Cheeseburgers & Porkchops – 2016/04/24

Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
Acts 11:1-18

SERMON:

     Have you seen the movie Ratatouille? I think about that movie all the time. If you haven’t, it’s an animated movie (trust me, if you don’t know what it is, you’re going to be glad it’s an animated movie once you hear the plot) about a rat name Remy who ends up working with a human boy. The rat is a great chef; the boy got a job at a restaurant, but really can’t cook. So they work together, with the rat controlling the boy, and the restaurant starting to flourish.
     The whole movie is built around this creed: “Anyone can cook.” It’s a simple message, but a powerful one. “Anyone can cook.” It means that there’s no place you can come from, no type of person (or even rat) you can be, that prevents you from being a great cook. Remy is definitely an interesting protagonist in the movie; he’s never quite at home as either a human or a rat, but once he’s able to explore his calling, it’s when he truly shines.
     Of course, this is a particularly apropos topic in light of today’s text from Acts, because it’s all about food, what is and what isn’t clean, and what it means to become who God means us to be. So we begin long before this text from Acts, because, like all stories, this one assumes that you have some amount of background knowledge.
     You may well know that, at the time of the beginning of the book of Acts, the Jesus Movement, known then as “The Way” (as it wouldn’t be known as “Christianity” for many centuries) was made up entirely of Jews. Jesus had Jewish disciples, he lived in Jewish areas, and he spoke almost exclusively to Jews. So everyone who paid attention to and followed him shared some amount of the same culture.
     That culture included many presuppositions, just like ours does. Many things about Jewish culture and law are recorded in the Bible, and can be talked about at any time. But of greatest interest to our passage today are the dietary restrictions in Judaism. You probably all know that Jews don’t eat a number of foods. For example, they don’t eat pig at all (so no ham or bacon), and they don’t eat shellfish (so, sorry if you love lobster). One is not allowed to eat meat and dairy together, so cheeseburgers are out. Even the meat that was allowed (like beef) has to be slaughtered in a certain way in order to be okay to eat. Next time you’re enjoying a porkchop and drinking a glass of milk, or scarfing down some pepperoni pizza, know that you’re violating Jewish dietary laws in two ways, and be glad you’re not Jewish.
     And that’s the thing about the Jewish dietary laws – they always seemed like a big obstacle to overcome when bringing the Good News of Jesus to non-Jews. Many of the early followers of The Way didn’t even want to include non-Jews.
     Some just thought that the Gentiles (the word for non-Jews) were just too different. Their culture was different. After all, they’d have all these dietary laws to learn, right? They’d have to become Jews first, in order to truly understand Christianity. And, after all, how are you going to go into a culture and expect everyone to change their diet overnight? I mean, let’s just be honest; it’s a lot easier to just ignore them, and keep this Jesus stuff in-house.
     But that’s when we encounter Peter in today’s passage, and we see how God interacts with him to change the course of human history.
     In a vision, Peter actually sees a sheet lowered from heaven, representing all the animals of the earth, and he’s told to kill them and eat – all of them, not just the ones Jews have traditionally been allowed to eat. It’s a vivid image, and he actually denies it three times. But that makes sense; after all, his whole life has been based on following those laws. So even if God is the one telling Peter, it’s hard for him (like any of us) to get rid of our lifelong habits. Yet, in the name of doing what God wants him to do, and in order to reach a group of people he might not otherwise be able to connect with, he does the unthinkable.
     Peter actually eats the unclean food.
     But it goes further than that; he eats with unclean people. Just as food could be clean or not, so could people – particularly if they weren’t following certain laws or customs.
     But people all belong to God. As the saying goes, “God don’t make junk.” All people are accepted – and then God shows that Peter’s doing the right thing. The Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles (non-Jews) exactly like happened on the Jews at Pentecost. Peter sees that God is working in their lives, as well. His own prejudices are washed away because he sees that God can work in those people that he thought were beyond God’s reach. Peter’s own ideas about who God should – or even could – be interested in get washed away in this single act.
     But Peter’s rebellion against his own culture goes much further than that – he takes these lessons back with him, and they are taken to heart by the early Christian leaders. You see, Peter doesn’t let this radically transformative experience of Jesus remain something that will only change his personal, individual opinions. Faith, for Peter, isn’t just something that happens in the mind in terms of what you believe. It’s not just about the me-and-my-God personal relationship that has often become the sole matter for many American Christians in today’s world. Rather, faith is the way you live your life. And for Peter, his life now must be lived differently because of this experience of God’s new calling. And that means a new way of life in terms of his personal conduct (in what he eats), the relationships he keeps (with Gentiles as well as with Jews), and the things he believes (both about God and about his neighbors).
     The Good News here is that Jesus legitimately changes lives. Peter could have continued to go about his life exactly as he did before. He could have just said, “Well, that was a weird dream,” and moved on. But he was looking for the ways in which God was speaking to him, and he took those things out into the world with him. His own pride or assuredness of how his whole life would be different couldn’t help but change the core of who he was and what he believed. When Peter let Jesus transform him, his whole world changes. We see that our lives can change, too, when we open ourselves up to what Jesus is asking of us.
     Jesus wants us to be changed. But the good thing is, that change doesn’t rely on us; it relies on him. He is the one who makes everything happen. He is constantly inviting us to see what God is doing, and to be part of it. See, Jesus is not hidden away from us, begging for us to look for him. I had the youth do a scavenger hunt in here at 3F a couple of weeks ago. I asked them to find 10 crosses in the church. They discovered that you could actually find ten crosses just in the sanctuary. But I’m guessing that most of the people in here haven’t ever thought about it. It’s a good analogy for what I’m saying, though: Jesus is right in front of our eyes, begging to be seen, and showing us the way. We just miss him, either because we’re not paying attention, or because we’re so wrapped up in our own, selfish thoughts that we simply don’t give him a chance to be seen – in other words, we often ignore what’s plainly in front of us.
     But once we recognize what Jesus is doing in our lives – once we see where God is taking us – we need to go along with what God is doing. Peter here takes a very, very bold step; he sees that the way things have been done traditionally isn’t going to continue working – not if there are new people to be reached. Not if Jesus’ ministry was meant, not just for Jews, but for Gentiles, as well. And once he came to accept that reality, he saw that it was time to change how things were done. Even though it was uncomfortable, even though it would mean basically changing everything he had been brought up to believe since childhood, the influence of Jesus on his life was so strong that he was able to do change; to become someone different; to see where Christ was calling him to be at that particular moment.
     When things seem hard for us, we need to be willing to go against what our habits and culture might be telling us, we need to listen for what God is saying. This is a scary thing. We all have things that we believe; we have things we’re sure about. But why we’re sure about those things varies a great deal. We can see that some things are because of our parents, and some things are because of our culture – where and when we grew up. The tricky part of that kind of problem is trying to cut through the other influences in our lives to find what Jesus is asking of us.
     Unfortunately, this is not a sermon of easy answers. I wish it were; it’s not. The “easy answer” sermon in here has to do with celebrating how Jesus makes us free to eat cheeseburgers and pile whatever toppings we want on our pizza. But that’s hardly a message of Good News from the Son of God. The message I was struck by instead is this: Jesus cares so much about all of us that he continues to work in and through us, even in this day, even when what we’re hearing is not what we expected to hear, even if the thing Jesus is saying to us pushes against what we assume to be right, rather than with it.
     Like I said, there are no easy answers here, because I don’t know the questions facing you. There are a thousand different things that could be going on in your life, so I don’t know what Jesus wants out of you; I do, however, know that, no matter what else you might think, Jesus is working to change your life right now. He’s calling you into something deeper – a relationship with your neighbors or with him; a change in your personal habits; a different way of treating those around you. Have the courage that Peter had to listen, to go forth convicted that you are right, and may you travel Christ’s path boldly. Amen.

