Series Finale – 2017/04/02

Psalm 130
Matthew 27:45-66

Sermon:

Video didn’t work today; sorry!

The series finale of a television show is a very special thing.  These days, with more and more people “cutting the cord,” so to speak and not having television in the home (and I’m one of those people), it’s a little different, but to most of us, finales still mean something.

See, a good television show is different from a movie or a book.  Yes, those are “high art,” while a TV show is supposed to be low-brow entertainment – disposable, in one ear and out the other, so to speak.  But the truth of the matter is, if you watch a show from its beginning to its end, you live with those characters for years.  They’re a part of your life.

Of course, the M*A*S*H finale is probably television’s most famous, as it is still, by some measures, the most-watched program in American history – so many Americans have that connection with Hawkeye waving to his friends as he leaves the 4077th.  But we may all have our favorites.  It’s tough to beat the ending to the Mary Tyler Moore show, with the lights getting clicked off one last time.  The Newhart finale, which is one I personally haven’t seen, is great because of how it ties into The Bob Newhart Show – I won’t spoil it for you if you don’t know what I’m talking about.  But I’ll count some of the shows of my own generation – Scrubs, The Office, Parks and Recreation, The West Wing, House, Boy Meets World, and scores of others, leave their mark (and for those of you thinking it, yes – I have watched a lot of TV in my life).  These people – who aren’t even really people – make their way into our hearts.  And when we watch the credits roll one last time, we feel that hint of sadness, and of nostalgia – that we’ve just lost a friend.  And it’s a reliable friend, too, one whom we counted on for our weekly appointment for years.

I’m thinking about finales for a couple of reasons – one is that I watched a series finale of a show this week – Bones, if you’re curious – so it’s right there in my life.  But the other reason is that we get here to the “big goodbye,” as it were, for this sermon series (a “series finale” of a different kind), and more importantly, we have the goodbye to Jesus in today’s passage.

Now, TV finales can go one of two ways – they can go saccharine-sweet and hit you with nostalgia – all your favorite characters coming back, satisfactorily wrapping up all their storylines – people getting married or having babies, hugs and moving away.  But the other way, the bittersweet one, is the one that really gets you.  Once in a while, a show decides to remind you of the relentless passage of time.  That even though the episode of TV you’re watching is fiction, it’s only about “today,” and “tomorrow” comes, too.

And that’s how Jesus’ “finale,” as it were, operates here – in the bittersweet, second type of ending.  Particularly in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark I find that to be the case, and since we’re reading in Matthew’s Gospel, I think it’s the appropriate way to look at the crucifixion.

Permit me one more media reference – I don’t know how much any of you know about the techniques used by playwrights or screenwriters, but most stories we tell – including jokes, including the stories you tell the people around you about your day – can be divided into something called “three act structure.”  Three-act structure is something that divides a story into:

Act one – the Setup

Act two – the Confrontation

Act three – the Resolution

We do this automatically when we tell people a story or joke.  Think about it.  When you tell someone about your day, you start by giving the details they need to know to understand the ending – that’s Act One, the setup.

As the story goes on, it moves to Act Two, the confrontation.  This is where the story gets to the funny incident, or the fight, or the gossip, or whatever.  And finally, in Act Three, the resolution, we hear what the fallout of the Confrontation was.  Conveniently, our sermon series has been this way all along.

We’ve seen our Act One, in which Jesus is praying for what he knows is coming.  We’ve had our Act Two, in which Jesus is confronted in the Garden of Gethsemane and put on trial; even last week, we saw him actually nailed to the cross.  Today, we read our Act Three, our Resolution.  We finally get to see the result of everything we’ve been building to.

So let’s hop right to it.  When our passage for the day opens, we see Jesus on the cross, crying out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  “Eli,” is the word in Aramaic (Jesus’ spoken language) for “my God.”  However, it is also a common part of Jewish names.  For example, as we see in the passage, there’s some confusion by the people looking on that Jesus may be calling for Elijah (pronounced “ell-ee-YAH” in Aramaic).  That’s because “Eli” would be a common nickname for him.  So we actually have a crowd in confusion over to whom Jesus is actually even speaking.

But in this moment, we actually witness Jesus not just calling out from the depths of his soul, but quoting Psalm 22.  Jesus is calling out in this moment from words that mean a great deal to him, and they’re words that reflect feeling forgotten by God.

I’ve met and counseled many people in many difficult times of life.  Over and over again, one of the things that people of faith consistently struggle with is how to talk to God when they feel like God has let them down.  In this moment, Jesus talks to God by praying a prayer of complaint.  Jesus chooses to ask God why he’s been abandoned and left alone at this time of need.  It’s very understandable – very human.

And we must understand that we will experience those times, too, and that having them does not make us bad Christians or bad people.  Questioning where God is when we’re in pain is completely normal.  In fact, it’s so natural that Jesus, God in human flesh, actually questions what it all means at this moment when he feels lost and hopeless.

Now, I could tell you how much hope and comfort this passage gives me – the understanding that, wherever we’ve been, God knows, because God has been there, too.  And I hope that does comfort you.  Or I could tell you about how wonderful it is that the Christian faith never lies to us and tells us that faith in God will somehow make us immune to pain.  But the truth is, I say those things all the time, so I’m not going to talk about those things today.  Instead, I feel compelled to remind you that it is an act of deep faith to allow God so deep in our hearts that we’re willing to expose our rawest nerves in prayer – even when that means yelling at God.  But nonetheless, there’s still so much more going on here, that I don’t just want to stay on that one topic, and that’s what’s happening in Act Three of our story this Lent.

