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.

Transformed – 2016/02/26

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

Sermon:

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

“I knew you” – 2016/01/31

Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Jeremiah 1:4-10

Sermon:


Video also includes deacon/elder ordination/installation

     There are a lot of kinds of preachers out there. There are good and bad ones, there are those who talk too long and those who talk too short, those who share jokes and stories and those who talk in-depth about the text. But I think that we can all agree that there’s one kind of preacher that everyone gets sick of, and that’s the preacher who talks about their kids all the time.
     I’ve heard preachers like that, and it can be immensely boring. “I came to hear you talk about God, not to hear you yammer on about your kid,” I think, whenever I encounter that situation. Fortunately, most of my pastors have been really good in this regard.
     So church, since Carissa and I are about to become parents, I will do my very best not to become one of those preachers. HOWEVER, even though we aren’t parents quite yet, I can’t help myself today. Today, I need to talk just a little about becoming a dad, and that’s because there’s something in what we read today that just knocked my socks off when I read it, even though I’ve read and heard it a thousand times before.
     We read two passages this morning, first from 1 Corinthians 13 (so you’re forgiven if you thought you’d somehow wandered into a wedding when you heard that one), and from Jeremiah 1.
     The latter of those two passages is the call story of Jeremiah. Now, brothers and sisters, if you’ve been in church the last few weeks, you’ve heard me go on and on about calling – it’s been the topic of my last three sermons, including this one. But it seems that, at this time of year, the lectionary can’t help itself. Just as a New Year begins and people are trying to figure out who they are going to be in the new year, it seems that the texts we’re assigned for these weeks are designed to cause us to look at who God is asking us to be.
     The first thing we have to understand is who Jeremiah is. He was a prophet in ancient Judah, about 600 years before Jesus was born. He is generally known as a doom-and-gloom prophet, because he was living in a time of tremendous political upheaval. Coincidentally, today in adult Sunday School, we’re going to be talking about Jeremiah – I didn’t plan that, by the way; it just sort of “happened” – and it’s going to be very brief, because I know people want to get to the pancake feed. Anyway, if you want more of the specifics, you should definitely stick around for that. For the time being, though, just know that there are a lot of things going on, and Jeremiah spends most of his time as a professional pessimist.
     However, he is not without his optimism, and that’s going to be more and more important as we look at the exact words of his call story. Jeremiah’s call begins, like so many call stories of prophets in the Bible, with God’s words to him about who he is, and those were the ones that stopped me in my tracks.
     “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” When you’re expecting your own child, hearing these powerful words from God about another child is an important reminder. Even before we were in the womb, even before we were born, God knew us, anointed us, and gave us purpose.
     I had to sit back and marvel at the fact that, the little person growing inside my wife is actually already called by God; already appointed to a task. I keep thinking, “Man, that’s a lot of pressure on me, to not stand in the way of what God is trying to do!” But the truth is, as much as psychology likes to blame our parents and our upbringing for everything wrong with us, from a Christian perspective, it’s not really our parents that get in our way – it’s ourselves.
     Right after Jeremiah is told that he’s been appointed to a task since before he was even a glimmer in his parents’ eyes, Jeremiah objects. This is actually extremely common among the prophets in the Old Testament. From Moses to Isaiah to Jeremiah to Ezekiel to Job (and many others), a typical response to God’s calling is, “No thank you.” In fact, if you ever talk to pastors who came into that profession as a second career, they almost unanimously say, “Oh, I always knew. I just didn’t have the time or the energy or life got in the way. Now I’m finally able to do it.” But it just makes me wonder: what is God already asking of us that we aren’t listening to?