Being the Sheep – 2016/04/17

Psalm 23
Acts 9:36-43
John 10:22-30

Sermon:

When I was young, I remember my mom calling something I said a “left-handed compliment.” I didn’t know what that was, and she described it to me – that it was sort of a compliment, but combined with an insult. I still remember the example she gave me – “For a fat girl, you don’t sweat much.”

I bring up left-handed compliments today because there’s one right at the heart of our readings today. In both Psalm 23 and our Gospel reading from the book of John, we hear talk of a shepherd, and about ourselves as the sheep. I’m going to be honest – it feels like a bit of a left-handed compliment to me.

Sure, there’s the nice stuff. In the 23rd Psalm, for example, there’s all that stuff about the green pastures and the still waters. Those are nice images that make us think of cute, fluffy sheep led about by a kindly shepherd with a staff. He’s sitting on a hill in the sunshine, and we’re munching on grass. It’s a very nice image, and probably the thing we’re supposed to think of when we hear that particular metaphor.

The only problem is, I’ve met sheep before in my life. They are quite smelly, and they’re extremely stupid. While the “God as shepherd” and “Jesus as shepherd” passages we looked at are really nice images for God and what God is doing, it has this very unfortunate reflection on us.

Of course, who are we to complain? Throughout human history, while we’ve often shown a capacity for tremendous love, caring, sacrifice, peace, and goodness to solve our biggest problems. But more often, we’ve seen that the cause of those big problems that need solving in the first place are our hate, indifference, greed, fear, and downright evil. We start to realize that we, as human beings, have been the cause of more problems rather than fewer, and our inability to protect ourselves necessitates us having a shepherd to protect us from the wolves and bears of our own making. Thankfully, we have a good shepherd in Jesus to carry us through. And that’s what today’s passage from John is ultimately about.

So let’s talk about the passage from John. This story takes place in the middle of Jesus’ ministry. He’s been preaching and teaching and healing, just as we all know, and he’s confronted by some of the people who have been following him. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” You know, this seems like a reasonable request to me. I try, in my life, to give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s really hard; and in fact, the harder it seems in a given situation, the harder I try to understand why someone might be doing the thing that I find so mind-boggling.

When I read Scripture, this idea follows me, as well. I try to understand why people say or ask certain things, especially when talking to Jesus. I think we’re all often looking to judge the people who were following Jesus around in those early years, rather than trying to understand them. So I want to look at this question with as little judgment as I can. And in that light, it’s not only a reasonable question – it’s a good and logical question. It’s an extremely proper thing to ask of this man you’ve been following around, listening to, and watching. You’d want to know, so that you’re sure you’ve backed the right horse.

So Jesus replies, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” It’s that “I have told you” part that is interesting. Because I’m not sure Jesus actually means it the way we think. The Gospel of John has certainly had Jesus make some big claims so far -“I am the bread of life;” “I am the light of the world;” “I am the Good Shepherd;” “Before Abraham was, I am.” Jesus says these words that have become famous before this point in the story. Now, I can’t say whether or not the specific people who were asking him were there at those occasions when he said these things, but nonetheless, perhaps Jesus was assuming that these things got around. Perhaps it was just that these people asking him wanted, not a metaphor about who he is, but direct speech. Either way, it seems like there’s some sort of miscommunication going on here.

Now, I’d ask that we delve a little deeper into the circumstances of this particular story. First of all, did you know that this story is taking place during Hanukkah? We’re programmed (and taught) to think of Hanukkah as “Jewish Christmas,” (if we’ve heard of it at all) which it sort of is, given that people give presents to one another at that time. But really, Hanukkah is a remembrance of when the Jewish people rededicated the Temple after the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes ordered that an altar to Zeus be put in the Temple, as well as other desecrations. The Jews eventually fought off the Greeks, and celebrate Hanukkah to remember when the Temple was rightfully returned to worship of God. The story we read today was almost exactly 200 years after this Temple rededication.

That’s the celebration that brings Jesus to Jerusalem in this passage. People are excited, they’re remembering the goodness of the God they worship and how joyful it is for that worship rightly in the Temple. They’re remembering the political nature of their faith. And in those remembrances, they’re seeing someone they think might be the Messiah, so they ask him. They’re hoping that he’ll be a political figure. That just as the yoke of Greece was thrown off 200 years before, so too the Roman yoke would be thrown off by Jesus now.

What they’re not expecting is to be chastised for not having listened to Jesus already; they’re not expecting to hear Jesus’ biggest claim – “I and the Father are one.”

It’s been said many times that the believers of Jesus’ day were expecting a political messiah – they weren’t necessarily expecting someone who was going to be so spiritual, nor were they expecting someone who was going to be so (relatively) uninvolved in the politics of the day. They were expecting an overthrow of their oppressors right in the moment.

Jesus upends those expectations by showing people that they do have freedom from the oppressive political systems of their day, but only if they embrace what God is already doing. Obviously, Jesus believes that people have the right to live without oppression. But when there is oppression, Jesus shows them that there is a way to live outside of it, while still living in it. And to bolster his claims and to show that he should be listened to, he says, “I and the Father are one.”

Now THIS is a doozy of a claim. Christians today, we don’t have a problem with it. But again, put yourself in the perspective of one of these early hearers of Christ. They’ve been asking about him being the Messiah – but to them, the Messiah is going to be a very political, very human figure. They’re not expecting God in human flesh to be standing among them. So when Jesus says that, it’s fair to say that maybe it doesn’t compute right away.

But the interesting thing this does is that it answers their question with a pretty impressive amount of finality. Remember, these people following Jesus around asked, once and for all, for an answer about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. Well, the answer can’t get much clearer than “I and the Father are one.”

But here’s the thing for us as followers of Jesus. The key line is back a little way. We all buy into the idea that Jesus and God the Father are one. That’s why we’re here. The thing is, earlier in the passage, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” What we need to know is, are we truly Jesus’ sheep? Do we truly hear his voice? Do we follow him?

It’s really easy to tell ourselves that we do. But when we hear this passage, we are encouraged to truly examine our lives and ask ourselves if we are really the sheep that listen to the voice of the shepherd, or if we are merely the sheep that wander off, aware of who our shepherd is, but following after our own desires. It’s easier to be that second kind of sheep. It’s what real sheep are like. But we’re called to a different standard.

We’re asked to remember that the Lord is our shepherd; that we shouldn’t be wanting after things we don’t have and don’t need; that the Lord is the one who makes us able to rest and be secure; that we are refreshed and restored only through our relationship with God.

And when we need to walk into death’s dark valley, we need not fear, because we know that Jesus, who is one with the Father, has been there before us, and that he will strengthen and comfort us, even in darkest places.

He is with us, and we are his. So we don’t need to wander off in pursuit of our own desires; rather, we need to listen for his voice and follow him. Let us not be like actual sheep, too stupid to know what’s in our best interest. Let us be the children of God we know we are, seeking after the goodness to which we are called, following after the voice of our shepherd. Amen.