So I want us to consider what’s happening here in the world around Jesus.  There are distinct, physical signs of his crucifixion that we can read about in Matthew.  The curtain of the Temple which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was torn in two – a nice manifestation of the bringing-together of God and humanity in Jesus, as the veil between human and divine is ripped apart.  The earth shook, and rocks split.  All sorts of things about the world were breaking.  The dead were even raised, albeit briefly, as Jesus’ death truly causes the world to turn upside-down for a little while.  But while these physical signs are really interesting, there’s something else going on in this aftermath of the crucifixion, and it’s really what I want to talk about.  Because it’s not just things that respond to the death of Jesus – it’s also people who respond, and they guide us in how we should respond.

So we are right to ask ourselves, “how are the people reacting?”  Well, there are a number of different responses.  Some are continuing to mock.  Some are awed.  Still others are “terrified.”

Perhaps the most surprising reaction of all comes from one of the centurions who put Jesus to death.  The centurions were commanders in the Roman army – usually, according to Wikipedia, anyway – in charge of 80 men.  One of these men, these loyal leaders of Rome who had just put Jesus to death, speaks, “Truly, this man is God’s son.”  You probably haven’t thought about this, but this is arguably the first Christian confession of faith!  This centurion has been awed by what he’s seen in the world around him, and he recognizes Jesus for who he is.

At the end of the day, this is the choice we’re forced into making – we can mock, we can choose to do whatever we want and we can disregard what God is doing right in front of our faces.  God never forces us into love or obedience or even recognition.  We see it here in Jesus’ last moments.  But just because we’re not forced into faith in God doesn’t mean we aren’t presented with a great opportunity to let our faith in Jesus shine through.

In this series of sermons, we’ve seen, over and over again, people build up walls – not literally, but figuratively.  People put their self-interest ahead of God.  They mock and tease because that’s easier than being genuine.  Yet in this moment, as Jesus is crucified, we see that God is not about building up walls that divide – God is about tearing down the things that separate us.  The “Holy of Holies” that was created to divide humanity from God?  That’s torn down.  The barriers between Jews and Roman soldiers that prevented religious dialogue and faith?  Torn down, too, when Jesus is crucified.  Jesus’ crucifixion means many, many things.  But today the one I want you to think about is this:  Up on that cross, Jesus wasn’t crucified alone, but so, too, were all the things that divide us from one another.

God intends for us to live a life fully enriched by and engrained with our Savior Jesus.  We put up walls.  We create a “Holy of Holies” within our own lives – places where we can safely “hide” God away, and so we can’t interfere with God, and God can’t interfere with us.  But that’s not how it’s supposed to be; we’re supposed to have God as a part of everything – even when those things are ugly, because perhaps we’re lacking faith.  Even when we’re feeling broken.  Even when we’re feeling strong because we just got to prove how much better we were than someone else by beating and crucifying them.  In all those moments, God wants us to see with clarity some basic truths – Jesus has come to show us that we are God’s, and that we are loved, and that we are forgiven, and that we are saved.  We are not trapped by the walls we build up; we are saved by the Christ who tears them down.

Allow me to end on one final note.  Next week is Palm Sunday, so we’re going to be rewinding this story a loooong way and going back to before this series started – before the Garden and the betrayal and the trials and the crucifixion – to a time when Jesus was adored.  But after that, on Easter Sunday, we pick up this story again, right where we left off.  So while I talked about today’s story as an “ending,” it’s obviously not that.  I talked about it that way because that’s how it appeared to the disciples at the time.  But the truth is much greater:  God’s story doesn’t end, and God’s story with us can never end, because God’s love for us is unending.  We see that when Jesus goes to the cross and dies, all out of love for us.  May we remember that love always, and be ready for whatever endings life has in store for us next.  Amen.

Eyes of the World – 2017/03/26

Psalm 23
Matthew 27:32-44

Sermon:

You’re going to have to permit me to do a tiny bit of bragging.  Just a little bit, though.

I don’t know how many of you know this, but I’m one of the assistant coaches on the track team at Marion.  I coach the shot putters and discus throwers.  This is something I’m really passionate about doing; I really like helping the kids out, and it’s a time for me to remember one of my favorite things I did in high school.

I was in band, did musicals, played football – I was very involved.  But hands-down, track season was my favorite.  Part of that was my coach, who was a great guy.  But another part of it was just that, to be a really good shot putter, you have to be the best athlete on the track team.

Now, that’s probably funny to most people who picture big, burly guys who weigh over 300 pounds and can’t spell “cat” if you spot them the “c” and the “t.”  But the truth is, there are a lot of big guys out there, but the really great throwers are few and far between.  That’s because being really great takes strength, yes.  But even more important are good technique, speed, and explosiveness.

My absolute favorite thing about track season was going to meets and watching the other throwers “size up” the competition.  You could always see it – guys who were nearly a foot taller than me, who outweighed me by 40, 50, 60 pounds – sometimes more.  They would be looking around, watching warm-ups; whispering to their teammates about the reputations of the other throwers, talking about how they thought they would place at the meet.  You know – looking to see which guys looked like the competition.

