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

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

Sermon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serenity – 2017/05/07

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

Sermon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When We Finally “Get It” – 2017/04/30

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

Sermon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Lord and My God – 2017/04/23

Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Sermon:

Let me tell you about some things I trust.  I trust my electronics – probably too much.  I trust that they’re going to turn on, that they’re going to do what they’re supposed to – and when they don’t, it is so frustrating.  I trust people around Marion.  I mean, let’s face it – I run into places with my keys in the car sometimes, which is not something I did when I lived anywhere else.

But I also trust many, many things – I trust the sun to rise, I trust the post office to deliver the mail I send, I trust that my phone calls aren’t actually being monitored by a shadowy government organization, I trust that the beef I order in a restaurant is not actually dog meat, I trust that when I meet someone and ask their name that they’re not lying to me, I trust that when someone says, “Your kid is cute,” they’re being honest and not just polite, I trust my family when they say they love me.  The fact of the matter is, you literally can’t survive if you don’t trust something.  There aren’t enough hours in the day to be suspicious of everything.

But of course, what defines us as people more than anything else is what we choose to trust in.  We certainly have choices in that regard.  In the things I listed, I listed some mundane things – like how I expect that restaurants are serving what they say they’re serving – but I listed serious things, too.  For example, when people in your life tell you they love you, you can trust them, or you can’t.  You really can’t know, but you choose to trust them or not.

The thing about a person telling you that they love you is that it’s not just something people say.  It’s something you show, too.  So you have more evidence than just something someone says.  Their actions also inform whether or not we believe them.

So of course, on this second Sunday of Easter, we get the traditional Second Sunday of Easter passage – good ol’ Doubting Thomas in the locked room with the disciples.  It’s, on some level, a passage all about trust.  Last week, we read about how Jesus appeared to women at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, but he had yet to appear to his male disciples.  In today’s passage, we see a continuation of that story.  Just as Jesus appeared to the women, he shows up in the room where the disciples are gathered.

Now, this was a locked room.  The disciples were, as the Gospel of John tells us, “locked for fear of the Jews.”  Of course, they weren’t afraid of all the Jews – they were Jews, too!  They were afraid, though, of some of the people who had been hostile to Jesus; they were surely afraid that the same people who arranged Jesus’ trial could be coming for them next.  So they locked themselves away and hid in fear.

This is, unfortunately, an example of doing what our human nature does so often, and shows a complete misunderstanding of what Jesus had taught them.  After all, when Jesus was accused in the Garden, he boldly stood up and said who he was.  When Pilate accused him of being the Christ, he did not pretend not to be just to avoid punishment.  But we can give the disciples a break here, just a little bit.  They’ve just lost their friend.  Instead of living as he taught them to, they’re retreating into what feels “safe.”

But suddenly, in this locked room, Jesus appears.  When he appears, though, one of the disciples is missing.  It’s Thomas.  I like to imagine that Thomas was out getting some food.  After all, the disciples ate on Thursday night, and then Jesus got arrested, crucified on Friday, Saturday was the Sabbath so they would’ve scrounged what was left where they were staying.  Surely, by Sunday, they needed some food, and we know from our reading that this story takes place on Easter Sunday night.

Anyway, Thomas isn’t there when Jesus appears.  Yet, Jesus shows up and delivers messages of hope and Good News to the disciples.  So when Thomas returns, the disciples tell him that they saw Jesus, and Thomas doesn’t believe it.

You know, I find Thomas immensely sympathetic in this passage.  Why would he believe the disciples?  I mean, he trusts them.  But think of people you trust.  If they told you that someone you saw died and buried had been in your house an hour ago, I’m pretty sure you’d believe what you had seen, rather than what they said.

We sometimes have a habit of thinking ourselves above characters in the Bible.  We think, “They see all these miracles all the time, and still they don’t trust when things are coming straight from God!”  Well, first of all, people haven’t changed that much in 2000 years.  We’re a little taller, we live a little longer, but we aren’t any smarter.  It was just as hard to tell back then as it is now which messages were from God and which ones weren’t.  I mean, if a message like this comes straight from the mouth of Jesus, perhaps there’s an argument that Thomas is just being stubborn – but this isn’t that.  This is just his friends telling him something he doesn’t know is true.