Flip-flopping – 2016/04/10

Psalm 30:4-12
John 21:1-19
Acts 9:1-20

Sermon

     Pretend for a moment that you’re a politician. It’s probably not that hard to imagine yourself as a political figure at this time, since we’re surrounded by politics and its pull all the time. But imagine with me that you’re running for office. Your run for office can survive a great many things, including scandals. Every campaign has them; every campaign has its moments when it looks ill-advised and the candidate looks suspect. And while there are many things from your personal life that could sink your candidacy, there’s really only one political position you could hold that would absolutely and without question sink you – it’s a charge, and if it proves true, you’re sunk. It’s the charge of being a flip-flopper.
     If I were to bet, I would guess that every single person here has changed their mind about something important in their lives – a political position, a religious idea, how we feel about a person or group of people, what we think of a certain place. There’s something in your life you used to feel strongly about that you now feel the opposite way about. For some odd reason, though, we expect our politicians to have always held the same positions on what they believe, 100%, without any grace to understand that they are human and may have had new information that caused them to change their mind – even though we don’t hold ourselves to that same standard.
     Now, admittedly, if you change positions too often, or on too many issues, it’s understandable that the charge of flip-flopping is about you being an unreliable person. You can’t trust someone who’s totally inconsistent. But to feel differently about an issue – changing our minds – is a totally normal part of life.
     Now imagine again that you’re a political figure, and that you’ve flip-flopped. Only, you haven’t just flip-flopped on an issue – you’ve flip-flopped on whatever you used to base your entire campaign on. For example, perhaps you ran on a low-tax platform, and then you become a socialist; or maybe you ran on a pacifist platform, but then you decide to enlist and you become extremely pro-military.
     How can you be trusted? Your old group can’t trust you, because you’ve abandoned them. Your new group may be wary of you, too, because you certainly used to enjoy making fun of them and their positions, and poking holes in their arguments. You have nowhere you can call home, and no one trusts you.
     Well, friends, that’s what we face in Acts today. Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, used to be a man named Saul. As Saul, he was very engaged in persecuting Christians. His whole reason for getting up in the morning was to take Christians and have them arrested for their beliefs. He was zealous in his quest, constantly doing whatever he could to persecute the early church. Of course, at the time, the church wasn’t called “Christianity” and believers weren’t called “Christians.” The movement was called “The Way.” And Saul lived to persecute members of the Way.
     He would arrest them and take them to Jerusalem to stand trial. Ideally, they would stand trial for treason, since they would claim “Jesus is Lord.” That claim, in and of itself, doesn’t seem like much to us, but at the time it meant that “Caesar isn’t Lord,” and that was a treasonous claim. Treason, of course, could lead to being put to death – it’s what Jesus was put to death for, after all. So when we say that Saul was “persecuting” Christians, we don’t just mean that he was being mean to them or making fun of them; he was actively trying to have them arrested and killed. Let that sink in for a minute, because it’s important.
     Now this man, Saul, the clear villain of the story, is headed down to the city of Damascus to find more people to arrest and drag back to Jerusalem. On the road, he is blinded by a flash of light from the sky, falls to the ground (probably knocked off his horse – that’s how it always is in art, anyway, even though there’s no horse in the story in the Bible), and a voice booms above him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
     Saul responds with a very reasonable – but in its own way funny – response. “Who are you, Lord?” It’s reasonable, because if you’re going to blind a guy and knock him off his horse, he deserves to know who you are; it’s funny because the very question implies that Saul doesn’t know the answer – duh, right? That’s why we ask questions – because we don’t know what the answer is. But think about what that means in this case. If someone says, “Why do you persecute me?” and you don’t know the answer, that either means that you’re so clueless that you’re persecuting someone without knowing it, or that you persecute so many people that you’re not sure which one this is. In Paul’s case, I would bet it’s the latter problem – he enjoys persecuting so much that he’s not sure whom he’s upset this time.
     But the reply comes again from heaven, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” I imagine that, for most of us, if we heard Jesus from heaven tell us to do something, we would do it immediately – and so does Saul. Eventually, Saul changes his name to Paul – a new name to reflect his new identity.
     His name is not all that changes, though. Paul’s whole world is different. If you continue reading in Acts 9, you’ll find that Paul goes back to Jerusalem. There, a Christian named Ananias takes him in, because that’s what God asks him to do. Ananias nurses Paul back to health, and baptizes him. But most shocking of all is that God tells Ananias, “he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” In other words, this man, this persecutor of Christians, is God’s special messenger.
     Often, when we talk about call stories in the Bible, we talk about how God usually chooses unlikely people. Mary was an ordinary girl, Abraham and Sarah were too old for children, Joseph was the youngest son, etc., etc. But there is probably no better example of God calling the unlikely than this – that Christianity’s greatest enemy became its biggest evangelist. This man, who used to wish Christians dead, is the author of more books of the Bible than anyone else. Paul is, next to Jesus, the most important figure in the history of Christianity, and he started out as an active antagonist – no, more than antagonist. He was downright evil in his treatment of Christians – and yet every person in this room today can trace their faith, in some way, to Paul’s spreading of the Gospel.
     And that leads us to the oddest point of this story – its aftermath. Imagine you’re one of those early Christians, and Paul is suddenly in the room with you, saying that Jesus had called him to reach the Gentiles. You’re a Jew, and you’re probably unsure about whether the Gentiles (the non-Jews) even should be reached. Besides that, the guy who’s telling you all this, the one claiming that Christ called him to this task, has probably had someone you know and love killed. Now, you’re being asked, not just to accept him, but to follow where he leads you, to take direction from him, and to take his faith experience seriously. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I could do it.
     It’s probably the most stunning thing that biblical people are asked to do – not believe in Resurrection or other miracles, but to take a person who has actively hated them, and trust him. What makes it more astounding, though, is that they do. Those early Christians do listen to Paul; they do see him off into ministry, and they do come to trust him. It’s almost as if they took all that stuff Jesus taught about radical love and forgiveness seriously. They actually made a point to live out some of Jesus’ most difficult teachings – like turning the other cheek in a big way with Paul.
     Christ pushes us in ways that we don’t always expect to be pushed. Most of the time, I think we hope that the basic point of Christianity is to be “nice.” We want our faith to be easy, where we just act in a socially acceptable way, be nice to people, and call it a day. But what if Jesus is asking more of us than that? What if he’s asking for a radical transformation of our hearts and minds? What if our faith isn’t simply about pleasant behavior, being nice to each other on the street and saying polite things, but what if it’s about really living a Jesus-life?
     In this passage, Jesus works a miracle, turning Saul the persecutor into Paul the evangelist. But that’s not as big a miracle, I don’t think, as turning a whole group of believers from hatred to acceptance. That’s a huge change. Flip-flopping as an individual is easy; getting a whole group to flip-flop is a lot harder. Getting a whole group to flip-flop on something so important is nothing short of a miracle!
     One of the hardest things to do as Christians is to ask ourselves where Jesus is stretching us. It’s easy to do the things we’re comfortable with. If we think that spending time in personal prayer is important, we emphasize that, and we do a lot of it. If we don’t think it’s important, we forget about it. So often, our personal vision of Christianity corresponds to what we already think is important. But the great thing about Jesus is that he never lets us get complacent. If you read in Paul’s letters, you find that he was already a good believer; this contact with Jesus stretched him and offered him a new way of being faithful.
     Similarly, Jesus is working in your heart right now. He wants you to be stretched. Who in your life is unforgiveable, and desperately in need of your forgiveness? What things in your life weigh you down, that you need to give up on? What new faith practice are you being called to engage in? Take time in prayer this week; hey, maybe you already know what the answer is going to be. But figure out where God is calling you, and how Jesus is stretching you, so that you might be transformed. Perhaps you won’t hear a voice from above, but maybe you’ll be able to experience the change of heart that the earliest Christians felt when they learned to accept Paul. And when they did, they found that the reward was a deeper, more robust, and better Christian life. May we be granted the same. Amen.