     Jeremiah gives good and logical objections to God’s choice of him as a messenger: “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Jeremiah says he’s too young. He doesn’t speak well. How many of us have those same (or related) excuses for not doing what God is calling us to do? I don’t have the time; when I’m a little older; I did that when I was young, so my service is done; there are other things I want to do now; I’m not sure I’m called to that; I don’t know how to do it. Those are all things that we say; excuses we give when we don’t want to embrace what God is asking of us. But sometimes, God calls us from those places and asks something of us that’s not necessarily what we’d expect.
     God tells Jeremiah, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” God is making it very clear: “Don’t be afraid of what you can’t do; I will be there for you. The limitations you see are not the ones I see.” God has a purpose for Jeremiah.
     And that purpose, God tells Jeremiah, is this: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” I mentioned earlier that Jeremiah is always read as a bit of a pessimist, and that’s true; God says right there that he is placed as the witness to the powerful, “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow.” That’s quite a lot to ask of the inarticulate youngster Jeremiah says he is.
     But the thing is, Jeremiah’s not being left with only those things. God doesn’t just leave him the doom-and-gloom. Church, sometimes, I think we hear God calling us to do something, and our response is “no,” because we only think of the bad things that come along with saying “yes.” We think of the work and the hours and the commitments. We don’t think of the joy and the life-giving that God has for us. Trust me, if Jeremiah’s call were only “to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow,” he’d be very legitimate in not wanting the job.
     But God doesn’t end it that way. The final task Jeremiah is assigned is “to build and to plant.” To make new; to bring new life where there was death. After everything is plucked up and pulled down, destroyed and overthrown, God doesn’t want to just abandon things and leave them in a state of disrepair. God is creating something new.
     For us as Christians, there is no more powerful image of this than Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. While Jesus’ death may be about bringing about God’s purposes, God does not hang Jesus up there on the cross and let the story end; Jesus returns. The dead comes to life; the weak and lowly are raised up; the humble are exalted; God’s kingdom comes to earth! This is the promise that we see on Christ’s Day of Resurrection. Christ’s return to life is a promise to each and every one of us that God is building and planting, not just overthrowing and destroying.
     Jeremiah’s call story has all of that. It can’t have been totally fun to do everything that God asked him to do. Preaching doom to his fellow Judeans would not have been an ideal job. But in the end, he also was able to preach the Good News of God’s restoration.
     Today, in our own worship service, we ordain and install deacons and elders. This special calling gave people a chance to say “yes” to something God is doing in their lives. It’s going to be work; there are going to be busy times, and it’s not all going to be perfect. But then we’ll have a day like our Mission Fest was in the fall, or we’ll see how much fun we have playing a game at one of our 3F events, and suddenly we see the purposes behind the blood, sweat, and tears.
     On this same Sunday, we were able to welcome Jason Wiedrich into our midst to talk about camping. It’s at camp that so many Christian kids all around the country first really start to think and hear about what God might be doing in their lives.
     Brothers and sisters, this is a joyful day, on which we can celebrate how God might be calling us into something new. It might mean that old things need to be plucked up or pulled down, but the things that are built and planted will be a great reward. In our faith, as we follow Christ, we know that crucifixion, death, despair – they are always followed by Resurrection. The pain may be real, but so is the hope and joy.
     Since this is the last day for a while that I’ll have the chance to talk about calling before the lectionary moves on to other things, I will leave you with a final thought. God’s first words to Jeremiah were these: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Brothers and sisters, these are God’s words to you: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you ______________.” Something. I don’t know how that sentence ends for you. It’ll be different for each of us; that’s between us and God. That final command of what we’re called to do may change throughout our lifetimes. But however your sentence ends, be bold and of good courage, and seek out that which God is calling you to do! Amen.