In short, Thomas doesn’t believe them.  He doesn’t trust in what they say.  And you know what?  I think that’s the right call.  I think it’s how I would feel and what I would do in that situation, too.  Thomas doesn’t have absolute faith in his friends, because they’re flawed people.  They make mistakes.  They make bad judgments.  They make stupid decisions.  They’re just like the rest of us.  What the story of Thomas teaches us is not that the disciples are always right about everything.  What the story of Thomas teaches us is that the only thing we can trust with absolute certainty is Jesus.

When we say we have faith in Jesus, that’s not just a claim that we believe that Jesus existed a long time ago.  It means we trust him.  And we can trust him, not just because he says he loves us, but because he’s shown us that we’re loved.  That is, to me, what the Easter story and its continuation in this story today are all about.  Faith is not just about mere belief – it’s not only about an intellectual acknowledgement that something is true.  It’s also about who we trust, and what that trust means.

One of the things that comes with trust is doubt.  Perhaps this is why I have a little sympathy for Thomas here.  You don’t doubt someone unless you have a reason to trust them first.  Doubt only comes when you have a relationship.  It’s also a necessary part of a relationship.  It’s understandable that Thomas would doubt here, because what he’s being asked to believe is completely incredible.  Similarly, it’s okay for us to sometimes have doubts, because God asks incredible things of us, too.  We don’t just trust anything and everything someone says – we must have some amount of doubt in our lives to survive.  What we see from Thomas here is just the “usual” amount that we show every day.

In the end, though, we read this passage, not because it should make us feel good about the occasional doubt that crosses our minds, but because it’s a reminder of how strong our faith can and should be.  It’s not a story about how it’s good to doubt – it’s a story about how, in spite of our questioning and doubting God, God comes through for us in the end.

Invariably, everything in our lives will let us down sooner or later.  Friends, family, business, technology, you name it.  Sooner or later, it will fail to live up to the hopes we put in it.  But God is different, because God never lets us down.  That’s not to say that our lives are perfect; but then, God never promises us a perfect life.  What God promises is life eternal and love forever.  Only God can be trusted completely.

Probably the best example in human history of someone trusting something else more than God is Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s.  The whole project of Nazism was about putting your trust in something other than God.  They believed that their Germanness was the most important thing in the world, even more important than their identity in Christ.  The story of Nazism is not a story about how everyone alive in Germany in the ‘40s was evil – they weren’t.  But when they put their trust in something that wasn’t God – that was evil.  They believed that their politics and their racial identity were as important as God (Actually, more important – I wrote a 30-page paper about it once, and could literally talk your ears off if you want to hear about it sometime).

And that’s where we remember the great insight of the Presbyterian and Reformed branch of theology – that all sins are idolatry.  We think of “idols” as statues that people used to pray to instead of the one true God.  We think we’re not guilty of idolatry because we’re not building a statue of a golden calf to pray to.  Unfortunately, whenever we sin, we’re committing idolatry, because sin is when we trust something ahead of God.  When we put something else ahead of what God is doing, we commit idolatry; we commit sin.

Now I’ve gotten pretty far afield from Thomas, but I’m going to bring it back home.  Thomas  came to believe only once he saw.  We aren’t so lucky; we weren’t there in that locked room, either.  Nonetheless, Jesus calls us blessed for believing without seeing.  Our faith in Christ is built on a foundation of knowledge; we know that Christ has been raised, and in that, we know that we are cared for and forgiven.  We know that we are loved.  Christ’s resurrection for us is the proof – the proof that God does care, even when things are dire; the proof that God does love us, even when it seems that no one does; the proof that God is on our side, even when we look around and see no one else.

Thomas’ doubt about Jesus was probably justified.  It’s understandable, at least.  But from our perspective, now that we know he has been raised, how can we fail to trust in God?  We know that, come what may, the creator of the universe is on our side.  Whenever things don’t work out, we can rest secure in the knowledge that God is there with us.  No matter what locked room we feel trapped in, Jesus can break into that room to say, “I am here.  I have been raised.  I love you.”  Let us always remember that, wherever our lives take us, God is faithful.  After all, Christ is risen.  Amen.