I can promise you, there was never one single eye that looked at me and thought that I was the competition.  Never.  Sometimes, I threw with these guys for four years, and they wouldn’t look at me. The thing was, though, I was good.  My bit of bragging that I have to do is to say that my team was known around the area as having the throwers with the best technique, and I had the best technique on my team.  More than once, we had other schools film us so that they could take back film of us to study.  The other thing I had going for me is that I was fast.  So while I was never the biggest kid out there (usually the smallest, actually), and I definitely wasn’t the strongest, I usually placed in the top-6 at the meets I went to and scored points for my team..

And we’d get to my favorite part of track season.  Just about every meet, you’d see some mountain of a kid whom we’d never thrown against before, and he’d think he was pretty special.  And my absolute favorite part of the year was beating a kid like that.  Just watching his jaw lower as he saw the little guy out-throw him.  Oh yes; that was sweet.

But what made it sweet was that moment at the very beginning – before the warm-ups, before the first throws, before the flights were announced – the moment when you just saw people sizing each other up.  And, for me, that was the moment that I saw all the other eyes look right past me, like I was made of glass – invisible because I was so small.

So now it’s time to talk about Jesus.  Like I mentioned at the top of the service, if you haven’t been in church the last few weeks, we’ve been in the middle of a sermon series during Lent.  We’ve been reading from the texts in Matthew that lead up to the Crucifixion of Jesus.

Today finds us awfully close to that event.  Just last week, we heard Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, during which he was sentenced to death.  This week, we see the logical follow-through from that – the forcible removal of Jesus to actually go to the cross, beginning by carrying the cross himself.

Some Christians may not be familiar with the start of our passage, in which Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross for a while.  In the traditional Roman Catholic “Stations of the Cross,” this is the fifth station.  There could be many reasons for this man being compelled to carry Jesus’ cross, but I don’t want to get too deep into them right now, since Matthew just gives us this short sentence to work with.  Suffice it to say, Jesus hasn’t really slept in a couple of days, he’s been beaten, and a cross is two very heavy planks of wood.  Roman prisoners sentenced to death were responsible for carrying their own crosses to their executions – a final act of humiliation before being publically executed.  When they couldn’t carry it, it’s not like the Roman soldiers were going to do it for them.  So a bystander, someone like Simon of Cyrene, would’ve been asked to do so.

Anyway, as Jesus finally arrives at Golgotha, the place where he was to be executed, some things happen.  Jesus is force-fed wine-vinegar (at least, it seems to be wine vinegar, rather than actual wine, based on the Gospel accounts).  And that’s just the beginning of the mockery.  The guards who crucified him gamble for his clothes.  They put a mocking sign over his head that says, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  They didn’t believe Jesus to be a king, mind you – they were just making light of his death, since the official charge against him was treason for claiming to be a king.  He was crucified right next to actual criminals.  He was derided by passers-by, some of whom remembered some of the things he said.

Someone mentions Jesus’ earlier proclamation that the Temple would be torn down and rebuilt in three days.  They say that, if Jesus thinks he can do that, why not save himself?  Well, obviously, that lesson went right over their heads, because they didn’t understand what Jesus meant by that at all.  Others take the mocking even further, not just going after Jesus for his political statements, but for his religious ones, too.

For example, it’s pointed out how many people Jesus saved, and that if he’s so great at saving, maybe he should save himself.  And another onlooker chimes in with a phrase that finds a way to mock God, as well, saying that if Jesus is so close to God, why doesn’t God save him?

See, my friends, this is the classic moment for me at the beginning of the track meet.  People look at Jesus, they see him in this state, and they can’t help but pile on.  How could he possibly be God?  How could this man, in this state, possibly have anything to do with the creator of the universe?  He’s beaten, he’s mocked, he’s… he’s nothing.

That’s the thing, though, friends.  These people were seeing with the eyes of the world, and not with the eyes of God.  These were people who were deciding that God was going to show up in the way that they expected, in the way that they even might have wanted.

But our experience of God is really different.  Sometimes, God shows up exactly as we need or want.  More often, though, God shows up in surprising, even confusing, ways.  We’d often like God to be straightforward, but alas God is not always so.

These folks thought they had the upper hand.  They looked around and saw the kid who was smaller and looked beaten before the game even started.  So they didn’t worry about him.  They ignored him at best, and actively mistreated him at worst.

God surprises them in the end, though.  While we are supposed to acknowledge the pain of Lent, we do so today in remembering the difficult things Jesus had to endure.  Even so, we must also remember that the story doesn’t end with wine-vinegar and mockery.  The story ends with God doing exactly what Jesus said – tearing down and rebuilding the Temple in three days.  Only, while the person who mocked Jesus thought he meant the actual stone Temple in Jerusalem, God shows us that what’s actually destroyed and rebuilt is Jesus himself, the Son of God and Son of Man, who saves us all and shows us who God is.

God is the fan of the underdog.  God is there to love us, even when we feel unloved.  Even when we are rejected by everyone around us, God is still there to help us out of the direst of situations.  Jesus own situation was literal death; and yet even that could not hold God’s love back.  And while I started with a story about myself and the 80-some track meets I went to in high school, there’s a really important difference between those and this story today.  While I was pretty successful, I have a few second-place finishes and quite a few thirds to show for my hard work.  But God is different, because God doesn’t just do “well,” God wins, every time – even when it’s not how we expect.

Rarely does God respond to situations in exactly the way we would like.  Rarely are we granted the exact miracle of healing we’re looking for, or the second chance, or the apology we seek from someone who’s hurt us.  Instead, we are treated to healings that are different from what we ask, but better than we can imagine.  Perhaps we don’t stave off death, but God gives us people around us to comfort and cheer us. We can’t prevent being sick forever, but God wraps us in comfort and love even when we are.  When we feel alone, as alone as anyone can be, God has already shown us Jesus completely abandoned, and promised us that, no matter how we feel, that same Jesus will be right by our sides.  Jesus is the epitome of vulnerability here.  He is physically weak, and his friends have abandoned him.  Yet, even in that moment, we remember that Jesus goes to the cross with God.