Locked in Fear – 2016/04/03

Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Sermon:

     Oh Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable unto you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
     I’ll be honest right up front: this is the Sunday I worry about being exposed as a fraud. I have been working for over two years to make sure I don’t have to preach on any text more than once. That streak ends today. Two years ago, I preached on this text. (See it here: http://marionpresbyterian.com/?p=487) That day, I preached about doubt, because that’s what we preach about when we read this “doubting Thomas” story. That’s the topic, right?
     I’m supposed to give you a sermon today about having faith in the face of doubt. Two years ago, I preached about how we should have courage and have faith. That’s a good sermon topic, and it’s probably the thing to preach about most of the time. But today, I’d like to preach about one other part of the passage that’s closely related, but much easier to overlook.
     When we hear or read Bible stories, our minds tend to do this thing. We ignore the beginning, first of all, because that’s usually a list of places that are meaningless to us, or a list of names that we barely recognize. Then we listen exactly long enough until the story is either something we know already, in which case we can stop listening and start thinking about the week ahead, or we listen long enough to realize we don’t recognize the story at all, and so we figure the preacher will explain it, we don’t have to listen, and we can stop listening and start thinking about the week ahead. That’s how I do it anyway, when I’m in the rare position of being in the pews.
     The problem with that is that it assumes that we know all the information already, or we know none of it. And that makes us skip over little things. When you heard today’s story, maybe you recognized right away that this was Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples after the events of Easter Sunday morning (at least, this is one version of the story). He appears to them in a locked room, which is this neat little trick that’s supposed to be very impressive to us – “how did he get in there?” we’re supposed to wonder. At least, that’s how I’ve often heard it talked about – as just another show of the impressive power that Jesus had.
     But let’s ignore that part for a minute, and talk about where the disciples were a little more carefully. Now remember, the disciples are small-town guys, right? They’re from the country, like Jesus. They followed him into the big city – into Jerusalem, where he was crucified and buried. So these small town guys go into the big city, and they lock their doors while they’re there. Sounds familiar, right?
     Most people in Marion don’t lock their houses, nor their cars. To do so would feel like you were betraying or not trusting your neighbors, right? You know the people around, and they’re not going to steal anything. On the other hand, when you go to Sioux Falls, I’m betting you do lock your doors, because suddenly you’re in a place of unknown people.
     Well, let’s look at the disciples’ actions here. The text says that it was Sunday evening (the first day of the week; the very day Jesus was resurrected), and the disciples met where, “the doors of the house . . . were locked for fear of the Jews.”
     Oh. I get it. So this is Jesus’ disciples being afraid of another ethnic group, right? We can turn this into a tale about tolerance and acceptance of people who are different than we are. True, that’s a good lesson to take from this text; unfortunately, it doesn’t quite fit. It would’ve been easy to turn this into that kind of sermon, but there’s something different at play here. Hopefully, you already know why that message wouldn’t quite fit this passage. “The Jews” were not a different ethnic group – Jesus’ disciples were Jews, too. So what does this mean?
     Well, there could be a lot of potential meanings. Perhaps, Jesus’ disciples were being ostracized for making claims that Jesus was the Messiah; certainly, some Jews would have been upset about that. Perhaps they feared the angry mob that yelled for Jesus to be crucified in the first place. Perhaps they were afraid of people who were believers, only they were upset now because Jesus was dead. Either way, being holed up in a room to hide for a couple days while you believe your best friend to be dead could not be a fun way to spend your time.
     The thing is, it doesn’t really matter why the disciples were afraid that day. The point is that they let their fear rule their actions.
     Think back again to the fact that part of what Jesus does in his time on earth is show us how we’re supposed to live our lives – we become better by becoming more like Jesus; we live into God’s plan more by taking God’s own actions, and making them ours. Well, what was the last thing that happened to Jesus? He was tracked down in the Garden of Gethsemane, betrayed to the authorities, and hanged up on a cross to die. Was he afraid? You’d better believe it!
     In the Garden, Jesus prays, and asks God to take away this burden. God does not answer, so Jesus prays again. When God does not respond a second time (at least, God doesn’t respond in the way Jesus wants), Jesus prays a third time, saying, “Not my will, but yours be done.” In other words, “I wish you’d take this away, but if you won’t, I will do what you want.”
     Jesus has just shown ultimate courage – he has just shown how, when faced with an impossible situation, the thing to do is to trust God and stand up without fear, knowing that God will carry you through. That’s what Jesus did; what the disciples were supposed to learn, and the example they were supposed to follow.
     And immediately following that ultimate act of courage, the disciples show cowardice – hiding themselves, hiding their allegiances, and fearing people who may not even care about them. As courageous as Jesus was able to be in facing his end, the disciples showed fear and cowardice in equal measure in the immediate aftermath.
     Who knows how long the disciples would’ve stayed locked in that room, locked in fear? It could’ve been days, weeks, maybe even months. Obviously, some of them left sometimes, as we see when Thomas wasn’t there for a little while. But the fear that allows them to think only of themselves and not of others is readily apparent. We see this all the time today in churches, when we get so concerned with membership and who’s “in the room” that we forget to look outside our doors and do the work of Jesus.
     Because that’s the particularly heinous thing about what the disciples do. Jesus spent his whole ministry telling them to feed the sick, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry. Then the day after Jesus is gone, they immediately fall back into old habits and forget those lessons.
     So then, when Jesus reappears to the disciples, his miracle is not merely like a magic trick, where he comes through a locked door. It’s not about having the power to do something that normal people can’t. That’s a cool part, but it’s not the true miracle. The true miracle is that he changes the hearts, minds, and lives of the people around him.
     Even as the disciples locked the doors to keep out what they feared, we often lock our hearts to keep us from risking anything. We let our fears get the better of us, and we try to lock ourselves up. And that lock is meant to keep out everyone, including Jesus and the people we love. The miracle that Jesus performs is that, sometimes, even when we do lock those rooms inside ourselves, Jesus works his way in. And if we have the courage to listen to what he has to say, we learn to unlock our doors, walk out into the world, and live the lives that we are called to live: lives of love for neighbor, lives of high moral character, and lives that embrace what God is doing in the world. Amen.