Fear and Great Joy – 2017/04/16

Psalm 118:14-24
Colossians 3:1-17
Matthew 28:1-10

Sermon:

It’s really funny watching my son navigate the world.  Toddlers are very special – they are learning so much and so fast that it’s easy to miss things.  But, as a huge nerd, one of the things that I really enjoy watching is not just all the mushy stuff, but really thinking about how his brain is developing.  Of course, our brains develop in many ways over our lifetimes, and they’re all interesting.  But toddlers’ brains are growing particularly fast and in fascinating ways.

One of the places that it’s easiest to see this is when one of his toys gets caught somewhere.  So, if you have something that lands, say, on the other side of the table, you know that you just have to walk around the table.  Except to Zeke, that didn’t occur to him the first time he threw a ball over there.  He had to learn it.  And really, when you think about it, going around a table to get something is really hard and counterintuitive, because it means you actually have to move farther away from it in order to get closer.

When we’re young, we learn this skill when we start to do mazes.  We learn if you start in the upper right-hand corner and you have to get to the upper left-hand corner, it’s not as simply as just drawing a line.  Sometimes, you have to work your way all the way down to the bottom to get back up.  I watch my child learn this skill, and I realize how much I still have to learn about the world around me.  How often am I trying to take the path of least resistance – but how often is that actually harder than the path I should’ve taken?  We can’t always know the answer of course – so often in life, we only get one chance at something, and we’re stuck with the way we chose to go.  But our passage today, I think, really helps us understand when the harder way makes things better.

Of course, this morning is the greatest of all days in the Christian year:  it’s Easter Sunday.  This is a joyful day in the church year.  So let us walk the journey that the followers of Jesus walked that first time around, and remember exactly what happened.

We begin just a short week ago, with Palm Sunday.  This was the day in which Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  He was greeted with people singing his praises.  Throughout the week, he was harassed by some of the religious leaders at the Temple and in the city, as they were trying to take him to trial for sedition – in other words, they wanted him convicted as some sort of terrorist, or traitor.  This would require the Roman authorities to put him to death.  Jesus’ opponents said that Jesus was claiming to be the true king.  Of course, in some ways this was true – but in the realistic ways, the very week that Jesus was arrested, he told some of his opponents that they owed their taxes to Caesar, just like anyone else.  That hardly sounds like someone trying to overthrow the existing political structure.

Anyway, Jesus went from there to having the Passover meal with his friends on Thursday night.  In that meal, Jesus revealed that he knew his death was coming.  He also instituted footwashing, the Sacrament of Communion, and the commandment to love one another.  Then, following the meal, he went to the Garden with his disciples to pray.  He asked that they remain awake, but they fell asleep.  And as they slept, three times he prayed, “Father, if I don’t have to do this, don’t make me – but if I must, then let your will be done.”

That very night, he was arrested.  His disciple Judas, one of his 12 closest followers, betrayed him and handed him over to the authorities.  He was tried and found guilty by Pontius Pilate, the governor of the region.  Given one last chance to free Jesus, some of the people gathered outside were asked if Jesus should be released, and they shouted, “Crucify him!”  Perhaps some of these were the same people who cheered just five days earlier, on Palm Sunday.

Jesus was then put to death on a cross.  Hanging on a cross, I’m sure you know, was a horribly painful way to die.  While you were still alive, you were nailed to the wood, which was unsanded.  I don’t want to get into all the grisly details, but let it be known that this was not a humane way to put someone to death – it was not a firing squad or a lethal injection.  It was meant to be torture.  Jesus called out from the cross, breathed his last, and he died.

Of course, this left the disciples in quite a predicament.  We normally think of the 12, which were Jesus’ closest followers, but we should remember that there were many people following Jesus.  Anyway, they were all suddenly without the most important person in the world to them.  He was their leader, their guide, their guardian.  Some of them had even professed their belief that he was the Messiah, the Chosen One, God’s promised salvation to humankind.  Others knew what we know, too – that Jesus was in fact God in human form, walking among them, showing them how God means all of us to live.

Now, they were without, not just their friend, but without God.  Can you imagine the crisis of faith that proceeds from there?  Where are you supposed to turn?  How are you supposed to cope?  When God is gone, who is left?