Christ Our King – 2015/11/22

Psalm 132:8-12
Revelation 1:4-8
John 18:33-37

Sermon:

You all may not know this, but I actually used to be a king. I know, I know – that’s hard to believe, but it’s true. You don’t see too many kings running around these days, but I was one.

I had subjects, and they absolutely had to do whatever I said, without question. They were ready to do what I wanted, when I wanted, and they would never turn me down. Just like any other king, my power was so great that all my subjects lives revolved around mine.

Now, admittedly, my subjects were action figures, they “lived” in my basement, and their lives revolved around mine because they only became “alive” when I gave them words or actions. As an only child, I spent a lot of time in fantasy worlds, telling stories with toys, making up personalities and ways of living. It was one of my greatest joys, and whenever I entered those worlds, I was the absolute ruler.

But while I’m sure you all knew I was joking about being a king from the start of this sermon, I could just as easily said that I was a kingdom, but like Jesus says in our passage from John this morning, that “my kingdom was not from this world.”

That’s the line Jesus uses on Pilate. Now think about that from Pilate’s perspective. This passage takes place when Jesus has been handed over to the Roman authorities. There are people who want him dead, and they are using the long arm of the law to get him, and trying to convince the authorities that he’s done something wrong.

The main charge they come up with is treason. He’s said some things that could be interpreted as him saying that’s he’s the true ruler – of course Jesus has, because he’s God in human flesh. He is the true ruler, while the emperor in Rome is just a human being. Nonetheless, these people plotting against Jesus get him turned over, and he’s examined by Pontius Pilate.

Pilate was the governor of Jesus’ home region. Imagine if we did that today – if all the serious criminals in South Dakota had to get dragged to Dennis Daugaard’s office in Pierre to have a private hearing with him. Anyway, that’s basically what happens. Pilate starts asking Jesus if he truly is a king, and Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world.”

Well, Jesus doesn’t sound like much of a threat now, does he? Take away everything you know about Jesus from outside this one story today (because all Pilate would know is this one interaction), and you’d probably think he was totally crazy, but probably not guilty of any real wrongdoing. In fact, if you read beyond the section of John we read today, you’d see that Pilate does come to this same conclusion: Pilate ends up saying, “I find no case against him.” To Pilate, Jesus talking about a kingdom from another world is the same as some person claiming to be an alien invader or a little boy who says he’s the king of his toys – no threat.

The thing is, though, that we’re not Pilate. We have seen Jesus in action. We’ve seen that Jesus can heal the sick, the he teaches in wise sayings. We’ve seen him rally people to his sides. In fact, living so far away from the moment in history the Bible is recording, we’ve seen Jesus continue to rally people to him, even thousands of years after he left the earth for good! To us, the claim that Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world is not only not crazy, it’s true!

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” says Jesus. Truth is a big theme for Jesus in today’s reading. Jesus wants us to know the truth – that he is here, God on earth, to meet us and welcome us into his care – he is here for us.

But think about that for a second – Jesus being here for us. That puts him in a sharply different category than most of the kings I’ve ever heard of. In fact, to use myself as an example again, I wasn’t the “king” of my toys because I wanted to do something for them – I wanted them to do things for me. When we read throughout history of kings who wanted their subjects to build monuments, or kings who wanted many wives or many goods, we don’t hear about kings who just want to make life better for their people.

And that’s why there are some people who worry that “Christ the King” Sunday can sound like bad news. It sounds like just another person to come and force their will on us, coercing us to do things.

But Jesus doesn’t coerce us into anything. In fact, we’re totally free. He’s the one king who actually gives us a choice whether or not to follow him. No human king does that.

And as if that’s not enough, we’re also given a king who will love us; who will leave 99 sheep who are safe, and come seek us out when we are the one sheep who is lost. We have a savior who promises to save us, not just in this life, but in a kingdom beyond this world.

While as Americans, we have a natural suspicion of kings – our whole country was formed around rebelling against a king, after all – this is a time when such fear is unjustified. And that’s because this king is not bad news at all. Our King is the best news of all – the one who offers a way out of no way; a king who can heal us in body, mind, and spirit; a king who is here for us, not the other way around – a king who offers what no other king can: Resurrection from death.

Jesus is our way, our truth, our life. We serve him, not because he forces us to, but because it is our joy to do so. So let us celebrate this day that, no matter who our president is, no matter what country we live in, we know we have a king – and only for us Christians can that be Good News. Amen.

Sticks and Stones – 2015/09/13

Psalm 19
Mark 8:27-38
James 3:1-12

Sermon:

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It’s the classic little phrase that kids say to each other when someone tries to hurt someone else with words. Of course, we can argue about how true it is. Some argue that the phrase is true, because words can’t physically hurt us (which is the claim it’s making). Others claim that it isn’t true – of course words hurt, and they can hurt a lot more than sticks and stones, because bruises to the body heal, but our mental and emotional wounds can hurt a long time – some even forever.