Why Do You Look for the Living Among the Dead? – 2016/03/27

Psalm 118:14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

SERMON

Unfortunately, the camera battery died, so if you weren’t here, you won’t ever hear my tangent about Tim Tebow. Nonetheless, here’s the manuscript I worked from this morning, and that will hopefully give you an idea of what was said. :)

     Most of you know that Carissa and I just moved to the new manse in the middle of January. You probably also know that, whenever you move, so does all your stuff. I can’t tell you how many times, even now after two months, I find myself tearing through a cabinet looking for something – especially in the kitchen. It’s been the mixing bowls for our stand mixer most often, but also the measuring cups, the mugs, the strainer – all sorts of things. And as I frantically look, my wife (who actually did the organizing of the kitchen) will say to me, “Why are you looking there? It’s in that cabinet,” and she’ll point to the spot right where it is.
     It’s so amazing to me how quickly things can go from frustrating and difficult to clear. Once in a while, when I find the item I was looking for, I even start to understand why she put things where she did, even if I would’ve put them somewhere else (somewhere better, if you ask me). But we do have an amazing tendency to look for things in the weirdest of places – in places where we shouldn’t be looking.
     That’s the gist of our passage this morning from Luke 24. Following the death of Jesus, the women who were mourning him go to the tomb where he was laid. Their intention was to prepare the body with spices. This would normally have been done the day of his death (or the day following), but couldn’t have been done that way this time, because Jesus died so close to the Sabbath (remember, that’s Friday night through Saturday night in Judaism), and no one was allowed to do any work on the Sabbath. Therefore, they had to wait until Sunday morning.
     So these women show up Sunday morning, and the huge rock that had been in front of it is rolled away. That’s suspicious enough; and then they go in to see the body, and they find that it’s not there. I imagine at this point that they’re a little worried about what could’ve happened. They would expect grave robbers, I assume, only they know that Jesus wasn’t buried with any fancy jewelry or anything, so this would just be people taking his body for no reason.
     Then, as they’re about to leave, there are two men in dressed in white-so-bright-it’ll-hurt-your-eyes. And these men, these angels, say to the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
     Taking a step back from our Scripture story, you’ve probably heard me talk about this before, but we all choose to live our lives around one (or more) stories. For example, a lot of us work hard, both at our jobs and at our home lives. This is because we happen to believe the story that hard work is rewarded. That’s a good and productive story to believe, and it’s usually true – or at least it’s much more likely that we’re going to get good results if we work hard than if we don’t.
     But that’s not the only type of story we can choose to live, because there’s more to our lives than work. We make moral choices based on the stories we live, the stories we surround ourselves with. So let me tell you a very brief story:
     God sent Perfect Love into the world, as a free gift to us.
     We killed it.
     God brought that gift back, because that’s how much we are loved.
     The Easter story is, to me, as simple as that. When Jesus Christ came into the world, he did so as God’s representative here on earth. He found friends, he lived a good life. But along the way, he made enemies. And in the end, it turned out that even his friends were his enemies – they, too, abandoned him in his hour of greatest need. Judas betrayed him; Peter denied him. They were all complicit; we were all complicit. If it had been us there instead of the disciples, don’t fool yourself for one minute into thinking that it would’ve gone down any differently.
     The story about the crucifixion is, to me, a story about how we react to things that are too good. Something is too perfect, and we long to find the flaw. We just want to make sure that everything and everyone knows that it isn’t so great. Perhaps this is a human response to our own limitations; if we find the flaws in others, then maybe our own flaws aren’t so bad. But you know what? This relentless tearing down of other people and things doesn’t do anything productive, and in fact is an engine of destruction.
     But we do this with stupid things that don’t even matter – movies we don’t like, stupid books, traffic signs in the wrong place. If we’re that critical of things that don’t matter, imagine what our response would be to a person who came and showed us what it truly meant to live as God intended. We would start out excited and eager to learn. And then we would learn the cost; the difficulty. Eventually, we would come to the part we didn’t like. The part where Jesus talked about how we cared too much about money and needed to give it away; the part where he talked about how we ignored our neighbors; the part where he said that our prejudices get in the way of our ability to see those in need; the part where he showed us that we didn’t appreciate God enough in our lives. Eventually, one way or another, we would come to the conclusion that Jesus knew something that we needed to do, and we would lose it.
     Unable to find the flaw in him, we would make things up. Like high schoolers gossiping to ruin some kid’s reputation, we would turn on Jesus so fast. And in a justice system like Rome’s at the time, that’s all it would take to have him executed. We would kill him, and with God’s Perfect Love removed, maybe we could feel better about the kind of people we are. Maybe without the distraction of that person living the way we’re supposed to, we can just go on doing whatever we please and stop having to feel bad about things. We can just stay exactly as we are, because he’s gone now.
     Only, there’s this: he’s not gone.
     Our cross could not kill God’s love; our grave could not hold God’s grace. Our desire to find something wrong could not overwhelm God’s goodness. Our desire for death, for blood, for violence; for anger, for fear, for resentment – they could not overcome God’s desires for peace, for love, for grace, for joy, for hope.
     Easter Sunday is about many things. But for me, the thought that occurred while reading this week was, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” I don’t just mean Jesus here, but everything he taught us. Why do we look to find a better life in the things that lead to death? Why do we think more wealth will lead to happiness, when it’s generosity that gives us life? Why do we think that being “fair” is what’s going to make us satisfied, when it’s generosity and grace that relieve and overwhelm us with joy? Why do we believe that punishment is going to help, when that response only encourages the other to punish us back, whether that’s nation to nation, person to person, or parent and child? Why do we continually make the same mistakes, when Jesus has shown us the way to live?
     I don’t have a good answer to those questions, I really don’t. But I do know the antidote to what ails us as individuals and as a society – and it’s Easter Sunday. It’s a celebration of the resurrections that we see daily around us, when bad things are changed for the good, and it’s the one Resurrection that foretells all others, when Jesus is raised to show us what awaits us, and what kind of God we serve.
     Instead of looking for the living among the dead, brothers and sisters, let us find the one who lives. Remember, Christ’s tomb is still empty. No, Jesus is not walking around on earth anymore, but he is not dead. He is alive inside each and every one of us; in our hearts, in our relationships, in our very world. He is desperate to build bridges and to teach us to search for the living among the living.
     Just like my foolish searching in a cabinet for something that isn’t there, we find ourselves hoping in the things of this world to save us. Most notably, in an election year, there are people all over believing, earnestly, that their candidate is going to fix everything. Well, I’ve got news for you – they’re not. They never have, they never will. They’re flawed, just like you, just like me, just like all of us here. We’re looking for mixing bowls in the cabinet with plates.
     When we trust in our position, our leadership, our status, we’re looking for those mixing bowls hidden among the cups.
     When we trust in money, in wealth, in property, we’re getting so desperate that we’re willing to look in the refrigerator just to find those stupid mixing bowls, but they’re still not there.
     There is only one place to look for answers, and it’s the place those women hurried to that first Easter morning so long ago. The one place we can look for answers and for guidance is that tomb – and when we get there, we find that it’s empty.
     But it’s not empty because the answers aren’t there. It’s not empty to say that the mixing bowls are missing; they’re right there on the counter, free to be used! Jesus is always right there, available, and desperate to show us answers. And the answer he gives is this:
     “Death itself cannot hold my love for you. Repent, and I will forgive you; ask, and I will show you a new way to live; trust in me, and your life will be lived abundantly.”
     We have been shown this Easter Sunday that we are not made for selfishness; we are not made for evil. We are deeply flawed people, but people who were made for good, and made to embrace the story of Jesus Christ and carry it out in our lives. So stop looking for answers in places where they aren’t. In fact, don’t even run to the tomb – Jesus isn’t there. He is not there; he is risen, and he’s calling you to something new, something joyful, something loving – right now.
May the hope that was born on that day of Resurrection 2000 years ago be with you today, and may you share that Resurrection love with all those you meet! Amen.