Of course, the day that Jesus died was Friday, before sundown.  So he was placed in a tomb, which was the common method of burial in Jesus’ time and place.  He was left there for the night, and no one mourned him.  This is because the next day, Saturday, was the Sabbath.  That’s the day that Jews are required to rest – so none of Jesus’ followers could do the traditional body preparation, nor the proper mourning.  And since the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday, they really couldn’t go until Sunday morning.

And this is where we start to think about what it means to do something counterintuitive.  Remember, Jesus was the guide for a whole bunch of people – and now he was gone.

So some of them, naturally, were probably ready to move on.  Some of them, undoubtedly, didn’t want to have to face their grief.  But some of the others were among the bravest.  Some of Jesus’ closest followers were women, and some of them courageously did something unexpected.  Now, there are many sermons to be preached about the fact that it was women who went to the tomb that first time.  But I don’t want to dwell too hard on that today.  Let’s just suffice it to say that, of even Jesus’ 12 closest male followers none of them show up at the tomb in Matthew’s Gospel which we read this morning.

These women go in their grief.  They went to see the tomb.  There was a great stone rolled in front of it, so they weren’t going to get to see Jesus.  But they could at least look at the place where he was laid to rest.  There could, perhaps, be some closure if they could mourn properly.  So they show up, and that’s when something remarkable happens.

The stone has been rolled away.  An angel is there and tells the women – “He isn’t here.  He has been raised, and he’s headed home to Galilee ahead of you.”  These poor women are a horrible mixture of emotions.  If you read the passage, you see that they begin in grief, move to fear when they see the angel, and then, even after this angel has told them not to be afraid, verse 8 tells us that “they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.”

I love those words.  They were still afraid – why wouldn’t you be?  You just saw an angel, and he told you that your friend who had died was now alive again.  That’s terrifying – but it’s also the very best news.

I ask myself what this passage should mean for us today.  Surely, there’s a lot we can take from the cosmic meaning of the resurrection, and we’ll get there this morning.  But I also think it’s important to take out one of the smaller things from our passage.  And the reason we’ve read these texts for 2000 years is that they’re incredibly rich!

One of the things I think this passage is saying to us is something about emotion.  Why the women?  Why were these the ones who heard of Jesus’ resurrection first?  Why didn’t Jesus just appear to the 12, so they could see him first?

My answer for this is simple:  these women were the ones who embraced what they were feeling.  While Jesus’ other followers may have been perplexed or upset, while some may have been moving on, these women came looking for the bottom.  They were interested in feeling the true depth of their feelings, including the bad ones.  And it’s only those people who go seeking out everything they’re given who indeed are able to find the great joy, too.

We live in a culture that tells us that the most important thing to feel is happiness.  We believe that we should be shielded from all unpleasantness, all the time.  But the truth is, no matter how much we try to sanitize our lives, we’ll never be able to remove all suffering.  So instead, we often live in denial.  But these women are a wonderful example to us.  They are sad, and they go out in their mourning to try to find the closure they need.  They don’t run away from the unpleasantness; they run to it.  And it’s in the discomfort of the situation that they find their greatest joy.

Because, of course, as the passage ends, they don’t just see an angel telling them about the risen Lord – they actually meet him on their way to talk to the disciples!  They fall at his feet and worship him.  And the reason they were able to meet him in this place was because they embraced the unusual path.  They found great joy by traveling through great sadness.  Just as my son has to learn to walk around obstacles to find what he’s seeking, these women possessed the wisdom to know that they had to actually confront the bad things in life to find the good.

Brothers and sisters, this is a good lesson for us in this holiest of Christian weeks.  Easter is sweetest when we’ve traveled through Good Friday to get here.

It’s only when we’re reminded of the pain we face that the joy shines through.  It’s only when we allow ourselves to feel alone that we remember how much having companionship means.  It’s only through the confronting of our demons that they are exorcised from our lives.  Most importantly of all, this story of Jesus who came do us an died, who defied the Roman authorities, who helped those with no food or clothes or friendship, who was simultaneously the lowest of humans and God almighty – this Easter story is what we need to know as Christians.  It’s how we know that, when we walk into a dark room, there may be dangers, but there will also always be light in Christ.  There is always hope in the Christian story, because there is always Jesus.  Even death cannot hold back God’s love for us.