Friends, we may not always find it possible to show love to God.  Sometimes, our hearts are too broken.  Sometimes, we’re just too angry.  But at the end of the day, even when we fail to show love to God, God will continually show love to us.  Remember those people who mocked Jesus, who overlooked him and made fun of him and hurt him and probably laughed while they did it?  Well, Jesus went to the cross for them.  But not just for them, but for me and you, too.

Christ’s love for us is overflowing, infinite, and deeper than we can imagine.  Don’t overlook Jesus – even when he seems distant, or helpless, or just absent.  He is there, and he wants to help.  He has already gone as far as anyone can go for you; he will not hesitate to do it again.  Jesus loves you, even when you don’t know how to love him back.  Amen.

 

Game Theory – 2017/03/19

Psalm 95
Matthew 27:11-31

Sermon:

https://youtu.be/UK5QpLUatx0

There’s a branch of statistics called “game theory” which is exceedingly interesting, at least to me.  It’s the study of games, but not of optimal strategy, rather what people actually do.  One classic example is the “prisoner’s dilemma,” where you take two people who are accused of a crime.  You put them in separate rooms.  You ask them who did it; if they both say the other did it, they both go to jail.  If they both say neither did it, they both get off.  If one of them says the other one did it, the tattler gets off easy but the one who kept quiet will get double time.  As one of the prisoners, you have to ask yourself, “How much do I trust the other person?”

Game theory deals with those kinds of questions.  One great study had two people.  Person A was given $100, to split between himself and Person B.  He could take as much as he wanted for himself, and give as little as he wanted to Person B.  The catch was that, if Person B rejected the offer, neither person got anything.

What they found was that, if you offered a 70-30 split, around half of people take it.  If you take 90 and offer the other person 10, almost everyone will reject that.  And it makes sense, right?  That offer is insulting!

…Only, think about this:  when you started this game, a game in which you didn’t have to do anything, you had $0.  Someone’s offering you $10 free.  So you should definitely take that $10, right?  The issue is, we have pride as people; we won’t accept amounts that we consider too low, even if it’s in our best interest.  This is because human being value fairness.  Not actual fairness, necessarily, but what they perceive as being fair in a given situation.   This means that we will and do act against our own self-interest when we perceive something as unfair.

We actually see that idea actively at play in this series of readings we’re doing from the end of Matthew’s Gospel.  If you’ve been in church the last couple of weeks, you know that we’re doing a short sermon series on the readings leading up to the crucifixion.  This week, we continue those readings as we see Jesus on trial before Pontius Pilate, the governor of the region.  Jesus comes to trial because of some people acting against their own self-interest – acting out of pride.

Basically, what we have had in the background of our story, though not explicitly in our last few readings, has been Jesus’ conflict with some of the leadership in Jerusalem.  They are not interested in what Jesus has to offer; they are not interested in his teachings, his healings, or any of that.  What they see is their own status being removed.  Then, with the knowledge that people might not think of them as being as special, so they’re willing to do whatever it takes to maintain their status.

Jesus has come to preach the fulfillment of God’s word – how God is working, not just inside the walls of the Temple, but in the world beyond, as well.  This puts him into conflict with some of the Temple authorities, who don’t want to see too much religion practiced outside their authority.  On the other hand, Jesus is famous for being in conflict with another group, the Pharisees.  This is because Jesus and the Pharisees actually had a lot in common; it’s why you see several times in the Gospel, stories of Jesus being invited over to the homes of Pharisees who want to talk with and learn from him.  But just like how siblings fight more than strangers, some of the Pharisees disagree strongly with Jesus, and so they want to be rid of him, whatever it takes.  This actually causes some of the Pharisees and the Temple elites, who hate each other, to work together to take down Jesus.  It’s a real “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation.  So they arrange for Jesus’ arrest.

This should not surprise us, because, like I said earlier, we people will forget about a lot of things to act in what we perceive as our own self-interest, even if it’s not actually what’s best for us.  Judas lost sight of what Jesus was doing and who God was calling him to be, and he betrayed Jesus.  Last week, Daniel Patrick preached about those moments when Peter wouldn’t admit to being a disciple of Christ – when he was suddenly more worried about saving his own neck than about doing God’s work.  We all have these blindspots, and any one of us could find ourselves in these situations.  Now, that’s an awfully bleak thing to say, but Lent is a time to confront those awfully bleak truths of life.

After being turned in by Judas, Jesus was put on trial by the Jewish leaders who conspired against him (which you heard about last week), and then was sent to the Roman government.  We see his trial with Pontius Pilate this week.  Now, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there about Pilate.  For example, he, too, is looking for a way out; at the end, he says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”  But you know what?  You don’t get to do that – you don’t get to put an innocent person to death and then claim it’s not your fault.  Pilate is trying to act for himself.

And in the end, Jesus is mocked.  He is tortured, he has a fake crown placed on his head; a crown of thorns you see behind me; a crown that hurts him.  And as Jesus is taken away to be killed, the people standing there decide to release a notorious murderer instead.  Now that sounds crazy – but it shouldn’t.  We do this all the time.  Literally every day, we make these choices.