Your Ways Are Not My Ways – 2016/02/28

Psalm 63:1-8
Luke 13:1-9
Isaiah 55:1-13

Sermon: Your Ways Are Not My Ways

     Imagine you work for a huge, international corporation. At work, of course, you have a boss. This boss is the worst; he’s mean, he’s always angry, and he really doesn’t like you. So he transfers you to a different arm of the company. You have to move away from family and friends. You know that it’s too late in life to start a new career, so you have to do what they say. So you go.
     You’re there a while, and you get used to it. You make new friends. Find a new church. Make a new life.
     And then, all of a sudden, your company gets a new boss. This is a “cool” boss, who everyone likes. He looks at your situation, and he says, “Hey, you used to work in Marion, right? Well, I’ll send you back.” So this new boss transfers you back.
     Only now, you’re kind of conflicted about going back; you had this whole new life, and it really wasn’t bad, all things considered. In fact, by now, you’re probably more used to the new place. Now you’re getting torn away again.
     Well, that’s the context for the Jews in the passage we read from Isaiah this morning, more or less. Only their position in life had nothing to do with being transferred by a boss; instead, they were forcibly removed by a harsh king, then returned by a generous one.
     The Jews had been ripped from their homeland, pulled away to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar, where they were subject to foreign rule and customs. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and all hope was lost – including, perhaps most importantly, the hope in the promise God made to David, that his throne would last forever.
     In today’s passage, we see some of the fallout from their return to Israel. Eventually, King Cyrus of Persia defeats the Babylonians, and sends people back to their homelands, including the Jews who had been displaced during the Babylonian Exile.
     In light of this major change, we see a reassessment of the promise God made to David about always having a king from David’s line on the throne in Jerusalem. It’s a very confusing promise to have to deal with: a promise from the God the Jews are supposed to trust, but has suddenly gone unfulfilled. So in our reading today, we see that promise from God reinterpreted by Isaiah. The promise is transferred, in this passage, from the line of David specifically to all God’s people, generally in verses three and four. David was merely the first to hear this promise; the promise itself, though, is for all of God’s people. No longer are God’s goodness & grace exclusive to one family; but rather we are all made inheritors of God’s gifts.
     But that’s just the start of the passage. Then, suddenly, there are suddenly some familiar words in verses 8 and 9. “My ways are not your ways,” says God. And that’s what I really want to talk about this morning. I think that those words are, most of the time, used to talk about scarcity – explaining away when things are hard or bad. But if you read the passage from Isaiah more carefully, you find that this phrase, “My ways are not your ways,” is not about scarcity – it’s about abundance! It’s about people being invited to share in God’s goodness, not because they meet the qualifications, not because they’re part of one particular family, but because they have need.
     In Isaiah’s words at the very end of the passage today, we hear God describe all of creation singing in glory and joy. This seems an odd time to talk about such things. In this Lenten season, we tend to pay particular attention to the difficult things; to the trials and temptations of life. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago how these 40 days of Lent mirror Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and facing temptation. And that’s true; and in fact, this reading from Isaiah begins with people who have nothing – no money, no food, no water. And of course this whole season of Lent is leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and death. So of course we tend to focus on the negative. But the passage builds off of that scarcity, and shows us God’s plan for humanity.
     There is, throughout this reading from Isaiah, a positive attitude. By the end of the reading, the very mountains, hills, and trees are going to be clapping and shouting for joy. A time will come and what used to be thorns will become tall, powerful cypress trees; the thistles of briar that used to choke off good growth will become sweet-smelling myrtle. The suffering and pain that we see all around, and the things that are really difficult, are being transformed by God into something better.
     But the thing about the starting place of the passage is that Isaiah never denies the reality of the dire situation the Israelites start off in. He knows that they’re coming from a foreign land and have nothing. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price,” says the beginning of this reading. Right away, the Israelites are identified as people in trouble; people who can’t afford food or drink; people whose very survival is in question.
     Similarly, we know that we will face difficulties; it’s not that we won’t have the briar and the thorns they did. But, just as Isaiah promises, those briars and thorns aren’t the end of our story, because that’s not how God’s story ends. We know that, when we do face those painful things, God will win out, and ultimately claim victory in transforming those things that were most troubling.
     Brothers and sisters, this can’t have been an easy message on the heels of the Exile. In a time when people were forced from their homes, so their house of worship destroyed, their careers ruined, and were forcibly transported to a different place, this message of hope would sound a little crass. Even when you come home and return, you’ve just been uprooted again; only it’s a new generation who never knew the old “home” at all. How is the return itself even supposed to offer any hope? This is pain, and it’s suffering, and it’s hard to square it as good.
     And that’s when God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” God does not mean that the suffering happens for a reason; that’s what we often think, but think harder about this passage. God means that, out of the suffering, God will make meaning; God will make reason. While the suffering was not intended, the healing is.
     Pain is painful – that’s maybe a bit obvious, but it’s true. But that doesn’t mean it’s engineered. God is not out there, punishing people in unjust ways, or hurting us just to “teach us a lesson.” God is powerful, and God can teach through other means than harming us. A teacher who only teaches through fear and pain is a no-good teacher; and God is a good teacher. So that kind of meaning for those words just doesn’t square with the God we encounter in the life and works of Jesus Christ. And in this Lenten season, we can’t help but turn to Christ and his life, and look at it in relation to this passage.
     Our Lord Jesus faced seemingly insurmountable trials, too. In this time of Lent, of course, we head to the cross on Good Friday. This season automatically has its focus on the great thorn and briar in his life – literally, as you see from the crown behind me; more than that, the crucifixion is the Exile that Jesus faced when he went to his death on the cross. It was an individual Exile, of course, but it was the same thing – a powerful government force, beyond him (just as the Jews were overpowered by a more powerful army), uprooting him, and putting him on display in a show of the army’s power.
     The Good News he gives us, his Gospel, is exactly what we see in Isaiah, too, though. It’s not that the events of Holy Week don’t occur. Jesus absolutely does suffer, and absolutely does die. It is painful and it is horrible. He questions his faith, and he questions God. He is utterly like us on that day of his death, wondering, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I’m sure we’ve all had a time to ask: “Why is this happening to me?” If you haven’t had that experience yet, that time will come.
     But in the end, God takes the pain and transforms it. God takes the thorns and births a beautiful cypress tree. The very symbol we show at the front of our church, right in the center of everything, is a cross – an “emblem of suffering and shame,” the hymn The Old Rugged Cross reminds us. But God transforms that emblem, and transforms that suffering, into greatest victory.
     The cross was meant to symbolize how powerful and vengeful the Roman Empire could be. It was meant to symbolize death. But Jesus, in his Resurrection, when he rises from the dead on the third day, turns that cross from a symbol of Roman victory to a symbol of God’s victory. It no longer means death, because we know that, on the third day, the cross is empty, and Christ lives again!
     The suffering and pain in this mortal life is real. It was real for Jesus, and it’s real for us today. But that suffering, that pain, is not given to us because God wants us to suffer or to teach us some lesson. That’s not what “my thoughts are not your thoughts” means. It’s talking about grace; it’s talking about abundance, and not scarcity.
     Just look back to the beginning of the passage from Isaiah today to see what I mean: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” God’s ways are not our ways, because we don’t have that kind of generosity. We don’t give without expecting in return, we don’t offer to people based on their need rather than their qualifications. We like to make sure things are “fair” and they meet our standards. But that’s who God is. God offers good things abundantly, indiscriminately, and without regard for suffering and pain. God is on a mission to repair injury through care, love, and abundance – not to cause it.
     So in this Lenten season, let us remember that we are called to seek and call upon the Lord; to truly change our ways, and to let ourselves become more Christ-like. God is already working those changes and transformations in our hearts; let us open ourselves to receive the change, and become the cypress, rather than the thorn. When we do, mountains sing, trees clap, and Christ in heaven smiles as we live ever more into our calling as inheritors of God’s promises.