Words have power. They have a power to help someone out of a tough time, they have the power to hurt someone. They can be just as powerful in the absence as their presence, and they can be the thing that pushes us one way or another on an important decision. Words make people cry, they make people laugh, and they are how we connect with other people. It’s hard to think of anything more influential in the world.

That’s why James talks so much about the tongue. Of course there are other ways to communicate with words – we can write or use sign language, for example. But speech is still probably the most common way we communicate with one another. The tongue, then, could be said to be the most powerful muscle in the human body, because it has the strongest ability to move people.

So James advocates good use of our tongues. Of course, he is using the word “tongue” as a metaphor for “words.” We must realize that words in other contexts are powerful, too, like in writing; so I’m not just talking about speech. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read in the last few years about students getting bullied online and committing suicide. That’s obviously not a tongue per se, but it is using the power of words to destroy someone.

As we have somehow entered a presidential election season (even though that’s still 14 months away), we will hear
people try to destroy one another with their tongues – people who will outright lie to us, and we’ll sort of hope that they’re not lying, even though we know they probably are.

I think many times, we forget how powerful our tongues are. But I’m guessing every person here has a story sometime in their life about words that have healed you or helped you or hurt you.

So why does James get after the tongue so much? I mean, it’s obvious that it’s important, but why make it the focus of this passage? Why spend so much time on it?

Perhaps you’ll recall from the last few weeks the theme from the book of James. James, brother of Jesus, wrote this letter about what it means to be a Christian. And in his estimation, it’s all about living out our faith. Not just having faith, but showing what we believe with our lives.

Two weeks ago, at the end of my sermon, I asked us to examine our lives – to see what kind of a message we’re sending. I said how important it is that we first figure out what our lives are saying to people about what we believe. Last week, I talked about how we can begin to focus that idea down into concrete actions. Specifically, I asked us to look at how we treat others. That passage was very much about playing favorites. So I asked us to look at our lives, and to see if we treat everyone fairly and equally.

This week, the challenge gets even more specific. It’s not just how we act around others – it’s about what we say. For some of us, watching our tongues is hard. Some of us have a tendency to just say what we’re thinking, without first figuring out if it’s something worth saying. Some of us rarely say anything, because we’re afraid of the power that our words might have. Neither response – thoughtless talk or fearful silence – is what James is aiming us at.

What James most wants is helpful words. He spends the first half of the passage just talking about the sheer power of the tongue. How it’s like a small flame that can grow and burn down a forest, or how even a large ship is directed by a small rudder. He talks about how human beings have figured out how to tame all sorts of animals, but we’ve never been able to tame our own tongues, which he calls “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” It’s not the most flattering imagery he could use for the tongue.

But then, he gets to the center of what our tongues do, and how it relates to this whole idea of living out our faith. “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (9-10).

James is saying that the same tongue we use to say our prayers in here on Sunday, the same tongue that helps us form the words to hymns and words of devotion, is the same tongue we use to speak ill of other people. We use that same tongue to say negative things about other people, “who are made in the likeness of God.” In other words, we say how great God is sometimes, and then insult God’s creations (who are in God’s image) with the same instrument.

“This ought not be so,” says James. We’re not supposed to live a divided life; we’re supposed to let our faith and love of Christ be with us all the time. When we invite God to inhabit our lives, we are taking on the responsibility of living in a godly way all the time. That includes not just what we believe with our minds, but what we do in our actions, as well as what we say to one another.

The point of the Christian life is not to be a “normal” person outside of church who becomes a pious person once we set foot inside. Instead, the lessons and beliefs we carry in here are supposed to carry us through all that we say and do, no matter where we are. Our relationship with Jesus is supposed to be present with us always.

We must remember that our tongues – our words – have power. It is our Christian duty to use that power for good, rather than for ill. We don’t have the choice to just stop using our words altogether, or to be neutral. The fact is that we will use this power that has been given to us. James wants us to use it in ways that help build up others, and most importantly, in ways that are glorifying to God.