We turn our backs on God and we sentence Jesus to death.  We choose the evil and forget the good.  We are willing to sacrifice good things in order to do what’s most expedient, to do what’s easiest, to do what helps us most individually.  In short, we relive the sins of this moment in history by failing to do the right thing.

We aren’t literally crucifying Jesus every day, of course, but we are making choices that hurt other people, that hurt our communities, that ultimately hurt ourselves just so that we can do what we think will get us ahead.  But this passage is a stark reminder that, as much as we are capable of standing by God, we are just as capable of giving in to our weaker moments; we can forget who God is and what we are called to do, and we can fall into old habits.

Of course, since God has a great sense of humor about these things, while these soldiers were mocking Jesus in the story today, little did they know that they were actually crowning him for real!  Jesus is King, but is a King who rules mercifully.  You would think that we would be punished all the time, with no hope of redemption, for the kinds of things we do that remind God of when we put Jesus to death; yet, instead, we’re reminded all the time that Jesus doesn’t act the way we do.  When the Temple authorities and Pharisees see someone coming whom they fear, their instinct is to have him removed, so he’s not a threat anymore – and that happens even though they only thought he was a threat, and he wasn’t actually one.  But Jesus, who unlike his opponents is actually threatened, not only doesn’t fight back, but he responds out of love.

Even though we’re capable of heinous evil, of deceit, of forgetting God, Christ calls for our return to the fold.  We serve the kind of King who would be mistreated by his subjects, yet show love; who would be mocked, yet respond in earnestness; who would be beaten, but respond with gentleness.

Take a moment to appreciate just how lucky we are to have a God who is relentlessly good.  God is willing to cross any boundary to get to us, even when they’re boundaries we ourselves put up!  So we get to see one final thing happen in our passage, and it relates back to that game theory stuff I was talking about in the beginning of the sermon.

I mentioned the prisoner’s dilemma, where you only get out if you refuse to rat on the other person.  If the prisoner is only looking out for themselves, they will give their partner up.  Similarly, if the person in the second example I gave is given the money decides they really want what’s best for themselves, they try to do the math that says, “What’s the most I can take without offending the other person?”  But those seem like bad, or at least selfish, people.

So we’re tempted to think of what a good person.  That’s the kind of person who decides to shut their yap and not rat on the other person in the prisoner’s dilemma.  Yeah, there’s a little risk in there for them, but hey – if the other person acts well, they both get off.  It’s good for them and the other.  Likewise, a good person in the money example offers a simple 50-50 split, and they both go home happy.

The difference between people acting badly and people acting well is obvious.  The difference with Jesus, with our Lord, is that he breaks the paradigm completely.  When Jesus is arrested (and remember, Jesus was literally arrested, so this isn’t hypothetical), he doesn’t point the finger at another.  He doesn’t just stay silent.  He takes the blame himself – the blame of all the world on his shoulders.  If Jesus were offered the money, he wouldn’t take as much as he could, nor would he split it 50-50.  He would offer all 100 to the other person.

Brothers and sisters, our Lord Jesus isn’t just looking out for himself.  He’s the only person in this passage we read today who’s actually looking out for others.  While everyone else is looking out for themselves, Jesus is looking out for everyone else!  We serve a God who isn’t interested in just being an equal partner; we love the Lord who gives us everything – time, talent, and more love than you can imagine, without the promise of getting any of it back, and with the full knowledge that, more often than not, we will return that kindness with cruelty, forgetfulness, and indifference.

But still, we are loved.  We are loved relentlessly, wholeheartedly, overflowingly.  We are loved by a God who wishes us only the best.

Some days, we may be the Judas who turned Christ over; some days, we may be Peter who pretended not to know him; some days we may be those plotting his murder; some days, we may be those saying “anyone but him” and call for a murderer instead; and some days, we may be Pilate saying, “Well that doesn’t apply to me.”  But no matter who you are this day:  you.  are.  enough.  You are loved, just as you are, warts and lumps and all.  You are the one God is chasing after relentlessly.  You are the one for whom Christ goes to the cross.  You are the one who is showered with love, even when you don’t quite know how to return it.

Some people may read this passage and see a dim outlook on humankind, or they may see a situation in which Jesus is led away to a destiny he couldn’t escape to fulfill the Scriptures.  Sure, those things may be true.  But what I see is this:  I see a God who loves recklessly, who showers people who don’t deserve it with a love that never fails.  I see a God who is worthy of every word of praise we could ever utter.  In short, I see my Savior Jesus, reminding me that I am his, that I am loved.  May we all remember that love, today and always.  Amen.

The Garden – 2017/03/06

Psalm 32
Matthew 26:36-56

Sermon:

     Lent has begun. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who gives things up for Lent, and perhaps you’re not. Either way, I want to let you in on a little piece of my own life this Lent. If you want to know the rest, you can go look up my pastor’s article in the Marion Record a couple of weeks ago. But I’m talking of the church instead.
     The season of Lent is traditionally solemn. Like Advent, it’s a season of preparation. Only, while Advent is a feeling of warmth and light as we anticipate the birth of Christ, Lent works its way up to the Crucifixion of Jesus. We have a whole season leading to the death of Christ. In fact, in some ways, you can argue that it leads to something even more depressing than the death of Christ, as the final day of Lent is actually the day known as Holy Saturday – the day when Jesus lay dead in the tomb. At least on the morning of Good Friday, Jesus was around. But on Holy Saturday, the early followers of Christ were thrown into a crisis, as their Lord was just… gone. That’s the last day of this season, so that should give you an idea of how “happy” Lent can be.
     In light of the things we’re talking about this season of Lent, we’re going to spend the next five weeks in church reading through the story of Jesus final hours in the Gospel of Matthew. We’re reading most of chapters 26 and 27 of that Gospel, and getting all the way up to the Crucifixion itself. Oddly, these texts, while central to Christian life, only come up once a year, on Good Friday, in the three-year cycle of texts from which we read in church on Sundays. So this year, I want to take a little more time and delve more deeply into the story leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, to take the time to give this story what it deserves.
     As you might imagine, it’s going to be important to set the scene, so that you all know where we’re picking up this story. And that means going back – back to understand the context of the last week Jesus has had.
     We all remember Palm Sunday – that day when Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem, fresh off his wanderings around Judea. He is greeted warmly, with open arms and waving palms. People are there to worship him! Yet, from that day, things take a turn. When the religious authorities see how some of the people adore Jesus, they begin conspiring to take him down. Being opposed to murder and assassination, they have to come up with a plot, so the Roman government can actually do the killing. These religious authorities begin to have confrontations with Jesus in the streets, arguing about finer points of doctrine. Jesus argues with them throughout the week. But what they’re really trying to do is not to outsmart or trick Jesus, but rather they want to catch him saying something treasonous, something against the emperor – something that will get him a death sentence under Roman law.
     Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, goes to the religious authorities who have been persecuting Jesus. He goes unprompted – he’s not bribed nor offered. He merely makes a free choice to betray his teacher. The authorities pay him 30 pieces of silver as a reward for delivering their target, and Judas sets to work. Jesus knows something is going on and mentions Judas as his betrayer at the Last Supper – but the extent of everything isn’t yet clear.
     We pick up with Jesus right after the Last Supper. We will celebrate that night on Maundy Thursday, so there’s no need for us to look at the text here. But to set the scene, Jesus has just had a final meal with his disciples. They are preparing for the next day, and Jesus knows precisely what that will bring – his end. In this weighty moment, Jesus decides to go to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.
     In this moment of crisis, Jesus feels the need to withdraw alone, to reflect and pray. But he also wants his disciples there with him. So he strikes a happy medium – they come with him to the Garden, but he goes off by himself to pray. While he prays, the disciples fall asleep. And as they sleep, Jesus prays to God, asking to take away this trial he must face. He uses the analogy of drinking from a cup, asking God to let the cup pass, and then relenting and saying he will drink, if it is indeed what must happen. Three times, this happens, with Jesus retreating, and his disciples unable to stay awake to wait for him. Finally, he tells them to get up, because his betrayer is at hand.
     Just then, out of the bushes (it doesn’t say that, but that’s always how I imagine it), Judas, formerly one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, shows up. With him are some of the religious authorities (those who were set against Jesus) and their muscle – a bunch of guys wielding swords and clubs. Judas tells the group of men following him that the man he kisses is the one they’re looking for – and then he gives Jesus a kiss of greeting, as was the custom for early Christians.
     After a brief interlude for the cutting off of a man’s ear, Jesus asks why these people set against him waited until the covert cover of nightfall when he was right in front of them, teaching in the Temple all week. Nonetheless, he admits that he must go with them, and he is arrested.
     It’s a lot of story for a short passage like this, but it’s important that we know it, as everything for the next few weeks will build off of this foundation of events. And while the plot with Judas and the religious authorities is certainly the biggest part of the action (and also does the most to set the stage for what is to come next), I think it’s really important today that we talk about the first part of the passage, in which Jesus prays in the Garden with Peter, James, and John accompanying him.
     As those of you who were here last week will recall, Jesus brings Peter, James and John with him on a little trip earlier once, when he is Transfigured. This time, though, we see a slightly different story. This time, Jesus is taking them to be with him, asking for their presence while he prays. What Jesus is looking for are his friends.
     Imagine you’re dealing with a really hard time in life. When you are, you need people to lean on. You need people to be there for you. They don’t have to be in the difficult times with you, they don’t have to understand what’s going on with you; you just want someone there by your side – someone who’s willing to wait up for you on your darkest night.
     That’s what Jesus is asking for in the reading for today. He tells the disciples to wait for him while he prays. And in that prayer, he prays something that I think everyone can feel familiar with. “God, please don’t make me do this.” Perhaps it’s a medical procedure, a difficult conversation, a test at school, a meeting with someone we don’t want to see, a confrontation with a family member or friend, or just an issue in our life that things would just be a whole lot easier without.
     The truth is, though, we don’t always get what we want. Sometimes, the thing we don’t want to face is right there, whether we want it or not.
     Three times, Jesus prays for his daunting task to be taken away, and three times, he does not hear the answer he wanted to.
     Then, each time he goes out to find the friends that he was counting on, he finds them asleep, unable to be there for him.
     Brothers and sisters, there is not a single moment in the Bible, I think, that makes me feel as close to God as this moment. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our Christian faith is an honest faith. God never lies and says that being a Christian will make our lives perfect.
     Even Jesus, who lived a sinless life, has the feeling of hopelessness and abandon in his hour of need. Every one of us has felt that way at one time or another. Every single one of us has felt the day when our tank is empty, when we need a pick-me-up, and there seems to be no one there to help.
     Every one of us, too, has been one of the disciples – knowing that we’re needed, but unable to find the strength to be there for someone else. We have all disappointed people. And if you’re young enough now not to have been disappointed or to have disappointed someone else, your time is coming. We’ve also all been there with God. We’ve all felt called or led to something, only to back out and not do that thing, disappointing God.
     Brothers and sisters, Lent is the season for us to live in the discomfort of those disappointments. We are not always going to have things go our way. We are not always going to be so lucky as to have everything work out. We have disappointed others, and we will again; we have been disappointed, and we will again. It is part of the life of a human being.
     Lent is a time for us to recognize that reality – to remember the silences that come when there’s something we really want. It’s the time to remember that life is not perfect.
     And brothers and sisters, that would be a perfectly reasonable place to end this sermon; a perfectly logical one, even. I considered it. But, while Lent is a difficult season, I can’t just end somewhere that bleak. There has to be more Good News than that, and this passage delivers.
     This passage gives me that little vestige of hope to hold onto. We know that, even in our lowest, loneliest moments, God does not abandon us. We know this because Jesus has been there, in the very depths of it. And even though we may not hear the answer we seek from God, God knows what it’s like to feel that way, because God walked among us as Jesus. And although we may still feel alone, we will never be alone.
     No matter how weak and alone we might feel, God has felt the same way. We know it because Jesus literally lived that moment here in the Garden in this story we read today. But at the same time, while Jesus has felt alone, we know that God was right alongside him, guiding him, watching over him, and waiting to make all things right on Easter Sunday morning.
     Jesus has been in the worst moment. He has anticipated the worst thing that would happen. We see him in this passage in that deer-in-the-headlights moment, when the bad thing is coming and there’s nothing he can do about it. But it does happen.
     When we’re in that moment in our own lives, there’s someone we can rely on, because we know that he’s been there. Jesus can be our bulwark in the storm, because he’s been through every trial. Lent is a time to confront the reality of our human frailty, our human weakness. Yet, in that moment in which we confront the harsh realities of life, let us also remember to rejoice that we have a Savior who loves us and who never abandons us, no matter how dark and deep the Garden. Though we may fall asleep at his side, he will never fall asleep at ours. Amen.