Autumn in New York – 2016/02/21

Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Sermon

     I’m going to ask you to indulge me today, because today’s passage is a really tough one to figure out how to preach. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Yikes.
     So let’s start with first impressions. The way Jesus talks about Jerusalem here, it’s almost like Jerusalem is a character in a story, not just a place. Jerusalem – the city itself – is what “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” We tend not to talk about places like this. We tend to think of place as static, rather than as having character.
     South Dakotans are lucky in this respect, though, because there are so many Indians in the area. Most of us have a sense that much Indian spirituality is rooted in places. Places themselves have a sense of personality. At least we’re familiar with those ideas, because they are a huge presence in this text. That was certainly the case for Jews in Jesus’ time. Remember that Jerusalem was home to the Temple. The Temple was where Jews, like Jesus and his family, would gather to do their annual sacrifices to God to atone for their sins, as prescribed in the Old Testament. But equal in those Old Testament laws was not just that sacrifices had to be made – but also that sacrifices specifically had to be made at the Temple, in Jerusalem. The place was as important as the action.
     This can be really hard for us, because we’re just not used to talking about place in that way. The closest I can come up with is the way that “New York” is talked about in film and music. There seems to be a magical quality to it. People will talk about New York as if it’s the only place in the world – or at least, the only place that matters. This connection between Jerusalem and New York is not an arbitrary one. Remember, Jerusalem really was that important; New York really is that important today.
     So this connection got me thinking about how Jesus talks about Jerusalem, and how we, culturally as Americans, talk about New York. And that got me on a song, so I’m going to sing and play for you today. I warn you – it’s not a church song, not inherently, so it’s probably weird to play it in church, but I’ll bring it back around. You’re also probably going to discover that ’30s and ’40s standards are very near and dear to my heart, since this is one of them. But this is, “Autumn in New York.” The lyrics are on your bulletin inserts, if you’d like to follow along.
—Play/Sing “Autumn in New York”—
     The reason that song reminds me of our text today is that it’s a love song to New York and all the possibilities that it brings – but at the same time, it’s a lament about how hard things are in New York. “Dreamers with empty hand that sigh for exotic lands” are the people of New York. People with nothing, who dream of everything. There’s a palpable sense, in that song, of finding love – yet at the same time, there’s a knowing sense that finding love means risking heartbreak. You find all of that in a short, silly, little song about New York; and that’s just where Jesus takes us with Jerusalem.
     Jesus knows that Jerusalem is the place where he has to go. It makes sense. If you’re a servant of the Lord in the Jewish religion, you want to go to the place at the center of it all. It’s where Jesus’ ancestor David set up his throne; it’s where David’s son Solomon built the Temple that housed the life of faith for the Israelite people for a thousand years. It’s the heart of everything; it’s where Jesus needed to be for the sake of his ministry. After all, what prophet can have an impact without being in the place where everything happens?
     Jesus also needed to be among the scribes and the priests; the other wise people of the faith. You may not know this, but Jesus’ lifetime was one of the richest periods of Jewish religion. There were tons of new movements springing up all over the place. Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes had shares of the people; of course, there were also the priests, who represented the “old guard.” And then there were Jesus and his fledgling followers, on the precipice of starting the Christian faith. There were tons of ideas, and the place those ideas met was Jerusalem.
     Yes, if Jesus had just been an ordinary human leader – if he had just been an important religious thinker, instead of the very Son of God – even then, he would have had to go to Jerusalem, because that’s where religious thoughts met their proving ground. But for Jesus, Jerusalem was much more than that.
     “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem,” says Jesus. We see in these short words a lot of the important points of Jesus’ ministry, like already an acknowledgement of that “third day” that will come on Easter. But the first that struck me was this idea that “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” You see, Jesus already knows where his message has him headed. He knows that, to reach the most people, he has to go to Jerusalem; but he also knows that to go there is a suicide mission for someone like him.
     He knows that this journey he takes to Jerusalem will be his last. But the knowledge that that is where God wants him to be is enough for him to pick himself up and put himself there. The place itself has this magical pull – something between a lament and a song of joy, just like Autumn in New York. Jesus is being pulled to a place that needs him.
     As we continue in this season of Lent, we travel with Jesus on this journey. We acknowledge the reality of his quest. He must pick up and tell people the Good News of the Kingdom of God – but in doing so, he knows that he will alienate some people. He knows he will upset the status quo. To me, this is always the saddest reality of the Christian Faith: that God sent us Perfect Love in Jesus Christ; and when we see perfect love, we have one response – to kill it.
     Our tendency as human beings is to take that which is greater than we are and cut it down, as if that will somehow make us greater. If we can just take this Jesus, who thinks he’s so special, and get rid of him, why then maybe we’ll be the special ones. But the truth is this: the only reason we got this Jesus, God’s perfect love made manifest, in the first place was that we were already God’s beloved; we were already the special ones. Having Jesus present did not make us less; it made us more.
     But Jesus knew that’s not what people would see. Jesus knew that his coming would be hard on people, both on his enemies in his own time, and on his And while we know that as we journey through this season of Lent, we also recognize who we are, and what we do. We see things that are beautiful, and we try to find the flaw. We see people who are strong, and we try to find their weakness. We see that which is grand, and we dig for the skeletons lurking inside. It’s who we are – flawed people.
     But it’s exactly to us that Jesus comes. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” says Jesus. He wants to be like a mother hen, so in love with her children that she leads them and guides them. “And you were not willing,” says Jesus. Again, there is this acknowledgement that we are flawed and weak.
     This is why the season of Lent is a season of repentance. This is why we have a prayer of Confession each week in church. As much as we might like to think we’re perfect, we’re not. We’re the ones who put Jesus to death, in that we reject the good over and over again, and we choose instead to belittle others, to do what’s easiest, to choose the path of least resistance instead of the path of what’s right, to do what’s best for us, not for our neighbors. So we kill Perfect Love.
     But brothers and sisters, even in this Lenten time in which we recognize our weaknesses, we must remember that we are never without hope. We can always hope in Christ. Because the fact of the matter is, in spite of our disobedience; in spite of our tendencies to selfishness; in spite of our indifference to others; in spite of our rejection of the good – God loves us; God has sent us Jesus Christ to save us. We are blessed. We have been given yet another chance to know who we are, to invite God in, and to see our lives transformed by the power of Christ.
     This transformation is not without pain. It’s not without its ups and downs. But it is what we all seek when we call on the name of Christ. So let us not think only of ourselves as those people in Jerusalem who killed Christ, although we are them. But let us remember that, in spite of the fact that that’s who we are, Jesus comes to us anyway. And thank God, for making it so. Amen.