In a few minutes, we’ll be receiving the Sacrament of Communion. As we receive this Sacrament today, let us consider how we metaphorically, through the Sacrament, take Christ into our bodies, and carry him out into the world. And let us also remember that the same tongue with which we taste of the body and blood of Christ, we should also honor him in all our speech, to God and to neighbor, always and everywhere. Amen.

The Shepherd King – 2015/06/21

Scriptures:
Psalm 9:9-20
1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 32-49, 18:1-16

Sermon:

I decided today to preach on the story of my biblical namesake. That might seem self-indulgent (and maybe it is), but I really decided to do it because David is one of the most important and frequently-mentioned characters in the Bible, and I don’t think that most of us have any idea about how his story goes.

Like so many great stories, the story of King David is about friends, about fathers and sons, about unexpected twists and turns, and about legacy. Of course, we probably know, at least vaguely, how it starts. It starts with the text that I preached two weeks ago – when the prophet Samuel gets complaints that the people want a king. He says, “Fine, fine, alright already, sheesh,” and anoints God’s chosen, a man named Saul. Saul serves as King, but does a pretty terrible job, so God fires him and has Samuel anoint someone else. He’s sent to this little village of Bethlehem to find Jesse and anoint one of his sons – but none of them is the right one. So Saul says, “Are you sure these are all of your kids?” to which Jesse replies, “Well, the runt is outside, but he’s so young and he’s watching the sheep, so I figured we didn’t need him.”

Of course, that boy, the youngest, was David. He gets anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the next king. That’s a little awkward, you see, because the current king is still sitting on the throne! Samuel doesn’t let that bother him, and (somehow) this doesn’t go to David’s head. David even weasels his way into a job as King Saul’s court musician, playing music on his harp for Saul when he gets upset.

The next phase in the adventure is what we read about in our passage today – at least, the first part of it. That would be the infamous fight with Goliath. If ever there was a story for kids in the Bible, it’s this one. A full-grown man who’s ten feet tall and has been a warrior since he was a child comes out and taunts the entire army, as well as pokes fun at God. David, simply there to give his brothers (who are fighting) their lunch, hears the insults, decides he can’t take it, and tells King Saul he’s going to fight. Saul, in spite of it being crazy to let a kid go out and fight a giant, lets him. David reasons that, since he’s fought off lions and wolves and bears while tending sheep, can knock out a regular ol’ human – even if that human is huge.

So Saul gives David his armor, but (of course) it doesn’t fit and it feels to awkward. The shield is too tall, the sword too heavy, the armor too bulky and the helmet too roomy. So he strips it all off to go fight with five smooth pebbles and a homemade sling. Goliath then taunts a child (showing again just how rotten of a guy Goliath is), and David professes faith in God. Then David promises to cut off Goliath’s head when he wins – and, lo and behold, after using only one of his five stones, David kills Goliath, cuts off his head, and the Philistine armies run away.

Of course, David is a hero. Saul’s happy, because David won a battle against this intractable enemy. David becomes cozy with the family – so much so that David becomes closer-than-brothers with Jonathan, Saul’s son. Saul gives young David a job as an army commander, and everywhere David goes, he succeeds. Everything’s great. Until one day…

One day, Saul hears the song being sung by the people celebrating the victory over Goliath and the Philistines. “Saul has killed his thousands,” they sing, “And David his tens of thousands.”

At this song, Saul becomes livid. David is getting all the credit, while Saul is the king! Saul’s jealous rages, and he actually tries to kill David by throwing a spear at him while David, still Saul’s musician, plays music for him. It’s a pretty huge betrayal on Saul’s part. He decides that if he can’t get all the credit, it’s not fair. He’s like the whiny kid no one wanted to play with.

And David has to spend years on the run. He marries Saul’s daughter Michal, is best friends with Saul’s son Jonathan, is Saul’s closest confidant as the only one who can calm him down… and all the while, he has to watch his back, because Saul is trying desperately to kill him. To say the least, it’s a strange dynamic.

I hope this doesn’t spoil the end of the story for anyone, but eventually, Saul dies. David becomes king over all Israel, and the story has, at least for a time, a happy ending for him. But there’s that whole middle section where the man who is his best friend’s dad, his father-in-law, and his boss is trying to kill him.