Transformed – 2016/02/26

Psalm 99 678OT
SCRIPTURE READINGS:
Exodus 24:12-18 87OT
Matthew 17:1-9

Sermon:

     Who doesn’t love Optimus Prime? He’s just the greatest, isn’t he? And I’m sure no one loves Megatron, because he’s just awful. Your mileage may vary on Bumblebee, or Jazz, or Starscream.
     Okay, show of hands – who has no idea what I’m talking about?
     So, if you don’t know, I’m talking about the hottest toys of the 1980s – the Transformers. Yes, the starred in a run of very successful comic books, and yes they starred in a very popular Saturday morning cartoon show, and yes, they’re still starring in a very popular movie franchise, with four movies in the franchise so far and a fifth one coming this summer. But it all started with a line of toys. Nowadays, I think most people expect that the toys would come after the story’s been told, but that’s not how it was for the Transformers.
     So… how did they become so popular that they continue to be in the public imagination and on the minds of millions of people the world over more than 30 years after they debuted as toys? It’s simple: they’re cool. For those of you who don’t know, Transformers were the remarkably simple idea of cars that transformed into robots. You could move the toys back and forth between one state and the other – and they were awesome.
     But what was so cool about them? Well, I think it was just, for kids, the idea of imagination. I mean, cars kind of look like they have eyes, and here was a toy saying, “Yeah… and what if they were eyes?!” Kids imaginations run wild when something that seems ordinary turns out to be wonderful. But the truth is, it’s not just kids who feel that way – it’s adults, too. That’s why adults continue to pay to see magic shows. We like to imagine and be amazed.
     So we have to see the Transfiguration with a little bit of wonder. No, it’s not a passage about Jesus turning into a car or a cool robot. Instead, it’s about a transformation in Jesus, and one that we can see occurring both in his life, and our own.
     To recap, Jesus takes three disciples – Peter, James, and John – up the mountain with him. While he is up there, his clothes are transformed into the whitest white. And then, right next to him, Moses and Elijah appear. Peter offers to build dwelling places for all three (Jesus, Moses, and Elijah). But before Jesus can answer, a voice booms from heaven, echoing the famous words spoken at Jesus’ baptism – “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well-pleased,” and then there’s a “Listen to him,” thrown in at the end.
     There’s a little tag after that, but I want to focus on what I’ve recapped so far – this miraculous bit involving Jesus’ change of clothes and the arrival of these two great figures in Judaism.
     First, we have the clothes change. This is a time when I think our popular artistic depictions of Jesus do us a disservice. Most of the time, Jesus is depicted wearing white. But remember, Jesus was walking all day on dirt roads wherever he went. Many of the places he walked were desert. There’s no such thing as white clothes in that environment. Yet here, at the top of the mountain, Jesus clothes are miraculously changed.
     But perhaps of more interest are Jesus’ companions on the top of the mountain. After Jesus is transfigured but before we hear God speak, Jesus is joined at the mountaintop by Moses and Elijah. Now, those two great prophets of Judaism don’t get as much time in our sermons as they should, but they are integral to the Old Testament, and would’ve been the two most revered people to Jesus and his followers – at least until Jesus came along, that is. But this moment for the disciples would’ve been seeing the two greatest people they knew of legitimizing Jesus.
     In case you’re not terribly familiar with them, Moses was the person who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and was given the Ten Commandments by God. He was the first great leader of the Jewish people after their slavery. And although he was directionally challenged (well, I assume he was, since it took him forty years to travel a few hundred miles from Egypt to Israel), he was (and is) a figure of the most importance in the Jewish faith. And keep in mind, Jesus wouldn’t’ve considered himself a Christian, and either would his disciples – they were Jews. They didn’t have a New Testament, and there was no such thing as the Church. They just were Jews who happened to follow Jesus. Anyway, besides the Ten Commandments, Moses is probably most famous for almost leading the people into the Promised Land – but alas, he died on the mountaintop overlooking the land, and would never have the chance to enter it himself in his lifetime.
     But before we lose track of where we’re headed, we should talk about Elijah, too. Elijah was a prophet from the time of Kings. After King David and King Solomon, when what we know of as Israel today was split into two separate kingdoms (Israel in the north with Samaria as its capital and Judah in the south with its capital in Jerusalem). Elijah was a prophet in Israel, the northern kingdom. He performed many signs and miracles, and was a steadfast believer in God in a time when idol worship seemed to have become more popular as Israel was infiltrated by neighboring people who brought their religions. Elijah was most famous for being taken straight to heaven without even having to die, when his time came.