40 Days and 40 Nights – 2016/02/14

Psalm 91:9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Sermon:

     We measure time constantly. Our lives are set by clocks and watches. So, because time has such an impact on us, we have words and phrases that we use to make time clearer. I think the time phrase I use the most is probably “the other day.” Sometimes, when I say this, I mean “yesterday;” sometimes, I mean “just a couple days ago;” most of the time, I mean, “I’m not really sure when, but it was probably within the last six months and I don’t really remember exactly when, so I’ll just say ‘the other day.’” All the time, I mean, “not this day – the other day.” My wife absolutely hates this, although, after the almost eight years we’ve been together, she’s starting to get used to it. See, in her mind, “the other day” should mean “within the last 4-5 days,” and definitely shouldn’t mean “that one random day two or three months ago.”
     The Bible, of course, measures time, too. There are a lot of things in the Bible that happen in 40s. Maybe you know this. Noah and his family spend 40 days and 40 nights on the ark during the flood. The Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years following their release from slavery in Egypt. There are a lot of biblical scholars who believe that the number 40 simply means “a lot.” They say that the biblical authors use 40 the way that I use “the other day” – it’s an inexact measurement of time. So when we read this story from Luke today about Jesus fasting, we hear that Jesus did so for 40 days. These scholars would say that, whether it was 25 or 30 or 40 or 60… what’s the difference? It was a long time to go without eating.
     In the Christian tradition, we’ve taken this time period of 40 very seriously, though. Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Lent is a season of 40 days – well, 46 actually, but 40 days if you don’t count the Sundays. It’s 40 (or 46) days in which we think differently about who we are, what our lives are like, and how we prepare ourselves. Preparation, in fact, is the biggest thing about Lent. If you were here on Wednesday, you heard Pastor Jesse from EMB talk about this time of preparation. Similar to the way that Advent prepares us for Christmas and Christ’s coming, Lent is a long time of preparation that culminates in Holy Week and, eventually, Easter Sunday.
     But before we get to that day, we have these 40 to deal with. And that’s what I think is probably most important for us to talk about today, as we are in the first Sunday of the Lenten season. While the end of this journey through Lent is a good one – the best one, in fact – the journey itself is important, too. The time we have to prepare ourselves is critical. And this time of preparation isn’t just something for Christians in this day and age, and it isn’t something that’s just meant to be spiritualized. This is something Jesus himself went through, and it’s very, very physical and real.
     If you look at your bulletins, you’ll notice that the passage from Luke today came from chapter 4. If you were peeking around at what’s near Luke 4, perhaps you noticed what comes before it. If you didn’t, here’s a summary of Luke 1-3: John the Baptist was around, Jesus is born, that’s pretty much it. This story we read today is really our first encounter of Jesus as an adult.
     And what an encounter it is! Jesus’ first adult actions here in Luke’s Gospel are not about calling disciples, not about preaching or teaching, nor about healing. Jesus’ first action is all about deciding – deciding who, exactly, he is going to be.
     In our passage, we see Jesus begin by fasting in the wilderness for 40 days – or at least, “a long time.” This is why many people, during Lent, choose to, on some level, incorporate fasting into their practices for the season. For example, I don’t allow myself to snack during Lent, so if I skip lunch (which I do most days), I don’t eat from breakfast to dinner. It’s a long time. But the little pangs in my belly are a good reminder about just how many people feel that same feeling every day; how Jesus felt those same pangs during his time in the wilderness.
     Jesus’ fast, though, is not just about solidarity with those who have less. His fast is about his own place in the world, and figuring it out – seeking out spiritual clarity by denying the things of the body. And in this wilderness fast, Jesus is confronted by temptation. The story uses the character of “the devil.” I’m not big on devil-preaching; I had a very influential youth leader in my life who used to say, “I don’t believe in giving the devil any more air time than I absolutely have to.” So it’s never really been an important part of my spirituality, but I understand that it is for some people. What I would say is that I’m going to speak to this story as I understand it; that means that it’s not about a red, pitchfork-wielding guy with a mustache and a pointy tail. I see “the devil” in this story as those things that are always there to tempt us – our own doubts, fears, ambitions; all those things which are not God, so that’s how I’m going to talk about it.
     Anyway, what we have here is Jesus being confronted by the first temptation. Jesus is tempted to turn a stone to bread. That is, Jesus is asked to give up his wilderness experience. He’s asked to stop his fast, stop becoming someone new, give up, and just be who the world would have him be, rather than doing what God is calling him to do. Of all the temptations with which Jesus is confronted, this is the one I most empathize with. Even just going a few hours without eating, I start to feel the bite; I start to feel my mouth water when I think of food. I want to give in. But Jesus holds strong. “Man does not live by bread alone,” he quotes Scripture. His power is that he is not relying on his own willpower – he recognizes that God is there to help him through his time of trial, and he leans on God. He will not give in, because he trusts God to carry him through.
     This temptation, even if you’re not a person who fasts, is a very obvious one, and an easy one to empathize with. It’s the temptation of ease; the temptation to take more than you need. We all do it. I’d say that it’s virtually impossible to live as an American in 2016 without giving in to this temptation. We always want more – more comfort, more ease. We want our spirituality to come easily, to be worn lightly, and to not disturb the course of our lives. But what if we let it? What if we take time this Lent and actually allow ourselves a chance to fast – not just from food (though you can certainly do that, if you’d like), but from the “too much” of the world around us. Pope Francis just called for this kind of fast for Roman Catholics around the world, and it’s a good one. What if we forget ourselves, trust in God, and actually let go of the things we have too much of?
     Francis said, “I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.” Yet that is exactly what we want our relationship with God to be most of the time, isn’t it? Easy, brief, barely scratching the surface, and yet somehow meaningful. It can’t be, though, can it? We actually have to be willing to give something up in order to gain everything.
     And that’s only the first trial Jesus faces. Second comes the trial, not of comfort or ease, but of power. Jesus is tempted to say that someone other than God is in charge. If he just acknowledges that it’s not God in charge, Jesus will be given the whole earth. Brothers and sisters, we are faced with this temptation all the time, too; the temptation to take for granted what God has given us. To assume that our positions in life were reached, not by circumstance, not by blessings from God, not by help from others – but solely through our own efforts. We could be kings, we could be queens, if we were just able to say that we alone are in charge of everything.
     But we’re not in charge. We didn’t do it ourselves. We had help along the way. We aren’t self-sufficient and we can’t rule the world. Jesus knows this. Thus, he again quotes Scripture, saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Put yourself behind and beneath God. Be a created person; acknowledge your lowliness, and in your humility, find strength; find a point of identification with those less fortunate than you are; find a way to make yourself last of all and servant of all. And in that position, find yourself more like Jesus.
     Still, though, one temptation remains: the temptation to throw it all away because it’s too hard. The temptation to say, “Well, if God’s in charge, then I don’t have to do anything at all.” This is the final temptation Jesus fought. After being tempted with ease and being tempted with power, Jesus’ final temptation is to just jump. The words that come before him to tempt him are words of Scripture, too: “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Yet, Jesus doesn’t fall for this. It’s not because he doesn’t trust God. It’s just that Jesus also knows that jumping off a cliff tends to end in a *splat.* “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” says Jesus.
     It’s not up to God to prove to us who’s in charge. It’s our job to actually go about doing what God calls us to do. We’re not supposed to dare God to save us, or to protect us, or to bet our faith on some leap from a high place. It’s our job to be God’s children. That means avoiding these temptations we may face, and leaning on God when we are confronted by them. It means avoiding the ease of comfort; it means avoiding the lure of power; and it means avoiding the hubris that we are the greatest, and God is somehow under our feet.
     These are hard lessons for us in these days, but no one said the life of following Jesus would be easy. We should “distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.” And although it’s hard to live this way, it is what Jesus calls us to do. And while it may be hard to transform ourselves instantly and overnight, we have chances to change. Find something in your life that’s missing; find something that you have too much of. Take this season, not just to lose a couple pounds by giving up chocolate or soda or whatever, but take the time to figure out what God is leading you into. Continue striving to become the person God is calling you to be right now.
     There will be trials; temptations will arise. But on your side, you have the One who conquered all temptation, who will deliver you from evil, and who is always there for you to lean on – Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. So let us thank him and be grateful for this burden placed upon us, because it is how we become a new creation, pleasing in God’s sight. Amen.