to go.  And in those dark places, Resurrection light is shined.  It can’t take away the pain of things that are broken, but pain can be transformed into a brighter future when we embrace what God is doing.

We are meant to be more than just slaves, we’re meant for more than to accept harsh treatment by a cruel master.  We’re children of God, created in God’s own image.  We, and everyone, should be afforded the same dignity that God deserves.  So let us go out and boldly live like Jesus.  When we suffer, let us do it in a way that causes the world around us to marvel at who we are, and whom we serve.  When we see others suffering, let us lift them up out of it.  And when we cannot help others, let us remain in solidarity with them, knowing that they suffer just as God did when Jesus came to teach us how to live.

So don’t go out looking for suffering.  And don’t let Peter’s poor turn of a phrase be a reason you have to continue to suffer.  But know that when comes the battle that you cannot win, you emerge victorious, not by refusing to accept things that you can’t change.  Rather, you win by embracing your inner Christ-light, and by living the life Jesus calls you to lead.  Amen.

When We Finally “Get It” – 2017/04/30

Psalm 116:12-19
Acts 2:42-47
Luke 24:13-35

Sermon:

Walking is something very important to me.  Most of you know that I walk my dog twice a day.  It’s an important ritual to me.  Of course, nowadays, with schedules being what they are with a baby to pick up and drop off, we don’t walk at quite the same time every day, but we still do it, rain, snow, or bitterest cold.

Carissa and I have always loved walking together, too.  I remember when we went to seminary, we made really good friends with a girl from California.  She said, “You two walk so fast!”  And then, when winter came, one day out of the blue she said, “I get it now – you walk so fast because it’s cold six months out of the year.  I didn’t know that.”  Pshh – Californians.

Walking is also important to me because, believe it or not, Carissa only agreed to go on a date with me in the first place because we went on a walk.  We were at the Relay for Life event at our college, where you broke up into teams and raised money for cancer research.  You walked all night – at least, someone from your team was supposed to.  We had a lot of mutual friends and wound up walking with the same team, but they walked too slowly for our taste, so little by little we separated from the pack.  And we walked and talked for hours, and I somehow conned her into going to a concert with me the next night, and how she’s stuck with me.

So I know from personal experience that a walk can be powerful.  And even if it’s not quite that life-changing all the time, a walk is also something that serves as a good way to clear your head, or to mull something over, or to just get a little bit of exercise.  I’ve come up with good ideas on walks, and I’ve worked through tough emotional things.  I’ve had deep conversations with friends and I’ve enjoyed the silence of nature.

But I think it’s fair to say that, however great some of your or my walks have been in our lives, we’ve never had a walk quite like the one we read about today from Luke’s Gospel.

Of course, today’s story was about two disciples walking down the road, contemplating Jesus and what had happened with him.  When the story begins, it’s still Easter Sunday, the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, and they’re walking about seven miles, from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus.  Basically, they’re walking from Marion to Parker.  Of course, I don’t assume that many of us have done that, but it’s a perfect frame of reference, because it’s just about the right distance.  As you know, if you were to do that, you’d be settling in for a pretty long walk.  Anyway, they’re discussing these things that have happened in the last few days (Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, plus the news of the empty tomb they heard from the women this morning), when a stranger comes up and starts walking with them.  They don’t know him, but they are surprised when he seems not to know about the last few days.  Of course, he actually does, because it’s Jesus; but they don’t know that yet.  So they start to share some of their experiences.

They say some really interesting things that might be worth talking about.  For example, they say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  “Had hoped” is past tense – they did want that to be true, but no longer believe it to be.  That’s probably because, with Jesus dead, they didn’t believe he could possibly be the Messiah.  This is very interesting because it rubs against the modern notion that the most important thing Jesus did was come to die.  Of course, Jesus’ death is important, but the disciples at the time saw that as a negative, not a positive.  We can chalk this up to them being shortsighted, but perhaps their wisdom is insightful; God cannot be the God of the dead only.  That’s not very helpful to those of us alive.  Rather, God must be the God of the living as well.  Seeing the man they “had hoped . . . was the one to redeem Israel” die was a crushing blow to them.

But they’d heard this rumor from the women who, earlier that day, told them that the tomb was empty.  Of course, here again we see the ancient world at work.  One of the interesting things about Judaism and Jesus in particular is how valuable they saw women being.  The wider society in the Roman Empire saw women as useless.  But the Judaism of the time had an abiding respect for women that Jesus made an important part of his message.  Many of his followers were women, as we know, so their contributions and reports were taken seriously.  The Roman culture around them would’ve dismissed the report of the women as unreliable, but in a move that finally shows that some of Jesus’ disciples were actually paying attention to his message, they trust the women.  So some of the disciples, hearing this news, go to the tomb where Jesus was buried to see for themselves, and they find it just as the women had told them – empty.

But at this point in the conversation, Jesus (who, keep in mind, these two disciples still don’t recognize) starts to tell them more about this story than they already knew.  He goes back, back, back in time to tell them, beginning with Moses, how God was leading all of creation up to this moment, when Jesus could come to be exactly what they had hoped he would be, even if they didn’t realize it.  Their hope was lost, but these things that he was saying to them suddenly started to make them look at things with fresh eyes.  But even though their conversation was long, it was not long enough for these two, so they asked Jesus to stay with them.

In that moment, they invite Jesus in with a hospitality that shows, for a second time, that they were finally understanding the lessons of Jesus.  Jesus was all about hospitality.  Remember how he washed the feet of others, even though he was the most special person in the room?  Remember how he called little children to his side?  Remember how he invited women to follow him, even when the wider culture around him wouldn’t have done that?  Jesus was all about embracing everyone who needed it – and these two disciples were getting it.