Easter is the day when we see Christ come again in glory.  The Resurrection is not icing on the cake that God has given us – the Easter story is the very heart of the Good News of Jesus; it is the part of the story that reminds us that there is not one thing that can make God’s love for us fail.  I am reminded of the eighth chapter of Romans, and will conclude with these words from Paul that summarize what Easter means to me: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

On Easter Sunday, we see that love fulfilled.  We see Christ who has conquered sin and death.  The grave, the final answer of the world, does not hold God’s love for us. God can’t be contained, put in a box, put in a tomb, squirreled away for some other time.  Christ is not just a good guy who lived a long time ago.  Jesus is alive, here and now, to remind us that we are not alone, that we are taken care of, and that our future is full of hope, no matter how dire things may be.  God is literally bursting forth from the ground, ready to embrace us and show us the truth.

And that truth is this:  you are loved.  Jesus has literally crossed every boundary to show you that – even death itself.  Therefore we, like those women nearly 2000 years ago, have no reason to fear the bad things that come in life.  Instead, we must embrace our mourning when sad things happen.  It is in embracing the depth of our pain in the night that we find the joy that comes in the light of day.  And as you embrace everything life throws at you, do so remembering that your Lord and Savior suffered a violent death, yet returned from the grave healthy and whole, promising God’s better things to come.  And he did that all because he loves you.  So go forth from this place knowing that love, sharing it with others, and feeling renewed and warmed in God’s embrace.  Amen!

Church – 2017/04/13

We didn’t film this sermon for Maundy Thursday, but you’re welcome to read the text of David’s sermon here!

1 Corinthians 11:23-32
John 13:1-17

Sermon:

I’ve often wondered why the best times I’ve had church in my life have so rarely been on Sunday mornings sitting in a pew.  It probably doesn’t surprise anyone here that, when you’re a pastor, you’re not really necessarily in the most “worshipful” headspace when you’re leading others – you’re thinking about the next thing to come in worship, and it’s hard to be as moved by the words that you spent the week writing – though I will admit to getting a bit choked up once in a while.

But even when I’ve been a worshiper, I’ve so often found that the best church often happens in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.  I’ve had great church around the campfire, in the bar, at restaurants, and at friends’ houses.  Sometimes, it’s been intentional – with a service planned and everything.  Other times, it’s been something that arises spontaneously, when the Holy Spirit just chooses a moment and says, “Yes; right now, I am here, and you need to feel my presence.”

Those are really special moments.  I hope you all have had or will have those moments in your lives, because it’s truly a special thing.  I’m also not saying that Sunday mornings are worthless, because they’re not – they’re a weekly time to reconnect with God, to slow ourselves down and intentionally take time that could be spent doing something for ourselves and instead do something for God.  Instead, what I’m saying is this:  church on a Sunday morning is a discipline; it’s something we do to do it.  And we can’t expect that really excellent, rare, “special” kind of church every single Sunday – because even if we did get it every week, it would become routine, too, and we wouldn’t care as much.

But I think Maundy Thursday is a really interesting service, because it’s a time to remember one of those special circumstances when Jesus and the disciples had “church,” without having church.

Remember first of all that there was no such thing as a church in Jesus’ day.  That didn’t come until after Jesus ascended into heaven.  After all, when he was on earth, his followers took the word “follower” literally – they literally just “followed” him around.  But after he was no longer on earth, people discerned a need for Christian worship.  During his life, though, we know that Jesus and his disciples regularly did attend services.  We know this because Jesus mentions it, and we have multiple stories of him actually being in worship – reading the scroll of Isaiah, turning over the tables in the Temple, being left behind as a 12-year-old, etc.  He worshiped, that’s for sure, and it’s where many of his conflicts with religious authorities came about.

Yet, while Jesus and the disciples attended services all the time, you have to imagine that they, like we, didn’t always see every service as Spirit-filled.  Sometimes, you know… it was just… normal.  Nothing special.

But Maundy Thursday, well – that was another story.  On Jesus’ end of things, of course, he knew that this was the last meal he was going to have with the disciples.  Or if not the last meal ever, that it was one of the last ones.  He could tell that the time was coming that he would be arrested, and he knew he would probably be put to death.  So there was some pressure on Jesus that night; but instead of folding under pressure, he stepped up to the plate in a big, big way.