David’s story is so fascinating because it really hits home on the realities of life. I don’t mean to say that David’s story is relatable, because on one level, it’s definitely not. Nobody has a life like that! Even child celebrities, which are about as close as anyone could get to an equivalent of what happened with David as a child, do not have stories that resembles his. But what is relatable is that David goes through a lot of ups and downs.

He wasn’t the most loved by his father, certainly. He was the youngest son, and hence the least valuable. But he was handsome (and that never hurts in life). He had talent at keeping the sheep, but he didn’t really have friends other than his brothers until he met Jonathan. He was a good musician. His boss liked him, but then also tried to get rid of him. His childhood was a mixed bag, like all of ours.

As he got older, he had moments of success – but while each moment of success was much rejoicing by some, others (including Saul, obviously) were greatly perturbed each time something went well for him. He developed a fiercely loyal pack of friends, and a good-size group of people who didn’t care for him too much. Like all of us, his life was inside-out, upside-down, and back-and-forth.

To me, David’s story is one of the best in the Bible because it’s among the most complete. There are few other characters you get to see who have as many successes and as many failures. He messes up, his kids mess up, he does well, his kids do well. He has a very “real” life – or as “real” as a life extraordinary as his can ever seem.

But what can that possibly mean for us? On the one hand, after what I’ve explained to you, I hope it’s easy to see how David’s story is relatable, and that’s great. It makes the Bible feel more real, and that’s fun and nice and everything. But at the end of the day, this is a story about a guy who became king, who killed a giant with a rock as a boy. His story will always have some distance for us, because it’s so unlike our own. So while identifying with a character is nice, what does it mean? What can God possibly be saying to us?

Well, to me, like so many of the stories of the Bible, this one is about God selecting someone to do special work. We pastors love to talk about how God, over and over, chooses the least likely people – Abraham and Sarah, the elderly, barren couple living in the desert become the parents of a nation; Jacob, the jerky younger son is the father of 12 tribes; Moses the stuttering murderer leads a his whole people; Mary, the unmarried, wealthless girl is the mother of the Savior of the world, and God in human form; Paul, the persecutor of Christians, becomes the greatest evangelist the world has ever seen – and turns them into those who are called for God’s special tasks. I’ve preached that before; I’ll preach it again.

But let me let you in on the dirty little secret of that message: God chooses the least likely because there are no most likely. Everyone has their faults. Everyone is unlikely to do God’s work. Even Jesus, who has a big leg up, after all – being the Son of God and whatnot – is, when you think about it, a poor kid from a “questionable” family with no formal training who hung out with the least respected members of society. That’s the guy who came to save the world!

And that leads to the most important thing we can glean from David’s story: you are called, too. You, just like David, just like Ruth, just like Esther, just like Isaac, just like Isaiah, just like every character in the Bible, are the unlikely one. You live in Marion, SD. You’re just a regular person from a regular family – and that’s the best case scenario. You’ve led a life with ups and downs, and you want to do your best to serve God. The thing is, that’s what all these people were like. Their stories are recorded in Scripture, but God is calling all of us to live a life worthy of being recorded in Scripture. And for some, like David, living into that call begins in childhood; for others, like Abraham and Sarah, that giving of your life to God occurs late in life. But no matter who you are or where you are, take some time to figure out what “unlikely” thing God is calling you into.

The Bible is not just a big book of rules for us to follow; it’s a big book filled with stories that are, on the one hand, very different from our own. But those stories are, in another way, very much like ours.

David’s story is a fun one. It’s one of those stories in the Bible that you can actually understand people enjoying just as pleasure reading, whereas so much of the other stuff can sometimes seem so boring. But beyond entertainment, there is a lesson here, and that lesson is about who God calls. God calls even those who don’t seem like they would be called, because God calls everyone. That’s how God works.

So go out and be a David. Like all the characters in the Bible, don’t let who you are be an excuse for not living into the fullness of God. There has never been a likely servant of God – so be an unlikely one. Pray to God, and ask what you’re being called to do. The answer may surprise you; and if that answer is surprising… well… don’t be surprised! Amen.