Now, before we get to the meat of the story, I want to take a brief aside to talk about these two disciples.  One of them was named Cleopas.  This is a disciple, but not one of the famous 12.  He’s just one of the many followers of Jesus.  The other disciple is never named.  Sure, we could speculate on who it is.  But one pastor I listened to this week pointed out how ideal this is for us that this disciple has no name, because it allows us to put ourselves in the story in a way that wouldn’t work otherwise.  So let’s think of this story again; you and Cleopas are walking, talking about Jesus.  Suddenly this man comes and talks even more about Jesus.  You decide to offer him a meal and a place to stay for the night.  And that’s when something remarkable happens.

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight,” is what Luke’s Gospel tells us.  In other words, they finally get it.  The man with them was Jesus the whole time!  They were telling him about himself, which is a little weird.  But he told them about himself, too.  They had the full picture.

Now, there are two lessons to take from this Scripture today, I think.  First of all, we as people today are not likely to have this opportunity to host Jesus.  But let’s remember something else Jesus said.  In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Jesus.  In this passage, the disciples saw a fellow traveler and offered him hospitality.  Let me tell you this; even if that traveler hadn’t been Jesus, they would’ve still seen him, because they offered hospitality to someone who could use it.  They offered to share a meal with someone else who was hungry.  Even though they didn’t have much, they shared because someone else needed.  Whenever we do that, we see Jesus, because that’s what we’re called to do as Christians.

The whole point of our faith is to become more like Jesus, and how can we better honor him than by doing the very things he would’ve done?  Just a few days earlier, Jesus had taught these disciples his “New Commandment” – to love one another as he had loved them.  That’s what they do in this passage; the see someone, and love him.  This is so different from the story we read last week about the 12 who decided to lock themselves in a room because they were afraid.  These disciples actually go out into the world, and live the way Jesus told them to.  They live out the faith that Jesus taught in their actions.

And while that lesson cannot possibly be overstated, I don’t think it’s the only point of this story.  I think the best thing about reading and interpreting Scripture every week as we do in church is that the stories we read are so full of delicious little pieces about God that we could go on forever about them.  But while hospitality to others is at the heart of the Gospel, it’s not the only thing we take from this story.  If this traveler had been a random wanderer and not Jesus, this would’ve been a very, very good interpretation, and probably the only one.  Or perhaps it would’ve been a lesson about how we can learn something from others, even if we feel like we know all there is to know – after all, this traveler sure taught them a lot!

But equally important for us to remember is that the traveler they encounter wasn’t just anyone; he was Jesus.  We can forget that Jesus is by our sides.  And in this season of Easter, the theme that keeps coming up is people at their lowest, trying to figure out who they are and what they’re supposed to do.  And over and over again, what they’re going to find is this:  Jesus is right there with them.

They used the past tense to talk about how they felt about Jesus.  “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  But we know from this story that Jesus isn’t about the past; he’s even moreso about the present and the future.

They didn’t need to lose hope, because Jesus is there beside them.  Likewise, we have hope in Christ.  Did their hope make them immortal, or somehow immune from the ills of the world?  No.  But what it did was give them a way forward.  Christianity is not a religion of easy answers to tricky questions.  In fact, it asks more tricky questions about daily living than it answers.  But what it does do is offer us a way to live, regardless of our circumstances.  We can live with generosity, no matter how much the world smacks us down.  We can live with faith no matter how much the world tries to strip it away.  We can show kindness when all we get is cruelty, we can show justice when we’re cheated, grace when we’re pushed to punish, love when we’re shown hate – hope, when it seems all hope is lost.

We can do these things, not because we’re perfect, not because we’re better than everyone else, not because we’re just supposed to have a “positive attitude.”  We can do them because we have Christ right alongside us.  A positive attitude is a powerful thing – but it’s not always what we need.  Look at the disciples in this story – Cleopas and this other disciple, who could be you or me.  They’re talking about lost hope.  They’re in a serious conversation.  And they don’t lose that; they don’t decide to just pluck up, have a positive attitude, grin and bear it.  No; they tell their story.  But more importantly, they live the way they were taught by their Rabbi, Jesus.  In spite of their hardship, they live into their calling.

And brothers and sisters, that’s exactly what we’re asked to do.  We’re not supposed to just be happy all the time; that’s not what Jesus is asking.  Because the kind of Hope Jesus offers isn’t that each day is perfect.  Instead, the Hope offered in Christ is a light in the darkness.  It doesn’t make the whole world bright all the time, but it gives us a way to navigate, even when everything around us seems to be conspiring against us.  These two disciples show us that, by living as we’re meant to, by embracing the call of Jesus, we find him in our lives.

So, beloved, we’re asked this day to not just walk the road, but to walk it with Jesus at our side.  And we’re asked to help the other travelers we meet, not just because they might have something to teach us, but because they, too, shine with the light of Christ.  And we’re asked to recognize and remember that our Lord and Savior Jesus is about a lot more than just dying; he’s about living.  He is about second chances and ways forward.  He’s about being able to be free, because although we, too, will die one day, we will do so in the Lord, and with the Hope of tomorrow, in the face of the world’s great ending.

Brothers and sisters, the Good News of Jesus is here.  We may have hope, because we are loved.  And the one who loves is sitting next to you today, will be driving behind you tomorrow, will be drinking coffee with you the next day, will be playing on the playground with you the day after that.  Take care of Jesus, just as he takes care of you.  Amen.