This final night is filled with three major events.  Jesus does three things that are still important to us today, and they all come on this night.  They are three commandments, three tasks, three things to do – and they all still resonate strongly with us.

The first thing he does is something we read about in our reading from John – that’s footwashing.  Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.  We’re not going to do a footwashing this year, but we did last year, if you’ll remember.

Anyway, in the ancient world, footwashing was a powerful symbol.  You have to remember that there weren’t exactly paved roads – everywhere people walked was dusty.  It was common, therefore, to have people’s feet washed when they entered a home.  If you were wealthy, a servant would do the washing.  If you didn’t have a servant, whoever was of lowest status would do the washing – like a child, or a woman.  But usually, it was the guest who did the footwashing.  The host was being gracious to allow you in; in return, you washed their feet.  Plus, chances are that the host was of higher social status than the guests – after all, they were able to provide a meal.

Of course, what makes Jesus’ footwashing so different is that he inverts all of these things.  He is the one of highest status of all, yet he insists on washing feet.  He is hosting the meal, yet he insists on putting himself in the lowest of places.  Jesus here is showing us just how far God goes to meet us.  God wants to come find us, wherever we are.  It’s not our job to find God, as if God is some Easter egg hidden for us to find.  We are the Easter eggs, and God is searching for us – with the good news that we are found!

But while Jesus is willing to cross these social divides to show us true hospitality and God’s love for us, that’s not all he did.  That night, he also gave us the sacrament of Communion.  He taught us that the bread and cup were his body and blood, broken and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.  We, of course, remember this every month, and will again later tonight when we share in the sacrament.  But of course, again, Jesus was not just giving us a way to have a meal with other Christians.

The sacrament itself is a means of grace – a way of knowing that God loves us and cares for us.  It is something visible, something tangible, something tactile.  We can see it, smell it, taste it.  And as our senses are excited, we are reminded that this is a sign of the grace God provides.  That without our deserving it, Jesus was willing to come to earth and live among us.  He was even willing to suffer and die at our own hands, just to show us how much we are loved.  And then he asks us to share in this meal of remembrance – commands it, in fact.  “Do this in remembrance of me,” he says.

And that’s where we have to remember the name of this day – “Maundy Thursday.”  The word “Maundy” is a corruption of the Latin word “Mandatum,” which is related to the word “Mandate,” which means “commandment.”  In other words, this day is “Commandment Thursday.”  It’s the day when Jesus gives us multiple commands – to remember the hospitality he showed in washing feet by showing that same hospitality to others; to remember the grace of God that we see in the Sacrament of Communion as we share in the New Covenant, the new promise, God gives us.  But there’s one more commandment given that day.

The first two we’ve seen have been commandments that have a physical component.  There’s something to see, to touch.  But the final commandment that Jesus gives is, in some ways, the most difficult.  In others, it’s the most important.

Our passage from John comes from the “Farewell Discourse,” in which Jesus is giving his last words to the disciples before he’s crucified.  And in those words, he chooses one last commandment to give them:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  So when Jesus has a chance to sum everything up, it’s not the signs or symbols he goes with – it’s love for one another.

This makes sense, doesn’t it?  Jesus is about to go to his death, simply because he loves us.  So he reminds us of that, telling us to love one another as he loves us.  Imagine if we really did it – imagine if we truly loved one another as Jesus loved us.  That would be a sign that we were all his disciples.  If we were truly willing to lay down our lives for one another, to go any distance, cross any barrier, climb up on any cross.  We would be recognized for that trait.

So I have a simple challenge for you this Holy Week.  As you sit in church tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday, think about just how much Jesus loves you, and think about how you can show that love for someone else.  That’s it – one other person.  Pick someone who needs to see God’s love in you.  Maybe it’s a friend, maybe you’re bold enough to show love to an enemy.  Maybe someone you haven’t talked to in too long.  But show someone you love them.  And I don’t mean someone you’re obligated to love – not a family member.  But really go out there and show the love of Jesus.

When we do that, we’ve found a true way to honor Jesus, not just on Maundy Thursday, and not just by obeying his Commandment – but by honoring the life he led, and the death he died.  When we honor him, we become true Christians.  The word “Christian” means “little Christ.”  May we all have the courage to honor our Lord and Savior every day, becoming “little Christs” by loving one another as he loved us.  Amen.

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.