     And that leads me to the heart of my message this morning. This text, the Transfiguration, leads us to an important turning point in the life of Jesus. This is the point at which we turn from Jesus ministry to the long, slow march to his death on the cross and eventual Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
     As I thought about this text this week, I was struck by a few things. Jesus is, in many ways, the culmination of the work started by Moses and Elijah. This has been noticed many times by scholars, pointing out that Moses represents the Law and Elijah the Prophets, and that Jesus is the culmination of both. But I think it goes deeper yet.
     Moses and Elijah have perhaps the two most interesting deaths in the Old Testament. Moses’ death comes at a time of near fulfillment – he has led the people to the land God promised them, but he never gets to enter. He dies just short of the goal, in a very human way. Elijah, on the other hand, never dies a death at all. He is taken up to heaven in a complete act of divine love. There is a sense to me in which I see the human frailty of Moses’ death and the divine love of Elijah’s avoidance of death, and I see that this combination of the human and divine is met perfectly in Jesus.
     As we head into Lent next Sunday, we will enter a series looking at the texts leading up to (and including) Jesus’ Crucifixion in church. We will be looking at the circumstances that lead to Jesus’ death, and the events surrounding it. These are important things to know, to set ourselves up for what is to come. This text, in which we remember these men with rare, incredible deaths, set us up for the most significant death of all – Jesus’ death. And while we see divine favor in Elijah’s death by the avoidance of it, we’re reminded that Jesus was also a human who died a natural death, just like the rest of us, and like Moses. But like Elijah, Jesus is also able to enter Paradise – he just has more work to do first!
     We are reminded of both Jesus’ humanity and divinity in this moment. Jesus is not somehow beyond human – he still dies, as all of us do. He doesn’t avoid that fate, as Elijah did. Elijah was not divine, but avoided the fate of mortals through God’s grace. But God’s grace, in Jesus case, reminds us that God shares in our lives, whether joyful or painful.
     If Jesus, like Elijah, avoided the pain of a human end, perhaps it would more clearly mark him as divine. But, at the same time, it would allow us to forget Jesus’ humanity. Instead, we remember that Christ died a human death, like Moses. But his Resurrection, which will also come in clothing undefiled, is presaged here by Elijah’s presence. We’re reminded that Jesus is at once one of us, and also God incarnate.
     There is one other point, though, that I think it’s important to think of. When Moses ascends a mountain to speak with God, he receives the Ten Commandments. Now, Moses had a right-hand man named Joshua, yet Moses ascends alone. Elijah, when he ascends up to heaven, does so in sight of his right-hand man, Elisha. Both of them have someone at their sides, yet have to ascend alone.
     Jesus, in this passage, though, brings disciples up the mountain with him. To me, this is a reminder of the difference between Jesus and the rest of us. While his human death was in many ways ordinary, we are reminded by this simple act of sharing that Jesus was unlike us. We can’t, any of us, save humanity. We can’t save humanity in this lifetime, and we can’t save humanity in the hereafter. We can’t bring anyone else up the mountain. Only God is able to bring people into that divine presence; only God saves.
     Yet, at this moment, Jesus does bring people with him. Yes, his death was human – but his life was also divine. We see that Jesus is able to bring people with. Jesus, as God on earth, is able to save us. We’re not responsible even for saving ourselves, because it’s Jesus’ job to do that. We are merely being taken along on his incredible journey.
     And while we’re on it, Jesus doesn’t ask us to build some special place for him. Instead, he asks that we worship and share his story. That’s what he tells Peter, James, and John, and that’s what we’re tasked with doing, too.
     The Transfiguration is, in many ways, an awfully boring story. So, Jesus gets some white clothes, right? But we see when we look at the text that it’s much deeper than that. It’s a tale about our relationship to God, and our relationships to one another. Jesus doesn’t only bring only one person up the mountain with him – he brings more. That’s because we’re all invited into his Kingdom.
     Let us remember that we, too, can be transfigured. We will not be transfigured as Jesus was, with spiffy, new, white outfits. Instead, our hearts and minds can be made over to be more loving to God, and more loving to our neighbors. So go forth from this place praying for your own transformation, for the transformation of the world, and for the love, grace, and peace of Jesus Christ, our Savior who invites us up the mountain. Amen.

A Proportional Response – 2017/02/19

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

Sermon:

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

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

Law and Grace – 2017/02/12

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

Sermon:

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

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

Salt & Light – 2017/02/05

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

SERMON Salt & Light

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